Saturday, May 30, 2015

Two Movies - Two Visions of the Future


Mad Max Fury Road – a 4 out of 10 on the JWO scale
Mad Max is truly a dark vision of our dystopian future. It picks up after the Thunderdome, where it is clear Max failed to keep the children in his care safe which has sent him into madness and savagery. Maybe at this point I am just becoming jaded about movies like this, after seeing one too many. (which I think ties into the Tomorrowland theme). This movie just had an idiotic or no plot and script.  This movie seemed to be written with punk rockers and x games aficionados in mind.  I really just didn’t get the guitar player with fire coming out of guitar as something that would happen in a dystopian nightmare.  Would they really waste their energy on that.  I know, I know, its not real, only a movie, but if there is complete disregard for reality, then, this is not a real future possibility and whole premise of the movie falls apart. In fact there were times in the movie I actually laughed ouut  loud  due to seeming absurdity  in tthe movie  The movie’s violence and noise just didn’t appeal to me. I did  appreciate the feminist and ableist angle that the movie interjected.  It was novel for this type of  movie.  But it wasn’t enough to offset ongoing death and destruction with little or no plot line.  I like Tom Hardy and love  Charlize Theron as actors but they didn’t have much to work with here.

Tomorrowland a 6 out of 10 on the JWO scale
Tomorrowland has one strike against it immediately, because going in, I saw this cynically as a way for a  movie to promote the Disney Parks.  From a business perspective I like it, but from a movie perspective it takes a bit of the purity away from the movie.  Having said that, I enjoyed the movie. George Clooney puts in a typical George Clooney low key professional performance. Britt Roberston did a great job playing  the innocent energetic youthful imaginative budding engineer protagonist who wakens Clooney from his slumber.  The movie showed us two visions of the future, one idyllic, and another dystopic. I think you have to be physicist to understand the plot line regarding alternate universes and time shifting.   I gave up trying to figure that out after awhile. The movie’s message for me is what we spend our time on, what we focus on, will determine our future. If we dwell on the negative, the negative future will occur. If we dwell on the positive and act with wonder about what is possible we are more likely to create a world filled with wonder.  And by the way you can find wonder in Tomorrowland at Disney World. But I am sci-fi nerd and I appreciated the shots of the 64 worlds fair, and jet packs, and a multicultural, multiracial future and the questions about whether Artificial Intelligence can have emotion.  It was a fun movie with a good message.  Well worth watching.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I've Got Peace Like a River

Each  year on Memorial Day I want to remember and pay respect to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives in defending our country.  I also want to imagine what it would be like to have a world of peace where one day that will not be necessary.  Our sixth principle is the goal of world community with peace liberty and justice for all.  It seems sometimes the goal of latter two liberty and justice make peace seem farther off.  Last year I did a sermon on that topic, and we used the hymn I’ve got Peace like a river. As hymns go, it is easy to sing, and has a nice sound After last year’s service I kept thinking really what does it mean to have peace like a river. 
I imagine the concept of peace like a river comes from the fact that early agricultural communities were built near rivers as a source of water for plants and crops.  The food that sustained them were created by water from the river. That is probably the genesis of that phrase in regard to its many Biblical references.  Psalm 36 speaks of the river of your delights.  The Book of Isaiah speaks of prosperity like a river.   The song is an African American Spiritual.  The first 3 verses were written much earlier. The last three verses, were added later with anonymous attribution. So what does or what can it mean to us here today to have peace like a river.
In many religious traditions the river is used as a metaphor for when we die. We cross over the river between life and death.  From the Greeks, it is Charon the ferryperson who carries us over from the land of the living to the land of the dead. When I think about the metaphor it is interesting to think about daredevils who walk a tightrope over or jump motorcycles over rivers as a way I think in their minds to transcend this river between life and death and come out on the other side alive.  These risk takers give us a metaphorical sense of what may be possible.
(Powerpoint)
Even Waterfalls themselves such as this on in Niagra Falls NY, it is the river that leads into it, and at the  bottom forms another river. Rivers are not always peaceful.  Anyone who has rafted on rapids knows that.  The River is our metaphor for life.  Sometimes calm and peaceful and sometimes raging.  Always flowing, always changing.  As the Greek philosophy Heraclitus said “you cannot step twice into the same river” Nothing in life stays the same. We must savor the moments of beauty, but we must restrain ourselves from trying to lock that moment in time, for it can never last as it was.  

