Posts Tagged Buddhist

Living Past Fear

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Joyful Living

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/21/17. It looks at the spirituality of joy.

 

We’re slowly realizing that my dog, Lola, is a truly effective life-coach for the Brewer-Geiger household. She’s our resident Zen Master Teacher, always in the moment. If she’s sick, or has to go in for a check-up, she stays happy as she enters the vet, excited for a treat. She’s probably terrified as the vet does the things vets always do, but she has this sort of “if I just stay still this will all be over soon, and then I’ll get a treat. Right, I will get a treat?” And then she’s all licky-face with the vet when it’s all done; excitedly saying good-bye to everyone on our way out.

The other day, on what was probably our first real warm gorgeous Spring day of the year, I was taking her for a 3 mile walk. This usually is a hobby of mine that gives me life; but on this random day the frets of the world were really taking hold. We’re all busy people, and I was at my busiest on this lovely day. But the ‘life-coach’ needed her walk. We’re out, and I’m running through all the things I did, all the things I needed to do, and all the pathways to getting them done as I was stressing at what couldn’t get accomplished. My heart wasn’t in the walk, and my head was surely a million miles away. A short while into it, Lola stops. She turns back and looks at me with her classic wide-faced dog-grin (I know they say dogs don’t actually smile, but mine sure knows how to scrunch her cheeks up to show a killer-grin.) She stops, and turns back, smiles and jumps up and down with a full-body “COME ON ALREADY! It’s gorgeous outside and we’re doing this thing!” It’s the spiritual mantra for joyful living – ‘come on already.’

We all need a dog life-coach some days to get our heads and our hearts back in the same place sometimes. What was I doing?  Tasks, and work, and plans, fears and concerns were all distracting me from the moment.  Those were my thoughts – a part of me.  And they were disconnecting me from life.  I was clearly living in the realm of “then” or “soon” or “what if.”  That world does not exist.  Only the present does.  These thoughts steal us away from the sacredness of life – from joyfully living. We excuse our sidetracked minds as merely being easily distracted. But when we turn our focus toward what we are doing, rather than what we could be doing or what we weren’t doing, we become aware of life – our life.

There are several Buddhist refrains that echo this.  Some of us may have already heard them, so I’ll quickly recap them. One is about a teacup and another is about washing dishes.  When one drinks a cup of tea, they should only be drinking a cup of tea.  They shouldn’t be dreading doing the dishes, or hoping to win the lottery.  If so, they’ve lost the most precious gift we have, simply being.  The only thing they turn out to actually be doing – is nothing.  They aren’t even drinking that cup of tea.  Now granted, some of us may not particularly enjoy washing our own dishes, and as someone who lived for years in small apartments, I am fully aware of a life without a dishwasher, but that’s life too.  If those breaths you spent while washing your forks and knives were taken away from you suddenly, they would be the most sacred thing you could hope for.  Yet we rarely pay them any heed.  All of our activities, joyful or tedious, are our activities; and mindful presence in them can create a joy through them.  Taking these practices to heart, we can gain a sense of accomplishment.

This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of embodiment. We began the month with a music service remembering the great protest movements in our country, and moved into last week reflecting on the original meaning of Mothers’ Day – an international women’s peace movement. Both looked at how we embody our highest values in our lives. As a people of embodiment, how do we live joy more fully into our lives? One of the stories I told last week talked about how our grudges can weigh us down, and stoop our shoulders. I want to talk a little more about that now.  Let’s all try that out in our seats for a moment. Maybe you’re already doing it, but if not go ahead and ruin your posture. Hunch down, even more…. How’s that feel?

Walking around as most of us do – slightly stooped, shoulders slightly curled forward and our breath fast and shallow, just feels bad.  More importantly, most of us are completely unaware of the connection. (ok you can stop hunching over now.)  I don’t know if you’ve had this sort of experience before; for myself, during the latter part of my years in computers, I began to suffer an odd numbing sensation in my arms.  The obvious guess was carpel tunnel; but that turned out not to be the case.  I was so extremely stressed out, that it crippled my breathing.  I simply was not getting enough oxygen into my body.  The final prescription by my medical doctor – was to start breathing.  (That was a rough prescription to turn into the pharmacist.  She had no idea what to do with that one.)  And then the miracle occurred.  I could feel my arms again.  If the meditative washing of the dishes isn’t an end in itself, which I believe it is, it’s also a good practice for our overall health.  I know it might seem trite, but I swear, after trying this out for a few weeks, you start to find joy and even wonder in all the little things.  In fact, the things that you previously enjoyed seem all the more sweet.

