Archive for December, 2015

Christmas Eve: “Must We Go”

This homily was preached at our 7pm Christmas Eve service. It wonders what it would be like to be the different people in the Manger Story – and what roles we may have played over our lifetimes. It asks the question, ‘is it time to go to Bethlehem again?’

 

Merry Christmas everyone! We’ve come to the still and quiet hour of the year once more. The longest night has passed only a short time ago. The light is lengthening our days. We call for peace from our hearts. We gather around our tree, with sparkling light in the air, and music on our lips, waiting for a child to be born – once again – in our minds and souls – a child – a hope – for this troubled world.

We come together in community. Kindling just a little more wonder in our lives. We sing carols that bring us back to our childhood. We teach our children how to sing joy into our neighborhoods and our homes. Expectation becomes a virtue in this season of miracles. Grace can enter our lives at any time. We wait with hushed voices, or a smile on our lips. May good will prevail. May there be peace on earth. May it begin with us – again and again.

Where do you find yourself in the manger story? As a child, I remember being fascinated most with the baby. That’s who I could relate to. Wonder, newness, possibility, were all central to the story. Being cared for and loved; recognizing that others were in awe of something – all seemed to matter most. Maybe you can relate better to Mary. Being in a time of need, tired from a pregnancy and having to manage that, while on the road, or working more than anyone ought. Or maybe Joseph; not really in control of the situation, but doing your best for the people you love. Life has thrown you a few curves, and you just want a place to sleep, and safety for your loved ones.

The Wise men, the shepherds and even the animals sometimes speak more to me in some years. Sometimes we can feel like we’re bearing witness to some deep place of awe or wonder, while it seems like all the rest of the world is passing it by, never the wiser. The animal in the stable – not central to any story – doesn’t think all this revolves around them – but who stands in the presence of a certain kind of fullness – a fullness that we too often miss. The common shepherd, arriving alongside the Eastern Kings, take note just the same.

I have been struck this season once again by the story of the road to Bethlehem. Of two expectant parents traveling to be registered (in this case for tax purposes). A King who fears them though, for the son they will bring into his land. Door after door closed to them in their time of need, until the lowliest of places – a manger – becomes their sanctuary at the time when one is most vulnerable. Refugees of a sort – in need – in a land where they have no place to call home any longer – and a government that is hostile to their presence, and a populace that is all too often indifferent to their need. The Bible’s message is alive and real, still today. It continues to speak to us across the millennia.

The May Sarton poem we heard earlier, “Must We Go”, wonders if the road to Bethlehem is one we must walk once more. Did it happen only in the past, or is it a pressing need for us today? When we’re feeling worn out from the harshness of the world’s woes – ever present, but seeming worse and worse of late – the road to Bethlehem can feel just too much. …And maybe it is too much. Who would ask expectant parents to bear such a hard path? But the road to Bethlehem ends in wonder, in quiet, in mystery, in hope. Not an ending we might imagine for a desert path, but the ending we are graced with. It also teaches us that our own lessons of hope should change us; from places of hope and expectant wonder, we should turn our hearts to help birth that newness ourselves in our own lives, for the people all around us.

The birth of Christ asks us to change something in our hearts when we face those in need; those who are different; the stranger in our midst asking for a roof over their heads and a chance at a new life. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s such a hard thing to ask for, that the world seems like it’s conspiring against it. But it’s the first lesson Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph tried to teach us. It’s central to the Christmas story – the reason for the season. So we should hush our voices, still our busyness, and allow another miracle into our lives – the miracle of offering welcome to those in their hardest hours.

Religious author, Neal A. Maxwell, writes, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room.”When we hear the Christmas story, year after year, do we ever imagine ourselves as the innkeepers? Those who turned the young family away, time after time, or the one who decided he could make room with the animals for these refugees? With all the talk of religious intolerance these days; with the desperate needs of refugees the world over; where are we the innkeepers in our life story?

This year, Christmas reminds us to extend a hand, again and again. To welcome the stranger in need, for there is a miracle hiding there in plain sight. The story is not only about some foreign place, a world away and millennia past. It is as alive, and just as pressing for the people of today. In our nation’s life, we are facing many crossroads, and the urge to be the innkeeper who decides if there is room for one more is very strong in our culture. We can choose to be a people of that culture, or we can choose to be a wise people of faith; faith in each other, faith in the stranger, faith in a different way. A way that was shown to us with the rising of a bright star; born in humility, but lived with passion and grace.

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Prayer for MidWinter

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

We gather in this bright mid-winter,

grateful for the blessings we have been graced with.

Help us to center ourselves this hour with our whole soul;

May the spirit of this time bring us to a place of rest,

where rest is hard to find;

and help us to find a place of action,

where inspiration has dwindled.

We come together as a community,

to inspire one another for the ministry of hope,

of love,

of dedication.

Mother of Peace, take us by the hand,

and lead us as we travel through our days and years.

May we be a beacon of compassion in a world that is so full of struggle.

As another year comes to a close,

may we reflect on the lessons that have come our way,

change the things we must,

and appreciate all that is good in our lives.

