Posts Tagged Community
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/19/17 and looks at the unsatisfying quest for perfection.
Some years ago, I maintained a regular practice of Zen Meditation, led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. The 6am practice reminded me, in crystal clear detail, that I still wasn’t a morning person. We often think of meditation as a quiet discipline, a solitary discipline or at least a slow-moving spiritual practice. As true as that is most of the time, it wasn’t true on Thursday mornings. The elderly Buddhist sister would lead us, in what she called “bowing meditation,” in English. It’s sort of the spiritual equivalent of doing lunges at the Gym with your trainer.
108 full body prostrations – You go from standing up straight to having your forehead touch the ground in front of you, and back again to standing up and straight, in under maybe about 6 seconds. The spiritually enlightened 30 year-old I was at the time, I wanted to do it “right.” I’m not entirely sure why, but for me at the time, “right” meant not using my hands to get down or to get back up. I kept them in the prayer pose and relied on my legs and core to get down and get back up again. (I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring wrist weights and make it a full-on gym routine….)
Needless to say, by noon on bowing-meditation day, not only was I my least-chipper self for forcing myself to pretend I was a morning person, but I also couldn’t safely manage stairs without grimacing from the pain in my upper legs. But at least I did the meditation…right. Another side effect was that as people passed me throughout the day, conversations invariably gravitated toward talking about why I was in so much pain. I’d just have to go into all the details of what happened, and why, and how it was still affecting me hours (and sometimes days) later… spirituality done “right.”
How often do we get so worked up about being perfect, that we miss the point of what we’re doing? Maybe it takes us so far afield from our purpose that it actually has the opposite effect we intended. Meditation is not about bringing attention to our selves, or our egos; meditation is not about making the story about me. The quest for the perfect is full of many disappointments, and in some ways, it makes things so much harder – it can break our hearts.
I’m reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.” Can we allow our spirits to honor the beauty that shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them? Can we strive a little less for perfect, and be a little more present to our dearest companions in this frayed and living world?
I’ve begun to say more and more often that ministry is a team sport. A few weeks ago in response to the refugee and immigrant crisis, a whole team of Fellowshippers helped to organize our response to the executive order that turned out to be illegal, while other leaders moved forward in learning more about the Sanctuary movement that is expanding in our nation, and I’m having conversations with our Interfaith clergy group over what collaborations we can persue . Meanwhile, we continue to be the cold weather shelter for migrant men who have limited housing options on Long Island. The current tension between striving for a more equitable respect for immigrants and refugees with the very real-world concern about the flurry of ICE raids on immigrant communities – across the country but also right here in Brooklyn, Queens and our own Long Island, makes us sometimes move at what might feel to some like a glacial pace, as we hold in our hearts the risks associated with our shelter guests. How do we act while making sure we honor the well-being of the people we are already helping? Our shelter partners with 14 other houses of worship, and a non-political social service agency – we have to carefully think through all our steps to hold all this in tension. ….AND we just heard on Saturday of 8 Sudanese refugees who fled the US seeking refuge in Canada across our northern border. We are now a nation where innocent people flee from the US, seeking refuge amongst our allies. All of our responses, our management, our logistics, takes dozens of Fellowshippers to make happen in our corner of the world. Not always seen by all, nonetheless the broader ministry of our congregation continues on.
At the same time, some members of our pastoral care team, and our social justice team, and myself are taking turns attending workshops and meetings of LI-CAN, a Long Island congregationally-based community organizing group that’s looking at our local opioid epidemic, gun safety issues, as well as how immigrants are perceived here on Long Island. And in my last sermon I also mentioned the on-going collaborations several of our leaders are supporting with local farm workers, with the pressing needs for Transgender folk, and even the leadership some of our members give toward the broader work of the Family Resources League which helps people in crisis in our community.