There’s something more to this practice than our health and awareness.  A central tenet of Buddhism is attention to our breath.  Buddhism recognizes a link between all of us when we touch this awareness.  The symbolism is expressed in what Buddhists call “the Bodhi Spot” or the place where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment.  He attained Enlightenment at the foot of a tree.  This spot, for us, is not a geographic place on earth.  That “place” is reached by all of us when we encounter the “moment – between the moments.”  When we put aside our thoughtful distractions and become fully present in whatever we are doing, we all enter that same space together.  It’s a joyful way of living into our 7th Principle, “We are all part of this interdependent web of life.”

Often the lack of presence keeps most of us from ever entering the same world as all but a rare few people. We drive past thousands of people every day living in Long Island. For folks who commute on the LIRR to NYC, they’ll walk by even more folks.  We’ve all experienced this; whether in the crowded street or the bustling mall.  You remember a few faces an hour later, but for the most part, they weren’t ever there.  We were certainly moving along, as were they.  But we’re often more focused on our daydream world than the streetscape.  I even think it highly unlikely those few whose faces I can recall, would remember mine.  And they probably wouldn’t remember yours, either.  If we missed that many flowers in a garden, we would think we missed the point of the stroll.  It’s as if we aren’t even in the same space together, despite our bodies.  Too often, we’re not here.  It’s a loss; a tragedy that we’re not here.  It’s important to recognize this.  Living in this massively populated modern world, we may not be able to engage in deep relationship with each passer by, but we can attempt to experience their presence in our midst.  And it’s also important to identify when we carry this anonymity into relationships that we can foster.

Besides the Buddha’s tree, there’s another garden story that comes to mind.  It talks about how rarely we’re able to be ourselves around others.  How we focus more on what others may think, rather than just being ourselves.  I’ll confess – I’m not about to offer you the traditional interpretation of this tale, but I expect you’ll come to appreciate this reading of the text a bit more than the conventional view.  It’s the Garden of Eden story.

Genesis 3:1-7 is the classic biblical verse where the serpent convinces Eve to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The crime scene culminates with the expulsion from the Garden.  God then barricades paradise with angelic Cherubim and fiery swords.  In a Christian context, it is often sited as the moment of original sin, although that interpretation doesn’t begin until after the Second Century C.E.  And Jewish commentary doesn’t traditionally read sin into this passage.  God warns Adam and Eve that if they touch or eat of this tree He will punish them with imminent death.  The original language implies a criminal “death penalty” sentence.  Ultimately, however, God does not execute the first couple as warned.  Rather they are sentenced to a life of suffering and eventual death in exile from the Garden.

That’s the fairly straightforward reading of the passage.  I’d like to suggest another way of looking at it that might be more helpful to us as Unitarian Universalists.  The moment humankind internalizes the duality of good and evil, as seen through the eating of the fruit, we became aware of our separation from things.  Nakedness in the garden is only a concern if you believe that the other things and people around you may bear a judgment about your nudity.  A sense of embarrassment or guilt would also raise these fears.  For the first time, Adam and Eve didn’t even want to see each other naked.  “I don’t want him to look at me.”  “I don’t want her to see me like this.”  Until this point, from the little we have to go on with this myth, Adam and Eve did not fear or think about things.  Presumably they only did things in response to the world around them.  Thoughts likely existed for the couple, but they were evidently not controlling influences on the first people.  In this idealized Eden, prior to the fruit-tree crime, humankind effectively lived in the moment, each moment.  Before the fruit from that middle tree, nakedness was just nakedness.  No positive or negative value was placed on it.  No shame, no fear, no embarrassment.  It simply was.

