Monday, November 21, 2011

Text to Sermon Nov. 20th - With a Grateful Heart


When I was in the business world, I would sign all my letters and emails Sincerely, Jay Wolin….because I wanted to express that I was sincere, not that I always was, although I tried to be.   So as I pursued ministry, I started watching and studying what ministers did. This was the kind of thing that I would do when I was learning anything new. I would study what other business people did.  I think this is a good lesson for anything we take on in life, whether it be a new career, a new hobby, social activism, or ministry, find out what successful people in the field have done and tailor it to your own unique style and circumstances.   I noticed many Ministers used very creative signature lines, some using quotes,  I actually took a lot of time discerning this question.  That may speak a little to obsessiveness on my part, but this is something that is some ways defines the essence of who I am.   So I thought how do I want to be defined?  I wanted to be intentional and authentic.  If there was one virtue, one statement to express the essence of my being to others, what would it be.  A good question for each of us to think about.  So if you ever received an email from me you know I chose the phrase with a grateful heart.  Now I have to be honest, I don’t always have a grateful heart, but it is what I aspire to be and do every day.
And since I write a multitude of emails every day, this is always in front of me, always staring at me, always challenging me….and before I send out an email, I look at the line and ask myself, did I write this email with a grateful heart.  Am I a living with a grateful heart.  And not just with gratitude.  Not just an intellectual understanding of being thankful, but being grateful in the core of my being, in the life force that flows through all my body.   Like a constant affirmation and reminder, naming my intention of how I want to be in the world
Of course gratefulness requires us to look at the world with a relative lens.   Often it is only with the perspective of time and of accumulating experience that we can appreciate gratitude.  Such as when I was growing up, I really didn’t like where I was growing up, but as I went out into the world, I learned there were a lot worse conditions I could have been in. And I realized what major advantages I had living where I did. But at the time I didn’t appreciate what I had. Now I appreciate what it took for my family just to be in the position to live where we lived. Now I have learned to appreciate just having a roof over my head however minimal it may be.  It is not something we should ever take for granted.  As we know there are many right here in town without a roof over their heads.
Another example would be growing up, I thought my sister was very pushy…and I didn’t appreciate her…..now many years later, I still think she’s pushy, but I appreciate having two siblings who has shared a lifetime of experiences with me, who know me as no one else does and looked out for me and  people I know I can always count on in a time of need.  It is important for us to look back over time to see how our perceptions change and to bring that awareness into the present moment to examine our current perceptions and assumptions about our current experiences.  I cant always control my circumstances, but I can control how I react to them and how I let them affect me. 
As an example, when I am driving and someone cuts me off, I always like to imagine they are rushing to the hospital because they just found out their mother was ill.  Now when my son is in the car, he imagines something less altruistic, and responds with anger often.  But the truth is we don’t really know.  But instead of becoming angry I become grateful, grateful that they didn’t hit me, grateful that I don’t have anything causing me to be nearly so anxious as that person, and that in turn makes me less anxious.  And when I am late for a meeting, I have learned, that it is far healthier for me not stress over it and rush to where I am going, risking my safety, a speeding ticket, and my stress levels. 
And I try to become grateful for even having a car to drive in, for there was a time when I didn’t have a car.  I become grateful that I have a meeting to go to. I become grateful that I am optimistic that the person I am meeting will forgive my lateness.  The truth is medical study after medical study has shown that gratefulness leads to, less stress, to better health, and to more happiness. Now I am not Pollyannaish, and I know that person who cut me off, probably isn’t going to the hospital, but I don’t know their life, what led them to that point, that caused them to do that….and I try to remember that there was probably once in my life when I accidently cut someone off…..and I become grateful that I did not hurt someone else. 
We can choose how we react.  Do we react with anger or do we react with love in our heart, do we react from a place of gratefulness for what we do have and reminder of our own imperfect selves. Are we the carrot, the egg or the coffee. 
 We heard Ann talk about Guest at your table boxes from the UUSC.  If you read the booklet included with the box, it is a reminder of how blessed we are and how the challenges we face often pale in comparison to people in other parts of the world. Sometimes we like to think this is because we are exceptional, but in fact, we were blessed recipients of a land with excessive fertile soil, and limited population. An indigenous population that we deposed from those lands. 
