Posts Tagged UU
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/26/17 and looks at how adulthood is defined by the risks we take, and how we own the choices we make.
A few days ago I was chatting with a colleague who was lamenting the pain he was feeling from a likely pinched nerve. He basically asked, ‘is this how you know you’ve turned 30?’ I told him that I knew I had turned 30 when older friends starting saying, “Oh, just you wait…”. Then I knew I was 30. I’ll add now that 40 has the same, “just you wait” but the tone these days imply a healthy dose of “welcome to the club.” Adulthood isn’t for the feint of heart. But aging and growing up, aren’t just a range of pains; they are a series of risks that define a life.
Growing up is a risk. We risk our selves, we risk our comfort, we risk change. Nothing of this we really have a choice about, the river of our lives will keep flowing so long as we are here – but we do have choices over how we respond to it. I think the hardest part of all this is in the lessons we learn for ourselves. We heard a bit about that in our Wisdom story earlier in the service about Nasruddin and the boy who ate too much sugar. How often do we find it easier to tell people how they should live their lives than we do in changing our own behavior? The boy is definitely eating too much sugar, but Nasruddin takes a month to tell him, because he first has to learn to stop eating so much sugar himself. There’s a certain integrity in not giving advice you can’t yourself follow; but if we’re honest with ourselves, we rarely hold back from teaching others what we can’t ourselves do. It’s a sort of projectile-adulting onto others where we can’t ourselves adult. We’ve all seen it, and we’re probably all guilty of it – over and over again.
On Thursday morning of this past week, I attended a collegial breakfast with 20 or so local Huntington area clergy – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and interfaith. Imam Mohammad spoke at length about scripture, its messages and the subsequent choices we make from it. There was an overall focus on remembering one of the hardest lessons in life – that doing what’s right, even if it’s hard, is worth it in the long run. For the Imam, if you follow the teachings of Scripture, God will find a way. What I found profoundly true in his words is the notion of risking our values into our lives. We don’t have control over all things, or even sometimes it feels like control over almost anything, but we can make value-based choices that help build the Beloved Community in our corners of the world. We can also make value-based choices that build rancor and hate. Even when we don’t have control over much in our lives, those are our choices we still have to make.
Part of the Imam’s teaching circled around the tragic misappropriation of the Koran’s teachings to foster terrorism. Even though the Koran specifically teaches against suicides, killing outside of self-defense, and generally calls for being accountable to our neighbors, some will take it to fulfill their own cultural worldview. As I spoke at length last week about how our own national American cultural Christianity sometimes subverts the bible to meet their own ends, Islam wrestles with this same challenge.
But it was also heartbreaking to know the Imam needed to clarify this. He even went on to say that Islam needed to own their problem where some are taking the Koran’s teachings in vain. In that spirit, I would say the same for white Christian men in the US. White Christian men cause most of our homegrown terrorist attacks; the evil of the KKK is certainly rooted in a misappropriation of cultural Christianity. This is far more serious than the cute story of sugar-habits we heard earlier but it remains instructive, before we tell others how to fix their problems, we need to own our own. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that as we point out the faults in others, we still need to attend to our own. We can’t continue pointing a finger at other groups without sorting out our own home, or it becomes a tragic distraction from the crises we cause or allow to go unchecked.
This is heavy on my heart this week – owning our own faults – probably the most critical aspect of real adulthood. If you follow me on Facebook, you probably have already heard this. I am going to take the liberty to share with you part of a public letter 6 of my colleagues and I crafted this week, that impacts our denomination and our relationship to institutional racism. There has begun a major public conversation around this, and it’s important that our Fellowship’s members are fully aware. Here is an excerpt from that letter.
“It is, once again, time for us to recognize how racism defines our own institutions and to work toward the demolition of this dangerous, debilitating system. It has come to our attention that the hiring practices of our Unitarian Universalist Association favor white people. With the recent hiring of a white, [cis] male minister, the entire Regional Lead staff in the Congregational Life department is white. Of the 11 people on the President’s Leadership Council (consisting of all department heads), 10 are white. The one exception is the Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness. Of the entire UUA staff, there are currently only two Latinx religious professionals, one of whom is Rev. Peter Morales whose terms ends in June.
The “Ends Monitoring Report” from April 2016 reports that, of the categories of employment within the UUA, people of color were no more than 11% of any group other those considered “Service Workers”. “Service Workers” represent the bottom of the organizational chart and are therefore the lowest paid and represent those with the least power. People of color represent 84% of that particular group. In no other category are white people fewer than 75% of the total.
The practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us. It is imperative for the fulfillment of our faith that we strive for the manifestation of a just society. It is in our communal spiritual path that our faith is powerful and the demonstration of that faith is made known insofar as we are able to realize justice in our own institutions, using that as a mirror for society at large.
The ongoing dismantling of white supremacy in our system is difficult. It requires a reimagining of our own culture and an openness to the myriad ways marginalized peoples will challenge the status quo. But, there is a grace found in our willingness to disassemble generations of assumptions found in white culture. It is in this process we might find our greatest joy and the deepest fulfillment of the promise of our faith. Unmasking white supremacy lurking in our system and within ourselves is a necessary first step toward our shared liberation. Without it, we continue to live in the stagnation of white dominance.
The purpose of this open letter is to call attention to current hiring practices of the UUA (recognizing that our own UUMA is not exempt and that we have not fully considered practices of our other major UU institutions) with the hope that hiring practices will change and a system of monitoring the success of creating a multicultural staff will be part of a public conversation. While members of this group have started a dialogue with UUA staff responsible for hiring, we are hoping this letter will ensure transparency in the process. With regionalization, ministers and congregations are that much more distant from the inner working of the UUA making clear policies around hiring practices all the more necessary. In addition to the policies, we require specific metrics to measure the success of those policies and an accounting at each Ends Statement Report. We call on the UUA Board to reconcile the results of each year’s hiring with the goal of increasing racial diversity on our Association’s staff.”
In our denominational election year, this has already become a national conversation- and our group cited above – are only one of many groups of people working to draw attention to the crisis. I am glad that all three of our candidates for UUA President, have already weighed in on action steps they would take – to varying degrees of specificity. The groups and individuals working concurrently to address this issue appear to all hope for open communication. I’ll be encouraging our own Board and Social Justice team to reflect on this. As part of our religious commitment to democratic values, our Fifth Principle, our congregations can weigh in, and communicate concerns to our denominational Board (firstname.lastname@example.org) which will be discussing this issue at length at their April 21st Board meeting.
