Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Forgiveness

          This time of year is the Jewish High Holidays, which will end with Yom Kippur also known as the day of atonement.  And although the title of the sermon today is forgiveness I think atonements has a different connotation. We can forgive others, or we can seek forgiveness from others, we can learn to forgive ourselves, but Atonement for me is a reconciliation which requires an act of some sort to bring wholeness to a broken world or a broken life. Sometimes that reconciliation can be with others, but always we must first reconcile and forgive ourselves. Forgiveness is a virtue, and one of the most difficult ones to master and one of the most important ones to master.   

         When I was a child, I was often told, forgive, but don’t forget.  For most of my childhood, my parents would never buy any German products because of the Jewish Holocaust during WWII.  I was made to read books and watch movies about the holocaust and I was taught to never forget that people would hate us and at some point would kill just because we were Jewish.  But I was also raised to believe that we should judge people based on their actions.  The sins of the parents should not automatically be placed on the children.  There are few alive today who were directly involved in the atrocities.  And in truth where do you draw the line.

If I didn’t buy products from every country that oppressed the Jews it would be a long list.  And if I add to that Countries that invaded the birth country of my children, Korea, I would be prevented from buying any products from Japan and China as well.  Where does it end. As well Post WWII Germany took concrete steps to address their role and take responsibility for their part in the tragedy of the holocaust and to offer reparations to Jews. Interestingly,  in the newly formed country Israel in 1951, there was actually much conflict over whether to accept reparations from Germany. 

There were many Israelis who felt that taking reparations was akin to forgiving and pardoning Germans for what they had done. Many Israelis, launched violent protests against the Israeli government at that time.  David Ben Gurion the first prime minister of Israel had to use the Israeli army to quell an uprising that led to the death of many Israelis and afterward he said  “I don't want to run after a German and spit in his face. I don't want to run after anybody. I want to sit here and build here.”  And they accepted the reparations.  I think there are a number of lessons to be learned from this story. Anger, especially righteous anger can blind one to reality.

         The reparations received were critical to allow the State of Israel to build the infrastructure of their country and allow it not only to survive but to thrive.  How often do we in anger do something spiteful that we know is not in our own best interest just so we can feed our resentment towards others. And don’t get me wrong.  Anger is a natural emotion.  There are times we should be angry, but the question is how do we express our anger. Its an old maxim that it is never a good idea to make decisions when we are filled with anger.  So it is not so much forgiveness of others as it is letting go of our internal anger that no longer helps us.

We do get hurt, we do need to protect ourselves, we do need to see that justice is done so others are not hurt in the same way, but also we must heal ourselves.  If we are going to grow, grow as human beings, grow past the hate that envelops us, grow past the hurt that  debilitates us, we must let go of the anger so we can see our future clearly.  Not to eliminate our memories, but to not let our memories of our past, control and limit our future.  So we can move forward and build our own lives.  And I think the same can be said for us as a country.  How much of our Mideast wars were about protecting ourselves and finding justice? Certainly some of it was, but also I would ask how much of it was a lashing out in righteous anger at the hurt we felt and still feel from the attacks on 9-11.  We need to take care of ourselves as a country, we need to build here. The first key to forgiveness is not always about what it does for the person we are forgiving, but about what it does for us. 

The second lesson from this story is that it is easier to forgive someone when they show some repentance for what they did. When they ask for forgiveness. Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel said, “Some persons do not deserve forgiveness – to be forgiven the culprit must admit their guilt and ask for forgiveness.  In the year 2000, during a speech in the German Parliament commemorating the holocaust, Elie Wiesel said to the assembled German leaders, “You have been helpful to Israel after the war, with reparations and financial assistance. But you have never asked the Jewish people to forgive you for what the Nazis did.” Two weeks later, the German president, went to the Israeli Knesset and did just that. He said, “Before the people of Israel I pay humble tribute to those who were murdered, who have no graves at which I could ask their forgiveness, I ask forgiveness for what Germans have done, for myself, and my generation, For the sake of our children and our children’s children whose future I would like to see at the side of the children of Israel”.  This is how we prevent passing our own sins of anger onto our children.  We need to interact with each other, to know each other, to not be “others” to each other.  We need to be consciously open to the concept of forgiveness and redemption.  The two are inextricably tied together. One cannot control whether someone else will forgive another. We can only ask for forgiveness and then atone for it through right actions. Even if the wronged party does not forgive, the party causing the harm can show they have learned, they have changed, and by doing so show that transformation is possible.  Even if they are never forgiven, they themselves have been transformed into a something better. 

