Posts Tagged Purpose
This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.
Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.
That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.
Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.
It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.
My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.
Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.
We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.
Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”
Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?
“And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.”
…Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.
I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”
This sermon was first preached on 10/5/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the writings of Martin Buber and how they influence our sense of purpose in life.
Remember our story earlier today about the two dogs going into a room full of mirrors and being greeted with what they brought in with them? When are we the dog wagging our tail, and when are we the dog growling and barking at ourselves? So often in life, how we react to the world, creates the way in which the world responds to us. Our actions create a cycle that’s sometimes hard to get out of. Now, I’m not primarily talking about matters of injustice, or violence, or hardship. That’s sometimes true too, but often the really horrible things that happen in life are out of our control. No one should carry the burden for what is random in the world. I’m not preaching the message of “The Secret;” in fact, we don’t always get what we give.
But we often see in the world what we see in ourselves. If we see in our selves cynicism, or hatred, or fear we can find the world a harsh place. If we know joy, or compassion, or forgiveness; we often find the world appears the same. When we come upon the funhouse mirror-filled rooms, we see the tails wagging or the teeth bared that we bring to it.
It’s a practical argument for self-care, self-affirmation and self-love. When we live our lives from a place of emptiness, we limit creation. As we lose a sense of value, or a sense of purpose, we enter a cycle of limiting how we can perceive meaning in the world. It’s a painful spiral, and something most, if not all of us, wrestle with from time to time.
Today marks another new year in the Jewish holy calendar. Throughout the world, Jews recognize this weekend as Yom Kippur – as a time of atonement. Last week, Starr preached about how forgiveness works between people and even within ourselves. Sometimes we also have to learn to forgive the world; forgive the universe, or chance, or maybe even God. We sometimes have to learn to let go of how we perceive the world ought to be differs from how the world is. Or maybe just how the world appears to us to be.
We often get caught in the trap of wanting things to be a certain way, then those things fall short, and we then succumb to disappointment, regret or disaffection. Remember, I’m primarily speaking about the every day, smaller things in life today, not the great injustices in the world. I’m speaking about the clutch and grab we often have over things, and preferences, and delays and achievements. The things commercials tell us we need, that they conveniently have the exact answer for – until the new model comes out of course. Then we’ll need it again. If our sense of purpose is tied to the things of the world, our spirits’ sense of satisfaction will be trapped to the temporal. That way lies only pain.
Forgiveness allows us to let go long enough not to hold the world, or ourselves to blame when the dreams of our ego, the desires of convenience, don’t win out. Those things are dross, so to hold animosity toward life when our wants, or our preferences, or those small conveniences are not met – is to lose the core of our purpose in living. And this is a daily struggle for most of us.
…I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.
The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic. Since I posted this week’s sermon topic, I’ve learned from a long time member, that Rev. Ralph Stutzman – our Fellowship’s minister from 1962 to 1980, was fond of preaching on Dr. Martin Buber. In the category of small world, Buber had probably the strongest philosophical influence on my own thinking of any religious scholar.
Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”
“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.
Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. Then encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order. They have no association with each other, but every one guarantees your association with the world.”
Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts.
We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it. Fortunately, there’s nothing to needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would due.
When I pay my bill at the diner, I can do it as a chore, or I can remember the people around me are living lives themselves; that I’m part of that whole. When I’m frustrated with how my kid is being willful in school or at home, I can focus on the chores that aren’t being done, or the stress I’m feeling over disobedience (both things that may be real problems), or I can remember that every human – kid or adult – goes through deep places of pain that extend beyond the details of any situation. The problem has to be attended to, but we don’t live by the problem. We are not defined by the details or the chores or the failure of them being accomplished. As important as all that may be to the completion of our tasks, they are not our essence, not our soul, not our being. Dealing with the specific problem doesn’t change the essence of our personhood or the inherent nature of human relationship. To focus, Buber said, “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. When we’re dealing with frustrated relationships with people that are incredibly close to us – like the case of a parent/child or child/parent argument – it helps to remember those words. The world takes a somewhat different form for everybody. We will always see a given situation from a different perspective. We’re rarely responding to the same situation with the same information or from same angle. Any disagreement – or any agreement for that matter – we can only come to an understanding about it – we don’t have the essential truth – just proximity. I mention this here, because in the most difficult of arguments we can sometimes fall into the trap of projecting onto another what we think is going on in their head. We know what their actions might mean if we were making them, and assume that’s what they mean as well. I’m not sure that’s often the case.
