Posts Tagged religion

Broken Heart

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/19/17 and looks at the unsatisfying quest for perfection.

Some years ago, I maintained a regular practice of Zen Meditation, led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. The 6am practice reminded me, in crystal clear detail, that I still wasn’t a morning person. We often think of meditation as a quiet discipline, a solitary discipline or at least a slow-moving spiritual practice. As true as that is most of the time, it wasn’t true on Thursday mornings. The elderly Buddhist sister would lead us, in what she called “bowing meditation,” in English. It’s sort of the spiritual equivalent of doing lunges at the Gym with your trainer.

108 full body prostrations – You go from standing up straight to having your forehead touch the ground in front of you, and back again to standing up and straight, in under maybe about 6 seconds. The spiritually enlightened 30 year-old I was at the time, I wanted to do it “right.” I’m not entirely sure why, but for me at the time, “right” meant not using my hands to get down or to get back up. I kept them in the prayer pose and relied on my legs and core to get down and get back up again. (I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring wrist weights and make it a full-on gym routine….)

Needless to say, by noon on bowing-meditation day, not only was I my least-chipper self for forcing myself to pretend I was a morning person, but I also couldn’t safely manage stairs without grimacing from the pain in my upper legs. But at least I did the meditation…right. Another side effect was that as people passed me throughout the day, conversations invariably gravitated toward talking about why I was in so much pain. I’d just have to go into all the details of what happened, and why, and how it was still affecting me hours (and sometimes days) later… spirituality done “right.”

How often do we get so worked up about being perfect, that we miss the point of what we’re doing? Maybe it takes us so far afield from our purpose that it actually has the opposite effect we intended. Meditation is not about bringing attention to our selves, or our egos; meditation is not about making the story about me. The quest for the perfect is full of many disappointments, and in some ways, it makes things so much harder – it can break our hearts.

I’m reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.” Can we allow our spirits to honor the beauty that shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them? Can we strive a little less for perfect, and be a little more present to our dearest companions in this frayed and living world?

I’ve begun to say more and more often that ministry is a team sport. A few weeks ago in response to the refugee and immigrant crisis, a whole team of Fellowshippers helped to organize our response to the executive order that turned out to be illegal, while other leaders moved forward in learning more about the Sanctuary movement that is expanding in our nation, and I’m having conversations with our Interfaith clergy group over what collaborations we can persue . Meanwhile, we continue to be the cold weather shelter for migrant men who have limited housing options on Long Island. The current tension between striving for a more equitable respect for immigrants and refugees with the very real-world concern about the flurry of ICE raids on immigrant communities – across the country but also right here in Brooklyn, Queens and our own Long Island, makes us sometimes move at what might feel to some like a glacial pace, as we hold in our hearts the risks associated with our shelter guests. How do we act while making sure we honor the well-being of the people we are already helping? Our shelter partners with 14 other houses of worship, and a non-political social service agency – we have to carefully think through all our steps to hold all this in tension. ….AND we just heard on Saturday of 8 Sudanese refugees who fled the US seeking refuge in Canada[1] across our northern border. We are now a nation where innocent people flee from the US, seeking refuge amongst our allies. All of our responses, our management, our logistics, takes dozens of Fellowshippers to make happen in our corner of the world. Not always seen by all, nonetheless the broader ministry of our congregation continues on.

At the same time, some members of our pastoral care team, and our social justice team, and myself are taking turns attending workshops and meetings of LI-CAN, a Long Island congregationally-based community organizing group that’s looking at our local opioid epidemic, gun safety issues, as well as how immigrants are perceived here on Long Island. And in my last sermon I also mentioned the on-going collaborations several of our leaders are supporting with local farm workers, with the pressing needs for Transgender folk, and even the leadership some of our members give toward the broader work of the Family Resources League which helps people in crisis in our community.

Nothing is all encompassing, nothing is perfect, but our congregation is connected and doing excellent ministry. I could stand here for ten more minutes just listing the ways that our community is involved in direct service, social justice, charity or solidarity work – locally, state-wide and yes, even globally. As one non-UU friend of mine recently said to me, UU’s punch above our weight (to use a sports metaphor.) But I could also spend the next ten minutes sharing the ways in which we are falling short; there are times where that’s helpful, and there’s times when that’s just spiritually exhausting.  If we take a step back – we see a world where a million things are falling apart at once. Of course, we’re not doing enough. No one institution could ever do enough to fix all this. We just need to strive to do the things we do, well. What we choose to focus in on – always and only the good, or always and only the negative – is telling, and sometimes self-fulfilling – and too often self-defeating. Who we choose to say we are, impacts our sense of identity, and ultimately what we can accomplish and who we become.

If ministry is a team sport, there’s a way in which spirituality is a communal endeavor. Our seventh principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We often talk about that principle in terms of the environment, but it also reflects the religious truth that we are all connected. Our humanity is found in the sum of all of us. That practice of bowing meditation I spoke of earlier, was a communal practice. Over time, there’s a palpable sense that we feel in meditation that occurs in communal presence that’s different than solo practice. Much like how when we gather for justice work, our shared voices magnify the impact, when we gather in silent meditation, the silence takes on a deeper aspect.

