This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.
Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.
That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.
Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.
It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.
My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.
Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.
We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.
Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”
Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?
“And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.”
…Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.
I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”
This Christmas Eve sermon reflects on the teachings of Jesus, the work of Christmas, and wonders about the Herods of today.
Merry Christmas everyone! We’ve come to the still and quiet hour of the year once more. The longest night has passed only a short time ago. The light is lengthening our days. We call for peace from our hearts. We gather around our tree, with sparkling light in the air, and music on our lips, waiting for a child to be born – once again – in our minds and souls – a child – a hope – for this troubled world.
We come together in community. Kindling just a little more wonder in our lives. We sing carols that bring us back to our childhood. We teach our children how to sing joy into our neighborhoods and our homes. Expectation becomes a virtue in this season of miracles. Grace can enter our lives at any time. We wait with hushed voices, or a smile on our lips. May good will prevail. May there be peace on earth. May it begin with us – again and again.
The story of the manger, happens after the passing of the longest night. Often, we think of it in terms of the story of hope overcoming the darkest night. But the dark of night is given too little credit in our busy, frenetic world. The long nights of the year give us pause. The noise, and work, and bustle of the daylight hours slow to a contemplative pace. We’re more thoughtful in the dark, more tentative, more deliberate. This night, the dark is not a fearful thing, the dark takes on a hopeful, wise presence. Maybe the dark is always such a force, but on this night, our hearts turn so that we can rightly know it for its depth.
It’s a time of reflection, of yearning for wisdom, of making space for the important things – the important people – in our lives. The beautiful lights we trim our homes and our streets with, aren’t overcoming the darkness, the darkness is highlighting the beauty of our spirits when we are the most poetic, the most artistic. Awe and wonder are sometimes easier to see in the dark. …The stars the wise men followed, could only be seen in the dark.
So with all the sound and noise that easily distract us in our fast-paced lives, let us be present to the lessons of the dark of night, taught in this story from ancient times. At the time of Jesus’ birth, we hear a story of a ruler who is willing to sacrifice the infants of a town, to protect his own power and life of extravagance: The wants of the most powerful, taking precedence over the basic needs of the most vulnerable. The very birth story of Jesus is a clear repudiation of the false gospel of wanton greed, of baseless ego. Salvation is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The great and the powerful are the villains of the Christmas story, and take no part in the nativity scene.
The Herods of today… take away health care for low-income children, to afford extravagance for those who have so much already. As the baby Jesus lies in the manger this night, we are watching CHIP (Child Health Insurance) being defunded in the dead of night. Low-income families, much like Mary and Joseph in tonight’s lesson, will be turned away yet again, when they’re in their most need.
The Herod’s of today… take close look at the refugee children coming into their towns, fearful that they may signal the end of their reign of greed. As Mary and Joseph seek refuge for themselves and their child, we wait with the young Dreamers – children born in our country – fearful of being deported to a land they never knew, a land they’ve never even been to – wondering if our nation can become big enough to match its highest aspirations.
The Bible teaches these stories, not as a singular theological lesson separate from the world we live in. The bible teaches these stories, these stories have life to generation after generation, because they speak to a spirituality that is embedded in human community. The adult Jesus will teach us that however we treat our neighbor, is how we are treating Jesus. It’s so important a teaching, that it’s one of the few things he says straight out, and not couched in a parable. The baby Jesus, silently draws attention to his family, in need, who are turned out again and again from inns with no room for these poor migrant workers.
If we ever wonder what role we would have played in the manger story, we only need to look to how we respond to the refugee, to the migrant worker, to the child in need of care, to the poor just trying to get by in a world that closes door after door to them. If this is hard to sit with, if this is uncomfortable to hear, remember that the baby Jesus would grow into a man who made a vocation of making people uncomfortable; uncomfortable to inequity, uncomfortable to greed, uncomfortable to corruption of the powerful. He survived the Herod of his day, to teach others to notice the Herod’s of their day. The manger story happened 2000 years ago, and it happens anew in each generation. That is why the bible teaches this story, again and again.
