Archive for February, 2016

The Art of Connection

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/14/16 and looks at the intersecting roles that desire and connection have in building a world centered in justice, equity and compassion.

When I was still working as a consultant for not-for-profits and city government, I used to live in Manhattan at 14th street and First Avenue. It was back in the days when I was blessed by the Rent Stabilized Fairy; she’s a close cousin to the tooth fairy, but she left me more than quarters or one dollar bills. I had a great two bed-room apartment with a fellow NYU grad student who just happened to have a cousin who had a friend who needed some folks to sublet for a while, while she was in Canada. Better than putting your tooth under the pillow any day!

We were on the 11th story at the intersection. A short distance north of us was Bellevue Hospital. A block south of us was a fire station. Ambulances and fire trucks were usual distractions. Even living 11 stories up, it took me several months to learn how to fall asleep despite the noise. Trying to wake up to an alarm clock, that sounded a lot like all the other beeps below us, was quite tough. I remember finally going out to buy a new one that had a “nature” setting. Crickets! Crickets will now pull me out of the deepest slumber. One unintended consequence is that I can only camp in the winter time now. I am really, really glad that I got hooked on insect noises for my alarm, and not the “ocean” setting.

At the corner itself was a traffic light with a left turn signal. These are fairly harmless creatures out here. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and is immediately convinced that means them too. Roughly every 60 seconds, I got to hear the roar of the honking taxi cab yelling at wayward jay-walkers who didn’t think the turn signal applied to them. …Up on the 11th story, trying to sleep, I knew it did.

Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, has a notable quote that speaks directly to this traffic phenomenon. “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” I’m told by a colleague in religious education that an old UUA advertisement used to have this quote printed next to a yellow traffic light. …Vroom, vroom – I can make it through.

Traffic can be a smaller version of a bigger problem, that we in the world all share. I hate to say it, but our sixth principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – is directly challenged and often defeated by left turn signals. How can we possibly bring peace and justice to this planet, if we can’t even stay on our sidewalks, or our traffic lights, for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Rush hour commutes probably warn us all the same thing.

There are many Buddhist stories that remind us that changing the world starts with home. One odd phrase that took me a while to figure out was when one monk was asked about how his efforts helped to stop the war we were waging at the time (I believe it was Iraq at the time), and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…”

We can’t really change anyone. We only have the power and control to change ourselves. I suppose, smiling is a good start to better human relations; and somewhere down the line, probably does in its own way reduce discord. I can tell you right now, that I’m grateful for the smiles and laughter of the morning so far. From a silly story, to my best efforts at singing a hymn. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Long Island. And it would probably do us all good to do so more frequently with the people around us. New York has a way of reminding us always to “get stuff done” and we sometimes forget that life is more than the ends. The means – mean – something.

That’s what our Wisdom Story was about this morning. How do we go about doing what we choose to do? Is the goal the biggest, best hut to live in? Or is it finding a better way to live together. Are we running through our lives chasing the biggest desires, or is their an art to the connections in our communities and in our households? Hyena had to work really hard for twice as long to accomplish what he did because he chose to do it all by himself. Rabbit barely did anything, but achieved far more. Sure – more people had to work together to make the village work, but there was also a lot more time for stories, and song and dance and fun. I imagine Hyena was also probably a bit more burnt out than Rabbit too. Doing it alone, took more work, and got him less for his efforts. It reminds me about building this religious community too.

It wasn’t just about the end goal for Rabbit. It was the means all along. We’re building a community here for the sake of growing and living together. So as long as we’re growing and living together, we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do. It’s not some point far in the future. It’s here … now. We just get to keep chugging along.

This promise of community in our story about Hyena and Rabbit reflects a broader truth about world community. What we do by ourselves will always be harder, and will always be less than it could be. I believe, that thinking we alone, can do anything alone better than in community, is simply wrong. We may need to step up, like Rabbit, to help build something more. We may be in a position to affect to the world for the better, and we may need to act, but we will never be the only people in that position to act. Even though it’s often tempting to think so. Sometimes it’s building a village by ourselves, or policing the world against terror or injustice, or it’s trying to fix everything that needs to be fixed regarding the financial challenges of our congregation. We in this world community are in this world community together. The Sixth Principle promises us that we are not alone, and we don’t have to bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders alone; whether the world is the Middle East, or dealing with that bully at work or in school, or our finding a way to pay the rent this month. In fact, it’s often ourselves who pick that burden up and place it there when we choose to solve it by our lonesome. No one told Hyena that he had to labor for a cycle of the moon to build that hut by himself. But he sure thought he couldn’t do it with anyone else. We’re here. Reach out. Come to me, and go to each other. Maybe if we do so long enough, if we remember to smile like the monk said, it will make a difference. At the very least, it will be a better place to sing and dance.