Nothing is all encompassing, nothing is perfect, but our congregation is connected and doing excellent ministry. I could stand here for ten more minutes just listing the ways that our community is involved in direct service, social justice, charity or solidarity work – locally, state-wide and yes, even globally. As one non-UU friend of mine recently said to me, UU’s punch above our weight (to use a sports metaphor.) But I could also spend the next ten minutes sharing the ways in which we are falling short; there are times where that’s helpful, and there’s times when that’s just spiritually exhausting. If we take a step back – we see a world where a million things are falling apart at once. Of course, we’re not doing enough. No one institution could ever do enough to fix all this. We just need to strive to do the things we do, well. What we choose to focus in on – always and only the good, or always and only the negative – is telling, and sometimes self-fulfilling – and too often self-defeating. Who we choose to say we are, impacts our sense of identity, and ultimately what we can accomplish and who we become.
If ministry is a team sport, there’s a way in which spirituality is a communal endeavor. Our seventh principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We often talk about that principle in terms of the environment, but it also reflects the religious truth that we are all connected. Our humanity is found in the sum of all of us. That practice of bowing meditation I spoke of earlier, was a communal practice. Over time, there’s a palpable sense that we feel in meditation that occurs in communal presence that’s different than solo practice. Much like how when we gather for justice work, our shared voices magnify the impact, when we gather in silent meditation, the silence takes on a deeper aspect.
And as frustrating as it may be to individually seek perfection, communal expectations can only be magnified. As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. When we project onto our congregation the need to be perfect in all ways – for things to be just right – we make it harder to do the things we are here to do. We strain, and ache, and demoralize. Then like the bowing meditation enthusiast who seeks to turn it into a gym routine, we walk through our days and years focusing on how our communal shortcomings only point toward how “me, myself and I” have been wronged or disappointed. The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our egos, despite our best intentions. Religion calls us back from that unsatisfying habit.
We learned about this as kids. Remember the story of Goldilocks? She goes out into the forest and breaks into some stranger’s home. She then eats their food, criticizing that some of the porridge is too hot, some is too cold, and then after finding the porridge that suits her tastes, she eats it. Goldilocks repeats this with the furniture; finally breaking someone’s chair in the process. Then she goes onto judge the beds too firm, too soft, and finally “just right.” When her neighbors finally get home, they walk through their own home, the scene of the break-in, until they find the culprit still sleeping in their kid’s bed. (Why do we tell this story to children?!) It ends with, “Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed, “Help!” And she jumped up and ran out of the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest. And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”
The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our individual egos, despite our best intentions – even in community. When we perpetually strive for “just right”, when we chase “perfect” into the woods, we sometimes break things, and break into places, along the way. In congregational life, it’s the sort of “stay in your lane” push and pull of committee work. We all have issues and concerns we feel deeply, and may also be worthy and valuable and needed, and we can’t prioritize everything to be #1. Sometimes in community, we can get into disagreements or even arguments over, equally worthy matters. Doing something well, but not “just right,” becomes cause for a sense of failure. Sometimes, we’re trying to determine if someone else’s porridge is too hot or too cold for me, and sometimes we break their furniture in the process. When we get lost in judging the people around us, far too often it ends with one of us running away into the woods screaming “Help!” for what might be something that was caused by our own bad behavior. We miss the point of the spiritual communal dream – not to judge each individual action, but to see the broader picture and build the beloved community piece-by-piece, mistake-by-mistake, hope-by-hope. It’s like the Buddhist Sand Mandalas we heard about in our Wondering this morning. The goal isn’t to hold onto a perfect bit of art, but to come together to create something that wasn’t there before, knowing full well that all things change.
I say all this, because I don’t want to see our committed leaders – all also volunteers – burn out. And if you help in any of the thousand things our Fellowship does to help our corner of the world, then I’m speaking to you right now about burn-out. And if you’re about to start helping in the thousand things, remember this as you begin your life-saving work. There is so much the world needs of us, and we can not do it all. We have to pick and choose. But even if we could do it all – if we had super-human powers for social justice – we would still not all agree on the right way to do every one of the thousand things – even the things we each 100% agree needed to be done. Some would find their porridge to be too hot, or too cold; some would ask why did we go through those particular woods to access the porridge, while others would wonder why we’re eating someone else’s porridge in the first place. We’re a community of roughly 250 adults and roughly 75 children and youth. When was the last time everyone agreed on something at your own dinner table, let alone the last family reunion? But we can project onto our much larger community unrealistic expectations of walking lock step with one another, and that only leads to disappointment – and heartbreak.
