Posts Tagged time

At The Close

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/27/17. It reflects on spiritual discipline of taking one thing at a time during times of crisis and loss.

Go back to your earliest memories of Summer as a child. We’re often wired to remember the hardest times more easily than the good times, but I’ve found over the years, that most of us have pretty clear memories of some really wonderful good weather day of our yesteryears. The day that sort of defines our standard for Summer – the day we’re always deep down trying to relive into today.

I hadn’t yet turned 5, and my family just moved into the “starter home” that my parents still live in 37 years later. The neighborhood kids and teens came by to say hello, and my parents gave me permission to go out and play with them at the local park. Most parents were more permissive with their kids back then, to go out and play in the neighborhood, but I was especially lucky. We lived across from a middle school that was next to an elementary school and our local church. It was a place where a lot of kids always were.

I recall that day stretching out forever. I remember it as if I were out for 12 hours, but thinking on it, there was no way in the world that my parents let me, at the age of 4, be gone that long. I was probably exhausted and hungry after an hour or two. But I don’t remember it that way. My first taste of freedom on my own – even though my mom could surely see me the whole time. I was growing up; I had a little more control over my choices. A time when I didn’t have any real responsibility.

We strive for that as adults. How can we get away – on our own – but as adults we’re not trying to get away from mom to go play with the kids – we’re trying to get away from the burden of our duties and obligations.  Until we’re retired, it seems increasingly impossible to disconnect from our career responsibilities. And from what I’ve seen from many of our Fellowship’s retirees, obligations don’t seem to actually taper off even then – they just change.

This is the time of year, when we catch ourselves wondering aloud to our friends “where did the Summer go? It went by so fast this year.” For me, this was probably the fastest departing Summer of my life. I know we often say that time seems to go faster every year, but I don’t find that to be consistently true. It’s more a matter of how distracted, or burdened we may be at any moment. If we’re dealing with health problems for ourselves or with someone we love, time stretches and shrinks in odd ways – maybe even at the same time.

I’m starting my tenth year in the ministry. It’s a milestone. With most of our clergy beginning the ministry somewhere in their fifties, ten years may be the only milestone most of us ever reach. So it’s getting me a bit reflective. Time is a funny thing. It sure doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing this for almost ten years – so it’s quick in a way. But I also would never say that it felt all that short. Time stretches and shrinks over the years. It’s more a matter of perception than reality, though it does have a real impact on our lives.

As a related aside, I was just asked on Friday to step into the role of Co-Chair for our denominations’ continuing education program for our 1800 UU clergy. I’ll be taking on the portfolio of worship for our continental (and international) professional gatherings. That doesn’t happen for new ministers. But there’s still a way in which I still wonder, how did I get here? I’m sure we all wonder that at different points in our lives. How did we get here? For some of us it’s wondering, “When did retirement sneak up on me?” Or for others, “How did college finish in the blink of an eye?” “My baby is graduating from high school this year.” None of it was actually quick – we can all remember the burdens and trials along the way, but it still goes in the blink of an eye. One of my friend’s son, who I still think of as an infant in my mind, is learning to ride a bike this weekend. He’s no infant, but the mind does weird things sometimes. Often, we compartmentalize some parts of our lives – the harder struggles – and they stretch out forever. And we experience the moments of wonder and awe, all too briefly.

Spiritual reflection can help with this. The old adage of taking things one day at a time, is good advice for managing suffering. Don’t let everything crash down on you at once in your mind, but get through each struggle on its own. But there’s a way in which we sometimes use that adage to make things harder on us. I remember an old TV comedy by this name – One Day at A Time. It was about a newly divorced mom raising her two daughters in the 1970s. It was a very funny show. It was also built on the premise that there’s always going to be another struggle to overcome. It’s true in life that there will always be more struggles – some that will be incredibly difficult. But when we internalize that to the point that it defines our life, we further lengthen our travails and shorten our moments of wonder and awe.

We all struggle with this. Maybe we could move toward another adage – “one moment at a time.” Moment by moment, enjoying or managing what’s before us. Letting down the burdens as they are overcome – rather than carrying their pain with us for the rest of our days. Only we ourselves know, when it’s time to move on from the weight of what we carry. But take my words as an invitation to wonder differently about how we choose or not choose to – let go. Holding onto the pain, keeps us in that pain maybe longer than we need … and it also sometimes makes us lose track of the good in our lives.

And sometimes we can’t let go. It’s not time. It’s been an odd Summer for me this year – so different than my childhood Summers. As I said earlier, it’s been the quickest on record. I still got out to visit family out of state. The dog and I still made almost daily 3-5 mile walks together. I had a lot of time out in the sun, a lot of time reading, even a great week at our annual Fahs summer camp for children and youth. But I think it went so quickly because there’s so much in the world that weighs heavily on us; especially in our own nation. The news cycle is necessarily keeping my heart and head in one-day-at-a-time mode, and the anger I feel reminds me to stay focused.

I was enraged Friday night when I learned our President ignored the rule of law by pardoning Sheriff Arpaio – who was found guilty of racially profiling latinos while subjecting them to inhumane prison treatment. Arpaio hadn’t even been sentenced yet, and President Trump didn’t even have the normal pardon review process done. Maybe Arpaio is just another name to you. Several years ago, I took part in large protest in Phoenix over the prison camps he created. People were subjected to 110 degree desert heat – with only a tent over them – and no air conditioning – without even normal due process. He lost lawsuit after lawsuit that was leveled against him, but until the people of Arizona voted him out, he was going to continue his atrocities in our name. That’s the man that our President thought deserved a pardon. On the night of the larger public witness I took part in 5 years ago, we heard the names of 122 detainees who had died in US detention centers that past year – none of whom have ever even gone to trial for a crime. Dying in a detention center without ever seeing the light of a court room. Five years later, Arpaio being guilty of contempt of court, gets to dodge even receiving a sentence for the crimes he’s guilty of.

I’m in one day at a time mode. As Texas is about to face a potentially devastating hurricane – with no one in charge of FEMA – our government is keeping the immigration check-points active – not only as dangerous choke points for folks seeking safety, but they also make people make the impossible choice between seeking safety from the hurricane or risking deportation.  Lives are literally at risk by our social policies, and we wield them like they are harmless political talking points. We have lost any semblance of moral integrity as a nation, when we put children and elders at risk for empty political gain. As of this morning, five Texans have already died due to the flooding, and we’ll still make it harder for people to find safety, rather than help those in need.

I’m in one day at a time mode. The White House has signed a directive to ban Transgender soldiers from serving. We’re insulting our heroes who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect us – and we’re willing to insult our heroes for empty political talking points. Greed, indifference and naked pomposity is the rule of the day. And I’m in one day at a time mode.

And yet still, living “moment by moment”, or mindfulness, can still lend us focus and a path forward at the close of one very difficult Summer. As our earlier story about the potter – being less about what we create – and more about the process along the way that changes our own character – we can choose how to internally respond to the horrors of the day. The anger reminds me that I care – that’s why I’m angry. I’m still human. I worry for the day that I’m too numb to feel it. I’ve been there before, and that wasn’t better.

One of my colleagues paraphrased yesterday some wisdom from Leslie Mac – one of the leaders of the Black Lives of UU organizing collective – that’s particularly helpful to me in thinking through our process of moving forward as a religious community during a time when greed, indifference and pomposity are the rule of the day. Here are Leslie Mac’s words: “Anything we do regarding policy change can be undone, as we’ve seen with complete clarity over these past months.  So it is most critical in our organizing that we do it in such a way that we are left with real and meaningful relationships–those can’t be undone.”

So, at the close of another Summer, and the beginning of another school year, I was at a planning meeting this past week of our Huntington interfaith clergy group. This is the time of year we begin thinking about our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service. But this year, we have all the national hate crimes on our mind – the rise of the KKK and Neo-Nazis in the public square – from Charlottesville to Boston. So we came together this time – to begin to address our next steps.

We’re doing better at reaching out to one another, to linking into more faiths than just Christian and Jewish (though we have more work to do), and we’re trying to make sure that not only white clergy are at the table (though we have even more work to do on that score.) I’ve been talking with Rev. Artis, the religious affairs director for our local chapter of the NAACP, and we are beginning to desegregate clergy collaborations to everyone’s appreciation. This 9/11, save the date for an interfaith prayer vigil of unity in the face of hate at Hecksher park at 7:30pm here in Huntington Village. And two days before that, our Fellowship will be teaming up with the NAACP, at the Unity in the Community all day festival on Saturday, September 9th from 11am-5pm at Stimson Junior High School. Policies can be undone, but we can deepen our relationships, and no politician can undo those for us – nor can any politician make those relationships for us. Only we can do the work of relationship building in our lives – moment by moment, or day by day.

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Moving Forward

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the meaning of denomination and tradition in light of being a member of community over time.

When we bought our new house, we were given a gift from our Realtor – it was a kit for a bat house. You see, I have a real problem with mosquitos. If there’s a porch full of people at night, I’ll get more bites than everyone around me combined. And each one, within a day, will swell up to the size of quarters. Of course, the people who never get bit will always ask me why I’m freaking out, or doing the funny dance every five seconds (fruitlessly, shooing away mosquitos), or why exactly do I have to wear THAT much citronella.

It’s a cute wooden rectangular box that hangs above our shed in our backyard. The dark paint warms it up in the day – which bats need, and it’s high enough so that they’ll find it and like it. With bats able to eat 500 insects per hour – each – we’re very eager for new residents.

But that’s not likely to happen. We’ve since learned that it takes on average 6-7 years for a new family of bats to find one of these bat houses. We’re still holding out hope that we’ll beat the averages, and a family will move in sooner. So in the meantime, full or not, we’ll care for our empty shed-based home for the future.

This is in part, why I so strongly support denominational involvement. Our seats may be full here, but there are future religious homes that offer a saving progressive message that need to be planted, cared for, and supported; and we can’t do it all by ourselves. And there’s always the reality that some of our efforts will lie quiet for a time, and someone needs to be able to steward them in the fallow times. Someone was there for us when we grew our religious home in Huntington, and we must be ready to return the favor down the line.

We’ve talked about Community all month as our theme. I’ve preached on how we discern our call in terms of the people around us. How we make amends and rebuild right relationships when we have fallen astray. And this morning we’ll move from the local and the social to the bigger picture. The role of community across time and generations.

The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed (UU) once noted that, “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.” Whatever we do on our own, is inherently limited. Time will bring our individual actions to an end. Even the lasting effect we have on another can diminish if it goes no further. That’s where tradition, in its largest sense, carries us further. As a community of communities, our ways, patterns and practices can continue on.

But as Morrison-Reed says, it’s not just about us. In fact, the broadest traditions are almost the opposite of us. “…For alone our vision is too narrow…”. And we join religion to enable a wider view and a longer memory. That we might contribute to the tapestry of life through the high points and the low points. So that when we are too weak, we may share our strength with enough people that we become strong. And we are strong again for it. That is what denominationalism can mean.

For some of us, we are converts from another tradition. Others may be life-long UU’s who have never dipped their foot in the larger denominational work. Some may still be carrying scars from a tradition where the word “denomination” meant to them “calcified hierarchy.” Others may be at a place where they come here for this community and don’t identify with our wider faith. I suggest now that one of the challenges of membership is to appreciate the purpose and positive impact our tradition holds for all of us. This house of hope wouldn’t be here without it.

Some will chide that Unitarian Universalism is anything but an “organized” religion. It’s a joke I’ve never really thought held much water. I’m a product of our organization. My training, my mentors, the financial support I’ve received, the professional groups that I can rely on to help in times of particular challenge. The assistance this congregation received in its back-to-back clergy and educator searches. The connections in times of sabbaticals. All the dynamic programming our youth enjoy at the regional level through conferences, retreats, workshops, and the list goes on. The curricula we use, the national justice campaigns we learn and serve, and the list goes on and on. We will often joke we’re not organized because it lets us off the hook. If we’re not organized, then nothing is demanded of us. And too often, we don’t want anything demanded of us…. Whatever our preference though, do remember … religion does make demands of us. In fact,… it’s good for our spirits that it does.

On our own, we can fall into complacency, self-aggrandizement, and even prejudice. On our own, we are not held accountable. One of the most important lessons I learned in seminary is that we are always accountable for our actions, our faith, our behavior. Community calls us back into accountability, even on the days we’d prefer it not. And that’s good for our souls. We are not meant to live as isolated creatures. It is not good for us to always be let off the hook, even if from time to time letting something drop is a healthy thing. The world is not a series of low-bar reality TV shows with no relevance. On our own, we can start to think that way, and we need to be guided – back on path – from time to time.

What we can accomplish is also so much more as a tradition.  A few years back I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, the people who had no other place left to go so they went and stood up for themselves, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.

I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Clark Olsen to travel and stand for their congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible. I don’t even know their name.

Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings – together. Alone, our everyday strivings sometimes plant seeds – and that’s a great thing. But together we can more productively garden our plantings into something that’s meaningful, sustainable, and makes a more lasting impact.

I’d like to end our sermon by returning to the message of our Buddhist parable this morning of the monk who sat in a tree. “This is my question. Tell me monk, what is it that all the wise ones have taught? Can you tell me the most important thing the Buddha ever said? … finally “This is your answer governor. Don’t do bad things. Always do good things. That’s what all the Buddhas taught.”

Right, hopefully we all learn this by the time we’re three years old, and we all spend the rest of our lives learning to forget that. It would be convenient – it would be easy – to say that religion and denomination aren’t really important. All we have to do is remember what we learned when we’re three. Yeah, that’s all we have to do – and the world shows us countless examples of people forgetting the basics. Religion can be the source of the problem or the source of the solution. I challenge us to join this faith as part of the solution. Not joining it solely because we want to find like-minded people who confirm and reinforce our values. Not joining it solely to have another way to make friends when we’re lonely. Not joining it solely because we’re trying to find our way in the world. I challenge us to join this faith – or rejoin this faith – to be held accountable. We are never always going to be right. We are never always going to be able to face the challenges of the world on our own. We will not always remember what is right and good in every situation. Legacy of justice-making requires the baton to be passed from one hand to another across the ages. We can’t hold onto it and still expect to win the race – and we can’t pass it along by ourselves. And remembering what we all learned at the age of 3 is clearly one of the toughest challenges life has to offer. So let’s tackle and re-tackle that lesson together. May we hold one another in our arms – accountable – with hope in our hearts, and love on our lips.

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