Posts Tagged Fulghum

The Art of Possibility

All this month we’ll be exploring what it means to be a people of possibility. When I preach on our themes, I usually slip that question- phrasing into the sermon somewhere – sometimes obvious like now, and other times, it’s subtler.  I could ask what it means to be a person of possibility, beginning with the individual. We change the world most profoundly when we begin with ourselves. In fact, most religions, at their core, are helping seekers to make the personal changes first – affecting the broader societal changes later down the road.

And for certain, we’ll wonder what possibility as a spiritual virtue means for us individually as well. But I like to begin with “people” – begin by searching for what it means to follow a spiritual path in community, because we’ve chosen to do this together. Unitarian Universalism, for all of its strong streak of individualism, it is profoundly a communal faith.

Our 7 principles even show this tension in the way they are written. Even the newest among us, probably knows the first principle by heart. (What do we covenant to affirm and promote)? The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even when we talk about the most individualistic of principles, we’re doing so by talking about our shared promises to one another – we covenant to affirm and promote. But what’s less obvious is that our 7 principles move into wider and wider circles as we approach the seventh principle. Worth of individuals moves toward equity and compassion in relations, to acceptance of one another, and through learning moves into democratic practices, world community, and ultimately recognizing how all of life is interdependently woven. Our 7 principles teach us to move from our own experience into deeper and more meaningful connection with the world around us, all our neighbors. The end goal is building the beloved community on earth, ever knowing that we may never see it in our own lifetime, but our purpose keeps us focused on the possibility. So, what does it mean to be a people of possibility.

Our second reading today reminded me of the old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”

The virtue of possibility is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together – is sort of the art of possibility; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using possibility as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.

As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises.  Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hard and forgetting to look toward what is possible.

As a spiritual leader here, part of my responsibility is to help us not get lost staring at what isn’t working. Acknowledge it, address it, tweak what we can, and keep moving forward. I look to the radical changes on our grounds these past 6 months as a mini-parable in change-management. We’ve had a few cancelled attempts over the past 35 years to repair our grounds, so that it’s safe and accessible for all – whether we’re walking or wheeling into our sanctuary. From the stories I’ve been told, the history is one where, each attempt, we got far along, but there were always reasons why the plan wasn’t perfect for everyone, so we didn’t move forward in doing the needed work. (Who here is perfect? So no plan will ever be perfect, but we still need plans.) I totally see how we’d want to make sure everyone was happy – but in the interim it became harder and harder for folks to park as our grounds got worse and worse. I remember the last winter before we really got the repairs moving, I fell on the ice 4 times. Something had to be done. This time around, we kept our focus on the vision for what we wanted, and did our best to accommodate all our wants without demanding perfection. And in the coming months we’ll celebrate our success and re-dedicate our grounds. (And I’m happy to report that so far this Summer, I haven’t fallen on any ice, even once.)

But possibility isn’t only about casting a vision, or setting goals. Sometimes, it helps us gain a new perspective. Our second reading, by Robert Fulghum, is looking at how possibility does this very thing. Of all the inane, weird things for college students to do for a philosophy class, eating a wooden chair probably ranks up somewhere (at least near) the top. But I love the new perspective it gave them to look at things in a different light. How do you take the small monotonous things we do in our daily lives and turn them into something new and wondrous. They took their 15 miles a week of running in circles around a lake, and imagined what that look like if they went in a straight line in our minds at other places in the world. They started to do a virtual tour of Europe – all from beginning with eating a chair for a philosophy class. As Fulghum ended his story, “For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance.  Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the- long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis. Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change.”

I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, for those who follow me there, that I was remembering one of my undergraduate Religious Studies professors who forced us to write a 5 page paper every week for many of his upper-level classes. I recall being blown away at how tiring that was after 3 years of doing it. It’s funny how as I begin my 10th year in the ministry, and 5th year of writing weekly sermons that are twice as long as those old weekly assignments, how nostalgic I get for the days of upper-level religion classes. But like the philosophy students eating a chair, leading them to take virtual geography tours, in increments that match their weekly jogs, this memory got me thinking as well. Over the Summer, I started taking a serious look at how much I’ve written. Even conservatively, I’ve written over 200,000 words since I came to our Fellowship in sermons alone – not counting the blogs, or the prayers, or the other liturgical writings I craft from time to time.  We’ll see what comes of it in time, but I’m beginning to sort through some other writing projects to see if I can work toward longer pieces for publication. Maybe that will bear fruit in a year, or maybe in 5 years, or maybe never; but it’s got me thinking in new ways – and that means more creativity.

