Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sabbath

Genesis Chapter 2 verse 2 On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy.  The Bible in the creation story talks about balance and boundaries and the rhythm of time.  There is contrast of creating light amidst the prevailing darkness, there are the boundaries of water and the land, there is the planting of seeds that bring forth fruit, There were creatures of the sea and the sky and land. And of course the creation of humans both male and female. 
And the world that we experience is not much different from that creation story.  Our world is full of balance that works in rhythms and boundaries.  We have seasons of the year, The tides roll in and out, there is a time for planting and a time for harvesting.  And there is a time to work, and  then there is at time for Sabbath.   
It is interesting to think about, The Bible speaks of the world being created in seven days.  Now of course I am not interested that it is not a literal 7 days but billions of years,  What I find interesting is that the Hebrews story of creation included a day of rest.  Creation cannot be complete without a day of rest. Think about that. Also think about the specificity of the wording, it says that God finished the work that God had done.  That leaves open ended the need that there is more work to be done.  In this message is the message that creation is still ongoing, and that creation requires a need to find balance in our lives and in the world, and the need to take time to think about and appreciate creation.  And that is the purpose of Sabbath.  To be intentional about taking time to appreciate the world and our lives. 
Taking time.  Americans in particular seem to struggle with this.  Amazingly, a significant % of workers in our country do not even take the full amount of vacation they have earned.  Why is this?  Is there a fear of losing one’s job? Living in fear is not a healthy way to live.   People wonder why I drive a beat up car, that is twelve years old with 180,000 miles on it. Or why I lived in a home that was smaller than I could afford. I did that because I always wanted to be able to speak my thoughts freely to my employers. (Respectfully but freely).  I never wanted to be silenced out of fear of losing my things. I have actually seen employers encourage their employees to get expensive houses and cars, with the thought that would be incentive for employees to work harder. 
But the truth is studies have shown that when people work less hours their productivity increases and because they have more time, their families and their communities are healthier because they have more time to spend on both. I chose a different path. This was the choice I made and the choices people have to make every day. And the funny thing is, being open, and fearless actually led me to having more success and achieving my dreams. And although I didn’t get invited to join any country dinner clubs, I had more money to spend on experiences with my family, and was able to give more to my Congregation both in time and money.  These are the conscious choices we make. 
Who do we spend time with, what do we spend our time and money doing.  Sabbath time, our time here asks us to think about these questions. Now I am certainly an achiever.  For myself and for others.  I wanted to give my children opportunities I had and didn’t have.  I wanted to reach my full potential in whatever I was doing.  I still want to reach my full potential.  But often we are unaware of our potential, or uncertain of how to live out our values in a world that often seems in contradiction with our values. 
Often this contradiction between and values and our actions leads to a feeling of emptiness  and often people try to compensate, or to justify, or to reward themselves by getting things. We conjecture at least I get something for all this hard work.  Is it wrong to desire and achieve things?   Buddhism traces the source of suffering to our desires or longings. (Certainly I desired to be a minister) I don’t think it is desire itself that is problem.  It is our attachment to outcomes over which we have no control that leads to mental suffering.  Will I find the right partner, will I get healthy, will I get the promotion, for me, will people come to services on Sunday morning? Will my message have meaning for anyone?  Answers to these questions include our involvement, we must believe that what we do matters, and has an impact, but ultimately we alone have no control over the outcome. Only together in relationship with others can we find wholeness.  Things cannot make us whole, only relationships can. 
I remember reading a story in the book “The last Lecture” by Prof Randy Paush that really drove this message home.  He was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who found out that he had 3-6 months to live and gave a lecture entitled “The last lecture achieving your childhood dreams”.  You can watch the lecture on Youtube.  I encourage you to watch it, It is really remarkable and inspirational In the book,  he tells the story of when he picked up his niece and nephew who were seven and nine years old  in his brand-new Volkswagen Cabrio convertible. His sister instructed the children, “Be careful in your Uncle Randy’s new car,” “Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.”  He goes on to write “I listened to her, and thought, as only a bachelor uncle can: “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty. Kids can’t help it.” So I made things easy. While my sister was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.” And relationships unlike things take time to develop.