There’s a saying that’s repeated from time to time in our Fellowship, and it’s said at many UU congregations across our denomination:“Who ever you are, and whom ever you love, you are welcome here.” I see it as central to our UU identity. It’s pastoral, humanity-centered and a very moral thing to adhere to. It’s also the very basis of the promise of world community. Whoever you are, whom ever you love — how ever culturally you choose to live in right relationship with the consenting people around you – you are welcome here. Could you imagine how different the world would be if we were to live by that tenet in international relations? If we were to shift our stance from competition to welcome? From believing in scarcity to offering open-handed support? To building our huts together, rather than competing for the biggest one? That’s the religious turn called for here – and something incredibly difficult to do. “Our humanity” has the chance to be of first priority at something – if only we allow ourselves.

In the season of political primaries, which seems to get longer and longer every year, we hear so many competing views and solutions to the crush of worldly challenge. I’m often amazed at how any candidate for national, or local office, on either side of the aisle, acts when they are finally elected. For example, looking at our own Long Island, even progressive politicians will vote against local issues like affordable housing, or allowing for more rental apartments. It’s gotten to the comical-if-it-weren’t-tragic place where our own adult kids can’t afford to live in Long Island. Something happens when we live in community, where we can forget how our actions impact another, when we can’t see it directly. As UU’s we often talk about justice and how minorities, or the oppressed, can be unfairly treated. And that’s so true. But I look at our own nominally affluent communities where we live, and remember that our own adult kids can’t afford to live here, and wonder how we’ve made it so impossible for so many. Everyone experiences hardship, yet we too often make communal choices that take away the humanity of our neighbor – or at least make it harder for our neighbor to live to their fullest.

I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children; though I know the complexities of economics and public policy go far beyond that; there’s something still worth taking from the lessons from our childhood. With a show of hands, how many of us were ever between the ages of 3 and 5 years old? (Look around – that’s exactly what I thought.) Most of us were asked to split a pie or a cake with a sibling or a friend at this point in our life. (Everything I ever needed to know about life I learned in Kindergarten.) If my teacher knew that there were going to be arguments about who got which piece – she would say, “one of you cut the two slices, and the other gets to choose which one they take.” I wonder how different our world would be if when we made policy decisions that so drastically impacted the community around us, that the least among us would get to pick the slice after it was cut; if we let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affected them. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And anyone who has ever worked with or raised kindergarteners knows, that kindergartners know fair. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.

So our sixth principle, and the art of connection….Without peace, liberty and justice for all, we can’t have a world community. The promise of our liberal faith is that community is possible when we leave room for peace and justice; when we leave room for the other person to choose which of the slices you cut they’ll take. And remember, the call of our religious tradition is that this sixth principle is not a belief, but rather an action statement. We do the work of world community when we diligently preserve the values that it relies upon within our neighborhoods, our villages, our classrooms, and congregations. It is not left for someone else to do, and it is not left for us to do alone either. It is for us to seek to act with those around us. Our sixth principle begins with “We affirm and promote” for a reason. It does not begin with “I;” it begins with “We.” And so too does world community.

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Prayer for Justice (Black History Month 2016)

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

Gather us this hour as a people of hope,

in the face of adversity,

as a community of justice,

where we see inequity,

as a faith for healing,

in a world struggling between hardship and beauty.

Knowing the world is not yet what it could be,

teach us to not trip over the small wants and grievances,

when so many need us to be so much more than our smallest selves;

we need to be more than that.

Mother of Grace,

open our hearts where we are closed;

widen our vision where we have become short-sighted;

and open our mouths where silence has dominated our spirit.

For too often we have learned to be complicit where there is pain.

In the struggle of the long arc of the universe bending toward justice,

may we regain strength in the soul-saving work,

of living faithfully into our humanity,

in community,

with passion,

and in love.

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Losing Ourselves

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/7/16 looking at the negative sides of daily small desires.

[Begin by telling the story of the Rabbi and the Dream]

The wise Rabbi who received a vision of a treasure in a far off town, travels and learns that the treasure was in his own home all this time, but the journey was necessary for him to see what was right before him all along. It was probably true for the bridge-keeper he spoke with as well, but only the Rabbi was able to see it after all. Maybe the Rabbi still believed in possibility, and maybe the guard lost that part of himself. Hard to know.