I say this in part aloud as a little kick-start for myself; but more as a wondering for each of us. What is your 15 miles around a lake every week? What is the routine thing you do all the time that might be looked at in a new way? What may come from stretching the possibility into something new? This week, I encourage you all to look for that routine thing you do all the time, and imagine applying it in new directions. Maybe see it as a mid-year tune-up. Or those of us who are on the school cycle, this is the real new year’s time anyway so make your resolution. But don’t get too hung up on making it hard – aim for new or different – and see if it creates new space in your life – where there was mostly routine.

I’ll close by returning to our first reading from today, the poem by Rumi. It’s talking about the quintessential question of faith – the nature of life, longing and God. “So! I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever

gotten any response?” The not-knowing, the uncertainty that descends upon the man that once prayed nightly, is a painful loss for him in the poem. Possibility reflects this existential crisis for all of us in our daily lives. When we’re reticent to try new things, or to break out of a rut – in a way, we’re responding to the uncertainty of the future – maybe informed from our own past. Our inner New Yorker film critic resurfaces, “Things didn’t work out before – or – there’s a lot of mitigating factors on what we’re trying to accomplish- or – I fail so often.” Maybe some or all of that might even be true – but it’s not helpful if change is what we seek. The inner criticisms, even if valuable for course correction heard in reasonable doses, turn into the cynic from the Rumi poem when they become callous to our potential.

“This longing you express is the return message.” The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” When we’re stuck, or dry, or uninspired, hear these words. Use your longing for a new way, as the evidence of the return message.

 

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Family Homily: All I Really Need

This homily was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn for a kid-friendly service. It talks about sharing, bullying, and standing up for what’s right.

 

Part 1

Who here is either in Kindergarten or has ever attended Kindergarten? A good many of you! Excellent! So if the UU minister, and author, Robert Fulghum is right from the story we just heard – we already know all we really need to know about living as good people. Is he right? Can it be that simple? I want to start off by saying why it is that simple – and then we’ll talk a little bit later about why it’s not really that simple. If you’re new to UU, let me tell you that this is a really good example of how we think here. Or as my Italian mother would say, “Well.., yeah, no.”

What did Rev. Fulghum say again? In short – “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.[1]Now these are some rules to live by. For the most part, I think we can all agree that following them would make for a better, kinder world. We might come up with some exceptions for self-defense, or caring for our loved ones. But for every day living, it’s hard to argue with them. If you’ve graduated from Kindergarten, and you have taken these rules to heart, you have a graduate degree in human living!

But do most of us live this way most of the time? Do we always share? (shake head) Maybe we don’t have enough for ourselves. Or maybe we feel like we’ve worked so hard for what we have we don’t want to share any of it. When we do share – why are we doing it? (Call out some answers — kindness, helping other people, we feel better, sometimes we’re lucky and others are unlucky.) Garnett mentioned some of this in her words this morning – sharing or as she put it generosity makes us feel better but it also helps the world. It reminds us that we’re connected to the world around us. It’s an expression of the reality that we all got where we are today by the help of others in the world – the parents or caregivers that raised us; the teachers that taught us; the scientists and doctors who discovered a cure that keeps us healthy and so on. Because so many people have come before us and done things that makes our life and happiness possible – we in return share. And the circle continues.

I remember a story Gini Courter once told me. She’s the Moderator of the UUA – that’s like the Chair of the Board (or ruling body) of our denomination. She was driving on the road one day and came up to a toll booth and was pulling out her wallet to pay (this was back in the ancient days before EZ pass- just after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth.) The toll collector said – “You don’t have to pay me today. The guy in front of you paid for your toll.” She got a smile on her face from the kind deed. What do you think she did? (allow for answers) She paid it anyway and said give it to the next person. What just happened? She’s not coming ahead in money at all! Yet she’s only smiling even more! Instead, just like how the generous person ahead of her put a smile to her face, she gave that smile to the next person coming after her. Now maybe that next person really needed the break – or maybe they’ll just get a smile to their face. But I can imagine a long row of drivers having a very different view of the day from it.

If you have some paper and a crayon with you, I invite you to pay forward yourself right now. Draw something that makes you happy and later today give it as a gift to someone here in the congregation you might not know. Or maybe give it to a friend or family member. It could be a hope, or a silly picture, or even a Valentine in honor of the holiday this week!

That’s what I think sharing really does. It tells the people around you that you care, that you’re willing to help, that they’re not alone. It’s not about giving up what you have, but about recognizing how much your friendship means to you – how much more than the thing you’re sharing.