I’m also mentioning this in relation to our own work toward unlearning racism in our community and our nation. We need to fix our own denomination if we’re going to try to fix the world. Otherwise we come across as strident and pedantic, not transformative. In our own Fellowship, I’m working with our Sunday Programs team to intentionally bring in more preachers who are women and people of color. Too many years we’ve had mostly white men speaking from our pulpit – and our team is working together to change that this year, and in the years to come.
I want to close by telling you a folk tale that I probably shared once before during our wondering portion of the service – maybe about 2 years ago – but address it at length this time from an adult perspective.
(Tell story of The Stream.)
When I talk about this story with kids, it’s a way of approaching change, and trust. But today, we’ve looked at the harder part of the risks in adulthood – owning our own shortcomings, fixing the world around us by starting with ourselves. And that remains as true for ourselves as it does our Fellowship; as it does our denomination, or our nation. But reflecting on adulthood, for me, resonates with an odd sense of looking to what came before, and wondering about what will come next. As we grow up and mature, so many stages in life feel so different than the last. Try to remember back to leaving elementary school and entering into junior high for the first time. Maybe you felt so big, or maybe you felt at such a loss. But there probably weren’t going to be the simple boxes of milk for snack time any more. The world was different. It only got even more complicated as we graduated, maybe we married, or had kids. The aches and pains come as we age, but adulthood is less about growing older, than it is about adjusting to new challenges, tougher risks, and different landscape after different landscape.
The stream remembered a wind that it could trust. Each new stage in life that comes knocking on our hearts, echoes a truth we heard some time in the past. The lessons and memories that came before, we carry with us past every desert, and over every mountain. What may come, surely might not be easy, but we’ve seen newness before; we’ve overcome hardship; we’ve been the new kid in the classroom. Life is a series of landing on distant shores, after so much that changes our visible life – we age, we mature, we weaken, we grow stronger, we break. But the essence of the stream stays true through it all – even if we feel defeated and torn down – our eternal stream runs through it all. Life that has walked, and crawled, and flew through millennia on this planet, is the life that beats in us today. That life can learn to remember, once again, a wind that it can trust, through all the dry times of our lives, until we can run free again, after the next challenge, and the next.
 Rev. Peggy Clark, Rev. Dawn Fortune, Rev. Jude Geiger, Aisha Hauser, Rev. Robin Tanner, Rev. Julie Taylor, Rev. Erik Wikstrom
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/12/17. It asks the questions, how do we stay true to ourselves when being true means more than one thing? What do we risk with each choice?
Always an avid reader, I’m finding myself drawn more and more lately, to folklore, fantasy, and like I spoke about last week –Science Fiction – to help me sort through the challenges we as a people are facing. So many cultural and ethical norms seem to be at risk these days. In some ways, reading can be a form of escapism – to explore another person or another world’s problems – while getting to forget about our own for a few hours at a time. But good literature can have the opposite effect – bringing fresh light to our worldly challenges as we approach them from a new angle.
I want to thank Cathi Zillmann, who “won” this sermon topic at our annual services auction. We’ll begin talking about what it means to be caught between two worlds first through this idea of ‘story’, and then we’ll find our way to what that means in our own lives. Two central questions: how do we stay true to ourselves when being true means more than one thing? What do we risk with each choice?
Probably the most classic folk story about being caught between two worlds, is the tale of Rip Van Winkle. If I were talk about the parts of it that I remember from childhood telling’s, it’s a sort of fairy tale story where the male character gets drawn toward music from some strange musicians, only to wake 20 years in the future, his kids grown, his wife long deceased. I remember some versions of the story as a kid placing Rip Van Winkle lost in faerie land, but the original story was about a guy during pre-revolutionary America coming awake after the Revolutionary War was over. He left the world a loyal subject supporting King George, only to awaken to a new nation – one he wasn’t expecting the night before. I know it’s a feeling some of us are wrestling with these days, as so many cultural and ethical norms seem challenged to some of us. What world did we leave behind; what world did we awake to?
But that’s just the cleaner, less sexist version of the story. Rip Van Winkle was a Dutch villager who was beloved by all, except he always tried to avoid hard work, and the story tells of his “nagging wife” who never relented. This ultimately led him to getting lost listening to the music at the foot of the Catskills. The Washington Irving short story even went so far as to say that when he returned those 20 years later to learn that his wife had died, he wasn’t saddened by the news. The other “henpecked husbands” often wished they could get a sip of Van Winkle’s elixir so they too could disappear. It’s yet another folk tale that makes me wonder, why do we tell these stories to kids.
As we continue this month reflecting on Women’s History, it’s important to remember all the messages we raise our children with. They create the world we live in, again and again – for good or for ill. Even as the generally progressive people we strive to be, we too dip our feet into two worlds – creating equity in some places, and contributing to misogyny in others. Just being open to the possibility that we’re missing how we each contribute to these harmful messages, can be the first step in undoing the harm. Learning to name them, begins the practice of unlearning the negative story.
On the spiritual level though, this folk tale is pointing toward something else. Rip Van Winkle is beloved by the community. He’s good with kids, fun, and kind to the people around him (except for his wife.) He’s known in the tavern, and a good storyteller in some versions of the folk tale. But he’s unhappy because he doesn’t want to work hard around the house – I’m guessing it’s a farming community. Maybe he’s just lazy; or maybe Rip Van Winkle is caught between two worlds in his daily living. I think most of us can relate; working jobs that are unsatisfying, but we need to make ends meet. You make due as best as you can, but you don’t feel like you’re really living until the workday is over.
As we heard Mary Oliver’s words earlier, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Now Rip Van Winkle’s falling down into the grass turns out to take away 20 years from his one wild and precious life. Though he did know how to be idle, he probably never really felt blessed.
Feeling caught between two worlds – living for our mundane needs, while striving for some deeper meaning that’s central to our story – is the bedrock to every mid-life crisis. It’s also essentially the story of our whole lives. How do we live into our full selves while we struggle with making ends meet, or being “a success” in our careers? What success means for each of us will be different, but we all probably share in a common anxiety over these life-long challenges. The Rip Van Winkle story is a sort of 1820s version of quitting your job, buying a red sports car and taking a cross-country road trip with the rock band. When you come back, your family’s probably not going to be waiting – as least not as you once knew it.
Most of us probably will, or already have, faced many versions of the classic mid-life crisis. Feeling like we’re caught between two worlds is at the core of that crisis. The existential question, “Is this all there is?” leads to radical changes – changes that may not actually solve our emotional crisis.
