Archive for August, 2016
This child-friendly sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/28/16. It explores the challenges of bringing our values with us during times of challenge and change.
As our year of formal religious education begins this coming month, (as does the secular school year) we have begun by blessing our backpacks in our service. Each of our students also received a copy of our Seven Principles as part of the tags on their backpacks. We carry our best values with us wherever we go. Fellowship and religion happen in our walls, but they don’t begin or end here, they travel with us when we’re our best selves – everywhere. Could you imagine wearing your best selves as a tag on your clothing? That’s the spiritual practice our kids and youth are trying out this year.
Part of our religious education program is about growing up. We cover many of the corners of the world that our secular classrooms don’t touch every day: relationships, identity, peer pressure, helping over receiving, giving over getting; and in the teen years – scientifically accurate sexuality education – and this last bit is something that the law still doesn’t even require to be scientifically accurate in all our public schools. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education. Religious education is about moving through our years’ always striving to be more fully human, more fully alive. It’s not always obvious, but in living for one another, and for community, we can grow into fulfillment.
When I was entering kindergarten for the first time, or moving onto grade school, or junior high, or High School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, when I was a bit older, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.
Is this different for folks here? If you’re new to our community, let me help with you a little bit of a map of the year. We have our weekly Sunday school classes, and almost monthly opportunities for our kids to do social service or social justice work. We recognize some of our grade schoolers every year or so as they complete a special period of study; our junior youth will have a year long period of study for Coming of Age and what we call Our Whole Lives and be asked to speak before their family, friends and Fellowship community about their religious values – or Credos. Our graduating 12th graders do something similar again by reflecting on a childhood or a teenage of growing up UU – and they also speak before a Sunday service toward the end of the year.
By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL (Our Whole Lives) prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes. I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.
As we begin this new year of education together, it’s also a time of some upheaval – a time of some change. The ground before us in every new year can feel a bit shaky. What will my new teachers be like, what challenges will my kid bring to the dinner table this year, how well will our new home or job really treat us? It’s in times of change, when the earth below us feels a bit wobbly, that we really learn who we are. Ideally, we you want to make sure that we got the basics down before times of struggle, and that’s a part of why we as a Fellowship are here, but it’s the times when we’re breaking new ground that those lessons take root.
As we don our backpacks and go into a first or new year of school, or start a new job, or move into a new home, when we’re breaking new ground, try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.
First, the personal story. One time when my husband and I were still newly dating, we were strolling through the West Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself, or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.
It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.
Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax. Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still. I’m hearing a lot of stories of folks frantically trying to get in one last beach trip for the Summer – when you do – just do it – leave the rest at home for those hours.
I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a UU minister. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that my colleague was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)
(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)
So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose. Why are you? Why are we? When you figure out the answer, live by it, and the rest will follow.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/21/16 after the second vandalism of our Black Lives Matter billboard.
Community, communication, and commitment – three very closely related words that each point in the same direction – how well we are interdependent in the world. It’s the foundational part of our seventh principle – interdependence. We’re reflecting this month on what it would mean to be a people of rootedness, and this week we’ll reflect on how communication – or the lack of communication – helps or hinders our ability to put down roots in our communities.
I want to begin a little more light-hearted and then we’ll inch our way into the more heavy-hearted side of the world this week. A little over a week ago, I had the honor of working directly with 30 of our youth at our annual Summer Camp called Fahs (along with 40 other adults and around 110 children and youth all counted – I was co-leading the 11th and 12th grade youth group.) One of the practices of the camp is that none of the youth or kids are allowed their cell phones during the week. They’re either left at home, or the ones who need to still have them on the car ride in, feverishly are sending their final texts for the long 6 days without social media. I could laugh, except I don’t recall the last time I went fully without a cell phone for 6 days.
So the adults live by another set of rules. We need our cell phones to handle the rare emergency or the frequent updates that happen throughout the day. We’re not supposed to be on them much in sight of the campers, but the Camp Board need to be able to text us at any point. And wow – do they text! For a week where we are supposed to limitedly be on our phones, I received more text messages than any other time in my life! To be fair, the camp board needs to be able to balance out clear communication, and they err on the side of abundance of information rather than someone missing something that might have been critical. But in effect, everyone gets messaged about everything, whether we personally need to know or not. I’d feel better about critiquing the practice if I actually had any clue as how to do it better. That’s the challenge of modern technology – we have all the ability in the world to do just about anything we can dream of – we just haven’t figured out yet what actually works well.
