Posts Tagged progressive

Weighing Our Choices

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 2/11/18 as a kick off to our stewardship year. It focuses on the power and need for a progressive religious voice.

Two weeks ago, I was using some vacation time to co-chair our UU Ministers’ Association’s triennial conference called The Institute. There were over 350 of our ministers in attendance at this week-long program of workshops on ministry, worship, and a few talks. We live-streamed the seven worship services that I coordinated, or took part in, and I expect to be able to send out the online links of the recordings in the near future for those that missed them. They included some of our finest preachers, with the award winning music director, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout tying the artistic thread through the week, and culminating with the preaching of Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ – the UCC’s largest church in the US, and where President Obama is a member.

It was a stunningly beautiful week. Although we’re all in the same line of work, clergy rarely get to hear each other. Coming together to workshop, and worship, to deepen our collegial ties, and learn in community, is a powerful gift. I was honored to be able to help in the ways that I did. Co-chairing the production of seven worship services in a week, however, was utterly terrifying. Something being an honor though, doesn’t make it devoid of stress, pressure, or the abject horror of speaking in front of your colleagues – all who you’re absolutely sure are wielding their finest internal worship-critiques as they sit facing you. Some of my mentors were in the room, my friends, the people I went to seminary with. This only happens every three years, and many of our ministers are starving to be able to attend worship, without leading worship. The pressure was immense.

Now, I’m not one of those people who have that anxiety dream about talking naked in front of crowds….Thankfully. The dream I return to time and again, is the one where I’m just about to graduate from college, and realize there’s one more final I need to take in a class that I skipped going to, and didn’t do any of the homework for.  I can’t possibly complete everything I need to in the time remaining, and I’m going to have to return for another semester to make up that class. And it was a class that I absolutely had zero interest in – which is why I was skipping it in the first place. I wake up in a cold sweat every time. The Institute I co-chaired also felt a little like that dream. How are we ever going to pull off all the thousand things?! And yes, it was still an honor.

         The other night, when I was up late with insomnia, from all the stresses of the world that we’re all living through right now, I found myself scrolling through Facebook. Because, of course, staring at an electronic screen at four in the morning is the surest way to go back to sleep quickly… I came upon a quote that put a lot of this in perspective. “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” Sure, there are things in the world that come easy, that are also meaningful, but we would all be kidding ourselves if we pretended ease is the norm. So much of worth in the world, takes our diligent striving, stewardship and care. When things are hard to accomplish, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not doing it well; it may simply mean that it’s worth doing.

This draws me back to our religious community. Things aren’t always easy. Religious community is made up of humans, and we’re not all perfect, we’re not all shiny all the time, and we all bring with us our personal stories of hope and pain, loss, and possibility. We step on one another’s toes, we need to repair the roof, or the window, and money isn’t always easy to find, and we certainly can’t do everything – but we grieve that we can’t do everything nonetheless. I recall the wise words of our resident sage, Bob Bader, that brings us back from the precipice of wanton pining for a perfection that never existed. To paraphrase Bob, We like to think it was easier at some time in our past, but it was never easy; it was always hard work. Religious community is not easy, it’s hard work. If we want easy, we can do brunch instead, or flip through the Sunday Times, (or as one dear member here reminded me recently, we conflict with Jake Tapper on Sundays.) (And as an important reminder, for folks considering just that, you can still make it to brunch and attend our services. And the Times can be read whenever you like – but we’re here at 10:30am.) We’re doing something hard here. It means we’ll be uncomfortable from time to time. Discomfort sometimes is the price of a meaningful life.

I think about all the accomplishments in our Fellowship’s history building upon one another – and often only shining their benefits onto a later generation of members. Back in the 80’s when we expanded our building to build this room where we all gather, we laid the groundwork to grow in membership, but we also laid the groundwork to help the community when the need was great. The Huntington men’s shelter – HIHI – was started by this Fellowship, after a tragic death on the streets. It’s hard to say if we would have been in a place to do that ministry if we didn’t have the larger space we have now. What was started as a simple (or not so simple) grounds and capital project to expand our worship hall, 20 years later became the foundation for saving lives in the wintertime. But if you ask our leaders back then (like MJ) if it was easy, I’m sure she would smile and shake her head no. It wasn’t easy. It was hard, and uncomfortable. But it was worth it. As the poet said earlier in our service, “Wrongs don’t work themselves out. Injustices and inequities and hurt don’t just dissolve. Somebody has to stick her neck out, somebody who cares enough to think through and work through hard ground, because she believes and has something personal and emphatic to say about it.” And as another leader reminded me yesterday, those days were also exciting to be part of!