There’s an early John Mayer song that came out about 15 years ago that has a line in it where he’s singing about his “Quarter-Life Crisis.” It’s basically “the new mid-life crisis” for Generation X, and later the Millennial generation, who would both feel it’s sting. For the early Boomers, mid-life crisis was something like how I described it before, or maybe it was some natural expression around being an Empty Nester, or being the age of an Empty Nester and never having had kids. How you’ve lived for a long time, doesn’t exactly work any longer, and you’re left wondering how do you stay true to yourself, when “being true” means more than one thing. Retirement, especially for those whose life revolved around one singular career, is a major shock to our sense of self. We might be eager to take a long-well deserved break from a lifetime of work, but one of the largest ways we’ve spent our lives has come to an end, and we sometimes can struggle through rebuilding our sense of self. The more we identified with our career, the more painful this may be.
The Quarter-life crisis is something different. There’s still the same sense of crisis of identity, but the world’s pressures are different. My generation and the one following me, are highly unlikely to stay in the same career for 30 years, or retire before we’re 70. Retiring at 65 is already almost impossible for the late-Boomer generation. My Dad worked till he was 70, and forced into retirement, or he would have probably chosen to work till he was 75. But after his time in the Navy, he worked in the same career (telecommunications) for just shy of 50 years. I’m not sure that’s possible for young adults going into the work world today – certainly not likely for staying in the same company. My husband has been working at the same not-for-profit for almost 20 years, and when our friends hear that, their eyes bug out like they’re looking at a unicorn. There are outliers, but our world is forming a new normal.
For the upcoming generation – being 25 seems to ask the question – “What will I do next?” It’s the natural response to uncertainty, lack of stability, and a future that appears to confuse all of us these days. Do we risk doing what we’ve done again and again, or do we risk starting over, not knowing what may come? Maybe that’s a challenge for all of us, at all stages of our lives.
For Rip Van Winkle, it was a fantasy solution of running off to hear the music and drink the night away. Fast forward 20 years and it’s all better. In reality, living with our feet in two worlds, takes a lot of work to make the transition. For me, it took about 7 years of serious effort, from the point where I knew I was going to leave Information Technology, to when I was finally able to go into the ministry. Maybe we make fun of the mid-life crisis in TV, and movies, because it’s a sort of running away – we laugh at what is tragic. I think we laugh at the Quarter-life crisis, because ‘those kids don’t know how hard it’s going to get.” When in reality, it’s a life-change that has us running toward something, rather than away from. Different life stages, different challenges – all something we all will likely face to some degree or another if we are fortunate enough to get the chance to face our struggles with options.
The Russian Nestling dolls we heard about in our story earlier in the service, remind me of one of the lessons I carry with me from seminary psychology graduate work. “We are all the ages we have ever been.” I’ll go into this in much more detail at the end of the month when I preach on “Adulthood” (if I still I have anything to say on the topic! So maybe expect a new topic at the end of the month, the more I think about it.) Maybe childhood, in a way, is a smaller doll nestled within a larger doll. Each developmental stage we (hopefully) mature in to, is a larger compartment for what came before. For each of us, there will come adversity, that will return us to our helpless childhood. Likewise, there will be moments of wonder and newness that we’ll have to face with our child-like mind, in order to appreciate and properly face them with awe and joy. The lessons of adulthood are not always the appropriate way to face all things; just like the innocence of childhood sometimes sets us back. From a human development standpoint, we are all living in multiple worlds – far more than two – the older we get and (or so long as) the more we mature. As we age, or as we mature, or maybe both, we grow with more and more dolls nestled within our sense of self. Sometimes we live this way unaware; sometimes we knowingly can take out another doll for each thing we come across. What Russian nestling doll do you take out to face your kid being born? Which do you turn to when you lose your career, or get the horrible medical news? Which one do you show at the family reunion, or the retirement party?
In some ways, they get formed after or through every major life change. I have a story that’s vivid in my mind the first time I drove a car on my own; when I moved away from my childhood home; when I rented my first house, and ended my first long term partnership. Each person that’s died in my life has left another nestled doll in my spirit, and each major success has built another.
The story of a lifetime, how we balance our internal life with the needs of our external world, is our great challenge. We all live in two worlds: How things are, and how they might be; Our deepest yearnings, and our worldly needs; Our professional masks, with all their requirements and needs, and what we choose to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon (for those, of course, that don’t work on Sundays.) We experience great pain, when our inner and external lives are not in sync. When our spiritual life is sacrificed for worldly gain; or when worldly needs are so strong that we seem to need to sacrifice the questions of the spirit.
What does it mean to be a people of risk? Life is defined by risk; risks taken, and risks avoided. Each choice, even to stay on the “safe path”, is another risk. We can only be a people of risk, but we may not always realize it. The pain at the center of feeling like we’re living in two worlds, is the confusion that any of us ever live any other way. Yearning and satisfaction – are the perennial human struggle. What came before, and what may yet be – are possibly the two most terrifying yet poignant questions of any life. We each face them, day by day. There are moments that we feel those burning questions all the more, but they linger in the corners of our hearts silently everyday – left unacknowledged – they jump out when we’re catching our breaths.
As Mary Oliver asked, “Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass…”. Who made this human, the one who had flung herself into the next stage of life, and the next challenge, and the next pain, and the next joy? I am uneasy, or I am satisfied, by all that has come and all that will be. I am moving into the next world of this one wild and precious life, step by step, fear by joy, uncertainly with risk and cautious abandon. We do so uneasy – caught between two worlds – when we think of our lives this way; always drawing our stories as tales of what was, and what will be, sleeping away twenty years to strange music and stranger drink. Or we risk our lives moving into the next moment; jostling all of our internal nestled dolls, knowing that our life may be welcoming one more layer to our souls.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/5/17. As the Christian world enters the season of Lent, we will reflect on what choices we make that open our spirits through vulnerability. This service also opens our reflections for Women’s History Month.
In the Christian calendar, we’ve entered into the season of Lent. For some of us, Tuesday night was a night of celebration, before 40 days of fasting. For my own Lenten practice, I’ve given up excesses. I’m eating less, going to bed sooner, very limited alcohol – those sorts of changes. I’m reflecting a lot on mortality, sacrifice, purpose and meaning. Ash Wednesday is the most humanist practice in the Christian liturgy; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a time to reflect on the vulnerability of life. There’s a sense of atonement to the sacrament, but one where it’s more about returning to right perspective rather than seeking forgiveness.
