Friday, October 21, 2011

Movie Review - "The Concert" - A 6 out of 10 on the JWorld Scale

So I had mixed emotions about this movie.  I think this movie had and made a very important point.  However the plot was entirely implausible.  Now that would be okay, if it didn’t really try to have a plot….such as “Tree of Life”.  But this movie tries to have a plot.  It tries to play as a farce, but it is somewhat a tragic story of what suppression of art does to a person and a society.  I find farce and tragedy don’t always mix well especially if you want an inspirational ending….I wont even bother going over the plot, since it is ridiculous, but suffice it to say, I think a better ending would have been if he had been imagining the whole event from the Soviet Gulag. Ok, one point.  The story involves this ragtag group of musicians, who haven’t practiced together. playing a major symphony in a major venue. Dont ask how they got there.  So perhaps the message is that creativity finds a way to express itself. That may be true individually, but I think especially not with groups of people working together, like a symphony.  But perhaps I am looking at this too literally.

So having said all this, let me indicate the power of the movie. First, if you like the symphony, the ending of the movie has a wonderful symphony concert piece that makes the movie worth watching. In some ways, I think the movie is structured just for that very purpose.  The important point I think made in the movie is that creating art (in this case music) is transformational. It is not only transformational personally, but also societally.  And the stifling of art or the creative impulse, leads to self destruction, individually and societally.  When I think about the movie in a big picture way, I liked it a lot.  I just wish the story could have been told a little more creatively.   

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Government, by of and for the people - my thoughts on the occupy movment

I have been thinking deeply about the Occupy Movement.  I have committed to attend the event in Davenport next Saturday (22nd) to add my support.  I was curious when the movement started, and then surprised when I saw that it lasted as long as it did in New York.  I was astonished to see how quickly it spread. It is heartening to see the young people of this country become engaged.   I hope that the Occupy movement is not completely coopted by but rather integrated with other activist movements . 
I am not sure what the 1% slogan means.  I know it is a symbol for those in power, for the wealthy.  The average income of the top 1% of the people in this country is over 1 million dollars a year.  Is that what this movement is about?  I have had numerous discussions with family and friends about just what is middle class?  I have discussions with people who make over 100k a year who truly believe that they are middle class.  So that will be a discussion for another day.  My point is, where do you draw the line.  Does someone making 900k fit into the 99% Are we talking about lifestyle excess? Are we talking about lack of opportunity for all? Are we talking about our lack of ability to control our own fate? Are we talking about rage against a rigged system?  Or possibly all of the above?

I see a demonizing of business and businesspeople. Not all business are evil. Capitalism has often provided the incentive for tremendous creativity and invention.  On the whole businesspeople do not see themselves as evil.  Investors have risked capital and want to reap the rewards of that risk. They see themselves as playing by the rules of a game, and they are the best at playing the game.  I think that is the point.  The problem as I see it is that we have gotten to the point where the business people are writing the rules to the games so as to create a rigged game. 

As Theodore Parker, a Unitarian Minister in the 19th century said:

The idea that all men people have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men people are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man person an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, , a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; 

I do believe there is a purpose for responsible business.  The goal of most investors though is to maximize profits. This however must be balanced by the common good of society.  Business has shown it has the inability to regulate itself. Therefore the only recourse for the citizens is for the government to be a counter measure of business so as to protect the citizens from the excesses of business.  The pendulum in this country has continued to swing back and forth throughout its history.  We never seem to find a balance. It just keeps swinging from one extreme of business run rampant (child labor, unsafe working conditions, no concern for the environment, etc.) to regulations that have diminished business’ creativity and inventiveness.  We need to find a balance.  A balance where the workers rights and rewards and the needs of the greater society are balanced against and linked to the investors risks and rewards.  In our current climate of fear and recession, business’  are using this as an opportunity to take advantage of the workers and taxpayers of this country. 

What must be done?
I think first and foremost we need to repeal the Citizen’s United decision. Corporations are not people. They do not have the same goals or ends as the citizens of this country and thus they should not have the same rights as citizens.  The rage that I sense within the Occupy movement is that Business is controlling the government.  Business has rigged the system in their favor.  This has been exacerbated by the unlimited funding of political campaigns by business. We need to get business out of the business of choosing government officials. Secondly we have to enact some lasting campaign reform and term limits for government officials to obviate entrenched special interests. 

