Posts Tagged openness
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/17/17. It reflects on some of the foundational tenets of Unitarian Universalism, and the wisdom they offer us in our times of brokenness and self-doubt.
We’re coming to the end of the last weekend of Summer. (I know, boo.) Some years it feels like Winter stretches out for six months, and Summer is over in a couple of weeks. This year was like that for me. It was a full Summer, but in a blink, it was still over. In my younger years, Autumn was my favorite season. I loved the warmer weather, but I was also looking forward to the cooler days for hiking, and pumpkin picking; and Halloween was a second Christmas for me as a kid and a teen.
But as an adult, especially one without kids of my own, all the holidays of childhood take on a different feel; not less, but different. As we grow up, and older, we see old things with new eyes – when we’re at our best. Even if we have kids; they grow older, and they too grow up. The seasons, and the holidays and holy days, take on new meaning for all of us, at each stage in our lives. We learn to love them anew, with a deeper meaning, if we’re lucky.
As the poet’s words that opened our service said, “The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious. Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might.” This is the quintessential challenge of religious life. As a mentor of mine often spoke (The Rev. Forrest Church), “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.” He, himself, died quite young, at the age of 61. As I was writing this, I was realizing that the anniversary of his birth and his death is this coming week, right after the Autumnal equinox, on the 23rd and the 24th respectively. Despite himself dealing with a nasty form of cancer at too young an age, he was never maudlin about aging or death.
The ideas of change, and ultimate concerns, are spiritual bedrocks of religious life. We are born, we live, and we will die. We can choose to live our lives, conscious of that truth, or we can live our lives hiding from it. Faith – faith asks us to live knowing our time is short; to leave quiet footprints marking where we loved our neighbor, where we mended the broken, where we chose to help lessen the burden of another, and so too – where we choose to let our neighbor in, to help us in our times of need. Help when we have the strenght to help, and let others help us when we’re in need. All are spiritual moments; all are sacred.
And so too, the poet continues, “Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion. What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”… How can we craft open minds, and welcome hearts – how can we stretch to lose our littleness? We all try our best, and still, from time to time, we get mired down in the smallness of pumping our egos up on righteous indignation; on tiny angers for the sake of being angry – separating ourselves from our neighbors, as we feed our sense of being wronged. There’s a strange and foolish attraction, for some of us, or maybe most of us, in seeking out the chance to feel being wrong.
In Unitarian Universalist circles, we say it in differing ways, but we often come back to the words printed on our letterhead, and atop our order of service; openness, mindfulness and reverence. These three words, these tenets, call us back from the path of bitterness and petty treasons; they remind us that there is something more to this life than our smallest selves. I try to come back to them each week in services, because even though they are so easy to say, they are so hard to remember to live. It’s the quest of a lifetime.
Openness, mindfulness, reverence. If you’re with us today for the first time, or you’ve traveling with us for forty years, we come back to them again and again, in differing ways, and sometimes in different language, but that’s what we point to time and again. How do we stay open to other views; how do we stay open, when the world feels like it’s shutting door after door. How do we keep our hearts open, without breaking, when the doctor shares the worst news we can imagine? Religious life is knowing we are born, and we all have to die. …How do we stay open before that eternal truth? We face that, day after day – and we are at our most human, when we are honest before that most raw of facts.
Mindfulness, in the face of pain and in the face of joy – it may begin in meditation and prayer, but it’s lived in our offices, and on route 110, when we’re trying to make a left hand turn off of Jericho Turnpike (especially then), and when we flick the channels of the news; when the divorce lawyer sends their paperwork, and when our boss hands us the pink slip. This too is life; and this too shall pass. Can we handle all this outside of religious community; yes – yes we assuredly can; so many of us choose to face it alone. But the burden is lighter when we do it together – it may not be any easier, but our hearts can be more cared for when we’re not alone. And the world is teeming with excuses and distractions – to not face what is always before us. Religious community, at our best, hopes to help us live mindfully, aware and full of heart; when we are whole and when we are broken, but still to live, through it all.