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Reflection: Here Comes The Sun

This reflection was part of a multigenerational holiday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/20/15. It talks about finding hope in times of hardship.

For three years now, I’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This past Friday night, we went to see the Paul Winter Consort. Think classical music with a gospel singer, but with a global twist. Each year, guest musicians join them from around the globe. This year we heard from two Brazilian singers – in the style of basso nova and world-beat, along with an African-style dance troop with a whole lot of drumming.

The concert lives out the longest night of the year. The cathedral darkens as the moon rises and sets. Stars lighten the gothic ceiling. The classical instruments make you think whales are singing, and wolves are howling in the night. They even recreate a thunder storm with a combination of classical instruments and lighting. And the festive performance ends with the audience being invited into singing our own “Howl-alleiuh” chorus – with folks making wolf sounds of our own. But in the middle of the show, there’s an immense golden gong that gets lifted up the height of the cathedral – resounding and resounding – showing the lightening of days and the shrinking back of the night – as the sun rises once again from the darkest hour. It gives me hope and chills. And celebrating the Winter Solstice in such a multi-cultural way, honoring the music and art of people all across the world, feels especially healing, in these days of confusion and hatred for folks who are different. Joy in the face of fear is healing. Joy in the face of hatred, is saving.

This reminds me of a traditional folk tale: (tell story of “The Golden Ball.”)

Sometimes, when life gets routine, or boring, or maybe even rough, we see the amazing things in other people’s lives and wish we could have that. We can pine for brighter times and forget what gifts are right in our lives. The folk tale I just shared about the Golden Ball, reminds us that even as we look on into other people’s lives and see the shine and joy, other people may also be looking back into our lives and see something that shines all the same.

I look at our own community in these days of hardship in this season of joy. Our youth shared stories of hardship they have witnessed for people who are seen as different from others. Our own faith community teaches that every person matters, and that diversity is a spiritual value. I have felt worn down by many of the stories we hear in the world; but I am deeply heartened to know that we are part of a community that teaches these values of love, of justice, of compassion. I am deeply heartened by being part of a religious community that empowers our youth to speak love in the face of fear. We have a big shining golden ball hanging from our Fellowship windows, and there are people who look to us in wonder and gratitude. When you are feeling low or down and out before all the hardship of the world, take heart in that truth.

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Solidarity not Charity

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/23/15 as part of our annual Hunger Communion service. Lessons from service work in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, this sermon explores the importance of solidarity work over charity.

A few years ago I joined over 150 other religious educators for a week of service and learning in New Orleans during our annual liberal religious educators’ Fall conference. We broke up into groups of 15 or 20 to spend a day working in the fields, gardening, weeding, sorting books for kids who have few or none, among many other projects. We spent days in classes on music, local culture, personal stories. We explored angles of racism and classism. We learned how youth and adults collaborated in New Orleans to affect change following Hurricane Katrina. We witnessed how individuals from all financial backgrounds worked together to heal the corners of the blocks in which they dwelled. We went down primarily to serve, to help make things better down there; and we came away realizing “down there” had a lot to offer us to help out “back home.”

Blurring the lines between down there, and back home, was a main goal of the planning team for the annual conference. They were challenging us. They were asking us not to feel hearts full of charity, overflowing; but rather to experience solidarity at our core with the struggles of our fellow neighbors on this spinning orb we call home. The communities in New Orleans were asking us to come down and lend a hand, and in return, they’d show us their ways of making things better so that we could bring home the tools they’ve crafted, sharpened to excellence, and put to good use. We can serve with them, and in return, they’ll serve with us.

This ethic is central to Unitarian Universalist theology. I can recall the words of a mentor of mine, the late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, previous Senior Minister of All Souls in NYC, who was known to teach that “we spring from a common source (Unitarianism) and that we share a common destiny (Universalism) and that both source and destiny are grounded in love.” I love that message. It feels very simple to say that we all spring from this living world, and we all share this road, this walk together. But it’s just as easy to forget this truth in our daily lives.

It’s just as easy to say we’re somehow better, or somehow above, the plight of others. It’s easy to come into a place of struggle and feel superior in our charity. It’s easy to impart our wisdom to a friend or family member who can’t seem to get their dating life, or their career, or their educational path together. Ok – with a show of hands, who here has ever given advice to a friend about how poorly they were managing their dating, or work, or school life? Now keep those hands up, if you weren’t able to follow your own advice. (mmm hmmm!)

We can laugh at ourselves (hopefully) for these foibles and everyday follies. But those are the little ways every day we commit acts of charity that lift ourselves up, without opening ourselves to the learning potential of mutuality, or solidarity. They’re some of the tricks we use to forget that we all spring from one common source and share one common destiny. Acts of solidarity, the moments we seek to serve while learning from those we aid, remind us of the truth of our origins and the nature and direction of our shared path. They humble us, and in our humility we come to realize how amazing this gift of life truly is. The big acts of service, whether they involve traveling across this country to help heal our collective brokenness, or simply staying overnight in our Sunday evening shelter, needs to transform the little every day brokenness in our own lives, or we missed half the point and the wholeness of the message.

