Posts Tagged Principles

The Promise of Worth: An Open Letter to a New Year

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/8/17. It looks at our first principle in terms of self-worth in light of our trying times.

Every New Year, many of us feel the pressure to make resolutions; to give up this, or to strive for that. Eat better, exercise more, and maybe drink less and probably hide from the holiday sugar crush. Some of the more detail oriented of us write them up as if we were in a work-based performance review – smart goals that are quantifiable, actionable, timely and measured. “I will lose x pounds a week for the following y number of months.” Others keep it simpler, “Maybe I’ll go to church or Temple this week.” If that’s you; I’m glad you made that resolution – welcome to our Fellowship!

Looking back at the year just over, I know that many of us felt like it was a long slog through hardship, turmoil and disappointment or loss. It became so culturally endemic as “the worst year ever” that we realized we needed to create spaces at our Fellowship for folks to come together through small groups, vigils, social action and we even updated our website to clearly ask, “Are you looking for a safe place during these uncertain times? A place to find people who share your values and concerns? We welcome you here.”

In some ways, for many of us, 2016 felt like an unwelcome guest who came knocking at our door. Now that 2017 is here, we’re wondering what kind of stranger it will turn out to be. Do we still walk with hunched shoulders waiting for the other shoe to drop, or do we plan for something new and more positive? Do we even feel we have a choice? As the year came to a close, many of my messages each week were dealing with harder and harder topics. Taking a deep breath, I wonder if we can begin our new year on a lighter note, clear the fog, and begin again to do the hard work that won’t magically go away – to build the beloved community – maybe with our backs a little straighter and taller than they’ve felt in awhile.

Imagining years as guests at our door got me thinking about the folk tale I told earlier in our service today –The Soup Stone. I think it can be really helpful in looking at a new year in a new light.  It began by saying that “A woman in a village was surprised to find a very well-dressed stranger at her door, asking for something to eat. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have nothing in the house right now.’”

What a curious challenge this story creates! All we know about the man with the odd soup stone, is how he’s dressed. Just a first impression really. But with it, a rock and some good clothes, all the folks in the village go from not feeling like they have anything to offer to being able to cook a meal for the whole town…. It’s enough to make one want to carry a rock around with us all the time.

I’ve always liked this story for the rare tale of the charlatan who uses their charisma for the good; the sacred trickster who generates wealth and compassion rather than the type to siphon it away for their own ends. It reminds me of stories friends have shared who have benefitted from the random driver ahead of them who chose to pay their toll at a collection site, only to generate a string of folks paying for the next person behind them. Maybe nothing has actually changed if each successive driver still pays the same amount, but it makes a world of difference in how we see the drive. Or as our image on the screen today shows rose-colored glasses covering a bleak landscape – we can sometimes choose the meaning of the story – creating beauty along the way. We can choose sometimes to feel like the kind-hearted well-dressed stranger in the story, or sometimes we can choose to be the villager who feels they have nothing left to give. We don’t always have a choice, but I think in our times of strength we have much more of a choice than we allow ourselves to think we have.

The story we heard this morning is a sad one in a way as well. It relays truthfully the world we live in when it reminds us of how much clout and status we give to strangers (and maybe to New Years too.) There’s a message here that we all have something to give, but we so often give away that power to others with rocks in their hands and a smart set of clothes.  Remember that as we go boldly into a new year. It’s the internal voice that convinces us that everyone around us is smarter, or more skilled, more talented, or better looking. It’s the same one that loudly lies to us that others are more self-assured and confident. In case no one’s mentioned this to you today regarding self-assurance, (and it’s a message I need to hear just about daily to remember,) the other person is probably thinking the same thing about you. Most of us think we’re more of a mess than those around us; even and especially those who outwardly act like the entire world is more a mess than they.

Of course, we will all go through times where we are particularly down from loss or illness, drawn out from work, or enervated from family. And the guest at our table – in the form of 2016 – may have gavin us many reasons to doubt ourselves. They are all realities in life that we will forever struggle with. But even in those moments, worth comes from within, even if it might take a stranger or a community to help bring that sense of self-worth back to the surface. The Soup Stone’s resolution involves a secreted exit for the trickster of the story, who leaves the very precious rock behind. The people of the village have been gifted with the magic they need to realize their capacity for giving. They are better able to see what they are able to offer to the world. I see them as better recognizing their own value. What they can only achieve from within, they are only able to do so by being in community; with a little good-hearted kick from the story’s roving trickster character.

So why do we do it? Why do we give rocks magical powers and think we have none of our own? Why do we so clearly see the value in others, and so often have a terrible time seeing the value in ourselves? Why do we all do it, and easily forget that that means the person next to us is also similarly struggling? How do we lift up the mantle of trickster in the story, and live that generosity for ourselves? That’s the religious question (or questions) for the day.

