Archive for September, 2015

Hope; Not Hell

This sermon celebrates the message of Universal Salvation on the 245th anniversary of the birth of Universalism in the US. Learn to live with joy and love in ordinary time.

Several years back, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center, about 2 miles from the ocean, that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. To recap the story in a few sentences: a local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. …The problem was… there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America…. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.

So a couple hundred years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.

This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center. Can a long-time city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world, while caked in mud and soaked in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough-to-get-out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farmlands, means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.

All month we’ve been reflecting on how better to be a people of invitation. We’ve mostly talked about welcoming the stranger, or welcoming people as they are, or being there for those in crisis or hardship. What would it mean to be such a people of invitation, when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? What would it mean when we’re inviting the world around us – just as it is?

We often teach about mindfulness here. Sometimes, in the world of self-help books – the lessons around mindfulness can sound a bit too much like only something for the calm, peaceful and clean places in our lives. Teachings about mindfulness in the broader world are often all neat and tidy. But sometimes it’s more like my fashionista trek through a semi-frozen swamp. It’s tough to accept the world as it is, when you’ve come overdressed for a messy time in your life. How many of us are living through a messy time in our lives? …Troubles at work or with the checkbook, or a difficult time in one’s marriage, or maybe your schoolwork (or your kids’ schoolwork) is missing the mark… So often in life, we come ready for one kind of terrain, and realize it’s just simply not something we were prepared for. Striving to be a people of invitation can mean welcoming the world as it is, as best we can, and learn to face it – as it is – rather than what we want it to be.

The American movie consciousness often teaches us to struggle and strive and preserve until we win the world over to our wants and desires. Sometimes, that’s the right path, and sometimes it’s not. We can drain the swamps so I can have my precious nature hike –clean and tidy; or we can find a place of peace in the midst of the mess. We may have no control over the rough times in our lives, but we do have a choice over how we bring ourselves to and through those times.

I think of John Murray who birthed one thread of Universalism in the US. Before coming to the States, he lived in Ireland and England, and was a Calvinist minister. He spent some time in debtors prison, overwhelmed by medical bills after he lost his wife and child to illness. His brother finally bailed him out of debtor’s prison, and he forswore the ministry and preaching. He came to the US to (as he put it) “get lost in America” after such extreme crisis and loss in his life.

So when he got to that swamp in South Jersey, he was certainly not prepared to have a farmer tell him he was the answer to his prayers and it was time to get behind the pulpit again with a message of forgiveness and salvation for all – the Universal love of God. (And I’m sure learning that someone had built a church for him before he got there … was a tad off-putting to say the least…) Imagine the strength of character it takes to lose your family and home – to travel across the globe at a time when that was far from easy – and still believe that you are loved – by God, by Life – that you love enough to welcome hope back into your heart. I would be hard-pressed to imagine someone going through a worse crisis; yet he shows us that even despite all the things in our lives we have no control over, we still have a choice with our hearts… we still have a choice with our hearts.

Our reading earlier from the writings of Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Joy in Ordinary Time,”(from her book Waking Up the Karma Fairy) reminds me of this choice that we have with our hearts. Do we lock away the Joy-titled perfume for that extra special day that may not come soon enough before the perfume evaporates on its own? Or do we lavish ourselves with the scent of Joy any chance we get? How long exactly is long enough to wait to start living our lives? How long is long enough?

What would it mean to be such a people of invitation – when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? Can we extend grace and patience to the stranger when the stranger is our real selves? Can we allow ourselves to find hope again, after a period of great hardship? Can we be easier on ourselves than the world has been to us? And when our neighbor is learning to be themselves, can we learn to let them be, without critique or complaint?

The famous Universalist teaching is Hope not Hell. An all-loving God would never condemn anyone to lasting pain and misery in Hell. And the social implication – the religious lesson – is that we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t contribute to keeping or putting someone into a Hell in their lives – whether that person is our neighbor, a stranger, or that person is oneself. It’s the 245 year old thread in our tradition that informs our social values today. As a gay man, I think of the many closets that each of us hides something away in year after year. When we pressure someone into silence, we never get to know them, and we create little pockets of Hell on earth.

