Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Diversity

Reading A Powell Davies:“At every level, people are almost good, they are tempted to be good, but they resist the temptation. The struggle is seldom between good and evil, but between good and almost good. Truth trembles on the tongue, is almost spoken, and then not quite spoken. Everyone present seems relieved. It saves embarrassment. Yet everyone is also disappointed, deeply and secretly disappointed. It has happened again. The same old surrender. The same old defeat. It need not have happened.  Sometimes thank god, it does not happen. Truth really is spoken, and in spite of embarrassment, even in spite of protest and dismay, all who hear it know that humanity has been lifted a little higher in that moment and thus, there is more of hope for all of us. Someone has been tempted to do good.”  

There is no question to the debate that biological diversity is beneficial and necessary for our eco-system. I think this speaks to the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.  From the very basics of reproduction, we know our species needs a diversity of gender to reproduce. Some species do not need that, but humans still do.   In nature we see this. As humanity and its ability to reproduce expands,  we crowd out other species.  And that has repercussions as well.  Such as when the natural predator of deer such wolves, cougars, bobcats etc are forced out of communities because of the dangers they pose to humans, we get an overflow of deer in our communities. Not that I want wolves and cougars roaming our streets, but to point out that limiting diversity has unintended consequences. We know diversity is beneficial on a microbiological level as well allowing different species to survive, part of an evolutionary spiral that has allowed humans to survive as well.   
I always think to the ending lines of the HG Well’s book (and the movie) War of the Worlds when the aliens were defeated by bacteria. “From the moment the invaders arrived, breathed our air, ate and drank, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. By the toll of a billion deaths, humans had earned their immunity, their right to survive among this planet's infinite organisms. Humans do not live or die in vain”  I want to highlight it doesn’t say our right to destroy other organisms but to survive among them.  In this country in particular we have a long history of destroying and enslaving and discriminating against others who have been different from us. 
But as the quote in the order of service by Rebecca Parker indicates, “As I gain more knowledge, I enter into a different community, a community of presence, awareness, responsibility, and consciousness.” – So what are we aware of in regard to diversity in our Congregation. There are many different types of diversity.  Age of congregants from infants to our oldest members who are over 90, length of time in the Congregation, some just new, some who have been here over 40 years, diversity in theology (here that is a big one), Diversity in Sexual orientation and gender identity, diversity in liturgical preferences (some like people greeting each other, some people hate that), diversity in style of music, (some like classical, some like hymns, some like rock), we have economic diversity, we have educational diversity, we have Physical diversity. We are more accepting of some of these diversities than others. But we should be accepting of all types of diversities, for all are worthy.  
There is of course one more diversity that I want to speak of today, and that is racial diversity.  We are most racially diverse amongst our children. And that is a start.  As they grow, we have to consider how they will feel welcome here. How will they develop their identity? 
I am thrilled that we have so many multi-racial families here so that our children and their parents as they grow, will have a community that they can identify with.  I think that is an important part of development. What role models do we have. Are there others like us in the world. So often we feel cut off, alienated from others, that we need a community that helps us identify with who we are and what we believe.  Our religious identity is one of religious freedom. But we all come in here with many identities, including some with multiple religious identities. 
That is the rub. We come together to search for meaning, to learn how to be our unique selves, and as well how to feel comfortable doing that while in relationship with others who are their own unique selves.  I imagine for someone new, it is hard to figure out how to belong here, how to connect here.   How to engage with others, especially when they don’t automatically self-identify with others.  That is easier with some other religions.  They can point to a birthright, or a cross, or a set of strict rules to follow.  Here it takes building relationships. It requires A radical hospitality.  I was particularly moved by the words of Lonni Pratt in her book entitled (not surprisingly) Radical Hospitality.  She writes “Hospitality does not focus on the goal of being hospitable. It is not about the one offering hospitality. Instead, it is singularly focused on the object of hospitality—the stranger, the guest, the delightful other. One of the inherent problems with programs to develop radical hospitality is the focus on hospitality as a goal. Hospitality requires that our focus is on the other rather than attainment of a concept.”   We have to not only care about others, but we also need to engage with others.   Particularly with others who might be different in some way from you. In fact in some way everyone is different from you.  
In my first year here, we had a visitor who was interested in our church, and came to me and said, he thought he would not be accepted because his body was completely covered in tattoos and the one time he attended here, no one talked to him during coffee time.    Among people even of my generation and particularly of younger generations, tattoos are becoming more commonplace.  I know it makes some uncomfortable, but sometimes to be radically hospitable we have to be uncomfortable. But I didn’t know how to answer his question. So I was honest. I told him I didn’t know how everyone would react. I told him about our first principle of the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  I told him about the right of conscience and our belief in individual expression. 