For those who are new to Unitarian Universalism, we have 7 principles that are central to our ethics. You can read them all in your order of service but today I want to focus on our first principle – what I think of as the promise of worth – our first principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In practice, it means several things: First, that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect; regardless of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality or gender expression. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that lofty and healing goal.

The second is about spiritual calling: just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. In this way, this principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.

There’s at least a third aspect that’s important – especially when years grow long and wear on our shoulders. If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict upon ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? It’s the villager that believes they have nothing to give, when in fact they have so very much to give. Some years may tell us we have nothing left to give, and we can’t listen to that message. Just the other day, Starr Austin and I were talking about a cartoon we saw make its way through social media. It had two people talking on a piece of ground that read “2017” and it showed one person asking a gardener how did they know the year would bring up something new – and the gardener replied “because I’m planting the seeds.” I think the world can be a harsh place at times, and this cute cartoon doesn’t speak to that, but it does remind us not to still the work of our own hands because we’ve convinced ourselves that we are powerless. We still have agency ourselves despite all the sound and noise of the wider world.

We often hear the first principle as a justice issue; and it definitely is that as well; but it can be a pastoral issue as well. How do we convince ourselves that we deserve to treat ourselves as well as we expect ourselves to treat others? How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others – within us as well?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions in relation to our seven principles. As Unitarian Universalists we are a covenantal faith. Rather than coming together based on a shared creed, we are a faith whose identity is based on shared commitments. As a tradition we first stand in relation to one another, rather than how much we agree with one another. Despite all this, we too often speak of our seven principles as beliefs. The wording for them all begins with us agreeing to “covenant to affirm and promote…”.

How can the principles be more than affirmations of static belief – which they’re not supposed to be – while still speaking to the questions of the spirit and the heart? How differently would we engage with our principles if we saw them as religious promises, rather than simply religious beliefs? As a covenantal faith we focus first on our relations, and so too can our core principles. A promise is a sort of belief that we extend out into the world between ourselves and someone else; although sometimes it is a value that we commit to just with ourselves. And I’m talking here about the bigger ones. Like the promise a parent makes to their children, verbalized or implicit, in that they will raise and care for them with all their heart. It’s a belief that the parent typically holds to, and one that children usually believe (– at least till our teenage years, then all bets are off.) The promise is lived between the parent and the child. It has as much power and substance as the maker invests in it. It’s deeply relational, and intrinsically based on belief.

So, what changes? Promises bring us back to the theological question. In the case of the first principle, our faith makes the bold statement that everyone has worth and dignity; including yourself; including myself. I promise you that your inherently worthy. You may not be feeling that to be the case at this moment because of something you’re carrying with you from work, or school, or how you acted on your way in here this morning, or how brutal a year was for you. But it is a promise Unitarian Universalism makes. We’re not saying we’re forgiven, although we all need to be from time to time. We’re not saying we’re justified, or sinners, or lost or found – although we may all be all of that at different moments in any given day. We’re saying we have worth, and we deserve to be treated with dignity; even by ourselves.

So, in light of the question I posed before. “How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well?” We have the theological basis for a religious discipline. As we begin again this New Year, whether excited, or worn down, how do we choose to begin it? We’re writing our collective open letters to the New Year; do we choose to assent to the promise our faith puts forth, or do we choose to turn away from it? Recognizing the worth in others; others recognizing the worth in us; and we recognizing the worth in ourselves. If the first two ways come more naturally to you – and I know they do for me; remind yourself of them when you can’t find anything about yourself to value. That’s the beauty of a promise made. They may be difficult to keep, but if they are made with integrity they plot a very honest course.

The promise of our faith encourages us to live knowing that we believe in the people around us; that we are all deserving of a place at the table. Our story this morning ends with the exclamation, “Bowls for everyone. Then they all sat down to a delicious meal while the stranger handed out large helpings of his incredible soup. Everyone felt strangely happy as they laughed and talked and shared their very first common meal.”

We too often give up our self-worth to the judgments of others, or the ardor of years now gone by. We too often sooner place credence in magic rocks than believe we ourselves have something to contribute. The promise of our faith teaches us another path.


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The Promise of Acceptance and Growth

This sermon explores the spiritual discipline of our third principle: how does acceptance lead to spiritual growth? What does it demand of us? It was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 4/3/16.

I remember the first time I ever visited the big public park in Brooklyn, called Prospect Park. I came across a map on one of it’s little boards. It mentioned there was a dog beach! I thought -wow! I didn’t think the water line came this close to the park. Growing up in Jersey, I imagined a shore line with dogs frolicking as far as the eye can see. Owners alternating between feeling joy for the playfulness of their pups and stressing over the more powerful waves around their little NYC apartment canines. I knew of some beaches that allowed dogs, but I didn’t think it’d be possible in a city of this density.