And as frustrating as it may be to individually seek perfection, communal expectations can only be magnified.  As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. When we project onto our congregation the need to be perfect in all ways – for things to be just right – we make it harder to do the things we are here to do. We strain, and ache, and demoralize. Then like the bowing meditation enthusiast who seeks to turn it into a gym routine, we walk through our days and years focusing on how our communal shortcomings only point toward how “me, myself and I” have been wronged or disappointed. The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our egos, despite our best intentions. Religion calls us back from that unsatisfying habit.

We learned about this as kids. Remember the story of Goldilocks? She goes out into the forest and breaks into some stranger’s home. She then eats their food, criticizing that some of the porridge is too hot, some is too cold, and then after finding the porridge that suits her tastes, she eats it. Goldilocks repeats this with the furniture; finally breaking someone’s chair in the process. Then she goes onto judge the beds too firm, too soft, and finally “just right.” When her neighbors finally get home, they walk through their own home, the scene of the break-in, until they find the culprit still sleeping in their kid’s bed. (Why do we tell this story to children?!) It ends with, “Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears.  She screamed, “Help!”  And she jumped up and ran out of the room.  Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest.  And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”

The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our individual egos, despite our best intentions – even in community. When we perpetually strive for “just right”, when we chase “perfect” into the woods, we sometimes break things, and break into places, along the way. In congregational life, it’s the sort of “stay in your lane” push and pull of committee work. We all have issues and concerns we feel deeply, and may also be worthy and valuable and needed, and we can’t prioritize everything to be #1. Sometimes in community, we can get into disagreements or even arguments over, equally worthy matters. Doing something well, but not “just right,” becomes cause for a sense of failure. Sometimes, we’re trying to determine if someone else’s porridge is too hot or too cold for me, and sometimes we break their furniture in the process. When we get lost in judging the people around us, far too often it ends with one of us running away into the woods screaming “Help!” for what might be something that was caused by our own bad behavior. We miss the point of the spiritual communal dream – not to judge each individual action, but to see the broader picture and build the beloved community piece-by-piece, mistake-by-mistake, hope-by-hope. It’s like the Buddhist Sand Mandalas we heard about in our Wondering this morning. The goal isn’t to hold onto a perfect bit of art, but to come together to create something that wasn’t there before, knowing full well that all things change.

I say all this, because I don’t want to see our committed leaders – all also volunteers – burn out. And if you help in any of the thousand things our Fellowship does to help our corner of the world, then I’m speaking to you right now about burn-out. And if you’re about to start helping in the thousand things, remember this as you begin your life-saving work. There is so much the world needs of us, and we can not do it all. We have to pick and choose. But even if we could do it all – if we had super-human powers for social justice – we would still not all agree on the right way to do every one of the thousand things – even the things we each 100% agree needed to be done. Some would find their porridge to be too hot, or too cold; some would ask why did we go through those particular woods to access the porridge, while others would wonder why we’re eating someone else’s porridge in the first place. We’re a community of roughly 250 adults and roughly 75 children and youth. When was the last time everyone agreed on something at your own dinner table, let alone the last family reunion? But we can project onto our much larger community unrealistic expectations of walking lock step with one another, and that only leads to disappointment – and heartbreak.

As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. As we come to the close of our service, let us recall the words that we began with this morning from the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.” He was speaking of love, but the message is as true when we seek perfection. Spiritual community asks us to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built. When we’re more focused on the barriers others have built, or when we find ourselves judging those around us without owning our own parts, religious community calls us back. As Annie Dillard said, “I am frayed and nibbled… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits… but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…”.

[1] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-canada-refugees-idUSKBN15W2GN

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Sermon: Faith, Belief and Unrest

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/20/16 looking at the differences between faith and belief. We also explore the tension between character and values, and how they struggle with broader ideologies in light of a nation with increasing frequencies of hate crimes.

Four years ago, my husband and I were entertaining out of town guests. They wanted to experience the NYC night life, so we took them to one of the then newer dance clubs in Hell’s Kitchen.I used to go out dancing pretty regularly in my twenties, but as the economy changed and the clubs died out, I slowly got out of the habit. This was probably the first time I had gone to a major dance club in over ten years. We got there and I simply couldn’t handle it. The sound, the vibrations, the smoke were all bad enough, though manageable. The twenty foot tall wall of LEDs was too much for me to handle. I started feeling like the beginnings of a seizure were happening – seriously. I left quickly and got into a cab.