History has shown us, and not only for Jewish people but for many oppressed people who have been powerless to overcome oppressors, that moving forward with forgiveness can be freeing and can lead to peace.  It is one of the great complexities of life for me, why people would target complete strangers to do  harm to them just because of their religious, ethnic, sexual or racial differences.  Throughout history people have committed violence for many reasons, often out of desire for personal gain, sometimes to obtain resources, and as well due to intolerance. Although recent news reports highlight this intolerance in the Middle East, intolerance happens often in this country as well, there have been consistent defamations of Mulism Mosques throughout America, and of course just recently, in Minnesota there was the shooting at the Sikh Temple that was specifically targeted, whether mistakenly as Muslim, but clearly because the Sikhs represented “others” to the gunman. 

And it was four years ago this summer that a man fueled with rage from talk radio,  walked into a Unitarian Church in Tennessee and started opening fire. And I remember the following week we were saying prayers for the victims, and someone said a prayer for the gunman.  I have to admit, I had a physical retching reaction at that moment. I had a great sadness in my heart for the people who were shot, for the children who were at risk and will always have that memory connected to Church. I didn’t have anger towards the gunman, but I thought, do I really want to say a prayer for him, and wish him well.  I really had not been thinking of him at all, and lastly about whether he was suffering.  But my reaction to this prayer request did make me stop and think.  Is there is a difference between forgiveness and just letting go of anger.

           In the movie “the power of forgiveness”, a man unconditionally forgave the teenager who had murdered his son. The teen who murdered his son had been living with his grandfather after being abandoned first by his father and then his mother.  And the teenager upon being forgiven said, “no one had ever forgiven me for anything before, if he can forgive me for killing his son, I have to be able to forgive others who have abandoned me and who have hurt me.” And that forgiveness changed the grandfather as well who had been completely racked with guilt over the incident. And the father of the slain boy and the grandfather of the murderer went on to form a foundation and together went out speaking to other youth to prevent future violence. Who knows how many lives were saved by that one ac of forgiveness.  This didn’t diminish the pain or loss they felt. But it showed me that forgiveness can  have a power of its own. Forgiveness can not only change your life, but it can change other peoples lives in ways that we cannot imagine.   Our first principle tells us that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. 

            Something like this tests that principle.  Yes, as I have said before, inherent worth is not lived worth, but inherent worth and dignity means it is there within all, waiting to be nurtured, waiting to be lifted up, waiting to be forgiven.  Just like this story of the young boy who didn’t understand the concept of forgiveness until it was given to him, my experiences have shown me that people are willing to forgive others and accept forgiveness of others much more quickly then they are ever able to forgive themselves. I saw this often when I served as a chaplain in a hospital.  On the floor I served on, individuals’ medical conditions were often self inflicted by their poor lifestyle choices. 

And in almost all cases they were aware of that, and held tremendous guilt about it.  And so I would ask them whether they believed that God forgave them, and in almost all cases without hesitation, always they answered yes. They believed in a forgiving, all loving God.  And then I would ask them if they believed that if God forgave them, could they forgive themselves.  And sadly most of them found that the most difficult part. Self forgiveness was a lesson it took me a long time to learn.  It is a spiritual practice unto itself that needs to be practiced consistently.

I forget who, but I was talking to someone in coffee hour and I mentioned I am my own worst critic and the person seemed surprised because they said I didn’t seem to come off as a critical person..  I have found for myself it is beneficial to look back at what I have done, what has worked, what has not worked.  How could I have handled a situation better.  Often these thoughts come up when I am meditating and trying not to think of thoughts.  I look at every experience I have as a learning experience.  To incorporate how I missed the mark, as I move forward.  I have found that for myself the key to my happiness is the ability to be able to forgive myself very quickly almost instantaneously for my faults.  It allows me to live in the present moment being who I am, not filled with fear of making a mistake, For self forgiveness is about acceptance that we are not perfect, and that we will never be perfect.  That acceptance should never be an excuse to stop improving, or stop learning. But it is an acceptance that we cannot control the universe. Sad but true. We often don’t even control our own personal universe. If we realize that we are interdependent with all that is, we realize that yes we can impact others with our actions but others also impact us with their actions which means there are things we cannot control.

