Archive for November, 2016

Sermon: Faith, Belief and Unrest

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/20/16 looking at the differences between faith and belief. We also explore the tension between character and values, and how they struggle with broader ideologies in light of a nation with increasing frequencies of hate crimes.

Four years ago, my husband and I were entertaining out of town guests. They wanted to experience the NYC night life, so we took them to one of the then newer dance clubs in Hell’s Kitchen.I used to go out dancing pretty regularly in my twenties, but as the economy changed and the clubs died out, I slowly got out of the habit. This was probably the first time I had gone to a major dance club in over ten years. We got there and I simply couldn’t handle it. The sound, the vibrations, the smoke were all bad enough, though manageable. The twenty foot tall wall of LEDs was too much for me to handle. I started feeling like the beginnings of a seizure were happening – seriously. I left quickly and got into a cab.

On the car ride home, the cabbie was the friendly, talkative type. Now there are three places in the world where I try very hard not to reveal my vocation – bars, airplanes and yes, taxis. Despite my best efforts at dodging, he quickly zeroed in on what I do for a living. Ministry. The next 20 minutes were filled with conversation around theology, meaning, values, interfaith dialogue and my views on homosexuality, women’s rights, immigration, etc. Remember, I’m still feeling all sorts of wonky from the fading sensations induced by flashing lights and vivid screens. But I do my best. The driver was raised Catholic; came across as a progressive person of faith who felt a bit distant to organized religion, but remained a Christian.

My husband left the club shortly after me to make sure I was doing ok. He got into a cab and met a driver who was the talkative type. The cabbie also quickly zeroed in on Brian’s religious tradition – Pagan. They had a similar conversation around beliefs, practices and religious community. This driver turned out to be a practicing Pagan. When the taxi driver dropped him off, he said to Brian, “Funny, I just dropped a minister off at this same apartment a little while ago who came out of the same night club.”

It amazes me that the cabbie was Christian-sounding to me, and Pagan to Brian. The New York cynic in me wonders if part of that was playing to the tip. But there’s another side to it as well. The driver’s religious upbringing was still a large part of his values. Particular beliefs aside, he maintained the Christian sense of compassion to strangers, helping those in need, the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount. All of that came up explicitly or implicitly in our conversation. (We were both fast talkers.) And he held another set of beliefs as well. Does he get to do that and still call himself any particular religious tradition?

Yes. Yes, he does. There’s a difference between the words faith and belief. I feel this difference is both the source of unrest in our world, and the potential for healing. When values become secondary to belief, we walk dangerous ground; ideology then trumps character. Our American roots in 18th and 19th century Unitarianism, saw a direct connection between the state of our soul and the nature of our character. For preachers like Theodore Channing, character was a spiritual value; but character is based not on belief, but on action, values and commitments – living from a moral bedrock. Although coming from different places, we could argue what that bedrock should look like, but truth and facts seemed then to weigh more heavily than they appear to do these last 2 years with the expansion of social media, and the reduction of trust in journalism and Cable News. In a recent survey, only 32% of Americans trust the media these days.

Political gridlock in the House and the Senate, which ultimately impacted the future of the Presidency. Our recent (but frequent) history of voting pledges being demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation – we saw this mostly strongly in the rise of the Tea Party; although campaign promises seem to now be able to be dropped at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen; maybe campaign loyalty to established figures matters less than the cult of personality or the cult of simply feeling wronged. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion, or free-will, or non-violence. Ideology, or party unity, seems to trump common values to the point where folks can’t even see that they are doing that in the slightest.

Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve tended to conflate the two in the United States. For example, “You’re only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs.” But that’s a modern sense of religious life. It’s also a Western sense of religious life. I will also suggest, it’s not in line with central Christian teachings. And sorting through this difference may become increasingly more important for our democracy as our nation becomes more and more polarized over beliefs – we need to find our way back to our central values.

How has faith shifted to it’s modern understanding? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren’t trying to make the people believe that God existed, they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. …Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.

The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a “dual-belonging.” They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It’s both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary, or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.

From a Christian perspective, and this is the most radical thing I’m going to say today (I think), linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith was not originally a core Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…..” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[1] In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.

I believe the connection we often make between the use of the word faith and the use of the world belief effects how we engage with religious life. If religion is about hollow views we no longer espouse then we’re less likely to allow our hearts to stir before the sublime. Our heads take over, and we get trapped up here (pointing to my head) rather than responding from a place of warmth (hand over heart.) We’re reading a few words ahead in our hymns making sure that whatever we’re saying matches exactly our opinions, rather than being present for the connection of the spiritual communal act.

This cuts both ways. If one’s faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one’s religious life. Such an affront to the mind’s assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn’t take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies. And we are sadly and tragically seeing that expand rapidly, even in the past week since the election. Hate crimes are on the rise. Swastikas and the word “Trump” are being graffitied in tandem on progressive church walls, and in playgrounds in Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods. When right belief gets confused with right ideology and then right ideology gets connected with race, sexuality or religion, we have a real threat to our democracy and our basic American identity.

