Posts Tagged Change
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.”
All this month we’ll be exploring what it means to be a people of possibility. When I preach on our themes, I usually slip that question- phrasing into the sermon somewhere – sometimes obvious like now, and other times, it’s subtler. I could ask what it means to be a person of possibility, beginning with the individual. We change the world most profoundly when we begin with ourselves. In fact, most religions, at their core, are helping seekers to make the personal changes first – affecting the broader societal changes later down the road.
And for certain, we’ll wonder what possibility as a spiritual virtue means for us individually as well. But I like to begin with “people” – begin by searching for what it means to follow a spiritual path in community, because we’ve chosen to do this together. Unitarian Universalism, for all of its strong streak of individualism, it is profoundly a communal faith.
Our 7 principles even show this tension in the way they are written. Even the newest among us, probably knows the first principle by heart. (What do we covenant to affirm and promote)? The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even when we talk about the most individualistic of principles, we’re doing so by talking about our shared promises to one another – we covenant to affirm and promote. But what’s less obvious is that our 7 principles move into wider and wider circles as we approach the seventh principle. Worth of individuals moves toward equity and compassion in relations, to acceptance of one another, and through learning moves into democratic practices, world community, and ultimately recognizing how all of life is interdependently woven. Our 7 principles teach us to move from our own experience into deeper and more meaningful connection with the world around us, all our neighbors. The end goal is building the beloved community on earth, ever knowing that we may never see it in our own lifetime, but our purpose keeps us focused on the possibility. So, what does it mean to be a people of possibility.
Our second reading today reminded me of the old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”
The virtue of possibility is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together – is sort of the art of possibility; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using possibility as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.
As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hard and forgetting to look toward what is possible.
As a spiritual leader here, part of my responsibility is to help us not get lost staring at what isn’t working. Acknowledge it, address it, tweak what we can, and keep moving forward. I look to the radical changes on our grounds these past 6 months as a mini-parable in change-management. We’ve had a few cancelled attempts over the past 35 years to repair our grounds, so that it’s safe and accessible for all – whether we’re walking or wheeling into our sanctuary. From the stories I’ve been told, the history is one where, each attempt, we got far along, but there were always reasons why the plan wasn’t perfect for everyone, so we didn’t move forward in doing the needed work. (Who here is perfect? So no plan will ever be perfect, but we still need plans.) I totally see how we’d want to make sure everyone was happy – but in the interim it became harder and harder for folks to park as our grounds got worse and worse. I remember the last winter before we really got the repairs moving, I fell on the ice 4 times. Something had to be done. This time around, we kept our focus on the vision for what we wanted, and did our best to accommodate all our wants without demanding perfection. And in the coming months we’ll celebrate our success and re-dedicate our grounds. (And I’m happy to report that so far this Summer, I haven’t fallen on any ice, even once.)
But possibility isn’t only about casting a vision, or setting goals. Sometimes, it helps us gain a new perspective. Our second reading, by Robert Fulghum, is looking at how possibility does this very thing. Of all the inane, weird things for college students to do for a philosophy class, eating a wooden chair probably ranks up somewhere (at least near) the top. But I love the new perspective it gave them to look at things in a different light. How do you take the small monotonous things we do in our daily lives and turn them into something new and wondrous. They took their 15 miles a week of running in circles around a lake, and imagined what that look like if they went in a straight line in our minds at other places in the world. They started to do a virtual tour of Europe – all from beginning with eating a chair for a philosophy class. As Fulghum ended his story, “For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance. Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the- long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis. Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change.”
I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, for those who follow me there, that I was remembering one of my undergraduate Religious Studies professors who forced us to write a 5 page paper every week for many of his upper-level classes. I recall being blown away at how tiring that was after 3 years of doing it. It’s funny how as I begin my 10th year in the ministry, and 5th year of writing weekly sermons that are twice as long as those old weekly assignments, how nostalgic I get for the days of upper-level religion classes. But like the philosophy students eating a chair, leading them to take virtual geography tours, in increments that match their weekly jogs, this memory got me thinking as well. Over the Summer, I started taking a serious look at how much I’ve written. Even conservatively, I’ve written over 200,000 words since I came to our Fellowship in sermons alone – not counting the blogs, or the prayers, or the other liturgical writings I craft from time to time. We’ll see what comes of it in time, but I’m beginning to sort through some other writing projects to see if I can work toward longer pieces for publication. Maybe that will bear fruit in a year, or maybe in 5 years, or maybe never; but it’s got me thinking in new ways – and that means more creativity.