And then the wise men came, the three kings from the East arrived toward the end of the story. Wealth, and power, and privilege would be the last to the witness the new birth, not the first. The three kings are mostly silent figures in the story, aside from deciding not to betray the young family, and turn away from Herod’s prodding for the location of the refugees in the manger. …Is that why they were wise, listening to the warning of the angel to turn away?
Earlier, we heard a poem, “The Riding of the Kings” by Eleanor Farjeon, that as best I can find was written somewhere in the first half of the 20th century. She lived from 1881 to 1965. “And one was old, and one was young, And one was in between. The middle one had human sense, The young had loving eyes, The old had much experience, And all of them were wise.” And all of them were wise…the poet disconnects wisdom from human sense, from loving eyes, and from experience. Three traits many of us would consider marks of wisdom. “Oh, far away in time they rode Upon their wanderings, And still in story goes abroad The riding of the kings: So wise, that in their chosen hour, As though the world they filed, They sought not wealth or place or power, But rode to find a child.” Their wisdom was not in what they achieved, or what they might have been previously known for – their wisdom was shown in the central choice of the Christmas message: Not wealth, nor place, nor power. They sought out not what was fleeting, but rode to find a child.
May we once again this Christmas, return to quiet of the dark night. In the longness of this night, may we find hope for newness, birthed in the most unlikely of places. May we grow to be the innkeepers who choose not to turn away those in need. Where we are wise, may we seek not what is fleeting, but what is eternal. Merry Christmas.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/3/17 beginning the season of Advent reflecting on the everyday choices we make in the face of worldly greed. This takes a hard look at the pending Tax Bill before the US House and Senate.
“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” We heard those words earlier from our choir. John Mayer made them famous in his 2006 song, Waiting on the World to Change. From time to time, I hear folks use the song to reference a certain spirit of change coming from our millennial generation. And I’m so grateful for that and for the generation after me. Please, by all means, have at it – we need all of us to thrive. But Mayer is my age peer – two years younger; I’ve always felt a strong resonance with it, and this song has always felt to me to be one of the Gen X anthems – at least for my fellow Gen X on my end of the generation.
In 2006, when this song came out, I had just finished up 400 hours of what they call Clinical Pastoral Education at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. All the chaplains were on call from time to time throughout the hospital, but we all had a focus. My focus was Pediatric ICU, the CCU and the ER. Holding eyes with patients who were going under for immediate surgery; moving family away from some of the work they would not ever want to see; talking with a stranger who was suddenly and shockingly facing what they never imagined would occur on a random weeknight. The children’s hospital was amazing; kids who really had no hope elsewhere, would find hope there. The ER was frequently used as primary care for patients without health insurance. My role was purely pastoral – being a human presence in a place where so many practical things needed to get done, and not enough time in the day.
Being located up in the 150’s, speaking Spanish was a real need in some cases, and although my Spanish is weak these days from lack of use, it was worse back then. The story from last week about my trip to Guatemala, actually came about because of this time working at that hospital. A mom and her baby were trying to get urgent care, and no one nearby could understand her. I ultimately helped her find her way, but it took way longer than it needed to. It all turned out alright, but that’s not always the case. Right after CPE ended, I booked that trip to work on my Spanish. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.
That time working at the hospital rounded out another aspect of my community work over the years: access to health care. Before the ministry, I worked for a republican mayor in NYC, focused on using my tech, and public policy training, to work with a team that got affordable health care to an additional 80,000 New Yorkers that year – including any child being eligible regardless of income or immigration status. I had the challenge of doing the analysis in such a way as to not track immigration status, while still finding the kids that needed the care. The republican mayor didn’t want to risk turning our agency into an ICE office, and wanted kids not to die for reasons that could be avoided.
