Saturday, August 31, 2013

Unpacking

       As most of you know this summer we FINALLY sold our house in Florida and purchased a house here in Davenport.  When I first moved here two years ago, I brought with me just the minimal amount of things I needed to live.  There were a few pieces of furniture and many, many books.  It was enough, but it wasn’t complete. When we sold the house, we started sorting through the many boxes in the garage. Some of those boxes hadn’t been opened since we had purchased that house 9 years earlier.   In some of the boxes we found some fond memories, including drawings our children had done when they were in grade school.  In some boxes I found paid bills that were 10 years old. And so the process began of sorting. We shed unneeded things. We took a moment to appreciate nostalgic things and then we took pictures of them before throwing them out. There were some things which we couldn’t decide what to do with or agree on whether to throw out. For those items we deferred our decision and decided to continue to discern about them in Iowa.  We threw out a lot of stuff. And now that everything has been delivered to our new house, as we unpack, we are deciding where everything fits in our new location.   Everything old seems new again, and now each item will create new memories in our new house. In addition we have had to purchase a few new things to fit our new environment.

     Much like moving, our religious lives often include ideas we have collected over the years.  Some of them need to be shed.  Some hold nostalgic value to us. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia. It can bring us comfort particularly in times of stress. But we need to remain aware that it is nostalgia, and not necessarily our current religious belief. There might be religious ideas we are just not sure about whether we believe or not.  Discernment of religious belief is part of our journey here, where we provide the environment for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  Part of that journey also includes being open to finding new awareness and understanding. New ways of thinking and being may come in the form of old ideas in a new environment, or with new ideas that we hadn’t encountered before. Some of you may come with many ideas to unpack, and others may have come here with minimal religious background looking for depth to build a complete religious life. As we enter into Fall there are numerous opportunities, including many Religious Education programs and Connection Circles,  to help you unpack the past, discern the future, and live in the present moment.  I hope to see you all there.  If there is some form of religious education or spiritual practice that you are longing for that you have not found here, please do not hesitate to contact me. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I Have A Dream

Beautiful Vision  -  a beautiful song with beautiful meaning.  Beautiful vision stay with me all of the time, be ever on my mind.  Let your vision guide you, in all your actions and interactions.  If this is to be so, it is important to know what that vision is.  For each of us as individuals, it may be different. I encourage you to take time to think about what your personal vision for your life is, or should be.  Then start immediately to take some action to make that vision a reality. Not tomorrow, not next week, Now (well after service).   Let this vision be ever present in your minds. Let us keep present what is our hope for the future. Our hope for ourselves, our hope for this Congregation and our hope for  the world. That is just one reason we come together week in and week out, to be together, to remind ourselves of our vision, and of the possibility of our best selves.
But it is hard sometimes. It is easy for us to become complacent with the way of the world. Some of us after seeing the acrimony in and polarization of our political system sometimes lose hope that effective change will ever happen.  We struggled just to find our niche in the world,  and many continue to struggle to find their way, every day.  And at the end of the day sometimes we just want to get some rest, and respite, and we feel we don’t  have the energy or the power to affect others and the events of the day. We close our eyes and say its all I can do.  Russian Novelist Vladamir Nabokov said Complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospective; it has to be shattered before being ascertained”  And so we come together and I am here to shatter the illusion that we have no power, I am here to shatter the idea that we should hide away in our niche, ignoring others,  I am here to shatter that feeling of hopelessness  in our ability to affect other people positively. 
But it is not enough to just shatter an illusion, an idea,  a feeling,  That just leads to just brokenness. .  We come together and  I am here also to remind you that you do have the power. That deep within you is a well of energy, that within you is a depth of meaning to guide you on the path to understanding.    Our goal is to create something. We have to be very clear on what it is that we want to create here.  No one said it would be easy, but we need to discern what our hoped for outcome will be, and we need to determine what values guide us as we move forward . 
