Posts Tagged Buddhism

A People of Zest

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/4/17 for the 95th anniversary of the Flower Communion.

This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of zest. Zest is a fancy word that we don’t use that much everyday. What does it mean to you? (call it out.) What does it mean to leave room for all of these things (energy, possibility, life, vitality) in our lives? How do we do that when we find ourselves trudging along, through one more test, one more class, one more day at the office? When we’re stuck or exhausted, where do we find the help to kick-start feeling alive again?

 

American poet, children’s book author, and photographer, Nancy Wood, gives us one answer in her poem entitled My Help is in the Mountain:

 

“My help is in the mountain

Where I take myself to heal …
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one
give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.[1]

 

….and I cannot tell myself from one tall tree. Nancy Wood is talking about something many of us have done. As a kid, I remember laying out this time of year on the grass and staring up at the daytime sky. If it were a clear blue day, and I could look just at the right angle, I could lose any sense of up or down. It could feel like I was in the sky. Who else remembers doing that? Who else has done that recently – maybe in your own way? (less hands?) As we get busier and busier, it’s easier and easier to forget to get lost in the clouds from time to time. We even use the phrase – lost in the clouds – to mean a criticism.

 

I recently was reading a blog about resilience, how we handle the stresses and pressures of life. It basically argued that how resilient we are is less a factor of how much we can endure in life, but how well we turn all “the busy” off each week. Do we fill up our weekends with tasks? Do we do work on the train or the plane? Are we up at 6am, and still doing homework at 11pm? We may be able to endure a lot for a long time, but if we don’t find ways of putting it all down – not simply shifting our focus of which burden we’ll manage next – but actually getting lost in the clouds – our resilience will give out sooner than later. And in between – all our enduring work will be of less quality. We’ll be testier, in worse spirits, less accurate. Being a people of zest means remembering to leave room for life – in our life.

 

Remember the words of writer, Anne Sexton from earlier in this service, which began, “There is joy in all: in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed, that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook each morning, in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee each morning, in the spoon and the chair that cry “hello there, Anne” each morning, in the godhead of the table that I set my silver, plate, cup upon each morning.” Anne is reminding us to find life in all the everyday things we become used to; to not let them pass by unnoticed. We can find renewal in the small mundane pleasures in life if we remember to. And most importantly, to share that joy with one another, for as she says, joys left unshared, die young. Joy, zest, life, are best shared. Maybe a bit too often, we live in a culture where we look down upon exuberance. Maybe a bit too often we elevate the perpetually busy among us – as if we were ever going to be given a Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic. (What would that merit badge even look like? Someone tapping their watch? Maybe just a dry time stamp.)

 

As we come to a close in this service of celebration, memory, and life, I want to share with you one more short story, a personal one. It’s sort of my go-to memory in my life about enjoying what’s before you. When I was in college, I spent one semester studying abroad at Oxford. At the close of the program, they held a celebratory dinner. I got invited up to the high table by one of the professors whom I had grown close with for the meal. As it happens, he and I have stayed in contact these past 20 years; he even gave one of the readings at my wedding two years ago.

 

Now the dining setting is a little like Hogwarts from Harry Potter. Students all at long tables – but in suits and dresses rather than robes – and there are no owls in sight. (We had to dress formally even for breakfast.) Christ Church, Oxford, was home to Lewis Carroll who wrote the Alice in Wonderland stories that we all know so well, and in honor of him, the stained glass windows all had small depictions of parts of the story crafted into the glass.

 

There’s a part in the dinner, near to the end, when they bring out silver to serve the tea (and for the silly Americans like me, the coffee.) I’m having a surreal moment of is this really happening. It must have shown on my face, because the professor leans in and whispers, “The Buddhists are wrong, this is meant to be enjoyed.”

 

Now first off, the Buddhists are not wrong. But we do sometimes think of the Buddhist mindfulness teaching in the wrong way. Being present and aware of what’s before us is being mindful, and not passing judgments. But sometimes we confuse that teaching with not letting ourselves enjoy the fruits of life. It’s sort of another form of the Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic that we can let infect our religious life.

 

But this professor was reminding me, that it was ok to soak it all in. At the end of a long semester, with a lot of work and effort, that it was ok to celebrate, to feel good about it – even knowing that more was going to need to be done before college was over. Now was the time to breathe it all in.

 

As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, another year of school for most of our children and youth, we can remember to soak it all in. Some of us heard the Coming of Age speeches yesterday at our service for the graduating Long Island UU coming of agers. Our youth will share those credo’s next Sunday in our worship then, along with the speeches from our Bridging youth who are graduating from Sunday School as they head into adulthood.