What does the exile from the Garden mean in non-mythological terms?  Does it simply signify the pain in child bearing or the sweat in manual labor the bible details for women and men?  Although myths do seek to explain the source of everyday things, they also reveal deeper truths that we too often dismiss beneath the fable.  Moving beyond nakedness, one could consider any emotion we experience in light of the Garden; for instance – fear.  All of us have experienced it at numerous times throughout our lives.  We’re afraid of the next meeting we have with our boss.  Or we’re scared of the results of some serious medical test.  We might just need a high grade on a big exam to pass a rough course.  Or it might be the truck careening into our vehicle.  When we’re separate from the Garden we think about our emotions.  Fear no longer remains simply fear; rather it grows into a sort of dread.

The constant cycling of our worried thoughts can paralyze us.  What will the medical results be?  How long will I live?  How much pain will I have to undergo to treat my illness?  Am I going to get into that good school next year?  All of these are genuine concerns about our future.  But generally, when we worry, none of them are in the present.  Usually, we worry about things that might happen.  We create a world that might be – and for the vast majority of us that world is quite unpleasant.  Despite popular sentiment, worry is not a useful means of intelligently planning for the future.  If the results turn out to be favorable, we’ll have lived through the experience once through our thoughts.  If they turn out to be negative, we will be putting ourselves through that dreadful space twice.  Living in our world of thoughts about the real world – that is our separation from the Garden.  That is our original sin.

In our world of duality, one state only exists in relation to another.  Knowledge of good comes with the expression of evil.  No longer is it just the world inside the garden, but now there is the world outside the garden as well.  Where there’s sin … there’s also grace.  But what does grace mean to us? …  It’s just being naked.  No shame, no guilt, no fear.  Worry is not graceful.  It’s also not fear.  Despite the cherubim and the flaming sword, that now bars entrance to Eden, we can return to the Garden in our life; although the metaphor aptly describes how tricky a proposition that is.   We need to separate worry from fear.  Fear is the emotion we experience.  Worry is what we add to it with our thoughts.

The next time your afraid, just be afraid.  This doesn’t mean you ignore the car in the road speeding toward you.  But it does mean you don’t consider the cars that missed you, or the other cars that might hit you later on.  You just get out of the way.

Most of us will eventually get out of the way; but we’ll do our best to consider all the rest along the road.  It’s more than just a lot of energy spent on realities that won’t come to be.  It comes back to not living in the life we do have.  Instead we’re sleepwalking through fantastical dreams that are both good and bad … but not real.

The self-awareness we gained in the Garden is a gift I deeply cherish.  I appreciate the understanding I have over that of any other animal.  I even tend to like all my emotions, whether they are full of love and joy, or weighed down by anger.  I remember a time when feeling anything was particularly difficult, maybe you remember a time like that too, or maybe you’re feeling numb today. It’s a very hard place to be.  Our full and fully present, presence of mind, is the spiritual goal. But just like the first “Fall”, that self-awareness can sometimes feel like more of a burden than a blessing. And yet – joy – can be found in between the moments of hardship and pain.

Adam and Eve grew in wisdom by eating that fruit.  They also forgot that everything was OK as it was.  After all, they had been running around naked for sometime doing quite well for themselves until then.  We can have it both ways though.  We don’t need to sacrifice our wisdom to return to the Garden.  In a way, we can even return to that state of innocence along with self-awareness. Our experiences are not lost to us with this return.  But we do have to let go of our dark dreamings.  The innocence we return to is not synonymous with ignorance or even lack of experience.  It’s the sort of grace that flows when we’re naked without shame. Sometimes, we can even choose joy, when we allow ourselves.

 

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Simple Beauty, Complex Pain

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 6/19/16. It addresses the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando.

It has been a painful, difficult week, following the shootings in Orlando. The tragedy that I spoke about last Sunday with news slowly trickling in, has turned out to be more than twice as deadly as we first thought. We’ve known worse attacks in war, and in our history of genocide, and lynchings, but in the modern era, we have not seen a mass shooting like this on our nation’s soil. Most of us are shook up; some are numb. And the LGBT community, particularly communities of color, are experiencing an extended shock response to the trauma because it’s an extension of the all too often reality many of us live in.