This Congregation as a whole voted on a vision a number of years ago to guide us in our actions and interactions. I would like to read our vision, our beautiful vision that you created, because it is important that it remain present in our minds, and not just some dried parchment withering in a corner. It is why we print it every week on the back of our Order of service, so that it is present in our minds, and so that newcomers can understand what it is we as a Congregation have committed to. But it also needs to be heard. Our vision “is to be recognized in our community as a beacon on the hill – a vibrant, welcoming, thriving church.”   So in all three items, vibrant welcoming thriving, we ebb and flow over time.  That’s natural. Each year since I have arrived, we have been systematically adding more and more programs, both in social justice and religious education adding vibrancy to our learning and actions. This summer we have started planning on the creation of a spiritual practices team and a new Lay Pastoral Care Associates program.  Our Welcome Team this year has started Hospitality Teams that we hope will help connect members and newcomers in addition to serving the Congregation. How we all interact with each other or whether we even interact with each other will determine how welcoming we truly are.  
Although Welcoming in this vision statement is for us to be generally welcoming, this upcoming year we are starting the re-certification process for formally being a UUA “Welcoming Congregation” A Welcoming Congregation as defined by the UUA, is one that celebrates the presence and participation of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.  There will be a number of programs related to this, so keep your eyes out for them and participate. We are living out this first part of our vision and we must keep it flowing and it requires everyone’s participation to keep it flowing. 
But interestingly, the first part of the sentence states, we want to be recognized. This to me states a desire for us to be known outside these walls, we want others to know the transformative power of our religion. And that is why the next part of our vision calls for us to Reach out to members and community with a clear, concise, and inspiring message about Unitarian Universalism and its Principles. Well I don’t know how concise we always are, and I know some of us who have been on the receiving end of proselytizing tend to shun doing so themselves. But there is a difference between proselytizing and informing people about our religion. We should not be embarrassed about being Unitarian Universalists.  Yet even I when posting on Facebook, don’t link to members names, unless I know if they are publicly out as Unitarian Universalists.  We need to let people know what our values are. We should be proud to be Unitarian Universalists. Our religion asks people to live out their values.  That is not always so easy.  We are asking each other to think about the big important theological issues about ourselves and the world we live in. We ask that you not hide your thoughts, your  beliefs, and your doubts, but to come out of the closet and let your friends, family members and co-workers know you are a Unitarian Universalist.
Now, this past year I talked often about our values as Unitarian Universalists.  I believe a core foundation of our religion is inclusiveness and specifically our focus on religious freedom. We require no creed that you are required to agree with, but we do ask that you search for truth and meaning, and to keep an open mind to new ways of thinking and feeling and living in the world.  And this ties in to our vision that calls us “Feed the mind and spirit regardless of individual pathway” I think nothing speaks to this more clearly when last week one evening downstairs the Happy Human Book Club was meeting while upstairs there was a class on Native American Women’s Spirituality. 
And when we have a theological plurality, what is required is a relational theology, which speaks to the next part of our vision which is “Attracts and embraces people of diverse groups, ages and family types”  In truth, this vision is connected to respecting the individual pathway and respecting the different circumstances that each of us emerge from.  It is the juxtaposition of the individual and the community. If we respect individual pathways, we are going to have diversity. In this we are being intentional about stating that desire and acknowledging that different people have different needs, have different contexts to their lives, are on different parts of their journeys and even have different journeys than ours.
It is in the coming together that we learn of others lives, of their sorrows and their joys, it is by coming together and exploring together that we learn from each other and learn to see the world from a perspective different from our own.  And if we can accept that someone has a perspective different from our own, and that every person has the right to the same opportunities than it must lead us to the next part of our vision which is “ to Support social justice and social action initiatives in our congregation and the greater community”  Now I have spoken often from this pulpit why both personally and theologically we should why we as a Congregation should be involved in social justice (talk about upcoming social justice class), but today I want to recognize an anniversary.
Yesterday in Washington DC there was a commemoration marking the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom in 1963.  There will be a commemoration as well this Wednesday (the actual anniversary)  at 2:30pm in Davenport  at Lafayette Park. Fifty years. That seems so long ago.  I cant remember it. I was 4 years old when it happened. I only remember a few events of my life when I was 4 years old. (tonsils pulled)  Many of you were not even born when it happened.  Many of your may have clear but different memories of the event.  My memories of it are only from history books and tape recordings.  And yes a lot has changed in fifty years.