 

And for some of us, it was a long, hard year. Maybe the world has taken turns we don’t agree with. Maybe we’ve endured a year that was full of more protest than gratitude. None of that goes away, but we can still raise a glass to life, and drink deep. Our Flower Communion celebration today commemorated 95 years of celebrations worldwide. Our partner churches in Eastern Europe asked their American cousins to celebrate it this Sunday in honor of it’s origins in 1923. The Flower Communion began at a time in Europe’s history where one of the worst wars humanity ever knew – the First World War, was still in folks’ recent memories. Unitarian minister, Rev. Dr. Capek, founder of the modern Unitarian movement in then Czechoslovakia, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain.

 

I’ll end with these consecrating words from Rev. Dr. Capek. As we leave today, may this blessing enter our lives:

 

“Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world. “Rev. Dr. Capek

 

[1] My Help Is in the Mountain, from Hollering Sun, 1972, by Nancy Wood

 

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Art of Peace

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Mothers’ Day 5/8/16. It hearkens back to the origins of the holiday as a women’s movement for peace.

Happy Mothers’ Day to all our mothers, and to all those hoping to some day be mothers. Since Fathers’ Day is rarely celebrated here in the Summer months, let me extend the same to all our dads, and dads-to-be. And for those of us who are mourning our parents, or mourning our kids, may we hold them in our hearts this hour so that the memories that are good may echo on in our own living actions.

As some of you may already know, before there were Hallmark cards, Mothers’ Day was started as a day of peace. It was a political activist call for Mothers to stand united to call for the return of their sons and daughters home from war. It’s grown into a secular holiday that celebrates motherhood, but it’s rooted in a peace movement.

A peace movement may seem a bit quieter these days than it did generations ago, but it’s no less important. As I remind us from time to time, my generation, and the generation that came before me and the generation that’s coming after me, have never really known a time when the U.S. wasn’t at war. Even if it might seem to most of us that war doesn’t really affect us. Some of us have family that are abroad, or have friends who have died in war. I personally haven’t felt that loss close to home, although I do have a lot of family on both sides who have served, or are serving right now. For most of us who don’t know anyone serving in active duty, war is a thing that’s far away, or just in video games. We don’t have to put ourselves at risk. We don’t have to ration butter like they did in World War II. We don’t have to risk being drafted by the military against our will, like folks had to in the Vietnam War.

For many of us, we can kind of forget about it. And that’s a sad thing. It’s not sad because we’re not really affected. It’s sad because some Americans are very, very affected, but most of us don’t have to share that burden. A few people are asked to accept huge risks to their safety and quality of life, while most of us don’t have to shoulder anything at all. It’s sad because it makes it easy to think war’s not that big of a deal, when it’s a huge deal for some people. It makes me wonder if bringing back the draft weren’t a good idea after all – at least everyone would realize that war might affect them, and maybe we would go to war less frequently or with more reservation. I do recognize that sometimes defending ourselves is necessary. By less frequently – I mean – “not being at war all the time.”

Now, I’m not going to solve the problem of war and peace in the following 10 minutes, but I would like us to look at the idea of peace in a possibly different way. I think there’s kind of an art to it. I remember a Buddhist proverb that I’ve mentioned from time to time, that says, “If you want peace, smile.” I recall that the first time I heard that I thought the Buddhist teacher was a little crazy, and probably minimizing the idea of peace. I’ve come to see it a little differently. Let’s do a quick experiment.

Everyone here – try something with me for just 10 seconds. On the count of 3, smile. And not a half-hearted smirk. I want a real, full-blown, smile. Pretend your happy – just for 10 seconds. Ok, ready… 1…. 2… 3…. :::smile:::

Alright everyone, you can stop smiling now. If you need to go back to frowning, feel free. Although you may want to bask in the waves of niceness coming off everyone for a few more minutes first. Did anything bad just happen? Did anyone break out into a fight? No, good. By a show of hands, did anyone actually feel better, you know, happy?

That’s what the Buddhists are getting at. With some rare exceptions, if you smile, a sense of peace does break forth. I learned this smiling trick had some real-world work applications too. In a former career, I ran a computer helpdesk for 5 years. I would tell my staff that the more someone on the other end of the phone was driving them crazy, the more they should force themselves to smile. It’s hard to sound mean while you smile. I’m sure you can do it, but it’s tougher. … (smiling) “When you say that your computer crashed, and you went to your email, and then nothing happened… what sort of nothing actually happened…?”

So where does the “art” piece come in that I mentioned? Let me tell you the story of Vashti and “the Dot” by Peter. H. Reynolds.

