Monday, December 30, 2013

Seasons of Grace

You know how it is when you hear a song for the first time and it just clicks with you. It touches your soul.  Each time you hear it, it brings a certain emotion to forefront of your brain. Sometimes, it is so powerful that you can remember where you were when you first heard it. Sometimes it may be a big event, like a wedding or a Christmas Eve service.  But sometimes it is during the quiet times in a small event.  I remember the first time I heard The Atheist Christmas Carol.  I was on the computer scrolling through  Facebook.  NOT a major life event.  But it caught my attention and I listened to it again and again.
And it brought me out from whatever void I was in, it brought me to the present moment to listen to it.  Although its title is what originally attracted me I think it is a bit of a misnomer. I think there is divinity throughout the song.   In this season celebrating the birth of Jesus, let us look at the birth of a child, any child, and see it for what it is and what it represents. We take it for granted, but childbirth, is a miraculous event, just as miraculous as a nebula birthing a star.  Let us never lose the wonder of the sacredness of childbirth. Even for those of us who cant have or choose not to have biological children. Children are still miracles.
I remember with wonder the days my children came off a plane from Korea.  For with the birth of a life,  if we have love in our hearts, we cannot help but have that life imprinted upon our souls. We see within birth, the innocence that doesn’t know deceit, that doesn’t hide its emotions. In a childs eyes we see trust, because they know they cannot do everything for themselves and they know instinctively they need to trust us to help them. And that teaches us to be trustworthy.   And they remind us that we have so much to learn as they learn something new each moment of each day.
That is what this evening is to remind us of.  That despite the challenges we face each moment, each day, every day, we need to be reminded of our innocence lost, but still within us, of our need to trust others and to be trustworthy, and of our ability to learn and to grow. And of our need to share these messages with others and help them do the same.    In Mark’s version of Jesus’ birth narrative,  facing persecution from King Herod the family flees to Egypt.  Egypt, a place that for Hebrews was the symbol of bondage.  Out of the frying pan into the fire so to speak.
There are many things we will do to protect our family. To make ourselves feel safe. But by trying to feel safe, we lose our innocence, we lose our ability to trust and grow.  There is a time to be safe, but there is also a time to take risks and come home out of exile and be welcomed home. In Luke’s version of the birth narrative, the family is away from home due to a census. The family was staying well maybe not in the best manger in town. And the shepherds come to give them news of joy and hope.  A kind word, and one can imagine maybe even offering them some hospitality.. And then these shepherds returned, sharing that hope and joy with others. 
For a family far from home, alone, knowing no one, with a young child, this act of the shepherds can seem like a miracle.  Has anything like that ever happened to you? When a stranger helps you out just as you need it. It has to me, and it seemed like a miracle. Jesus asks “Is there anyone among you who, if a child asks for bread, will give a stone?” Jesus clearly never had to deal with the child asking for a $700 Playstation4 game system. Let alone whether to get an Xbox1 vs. a Playstation 4 and how we are made to feel like we are giving a stone if we give any less. That is a reminder of the loss of simplicity in our lives.  Let the point be that we should let this day be a reminder that we should treat everyone we encounter in the same way we would treat an innocent child. Jesus message was as well also for us to be humble like a child.  To raise ourselves above the noise of day to day life, and not impede ourselves from learning from trusting, and loving each other.  Let this season be a season of Grace to remind us to offer that help to others, to remember to be our best selves, a reminder that we can be that way every day, and to treat each day with wonder, and innocence, and an openness to life and all it has to offer.  We all have scars and wounds of the heart, all of us, but remember that you are not alone. That you are loved. That it is the season of Grace. This day and every day. May we make it so.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