This past Wednesday, had an odd end to it for me. A week or so ago, we came upon a pair of tickets to Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, when a friend wasn’t going to be able to go to see it after all. The audience clearly found it riveting, enjoyable and fully engaging. Maybe seeing the musical on Ash Wednesday itself, affected how I saw it, but I found the story of an aging starlet re-living her bygone days of fame, thoroughly horrifying. There’s a classic dialogue that sums it up, “You heard him. I’m a star.” “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” “The greatest star of them all.”
Now, for the record, I forgot that the Norma Desmond character was only 50 years old – I may have gasped out loud when her age was given. At 41, I can’t imagine feeling like she does in less than a decade from now. She becomes a metaphor for the worst excesses and demands we place upon women; and she in return tragically becomes a caricature of herself. It’s not a story of hope; but one of mortality, lost purpose, and misguided sacrifice – sacrifice that only serves to lift up another’s ego. It’s a cautionary tale, and a critique against our culture of excess, of idealizing youth. It tries to teach us not to box in women, with our impossible standards.
Norma Desmond, despite being known as “the greatest star of them all” in yesteryear, she was a star in the days of the silent screen. She was beautiful, she was captivating, she was young, but she never got to speak a word. Brené Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has her own words that seem to speak directly to this. “Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and [risk using] our voices.”
…Risk using our voices… All this month we are reflecting on what it means to be a people of Risk. Our children and youth have risked putting their art on display in our galleries, where I hope they will learn the lesson of stretching into their talent, and I hope our adults share their compliments with our artists whose names are on our walls. Not to be quiet, sweet or small, but big, and present, and central to the life of our community. Being a people of risk, means creating spaces for each of us to grow, and to challenge ourselves. It’s the central message behind our third principle where covenant to accept each another and encourage on another toward growth.
Religiously speaking though, how does risk – how does vulnerability -open our spirits to newness, to life? Love and loss – two sides to the sometimes hard lessons of risk in our lives; to love something or someone, knowing that some day we will all face grievous loss. As the poet Anne Sexton’s words we heard earlier in the service, “when you face old age and its natural conclusion, your courage will still be shown in the little ways… and at the last moment when death opens the back door you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.” Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust; but what comes in between birth and death is worth fully living, without our focus lost on what may come, or what once was.
History is vital, sometimes life-saving, and crucial to our cultural heritage. But when history turns into Norma Desmond’s grieving yesteryear, it ceases to be history; it becomes a prison of the spirit. Sometimes we are faced with loss, powerful and hard. And sometimes our grief is more ‘50 wanting to be 25’; (as if we were actually fully happy all the time at 25.) To return to other words from Brene Brown, “I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.” Now 25 isn’t childhood, but at any point in our lives this statement can be true. What makes us happy doesn’t always prepare us to be courageous and engaged. Love and loss – come hand in hand onto life’s stage – and ask us to live while we can with all the pain, and the joy. Hiding from the ashes in our lives, sometimes is a seemingly necessary coping mechanism… and Lent invites us to face what we might otherwise not be ready for, with humility, with sacrifice; for purpose, with meaning.
We see this in the wider living world too. I’ll speak of this in more detail later in the month when I’ll devote a whole service to the Recklessness of Spring; but I’m thinking of gardens as we are seeing a disturbingly early Spring. As Beth Feldman and her team get our community garden ready to grow food for the town’s food pantry, I’m doing work on my own home garden. We had a lot of wild grasses in flowerbeds outside our windows that although browned over the winter, remained whole through March. I didn’t really want to cut them back; they are beautiful in their own way, and helped to keep my spirits up during the winter months that are so hard on many of us. But if they’re left whole, a strong rain can force the soil to sort of get bogged down like a swamp. It’s best for the plant to cut it back, and have it grow anew come Spring – otherwise it risks rotting from the inside and dying. I miss how my windows look, even though I know they’ll come back again soon. But to everything, there is a season, and that is as true for us, as it is true for the rest of the natural world. We are no different.
Change – the hardest spiritual truth. When communities slowly adjust to the times, we can get in the habit of critiquing anything different by labeling it “change” – as if that in itself makes it bad or wrong – even if the change is slow coming, well thought out, and well discussed. It’s the universal buzzword to end all debate – the worst 4 letter word.
As some of you know, I’m an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’ll find a new author and work through all their works before moving onto the next. Octavia Butler is my latest find. Somehow, I’ve missed her work till this year, but she’s increasingly being covered in English Literature classes. I’m reading through her “Parable of the Sower” right now. She’s a prominent author, and one of the few Black sci-fi writers to break into the genre, and she’s clearly one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Her writing is as much theology as it is sci-fi. Without ruining the plot, especially since I am still working my way through her writing, I want to share a little of her theology that I find translates universally to be true. Here are 4 short points, that I’ll share, and then I’ll talk a little more about them: 1) “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” 2) “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” 3)“We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is Change. Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” 4) “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers”
The first quote: “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” Some of us are most familiar with this teaching in the Buddhist context, where our attachment to things not changing only leads to suffering since all things change, and attachment to what can not be – is painful. The Serenity Prayer is a more modern version of this spiritual lesson: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There are things we can change, things we can affect in our lives, and there are many things that we cannot. Love and Loss – to face each as they come is one of the hardest lessons.
But for Octavia Butler, she’s looking at this message a little differently. Change for her is sometimes like a rock banging against an object. All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” The rock can break another rock, or a window, or maybe a door; but the rock will probably also break at least a little itself, as it comes up against what it changes. Change always happens in relationship – it’s never isolated. That’s probably part of the reason that is feels so difficult in community, because all the relationships are even more pronounced and obvious – it can feel like the change is compounding upon itself. And during this season of Lent, we’re reminded in even more vivid ways, that every little change can begin to point us toward the biggest of changes in life – ashes to ashes. We all feel that worry at some time in our lives.
The next two theological quotes speak for themselves: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” And “We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is change.” But Butler poignantly teaches us that, “Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” We can catch ourselves always focused on the worst, or on the end that changes bring, but there’s a deeper spirituality found in the practice of remembering that change is at the very foundation of our being. We can forget that we come into this world in an act of tremendous change – that all that is and will ever be – comes from change. Change is also our birthright, and there is a solace we can find in that when we open ourselves to that truth. (maybe tell the short Buddhist parable of the drop of water in the wave.)