… “She handed him a piece of paper and said, ‘show me.’… and now.. ‘please …. sign it.’” I think that’s where the art comes in when we’re talking about crafting peace in our lives. It’s not about being perfect, or doing it all, or having all the answers. It’s not always about diplomacy, or bigger muscles, or smarter brains. Sometimes it’s about being willing to make our mark, even when we can just muster a smirk on our faces. It’s about play, and experimentation. But it’s also about being willing to “sign it.” To put our name, or our commitments, to the things we care most about.

You notice how Vashti realized that she wasn’t the only person who could learn how to make art? I love this story because it reminds us that even when she’s kind of the hero of the tale because she learns to be an artist, she extends that gift upon someone else. She finds another classmate who was feeling all down because he was really bad at drawing a straight line (a fellow after my own artistic heart – a ruler doesn’t always help me either.) (In fact, I had to ask Starr to help me with setting up the easel and

especially the straight lines that were pre-drawn on our canvas for this morning’s story. Yes, sometimes’ I’m that bad.)

So Vashti finds that other classmate, and she inspires him to bring about his own talent, to make his mark, and to sign his name onto what he just crafted.

That’s the art of peace. It’s about coming to accept we can do whatever small thing we can do – even if it’s just making our mark in a small way at one time and place. Then owning our efforts for what they are. And most importantly, helping to inspire another person after us to be creative in their own way.

During our service this morning, we crafted mosaics out of many differently colored squares (were there any peace mosaics made?) Each was just one little bit of color, that on its own didn’t do much to create the colorful symbol of peace. But when many of us each made our own mark, over and over again, it became a lot easier to make out the symbol of peace that was lying there waiting to show vividly in color.

For those of us who believe in God, we often see God’s presence in things like this. Individual acts of compassion or care, over time, seem to paint a pattern that’s hard to see if you only look at the one act. We all benefit from so many acts of kindness that have allowed us to live as we do, too many to see by themselves, and there is a sense for some of us that they’re leading to something more.

When we leave this service, what can those marks of peace look like? Let’s hear some ideas, I’ll repeat them back if I can hear you so that we can all hear…. what can those marks of peace look like?

Those are all great. We can start even before we leave this room. Go back to that exercise we had earlier in this homily – the smiling one. Start there. Go up and speak with someone you don’t know – whether they’re new to us, or you’ve been ignoring them for 20 years. Take this day to deepen your connections with a friend or a stranger. It’s the foundation for peace.

It’s also the art for building a more effective ministry in this congregation. To paraphrase a colleague, “To be welcomed, is to be welcoming.” When we haven’t been reached out to, we can always be the one to reach out. I think of Vashti and her teacher. Vashti had no interest in making art. Her teacher didn’t accept Vashti’s lack of excitement for an answer, and kept meeting her halfway till she came along. Sometimes we all have to do that in community, or in our playgrounds. When others aren’t meeting you where you are, sometimes you have to meet them where they are. There’s no rule for it, but there is an art to it.

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Art of Connection

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/14/16 and looks at the intersecting roles that desire and connection have in building a world centered in justice, equity and compassion.

When I was still working as a consultant for not-for-profits and city government, I used to live in Manhattan at 14th street and First Avenue. It was back in the days when I was blessed by the Rent Stabilized Fairy; she’s a close cousin to the tooth fairy, but she left me more than quarters or one dollar bills. I had a great two bed-room apartment with a fellow NYU grad student who just happened to have a cousin who had a friend who needed some folks to sublet for a while, while she was in Canada. Better than putting your tooth under the pillow any day!

We were on the 11th story at the intersection. A short distance north of us was Bellevue Hospital. A block south of us was a fire station. Ambulances and fire trucks were usual distractions. Even living 11 stories up, it took me several months to learn how to fall asleep despite the noise. Trying to wake up to an alarm clock, that sounded a lot like all the other beeps below us, was quite tough. I remember finally going out to buy a new one that had a “nature” setting. Crickets! Crickets will now pull me out of the deepest slumber. One unintended consequence is that I can only camp in the winter time now. I am really, really glad that I got hooked on insect noises for my alarm, and not the “ocean” setting.

At the corner itself was a traffic light with a left turn signal. These are fairly harmless creatures out here. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and is immediately convinced that means them too. Roughly every 60 seconds, I got to hear the roar of the honking taxi cab yelling at wayward jay-walkers who didn’t think the turn signal applied to them. …Up on the 11th story, trying to sleep, I knew it did.

Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, has a notable quote that speaks directly to this traffic phenomenon. “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” I’m told by a colleague in religious education that an old UUA advertisement used to have this quote printed next to a yellow traffic light. …Vroom, vroom – I can make it through.

Traffic can be a smaller version of a bigger problem, that we in the world all share. I hate to say it, but our sixth principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – is directly challenged and often defeated by left turn signals. How can we possibly bring peace and justice to this planet, if we can’t even stay on our sidewalks, or our traffic lights, for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Rush hour commutes probably warn us all the same thing.

