Posts Tagged possibility
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/27/17. It reflects on spiritual discipline of taking one thing at a time during times of crisis and loss.
Go back to your earliest memories of Summer as a child. We’re often wired to remember the hardest times more easily than the good times, but I’ve found over the years, that most of us have pretty clear memories of some really wonderful good weather day of our yesteryears. The day that sort of defines our standard for Summer – the day we’re always deep down trying to relive into today.
I hadn’t yet turned 5, and my family just moved into the “starter home” that my parents still live in 37 years later. The neighborhood kids and teens came by to say hello, and my parents gave me permission to go out and play with them at the local park. Most parents were more permissive with their kids back then, to go out and play in the neighborhood, but I was especially lucky. We lived across from a middle school that was next to an elementary school and our local church. It was a place where a lot of kids always were.
I recall that day stretching out forever. I remember it as if I were out for 12 hours, but thinking on it, there was no way in the world that my parents let me, at the age of 4, be gone that long. I was probably exhausted and hungry after an hour or two. But I don’t remember it that way. My first taste of freedom on my own – even though my mom could surely see me the whole time. I was growing up; I had a little more control over my choices. A time when I didn’t have any real responsibility.
We strive for that as adults. How can we get away – on our own – but as adults we’re not trying to get away from mom to go play with the kids – we’re trying to get away from the burden of our duties and obligations. Until we’re retired, it seems increasingly impossible to disconnect from our career responsibilities. And from what I’ve seen from many of our Fellowship’s retirees, obligations don’t seem to actually taper off even then – they just change.
This is the time of year, when we catch ourselves wondering aloud to our friends “where did the Summer go? It went by so fast this year.” For me, this was probably the fastest departing Summer of my life. I know we often say that time seems to go faster every year, but I don’t find that to be consistently true. It’s more a matter of how distracted, or burdened we may be at any moment. If we’re dealing with health problems for ourselves or with someone we love, time stretches and shrinks in odd ways – maybe even at the same time.
I’m starting my tenth year in the ministry. It’s a milestone. With most of our clergy beginning the ministry somewhere in their fifties, ten years may be the only milestone most of us ever reach. So it’s getting me a bit reflective. Time is a funny thing. It sure doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing this for almost ten years – so it’s quick in a way. But I also would never say that it felt all that short. Time stretches and shrinks over the years. It’s more a matter of perception than reality, though it does have a real impact on our lives.
As a related aside, I was just asked on Friday to step into the role of Co-Chair for our denominations’ continuing education program for our 1800 UU clergy. I’ll be taking on the portfolio of worship for our continental (and international) professional gatherings. That doesn’t happen for new ministers. But there’s still a way in which I still wonder, how did I get here? I’m sure we all wonder that at different points in our lives. How did we get here? For some of us it’s wondering, “When did retirement sneak up on me?” Or for others, “How did college finish in the blink of an eye?” “My baby is graduating from high school this year.” None of it was actually quick – we can all remember the burdens and trials along the way, but it still goes in the blink of an eye. One of my friend’s son, who I still think of as an infant in my mind, is learning to ride a bike this weekend. He’s no infant, but the mind does weird things sometimes. Often, we compartmentalize some parts of our lives – the harder struggles – and they stretch out forever. And we experience the moments of wonder and awe, all too briefly.
Spiritual reflection can help with this. The old adage of taking things one day at a time, is good advice for managing suffering. Don’t let everything crash down on you at once in your mind, but get through each struggle on its own. But there’s a way in which we sometimes use that adage to make things harder on us. I remember an old TV comedy by this name – One Day at A Time. It was about a newly divorced mom raising her two daughters in the 1970s. It was a very funny show. It was also built on the premise that there’s always going to be another struggle to overcome. It’s true in life that there will always be more struggles – some that will be incredibly difficult. But when we internalize that to the point that it defines our life, we further lengthen our travails and shorten our moments of wonder and awe.
We all struggle with this. Maybe we could move toward another adage – “one moment at a time.” Moment by moment, enjoying or managing what’s before us. Letting down the burdens as they are overcome – rather than carrying their pain with us for the rest of our days. Only we ourselves know, when it’s time to move on from the weight of what we carry. But take my words as an invitation to wonder differently about how we choose or not choose to – let go. Holding onto the pain, keeps us in that pain maybe longer than we need … and it also sometimes makes us lose track of the good in our lives.