I say this in part aloud as a little kick-start for myself; but more as a wondering for each of us. What is your 15 miles around a lake every week? What is the routine thing you do all the time that might be looked at in a new way? What may come from stretching the possibility into something new? This week, I encourage you all to look for that routine thing you do all the time, and imagine applying it in new directions. Maybe see it as a mid-year tune-up. Or those of us who are on the school cycle, this is the real new year’s time anyway so make your resolution. But don’t get too hung up on making it hard – aim for new or different – and see if it creates new space in your life – where there was mostly routine.
I’ll close by returning to our first reading from today, the poem by Rumi. It’s talking about the quintessential question of faith – the nature of life, longing and God. “So! I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?” The not-knowing, the uncertainty that descends upon the man that once prayed nightly, is a painful loss for him in the poem. Possibility reflects this existential crisis for all of us in our daily lives. When we’re reticent to try new things, or to break out of a rut – in a way, we’re responding to the uncertainty of the future – maybe informed from our own past. Our inner New Yorker film critic resurfaces, “Things didn’t work out before – or – there’s a lot of mitigating factors on what we’re trying to accomplish- or – I fail so often.” Maybe some or all of that might even be true – but it’s not helpful if change is what we seek. The inner criticisms, even if valuable for course correction heard in reasonable doses, turn into the cynic from the Rumi poem when they become callous to our potential.
“This longing you express is the return message.” The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” When we’re stuck, or dry, or uninspired, hear these words. Use your longing for a new way, as the evidence of the return message.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/15/16 as part of our annual Bridging service recognizing our Senior Youth’s transition into adulthood.
Our annual Bridging service always makes me think about growing up and changing times. Over the years, I’ve noticed how we all have someone in our lives who will always see us as the same person they knew so many years ago. You all know the phenomenon. You’ve got a sibling who will always see you as the controlling type. Or you have a daughter who will always see you as the annoying mom. Maybe you’re the happy type and some friends have a hard time recognizing when you’re in pain. Who here has parents who still see them as mostly irresponsible and totally uptight? (You all have diplomatic immunity right now, so parents this one doesn’t count against them.) Who here has children who still think their parents haven’t a clue? (see turn about is fair play.)
Earlier in our service, Starr spoke about the story of the “Hero’s Journey.” Stories are powerful and informative; sometimes they lead us forward and sometimes they get in our way. Starr spoke about the positive kind of stories; I want to talk about the ones that aren’t so positive, even if we sometimes think they are. We have two competing stories in our society. “If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life.” The second pops up in dating advice when things go sour, “No one ever really changes.” We sometimes flip back and forth between those two when we want to hear a different answer. Both are true in their own way, or we wouldn’t repeat them as much as we do. But both are also not quite right.
For the first – dreaming big enough – think about school. The story goes like this: If you work hard enough you can get into a great school, and a whole lot of opportunities can open up for you. But sometimes dreaming big isn’t about getting into the great school, it’s about stepping away for a time from how things are usually done. It can be about taking the time away from the crazy pace and reflecting on the life you want to make. What is it these days – starting most seriously in 7th grade or 8th grade – test after test that determines compliance with national data points rather than personalized teacher goals? Our Coming of Age youth feel the pressure, and many of our parents don’t like it, and many of our teachers think it has the opposite impact than intended.
And by 16 you’ve got pressure to decide what you’ll study as an adult – if you take the path of college – that may or may not determine your first career. The story goes: If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life… just make sure that you start planning it by the time you’re 12. If you can’t hear the italics in my voice from your seats, know that that’s kind of fantastical thinking. At the age of 12 you’re not going to know what you want to do with the rest of your life, so take a deep breath, and know that it’s ok.
To our Seniors graduating High School this year, as an adult you can always decide to do things differently. Sometimes you’ll have repercussions for the choice you make though. Here’s a secret I’m going to let you in on right now. Even if when the time comes to make that kind of life-changing decision, you decide not to do things differently, there are still repercussions. That’s the great lesson of adulthood – you can’t get away from it. You can change your major 7 times like I did, and still be fine. (environmental science, teaching, English, anthropology, archaeology, religion, urban planning and then (finally) onto seminary.) You can drop out of college, like I did, and pick up the pieces later. Or you can delay college, and take the time to figure out what you need to do without the pressure of high cost tuition till you know what your heart wants. And your heart may change over time – in fact it likely will.
