Posts Tagged Theology

A Theology of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/4/18 reflecting on the balance of doubt in faith.

“There once was a farm in a valley that was practically perfect in every way, except that it had no rooster to crow at the crack of dawn, and so everyone was always late getting out of bed.”[1] If only all our problems seemed so simple! But I imagine it didn’t seem like such a small deal to the folks on the farm. From missing newspapers to late-milked cows, to plain cranky attitudes, life in this otherwise perfect valley was marred by its one lack, a missing rooster.

What’s your missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude.

I love this story. I try to tell it annually at one of our services. It’s an excellent lesson on our third principle – where we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. For the rooster in the story, the one thing missing, was their confidence in themselves. Doubt was the story they had to overcome. And for all the well-intentioned helpers in the story (the pig and duck and cats), the one thing missing for them, was a healthy dose of doubt. They had to overcome their own stories of expertise and confidence, to leave room for the rooster to find their own voice. Doubt is not always helpful, and over-confidence in all things, can lead down the road of mainsplaining – or in this story’s case – pigsplaining and ducksplaining and catsplaining. (For some of us in the room, that’s just funny, and for others it’s funny because it hits so close to home.)

All this month we are asking ourselves, what would it be like to be a people of balance. Doubt and confidence – in the case of our rooster, and doubt balanced with faith, as a religious community. For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to go straight to our heads. In the everyday push and pull of the world, for the small daily acts of what next, we can 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 58 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, (and there was certainly mainsplaining going on between theologians back then as well) 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 a truly 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 58 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. (And the youth conferences merged first, bringing the rest of us along a year later.)

The big questions: 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 spirituality 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.

Depending on where we came from, the word doubt will be heard differently – at least religiously speaking. If you were raised UU, it’s probably an honest word, that reflects the uncertainty of faith. If you were unchurched growing up, and are coming to a service for the first time, you might have a curious approach to the word. And if you’re a convert from a creedal tradition, it might be shocking to hear from the pulpit that doubt isn’t a four-letter word for us (so to speak.) Striving to be a people of balance, doubt is part of that balance – so long as we allow it to inform, and not to limit.

It may turn out to be the case that 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 can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t 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. …

We heard earlier in our service an excerpt from an essay by Parker Palmer. “To live in this world, we must learn how to stand in the tragic gap with faith and hope. By “the tragic gap” I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.” Palmer is helping us to realize that seeing new ways, being open to new perspectives, can both paralyze us into inaction through corrosive cynicism as he calls it, or make us useless through ineffectual idealism. But we need to still have the room to find new ways, if we are ever to build the beloved community. Ultimately, even “Heartbreak can become a source of compassion.”

Palmer’s tragic gap is largely built upon the balancing act of heart and mind; of doubt and faith. 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. And some of us craft our idols very diligently – yes even us. (Maybe especially us.)

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.

[1] “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janeen K. Groshmeyer p. 88

 

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The Five Stones

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/11/16. It addresses a faith with no creeds.

 

I’ve told this story about how I found UU before, so I’ll be brief, but it’s important for today’s wider message. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

In many ways, the Morristown UU Fellowship was the last place I would have imagined myself joining. They were a staunch atheist fellowship that had severe allergies to theological language – and I very much believe in God. H forbid anyone use the G word. And the J word was right out! Buddhist influence wasn’t wide-spread enough yet in the mid-nineties to inform the spirituality of the services overtly. And yet there was a lot of heart in their meeting space on Sunday morning. There was a there – there – that I couldn’t exactly place at the time. If I’m honest with myself, my younger self appreciated the stark contrast to conservative Christian teachings that I hadn’t yet worked through. It was a community that was wrestling with the nature of being. And that was enough for me. I didn’t need an answer, I needed a space to find myself, and live into community.

The next congregation I was a member of, couldn’t have been further afield in style or expressed theology: All Souls in Manhattan. Largely toted as NYC’s only New England Style white-steeple church. A 1500 member churchy-church, with an organ, actual pews, multiple pulpits, and monthly communion services. I joined there while I was in graduate school.

Both settings are Unitarian Universalist. Both hold the same values. Both are seeking a faith path that is open to hope, possibility and joy. Openness, mindfulness, reverence – have become central in most of our congregations. All of our communities have religious humanists and religious theists among us. Trappings are the difference, not content. All of our congregations have a central UU theology – in some locations it’s more clear and others it’s simply felt beneath the skin.

