Posts Tagged Christmas

We Are Waiting

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/3/17 beginning the season of Advent reflecting on the everyday choices we make in the face of worldly greed. This takes a hard look at the pending Tax Bill before the US House and Senate.

“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” We heard those words earlier from our choir. John Mayer made them famous in his 2006 song, Waiting on the World to Change. From time to time, I hear folks use the song to reference a certain spirit of change coming from our millennial generation. And I’m so grateful for that and for the generation after me. Please, by all means, have at it – we need all of us to thrive. But Mayer is my age peer – two years younger; I’ve always felt a strong resonance with it, and this song has always felt to me to be one of the Gen X anthems – at least for my fellow Gen X on my end of the generation.

In 2006, when this song came out, I had just finished up 400 hours of what they call Clinical Pastoral Education at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. All the chaplains were on call from time to time throughout the hospital, but we all had a focus. My focus was Pediatric ICU, the CCU and the ER. Holding eyes with patients who were going under for immediate surgery; moving family away from some of the work they would not ever want to see; talking with a stranger who was suddenly and shockingly facing what they never imagined would occur on a random weeknight. The children’s hospital was amazing; kids who really had no hope elsewhere, would find hope there. The ER was frequently used as primary care for patients without health insurance. My role was purely pastoral – being a human presence in a place where so many practical things needed to get done, and not enough time in the day.

Being located up in the 150’s, speaking Spanish was a real need in some cases, and although my Spanish is weak these days from lack of use, it was worse back then. The story from last week about my trip to Guatemala, actually came about because of this time working at that hospital. A mom and her baby were trying to get urgent care, and no one nearby could understand her. I ultimately helped her find her way, but it took way longer than it needed to. It all turned out alright, but that’s not always the case. Right after CPE ended, I booked that trip to work on my Spanish. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.

That time working at the hospital rounded out another aspect of my community work over the years: access to health care. Before the ministry, I worked for a republican mayor in NYC, focused on using my tech, and public policy training, to work with a team that got affordable health care to an additional 80,000 New Yorkers that year – including any child being eligible regardless of income or immigration status. I had the challenge of doing the analysis in such a way as to not track immigration status, while still finding the kids that needed the care. The republican mayor didn’t want to risk turning our agency into an ICE office, and wanted kids not to die for reasons that could be avoided.

Now, I’m not going to talk politics about this – I’m lifting it up as a measuring stick, as a form of marker of the times. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could go from non-profit advocacy working to pressure a particular mayor’s office to improve on affordable housing, straight to working for that same mayor to implement access to health care. There was a certain practical, sensible civility that seems to have disappeared in recent years. And even more stunning looking back, that access to health care, came about because of Mayor Guiliani. A basic conservative value said, it was cheaper to care for patients with their primary care doctors, than using emergency rooms as primary care. That seemed to get lost over the intervening decade of sound bytes and media fueled culture wars. Common discourse shifted from nuance – to needing to be right, and more importantly, needing others to be wrong. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices. Do we seek to find what’s best for all our community, or do we seek to make sure others are just wrong?

Waiting on the world to change, and for a new generation to take the lead, won’t happen some distant day in the future. It happens bit by bit, day by day. The holidays are a time of year that many of us turn toward introspection. Although we can see with the brilliance of 20/20 vision what has come before, especially after much time has past, it’s the incremental living that adds up to a new world. Not all the things all at once, but the culmination of intentions by impacts by intentions. …Even one generation leading, is a misnomer. Our mentors lead, or inspire the change we bring about. Those of you who are teachers, are setting the stage for new ways. Those of you who are parents, or grandparents, can serve as a bedrock for the next generation. To the role models in our Fellowship, know that you are avidly being watched, and followed, probably in all that you do. (I hope that is more a source of inspiration than of trepidation. We need you to be inspired right now. Even with all the chaos of the world, it’s still ok to be inspired but what still may be.)

And it should be a source of inspiration! We will not accomplish everything there is to every accomplish. But if our kids and our kids’ kids, will someday lead the way, how that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow. So in this seemingly perpetual climate of avarice, greed, and hypocrisy, choose to act, live and grow in ways that build up a more just foundation for our neighborhoods.

