Posts Tagged Fahs

Belonging

This family-friendly homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/10/17 on the completion of our renovated grounds, parking lot, and improved accessibility. This was preached the morning that Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida.

This is a complicated day. Many of us have enjoyed a Summer of beaches, and woods, and travel, and breaks from work and school. Some of us have caught up with family, and others have lost someone very dear to their hearts. Dozens of us spent a joy filled week together at our annual summer camp – Fahs – out on the east end of the north fork (you’ll see a bunch of us in pink shirts today to better spread the word so that all who want to come know about it.) We’re enjoying a mild Summer weekend, that feels like a warm Fall day. While last week, we saw so many suffer in southern Texas from one of the worst storms in their history. And this weekend, the Caribbean and Florida are enduring one of the worst storms in living memory. (Hurricane Irma is hitting ground as we sit here now; and we hold out hope for the best, while so many people prepare for the worst. My Facebook feed was full of many friends sharing stories of driving or flying to saftey over the weekend, while others are choosing to stay put and board up their windows.)

…And here, at our Fellowship, we are celebrating the rebuilding of our grounds – something that was 37 years in the making. A few weeks ago, I was telling a story about long Summer days, and my favorite memory from childhood – the time when my parents moved into their (still to this day) home, and the neighborhood kids welcomed me out to go play at the playground across the street. Oddly enough, I just made the connection that that memory, was from 37 years ago too. I was making new friends, in a new neighborhood, and about to enter Kindergarten, and around the same time, Mary Jane and others, were having the first conversations imagining something new. (What are some of the other names we remember who first helped the dream of this building – for those who were around then – can we remember them now?)

First things first, and the sanctuary we’re in now was built. It would see so many weddings, and memorials, child dedications, and coming of age services. This room would also house our cold weather shelter for migrant men, and art concerts, and town halls, and on and on. And our grounds are also used to grow food for the town’s pantry – we’re aiming for 1000 pounds of fresh produce this year. And at the end of next month, we’ll host a Saturday long training on accompaniment in this space (Oct 28), for any who would like to help support immigrants being called to court – to help determine whether they get to belong here in our nation, or if we turn our backs as a people.

What does belonging mean to you? When was the first time you felt like you belonged somewhere? When I got invited to the playground at 4 years of age, I felt like I was going to belong. Over time, I’ve learned that it wasn’t always going to be easy, or nice; people weren’t always going to be kind, but in some ways, I imagined that neighborhood was always going to be mine to go back to – if I wanted. Where do you belong; where do you most fit in? At home with your family? Is this Fellowship a place where you feel you belong? I hope we can make it feel that way if it doesn’t yet – sometimes it takes time. For the folks dressed up with Fahs shirts today – is that a place where you know you belong? I’ve been to that camp three times now; and as a gay man, I’ve got to say how much I appreciate a place where our religious community crafts a place of belonging for all our kids – lifting up the value of their diversity. Too often, our nation tells our kids they need to change who they were born as, to learn to belong, and I’m honored to take part in a camp that teaches our kids they belong for who they are. That’s a life saving ministry we offer. Don’t ever forget that. If all we ever did, was create shelter for migrant workers during the cold weather months, grow food for the hungry during the growing season, and create a space for our kids to grow up knowing they have value and worth for who they are, that would be enough.

But we do so much more. When you’re wrestling with whether to get out of bed and come to Fellowship, or stay in comfort and catch up with the Sunday Times, remember that we create places of belonging, in our corner of the world. For our children and youth – we’re going to try to create a little bit of Fahs Summer Camp all year long – a chance for kids of all ages to learn together on Sunday mornings. For those familiar, think of the Circle Groups at camp. For those less familiar, it’s a chance for all ages to work together. So many of us live our days mostly interacting with people about our same age. First graders are with first graders, and 12th graders are with 12th graders. It stretches a bit in college, and maybe a little bit more in the work world, but usually not a lot more. Religious community is a place of belonging where we get to stitch together more and more people – to know one another and to grow together. To accomplish dreams 37 years in the making, across the generations.

For our adults, our Director of Religious Education, Starr, is working on expanding and deepening our adult religious education opportunities. The number one reason people tell us they look for religious community is to get to know more community. Take a serious look at Starr’s small groups program. It’s the easiest way to connect with more and more people every month, without the chaos (or excitement) of coffee hour. And in the spirit of deepening connections with one another – something we’re perfectly situated for – we’re beginning a campaign to rename coffee hour to “Fellowship Hour.” It was a suggestion from our ministerial intern (Greta). By a show of hands, who here wants more things to do? Who here has quite-enough-already-on-their-plate-thank-you? Excellent – vibrant hand-raising on that latter question. Sunday is officially the break from “more-things-to-do.” After service, come for coffee and Fellowship, and leave the work and chores of your life behind for a couple of hours. Don’t run up to a Board member and share your complaint. Don’t get one more thing done for your committee. Do the stuff that feeds you. It’s ok to sign up for stuff with someone carrying around a clipboard, but don’t rush to start a new committee meeting while the coffee is getting poured. Get to know your friends a little better; and make sure to welcome one more stranger into your life – if you’re up for it. With all of my clerical power, I give you the permission to not-do-stuff during Fellowship hour unless it feeds your spirit, and replenishes your well. There is so much hard stuff going on in the world, and we need places of respite to breath, to connect, and to reimagine new ways. Let our fellowship be that place for you.

