Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Are We There Yet?"

The title of today’s sermon “Are we there yet”  is familiar to anyone who has taken a car ride with a toddler or adolescent.  It is not so much the question as the constant repetition of the question that often makes us anxious.  Are we there Yet?  In a car ride we often know exactly where our end destination is and exactly how long it should take, and exactly how to get there.  And if we don’t know how to get there we have GPS (Global Positioning System) on our phones or in our cars to tell us.  Some GPS systems tell you exactly how long it will take you. I remember when I was driving here when I moved from Florida it would give me an expected arrival time, and then I found myself getting frustrated when we hit road construction  and the GPS would recalculate and extend the expected arrival time.  Unfortunately the world does not always move according to the clock that we set for it. So we can choose to get frustrated as I did, (I think I extemporaneously said something about letting my drive so we could make up time??) or we can choose to accept that which we cannot control and remain focused on our journey itself.  Just because the trip ended up being longer than I originally anticipated didn’t mean I stopped driving, for I knew where my journey was headed then. I was headed here.

It has been over a year since you called me as your minister.  The sermon I gave on the day that you voted to call me was entitled “The Journey” I talked about my ancestor’s journey to this country, and a little of my journey to ministry.

And the picture on the front of the order of service that day was that of a road which diverged into two paths into the woods.  I read from the Robert Frost poem The Road not taken.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

And that is what each of us did. We are all travelers on the journey of life.  We looked into the future as far as we could, both the congregation and myself to see if we would travel down the road together.  I say as far as we could, because unlike the GPS system in our car we are never quite sure where our life journey will take us until it ends or how long it will take us to get there. But we can put in a direction in our GPS of life. We are guided in our direction by our Unitarian Universalist principles, guided to heal the world, and our world, guided by our integrity of religious freedom and exploration, and guided by our relationships with each other. Maybe the acronym GPS instead of meaning Global positioning system should now stand for guiding principles system.  And you can see from the picture today on the front of the order of service that there is just one road we are travelling together.  It may have many twists and turns.  It has some peeks and valleys. But we are one road together. Sometimes it will be easier than others, sort of like when riding my bicycle. Going downhill is much easier than riding uphill.  In fact when riding uphill sometimes, I have to get off my bike and walk it a little on the steep parts of the hill.  But the more I ride, the more I build up my muscles in my legs and the more I build up the stamina in my lungs, the easier it gets to ride even uphill.  It is the same with congregational life.  When things are going good, its easy.  But when things get tough, it is important to remember remain on the journey together, to remain in relationship together even though sometimes we cannot see the end of the road ahead of us. For by doing so, by working through our challenges we will build up our muscles and stamina that will be needed to fulfill the vision and mission of the congregation.  Even if it is not in our lifetime as members of this congregation, our actions, shall reach to generations yet to come.  Just as generations past have left us a legacy so to do we need to build a legacy for the future. Just as our congregants bought this land and built this building, that allows us to gather here today, what shall we build that people can look back upon 40 years from now and say I was a part of that, or look back upon 40 years from now and say I am glad that they had the foresight to act in the way they acted. 

How might the future of our congregation, or how might the future of the Quad Cities be changed by our actions on our journey together.  So we will journey together  living in the present moment trying to be our best selves and live into who we hope to be and a world we hope to create. So as the Rilke poem said, Dare…..Dare to dream, Dare to act, Dare to truly live out our vision and mission.  On our journey together we have and will continue to learn about each other, what our passions are, what our hopes and dreams are what our true untapped potential yet can be, And we shall gain courage from knowing that we are not alone. We are all in this together. 

To do this we need to continue to model right relationship and we need to model what it means to be a justice seeking, meaning making congregation.   We can envision a beloved community, we are not there yet. But we are on our way.  I truly believe the message of Unitarian Universalism is a message that can impact the world. Lets not be shy about sharing it. Shout it from the rooftops, let others see our message in our actions of justice and compassion.  Let them hear our message throughout the Quad Cities so they can know who we truly are, (I think I talked extemporaneously about a wedding where a family member wouldn’t attend because it was in our Congregation) until they all say, I want to live my life like the Unitarian Universalists do.  I can envision people saying it, we are not there yet, but we are on our way.