(Video – A River Runs Through it)

And there we have it. If we are to engage with life it will sometimes take us for a wild ride.  Sometimes it will feel like we are going under. And we are not even sure how it is going to end.  But through that perseverance, we can sometimes, even if its only for brief moments we can feel truly alive, truly fulfilled in that journey knowing we are heading in the right direction toward our hoped for goal. And that has to be enough. If we are lucky, we feel the magic now and then. But perhaps the peace of the river is learning to have peace with the journey and peace with never-ending change. 
(Powerpoint)    
I often go down to the Mississippi to just sit and watch the river and contemplate the flow of the river and the flow of my life.  (To the left of this picture is the gambling boats with the Pelicans and other birds scavenging for food – but that is an image for another day and another sermon,)  I find sitting and watching the river very peaceful.  Its also a little nostalgic for me, as some of the most peaceful times of my youth were spent watching a river flow. (Powerpoint)
I lived just over a mile from the Bronx River seen here, many days after school, starting from the age of 8 (I was what they would call today a free range child) I would walk from my home to this little spot by river which was across from the Bronx Zoo.  It was my place of escape to nature in the middle of the concrete jungle.  I had this little spot which was not often frequented by others. 
I spent many an afternoon watching the river flow and even occasionally if I was willing to get my pants and sneakers wet, crossing over the waterfall where rocks made it navigable, to sneak into the zoo, although sometimes fearful that I would end up in the wolves den accidently.  But mostly I would just sit and watch the river flow…

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essays on nature said
“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Humans are conscious of a universal soul within or behind our individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, we call Reason: it is not mine, or thine, but we are its; we are its property. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. “

I think by sitting by the river, we connect to the spirit by realizing we are a part of the flow of life, just like the river. We also know the river flows on.  It flows to a place we don’t yet know. Perhaps the wide ocean, or waterfall, but somewhere around the bend, life continues to flow on in a way we cant see, and wherever we are in life, it allows us to see that in ourselves.  Oh we can map it out with google or a five year plan, but we have not seen it with our own eyes, or know what pitfalls or bridges lie between us and the rivers end.  Our lives will continue to flow somewhere, in some way beyond where we are.  We cannot change that.  It is the inevitably of change.
And just as the river will sometimes be slower, or faster or curving, or straight, so too does our life have the uncertainty of where it is heading. But don’t dam up the river just so you can know where all the water is and allow you to harness it just for yourself.  Let it flow, and see where it takes you.  And although Eons ago it was the water that carved out the mountains and pathways, I imagine the river of our life flowing, and I think of that land surrounding it that defines the boundaries of rivers.  It reminds me of how often the environment and circumstances in our lives define where our life has flowed.   
But as much as we try to keep a river contained to fit our boundaries, when it has too much it will overflow to where it needs to go.  So too can we when we have had too much, with discernment and planning we cabn redirect our lives, and others lives for the better, to live into our nature of  Justice, our nature of Truth, and our nature of Love.  It is why each week we redirect 50% of our non pledge collection with social justice groups in our community This month we are supporting Quad Citians Affirming Diversity.  Let the river of equality and your donations flow generously. 

Part II
To continue with the exegesis of the hymn, I move to the second verse I’ve joy like a fountain.  I often don’t think of fountains themselves having joy.  Certain fountains give joy.  (PowerPoint) A chocolate fountain at a wedding attended gave many joy.  When I think of fountains I think of (PowerPoint) a Zen fountain I once had similar to this that gave me a sense of calm led to reflectiveness.  So maybe there is joy in reflecting.  (Powerpoint).  Watching the fountain scoop up the water and constantly toss it around did actually look joyful although not meditative to me. (PowerPoint) We have a drinking fountain.  The most famous fountain is one that we all search for in vain, the fountain of youth. The message I receive from joy like a fountain is that we cannot easily place labels on  people, or places or things. We need to take each person we find as we find them, as individuals, in their uniqueness, as well as in their wholeness. There is no one fountain, there is no one kind of person. So let us drink from the fountain. The fountain of life, the fountain of every life, and the fountain of every being in existence. 
Which leads to I’ve got love like an ocean.  (PowerPoint). Let us have love that is as expansive as an ocean. That is wide ranging and inclusive. But love can be hard.  Its hard to love some people. (PPT) Like the painting “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.  When you go out to deep waters, sometimes the waters can get rough. When we try to go deep with each other, sometimes it can get rough.  When you try to change established cultures, whether they be in Congregations or law enforcement or medical care, the waves will rise and fall and one must be able to ride them out and stay in relationship with and keep a heart of love for all  who are with us on the journey. 
And on that journey we have pain like an arrow. (PowerPoint)
This has always been a confusing line for me, but when we did a child dedication earlier this year, I read a piece by Khalil Gilbran the Prophet in which he speaks of parents and children that helped me understand it.
“For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and they bend you with their might that their arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;” 
The pain like an arrow, is the knowledge that the life we live, the work we do will never be complete in our lifetime.  That the river will go on long after we are here.  We are both the arrow and the bow.  And it has to be enough.  Last week someone said to me we should live our lives not for our resume but for our obituary.  What do we want to be known for.   We need to let go of the pain of uncertainty and live our life in the present moment with our eye on the path of the infinite.
That pain, that pain like an arrow can lead to tears like raindrops. (Powerpoint)  Raindrops that fill up the river.  As the Buddha said “all of life is suffering” and although there is a way out of suffering, suffering cannot be avoided.  People die, leave us, betray us, come up short, and that is part of our journey of life.  The river is filled up not just with ecstatic moments of joy and peace on the journey but also tears. 
So we need to have strength like a mountain. (PowerPoint) Something lasting, something strong that over time can stand the test of time, something that we can hold on to in the times that test us.  That mountain is our commitment to this free religious tradition, that although it may change over time, is always here for us to explore our religious and spiritual beliefs and is here to bring us together to learn how to create beloved community.