Now, I’m not going to talk politics about this – I’m lifting it up as a measuring stick, as a form of marker of the times. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could go from non-profit advocacy working to pressure a particular mayor’s office to improve on affordable housing, straight to working for that same mayor to implement access to health care. There was a certain practical, sensible civility that seems to have disappeared in recent years. And even more stunning looking back, that access to health care, came about because of Mayor Guiliani. A basic conservative value said, it was cheaper to care for patients with their primary care doctors, than using emergency rooms as primary care. That seemed to get lost over the intervening decade of sound bytes and media fueled culture wars. Common discourse shifted from nuance – to needing to be right, and more importantly, needing others to be wrong. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices. Do we seek to find what’s best for all our community, or do we seek to make sure others are just wrong?
Waiting on the world to change, and for a new generation to take the lead, won’t happen some distant day in the future. It happens bit by bit, day by day. The holidays are a time of year that many of us turn toward introspection. Although we can see with the brilliance of 20/20 vision what has come before, especially after much time has past, it’s the incremental living that adds up to a new world. Not all the things all at once, but the culmination of intentions by impacts by intentions. …Even one generation leading, is a misnomer. Our mentors lead, or inspire the change we bring about. Those of you who are teachers, are setting the stage for new ways. Those of you who are parents, or grandparents, can serve as a bedrock for the next generation. To the role models in our Fellowship, know that you are avidly being watched, and followed, probably in all that you do. (I hope that is more a source of inspiration than of trepidation. We need you to be inspired right now. Even with all the chaos of the world, it’s still ok to be inspired but what still may be.)
And it should be a source of inspiration! We will not accomplish everything there is to every accomplish. But if our kids and our kids’ kids, will someday lead the way, how that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow. So in this seemingly perpetual climate of avarice, greed, and hypocrisy, choose to act, live and grow in ways that build up a more just foundation for our neighborhoods.
We have entered the season of Advent; the season of waiting for the good word, that we know will soon arrive. A miracle of new birth, that we have done nothing ourselves to accomplish. We’re called to be attentive, to be open, to what new paths of hope, joy and possibility may soon quicken in our lives. This is a spiritual teaching, but it’s also a challenging social teaching, a challenging political teaching. Religious author, Neal A. Maxwell, writes, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room.” When we hear the Christmas story, year after year, do we ever imagine ourselves as the innkeepers? Those who turned the young family away, time after time, or the one who decided he could make room with the animals for these refugees? With all the talk of religious intolerance these days; with the desperate needs of refugees the world over; where are we the innkeepers in our life story? The season of Advent is not only about waiting for the arrival of the homeless boy seeking shelter in night. It’s about waiting to see what role we will play in the story – our story – this sacred story of life. How do we act, live and grow in our everyday choices. As news turns to news turns to news, we can rewrite the Advent story to be about waiting for Herod to find the baby Jesus, (for the Vassal Despot to find the middle-eastern refugee) or we can wait for our next lines that will help to birth a new world, to be the innkeeper that chooses to make what room we can. The innkeeper that said yes, to the family that had no shelter, may not be the hero of the story we teach about again and again, but they were certainly one of the many heroes in the story. The change we make doesn’t have to center ourselves in the story, to make a world of difference; often in fact, it’s the other way around.
In light of what is going on in the wee hours of the night this weekend, I need to take a small detour from Advent, but we’ll find our way back quite soon. We had two tax bills pass this week, that were written with such obscurity, that senators were voting without having fully read it, without the public being fully informed, and with financial reporting at places like Fortune magazine, saying it was potentially the largest wealth transfer in American history, from the poor and middle class to the super wealthy. As more reporting comes out this morning, this seems to be worse and worse. At a time in our religious life where we are focused on the teachings of the birth of hope for the poor, the weak, the hungry, the sick, lost and the refugee, our government is ensconcing the very opposite in our tax code. I’m heartsick. In biblical language, this is cause to don sackcloth and ashes, rather than garlands gay and singing; a time for less Fa La La, and more a time to seek communal repentance. It’s naked avarice, pure and simple.
