Posts Tagged Thanksgiving
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/18/18. It looks at the priorities we keep, and the community we build.
This past Friday night, we were coming back home from dinner out with friends in the City, when we wound up missing the better train home, and had to grab a train to Hicksville and get a car back, or wait another hour for the next late night train back. At the Hicksville station, they had a sharp mural of the train station with the town’s motto engraved in it reading, “Hicksville is a community that has time for you.” My first reaction was, “oh, how sweet.” And then I shifted, as I realized that that’s a rarity these days. How often do we all lament that we have no spare time for anyone or anything. I love that motto, and I’m sad that a Chamber of Commerce knew it was probably necessary to say aloud.
I know that’s a challenge for our religious community as well. Many of us are raising kids; most of us have two income homes; having to bring work home, and longer-than-preferred commutes – and for our kids – school and sports, seem to make for longer and longer days. With the holidays coming up, even figuring out where we will be can be a challenge for those of us with families in multiple states. For years we tried to go from NY to NJ and to Connecticut and back in a day for Thanksgiving before we gave up and declared we were splitting the holidays – we’ll see one half on Thanksgiving and the other half on Christmas.
Everything is worthwhile, how do we prioritize and still find time for a cup of coffee with a friend?
It’s in that spirit, that I want to challenge us to see our Fellowship as a religious community that has time for you; and it will take all of us. In my time here, I’ve seen strong friendships that have been built over decades of care and commitment. One thing they each had in common, was that at some point, people said yes to opening up; to asking for help, to offering to care for one another. It’s kind of a radical counter-cultural idea these days. I know I was raised to be self-sufficient, to handle adversity defiantly; to not share with my neighbors our struggles – sort of the opposite of keeping up with the Jones’, more like merely “keeping up with the appearances.” It’s a really bad way to do community, and it’s a really bad way to do religious community; and it’s really exhausting.
I want to begin by telling a story – one that I’ve told before maybe five years ago – so it may be familiar to some of you.
“A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full.. The students responded with a unanimous ‘yes.’
The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.
‘Now,’ said the professor as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things—your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions—and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else—the small stuff.
‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ he continued, ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.
Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Take care of the golf balls first—the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand. One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented. The professor smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you asked.’ The coffee just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a cup with a friend.”
When our lives become fixated on the small stuff, the iPhones, the tiny grievances of strangers, the hunger for more, then our jars are filled with dross. They may be filled, but they are not full. All the little things still can find their way, but fullness comes when we craft the space for the more important things in our lives first. When we don’t allow work to take precedence over our family and friends. When we pause to enjoy our home, and not just to use it as nightly hotel. When we set our priorities for religious community, raising our children, making connections with those from other generations and serving the world’s needs from our place of giftedness. These golf balls all make the jar full – first.
For some of us, this will fit hand to glove. For others, family and community are places where we’ve known pain. I have a favorite line from the Marge Piercy poem, “To Have Without Holding.” “Learning to love differently is hard, love with the hands wide open, love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked, the wind roaring and whimpering in the rooms rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds that thwack like rubber bands in an open palm.” Filling our hearts with compassion, means this too. It sometimes means pain. Living our lives with an openness of reach; with the wind making crazy all through our lives; with the sting of the rubber band – is uncomfortable. And it is necessary. Openness is sometimes a discipline.
The love, the sting, the possibility, the self-restraint, the attention to those we care for, the hands wide open – can all be expressions of eating for fullness. Apathy, scarcity, gluttony, vocational distractions, grasping – can all be expressions of eating for excess. Intuitively, we know how they feel different. And each of us are known for both at different points in our lives.
So as we head into the holidays – that odd time of year that is often our lives at our most busy – when we’re supposed to be finding time for one another – let’s remember to center ourselves on prioritizing what is most important, and not sweat the small stuff. The small stuff will always be there.
All this month we have been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of gratitude. When I was a kid, that word tended to mean the things I was thankful for; as in – the things I hadto thank people for. Be grateful you have food in front of you, or a roof over your headsand so on. It’s an important early life lesson. But as we grow older, or as we mature, gratitude as a spiritual virtue, takes on a different meaning, or maybe a different nuance. It’s the other side of Grace. So often we over identify with doing; and we can do it for so long we start to think everything we have or don’t have is mostly due to us, ourselves. That’s another myth that’s exhausting. Sometimes it props up our egos, and can lead to a kind of stinginess of spirit toward our neighbors who are struggling. And sometimes it can batter down our egos, and makes us believe that we’re not good enough – that our value and worth is tied to our doing. Religion tries to teach us that our worth is tied toward Grace, not production. Our worth is inherent, not achieved.