…And reverence, reverence is seemingly so counter-cultural these days. In the push and pull of life, and consumerism, and workaholism, and power, and pride, reverence gets the short straw. We are trained to want, or desire, but not to revere. We are taught to strive, and persevere, maybe even to crave. But reverence suggests a relationship; a relationship that’s not predicated on control or ownership. And in a culture where we commit idolotry to the gods of consumerism, control and ownership are the high priests.
The great Jewish theologian and rabbi, Martin Buber, used the phrase “I-Thou” to talk about reverence, and he meant it in a relational sense. When we come to respect the worth and presence of another – whether it’s your neighbor, or God, or the tree on the corner that comes alive, vibrant in its springtime pinks, or it’s autumnal reds – when that bush is burning with vibrancy – and we are present to see it as it truly is – that is reverence.
To see, and to be seen – that is reverence; that is spirituality; that is our purpose, and our meaning, and our highest virtue. And in this religious home, we strive to ingrain that sense of reverence, in our hearts, and in the hearts of our kids, and their kids, and in their kids. We look across the generations and hope for a world more whole for those that will inherit it. May we pass what has been given to us, reverently to the next, and to the next, and to the next. That is reverence – knowing in our heart of hearts that we remain in relation with generation after generation after generation. As the poet closed, “how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else? How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!” Religious life, holy life, is tearing down the walls that foolishly separate us. We are here, together, in this one, precious life. May we live knowing that truth in our hearts – with openness, mindfulness and precious reverence; a reverence that speaks from our core, to the hearts of all those we meet along the road.
A colleague of mine, the Rev. Rosemary Brae McNatt, who used to lead our congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and now heads our seminary on the west coast, Starr King, often joked that as UU’s, even though we gave up the Trinity – the idea that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we still remained loyal to our trinities. We still wrote in three’s. Faith, Hope and Love; or Justice, Equity and Compassion (as our second principle teaches); or even Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence that I’ve focused on today. But we have so many more that become foundational to our practical theology.
To return to the Rev. Forrest Church, from earlier, he has another “three” that’s constant to our practical theology. Sermon after sermon would come back to this spiritual teaching, “Want what you have, be who you are, do what you can.” This may be both simple, and the most counter-cultural spiritual message we can offer in these trying times. The crush of commercialism demands we crave more and more – we replace reverence with desire; we’re not whole until we conquer more. That’s not spiritual, that’s base. Want what you have. Imagine that. Imagine wanting what you already have. Not moving on to the next thing, or the next success, but relishing what is already before you.
In this human circle, imagine being enough, already, as you are. For some of us, that’s easy; for some of us, that’s quite hard. We’re all broken spirits doing the best we can, AND we’re all magnificent souls blessing the world before us. We are both broken, and quite whole. We are a gift, and we’re only doing our best at any given time, if we are even doing our best – all at the same time.
Be who you are. When was the last time, someone asked you to consider being…you. So much of life, these days, seems to be trying to tell us to be better, or more, or something other than who we are. We are all unique gifts, and to be honest, sometimes unique challenges, in this one precious life. But as much as any of us need to grow, we all need to grow, we all are a gift to this world – when we’re at our best. We can struggle, and wrestle and cry tears of frustration or tears of joy, over who we are, but we are who we are. Be who you are. No one else can. Get better when you can, but don’t feel a failure for who you born to be.
The broader world tells us to fix ourselves, to correct who we are in light of social norms. Be more masculine, be thinner, be more straight, be more powerful, be white, have more hair, be more athletic, and it goes on and on. We can lie our way into exhaustion and demoralization. But what we need, is not more “be different’s”, we need more “be who you are.” No one else will ever be you. Be you. Be you in all your awkwardness, and all your glory. In your mistakes and your perfections. Life is infinitely varied, and infinity needs role models. Be that role model for that kid that needs to see you; be that role model.
And, definitely, do what you can. For those here that are doing, oh so much, I might advise you to manage all that you do. We are not bottomless wellsprings of doing. But for those that are looking to be pushed a wee bit more; do what you can. There is always another things that needs doing, to heal the broken corners of the world where we will. Be that healing. Want what you have, be who you are; do what you can.