 

 

 

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The Art of Play

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/23/16 and imagines what it means to be a “people of play.” Our text is based on “The Little Prince.”

This summer has been a reflective one for me. We watched some of our youth graduate from religious education and go away to college. Two of them, one from this year’s class and one from the last, I first met at a youth leadership school I led in our region before I came to our Fellowship. In August about fifty of us, I mentioned in the beginning of the service, enjoyed a week together at summer camp and watched a bunch of about 17 youth full of tears and joys, after being raised with love from their childhood, knowing that it was their last year there. I’m thinking of the parents here today who are suddenly aware that they are empty nesters and other parents who feel like that is so far away but coming too fast.

Brian and I got married and enjoyed a fabulous honeymoon. One that I never imagined I’d have the good fortune to enjoy. This week my friends and I mourned the death of a friend of ours we lost forty years too young. It’s been a reflective summer. If you are new to our community, a large part is celebrating the major transitions in life – we often think of memorials and weddings when we talk about this – but our children are probably celebrated even more. We have a perennial program we do for our younger grade schoolers and we have a really intense coming of age program for our junior youth. The twelfth graders, you will hear in 10 months, from this pulpit, as they graduate our program. Recognizing the mass of life transitions for our children and youth, UUs celebrate a ritual that is a sacred occurrence. A childhood of scraped knees, stressed out test taking and more head colds than anyone but a parent can truly appreciate. Sacred is the most apt word I can name of that moment that this all led up to. That moment that in turn will yield to a life time more. Whether they are graduating or moving away, it is just sort of starting there as well. But before that moment whether we are parents or not, and I probably never will be, there is our first conversation together with our kids around us. Most often we have this conversation with our toddlers. We heard it a little bit ago from the excerpt from The Little Prince. Come and play with me the Little Prince proposed. I can’t play with you, the fox said, I’m not tamed. By a show of hands, who here is a former toddler… most of you then, great. You may not recall asking this to an adult, you are likely too young to remember, but I imagine you can hear the same question asked back at you from our youngest children. One of which shares the chairs with you most Sundays, our children ask us, the whole congregation, the whole Unitarian-Universalist faith, to come play with them, to share in joy and silliness, and chalice lightings and play dough. They come to us asking to be in relationship with us. Only they use the word play, instead of big and fancy words, but it means the same thing in the long run. Hopefully, some of us as adults will remember that when we talk to each other too, right?

How it starts. And the congregation responds, I can’t play with you. I’m not tamed. It takes years to tame us, right? You have to be very patient. First you sit down a little away from me, over there in the grass and I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you won’t say anything. Language is the source of misunderstandings. This is child’s stuff right? But day by day you will be able to sit a little closer. Countless Sundays teaching us through snack times, reminding us of your needs, and the infant’s cries at worship reminding us to take solace in one another. For the goings will not always be smooth. But, even the noise of community is better than the silence of isolation, especially, better. Not in those words, but I think every time I hear a baby cry in here, life is just so much better than not having the baby there to be crying. And it is also true of life, community is often hard or uncomfortable but it is much better than doing it alone. Over the years our children and youth call us back to relevance for them, requesting a worship service that leads us to set aside time for them with the dream that someday the whole thing will make sense. Our youth have taught us to offer an education that speaks to where they are, what they might become and what gives capacity to make the life decisions they’ll need to make. And I bet for those of us that were raised in a different way of thinking, a different kind of religion, we might be trying to create a space that is welcoming to our kids, our children who might not be welcomed other places, or what we might not have been given, particularly around our LGBT youth. They create a space where they can be themselves and they can teach us from that place.

Not all foxes out there learn to do this, but this one has been tamed enough. I realize our role. This fox here, this room, our role is to be tamed, or as the fox puts it, to create ties. We are here to help bring more of our relevance to community with one another. We are here to learn to forge real connections to people that are near us and to develop a sense of compassion for those who are not in safe.  You know so often we find out these platitudes like: be nice to people, be compassionate, try to remember when someone is not around. Oh, yeah, that is easy, we get it, we know that. Okay, how often do we do that all of the time? Anyone, do that all of the time? I think, it is the hardest lesson, the most simple lesson out there, and we say it over and over again because we can pass by it the second someone is nasty to you on the checkout line, everything is thrown out the window. Right? If you are waiting a long time, you get a bit rushed.

