Saturday, January 28, 2012

Chop Wood, Carry Water - Text to my sermon January 22nd

The third principle of Unitarian Universalism is Acceptance of one another and the encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  I always found the juxtaposition of these two statements interesting.  We accept you for who you are, and now we expect you to change. Well every moment we are changing with every new experience that we have.  But in this case I am speaking of an intentional change.  Being intentional about looking deep into the well of our soul, and search and consciously think about what our purpose in life is, and what does it meant to live as our best selves, what does it mean to reach our full potential of humanity, what does it mean to be in relation to others, what does it mean to create wholeness in your life and with the world. These are the questions that we need to work on throughout our lives. And if we look at our lives as journeys, I think that changes how we look at that third principle. It is not just an acceptance of others for WHO they are, but an acceptance of others for WHERE they are on their religious and spiritual journey.   Particularly our religion, which asks us to search for truth, which asks us to question, which does not rely only on ancient words but rather asks us to incorporate each new experiences and teaching from the world, we tend to create a congregation of people here who are on different parts of the path.  And we have to respect that different people are on different parts of that path towards understanding and wholeness.  
And the truth is though that many people always think they are farther along the path than everybody else.  But we each have our own path to follow.   It is the paradox that can make our pluralistic religious community challenging.  We are at the same time on our own path, but we are also on an interdependent path with everyone else.  So let us remember to hold each other’s hearts in our heart. How can we be whole, if the people we are in relationship with are not whole? And let us be open to the notion that maybe just maybe we don’t have all the answers, so as our principle states I encourage you to grow spiritually and open yourselves to new understandings of the universe and your lives.
Now I know when I use the word spirituality, I know it brings up different images for different people. I do not necessarily equate Spirituality with supernaturalism.  Unitarians in the 19th Century would equate spirituality with the phrase Self-Culture.  William Ellery Channing, one of the leading 19th Century Unitarian ministers and theologians defined the phrase self-culture as the “care which every person owes to themself, to the unfolding and perfecting of their nature.”  The Spiritual Theology of Self Culture is about human beings ability to improve themselves as humans.  This was not to be thought of in material terms. They believed that improvement could be accomplished through interior means of improving ones character. 
Spirituality to me is first connecting with our inner self,  but then it is connecting that inner self with something greater than or outside of ourselves.  It happens first when we make that connection with the burning flame we have within, the thing that gives meaning to our life, and then we bring that flame, this life force, to the world outside ourselves, where we connect it with others and their meaning and we work together to create wholeness with the world. And even though I wasn’t a boy scout, I did try to be a boy scout once, I lasted three days but I never was good at tying knots, yet another reason I have gone to loafers vs. laced shoes, but even though I wasn’t a boy scout, even I know just like when you have a regular campfire if you want to keep the fire burning strong and burning long, you must constantly tend to the fire, and so too with the fire within ourselves.  Our inner fire needs to be tended to or it will go out.   So we keep spiritual growth, this meaning making, this connecting to our inner self, this unfolding of our nature as a way to keep the fire lit and burning.  
Often when people think of spiritual growth, they think of a monk sitting alone on top of a mountain, serene, peaceful at one with the universe.  And thinking of this image, I am reminded of the spiritual seeker in the movie “The Razors Edge” who says “its easy to be a holy man sitting alone on top of a mountain” and I like to pair that quote with one by the  Rock Star Bruce Springsteen who is “its hard to be a Saint in the City” and both statements are true.  Secluded and alone on a mountain without distractions it is easier to quiet ourselves and our inner mind and look inward, and reflect, relax and renew ourselves.  In our lives though even if we do travel to some secluded place, it will likely be for only a short time while on vacation. so the question is how can such spiritual practices help us in our day to day lives.  How do we take a mountain top experience, and translate it into our daily lives. Or even the more important question, how do we make our daily lives into a mountain top experiences.   
And that is why I chose the title of the sermon today to be Chop Wood, Carry Water.  It comes from an old Zen Story, when a great Zen master was once asked, "What did you do before becoming enlightened?" The master replied, "I was chopping wood and carrying water for my master" "What do you do now that you are enlightened?", asked the questioner. The Zen master replied, "I chop wood and carry water for myself" The questioner queried, "So what is the difference?, you did this before and you are doing the same now" The Zen master answered, "Earlier I was doing it unconsciously, now I am doing it  consciously"
So there are two parts of this story that resonate for me.  First and foremost is the fact that the work he was doing was the same both before and after he was enlightened.  So the message of this story is that a major change in our life is not a pre-requisite to attaining enlightenment. Enlightenment, or spiritual growth, is not based on what we do,  but based on what our attitude is towards whatever it is that we are doing. It is about being mindful in all that we do.  The second part of the story that resonates for me is that before enlightenment he did what he did because he was told to by someone else.  After Enlightenment he did what he did because it was his conscious choice.  He took ownership of his choices and his actions. 