In that same quote, Buber is talking about the World of It. Measurements, details, processes and things. “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. I think this is also a good description though for how we talk about our encounters with the Holy. When we talk about the Holy – life, God, awe, spirit – whatever word makes the most sense to you – we often transmute the Holy into the World of It. It’s why you’ll oddly find this minister not talking too much about some of the theological questions of the Divine. It’s the old conundrum that you can talk about a thing or you can relate to it, or experience it – but it’s tough talking about something while you’re experiencing it. But the reminder that it takes a somewhat different form for everybody is really instructive. You might believe something differently because you’re seeing something else. It doesn’t mean the other person is wrong.
We’ve talked about the ethical, the pastoral and the theological. What abou the practical applications of some of Dr. Buber’s philosophy? Our Fellowship is about to make a major decision regarding the care of its grounds and finances this afternoon. We have a project from the world of It – the reconstruction of our parking lot and general improvement of our grounds, environment and how we manage water run-off. In the scope of “reasons to be a religious institute”, one could imagine this is not at the top of your list. How we manage the curbs, and the drainage, and the landscaping and the financing, are all important details that we’ll live with and through – but the details are not what we live by. We live by our relationships and our commitments. Money that was bequeathed to us by longtime beloved members is not just dollars and cents. They’re markers of life-long relationships of encounters with people, art and space that was centered around this Fellowship grounds. Parking Lots may not be spiritual, but the attended details that prevent someone from falling is how we live in this world. And the ways we care for the space around us, speak to the care we have for the memorial garden on our grounds – speak to the encounters with all that rest with us from decades past, and in our most recent months. The details will always matter – “Without [them] you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” We can not remain alive without attending to the bits that keep the world moving, but as we prepare to make one of the most important financial decisions in the past generation, let us not die into those details either. We are a Fellowship grounded in community. May we make all our decisions remembering the truth that we are here, on this earth, to bear witness to one another, to the Holy in any form it may take. And may we do so, wagging more, and barking less.
This sermon preached on 9/8/13 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington looks at our religious foundations for our call in life and how that informs how we can live into the world. It also calls for peace in a time of war; exploring the horrors that continue in Syria.
This morning’s culinary story is one of my favorite folk tales. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures – hence all the different pictures we used in the telling. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.
Sometimes in life, we want to make soup, and we don’t have all the ingredients. Playing well with others can bring out the best in what we can accomplish as a community; you might have the onions, and I just might have a plate of pressed tofu ready to add. But that’s just the surface of the story. Sometimes the thing we bring to the banquet, is the thing we’re not aware we have to offer. The traveling stranger comes into town, asks for nourishment from the community and the community says at first – “Sorry, we don’t have that here.” They say that at a time when they clearly do have it to share. I don’t think folks are being greedy or miserly; I think they just don’t realize what they have. And we have a lot, together.
What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation? Sometimes it’s a thing that you can do to help. For those looking for small ways to contribute, Sue McGovern will be helping leaders connect with people looking to help with smaller projects. The things that need to be done, but don’t require huge commitments. Sometimes though, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves.
I want to focus more on that latter type of gift we all can share. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call?
I was reading an article the other day that was written with the intention of helping 20-somethings figure out what were the key things they should do before they turn 30. It had some bits of wisdom, and some bits of trite as well. One point that stuck out was more about life purpose. Basically – what stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it? The second half of that question is probably impossible to answer. If something brings us joy – why wouldn’t we be following it? And yet, we often don’t. But the initial question – what stirs our heart – is all too often all too difficult to answer in our contemporary age.
Folk under 45 were raised by Sesame Street. A true gift to society in many ways and yet it trained us to be engaged with something 30 seconds at a time. Folk over 50 were raised with role models who tended to take one job at an early age, and followed the career for most their lives. Stability is a wonderful thing, but it sets a pattern that encourages us not to roll the dice and follow our bliss. These are generalities for sure – and the people in between – in their late 40’s – may reflect either spectrum depending on a thousand different factors. But in both cases, the emphasis tends away from reflecting on our sustained purpose. The next best thing, or the eternal commitment, distract us from our call; if we let them.
How do you know what your call is? For the bigger picture and how you live in the world outside of here, I’d suggest to find where your heart meets the world’s needs. The classic advice, right? But how does that connect with the everyday, or how you engage in this community? Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 30 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you let yourself find it?
A thousand questions, and no clear answer, right? But there can be some clear answers in between. Our leadership is working on improving how we integrate newcomers or welcome the stranger asking for a bowl of soup that we know we have even if we may sometimes forget how to give it. And on the flip side, we sometimes need to own for ourselves what we commit to or haven’t really committed to in community. If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged?