Abraham Heschel in his book Sabbath states “It is only within time that there is fellowship and togetherness of all beings.  Every one of us occupies a portion of space.  One takes it up exclusively.  The portion of space which the body occupies is taken up by oneself in exclusion of anyone else. Yet no one possesses time.  There is no moment which I possess exclusively.  This very moment belongs to all living people as it belongs to me.  We share time , we own space. We can only solve the problem of time through sanctification of time.“
Those who are older tend to become more aware of time. The older we get the more we realize that the number of days/minutes we have left are less than what we have lived. We have experienced the death of loved ones. We realize that we will not always be here for those who depend on us. We come to realize that time is what is important, time, this moment, not tomorrow, not yesterday, but in each moment is an eternity.  Each moment becomes precious.  And if each moment is precious how do we want to spend it.  Sabbath brings us back to the sanctity of time over things, to the sanctity of relationships over things.   
But it is not only for the older, it can be for anyone, anywhere when they become aware of this.  My mother, may she rest in peace, exemplified this.  She lost her father in a car accident when she was 12 years old. This of course affected her and subsequently my entire life as well.  She knew time was precious.  She learned early on that life could end at a moments notice and thus was determined to live every moment fully.  My parents retired young sold everything they had, bought an RV and travelled the country. I truly respected that about them. It was the happiest I remember them ever being.   After five years of doing this, my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  Had they not retired young, had they not gotten off the treadmill, they might never had experienced that joy. So try to be joyful in all that you do.  All the things in the world cant take the place of time together.  
Sabbath time brings us back to that idea of togetherness. Humans as a species are by our nature, communal beings. Sabbath brings us back to that notion, a reminder of what is important to us, a reminder of whom is important to us, it brings us back to remember the importance of creation itself. And a reminder that we are a part of creation, we are one with creation.  Being one with creation indicates to me a connection with others and creation.  You cannot be unified with creation by being alone.  I am not saying there is not a time and a purpose for being alone, however I think Sabbath calls us to something more than that.  Sabbath is not a about having a day off just to relax. Sabbath calls us to an intentional taking of time to remind us that time is important, and how we spend it is important.  We live in both time and space.  We spend much of our time focused on space.  We share that space with many other people.  Because we as a religion have a pluralistic theology, because we are accepting of diversity, I think Unitarian Universalism could be a leader in making connections and building relationships with and between other religions.   It is why I am so proud of the work that our Congregation is doing with Quad Cities Interfaith as we work to be leaders in the interfaith movement in this community, a movement that I believe can lead to wholeness for our whole community.  
Just Friday Night Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core,   was the Ware Lecturer at Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.  I encourage you to listen to his speech at UUA.org.  In the speech he said  “An important task of an interfaith leader, is to help build relationships between people with profoundly different views on fundamental theological and political matters. Because the heart of interfaith work is dealing with people you have deep disagreements with, even those who would insult what is fundamental to you, and building relationships with them anyway. Interfaith work is not just civic, it is also sacred. Nurturing positive relations between people with deep disagreements is holy.” 
I want to give you a specific example of how this worked and why it is important. When I first arrived in town two years ago, I with some others in the community met with a leader of the NAACP to discuss their state leader’s negative public comments about Gays and Lesbians. It was a difficult conversation. It spoke to me of the need to be in relationship and the need to work towards eliminating competing oppressions.  And we maintained a dialogue over the past two years and two years later now,  the National NAACP voted to support marriage equality, and that state leader has resigned. I am not saying we had anything to do with that, but by remaining in relationship, we have listened to each other, we have shared some life stories, and we have built our relationship and built trust with each other.   And just last week, our group MIRED (which stands for Mass incarceration racial equity and drugs), (I love acronyms) that has been studying the issue of how the War on Drugs has impacted poor people of color, had over twenty people from multiple congregations coming together to see how we can learn from each other and how we can work together to work on this issue which affects our entire community. Let us do this holy work of building relationships, this work of sabbath, Let us not forget to do it with ourselves in our community as well in addition as with the larger community.