If you’re new to our Fellowship and looking for a new ministry in your life; I’ll offer three immediate suggestions. Our community garden, the grounds we use to grow food for town pantries, can always use more help. Head on back there when groups are working (any garden volunteers present today – or go up to those folks after service today to learn more.) Two – at the end of Oct, on the 28th, we’ll be hosting a full day training on accompaniment – to help support immigrants as a friendly presence when their time for court hearings take place. And three – in a couple of months, we shift over to housing our cold weather shelter for migrant men (any HIHI volunteers present today – you’ll definiltey hear more in the coming months, but you can ask those folks after service to learn more.) Do what you can.
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.
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.
This reflection was shared at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/7/15 honoring the culmination of two children and youth programs.
Our Growing Up kids told our story this morning, and our Coming of Age youth delivered our sermon this morning, so my words today will be brief. Curran, Samantha, Jacob, Katie thank you for helping to lead the service today. Mic, Jordan, Mila, Declan, Julia, Ben, and Teagan – thank you. Thank you for being dedicated to this faith journey and this community. Thank you for seriously considering the big questions in life. Thank you for committing yourselves to a project, with creativity and care. And most of all, thank you for also being teachers in this community. This is the very heart of religion.
Credo statements are where we rest our hearts. We are not a religion that rests its hearts in beliefs. In fact, we often have the most trouble when we commit too strongly to any singular belief – at least when we do so pretending that belief is the only truth. When you hear arguments in this Fellowship, you can bet two people have become firm in their convictions, and the first step toward peace is remembering we are together first and our beliefs are secondary. When we hear folks talk about worshipping idols, I think of beliefs first. They can sometimes take on a life of their own, and it can worsen the lives of all those around.
Credo statements are where we rest our hearts. Many of you came to some conclusions, at least for now, about the big questions in life – and that’s good. But I heard most of you also leave room for openness and a recommitment to living life to its fullest. That, that right there, is the soul of Unitarian Universalism.… Not ever fully knowing, but willing to act and live amidst the uncertainty. Fostering a sense of wonder for creation that leads to respect for our world and the lives of the people and creatures who are our neighbors. And the ability to speak your truth, with the person next to you who speaking their truth – with honor and love.
Our principles and our sources matter, and they form a pathway for right living – and they are the foundation for most of our sermons and all of our religious education. But some days they can just be words in our mouths. When the days come, and our principles feel like they are just sounds in the room, remember your sense of openness, and your compassion, and your yearning for a more just world – and you’ll find your heart there and you’ll find our faith there.
This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 11/16/14. It looks at the role of curiosity, intention and attention in building positive, lasting relationships. A special emphasis is placed on the role of autocorrect in our lives.
When I was a kid, I learned to type on a typewriter. We were still taught with the old machines that required white out for errors, or if you were really lucky, you had a typewriter with correction tape. It would allow you to backup over errors and cover them up as you went. My spelling was much better then. You had to know what you were typing, so it took effort and intention. When I finally shifting to writing on a computer, small spelling errors were fine. The programs would highlight the mistakes to fix. And then a decade or so later, you might not even have to make the changes yourself; the program knew what you were trying to type, and made them for you.
I have a very mild form of dyslexia. When I pay attention, I don’t have any real issues. When I’m going through something fast, I misread much more frequently. I’ve always been an avid reader, but when I was younger I was lucky if I could read 30 pages an hour. It wasn’t until college that I realized something was going on, hearing many of my peers reading twice that rate. After a little bit of research, I realized that folks with mild forms of dyslexia often have this trouble with slower reading. I looked into some techniques to try to correct it. For me, it was the ruler. If you lay the ruler out along a line, you can train your eye where you read; and for some reason it seemed to help with the small errors of flipping letters that would cause me to have to reread whole paragraphs from time to time. With intention, my reading speed doubled for most things.
But when I’m texting or trying to send a post on Facebook, you would think I have no clue where letters ought to be in words in the English language. I get sloppy. I’m not paying attention. And the worst of my letter flipping comes to the forefront. Because most of the time, our modern technology corrects most of the mistakes appropriately, I don’t have much reason to focus and I make more errors. My most recent, and possibly my favorite autocorrect error occurred this week. I was sending a note to my fiancé that I was finally starting on my sermon. (We try to keep each other abreast when I’m home working vs when I’m home and free.) Autocorrect let Brian know that I was, in fact, finally starting on my “demon.” We got a small laugh out of it – the way any of us do when we commiserate on work that needs to be done in our jobs. But it wasn’t actually true – or I should say I don’t see the writing process as a chore or a burden or, well, a demon. I typically enjoy it, even if it’s sometimes frustratingly elusive. Autocorrect reminds me that when I let my intention slip, not only what I see may be incorrect, but what I say may be wrong too.
