Archive for April, 2015

Sermon: Perception, Reality and Open Mindedness

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/19/15. It reflects on the spiritual implication of optical illusions.

 

Remember a few weeks back, I talked briefly about that black and blue dress that was making the news and social media. Or as the other half of us (including myself) see it – the white and gold dress? I want to begin there again today and go a little deeper into what it serves to teach us in our overly polarized world. As a quick refresher, in the lighting we see in this photo, this dress appears differently to different groups of folks. Right now I see white and gold. But if you put that dress in normal lighting, it would look black and blue to me. Apparently, it’s due to the different ways in which we have developed to adjust to night vision, and based on those genetic differences some of us see one color pairing and others see something very different. Or as one congregant asked me, “do you ever wonder if when we say we’re seeing the color red, that we’re actually talking about the same thing?”

We often talk about open mindedness as a virtue that allows us to see new possibilities, or to reduce conflict; to live and let live or to agree to disagree. The spiritual discipline here is in not finding ourselves falling for the trap of over-identifying with our ego as we define ourselves with our stance. When we get worked up over inconsequential things, because the differences feel like they are threatening who we are as a person, we know we’re going down that useless path. It’s a path we all go down often enough to keep it well trod. Those fights that quickly go to “you said” and are followed with “but you said” might be good examples.

But I want to look at openness this week more fully from the perspective of actual, inherent difference. When perception and reality may come up with really different answers. Or when two different perceptions of reality, even when in direct opposition, may both be correct. This type really unnerves us. Like we briefly spoke about a month or so ago, with the blue/black or white/gold dress, in a certain lighting people factually see it differently. Imagine dividing this room up by the blue/black viewers on one side, and the white/gold viewers on the other and requiring us to argue which is right. It would be a fruitless exercise in futility.

I think this particular image was so shocking to so many of us because it’s hard to accept that we may biologically see color or lighting very differently. The challenges to the simple truths in life may be the hardest to accept. There’s nothing complicated about this image, but we come to very different interpretations that are visually irreconcilable.

Often images get translated through the story we bring to the viewing. Just this past week, for those of us on social media, we’ve seen this image of cat steps all over the place. The cat begs the question, “is the cat going up the steps or down the steps?” On one level, it’s a cute optical illusion. It’s just lines on paper, or possible a 2D photo of an event. Do we put ourselves at the bottom of the steps looking up, or at the top of the steps looking down? It seems like an innocuous question, but how often is that exactly what we do in life?

Every time we hear or see something that affects our lives, we choose, consciously or unconsciously, how to interpret our relation to it. When adversity or success comes our way, do we view it as if we’re at the top of our proverbial steps, or at the bottom? Our sense of hardship or ease often colors which angle we take, and it’s understandable, but not always helpful or healing. I remember when I was in the start of my ministry, right after seminary, single and heavily indebted by two graduate degrees. I was living in an attic, in a Brooklyn home whose owners were a family with two teenage youth. My room was directly above their teen’s bedroom. I recall being worried at the time that if I didn’t get a wedding officiant job every month, my salary was no going to be enough to pay the rent. For me, at that time, I walked around acting as though I was at the bottom of those steps and looking up at a cat walking down. But I had a roof over my head, food to eat, a ton of friends who lived nearby, and the achievement of having had access to graduate education that allowed me to follow my dreams. For much of the world, folks might have seen all that as living at the top of the steps. It doesn’t change the nature of any challenges we face. Life can be difficult, and we can feel like it’s too much for us to handle, and from another perspective we might also be rather fortunate.

Perception versus reality. Aside from the extreme sources of sorrow in the world, where words fail us utterly, we have some ability to choose to feel like we’re at the top of the stairs. And we often can choose to feel like we’re at the bottom, even when we’re not. Sometimes the difficulty is not quite as deep as we think.

This picture here is another optical illusion, even if a bit cutesy. The artist manages to turn a flat surface into a 3D illusion full of depth and risk.The pedestrian is trapped at the top of a

batman-chalk-pavementledge, with the dynamic duo scaling the walls to save him. We all can find ourselves trapped in this way. Our imaginations can fill in lines to turn solid ground into vertigo-inducing pits.

I think sometimes, we can even find some sense of satisfaction in seeing danger or anxiety where there is none. Like the cute sidewalk chalk drawing, seeing the story the way we are accustomed to has some satisfaction to it, even if we know it’s not really as it seems. It’s another trapping of the ego. When our sense of self becomes identified with whatever difficulty is before us, after time that sense of self can feel at risk if the problem goes away. It’s the classic story of the person lamenting that no one will ever love them, but who passes up every person who’s interested for one reason or another.