(Video – A River Runs Through it - end)


Let our hopes always rise.  Let our love rise.  Let us remember as we walk in the world, let us walk gently and with kindness. We don’t know what even our small kindnesses and sacrifices will lead to around the river bend, beyond our view of sight, in some distant future, where there is more love, more hope, more peace and more joy. Let us make it so. Let us sing it into being with our Closing Hymn #95

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

From Babel to Pentecost

Next Sunday is the celebration of the Christian Holiday Pentecost and Jewish Holiday of Shavous.  The only similarity of the two holidays is that the events that are celebrated by Christians happened when the first Christian Jews were celebrating Shavous.   Shavous is also known as the Festival of Weeks and Pentecost in Jewish writings. As with many ancient holiday, Shavous is both an agricultural, historical and theological holiday.  Agriculturally it was a time they celebrated the first grain harvest, and historically the holiday was the time people came to Jerusalem to make their ritual donation of harvest to the Temple.  
Theologically it is 50 days between (thus the word Pentecost meaning 50th) between Passover when the Jewish people received their freedom from bondage until the giving of the Torah or the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures to Moses from God.  The holiday commemorates a journey.  Last week we spoke of the journey from emptiness to fulfillment.  This is the marking of that same journey.  From emptiness, from bondage to freedom to spiritual growth.  I think it is noteworthy that it is a celebration of the giving of the Torah, not the receiving of it. Each year it is a ritual of the giving, not receiving.  We are constantly receiving wisdom from our experiences in life and that is how it should be.  But this holiday marks the giving of wisdom.  It is a reminder as the Dali Lama says “ Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” 
I remember  in my business career when I first moved to Florida I had a particularly difficult challenge that I was struggling with. The CEO of our company said to me, call the CFO of our competitor and  ask him how he does it.  I paused as this seemed like an alien request to me and I commented, why would he share that with me if he is a competitor.  And the CEO chuckled and said “Jay, not everyone is from New York  (not to stereotype New York, but it was a little more dog eat dog there) He went on to say, he is a good person, trust me he will help you.  And sure enough when I called,  without batting an eyelash this competitor shared his wisdom with me, and helped  solved my problem.  I took away two important lessons from that experience.  Thereafter I not only never denied a request for sharing wisdom, but I viewed it almost as a mission to share my wisdom with others.  I was always very proud of the fact that whenever I was promoted, that people I had trained were promoted into my previous position and succeeded.  
And secondly, I learned that in the right environment people can change by learning a new way of being. We can learn to be good and learn to choose the good.  Being good and compassionate and generous in our interactions are the path to fulfillment.  I learned that giving is most definitely as good as receiving. Cooperation and collaboration add exponentially to the whole of society.  It is the same with our religious and spiritual life.  The more we share with others, the more powerful the experience can be.   Now I know I usually I make a comment like this around pledge time.  But I promise you that sharing of yourself, sharing your story, sharing your heart, sharing your soul with others can be a powerful, insightful and freeing experience for all involved.  When we hear others share their experiences it can become a window into our own inner life.  It allows us as well a view of the world from someone elses perspective and experiences from a context different than our own experiences.  This can happen at any gathering,  
I remember how powerful it was when we had members of the NAACP come to one of our Racial Justice meetings to share about  their experiences as people of color.  Many of our white participants heard stories of suffering they could not imagine and it gave us the opportunity to learn about our neighbors and the injustice imposed upon them, and that facilitates our natural empathetic nature.  But more so once someone takes that leap, once they share, that frees others to share as well. And in that combined sharing we create a Pool of Shared Meaning and as the quote at the top of your order says, that is the birthplace of synergy.  Synergy, the place where the whole is greater than the parts, synergy, the time when energy becomes contagious, synergy, the way that our wisdom expands.  Synergy, the place where we can all come together in our many different forms, and still love each other, and bring wholeness to our fractured world.
By giving and sharing.  Giving and sharing is a gift we can all can give and receive.  Whether it is just our presence on Sunday morning.  That in and of itself is a gift to those around you.  Or it can be the gift of your talents, such as volunteering for our rummage sale that is coming up, or leading a class, or serving on a team or committee, or it can be the gift of money as we have just finished  our pledge drive in which many of you have been generous with your financial giving and responded to the Board’s call for additional funds.  And each week when we come together we practice the ritual of giving by taking a collection to support the programs of this congregation and the larger community.  Each week we give 50% of our collections to the a local social justice organization this week we are sharing with Quad Citians Affirming Diversity. (from their website) “It is the only organization in the greater Quad Cities region that provides education, advocacy and support for Gay, Lesbians, Bi-Sexual, Transgender and Questioning (GLBTQ) persons.”  Please be as generous as you can and after you have had the opportunity to donate we invite you come down and light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.