So, we are here to forge real connections and this can begin with play, learning to lose with kindness, to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace. Do you folks still play board games? Yeah, right? Do you ever play with family? Is that ever stressful? No, no, okay. Whoever says “no,” you can lead the adult education class on temperance next week. Learning to lose with kindness with family and to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace, think about those moments, think about those moments when really stupid things become really difficult.

This month we have been talking about play at our services and imagining what it would be like to be a people of play, what it would be like to not always take ourselves so seriously or so earnestly Not that there aren’t things that are serious. Most of the time you are going to hear me preach very earnestly and very seriously. But that is not always and forever what we are about and I think playing sometimes can open us up to being a little more human. Summer camps can open us up to being a little more human.

And when the time to leave was near, the fox said, I shall leave, but I get something because of the color of the wheat. Then he added, go and look at the roses again, and you will understand that yours is the only rose in all the world. So the rest of our kids have moved away or elders have retired to be closer to their grandkids, or sadly a number of friends or family have died, the color of the wheat in the field is different now for having that. All of life has changed and we are together for but a time, for some of us, thankfully, it might be a lifetime. Where ever you travel remember that you have been here. We are more than a place of people who tend toward an open view in life. We are not the sum of beliefs or opinions. Unitarian Universalism, this congregation, and our relationship is a way of living and acting and interacting. It is religious and it is cultural in differing ways. But essential to this is our commitment to walking together. Even when we are apart, the fox reminds us of this, here is my secret, it’s quite simple, it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. That which is essential is invisible to the eye.

Facts and details give way to relationships. I am personally glad for this point, I was raised up in a faith that gave me the impression that it had given me all of the answers and when I came to the realization that that was far from the truth, I felt a bit lost, because I had put my faith into beliefs and knowing. I found myself searching and I found myself in this faith as a late teen. This congregation, this community of friends and family will remain where ever we go. When you feel backed into a corner, give us a call, or post on a Facebook wall, our pastoral care team is here and it is here for you and my cell is in the Directory. When you call, we very likely will not have all of the answers and on occasion we will have none of them. The answers may still be just as elusive, but we have never been in the business of answers. We have been in the business of building a bigger and closer neighborhood and hopefully, changing the world through that. I know that that might be hard to believe, the bit about a closer neighborhood. This can be true for our folks in our seats this morning. Some of us know you pretty well, some very well and it will feel like a lot of folks barely know you at all. Of course any ordinary passerby would think my rose looks just like you because she is the one I watered.

You know when I first read The Little Prince, as a high school student in French class, I totally missed all the important bits like this because I was so focused on learning the words. It makes so much more sense in English. The message is completely true. I joined my first congregation 20 some odd years ago and whenever I run into them wherever I go, whether it is somewhere in New Jersey or out in the coast of New Hampshire, they look at me with a look of, you are one of us, and that has been true of other congregations I have been a member of and ones that I have served. We even had someone from my last church here visiting his kids and it is that moment that we had, like yes, we are still here, we are still together. You are one of ours. As long as we are here, we will be proud of you, in your successes and ever available in your hardship as best we can. I say all of us convince you with sincerity when I say, reach out to us whenever you need. Not everyone does when they need. And all of this begins with a place a play. We build community from lightheartedness. Remember that when you find yourself stuck in a place of complaint or curmudgeonliness. Staying in a place of harshness keeps the richness at bay and we all do it. And it never really helps but we all do it.

When we take seriously the fox’s last statement, people have forgotten this truth but you must not forget it. You become responsible for whatever you tamed. You are responsible for your rose. This is where it all kind of gets tricky. What does that mean? Who is the rose? We all are at times. You are part of the creation and you both cared for us as this rose is your years of attention and commitment and the caring you have given as a youth or as an adult to our youngest children, or our oldest adults and all of the stories that took place before I got here, a whole lifetime of stories in this community. You are also the rose for all the reasons I mentioned and all those you can imagine. We likewise feel responsible for you as we water you.

Where ever we are on our life’s journey, we are probably a little bit fed up with it. Who here is fed up with where they are on their life’s journey? Oh wow, a lot of enlightened people here. That is amazing. We are afloat, a bit weary for the tides and storms and feel like we have come this way by doing mathematics in the dark of night with nary a compass or sextant in hand and yet this is also the beauty of a faith without neat, clean answers. We get to travel with an ancient star as our guide, a lot of ancient stars as our guides, finding directions as best we can, interpret with the tools we have been given, as a sense of wonder and knowing the story may never truly end. This adventure demands of us the “we” in our lives. We never adventure alone. We always and only do it in relation. So each of you this morning, I ask you to think about, for our new year coming in, where shall we adventure in the months ahead? Where shall we do this together?

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Closer to Fine

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/20/15. It explores the sin of perfectionism.

 

We have a few more days of Summer, so I’m well within my clerical rights to share with you one more Summer Camp parable before the Pumpkin Spice begins to flow and we begin to whisper of sweaters and share woes of raking and frosted up car windows. Brian has begun saying, almost daily, that Winter is Coming, so I know I’m short on time for these stories.