On the car ride home, the cabbie was the friendly, talkative type. Now there are three places in the world where I try very hard not to reveal my vocation – bars, airplanes and yes, taxis. Despite my best efforts at dodging, he quickly zeroed in on what I do for a living. Ministry. The next 20 minutes were filled with conversation around theology, meaning, values, interfaith dialogue and my views on homosexuality, women’s rights, immigration, etc. Remember, I’m still feeling all sorts of wonky from the fading sensations induced by flashing lights and vivid screens. But I do my best. The driver was raised Catholic; came across as a progressive person of faith who felt a bit distant to organized religion, but remained a Christian.

My husband left the club shortly after me to make sure I was doing ok. He got into a cab and met a driver who was the talkative type. The cabbie also quickly zeroed in on Brian’s religious tradition – Pagan. They had a similar conversation around beliefs, practices and religious community. This driver turned out to be a practicing Pagan. When the taxi driver dropped him off, he said to Brian, “Funny, I just dropped a minister off at this same apartment a little while ago who came out of the same night club.”

It amazes me that the cabbie was Christian-sounding to me, and Pagan to Brian. The New York cynic in me wonders if part of that was playing to the tip. But there’s another side to it as well. The driver’s religious upbringing was still a large part of his values. Particular beliefs aside, he maintained the Christian sense of compassion to strangers, helping those in need, the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount. All of that came up explicitly or implicitly in our conversation. (We were both fast talkers.) And he held another set of beliefs as well. Does he get to do that and still call himself any particular religious tradition?

Yes. Yes, he does. There’s a difference between the words faith and belief. I feel this difference is both the source of unrest in our world, and the potential for healing. When values become secondary to belief, we walk dangerous ground; ideology then trumps character. Our American roots in 18th and 19th century Unitarianism, saw a direct connection between the state of our soul and the nature of our character. For preachers like Theodore Channing, character was a spiritual value; but character is based not on belief, but on action, values and commitments – living from a moral bedrock. Although coming from different places, we could argue what that bedrock should look like, but truth and facts seemed then to weigh more heavily than they appear to do these last 2 years with the expansion of social media, and the reduction of trust in journalism and Cable News. In a recent survey, only 32% of Americans trust the media these days.

Political gridlock in the House and the Senate, which ultimately impacted the future of the Presidency. Our recent (but frequent) history of voting pledges being demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation – we saw this mostly strongly in the rise of the Tea Party; although campaign promises seem to now be able to be dropped at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen; maybe campaign loyalty to established figures matters less than the cult of personality or the cult of simply feeling wronged. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion, or free-will, or non-violence. Ideology, or party unity, seems to trump common values to the point where folks can’t even see that they are doing that in the slightest.

Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve tended to conflate the two in the United States. For example, “You’re only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs.” But that’s a modern sense of religious life. It’s also a Western sense of religious life. I will also suggest, it’s not in line with central Christian teachings. And sorting through this difference may become increasingly more important for our democracy as our nation becomes more and more polarized over beliefs – we need to find our way back to our central values.

How has faith shifted to it’s modern understanding? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren’t trying to make the people believe that God existed, they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. …Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.

The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a “dual-belonging.” They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It’s both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary, or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.

From a Christian perspective, and this is the most radical thing I’m going to say today (I think), linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith was not originally a core Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…..” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[1] In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.

I believe the connection we often make between the use of the word faith and the use of the world belief effects how we engage with religious life. If religion is about hollow views we no longer espouse then we’re less likely to allow our hearts to stir before the sublime. Our heads take over, and we get trapped up here (pointing to my head) rather than responding from a place of warmth (hand over heart.) We’re reading a few words ahead in our hymns making sure that whatever we’re saying matches exactly our opinions, rather than being present for the connection of the spiritual communal act.

This cuts both ways. If one’s faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one’s religious life. Such an affront to the mind’s assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn’t take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies. And we are sadly and tragically seeing that expand rapidly, even in the past week since the election. Hate crimes are on the rise. Swastikas and the word “Trump” are being graffitied in tandem on progressive church walls, and in playgrounds in Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods. When right belief gets confused with right ideology and then right ideology gets connected with race, sexuality or religion, we have a real threat to our democracy and our basic American identity.

In Unitarian Universalism, we’re asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It’s an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to act with grace – ourselves. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief. Belief keeps us from living our faith – or rather I should say that strict adherence to our beliefs have a cost to them. What’s foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious.

I was talking with a former student minister of mine, now a UU clergy colleague, the Rev. Beth Dana. This Sunday last year, I had the privilege of offering the prayer of ordination and the laying on hands for her service of ordination in Dallas, Texas. She mentioned (with amazement) how many folks have said to her that they used to feel like they needed to check their brains at the door when they went to a church, and with UU they didn’t need to check their brains any longer. Beth is a life-long UU, so she never had the experience of a religious tradition that didn’t match with her intellectual understanding of the world. I think it’s a common experience for converts though. It can be a very freeing experience to finally find a religious home that allows for science and reason in its core values. (Starr Austin and I are leading a 7 part class on Adult Coming of Age, a sort of Credo Workshop on Second Sundays. Check in with her if you’d like to sign up, and you’ll have the refreshing chance to get support while working through your own beliefs in light of our UU tradition.)