Intention or attention, are the two ways that most of us get in trouble in life or in our relationships. We let our focus slip and then we fill in the gaps with assumptions, opinions or stories that aren’t real. Or we communicate poorly and others fill in the gaps for themselves in the same short-hand fashion. When I was a lay member of the All Souls Church in NYC, one of the ministers (now the church’s Senior Minister), Rev. Galen Guengrich preached on the topic of iPod people. For those of you too young to remember the iPod (yes, technology is moving that fast) it was a device like your smart phone that only play music. (I know, how boring.) He talked about how one morning he realized, as he was walking down the street, that the world of human interaction in NYC had dramatically declined. All of a sudden everyone was deaf to one another and mindlessly going too and fro listening to their devices. iPod people. (And again, for those too young to have seen it the first time around or on later dvd, “Pod people” is a movie reference to an alien invasion that caused zombie like reactions from humans.) I would amend his story to say with the advent of smart phones, pedestrians in NYC are now deaf and blind as they aren’t even looking up to see where they’re going, and I have a few bruises to prove it.
With or without our devices, there’s a certain level of the “Pod people” phenomena that goes on in our daily living when we let our focus and our attention fall short. When we’re filling in the gaps that aren’t really there because of our lack of mindfulness, we’re creating a fantasy world to live in. Sometimes that’s fun, and sometimes that’s very frustrating. But a lot of arguments in our relationships, our home life, and our work life, come of it.
Last week there was a fascinating article in Business Insider that was looking at the scientific research around successful marriages. It compiled a series of studies over a long period of time that were ultimately able to predict the success of a marriage – at least in terms of duration. The more successful couples had a tendency to turn toward one another in moments of attempted connection. If one parter shared a story of success, the other would shift their attention and celebrate with them. If the story was about a frustration, they’d shift attention and share the burden or commiserate. Or even more innocuously, as the example went, if one partner were an avid bird lover and pointed out an unusual bird out the living room window, the other partner would stop what they were doing and look at it. The researche indicated that the act of showing curiosity, concern or interest, when one’s partner is trying to make a connection in any of these ways, is a huge indicator of an enduring relationship.
Openness, Mindfulness, Reverence. Our relationships thrive when we’re open, or curious, to what someone else is saying or trying to connect with. They endure when we mindfully turn toward the point of interest or connection and respond with attention. I often talk about reverence in terms of the holy, or the natural world around us. It can also pertain though to our human interactions. Relationships and people are a remarkable thing. When we take them for granted, the relationships wither, but so too do we. Having a healthy reverence for the people around us keeps us more human; keeps us more compassionate; keeps us more pleasant to be around. Think about it, do you want to be around people that act like you’re boring, or people that think you’re special, important or at least recognize your value and worth? The same probably goes for the people around you – they’re looking for the same from you. Reverence for those around us goes a long way toward building the world we dream about.
Let’s go back to my little autocorrect demon. Sometimes healthy curiosity applies to the things in our lives that cause us the small frustrations. Remember Issaac Newton from elementary school science? The parable goes that he was sitting under a tree and an apple fell on his head and he “discovered” gravity? What if Newton had that apple fall on his head and he simply responded to it with, “ugh, what an annoying apple!” The end. Where would we be? How much delayed would our scientific understanding be? How many other advances haven’t been made because someone turned to their proverbial falling apple and said, “ugh, how annoying!” When we approach the small frustrations of life as if they were a chore, we limit ourselves, we diminish our relationships and we probably don’t feel good either for it.