23rd Psalm

The Psalms in the Hebrew scriptures are a collection of 150 poetic prayers, that were part of the liturgical worship practice of Hebrews. The word Psalm is derived from a word meaning “song with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.” So it is assumed they were accompanied by music. And even though the title for the book in Hebrew “Tehilim” means songs of praise, not all of the psalms are  psalms of praise. Although often they are broken out into many different segments. Famous Biblical Scholar Walter Breugmann segregates the psalms into three types, psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of a new orientation.
When I first read through all the psalms, I was surprised how many of them were challenging God about why there is so much injustice in the world.  Jesus’s words from the cross” my God, My God, why have you abandoned me come directly from the psalms. Many, particularly the disorientation psalms are believed to have been written when the Hebrews were exiled from Israel to live in Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple. With these disorientation psalms, people were questioning their experiences in the world compared to what their religious beliefs had previously informed them how the world should be.  
And with a new orientation they imagined a better way in the world to live. Today I share with you one of my favorite psalms. The 23rd psalm.  When I was a chaplain in the hospital, this was by far the most requested prayer by patients.  And I found after saying the prayer over and over again for patients, I myself found it comforting. So I have incorporated into my spiritual practices repeating this psalm every morning. And so I ask you to think about what do you do consistently that brings you comfort, especially in your dark hour of the night, when hope seems slim, when fear is all around, what is it that brings you comfort, or what could bring you comfort. 
So this psalm is not necessarily hopeful. This psalm talks of death, and evil and having enemies around, but it also speaks to me of life, of a life that is complex, and troubling and hard, and how we can cope with it.  I have of course adapted the psalm to make it more meaningful to me and hopefully to you. Whereas the original Psalm starts with “The Lord is my Shepard” I have inserted “I am one with the Universe.” Historically the Hebrews were a nomadic people, probably with herds of sheep and the hero King David’s origins as a shepard reflect the Hebrews use of this metaphor.  
But if we look at this in a metaphorical way, The Lord is my Shepard, speaks to a universe that is larger than any one individual, a universe that is moving forward and evolving, one that has changed over the long course of time, and continues to change. We trust that there is a purpose to existence and a purpose to our existence. Our species of modern humanity has been around maybe 200,000 years in the over 4 billion year existence of the universe. If we look at ourselves in that perspective, as part of something larger than ourselves, if we see ourselves as part of the entire universe story, It helps us look beyond of our own self interest and become a conscious part of evolution and change. 
Which brings us to the next line, “I shall not want.” We often confuse want with need.  I may want that piece of apple pie after dinner, but I certainly do not need it.  This line in the psalm asks us to reorient ourselves and the community to understand the difference between need and want and to realize what is important to our collective life together.  We know life can be fragile. For everything we have can be taken away from us in a moments notice.  We know this. This week is the the 1 year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newton CT. And yet another school shooting this week in Colorado.  What have we done to prevent such unnecessary death.  As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, some are guilty all are responsible.
Sometimes it is an environmental disaster that wakes us up.  My parents had a home in Homestead Florida in 1992 when a category 5 hurricane Andrew came ashore. They got out, but when we went down to see it, it looked like a bomb had destroyed everything for miles. Yet in the rubble that once was their house, with everything gone, we found this tiny glass figurine undamaged.  We laughed at the absurdity of that, and we learned to be thankful for the important things. We need to express our love in the here and now and not become attached to things that one day may or may not be, but to love the people.
It doesn’t mean we stop working for a better life, a better relationship, a better Congregation, but it means we love each other in the here our now and if we do that well that will be enough.   
There was a story I recently read about an American tourist who was at a resort in Mexico. Day after day he would watch the small fishing boats go out early every morning and return just before sunset every night. That is, all except one. For some reason one boat in particular would always leave very late in the morning and usually came in about mid afternoon.  One day, when that particular boat was just coming in to dock, he walked over to the pier for a better look. In it he noticed just one fisher. Also inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.
The tourist complimented the fisher on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The fisher replied, "Only a little while."  The tourist then asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" The fisher said, "With this I have more than enough to support my family's needs."
The tourist then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?" The fisher said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my partner. At night I help the kids with their homework. Sometimes after the dishes are done, my partner and I will stroll into the village where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends, and I always make sure I Have time to get to services and programs at the Unitarian Congregation. I have a full and busy life."
The tourist continued, "I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you. That boat is costing you money while it sits all afternoon. You should be making that asset work for you. You should spend more time fishing like the rest of the boats; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.
The fisher  listened with interest. "This sounds good, but what then?" asked the Mexican.
Once you get big enough you can use your influence; instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually, as you get bigger you would open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution.
"But what then?" asked the fisher.
You would have to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to a larger city, perhaps Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you could run your ever-expanding empire."
The fisher asked, "But, how long will this all take?"
The tourist replied, "15 to 20 years."
"But what then?" asked the fisher
The tourist laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would issue an IPO, sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."
"Millions?...Then what?"
The American said, "Then you could retire and do what ever you wanted. You could move to a small coastal village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your partner, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends and have time to go to the Unitarian Congregation."    
As they say we can either get busy making a living or get busy living a life.  Although I guess the only advantage of building an empire is that then he could give a lot of money to his Unitarian Congregation as well. So ask yourselves, what are the things that you value most in the world   Spend your time on that and it will bring you happiness.
So to determine what you value most in the world, the next lines of the psalm gives us an answer It asks us to lie down in green pastures, and to sit beside still waters. It is a reminder to us to take time for ourselves.  To stop and be still, to allow ourselves to reenergize and think about how we want to be in the world. A reminder to care for ourselves. As they say when you get on an airplane in case of a drop in cabin pressure, please put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others. We can only help others if we are well.  And we can only help ourselves if the environment around us is healthy. This psalm asks us to value and reminds us of the need to connect ourselves with the natural world, to respect the natural world.  If we see ourselves as  part of something larger than ourselves, then we will see ourselves as part of nature . Our Unitarian Universalist sources asks us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
That is what this psalm is asking of us. To live in harmony with nature, not to destroy it, not to dominate it, but to sustain it, to care for it. For if the environment is healthy we have a better chance of remaining healthy.  And by doing this, by living a healthy lifestyle, being true to oneself, taking time to care for others and ourselves, especially in this holiday season the psalm tells us  “our soul is restored.”  It goes on “ I seek the path of righteousness for its own sake”.  I doesn’t say I seek righteousness because I gain something from it.  In fact for most of us, the path of righteousness may lead to a loss which leads us to  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” This is the acknowledgment that we will die. That we are mortal. It doesn’t say we will not fall to evil, just that we should not fear it. We should not allow fear to prevent us from doing what is right. It is the acknowledgment that sometimes we have to sacrifice things to attain righteousness in our life and in the world.  What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve righteousness.  Sometimes you have to be willing to give up what you want most in the world in order to achieve it.  But we do not have to fear this, for as the psalm tells us “For thou art with me.”  We are all in this together. And that is the only way we will achieve righteousness, that is what makes the sacrifice worthwhile, because we know deep in our hearts we are not alone, we have each other.  
But we should not be rash, for there are many who have a different vision of righteousness.  So it tells us “discernment and encouragement they comfort me.”   Discernment comforts me because that is how we work out challenges individually and communally. We share our knowledge, our vision our passion and we discern how to move forward, how to evolve. And When at times that way forward does not always go in a straight line, some times there are setbacks, sometimes there is doubt, that is when encouragement comforts us, encouragement to continue moving forward, even though sometimes the way may be hard, but with the encouragement of each other by each other, we continue on our journey.   And that is why we must as the psalm says “I will believe in myself.  In the presence of those who disagree.“ The Hebrew verse is “you prepare a table for me before my enemies.”  For the Hebrews, they were forced to live amongst their actual enemies, and struggled to maintain and adapt their religious beliefs. 
There is no doubt that in our world today, there are people with a radically different world view than ours.  But they are not our enemy. They are our neighbors, our countrypeople, our fellow world citizens that we need to convince. There have been broad movements in just the last century that have changed society dramatically, the civil rights movement, women rights, bglqt rights. We can look back and see how dramatically the world has changed, but it isn’t always easy to see in the present moment when it is happening.  We have to have to belief in ourselves and our values and live out those values so others will see how the world can be changed for the better.  They are not our enemy, but a future friend. 
I think we sometimes struggle with the fact that we are counter-cultural.  We find it hard to understand why people don’t think the same way we do, and I want to assure you, others think the same thing of us.  So we need to live out our values, and show the moral foundation of both our actions and our worldview. And we have to not become bitter when things don’t always go our way, because sometimes they wont. We must remember “I have all that I need, My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,  For as long as I live with integrity and compassion in this world.” 

If we remain true to ourselves and our covenants, if we treat all with compassion, that we will have goodness, goodness within our hearts and goodness within our actions will lead us to be good, whether it is recognized by the rest of the world or not. Just as we seek righteousness for righteousness sake, we are good for goodness sake.  I know that sometimes I do and say things may cause disorientation.   Often it is intentional, sometimes, it is unintentional.  It is important to check in often to find out which it is if you are feeling disoriented.  Sometimes it is necessary for us to disorient ourselves with the way things are and have always been.  We become complacent or unbelieving in our ability to change the way things are in the world. But we know for certain change is inevitable. Therefore it becomes matter of whether we have the vision to see change, the courage to embrace change, and the compassion to walk together into the future to meet the change. May we be the change that we hope to see. May it be so.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

12 Years a Slave – an 8 out of 10 on the JayWo Scale

An unbelievably powerful movie.  It tells the story of a free African American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. I think the fact that he was a once a free man, is poignant as it reminds us how easily freedom can be eliminated. His freedom though is not the key to the power the movie has. The movie shows us a glimpse of life in slavery. It is something we need to constantly be reminded of.  We cannot understand the present and build toward a just future without understanding the past. And too often our school systems and politicians want to “whitewash” the past.  Through the movie, one could imagine the emotional pain of being separated from families, and having individual desires, knowledge and will subverted by others. Even upon being freed, there was a pain in leaving the other slaves behind.  My only two complaints about the movie were about the ending.  The movie seemed to end abruptly. Secondly, why Brad Pitt? I really admire Brad Pitt’s acting and he did a fine job in this bit part. But there were no other “stars” in this movie. It just seemed out of place to all of a sudden to have this big Hollywood star come out of no where and become the savior (ally).  It was jarring to me (which perhaps says something about me and stars). It took me out of the story towards the climax of the story. I think the climax showed the human ability to trust in the face of despair, and also the need for those with power to be allies to those without power.  I just think it would have been more effective if a character actor was used.  It was also an interesting style of movie making. I particularly liked the effect of having the music continue as it moved from one scene to another.  I am sure this will be an Oscar Winner. A well made movie about a significant topic.  

A Walk On The Beach

            It's been fourteen years since I visited Ft. Myers Beach and Sanibel Island.  I remember it so well because it was where we chose to spend New Years Eve 1999. People don't think about it today, but there was a real fuss about the turn of the century, as I suppose there is every 1,000 years.  The turn of this past century was heightened by the worries over the potential Y2K computer failure. We thought if the world is going to end, what better place to spend it than at some place that had fond memories and majestic beaches.  Not much has really changed over the 14 years since we last visited. Some of the restaurants have new names. Some of the hotels have fresh paint while others have worn out paint.   It is a beach town, like many other beach towns. With cheesy tee shirt stores, tattoo parlors, plenty of happy hour bars, and a long sandy stretch of beach. The beach is the reason we are here. Everything else is a moot point. 
            There are two major changes to the beaches that I noticed.  The first major change is that there were a lot of dead fish (and even a couple of ducks) washed up onto the beach. I assume this is due to the rising toxicity of the waters due to pollution and oil spills. The second major change is that they no longer allow live shelling.  Many may not realize that the beautiful shells at the sea shore are live creatures.  Similar to hunting other animals, shell seekers would get up all hours of the morning, waiting for the  low tide, which was the perfect time to find live shells.  After collecting these live shells, people used special techniques to kill and clean the shells. Now I did not understand why someone on vacation would wake up early to do this. However my wife, Jan and  her family loved this ritual, which is why I now have a shell mirror, a shell lamp, and a diversity of other shells in our house. 
            As I walked down the beach which was now strewn with dead shells, fish, and ducks, I would periodically find a live shell.  I could not just pass by and let it die due to my inaction, so I would  pick it up and throw it back into the gulf to give it a chance at further life. As I came towards the end of the beach, there were two Comarant birds sitting, unflinching on pylons. They watched over all that was happening, unworried about the throngs of humans passing by, or dead fish around them, as if watching was their purpose in life. 
            So I ask you to consider, what is our Congregation's purpose in life?  Will we sit by inactive, watching, or will we take action to further the life of the Congregation? Will we be able to look towards the future and see what will damage the Congregation like the toxic dirty water that killed the fish, or will we maintain a clear vision that allows us stay a healthy, vibrant Congregation?  Will we worry about perceived dangers of the future, or will we put our energy  towards building something lasting and impactful? We must first answer these questions because everything else is a moot point. Let us create such a legacy, so that when the next millennium comes,  this Congregation will be the place where fond memories are made, and  where something as majestic and lasting as the beach is created

