Friday, November 27, 2015

What Am I Thankful For

As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday we are often asked to reflect on what we are thankful for. I have many things that I am thankful for, first and foremost I am thankful that my grandparents who were refugees from the brutal pogroms in Lithuania in the early 1900s were allowed into this country.  I am constantly reminded of this when I see our government trying to deny any refugees of the Syrian civil war into our country.   This past week legislators from both major political parties essentially voted against allowing any refugees in. 
We have heard recently a lot of angry rhetoric from politicians about registering and monitoring Muslim Americans.
I have to admit much like the reading,  I found myself getting angry.  But I had to catch myself.  Why was I getting angry.  It is one thing to work for and advocate for something, but to see anger rise up in me I knew there was something more.  So I stopped and thought about it and went back to read something Zen teacher Joan Halifax wrote
“There is so much anger being expressed by so many. one of the things I have learned about anger is that it is directly related to feelings of helplessness. This tendency can be based on deep issues related to survival. And this does not justify anger......... Anger is a  corrosive emotion that has negative effects on one's health and the well being of others.”
Now I think I understand why those opposed to the refugees have feelings of helplessness.  Despite our best efforts we do sometimes feel helpless to prevent terrorism. We as a country seem more willing to accept domestic terrorism, often by white Christian men,  much more than we are willing to accept foreign terrorism. I have never seen the same uproar about violence in the name of Christianity.  But never the less terrorism is a real fear and I want to name it and acknowledge that I think it is our sense of helplessness to prevent it that leads many to desire security at the expense of all our other values.  But why did I feel anger?  Why did I feel helpless? 
I was Angry that we as a country seem to never learn the lessons of our history, such as in World War II when we denied entrance into America for German Jews in some cases using the same fear mongering that we hear today. (PPT)  In one case in 1939 almost 1,000 Jews were in our port in Florida on the MS St. Louis and were turned away to be returned to Europe where many ended up dyeing in the Holocaust.  I am angry when I hear people say that the Syrians should stay and fight for their own country.   (PPT). This is a before and after shot of neighborhood in what was once the third largest city in Syria, Homs.  There is no place to stay.  There are only places to die. 
These refugees are willing to take dangerous journeys leaving every possession behind, to be in a place where they know no one, and for the most part cant speak the language.  For someone to do this, it means they have no other options.  And when our elected officials took that vote to turn them away, it seemed to me we as a country had lost our way, and I was forced to face for the umpteenth time that the values that I wish for the people of our country, the values that this religion have instilled within me,  are not actually the values that are always acted upon by the people of our country. 
I can speak of many values such as compassion, and justice among them but the value I want to focus on today is that of welcoming the stranger, a value that is stressed in both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and which are being ignored, this value ingrained in our Country’s culture with such meaning as exemplified in the words of the poem “The New Colossus” which was spoken at unveiling of the Statue of Liberty and now engraved on a plaque there
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The New Colossus. The old colossus refers to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world from ancient Greece. We were the new wonder of the world because we as country were daring a brave new experiment, an experiment that actually welcomed the stranger.  No longer wed to ancient traditions, or ancient ways.  But believing that everyone, everyone, even the wretched refuse were welcome if they yearned to breathe free. That every person has value.  That every person has rights, not just royalty, not just the powerful.  And that experiment worked.
These are the same values that Unitarian Universalism promotes. Not wed to ancient ways but looking at the world in new ways. Not just for the powerful, but as well for those who are marginalized, not just for us, but for others as well who are yearning for religious freedom. We became a great nation, because we welcomed the stranger who yearns to be free. We became a religion because we rejected the ancient ways.  If we get stuck as a nation or as a religion in the way things always were, things will pass us by and we will die.   I think of the business Kodak, who could never adapt to the changing society and the digital age, and their stubborn refusal to adapt led them to bankruptcy.  We must as a nation, as a Religion, and as individuals be willing to change if we are to stay vital.
Unitarian Universalism particularly is built for this, and whether it is around new theological ideas, Abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights movement in the 1960s, Black Lives Matter, Climate Change, BGLQT rights, and now Syrian Refugees, we have been out in front, because we welcome the new, we know we need to be changed by the new, we know we will be renewed by the new. And so I was renewed.  You know the good thing about emotions is that we can learn to be aware of them and how we react to them and how to adapt them. Because the truth is we are not helpless. So we need to keep speaking to our values, and acting on our values.
Lifting people up when they fall to despair, and giving courage to those who are overcome with fear, giving hope to those who fall into hopelessness, and reminding each other week after week after week, that we are not helpless and that each one of us can make a difference. 