As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world.  Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?

Many lament that the broader world continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda media often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.

In part, membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.

I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.

And we’re not just about outward acts of justice. Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. I don’t have kids of my own, but I want to live in a world where those are the kids we’re raising! That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming.  That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.

And what sets us apart the most – is the spirit at the center of our faith. Religious community is a spiritual journey, long and winding, with many choices and forks along the way. In all the great odyssey stories, the hero travels far afield only to return to where they began, and ultimately find themselves. The biggest part of the spiritual journey, that we call faith, is learning how to find ourselves again. We don’t always live as ourselves. We hide, or inhibit, or push down our hearts, our feelings, sometimes our dreams; too often our kindest or best selves. We come together here and sing every week in community – and I wonder how often our singing grabs our souls’ attention and stirs it a little more into life. Life calling to life. Stewardship is, in part, taking stock of how well we’ve connected our hearts to our purpose, and making sure it remains nurtured for the years ahead. Supporting what matters to us most.

When I say life calling to life, I mean knowing in our bones that things matter – that life and relationships matter. Remembering to live fully – to live as ourselves – as best we can; to live knowing that life and relationships matter in our bones. The religious path is one where we help one another remember that too.

I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.

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Closer to Fine

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Place for All

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington for the start of our new stewardship year. It talks about how we respond to difficulty, trauma and loss.

This coming Memorial Day weekend will be the five year anniversary of when, as a pedestrian, I was hit by a car going about 25 miles an hour. I had been crossing a major avenue in Brooklyn, in the crosswalk, with the walk sign in my favor, and a group of pedestrians right behind me. The driver was making a left hand turn and accelerated thinking he could beat the crowd and simply didn’t see me. That happens to be the most common set of circumstances in car-on-pedestrian accidents. I was fortunate. I went airborne and landed about 10 feet away – on my butt. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t land on my head, or on the edge of the curb.  He stopped. Offered to drive me home. In trauma shock, I said no thank you. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that driver. Instead of then calling 911, he left. Someone else offered to call 911, and I foolishly said to them – no, I’m ok. I then walked to a friend’s who was a few minutes away and later got a car home. I was sore, but fine.

The next morning, when I came out of shock. I realized that I was not fine. I was in a lot of pain. I could just barely walk at about 1 mile an hour. Living alone, I hobbled my way to the doctor who chastised me something fierce. She wasn’t surprised though of my bad choices. When we go into shock, the brain stops working properly. I remember being worried the driver would get in trouble, or that I would be stuck in the hospital too long. Strange thoughts after you’re injured. But I was lucky, the injuries were bruises and cartilage damage. Apparently, healing from cartilage damage tends to take much longer, but you can also be on your feet much sooner. It was this ordeal that taught me to take any injury seriously for those around me; that the injured aren’t always thinking straight. To make sure to call for help.

The most intense period of recovery would be the first 3 months. Physical therapy twice a week would lead back into regular gym workouts. When I finally got back to the gym, I remember being shocked at how much weaker I was after only a short time. My physical therapist explained that in these types of injuries, some biological or chemical interaction happens around impact. The muscles internally stiffen to protect organs, but they then wither or weaken at an astonishing rate. The weight room showed me that I had lost 75% of my strength in my legs.

At first, you go into recovery mode. You think – I got this. I can do this! And you’re doing everything you should or need to do to get better. And you can get better. But after the initial willpower runs its course, you realize that you’re not easily going to get back to what you once were. I had more or less held a 4-5 day a week workout routine for the better part of fifteen years. As time went on, it became difficult to face that reality. Going to the gym meant I would be faced with how much weaker, how much slower, I was. And part of me still doesn’t like seeing that. And my health routines suffer for it. What I need to do, to get back in my old shape again, is the very thing that forces me to see the ways in which I feel less than I once was. And it’s hard to be present to that – to those feelings.