There’s a guitarist on staff at our Fahs UU Summer Camp for children and youth. He plays a whole range of songs, and helps to keep energy up when we’re sitting around too long. It’s the usual mix of camp songs and Beatles’ hits. But I noticed early in the week he was walking around mouthing lyrics to himself and practicing a tune that I haven’t heard anyone sing live in years. I remember saying, I think he’s trying to learn a new song- is he going to sing that here?! Then one worship service when we were stuck inside due to the rainy weather – he sang it. We just heard it from our choir – “Closer to Fine” from the Indigo Girls.

Now most of the kids can sing along to pretty much anything he leads them with in song, and even do pretty well with most of the Beatles songs, but the Indigo Girls are just too far afield from Taylor Swift to fly. Me – on the other hand – I’m singing line for line (and catching a couple of spots where he tripped over the lyrics.) I look around and notice that there are a few other people — all also over — let’s just say “over a certain age” who are also singing right along. When the song is over, I realize the youth at my table are all staring at me. One wide-eyed teen girl leans over and whispers – “you really know every line to that song? wow. I’ve never heard it before.” And in a moment that I surely will never forget, forever enshrining me in the over 40 crowd, I reply “that song was huge when I was your age.” (oh man, did I just say that out loud…) Meanwhile – some of you here, right now, are thinking in response “oh just wait, 40 is nothing.” And so the wheel turns…

When I was in high school, this song was probably my theme song; certainly by college. Growing up can be hard, and a song that reminds you to stop trying to find perfection, and just aim for fine, can be life-saving when you’re navigating the big challenges in life. (Show of hands) Who here has ever had to deal with “growing up?” It’s incredible, how we all go through that – for our whole lives – and each one of us secretly thinks we could have done it better somewhere along the way. It’s the sin of perfectionism. We pretend there’s this ideal that we can reach, and every foot short from it is a mar against our character, and even worse, a mar against our value as a person.

Perfectionism kills a little bit of us inside. It disconnects us from the world before us in all its wonder and pain. We create a fall sense of self that we can never achieve, and then when we don’t achieve it, that false sense of self keeps us from staying connected to a sense of reverence for life and for ourselves. I don’t talk about the concept of sin too much, because so much of religion has twisted what it points to, but when I do talk about sin, this is what I’m talking about. It’s when we go down the wrong path and confuse whatever is going on inside our heads and our egos with what is true and awe-inspiring in the world around us; especially when we replace that sense of reverence with this new sense of perfectionism.

The world around us is always in reach. Reverence for life teaches us not to put something on a pedestal, but to relate to it with tenderness and maybe a healthy sense of trepidation. Perfectionism distances us from whatever we put on that pedestal. It can be very painful when the thing we put up there is our sense of self. We idolize what we can’t be, and then replace the good of what we are with the pain of what is not. We distance …us… from … us. In the quest for the better me, we lose who we are; we lose our birthrights.

But that quest for perfection, doesn’t only impact our own souls; it creates cycles of pain for those around us too. When we allow ourselves to adhere to impossible standards, we implicitly tell the people around us that they should be doing the same thing. When we’re overly hard on ourselves, we nurture a sick culture that encourages all around us to buy into it too. All that weird peer pressure, and projectile insecurities, that we often just call “Middle School” continues into adulthood, into our PTA meetings, into our work conference rooms, and yes, into our houses of worship too.

Perfectionism can be paralyzing for a community. We can start fixating on how to improve every single little thing that we lose focus on our mission, and our purpose: as a community of openness, mindfulness and reverence. Our own Fellowship’s mission recognizes that “in religious community we nurture our individual spirits by caring for one another and helping to heal the world.” We don’t come here to be perfect. We come here to live with compassion, for ourselves, with each other, and in the greater aim of building a world centered in those values – the dream of the Beloved Community. We raise our children with those values of justice, equity and compassion, and we hold one another accountable for those virtues in our lived experience. But we don’t come here to be perfect.

Perfection is exhausting. It’s the group fantasy that tells us that if we just try harder and longer, then the magical, mythical “what if” will some day come. But it probably never will – or not in the way our egos want it to come. As you know, I got married a few months ago, and in many weddings, the clergy talk about patience, forbearance and kindness. Those three things are the foundation for any successful marriage. Perfection is not included – thankfully. Successful marriages don’t last – and they certainly don’t thrive – on perfection – so it’s left out of the ceremonies. The myth of perfection is probably a contributing factor to many divorces. It’s exhausting, and we have to learn to let it go.

I see that struggle for parents today. I watch our youth exhaust themselves working longer and harder at school. Test after test. AP after AP. It’s a level of achievement that stays full throttle for far too many years. Then I see the pressure on teenagers to plan courses for college programs they “think” they’re going to major in years down the road. I changed my college major 5 times. In High School, I took 3 versions of every science course you could imagine. Funny where I ended up. But during that whole time, I felt the very real pressure of perfectionism in school for subjects that at the time I just knew I had to take.  Perfectionism is exhausting.