Since the March we as a country passed Civil Rights Legislation, Voting Rights legislation, Minimum Wage Laws.  There have been many advances,  with significant increases in African Americans graduating high school, and a significant drop in the % of African Americans living under the poverty limits. But as our MIRED (Mass Incarceration Racial Equity and Drugs) group became aware of, we still struggle as a nation with profiling, discrimination, and the ongoing encroaching loss of civil rights, especially for people of color.  And it is easy to forget that it was in my lifetime that police beat African Americans for sitting in a lunch counter, in my lifetime police used police dogs and water cannons on non violent African American protestors asking for their civil rights. In my lifetime, targeted assassinations were used to silent leaders of the civil rights movements in the south,  in collusion with local police and if one is a conspiracy buff the CIA. 
Last week I talked about a civil rights museum in Memphis housed at the Lorraine hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.  There was a woman who worked and lived at that hotel who was evicted when the museum was built.  Her name was Jacqueline Smith.  For 20 years thereafter Jacqueline Smith came rain or shine, she would hold a vigil outside the museum arguing that the 9 million dollars spent on the museum should be used to help the poor.  Every day for over 20 years, sometimes for 20 hours a day, she would set up tables and signs and talk to people going into the museum. The first time I went, I stopped and talked with her.  I have to admit, her argument sounded plausible,  Martin Luther King would not want a monument to himself, would not want the residents of the motel evicted, but would rather would want the money to go towards his work for economic and racial justice continued.  But the second time I visited the museum, I saw something that convinced me otherwise,  I saw busloads of elementary school age children getting off the bus to view the museum. And I realized then, and now, that there has been a whole generation that was not alive when these events occurred.
A few years ago, I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and I purchased a rock.  I literally carry it with me every day.  It says Remember. It’s a lump in my pocket, sometimes awkward taking up space, but its importance outweighs any discomfort it may cause me.  Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel  said “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”  We must never forget. We must never forget that many many people were murdered so we could even be at this point today.  It would be easy to forget.  But let us remember them black and white, those who died so all Americans could have the right to vote, so all Americans could have their civil rights.
This is why we commemorate these events. This is why maybe we even romanticize them a bit. Because we must never forget and we must keep reminding people of the pain and suffering that happened in my life time so hopefully it does not happen again or will be lessened in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes.
As Martin Luther King Jr. words which I read at the beginning said we cannot turn back. Let us move forward and let us continue to do the work that must be done to maintain the rights that people have died for such as the Voting Rights Act, we cannot turn back. To make sure that equal opportunity including economic opportunity are a reality for all. We cannot turn back. Let us make sure that we restore our 4th amendment rights to privacy that prohibit unreasonable  searches and seizures, a right that is all but ignored when applied to poor people of color and particularly immigrants.  We cannot turn back. Let us move forward.
Martin Luther King Jr. said ” Somewhere along the way of life, we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the  persistent work of dedicated individuals and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so it is necessary for us to help time and forever realize that the time is always right to do right.”  If we commit to our Congregational Vision, we will be doing right. So let us be guided  not by fear but by hope, Let us be guided not by indifference but by our values of inclusiveness and justice, Let us be guided not by our own self interest, but by love and compassion for others, and lastly  let us guided not by the immediate petty challenges, but by our Vision,  our Beautiful Vision of this Congregation. That vision is your dream, that you have chosen, and that as well is my dream for you. Beautiful Vision, May it be ever on your mind.  May it be so.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Lose Yourself, Find Yourself

When I was young, my older brother always gave me what I thought of at the time as great birthday presents.  Each year he would buy me a record album of a musical artist I had never heard of.  It took me years to figure they were records that he wanted, and since we shared the same bedroom, he effectively bought himself a gift.  But taking at least metaphysical ownership of the albums I listened to them and was opened to many new forms of music I might never otherwise have heard.  I am glad he had good taste in music. One year, my brother gave me a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee record.
This was my first introduction to Blues Music.  I had no idea who they were.  But I really got into it, and I would play this one song “Walk On” over and over again to the point of really annoying my brother (something I took pride in at the time and had some real skill at). its refrain went something like, (Singing: “Well, I might get worried, when my shoes get bent. I don't know where I’m goin', but I do know where I’ve been. Let's walk together now, I'm gonna keep on walkin', till I find my way back home. Walk on”)  Looking back on where we’ve been this summer we have journeyed through many musical genres.