That’s the part of cliche dating advice, “No one ever really changes,” that’s a bit off. A lot of people actually change quite a bit over time. We just don’t always see it over the short-term. It’s why some of us will always be seen as the controlling sibling, or the clueless parent, or the irresponsible child. Changing bits at a time are often hard to see, and families tend toward stasis … acting the way we always acted …. having the same fights we’ve always had. (Does that happen also in congregational life? Do we have stories we tell over and over again that are only felt because we keep telling the false story? We probably keep telling them because the folks that know the stories aren’t true stay quiet. That’s another hard lesson of adulthood, silence doesn’t make problems go away.)
With adulthood, there’s a chance to change some of that, and yet we often change less than we could. When we move out of the house (for the first time) the world feels so different. When we return home for the first time – everything feels like it hasn’t changed a bit, but it all feels so strange. It feels like our childhood home could fit in one of those glass snow globes, and we’re a stranger looking in from the outside, able to shake out the memories but not go back inside.
For those of us who have been driving already, maybe for a while – do you remember that first time you got into a car and drove away from home? Even if it was just for the afternoon? What did that feel like to you? I remember this incredible sense of freedom – even though I knew I needed to go back home that day. Things were somehow different. I had more control over my life. Entering adulthood is like that feeling. But as time goes on, that feeling disappears. Maybe major changes, like shifting careers, or moving to the City or away from it, or graduating from college, might trigger the feeling again. But for the most part, over time those feelings are forgotten.
I think that forgetting is part of why we start to believe that people don’t change, or that we can’t change. We fall into our habits, or take on responsibilities, or feel real obligations, and change becomes harder and harder with greater and greater repercussions. But remember – repercussions happen whether we change or not. We just need to choose or accept which repercussions we can learn to live with.
Growing up is like a scene from “Mission Impossible” (I’m thinking the old T.V. show and not the snazzy recent movies – but that’s just because I’m of-a-certain-age.) Some mysterious figure comes up to you, hands you an otherwise impossible assignment, and pretends like you have a choice in the matter. Then all record of what you have to accomplish goes up in a puff of smoke and fire, and you’re left picking up the pieces. For the most part, everything will work out as well as it could for an otherwise impossible set-up. You just have to figure a way with the cards that you have been dealt, with the team that you have. Or in the words of the great UU Philosopher-Theologian, Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” (from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)
But there’s another flip to all of this. Growing up is not just about you. If you can change, make big choices in life, see and live in a new way – then the people around you can do the same as well. When you find yourself saying, “why won’t Mom realize that I’ve grown up, that I’m an adult now,” …and believe me you will find yourself saying that very soon… look for how you’re treating Mom or Dad the way you always have. If they’re treating you the same as usual, you’re probably also stuck doing the same. As an only child I can’t say from personal experience that it’s worse among siblings, but I’ve seen many friends whose sibling rivalry or sibling friendship grow only more intense over time. It’s a great trick in the work-world as well. It’s why people give the advice, “Start as you mean to continue.” Because whatever way you begin, is often how people will expect, or even demand, you to be around them. It takes a long time to change your patterns, and folks often take an even longer time to recognize the newness in your habits and styles. Just keep at it, and your world will eventually catch up.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/25/15. It reflects on pop culture’s fascination with “Back to the Future” Day on October 21st and what that teaches us about change.
If you watch the late night talk show circuit, or read Facebook, or follow the stories that get covered over and over again on the internet, then you might have heard something this week about the old movie, “Back to the Future 2.” In the movie, they famously traveled forward in time 30 years to the date, October 21st, 2015. That was this week. The movie studio put out a promo with the character, Doc. Brown, coming out and telling us the future is what we make of it. One of the late night talk shows even got the actors Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox to reenact one of the scenes – as if they were finally arriving into the future, in the middle of the talk show.
The running jokes have all been centered around what did the screenplay of that movie get right, and which predictions were wrong. No, we don’t have any flying cars, and the hover-boards we have aren’t really hover-boards. Cars don’t run on trash, and thankfully our fashion sense is 30 years better than what the fashionistas of the 1980’s would imagine – for example, no, few of us are wearing spaghetti strainers as hats. Oddly, they did predict a red-headed casino owner would be seeking power.