Most of us have had to deal with similar situations in their life. Maybe it wasn’t a nasty accident. Maybe it’s your heart, or chemo, or your weight, or maybe you’re recovering from some other type of surgery. Maybe simply the affects of aging. We’re all challenged at some point to be present to the aftermath of trauma, or weakness, as a fact of life.

Sometimes though, it’s a lesson or a community. Sometimes as a people we have to deal with trauma, and to grow through it. I can think of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some of us, some of our neighbors, lost their homes or their livelihoods to the ravages of the storm. Even after things were rebuilt, it takes time and dedication to get back into old routines. To see old places the way we might once have viewed them. To walk back into your home after it was rebuilt and learn to feel safe there once more. To be present to the difficulty and to move through it.

Other times it’s more about responding to the depredations of social injustice. Any of the stories I’ve preached about this year could be that for you. Many of them are certainly that for me. Gun violence. Racial injustice in our judicial system. The ongoing barrage of social engineering that continues to go on in places like Arizona. Laws like SB1070, that diminished the humanity of immigrants and migrants, almost became codified this week targeting LGBT people. Under the lie of religious freedom, legislators sought to write discrimination into the state’s code of laws. Any business would be seen as a church. And for religious reasons, you could refuse services to any person. The intent was to target LGBT people, but the law was worded in such a way that you could apply that to anyone. The law was ultimately vetoed by the state’s governor because it had unforeseen financial implications. Legislators forgot LGBT people spend money. They were surprised that businesses ranging from Delta to the NFL were outraged and considering boycotting. It hit the state’s pocketbook, but not it’s soul. The law was vetoed because of finances, not ethics.

When the earlier law, SB1070 was enacted – turning local police into pretend immigration officers – I remember traveling to Arizona to protest. We spent a week protesting and drawing national attention. At first, you do the hard work of acting and protesting and putting your all into it. It’s like physical therapy for our social consciousness. Our national ethical life has been hit by a large object moving at an accelerating rate, and we don’t always respond rationally at first. We have a lot of daily work we need to do as a people to get our collective soul back to health after legislation like these. We have to be present to the injustice – to witness it – to bend into the pain to make it go away. Pretending it’s not there will not make it go away. And if we rely only on our self to figure it all out, we’ll be less effective. There’s a whole host of specialists that make us more effective, that can keep us on track, that can ensure the long term care of our nation doesn’t fall back to a permanent place of weakness. But the work is daily; it’s weekly; it’s yearly. There will continue to be laws threatening injustice so long as we as a people don’t do our work – together. What we do, together, matters.

I know in some ways this congregation felt like it went into shock. For those who have only been here for the past two years or so, you probably don’t notice any of it. For others who have been here longer, caring for your ailing former minister, Rev. Paul at about the same time you were caring for your former Director of Religious Education – Carolyn – as she was caring for her dying husband – must have felt like a shock. At first people responded incredibly admirably. People stepped up, kept the pastoral and education ministries of this Fellowship strong. Sunday services kept happening through more and more lay leadership. People did what had to be done to keep the community vital. And time went on, some people got tired, others left. Gratefully, many are now coming back – as is so clearly evidenced by Sunday attendance over the past seven months.

But for many of those who had to do some really heavy lifting, it can become hard over time to see the places of weakness, or the places of hurt. You might remember a time when the Fellowship was much larger – or felt stronger – and it’s hard to see it any other way. I ask those who this speaks to, to continue to stretch into the places that feel rough to go. Breathe when you need to, and continue loving this community as you have, and as its loved you. Congregations are as resilient as we allow them to be. And this community has shown a great deal of resilience.

And strength does come back, even if it’s not going to do that quickly. Turning away will not strengthen us; being present to the challenges, and the successes of our ministry together, will.