As I am finishing my second year serving this Congregation, I have taken some time to reflect, and actually a number of people have asked me how I have adjusted to living in the Quad Cities compared to the larger cities I have lived in previously.  For those who don’t know, I grew up in New York City a city of about 8 million, and then I lived for 18 years in Orlando, FL with a Metro area of over two million people.  So one difference I have noticed, is that when I go into stores like the dry cleaner, people sometimes recognize me,  saying they saw me on television or at some public event, some of them even thanking me for speaking publicly on certain issues. I have to admit the first couple of times that happened it kind of freaked me out a little bit. I was used to being more anonymous.  But what those experiences made me think about much more deeply, was that what we do here as a Congregation makes a difference in the larger community. The values we promote, particularly the values of acceptance and love are well received in the religious community and much needed throughout the Quad Cities.  We as a Congregation have an impact on the life of the Quad Cities, This Congregation is a part of the ongoing creation of the Quad Cities. So I encourage each and every one of you, no matter how young or old, I encourage you  to live fearlessly, live every moment as if it is sacred and precious and to be an active part of creation.  May it be so.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Prodigal One

As a father I have to admit I always enjoyed fathers day.  Especially when my children were older, the gift I requested from my family was for everyone to attend church with me.  This is a gift we all us can always give to each other.  To worship together, and to be present in each others lives. and not just on fathers day.  In addition, on Fathers day, we would all go out to the movies.  I would get to choose which movie we would see.  You have to understand that this was a very complicated process in our family on any given weekend, trying to be fair and democratic, we had multiple ballots of voting and each attendee held certain veto powers.
            So on fathers day, I got to choose, and it would be the only time I could get my children to see a foreign film with subtitles.  They considered that  a great sacrifice as there were no explosions or zombies.  Then by the end of the day I would come home and my boys might even let me beat them in a video games and then one of the boys would cook us dinner.  Fathers Day was one of the few days of the year I could always count on to be joyous in the house.
Parenting for me has been by far the most difficult experience of my life, and the most fulfilling experience of my life that transformed me in ways that I could never have imagined. It has taught me what it means to fully love another human being.  It is obviously a different kind of love than in a romantic relationship.  In a romantic relationship there is an expectation of shared love, and a shared life. In the best of circumstances it allows us to experience the interdependency of our world on a very intimate level.  But children start off in a state of dependency, and as they develop they are experiencing and learning new things every day. And although there are many shared experiences, the goal of this love, is to be able to guide the child so they will be able to leave you.  You have to love something greatly to let it go for its own benefit expecting nothing in return.
When I look back at my old writing journals, I see within them my own personal growth as I struggled with what I wanted to teach my children. It forced me to stop and think about what it was that I believed in.  Often we are set on a trajectory in life, we live by the habits we are trained in, that often we don’t stop to think,  what values do we want to pass on to our children and how do we pass them on.  One of the first life lessons I learned as a parent was the acceptance of the fact that control is an illusion.  We want to protect our children from harm and give them the opportunity to achieve their greatest potential. We soon realize that there are many influences on our children’s lives that are uncontrollable.  As they grow they need to have their own experiences which are out of our control.  There are precautions we can take. No playing in traffic, seat belts, car seats, bicycle helmets.  I think in my generation, there was less awareness of dangers and there were very few precautions taken. We played in traffic often. Both literally and metaphorically. Playing in traffic.  By playing in traffic, we experienced the traffic, we became aware of the traffic, and the dangers of it. And how to deal with it.  But the unexpected happens every now and then.
From the literal perspective, growing up my friends and I did actually play football in the street, and living on a one way street, I would only check to see if cars were coming one way. Well of course one day on a  third and long play I am going deep and a car comes the wrong way down our street.  We cant control everything. We cant anticipate everything. Eventually everyone has to go into the traffic of life, and the question parents must always decide is when to send our children into traffic, and when we do, how are they prepared for it so they can adapt to it when we are not there to protect them
It is why I was so happy to find Unitarian Universalism when my children were young as it gave them a community, a safe community, with positive influences.  Let us all continue to strive to be so for the children of this Congregation.  Let us act in a way that models our values, for that is the greatest gift we can give,  the gift of our presence, our  relationships and how we treat each other so they can have a model for how to be in the world.  It doesn’t matter how old you are.  Say hello to the children, make them feel welcome here.
Many make sacrifices for their children to try and give them the best opportunity to reach their potential. But sacrifice can lead to false sense of martyrdom and children have an uncanny way of sensing our emotions. The writer Clarence Kelland said “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”  (I admit, that is a total internet quote, but it’s a good one.) Children can tell when we are happy or not.  The day I started living my life pursuing my dreams,  my children saw that it made me happy, and being happier, I was happier in all my interactions in life including the interactions I had with my children.  When we are being our true selves, it comes through and gives our children the message that it is ok to be their true selves.  
I think at its best this is what our religion can offer us, the opportunity to let our true self unfold, the opportunity to explore our true self, and yes even the opportunity to re-create our true self.  Some times the things we see on the surface are not our true self. We are so compartmentalized in our life, I think we need to de-compartmentalize. Sometimes we have to look deeper, dig deeper within our selves, deeper within our stories to find what we seek, to give meaning and understanding to our lives.
Such is true as well with the stories we have been told. Sometimes we have to go deeper to get the real meaning out of them. Whether they be stories of our youth, or stories within religion. 
We heard earlier the parable of the Prodigal Son.   This story has always intrigued me. What was the meaning behind such a parable.   Being the youngest of three children, I have always been partial to the Scriptures for the youngest child almost always gets the blessing in the stories.  This is because it was written by a tribe of people who were less powerful in comparison to their prevailing community they lived in,  so they wanted to write stories where the less powerful succeeded. The traditional understanding of this parable is the story of forgiveness and generosity.
In the traditional Christian interpretation the father represents God and in a Universalist fashion redemption is possible for all, no matter how lost.  So although I was not quite as dissolute as the prodigal son in the story, in my youth, I made my share of poor choices.  And I was lucky that I had a family that forgave me. Not everyone is so lucky.  Not everyone is lucky enough to even have a family, let alone a family who supports them.  So for those of you with fond memories of your father, if they are alive call them today, if not, remember them fondly.  For those without fond memories, may you be able to let those memories go and forgive.
Sometimes we have to create the family we need, one that we are not born into but one such as our family that can be supporting and lasting and can create wholeness in our lives. Let us also look out at the whole Quad Cities as our family and look for ways that we can be supportive and create wholeness within the larger community so that every child, every person, no matter the composition of their family, no matter rich or poor, white or of color, gay or straight, shall  have the opportunity to reach their potential.  Until everyone has that opportunity, until everyone has that support and guidance, we cannot rest. (if you would like you can get involved with our at risk social justice group)
And I think that is what Jesus is trying to tell us in when I read the parable of the prodigal son, (to get involved with our social justice group) I have a very different impression of the three characters.  Although I may have identified with the younger son, I really felt that the older brother had been taken for granted and treated poorly.  Remember he says to his father.  “For years I have been working as a slave for you.”  He considers himself a slave.  A slave, someone who is forced to do something against their will.  Imagine how he must have felt, his younger brother leaving doing whatever he wanted off partying and he stayed doing something against his will. 