There are so many reasons, and so many needs; it can be completely overwhelming. The world of production and consumerism clamors for our attention. The world of obligations and responsibilities fill our calendars. And the world of beauty, equity, and compassion wait quietly behind all the noise. It is always there – calling us. We can’t do it all, but we can be intentional about what hunger we do choose to nourish; and in community we can encounter so much more than alone. We can feed more hunger, here, when we know where the empty places are. We must be open to new ways. Mindful of where we feel the holes in our lives; knowing that at the core of life is a beauty that is always present, always ready to be seen.
We commissioned our teachers this morning for the ministry they offer our community. It’s one type of call that many of us hear – either within these walls, or for our professional teachers outside in our schools systems. Each of these teachers will commit to learning along with our children twice a month for the entirety of the religious education year. They will help raise our children and youth with progressive values; with compassion, a love for equity, and a yearning for justice in our world. They will strive to show our children that we are indeed a Fellowship of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands.
But each of us carries this burden in a way at times as well. Every word we share within earshot; how we engage with one another over coffee; how we prioritize and live out our values. We can raise our children to love mercy, but if we act in contrast to those values outside the classroom or congregation, we teach a confusing message. Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.
Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals. As a democratic nation ostensibly committed to world fellowship, I believe implicitly that we should strive relentlessly for peace. This congregation also dedicated itself as a peace site – building a permanent marker on our front viewed by all who enter. I fear that our nation is discarding its morals again this week in our likely response to Syria and Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Our likely actions value a Geneva Protocol around chemical weapons over the imminent risk inherent to a military strike for civilians.
A timeline might be helpful here to understand my thinking. In April 2011, we first heard that the Syrian army was firing upon civilian protestors. In September of 2012, cluster bombs were reported to be dropped on rebel-held towns causing incredible civilian causalities. In March of 2013 (six months ago), the UN concluded that fuel-air bombs were dropped on a town. By July of 2013 the death toll reached 100,000 people. This week in September we hear that chemical weapons were used. Now the White House is calling us to act, so that dictators know there will be repercussions for the use of chemical weapons.
I get it. I see that a world that ignores the use of chemical weapons is a world that will see massive civilian casualties in war time. That if we ignore this, the chance of chemical weapons getting in the hands of terrorists is a real threat. However, because of the advancement of military weapons, we already see that horror in our daily experience. 100,000 dead in Syria already. In our current and recent wars in the middle-east, we saw over another 100,000 civilians dead through our actions. That is the nature of modern warfare. Death is not reserved for the soldier, but the children and families. The old, the young, the unlucky.
The White House has indicated that these potential military strikes won’t change the direction of the civil war. That toppling Assad’s secular dictatorship would only cause more problems down the road knowing that with all the ethnic and religious subgroups vying for power in the rebellion, it’s impossible to know what will come next or how many decades it would take. This is just to send a message that chemical warfare is a horror.
I maintain that warfare is already that horrible. If 100,000 civilians have already died, we’re already in an age where we can’t walk into war without knowing it will bleed our humanity that much. I don’t see how violence – that expressly has no intent to stop violence, topple a regime, or bring people to safety – does anything more than beget further violence. We would not be committing to any of those goals. We would only be sending a short-term message that will have limited lasting effect – except of course for the permanent loss of life our military strikes would cause – both military deaths and if history is any indication – civilian deaths as well.
Some of the answers here are not fixes in the short-term – (not that a military strike, by the President’s own indication, would fix the situation anyway.) The longer term fixes involve applying pressure and diplomacy in many places. We can only build peace if our values are grounded in peace. Our national leadership does not appear to be grounded in the value of peace.
Our steps are many. The UN veto process for life-time members of the security council is as broken as our nation’s system of filibustering. Since that perpetuates inaction that allows murders to continue, we start by changing that. Economic pressure can be more lasting than violence. Syria is heavily sanctioned already, but Assad’s assets have yet to be frozen. As a nation we can stop engaging in arms sales. We could track chemical sales of our allies and put pressure for those sales to stop. We need to change our perception of what acceptable violence is. We can’t even manage a reasonable national gun control policy when the overwhelming majority of citizens think we should restrict gun use more. Or as the noted public ethicist, Stephen Colbert, pithily says, “”The United States has no choice but to attack Syria because Dictator Bashar al-Assad is killing his own people with chemical weapons. Before he was just killing them with bullets. But, if America cared about shooting people, we’d be invading Chicago.” I fear we have allowed ourselves to be so desensitized that we’ve lost perspective; we’ve lost our grounding.
