Friday, January 30, 2015

Transformative Community

I want to share two conversations I recently had that I think so aptly frame the sermon today. The first conversation I had, was during lunch with a member talking about our upcoming pledge drive, and I was sharing information that Unitarian Universalists on a whole are less generous than members of other denominations and they responded “well that’s because you don’t threaten people with hell if they don’t give you money”  And that is true, both from our Unitarian and Universalists historical theologies.  
Universalists believed in  universal salvation for all and Unitarians generally professed to as 19ths Century Unitarian Rev. William Ellery Channing  put it in “salvation through character”.  So the promise of a good afterlife in exchange for your 10% pledge is not something we could promote with integrity.   The second conversation was with My son’s friend who came to visit us in Iowa recently and I invited them to come to service, and his first question was does your church have confession. 
Knowing he had grown up Catholic, I told him no, but if you wanted someone to talk to about something that he had done or a decision you are struggling with, I or one of our pastoral associates could sit and talk with him.  And his response was, So if I confess, am I forgiven for me sins.  I told him know, it doesn’t work that way here. So now we dont promise you eternal salvation after you die,  or even cosmic forgiveness in this life why should you consider being so generous with your pledge.  I think it is exactly for those reasons that you should be more generous.
Because we offer no easy promises or supernatural intervention, what we do offer is a way to be part of creation.  Creation of the Beloved Community, A community in the here and now that can be transformative in your life, and in the larger community.  We create an environment that allows for religious and spiritual exploration so that each of you as our mission says can embrace individual searches of meaning.  We create an environment and structure that allow us to live out our vision of becoming a Congregation that as our vision states
Supports social justice and social action initiatives in our congregation and the greater community and encourages responsibility for the earth and its creatures.”  And we can see the creation of this in all of our programs and social justice actions that originate from the Congregation.
The question often asked is how do we create and sustain an environment that transforms lives.  Part of it is the recognition, the naming of what we are doing.  Recognition of the possibilities, Recognition that ours is a religion for the type of society that exists, today in this world.  a society that is fragmented looking for wholeness, a society that is tired of doctrines that don’t make sense for our day to day lives and is looking at the questions that allow us to go deep.  A society that is diverse in many ways and a society searching for some form of unity.  And it is not easy with diversity to come together as one. 
Awhile back I read Peter Block’s book Community, subtitled the structure of belonging. Belonging, Let that word sit for a minute Be Longing. What do you long to be in the world.  How do you long to be in the world, Who do you long to be with in the world.  Think about what that is for you.  What does it mean to be longing just to be. To exist, to be authentic to who you are, to who you are at the core of your being, shedding the grit and challenges of the world that has hardened and hidden the authentic you. To start to even recognize what the grit and challenges were that shaped who you are today.  Because if you are authentic, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or someone’s differing opinions do not force us into a reactionary position, but rather allows us to be open to dialogue because we know who we are. We become defensive and argumentative when we are insecure. 
Authenticity is what we strive for in this world, in this congregation and in our personal lives, and each of us is sometimes more and sometimes less successful in its application.  It is why we are a people of covenant, so that when we do fall short, we can be brought back to covenant as a reminder to what our vision for our best selves are. 
But I want to focus on the type of environment that fosters creativity, change, and a depth of meaning. I believe in the deepest part of my heart that the way that happens is through loving engagement.  Peter Block speaks of four main things that create transformative communities. 1) Ownership, 2)having a transcendent purpose, 3)Acknowledging our Gifts, and 4)Welcoming.  Ownership seems simple enough. Within our team structure teams are empowered to offer programs to the Congregation.  Particularly for people newer to our religion, and maybe as well for those who have been here for a long time.  Ownership requires accountability, and collaboration, and is a reminder that each of us here are creators of community. 
What we create here in community is in effect the creation of our values in action. 
For every program you want to want to create, Block suggests asking four questions.
"How valuable an experience do you plan for this to be? 
How much risk are you willing to take? 
How participative do you plan to be?
To what extent are you invested in the well being of the whole?"

There is no one right answer to any of these questions. Not everyone lives with the same circumstances, and not everyone has the same risk tolerance, but ultimately we as a Congregation are created by the programs that you create, that you participate in. 

When I talk about welcoming later, yes it would be ideal if someone would just invite you (and consider this an invitation right now to invite someone). Peter Block says  “We have to realize that each time people enter a    room, they walk in with ambivalence, wondering whether this is the right place to be.  This is because they believe that someone else owns the room.” For introverts this is harder.  But I encourage you if you feel moved if you are passionate about something, if you want to better the well being of the organization with your gifts, if you want to explore how to integrate your gifts, sometimes you just have to ask. 

There is risk in that.  There is risk, someone will not like your idea.  Or worse not listen to you idea, or even worse ask you to volunteer to help implement your idea. Thus the question, how participative do you plan to be.  For someone new that can be off putting.  But that is the risk. All growth, all ownership requires risks. It requires discernment from those who have already walked the path and it requires a fresh look by those who are just starting on the path. With each new person who enters our doors we are changed by their input. Nothing stays the same. This is just as hard for long term members as newer members. We are all this together.