As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. As we come to the close of our service, let us recall the words that we began with this morning from the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.” He was speaking of love, but the message is as true when we seek perfection. Spiritual community asks us to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built. When we’re more focused on the barriers others have built, or when we find ourselves judging those around us without owning our own parts, religious community calls us back. As Annie Dillard said, “I am frayed and nibbled… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits… but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…”.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/18/16 and looks at the role of community in light of the personal ego.
I have a small garden that wraps around my terrace – think herbs and some wild flowers and grasses. When the weather is nice, I write my sermons from there. It’s probably why I have so many nature references in my sermons. My dog will lay down in the shade of one of the flower boxes, and my cat gets the proverbial popcorn and watches the “Nature Channel” in my garden. Everything is extremely fascinating to our cat – Toby. He’ll stare at ants like they are alien creatures, but won’t go too close or engage. Bees on the other hand – bees turn him into a jerk. He’ll stalk them and swipe at them if they linger too long on a flower.
At first I was horrified – without a clue as to what to do about it. I have a mild allergy to bees, so I’m not going to get too close to intervene, but they also don’t deserve that fate before the claws of my cat. In another feat of dog-training magic, I’ve figured out how to train our dog to tackle the cat when he goes for a bee. It was based off an earlier essential lesson in tackling-the-cat when the cat scratches the furniture. Basically, we’ve trained our dog to tackle small cats on command. I think it’s fun for everyone really, but I’m sure the bee appreciates it as much as my couch does – I dare say moreso. Enough times being tackled by the dog, the cat is becoming increasingly hesitant to swipe at bees (it doesn’t seem to stop him though from destroying our furniture though. Can’t have everything I guess.)
Bees are interesting creatures. The common wisdom is that they defy all laws of aerodynamics in order to fly with their wings that should be too light for their bodies to get lift; but they still do. They live cloistered away with several thousand of their closest family members. They work tirelessly, so that the next generation which they may not live to see, can be born in another season. How many millions of worker bee hours does it take to produce one jar of honey for our toast and tea? …Then they return, again and again, to the field, to gather more and more food for the honeycombed table.
From the perspective of us humans in the northeast, they are gone for half the year, isolated from the cold and inclement weather. Even raindrops can be a challenge when you’re that small. When I water my garden, they head for the hills. Then as the weather turns to spring and summer, they fly back out of seeming isolation, and live fully in the wider world. Food, and garden hoses, and allergic bystanders, and yes, even psycho-killer felines are here to greet them as they return. It’s a microcosm of the world we live in, and just as true.
We all have our times of quiet, introversion, renewal, in between the periods of work, or study. For the bee, it’s the call of physical nourishment, that brings them out of their quasi-isolation from the world. No matter how much we hunker down, at some point, the reserves run dry and it’s time to go back out for connection.
This month we are imagining what it would mean to be a people of covenant. Maybe you know the word covenant mostly from Jewish and Christian and Muslim stories about God and God’s people. That understanding is about the promises we are given, and the promises we are held to, in light of the demands and support given to us by God in those stories. I plan to discuss that even more fully next month in one of my sermons – how goodness presses obligations upon us. But for today, I want to focus more on what promise is held in covenant. Community and covenant draws us out of loneliness into a shared humanity that defines our lives.
Our Fellowship crafted a congregational covenant – that can be found on our website, and in our membership directory. It has several points to it – and we hand it out to all new members who formally join our Fellowship. And if you’re considering joining our Fellowship, please do reach out to me after the service, or later in the week if that works better for you. But the essence of the covenant centers around our desire to be accountable to one another. In a secular world where consumerism and convenience trumps a sense of a common ethic of mutual support, it’s imperative for religious communities to stretch out to, and within, one another to build the common good. Covenant is about building the common good – or what Martin Luther King Jr commonly referred to as the Beloved Community.