Problems of global crisis require broader solutions other than at the end of a missile. They also require us to root our changes in our convictions and to be honest with ourselves what our convictions are. We could begin funding less military and more development. Or as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “ A nation that year after year continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” We could change our tax code that encourage the accumulation of wealth for the very few. In 2007, 1% of our US population controlled 35% of our wealth. These are individuals that earn over $950,000 per year. In 2013, CNBC reported that the top 1% of the global population controls 40% of the global wealth. Extreme poverty encourages strife. If you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose. It is possible to draw these lines. Everything does connect. It is never only one thing. And lastly, we could prioritize peace-based education practices globally now so generational shift begins. I invite you to write your senators and representative like I have and ask them to vote against a military strike in Syria. We do not need to be a nation in a perpetual state of war. We do not need to be a nation that perpetually sees the military solution as our primary tool in the toolbox. We do not need to be a nation that fails to engage in long-term solutions, but perpetually chooses long-term military engagements.
All of these changes will take time and conviction. If we’re not grounded in our values, if we’re not called at our core to strive toward peace, we will not know peace. There is no quick fix. There is no magic missile that will nurture peace.
This is what religious community is about. There is no quick fix for the problems of our world and all too often there is no quick fix for the serious challenges in our own personal lives. When we err on the side of expediency, some movement may happen in the direction we hope, but often the underlying problems will remain. Religious community asks us to – Discern our values – Find our purpose – And then learn to live our lives from that call. In some ways it’s easy, and in some ways it’s the lesson of a lifetime. I invite you all to join together in that search, and that most spiritual practice.
I invite you now to rise in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn, #318, We Would Be One
 Stone Soup
We gather at the end of one week,
And the beginning of a new.
Let us be glad for the warmth of the hour,
The friendships along the way,
And the depth of purpose we may come to know together.
Put aside your stresses, and your burdens,
Allow your hearts to lighten before the songs and the silence.
Come, let us worship!
#33 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn – Based on the sermon, “The Still Point” preached by Rev. Jude Geiger at First UU on 12/30/12. This session explores how we ground our sense of gratitude and our work for justice, in our hearts. The sermon it’s based upon is found here: https://revwho.com/2013/01/02/sermon-the-still-point/
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) #419 in Singing the Living Tradition attributed to Kalidasa
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: An Excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” — “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
An excerpt/edit from the sermon:
“And it’s those moments between the moments (as T.S. Eliot writes in another section of the same epic poem) that we can return to for solace, for energy, or inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. Those two words may seem like the same thing, but I believe there’s a difference. Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to goto work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal. The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal – stopping so that we can start once more – with fresh purpose and meaning. Gratitude enables us to meaningfully act.”
Discussion Questions: Where do you find places of renewal in your life? How do you allow your heart to replenish itself, and not just your body? Do you agree that gratitude enables us to meaningfully act? If so why. If not, which emotion would you base your purpose and actions upon?
Closing: (please read aloud ) #688 by Nancy Wood in Singing the Living Tradition
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn, on June 3rd, 2012.
As our year of formal religious education comes to a close, today our Junior Youth group celebrates having spent a year of reflection in the program, “Our Whole Lives” otherwise known as OWL. It’s 27 weekly hour long sessions on sexuality, relationships, gender identity, sex education, peer pressure, plain-old growing up and how our religious values tie into their ethical formation. The media and politics are wrestling with how we should be teaching these issues to our teens in our public schools. There’s a debate in our country right now whether youth should be allowed to receive scientifically accurate information. Yes – in fact the law still does not require sex/health education to even be scientifically accurate. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education.
Part of the program is about growing up. It’s about coming to terms with moving away from childhood into our teen years. We heard a lot about that this morning from our youth’s reflections. (How great was that!) As we were planning our worship together, they chose to focus on the themes of past, present and future; knowing that half of our group will be entering High School this Fall. It’s a major time of change for our Junior Youth group.
When I was entering High School, or finishing my first year of Middle School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.
Is this different for folks here? We heard from our Junior Youth already this morning. By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes that our youth reflections spoke about? I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.
I want to offer some advice to our graduating class of OWL 2012. As you continue to grow and mature – a process that hopefully doesn’t end for at least another 60 years for you all – try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.
First, the personal story. My partner and I were strolling through the Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself (there’s probably a music video of that image rolling around somewhere – and if you find it, please do share it on my Facebook wall) or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.
It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.
Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax (or to my fellow Jerseyeans – Down the Shore?) Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still.
I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a colleague of mine in NJ, the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, UU minister in Paramus. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that Matt was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)
(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)
So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose.
We gather this morning
as a community of hope,
as a place of peace,
and a home of possibility.
May our spirits be lifted,
our minds be opened,
and our hearts be outward-reaching.
In the life of a congregation,
each of us give it meaning,
give it life, give it purpose.
May we too find meaning,
life and purpose
in our freely giving.