This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on October 16th, 2009. It looks at our third principle as a covenantal promise rather than a belief statement.
When I first moved to Brooklyn last summer I was pretty excited to be so close to Prospect Park. I had remembered it being just as pretty as Central Park, but way less crowded. I’m an avid walker; the time in nature is really good for me, and to be able to be there without the jostle of thousands of other folks – all the better. On my first trip into the park after I moved here I came across a map on one of it’s little boards. It mentioned there was a dog beach! I thought -wow! I didn’t think the water line came this close to the park. Growing up in Jersey, I imagined a shore line with dogs frolicking as far as the eye can see. Owners alternating between feeling joy for the playfulness of their pups and stressing over the more powerful waves around their little NYC apartment canines. I knew of some beaches that allowed dogs, but I didn’t think it’d be possible in a city of this density.
Well, apparently it wasn’t possible. In case you’re not familiar with Prospect Park, it’s roughly about nine avenues from river. Now, I’m not much of a gullible person, but I hadn’t really been to this part of Brooklyn much. And to be completely honest, I have a rampant imagination that sometimes gets the best of me. In reality, the dog beach is one fenced off stretch of water connecting into a larger inland lake. In the early mornings when the leash law is waved, dozens of dogs do frolic in it, but the only waves that occur are what they generate chasing balls, ducks and each other. In afternoons, it’s usually only two or three dogs at a time who are tethered to their owners.
I find it fascinating how all these dogs I encounter have completely different personalities. Some are very stand-offish, distant from other dogs while maintaining a “just try it” look on their faces, that may or may not just happen to resonate with their human on the other end of the leash. Others come across as playfully stupid. Eager to please, grab attention. They’re the ones that run up to each new dog to say, “hey! Where ya been?” Even though they’ve likely never met.
I’ve started to notice my own reactions these different doggie attitudes. I pay way more attention to the cute, friendly, lovable dogs, than I do to the ones that maintain their distance. They make me feel better; and I imagine they are probably a bit happier than their counterparts. I used to just think of them as slightly dumb creatures who showed interest and care for anyone around them. Lacking in discernment, they gave their acceptance and love freely.
I’m starting to think they’re the smart ones and I’m the one that needs to catch up. They’re happier; I’m happier. The mind at the end of the leash might be a bit concerned that their pet is overly social and willing to run away with anyone to the circus (like my upstairs neighbor who recently mentioned to me as one of her concerns when her two “hot dogs” wanted to go for a walk with me.) I’m amazed to report that even the local area duck population shows no concern or fear from the friendly dog types. They might be convinced to slowly wade away from their intensity, but there’s no flapping away to safety from the gregarious ones. They only flee the stone-cold ones.
I wonder what it would be like at coffee hour if we were all a bit more like the carefree, floppy-eared mutts, than the strong but distant barkers and yippers. It might be tough on the introverts among us from to time, but I understand that will ever and always be the case for any of us that need time to ourselves but choose to try to do that in public settings. I imagine overall though, it would feel pretty good.
I’ve tested this theory out this Summer at coffee shops, beaches and the occasional bar night out with friends. I’ve learned something amazing. Generally speaking, when I show others I’m interested in getting to know them; that I’m outwardly friendly; and that I accept them for who they are – they mimic my behavior! By channeling the wisdom of floppy-eared dogs everywhere, I have found friendly people in places where only unfriendly people once dwelled! I wonder where they all came from…
Our reading this morning talks about how we don’t notice people, or dogs, or even days. “We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real.”
I believe we do the same sort of waiting with people (and possibly dogs.) Ever waiting, we give away our lives in the hope that one will some day show up. And the truth is: it’s already here – and it’s pretty wonderful; even when it’s pretty awful. And there will always be those days. But so long as we have breath to breathe, we have a precious gift to unwrap and experience. “For some reasons, we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time.”
The same is true for each person we encounter; even when they’re pretty awful. We can choose to interact with abandon or reserve, but we ought not be surprised when we receive only what we give. We can not control how others act. I’ve often hear it said that as Unitarian Universalists, we accept all people, but not all behaviors. But we can control how open we are, and how committed to engage we will be.
That’s the religious discipline inherent to our third principle. We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encourage spiritual growth in our congregations. Like I’ve pointed out in our previous two installments of this preaching series on our principles, it’s phrased as another action statement – not a creedal belief. We aren’t saying we believe in acceptance in growth, although many of us may in fact believe so. We are saying that we will commit to promote acceptance and spiritual growth with each other and in our religious homes.