It’s a challenge for our congregation too. We may send out information in seven different ways, and one person will ask why are we inundating the community with info, and the next person will ask when are we finally going to let folks know about that very same thing.
In our reading earlier today, we heard a light-hearted poking of our current culture around cell phones by the writer, Neil Gaiman – always waiting for the next message or update, we miss the sense of reverence in the world all around us. I want to quote him again, this time from his fictional story, American Gods. The character who pens these words is Mr. Ibis (named after a fictional version of a certain Egyptian deity of knowledge and the moon), “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.”
Gaiman isn’t talking about social media or newsletter, but part of me wishes he were. And we can all imagine the wisdom there – few if any of us would ever have the time to sit down and ingest all the events in the life of this Fellowship. But if we don’t, we’ll miss something. And if we do, there won’t be the time in the day.
Instead, Gaiman is really referring to the role of story, and the use of symbol. In much of his writing, he alludes to how nothing actually happens the way the story suggests – that none of it is true – but he goes on to tell it anyhow and you walk away feeling that we’ve encountered something more real than the facts. It’s the eternal challenge of religion – do you get caught up in fact-checking the stories of faith, or do you focus on learning the moral and spiritual lessons? It’s a trap for both sides of the ideological theistic divide; both atheists and fundamentalists are guilty of worshiping historicity over impact and meaning.
Do we browse the newsletter, website or e-news at the last minute and decide which events on our social calendar can fit into our tight schedules –if any, or do we prioritize our community connections first and fill up our schedules afterward? Do we put down roots and engage in the life of a community, or do we take Fellowship to be just one more item on our to-do list? And you can be here only 1 day a week and still be engaged – as long as it’s more of an intention than an after-thought. The word “congregation” can be understood as engaged living – a symbol of a thing and the thing itself – or the word can be empty and just another habit of our day while we wait distractedly for the next thing and the next thing. “The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.” Religious community is a story about what we aspire to be; it’s one way to get there; and it’s where we end up when we arrive. When we remember this, we’re more likely to be doing it right.
This week held some particular challenges for our Fellowship. Our Black Lives Matter billboard was uprooted from the ground and tossed to the side. Someone came by and pulled both posts out from the ground that our youth group installed. It happened overnight, to avoid anyone seeing who did it. The Hate Crimes division of Suffolk County police came for the second time – the sign was originally vandalized 6 days after we put it up back in June. The good officers, without us realizing they were doing it, and without being requested, actually reinstalled the sign for us in the ground. It was a beautiful act of grace, and a clear sign of their high level of professionalism. They then offered to attend some of our events, and mentioned that they offer community forums. We plan to take them up on their offer in the near future. But community connections didn’t begin there. Back in July, after the terrible shooting of Dallas police and transit officers, our Fellowship held a vigil in the evening, and our social justice co-chair, Steve Burby, dropped by the local precinct with a note of support and some pastries. Putting down roots, and building community, means that as we speak the hard truths that are impacting so many in our nation, we still maintain and foster connections that seek to preserve and make all of us safer.
But this part of the story also tells us that the dominant myth that it’s us vs not-us, that gets told and retold, isn’t really true. No community or group is a monolith and many of us are trying to extend a hand, and find a way forward through a very difficult issue. Every letter we receive, or email, and the painful slog through the comment section of any news article about our Black Lives Matter sign vandalisms – reveal some serious mischaracterizations. And they’re emblematic of a culture – where despite having more access to information than any generation ever before – we are woefully ill-informed about matters that we disagree with. If we disagree with a topic, we will enter into a bubble of isolation, that will protect us from any data that will conflict with our world view. News blogs that have the comments sections turned on – originally designed to increase communication and public discussion – have since become the sole province of trolls and what Time just called this week, “The culture of hate.” Discourse is silenced as the will to hate, or the will to silence diverse and lively honest discussion has taken hold.
The vandalism of our Black Lives Matter sign, was covered this week by Newsday, News 12, and I was also interviewed by Fios TV news. In a pique of irony, the Newsday article online is only viewable by those with a subscription to their service; but anyone logged into Facebook can post comments on the news article… whether or not they were able to read it. We have all the technology in the world, and we don’t know what it means and how to use it. One’s opinion – uninformed or not – is readily available to all, but the actual facts of the story are not.