I admit, I have been a driven person in my lifetime. I do believe an important trait to eventual realization of our dreams is persistence.  Now there are two risks with persistence.  The first is that one can be very persistent banging their head against a brick wall, but it doesn’t matter, the brick wall will prevail.  Second, if we are persistent, we sometimes put blinders on and don’t see how the circumstances around us have changed..  There are times I have failed in my life. And although there is an old adage that failure is the mother of success.  This is only true if we learn from our failures and do not repeat them.   So it is important, if things aren’t working to reassess and see how to adapt, and to change our strategies. 

When I was in the business world,  when I would start with a new company,  I would ask employees why they were doing something a certain way, and I would tell them the only answer they could not give me was “that’s the way its always been done.”  And similarly when I started here, I have asked that same question. Why do we do the things the way we do?   Are the actions we are taking leading to our desired outcomes.  And collaboratively slowly we have made some incremental changes. And we have stayed in dialogue about those changes and we will continue to reassess those changes.   And change requires patience. And patience is the sibling of persistence.

Patience has a power of its own, because by its mere existence, requires hope, and fortitude in the face of the unknown.  Patience means sometimes letting an idea play itself out and then knowing when is the right time to change course. Being patient doesn’t mean you relax at the beach all day long waiting for your ship to come in.  Sometimes you have to row out to meet the ship.(In all fairness I think I read that in a fortune cookie once – but that doesn’t lessen the truth of it)   As the responsive reading said, No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless there is too much to do.  Patience requires us to keep rowing for we are not there yet. But we are on our way.  

It is also said that patience is a virtue because it is a hard thing to have patience.  We see all the suffering in the world, the injustice that abounds, the corruption of our political system, and we want action now.  But having patience is in and of itself a spiritual practice. I think because our theology is more focused on a this world experiance we hope to see the results of the fruits of our labor now. The responsive reading by Dorothy Day spoke of creating ripples.  But sometimes I think our labors are more similar to the concept of stored energy.  To think about stored energy imagine, throwing a rock into a lake… it makes ripples.  But stored energy is similar to a rock being thrown into the lake and it doesn’t make a ripple. You could throw 100 rocks into the lake and it doesn’t make a ripple.  But with the 101st rock, the ripples of the first 100 rock all come at once.  It is like that with human growth and society as well.  We work and work at something and don’t seem to be getting anywhere, whether it is at work, whether it is meditating, whether it is working on some transformational project such as marriage equality or climate control.  Then all of a sudden we have a creative breakthrough.  That breakthrough would never have come without the hours and hours of work up until that point. 

Then understanding comes over us, that makes things seem so easy that we wonder how we didn’t get to this point sooner. We have to believe we can get there though. And we will journey there together.

When I first arrived here last year, I really didn’t know what to expect. We each arrived hoping for the best, this after just one week of meeting with each other last May. It was sort of like the getting the demo version of a Software. (something extemporaneously about The demo never having any bugs and everything looks good from both sides, and you never know how it is going to work until you use it day to day).  I came with an open heart and mind to serve in whatever capacity would be needed. After one year, I can tell you it is an honor to serve this congregation.  I want to thank you for your support, your willingness to change, and your willingness to take some risks. 

Mostly thank you for showing up.  Not just on Sundays, although that is always appreciated. But showing up whenever there is a need. Showing up with your time, talents and treasures.  Showing up for each other, to give a ride, or write a card, or bring a meal. Thank you for showing up not just physically, but with intention. Intention in your words, and in your actions always trying to be your best selves.  You have showed up for social justice.   We have built upon our foundation the beginnings of our social justice program.  A program that is meant to engage the congregants in transformational work, that will lead to making the Quad Cities a more just, diverse welcoming community. 

You show up for religious education, as we have had many evenings with filled meeting rooms as we pursue our third principle the encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregation.  And you certainly show up for potlucks!!  What that tells me is that you like to spend time with each other.  Remember there are so many other people in the world looking for what we have, so let us always remember to welcome them in, not just into our doors but into our hearts.  (something extemporaneously about  When you go down to coffee hour and you see someone sitting alone – go sit with them.  It is a way to let them know they are welcome here.)