Or, when a trans youth or adult shares their truth with the world, society too often builds wall after wall. Our faith teaches us to help that person make space for who they really are – not put questions or critiques before compassion – and that person may be ourselves. When we get barraged with xenophobic media trying to teach us that religions that look or sound different are inherently dangerous, Universalism reminds us of a God that loves all, and we are called to begin again and again in love.

As we come to the end of worship, our children and youth are working right now on an art project crafting rainbow flags. Sadly, we have several congregations in our nation who have been vandalized recently – with their publicly flown rainbow flags being torn down or burned. In some cases it’s the second or third time they’ve been vandalized. Our children and youth are learning today about the role of extending love universally and to support one another while doing such holy work. We’ll be sending some of these flags to those congregations who have been vandalized. We are all connected in this work.

We learned about the perfume Joy! Well, what if we kept the perfume Love on our dressers as well. Lavish it in ordinary time. Don’t wait till someone proves themselves enough to warrant cracking it open. Love does not need to be something we wait forever for the right time to wear it on our sleeves and in our hearts. We are not less for being profligate with either joy or love; but our days are diminished when we horde them. It is ok to invite them into our lives. It’s ok to welcome our true spirits – as we are – to be with our neighbors – as they are – in ordinary time.

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Prayer for Yom Kippur 2015

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

As the Holy Days of Rosh Hashana come to a close,

and we move relentlessly toward Yom Kippur,

and it’s call to Atonement,

teach us to let go of our grudges and our grievances;

to invite a spirit of acceptance and forgiveness into our lives,

and our communities.

Help us to make room for newness, and wonder, and grace,

in our hearts and our kitchens and our town squares.

To let go of the grip of blame, and shame, and anger,

that too often pervade our public spaces and our private lives.

We remember that we do not come to religious community for perfection;

we come for Fellowship,

for compassion,

for wisdom,

and for hope.

May we keep these virtues at our center when the need to always be right, or always be in control,

or to always be the one who saves;

Mother of Grace, center us when we stray from the grounded path.

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Closer to Fine

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/20/15. It explores the sin of perfectionism.

 

We have a few more days of Summer, so I’m well within my clerical rights to share with you one more Summer Camp parable before the Pumpkin Spice begins to flow and we begin to whisper of sweaters and share woes of raking and frosted up car windows. Brian has begun saying, almost daily, that Winter is Coming, so I know I’m short on time for these stories.

There’s a guitarist on staff at our Fahs UU Summer Camp for children and youth. He plays a whole range of songs, and helps to keep energy up when we’re sitting around too long. It’s the usual mix of camp songs and Beatles’ hits. But I noticed early in the week he was walking around mouthing lyrics to himself and practicing a tune that I haven’t heard anyone sing live in years. I remember saying, I think he’s trying to learn a new song- is he going to sing that here?! Then one worship service when we were stuck inside due to the rainy weather – he sang it. We just heard it from our choir – “Closer to Fine” from the Indigo Girls.

Now most of the kids can sing along to pretty much anything he leads them with in song, and even do pretty well with most of the Beatles songs, but the Indigo Girls are just too far afield from Taylor Swift to fly. Me – on the other hand – I’m singing line for line (and catching a couple of spots where he tripped over the lyrics.) I look around and notice that there are a few other people — all also over — let’s just say “over a certain age” who are also singing right along. When the song is over, I realize the youth at my table are all staring at me. One wide-eyed teen girl leans over and whispers – “you really know every line to that song? wow. I’ve never heard it before.” And in a moment that I surely will never forget, forever enshrining me in the over 40 crowd, I reply “that song was huge when I was your age.” (oh man, did I just say that out loud…) Meanwhile – some of you here, right now, are thinking in response “oh just wait, 40 is nothing.” And so the wheel turns…

When I was in high school, this song was probably my theme song; certainly by college. Growing up can be hard, and a song that reminds you to stop trying to find perfection, and just aim for fine, can be life-saving when you’re navigating the big challenges in life. (Show of hands) Who here has ever had to deal with “growing up?” It’s incredible, how we all go through that – for our whole lives – and each one of us secretly thinks we could have done it better somewhere along the way. It’s the sin of perfectionism. We pretend there’s this ideal that we can reach, and every foot short from it is a mar against our character, and even worse, a mar against our value as a person.