I too have journeyed through many musical genres in my lifetime. Music has always been a big part of my life.  I was very fortunate when I was young to be able to attend Leonard Bernstein’s Concerts for young people in Lincoln Center in New York City (although at the time I wasn’t sure I was so fortunate).  Even so, I appreciated the quality of the music and august surroundings in which I observed the events.   Also once a year the Metropolitan Opera would perform a free Opera in the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.  Again, as a young child I could never appreciate the performance of people singing in a foreign language I did not understand. (Ironically that is similar to many religious experiences I had) But I did forever more associate opera with lying down on the fresh grass, with the beautiful scent of flowers in the air, having a pleasant picnic with my family and friends and falling asleep looking up at the stars.
I think this is also something unique about music, it is at the same individual, but also has a communal nature.  As I became an adolescent, I listened to a mellow southern California rock like the Eagles and Jackson Browne, and it was always exciting to be the first of my friends to discover a new artist as I did, when listening to NPR of all things, I was the first of my friends to discover Billy Joel.  Curiosity to learn new things has always been a part of my personality for better and worse.  Always looking for new ideas, or in this case new ways of expressing ideas and new ways of hearing them. The vehicle of delivery back then was record albums (does everyone know what a record album is? – something you fling as a Frisbee J) and oh we would spend hours searching for the perfect needle and sound system that would give us the purest sound. I am glad I didn’t buy into the whole 8 track technology.
Then sadly the next phase of my musical experience when I was a rebellious teenager was hard rock and punk rock.  After one too many 8 hour Electric Hot Tuna Concerts and one too many slam dancing episodes downstairs at Max’s Kansas City in Greenwich Village NY, I knew for my hearing and personal safety sake, I needed to find a new style of music.  Then in 1978 my sister presented me with a birthday present of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (Yes, she learned this trick from my brother) Maybe it just caught me at the right time in my life, but what I still think of today as the best album ever produced, actually made me think about Music in a deeper way.
The words and music spoke to me in a way seemed to address my circumstances in the world.  Words that spoke of good and evil, despair and hope, indifference and faith all in a context that I could relate to.  I remember to this day where I was when I first heard that albumn, and when I still play songs from it, it brings me back there. Reminds me of my past, where I have come from and how far I have grown over the years. Music provides those powerful emotional connectors for us.  It connects our minds to our emotions, it connects our emotions to a place in time, to an incident in our lives, to people in our lives.  And now with technology, it is even easier to play them endlessly over and over again  in a loop.  By doing so, just like having thoughts continually going in a loop, music can cause emotions to run through a loop in our brain again for better or worse.  Its why also with our new technology we have playlists, so we can play certain linked songs together. So I have various playlists, such as energetic (which I use when I theoretically go to the gym. I have another Playlist titled inspirational which I use when I need a reminder of the sense of wonder in the world. I have another playlist entitled Amazing Grace. For those who attended Rock and Roll Service Allen Bertsche talked and shared multiple versions of the same song and how different artists produced the same song very differently.  Well my playlist Amazing Grace has 13 different versions of the song.  I listen to this playlist every Sunday morning before walking into this building.  My musical journey has been much like my religious journey in life, from peacefully innocent, to gentle exploration, to rebelliousness to searching for depth.
When you don’t realize you are on a journey, you tend to just look for the next best thing. Whats on the top 40 this week, what is the current cultural milieu of the moment. But when you realize you are on a journey whether it be musical or religious its important to look back as well as forward and you try to be part of creating the cultural milieu instead of being swept up by it.   There is one musical genre, a genre born from pain and suffering, one more than any other genre of music (in my opinion) that makes one delve deep into the depths of their souls to help us on our journey in life. That music is the blues.  The Blues, which I first learned about from a well worn scratched album,  has its roots in Western and Central Africa. 
When African Men and women were kidnapped and brought to America and forced into slavery, they brought their music with them. Often the slaves were separated from their own tribesman so they didn’t always have a common language to communicate. But they could communicate with music. Even after slavery ended African Americans conditions remained cruel and harsh in America, and the blues were a form of secret protest songs.  They could not publicly sing about the cruelty of their white bosses without retribution, so they would substitute a woman as a way to publicly acknowledge injustice.  