How often in our lives do we see ourselves on a trajectory, we may call it destiny, we may see our lives as the causal results of circumstances outside of our control.  But really it is about having a mental discipline to consciously choose our own destiny, and to consciously choose how we will act and react to our circumstances. And to do so we need to be conscious and aware of our circumstances.  Now we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of acceptance of our circumstances.  But rather to bring that discipline to all that we do.  We can look at chopping wood as a chore and rush through it, just going through the motions and see it as a nuisance (and feel free to substitute washing dishes, clothes, shoveling snow for chopping wood). 
Or we can bring our full attention to chopping the wood, to bring our passion to it, to bring our best selves to chopping it, to bring our best skill to chopping it, to see our purpose in every swing of the axe.  And we can bring this attitude to every action that we do, and in every interaction that we have.  Yes if we follow this technique each action we do may take longer, but by being mindful about all that we do we get to appreciate each moment that we have.  If we rush through one thing, without passion, without attention, that is the type of habit we will build up in how we live life and then we will have the habit of rushing through all of our actions and interactions. 
And truthfully, I have found that when people act in a mindful and meaningful way, time can pass very quickly.  When we are engrossed in something, don’t we often say, my how times flies. I look at that elasticity of time, this being lost in time as the concept of eternity.  Instead of thinking of eternity in the future, we should think of each moment that we have as eternity. We should always try to bring our attention back to my present moment, present consciousness, as a way to slow things down, when everything around us is getting fast and out of control.
But how do we do this. This is not something that people can just turn on and off.  This is why it is called spiritual practices.  It is something that has to be consistently practiced.  It may seem awkward when you start, and some instances will be easier than others,  but I can tell you that with the repetition of such practices of mindfulness over time, the effects are cumulative and will change your life and how you live your life.
My first experience with a spiritual practice was meditation.  When I was in my twenties, after having some stomach problems, I had a great family doctor who knew me and told me to take a few days off, go to the beach, and learn how to meditate.  So, as is my nature,  I went out and bought a book entitled “how to meditate” (that book by the way is still in print) and without question, meditation has changed my life for the better.  I find meditation helps me focus and remain calm.  Yet it also led to a different more contemplative way of thinking, and to a more engaged way of living.  Just breathing and focusing on the breath allowed me to open myself up to the greater possibilities of the universe.  By going inward, I was enabled to go outward.  Because meditation helps me connect my conscious mind with my unconscious mind, and by connecting with my inner self, I then became more comfortable with myself, and because of that, I no longer needed to be defensive with others, and it allowed me to listen to others with an open and empathetic heart and mind
My second experience with spiritual practices most surprisingly is walking a labyrinth. It has become an extremely meaningful spiritual practice for me that has deepened my ethical life.  Members of my Orlando congregation had created a full sized labyrinth, and out of respect for the work everyone did, I walked it.  I really did not expect to gain anything from it.  Yet in every step I took, I found a metaphor for life.  Do we take shortcuts?  Do we finish what we start? How do we avoid obstacles? Where we are heading? Life has some twists and turns and we need to continue to see where it leads.  For some unexplainable reason the labyrinth had a powerful spiritual impact on me. And it continues to each time I walk one.  Now of course one doesn’t need a labyrinth.  It just takes intentionally spending time on a consistent basis to help us on the path towards mindfulness. There is no one right way or one right practice. We each have to find our way, and I encourage you to try different practices to see what works for you.
And although I have mentioned a couple of personal solitary spiritual practices, spiritual practices do not have to be solitary.  Spiritual practices can be in many forms.  Communal spiritual practice as we have here, such as worship, connection circles, knitting, choir just to name a few.  There could be physical spiritual practices, such as Yoga, tai-chi,or running as examples.  We can create spiritual partnerships, whether it be with a friend, your partner, your child, We can create spiritual practices around creativity, such as gardening, cooking, and artwork.   In order for any of these practices to have an impact though, we have to do them consistently, with intention and mindfulness. And the more we practice mindfulness, the more mindfulness become a part of our everyday life, in all of our actions, including chopping wood and carrying water. 
And by doing so it will change how we see ourselves, it will change how we see the world.  It will in fact allow us to see ourselves and the world.  The Buddha was once asked by a group of seekers of enlightenment, who are you: He answered them, I am awake.  And so I ask you, to be awake, hopefully during my sermon, but also to be awake in every moment of your life, be awake to all that is going on around you, be awake to all the suffering in the world, to be awake to all the wonders of this world, to be awake to the wonder that is this world. Be awake to the uniqueness and wonder that you are and the potential of what yet still may be.  To do so, I encourage you to keep your inner lights burning long and burning strong. May it be so

Monday, January 16, 2012

What's Race Got to Do With It?

Whats Race got to do with it.  Starting Wednesday February 1st at 7pm for five weeks, I will be leading an adult religious education watching the video Race the Power of Illusion and President Obama’s primary speech on Race. We will share our thoughts and experiences with racial issues and how they impact us. I invite you all to join us.  If there are a large enough group of people who would like to have a session during the day, please contact the office or myself and I would be willing to add a daytime class.  The movie’s initial focus is on the scientific study of the genetics of race. 
