Friday, September 25, 2015

Letting Go – Bungee Jumping and Life.

        I remember many years ago, my son “encouraged” me to bungie jump.  They put me in a vest, and a crane pulled us high in the air.  As I got higher and higher in the air all I could think of was “why in the world did I agree to this and how do I get down”  The most insidious part of the event was that once we reached the very top I had to pull the cord that would release us.  I wondered if I never pulled the cord, how long they would keep us up at the top dangling in midair.  As I dallied around high above the ground, I heard in the speaker above me someone with a German accent telling me to pull the cord, everything would be all right.  For some reason with my bias of feeling secure in Germany’s engineering prowess, I pulled the cord.  Everything after that happened very quickly.  I didn’t have time to wonder if I was going to die, I only experienced the joy of what it felt like to fly.  It was an exhilarating, wonderful feeling.  And then I came back to earth slowly.

Now I am not suggesting that you become a thrill seeker.  However I do ask you to think about what are the things that are preventing you from reaching your full potential in life?  What are the things in life that we can let go of that are holding us back?  Do we have grudges that we have held onto for too long? Have we had beliefs, biases or habits that we have held on to for too long?  Is there something we fear that prevents us from trying new things?  Sometimes it just takes one split second decision to change our world.  To pull the cord, or change our mind, or take an action. And if we do let go, we can feel an exhilarating wonderful feeling of freedom, possibility and hope. Just finding the courage to take that step forward can help us feel grounded in who we are. So I ask you to consider letting go of what holds you back, and find your true, whole self.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Atonement

Our society so often thinks of the word Atonement from a Christian perspective of Atonement of Sins.  In particularly how Jesus’ death atoned for humanity’s sins. Never having grown up with that, studying it as an adult that idea never resonated with me. In the Hebrew tradition in which I grew up, there was a concept of atonement. In fact the highest holy day of the year, Yom Kippur which starts next Tuesday Night, is called the Day of Atonement.  If we remember the Book of Exodus Chapter 32 Moses after delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses, God tells Moses “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” Then God says something very interesting “Now leave me alone that my anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them and make of you a great nation.”  Moses argues with God to turn away from his blazing anger and to remember the ancestors with which a covenant was made. 
So it is interesting to think about God was going to take the same action God did with Noah and destroy humanity and just start over with Moses even though after Noah God swore it would not do that again.  God was going to pull itself back and separate itself from humanity but changed its mind when it was drawn back into relationship by and with Moses and back into covenant with the Jewish People.
That to me is the first lesson of the story, that too often when we become hurt by and angry at something, for lets remember hurt and anger often are connected.  We are angry because we are hurt. When that happens we often separate ourselves and stew over it.  And by stewing over something we remain focused on the hurt and anger, and we get stuck in it. And we will stay stuck until we are brought back or bring ourselves back into relationship. That doesn’t mean we ignore what has happened to us, or even that we have to forgive what was done, We just shouldn’t retreat from a relationship with the world or our community due to it and hide our true selves away from the world for fear of further hurt. No we can look backward and return to and remember our true nature and return to and look forward to a different future. Maybe not quite such an idealized future, but perhaps the future as it can be. But we can only do this thru covenanted relationship with each other.
Moses comes back down the mountain to his people to find them worshipping a Golden Calf.  Upon seeing this he hurls the stone tablets containing the commandments at his people destroying the tablets.  He later returns to God spending forty days and nights while a second copy of the commandments are written.  Tradition has it that Yom Kippur is the day that God gave Moses the second set of commandments and Moses returned with them to his people. In the Jewish tradition the word for atonement is Tshuvah. This Hebrew word literally means "a turning". We see this in God returning to relationship with Moses and Moses returning to his people, and Moses returning to God.
One can return to the path, a path that has been and always is and always will be present.  We know what it is for ourselves, but we just have to choose it., It is the path of reflection, the path of relationship, It is the path that leads to wholeness. And that is why I loved the title to the reading  “At One”.  Atonement, if you break the word down (PPT)  “At one with”  If we are to be whole, we have to be at one with not only ourselves, but with our community, and with the earth which sustains our lives. 
We have to consciously take action ask for forgiveness of those we have hurt, whether they accept it or not, and we have to commit to act in the future in a way not to cause such pain again. That is the conscious choice we make. Just as God had a change of heart in the story, so too must we have a change of heart, And by having a change a heart we can lead to change the habits of our life that lead to separation from others, that lead to separation of connection to this very planet. We must turn to a life of righteous action and good deeds. By choosing to do so, to go forward to act with kindness, with love, with generosity of spirit with all that we meet we will have turned away from the times we missed the mark, and turned towards acting with reflection and intention.

