Friday, October 17, 2014

Wrestling with God (The story of Jacob and Esau)

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm” (sung)

That was a verse from a favorite Bob Dylan song of mine.  We all can use a little shelter from the storm.  What I love about the song is its looking back on life, and seeing how we change, and how our perception of ourself and our perception of the world has changed.  How we are always forming ourselves.  For some people, things seem to come easy.  Never for me.  I was one who always had to learn things the hard way.  I had to experience things for myself. I was the kind of child that when my mother told me not to touch the hot stove felt compelled to understand why.  In such instances, sometimes, direct experience is not always a virtue. Sometimes trusting others, those wiser than us can help.  I would argue, that even for those who we think it seems easy, it really isn’t.  I have been blessed in my life (even prior to being a minister) to being a trusted advisor to many people about their personal lives that they don’t share with the public at large.   I can assure you, no ones life is ever that easy.
            It is true, some people are more naturally gifted at some things and not others. And some people struggle with some things and not others things.  It is a gift to know what your natural talents are and then a further gift to have them nurtured.  And if we are lucky we can find  an environment that allows those natural talents to come to fruition.   I believe this is why we come together as human beings to form community and particularly religious community.  To create a safe caring environment so that we can learn how to live together as human beings.  To learn how to reach our potential as human beings.  
In a social media post that is making the rounds, Mike Rowe of the TV show Dirty Jobs recently spoke about advising people to not follow their passions.    I don’t agree with his premise, but the one thing he did point out was peoples lack of self awareness   He states “I’m fascinated by the beginning of American Idol. Every year, thousands of aspiring pop-stars show up with great expectations, only to learn that they don’t have anything close to the skills they thought they did. What’s amazing to me, isn’t their lack of talent – it’s their lack of awareness, and the resulting shock of being rejected. How is it that so many people are so blind to their own limitations” 
When our lack of self awareness collides with the reality of what the world says the standard should be, we struggle.  How else do we learn though.  How else do we learn what our abilities are?  Sometimes we have to touch the hot stove. 
It should be our goal to reach our full potential, not in comparison to others, but based on our particular abilities and circumstances.  I think about runners.  They are often comparing themselves against their personal best, or against others in their age range.  It is a documented fact that racing against other vs. alone improves our performance. The truth is often by participating with others, others can help us bring out the best that is within us. 
And we also have to remember, that sometimes our self awareness is in comparison to what is acceptable to society, not necessarily the self awareness of our abilities.  Can you imagine if an unknown Bob Dylan went on American Idol.  With his voice.  I think he would have been immediately rejected.   When our self awareness and the perception of others of us are in conflict, We have to either choose.  Choose to live within our reality and block out the rest of the world, or adapt to live within societal expectations, or struggle to create a new reality, a new life, a new world, with new values that shifts the rest of the world.
In the book and movie Cloud Atlas, the character Somni-451  states “I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.We are so often blinded into conforming to expectations that we do not even think to climb higher and higher. We settle for where we are as good enough.  But it is not good enough.  We are accountable to ourselves, we are accountable to each other, and we are accountable to all sentient beings, that they have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
There was time in this country that conventional wisdom said it was acceptable to own another human being, and Unitarian Universalists worked to break that boundary.  There was a time in this country that conventional wisdom said women couldn’t vote, but Unitarian Universalists worked to break that boundary.  There was a time not too long ago in this country that conventional wisdom said same gender couples could not marry and Unitarian Universalists worked and continue to work to break that boundary. And that wall is coming down state by state.  We know we can impact the world with our values, because we have already done so. 

