Archive for December, 2011

New Year’s 2012

Welcome this, our New Year.

Enter this year with a sense of new life.

Enter this hour with the sense of possibility.

May our days come to know gladness,

May our dreams expand beyond our own vision,

May our hearts open to those in need of our love,

Even if they may simply be ourselves.

Come, let us worship.


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Occupy Heaven

Check out my latest blog for the Huffington Post on Universalism, Consumerism, Christmas and OWS.

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A Call To Leadership

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation in Brooklyn on January 25th, 2009. It reflects on the inauguration of our first African-American President of the United States.

Our country came to a corner this week. We’ve been walking for some distance, for a long time, where we’ve been able to see straight ahead, and off to the side. Sometimes leaning up against what was a very comfortable wall for some, and rather rough for most. This corner offers a new trajectory of movement; freedom of space. Now we can continue walking in the same direction of course; it’s just a corner after all. We don’t need to take the turn. But now we seem to think we can.

It’s a secular corner, definitely cultural, and largely spiritual too. The White House, built by slaves, is now home to our first black president. Poets have poignantly noted how we know not where our efforts will eventually lead, nor who will some day reside in the sanctuaries we build this day even in the midst of injustice and pain. We can see a little ahead, and off to the side, but can barely imagine the scope of changes to the landscape that will some day come about.

What can leadership look like? In the American mythology, the answers have always been “anyone.” Of course, “anyone” has always had very specific implications. At one point “anyone” meant land holding straight white men. That was honestly progressive for the time. With it, we successfully moved a bit away from aristocracy and nobility as the places of power. For a decade or two, the American mythology has said it includes people of all races. Although I still feel we have a ways to go in this respect, this week has indicated that our practice has finally met up with our cultural self-conception of what we can be. Racism is not cured, sexism continues to thrive, ageism on both ends of the spectrum is almost a given, and homophobia is often confused with high moral standards. And yet, this week, rekindles our hope that we as a people, can grow past ourselves enough to recognize leadership despite our biases and short-comings. As Martin Luther King Jr once dreamt, we have chosen our president based on the “content of his character, and not by the color of his skin.” Whatever your political affiliations are, this is a remarkable sign of transformation for our country.

Our readings this morning both talk about the transforming power of leadership. The first, an early Buddhist parable, richly names the spirit of our time. In the midst of the flaming pit of crisis, the Buddha as parrot recognizes his two great gifts; being alive and being able to fly. As the world burns around him he chooses not to panic and succumb to uselessness. He chooses not to use his second gift of flight to preserve his first gift of life. Rather, he employs all that he has to make some difference in easing the suffering of others. His colorful feathers grow black through his efforts to save lives. “What, after all, can a bird do in times like these… but fly? So fly I shall. And I won’t stop if there’s even a chance I can save a single life.”

In contrast, the godly beings are relaxed, bright, covered in white ivory and glittery gold. Well fed, they shimmer and shine and remain clean. All most can do is continue to eat and wax eloquent on the absurdity of the parrot’s efforts. “Trying to put out a raging fire with just a few sprinkles of water from his wings. Who ever heard of such a thing. Why, it’s absurd!”
Where in our lives are we the parrot with greasy black wings who is fed with a mission and destined to make a difference, and where are we the fully entitled god who shimmers and shines and is just well fed? When have you met the well intentioned god on golden wings descend to warn you to stop your efforts because it’s not worth the trouble? When have you been that nay-saying voice?

“I don’t need advice. I just need someone to pitch in and help!” cried the parrot. I know I’ve felt that before. Whether it’s combating homelessness, raising children, or struggling through school, it is tough to do it alone, and often times we seem to receive more advice than actual assistance. It would be easy, and a bit triumphant, to preach on how hidden beneath the grime and soot of our efforts are splendid multi-colored feathers that help us soar. But this Buddhist parable seems to indicate that it’s that very blackness, that greasy water that differentiates us from the splendidness of those distant gods. In fact, it’s that blackness that calls one of the gods down from his place of privilege, to do what he ought to have done from the start; use his power to affect change. “All at once, he no longer wanted to be a god or an eagle or anything else. He simply wanted to be like that brave little parrot, and to help.” All gratitude at the story’s end goes to the little parrot, “for this sudden, miraculous rain.” It may have been the god’s tears that put out the fires of this world, but they blossomed from the witness of the action of the parrot – the otherwise dis-empowered, the oppressed, the not-privileged.