I told him though, each person is on a different part of their journey, and some have not travelled as far as others.  It is critical for us to be willing to remain on the journey, to keep our minds and hearts open to new and different people, open to the other, for by rejecting the other, we oppress them. Think about who it is that you avoid at coffee hour?  We don’t like to think of ourselves as oppressors, but every time we reject someone, or ignore them,  that is what we are doing.  We are all on an ongoing journey of awareness. Sometimes being with someone different than ourselves can make us feel insecure, we can feel lost, and don’t know what to do.  We just sort of feel stuck.
And as it is in coffee time, so it is in the greater world as well. We know there is inequality, we know there is discrimination, we know there is injustice. We know we can and should do something to create a more just world. You may feel that you have personally not acted in such a way, so your hands are clean. You may feel you have struggled to achieve what you have, so therefore anyone has that opportunity.  I challenge you stay on your journey and to challenge your assumptions.  If we believe in our principles, if we believe that every person should have the opportunity to be able to live up to their full potential, than we cannot be stuck when young children are being given a substandard education, we cannot be stuck when young children are going to school hungry every day and our country reduces food stamps while approving farm subsidies. We cannot be stuck when we know that there is ongoing discrimination in the workplace. We cannot be stuck when youth and young adults of color are routinely stopped and searched and arrested and fed into the prison system and thereafter denied their opportunity to live out their full potential.  We must not be stuck.  We must continue on our journey. As the quote I read earlier said, once we have knowledge, we also enter into a community of responsibility. Once we know, we cannot shut our eyes to this. We must continue on the journey.
I am reminded of a story I read somewhere of a traveler driving through the corn and soy fields of Iowa, that after driving in for a while, became convinced that they was on the wrong road, and so, at the first town they came to they stopped. Calling one of the townspeople to the car window, they said, friend, I need help. I m lost. The towns person looked at them for a moment and asked “do you know where you are: Yes, said the traveler, I saw the name of the town as I entered. The towns person nodded his head. Do you know where you want to go, yes, the traveler replied, and named their destination.  The villager looked away for a moment ruminating. You not lost, you just need directions.”   
We know where we are.  We have continually educate ourselves on multiculturalism,  anti-racism, and anti-oppression issues and we need to continue to do so. We know where we are going.  We are trying to build the beloved community, where all are welcome, where all are loved for who they are, where all have the opportunity to reach their full potential of their humanity. But we need some directions on how to get there. Rev.  Jo Ellen Willis says  “The problem of theology in the work of anti-racism, I would suggest lies not in its theory but in its practice. It is not the acknowledgment of evil that restrains us. We have the will to acknowledge the imperfections of the world and the shortcomings of our society. We are almost good. What we lack is the courage to acknowledge that we ourselves are imperfect in relationships with oppressed groups. What we lack is the perseverance to see such a task to completion. And what we lack is the grace to be humble. Intellectual courage is not in short supply among us. We are brave in our reflections. We are not so bold in our actions.“  
So I invite you to be humble. To not judge others on their differences. And as well I invite you to be bold. I invite you to join our Social Justice Group MIRED and their work with Drug Court, I invite you to be bold and join our lgbtqia group and participate in our QC Pride booth in June. I invite you to be bold, to join the At Risk Youth Group in their tutoring. I invite you to be bold, to join our immigration group as we meet next Saturday with Hispanic and other Community Group Leaders to see what we can do to bring justice surrounding immigration issues. I invite you to be bold, to work with our partner Quad Cities interfaith on their 100 ready worker program which is training economically and socially disadvantaged individuals for Constructions jobs that will be coming to the Quad Cities. I invite you to be bold and to become engaged with people that are different than you.  We are not all like minded people, but just because someone is different, doesn’t mean they are wolves and cougars that need to be kept away, they are just fellow travelers with the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their families, that you have.
Because it is not so much about the good work that we will do, it is as much about how the engagement with others changes us as well. It makes us more aware of those who are unlike us in some ways, and as well like us in other ways….and by so doing transforms us into a more compassionate person.  And when you meet anyone in the community who may be different than you, let them know that you are a Unitarian, that our religion is a religion of true hospitality, a religion of caring, a religion of love, a religion where people are free to believe and free to be who they are and grow into who they want to become.  Let us be better than almost good, let us do good. 
Let us hear that voice within that says I can be loving and compassionate in all my actions.  Let us hear that voice within us that tells us when something is not just Let us hear that voice within and give  it a sound and speak our truth to others in word and in action. For when we hear the truth spoken, deep down we know it.   And if we don’t respond to the truth, something inside us dies, and when we do respond to the truth, we know we feel alive in a way that is beyond description. Let us continue our journey. May we do good, let us speak the truth, let us feel alive. May it be so.



Saturday, March 22, 2014

Oblivion – a 6 out of 10 on the JWO scale.