Sermon Part II
From Genesis Chapter 25 -  “And Rebekah wife of Isaac conceived and  the children struggled in her womb Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body”  And they struggled.  The two children born in the story are Jacob and Esau with Jacob holding on to Esau’s foot as they were delivered.  It says “Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”   Traditionally in middle east culture the older son in this case Esau would receive the blessing and inheritance.  As their father Isaac neared death, Rebekah convinces Jacob to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing and inheritance. 
After doing so, Jacob fears his older brother’s retaliation and flees, and when the older brother Esau finds out he says to his father “Have you but one blessing?  Bless me too”   Now Feminist theology tells us that it is the woman, the mother Rebekah who truly understands what God’s will is and that is why she does what she does.  But the story of Jacob and Esau is a confusing story and has many subplots that I wont get into today.  The supposed hero in the story uses deception to win the blessing.   Not the type of hero we expect in a sacred text. From a thirty thousand foot level, it was a mythic story to tell their descendants years later why these two tribes were separated.  But I also think it tells us much more. 
As Jacob flees, he has a dream of ladder between earth and heaven and in the Dream God says to Jacob “ Remember, I am with you; I will protet you wherever you go and will bring you back home”  Jacob goes to a relative of Issacs, Laban in another land, and that Laban deceives and cheats Jacob.  Jacob after being away for 20 years yearns to come home and to be released from Laban’s yoke.  He takes what he feels is his, and leaves.  He still fears what his brother will do to him, and hopes to bribe him Esau to gain his good favor. 
The night before Jacob is to meet Esau, Jacob wrestles with God, and after holding his own, God renames him Israel, “for you have struggled with God and human and have prevailed.” The next day, Jacob prostrates himself before Esau, reversing the blessing his father had given him, but Esau has forgiven him and welcomes him home.  Esau rejects Jacobs gifts, indicating he has had good fortune himself over the years.   Such a strange yet poignant story.   Sometimes the fears we have are imagined.    Sometimes we not only have to reconcile and be accountable for our past actions to those we harmed, sometimes we have to reconcile who we want to be with who we are and how we live in the world.
We are always in formation as human beings. We want to improve, we want to reach our potential, as individuals, as a community as a species.   To do so involves struggle.  It sometimes requires us, like Jacob to be willing to lose all we have gained.   So I ask you to consider what are the things you are struggling with?  What are you wrestling with. Its hard to step back in the present moment. But that is what we must do.   Think about how you will feel about it twenty years from now.  Let us learn from each experience we have, from every interaction we have. Sometimes in the midst of chaos and fear, in the midst of societal conventions it is hard to step back and look at things objectively.  But knowing this, we can be intentional.   Being a good human being, especially in the middle of chaos requires practice. 
Just like learning anything, like singing, the more you practice, the better you will get.  For some people it comes more naturally than others.  For others like Jacob, it is struggle and requires us to touch the hot stove before we learn.  But really, we should only have to touch the stove once to learn.  That is the endeavor for which we come together so that we can help bring out the best in each other.  I said earlier that Jacob was the supposed hero.  But in truth I think Esau is a hero of the story as well. 
Esau has changed and grown as a human being and has forgiven his brother.   He is not the vengeful hunter Jacob perceived him to be.  In fact he may never have been. We don’t really know that.  That may have just been the projected fears of Rebekah and Jacob due to their deception. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their own character.”  Deceptions force us far from home.  Only the truth, the truth about not only who we are, but who we want to be, can bring us home. Home is not a physical place, but it is here (point to heart)
Sometimes circumstances in our life tilt us in one direction or another, but we can transcend our circumstances if we can conceive that we can.  We are all in this together.  In the story, Jacob is born holding on to Esau’s foot.  The perception has always been that Jacob was trying to pull Esau down so that he could come out first.  But perhaps that perception is wrong.  Perhaps Esau was trying to pull Jacob up, telling him to hold on, so he wouldn’t be left behind.  The phrase climbing the ladder tends to have a material connotation in our society.  But let us imagine the dream of climbing the ladder brings us a greater understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
Let us imagine the ladder is like Esaus toe, pulling us up out from our protective womb so that we can grow as human beings. Let us imagine that climbing the ladder leads to creating a heaven on earth for all people.  There is no easy fix, it will be a struggle, and when the rains come, and they will surely come as they always do in the cycles of life, and when we get stuck in the mud as often happens after a rain, remember to take shelter from the storm knowing you are loved, and remember,

If you stumble, we will help you
Even though the road is steep and rugged,
We are climbing higher and higher,
We are climbing on.
May  there be blessings enough for everyone.  
May it be so.

Friday, October 10, 2014

An Instrument of Peace

A number of years ago, In addition to my morning meditation practice,  I decided to start a new spiritual practice. Each morning I would wake up and I recite some meaningful text from memory.  This did of course require me to memorize something.  Unlike this new television show Unforgettable where the protagonist remembers everything they have ever experienced, unlike that, I have to work hard to memorize something. Once I do, sometimes, I cant get it out, like the Robert Frost poems I was required to read in Middle School or the prayers I said weekly in worship services as a child.  Why do I do this practice most mornings. 
I can intellectually tell you that by doing so it sets my intention for the day.  It puts me in a religious frame of mind at the beginning of each day.  It puts me in a frame of mind that I want to be in for the day.  But intuitively, especially as we have entered fall and winter is fast approaching, and I wake up and it is dark, I greet the darkness, and from that darkness in the early morn, I experience the coming of the dawn as if it was a replication of the creation of the world itself. We can decide what we want the creation of our day to be like.  We can decide what seeds we want to plant for the day.  And each day there is a need for the constant re-watering of these seeds, so our roots can grow strong  and deep and we can be nourished.  Before we start the day, with the interruptions of phone calls and emails, and the chores, let us see the day in a larger way, let us see the coming day with hope, let us see the day with the anticipation of joy, let us see the day with an imagination of what is still possible.  Within each of us is the yearning for peace.  I believe our very nature is peaceful, but we are faced each day with contradictions and uncertainty.
The Importance of how we welcome the first moments of the day can determine how we claim that day. I want to welcome each day with a welcoming heart, with an expansive heart. And as our heart opens we are changed for the better.  With an expansive heart we can better accept the surprises that come our way.  With an expansive heart we can experience daily living as wonder.  With an expansive heart we can find peace, and be an instrument of peace.  I do other spiritual and religious reading as well, but the repetitive recitation helps me etch that intention into my mind, body and soul. 
It constantly rekindles day in and day out the words that are important to me. It is the creation of a mental discipline, a way of learning and being, that says, this is who I am. This is the core of what I believe.  Repeating creates a groove in my soul, it develops a rhythm and cadence, it becomes natural, it becomes a part of me.   So I started slowly.  I started with he23rd Psalm.  It was always a comforting verse to me throughout my life. I would start with a couple lines a day, just repeating them until they were memorized and then the next couple and so on until I had the whole prayer memorized.
The second group of words I chose were the Unitarian Universalist Principles.  At the time, I thought, well if I am going to be a Unitarian minister, I should probably know the principles by heart.  Months later, after finally memorizing the principles….it was time to add a third reading to my practice.  I had for years been collecting quotes and prayers in my book and computer that I periodically referred to when I wanted a spiritual pick me up.  But which one to choose for my new deepening practice.  
The prayer I chose is called the prayer of St. Francis, although there is no attribution that Francis of Assisi actually wrote the words.  However it is meant to be image of what the life he led, and it is in a way the summary of his theology. Francis, who the Current Pope of the Catholic church is named after, was born into a wealthy family in the late 12th century.  By most accounts he worked in his father’s textile business, was educated, and was possibly even a bit of a party animal in his younger days.  As he came of age, he thought it was it an honor to go to war, imagining himself a knight.  The fanciful notions of youth.  When he came home from war, however he fell quite ill due to a mysterious malady.  
I would argue that like many veterans of War, he came home with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).  I think due to this, it is not surprising that the Franciscan order has been even since Francis’s time leaders in the non-violent peace movement throughout the world.  Francis and his followers try to bring disparate sides together.  Francis took to heart the Christian scripture verse Matthew Chapter 10, “to cure the sick and to cleanse the lepers, to serve without payment, take no gold, or silver or copper, no bag for your journey, or tunics or sandals or a staff”  
In the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon depicting Francis’s life, when he renounces his parents, he states he does this “to be free like the birds in the sky, If the purpose of this life is the loveless toil we fill our days with I will have none of it, I want to stride over hills, climb trees, swim rivers, I want to feel the earth beneath my feet, without shoes, without possessions.”  And Francis and his followers were known for living in poverty, and living a joyful, simple life, helping all those in need with whom they came in contact.   
Sermon Part II
Oh Universe that calls to me
Make me and Instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love,
Where there is injure let me sow pardon,
 Where there is indifference, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
Where there is sadness, joy
May I not seek so much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in forgiving that we are forgiven,
And it is in dyeing ,
That we are born to eternal life.

I have changed a few of the words from the original . I have taken out the original words, Lord and Master.  Certainly to Francis those words meant something very specific. But in my context, I use Universe that calls to me, you may use God, or spirit of life, or as Theologian Paul Tillich said Ground of our being. We use the words that have meaning to us, the words that move us, the words that transform us. Words like clay are molded to be used anew with each new generation to bring meaning to each new generation.  When I first started this I changed the last two lines, from “And it is in dyeing that we are born to eternal life” to “And it is in loving that we experience eternal life.”  Which was meaningful and true to me.  But the truth is, I had to let some old ways die, I had to let go of the ways things were, if I wanted to move forward I had to let go of the way I was trained to act in the world, if I was to act in the ways this prayer called me to act.   It is in the letting go of old quarrels, letting go of old habits, and letting go of the status quo that allows us to move forward.  It is  in the forgiving others and ourselves for our own imperfections, that we lighten our burden in this world and can find joy.  
So why the prayer of St. Francis.  It certainly wasn’t part of my religion of birth Judaism, as the 23rd psalm was, or my  practiced religion Unitarian Universalism as the principles were. 
But when I read it I was instantly moved by it.  As I read it, I said, I want to live my life like this. For this prayer is asking us to act.  To be an instrument, to sow, to seek,   It doesn’t ask us to  look at the world as innocent, or through rose colored glasses. Its not a matter of whether the glass is half empty or half full, the glass is always full.  Sometimes with water, sometimes with air, but the glass is always full, the question is what do we see.  And so it is with life, we often only recognize what is visible to the naked eye.  What we see or hear on the news, the hatred, the injure, the indifference. This prayer acknowledges the challenges in the world, but it reminds us of another way to be.  
It is asking us to act, to look outward, not inward.  To not concern ourselves with what others think about us, but to concern ourselves with how we think of and how we treat others.  I did change one other line which originally stated, “where there is doubt let me sow faith”  to “where there is indifference let me sow faith.”  For I do not believe that doubt is the opposite of faith.  Doubt is a part of faith. Doubt drives us to seek deeper truths, Doubt makes us question  the meaning of justice in this world. Doubt leads us to the unfolding wonder of what is not visible in the glass.   Indifference on the other hand is just not caring, which is the opposite of faith. Indifference means not acting, which this prayer calls us to do. 
The prayer  is not even offering us the comfort of telling us that we will reap what we sow.  As if there is some quid pro quo. The prayer is telling us that  it is in the sowing that we shall reap.  That “right action” as the Buddha would call it, is what leads to the end of suffering and to inner peace. As St. Francis said, Preach the Gospels at all times, if necessary use words.  Let us all be instruments of peace and may we all find peace.  May it be so.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Higgs Boson - The God Particle

Where do we come from?  Back in my schoolyard days I would answer “from my mother” Now I might say, my family heritage is Lithuanian.  And someone would usually respond to me, yes you dont sound like you’re from Iowa.   But really the song is of course asking a deeper questions. The questions that gnaws at us, the questions that ask us to go to the depth of our souls for answers.  Why were we created? Is there a purpose to our existence? How did we come to be where we are here and now.   Can science give us any answers to these questions?  Now I have to admit, I was never a good science student.
There is a great story that sort of fits me as told by Robert Wilson who was the founding director of Fermilab which is a physics laboratory in Batavia Il  In the 1960s  the Atomic Energy Commission was worried about activists, and they wanted the lab to build barricades to protect themselves.  But Wilson said he had a simpler plan.  When activists showed up he would go down and meet them personally and deliver a physics lecture to them.  He is said to have told the commission that the lecture was enough to disperse even the bravest rabble rouser.   So what is the Higgs Bowson and why does it matter.  
The Higgs Bosun particle is something that has been theorized by physicists since the early sixties, most prominently by yes you guessed it Peter Higgs who did receive a Nobel Prize in Science for his work on it.  The name boson was coined to commemorate the contribution of the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose who  in 1924 sent a paper on Quantum Statistics to Albert Einstein. Einstein thought so highly of it he published it.  Now this is not a physics lesson,  but I want to give you the basics.
The Higgs Boson field is an invisible field that extends throughout the universe. It converts energy into matter. When particles hit the field, particles slow down.  Those that interact more with it, gain more mass. Without this field there would be no mass, no structure, no planets no life, things would just go flying by each others at the speed of light.   The creation of the Large Hadron Collider was built in collaboration with over 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries. It was created to prove Higgs Boson’s existence. It lies in a tunnel 17 miles in circumference, as deep as 574 ft below the ground near Geneva, Switzerland.  If you have ever seen the movie Angels and Demons with Tom Hanks, the movie references this.  Prior to testing this collider, there was actual concern from some that doing this experiment could end the universe.  Fortunately they were wrong.  In July 2012 the collider was completed and tested, and scientists say they were 99.9994% certain (that’s fairly good odds) that they found a particle that is consistent with the Higgs Boson theory.  This discovery has allowed scientists to theorize back to just after the big bang and understand how stars, universes, planets, etc were created.   
It allows us to understand that there is a structure to the universe. It allows us to understand how something comes from nothing.  Think about that with your life. Where do you come from. What is the structure of your existence.   What is the structure of your belief system?  What is the foundation upon which you live your life.  Thinking about these questions is part of our religious journey together part of our belief in the search for truth and meaning. Back in the early 70s Physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book about the search for this elusive particle that they felt could explain the structure of the universe.  He wanted to name the book “the God-Darned Particle” well not darned, but you get what I mean because of their frustration in trying to find it. The Publisher wouldn’t allow the use of the word, so instead entitled the Book “the God Particle”  But we have found the answer now. And the answer has provided us with not only new wisdom, but also awe and wonder about the creation of our universe. 

     What are we, Where are we going?  So why does any of this matter?  Some say the Higgs Boson disproves the existence of God, others say it proves the existence of God.  Who really knows. No one knows what happened just before the big bang.  No one knows what existed prior to it. Where did the nothingness comes from that created the Big Bang?  This is part of what religion has tried to answer for humanity. The first words of Genesis, In the beginning the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface.   This was how our ancestors described the moment before big bang. The unformed, the void, the darkness.  Actually considering they wrote this over 2,500 years ago, I would say they had a good sense of the universe from their limited perspective. Part of the liberal religious tradition is to utilize new knowledge as it become available to bring meaning to our lives.  How does Higgs Boson bring meaning to our lives.  For some maybe it gives them comfort to know that there is some sort of structure in the universe and provides proof that our existence is not just a random occurrence.  The results have also theorized that there could be multiple universes, and so we need to expand our perspective how existence is structured which could give us unlimited possibilities. It also leaves us with an ongoing mystery.  Let us embrace this mystery.
Let us think as if we are like our ancestors, that we have just touched the tip of the iceberg, just as they had just touched the tip of big bang theory with their perspective.  What would be next for us.  (PP) This scene was from the movie Men In Black. Look at the wonder in those eyes.  The look of discovery.  Let us let these new ideas stir our souls. Let us think about how much we still have to learn about the universe and ourselves. Let us explore not only the depth of the universe but also the depths of our souls to find what we are capable of as human beings. 
Let us imagine what the next evolution of humanity and religion will be, just as our ancestors with none of our knowledge used their wisdom to imagine the Big Bang in the only way they knew how.  Let what we try to express now and what we try to create now lead to a future society that 2,500 years from now will lead to as much advancement as we have seen compared to 2,500 years ago.   Ultimately, science cannot answer the deep questions of our souls,  but it can stir our souls.  Religion and Science together can help us see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves, part of a vast universe.
Religion can use this new wisdom and our curiosity to show us how our creation, our lives can have meaning, and if we can grow to better understand the universe, perhaps there is hope we can better understand the structure of our own existence, and how we can live in harmony with all of existence.  But we must expand our perspective of our universe.  Often we only see or understand our small place in the universe.  We must be able to see beyond ourselves and the narrow confines of our circumstances.  I Think this is aptly portrayed in Men in Black II.  (PP) 
Yes, this is a satire on religion, how these alien creatures living in a locker, use as their holy words the writings on a business card from a video store.  If you couldn’t hear they chanted “Be Kind Rewind”  So I think its also ironic that today there are some of you that might not even be aware what that means.  Before DVD’s there used to be things called videotapes that you had to rewind in a machine. To be honest, I am actually surprised there are still video stores existing.  Anyway,  I think the scene is poignant though, that just from that little message, “Be Kind, Rewind” the message they received was “Go back and reconcile your past so that you can move tranquilly into your future.”
Even within their small universe, even within our small universe, we can find the wisdom within for what we need within our lives, within our universe.  We don’t take words verbatim or literally, but we use words to help us find meaning. Just as with the creatures in the locker, there are certain truths that are true no matter what our circumstances.  The Christian Scripture of John, starts with “In the beginning was logos”, which in Greek means Wisdom.  Meaning we have certain wisdom imbedded within each of us.   We just have to find a way to unlock it, and let it unfold, just as the universe is unfolding before us now.  And just as the small aliens took the message 2 for 1 on Wednesdays (which made me think of free pie days on Wednesdays at Village inn) But 2 for 1, which we know means you get two for one, they intrinsically knew that the religious message was to be twice as generous.  To give rather than receive.  So I encourage you to be generous. Be generous, not just with your money but to be generous with your time, be generous with your wisdom, and also be generous with your heart, open it up to others and share of yourself with others. Let us not be trapped within our own lockers, our own universe.  Let us be generous in all that we do as we face creation. Let us find undiscovered universes both within ourselves and in the larger world.  Let us be an active partner in creating the universe we want to see.  May it be so.