Part II
From the Book of Acts Chapter:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability”

This passage from the Christian Scriptures has led some Christian Denominations promote what is called “speaking  in tongues” which to the common ear sounds like gibberish.  And although I personally don’t find religious meaning in that, I can see a cathartic element in it. Sort of like a punk rock band just screaming for the sake of screaming.  It allows for a release of emotions.  Or I think of when my grandparents when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying they would speak in Yiddish which is a German dialect.  It seemed to me like they speaking gibberish although they understood each other.  And I have to admit there were times when my teenagers so confounded me that instead of saying what I wanted to say I did speak in tongues to them until I calmed down,  so they would not understand me. 
But I do not interpret this text to be about speaking in tongues.  It is for me a story of oneness within community where everyone is understood. And the communities oneness with God.  To truly understand this story though we must go back to the book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Babel means Gate of God. From Genesis Ch. 11

“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
So lets not talk about who God is talking to and who is going down to earth with God when it says Let us go down. We will put that aside for today.  This story was probably originally told and later written down  to explain why when they met  different tribes, the people had different languages.  But the story’s message is clear.  The writers believed that that if humans could achieve oneness, and could truly understand each other, then nothing would be impossible for us.  It is our divisions that limit us.  It is confusion of others that restrains us, it is our  self imposed barriers that leaves us grasping for more.  We can now translate what others say, (show an example on Google Translate – I have no idea if it is correct, I have faith in the Google) 

But it is not enough just to translate, we must listen, and more importantly we must understand and be understood in the context of our lives. That is the meaning of Pentecost to me.  It was the coming together of a community, united, united as one strong body, united in love.  So often we diminish ourselves and don’t want to believe that we are capable of such a greatness.  A greatness that can lead to wholeness, that can lead to healing the wounded and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. Of sharing our deepest hopes and dreams and sorrows with another.  It is all within our power.  We just have to believe it is and act in such a way to make it happen and then such actions become contagious.   We find it hard to accept the possibility that there is something better, because often we have suffered and witnessed so much suffering, but as most great religious truths posit, there is a way out of suffering, if we are willing to embrace suffering, and take action to end it.
As the Brueggmann reading said, “we imagined the universe to be more ordered and reliable.”  But its not. Its messy, and because of that we so we often abdicate responsibility or distract ourselves. I want you to ask yourself with every interaction that you have, am I acting with love? And I believe if we act with love in our hearts, every day with every action you will find a deeper truth within you. It may get messy, but we can and will clean it up together.  That is the foundation of beloved community. There is an old tale from the Jewish Talmud that asks

“How is God known?” “Time before time” the story goes,” when the world was young, two siblings shared a field and a mill, each night dividing evenly the grain they had ground together. One sibling lived alone, the other had a large family.
Now the single sibling thought one day, ‘It isn’t really fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have only myself to care for, but my sibling has children to feed.’ So each night they secretly took some of their grain to the other sibling’s granary. 
But the married sibling said to them self  one day, ‘It isn’t really fair that we divide the grain evenly — because I have children to provide for me in my old age, and my sibling  has none.’ So, they began every night to take some of their grain to the other sibling’s granary.
Then one night they met each other half way between their two houses. Suddenly they realized what had been happening, and they embraced each other in love. The legend has it that God witnessed their meeting and proclaimed, ‘This is a holy place, and here it is that my Temple shall be built.’ And so it came to be that the first Temple was constructed in Jerusalem. For God is known where human beings meet each other, and discover each other, in love.”


May this place be such a holy place for you, where each of us are brothers and sisters that meet each other and discover each other, in love. So I encourage you to listen for that wind, the wind that will blow in a new future and blow away the cobwebs that prevent us from truly communicating with each other.  Let us find the oneness within ourselves, with each other and with the universe.   May it be so. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Movie Review August: Osage County – a 7.5 on the JWO Movie Rating Scale

Perhaps because I just led a service on compassionate communications today that this movie struck a chord with me due to its lack of the same.  It is the story of a dysfunctional family after its patriarch has committed suicide (it happens in the first few minutes of the film, so I am not giving much away here). It is heavy on words and light on cinematography and action.  The acting is just spectacular, although occasionally over the top. There are just so many good performers in this, I almost didn’t recognize Abagail Breslin (from a great movie Little Miss Sunshine, which I now realize is 9 years old and it makes sense why I might not recognize her)  And although the matriarch of the family says she is truth telling, the movie is all about how the secrets we keep and the truth we hold within ourselves, ultimately poison us.  It is about how we really don’t understand others’ lives often, as one character states:
“Maybe its hard for you to believe, looking at me, knowing me the way you do, all these years. I mean, I know to you, Im just your old fat Aunt Mattie Fae. I’m more than that, sweetheart, there’s more to me than that.”