I see a religious community whose attendance is already back up to a high weekly point that matches the highs of 10 years past – even if our formal membership hasn’t returned to the Rev. Beth years yet. The people are here. Our religious education program once more has 100 children and youth registered. Our large team of volunteers have kept our cold weather shelter program serving the needs of an expanding guest list through this very brutal winter; offering food, and shelter and clothes to those in desperate need. We are building partnerships with various neighborhood groups who serve our communities’ needs through our weekly split-the-plate program and the volunteer work of members connecting with those service groups. Coming together, nurturing our children and youth, caring for our members and friends who are dealing with the varied challenges life has to offer, serving the needs of the world during times of strife and times of plenty – that is the work of religious community – and we are doing that work. In fact, we’re doing it so well that our denomination has recognized and awarded our ministry together. And there is a place for all of us in this work.

As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world.  Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?

Many lament that the broader world continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda media often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.

Membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.

But those changes won’t happen overnight. Our members who were at Selma fifty years ago have seen that the world doesn’t change like that. That progress slides backward a little less often than it moves forward. Progress made today requires intentional communities of effort to continue to exist to ensure future generations have the support they need to do the work they will still have to do. We’re here today because others before us paved the way. And as Kathryn Johnson said earlier today, it now falls upon us to ensure this institution is vibrant enough to ensure our presence for future generations, future struggles, future needs and future celebrations.

So much in our culture teaches us to equate our spending power with goods rendered. In religious community, sometimes, you’re choosing to leverage that power toward another purpose. A progressive religious institutional presence is a force for sanity in our world. Every progressive religious community specializes in some areas over others. Over the twenty years of my membership in Unitarian Universalist religious communities I have seen so much good done. One congregation housed a statewide suicide hotline for LGBT folk in crisis. Getting the training and resources needed to help people at their worst hour is not something I could ever reduce to dollars and cents. Another congregation prepares over 350 meals a week to homeless and underfed neighbors while taking an active role in housing reform. Sometimes our religious homes offer a place for teens who are struggling with their sexuality, who have families who are far from supportive. It’s the kind of life-saving ministry our congregations offer, that you may never see for yourself. We can’t always share those stories because of the complexity of privacy and healing. But without our presence, some youth make dangerous choices in the face of public ridicule. For others, our ministry is that of affirming interfaith families – allowing couples with differing religions to raise their children in a space that honors both of their paths – and teaches the spiritual value of diversity.

Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming.  That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.

As we begin a new chapter in our Fellowship’s life, all of these things are the bread and butter of our work – they’re our purpose. With a new covenant that clarifies our promises to one another, we’re moving along with updating and making more concise our mission statement. Our mission is a fancy word for sorting out our purpose. It will likely entail all of this work, but be a visual reminder of our commitments as a community. Our mission will not reflect the services rendered here, but inspire the work we’ll continue to do. Like our covenant building process, you’ll have a chance to give feedback to our Committee on Ministry as it leads us in this work through the end of April.

Our canvass will go to all of these purposes. As we stretch into more financial support we will be able to staff appropriately to our needs. Our search for a new Director of Congregational Life is well under way. We expect to find an excellent professional who can help us reach out to the world around us, care for the institution we have built, and deepen our ties to one another. With the additional secretarial support our plan offers, Austen our Transitional Director of Religious Education and myself will better be able to connect with all the new families and folks attending – and better able to help all of you connect more with each other. I also look forward to having more time to help lead service and justice work in our communities. We are at an exciting time that has some amount of urgency to it. With our Sunday morning attendance up by fifty percent since Ingathering in September, now is definitely the time to take advantage of that renewed interest and commitment. With our attendance back to our past high, it’s time to help our membership return to the same levels. This congregation offers so many life-saving and life-affirming services – it falls to us to be its stewards.

Everyone has differing means here. There’s no minimum or maximum to give. I am new to this community, and new to Long Island. I’m paying off ridiculous amounts of student debt – 30% of my take-home pay goes to student debt management – and debt burdens are something that I know I am not alone on here. With all that in mind, I’ve chosen to tithe 5% of my salary to this Fellowship. I made that commitment because I believe in this congregation. I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.