I’ve long identified as a sort of hybrid UU. Denominationally speaking, most of us are converts and some of us are life-long UU’s. I have converted to this faith, but I did so right at adulthood – so in many ways this feels like my life-long choice. By a show of hands, how many of you have been attending our Fellowship for 2 years or less? How many of you have been a UU since childhood (prior to turning 18?) How many for 30 years or more? (I love watching the changing demographics!)

Now I’m guessing that the folks that have been attending for 2 years or less are thinking – “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.” I think it would be safe to guess that the folks who have been UU for 30 years or more are thinking, “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.”

Being a non-creedal faith is both a strength and a challenge. Folks are reticent to assert theological claims when we have no test of belief. We don’t want to make any theological truth statement because we appreciate that we all see the world differently and that’s not what we’re about. Some years ago, I was attending an annual conference of religious professionals in Williamsburg, Virginia. One Sunday evening I attended worship at their local Episcopal church – which was led by a former professor of mine when I was studying in England, and who became a dear friend of mine over the years when he moved to the States. They got to the point in the service where the community recited the Nicene Creed. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a minute or two long creed with some very specific theological details in it (just about none of which I actually agree with.) My UU colleagues next to me were visibly shocked (one actually jumped – and he’s not a jumper by nature) when I began reciting it from memory. For context – it had been over 20 years since I had attended a Catholic Mass, and left the Catholic church in my high school years. …We have nothing like that. Although I imagine we could begin the practice of reciting our 7 principles as a covenant and it would fit that role. Our principles are promises we struggle to keep with each other. But they’re action statements – not creedal assertions.

Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. But our sources themselves are not strictly a theology. Our sources are not an interfaith smorgasbord, although we sometimes treat them as such. “I prefer the course of cultural Christianity and a heavy dose of agnosticism please.” They ground us in our religious meaning. Any theology would need to reckon with them to be true to our core. Here they are more simply put: Transcendent mystery and wonder moves us to a renewal of spirit. Prophetic deeds challenge us to confront systems of oppression with compassion. All world religions hold wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Reason and science warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit. We are part of this world and ought to live in harmony with it. (Ok, maybe that could work as our Nicene Creed.) None of these sources answer whether we ought to believe in God or not, but frankly – that’s not what our theology could ever look like again. But our Six Sources are rich in very different ways. They give us space to be true to ourselves, to learn how to live into community, and hold a rich depth in themselves. And we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to disagree with any individual source – except for maybe how we apply them.

That’s a framework though, and not a theology. One friend once asked me, “but isn’t the central theology of Universal Unitarianism that there isn’t a central theology of universal unitarianism? Theological Switzerland, so to speak?” I won’t fault him on his placement of U’s in that sentence. And he’s right in a way. We tend to live with an explicit theological message that this is so: All are welcome. All can see the world the way they see it. (The only really important theological question is the nature of God so let’s just say we don’t have a theology because we’re not going to touch that one!) But that’s not the case.

I’ve been heavily inspired by the writings of James Luther Adams. He’s a mid-20th century theologian, minister and academic from the US who lived in Germany in the 1930s and was active in the clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism. We often take our theologians out of context. And as I talk about his thoughts, keep his experience in Germany in mind.

After the breadth of his 40+ years of writing were complete, folks started pulling together bits and pieces of his thinking, jumbled them together, and came up with some pretty helpful combinations. One such is an essay on “The Five Stones.” It’s a metaphor back to David and Goliath. In the Jewish story, a teenager “David” manages to defeat the Giant named Goliath on the field of battle with a sling and five stones. It’s a violent story, but a course of action that prevented two armies from colliding. There was one death instead of thousands. For JLA, the five stones become a metaphor for how we can combat systems of oppression in the world. What are the five things we can do that will unbind the oppressed? In modern language – how do we end Racism, Homophobia, Classism and Misogyny – to name a few.

What does our liberal faith say about living? I will paraphrase the much longer piece, which itself is an edit of a sort, using language that might be more familiar to us: 1. Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth. 2. Relationships between people ought to be free — mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles 3. We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression 4. Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another. 5. We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.[1]

This faith statement is central to our UU theology. If you are craving an affirmation or a negation of the nature or existence of God, I can only say again – that’s not how we do theology. Our kind of theology is like the scientific method. When we learn that Newtonian Physics is only correct at certain speeds and certain proximities to really big gravitational objects (like the Earth going at about the speed we happen to be going) we don’t throw out physics and say Science (I hope you can hear the capital S) is wrong. We say that there’s a process of testing and observation to follow. Likewise, our theology is one of testing and observation. When you have questions of purpose, belief, or values ask yourself – Does this thing or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Does it draw me closer into a community that is mutually supportive? Does it seek to bring more harmony and more equity in those relationships – even if the work is very difficult? Does it falsely make me forget that I have the capacity to live into this holy work? Does it remind me to live with hope?

Our theology is both a faith statement and a process of reflection. Our faith teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Wheresoever we freely choose to enter into communities with one another we are doing sacred work – not easy work – not convenient work but holy work. In this we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion. We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists. There is a reason to hope in this world.

[1] This is a paraphrase of James Luther Adams. Various sources include “On Being Human Religiously”, The Tapestry of Faith Online Curricula, The GOLDMINE Youth Leadership School and the 2012 Keynote address at the LREDA Fall Conference by Dr. Raser.

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Sermon: Return Again

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/1/13 celebrating Hanukkah. It reflects on the liberating roots of the holiday.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis made a statement that the media found incredibly shocking. The Pope called “unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’.” In his statement, he went further than previous comments criticising the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money” and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare”. Possibly, most notably he asked, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

At casual glance, following only the media’s portrayal of the statement, one might think this was a radically new position for the Catholic Church. However, Pope Francis also said he was merely continuing the thinking of Pope Benedict who had planned to say as much prior to his sudden retirement. And the ethical teachings of Jesus have long and clearly been understood to support the poor and struggling in the world, over those with means – who remain hard of heart.

Quoting the Catholic Church is an odd choice to begin a celebration of Hanukkah. But the two are very connected. The current Pope was formed in Latin American Christianity – which over the past 40 years or so has strongly been influenced by Liberation Theology. This branch of Christian thinking grounds itself in the biblical moments of Liberation. Think Passover where the Jews are freed from slavery. Or Hanukkah, where a people rise up to overthrow foreign ways. In these stories, and more, we see a religion that teaches that God sides with the poor of the world. That the oppressed will be set free from their oppressors.

This thinking says that our faith can’t be in money, or the stock market, or any of the thousand things our commercials tell us we need – to be whole. Liberation doesn’t mean freedom to do what we will; rather it means freedom to be whole; to be a meaningful participant in community. That there is hope in the world. That worldly powers do not always win out. That another way is possible. That we can be authentic. That we matter.

As our reading said today, “I am a millions-of-year-old wonder…. that I saw a bluebird with my millions-of-year-old eyes and heard it sing with my highly advanced evolutionary ears… Daily newspaper headlines could say, ‘Mary Feagan Exists Again Today!”. That’s the religious message. The Pope’s observation is sad truth – the newspaper headlines all to often read instead “the stock-market dropped two points” rather than cover the great moments of tragedy or success in our personal and communal lives.

Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights because of the miracle of lights. In the story, it is said that although the Jews only had enough oil to keep the sacred fires lit for one night, the oil miraculously kept the fires burning for 8 days and 8 eight nights. It reminds us that somewhere deep within us, is a real strength. When we feel empty, or alone, or defeated – there is still room for a miracle. Human perseverance is the real story in this and every age. Every age believes itself to be exhausted, or worn out. Every age laments what has passed away, and believes its trials are the worst we could ever face. As horrifying as history has been at times, no matter that we may feel like we’re running on empty with no where to go, Hanukkah reminds us that we have all the stores we need for the story ahead of us – so long as we ground ourselves in community.

The revolution of this spiritual people did not happen as individuals. It birthed in families, and houses of worship; it was grounded in the community that it sought to save. That is the crux of Pope Francis’ critique of unfettered Capitalism. It becomes a tyranny of the few over the work of the many. The community is secondary to the success of the individual with a myth that the individual’s success neatly and evenly distributes out to all who are blessed to witness their magnificence.

To go a little deeper into the example I mentioned in passing for last Sunday’s sermon – Walmart. Having employees work on Thanksgiving Day is in itself not a moral failure. Some people are just scraping by and need the work. Having been raised in a working class family, with a mom who worked retail, and a dad who often worked opposite hours so that I was never alone – I appreciate the reality of working holidays. Or as a minister, Holidays are usually the time when my work is the busiest – seeing family who live out of state is almost impossible. It’s the nature of my vocation. The moral failure is a system that makes it so that people must work on holidays in order to survive. To compare to one of its competitors, Costco pays its Cashiers an average of $15.06/hour vs Walmart’s $8.51/hour. That’s about $31,000 per year vs. just under $18,000 per year. Both companies are doing exceedingly well for annual profits. Both are clearly Capitalistic. But Costco functions in a model where the Executives don’t need to make eight hundred times the salary of their cashiers, only a fifty times. According to CNN Money, Walmart CEO, Michael Duke’s, compensation is the same as what 796 of his employers make in a year. Costco CEO, James Sinegal’s, compensation is the same as what 48 of his employees make in a year. I can’t think of a clearer articulation of the differences between unfettered Capitalism and one with regulation or moral regard for its impact on communities and families. We can choose a Capitalism that serves all of us, or we can celebrate a Tyranny this holiday season. And we all have shopping choices to make when we do so.

The Hanukkah story we told this morning was less about money and more about religious authenticity. According to Michael Lerner, a PhD, a founder and editor of Tikkun magazine, there’s another angle to the story that does closely relate to all of this.

“…Jewish Hellenizers saw no point in resisting Greek rule. Their goal was to live in harmony with the powers that ran the world. They could benefit from the connection to the expanding trade of the Hellenistic world (the Greek-inspired cultural world). On the other hand, the vast majority of the Jewish people were small, independent farmers who lived on the land and brought its produce to Jerusalem three times each year to celebrate their hard-won freedom from slavery. It was they who bore the brunt of the taxes imposed first by the Greeks… These Jews resented foreign rule and detested the city-dwelling elites who seemed to be earning favor with the Hellenistic conquerors, imitating their ways, abandoning the religion of the past and becoming worshipers at the shrine of political and cultural “reality.”   From: “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation”, Lerner, Michael; 1994, p. 272-3.

In other words, some were comfortable with the new world and its expanding trade, and some had their work taxed more than others. The Hanukkah story was about foreign power, religious authenticity, and the differing responses from those that have and those that had not.

Our theme this month focuses on Peace. Hanukkah has a complex relationship to this. Although I tend toward pacifism, the reality is that both this story and the story of our own nation, are rooted in Revolutions in the physical sense. It’s easy to critique stories of violence in the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. The idea that God condones violence by one people over another is an easy thing to try to stand above and look down upon with derision. It’s particularly common in countries like ours where there have only been a few moments in our history where our own people’s safety was at risk on our own soil. It’s easy to judge when this nation has never been an occupied people by a foreign power. When one’s nation is no longer its own, these stories of liberation are real in a whole new way – a way that some of us can relate to, and most of us might not be able to. When liberation is a metaphor for feelings of dryness, or being trapped in bad patterns, stories of God-sanctioned violence seem overblown. When liberation is a desperate need – whether from a foreign power, or slavery, or genocide – nothing short of power may seem enough. We have to hold these stories in this tension – remembering that whatever privilege we may hold in our lives may make them harder to empathize with – but not any less true. And for some of us, we can easily empathize with the liberating message.

Nonetheless, the miracle of the Hanukkah story is two-fold. First the more magical side where one day’s amount of oil is enough to last till our reserves are filled in other ways. I mentioned that already. The other is the historic reality that a rag-tag group of farmers were able to overturn rule by the world’s most powerful ruler. It didn’t last forever, but its moment came. When we’re struggling in this world to defeat oppression, or counter the ills of a world ruled by the very, very few – we can remember this story and know that other ways are in fact possible. The success of the revolution was historic fact. We can whittle away at so many success stories, or religious texts, but this one had a concrete reality we can learn from.

If the Hanukkah story has many angles – the quest for religious authenticity, the desire for self-rule, hope in the face of adversity, and a turning away from valuing world-spanning commerce over local community – which thread will you pick up in your own life? How does it move beyond the history and speak to the present? …

In the book by Michael Lerner that I quoted from earlier, he goes on to suggest a reflective practice where we ask ourselves questions for each candle we light. I’ll focus on a few of them now, but if your interest is piqued you can grab “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation” to read more. The first night’s question is “Imagine your life freed of the need to accommodate to people with more power than you. How would your life be different?” There are many ways we can answer this as individuals, but I’d like to focus on the nature of our month’s theme – peace. This question feels like one rooted in two of our principles: Where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and where we affirm the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. The spiritual practice of reflecting on how those with more power influences our lives, can inform how we treat others. It informs how we can build peace in our lives. Sometimes we will not be able to change the oppressions that harm our lives. Sometimes we won’t be able to wave away the abuse of power a boss, or a friend, or a teacher holds over us. But we can learn to not replicate those ills with the people around us – or the people we hold some sway over. This is the foundation for peace in our world. Break those chains – in both directions. If we can’t break the ones that bind us to those with more power, we can break the chains we may hold on those with less power. We need to take the time though to reflect on where we hold them, and who we hold them over. Sometimes we’re harmed. And sometimes we’re the ones causing the harm; sometimes we’re holding the chains – and they bind us just as strongly.