I briefly considered doing away with our Flower Celebration today, but the origins of the ritual come at a time in Europe’s history where the worst violence known to humanity was occurring during World War II. Unitarian minister, Rev. Chapek, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain. Remembering those lost last week is incredibly painful; many of us are experiencing the tragedy as if we knew those victims personally. I remember texting a few friends, during our annual meeting last Sunday, who lived there waiting to hear back; and thankfully they were all fine.

But the perpetual state of gun violence in our nation is leaving us more and more raw, and it’s making it harder and harder not to imagine that it could happen down the street. The political noise around each tragedy keeps real conversation at bay long enough to delay till the next mass shooting. It’s a sort of fog of war: as long as we can’t see straight, we don’t know how to react politically to protect our communities. And the issue is complex, but friends, it’s not that complex. We manage to know how to regulate how much Sudafed someone can buy over the counter, we can figure out how to track AR-15’s. What stops us from organizing as a community for sensible laws that don’t allow people on the FBI terrorist watch list from purchasing these military-grade weapons? Is that really a radical thing to suggest?

That’s my question for our Fellowship: can we organize around this issue? I believe in hope, and I believe in the power of prayer, and I know the value of reading the list of names of those lost to us. And as scripture reads, Faith without works is dead. That’s the bit that I think all UU’s agree with theologically. It doesn’t matter what we believe, if we aren’t doing something about those intrinsic values, then that ethic is empty and hollow. I worry about every first responder that needs to go into these places. I’m grateful for the military vet who was on site at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, who saved many lives. And I know in my heart, that there are too many LGBT youth and adults who will now delay coming out for fear of safety. Why do we leave it at that? Can we extend forward our respect and appreciation by working toward reasonable precautions against future harm? While we grieve this great loss, hold-off in coffee hour from worrying about the small details of congregational life that are less than to your liking; hold off from the what if’s and not that’s of life. Use that energy in connecting with one another and imagining how can we be a force for change on this issue that so many of us clearly care so deeply about. The Fellowship can be a crucible for this work, and the world needs us to take part.

It reminds me of the old scriptural adage of sack cloth and ashes after a great loss, or out of a spirit of repentance for a great wrong. I spoke last week about the words of one Rabbi who asked the people to repent of evil before we commit it. Another kind of repentance happens when we have failed to do what needed to be done. We remembered lives lost in our prayer today, and I wonder what I could have done to have prevented that ever from being necessary. And I know this is a community that is big enough to imagine coalition building that extends across difference, to build that safer world. The Flower Celebration originated as a service to draw our eyes back to simple beauty so that we can do the difficult work to address the complex pains of the world. In our hours of despair, may we find a renewal of spirit, to do the work at hand; and not be distracted by the thousand small details in life that keep us from the clear path.

A few weeks ago, I was attending our Tuesday morning silent meditation group, and I heard a classic Buddhist story about a Nun who was carrying a bamboo container full of water. In the water she could see the moon. After some time, the bamboo weakened and shatter, and all the water quickly leaked out. The Nun exclaimed laughing, “no water, no moon” and the story goes that she was enlightened. Traditionally, this tale is one that teaches about some of the classic characteristics of Buddhist understanding. The water and bamboo are the myriad things of the world, and the moon signifies impermanence. When we grasp onto what is fleeting, we can find despair or relief in what begins and ends before us as the water leaks through our fingers.

But there’s another aspect of this story that I find very true. In everyday terms, the water in that bamboo bucket is how we see the moon. We’re not looking at the moon directly; we are seeing the image of the moon in a reflection that draws our eyes away from what is real and true. The moon becomes a story about itself that’s retold dimly from another direction entirely. Everything that we see only through the reflection of the water is reliant upon how we hold the bucket, where are standing or moving at any given time, how long the bucket will last, and even how much water we have over time. The water becomes a story that we tell and retell others to understand the reflection of the moon – not the moon – merely it’s reflection.

