Posts Tagged UU
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/15/17 and focuses on how small actions can have big impacts. It looks at baseball as a starting point for social change.
In my twenties, I was a big fan of baseball. For most of that decade, I got season tickets to the Mets. A friend and I would rush out to Shea stadium from NJ after work, park what seemed like a mile from the game, and kinda get lost in the excitement of the crowd. I fell for the Mets mostly because their games seemed more over the top. The Yankees were maybe annoyingly perfect, but the Mets, the Mets were a roller coaster – they’d have their high highs and their low lows. They’d win big on big plays, and they’d lose horribly for the same reasons. I remember being at the game where Mike Piazza hit his 300th home run and put him on track for being the best hitting catcher of all time. The crowds, the noise, the horns, the cheers. In my memory, I recall confetti, but I doubt that really happened. It’s what some of us call “big baseball.”
I’m not much of a watcher of baseball these days any longer. When I went to grad school, schedules shifted, and it became too difficult to regularly get to a game. I’ve seen two games recently through winning the bid at our annual services auction – thankfully folks have great taste in the Mets here. But otherwise, I’ve not followed much. And I’m not really a fan of watching the game on TV. The excitement of the crowd is gone. And the TV broadcasters are honestly horrible at telling the story of the game. When I do watch at a friend’s baseball party for post-season, we turn off the audio on the TV, and turn on to the radio station covering it. That gets some of the magic back. Bad food somehow helps too.
But all of these big singular plays, are the opposite of what we’re talking about today in service. There’s another kind of baseball, from our other hometown team – the Yankees. They’ve certainly got their big moments, but the history of that team is much more about small baseball. Winning a game, play by play. Teamwork. Not swinging for the bleachers every time, but swinging for where the next team mate needs to be able to go. You can appreciate the skill in the teamwork, but it’s more about each role and each play, than the ball hitting the Giant Apple that’s way out of the stadium. Small baseball.
The short stop knows where to be when he needs to be there. The third basemen probably isn’t pitching, and the coach isn’t going up to bat. But each has a role, maybe with a bit of range depending on the play, but they win based on how well they adapt their role to the roles of others around them. Winning games is about being in right relationship with each of the other teammates around them.
Congregational life – when done well – is like playing small ball. Sure, we can do some really amazing things when one of our skilled members swings for the bleachers: 1) I’m thinking of how Frances Whittelsey spearheaded the Huntington Station Community gardens – home run. Or how Helen Boxwill leads an active life-saving international ministry getting water to communities in need, and building up educational infrastructure abroad – another home run. Taking a swing for the far reaches, and connecting. That’s part of our work here too.
And as awesome as that is – and it is amazing ministry – it’s important to remember that so much of succeeding in this big world, is playing the small plays too; and playing to our strengths when we do them. Someone’s got to make the coffee; someone has to clean up the kitchen after Fellowship hour is over. I’m horrible at repairs and painting, so you’re not going to have me up on a ladder with a brush, ever. But you might put me in the pulpit from time to time, and I’ve got a kind of role here around coaching of a sort as well, among other things.
But that’s true for all of our committee work, our justice work, and our outreach service. Starr spoke at length about all the small plays that have made our Grow To Give Garden a success – with it’s aim for 1000 pounds of fresh produce for the food pantry this year. Greta spoke the same about HiHi – our men’s shelter for migrant workers. Later in the service we’ll show a montage, with some photos, of the success of small ball we’ve had over the past year and a half. Much of that was collated and encouraged by our own home-grown pitching coach – the Long Range Planning team. Every ministry team needs to act on their own best judgment, always in relationship with the other teammates in congregational life. And it’s helpful to have a coach set our sights; to give a little course correction on how we bend our elbows on the throw, from time to time. So in a way, today’s service is a way to celebrate Long Range Planning’s coaching.
But there’s a life lesson to this for each of us too. We can’t always get our way – our individual way. Teamwork is one of those lessons we all get taught in kindergarten that it then takes the next 75+ years to vaguely get close to mastering. (But we probably think we’re masters at by the age of 15, or 35 or 50, or 65…). Who here thinks I’m wrong, and believes they’re individually entitled to get their individual way (show of hands.) What happens when (you two) disagree? Who is more entitled to their individual way?
That’s the challenge around everyone knowing best how the world should work; it’s particularly hard when we try to force our way without seriously considering the needs, expertise and goals of those around us. When our Fellowship helped spear-head the formation of HiHI, our men’s shelter for migrant workers, we didn’t accomplish that by catering to everyone’s individual preferences. We partnered up (ultimately) with over 15 houses of worship in 7 different sanctuaries. We’re even working with other religious groups that we have very strong disagreements with – particularly around matters that pertain to civil rights. I’m sometimes working with clergy who awkwardly shuffle around if I mention my husband.
We can work on that too over time, but we first start by working together on the things we do agree on. So if we can make progress on big things, even when there are sometimes huge philosophical differences on matters that are really important, we can certainly figure out how to work together ourselves when we disagree over the color of a wall, or the font on a page. (Right? Can I get an amen for still working together despite deeply held disagreements over font choice?) (And for those who are still in shock over the request for an amen in worship, thank you for still remaining present with us, we’ll get through that too.)
Spiritually, small baseball, is another way of talking about smaller egos. In the crush of America’s all-too-often culture of me, my and I – it’s another antidote for mindfully moving through the urge to center our own wants and preferences over the wants, preferences and more importantly, the needs of our neighbors. So for our sports players in the room, I offer you the spiritual discipline of playing-small-ball-meditation for your consideration. It’s sometimes less exciting, and it’s definitely a bit less about you (which is probably better for the long-term health of the soul and the heart). But even though I’m a Mets fan, the Yankees win more games playing small ball; so it might be a better way anyway to play to win.
And for our congregational members and leaders (which is a very fancy way of saying anyone in the room right now, and probably a bunch of folks who were dodging this sermon this week too, who are not in the room), I too offer you the spiritual discipline of small-ball-congregational-life-meditation. We each do our part; and we each need to do it, in right relationship with the folks around us. No stomping of feet when well meaning people disagree in good faith; but also recognizing that the small things add up in this big world; and we need a lot of small things to get accomplished to ever hope to impact this big world. And the world needs our help in impacting it right now, very much.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/17/17. It reflects on some of the foundational tenets of Unitarian Universalism, and the wisdom they offer us in our times of brokenness and self-doubt.
We’re coming to the end of the last weekend of Summer. (I know, boo.) Some years it feels like Winter stretches out for six months, and Summer is over in a couple of weeks. This year was like that for me. It was a full Summer, but in a blink, it was still over. In my younger years, Autumn was my favorite season. I loved the warmer weather, but I was also looking forward to the cooler days for hiking, and pumpkin picking; and Halloween was a second Christmas for me as a kid and a teen.