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Surviving Thanksgiving

Although growing up my family was very religious attending Temple weekly and celebrating all the holidays, the two most well attended holidays in my family were secular holidays. The most popular by far, was Super Bowl Sunday. The second most attended holiday was Thanksgiving.    These two holidays were actually very similar. They focused on the three F’s Football, Food and Family. It was very ritualistic. Specific types of food were served only on these occasions. .On Thanksgiving of course there would be the  traditional ritual foods such as Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry, (my mouth is already starting to water).
In addition for Thanksgiving, my aunt would make these outrageously good shrimp toast and this salami (Hebrew National) dipped in a delicious mystery sauce.  Just the thought of thoses bring back visceral memories. I have to say as I became older, I realized it is hard to be a vegetarian on Thanksgiving.  After years and years of conditioning to eat certain foods, and in large quantities. It is hard to discipline oneself in the face of the onslaught of such epicurean delicacies.  And when I raised the idea of  Tofurkey for Thanksgiving. Let us just say, I was outvoted. Its kind of funny how my family only voted when they know they have the votes to win.
Family members would come from far and wide for Thanksgiving. Often it would be the only time of the year I would see many of them. And invariably there is always someone in the family that we have difficulty with.  In my family I can think of one person who will remain nameless, who we call the most obnoxious man in the world. He was the type of person who would study all the answers of the trivial pursuit cards before we would play. Or he would boast ab out beating one of the 5 year old children in the house in 7 moves playing chess. The most obnoxious man in the world. There was the one time that someone who also shall remain nameless “accidently” dropped a hot cup of coffee on him and we still talk about that years later.  
When family members get together we all fall into our familiar patterns we have had after a lifetime of conditioning. I think of myself. I have accomplished many things in my 54 years on this earth, having quite diverse experiences with quite diverse people. Yet when I gather with my family, I am still the baby of the family who couldn’t possibly know anything. And every year they still repeat the story of when I was a child and my siblings locked me in the doghouse rigged to hit me with a brick if I tried to escape.  Retelling the story each year makes it my own story. When talking to my family I now credit this story as my impetus to my life long struggle for justice for those oppressed.   Each year I would hear the retelling of this and other family stories and I admit that I would join in as well and it would bring up old family anxieties.  In my teenage years there was some rebelliousness toward it, but as I grew older, I had to ask myself, what is the purpose of this ritual. Is there a purpose of this ritual, and how could I find purpose in this ritual.
Surprisingly to myself, I found the answer in the Bible.  I found my answer in the story of Cain and Abel which you heard earlier. Often after reading the story, there is a quick moral conclusion that Cain’s jealousy, hatred and envy is evil, and he should have protected his brother. Yet there is so much more depth and complexity to this story just as there is depth and complexity in our lives.  Not that I condone the action of Cain, but in some ways I think Cain gets a bad rap.
Imagine  His family being exiled from God’s presence. , here he is, the first person ever to make an offering to God. It doesn’t say anyone asked him to. He just does. I sense he wants to find reconcilement for his family. He makes an offering of grapes and vegetables that were not acceptable to God. It is at this part of the story that first made the connection to Thanksgiving for me. Cain the Vegetarian trying to get some healthier food into everyone’s diet and being rejected.  Abel then brought his offering of meat for God which in the story God approves of.  Now this is the first of many biblical motif’s of God preferring the younger or youngest child in a family.
Something I always reminded my family about. But I am trying to imagine how Cain and Abel interacted after this event before Cain killed Abel. It appears that Abel is trying to one up Cain, as it is noted bringing the choicest of offering. I imagine knowing how siblings act towards each other Abel I imagine was prideful of God accepting his offering and not Cain’s. and I imagine he was boastful about it. We imagine Abel as an innocent in all of this, but we have no way of knowing that.  We have no way of knowing if Abel did anything to provoke Cain. But my question is why did God choose Abel’s offering over Cain’s.  Does God have some culpability in this murder?
Maybe this is just an older version of the Farmer vs. Cattlemen struggle that continued even through the 19th century in this country. Maybe it was an overarching story of why a people became a nomadic people and not farmers. But it was just in the previous chapter of the story that God had sent the family out of Eden, out of the Garden, to till the soil. And yet God rejects what was reaped from that tilling the soil. So I can again imagine Cain, saying to himself, this is what you told us to do, and now you reject what you asked of us to do. And God senses Cain’s dejection and anger. This was not a happy Thanksgiving Meal.
God says “Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door. Its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master” A very Buddhist message if you ask me. We all have passions, we all have ideas that we disagree with, we all have people who get under our skin, but the question is how do we react?  Do we let our passions control us, or do we recognize our passions and do we control our passions. In a fit of rage, Cain kills Abel, or drops a cup of coffee on someone’s lap. God knew there was a danger, and warned Cain, but God did nothing to intercede to prevent the murder. And what of Adam and Eve.  Where were they in this whole story. Why didn’t they do something to protect Abel. 
I imagine that they were fearful to face God again. Or another way to put it, after struggling they were fearful to challenge the power structures they lived within.  But perhaps if they had interceded, perhaps if they faced up to God and supported Cain, perhaps if they questioned the status quo, questioned what they were conditioned to believe,  this would have never happened. That for me is one of the morals of the story. God does not intercede, only in so much as we intercede. We need to overcome our fears, and to break the conditioning we have had through our lives. To see our lives from our own perspective, not as someone’s brother or sister, or someone’s son, or someone’s parent, or someone’s servant, or to follow society’s expectations.  But to determine how we want to be in the world. And as well to accept the consequences of our actions.  
This story is trying to reconcile to people why bad things happen, sometimes for no good reason, and from things we cannot control.  I think the name of Abel in and of itself points to this. In Hebrew the word is the same word as futility. Meaning, sometimes it doesn’t matter what we do, sometimes bad things will happen. But the second message of the story is also this, despite our mistakes, despite the seeming arbitrariness of life, we can and should control our own actions, and reactions. We can learn from our mistakes, we can transcend our environment, we can transcend our limitations  and expand and be creative and build a life, build a city, build a world.  
After Abel’s murder, God asks Cain if he knows where his brother is. Cain replies “I do not know, Am I my brothers keeper.” Now the assumption here is that Cain is lying.  I don’t read it that way. I think this is Cain questioning the afterlife. We assume God is all knowing, so we assume God knows what Cain did.  I see Cain as rebuking God. Saying God is his brothers keeper now after death. Also saying to God, if you knew this was in me, why didn’t you stop this? He is saying that he realizes God is not our keeper. God sends him out to be a ceaseless wanderer. Some translations have Cain responding,  “My punishment is too great to bear” but I think the more appropriate translation is “My iniquity is too great to bear” I believe Cain realized that he too, just like God, he too should have been his brothers keeper, and that he had abandoned his role. In so doing he felt guilt and repentance and transformation.  And in the same moment of clarity in the story I believe God was transformed as well.
God who did not protect Abel, agrees to protect Cain. God learns from God’s mistake. We can all learn from our mistakes.  Cain who the story says is now and forever alienated from God. Think about overarching story, His family alienated from God, Cain tried to reconcile, only to be rejected and to then to reject God and to realize that he had to determine how he could live a moral life, not by leaving offerings but by using his passion, his life to create something meaningful. We can use our passion to create or to destroy. Ask yourself with each action you are taking, are you creating something or are your destroying something.
Cain the first humanist goes on to be the builder of great cities, the creator of the first civilization and the arts. There are some who believe the Mark of Cain is a symbol of sin, however, it is clear to me from the story that it is the mark of protection. Some would say it is  the mark of intelligence which allows us to find our way in the wilderness, an awareness that allows us to tame and direct our passions. We have to make our own Garden, and we have the power to do so, we just have to choose to do so.  
The picture on the cover of the order of service is a small portion of a painting in the Musee D’orsey in Paris entitled Cain by Fernand Cormon. It is a full wall length painting. When I saw it, I just stared at it for about 30 minutes. I was just mesmerized.  I have a small print of it in my office if you are curious to see it. This painting caused quite a controversy when it was first displayed in 1880. The controversy was that it showed Cain and his family wandering in the wilderness as Palaeolithic  cave people.  This just shocked people. We of course like to imagine our Biblical Characters as modern day characters who we imagine could be like us, or at least like characters on a sitcom. I think of Cain as maybe the father in Everybody loves Raymond. I think it is harder for us to make meaning of this story if we have to imagine them as cave people. How could we relate to cave people. Well thinking about my family and Thanksgiving it actually becomes much easier to imagine them as cave people. 

So if you are at a family thanksgiving, and you are feeling tense, look within. Be authentic to who you are, be comfortable with who you are and resist the need to change others. We don’t choose our family. Whether it be parents, or inlaws or cousins, or cousins twice removed, Let us be grateful for the time we have together and the opportunity that allows us to be together, let us control our passions, so everyone leaves in one piece doesn’t need their pants dry cleaned. I mean that mentally as well as physically. Let the retelling of your stories allow you to relook at your life from a longer/wider perspective so that you can better know yourself, so you are not defined by others whose experience of you and of life have been conditioned by their ancestral experiences.  Continue to learn from your experiences. Note how you are now has been formed in some part by your family but also in some part by your active discernment on the choices you make how to live your life.  Let us as well find mercy in our hearts. Let us find mercy for those that most pain us, for they have pain as well,. and maybe they can learn something from you and how you react or choose not to react to them. Let us as well find mercy for ourselves and go easy on our own expectations for the holiday season.  And if  Thanksgiving is still unhealthy, and you have to let go, let go. Its ok to let go of pain, its ok to let go anxiety, its ok to let go of someone elses vision of you, or even your own vision of yourself. It is ok to let go and move forward with a new creation, of how you want to be in the world.  We are here to walk with you on that journey. You are not alone.  May it be so. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

What is Holy?

What is Holy?  I think we have for so long attributed this word to ancient religious ideas that we forget what it means , or could mean to us.   We too often think about the word Holy in supernatural or esoterically that we take for granted and forget the very things around us that could be holy. As the beautiful song we heard by Peter Mayer, Everything is holy now. I think the point he is trying to make is a valid one. As the song says our mere existence is a miracle, A questioning childs face is a sacrament , a little red wing bird is singing like a scripture verse. Moving words and images. But is everything holy?  If everything is holy does that mean that nothing is holy.
I think by saying something is holy we are setting it apart and saying it is special and that it deserves special treatment and should be treated with reverence. So is everything holy? Are all the new and violent weapons we create for war really holy? Are all these reality TV shows really holy? Is Honey boo boo holy, really? Are Miley Cyrus’s dance routines holy, really? So perhaps our existence is a miracle and holy in and of itself, but maybe not everything we do with our existence is holy.  What is holy to you? To answer that question, I think we have to look at it the other way around. What are the things that we treat with reverence? What are the things we treat as sacred?
I usually begin every memorial service I do with the following statement. A human life is sacred It is sacred in its being born. It is sacred in its living, And it is sacred in its dying. Our lives, and what we choose to do with them are holy. Our existence is holy. And we can wake up each day and wonder how we came to be in the predicaments we are in, or we can wake up each day just with wonder. With wonder for what is still possible, with wonder for the relationships that we have, with wonder for this community, with wonder for the world in which we live.  And if we treat ourselves and each other with wonder, as if each of us is holy, how should we treat each other.
Should we be defensive, mean spirited and back stabbing, or should we be open, caring, forgiving and compassionate.  How should you treat your fellow human being if you viewed them as holy.  And if we treat others as holy, our interactions with others become holy experiences. What experiences have you had that you set apart as holy experiences.  
I admit I used to often think of holy experiences as being alone in the desert meditating. By doing so, I thought I was connecting myself to the universe.  Many religious stories talk of spiritual leaders going to the desert, or more accurately going to the wilderness, but the stories always end up with them coming back into community. Whether it was Moses escaping Pharaoh by fleeing into the wilderness before he returned to free the Hebrews. Or in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus was led to wilderness specifically to be tempted by the devil, only to return to start his ministry, or Muhammad, who hears God’s revelation alone in a cave, but returns to community to build a religious community, a community that today is based not only by his transcription of God’s revelations which are the Koran, but also by the Hadith which are recording of the deeds and  teachings of Muhammad. Buddhism tells of Buddha,  after sitting under the Bodhi tree,  enlightenment showed him he must engage with and teach others, And as our meditation group on Tuesday nights have discussed, we actually feel more connected to the Universe with a heightened sense of energy when we meditate with others versus meditating alone. Lastly, to quote Larry Darrelle from my all time favorite movie “The Razors Edge” Its easy to be a holy man sitting alone on top of a mountain”. 
All these religious stories talk of coming back from the wilderness into community.  But the wilderness is not out there, in some far away place, the wilderness is in here (point to heart), its internal, when we feel cut off from the things that we hold sacred. And only by connecting to those things we hold sacred, can we come out of our self imposed wilderness and reach the fullness that is within each one of us and as well the fullness of our community.  That is why it is in the every day, how we treat each other as holy that is important.  As in the video I showed earlier, people helping people, and others seeing how others are treated and reacting to it.  Leading by example, modeling good behavior, holy behavior for others to see.  This is the interdependent web of existence that we speak of in our principles. But it is a fragile web. Think about how many people we affect and how many people see how we act and react.
No one is perfect, but we can try to be intentional and we can be accountable to each other as part of being in right relationship with others.  So ask yourself every time you are about to talk to or about someone, are you treating them as holy.  It is easier said then done. Trust me I know.  Part of what has helps me look at the world as holy in the face of uncertainties and cruelties is by being at peace with myself, by knowing who I am, and what my values are. And then overcoming fears of judgment and acting from my deepest values.  When things work right, it is as they say in sports, being in the zone, as if time stands still. Not with fireworks in the sky or big parties, but just the deep knowing that I have been true to who I am.  Living into the fullness of my spirit, the fullness of my feelings, the fullness of my being, and that brings a quiet joy to my soul.  Having this peace of mind including accepting uncertainty, also helps us see the proper actions to we need to initiate in this world for the benefit of ourselves and others which can reduce uncertainty and cruelty. Having peace of mind helps us heal ourselves, heal ourselves of past hurts and heal ourselves of imagined fears. Healing is not the same as a cure. Sometimes healing just means the reconcilement with ourselves despite our suffering.   
When the Christian Scriptures talk of Jesus healing people, I believe it is because he welcomed them into community, he welcomed them to participate in community when others didn’t. He modeled holy behavior towards his fellow human beings. And this being accepted in community, engaging in community  changed the mental attitude of those who had exiled themselves, or been exiled from community. And there is no question which scientific studies confirm, that having a positive mental attitude leads to healthier people and therefore healthier communities.
So often we don’t know what to do in the world to create healthy environments. We take our best guess with the information available to us. But acting with our values, with compassion towards others, forgiving others their trespasses, and trusting our wisdom, wisdom, which I would call the combination of knowledge and experience, wisdom which may be channeled through us via intuition.  Wisdom that some people might call being guided by the Holy Spirit.  That’s a phrase we don’t use around here too often. Prior to being a chaplain in a hospital, the thought of such a phrase “Holy Spirit” did not even enter into my consciousness. I remember that first day I was a chaplain in a hospital as if it was yesterday.  Of course I consider myself an empathetic person but up until that day I hadn’t had any formal training in chaplaincy. Out of 8 chaplains I drew the short straw (literally we drew straws in the cafeteria) as to who would take the first overnight shift. I asked the chaplain supervisor, what was expected of me if someone died. Her answer to me was You’ll figure it out. That did not comfort me.  I took all of this really very seriously and felt the weight of responsibility there even more so compared to everything else I felt responsible for in my life.  That is who I am.  Be as prepared as you can be and do the best that you can.
But really nothing can prepare you for a moment like that. And nothing could prepare me for next piece of advice the supervisor gave me. She told me to speak from the heart, and be open to the Holy Spirit and it will guide you,  and you will find the words you need. So I have to tell you, this new piece of advice, it did not lessen my anxiety at all. The concept of the Holy Spirit was not something I was familiar with. Having grown up Jewish, there wasn’t any discussion about it.  Even the concepts of the Trinity vs. Unity of God were not hot topics at the basketball courts in the schoolyard, and even after becoming a Unitarian Universalist there was never any discussion of the Holy Spirit. 
I do have to say, that first night in the hospital I did start  praying.  I prayed no one would die in the hospital that night. I knew that was a long shot, so to try and mitigate the potential inadequacies of my prayer life I quickly started studying all the prayers of different world religions that I had found in a pamphlet in the chaplains’ office.  And of course at about 3am  in the morning I got the call. The Matriarch of a family was about to pass away and could I come up to the room.  And as I walked into the room, there were about 30 people surrounding the bed.  Perhaps it was better that it was 3am so my rational mind was half asleep.  I really don’t remember much of what happened next.
As soon as I walked in the woman passed away, and I just sort of went into the zone. I said a psalm that I knew from my childhood,  and I added some words to comfort them, but whatever it was it ended up being very meaningful to them.  Now my supervisor would have called that my being guided by the holy spirit.  Saying what the people needed to hear. Or people hearing what they needed to hear.  Perhaps that holy spirit was my inner voice coming out after years of study and observation of human nature combined with my multiple interactions with people who have suffered in this world.
Either way though, the interaction was about trust. An interactive trust. An interdependent trust. I had to trust myself, trust that what I had to say would be the right words. I had to trust the people I was ministering to, that they would hear the words they needed to hear,  and lastly,  the people had to trust me, or in this case they had to trust in the position that I held. Chaplain, Minister, that in and of itself, although not infallible, but they had to believe that I was a person of integrity, in a role they respected.  Sometimes, to allow that  wisdom to come from the well of our souls, we need to quiet our minds, and to trust ourselves and trust others. Similar to when I am meditating, if I try to think about meditating, it is harder to meditate. I just need to meditate.
And in just the same way, we just need to stop calculating what is the most advantageous way to achieve our personal desires, and think about what leads to healing for the whole.  We have been influenced and molded by outside forces whether they be scriptures or family or experience that tells us to go to the wilderness to separate ourselves from others, to be self serving,  to always look out for number one. But there is another way, if we have the courage to to do so.  If we quiet our mind, we will remember what has been since the dawn of time, if we stop and think and trust ourselves to listen to our inner voice, we will remember our purpose for being in this world.
And if we can remember our purpose for being in this world, we can find healing in our lives.  We need to let go of trying to control of every aspect of the world and to trust the deep well within us, and those around us, those who we gather with, and then we will know what we must do without thinking about it. We will remember how to act compassionately, we will remember how to act holy, and we will remember we are on holy ground, right where we are. May we treat it as such

Friday, November 01, 2013

From the Heart of the Minister - Creating Community

               Although this is our second year of being at two services, I still sense a certain anxiety from some members about having two services.  I have heard people comment, “that we no longer feel like a  family”, or “we wont know everyone.”  I understand that this change can be challenging, and I believe both those statements are true. However I believe they have been true for a long time, well before we went to two services.  I believe if we are to fulfill our vision and mission we need to change how we think about our Congregation Life and face what are our real concerns.  
It is true it will be hard to know everyone if there are two services. I would contend that even when there was only one service, we really don’t know everybody. Worship time is not the time when we get to know someone deeply.  I am hoping you are not busy talking during the service but listening and contemplating.  I assume those I see on their smart phones in service are tweeting to the world about our service and not playing games or chatting with friends.  We don’t know someone merely by sitting in the same room with them. We get to know others by spending intentional time with them. If you have not seen someone recently that you know, give them a call and plan to get together with them.
 We usually get to know new people deeply at the Congregation through our interactions with them in the many other programs of the Congregation. If you want to know others that you do not know well, then I encourage you to participate on a team, a connection circle,  a social justice task force, one of our various fellowship events,  or attend one of the many adult religious education classes.   If you want to see old friends, or meet new people there is always the opportunity to meet during the coffee time between services or after the second service. Building deep relationships require intentionality. That is true whether there is one or more services.   
I would agree we are not like a family. Other than my nuclear family, I only see some of my family once or maybe twice a year. In a family, many members often do not make an intentional choice to be part of the family.  I would say what we are creating is an intentional religious community,  not a family.  We are here to come together to walk with each other on our religious journey.  Our mission asks us as part of that religious journey to embrace searches for meaning and to devote ourselves to community good. People have continued to come to this Congregation for generations because it provides meaning to them and their family’s lives.  If this Congregation is meaningful to you why would you not want to share our religious message with others in the Quad Cities. Families can become insular, religious community should be expansive. Sharing our message will allow us to achieve the part of our mission which asks us to be vibrant and welcoming. Many of us would not be here if not for our welcoming theology. Let us make it easier, not harder for others to feel welcomed here.
Despite what I have said above, I am cognizant that this change is difficult for some of you. I am, as I have always been, here to listen to your concerns.  If you have questions or concerns, I encourage you to make an appointment to see me.  If you have specific questions about the two services, I will also be available between services and after the second service in the lounge on Sunday November 3rd.  Let us work together to find solutions to build this religious community based on our highest values and as our best selves.
with a grateful heart

Rev. Jay

Thursday, October 24, 2013

To Create and Uphold Life

Today is the second in a series of 7 services that reflects on Unitarian Universalist Sources. The bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association Section C-2.2.1 states “the living tradition which we share draws from many sources.” And then it lists six sources. The first source is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”  That’s a mouthful. Lets break it down and see how this source can be meaningful to us. 
For me this is the most meaningful source, and I think in many ways is a foundational idea of Unitarian Universalism. Direct experience, not just something we read in a book, or something someone tells us, but our direct experience.  This was the basis of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.  With the advent of the printing press, more people had access to the Bible. Before the printing press, people they were dependent on hearing the truth from a select few.  Whereas Roman Catholics focused on Church doctrine, Martin Luther one of the early leaders of the reformation in Germany, focused on the texts. and proposed that everyone should read the Bible for themselves. 
Of course Luther believed that if everyone read the Bible for themselves, they would agree with his interpretation over the Catholics Church’s interpretation. But a funny thing happened on the way to the reformation. As you can guess many people had many different interpretations of the Bible.  This is why there are so many different denominations in Christianity. The point is that it was each individuals direct experience with the Bible that informed them. As with any idea it can be taken to an extreme. Some of the radical Protestants known as Anabaptists (not related to the current day Baptists) tried to re-create their version of early Christianity in the town of Munster. This experiment led to extreme abuses of women and death to non-believers.  Any good idea taken to an extreme can end up being corrosive and destructive.
As Unitarianism developed through the centuries, and particularly the Transcendentalists in the 19th century, individual experience was paramount. This I think was epitomized by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his writings Self Reliance where he states “A person should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across their mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet we dismiss without notice our thought, because it is ours.” 
This is why  our principles include the free and responsible search for truth and meaning and the right of conscience.  Direct experience, not only with the Bible, but with the world at large and with  our inner world informs us.  Sort of like the game telephone, where one person tells another and then another person until by the time it reaches the last person the message is garbled.  We need to have the direct relationship with what we consider sacred, and a direct relationship with other human beings. Not third hand knowledge and rumors, but direct  communication to better understand the universe, others and ourselves. 
This concept of direct experience though instead of being in relationship with others has often led to individualism. And individualism without relationship  has always been in tension with our human nature of communalism.  Unitarian Universalism although not alone in this, has had a virulent strain of individualism which can ultimately end up being as destructive as the town of Munster at least metaphorically.  It is one thing to have individual beliefs, it is another to condemn others for their different beliefs.  So it is imperative that we learn to be in right relationship with each other despite our own individual beliefs differing from each other.  A minister I met recently had a tattoo that said, “I may be wrong”  I thought that was a great way to think about our  opinions. It doesn’t mean we will not have our own opinions, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share our opinions,  but it does remind us to keep an open mind to be changed and to pause before we start condemning others.  Let us build a model, let us be the model of learning how to live with unity among our diversity.  
Our first source though points our direct experience to the experience of  that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures.  I think the phrase all cultures might be a bit broad and assumptive, but clearly the majority of historical cultures we are aware of would fit into this category. Transcending mystery and wonder. I imagine as they were wordsmithing the creation of this source, they were thinking, how can we describe the word God, without using the word God. And I understand the reason they felt the need to do that. I know the word God has a lot of different meanings for different people. For some of us who were raised in more traditional religions the word represents an old white man with a beard who has supernatural powers. And as much as we may have redefined our definition of God over the years the word brings back the memory of a rejected theology. In some cases it is a reminder of others vision of a God that was used to condemn us.   Yet for others the word does not have any negative connotation, and they find it strange that we use this juxtaposition of words to avoid those three letters.  So trying to be sensitive, when I use the word God, I try to use it in context.  Now when I talk to that old man in the sky, and I admit I do talk to God every now and then, in the dark of the night, when hope seems dim, when I want to make the unknowable knowable, when I want an answer to the unanswerable question,  I quiet my mind and ask the tough questions, and the answer I get back is always the same. And it seems to always be in the voice of my grandfather, it always says “stop worrying so much, Look within, you have within you the answers that you seek.”  
But my concept of God is deeper than that. It is why I actually do like the phrase transcending mystery and wonder. There are experiences that people have that unexplainable.  For instance, I for the first time two weeks ago purchased a dehumidifier.  I was shocked that within just a couple of hours, where there was no visible water, I now had a bucket of water. From what was unseeable is now seeable.  Now some things like this can be easily explained and as each year passes we gain new understandings of the universe. But as each year passes we find new unknowable mysteries to pursue.  The picture on the front of your order of service is from the NASA website of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Telescope. It is over 7,000 light years from earth. The highlighted area is an enlargement of a small part of this  Nebula and it is thought that this area which is called the “Pillars of creation” are Incubators for new stars, new creations, new galaxies. We don’t really know this, but based on the best information we have, we theorize this. Others theorize that these pillars have already been destroyed by a supernova but due to its distance from us we have not been able to see it yet. 
There is so much about life that we will never understand or cannot perceive with our senses, that we are forced to theorize about, and we spend so much time arguing about it, that we forget to just be in awe. To be in awe merely of our existence, to be in awe of the majesty of the universe as shown in the picture, to be in awe at the beauty all around us, the beauty of nature, the beauty in creation, the beauty that is inside of each and every one us.     Being curious about a mystery is important.  By searching we find out not just about the universe, but we find out more about ourselves.  Why are we here, what is our purpose in life, why do we exist?  These are important questions. But sometimes we just need to be with the mystery. Just to experience the mystery, to accept it as mystery, not to idolize it, but to live with the sense of awe and wonder about our existence. And when you live intentionally with a sense of awe and wonder it leads us to a renewal of spirit. And that is important for us. Every day we experience suffering. We see it in the world, in the newspapers, on TV, we are driven to distraction with work and responsibilities, and email and facebook, and we have our own very personal suffering. To deal with this, to overcome this, to transcend our suffering, we need to balance those experiences with experiences that remind us of awe and wonder. Some of it is just an attitude of how we will confront the world we live in.  Do we believe that we are separate individual entities unconnected to others? Or do we believe that our lives are interconnected, and interdependent, that we are a part of the entire universe, and what we do impacts the entire universe.
If we face our existence that way, if we transcend our vision of our isolated selves, that means that we are also part of that transcending mystery and wonder. Each of us, and if each of us is part of that transcending mystery and wonder, when you look in the eyes of another person, think about how you should treat that person. I am reminded of that liberty mutual insurance company television advertisement, where one person helps another and upon seeing that, another person helps another person and so on and so on. In it, the people were watching the good deeds of others and it influenced their actions.
To experience the transcending mystery and wonder requires us to pay attention, to pay attention to others and to ourselves. What this source is asking of us is to be open to the forces of the universe, to believe that we are part of something greater than just ourselves, and to experience the universe and our existence in it as part of a unified whole.  And what are those forces of the universe. Each of us are those forces, as well as everything else, seen and unseen. Known and unknown.  But it is not enough to just be open to the forces of the universe, for as we know force or power in of itself is a neutral entity. We know our power, our knowledge of the universe our actions can be used to either create or to destroy. Is it any wonder that many religious stories from around the world throughout history talk about creation and destruction and re-creation.  Our source of our religion informs us to be open to the forces that create and uphold life.  Not to destroy but to create. Whether that be to create a human life, to create a family, to create art, to create an idea, or to create a Congregation. To create, not destroy. To use the forces that the universe provides us, whether seen or unseen, whether known or unknown,

Whether you are an atheist and just believe in the material forces around you or if you believe in a transcendent or incarnational God or anywhere in between or beyond, do you use that force to create. And it is not enough just to create something. We specifically say we have to create and uphold life. It is not enough to create a life if we do not uphold it. It is not enough to create a Congregation which is a life into and of itself, but we must uphold it.  We must nurture life, we must provide for life, we must lift life out of suffering so that it can see the awe and wonder within themselves. So all can see themselves as part of the transcending mystery and wonder of all that is and their place in the universe.  And what would it mean to us individually if we were to renew our spirit and to create and uphold life. It would require us to be intentional about how we live and how we treat each other, it would require us to be open to change and it would require us to act in the world to respond to its needs.  As  Annie Dillard wrote “We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each others beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house”  What will you choose to notice, How will you choose to act?  What will you choose to create? What will you choose to uphold? Let us look to the best of ourselves and to the best of our future. May it be so. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What Moves Us

What moves us? Just the statement alone without some context is a misnomer.  When I first posted the title What Moves Us,  I had actually quite a few of you sharing with me about their favorite laxative.  I guess I deserve that considering I bring bagels every week.  So what does it mean what moves us?  Well from the very practical it is the name of an adult religious education class that I will be leading starting Wednesday October 16th from 7-8:30pm.  This class will and I quote from the curriculum “explore the life experiences of historic Unitarian Universalist theologians, highlighting that which caused in them a change of heart, a new direction, new hope, and a deeper understanding of their own liberal faith.”  It would be my hope that by attending the classes you too will gain a deeper understanding your religious life.
I think we struggle with this, because we often tend to focus on the aspect of rejection instead of creation. Rejection of creed, Rejection of doctrine, rejection of Calvinism, Rejection of the Trinity. Rejection of God or certainly rejection of a traditional view of God. But sometimes we are so busy rejecting,  that we sometimes forget to accept  or create new ideas that can add to our lives. And in truth Early Unitarianism was in part a rejection, ultimately a rejection of the Trinity, but first a rejection of the Great Awakening which focused on intense emotional experiences as the way to belief and deepening of the faith.
Unitarian Charles Chauncey was often apt to  quote from the Christian Scriptures Luke Ch 11 v9 with Jesus saying “Ask an it will given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” as a way of indicating that there was a requirement for human involvement in our religious lives, and not to just wait for heavenly intervention. And speaking for myself, I have been blessed in my life, there have been many things asked for (and in turned worked for) that I have received, but there are also many things asked for (and in turn worked for) that were or are not received, many doors knocked on that opened, and many doors knocked on that have not opened.
When we don’t find what we seek, and wonder why, we often hear, that we are not ready, or maybe there is some greater purpose that is beyond our knowledge. I don’t know the answer to that question of why we sometimes don’t find what we seek, but I think that is wrong question. The question we should be asking why do we stop seeking, why do we stop knocking on doors. Why just because of past failures do we assume that the future will result in the same. For some of us it is in the search that we find meaning.  As the song refrain we heard earlier indicated

Though we may not find answers
Our search will go on
Together we'll journey in love
While we question as one.

But sometimes, we just like searching for the sake of searching, not searching for an answer. For some we are just caught up in the day to day, we get blinded by the onslaught of news, mostly negative news, and sometimes we just need to shield ourselves.  But the challenge with shielding ourselves, and I think this is the challenge of our religion as well, is that when we shield ourselves from the negative, we also shield ourselves from the positive in the Universe. By shielding ourselves from the inherent worth and dignity of others whether lived or unlived,  we limit our own potential and thus also limit our own inherent worth and dignity.  There is worth in believing in others as much as there is worth in believing in ourselves. 
Jesus goes on to say in that same paragraph from Luke I quoted earlier, “Is there anyone among you who, if you child asks for a fish will give a snake instead of a fish?”  Well I don’t know about you, but my child never asked me for a fish, they always asked for a Big Mac happy meal.  Again, in this case I think Jesus asks the wrong question. The more important question is if someone you love asks for a snake will you give them a snake? We cant deny there are snakes (literally or metaphorically speaking) in the world. But we don’t have to give them to each other a gift.  Instead of snakes, we can give each other the gift of a community that cares for you, we can give you the gift of a community that provides a safe environment for you, we can give you the gift of a community that helps every person reach their full potential.
And speaking of potential versus achievement there was recently an Op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Losing is Good for You”  So first, I am going to say that Winning is better than losing. Yet it is true, from knowledge I gained from certain losses in my life, it did help me succeed in later endeavors, but losing did not guarantee success. In fact sometimes losing can lead us to believe in a negative self fulfilling prophesy.  So if losing is good for you, winning is better for you.  But this op-ed article was about giving trophies to children just for participating in events, whether they won or lost. The author’s argument was that by doing so we are creating children who grow up to be narcissistic adults.  Their argument is that children know who is good and who is not, and the ones who are not good, will still grow up expecting to be rewarded, and the good ones feeling unrecognized will grow up with no incentive to excel. Again, I think they ask the wrong question. The questions we should ask is what does it mean to win. What does it mean to lose.
If someone plays up to their full potential, shouldn’t they be recognized whether they hit the most homeruns or not?  There will always be those in society who have specific skills that are valued higher than others. But what of everyone else, whether by lack of ability or circumstance, should they forever be labeled as losers should they forever be condemned to be looked on with shame and scorn. Can we please finally abandon and reject this Calvinist notion of predestination and the assumption that some are born to fail.  Our religion replaces that notion with the idea that all are loved, all are worthy, all are capable of being winners in their own way.  Some may have different skills, different aptitudes, different interests. But all are worthy. Not everyone is going to be a home run hitter. Some may hit singles, some may strike out, some may clean the field, some may announce the game, but all are worthy. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause and say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.” 
My point of that story (other than I was lousy in little league and for years was bitter that I never got a trophy), but the point is, that which moves us, which inspires us, which opens our hearts may be different for each one of us. Let us find compassion, not condemnation for those who do not find meaning in the same way that we do.  Let us create the opportunities for people to find their place in this world, even if it is not as a Captain of Industry or Sports Star. Let us create the opportunities for all people to be moved. 
As long as we continue to question with the highest of integrity, As long as we continue to love each other despite our faults, as long as we continue to journey with hope in our heart, then we cannot help but be moved.  Growth in our religious life is not necessarily linear but adaptive and is more circuitous. And on that journey it may be the questions that move us along the road, but it is something else that opens our heart and changes us, and that is love, and a willingness to be open to love and a willingness to feel the pain of the loss of love. A willingness to give of ourselves without the expectation of some quid pro quo.  A willingness to care for others whether they are giving out trophies or not This is our shared ministry that we have together.  Whether it be in the schools teaching the young, whether it be in the prisons visiting the incarcerated, whether it be in the hospital visiting the sick, whether it be at the community meal feeding the hungry. And it is not just out there, but it is in here as well. It is in how we care for each other, how we care for this institution, It is in caring for others, and for things larger than oursleves that we find meaning.  It is in caring that we are moved.
And although I do not want to continue the constipation metaphor, the truth is, sometimes the experiences we have early in our lives block our ability to be moved, block our ability to open our hearts to others. I have to admit for the early part of my life, my experiences led me to close my heart,  My experiences taught me that when you trusted people, when you make yourself vulnerable, it can often lead to pain.  And after a few too many of these experiences you just want to stop the pain. But then you come to a point in your life hopefully, where you realize something is missing. 
You realize you don’t feel pain even when you should feel pain. You don’t feel joy, when you should feel joy. And when you come to that realization, to that fork in the road, you have to decide whether you are going to remain separated, or whether you are going to reconnect to the wonder of all that is in the universe in all its beauty and suffering. You come to realize that the reason you feel pain, is because you love so deeply.  As CS Lewis said, “to love at all is to be vulnerable.” 
But how do you do it, how do you change what has been bred within us for years, or even generations. What can make us risk our security to open ourselves up to risk the pain without the surety of success. Only love for and caring for others can do this. We cant control who loves us, but we can control how we love others. Then the question is how. How do we let go of the past, how do we let go of our fear.  As with many things, movies provide the answer for me. I watched a movie recently called “we bought a zoo” and the protagonist  giving advice to his son said   “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”  And I think that’s true. 
For once you open up, once you allow something into your heart it immediately opens up for you the floodgate of possibilities of what could one day be realized. Your heart beats faster, your mind finds clarity, your soul finds peace.  And I tell you as it is with a person so it is with a Congregation.  Over generations there are pains inflicted, as institutions which are made up of people,  fearing more conflict, fearing more pain, close down.  Close down to new people, new ideas, new ways of being.  But by doing so, we miss the love that others could bring us and more importantly the love we could bring to others.  
All it takes is your willingness to do so, to be insanely courageous, to be embarrassingly brave, to take a chance. I cannot guarantee it will work, but I can guarantee we will feel more alive as individuals and as a Congregation if we embrace love rather than if we isolate ourselves.  So I invite you to be moved, I invite you to open your hearts and invite you go deeper, both personally and in your Congregational lives, and you will be amazed at what you are capable of, you will be amazed at our potential. May it be so.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