That godly nay-saying has woven itself into the fabric of our daily expression. We are burdened down with a difficult economy, an enervating war, diminishing gay civil rights, and a collapsing environment. Many say they are choosing hope, and yet our collective shoulders seem to indicate spiritual exhaustion. President Obama on Tuesday spoke of our country’s “nagging sap to confidence.” He named that which many of us see, but is rarely spoken of in public. It’s the echo of impossibility when so many things seem raw and endless like a fire that sprung over night and is left by all the world to burn. But I believe there continue to be rivers of hope, and waters of abundance, that eagerly wait for us to dip our wings and dirty our feathers; because there is much work to be done and gratefully many of us here able to do it.

So which of the many here, able to make the world better, do we work with? I struggled with our President’s selection of Rick Warren to lead us in prayer on Tuesday. Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California – he was a visible supporter of Proposition 8 in California which successfully revoked constitutional rights for gay men and women to marry in that state. It’s a conciliatory move for a presidency that claims to be bi-partisan in approach. I applaud the spirit in which the gesture was made, and yet I was stunned by his inclusion. Rick Warren’s prayer was religiously generous, including all people no matter how they name the divine. It remained apolitical. It was a prayer; and a good one if I had any capacity to judge.

Our second reading today touches on this question; who do we work with? In the Christian lectionary, Jonah 3:1-10 is one of the readings for the week. The portion of scripture we focused on is the Prophet Jonah’s commission to the city of Ninevah. He successfully petitions them to repent their sins and to place God back in their hearts and lives. On the surface, it’s a simple story of mission, sackcloth and redemption. And yet, it’s far more complex than that. Jonah has just finished fleeing as far afield of Ninevah as possible to avoid preaching there. He’s survived the ocean, the belly of a great fish, and the voice of God just to avoid going to this place. Ninevah is a city of Assyria, a long-standing enemy of his own people, and the empire that will in biblical times destroy the the state of Israel.

God has called Jonah to preach to his people’s enemy so that his enemy may not be destroyed. “’Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” And the people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

Jonah has crossed the political aisle to help redeem his enemy, in what he likely sees as a call to justice and righteousness before his God. In a sense, he has put first what we might call right living, or right relationship before his own opinions and inclinations – in fact, despite them. The sacred, the holy, and the transcendent come first in this story; before nationality, before politics and most importantly before preference.

The pastor Rick Warren has done a little of this himself. Largely seen as a conservative Christian, before all the world he has prayed for all our people to God in whatever way or ways we name God. In a simplistic reading of faith, one unfortunately we typically hear frequently on our televisions, Pastor Warren has broken with the traditional line to extend a hand to other faiths in solidarity before his God. His prayer called for “civility when differing,” and a reminder to be “so grateful to live in this land.”

“Civility” could just as easily be a reminder to liberals and moderates as it is to conservatives alike. In the case of gay marriage that I spoke of when I first mentioned Pastor Warren, differ we certainly will. The question remains how we will be judged by the “content of our character” that Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned some decades ago. Can we remain civil and citizens with one another, or will we succumb to bitterness in our differences. Can pro-civil rights activists be civil in their acceptance of Pastor Warren as the president’s choice to lead our nation in prayer? Will we allow the dialogue with those whom we differ? What will leadership look like, and who will we allow to share in that leadership?

Likewise, he reminds those of us of liberal persuasion to recognize how fortunate we are to live in this country. A close conservative friend of mine the other day noted how despite the apparent 180 degree changes in governance on Tuesday, the United States of America enjoyed another peaceful transition of power. Despite our many failings, we have achieved something on this soil that many people will never see in their lifetime and we often take it for granted. Our democratic voice can be realized without bloodshed, without violence, and in the midst of significant and substantial disagreements. We must stand in awe of how fortunate we truly are. Pastor Warren’s prayer captured that.