Lastly, “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers.” The novel “The Parable of the Sower” is a spiritual novel, but it’s also a political one. I’ll let you read that part of it on your own, but there’s a line that’s meant to be political during a time of crisis, that I also read it as spiritual. People will find “a tyrant we fear or a leader we follow.” Leaving the politics aside, Change can be either. In our seasons of love and loss, we can see Change as a tyrant to fear, or a leader to follow. How we accept the changes before us, how we open our hearts to vulnerability, determines where our spirits will lead us. Will we see Change as always and forever a tyrant – and experience more suffering for it, or will we understand Change to be a leader that we can learn from as we live into a new day? Love and loss: For Butler, “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” On some days we may wish it otherwise for the grief that it brings us, but self-awareness also allows us to experience love in our life; the spiritual truth that they come hand in hand.
Change is in a way, the great rescuer, even if we find ourselves flailing to keep it from taking us where it is going to take us. The great losses – of life and health – are the things we have no power over – we can only grieve and hope some day to heal our hearts enough to carry on. But so often, we take the small losses and confuse them as the great ones – and we lessen ourselves for it – we risk drowning in the water while we fight our rescuers.
I’ll close with the words of a former minister of mine, Rev. Forrest Church, who frequently taught that religion is the awareness of the dual nature of being born, and knowing that will some day die. As we begin our road to Easter, we do so in ashes. “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” May we hold a fondness for that which we love, that which once was, and may we leave our spirits open for what may yet still come. The act of living is to be vulnerable; may we all so live.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/19/17 and looks at the unsatisfying quest for perfection.
Some years ago, I maintained a regular practice of Zen Meditation, led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. The 6am practice reminded me, in crystal clear detail, that I still wasn’t a morning person. We often think of meditation as a quiet discipline, a solitary discipline or at least a slow-moving spiritual practice. As true as that is most of the time, it wasn’t true on Thursday mornings. The elderly Buddhist sister would lead us, in what she called “bowing meditation,” in English. It’s sort of the spiritual equivalent of doing lunges at the Gym with your trainer.
108 full body prostrations – You go from standing up straight to having your forehead touch the ground in front of you, and back again to standing up and straight, in under maybe about 6 seconds. The spiritually enlightened 30 year-old I was at the time, I wanted to do it “right.” I’m not entirely sure why, but for me at the time, “right” meant not using my hands to get down or to get back up. I kept them in the prayer pose and relied on my legs and core to get down and get back up again. (I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring wrist weights and make it a full-on gym routine….)
Needless to say, by noon on bowing-meditation day, not only was I my least-chipper self for forcing myself to pretend I was a morning person, but I also couldn’t safely manage stairs without grimacing from the pain in my upper legs. But at least I did the meditation…right. Another side effect was that as people passed me throughout the day, conversations invariably gravitated toward talking about why I was in so much pain. I’d just have to go into all the details of what happened, and why, and how it was still affecting me hours (and sometimes days) later… spirituality done “right.”
How often do we get so worked up about being perfect, that we miss the point of what we’re doing? Maybe it takes us so far afield from our purpose that it actually has the opposite effect we intended. Meditation is not about bringing attention to our selves, or our egos; meditation is not about making the story about me. The quest for the perfect is full of many disappointments, and in some ways, it makes things so much harder – it can break our hearts.
I’m reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.” Can we allow our spirits to honor the beauty that shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them? Can we strive a little less for perfect, and be a little more present to our dearest companions in this frayed and living world?
I’ve begun to say more and more often that ministry is a team sport. A few weeks ago in response to the refugee and immigrant crisis, a whole team of Fellowshippers helped to organize our response to the executive order that turned out to be illegal, while other leaders moved forward in learning more about the Sanctuary movement that is expanding in our nation, and I’m having conversations with our Interfaith clergy group over what collaborations we can persue . Meanwhile, we continue to be the cold weather shelter for migrant men who have limited housing options on Long Island. The current tension between striving for a more equitable respect for immigrants and refugees with the very real-world concern about the flurry of ICE raids on immigrant communities – across the country but also right here in Brooklyn, Queens and our own Long Island, makes us sometimes move at what might feel to some like a glacial pace, as we hold in our hearts the risks associated with our shelter guests. How do we act while making sure we honor the well-being of the people we are already helping? Our shelter partners with 14 other houses of worship, and a non-political social service agency – we have to carefully think through all our steps to hold all this in tension. ….AND we just heard on Saturday of 8 Sudanese refugees who fled the US seeking refuge in Canada across our northern border. We are now a nation where innocent people flee from the US, seeking refuge amongst our allies. All of our responses, our management, our logistics, takes dozens of Fellowshippers to make happen in our corner of the world. Not always seen by all, nonetheless the broader ministry of our congregation continues on.
At the same time, some members of our pastoral care team, and our social justice team, and myself are taking turns attending workshops and meetings of LI-CAN, a Long Island congregationally-based community organizing group that’s looking at our local opioid epidemic, gun safety issues, as well as how immigrants are perceived here on Long Island. And in my last sermon I also mentioned the on-going collaborations several of our leaders are supporting with local farm workers, with the pressing needs for Transgender folk, and even the leadership some of our members give toward the broader work of the Family Resources League which helps people in crisis in our community.
Nothing is all encompassing, nothing is perfect, but our congregation is connected and doing excellent ministry. I could stand here for ten more minutes just listing the ways that our community is involved in direct service, social justice, charity or solidarity work – locally, state-wide and yes, even globally. As one non-UU friend of mine recently said to me, UU’s punch above our weight (to use a sports metaphor.) But I could also spend the next ten minutes sharing the ways in which we are falling short; there are times where that’s helpful, and there’s times when that’s just spiritually exhausting. If we take a step back – we see a world where a million things are falling apart at once. Of course, we’re not doing enough. No one institution could ever do enough to fix all this. We just need to strive to do the things we do, well. What we choose to focus in on – always and only the good, or always and only the negative – is telling, and sometimes self-fulfilling – and too often self-defeating. Who we choose to say we are, impacts our sense of identity, and ultimately what we can accomplish and who we become.
If ministry is a team sport, there’s a way in which spirituality is a communal endeavor. Our seventh principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We often talk about that principle in terms of the environment, but it also reflects the religious truth that we are all connected. Our humanity is found in the sum of all of us. That practice of bowing meditation I spoke of earlier, was a communal practice. Over time, there’s a palpable sense that we feel in meditation that occurs in communal presence that’s different than solo practice. Much like how when we gather for justice work, our shared voices magnify the impact, when we gather in silent meditation, the silence takes on a deeper aspect.
And as frustrating as it may be to individually seek perfection, communal expectations can only be magnified. As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. When we project onto our congregation the need to be perfect in all ways – for things to be just right – we make it harder to do the things we are here to do. We strain, and ache, and demoralize. Then like the bowing meditation enthusiast who seeks to turn it into a gym routine, we walk through our days and years focusing on how our communal shortcomings only point toward how “me, myself and I” have been wronged or disappointed. The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our egos, despite our best intentions. Religion calls us back from that unsatisfying habit.