The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a central pillar to our 7 principles. That being said – I want to challenge you by saying, “Check your brain at the door.” (W’oh, we might have just had our first UU heresy spoken from this pulpit.)… “Check your brain at the door.” I don’t mean stop being reasonable, or begin accepting of what anyone tells you as truth. I mean lets put a check on our brains – they’re in charge most of the time anyway. Let’s not give them a free ticket to running all aspects of our lives. Living in Long Island, there’s a high likelihood that you’re stressed by the cost of your rent or mortgage, or the weight of your student debt, or the credit card collectors calling, or a long stretch of unemployment, or the next regional test to make sure you get into the school you want to get into (or the school your kids want to get into), or your incredible work schedule, or the demands of your vocation. Just saying all these out loud raises my own anxiety level. These are all rational problems that require rational solutions to them. The technical steps we take to addressing them are matters for the brain.

When you walk through this threshold, I want to ask you to let another part of yourself take the reigns. We often think of this in terms of the heart. I would go a step further, let your soul come to the forefront. Let your guard down a little. Let go of your assumptions around the worst of religious life, and leave space for the best to grow here. I don’t mean to start buying whatever foolish thing someone says, but rather, allow who you are to shine without the running internal monologue categorizing everything. We have a million things that need our attention and care in the wider world; and you probably come here to work toward that as well. Ease down the trappings of the head, and let your heart give more guidance. Let values of love, and care override hate and indifference. Let character lead away from ideology. May relationships overcome intellectual isolations.

Robert Frost once said that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Good rational boundaries are helpful. But living perched on that fence all the time also makes it hard to go play in your yard. We might not have fundamentalism of the right in our congregation, but we sometimes have fundamentalism of the left. Take a step back from your beliefs, and search for the openness of the yard. That openness is what religion is about. Openness is what faith is really about.

And as, maybe we travel to see family for the holidays, or they travel to see us; let us remember this openness over difficult meals. Not an openness to empty unity in the face of difference of opinion, but an openness to get off our fences, or the need for fences in the first place. An openness to finding our shared values that build up our national character. For a healthy unity comes in values, not ideology. Matthew 25, which we briefly quoted in our sermon last Sunday, and I referenced at length today, reminds us what our central values are in caring for those in need (the hungry, and naked, and homeless, and imprisoned, and thirsty.) If you hear an ideology that calls for unity that denies this central value of the teachings of Jesus, it’s a false ideology and give it no room in your heart. Give it no room. Unity at the expense of our neighbor, is no unity, it’s the old lie of power and oppression dressed up in pretty words that ring hollow, and offer nothing but brokenness.

[1] Matthew 25:32-46

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Chalice Light: Make Sacred This Hour

We gather once more around our sacred fire, much like the generations have since the dawn of humanity, to share story and song. We make holy this place through our commitment to gather. From the light we carry in our hearts, we kindle this flame as a beacon of liberal religious faith.

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CPR for the Soul

This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, on Sunday, August 4th. It looks at how we can stay grounded during times of transition. You can view the video version of it here.

 

Last March I was staying in a retreat center as part of a two and a half day long workshop I was co-leading. We were teaching about UU Identity to religious educators and ministers. The poem we just heard by Neil Gaiman reminds me a little bit of one of those days. It was about five to noon and I was sitting in my bedroom, wondering if Huntington was going to call, and offer me the candidacy for your next minister. Giants could have feefofummed across my window and I’m not sure I would have noticed.

We all have that happen to us so often in our lives. We’re waiting for the job offer that never seems to come. Or college acceptance letters seem to travel at the speed of snails. Or we’re grappling with the possibility of having to accept that a serious illness may have just entered our family. Everything else seems to go out of  focus and we fixate on the thing that will validate us, or show us the way forward, or redefine all our future days. We’re waiting for the map to unfold and make clear where our path will take us.

But sometimes, it’s much less serious. Sometimes we get distracted by triviality, or get sucked into another person’s opinion of us, or define our day by a thousand small things. In a very real way, a million magical things happen every moment we are here to see them – whether we take note or not. So long as we are breathing, the seemingly fantastical is right before us. Our kid’s laughter. The love of a partner. The life that teems all around us. Breath itself – a completely miraculous gift we only notice when it’s hard to find. When you hear me speak of “reverence” in my sermons – it’s all of these things that I point to. It’s the feeling of another sun rising – through no fault of our own, and it’s the feeling many of us experience toward God. It’s one aim of religion to help us to come to a place where we can appreciate that subtle awareness – without getting too caught up in defining it.

In many ways, that’s the core of the story we heard this morning about the awakening of the Buddha. There will always be a thousand distractions, some small, some serious – but how we connect with a sense of reverence in our daily living will determine the depth of our life. It’s not just a witticism for the spiritually enlightened. It’s practical advice for daily living.