I see it here from time to time too in our Fellowship. We have to work on our social media presence, or we could wave a magic wand and the parking lot would have been completed 50 years ago. You know, I was talking with one of our longest time members here last Sunday, and she pointed out that we used to have mud trucks in our lot in the 1960’s that would help cars break loose from mud ditches. We had mud trucks! So for those of you intrepid leaders who have been working diligently for two years to lead us through a complicated and major grounds improvement, that will make our property safer, more attractive and certainly honor our commitment to our members and friends who are buried in our memorial garden – know that this project has had two generations of leaders struggle to make it a reality – and you are just about there. Don’t get exhausted with the idea that it was going to be easy or that there was a more perfect way to do it.

I see it with our growing, dynamic youth ministry. We had a heigh day in our Fellowship some 10-15 years ago, where we had around 150 children and youth in our school. I think a couple years before I arrived, we were down to a dozen on Sunday morning.  We can allow ourselves to get exhausted by the that shrinking of our program, and mourn the friends who moved away, or passed on. Or we can celebrate all the families that have recently returned; just this past Wednesday, our DRE Starr led the start of a new mid-week youth program with 13 teens coming to the first gathering. We can exhausted by the ideal of perfection – which might unrealistically match our memories of a 1950’s Sunday School where everyone in town still went to church. But we can also realize that in the 1950’s we didn’t have that here. It’s an ideal that wasn’t real for us. But we are – now – building strong ties in our religious education program that creates safe places for our children and youth. And that safe place may be the only safe place for some of our kids who are dealing with bullying, or coming out as gay, or who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Unitarian Universalism is that place for so many of our kids. It’s not perfect, but as a former kid who had to come out, I can tell you that I’d rather a place that was kind and real than a place that was perfect. Perfection is exhausting.

We’re also dealing with financial challenges. Most houses of worship are these days, and we’re not different. We’re thankfully growing by a small amount, at a time when many of our congregations are shrinking by a large amount. Tragically, we continue to weather a period where we have seen members and friends, and family members die in our community every other month. I’ve been with you through two years of this grief. When we’re grieving, we can not fixate on perfection. Perfection has so saving grace or meaning. It just distracts us from real human connection. And in a time when so many of us must mourn and grieve, the reckless quest for perfection is a major barrier to the healing of broken hearts.

In the realm of good news – our end of year appeal for closing last year’s budget gap – was a major success. We still had to draw from our Endowment to manage necessary maintenance work on our grounds and building, but our Treasurer tells me that through a mixture of that Close the Gap drive, a better than expected Stewardship year, and some increases in rental income, we ended last year balanced despite fears of having between a $40,000 and $60,000 deficit. We are still in a deficit for this current year, and Stewardship tells me that we are still awaiting responses from 34 members regarding our current year’s pledges. So if you are one of those folks, please reach out to Stewardship or myself, or return their outreach efforts – I swear they are lovely people! We really do need that support from all our members who are able. Likewise, our Membership team and our Stewardship team both need new folk to help support them. They are filled with some great people, but it’s work for more than a few. Please come up to me if you’re interested in learning more after the service.

Before I end the sermon, I want to mention one bit of housekeeping related to perfection. Our Board of Trustees has said this as several forums and congregational meetings, but I know not everyone can stay for them, so sharing it at the pulpit is important. I’ve heard from several folks that there’s a concern that our Board doesn’t have a plan for balancing our budget. Personally, I feel there’s a world of difference between not having all the answers and not having a plan. You may have noticed this September an upsurge in our use of social media. After inviting our friends to our Fellowship, the number one way we bring in newcomers is our social media presence. Likewise, Bridgette, our Communications Specialist is almost done with a rework of our website. Our Office Administrator, Susie, has relied more heavily on volunteers to handle certain secretarial duties, and she had put more of our her time in managing the building and rental income. Our DRE has began supporting our Membership team, and we are both reimagining how we can make our community on Sunday more inviting to everyone. We also have a new Development Team that is working on external fundraisers with some nifty ideas. So increased public presence, better external fundraising, better social media utilization, renewed energy in our membership program, and better enabling our building to pay for itself through rentals. We do not have all the answers, but there very much is a well thought out plan in place. Perfection is exhausting, but we are trying our best, and we do have a way forward.