We learned about this as kids. Remember the story of Goldilocks? She goes out into the forest and breaks into some stranger’s home. She then eats their food, criticizing that some of the porridge is too hot, some is too cold, and then after finding the porridge that suits her tastes, she eats it. Goldilocks repeats this with the furniture; finally breaking someone’s chair in the process. Then she goes onto judge the beds too firm, too soft, and finally “just right.” When her neighbors finally get home, they walk through their own home, the scene of the break-in, until they find the culprit still sleeping in their kid’s bed. (Why do we tell this story to children?!) It ends with, “Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed, “Help!” And she jumped up and ran out of the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest. And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”
The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our individual egos, despite our best intentions – even in community. When we perpetually strive for “just right”, when we chase “perfect” into the woods, we sometimes break things, and break into places, along the way. In congregational life, it’s the sort of “stay in your lane” push and pull of committee work. We all have issues and concerns we feel deeply, and may also be worthy and valuable and needed, and we can’t prioritize everything to be #1. Sometimes in community, we can get into disagreements or even arguments over, equally worthy matters. Doing something well, but not “just right,” becomes cause for a sense of failure. Sometimes, we’re trying to determine if someone else’s porridge is too hot or too cold for me, and sometimes we break their furniture in the process. When we get lost in judging the people around us, far too often it ends with one of us running away into the woods screaming “Help!” for what might be something that was caused by our own bad behavior. We miss the point of the spiritual communal dream – not to judge each individual action, but to see the broader picture and build the beloved community piece-by-piece, mistake-by-mistake, hope-by-hope. It’s like the Buddhist Sand Mandalas we heard about in our Wondering this morning. The goal isn’t to hold onto a perfect bit of art, but to come together to create something that wasn’t there before, knowing full well that all things change.
I say all this, because I don’t want to see our committed leaders – all also volunteers – burn out. And if you help in any of the thousand things our Fellowship does to help our corner of the world, then I’m speaking to you right now about burn-out. And if you’re about to start helping in the thousand things, remember this as you begin your life-saving work. There is so much the world needs of us, and we can not do it all. We have to pick and choose. But even if we could do it all – if we had super-human powers for social justice – we would still not all agree on the right way to do every one of the thousand things – even the things we each 100% agree needed to be done. Some would find their porridge to be too hot, or too cold; some would ask why did we go through those particular woods to access the porridge, while others would wonder why we’re eating someone else’s porridge in the first place. We’re a community of roughly 250 adults and roughly 75 children and youth. When was the last time everyone agreed on something at your own dinner table, let alone the last family reunion? But we can project onto our much larger community unrealistic expectations of walking lock step with one another, and that only leads to disappointment – and heartbreak.
As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. As we come to the close of our service, let us recall the words that we began with this morning from the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.” He was speaking of love, but the message is as true when we seek perfection. Spiritual community asks us to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built. When we’re more focused on the barriers others have built, or when we find ourselves judging those around us without owning our own parts, religious community calls us back. As Annie Dillard said, “I am frayed and nibbled… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits… but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…”.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/15/17 in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It looks at our cultural norm of silencing our prophets.
Nationally, this weekend we pause to honor the life, the accomplishments and the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn about the man, the mission, and the vision. We remember his quest for racial desegregation, his promotion of peace in general, and his widespread expansion of non-violent protesting as a mark of active citizenship in the United States. We encourage civic volunteering as a nation this weekend; we also tend to take a day off from work tomorrow; and our schools will be closed, as will our office. It wasn’t till 2000 that the holiday was observed in all fifty states. Interestingly, “[the holiday] is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. (…) It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states.”(Apparently Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.) …
… We honor his legacy now in ways that we never could honor his life; for when he was still living, we in the States at least, our collective national consciousness – used different ways to single him out. We used dogs, and we used fire hoses (most of us will remember that classic photo, and some of us in this room were active in his call to justice); and finally and tragically a gun. We pick a day, as good as any other, to remind ourselves that we’re not always our best selves when it comes to integrity of character; to remind us of the importance of compassion for our neighbor; and maybe to dream once more that there might be another way; to remember our moral failure as a nation. We take a weekend each year to mark the truth that something great happened on this soil; something that grew from centuries of pain and suffering; something that was most notably brought into pinpoint clarity by this man. Something great that was an appropriate, and fitting, and remarkable and yet a simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise was mired in at the time (and maybe still is today.)
On this weekend, we thank you Mr. King for your dream; for your vision; for your sacrifice – even as we mourn and regret that such a sacrifice was apparently needed or allowed to occur. And we try to shake ourselves once more to realize that each one of us are the people left to pick up that mantle once more and still. May our hearts come to know a way to celebrate that goes beyond the ready ease of just another day off that otherwise might pass us by unremarkably.
Over the New Year, I went to see Hidden Figures in the movies. It’s a blockbuster hit that beat out Star Wars: Rogue One’s opening weekend – something few thought possible for a historical drama. For those that haven’t heard, it’s based on the true story of the women who helped us get out into space, and ultimately, later to the moon. The story focuses on three African-American women in particular amongst a larger cadre of African-American women who were part of the human computing program at NASA — Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first African-American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission; and Mary Jackson, who, according to NASA, “may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field” in the 1950s. I can’t recommend the movie enough – it’s well worth seeing – and if you’re feeling despair at what might be, this movie may rekindle a sense of hope in difficult times. I think I can safely say, without spoilers, that the United States eventually gets out to space.
As a kid, I was a strong science junkie. I loved all things science fiction, all things that involved dinosaurs and all things about space. There’s an old comic that shows a graph of our knowledge of these topics that peaks during our younger child-aged years and then spikes up again when we’re grandparents. I was one of those kids who ate it all up. I would sit glued to any science discovery show on TV; I took every science class my school offered. I wondered if I would turn out to be an astronaut, or a marine biologist or maybe even an archaeologist. Despite it all, I never once heard those women’s names, until I saw this movie.
These three women were impeccable; patient beyond all reason, brilliant, strong and integral to the success of the race to space. And although Katherine Johnson would receive the Katherine Johnsonin 2015 for her 33-year career at Langley, we as a nation waited 55 years to tell their story to the wider public. Actress Janelle Monáe (who played Mary Jackson) said (in an NPR interview), “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea. And I’m just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.” These three women were cultural and scientific saints in their own ways, and we couldn’t tell their story – not for 55 years after. In the 1960s, America wasn’t ready to share the celebration of one of humanity’s shining intellectual achievements with three Black women – stellar individuals or not.