            For us to be truly transformative, we must all participate in the ongoing creation of the Congregation.  It is the same way when someone is thinking about becoming a member. What do you risk by becoming a member of this congregation?  To risk the safety of certainty. To risk losing simple answers to ambiguous and challenging questions. To risk anonymity, for we will ask you to share your journey with us, to risk the status quo for we will ask you to be open to others who may not think exactly like you do and we ask you to be in right relationship with them. You risk being changed, and you risk changing others. 

I know people do not join a Congregation in the hopes that someday they will be blessed to make coffee for other members of the congregation (in the second service I commented that there were some in the first service who do love to make coffee for other members). But yet the coffee still needs to get made. And we all share in those simple tasks. Eventually by doing the simple tasks just the simple act of serving others, and connecting with others can makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves. And that is part of what is meant by ownership. That by your actions small and large, you become and you shape and you create something larger than just your own concerns,

You learn to care and love and create and be a part of a community and that in and of itself is transformative.  

Secondly having a transcendent purpose.  Clement Stone said “When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand.  It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it.”   How do you want to live out your Unitarian Universalist beliefs?  What are you called to do as a member of this congregation?  What are we called together as a Congregation to create that would make a difference in the world?  What can we create together that we cannot create alone?  If we understand the what the how will fall into place.  To understand this as community requires us to come together in the many ways available to build relationships with each other, to learn to get to know ourselves and others deeply and that makes answering these questions easier.   Our passion in this Congregation seems to be around religious exploration, social justice and relationship building. I think just like a chair, if you take any one leg out it can not stand up.  All three need each other. Explore, go deep and by going deep together you will find your transcendent purpose. 

The third item is our Gifts.  Usually during this upcoming time of year of the annual pledge drive, we often hear the phrase to act from a mindset of abundance versus a mindset of scarcity.  And although I agree with that, I also like the questions that Block asks.  He asks us to consider what gifts we have received from others here and what unique gifts have you shared with others. Or what could you share?  What is unique about the gifts that we could possibly offer that is needed in the world, in this community? What is the gift that you hold in exile?

              But I think the even deeper question is what is the gift we have that we don’t know about or acknowledge in ourselves. What do we risk in exploring that question. Often the thing we fear the most is the thing we most desire.  We fear that deepness, that wholeness that comes with finding our authentic self, for if we reach for it and come up short, or if we find out we are wrong, we somehow think our hope our very being will be crushed.  But if we know who we are, that cannot happen.

As Shakespeare said

“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that humans should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” 

Let us not fear what we hope to become individually or as a Congregation.  Let us keep moving forward towards creating the Beloved Community. 

Lastly I will mention briefly, welcoming or what block calls invitation.  Block states “Invitation is the means through which hospitality and community are created.  It is an act of generosity; a call to create an alternative future, to join in the possibility that we have declared.”  It is why we say the same words at the beginning of each service so that someone who walks in here for the first time knows the baseline of who we say we are.   Then our goal should be to connect that newcomer, so we can learn from each other. Every week has the possibility of new creation.  Block says “In an authentic community, Congregants decide anew every single time whether to show up.  If they do not choose to show up, there are no consequences. 
They are always welcome.  And people always have a choice to say no. Our goal is not to bend peoples arms but to welcome them with open arms, and open minds, and open hearts. Both newcomers and people who have been here 50 years.  Then each person has to choose whether to engage or not.  I can promise you if you risk engagement, if you risk digging in and going deep, it will be worth it, and you will be changed by the experience.
Now I know I have asked a lot of questions today in my sermon.  Between now and next week when we will be having our pledge drive celebration, I ask you to think about those questions.  I ask you to think about how you want to be a part of the ongoing creation of this Congregation and I want you to think about just how much you value this Congregation for yourself, (your family if you have one) and for the Quad Cities Community.  I cannot promise  you eternal salvation or supernatural forgiveness of your sins.  But what I can promise you is that here in the present in the here and now if we all work together we can build the beloved community.  If we all work together to build strong relationships we will go deep to be transformed, and if we all work together welcoming everyone’s gifts with generosity, we will create the world we dream about

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Video Review of "Wolf of Wall Street" a 6 out of 10 on the JWO scale:

 I am not sure I get it.  Nominations for best actor and best movie?  I know everybody loves Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill (for different reasons I imagine).  And who doesn’t love Martin Scorsese.  This movie for over three hours tells about the real life exploits and excesses of Wall Street.  (I guess I didn’t see the cut version, which comes in slightly shorter). First DiCaprio.  I think he did a fine job acting.  Except I thought he playing Jack Nicholson.  Really, I kept imagining he was Jack Nicholson.  Maybe the character was like that. But as much as I love Jack, Leonardo should be acting, not imagining himself as Jack Nicholson. Ok, so that’s a little judgmental of me.  I admit it. (I like DiCapria, and appreciate his taking on a diversity of roles in other movies but this became a caricature).   Just too much over the top, no nuance.  Really I would say that is the problem with the whole movie…everything way over the top and no nuance.  I would have liked to have seen more about the FBI guy schlubbing his way through the case and what he was feeling about it.

