Posts Tagged reverence

Open Minds, Welcome Hearts

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/17/17. It reflects on some of the foundational tenets of Unitarian Universalism, and the wisdom they offer us in our times of brokenness and self-doubt.

We’re coming to the end of the last weekend of Summer. (I know, boo.) Some years it feels like Winter stretches out for six months, and Summer is over in a couple of weeks. This year was like that for me. It was a full Summer, but in a blink, it was still over. In my younger years, Autumn was my favorite season. I loved the warmer weather, but I was also looking forward to the cooler days for hiking, and pumpkin picking; and Halloween was a second Christmas for me as a kid and a teen.

But as an adult, especially one without kids of my own, all the holidays of childhood take on a different feel; not less, but different. As we grow up, and older, we see old things with new eyes – when we’re at our best. Even if we have kids; they grow older, and they too grow up. The seasons, and the holidays and holy days, take on new meaning for all of us, at each stage in our lives. We learn to love them anew, with a deeper meaning, if we’re lucky.

As the poet’s words that opened our service said, “The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious. Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might.” This is the quintessential challenge of religious life. As a mentor of mine often spoke (The Rev. Forrest Church), “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.” He, himself, died quite young, at the age of 61. As I was writing this, I was realizing that the anniversary of his birth and his death is this coming week, right after the Autumnal equinox, on the 23rd and the 24th respectively. Despite himself dealing with a nasty form of cancer at too young an age, he was never maudlin about aging or death.

The ideas of change, and ultimate concerns, are spiritual bedrocks of religious life. We are born, we live, and we will die. We can choose to live our lives, conscious of that truth, or we can live our lives hiding from it. Faith – faith asks us to live knowing our time is short; to leave quiet footprints marking where we loved our neighbor, where we mended the broken, where we chose to help lessen the burden of another, and so too – where we choose to let our neighbor in, to help us in our times of need. Help when we have the strenght to help, and let others help us when we’re in need. All are spiritual moments; all are sacred.

And so too, the poet continues, “Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion. What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”… How can we craft open minds, and welcome hearts – how can we stretch to lose our littleness? We all try our best, and still, from time to time, we get mired down in the smallness of  pumping our egos up on righteous indignation; on tiny angers for the sake of being angry – separating ourselves from our neighbors, as we feed our sense of being wronged. There’s a strange and foolish attraction, for some of us, or maybe most of us, in seeking out the chance to feel being wrong.

In Unitarian Universalist circles, we say it in differing ways, but we often come back to the words printed on our letterhead, and atop our order of service; openness, mindfulness and reverence. These three words, these tenets, call us back from the path of bitterness and petty treasons; they remind us that there is something more to this life than our smallest selves. I try to come back to them each week in services, because even though they are so easy to say, they are so hard to remember to live. It’s the quest of a lifetime.

Openness, mindfulness, reverence. If you’re with us today for the first time, or you’ve traveling with us for forty years, we come back to them again and again, in differing ways, and sometimes in different language, but that’s what we point to time and again. How do we stay open to other views; how do we stay open, when the world feels like it’s shutting door after door. How do we keep our hearts open, without breaking, when the doctor shares the worst news we can imagine? Religious life is knowing we are born, and we all have to die. …How do we stay open before that eternal truth? We face that, day after day – and we are at our most human, when we are honest before that most raw of facts.

Mindfulness, in the face of pain and in the face of joy – it may begin in meditation and prayer, but it’s lived in our offices, and on route 110, when we’re trying to make a left hand turn off of Jericho Turnpike (especially then), and when we flick the channels of the news; when the divorce lawyer sends their paperwork, and when our boss hands us the pink slip. This too is life; and this too shall pass. Can we handle all this outside of religious community; yes – yes we assuredly can; so many of us choose to face it alone. But the burden is lighter when we do it together – it may not be any easier, but our hearts can be more cared for when we’re not alone.  And the world is teeming with excuses and distractions – to not face what is always before us. Religious community, at our best, hopes to help us live mindfully, aware and full of heart; when we are whole and when we are broken, but still to live, through it all.

…And reverence, reverence is seemingly so counter-cultural these days. In the push and pull of life, and consumerism, and workaholism, and power, and pride, reverence gets the short straw. We are trained to want, or desire, but not to revere. We are taught to strive, and persevere, maybe even to crave. But reverence suggests a relationship; a relationship that’s not predicated on control or ownership. And in a culture where we commit idolotry to the gods of consumerism, control and ownership are the high priests.

The great Jewish theologian and rabbi, Martin Buber, used the phrase “I-Thou” to talk about reverence, and he meant it in a relational sense. When we come to respect the worth and presence of another – whether it’s your neighbor, or God, or the tree on the corner that comes alive, vibrant in its springtime pinks, or it’s autumnal reds – when that bush is burning with vibrancy – and we are present to see it as it truly is – that is reverence.

