Posts Tagged Buddha

Mattering

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/19/18 and looks at the importance of spiritual practices.

 

I just came across a favorite fake quote of mine as Facebook likes to pop up memories from past years from time to time; it’s attributed to the Buddha, but the Buddha never said it. “The trouble is, you think you have time.” Even though the Buddha never actually said it, it’s the kind of contemporary language that points to a spiritual teaching that’s pretty close to what Buddha taught. In all the passing of our days and years, we tend to parcel out our lives as if time were a central truth to our spirit. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to pain and suffering. Living by the clock, thinking by the clock, and waiting by the clock. And waiting by the clock is one of the most painful ways to live.

We all have that happen to us so often in our lives. We’re waiting for the job offer that never seems to come. Or college acceptance letters seem to travel at the speed of snails. Or we’re grappling with the possibility of having to accept that a serious illness may have just entered our family. Everything else seems to go out of focus and we fixate on the thing that will validate us, or show us the way forward, or redefine all our future days. We’re waiting for the map to unfold and make clear where our path will take us. Who we are, while we’re waiting, doesn’t seem to matter to us any longer – only ‘come what may’, seems to matter to us.

But sometimes, it’s much less serious. Sometimes we get distracted by triviality, or get sucked into another person’s opinion of us, or define our day by a thousand small things. In a very real way, a million magical things happen every moment we are here to see them – whether we take note or not. So long as we are breathing, the seemingly fantastical is right before us. Our kid’s laughter. The love of a partner. The life that teems all around us. Breath itself – a completely miraculous gift we only notice when it’s hard to find. When you hear me speak of “reverence” in my sermons – it’s all of these things that I point to. It’s the feeling of another sun rising – through no fault of our own, and it’s the feeling many of us experience toward God. It’s one aim of religion to help us to come to a place where we can appreciate that subtle awareness – without getting too caught up in defining it.

There will always be a thousand distractions, some small, some very serious – but how we connect with a sense of reverence in our daily living will determine the depth of our life. It’s not just a witticism for the spiritually enlightened. It’s practical advice for daily living. For remembering what actually matters, and what makes us think we don’t matter – as we are – right now.

And sometimes, we don’t live in the future, we live in the past. As a congregation, we’ve endured a lot of loss and struggle over the past 10 years or so. We’ve gone through so many transitions…. Your previous called minister ended his time with you dealing with health concerns. We grieve the loss of our last religious educator, who left over medical concerns – though she’s thankfully getting the care she needs. And our previous religious educator before her, ended her time with you caring for her husband during his terminal illness. Many members had to step up to respond in loving and supportive ways. Some of you may have felt like you were all of sudden employees of the Fellowship to ensure that things continued to work. I know it felt that way again this last time around as well. Thank you for that. Thank you for doing what you felt needed to be done. Thank you for caring for your staff as best as you were able. And some of you are likely still completely wiped from the effort. For some of us, we may feel soul weary. And we’ve had a tremendous amount of death in our membership these past five years; we can neither wish that away, or pretend it’s simply in our past, lest we run ramshackle over our hearts. And yet still, today is where we are.

The practical advice for daily living is that in times of change, or stress, or extra effort, we must be extra diligent to find room in our hearts for reverence. Or we will burn out and what we sought to nurture, or protect, will become a burden we begin to wish we could just drop. And soon we may just drop it. We can avoid this by developing spiritual practices that draw us to experience a sense of gratitude in our lives. What might feel like a daily dose of triage at first, can transform into a healthy regimen.

In the months to come, we will focus on growing more opportunities for the discipline of spiritual practices. I know that we already have groups that meet for meditation and yoga throughout the week. We will continue to offer small group ministry (what we call Journey Groups). We will be growing more such circles after September where a group of 6-10 people can come together monthly to reflect on the content of our services – to share, to go deeper, to be nurtured in community. I think we’ve averaged about 30-50 congregants attending them each year, and I would honestly prefer if twice that number were in those groups. I will be taking over preparing those sessions and facilitators this year, with our full time DRE cut back to a half time coordinator. Each of the monthly sessions will be in response to the sermons in the month. Starting at the end of this month, we’ll be sending out a newsletter again, this time focused on the theme of the month, rather than the events of the week, and it will include a short teaser for the Journey Groups for all to see. Please check it out, and consider making this commitment to these spiritual practices.  More information will come out later this month. If you’re interested and have experience facilitating such reflection groups, please do call or email me soon. We will need several folks to help make this a reality. And this Fall, we’ll be doing a deep dive into our theology, and our principles during worship, as I plan to prepare another preaching series on our principles and our religious philosophy. If you’re new to UU, this will be a great primer. And if you’ve been around a long time, I’m sure it’ll help you finally memorize the principles.