I guess with April Fools’ Day just past us, this memory came back to mind. Well, apparently it wasn’t possible. In case you’re not familiar with Prospect Park, it’s roughly about nine avenues from river. In reality, the dog beach is one fenced off stretch of water connecting into a larger inland lake. In the early mornings when the leash law is waved, hundreds of dogs do frolic in it, but the only waves that occur are what they generate chasing balls, ducks and each other. In afternoons, it’s usually only two or three dogs at a time who are tethered to their owners.

That park aside, wherever I go this is true. You can see it at Coindre Hall right next door. I find it fascinating how all the dogs I encounter have completely different personalities. Some are very stand-offish, distant from other dogs while maintaining a “just try it” look on their faces, that may or may not just happen to resonate with their human on the other end of the leash. Others come across as playfully stupid. Eager to please, grab attention. They’re the ones that run up to each new dog to say, “hey! Where ya been?” Even though they’ve likely never met.

I’ve started to notice my own reactions to these different doggie attitudes. I pay way more attention to the cute, friendly, lovable dogs, than I do to the ones that maintain their distance. They make me feel better; and I imagine they are probably a bit happier than their counterparts. I used to just think of them as slightly dumb creatures who showed interest and care for anyone around them. Lacking in discernment, they gave their acceptance and love freely. Being a dog owner (coughparentcough) has changed me.

I’m starting to think they’re the smart ones and I’m the one that needs to catch up. They’re happier; I’m happier. The mind at the end of the leash might be a bit concerned that their pet is overly social and willing to run away with anyone to the circus (and that line is actually a quote, from a former fearful neighbor, who was worried I was going to run away with her two hot dogs.) I’m amazed to report that even the Coindre Hall duck population shows no concern or fear from the friendly dog types. They might be convinced to slowly wade away from their intensity, but there’s no flapping away to safety from the gregarious ones. They only flee the stone-cold ones.

I wonder what it would be like at coffee hour if we were all a bit more like the carefree, floppy-eared mutts, than the strong but distant barkers and yippers. It might be tough on the introverts among us from to time. I imagine overall though, it would feel pretty good.

I’ve tested this theory out, when I’ve been out and about, at coffee shops, beaches and the occasional night out with friends. I’ve learned something amazing. Generally speaking, when I show others I’m interested in getting to know them; that I’m outwardly friendly; and that I accept them for who they are – they mimic my behavior! By channeling the wisdom of floppy-eared dogs everywhere, I have found friendly people in places where only unfriendly people once dwelled! I wonder where they all came from…

There’s a short poem, by Tom Hennen, called The Life of a Day, that I’d like to share with you:

The Life of a Day 

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it

5 would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly

10 awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before us with

15 barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by per-fectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the

20 right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meander-ing skunk.

Tom Hennen 

I believe we do the same sort of waiting with people (and possibly dogs.) …“We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real.” Ever waiting, we give away our lives in the hope that one will some day show up. And the truth is: it’s already here – and it’s pretty wonderful; even when it’s pretty awful. And there will always be those days. But so long as we have breath to breathe, we have a precious gift to unwrap and experience. “For some reasons, we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time.”

The same is true for each person we encounter; even when they’re pretty awful. We can choose to interact with abandon or reserve, but we ought not be surprised when we receive only what we give. We can not control how others act. But we can control how open we are, and how committed to engage we will be.

That’s the religious discipline inherent to our third principle. We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encourage spiritual growth in our congregations. It’s phrased as an action statement – not a creedal belief. We aren’t saying we believe in acceptance in growth, although many of us may in fact believe so. We are saying that we will commit to promote acceptance and spiritual growth with each other and in our religious homes.

I say it’s a religious discipline because it’s hard work, and something our religion demands of us. It also happens to be something we ask of each other as congregants. The promise of this discipline is saving. I don’t mean to say that it’s saving in the sense of some afterlife that will happen at some indeterminate point in the future. I mean to say that it’s saving right here, right now. Without the conviction of this discipline, we are only promised a life of isolation and stagnation. With it, we enjoy the promise of a deeper connection with the life around us. The main demand is to channel a little bit of that carefree mutt in each of us; to let go of the clutch and grab of judgment we so often employ against ourselves and others. To move through base tolerance of others who we may or may not resonate with, and to learn to accept them for who they are. To let go of that clutch and grab requires a discipline for most of us. Our third principle offers the promise of connection, but demands that we allow ourselves to allow others in.