It is of course ironic that the Thanksgiving Holiday, we retell with the story of how the indigenous peoples of this country helped us survive at our early beginnings in this country and how this holiday celebrates our sharing a meal together with them.  This is not to say that all of our ancestors, many who came here long after those events, and even long after slavery had been outlawed, didn’t work very hard to achieve what they did. But let us remember to be grateful for the opportunities we had that so many other here and in the world didn’t have, let us be grateful for having the opportunity to live the way we choose, when so many were not allowed to live the lifestyle they were living before Europeans arrived. Let us be grateful.
What gratefulness does for us is lead us to the realization of the interdependence all things.  It leads us to reject the myth of pure self sufficiency. If I am grateful for something else, I am connected to something else.  And self sufficiency is a myth.  No one does it on their own.  Thich Nhat Hanh I think expresses this wonderfully in his writings called “The heart of understanding” He states
Please look at this piece of paper, without the clouds in the sky, this piece of paper could not exist.  Without a cloud, there will be no rain, without rain, the trees cannot grow, and without trees we cannot make paper.  The cloud is essential for the paper to exist.  If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either.  If we look into this sheet of paper deeply, we can see the sunshine in it.  If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow.  In fact, nothing can grow.  Even we cannot grow without sunshine..  And so we know that the sunshine is also this sheet of paper.  And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper, and we see the wheat.  We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper.  And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.   When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.” (And I would add that the person who typed the words, the person who made the computer it was typed on…. The person who taught that person to read and write….also are a part of this piece of paper.  Certainly we all have a part in and are responsible for our own actions, but no one does it alone.  I thought about this last week at a memorial service when someone said something to remind me of the Orson Wells quote, “we are born alone, we live alone, we die alone, Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.” I always found that a strange line.
Certainly we have an inner world, some things that we don’t share with others, but at birth is the one time we are undeniably not alone, we are physically connected to another human being. Last week one of our long time members passed away….she was not alone, she had her husband by her side, her many friends from this congregation by her side constantly with them caring for them in the last months of her life.  In fact I would say Welles got it completely wrong, I believe that we try to create the illusion that we are alone, People in our society often do everything they can to isolate themselves from others. Look for every possible reason to hate and be hurt by others….
And it is this feeling and belief of alienation that we are separate from other things that allows us to look at other things and beings as commodities, as something other than ourselves. Realizing our interdependence, with all of existence, forces us into a more emotional and intimate relationship with existence…it requires us to be authentic, to lower our boundaries, to risk pain, to care about others and ultimately if I am interdependent with you, if I harm you, I harm myself.  If I help you,  I help myself.     We don’t have to be alone… We can open our hearts to others. We can open our minds to new ways of being and doing things. It is in breaking this illusion of aloneness that we will realize the  universality of all things and all people. 
So how do we create a sense of gratitude, how do we create this sense of oneness.  I believe the key to doing this is to have a spiritual practice.  I feel having a spiritual practice to be so important because It requires intentionality. And once we learn the discipline of intentionality in one area of our life, we can apply it to other areas of our life.  Intentionality in our actions, intentionality in our thoughts, intentionality in our speech, and most important intentionality in our relationships with others.  Now I know when we think of spiritual practices we think of a monk doing meditation in a monastery.  Now I will be the first to tell you that meditation has been a powerful spiritual practice for me. 
And there is an irony in that doing something solitary like meditation can lead to a greater ability to connect with others. But I  can also tell you that meditating with a group has been a much more powerful experience for me than meditating alone.  Intellectually that doesn’t make sense. Maybe there is a certain accountability of being with others, or maybe it is the psychic energy of those around me, but either way that has always been my experience. Spiritual practices do not have to be solitary acts though, they can be almost anything we do if we act with intention.  Other examples include spiritual body practices such as Tai Chi, and Yoga, creativity practices such as poetry writing, and other creative art work, practices such as gardening, knitting, cooking, even cleaning the house if done with intention and love should be considered a spiritual practice.  I have not achieved that level of awareness myself on that last one. 