People don’t just fit into the nice little boxes we imagine them to be.  Life is more complex than that. The movie also shows how we are affected generationally by the suffering of our parents. It is clear how each one of the children is a reflection of and a reaction to their parents. And although the end of the movie didn’t tie everything up in a nice little bow, I think that is the point.  Our lives are never complete, and they are always unfolding.  The best we can do is to try to understand ourselves and bring the truth to light as difficult as it may be. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

From Emptiness to Fulfillment

Happy Mothers Day Everyone.  Mothers Day can be an emotional day for many people, mothers and children for many reasons, due to family dynamics and the different ways families are created.  . Despite the many losses and suffering in our lives and in the world, I like to think of Mother’s day as a celebration of the creation of family.  The creation of family in whatever form it takes  This day and age, that word means many different things for many different families.  So I thought I would share with you a unique Story from the Jewish Scriptures that speaks to the suffering and struggles and the bonds that are created that can be everlasting.   
         The Book of Ruth tells the story of Naomi, who with her husband and two sons leave their homeland where there is famine and go to a foreign land Moab.   Naomi’s husband dies and her two son’s marry Moabite women one named Orpah and one named Ruth.  After 10 years Naomi’s sons also die. Naomi decides to return to her homeland, and encourages her daughter in laws to stay in Moab.  As non Jews they would not be welcome. Although I try to imagine if she sounded like my grandmother with a little guilt involved.  (Go have your fun, leave me alone, I will fend for myself, an old lady in the desert, what could go wrong)
Its hard to read sarcasm into the scriptures.  Orpah decides to stay, but Ruth responds –
"Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; weherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried"
A true act of loyalty.  Naomi and Ruth return to Naomi’s homeland, and through the help of her relative Boaz, Naomi sells some property, Boaz protects and allows Ruth to collect food for Naomi and Ruth to live on, and then with a little encouragement from Naomi, Ruth marries Boaz and they have children and live happily ever after.  And one of their descendants is none other than King David. That’s the readers digest version. (does every know what I mean by that?)  So it’s a nice story.  Even the names of the characters fit in so well. Boaz means Strength, and is even the name of one of the pillars on King Solomon’s Temple, the names of Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chillion means– “wounded one” and “one who is finished off”  Naomi, which means pleasant one, when she returns home asks to be called Mara which means bitter.
Even her daughter in law’s names have significance. Orpah means to turn away and of course most of us know the meaning of ruth…..although often we know it in its negative form ruthless.  Ruth means to have empathy for another.  So we can see this is a carefully crafted story to provide meaning to the people of its time. 
This is the Book of Ruth, not the Book of Naomi or the Book of Boaz.  And there is a point to that. Ruth the Moabite is someone who abandons her religion of birth abandons her homeland,  and commits with genuine loyalty to and builds her life around her relationship with Naomi. She is considered in rabbinic writings a woman of valor. All of this she takes on despite the ambiguity of what the future may hold for her. And isn’t that all any of can do.  In the ambiguity of not knowing what the future holds.  With traditional religious beliefs released as we become aware of the universe around us we struggle with the mystery of what underlies our existence. With technology giving us not only unlimited potential but also potential unlimited destruction,  we look for something of substance to hold onto. With these changes in society some people want to hold on to old prejudices and old ways of being.
But as we stand on the precipice in the face of uncertainty, we can either be withdraw, and have our souls crushed by fear or we can leap into the precipice with everything we have, and we can be like Ruth and have a fierce empathy for others.  For all people. We should first and foremost have a fierce empathy for ourselves and our own members.  But not just for ourselves, not  just people who live near us, or look like us or sound like us, but all people. A child starving, whether that be from food or knowledge or love, should invoke our ruth.
         The meta narrative of this story is of the journey from Emptiness to Fulfillment.  From the beginning of the story they transcend from famine to the end when they have an abundance  of food. From the beginning suffering the loss of family members to the creation of new relationships and new family, even if not traditional.   This story was probably written in the post exile period around 500 BCE and from a practical standpoint it may  have been written to encourage those who had been exiled to Babylonia to come home to Israel to help rebuild the temple and re-form a nation.  
Many Jews in Babylonia had assimilated into Babylonian Culture and married Babylonians over the 100 years in captivity.  It sounds like they needed a Unitarian Church with all the mixed religious marriages they might have had.  Often I think about how people feel when they walk through our doors for the very first time. searching for a home, searching for meaning, let us welcome them with the same openness and support that Naomi and Ruth received. But it is both a story of returning from exile, and as well  is also the story of the power of the immigrant into a homogenous environment. 