To see, and to be seen – that is reverence; that is spirituality; that is our purpose, and our meaning, and our highest virtue. And in this religious home, we strive to ingrain that sense of reverence, in our hearts, and in the hearts of our kids, and their kids, and in their kids. We look across the generations and hope for a world more whole for those that will inherit it. May we pass what has been given to us, reverently to the next, and to the next, and to the next. That is reverence – knowing in our heart of hearts that we remain in relation with generation after generation after generation. As the poet closed, “how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else? How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!” Religious life, holy life, is tearing down the walls that foolishly separate us. We are here, together, in this one, precious life. May we live knowing that truth in our hearts – with openness, mindfulness and precious reverence; a reverence that speaks from our core, to the hearts of all those we meet along the road.

A colleague of mine, the Rev. Rosemary Brae McNatt, who used to lead our congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and now heads our seminary on the west coast, Starr King, often joked that as UU’s, even though we gave up the Trinity – the idea that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we still remained loyal to our trinities. We still wrote in three’s. Faith, Hope and Love; or Justice, Equity and Compassion (as our second principle teaches); or even Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence that I’ve focused on today. But we have so many more that become foundational to our practical theology.

   To return to the Rev. Forrest Church, from earlier, he has another “three” that’s constant to our practical theology. Sermon after sermon would come back to this spiritual teaching, “Want what you have, be who you are, do what you can.” This may be both simple, and the most counter-cultural spiritual message we can offer in these trying times. The crush of commercialism demands we crave more and more – we replace reverence with desire; we’re not whole until we conquer more. That’s not spiritual, that’s base. Want what you have. Imagine that. Imagine wanting what you already have. Not moving on to the next thing, or the next success, but relishing what is already before you.

In this human circle, imagine being enough, already, as you are. For some of us, that’s easy; for some of us, that’s quite hard. We’re all broken spirits doing the best we can, AND we’re all magnificent souls blessing the world before us. We are both broken, and quite whole. We are a gift, and we’re only doing our best at any given time, if we are even doing our best – all at the same time.

Be who you are. When was the last time, someone asked you to consider being…you. So much of life, these days, seems to be trying to tell us to be better, or more, or something other than who we are. We are all unique gifts, and to be honest, sometimes unique challenges, in this one precious life. But as much as any of us need to grow, we all need to grow, we all are a gift to this world – when we’re at our best. We can struggle, and wrestle and cry tears of frustration or tears of joy, over who we are, but we are who we are. Be who you are. No one else can. Get better when you can, but don’t feel a failure for who you born to be.

The broader world tells us to fix ourselves, to correct who we are in light of social norms. Be more masculine, be thinner, be more straight, be more powerful, be white, have more hair, be more athletic, and it goes on and on. We can lie our way into exhaustion and demoralization. But what we need, is not more “be different’s”, we need more “be who you are.” No one else will ever be you. Be you. Be you in all your awkwardness, and all your glory. In your mistakes and your perfections. Life is infinitely varied, and infinity needs role models. Be that role model for that kid that needs to see you; be that role model.

And, definitely, do what you can. For those here that are doing, oh so much, I might advise you to manage all that you do. We are not bottomless wellsprings of doing. But for those that are looking to be pushed a wee bit more; do what you can. There is always another things that needs doing, to heal the broken corners of the world where we will. Be that healing. Want what you have, be who you are; do what you can.

If you’re new to our Fellowship and looking for a new ministry in your life; I’ll offer three immediate suggestions. Our community garden, the grounds we use to grow food for town pantries, can always use more help. Head on back there when groups are working (any garden volunteers present today – or go up to those folks after service today to learn more.) Two – at the end of Oct, on the 28th, we’ll be hosting a full day training on accompaniment – to help support immigrants as a friendly presence when their time for court hearings take place. And three – in a couple of months, we shift over to housing our cold weather shelter for migrant men (any HIHI volunteers present today – you’ll definiltey hear more in the coming months, but you can ask those folks after service to learn more.) Do what you can.

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Sermon: Putting Down Roots

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/21/16 after the second vandalism of our Black Lives Matter billboard.

Community, communication, and commitment – three very closely related words that each point in the same direction – how well we are interdependent in the world. It’s the foundational part of our seventh principle – interdependence. We’re reflecting this month on what it would mean to be a people of rootedness, and this week we’ll reflect on how communication – or the lack of communication – helps or hinders our ability to put down roots in our communities.