All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of desire. Later in the month we will look at the positive sides of desire: like love, or the search for justice, or just plain human connection. But today, I’d like to begin with the negative side of desire. When desire runs our lives – when the small wants take precedence over what truly matters – who do we become and how do we find ourselves once more? What’s the treasure hidden right before us that we have such a hard time seeing?

So let’s think about desire a bit. What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?

It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude. Getting into that college program; securing that job; hearing better news about the medical results. Those are some really serious concerns. If you’re like me, I imagine in the everyday you can catch yourself putting the same value on smaller events though. Catching that traffic light before it goes from yellow to red; or missing those closing doors on the train, or waiting for that email or that text message to arrive; or the anticipation you feel waiting for the next episode of Star Wars…

What’s happening in between? That moment between otherwise being happy about how things are and the next where we convince ourselves that things will only be good, or OK, if the thing we’re waiting for actually happens. Let’s start with the little things first. Try to remember what it feels like in your body when I mention these. That traffic light. Getting caught behind a slow moving driver when you’re late for work. The iconic train passenger that won’t move out of the way of the closing doors. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of these can drive you absolutely nuts.

What are we letting go of when we let this occur? We might have someone in our lives we love; we may have home and health; we may be enjoying a warm beautiful day on this side of paradise; but the traffic light, or the super slow moving driver, can take it all away in the blink of an eye. We may be thinking about picking up our kids from their RE class, or prepping for the next congregational committee meeting, or just steeling ourselves for the rush of coffee hour instead of fully resting into this hour of reflection, refreshment and community connection. It’s so easy to fall into this habit. We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely all experience this sense of “momentary want” again – probably even today. The little things are just as easy to laugh at ourselves about – as they are to forget not to cling to them again and again. They’re not big, and yet they can all snatch from us the awareness of the awe in the living world around us.

…And the bigger things are much less easy to sweep away. Concerns for one’s home, or job, or prospects or health aren’t frivolous or insignificant. The death of a loved one, or feelings of concern for our friends who are grieving, are major turning points in our lives. For good or for ill, their effects will travel with us – possibly – for the rest of our lives. And yet, the simple truth is that the awe and wonder of this living, breathing world continues unabated in every moment. What happens to us, doesn’t change this truth; even if the awe and wonder becomes hard to see for a time… even if we can’t feel it for a while. A connection to our source, this life, remains. And yet those times of forgetfulness – those times of feeling disconnected from our source, will come. It’s the reality of a world full of promise and pain.

Our Universalist predecessors believed in universal salvation. They believed that when we died, all souls would be saved to heaven in glory. Personally, I’ve come to feel that salvation is accessible in our current lives, for all people, while we’re still living and breathing. I’ve come to see salvation not tied to death, or notions of original sin, but a salvation tied to life; a salvation responding to the hells of our daily making; a salvation responding to the hells of our communal making.

It starts with being able to connect and reconnect with this awe-inspiring living breathing world. It’s a salvation that’s grounded in healthy community; a salvation that responds to our religious humanist forebears who found in religious community a saving grace from the false idolatry of the individual ego. It’s a salvation that liberates us from our ties to the mythic worlds of “what if,” the traps of “if only” and the fears of “no, not that.” It’s not a false sentimentality. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a brazen disregard for the horrors, and pains and tragedies of our world. It’s a salvation that reminds us of the honest connections we are ever blessed with. It’s the kind that puts into context all the complexity and nuance of our often frenetic yet ever poignant world. And when we turn to face the true hardships of the world, we do so with a grounding based in spirit, and not in anxiousness.

There’s a quote from one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, where she offers a Buddhist take on this contemporary Universalist message. “Moving away from our experience, moving away from the present moment with all our habits and strategies, always adds up to restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The comfort that we associate with concretizing and making things solid is so transitory, so short lived.”

Alright, let’s take a little mini-poll here. By a show of hands, who here has ever wanted anything? Ok, keep your hands up if that thing you wanted you got. Ok, now here’s the tricky part. Please keep your hand up if after getting that thing you wanted, you at some point stopped wanting or enjoying it. And finally – keep your hand up if that thing you wanted that you got, you came to wish you never got it? Alright, I thought that was a pretty common occurrence. I’m glad it’s not just me… phew!