If we are to survive and stay strong as a country, we need to avoid excesses and find balance.  The pendulum has swung too far.  The Occupy movement is the step to bring us back into balance. This is why I will support the Occupy movement. A Government, by of and for the people, not a government by of and for the corporation. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon Oct 16th - "A Unitarian among the Christians"

Growing up, I lived in a typical NYC middle class borough neighborhood.  A mix of Irish and Italian Catholic, as well as Jewish families.  We all went to school and played together.  When I was young, my parents, embracing the melting pot that was New York,  shared the Winter holidays with friends who were Catholic.  So at the age of five years old, I had my first interaction with the Christian world.  This simple act even as a child, or perhaps because I was a child,  showed me that we were more alike than different and has stayed with me forever. I was too innocent to understand that there were differences in our religion.  Looking back on it, this set the foundation for my beliefs of interacting with people…not to judge them based on their labels, but rather based on how they acted.
I remember the first time I entered a church…I remember it as if it were yesterday.  I was ten years old.  My childhood friend I had spoke of earlier with whom I had shared the winter holiday season had invited me to go to something called “mass”.  Now first I have to tell you I had no idea what church was.  But  I was truly ignorant of what other religions believed or what their prayer service were like. I went not of any rebelliousness just the first manifestation of my exploratory nature To me this was one of the first of my great adventures.  Even having said that, to this day, I remember the palpable fear I felt upon entering the church.  Would I burn upon entering...Then I saw this large statue of a man hanging on a cross. Then the real fear set in At the time not knowing the story of who Jesus was I was confused…., Is this what they do to non believers, I thought?  If I had known at the time he was a Jewish rabbi, I would have really freaked out….but my friend assured me everything would be all right, that he was the image of the god they believed in. Of course growing up with the 10 commandments, which said to make no images of God, I took pause. 
This experience made me think of the UU Religious Education program I taught many years ago called “Neighboring Faiths” The class went to visit various other religions’ worship services and compared it Unitarian Universalism. It was enlightening to the children and to myself as well. Each and every one of the congregations we visited were appreciative of our interest and willingness to share our time with them. Instead of fear through ignorance, such as I experienced as a youth,  I think that understanding and learning each other’s different and in many ways similar underlying beliefs is one avenue that will lead to peace and cooperation in the future.
Unitarian Universalism has a long history and some of its formative thoughts stem from an early Christianity and Christian writings that were not accepted as the eventual orthodox view of Christianity. So non orthodox views were considered heresy.  The etymology of the word heresy is “to choose”  We choose to believe something and not merely follow by rote what we are given.  If that is heresy, I am proud to be a heretic.  And I am glad that they do not burn heretics anymore. I think these early heretical ideas such as the unity of God versus the Trinity, and the question of the humanity of Jesus was always a suppressed undercurrent of Christianity over time. 
These views once again saw the light of day in wake of the Protestant Reformation starting in the sixteenth century and have evolved over the past half century and continue to evolve.   The question is how are the Christian Writings about events that happened approximately 2,000 years ago relevant today to us, in our culture to give us hope for a  better future..
My quest to explore this question took hold at the onset of my seminary experience, I took a number of classes on the Christian Scriptures.  These were taught with a historical critical approach.  Meaning, what did these writings mean to the people at the time they were written.   I had what I considered one distinct advantage in comparison with the other students. 
I was the only one who had never read the Christian Scriptures prior to class.  Therefore, I had no preconceived notions as to their interpretation. .  I engaged the writings with an open heart and open mind. I was the one who always asked “why do you come to such a conclusion” or “do you really believe that happened”.  Whenever I would start to ask a question, I would often see other students roll their eyes, wondering what the Unitarian was going to ask and sometimes drop their jaws after I asked my question.   The Christian Scriptures include the four gospel accounts of Jesus, the writings attributed to Paul (one of Jesus most ardent followers) as well as numerous other epistles.
 For today,  I will look at the gospel stories from a very big picture perspective and see some of the larger themes focused on within them and by modern day Christianity and how it could relate to us as Unitarians. It is clear Jesus was a Jewish teacher.  Much of the writings of the gospels involve his teaching his disciples about the Jewish Law and how to apply it in their day to day lives.  Just as there are various interpretations of the law today, there were sharp divisions within Judaism in the day of Jesus.  From other writings around this time period we know that there were three major groups of Judaism, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.
In addition there were many Jews who had assimilated into the Greek/Roman culture as well.  Ironically, although the Pharisees are portrayed in the gospels as the enemy of Jesus, they were probably the most liberal and progressive of the three sects.  There are some scholars who believe that Jesus was actually a Pharisee and had parted ways with them which is what caused animosity between them.  Most scholars though believe Jesus was an Essene.  The Essenes were an ascetic messianic sect that followed the Jewish laws of the Torah quite strictly. 
But Jesus doesn’t fit into any category quite so easily. In some instances in the Gospels his teachings are much more strict than the Jewish law, Such as his stance on divorce and in particular his stance that it is not enough to keep the law with ritual, but that the law must be written upon ones heart. In some instances he is much more liberal than the Jewish law, specifically regarding inclusiveness of worship and eating with oppressed...In Judaism, what is now considered Orthodox, In the Jewish Scriptures there are 613 laws to follow.  Jesus kept it simple, to help it make it easier for all people to follow.  It states in Matthew 22 when Jesus is asked:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 
38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” I think that is interesting that to love  your neighbor is equivalent to loving God.
I think the point of this is to show that Jesus reexamined the religion of his birth and found his own truth from within.  He intuitively understood for his culture in his context, which laws were important and which were not.    He did not force his truth on others, but offered it freely and openly to all who would listen.  Many saw the genuineness and inclusiveness of the man and his message, and followed him.
 I do not think Jesus meant for us 2,000 years later to do the same things that he did in his lifetime, but to be like him, to follow his example and study and discern what the important religious truths are for our times. So 2,000 years later we read stories about how Jesus performed miracles of healing and feeding people and we say, how can this be true.  I think it is important that we re-consider what we consider a miracle.  When we don’t know exactly how things happen, or why things are the way they are we consider their existence and actions miracles or other-worldly.  I think we take so many things for granted in our life. 
I think of modern medicine we have today, organ transplants, dna testing, cures for diseases that once ravaged populations, to me, these are miracles. The fact that the sun rises and sets every day is a miracle to me.  Life itself  is a miracle.   I guess its our perspective on things. I think that is what Jesus was trying to remind us.  There are miracles around us every day in every part of our every day life, we just have to be aware of them. We don’t need to take the miracle stories literally, they can have meaning metaphorically.  Maybe the miracle in the story of the feeding of the thousands is that Jesus convinced people who had an abundance of food to care about those who did not have food to share with others.  Some times in this day and age, with our ability to produce and distribute food, and with our abundance of food, why is it that people still go hungry?. Would we consider it a miracle today if no one ever had to go hungry?  
And in regard to the healing miracles, I think we need to expand our understanding of the meaning of healing.   Having worked the as a chaplain in a hospital, I can tell you most healing is not as simple as a mechanic running a diagnostic report and changing a sparkplug. Although to be honest with you I have not idea if changing a sparkplug is simple or not….My point is, the human body is a complex organism including our mental and spiritual capacity to impact our healing.  I see part of the role in healing is helping people realize this.  I also find the concept of reconciliation as a powerful concept in healing.  To think about this, we use the phrase reconciliation all the time when we talk about the healing of society or healing of a relationship.  We need to bring our body mind and spirit into reconciliation with each other, to assist with the internal healing process of our heart as a way to find inner peace.
The next theme I would like to speak to is the story of Jesus dieing on the cross. Now I could have just avoided this part of the story and focused on the areas of Johns Gospel which speaks of light and love,  but this issue of the cross is one that I think needs the most attention, the area that we need to redefine the most.  Without question the story of Jesus suffering, has been used throughout history to inform people that to suffer is to be like God.  This  is a dangerous and destructive concept.  I think due to this, too often people accept suffering as a way of life.  This concept has also been used by leaders as a way to placate suffering people.  And I definitively reject this line of thinking…. But there is suffering in the world.
We should be working towards eliminating and alleviating suffering, not making suffering a Godly virtue.  So if we start with that premise then how can this story be a meaningful story to us.  The story of the cross to me, is the story of what we are willing to do to transform the world and our lives.  Jesus took actions in his life and death, to bring about in his and his followers minds, a better future world.  So the questions this poses to us, is what are we willing to give of ourselves to make this world a better place for others and for future generations.  How are we willing to act individually and as a species to save the planet?. How are we willing to act individually, and as country  to make sure that there is justice for all people. What are we willing to do individually and as a religious community to make sure that our families and all families in the greater Quad Cities are cared for.  Our world is a complex world full of many choices.  Jesus and his followers made some radical choices for their  lives with the goal of saving the world.  So I ask you: What radical choices are we willing to make to save the world.  I encourage you to think deeply about this question.
The last theme I would like to touch on is Jesus’ resurrection.  I loved to point out to my fellow seminary students that in all the oldest versions of  what is considered the oldest of the Gospels, The Gospel of Mark, Jesus was never physically resurrected.  His body was just missing from the tomb, The story of the resurrection was added to later versions of Mark so that it would be in concordance with the other Gospel stories. But the resurrection story is still a major part of Christianity today. So how can we redefine this resurrection story.  Part of humanity’s existential angst has always been our knowledge that our body is going to die.  This often causes us to fear death.  The fear of death actually leads to the consequence for many people to fear life and to try and protect life from death as long as possible.   Often, only when we can accept death as a normal part of the cycle of life can we truly find meaning in our life and thus we are changed forever.  When we become self aware and start to live our lives consciously and mindfully, we find renewed purpose and new life.  This opportunity for renewal can happen any and every day in our lives based on the choices we make each day. To me this is the message of the resurrection story of Jesus. We can start anew
Unitarian Universalism is not a traditional Christianity – But I believe it is the future evolution of Christianity, I believe it is the future evolution of religion in this world.  Within our principles and sources,  within our pluralistic welcoming environment is a place where underlying universal religious truths can come together.  And these truths can be found in the stories of the Christian Scriptures and we should utilize these writings in our ongoing search for truth and meaning. The Jesus of the Gospel was the Jesus that his followers hoped to find.  They were looking for someone to give them hope where they did not have any.  So we have to ask ourselves, how and where do we find hope.  If we look at the Scriptures with an open heart and open mind, and look at them in context with our 21st century lives, just as Jesus looked at his scriptures from the context of his time, I believe we can find the choices that will help us find hope for a better future for everyone.
May it be so.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sermon Oct 9th - "Suspension of the Ethical?"

When I first felt the call to professional ministry, my older son was in high school and my younger son was in middle school. I had done research and talked to my minister but all the divinity schools in the area were extremely conservative and not appropriate for a Unitarian Universalist minister. After months of searching, I realized that if I were to pursue my call to ministry, I would have to either move my family away from Central Florida including my sons from their school and friends, or I would have to travel away from my family.  
Was this some sort of test I was being given? I kept thinking, what kind of universe would ask me to make such a choice. And when I thought that, my mind immediately went to the story of Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis. So recognizing our Second Source which Unitarian Universalism draws from, which is “the Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,”  I want to speak today about the Jewish High Holy Days and how this story that it is integral part to the holiday held the clue for my seminary dilema. So first a little background,
Yesterday was the end of a 10 period known as the Jewish High Holy Days, which starts with The Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, and ending with the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur. They are known as the Days of Awe. In very general terms, the Days of Awe are a time for reflection. Reflection of the year just past and the year to come. Celebration of creation, and life and a time to ask forgiveness for the promises we had broken, and to offer forgiveness to others for their broken promises to us.
Having grown up in the Jewish Religion, this time of year holds a particular reverence for me. It is very interesting to think about how we remember things as they actually were versus how we experienced them when they originally happened , and how their meaning changes over time. When I was young, there was of course the positive aspect that school was closed for the first two days of Rosh Hashanah and then for Yom Kippur, if they fell on a weekday. However that this was balanced by the fact that we had to spend the entire three days in the synagogue. As well Yom Kippur requires a full 24 hours of fasting. My memories of this go back to my earliest childhood.
I cant tell you one sermon I remember from that time, but my one searing memory was just the act of sitting through services throughout the required three days. Just the act of doing so, just the expectation of all those around me of the attitude of reverence made me understand the experience was meant to be important. I think that in and of itself is a good lesson. That which we spend more time on should be more important to us. And that which is important to us should we should spend more time on and it should take on an air of reverence.
And then they put on the ultimate behavioral scare tactic to a young child by telling me that God would determine who lived and died in the next year by the time the holiday was over, so I had better behave during service. After a few years, I realized that those who misbehaved didn’t die, so I saw the flaw in this theory. Not that I misbehaved after that, but my doubts were raised. So be careful what we tell our children!!
As I became a teen, having been raised to question things I did not understand, one of the questions I had was why during Rosh Hashanah did we always tell the Genesis story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This story is called the Akedah which means binding. In the case of this story, it meant the binding of Isaac to offer him up as a sacrifice…. What was the point of this story and what did it have to do with the New Year Holiday. Now my parents being rational people understood this story to mean that the wise men at the time this was written wanted to let the people know that they did not have to literally make sacrifices of their children which was a common practice in many middle eastern cultures of that time. This kept me quiet for a few years but didn’t answer why we keep repeating the story year after year.
As I entered my early twenties, I became infatuated with existentialism, which in very broad terms is focus of philosophical thinking on the conditions of human existence. This brought me face to face with the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. Now I generally liked Kierkegaard in that in his commitment to a religious life, he vehemently believed in a non dogmatic view of religion. He viewed living an ethical life to be conscious rational choice with equal commitment. But the problem comes up as to what happens when the rational ethical choice and the religious choice do not agree with each other. His passionate defense of Christianity required for him to take a leap of faith that transcended the rational.  In his book Fear and Trembling using the example of story of the Akedah he raises the question “Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?” and argues for its existence.
The view of the Akedah at that point for me was a basic question as to whether humans should have complete faith in something greater than ourselves and our own experiences, to a point that we would do something unethical. By looking at Abraham’s actions in this vein, we can see that such a view has led many people to do unspeakable things in the name of religion and thus I rejected this line of existential thinking.
This story does push the envelope regarding the topic of faith, but as I have found with most of my studies the biblical writings leave so much open for interpretation. Maybe that point, in and of itself, is part of the answer. That we must not take everything in life at face value, but we must search deeply between the lines for answers, as they are not always so obvious. So when I entered seminary I looked between the lines of this story very deeply, and what I found fascinated me and gave new meaning to this story that I think has meaning for all Unitarian Universalists
The first basic question that troubled me is what kind of God would create such a test? Did God question Abraham’s commitment in this story`? In the Bible Stories what had God asked of Abraham initially? In Genesis 12 he asked very little. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. He basically asked Abraham to follow his advice and he would give him great blessings and later on promised him land. In Chapter 15 there are more specific promises with no other stipulations.
In Chapter 17 there is another covenant between God and Abraham where in exchange for God’s blessings, now Abraham and his descendents had to “Walk in My ways and be blameless” and partake in the act of circumcision. (which was particularly difficult for adult convertees) And then in Chapter 22, he asks for the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. As the bible goes on, as each task is completed, there are more and more requirements added to maintain this blessing. Almost like a video game, once we reach a certain level, we are ready for higher, more difficult levels. One of the messages of The Akedah is that we as human beings need to be constantly challenged to help us evolve to a new higher level of humanity
Another thought provoking aspect of the story is that there is a strong argument that passage had been edited to add in the fact that the angel had prevented Abraham from killing Isaac. If that is true, it changes the whole nature and meaning of the story. Interestingly, and I was shocked by the high number Jewish Biblical Commentaries that said this was an addition and that Abraham actually did kill Isaac. This version of the story is supported by the fact that Isaac doesn’t return down the mountain with Abraham, and Isaac has a minimal role in the rest of the Bible stories. Other Commentaries conjecture that God brought Isaac back to life after Abraham killed him.
I would imagine most of these commentaries were written as a way to combat and replace the growing Christian narrative of Jesus’ Resurrection.
But imagine if the opposite is true. Imagine if the part about the angel stopping Abraham was a later addition and Isaac lives. Then the story would then flow as if Abraham himself made the choice not to kill Isaac, and sacrificed the ram he finds in the thicket instead, based on his own free will defying his God and his society’s customs. The message here is that we have free will and due to that we have to make hard choices. Just because we receive an order to do something from an authority, does not mean we have to follow it blindly.
We have an intuitive knowledge of good and evil. We have the ability to choose one over the other, and we have to make those choices wisely with an open mind and an open heart. We are often in life faced with situations where we may be asked to something unethical. Sometimes it is not so blatant, as in the Enron sort of way, but it is small. We rationalize the net utilitarian benefits to ourselves. We say to ourselves, how can anyone be pure in this world today. And we cant, but it’s a slippery slope…and we must be careful how far we are willing to far we are willing to compromise….
and then one day we reach that point where we say….enough…we have accepted one too many compromises….and we will stand no more compromises…and we will stand for what we believe in….. If one can stand up to a God, certainly one can stand up to a human being and defy an unethical order. I think biblical scholar Omri Boehm summarizes this well by saying
"In disobeying God’s manifestly illegal order, it is Abraham, the monotheistic believer, a knight of faith, who is responsible for the determination of Good and Evil, not God. He thus presents us, not with the “suspension of the ethical”, but with a preference for it."
This concept is where I found my answer. We must continually strive to achieve an ethical life even if it sometimes requires us to differ from the larger society. This is not an easy thing to do. And in thinking about this, I realized that the theme of reflecting on our choices is the perfect story for a New Years story. This story reiterates the theme of new beginnings throughout the book of Genesis. First with Creation, then Adam and Eve, and Noah. Abraham started anew when he left his family. After this story in the Bible, there is not another story of Abraham talking to God.
Also very telling is that in the original Hebrew, the word used for God at the beginning of the story is different than the word used to describe God at the end of the story. Abraham started anew again with a new conception of what God is based on his experiences in the world as his knowledge of the universe increased. So this story asks us each year to consider what is our conception of God as our knowledge of the universe continues to unfold.
Now some of you may have noticed, and a couple of you have asked me, what are these bracelets that I wear on my left arm. These are friendship bracelets my younger son made for me over the years. The first one he gave me when I traveled on an important business trip, the second one when I went to visit the UUA during the credentialing process, the third one when I left to to serve my internship in Tampa and this last one when I came to serve you here in the Quad Cities. And each time he said roughly the same thing. When you are away from us, just look at these bracelets and know that we are here pulling for you and that we love you. And each time he bound them tight and knotted them, so tight that I cannot take them off without breaking them. This is the kind of binding I think of when I think of the story of Abraham and Isaac
 The binding of two people together, the binding of a community of people together, the type of binding that doesn’t allow for the suspension of the ethical for there to be an authentic relationship. A binding where the ethical is held up as its highest ideal, A binding where the ethical is identified in community and rewarded by the community and the universe. It may not always work out that way, but it is how I live my life, it is how we should all live our lives together and by doing so we will reward each other, and we reward the universe through the results of our acts of love and compassion.
And in such a way, the universe responded to me. When I had almost given up all hope of attending seminary, when I had almost given up hope that I would be able to pursue my life’s passion, when I refused to sacrifice my highest ideals, then a liberal ecumenical seminary opened a campus in Orlando, and it became my ram in the thicket. Even more bizarre, six years later a month after I graduated seminary the school was sold and the Orlando campus was closed. It was as if the universe created what I needed for the time I needed it.
Of course thinking that might require me to suspend my idea of what is rational or else maybe realize I don’t understand exactly how the universe works, but that was my experience. So I encourage you to trust your intuition of the good and be committed to an ethical way of life in community and have faith that the universe and all its inhabitants will respond in kind.

Happy New Year, La Shana Tova – May it be so

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Yom Kippur Service

I went to Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Service last night for the first time in 35 years.  I attended at the reform temple here in Davenport, Ia.  I had met the Rabbi a number times at inter-faith meetings.  I don’t know why I attended.  The last time I went to any Jewish service was about 7 years ago when in Orlando the reform temple was having a Kaballah service.  I had been reading about Kaballah and wondered what a service would be like.  The service was mostly singing in Hebrew, and the people were generally unwelcoming to me as a guest. The last time I went to Kol Nidre service I was 18 or so. I had not been to Temple in a few years and out of respect to my parents I decided at the last minute to attend.  I did not have a ticket though, and asked to be let in. They did not turn me away, but the Rabbi, at the beginning of the service made a point to comment sarcastically how many people just show up at the last minute without a ticket and expect to be let in.  I didn’t let the door hit me on the way out. I have talked to other Rabbis over the years and they often have this same disdainful attitude toward unpaid visitors.   Now 35 years later, here I am again, an unpaid visitor, who at the last minute decided to go to services.  Some observations follow:

  • ·         There was a police officer at the entryway.  A reminder that I am not in New York anymore and that Jewish people are in a deep minority here which I assume creates some fear.
  • ·         No one asked if I had a ticket. (I did call in advance and ask if visitors were welcome)
  • ·         The people in general were friendly and welcoming and willing to strike up a conversation.
  • ·         They service book is now written left to right as opposed to right to left when I last went.  I actually do think going from right to left in some way helps train the brain differently.
  • ·         There is at least an attempt for some inclusive language in the prayer book compared to how I remember it as a youth
  • ·         There is little transliteration of Hebrew to English in the prayer book, so if you cannot read Hebrew (which I don’t anymore) you cant follow along
  • ·         There seemed to be a lot more Hebrew in the service than I remember (this could be my memory)
  • ·         The s have become t at the end of many Hebrew words
  • ·         Chants of prayers had different tunes than I remembered (not unusual or surprised by this)
  • ·         There were some prayers and songs that I still remember by heart from when I was 17 years old.
  • ·         The sermon was excellent, much better than I remember ever hearing as a youth.  This probably has more to do with age, and where I am in my spiritual life than anything else. But the sermon was one that I think could easily have been given in a Unitarian Universalist congregation and was very relevant and moving.  The sermon also included a guided meditation which was excellent.  It was clear that the congregation was uncomfortable with the guided meditation, but I found it powerful.
  • ·         There was a lot of talk about God. I understand this due to the theology, but it was ongoing and unending.  Rarely using the word God in Unitarian services made hearing it constantly somewhat unusual.  In some ways by constantly using and repeating the word, seemed to minimize the meaning of the word for me. Further reflection needed on this topic for me.
  • ·         There were words used like grace, and holy spirit that I had always thought of as specifically Christian that were used in the liturgy.
  • ·         I was a little surprised by a lack of reverence by the attendees.  Maybe I am remembering this with a child’s memory, but this was always a serious time in my family. Last night,  throughout the service, people were chatting, and a few even walked out early. I tried to imagine they were ill and had to go to the hospital.  I could never imagine leaving a Kol Nidre service early except for something that extreme.
  • ·         There was a hauntingly beautiful cello performance of Kol Nidre.

 Overall it was a good experience.  Some of the readings were powerful.  There were many readings that included calls for justice.  However the reality is that the theology still doesn’t resonate with me. It never did. 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sermon Oct 2nd - We Are Unitarian Universalists

Opening Reading - Carl Sagan - Excerpt from "Pale Blue Dot"

We were hunters and foragers   The frontier was everywhere
We were bounded only by the earth and the ocean and the sky
The open road still softly calls
Our little globe is the madhouse of those hundred thousand, Millions of worlds
We who cannot even put our planetary home in order riven with rivalries and hatred
Are we to venture out into space?
By the time we are ready to settle even the nearest other planetary systems
We will have changed
The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us
Necessity will have changed us
We are an adaptable species
It will not be we who reach alpha centurii or the other nearby stars
It will be a species very like us
But with more of our strengths and fewer of our weakness
More confident, far seeing capable and prudent
For all our failings despite of our limitations and fallibilities
We humans are capable of greatness
What new wonders undreamt of in our time
Will we have wrought in another generation and another
How far will our nomadic species venture in the next century and the next millenium
Our remote descendants safely arrayed on many worlds in the solar system and beyond
Will be unified
By their common heritage
By their regard for their home planet
And by the knowledge
Whatever other life may be
That the only other humans in the universe come from earth
They will gaze up to find the blue dot in their skies
They will marvel
How vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was
How perilous our infancy
How humble our beginnings
How many rivers we had to cross before we found our way