Last Sunday, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. In short, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. Right now, after popular request, I’d like to focus on one of those stones. Next month I’ll try to get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 3rd stone in Adams’ theology – and go a bit further with it than I was able to in last week’s sermon. That precept paraphrased is: “We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression.”
As I paraphrase it, community has a corrective effect on systems of oppressions. Theologically, covenant is the antithesis of oppression. You only build a covenant when folks come to it with equal footing, and when we have equal footing, we can hold one another accountable from an equal place. So when we talk here about someone falling out of covenant, we’re talking about a situation in our Fellowship, where one person is leveraging their power, or their feelings, over and beyond the shared agreement of how we work together collaboratively. It’s referring to a situation where the individual ego is leading over another person’s worth, or another person’s pain. And to be fair, we all fall for the tricks of the ego. Falling short of our covenant doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means that you’ve let your ego run before the rest of us, before all of us, and that’s something we all do from time to time. We all do it. It’s human, and it’s our quintessential challenge to overcome as humans. As UU’s we choose to face that challenge together; publicly, and to do that together publicly fosters some awkward moments. So when we fall for it, and someone points it out, try to hear it with love, and begin again and again. It’s being human at our best.
Last week, I also spoke about demands that our faith places upon us in relation to those precepts – those “stones” Adams proverbially spoke about. The matched demand to this third precept would be the theological question, “Does this thing or value before us, seek to bring more harmony and more equity in our relationships (– even if the work is very difficult?)” What does that mean though in every day language? When we’re trying to decide on an action, or a belief, or a value, or an angered reply to something someone says or does in our community – the essential question follows: Does our response bring more harmony and equity to our relationship? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then we are straying from the religious path our faith challenges us to adhere to. When we ask ourselves if our response or actions bring more harmony or equity, and the answer is no, we’re falling prey once more to our lone ego. The domain of the ego is isolation, and community calls us out from that lonely place. I believe that progressive faith calls us out of isolation, to do much in the world, but it also calls us out of isolation to spiritually mature through our attachment to ego. And it’s in that maturing through our attachment to ego, that we also begin to do much good in the world.
See that? We sometimes joke that we can believe anything. I don’t agree with that, and if you think I’m wrong, then next week let’s plan for me to preach about whatever I personally feel like and see what happens. Because we can’t. We can’t believe anything. We’re not about belief, but we have central values that are very specific, even if we don’t always see it. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring together what demands our theology places upon us. Our actions in the world, as UUs, as religious people of faithful purpose – demand that we act so that we nurture harmony and equity in human relations. When we act from anger, or ego, we’re being very human, but we’re falling short of our theological convictions. We’re not evil for doing it necessarily, but we have fallen short, and our faith calls us out, calls us in, and calls us for more.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/21/16 after the second vandalism of our Black Lives Matter billboard.
Community, communication, and commitment – three very closely related words that each point in the same direction – how well we are interdependent in the world. It’s the foundational part of our seventh principle – interdependence. We’re reflecting this month on what it would mean to be a people of rootedness, and this week we’ll reflect on how communication – or the lack of communication – helps or hinders our ability to put down roots in our communities.
I want to begin a little more light-hearted and then we’ll inch our way into the more heavy-hearted side of the world this week. A little over a week ago, I had the honor of working directly with 30 of our youth at our annual Summer Camp called Fahs (along with 40 other adults and around 110 children and youth all counted – I was co-leading the 11th and 12th grade youth group.) One of the practices of the camp is that none of the youth or kids are allowed their cell phones during the week. They’re either left at home, or the ones who need to still have them on the car ride in, feverishly are sending their final texts for the long 6 days without social media. I could laugh, except I don’t recall the last time I went fully without a cell phone for 6 days.