We probably all want our kids growing up to know the value of work and commitment, but we probably don’t want our kids to think they aren’t good enough if they aren’t the best, or the brightest. And yet, when we buy into the lie of busyness as a virtue, that’s exactly what we’re modeling for our kids.
A people of gratitude is another way of saying, a community that has time for you. It’s a good way to be.
As we come to the close of this homily, I want to take a moment to do a deeper dive into this month’s offering….
Some 6 year or so ago, I was on a non-profit start up team for an endeavor at our seminary in Chicago, Meadville Lombard. Their Dr. Mark Hicks wanted to build out a whole new program for the seminary that would be a responsive wing for our faith tradition to develop new and counter-cultural trainings that deepend our faith, and help to reknit communities. The first major innovation that came out of that program, was the Beloved Conversations program that our 11 congregations on Long Island are taking part in starting next week. They are trainings on how to have difficult conversations around race and racism. Our cluster has about 40 folks committing to the 8 session training. There may be more space left if you’re still interested; if so let me know soon, so I can see if we can fit in another person. This program has had tens of thousands of UU’s participate. Some of our congregations are on their third iteration of the training – it was that helpful.
Our collection this morning is going toward funding another, new, project like Beloved Conversations. Greta and I have already secured half the funding through grants from the UUA and Meadville itself. This collection is another part of the fundraising. The program is really a first of its kind in our denomination. We’re looking to have developed a curriculum that trains a sort of lay ministers for justice work. What are the skills we all need to do the organzing we need to do to build the beloved community we dream of? But also, how are we spiritually fed in this work, that seems perpetual? How can we better get outside our own assumptions on how the world works, to build up that community within our own congregation. The program we have in mind, would apply to all lay leaders who would want to commit the learning; and we’re are particularly centering the needs and perspectives of emerging adults. Unitarian Universalism is no different than most other American Faiths in our challenge to retain our youth into adulthood. One of those challenges is how we integrate our teens into the life of the community when they are no longer teens. When they bridge into adulthood, how do we make sure that bridge leads them to our congregations. With so many of the newest generation being so incredibly active in justice work, let our Fellowship and our denomination be a place that helps them achieve their hopes. And it may very well mean, we need to learn new ways as a community, to make space for their leadership. How can we be a community that has time for all of us?
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/26/17 for our Thanksgiving Contemplative Service. It looks at the dual nature of peace and risk in the natural world through the comic foibles of one Unitarian Universalist minister.
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.” – Wendell Berry
This culminating line to the poem about the Wild Geese by Wendell Berry is the quintessential description of spirituality. Poetry is possibly the best medium for the definition to such an elusive word: Spirituality is a word that’s better encountered, than defined. It’s a word that we can know what it is, without knowing what it means; and poetry sometimes helps us know what it means, even if we can’t readily articulate it in words.
The peace of wild things is one of those phrases that evokes a range of reactions in people. Some of us, made quite sure we’d be here today, because that phrase is the bedrock of how you do “church”, even more than Sunday morning worship. And others, maybe, have an “allergic reaction,” so to speak, to that sense of spirit – the natural world is anything but peaceful.
Both sides speak to me – in the love of the natural world, and what emanates from the transcendent made imminent – as well as the frantic New Yorker hyped up on anti-histamines, fearful of the welts mosquitoes leave, and who subsequently loves spiritual Winter hiking. The swatting of my hands to stave off the bugs, makes warm-weather hiking with me anything but peaceful.
I remember one trip that brought out both extremes for me. It was the morning of my 31st birthday. I had spent the summer working on my Spanish in Guatemala, mostly through a language school in the city of Antigua. I was ending my trip by traveling across the country, and closing it out by hiking through the jungles of Tikal. There were enclosures at various spots, so don’t think I was camping out on the ground, that would have been suicidal really – there were enough threats for anyone in the daytime waking hours.