I will never be all things to all people.  But I can assure you that I will be my authentic self,  I will always give you my best effort, using all the wisdom and energy I have and I will continue to learn, and to grow and let my nature unfold. And when I make a misstep, I will be the first to admit it, and I will ask your forgiveness. And all of these things  I ask of all of you as well.  Let us come together with open minds and generous spirits and help each other, this congregation, and the Quad Cities reach our full potential.  We are not there yet, but we are still rowing and we are rowing together in the same direction. We are on our way.  May it be so.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Sacrifice - Text to Memorial Day Sermon

     When I think about Memorial Day, I am torn.  On the one hand, I want to always remember and I want to sear into our collective memory the ultimate sacrifice that the members of our armed services have made.  They cared deeply about our country. My Grandfather served in the Army in World War I.  My father served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and my Uncle was a Marine. And trust me, you can not say one negative thing about the armed services to a marine and remain standing that is.  I was brought up to respect the armed services and the people who serve in it. 
     And I cannot deny the bottomless pit in my stomach I felt and still feel when I first saw the hole in the ground where the world trade center previously stood knowing how many innocent people died there, both rich and poor, both white and people of color.  War and Death do not discriminate. 
     And yet, I was brought up during the years of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandel, and although I was taught by my parents who grew up during the depression to believe that the Government could do great things, it was tempered with a devout distrust of the government. 
            And I must hold back all the forces of cynicism when at the beginning of the Iraq war, I read the testimony of  Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman’s family relating to lies that the military told to promote the Iraq war. If you remember Jessica Lynch, she was in the Army stationed in Iraq. Her Unit was attacked when they went out on a convoy.  She was injured and taken as a prisoner of war.  The news reported that “Lynch…fought her captors fiercely, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition and shooting several enemy soldiers” consistently portraying her as a Rambo type character. 
      Except the truth was her gun jammed and she went down without a fight.   After her freedom from captivity, and after she had an extended convalescence, she found out what was happening, and she corrected the myth.  In her congressional hearing she stated  “I’ve always told the truth. I could have chosen not to. It would have been so easy to say, “Yes, I did those things”— except I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. Honesty has always been very important to me. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that this is my life and I have to stand up for myself.” 
     What a life lesson.  We need to stand up for ourselves, and we need to be able to stand up for the values we believe in.  We need to be able to speak the truth to power when those values are being desecrated, even if there a personal cost to us. I am not here to vet the pros and cons of our various wars.  But I am here to speak up for our principles that I think Lynch exemplified in her statements. I am here to speak up for the principle of truth and transparency.  I am here to speak up for our principle of the right of conscience, and I am here to speak up for our principle of justice equity and compassion in human relations particularly for the members of the armed services and the sacrifices they make for our country, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice with their lives.
     The truth is we never know the ramifications of what our sacrifices are going to be.  Like the song said “Don’t ask me, what our sacrifice was for” We can never know the ripple effects of what we do. Will they lead to peace and justice in the long term, or are they done in vain.  But These young men and women who serve our country trust that our leaders will make the right decisions. Let us be worthy of their trust. Our armed services are now completely volunteer.   Some join the armed services for practical reasons, to be able to afford a college education, some join to find a way to change themselves for the better, but often they join as a way to serve their country.
     Lynch said “I remember the first time I put on the Army uniform. I just felt like a totally different person—I felt proud. I knew I was doing something important for my country.”  This is what is meant by Home of the Brave. Where people go out day after day after day after day and put their life on the line to protect us.  Let us honor them.  Let us honor them by being informed about the world and what our government is doing. Let us honor them by speaking out at public hearings when there is wrong in our societies, let us honor them by making sure they and their families are cared for.
      For there was and still is a dream that is America. A Land of the free where people can sacrifice and improve the lives.  The declaration of independence talks of self evident truths that we are created equal and we have unalienable rights including life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Why does it always seem that one person’s happiness seems to come at the expense of others.  It seems to me that fear, sometimes real often not, leads to insecurity.  Such insecurity drives people to obtain power, as if that power will prove their insecurity wrong.  But in reality, insecurity is an internal issue and no amount of external material goods can change that.  And that drive for power fed by insecurity leads to inequality.  Things do not lead to happiness.  Living out ones values in your day to day life gives one happiness. 
