Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wonder (and the Polar Express)


Last Sunday was a bit unique in that we had two different services.  The early service was on the spiritual practice of doubt and living with uncertainty, and 11:15 service we saw the youth lead in what I can only call a joyous Christmas Pageant based on the movie Polar Express. I thought the two services an interesting juxtaposition and thought I would explore it some more. The movie Polar express asks the question as to whether we should believe in things unseen, unknown.  The story centers on a boy (I’ll call the protagonist) who is starting to question his belief in Santa Claus.
Using his analytic skills he starts looking for clues in the Atlas and magazines as to where the North Pole is, or some proof as to the existence of Santa Claus And whether in a dream or not he takes a ride on the train called the polar express and befriends three other children along the way each with a lesson to learn.  As they journeyed on their train ride, the train inexplicably was put into many terrifying situations up and down hills without brakes, though mountain tunnels, sliding across ice, to the point that one could believe the purpose of the movie was to try to market a roller coaster for a future amusement park ride, but of course that would be cynical of me to think that way and would of course defy the message of the movie. Maybe I just lived in Orlando for too long where its all about the amusement parks.   I do have to admit that I found parts of the movie challenging.  First, I found it strange that the head elf was speaking in Yiddish, with a New York accent. Sometimes it is good to have our perceptions disturbed, but I just never pictured Christmas elves as being Jewish.  Also, I found the elves chanting as they are waiting for Santa to be a little cultish. 
Although I was heartened that Santa delegated the determination of who is naughty or nice to the elves.  I thought it a little creepy showing the elves spying into children’s bedrooms on multiple television screens.  Clearly elves don’t have to follow our 4th amendment rights of privacy!!  And our young doubting protagonist, wanting to hear the sleigh bells ring, and being unable to in the midst of a large throng of elves cheering for Santa and realizing the other children could hear the bells ringing, led him repeat “ I believe, I believe” until he could hear the bell ring.
This left me with the feeling of describing belief as being formed by a sort of peer pressure, a belief coerced due to the benefits it would give him, of seeing Santa and hearing the bells, just like all the other people surrounding him.  And don’t even get me started on Santa using a whip to get the Reindeer flying.  In all the cartoons I saw growing up, Santa was able to communicate with the Reindeer. Although this could explain a bit about why the other reindeers bullied poor Rudoph all those years.  Well I probably shouldn’t look at this quite so analytically.
Anyway, Santa and the train conductor come to the rescue for me in this movie in their advice to the 4 main characters of the movie, in what I think are important messages for all relating to the concept of belief. As I said there are four children in the story, One of them is a know it all, someone who is cynical and always wants to point out how smart they are and is dismissive to others.  Even one of the elves says, you are not even supposed to be here. That’s sort of how I felt watching this movie…..But Santa’s message to that young boy and I guess to me, is that he needs to learn patience and more important humility.
When the train conductor punches the boy’s ticket with the word Learn, which would seem an odd message to someone who is a know it all.  But when given the ticket, the know it all boy has his finger over the R, so it looks like the ticket says Lean to him, and he says sarcastically looking at it, “lean whatever that is supposed to mean”, and thus the message is, even if we are smart, even if we know more facts about something than others, we don’t always have all the information, there are still things in the universe that are unknown to us. 
Sometimes like the boy, in our haste to prove ourselves right, to show how smart we are, we mistakenly blind ourselves to other wisdom, or other’s circumstances, or how what we will say will affect others.  But deeper than that there are mysteries in the universe that are unexplainable, there are mysteries that we do not even have questions for yet, Just as someone in the middle ages could never have conceived of quantum physics, there are I am sure ideas that we cannot conceive of today that in the future will be commonplace.  That doesn’t mean we stop questioning.
But it does mean we could be a bit more humble in the face of all that we know we don’t know and just be a little nicer, more compassionate, a little more open to sharing with others what we do know and a little more open to hearing others wisdom and experience. The second child in the story is a young girl, clearly a natural leader, a decision maker with confidence. And the ticket the conductor gives her says L-e-a-d.  After seeing it, she says “Lead, like a lead balloon.”  Of course what it says is lead as in leadership.  And I think this homograph, (I know you English teachers out there love that word – homograph, two words spelled the same with different pronunciations and different meanings) points to a very important point about our worldview.  We can be a confident, decisive, leader, but if we have a negative world view, if we see the negative in everything, if we see led instead of lead, how will that affect our decision making?  If our life experiences continually show us the led in the world, that is what we tend to come to expect. We must transcend the led that holds us down from imaging a new world with hope and a loving message that we can lead others to.
The third child was a boy named billy.  Actually I think he is the only one of the four that is actually given a name in the movie. I thought that fairly strange, I am still thinking about that one.  The movie states clearly, he is from “the other side of the tracks”  He states “Christmas doesn’t work out for me” In fact he would not have even been on the train if not for the help of the protagonist boy who stops the train to let him on. Billy tries to isolate himself, and doesn’t even want to see Santa, but Protaganist Boy and Leader Girl encourage him. And they end up on an adventure together, and when he finally meets Santa, Santa reminds him that there is no greater gift then the gift of Friendship.
I think there is no greater truth.    I think he was hoping for PSIII or XBOX, but I thought it interesting that the ticket the conductor gave him had the word dependence on it.   We often hear the word dependence in a negative way so often.  We are so steeped in our notions of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, which I can tell you none of my loafers have by the way. And just think about that, the word for shoes without bootstraps or laces is loafer, as if to indicate that I am lazy just because I don’t want to spend hours of my life tying shoelaces.  Now bootstrapping is a good thing if you can do it.  I don’t discourage that,  But we are led to believe that we are of less value if we cant do everything without the help of others and I reject that.  Being able to depend on others, being able to admit that we need help with something, is an important step to our self actualization.  Nobody, nobody does it alone. From when we are baby, as we grow, until we die, we all need nourishment, we all need encouragement, we all need guidance and opportunity.  Our lives have become so fragmented by the various demands and complexities of the world, that only by people helping each other, can we find wholeness in this life. 
Just knowing there is someone you can depend on, makes it easier to move forward and stay on track, just knowing you will have someone in your corner makes it easier to take a risk, just knowing that there are others on the same path with you, makes the journey easier.  That is what we seek to do week after week after week here as we come together on our spiritual and religious journey to explore with friends, some old some new, some deep, some not, but all of us have had the shared experience of being human together, to seeking meaning together, to laughing and loving and yes grieving together. Together not just dependent, but interdependent with each other and stronger for it.
And lastly the protagonist of the movie, the boy who had a lot of questions about Santa.  Once he hears the bells ringing, he asks Santa for sleigh bell to take home, and Santa commends him on his choice of a gift, and tells him the bell is the spirit of Christmas as is Santa and that the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart. And so I ask you what is it that lies in your heart this Holiday Season.  Is it love, Is there love in your heart….Is there patience, is there humility are there friendships in your heart, do you feel the interdependence, are you looking at things trying to pick them apart based on their inconsistencies with how we view the world, sort of as I did at the beginning of this sermon with the movie, or how we often do with people who we may not agree with.  Or are we with our actions trying to create a wholeness for ourselves, our family and our community.  Is your heart filled with wonder?  I think we sometimes set up a false dichotomy for ourselves, that says if we question, if we doubt then we cant believe, we cant have wonder. But even with doubt we can believe in something unseen or unknown.  I believe peace is possible.  I don’t know how, I have not seen it, but I believe…and if I act with peace in my heart with loving actions, then it can happen.  At the very least it will happen for me. And the person I am sharing my peace with will experience it as well. I will be at peace, if I act with peace.  That to me is the spirit of Christmas, when we imagine what we can be as our best selves. As whole human beings.  It can give us a sense of wonder of what is possible for ourselves and the world. I encourage you live with wonder in your life, every day, not just this day. Live with wonder for the most basic things in the world. I tell you when I looked out over the Grand Canyon, I could have thought about all the evolutionary forces that caused it to happen or I could just stand in awe at its beauty. 
When one sees the smile in a new born baby’s face, one could think of all the biological events that had to take place to bring it to fruition, or we can just stand in in awe at its beauty.   What is it that brings you wonder?  OR what is it that can bring you wonder? For all who suffer, some with debilitating illness’ for all who have lost a child, or could not have children, for all who have lost a loved one, or have been hurt,  where can you find wonder.  The conductor of the Polar Express said that the one thing about trains is not where they are going, but rather your decision to get on it.  The front of the train has a bright light on it to shine the way in the dark.   I encourage you to get on the train. Move forward. See where will your heart take you in this coming year.  See where you can find wonder in the world. Maybe it is as simple as watching the sunrise or sunset, feeling the wind blow across your face, thinking about the hot sun warming your body….especially this week.  Or even more importantly, think about how you can you be the wonder in this world.  How can you let your light shine to show someone else the way.  And you may think, how can I be a light, I cant even get my own act together.  But you can, just a simple smile, a kind gesture, a helping hand.  Let us be conscious in our actions. 
Lets us stop for a moment as our life fills up with things to do, And although we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep, I encourage us this time of year, stop and take notice of the deep dark woods within yourselves and notice their loveliness and within our deep dark woods there is an inner light, a light called love.  Don’t forget that light and don’t forget you are loved. I believe this to be true.  May it be so.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fundamentalism and Doubt