It’s a classic 1990’s science fiction movie, but also rather typical for 80’s campiness, so the movie itself isn’t all that deep, though still fun. I have been struck though by all the folks who have gleefully sought out the comparisons to today’s world. Or one notable tweet that chided us, ‘if we wanted to have hover boards and flying cars by 2015, we should have elected leaders who would better fund science.’ Ouch.
I began to wonder if we had a script that was supposed to happen, that we all forgot about, until the day of the play. My fellow former theater folk here may have had that anxiety dream once or twice. I’ve noticed since we crossed the millennial threshold, the big blockbusters have, for the most part, stopped putting dates on the screen for things that happen in the future. But I did marvel at how dates (like today – 2015) used to sound so far fetched and futuristic. I imagine if you grew up earlier than the 1970s, 2015 sounds even more out there. How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong?
…I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script. We do our best and take one step at a time through the years. Life is a mixture of joy, and challenge, hope and grief. Some of us have it easier, and some of us have it harder, but none of us live without stress. That being said, I think most of us also fool ourselves into living like there is a script. It sounds different for each of us. Maybe yours is the standard american dream – graduate from school, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and own a home. It’s a good script to have. It only becomes a problem when we think we should follow it, but life doesn’t match it. Maybe school isn’t for you. Or these days, jobs change far more frequently than they used to. My dad retired after working at the same company for almost 50 years. That kind of security doesn’t really happen anymore.
Or maybe you’re not looking to get married, or to get married again. Or children aren’t in your future for social, biological, or economic reasons. When family doesn’t look like the way we were raised to imagine it, it can be the source of great pain. I know that grief is real and legitimate; it’s good to acknowledge it if it’s a source of pain for you. But I find for myself, that I have to check where is the real sense of loss for me, and where I’m feeling loss from not following that imaginary script. We all deviate from it, but we don’t all have to feel bad when we do.
Or maybe you’ve lived that script and enjoyed the fullness of it, and are now wondering, what next? What does retirement mean for me? Do I become less busy, or more? When I move to be closer to the grandkids, what will become of my long time friends that have meant so much to me? I think this is the hidden secret about the classic script. Even when it’s full, and realized and meaningful, it doesn’t always offer the answers we may crave. At some point, we take a turn, and need to figure it out on our own or with our loved ones. So I’m cautious of scripts. They may be a good framework for goals, but they aren’t full of a lot of answers. I wonder how often we follow those scripts thinking they’ll have answers….
Other than the “American Dream” that I’ve just talked about, there’s another kind of tradition that we often adhere too. I call it, “The way we’ve always done things.” I think this script is probably as guilty, if not more so, of being the source of everyday smaller sufferings for those who otherwise have everything they need. It’s the kind of pain that happens when the only thing that’s “bad” that happens, is that an event, or an action, or a schedule is different than it would have been in the past – and we experience pain. Often, the new event or schedule is just as good, or near as good, or possibly even better – but it doesn’t matter; we’re off script from how things have always been done – so it triggers pain in us. Not real injury, or real grief, or real loss; it triggers imaginary suffering. I say imaginary suffering, because the only pain we’re experiencing is in our heads and not in the actual world.
Some of us may be wondering if I’m being a little unfair to tradition, or not giving tradition it’s fair voice. First, know that many Traditions (with a capital T) have history and meaning and purpose that are valued by communities, and I see that too. We honor holy days and holidays in our religious community for this reason. Likewise, memorial services, weddings and child dedications often are at the top of my priorities. So yes, tradition can be vital and life-saving and affirming. Second, rest easy; tradition always has it’s fair voice. It’s probably the loudest thing any of us ever hear. I think that’s the case, because traditions (with a lower case t) can also pretend-shield us from our daily struggles tied to change.
Why do we face change with such fear and trepidation? In hindsight, it’s probably obvious, but we do it time and time again, and in the moment forget, so it’s important to repeat. We’re growing older, or the world is less secure than I once imagined, or I’ve had enough grief in my life lately – those are all thoughts that are real and true and important to acknowledge. But sometimes, we try to avoid acknowledging change by lifting up the shield of tradition. It’s as if we imagine – if this other thing stays the same, everything else will as well. … but it doesn’t. Life is change. Life is newness, and letting go; day after day. And that’s beautiful and that’s hard. But change is here to stay; tradition or no tradition.