I just attended a 15 hour workshop on faith formation this past week, and after this service today, I’ll be heading out to our Summer Camp called Fahs, to co-lead the 9thand 10thgrade youth group programming for the week with Patrick M. Fahs started yesterday for the staff, and this afternoon for the campers, and I’ll be dashing out right after service to get there in time. It’s the main reason why we have so few kids today. About 100 Long Island children, and youth attend this camp each year, along with about 50 adults. The workshop helped me come away with a renewed appreciation for ritual, for the discipline of spiritual practices, and for repetition. Faith formation is a lifelong practice, and religious communities thrive over the long haul best when it’s member focus on those things. A shared practice and a shared sense of self, are key to our health and success. Anyone who has attended Fahs or has sent their kids to Fahs, knows how vital and transformative shared practices, traditions, and values are for building lasting, meaningful communities that matter in our lives. I invite you to seriously consider making such a commitment in the months and seasons to come. Building community is the most vital spiritual practice we can commit to, and our broader world needs it even more than ever.

Before I began my ministry here 5 years ago, we didn’t have this practice of communal silent candle lighting as we do now. The ritual of prayer and meditation is the second largest part of the service (after the sermon) and I think it’s become key to our communal practice of worship. Seeing our kids each week, bring their parents forward, is a practice that is informing this generation, and will be remembered, probably for their entire lives. As a religious community, centered in shared spiritual practices, it is vital that we raise our children to appreciate these practices as well. Or they will not be here when they are too old for children’s religious education. Our youth may not even stay through High School. It’s also crucial, that we share our sacred practices with all ages. Because as a community – we are Fellowship of all ages – our practices should reflect our identity and our values. For most of us this is probably a given, but I’m realizing over time, that sometimes it’s important for me to say obvious things, to remind us all that we’re intentional in what we do. And if this is your first time here today, please know that we try our best to center the needs of our children and youth. Kids are welcome in all our chairs, not just the wiggle room in the back. (And much like Junior High School classroom rules, there’s always a safe bet, that the front row will be free.)

You will often note that with all of our spiritual practices, I will often use different ways of talking about the same things. This morning alone, I’ve already said prayer, meditation, reverence, and gratitude. For some of us, this is a given. For others it can be a challenge. Openness in times of change can be a discipline all in itself. I am forever less concerned in the details of creed as I am in the experience of a meaningful practice. There are many truths. I hope that we can each be renewed by our Sunday services – each in our own way. That times of silence can give us the breather we need, while times of movement and ritual can energize. Where one thing may not speak to us, may we learn to appreciate how it very well may be speaking to the person who is sitting right next to us. Each of us matter, and we strive to make room for all of us to be fed. If this week’s sermon doesn’t speak to you, next week’s probably will, and know that someone here today needed this message.

Robert Latham[1], an author and a UU minister, talks about this in a slightly different way. He suggests that the old trinity of Unitarian thought – that we’re grounded in Freedom, Reason and Tolerance – is probably not the best matrix to be relying on. To put it briefly — saying we’re “free” implies anyone who hasn’t joined our faith isn’t themselves free. It’s not a statement that’s very generous of spirit to other traditions. Where reason will always be important to us, it only touches upon one half of our mind (or maybe less depending on how important you rate virtues such as compassion and empathy.) And tolerance — try to think of the last time you said out loud — “!I am so grateful that you tolerate me!” and meant it! No one likes being tolerated. At best it’s the baby step toward living with respect for the world around us.

Rev. Latham asks us to measure our faith by another standard. He suggests: Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. We put those three words on our letterhead after I was called here, and they are central to each sermon I write, even if I don’t always use those words. I’ve talked at length about the first and the third already. Mindfulness is a general awareness of what is going on before us blended with our more intuitive core. This triad is a spiritual practice in itself. It can directly help us in times of stress and change – whether the matter is frivolous or life-altering.

A practice of openness can save us from some arguments with friends, fellow congregants or (maybe on a good day) our families. It’s hard to assume good intentions with all the world. It’s hard to accept that there might be another way of seeing something when our feelings have been hurt, or we’ve been asked to change some long-standing practice. But in religious community – at least in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – we are called to be open. We don’t necessarily need to change our minds, but our faith demands of us that we don’t come to the table with our minds made up. And that we do so knowing that we’re in there in relation to the people around us.