When I got to Tikal, it was probably around 85 degrees, and I think the humidity was somewhere around 120%. This didn’t stop me in the slightest from dressing up for the occasion in the fashion that suited a person who was allergic to everything – and who upon being bitten by a mosquito will usually have welts the size of quarters. I put on jeans, and boots, t-shirt, covered by a long sleeve shirt, covered by a hoodie (which of course was up the whole time I was in the jungle.) Guatemala also, thankfully, has more lax laws on how much deet that can go into bug spray. I was covered in it – on my skin, on my hoodie, on my belt and my boots. The peace of wild things is all good, as long as they aren’t crawling on me.
I recall seeing all sorts of insects I’ve never seen before or since, from giants ants with tiger striping on them, to the lovingly placed spider webs at head height with spiders the size of your fists in them. I only walked into three or four of those nests. Probably the most disturbing, was a moment with my small group, where I was a few feet ahead and the air in front of me started to waver – it took on a fuzzy appearance – much like the old static on black and white TVs for those that remember them. It was maybe five feet in front of me. I asked the local tour guide, what was I looking at? I honestly couldn’t interpret what I was seeing – it was so absolutely new to me. He casually said – “oh, those are army ants on the march. You should probably take a step back now.” (You should probably take a step back…)
Maybe this is the Unitarian Universalist in me – and our fervent anti-creedalism – but any theology centering the peace of wild things – needs to also make room for army ants five feet in front of you. It’s nice to say, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you, but that’s not vaguely true. Sometimes you’re just very lucky.
Spirituality that pretends we have more control than we do, may be comforting, but it’s not deeply rooted. You probably haven’t been so close to actual army ants on the march, but most of us have faced far worse in our personal lives up close, and lived to see the other side of it. Or maybe you’re facing such a travail right now. If you can, maybe you should take a step back. Some things aren’t meant to be faced head on….We’re not always, or even usually, in control of the big things of life….
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way…”. The peace of wild things is about abandon, and faith. It’s the very opposite of control. What is essential is all around us, but we don’t achieve it by our strivings, we come to it with abandon, as in love or sleep.
On that fateful morning of my 31st birthday, in what in hindsight appears to have been an attempt to activate every one of my primal fears and terrors, right before sunrise, we climbed up on one of the step pyramids in Tikal. It would be later in the day, when I found myself clinging 50 feet up to a ladder that was needed to access a tier where the steps had eroded – paralyzed for a solid five minutes – where another guide would again casually comment later, “oh yes, we added that in a few years ago when some German tourist fell to their death.” But I didn’t know that fact yet. Hanging from that ladder was the very moment in my life when I learned the deep truth that you don’t always have to prove you can do something.
In the first pyramid we climbed though, much of the hillside had been left intact from a dig, and you could gradually climb to the top like you would any other hiking trip in hill country. Scary for some of us, but still doable. In my undergraduate years, in addition to religion, I dual majored in anthropology and archaeology and focused on ancient Mesoamerica. I was not going to miss this chance to see the world from that ancient angle – not because of a hill.
So as I was sitting up top, as the sun was rising, about 50 feet above the tree line of the jungle – you could look out and see for miles and miles – with other step pyramids peeking out from the tree-line. When, with what seemed to be spontaneous generation, dragonflies began appearing all around. They were waking up to feed in the early morning light – but I could not see where they were coming from. Just more and more were in front in the blink of an eye. Easily 30 or 40 dragonflies whipping about within fifteen feet of where I was sitting. It was one of the most magical moments in my life. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. I did not know where they came from, or notice where they went, but for a time, they were all that I could see.
May we attend carefully to the moments that come swiftly, unbidden, in new and unexpected ways. Those new moments to our clear eye, and our quieted heart, are the ancient faith, found in abandon; abandon of our worries, and our thoughts, our accomplishments, and our fears. Letting go, to let a little more of life in, much like as in love or sleep.
Amen and Blessed Be. And I’m glad to say this was the first, and only hiking excursion I’ve gone on in the warm weather months, where nothing succeeded in biting me.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/19/17 as part of our annual Hunger Communion service reflecting on the reality of hunger in our world. This sermon reflects on my own journey of dealing with 40 days of pain from migraines.
I’m generally not too prone to headaches. But earlier this week I had to endure a day and half long migraine, that had moments where it receded, but I went to sleep in pain, and woke up in pain. I made a comment about it on Facebook, and those who follow me there began sharing their own stories of enduring long periods of pain. Sadly, some of us live with this reality off and on for years at a time. And we slog on, often with the people one step outside of our immediate circle never knowing it’s going on.