I’ve heard from many of you – prior to candidating week in April, and since then – that in many ways our Fellowship is exhausted. We’ve gone through so many transitions…. I’m your third minister in two years…. Your previous called minister ended his time with you dealing with health concerns. Your previous religious educator ended her time with you caring for her husband during his terminal illness. Many members had to step up to respond in loving and supportive ways. Some of you may have felt like you were all of sudden employees of the Fellowship to ensure that things continued to work. Thank you for that. Thank you for doing what you felt needed to be done. Thank you for caring for your staff as best as you were able. And some of you are likely completely wiped from the effort. For some of us, we may feel soul weary. That CPR for our spirits wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

The practical advice for daily living is that in times of change, or stress, or extra effort, we must be extra diligent to find room in our hearts for reverence. Or we will burn out and what we sought to nurture, or protect, will become a burden we begin to wish we could just drop. And soon we may just drop it. We can avoid this by developing spiritual practices that draw us to experience a sense of gratitude in our lives. What might feel like a daily dose of CPR at first, can transform into a healthy regimen. As a side note — The graphic that Jennifer S. posted to our online calendar for this sermon’s topic had basic instructions for CPR. It ended with the advice: “Don’t hesitate. You can’t do harm.” For the meditators amongst us the advice would sound like – “Hurry up! … Sit!”

In the months to come, we will focus on growing more opportunities for the discipline of spiritual practices. I know that we already have groups that meet for meditation and yoga throughout the week. And our religious education program is right now attending a yoga class. Historically, there were also circles that met that I believe were called small group ministries. We will be growing more such circles after September where a group of 6-10 people can come together monthly to reflect on the content of our services – to share, to go deeper, to be nurtured in community. I will be crafting each of the monthly sessions in response to the sermons in the month and in response to what’s going on in the world around us. More information will come out later this month. If you’re interested and have experience facilitating such reflection groups, please do call or email me soon. We will need several folks to help make this a reality. Also, starting in late September, I will be co-leading a monthly Spirit in Practice workshop after coffee hour looking at a different spiritual practice each month.

As I preached about covenant in April, I will be inviting our committees and task forces to begin their work this year with building covenants together. The practice of living with respect to our relationships and our commitments is also a discipline that is not always easy, but central to our faith.

We’re experimenting this month with including silent candle lighting during our service so that we can come more together in ritual. I hope to continue to include our children and youth in our time of meditation and prayer. As a religious community, centered in shared spiritual practices, it is vital that we raise our children to appreciate these practices as well. Or they will not be here when they are too old for children’s religious education. Our youth may not even stay through High School. It’s also crucial, that we share our sacred practices with all ages. Because as a community – we are Fellowship of all ages – our practices should reflect our identity and our values.

You will often note that with all of our spiritual practices, I will often use different ways of talking about the same things. This morning alone, I’ve already said prayer, meditation, reverence, and gratitude. For some of us, this is a given. For others it can be a challenge. Openness in times of change can be a discipline all in itself. I am forever less concerned in the details of creed as I am in the experience of a meaningful practice. Or as Nina shared in her moment of witness this morning – we’re not searching for the truth, there are many truths. I hope that we can each be renewed by our Sunday services – each in our own way. That times of silence can give us the breather we need, while times of movement and ritual can energize. Where one thing may not speak to us, may we learn to appreciate how it very well may be speaking to the person who is sitting right next to us.

Robert Latham[1], an author and a UU minister, talks about this in a slightly different way. He suggests that the old trinity of Unitarian thought – that we’re grounded in Freedom, Reason and Tolerance – is probably not the best matrix to be relying on. To put it briefly — saying we’re “free” implies anyone who hasn’t joined our faith isn’t themselves free. It’s not a statement that’s very generous of spirit to other traditions. Where reason will always be important to us, it only touches upon one half of our mind (or maybe less depending on how important you rate virtues such as compassion and empathy.) And tolerance — try to think of the last time you said out loud — “!I am so grateful that you tolerate me!” and meant it! No one likes being tolerated. At best it’s the baby step toward living with respect for the world around us.

Rev. Latham asks us to measure our faith by another standard. He suggests: Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. I’ve talked at length about the first and the third already. Whereas Austen went into more detail about mindfulness in our story this morning of the Buddha. Mindfulness is a general awareness of what is going on before us blended with our more intuitive core. This triad is a spiritual practice in itself. It can directly help us in times of stress and change – whether the matter is frivolous or life-altering.

A practice of openness can save us from some arguments with friends, fellow congregants or (maybe on a good day) our families. It’s hard to assume good intentions with all the world. It’s hard to accept that there might be another way of seeing something when our feelings have been hurt, or we’ve been asked to change some long standing practice. But in religious community – at least in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – we are called to be open. We don’t necessarily need to change our minds, but our faith demands of us that we don’t come to the table with our minds made up. And that we do so knowing that we’re in there in relation to the people around us.

