Archive for January, 2015
Hello! Today, I’m launching a new podcast series looking at the Spirituality of Doctor Who, a favorite TV Time Traveler for the past 50 years on BBC. You can hear the first podcast on “The Shakespeare Code” over here.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on Christmas Eve 2014. It looks at the story of the Magi and the origins of what it means to be grateful through gift giving.
There’s a comic making the rounds this year of the little drummer boy in the manger next to Mary. He’s about to give the only gift he has, playing his drums, when a harried Mary stops him saying, “Thanks, but please no. I just got him to bed.” I imagine many of us have been there before – with our own kids, or baby-sitting for friends or family. Or if you’re like me, with no kids of my own, but with a very industrious cat at 4am.
The Christmas hymn, “Little Drummer Boy,” always struck me as a little odd, even if it is quite beautiful, for this reason. The last thing an infant needs is a drum solo at bed time. But the song teaches us that we don’t have to have much in terms of worldly riches, to find a way to be generous. It’s a good message, and a helpful reminder, and yet, I think in some ways, it misses the mark for the holiday.
The gift giving scene in the Nativity is about a few markers. Kings of the world themselves, will bow down to this spiritual king in the manger. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were all associated with standard gifts befitting a king. Others would note their representation of Jesus’ respective roles of king, his priestly role and an omen of his later death. They’re appropriate gifts to signal his station and his purpose. And over the millennia, they’ve been the foundation for what has brought us to the consumer frenzy we see from Black Friday through Christmas, and the return sales to follow the holiday.
So the Little Drummer Boy does his yeoman best to move us back to one of the meanings of the season, calling across the centuries to turn away from the consumerism that pervades our lives these days. I’m grateful for that message. We need to hear it year after year. And yet, aside from the three kings’ gift of gold to a poor family sleeping in a manger, a late night drum solo is about as helpful to the baby, as frankincense and myrrh.
On this past Sunday’s youth-led service, our religious educator Starr Austin, asked us whether we more enjoy giving gifts, or more enjoy getting them. It’s an important lesson around generosity – not just for material things – but for all the talents we may share – whether they be drum solos, or helping those in need. Coming from a place of gratitude, gift-giving can be a holy thing, and when it’s from a place of our talents, may very well be the hope for the world we so desperately need.
But with the modern challenge around secular consumerism and it’s impact on this Holy day, I wonder something else too: When is giving gifts more for ourselves, than it is for the recipient? When do we give out of expectation, rather than desire? And what would the Christ-child really ask of us, if he could have spoken?
In our contemporary reading this evening, by the Rev. Lynn Unger, I think we have the answer in the words of the camels. “What would such a child care
for perfumes and gold?”… “We saw what he would need: the gift of perseverance, of continuing on the hard way, making do with what there is, living on what you have inside. The gift of holding up under a burden, of lifting another with grace, of kneeling. To accept the weight of what you must bear.” For me, these are the lessons of Christmas. These are the gifts I think Jesus’ parents would have hoped for him, and what they ultimately taught him.
For me, the heart of the Christmas story, is not about the gifts, or even about generosity – two things we often think of this time of year. It’s about the lessons of hardship that can be overcome. It’s about enduring what is necessary so that what might be, can become. It’s the story of a man that was gifted with power – not the worldly kind – who was in fact born into weakness and frailty, poverty and a migrant life, living in a nation that was held by foreign powers – and through a life of vulnerability — despite inherent power – showed us all another way: how to lift another with grace and how to kneel when it’s time. We adore this child, not for his cuteness lying in a manger, but for his awareness of when to hold back, despite the power he may have.
The story of Christmas is likewise about the recipients of that grace. If holding back our power at times is a a sacred act, helping to lift those who are vulnerable, is likewise sacred. We often hear misleading stories of people who deserve their poverty; we hear misleading stories that suggest it is not to us to be our brother’s keeper. The story of Christmas corrects these as well. Sometimes, we’re in a place where we have gifts to give. Sometimes we’re in a cold manger needing help. God is found in both these places.