They would sing That woman she took all my money, and treated me bad,” was their way of informing others that their bosses were stealing their money and treating them badly.  The Blues as a formal musical genre came into being in the early 1900s.  W.C Handy an orchestra band leader is given credit for being the person to transcribe and publish sheet music for the first blues song . In the song we heard, he is mentioned, and there is a big statue of him in downtown Memphis. Memphis is a great blues town. There is also a great civil rights museum there, in the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; it has been converted to an interactive civil rights museum. It is worth the trip to Memphis just to see this museum, even if you don’t like Blues Music. I bring this up, because, because race has played a tremendous part in the Blues.  In this country the Blues originated in the pain and sufferring of African Americans in the South.  After the great migration of African Americans north in the 20th century the music continued to spread throughout the Country. 
There are some who feel that the Blues should remain exclusively African American as it came out of the suffering of their past and that it cannot really be appreciated without the legacy of having gone through such suffering. I want to acknowledge that.  I also want to acknowledge that in some cases White Music producers made money often using abusive practices at the expense of the African American Musicians.  In many cases White Artists just appropriated or mis-appropriated the music based on your perspective and became financially successful playing the same music. 
But I also have to acknowledge my own experiences with the Blues. When I listen to the blues, it forces me to face my self at the deepest part of my soul, when Johnny Lee Hooker sings “Wasted Years, Been Brainswashed by Life” always reminds me to be intentional with my actions. The blues make me reflect on my past choices and affect how I make my future choices.  So although the Blues helped me with self reflection, they also helped me and I think this country face its own cultural blind spot.
 Although I came upon them later, the Blues really had an American Revival in the 1960s, when mostly white European Bands started re-recording many of classic African American Blues songs. It was almost as if American Bands wouldn’t acknowledge where the music came from, but the European artists like the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Cream would not only play the songs, but would tour with many of the African American artists revitalizing the music genre and the Blues artist’s careers. 
And by doing so, their history, their suffering, their music was able to see the light of day and help change the cultural milieu of the this country. Its important to know where you’ve been, but often we only know where we have been from our own perspective. Listening to music from other cultures can help us understand where other people have been. For if we don’t know each others stories, we make up stories about others from our own perspective or we accept the perspective of our dominant culture. Music and particularly the blues are one way to hear the stories of others, the story of pain, some similar to ours, some very different.
We shouldnt dwell in our or others suffering forever, but we should acknowledge it.  We all suffer in different ways. For me, to say that the blues can only be for one type of suffering is to limit its power. In the movie Crossroads, which is an imaginary tale of an elderly Bluesman Willie Brown and a young admiring White Blues guitarist, at the end of the movie when they are parting ways, the young guitarist pleads for them to stay together.  But the elderly Willie Brown says, “You have to move on without me, you have to take the music someplace else, you have to take the music beyond where you found it” 
I think that is the same with music in general and one’s religious life as well.  I can speak up here, and I do hope it provokes some thought or feeling in you, but I hope it doesnt end here inside these walls. I would hope for you to take what you are hearing, what you are feeling, what you are thinking, whether heard in song or speech and take it deeper and farther than just this one hour.  I would hope for you to contemplate on why it moves you, why it provokes you. Even if what you feel conflicts with what you believe in the very core of your being, you need to understand why it raises a conflict in you.
If you are not intentional about doing so, it will just fritter away and you just listen to the next top 40 hit, you will be swept away by the current of the cultural milieu of the day instead of creating it. I ask you look deeply at your beliefs and take them into your very being and how you live your day to day life so you can be transformed in all that you do. That is what the blues does for us. It makes us face ourselves, it doesn’t deny our suffering,  it makes us face our suffering, not just to slip it under the rug, it doesn’t sugar coat it, but in a cathartic way it confronts us and then tells us there is a way out.

It points us forward, to a way out of suffering. Sometimes we have to first become more aware of ourselves; sometimes we have to be willing to lose ourselves, before we can find ourselves. Sometimes the journey to awareness is hard, but that is why we come together. Let us walk together now. Let us keep on walking, let us walk on until we find what we are looking for. Let us look for more love, for there is more love somewhere. So now I ask you rise in body and or spirit and join in hymn number 95 – There is more love somewhere.