For a much better movie on this topic of the penny stocks and abusive sales tactics….see the 2000 movie “Boiler Room” with Ben Affleck, Giovanni Riblisi and Vin Diesel (yes Vin Diesel) Much more depth to the characters and the stories. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart

For those who couldn't read or didn’t see the front of your order of service it says we must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove,  and that phrase comes from a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. called “a tough mind and and a Tender heart” and in it he quotes from the book of Matthew chapter 10 verse 60 when Jesus says to his disciples “be ye therefor wise as serpents and harmless as doves” I think its so interesting how we as a society view the terms tough and hard and soft and tender.    When I think of the word tough, I think of a Ford Truck, which goes to show just how far Madison Avenue has seeped into my brain. King would called that soft mindedness.  
When I think of hard, I think of hard hearted, hard as nails, too hard to handle (wait that was too hot to handle)  Hard can be positive and negative.  In can connote strength but also intractableness.  Softness can be positive and negative.  It can have the connotation of being gullible, of an unwillingness to stand up for anything, but it can also mean kindness, openness and gentleness.  We have all of these parts within us and the key is to find the balance between them and when it is appropriate to use each part.  .
 In this sermon though King characterized by tough mindedness as someone with
“incisive thinking realistic appraisal decisive judgment,  being sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crusts of legends and myths sifting the truth from the false,  astute at discernment they are strong austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment”
These are values we hold, these are things we speak of all the time.  Our principles call for the free and responsible search for truth, each week we talk about being committed to living out our values in the world. In order to do this, like the snake we must shed our skin and constantly renew ourselves. 
King speaks of soft mindedness as being gullible and susceptible to the messages we hear from the media, being prone to superstition, and a willingnes to accept the status quo and of being fearful of change. King speaks of soft mindedness invading religion.  How for too long religion has resisted change, and has accepted religious truths from the past as unchallengeable.  This soft mindedness is why so many religions have feared science, it is why Galileo was jailed by the church, why for too long religions justified and still justify in some instances slavery, misogyny, and denied same gender marriage.
This soft mindedness is why so many religions still today as well reject being stewards of the earth due to climate change today.  King did not fear science, in fact he embraced it. In this sermon he states that this soft mindedness
“has lead to the widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion.  But this isn’t true There may be a conflict between soft minded religionists and tough minded scientists, but not between science and religion Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar.  
Science Investigates,  Religion interprets Science gives humans knowledge which is power. Religion gives humans wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts
Religion deals mainly with values The two are not rivals They are each other’s Complement.  Science keeps religion from sinking into the mores of crippling Irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.    Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism” (God he could turn a phrase)

Thus it matters what values religions hold up.  It is why I feel it is so important that liberal religion must be strong and must have a strong voice in the community for the values we uphold, the values that we specifically point to in our mission and vision, welcoming, diversity, religious freedom, and social justice need to be heard and integrated into the larger community, or else the only values being heard will be the values of oppression.   But to have toughness without tenderness leads to mere utilitarianism, and blinds us to the unnecessary suffering in the world. Having tenderness lets us lead with compassion, with love, with caring and seeing people as people and not just a means to an end. We sometimes forget that the means can and should be the ends. 
            I have to admit that these past few months I have struggled mightily with my values surrounding  the numerous cases of police shootings of unarmed black men. Particular Michael Brown.  This past week I spent a couple of days in Chicago with Quad Cities Interfaith at a Gamaliel of Illinois training and planning meeting. (Gamaliel is a congregational based community organizer).  The trainer in her opening remarks kept telling us that to find where our racial problems stem from we have to go to the boiler room.  Now I have to say with my lack of knowledge of heating systems that analogy really did not work for me.  But her point was to go deep to the founding documents, the core of who we are as a country and as organizations. 
She reminded us about the how the united states constitution in its origins had declared that Slaves were only considered 3/5  human.  That laws of this land were crafted with the idea of controlling African Americans.  From  the  Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners,  From the Dred Scott Supreme Court Case in 1857 (which as a side note, Dred Scott lived in Davenport for a time) This case in 1857 declared a slave was his master's property and African Americans were not citizens, And then after the civil war and when slavery ended, the Supreme Court Decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson legalized separate but equal rights and ushered in almost a century of Jim Crow laws which deprived African Americans of their rights.  And not long after Brown vs. Board of Ed. the civil and voting rights Acts were enacted to eliminate Jim Crow Laws in the 1960s, there was the enactment of the War on Drugs, and through its tactics and implementation seems to be another way that our society is controlling African American and restricting  their rights. 
There is a trend in this country that seems to not want to value equality of opportunity for all, not value freedom for all, not value justice for all.  And as I was thinking about this and Michael Brown, I thought of Claudette Colvin. I imagine most of you have never heard of Claudette Colvin.  I imagine most of you have heard of Rosa Parks.  We know of Park’s story of refusing to give up her seat to a white person and that was the instigation for the Montgomery Bus Boycott on December 1rst 1955.  What most people don’t realize is that this was not a spontaneous event.  Parks was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. 
And her actions and her lawsuit and the boycott were all orchestrated. 
So who you may ask is Claudette Colvin?  Claudette Colvin upon returning home from school on March 2, 1955 some 9 months before Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white person. She was 15 years old, and was actually sitting in the Black Section of the Bus. But when the bus was crowded Blacks were required to give up their seats to whites. This 15 year old refused to give up her seat. She was arrested just like Rosa Parks, she filed a law suit just like Rosa Parks. But we never hear of her. The reason why is that Colvin was a teenager and became pregnant while unmarried during the time of her trial.  According to author Philip Hoose “They worried they couldn’t win with her. “Words like ‘mouthy,’ ‘emotional’ and ‘feisty’ were used to describe her.” Mrs. Parks, on the other hand, was considered “stolid, calm, unflappable,”  Margot Adler on NPR said that “black organizations felt that Rosa Parks made a better test case for integration because she was an adult, and she had the right hair and look to make her appear as middle class”