There are many Buddhist stories that remind us that changing the world starts with home. One odd phrase that took me a while to figure out was when one monk was asked about how his efforts helped to stop the war we were waging at the time (I believe it was Iraq at the time), and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…”

We can’t really change anyone. We only have the power and control to change ourselves. I suppose, smiling is a good start to better human relations; and somewhere down the line, probably does in its own way reduce discord. I can tell you right now, that I’m grateful for the smiles and laughter of the morning so far. From a silly story, to my best efforts at singing a hymn. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Long Island. And it would probably do us all good to do so more frequently with the people around us. New York has a way of reminding us always to “get stuff done” and we sometimes forget that life is more than the ends. The means – mean – something.

That’s what our Wisdom Story was about this morning. How do we go about doing what we choose to do? Is the goal the biggest, best hut to live in? Or is it finding a better way to live together. Are we running through our lives chasing the biggest desires, or is their an art to the connections in our communities and in our households? Hyena had to work really hard for twice as long to accomplish what he did because he chose to do it all by himself. Rabbit barely did anything, but achieved far more. Sure – more people had to work together to make the village work, but there was also a lot more time for stories, and song and dance and fun. I imagine Hyena was also probably a bit more burnt out than Rabbit too. Doing it alone, took more work, and got him less for his efforts. It reminds me about building this religious community too.

It wasn’t just about the end goal for Rabbit. It was the means all along. We’re building a community here for the sake of growing and living together. So as long as we’re growing and living together, we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do. It’s not some point far in the future. It’s here … now. We just get to keep chugging along.

This promise of community in our story about Hyena and Rabbit reflects a broader truth about world community. What we do by ourselves will always be harder, and will always be less than it could be. I believe, that thinking we alone, can do anything alone better than in community, is simply wrong. We may need to step up, like Rabbit, to help build something more. We may be in a position to affect to the world for the better, and we may need to act, but we will never be the only people in that position to act. Even though it’s often tempting to think so. Sometimes it’s building a village by ourselves, or policing the world against terror or injustice, or it’s trying to fix everything that needs to be fixed regarding the financial challenges of our congregation. We in this world community are in this world community together. The Sixth Principle promises us that we are not alone, and we don’t have to bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders alone; whether the world is the Middle East, or dealing with that bully at work or in school, or our finding a way to pay the rent this month. In fact, it’s often ourselves who pick that burden up and place it there when we choose to solve it by our lonesome. No one told Hyena that he had to labor for a cycle of the moon to build that hut by himself. But he sure thought he couldn’t do it with anyone else. We’re here. Reach out. Come to me, and go to each other. Maybe if we do so long enough, if we remember to smile like the monk said, it will make a difference. At the very least, it will be a better place to sing and dance.

There’s a saying that’s repeated from time to time in our Fellowship, and it’s said at many UU congregations across our denomination:“Who ever you are, and whom ever you love, you are welcome here.” I see it as central to our UU identity. It’s pastoral, humanity-centered and a very moral thing to adhere to. It’s also the very basis of the promise of world community. Whoever you are, whom ever you love — how ever culturally you choose to live in right relationship with the consenting people around you – you are welcome here. Could you imagine how different the world would be if we were to live by that tenet in international relations? If we were to shift our stance from competition to welcome? From believing in scarcity to offering open-handed support? To building our huts together, rather than competing for the biggest one? That’s the religious turn called for here – and something incredibly difficult to do. “Our humanity” has the chance to be of first priority at something – if only we allow ourselves.

In the season of political primaries, which seems to get longer and longer every year, we hear so many competing views and solutions to the crush of worldly challenge. I’m often amazed at how any candidate for national, or local office, on either side of the aisle, acts when they are finally elected. For example, looking at our own Long Island, even progressive politicians will vote against local issues like affordable housing, or allowing for more rental apartments. It’s gotten to the comical-if-it-weren’t-tragic place where our own adult kids can’t afford to live in Long Island. Something happens when we live in community, where we can forget how our actions impact another, when we can’t see it directly. As UU’s we often talk about justice and how minorities, or the oppressed, can be unfairly treated. And that’s so true. But I look at our own nominally affluent communities where we live, and remember that our own adult kids can’t afford to live here, and wonder how we’ve made it so impossible for so many. Everyone experiences hardship, yet we too often make communal choices that take away the humanity of our neighbor – or at least make it harder for our neighbor to live to their fullest.