At the top of our Fellowship letterhead, we have three words. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Most of my sermons will explore these topics every week; sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. But they are foundational to community, communication, and commitment. We can’t begin to have a healthy community without openness; from the cliques of high school to the barriers of gated communities – groups form that bar certain people from entering, and those communities are less for it. Mindfulness and reverence may seem esoteric, but there’s a core of truth to the idea that once we stop seeing one another with a sense of appreciation, and even the occasional awe, is the moment when we stop being able to relate to one another as fellow human beings. Without reverence, maybe we can interact with others as if they were cogs, or pawns, but we cease to be able to do so as people. The excesses of the comments section of the internet is the logical conclusion to a culture that is closed to difference, and apathetic to others’ worth and dignity.
As we close this service, I invite you this week to take stock of your practices in our community, your neighborhood and maybe even online. Where are you mindful? Where have you become closed? Where do you allow yourself to be open to a sense of reverence around you? I can’t easily write out an exhaustive map of how to build the beloved community, but the story is the territory, and we tell that story, as best we can, week after week.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/7/16 and looks at the impact nostalgia has on our sense of selves.
A few weeks ago, we took a trip down to DC. My husband had a non-profit work conference and I decided to tag along. While he was in workshops, I was visiting our national museums, and the national zoo. We only got to see three museums together, since he was in meetings all day. The Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum. There were some awesome exhibits, and there were some extreme disappointments. The IMAX movie about gophers would have been more riveting than the summer blockbuster, Independence Day II, not even the IMAX in our nation’s capital could save that rotten tomato. I wanted to show him the Star Trek Enterprise that I remember hanging from the ceiling; but sadly it was smaller than I recalled and tucked away in a corner. But my husband is an Air Force baby (born on one of our bases), so getting to see the history of air flight, and much about our armed forces, was still rather amazing.
But the American History museum was my prime goal. I used to visit the Smithsonian twice a year throughout most of my twenties. In my college years, in addition to religion, I studied Anthropology, Archaeology and World Art History. I couldn’t get enough of seeing the things I read about in person. But contrary to all that, the most engaging exhibit in my memory was the section on TV History. Cultural relics from the small screen ensconced behind glass for the generations. Maybe it didn’t make a lot of sense, but Archie Bunker’s and Edith’s chairs – Kermit the Frog – the Ruby Slipper from the wizard of Oz. All those small pieces of culture stood out as amazing to me twenty years ago when I finally got to see them in person.
I remember visiting it twenty years ago, and the exhibit circled round and round, with artifacts from the golden years of Television. You couldn’t get through it in less than 3 or 4 hours if you took the time to read it all. But this Summer, we get to the museum, and the whole layout is so different. Everything looks more polished, but I don’t recognize much of what I’m seeing, beyond maybe the steam engine on one floor. Good museums change their exhibits regularly, so there’s not an issue there. But soon we’re circling and circling and can’t find the TV History section. We ask guides, and I’m starting to think we’re in the wrong museum; that maybe there was a museum that was entirely dedicated to TV and Radio. But one more guide insists that’s not the case and points us in another direction. We double back three times, before Brian spies the ruby slipper.
…It’s just not the same. There’s a lot less there. The lighting is dim, and all the relics from that era can fit in a room that’s maybe only a little larger than our social hall here at our Fellowship. This isn’t a three hour exhibit, it’s more like 15 minutes. We never found Kermit, though Edith’s and Archie’s chairs were there, as were the ruby slippers. It felt a little ironic that I was pining for a time when our yesteryear relics shined a bit more than they do now. How we remember how things once were, has less glamor than it once did.
I know it has more to do with the reality that as time rolls on, the shows that I remember from my childhood – even if some of them were already in repeats – may not even be known by the generation that came after me. I think I saw every episode of Lassie three times, and anyone born after 2000 won’t even know that’s a dog. Time rolls on. But it struck me. At a time in our nations’ life, where many of us are pining for nostalgia, as all too often things feel like they’ve gone off the rails, losing the relics from yesteryear felt more like a punch to the gut than maybe was all that rationale. The wrestling with nostalgia may be counterproductive, or even misleading. Shows change, cultural reference points change – that doesn’t mean we’re worse off – just that history is making room for those who come after us.
…July was another rough month for our nation as we heard the tragedies in Dallas and throughout our country. A black man shot in his car over a broken tail light. So many police officers, and transit cops, gunned down by a US war veteran – while they were peacefully doing their duty protecting civilians who were protesting the earlier police shooting. That’s a police force, at its finest, doing the most American Civil service we can imagine – protecting free speech – and their lives are lost….