And yet, when I looked in the boiler room, it was not Rosa Parks court case that changed the law.  It was Claudette Colvin’s court case that made it to the Supreme Court, it was Claudette Colvin’s case that ended separate but equal laws in this country. . And that brings me back to Michael Brown.  He is not the best test case. He had a criminal record.  He may have attacked the police officer who shot him, maybe fearing for his own life. We will never know, but never the less it is a complex case with differing eyewitness testimony. Still he was unarmed. He was shot six times and left in the street for over four hours.  I am not here to argue the case of Michael Brown. Because there will never be the perfect victim, there will just be more victims. So we have to start somewhere. I am here to point out the long lineage of our white controlled society oppressing African Americans.  I am here to point out that the experience of African Americans over time includes violence and death at the hands of law enforcement. In the south during Jim Crow lynching African American men was common. Since the war on drugs started, harassment, arrests, seizure of property,  and elimination of fourth amendment rights against people of color have colored their experience with law enforcement.
More recently with the advent of social media we are hearing it seems to be one after another unarmed African Americans being killed, Eric Garner in New York illegally choked to death, Tamir Rice, in Cleveland a 14 year old playing with a toy gun is shot without a warning, John Crawford shot in a Wal Mart holding a pellet gun from the sporting goods section of the store, shot by police while talking on his cell phone.  And let us be clear these are just the most publicized ones that we are aware of.  How many know that a NAACP office was bombed in Colorado last week? There was almost no press on it.
There is a bias in our country, some intentional, but I imagine mostly unintentional including a conditioned fear that white people have when they engage with people of color and African Americans in particular. The only way to overcome this is to engage more with communities of color. I encourage you to attend tomorrow one the MLK Celebrations in town (United Neighbors in Davenport at 10 and at the MLK Center in Rock Island at 10:30) This violence and overt bias isn’t true of all people or all police, but when it happens, we must acknowledge it.  We must acknowledge that although drug usage is the same amongst whites and people of color, arrests for drug use are by far disproportionately higher for people of color.
We must acknowledge the impact this war on drugs has had is the same impact that slavery and Jim Crow had on communities of color,  which has been to diminish the family unit, to keep people of color in poverty and to limit the rights and opportunities for people of color. We must acknowledge that there seems to be an intentional long term plan by those in power to maintain power by promoting competing oppressions amongst those who are disadvantaged.  We must acknowledge our silence on these issues is soft mindedness. If we do not acknowledge this, then we will be surprised at the next uprising such as we saw in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death.
At some point people say enough is enough.   I have to be honest, here in Davenport, I think because we have less people of color, there does not seem to be as much tension. Yet, it is clear that more and more whites are moving to Bettendorf and pleasant valley, and Davenport schools are starting to be starved for money. Schools that are now going to have a higher % of children of color. Schools where more and more children live in poverty.  What do you think the ramifications of that will be in 10 or 20 years.  Do you know that there is long term planning for prison population based on 2nd grade reading levels.  So caring about this is partially a self interest.
King however was talking about being tenderhearted.  We must not look at what is just in our own self interest, for it is easy to delude ourselves about that, we need to look at what is the just way to act to build the beloved community for all people.  What beacon are you shining on the community, what work are you doing to combat systemic racism.  Its not an even playing field.  So I encourage you to engage, engage in the struggle for justice. It is not enough for us to just be good people. Because if we are good people but we do not act to stop injustice,  than we are allowing others who oppress to stand unopposed.  By doing nothing we are complicit. That is what was meant by an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. There is a better way, we know there is.  Our religious principles point us to that way.  Martin Luther King Jr. pointed us to that mountaintop.  Let us take up that mantle, let us not let his legacy be unfinished.  Let us be tough minded and discern what needs to be done and let us be tender hearted to care enough to do so.
May it be so.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