The question for tonight, the fifth night will be: “Imagine what your neighborhood would be like if people really connected with one another as caring neighbors. Now imagine what you’d have to do to get others in your neighborhood to talk about what they’d want, and how they’d go about getting it, so that everyone would live in a friendlier and less alienated neighborhood.” To begin this month of reflecting on peace, this is your homework. How could we connect more with one another? What would others have to do to make that so? What would you have to change in your own life to accomplish that? Would our priorities have to change? Would our schedules need to lessen or be redirected? Is a less alienated, and less alienating world, worth your effort? Because it would take nothing short of all of us to accomplish that, right? If you come up with an idea you want to bring to the Fellowship, please reach out to our Hospitality Team made up in part by Cathi Zilliman and Jackie Agdern. I know they’d love the help!

This is the revolution of the spirit that Hanukkah calls for. To assess when power brokers of the world are running our lives in our kitchens or our living rooms. To determine when our farmers have lost real connections with our urban workers. To acknowledge when we’re following the gods, or the goals, of another people, and let go of our own values and ways. And armed with all that self-awareness, to free ourselves from the many yokes that oppress us – or that serve to gather our strength to oppress another. The revolution of the spirit is in living more authentically, and covenanting to affirm and promote the authentic living of our neighbors – both local and foreign – knowing that however far apart we may live, the Spirit of Peace calls us to see the stranger as our neighbor. In returning to our spiritual roots of this holiday, we return again to our authentic selves. We return our souls to the discipline of authenticity. We devote our minds to the practice of peace.

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The Art of Worship

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, on 3/10/13. It explores the meaning of music, corporate worship, and presence.

(I would like to start by congratulating all of you here today. Look around… You are the people that made it. Daylight Saving Time has not thwarted you this year. I have been crowd-sourcing all week to determine what time 11am actually was this Sunday. I suffer from what used to be a much more severe form of OCD – but alarm clocks are still the one source of angst that continues unabated. Apparently, we either all figured it out, or the group that comes later will be sorely disappointed that they were smarter than we were.)

When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings just our faculty Buddhist scholar and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now seven years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego. (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.

…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to worship at the ungodly hour of 11am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)

The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.

Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 300 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say encounter because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for our new Senior Minister, our community was split about 50/50 on the question of God.

With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.

Take our second hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.

Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists.

The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.”[1] Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.

We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn. Sometimes though we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts.  We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.”[2] He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time.

Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”[3] Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.

“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our pews this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.

All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.”[4] Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.

 

Please rise now in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn #36 “When in Our Music.” (It’s different than what’s printed in the Order of Service.)


[1] The UU Pocket Guide, Loc 824 Kindle. 2012 edition

[2] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p. 246 (Nook)

[3] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p.225 (Nook)

[4] The UU Pocket Guide. Loc 854, Kindle. 2012

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SGM: The Five Stones

#32 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn – Based on the sermon, “The Five Stones” preached by Rev. Jude Geiger at First UU on 10/28/12. This session offers an opportunity to reflect on our personal theologies and how they relate to our broader congregation. The sermon it’s based upon is found here: https://revwho.com/2012/10/28/the-five-stones/

Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting  (Please read aloud) by Rev. Jude Geiger

May we find a spirit of endurance,

When all we need is the strength to carry on for one more day,

A view that makes space for hope,

When a way is hard to find,

And an inclination to love –

Ever knowing that the world needs such passion,

All the more when we find it lacking in our own hearts and minds.

Statement of Purpose:  To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.

Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.

Covenant Reflection

Reading: An Excerpt/Edit from the sermon, “The Five Stones.”

Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. They ground us in our religious meaning. Here they are more simply put: Transcendent mystery and wonder moves us to a renewal of spirit. Prophetic deeds challenge us to confront systems of oppression with compassion. All world religions hold wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Reason and science warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit. We are part of this world and ought to live in harmony with it.

What does our liberal faith say about living?  1. Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth. 2. Relationships between people ought to be free — mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles 3. We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression 4. Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another. 5. We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.

Discussion Questions: What jumps out for you? Do you agree with all of this? Where do you differ? How does having a “theology” help you? How do you live by this already, how is this a challenge? How does this apply to your daily living?

Closing:   (please read aloud ) #683 by Theodore Parker

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Podcast: The Five Stones

This podcast defines a central theology for Unitarian Universalism. It was first preached at the First UU congregation in Brooklyn, NY on 10/28/2012.

http://revwho.podbean.com/2012/10/28/the-five-stones/

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Liberal Theology and the Uncertainness of God

Check out my Huffington Post blog on UU Theology and God.

http://huff.to/V3TrGN

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