I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children; though I know the complexities of economics and public policy go far beyond that; there’s something still worth taking from the lessons from our childhood. With a show of hands, how many of us were ever between the ages of 3 and 5 years old? (Look around – that’s exactly what I thought.) Most of us were asked to split a pie or a cake with a sibling or a friend at this point in our life. (Everything I ever needed to know about life I learned in Kindergarten.) If my teacher knew that there were going to be arguments about who got which piece – she would say, “one of you cut the two slices, and the other gets to choose which one they take.” I wonder how different our world would be if when we made policy decisions that so drastically impacted the community around us, that the least among us would get to pick the slice after it was cut; if we let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affected them. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And anyone who has ever worked with or raised kindergarteners knows, that kindergartners know fair. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.

So our sixth principle, and the art of connection….Without peace, liberty and justice for all, we can’t have a world community. The promise of our liberal faith is that community is possible when we leave room for peace and justice; when we leave room for the other person to choose which of the slices you cut they’ll take. And remember, the call of our religious tradition is that this sixth principle is not a belief, but rather an action statement. We do the work of world community when we diligently preserve the values that it relies upon within our neighborhoods, our villages, our classrooms, and congregations. It is not left for someone else to do, and it is not left for us to do alone either. It is for us to seek to act with those around us. Our sixth principle begins with “We affirm and promote” for a reason. It does not begin with “I;” it begins with “We.” And so too does world community.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sermon: Losing the Script

This sermon was first preached  at the UU Fellowship in Huntington talking about how we often live our lives from the script in our head and not what’s going on right here and now.

We recently adopted a 3 month old puppy. She’s a boxer/bull terrier mix. Super cute. Super sweet. We brought her home the day she was spayed from the vet’s office. She was so nervous she was shivering in her bed. When it was finally time for her to go outside, she would have none of it. We’d get her to the door, try putting on a leash, and she would pull and pull. We had to pick her up to bring her out for the first week or so. Maybe it was the snow. Maybe it was the cone of shame around her neck. Maybe it was the snow being scooped up by her cone of shame that fell into her face. But all of that would come later. When she got to the door, she didn’t know what she was looking at and she was afraid to go out.

You see, Lola (that’s our puppy’s name), Lola was a city girl. She was born in a NYC apartment and was fostered away immediately to friends of friends of ours in another apartment. Lola had never seen the great outdoors. And whatever she had seen was total asphalt, concrete and metal. This wide open space, that allowed her to see beyond 10 feet, was a scary thing.

I can kind of relate. When I had been living in NYC for just about five years, I got used to seeing the world only so far away. I had taken a vacation trip to see friends in Minnesota and we stopped by a Walmart for something on the way to somewhere else. I went inside – and  – froze. I began to have a panic attack. They apparently make Walmarts bigger in the midwest than here. While inside I could see further away than most spots in Manhattan. I had to have a friend walk me out.

We can get used to living in a world whose borders lend us comfort, security, stability. And when we cross into a new space it can be really scary. My puppy had a script. Her script said this world looks a certain way. Outside is a scary, strange, noisy, cold and busy place. Her script told her it wasn’t a place she wanted to go.

So we began coaxing her out with treats, and play time with her squeaky ball. We’d leave her alone for 2 minutes at a time and come back inside. At first she would come back to the kitchen glass door and look back in and whine to come inside. But over time, her time alone would get longer and longer (up to 15 minutes now.) We can still see her through the window, and we’re fenced in, so she’s safe. And now, once she’s past her initial lonely wobblies, it’s hard to get her back inside. She’s finding all these new scents; hearing the range of birds calling; and our next door neighbor’s dog who howls like a fire engine.  Lola has a new script. “Outside” now means a place of fun, exploration, running around like a silly ball of energy, and cool new things to smell.

How do we all do that in our own lives? When do we react negatively to something because our script tells us that’s how we should respond? I don’t only mean trying the new stuff, or the dangerous stuff. We all have to know our limits. No matter how hard Brian will try to convince me, I will not go parachuting. I appreciate that some part of my Id will go crazy wild over the new sensation. While the rest of it is panicking because I chose to put “down” so very far away. I’m talking about the day to day stuff that we respond to as rote.

When you get on the phone with your parents, or your kids, do you know how the arguments will go before they begin? When you perceive that someone wrongs you in some way – will you hold onto that grudge till your dying day, or till they offer abject abasement before your stalwart ego? If a problem comes up – do you just know how it will play out and how everyone will react to it?

In what ways does your script trap you? I find that when we live from the scripts, we’re not really able to respond to the world before us as it is – as it’s actually happening. We’re reading our lines to a scenario that’s not necessarily happening right now. It can make us unable to deal appropriately with new circumstances. It can also force us to relive painful encounters over and over because we can’t see the newness that’s before us.