The message of this movie is you can never have enough Tom Cruises and drones are bad.  It was a slow moving but interesting sci-fy movie about a post alien invasion. It shows us  how the stories we are told are not necessarily true,  how the memories in our subconscious can lead the way to transformation, and how true love always wins out in the end.  Not bad messages, but I could have gotten there sooner. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Blooming in Love

There is an old zen story about a person who while walking in the wilderness hears a vicious tiger growling. They run as fast as they can, but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save themself, they climb down a vine and dangle over the fatal precipice. As the person hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. they plucked it and popped it in their mouth. It was incredibly delicious!  That is where the story ends. I always thought this was such a powerful story.
I could do a whole hour sermon on this story but I promise you, not today.  The tiger on top is our past chasing us, always reminding us we cannot go back from whence we came.  The bottom of the cliff represents the end, the unknown future, including our hopes and dreams.  Even as we live in a precarious world, with rats chewing on the vine, we can chose to live in the moment and to taste the sweet taste that is the blueberry that is life.  I’d like to add a little ending to this story, that the person looks up and realizes that the growl is really just the purring of a kitty cat.   Sometimes the voices in our head and the wounds from our past, if not dealt with grow and spread within us and sound and feel worse then they actually have to be.  Sometimes we have to let the growling of the past go. 
We have planted new flowers that are blooming.  We can choose to live in the present moment, and if we are aware, and stay in that moment, if we pay attention, that fruit can taste sweet, that bloom can be beautiful, our congregation will be caring and compassionate.  If we pay attention we will realize we are blooming in Service and Love right here and right now. Over the last two years we have grown from 198 members to 209 members to 229 members. We are reaching more people with our message, and we can reach even more with our message of religious freedom, and our vision for a just society and a life of deep meaning, and real community.  In past years we have planted many seeds that have been coming to bloom in the many programs this Congregation has been offering.  We now have six active social justice programs, we have numerous Adult RE programs and Connections Circles, Just this year we created a lay pastoral care team and a Spiritual Practices and Programs Team. We have continued our long commitment to a strong Children’s Religious Education program.
So the question is what is next. What seeds will we plant today and what will they produce in the future.  During the last Calendar year we as a Congregation have been discerning what comes next. The result of that has led to our Strategic Plan, which we have been communicating with the Congregation over the last few months. One of the key recommendations of the Strategic Plan is the hiring of 4 new part time Administrative positions to free up staff and volunteers to spend more time on programming and less time on Administration.  I am here to report today that through the generosity of 23 member of this Congregation and a grant from the Mid American Region Chalice Lighters, we have raised  150,000 separate and apart from our operating budget to ensure that we will be able to hire and to retain all of these positions for a total of four years.  Those four years will give us the time to implement this plan, with the goal that these positions will be self funded after four years. Those funds are committed though only for the new positions.  We still need to maintain and enhance our current operating budget even as some long time members have moved or passed away. We need you to be as generous as you can be.  We are asking for you to increase your pledge 20% or more to help create and build an environment that will provide powerful moments and a rich religious life for you and others for years to come.  
The future is unknown.  Sometimes like the person in the story, hanging by the vine, when we look down, the distance looks so far away, so dangerous.  But with good planting of our hopes and dreams, as we have done with our strategic plan and with the proper watering and care of our community, our lives our Congregation can continue to bloom in love and service. What our fears and uncertainty once imagined was such a large way to fall, with the clarity of forethought, we can realize the ground is only a few feet from us.  We just have to be willing let go of our fear and uncertainty and take a short leap of faith.  I think of the  Moonlight Graham quote from the movie Field of Dreams when looking back on his life he says,  “You know, we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'Well, there'll be other days.' I didn't realize that that was the only day.”  And in that manner,  I believe this is a significant time in our Congregation’s life.  I ask you to recognize that we have a unique opportunity here now, this day to make a difference in our lives for the rest of our lives and in the life of the Quad Cities.  We just need to let go of the vine and land on our feet.
And so, as I have asked you to be committed to having your values shape your actions, I too as well commit to have my values shape my actions.  I believe in the present and the future of this Congregation,  and I present you with my pledge card which equals 5% of my income.
This is not easy for me, but we are defined by the choices we make. I believe in what our religion has to offer and how this Congregation has added meaning to peoples lives. I have seen it first hand in my experiences over the last two and half years.  I have seen you bloom, Bloom in service and love.  I believe in you. May you keep on blooming. May it be so.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Movie Review – Inside Llewellyn Davis – an 8.5 out of 10 on the JWO Scale

In the movie there is a scene with a back and forth with the lead male character and the lead female character where he says “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who divide the world into two kinds of people and (and then she interrupts him and says) and losers.  I feel that way about the Coen Brothers movies. Either you love them as deeply meaningful insights into life, or you think they are boring droll.  I admit I am in the former category, but I am open to there being nuance and I think that is the message the movie is trying to send. The balance of pure integrity and selling out and  how difficult it is to find a balance between the two. It is the story of  a folk musician in the Greenwich Village Scene in the 1960s who is struggling to make it and his downward spiral into bitterness.  There are so many layers to the movie, some subtle (John Goodman Character and his driver), some not so subtle, (like when his father defecates after Llewellyn plays him a song. ).  Davis is aghast that his friend wrote a song that Davis considered beneath him, but it becomes popular and Llewellyn misses out on the royalties. Its more complex than that but the irony is obvious and dripping.