I want to begin a little more light-hearted and then we’ll inch our way into the more heavy-hearted side of the world this week. A little over a week ago, I had the honor of working directly with 30 of our youth at our annual Summer Camp called Fahs (along with 40 other adults and around 110 children and youth all counted – I was co-leading the 11th and 12th grade youth group.) One of the practices of the camp is that none of the youth or kids are allowed their cell phones during the week. They’re either left at home, or the ones who need to still have them on the car ride in, feverishly are sending their final texts for the long 6 days without social media. I could laugh, except I don’t recall the last time I went fully without a cell phone for 6 days.

So the adults live by another set of rules. We need our cell phones to handle the rare emergency or the frequent updates that happen throughout the day. We’re not supposed to be on them much in sight of the campers, but the Camp Board need to be able to text us at any point. And wow – do they text! For a week where we are supposed to limitedly be on our phones, I received more text messages than any other time in my life! To be fair, the camp board needs to be able to balance out clear communication, and they err on the side of abundance of information rather than someone missing something that might have been critical. But in effect, everyone gets messaged about everything, whether we personally need to know or not. I’d feel better about critiquing the practice if I actually had any clue as how to do it better. That’s the challenge of modern technology – we have all the ability in the world to do just about anything we can dream of – we just haven’t figured out yet what actually works well.

It’s a challenge for our congregation too. We may send out information in seven different ways, and one person will ask why are we inundating the community with info, and the next person will ask when are we finally going to let folks know about that very same thing.

In our reading earlier today, we heard a light-hearted poking of our current culture around cell phones by the writer, Neil Gaiman – always waiting for the next message or update, we miss the sense of reverence in the world all around us. I want to quote him again, this time from his fictional story, American Gods. The character who pens these words is Mr. Ibis (named after a fictional version of a certain Egyptian deity of knowledge and the moon), “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.”

Gaiman isn’t talking about social media or newsletter, but part of me wishes he were. And we can all imagine the wisdom there – few if any of us would ever have the time to sit down and ingest all the events in the life of this Fellowship. But if we don’t, we’ll miss something. And if we do, there won’t be the time in the day.

Instead, Gaiman is really referring to the role of story, and the use of symbol. In much of his writing, he alludes to how nothing actually happens the way the story suggests – that none of it is true – but he goes on to tell it anyhow and you walk away feeling that we’ve encountered something more real than the facts. It’s the eternal challenge of religion – do you get caught up in fact-checking the stories of faith, or do you focus on learning the moral and spiritual lessons? It’s a trap for both sides of the ideological theistic divide; both atheists and fundamentalists are guilty of worshiping historicity over impact and meaning.

Do we browse the newsletter, website or e-news at the last minute and decide which events on our social calendar can fit into our tight schedules –if any, or do we prioritize our community connections first and fill up our schedules afterward? Do we put down roots and engage in the life of a community, or do we take Fellowship to be just one more item on our to-do list? And you can be here only 1 day a week and still be engaged – as long as it’s more of an intention than an after-thought. The word “congregation” can be understood as engaged living – a symbol of a thing and the thing itself – or the word can be empty and just another habit of our day while we wait distractedly for the next thing and the next thing. “The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.” Religious community is a story about what we aspire to be; it’s one way to get there; and it’s where we end up when we arrive. When we remember this, we’re more likely to be doing it right.

This week held some particular challenges for our Fellowship. Our Black Lives Matter billboard was uprooted from the ground and tossed to the side. Someone came by and pulled both posts out from the ground that our youth group installed. It happened overnight, to avoid anyone seeing who did it. The Hate Crimes division of Suffolk County police came for the second time – the sign was originally vandalized 6 days after we put it up back in June. The good officers, without us realizing they were doing it, and without being requested, actually reinstalled the sign for us in the ground. It was a beautiful act of grace, and a clear sign of their high level of professionalism. They then offered to attend some of our events, and mentioned that they offer community forums. We plan to take them up on their offer in the near future. But community connections didn’t begin there. Back in July, after the terrible shooting of Dallas police and transit officers, our Fellowship held a vigil in the evening, and our social justice co-chair, Steve Burby, dropped by the local precinct with a note of support and some pastries. Putting down roots, and building community, means that as we speak the hard truths that are impacting so many in our nation, we still maintain and foster connections that seek to preserve and make all of us safer.

But this part of the story also tells us that the dominant myth that it’s us vs not-us, that gets told and retold, isn’t really true. No community or group is a monolith and many of us are trying to extend a hand, and find a way forward through a very difficult issue. Every letter we receive, or email, and the painful slog through the comment section of any news article about our Black Lives Matter sign vandalisms – reveal some serious mischaracterizations. And they’re emblematic of a culture – where despite having more access to information than any generation ever before – we are woefully ill-informed about matters that we disagree with. If we disagree with a topic, we will enter into a bubble of isolation, that will protect us from any data that will conflict with our world view. News blogs that have the comments sections turned on – originally designed to increase communication and public discussion – have since become the sole province of trolls and what Time just called this week, “The culture of hate.” Discourse is silenced as the will to hate, or the will to silence diverse and lively honest discussion has taken hold.