How that person with a different perspective and culture can add to the community something that it could not otherwise learn without them.  Just by being an immigrant it gives the community the opportunity to appreciate and have empathy for others. It is interesting to me to think about the fact that the King of Israel David was descended from an immigrant, someone who is not Jewish.  So it is as well the story of how we welcome the stranger.  And how we don’t know how that stranger will ultimately affect us, today and in the future.  
We can think about this from a Nationalistic standpoint, our country, a country of immigrants, each adding their culture to whole. Or we can think of it from a congregational standpoint.  How well do we welcome the stranger who walks in here for the first time.  So we have a choice, we can make the stranger not be welcome and try to avert the uncertainty of how they could change the community.  Or we can embrace the stranger warmly and live out our mission of building a vibrant, welcoming diverse community. We have someone who joined soon after I started joining our board this year.
Each person that walks in here can add something to our lives and to our community.  It changes us, and as this story tells us, welcoming new people to our community strengthens us. Everything changes in life.  Well except for when my children were teenagers, they didn’t often change their clothes and to reinforce my point, that smelled after a while.   We all change, as much as we may not want to admit it.  It is how we react to change that is important.  In our leadership development class yesterday we talked about how changes within organizations causes anxiety.  That’s natural.  And we have had some changes over the past few years.
Change can lead to uncertainty, so often we react by trying to keep things the same, even if it smells. This leads to anxiety for all involved. The best way to deal with anxiety is to be in relationship.  If our relationship with the Congregation brings meaning to our lives, if it adds to the connectedness we feel by its community, if it challenges us to be better than we are, if it comforts us when we are in pain, if it is part of our identity of who we are, if we care about the people around us and care that we want to live out our vision and mission, than we need to remain in relationship with it and each other and we need to be non anxious as we move forward together.  
As change happens, let us commit ourselves to the life of the congregation and to the life of each other, our friends, our created family.
As TS Eliot wrote
“With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. “
The Book of Ruth  is a story of new beginnings, of new and different ways of doing things. 
The story tells of Naomi being able to inherit and sell her land at a time when women could not inherit land.  It was the story of loyalty between two women looking out for and supporting each other in a time of patriarchal dominance and finding their own power.  It is the story of those with power in this case men acting as allies for women to allow them to have power and control over their own destiny.   It is the story of how families are created in non traditional ways. Family can end up being the family we create as opposed to family we are born into.  The story of Ruth  is the story of our journey from personal despair to hope.
As I mentioned before Naomi upon her return changed her name to Mara from pleasant to misery, but at the end of the story, the community recognizes her as Naomi once again.  I think most interestingly it is the story of how a community rallies to help those in need.  Although God is mentioned in the story, God is never mentioned as intervening.  It is the work of the people who gave hope and help to Naomi and Ruth.   Often this book is compared to the Book of Job, where Job endures suffering for no reason other than as a test of loyalty to God. But those contrasting the two books point to a reason to believe that the characters in Ruth are held more responsible for their original suffering.  They left their home and their community as their community was suffering. And so by isolating themselves they themselves had no community to support them. In the end, a reconstructed family returns to the community and together they create their own happiness and fulfillment by working together both supporting and being supported by the community.  Now sometimes we do make poor choices in our lives.  If we are lucky, they don’t affect us for a lifetime. Sometimes they do. Sometimes we have to learn to live with the consequences of our poor choices.  Either way, it is easier if we have a place to come home to. Its easier if we have a community that is with us to support us as we grow and learn from our mistakes. And in that learning is the seed of fulfillment.
Naomi, Ruth and Boaz present to us the Jewish concept of Hesed which appears in the Hebrew scriptures over 250 times. There is not a definitive pure translation into English. It is something like everlasting active love… love in action:  manifested in loyalty, steadfastness, lovingkindness, devotion, faithfulness, and covenantal relationship.
Everlasting just another word for eternal…..I like that word,  It is nice to think that the actions we take will last beyond our lifetime. If we act with selfless love, with empathy for all, in all our actions we cannot help but affect others who are the recipients of that action.  In our leadership training yesterday I learned of a study that placed poor families in affluent neighborhoods to see if the community made a difference.  The result showed no affect for the poor family who lived there, but it did show how the following generation did pull themselves out of  poverty. 
So the environment we live in, learn in, worship in does matter. It impacts us even if we don’t always see it instantaneously. So we must ask ourselves how do we and what are we filling ourselves up with? What are we filling the world up with? Let it be with Hesed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Mental Health Matters