For me, there were two scenes that were unbelievably powerful. One involves when he is leaving a car, and he has to decide whether to take his cat along with him.  Technically not his cat, but one he had adopted and taken on this road trip he was on.  In that instance, there was an eternity. Making the harder choice is, (it would be hard to audition at a club with a cat in tow), or making a necesarry choice to abandon one’s responsibility and leave others (the cat in this instance) to the hands of fate and the one’s fellow companions.  We often know when we are faced with that choice, when we have to leave someone or something behind, knowing it will be hurtful to them, but knowing we can not move forward with them. We try to rationalize, and it may be necessary, but it doesn’t make the choice easier or the ramifications less painful. And the choice we make determines the fate of both for better or worse.  

The second scene was on the return trip to New York, from the road trip, and he sees the exit for his ex-girlfriend and son’s town in Ohio.  Again in that moment he has to make a decision as to whether to get off, to possibly reconnect and become part of a family and trade in his dream to be a performer.  The choices we make, sometimes to continue on, to not settle, leads to our destruction. Sometimes complete abdication of our integrity leads to our destruction as well. Its scenes like this that make me still thinking about the movie and its depth.  The choices are stark in the movie, but in real life, it is not always that obvious. 

Side note - The Coen brothers are so good at creating caricatures. Their portrayal of the New York City upper west side intelligentsia who want their friends to meet their “folk singer friend” and are overly forgiving no matter how boorish and ungrateful Davis is,  was spot on.   The folk music was nice as well. 

A good movie to see, A good movie to dwell on. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Powerful Moments