     At what point do we merely survive as humans versus actually live.  At what point do we sacrifice ourselves for a greater cause versus compromise to live another day.  These are not easy questions with any real answer.  These questions require a conscious decision, but often fear and insecurity make that decision for us.  We as humans have a tremendous capacity to forget or at least to transcend prior horrors in our life.  The question is what is it that helps us build resiliency in the face of real or imagined fear.
      Rev. Bill Schultz suggests that people do this by “placing what we value most at the center of our consciousness” Meaning what do we focus on with intentionality in our day to day lives.  Do we focus on whats in it for me, or do we focus on what is the best action for the benefit of all.  So I ask you to ponder, what do you value? Or maybe the question should be what do you want to value. What values do we want to have as a congregation? 
     When thinking of sacrifice, traditionally in religious terms we think of Christianity and Jesus sacrificing himself for the sins of humanity.  Under the bright light of reason from a literal sense this does not resonate with me at all.   But the concept of sacrifice can be heroic. To die so that others might live. To act for a greater cause than just one’s own self interest.  To give up something of excess so that someone else might have the potential for happiness.  Not every sacrifice that is made may seem all that heroic though, although maybe they should be.  We all make sacrifices. Every choice we make with how to spend our time we are sacrificing something else to spend our time on. The writer EB White once wrote, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” So we have choices to make.  We may sacrifice our career to have children.  Or sometimes we sacrifice our children if we want to have a career.  Some sacrifice vacations to afford college tuition, some sacrifice better housing so they can afford medical care, Some sacrifice medical care, so they can have food. We each choose.  This  last choice however, should not have to be a choice.  Sometimes due to the whims of fate we are not given a choice, and sometimes due to our bad choices we suffer, and if we as a society have the ability to help people avoid suffering we should. 
      And when I think of the story of Jonah.  That is what I think of.  Giving of ones self to Help other people avoid suffering.  Just like Jonah, we are busy with our day to day lives. The problems of the world seem so big to us. We calculate the benefits and losses to ourselves of speaking out against what we know is wrong in society.  Like Jonah, we know there will be a price to pay. Maybe the cost is prestige, or money, or a promotion, but if we are willing to speak the truth, even in the face of power every morning when we wake up and look in the mirror, we will know that we have done the right thing, that we have stood up for what we believed in, and we can look ourselves in the eye and be at peace with who we are and what we have done. We wont need to rationalize our every action. That is happiness By living our life in such a way we risk losing things.  But A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero only one. This Memorial Day weekend I think of Pat Tillman.  He gave up millions of dollars he could have earned as a professional football player to fight for what he believed in. He didn’t think whats in it for me. He asked, what is the in the best interest of our country.  I think of the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan whose son died in Iraq. 
     Despite receiving ongoing criticism from the press, and in an act of conscience refusing to pay her taxes, she continues her fight against the same war that Pat Tillman fought for. She didn’t ask, whats in it for me, but rather what is in the best interest of our country.  Both of these people in their own way are heroes. We as a country and as individuals have to hold that tension together. Like Cindy Sheehan, Like Jessica Lynch, Like Jonah, we never know when the spotlight will be thrust upon us.  When circumstances will put us in a position where we can make a difference. 
     That is why it is so important to be steeped in what our values are, so when that time arrives, we are ready, and confident to speak the truth to power.  Sometimes we need a push like Jonah, and then we must have the courage to answer that call, to step up to the plate, to take the stage and do what must be done to be true to ourselves and the values we hold. This is your life. What do you stand for? It is memorial day weekend.  I stand for and want to think of  all the men and women who have died in our wars.  When I look at all the names of the people who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan war, I want to remember they are someone’s child, someone’s partner, Someone’s Parent.   It is amazing there is a website that you can look up and read exactly how and where they each died. How many died from this state or that state, how many died from this cause or that cause. The number of people from each age category or ethnic background.    It is quite daunting to sit and read through all the statistics and stories.  We have learned to measure death quite well.  But we must be very careful to never render the loss of life to merely a statistic. 
     So let us think of them today not as a statistic, but as a unique human being. I think of all who have died in war. May we work to find a way to end war, may we turn spears into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares and may we always remember all those who sacrificed so much to allow that to one day happen.  May it be so.