I want to share another story about walking through a park. I once came across a story that matches this discipline. This time it’s about little kids, not dogs. I saw a gathering of yellow shirted summer camp first and second graders. The camp advisor was doing a call and response with the kids as they were marching in a line to their next destination. “One day I heard a bird singing … it had a great thing to say to me…”. It got punctuated by the advisor calling out after one girl who was lagging behind. “Anna, come on over. Stay with us.” This went back and forth for about 30 seconds, before the counselor invoked the terrifying “count to five.” I remember the horror of that teacher threat back in grade school. “One, two, three…” and then Anna came running. She got back to the group, and all was forgiven, they continued their march in the warm, fun summer sun.

I’ve often hear it said that as Unitarian Universalists, we accept all people, but not all behaviors. Try not to dwell in your minds too long on the metaphor of a single line marching anywhere — that will likely never be a true descriptor for Unitarian Universalists anywhere. Think more about how that counselor let the annoyance of the last 30 seconds go. She accepted the situation within clearly defined boundaries, and then allowed herself and Anna to reconnect and move on. Sometimes the affronts in our daily lives will seem more severe; but I’m convinced that the vast majority of those affronts are simply the dressed up equivalent of – Anna’s lingering a bit too long – when the rest of the group needed to move on. In the clutch and grab, we force ourselves to tolerate bad behavior, but never loosen our grip on the offense or the frustration. If the counselor had held onto the bad behavior of the little girl, she would have had a much worse afternoon and probably ruined it for the kids as well. Instead, she let herself and the children present be free to hear the promise of what great thing that bird singing in the tree had to say to them that day.

If the realm of the spiritual is in accepting and appreciating the lives and world around us, how then can we do this in our congregations? I’ve already mentioned how to do acceptance 101. I call it coffee hour. We’ve got it coming up again shortly right next door. Practice, practice, practice. And accept how your neighbor succeeds or trips up along the way. Because we are all going to do both – succeed and trip up. You get to choose whether you are going to keep bringing up how someone tripped up two years ago, or whether you’re going to choose to get back in line and enjoy the beauty of another day of birds singing.

For those ready to move onto 201, let me invite you to join one of our Journey Groups. If you looking to get to know more people in our congregation; or if you want the opportunity to explore more deeply some of our sermons, themes and justice work; journey groups may be for you, whether you are a newcomer, or long standing member of our congregation. They are lay led groups that each commit to meet once a month for about 90 minutes. They involve a chalice lighting, some poetry or short writing, and a few questions that are intended to start dialogue and reflections around a set topic. These are designed to be places for the heart and the spirit, rather than educational forums. Starr writes the sessions for our facilitators and keeps in mind this third principle when doing so. They’re essentially a monthly structured exercise in acceptance and spiritual growth. Ask Starr or you can email her to sign up. (Do we have any Journey group facilitators present who could raise their hands? You can reach out to them too!)

Graduate Level work in Acceptance may be coming up – community wide next Sunday, as we approach our next congregational meeting and forums. Do we accept the work, and discernment of past congregational decisions, and move forward with respect for difference of opinion? Do we honor the good faith work of our elected Board who works in tandem with nigh countless committees, or do we come to it from a place of distrust? Or do we seek to rehash past discussions as if seasons of thought haven’t gone into the current transparent process? Learning the spiritual balance beam work of acceptance and growth – in tension with one another – is heart-heavy work when it comes to our individual selves, when it comes to a close loved one like a spouse or a parent or a sibling, and it can be just as heart heavy when it comes to communities we know and love – like our own. But it is spiritual work we are called to do.

Do you remember the story about the businessman and the fisherman from our words for all ages a couple of months ago? (retell it quickly) It wove our great unease of days and people together. The start and finish of the tale talks about the forward rush of our lives. Businessman and fisherman are both seeking to enjoy the life and days around them. The fisherman seems to have already found it, while the businessman puts it off for the future. “Well, then you could spend the rest of your life just doing whatever you wanted to do, sitting in the sun, relaxing and enjoying yourself, with no worries…”.

This is an aspect of acceptance that leads toward the second half of our third principle. It’s a marker of spiritual growth to be able to appreciate what you have and where you are when you’re there rather than forever holding off to some point in the future or clinging to some past existence. This can also be true of communities. How fast is fast enough to be perfect? How soon is soon enough to be the Beloved Community we dream of? If we ever got there, would we notice it?

About that story though, I should offer the caveat that not all businesspeople delay their life for some future date, and not all fishermen are so moderate and steady with their fishing habits. I could imagine a tale that offers the same message with the roles reversed. It would involve an entrepreneur who may or may not enjoy what she’s doing, but fully appreciates how it allows her to share time with and support her family or friends. In this story there would be a fisherman that overfished the seas and criticized the entrepreneur for keeping her company so small and not expanding to consume more resources. In either case, one of the people in the story suffers discontent and disconnection with their own lives, and feels the need to project that out onto the life of another.