Part II  
How do we maintain our values in a constantly changing world with seemingly daily tragedies?  We must constantly bring ourselves back and keep in the present moment our values. Some religious people might call that a vow, we might use the phrase covenant. Or as we say at the beginning of every service, a commitment to asking our values to shape our actions.  I am thankful that I found Unitarian Universalism that asks me to make a commitment.  Unitarian Universalism is not an easy religion that gives us easy answers. But by making a commitment  I have become a better human being, and have learned to look beyond myself and my only my own needs.  
Unitarian Theologian James Luther Adams said: “By your groups you shall be known.”   Let us all be known beyond just ourselves individually. One practice to help us think in this way is to think about what we are thankful for. For when we are thankful we are thanking someone or something else, not ourselves. So although I started the first reflection with this, I of course went off on a tangent. So now let me share with you some of the things I am thankful for in my life.  I have learned over the years to be thankful for many things, small and large.  I am thankful that I wake up each day and (well first I am thankful that I do wake up each day, so just being thankful for life), and when I do wake up, I am thankful I have no idea what the day has in store for me.  I make my lists and my plans, but it never works out quite the way I planned it. And I have learned over the years that it is better not to try to control that but rather to just go with the flow and accept the unexpected.  I say I am thankful for that, because it keeps me awake to wonder, it keeps me awake to the possibilities that still may happen.  We never know where our day will lead us, but we can keep moving forward taking one step in front of another together building the world we dream about. 
So I am thankful, thankful that I have the opportunity to serve this Congregation, this institution. I am thankful for the trust you place in me.  I honor that trust and will do everything within my power to help us achieve the Congregational Vision and Mission.  I am thankful for Unitarian Universalism which gave me the opportunity and the means to explore my spiritual and religious life which has changed my life for the better which led me to finding my purpose in life. I am thankful for all the volunteers who make this Congregational possible. (list various committees and teams)   I am thankful and in awe of the caring acts I see in this congregation as we learn to care for each other, others in the world and the earth itself.  I am thankful for all the teachers I have had in my life.  Some in school, some in the larger world, in fact everyone I have met including each of you have been my teacher.  I truly believe that we learn from each other, and I am thankful that I have such good people as companions for my journey. 
I am thankful for friends who have seen me through the dark nights of my soul and accept me for who I am in all the changes in my life. I am thankful to the family in which I raised as they helped shape me into who I am today. In a year of losses I am particularly thankful for my brother and sister who I know we will always be there for each other.  I am thankful for my wife Jan who knows how to make me laugh, and knows when I need a shove and who gives me the space to explore new horizons even if they are not her horizons.  I am thankful for my children and grandchild who inspire me to be a better person and who brighten my every day.