The seeds we just planted are a little like this. We’ve planted them, and not labeled them as ours. We’ll care for them in their little pots for a little while and when it gets a little warmer, many of them will be planted in front of our building on Monroe Place. They’ll grow for the Spring and part of the Summer and brighten the sidewalk for all to see. We’ll be sharing with our community a little of what we did here today – just to make the neighborhood brighter.

But there’s also another significance. We don’t always know what good thing will come of our actions. In life, we sometimes do a small thing – a small good act. We might come to know immediately that it helped someone and it was appreciated. Or we might pay for the next person’s toll and never know if they were thankful or if they even needed it. These seeds are like that. Some of them may not take root. Others will grow strong for a time. When they’re out for the neighborhood to enjoy – it’s just random who will walk by. One of those people may have a day where they really need the help in finding a smile on their face again – and our flowers might just do that for them. In life, sometimes our actions will have a bigger effect on the world around us than we can easily imagine.

Following the prayer and offertory, Kirby Amour will talk about how some of her good work led her to a bigger impact on the world than at first she thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2

Robert Fulghum also said, “Play fair. Don’t hit people…. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” I see all of these things as sort of the opposite of sharing. It’s all about thinking that what little you have, is more important than the people around you. If you cheat, or take what’s not yours, you’re saying those things are a bigger deal than the person next to you. This can be a really dangerous thing when countries are fighting over resources like oil or consumer markets. But in the everyday, it can feel like a big deal too.

Has anyone ever had to deal with a bully before? (I have.) I think most of us had to face a bully at one time in our life or another. Sometimes they’re on the playground; sometimes they’re in the office next door; sometimes they’re a spouse or someone you’re dating; sometimes they’re a country. Some of these things we might feel like we can’t handle ourselves, but the lesson on how to deal with it, we learned in Kindergarten. We just don’t always remember.

For some of us, dealing with a bully is learning to not be one ourselves. If you find yourself planning on not playing fair, or hurting someone physically or emotionally – the kindergarten rules remind us – just don’t. But often the bully is someone else – it’s still good to check in with friends (or fellow committee members) every so often and ask them – was I just a bully? This might seem silly – but we all know bullies in our lives. We’ve all sat through painful lunches (whether in school or in the office.) And there are a lot of people that try to get their way at the expense of another person.  Sometimes they’re not bullying us – they’re bullying another person.

This is where the Kindergarten rules are just too simple. Sometimes it’s not enough to just follow them. It’s not enough to just share, or to just not be hurtful. Sometimes we have to take a stand. Sometimes we have to not let something just go by us. If someone is bullying someone else, it’s not tattling to bring it to everyone’s attention. It’s being a good person.

Adults might call it challenging or changing the system. When one person breaks from the norm – when one person calls out what’s not right, others may follow – and then the system (how everyone acts with one another) changes. Our youth and our adults are invited next Sunday (Feb 24th) after worship to a workshop on this very thing in the Chapel. It’s a conversation about Racial Justice. We’ll be learning and relearning ways to stop bullying of people based on their identity. There are a lot of words we use to describe this – prejudice, racism, bigotry – but they’re all forms of bullying. Some are just more obvious than others.

We’re also talking about producing another video this year on Sunday, March 3rd. It’ll be like last year’s Valentine’s Day video for Marriage Equality that you can find our website where we crafted thank you Valentines for NY State representatives who supported the passage of Marriage Equality in our state – so that all people who love one another in our State can get married to whom they want to marry. This year we’re hoping to have more Valentines of gratitude to send regarding legislature that’s being considered.  (But it might turn into a letter writing campaign instead.) We’re considering two things that involve safety in our neighborhoods and schools, and one Act that’s about safety for Women. The world can be complicated, but bullying comes in many forms. We’ll talk more about Gun Control and the Violence Against Women Act in the weeks ahead. I would like to thank Weaving the Fabric of Diversity for helping with the research on this project in collaboration with our Religious Education program.

These videos are like the Sweet Pea plants we’re planting. We create them, plant them, and you never know who may come by to view it – appreciate it – to change from it. Our last video has been seen everywhere from the Huffington Post, to the General Assembly of the UUA in Phoenix, Arizona, to our own District Annual Meeting. It’s been used in Regional Youth Leadership programming. It’s been picked up and re-shared through our denomination’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign -which has a following in the tens of thousands. I’ve been told by some of you that you first came to this congregation because you saw the video on the website.

It’s not always easy to know where our paths will take us. It’s not always simple to draw the line from the good we do today to the good that will come of it tomorrow. It is important to have faith though, that our actions will grow good from where we are good, and grow harm from when we are harmful. All we really need to know about life we learned in Kindergarten may be too simple to solve all things, but it’s a really good foundation for where to start.


[1] “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum

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