Part I
Treatment for mental illness has had a long and deep history within Unitarian Universalism. Universalist, Dr. Benjamin Rush signor of the Declaration of Independence, led by his compassionate religious conviction was one of the first leaders who proposed that those who were mentally ill could and should be treated.  Although many of his ideas today would seem archaic, admittedly he was experimenting scientifically, but many common sense ideas such as rest, diet, exercise and even a form of primitive talk therapy were way  ahead of his time.  
The  person however  who probably had the largest impact on the care of the mentally  ill in the United States was Unitarian Dorothea Dix who in the mid 19th century led the charge on caring for and healing mentally ill. One day when visiting the Unitarian church where Dr. William Ellery Channing was preaching. It is said, she heard Dr. Channing preach “that God was love and we are all a part of that love and we are called to show that love to others” she was deeply influenced by William Ellery Channing even becoming a tutor for his children for six months.  
Dix later obtained a job teaching at a women’s correctional facility.  While she was there she became aware of a group of mentally ill women and upon engaging with them was moved by their plight, seeing the humanity within them despite their being treated in an inhumane way.   Dix who was a descendent of travelers on the Mayflower and through such family and Channing’s connections was able to bring light to this issue.  She wrote a report to the state legislature of Massachusetts in which she states "I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Mentally Ill Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience."  Dix went on to state “Even when someone's words or behaviors cannot be understood by others, they are still a person who deserve dignity, respect and love.”   In her lifetime, Dix travelled to multiple states and even to other countries to inspect and report on the state of the care of the mentally ill, and obtained government funding for hospitals specifically to care for the mentally ill.  Some of the hospitals she started are still in existence today. This is what we do as Unitarian Universalists.  We let compassion and love grow in our hearts and then we share that in the world we live in, trying to make it a better world for all people.
It is why social justice is at the core of our vision as a Congregation and as an Association. Our vision is not justice for justice sake but because we have love and compassion in our hearts for all people. That is why we share 50% of our collection with a local social justice organization. This month we are sharing our collection with QC Pride.  With the topic today I think it is a good reminder just as we see Benjamin Rush as archaic, hopefully our descendants will wonder why it was not until 1973, that the American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Trustees removed Homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. 1973. 
There is still much work to be done in the name of justice. There is still much work to be done in the name of basic awareness of bglqtia acceptance and rights in the world. So please be as generous as you can be.  After you have had the opportunity to donate, we welcome you to come forward to like a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.  Let this sacred time begin.

