Archive for October, 2017

Living Past Fear

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/29/17 as part of our All Souls Day service. It puts Reinhold Niebuhr in conversation with Pema Chodron reflecting on hope, hopelessness and peace.

 

Maybe the first tenet of preaching, or at least the most important, is to make sure folks come out hearing a message of hope. But today, this service commemorating All Souls, is different. Another year has gone by. A life full of hopes, and dreams – of losses and disappointments. Some the small everyday kind that we carry with us way beyond reason, and some tragic losses that impact us keenly and deeply, whose wounds will not go away for a very long time – if they ever truly leave us. Sometimes hope isn’t a virtue, but a merely wish for what can simply not be. All Souls is a day to honor and remember those we have lost; to remember the truth that death comes inevitably to all of us. We pray that we learn to enjoy the sweetness of life, of friendship, of community – for as long as we are given.

The Serenity Prayer – which the choir sung earlier – is a powerful reminder on days like today. We heard how the prayer begins – the part many of us know by heart. “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.” Hope is sometimes the opposite of acceptance. It can get us through the day, and sometimes like faith, it changes our trajectory for the better. But before hardships that can not be affected, hope in changing them only brings more pain. There’s a peace in accepting what can not be changed – and moving from that place forward in our lives.

But the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, goes on: “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.” This extended part of the prayer speaks directly to a Neo-Orthodox Christian sense of the world. Niebuhr was a theologian speaking to a post-world War II world. Progressive Christianity was dominant in the States prior to the Second World War – known well as the Social Gospel movement. We’re seeing a way in which that movement is resurgent again through Moral Mondays and Rev. Dr. William Barber. But in the 1950s, progressive Christians couldn’t effectively articulate a theology of hope and grace in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Theologians like Niebuhr, moved Christianity forward – centering sin as the focal point of human suffering. Skipping past the pain and suffering of the world – directly to hope – wasn’t going to be a lasting theology that gave meaning, understanding and a framework for spiritual living – in the face of such horrors that the 1940s brought.

This prayer’s bedrock though, is a spiritual discipline that transcends doctrine. Living one day at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; accepting this world as it is, not as I would have it. It didn’t mean that we don’t seek to change the world, where we are complicit in suffering – the prayer starts by telling us to change the things we can. But it does teach that true spiritual growth, the healing of our hearts, begins first with acceptance. Sometimes hope – gets in the way of acceptance.

There’s another, more contemporary, theologian who has been very powerful for me in times of grief. I quote Pema Chodron in sermons from time to time. She’s a Canadian Buddhist Nun, teacher and prolific writer. Her book, “When Things Fall Apart” found its way into my life at a time when I was ending a long-term relationship that I was sure was going to last, I was working a temporary job that I knew was ending in a few months, I was wracking up remarkable amounts of graduate student debt, and someone had just broken into the car I was borrowing (from a congregant) during my student ministry costing me close to a thousand dollars in repairs to windows and the dashboard in their effort to steal a $50 radio. It was far more money than I earned in any given month. Things were falling apart. If you’re in a place like that now, I recommend that book strongly.

But there’s a section in there I rarely talk about with folks. It’s a theology that’s very close to the edge of what would not preach well here. The chapter is called, “Abandon Hope.” Now – first off – don’t abandon hope. There are so many struggles in life that will pass. Everything I mentioned just a moment ago in the scheme of that time in my life where everything was falling apart – are just shadows and dreams now. Hope for the things that we can change – and the wisdom to know the difference – is vital.

But here’s an excerpt from her teachings that may help today.  “As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot. In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.”

…Insecurity and pain… We all face it. Sometimes we allow it to rule our lives over the small things. And sometimes the heart-crushing losses of our lives put them legitimately at the front and center of our spirit. I normally talk about the small every day hurts from the pulpit; but today on All Souls, we’re tentatively heading toward life’s greatest loss – our loved ones and ultimately – ourselves.

The Western world sometimes looks at Buddhist notions of enlightenment as some super human power to no longer feel insecurity and pain. Some New Age circles will paint enlightenment as the ability to magically be above all that. Pema Chodron is pointing toward a different truth. Insecurity and pain will never leave us – but we can come to relax in that groundlessness and find a deeper peace. “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.” It’s the point where Neo-Orthodox Christianity meets Buddhism. When I find those points, I try to attend the teaching very carefully – it’s probably speaking to a deep truth in life. Living one day at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; accepting this world as it is, not as I would have it.