In learning to accept one another, we inevitably will encounter this last truth. Much of what makes us unsatisfied with others is merely a projection of what we mistakenly believe is lacking in our own lives. The spiritual dimension of growth calls us to a life where we recognize the abundance we have. We may not have abundant wealth, or health, or love, or talent; or may be in a place where we have all or some of these but we lack the abundance of clarity to be able to see what we do have. We may also be in a place of true brokenness. Something deep and flawed has occurred in our selves, or in our lives, or in a loved one. Acceptance is crucial here for growth. Acceptance doesn’t mean learn to live it with without seeking change or healing. Acceptance is the first step in recognizing the place of true brokenness is real for you or your family now. We can’t heal from that which we don’t first name.

Whether you are largely full now, or traveling through a time of brokenness, try to find a place where you recognize that you have enough of an abundance of life keep on keeping on. This is a tough discipline for all, especially for me; but one that has life saving potential. One way to repay that gift is to help others to recognize this truth. Rather than seek to teach it, model it by living into acceptance; every chance we get. Which just so happens to be right now.

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Coming of Age 2015

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.

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All Our Relations

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on January 24th, 2010. It looks at our 7th Principle in light of our covenantal promises. It engages UU, Islam and Native Spiritualities. And takes a mythic look at the movie Avatar.

I recently saw the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. Some friends really wanted to see it. All I needed to hear were the keywords “blue,” “alien,” and “fey landscape” and I was on my way. One aspect of the movie focused on the alien world’s capacity to relate and communicate with it’s ecosystem. Imagine a world where the trees held our memories and their own. A place where living beings had enough a synthesis with one another that emotions, needs, and intentions were known by all the natural world. The sentient alien race similarly had the capacity to “upload” their thoughts, memories and feelings into this living matrix.

It completely felt fantastical down to the state of the art utilization of new filming techniques to transform human actors into alien CGI with remarkably emotive facial range. Stunning landscape visuals elicited an alternating sense of realism and other-worldliness. Ultimately, we went away feeling like we saw something completely other that was none-the-less readily relatable.

Upon reflection, I’m no longer sure that magical setting is all that different than our world. I grant you that on the whole, our world is less so vividly colorful, it’s no longer as pristine as this alien landscape’s forests and jungles were, and most notably, none of us have “upload” plugs coming out of our hair – please correct me if I’m wrong – particularly on this last point. What I believe is similar is the sense of memory and awareness. Maybe we do sense in the air the needs of one another. Call it mindfulness, synchronicity or actions of the Holy Spirit; I continue to be amazed at how fluidly needs, pains, joys and other “stuff of the heart and spirit” get communicated in human communities without words, and sometimes with barely a glance.

I frequently hear congregants and newcomers comment how a particular sermon or small group ministry topic hit home. Words and phrases like “right on the mark” or “timely” often come up. Or I watch the ebb and flow of conversation and recognize how despite our often seemingly endless capacity to feel “uniquely indisposed,” so many of us are going through the very same sorts of life experiences and challenges. Originating from radically different places, we all end up in this religious home at a time and a place where we have similar needs and common intention.

We could explore the how’s and why’s ad nauseam to identify the cause and effect of this very human phenomenon. I’ve had similar discussions with a close staunchly and avowedly non-religious and non-spiritual friend of mine who leans clearly on the side of the brains’ capacity to make intuitive connections from seemingly disparate information. I tend to lean more toward the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious. Millennia of humanity has endowed us with a substantial and subtle awareness of the world and psyches around us that’s not straight-forward. We’ve been doing this “human-thing” for a long time, and our connections run deep. Simply put, sometimes we just know.

However it is, I’m more concerned with “that it is.” I’m more interested in reflecting on our very human experience of that alien fey landscape’s magical intuitiveness. In the movie Avatar, I saw a glimpse of a powerful world of relation that I wished were here on this earth as well. I’m coming to realize that – it is. We see the fantasy as other and fey because we close ourselves off to the reality of it in the present. If it remains fantasy, we get to hold onto our sense of isolation, of loneliness, of the ego as an island amidst a crazy world.

There’s a Native North American word that doesn’t have an easy English spelling pronounced (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen.) It translates as “all our relations.” It’s a sacred word that points to our interconnectedness. It reminds us that we are part of something more expansive than our lonely selves. It understands humanity in terms of relation. I find our 7th principle to echo this; where we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

Where our 1st principle begins the archetypal journey with the self — “we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (and I would add every being) the 7th principle integrates this valuing of the self in light of the truth of the world around us. If each person or being has inherent worth and dignity, and it is our religious promise with one another to strive toward making that expression a lived reality, then the 7th principle brings the saga of our principles back home. The world is full of meaning and value. We find a mirror of ourselves in the faces and lives of one another. We only truly live out our 1st principle by living into our 7th. We reflect the dignity of all around us by recognizing our places of connection. The relations matter.