We love stories.  Stories inform us, inspire us, and hopefully instigate us to action.  Stories are ways that we transmit the ethics and morals of a society.  For most of us here today we have  movie and television that share these stories.  As  a young child I used to watch the Lutheran show Davey and Goliath that had simple lessons of right and wrong.  Clearly my parents didn’t have parental controls on our television.  Prior to television, I have been told there was once a time we only had books and magazines to tell us stories.
Some of my earliest memories of reading was going to the Doctors office and reading Highlights Magazine and following the stories of Goofus and Gallant giving simple depictions of right and wrong behavior.  (PPT  - Goofus bosses his friends, Gallant asks “what do you want to do next). Its nice to believe life is so simple.  Lastly, we have storytelling to pass along moral and ethical stories. Obviously prior to printing for the masses, for much of history this was the predominant way wisdom was passed along.  One very common way of sharing this was the parable. In our modern culture we often think of parables only in regard to the Christian Scriptures but parables are as ancient as human beings. 
We have parables of the Buddha in many writings and the Hebrew Scriptures themselves are filled with parables.  So it should not be surprising that Jesus would tell parables.  I actually love the parables of Jesus, and I will be leading an Adult RE class starting later this winter on the Parables.  The unique thing about the Parables in the Christian Scriptures is that they have been written with hidden meanings. Jesus states “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Universe. To others I speak in parables, so that looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand”  Jesus does not think very highly of his disciples, particularly in the Gospel of Mark, complaining to them “Do you not understand this parable?”  He is always having to explain the parables to them. The disciples seem to get smarter in the later Gospels.  These parables are made not just to teach but also to challenge conventional wisdom..  Even today, after thousands of years, or maybe because its been thousands of years, we often still do not understand the parables, or we each tend to have our own understanding of them. 
In my previous career I worked for someone who was a devout Christian.  It is a funny thing, often when people found out I was going to seminary, they would try to show me how smart they were about the Bible or how religious they were.  This one gentleman was very proud of the fact that he paid his fair share of taxes because the Bible told him to do so.  Then he started quoting scripture to me. (Fortunatly I had already taken my Christian Scripture class in seminary) He quoted from Mark Chapter 12 vs. 13 when Jesus is asked whether it is lawful pay taxes to Caesar and Jesus holding up a coin with Caesar’s picture on it responds
“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are Gods.”  For millennium Christians have taken this to mean that they should dutifully pay their taxes in whatever country they are in and abide by local laws. 
I think this brings up any important point in regard to the Christian Scriptures in general and the Parables attributed to Jesus.  First and foremost is that context is everything.  We tend to look back on the Parables in the Christian Scriptures with Christian Theology in mind, or even with the Gospel writers own bias and interpretation.  I think it is important to understand the parable in the context in which it was originally told. It was told by Jesus a Jewish Teacher to a Jewish Audience.   It was told at a time when Rome had invaded Palestine, and pitted Jew against Jew.  Many Jews had assimilated in the Greco-Roman Culture, and others were collaborators with the Romans as a way to survive.   The majority of the people though were suffering under the yoke of oppression.  This taxation story is in all three of the synoptic gospels, and they all  start with Jewish Leadership trying to “entangle” “entrap” or “deliver Jesus up to the authorities” Therefore there must have been an expectation that Jesus believed in tax resistance to Rome but they needed him to publicly state this to have him arrested.  I think this is also supported by Luke 23.2 whereupon handing Jesus to Pilate the assembly says “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor” In the time of Jesus many tax collectors over collected taxes so as to make a profit. This put an even heavier burden on the largely poor agricultural population of Israel. Often people had to mortgage their lands. Upon the ever rising taxes eventually the people would lose their land. In the time of Jesus, there was still a strong sense of God haven given this land to the Jewish people and the land was God’s and should not be transferred to Romans or used to facilitate payment of taxes to Rome.
Jesus had to find a way to give his tax resistance message to the people so as to maintain his integrity, without publicly denouncing the Romans which would lead to his arrest. His wording is highly ambiguous just for that reason. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – he doesn’t say what is Caesar’s. Jesus is saying render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – (which is nothing,) Render unto God what is God’s – (which is everything), particularly the land. (also talk about separating God from Caesar).  I was tempted not to tell the owner of the company this interpretation, because I think I gave him justification to start cheating on his taxes. 
But that is the second important lesson about context.  What meaning this had to Jewish people approximately 2,000 years ago, is not the same meaning it has for us in America today. I think this theme echoed through our American Revolution theme of no taxation without representation. But today we have not been invaded by a foreign military requiring us to pay excessive taxes used for the purpose to oppress us.  I do think it is important to understand what the parable’s original intent was, but then we have to ask ourselves how they can have meaning to us, what message can they tell us about our lives in this time.
I will share with you the Lost Parables of Jesus.  These are three parables, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son.  In each story the protagonist has lost something.
The Shepard has lost one of his 100 sheep, a women has lost one of her 10 coins, and a father has lost one of his sons. I have always struggled with these parables, perhaps the lost sheep one in particular.  From Luke ch 15
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them a parable “Which person among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one out of them , will not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until he finds it? And finding, he puts it up on his shoulders; rejoicing. And coming into the house he calls together the friends and the neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice together with me, because I have found my sheep, the lost one.”  
Perhaps I struggle with the sheep parable because sheep are so alien to my experience.  But more so because there were 100 of them.  When you have two sons, or 10 coins, it seems easier to keep track of them.  But I am thinking it must be hard to keep track of 100 sheep. Do you do a count every so many hours?  Even if you realized you lost one, by going after it, I would think you would be bound to lose others as well if you chased the one that got away.  It of course raises the question of the utilitarian benefit of the 99 versus the life of that one sheep.  I think of the oft used aphorism in my household growing up, better 99 guilty people go free than 1 innocent person go to jail.  Sometimes you have to sacrifice something to maintain a higher threshold of justice.  Now of course standard Christian Theology imagines the lost sheep as a sinner who has been redeemed, and the shepherd as Jesus.  But I don’t think that was Jesus intent in telling the story.  Sometimes as Freud might say, a shepherd is just shepherd.  Certainly Jesus first century Jewish audience would have understood it that way. 
I think Jesus is rebuking the leaders of the community for not keeping an eye on things.  Rebuking them for allowing  people to lose their lands and for not caring for those in the community in need.   He is telling them they need to go and take care of those who have been hurt by the Romans and their fellow Jews.   How long did it take the Shepherd to realize that he lost the sheep?  Was the shepherd playing games on his iphone, texting his fellow sheppard’s about the newest Maccabee singing group, or even just sleeping in the field instead of paying attention to and caring for the sheep? 
Upon finding what was lost, the Shepherd, was overjoyed. Jesus is telling them that there will be joy by all if justice is done.  And the Shepherd finds wholeness in publicly taking responsibility for their failing.  We are all Shepherds.  And so I ask you to consider what or who are you not paying attention to? Are you paying attention to yourself, your health, mind, body and spirit? Who have you not seen in a while in your life?  Who have you not seen at services here in a while?  Who needs your help? Let us pay attention to what and who is missing in our lives.  I encourage you to write that card,  make that call, take that extra visit, even if you are tired, or have one more meeting to go to. 
Search for what or who is missing, just as in the story of the lost coin, “not to light a lamp, or sweep a house,”  forgetting all other responsibilities until you have found what is lost.  It makes a difference to those who are lost, for perhaps they believe that no one is even looking for them anymore.  Its not always so simple though.  In the prodigal son, the story of the son who left, took his share of the money,  partied, went broke,  and was welcomed back by his father much to the chagrin of the older brother who had stayed behind.   We assume the lost son is the brother who left and returned.  But perhaps the lost son is the one who has stayed behind.
Perhaps the father has lost the love and respect of his older son who was loyal to him.  So I ask you to consider what relationships are broken in your life? In this Congregation.  Or better yet, let this story be a warning to us to pay attention,  to think about who we may take for granted, to take stock of what relationships are meaningful to us and think of what actions we can take to make sure those relationships stay strong.  And for those that are lost, there is no need to hide. Come in from the wilderness, come to the light of day, forgive the errors/shortcomings of others, for you too have a part to play in reconciling relationships that need to be made whole. 
Let us expand our searching and reconciliations to beyond our just our friends and our Congregation.  Who are the lost ones in our larger community.  Who are the people who have wandered off, who do not have a safety net, who does not have support. The bible speaks to this also, Welcome the alien, feed the hungry, house the  homeless. Care for the orphan and widow.  Let us all pay attention, let us all care. Let us all take responsibility.  Responsibility for ourselves, for each other for this Congregation and for the larger community.  It seems like a lot, but we are truly an amazing and capable species.  I think that is what Jesus was trying to get at.
We are capable of greatness as humanity. We are capable of great compassion and empathy for others.  Jesus spoke in parable out of fear.  I encourage you to be fearless.  Let us not wallow in the mud of pettiness and darkness of idleness, but rather let us wake up, work together and pay attention to others and by doing so, we can make our lives and the world whole.  Let us continue to tell our stories and parables because there is good in this world, and it's worth fighting for." 
May it be so.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Earth Centered Traditions