What would we be like if we were a people of letting go in the face of scripts and tradition? Can we be a little easier on ourselves when things don’t turn out as planned? Even if they really don’t turn out as planned can we still go easier on ourselves over it? Can we learn to assess and judge where we are in our lives without needing to compare it to our neighbor, or to our childhood and child-like dreams? When the day comes, if it hasn’t already, when you feel like your religious community wasn’t perfect in some way – can we be patient enough to remember that that’s an eternal truth for human community – we don’t do perfect? That’s probably a tradition with a capital T that we can not change – maybe the only one.
When your Sunday school teacher forgets a kid’s name, or your minister is not all things to all people, or the choir member finally someday misses a note (I know that hasn’t happened ever), or a Board president doesn’t see things exactly your way – can we learn to let go and let live? Can we live into the next today, and not stay stuck in the time of disagreement or disappointment? Many religious communities face this challenge, and it’s a normal thing to wrestle with. I’ve shared this with our Board, and I think it might be helpful for more of us to hear it, so I’ll share it here too. People don’t come here to be happy, and our purpose is not to make everyone happy. If happiness were the main goal, religion would have died out a long time ago, and with it, religious communities. When we fixate on holding onto how things once were, we increase our own suffering. Happiness may be an end result of our search, but striving to be happy usually ends in suffering. We cling for what was, or we grasp for what might be. Neither grant the genie’s wish.
Religious communities, in all our imperfections and our awkward dance between tradition and change, seek not to grant happiness, but to offer hope. That through all the turmoil and the hardship, we can remember the times of solace and joy. That change also brings us out of places of suffering. This pain we feel will someday go away. That the loss of a loved one, does not steal from us the times we shared together; that we are forever changed for knowing them, and the world is so too changed for our passing through. We give hope that this all means something. And it does. When I’ve known times of hardship, religious community has helped me ground myself and find my direction anew – before all the change and all the turmoil. But through that change, something new came about. And we’re living in that something new today.
Can we find hope in letting go? Can we make room for what may come by learning to let be what once was? When we toss the proverbial stone into the waters, hoping it will skip, will we go with it clutching till we soak ourselves, or will we let it sail on it’s own, free of our steering hand?
I’ll close with a return to where we began; “Back to the Future.” Time travels a cute, albeit fascinating, sci-fi idea. We can’t hop into a fancy car or a spinning blue box and travel backwards or forwards in time to the past or the future. But each of us, every single day, travel into the past or wonder about the future. When we cling whole cloth to the old, or to tradition, or make contingent our happiness about things yet to be – we travel in time. We live a life that once was, or a life that may never be. But in both cases, we cease living our one precious life. We may not be able to choose or change certain things about our lives – sometimes pains and grief may not be wished away – but we can choose to live our life. Living into today – saying “no” to our minds’ ceaseless drive to send us forwards or backwards in time -is a precious act of faith. Faith that this moment, this life, is here and sacred and worthy of living. It begins today, again and again.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Renewal,
As the fullness of Autumn returns to us,
and the trees turn bright with reds, and oranges, and yellows,
help us to find places where our hearts can lighten, or brighten,
in letting go of what once was.
We often grieve what has passed before us;
and grieving is often the only right emotion to feel before great loss or suffering;
But too often we grieve the small things,
never letting them fall away,
or turn into something new.
May we find the wisdom of the brighter path,
with a lighter load to carry;
knowing that for so many things,
our burdens are too often cherished worries never released.
Mother of Renewal, stir in our hearts the willingness to accept a new day,
and the courage to welcome it with open arms and loving eyes.
This is the first in a three part sermon series looking at the 2014 Ware Lecture by Sister Simone Campbell (of the Nuns on the Bus fame.) It looks at how communities affect change.
We’ve had quite a bit of snow over the past week and look to be getting more and even some freezing rain tomorrow. I think we’re past the obligatory period of fawning over the first pristine snow and have moved into the long-standing New York tradition of being angry or disappointed in the weather reports’ accuracy of what actually fell. I also was heartened to know that despite the snow, when we were finally able to drive again, die hard Long Islanders didn’t allow the snow to change their dedication for driving speed or for our propensity for making sharp turns into on-coming traffic. Area clergy tell me that I’m obliged to curmudgeonly preach at least once a year about Long Islander driving patterns. So… check, got that done early this year.