The musical piece Kol Nidre, that Malcolm played earlier is always played on first night of Yom Kippur every year. It is asking for forgiveness in advance for the vows we will break in the coming year, knowing that we are imperfect beings, recognizing that we are certainly going to miss the mark sometimes. But it is also asking us not to make frivolous promises, but rather to think very carefully before we make a commitment. 

Acceptance of our own imperfection allows an opening up to being compassionate with ourselves, being gentle with ourselves, and by doing this consistently with ourselves we can find peace within, and once we find peace within, it allows us to learn to be compassionate with others.  And by doing so, by working together with others in compassionate ways, our interdependent web of life becomes more whole.  When compassion is the practice we use each day, in every action we take,  we will live in a more compassionate world.  So as you go forth, be compassionate with yourselves and be compassionate with others. Forgive yourself and Forgive others. May it be so.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A House of Hope


These last two weeks we have heard a lot of speeches on television at the political conventions.  One candidate used the word hope twice in his convention speech reminding people that the hope they had four years had not come to fruition.  The other candidate used the word hope 17 times often speaking about what still gives him hope.  And most of the examples he gave were the actions of ordinary citizens overcoming unbelievable hardships in their lives to reach their potential, and by doing so, they had the  ability to instill hope for others.  I think the juxtaposition of these two brings up an interesting question about hope.  Just because every hope does not come fruition, should we stop hoping.  Is hoping for something unrealistic appropriate? 

Just recently my cousin posted something on Facebook, mentioning that the NY Mets were only 8 games behind in the baseball playoff  race and he lauded them with hopeful abandon that they could still win it, if they just swept the St. Louis Cardinals this upcoming week. So knowing the Mets were not as talented as the Cardinals I pointed out to him that the Book of Ecclesiastes states, “the race does not always go to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong.”  Often do people, groups, societies overcome conventional wisdom.  It was once conventional wisdom that slavery should be legal, it was once conventional wisdom that there was no need for public education, it was once conventional wisdom that women should not vote, it was once conventional wisdom that people of the same sexual orientation should not marry. Those things didn’t change overnight, but through hard work, through the hard work of many people working together, over a long period of time, even generations, changes to conventional wisdom came to fruition.  And to see this come to fruition, to sustain the energy of ones purpose over such a long period of time, one needs hope.   This hope is not a magical thought, it is not something that you can turn on and off.  It is a way of being, a way of living, almost a spiritual practice in and of itself.

Just like anything that if we are to be good at it, or if it is to become a natural part of our personality and religious understanding,   it must be practiced, and it needs especially to be practiced in the onslaught of everything that tells us otherwise.  I think this is exemplified by Vedran Samilovic.  He was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera, In 1992 Vedran heard a mortar shell burst in the street near his home, quickly followed by screams.  People had been standing in line to buy bread from one of the few remaining bakeries in the violence ravaged city.  When he looked out his window, Vedran saw the carnage.  The Shell killed twenty two people.  Grieved and shocked, he felt he must do something. but what? He did what he felt he, as an artist, could do.  Dressed up in his formal concert clothes, he went out the next afternoon and sat where the shell had burst and played the plaintive alinoni Adagio in G Minor.  He played every afternoon for the next twenty two days, one day of music for every person killed.  Then he kept playing As the Indian Buddhist writer/teacher Swati Chopra describes his discipline – “he played to ruined homes, smoldering fires, scared people hiding in basements.  He played for human dignity that is the first casualty in war.  Ultimately, he played for life, for peace, for the possibility of hope that exists even in the darkest hour.  Asked by a journalist whether he was not crazy doing what he was doing, Smailovic replied: You ask me if I am crazy for playing the cello.  Why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?  It takes practice just as playing music does.”

In what ways are we practicing hope as a  Congregation. In what ways does our religion provide us hope for a better future.  I think one way we gain hope is from looking back and seeing our religious ancestors who as our sources say used  words and deeds which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love; By doing so we will be able to see the practice of an active hope over and over again lead to change.