But as an adult, especially one without kids of my own, all the holidays of childhood take on a different feel; not less, but different. As we grow up, and older, we see old things with new eyes – when we’re at our best. Even if we have kids; they grow older, and they too grow up. The seasons, and the holidays and holy days, take on new meaning for all of us, at each stage in our lives. We learn to love them anew, with a deeper meaning, if we’re lucky.
As the poet’s words that opened our service said, “The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious. Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might.” This is the quintessential challenge of religious life. As a mentor of mine often spoke (The Rev. Forrest Church), “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.” He, himself, died quite young, at the age of 61. As I was writing this, I was realizing that the anniversary of his birth and his death is this coming week, right after the Autumnal equinox, on the 23rd and the 24th respectively. Despite himself dealing with a nasty form of cancer at too young an age, he was never maudlin about aging or death.
The ideas of change, and ultimate concerns, are spiritual bedrocks of religious life. We are born, we live, and we will die. We can choose to live our lives, conscious of that truth, or we can live our lives hiding from it. Faith – faith asks us to live knowing our time is short; to leave quiet footprints marking where we loved our neighbor, where we mended the broken, where we chose to help lessen the burden of another, and so too – where we choose to let our neighbor in, to help us in our times of need. Help when we have the strenght to help, and let others help us when we’re in need. All are spiritual moments; all are sacred.
And so too, the poet continues, “Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion. What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”… How can we craft open minds, and welcome hearts – how can we stretch to lose our littleness? We all try our best, and still, from time to time, we get mired down in the smallness of pumping our egos up on righteous indignation; on tiny angers for the sake of being angry – separating ourselves from our neighbors, as we feed our sense of being wronged. There’s a strange and foolish attraction, for some of us, or maybe most of us, in seeking out the chance to feel being wrong.
In Unitarian Universalist circles, we say it in differing ways, but we often come back to the words printed on our letterhead, and atop our order of service; openness, mindfulness and reverence. These three words, these tenets, call us back from the path of bitterness and petty treasons; they remind us that there is something more to this life than our smallest selves. I try to come back to them each week in services, because even though they are so easy to say, they are so hard to remember to live. It’s the quest of a lifetime.
Openness, mindfulness, reverence. If you’re with us today for the first time, or you’ve traveling with us for forty years, we come back to them again and again, in differing ways, and sometimes in different language, but that’s what we point to time and again. How do we stay open to other views; how do we stay open, when the world feels like it’s shutting door after door. How do we keep our hearts open, without breaking, when the doctor shares the worst news we can imagine? Religious life is knowing we are born, and we all have to die. …How do we stay open before that eternal truth? We face that, day after day – and we are at our most human, when we are honest before that most raw of facts.
Mindfulness, in the face of pain and in the face of joy – it may begin in meditation and prayer, but it’s lived in our offices, and on route 110, when we’re trying to make a left hand turn off of Jericho Turnpike (especially then), and when we flick the channels of the news; when the divorce lawyer sends their paperwork, and when our boss hands us the pink slip. This too is life; and this too shall pass. Can we handle all this outside of religious community; yes – yes we assuredly can; so many of us choose to face it alone. But the burden is lighter when we do it together – it may not be any easier, but our hearts can be more cared for when we’re not alone. And the world is teeming with excuses and distractions – to not face what is always before us. Religious community, at our best, hopes to help us live mindfully, aware and full of heart; when we are whole and when we are broken, but still to live, through it all.
…And reverence, reverence is seemingly so counter-cultural these days. In the push and pull of life, and consumerism, and workaholism, and power, and pride, reverence gets the short straw. We are trained to want, or desire, but not to revere. We are taught to strive, and persevere, maybe even to crave. But reverence suggests a relationship; a relationship that’s not predicated on control or ownership. And in a culture where we commit idolotry to the gods of consumerism, control and ownership are the high priests.
The great Jewish theologian and rabbi, Martin Buber, used the phrase “I-Thou” to talk about reverence, and he meant it in a relational sense. When we come to respect the worth and presence of another – whether it’s your neighbor, or God, or the tree on the corner that comes alive, vibrant in its springtime pinks, or it’s autumnal reds – when that bush is burning with vibrancy – and we are present to see it as it truly is – that is reverence.
To see, and to be seen – that is reverence; that is spirituality; that is our purpose, and our meaning, and our highest virtue. And in this religious home, we strive to ingrain that sense of reverence, in our hearts, and in the hearts of our kids, and their kids, and in their kids. We look across the generations and hope for a world more whole for those that will inherit it. May we pass what has been given to us, reverently to the next, and to the next, and to the next. That is reverence – knowing in our heart of hearts that we remain in relation with generation after generation after generation. As the poet closed, “how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else? How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!” Religious life, holy life, is tearing down the walls that foolishly separate us. We are here, together, in this one, precious life. May we live knowing that truth in our hearts – with openness, mindfulness and precious reverence; a reverence that speaks from our core, to the hearts of all those we meet along the road.
A colleague of mine, the Rev. Rosemary Brae McNatt, who used to lead our congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and now heads our seminary on the west coast, Starr King, often joked that as UU’s, even though we gave up the Trinity – the idea that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we still remained loyal to our trinities. We still wrote in three’s. Faith, Hope and Love; or Justice, Equity and Compassion (as our second principle teaches); or even Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence that I’ve focused on today. But we have so many more that become foundational to our practical theology.
To return to the Rev. Forrest Church, from earlier, he has another “three” that’s constant to our practical theology. Sermon after sermon would come back to this spiritual teaching, “Want what you have, be who you are, do what you can.” This may be both simple, and the most counter-cultural spiritual message we can offer in these trying times. The crush of commercialism demands we crave more and more – we replace reverence with desire; we’re not whole until we conquer more. That’s not spiritual, that’s base. Want what you have. Imagine that. Imagine wanting what you already have. Not moving on to the next thing, or the next success, but relishing what is already before you.
In this human circle, imagine being enough, already, as you are. For some of us, that’s easy; for some of us, that’s quite hard. We’re all broken spirits doing the best we can, AND we’re all magnificent souls blessing the world before us. We are both broken, and quite whole. We are a gift, and we’re only doing our best at any given time, if we are even doing our best – all at the same time.
Be who you are. When was the last time, someone asked you to consider being…you. So much of life, these days, seems to be trying to tell us to be better, or more, or something other than who we are. We are all unique gifts, and to be honest, sometimes unique challenges, in this one precious life. But as much as any of us need to grow, we all need to grow, we all are a gift to this world – when we’re at our best. We can struggle, and wrestle and cry tears of frustration or tears of joy, over who we are, but we are who we are. Be who you are. No one else can. Get better when you can, but don’t feel a failure for who you born to be.
The broader world tells us to fix ourselves, to correct who we are in light of social norms. Be more masculine, be thinner, be more straight, be more powerful, be white, have more hair, be more athletic, and it goes on and on. We can lie our way into exhaustion and demoralization. But what we need, is not more “be different’s”, we need more “be who you are.” No one else will ever be you. Be you. Be you in all your awkwardness, and all your glory. In your mistakes and your perfections. Life is infinitely varied, and infinity needs role models. Be that role model for that kid that needs to see you; be that role model.
And, definitely, do what you can. For those here that are doing, oh so much, I might advise you to manage all that you do. We are not bottomless wellsprings of doing. But for those that are looking to be pushed a wee bit more; do what you can. There is always another things that needs doing, to heal the broken corners of the world where we will. Be that healing. Want what you have, be who you are; do what you can.
If you’re new to our Fellowship and looking for a new ministry in your life; I’ll offer three immediate suggestions. Our community garden, the grounds we use to grow food for town pantries, can always use more help. Head on back there when groups are working (any garden volunteers present today – or go up to those folks after service today to learn more.) Two – at the end of Oct, on the 28th, we’ll be hosting a full day training on accompaniment – to help support immigrants as a friendly presence when their time for court hearings take place. And three – in a couple of months, we shift over to housing our cold weather shelter for migrant men (any HIHI volunteers present today – you’ll definiltey hear more in the coming months, but you can ask those folks after service to learn more.) Do what you can.
This family-friendly homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/10/17 on the completion of our renovated grounds, parking lot, and improved accessibility. This was preached the morning that Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida.
This is a complicated day. Many of us have enjoyed a Summer of beaches, and woods, and travel, and breaks from work and school. Some of us have caught up with family, and others have lost someone very dear to their hearts. Dozens of us spent a joy filled week together at our annual summer camp – Fahs – out on the east end of the north fork (you’ll see a bunch of us in pink shirts today to better spread the word so that all who want to come know about it.) We’re enjoying a mild Summer weekend, that feels like a warm Fall day. While last week, we saw so many suffer in southern Texas from one of the worst storms in their history. And this weekend, the Caribbean and Florida are enduring one of the worst storms in living memory. (Hurricane Irma is hitting ground as we sit here now; and we hold out hope for the best, while so many people prepare for the worst. My Facebook feed was full of many friends sharing stories of driving or flying to saftey over the weekend, while others are choosing to stay put and board up their windows.)
…And here, at our Fellowship, we are celebrating the rebuilding of our grounds – something that was 37 years in the making. A few weeks ago, I was telling a story about long Summer days, and my favorite memory from childhood – the time when my parents moved into their (still to this day) home, and the neighborhood kids welcomed me out to go play at the playground across the street. Oddly enough, I just made the connection that that memory, was from 37 years ago too. I was making new friends, in a new neighborhood, and about to enter Kindergarten, and around the same time, Mary Jane and others, were having the first conversations imagining something new. (What are some of the other names we remember who first helped the dream of this building – for those who were around then – can we remember them now?)
First things first, and the sanctuary we’re in now was built. It would see so many weddings, and memorials, child dedications, and coming of age services. This room would also house our cold weather shelter for migrant men, and art concerts, and town halls, and on and on. And our grounds are also used to grow food for the town’s pantry – we’re aiming for 1000 pounds of fresh produce this year. And at the end of next month, we’ll host a Saturday long training on accompaniment in this space (Oct 28), for any who would like to help support immigrants being called to court – to help determine whether they get to belong here in our nation, or if we turn our backs as a people.
What does belonging mean to you? When was the first time you felt like you belonged somewhere? When I got invited to the playground at 4 years of age, I felt like I was going to belong. Over time, I’ve learned that it wasn’t always going to be easy, or nice; people weren’t always going to be kind, but in some ways, I imagined that neighborhood was always going to be mine to go back to – if I wanted. Where do you belong; where do you most fit in? At home with your family? Is this Fellowship a place where you feel you belong? I hope we can make it feel that way if it doesn’t yet – sometimes it takes time. For the folks dressed up with Fahs shirts today – is that a place where you know you belong? I’ve been to that camp three times now; and as a gay man, I’ve got to say how much I appreciate a place where our religious community crafts a place of belonging for all our kids – lifting up the value of their diversity. Too often, our nation tells our kids they need to change who they were born as, to learn to belong, and I’m honored to take part in a camp that teaches our kids they belong for who they are. That’s a life saving ministry we offer. Don’t ever forget that. If all we ever did, was create shelter for migrant workers during the cold weather months, grow food for the hungry during the growing season, and create a space for our kids to grow up knowing they have value and worth for who they are, that would be enough.
But we do so much more. When you’re wrestling with whether to get out of bed and come to Fellowship, or stay in comfort and catch up with the Sunday Times, remember that we create places of belonging, in our corner of the world. For our children and youth – we’re going to try to create a little bit of Fahs Summer Camp all year long – a chance for kids of all ages to learn together on Sunday mornings. For those familiar, think of the Circle Groups at camp. For those less familiar, it’s a chance for all ages to work together. So many of us live our days mostly interacting with people about our same age. First graders are with first graders, and 12th graders are with 12th graders. It stretches a bit in college, and maybe a little bit more in the work world, but usually not a lot more. Religious community is a place of belonging where we get to stitch together more and more people – to know one another and to grow together. To accomplish dreams 37 years in the making, across the generations.
For our adults, our Director of Religious Education, Starr, is working on expanding and deepening our adult religious education opportunities. The number one reason people tell us they look for religious community is to get to know more community. Take a serious look at Starr’s small groups program. It’s the easiest way to connect with more and more people every month, without the chaos (or excitement) of coffee hour. And in the spirit of deepening connections with one another – something we’re perfectly situated for – we’re beginning a campaign to rename coffee hour to “Fellowship Hour.” It was a suggestion from our ministerial intern (Greta). By a show of hands, who here wants more things to do? Who here has quite-enough-already-on-their-plate-thank-you? Excellent – vibrant hand-raising on that latter question. Sunday is officially the break from “more-things-to-do.” After service, come for coffee and Fellowship, and leave the work and chores of your life behind for a couple of hours. Don’t run up to a Board member and share your complaint. Don’t get one more thing done for your committee. Do the stuff that feeds you. It’s ok to sign up for stuff with someone carrying around a clipboard, but don’t rush to start a new committee meeting while the coffee is getting poured. Get to know your friends a little better; and make sure to welcome one more stranger into your life – if you’re up for it. With all of my clerical power, I give you the permission to not-do-stuff during Fellowship hour unless it feeds your spirit, and replenishes your well. There is so much hard stuff going on in the world, and we need places of respite to breath, to connect, and to reimagine new ways. Let our fellowship be that place for you.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 8/20/17. It explores the infection of White Supremacy, Nazis and White Nationalism plaguing our nation.
One of the harder stories I’ve wrestled with in the Bible is the story of Cain and Abel – one of our oldest stories. They were the first children of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer and worked the earth. Abel was a shepherd. When it came time for them to offer gifts in sacrifice to the Lord, they gave in turn a portion of their work. God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice of the fat of the first of his flock, but was not moved by Cain’s gift of the fruit of the earth. Angered by being treated differently, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and when God came to question him where Abel was, Cain responded famously, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain would be cursed to wander the roads and leave the lands of his family for his sin.
It’s a hard story. Was God unfair in what pleased him? Could he be so flippant in his regard for his children, that one would be driven to murder? I think some of the story is lost to our modern ears. Farming would allow civilization to thrive with more and more people being able to live stably near one another; but meat would continue to be more prized. I think, to an earlier time in our history, the difference in what sacrifices were made might be more readily understood. Each of the brothers may have worked as hard as one another, but one sacrificed more, and the other was jealous for not receiving the same benefits, even though he may have given up less.
The story even has God tell Cain, that he shouldn’t be angry; for if he works harder he will be rewarded. What’s lost in such a simple statement, is that Cain probably already feels like he’s worked hard. But he can’t get into his brother’s shoes, so he doesn’t appreciate that Abel is also diligent in his duties.
…And then it comes to murder. “Am I my brother’s keeper.” It’s probably the oldest story – Claiming no responsibility for the welfare of our neighbor as a defense – when in fact we’ve actively contributed to their ruin; or in Cain’s case – murder.
The Cain and Abel story is near the start of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures – although with slight derivations for each. At the start of scripture we learn clearly that yes, we are our brother’s keeper – we are entrusted with securing the well being of our neighbor. It’s central to the spiritual teachings of each of the Abrahamic faiths. Everything else builds upon that foundation.
Cain could be the poster boy for white nationalists, for white supremacists, for nazis. They might feel they haven’t been given a fair shake, but they can’t get into the shoes of their neighbors. Instead of reaching out, caring for their neighbor, they seek to end the competition. We see this in the rapid spreading of for-profit prisons -which are especially thriving these days. We see this in gerrymandered districts that lead to disparate quality in schools – benefiting whites and the affluent above all others. We see it in how public protests are too often treated: Nazis with semi-automatic weapons are allowed to police themselves in Charlottesville, whereas native Americans protesting the health of their lands and the risks to their children are met with water hoses in freezing temperatures. The White Supremacists are right that we’re not all treated fairly, they just don’t understand how much has already been stacked in their favor.
There’s a blog post that was making the rounds relating all this to game theory so to speak. It’s an over-generalization to prove a point – so it’s far from perfect, but maybe it would help some of us see where it’s getting at. Being a white (cisgender) straight man is like playing a video game on the easiest setting. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to still play the game well, or that it doesn’t take effort, or that you won’t fail at times and have to try again and again. It could still be quite hard. But everyone else is playing on a harder setting. The tricky part is realizing that when you’re on an easier setting, even when it’s hard, others probably have it harder.
I’ll give you an example in my own life. When I began in the ministry 10 years ago, I was working in religious education. It wasn’t too long before I started realizing that a good number of people would feel quite fine speaking to me with what I considered a patronizing tone. I was in my early thirties at the time, and I didn’t recall anyone speaking to me that way at least since my early college days. After talking to a few colleagues who were women, I started to realize that some of us were accustomed to speaking to women this way all the time, and since I was doing women’s work (working with children), they unconsciously treated me the way they treated most women.
Now – I earned my way into the ministry. Two graduate degrees; I paid my way through school (and am stilling paying the debt); spent countless hours in internships and hospital chaplaincy, and so on. This is my calling, and this didn’t come easy. But until experiencing a sliver of what women deal with all too often, I didn’t personally or fully understand, how having that leg up being a guy, changed the proverbial video game setting to “easy”. And to my fellow men – intellectually getting that women are treated differently too often – is different than experiencing it. There’s an emotional part that is demoralizing in ways we’re not necessarily accustomed to, and I can say most of us are not trained (or raised) to cope with.
White Supremacists are sexists too, as they are homophobes. But their flash point is race. In our everyday world, through the news, Facebook, and our schools, we learn a lot about Race. From some people we learn that everything is fair and balanced, and that if only you work hard enough then you’ll be given a fair chance at success and happiness. In that story – class is the real dividing line. From other people we learn that not everyone is treated fairly; that the color of our skin influences how people will treat us. Some of these lessons are taught by other people about the world, and some of these lessons are experienced personally and directly. It’s not enough to come to a conclusion about which view is “correct.” Our UU values teach us to live out a responsible search for truth and meaning. Our fourth principle asks us to continue to examine matters that affect our lives and the people around us. It’s a spiritual discipline that our faith calls us to live up to.
I’m a child of the 80s, white, gay and from a working class background. My Dad was in the navy with a high school degree, and my mom got her GED in her twenties after she had dropped out of high school. I was the first generation in our family to go to college, let alone to graduate school. It would be easy to say that everything is fair and balanced. I worked hard and succeeded in education and in my career. The economic class I was born into didn’t hold me back. Mine is the kind of story that’s often lifted up to say “anyone can make it.” But it would only be part of the picture.
I grew up in an African-American neighborhood. I was the only white kid. I moved away from my parents at 19, and would come back and catch up with friends, or hear stories from neighbors about how folks were doing. By the time I went to graduate school at the age of 28, only one of my childhood peers, from my section of town, had attended higher education. Some were in and out of unemployment. Others had good blue-collar jobs like being auto-mechanics. Some were still living with their parents. Besides my one neighbor who went on to law school, but who had to drop out to care for her dying mother, I heard no stories of folks attending a four-year college. She eventually had a good career as a teacher. Something was different. I felt different in a way that I hadn’t felt as a child.
I think it’s important to consider how our identities shape and impact our lives. Class, gender identity, and sexuality each intersect in important ways with race. But I’ve seen first-hand how much easier I’ve had it, as a white man, to secure educational opportunities and employment over the success of my childhood peers who are black. My faith declares this an injustice that I must work to alleviate. The key to changing this lack of fairness is first to understand its causes. Examining racism – why people are prejudiced and how systems perpetuate disparity – is part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning and is, for me, a spiritual discipline. Its end result is building a world founded on equity and compassion.
I’m sharing these two personal stories because too often our conversations about racism are either in the abstract or in the extreme. Aside from our President’s inability this week to do so, normally it’s easy to acknowledge that nazi’s are bad, that white supremacy kills. But it’s harder to acknowledge how we benefit from the inequity – for those of us who benefit. We are each our neighbor’s keepers, but too often we turn away from the hard truths when we might be asked to honor that we’re getting too much, or that our hard work – even though it was hard – was held to a different standard than our neighbor.
Most of us here are probably thinking to ourselves, but I’m not the problem, I’m not a racist. Good. We might not be actively causing harm, but ignoring what’s before us can be another way to perpetuate the original sin of racism in the United States. Every time we change the conversation away from race to focus on class, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. Every time we give our forbears a pass on how they immigrated through a much easier system, but hold a higher standard to more recent immigrants, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we get more worked up over a silent protest at the National Anthem of a man peacefully bending the knee, but excuse Nazi’s their First Amendment Right to protest with semi-automatic weapons near civilians, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we conflate violent white supremacists rioting in the streets and mowing down civilians with their car while armed to the teeth – with pacifist clergy or with other more aggressive protesters who bodily got in the way as human shields to protect the vulnerable – we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy.
Friends – many of my clergy colleagues of color – tell me they are exhausted from having to address this, manage this, and preach on this over and over. Their lives are tragically more at risk. And yet they still lead. Too many of my white Christian clergy are remaining silent in their pulpits this week – though thankfully I’m hearing more and more speak up. This is the central work of this time – to speak truth to hate; to limit the damage caused by the worst of us, and to carefully inspect our own internal motivations and actions to reduce the harm each of us contribute unknowingly or unintentionally.
The line in the sand must be drawn when the KKK marches in the light of day without their hoods. The line must be drawn when nazi’s – in our streets – chant “the Jews will not replace us.” We know what that means. We’ve seen that before. For those who lived through WWII – I encourage you once again – to do as Ruth Owen suggested – “So I invite you to pull out the old photo albums, medals and folded flags. Re-tell grandpa’s war stories. (Or your own) We owe it to our ancestors to make sure their sacrifices were not for nothing.”
As Maya Angelou said, “When someone tells you who you are, believe them the first time.” I’m going to believe someone claiming to be a Nazi as someone who is a threat to basic civil discourse – the first time. Now is the time, for those of us who are usually quite comfortable, to throw ourselves into uncomfortable situations. Challenge apologists for white supremacy. Don’t entertain Nazi sympathizers as legitimate viewpoints. Call sin what it is – sin.
Everyone is entitled to free speech – and that’s being used in a way these days to twist us in knots – as if we can’t respond in kind with free speech – without offending. But what’s worse, is that we’re confusing free speech with incitement to violence – which is not a protected right. We’re confusing free speech with falsely screaming fire in a loaded theater. That which causes or risks bodily harm, is not free speech. Terrorizing a town with lit torches before injuring 19 and killing one woman, is not free speech.
As our grandparents have the duty now to tell and retell the old stories – to vaccinate our next generation from these evils; I strongly encourage our parents to speak with your children. Make sure they understand the threats and risks. They will also mimic your thinking. If you find yourself edging away from engaging in any of this, they may too. If you find yourself avoiding ever talking about race, and shifting always back to class, they may be more vulnerable to the extremism of white supremacy. They need to learn and understand that although economics are not fair for all, racism is alive and well. They need to know that prior to the rise of Nazisim in Germany, they were a fringe movement. They need to know what torches in the streets meant in Nazi Germany. And if we are going to believe someone when they tell or show us who they are the first time, we need to prepare our next generation to know fully the lessons our forebears learned in the most horrid way imagineable.
And it is not too late. Just yesterday, on Saturday, we saw images of tens of thousands of decent citizens protesting the minuscule white power rally in Boston. Our denominational president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, was front and center in the marches in Charlottesville last week, and very present in Boston. Decent Americans are the vast majority; but we must remain vigilant, loud and clear in denouncement of the worst excesses of hate humanity has perennially to offer. Our oldest story teaches us that we are our brother’s keeper; we are responsible for the well-being of our neighbor. Any other teaching is false. So it is to all of us then, to help us back on the right path – that honors liberty alongside justice. White Supremacy is a failing lie, that continues to kill despite its hollowness.
In the weeks to come, know that our Social Justice team will be offering more trainings and options to continue this work. And our Huntington interfaith clergy group are gathering in two days to discuss what our collective next steps will be – together. And for those who missed the announcement at the start of the service — Mary Beth Guthyer, one of our members, who also professionally works with grassroots organizing on Long Island, has invited us to a vigil today from 4-5:30pm at Bolden Mack Park, 3453 Great Neck Rd, in Amityville that’s being organized by many non-profit leaders in the Black Community on Long Island. Some of the groups include Every Child Matters, Urban League of Long Island, NAACP Islip Town Branch among others.
All this month we’ll be exploring what it means to be a people of possibility. When I preach on our themes, I usually slip that question- phrasing into the sermon somewhere – sometimes obvious like now, and other times, it’s subtler. I could ask what it means to be a person of possibility, beginning with the individual. We change the world most profoundly when we begin with ourselves. In fact, most religions, at their core, are helping seekers to make the personal changes first – affecting the broader societal changes later down the road.
And for certain, we’ll wonder what possibility as a spiritual virtue means for us individually as well. But I like to begin with “people” – begin by searching for what it means to follow a spiritual path in community, because we’ve chosen to do this together. Unitarian Universalism, for all of its strong streak of individualism, it is profoundly a communal faith.
Our 7 principles even show this tension in the way they are written. Even the newest among us, probably knows the first principle by heart. (What do we covenant to affirm and promote)? The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even when we talk about the most individualistic of principles, we’re doing so by talking about our shared promises to one another – we covenant to affirm and promote. But what’s less obvious is that our 7 principles move into wider and wider circles as we approach the seventh principle. Worth of individuals moves toward equity and compassion in relations, to acceptance of one another, and through learning moves into democratic practices, world community, and ultimately recognizing how all of life is interdependently woven. Our 7 principles teach us to move from our own experience into deeper and more meaningful connection with the world around us, all our neighbors. The end goal is building the beloved community on earth, ever knowing that we may never see it in our own lifetime, but our purpose keeps us focused on the possibility. So, what does it mean to be a people of possibility.
Our second reading today reminded me of the old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”
The virtue of possibility is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together – is sort of the art of possibility; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using possibility as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.
As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hard and forgetting to look toward what is possible.
As a spiritual leader here, part of my responsibility is to help us not get lost staring at what isn’t working. Acknowledge it, address it, tweak what we can, and keep moving forward. I look to the radical changes on our grounds these past 6 months as a mini-parable in change-management. We’ve had a few cancelled attempts over the past 35 years to repair our grounds, so that it’s safe and accessible for all – whether we’re walking or wheeling into our sanctuary. From the stories I’ve been told, the history is one where, each attempt, we got far along, but there were always reasons why the plan wasn’t perfect for everyone, so we didn’t move forward in doing the needed work. (Who here is perfect? So no plan will ever be perfect, but we still need plans.) I totally see how we’d want to make sure everyone was happy – but in the interim it became harder and harder for folks to park as our grounds got worse and worse. I remember the last winter before we really got the repairs moving, I fell on the ice 4 times. Something had to be done. This time around, we kept our focus on the vision for what we wanted, and did our best to accommodate all our wants without demanding perfection. And in the coming months we’ll celebrate our success and re-dedicate our grounds. (And I’m happy to report that so far this Summer, I haven’t fallen on any ice, even once.)
But possibility isn’t only about casting a vision, or setting goals. Sometimes, it helps us gain a new perspective. Our second reading, by Robert Fulghum, is looking at how possibility does this very thing. Of all the inane, weird things for college students to do for a philosophy class, eating a wooden chair probably ranks up somewhere (at least near) the top. But I love the new perspective it gave them to look at things in a different light. How do you take the small monotonous things we do in our daily lives and turn them into something new and wondrous. They took their 15 miles a week of running in circles around a lake, and imagined what that look like if they went in a straight line in our minds at other places in the world. They started to do a virtual tour of Europe – all from beginning with eating a chair for a philosophy class. As Fulghum ended his story, “For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance. Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the- long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis. Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change.”
I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, for those who follow me there, that I was remembering one of my undergraduate Religious Studies professors who forced us to write a 5 page paper every week for many of his upper-level classes. I recall being blown away at how tiring that was after 3 years of doing it. It’s funny how as I begin my 10th year in the ministry, and 5th year of writing weekly sermons that are twice as long as those old weekly assignments, how nostalgic I get for the days of upper-level religion classes. But like the philosophy students eating a chair, leading them to take virtual geography tours, in increments that match their weekly jogs, this memory got me thinking as well. Over the Summer, I started taking a serious look at how much I’ve written. Even conservatively, I’ve written over 200,000 words since I came to our Fellowship in sermons alone – not counting the blogs, or the prayers, or the other liturgical writings I craft from time to time. We’ll see what comes of it in time, but I’m beginning to sort through some other writing projects to see if I can work toward longer pieces for publication. Maybe that will bear fruit in a year, or maybe in 5 years, or maybe never; but it’s got me thinking in new ways – and that means more creativity.
I say this in part aloud as a little kick-start for myself; but more as a wondering for each of us. What is your 15 miles around a lake every week? What is the routine thing you do all the time that might be looked at in a new way? What may come from stretching the possibility into something new? This week, I encourage you all to look for that routine thing you do all the time, and imagine applying it in new directions. Maybe see it as a mid-year tune-up. Or those of us who are on the school cycle, this is the real new year’s time anyway so make your resolution. But don’t get too hung up on making it hard – aim for new or different – and see if it creates new space in your life – where there was mostly routine.
I’ll close by returning to our first reading from today, the poem by Rumi. It’s talking about the quintessential question of faith – the nature of life, longing and God. “So! I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?” The not-knowing, the uncertainty that descends upon the man that once prayed nightly, is a painful loss for him in the poem. Possibility reflects this existential crisis for all of us in our daily lives. When we’re reticent to try new things, or to break out of a rut – in a way, we’re responding to the uncertainty of the future – maybe informed from our own past. Our inner New Yorker film critic resurfaces, “Things didn’t work out before – or – there’s a lot of mitigating factors on what we’re trying to accomplish- or – I fail so often.” Maybe some or all of that might even be true – but it’s not helpful if change is what we seek. The inner criticisms, even if valuable for course correction heard in reasonable doses, turn into the cynic from the Rumi poem when they become callous to our potential.
“This longing you express is the return message.” The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” When we’re stuck, or dry, or uninspired, hear these words. Use your longing for a new way, as the evidence of the return message.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/4/17 for the 95th anniversary of the Flower Communion.
This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of zest. Zest is a fancy word that we don’t use that much everyday. What does it mean to you? (call it out.) What does it mean to leave room for all of these things (energy, possibility, life, vitality) in our lives? How do we do that when we find ourselves trudging along, through one more test, one more class, one more day at the office? When we’re stuck or exhausted, where do we find the help to kick-start feeling alive again?
American poet, children’s book author, and photographer, Nancy Wood, gives us one answer in her poem entitled My Help is in the Mountain:
“My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal …
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one
give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.”
….and I cannot tell myself from one tall tree. Nancy Wood is talking about something many of us have done. As a kid, I remember laying out this time of year on the grass and staring up at the daytime sky. If it were a clear blue day, and I could look just at the right angle, I could lose any sense of up or down. It could feel like I was in the sky. Who else remembers doing that? Who else has done that recently – maybe in your own way? (less hands?) As we get busier and busier, it’s easier and easier to forget to get lost in the clouds from time to time. We even use the phrase – lost in the clouds – to mean a criticism.
I recently was reading a blog about resilience, how we handle the stresses and pressures of life. It basically argued that how resilient we are is less a factor of how much we can endure in life, but how well we turn all “the busy” off each week. Do we fill up our weekends with tasks? Do we do work on the train or the plane? Are we up at 6am, and still doing homework at 11pm? We may be able to endure a lot for a long time, but if we don’t find ways of putting it all down – not simply shifting our focus of which burden we’ll manage next – but actually getting lost in the clouds – our resilience will give out sooner than later. And in between – all our enduring work will be of less quality. We’ll be testier, in worse spirits, less accurate. Being a people of zest means remembering to leave room for life – in our life.
Remember the words of writer, Anne Sexton from earlier in this service, which began, “There is joy in all: in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed, that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook each morning, in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee each morning, in the spoon and the chair that cry “hello there, Anne” each morning, in the godhead of the table that I set my silver, plate, cup upon each morning.” Anne is reminding us to find life in all the everyday things we become used to; to not let them pass by unnoticed. We can find renewal in the small mundane pleasures in life if we remember to. And most importantly, to share that joy with one another, for as she says, joys left unshared, die young. Joy, zest, life, are best shared. Maybe a bit too often, we live in a culture where we look down upon exuberance. Maybe a bit too often we elevate the perpetually busy among us – as if we were ever going to be given a Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic. (What would that merit badge even look like? Someone tapping their watch? Maybe just a dry time stamp.)
As we come to a close in this service of celebration, memory, and life, I want to share with you one more short story, a personal one. It’s sort of my go-to memory in my life about enjoying what’s before you. When I was in college, I spent one semester studying abroad at Oxford. At the close of the program, they held a celebratory dinner. I got invited up to the high table by one of the professors whom I had grown close with for the meal. As it happens, he and I have stayed in contact these past 20 years; he even gave one of the readings at my wedding two years ago.
Now the dining setting is a little like Hogwarts from Harry Potter. Students all at long tables – but in suits and dresses rather than robes – and there are no owls in sight. (We had to dress formally even for breakfast.) Christ Church, Oxford, was home to Lewis Carroll who wrote the Alice in Wonderland stories that we all know so well, and in honor of him, the stained glass windows all had small depictions of parts of the story crafted into the glass.
There’s a part in the dinner, near to the end, when they bring out silver to serve the tea (and for the silly Americans like me, the coffee.) I’m having a surreal moment of is this really happening. It must have shown on my face, because the professor leans in and whispers, “The Buddhists are wrong, this is meant to be enjoyed.”
Now first off, the Buddhists are not wrong. But we do sometimes think of the Buddhist mindfulness teaching in the wrong way. Being present and aware of what’s before us is being mindful, and not passing judgments. But sometimes we confuse that teaching with not letting ourselves enjoy the fruits of life. It’s sort of another form of the Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic that we can let infect our religious life.
But this professor was reminding me, that it was ok to soak it all in. At the end of a long semester, with a lot of work and effort, that it was ok to celebrate, to feel good about it – even knowing that more was going to need to be done before college was over. Now was the time to breathe it all in.
As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, another year of school for most of our children and youth, we can remember to soak it all in. Some of us heard the Coming of Age speeches yesterday at our service for the graduating Long Island UU coming of agers. Our youth will share those credo’s next Sunday in our worship then, along with the speeches from our Bridging youth who are graduating from Sunday School as they head into adulthood.
And for some of us, it was a long, hard year. Maybe the world has taken turns we don’t agree with. Maybe we’ve endured a year that was full of more protest than gratitude. None of that goes away, but we can still raise a glass to life, and drink deep. Our Flower Communion celebration today commemorated 95 years of celebrations worldwide. Our partner churches in Eastern Europe asked their American cousins to celebrate it this Sunday in honor of it’s origins in 1923. The Flower Communion began at a time in Europe’s history where one of the worst wars humanity ever knew – the First World War, was still in folks’ recent memories. Unitarian minister, Rev. Dr. Capek, founder of the modern Unitarian movement in then Czechoslovakia, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain.
I’ll end with these consecrating words from Rev. Dr. Capek. As we leave today, may this blessing enter our lives:
“Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world. “Rev. Dr. Capek
 My Help Is in the Mountain, from Hollering Sun, 1972, by Nancy Wood
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/21/17. It looks at the spirituality of joy.
We’re slowly realizing that my dog, Lola, is a truly effective life-coach for the Brewer-Geiger household. She’s our resident Zen Master Teacher, always in the moment. If she’s sick, or has to go in for a check-up, she stays happy as she enters the vet, excited for a treat. She’s probably terrified as the vet does the things vets always do, but she has this sort of “if I just stay still this will all be over soon, and then I’ll get a treat. Right, I will get a treat?” And then she’s all licky-face with the vet when it’s all done; excitedly saying good-bye to everyone on our way out.
The other day, on what was probably our first real warm gorgeous Spring day of the year, I was taking her for a 3 mile walk. This usually is a hobby of mine that gives me life; but on this random day the frets of the world were really taking hold. We’re all busy people, and I was at my busiest on this lovely day. But the ‘life-coach’ needed her walk. We’re out, and I’m running through all the things I did, all the things I needed to do, and all the pathways to getting them done as I was stressing at what couldn’t get accomplished. My heart wasn’t in the walk, and my head was surely a million miles away. A short while into it, Lola stops. She turns back and looks at me with her classic wide-faced dog-grin (I know they say dogs don’t actually smile, but mine sure knows how to scrunch her cheeks up to show a killer-grin.) She stops, and turns back, smiles and jumps up and down with a full-body “COME ON ALREADY! It’s gorgeous outside and we’re doing this thing!” It’s the spiritual mantra for joyful living – ‘come on already.’
We all need a dog life-coach some days to get our heads and our hearts back in the same place sometimes. What was I doing? Tasks, and work, and plans, fears and concerns were all distracting me from the moment. Those were my thoughts – a part of me. And they were disconnecting me from life. I was clearly living in the realm of “then” or “soon” or “what if.” That world does not exist. Only the present does. These thoughts steal us away from the sacredness of life – from joyfully living. We excuse our sidetracked minds as merely being easily distracted. But when we turn our focus toward what we are doing, rather than what we could be doing or what we weren’t doing, we become aware of life – our life.
There are several Buddhist refrains that echo this. Some of us may have already heard them, so I’ll quickly recap them. One is about a teacup and another is about washing dishes. When one drinks a cup of tea, they should only be drinking a cup of tea. They shouldn’t be dreading doing the dishes, or hoping to win the lottery. If so, they’ve lost the most precious gift we have, simply being. The only thing they turn out to actually be doing – is nothing. They aren’t even drinking that cup of tea. Now granted, some of us may not particularly enjoy washing our own dishes, and as someone who lived for years in small apartments, I am fully aware of a life without a dishwasher, but that’s life too. If those breaths you spent while washing your forks and knives were taken away from you suddenly, they would be the most sacred thing you could hope for. Yet we rarely pay them any heed. All of our activities, joyful or tedious, are our activities; and mindful presence in them can create a joy through them. Taking these practices to heart, we can gain a sense of accomplishment.
This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of embodiment. We began the month with a music service remembering the great protest movements in our country, and moved into last week reflecting on the original meaning of Mothers’ Day – an international women’s peace movement. Both looked at how we embody our highest values in our lives. As a people of embodiment, how do we live joy more fully into our lives? One of the stories I told last week talked about how our grudges can weigh us down, and stoop our shoulders. I want to talk a little more about that now. Let’s all try that out in our seats for a moment. Maybe you’re already doing it, but if not go ahead and ruin your posture. Hunch down, even more…. How’s that feel?
Walking around as most of us do – slightly stooped, shoulders slightly curled forward and our breath fast and shallow, just feels bad. More importantly, most of us are completely unaware of the connection. (ok you can stop hunching over now.) I don’t know if you’ve had this sort of experience before; for myself, during the latter part of my years in computers, I began to suffer an odd numbing sensation in my arms. The obvious guess was carpel tunnel; but that turned out not to be the case. I was so extremely stressed out, that it crippled my breathing. I simply was not getting enough oxygen into my body. The final prescription by my medical doctor – was to start breathing. (That was a rough prescription to turn into the pharmacist. She had no idea what to do with that one.) And then the miracle occurred. I could feel my arms again. If the meditative washing of the dishes isn’t an end in itself, which I believe it is, it’s also a good practice for our overall health. I know it might seem trite, but I swear, after trying this out for a few weeks, you start to find joy and even wonder in all the little things. In fact, the things that you previously enjoyed seem all the more sweet.