Walking around town with our one year old puppy proved to be an exciting challenge. Balancing her strength and excitement against snow mounds and ice patches; she leaps like a dolphin through the snow drifts and I flail like a crazed cat on the ice. I noticed a couple of times where cars were stuck on a snow bank. I saw one postal truck getting helped by, a father and son, to free them from a snow bank. And Brian went out on Wednesday spending 30 minutes helping strangers whose car had slid onto our property and were likewise stuck on a snow bank. We’re now relying on the services of a neighbor who makes a living in part by driving a truck with a plow. Thinking of all that, along with the stores and homeowners who shovel sidewalk after sidewalk, I began to marvel at how much gets accomplished by communal human effort.
There’s an old Buddhist parable that essentially teaches that a crafted table is proof of life and interdependence. The wood has to be put together by a carpenter, and cut down by a lumberjack and grown by a forest and from there we delve into the complexity of a whole environment. We can also surmise all the support systems necessary to house a community that supports the carpenter and lumberjack as well. The farmers and teachers, and artisans and so on. So as I’m focused on making sure that my puppy’s exuberance, at her first real blizzard, doesn’t pull my arm out of my socket, I’m remembering this Buddhist parable and thinking about how Blizzards, being cleared, prove life and interdependence.
Community is human interdependence at its best. We specialize and diversify. Each trying to do our own very best, and relying on others to do their own very best as well. Arts, economics, education, construction, medicine – and so on – all improve when we do what we do best – for the greater whole. I can barely remember to take the trash out so I’m really grateful someone more skilled than I knows how to do basic things like, grow vegetables, and dig wells. I also think that it’s through community that we are best able to affect change in the world.
This reminds me of major speech I heard last June at our annual UU General Assembly. Sister Simone Campbell spoke at the annual Ware Lecture. Sister Simone is most known for her work on “Nuns on the Bus” touring the country to help educate around poverty and workforce development. Our annual Ware lecture is a 90 minute talk from someone largely outside our faith, reflecting on some aspect of our religious tradition and how it intersects the world. Such luminaries ranging from Martin Luther King to Kurt Vonnegut to Mary Oliver have been past speakers at this event that draws roughly 4000 people annually. All this month we’ll be looking at different parts of her speech. For those who are interested in hearing the next speech live, the chance to register for this year’s General Assembly will open on March 1st for the event that happens at the end of June. More info will be available via the weekly email-based Flash and the monthly Beacon Newsletter. It takes place in Portland, Oregon this June.
Here’s a brief quote, from that 90 minute talk, that I’d like to focus on this week. Sister Simone says, “I’d like to reflect with you on the journey of faith as walking towards trouble….our videographer (from Bill Moyer’s news program) … asked me this question, ‘it seems like whenever there’s trouble, you walk towards it. Most people run away.’
And I got thinking about it. And I realized that all of our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards it. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal. Now, that means if the high-level leaders do that, isn’t that the witness that we all try to follow? … But there’s a part of me that has always believed we can make a difference.”
This quote of hers, of the people who walk toward trouble, came to my mind over the blizzard. I began thinking about what equips us to be the people who walk toward trouble? What empowers us to be able to affect change in the world, or to help those in need or in danger? We might know others need aid, but awareness and desire to help, aren’t always enough to enable us to affect change, or to affect lasting change.
The lesson from the parable of the blizzard, or the Buddhist parable of the well-crafted table, comes to mind here. We’re not going to get all those roads cleared ourselves. When our car is stuck on a snow bank, we’re going to need someone with a shovel and some extra strength. We live this life together; we find our solutions together; and we carve out a path forward in community – whether through strangers or friends. Justice, progress and healing, happen through community too.
I hope we as a congregation continue to be the people who walk toward trouble. Sometimes it takes awareness, and sometimes it takes courage. Our theme this month is that latter part – courage. Standing up to oppressions, or sorrow, or pain takes courage from time to time. Helping people in need isn’t always safe – whether physically or emotionally. There’s risk involved in addressing some social ills. Maybe not always to our physical safety, but sometimes to our sense of self, for some of us it’s a risk to our sense of privilege, and sometimes it risks our hearts being in a vulnerable place. It take courage to walk toward the places many people walk away from.