One of the lessons we learned in New Orleans, is that the community couldn’t do it alone. Individuals needed to work together. Non-profits, and congregations needed to work together. Congregational walls needed to open up to let more in and create collaborative opportunities. How much of that do we do locally? Do we work well with our fellow congregations in Long Island? Where do we intersect with community groups in our neighborhood? In some ways we excel. Our work with HIHI (the Huntington Interfaith Housing Initiative) is a remarkable ministry that helps save lives in the winter time. Our Grow-to-Give garden connects young and old in a ministry that helps bring healthy food to those in need in such a way that neighbors learn from one another. But we have a good deal to learn from our Louisiana neighbors in terms of connecting with community groups across theological and social divides when it comes to advocacy work.

Following the service today, is a chance to gather in two ways, with justice in our minds. HIHI will be hosting a volunteer training in our Main Hall at Noon, and Peggy Boyd, the Director of HIHI from Family Services League, will be attending. Our newly forming Environmental Justice committee will be convening for a brainstorming and visioning session in …. at 12 noon as well. It will be an opportunity to learn what issues most stir your heart relating to environmental concerns like the Climate, the safety of our wildlife populations, access to food, ethical eating, Green Sanctuary and more. This new group will help steer our future work. Please consider being a part of its birth.

Solidarity, unlike charity, demands we seek personal transformation. In the words from some of his seminal work, cultural ethicist, Michael Jackson writes, “As I, turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat this wind is blowin’ my mind I see the kids in the street, with not enough to eat who am I, to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs… I’m starting with the man in the mirror I’m asking him to change his ways and no message could have been any clearer if you wanna make the world a better place…”. The metaphor of the mirror is the clearest symbol of what solidarity demands of us; and what solidarity offers us. We’re not going find more food for kids in the street if we don’t look to our own ways, attitudes, and perceptions first and foremost.

In this spirit of looking first to ourselves, the only people we can ever truly change, let’s reflect a little on our Hunger Communion this morning. I invite you to sit-up, feel yourselves in your body, open your hearts to the emotions that played across your mind during the communion portion of the service this morning. For those of you that had ample access to a nice loaf of bread, how did it feel to see the ample remainder upon the altar? Where did you feel pressure in your body when you turned to see most of the congregation struggling to share bits and scraps? For those of you receiving the opposite extreme, the absurdity of 100 of you sharing 1/3 a loaf of bread, where did the experience sit in your body? What arose in you when you saw someone else’s ample surplus sit upon our chancel? For those of you sitting somewhere in the middle, I challenge you not to make the mistake that the middle ground reflects the situation of the middle-class in the States. The vast majority of us in this room benefit as did the folks in the first three rows this morning. Even if we are relying upon food stamps, we have greater access to nourishment than most of our neighbors on this planet do. (And if you or your family are hungry this morning, come up to me after the service, and we’ll work together to change that. Many of us in the States and this city do go hungry every day.)

Knowing this, feeling this, experiencing this, what do we find in the mirror this morning? How does this annual ritual translate for us? From the safety and danger of this pulpit, I can not answer this question for any of you. We all need to come to that answer internally, but our religious community is a vessel for you to put those answers to practice. This religious home is a place of safety, of succor, where you can risk the glance into the mirror and take the first transformative steps. It’s what we’re all called to do here.

It’s common to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge before us. Helping one person out there, in a charitable way, is a concrete thing we can accomplish so we’re often, though regretfully not always, willing to do it. The Guests at Our Table invitations signify several hundred concrete steps this congregation takes each year to affect noticeable change in the lives of people they touch. Escorting those boxes down to our religious education classes and introducing the plight of others into the awareness of our children and youth are another hundred or so concrete steps we take every year. Food is the focus of this morning’s Communion, but access to clothing, and shelter, and even moments of celebration for young children, are all interwoven in the broader fabric of poverty.                 Each thread connects to another. Our annual holiday drives that focus on clothing, toys, gloves and food; our split the plates, our work building libraries in Burundi expand the list. Money, and time, and concern are necessary to affect moments of reprieve, and occasional nudges against systems of oppression the world over. And we as a religious community must do them, because I often fear I’m not sure who else would if ethical gatherings of individuals ceased this work. And yet, they’re not enough alone. Charity is not enough even if it is a necessary point of entry for many of us.

We ritualize the Hunger Communion to transform our hearts and spirits. The internal awareness and the internal transformation are great gifts of solidarity to end the crisis of Hunger. Some of us change our eating habits to reduce our impact. For some this will mean vegetarianism or veganism – both diets that reduce reliance upon grain-intensive livestock. For others it will mean supporting Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) in our area, to reduce environmental impacts while funding local farmers who quite often donate surplus to those in need in our local community. For some, it will mean supporting Community Gardens that teach folks how to grow food, the value of nutrition, and increase access to fresh foods.

And the list can go on and on. I invite you, no I challenge you. If something was stirred in you this morning, seek the ways in which you can affect the change in the world you hope to some day find. Begin with yourself. Begin with the everyday habits. Transformation of this world beneath the glow of justice is possible and it begins at home. It is an act of solidarity over charity. This is the saving message of our Unitarian Universalist faith. I will end my message this morning with the words we weekly begin our service with – the saving message of this faith. There is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for forgetting our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world. It is my hope and my prayer this morning, that our service of Communion reminds us of the truth of our interconnectedness. And that this truth stirs within our blood such compassion that we are quickened to act.

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Reverence of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on March 1st, 2015. It looks at the role of “doubt” in our life of faith.

Have you ever been in a spot where you’ve got to make a decision about two or three difficult choices? You run all the options through your head over and over and over trying to make some sense of where you are with the choice. You weigh the pros and cons and find yourself unable to commit one way or the other. You then drag in as many friends as possible – if it’s a decision that’s a big deal. They all have opinions of their own; and to your great frustration they may even have opinions that agree with one another, but you still can’t be swayed by their advice. You keep seeing the other side of the issue, and the solidarity between your trusted advisors simply confirms your concerns for the opposite take. Or is that just me?

The problem is partly one of indecisiveness. Fearful of mistakes, or lost opportunities we shirk away from committing to a course of action. We paralyze ourselves before the great “what if.” I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?

I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 55 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.

Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, but their ultimate concerns theologically wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)

Universalism on the other hand was an American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.

So starting about 55 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.

Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spiritually needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.

I’m starting to feel Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We cant define justice we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We cant define relations they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.

One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …

When I first converted to Unitarian Universalism 21 years ago, I was a former Catholic who in some ways was still harboring anger with the Catholic Church. I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Morristown, NJ. The congregation was overwhelmingly Humanist at the time, and although I no longer identified as Catholic, I still identified as Theist even while I was wrestling with Christianity. I joined that congregation, not because our theologies were the same, but because the community was strong and warm and faithful. They were faithful to their sense of caring for the world they lived in. They never did it perfectly, thankfully not perfectly, but they did it as best they could. Their best rubbed off on me and helped to make the place feel like home for me.

Lest one think I’m painting my first home as a paragon of the heart – no. We were largely centered in our heads, not our hearts. There were frequent arguments around theologies and there was little room in Morristown for the G word, or the J word; and H forgive us if the C word was used. We cared for one another and sought to make the world a better more just place; but the mind ran rampant and trod all over any difference of religious belief. I was in the minority as a theist, but gratefully they still carved out some space for me. The cycles of fear around talking forthrightly about how we make and understand meaning in the world though, really broke my heart. The 1990’s were a very difficult time in our religious tradition because of this. We didn’t always do so good a job in educating converts to Unitarian Universalism. We certainly didn’t always do such a good job in ministering to the pains and hurts converts were carrying with them into our pews. We also lost the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood. As a tradition, we still lose the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood.

All of these issues are complex and difficult, but I feel that part of the reason for these challenges is our aversion to dealing with the heart/mind challenge. We are hesitant to stake a mind-centered claim on our faith lest we become guilty of creeping creedalism; while ironically succumbing to the staunch certitude of not believing or stating anything. We are hesitant to speak the heart-centered truth of our faith because we may not yet have resolved all our issues relating to where we came from (even if that place we came from is Unitarian Universalism); while ironically not meeting the needs of our covenantal call to deeper relationships with one another. In combination, we risk forming a mind made up and a heart that is closed.

These two maladies have a fair bit in common, even though we often talk about the mind and the heart in very differing ways. A mind made up knows how things are, what’s true in the world, who’s correct and who’s wrong. Take a moment to think of someone in your life that relates to you in this way… (or consider who in your life do you relate to in this way) … and be present with the feelings that arise in your stomach… or the tension that rises in your shoulders and neck.. or the pressure in your head or throat. That’s what a mind made up does to the world and the people around it. It doesn’t mean that indecision is better than decision, rather it clarifies that extreme certitude is often felt as toxic to those around it. What is the thing that you are absolutely convinced of to such a degree that no amount of conversation could sway you? … What changes for the better in the world by holding onto that view?… Is there any way in which it causes harm? For the fundamentalism of the mind-made-up, a healthy reverence for doubt in our lives can be life saving – or maybe just character-saving.

A heart that is closed is a real loss. Like the mind made up, there’s little room for changing the person. Emotional and loving connections are hard to forge for the closed heart. It’s convinced that it’s too dangerous, or not worth trusting, undeserving of love from another. It carries with it a similar certitude to the mind made up. The world is a certain way, I know it, and that’s that. There’s little room once more for complexity or nuance. Either/or perspectives kill genuine relationships between family, between friends and between loved ones.

Both of these idolatries of the mind and the heart are guilty of a sort of creedalism; the kind that claims that we know best the verities of life and no one else has any capacity to better inform us. We raise up our egos, or our pain, up as little gods and thereby close ourselves off to the world. We limit our ability to encounter and play in the same reality as the rest of humanity when we lift up our own worldview. Our faith tradition teaches us not to do this; fundamentalisms of the mind, and hearts-shut-tight, are against our religious values. Or they are at least challenges Unitarian Universalism hopes to help us grow through, or for some of us, to heal from.