The practice of mindfulness asks us not to do a thousand things at once. For some of us – not doing a thousand things at once – is a really hard thing… not to do. It also involves allowing our reason to dance with our heart. When we get lost in our emotions to the point where we can’t see the road before us; or we endlessly fidget with all the options ahead of us, mindfulness calls us back to a place of centeredness. We can appreciate the feelings and the challenges without losing our place in this world. We already have a place in this world. The struggles and the challenges before us do not define our value. We are already of value.

A practice of reverence may be the most counter-cultural act we can ever make in our consumer-driven world. Messages, media, public pressure and finances all urge us to gain the next thing; to desire what we can’t have over the gifts before us; to be consumers in our world rather than be citizens. Reverence informs us that all this is fleeting, that the quest for the shiny new toy is the least way to experience our lives. Or in the words of my mentor, Rev. Forrest Church we ought to “want what we have.” Reverence teaches us to value what is always before us.

We can stay centered through our lives (well mostly centered) because of our spiritual disciplines. I try to stay open to the ebb and flow of crazy in my day knowing that there’s always a story hidden behind every challenge. I seek to remain mindful that this and that will sometime pass. And I seek ways to appreciate the beauty in our world. For the past 21 years I’ve honored a daily commitment to a walking meditation. It is the absolute rarest day where I don’t walk for at least 3 miles. The practice calms and centers me along with reminding me that my soul is not defined by the work that I do. I am not a machine here to accomplish things, but a spirit that is here to encounter other spirits. Often I feel like I don’t have the time to walk, but I follow the old Rabbinical saying: “I pray every day for an hour, except for those days when I’m too busy. On those days, I pray for two hours.” As it happens, I also pray every evening – though I promise you not for 2 hours.

I would like to remind you of the words we began with this service by Maxx Kapp to light our chalice. “Carry the Sacred Flame to make light the windows of the world. It is we who must be keepers of the flame. It is we who must carry the imperishable fire. It is our watch now! It is our watch now!” Keeping the flame of progressive faith alive it not solely about social justice, or being a voice for the oppressed, or healing the pains of the world. It is all of these things for sure. But it is also keeping our own inner flame alive, loved, and vibrant. May we seek ways to practice a discipline of spirituality, and may we do so with gladness in our hearts and kindness on our lips. For to care for the world we live in, we must first care for  our sagging shoulders, and our weary grins, knowing that we never do so alone.

 

 

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Sermon: Living Legacy – Black History Month 2014

It is good to be back in the pulpit again. When last I preached I reflected on the bigger trials of social justice for the year gone past. Those travails don’t stop though, do they. This past month has brought forth many difficult stories. The month we’re in now, in the secular calendar is Black History month. We typically learn about the stories of Black pioneers that we may not have heard of, or folks that we learn and relearn about year after year. This morning I’d like to look at the living legacy of black history alive in our news, and reflect back on the roots of oppression in our nation’s history. In light of our monthly theme, as I talk consider where love is found. Where does fear seem to win the day?

In an interview with conservative columnist Cal Thomas this past Wednesday, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann said, “I think there was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt,” Bachmann said.  “People don’t hold guilt for a woman.” She was clarifying why President Obama won the White House twice, and why she didn’t.

We learned this past week that the killer in the Loud Music trial was found guilty of three cases of attempted murder but was not found guilty of murder for the person he actually did kill. The jury was hung, and he may still face another trial for murder. “Dunn, who is white, killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis in November 2012 after having an argument with him over loud music in a convenience store parking lot where Davis sat in an SUV with three young friends. Dunn fired 10 shots, including three at the SUV as it was fleeing. After the shooting, Dunn and his fiancé went to a local hotel, ordered a pizza, opened a bottle of wine, and watched a movie. The next morning he drove two hours away to his home, where he was apprehended. Dunn claimed Jordan Davis, who was African-American, pointed a gun at him and threatened his life. No gun was found by police and no one else heard any threats.” This case was in Florida where a Stand Your Ground law is in place.

According to PBS, “research conducted by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, found that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, “the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks.” Roman concluded that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states. [PBS, 7/31/12]

Elsewhere, “the University of Mississippi is offering a $25,000 reward for tips that can help officials identify and arrest two vandals who were spotted draping a noose around the neck of the statue of James Meredith, who braved angry mobs in 1962 to become the school’s first African-American student.”