We widely know the story of Rosa Parks who was the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – and she deserves every credit given to her for her prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of segregated America. NPR writes:
“Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin: When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.
Most people know about Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in 1955, but few know that there were a number of women who refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. Most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more….. When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”… After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case.”
I don’t bring this up to be critical of the practical decisions of leaders in the Civil Rights movement; rather to reflect on one of our tendencies to find any way to quiet our prophets. Those leaders were making informed strategic choices to address our collective cultural bias – so they shouldn’t be blamed for speaking to the times. If Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson could get us to the moon and back, and we couldn’t speak of them, how would we ever hear the truth coming from a 15 year old girl who didn’t look the part of respectability politics? Our Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese claims, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, through the desert, repenting.” Mary Oliver is a frequently heard poet in many UU congregations, and an excerpt from that poem is even in our hymnal – so one could say that her poetry informs our lived or practical theology. And yet, some of us do have to be better than good; some of us do have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles – to be heard, to be valued, to have impact on our wider story and to be known for that impact.
In fact, we as a nation have all too often demanded that of our prophets, in order to be heard. It’s one of the tools of oppression to silence our prophets – make them adhere to a perfect standard or invalidate their message by attacking their character. It’s a strategy we’re taught as kids is wrong in Debate class, but one as adults we fall prey to again and again. None of us have to look too far in contemporary news stories to hear this old trick play itself out again and again: 1) The woman, who’s been assaulted, being blamed because she wasn’t chaste. 2) Transfolk being implied to be pedophiles for needing to use a public restroom. 3) Young black teens, gunned down in our streets, being described as thugs in news coverage, when their only “offense” was playing outside their homes.
That woman, that transperson, that teen – are today’s next prophets – crying out in the wilderness for a more just world. When we find ourselves quieting them down, or negating their message of truth over some perceived imperfection, we’re silencing our collective conscience, bit by bit. That which stirs in us unease, should not be confused with being wrong. Too often we become complacent with what is actually wrong in the world and that feeling of unease is trying to tell us something. Complacency can be the death of the spirit; it can also allow threats to our neighbors to go unchallenged – as history is rife with such tragic stories.
Martin Luther King, Jr is such a prophet – who we as a nation have tried over and over to quiet how his story gets retold. We remember his visionary speech about dreams that we can all find our place in, and forget his more challenging messages like this. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (MLK.) He asked us to get uncomfortable. Or his reminder in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963 that read, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In that same letter King would go on to lament, “Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Hearing his words travel ahead 55 years to today, I think of all the protests over the last few years where in one breath pundits would extol MLK’s calls for freedom, but pretend he didn’t shut down roadways in Selma, or demand desegregation in a hundred public ways. It’s another form of doublethink that’s alive and well in our national conscience and we need to nurture that healthy unease to it.
Last Sunday I spoke at length about our first principles in terms of religious promise – the promise of worth. I want to continue that line of thought this week with our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. For those that were snowed in last Sunday, I was talking about understanding our principles as religious promises that we make and remake again and again. They’re action statements, rather than creedal beliefs. What does our second principle mean as an action statement? In light of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, how does it challenge us? As we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of prophecy, what does our second principle demand of us?
The promise of justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a promise that humanity may yet to have ever fully seen – for all of our people. I probably could drop the word “may” and just say – we’ve never reached that promise. It’s an aspirational spiritual value that we’re called to live into. As Unitarian Universalists, we are saying we’re obligated to moving our world closer to the realization of that promise. Spiritually – justice, equity and compassion in human relations are fully possible truths; we as a people choose to fall down, again and again, in living them out. But it’s a choice to not live into those values, not a necessity. It’s a choice, and one that our society chooses to make again and again.
Theologically, we say those values are real, central to our spirituality and we commit to the striving. That’s an important distinction. These days, we seem to hear a growing cynicism that those values aren’t possible in the real world; that the world just doesn’t work that way; that if others get more we have to get less so why bother. … Cynicism is a lie. It draws us deeper and deeper back out of our centered spirit; it separates us spiritually from the potential in Creation; and it makes us forget our own holy power. As we come upon our national holiday commemorating one of our world’s great prophets, let us renew our commitment to living the truth of the spirit – the promise of justice, equity and compassion – in our hearts, and in words and in our deeds. Our faith demands that of us; we are all called to birth that promise into our lives and the lives all around us. Let us make a little more room for our prophets to be noisy; to be challenging; to make us uneasy to injustice.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/20/16 looking at the differences between faith and belief. We also explore the tension between character and values, and how they struggle with broader ideologies in light of a nation with increasing frequencies of hate crimes.
Four years ago, my husband and I were entertaining out of town guests. They wanted to experience the NYC night life, so we took them to one of the then newer dance clubs in Hell’s Kitchen.I used to go out dancing pretty regularly in my twenties, but as the economy changed and the clubs died out, I slowly got out of the habit. This was probably the first time I had gone to a major dance club in over ten years. We got there and I simply couldn’t handle it. The sound, the vibrations, the smoke were all bad enough, though manageable. The twenty foot tall wall of LEDs was too much for me to handle. I started feeling like the beginnings of a seizure were happening – seriously. I left quickly and got into a cab.
On the car ride home, the cabbie was the friendly, talkative type. Now there are three places in the world where I try very hard not to reveal my vocation – bars, airplanes and yes, taxis. Despite my best efforts at dodging, he quickly zeroed in on what I do for a living. Ministry. The next 20 minutes were filled with conversation around theology, meaning, values, interfaith dialogue and my views on homosexuality, women’s rights, immigration, etc. Remember, I’m still feeling all sorts of wonky from the fading sensations induced by flashing lights and vivid screens. But I do my best. The driver was raised Catholic; came across as a progressive person of faith who felt a bit distant to organized religion, but remained a Christian.
My husband left the club shortly after me to make sure I was doing ok. He got into a cab and met a driver who was the talkative type. The cabbie also quickly zeroed in on Brian’s religious tradition – Pagan. They had a similar conversation around beliefs, practices and religious community. This driver turned out to be a practicing Pagan. When the taxi driver dropped him off, he said to Brian, “Funny, I just dropped a minister off at this same apartment a little while ago who came out of the same night club.”
It amazes me that the cabbie was Christian-sounding to me, and Pagan to Brian. The New York cynic in me wonders if part of that was playing to the tip. But there’s another side to it as well. The driver’s religious upbringing was still a large part of his values. Particular beliefs aside, he maintained the Christian sense of compassion to strangers, helping those in need, the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount. All of that came up explicitly or implicitly in our conversation. (We were both fast talkers.) And he held another set of beliefs as well. Does he get to do that and still call himself any particular religious tradition?