What is it you believe to be true.  What is it you believe with complete certainty? Even taken to the utmost extreme that you would never give up on?  Although I feel certain the Cubs will not win the World Series, conceivably it is possible.  We talk often here of right and wrong.  We don’t all agree, We talk often of how to fix what is wrong or improve what is right, but we cant be certain.  What about our own existence? Do our perceptions deceive us as depicted in the movie the Matrix where humans are just plugged into machines?  As well I have been on some very interesting virtual reality rides and games that can really make you feel you are not where you perceive you are. 
Or thinking of the the Chinese philosopher Zungzu who said, “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zu. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”  I believe it is due to the lack of certainty, even of our most basic perceptions,  that humans come together to try understand reality. This to me is the purpose of religion. To come together to understand where we came from, who we are, where we are going, to come together to share the tragedies and horrors that we face in our lives, and to share the beauty and wonder that we find in life. There are a wide array of diversities of religions.  Even within religions there is a wide diversity of religions. Today Jewish People celebrate the last day of Hanukkah. As I spoke last year this commemorates the Jewish victory led by the Maccabees to win their freedom in the 2nd century BCE from Syrian Greeks who ruled the land.  The instigating event that caused the uprising was that the Syrians erected a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple and sacrificed pigs, which of course due to the kosher laws this act was anathema to the Jews.
Now at that time, many Jewish people has assimilated into Greek Culture and had adapted or reformed the laws of the Torah with more modern Greek ideas. The Macacabees were fundamentalists who believed in following the laws of the Torah very strictly.  Yet even they reformed the laws to how it met their needs.  They changed the laws not allowing them to fight on the Sabbath.  Imagine what it must have been like 1 day a week, your enemy could fight and you couldn’t. So they changed the law on not being able to fight on the Sabbath.   So there are varying degrees of fundamentalism based on how it fits your community. And that is how it is. 
Often Orthodoxy is determined by reformers.  In Judaism, there was not a formal designation for Orthodox until the 1800s.  when a group of Jewish congregations formally separated themselves as the Reform movement, and created their own seminary,  announcing their intentions to adapt the Jewish religion to a modern enlightenment world. It was only at that time that a formal structure called Orthodox Judaism was formed.  And it really hasn’t changed today. There are some Jewish people who keep kosher and some who don’t.  And just yesterday in the paper I read that Israeli women are not allowed to pray with prayer shalls at the Western Wailing Wall in Israel.
It is actually illegal for them to do so and they are arrested. and yet there has been a woman prime minister and supreme court justice in Israel So the tension with Fundamentalism and Reform within Judaism continues.  It has been this way historically with Christianity as well.  In early Christianity there was a group called the ebionite’s who believed that Jesus was the messiah but they should still follow all the Jewish Laws.  There were Christians who believed that Jesus was mortal, there were Christians who believed that Jesus divinity was spiritual, not incarnate. There were those who believed in baptism for children, some in a second baptism.
Then in 325 in the council of Nicea, the Emperor Constantine gathered the bishops and they formalized the rules going forward which became the Catholic Church. This led to violent suppression of other forms of Christianity.  And just like anything that is suppressed it finds its way to the surface often in unexpected and sometimes violent ways as it did with the Protestant Reformation. And of course today we see the tensions within Islam between modernity and orthodox views being challenged.  Why do religions struggle so much with a need to have certainty.  There always seems to be a fear,  a sort of straw dog that is raised that if we allow doubt, if we allow uncertainty that a society or that religion will crumble. That if we allow one doubt, then we will be going down a slippery slope. Sadly there is only one answer for this, religion became more about power than about the truth, religion became more about control than about compassion, religion became more about creating certainty than about how to live with the uncertainty that our existence gives us.
               There seems to be a fear that letting go of certainty, a certainty that all of our experiences tell us is not certain, it is a fear that we will head down a path of moral relativism.  If there are no boundaries, that anything goes.  We hear that argument thrown against Unitarian Universalism as well, that since we do not have a creed you can believe whatever you want.
               So first, let me say that I believe that moral relativism, happens much more often with certainty, than with doubt. We just need to look at history and see how those who hold a moral certainty give no heedance to those with differing opinions and therefore, do not acknowledge the need for moderation or principle. They have used their moral certainty to slaughter and oppress many and just because you have the power to kill and oppress those who disagree with you is not an argument to support your own moral certainty. I remember one of my first professors in my pursuit of my undergraduate  degree when I answered one of his questions tentatively, said, Jay, when you answer a question, answer it with confidence and authority.  If you do 95% of the people will believe you without questioning you. But therein lies I think the fallacy of the argument and the beauty of Unitarian Universalism.  My goal is not to get everybody to believe me. My goal is to share my wisdom, my knowledge, my experiences, to facilitate your decision making, to empower you as individuals and as a congregation, to move you to become your best selves. And if we all do this, then we can create an environment where doubt is not only acknowledged but also encouraged. For a person who accepts doubt, must accept that they may not be right, they must accept that others may have wisdom that can help them.
               We have often heard the phrase doubting Thomas. Well the source of that is the from the Christian Scriptures from the Gospel of John. The Disciple Thomas was not present upon the other disciples witnessing the resurrected Jesus, and Thomas says he will not believe until he sees with his own eyes. I can understand that is the kind of thing I would want to see with my own eyes. Now I will tell you that many believe the Gospel of John and John’s trying to be dismissive to Thomas shows a fissure between the disciples as to the teachings of Jesus, but even so, Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for doubting. To doubt is to admit our vulnerability, to doubt is to admit our fallibility, to doubt is to admit to uncertainty.
               In the book of Genesis, when God wants to destroy Sodom, Abraham doubts lead him to questions God. God does not reject Abraham’s doubts, in facts he encourages them, he encourages Abraham to explore Sodom for himself so Abraham can come to his own conclusion. And Abraham’s doubts even had God rethink whether he should destroy Sodom. No Doubt is not a bad thing.  Doubt allows us to give ourselves pause,  to think about ourselves to think about the decisions that we are about to make and the actions we are about to take. Doubt will force us to explore all our options.  The key is not to allow doubt to render us inactive. But before we act, let us be certain that we have considered all alternatives. 
               Now secondly in regard to relativism and Unitarian Universalism, if we are fundamentalists about anything, it seems we are fundamentalists against any form of fundamentalism.  However I would say just because we don’t have a creed,  you cannot believe anything you want.  Well I take that back, you can believe what you want, but how you act upon your beliefs is where I say where we put boundaries. When I speak to couples whose weddings I officiate, I tell them I am very flexible with the type of service they want and I offer suggestions that I think will make the experience meaningful to them. 
               However I always add a caveat, that although flexible, I do draw the line at certain things, and as an example I tell them I will not allow live animal sacrifices of animals at weddings I officiate.  You may think that a low bar. However that is a common ritual in some cultures. But one I choose not to honor.  Yes we do not have a creed you have to believe in or profess to some truth to belong here.  But we do have covenants.  Covenants that we agree to as members, and covenants that we agree to as a Congregation.  Our theology, our certainty, is our relationships with each other.
               Our willingness to stand with each other in our uncertainty, to challenge each other to reach our best selves, to hold each other to our covenants, to forgive each other when we fail, and to love each other through it all.  This is our theological legacy.  A legacy of covenant and a legacy of love. A covenant of how we agree to act with each other, so that we can create a non judgmental environment where learning, creativity, and spiritual growth can occur. A place where despite the uncertainty of the world, we choose to come together to explore ourselves, explore the struggles of our times, and explore the mysteries of the universe. We can only do this if we have a legacy of love. 
For if we are to accept our differences, if we are going to create a vibrant, welcoming, diverse church family as our mission says, than it will require the goodwill of all souls who enter here, all who enter here, whether you are here for the first time or you have been here fourty years. We have much to learn from each other. And we ask ourselves to trust each other. Theologian Martin Buber says the human beings become human by covenanting, it is the basis of our humanity, that we are “the promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creatures.”  That is part of what makes us human. 
               And although I may have my doubts about many things, one thing I am certain of is that Unitarian Universalism which is based on creating an environment to face the uncertainty in the world, is a religion that doesn’t suppress uncertainty but embraces it, that this religion is a saving religion.  When we are alone, when we feel despair, when things seem hopeless you can know that we are all in this together.  And conversely, we raise within each other the light that is within us, which allows us to experience a richness of life, a mind illuminated, the realization of beauty in simple things, the sound of children laughing, this too we find together.  
As I mentioned the The Gospel of Thomas earlier, I had wished that its message had found the light of day for its message was that we should find the light within in order for us to be a light unto the world.  Maybe its time has come. Let us bring light into our world, and into the world, Let the message of Unitarian Universalism be heard from our lips and in our actions so that’s its message may be heard far and wide so all can experience its message.  Maybe this is all a dream, maybe I am a just a sleeping butterfly.  I am not certain, but I doubt it. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why we should eliminate assault weapons and high ammunition clips immediately and other thoughts on gun control.