The vandalism of our Black Lives Matter sign, was covered this week by Newsday, News 12, and I was also interviewed by Fios TV news. In a pique of irony, the Newsday article online is only viewable by those with a subscription to their service; but anyone logged into Facebook can post comments on the news article… whether or not they were able to read it. We have all the technology in the world, and we don’t know what it means and how to use it. One’s opinion – uninformed or not – is readily available to all, but the actual facts of the story are not.

At the top of our Fellowship letterhead, we have three words. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Most of my sermons will explore these topics every week; sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. But they are foundational to community, communication, and commitment. We can’t begin to have a healthy community without openness; from the cliques of high school to the barriers of gated communities – groups form that bar certain people from entering, and those communities are less for it. Mindfulness and reverence may seem esoteric, but there’s a core of truth to the idea that once we stop seeing one another with a sense of appreciation, and even the occasional awe, is the moment when we stop being able to relate to one another as fellow human beings. Without reverence, maybe we can interact with others as if they were cogs, or pawns, but we cease to be able to do so as people. The excesses of the comments section of the internet is the logical conclusion to a culture that is closed to difference, and apathetic to others’ worth and dignity.

As we close this service, I invite you this week to take stock of your practices in our community, your neighborhood and maybe even online. Where are you mindful? Where have you become closed? Where do you allow yourself to be open to a sense of reverence around you? I can’t easily write out an exhaustive map of how to build the beloved community, but the story is the territory, and we tell that story, as best we can, week after week.

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Reverence of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on March 1st, 2015. It looks at the role of “doubt” in our life of faith.

Have you ever been in a spot where you’ve got to make a decision about two or three difficult choices? You run all the options through your head over and over and over trying to make some sense of where you are with the choice. You weigh the pros and cons and find yourself unable to commit one way or the other. You then drag in as many friends as possible – if it’s a decision that’s a big deal. They all have opinions of their own; and to your great frustration they may even have opinions that agree with one another, but you still can’t be swayed by their advice. You keep seeing the other side of the issue, and the solidarity between your trusted advisors simply confirms your concerns for the opposite take. Or is that just me?

The problem is partly one of indecisiveness. Fearful of mistakes, or lost opportunities we shirk away from committing to a course of action. We paralyze ourselves before the great “what if.” I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?

I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 55 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.

Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, but their ultimate concerns theologically wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)

Universalism on the other hand was an American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.

So starting about 55 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.

Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spiritually needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.

I’m starting to feel Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We cant define justice we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We cant define relations they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.

One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …

When I first converted to Unitarian Universalism 21 years ago, I was a former Catholic who in some ways was still harboring anger with the Catholic Church. I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Morristown, NJ. The congregation was overwhelmingly Humanist at the time, and although I no longer identified as Catholic, I still identified as Theist even while I was wrestling with Christianity. I joined that congregation, not because our theologies were the same, but because the community was strong and warm and faithful. They were faithful to their sense of caring for the world they lived in. They never did it perfectly, thankfully not perfectly, but they did it as best they could. Their best rubbed off on me and helped to make the place feel like home for me.

Lest one think I’m painting my first home as a paragon of the heart – no. We were largely centered in our heads, not our hearts. There were frequent arguments around theologies and there was little room in Morristown for the G word, or the J word; and H forgive us if the C word was used. We cared for one another and sought to make the world a better more just place; but the mind ran rampant and trod all over any difference of religious belief. I was in the minority as a theist, but gratefully they still carved out some space for me. The cycles of fear around talking forthrightly about how we make and understand meaning in the world though, really broke my heart. The 1990’s were a very difficult time in our religious tradition because of this. We didn’t always do so good a job in educating converts to Unitarian Universalism. We certainly didn’t always do such a good job in ministering to the pains and hurts converts were carrying with them into our pews. We also lost the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood. As a tradition, we still lose the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood.

All of these issues are complex and difficult, but I feel that part of the reason for these challenges is our aversion to dealing with the heart/mind challenge. We are hesitant to stake a mind-centered claim on our faith lest we become guilty of creeping creedalism; while ironically succumbing to the staunch certitude of not believing or stating anything. We are hesitant to speak the heart-centered truth of our faith because we may not yet have resolved all our issues relating to where we came from (even if that place we came from is Unitarian Universalism); while ironically not meeting the needs of our covenantal call to deeper relationships with one another. In combination, we risk forming a mind made up and a heart that is closed.