Let me explain this a different way. Just this week, some of you may have seen the social media controversy surrounding “the dress.” (queue slide.) What colors do you see? Who here sees White and Gold? Who here sees some shade of Blue and Black (or purple and brown?) In my own household, I clearly see White and Gold, and Brian staunchly sees Blue and Black. There is a bit of an optical illusion going on, in that the lighting in the picture plays off different genetic adaptions humans have going on in their eyes. In a later sermon in April, I’ll go into more detail about optical illusions, but this viral image was too timely to not include this week. Apparently, some of us see daylight colors slightly differently. I’ve heard this explained in a few ways, but apparently, how we biologically have adapted to day vision and night vision influences how the white light in the picture affects our interpretation of the image. Yes, two humans can see the exact same thing and see it completely differently. Households across the nation have been arguing for days over what color it actually is. (Apparently, the answer is Blue and Black when the dress is not shown with this background lighting.) But in this image, here, right now, half of us see one thing and about half see the other. And there are many people out there this week that are very worked about it; some taking one side or the other, others equally worked up about not caring about it. This quirk of human sight reveals so much about how invested we get in our opinions and beliefs.

I feel that Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey our take on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings.

Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.

And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.

Following this service will be a special Stewardship luncheon where we talk about our community. Money is certainly part of the discussion, but stewardship is also another word for community. Many of us get incredibly awkward when we speak about money. We can feel stressed about how to manage it, earn it, save it, spend it. We can feel guilty or grateful, generous or strapped. We’re all in different places, and our Fellowship respects that. But at the core of this community stewardship ministry, is the desire to get a sense of what’s on our hearts and minds; what stirs us; moves us; sustains us. How does our purpose, and our dreams, fit here and in the larger world?

Our Fellowship is really entering a time of reflection; a time of community building. Everyone should expect to be contacted by a Steward who will schedule a face-to-face visit with you. This conversation is an essential part of our community building efforts. It’s an opportunity to hear from one another and practice community. When you get that call, please be nice; be open. Remember, our Stewards are fellow members. They will be asking for your financial commitment to this Fellowship that you chose to join and support. But just as importantly, they have questions to ask you about how we are doing as a congregation – what we are good at; what we have to improve. Everyone’s input matters.  All of it will be collected, analyzed, and heard for future planning. And we want you to be part of that feedback and visioning work. Your time, your skills and your financial donations are important, necessary and appreciated.

And be open. This is not about a zero sum game. We are not competing with other worthy charities to balance a line item. We’re exploring what meaning our community has to us, and asking each other – how do we support the place that we value so that it is here for each other and future generations. We’re making commitments so that our small, quirky, vital, progressive faith movement continues to keep its doors open to our children and their children, as well as future seekers who are coming for a message that allows room for our hearts and minds to be connected with integrity and purpose. We all know the injury and trauma in the world caused by a lack of a healthy reverence for doubt. Strident calls to arms – emotionally or physically – pervade our world where ideologies are allowed to rule for the sake of certitude of belief. We may not have the only answer to this, but we are fooling ourselves if we make ourselves mistakingly believe that our message is anything but life saving and life affirming in light of the world’s crises. We need to be here. The world needs our message, our muscle and our hopes. How will you be part of that hope?

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Sermon: When Miracles Happen Anyway

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/13/15 celebrating Hanukkah. We don’t always find ourselves open to hope, newness, or the miraculous suddenly breaking into our routines or times of hardship. Hanukkah reminds us to always keep our eyes open for possibility.

 

A few months ago, we had our dog (Lola) off leash in our backyard. I was only partially paying attention to her while I was typing away on a sermon. I looked up when I heard her dash off like lightning; she had spotted the neighborhood bunny and made chase. Between the time it took me to intake breath and speak, she had seemingly teleported across the lawn. As I cry out, “No!”, my dog’s mouth is about to lock onto the now cornered rabbit – trapped in our vegetable patch (how iconic). But instead, Lola stopped in her tracks, closed her mouth – thankfully without the rabbit in in – and stood there watching. The rabbit paused in shock for but a second, and launched itself away in the opposite direction. I bragged to my friends about how well trained our dog is. I trust her even more around just about anything now. She was probably not too sure why she had to stop, but she didn’t mind the forthcoming treat… And that rabbit – that rabbit went back home to its family and spoke of miracles!

Now I make a little bit of fun, but I don’t mean to mock miracles. And I’m sure that rabbit was grateful for it, as was I. As many of you know, I tend to avoid debating the facts of spiritual beliefs. We may all see things differently, and that’s true for our faith tradition, and important to acknowledge from time to time. But I am protective of the impact that those times of miracle and grace have on each of us. We can parse out all the reasons that led up to that scared little bunny making it out of our vegetable patch alive, but none of them would have much meaning to the rabbit. Certain terror – was replaced with hope and possibility, and continued life. Which matters more – the rational explanation of the sequence of events, or that next breath that promises yet another?