Sometimes our scripts are a team sport. I lost a long time friend some years ago to a script. We had gone through a lot of personal and professional challenges together over a ten year span of time. We were close with each other’s families, shared a house together – we became family of a sort. All close friendships have their stressors; we always have ways we drive one another nuts. All that aside, I used to be a lot more uptight in my twenties. When I left my home state and moved to NYC for graduate school and later seminary, I mellowed out. My detail orientated perfectionism began to dissolve; my taking the smallest things so seriously mostly disappeared; and I got out of the habit of arguing with people (marital realities not-withstanding.) Seminary doesn’t always help people become more spiritually mature, but my time there really changed who I was for the better. But when I would go back to visit my dear friend (and other long time friends), I realized that she was interacting with me as if I hadn’t changed at all. We would start having fights about whether we were having a fight. (Ever been there?!) Every sentence was heard through the filter of the script of how I used to act. I’d go back to the City and talk to my local friends about how frustrating the trip home had been. That folks back home only saw me as controlling and argumentative – even though I wasn’t acting that way. My local friends would laugh – they didn’t see me that way at all. My old, dear friend’s script, ended our friendship. It was one of the most frustrating losses in my life. It was frustrating because it wasn’t necessary. My legitimately negative behavior had changed for the better, but it didn’t matter to the friendship if the other couldn’t see it for what it was – a new line, a new direction to the story.

Our theme this month is presence. Presence saves us from these losses. Being present to the person or the situation before us allows us to deal with reality as it is and not bring the ghosts of past pains into this moment. We know we’re not being present when our minds our racing through past hurts. Or when we’re perpetually fixated on what will or what might happen in the future. It’s not to say that we don’t learn from the past or plan for the future. But living most of our lives in the past or the future is not learning from or planning for – it’s missing out on this moment. We cease to live in the world that is, and pretend to live in the world that was or will be. But there is only ever the moment that is – right now. We can’t ever live in the past. We can’t ever live in the future. We can only live in the present, and the more we allow our minds to run wild, to live from the scripts of our fantasies, we cease to fully live.

…I’m about to utter a genuine UU heresy…. I make it a habit to preach something heretical every year, and this is the week for it – (so the folks that made it on time despite Daylight Savings will be well rewarded). Take a deep breadth… Our intellect, our thoughts, our minds – they are not us. We are not our heads. Our scripts, our thinking, our fretting, our worry, our dreams, our plans, our arguments – they are not us. Our intellect is a tool, like our vision, or our hearing. It shapes how we interact, understand, and experience the world. Of course, we’d interact differently if our mental faculties were to change. Mental health aside, we as a people have a tendency to over-identify with our intellect and thinking. We confuse the tool with our identity. And that can be a very painful thing. The worlds we create spin fantasies that we confuse for fact. Our congregational covenant talks about assuming good intentions. This goes beyond giving someone the benefit of the doubt – it’s more about not creating a false person we then inappropriately interact with. Leaping to conclusions, without evidence, is our script showing. Sometimes it tells more about ourselves than others.

When our thinking minds go wild, when they run the show, and create the opinions that will shape how we interact regardless of evidence – we lose who we are at our core. It’s as if we’ve become possessed by our thoughts. Our essence, our soul, takes a back seat and something else is driving the car. I find this to be a helpful metaphor because it describes what we experience. Think of a time when you reacted poorly, or strongly, to some set of events. We all have. When the whole thing was over, did your original thoughts match exactly what was really going on? Were you 100% correct and the others 100% wrong?  We’re rarely entirely right. There’s usually another side. If the time you’re thinking of you were totally in the right, think of another time. If you can’t think of another time where you were in the wrong, you have an entirely different challenge to deal with that’s out of the scope of this sermon. Since we’re all usually off-base by some amount in almost all things, what possesses us to defend and live into the fabrications of our mind so readily? It doesn’t practically help us to read from an outdated script, yet we do.

James Baldwin has a related quote, …“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.”… Baldwin’s quote is in reference to hate, though I think it applies to many more aspects of human behavior. We cling stubbornly to any of our habits, because those habits hide something more difficult below the surface. I spoke last week about how hard it was to get back into an exercise routine after a bad car accident – that the most difficult part was facing the fact that I was much weaker – and exercising – though it would help me – was painful because it made me face a new truth that I didn’t want to see. Our thinking minds are one of these habits. If we quiet our chatter – who are we? What’s our core when the mental volume is muted?

Often we over-identify with our thinking patterns. We’ve identified with a tool, not our essence. It’s comforting to stick to what is known. Experiencing the moment for what it is – is not what most people’s habits are. Our thoughts become identified with our ego, and then all things become slings, or darts, or succor for our ego. In some ways our scripts – especially the negative ones – are preferred because they allow our ego to become more solid. Struggle, anger, hate, indignation all contribute to a vibrant ego. Our thinking patterns create those realities. Without the mental script – anger, hate and self-righteousness lose their solidity. There’s no there there. Self-righteousness is not an instinctual or biological response to evolutionary advantage. Self-righteousness is not hormones, it’s not nature. Self-righteousness is a psychological tool used to prop up the ego. If we silence the chatter, if we toss the script, we see that self-righteousness or anger or hate – are not real.