Ok, I have been thinking long and hard about gun control.  I know many people who are opposed to gun control, but usually we don’t talk about what is meant by “gun control” vs. regulation, and when we dig deeper we have a more complex conversation. As with most things, I believe there needs to be a balance. A balance between complete restriction and unregulated gun ownership (which is what we have in America today).  I hear several arguments against gun control of any sort and thought I would address them here. At the very minimum, I see no reason why we should not have a ban on assault weapons and high ammunition clips.  I know some of you may think I am not going far enough, but lets get the low hanging fruit.  The issue of our culture of violence and guns is much wider and will take longer.  Lets start with doing what we can immediately do to protect the citizens and the children of this country.  I welcome your feedback

The Hunting Argument
Although it is not my preference to murder Bambi, (ok, I admit a bias here) I have no problem with Hunters owning guns.  I find that people who hunt tend to be knowledgeable about guns.  But one doesn’t need to have hand guns, assault weapons or high capacity ammunition to hunt, so this is a fallacious argument regarding gun regulation.  If all you are using your gun for is to hunt, then I do not see why regulation concerns you.

Just the bad guys will have guns and I have the right to protect myself argument
So first, the statement just the bad guys will have guns is not completely true, as law enforcement will have guns as well.  This argument revolves around hand guns.  The reality is, most hand gun deaths in America are at the hands of a family member, usually in the heat of passion or by accidental death (usually mistaken identity).  This is a fact.  The number of hand guns that are used to actually deter crimes by citizens is very small.  In the Gabrielle Gifford shooting spree:
Joe Zamudio who did have a gun at the event said "I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready,I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket And I came around the corner like this." Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire. As he rounded the corner, he saw a man holding a gun. "And that's who I at first thought was the shooter," Zamudio recalled. "I told him to 'Drop it, drop it!' "But the man with the gun wasn't the shooter. He had wrested the gun away from the shooter. "Had you shot that guy, it would have been a big, fat mess," the interviewer pointed out. Zamudio agreed:

We have a wild west mentality, which I personally think as a culture we need to change, but again, this argument about protecting oneself from "bad guys" does not have anything to do with limiting assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips.

2nd amendment and overthrowing the government argument
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”
I am not a historian, but clearly this relates to creating a militia, which was needed as we really did not have a national armed services at the time it was created.  If there really is a concern about a tyrannical government, and the need to overthrow it, well lets just be honest, if things ever get to that point, we are totally screwed as a country.  I would suggest that people worried about a fascist government should get involved in government to make the country work for all people instead of assuming it is going to go down the toilet. My question would be, why do you not want to help other citizens instead of trying to defend yourselves against them.  And here is the reality, no matter what weapons you have, if the scenario of a fascist government does happen, whatever side our military is on will win this conflict, not some militia in the woods.   Spend your energy making the country equitable for all people. Instead of thinking of better ways to kill each other, let us use that energy to think of ways to lift people up and to heal people. I understand the intellectual argument of the second amendment, which I believe is based in fear not freedom, but if we are honest, we often give up certain freedoms to secure our safety.  The question is how many freedoms, which freedoms, and what are the corresponding benefits. I think banning assault weapons and high capacity ammunition is well worth the benefit. This is very utilitarian I know, but the scales have been tipped too far to the side of violence.  We do have deal with the underlying root causes, but we can first deal with some of the symptoms which are guns.   Which brings me to the final argument I often hear which is:

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people –
Yes, people can find ways to kill if they really want to (and they have).  But they would have to find those other ways to kill.  Having a gun is an easy way to kill.  Having assault weapons and high capacity ammunition is an easier way to kill a lot more people.  And guns are easy to obtain.  Other methods of mass killing are not so easy to obtain.   Many people may not figure out a way to kill others if it is not easy.  Or maybe they will not be able to kill as many people.  We have to start somewhere. There are many other things we can do to help people, but we can also take action to limit their options to cause harm.