This month we’ll be reflecting on the spiritual discipline of rootedness. Where do we find grounding in times of crisis; how do we find connection in an era that feels like we’re further apart than ever; where does upheaval help us to find our footing again. At the mid-point of this season of sun, I want to reflect on the lessons of this time of year – what it would mean to be a people of Summer. It’s been my favorite season more at least 20 years. You look forward to it for much of the year, and then in a blink – half of it’s gone away. I’ve recalled before from this pulpit about childhood summer days that seemed to stretch on to eternity, and as the years go by, and we get older, finding those never-ending days in the Summer sun seems more and more elusive. And I don’t mean, whether you can get the time off, or the time away. Even on long days at the beach, as we age, I think time-spreading out seems more elusive than in yesteryears. We are so often, more a people of nostalgia, than a people of summer; living into what was as some mythic time of ease and perfection, rather than living into the day that is before us – which we should rejoice and be glad in it.
We hear so often, folks lamenting how things once were and why can’t we go back to that. Well, that’s nostalgia speaking. Things aren’t worse these days, we’re just hearing and seeing more of what always happened, through the advent of cell phones, and cameras in every hand, and Twitter poking national media’s attention. There are regular tv newscasts now that follow what Twitter says, because posts on Twitter often are the first sign of a news story. With all the instant access news, it feels like things are much worse than they once were.
Police deaths are actually at a historic low. Despite partisan politics, every president – every single president since Reagan, every single president, has presided over a period of history where police killings were less than their predecessor. Yet, there’s a story that says we’re at our most violent. Every death is tragic, and we need to reach no deaths. That’s the truth, we need to. But we’re also not getting worse, we’re getting much better. But that’s not how we feel. We feel like it’s worse. There’s a way in which that’s real for some people, especially anyone who has lost a loved one, or fears for the loss of a loved one. That’s very real. And there’s a way in which that’s a form of nostalgia that makes it harder for us to do the work we need to do, in order to make it better for those who are serving and living today in this world. We can’t fix something that’s broken, if we don’t address it as it is – as it really is and not as we think it is.
Communities of color have had to face this reality since their first days in our nation, whether they were born here, immigrated here, or forcibly taken here, or were kicked off their own land. Waves of white immigrants have experienced challenges like unwelcome signs, housing and employment bias, and so on. But within a few generations, white immigrant families integrate and dodge the bias by being known as white, rather than Italian, or German, or Irish. But beyond us simply being more aware of the violence on our streets because of cell phone cameras and Facebook poking the attention of newscasters faster than they can follow on their own, there’s a sense among white communities across our country that somehow whiteness is under attack. For a long time, I mostly saw it the pains associated with having some of your privilege taken away and confusing that with oppression. But a July 25th New Yorker article had an interesting story about the advent in popular culture of putting real and mocking faces on what we derogatorily call “white trash”, and compare that to “proper” elite whites. Urban centers are taken seriously, rural communities are taken as a joke. Enough decades of that, and we have a problem in our national identity. If whites in urban centers advance, and whites in rural centers stagnate, it gets worse. Maybe we’re starting to see that in some parts of our suburbs as well, right? And when we live into our identity of a people of nostalgia – we remember back to all the black and white TV classics, where middle America seemed to be the best of us – we want to go back to how things were then; with a vibrant middle class, a one family income, and no cell phone cameras showing us where the fire hoses, and the shootings, and beatings are happening in real time. From the fire hoses that lead to Selma, to any story we hear about daily in our news feeds today – They’ve been there all along – now we’re just talking about it more – or maybe I should say all of us are talking about it more; because communities that have lived through oppression have always talked about it.
When we live into being a people of summer, we don’t stick with the notion that the days only stretched out into eternity when we were children. That’s a trick of our monkey mind. We’re letting the part of ourselves that are weighed down with responsibility and obligation rule our down-time even when we don’t have those obligations – we keep them with us, and our days become shorter and more fret with anxiety. It’s the classic trap we’ve all done. Sunday comes along and you lament you have to go back to work on Monday so much that you lose much of the joy of the day off because we’re already living into our next day of work. Rootedness is a spiritual discipline. Being rooted in what’s right before us – for good or for bad – is the most spiritual way to live. When we work, we work; when we rest though, we get to rest. Nostalgia for what was – even knowing in all likelihood it never really was like the way we like to remember – only keeps us from rejoicing and being glad in every new day.