I would like to share with you this morning a story by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner called  To Give and Receive A long time ago in the northern part of Israel, in the town of Safed, the richest man in town was sleeping, as usual, through the morning religious services. Every now and then he would almost wake up, trying to get comfortable on the hard wooden bench, and then sink back into a deep sleep.
            One morning he awoke just long enough to hear the chanting of the Torah verses in which God instructs the children of Israel to place twelve loaves of bread on a table in the ancient wilderness tabernacle.  He nodded back off, When the services ended, the wealthy man woke up.  He thought that God had come to him in his sleep and had asked him personally to bring twelve loaves of bread to God. The rich man felt honored that God should single him out.  Of all the things God could want from a person, twelve loaves of bread did not seem very important.  But who was he to argue?
            He went home and baked the bread.  Upon returning to the synagogue, he decided that the only proper place for his holy gift was along side the Torah scrolls in the ark. (for those who have never been in a temple, in Judaism, the first five books in the bible are called the Torah and they are kept in the pulpit area usually in a ornamental closet called an ark. ) Anyway,  He carefully arranged the loaves and said “Thank you God for telling me what You want of me.  Pleasing you makes me very happy.”  Then he left. No sooner had he gone than the poorest Jew in town entered the sanctuary.  All alone, he spoke to God.  “O Lord, I am so poor.  My family is starving; we have nothing to eat.  Unless you perform a miracle for us, we will surely perish.”  As was his custom, he ascended the pulpit area and opened the ark, and there before him were twelve loaves of bread!  “A miracle!” exclaimed the poor man.  “I had no idea you worked so quickly!  Thank you for answering my prayers.”           Then he ran home to share the bread with his family.  Minutes later the rich man returned to the sanctuary, curious to know whether God ate the bread.  Slowly he ascended the pulpit area, opened the ark, and saw that the bread was gone.  “Oh my God!” he shouted.  “You really ate my bread!  I thought you were teasing.  This is wonderful!  You can be sure that I’ll bring another twelve loaves---with raisins in them, too!”
            The following week, the rich man brought a dozen loaves to the synagogue and again left them in the ark.  Minutes later, the poor man entered the sanctuary.  “God, I don’t know how to say this, but I’m out of food again.  Seven loaves we ate, four we sold, and one we gave to charity. (that’s 8.3333% that went to charity) But now, nothing is left and, unless You do another miracle, surely we will starve.”  He approached the ark and slowly opened the doors.“Another miracle!” he cried. “Twelve more loaves, and with raisins, too!  Thank you, God.  This is wonderful!”
            The bread exchange became a weekly ritual that continued for many years.  And, like most rituals that become routine, neither man gave it much thought.  Then one day the rabbi, detained in the sanctuary longer than usual, watched the rich man place the dozen loaves in the ark and the poor man redeem them. The rabbi called the two men together and told them what they had been doing. “I see,” said the rich man sadly, “God doesn’t really eat bread.” “I understand,” said the poor man, “God hasn’t been baking bread for me after all.” Then the rabbi asked them to look at their hands. “Your hands,” he said to the rich man, “are the hands of God giving food to the poor. And your hands,” the rabbi said to the poor man, “are also the hands of God, receiving gifts from the rich.  So you see, God can still be present in your lives. Continue baking and continue taking.  Your hands are the hands of God!!” 
I just love this story. It is great on so many levels. First and foremost I like the fact that poor person gave away 1 of the 12 loaves of bread to charity. By giving one of the loaves to charity, the poor person showed gratitude and recognized that there were others who were even more in need than he and that even though poor, he could still help in a small way. Now on one level the story shows us how our perceptions can deceive us, but on another level it shows us how sometimes we need myths to help guide us to do the right things, and yet on another level it shows us that with awareness of truth, we can choose to be in relationship with others, we can choose from our own free will to give, we can choose to do the right thing. For when you clear away the myth, we are enriched by the giving of ourselves to something worthy, and we are enriched by the receiving of gifts from others. It is a reminder that we are not alone in this world, but that we have been brought together by whatever forces, to share our journey together with each other.  And of course the story on its deepest level, gives us one of the the deep universal truth…that you should never fall asleep during service!!   
What I liked about the story as well was the powerful moments that these events evoked in the characters lives.  Over the past 2 and half years as we had today we have had Congregants sharing their Powerful moments from their experiences in this Congregation.
Throughout the various stories we have heard our members tell us, there have been some common themes that have been reflected that I want to share with you. Quality and diversity of services, specifically including lay led services and the ability for lay leaders to participate in a worship service. I think that is and has been a strong and long tradition within Unitarian Universalism, hearing lay leaders voices in the pulpit.  We believe in the Prophethood and Priesthood of all believers.  We believe revelation is ongoing and can come from multiple sources.  I think it is more than that though. 