There’s something more to this practice than our health and awareness. A central tenet of Buddhism is attention to our breath. Buddhism recognizes a link between all of us when we touch this awareness. The symbolism is expressed in what Buddhists call “the Bodhi Spot” or the place where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment. He attained Enlightenment at the foot of a tree. This spot, for us, is not a geographic place on earth. That “place” is reached by all of us when we encounter the “moment – between the moments.” When we put aside our thoughtful distractions and become fully present in whatever we are doing, we all enter that same space together. It’s a joyful way of living into our 7th Principle, “We are all part of this interdependent web of life.”
Often the lack of presence keeps most of us from ever entering the same world as all but a rare few people. We drive past thousands of people every day living in Long Island. For folks who commute on the LIRR to NYC, they’ll walk by even more folks. We’ve all experienced this; whether in the crowded street or the bustling mall. You remember a few faces an hour later, but for the most part, they weren’t ever there. We were certainly moving along, as were they. But we’re often more focused on our daydream world than the streetscape. I even think it highly unlikely those few whose faces I can recall, would remember mine. And they probably wouldn’t remember yours, either. If we missed that many flowers in a garden, we would think we missed the point of the stroll. It’s as if we aren’t even in the same space together, despite our bodies. Too often, we’re not here. It’s a loss; a tragedy that we’re not here. It’s important to recognize this. Living in this massively populated modern world, we may not be able to engage in deep relationship with each passer by, but we can attempt to experience their presence in our midst. And it’s also important to identify when we carry this anonymity into relationships that we can foster.
Besides the Buddha’s tree, there’s another garden story that comes to mind. It talks about how rarely we’re able to be ourselves around others. How we focus more on what others may think, rather than just being ourselves. I’ll confess – I’m not about to offer you the traditional interpretation of this tale, but I expect you’ll come to appreciate this reading of the text a bit more than the conventional view. It’s the Garden of Eden story.
Genesis 3:1-7 is the classic biblical verse where the serpent convinces Eve to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The crime scene culminates with the expulsion from the Garden. God then barricades paradise with angelic Cherubim and fiery swords. In a Christian context, it is often sited as the moment of original sin, although that interpretation doesn’t begin until after the Second Century C.E. And Jewish commentary doesn’t traditionally read sin into this passage. God warns Adam and Eve that if they touch or eat of this tree He will punish them with imminent death. The original language implies a criminal “death penalty” sentence. Ultimately, however, God does not execute the first couple as warned. Rather they are sentenced to a life of suffering and eventual death in exile from the Garden.
That’s the fairly straightforward reading of the passage. I’d like to suggest another way of looking at it that might be more helpful to us as Unitarian Universalists. The moment humankind internalizes the duality of good and evil, as seen through the eating of the fruit, we became aware of our separation from things. Nakedness in the garden is only a concern if you believe that the other things and people around you may bear a judgment about your nudity. A sense of embarrassment or guilt would also raise these fears. For the first time, Adam and Eve didn’t even want to see each other naked. “I don’t want him to look at me.” “I don’t want her to see me like this.” Until this point, from the little we have to go on with this myth, Adam and Eve did not fear or think about things. Presumably they only did things in response to the world around them. Thoughts likely existed for the couple, but they were evidently not controlling influences on the first people. In this idealized Eden, prior to the fruit-tree crime, humankind effectively lived in the moment, each moment. Before the fruit from that middle tree, nakedness was just nakedness. No positive or negative value was placed on it. No shame, no fear, no embarrassment. It simply was.
What does the exile from the Garden mean in non-mythological terms? Does it simply signify the pain in child bearing or the sweat in manual labor the bible details for women and men? Although myths do seek to explain the source of everyday things, they also reveal deeper truths that we too often dismiss beneath the fable. Moving beyond nakedness, one could consider any emotion we experience in light of the Garden; for instance – fear. All of us have experienced it at numerous times throughout our lives. We’re afraid of the next meeting we have with our boss. Or we’re scared of the results of some serious medical test. We might just need a high grade on a big exam to pass a rough course. Or it might be the truck careening into our vehicle. When we’re separate from the Garden we think about our emotions. Fear no longer remains simply fear; rather it grows into a sort of dread.
The constant cycling of our worried thoughts can paralyze us. What will the medical results be? How long will I live? How much pain will I have to undergo to treat my illness? Am I going to get into that good school next year? All of these are genuine concerns about our future. But generally, when we worry, none of them are in the present. Usually, we worry about things that might happen. We create a world that might be – and for the vast majority of us that world is quite unpleasant. Despite popular sentiment, worry is not a useful means of intelligently planning for the future. If the results turn out to be favorable, we’ll have lived through the experience once through our thoughts. If they turn out to be negative, we will be putting ourselves through that dreadful space twice. Living in our world of thoughts about the real world – that is our separation from the Garden. That is our original sin.
In our world of duality, one state only exists in relation to another. Knowledge of good comes with the expression of evil. No longer is it just the world inside the garden, but now there is the world outside the garden as well. Where there’s sin … there’s also grace. But what does grace mean to us? … It’s just being naked. No shame, no guilt, no fear. Worry is not graceful. It’s also not fear. Despite the cherubim and the flaming sword, that now bars entrance to Eden, we can return to the Garden in our life; although the metaphor aptly describes how tricky a proposition that is. We need to separate worry from fear. Fear is the emotion we experience. Worry is what we add to it with our thoughts.
The next time your afraid, just be afraid. This doesn’t mean you ignore the car in the road speeding toward you. But it does mean you don’t consider the cars that missed you, or the other cars that might hit you later on. You just get out of the way.
Most of us will eventually get out of the way; but we’ll do our best to consider all the rest along the road. It’s more than just a lot of energy spent on realities that won’t come to be. It comes back to not living in the life we do have. Instead we’re sleepwalking through fantastical dreams that are both good and bad … but not real.
The self-awareness we gained in the Garden is a gift I deeply cherish. I appreciate the understanding I have over that of any other animal. I even tend to like all my emotions, whether they are full of love and joy, or weighed down by anger. I remember a time when feeling anything was particularly difficult, maybe you remember a time like that too, or maybe you’re feeling numb today. It’s a very hard place to be. Our full and fully present, presence of mind, is the spiritual goal. But just like the first “Fall”, that self-awareness can sometimes feel like more of a burden than a blessing. And yet – joy – can be found in between the moments of hardship and pain.
Adam and Eve grew in wisdom by eating that fruit. They also forgot that everything was OK as it was. After all, they had been running around naked for sometime doing quite well for themselves until then. We can have it both ways though. We don’t need to sacrifice our wisdom to return to the Garden. In a way, we can even return to that state of innocence along with self-awareness. Our experiences are not lost to us with this return. But we do have to let go of our dark dreamings. The innocence we return to is not synonymous with ignorance or even lack of experience. It’s the sort of grace that flows when we’re naked without shame. Sometimes, we can even choose joy, when we allow ourselves.