And sometimes we can’t let go. It’s not time. It’s been an odd Summer for me this year – so different than my childhood Summers. As I said earlier, it’s been the quickest on record. I still got out to visit family out of state. The dog and I still made almost daily 3-5 mile walks together. I had a lot of time out in the sun, a lot of time reading, even a great week at our annual Fahs summer camp for children and youth. But I think it went so quickly because there’s so much in the world that weighs heavily on us; especially in our own nation. The news cycle is necessarily keeping my heart and head in one-day-at-a-time mode, and the anger I feel reminds me to stay focused.
I was enraged Friday night when I learned our President ignored the rule of law by pardoning Sheriff Arpaio – who was found guilty of racially profiling latinos while subjecting them to inhumane prison treatment. Arpaio hadn’t even been sentenced yet, and President Trump didn’t even have the normal pardon review process done. Maybe Arpaio is just another name to you. Several years ago, I took part in large protest in Phoenix over the prison camps he created. People were subjected to 110 degree desert heat – with only a tent over them – and no air conditioning – without even normal due process. He lost lawsuit after lawsuit that was leveled against him, but until the people of Arizona voted him out, he was going to continue his atrocities in our name. That’s the man that our President thought deserved a pardon. On the night of the larger public witness I took part in 5 years ago, we heard the names of 122 detainees who had died in US detention centers that past year – none of whom have ever even gone to trial for a crime. Dying in a detention center without ever seeing the light of a court room. Five years later, Arpaio being guilty of contempt of court, gets to dodge even receiving a sentence for the crimes he’s guilty of.
I’m in one day at a time mode. As Texas is about to face a potentially devastating hurricane – with no one in charge of FEMA – our government is keeping the immigration check-points active – not only as dangerous choke points for folks seeking safety, but they also make people make the impossible choice between seeking safety from the hurricane or risking deportation. Lives are literally at risk by our social policies, and we wield them like they are harmless political talking points. We have lost any semblance of moral integrity as a nation, when we put children and elders at risk for empty political gain. As of this morning, five Texans have already died due to the flooding, and we’ll still make it harder for people to find safety, rather than help those in need.
I’m in one day at a time mode. The White House has signed a directive to ban Transgender soldiers from serving. We’re insulting our heroes who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect us – and we’re willing to insult our heroes for empty political talking points. Greed, indifference and naked pomposity is the rule of the day. And I’m in one day at a time mode.
And yet still, living “moment by moment”, or mindfulness, can still lend us focus and a path forward at the close of one very difficult Summer. As our earlier story about the potter – being less about what we create – and more about the process along the way that changes our own character – we can choose how to internally respond to the horrors of the day. The anger reminds me that I care – that’s why I’m angry. I’m still human. I worry for the day that I’m too numb to feel it. I’ve been there before, and that wasn’t better.
One of my colleagues paraphrased yesterday some wisdom from Leslie Mac – one of the leaders of the Black Lives of UU organizing collective – that’s particularly helpful to me in thinking through our process of moving forward as a religious community during a time when greed, indifference and pomposity are the rule of the day. Here are Leslie Mac’s words: “Anything we do regarding policy change can be undone, as we’ve seen with complete clarity over these past months. So it is most critical in our organizing that we do it in such a way that we are left with real and meaningful relationships–those can’t be undone.”
So, at the close of another Summer, and the beginning of another school year, I was at a planning meeting this past week of our Huntington interfaith clergy group. This is the time of year we begin thinking about our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service. But this year, we have all the national hate crimes on our mind – the rise of the KKK and Neo-Nazis in the public square – from Charlottesville to Boston. So we came together this time – to begin to address our next steps.
We’re doing better at reaching out to one another, to linking into more faiths than just Christian and Jewish (though we have more work to do), and we’re trying to make sure that not only white clergy are at the table (though we have even more work to do on that score.) I’ve been talking with Rev. Artis, the religious affairs director for our local chapter of the NAACP, and we are beginning to desegregate clergy collaborations to everyone’s appreciation. This 9/11, save the date for an interfaith prayer vigil of unity in the face of hate at Hecksher park at 7:30pm here in Huntington Village. And two days before that, our Fellowship will be teaming up with the NAACP, at the Unity in the Community all day festival on Saturday, September 9th from 11am-5pm at Stimson Junior High School. Policies can be undone, but we can deepen our relationships, and no politician can undo those for us – nor can any politician make those relationships for us. Only we can do the work of relationship building in our lives – moment by moment, or day by day.
