Posts Tagged sin

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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Videocast: “The Nature of Evil”

You can watch the video of my sermon “The Nature of Evil” here.

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The Nature of Evil

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 3/16/14. It explores the nature of evil in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.

The video of the sermon can be watched here.

One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers – Cain and Abel – teach us about the mythic first atrocity. Brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased by Abel’s offering of meat, and that God held no regard for Cain’s offering of grain. At first God noticed Cain was disappointed. He asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Shortly thereafter, consumed by jealousy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Am I my brother’s keeper? These words, to the scripturally-minded, would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt; claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. Why should I know or care; that other person is their own man (so to speak) and no problem of my own. It’s an ancient story of murder, but it’s also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest of our personal responsibility for those around us – especially when we know they are in trouble – whether we’re to blame or not. Implied in the story, we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we’re called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.

We often get lost in in the doctrines of original sin. These are interpretations that would come much later in time in the Christian Church.. But from early on – the text itself tells us that evil, that sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence. When we throw compassion away. It’s found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality, and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity, and sometimes through apathy we come to witness evil.

But the nature of evil is not indicative of everything bad we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we’re jerks. We’re short of temper. We’re flippant or rude. We forget to recycle the can of soup. We don’t tip our waiters. Evil is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward today though, I’m going to stick with using the word sin to describe the smaller human errors – for our smaller intentional errors.  Calling a bad deed an error or a mistake is sometimes appropriate. But sometimes it sounds like we’re talking about a math problem and not human crisis. Separated from the notion of Original Sin and Heavenly Judgement, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways – intentionally or not – through our actions or through our lack of actions – and that’s sinful.

Our choir music this morning references the acts of genocide central to the horror of World War II. With the dead reaching beyond 12 million souls – Jews, LGBT folk, dissidents, Gypsies and so many others, the mind can not grasp the loss easily. … Germans killing their own for the differences we pretend are bigger than our humanity. … For us, that staggering number would be akin to the death of two thirds of the people who either live or commute through NYC everyday. Most of our family, most of our friends.

When our music director, Richard, first sent me the lyrics to the choir’s anthem today “Written in Pencil”, I wrote him and said, “I think the lyrics are cut off. Can you resend the document.” All I received was, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car” “here in this carload – i am eve – with abel my son – if you see my other son – cain son of man – tell him that i”…. Richard wrote back and said, “‘Written in Pencil . . .’ isn’t cut off.  That is where it ends (poignantly), and it’s as if the writing (in the railway car) has just stopped there.  Eve doesn’t have a chance to say anything to Cain.  This may be the poet’s way of indicating that the railway car reached its destination and Eve was put to death.  It may also be an indication that there is only an unspeakable response to unspeakable horror, even from a mother.” …

And there are no words to finish that thought…. The Holocaust left humanity reeling from what seemed unimaginable before it wheeled into the 20th century. It was grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from I. It teaches us we are alone in this world, and its ok to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, or hate, or fear, or jealousy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego’s identity through isolation or group think. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It’s a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices lest they rule us.

In Unitarian Universalist circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. Even saying “the reality of evil” may get some to raise their eyebrows in polite conversation. We’ve moved away from Original Sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it, rather than look the  difficult parts in their face. This is a great weakness in an unreflective UU theology. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil, while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives – they’re not mistakes. They’re not errors. They’re a perversion of life.

From the big picture, it’s impossible to configure every safeguard, every step along the way, that might have prevented such an atrocity. If war is ever just, war to end genocide is certainly counted amongst the acts of justice. From a practical pastoral level though, we can diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act.… Being present to one another…. Being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, and our joys and our sorrows. Being human with one another. This won’t remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day – in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, or fear, or jealously – begins from someone who can’t face the world as it is. They’re either building up their own sense of self by diminishing another, or they’re craving some solace or satisfaction they falsely believe can only be achieved through another’s sense of loss. But with every greed or jealously, the satisfaction of the thing once obtained, rapidly disappears.

The spiritual discipline of Presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff, or in dehumanizing another. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life, and being a part of something whose vastness exceeds our imaginations. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth, and our essence. It’s opposite, leads us to a road of pain and misery; a road that often drags others along the way. I can’t imagine a form of evil that doesn’t involve ceasing to be present to another’s humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It’s found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.

Our graphic today in the visual presentation depicts an immense pile of shoes from a camp or killing field. The shoes are a testimony to the atrocity that has been committed. They’re also a visible reminder of how evil happens. When each individual’s humanity is relegated to remnants and cast-offs; when we make another’s humanity a number, or a category – we craft evil. When we sit idly by, while the cultural production of evil occurs, we are complicit in its crafting. Evil is not done by acts alone.