Yesterday, in this room, we honored the life of Lou Koulias. I’d say we had almost 300 people present here sharing their love for Lou, who finally lost his battle with cancer this week. I heard story after story of how Lou helped the people around him. Over the past year and a half, I also heard story after story of congregants here reaching out to help Peggy and Lou in the most varied of ways. Making a meal, driving a car, dog-sitting, sending a note of encouragement – they all might seem like small things to you; but they add up to something more immense. In a way, they’re one expression of walking toward trouble. Helping another human being in the face of death and loss is one of the most courageous things we can do. Death is scary. And sometimes we let it stop us from reaching out so that we don’t have to face it. Sometimes it scares us enough not to allow ourselves to open our hearts while we still have the chance. Openness can be scary; it takes courage to be open to other people’s fears and loss. It takes courage to be open to our own fears and loss. This congregation has been very courageous. When folks are in trouble, we walk toward it and help as best we can.
Sometimes the trouble isn’t centered in our homes, or hospital beds, sometimes it’s very public. As we return soon to the 50th anniversary of the March toward Selma, our nation is rightly reflecting on our painful history around race relations. Some of us are joining a UU sponsored pilgrimage next month to go back to Selma and study and learn on the anniversary. I’ll be there along with a few of our members. Some of us were in Selma 50 years ago. Our member, Joyce Willams, was one who was there, and has an exhibit in our gallery of her memories of that fateful march. I think this is another form of walking toward trouble. We don’t necessarily know all the answers, but we know we need to witness the pain in the world and be present to help affect change.
And we don’t do this alone. We do it through community. You will often hear messages from me that go through the details of social justice concerns happening on our streets, or you’ll hear me talk about the theology that undergirds our pastoral responses to strife. This week, I’d like to focus on the practical. In order to build the world we dream about, we need to build strong communities. Strong communities are built through each of us giving from our passion, or from our expertise, and sometimes when we’re very lucky – from both at the same time.
Communities are built from the volunteers, the members, the participants that make them up. We become able to walk toward trouble, when the everyday necessities are cared for; when we’re all looking out for one another and helping to keep that next loose end covered from our places of skill and talent. We are able to host a shelter for men during cold weather months because we have people who care for this building, people who help to raise funds, people who put out the beds, and cook the food. We’re able to be a pastoral support for our members because we have so many folks who can drive when needed, or cook a meal when needed, or be a caring ear when needed. Every part of our Fellowship matters. Every contribution makes something else possible. As we begin our month looking at the virtue of courage, I invite you to consider what part you can give to the workings of this spiritual home. Immediately following this service is our annual Volunteer Fair in the Social Hall. Check it out and see where your talents and passions meet the needs of the world.
Some of us are not in a place where we can do the heavy lifting needed to build the world we dream about. We can’t all travel for marches or protests, we can’t all stay up over night to be host at our shelter. We all have struggles in our lives, and there are times for action and times for recovery. But the folks who are greeting every week, and the folks who are making sure the lights stay on, or there is something warm to drink on a cold winter Sunday, are part of this justice building we’re committed to. Society needs people to plow the roads, and congregations need people keeping an eye on our hospitality and our maintenance – or we wouldn’t be able to even function, let alone contribute to the healing of a world that is in much pain. Every task can be spiritual, when we remember the bigger whole we are part of.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Mother of Love,
We pause this hour, coming upon the 2 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which so devastated this region.
May we remember the difficulties and the loss so many suffered,
for those who lost their homes, those who were displaced for seasons, and for those who are still hoping to rebuild, we pray.
We remember the 100 lives that were lost from the Caribbean to here in the Mid-Atlantic, the neighborhoods that disappeared, at the homeless shelters that were destroyed.
We honor the relief workers, the first responders, who were caring for us in our time of need – even though their own need was great.
We are grateful for those of us who remained physically untouched by the storm despite being in its midst.
As climate change continues to worsen, may these stories of loss
kindle in our hearts a desire and a commitment to affect change in a world that is often too focused on wealth and convenience.
Mother of Hope, embolden our leaders to lead. May they be inspired by stewardship rather than consumerism. May our nation find ways to value sacrifice over profit, so that our planet may heal from our indulgences.
As we reflect this hour on our religious purpose, and the plight of local affordable housing for families, may the loss and struggle many of us wrestled with two years ago, open our hearts to compassion so that we may strive to build a more equitable world where no one lives without shelter.