And my last example this month involves, “A veteran investigator with the Tennessee Department of Health (who) was forced to resign or face termination last month for his conduct during a racially charged case. William Sewell was an emergency medical service investigator, assigned to the Upper Cumberland Region, who had been with the state more than 40 years. Last summer, Sewell began investigating a case involving the Algood Fire Department in Putnam County. In an interview with the man who filed the complaint, Shun Mullins, Sewell began telling a graphic story about a black man who was lynched near Baxter, Tennessee, many years ago. The state claimed Sewell’s conduct in that interview could be perceived as a “form of intimidation” toward Mullins.” The news report further explained that “the three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a “strap” of the lynched man’s skin, passed down from his grandfather. ‘They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener,’ Allen remembered.” The original case was based upon Mullins (who) claimed Algood’s deputy fire chief refused to do CPR on his mother because she was black and then falsified medical reports to cover it up.”

Happy Black History month everyone. These stories are why we still desperately need to reflect on our history. The White House, built by slaves, has been home to our first black president for a little over five years now. Poets, Alice Walker, and others, have poignantly noted how we know not where our efforts will eventually lead, nor who will some day reside in the sanctuaries we build this day even in the midst of injustice and pain. We can see a little ahead, and off to the side, but can barely imagine the scope of changes to the landscape that will some day come about. Yet we still have a congressional representative diminishingly say that our president primarily won, twice, because of white guilt.

What can leadership look like? In the American mythology, the answers have always been “anyone.” Of course, “anyone” has always had very specific implications. At one point “anyone” meant land holding straight white men. That was honestly progressive for the time. With it, we successfully moved a bit away from aristocracy and nobility as the places of power. For a decade or two, the American mythology has said it includes people of all races. Although I still feel we have a ways to go in this respect, this presidency (through all its faults and successes) has indicated that our practice has finally met up with our cultural self-conception of what we can be. Racism is not cured, sexism continues to thrive, ageism on both ends of the spectrum is almost a given, and homophobia is often confused with high moral standards. The latest case in point being Arizona, whose legislature has sent to the Governor a bill that would pretend secular businesses are churches, and allow all institutions to refuse services to LGBT folk, in the name of religion.

And yet, we can still find hope that we as a people, can grow past ourselves enough to recognize leadership despite our biases and short-comings. As Martin Luther King Jr once dreamt, we have chosen our president based on the “content of his character, and not by the color of his skin.” Whatever your political affiliations are, this is a remarkable sign of transformation for our country.

Our story this morning talks about the transforming power of leadership. An early Buddhist parable, richly names the spirit of our time. In the midst of the flaming pit of crisis, the Buddha as parrot recognizes his two great gifts; being alive and being able to fly. As the world burns around him he chooses not to panic and succumb to uselessness. He chooses not to use his second gift of flight to preserve his first gift of life. Rather, he employs all that he has to make some difference in easing the suffering of others. His colorful feathers grow black through his efforts to save lives. “What, after all, can a bird do in times like these… but fly? So fly I shall. And I won’t stop if there’s even a chance I can save a single life.”

In contrast, the godly beings are relaxed, bright, covered in white ivory and glittery gold. Well fed, they shimmer and shine and remain clean. All most can do is continue to eat and wax eloquent on the absurdity of the parrot’s efforts. “Trying to put out a raging fire with just a few sprinkles of water from his wings. Who ever heard of such a thing. Why, it’s absurd!”
Where in our lives are we the parrot with greasy black wings who is fed with a mission and destined to make a difference, and where are we the fully entitled god who shimmers and shines and is just well fed? When have you met the well intentioned god on golden wings descend to warn you to stop your efforts because it’s not worth the trouble? When have you been that nay-saying voice? When do you think the mission of our congregation is about serving you as an individual alone? When do you find our congregation’s mission is about serving the world – serving life?

“I don’t need advice. I just need someone to pitch in and help!” cried the parrot. I know I’ve felt that before. Whether it’s combating homelessness, raising children, or struggling through school, it is tough to do it alone, and often times we seem to receive more advice than actual assistance. It would be easy, and a bit triumphant, to preach on how hidden beneath the grime and soot of our efforts are splendid multi-colored feathers that help us soar. But this Buddhist parable seems to indicate that it’s that very blackness, that greasy water that differentiates us from the splendidness of those distant gods. In fact, it’s that blackness that calls one of the gods down from his place of privilege, to do what he ought to have done from the start; use his power to affect change. “All at once, he no longer wanted to be a god or an eagle or anything else. He simply wanted to be like that brave little parrot, and to help.” All gratitude at the story’s end goes to the little parrot, “for this sudden, miraculous rain.” It may have been the god’s tears that put out the fires of this world, but they blossomed from the witness of the action of the parrot – the otherwise dis-empowered, the oppressed, the not-privileged.