For just this week, try turning toward the small frustrations as if they weren’t little demons to begin working on. Pay attentions to the small moments where our partners, or kids, or parents are trying to make connections. Approach them all with a sense of curiosity – and see what happens. There are certainly places where this won’t help. And challenges in relationships that have existed for years will not likely go away overnight. And sometimes the small frustrations of work or school are part of a bigger picture of disfunction. But those exceptions don’t pervade everything in our lives. Most of us don’t walk around with rose-colored glasses, so it’s probably safe to put them on from time to time, rather than pretend we need to perpetually take them off.
Today though, we just welcomed 10 of our newest members to our Fellowship. They are committing to our community, and in part, to our community’s mission: In religious community we nurture our spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Curiosity can be central to a healthy expression of our spirit. If relationships strengthen from turning toward moments of connection with curiosity and interest, and if our mission is correct in asserting that our spirits our nurtured through care for one another, then that sense of openness to one another is both community building and soul-saving. We are more human for it. And it may be the very best way to help heal our world.
There’s an old joke about the theological difference between Universalists and Unitarians before our merger in 1961. I’m not normally keen on making jokes about our religious heritage, we’re not taken seriously enough in the mainstream (and sometimes not taken seriously enough by ourselves) so I’m not sure we need to take ourselves down a notch in that way, but this joke is pretty theologically revealing. It’s on the nature of Hell. Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn anyone to Hell. The Unitarians believed they were too good to be sent to Hell.
It’s based, in a way, on an internalization of the conservative Christian critique of liberal Christianity. Religious conservatives will argue that religious liberals don’t take sin seriously enough in the world, and think faithful liberals are too easy on themselves, that religious progressives think too highly of themselves. I tend to see it differently. For those of us who believe in God, we tend to lean toward a compassionate being, or a creative Force that is life-centered – not punishment centered. And for those religious progressives who are not believers, it’s less about getting what one deserves, and more about living a life that reflects the gift we’ve been given in this singular life. We can choose to squander that gift in greed, or ego or hate, or we can live fully into that gift with openness, mindfulness and a fair bit of reverence for its preciousness. In either case, it’s remembering that sin, or evil, or harm happen in the world, and we have an obligation to address it with responsibility, and sometimes with culpability.
How many folks remember the classic TV show, Mash from the late 70’s to early 80s? It was a great comedic retelling of the Vietnam War. It’s hard to imagine war could be retold comedically in a way that so many folks would love the story, but it was masterfully written. There’s a short scene between two characters I want to briefly quote from between a soldier named Hawkeye and the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, that explores the nature of Hell.
“Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.
Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?
Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?
Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.
Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”
Good writing. This traditional view of Hell is almost comforting in an odd way. We imagine a place that has neat lines. Where right and wrong are clear. Of course, what’s morally wrong conveniently matches our own views of right and wrong. Theologically, I don’t believe in Hell because I have faith in an all-loving God. Intellectually, I don’t believe in Hell though for that psychological reason; too often it’s wielded as a club to beat down on anyone who have differing social values. I distrust theological arguments that lift up one’s closed view of the world, one’s sense of ego or self, above the worth of others. Loving the Hell out of this world, isn’t about wishing a metaphysical bad place to be gone, it’s about loving this world in such a way that we don’t create hells on earth ourselves.
If the character Hawkeye is right, War is just War. It doesn’t have the clear cut lines of right and wrong we imagine with Hell. There are times when it’s tragically necessary. And there are too often times when it expediently fills the appetites of greed, or hate.
This week is another example of why I try to avoid predicting my sermon topics far in advance. War was not supposed to be the focus. Yet, sadly this past week has seen an insane escalation of violence in Palestine. Syrian’s are still trying to receive aid from what amounts to a genocidal government. And we are recommencing air strikes in Iraq, along with food and water drops, to protect religious minorities in the country from ISIS. War is not Hell, it affects innocent bystanders.
There are aspects of each of these tragedies that appear to require the use of force to protect innocent bystanders. There are aspects that are grounded in a history that has brought us to these horrid places. As a Fellowship that is designated a Peace site, I want to focus us on the cyclical nature of violence. It’s often easy to point at those religious extremists over there with their rage and violence fomenting rhetoric and pretend that it arises in a vacuum. That Hell doesn’t exist, except for how other people make it. It’s comforting to believe that. I’m not sure it’s entirely true. And I don’t say this to exonerate murderous violence. Those that perpetuate such acts, own their responsibility. However, when we think of these horrors as black and white, or us versus them, we only feed their hold on the people in their grasp. Even if we save the victims, we enshrine the world view of Good versus Evil. When we anticipate wrongness in others, perpetually, we create that wrongness.