If I might offer the same gift to Pastor Warren as he has to us this past week; I would remind him of who else he shared the podium with that day. We witnessed an unlikely connection to a prominent fore-runner and founder of the gay civil rights movement. California Senator, Dianne Feinstein, who convened the gathering on Tuesday, took office as Mayor of San Francisco in November 1978 following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk was our country’s first elected openly gay man. Although the story is complex, as most stories are, he risked much in a time when Proposition 6 threatened to hunt gay teachers in California. He successfully opposed the baleful legislature. He served as a role-model for gay men and women; suggesting to us that significant leadership opportunities were possible.

I am reminded again of the loss of life as we have seen in the past assassination of Harvey Milk, on-going high rates of suicide amongst gay teens, and physical brutality perpetuated against gay and lesbians to this day. Lives are lost as we stumble toward a more expansive and realized society rooted in civil rights. I caution conservative religious movements that vilify the queer community. If compassion is not truly at the heart of your actions, take a very hard look at the effects of your words and your deeds. Pray on scripture, and search diligently for what words Jesus Christ spoke of on this topic. I have yet to find one sentence by Jesus that speaks ill of homosexuality, and I assure you I have looked hard and long for them. Consider spending the fortunes you use to fight against these civil rights on the missions Jesus called us to. Use them solely to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked and care for those in prison. You do all these latter things already and you do them well, I only ask you to better support the ministries Jesus specifically named, rather than what I see as your cultural sensibilities.

President Obama on Tuesday directed us once more to “a unity of purpose over discord” and to “begin again the work of remaking America.” There is much work to be done. We asked you earlier in the service to write down one thing you would be willing to put effort into to affect change. Those cards that were given as an offertory today are sanctified by our collective commitment to action. As poet Alice Walker has written, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Seek to be renewed by a generosity of spirit. This congregation has birthed many a social justice movement and effort in its long 175 years. We stand in awe of that history. I pray that it prop us up in our times of exhaustion and bolster us in our times of exuberance. Let us continue that tradition as we have reached this epic corner in our national and spiritual journey.

Taking a broader look, in some way, we all ought to cover ourselves in ash, wear sackcloth, or dip our wings in greasy water to redeem our situation, our condition and our lives. Meditate and pray now for a moment on how we have fallen short. What can we craft our sackcloth out of, what personal conviction would it take for us to don it long enough to make a difference? How can we seek forgiveness from God, from that which we hold as Ultimate, and from our society so that we can change our hearts and thereby begin to quench the fires all around us? As ever, since the dawn of humanity, we are in need of leadership. It must be humble, it must take flight. And it needs to be found in all of us.

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Brooklyn Bridges

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on March 22nd, 2009. It look at Faith through the imagery of Bridges.

Have you ever walked, jogged, or rolled across the Brooklyn Bridge? Up until moving to Brooklyn, I can’t say that I’ve done that myself much even though I’ve lived in the area my whole life. After work earlier this month, I was meeting up with a friend in the West Village for dinner, and I decided to take a stroll from here to there. In my mind, it seemed like it was going to be quite a bit of a stroll, but it was a warmish evening and the sky was clear. I think some of you may already know this, but over the past few months I’ve returned to a spiritual practice of daily walking to center and focus. Perfect! My mind was set, and off I was.

It took me a little bit longer to figure out how to get onto the bridge in the first place. Traffic patterns, turn signals, cement barricades and one entrance feed later – I found my way. On paper (or the internet) the bridge is pretty close to us – but you kind of have to already know the patterns to join the pathway. Even with the clearest map the electronic highway can produce, you have to do it once yourself, with all the natural missteps along the way, in order to get it. And between you and me… I broke out the GPS… shhh!