This is really true about life. What’s the story we hear in the media, or among our friends, or the one we ourselves tell about what happened in Orlando? Do we have the story memorized that tells us any act of violence by someone who professes Islam, is an act of terror first and foremost and more about the clash of civilizations? Or do we have the story that homophobia can be internalized and cause grievous harm to ourselves and the world? Do we have the story that the Second Amendment trumps all other forms of liberty and rights? Or do we live into a story where we imagine we can never be fully safe? Since (most) or probably all modern mass shootings have been instigated by men, I have a story that there’s a way in which we are raising our boys and men that is fundamentally flawed. Masculinity has been twisted to mean power and aggression. I think that story is right, but it’s still just one way of looking at it.

As we recommit to building the world we dream about, we are going to need to find points of connection with people who have differing opinions than our own. Lives are very much on the line. Despite what we might hear colloquially, surveys show that most members of the NRA are in favor of reasonable precautions around the sale of military grade weapons. It’s not us vs them, rather the lobbyist organization that is the NRA is not in alignment with the vast majority of it members on this issue. We can hold onto a story that says otherwise, but it won’t help move the dialogue forward.

We can hold onto the story that this attack was solely against the US, which is sadly a story that has far too many politicians shutting their eyes and proclaiming. That story falsely tells us that any child of an immigrant is a potential risk. This shooter’s parents immigrated from Afghanistan at a time in our history when that nation was our ally against Cold War Communism. Do we stop immigration from any nation that’s our current ally because we do not know what will happen 30 years later?

We are people of stories. That’s often what makes us human. Myth, and story-telling, is the heart of my vocation in many ways. We can communicate the depth and breadth of humanity in story. But a good story helps crack open meaning and truth. As religious people, it’s our challenge to get better at telling what’s a good story that brings our humanity out to the surface, and which stories trick us into believing in the reflection of a moon.

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The Promise of World Community

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on Nov 15th, 2009. This sermon is about not making an exception of oneself.

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 back in the suburbs. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many of us New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and are immediately convinced that means us 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.

Our quote at the top of the order of service today by Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, 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. Or for those folks, like me, that rely on sidewalks and mass transit – the depiction on the banner would have to be a green turn arrow paired up with that “do not walk” red pedestrian.

I feel this traffic issue, is a microcosm (or a smaller version of a bigger problem) regarding the world we 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 for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Not to mention remaining completely unaware, or uncaring, that someone might be trying to sleep in plain earshot.

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 in Iraq and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…” Then I compassionately told my inner New Yorker to shut-up, and I sorted the response away for later inspection.

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 our multi-generational skit to our best efforts at singing a round during worship. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Brooklyn. 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 – sometime.

That’s what our Words for All Ages were 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. 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.

But 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, that promise that our liberal faith ever reminds us of, is that we do not need to believe the lie that we are alone, or that we alone bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders; whether the world is the middle east, or dealing with that bully 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, come to Patrick, 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.

I want to share with you now something that I often feel like I’m going at alone. It’s a problem here at home. But like that left turn signal, jay-walker, honking noise problem of my old apartment, if we can’t solve this one I don’t how we’re going to be able to look beyond ourselves long enough to help bring peace and justice abroad. It’s not the same thing, but all things are connected. I want to read to you a blog post from “StandingontheSideofLove.org” by the Rev. Meg Riley who is the director of Advocacy and Witness at the Unitarian Universalist Association. She wrote it the morning after our recent elections results in Maine where citizens voted to deny people the right to marry those of their same gender – those whom they love.

“It is the morning after election day. I went to sleep early last night, when results were still unclear in all kinds of races around the country, and learned about them as I learn about many things now—on facebook. The first posting I saw was from a ministerial colleague—I am heartbroken for Maine. My stomach twisted and my heart sank. We have faced so many of these ‘mornings after.’ The people who live in the states where their full humanity and their equality has been shouted about, argued about, snickered about, and ultimately voted upon, now have to get up and go about their business. Those I feel most for are the parents, preparing their children to go to school this morning. Kids who see elections pretty much as they see sporting events, who want to be on the winning team, must now go to school to face the gloating that losers always face. We who parent send our hearts out into the world each day, and those hearts are broken today. And yet, I know from parenting my own daughter, the strength and resilience and vision of the next generation is what pulls us through. In my daughter’s short lifetime already, we have moved quantum leaps towards marriage equality, towards valuing all families. Part of me is amazed that 47% of the people in Maine voted for the rights of less than 10%. The whole notion of putting the rights of a minority up to a vote of the majority is blatantly undemocratic, completely counter to the notion of the Constitution as I understand it. I am incredibly proud of the work that people of faith did in Maine to present families of all kinds with dignity and love. So, on this morning after the election, I am mostly grateful to know that I am in the company of other people of all ages, shapes and sizes whose still stand on the side of love, even with broken hearts.”