We have entered the season of Advent; the season of waiting for the good word, that we know will soon arrive. A miracle of new birth, that we have done nothing ourselves to accomplish. We’re called to be attentive, to be open, to what new paths of hope, joy and possibility may soon quicken in our lives. This is a spiritual teaching, but it’s also a challenging social teaching, a challenging political teaching. Religious author, Neal A. Maxwell, writes, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room.” When we hear the Christmas story, year after year, do we ever imagine ourselves as the innkeepers? Those who turned the young family away, time after time, or the one who decided he could make room with the animals for these refugees? With all the talk of religious intolerance these days; with the desperate needs of refugees the world over; where are we the innkeepers in our life story? The season of Advent is not only about waiting for the arrival of the homeless boy seeking shelter in night. It’s about waiting to see what role we will play in the story – our story – this sacred story of life. How do we act, live and grow in our everyday choices. As news turns to news turns to news, we can rewrite the Advent story to be about waiting for Herod to find the baby Jesus, (for the Vassal Despot to find the middle-eastern refugee) or we can wait for our next lines that will help to birth a new world, to be the innkeeper that chooses to make what room we can. The innkeeper that said yes, to the family that had no shelter, may not be the hero of the story we teach about again and again, but they were certainly one of the many heroes in the story. The change we make doesn’t have to center ourselves in the story, to make a world of difference; often in fact, it’s the other way around.

In light of what is going on in the wee hours of the night this weekend, I need to take a small detour from Advent, but we’ll find our way back quite soon. We had two tax bills pass this week, that were written with such obscurity, that senators were voting without having fully read it, without the public being fully informed, and with financial reporting at places like Fortune magazine, saying it was potentially the largest wealth transfer in American history, from the poor and middle class to the super wealthy. As more reporting comes out this morning, this seems to be worse and worse. At a time in our religious life where we are focused on the teachings of the birth of hope for the poor, the weak, the hungry, the sick, lost and the refugee, our government is ensconcing the very opposite in our tax code. I’m heartsick. In biblical language, this is cause to don sackcloth and ashes, rather than garlands gay and singing; a time for less Fa La La, and more a time to seek communal repentance. It’s naked avarice, pure and simple.

I had a moment of fear, when I heard the news sometime around 1am Saturday morning. I was watching the feed live on Facebook. It means less protection for health services for our elderly, and our poor. Remember the health insurance for children I spoke about working on earlier in this sermon – that program costing about 15 billion nationally would be eliminated to give a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut to corporations. It means a ballooning deficit. For my generation and the next, the impacts from our student loans will skyrocket. Practically no reputable economist disagrees – and that’s just from what we knew of prior to the 12th hour adjustments that were voted on without being reviewed. It’s more than a tax rewrite, it’s a massive rewriting of our cultural fabric, and I feared it was already too late. A colleague of mine, Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, a UU minister serving in another part of New York State, publicly reminded many of us, “Just so we’re clear on how a bill becomes a law, the disaster that passed the House has to be reconciled with the abomination that passed the Senate. Then the resulting horror will have to pass both chambers again. This fight isn’t over.” …“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.

The choice for each of us, in this sacred season of waiting, is how will you be engaged? In our liminal spaces, where we are feeling stuck between what was, and what will be, we often understand waiting as a sort of passive, helpless state. Waiting with indifference may be that, but spiritually speaking, waiting can be a deeper path. Waiting can have a tenacious quality to it. In the Advent season, we are taught to tenaciously wait for the coming of the birth of the good news; that peace and justice will someday prevail. It’s not a possibility, but the end point in the Christian tradition, the culmination of the teachings of one of the world’s greatest teachers.

Joy and hope do not come to this world from positions of power, privilege or prestige. In the weeks to come, and the year to come, as we tenaciously wait for what will be – remember this advent season; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in this great story of a helpless baby waiting for what would soon come.

And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night. Will you wait with me, tenaciously, and engaged?

And if engagement for you means organzing around this issue, let me know how I can help spread the word in our congregation. We have so many that work with our shelter, and supporting growing food for our town pantry, and for helping with immigrant accompaniment locally. Maybe that way of helping and leading is too much right now in your life. It takes all of us together to make a difference, and we can’t all do everything. But maybe organizing letter writing is a thing that you feel called to do. If that’s you, let me know, and we’ll move forward together. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” Everyday choices.