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Nature states
“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of humanity’s best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of their childhood.”
The Unitarian transcendentalists loved their nature metaphors.  Planting seeds, watering flowers and plants and watching them grow. 
Its interesting to read their writings of the 19th Century about even then how they felt industrialization had alienated them from nature.  Imagine how much more so for us now.  I think of myself especially. Having grown up in a city of concrete and skyscrapers, I was enamored with and found deep meaning in nature.  Whether it is staring up at the stars at night as a child, or even last week sitting down by the river and just watch it flow by and contemplating how my life has flowed as well. .  I remember in 2004 sitting in my chair for six hours as a Hurricane passed over our house in Florida and watching the trees shaking and hearing the house rumbling and just being in awe of its power.
All of these aspects of nature, the planting,  the growth, the wonder, the contemplation, the destruction, is all a mirror to our souls.   We can learn about the world around us and about ourselves by observing nature and being in nature.  Interacting with nature can teach us courage, conservation, the need for planning, and understanding our limitations By being in nature and experiencing nature we cannot help but feel a part of something larger than ourselves.  Sometimes nature can seem so big that it requires myth to explore it in all its grandeur.  I think about this Congregation in particular and its commitment to Environmental Justice.  Part of that is just a matter of human survival. 
But part of it is our recognition of humanity being a part of nature and not something separate from it.  These Earth Based Traditions call us to this integration of humanity and nature.   I have to admit that prior to my attendance at a Unitarian Universalist Congregation 30 years ago, I had no conception of what Earth Centered Traditions were.  We use that phrase because it comes from the sources that our living tradition draws from, which are the “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”
So although I didn’t have the words for it prior to my introduction to it, I felt it, I felt it every day, as the wind blew my hair, as the cold froze my ___ my everything, as the heat of the sun radiated on my body, as I walked on the soft grass beneath my feet.  Although we are so often cut off from it and its effects, sitting in our offices, or houses, with lights and heat and air conditioning on we cannot deny it is a part of our existence.  These traditions go back as long as there has been humans. They are a way to understand the world we live in, The world that has sustained us. They are also a celebration of the earth of which we are a part.
For we know that every day the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the tides roll in and out and each and every month the moon will wax and wane from new to full, And we believe this certainty, this creation we are a part of is something to marvel at, to reflect on, and to pay reverence to. May it be so.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