The movie’s conclusion is that except for the evolutionary genetics of skin pigmentation there are no other genetic markers amongst the human species that have a commonality only with skin pigmentation.  Its conclusion is that skin pigmentation is the evolutionary effect of how close our ancestors lived near the equator. 
Yet as the movie points out, just because there arent other differences, does not mean that race doesn’t impact our lives and our world.   The movie goes on to tell the stories of the indigenous peoples of this country and other people of color and how we as a country often through the manipulation of science, media, and the law have oppressed these people. I will encourage all who attend our class to be open and willing to share their stories and even more so to be willing to listen to each others’ stories.  I believe that it is only by understanding  other peoples life experiences that we can expand our view of the world particular on the issue of race and how it impacts society.  
And by hearing each others stories we build relationships.  And when we build relationships, we become emotionally connected to others.  And when we become emotionally connected to others we cannot stand idly by when injustice prevails over them.  So of course it is through my experiences that I view Race.  It is my experiences being part of a multi racial family, and having to face  how the ramifications of race impact my family before I was able to transcend my particular understanding of the impact that race has on all people of color. 
So let me share with you just one seminal instance in my family that opened my eyes to What  Race has to do with it.  If any of you have travelled by air you know there is a requirement to take off your shoes while going through security. This is just one reason I have gone to loafers versus laced shoes in recent years.   But this wasn’t always so.  I was travelling a lot after the shoe bomber incident that led to requirement to remove shoes, and I knew some airports at that time still didn’t require you to take off your shoes.  So it was with this in mind that on the way home from General Assembly one year with my older son William who was an older teenager at the time, as we were going through  security, I asked the security guard whether I had to take off my sneakers.  He said no don’t worry about it, and passed me through.  As I walked through security, I heard the security guard say to my son, “take off your sneakers”.  And my son in one of those pissed off teenager voices replied “you just told that man (pointing at me) that he didn’t have to take his sneakers off, why do I?” and he refused to take off his shoes. Now, I have to admit that the first thought that flashed through my mind was “I really don’t want to miss this flight, I have to be at work in the morning” I thought  it, but with deep restraint I didn’t say anything.  For I heard my son.  I listened.  He didn’t say to the guard “you just told my father he had to take his shoes off, he said you told that man. So for those who do not know my family, both my children are Korean, so it was not evident merely by sight to the security guard that he was my son or else maybe he would have gotten a free pass.   It was not that my son didn’t want to identify me as his father per se, although there have been those times as well, especially when I am dancing or doing some other foolish thing…that he may have wanted to deny a connection to me.  But at the airport, it was that he didn’t want to be judged as the son of middle aged white man in a golf shirt.  He wanted to be judged for he was, as an individual, for who he was, including his identity as a person of color.  He wanted to show the hypocrisy of profiling, and he wanted also in his own way to show a bit of defiance to a system that constantly subjected him because of his skin color to different treatment than white people.  He refused to budge from his position and he forced them to take alternative measures to determine he didn’t have a bomb in his shoe. Well we didn’t miss the plane and I was unbelievably proud of him for standing up for himself, while at the same time unbelievably worried about the repercussions that awaited him if he continued on this path of defiance. 
You see I was taught growing up to expect discrimination. I was taught that growing up Jewish, that without question Christians would discriminate against me. This was due to my parent’s experiences, when they could not get into many colleges and many companies would not offer them opportunities.  They lived under the shadow of the Holocaust, and were taught to always fear that one day Christians would try to exterminate us.   I was taught to accept it. Keep your head down,  Work harder. Be smarter, be resilient and survive….the Jewish People had over 2,000 years of experience of being oppressed by others, so I assumed there was some wisdom in that. But in my experience, although there were probably certain companies that wouldn’t hire a person of the Jewish religion, my experiences have been that I had plenty of opportunities and only rarely did I ever encounter any overt animosity from Christians towards my Birth Religion. And I found that there was more to life than merely surviving.  But because of my positive experiences, I taught my son that he should demand to be treated equally.  And in his experiences that has just not been the case. 
And I think I fell into a common trap that that is common to many humans.  We take our own experiences and we extrapolate them out to the rest of the world and assume that everyone sees the world the same way we do, or at least should see the world that way, and if they don’t then we often invalidate their experiences.  What I learned at that airport after a very long discussion over dinner, as he shared with me some of his challenges and life experiences that I was unaware of or I passed off as normal teenage angst, was that I really had no idea of what my son’s experiences were like as a person of color and how they impacted him.  
And then it made me rethink and question why certain teachers at school were particularly hard on him, I re-looked at why certain girls stopped dating him after he met their parents, I re-examined all the pain and frustration that he felt each time he was stopped by police at the mall or while driving and how this frustration built up into the start of a resistance against discrimination that day at the airport.  
