Posts Tagged Unitarian Universalism

The Art of Purpose

This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.

Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. 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 had 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.

That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.

Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.

 It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.

My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.

Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.

We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.

Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”

         Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?

        “And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.
         …Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.

I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”



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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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Sermon: Atonement When We’re Already Forgiven

This sermon was first preached on the Sunday following Yom Kippur at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, NY on Sept 15th, 2013. It talks about atonement, forgiveness, and Universalism. To view the Youtube Video of the sermon click here.

It finally happened. I knew the day would come when I would use a complete sentence to title one of my sermons. “Atonement, when you’re already forgiven.” It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it. (Please forgive me.)

This weekend is the close of Yom Kippur, a High Holy Day in the Jewish liturgical calendar. It follows 10 days after the start of the New Year – otherwise known as Rosh Hashanah. For those 10 days, the Book of Life is once more open and we have the opportunity to make amends for all the wrongs we have done in the past year. We are obligated to seek out those we have wronged and sincerely ask for forgiveness by doing what is in our power to make things right once more. In Judaism, it’s a religious task. No one other than the person we have wronged can exonerate us. It’s a heavy task sometimes to make things right.

It’s funny. We all make mistakes in life. (Well, let me check that first. By a show of hands, who here has never made a mistake?) And yet, even though we all know that we all make mistakes, it’s often so hard to ask for forgiveness. Our ego gets in the way. For sure, the ego hides behind a few of its guises: Guilt, Shame, Apathy and it’s nastiest form, Self-Righteousness – otherwise known as “He-Who-Is-Never-Wrong.”

Yom Kippur teaches us that the ego can’t be allowed to get in the way. !It’s the Book of Life that’s open for 10 days people! You don’t want to ignore that! For some it means, a bodily resurrection when God will remake the world. For others, it’s heard as a call to Heaven. For some, it’s a reminder that we are here now – alive – and we might as well try to enjoy it. The grudges in the world can be too heavy to carry forever, so we should allow ourselves to put them down eventually.

And then there’s the other half of Yom Kippur that’s the real kicker. If someone has come to you, and sincerely tried to make amends, you are obligated to accept the apology. That’s right – during this time we are religiously commanded to finally and forever let it drop. …

I’m not sure which is harder – to ask for forgiveness, or to let the matter go when someone finally asks. I guess that depends on each of us. For some, one is harder, and for others it’s the other. And if you don’t let it drop, then the burden is now on you, the one who had been wronged. Because now you are doing the wronging.

Practically speaking, it’s good advice. We can’t live our lives forever in the moment of injury or harm. We all know we all make errors, so we should be gracious when others do the same things we are guilty of. But religiously, this holiday teaches us to move past what was, engage with the pain and the remorse, and keep on moving forward. Life does not tarry in yesterday, but we too often do. Think about it – when we hold onto grudges, months past the offense, despite the person seeking to make amends, it’s not really about the instance – it’s about our ego. My friends, life is not about our ego.

I’m mostly talking about the small to moderate stuff that needs to be forgiven. The stuff that most of us will encounter frequently over our lives. The kid who cut in front of you in a lunch line. The time she told you off. Your loved one who forgot to call you on your birthday. The guy that lied. The argument that would just not go away. The great wrongs in this world – that involve blood, real trauma, serious abuse – are more complicated. Some of us have dealt with those as well, but hopefully they are not everyday. We should not allow the everyday frustrations to feel like the great, deep wrongs in the world. They should not be treated the same. You know you’re doing that when you start using phrases to describe the smaller stuff like, “Never in my life have I ever been so offended.” Or “now this is really personal.” When you find yourself speaking like that, stop yourself. You’re really talking more about yourself than the other person.

Our monthly theme is Community, and this Holy Day also has a communal aspect to it. Atonement and Forgiveness are enacted and accepted by individuals, but the repercussions are felt by the community as much as the people doing the asking and giving. Any community whose members can’t make amends, is a weaker community for it. Our spirits will collectively tarry in yesterday; our work will be dragged down by repeating the injury over and over; our purpose will veer away from what our aim was as we continue to rehash or bitterly fight through old wars. We will not be here. We’ll stay back there. No community can thrive in that place. Like our wisdom story earlier with all the townsfolk carrying all the grudges of the world on their backs, we can’t live like that – not truly.