I imagine that happens often to people, trying to live up to others expectations.  I think of my own father, the only child of five sisters, all of whom saved money so he could go to college.  I can only imagine the tremendous pressure he felt having to live into someone elses dreams for him, a whole family’s dream for him. In the story the older brother complains to his father, “you never did anything for me, and the father replies all that I have is yours.  So another message, is we have to ask for what we want.  One of the scenes in the videos we saw from the movie the pursuit of happiness, Will Smith tells his son, “you want something, go get it”  We have to communicate our needs to those in our lives, especially to those we love. We have to remember that others are not mind readers. I tell this my wife Jan all the time. I am not a mind reader. Yet that does not excuse the father for being insensitive.  As my wife Jan points out, I don’t have to be a mind reader to remember to send a card on  our anniversary.   That is considered being thoughtful. 
So lets take another look at this family.  They are clearly a very wealthy family, as the father can give the young son enough money to live for quite some time away.  After a decadent  life of partying, he is left feeding pigs.  Remembering that pigs were considered unclean animals by the Jewish people of that time, the story of him feeding the pigs was a way to show just how far he had fallen. The young son returns, but really shows no repentance for the way he lived, he was just become merely desperate.  And the father continues to be indulgent and show favoritism to the younger son, while at the same time alienating his older son who finally after years of pent up anger expresses his bitterness and resentment towards his family  Perhaps instead of being called the parable of the prodigal son, it should be called the Parable of the dysfunctional family.
In the time of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, there was a growing divide between the poor and wealthy, with many Jewish people losing their lands due to over-taxation by the Romans and their proxies.  If you look at this story from the perspective of Jesus and his followers during that time, it could easily be seen as a commentary on the excesses of materialism and how materialism leads to the decay of moral values. Imagine how those who are suffering in poverty, those who Jesus preached to might have heard this story, and why those in power my have resented it.  You have one brother that will do anything, anything, sacrifice his own happiness, become bitter and hate his family due to money.  The younger brother has no respect for money for he has never had to earn it and is wasteful in his excesses and faces no consequences for his actions.  The consequence is more gluttony. More More More. We see this today in our society as well.  We cannot fill the emptiness inside us with things.  Our society is diminished when materialism takes the place of relationships and being present in each others lives. You cant buy someone’s love, you can only buy their obedience.

What type of community do we want to build? There are so many with no opportunity, and there are so many who waste opportunities.  Do not waste your opportunities, do not waste your opportunity to do good in the world.  Do not waste your opportunity to develop real relationships. Do not waste your opportunity for religious and spiritual growth.  And do not let us not waste our opportunity here to build this beloved community where all can have opportunities.  So let us come together as we do week after week after week, and let us be present in each others lives, and let us be with each other and for others, the family we always hoped to have. 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Religion and Science

I was never a very interested in Science in School.  The first time they put a dead frog in front of me, and asked me to mutilate its body, well even then, I was even then,  more likely to give it last rites than to cut it open.  And chemistry, unlike cool things I see on television with teachers creating explosions with different chemicals, or in the TV series Breaking Bad, where the high school chemistry teacher uses his knowledge to make  drugs,  my chemistry teacher was boring and uninspiring. I still have nightmares about the periodic table.   So I ask how can I make a judgment about something like science that I do not have first hand experience with.
Well I know the benefits of science, just from reading my history books. I know how scientists had developed cures for diseases that have substantially increased life expectancy and  decreased infant mortality.  It has also given us nuclear weapons.  We know science has developed the ability to allow us to communicate with others face to face over thousands of miles, we know science has built spacecraft that travel the universe in search of a better understanding of our reality. To some degree our belief in science is based on our trust of our understanding of reality.   Its interesting often how our imagination sometimes gives us ideas that science then makes real. 
I think of some of the ideas on the TV Show Star Trek that seemed unthinkable at the time that we now take for granted.  Such as doors that open as soon as you walk up to them which are in every department store now. (story about when my kids are little)  Or universal translators, which my Iphone has the ability to do. Now if we can only get transporters working we could possibly solve our global warming problem.