So how does this all relate to our theme this month? How does this help us to better be a People of Invitation? Next Sunday, I’ll be preaching on the origins of Universalism in the US. We are organizing a “Bring a Friend to the Fellowship” for next Sunday. Inviting our friends to our religious community is the number one way folks find us, so please do consider doing it. I’ll prepare a newcomer-friendly sermon, (and try not to have another parable from the Summer time when I do it.) But being a people of invitation means we can’t be a people of perfection. None of us come religious community for perfection. We come in our brokenness, and our hopelessness, and our joy and our yearning and our striving and with our curiosity and seeking love. When we get here, we don’t judge us by how perfect we are, but how caring we are; how connecting we are; how relevant we are. The Catholic Pope recently chided his churches that failed to care for the downtrodden and those in need saying they should be taxed if they won’t help the needy. I don’t always agree with Pope Francis, but he offers strong leadership in this regard. Our outward stance supporting non-profits and community groups across the globe through our Beyond Our Walls ministry is one foundation for our Fellowship. Our work toward housing a Cold Weather Shelter five months a year is another foundation of our ministry. Our presence and stability for our teens who need a warm, safe home to explore who they are, and become who they are, without the pressure of perfection or conformity, is another foundation of our Fellowship. Perfection may be exhausting, and our newcomers will have no patience or need for it; but compassion and forbearance, patience and forgiveness give us life and connect us to our center. Be open to mistakes; be mindful of one another, and revere that which is before us – in all its glory and all its fragilities –  more than our worship of finding mistakes and shortcomings. Perfection is exhausting, but community is where we come home.

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Rebirth and Renewal

This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 22nd, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It explores the role of doubt during the winter times of our spirit. It was part of our monthly Multigenerational family friendly service.

 

Happy first weekend of Spring everyone. (snowscape photo) It’s been a rough long winter for many of us. We’ve had a lot of strong snowstorms in quick succession this year, and it can feel really overwhelming, even if they might have been fun to play in or watch over cocoa at first. Over time, you can get sick of the dirt and the rock salt, and the wiper blade that at some point just decided to stop cleaning the bottom left third of your driver-side window (or maybe that last bit is just me.) And we just want it to be Spring already – how long do we have to live through this?

I know I felt that way Friday night when I realized we weren’t getting a dusting, but something I was going to have to shovel through one more time. I know when Brian got home from the train at 11pm at night, and saw 6 inches of snow on top of the car in the Huntington Station parking lot, and thick ice on the windows, without any gloves, that he let out a primal scream – a primal scream. Were there any other primal screams this weekend? (just slowly nod if you don’t want to raise your hand…)

And for some of us, this Winter has felt like a symbol for what we’re going through in our personal lives. School might be tough; others have dealt with health issues for a long time; our Fellowship has lost many long time friends and family members to illness; and a neighboring congregation, that many of us have attended year after year to start out the week of the Fahs Summer camp, burned down last weekend. One more thing can feel like just too much.

But tough times don’t last forever. We have to grieve through them as best we can, but they do end and something new comes through eventually. It’s not always comforting when you’re in the midst of an endurance run through rough times, but it’s important to believe; because it’s true. Sometimes the Spring comes, however late, and we’re still thinking it’s Winter because the Wintertime has lasted so long.

I went for a walk to a brunch spot Saturday morning. I put on my winter coat, gloves, long scarf, hat, and snow boots. It was still freezing; snow was everywhere; and there was a fair bit of ice. I had to dodge at least one neighbor who didn’t see me as his snowblower was grinding up the layers in his driveway. The sky was gray and cloudy and I was wondering it I should have brought an umbrella too. In fact, the weather reports said rain in the morning. But the rain didn’t come. On my way home, the sky had turned sunny. I saw the color blue up there again – it’s a great color that I feel like we haven’t seen in awhile. All the snow melted fast, and my winter clothes started to be come too much. Gloves came off, scarf untied, the hat went and finally I was walking with my coat open. But for the first bit, I didn’t trust it. “Oh, a wind will come.” “It’s not that warm.” Not until, “ok, now I’m sweating” came along before I changed my actions to fit the world around me.

Whereas a friend of mine in NJ had the mantra, “I’m planning to hold off shoveling till Mother Nature does it for me.” And he was right, it melted before he had to do anything. Inside, he already moved into Spring, and I needed a lot of convincing to find my way there too.

A month or so ago I got new glasses. I had gone to the eye doctor for a check-up and realized that after years of my eye-sight being constant, it was time for a new prescription. I’ve worn contacts since I was in college because they’ve always given me better eyesight than glasses. But recently, science has improved on the technology around eye-glasses and they can now better adjust for what my eyes need than contacts can. But somewhere along the way, I got used to seeing things just a little blurry. It’s small at first, but over time, those small bits can add up to a lot. One day this Winter, it dawned on me that I haven’t been seeing the craters in the moon, or the fine edges of stars in the night sky for what has probably been more than 10 years. I know it might seem foolish to miss that change, but sometimes things happen so gradually, that you simply don’t notice.

These new glasses, thankfully, fix that. My vision was 20/20 all this time, but I was missing the fine lines of things. I remember for the first few weeks, I was walking around a bit stunned by the world. The harbor at the dog walk at Coindre Hall had neat, clean edges again. The leaves had fine details again. Nothing was really blurry before, they just lacked distinction. Now everything had a crispness to it again. I must have lived for 10 or 15 years missing all that and not knowing.

We all do that from time to time. Especially, when the Winters of our spirit go on and on. Maybe the kids at school have been mean for a long time; or we can’t seem to catch a break in our career; or health problems or day to day stressors fill our world. All of those very real things can change how we understand the world. They may be tough; they may be hard, sometimes even very hard – but they don’t define the world. They don’t define joy, or limit hope, or change the nature of our character. I often talk about reverence in our services. For some that means revering God, for others it means to find a sense of awe in life. Today, I think it means recognizing that moment when we see the first flowers poke up past the ice and once froze earth – and knowing that matters – at our core. … and taking a step back and knowing that life has always been there beneath that frozen earth, whether we see it or not…. In the Wintertimes of our heart, life still grows. …

For the past two years, Brian and I have hung large pots of Mums from our back patio to add some color in the Autumn when the other flowers are mostly gone. Sometime around December, they pretty much lose all hope to survive and I want to take them down. Brian insists on keeping them hanging. He thinks the now dead plants “still look nice” – in their own special way. Well, now two years in a row, sometime in February a family of doves moves into one of the dead hanging plants and builds a nest. (show slide of dove family) This next slide shows a photo of the family taken last Spring. It doesn’t look like our mom and dad will raise any birds this year, but they have used the plants as a safe haven on some nasty Winter days. So it looks like I’ve clearly lost that battle with the dead hanging mums for next Winter for sure. But I mention this because it’s important to remember in the times of the Winters of our spirit, that when we’re dried up and useless or exhausted, that maybe life can find new ways of being born; ways we might not have ever expected.

All of these stories have something in common. The biggest changes – the biggest surprises – all happen on their own. We may need to do the best we can sometimes when life gets cold or crazed, but the seasons of difficulty often go away as suddenly as they arrived. They often become moments of grace, where things ease up through no credit of our own. We sometimes need to remember that very much. What has been, will some day ease, and offer something new.

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Sermon: Wind Shear

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 9/21/14. It looks at the People’s Global Climate March, the nature of change and social justice work.

 

This week I spent 48 hours in Chicago consulting with our UU Seminary, Meadville Lombard, on a team worship crafting project. Come mid-January the seminary will send out the first of many annual “Sofia Fahs Sunday” packages to congregations, ministers and religious educators to be used for a multigenerational service on a Sunday of the congregations’ choice. It’ll also include some multigenerational preparatory activities for congregation’s to use ahead of the service, and likely some curricula to follow the service. It will be a collaboration between many UU voices in parish ministry, education, music and social justice work from across the continent. I really look forward to bringing it here in the Spring, and am grateful for the opportunity to work with all these wonderful people! You’re sure to hear more about it in the months to come.

On my way home, I flew out of O’Hare and into JFK. Although I have a fear of heights, pretty extreme in fact, I have almost no fear of flying. I can gleefully check out the landscape 30,000 feet above the ground, but I have a hard time looking over the railing on the second floor of a mall. One of the running theories is that fear of flying is about not being in control or not trusting someone else to be in control – in this case, the pilots. And fear of heights is not trusting in my own ability not to trip over my own two feet.

As we were about to land, looking out the window maybe 20 feet above the ground, I could see the swamps around us and was thinking how pretty they were. That was right before my stomach went into my throat. The plane quickly reversed direction as it began to rapidly shake. The big guy in the neighboring seat had had his eyes shut for the landing, and almost jumped out of his seat when he realized we were all of a sudden going up again. Now the brain can think about a remarkable number of tragedies in the two minutes between an aborted plane landing and the time it takes for the pilot to explain what just happened. The brain is a true gift that way. The plane is falling apart. The ground is not safe for whatever reason – terrorist, riots, zombies. (Well, maybe not zombies – but that would be our reptile brain at its finest.) We’re going to have to fly to another airport. We’ll run out of gas. The wheels have broken off.

Two minutes later the pilot announced that we had experienced wind shear. It’s apparently when the wind direction or pressure changes significantly over a short distance. It was the source of the 1985 crash of Delta Flight 191. Improved technology has reduced the risk caused by wind shear to one accident every 10 years, but in the 60’s through the 80’s caused 26 major traffic accidents and over 600 deaths. None of this was anything I had any idea about. In fact no one around me did either. You could hear the muttered questions of “wind shear?” all about.

It would be another 10 minutes before we could attempt the landing again. And I was once more reminded of one of Jesus’ teachings about worry. He admonishes his disciples not to worry. If the bad thing never happens, you put yourself through it once for no reason. If it does happen, you put yourself through it twice for no reason. Worry doesn’t change anything and it doesn’t add a day onto our lives. I often quote him when I advise people how to handle possibly very difficult news, and the waiting and not knowing becomes unbearable. I am glad to say that the teaching actually helped me to manage my stress in the face of the aborted landed. I remember thinking in the moment, “oh wow, this advice actually helps.” In case you were wondering. The second attempt at landing was smooth. We made it. I’m still alive.

Fear of flying is sometimes about not trusting the professional in the cockpit when you don’t have control yourself. Trust in others can sometimes insulate us from fear. Fear of heights is often about not trusting ourselves when we don’t feel in control. Trust, fear and control.

Changes in balance over short distances is central to the meaning behind the seasonal change to Autumn this weekend. The air becomes crisp. The humidity disappears. Some flowers bloom for a bit longer, others come into their height, and as it hits 55 degrees we’re faced with the existential crisis of Sweaters or Shorts. (One More Week Please!) I usually get a sinus cold as the temperature changes rapidly. 20 or more degrees in either direction will do that to me. With all the changes with our global climate, that head cold came three weeks early this year. where the north east has experienced a few years of record colds (both in the winter and the Summer), most of the rest of the entire planet has been experiencing record heat and droughts. It’s the difference between “local weather” and “global climate.”

It’s why many of our members are not here today. Several of us are in NYC taking part in the largest climate march in history as the UN gathers to meet and decide global initiative. I’m glad that many of our members, and many UU’s across the country, have traveled to NYC for this purpose. When 97% of scientists agree that we’re experiencing a global climate crisis, choosing to do nothing is tantamount to sticking our fingers in our ears. And we no longer have that luxury as a species.

In some earth-based religious traditions, the Autumnal Equinox has a religious counterpart to it – the holiday of Mabon. For some, it’s an opportunity to focus on how we have balanced our lives. Work, hobbies, attitudes, and learnings. For others it’s a holiday celebrating the second harvest where the gifts of our garden are shared with the wider community. From our place of bounty, we return the favor – we pay it forward. I hope the energy that comes from the climate march I’ve been speaking about will reignite change for the better. Maybe our members who went on that religious pilgrimage will return renewed for the work ahead, and share their gifts and lessons with all of us.

When we talk about sharing what we have extra of, we often think in materialistic terms. We’re raised in a culture that tends to focus on consumption and production, and we think of gratitude in those terms. What if we thought of justice work in terms of bounty and sharing? What if our lessons in building the beloved community on earth were seen as the tremendous gift they are toward finding a life of wholeness, and from that place of justice-centered abundance, we gave it forward as the gift it is. When we’re exhausted from the work – whether you’re one of our members who have been struggling to get more affordable housing built in our area for 30 years – as many of you have – or you’re a conservationist that remembers we’ve been able to save animals from extinction and close up the Ozone layer when it was riddled with holes in the 80 – but exhausted by the enormity of what we must now accomplish – remember that your lifetime of learning what makes the world a more just, a more balanced place – can be a source of nourishment, not despair from inertia.

The seasons will come and go. Gardens will be planted every spring, and need to be cared for over and over before seed will bear fruit. And once it’s grown, it’s gone. We need to return again and again. We can be worn down by the effort required, or find grounding in the practice itself. What if the practice of justice work was as renewing a spiritual discipline as tending to our gardens are for some, or meditation is for others? As Unitarian Universalists, I find this to be possible if we can learn to relate to it in the same way we relate to other spiritual disciplines.

It’s also very necessary. A friend of mine recently pointed out to me how in so many ways, each generation learns from the advancements of past generations. (The discussion came about from an article he had read and misplaced the name so I’m sorry I can’t give it worthy credit.) Technology improves at a radical rate thanks to the bedrock of past insights. The same is true for specializations in medicine, transportation and a whole host of science-related progress. However, it’s not necessarily true for social progress. Each generation seems to need to have to relearn the lessons of past generations. I’ve heard many of you recently lament having to protest issues that you thought were resolved in the 60’s or the 70’s. That’s largely due to the fact that it’s not easy to collate and quantify a book or guide that can clearly and scientifically list out what’s socially right or moral since it’s inherently based upon opinion and values. How we define freedom or empowerment or equality will differ from person to person all the while each individual may be espousing what they’re saying or doing lifts up freedom or empowerment or equality. Sometimes we’re rehashing old struggles because the other viewpoint never gave up, or never died out, or simply believes they’re fighting the good moral fight and if you’re on the side of morality – never say never. I’m sure that as religious progressives, we’re each guilty of this from time to time, and are each the targets of this from time to time. It doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air and give up; but it does mean that we need to approach our justice work with a sense of awareness and humility lest we ever be guilty of what so often frustrates us ourselves.

But since each social progress lesson needs to be relearned every generation, instead of feeling despair or exhaustion from it, we can view it as the seasonal work of the spirit. Gardening for a new yield. As Unitarian Universalists it’s just the work we do. Every heart that’s turned; every sorrow that’s mended; every turn toward wholeness in our society, is a gift of the work of our spirit, if we let our hands and our hearts lead with compassion – generation after generation. It’s something worthy of being renewed by – not exhausted from.

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