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.
Gather our spirit, Open our Hearts,
Make room this hour for a new story,
Of possibility, of hope, of vision.
May the lighting of our chalice
Be for gladness where we are empty,
And joy where we were once dry.
Spirit of Patience, God of Many Names,
Walk with us in the unfolding of our lives,
Remind us that with every trial we face,
There rests a seed of potential,
A way yet found,
A chance to love,
And the possibility of a world made more whole from our care.
As the holidays are further from us,
And we return to the pacings of the everyday,
May we not fall for the illusion of the status quo,
May we carry with us the hope and the joy,
Birthed in our festivals and our holy days;
So that in our returning to our classes,
And our offices,
And our duties,
Not only may we find solace,
But help us to bring that sense of peace,
That sense of wonder,
Into the lives of those we meet,
Throughout every week of the year.
As we come upon our national holiday,
Honoring the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
May this spirit of patience,
Serve to remind us that change is possible,
That justice can be found,
That all may someday be treated equally.
Let us not stall before set-backs or disappointments.
Knowing that there is much work to be done,
And we are the ones to be doing it.
Spirit of Hope, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We turn toward a new year,
A week into our resolutions – made or unmade,
Reflective of a year of commitments past,
And a year to come,
With its dreams,
And its promises of change.
May we come to know a lifetime of possibility.
Open our eyes to every opportunity,
To make amends,
To grow out of our ruts,
To remember to appreciate what is before us,
To grieve where we must,
And to let go when it is time to let go.
In building the Beloved Community on earth,
May we be moved in spirit, and in heart,
To do the work at hand.
Ever knowing that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,
That justice and peace are possible in our communities,
In our lifetime,
Only through the strivings of each and every one of us.
We pause now in honor of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation – where slaves were freed in our nation’s history.
When we find ourselves at our most cynical,
Giving up hope that the world can bend toward justice,
May we remember how far we’ve come.
Knowing what we’ve accomplished so far,
As impossible as it once seemed to the people of another era,
So too may we be so inspired to act with conviction,
That our deeds will be remembered by a generation to come.
We gather this hour to celebrate the most extraordinary story birthed in the most ordinary of moments.
Where we find the promise of life within the face of a baby.
Where our heroes, a mother, a son, and an adoptive father are travelers, homeless, and resting for but a night.
We can imagine all too well a time, where the powerful fear a message of compassion, of peace, of simplicity –
when it is wrapped in dirty swaddling clothes, sleeping in a food trough among the animals and the mess of poverty.
A child born of a yet unwed mother, a father whose ties are solely love, and a lifestyle that can only be called migrant.
From the midst of vulnerability we learn a new way.
A love that moves our hearts,
a vision of peace in an age of violence,
and hope where one would never expect to find it –
begins in the quiet solitude of family,
with the meek of the earth,
with the people that must find another path,
knowing the principalities and the powers
can never satisfy the least among us.
May the Christmas story birth in all of us a sense of possibility,
a renewal of faith in the breadth of the human spirit,
despite all the failings of our world.
That with every child that’s born,
this wonder is made known:
We are given a gift that is our own.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We pause this morning to take a breath before the great change that is before us,
for the changes that are stunning, that are obvious,
that bring us excitement, and joy,
and those that stagger us, that carry with them fear, and trembling.
We pause before those changes that come to us unbidden, and unknown.
In every moment the world grows into new directions
that are both clear and hazy.
We recognize that our vision helps us only so far,
that our expectations have but limited relevance,
and that our dreams only frame what is possible.
Gather this community together this hour,
May every candle lit, hold witness to our hopes and silences;
hold witness to the love that is before us,
and the stories that have brought us this far.
Our community is beginning its next step along the path of ministry.
May the walking be for gladness, and possibility;
May our ministry together be for healing and transformation;
And may we have the strength to continue down this road together,
with Your Spirit of Peace.