In Unitarian Universalism, we’re asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It’s an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to act with grace – ourselves. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief. Belief keeps us from living our faith – or rather I should say that strict adherence to our beliefs have a cost to them. What’s foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious.

I was talking with a former student minister of mine, now a UU clergy colleague, the Rev. Beth Dana. This Sunday last year, I had the privilege of offering the prayer of ordination and the laying on hands for her service of ordination in Dallas, Texas. She mentioned (with amazement) how many folks have said to her that they used to feel like they needed to check their brains at the door when they went to a church, and with UU they didn’t need to check their brains any longer. Beth is a life-long UU, so she never had the experience of a religious tradition that didn’t match with her intellectual understanding of the world. I think it’s a common experience for converts though. It can be a very freeing experience to finally find a religious home that allows for science and reason in its core values. (Starr Austin and I are leading a 7 part class on Adult Coming of Age, a sort of Credo Workshop on Second Sundays. Check in with her if you’d like to sign up, and you’ll have the refreshing chance to get support while working through your own beliefs in light of our UU tradition.)

The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a central pillar to our 7 principles. That being said – I want to challenge you by saying, “Check your brain at the door.” (W’oh, we might have just had our first UU heresy spoken from this pulpit.)… “Check your brain at the door.” I don’t mean stop being reasonable, or begin accepting of what anyone tells you as truth. I mean lets put a check on our brains – they’re in charge most of the time anyway. Let’s not give them a free ticket to running all aspects of our lives. Living in Long Island, there’s a high likelihood that you’re stressed by the cost of your rent or mortgage, or the weight of your student debt, or the credit card collectors calling, or a long stretch of unemployment, or the next regional test to make sure you get into the school you want to get into (or the school your kids want to get into), or your incredible work schedule, or the demands of your vocation. Just saying all these out loud raises my own anxiety level. These are all rational problems that require rational solutions to them. The technical steps we take to addressing them are matters for the brain.

When you walk through this threshold, I want to ask you to let another part of yourself take the reigns. We often think of this in terms of the heart. I would go a step further, let your soul come to the forefront. Let your guard down a little. Let go of your assumptions around the worst of religious life, and leave space for the best to grow here. I don’t mean to start buying whatever foolish thing someone says, but rather, allow who you are to shine without the running internal monologue categorizing everything. We have a million things that need our attention and care in the wider world; and you probably come here to work toward that as well. Ease down the trappings of the head, and let your heart give more guidance. Let values of love, and care override hate and indifference. Let character lead away from ideology. May relationships overcome intellectual isolations.

Robert Frost once said that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Good rational boundaries are helpful. But living perched on that fence all the time also makes it hard to go play in your yard. We might not have fundamentalism of the right in our congregation, but we sometimes have fundamentalism of the left. Take a step back from your beliefs, and search for the openness of the yard. That openness is what religion is about. Openness is what faith is really about.

And as, maybe we travel to see family for the holidays, or they travel to see us; let us remember this openness over difficult meals. Not an openness to empty unity in the face of difference of opinion, but an openness to get off our fences, or the need for fences in the first place. An openness to finding our shared values that build up our national character. For a healthy unity comes in values, not ideology. Matthew 25, which we briefly quoted in our sermon last Sunday, and I referenced at length today, reminds us what our central values are in caring for those in need (the hungry, and naked, and homeless, and imprisoned, and thirsty.) If you hear an ideology that calls for unity that denies this central value of the teachings of Jesus, it’s a false ideology and give it no room in your heart. Give it no room. Unity at the expense of our neighbor, is no unity, it’s the old lie of power and oppression dressed up in pretty words that ring hollow, and offer nothing but brokenness.

[1] Matthew 25:32-46

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Broken Twigs

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/6/16 for our annual All Souls day service.

I recently attended ten days of working conferences for religious professionals. One part of those conferences was primarily about having difficult conversations. How do we as leaders, how do we as religious people, have the difficult conversations around the big topics: money, race, death and sexuality. I was also asked to lead part of the workshops around race, identity and racism. Not surprisingly, the week started with the comparatively easy (I kid) topic of money, and (not surprisingly) saved sexuality for the last day.

One of the premises of the conference was that we needed to understand our frameworks around each of these topics if we’re to have the difficult conversations within our communities of faith. Where we start from, when we’re thinking about race or death, has as big (or even bigger) an impact than any set of facts or subset of knowledge on the topics. What’s our story about money or sexuality, and how do we tell it? One of the odd stand-outs for a very unusual conference for religious professionals, was realizing that if something happened to me, my husband would have a hard time figuring out where all of my investments, or retirement portfolios are, where my bank accounts are and so on. That’s something we’re working on fixing, but it taught me something about myself that I hadn’t quite realized: Part of me is still living, in some ways, a story of individuality.

