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