Something is lost when we isolate ourselves. In the cinema of Avatar something was lost when the trees and stones were seen as commodities or obstacles. Even if you haven’t seen the movie – imagine any human story where we devalue the world around us while elevating money and power. The same is true for us living in this world. We replicate this in a million ways in our daily lives with less violence or extreme. It happens when the annoying co-worker is seen as simply the barrier between you and an otherwise good day. It happens when you hate your classmate because you believe them to be smarter, or prettier, or more athletic. It happens when we relate to our family or congregation as having obligations rather than having commitments.

The crux of the fantasy dilemma was the rare ore hidden beneath a rich world of interlaying connections. The rare metal worth millions an ounce was called “unobtanium.” A bit cliché a descriptor for that which we forever covet; but it’s aptness makes the sledge-hammer like title forgivable. If we’ve stopped wincing from the naming by now, I’d ask how that relates to our interdependent web of life? In your own lives, what is the thing or dream that lies out of reach? What is the object of discontent that keeps you from recognizing satisfaction? If you think back over your life, what were past things that fit this bill? Did they last?

I remember back when I was 2 years old, I left my stuffed animal lamb – who was aptly named Lamby, at the mall. (I know, I missed my calling as a Hollywood screen-writer) My mom and I scoured the department store for what felt like forever. He was never found. I was a wreck. It mattered acutely. My mom could do no right since Lamby was gone. The world didn’t care about me. I couldn’t see my family as “good” any longer. Feel free to heap on any other great tragedy and my two year old mind probably thought it up. My mom made her best effort by eventually finding another Lamby that was blue instead of beige. It sort of worked. Over 30 years later, it doesn’t even matter to me; except to recall that it was my oldest memory.

I’d guess that we all have our unobtanium’s and our Lamby’s of various stripes and sizes. They ever distract us from the beautifully woven networks of human and natural mutuality that are deeply rooted in our lived experience. We uproot our homes in search of what is not. We give up the most precious stuff we have – our realization of our place in this living world – in the hopes of grabbing the precious rock of the hour; whatever it might be this time.

I sometimes find our beliefs or thoughts about things to be similarly divisive; certainly when they’re centered on us. Our Muslim story of Nasrudden is like this. His belief that the pumpkin ought to grow from the strong branched tree and the walnut ought to grow from the weak thinly vines, makes a certain sense to the human eye. For a time, Nasrudden denigrated these plants for making less sense than they should. As if the world centered around our sensibilities or predilections; and yet we so often act in exactly this fashion. Even the humorous resolution to the story, of the walnut landing on his head and Nasrudden now being very glad that pumpkins didn’t grow on trees, is very human centered.

We see a glimpse in the tale that the world is not about our singular perceptions or preference; while it’s humor makes light of that very assumption. The “way things are” has a pattern that’s not always obvious and reminds us that we may not always notice. The connections and meanings we make or find rely in part upon our awareness; but the connections are there, regardless of our acceptance. When we metaphorically place ourselves under the walnut tree with a commitment to wonder and humor; when we remind ourselves that we are part of the tale and have a role to play, we come closer to the Ah-Ha! moment that hits us on the head because we’re finally paying attention to our own real story; then we rejoin our sacred covenant. The promise we made to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

Although I’ve spoken a bit about trees, nature and the natural world, I’ve skirted around the environmental aspects of our 7th principle for a reason. The 7th principle, I believe, does call us to act for the well-being of our earth. But I’m not convinced that we’ll ever learn to treat this world with a life-saving and life-affirming spirit until we learn to apply those teachings to our world of human relations. The Native North American precept of (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen) or All Our Relations is as environmental as it is sociological. We replicate in the natural world how we interact in human society. The two are intrinsically connected. I believe that transforming our environmental stewardship, something implicit to the call of our 7th principle, can only be done by first living with this intention in mind when interacting with all our relations; beginning with our classmates, and siblings, and co-workers and parents. Why would we live more perfectly with the natural world than with our own human world? Why would we be able to get it right there, if we can’t get it right here?