I knew then and there, my life would not be the same.  My eyes had been opened…eyes that I knew had seen things and rationalized them, an intellect that understood the need for justice but didnt feel the pain of injustice.  But that day, that day I felt my sons pain, a pain he hid from me for a long time.   
Racism is not just an intellectual exercise when it impacts someone you love.  I think the UUA has spent a lot of energy on education regarding the history and existence of institutional racism. What I think we need to understand is how racism impacts people of color. We need to listen to stories of people of color and understand the pain that such life experiences have inflicted upon them. In the movie we will watch it tells the stories of individuals and one particular story that I raise up today is how armed service veterans of color were systematically excluded from receiving Federal Housing Loans after they returned from WWII  and through the process of redlineing were not allowed to move into certain white neighborhoods.  This certainly impacted their ability to accumulate wealth for themselves and to provide opportunities for their children, opportunities many of us have benefited from.
Ok, so now what.  This is all history. We cant change history.  These things happened before many of us were born….Hopefully we have not personally taken direct actions that are racist. But we can learn from history.  Pres. Barack Obama in his primary speech on Race which we will watch during the class, acknowledged that…in discussing the White immigrant experience says- “as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.”  And he goes on to speak about how politicians use both white and black anger to create fear and garner support. But I want to focus on his comment that “opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game” raising the question as to whether power is a finite thing that must be shared amongst all who exist, and there is only so much to go around, so it must be shared equally.  Or conversely is power something that is unlimited, and every being in the universe can have it or tap into it.  From a theological perspective, do we think the Universe is small and divisible or do we believe in a spirit of life that is universal, expansive and unlimited?  

I choose the latter and believe that just as physicist have determined the universe is still expanding, we can view the concept of power as expansive.  However in the society we live in, there is a systemic control of power and resources, so we need to work to let oppressed people have the power to lift themselves up. We should use our power to work collaboratively with those without power, without the fear that we will lose something in that equation.  And in order to make our vision of a just and equitable society a reality we as individuals and as a religious organization have to be engaged in the larger community to make this happen .
But I think we must to start with the hypothesis that the world can change for the better.  If there is only one thing that is constant in this world it is change. Now we have to keep working on the better part.    In fact I think if we look at the overarching view of American history,  I think we can see how much we have changed for the better already.  Our country was founded some 235 years ago by mostly white wealthy landowners.  Legalized slavery ended approximately 150 years ago…Women attained the right to vote just over 90 years ago.  Historic civil rights legislation was passed just 40 years ago.  Progress is not a linear equation, it is a fluid, dynamic, concept that requires constant adaptation. 
So be encouraged….the actions we take today will impact the future positively.  We may not see it tomorrow or next year or in our lifetime, but we have to keep working at.if it will one day become a reality. The UUA over the last number of years has provided educational programs  on antiracism, anti oppression, and multiculturalism.   And I was fortunate to go to a seminary in Florida that was truly a lived multicultural learning environment.  All of this education has provided substantive background as to why we as a religion should work towards creating a more just and equitable society.  This is embedded throughout our principles. 
Throughout my educational experience, one of the questions that is consistently asked is to whom am I accountable.   Ultimately I am accountable to all of existence, but specifically I am accountable to my children, and then I am accountable to all people who are oppressed, because all who are oppressed are someone’s children. If it is not right to happen to my child, it is not right to happen to anyone’s, and lastly I am accountable to myself, to uphold my own personal and religious integrity.  To Act in congruence with my beliefs and values.  But these were my stories, that I share with you.  They are now your stories. 
All I ask you to do is to think about these things, to start and continue to share your stories, and then to expand to whom you share your stories with, to widen your circle, to take a few risks, transcend your environment and engage with others who you do not know.  You will find you have very few differences with others…People of color have the same hopes and concerns as anyone in our society, adequate housing, what do to with aging parents, will they keep their job, will their children get a decent education, can they afford medical care if they get ill.  If you find out nothing else from watching the video it will be that we are more alike than we are different, not just physiologically but in our hopes and dreams.  Do not give up hope. 
Yes Race matters.  But it matters less than it did 40 years ago and it certainly matters even less than it did 140 years ago. Let us stay vigilant, Let us stay connected, and let us move forward with love and openness in our hearts and minds so that one day one day our descendants when asked the question Whats race got to do with it, can answer, nothing.  May it one day be so.  Amen

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Intentions - Text to my sermon Jan. 8th 2012

Do intentions matter.  I have spoken from the pulpit numerous times about being intentional in different areas of our life. I  think I have mentioned it in at least 5 or 6 of my sermons, and In fact in one sermon, I went back and checked,  I used the word 10 times.  So it would seem odd to question that now.  However like everything we do, we should be intentional about exploring our deeply held beliefs even about intentionality.  I will tell you very clearly when I first started thinking about this consciously.  When my son turned four years old we took him out to the zoo for his birthday.  We were poor in those days, and the sign said 3 and under were free.  I looked at him and said, if anyone asks you are 3. 