So I get on the entrance ramp, for lack of a better word, to one of the world’s greatest bridges, and it’s only about as wide as I am tall. No wonder I missed where it started! Walking along the now clearly demarcated pathway, stopped traffic was only separated from me by about 5 feet and low cement walls. People’s frustration was clear on their faces, all the while I was feeling a sense of success for finding my way and the surety of knowing I didn’t have to make any more choices for a bit of time.

Then the first cyclist came clown-bell ringing his way toward me. Enough of the sight-seeing; momentum and a narrow walkway meant I had some quick twisting to do. Surviving a few encounters with fast-paced inertia; the sort where you realize unless you move differently, no one’s going to, I achieved the bridge!

It was about at this point that I recalled exactly how bad my fear of heights actually is. I’m pretty good if there’s some width, or breadth or dozens of feet between me and down. In my head I was thinking, “There are whole car lanes between me and down. I’ll be fine.” I had forgot that the pedestrian walkway has those lovely little holes and slats that show you what’s below you. You have to face it all. No one’s going to hide the brutal reality of “down” for the feint of heart. After the initial horror, and then the wondering why no one thought to cover that up, I have to admit, it was kind of exhilarating!

After the acrophobia subsided a bit, I started to notice how I was the only person walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I began wondering if I missed the memo, news flash or Facebook/tweet status update somewhere. In a city of 8 million, how is that no one is walking this direction? The sights are awesome, and the view is energizing and scary, but I’m having that not so infrequent NYC alone feeling even though I’m around a ton of people. It can get much worse than any sense of loneliness I ever experienced in suburbia. So many people dream of being right where I am, and I’m wondering how did I get here, where am I going … and why are those 8 million people walking in the other direction?

When I got to the midway point on the bridge, I took a breather. I reveled in the solidness of the central pillar. And by “reveled”, I mean to say, “clung” to the solidness of the central pillar. And by “breather”, I should say, “started to breathe” again. I could see how awesome the view was. There were a lot more people hanging about here. Propping cameras up in small crevices so that their timers could capture a moment between a couple. Fingers pointing toward this or that. The night was our first warm night despite it not yet being spring. I had a better sense of where I was, and which way to go again once I was ready. I was comforted by the peacefulness of the center’s surety, but I had dinner plans to go to. The West Village was calling, and there was a long way still to go.

And thus ends the parable of the bridge. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and takes on it during coffee hour as folks get to know one another better. I want to share with you now some of my thoughts on this story. Broadly, I see our faith, Unitarian Universalism, as that bridge. It is what I consider one of the world’s great religions. Spanning back to the reformation, Unitarianism in Europe formed from the thoughts, writings and martyrdom’s of those that came before us. We have grown into a very contemporary religious expression, and we are deeply rooted in sacrifice.

Having a 400 year arc of tradition and change, how does one who is new to the faith, find their way in? How does one who was born into our religion, balance their life-path with the demands and rigors of our values? It can often feel very difficult to find one’s way onto the bridge. The many traffic signals, cement barricades and the on-line maps of life tell us how to live and how to be. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they just don’t speak the truth. Consumerism teaches us to be more productive at the expense of living deeply. The crush of NYC and the protestant/american/capitalist work ethic (whichever descriptor you feel is most accurate) informs folks who are salaried or who are holding two or more jobs, that working less than fifty hours a week is being lazy. I’ve heard this concern enough times before and since the recession, that I think it’s crucial to point out the following value – and it is very much a value. The 70 hour work week might be a reality for some of us, but lazy doesn’t start at under 50 hours.

I remember a high school education with 8 classes, no lunch period – didn’t need it since the teachers would let me eat during class time, choir, track, and theatre. Mornings that started at 6am, and homework that ended by 9 or 10pm at night during the week. And mom still sent me to church and church school on the weekend as a kid. As a teen, I began returning the favor to mom, reminding her to make it to Mass.

Cement barricades that serve their purpose; they keep traffic flowing, give solidity to our way of life. They also make some of us have to walk a few extra blocks out of the way to get where we’re going. Where’s the path that lets us maintain our jobs and find time for a religious life? Homework on Sunday mornings means there’s no room to explore our values; just our facts. The cement dividers are here to stay. We have to find another way. When we print out, or memorize those google maps and see where the blocked paths are, we need to make the personal choice to not be surprised when the path is long. We need to manage our expectations. And when we still lose our way, and know that we will all lose our way at least at one point, the GPS of congregational life – our clergy, fellow congregants, our parents, our sons and daughters, need to be ready to help point the way.