We minimize and objectify the human world around us. How many of us living and studying in NYC have heard, “You should really go to that benefit, or that talk; you’ll get to meet the movers and shakers. It might get you a job, or help you into that school!” I remember so many times in studying at the graduate school for public service (of all schools) this very statement regarding why a function was worth attending. Even, or especially, in the not-for-profit world — who you know matters more than what you do. Human connections serve the utility of personal advancement. …But it’s for a good cause…

Even in the more classically noble professions, it’s the mode of doing things. How do we transform our human relations to reflect our higher aspirations? Yesterday, I was up in Boston for a executive staff planning meeting for Star Island’s annual Religious Education retreat week. I was asked to implement a Small Group Ministries that integrates people of all ages. The theme talks for the lifespan faith development retreat are centered around “Ministries across the generations.” One person on the team mentioned in passing how it’s sometimes best to go to Star to learn how to be in an intentional religious community. You see, at a retreat week like this, you spend about 6 days in a cloistered community of about 200 people of all ages that seeks to live out our principles and purposes every step of the way. We don’t always succeed, like all things in life, but there’s an accuracy to the aim there that I don’t always notice elsewhere. I mention this because everyone around the table easily nodded to the assessment of the intentional religious community on an island 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire for 1 week a year. My own head was nodding too.

As I was reflecting upon it on my train ride back to NYC last night, I realized that I readily believed that it’s easier to do this sort of thing far away from our normal day to day. Being intentionally religious in community – building that “sense of here” – is easier when we’re not distracted by the creep of normalcy. It’s why fantasy and sci-fi writing like Avatar are so successful in transforming human perception. We go away (either to a retreat in the woods or a retreat into our imagination) to remind ourselves of how to be human, and to be closer to the natural world. It’s telling that these two things are connected and seen often as far from home — being human in community and being back in the living world. In fact, our respect for the living world does improve. So many of these retreat centers are on the cutting edge of water treatment and recycling, composting, waste management, energy efficiency and the list goes on. You see it at so many summer camps too – places where kids finally get to be kids in what’s often viewed as safer environments than where they otherwise might live.

Earlier, I suggested that healing the earth must begin with our own human ties. I do believe this to be the core challenge. I should give space that in all likelihood, it will take a little bit of both, to move either forward. Environmental stewardship mirrors stewardship of our own humanity. All are related. And we need both to heal either.

Our second reading this morning ended with the words, “For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The promise of our 7th principle is fulfilled when we make space for the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. When we clear away the fumbling perceptions and projections of our maddened discontent with whatever human relation seems to be ailing us this hour. When we stop turning our connections solely into advancements that are “worth our time.” When we carve out room for substance rather than merely stuff to do; we may come to see the breathing world as worthy of encounter. The “nothing that is” is an openness to experiencing this living world as receptive members with intention rather than competitors acting from reaction. We are connected; we are reliant; we are dependent through and with. The religious promise reminds us that this is so; and calls us to seek to make it a realized presence in our lives and of those lives around us. And it begins at home.

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Not My Problem

The following sermon was preached at First UU on Feb 20th, 2011. The story it references comes from the UUA Tapestry of Faith curriculum found here:

Who would have thought one little drop of honey could cause so much trouble! Our story’s Queen learned otherwise, right? She learned that sometimes leaving something unattended for long enough could create mischief, fighting and even fire! I can remember my mom yelling at me as a kid to clean up my bedroom, or pick up my toys from the living room floor, or to turn off the television when I was done. I think I now have a better idea of what my mom was worried might have happened – although the biggest risks were probably just broken legos and lost toys – either one though would certainly threaten a crying little Jude.

Cleaning up after ourselves, putting away our toys, doing the dishes now before the friendly neighborhood cockroaches and rats arrive to do our work for us are all good habits to have and the reasons are mostly clear. But what can this story mean when we’re not talking about honey, or food, or dishes, or legos? What can it mean when it’s referring to the everyday mistakes we make? The nasty emails we clicked the send button for; the failing school grade that we hide the report card for; the impatient remark we make to a fellow congregant – to a friend; or the promise we fail to uphold? Can these things spiral into something more with the proverbial cat and dog fighting amidst the baker and the butcher?

I’d guess that we can all imagine ways in which these things can easily get out of control if we let them sit there and work their mischief. Emails can cause hurt feelings that only grow when we confirm them by ignoring the hurt in our writing. The same can be said for bitter attitudes with folks around us in person. Hiding our school troubles only delays when the truth comes out, and in return we only cut ourselves off from the support of our family when we probably need it the most.