Thankful, Thankful, Thankful.  It is really very easy to be thankful.  We get to choose this. As a way of choosing thankfulness as way of life, each night before I go to bed, I think of three things I am thankful for.  It is a spiritual practice that has served me well.  Sometimes it is conceptual like appreciating that I have heat in my house, when I know there are others in this city who do not even have a place to live. Sometimes it is very specific like yesterday when my neighbor plowed out my driveway, I was very thankful for that.  The truth is acts of kindness can be contagious. Acts of kindness can be a reminder of the commitments we have made of how we want to act, Acts of kindness can be a call to us of how the world can and should be. Acts of kindness become an armor for the onslaught of negativity we are faced with in our world, Acts of kindness can inspire all of us to be kind. So let us remember to be kind. In words and in deeds, Let us greet the day with thankfulness for what we have. May it be so

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bhagavad Gita

Being a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association our Congregation affirms and promotes  multiples sources of wisdom that inform our living tradition.  The third source is wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; This year as a way to honor this source, I am exploring the sacred texts of various world religions both in Service and as part of our Adult Enrichment Programming the first two Monday Evenings of each month.  The Bhagavad Gita is a sacred text of Hinduism. It is important to understand first that Hindu is a word that is used to describe a wide variety of religious customs and practices which originated in India.  In fact the word Hindu, is derived from the words Indus River and its original use was geographical. Other cultures and then particularly the British who colonized India used it as a term to describe the various local Indian religious practices which were not Muslim.  Hinduism became more widespread in the United States after Swami Vivekananda 
addressed the World's Parliament of Religions in 1893 and spent two years touring  the United States. 
There are many but the three most popular and well known sacred texts of Hinduism are the Vedas, particularly the Rig Veda, the Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita.
Yet approximately a half century before Vivekananda came to the United States, the Unitarian Transcendentalists were reading the Bhagavad Gita.
Ralph Waldo Emerson  wrote in 1845
I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”

And Henry David Thoreau wrote
“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvad-Gita, The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a higher, purer or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita   and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial;  Beside it even our Shakespeare seems sometimes youthfully green."

The Bhagavad Gita is a relatively short book approximately 200 pages that is part of a longer narrative called the Mahabharata that chronicles a war between two lines within a royal family. One line the Pandavas are portrayed as exemplars of virtue, led by the Prince Arjuna.  The Bhagavad Gita is story of Arjuna who on the eve of a battle that he knows will leave many dead including relatives on both sides questions his own desire to fight.  Chapter 1 ends with
“Arjuna sank down into the chariot and dropped his arrows and bow, his mind heavy with grief.”
The remaining 17 chapters of the book is a discussion between Arjuna and his Chariot Driver Krishna who turns out is God Incarnate.   The topics include the discussion of duty, non attachment to results, the importance of gaining knowledge over ancient rituals, renunciation of sense pleasures, the Self, freedom, Devotion, God, the separation of the transient and permanent in life, the difference between the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness, this just some among other deeply spiritual and religious questions. Questions that can relate to anyone’s life journey, which ultimately tries to answer our most pressing question of how we should we live our lives.
So of course I find it interesting that a book whose backstory is about one’s duty to fight in a war can create such profound meaning. And in truth, the deeper lessons of the book are sometimes contradictory to this this call to duty. It is said Mahatma Gandhi, the 20th Century Indian activist for peaceful resistance against British Colonialism walked around with a copy of the Gita with him. Gandhi wrote
When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see no ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meaning from it every day” 

The outward battle in the book, can speak to us as a metaphor for inward  battle we each face everyday. The inward battle of our soul for authenticity, the battle of comfort versus conscience, the battle of compassion over fatigue, the battle of ego versus selflessness, the battle of action over inaction the battle of fragmentation versus wholeness.  
For any text to be sacred, we must address it with reverence, and we must find how its words can speak truth to us in our time, in our lives. I found it interesting that in this story God comes in the form of a chariot driver. The driver guides the journey into battle, directs us to that inner battlefield.  So I ask you to consider what is it that drives you, and guides you. Is it ego, success? Fame? Fortune? Selflessness, righteousness? caring? justice? Whatever drives you, that is your God.  Another Hindu Sacred Text, the Katha Upanishad, uses the image of a chariot and charioteer as a metaphor for dealing with our senses.
It states,
The body is the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellect as charioteer,
And the mind as reins.
The senses, say the wise, are the horses;
When one lacks discrimination
And their mind is undisciplined, the senses
Run hither and thither like wild horses.
But they obey the rein like trained horses
When one has discrimination and has made
The mind one-pointed.”