It’s part of why we’re a covenantal faith. Our groups and committees set covenants at the start of each year that we return to when trouble arises. We commit to promises on how we’ll engage, how we’ll support one another, and how we’ll disagree. We don’t break our covenant when we slip up, we break our covenant when we walk away. (As an aside – I again invite you all to consider joining one of many Covenant Circles that will begin on Sunday afternoons following Coffee Hour where each dedicated group will reflect on a sermon from the past month. Our Transitional DRE, Austen, is organizing the groups. You can email her to register, or I believe there’s an on-line link in the weekly e-Flash to register that way as well. It’s a once a month commitment for a year, and then next year we’ll shuffle together new groups so that more and more people have low-key ways to get to know one another outside of the sometimes noisy social hall. But contact Austen soon so that we can get the groups started! And if the youth group is interested as well, I can offer the sessions I’ll write to you as well. I know there’s a conflict in time otherwise.) Covenant is the practice of community.

Our choir anthem this morning[1], by Gloria Gaither, talks about living as one who’s been forgiven. “I walk with joy to know my debts are paid.” Her song is talking about the bliss her faith in God grants her. Yom Kippur encourages a similar view. We can go through all the motions of making amends, and never actually be forgiven by others for our actions. But we’re free. The Book of Life is open at this time. Another’s bitterness over the daily little wrongs in life has no authority over our lives. Nor should we ever expect our own bitterness to command another’s spirit. We don’t answer to each other’s ego, we walk with joy to another song.

Early Universalists believed strongly in another line of her song – “I walk with joy to know my debts are paid.” One of the earliest tag-lines of Universalism was “Rest Assured.” In an age where American Christianity was awash with fire and brimstone preachers, our evangelical Universalist forebears would fill massive tent revivals preaching the word of Universal salvation. An all-loving God could condemn no one to everlasting pain and torment. Our debts were already paid. It didn’t mean that we didn’t sin, or make errors. It didn’t mean that we didn’t have to make amends for our actions. It meant that the slate would be clean come Judgment day. For those of us who don’t believe in Heaven, or an afterlife of some type, the Universalists also applied this belief to daily living. The old joke went something like this, ‘The Universalists tried to get along with everyone on Earth because they expected to have to see them again after they died.’ It’s a bit snarky, but it is some practical advice. You might as well try to get along. We can’t move onto the deeper work in this world of justice-making if we can’t figure out how to do the basics first. To live, and to let live. To make amends, and to forgive. If God forgives all, -who are we – not to do the same. And if you believe God is just an ideal, it doesn’t really change the message. We ought to be striving to live up to our ideals, right?

Universalism teaches us that we’re already forgiven. It doesn’t teach us that we don’t need to still atone for our mistakes, for our small daily sins against ourselves and our neighbors. As our responsive reading calls us – we begin again in love. Love is the foundation of this faith, and it’s a spiritual discipline as well. When you find yourself rolling your eyes at all the “love is enough” language in the world that suggests it’s all so easy to feel – and give – and wipe our hands of a problem as if it were nothing – think again. Love is a practice that requires effort and constancy. Every time you hold onto a grudge past its expiration date, you have lost faith in the virtue of love. The ego that cries in the corner becomes louder than the bliss of walking in this world. Ask yourself, which would you rather carry? The backpack of grudges, or a heart of joy? It seems a foolish choice, but one we all make over and over again in our lives.

The song ends, “I’ve been so loved, that I’ll risk loving too.” We have all been loved in our lives. Early Universalism teaches us that we are not so small that God won’t love us. Even when we forget, we have been loved by family, or friends, or the family that we choose on our own, knowing it might be all we have. But we are still loved. That love we have felt demands us to pay it forward. Atonement is an act of love. So too is forgiveness. And on this High Holy Day, we are already forgiven; or as Dorothy in the Wiz sings, “… I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find, a world full of love like yours and mine.” So friends, look inside your hearts this hour. Live, and let live. And most importantly, let it go… so that you can let community into your lives; so that you can allow love to set the path of your days, so that this place can be allowed to be the ideal we dream it to be. And …Rest Assured. …

Hymn #323 Break Not the Circle

[1] A rendition of Gloria Gaither’s song “I then shall live

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