Pema Chodron goes on to say, “Death can be explained as not only the endings in life but all of the things in life that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working; our job isn’t coming together. Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time warding off death is our biggest motivation. Warding off any sense of problem, trying to deny that change is a natural occurrence, that sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing and its as natural as the seasons changing. But getting old, sick, losing love – we don’t see those events as natural. We want to ward them off, no matter what.”

For some of us here today, grief and death are not close at hand. We may  have suffered loss some time ago, but the sting is not as harsh so many years later. But you may be wrestling with saving or ending your marriage. Or work and career are just not panning out. When hopelessness stays turned inward, and it plays havoc with our minds, it’s a damaging thing. But experience of hopelessness, informing our outward actions, can make us more compassionate people. Faith – at its best – teaches us to treat others as we would have wanted to be treated when we too were at our lowest moment. And any one of us today could be at our lowest low – and we might even be moving around with the biggest smile on our face, even though our hearts are breaking. Remember that, when you come through our doors. Remember that, when you just want to rage at the people around you for not being nearly as perfect as you think you are. We want to strive to instill compassion in this often unforgiving world, but we can’t force compassion through ire, or rage, or petty acts that lift our egos above those around us. Change does occur – time is slipping by – we’re all aging everyday. We may hate that, but it’s natural. Warding off change, rarely makes us kinder to be around.

The crux of Pema Chodron’s teaching around the Abandon Hope magnet on our refrigerators is this: “When we talk about hopelessness and death, we’re talking about facing facts. No escapism. Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter whats going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.” To our Western understanding, there’s a way in which this may sound callous. If your grief is recent, don’t take this to mean to rush to lose your grief. You may break yourself if try to. But when time has passed – there’s a point where we have to accept the things we can not change, if we’ll ever be able to find joy again.

Part of me wanted to call this week’s service, “Abandon Hope” but the optics would have been horrid, and I kind of wanted a few people to actually show up. So the sermon is entitled Living Past Fear – which is another way of saying the same thing. Giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment before us – in all it’s hardship, and in all the fear it stirs, deep in our bones – brings us into direct relationship with this precious life we have been given.

 

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Arm in Arm (UN Sunday)

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/22/17 as part of our annual service for UN Sunday. This year’s focus is on militarization, peace and the hidden lies ingrained in our conscience. 

 

Last April, about six of us from our Fellowship attended the annual UU-UNO Spring Seminar, in NYC. It’s a two day learning retreat for youth, and adults; for both lay leaders and religious professionals. It was held at a very challenging time – both within our broader world and from within our own denomination. Just a few days earlier, our former denominational president, Peter Morales, chose to resign amid a public discussion around hiring practices at our UUA Headquarters, that appeared to preference white men. The Interim Co-Presidents that followed would indicate we have much work and reflection to do on our denominational hiring practices – and that work is being done with deliberation now. …The Spring Seminar was focusing on demilitarization in the world – guns, chemical weapons, use of drones, and the history of the nuclear disarmament movement – with the spirit that the more we know and understand, the more effective we can be in achieving a more peaceful world. While we were hearing a talk by a former military chaplain on the threat of nuclear proliferation, President Trump was just beginning to escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea.

We learn in context and story. Those lessons on organizing for peace, locally and globally, will grow and be informed from a time where visible leadership was missing from the top; but much leadership was clearly happening on the ground. Although I’m very much an institutionalist at heart, I recognize that the “institutions” we value most are strongest when the whole of the community is engaged. I learned a lot of facts about militarization at the seminar, but the most important lesson was one of perspective. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; it just changed. 

We learn in context and with story. What stories do we tell about peace and war? When I was a kid in school, I was told the story that in World War II, dropping the atomic bomb saved countless lives because the war would have gone on for years otherwise. That’s a pretty close paraphrase of what was written in our expensive history textbooks. I wasn’t told the part of the story that Japan was planning to surrender before the second bomb was dropped. As a kid, I never asked the questions: Why were we ok with dropping the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians, but not ok with doing so to German civilians? Why did we need to take the most drastic action to speed up the conclusion of one front of the war, and not another? What’s the value of a life; and whose life matters more? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.

And this story, this context, is an old one for humanity; we prop ourselves up at the expense of another’s humanity. This is the point in the debate around war or peace where public discourse usually gets sidetracked by discussions of just war theory. “What’s the intellectual line demarcating when use of force is ethical?” We’re not going to do that today. We’re going to stay present to the harder truth hiding in plain sight – militarization impacts along racial lines in Western Civilization.  The peace movement didn’t disappear, it just changed. Today, the peace movement is focused on dismantling white supremacy.