Perfectionism kills a little bit of us inside. It disconnects us from the world before us in all its wonder and pain. We create a fall sense of self that we can never achieve, and then when we don’t achieve it, that false sense of self keeps us from staying connected to a sense of reverence for life and for ourselves. I don’t talk about the concept of sin too much, because so much of religion has twisted what it points to, but when I do talk about sin, this is what I’m talking about. It’s when we go down the wrong path and confuse whatever is going on inside our heads and our egos with what is true and awe-inspiring in the world around us; especially when we replace that sense of reverence with this new sense of perfectionism.

The world around us is always in reach. Reverence for life teaches us not to put something on a pedestal, but to relate to it with tenderness and maybe a healthy sense of trepidation. Perfectionism distances us from whatever we put on that pedestal. It can be very painful when the thing we put up there is our sense of self. We idolize what we can’t be, and then replace the good of what we are with the pain of what is not. We distance …us… from … us. In the quest for the better me, we lose who we are; we lose our birthrights.

But that quest for perfection, doesn’t only impact our own souls; it creates cycles of pain for those around us too. When we allow ourselves to adhere to impossible standards, we implicitly tell the people around us that they should be doing the same thing. When we’re overly hard on ourselves, we nurture a sick culture that encourages all around us to buy into it too. All that weird peer pressure, and projectile insecurities, that we often just call “Middle School” continues into adulthood, into our PTA meetings, into our work conference rooms, and yes, into our houses of worship too.

Perfectionism can be paralyzing for a community. We can start fixating on how to improve every single little thing that we lose focus on our mission, and our purpose: as a community of openness, mindfulness and reverence. Our own Fellowship’s mission recognizes that “in religious community we nurture our individual spirits by caring for one another and helping to heal the world.” We don’t come here to be perfect. We come here to live with compassion, for ourselves, with each other, and in the greater aim of building a world centered in those values – the dream of the Beloved Community. We raise our children with those values of justice, equity and compassion, and we hold one another accountable for those virtues in our lived experience. But we don’t come here to be perfect.

Perfection is exhausting. It’s the group fantasy that tells us that if we just try harder and longer, then the magical, mythical “what if” will some day come. But it probably never will – or not in the way our egos want it to come. As you know, I got married a few months ago, and in many weddings, the clergy talk about patience, forbearance and kindness. Those three things are the foundation for any successful marriage. Perfection is not included – thankfully. Successful marriages don’t last – and they certainly don’t thrive – on perfection – so it’s left out of the ceremonies. The myth of perfection is probably a contributing factor to many divorces. It’s exhausting, and we have to learn to let it go.

I see that struggle for parents today. I watch our youth exhaust themselves working longer and harder at school. Test after test. AP after AP. It’s a level of achievement that stays full throttle for far too many years. Then I see the pressure on teenagers to plan courses for college programs they “think” they’re going to major in years down the road. I changed my college major 5 times. In High School, I took 3 versions of every science course you could imagine. Funny where I ended up. But during that whole time, I felt the very real pressure of perfectionism in school for subjects that at the time I just knew I had to take.  Perfectionism is exhausting.

I see it here from time to time too in our Fellowship. We have to work on our social media presence, or we could wave a magic wand and the parking lot would have been completed 50 years ago. You know, I was talking with one of our longest time members here last Sunday, and she pointed out that we used to have mud trucks in our lot in the 1960’s that would help cars break loose from mud ditches. We had mud trucks! So for those of you intrepid leaders who have been working diligently for two years to lead us through a complicated and major grounds improvement, that will make our property safer, more attractive and certainly honor our commitment to our members and friends who are buried in our memorial garden – know that this project has had two generations of leaders struggle to make it a reality – and you are just about there. Don’t get exhausted with the idea that it was going to be easy or that there was a more perfect way to do it.