So, look around. … This might surprise some of us, but this week, we are the ones who made it. We’re walking up the entrance ramp. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done so. Coming to the congregation might be the challenge, with seemingly narrow paths to joining. You haven’t seen all the activities, heard all the stories, served the call of justice-making in all its ways yet. At first the walkway may seem tight, but trust me, if you keep walking forward it will seem more open. One significant widening of our pathway is happening this coming Saturday morning. Our congregational brainstorm on how we will move forward with our social justice programming is an exciting integration of our values. Individuals and committees already serve in this way, but now we’re intentionally seeking to connect, and to verbalize how we connect, our Unitarian Universalist values to our social justice making at this congregation. I encourage you to join us Saturday morning to help in this widening of our spirit and our faith.

For some of us, we’ve been coming for years and are active members. We volunteer our time, money and a ton of heart. We agree with the principles and purposes of Unitarian Universalism. And yet you might still be figuring out how to feel your way onto or up that ramp. You’re inline with our ethics and our causes, but the question of identity still seems elusive. The spirit in Unitarian Universalism hasn’t caught hold. The zeal of evangelism, even if it’s only to evangelize yourself, hasn’t taken grip. You might seek to figure out where our religious tradition’s values matches your own. You agree that people have value and worth; that justice, equity and compassion are imperative in this troubled world; that beliefs need not divide us in all things; that the search matters; that all voices should be heard; that world community is a goal; and that we are all related and that the natural world is inclusive in the word “we.” These principles ought to be impressive, because they are daunting and very difficult to follow.

For those of us who this describes, let me challenge you a bit, more than you already are in striving to live up to these values. In the month ahead, ask yourself what does our faith tradition ask you to do? When you catch yourself thinking, “I agree with that ethic, or value, or principle,” follow-up by asking yourself, “What can I do, or say, or consider in light of that value that I wasn’t doing, or saying, or considering before?” Consider it a spiritual self-assessment. We do all sorts of assessments in our lives – with our finances, our job performance, our buildings and homes. It may be time to perform one over what matters among the most in our lives.

For those of us who are ready for Advanced Lifespan Religious Education 405, take what you realize, or learn, or remember from that spiritual self-assessment and share it with your fellow congregant. Today Nell Evans in her reflection, and Lisa Hanson in her moment of witness, have modeled this engagement on the larger scale. Lisa recently reminded me that Hannah Arendt suggested that the highest form of human action is speaking amid and engaging with others. I agree with Arendt on this point. I think this point is often particularly difficult for Unitarian Universalists, not the speaking up bit, but the engaging with others about our spiritual values. We often act as if we are imposing on others should we engage in a discussion about values as they pertain to religion. Raise your hand if you are easily swayed; if you do whatever you’re told; if any belief shared with you becomes your own. (Be gentle with those whose hands are up.) We kid ourselves into thinking we are being responsible by not engaging with one another over our values. Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage.

Our Senior Minister, Dr. Patrick O’Neill, and I have talked from time to time about our philosophies of religious education. That sentence gets at the crux of it. Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. Parents have often heard me remind them that most of our religious education happens at home. One can not learn Algebra or Spanish by studying it one hour a week for nine or ten months a year – it only adds up to about 40 hours, or one week of school. Believe me, I tried that approach with Spanish, and it did not go well for me. It takes immersion. We are that immersion. If religious education ends in the classroom, our oldest youth may have as much as 12 weeks of full-time class with very little homework or 3 months – one semester. Our folks who joined us as adults may have but a few hours. Since we are that immersion course, I need you to help me out by practicing our spiritual fluency with regularity.