So the adults live by another set of rules. We need our cell phones to handle the rare emergency or the frequent updates that happen throughout the day. We’re not supposed to be on them much in sight of the campers, but the Camp Board need to be able to text us at any point. And wow – do they text! For a week where we are supposed to limitedly be on our phones, I received more text messages than any other time in my life! To be fair, the camp board needs to be able to balance out clear communication, and they err on the side of abundance of information rather than someone missing something that might have been critical. But in effect, everyone gets messaged about everything, whether we personally need to know or not. I’d feel better about critiquing the practice if I actually had any clue as how to do it better. That’s the challenge of modern technology – we have all the ability in the world to do just about anything we can dream of – we just haven’t figured out yet what actually works well.
It’s a challenge for our congregation too. We may send out information in seven different ways, and one person will ask why are we inundating the community with info, and the next person will ask when are we finally going to let folks know about that very same thing.
In our reading earlier today, we heard a light-hearted poking of our current culture around cell phones by the writer, Neil Gaiman – always waiting for the next message or update, we miss the sense of reverence in the world all around us. I want to quote him again, this time from his fictional story, American Gods. The character who pens these words is Mr. Ibis (named after a fictional version of a certain Egyptian deity of knowledge and the moon), “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.”
Gaiman isn’t talking about social media or newsletter, but part of me wishes he were. And we can all imagine the wisdom there – few if any of us would ever have the time to sit down and ingest all the events in the life of this Fellowship. But if we don’t, we’ll miss something. And if we do, there won’t be the time in the day.
Instead, Gaiman is really referring to the role of story, and the use of symbol. In much of his writing, he alludes to how nothing actually happens the way the story suggests – that none of it is true – but he goes on to tell it anyhow and you walk away feeling that we’ve encountered something more real than the facts. It’s the eternal challenge of religion – do you get caught up in fact-checking the stories of faith, or do you focus on learning the moral and spiritual lessons? It’s a trap for both sides of the ideological theistic divide; both atheists and fundamentalists are guilty of worshiping historicity over impact and meaning.
Do we browse the newsletter, website or e-news at the last minute and decide which events on our social calendar can fit into our tight schedules –if any, or do we prioritize our community connections first and fill up our schedules afterward? Do we put down roots and engage in the life of a community, or do we take Fellowship to be just one more item on our to-do list? And you can be here only 1 day a week and still be engaged – as long as it’s more of an intention than an after-thought. The word “congregation” can be understood as engaged living – a symbol of a thing and the thing itself – or the word can be empty and just another habit of our day while we wait distractedly for the next thing and the next thing. “The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.” Religious community is a story about what we aspire to be; it’s one way to get there; and it’s where we end up when we arrive. When we remember this, we’re more likely to be doing it right.
This week held some particular challenges for our Fellowship. Our Black Lives Matter billboard was uprooted from the ground and tossed to the side. Someone came by and pulled both posts out from the ground that our youth group installed. It happened overnight, to avoid anyone seeing who did it. The Hate Crimes division of Suffolk County police came for the second time – the sign was originally vandalized 6 days after we put it up back in June. The good officers, without us realizing they were doing it, and without being requested, actually reinstalled the sign for us in the ground. It was a beautiful act of grace, and a clear sign of their high level of professionalism. They then offered to attend some of our events, and mentioned that they offer community forums. We plan to take them up on their offer in the near future. But community connections didn’t begin there. Back in July, after the terrible shooting of Dallas police and transit officers, our Fellowship held a vigil in the evening, and our social justice co-chair, Steve Burby, dropped by the local precinct with a note of support and some pastries. Putting down roots, and building community, means that as we speak the hard truths that are impacting so many in our nation, we still maintain and foster connections that seek to preserve and make all of us safer.