Going through the process of learning about and leading worship gives people the opportunity to understand more deeply what the meaning of worship is.  Leading worship forces one to think about what others needs are versus our own needs.  Other themes of powerful moments included Being heard by others in a non judgmental environment.  Receiving support and acceptance, even if ones ideas are not same as others,  allowing us  to search for our own theological path.    By far the most common theme was about making connections. Meeting like minded people,  sometimes meeting people different than ourselves, being challenged, Being pushed to grow, Making life long friends, one person meeting ones future spouse.  One person put it very succinctly by indicating that their powerful moment was  “Meeting those who became the most important people in their lives.”  Others shared that being a part of this community was being like a family – with ups and downs, but knowing there are people you can count on. That this Congregation is the Center of their family life, the Symbol of their identity, a place of joy and hope, A gift from the universe.  Others experienced powerful moments in the way we apply our religion to the world we live in through our social justice efforts.   And lastly for today, there was the sharing of the beauty of our gathering place, they said “the trees dance for us”.  (talk about coming into Congregation at night when the sun sets and it is meditative)
Now we would like to be able to share with others how powerful this Congregation can be.  So today, downstairs, after the service, we are asking you to be part of a video we are creating, where we will be asking you for a short statement as to why you love this Congregation.   If we believe this Congregation has been powerful and meaningful for our lives why would we not want to share it. 
In fact I would say we are impelled to share our message, to share our message of religious freedom, to share our message of learning, to share our message of transformation.  So I invite you to share and to have your voices heard for others to hear.
I can tell you for myself, the reason Unitarian Universalism has been powerful is very similar to the statements you offered.  I remember the first time I led a service after being a worship associate and how that was a powerful moment in my life.  You may find it shocking, but prior to that moment, I had never done any public speaking.  In fact, I was quite shy.  But somehow in that moment I found my voice, and since then, it has been hard to keep me quiet!!  In addition to finding connections, Unitarian Universalism  provided me the opportunity to think deeply about my religious and spiritual life without rigid creeds or criteria.  For me it was connection circles and spiritual sharing groups, which are small groups that encourage individuals to think about the big questions in life.   And lastly Unitarian Universalism showed me a path as to how and why to live out my values in the world.  
I learned how to de-compartmentalize my life so I could live a life of wholeness.   It is something I wish for everyone’s experience with our religion and with our Congregation.
I want to share with you why this Congregation continues to provide Powerful moments for me.  First, and foremost, you called me as your minister. You placed your trust in me to be your religious and spiritual leader.  It is a trust I respect and endeavor to maintain every day in all my actions as we work together to fulfill the Congregation’s  vision and mission.  
Your ongoing support as we work together towards this end is powerful to me.  I am always moved by your compassion and your love for each other.  When there is a need in our community, I know, I know without a doubt, that people will rise up and care for others.  Your compassion is powerful. And not just within the Congregation but also without.  When there is an injustice in the larger community,  I  am moved by your commitment for justice.   A commitment to make the Quad Cities a better place for all to live and for all to have opportunities to thrive. I tell you what else I am moved by is that here we can make a difference.  In some communities the Unitarian Universalist voice and its values are merely a whisper. But here in the Quad Cities, due to the long history of our work in the community over the past almost 150 years, in the seats of power, in the seats of interfaith groups, in the seats government, we and our values are known.  Ours can be a voice at the table if we choose to make it heard. I am moved by the commitment of so many of you.  Who year after year, join together, to make the programs that happen at the Congregation happen. (recognize coffee house volunteers) I am moved by your commitment towards learning,  your commitment to being open to new ideas and your commitment and openness to change.  I know change can be hard, whether that is change in your personal life, or change in our congregational life,  but it is doing the hard things, overcoming our fears, overcoming our struggles overcoming our isolation, and overcoming our pre-ordained ideas of how things should be, it is in overcoming of all of this that we find our meaning. 
I think what is so powerful about Unitarian Universalism, that you speak of in your powerful moments, is part of our first principle. We speak of worthiness.  When you are heard, when you feel compassion, when you realize you are part of a caring community your inherent worth is raised up within you and when you feel worthy, it is easier to be authentic. And when you are authentic with yourself, and with others, you become more self aware and more aware of others around you as well, and you become less defensive and you learn to trust, to trust yourself, and to trust others you are in relationship with.  
This coming week I ask you to reflect on how this Congregation has been meaningful for you. Or how this Congregation could be meaningful for you as you engage more in the life of the Congregation.  This week will be for contemplation, Next weekend as you heard earlier will be for celebration.  We will come together in celebration, and with a spirit of generosity, with a spirit of  hope, with a spirit of community.  A community, where we walk together on our journey.  As we walk on our journey, I ask you to continue baking, by the giving of your gifts, and to continue taking, by being enriched by others and the many programs of our Congregation. Your hands, all of your hands are the hands of God!!” May it be so.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Reason and Reverence