I say it’s a religious discipline because it’s hard work, and something our religion asks of us. It also happens to be something we ask of each other as congregants. The promise of this discipline is saving. I don’t mean to say that it’s saving in the sense of some afterlife that will happen at some indeterminate point in the future. I mean to say that it’s saving right here, right now. Without the conviction of this discipline, we are only promised a life of isolation and stagnation. With it, we enjoy the promise of a deeper connection with the life around us. The main demand is to channel a little bit of that carefree mutt in each of us; to let go of the clutch and grab of judgement we so often employ against ourselves and others. To move through tolerance of others who we may or may not resonate with, and to learn to accept them for who they are. To let go of that clutch and grab requires a discipline for most of us. Our third principle offers the promise of connection, but demands that we allow ourselves to allow others in.
In a recent walk through Prospect Park I came across a story that matches this discipline. This time it’s about little kids, not dogs. I saw a gathering of yellow shirted summer camp first and second graders. The camp advisor was doing a call and response with the kids as they were marching in a line to their next destination. “One day I heard a bird singing … it had a great thing to say to me…”. It got punctuated by the advisor calling out after one girl who was lagging behind. “Anna, come on over. Stay with us.” This went back and forth for about 30 seconds, before the counselor invoked the terrifying “count to five.” I remember the horror of that teacher threat back in grade school. “One, two, three…” and then Anna came running. She got back to the group, and all was forgiven, they continued their march in the warm, fun summer sun.
We accept all people here, but not all behaviors. Try not to dwell in your minds too long on the metaphor of a single line marching anywhere — that will likely never be a true descriptor for Unitarian Universalists anywhere. Think more about how that counselor let the annoyance of the last 30 seconds go. She accepted the situation within clearly defined boundaries, and then allowed herself and Anna to reconnect and move on. Sometimes the affronts in our daily lives will seem more severe; but I’m convinced that the vast majority of those affronts are simply the dressed up equivalent of Anna’s lingering a bit too long when the rest of the group needed to move on. In the clutch and grab, we force ourselves to tolerate bad behavior, but never loosen our grip on the offense or the frustration. If the counselor had held onto the bad behavior of the little girl, she would have had a much worse afternoon and probably ruined it for the kids as well. Instead, she let herself and the children present be free to hear the promise of what great thing that bird singing in the tree had to say to them that day.
If the realm of the spiritual is in accepting and appreciating the lives and world around us, how then can we do this in our congregations? I’ve already mentioned how to do acceptance 101. I call it coffee hour. We’ve got it coming up again shortly right next door. Practice, practice, practice. And accept how your neighbor succeeds or trips up along the way.
For those ready to move onto 201, let me invite you to join one of our Small Group Ministries this fall. If you looking to get to know more people in our congregation; or if you want the opportunity to explore more deeply some of our ministers’ sermons; or you are looking for a spiritual space mid-week; small group ministries may be for you, whether you are a newcomer, or long standing member of our congregation. They are generally lay led groups that each commit to meet once a month for about 90 minutes. They involve a chalice lighting, some poetry or short writing, and a few questions that are intended to start dialogue and reflections around a set topic. These are designed to be places for the heart and the spirit, rather than educational forums. I write the sessions for our facilitators and keep in mind this third principle when doing so. They’re essentially a monthly structured exercise in acceptance and spiritual growth. Check out the sign-up sheets in the back by the welcome table, or ask me more about them during coffee hour.
Our words for children of all ages this morning weaves our great unease of days and people together. The start and finish of the tale talks about the forward rush of our lives. Businessman and fisherman are both seeking to enjoy the life and days around them. The fisherman seems to have already found it, while the businessman puts it off for the future. “Well, then you could spend the rest of your life just doing whatever you wanted to do, sitting in the sun, relaxing and enjoying yourself, with no worries…”.
This is an aspect of acceptance that leads toward the second half of our third principle. It’s a marker of spiritual growth to be able to appreciate what you have and where you are when you’re there rather than forever holding off to some point in the future or clinging to some past existence.
I should offer the caveat that not all businesspeople delay their life for some future date, and not all fishermen are so moderate and steady with their fishing habits. I could imagine a tale that offers the same message with the roles reversed. It would involve an entrepreneur who may or may not enjoy what she’s doing, but fully appreciates how it allows her to share time with and support her family or friends. In this story there would be a fisherman that overfished the seas and criticized the entrepreneur for keeping her company so small and not expanding to consume more resources. In either case, one of the people in the story suffers discontent and disconnection with their own lives, and feels the need to project that out onto the life of another.
In learning to accept one another, we inevitably will encounter this last truth. Much of what makes us unsatisfied with others is merely a projection of what we mistakingly believe is lacking in our own lives. The spiritual dimension of growth calls us to a life where we recognize the abundance we have. We may not have abundant wealth, or health, or love, or talent; or may be in a place where we have all or some of these but we lack the abundance of clarity to be able to see what we do have.
In either case, if you’re hearing me now or reading this later, you have enough of an abundance of life to be extremely grateful. This is a tough discipline for all, especially for me; but one that has life saving potential. One way to repay that gift is to help others to recognize this truth. Rather than seek to teach it, model it by living into acceptance; every chance we get. Which just so happens to be right now.