We don’t always have control over what happens in our lives. We can be in a state of prolonged hardship or loss in our own lives, or we can feel the pressure of the hard news stories all around us. Those may not be things we can meaningfully influence – or at least not quickly. Or we can be at a cherished place where family and friends are hale, hearty and close by. It’s the everyday sort of miracle we often take for granted, until it passes after a long time… but it’s a miracle too.

The worst hardships aside, we sometime influence how well we can see the miracles before us. There’s another story about a hare that comes from Native American lore. I’m reminded of it by what happened with my dog and the neighborhood rabbit. The short story goes: there was a rabbit one day who was foraging for food in the field when he spied a hawk flying overhead. The rabbit got very nervous and whispered, “Oh, no! There’s a hawk in the sky; it’s going to see me and eat me!” But the hawk did not see the rabbit, and simply kept flying by overheard, in circles and circles. Not sure what to do, the rabbit stayed motionless and waited, but the hawk wouldn’t leave. In short time, even more nervous than the before, the rabbit let slip out, “That hawk is going to see me!” But the hawk did not see the rabbit, and simply kept flying by overheard, in circles and circles. This went on and one for some time, the rabbit still nervous, the hawk still not catching sight of the rabbit. Until, so overcome with fear, the rabbit squeaked out too loudly, “That hawk is going to see me!” Well, the hawk heard the rabbit well enough, then did finally see him. The hawk was well fed that day.

I first heard this story in my teens, and it’s stuck with me since. This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of expectation. How do our expectations frame our lives? We rarely have control over the challenges and hurdles that come our way, but we usually have control over how we face them – at least on our better days. If you’re feeling at your worst and need to talk, I’m here, and this Fellowship is here for you. Those impossible times aside, we are all guilty, from time to time, of calling that circling hawk down into our lives. We have given up on the hope of miracles, even the normal everyday kind, and we fixate on doom and disaster, and we reap what we sow from fear. Sometimes the script in our head is more subtle. ‘I’ve been disappointed by people before, so I’ll be disappointed by this new person in my life as well.’ Or, ‘I just can’t ever get a break.’ Or, ‘I can’t be loved.’ All of these false messages are like the rabbit yelling louder and louder its fear of the hawk. The more we say we’ll be disappointed, or won’t be loved, the less we allow ourselves to see fulfillment or love when it’s right in front of us. Leaving room for miracles to happen, for newness or possibility, frees us from those expectations that limit and bind.

But maybe all this is too much to believe. ‘What has come before is doomed to repeat again and again.’ ‘Hope is empty.’ ‘Miracles can’t happen.’ Our inner “fundamentalist naysayer” – which we probably all have hiding out somewhere inside us – is a prophet of the past speaking a prophecy that is as fantastical as believing in any miracle. It’s as much an act of faith to believe things will turn out badly as it is an act of faith to leave room for possibility. Which act of faith will you choose?

December is the season of miracles. We celebrate holiday after holiday that point toward times of utter newness in the face of abject despair. Despite all the consumer habits around this time, and all the places of disagreement over religion we see throughout the world – I believe these holy days stay eternally relevant because they remind us that hope triumphs over despair – over and over. You can say that – hope triumphs over despair – but the words themselves have less power, less hold on our hearts, than the stories from the dawn times of civilization. The old world was a very, very difficult place – and humanity made it through…. The world these days, is a very, very difficult place, and we’ll make it through – together.

Happy Hanukkah everyone! The original holiday came about in ancient times. A marginalized people, oppressed by foreign invasion and rule, were forced to worship gods they did not believe in. A grassroots, religious and political revolution occurred against a superior military. It would last about 7 years and culminated with a compromise where the Seleucid armies (Ancient Syria and beyond) would restore religious freedom to the Jewish people. But the holiday itself celebrates rededication of the temple and the miracle of the oil, that should only have sustained the Menorah for 1 day, lasting instead eight days.

Where last Sunday we explored what Hanukkah means as a holder of memory, today we reflect on what it means as a story of hope. We don’t always find ourselves open to hope, newness, or the miraculous suddenly breaking into our routines or times of hardship. Hanukkah reminds us to always keep our eyes open for possibility. We often focus on the story of the oil lasting 8 days as the miracle of Hanukkah. I see an oppressed people living under the yolk of a world super power, who are able to secure their religious liberty, despite all odds. Both motifs in the story of Hanukkah are equally impossible; yet we know at least that the story of liberation was historically true. …Does that crack open a place of possibility in our hearts?

Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. We may feel like we only have enough in us for one more day, but in reality we have just what we need for the season ahead. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. I think of the hardship of so many refugees fleeing a war torn land – whose normal lives were held hostage by the very same terrorists who threaten our nation. Can they bring themselves and their family to safety? And then we hear stories of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees being given safe harbor in countries throughout Europe. We hear of Prime Ministers as far away as our northern border – Canada – coming in person to welcome the refugees to their new home. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.

We weep before the shooting tragedy in San Bernardino where an enraged married couple did the worst to their community. This time the shooters were Muslim. Other times they have been Christian, but this time they were Muslim. But this time, our Muslim-American communities responded to evil with good in a huge way. Time Magazine reports, that “hundreds of Muslim-Americans have raised more than $150,000 for the families of the victims… to ease the financial burden on grieving families.” Tarek El-Messidi, the fundraiser’s director said, “This is exactly what we need. This channels all of our frustration, all of our anxiety, all of our fear into the constructive act of kindness.” Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.