These two maladies have a fair bit in common, even though we often talk about the mind and the heart in very differing ways. A mind made up knows how things are, what’s true in the world, who’s correct and who’s wrong. Take a moment to think of someone in your life that relates to you in this way… (or consider who in your life do you relate to in this way) … and be present with the feelings that arise in your stomach… or the tension that rises in your shoulders and neck.. or the pressure in your head or throat. That’s what a mind made up does to the world and the people around it. It doesn’t mean that indecision is better than decision, rather it clarifies that extreme certitude is often felt as toxic to those around it. What is the thing that you are absolutely convinced of to such a degree that no amount of conversation could sway you? … What changes for the better in the world by holding onto that view?… Is there any way in which it causes harm? For the fundamentalism of the mind-made-up, a healthy reverence for doubt in our lives can be life saving – or maybe just character-saving.

A heart that is closed is a real loss. Like the mind made up, there’s little room for changing the person. Emotional and loving connections are hard to forge for the closed heart. It’s convinced that it’s too dangerous, or not worth trusting, undeserving of love from another. It carries with it a similar certitude to the mind made up. The world is a certain way, I know it, and that’s that. There’s little room once more for complexity or nuance. Either/or perspectives kill genuine relationships between family, between friends and between loved ones.

Both of these idolatries of the mind and the heart are guilty of a sort of creedalism; the kind that claims that we know best the verities of life and no one else has any capacity to better inform us. We raise up our egos, or our pain, up as little gods and thereby close ourselves off to the world. We limit our ability to encounter and play in the same reality as the rest of humanity when we lift up our own worldview. Our faith tradition teaches us not to do this; fundamentalisms of the mind, and hearts-shut-tight, are against our religious values. Or they are at least challenges Unitarian Universalism hopes to help us grow through, or for some of us, to heal from.

Let me explain this a different way. Just this week, some of you may have seen the social media controversy surrounding “the dress.” (queue slide.) What colors do you see? Who here sees White and Gold? Who here sees some shade of Blue and Black (or purple and brown?) In my own household, I clearly see White and Gold, and Brian staunchly sees Blue and Black. There is a bit of an optical illusion going on, in that the lighting in the picture plays off different genetic adaptions humans have going on in their eyes. In a later sermon in April, I’ll go into more detail about optical illusions, but this viral image was too timely to not include this week. Apparently, some of us see daylight colors slightly differently. I’ve heard this explained in a few ways, but apparently, how we biologically have adapted to day vision and night vision influences how the white light in the picture affects our interpretation of the image. Yes, two humans can see the exact same thing and see it completely differently. Households across the nation have been arguing for days over what color it actually is. (Apparently, the answer is Blue and Black when the dress is not shown with this background lighting.) But in this image, here, right now, half of us see one thing and about half see the other. And there are many people out there this week that are very worked about it; some taking one side or the other, others equally worked up about not caring about it. This quirk of human sight reveals so much about how invested we get in our opinions and beliefs.

I feel that Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey our take on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings.

Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.

And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.

Following this service will be a special Stewardship luncheon where we talk about our community. Money is certainly part of the discussion, but stewardship is also another word for community. Many of us get incredibly awkward when we speak about money. We can feel stressed about how to manage it, earn it, save it, spend it. We can feel guilty or grateful, generous or strapped. We’re all in different places, and our Fellowship respects that. But at the core of this community stewardship ministry, is the desire to get a sense of what’s on our hearts and minds; what stirs us; moves us; sustains us. How does our purpose, and our dreams, fit here and in the larger world?

Our Fellowship is really entering a time of reflection; a time of community building. Everyone should expect to be contacted by a Steward who will schedule a face-to-face visit with you. This conversation is an essential part of our community building efforts. It’s an opportunity to hear from one another and practice community. When you get that call, please be nice; be open. Remember, our Stewards are fellow members. They will be asking for your financial commitment to this Fellowship that you chose to join and support. But just as importantly, they have questions to ask you about how we are doing as a congregation – what we are good at; what we have to improve. Everyone’s input matters.  All of it will be collected, analyzed, and heard for future planning. And we want you to be part of that feedback and visioning work. Your time, your skills and your financial donations are important, necessary and appreciated.

And be open. This is not about a zero sum game. We are not competing with other worthy charities to balance a line item. We’re exploring what meaning our community has to us, and asking each other – how do we support the place that we value so that it is here for each other and future generations. We’re making commitments so that our small, quirky, vital, progressive faith movement continues to keep its doors open to our children and their children, as well as future seekers who are coming for a message that allows room for our hearts and minds to be connected with integrity and purpose. We all know the injury and trauma in the world caused by a lack of a healthy reverence for doubt. Strident calls to arms – emotionally or physically – pervade our world where ideologies are allowed to rule for the sake of certitude of belief. We may not have the only answer to this, but we are fooling ourselves if we make ourselves mistakingly believe that our message is anything but life saving and life affirming in light of the world’s crises. We need to be here. The world needs our message, our muscle and our hopes. How will you be part of that hope?