That godly nay-saying has woven itself into the fabric of our daily expression. We are burdened down with a difficult economy, the long felt aftermath of enervating wars, mixed successes in LGBT civil rights, and a collapsing environment. Many say they are choosing hope, and yet our collective shoulders seem to indicate spiritual exhaustion. This nagging sap to confidence echoes the sense of impossibility, when so many things seem raw and endless, like a fire that sprung over night and is left by all the world to burn. But I believe there continue to be rivers of hope, and waters of abundance, that eagerly wait for us to dip our wings and dirty our feathers; because there is much work to be done and gratefully many of us here able to do it.

Yes despite the very clear need for action, beyond the call for hope in the face of sorrow and pain, we must reflect on the source of the trauma. Why do we continue to hear horror stories perpetrated upon Black Americans – some of which appear to only be worsening rather than getting better? How can this be while at the same time our nation’s highest office is finally open to someone who isn’t perceived as white by many despite his mother being white? A plantation era engineer named J. D. Smith once noted, “One only needs to go down South and examine hundreds of old Southern mansions, and splendid church edifices, still intact to be convinced of …. the cleverness of the [Black] artisans, who constructed nine tenths of them.” This white engineer was taught his trade by a slave engineer. Yet, the image we often get taught in grade school and high school is that of uneducated blacks during the slave era only doing servile work. Why don’t we share both sides of that painful story?

The German philosopher, Hegel, once noted, “The [slave] consciousness is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is evident that this object does not correspond to its notion; for, just where the master had effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved… The truth of the [master] consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the bondsmen.” Hegel’s point is about the extreme qualities of slavery and slaveholding, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to point toward any instance of applied institutional racism. The ego of the oppressor becomes intrinsically linked to the oppressed. What puffs up the powerful, chains their psyche to that which is most base to our humanity. We become less for trying to pretend we’re more. We narrow the scope of our humanity. We are defined by how well we convince ourselves that someone else is less. Or as author and former executive editor of Ebony magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr would put it, “Out of this system (of slavery) came the Black American, and, though some would like to forget it, the White American…”.

We allow fear, fear of others, fear of our own inadequacy to trump love. We say that which we fear is truth so we must stamp it down anyway we can. We convince ourselves that four teens in a car playing loud music, unarmed, are a real and quantifiable threat that requires us to open fire even though they are unarmed, even though they agreed to lower the music. Fear allows the jury to have four of its members think that this kind of violence is justified. And we remember “that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states.” One kind of body is more dangerous than other. Fear trumping love.

Fear teaches us to share stories of lynchings and body parts kept as trophies when a black man dares to sue a fire department for failing to perform CPR on his mother because of the color of her skin. Every part of this story is grounded in fear. Fear of difference, fear of one body touching a different body even if it’s just to save a life, to do the job you volunteered to do for everyone else. Fear teaches dissidents to sit back down quietly. And fear instructs the oppressor on how to keep a hold of his power.

We often think the opposite of love is hate. I am convinced its opposite is truly fear. Love is grounded in compassion, in seeing the connections between one another and saying they matter. Fear is grounded in the antithesis to each of these. What makes us different becomes a danger to our sense of self. And to the fearful among us, our sense of self matters so much more than our sense of interdependence. Interdependence then becomes just another threat to the ego.

But in the culmination of our days, love trumps fear, always. Fear passes away, and love endures in our memories and our hearts…. This Fellowship has lost several long time and very dear members this past year. When each life was remembered, stories of love, stories of compassion, stories of life were what were lifted up time and time again. The rest was secondary. The progress of civil rights movements have time and time again been determined by radical acts of love in the face of fear; in coming to the aid of a stranger because it was the right and compassionate thing to do. It doesn’t mean that danger, or harm, or struggle are not genuine risks. But the essence and scope of our humanity are not rooted in these, nor defined by them in any true way. If it is how we care for others that defines our memory and legacy after we are gone, it’s certainly what defines our lives while we are here. Life is not about you alone, or me alone. Life is about us. It’s about “we.” And as the story of the parrot who saved a jungle from fire goes, sometimes our acts of love change the people who bear witness to them – it doesn’t mean there won’t be tears – but it makes all the difference.

 

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