If recent history showing us super storm after super storm has not been enough to convince you of the science of Climate Change, something that is exhaustively documented and agreed upon by 97% of the world’s scientists through the careful research of millions of points of data, this past week in New York has been utterly stunning. I was in sandals and a t-shirt on Saturday – in the middle of December I was in a t-shirt and sandals. And today I’m regretting wearing a sweater under this robe. The last time we saw local weather like this was in 1923. And most of the world is seeing rising temperatures more frequently and notably than we are in New York. And it’s scary and hard to face a world that is so rapidly changing. And at the same time on Saturday, as I was walking outside in a t-shirt and sandals in the middle of December, the Climate Talks in Paris reached agreements between 190 nations to slow down our activities that contribute to global warming. One hundred and ninety nations came to an agreement in the City of Paris – just a short time after the city was ravaged by terrorists, the nations come together to develop an accord for all our safety and well-being. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.

And we’ll end our service today with where we began. Our children crafted thank you’s for our hard-working volunteers who have diligently strived for (what is turning into) 3 years on our major grounds capital improvement – our parking lot. It seems like an unexciting thing – a parking lot, but for 40 years (I sometimes think literally 40 years) we’ve been trying to make this a reality – for safety reasons – for reasons of access and expansion of services – and to ensure folks can visit their loved ones in our memorial garden. And with all the permits in place, we break ground this Spring. It’s mundane. It’s everyday. But it’s also something that we had given up believing we could ever accomplish. Sometimes we need to remember to keep the oil burning.

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Community, Memory, Hope

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington as a response to the tragedy in San Bernardino, California this week. In community we find strength. As we begin the holiday of Hanukkah, may we light our candles in memory and hope.

As you can tell by now, those of you who have printed orders of service, the sermon topic has changed from what was posted in our newsletter. I’ve been very much affected by the news of this past week, as I know most of us here have been as well.  I’m not going to talk about gun control, or terrorism again; but I’m not sure we’re going to get to Peter Pan today either as promised by our newsletter. As we come up to the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting as well, I’m seeing more and more about memorial services out of congregational newsletters and social media, and keeping the memories of loved ones fresh in our minds. I’m also very mindful of late of the increased risks to folk in the military or all first responders these days back at home in the States. As we begin our festive approach to Hannukah and Christmas and New Years, in spite of all the horrors of the world, I yearn for a sort of Memorial Day in December, and don’t want to wait till May. One more chance to say, we get it, we haven’t forgotten, before we head off to our well-earned parties. So today, I’d like to share you a story about my Dad, and maybe a bit about childhood.

I grew up in a working class household with a Dad who had the good fortune of enlisting in the Navy between the time that the Korean War ended and before the time when the Vietnam War started. Unlike some of my friends, because of this good fortune, I both had my Dad still with me to watch me grow up, and my Dad was mentally whole and in one piece. It was a blessing and a gift that I never truly appreciated. There were times as a kid that I intellectually understood that war could have made things different, but the emotional risks and realities of this never really dawned on me. Even now, the emotional side of wartime loss – is one step removed. And for all the chaos that we’re hearing about in the news about homegrown violence, unless we have family or friends serving or affected, it might be harder to wrap our heads – really – about the reality of it all.

My Dad chose to serve, and my Dad happens to still be in my life. The same is true for both of my parents in-law as well, who served in the Air Force. We can say the same about so many first responders, but unfortunately not for all. Conventionally, the national holiday of Memorial Day we observe in May, asks us to remember those who have served and those whom we have lost from serving. That wasn’t my reality growing up. So most often, I would lean toward “Happy” Memorial Day rather than “Reflective” or maybe “Somber.” So as we travel through a national time of anniversaries of tragedies, and vigils for new horrors, maybe – we can sit a little longer in that time of reflection and humility.

Maybe there’s a way in which Hanukkah, as we approach it this night, can speak to this wintertime need, in the midst of uncertainty and grief. I grew up singing songs about dreidels, thinking about how my friends got 7 nights of presents, and a little later laughing with Jewish comedians making hysterical songs lifting up the Jewish holiday in the eyes of more people. But there’s another side to Hanukkah that we often don’t focus on – at least not publicly…. Remembering hope and possibility in the midst of chaos and war. Whether you celebrate Hanukah in your home or not, maybe we can light some candles in its honor this week, and in honor of all those lives we need to remember in the times like these we live in.

Until I was almost an adult, I had known the death of only one extended family member – and that to cancer. In recent years, that has drastically changed, with all of us having lost many friends in this Fellowship, and me having lost two friends my own age, in just the past 4 months. I’m thinking of this today, because I’m trying to make sense of the type of holiday we often don’t allow ourselves to celebrate in this season of festive joy – at a time when we clearly need it.

 Memory is important. Community is important in holding memory. Hope is important as we hold memory.