Fortunately, I haven’t had a migraine in years. But my last one, about 7 or 8 years ago, was a true nightmare. It lasted for exactly 40 days straight. It was debilitating. I couldn’t really go out. I couldn’t manage night meetings, a staple of ministry these days. I would dose up on ibuprofen, or the like, and do my best. Short meetings; short ventures into email; ear-buds in my ears while navigating the loud subways. People were largely respectful – almost all of us have had a bad headache, but after a week or two of them, you start to see it in the person’s eyes, and folks go gentler around you.
I saw my doctor and had tests after a week of it going on. Blood-work, then a specialist, then cat scans or ct scans, I think I even had an EKG done at one point. Medications would shift between visits. Can’t even recall what they put me on these 7 or so years later. As one week, turned into three and then 5 weeks, I was very much at my wits end. Everyone in my life had recommendations that would make things better: From sleep (which was hard when the head felt like a nail was behind your eye), to exercise (even though I was an avid walker who back then did 3-9 miles a day,) to herbal remedies, and on and on. Nothing worked.
My third visit to a neurologist had her scratching her head wondering what it could be. Thankfully, all the very serious matters, like cancer, were ruled out. Desperate, and what felt like on-a-whim by her (though I’m sure it wasn’t a whim to this top speciliast), she said, “let’s try this one other thing. Not sure that it’s going to do anything, but it won’t hurt and we’re running out of next options.” She hooked me up to an IV and for the next ten minutes, gave my blood an infusion of magnesium. …The pain ceased immediately…. It was quite literally on day 40, that my wandering through the medical world with a largely incapacitating condition, found a way out.
I was immensely grateful. I could think again. The inner new Yorker in me, wondering why we couldn’t have started with that simple remedy 40 days sooner, but I wasn’t going to complain. It was over.
Earlier this month, Greta spoke about Sabbath as a counter cultural spiritual practice that’s not only healthy for us, but empowers us as citizens to remain engaged and to have the energy not to be complacent. Being exhausted makes us vulnerable to so many other things in life. In the ministry, we’re trained with buzz words like, self-care, and healthy boundaries. Like most of us these days, it’s quite easy to slip into perpetual exhaustion mode and become vulnerable to illness, or emotional fatigue, or migraines. Especially when the world around us seems to be spiraling further and further into corruption.
But rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. During my 40 days of wandering with a migraine from doctor to doctor, I was getting rest, I was exercising more than my average neighbor – at least by what I could still do with the pain – walking. I did take days off, like a normal human being. But my body was missing something, a nutrient. That’s on my mind today as we celebrate our annual Hunger Communion service. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients.
As a twenty-year vegetarian, before adding a small amount of fish into my diet somewhere around three years ago, I often had people worry for my health. How can you ever get enough protein? Oddly enough, for most of us vegetarians, protein isn’t the thing we’re likely to be missing. We need a lot less than American Steakhouses would like you to think. I wound up adding a small amount of fish to my diet, not for protein, but to help with good cholestrol. But we have to be intentional around getting all the vitamins and minerals found in meat too. That was the problem with my migraines.
We live in relative privilege in this area – at least compared to our global neighbors. And I say that with the caveat that too many Long Islanders are living paycheck to paycheck, and on food stamps, as we spoke of earlier in the service. We have food pantries right here in Huntington for the people of Huntington. It’s not a distant problem. We don’t all have it even vaguely easy. But I’m grateful that even when I started in my career, I had access to a range of specialists, even if it took 40 days for a resolution. That’s not a given for all of us, and in every part of the world.
Our ritual earlier draws this to our attention. Our congregation this month is taking up collections on the related crisis of access to water to support our global ministries in this effort – and as we spoke of earlier, access to water in some parts of the world, means access to education. It’s all interconnected. And many of us help grow food for our neighbors during the warm weather months. That is what we can do. That is what we can do to stave off hunger, as we prepare for our annual celebration of gratitude over a shared meal that many of us will stuff our stomachs and our faces to capacity with family or with friends, or if we’re very lucky, family who are also our friends. That’s not always a given. And if you’re available this evening, at 7:30pm at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenlawn, I’ll be taking part again in the 46th annual Huntington Community Thanksgiving Service. The church is at 497 Pulaski Rd, in Greenlawn. In this world with seemingly increasing division and discord, it’s a beautiful opportunity to worship with many different religious communities. The collection will go toward the local food bank.