The answers are often simple even if they feel hard to do at the time. Face what we fear in the moment rather than letting it grow out of control. The more we avoid it, the more we fear it, the more troublesome or hurtful it can become. The more power we give it to define our lives.
What if the everyday negative things that happen are part of a bigger problem that goes beyond us? February is Black History month, and I’ve been wondering how an attitude of “not my problem” has contributed to so many of the difficult stories Black Americans have had to face. I wonder how our unwillingness to face our fears of the moment help to support discrimination, prejudice and injustice even though we might not agree with the attitudes that create unfairness between people with different ethnic backgrounds.
I put a call out on Facebook for stories our congregation might be willing to share. June Wohlhorn, one of our Kindergarten-First Grade teachers shared one such story from 25 years ago. She wrote to me,

“At one of the offices where I worked, I was friends with the bookkeeper who was a black woman. At lunch, we’d sometimes run across the street to the Korean deli to grab something to eat at our desks. After doing this a number of times, I noticed that although the man at the cash register would always put my change into my hand, he always put my friend’s money on the counter. I didn’t notice the first few times, but eventually I did and discussed it with her. She said it was one of the things that happens when you shop while black.
I suggested that we not go back even though it was the most convenient and cheapest place nearby. She didn’t want to give up the convenience and said it happened in lots of places and if she let it get her too crazy, life would be even harder than it was. I had known there was prejudice but had not really understood how even the smallest things like how you receive your change was a way of people keeping others ‘in their place’.”
Take a moment and imagine what it would feel like if folks went out of their way to avoid you in everyday interactions? How would it feel if people treated you differently than other people? Have you ever felt this way before? If you have paper and a crayon, you could draw out a time when this happened. Or you could draw a picture of how you think you’d feel. … Take your time, there’s no rush. But when you do that, I’d like you to draw another picture of how you could handle it differently – how would you make it better? This could be really important for you or someone you care about someday because things like this still happen even though they shouldn’t.

Our first principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, reminds us that treating people negatively because of who they are, or whom they love, is a moment where we fall short of who we could be. We’re not at our best when we diminish, when we put down or insult others. And our Unitarian Universalist faith asks more of us than that.
How easy would it have been just to ignore the little fact that the cashier gave change to some people in their hands, and to other people they put the money on the counter? Paying attention to how folks interact is a really important skill. Speaking up, or reaching out – depending on the situation – makes a huge difference too. Taking the time to talk about what happens matters too. It can show we care. It can show we know something’s not right. It’s the beginning of solidarity. These are all ways in which we can live out our first principle too. We often talk about how we affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but our principle also calls us to promote their (and our) worth and dignity. It’s important and great to recognize the value of the people around us; and it’s just as important to protect that sense of appreciation for the people around us. Our principles are not beliefs so much as action statements.
Some of us may be thinking that none of this is really new. That we all know that racism and prejudice and discrimination are bad. And yet it still continues, so I feel we need to regularly have a reminder. I’m not convinced that we always speak up, nor am I convinced that everyone in our religious and social circles are always enlightened on this matter. I get a glimpse of it from time to time because I frequently get confused with someone who is of a Jewish background. I’m actually of a mixed background, each grandparent coming from a different European country. I have a lot of immigrants in my family tree. I was raised Italian Catholic, and for those of you who also were, you know exactly what I mean when I say Italian Catholic. It’s a cultural identity that means a lot to me with all its humor and strength. And I’m not Jewish, but I’m told I look it.

I mentioned that I get a glimpse of discrimination from time to time. I can most easily tell when someone’s mistaking me for Jewish when the person becomes oddly mean, or dismissive, or patronizing (a big word for talking down to me.) Sometimes they’ll make an explicit reference to me being Jewish. I’ve honestly not experienced this at our congregation, but I have run into it at other UU congregations that have fewer Jewish congregants, and I do encounter it from time to time in stores in NYC. When other folks are present, no one ever says anything. No one ever speaks up. I try to focus more on changing their habits, or calling them out on it, than I try to change their assumption that I’m Jewish. It’s an opportunity not to avoid their discrimination, but rather to correct it.
One interesting thing I’ve come to learn about our first principle is that it doesn’t try to say we’re all the same; it reminds us that we all have value – that where we come from matters and is worthy. It is correct to say that we’re all human, but I think it’s a mistake to hide or cover up our differences. Just like I strongly value my Italian cultural household (yep, mom won out on that front), our First principle suggests we value the different backgrounds we all come from. We shouldn’t discriminate because of how someone looks, or where they come from, but we should learn from the identity and culture our neighbors grew out of. Ignoring the strengths that come from our differences is another way of the Queen ignoring the honey she dropped. Without stretching the metaphor too far, something is lost when we let that nourishment go to waste as well.

All these things that might seem to some people as small things (the change on the counter or the hand, the disparaging comment, ignoring who someone is,) can really add up to bigger problems. All these stories when looked at broadly paint a picture of a world where folks are treated unfairly based on characteristics we choose to dislike for no good reason. I believe that these drops of “messy honey” from the “unconcerned Queen” from our story, can add up to fighting and a burning kingdom. It’s up to each of us to clean it up in the moment; to not let a bad thing spread.

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