My intention was to have enough money to pay for dinner the rest of the week. I thought that was a good intention.  He looked up at me with those innocent angelic eyes (I do like to remind myself he was once innocent)  and said, “but Dad that would be lying.  And you told me never to lie.  Needless to say I paid full price for him that day and learned a great lesson in parenting as well.  Then a number of years later I learned another lesson from my younger son.  I had promised to be at his basketball game. I had every intention of going.  Some emergency at work happened that prevented me from going.  When I came home he sort of mocked me saying, Don’t you always say, “My Word is my Bond”   All my son understood was that I broke my promise to him.  And he was right.  I didn’t say I would promise to be there unless there is an emergency at work.  I learned something about myself that day, and about being careful about what promises I make, and about how to deal with competing intentions.
I have struggled with the concept, or maybe to be intentional in my wording, I should say, I have enjoyed discerning the concept in ethics as to whether the intention, the act itself, or the result of that act determines the ethics of a situation?  There is the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Do intentions matter? Although as many of us who identify as Universalist, who do not believe in Hell, I don’t know how relevant that is.
Without proper action, can intentions be immaterial, or even harmful.   In a simple example, as I spoke of last week setting a goal and a reason for that goal, I may intend to lose weight so that I can live a healthier life, so that I may have a long ministry and see my children and granddaughter grow old.  Yet if I do not do the requisite study of nutritional education, or exercise and / or change my eating habits, it really doesn’t matter what my intention is, I will not lose weight.  If I just think of the results, I may go have liposuction surgery. Now I know that this has been life changing and successful for many people, but I have also often met people who have this surgery and then go back to their previous eating habits and do not live a healthier life.
So in this case the intention,  the act and the results matter.  Even if I do all the requisite things needed to lose weight, but it turns out I have a glandular problem that prevents weight loss (I personally cant use that one as a reason, but conceptually), my intention and actions have led me to knowledge and wisdom about myself I did not have before. Intention without action as I think I demonstrated in this weight example is meaningless.  But what of right action without intention.  Can we have right action without intention or even with bad intention. What about a pharmaceutical company whose intention is only to make money, but the product they make saves thousands of lives as a result of their work. 
And what of good intentions and wrong actions.  What if someone who is torturing someone has the good intention of thinking they are saving lives.  Does it really matter what the intention is, if the act itself is unethical. And would your answer be different if the act of torture did save thousands of other lives? Does it matter whether the act is unethical? Do the results justify the unethical action.  Or in other words does the end justify the means.   The problem with only looking at results though to determine the ethics of an action, is that we can only do so in hindsight.  Therefore this could lead to the paralysis of not taking action since there is always ambiguity in what the eventual outcome of our actions are.
Or on the other end of the spectrum it leads us to unethical acts without concern to harm it causes others or our planet.  However it does not follow that the inability to have advance knowledge of the results of our action eliminates our culpability to determine the ethics of the action itself.  I think this conflict between intention and acts and results points to the ambiguity of future outcomes.  I am a person who does set and focus on results. But I have learned it is critical not to become attached to those results,  but to enjoy the journey towards them. The goals as I said last week, should be a star we use to guide us.  And although I enjoy each day of the journey in the present moment I do freely admit that I still desire and work towards positive results. 
But I accept that the outcome I get might not be the one I anticipated.  The danger in this thinking of not becoming attached to outcomes is to not focus on outcomes at all.   As I spoke last week, I do usually start actions with having an outcome in mind.  I may not know how I will get there, but I think it is important to have that vision. We need to constantly revalue our vision and it may have to change along the way, or we may have to adapt our actions as circumstances  change or our results do not create the vision we anticipated, but my experience shows me that the danger of not focusing on outcomes and results is that it is easier to get sidetracked and lose direction. 
We just cannot let results that are different from expected results to cause suffering.  And there is much suffering in the world. I would say religions in general try to give meaning to that suffering.  One beautiful thing about Unitarian Universalism is that it has always said, from its origins that no person is predestined to suffer, and that we work to end all suffering in this world.  I have throughout my life studied eastern religions, and our third source, “Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life” is where I find answers and of course more questions to help me discern this issue.
One of those world religions that has spoken to me is Buddhism.  Budda’s first discourse which are the  four noble truths.  The first Noble Truth is that all of life includes suffering. The second Noble Truth is that there are causes of our suffering, The third Noble Truth is that suffering can end. The fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path to end suffering.  It is called the Noble Eightfold Path, or as the Chinese translate it,  the Path of Eight Right Practices. I like the Chinese translation because it specifically indicates that it is something that must be acted on, not just a belief system.  Two of the eight practices are Right Intention and Right Actions
The Buddha writes
“Karma is intention: a movement of the mind that occurs each time we think speak or act. By being mindful of this process, we come to understand how intentions lead to habitual patterns of behavior which in turn affect the quality of our experience.”
This actually makes sense to me and allows me to see that we are more likely to act in an ethical way if our intentions are ethical. Does it automatically follow though that from our intentional thoughts intentional actions and results happen.  Deepak’s Chopra writes in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, that “conscious change is brought about by the two qualities inherent in consciousness – intention and attention. . . .
“Whatever you put your attention on will grow stronger in your life. Whatever you take your attention away from will wither, disintegrate and disappear.”  It doesn’t have to be an either or, intention or actions,  but rather a both and. It is only when we integrate our intentions and actions that we find wholeness in our lives.  And being steeped in the Aristoteelian philosophy that states “we are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.”  So too then if ethical acts require intentional thoughts then we need to create a habit for intentional thinking.  In the past I have spoken about writing out our intentions, or making gratitude lists as ways to practice our intention. 
And I will talk more about other ways to create habits  for intentional thinking in my sermon two weeks from now. (so you have a little cliffhanger).  Now many years ago, in writing out my intentions I put on my do to list, and I am a list person, with sub-lists for my lists.  The computer makes it much easier.  Anyway I put on my to do list “Save the World”   That seems a bit audacious I know.  I probably kept it there for a year. Every day when reviewing my to-dos it just stared at me. It seemed so overwhelming.  One of my co-workers saw this and said to me I should worry about saving myself first. And so I accepted the fact that I am not a super hero, and as I grew in my religious life I realized that none of us can do it alone,  and one day I went out and volunteered for a congregational project to help build a woman’s shelter.
I had never hammered a nail in my life prior to that.  But by doing so, by becoming engaged in helping others I truly did save myself.  It realized that what each of us does matters, it made me realize how connected we are to others, our actions connect us to people both known and unknown to us and it was through those connections that I realized the logical progression of spiritual and ethical growth for oneself, just as I had learned from my relationships with my children, just as I had learned from my relationships through my volunteering,  once you feel connected to something greater than oneself, once you realize there even is an interdependent web of existence, once you have learned to empathize with others
 and realize that everything we do and how we do it impacts all that is,  then we become aware of the next evolution of humanity and we know without fail we must work to build the beloved community. 
Although I love to bend my mind when I hear Deepak Chopra say we are human “beings” not human “doings” I think to be is to do.  We are always doing something while we are alive, even if it is just breathing.  By doing and then reflecting on our actions, we can see how our actions impact the world outside of ourselves.  By seeing how our actions impact others we can learn then to be empathetic with others. We need to be intentional in all our thoughts to lead to intentional actions so as to allow us to live in harmony with ourselves and the world.  And when we don’t we see ourselves as separate and unconnected
I always look for models who are deeply spiritual people who have been intentional in their thinking and have taken actions and endured sacrifices to have their spiritual and ethical beliefs be in harmony with their actions.  I think of Thoreau who refused to pay his taxes and go to jail due to his opposition to the Mexican War. I think of Gandhi who refused to compromise his belief in non violence against the British, even though by doing so certainly lengthened the time until India achieved independence.  And  the reason he gives for this is “Our resistance to British rule does not mean harm to the British people.  We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battlefield.”  And by convert, he meant convert them to non violence.
            We have seen the same thing in history in South Africa with Nelson Mandella.  He was willing to sacrifice his life and did sacrifice his freedom for many years for what he believed. The most amazing thing about this leader is that  even after being jailed for over 27 years, he did not come out of prison with vengeance in his heart for his captor, but he came out with his ideals and intentions intact, ready to lead his country, ready to reconcile with his former enemy. He said “We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let each person know that the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.” So it is time to free ourselves, free ourselves from suffering, free ourselves from attachment to outcomes, and to free ourselves from our limiting beliefs, so that we can build the beloved community. And it starts with right intentions.  For the answer to my own question is yes intentions matter. They matter a lot. They set the course for how we will view the world, how we will be and how we will act in the world. 
But intentions alone are not enough, just as it is not enough for us as individuals alone to find wholeness for ourselves and for the world. It is only in relationship with others and with the world itself that we can hope to achieve this.  And so it is with intentions, that intentions in relationship to our actions will lead to wholeness within ourselves and between ourselves, others and the world.   May it be so

Thursday, January 05, 2012

New Year, New Day, Every Day - Text to my sermon January 1st. 2012

Often on facebook, when I wish someone a happy birthday, I will say enjoy this day and every day.  And when my wife wants to celebrate our wedding anniversary, I like to tell her every day is our anniversary she doesn’t buy that, so we do go out to a nice dinner anyway.  But my point is we should make every day that we live a special day, every day a chance for a new beginning.  This past year I had many new beginnings. To the outside world, this last year of my life seemed like a whirlwind.  I was in a country wide search for a settled ministry, I was a full time intern minister, I was a part time business consultant, I moved  to Iowa to start as your settled minister.
Yet to me, it didn’t seem like a whirlwind, I just took it day by day, and each day  was just part of the ongoing journey of my life. Each day presents me new opportunities to start anew.  My journey to here has been a long one. It started early, when I was in grade school, I was certainly a day dreamer, always being reminded by teachers to get my head out of the clouds.  My whole life I have been a seeker, a searcher, a dreamer always trying to better understand myself, and the world around me, always trying to improve myself.  Always wondering is this all there is, always wondering the purpose of all things.  I would take up hobby after hobby wondering if the next one would unlock the secret of my life.   
And I was blessed through a random recommendation approximately twenty five years ago I found Unitarian Universalism which encouraged seeking and searching and growth. The idea of searching is our fourth principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  Now the responsible part of searching requires us to not just have one’s heads in the clouds, but also to have one’s feet on the ground.  It requires discipline and energy to have a responsible search not just day dreaming.
 Now people are  often are shocked and ask me how I decided to become a minister after being an accountant for so long.  Like most stories, it is complex.  There was not much intention involved when I chose my first career. It was quite simple really I set a goal that I wanted to be able to support myself, have a roof over my head and food in my stomach.  I had no idea how that would happen when I started that journey. But I do believe it is important to set a goal, so we know what direction to head.  I started by getting a job in a mailroom of a large corporation, and going to school nights, to see what I could learn.  I took two classes my first semester in night school, English and Accounting and I received an A in my accounting class and a B+ in the English Class. I assumed due to this good grade, I must be good at accounting and thus decided to make it my career. I often wonder what would have happened if I received an A in my English class instead.
I obtained my college degree going to school nights while I worked in that mailroom during the day.  I always love a good metaphor and that mailroom to the boardroom metaphor always inspired me.  I didn’t know how I would do it, But I was determined to figure out a way.  Now again I point to the significance of not knowing how we are going to do something before we start down a path.  That is a truth that has been proven time and again.  And going forward with uncertain outcomes requires faith, faith that we will find a way, faith that we will find an answer, faith that circumstances will allow the necessary conditions to come forward so as to allow the positive outcome we need
But the mailroom to boardroom metaphor  had a deeper meaning as well.  I learned a lot by observing and by doing the basic tasks, growing in knowledge and wisdom over time.  This process in many ways helped set the foundation of my personal and organizational philosophy.  Going to school nights and working my way up from the ground floor taught me resiliency, and it taught me to take the longer view.  We often don’t realize what we are capable of while we are in the middle of a journey, but only after looking back, after time can we realize just what we accomplished, and how we were changed.  But by doing so, by looking back we realize that change is possible and that is why we look back over the past year at New Year’s Time
We do this so that on the next part of the journey, we remember we have the capacity to sustain ourselves, we know it may not be quick, it may not be easy, but if we keep our eye on the end goal, we know that eventually we can find our way.  Working in the mailroom also gave me a unique perspective that helped me throughout my life.  It showed me that success in an organization comes from a process oriented collaborative approach with all members of the organization working together in harmony, with shared values, towards the same goals. 
So I became an accountant. As it turned out, I was good at accounting and business and for almost 30 years that is how I earned my living.  I always remembered a book Mother Night, written by Kurt Vonnegut and he wrote  “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Most of the early part of my life I would say that I lived unconsciously without much forethought.  I had long ago reached my goal of being self supportive , and I knew there was more, I knew somewhere in the deep of my soul, that there was more meaning in life.  In a scene from the movie city slickers, the old wizened cowboy tells the neurotic city slicker Billy Crystal that the meaning of life is this (stick up one finger), Billy Crystal says, “your finger is the meaning of life?” No, the cowboy says “one thing, you stick to that and the rest don’t mean anything…and when Billy Crystal asks what is that one thing. The cowboy says, that’s what you have to figure out.
And it was  my experiences as a Unitarian Universalist over the past 25 years has helped me figure it out.  What I found within myself was a willingness to open myself up, and to look at myself and the world  in a new way.    I became more aware. More aware of how meaningful worship was, more aware of how important the relationships, congregational life and religion were in my life, and more aware of how I want to be and act in my engagement with the world. I learned to de-compartmentalize my life and to live out my values in the world. It wasn’t always perfect, it wasn’t always a linear journey, but it awakened within me my ability to find my true self and that one thing.
The idea of entering ministry as a profession came to me over lunch, when a friend (who I met at the congregation in a connection circle) asked me a simple question.  If money wasn’t an issue, what would you want to do for a living.  And so I said it…I would be a minister.  Then when the idea of entering ministry finally entered my brain, it was as if I had found that one thing I had been searching for all my life. I knew then and there,  I felt for the first time in my life what I was meant to do in the world.  Now I had no idea of how I could make it a reality, but I knew I could not turn away from that one thing that gave me meaning. 
So I ask you to think about, what is it in your life that gives you meaning, what is the one thing above all else that drives you, that gives you energy, that invades your every waking thoughts.  Now each of us are in different circumstances, and different stages in our lives, with different capabilities and of most importance is to know oneself.  Pursuing that one thing sometimes does take a leap of faith,  and courage as it may require you to sometimes to go against societal and cultural norms.    It sometimes goes against that voice in our head that says, I am too young, or I am too old, or I could never do that. But don’t limit yourself.  Don’t let age or stage of life hold you back.  You will know what that one thing is when you find it.  