We see hope the words and acts of Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker who was one of the earliest and most voracious supporters of the abolition movement in this country protecting runaway slaves, and financing anti slavery activist John Brown’s attacks into Kansas to prevent that state from becoming a slave state. Parker also famously said :

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the good. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” 

Hope comes from looking back and knowing we are on that arc, but that we have only come so far, so we cannot rest.  We have a responsibility to carry on with the work of justice. This is the core of our religion, within our principles,  where we affirm and promote Justice equity and compassion in human relations as well as peace liberty and justice for all.  It is in the core of our vision and mission as a congregation, which asks us to devote ourselves to community good and to support social justice and social action initiatives in our congregation and the greater community. Hope comes from looking forward and knowing can we harness the collective power of our energies as a congregation so we can make this a more just and compassionate world.

So we can impact our community with our values.  This is what we are called to do. To stand up and speak the truth to power, to stand up and do the work that needs to be done. I have seen this in what our religion has consistently done over the years, from being the first religion to ordain a woman, to being the first religion to ordain an openly gay man, in our tireless efforts to see justice enacted wherever there are people oppressed as did in Phoenix Arizona at General Assembly this past year.  And knowing this gives me hope.

We see hope in the words and action of Unitarian Susan B Anthony who in one of her many works as leader of the women’s suffrage movement was arrested when she tried to cast a vote in an election at a time when women were denied the right to vote.  But she alone could not have made the right to vote come to pass.  It only happened through her tireless work and the work of many others coming together, both men and women, but it finally did come to pass.  And we are still working for the justice of gender equality, so that anyone regardless of gender receives equal pay for equal work.  And Susan Anthony said “a True Women will proclaim the "glad tidings of good news" to all women, that woman equally with man was made for her own individual happiness, to develop... every talent given to her by God, in the great work of life.”Through letters that Susan B Anthony wrote to her Unitarian Congregation we know her experiences at the Congregation transformed her.

As she wrote “my spirit was born  anew to listen to a cultured educated presentation about what it means to bring the light that lighteth every person that comes into the world”.   She knew it was special because she wrote on that day it was the first time she had ever seen her father put money in the collection basket at church.  We can gain hope looking back knowing that our religion  gave her the courage to continue on with the work that we all now benefit from.  Hope comes from looking forward and knowing that we can renew our own spirits as well. 

This is also at the core of our religion as our principles that ask us to encourage spiritual growth in our congregation.  It is at the core of our congregational vision that asks us to feed the mind and spirit. Hope comes from looking forward and knowing we can change, and grow and knowing that we will have good people to walk on our religious journey together with.  And that is a key to hope.  It is forever connected to trust.  First and foremost we have to trust in the universe that there is a purpose to our existence.  But even more importantly, even if there is no purpose, we have to trust each other. 

We have to  know that if we are going to risk opening ourselves up to new ideas, to risk allowing ourselves to believe in the potential for personal change, to risk letting go of some deeply held rigid beliefs, then we need to know that we can trust that the people we journey together with will catch us when that belief that held us for so long no longer buoys us, trust that we will not be judged for exploring ideas that are challenging to us, trust that we will be forgiven when we fail, and trust the good intentions of all we walk with.   I have seen this trust in our meetings, I have seen it in our classes, our connection circles and in our services.  And this gives me hope.

We see hope in the life and deaths of Rev. James J. Reeb and Viola Liuzzo both of whom were killed when answering the call to March in Selma Alabama in support of the voting rights act.  I think this is important to note, we usually only talk about Rev. Reeb, and ministers who answered Martin Luther King’s call back in the 1960s.  But it was lay people as well as ministers together who answered that call.  And that is also what gives me hope about our religion.  That unlike so many religions, we truly believe in what the responsive reading spoke of, the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. 

That each of us has a ministry, and we minister to each other, that each of you have a voice to speak your truth and we are willing to live out our shared values in the world, which may require sacrifice, and in the case of the two I mentioned the ultimate sacrifice.  And they helped create change in this country by doing so.  This priesthood and prophethood of all believers is also at the core of our religion, as our principles affirm and promote the right of conscience, and the use of the Democratic  process. And our vision and mission, speaks to us as a community doing this together, not as individuals, but as a community.