I’d like to give a couple of examples. Last year there was a twitter post where a white young man wrote, “Am I racist if I feel uncomfortable about a guy with a turban on my plane because this isn’t ok with me.” Just this past week, Asishpal Singh replied, “Ugh I know what you mean, I get really uncomfortable whenever I see a white man walk into a movie theater or elementary school.” Racism, artfully responded to, in 140 characters or less. There are very real problems in the world. International terrorism does happen. Domestic terrorism does happen. But when we neatly and uncritically lay the blame at the feet of certain people, who of course are very different from ourselves, we worsen the problem. At the very least, we’re not allowing our senses to accurately deal with the tragedies before us.
If you think I’m reaching when I say this, there was a report this past June showing that CNN revised its own data to appease gun rights advocates. They initially reported that there were 74 school shootings in the prior 18 months since Newtown. They later revised those numbers down to 15 under pressure from gun rights advocates to “redefine what a school shooting was.” Instead of dealing with the tragic facts of a situation, let’s play word games so that our individual opinion isn’t at stake.
Spiritually, what’s going on? We once again place our ego at the alter of idolatry. We have an opinion that one race or class or gender or sexuality of people is bad, and we maintain our fear so that we don’t need to challenge our views – we don’t need to check our ego. Our precious ego stays safe in its cultural enclave. We also make it impossible to address the problems of the world as they actually are, because in order to address them as they actually are, we would have to refrain from worshiping our sense of rightness.
I read a recent article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs in the Washington Post. She is the Executive Director of T’ruah, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis, cantors, and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. She spoke of a time when she was part of a delegation of U.S. faith leaders to Indonesia discussing religious pluralism. The group was welcomed with a poster that indicated how much money this local Muslim Community center had raised for Palestine, “and prayed for the health and safety of all Muslims . . . and for an end to “the Zionist entity.” Her article goes on to report how one attendee asked during the Q&A, “‘I have a question for the rabbi,’…“Why do Jews kill Muslim children?”’
The Rabbi replies, “Heart pounding, I stood up. I spoke of my pain at the loss of life among Gazan civilians, tragically including so many children. And then I took a deep breath. “I noticed the poster in the entranceway,” I began. I praised the group for raising money for humanitarian relief. But, I continued, “When you call for an end to the Zionist entity, I want you to know that you’re talking about my family and my friends and my people.” [The Rabbi] spoke of [her] own commitments to Israel, of the significance of Israel to the Jewish people, and of [her] firm belief that a two-state solution will allow both peoples to live securely and peacefully.”
The Rabbi ended her recounting with this, “To [her] shock, the audience applauded. Afterwards, many of those present told [her] that they had never before thought about who might live in Israel. That they had never thought a two-state solution to be possible. That they had believed that Jews wanted only to kill Muslims. And they crossed out the final line of the poster.”
…Religiously speaking, we are not likely to be the people that broker peace in the Middle East, or end our own nation’s cycles of perpetuating war. However, we do have control over how we view, react and respond to our assumptions and our experience in the world. I belief managing our own views begins to process of changing a nation’s culture. We always must begin with the one person we actually have control over their views and actions – and that person is ourself.
All the Rabbi accomplished, which is amazing in itself, is two-fold. Firstly, she showed compassion for the violence that has affected innocent bystanders in the world while admitting that violence is wrong. And then helping people realize the world is more complex than us versus them. That there are families on every side imaginable. That each side is not monolithic. Life is not a game of Risk where it’s the yellow pieces versus the Red pieces.
Just last month, 100 Imams in the UK issued a joint statement. “In the open letter released to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan, they said: “As the crisis in Syria and Iraq deepens, we the under-signed have come together as a unified voice to urge the British Muslim communities not to fall prey to any form of sectarian divisions or social discord.
“Ramadan, the month of mercy, teaches us the value of unity and perseverance and we urge the British Muslim communities to continue the generous and tireless efforts to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq, but to do so from the UK in a safe and responsible way.”