So if you look at these two text’s example of a charioteer, you have God as a discriminating intellect.  Not just intellect, but a discriminating intellect. Sort of the responsible part in our principle of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. An intellect that allows us to stay focused on where we are heading, and why we are headed there. Whether it be how we act in our personal life, how we act as a Congregation focused on implementing our vision and mission,  or in how we act in the larger world bringing justice, equity and compassion in all our endeavors.   We can never know the ultimate outcome of our actions, so it is that we act, and how we act that matters.
I think of what has happened just in the last few days with the attacks in France. I think about how some can look at any world religious scriptures and see how that can lead them toward actions of violence or peace. I am sure every bomber thought it was their duty to do what they did.  I do not claim to know what the right response is. I am not here even to tell you everything is going to be all right. Particularly in times of tragedy we come together to explore and express our shared values and to hold up the light in our hearts that brings us hope for better future for everyone, and remind ourselves to give thanks for what we have.
Unitarian Universalism has a long history of acting on our values. And we must act, we must fight based on our inner values. We must use a discerning intellect. That is what the Gita tells me.  The depth of my understanding tells me that killing innocent people, in the name of any religion or any country even our own is abhorrent. The Quran itself states “killing just 1 innocent soul is like killing the whole of humanity!”  And if we have the power to save the innocent we are impelled to do so. That is what my values tell me. What are your values? What can we do here in the Quad Cities? We can fight with love and compassion and with caring trying to create the community and the world we hope to see. And it is a fight. If we are silent, If we are inactive then hatred and violence will win. So I implore you to fight for your values. 
One small way we can act is to support the Syrian refugees who are trying to escape oppression. December 5th at the Waterfront Convention Center there is an interfaith effort to pack food for families in refugee camps.  The Gita in Chapter 17 tells us “Charity given to the worthy without any expectations, for the sake of the act itself, this kind of charity is Sattvic (or divine).: And so I ask you now to be divine, as we act to help our community become more compassionate and caring as we take our offering

Part II
I was particularly moved by the phrase in the reading “As unnecessary as a well is to a village on the banks of a river, so unnecessary are all scripture to someone who has seen the truth” This speaks to and connects with our belief that revelation is ongoing and we learn from our direct experiences in the world. Yet on a deeper both literal and metaphorical level, how often do we not appreciate the river, allowing pollution to destroy the very source that gives us life, in a yearning for some material gain or sensual pleasure. How often do we not even see the river that is right in front of us.
How often do we not trust our instinct and as I like to say go around the block to get next door while the thing that needs to be done doesn’t get done.  How often do we spend time and energy creating a back up plan, just in case, or in an attempt to satisfy everyone, instead of being fully committed to what we believe we need to do. Often it is fear of failure that leads us to turn away from the things that feed us in life. I was recently reminded of how we can delude ourselves with fear and deny what we know is true for ourselves at the core of our nature.
Someone who used to work for me and I haven’t spoken to since I left the business world many years ago sent me an email with the Title Lifeboats.  He wanted to thank me for advice I had given him about starting his own business.  And I gave him the advice that someone once gave me.  And this is true for starting a business or really any other endeavor we are going to undertake.  I told him cut away all the lifeboats.  That may seem counter intuitive.  But when we start any endeavor and take action it is inevitable that something will go wrong at some point.  And if there is a life boat, you will jump in it for safety.  If you don’t have a lifeboat, you will be forced to figure out a way to solve the problem.  Now it is possible you will drown. That is the fearful part.  But if you want to build something, whatever it is you want to build, a relationship, a vocation, a beloved community, you have to be fully committed to it to have it become reality. Or as the Gita would say Single minded. 
It is good for our souls to devote ourselves to the things that have meaning for us. It is what makes us whole. But we must look deep within ourselves and see the river flowing within us. We must not allow society to condition us to act in a certain way, a way that is harder and a way that is not natural to who we are as individuals and who we are as human beings. 
Sometimes not taking chances, inaction, not listening to that still small voice may seem safer, but in the long run it also disconnects us from our true nature, and pollutes the source of our very life. And the more we get disconnected from anything, the less we care about it and the more we abuse it. So turn around, and jump in the river, play in the river, drink from the river before it becomes too polluted.  Connect with the river. Connect with the river of life Connect with others and become part of the river of life, living fully into your true self. May it be so.