Part II
Responsive Reading “Litany of Atonement”

Let us begin again in love.  Yes the Universalist side of our Unitarian Universalists heritage has a strong position on atonement and that position is that God’s love is infinite and humanity does not need to sacrifice anything to be in relationship with God. The Universalists believed that upon death all human beings would be reconciled with God.  Hosea Ballou was the most eloquent Ministers and he was in large part the reason why Universalism because so popular in the 1800s in this country.  He also wrote quite prolifically, including his Treatise on Atonement, a systemic theological statement about his beliefs on Sin, God and Atonement. 
Ballou believed in the Unity of God, and did not believe that Jesus died for our sins. He believed that upon Jesus death, a loving spirit was unleashed in the world. 
The Universalists came about as a sharp reaction to the Calvinism of its day which taught among other things,  the total depravity of humanity, that only some are selected (which coincidentally were the rich church people) and limited atonement.  The Universalists rejected this outright. In his treatise Ballou states

“There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away with sin, but love; and we have reason to be eternally thankful that love is stronger than death..Love is thus the highest reconciliatory force and it is not bound by any particular religion, location or denomination.”

This is where our first principle comes from. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.  In Universalist theology It is not God who needed to reconciled with humans, but humans who needed to be reconciled with God.  Of course the Universalists believed that once everyone became aware of this they would be inspired to live a moral life.  Unitarians by and large believed that humans need to be reconciled to each other not God. Unitarian spoke of salvation through character and how we needed to constantly work towards improving and cultivating ourselves. Quoting William Ellery Channing

I call that mind free, which sets no bounds to its love, which is not imprisoned in itself, which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children, which delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering wherever they are seen, which conquers pride, anger, and sloth, and offers itself up a willing victim to the cause of humankind.”

We are free each of us, to follow the path of love. Unlimited, unselfish, unasked for.  It is there to tap into.  It is there for us to dispense. I believe it is that which we yearn for.  There is a strand in almost every great religion that speaks to love as a driving force in the world. In Judaism, we are asked to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might and to love our neighbor as our self. Jesus speaks often about love confirming the Jewish admonition to love and going further telling us to love our enemies.

From the Hindu (Yajur) Vedas
“The one who loves all intensely
begins perceiving in all living beings
a part of themself.
They become a lover of all,
a part and parcel of the Universal Joy.
They flow with the stream of happiness,
and is enriched by each soul.”

The Koran defines Allah as love. And in many places the Koran focuses on love stating “Love is rewarded”, “love is steadfast”, “real love does not decay”, and if I go to Sufi Islam, well it is infused with love

 As in this my favorite poem by Hafiz –

“Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
"You owe Me."
Look what happens with
A love like that,
It lights the Whole Sky.”

So I invite you to light up your inner life. And let that inner light shine out on the world.  Let us realize that our long tradition speaks alongside all the other world religions, about how love can lead us to a life of wholeness.  And I am not speaking only of romantic love, although that too is an expression of love, but to a love that leads us to something other than ourselves.
A love that reaches beyond our own self satisfaction, a love whose compassion is endless and is for all of existence.  A selfless love.  A love that knows no bounds, a love that calls us to act for the stranger, the orphan, the widow as the scriptures say.  Or in the words of our world, the immigrant, the homeless, the powerless, especially black lives, to bring love where there is no love.  
Ask yourself, What are you doing to bring love into the world.  Ask yourself, what could I be doing to bring love into the world.  In what ways can you be at one with the universe. 
If you are one with the universe what you do for others even the least of us, we are doing to and for ourselves.  And lastly what are we doing to preserve and love our mother earth, the land that sustains us, that has provided us all that we need to thrive. This wondrous universe. Where we evolved from stardust billions of years ago. We should care for it with love if for no other reason than to show our love for our descendants and to show appreciation for our lives. Atonement just doesn’t happen. We have to first want it, then we have to let go of what is holding us back, and then we have to turn towards it, turn and creak and turn again, until we find ourselves at the end when we find the truth in which all of us can live. May it be so. 



Monday, September 07, 2015

Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes was a comic strip that ran from 1985 to 1995 in over 2,400 newspapers.  Calvin was a precocious six year old and Hobbes was his stuffed tiger who was often the voice of reason.  The characters are named after John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century in Europe and Thomas Hobbes who was a philosopher in the 17th Century. It is not surprising then that this simple daily comic strip had both religious and philosophical overtones.  John Calvin intersects with Unitarian Universalism in profound ways. 
First he is well known as the man who condemned and killed Michael Servetus. Servetus a brilliant man who read the Bible in its original languages and wrote a book entitled “On the Errors of the Trinity.”  For this he was condemned to die by both the Catholics and Protestants.  There were bot a lot of things the Catholics and Protestanst could agree on in the 1500s but this is one of them. Servetus went underground changed his identity and became a famous doctor who discovered the blood circulatory system.  For some inexplicable reason 23 years after going into hiding, he went to a church service in Geneva, Switzerland where Calvin was and was captured, and subsequently burnt at the stake by Calvin.  The first Unitarian Martyr. Yet his actions, still resound within our religion. 
Striving to learn new things, not accepting dogma as truth and willing to speak the truth to power even at the risk of personal loss to ourselves.  In addition to Servetus, I would say Unitarianism and Universalism were created in part as a response to the Calvinistic theology of predestination and original sin.  We respond to the call of justice.  We respond to the needs of the world.  We respond to the call from the deep well of our souls.  Its not just a matter of what we respond to, it’s also a matter of how we respond.  We respond with caring.  We respond with creativity, we respond with love.  
And so it was that I responded to this comic strip. Because even this simple comic strips asks us to ponder many of the deep questions of life. The final strip of the Comic Strip ran in December of 1995.  It still lives on in my heart almost 20 years later.  It spoke to me in such a deep way, that I cut out the strip from the paper and have kept it in my office all these years.
Here you can see a picture of it up on my alter (a little worse for wear) along with some other talisman that I have collected over the years that have held significance for me including  the Buddha, Yoda, and Don Quixote among others. 
So in the final strip it is winter and Calvin says “Wow it really snowed last night, isn’t it wonderful.
Hobbes: Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand-new. 
Calvin: A new year, a fresh clean start
Hobbes: Its like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on
Calvin:            A day full of possibilities – It’s a magical world Hobbes, ol’ buddy…Lets go exploring” and they race down the hill on their sled.
It is how I try to live every day of my life.  Every day is a day full of possibilities.  Not holding on to grudges or regrets of days gone by. 
Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a clean slate. We sometimes don’t believe we can have a clean slate. We are weighed down with the past events of our lives for better or worse. It is not always about the way it used to be, or that we tried that before and it didn’t work. We so often tend to focus on the memories of our failures much more than we focus on the times we have succeeded, sometimes despite long odds and sometimes despite our own seeming ignorance of our ability to succeed.  It is not just in letting go of old ways of doing things, but also the need for the ability to move forward, to try new things. 
This is not a return to a prior age of innocence which in truth is sometimes just imagined.
No this is a going forward, with full knowledge of all that we are and all that we ever have been, with full knowledge of all the suffering that we have experienced, and all the suffering that is in the world. And still despite that, we move forward, undefeated, we move forward with a full heart, we move forward with a sense of wonder for what is still possible, we move forward with the hope of being better than we currently are. 
Sometimes we can start in small ways, like starting a new spiritual practice, or finally deciding to go to the gym even though I have had a gym membership for over a year. 
Sometimes we start or are forced to start in big ways. For me, this happened a few times in my life.  Once when I moved from New York to Florida without a job or a place to live.  I had faith that there was a better environment to raise my children.  And I was willing to risk all to explore that.  I am sure that is why many people live here in the Quad Cities and have found their way to this Congregation. So that you can be a part of a good environment to live your lives.