But this part of the story also tells us that the dominant myth that it’s us vs not-us, that gets told and retold, isn’t really true. No community or group is a monolith and many of us are trying to extend a hand, and find a way forward through a very difficult issue. Every letter we receive, or email, and the painful slog through the comment section of any news article about our Black Lives Matter sign vandalisms – reveal some serious mischaracterizations. And they’re emblematic of a culture – where despite having more access to information than any generation ever before – we are woefully ill-informed about matters that we disagree with. If we disagree with a topic, we will enter into a bubble of isolation, that will protect us from any data that will conflict with our world view. News blogs that have the comments sections turned on – originally designed to increase communication and public discussion – have since become the sole province of trolls and what Time just called this week, “The culture of hate.” Discourse is silenced as the will to hate, or the will to silence diverse and lively honest discussion has taken hold.
The vandalism of our Black Lives Matter sign, was covered this week by Newsday, News 12, and I was also interviewed by Fios TV news. In a pique of irony, the Newsday article online is only viewable by those with a subscription to their service; but anyone logged into Facebook can post comments on the news article… whether or not they were able to read it. We have all the technology in the world, and we don’t know what it means and how to use it. One’s opinion – uninformed or not – is readily available to all, but the actual facts of the story are not.
At the top of our Fellowship letterhead, we have three words. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Most of my sermons will explore these topics every week; sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. But they are foundational to community, communication, and commitment. We can’t begin to have a healthy community without openness; from the cliques of high school to the barriers of gated communities – groups form that bar certain people from entering, and those communities are less for it. Mindfulness and reverence may seem esoteric, but there’s a core of truth to the idea that once we stop seeing one another with a sense of appreciation, and even the occasional awe, is the moment when we stop being able to relate to one another as fellow human beings. Without reverence, maybe we can interact with others as if they were cogs, or pawns, but we cease to be able to do so as people. The excesses of the comments section of the internet is the logical conclusion to a culture that is closed to difference, and apathetic to others’ worth and dignity.
As we close this service, I invite you this week to take stock of your practices in our community, your neighborhood and maybe even online. Where are you mindful? Where have you become closed? Where do you allow yourself to be open to a sense of reverence around you? I can’t easily write out an exhaustive map of how to build the beloved community, but the story is the territory, and we tell that story, as best we can, week after week.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
Gather us this hour as a people of hope,
in the face of adversity,
as a community of justice,
where we see inequity,
as a faith for healing,
in a world struggling between hardship and beauty.
Knowing the world is not yet what it could be,
teach us to not trip over the small wants and grievances,
when so many need us to be so much more than our smallest selves;
we need to be more than that.
Mother of Grace,
open our hearts where we are closed;
widen our vision where we have become short-sighted;
and open our mouths where silence has dominated our spirit.
For too often we have learned to be complicit where there is pain.
In the struggle of the long arc of the universe bending toward justice,
may we regain strength in the soul-saving work,
of living faithfully into our humanity,
and in love.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/7/16 looking at the negative sides of daily small desires.
[Begin by telling the story of the Rabbi and the Dream]
The wise Rabbi who received a vision of a treasure in a far off town, travels and learns that the treasure was in his own home all this time, but the journey was necessary for him to see what was right before him all along. It was probably true for the bridge-keeper he spoke with as well, but only the Rabbi was able to see it after all. Maybe the Rabbi still believed in possibility, and maybe the guard lost that part of himself. Hard to know.
All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of desire. Later in the month we will look at the positive sides of desire: like love, or the search for justice, or just plain human connection. But today, I’d like to begin with the negative side of desire. When desire runs our lives – when the small wants take precedence over what truly matters – who do we become and how do we find ourselves once more? What’s the treasure hidden right before us that we have such a hard time seeing?
So let’s think about desire a bit. What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude. Getting into that college program; securing that job; hearing better news about the medical results. Those are some really serious concerns. If you’re like me, I imagine in the everyday you can catch yourself putting the same value on smaller events though. Catching that traffic light before it goes from yellow to red; or missing those closing doors on the train, or waiting for that email or that text message to arrive; or the anticipation you feel waiting for the next episode of Star Wars…
What’s happening in between? That moment between otherwise being happy about how things are and the next where we convince ourselves that things will only be good, or OK, if the thing we’re waiting for actually happens. Let’s start with the little things first. Try to remember what it feels like in your body when I mention these. That traffic light. Getting caught behind a slow moving driver when you’re late for work. The iconic train passenger that won’t move out of the way of the closing doors. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of these can drive you absolutely nuts.
What are we letting go of when we let this occur? We might have someone in our lives we love; we may have home and health; we may be enjoying a warm beautiful day on this side of paradise; but the traffic light, or the super slow moving driver, can take it all away in the blink of an eye. We may be thinking about picking up our kids from their RE class, or prepping for the next congregational committee meeting, or just steeling ourselves for the rush of coffee hour instead of fully resting into this hour of reflection, refreshment and community connection. It’s so easy to fall into this habit. We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely all experience this sense of “momentary want” again – probably even today. The little things are just as easy to laugh at ourselves about – as they are to forget not to cling to them again and again. They’re not big, and yet they can all snatch from us the awareness of the awe in the living world around us.
…And the bigger things are much less easy to sweep away. Concerns for one’s home, or job, or prospects or health aren’t frivolous or insignificant. The death of a loved one, or feelings of concern for our friends who are grieving, are major turning points in our lives. For good or for ill, their effects will travel with us – possibly – for the rest of our lives. And yet, the simple truth is that the awe and wonder of this living, breathing world continues unabated in every moment. What happens to us, doesn’t change this truth; even if the awe and wonder becomes hard to see for a time… even if we can’t feel it for a while. A connection to our source, this life, remains. And yet those times of forgetfulness – those times of feeling disconnected from our source, will come. It’s the reality of a world full of promise and pain.
Our Universalist predecessors believed in universal salvation. They believed that when we died, all souls would be saved to heaven in glory. Personally, I’ve come to feel that salvation is accessible in our current lives, for all people, while we’re still living and breathing. I’ve come to see salvation not tied to death, or notions of original sin, but a salvation tied to life; a salvation responding to the hells of our daily making; a salvation responding to the hells of our communal making.
It starts with being able to connect and reconnect with this awe-inspiring living breathing world. It’s a salvation that’s grounded in healthy community; a salvation that responds to our religious humanist forebears who found in religious community a saving grace from the false idolatry of the individual ego. It’s a salvation that liberates us from our ties to the mythic worlds of “what if,” the traps of “if only” and the fears of “no, not that.” It’s not a false sentimentality. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a brazen disregard for the horrors, and pains and tragedies of our world. It’s a salvation that reminds us of the honest connections we are ever blessed with. It’s the kind that puts into context all the complexity and nuance of our often frenetic yet ever poignant world. And when we turn to face the true hardships of the world, we do so with a grounding based in spirit, and not in anxiousness.
There’s a quote from one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, where she offers a Buddhist take on this contemporary Universalist message. “Moving away from our experience, moving away from the present moment with all our habits and strategies, always adds up to restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The comfort that we associate with concretizing and making things solid is so transitory, so short lived.”
Alright, let’s take a little mini-poll here. By a show of hands, who here has ever wanted anything? Ok, keep your hands up if that thing you wanted you got. Ok, now here’s the tricky part. Please keep your hand up if after getting that thing you wanted, you at some point stopped wanting or enjoying it. And finally – keep your hand up if that thing you wanted that you got, you came to wish you never got it? Alright, I thought that was a pretty common occurrence. I’m glad it’s not just me… phew!
That, my friends, is what concretizing can lead to. We sort of chase our own tails for dreaming. Call the grass on the other side always greener, or just admit that sometimes we don’t really know what we want. The draw to make things appear more solid in our lives is very alluring, but it’s ultimately a fruitless desire. I don’t mean to suggest we ought to give up on development, or goals, or hopes; but rather I hope to inspire us to offer a more realistic appreciation for the moment we dwell in. Our world is more full of joy if in our daily strivings we remain rooted, as best we can, in a thorough appreciation for what is before us. It’s from this place of fullness that we realize salvation. And it’s available to us in every moment; including this one.