Science starts with a hypothesis out of our imagination and then tries to prove that hypothesis to be true or false. Once something is proved false, they move on to a new hypothesis.
It is hard to start something with the intent to prove yourself wrong for the greater good of finding the right answer. But being wrong is sometimes necessary to move forward.  And the errors themselves become the foundation upon which to build upon.   All great scientists have made errors. From Darwin to Pauling to Einstein. Sometimes it is an error that comes from just not having enough knowledge or technology available at the time.    Sometimes it is an error that come from hubris, believing because they have been right about something in the past they will continue to be correct in the future.  Sometimes it is a mistake due to stubbornness.  One who believes their way is the only way and refuses to look at new ways of doing things and tries to tear down anyone who challenges their hypothesis. Sometimes it is a mistake due to caution and uncertainty.  The mistake comes from the act not done or the idea not put forward.  Linus Pauling the scientist who I believe is the only person to win both a Nobel Peace Prize and a Nobel Prize in Chemistry said “If you think you  have a good idea, publish it, don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes do no harm in science.  There are a lot of smart people out there who will immediately find a mistake and correct it. You can only make a fool of yourself and that does no harm except to your pride, and If you don’t publish it, and your are right science may suffer a loss.” 
And I would say so it is with us, in our Congregation and in our lives.   Yet so often people pit science against religion.  I say it doesn’t have to be so. In fact I would say that science increases our awe about the creation of the universeWhen I see pictures from the Hubble Telescope, when I read about the ideas of quantum physics and string theory, besides being confused quite often, I think it’s a miracle that we even exist.  I think that is part of it.  For many of us, the ideas of science are so beyond us that we really cant fathom what the scientist are talking about.  Imagine how much more so that was before Einstein, before Newton, before Copernicus.   Humanity has since the beginning of time used metaphors to describe the mysteries of the universe.  Jesus in the Christian Scriptures resorts to using parables as he says “so they can hear it…so that he can proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world”  or what Einstein called a cosmic religion “where one experiences the universe as a single significant whole”  Einstein felt the most important function of science (as well as art) was to “awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it” 
So let us be receptive to the wonder of all that is.  Let us be receptive to the oneness of the universe, let us be receptive to understanding the foundations of the world. And let us bring that down to a micro level, that even within our Congregation, we as members are part of something larger than ourselves.  Something that is worth sacrificing for, something that is worth holding up together to the light for all to see,  something that is worth sharing with others. We have nothing to fear from science.  Science opens our mind, lets us peek at the mystery. Embrace the mystery. Explore the mystery, Love the mystery.
            Science however I find often feels the need to delegitimize religion.  Now there is a long history of Religious persecution of science. Yet in modern times, although science may be persecuted by capitalism, it is no longer being persecuted by religion. Yet Science in relation to religion seems to think if something cant be proven it is not legitimate.  But I can tell you what is legitimate that cant be proven.  The calmness I feel when look out these windows and see the beauty of nature around us.  I tell you what else is legitimate that cant be proven.  The love I feel for my family, even if they are not living with me, or even if they are no longer alive.  I can tell you what is legitimate that cant be proven, the bond I feel with our religion,  a religion I believe is the religion of the future that does not rest on ancient ruins but uses them to learn about how to live in the world with the knowledge we have now, and how to live in this world with imagination of what knowledge we yet may have. I can tell you what is legitimate, the way this Congregation has the ability to come together, in good times and bad, to learn from our ancient ruins and to use that knowledge to learn how to be together and build our beloved community.   Let us not shy away from learning about ourselves, from learning about each other and from learning new things.
The Dali Lama says "If science proves some belief of religion wrong, then religion will have to change. In my view, science and religion share a search for the truth and for understanding reality.”  Ours is a religion that changes, that uses our free mind as William Ellery Channing said, to recognize our own reality and greatness.  Let us live up to that admonition.  Let us recognize our greatness.  May it be so.