The Holy is found in both these places. This is the closing lesson from our camels in our contemporary reading. “Our footsteps could have rocked him with the rhythm of the road, shown him comfort in a harsh land, the dignity of continually moving forward. But the wise men were not wise enough to ask. They simply left their trinkets and admired the rustic view. Before you knew it, we were turned toward home, carrying men only half-willing to be amazed.” Sometimes we come upon the holiday as these wise men, laden with trinkets and appreciative of the quaintness of it all. Sometimes, we come upon Christmas as the silent camels, staring in awe at the wonder of creation – no words to share or say – just the willingness to be amazed. That’s the inkling of the holy, that which the everyday mystics call us to witness. This too is the gift of Christmas; this too is the gift of life. To notice the baby reaching “for the bright tassels of our gear” and to not let it be lost before the humdrum of the world. To pause long enough to appreciate the precious moments of life.
All of this, held in care, is the message of Christmas. May it bear a print upon who we are, knowing that it is to us then, that we commit the life and teachings of Jesus into our lives. We are told he was born, and he lived, and he died for these teachings. To feed the hungry. To care for the sick. To clothe the naked. To lift up the poor. To remember those imprisoned – however they may be bonded. This is to keep Christ in Christmas. Tonight is the start of his story. Tonight, we renew our pledge to hold these ideals deep in our hearts. And to return, once more, to a world lit by such a glorious star, in the darkest of nights.
This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 1/4/14. It looks at the possibilities of a new year and the differences between desire, greed and yearning.
Here’s a short story that I share with you with permission from its source. I’m very grateful for their sense of humor and willingness to share it with all of us. It’s a story about themselves and a long-time former member of our Fellowship I’m changing their names since this will be posted online. “Rita and Bob went to Town Hall to take care of some business pertaining to the Fellowship building. Rita parked her red Toyota Celica in the crowded lot. When they went back to the car, her keys didn’t work. Bob, being an expert at just about everything, worked diligently to break into the car – the way a thief would! After Bob broke into the car, Rita put her hands on the steering wheel and exclaimed to Bob, who was sitting in the passenger seat “This is not my car, Bob!” They bolted out of the car, closed the doors and looked for her car. It was on the other side of a white van that was parked between her car and the stranger’s car that they had just broken into!”
I imagine we all have moments like these in our lives – maybe not so humorous – where we struggle and struggle to make something work in our lives, or to get through a difficult task, and all the energy is for nought. It might feel like we’re swimming upstream at a time in our lives when we’re called to do the hard thing, or we might just wind up working on breaking into the wrong car.
I’m trying to learn to tell the difference; whether when I’m facing a hardship, is it a necessary or unavoidable difficulty, or have I just gone to the wrong spot. Sometimes we can’t tell the difference until we’re sitting in someone else’s driver seat. But it’s a question we’ve begun asking ourselves in my own household when we face something challenging in our wider lives, and it’s a question that I haven’t always been prone to ask.
Maybe it was my working class upbringing, or maybe it was my German Lutheran Dad’s work ethic, but I’ve always known the message that life isn’t always easy and you have to put your back into it sometimes – sometimes for a long time. Many things we yearn for can fall into this category. Getting through high school, or college take years of hard work, and now these days, a lot of debt to show for the higher education degree most jobs require.
Getting through a life-changing illness – either in body or in mind – can be a place of yearning where endurance and hope are the saving virtues. Our lives are in the hands of other people, even if we’re the center of the story. We have to rely on the wind, from this morning’s wisdom story, to take us across the dry places in our lives.
My own road from working in Information Technology to Community Development to the Ministry was like this. I left a lucrative career, at the age of 28 – making about the same amount of money my dad was making after a lifetime of his work – because it wasn’t personally fulfilling. I yearned for something else; I felt a sense of call. Five years of graduate education and what would amount to a mortgage – in most parts of our country – worth in education loans was a surreal choice to make – especially considering my roots. But, I know that choice to swim upstream was the right choice for me – I didn’t break into the wrong car.
How do we know when it’s the right choice or not? There’s a graphic novel series that I’ve read where the anti-hero of the story (in this case Lucifer himself) talks about the difference between desire and greed. To paraphrase: desire is to need what we can never have. Greed is to need what is readily available. To add a third type of wanting to that scene, I might say yearning is to need what is right, but not yet at hand. We yearn to find or fulfill our purpose; we yearn for justice; we yearn for a caring, loving, kind world. So when we’re struggling hard for something, maybe we can ask what type of “want” we’re trying to fulfill this time as a starting point.