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Closer to Fine

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coming of Age 2015

This reflection was shared at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/7/15 honoring the culmination of two children and youth programs.

Our Growing Up kids told our story this morning, and our Coming of Age youth delivered our sermon this morning, so my words today will be brief. Curran, Samantha, Jacob, Katie thank you for helping to lead the service today. Mic, Jordan, Mila, Declan, Julia, Ben, and Teagan – thank you. Thank you for being dedicated to this faith journey and this community. Thank you for seriously considering the big questions in life. Thank you for committing yourselves to a project, with creativity and care. And most of all, thank you for also being teachers in this community. This is the very heart of religion.

Credo statements are where we rest our hearts. We are not a religion that rests its hearts in beliefs. In fact, we often have the most trouble when we commit too strongly to any singular belief – at least when we do so pretending that belief is the only truth. When you hear arguments in this Fellowship, you can bet two people have become firm in their convictions, and the first step toward peace is remembering we are together first and our beliefs are secondary. When we hear folks talk about worshipping idols, I think of beliefs first. They can sometimes take on a life of their own, and it can worsen the lives of all those around.

Credo statements are where we rest our hearts. Many of you came to some conclusions, at least for now, about the big questions in life – and that’s good. But I heard most of you also leave room for openness and a recommitment to living life to its fullest. That, that right there, is the soul of Unitarian Universalism.… Not ever fully knowing, but willing to act and live amidst the uncertainty. Fostering a sense of wonder for creation that leads to respect for our world and the lives of the people and creatures who are our neighbors. And the ability to speak your truth, with the person next to you who speaking their truth – with honor and love.

Our principles and our sources matter, and they form a pathway for right living – and they are the foundation for most of our sermons and all of our religious education. But some days they can just be words in our mouths. When the days come, and our principles feel like they are just sounds in the room, remember your sense of openness, and your compassion, and your yearning for a more just world – and you’ll find your heart there and you’ll find our faith there.

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Red Door

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/4/15. It explores the role beauty can play as an inspirational role model in building a diverse, justice-centered community of hope. This reflection looks at recent events in Baltimore and the ongoing need to remember that BlackLivesMatter.

I was driving home the other day and was stopping a few cards back from a red light; when to my astonishment a mated pair of geese used the red light to cross Route 110 down by the Walgreens. To my even greater astonishment, when the light turned green, and the geese had not yet finished crossing, the Long Island drivers patiently waited – stopping traffic in all directions. Yes – Long Island drivers stopped patiently and waited. You could still tell the geese were New Yorkes though, because when the light changed to green, one of them did a little hop in the air and flared its wings and hiss-croaked at the cars to wait – and it worked.

This really stood out for me. Our local drivers can be some of the least patient people around. I see folks on cell phones; or routinely rolling through stop signs near where I live. I see drivers who are always in a rush to get to wherever they’re going, and often they look unhappy about the destination, even though they’re still in a rush to get there. And there’s often a rudeness around right of way and lights and turns. But you add two geese to the picture, and we become civil human beings again. The natural world somehow reminds us about the preciousness of life in a way fellow humans behind a wheel don’t seem to. We can be very good at dehumanizing those around us when we fail to see them as equally living precious beings.

Why don’t we do that with the geese though? I think there’s something about  them being different; they’re not what we expect to find on a road and they snap us out of our humdrum. When we see them in a park making a mess, we may not appreciate them, but when they’re strolling by on the highway, we perk up. Maybe it’s novelty, or newness, but we take note. They remind me of the vase in our story earlier in the service. Sometimes, something that’s beautiful or precious can change how we interact with everything around us. We can add a new vase to a room and want to find it flowers, and clean the windows so the light shines on it better, and maybe redo the paint that we finally notice is chipping because we’ve added just a spot of beauty to a place.

Maybe the geese are like that for the Long Island driver too. “Ooo, maybe I should be my best self right now because the geese are visiting.” It’s certainly true in my household, maybe it’s true in yours; when guests are coming over, the house magically becomes spotless as if we always lived like that. Maybe people can be that for us too – vases that call us to our best selves because they bring attention to what we may have took for granted.

I was reading through a booklet from our archives that Lois Ann brought to my attention. It had a story in it just like this. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership were finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.

Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of beauty?” What beauty can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them?

We can use a few more new vases here that remind us to be our best selves. We have some projects we need to work on – especially fundraising – which for those who missed our congregational meeting last Sunday – is being led by folks like Ben, and Jenna and Ralph and Barbara. But we can use more. Do you have a vase you can share there? If you missed our welcome this morning, Kim had a generous offer of a one time financial gift to help close our short-term deficit budget. Can you join her in her generosity so that we don’t have to slow down our good and necessary work in the world? I believe our shortfall is an anticipated $500 per household. For some of us that’s impossible, and for others it’s possible. If you can, I would contact (a Board member, or whoever you spoke with on Canvass.)