I see it with our growing, dynamic youth ministry. We had a heigh day in our Fellowship some 10-15 years ago, where we had around 150 children and youth in our school. I think a couple years before I arrived, we were down to a dozen on Sunday morning.  We can allow ourselves to get exhausted by the that shrinking of our program, and mourn the friends who moved away, or passed on. Or we can celebrate all the families that have recently returned; just this past Wednesday, our DRE Starr led the start of a new mid-week youth program with 13 teens coming to the first gathering. We can exhausted by the ideal of perfection – which might unrealistically match our memories of a 1950’s Sunday School where everyone in town still went to church. But we can also realize that in the 1950’s we didn’t have that here. It’s an ideal that wasn’t real for us. But we are – now – building strong ties in our religious education program that creates safe places for our children and youth. And that safe place may be the only safe place for some of our kids who are dealing with bullying, or coming out as gay, or who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Unitarian Universalism is that place for so many of our kids. It’s not perfect, but as a former kid who had to come out, I can tell you that I’d rather a place that was kind and real than a place that was perfect. Perfection is exhausting.

We’re also dealing with financial challenges. Most houses of worship are these days, and we’re not different. We’re thankfully growing by a small amount, at a time when many of our congregations are shrinking by a large amount. Tragically, we continue to weather a period where we have seen members and friends, and family members die in our community every other month. I’ve been with you through two years of this grief. When we’re grieving, we can not fixate on perfection. Perfection has so saving grace or meaning. It just distracts us from real human connection. And in a time when so many of us must mourn and grieve, the reckless quest for perfection is a major barrier to the healing of broken hearts.

In the realm of good news – our end of year appeal for closing last year’s budget gap – was a major success. We still had to draw from our Endowment to manage necessary maintenance work on our grounds and building, but our Treasurer tells me that through a mixture of that Close the Gap drive, a better than expected Stewardship year, and some increases in rental income, we ended last year balanced despite fears of having between a $40,000 and $60,000 deficit. We are still in a deficit for this current year, and Stewardship tells me that we are still awaiting responses from 34 members regarding our current year’s pledges. So if you are one of those folks, please reach out to Stewardship or myself, or return their outreach efforts – I swear they are lovely people! We really do need that support from all our members who are able. Likewise, our Membership team and our Stewardship team both need new folk to help support them. They are filled with some great people, but it’s work for more than a few. Please come up to me if you’re interested in learning more after the service.

Before I end the sermon, I want to mention one bit of housekeeping related to perfection. Our Board of Trustees has said this as several forums and congregational meetings, but I know not everyone can stay for them, so sharing it at the pulpit is important. I’ve heard from several folks that there’s a concern that our Board doesn’t have a plan for balancing our budget. Personally, I feel there’s a world of difference between not having all the answers and not having a plan. You may have noticed this September an upsurge in our use of social media. After inviting our friends to our Fellowship, the number one way we bring in newcomers is our social media presence. Likewise, Bridgette, our Communications Specialist is almost done with a rework of our website. Our Office Administrator, Susie, has relied more heavily on volunteers to handle certain secretarial duties, and she had put more of our her time in managing the building and rental income. Our DRE has began supporting our Membership team, and we are both reimagining how we can make our community on Sunday more inviting to everyone. We also have a new Development Team that is working on external fundraisers with some nifty ideas. So increased public presence, better external fundraising, better social media utilization, renewed energy in our membership program, and better enabling our building to pay for itself through rentals. We do not have all the answers, but there very much is a well thought out plan in place. Perfection is exhausting, but we are trying our best, and we do have a way forward.

So how does this all relate to our theme this month? How does this help us to better be a People of Invitation? Next Sunday, I’ll be preaching on the origins of Universalism in the US. We are organizing a “Bring a Friend to the Fellowship” for next Sunday. Inviting our friends to our religious community is the number one way folks find us, so please do consider doing it. I’ll prepare a newcomer-friendly sermon, (and try not to have another parable from the Summer time when I do it.) But being a people of invitation means we can’t be a people of perfection. None of us come religious community for perfection. We come in our brokenness, and our hopelessness, and our joy and our yearning and our striving and with our curiosity and seeking love. When we get here, we don’t judge us by how perfect we are, but how caring we are; how connecting we are; how relevant we are. The Catholic Pope recently chided his churches that failed to care for the downtrodden and those in need saying they should be taxed if they won’t help the needy. I don’t always agree with Pope Francis, but he offers strong leadership in this regard. Our outward stance supporting non-profits and community groups across the globe through our Beyond Our Walls ministry is one foundation for our Fellowship. Our work toward housing a Cold Weather Shelter five months a year is another foundation of our ministry. Our presence and stability for our teens who need a warm, safe home to explore who they are, and become who they are, without the pressure of perfection or conformity, is another foundation of our Fellowship. Perfection may be exhausting, and our newcomers will have no patience or need for it; but compassion and forbearance, patience and forgiveness give us life and connect us to our center. Be open to mistakes; be mindful of one another, and revere that which is before us – in all its glory and all its fragilities –  more than our worship of finding mistakes and shortcomings. Perfection is exhausting, but community is where we come home.