The practice of mindfulness asks us not to do a thousand things at once. For some of us – not doing a thousand things at once – is a really hard thing… not to do. It also involves allowing our reason to dance with our heart. When we get lost in our emotions to the point where we can’t see the road before us; or we endlessly fidget with all the options ahead of us, mindfulness calls us back to a place of centeredness. We can appreciate the feelings and the challenges without losing our place in this world. We already have a place in this world. The struggles and the challenges before us do not define our value. We are already of value.

A practice of reverence may be the most counter-cultural act we can ever make in our consumer-driven world. Messages, media, public pressure and finances all urge us to gain the next thing; to desire what we can’t have over the gifts before us; to be consumers in our world rather than be citizens. Reverence informs us that all this is fleeting, that the quest for the shiny new toy is the least way to experience our lives. Or in the words of my mentor, Rev. Forrest Church we ought to “want what we have.” Reverence teaches us to value what is always before us.

All of this is more than a philosophy to live by. It is a discipline. I can really relate to the feelings of exhaustion or trepidation the Fellowship has struggled with during all this transition and challenge. I will share with you a similar story on a smaller scale. I call it “What I Did With My Summer.” I started a new job, moved out of my city where I lived for the last 10 years, got engaged (feel free to clap and applaud now) and bought a new home. In some ways it’s all celebratory. In other ways it was the most rigorous endurance run Brian and I have ever experienced. The level of absurdity involved in trying to move out of home, purchase another home from a seller who themselves are trying to buy a place to live from another person who’s trying to sell and buy at the same time — and the M.C. Escher chain of commerce continues on and on — is incredible. We can focus on our stuff being in a pod in front of the home we own but can’t enter while we’re staying in a hotel room for 10 days, or we can appreciate that life is still pretty amazing. That we’re employed, getting married, and have the ability to keep a roof over our heads. Which narrative we choose will define our day.

I stay centered through this (well mostly centered) because of my spiritual disciplines. I try to stay open to the ebb and flow of crazy in my day knowing that there’s always a story hidden behind every challenge. I seek to remain mindful that this and that will sometime pass. And I seek ways to appreciate the beauty in our world. For the past 16 years I’ve honored a daily commitment to a walking meditation. It is the absolute rarest day where I don’t walk for at least 3 miles. The practice calms and centers me along with reminding me that my soul is not defined by the work that I do. I am not a machine here to accomplish things, but a spirit that is here to encounter other spirits. Often I feel like I don’t have the time to walk, but I follow the old Rabbinical saying: “I pray every day for an hour, except for those days when I’m too busy. On those days, I pray for two hours.” As it happens, I also pray every evening – though I promise you not for 2 hours.

I would like to remind you of the words we began with this service by Maxx Kapp to light our chalice. “Carry the Sacred Flame to make light the windows of the world. It is we who must be keepers of the flame. It is we who must carry the imperishable fire. It is our watch now! It is our watch now!” Keeping the flame of progressive faith alive it not solely about social justice, or being a voice for the oppressed, or healing the pains of the world. It is all of these things for sure. But it is also keeping our own inner flame alive, loved, and vibrant. May we seek ways to practice a discipline of spirituality, and may we do so with gladness in our hearts and kindness on our lips. For to care for the world we live in, we must first care for  our sagging shoulders, and our weary grins, knowing that we never do so alone.


[1] Special thanks to religious educator Christopher Buja for bringing this essay to my attention.

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Prayer for Stewardship and Community

Spirit of Community, God of Many Names, Love Abounding,

We each come here for different reasons,

To connect once more with friends well known,

To meet new folks along the way,

To be less alone in a city that is both very full,

And sometimes very isolating amidst the bustle.

Some of us are tired,

Dedicated to the busy-ness of our work week,

Struggling to find a job,

Stressed from the tests, and the homework, and the deadlines;

We gather to pause between the silence and the joy of this hour,

Hoping to be renewed in spirit and in mind,

To be able to appreciate the small wonders, of the moments,

between our obligations.

We gather as a community,

To build loving friendships,

To seek justice in our world,

To grow our souls,

To nurture compassion with every step,

As best we can.

We pray for those among us living with illness,

For those recovering in a hospital bed,

For their families and friends who wish they could ease their burden.

May they find healing where it is possible,

Peace of mind where it is not,

And feel the love that ever surrounds them.

God of Compassion, help us to weave real connections,

In this house of hope;

To build community within our walls and beyond;

To welcome the stranger,

Wherever they are on their life’s journey,

And allow ourselves to be changed,

With every new soul that enters our religious home.

In building our community, in growing our spirits,

We become the stewards of our faith.

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Prayer for those affected by Hurricane Sandy

Prayer 11/4/12

 

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,

We pause this hour before the mixed stories of our region,

The stories of loss –

We grieve the death of over a 100 people from the Caribbean to the Mid-Atlantic;

A week without heat, without power, without water

Of homes washed away,

Of cars destroyed by the river,

and what the waters carried with them.

