Posts Tagged Catholic

The Art of Purpose

This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.

Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.

Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.

 It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.

My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.

Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.

We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.

Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”

         Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?

        “And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.
         …Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.

I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”



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Not My Problem

The following sermon was preached at First UU on Feb 20th, 2011. The story it references comes from the UUA Tapestry of Faith curriculum found here:

Who would have thought one little drop of honey could cause so much trouble! Our story’s Queen learned otherwise, right? She learned that sometimes leaving something unattended for long enough could create mischief, fighting and even fire! I can remember my mom yelling at me as a kid to clean up my bedroom, or pick up my toys from the living room floor, or to turn off the television when I was done. I think I now have a better idea of what my mom was worried might have happened – although the biggest risks were probably just broken legos and lost toys – either one though would certainly threaten a crying little Jude.

Cleaning up after ourselves, putting away our toys, doing the dishes now before the friendly neighborhood cockroaches and rats arrive to do our work for us are all good habits to have and the reasons are mostly clear. But what can this story mean when we’re not talking about honey, or food, or dishes, or legos? What can it mean when it’s referring to the everyday mistakes we make? The nasty emails we clicked the send button for; the failing school grade that we hide the report card for; the impatient remark we make to a fellow congregant – to a friend; or the promise we fail to uphold? Can these things spiral into something more with the proverbial cat and dog fighting amidst the baker and the butcher?

I’d guess that we can all imagine ways in which these things can easily get out of control if we let them sit there and work their mischief. Emails can cause hurt feelings that only grow when we confirm them by ignoring the hurt in our writing. The same can be said for bitter attitudes with folks around us in person. Hiding our school troubles only delays when the truth comes out, and in return we only cut ourselves off from the support of our family when we probably need it the most.

The answers are often simple even if they feel hard to do at the time. Face what we fear in the moment rather than letting it grow out of control. The more we avoid it, the more we fear it, the more troublesome or hurtful it can become. The more power we give it to define our lives.
What if the everyday negative things that happen are part of a bigger problem that goes beyond us? February is Black History month, and I’ve been wondering how an attitude of “not my problem” has contributed to so many of the difficult stories Black Americans have had to face. I wonder how our unwillingness to face our fears of the moment help to support discrimination, prejudice and injustice even though we might not agree with the attitudes that create unfairness between people with different ethnic backgrounds.
I put a call out on Facebook for stories our congregation might be willing to share. June Wohlhorn, one of our Kindergarten-First Grade teachers shared one such story from 25 years ago. She wrote to me,

“At one of the offices where I worked, I was friends with the bookkeeper who was a black woman. At lunch, we’d sometimes run across the street to the Korean deli to grab something to eat at our desks. After doing this a number of times, I noticed that although the man at the cash register would always put my change into my hand, he always put my friend’s money on the counter. I didn’t notice the first few times, but eventually I did and discussed it with her. She said it was one of the things that happens when you shop while black.
I suggested that we not go back even though it was the most convenient and cheapest place nearby. She didn’t want to give up the convenience and said it happened in lots of places and if she let it get her too crazy, life would be even harder than it was. I had known there was prejudice but had not really understood how even the smallest things like how you receive your change was a way of people keeping others ‘in their place’.”
Take a moment and imagine what it would feel like if folks went out of their way to avoid you in everyday interactions? How would it feel if people treated you differently than other people? Have you ever felt this way before? If you have paper and a crayon, you could draw out a time when this happened. Or you could draw a picture of how you think you’d feel. … Take your time, there’s no rush. But when you do that, I’d like you to draw another picture of how you could handle it differently – how would you make it better? This could be really important for you or someone you care about someday because things like this still happen even though they shouldn’t.

Our first principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, reminds us that treating people negatively because of who they are, or whom they love, is a moment where we fall short of who we could be. We’re not at our best when we diminish, when we put down or insult others. And our Unitarian Universalist faith asks more of us than that.
How easy would it have been just to ignore the little fact that the cashier gave change to some people in their hands, and to other people they put the money on the counter? Paying attention to how folks interact is a really important skill. Speaking up, or reaching out – depending on the situation – makes a huge difference too. Taking the time to talk about what happens matters too. It can show we care. It can show we know something’s not right. It’s the beginning of solidarity. These are all ways in which we can live out our first principle too. We often talk about how we affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but our principle also calls us to promote their (and our) worth and dignity. It’s important and great to recognize the value of the people around us; and it’s just as important to protect that sense of appreciation for the people around us. Our principles are not beliefs so much as action statements.
Some of us may be thinking that none of this is really new. That we all know that racism and prejudice and discrimination are bad. And yet it still continues, so I feel we need to regularly have a reminder. I’m not convinced that we always speak up, nor am I convinced that everyone in our religious and social circles are always enlightened on this matter. I get a glimpse of it from time to time because I frequently get confused with someone who is of a Jewish background. I’m actually of a mixed background, each grandparent coming from a different European country. I have a lot of immigrants in my family tree. I was raised Italian Catholic, and for those of you who also were, you know exactly what I mean when I say Italian Catholic. It’s a cultural identity that means a lot to me with all its humor and strength. And I’m not Jewish, but I’m told I look it.

I mentioned that I get a glimpse of discrimination from time to time. I can most easily tell when someone’s mistaking me for Jewish when the person becomes oddly mean, or dismissive, or patronizing (a big word for talking down to me.) Sometimes they’ll make an explicit reference to me being Jewish. I’ve honestly not experienced this at our congregation, but I have run into it at other UU congregations that have fewer Jewish congregants, and I do encounter it from time to time in stores in NYC. When other folks are present, no one ever says anything. No one ever speaks up. I try to focus more on changing their habits, or calling them out on it, than I try to change their assumption that I’m Jewish. It’s an opportunity not to avoid their discrimination, but rather to correct it.
One interesting thing I’ve come to learn about our first principle is that it doesn’t try to say we’re all the same; it reminds us that we all have value – that where we come from matters and is worthy. It is correct to say that we’re all human, but I think it’s a mistake to hide or cover up our differences. Just like I strongly value my Italian cultural household (yep, mom won out on that front), our First principle suggests we value the different backgrounds we all come from. We shouldn’t discriminate because of how someone looks, or where they come from, but we should learn from the identity and culture our neighbors grew out of. Ignoring the strengths that come from our differences is another way of the Queen ignoring the honey she dropped. Without stretching the metaphor too far, something is lost when we let that nourishment go to waste as well.

All these things that might seem to some people as small things (the change on the counter or the hand, the disparaging comment, ignoring who someone is,) can really add up to bigger problems. All these stories when looked at broadly paint a picture of a world where folks are treated unfairly based on characteristics we choose to dislike for no good reason. I believe that these drops of “messy honey” from the “unconcerned Queen” from our story, can add up to fighting and a burning kingdom. It’s up to each of us to clean it up in the moment; to not let a bad thing spread.

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