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The Mantis and the Frog

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 9/13/15. It imagines how we can be a people of invitation.

 

 

I was swimming in a hotel pool over the Summer when a large Praying Mantis landed next to Brian and I, and she began flailing in the water. Brian went to try to push it to the edge, and I stopped him because I was worried it was going to make the insect more likely to drown. I went over to her, and put my hand under the Praying Mantis so that she could climb out. I took her over to the edge of the pool and gave her time to dry in the sun. Brian asked if I was sure this was a good idea, and I said that it was totally safe. Praying Mantis don’t bite humans, they just eat the things that do bite us.

For the next twenty or thirty minutes, the insect sat on my hand sunning herself, and drying. She diligently would clean off each of her 6 legs in her mandibles, eating the saltwater off while drying. She’d even stretch her back legs up over her head and put them in her mouth to clean up. It was fairly marvelous to watch! I’ve always loved Praying Mantis – and this was a super treat to watch. But as time was going by, my arm was starting to get tired, and I knew that she couldn’t stay there forever, so I tried to get her to jump from my hands to the plants that were near to the pools. But without going so far as to flick her off, she was not going to budge.

SO… I turned around to walk her back through the pool to the dry ground and head toward the hedges nearby. But when I turn around, I realized that every, and I mean every, person lounging by the pool was staring at me. Some with looks of confusion, some were smiling and others looked absolutely horrified by the idea that someone would have a giant Praying Mantis on their hand.

When I got out of the pool one person mentioned how absolutely brave I was, and better me than her. I tried to explain that they eat bugs, not humans, but that wasn’t going to convince her. Another guy said “that’s good luck.” I smiled and said, “yes, for the praying mantis, this was very good luck.” I finally got her to the hedges, and she eagerly jumped off and went on her merry way. I felt really good about what I did, and getting to watch the mantis up close was pretty awe-inspiring in its own way.

This memory reminds me of a folk tale some of you may have heard. I’ll share that now, and then we’ll talk about why all this matters.

(Tell story of the two frogs and the bucket.)

For the frogs, life and death came down to what view they held in their minds. Did they hold onto hope or give into fear and despair? Sometimes, when things are really rough, and we’re stuck in a tough situation, just treading water can be all we have to give, and all we need to do. When the world is throwing its worst at us, or we’re going through a rough depression, or the kids at school won’t stop being mean – in those times, we might feel really out of control and helpless. We can’t always change how we feel, or the randomness of bad luck, or how other people act, but we can choose to keep on trying to get through. Sometimes we have to do that for a long while. If you’re in one of those hard places right now – please – keep treading water. Reach out to us. Even if we can’t fix whatever it is, we’re here, and this community cares. And maybe, we can help you out of the place where you’re feeling like you’re drowning from the pressure.