We are grateful for those of us who remained physically untouched by the storm despite being in its midst.

We honor the relief workers, the first responders, who were caring for us in our time of need – even though their own need was great.

—We hold in our heart communities like Breezy Point in the Rockaways – close knit home to many first responders – ravaged by the storm.

—We too hold Staten Island, and our sister congregation there who serves as a staging ground for relief

—We too hold the Red Hook Initiative and the community is serves – may our collection today and on-going help in what small way it can

—We too hold the clinics damaged by the storm,

The families still without power and water here and in the Caribbean,

We pray for the speedy support and recovery of the AliForneyCenter whose intake shelter was absolutely destroyed by the Hurricane. This shelter serves the needs of hundreds of LGBT homeless youth every night as they help them transition to permanent housing and work.

We are saddened by the cancellation of our own act-of-success-in-the-face- of-adversity – the Marathon.

May the effort so many have spent a year or a life-time preparing for not be seen in vain, knowing that even the act of preparing is a marker of the greatness of the human spirit.

 

May our own celebration this evening, of the installation of Rev. Ana,

be a call for continued acts of service to our communities.

May the supplies and food we gather today at both services bless us in our continued ministry,

knowing that our walls do not define us,

only our doorways so do.

God of Hope, we are humbled by the stories of neighbor reaching out to neighbor,

and reminded ever that this is the core of religion –

compassion for the sake of compassion.

We pray that our politicians may become leaders,

Letting go of partisan and consumer idols,

And act as one to heal the ravages of globing warming,

That our city and our coast have so clearly, so imminently, born witness.

 

We ask for healing in our communities,

In our playgrounds and our homes,

We hold especially in our hearts this morning all those living in shelter,

Whether from the storm, or from the ravages of systems of poverty,

May they all find a way to stability,

And may we learn ways to end these cycles.

We pray for the W. family whose tree on their house is being removed as we speak. For JS who’s brand new home in the Rockaways was flooded by the storm surge.

We pray for PE. who will be going into surgery on Tuesday to treat thyroid cancer. May he know in his heart the love this congregation holds for him, may his healing be swift and lasting.

 We invite the gathering to speak aloud the names we wish to hold in our hearts.

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This Side of Love

Last Sunday, our Senior High Youth lead an educational social justice project toward the end of the religious education day with our children, as part of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. After teaching our children a bit about love, marriage equality, and justice, we made Valentines to send to the NY State representatives who voted to support Marriage Equality. Being a Brooklyn congregation we sent the cards to Brooklynrepresentatives. We also included Valentines to our Federal Senators, our Mayor, our Governor, and the four Republicans (state-wide) who made a stand of personal conscious across party lines. It was a program that was rooted in gratitude for the efforts of our secular leaders on a matter of human conscience. Juliette and Cooper Richey-Miller crafted a beautiful video of the day that you can watch on our website. http://vimeo.com/36797503. It’s a hopeful snapshot of our religious community – and a good indicator of who we are and what we can be.

What makes a community? Or a congregation? Or a nation? Our story this morning spoke of a church being built on a hilltop – one that would bring the folks from all around to it every week. It needed a bell to ring folks to service. It needed strong stone and wood to stand firm against the wind and the weather. And it needed light – a whole lot of light – so that folks could find their way. I think it’s really beautiful that we learned from Zora’s mom in the story, that in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we each carry a light of our own. Like the song we heard today – this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.

That’s at the core of faith. For UU’s, it’s not so much about belief, faith is in part about trusting in yourself – and the people around you. It’s trusting that all our lights are there; they’re worth uncovering; and they can help lead us on the path ahead. Right from the start, we come pre-packaged with that light – even if we sometimes find it hard to feel that warmth. It’s still there.

That’s what a community is about. It’s remembering what’s true for each of us, is also true for all of us. We each bring something of value to light up this church. You know, this is one of those kind of truths that we like to say is so incredibly apparent. “Duh, we all know that!” And yet, it’s probably one of the hardest things to remember.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with two god-parents who were about to make promises during one of our child dedications on a Saturday morning. Three of the questions they had to commit to were, “Will you teach her to tell the truth and to trust herself? Will you teach her to be compassionate and loving while being there with open ears and open hearts when she needs you? Will you keep good words and ways so that you will be an example for her?” They seem so straight forward, but one god-parent reflected, “At first I was thinking, oh sure, these are obvious. I can do that. But then I got to thinking – be compassionate and loving – how about the long line at the deli, or behind the wheel when someone cuts me off. Those three things are really hard!” And to be honest, she’s completely right. They’re all hard. Sometimes obvious things are very hard to live by. That’s partly why we go over them again and again.

It’s easy to say that each of us have value – but sometimes it’s hard to feel like that applies to ourselves. It’s easy to say that everyone has a light to shine, but it’s hard to feel that way when the other person is telling you what to do with a really mean voice. With a show of hands – who here has ever felt less about someone who was being mean to them? (alright, I thought that would be a strong showing.) We’re all a little guilty of not finding the worth in another when they’re being difficult, and we’re all probably just as guilty of thinking less of ourselves than our religion tells us we should.