As I continue my sermon series on the sources of our Living Tradition, which the first five sources can be found at the front of our hymnal, today we shall explore our fifth source “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;”    Just like the word God has many different meanings to many different people, the word humanism has many different meanings to many different people. We often equate humanism with atheism, but I think that is just a narrow definition of it. We think of humanism as uniquely Unitarian. 
But if you use the definition that we heard in the opening reading by John Dietrich, it could be incorporated into many forms of religious thought, some going back to second century writings of Christians. However with the protestant reformation in the 1500s, and with that the critical study of the Bible, there was an ongoing and progressive change towards how people viewed the Bible, God and Humans place in the world toward a more human centric view.  Today though we are looking at Humanism as a source for our religion Unitarian Universalism.  For our source doesn’t say all humanist teachings.  It says humanist teaching which council us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.  
I am stuck on the phrase idolatries of the mind and spirit.   My first thought was the Ten Commandments. “Thou shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them”  Now clearly the Hebrews were trying to change the cultural religious milieu of idol worship in their time. Although they believed in an active living God, it was not a physical God that could be seen, not a physical god manifesting in the world. At best a gaseous cloud, or burning bush.
The message though for me even reading that, is not to make idols of anything especially because what we make idols of we consder God.  This rejection of idolatry is a common theme throughout eastern religion as well.  There is an old Zen Koan that says “if you meet the Buddha on the Road kill him”  Now this is obviously not literally telling us to kill the Buddha.  It is telling us to kill our image of perfection. Our image of perfection is just that an image.  We need to understand our own nature, and not someone elses nature. 
There was a great movie that came out a few years ago called Kumare, where an American of Indian descent dressed and acted like a guru and attracted quite a large following.  His teaching throughout was to help people unveil their true selves.  The funny thing is he also connected with many of the people.  He called the character Kumare his ideal self, but it wasn’t who he was. He was a filmmaker. At the end when he unveiled himself, he started by saying “By now you must understand my teaching. The external guru is an illusion. The external guru only exists to help you find the truth,  that the guru is inside of you.”   Most of the people even after he unveiled himself, stayed in touch with him and found his teachings meaningful.  So what is the lie, what is the truth.  And what is the fine line between idol and respected teacher. For me it is about discernment.  I have studied with Buddhist teachers. Some famous, some unknown, but ultimately we need to ask the questions of ourselves. Too often we stop looking within for our answers. We are always looking to others for answers.  And to some degree that is ok.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we should use our mind, our free mind to discern what is real, and what is a false image. What is  important and what is wasteful, what is meaningful and what is insignificant. So I ask you to think about what is it that you consider an idol today? What or who do you hold up without reservation? 
Often in our society material wealth is held up as idol. I am not against material wealth, but In the end though, we have to look at what gives meaning to our lives. A certain amount of material wealth, allows us to take time to think about what gives meaning to our lives. It is hard when our culture focuses on the adulation of the idol.  One of the highest rated television shows over the past number of years in American has been American Idol.  Now I admit I like listening to good performances of music. But we call it an Idol, where we pare down, from many to a few until we have just one. We live in a culture of celebrity. It is hard to escape it.  Too often people compare themselves these idols or the image of these idols and often feel they don’t live up to some imaginary standard of the Idol.  Alone on a pedestal. 
Whether it is entertainment, sports, business, even parenting, we are always measuring ourselves against some imagined ideal instead of looking within at own reality and measuring ourselves against what we are capable of in our circumstances.   What we find meaningful, and whether we are working towards living our lives based on what gives us meaning. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning requires us to keep asking questions, and to keep an open mind.  Recently I don’t know how many of you saw the debate on evolution between creationist Ken Ham and the Scientist Billy Nye (the science guy). One of the questions asked was “what would make you change your mind”  Bill Nye responded “proof” and Ken Ham responded “nothing.”  Clearly one of them had created an idol of their vision of the truth. I am not judging him because of his view on creationism. I don’t understand it, but I am not judging. It is the lack of openness to change that I struggle with.  There are things I believe very strongly in, things that I think are healthy for my life, meditation, vegetables, statins to lower my cholesterol.  But if new information came out about them that said they were bad for me I would at least have to consider the new information in my decision making.  
There are times when we are just unaware and not paying attention, and we need to awaken ourselves to truth. Once we are awakened, we need to be active and become intentional in the use of that truth.   That is why our source calls for the guidance of reason and the scientific knowledge. Guidance.   I think my cholesterol is a good example of this.  For years I was just unaware that my eating habits were causing my cholesterol to go up.  I was not intentional about my eating.  Pizza, ice cream, bagels, sometimes mixing all three together.  A pizza bagel with ice cream. Ooh that does not sound good, but when you are young, you experiment, what can I say.
Anyway, About 15 years ago, when my doctor gave me my cholesterol reading of over 300 I started paying attention.  My doctor gave me medication to lower it. I did a lot of studying about food.  And I started being more intentional about what I eat.  Clearly I have not been able to give up the bagels. But I am conscious of it, and I pay attention to it and try to eat them in moderation. The proof though as they say is in the pudding. My cholesterol levels have been under 200 since then.  So let us look at other areas in our life such as our religious life. So often we go through life just going through the motions and not really paying close attention. 
Often we don’t think about the big questions of life until a tragedy strikes us.  But with personal tragedy there is no magic pill like there is with cholesterol.  That is why it is important  to consistently be intentional about your religious and spiritual health in the same way we should be about our physical and mental health. And with new knowledge and each new experience we have in life, just as with other areas of life we need to reassess our religious and spiritual life. Even myself, someone who is steeped in religiosity. I meet with a spiritual director each month, I consistently read up on new information and I meet with a study group monthly to be intentional about my religious life. I ask you to do the same, to ask or re-ask  yourself and discern about the big questions in your life. I encourage you to participate in one of our many adult enrichment classes that will challenge, and encourage you to be intentional about asking those big quesitons.  Or sit at home and talk with your family about these issues. Or meditate or pray or journal on these issues.  But I encourage you to be intentional about asking the questions.  This quest for truth and discernment has always been a part of our Unitarian culture.
William Ellery Channing, as far back as 1828 spoke in humanistic terms comparing humans to God and our need to care for each other and to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.   In the second half of the 19th century when the American Unitarian Association focus was on a more Christian oriented  theology many humanists from the east exiled themselves to the Free Religious Association and the Churches in the West formed the Western Unitarian Conference, which was decidedly more humanistic than the Christian oriented churches in the east. In the twentieth Century Unitarianism in particular and Universalism to a slightly lesser degree became much more humanist.  There developed a strong anti-theist following among the Humanists. Possibly some of this was defensive against a culture steeped in theism.  Yet I think most of it was a reaction to tragedy that we were not prepared for.  I don’t think it is coincidence that humanism grew significantly in our association after World War I and II.   Many people just could not accept that a divinely controlled universe would allow such widespread destruction and devastation. The alternative was that God was not a loving just God. Some people would just prefer no God than a God that would allow such tragedy. 
As well we realized whether theist or non theist, we wanted to take responsibility for the outcome of our existence.  John Dietrich’s wrote and preached extensively about the Unity of humanity and a vision of societal salvation versus individual salvation.  I think when the theological pendulum swung to its fullest extent to Unitarian Humanism, the humanists within Unitarianism left out this religious aspect of humanism.  To me when I say religious I think about a sustaining, transformative, inspiring community (which could inlcude atheists and theists) a community that asks about life’s big questions and how we are to respond to those questions. 
What our religious tradition offers us is the freedom to ask and answer those questions with the understanding that different people will come up with different answers.  That is the nature of freedom.  But even freedom can become idolatrous.
  I think James Luther Adams put it best  when he wrote
“Human tragedy derives from the fact that we have…a freedom to exercise the infinitely higher powers of human nature in terms of creative love, and a freedom to waste them in mere lassitude and triviality, or to pervert them for the sake of a will to power.”