In my own life, when I run across something that’s deeply tied to my sense of purpose, or part of the bigger vision of my life, I’m willing to put a lot of energy into swimming upstream. These days though, I walk away from other stuff that saps my time and energy. I watch for patterns. Once a project has enough unexpected hurdles, unless its essential to home or health, I drop it. We can only manage so much before the frivolous winds up veering us down the wrong path; sapping our ability to accomplish the things that fulfill our purpose.
Occasionally, that which saps our ability to be effective in life are not complications or hurdles in life; sometimes they’re misinformation. I’ve gotten into almost daily habit of watching Fox News. It happened by accident really. There’s a local diner that I like to goto where I read while I eat for about an hour to hour and a half every day. For a long time I thought they changed their news station depending on the time of day. Fox, CNN or the local 12. But after a few months I realized that the pattern was almost entirely just Fox. Apparently, the owner requires the waitstaff to put Fox on, and they can only change it when clients ask to put something else on – or if there’s a major sports game on.
In the beginning, I let it get to me. I couldn’t believe a store owner would play politics like that with a station that factually gets the news wrong 80% of the time (and there are numerous non-partisan reviews that verify Fox is wrong, misleads or outright lies 80% of the time.) To be fair, the same reports find NBC to mislead about 60% of the time. So in the beginning, I would ask to have the station changed to the local news. Over time though, I just let it go and watched. I’ll read the NY Times, and Washington Post for the same reason. And periodically hop over to the BBC or other European news to see what we’re not being told.
What I see reading or listening to all these sources, is that the people that only read or tune into the station that matches their worldview, never hear what the other side has to say in a way that expresses that view with integrity. I feel like this is the major source of our nation’s swimming upstream over the past decade or two. We don’t hear the other side’s points, and if we do, they’re shared in mocking tones. It also oversimplifies complex situations because nuances of view are tossed for the sound byte. We see this in NYC’s current struggle between the Mayor and some Police Union leadership.
It also tends to contribute to false balance – where one reasonable opinion is pitted against a ridiculous opinion as if they are equal in value. We most notably see this with reporting on Global Warming, where world scientific expert opinions are considered with equal “value” with politicians who have no scientific training and are relying on personal opinion and anecdote to challenge 98% of the scientific community’s consensus.
Pope Francis is expected to charge our world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to commit themselves to the Global Warming crisis after a trip to the hurricane-ravaged Philippines soon. And in September, he’s slated to speak to the UN General Assembly as plead for more serious action. If all of this happens as expected, it fills me with a deep sense of hope over this crisis that has felt like swimming upstream for so many of us.
However, if you heard it reported on Fox, the story was told very differently. In the most mind-numbing twisting of news I may have ever heard, the TV station reported that the Pope was going to call Catholics to action over Global Warming, but they described it as something that reinforced “some critics” concerns over “religious fervor” which has been the foundation for those that believe in climate change. Climate change – that which has 98% of world scientists in agreement – is now magically a sentiment of those with religious zeal. When in fact, it’s been strong religious groups who believe global warming is God’s will, and man had no influence on our planet, that have stalled some of our actions to remedy this crisis saying that we can’t flout God’s will, so let’s let it burn as the bible has foretold.
If desire is to need what we can’t have, and greed is to need what is readily available, and yearning is to need what is right, but not yet, then global warming brings out all three in us. Our desire for the myth of limitless resources without repercussion and our greed for that which we yet have so much of, are making our yearning for a world that is whole and balanced all the more difficult to realize.
As we begin a new year, and prepare to swim up whatever streams come our way from time to time, we should remember something about endurance. Sometimes the world is a difficult place, and sometimes our personal situation is very stark. But not everything is hopeless. Not everything is simple. And we often need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, or tune into more than one voice. Our nation is wracked with many serious, or life threatening problems right now. But we also have many stories of success, change and transformation. Our national debt is declining drastically. For those who benefit from stocks, they’re soaring to record highs. Unemployment is down. We have movement away from some Cold War policies toward our nearest neighbor, while reaching out with environmental agreements with foreign powers. Ebola never spread here – not from ISIS, not through Mexico. And with Pope Francis expected to join his voice in world leadership toward serious climate action, things may look very different. When we yearn in difficult times, sometimes we need to remember not to listen too fully to the voices of strife and confusion; or at least not allow them to be the only voices we hear. When we only listen to them, our hearts and minds may not be ready to do the work of building upon the many successes the past year has gifted to this new year.