The Rev. Meg Riley’s words are powerful. As a gay man, I get hopeful every time one of these votes are held – and at the same time – to be quite honest – every one of these votes horrify me to my core. I am horrified that my fellow citizens think it is appropriate to vote whether I am fully human or not. What audacity it takes for anyone to determine which person anyone ought to love. If you think it’s not a question of humanity, consider this. Most world religions place love and compassion at the root of their theologies. We are putting to the popular vote what is considered central to human nature – love.

We often say at this congregation – “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. Humanity has the chance to be the first at something – if only we allow ourselves.

There was a discussion on the blog post about leaving room in a democracy for difference of opinion; that once the votes are cast we need to accept them since they were determined democratically. I was happy to see an excellent response by one of our own congregants, Sean Fischer. He wrote, “Taking away the rights of a specific group of people (including through a popular vote) solely based on their identity runs counter to our 1st, 2nd, and 6th principles. At its heart, our faith seeks justice and freedom for everyone. Putting the rights of minorities, including LGBT people, up to a popular vote is always wrong.” Sean also made the connections between putting up the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women to a vote. I would personally add, that all of these other identity groups have in fact had their humanity voted upon in similarly, and in my opinion, often more demoralizing ways.

If we were to take a poll of folks in the room right now who fall under the category of disempowered minority – it would without any doubt in my mind – be the majority of this room. Yet, vote our humanity away, we still do. I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children. With a show of hands, how many people as a kid or an adult 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. For all our kids in Kindergarten – listen up – you’re learning some very, very important things in your classes. 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.” So sure, if we need to vote about our humanity as people of color, or women, or gay and lesbian and transgender, then let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affect us. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.

The second half of our sixth principle determines the possibility of the first half. 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 slice you cut they’ll take. 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.

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This Side of Paradise

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on March 27th, 2011. It’s a radical message of universal salvation and hope for the realization that grace is found in this day, while still living.

There once was a farm in a valley that was practically perfect in every way, except that it had no rooster to crow at the crack of dawn, and so everyone was always late getting out of bed.”(1) If only all our problems seemed so simple! But I imagine it didn’t seem like such a small deal to the folks on the farm. From missing newspapers to late milked cows, to plain cranky attitudes, life in this otherwise perfect valley was marred by its one lack, a missing rooster.

What’s our missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude. Getting into that college program; securing that job; hearing better news about the medical results. Those are some really serious concerns. If you’re like me, I imagine in the everyday you can catch yourself putting the same value on smaller events though. Catching that traffic light before it goes from yellow to red; or missing those closing doors on the subway, or waiting for that email or that text message to arrive; or the anticipation you feel waiting for the next episode of Glee…
What’s happening in between? That moment between otherwise being happy about how things are and the next where we convince ourselves that things will only be good, or OK, if the thing we’re waiting for actually happens. Let’s start with the little things first. Try to remember what it feels like in your body when I mention these. That traffic light. Getting caught behind a slow moving pedestrian on a narrower block in Manhattan. The iconic subway rider that won’t move out of the way of the closing doors. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of these can drive you absolutely nuts.
What are we letting go of when we let this occur? We might have someone in our lives we love; we may have home and health; we may be enjoying a warm beautiful day on this side of paradise; but the traffic light, or slow moving pedestrian, can take it all away in the blink of an eye. We may be thinking about picking up our kids from their RE class, or prepping for the next congregational committee meeting, or just steeling ourselves for the rush of coffee hour instead of fully resting into this hour of reflection, refreshment and community connection. It’s so easy to fall into this habit. We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely all experience this sense of “momentary want” again – probably even today. The little things are just as easy to laugh at ourselves about – as they are to forget not to cling to them again and again. They’re not big, and yet they can all snatch from us the awareness of the awe in the living world around us.
…And the bigger things are much less easy to sweep away. Concerns for one’s home, or job, or prospects or health aren’t frivolous or insignificant. The death of a loved one, or feelings of concern for our friends who are grieving, are major turning points in our lives. For good or for ill, their effects will travel with us – possibly – for the rest of our lives. And yet, the simple truth is that the awe and wonder of this living, breathing world continues unabated in every moment. What happens to us, doesn’t change this truth; even if the awe and wonder becomes hard to see for a time… even if we can’t feel it for a while. A connection to our source, this life, remains. And yet those times of forgetfulness – those times of feeling disconnected from our source, will come. It’s the reality of a world full of promise and pain.