The choir’s anthem this morning, 100 years is a recent pop charts hit that gives me the chills when I hear it. It sings of the life of any of us. So many things to celebrate, to commiserate, to weep over. All of these feelings will affect each of us in our lives. As the song goes, we only have 100 years to live. Very few of us will make it that long, but that’s the scope of our lives. We’re present to it, as best we can, through the good and the bad. But it’s our life to live. It evokes in me a sense of the preciousness of it; of the preciousness of relationships, of loves, of losses. I often think the song points toward making deeper connections in the time we have, of leaving a footprint for where we tread. Someone else did so before us, and look at the connections their earlier gifts have offered us. How will you live your 100 years? How will you leave this place better for your passing? Will you help each of us to ensure our healing, life-saving, life-affirming presence is here for another generation?

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Isolations of the Spirit

This sermon explores the spiritual impact of philosophical isolation, of living in a media-induced gate-community of the soul.

 

I’m starting to notice one really amazing comeback. Just about every week now, I spot a hawk flying overhead in my East Village neighborhood. I grew up in suburban NJ and remember never seeing a hawk until I had travelled a good hour from NYC. I remember when the Central Park hawks were first nesting twenty-five or so years ago. But now they’ve branched out and have found homes seemingly in every NYC park. With all the environmental losses we face these days, it’s wonderful to know that some species are figuring out how to adapt to even the most human of environs. It gives me hope that in some ways the natural world can still respond to what we continue to throw its way – even if it’s just a small indicator.


Twice in the past month, I’ve spotted a hawk rapidly flying away from a flock of pigeons in one case, and starlings in another. Hawks are natural predators of the smaller birds, but they have a hard time with 30 or more of their prey banding together and going after them. For all the mockery New Yorkers will level against the pigeon, seeing a flock of them chase down a majestic hawk will really challenge your view of what the pigeon is capable of.
Occasionally, you’ll even see different species of smaller birds team up to expel the lone hawk. This instinctual banding together is a really helpful practice in the natural world when one’s eggs and newborns are at risk. It’s a hopeful sign that even folks of different stripes can come together in the face of adversity.  It also reminds me though of a similar practice we humans are doing more and more commonly. We band together in groups of people with very like-minded philosophies, politics and viewpoints. And we then make sure we don’t let other views nest in our little part of the neighborhood.
…You know what it looks like. How many folks here regularly watch both Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly? When I still carried around a print version of the Economist, I would regularly hear folks ask me !“why would I bother reading that! That’s right-wing!” For those familiar, it’s not actually even right-wing, it’s just textbook economics. We find a media-outlet that matches our philosophy, and largely stick to it. !It’s not that we just don’t like the other side, rather, we often have a visceral reaction to it! During the presidential elections we asked our election night party to flip between CNN, NBC and Fox. We just couldn’t stay on Fox for more than five minutes at a stretch. Groans, gasps and grunts made us miss the end of almost every sentence the broadcasters uttered. And to be sure – just as the pigeons considered the risk of the hawk overhead, so are we often convinced that if we allow that viewpoint to remain too long in our hearing that it will be a threat to our future generations. Or like this morning’s story, it will at least be a threat to our peace of mind. (As an aside, we happened to be rewarded for our bravery by witnessing – live – Karl Rove’s meltdown denial of the election results.)
And in some ways, the threat is real. There are views that we do find dangerous. Philosophies that spread violence, or hate, are offensive to civilization. They go against our religious convictions regarding human dignity, equity and compassion.
For those views grounded in the diminishment of the human spirit, we do have to remain vigilant.
But for all the rest, we may be doing a disservice by so deeply isolating ourselves from differing viewpoints. And we may even be going against our religious values as well.
On the practical level, when we thoroughly excuse ourselves from engaging with differing world-views, part of us demonizes the people on the other side. Many of us have seen where this leads to in the extreme. You might have read arguments on your friends’ Facebook walls, or in more public venues like the Huffington Post or the Wall Street Journal. Someone makes an argument for some progressive issue. Then someone makes a counter argument for some conservative response. Within short order the Trolls are out and all substantive content is thrown out the window. Society diminishes and we resort to a caricature of kids in a sandbox.  For those who don’t use computers, imagine the very worst of the daytime trash-talk-shows.