Yes. Yes, he does. There’s a difference between the words faith and belief. I feel this difference is both the source of unrest in our world, and the potential for healing. When values become secondary to belief, we walk dangerous ground; ideology then trumps character. Our American roots in 18th and 19th century Unitarianism, saw a direct connection between the state of our soul and the nature of our character. For preachers like Theodore Channing, character was a spiritual value; but character is based not on belief, but on action, values and commitments – living from a moral bedrock. Although coming from different places, we could argue what that bedrock should look like, but truth and facts seemed then to weigh more heavily than they appear to do these last 2 years with the expansion of social media, and the reduction of trust in journalism and Cable News. In a recent survey, only 32% of Americans trust the media these days.
Political gridlock in the House and the Senate, which ultimately impacted the future of the Presidency. Our recent (but frequent) history of voting pledges being demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation – we saw this mostly strongly in the rise of the Tea Party; although campaign promises seem to now be able to be dropped at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen; maybe campaign loyalty to established figures matters less than the cult of personality or the cult of simply feeling wronged. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion, or free-will, or non-violence. Ideology, or party unity, seems to trump common values to the point where folks can’t even see that they are doing that in the slightest.
Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve tended to conflate the two in the United States. For example, “You’re only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs.” But that’s a modern sense of religious life. It’s also a Western sense of religious life. I will also suggest, it’s not in line with central Christian teachings. And sorting through this difference may become increasingly more important for our democracy as our nation becomes more and more polarized over beliefs – we need to find our way back to our central values.
How has faith shifted to it’s modern understanding? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren’t trying to make the people believe that God existed, they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. …Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.
The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a “dual-belonging.” They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It’s both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary, or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.
From a Christian perspective, and this is the most radical thing I’m going to say today (I think), linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith was not originally a core Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…..” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.
I believe the connection we often make between the use of the word faith and the use of the world belief effects how we engage with religious life. If religion is about hollow views we no longer espouse then we’re less likely to allow our hearts to stir before the sublime. Our heads take over, and we get trapped up here (pointing to my head) rather than responding from a place of warmth (hand over heart.) We’re reading a few words ahead in our hymns making sure that whatever we’re saying matches exactly our opinions, rather than being present for the connection of the spiritual communal act.
This cuts both ways. If one’s faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one’s religious life. Such an affront to the mind’s assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn’t take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies. And we are sadly and tragically seeing that expand rapidly, even in the past week since the election. Hate crimes are on the rise. Swastikas and the word “Trump” are being graffitied in tandem on progressive church walls, and in playgrounds in Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods. When right belief gets confused with right ideology and then right ideology gets connected with race, sexuality or religion, we have a real threat to our democracy and our basic American identity.
In Unitarian Universalism, we’re asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It’s an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to act with grace – ourselves. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief. Belief keeps us from living our faith – or rather I should say that strict adherence to our beliefs have a cost to them. What’s foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious.
I was talking with a former student minister of mine, now a UU clergy colleague, the Rev. Beth Dana. This Sunday last year, I had the privilege of offering the prayer of ordination and the laying on hands for her service of ordination in Dallas, Texas. She mentioned (with amazement) how many folks have said to her that they used to feel like they needed to check their brains at the door when they went to a church, and with UU they didn’t need to check their brains any longer. Beth is a life-long UU, so she never had the experience of a religious tradition that didn’t match with her intellectual understanding of the world. I think it’s a common experience for converts though. It can be a very freeing experience to finally find a religious home that allows for science and reason in its core values. (Starr Austin and I are leading a 7 part class on Adult Coming of Age, a sort of Credo Workshop on Second Sundays. Check in with her if you’d like to sign up, and you’ll have the refreshing chance to get support while working through your own beliefs in light of our UU tradition.)
The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a central pillar to our 7 principles. That being said – I want to challenge you by saying, “Check your brain at the door.” (W’oh, we might have just had our first UU heresy spoken from this pulpit.)… “Check your brain at the door.” I don’t mean stop being reasonable, or begin accepting of what anyone tells you as truth. I mean lets put a check on our brains – they’re in charge most of the time anyway. Let’s not give them a free ticket to running all aspects of our lives. Living in Long Island, there’s a high likelihood that you’re stressed by the cost of your rent or mortgage, or the weight of your student debt, or the credit card collectors calling, or a long stretch of unemployment, or the next regional test to make sure you get into the school you want to get into (or the school your kids want to get into), or your incredible work schedule, or the demands of your vocation. Just saying all these out loud raises my own anxiety level. These are all rational problems that require rational solutions to them. The technical steps we take to addressing them are matters for the brain.
When you walk through this threshold, I want to ask you to let another part of yourself take the reigns. We often think of this in terms of the heart. I would go a step further, let your soul come to the forefront. Let your guard down a little. Let go of your assumptions around the worst of religious life, and leave space for the best to grow here. I don’t mean to start buying whatever foolish thing someone says, but rather, allow who you are to shine without the running internal monologue categorizing everything. We have a million things that need our attention and care in the wider world; and you probably come here to work toward that as well. Ease down the trappings of the head, and let your heart give more guidance. Let values of love, and care override hate and indifference. Let character lead away from ideology. May relationships overcome intellectual isolations.
Robert Frost once said that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Good rational boundaries are helpful. But living perched on that fence all the time also makes it hard to go play in your yard. We might not have fundamentalism of the right in our congregation, but we sometimes have fundamentalism of the left. Take a step back from your beliefs, and search for the openness of the yard. That openness is what religion is about. Openness is what faith is really about.
And as, maybe we travel to see family for the holidays, or they travel to see us; let us remember this openness over difficult meals. Not an openness to empty unity in the face of difference of opinion, but an openness to get off our fences, or the need for fences in the first place. An openness to finding our shared values that build up our national character. For a healthy unity comes in values, not ideology. Matthew 25, which we briefly quoted in our sermon last Sunday, and I referenced at length today, reminds us what our central values are in caring for those in need (the hungry, and naked, and homeless, and imprisoned, and thirsty.) If you hear an ideology that calls for unity that denies this central value of the teachings of Jesus, it’s a false ideology and give it no room in your heart. Give it no room. Unity at the expense of our neighbor, is no unity, it’s the old lie of power and oppression dressed up in pretty words that ring hollow, and offer nothing but brokenness.
 Matthew 25:32-46