Our Universalist predecessors believed in universal salvation. They believed that when we died, all souls would be saved to heaven in glory. The reasoning went such that an all-loving, all-powerful God could not condemn anyone to eternal pain or misery. Personally, I’ve come to feel that salvation is accessible in our current lives, for all people, while we’re still living and breathing. I’ve come to see salvation not tied to death, or notions of original sin, but a salvation tied to life. A salvation responding to the hells of our daily making; a salvation responding to the hells of our communal making. It starts with being able to connect and reconnect with this awe-inspiring living breathing world. It’s a salvation that’s grounded in healthy community; a salvation that responds to our religious humanist forebears who found in religious community a saving grace from the false idolatry of the individual ego. It’s a salvation that liberates us from our ties to the mythic worlds of “what if,” the traps of “if only” and the fears of “no, not that.” It’s not a false sentimentality. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a brazen disregard for the horrors, and pains and tragedies of our world. It’s a salvation that reminds us of the honest connections we are ever blessed with. It’s the kind that puts into context all the complexity and nuance of our often frenetic yet ever poignant world.
Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron offers a Buddhist take on this contemporary Universalist message. “Moving away from our experience, moving away from the present moment with all our habits and strategies, always adds up to restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The comfort that we associate with concretizing and making things solid is so transitory, so short lived.” (2) Alright, let’s take a little mini-poll here. By a show of hands, who here has ever wanted anything? Ok, keep your hands up if that thing you wanted you got. Ok, now here’s the tricky part. Please keep your hand up if after getting that thing you wanted, you at some point stopped wanting or enjoying it. And finally – keep your hand up if that thing you wanted that you got, you came to wish you never got it? Alright, I thought that was a pretty common occurrence. I’m glad it’s not just me… phew!

That, my friends, is what concretizing can lead to. We sort of chase our own tails for dreaming. Call the grass on the other side always greener, or just admit that sometimes we don’t really know what we want. The draw to make things appear more solid in our lives is very alluring, but it’s ultimately a fruitless desire. I don’t mean to suggest we ought to give up on development, or goals, or hopes; but rather I hope to inspire us to offer a more realistic appreciation for the moment we dwell in. Our world is more full of joy if in our daily strivings we remain rooted, as best we can, in a thorough appreciation for what is before us. It’s from this place of fullness that we realize salvation. And it’s available to us in every moment; including this one.
There’s another message that comes out of the words for all ages we heard this morning about our practically perfect farm. Did you notice how the rooster went to every animal in the farm before even trying to figure out how to crow on his own? It made more sense to him that the pig, or cat, or sheep, or duck might know better how to make a rooster crow than he himself did. The part about that story that I love even more, is that the pig, cat, sheep and duck also thought that they knew how to make that noise better than the rooster. If they knew so well, I wonder why they didn’t take on the role of morning wake-up call till then; and yet they remained certain they could. How often do we take on one of those roles in our lives? When are we the know-it-all expert? …When are we the rooster that’s given up all our power?