My story about the praying mantis was a bit different than the frogs. It wasn’t so much about the choice to hope or despair. I think about the fellow pool-goers nearby in the water, or reclining in their sun chairs, and how they chose to respond with fear, or loathing, or curiosity, or gratitude. How do we respond when we see someone arrive out of nowhere looking for help? Do we hunker down? Are we fearful? Do we extend a hand? We’re reflecting all of this month on what it would mean to be a people of invitation, and these questions are important questions when we find folks in need of welcome in our lives. It’s important to consider where we’re coming from, when we choose to act. I especially have this in mind this week, and we learn more and more about the struggle of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe looking for new homes that are safe and welcoming. We might be safely in our poolside lounge chairs right now, but there are still things we can do to help. For those of you old enough to vote, there’s a petition shared on our Fellowship’s Facebook page that asks our country to open our doors to more refugees than we’ve been allowing to come to safety on our shores. We do have the means; we just need to find our hearts again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “intentions” lately. What’s going on in our hearts and our minds when we choose to do the things we do? If we’re thinking about what it means to be a people of invitation, this kind of reflection also help us to be more welcoming – not just in theory but in practice. Our first story today, told by Starr, is one of those interesting cases where we’d probably say all those people pretending to bring something more than water for the feast didn’t mean poorly. They didn’t think their actions would matter, but when everyone skimped at the same time, there was a real problem. If everyone hadn’t skimped, only you or me, no one would have noticed. We’d probably walk away and say – “oh, I didn’t intend to ruin the feast, I just didn’t think it would make a difference.” That’s the funny thing about intentions; we can often be dishonest with ourselves and say we didn’t intend something bad, when however you look at it – the things we sometimes do don’t have a good outcome. Bringing only water to the potluck is probably not a good thing, right – but I’m sure each person “didn’t mean anything by it”…

Sometimes we can mean well, and even our actions on the surface could be viewed as positive, but they don’t match our real intentions. This is a bit trickier to be honest with ourselves about. I think it comes up the most when we’re feeling self-righteous; when we know we’re the only person who must be right and we act from that place of our heads or our egos. One of the signs – sometimes – is anger. Anger isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes it can be a natural response to great injustices. But I’m trying to teach myself, in my everyday moments, when I respond to something from a place of anger – when I’m feeling angry – I’m trying to teach myself to make sure I’m not acting to feed my anger or my self-righteousness first and foremost – rather than acting to fix the thing itself.

I think we all do this. Who here has ever been in an argument about something, that started out simply to correct or change something and then found themselves all worked up and arguing about the argument rather than the thing they wanted to fix? That’s usually a good marker for when we’re doing this. I don’t think any changes we make (for most things in life) will improve anything if we start from a place of anger. We’ll probably end in a place of anger too. This is especially true if we’re angry about small things. Anger is a natural response to the great wrongs in life, even if we may not want to give in to it, it’s a real and honest response. But when we get angry about the small things – we’re probably not really thinking about the thing anymore – and are more focused on ourselves and our wants and opinions – our head and our egos.

It’s sort of like that praying mantis from the start of my sermon. A whole lot of people had feelings about that insect drowning in the water; fear, curiosity, indifference. But the mantis was still drowning – whatever our opinions or thoughts or feelings. We can be the people that stay lounging in the sun indifferent, or we can get ourselves a little wet from time to time to do what needs to be done – and if we’re really lucky – we can do it with a sense of awe and gratitude. Let us begin this Fellowship year remembering the words our Sunday Schools often say – we are the Fellowship of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hands.

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Prayer for Labor Day 2015

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

As Summer slowly comes to close, and the air turns toward crisp,

help us to find a breath before the crush of the year of work and learning returns anew.

Teach us to pace ourselves;

to remember to find times of quiet and stillness;

to appreciate one another,

returning to the places that nourish our souls

so that when we reach out,

when strive for family and home,

we do so knowing who we are,

with kindness and care.

In the life of our nation, we remember this Labor Day weekend,

all the activists and organizers who helped lift our country up to be its higher self;

through offering more fair work,

both in time and in safety.

May we find new ways to build an economy that treats us all with equity and compassion.

We especially hold in our hearts this hour the refugees from Syria who are desperately seeking shelter across Europe and beyond.

Mother of Grace, teach the nations new ways to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable with speed and diligence.

May our hearts not be hardened to the plight of those far from our gaze.

And we pray that our own nation, built upon the dreams and struggles of generations of immigrants and refugees,

find the spirit to renew our former pledge to all the tired,

and all the wretched in need – with a sense of humbleness;

For we have forgotten where we came from,

when we ignore another who is lost and far from home.

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Calling Us Home

This sermon was preached on 9/6/15 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It struggles with the gospel of productivity and consumption while reflecting on the holiday of Labor Day.

