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