And to be fair, even that really isn’t any change at all. Martin Luther King, Jr was a prominent peace activist who diligently made the connections for a broader white populace that was trying hard not to find those connections. “And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home they can’t hardly live on the same block together.” But I also wasn’t taught this in school. When I was a kid, our history lessons ended with the Civil Rights era. We were taught that black protesters were protesting for black rights. And the peace movement was solely made up of hippies. That’s certainly what all the photos looked like in our new history textbooks. Well as untrue as that was then, it’s still untrue today, for this generation. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; and maybe it didn’t even materially change; but I’d like to think that we’re at least learning to talk about it more honestly.

But we are not all learning to do so, honestly. When athletes across our nation protest police killings of civilians, and our wider militarization of the police, folks fabricate an imaginary disrespect for our military – rather than address the fact of so many civilian deaths. The freedom of speech is somehow not relevant to the story tellers. When we endure yet another mass shooting, gun sales skyrocket, and we’re told it’s never time to talk about it. But the right to bear arms somehow matters though to the same storytellers.

We learn with story and context. What’s the story we choose to tell? We learned of the death of 4 of our soldiers in Niger. The tragic loss has mostly focused on whether or not the President was callous in his condolence call to one widow. I’m going to stay away from the politicization of these deaths, and reflect more on the nature of peace in this globalized world. There’s another aspect to this tragedy that’s just starting to get attention. It’s a lesson on how race and peace are intertwined. In a September 25th New York Times article, “The addition of Chad to Mr. Trump’s travel ban took that country’s government by surprise and bewildered analysts of Central Africa. In a statement, the government expressed “ incomprehension in the face of the official reasons for this decision, which contrasts with Chad’s constant efforts and commitments in the fight against terrorism.” It called on President Trump to rethink the decision, “which has seriously affected the image of Chad and the good relations maintained by the two countries.” This travel ban took effect on October 18th. According to Reuters and NBC, Chad began withdrawing troops they were using to support our soldiers against Boko Haram in Niger right before four of our soldiers were killed. Will we take this tragic lesson to heart, and stop weakening our long standing partnerships with allies? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.

In Western Civilization, the roots of such discord run deep. If we teach our kids that the history of the world is cleaner than it’s been, that we’re more innocent than we are, and that everything can be simplified into the good guys and the bad guys, history will repeat itself until the very literal end of days. We need to foster a new kind of courage – the courage to self-reflect with honesty.

There’s an easy escape for us when we start to talk about our history. It’s the common philosophy that haters gonna hate (to quote the popular theologian, Taylor Swift.) We ease our guilt by believing that some people are just filled with hate in their hearts, and we’re helpless to change that. And to be sure, there are folks all over this globe that are likewise convinced that we’re all just filled with hate in our hearts. As Ben spoke of earlier in the service, that perception has given terrorist groups a windfall in recruiting. How could drone strikes on civilian targets ever be done by a compassionate people? We could debate that for hours in our comfortable chairs, but I doubt it would convince a family that lost an innocent parent or sibling to our efficiency.

There are some lies that get free rent in our heads. Bad ethics that remain alive in our worldview because we forgot they were ever there, let alone informing our values and perceptions. I’m going to talk about two of them now, and ask us to reflect on how they still impact our lives today. The courage to reflect, honestly, is the next movement we can make to head toward a world that chooses to center peace as a value.

Manifest Destiny first entered our US conscious in 1845, when a newspaper writer by the name of O’Sullivan coined it in response to a border dispute with Britain over what is now known as Oregon. “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Monroe, wrote, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.”

The 19th century US would be colored by this deadly ethic. In the name of our “special” American virtues, we would clear ourselves of the sin and the horror of genocide. The thinking went that it was our divine fate, so we ought to expand without limit, regardless of the consequences. It’s the classic fallacy that the ends justify the means. We diminish those we choose to feel as different, and peace is at risk. We center greed, and the world expands its weaponry.