 

 

The end of Summer always seems to remind me of my early childhood. I was just turning five when my family finally moved out of our apartment and bought a home and moved to the suburbs. I’d start kindergarten in a few weeks, and I was just meeting the neighborhoods kids. This was back in the days when parents would let you roam around the neighborhood as long as you were with a group of kids, and there were some older teens that took responsibility. What was normal then, would probably get today’s parents a visit from social services. Times do change.

We lived across from a church and a middle school so there were a lot of public parks and sports fields in eyesight of our yard. For a five year old, it seemed like it was as big as the world. I was with older kids, and away from my parents (a few hundred feet) for the first time in my life (5 years and counting), and the day lasted forever. Everything was so new. Newness can stretch time out for what seems like eternity. I remember that late Summer day feeling like it lasted all season. I had nowhere to be, nothing I was responsible for – and that might have been the last time in my life when those two statements were still true – nowhere to be and utterly no responsibilities – and time stretches out.

When was the last time you did something for the first time? My inner five year old saw that first time of nominal freedom to be the most awesome thing in the world. A month later, I don’t recall liking the idea of my first day of school too much. What was the thing you last did for the first time? For me, it was during our recent honeymoon this Summer. Brian, after much cajoling, managed to get me to agree to go snorkeling with him. I knew it would be beautiful – but I’m not a good swimmer. (And by not a good swimmer, I mean, at our recent UU Fahs Summer Camp, I failed the swimming test that most of our 8 years there could pass. Imagine the line of 8 year olds asking how you did swimming, and when you told them you failed, they all said – “How, Rev. Jude, what happened?! You couldn’t have failed! We all passed?!” …So sweet.)

But beyond the logic, snorkeling in the ocean just terrifies me. I never had done it before, and there’s a real reason why for most of us, it’s probably been a long time since we last did something for the first time. It’s scary. But I finally did it. It was gorgeous. I didn’t get eaten by any sharks. I didn’t drown. I only suffered a few kicks to my face by kids swimming nearby – who of course were not only not terrified, but they were having the time of their life. “Yay we’re in the ocean!” Kick-in-face. ….But, when you turn away from the reefs and the coastline, and you look behind you, you see what seems like infinity. Ocean going further than one can fathom…. and then you turn back to the cute sea turtles and you still know, deep down, that infinity is right behind you…. There was a way in which time stretched out forever there too. Intimations of the fullness of life; realizing how reliant we are on this world and the people around us. Helplessness and newness can trigger those moments of lucidity. …Until the nearby kid kicks you in the face again, … and you know it’s time to go back to the boat.

None of this lasts forever. My five year old self – after that day that seemed to stretch to eternity – ended with Mom calling me back home. “It’s time for dinner. Did you have a good day? Are the neighborhood kids nice?”

These memories stand out. But I think they’re so vivid, and so rare, because we live in and we’ve developed a culture where work, production, busy-ness and responsibility are central to our lives. There’s stuff that needs to get done, we need to eat, and have a roof over our heads, and care for one another. That’s all good and necessary. I don’t mean that. I mean that voice inside you that tells you that you’re bad, or wrong or lazy, when you don’t fill ever waking minute with some new responsibility; or that boredom is a bad thing (oh! to ever be bored again!) We might have to do all that. We might have to hold down three jobs, or we’re raising several kids and loving and nurturing them is a very full time job. I mean the voice that nags at us that our worth is tied to our productivity. That’s the wrong voice to follow. Most of us have that voice, I certainly do, and we too often forgot not to listen to it. And maybe some of us don’t have that voice inside us, but we have it coming from a loved one, or maybe just our boss.

The Union Labor movement that won us basic things like weekends, and a 40 hour work week, and the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, was a social force that sought to correct that disparaging inner voice. And these days, with the changing economy, the weakening of wages for low and middle income workers, and the skyrocketing cost of higher education – many of us probably do work more than 5 days a week and more than 40 hours a week. The last I heard, the average American is working 47 hours a week. That is not likely to change soon. Though we may need to do what we simply need to do, we don’t have to accept current affairs as also speaking for our moral compass. The often quieter still inner voice – that silence that points toward eternity – tells us that our worth is grounded in something entirely different; in our relationships, in our connections to the immense world around us, in our times when we stop doing, in making more space for trying to do something new for the first time again. At the end of a long Summer day, mom (or dad, or maybe Spirit) is still going to call us home to eat and make sure we’re cleaned up, the basic necessities will ever and still need to happen – but the worth of the time in between is counted by another measure than cogs, widgets and to-do lists. We often know that in our heads, but we don’t always allow that to sink down into our hearts. We need to let it sink into our hearts.