I’d guess many of us have been there at some point in our lives. Or remember the even more universal story from our teen years where we thought everyone else around us was secure in their bodies and their lives, everyone but ourselves. Ha! That was some optical illusion we bought into – and the negative story that creates changes how we live into so many of our moments.

hosepipe-3d-illusionWe’re creatures of story. (queue hosepipe photo) This photo is another story. We see a bunch of lines on the ground, in color and chalk, and we put ourselves into it. We invent the water, we invent the hose, we pretend the fellow is holding the nozzle and that water is in the air. We do this because we understand the world through story. Humans are meaning makers, and from that truth, we understand the world. It doesn’t mean that life is devoid of actual meaning. I think that by virtue of living, we’ve earned an opinion on what’s going on; so we shouldn’t discredit the stories we come up with. They’re our stories and they have value. But when we live into the fantasies that cause us harm or grief – like the fantasy that as a teen we were the only ones uncomfortable with our bodies, or any adult version of the same – those fantasies never go away right – when we live into those fantasies we allow our gift to find and create meaning to turn into a curse. We take one of our greatest gifts as human beings and make it something foul; and we can choose to do that.

concrete-grasshopperSometimes we might both be telling the same story, but come to another conclusion. (queue concrete grasshopper). Now look at this young girl. She is clearly overjoyed with the wonder of the image of a giant grasshopper hanging out on the city post. She’s getting into the picture herself and bringing life to a city street where everyone else is blithely walking by from one place to another. (It’s a simple miracle that no one is on a cell phone in the background.) Now, if I ever encountered a grasshopper that was twice my size, a look of wonder and joy would not be found anywhere in the vicinity of my face. But that girl is choosing to take part in another story. And she’s right; it is a bit of wonder and magic amidst the everyday. We can sometimes choose to find it, even in places where we might be a little afraid of its newness or difference.

 

 

Fedex-Logo-FontI’d like to share one last optical illusion. This one is thanks to our music director, Richard. He was telling me a story of a time he was in a FedEx store and talking with an employee who had worked there for 20 years. He asked them if they saw the symbol in the image. They responded, “what symbol?” I confess, when Richard asked me the same, I didn’t see it at first, it took me a moment to find it. Do you see it?… It’s between the letters E and X. FedEx’s professional marketers drew the letters in such a way that there’s a subtle image of an arrow going to the right between the E and the X. You don’t see it at first, but it’s dances around our subconscious; it’s impact on our sense of who FedEx is, runs  wild without our conscious awareness. This type of optical illusion is a bit different than the rest. We’re not easily seeing what is hidden before us, but the message still affects us in subtle or sometimes obvious ways.

What stories in our lives surround us, and affect us, whether we’re conscious of them or not? What are the subtle but persistent stories that frame our lives and our choices? Peer pressure, shame for things we may have no control over, systems that direct certain people to certain places, the internal monologues of doubt, and insecurity, and helplessness. Where has someone told us along the way that X was possible and Y was not, and we chose to buy that map? The virtue of trust is something we’re reflecting on all month, and it’s a kind of heart/mind/soul… muscle… that we would do well to flex from time to time, or maybe a muscle to stretch from time to time.

What do we place our trust in? Do we place our trust in the well-crafted subtle or hidden messages that tug and pull on our minds and choices? Do we place trust in the meaning we choose to create for ourselves? Are we open to possibility, or do we maintain our sense of openness solely to that which has come before – good or bad? Do we find all the optical illusions before us  (metaphorical or literal) and focus on how they can trick us? Do we focus on how they can open up a sense of wonder? Or do we learn to trust in our capacity to perceive, judge and direct our sense of what’s before us; owning the places where we do have control, and being gentle with the places where our senses slip from edge to depth?

There are countless angles to approach whatever is before us, and often the way we come upon something new or different is just as critically affected by the eyes we bring to it. My faith as a Unitarian Universalist is grounded in open mindedness because we often know, but we don’t always know, and sometimes knowing is only part of the matter at the center of our hearts.

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Prayer for Early Spring

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Trust

As Winter finally gives way to Spring,

may we pause before another turning of the wheel.

Some of us are wrestling with hardship after hardship,

illness, loss of work, loved ones gone from our lives.

Teach us ways to trust in the possibility and the newness of hope;

may the lessons of the living world show us a path toward a new day,

with the ice and the frost – in our past – not forgotten –

but not in control of our path.