Or maybe we sound like this morning’s wisdom story. We’re not where we belong, we’re clucking and baa’ing with all the rest. And all we succeed in doing is clanging noise and making a mess of our surroundings. No real interaction has occurred – or at least no mature human encounter. The thing to remember about this morning’s story, is that each side probably identifies with the overwhelmed and cramped family. We’re not likely to identify with the clucking chickens and the head-butting goats.

When we project the noisome and ridiculous onto our neighbor, we’re never going to find peace in our hearts, no matter our blessings.

With the evolution of technology we have gained so much. But in some ways, we’re losing our ability to interact responsibly with our neighbors. There’s a photo floating around Facebook that asks the question, “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?” One of the best responses is, “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”


Now there’s nothing wrong with looking at pictures of cats. My favorite little Tuxedo cat, Dewey, is well documented by my phone camera as well. But with the added layer of distance that technology grants us, there is a really strong tendency for the empty argument,
…for the easy demonization of the other,
…for slinging mud at targets that aren’t quite real.
Part of it is due to the distance. To the invisibility of the other person. In a former career, I supervised a 24/7 Information Technology help-desk. Sometimes callers would be incredibly rude, impatient and demeaning on the phone. !When I later had to visit them in person to solve the problem, they turned into the sweetest person you could meet! They often didn’t realize that it was me on the other end. Over the phone, I had little value. Face to face, they remembered how to properly treat another person.
How do we balance the mud-slinging, the differing views, and the broader challenges of dealing with crisis – and what exactly is at stake? Being able to sit at an awkward extended-family holiday dinner with civility is certainly an important life skill. But civic-minded folks may also be concerned with the weakening of real public discourse that’s not reactionary, mean-spirited, or full of hyperbole. It’s hard to move forward as a people if we can’t refrain from a social form of filibustering every time we engage with people who have differing views – if we allow ourselves to engage at all.
…Religiously, our principles ask us to find that balance.
…Our principles ask us to promote the inherent dignity of the other

  • …they call us to continue the search for truth and meaning
  • …and to do so in such a way that we allow ourselves to accept one another for who we each are

– even when we won’t agree.
Isolating ourselves from viewpoints that don’t match our own is changing the nature of public discourse. If the goal of the entertainment media is to satisfy the philosophical or political preferences of its viewer-base for private-sector financial gain, then the level of critical analysis will sadly diminish.
We enter into an echo chamber and hear only the sound of our own distracted mind.
Philosophical interdependence withers away. As we isolate ourselves, we isolate our spirits. We become more closed. We tend toward the self-righteous. We become increasingly sure that we are right. We grow less.

That’s a snap shot of society at large. But these same patterns sometimes happen in our own communities and congregations. It’s largely accurate to say that most of us may lean toward progressive social policies – particularly around civil rights and environmental concerns. But we likely don’t all have the same philosophies regarding economic matters. At the height of the Occupy movement in NYC, we clearly had a range of views on what an economically just world ought to look like. But UU circles tend toward privileging public discussions that favor the more progressive solutions – even though a substantial number of our members may not actually share those exact views. We project onto our community our views, our opinions, our sense of normal. We do all of this with the best of intentions.  When we do this we imagine that our congregations must be as isolated internally as we often isolate ourselves with our friends and our news choices. We weaken ourselves by the explicit and implicit actions that silence such discourse. In shutting out the difference, in our mocking of differing views – we become less knowledgeable of the world around us and become less capable to adapt to changing circumstances.

…We are weaker alone than together.

One type of a strength that’s found when we cross philosophical aisles is something called understanding. When we get how the other side sees the world, we can come to points of mutual gain. I was recently attending a workshop on how to transform destructive kinds of conflict that was led by Tracy Breneman. She’s faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Director of Religious Education for the UU congregation in Mt. Kisco, NY. Different conflict management styles get to this in varying ways, but one style she spoke about is the “collaborating” style. In collaboration, “emphasis is on developing a solution which meets all the important needs of both parties and does not lead to any significant disadvantages.”