I had a moment of fear, when I heard the news sometime around 1am Saturday morning. I was watching the feed live on Facebook. It means less protection for health services for our elderly, and our poor. Remember the health insurance for children I spoke about working on earlier in this sermon – that program costing about 15 billion nationally would be eliminated to give a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut to corporations. It means a ballooning deficit. For my generation and the next, the impacts from our student loans will skyrocket. Practically no reputable economist disagrees – and that’s just from what we knew of prior to the 12th hour adjustments that were voted on without being reviewed. It’s more than a tax rewrite, it’s a massive rewriting of our cultural fabric, and I feared it was already too late. A colleague of mine, Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, a UU minister serving in another part of New York State, publicly reminded many of us, “Just so we’re clear on how a bill becomes a law, the disaster that passed the House has to be reconciled with the abomination that passed the Senate. Then the resulting horror will have to pass both chambers again. This fight isn’t over.” …“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.
The choice for each of us, in this sacred season of waiting, is how will you be engaged? In our liminal spaces, where we are feeling stuck between what was, and what will be, we often understand waiting as a sort of passive, helpless state. Waiting with indifference may be that, but spiritually speaking, waiting can be a deeper path. Waiting can have a tenacious quality to it. In the Advent season, we are taught to tenaciously wait for the coming of the birth of the good news; that peace and justice will someday prevail. It’s not a possibility, but the end point in the Christian tradition, the culmination of the teachings of one of the world’s greatest teachers.
Joy and hope do not come to this world from positions of power, privilege or prestige. In the weeks to come, and the year to come, as we tenaciously wait for what will be – remember this advent season; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in this great story of a helpless baby waiting for what would soon come.
And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night. Will you wait with me, tenaciously, and engaged?
And if engagement for you means organzing around this issue, let me know how I can help spread the word in our congregation. We have so many that work with our shelter, and supporting growing food for our town pantry, and for helping with immigrant accompaniment locally. Maybe that way of helping and leading is too much right now in your life. It takes all of us together to make a difference, and we can’t all do everything. But maybe organizing letter writing is a thing that you feel called to do. If that’s you, let me know, and we’ll move forward together. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” Everyday choices.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/26/17 for our Thanksgiving Contemplative Service. It looks at the dual nature of peace and risk in the natural world through the comic foibles of one Unitarian Universalist minister.
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.” – Wendell Berry
This culminating line to the poem about the Wild Geese by Wendell Berry is the quintessential description of spirituality. Poetry is possibly the best medium for the definition to such an elusive word: Spirituality is a word that’s better encountered, than defined. It’s a word that we can know what it is, without knowing what it means; and poetry sometimes helps us know what it means, even if we can’t readily articulate it in words.
The peace of wild things is one of those phrases that evokes a range of reactions in people. Some of us, made quite sure we’d be here today, because that phrase is the bedrock of how you do “church”, even more than Sunday morning worship. And others, maybe, have an “allergic reaction,” so to speak, to that sense of spirit – the natural world is anything but peaceful.
Both sides speak to me – in the love of the natural world, and what emanates from the transcendent made imminent – as well as the frantic New Yorker hyped up on anti-histamines, fearful of the welts mosquitoes leave, and who subsequently loves spiritual Winter hiking. The swatting of my hands to stave off the bugs, makes warm-weather hiking with me anything but peaceful.
I remember one trip that brought out both extremes for me. It was the morning of my 31st birthday. I had spent the summer working on my Spanish in Guatemala, mostly through a language school in the city of Antigua. I was ending my trip by traveling across the country, and closing it out by hiking through the jungles of Tikal. There were enclosures at various spots, so don’t think I was camping out on the ground, that would have been suicidal really – there were enough threats for anyone in the daytime waking hours.
When I got to Tikal, it was probably around 85 degrees, and I think the humidity was somewhere around 120%. This didn’t stop me in the slightest from dressing up for the occasion in the fashion that suited a person who was allergic to everything – and who upon being bitten by a mosquito will usually have welts the size of quarters. I put on jeans, and boots, t-shirt, covered by a long sleeve shirt, covered by a hoodie (which of course was up the whole time I was in the jungle.) Guatemala also, thankfully, has more lax laws on how much deet that can go into bug spray. I was covered in it – on my skin, on my hoodie, on my belt and my boots. The peace of wild things is all good, as long as they aren’t crawling on me.