As a quick aside, just like the widening ramp, let me warn you, at some point in your religious life, you will likely encounter someone speeding toward you rapidly ringing their clown-like bell to get out of their cycling path. Whether you may feel that’s coming from the pulpit, or coffee hour, please do not take my challenge toward deeper engagement to sound like a ringing cyclist on a narrow path. Be nimble, be swift. Take what is of value, even if it turns out to simply be that cycling (like spiritual engagement) is a healthy sport, and turn to the side as you need. I control not the sounds and bells along the way, only that we continue to have a path to share. How we share it is all our responsibility.

Some of us lament the lack of neat, simple answers in our faith to the questions of belief. Like my acrophobic-induced panic attacks, we do not cover up what’s below us and around us with straight, hard, and opaque answers. There are times in life where we feel we may desperately need the certitude of truth to be known by us as clearly expressed belief. … We don’t build that way. We lay walkways and frameworks that allow us a clear view in all directions – even the scarily downward ones; yet the path is firm. Millions have walked it. And it can get exhilarating if you let it. Know that belief does not equal faith. The path we walk is our faith. We may construct that faith with varying beliefs, but the wise choice of wood, metal, solid, or porous does not diminish the path. These choices will change the view though.

Some of you may question my choice in the West Village as the destination of my little spirit-walk. Kingdom of Heaven, Beloved Community, or Nirvana it may or may not be. But it was where I was going. I just so happened to know this time which way I headed. We don’t always know that. But the path remains as firm as it needs to be. We have chosen, or continue to choose each day, to walk through this precious and rare gift that we know as life in the manner we do. Each day we see a rebirth to this life, and are faced with the most serious question we can be asked. How do we live? Knowing that the majority of our religious education comes from one another in how we choose to answer this question of living; consider how you model the role of teacher? As our offertory song this morning from Rodgers and Hammerstein suggests – you have to be carefully taught. What would your students learn from you? How would they learn to live their life? Where do you connect with our values? Where do you fall short? From time to time, we all succeed and we all fall short. Each day that we see a rebirth to this life is a new opportunity to change, to grow and always and ever to teach.

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Christmas Eve – The Ordinary Miracle

God of Grace, Spirit of Hope Abounding, Source of Love,

Surprise us when we least expect it.

Enter our lives as the shining star in the night,

Sudden, unexpected, clear.

Remind us that there is a depth to life,

an urgency in being.

That we are not merely actors dimly reading our parts,

but creative souls, crucial to the story at hand.

Living is a practice of bringing our full selves to bear:

In the questing times, when we’re uncertain of our purpose, or our place;

In the times of epiphany, when newfound clarity must be brought to action.

In the times of loss, when hope flies from our grasp.

Help us to remember the lessons of Christmas.

New possibilities are ever abundant.

What we’re seeking may take a turn for the unexpected.

Hope, grace and love are central to our lives – not power, or privilege, or fear.

Dear God – help us to realize these lessons in our lived experience.

Take our hand and lead us away from cynicism and dismissal;

from contention and despair.

Grant us a renewal of vision.

And when the choirs of angels cease their singing,

and the shepherds return to their flocks,

and the stablehands come to replenish the hay,

May we have found the respite we needed amidst the glory of the night;

May our hearts remain opened for another turning of the year;

And may we have the courage to spread this message of possibility, of compassion over indifference, of the ordinary miracle.

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O Come, All Ye Faithful

This call to worship, inspired by the classic Christmas hymn, brings us into the Christmas Eve worship, 2011 at First UU in Brooklyn. As a Christmas treat, I’m posting this ahead of the service. Merry Christmas!


Come all those with faithful hearts,

longing for the birth of hope.

Come all those with questing souls,

seeking once more a fullness of spirit.

Let go of the the thoughts of work and duty.

Attend to the miracle in this hour.

It is in the quiet of this still night,

it is in the pause of breath,

it is in the ordinary,

that we welcome this new life into our arms.

Prepare your joy.

Ready your exultation.

And sing.

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Dark Time of the Year

May the lessons of the dark time of the year,

deepen our roots,

ground our spirits,

and keep us true to our whole selves;

May we find rest, know joy, and broaden our view.

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