Beauty can be about building up a space, or cleaning it up, as in the case of the vase in our Wondering earlier, or in the case of the Red Doors on our Fellowship. Beauty can be about remembering the preciousness of life around us, as in the case of the intrepid geese on route 110. Beauty can also be about justice. After all, when we’re called to our best selves – as a community – we’re called toward justice building. I have Baltimore in my heart today. I imagine many of us are struggling with the impossibility of the situation; of the pain and the images. The situation is too raw, and we are still short on some facts, while certain news stations do a very shoddy job of reporting. Having colleagues I know serving the communities in Baltimore, I know not all we’re hearing always matches neatly with what actually happened. Time will surely tell us more. But I want to reflect now on the bigger picture, and wonder where beauty may teach us a life-saving message in a time of crisis.

A few days back, wisdom surfaced from the most unexpected of people (a baseball executive) in the most unlikely of places (twitter.) I’ll recap a short part of it, as I read through MotherJones. A few days ago, “when Orioles fans were briefly locked in Camden Yards during protests outside the stadium, sports broadcaster Brett Hollander decried the demonstrations as counterproductive and an inconvenience for fans. Team executive John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, responded with a flurry of tweets, defending the people’s actions as a reaction to long-term economic hardship and dwindling protections of civil liberties. [He wrote]….speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.”

Strong words, and words that come unexpected from an executive on a baseball team who lives far above the financial reality of the average American. I imagine some of us could argue with some of his points or perspectives. I don’t want to go down that road today. I share his words because however much you may or may not agree with Mr. Angelos, he paints a picture that is all too real for many of us. We have many folks unemployed or underemployed in our congregation. We may have adult children who are struggling with keeping home or job where they live. The shrinking stability of the middle-class is a very real pressure for many of us. And if it’s hard on the middle-class, it’s impossible on the working class. I see my own dad who served in the military and has worked every day of his adult life.  He turned 70 last year and will continue to be working full-time for the foreseeable future. It’s very hard on hard-working Americans right now. So let’s remember this when we hear these very hard stories coming out of Baltimore – a city with communities that in some cases face unemployment rates of 30%. Let’s imagine for a moment what that hardship would be like for communities that faced that generation after generation, and then felt the belt tighten even further.

But where does beauty come in, and how can we be a people of beauty in light of these hardships? Our recent national trends of devaluing education, while increasingly funding prisons and for-profit prisons is a marker of the opposite of beauty. Shipping jobs oversees, funneling profits to the few, segregating where folks can live; prioritizing punishment over nurture – are all the opposite of beauty. Diversity, equity, and justice – are what beauty looks like in the public sector. We do well when we raise our people to find beauty in those virtues.

We have those struggles here on Long Island too. Earlier this week I attended a forum put on by the Suffolk County Department of Planning for area clergy. One person there was lamenting the lack of millennials in our area and they said, “We’re losing our millennials because they can’t afford the property tax.”

To which I responded, “We’re losing our millennials because they have $100k in debt from college; they don’t have $100k for a down payment on a house. And we won’t build enough rental stock for them to stay. The same practices we used in Levittown to keep out People of Color are now the same practices that are making your kids unable to stay here.”

When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes beauty involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes beauty is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes beauty is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table. May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow. Beauty is not just a surface appearance; beauty can be a discipline of true and holy community building.

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Sermon: The Longest Road

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, January 25th, 2015. “The course of a life is measured in moments. How does yearning bring us back to our purpose?”

At the start of this new year, I began using a Fit Bit. It’s this device you wear around your wrist that tracks how much walking you do; it estimates calories burned, and tracks the food you eat so long so you enter the food on a matching phone app. Besides encouraging you to hit certain goals around “steps-taken” every day, and keeping the calories down a bit if you want to, it plays to the conventional wisdom that if you’re attentive to what you’re doing and eating, you’ll be more likely to make better choices.

Although it’s been pretty effective in the first few weeks, and my dog loves how much more she’s getting walked, it’s also created some comic moments and a an interesting lesson or two. A few days in, the weather was pretty bad and I didn’t quite hit my 10,000 step goal (which is about 5 miles a day.) I found myself walking in circles throughout the house until I hit it. At home, Brian was laughing at me. I know it probably didn’t really count for caloric burn, but I figured if you’re going to make a purposeful commitment to something, you might as well not break it three days in.

I also learned that I walk about 3/4 of a mile every time I do the laundry. Between the back and forth up two flights of steps, folding and putting away, it’s actually a fairly intensive home chore. So if I’m running short on steps, I’ve been more religiously doing laundry – which is better than having Brian continue to laugh at me for walking in circles.