I admit I struggle at times with humanism in that it can lead to the thought that all things not human are here for the purpose to as Dietrich said to “unfold the personality of men and women”   There did not for a long time seem to be a focus on the interdependency of humanity and the rest of existence. As well as I spoke of earlier the search within, also can at times in and of itself can become idolatrous and lead to narcissism. Our inward search must lead us somewhere other than just our own self fulfillment. We can never be whole just by ourselves. If we see ourselves as separate from others than we are not whole. Until our humanity is connected with the whole of humanity, we can never be whole. 
I have and continue to call myself a mystical humanist.  I have just had too many personal experiences that I just cannot explain with reason.  That doesn’t lead me to a position of a supernaturalism, but neither will I make an idol of my humanism and deny my experiences. I feel I am part of something greater than just my personal existence in the Universe. There is an unknown to the Universe and that is what calls me to the mystical part of my descriptor and this religion which asks me to have a free and responsible search for truth, requires me to search the unknown. 

However I am still a humanist in that I do not believe just because there is a great unknown in the Universe I can abdicate my responsibility to myself, my community, my society, my world. We are all in this together, in this crazy interdependent web of existence. We humans, conscious, sentient beings, we have a purpose, and if we can find our way, one day we may find peace of mind, and as well peace in the world. May it be so, and may we work to make it so.  

Saturday, March 01, 2014

March 2017 - "Its that Time of Year"

March 2017 – “It’s That Time Of Year”
I am so excited that there is such a depth of programming at our Congregation that adds meaning to so many lives.  Our new daycare center that we opened two years ago with its sliding scale fees, now helps 25 low income families find safe and enriching child care for their families.  I am also extremely proud to announce that our Director of Religious Education, Sarah Moulton, helped organize an Interfaith Youth Group within the Quad Cities that is working to create a peaceful and environmentally sustainable future for our community. This summer, we are looking at starting our weekly UU Day Camp.  Our long term plan calls for us to start a charter school with an emphasis on ethics education.  Our Emerson Series of lectures on Religion and Science has received national attention as we explore new ways to share our religious views with others in the community. We have experienced continued expansion of our offerings from our “Spirituality Center of the Quad Cities,” which offers many paths to enlightenment and awareness, to a diverse group of people.  Our new Ministerial Intern has developed more fully our Campus Ministry program expanding from Augustana College to include St. Ambrose as well.  Our Community Garden has grown significantly from our first few raised beds in 2014. We have so much food that we are considering purchasing some land to start a Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant to spread our belief in healthy and ethical eating.  I am continuing my work with Quad Cities Interfaith as we try to create a more just Quad Cities. It is heartening to see so many of our members in their “Standing on the Side of Love” tee shirts at local social justice events in the community. Unitarian Universalism is alive, well, and vibrant in the Quad Cities. 
This article started with a typo. I meant to write March 2014, and accidently wrote 2016. When I did that, I wondered what I might be writing in March of 2016. After having some fun imaging all the things we could possibly do, I realized it would take more than two years, so I changed it to 2017!!  Unitarian Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Shallow people believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong people believe in cause and effect.” (The Conduct of Life, 1860.)  None of us know what the future will bring. However we know if we hope to fulfill our vision and mission, we will need to plan for it. It will not happen by chance. For almost a year, leaders of the Congregation have been working to create a Strategic Plan.  We believe through the implementation of this plan we can change people’s lives for the better. To do this, we need to maintain and to add to the quality programs we offer in the Congregation.  To make this so, now is the time to start implementing the Strategic Plan, not some time in the distant future.  NOW.  So I am asking you to discern what this Congregation means to you and how it has impacted your life.  Just as important, discern what it could mean to you and others in the future. We can make a difference.  We need you to help us make that difference.   I ask you to consider this when you consider your pledge for this year.  We will be kicking off our annual budget drive this year with a Celebration Brunch as part of our service on Sunday March 16th.  I hope to see you there. If you have any questions about your pledge or the strategic plan, please do not hesitate to set up an appointment to talk with me.
with a grateful heart


Rev. Jay