It reminded me of a Bill Moyers interview with climate change communications expert Anthony Leiserowitz. Bill Moyers asked him how do we get to the two sides of politics to come together on the crisis of our environment – specifically how do we convince conservatives to take climate change seriously. To paraphrase, Mr. Leiserowitz spoke about appealing to conservative values around freedom. Essentially, ‘the freedom to live the lifestyle of a midwest farmer or rancher is literally at stake when we consider the extent of the drought that has plagued the Heartland.’ For me – that argument wouldn’t hold any weight. For me – I want to see the planet transformed because I value our role as stewards of this earth. I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t want to see any animal ever get hurt. What would convince me is not the right argument to use with a rancher. Mr. Leiserowitz’s view is more useful because he better understands another worldview than I.

To flip the example, I can think of one incredibly poorly timed event on January 19th. Various conservative groups are supporting a “Gun Appreciation day” which is attempting to send the message “Hands off my guns.” They intended it to be a challenge to President Obama’s inauguration. However, having it also coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr weekend, seems extremely out of touch with our cultural landscape considering MLK was murdered by a gunman. This lack of understanding is likely to create only further distance between the sides.


We can come to collaborative decisions based upon the needs of those with differing values. But we can only do so when we understand where others are coming from. We can’t understand where they’re coming from if we don’t listen with an open heart. If we diminish their opinions out of hand. If we never turn the station to their channel. If we only talk about the weather and baseball. (I guess only talk about baseball if you know ahead of time what team they follow…).
Some of you are probably thinking – ‘All that sounds great. In an ideal world, we all reach across the aisle and we all figure out what the other person wants and we come up with solutions to our mutual advantage. But we never do that, so this idealism isn’t practical.’ I could list examples where opposing political philosophies have come to mutual agreements to radically change how we live. The repair of the Ozone layer in the 1980s; the end to slavery in the US; Women’s suffrage; desegregation of our armed forces – or the inclusion of women – or the open inclusion of lesbians and gay men. Each of these required radical shifts in the status quo, and in some cases bloodshed. But we were able to pass through those challenges – each of which was considered idealistic for its time and, in the eyes of some, impractical.

There’s a scene in the movie “Lincoln” where the President is chastised for not having a pure abolitionist philosophy. Lincoln essentially responds, “what’s the use of knowing true north if you try to barrel through the obstacles rather than taking each into consideration, only to wind up stuck in a swamp or ditch.” The landscape of real human interaction is not accounted for in our strict ideologies, whichever side you happen to be on.
Today’s challenges are just as necessary – they are just as urgent. We heard this past week (January 10th) of another school shooting in a California school. This time the hero of the story was again a teacher.  His name is Ryan Heber and he talked the student down from continuing his attack. While public discourse, the opposing sides of the gun debate continue shouting at – or worse, threatening – one another. Considering the escalation of these public shootings, we have neither the time nor the luxury of squabbling in a very big sandbox.
Repeated surveys indicate that the majority of the membership of the NRA are in favor of basic checks on mental health when purchasing guns, or limiting the sale of assault weapons, or criminal background checks. The noise of the leadership of the NRA matches the gun lobby, and not its citizen members. Likewise, the majority of Americans are not in favor of the search and seizure of private citizens’ handguns. But if we were just to follow the sound-bytes and the headlines, one might not be able to hear the truth within the din. They read as though there were only two perspectives, and that both sides are out to get the other. … (And those two perspectives always neatly fit into pithy headlines.)


I’ve spoken about a number of challenges and tragedies we continue to face. It can feel daunting and overwhelming.
…But we can see the way through.
History repeatedly shows us that change can happen.
…And that the unbelievable hope may one day become matter of fact.

Our religious values place a demand upon us. Our principles remind us to listen with an open heart. When we begin from a place of respect, we can find a way forward. When we turn down the volume we can hear the facts – we can find the shared values. But when we isolate ourselves tightly within our philosophical gated-communities, we not only keep out other views, but we also keep ourselves trapped behind the fences of our own making. Our principles remind us that as the natural world is mutually interdependent, so are we. This is not solely a biological reality. It is also an emotional reality, and a spiritual truth. Our hearts need openness to flourish. Our minds need openness to learn. So too do our spirits need the breadth of community – in all its messiness and difference – to grow.

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