At the start of a new school year, and the time when most of us won’t see any vacation for seasons, there’s a strong drive to fill our calendars and our day planners with work, and chores, and errands, and sports, and obligations, obligations, obligations. Some of that will always happen – little way to stop it. But how different would those schedules be if we first sorted out what our spiritual priorities were before pulling out our pen? Does family time come before or after the things of the world – career and obligation? Does dinner at home together come first or last? Is our Sunday School – pretty much the only place in our lives anymore where our kids get to reflect on ethics, morals, values and virtues in a structured intentional way- does it come first or last in any week? How do you give back to the world – to those who are marginalized or treated unjustly? Is that the first thing we find time for, or the first thing we drop when the crush of productivity makes its demands?

A culture of productivity over spirituality, or one that raises busy-ness over relationships, not only impacts our home life, our neighborhood’s character, and our capacity to be open to that deeper Presence – that spirit of peace that rests in all things and between all moments. It also changes world events in tremendous ways.  I look back at our world of production and accumulation that fueled the Industrial Revolution and Western Imperialism. It taught us to use and abuse our world’s resources to get ahead – for profit or for convenience. There’s a way in which this connects or contributes to more than just the environment. I’m thinking of the seemingly countless number of Syrian refugees fleeing a war torn country – as hundreds of thousands of lives are lost or harmed. I’ll share now some brief words from a colleague of mine, Rev. Jake Morrill. Jake is a Unitarian Universalist minister and one of our military chaplains.

He writes, “Carbon-based energy use brought climate change. Climate change, plus agricultural mismanagement by the dictator Assad, brought drought to rural Syria. Drought sent rural Syrians cramming into the cities. A surging urban population brought political instability. Political instability opened the door for the nightmare of ongoing war, including the evil of ISIS. That nightmare, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, brought Syrian parents to the decision that it was worth it to put their babies in overcrowded small boats on the ocean, because a high-stakes gamble that their children would live is still better than no chance at all. Those decisions have brought the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. To those who wonder, “Why don’t they go back?” One response is, “Back to what?” Another is, “This is the consequence of climate change, coming full circle. It turns out our gas wasn’t so cheap, after all.””

I think we’re past the point of pretending the culture that tells us forever onward, and upward in a world of limitless resources is a sane ethic. I think we’re past the point of pretending environmentalism is only about trees, and fish, and birds. For me, if that’s all they were about it would still be one of our most pressing  moral concerns. But environmentalism, and global climate change, is increasingly showing itself to be a matter of international security as terrorist cells grow and develop faster in areas where climate change has radically changed economies and subsistence practices. Or the humanitarian crises we see over and over again – as we remember 10 years later the tragedies Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans. All of life is connected; we are all connected; and our challenges and traumas are increasingly connected.

I was raised learning that Labor Day is a national and secular holiday. I’m not sure I think it’s that any longer. I think it’s becoming one of our most vital spiritual holidays when we internalize the message that consumption, work and perpetual advancement at any cost – are spiritual maladies on our souls, our nation and our world. Stop. Take a step back. Raise our kids to respect one another, the plants and the small critters. Model for one another taking time to be, rather than forever do and do and do. Learn to honor silence, and learn from boredom without seeking to fill it with noise or action. Religion teaches us, or tries to teach us, that times of pause and quiet – of prayer and meditation – are key to finding our centers. Making time for dinner with the family might do this too. These practices can change culture. And from the stories of trauma and tragedy in the world around us, we deeply need to change culture.

This month, we as a community will imagine what it means to be a people of invitation. Where can you imagine leaving room to invite quiet and stillness into your lives? Where can you imagine leaving room to welcome family, and community and spirit into your schedules first rather than last? It is my fervent hope that the world finds ways to help welcome the many refugees and immigrants fleeing nightmares into our safe neighborhoods. What does Long Island need to do to become a people of invitation? What changes can we make in our everyday lives that could make space for a need so great?

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