Monday, November 02, 2015


Ancestry is a tricky thing.  Many people feel loss and grief over the loss of ancestors, Many other people have complicated relationships with their ancestors.  Others have no idea who their biological ancestors are. Yet we cannot deny that without our biological ancestors, we would not be here.  If for nothing else, we should be thankful for that. For some of us there is feeling or need to carry on in some family tradition. For others there is a need to break with family tradition that is dysfunctional.  And despite all of it, we get to choose. Sometimes there are consequences to going outside the communal traditions, and in such cases we are required to find or create a new community.    I originally come from the Jewish Tradition that is rich in religious tradition and ancestry. It is interesting that myself and my two siblings all married people outside the Jewish Tradition. When the oldest of us, my brother first got married, I remember my grandfather tearing his shirt and considered him as dead.  By the time I got married, they were just happy I got married and moved out of the house.  And after the birth of his first great grandchild he reconciled with my brother.  So time and circumstances can change tradition if we have thecourage to risk the consequences.
This reminded me of the movie fiddler on the roof,  which is a great show and movie. It depicts a Jewish Family in Russia in 1905 where the main character Tevye speaks of tradition as a way of finding balance that allows him to know who he is. Throughout the movie his tradition is challenged by his daughters who seek more autonomy than was traditionally allowed, The oldest one not wanting to use a matchmaker and to choose her own spouse, the second daughter not even asking his permission, for marriage and then the youngest one marrying outside his religion.  (PPT)  Even Tevye admits, he has no idea how the traditions got started. And each time he saw the love within his daughters eyes, and he broke with tradition.  Even with his youngest daughter, whom he initially rejects (in the scene showed), he later in the movie when his entire life is being thrown into chaos, he seeks reconcilement with her.  In chaos, it is not traditions that give us balance, it is love. In some cases tradition gives  people control, so it is understandable why Tevye losing control over who his daughters married struggled. And he struggled and he overcame.  
And so should we struggle and overcome the traditions that give us control and if we do we will grow with love. For love is not something that is controlled. Love can be boundless. It can transcend time and space.  It is why we remember those we love. So that we can remember what it feels like to love. So we can connect that love that once was with a love that still can be, and it can be a love that is passed on to others while we are alive.   My family’s tradition is to break traditions.  So it should have been no surprise that I found my way to Unitarian Universalism whose tradition is about breaking tradition, whose tradition is to question the status quo and look within and to learn from experience to find our way in the world instead of accepting wisdom of the ancestors.  To look for answers in more than one book and to understand that even the secular can be sacred if treated with reverence.

But we also seem to be very  willing and very quick to denigrate and abandon the ancestors because their wisdom in no longer our wisdom.  We forget that sometimes they could only be who they could be.  And because they were who they were, in some instances  it allowed us to become who we are.    And so this time of year, in this cycle of seasons, let us learn to not only live in harmony with nature,  but to live in harmony with each other, and to learn to find balance between the wisdom of the past, our wisdom of the present and the acceptance that the wisdom of the future is unknown to us now.  Let us recognize that our ancestors are the foundations that we build our lives on top of.  Let us look at it as a gift that we have received and let us build something meaningful. May it be so.