My second major exploration was when I decided to change careers at the height of my career to become a Minister.  I had faith that there was a different, better way to live my life than I was currently living it. And I was willing to risk all to explore that.  And my third major exploration was moving to Iowa where I had never been before because I had faith that together we could come together and grow together in our ministry to help build a special community, a beloved community, and I was willing to risk everything to explore that.
It always starts with an attitude.  An attitude of exploration.  An attitude that there is something more, an undiscovered country, whether out there in the stars, or inside in the depths of our soul. An attitude of a willingness to embrace the unknown and throw off the bowlines as Mark Twain wrote
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore.” 
And we  here come together to create a safe environment to explore the big questions of life. 
 Now Calvin, the one in the comic strip (well both for that matter) certainly  explored the big questions of life. One of the questions he explored was the question of the existence of God and humanity’s relationship to God. (PPT) And there can be seen a clear progression of thought.  In this first strip we see a destroyed living room and Calvin asks “Do you think God lets you plea bargain, and Hobbes responds “I’d worry more about your mom”
In this is the question about how humanity worries about eternal retribution for our ill conceived acts. It depicts the human fear of a vengeful God.  Something our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors rejected.
Hobbes of course is the anchor of human response wondering whether our concept of a vengeful God translates into vengeful humanity. Or maybe it was our recognition of our own vengefulness that created our image of a vengeful God.  Perhaps the message here is to reduce our need for vengefulness. 
Our next strip (PPT) is one of Hobbes the tiger of reason asking if Calvin thinks there is a God and Calvin Responds, “Well Someone is out to get me”  Again this endorses the theory that there is an unknown active force at work in the Universe.  It is humanity not taking responsibility for the challenges that we face in our lives and in the world.  
And as we experience more of the world and the suffering that is in the world.  (PPT) we start to question why would an all powerful all knowing God allows such suffering. Calvin ponders both Santa Claus and God. 
“Why all the secrecy, why all the mystery, if the guy exists (noticing the patriarchal language) why doesn’t he ever show himself and prove it?  And if he doesn’t exist what’s the meaning of all this?”
What is the meaning of it all.  That is the big question that religion seeks to answer.  That is the question we come together to search for. What is the meaning and purpose of our lives.
And then the next logical step that Calvin makes (PPT) is that we humans are Gods in our own right.  As Calvin States “Made in God’s own Image, yes sir” to which Hobbes replies “God must have a a goofy sense of humor!!  (PPT) which brings Calvin to the next logical conclusion of utilizing the power of humanity and in some ways forgetting the humility of our humanity. In this strip calvin is threatening a plant
“so you want some water huh well I’ve got a big can of it here.  Its up to me to decide if you get water or not. I control your fate, your very lives are in my hands.  Without me you’re as good as dead, without me you don’t….and then it rains.”
It is a reminder that we are part of a larger world.  That we do not and cannot control everything.  That there are powers in the world in this case nature that work beyond our knowledge and control. And when we get just a little too high and mighty the world has a way of reminding us that we are merely human. We have great power, but great power requires great responsibility and a need for stewardship of all things, and all people and a reminder we are connected with the interdependent web of existence. A reminder that perhaps there are things in the universe that we do not fully physically comprehend.  
Some people call that God, some people call that the Ground of all being, some people call it things in the universe we do not comprehend. All are fine. So let us go forward with some humility, using our humanity to help grow, to grow the plants like we do in our gardens, to grow justice as we do on our various social justice teams, and most of all to grow our lives, and to help others grow their lives as we do in worship and in our various educational and spiritual programs.  This helping others is why each week we share 50% of our offering as an outward symbol of this internal value.
This month 50% of our offering will be shared with the first day project so that all children will have the supplies they need as they start school so that all children can have a equal chance to grow into their potential .  Please be as generous and you can be.
Once you have had the opportunity to donate, we invite you to come down and light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your personal life.  Let this sacred time begin.