Together we can do exponentially more than any one of us could ever do alone.  Embedded in our religion is the opportunity to give people the opportunity to learn and to lead.   And I have certainly seen that here, as our caring team and other individuals care for each other as often life can leave us in the dark night of the body and soul. You see this in our worship as is our tradition, our lay leaders also speak from the pulpit.  We are all in this together.  And these things too gives me hope.

And lastly for today  I see hope in the actions and words of Universalist Clara Barton who among other achievements in her life, not only opened the first public school in the state of New Jersey, but during the civil war went to the battlefields to provide medical care to wounded soldiers and then after the war she founded the Red Cross in America. I think of her accomplishments and I think, perhaps I should do something more lofty than watching the Football game this afternoon. 

Clara Barton made one statement in particular that moved me. She said,  I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.” This to me more than anything else is foundation that our religion rests on. We look at all things with new eyes based on new information and new experiences.  To know and to accept that we are not in possession of some final absolute truth, is in and of itself holy to us. To not only accept but to  welcome the fact that revelation is ongoing.

This too is embedded in our principles in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  I see this here at our congregation as we incorporate new ways of thinking, feeling and being. I see it as we incorporate learning’s from science, not with a fear that it will invalidate our beliefs, but with a quest that it will enhance our understanding of our purpose in the universe.  I see it in your journeys as we all come together trying to find our way for ourselves and this Congregation to reach its highest potential.  This coming together learning from our past and moving forward towards our better selves also gives me hope.

Now sadly, my cousin was wrong, and the Cardinals won 2 out of 3 from the Mets, and I wont even try to console a Chicago Cubs fan, but the thing is, neither my cousin or I had any control over the outcome of those games.  That was hoping for someone else to do something.  That is not the kind of hope I speak of.  The kind of hope I speak of is not the kind of hope that Emily Dickenson wrote about never asking a crumb of her. The kind of hope I speak of is an active hope.  The kind of hope I speak of today is the hope that is born within us that we are capable of changing ourselves for the better and changing our community for the better, and by doing so inspiring others to be moved to hope for the same. 

Our religion shows us through words and actions that what was once thought impossible is possible. Let us continue to build on the foundation of this house of hope that has been bestowed upon us generation after generation. Let us cross the threshold together, and let us have hope and through our words and actions provide hope to others.  Remember, you have to have a dream if you want to have a dream come true.  May it be so.






Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Sacred Sites

When I was a child, probably by the time I was 8 years old, growing up in the Bronx in New York City, I would take my bicycle and travel to distant neighborhoods beyond my known experiences.  Searching for a new comic book store that might have gotten an early delivery of the X-Men Comic book.   In my mind at that age, everything was mysterious, tinged with anticipation of what I would find with every corner I turned. By the time I was ten years old, I had graduated to being able to ride the subways throughout the city.  This expanded my horizons and places I could visit. 

I was able to venture forth into MANHATTAN and even on dare would sometimes go to Brooklyn. Often these were trips of mere adventure but sometimes we had quests in minds. Once I convinced a couple of friends to join me on an adventure in search of some "mystical" sporting goods store I had heard of whose name had only been whispered in the late hours around a campground.  This may seem quaint when we live in a world with instant access to everything in mega malls, big box and online stores, but to me, then  those trips seemed quixotic, and Star Trekkian as if chasing down windmills and exploring the unknown. 

And I think some of our journeys to sacred sites have to have a bit of this in them.  Our searching for something different, not a grass is greener on the others side kind of different, but a way to gain a better understanding of the larger world around us. A way to understand how other people find meaning in their life, a way to see how other cultures have struggled with the questions of life and death.  And it is in this sacredness of seeking, this searching for truth, this yearning for peace, this hunger for justice, that we allow our inner self to unfold. For as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey not a destination.” 

When I was young my favorite journeys were to shrines called Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Knicks play, or to Shea Stadium to watch my Amazing Mets play and even occasionally to Broadway to go to the Theatre.   These trips were different because they had a specific destination in mind.  Now little to my parents knowledge, these trips were fraught with danger.  Travelling by train was not for the feint of heart especially for a 10 year olds.  I would never let my children do what I did!!  In fact having to go to Shea stadium required 3 train transfers.  A good lesson I learned on a journey such as this was to ask others for help.  I think that is good for all journeys, whether they be inward or outward ones.    Asking others who may have travelled that path before you, what is the best way to go, and what has worked, and what has led you astray.  Making such connections on a journey can make the trip immeasurably easier. (Like getting on the southbound train vs. the northbound train!!) We don’t have to make our life harder than it sometimes can be.  We can accept help.  We are here for each other.  As well on my subway journeys, I learned to look for clues that would be left for me.  Actually there were signs on the subway wall that would tell me where to go.  I thought that was very nice of the transit authority  to do that for me.  

But again, I think this is a telling message for any journey.  To be aware of our surroundings, to understand the context of the environment we are searching, and to be open to finding a new way, a new direction, a new journey. But I would have to say, if you there was one place that I would have to call a sacred site, I would have to say that it was a little park attached to the Bronx Zoo.  The Bronx River ran through the park, and there was a mini waterfall.  The area was shaded by trees and I would often find myself there, without admission fees to the zoo, and although I could hear the cars honking from afar, it was there I found a place of solitude that I could just sit and find a moment of peace in the craziness of life.  So although I found reverence in that place,  it wasn’t so much the place, but what that place provided me, a place of peace.  And so, if I had to say today, if I had a place the provided me and environment of peace it is this sanctuary.  Sometimes at night, when the sun is setting and it is quiet in here, and I am all alone, I come in here to just sit and feel the peace of this place as I take in the beauty of nature surrounding it.  And as well on Sunday mornings such as today, when we are together as we are now, I find the love, the compassion that we have for each other a way we create an environment for peace.

Now as some of you know I sent out an email and facebook requests asking what people considered sacred places.  A number of people similar to myself listed sports stadiums as sacred places.  I think that is interesting. I think it is a touchstone to a time of innocence, a time of joy remembered from some distant past. A place where we found peace in our lives. I think this is epitomized in the ending movie scene From the movie Field of Dreams where after building a baseball field in a corn field, the lead character Ray faces foreclosure if he doesn’t sell the farm.  And his mentor for his journey of self discovery, a character named Terence Mann tells Ray:

“Ray, people will come Ray. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.  They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.  It reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again.”

Now I am not sure the only constant through all the years was baseball, certainly not for all of us, but I think the point is,  that whatever was that constant for us becomes sacred to us. The place we could count on, that would always endure, despite what was happening in our life. Despite setbacks, or perils, despite worries and wanderlust,  A sacred place is one that can be returned to again and again, with a certainty that it will bring us back to a place where we feel safe and bring us back to a place where we feel accepted.

Now many of you responded to my request with sites that were sites from the long distant past.  Some of these are human creations such as the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China, and some are places where terrible tragic events happened, such as Gettysburg. I think this shows there is a sacredness in knowing that we are not alone.  We are not just some fragmented group of people dropped on a planet without any connections.  But rather we are part of a long chain of existence of our species, and visiting these ancient locations are an acknowledgement of that. Our history reminds us that we are capable of great creation and great destruction. The sacredness of  history allows us to gleam wisdom, and wonder and awe from our past existence and when we are tired and don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, it can remind us of all that we are capable of in this world.

The sacredness of this life in the present moment as well is accentuated by the acknowledgment of death. In additional to historical locations, many listed sacred sites such as burial locations and hospital rooms.  We learn to appreciate what we have by the realization of what we have lost.  We realize the preciousness of life, when faced with the witness of its ending. It raises the question within us, what is the purpose of our life, knowing we are going to die.  It is not the death that is sacred, but death’s reminder as to the sacredness of life.

But what is the Religious meaning for something, or some place to be sacred.   When thinking of religious sacred places, There is a certain purity , a certain innocence about something being sacred, something that needs to be remembered. It is something that is revered.  Often such places are reminders of a religious origin story.  Something that says, something significant happened here!! 