I chose the Carl Sagan reading because it imagines us in the future looking back on ourselves today. Looking back on ourselves with awe and wonder and how we struggled to achieve greatness.
History for Unitarian Universalists seems often seems like a struggle and for many reasons.  First and foremost, is the challenge that in some ways our religion is very young.  Although Unitarianism formally dates back to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s,  and Universalism a bit later, We consolidated the two religions into one fifty years ago. So in some respects our history is only fifty years old.  And although we can point to many similarities, each of the original religions had its own uniqueness and its own history different from the other.  Today, only a small % of members, were ever a member of either religion prior to the consolidation.  So it makes it a bit more confusing, as we now have three distinct histories to examine, Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists.
Having grown up in the Jewish Religion, I can say, heritage was almost an exclusive focus of my religious upbringing. Judaism’s rich history will always be a part of my personal and family history and it helped create who I am today as a Unitarian Universalist.  My evolution of religious understanding tells me that although history cannot be exclusive it is an inclusive part of what religion is.  The stories, myths, culture, and scriptures of Judaism are still with me as part of my UU religion. 
My Jewish upbringing  informs me, but it doesn’t uniquely define me or my current religious practice and theology today.  Similarly, our history of Unitarian Universalism doesn’t define us, but it will always be a part of us, it helped create who we are today,  and can still inform us.  One cannot gain religious depth just because of history, but our history can be a guide and a foundation to grow on.  What is it that makes us uniquely who we are? What is a UU culture? In Judaism, it was always, because of our past, this is why you must act in this way.  In Christianity, it is because of our past, this is why you must believe this way. For Unitarian Univeralism, our history says to me, because of our past, this is why we think this way; this is what led us to this point.  
We are a progressive religion, and by that I mean we use new information as it becomes available to inform how we live in the world.  We believe in exploring the unknown.  Such exploration leads different people up different paths on the mountain to describe what holiness means. These different paths create a theological pluralistic community.  In order to create such a community, we have become a covenantal community.  How do we agree to walk together on this religious journey.  Our tradition of religious covenanting harkens back in this country to the Puritans, which was formalized in the Cambridge Platform in 1648 some 363 years ago.
It was a document  that talked about how members of congregations agreed to act with each other and how groups of congregations agreed to act with each other.  This document was the basis for the democratic polity within our congregations and I would argue the basis for our own country’s democratic structure.  Now the items we covenant about today are different than they were 363 years ago.    However the tradition of covenanting I think is important and something we hold to today. 
And it is ironic that for such a historic religion many members, myself included come from different or no religious backgrounds, and that background often was not completely satisfactory or we wouldn’t have left and become Unitarian Universalists. 
So often members are looking forward for something new, not something old. 
But we are not just a conglomeration of like minded people from other religions or no religions who have come together to share time on Sunday Mornings to hear a nice sermon.  WE ARE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS.  We should be proud of that, not dogmatic, but proud.  It means something to be a UU versus being part of another religion.
I think there is much to be gained by looking at our tradition. I think this history allows our community to connect to and realize that they are part of something that is bigger and more longstanding than just ourselves and our personal religious experience, And by doing so, by looking back, by remembering our history, it allows us to live in the present and look to the future of our religion in ways that affect something other than just ourselves and our current concerns in this moment of time. I believe that realization that we are part of something larger than ourselves leads us to transformative growth.
Our history informs us of who we were and how we got here.  And we examine our history with critique, It is important to remember our history in context. Our history connects us to a long tradition of religious freedom, and hope and exploration.  It also connects us to a long history and tradition of transformation of self and society. 
Many of our UU ancestors were leaders in public education and public health, including mental health, and we have a long history of  working for social justice for those who are disempowered in our society.  But our history also connects us to challenges of a diverse changing society and how quickly we can become extraneous to it if we do not adapt. 
We need to let History inform us how we move forward.  What has worked in the past, and what has not? When and how have we reached towards our highest ideals and what has led us to abandon them.  One of the chapters in Charles Howe book on Universalism The Larger Faith is entitled “We do not Stand, We Move” I agree, we should not be trapped by our history for better or worse.  We move forward with the full realization that we move in uncertainty, with wonderful intentions that often have ambiguous outcomes.  Knowing this, let us move forward with wisdom gained from knowledge of the past to give us the best chance to create the beloved community in the present and in the future. 
I have learned much on my religious journey……I have learned that we can do exponentially more together as a community compared to what we can each do alone.  I have learned that we can work together with other religions to achieve common goals.  I have learned that there are some people in the larger community who will not work with us and do not have our same values and we need to be able to name that and speak our truth. have learned that there are many people who have never heard of us and desperately want and need our message and community.  I have learned that there are many people who have heard of us and respect what we stand for and who we stand with.
My hope for the future of Unitarian Universalism.  That we could build a religion that our name speaks to.  That we could be united as a people, although of different opinions on details, we could be united in our actions towards the creation of our vision of a just and compassionate world.  A Universal vision that does not separate based on divisions. A vision for all humanity and the earth itself.  I would encourage you share our message, to see yourselves as part of something greater than just yourselves and just this community. 
Take every opportunity you can to make yourself and the larger community, including the larger Unitarian Universalist community, reach its full potential by working together to create the world we dream about.  This is not something that just happens overnight.  But with right intention and right action with all working together, we can change ourselves and those around us in the present and in the future.  You will need to constantly nurture and improve yourselves, nurture and improve each other, nurture and improve the community,  nurture and improve your ideas, and nurture and improve this religion.
When our descendants look back on us what will they find.  They will find a religion that was the foundation of our democratic country, they will find a religion that supported religious freedom and the pursuit of a just society in our own lifetime. But what after that?  Will our history since our prodigious early stages be a prologue of what is still yet to follow.  The future is not written. It will be what we make it. 
So I would like to offer to you for consideration just a few ideas from my experience of ways that I have found to be helpful to move forward in creating community.
Push yourself to go deep.  Many of you lead busy lives, You are all tired.  It is easier when we go home to just sit on the couch and watch tv or read the paper.  Our congregational mission calls us to embrace individual searches for meaning and one of our Unitarian Universalist Principles is to encourage spiritual growth in our congregations.  So  I encourage you to be intentional about taking up a spiritual practice.  If you have a family I would encourage all in the family to participate together.  If you don’t have a family, remember this congregation is your family, and look for opportunities to share in some of the many spiritual practices that happen here. But you have to be intentional about it.
Continue to educate yourself and be open to new and different ways of being and thinking. Our UU identity is shaped by our willingness to be open to and be challenged by new ideas, new teachings, and then to be self reflective and when necessary to become self corrective.  Keep that educational vision in front of you at all times.
Life is an adventure.  Don’t be afraid to try something different.  Take a chance.  Volunteer to do different things.  It will lead to different experiences. These different experiences will lead you to meet different people, which will lead you to different perspectives that will lead you to different conclusions about life and the world. 
Often, when I lived in Florida and I was mired in traffic driving, (Yet just one more thing I love about the Quad Cities)….my children dread the next 5 words that always come out of my mouth “Lets go on an adventure” and we get off the highway and try to find a different way to our destination.  I like that metaphor for life.  Don’t get stuck in traffic just following the car in front of you. See if there are others ways to go on with your journey until you reach your destination, see if there are other paths up the mountain.  On this UU Path, you will have good companions for the journey
Worship together and I encourage you to be open to different types of worship experiences, be open to really listening and discerning, and immersing yourself in the experience.  Just the act of being together week in and week out singing and sharing, creates community. 
Be intentional about being a welcoming community.   Our message is a message of transformation and hope.  It is a message our world desperately needs.  It is a message that guests walking in are looking for.  But the first thing that attracted me to my first UU congregation was just the overall friendliness of the first group of members I encountered when I walked through the door for the first time. I will call that a theology of friendliness. 
What I also remember was when my son who grew up a UU came back as an older teenager, with spiked blue hair, an older member of the congregation walked up to him, hugged him and said how much she missed seeing him.  The hair thing didn’t seem to bother her, and my son noticed that as well although I think he really wanted it to bother her…but he knew then, that no matter what he would be accepted.  On this UU path all are welcome Saints and Sinners, Poor and Rich, White and People of Color, Gay and Straight, spiked hari, straight hair, curly hair, no hair,  all are welcome here.
Live our UU principles.  These are not creeds, but covenants about how we agree to act together.  Think deeply about in what ways you do live the principles and do not, and why.  Try to make them congruent with your actions.  Despite the ambiguities of life, maintain hope for a better future for yourself and for the world, the world of today and the world of our descendants.  Maintain hope and find meaning in each and every day.
  Ours is a transformational religion, that believes that due to our existence on this world, we can, and have a responsibility to transform ourselves, our communities, and the world itself.  WE ARE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS.
It means something to be a UU versus being part of another religion, and I am proud to spread the message of our principles and the transformative effect of our community to the larger world and I encourage you to do so as well so that 363 years from now people will harken back to this time as part of an even longer tradition of religious freedom in beloved community that transformed the world. 363 years from now
They will marvel at us
How vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was
How perilous our infancy
How humble our beginnings
How many rivers we had to cross before we found our way 
Now let us go out and create some history. May it be so.