"Its Beginning to Look a Lot Like the Holidays" - some thoughts on Pluralism

As I shared with the children, this time of year there are many religious holidays that are celebrated.  There is another one I didn’t mention a Unitarian Universalist Holiday called Challica, seriously, which although not very popular even among Unitarian Universalists, does exist.  Challica celebrates the UUA principles which by agreeing to be members of the UUA, we covenant to affirm and promote; the Third principle which I would like to focus on today is the Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
The Mission and vision of our Congregation speak to embracing individual searches for meaning and feeding the mind and spirit regardless of the pathway.  At the beginning of each service we say, we are a pluralistic religion that draws wisdom from many sources.  Now pluralism is easier talked about than lived out.  We are actually starting to walk down this theological path with our new source teams, and spiritual practice teams and Adult RE programs that allow people to become educated about the different sources, and will allow people if they choose to go deeper into each source. 
Later in the service we are going to hear from two members from our new Earth Based Traditions Source Team, who will share why that source is meaningful to them.  The challenge for us will be to answer the question what holds us together as we each go down these different paths.  What will be the Unity in our Community.  The only answer to that question rests with all of you.  Whether you are truly committed to this pluralistic vision.  Whether you are truly supportive of your fellow members’ search and beliefs and practices that may be different than yours. 
Whether you are open to experiencing something different from what you hold fast to and whether it changes you or not, whether you are willing to experience it for the greater good of the larger vision.   Ultimately each one of us together are the Unity in this Community.  Its not just one more well crafted newsletter article Its not just one more meeting, not just one additional program,.  But its all of you coming together with all your diversity.  I do so look at us as a microcosm of the larger world.  I look at us a place that can create an environment where we all can respect each other, and learn from each other, and care for each other. That involves trusting each other and being open with other, and be willing to share with each other without judgment.   And to respect each other even if we disagree.  It is what I would call a relational theology.  That  God or Goddesses, or beauty, or Love, or mystery or whatever word you would like to use to describe that feeling of the ineffable , is found or lost within our relationships with each other.  And if we can find that magic, that power of right relationship,  we can be a model for the world.   So often when I meet newcomers to our Congregation, they are just shocked that such a religious home exists.
There is a deep need in the world.  There is a yearning for community, there is a yearning for this world theology, this  relational theology, and a yearning to express and explore individual experiences and our place in the world.   It’s a beautiful thing that more people are longing for, especially as our society becomes more distanced via space, time and technology. We often have members share their powerful moments, and I want more people to have those powerful moments. 
Moments when the lost are found, moments when the spiritual hungry are fed, moments when the seekers find a path, moments when we work to triumph over injustice, moments when the fragmented are made whole.  This is what we are trying to create here. And just as in the various holidays, that have their different particularities, there are commonalities as well.  You will notice all of the holidays, utilize light in some way.  Whether by lighting candles, or logs, or recognizing the light within each one of us, or the light that is powered by the natural world. 
These winter holidays, this day in particular which is the shortest day of sunlight in our part of the world are a mirror to our lives as wells.  We each have moments, days, sometimes even longer stretches when we cant feel the light within us. But like this season of darkness, we are entering into a season of more light day by day.  Let us live with that light in our hearts   Let that candle or log or star in the sky guide us, and may it as well guide all who are lost and forsaken so that they may be made whole. As Albert Camus said, "In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."  And we must journey through winter to reach summer.  
In all aspects of our life, including our religious journey.   I know we have a number of you who were born Unitarian, but not uncommon with many of you, I myself come from a different religious background.  I was born and raised in the Jewish Tradition. And although I stopped attending Temple regularly at the age of 17, my Jewish Heritage, culture and many parts of my birth religion still have meaning for me.  I have studied Eastern Religions extensively specifically Buddhism and Taoism, and of course I am deeply imbedded in the Unitarian Universalist religion after practicing it for over 30 years and studying for its ministry. Someone once referred to me as a JewBUUU.   
I was comfortable first joining Unitarian Universalism because I did not have to abandon everything that was meaningful to me, but I could incorporate it into ongoing religious journey.  I heard Starr King Univ. Prof. Ibrahim Frajaje speak about this and he called it mixites, organically developed over time as we incorporate new experiences and new wisdom into our consciousness.  So not only are each of us diverse from each other, but each of us carries within ourselves, our own diversities, different ideas, different experiences, different passions. It does not have to be the dichotomy of either/or. It can be both/and.

I can be Jewish and Buddhist and Unitarian.  Its hard to wrap our head around sometimes. But if we are authentic, open and disciplined in our religious practice, we can incorporate wisdom from many many sources. There is a Beauty in Differences and we should let those differences become the doorway of wisdom for all of us. May we show up with all of who we are, in all our differences, in all our wholeness. Living in the differences and not disparaging what we fear. What we fear in others differences, as well as what we fear in the differences within ourselves.  One way to overcome our fear of differences is to engage with those differences. 

Friday, January 02, 2015

Three mini movie reviews of what I saw this past week - The Hobbit (part 23), Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Hobbit Part 23 (ok, it just seems that way )  a 5 out of 10 on the JWO scale 
Possibly this should be titled, the many different ways to kill an orc. So the one thing the movie has going for it is its special effects, which were great.  Yes, it is a commentary on war and the need for good to stand in the face of evil.  Although after about an hour of ongoing slaughter, I started having fun thinking about the obnoxious elves and greedy dwarves as the 1% hoarding all the gold (unearned by the way and at the cost of the death of many innocent women and children in the nearby town) and healthcare (elves live long lives), and the orcs as the oppressed proletariat. would that change how we watched the movie.  I know its all a allegory of WWI but still as a movie, the heroes are not all admirable individuals.  Maybe that is the point.  Really, I am not sure there is a point other than to show off the wonderful scenery.

Interstellar a 7 out of 10 on the JWO scale
I enjoyed this movie.  I tend to like movies that deal with spaceflight, some sci-fi,  and dystopian futures,  so there is a bias here. It was a little slow at times, and the acting is not academy aware material, but still the movie was thoughtful, nostalgic and had meaning for me. Plus its always good to see Michael Caine.  I don’t know about the science underpinning the movie, but it gave me a couple of different perspectives of how our actions affect our future and our place in the Universe. I don’t want to say more without giving away the ending.  There was a point in the movie where the characters were faced with a tough decision.  One made a choice with pure utilitarian rationale. The other was guided by love. The character who makes their choice by love says 
“So listen to me when I say love isn't something that we invented. It's observable. Powerful. It has to mean something. Maybe it means something more - something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can't consciously perceive. Love is the one thing that we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't understand it. “
Trust Love. I’ll take that message any day.

Video Review of the week – “The Grand Budapest Hotel” directed by Wes Anderson a 7.5 on the JWO scale.

Similar to Terrance Mallick, either you love Wes Anderson movies or you hate them.  They are quirky, fun, cleverly written stories with meanings within meanings, some of which I will never get until I watch the movie for the third time (or maybe never).  They make you chuckle, not guffaw. They show the innocence and complexity of life, and they point to what has most meaning in the world for their characters. There are cameos galore by many stars as well which is fun. His 2012 movie Moonrise Kingdom is one of my favorite films.  Grand Budapest is worth seeing. Although not quite as nostalgic as Kingdom, it does broaden the scope of the characters lives to the larger world around them.  This story centers on the concierge of the Hotel Mr. Gustave and his protégé Zero.  Its pointless to give you the plot because well, its just a fun roller coaster ride. Zero grown up, speaking of Gustav said, “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!”  May we face the world as it is, with grace and humor and integrity. .  It tells how circumstances around us change, but we can maintain our integrity. Or perhaps it shows the choice we make when we don’t change, how it affects us.  So much fun, so much to think about.