The idea of Manifest Destiny came about over a land dispute between two colonizing powers over who had the right to claim stolen lands of people we murdered. But we would tell a different story. One famous piece of art depicts Manifest Destiny as a beautiful woman in a white flowing gown floating in the air inspiring the westward expansion of American farmers; peaceful, virtuous and prosperous. That’s the story we would tell instead of the honest one. When we coach what is ugly in terms of beauty, we empower brutality. All of us now would overtly condemn Manifest Destiny as a failure of a prior generation, but we repeat it still to this day. It wasn’t even a year ago that our militarized police showed up in force to Native Americans peacefully protesting an oil pipeline on their own land. That would end with water hoses being used on Native Americans in the freezing Winter. All of it completely legal. Why as a nation would we not unanimously retract in horror at that abuse? It’s the unreflected lie that remains hidden in our collective psyche.

The second hidden lie that informs our ethic is similar, but goes back further in our history. Unlike Manifest Destiny, this lie is formally sanctioned in our judicial precedents – the Doctrine of Discovery. European monarchies would use it to validate conquest outside of Europe. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas would say that this only applied to non-Christian lands. “In 1823, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. M’Intosh that the discovery rights of European sovereigns had been transferred to the new United States: The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.” Associate Justice Joseph Story, a Unitarian, (1779-1845) later wrote: “As infidels, heathens, and savages, they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations.”

I’m not sure how we ever go back now, and that’s not the focus today, but let’s sit with this reality for a moment. We have ensconced, in the highest court of our land, that justice doesn’t mean justice…. And in 2016 we are aiming water hoses, in freezing temperatures, on Native people when they’re on their own land – their own land.

We’ve been speaking a lot this season about how small actions can lead to big change. Violence, war, militarization – are huge crises. It’s mostly true to say that we individually can’t impact this, and not quickly. But we have a commitment our Fellowship made as a site of peace. If you head out our main doors, you’ll notice a peace pole with peace written in numerous languages. We dedicated that here as part of our denominational process around committing to the work of centering peace in our communal lives. The next small thing for us all to do, is to strive toward putting on a new pair of glasses when we look out into the world. When we read the news, when we talk with extended family over awkward holiday meals. We learn in context, and with story. How do we let some stories get told, and retold?

I’ll close with these words, from the Rev. Jake Morrill, another UU minister. He was saying this specifically to white UU ministers as a challenge to lean into our privilege. But it’s a helpful meditation focus for this work of centering peace.  “Do you know how the Copernican revolution was the insight that the earth revolves around the sun, and that we were not at the center of the universe? Well, a few decades later, Giordano Bruno postulated the universe in which the solar system was not at the center of the universe, either – – but instead existed amidst many galaxies, beyond imagination. So the idea is that we white man, who have been raised to imagine ourselves the center of everything, might begin to inhabit a world in which we are only one perspective.” …Peace will not travail if we continue to all imagine we’re each individually the center of the universe.

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Being Small in a Big World

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/15/17 and focuses on how small actions can have big impacts. It looks at baseball as a starting point for social change.

 

In my twenties, I was a big fan of baseball. For most of that decade, I got season tickets to the Mets. A friend and I would rush out to Shea stadium from NJ after work, park what seemed like a mile from the game, and kinda get lost in the excitement of the crowd. I fell for the Mets mostly because their games seemed more over the top. The Yankees were maybe annoyingly perfect, but the Mets, the Mets were a roller coaster – they’d have their high highs and their low lows. They’d win big on big plays, and they’d lose horribly for the same reasons. I remember being at the game where Mike Piazza hit his 300th home run and put him on track for being the best hitting catcher of all time. The crowds, the noise, the horns, the cheers. In my memory, I recall confetti, but I doubt that really happened. It’s what some of us call “big baseball.”

I’m not much of a watcher of baseball these days any longer. When I went to grad school, schedules shifted, and it became too difficult to regularly get to a game. I’ve seen two games recently through winning the bid at our annual services auction – thankfully folks have great taste in the Mets here. But otherwise, I’ve not followed much. And I’m not really a fan of watching the game on TV. The excitement of the crowd is gone. And the TV broadcasters are honestly horrible at telling the story of the game. When I do watch at a friend’s baseball party for post-season, we turn off the audio on the TV, and turn on to the radio station covering it. That gets some of the magic back. Bad food somehow helps too.

But all of these big singular plays, are the opposite of what we’re talking about today in service. There’s another kind of baseball, from our other hometown team – the Yankees. They’ve certainly got their big moments, but the history of that team is much more about small baseball. Winning a game, play by play. Teamwork. Not swinging for the bleachers every time, but swinging for where the next team mate needs to be able to go. You can appreciate the skill in the teamwork, but it’s more about each role and each play, than the ball hitting the Giant Apple that’s way out of the stadium. Small baseball.

The short stop knows where to be when he needs to be there. The third basemen probably isn’t pitching, and the coach isn’t going up to bat. But each has a role, maybe with a bit of range depending on the play, but they win based on how well they adapt their role to the roles of others around them. Winning games is about being in right relationship with each of the other teammates around them.

Congregational life – when done well – is like playing small ball. Sure, we can do some really amazing things when one of our skilled members swings for the bleachers: 1) I’m thinking of how Frances Whittelsey spearheaded the Huntington Station Community gardens – home run. Or how Helen Boxwill leads an active life-saving international ministry getting water to communities in need, and building up educational infrastructure abroad – another home run. Taking a swing for the far reaches, and connecting. That’s part of our work here too.

And as awesome as that is – and it is amazing ministry – it’s important to remember that so much of succeeding in this big world, is playing the small plays too; and playing to our strengths when we do them. Someone’s got to make the coffee; someone has to clean up the kitchen after Fellowship hour is over. I’m horrible at repairs and painting, so you’re not going to have me up on a ladder with a brush, ever. But you might put me in the pulpit from time to time, and I’ve got a kind of role here around coaching of a sort as well, among other things.

But that’s true for all of our committee work, our justice work, and our outreach service. Starr spoke at length about all the small plays that have made our Grow To Give Garden a success – with it’s aim for 1000 pounds of fresh produce for the food pantry this year. Greta spoke the same about HiHi – our men’s shelter for migrant workers. Later in the service we’ll show a montage, with some photos, of the success of small ball we’ve had over the past year and a half. Much of that was collated and encouraged by our own home-grown pitching coach – the Long Range Planning team. Every ministry team needs to act on their own best judgment, always in relationship with the other teammates in congregational life. And it’s helpful to have a coach set our sights; to give a little course correction on how we bend our elbows on the throw, from time to time. So in a way, today’s service is a way to celebrate Long Range Planning’s coaching.

But there’s a life lesson to this for each of us too. We can’t always get our way – our individual way. Teamwork is one of those lessons we all get taught in kindergarten that it then takes the next 75+ years to vaguely get close to mastering. (But we probably think we’re masters at by the age of 15, or 35 or 50, or 65…). Who here thinks I’m wrong, and believes they’re individually entitled to get their individual way (show of hands.) What happens when (you two) disagree? Who is more entitled to their individual way?

That’s the challenge around everyone knowing best how the world should work; it’s particularly hard when we try to force our way without seriously considering the needs, expertise and goals of those around us. When our Fellowship helped spear-head the formation of HiHI, our men’s shelter for migrant workers, we didn’t accomplish that by catering to everyone’s individual preferences. We partnered up (ultimately) with over 15 houses of worship in 7 different sanctuaries. We’re even working with other religious groups that we have very strong disagreements with – particularly around matters that pertain to civil rights. I’m sometimes working with clergy who awkwardly shuffle around if I mention my husband.

We can work on that too over time, but we first start by working together on the things we do agree on. So if we can make progress on big things, even when there are sometimes huge philosophical differences on matters that are really important, we can certainly figure out how to work together ourselves when we disagree over the color of a wall, or the font on a page. (Right? Can I get an amen for still working together despite deeply held disagreements over font choice?) (And for those who are still in shock over the request for an amen in worship, thank you for still remaining present with us, we’ll get through that too.)

Spiritually, small baseball, is another way of talking about smaller egos. In the crush of America’s all-too-often culture of me, my and I – it’s another antidote for mindfully moving through the urge to center our own wants and preferences over the wants, preferences and more importantly, the needs of our neighbors. So for our sports players in the room, I offer you the spiritual discipline of playing-small-ball-meditation for your consideration. It’s sometimes less exciting, and it’s definitely a bit less about you (which is probably better for the long-term health of the soul and the heart). But even though I’m a Mets fan, the Yankees win more games playing small ball; so it might be a better way anyway to play to win.

And for our congregational members and leaders (which is a very fancy way of saying anyone in the room right now, and probably a bunch of folks who were dodging this sermon this week too, who are not in the room), I too offer you the spiritual discipline of small-ball-congregational-life-meditation. We each do our part; and we each need to do it, in right relationship with the folks around us. No stomping of feet when well meaning people disagree in good faith; but also recognizing that the small things add up in this big world; and we need a lot of small things to get accomplished to ever hope to impact this big world. And the world needs our help in impacting it right now, very much.

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