As some of you who follow me on facebook know, I lost my phone last week, and had to get a new one.  I had to reprogram many of the programs downloading everything I had in the cloud.  When I was setting up my calendar, I had to choose what day to start the week.  I really had to think about this one, and in some ways it ties into how we think about worship.  If I start my week on Monday, Worship on Sunday is at the end of the week. It can be seen as a day of rest, after an entire week of doing, a day just to be. a day of reflection, a day to put away the cares of the world, and to rest within oneself and spend time within our community.
            Now if I start my week on Sunday, Worship is about how to begin the week, a day to be inspired about how to live life, a day to look at life in a new way, a day to lead us out into the world for the next six days with a new sense of purpose.  Neither is right or wrong. And every week it may be different. Every week might be a bit of both for us.  I think each is important, but today we are focusing on the need for renewal. (Which could fall into either category) Story: apache woman gave birth to a child, the placenta was placed in a tree and when that child grows up they would make a pilgrimage to the birth spot and perform a ceremony – to gain renewed strength and purpose.  I was drawn to that story, not the placenta part, but returning to ones birthplace.  Whenever I travelled anywhere near my hometown, I would always force my family to drive by the house I grew up in, where I went to school, and my various favorite haunts.  I never really thought about why, it was just something I felt I needed to do.  In part of course in was to reminisce.  In part it was a touchstone, to my past, a reminder of my roots, where I emerged from,  who I once was, in my short lived innocence.  This is not done with a desire to go back to a different time and place. I imagine most of us did not live in a sitcom like Mayberry RFD, where everything is simple and things always work out neatly in the end. (For those who don’t have that reference, think of the opposite of Breaking Bad, which has its series finale tonight.)  We cannot renew lost innocence. But going back can be  a  reminder of how we came to be who we are today, what obstacles we have overcome, how far we have travelled, how far we have grown.  Each memory brings us back and reminds us that we are capable of growth.   And going back also allows us to look at those circumstances with new wisdom, with new eyes, with new perspectives. 
Renewal is not about recreating the past, but perhaps about being intentional about restarting something that has been dormant, its about refreshing ourselves from the fountain of wisdom, its about refocusing ourselves over a tendency towards complacency, its about re-energizing our commitment to a particular way of being.  Renewal allows us to look at ourselves from a new perspective over the course of time. It is a time to intentionally restart, refresh, refocus, reenergize and not take anything for granted.  And so it is in our Congregational lives, we sometimes need to renew ourselves, to renew our values, and to renew our commitment. 
The value and commitment I talk about today is our being a Welcoming Congregation. Approximatley 10 years ago this Congregation formally became a Welcoming Congregation. The Welcoming Congregation Program is a volunteer program for Unitarian Universalist congregations that want to take intentional steps to become more welcoming and inclusive of people with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities.  There is a plaque on the wall we pass by every week when we walk into the sanctuary that indicates we participated in this program.
One of our members is the founder of the most active support and advocacy groups in the Quad Cities. Quad Cities Affirming Diversity.  Yet when I started here over two years ago, other than the plaque, there was almost no mention of it in the Congregation, no brochures, and no advocacy as a Congregation. Now to some degree we were living out our values in a very Welcoming way, yet someone who was new and walked in might not have know that.  Now our LGBTQIA social justice task force as you heard earlier is active in so many ways, both from an educational and advocacy perspective.
(Something about programs upcoming, something about marriage equality in Illinois. Phone banks starting Wed nights at the Congregation from 5:30- and Tuesday nights in Rock Island. ) I encourage you to be engaged. To learn or to re-learn, to gain new wisdom from a new perspective. Its important to look back at where we have come from. While other religions struggle today with their theological issues around sexual orientation, Unitarian Universalists started our struggle over 40 years ago. In 1970 our General Assembly passed a resolution to end discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals. In 1971 we published a sexuality curriculum for youth that attempted to foster more positive attitudes towards people with differing sexual orientations. A 1974 General Assembly resolution created funding for the denominational department that is now called LGBTQ Ministries.   The UUA has been ordaining people regardless of sexual orientation since the 1970s, and the first openly transgender person was ordained in 1988.   Its not necessarily that we are more enlightened than other religions in this area of religious life. Although certainly our theology of ongoing revelation and our principles guide us in this area, but part of the truth is that we have just been working at it with more intention than others for a longer time.   There were many Unitarian Universalists in the 1970s that  struggled much like other Denominations are struggling now. There are some Unitarian Universalists that still struggle with it, which is why we need to renew our commitment and our education.  And we need to be committed to ongoing education about not just about differences in sexual orientation but in all differences including issues surrounding racism and multiculturalism. As I said last week, we must end the destructive practice of competing oppressions. 
We must be welcoming to all people, and we must stand with all who are oppressed.
People have asked me, why  as a Straight White Male, why do I care so much about the gender equality issue, and other social justice issues about oppression. Now it is easy to explain all the intellectual arguments about why this is so, and I would point to our principles especially our first principle which indicates our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. But that type of intellectual understanding can only take one so far, once the rubber hits the road, if all you have is intellectualism, it is too easy to fold when the going gets rough. 
It is why it is important to understand others pain, it is why it is so important to become engaged in the work of social justice so you are put in a position to have to engage with others who are different from you and with others who are actually suffering.  I was invited to and I know other ministers who I respect, who have tried to eat based on what food stamps provides to people, or others who go and live for an evening as a homeless person.  I don’t need to cause myself extra personal suffering to learn what it is to suffer. I have sufferred in my own way in my own life. I do not have to add to my sufferring to have empathy for those who suffer. I just need to know and care about  someone who is suffering.  I grew up listening to people who were holocaust survivors and that opened my eyes and heart to suffering.  In high school I walked into an office at school and saw two male friends of mine making out. And I saw the unbelievable fear in their eyes that they would be outed. It was a different time and they had something real to fear. And their fear opened my eyes and my heart to issues facing gay youth at that time. As a young adult I lived in Greenwich Village where as a straight person I was in the minority. If you were here Wednesday Night and heard the powerful piece of music by Laura Kaminsky about AIDS, you could have artistically been transported to a time when people were dieing daily from aids, and in this country, few paid attention because it mostly affected gay men and drug addicts.  People I knew and cared about died from AIDS. And this opened my eyes and my heart to their pain and the pain of others I did not know.  As I grew, and started a multiracial family, living in a multiracial neighborhood,  I saw the pain that my children had when others treated them with disdain due to their race, and that opened my eyes and heart to their pain, and the pain of our neighbors, and the pain of others I did not know, when I lived in Florida, people with whom I broke bread, people with whom I led worship services with and shared the most intimate aspects of our lives together in Connections Circles, they were not allowed to be married because of their sexual orientation and that opened my eyes and my heart to their pain and to the pain of others I knew in my community and the pain of others I did not know. 
And that is why I am so adamant about our social justice work being local.  Because it gives each and every one of you the opportunity to come face to face with suffering. Otherwise it is too easy to hide from it. Doing our work locally gives the most people the opportunity to meet and interact with people who are in different circumstances than they are.  It will give you the opportunity to open your eyes and your hearts not only to the suffering of others, but also to different cultures,  moreso than any intellectual exercise could ever do.  And l promise you this, if you open your eyes and your heart it will change you, It will change you forever and you will not be able to close your eyes again, and you will not be able to stand idly by while others are being discriminated against. While others are suffering.  You will be transformed and compelled to want to transform the world. In luke 14.23 in the parable of the Great Dinner Jesus talks of compelling people to come in.  We sort of look at that word compel and it sounds like we are being ordered.  But the truth is you will be so moved, you will not be able to turn away. I imagine that must seem scary, sort of like jumping into the abyss, into the unknown, its about trust in the universe, its about having faith that you can make a difference. 
As Martin Luther King Jr. Said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase” So take a step.  I suggest you find the type of person, or circumstance that makes you feel most uncomfortable.  Explore why they make you uncomfortable.  In fact I would encourage you to participate in one of our social justice programs that will put you in touch with such circumstances.  We can either metaphorically recoil into our building on the hill hiding behind our trees,  or we can go out and help create the world we dream about, and in so doing maybe even create the person and the Congregation we hope to one day become.  
As Universalist John Murray said "Go out into the highways and byways of America. Give the people something of your vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage." And I would add to let us educate ourselves about other people who are different from us, and to have the courage to engage with others, and to have the courage to share our light, and to have the courage to accept the light from others. Let us start our week today, let us find our sense of purpose not in another time, not in another place, but right now, right here. let us be renewed.