But to return from this important aside, rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients. We’ve focused this service on practical or earthly nutrients. But amidst all the stress and strain of our political landscape, there are other kinds of nutrients we seem to be missing. And it’s causing us all a lot of pain. I’m thinking of role models, first and foremost. It seems that almost no one in the public eye is safe from scandal, abuse, or perjury any more. We’ve increasingly fixated on the Television, the paper, the big screen, and now-a-days social media – to see images of people to look up to. Some role models are still safely around, but this distant form of consumption is often hollow. We need real people, with real connections, in our immediate lives. That’s what religious community is about. That’s why so many of us volunteer for our Long Island UU children and youth summer camp – Fahs. We can disconnect from the frantic pace of the ten thousand things, and connect back into real healthy human relationship. I’m not knocking social media – it’s kept me connected in real ways with a lot of people. But when we project onto the wider genre of media all our needs – or our most important needs – I’m concerned we’re missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals.
If you’re exhausted, and frayed, and pulled in 10 different directions – so you can’t find time for a spiritual practice – you’re going to be missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals. There’s a famous quip from a Rabbi that said he prayed every day for an hour – except for when he didn’t have the time – on those days, he prayed for two hours. Our calendars are spiritual documents. Take a look at your calendar some time today – whether it’s on your phone or on your kitchen wall. Does it look like a work document, or a document for your own life? Variety, human connection, work, family, giving back to your community – those are all part of balanced living. It’s not just about setting healthy boundaries – it’s also about getting more of what your heart, and your head, and your soul need in this one precious life.
What are you missing in your life right now? Think back to a time, or a hobby, or a practice, that fed you. It probably wasn’t an achievement, or a thing to further your career – but maybe for you it was that too. Definitely not an obligation or a chore. I think by now you all know that I’m a big ol’ gamer geek. I love science and fantasy, and all things mythic. For years, I had a regular weekly gaming group I played with – and by years, I mean starting from the age of 12 and it only really stopped about 5 or 6 years ago. It had no productive value. Pure creativity and fun, plus I got to hang out with friends doing something we all enjoyed. Well, work demands, and living further from those friends, finally put and end to a hobby that I loved for 24 years. Driving from Brooklyn or Long Island to Northern NJ through rush hour on a weeknight, was not for the faint of heart, or for the busy schedule.
But, after attending more and more long-distance denominational meetings via video conferencing, (and I’m seeing some of our commitees choosing to meet via video call to better manage everyone’s dense schedules) I thought “If I can host a 17 person meeting on this platform, I surely can get together with 4 or 5 friends.” A few months ago, I decided to carve out Wednesday nights, and my old gaming group welcomed me back – albeit remotely. I thoroughly swear we accomplish nothing of note. But we are very creative; we laugh a lot; and it’s 3.5 hours every week where I devote to something that’s only purpose is to feed my heart, and deepen human connection.
There’s something deeply human about creating space for being with an activity you love that serves no other person’s purpose. What is that activity for you? Hiking, boating, knitting, sports, comic con? Our life’s diet needs to be diverse, and activities we love are part of that diet. It makes everything else we do and accomplish more meaningful; but we’re not just our doings and accomplishments.
Let us close with the words of the poet Levertov’s, we heard earlier in our service, echoing in our memory, “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water to solace the dryness at our hearts. I have seen the fountain springing out of the rock wall and you drinking there.” … “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water. That fountain is there among its scalloped green and gray stones, it is still there and always there with its quiet song and strange power to spring in us, up and out through the rock.“
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
This Thanksgiving sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shootings in Colorado Springs, Minneapolis and the protests in Chicago.
Last Sunday, I was in our large church in Dallas, Texas, celebrating the ordination of a colleague into our Unitarian Universalist ministry. We knew each other from our campus ministry days, and from a few years where she was a student minister at my former church in Brooklyn. It was a privilege and a joy to be there.
It was a whirlwind trip, Saturday through Monday, so I didn’t get to see much of Dallas at all. But the church itself isn’t too far from what’s known as the gay neighborhood, which led to a few conversations about recent local news. There’s been a spate of hate crimes targeting gay people in that area. The Dallas UU church is centered between two larger sections that are quite conservative – so it stands out.
I’m finding the news of the world often very demoralizing of late. I imagine I’m not alone. And hearing first hand about some of these local attacks, was dispiriting. But then we celebrated the ordination of a young, married, Lesbian woman to this 1200+ member church in the heart of conservative Dallas, (and me – a gay male minister is offering the pastoral prayer and laying on of hands) and I began to think – we have come such a long way. Maybe it’s not all that hopeless after all.
The Dallas church has a large quilted art piece hanging from its central wall in their sanctuary. It’s a large square that is made up of four sections – each comprised of smaller squares. They take it down from time to time, and I was told, can rearrange it in various ways. Each square on its own, looks just like a few splashes of paint that begin and end with no sense. But put together, to me, they resembled an artistic rendering of fish-like swirls that was quite compelling. It all depends on where you look, and how they put it together that season.
Our video screen presentation this week has an image of a heart made of up many other images in each tiny quilt-like square. It reminds me of that kind of quilted image in the Dallas church. Looking casually, it’s a heart, but looking more closely, we see the pattern through the particulars. It all depends on where you look.
Amidst the sea of pain in the news, I’m trying to look for the stories of hope, the stories of the helpers, the places of change and healing. But not so much that I fail to see the places where I need to be the story of hope; where I need to take on the role of helper. Many of us can swing too far in either direction. We can lose hope or purpose before the crush of the challenge of it all, or sometimes we can hide behind the ease of just finding the stories of good and forget about the hardship. The spiritual challenge is to not lose sight of the bigger picture, while at the same time, striving to gain strength from the patterns etched by those of good faith and good action.
All of this month, we have reflected on what it would mean to be a people of ancestors. What patterns do we find in our history, that informs the pictures we see today? I’m guessing that many of us may have had Thanksgiving meals with family members who interpret a very different pattern than you might. Why do we often see such different images?
The stories that speak to us, the ancestors that we shy away from or that we are drawn toward, impact the quilted patterns we come to understand today. Take our reading from earlier. The poet is trying to convey that what is good in the world, is in some way eternal. Good intents, or actions – prayers of those who act with good faith, and for good purpose, never quite leave us. It’s language that we often draw from for our memorial services. Like a pebble in a pool, our actions have rippling effects, often beyond where we can see in our own lifetimes. We may no longer be here, but our impact is lasting.
The poem references how we are free to absorb that which is good, not the rules but the spirit, of what came before, and transmit that through our world. Our faith, at its best, strives to do that good work. What did our religious forbears strive for on their better days? Can we carry that on, and learn from their mistakes and their low points?
But that question only works, simply at least, if we are coming from a place where we are not too heavily scarred from a religious past. We can all too easily draw to mind historical atrocities, and current atrocities, done in the name of religion. They ripple on through the world as well, often just as strongly. The poem I read earlier, can we heard as a balm in a difficult time for some, and rose-colored at best for others. It depends on where we view it from; how our life, and our heritage, have arranged the quilted piece.
So maybe it’s both. Places of spirit never lose their power, for good or evil, so long as we choose to carry on their torch – for blessing or curse. And we all make that choice – intentionally or otherwise. We carry and multiply the impact of the work of our ancestors into the world today.
But we must be conscious of that history to understand how we knit our world together; imagine it and reimagine it. As we finish our national holiday of Thanksgiving, we exercise our annual complicated retelling of one of the worst times in our nation’s history. And we often forget the really positive aspects of it, while we try to forget the atrocities done to the Native Americans.
We began as a people who were religious refugees from Europe trying to start a new life, free from religious persecution. We brought war and genocide, so we try to tell the story in a new light. That doesn’t go away, no matter how hard we try to tell a white-washed version of it to our children. We can’t change that history, but we can make new decisions based upon the lessons of the past – if we allow ourselves to remember those lessons.
As we learn of the plight of Syrian refugees, we would do well as a people to remember our nation began with refugees. Slave and immigrants would make up most of the rest of us, but religious refugees were the first. It’s a twisted form of xenophobia to demonize religious refugees seeking sanctuary, considering where we came from.
But it depends on how you look at it. Not all who oppose offering our safer shores to families fleeing terrorists are white or Christian, but it’s safe to say a good many people who are responding with fear and xenophobia are – certainly who we are seeing saying so in the news. …Recently, white Christians ceased being the majority in 19 of our states. White Christians have become a minority in states like Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Lousiana, Florida and Georgia to name the places that might be more surprising to us. I can’t help but wonder what impact this has on our national fears and anxieties? As some of our traditions change, or who we see on the streets change, or how normative our own cultural practices are any longer change – do we become more fearful of difference?
We sensationalize everything into a war of civilizations. We can’t seem to make it through one December without someone crying there is another “war on Christmas.” It’s a tired thing to say. I know folks are responding anxiously to what they imagine is being lost, but frankly, that’s not what war looks like, and we’re not losing Christmas because some silly coffee cup is only red and white, rather than red and white with snowflakes and sleds. We’re not losing Christmas because someone wished you Happy Holidays. It’s not an attack, and it’s probably not about you. And before the Outrage Machine was birthed on Fox News, in my childhood I recall hearing Happy Holidays and no one felt attacked for it. But nowadays, we can make anything into an attack, and make anything into something about us. The casual public outrage even gets rewarded with media attention, viral YouTube posts, or shares and likes via blogs and Facebook. Outrage becomes a sort of false ideal we worship. Maybe outrage is the real war on Christmas – but I’m not going to call it a war, because it’s still not that.
I see it with my own social media usage. You may have noticed that I’ve largely taken a break from blogging for the Huffington Post. I was finding that the more moderate, sensible, middle of the road stances I would take would get close to zero attention. In order to be well read, I would have to make sure to use media buzzwords and current lingo. Bonus points if I could flip some dominant narrative that was pervasive in a sensational way. In some ways, it’s how we’re wired. But I think it has more to do simply with just what sells better. If it’s not provocative enough, why would I bother spending time reading it? Maybe apathy and hyperbole are the real war on Christmas. But I won’t use the word war, because it’s definitely not war.
How we look at it, where we come from, which ancestors most influence our better angels, and who we identify with more, greatly determine how we see that quilt. This past week has been full of so many stories of grief and loss. There were 5 peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors shot in Minneapolis by White Supremacists; one of my colleague’s adult child was standing in between two of the shooting victims when they were shot. It goes from a story on the news, to a story that involves friends and their safety. That affects how I see the pattern on the quilt.
There was a massive Black Friday protest in Chicago by the Black Lives Matters movement in response to a very horrific video that the City was required by a judge to release to the public. And in Colorado Springs, a white domestic terrorist attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic. Three people were killed, including Officer Garrett Swasey who was there protecting civilians. Four more civilians and five more police officers would be injured as well. Even though the gunman was overheard spouting “no more baby parts”, the media would be reticent to say anything more than “his motives were unclear.” (deep sigh.) What stops us from calling a spade a spade when atrocities are committed by white Christian men with guns on our own soil? How does that affect the pattern we see?
Depending on where one comes from, people are describing all these stories in very, very different ways. Are they about social justice? Police brutality? Lone gunman with mental illness? Reproductive freedom? Domestic Terror? Protecting children? Gun rights? Supporting our Police? We as a people need to get better at separating out all the competing political interests. We as a religious community, are called to discernment and action. Ethically, I don’t believe we can wash our hands of it all and pretend it’s happening far away, or that we don’t have a responsibility in changing our nation’s ways and laws. There is a pernicious and deeply disturbing trend where we scrutinize and villianize every action and motive of people who are not white Christians, but we forgive or ignore the most egregious of excesses of those who are white Christians. And when we finally and rarely acknowledge their wrong-doing, they are effectively absolved of being white Christians – as if it didn’t count that time. Why does the white Christian gunman’s life matter more than the lives of their victims?
We all know the story of the Thanksgiving meal with family we haven’t seen since the last Thanksgiving. We see parodies of it on Saturday Night Live almost every year. At the mythic – but real – table is seated every walk of life, every good or bad social position. (For the purposes of this story, you can fill in the good or bad social positions however you like.) Part of our national challenge is recognizing that we all are hearing the same stories; we are looking at the same image, but we are putting the patterns together differently dependent on so many factors. For some, Thanksgiving is bracketed by a fundamental change in cultural practices, a perceived attack on social norms, and a very real loss in power and privilege and dominance.
Thanksgiving for the rest of us, may reflect a growing awareness of how hard we can make life for too many people. Or maybe, we’ve always lived in the reality that things were just not quite equal for us. But like the quilted image of the heart in our service, the image we see is still made up of many, many other snippets of images or stories that craft the whole. When we cover up part of those stories to make sure our impression of the image remains unchanged, we’re just lying to ourselves. When we white wash what happened in Colorado Springs, or we pretend the gunman was a lone actor when he’s Christian, but any single Muslim terrorist is an indictment against a whole people, we are just lying to ourselves. If we need to lie to ourselves over silly coffee cups and a war on Christmas, it’s one thing. But doing it when people are fleeing our enemies and just trying to find a home for themselves, their children or their friends; that goes far beyond lying.
The road our country is walking has been a long one, and many of us are tired; some our comfortable in their lying to themselves; and some are weary from abuse. But our road is not yet over, and we have much more work to do – together. As we close our service this morning, I’ll bring us back to the beginning and the story we heard about the white raven becoming black – their feathers scorched by their sacrifice to save the Sun for all humanity. Beneath the crush of all the world weary stories we hear, we can come to feel hopeless. I recognize that, and I feel that myself from time to time. I’m going to say something unpleasant, but I think true: sometimes feeling hopeless is a luxury we can’t afford.
We have people who need us – and some of those people in need are in fact us. We have refugees in dire need – who factually have zero ties to terrorism beyond the simple truth that they too are victims of terror. Time and time again, we have black civilian youth who have toys in their pockets, and sometimes knives in their pockets, who are gunned down with impunity, while we watch white christian men with guns who shoot civilians and who shoot cops, who are taking into custody to stand trial – sometimes we even protect them with kevlar armor. That clearly is not the same treatment. We have people who need us. We have clinics across this nation – who offer life saving health care to women – literally under fire because demagogues on the right fabricate videos that imagine human baby parts are being collected and sold on some fantastical science-black market. We have people who need us. We may be weary on this long road, but being hopeless is a luxury we can not afford.
On this very difficult Thanksgiving, may we find gratitude for the strength we can draw from one another, and a common purpose in building the world we dream about. Take heart. Be rooted in love, and continue to show this torn world that there is another way. The world needs you to.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We pause in our nation this week to remember all the people, and things and dreams we are grateful for.
We try to take less for granted,
amidst a world that too often teaches us to always grasp for more.
Help us to enjoy what we have, who we know, and where we are,
before seeking to find solace in having what we do not yet have.
May this practice of gratitude teach us to war less,
to judge less,
to argue less.
May we learn to raise peacemakers,
and to welcome strangers into our towns,
and friends back into our lives where we have lost our priorities.
We continue to pray for refugees seeking a safe harbor;
may our nation’s hearts grow wisdom in their hour of need.
We pray for the people of Chicago and Minneapolis,
who struggle toward justice,
at a time where White Supremacy stretches into the light.
We hold in our hearts the people of Colorado Springs,
and the good workers at Planned Parenthood clinics across our nation.
We especially remember, Officer Garrett Swasey, who was a good man,
and a brave officer. May all the people affected find healing where they may,
and strength for the road ahead.
And may our nation cease the demagoguery that feeds fear and hatred and misunderstanding.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Hope,
We pause this hour, in witness to the many feelings we hold in light of the Thanksgiving Holiday.
Some are grateful for family and friends close at hand,
for the warmth of home, and a table set full with food.
May we remember these joys in the hard times that come to all of us.
Some are struggling with illness, in body or in spirit,
tired from the weary journey,
season after season;
may we find strength from those around us,
and not lose hope,
so that our hours may still be filled with the preciousness of life.
Some are mourning the loss of a beloved family member, or a friend.
Help us to grieve, for grieve we must.
Help us to honor their life, and to carry on their memory,
so that their presence may live on through our actions and our love,
ever stirring the world for their touch upon it.
We also recognize the pain that has struck our nation this year,
whose Spirit has moved over our land once more,
a sense of injustice for black male youth,
before the power of institutions, and courts,
and the rage of privilege against those with little power.
We pray for the people of Ferguson,
who have lost another child on their streets,
whose police force will need to discern a way forward in a now impossible crisis,
for the national guard who must face rioters,
and for the protestors who must manage their pain and sorrow and civic duty,
while being falsely blamed for the rioting of others,
others who are full of rage in the face of a long history of violence against our black neighbors.
Teach us not to, ever and always, blame the victim first.
Help us to find ways not to repeat this story over and over,
as we have throughout the decades.
May we stay uncomfortable, stay heartbroken, stay in a place of loss,
long enough to commit to helping to affect change and healing.
May we not allow the story of Ferguson to be forgotten by the next sound byte.
May we remember long enough to allow love, and wisdom,
to find a home in our courts and on our streets.
We know that real solutions are not easy;
they require effort,
they require reflection,
and they require change over complacency and disinterest.
Just because the path may be difficult,
is no reason to continue to do nothing.
Black lives matter.