Don’t get me wrong; almost everything that impacts our household goes through a rigorous schedule of fretting, and arguing – like any very happily married couple. But there are some habits of the single years, that I haven’t quite put to rest: shared documentation, shared calendars, and negotiating where we go for Thanksgiving and Christmas – all still trip us up – even after six years together. How do we start a shared google calendar – has become a near weekly refrain that despite all my tech savvy, I find extremely onerous. Individuality runs deep in our culture, and it’s a hard practice to unlearn – and I don’t think I’m alone here on this.

Another side of individuality is isolation. We all live in isolation at some time in our lives, even if we’re surrounded by people all the time. (And we don’t have to be alone to be in isolation.) It’s another story we tell ourselves: how alone are we…We can become most aware of it when we’re going through times of crisis – whether or not we have all the communal support we can ever dream of – how we relate to crisis can determine if we tell our story as individuals, or tell our story as part of something larger. Do we fight that struggle with cancer as lone warriors, or do we let ourselves lean on our friends and neighbors for moral support, even knowing still that we are the ones that have to go in for chemo? When our relationships wither, do we reach out, or do we hunker down? Having good friends and family – even when we have many of them – doesn’t necessarily mean we let them in when the road gets rough. Sometimes that might be the right choice – only you know that answer for yourself – but sometimes we think isolation is the best choice – even when it’s not.

I was listening to an interview with a comedian some of you may know, Patton Oswalt. He was being interviewed on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this week. He’s a man in his mid to late forties with a 7 year old daughter. Six months ago, his wife suddenly died in her sleep – there was no warning. She had been working very long hours and he finally convinced her to stay home and get some sleep; there was an accidental and very tragic dose of sleeping medication…. He’s been very public with his grief, and is only now getting back to work in comedy. Something he said about grief in the interview really struck me as true. “If you don’t talk about it, then grief really gets to setup and fortify its positions inside of you and begin to immobilize you. But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, then grief doesn’t get the chance to organize itself, and maybe you can move on better and easier…

…[grief] can’t be remedied, it must be endured – and it’s the endurance, oddly enough, that becomes the remedy.”

He goes on to talk about how he’s found that not only has talking about his grief with others helped him to move forward with his life as an individual and now as a widowed dad of a young child, but he’s learned that his sharing has helped others in extreme grief find avenues for healing. Speaking our stories has a healing power that can help us get back to living more fully after times of great loss.

This reminds me of the old folk saying about twigs. Take any twig you find and try to snap it. It’ll break pretty easily. Put that same twig into a bundle with other twigs, and it gets harder and harder to break. I think when we separate ourselves too long from one another, from community or friends, we can become like that singular twig. Life’s pressures can become too much; grief or loss can become too much – and we don’t have to do it alone.

Alone or together – the story we tell about our life changes us. British fiction author Terry Pratchett said, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” All this month we are imagining what it means to be a people of story. Well, we are a people of story. Our services just about begin weekly with a story, and most of my sermons start by telling another type of story – basically parables of daily living. For us, we don’t have to imagine being a people of story as much as consciously realize how deeply stories impact our lives and our living.

What are the stories you come back to year after year? What stories do we raise our kids on, and why? Which stories defined your character, or pull on your heart strings, or get you in the gut when they resonate with what’s happening in your life? As Pratchett writes, people are shaped by stories – we should choose our stories wisely. And we should choose the stories we tell about our lives just as wisely. What negative story do you choose to try to convince yourself is true about you? I spoke about separation and isolation before, but there are many other stories we tell about ourselves that harm more than help.

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was sharing a story about their congregation on Facebook. (I have permission to share this here.) He wrote, “One thing that I never expected to be quite so good at – helping calm really little kids down who are missing their parents. I wonder if this sort of inherent knowledge came when I was hired as a DRE, or if it was there all along.” On one level, there’s a story we all tell about our capacity to be in the world; what we’re good at, what we’re bad at, and what our roles are in our lives. But on the spiritual level, his story reminded me about the central purpose of communities of faith – and I don’t say this flippantly.All religious life is essentially helping one another struggle through our separation anxiety: our sense of separation from the Holy, from God, from one another. In times of grief, we remember those who have died in our lives. In times of change, we hold one another’s hands to remember we’re not alone. In the every day, or maybe for you only a few times in your life, we struggle with whether there is meaning and depth to this world; whether we’re part of something greater. For some the answer is community, or compassion, or justice-building. For the more mystical among us, I believe we’re never truly alone – but despair sets in when we forget that truth. Religious life is helping one another through our struggle with separation and isolation, through grief and loss. And the other side of that struggle is a question of the spirit – and an answer that draws us back out – again and again.

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