Hanukah in its deep tradition of holding memory, can be stripped of meaning in our Saran-wrapped, boxed-lunch life. Hanukah reminds us that others have sacrificed before us for purpose, and we benefit from who and what came before. I’m disappointed when the Winter Holidays turn into a simple celebration of toys and gifts, rather than being a time of gratitude for being able to celebrate, if you feel you can still celebrate. We all don’t feel we can celebrate every year.

My changed sermon topic this week is entitled “Community, Memory, Hope.” I could have swapped the words around to begin, as this sermon does, with memory. But the title reflects the reality that each of us begins in community. For those of us who have moved (or are moving toward) membership in our congregation, we are in a way, translating isolation or separateness, into solidarity and inclusion. We begin as members of something broader, something bigger than ourselves alone. The first step in the religious path is recognizing the simple truth that there is more to this immense universe than ourselves alone. The classic wisdom still holds true – It’s not about us. Well, to be fair, it’s not about us alone. It is about us – together. The religious journey begins and ends with the realization that we travel this world for a time, part of a wide and diverse band of souls. When we pause to commit ourselves to a broader purpose, we reunite our soul into the collective spiritual enterprise. The old school religious humanists would say (to paraphrase) that in seeking community we seek to transcend our individual egos and thereby nurture that which is greater than our aloneness. The theists among us remember that God loves all people; that we’re all children of God; and that as part of God’s family we should seek to relate as a family – as an ideal – even knowing we can never achieve that fully; but the striving for connection despite our failures – matters deeply.

Whether we’re learning to place the whole ahead of our temporal wants, or we’re seeking to reconnect with our human family, this congregation welcomes us all. It is from this centered place that we can achieve new life; heal the corners of the world we live in; and come to know ourselves more deeply. The religious journey beings with community. We are not a religious tradition of solitaries, despite what the Transcendentalists might have tried to convince you. Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and the whole cadre of Unitarian theologians and philosophers were all meeting with one another regularly to share their thoughts and insights. They were not ascetics living in the woods. Walden Pond was written with the benefit of the occasional sandwich sent by Mom. From community we can head out into the hidden places and learn the secrets right before our eyes, but we don’t start or end there.

I recall the words of one former congregant at another congregation, “A community is a group where your contributions are never so carefully recorded as your gains from membership.” In times of chaos like these, being in community is more important than anything we do. I believe that in our consumer-driven culture, it’s rather natural for us to “buy-into” the practice of asking ‘what do we get by being a member of this religious community?’ What are we purchasing with our pledges to this congregation or paying for with our taxes to our country? There’s sometimes a tendency to track how many things we’ve volunteered to do for the community – forgetting that most of the people around us have likewise given much of themselves to bring this congregation to this next high point in its life. Because the truth is – so many people – over so many decades – have given so much freely to get us to where we are in this moment. It’s not about us, or what extra-special service we’ve performed as members. Those things are important, but if we get caught up into thinking they’re the center, we lose the message of that first religious step. The one where the religious humanists remind us that the practice of community is helping to transcend our individual egos; whether that’s in thinking we’re so great, or that it’s all about us, or that we’re only worthy if we do this next thing. Well, we are all pretty great, but we’re all that way – not some of us. Anyone that’s ever been to any congregational meeting and listened to an extended debate knows it’s not about any one person there. And if your acts of service to our community are grounded in the thought that you’re only worthy by doing so, know that you have nothing to prove to any of us. Service can be done out of love, but it should not be done for the hope of love – we all already have it.

The trap is both/and. It’s a trap to get fixated on scoring what you’ve given or what you’ve done. It’s also a trap thinking that you’re only worthy if you do and do and do. When we are in the midst of grief – and even if we shut out the news of the world, this community continues to grieve so many lost friends and family – we won’t find solace in doing. But we will find peace in giving part of ourselves to community. It’s not about how much we give; but rather that we give. It’s remembering that in community we have to be willing to serve as well as being willing to be served. For some congregations this last phrase is their mission statement – We begin our own mission statement recognizing being in community is where we heal and grow and nurture.

I believe, it’s not really helpful to think in terms of counting deeds, but rather being aware of how much more we can be in light of our community. When we’re isolated, or driven primarily by the small e-ego, then we’re as small as that. When we’re committed to the ideals of a community of people, a religious gathering centered on faith, hope and love, then we’re as large as that. And in times of difficulty, seeking to be as large as faith, hope and love, is key to healing our hearts and souls. Being part of a community, being a member, means giving of ourselves so that we broadened our impact and scope to the width and breadth of our collective vision and dream. We remain ourselves, but we begin to point to the horizon of our shared dreams. It’s in this act of pointing that we mark the trajectory of hope. Coming together, we become more ourselves, more human. Remembering where we come from; being grateful for the efforts, sacrifices and energy of those a part of us; we craft a way forward grounded in hope; predicated on the possibility that the whole is no less than the sum of its parts and likely much greater than those parts alone. I wish us all a reflective Hanukkah, and hope we can celebrate and we can remember. Together, from that place, may we find a place of happiness as well; because so many have given so much to get us to where we are this day.

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