That, my friends, is what concretizing can lead to. We sort of chase our own tails for dreaming. Call the grass on the other side always greener, or just admit that sometimes we don’t really know what we want. The draw to make things appear more solid in our lives is very alluring, but it’s ultimately a fruitless desire. I don’t mean to suggest we ought to give up on development, or goals, or hopes; but rather I hope to inspire us to offer a more realistic appreciation for the moment we dwell in. Our world is more full of joy if in our daily strivings we remain rooted, as best we can, in a thorough appreciation for what is before us. It’s from this place of fullness that we realize salvation. And it’s available to us in every moment; including this one.

I’ve reflected a bit about how we give away our connectedness with the moment, with our connectedness to this side of paradise, by ever wishing for the next great thing. How do we do that when we give up our own answers? How do we disconnect ourselves when we solely rely on others to save us from our unknowing, or our quandaries, or our sense of loss? When do we hide our light under a bushel in order to gain the approval of others?

I’m going to guess that we’re all a little guilty of this in our lives. Think about a time when you’ve had a big decision to make and the first thing you do is call every close friend and ask them to tell you what you’d do. A certain amount of that is good for the process of reflection. But so often we go to the absurd extreme with it. We give up our connectedness with the moment in our repetitive mental musings – with the proverbial spinning of our wheels while going nowhere. Maybe we need the advice, but maybe we already know our answer. Maybe we already know how to speak our voice and do what needs to be done if only we were to try. Brian (my husband) once told me, “We can’t rely on others to show us the beauty of a moment. Another person can’t give us the eyes to see that; we’re born with them and we have to learn to use them.”

In the Christian tradition, there’s a verse attributed to Reinhold Niebhur, that goes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This great prayer of discernment sums up the quandaries associated with fearing what will come and fearing who we are right now. If we can figure out how to live out the words from the Serenity Prayer, as it’s commonly called, we come closer to an appreciation for the moment. We come closer to loving this amazing world as best we can just as it is. It holds an honest balance between loving ourselves (and the world) as we are, and loving the world and ourselves as we might be — without making ourselves or the world out to be wrong in the meantime. It calls us to give ourselves a chance, without struggling against the impossible; while lifting up a sense of ownership with our feelings and experiences.

In all of this, if we were to name it for what it is, we might say that there’s a hole in our hearts for what we sense to be missing in our lives. In some traditions, we’d call it a “God-shaped hole.” I know I do. In others, we’d call it “living in a state of suffering.” In psychological terms we might label it “insecurity” or “co-dependence” depending on its manifestations and triggers. I believe each one of these has their merits. As a minister though, and not a psychologist (except for maybe in the pop sense of the word) I’ll stick with the first two names. “Living in a state of suffering” and “A God-shaped hole in our heart.”

To return once more to Pema Chodron, she clearly is in the school of thought that engages our sense of suffering. Hers is a philosophy that calls for deepening our sense of comfort with the groundlessness of life – that ‘not knowing what will be;’ that ‘acceptance of the present moment.’ “This moving away from comfort and security (she writes,) this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky – that’s called liberation.” (4) I used the Universalist language of salvation before to reflect on this same sort of thing. As our religious tradition transforms, changes and grows we’re going to learn and develop more and more ways to express the complexity of life and matters of spirit in our own religious language. But I believe the core truths, the essential questions and challenges remain the same for us – we’re just learning better ways to translate them for our own hearts, minds and ears.

The “God-shaped hole” language may really work for you. Or maybe it’s a kind of language that’s really hard for you to relate to. As Unitarian Universalists, I’ll challenge us to be the best translators we can be. For the theists among us, when we give up our sense of faith in our own capacity; when we give up our sense of appreciation for Creation as it is; when we disconnect ourselves from a real communion with this side of paradise; we realize a God-shaped hole in our lives. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we’re alone; or empty; or unloved. We confuse ourselves into thinking we’re powerless; or incapable; or that the world is devoid of meaning.

None of these things are true. We are not alone. We are loved. Life is full of promise. Our potential and capacity for love and for life is an amazing gift – an amazing blessing that we only need to open ourselves up-to to know its full wonder. As Zora Neale Hurston audaciously proclaims, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” That’s the core message in living into this side of paradise without losing ourselves in the process —  regardless of our personal theologies, or beliefs. Loving the moment, loving the world in all its nuance and beauty, loving ourselves and the beloved communities we build together, loving this life through all its uncertainty, is the process of crawling out of our places of pain and fear and hiding. Friends, this world is too full to forever find answers outside ourselves, and it is too full to forever think we hold all the answers for our neighbors. This living, breathing world is too full to hide from it, each other, and ourselves.

As we heard from the poet Denise Levertov, “So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”

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