I recall seeing all sorts of insects I’ve never seen before or since, from giants ants with tiger striping on them, to the lovingly placed spider webs at head height with spiders the size of your fists in them. I only walked into three or four of those nests. Probably the most disturbing, was a moment with my small group, where I was a few feet ahead and the air in front of me started to waver – it took on a fuzzy appearance – much like the old static on black and white TVs for those that remember them. It was maybe five feet in front of me. I asked the local tour guide, what was I looking at? I honestly couldn’t interpret what I was seeing – it was so absolutely new to me. He casually said – “oh, those are army ants on the march. You should probably take a step back now.” (You should probably take a step back…)
Maybe this is the Unitarian Universalist in me – and our fervent anti-creedalism – but any theology centering the peace of wild things – needs to also make room for army ants five feet in front of you. It’s nice to say, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you, but that’s not vaguely true. Sometimes you’re just very lucky.
Spirituality that pretends we have more control than we do, may be comforting, but it’s not deeply rooted. You probably haven’t been so close to actual army ants on the march, but most of us have faced far worse in our personal lives up close, and lived to see the other side of it. Or maybe you’re facing such a travail right now. If you can, maybe you should take a step back. Some things aren’t meant to be faced head on….We’re not always, or even usually, in control of the big things of life….
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way…”. The peace of wild things is about abandon, and faith. It’s the very opposite of control. What is essential is all around us, but we don’t achieve it by our strivings, we come to it with abandon, as in love or sleep.
On that fateful morning of my 31st birthday, in what in hindsight appears to have been an attempt to activate every one of my primal fears and terrors, right before sunrise, we climbed up on one of the step pyramids in Tikal. It would be later in the day, when I found myself clinging 50 feet up to a ladder that was needed to access a tier where the steps had eroded – paralyzed for a solid five minutes – where another guide would again casually comment later, “oh yes, we added that in a few years ago when some German tourist fell to their death.” But I didn’t know that fact yet. Hanging from that ladder was the very moment in my life when I learned the deep truth that you don’t always have to prove you can do something.
In the first pyramid we climbed though, much of the hillside had been left intact from a dig, and you could gradually climb to the top like you would any other hiking trip in hill country. Scary for some of us, but still doable. In my undergraduate years, in addition to religion, I dual majored in anthropology and archaeology and focused on ancient Mesoamerica. I was not going to miss this chance to see the world from that ancient angle – not because of a hill.
So as I was sitting up top, as the sun was rising, about 50 feet above the tree line of the jungle – you could look out and see for miles and miles – with other step pyramids peeking out from the tree-line. When, with what seemed to be spontaneous generation, dragonflies began appearing all around. They were waking up to feed in the early morning light – but I could not see where they were coming from. Just more and more were in front in the blink of an eye. Easily 30 or 40 dragonflies whipping about within fifteen feet of where I was sitting. It was one of the most magical moments in my life. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. I did not know where they came from, or notice where they went, but for a time, they were all that I could see.
May we attend carefully to the moments that come swiftly, unbidden, in new and unexpected ways. Those new moments to our clear eye, and our quieted heart, are the ancient faith, found in abandon; abandon of our worries, and our thoughts, our accomplishments, and our fears. Letting go, to let a little more of life in, much like as in love or sleep.
Amen and Blessed Be. And I’m glad to say this was the first, and only hiking excursion I’ve gone on in the warm weather months, where nothing succeeded in biting me.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/19/17 as part of our annual Hunger Communion service reflecting on the reality of hunger in our world. This sermon reflects on my own journey of dealing with 40 days of pain from migraines.
I’m generally not too prone to headaches. But earlier this week I had to endure a day and half long migraine, that had moments where it receded, but I went to sleep in pain, and woke up in pain. I made a comment about it on Facebook, and those who follow me there began sharing their own stories of enduring long periods of pain. Sadly, some of us live with this reality off and on for years at a time. And we slog on, often with the people one step outside of our immediate circle never knowing it’s going on.
Fortunately, I haven’t had a migraine in years. But my last one, about 7 or 8 years ago, was a true nightmare. It lasted for exactly 40 days straight. It was debilitating. I couldn’t really go out. I couldn’t manage night meetings, a staple of ministry these days. I would dose up on ibuprofen, or the like, and do my best. Short meetings; short ventures into email; ear-buds in my ears while navigating the loud subways. People were largely respectful – almost all of us have had a bad headache, but after a week or two of them, you start to see it in the person’s eyes, and folks go gentler around you.
I saw my doctor and had tests after a week of it going on. Blood-work, then a specialist, then cat scans or ct scans, I think I even had an EKG done at one point. Medications would shift between visits. Can’t even recall what they put me on these 7 or so years later. As one week, turned into three and then 5 weeks, I was very much at my wits end. Everyone in my life had recommendations that would make things better: From sleep (which was hard when the head felt like a nail was behind your eye), to exercise (even though I was an avid walker who back then did 3-9 miles a day,) to herbal remedies, and on and on. Nothing worked.
My third visit to a neurologist had her scratching her head wondering what it could be. Thankfully, all the very serious matters, like cancer, were ruled out. Desperate, and what felt like on-a-whim by her (though I’m sure it wasn’t a whim to this top speciliast), she said, “let’s try this one other thing. Not sure that it’s going to do anything, but it won’t hurt and we’re running out of next options.” She hooked me up to an IV and for the next ten minutes, gave my blood an infusion of magnesium. …The pain ceased immediately…. It was quite literally on day 40, that my wandering through the medical world with a largely incapacitating condition, found a way out.
I was immensely grateful. I could think again. The inner new Yorker in me, wondering why we couldn’t have started with that simple remedy 40 days sooner, but I wasn’t going to complain. It was over.
Earlier this month, Greta spoke about Sabbath as a counter cultural spiritual practice that’s not only healthy for us, but empowers us as citizens to remain engaged and to have the energy not to be complacent. Being exhausted makes us vulnerable to so many other things in life. In the ministry, we’re trained with buzz words like, self-care, and healthy boundaries. Like most of us these days, it’s quite easy to slip into perpetual exhaustion mode and become vulnerable to illness, or emotional fatigue, or migraines. Especially when the world around us seems to be spiraling further and further into corruption.
But rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. During my 40 days of wandering with a migraine from doctor to doctor, I was getting rest, I was exercising more than my average neighbor – at least by what I could still do with the pain – walking. I did take days off, like a normal human being. But my body was missing something, a nutrient. That’s on my mind today as we celebrate our annual Hunger Communion service. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients.
As a twenty-year vegetarian, before adding a small amount of fish into my diet somewhere around three years ago, I often had people worry for my health. How can you ever get enough protein? Oddly enough, for most of us vegetarians, protein isn’t the thing we’re likely to be missing. We need a lot less than American Steakhouses would like you to think. I wound up adding a small amount of fish to my diet, not for protein, but to help with good cholestrol. But we have to be intentional around getting all the vitamins and minerals found in meat too. That was the problem with my migraines.
We live in relative privilege in this area – at least compared to our global neighbors. And I say that with the caveat that too many Long Islanders are living paycheck to paycheck, and on food stamps, as we spoke of earlier in the service. We have food pantries right here in Huntington for the people of Huntington. It’s not a distant problem. We don’t all have it even vaguely easy. But I’m grateful that even when I started in my career, I had access to a range of specialists, even if it took 40 days for a resolution. That’s not a given for all of us, and in every part of the world.