In my last sermon, I talked about the endurance many of us have to hold onto over the long haul during periods of difficulty. Whether it’s illness, or accomplishing a meaningful goal like school, we sometimes think of these in terms of seasons and years. The other side of this though – is this step – and the next. As we continue to reflect on this month’s theme – yearning – we can look at how it influences our lives minute by minute, as opposed to year by year like – I did last sermon.

There’s a reason tools like Fit Bit set daily goals rather than monthly. If that device asked me to walk 150 miles this month, I think I’d laugh. But it’s the same thing I’m doing, by going five miles a day. We can only take it day by day. Yet, from time to time, we all force ourselves to look at a difficult time in our lives as that 150 miles. Our community has faced a lot of loss in our lives over the past few years. Loved ones have died. We’re supporting friends through prolonged periods of illness. Even surgeries that have gone well, take their toll, sometimes for a long time. We can’t wish away the grief, and not all disease will be cured. But we can let ourselves take it five miles at a time. We’ll still have to face the whole long road ahead, one way or the other, but we can give ourselves the gift of facing just the part that’s before us today. It’s the only stretch of the road we can ever face after all.

So how do we face it though, day by day? The common wisdom has a practical and a spiritual side to it. Practically, we have to handle what challenges and tasks are before us right now. Hospital visits have to be made. Dinner has to be cooked. And none of that changes if we’re overwhelmed by it all. Spiritually though, I think the proverbial take-it-one-day-at-a-time means something different. How do we find the place in our lives for the tenets I so often talk about: openness, mindfulness and reverence? Those three are central to much of my preaching, and they are no less important when we’re dealing with grief and loss.

Some of us know all too well the power of grief to narrow our vision. When we focus on the enormity of what’s before us, or what has just happened, we tend to close out everything else. The things that brought us joy or purpose, hope or laughter, seem so far away. Grieving is necessary. Grieving is healthy. But when when it closes us wholly to joy, or purpose or hope, it cuts off the very resources we need to find wholeness again. Openness is not just a principle, it’s a discipline. When we’re taking it one day at a time, spiritually, we look for the places of hope when hope is still a possibility. Or we look for the places of gratitude. We immerse ourselves in the time we still have with one another while it’s still here. Or we remember the joy someone brought into our lives. Love and joy are eternal; and we carry them with us into the world – touching life after life with their stirrings. But we remember that only when we’re still open. And maybe – just getting dinner done – is the only act of love we have in us. Somedays, that’s enough.

Mindfulness of what’s before us, and only what’s before us, can also keep the walls from pressing in. Yearning for something more, or better, can help us to strive to push through a hard time. But it can also paralyze us with wanting what may not be possible. We risk trading the time we have, or the world around us, for pain and loss over what will not be. It’s an impossible place to be. I’ve seen folks collapse before the sense of loss. And I’ve seen others smiling and laughing till their last hour – despite the pain. There’s no right or wrong – surely everyone’s situation is different. But I’ve found attending to what’s right before us, leaves more room for healing in our hearts and souls. And as Jesus taught, worry makes us live through something twice if it actually happens, or it makes us live through it once even though it never happened. Be present to the adversity before us, one step at a time; don’t stack up all the hurdles we’ll encounter along the way in front of you now.

The third tenet in this grouping – reverence – may be the soul saving part when we’re in deep grief or even deep depression. Grief and depression keep us focused on what we’re losing, or what we lost, or sometimes in the case of depression – what we only think we’ve lost. Again, there’s nothing wrong with grief – in fact it’s a healthy part of healing, and depression is not one’s own fault. Reverence calls us back to our birthright – life – for as long as we have it. In a universe of nigh infinite stars, the chance of you or me ever being here – in this place – with these people – is remarkable. To be born; to live; to find love or to know friends. Maybe to raise a family or to help someone in need. The chance of any of it having happened how it has, is just shy of impossible. And yet we are. When I grieve, I try to remember this. I try to hold the life I’ve been given with a sense of care and awe, because it deserves both. I try to remember to be grateful for the people I’ve known, and the lives I’ve changed, and how those lives changed mine. None of that is lost – ever. To remember, that just like there are people in my life who have mattered tremendously to me, there are people who I have so mattered to as well. None of that is lost.

When I’m at my worst, I yearn for a sense of reverence. I’ve lost my sense of awe. This kind of yearning brings us back to our center. It also brings us back to our purpose. In popular culture, we often think of the spiritual as airy-fairy. I disagree. I find it grounding. I’m most myself, I’m most whole, when I’m grounded in that sense of awe for life, for the world around me, an awareness of the holy surrounding me. And that holiness, is within reach, every step of the way. The road may just be as long, and filled with just as much hardness, but its character changes along with our changing awareness. We just need to return to the next step before us with attention, and the rest may follow.

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