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Fear Not

This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas morning, 12/25/16. It looks at the role of Angels in the Christmas Story with a special nod to some favorite childhood memories.

Merry Christmas! Angels are on my mind this Christmas. We’ve just sung a few songs that spoke of angels. The angels from Jewish and Christian scripture, are not the cutesy cherubs from Renaissance paintings. Scriptural angels tend to begin every conversation with the words, “Fear Not!” for although they are messengers and agents of good, they are also God’s presence on earth, and quite scary when they need to be. Eternity is both beautiful and terrifying – any of us who have stared into the deep oceans know that to be true.

When Angels speak, I know the message is both meant to be vitally important, but also to be one that shakes us to our core. The world will not be the same; something is demanded of us. We must change before the newness of the next moment. Change may be the one great universal source of dread for most of us – right? And angels mean change.

Even if we fear it, all change is not bad. In the Christmas story, the angels demand once more we fear not, for unto us is a savior born. …But the world will change for it. Hope, redemption, healing – all mean change – yet too often we fear it – that which brings us further into wholeness frightens us nonetheless.

I remember another story about fear, or overcoming fear. It’s a story from my childhood that returns year after year. Every Christmas I would look forward to Charlie Brown’s Christmas special. I related to Charlie Brown – maybe a little too much. He was awkward, and made a ton of mistakes. But had a lot of friends – who in the end usually came around – but along the way were sometimes kind of horrible kids. Without going into too much detail – I’ll leave it at – I related to that as a kid. Maybe I still do, and I doubt I’m alone here in that. The annual Charlie Brown Christmas special was all of that – ramped up a few notches. At a culminating point of the story, when Charlie Brown can’t get anything right, and the Christmas pageant is about to be a total wash – and the other kids are brutal to him, laughing and pointing – out comes Linus to remind us the reason for the season. Linus is the classic kid who has it together, more mature than the others in many ways, but is still stuck to his infant security blanket. He hasn’t grown past that yet.

The story begins in Charlie Brown’s moment of fretting:

“Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone, who knows what Christmas is all about?!

Linus: Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights please?

And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” 

Now, in most ways it’s the traditional telling of the Christmas story – Linus’ words are almost identical to the translation of the scripture we use each Christmas. But what’s always been so powerful about Linus retelling the story is the moment where he cries out as the Angel saying, “Fear Not!” At that moment, Linus drops his security blanket – Linus never is separated from his blankie before that moment, and never since. But when the Angels, when eternity, is staring at you and saying fear not, we are called to something greater than our everyday selves.

What holds you back from the change that the birth of Jesus demands of us?

Christmas is a way of telling and retelling the story of a baby who’s name was Jesus. We sing songs about shepherds, and angels, and wise men (called magi in the stories) traveling to find him and give him gifts. We sing about a mother and an adoptive father. Why is Jesus so special – why are we getting together today to honor his birth?

(ONLY IF A LOT OF KIDS PRESENT) [(Tell me – what are some things that people believe about Jesus? What did he teach us?) (love one another, caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, visit those in prison.)]

He was a great teacher, a healer, and some people believe he was the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. All of us here may have different views about all of these things, but as UU’s we definitely value his message of hope, of caring for those who are hurt, and being loving to all people as best we can. Just being nice, just being caring to our neighbor may sound like a really easy thing to do – but has anyone here ever had to deal with a bully at school, or an impatient person on line at the store, or ever had a fight with their mom, or dad, or son, or daughter (anyone here ever have a fight with their family?) – those things remind us how hard it is to always be loving.

But we also believe that with every child that’s born is another redeemer for this world. The “hope of the world” as he’s sometimes called, didn’t come from money or power, or comfort. He was born in a dirty barn, among a lot of farmyard animals. Simple Shepherds were the first people to visit him – the wise men, the kings won’t find him till later. His family was traveling and homeless when he was born – and yet he would become one of the greatest of teachers.

If each child that’s born is another hope for the world – what does that say about us? Sometimes we feel bad about ourselves, sometimes other kids, other people can be mean, and it’s easy to believe the lie – it’s easy to believe that we’re not important or special. The birth of Jesus is about many things, but it’s also about how very important we each are. Fear Not! It’s about how we are each called to try to make a difference in this world. How we’re to try to leave the places we go, better than they were when we got there. We won’t always succeed, but we’re born to do this.

The birth of Jesus, and his life, has inspired so many people across the 2000 years since his time – to make the world a better place; to lift ourselves up when we are down; to birth love where this hate and hope where this is fear. May we honor his birthday by promising to strive to live with compassion, with caring, with love, and with hope.

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The Blue Season

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16.  For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?

When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.

The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.

…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?

To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.

But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.

In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:

“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”

Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?

This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.

It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.

Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.

Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.

Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.

One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.

And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.

In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.

We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.

The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.

Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.

Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?

As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

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Christmas Eve: “Must We Go”

This homily was preached at our 7pm Christmas Eve service. It wonders what it would be like to be the different people in the Manger Story – and what roles we may have played over our lifetimes. It asks the question, ‘is it time to go to Bethlehem again?’

 

Merry Christmas everyone! We’ve come to the still and quiet hour of the year once more. The longest night has passed only a short time ago. The light is lengthening our days. We call for peace from our hearts. We gather around our tree, with sparkling light in the air, and music on our lips, waiting for a child to be born – once again – in our minds and souls – a child – a hope – for this troubled world.

We come together in community. Kindling just a little more wonder in our lives. We sing carols that bring us back to our childhood. We teach our children how to sing joy into our neighborhoods and our homes. Expectation becomes a virtue in this season of miracles. Grace can enter our lives at any time. We wait with hushed voices, or a smile on our lips. May good will prevail. May there be peace on earth. May it begin with us – again and again.

Where do you find yourself in the manger story? As a child, I remember being fascinated most with the baby. That’s who I could relate to. Wonder, newness, possibility, were all central to the story. Being cared for and loved; recognizing that others were in awe of something – all seemed to matter most. Maybe you can relate better to Mary. Being in a time of need, tired from a pregnancy and having to manage that, while on the road, or working more than anyone ought. Or maybe Joseph; not really in control of the situation, but doing your best for the people you love. Life has thrown you a few curves, and you just want a place to sleep, and safety for your loved ones.

The Wise men, the shepherds and even the animals sometimes speak more to me in some years. Sometimes we can feel like we’re bearing witness to some deep place of awe or wonder, while it seems like all the rest of the world is passing it by, never the wiser. The animal in the stable – not central to any story – doesn’t think all this revolves around them – but who stands in the presence of a certain kind of fullness – a fullness that we too often miss. The common shepherd, arriving alongside the Eastern Kings, take note just the same.

I have been struck this season once again by the story of the road to Bethlehem. Of two expectant parents traveling to be registered (in this case for tax purposes). A King who fears them though, for the son they will bring into his land. Door after door closed to them in their time of need, until the lowliest of places – a manger – becomes their sanctuary at the time when one is most vulnerable. Refugees of a sort – in need – in a land where they have no place to call home any longer – and a government that is hostile to their presence, and a populace that is all too often indifferent to their need. The Bible’s message is alive and real, still today. It continues to speak to us across the millennia.

The May Sarton poem we heard earlier, “Must We Go”, wonders if the road to Bethlehem is one we must walk once more. Did it happen only in the past, or is it a pressing need for us today? When we’re feeling worn out from the harshness of the world’s woes – ever present, but seeming worse and worse of late – the road to Bethlehem can feel just too much. …And maybe it is too much. Who would ask expectant parents to bear such a hard path? But the road to Bethlehem ends in wonder, in quiet, in mystery, in hope. Not an ending we might imagine for a desert path, but the ending we are graced with. It also teaches us that our own lessons of hope should change us; from places of hope and expectant wonder, we should turn our hearts to help birth that newness ourselves in our own lives, for the people all around us.

The birth of Christ asks us to change something in our hearts when we face those in need; those who are different; the stranger in our midst asking for a roof over their heads and a chance at a new life. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s such a hard thing to ask for, that the world seems like it’s conspiring against it. But it’s the first lesson Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph tried to teach us. It’s central to the Christmas story – the reason for the season. So we should hush our voices, still our busyness, and allow another miracle into our lives – the miracle of offering welcome to those in their hardest hours.

Religious author, Neal A. Maxwell, writes, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room.”When we hear the Christmas story, year after year, do we ever imagine ourselves as the innkeepers? Those who turned the young family away, time after time, or the one who decided he could make room with the animals for these refugees? With all the talk of religious intolerance these days; with the desperate needs of refugees the world over; where are we the innkeepers in our life story?

This year, Christmas reminds us to extend a hand, again and again. To welcome the stranger in need, for there is a miracle hiding there in plain sight. The story is not only about some foreign place, a world away and millennia past. It is as alive, and just as pressing for the people of today. In our nation’s life, we are facing many crossroads, and the urge to be the innkeeper who decides if there is room for one more is very strong in our culture. We can choose to be a people of that culture, or we can choose to be a wise people of faith; faith in each other, faith in the stranger, faith in a different way. A way that was shown to us with the rising of a bright star; born in humility, but lived with passion and grace.

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Prayer for MidWinter

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,

We gather in this bright mid-winter,

grateful for the blessings we have been graced with.

Help us to center ourselves this hour with our whole soul;

May the spirit of this time bring us to a place of rest,

where rest is hard to find;

and help us to find a place of action,

where inspiration has dwindled.

We come together as a community,

to inspire one another for the ministry of hope,

of love,

of dedication.

Mother of Peace, take us by the hand,

and lead us as we travel through our days and years.

May we be a beacon of compassion in a world that is so full of struggle.

As another year comes to a close,

may we reflect on the lessons that have come our way,

change the things we must,

and appreciate all that is good in our lives.

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Reflection: Here Comes The Sun

This reflection was part of a multigenerational holiday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/20/15. It talks about finding hope in times of hardship.

For three years now, I’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This past Friday night, we went to see the Paul Winter Consort. Think classical music with a gospel singer, but with a global twist. Each year, guest musicians join them from around the globe. This year we heard from two Brazilian singers – in the style of basso nova and world-beat, along with an African-style dance troop with a whole lot of drumming.

The concert lives out the longest night of the year. The cathedral darkens as the moon rises and sets. Stars lighten the gothic ceiling. The classical instruments make you think whales are singing, and wolves are howling in the night. They even recreate a thunder storm with a combination of classical instruments and lighting. And the festive performance ends with the audience being invited into singing our own “Howl-alleiuh” chorus – with folks making wolf sounds of our own. But in the middle of the show, there’s an immense golden gong that gets lifted up the height of the cathedral – resounding and resounding – showing the lightening of days and the shrinking back of the night – as the sun rises once again from the darkest hour. It gives me hope and chills. And celebrating the Winter Solstice in such a multi-cultural way, honoring the music and art of people all across the world, feels especially healing, in these days of confusion and hatred for folks who are different. Joy in the face of fear is healing. Joy in the face of hatred, is saving.

This reminds me of a traditional folk tale: (tell story of “The Golden Ball.”)

Sometimes, when life gets routine, or boring, or maybe even rough, we see the amazing things in other people’s lives and wish we could have that. We can pine for brighter times and forget what gifts are right in our lives. The folk tale I just shared about the Golden Ball, reminds us that even as we look on into other people’s lives and see the shine and joy, other people may also be looking back into our lives and see something that shines all the same.

I look at our own community in these days of hardship in this season of joy. Our youth shared stories of hardship they have witnessed for people who are seen as different from others. Our own faith community teaches that every person matters, and that diversity is a spiritual value. I have felt worn down by many of the stories we hear in the world; but I am deeply heartened to know that we are part of a community that teaches these values of love, of justice, of compassion. I am deeply heartened by being part of a religious community that empowers our youth to speak love in the face of fear. We have a big shining golden ball hanging from our Fellowship windows, and there are people who look to us in wonder and gratitude. When you are feeling low or down and out before all the hardship of the world, take heart in that truth.

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Community, Memory, Hope

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington as a response to the tragedy in San Bernardino, California this week. In community we find strength. As we begin the holiday of Hanukkah, may we light our candles in memory and hope.

As you can tell by now, those of you who have printed orders of service, the sermon topic has changed from what was posted in our newsletter. I’ve been very much affected by the news of this past week, as I know most of us here have been as well.  I’m not going to talk about gun control, or terrorism again; but I’m not sure we’re going to get to Peter Pan today either as promised by our newsletter. As we come up to the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting as well, I’m seeing more and more about memorial services out of congregational newsletters and social media, and keeping the memories of loved ones fresh in our minds. I’m also very mindful of late of the increased risks to folk in the military or all first responders these days back at home in the States. As we begin our festive approach to Hannukah and Christmas and New Years, in spite of all the horrors of the world, I yearn for a sort of Memorial Day in December, and don’t want to wait till May. One more chance to say, we get it, we haven’t forgotten, before we head off to our well-earned parties. So today, I’d like to share you a story about my Dad, and maybe a bit about childhood.

I grew up in a working class household with a Dad who had the good fortune of enlisting in the Navy between the time that the Korean War ended and before the time when the Vietnam War started. Unlike some of my friends, because of this good fortune, I both had my Dad still with me to watch me grow up, and my Dad was mentally whole and in one piece. It was a blessing and a gift that I never truly appreciated. There were times as a kid that I intellectually understood that war could have made things different, but the emotional risks and realities of this never really dawned on me. Even now, the emotional side of wartime loss – is one step removed. And for all the chaos that we’re hearing about in the news about homegrown violence, unless we have family or friends serving or affected, it might be harder to wrap our heads – really – about the reality of it all.

My Dad chose to serve, and my Dad happens to still be in my life. The same is true for both of my parents in-law as well, who served in the Air Force. We can say the same about so many first responders, but unfortunately not for all. Conventionally, the national holiday of Memorial Day we observe in May, asks us to remember those who have served and those whom we have lost from serving. That wasn’t my reality growing up. So most often, I would lean toward “Happy” Memorial Day rather than “Reflective” or maybe “Somber.” So as we travel through a national time of anniversaries of tragedies, and vigils for new horrors, maybe – we can sit a little longer in that time of reflection and humility.

Maybe there’s a way in which Hanukkah, as we approach it this night, can speak to this wintertime need, in the midst of uncertainty and grief. I grew up singing songs about dreidels, thinking about how my friends got 7 nights of presents, and a little later laughing with Jewish comedians making hysterical songs lifting up the Jewish holiday in the eyes of more people. But there’s another side to Hanukkah that we often don’t focus on – at least not publicly…. Remembering hope and possibility in the midst of chaos and war. Whether you celebrate Hanukah in your home or not, maybe we can light some candles in its honor this week, and in honor of all those lives we need to remember in the times like these we live in.

Until I was almost an adult, I had known the death of only one extended family member – and that to cancer. In recent years, that has drastically changed, with all of us having lost many friends in this Fellowship, and me having lost two friends my own age, in just the past 4 months. I’m thinking of this today, because I’m trying to make sense of the type of holiday we often don’t allow ourselves to celebrate in this season of festive joy – at a time when we clearly need it.

 Memory is important. Community is important in holding memory. Hope is important as we hold memory.

Hanukah in its deep tradition of holding memory, can be stripped of meaning in our Saran-wrapped, boxed-lunch life. Hanukah reminds us that others have sacrificed before us for purpose, and we benefit from who and what came before. I’m disappointed when the Winter Holidays turn into a simple celebration of toys and gifts, rather than being a time of gratitude for being able to celebrate, if you feel you can still celebrate. We all don’t feel we can celebrate every year.