This is not to say those feelings are bad. I’m not suggesting that we feel guilty over them. We shouldn’t judge them. The trick to tossing the script is attending to those feelings when they occur without judgement. If you’re prone to anger, allow yourself to be angry when it arises. Acknowledge it. Look at it inwardly. Don’t react to it, don’t judge it. And don’t live your life from that feeling of anger. Just pause and watch it until the anger goes away. There’s a classic Buddhist teaching in meditation practice – I had a Korean Zen Nun teach this to me when we were sitting together for a four month, 4 day a week practice – the teaching says thoughts or feelings are like a train coming into a station you’re sitting at. When the train arrives, watch it. You can see it without getting on it. So too, with feelings of despair or frustration – we can greet them without going for a ride with them.

German-born American abstract expressionist painter Hans Hoffman once noted, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” When our mental chatter clutters our head space, our world becomes more complicated than it needs to be. It becomes more complicated than it actually is in reality. As we eliminate the unnecessary what remains behind? What can then begin to speak? For this week, I invite you silence your internal chatter for a couple of minutes a day. If that feels too long, try it for a couple of moments a day. Simplify your mind. Put away your scripts. Exorcise your egos. Be present to the feelings and thoughts without riding their train to where they will take you. Listen for what now has room to speak, for what now has room to live.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Art of Worship

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, on 3/10/13. It explores the meaning of music, corporate worship, and presence.

(I would like to start by congratulating all of you here today. Look around… You are the people that made it. Daylight Saving Time has not thwarted you this year. I have been crowd-sourcing all week to determine what time 11am actually was this Sunday. I suffer from what used to be a much more severe form of OCD – but alarm clocks are still the one source of angst that continues unabated. Apparently, we either all figured it out, or the group that comes later will be sorely disappointed that they were smarter than we were.)

When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings just our faculty Buddhist scholar and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now seven years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego. (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.

…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to worship at the ungodly hour of 11am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)

The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.

Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 300 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say encounter because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for our new Senior Minister, our community was split about 50/50 on the question of God.

With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.

Take our second hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.

Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists.

The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.”[1] Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.

We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn. Sometimes though we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts.  We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.”[2] He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time.

Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”[3] Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.

“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our pews this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.

All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.”[4] Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.

 

Please rise now in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn #36 “When in Our Music.” (It’s different than what’s printed in the Order of Service.)


[1] The UU Pocket Guide, Loc 824 Kindle. 2012 edition

[2] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p. 246 (Nook)

[3] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p.225 (Nook)

[4] The UU Pocket Guide. Loc 854, Kindle. 2012

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Art of Peace

    Happy Mothers’ Day to all our mothers, and to all those hoping to some day be mothers. Since Fathers’ Day is rarely celebrated here in the Summer months, let me extend the same to all our dads, and dads-to-be. And for those of us who are mourning our parents, may we hold them in our hearts this hour so that the memories that are good may echo on in our own living actions.

By a show of hands, who hear has noticed that I’m preaching from the floor this morning? (Oh good, most of you. I must be doing something right so far.) I’ll be preaching from the lectern this morning because I’ll be moving around a bit more than usual, and the high pulpit doesn’t have much room to move about.

As some of you may already know, before there were Hallmark cards, Mothers’ Day was started as a day of peace. It was a political activist call for Mothers to stand united to call for the return of their sons and daughters home from war. It’s grown into a secular holiday that celebrates motherhood, but it’s rooted in a peace movement.

A peace movement may seem a bit quieter these days than it did generations ago, but it’s no less important. As I remind us from time to time, my generation, and the generation that came before me and the generation that’s coming after me, have never really known a time when the U.S. wasn’t at war. Even if it might seem to most of us that war doesn’t really affect us. Some of us have family that are abroad, or have friends who have died in war. I personally haven’t felt that loss close to home, although I do have family serving in the military right now. For most of us who don’t know anyone serving in active duty, war is a thing that’s far away, or just in video games. We don’t have to put ourselves at risk. We don’t have to ration butter like they did in World War II. We don’t have to risk being drafted by the military against our will, like folks had to in the Vietnam War.

For many of us, we can kind of forget about it. And that’s a sad thing. It’s not sad because we’re not really affected. It’s sad because some Americans are very, very affected, but most of us don’t have to share that burden. A few people are asked to accept huge risks to their safety and quality of life, while most of us don’t have to shoulder anything at all. It’s sad because it makes it easy to think war’s not that big of a deal, when it’s a huge deal for a few people. It makes me wonder if bringing back the draft weren’t a good idea after all – at least everyone would realize that war might affect them, and maybe we would go to war less frequently or with more reservation. I do recognize that sometimes defending ourselves is necessary. By less frequently – I mean – “not being at war all the time.”