Some final thoughts
We as a society have to choose what our values are. How many more children have to be sacrificed so that gun companies can continue to make profits, or to support the idea that every individual freedom taken to the extreme is superior to the common good.  Yes the Connecticut shooting was worse because they were young children, but any life senselessly lost, is not acceptable.  We should start talking and thinking about what we can do as a society to change our culture of violence, but we can start today by eliminating the completely unnecessary sale of  assault weapons and high ammunition clips.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What is a Human Right


Last week the United States Senate rejected a UN Treaty on Disabilities.  The U.N. treaty was actually based on our American Disabilities Act of 1990.  This treaty really doesn’t affect us as a country, as all the provisions it holds are currently the law of this land today, that not only does not allow discrimination based on disabilities but requires public services for those with learning and physical differences.  It helps people from all walks of life, as well as returning veterans from our wars.  In my own family, we have benefited from this.
My younger son who has some slight learning differences, was able to receive special training, alternative methods of taking tests, eventually partial reimbursement for private school, and best of all, a bus was required to pick him up right in front of our house which was great because we lived 1.9 miles from the school and the requirement for bus service was to live 2miles away.  My niece who is the same age as my younger son, has severe mental limitations and will never be able to live independently, and so the government, since she is over 18 years old,  pays for her to live in a group home.  When my sister told me she was voting Republican because of too much government spending, I had to tell her that ……well I will save that conversation for Christmas Dinner.  
My point is, when something affects us personally it suddenly becomes a human right.  Should one human life matter more than another.  The reason for voting this treaty down had nothing to do with how it would affect the lives of Americans.  Why would we object to asking other countries citizens having these same rights? Do we value a human life of an American more than a human life elsewhere? 
The question is do we feel we have the right to tell other countries how to value a human life.  I do think part of the underlying fear in rejecting the Treaty is that we fear other countries will try to tell us how to value a human life. I would go further and ask, Do we value certain American lives more than other American lives.  This made me think about the ongoing battle over the last twenty years to provide adequate medical care for all Americans.  . The most recent version is known as Obamacare (Obama himself calls it that, so I am ok with it)
There has been an ongoing discussion in this country as to whether Medical care for all people should be a right afforded to all people.  People arguing against it said that medical care is a privilege, not a basic human right.  A human right.  What is a human right?  Is there a benefit that should accrue to us merely because we are alive?  The founders of this country thought so. In the Declaration of Independence, they stated and I quote “We hold these Truths to be self evident that all Humans (ok the declaration said Men, but if they lived today they would have written human) so all humans are created equal,
That they are endowed by the their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.  So what does this mean.  Like any statement it is vague.  If I have the right to life, does that mean that I have the right to have the best medical care available?  Does the right to freedom mean that I am free not to follow government rules and not pay for Medical care for others?  Trying to determine what is meant by unalienable rights can be difficult. Its funny how most people interpret inalienable rights to be the ones that correspond with their needs. We have to write things like the Declaration, like our vision and mission statement to help us think about things, not only as they are today but as we hope they will be in the future.  The founders of this country wrote all men are created equal, when clearly all men in this country were not treated equally, let alone women.  They knew that when they signed it. They were writing this with a world in mind that they hoped to create.  What is the world that you hope to create?  And therein lies the challenge.  Our human nature is constantly unfolding, we are still evolving as human beings, our knowledge about ourselves and the universe is expanding at an exponential pace, so just when we think we understand our nature and the nature of the universe our world shifts. So what is it we will create?  
Do we believe as the English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes did that life is solitary, nasty brutish and short, and we create laws and abdicate certain freedoms to control ourselves from self-destruction.  Or Do we believe in a human nature proposed by John Locke the 17th century enlightenment thinker wrote that “the state of human nature has a law of nature to govern it, and that law is reason, and that reason tells us to not harm another in their life liberty or property.”   Or is there perhaps another way to understand human nature.
Perhaps it is not an either or, that we are not either brutish animals that need to be controlled or angels of reason rising to heaven striving to reach our greatest good. Our experience shows us at times both are true.  Perhaps the truth is human nature is dynamic, ever changing, ebbing and flowing. Unitarian Universalist Theologian James Luther Adams said, “Human tragedy derives from the fact that we have a freedom to exercise the infinitely higher powers of human nature in terms of creative love, and a freedom to waste them in mere lassitude and triviality, or to pervert them for the sake of a will to power.”
Our Country’s founders did have it right, our most basic nature of humanity, our most basic right is our Freedom.  The freedom to choose, the freedom to choose between love and hate, the freedom to choose between justice and injustice, the freedom to choose between creation and destruction.   What will you choose and why will you choose it.  I think that last question is important.  And like most philosophical questions I think we can find an answer to this question from the television series Star Trek. I remember when I was very young, I was fascinated by The show Star Trek.  For all its faults, the bad acting, some terrible special effects, and sadly a tendency towards misogyny, as a 9 year old and later in its many re-runs, I found it broached many  philosophical ideas that fascinated me. In one particular episode, the Savage Curtain,  an alien is trying to understand the difference between good and evil and the alien pits the good Characters Captain Kirk and Spock from Star Trek with two other historically good characters including Abraham Lincoln (which by the way, if you haven’t seen the new Lincoln movie I would highly recommend it, if it is even partially true, its portrayal of him fortifies him as an agent of good in the universe.  Anyway it pits these “good” characters against a band of evil characters and after the good characters of course wins the alien says You have failed to demonstrate for me the difference of  your philosophies. Your good and evil use the same methods and  achieve the same results.  And Captain Kirk asks the alien what he offered the others if they won, and the alien responds I offered them what they wanted, power. And Captain Kirk responds,  You offered me the lives of my crew.
Why will you choose to act? For whom will you choose to act? Who is your crew.  This story tells us we are not alone.  We are part of something larger than ourselves.  We are not just individuals on a island, warring for power amongst ourselves. We are part of a family, a human family.  We try to learn how to live this out by being a part of this Congregation, not alone anymore, but together, Together in searching, together in support of each other,  together in raising our families, together in raising ourselves as a family. And we are part of something larger than just our Congregation. We are part of an Association of Congregations that voluntary join together, just each of us voluntarily joins together. 
So imagine each congregation as a person coming together for Sunday Services. You will have that opportunity this spring both at the Prairie Star District Annual Meeting in Cedar Rapids and Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Lexington KY,  Both in driving distance and both I am sure will be inspiring. We are also part of the larger Quad Cities Community.  Every action we take, or every action we don’t take has an impact on the Quad Cities. Just as we see as a microcosm here, when we have more people volunteering the job usually goes easier. 
The more people we have working on our social justice projects, the more impact we can have, not only on the community but on ourselves.  Often there is a fear of volunteering of not knowing what to do.  Even if a person makes a mistake or doesn’t know what they are doing, it can become an opportunity for education.  There is nothing worse than wanting to help and not knowing how, or doing something wrong and being condemned. Let us be models for each other let us be models for our children. And lastly we are part of the human community. (Talk briefly about UUSC and Rev. Waitstill Sharp)
Our sixth principle is the The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;  For all, not just for us. Not just for our particular right. Now it is hard to work for justice elsewhere when we don’t see justice being done here.   But when we do get it right.  When we do care for others, when we reach out beyond our own self interest, we can realize that everyone’s self interest is our self interest.  When we love our brothers and sisters we are loving, and when we are loving we are becoming angels creating the greatest good.
Tommorow is human rights day. It is the anniversary of the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  which was adopted in 1948. The preamble of the Declaration indicates the “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, That sounds very much like our sixth principle combined with our first principle the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Yes we have rights, we have the right to think or not to think, we have the right to care or not to care, we have the right to act or not to act.
We have the right to choose our course for better or for worse. Former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buerhens wrote about a trip he took to India, and when he arrived there were some some Hindu Nationalists who upon seeing him asked if he was a missionary, and tired of a long history of Christian missionaries trying to always convert them said if he was a missionary he should get back on the plane and go away. But the man who invited Beurhens Vivek Pandit, who had won the globally recognized award by amnesty international for his anti-slavery work in India said Yes, he is a missionary, but you have not asked him what his mission is.  His mission is human rights, not changing anyone’s religion.  His mission is homes for the homeless.  Freedom for bonded laborers.  Human dignity for all.  Now what is your mission Fear? Hatred?  How unworthy” 
Let us be worthy.  What is your mission, what is our mission?  Our mission It is on the back of your order of service. It is to create a vibrant, welcoming, diverse church family which embraces individual searches for meaning and devotes itself to community good.  We know what we want to be as a Congregation. It says it right there. This and our vision speak to our values.  These values are just as important within these doors as they are in how we live them out in the world. Let us live out our dynamic nature with creative love.

Let our country awake,
Let us be led forward into ever-widening thought and action
Let us maintain a clear stream of reason
Let our words come from the depth of truth
Let us find wholeness, Let knowledge be free
let our minds be without fear…May it be so

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Simplicity


Now I know many of you when you walked in and looked at the front page of the order of service, wondered did he just forget to put a picture in?  Or maybe you thought it is a modern art piece of a snow drift, or a glass of milk, or a cloud.  Let your imagination run wild.  Actually as I was preparing for the service, as I do every service, I try to search for a picture that will aesthetically connect to my service.  I found a couple of Taoist symbols, that represent balance in the universe.  I found a few pictures of nature that I found peaceful.  But peacefulness I would propose does not necessarily equate with simplicity.  I couldn’t find just the right picture, and then I looked at the title of the sermon, simplicity, and thought what would be the simplest thing for me to do now.  I thought the simplest thing I could do would be to not have an order of service at all, maybe just let everyone experience the service as it is happening, without the roadmap of an order of service.  I thought that might be a little too big a leap for everyone, so I allowed myself to just not spend any more time on the issue.   Time and being conscious of what we spend our time on, can lead to simplicity.  For I think simplicity is about creating an environment that allows us to consciously know and choose how we spend our time.
Our Unitarian Universalist principles are not exactly clear on this issue of simplicity.  On the one hand they call us to make a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  This principle usually leads us to explorations of every facet of every issue to make sure we have considered every aspect of a situation.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, It can be exhausting sometimes,  but I would argue that taking the time to explore is an act of simplicity.  Sometimes it can lead us in new directions that we may not have considered.  Sometimes these explorations can lead us to understanding new ways of being and living. Sometimes it leads us to do what I would call going all the way around the block to go next door.  I think that is an apt metaphor. It would seem simpler to just go next door, but that is only if you knew that was your destination. Simplicity does not mean simple. The truth is we don’t know where our journey is going to lead us. By walking around the block, although maybe taking more time, tells us we do not have presumptions about or attachments to the outcome of our journey.    Sometimes by walking around the block we come to look at a situation from a different perspective. No simplicity is not simple. Sometimes it requires that long walk around the block  to live with intentionality.   Our religion does ask us to live out our values in the world and creating an environment of simplicity would allow us to do that. The first step in creating such an environment is within our principles as well, which is the encouragement  to spiritual growth.  The first part of this is to look within yourself and to truly discern your desire.  What is it that gives passion to your life.  What is it that when you wake up in the morning, you say you cant wait to do.  And if you do not have that feeling when you wake keep looking for it. Be open to trying new things, be open learning about new things,  and when you find it you will know it, and then as Alan Watts said, do that thing.
It is that simple and that complex.  Do what you love. Steve Jobs the founder of Apple said this as well at a commencement speech he gave at Stanford in 2005. He said “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”  Even for the many of you who are retired, every day gives you the opportunity to do something you love.  I often tell people I will never retire, I will just one day stop working for wages.  I will always be as active as my mind and body allows me to be and I encourage you to be as well. But realistically, and I can speak of this first hand  life goes on.  We don’t always find what it is we want to do when we are young.  But we must remain open to the possibilities in life, we may find new things we want to pursue as our life progresses. In order to do so we have to give ourselves the opportunity to do so.  Early in my previous career,  a business owner once told me that he encouraged all his employees to buy big houses and fancy cars, because he believed that would make them work harder, and less likely to leave his company.  
Hearing that was for me like having the canary die in the coal mine.  I had just bought my first house, and was really stretched by it financially. And I learned from it.  I never wanted to be put in a position where I could not walk away from a job if I was asked to compromise my integrity. So I learned to live a more modest life style.  Most of you who have seen my car, can attest to that.  It is dinged up and in want of a paint job, but it has been paid off for over six years.  And living such a life gave me opportunities, so that when I found what I desired, I was not locked in, and I could pursue it.  (Just like the childrens story we read),
Simplicity is about giving oneself options to explore by not being weighed down by things that are not important. It is about finding meaning in our lives.  Now I am not an ascetic. I am happy to enjoy an indulgence now and then.  I did read a story in Time magazine a few years ago  of a man who only kept only 100 items in his residence, and if he brought something else in, even a new book, he was disciplined to eliminate another item in his residence. (Some people can keep a clear mind with many more than 100 items, its not the # of items that counts, its about keeping a clear mind.)   Now I am not nearly this disciplined.  Particularly when it comes to books, there are few that I am willing to give up.  I ask you to think about if you only had 100 items you could keep in your residence, what would they be, What do you really need?  What could you give up? How do you recognize when you have too many items/events, to keep a clear mind. In the December Newsletter I wrote an article about my experiences as I cleaned out my Florida house when I was on my vacation over Thanksgiving.  I wrote about how I found the need to let go of many of the things we had collected over the years.  I found I did not need to keep all my children’s tests papers since Kindergarten. We had boxes that we hadn’t even unpacked since our previous move.  We let it go. 
We need to let go of the things that do not help us. To let go of the beliefs that limits us, to let go of the trivialities that clutter our soul.  We need to unpack the closed boxes in our minds and throw out those old ideas that hold us back…..and all this extra stuff in our lives, every single thing we have to worry about that is not critical, clutters up our minds as well. Simplicity is about keeping a clear mind, knowing ones purpose, so that we can unleash the creativity within ourselves,  and not to get bogged down in pettiness or minutiae.  Simplicity allows us to take in the world as it is in all its complexities without fearful or rigid perceptions.  
As an example, A few weeks ago, I was on a conference call on Skype (an internet telephone service) and my connection was very bad. I was hearing every third word at best.  I admit I was a bit frustrated, but I persevered.  I must have hung up and redialed into the call probably six times hoping that somehow magically my connection would improve.  Occasionally I could piece together a few words, which would give me hope that things would get better and then the quality would degrade again.  I don’t even know why I stayed on as long as I did, maybe out of undue hope, or maybe just plain stubbornness.  Finally I said to myself that I was gaining little from the experience, so I shut down my computer and texted one of the participants to let them know I was leaving the conference.   Then right after I texted them, I looked down in my hand and I realized, oh with the same cell phone I texted with I could have called in on the conference call.  I was so busy struggling, focused on only one way of doing something, that I stopped being creative in trying to achieve my purpose. Simplicity is not just about following one simple path.  A mindset of Simplicity allows us to be aware, to step back, look at the big picture, take the blinders off, awaken to and see clearly all the possibilities around us.
I believe what is required to achieve this type of simplicity is the ability to slow down and be intentional.  But sadly the concept that speed is good is woven throughout our culture.  Recently I have been seeing a series of commercials on TV for a cell phone company that is entitled “Its not complicated.”  One of them even uses the tag line “faster is better”.  The spokesman in talking to grade school children asks one of them would they like it better if his grandmother was faster, and the child of course says yes and then suggests that taping a cheetah to her back to help her go faster.  And then the commercial ends with the announcer saying  its not complicated, faster is better.  Now first, Taping a cheetah to the back of human to help them move faster seems fairly complicated to me, let alone that it might eat grandma.  Now yes I am certain that for Cell phones and internet access faster is better.   But sometimes in life slower is better.  I think it is better if someone is slower to anger.  We say we should not rush to judgment, we should deliberate.  Watching the sunset can be a slow event, I Remember once sitting for an hour watching the sun set over the Grand Canyon, it was one of the most magnificently beautiful and moving experiences.  Another thing done better slowly, Making love is better when it is done slowly.  Would you prefer fast food or slow cooked food?  Even you red meat lovers out there, there is slow cooked barbecue, we never ask for fast cooked barbecue. There is actually something called a slow food movement.   It focuses on using local foods, cooking our foods instead  of microwaving them. It encourages mindful eating, so that we really taste and appreciate the food we are eating, and not just swallowing it.  As well, one of the many things I love about now living in Iowa is the amount of parks we have, even dog parks, which offers opportunities to relax and play in place of a hectic lifestyle.  We so often rush through life, over-scheduled, and overworked.    
Part of this is  I think is due to the fact that we know our lives will end, and we want to get in as much as we can while we are alive, but if we don’t slow down and be present to what we are doing and with whom we are doing it, it will not be meaningful. And as Steve Jobs said, any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. Yet another thing that is better done slowly, the deepening of our relationships over time, our relationships with our family and friends, our relationship with this Congregation, and our relationship with the earth itself. 
Now those who are friends with me on Facebook know how much I like Facebook.  I do find it an excellent way to stay in touch with and keep up with the lives of people I know. But it does not replace spending time with someone and getting to know them deeply and letting them know you deeply.  So after the service I invite you to go downstairs to coffee hour to spend some time with someone and get to know them.  And if there is someone in your life that you have not talked with recently, give them a call tonight. Don’t let it wait, Start now.
Re-connect with others. Revitalize your relationships, Re-create yourselves. Simplify your life, the road map for the order of service of your life does not have to be rigid, there are still some open spaces to be filled in. Simplify and experience your life with clarity, Simplify your life and find your desire. May it be so. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Image of God


Genesis 1:26 Then God said, :Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”  so God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God created them. Male and female God created them”   I want you to know that I stay up late at night wondering, thinking, pondering about such lines from the Bible and what meaning it can have for us as Unitarian Universalists.  I would first like to point out that in the story God said Let “us” make humankind in “our” image.  Most people gloss over that fact of multiple Gods in the early verses of Genesis.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out as we discussed in our Bible class that this creation story in Genesis says nothing about a woman being created from a rib.   This of course was the story I was raised with. This was a God of creation.  It is strange that so much theology has been created about the concept of God that has been so harmful to so many and has led to violence.  And so we have to ask, the purpose for our image of God?... Its purpose is that there is something inside each of us that yearns to understand where we come from and what is the purpose of our existence. 

We yearn to understand why there is suffering, and how to deal with it,  we yearn for some guidance in how to we live with the knowledge that our life will end.  The Greeks and Romans in trying to answer these questions created mythical figures who interacted with humans.  Often these characters had the same emotional strengths and weaknesses as humans.  The three Western Religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam known as religions of the book, focus on obedience to rules as a way to answer these questions. 

I think it is interesting that the second of the 10 commandments in the book of Exodus ch 20 v4, states that we should specifically” not make a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the water under the earth”.  So on two levels, I think this is interesting.  First, the concept from the very beginning is that we should not create an image of God.  Now it is true that part of this was to allow the Hebrews to differentiate themselves from the neighboring groups which did create idols that were worshiped. 

But I would also speculate that making it one of the first commandments was also a recognition and foresight that our image of God will change over time,  and thus we should not create an image that fixates God in any particular way.  Secondly, the commandment encompasses the entirety of the universe, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, indicates that their image of God is a God that is a part of and included in all of existence.  Yet many who were brought up in these religions had an image of a condemning God, who would judge one for their actions, and thus required your obedience.  But our experience with reality put this image into question.

             Suffering touched the just as well as the unjust. In fact often suffering often affected the just more so than the unjust.  And as knowledge of the universe expanded, the  realization that the image of an old man with a beard in the clouds who judges was not an adequate image anymore for the word God for the yearnings we had. So we need a new image of God. In a short story The Wandering Jew by Elie Wiesel he writes, “Humans define themselves by what disturbs them and not by what reassures him. When will you understand that you are living and searching in error, because God means movement and not explanation?”  That caught my attention because the first of Unitarian Universalists stated sources includes “the 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;”   Again the language we use to speak of our yearnings, of our search,  we speak of movement and creation.  What is unique about all human beings compared with other parts of creation?  Humanity’s uniqueness is our ability to reason, to use cognitive thought and to express that cognitive thought artistically. 

Truthfully, we do not know this for certain, as there may be other creatures, dolphins for example that may possess this skill.  Yet even asking that question, shows our uniqueness.  We are always using the process of  examination and self examination to explore. And this is at the core of our religion as our  fourth principle states we affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  We are driven to explore as a species.  Why else would we send probes out into space to see pictures from millions of light years away and as well spend hours in therapy trying to figure out what moves our unconscious mind. 

We want to learn more about ourselves, and the universe around us.   We do often make images of the skies above, the earth below and the waters, we do so as a way to explore, to discern, and as a means to create ways to express those yearnings I spoke of earlier , the unanswerable questions, the questions that haunt us, the questions that disturb us. For once we stop asking the questions, we stop moving, we stop creating, we stop evolving.

Unitarians have a long history dedicated to the ongoing evolution of humanity which they called Self Culture. Transcendentalist  William Ellery Channing in 1838 defined it as “the care which every human owes to themself, to the unfolding and perfecting of their nature.”  So how do we improve ourselves, how do we attain this self culture.  Some of the main methods are self discernment and self questioning through solitude and meditations.  Other methods include prayer, walking, private and public worship, and small group discussions.  The key is to improving awareness.  Just being aware of how things are, how your relationships are, how society is. 

Awareness of our surroundings. How nature is impacted by our actions, how our relationships are impacted by our actions, how we are impacted by our actions and thoughts.  We must continue to search for the wisdom that leads us to this unfolding of our nature.   The challenge of self examination, of self culture, is the risk that it creates a self-centered individualism.  Particularly in our multicultural world that we live in today, in our covenantal community,  individualism creates divisions.  I do think that before we can see others for who they are, we do need to see ourselves for who we are.

But I believe when we become self aware, when we go into the depth of our consciousness, when we learn the true essence of who we are, and what we are here for, we will  realize that we are connected and interdependent with all of existence, and we will find that commonality of life amidst the multiculturalism that makes us all unique. This is a fine balance.  How do we maintain that which is unique to being who we are, while learning the universal truths about existence.  As with most things, as we search, as we live, as we connect, we must find that balance, between living in the here and now, and understanding the greater long term impact we can have,

The balance between the raising our children and sometimes caring for parents, and paying our bills, versus realizing that there are many children in need and many people without even the basic necessities right here in our own community, necessities which we take for granted. And I believe that by helping others, by being part of a community, we help ourselves realize the best nature of our humanity.  If what makes humans unique is our creative expressions of cognitive reasoning, then maybe God is the word we use to describe the energy within us and within everything, that sparks life, that sparks creative cognitive thinking, that sparks that intuitivity that moves us towards the good. 

When we use intuition that leads to right action we are tapping into a universal understanding of the way things are or should be.  Maybe when all of society becomes aware of the positive creative interconnections and comes to together to implement them, we will experience what some would call the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  It is not always a smooth or even journey, and we will make mistakes, but when we do, we should admit to it and adjust our direction.  This was brought home to me when I was reading the comments of a woman who was receiving supplies in New York after Hurricane Sandy. She was thankful, but she said, and I quote “The only time rich white people recognize us is when there’s some disaster. And then she poignantly added “Why wait for tragedy?” “People suffer every day”  Why wait for tragedy.  That was powerful.  We don’t need to wait. We have the capability, we just need the will.  Sometimes things don’t work out, Sometimes we are confronted with our own limitations and our own lack of awareness and when we are we need to act.  And in thinking how we can become aware last night, in such a way, I received an epiphany.  I was making garlic bread, and I forgot to set the timer. All of a sudden as I was reviewing the sermon for today, my eyes starting tearing up…..and I started wondering why I am getting so emotional about this.  Then I realized that the apartment was filling up with smoke as the garlic bread burned.   And I quickly threw open the door and windows and let in the fresh air.  And I remembered to set the timer when I put new pieces in the oven.  So when we are challenged by something we were unaware of  throw open the doors and windows of our minds, let a fresh air into the house of your soul, clear the smoke from your eyes, clear the old images from your mind and start anew and create something new.

As the Bible says we should not have an image of God.  If we do not have an image of God, and if we are created in the image of God, that means that we should not have an image of ourselves.  And that is a scary thought. We do often get wrapped up in our own image. What our beliefs are, How we view ourselves, how others view us. We create labels, Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Progressive, Conservative. And then we praise or demonize based on these labels.  These are nothing more than images.  The danger is that we will begin to believe in our images, and worse we will get stuck in our images.  This is my image of myself, so this is how I must be.  And once we do that, then we stop growing as well. And once we stop growing, something inside us dies. We need to transcend our own images of ourselves. So I say Let go, let go of the images of yourself and the world and look with fresh, clear eyes at everything you see. Awake!!  Awake to the wonder of the universe.  Awake to new and different ways of beings. Awake to the creation we are blessed with and let us create something with it. The picture on the front of the order of service is of a picture I took of the trees looking outside this sanctuary.  People over the years planted and tended to those trees,  to create something we can today marvel at. But also the environment allowed for it. What else does the environment allow for. What is it that disturbs you in the world?  What or who is missing from our Congregation, our Community? What other seeds can we plant, whether for trees in the ground or in the young minds of our children and the children and young adults we work with at Williams Middle School the West Davenport Center.  Let us create a new world.  It will not happen by itself.  We must work with what we have been given. 

We must create movement, movement from apathy to caring, movement from exploitation to justice, movement from violence to peace. Movement from yearning to action.  In order to create those movements we must have movement in our hearts. Movement in our hearts to love for all of creation. That is my image of God. May it be so

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Courage

As today is Veterans Day I often think of the courage it takes for anyone who is in the armed services and puts themselves in harms way with the hope to create a better world, the world we would dream about. Especially in our current times which have an all-volunteer armed services, it is the highest form of courage. I don’t know that kind of courage.  I have long searched for how a person develops courage. My earliest memory of the concept of courage was the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz.  Looking back on it I find it to be both a strange and complex story. We first come across the Lion when he bullies the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Toto, and then backs down as soon as Dorothy slaps him on the nose and he admits his cowardice.   I think that speaks a lot about Bullies.  And although it may be true that they themselves are cowards, or have been bullied in their own lives, my experience is that unless they are faced with compelling and equivalent threat of power they don’t often back down. The Cowardly Lion gives a long somewhat incomprehensible speech defining courage,
What makes a King out of a slave? Courage.
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage.
What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.
What makes the Sphinx the 7th Wonder? Courage.
What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER?! Courage –
What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the "ape" in ape-ricot? Courage.

What kind of messages are children getting from this????

So does anyone even know what a Hottentot is? I had to look it up, it is an aboriginal tribe in Africa and is considered an inappropriate or insulting way to address them.  I say it is a complex story because on one level, one could and in certain parts should look at this as just a cute play on words.  But also it speaks to courage as being part of our inner nature, being part of nature itself.  We just have to be who we are and do what we are called to do and we will realize our courage. The Lion journeys with Dorothy to Oz in hope that the Wizard will give him courage.  Of course he does courageous things saving Dorothy along the way. When they finally unmask the Wizard,  the Wizard tells the Lion.  “You are under the unfortunate conclusion that because you run away from danger you do not have courage. You are confusing courage with wisdom. Back where I come from we have men called heroes, and once a year they take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it out in the city, and they have no more courage then you do, and he gives the lion a medal with the word courage on it.” 
           Again a complex storyline.  Now in regard to the medals, in and of themselves they do not create courage. They are important, as a touchstone, a reminder of the good deed or heroic act, to remind us of who we are once were, what we once did, and what we are still capable of.  But a medal is just a medal, It does not create courage.  We cannot keep our courage in mothballs.  We need to be courageous every day of our lives.
                As I spoke last week of Aristotle’s virtues, here too, Aristotle would say that the virtue of courage is the mean between the continuum of fear, and rashness.  It is not necessarily courageous to go headlong into something to which you are not prepared for. It takes courage to be self aware and not to be swayed by others.  As an example, after a tree fell on my house in Florida during a Hurricane, and my neighbor asked me if I wanted to borrow his chainsaw. I responded with a quiet no thank you, but internally my brain said, “do I look suicidal to you?”  My neighbor I think looked at my refusal as a form of unmanliness on my part, but I looked at it as making a courageous and self aware choice.  Although I have no great desire to,   I am sure I could learn how to use a chain saw, with proper training,  however I didn’t think that day, with everyone’s nerves a little shaken by the storm and damage,  should be the first day I ever tried to use a chainsaw.  So I looked at my act as courageous not being swayed by those around me to take actions that I knew I was not capable of achieving.
           Now on one end of the continuum is being constantly fearful, If we stay on that end of the continuum will lead to not living up to our full potential.  Often we underestimate what we are capable of.  We also at times have to willing to sacrifice something, we have to be willing to stand for something, to maintain our integrity .  I found this to be true especially when I worked in the business world.  People would ask me to do things that were unethical, or I would witness something unethical being done. 
            And you can imagine the pressure that can be brought to bear with the threat of losing your job.  I was very fortunate, I often worked for business people who knew I had their best long term interests at heart, even when I refused to do things they asked me to do. I was their firewall. Some didn’t like that, and I would move on, as I said, sometimes you have to sacrifice for your integrity. It’s a matter of having the courage to maintain one’s integrity, and building a reputation for it. And it then becomes a model for how others in the organization will act as well.  And I do believe we learn courage by how leaders of organizations model such behavior.
            We learn courage from mimicking what we see, whether through our experiences in the world or through the media, In Bruce Springsteen’s song Backstreets he states “Remember all the movies we’d go see…trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be.”  I try to go back and think about who were my heroes growing up. Martin Luther King Jr., all those people fighting for civil rights in the south,  But this was the theoretical.  It is one thing to watch somebody on tv doing something courageous, it is another thing to experience it in person, live, when personal risk is at stake. Just as people going door to door on election day no matter which party takes courage.
          And so, I would  like to share with you a story in my life when I experienced someone acting courageously.  It is a story I have never told before, and until now, only the participants to the event know of its existence. It was a hot week night during the school year when I was in High School, and as usual, I was hanging out at the street corner in the Bronx outside the Carvel Ice Cream Store. (do people still hang out at street corners?)   Anyway, I was flirting with this girl, and it turned out she was the girlfriend of some gang member.  I didn’t know it was his girlfriend, in fact sources later told me she wasn’t his girlfriend, but I think he thought he would impress her by beating me up.  So he and twenty of his best friends encircled me and he started trying to beat me up. The Carvel store owner broke it up.  And then the tense waiting game began.  The store owner would not allow a fight outside his store, I was hoping to wait it out, hoping they might get bored,  but at some point, I knew the store would close.  You have to remember this was before cell phones, so I couldn’t call for reinforcements.  So at some point, the fear of going home late, was worse than my fear of getting beaten up.  I started to walk home and I had one friend who stayed with me, even though he knew by staying with me it could lead to danger for him.  It is why to this day, for this man, I would do anything, anything for him, for he stood with me when no one else would. That was courageous. So as we are walking home, I had about twenty people following me down the street, and my antagonist called me out to fight him.  And I just said, I have no reason to fight you.  And I tell you it was times like these that gave me a belief in some kind of God.  For just as I said that, two people whose house I was walking past just happened to walk on their porch, heard me say that.  And they asked me “do you not want to fight”  I said, no, I have no reason to fight him, and they, mistaking my fear of dieing for some conceptual moralistic stand against violence, invited me and my friend into their house. And these twenty people who were following us threatened them, and these two seemingly meek looking people, stood their ground, and the gang of twenty walked away.  I thought my, that is courage.   I often think back upon that evening, and think about how my life would have been very different if these people didn’t just happen to be there, and didn’t stand up to these people. If I had started walking just 30 seconds earlier or later. If my friend hadn’t joined me, which may have delayed the attack.  Everything had to work out exactly the way it did in order for it to happen the way it happened.  It was on that night that I learned something about faith, for on that night, I had a prayer answered. My prayer would not have been answered if those people did not show the courage that they did. I remember that every time I see someone in trouble. Even though I may have fear in my heart, I feel the obligation to stand up and answer that person’s prayer, just as someone answered mine. And so I ask you, to answer the prayers of the people you come in contact with here in our community, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, where children and families need your help.
             We can have the courage to do what needs to be done, we can make a difference in other people's lives.  Even when it is hard, even when it is inconvenient, even when it is sometimes fearful, but courage is built by intentionality. An intentionality in having faith in ones self and in the universe, that type of faith was instilled in me that dark night, it gave me the faith and the courage to take action in my life, a faith that gave me the courage to trust in the unfolding of the universe,  A faith to trust the unknown, whatever it may bring, for better or for worse. So when I made the decision to move to Florida without a job, without a place to live, intuitively I trusted it was the right thing to do.
When I made a decision to become a minister and then move to Iowa, I trusted it was the right thing to do. And not every decision I have made in my life is always right but I realize with courage, we can try and make it possible, without the courage to even try, nothing would be possible. And with each decision we make and with each courageous act we take, it fortifies our courage…and when you make a mistake, and you realize the world doesn’t end, you can start again. And once we realize that, it makes it easier to have the courage to do the thing that your heart yearns for you do to. To have the courage to do the thing needs to be done,  
        To the have the courage to follow your path, without knowing its outcome. I ask you to have the courage to look deep inside yourselves and see what is your path what are you called to do right now in your life. Having  fear is a natural thing but with courage we can act in spite of that fear, that despite the fear despite the uncertainty we move forward with doing the right thing, doing good, doing the just. And as well if we believe in ourselves, we should have the courage to admit when we are wrong about something.
        Courage, can be little, it can be big, but it is needed to create a better life and a better world. I ask you to stand with me and counter all the forces of cynicism that say it cant be done and let us continue to build the beloved community. So I would like to leave you with a story, actually from the TV show Cold Case. A young Japanese man, who with his family had been put in an internment camp for Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. The son who had reluctantly joined the army at his father’s insistence writes home.

Dear Dad,

It’s the night before we go into battle and I cant sleep.  Even in my dreams I hear the artillery and I am so afraid.  When I need to be brave, I think of you dad and your faith in the world that is no longer simple.  Some times I dream of home again drawing pictures of you, and the family, with none of us behind bars, because in my dreams we are free. I know now that’s why Im here.  Its not who I am fighting against, but who I am fighting for, for you Dad, for what your dreams of America could be, should be.  I see all of us on the battlefield, white, black, brown, yellow.  That’s the America I know. Maybe one day I will see you there.  May it be so.