Some of us have allowed the Spring to make us gardeners of our spirit,

planting seeds beneath the surface,

like little moments of grace for passersby,

who have done nothing themselves to earn such a small gift of beauty, of life.

May we all be stewards of such hope,

and aware of the gifts that spring up unbidden, and uncontrolled,

where-ever odd and sudden place they may so come.

Mother of Trust, remind us in the fallow times,

that we have come this far, and deep down,

we know everything we need to know,

to move through the times of unease.

Change happens suddenly, and often,

event though breath to breath may feel like eternity.

When the crush of pressure and stress feels too much to bear alone,

teach us to lean on others in our life,

for to each of us comes such time.

And when we have the strength to spare,

may we give, what was once given to us, freely and fully,

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Easter Sermon in Two Homilies: The Open Door and The Once Welcome Stranger

These homilies were preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Easter Sunday, 4/5/15. They look at the meaning of the open door in Passover and the meaning of Holy Week in light of discrimination posing in the guise of religious freedom.

The Open Door

Growing up in my one-half Italian house-hold, we had an annual tradition of opening our front and back doors to our home on New Year’s Eve. My mom would say we were doing it to let out the bad and let in the good. I hear traditionally, you’re supposed to open all the windows and doors all day so that the draft can wipe away the bad spirits, and the open doors would welcome in the new spirits. In the middle of winter, that’s a bit much for my family, so we would just run from one end of the house to the other side at midnight and open them for a short time. I’ve had a good life, so maybe it worked. But growing up, it sure was fun.

Jewish tradition has something similar this time of year, but for a more profound reason. During the Passover Seder – like the one we celebrated last night – a door is left open to welcome the Prophet Elijah (who our choir just sang about) to the Seder meal. But imagine what else that means. Passover remembers a time when the Jewish people were enslaved by the Pharaoh. The story tells us that there were plagues and locusts that had raged throughout the land as a punishment for the oppression of the Jewish people. Whatever we believe was happening, we can agree that it must have been a terrifying time to go outside. And it’s in this time of uncertainty and fear, that the Jewish people open up their doors and welcome in the Prophet Elijah, someone we may have heard of, but certainly have never met.

The open door is a tradition steeped in a deep sense of trust in God, in the Holy; trust in a sense of knowing one is safe even surrounded by trouble and danger. The prophet Elijah is a herald of God, a teacher, and someone who is believed will return some day to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the Christian tradition the Messiah is believed to be Jesus, a savior of souls. But in the ancient Jewish tradition, the Messiah is believed to be someone who will liberate the Jewish people and bring the world to a place of wholeness.

So if we put ourselves into the Passover story, we’re surrounded by challenge after threat, and we unlock our doors and leave them wide open. This time of year reminds us that there is a religious truth to the practice of hope; to trusting that a sense of wholeness, peace and justice are within our reach, even if we feel surrounded by all the woes of the world. The woes sometimes are very real, but they don’t need to change the nature of our character, of who we are. We can still choose to celebrate, with family and friends, the people and places we cherish and have worth in our hearts.

The practice of the open door is also a way in which we build community. When we share our stories of struggle, of which there are many in our world, in our congregation and in our individual lives, do we share them from only a place of pain? Or do we share them, as friend to friend, or family to family, over a meal, with a sense of trust, that the joys before us will clarify the times of adversity and not be overshadowed by the hardship.

The Once Welcome Stranger

Our reading this afternoon, was a contemporary retelling of the Palm Sunday story. In the bible, the week before Jesus is killed, he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, welcomed by the people who are waving palm fronds. By some, he’s believed to be a leader who will free the Jews from Roman rule. By others, he’s seen as a great spiritual teacher and healer. The poem reminds us of the Christian belief that we find Christ in the stranger, in each other, in people we know and love and in people who are distant and unknown.

It also reminds us that in mainstream society we often hear folks fixate on the powerful, kingly Jesus who will come in glory and power. But, that’s the not the Jesus in the story. We can make a mistake by loving the idea of the powerful messiah more, than the humble Jesus who gave up power – or used his power – to help the weak and the forgotten. His ministry was to humanity at it’s most vulnerable.

Shortly after he arrives to goes to the temple to pray and finds that there are money-changers in the temple profiting off the changing of Roman coin to Jewish coin. The tradition was to sacrifice two doves at the temple, and because it was too hard to travel with live doves from the outer reaches of Judea, there was a strong local business of selling doves once pilgrims arrived at the temple. And the money changers were needed because the Roman’s only allowed Roman coin to be used for payments in Jerusalem, but the Jewish law required the sacrifice to made in shekels (what the Jews coined themselves.) It may not seem like a big deal to us today, but historically this wound up taking advantage of the poor and the downtrodden through costs of high fees. Jesus winds up flipping over the tables of the money changers in anger for their abuse of the poor.

Jesus is confronted about this outburst the next day, and through a series of events throughout the week, where Jesus challenges the systems of oppression under Roman rule, is charged with treason and killed. In the Christian faith, his death and later resurrection, are signs of God’s Grace and forgiveness of mankind’s sins. But in most progressive Christian churches, it is also important to remember why Jesus was killed – because he chose to side with the weak, the poor, and the outcast, against the Roman government.

I remember this when I hear stories in the news, like the ones coming out of Indiana this week. Where a law was passed that legalized bigotry under the guise of Religious Freedom. This law says that any person, or any business, can refuse service to LGBT people because of the business owner’s religious convictions. There are a lot of people in our country that are confusing the freedom to worship as your conscience tells you with the freedom to discriminate against people because you feel like it. Religious freedom isn’t the freedom to persecute others, it’s the freedom not to be persecuted against. And I believe it’s against the religion they are claiming they’re acting in line with.

How does trust in the power of an ancient story, bring support, focus, clarity and meaning today, to a contemporary challenge like the one I just shared? It’s in this light that I want to con-temporize the Easter and Holy Week story, much like the reading we heard earlier retelling the story of Palm Sunday as if it were happening today…

They thought they saw Jesus in Indiana a short time ago. Entering the capitol with fanfare and accolades. They thought they saw him in the governor’s office; all smiles and handshakes as discrimination was written into public policy. But instead, they waved palm branches for Caesar this year. We gave unto Caesar what was God’s. We climbed out of the colosseums, and took hold of the lions’ reins.

They thought Jesus was seen in the pizza parlor in Indiana this week; martyred for religious freedom, as a store was “forced” to close after speaking words of hate in the guise of freedom. They were right. Jesus was there. He was flipping the tables and the trays crying out against the money changers of this day, who will cry religion but mean GoFundMe. The owner of the pizza parlor that said they hypothetically wouldn’t cater a gay wedding should they ever actually be asked to, has since raised over $800,000 from people defending their bigotry under the guise of religious freedom.

They were right. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week. He hung from a cross alongside the poor, the downtrodden, those who are rejected from society. He sees the lives of LGBT Americans, who are not protected by the law against being fired from their jobs. Jesus sees Trans folk who go homeless due to persecution, and remembers a time when his parents were forced to sleep in the night in a manger. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week; and we hung him from the Cross once more.

And the temple was torn in two once more. From top to bottom, the politics of bigotry shook and the rock of national silence split. Many who have fallen asleep from indifference were raised. Numerous states, corporations, celebrities, and even denominations (those on the left, the center and the right) have spoken against this fake religious freedom law, and some have begun boycotting the state.We have given to Caesar what was God’s; making religion subject to the laws of the state; pretending the money-makers, the businesses and corporations are houses of worship. Caesar may be forced to do the right thing this time from the harm to what he truly loves (as the boycotts harm the production of money.) When will God’s people bear witness for God’s sake, and not Caesar’s? When will we act with love, and not merely sound as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal?

I found the story of Easter to be powerful and transformative. I believe it has a depth of meaning that can point us back on the right path when we trip up. There’s the the challenge of Palm Sunday to remember a time when we have spoken or acted with fanfare for his message of compassion, forgiveness and charity, but we forget that – when in our daily lives – it’s hard to deal with the needs of the world. Or the flipping of the tables, and Jesus’ alignment with those who are most in need. In a world where a lot of people allow greed to win over compassion, it’s life-saving to have a message that teaches otherwise. Oppression, discrimination, bigotry, are always on the wrong side of history, and they are always on the wrong side of the gospel message.

But Easter is not solely this social justice message; it’s not solely the spiritual message of salvation and grace. Easter is also a story that lays the bedrock for community. Communities are built upon lessons of compassion and concern. Communities are well-founded when power and privilege don’t become the rule of law. And the virtue of forgiveness is critical, if we ever hope to enter back into community after another wrong is committed. Religions make central these teachings, because these truths are central to life. They must be told again and again. Happy Easter. May this day remind us of the commitments we have faithfully made, and help bring about a world that is worthy of the trust we have been given.

 

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Huffington Post: Christ Was Seen In Indiana This Week

Check out my latests Huffington Post blog here: http://huff.to/1D2nEAg

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