But in regard to specifically making gratitude a spiritual practice, there are some very specific things that you can do. Every morning or evening you can journal or think about a list of things and people you are grateful for. You can use visual reminders, such as I do with my email, or writing a list of the things you are most grateful for and keep them in your wallet, and when things get stressful, pull it out and read it. Another important practice is to on a daily basis tell someone something you appreciate about them.  There is a power in the naming of something out loud.  And I know that there will be days, when the hard winds blow, and the body aches, and the bill collector calls, that you are just not going to feel like doing it. But I tell you it is important to do even if you are not feeling it, even if it means just going through the motions.  I know going through the motions can has a negative context, but as Aristotle said, We are what we repeatedly do. In more current times than Aristotle, Stephan Covey in his book 7 habits of highly successful people used the image of sharpening the saw…being grateful is not something we can just turn on and off, we must make it a practice, a part of our every day life, so that it comes naturally to us day in and day out.
So I do have a  grateful heart, and I am constantly practicing….I am grateful for many things.  First I want to say, I am grateful for auto-save on Microsoft Word. While writing this sermon, due to a sensitive mouse I accidently shut the file down, and after an anxious moment I was very grateful, I hadn’t lost the sermon. I am grateful. I am grateful to be here with you, to have this opportunity to minister with you. I am grateful to be able to work in the vocation  that I am passionate about and gives my life meaning. I know many people cant say that.  I am grateful.   And as I asked all of my Facebook friends what they were thankful for.
With the exception of one cousin who is seriously grateful for his xbox, I like most of the people who responded am grateful for my health, for my family and their health, for friends, congregations and a religion that sustains us as we journey through life, for the wonders of nature, and as another person’s note reminded me, something my grandfather would often say to me later in his life, When I would ask him how he was, he would respond, “Jay, Every day above ground is a good day.”  So yes, I am grateful for the mere existence of my life on this planet, and my awareness of it.  So be grateful, every moment, of every day, in every interaction you have. May it be so.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Service Nov. 13th - The Religious Imperative for Social Justice


The phrase social justice is bandied about quite often, and it means different things to different people.  So I would like to share with you a story that I think really explains it quite clearly.  I first heard this story when I was  a young man.  I had joined the Ethical Culture Society in New York, and similar to our Pathway to Membership class they had an introduction to Ethical Culture.  And this is the story they told me during my first class there, and it has stuck with me ever since.   One day a villager took a break from harvesting food and noticed a baby floating down the river toward the village. They couldn't believe Their eyes!  They jumped in the river and pulled the baby from the river.
The next day, they were keeping a closer eye on the river wondering if babies had always been floating down the river and they had never noticed.  This day they saw that there were two babies floating down the river.  They jumped in and pulled both out.  The next day there were four babies floating down the river and they realized they could not pull all four out by themselves, so they called a friend over to help get the four babies out of the river.  Each day the number of  babies floating down the river kept increasing.
          With so many babies they had to organize themselves.  Watchtowers were built on both sides of the shore and swimmers were coordinated to maintain shifts of rescue teams that maintained 24-hour surveillance of the river. They had one group of people for medical care, others to provide clothing, others to build housing.  They grew more food to feed all the babies.  Then one day another villager asked, "But where are all these babies coming from?""No one knows," said another villager. So the person said, “Lets organize a team to go upstream and find how who's throwing these babies in the river."  Not everyone was in agreement. "If we send someone up stream, we may not be able to catch all the babies coming down the river, or have people to cook and care for them so if we spend our time going upstream, some may die.  And we don’t even know if we can change what is up the river.  We should just worry about what we know. And so the ethical question that was posed to me and the entire group in the class was, would we sacrifice the life of some of the babies, in order to search for the unknown cause of the problem.  Should we go upstream?
So staying downstream is what I would call social service, a direct rendering of service to those in need.  Going upstream as I like to call it, is what I would call Social Action, working for systemic change to the causes of injustice rather than just dealing with the symptoms.  This would involve, education, which in the story was even realizing that there were babies in the river.  How often are we not even aware of social justice issues in the world.  Social action could include  public witness which is a way to to make an injustice known to the entire public, such as the Occupy Movement has done so successfully.  Social Action would also include community organizing such as Quad Cities Interfaith does such a good job at, and working on changing the policies and systems that lead to injustice.  All of these actions both social service and social actions fall under the larger term social justice for me. 
          So I can tell you that not everyone in the room at that Ethical Culture class was in agreement on the answer to that question as to whether to sacrifice some babies lives. And I ask you in the week to come to ponder that question as well.  But no one said, just do nothing, no one said, just let all the babies float down the river.  If we truly believe in our Unitarian Universalist  Priniciples and our congregational mission and vision, if they are to be anything other than just words on a paper, then we cannot just turn away when we see sufferring.
            The inherent worth and dignity of each person, justice equity and compassion in human relations, the interdependent web of existence of which we are all apart should be something that we internalize into our being and externalize in our actions in the world. And we continue to explore to find that balance between the internal and external.  And we need to find the balance between Social Service and Social Action It is my hope to engage the congregation in social justice work.  For it is only by becoming engaged, by doing the work to alleviate and to change injustice, that we are changed as people.  The first source from which we draw inspiration is the “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;”  It is through direct experiences with others that we learn of others lives, and are changed by them, only by direct experience…Not the experience, of watching it on television, not the experience  of reading it in a book, but the direct experience of being with, sharing with and understanding someone who is different from us. Only then can we understand the wholeness and oneness of all existence.  We may express things culturally in a very different way, we may act in a different way due to the different circumstances of our upbringing, but I often say, if not but for the grace of the universe, there go I.  If I had grown up under different circumstances, in different places, with different parents, How different would I be.  So we explore and search for the sacred and the oneness of all things. 
I can tell you that for me I answered that question of whether to send someone upstream fairly quickly and it has always guided my religious and spiritual life. Although we don’t know what we will find by going upstream, but I was willing to sacrifice a few and take that chance, because without going upstream, we will never find a long term solution so that one day no babies will ever have to float down the river. So that one day there will be justice in the world for everyone.  Sacrifice. Often to achieve anything in this world requires sacrifice.  Sacrifice, of time, sacrifice of other things we might do with our time, sacrifice of money,  sacrifice of careers, sacrifice of ideas that have been long held.  I always like to ask myself,  is the path I am taking for the greater long term good? How would I want to be treated if I was in someone else’s shoes.  
So I constantly go upstream. Constantly challenge myself and others.   We out of our common humanity, cannot ignore the downstream, we cannot ignore the suffering, but if we never go upstream, the amount of suffering, will one day become unsustainable to care for until the situation implodes, and then many many more will suffer.  And if we do not upstream, how can we hope to change the people who are causing the suffering.  And this process also involves hope.  Do we really believe that we can make a difference.  Do we really believe that we can transform the way people live and think and act.  Do we really believe we can transform the world.  And as I said last week, we have to believe we can. And if we believe it then we have to act. 
            In regard to question of the need to act, as I mentioned before about public witness,  I have been thinking deeply about the Occupy Movement.  I attended  the rally in Davenport last month with many of you, and spoke at the rally to add my support.  And although I know many people would like the Occupy Movement to have more specific goals, they are there as a public witness to what they see as injustice, sharing ideas, and expressing their feeling of alienation from the political process.  If nothing else they have had this country talking about our values as a country, and as human beings.  As I said at the rally, this is ultimately a moral issue.  How do we treat people when they are down.  Do we kick them, or do we give them a helping hand to lift them up, Do we abandon them, or do we walk with them in their time of trial.   Now I have also seen a demonizing of business and businesspeople throughout this Occupy process . Not all business are evil. Capitalism has often provided the incentive for tremendous creativity and invention in this country.  I do believe there is a purpose for responsible capitalism.  The goal of most business’  though is to maximize profits. This however must be balanced by the common good of society.  Business’ has shown consistently throughout our history that they are unable to regulate themselves. Therefore the only recourse for the citizens is for the government to be a counter measure to 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, fraudulent financial practices etc.) to the other extreme of 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 business’ risks and rewards.  In our current climate of fear and recession, business’  were using this as an opportunity to take advantage of the workers and taxpayers of this country. 

As Theodore Parker, a Unitarian Minister in the 19th century said:
The idea that all people have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all people are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every 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; 
Yes, I know you think that was Abraham Lincoln, but he took the statement from Parker.

            If we are to survive, we need to avoid excesses and find balance. I would say that is true in all areas of our life.   The pendulum has swung too far.  The Occupy movement I feel is the step to bring us back into balance, so that the voice of the people can be heard. This is why I will support the Occupy movement. To create a Government, by of and for the people, not a government by of and for the corporation.  The Occupy movement shows us that change can happen,  it has awakened something deep within the soul of this country for justice.  And because I believe in my heart that change can happen and we as a religious organization can act to make it happen, to awaken within ourselves and the larger community the need for compassion and justice. 
            This need is one reason that one of my first projects I decided to work on when I started here was to work on a social justice discernment for the congregation. We had a committed group of people who showed up week after week.  Committed to seeing that we as a congregation take on a social justice project as a congregation. I would like to ask if any of the people who attended the group would be willing to stand.   One important step we took was to create a Social Justice Council.  So if you are new here, and you want to know how to get involved, you can see one of these people, or see me.  We also looked to discern, what one topic we could work on.  We looked at eight proposals submitted. We viewed them based on four criteria, 1) what was the grounding of the topic in relation to our mission and vision and was it something the group and something that we felt the congregation could become passionate about.  2) we looked at what impact we could have on any problem.  Was there a definable goal and would it if we were successful have a positive impact on conditions  in the Quad Cities.  3) we asked was it a good fit for our group’s and the congregation’s strengths and resources and 4) what are our chances of success.  So after a 10 week period and a democratic iterative process the Social Justice Council has chosen the challenge of Teen Homelessness. 
            Research has already started as to the causes of the issue, and research into the resources in the community already working on the problem.  I encourage you to become engaged, to share your knowledge and wisdom in this area so we as a congregation can have direct experience in this area and help overcome this challenge to our community.  There is no limit to what we can do if we put our minds and hearts and bodies working together as one.  Let us improve lives in the Quad Cities, and by doing so, improve ourselves. 
Throughout human history people have been driven to explore ways to improve themselves.   I believe it is part of our evolutionary makeup.  There is something deep in the well of our being that makes us want to improve both individually and societally. To explore what is just and to fight injustice wherever it is found, both within and without.  It starts when we make that connection with the burning flame we have within, the thing that gives meaning to our life.  And even though I wasn’t a boy scout growing up, (either literally or figuratively) even I know when you have a regular campfire the fire needs to be tended to or it will go out.   So we keep working on this meaning making that we find within these walls as a way to keep the fire within burning strong and burning long.  And I encourage you to share that light.
To not just let it burn on the inside, or it will burn you up….but to let it out, to bring that light to others, and to combine it with the light of others as we work together to build a just and compassionate life and world. Come, come join us at the river, in the river, downstream, and upstream, help us transform the world and in doing so transform your world. It is through this work that we remember that we are a part of the greater whole, that we are interdependent to all that is, and that creates a wholeness within us. 
              And that to me, this creating wholeness is what the religious life should lead to.  A wholeness or oneness not only for ourselves with ourselves, but a wholeness/oneness between ourselves  and others, a wholeness/oneness  between ourselves  and the environment, A wholeness, a oneness with all of the universe.  May it be so.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Service Nov 6th - The Meaning of Membership


One Sunday morning, when I was young child, My grandfather told me a story about a time he wanted to move the family into a particular neighborhood just outside of The Bronx, only to find out that they would not allow Jewish people to buy a house in that neighborhood.  He told me the real estate agent suggested to him he change his last name and act less ethnic, then maybe he could pass as non Jewish.  He said that he could not do that.  He told me that I should never deny who I was.  He said too many people have worked too hard and too many people had suffered for too long, for us to hide who we were.  Then he got this twinkle in his eye and he said,  Anyway, I got the last laugh on them….I bought two cemetery plots in that town.  So although I cant live there while I am alive, at least I can live there after I am dead!!

Now I wont get into the theological issues about the afterlife that raises right now, but I think the story speaks volumes about how we choose our communities, and how we choose our religious community.  We often tend to join groups that are homogenous.  Now in my grandfather’s case he meant that he could not deny his Judaism. I agree we cannot deny who we are. But it is important for us to think about who we are, and what we believe.
And we can change who we are, and growth often requires change and change sometimes means breaking away and finding a new way and a new community. Now I have often been asked due to my religious upbringing do I still consider myself Jewish or Unitarian or both.  At times I have been called a Jewnitarian. Because I maintain a meditation practice and have studied Buddhism, I have been called JUBUUU.  But after long discernment, although I may draw more heavily on particular sources, I am 100% Unitarian Universalist.  For you see if I have learned one thing about religion, and having a religious life, is that religion is a practice.  It is not a belief.   Have been a practicing UU for over 25 yrears
Oh we may hold beliefs, but I want you to think of religion as a verb. The word religion stems from the latin word which means to bind together.  Religion is not about what we believe, but what we do, and who we bind ourselves to. And like my grandfather, I cannot deny who I am, and what I believe, even if it may  not be what he believed. It is a very difficult thing for many to do, to choose a religion not of our birth, but we are here because we know who we are, or we have found that this community allows us to search for who we are, and what we believe in.  Becoming a member of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation was my first acknowledgement of that choice.   
Now of course, I know there are some of you who were born UU’s and I hope my and all the children who are raised Unitarian Universalist, remain in our religion, but ultimately it is our wish that they too find who they truly are, so that they can be fulfilled and find wholeness. But if we are active in our practice, then I believe they can be fulfilled and find wholeness here. 
How does one become a member of this congregation?  As with most questions of this type Our bylaws or policies will give us an answer.  In this case this our bylaws clearly set out the requirements of membership.  They are actually quite simple.  They require you to sign the membership book, to make a pledge, and to make a payment on your pledge.  That’s it. 
Now those things are important, but what it means to be a member is a much more complex. What are the benefits of membership? Membership as they say does have its privileges.   Of course in our association there is the benefit of voting.  It is something that is unique to our way of governance compared to many other religions. We do not have a bishop, or a presbytery to answer to.  We answer to ourselves, each person individually to their conscience, and each person in relationship to other members.  We vote on very specific things.  Calling or terminating a minister, which happens hopefully once every twenty years or so. 
Members vote each year for individuals who are nominated for the board of trustee, and members vote on the annual budget.  But of course it is much more complex than that. 
Now I have said a couple of times it is much more complex than that…..in truth it doesn’t have to be.  Many people just come on Sunday mornings to participate in worship.  There are some members who never attend and who just send us a check once a year.  The truth is it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. It can be as distant or as engaged as you want it to be,  and either way you are not judged by your choice.
 Every person comes here under different life circumstances, with different needs, and different abilities.   There are members who no longer live in the Quad Cities area, but they feel so strongly about the relationship they had when they were here that they still support us financially.  There are those who cannot attend due to physical limitations and they support us to show the love they felt for and from this community.  There are people who travel for work, and people who are raising children that limit the time they can commit.  And although we make no requirements of activity for membership, there is an expectation of activity for membership. 
There are opportunities and expectations to be engaged for members, but it is an individual choice by each of us as to what we do. By becoming a member we create a psychological commitment to being a part of this community.  It is a public statement of identity we make when you become a member of this community.   And of course the more you engage with the community, the more you will become committed to the community,  and the more chance you will have to be changed by and grow from your experience here.  And it is important to grow.
Our fourth principle is the Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. But merely having a principle in of itself is not reason to grow. What is the substance behind that?  I have always thought that to be an interesting juxtaposition of phrases.  We accept you for who you are, but it is important to change who your are.  But I do think it is important for every person to always try to improve ourselves.  Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “No stream rises higher than its source. What ever a person might build could never express or reflect more than they are. They could record neither more nor less than they had learned of life when the buildings were built.”   In the business world, we used the phrase the Peter Principle, which by the way was named after a Mr. Peter who stated and in a more negative way "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence". But this last statement presupposes that a person has an inherent limit of competence.  I often say, I don’t know my limits until I have tried to pass them.  Because the truth is we usually underestimate what we are capable of doing.  We need to push ourselves and each other to improve, to reach the full  potential of our humanity.
As an allegory for this concept, I want you to realize that for recorded existence up until 1954 no one had ever run a mile in under four minutes. Many believed it was impossible and would never be done. Then in 1954 Roger Bannister, set for himself a rigorous training schedule and  ran the mile in under 4 minutes.  Poignantly I think they had two of the fastest runners pacing Bannister, which pushed him to run faster. Within two months after Bannister broke the 4 minute barrier, another runner John Landy ran an even faster mile than Bannister. Now of course, a 4 minute mile is considered the standard in professional track and field and has been recorded by over 1,000 runners in competition.  What was once considered impossible is now considered standard.  Remember that when someone tells you that something is impossible or the task too large or the road is too long.
If we are to build a just and compassionate life, community and world, we will have to become better human beings, all of us, in our thoughts, in our words and in our actions.  We will have failures along the way, and some days it may seem impossible, but if we set a course for ourselves and are intentional about how we want to be in the world, then one day being just and compassion will be the standard by which all will live.  But first we have to believe that we are capable of achieving this,
And then we have to set a rigorous training to become the people and the community we hope to become.   I believe part of that training is being an active member of this religion. This is where we come to focus on issues such as the purpose of our existence and the meaning of life, and how we want to be in the world.
And there is that constant tension, the tension between looking inward and looking outward.  Looking inward to explore, to understand, and then looking outward to put our understanding into our lived experiences in the world. Then there is the tension of being challenged and finding Sanctuary.  Here in a trusting, loving environment, we can explore and move out of our comfort zone to look at our lives and the world in new and different ways, without fear, judgment, or condemnation.  And then there are times, after the stress of facing the world and the constant bombardment of challenges we are facing, we often just need some time to relax with friends, to find our center, to find our peace, to rebuild our strength so that we can go and be challenged again and go out and do what we need  do in the world. There is also the tension of learning from the wisdom of our elders from their life experiences,  and being open to hearing new voices from younger people, and new voices from our own newer experiences of the world as it is today.  These tensions are things we are always trying to balance.  And if we don’t balance them, we will find ourselves, either burned out from constant challenge or we become too comfortable and we don’t put our values into action at all.  So we need to find that balance, and we need to help each other find that balance. We need to pace each other, to push us to be our best in all ways.
And that can only happen when we are in good relationship with each other, and in truth, that to me is the theology of membership.  It is a an unstated agreement to be in right relationship with each other.  How we act with other, how we treat each other. Particularly in our pluralistic theological tradition, and particularly because of the progressive nature our religion, we are sometimes confronted with ideas that are challenging to us and with people who have different ideas. How we deal with this is that we are in covenant as members together. For those who have been to the social justice discernment sessions, you know that I have at the beginning of each session repeated what we agreed to as a group in the first session as to how we would be together as a group. And although this isn’t a congregational statement, I think it has some truths that we all can learn from.  
This covenant included cultivating attentive listening.  Listening to understand and suspending judgment; Respecting the contributions and circumstances of each other; trusting each other's good intentions, To aaccept and respect those with differing opinions. To be willing to learn and change, to be intentional in inviting everyone’s opinions, and probably the hardest, at least for me is to speak from our own personal experiences, and not to extrapolate our ideas as the norm for others.  We can be a place where the whole is the greater than the sum of its parts.  Such as a choir which has different voice types, such as soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. 
Each on their own have their own beauty, but together as they blend their individual voices in wonderful harmony with others they create something that can be even more beautiful then they could ever be alone.  We as a congregation are an organic entity. We are changed by each new member, that joins us with their unique gifts, talents and experiences.  We are all here doing this together. We can only be successful if we are all doing this together.  For ours is a shared ministry, empowering all to be given responsibility for fully participating in the religious community,  finding and sharing your unique gifts with others to help create the harmony and wholeness that we seek.
Membership should be a covenant and commitment not to the organization, but to and with all the other members of the congregation, and to and with all the past members of this congregation who created what we now have here, and it is a covenant and commitment to all future generations of members of the congregation to create for them something to build from and so that they too can have a place to search for  truth and meaning in their time.   For the future WILL be different than the present.  We can help create that future, A future when all people respect the dignity and worth of all beings, a future where people from all races can live together in unison with equal opportunity, a future where people from all ethnic backgrounds can share and enjoy the richness of each others culture, a future where people of all sexual orientations are welcome at the courthouse in every state of our great country, a future where people from all religious backgrounds can pray together in peace. We have to believe this is possible.   It may not happen in our lifetime, but we have to believe it is possible!!
And just like my grandfather who pre-purchased his burial plot in New York to plan where he wanted his remains to be for eternity, he eventually ended up being buried in Miami Beach, because his journey led him in unexpected ways to unexpected places.  For that is how life is.  We never know where this journey of life is going to lead us.  And that is why it is easier to journey together as a community, than it is to journey alone.  May it be so.