One Imam responded to the BBC saying, “”I think a lot of work needs to be done and it is not only the responsibility of the Muslim community or the imams.
“It is law enforcement, (and) intelligence services who all need to work together to make sure young British Muslims are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.”
That last response is so relevant for us here in the States as well, regardless of individual religious persuasion. We need to work together to make sure our people are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.
The major religions of the world, that have stood the test of time, may have some very different theological beliefs or assumptions. But each has at their core a deep valuing of mercy, compassion, and community building. When one faith strips another of their ties to mercy, compassion and community building, it’s a clear sign that the perpetrators are worshiping their own ego’s as small gods unto themselves. When adherents of those same faiths do it themselves to their own religion, likewise, they are worshipping something other than what their scriptures indicate. We conflate our importance, our need to be right, our need to lift up own own selves above others – and we do so by calling for the opposite of mercy, compassion or community building. We are guilty of inverting the cornerstones of faith.
And we do it by anticipating the worst. Our theme for the month is this very word – anticipation. It can be positive or negative. Today we hear it in it’s negative form. I know how that other side is going to think, or act, or believe. I know what their real motivations are. I know they’re going to be really different from me which means we can’t find common ground. Holding onto that stance makes it nearly impossible to love the Hell out of this world. Though it becomes increasingly easy to sow the seeds of discord, violence and hate – the very foundation of what we imagine Hell to be about.
Let’s take this down a notch to the everyday. We live in a country where certain kinds of violence are exceedingly rare, and other kinds are all too common. We live in a nation that extolls the virtues of the American Dream, including a history of immigrants making it here, yet we have at least one Governor who will send the National Guard to block children from fleeing rape and gangs because those kids seeking asylum don’t have the right paperwork – right paperwork I might add that my own great-grandparents never needed when they came here from White nations of origin. And just a few weeks ago we had another form of religious terrorism happen to one of our congregations in New Orleans. During a regular Sunday service, while the congregation was sharing a moment of silence for a beloved long time member, a baptist congregation sent protestors into the service to disrupt them because our denomination supports a women’s right to control her own body. Some may say that’s not really religious terrorism. Though I imagine if we had our memorial or prayer time interrupted when we were honoring a beloved deceased friend, we’d feel very invaded. It’s not the time or place for such protests or news grabbing.
The LA Times reports, “On Sunday morning, the Rev. Deanna Vandiver was leading a service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, a graceful, Gothic-style brick building in the city’s Freret neighborhood. The sanctuary, with 70 or 80 people, was nearly full, and included a group of teenagers who had just finished a week-long training in social justice.
The room was silent, as the congregation prayed for a young mother of two who had just lost her battle with cancer, for a social justice lawyer who had recently died, and for peace in Gaza. That’s when the shouting started.”
The Rachel Maddow Show goes into more detail with an interview with the minister, Rev. Vandiver, who described how during this moment of silence, the radical anti-abortion protestors unbuttoned their shirts and revealed their group affiliations shouting malice and hate. It’s unbelievable to think, right? The youth, who just finished a week long training in religious leadership, got up, invited the members to join in hands and begun singing. The protestors were welcomed in if they could be respectful, or out if they could not be. In the face of hate, the youth led the congregation in song. They loved the Hell right out of that sanctuary.
Later the protestors begun shouting and waving signs – again unbelievable – outside the window of the nursery room to the babies inside. The youth that were there caring for the babies, picked up the children and brought them to the inside of the building away from the windows (leaving notes for parents of where they went.)
As we close, and prepare for another week ahead, I’d like us to take the courageous actions of the youth in New Orleans as a life lesson to reflect upon. How we respond in any given moment reflects the character of our faith. Ours is not to war, or shout back, or hate. Part of loving the world, means that when folks around us act in ways that are hateful, we may sometimes need to pick up our kids and bring them to a safer place for sure. But their behavior does not need to change our character. Loving this world means not giving into the hate in others; remaining our best selves in the face of other people’s worst selves. Things, behaviors, attitudes and actions surely must change or adapt, but our character does not. We can continue to show compassion and mercy in the building of community, whether it’s here, or across the globe.