My changed sermon topic this week is entitled “Community, Memory, Hope.” I could have swapped the words around to begin, as this sermon does, with memory. But the title reflects the reality that each of us begins in community. For those of us who have moved (or are moving toward) membership in our congregation, we are in a way, translating isolation or separateness, into solidarity and inclusion. We begin as members of something broader, something bigger than ourselves alone. The first step in the religious path is recognizing the simple truth that there is more to this immense universe than ourselves alone. The classic wisdom still holds true – It’s not about us. Well, to be fair, it’s not about us alone. It is about us – together. The religious journey begins and ends with the realization that we travel this world for a time, part of a wide and diverse band of souls. When we pause to commit ourselves to a broader purpose, we reunite our soul into the collective spiritual enterprise. The old school religious humanists would say (to paraphrase) that in seeking community we seek to transcend our individual egos and thereby nurture that which is greater than our aloneness. The theists among us remember that God loves all people; that we’re all children of God; and that as part of God’s family we should seek to relate as a family – as an ideal – even knowing we can never achieve that fully; but the striving for connection despite our failures – matters deeply.

Whether we’re learning to place the whole ahead of our temporal wants, or we’re seeking to reconnect with our human family, this congregation welcomes us all. It is from this centered place that we can achieve new life; heal the corners of the world we live in; and come to know ourselves more deeply. The religious journey beings with community. We are not a religious tradition of solitaries, despite what the Transcendentalists might have tried to convince you. Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and the whole cadre of Unitarian theologians and philosophers were all meeting with one another regularly to share their thoughts and insights. They were not ascetics living in the woods. Walden Pond was written with the benefit of the occasional sandwich sent by Mom. From community we can head out into the hidden places and learn the secrets right before our eyes, but we don’t start or end there.

I recall the words of one former congregant at another congregation, “A community is a group where your contributions are never so carefully recorded as your gains from membership.” In times of chaos like these, being in community is more important than anything we do. I believe that in our consumer-driven culture, it’s rather natural for us to “buy-into” the practice of asking ‘what do we get by being a member of this religious community?’ What are we purchasing with our pledges to this congregation or paying for with our taxes to our country? There’s sometimes a tendency to track how many things we’ve volunteered to do for the community – forgetting that most of the people around us have likewise given much of themselves to bring this congregation to this next high point in its life. Because the truth is – so many people – over so many decades – have given so much freely to get us to where we are in this moment. It’s not about us, or what extra-special service we’ve performed as members. Those things are important, but if we get caught up into thinking they’re the center, we lose the message of that first religious step. The one where the religious humanists remind us that the practice of community is helping to transcend our individual egos; whether that’s in thinking we’re so great, or that it’s all about us, or that we’re only worthy if we do this next thing. Well, we are all pretty great, but we’re all that way – not some of us. Anyone that’s ever been to any congregational meeting and listened to an extended debate knows it’s not about any one person there. And if your acts of service to our community are grounded in the thought that you’re only worthy by doing so, know that you have nothing to prove to any of us. Service can be done out of love, but it should not be done for the hope of love – we all already have it.

The trap is both/and. It’s a trap to get fixated on scoring what you’ve given or what you’ve done. It’s also a trap thinking that you’re only worthy if you do and do and do. When we are in the midst of grief – and even if we shut out the news of the world, this community continues to grieve so many lost friends and family – we won’t find solace in doing. But we will find peace in giving part of ourselves to community. It’s not about how much we give; but rather that we give. It’s remembering that in community we have to be willing to serve as well as being willing to be served. For some congregations this last phrase is their mission statement – We begin our own mission statement recognizing being in community is where we heal and grow and nurture.

I believe, it’s not really helpful to think in terms of counting deeds, but rather being aware of how much more we can be in light of our community. When we’re isolated, or driven primarily by the small e-ego, then we’re as small as that. When we’re committed to the ideals of a community of people, a religious gathering centered on faith, hope and love, then we’re as large as that. And in times of difficulty, seeking to be as large as faith, hope and love, is key to healing our hearts and souls. Being part of a community, being a member, means giving of ourselves so that we broadened our impact and scope to the width and breadth of our collective vision and dream. We remain ourselves, but we begin to point to the horizon of our shared dreams. It’s in this act of pointing that we mark the trajectory of hope. Coming together, we become more ourselves, more human. Remembering where we come from; being grateful for the efforts, sacrifices and energy of those a part of us; we craft a way forward grounded in hope; predicated on the possibility that the whole is no less than the sum of its parts and likely much greater than those parts alone. I wish us all a reflective Hanukkah, and hope we can celebrate and we can remember. Together, from that place, may we find a place of happiness as well; because so many have given so much to get us to where we are this day.

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