I’m sure there’s a few sermons in the question of being a know-it-all, but I’ll save that for another day. The second question though, really fits our worship this morning. I’ve reflected a bit about how we give away our connectedness with the moment, with our connectedness to this side of paradise, by ever wishing for the next great thing. How do we do that when we give up our own answers? How do we disconnect ourselves when we solely rely on others to save us from our unknowing, or our quandaries, or our sense of loss? In religious community, I applaud the rooster’s desire to learn from his peers and elders. I applaud his willingness to engage with his neighbor. But I’m concerned that it never occurred to him to even try to rely on his personal experience. Our UU sources talk about this. One of our sources is our own human experience, and our story’s hero takes a while to get back to the beginning.
What’s going on there? I’m going to guess that we’re all a little guilty of this in our lives. Think about a time when you’ve had a big decision to make and the first thing you do is call every close friend and ask them to tell you what you’d do. A certain amount of that is good for the process of reflection. But so often we go to the absurd extreme with it. We give up our connectedness with the moment in our repetitive mental musings – with the proverbial spinning of our wheels while going no where. Maybe we need the advice, but maybe we already know our answer. Maybe we already know how to speak our voice and do what needs to be done if only we were to try. A friend of mine says that, “We can’t rely on others to show us the beauty of a moment. Another person can’t give us the eyes to see that; we’re born with them and we have to learn to use them.”(3)

In the Christian tradition, there’s a verse attributed to Reinhold Niebhur, that goes, “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.” This great prayer of discernment sums up the quandaries associated with fearing what will come and fearing who we are right now. If we can figure out how to live out the words from the Serenity Prayer, as it’s commonly called, we come closer to an appreciation for the moment. We come closer to loving this amazing world as best we can just as it is. It holds an honest balance between loving ourselves (and the world) as we are, and loving the world and ourselves as we might be — without making ourselves or the world out to be wrong in the meantime. It calls us to give ourselves a chance, without struggling against the impossible; while lifting up a sense of ownership with our feelings and experiences.
In all of this, if we were to name it for what it is, we might say that there’s a hole in our hearts for what we sense to be missing in our lives. In some traditions, we’d call it a “God-shaped hole.” In others, we’d call it “living in a state of suffering.” In psychological terms we might label it “insecurity” or “co-dependence” depending on its manifestations and triggers. I believe each one of these has their merits. As a minister though, and not a psychologist (except for maybe in the pop sense of the word) I’ll stick with the first two names. “Living in a state of suffering” and “A God-shaped hole in our heart.”

Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron clearly is in the school of thought that engages our sense of suffering. It’s a philosophy that calls for deepening our sense of comfort with the groundlessness of life – that ‘not knowing what will be;’ that ‘acceptance of the present moment.’ “This moving away from comfort and security (she writes,) this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky – that’s called liberation.” (4) I used the Universalist language of salvation before to reflect on this same sort of thing. As our religious tradition transforms, changes and grows we’re going to learn and develop more and more ways to express the complexity of life and matters of spirit in our own religious language. But I believe the core truths, the essential questions and challenges remain the same for us – we’re just learning better ways to translate them for our own hearts, minds and ears.
The “God-shaped hole” language may really work for you. Or maybe it’s a kind of language that’s really hard for you to relate to. As Unitarian Universalists, I’ll challenge us to be the best translators we can be. And I’ve given us a few ways to translate today. For the theists among us, when we give up our sense of faith in our own capacity; when we give up our sense of appreciation for Creation as it is; when we disconnect ourselves from a real communion with this side of paradise; we realize a God-shaped hole in our lives. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we’re alone; or empty; or unloved. We confuse ourselves into thinking we’re powerless; or incapable; or that the world is devoid of meaning.

None of these things are true. We are not alone. We are loved. Life is full of promise. Our potential and capacity for love and for life is an amazing gift – an amazing blessing that we only need to open ourselves up-to to know its full wonder. As Zora Neale Hurston audaciously proclaims, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” That’s the core message in living into this side of paradise, regardless of our personal theologies, or beliefs. Loving the moment, loving the world in all its nuance and beauty, loving ourselves and the beloved communities we build together, loving this life through all its uncertainty, is the process of crawling out of our places of pain and fear and hiding. Friends, this world is too full to forever find answers outside ourselves, and it is too full to forever think we hold all the answers for our neighbors. This living, breathing world is too full to hide from it, each other, and ourselves.

1- “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janee K. Groshmeyer p. 88
2- “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron, p.43. 2003 Boston and London.
3- Brian Brewer
4- “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron, p.44. 2003 Boston and London.

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