I’ve reflected a bit about how we give away our connectedness with the moment, with our connectedness to this side of paradise, by ever wishing for the next great thing. How do we do that when we give up our own answers? How do we disconnect ourselves when we solely rely on others to save us from our unknowing, or our quandaries, or our sense of loss? When do we hide our light under a bushel in order to gain the approval of others?
I’m going to guess that we’re all a little guilty of this in our lives. Think about a time when you’ve had a big decision to make and the first thing you do is call every close friend and ask them to tell you what you’d do. A certain amount of that is good for the process of reflection. But so often we go to the absurd extreme with it. We give up our connectedness with the moment in our repetitive mental musings – with the proverbial spinning of our wheels while going nowhere. Maybe we need the advice, but maybe we already know our answer. Maybe we already know how to speak our voice and do what needs to be done if only we were to try. Brian (my husband) once told me, “We can’t rely on others to show us the beauty of a moment. Another person can’t give us the eyes to see that; we’re born with them and we have to learn to use them.”
In the Christian tradition, there’s a verse attributed to Reinhold Niebhur, that goes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This great prayer of discernment sums up the quandaries associated with fearing what will come and fearing who we are right now. If we can figure out how to live out the words from the Serenity Prayer, as it’s commonly called, we come closer to an appreciation for the moment. We come closer to loving this amazing world as best we can just as it is. It holds an honest balance between loving ourselves (and the world) as we are, and loving the world and ourselves as we might be — without making ourselves or the world out to be wrong in the meantime. It calls us to give ourselves a chance, without struggling against the impossible; while lifting up a sense of ownership with our feelings and experiences.
In all of this, if we were to name it for what it is, we might say that there’s a hole in our hearts for what we sense to be missing in our lives. In some traditions, we’d call it a “God-shaped hole.” I know I do. In others, we’d call it “living in a state of suffering.” In psychological terms we might label it “insecurity” or “co-dependence” depending on its manifestations and triggers. I believe each one of these has their merits. As a minister though, and not a psychologist (except for maybe in the pop sense of the word) I’ll stick with the first two names. “Living in a state of suffering” and “A God-shaped hole in our heart.”
To return once more to Pema Chodron, she clearly is in the school of thought that engages our sense of suffering. Hers is a philosophy that calls for deepening our sense of comfort with the groundlessness of life – that ‘not knowing what will be;’ that ‘acceptance of the present moment.’ “This moving away from comfort and security (she writes,) this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky – that’s called liberation.” (4) I used the Universalist language of salvation before to reflect on this same sort of thing. As our religious tradition transforms, changes and grows we’re going to learn and develop more and more ways to express the complexity of life and matters of spirit in our own religious language. But I believe the core truths, the essential questions and challenges remain the same for us – we’re just learning better ways to translate them for our own hearts, minds and ears.
The “God-shaped hole” language may really work for you. Or maybe it’s a kind of language that’s really hard for you to relate to. As Unitarian Universalists, I’ll challenge us to be the best translators we can be. For the theists among us, when we give up our sense of faith in our own capacity; when we give up our sense of appreciation for Creation as it is; when we disconnect ourselves from a real communion with this side of paradise; we realize a God-shaped hole in our lives. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we’re alone; or empty; or unloved. We confuse ourselves into thinking we’re powerless; or incapable; or that the world is devoid of meaning.
None of these things are true. We are not alone. We are loved. Life is full of promise. Our potential and capacity for love and for life is an amazing gift – an amazing blessing that we only need to open ourselves up-to to know its full wonder. As Zora Neale Hurston audaciously proclaims, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” That’s the core message in living into this side of paradise without losing ourselves in the process — regardless of our personal theologies, or beliefs. Loving the moment, loving the world in all its nuance and beauty, loving ourselves and the beloved communities we build together, loving this life through all its uncertainty, is the process of crawling out of our places of pain and fear and hiding. Friends, this world is too full to forever find answers outside ourselves, and it is too full to forever think we hold all the answers for our neighbors. This living, breathing world is too full to hide from it, each other, and ourselves.
As we heard from the poet Denise Levertov, “So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”
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.
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.