Part II
Thomas Hobbes is probably best known for his famous phrase  “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Although in some ways his view of humanity as somewhat dim is similar to Calvin. What is left out of this statement is his discussion on how we as a society come together to alleviate this.   He recognizes the need for humanity to sacrifice some freedom in exchange for safety.  Although his writings were more geared to social and political means, as opposed to theology, I see in his writings the same yearnings, the same exploration for how we can live together and find peace in a covenantal community.  He described governments as the Great Leviathan, and that mortal God” that without which we would revert to chaos. It is a taking of our destiny into our own hands, and out of the hands of the Gods. Calvin and Hobbes speaks to this question as well in a very poignant way.
(PPT) Now this strip speaks to the question of how our destinies are in some ways shaped by others. Calvin asks Hobbes “Do you believe our destinies are controlled by the stars? And hobbes responds, No I think we can do whatever we want with our lives….to which Calvin responds “not to hear Mom and Dad tell it.” 
Now some us may have been raised in families that supported our dreams and wishes, but I and I know many of us were raised with limiting visions of what our destinies could be. Although my grandfather filled my dreams with statements I could do whatever I put my mind to, I often found the world gave me other contradictory messages. Messages of what the expectations were for a Jewish Boy from the Bronx.  What were the messages you received when you were young.  Were they encouraging or limiting. If they were limiting were you able to break out, or how could you still break out of them today. What is limiting you today?  What is limiting us as a Congregation today.
Often we build up defenses to ward off others (PPT) In this Calvin walls himself inside a fort with firepower of 200 snowballs.  He says “nobody can tell me what to do, I can stay out here all day.  At last I’m master of my fate. Ill stay outside as long as I please” The next screen shows him coming inside with his mother saying “Back inside so soon? And he remarks “its too cold outside”.  How often do we do this.  We get our backs up just to prove that we can do whatever we want, even if sometimes it is not in our best interest. Again the message is just because we have the power to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it.  But the question is raised what do we really have control over.
Are we through years of conditioning as a species heading in a certain trajectory that is unavoidable or can we take matters into our hands. (PPT) Throughout the comic strip calvin and hobbes are seen riding on wagon or sled hurtling down a hill.  I look at that wagon and sled as a metaphor for our journey through life.  In this strip, Calvin asks Hobbes “do you believe in fate, Hobbes You mean that our lives are predestined, Calvin, “yeah that the things we do are inevitable.” Hobbes: What a scary thought” just as they hurtle off the end of the ramp into the water. I think the strip is confusing causality with fate.  Yes if we ride a wagon off the edge of the bridge we are going to crash in the water.
But with foreknowledge and awareness of what is at the end of the bridge we can take action.  (PPT) and the comic has a solution. As they are hurtling down the hill Calvin says “You know sometimes it seems things go by too quickly. Were so busy watching out for what just ahead of us that we don’t take the time to enjoy where we are. Days go by and we hardly notice them.  Life becomes a blur” and as they hurtle off the mountain he says “Often it takes some calamity to make us live in the present moment Then suddenly we wake up and see all the mistakes we’ve made but its too late to change anything….as they fall down the cliff. 
So Calvin is quoting the Buddha who told us to Awake to the present moment.  Yes we should take some time to look ahead to see what is around the bend, but let us live in the present moment, to change who we are to be, who we want to be, before its too late. If the hill is a metaphor for our life, then the end of the hill is death. As long as we have life it is not too late to act.  (PPT) and as one last comic brings us back to the beginning with Calvin stating “we all want meaningful lives.  We look for meaning in everything we do. But suppose there is no meaning and life is fundamentally absurd, suppose there’s no reason or truth or rightness in anything? What if nothing means anything What if nothing really matters?  And then after they have fallen off the cliff one more time,  he finishes by saying OR suppose everything matters which would be worse?”  The truth is we can never know.  But suppose, just suppose everything matters, every person you meet, every word you utter, every action you take. Suppose it all mattered in regard to whether the world has meaning. Suppose it all mattered in regard to whether your life has meaning. What would you do knowing it all matters. 

Let life call you on to explore that possibility. Let us find wisdom from all the Unitarian Universalists who have preceded us. Let us slow down that wagon and take time to find wisdom from all the joys and sorrows in our lives.  Let us find wisdom in our being together week after week building relationships and exploring the deep questions of life. Life is full of possibilities. A clean slate,  May it be so.