And when you do find that one thing, Accept it, and accept the fact it may change you.  Just this week I read about a man who at the age of 91 learned to read and at the age of 98 he published a book that is in its second printing and has sold copies worldwide.  He began by reading books designed for first-graders and spent countless hours practicing how to write, and then he was helped by a group of Literary volunteers. So don’t every doubt what you can still do and learn, and don’t ever doubt what you can do to help others .  Without those volunteers, he would never have achieved that 1 thing that he needed.  And this man was inspired to learn to read after learning about the story of another man, who wanted to earn his high school diploma at the age of 98.
Our lives through our actions and choices can be models for others.  Its never to early or too late to start again.  As Mary Ann Evans (more widely known as George Eliot) wrote “It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.”  So let us be resolved to stay hungry.  To stay engaged. To work towards becoming our better selves, to find what that one thing is for us both individually and as a congregation.  This is where resolutions can come in handy. 
Now whenever I think of resolutions I am reminded of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, when Calvin says  “Resolutions me, what are you implying, that I need to change, well buddy, as far as I am concerned, I am perfect just the way I am!!”But we know we are not perfect.  In fact, perfection should never be the goal. As Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the Good”.  Our goal should be excellence, our greatest potential, not perfection. So when we are not perfect, let us be compassionate with each other. And let us remember that everyone around us may have dreams, joys, sorrows, capabilities that we know nothing about or may be different from ours. So let us not judge one another, but let me recommend that we make a resolve for the upcoming year to get to better know others we don’t know well.   
When I think of the word resolution, it is very confusing,  I think of something that is completed. But on New Years Day we use it more to set our resolve for the upcoming year. 
This is not a bad thing.  Maybe we should call it our New Years Strategic Plan…but that just doesn’t have that same ring to it. Now it can happen any day of the year,  but often personally it happens on New Years well because many of us have eaten and drank too much over the past month.   My nieces who are ardent gym goers, over Christmas were complaining that for the next few months the gyms will be extremely crowded with people who set New Years Resolutions, and it normally takes until March or April until their resolve wears away. So first of course, I say, even if it helps that one person who does makes it, who really changes,  it is worth having to wait in line for the workout machines.  But why is it that so many people fall short in their resolve.  Because it is not just enough just to have a goal.  We have to have a reason why we want to do something, a reason that is compelling, a reason that is so compelling that it makes this resolution a must, a reason that is so compelling that this resolution adds meaning to our life.  A reason that is so compelling that it makes the resolution a part of what that one thing is. Find that reason, hold on to that reason, and remind yourself about that reason every day. For some it may be to have a certain quality of life for oneself, for others it may be to have an impact on a family member for years to come, for others it may be to give others an opportunity that they never had, or perhaps did have.  Whatever the reason, it must be strong enough to keep you on the path, when the going gets rough. 
So let us stay resolved, resolved to stay in right relationship, resolved to build our religious lives, resolved to live a just and compassionate life.  But we must ask ourselves the question why? What is the reason that this is so important to you.  Each of us have to answer that question for ourselves. Why is religion important to us. Why is Unitarian Universalism important to us.  Why is this Congregation important to us.  As I have told you, this religion has been transformational for me, it changed my view of how I viewed my life and the world. It shows me a vision of how beloved community can be, how relationships can be, how life can be better for all people, and how it is easier to accomplish that within religious community rather than alone.
And despite challenges, disagreements, false starts, this religion always holds up learning, justice, and love as its most sacred values, values which I try to integrate into my life every day.  Starting next week, we will for at least a couple of months, as part of opening words in the service, hear from members, why this congregation is so important to them, what powerful moments they have experienced here. Because another value of this religion is that we can learn from each other, and each others experiences.
So through this whirlwind or journey that is my life I have learned many things.  I have learned the need to adapt to and change as each bit of new understanding unfolds.  I have learned that my desire to learn never ends.  I have learned that nothing worthwhile comes easily, I have learned that patience is a critical virtue, I have learned that there is much pain, and that pain is usually born out of passion. I have learned I cannot fix everything. But I will never stop trying and I will always keep an open door, an open mind, an open ear and an open heart for anyone and everyone. But as always I have learned that my faith is always reinforced by the building of relationships over time.  And the primary lesson I have learned in my first five months is that this congregation is filled with good and generous people. 
It is filled with people who are not only generous with their time, their talents, and their treasures but also with their spirit and passion in their concern for this congregation and larger community.  I am thrilled to be sharing this journey with all of you and I look forward to building deeper relationships over the years. So let us set our goals for the year, let us point ourselves to that north star, to our best truest selves, and let us work towards building beloved community.  And if it doesn’t work today, then we can try again tomorrow. Because every day is a new day, with new possibilities.  Every day can be the start of a new beginning. Thank you, from the deepest part of my soul for giving me the opportunity to serve you. Amen.