An example of this could be the Kaaba A black stone in Mecca, which Muslims believe was created by Abraham and Ishmael, Abraham’s first son.  One of the five pillars of Islamic faith is to make a pilgrimage to this site in ones lifetime.  Or the Church of the Holy Se-pul-ker, which Christians believe is the location where Jesus was resurrected, or the  Wailing Wall, the last standing wall of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, where Jewish People believe God’s presence once existed.

To say that something is sacred is to signify that something is meaningful. Yet to think about it, we do not think this way about ideas.  We do not think that any ideas are sacred.  We believe that every idea should be tested based on new and ongoing knowledge and experiences.  Is sacredness just a nostalgic idea of something? Can I have reverence for a building if we know it can be destroyed, or has already been destroyed, or is what I have reverence for the idea that that building represents, or more so, the emotion that location holds in our hearts.  I think this is clearly exemplified by The Ancient Jewish people who believed that God literally lived within their Temple.  That was clearly a sacred place to them.  The real existential event arrived when in approximately  586bce, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the population was exiled to Babylonia.  This event changed the course of Western Monotheism. The Jewish people’s conception of God, had to change.  God could no longer be a presence that was physically located in a specific place.  God had to become an idea that could be with them wherever they moved to in the world.  And so it is only logical that the next evolution is that we find sacred sites in the world. 

The majority of responses to my query, was that people found sacred spaces in nature. One of Unitarian Universalist sources from which we draw reminds us that we gain wisdom by living in harmony with the rhythms of nature.  The beauty of nature is for me the reminder that we are part of a beautiful  majestic creation called Earth. And just as looking at old structures remind us that we are part of a longer history of humanity, the wonders of nature, remind us that we are a part of an even longer history of the planet itself.  Sequoia trees in California are over 3,000 years old.  The Grand Canyon took millions upon millions of years to form. My point is, nature points us to something that is not only larger and more longstanding than we are as a species, but it was also not created by us. It pushes us to realize that there is something at work in the world that is beyond us.

The world created these beautiful creations, and continues to, and thus it reminds us that we too are part of a beautiful creation and we too are still in the process of an ongoing creation.   When we come in contact with such natural beauty, I believe we become aware of and connect with our place in the larger universe and we want to hold onto that feeling and we call it sacred.

Sacredness is something that can be unique to the individual.  Speaking of the Grand Canyon, I remember visiting it  with Jan and my two sons Will and Kyle when they were teenagers.  For myself, when I first saw the canyon, my jaw dropped in awe and I could have stood there for hours staring at it.  My older son Will looked at me and said “ok a big hole in the ground, I got it, what’s next”  So different things move different people at different times in their life.  I would like to think that if he went again ten years later, his reaction might be different. 

So I ask you to think about what the word sacred means to you.  What has been and what is sacred to you?  What places or people or experiences are  sacred to you. Is anything sacred, or perhaps is everything sacred.  Let us look with young hearts and minds, where at every turn we are tinged with the anticipation of what we might find just around the corner and leave ourselves open to the mysterious and wonder of all that is.

And so I will end thinking about what nature imagines about us, A rock, a river, a tree….we will be here always….a rock for you to stand on and look backward towards your past for all its strengths and faults. And to look forward for all that yet may be. A tree, for you to gather under for shade and rest from the hard work and long years, but also as a reminder that it takes a long time and care to build something strong and lasting.  A river to remind you that the world is ever-changing, and so you must be ever changing if you are to be ever-lasting.    A rock a river a tree, we are here, we always have been, we always will be. Everlasting and ever-changing, this is our task. What will you do oh precious humans.  You are sacred to us.    May it be so.

 

Monday, September 03, 2012

"A Rock, A River, A Tree" by Maya Angelou


"A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon. The dinosaur,
who left dry tokens of their sojourn
here on our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my back and face your

            distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than the angels
have crouched too long in  the bruising darkness,
Have lain too long face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out today, you may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon My shore,

currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.

Come, Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the tree and the rock

            were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
and when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond
To the singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

They hear, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind today.

Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveler, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,

Then forced on bloody feet,
left me to the employment of Other seekers—
desperate for gain, Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede,
the German, the Eskimo, the Scot ...
the Italian, the Hungarian, the Pole

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours--your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage,

need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you.
Give birth again to the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most Private need.
Sculpt it into the image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,

The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,

Into your brother's face,
your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning."