Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What I Am Thankful For

As we come upon the holiday season, and it seems too often that it comes on just like big blur of commercials to buy things, we should always take time to remember the actual purpose of the season.  Not just to get some days off of work, and sit back and eat and relax and watch movies and sports.  That is nice don’t get me wrong. I will be sitting on a beach in Florida over Thanksgiving if things go according to plan. And I am grateful for that. But in fact, the formalization of the holiday as a National Holiday makes our commercialization of it somewhat ironic.  It is true George Washington made a proclamation to celebrate Thanksgiving 
"as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”  
Sadly not the safety and happiness of everyone, most certainly not the Slaves.   Over the subsequent years many states enacted laws making it a legal holiday. In some states it was celebrated in October, in others it was celebrated in January. It was one woman, Sarah J. Hale who for 17years advocated obsessively to make it a National Holiday.  
As a side note, Hale is best known for writing the poem “Mary had a little lamb”  Hale said.
“it would be better to have the day so fixed by the expression of public sentiment that no discord would be possible, but, from Maine to Mexico,  from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea, the hymn of thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised, as the pledge of friendship in the enjoyment of God’s blessings during the year.“
She was inexhaustible, writing op-eds, editorials in her magazines, speaking to politicians, using every political connection she had to encourage five Presidents,  before her dream became a reality.  So first I want to say, it goes to show what one person with perseverance and persistence can accomplish. Secondly, I wonder what else she could have accomplished with all that energy.  President Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War in 1863 issued the Proclamation making Thanksgiving a National Holiday stating
“rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.  It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, ….care for all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” 

Now this was during the civil war and I imagine Lincoln was trying to find something to bring people together.  In our current context of the holiday I was surprised that by his call for Thanksgiving to be a time of justice,  to care for the widows orphans mourners and sufferers.   This holiday was a call for a healing and a binding the wounded not being stampeded waiting outside WalMart and wrapping of the presents.  That is what we needed then as a country.  We were torn apart.  In 1941Franklin Roosevelt changed it from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday with the intentional hope that it would help the economy.  Perhaps that is what we needed then in our country, coming out of a long economic depression and entering WWII.   So that was then, this is now.  Let us consciously think about what it is we need as a country.   There are times I feel we are still torn apart as a country.  We have reached a tipping point where the arc of justice is tipping towards justice and the last vestiges of a time of segregation and discrimination and  polarization are pulling as hard as they can to drag us back to a time when power was less distributed and a time when people felt powerless.  The truth is that is what Sarah Hale shows us.  The most committed wins.  Nothing is a given.
On this day when some among you have committed to become members of this Congregation I think it is important to speak of commitment.  (First I say that all who are here today with the weather the way it is, are truly committed!!)  What are we committed to.  In the new member class I ask prospective members as I do all members to be committed to regular attendance, to serve the congregation, to serve the larger community, to develop their religious life, to generosity, and to be in right relationship with other members.  Of course everyone comes to this Congregation with different reasons and in different contexts. I know different people are on different parts of the path of their life journey and their religious journey.  But no matter where we are on our journey, let us not be complacent.  Let us not be complacent in the world at large or in our religious lives.  I think about what I just said, “The most committed wins”  and I think wins what?  Is life a game to be won, a puzzle to be solved, or as Einstein would say,  a mystery to be explored.  Whatever your answer, whatever your path, wherever you are on the path, I encourage you to do everything you do with a sense of  as Lincoln said, that will lead to peace harmony tranquility and Union. 
And as we come upon this Thanksgiving holiday, I ask you to look within yourself and ask yourself  are you doing all you can with sense of Thanksgiving and praise.  That’s not always an easy thing to do.  It is easy to get discouraged in the world today, amidst political attack ads and challenges to our world that at times can seem overwhelming.  In the face of all this, we must act in ways that tilt the scale toward justice. It is easy to succumb to the onslaught of bad news, but we mustn’t forget that there is much good going on in the world as well. So we must be sure to put the good in front of us as well, so that the good can become and remain a part of our being. 
I see the good being lived out in this Congregation all the time. It is why we must replenish our souls, it is why we come back here week after week, it is why our principles call us to build up our religious and spiritual lives. We do this so that we can learn, no, remember our best true selves. And we can do this with the practice of living our lives with a concept of disciplined gratitude in all that we do and making gratitude a part of our very being.  I think that is what this holiday calls us to do.    On Facebook recently I have seen a number of friends participating in a Gratitude Practice. They are asked each day to post what they are grateful for.  I encourage you to try this. 
If you are on facebook, I have set up an event on our Congregational Facebook page for you to join and to post what you are grateful for.  Its easy to do, but I also ask, even if you aren’t on Facebook or choose not to share to do this for yourself.  After the first couple of days of listing easy ones, such as I am alive, or I have food to eat or for my partner who cooks me an apple pie on my birthday.  On those days, especially on those days when you are struggling, struggling with someone, or something, whether it be a relationship or your health, or the heater breaking down, on those days, I ask you to look at the things you are struggling with and see what you can find to be grateful for. 
Now I am not asking you to live in what I would call comparative gratitude.  By this I mean understanding our relative position to others in the world.  I was thinking about this when I watched a recent sixty minutes episode of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  These boys some as young as 7 years old after their villages were destroyed walked from Sudan to Ethiopia where they were expelled from only to walk to Kenya where then some 2,000 made their way to America.  These children came here and hadn’t known what electricity was, what a fork and knife let alone tv was.  And they are jubilant to be here, and now after 12 or 13 years, many are succeeding greatly, others struggling to adapt.  I was moved when one of the boys said he felt they were kept alive to be witness to what had happened in their homeland. So it is easy to look at them and become very grateful for what we have.   But comparative gratefulness tends to only lead us to feelings of guilt as opposed to gratefulness.  It is too easy to shut ourselves off from the world around us and become insular and by so doing we lose our perspective. We must be engaged in the world to maintain gratefulness. And comparative gratefulness can come from looking at ourselves, and seeing how we have changed and even improved.  I see this in our country in the area of race relations.  We have improved since slavery and Jim Crow, but being grateful for such a comparison can lead us to become complacent and lessen our commitment for how far we still have to go. Yes it is better, we have even elected an African American President,  but we are have not gone far enough.  I am not grateful for the state of our race relations when a young person of color can still be gunned down while surrendering to police.  I am grateful that we can have a dialogue about it, I am grateful that we can be witness to it, I am grateful that we will not rest until justice prevails and the pendulum has passed the tipping point.   So how do we live in a constant state of gratefulness? 
For if we should not be grateful in comparison to others, or in comparison to our past, we must be grateful for what we have in the here and now.  University of Houston research professor BrenĂ© Brown said, "I don't have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness -- it's right in front of me if I'm paying attention and practicing gratitude."  There have actually been scientific studies that show that the more you express thanks, the happier you are.”  Robert A. Emmons, a PhD and professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis studies have shown that Gratitude magnifies positive emotions and can block negative toxic emotions.
His studies also show that people who practice gratitude are more stress resistant and have a higher sense of self worth.  But I want to point out what I think we often confuse when thinking about gratitude.  We often think only about us, about how we feel.  That is being grateful. 
What I also speak to you about today is not just being grateful, but how do we show gratitude. How do we act with gratefulness in the world when sometimes we feel the world does not deserve it.  How do we in the face of our own challenges reach out to help the orphan, the widow, the mourners.  To live with gratefulness in our heart and live our life with gratefulness in our actions is truly to understand as our opening hymn says that  all life is a gift.  For all that is our life, the joy, the sorrow, the work, the resting, let us come together, and build the common good. That is how we show gratitude. Have an intentionally happy and grateful Thanksgiving.  May it be so.







Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Einstein's Religion

Part I
           Why Einstein?  We often look at the writings of or about or attributed to religious leaders such as Jesus, Buddha,and Moses or more modern day prophets such as Gandhi, King as an example.   But Why Albert Einstein?  Why would we look to Einstein for religious guidance?  Although I grew up within ½ mile of the Albert Einstein medical center in The Bronx,  and he was a sort of Jewish super hero to young Jews in America.  Someone my mother always pointed to if I made a smart aleck comment “So what you think Youre Einstein” But I don’t want to assume everyone knows who he is.  (PPT)  Many are probably familiar with his picture which is used often in popular culture. 
For you math geeks out there, you can see he was born on March 14th or Pie Day which may or may not have been a foretelling. For you non math geeks out there, don’t worry about it.  Einstein was raised in a non traditional Jewish Household. He actually attended Catholic school as a youngster, and at the same time  was trained privately in the customs and culture of Judaism.  While  working as a patent clerk, he came up with his formalized theory of relativity, which to this day is still the foundation of modern physics.  In 1999, leading physicists voted Einstein the "greatest physicist ever", and he was named person of the Century by Time Magazine. 
It makes me think of that ad “he is the most interesting man in the world” but instead– “ he is the most brilliant man in the world”  So why listen to what he has to say about religion. Well first he wrote and spoke often about his religious beliefs. In this country where there has been such a divide between religion and science when the smartest man in the world addresses that issue, we just might learn something. It is a strange phenomenon to me that in the world today society seems to denigrate intelligence, and as most orthodox religious traditions disdain critical thinking,  we as Unitarian Universalists welcome, no not just welcome, we intentionally state that we should “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and be warned against idolatries of the mind and spirit;”  We have a long history of scientists in our tradition. Michael Servetus who was killed in the 16th Century for writing the book “on the errors of the Trinity” was the person credited with discovering the blood circulatory system.  Rev. Joseph Preistly, one of the founders of Unitarianism in Britain, was a scientist credited with discovering oxygen.  Priestly in the early 19th century said, : “Let us examine everything with the greatest freedom, without any regard to consequences.  Let us sow the seeds of truth” Well I would offer we most definityly should consider the consequences of any action we take.
We still have to take wisdom into our context, but even if what Einstein has to say doesn’t help us, it can add to our search for truth and meaning.  Einstein actually wrote his own Religious Credo statement which I will share an excerpt with you this morning:  
My Credo (written in 1932 approximately a year before he left Germany for the United States which occurred just before Hitler seized power in Germany.)
“Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the why and the wherefore. In our daily lives we feel only that humans are here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own. I am often troubled by the thought that my life is based to such a large extent on the work of my fellow human beings, and I am aware of my great indebtedness to them.  I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Humans can do what they want, but they cannot will what they will,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper. I have never coveted affluence and luxury and even despise them a good deal. My passion for social justice has often brought me into conflict with people, as has my aversion to any obligation and dependence I did not regard as absolutely necessary. I have a high regard for the individual and an insuperable distaste for violence and fanaticism. All these motives have made me a passionate pacifist and antimilitarist. I am against any chauvinism, even in the guise of mere patriotism. Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious.  Social equality and economic protection of the individual have always seemed to me the important communal aims of the state. The most beautiful and deepest experience a human can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is."
And as we humbly try to create the image of the lofty structure of this Congregation as part of the structure of the larger community and part of the structure of the larger Universe itself, we gather with the same wonder and with the same passion for social justice that Einstein did. 
Einstein believed in a very deterministic Universe with causality.  (PPT) And so it is in the cause of a functioning Congregation and  the cause of a Just society, we take our weekly offering.  After the plate has passed you, we invite you to come down to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your personal life.  Let this sacred time begin.

Part II
Einstein spoke of three stages of religious development.  The first stage he called the primitive state of religion, one that is based on fear that arose due to ignorance of the natural world.  This came from human’s responses to such things as hunger,  illness, and natural disasters, even death,  that were beyond their comprehension.  The second stage of religious development Einstein called  the religion of morality.  It was “the social or moral conception of God,” which arises from the “desire for guidance, love, and support. ” This stage still adhered to an anthropomorphic conception of God. 
The third stage of religion Einstein called ““the cosmic religious feeling,” At this stage he states
“The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses them as a sort of prison, and they want to experience the universe as a single significant whole.” In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.”
Einstein had been taught to play the violin at the age of 5.  Throughout his life he had a fascination with music, often listening to it while he worked. He claimed it led him to breakthroughs in his thinking. As if the music allowed him to tap into the universal mind. He said “nowhere does mysticism find more complete expression than in music.”  I think we know this to be true.  It is why music is a part of most religious traditions.  Because it touches us in a way that words cannot explain.  It brings up within us emotions that logic builds walls around.  It lets us connect the depth of our soul and allows it to be in harmony with the universe. 
In 1930 Einstein had two meetings with the Indian philosopher and artist Rabindranath Tagore, where they discussed among other things, music, the nature of humanity and the universe.  Tagore said “When our universe is in harmony with Humanity, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty.”  Wheras Tagore could not see the Universe or the divine as separate from humanity, Einstein saw truth as independent of humanity.   It is the basic question of if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there does it make a noise. If we are not here to perceive the universe, does it exist? 
And although we may each perceive the universe differently, both Einstein and Tagore agreed that in our uncertainty, we are striving to reconcile our individual perception with some ultimate truth of reality. This to me as well is one of the underlying Questions that all religions ask.  
We don’t think of it this way, but science as well is very much faith based striving to reconcile theories with some ultimate truth of reality. Einstein had a vision of how the universe functioned and then he tried to prove it.  He didn’t just do some calculations that built upon each other and then one day the final equation gave him a revelation.  He had as deep a revelation as did any mystic. 
He then went on to prove it, or try to prove his vision’s authenticity through trial and error.  It was his faith in his vision of how the universe was structured, faith that the universe had a structure and was not just random accidents that drove his creative and scientific endeavors.  Einstein said
“science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. Our moral judgments, our sense of beauty, and religious instincts are “tributary forms in helping the reasoning faculty toward its highest achievements. Science, cannot teach human to be moral and “every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail.” 
To show the disjuncture of science and ethics I point to Einstein’s own action in regard to the Atomic Bomb. Einstein was an ardent advocate for social justice and pacifism during his lifetime. And yet, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt during World War II, encouraging him to develop what would become the atomic bomb.  Although he had very little to do with the creation of the bomb itself, this letter did accelerate the study of the technology that Einstein highlighted.   In November 1954, five months before his death, Einstein said,  "I made one great mistake in my life... when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification - the danger that the Germans would make them."  
There is the ultimate question of ethics. Justification for doing something that we believe is immoral.  How often are we faced with these types of decisions in our lives.  Does the end justify the means.  Or are the means an end in themselves.  Science cannot teach us this.  It is in our actions, in their morality, and if those actions are in harmony with the universe that we can experience this cosmic religion.  Science cannot teach us morality.  This is where religion must come in.  It is why our sources warn us against the idolatries of the mind as well as the spirit.  The idolatry of the mind is the rationalization of doing immoral acts. 
Unitarian Universalism calls us to have a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Even the smartest man in the world, is not always correct, even by his own admission.  And yet he still marched on, feeling connected to the universe, the universal whole of which we are all apart, acting for the betterment of humankind.  It is all any of us can do.  We do not know the ultimate causation of all of our actions.  We can only go forward in faith that with our right actions with right intent, we are coming together to create a world that is in harmony with how it was created to function. It is our faith that the universe is structured for justice to prevail and when it does we feel a  harmony in the universe and when it does not we feel the disharmony in the universe. It is our faith in how the universe is structured that keeps the mission and vision of our religion, our congregation, our lives, alive. (something about Theodore Parker and the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but we need to bend it) We test it constantly with experiments through trial and error. And we keep working at it until we get it right.  May all our actions lead us to the ultimate truth.