Part II
Like sex and money, mental illness often is not talked about openly about in society.   Growing up, in my family it was talked about extensively because my mother was a psychiatric nurse and subsequently the head nurse at Bronx State Psychiatric Hospital.  (PPT) It is funny, I could not find a picture of the hospital, from back then, it has since been redesigned.  But this is a similar hospital in NYC.  They all had that same non descript warehouse look.  Whether it was designed to be or not, it had a fairly antiseptic feel to it.  I only visited the hospital once.  As a youngster I was fearful, based on some of the stories my mother told me of the violent patients they had.  But I did finally go.
 It was bring you child to work day, and I had a French exam that I hadn’t studied for, so….it is interesting to think about how our fear of one thing can help us overcome our fear of another.   I remember nothing remarkable about the visit, a bunch of men mostly subdued via drugs just wandering aimlessly around a giant room, some just staring out the window.  I always wondered whether they were just enjoying the view or if they were dreaming of a freedom outside the walls.  
For those who remember the movie “one flew over the cuckoos nest”, my entire family used to tease my mother by calling her Nurse Rached.  If you haven’t read the book by Ken Kesey or seen the movie, I highly recommend it.  It is on my top 10 list of books that influenced my life.  Its very complex, but for me it moved me, mostly because it shows how condemnation of and categorization of humans is so destructive and how working together, and finding out who we are through our interaction with others can lead to healing and if we are in an environment that encourages us, nourishes us to find our best selves, that allows us to focus on our strengths and not our weaknesses we will often thrive and recognize and encourage it in others as well.   As well the story dramatizes that what we see in others is not all there is.  There was a character the chief, who everyone thought was a deaf mute.  He lived his life that way as a way to cope with oppression.  And the truth is after a time, he had forgotten his own strength. I think we find this in life.  We use a coping mechanism, and if we live it long enough we come to internalize it. And we forget it is coping mechanism and not who we are within. 
Throughout the book, the actions of the protagonist, McMurphy, against the authoritative, bureaucratic and repressive rules wakens something deep inside the Chief, and he remembers who is . As much of society in the 1960s seemed to rebel against authority and bureaucracy, this country took a new approach to mental illness.   Starting in the 1960s states decided to deinstitutionalize mental health  treatment believing that more humane treatment could be achieved in the community in group homes and with outpatient care.  And although this may be true, the funding for such treatment was converted to block grants and less and less money was spent on treatment of mental health care in this country.  In our own state of Iowa the latest budget is proposing to close two of only four residential mental health facilities.   As it is now, often people need to travel hours just to find a bed in such a facility if there is even one available. What happens to the people who need help when there is no room at the inn, or no room at the hospital. 
Often individuals with mental illnes end up on the street and then in prison.  Our prisons have once again become the institutions where we house the mentally ill, where.  We are returning to the time before Dorothea Dix to a time of where the mentally ill are confined  in “cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.”  So tell me how humane is that.  What will we do as citizens of this state? What will we do as a Congregation? The first thing we should do is recognize the pervasiveness of mental illness in our society.
I will share with you that my entire life I have had Attention Deficit Disorder. It was never diagnosed when I was young.  I heard often enough from teachers, he has his head in the clouds, he’s such a daydreamer, an underachiever….and so I had to teach myself coping skills such as becoming super organized, so I could learn to live in the world with what I didn’t even know was a disease.  Even that word.  I like to think of it as Dis Ease. Not at ease in the world. As I became older, thru my experiences in the world. I realized that my ADD was preventing me not only from reaching my full potential, but from allowing me to live a sustainable whole life. 
So as an adult, actually soon after I started seminary, realizing I could not work, go to seminary and have any semblance of a family without some help.  So I started taking medicine for my ADD.  I have to tell you that the medication was transformational, it connected dots in my head that I never previously connected.  But taking medicine raised many questions for me.  As the song we heard earlier, Who is the real me?  Is the real me the person with the brain I was born with?  Is the real me the person I am when I am on medication.  How much of my questioning this is just being neurotic, and is there a pill for that as well, or is that just part of my cultural Upbringing? 
I think part of it is actually cultural, a way of looking within, a culture of curiousity Now over the years I have found a balance of when I need to utilize medicine and when to take a vacation from it.  But I cant deny its positive impact on me.  
We often think of mental illness as some major break with reality.  But often, most often it is something people live with and try to cope with in reality every day.  There has been since the beginning of discussions  on mental illness a question of physiology  versus Environmental  causes and how that is answered dictates the treatments of mental illness.  There is no question that our society in recent years has,  in part due to the pharmacological industry and in part due to advances in technologies  that have allowed us to examine the brain, moved heavily towards the physiological side of the equation.  And I can personally tell you that the pharmacological help can save and transform lives, although to be fair, I have known medication to harm individuals in some circumstances. 
We also know that the environment we live in, the circumstances we are forced to deal with affect our mental health as well.  And as much as medicine deals with symptoms, Therapy can deal with the underlying issues such as trauma,  at any age of life that can initiate a mental health crises and the triggers that cause subsequent reactions.  It doesn’t have to be an either or. Medicine or therapy. We are always drawn into these dualities.  It can be both.  It can be both and as well it can be religion.  I credit in part this religion with helping me become more self aware about myself, which helped me understand who the real me is.  It allowed me to be more self aware about what my values were and how I wanted to live my life.  And in that, in the actions we take, in the lives we lead, in the way we model a sustainable life and world for others,  in the results of how we treat ourselves and others, all of these things will determine who we are.  So our goal as a religion is to create an environment where such understanding can happen, where people feel safe exploring their life experiences. 
NAMI, the National Association for Mental Illness on their website indicates that “Research has shown that for some, religion and spirituality can directly improve our physical and mental health.” As I spoke of in March NAMI specifically lists the benefits of
meditation linking it to better mental health.  I think it is interesting that it mentions the mind and Body. I have spoken of the mind body connection before, but usually I speak of it the other way around. How the mind impacts the body.  But let us also think about how the body impacts the mind.  As we heard about at the Food Faith and Climate workshop just last week, certain foods we eat are healthier for us, and there is significant study about the affects of pesticides, chemicals and preservatives that are in our food that affect our body and thus our mind. As well, many religious spiritual practices such as yoga, walking meditation and tai-chi are specifically related to embedding the spiritual practice into bodily movements.  Other spiritual practices such as fasting are a way of recognizing the mind body connection from the body’s point of view.  I think of dancing, such as the dances of universal peace, or singing that embody the mind body connection as well.   
NAMI goes on to list Togetherness, A sense of understanding, and helping others as ways religion helps mental health.   I think togetherness is intuitively easy to understand.  We are here to support each other, as our opening hymn indicates, to comfort, to speak with, to sing with, and yes even to dance with each other (I know we don’t do a lot of dancing) and as our closing hymn says to lean on each other.  That is one of the major purposes of coming together.  Is to be together, and to learn how to be together with others. 
Now the second one, Gaining  a sense of understanding in the world is probably a little different for Unitarian Universalism than it might be for other more rigid religions.   We do not offer easy answers or solutions to why we experience the world the way we do.  What we do offer however is an understanding that we are interdependent with all that is.  That all are welcome, and all are accepted, that all have a part in creating the beloved community, and in that understanding compassion can be born.  
Lastly it lists helping others as a way to help our own mental health.   Helping others puts us into connection with others. Helping others gives others a sense of hope which can positively impact us, and just the act of helping, gives us a sense of self worth, that we have something to offer the world….even if it serving a cup of coffee in coffee hour, or growing food in our garden, or feeding the homeless, or offering a kind word to someone, we all have something good to offer the world. We all have something good to offer each other.  As Channing said,  God is love and we are all a part of that love and we are called to show that love to others” May it be so.