Our wisdom story today is probably the best metaphor for my own belief in heaven and hell. I tend not to spend much time on the afterlife. I know it’s an odd thing for a minister to say, especially one who does believe in God. I just don’t find it’s an area that I have much to go on either way, so it’s not very helpful getting caught up thinking about it most of the time. But I do believe our sense of Heaven and our sense of Hell – in this life, and the next (whatever that may entail) is built upon this Jewish Folk story. We create a thousand heavens and a thousand hells in our everyday by how we handle and treat one another. If everyone’s sitting around a warm cooking pot full of nourishing soup, but is stuck with very long handled spoons – the people who care to help one another to the soup will be well fed; those who ignore their interdependence will starve. And those that force others not to help one another will also make the community starve. I think of this when I hear stories of people saying we should cut food stamps; or that people are unemployed because they’re lazy. It’s a profound lack of empathy; it’s a profound lack of being present to the pain of others; and it’s a profound lack of awareness of the actual economic nature of our country. But it’s an easy rallying cry to say, “those people over there! They’re the ones that are the source of our problems.” It’s the nature of evil to do that. And it’s a scary thing.

Heaven and Hell are open to us in every moment, in every way, for every thing. If we retract to our egos when pain or challenge comes along, we will be greeted with further pain and challenge. If we reach out to our neighbors and they do the same, we will nurture a heaven of compassion. It may not end the wars abroad, or violence in the next town over, but it will create pockets of humanity where we have the most influence. And in time, the rest will follow.

This is not the same thing as saying we get what we give, or we get what we send into the universe. I’m not preaching The Secret here, or what they call Laws of Attraction. I’m saying that compassion calls us to reach out – but still – our neighbor has to also reach back. That’s not a given. Reaching out doesn’t earn us or guarantee us a positive response. But spiritually speaking, it’s the only sane thing to do under most circumstances. To put it lightly, in our everyday living, Heaven happens when a group of decent people act like proper humans. Yet, most of the time we don’t do that. Each of us in this room here – each of us – from time to time, we won’t do that.

Hell happens when we institutionalize the clutching and grabbing. It happens when the ego reigns supreme. It happens when decent folk look away. We saw both the clutching and grabbing, and the looking away in the story of Nazi Germany. It’s sobering to know that the two decades prior to the rise of Hitler saw a decade of liberal acceptance followed by an economic downturn. The flow of freedom, turns to an ebb of fear from scarcity – and a people change. It’s easy to say that’s only in them over there back in that decade some 75 years ago. But our Nation’s own history with the depravity of slavery; with the genocide of Native Americans; with the Japanese prison camps; and the Chinese worker-chains; and as our responsive prayer today reminds us – of our actions with the Atomic Bomb.

We have that in ourselves too. Human nature has a profound potential for good. Human nature also has a tendency toward sin when left unexamined. And in some situations – individual – or communal – that sin can be staggering. In each of the American cases of depravity, the people of the time were able to rationalize their actions. Each was based upon the false notion that the other – that the African, or the Native American, or the Japanese or the Chinese – were somehow less deserving of freedom or life because of the arbitrary difference chosen for the moment. We were not present to another human being as a fellow human being. We strengthen our egos through the idolatrous worship of sameness, and we shatter the lives of those that can’t worship our idol because of birth, station or chance.

Some of you may still have a hard time hearing the word sin in reference to our individual actions. Try thinking about it in terms of communal actions for a short time. In society, you might even come to believe in Original Sin, albeit in a new form. Our nation struggles with many institutional forms of oppression. Oppressions that were birthed in another generation, before any of us were alive. Oppressions that were responding to different circumstances in a different time. But they were passed on. Not just in the form of personal bias, but in the form of institutional systems that keep some people down, while lifting others up.

We see it with women who can’t get equal pay for equal work. Is that crisis your personal fault? Yet it continues. It’s inherited in our system, and we have tremendous trouble cleansing our nation of that disparity despite the facts being in the open. You can replace this systematic sin with any other -ism you’d like and it would only strengthen our concern.

God’s words in the early scripture return to us, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When we do well, and things are going smooth, sin is not that close to us. It’s when times are tough, or we fail at something, or we need a scapegoat, that it runs in through the open door. When the stock market is down, or housing is hard to find, or our schools are underfunded, or we can’t seem to stop going to war, or when people’s sense of power is threatened as demographics shift – that is when we must master what’s lurking at the door. When we succeed we may be vulnerable to pride. But when we’re weak, we’re vulnerable to making others weak as well so that we appear strong. In these times of failure, our faith, or our character becomes committed to the care and feeding of our ego, rather than resting upon the eternal bedrock, that can be found, in every moment, where we take in another breadth. Feed your neighbors with your long-handled spoons, and be ready to be fed in return. Make sure to teach our kids that lesson well. It is here that we craft Heaven.

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