But sometimes we do the opposite. Sometimes we think so highly of ourselves, that we think we know what’s best for the people around us. Sometimes we’re so sure that if only things were done my way, all would work out just right. Out of curiosity, with a show of hands, who here has ever thought that last one – if only the world worked the way I wanted it to… OK – we’re all in good managerial company.

That problem is happening from time to time all around us. It’s not just within our congregation, or over the dinner table. It happens in our country at large. Right now, we hear stories in the media of struggles around religious freedom. What are some things we think of when we hear religious freedom? What do we mean by freedom – call out one or two words (worship, belief, faith of the free, personal choices, medical treatments, congregating where and how you need, etc.) It’s an important value in our country. It’s also an important value in our faith tradition. It comes from the Edict of Torda. In 1571, a Unitarian, Francis David, convinced the King of Transylvania to pass a law that said that “no one shall be reviled for their religion by anyone.” Francis famously said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” It’s thoughts like this that influenced the foundations of this nation.

But just like how we sometimes think the world would just be a better place if it worked just like we wanted it, sometimes that mindset gets into the heads of our leaders. This is a difficult subject to talk about, but I think most of us have seen the photos, or the news, or posts on the internet – so if we don’t talk about it here we’re being strangely silent.

I’m thinking of those pictures of all-male testifiers before congress, giving their expertise on how women should receive medical care. I think just saying that sentence that way, more or less gets to the point for most of us. I don’t see a problem in men being involved in the decision-making process of how people receive health care – after all some doctors are male. I do see a problem in women not having a voice at the table – especially on matters that solely affect women’s health. I think it’s even more odd that several of those experts were clergy. In case this congregation has the same confusion – if you have a medical issue – I am not the person to come to for health-care advice. They do not teach that in seminary. Frankly, it’s a really severe case of abuse of power. In our story this morning, Zora had her own lamp to shine. Whenever we create situations where only certain people get to lift up their lamps, we’re probably doing something wrong.

Anyone here watch NBC? Well on Friday morning, following the spread of the all-male congressional panel photo – The morning talk show called, “Morning Joe” began talking about how inappropriate it was for Congress to have an all male line-up of experts. However, in one snapshot (and you can see it on my Facebook page) all five of Morning Joe’s experts were themselves men.

Now some of you may be scratching your heads right now. I started out by talking about religious freedom, and then shifted into talking about health care for women. If you’re having trouble seeing the connection, you’re in some very good company. The connection that’s being made in the media is stretched so thin it must soon break. Religious freedom is about being able to worship as you see fit – or don’t see fit for that matter. It’s about belief and it’s about personal choices (and you can hear the emphasis on personal right). Personal freedom, or liberty, is not about having the freedom to make the world do what you want. It’s about making your own best choices regarding personal matters – especially those matters that affect no one but yourself. I think managing one’s own body is the clearest definition of that I can imagine.

And in this congregation, we take that so seriously, that we educate our children and youth through the program Our Whole Lives. Right now, half of our religious education program is in an OWL class. It’s an age-appropriate comprehensive science-based sexuality curricula. I mention science-based, because not all programs out there on this topic are even legally required to be scientifically accurate. Our K-1 class started in January. Our Junior Youth began back in September. And our 4th and 5th graders will have two Saturday programs. And our Senior High will be continuing it throughout the Spring.

Just like the story, someone had to make that lantern and pass it down. In our tale, Zora had to learn to carry it on her own. From a caring, loving community, she grew into a mature adult that would do the same in return. I think if we were to edit the story to fit the current trend to misconstrue what religious freedom actually means, we’d have Zora’s dad carrying the lantern for her for the rest of her life. And her mom would be strangely silent. That image isn’t one of freedom.

I don’t want to end this sermon on a national matter. This time I want to bring that national crisis back home, back to our pews. Whatever emotions you may have felt, or are feeling, about the paternalism being inflicted on women in our culture right now – consider how we might be the cause of that kind of strife in our own lives – for other matters. How are we acting in such a way that we’re trying to mold people in our own image? How is our personal freedom affecting the freedom of those around us? How are our immediate wants hurting our neighbor?  Do you speak over everyone around you? Do you let others be heard? Are you kind when someone does something that you disagree with? Do you seek to understand where someone is coming from – or do we try to fit their actions into our way of seeing things?

There’s this photo floating around the internet of a saying on a t-shirt (that I think was intended to be a joke.) It reads, “I’m a Unitarian-Universalist: the bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief that your guess is as good as mine.” Now as far as faith statements go, that’s more shale than bedrock. But it does speak to one very healthy mindset. My opinion doesn’t rule the day. Remembering that – not only in political chatter, but also in the coffee hour, is key. A little bit of humbleness is good for the health of a community, of a congregation, and yes – of a country too.

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