Our ritual earlier draws this to our attention. Our congregation this month is taking up collections on the related crisis of access to water to support our global ministries in this effort – and as we spoke of earlier, access to water in some parts of the world, means access to education. It’s all interconnected. And many of us help grow food for our neighbors during the warm weather months. That is what we can do. That is what we can do to stave off hunger, as we prepare for our annual celebration of gratitude over a shared meal that many of us will stuff our stomachs and our faces to capacity with family or with friends, or if we’re very lucky, family who are also our friends. That’s not always a given. And if you’re available this evening, at 7:30pm at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenlawn, I’ll be taking part again in the 46th annual Huntington Community Thanksgiving Service. The church is at 497 Pulaski Rd, in Greenlawn. In this world with seemingly increasing division and discord, it’s a beautiful opportunity to worship with many different religious communities. The collection will go toward the local food bank.
But to return from this important aside, rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients. We’ve focused this service on practical or earthly nutrients. But amidst all the stress and strain of our political landscape, there are other kinds of nutrients we seem to be missing. And it’s causing us all a lot of pain. I’m thinking of role models, first and foremost. It seems that almost no one in the public eye is safe from scandal, abuse, or perjury any more. We’ve increasingly fixated on the Television, the paper, the big screen, and now-a-days social media – to see images of people to look up to. Some role models are still safely around, but this distant form of consumption is often hollow. We need real people, with real connections, in our immediate lives. That’s what religious community is about. That’s why so many of us volunteer for our Long Island UU children and youth summer camp – Fahs. We can disconnect from the frantic pace of the ten thousand things, and connect back into real healthy human relationship. I’m not knocking social media – it’s kept me connected in real ways with a lot of people. But when we project onto the wider genre of media all our needs – or our most important needs – I’m concerned we’re missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals.
If you’re exhausted, and frayed, and pulled in 10 different directions – so you can’t find time for a spiritual practice – you’re going to be missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals. There’s a famous quip from a Rabbi that said he prayed every day for an hour – except for when he didn’t have the time – on those days, he prayed for two hours. Our calendars are spiritual documents. Take a look at your calendar some time today – whether it’s on your phone or on your kitchen wall. Does it look like a work document, or a document for your own life? Variety, human connection, work, family, giving back to your community – those are all part of balanced living. It’s not just about setting healthy boundaries – it’s also about getting more of what your heart, and your head, and your soul need in this one precious life.
What are you missing in your life right now? Think back to a time, or a hobby, or a practice, that fed you. It probably wasn’t an achievement, or a thing to further your career – but maybe for you it was that too. Definitely not an obligation or a chore. I think by now you all know that I’m a big ol’ gamer geek. I love science and fantasy, and all things mythic. For years, I had a regular weekly gaming group I played with – and by years, I mean starting from the age of 12 and it only really stopped about 5 or 6 years ago. It had no productive value. Pure creativity and fun, plus I got to hang out with friends doing something we all enjoyed. Well, work demands, and living further from those friends, finally put and end to a hobby that I loved for 24 years. Driving from Brooklyn or Long Island to Northern NJ through rush hour on a weeknight, was not for the faint of heart, or for the busy schedule.
But, after attending more and more long-distance denominational meetings via video conferencing, (and I’m seeing some of our commitees choosing to meet via video call to better manage everyone’s dense schedules) I thought “If I can host a 17 person meeting on this platform, I surely can get together with 4 or 5 friends.” A few months ago, I decided to carve out Wednesday nights, and my old gaming group welcomed me back – albeit remotely. I thoroughly swear we accomplish nothing of note. But we are very creative; we laugh a lot; and it’s 3.5 hours every week where I devote to something that’s only purpose is to feed my heart, and deepen human connection.
There’s something deeply human about creating space for being with an activity you love that serves no other person’s purpose. What is that activity for you? Hiking, boating, knitting, sports, comic con? Our life’s diet needs to be diverse, and activities we love are part of that diet. It makes everything else we do and accomplish more meaningful; but we’re not just our doings and accomplishments.
Let us close with the words of the poet Levertov’s, we heard earlier in our service, echoing in our memory, “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water to solace the dryness at our hearts. I have seen the fountain springing out of the rock wall and you drinking there.” … “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water. That fountain is there among its scalloped green and gray stones, it is still there and always there with its quiet song and strange power to spring in us, up and out through the rock.“
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.
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.