          Now, I’m not going to solve the problem of war and peace in the following 10 minutes, but I would like us to look at the idea of peace in a possibly different way. I think there’s kind of an art to it. I remember a Buddhist proverb that says, “If you want peace, smile.” I recall that the first time I heard that I thought the Buddhist teacher was a little crazy, and probably minimizing the idea of peace. I’ve come to see it a little differently. Let’s do a quick experiment. Everyone here – try something with me for just 10 seconds. On the count of 3, smile. And not a half-hearted smirk. I want a real, full-blown, smile. Pretend your happy – just for 10 seconds. Ok, ready… 1…. 2… 3…. :::smile:::

Alright everyone, you can stop smiling now. If you need to go back to frowning, feel free. Although you may want to bask in the waves of niceness coming off everyone for a few more minutes first. Did anything bad just happen? Did anyone break out into a fight? No, good. By a show of hands, did anyone actually feel better, you know, happy?

That’s what the Buddhists are getting at. With some rare exceptions, if you smile, a sense of peace does break forth. I learned this smiling trick had some real-world work applications too. In a former career, I ran a computer helpdesk for 5 years. I would tell my staff that the more someone on the other end of the phone was driving them crazy, the more they should force themselves to smile. It’s hard to sound mean while you smile. I’m sure you can do it, but it’s tougher. … (smiling) “When you say that your computer crashed, and you went to your email, and then nothing happened… what sort of nothing actually happened…?”

So where does the “art” piece come in that I mentioned? Let me tell you the story of Vashti and “the Dot” by Peter. H. Reynolds.

… “She handed him a piece of paper and said, ‘show me.’… and now.. ‘please …. sign it.’” I think that’s where the art comes in when we’re talking about crafting peace in our lives. It’s not about being perfect, or doing it all, or having all the answers. It’s not always about diplomacy, or bigger muscles, or smarter brains. Sometimes it’s about being willing to make our mark, even when we can just muster a smirk on our faces. It’s about play, and experimentation. But it’s also about being willing to “sign it.” To put our name, or our commitments, to the things we care most about.

You notice how Vashti realized that she wasn’t the only person who could learn how to make art? I love this story because it reminds us that even when she’s kind of the hero of the tale because she learns to be an artist, she extends that gift upon someone else. She finds another classmate who was feeling all down because he was really bad at drawing a straight line (a fellow after my own artistic heart – a ruler doesn’t always help me either. In fact, I asked my partner to help me with the straight lines that were pre-drawn on our canvas for this morning’s story. Yes, sometimes’ I’m that bad.) So she finds that other classmate, and Vashti inspires him to bring about his own talent, to make his mark, and to sign his name onto what he just crafted.

That’s the art of peace. It’s about coming to accept we can do whatever small thing we can do – even if it’s just making our mark in a small way at one time and place. Then owning our efforts for what they are. And most importantly, helping to inspire another person after us to be creative in their own way.

During our prayer this morning, we crafted a peace mosaic out of colored felt squares. Each was just one little bit of color, that on its own didn’t do much to create the symbol of peace on our flag. But when about 200 or so of us each made our own mark, it became a lot easier to make out the symbol of peace that was lying there waiting to show. For those of us who believe in God, we often see God’s presence in things like this. Individual acts of compassion or care, over time, seem to paint a pattern that’s hard to see if you only look at the one act. We all benefit from so many acts of kindness that have allowed us to live as we do, too many to see by themselves, and there is a sense for some of us that they’re leading to something more.

When we leave this worship, what can those marks of peace look like? Let’s hear some ideas, I’ll repeat them back if I can hear you so that we can all hear…. what can those marks of peace look like?

Those are all great. We can start even before we leave this room. Go back to that exercise we had earlier in the homily – the smiling one. Start there. Go up and speak with someone you don’t know – whether they’re new to us, or you’ve been ignoring them for 20 years. Take this day to deepen your connections with a friend or a stranger. It’s the foundation for peace.

It’s also the art for building a more effective ministry in this congregation. To paraphrase a colleague, “To be welcomed, is to be welcoming.” When we haven’t been reached out to, we can always be the one to reach out. I think of Vashti and her teacher. Vashti had no interest in making art. Her teacher didn’t accept Vashti’s lack of excitement for an answer, and kept meeting her halfway till she came along. Sometimes we all have to do that in community, or in our playgrounds, or our co-ops. When others aren’t meeting you where you are, sometimes you have to meet them where they are. There’s no rule for it, but there is an art to it.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: