Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Sacred Text of Harry Potter

Last summer during our vacation with our 10 year old granddaughter Scarlett, she was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I thought I would join in reading it as a way to have something in common to stay connected with her.  
Over the course of the last year I read the 7 book Harry Potter Series written by JK Rowling. It was an easy read. The first few books seemed unremarkable to me, but as the series went on, one could look back and see the foreshadowing and character development. Let me say, up front there will be spoilers in today’s sermon.
And I am just going to say that there is so much in these books that I am not going to get to all of it. So first, I am curious, if you would raise your hand, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series or seen the movies?  Second question. How many of you have read the four gospels in the Christian Scriptures.  So the pictures you will see are from the movies, but I thought casting did a really good job. So for those who have not read the book or seen the movies, here is the overarching story.

The story is based mostly in England, where there are wizards/withches/elves/goblins, dragons, and giants and then there are humans called muggles who are kept mostly unaware of all of this. (PPT)  A powerful wizard Voldemort (previously known as Tom Riddle) in his lust for power kills Harry Potters Parents, when Harry was an infant but the spell that kills his mother rebounds and critically injures Voldemort himself who goes into hiding and thus harry becomes known as the boy that lived.  (PPT) The books start up when Harry is 11 years old and each of the 7 books spans a year in the life of Harry Potter from age 11 to 17.
Although there are many overarching themes, the focal point of the story is the return of Voldermort and his conflict with Harry. The story starts with Harry living with his Aunt unaware of his past, or about wizards but is starting to recognize that he has some unique abilities.  It is interesting to think about fear and awkwardness of Harry’ realization of his Wizarding abilities and the similarities of someone going through puberty and how having sexuality education can be helpful to navigate such changes and How life long education in general can help us navigate the ever changing world we live in. (and just a note if you are interested in teaching our Sexualty Program we will be having a training next year.  (PPT)
A Wizard comes to Harry’s aunts house, and reveals to Harry that he is a wizard and brings Harry to Hogwarts Academy for a wizarding education.  (PPT) At Hogwarts he is mentored by the headmaster Dumbledore and  befriends Ron Weasly and Hermoine Grainger. Now it is an interesting corollary, in that Voldemort himself was an orphan, of a royal wizarding lineage who grows up in an orphanage. As he discovered his own powers when he was young he experimented with them by causing pain to others. Voldemort was as well brought to Hogwarts for an education as a youth.
I have to admit, at times throughout the books, I kept thinking Harry is a bit of a jerk. As I looked back though, it makes more sense to look at this series from the lens of childhood trauma and how it affects people differently. For years Harry was forced to live in a closet under the steps in his Aunt’s house and was treated abusively by his aunt, uncle and cousin.  So it makes sense that Harry throughout the books struggles to build meaningful relationships.  He is very distrustful of adults, and often lies to them and in general is a very secretive person.  He is a very bitter young man, often angry at Dumbledore for deceiving him, or withholding information but it is easier to understand when seen through the lens of childhood trauma. 
           Another character Neville Longbotton who is connected to harry via a prophesy, is also a survivor of trauma, with his parents having been mentally incapacitated by Voldomorts followers years earlier. He was raised by his grandmother. He as well was secretive, but found his niche, and was compassionate to others.
Three orphans, three who survived trauma, one Harry, felt a strong call to duty, a second Neville, felt a strong call to protect the weak, and the third Voldemort, sought absolute power. Did living in the orphanage, vs with abusive family vs with a more loving family help shape how they reacted to their trauma?  Or was Voldemort just a bad seed. And of course let us remember that this is a fantasy book and not a psychology book. 
The author through Dumbledore does give us their perspective on it. When each student arrives at Hogwarts they are sorted into one of four house based on a person’s qualities,  or perceived qualities that could be developed. Sort of like a magical Myers Briggs test. The four houses are

Gryffindor which values courage, bravery, nerve, and chivalry
Hufflepuff values hard work, patience, justice, and loyalty
Ravenclaw values intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit
Slytherin values ambition, cunning, leadership, and resourcefulness;

For the record, on you can take a test that sorts you and I was put in Slytherin. The houses compete with each other for points in academics and sports and behavior and the house with the most points wins the house cup a source of great honor. In book one, When Harry was being sorted, all he thought was “not Slytherin.” In  book two, when Harry finds out he has similarities to Voldemort who is an heir to Slytherin, he wonders why he was not sorted into Slytherin, and he understands

“It only put me in Gryffindor, because I asked not to go in Slytherin,” and Dumbledore replies, “Exactly,  Which makes you very different from Voldermort.  It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

This message so resonated with me, this is the saying of my life.
I can look back on my life and see the variety of choices I have made and see how they led me through my life. The truth is there is so much uncertainty, and interdependence, that we can never truly know how things would have turned out  otherwise, or will turn out in the future, but that doesn’t give us the right to abdicate making a choice. We make the best choice we can with the information we have. And I can tell you for myself, every time I make the hard choice instead of the expedient choice  in the long run it usually ends better.  Sometimes we have two bad choices, and its hard.  But If you don’t make a choice and allow others to make it then that is also making a choice. And often there is a cost and consequence to every choice, something gained, something lost.

But what this story tells me is that by our choices we can transcend our trauma. We can choose, like harry, though feeling abandoned, and lied to, with heavy burdens placed upon him, to face down his fears and engage with the challenges that faced him. Though often uncertain, and feeling unprepared,  he kept pushing forward, doing his duty for the greater good. Helping those around him, constantly working to improve himself and his fellow students.  Even with Draco Malfoy who Harry had many fights with, in the end he helped save his life.  Dumbledore said Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.  Let us move forward as well with such strength and purpose as a community. It is with these thoughts in mind that we ask for your help in fulfilling our mission and vision as we now take our offering.

Part II
So I led a service a few years ago about what makes something a Sacred text.  The shortened version is that we as a community determine what is sacred for us, and individually a text is sacred if it helps you transcend the everyday, offers you insight, guidance and most importantly leads you to act in the world for something larger than just yourself. Whatever that is for you, that is your sacred text. There is much I found in Harry Potter that fills those description of sacred text for me and helps me with those uncertain choices we have to make.

Although I have to say it is ironic that when I talk to people about the Books, people who disdain literalism in all other religious sacred texts, suddenly become very fundamentalist about what the book says and means.  One of the great lessons from the books for me is that no one is completely good or bad. Every ‘good” character has a fault.
As I mentioned earlier the hero protagonist of the book Harry Potter had many negative qualities. The loyal protective gameskeeper Hagrid’s inability to keep a secret and poor teaching skills leads to many dangers. Jealousy led Snape to do horrific deeds, and it took the rest of his life to earn his repentance. And of course the wise Dumbledore whose penchant for power put his own family at risk, and even later in life even with a lifetime of wisdom, a momentary relapse with a  bad decision left him with life altering consequences. Constant vigilance is required. Even most of the bad characters have some redeemable qualities. In the end, Draco Malfoy, despite being groomed to, could not bring himself to kill Dumbledore. Even the loathsome Peter Pettigrew in a moment of Mercy or honor choses not to kill Harry when he is ordered to and is killed for it.  Narcissa Malfoy’s love for her son,  allowed her to overcome her fear of and lie to Voldemort to protect Harry.

And that is another core message of the series,
that love is stronger then fear.
That love can heal us.
From the very beginning, it was Harry’s mothers love that protected him. 
Dumbledore says
“to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” 
Harry’s love for Hogwarts, his deep caring for his friends, his loyalty and duty to Dumbledore is contrasted throughout the book with Voldemorts coldness, selfishness, and cruelty.
It is the love in the aftermath of suffering and the willingness to grow and learn that separates Harry from Voldemort.  Dumbledore tells harry,
 That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of  house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence. Voldemort knows and understands nothing…. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.” 
 And so I ask you what do you value.
Do you value the ethic of love as a way to live your life.
That is what Unitarian Universalism speaks to,
Our sources speak to the transforming power of love. 
If you want that for yourself, for our congregation, for our community, then I ask you to take the trouble to comprehend what that means.
It doesn’t mean lets all sing kumbaya together, (although every now and then that would be ok)
It means that despite our differences we have to stick together. As Dumbledore says
“we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.
Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
Let us remember who we are fighting and what we are fighting for.
We are fighting to create a compassionate and just world.
We are fighting for religious freedom.
We are fighting for a world where we can eradicate discrimination and end the oppression of marginalized people.
And it is going to take all of us to do that. 

Ultimately this story is a story of resistance. The youth in the story form Dumbledore’s Army (or DA for short) to fight against the dark forces of Voldemort. After intensive training, when some real trouble starts Harry doesn’t want to involve others in order to protect them from danger, but instead Neville Longbottom crys out,    “we were all in the DA together….It was all supposed to be about fighting Voldermort wasn’t it. And this is the first chance we’ve had to do something real, or was that all just a game or something”  When the going gets tough, do we stick it out, do we keep our eye on the prize of creating a community of love and justice, or is that just a game to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. Now more then ever is the time to come together, not try to do it on our own. Dumbledore tells Harry,

“If I thought I could help you, “by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.”

Just like the four houses of Hogwarts had different values, abilities, and potential, they came together to fight for the greater good.
Despite our differences we must do the work together
to see the love in one another,
to forgive each other and to begin again and again and again,
because that is our covenant with each other.
Specifically our covenant of right relations ends with

Recognizing and acknowledging the existence of human error as a part of the cycle of human growth, we will respect the dignity and worth of each other and will be accountable for our own words and actions. Even if the process is lengthy and difficult, we will work honestly through our disagreements with others”

Even at the very end in the final battle, when Harry  understands the truth of what is about to happen and why he will kill Voldermort, the person who killed his parents, the person who has hunted him and tried to kill him, still Harry offers him redemption. He says:
"before you try to kill me, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done. Think, and try for some remorse, Riddle “What is this?” Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this... “It’s your one last chance,” said Harry, “it’s all you’ve got left. . . .Be (human) . . . try . . . Try for some remorse. . . .”"

Now I know we each think we are Harry in this drama and someone else is Voldemort,
but the truth is just like the story there is a little of both in all of us.
This is the battle we fight constantly.
Individually and communally.
Let us all work to be a little bit more like Harry.  
Courageous, engaging, working for the greater good.
To fulfill our vision and mission
May it be so.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The Sermon on the Gnats

Last Sunday I was with the UU Congregation in Cedar Rapids leading the service for my colleague who is on parental leave.
I decided to take a few days of study leave prior to that and stay at a Franciscan retreat center in Cedar Rapids. I spent my time meditating, reading, writing, thinking, and walking. A way to step away from the day to day 24/7 life I live to recharge my spiritual batteries.  I thank you for that time away. I had an experience while there that I found to be interesting and metaphorical to our spiritual journey and for our journey for justice.
This particular location has a cosmic walk through the woods that traces the path of evolution starting with the big bang some 14 billion years ago and it ends with “Conscious Changing” at the entrance to a labyrinth. As I went out for a walk the first night, I started walking the labyrinth and was attacked by gnats.  I just want to say that I hate gnats. Its nothing personal .I should have realized this and protected myself with spray as I had been attacked by gnats here in the quad cities just the week before.
For some reason did I think cedar rapids didn’t have gnats???
Maybe these were the quad cities gnats that followed me there,
or through their gnat communication system told them I was coming.
I don’t know why it is but mosquitoes and gnats they just love me.
When I go anywhere with my wife Jan, she never ever gets bit, but the bugs in the same space and same time give me multiple bites.  
I always tell her it is because I am so sweet.
She thinks there may be other causes.

I think our differences in bug bite attractions is and of itself a metaphor.
It is the truth about our lives,
that different people have different reactions to different things.
Whether due to genetics, or life circumstances or life experiences,
and we should not expect people to conform to our way of reacting, particularly reactions that trigger trauma.
We should accept people for who they are and where they are in their life. 
In my life. I had some serious traumas in my childhood.
And over a long period of time, once I was willing to face it, with help from family and my community, I  wont say I overcame them, but I transcended them which certainly shaped and informed my life and life choices. 
So when someone tells you they are in pain over something, please don’t say,
well I am not in pain over it, so you shouldn’t be.

What I have found in life is that many many people suffer trauma, and in different ways,
in ways that are unimaginable to me.
And different people have different coping abilities, and different support systems.
And so it is important to be sensitive when someone says they are experiencing spiritual pain. 
Still I know there are times when I hear complaints on facebook, that voice in my head whispers why don’t they just get over it and move on.
And when those moments happen,
I remember that those words would have been meaningless if directed at me in the face of my suffering.
And so from those experiences,
I learned to be compassionate towards others.
There are things you just don’t get over.
But we can transcend them whether individually or as a congregation, by being a part of and working to create a welcoming community, working towards creating a world that reduces suffering for all people.

To get back to the gnats and the labyrinth
Not to compare my being attacked by gnats to actual suffering, but after getting just a short way through the labyrinth  that first night the gnats started swarming and biting me up.
I walked quickly back exactly the way I came in.
So the first lesson, is try to be prepared for the journey.
Investigate what is needed.
Understand the environment you are in.
Now in this case I knew what was needed,
but I was careless, and unthinking.
Or if I was being generous with myself I could say I was eternally optimistic that this time they wouldn’t bite me.
So it is a reminder to us to be intentional and careful in our journey as a way to avoid harm to ourselves and others. 
I do not believe we need to suffer needlessly for our spiritual work.
We will sacrifice for it, whether it be in time, or money, or energy, and perhaps even freedom
so let us make sure that if we do sacrifice something of ourselves that it is for something that is meaningful and important.

That is one reason we come together.
To make sense of the world, to build resilience for it, to be comforted from its challenges,
and to help us discern what is meaningful and important in our lives.
So the next morning, I went back out for another walk. 
I had buttoned up all my collars on my shirt, pulled my socks high, sprayed myself with REPEL 100 with 98.15% deet whatever that means,
and out I went.
There was a nice cool breeze so I thought, that might keep the gnats away.
And on my journey through the Cosmic Walk I was undisturbed by gnats.
Then when I got to the labrynth, I felt the gnats around me.
Just circling, maybe now and then one would dive bomb me, but do no damage,
My protection I put on was working.
Or I thought it was.
Now think about that in our lives.
We just never know when something is going to derail us.
Things can be going well for a while and we think we have the world figured out.
But the things that can hold us back are always lurking, the naysayers, whether internal or external, the natural disasters,
the unexpected car repair or medical bill,
the chocolate chip cookie and cheeseburger that call to you when you are trying to eat healthy.
(at least to me)  
You prepare yourself, but life happens and you know they are there like the gnats.

I starting walking in the labyrinth and about half way through the gnats started getting me.
They found the one little space that didn’t get spray on my skin and they bit me.
They must some communication system amongst them, like gnat facebook…because as soon as one hit paydirt, a swarm of them started poking me testing what spots were not covered.

And that is true in life.
Whether it is starting a new spiritual practice or working against systems of power for justice life can get difficult,
because anything new,
especially entrenched habits are difficult to change. Think about something simple like going to the gym, the first few times, your body aches from doing something it hasn’t done in years.
Or taking up a spiritual practice like meditation,
or coming to the Congregation on every Sunday morning
or speaking publicly at the city council meeting.
you are not going to be an expert at once,
it can seem awkward, maybe even fearful,
but over time with practice and commitment new habits can be formed.
When you try something new,
or you step out of your comfort zone,
or when you speak up against injustice,
there is going to be push back
some internally within yourself,
oh was I good enough,
will anyone listen to me, etc
and at times there will be critique from others.
First it will be like gnats testing to find your weakness, and when they do they swarm.
Another important lesson about gnats is to not open your mouth when you are walking, because they will fly in and that is a disgusting feeling.
And I think that is a good metaphor as well in a couple of ways.
We do not have to allow others opinions of us derail us and harm us.
But also, when things get difficult and people have critique we should keep our mouth shut and listen. Listen to what our body is feeling,
listen to how and why our emotions are acting up. Listen to others to hear and understand what their concerns are.
But you cant let that stop you from continuing your journey.
All of us are not beyond learning.
Let us incorporate our critique internal and external and use it to improve.

This second day I made it to the center of the labrynth.
At the center I paused, hoping for a moment of respite to sit and ponder before returning to the world.
But it was not to be as I learned my repel 100 with 98.15% deet only had 60 minute duration of protection and I, I was at minute 61.
Now this is another good metaphor.
We must always be renewing ourselves, spiritually, physically, and mentally.
Mind body soul connection.
Just like filling up a tank of gas, eventually it runs out.
We can not just do anything, whether it be a spiritual practice or fighting for justice just once in a while and expect it to take hold forever
and change us and change the world.
No, we need to have a disciplined and varied practice.
We need to constantly renew ourselves.
And build the skills that will lead to success

The NBA draft was last week and the number one pick in the draft zion Williamson said from the age of 9 years old he would wake up every morning at 5am and practice shooting basketball. 
Now we each have different skills and capabilities and limitations, no matter how much I practiced I would never be a professional basketball player, but if you want to be good at anything, you have to be consistent and always learn new things as the circumstances of our lives and the world change,
and as we develop over time,
we must always be willing to adapt.

That is what unitarian Universalism does.
We don’t just say this is the way its always been. We see a changing world, we learn new knowledge, we welcome in new people who have different ideas. And we listen and we adapt.
The truth is if you do not keep renewing yourself at the well of your soul, you will burn out.
It is why the labyrinth has the path in and out.
If I stayed in the center,
I would  been eaten up by the gnats….
And metaphorically it is the same.
If you stay in the center,
if you only work on renewing yourself and never go out and share that with the world,
you get stuck focused on the inside in a form of narcissism,
which is oblivious to the struggles of others and is the opposite of being compassionate.
I also say varied, because I think human nature desires variety.
If we just do the same thing time after time after time after time, after time, after time, after time
you see it gets repetitious and boring.
Even in our meditation practice, we have breathing meditation, walking meditation, loving kindness meditation, a reading and time for sharing. With social justice it is the same, There is
Social Service
Public Witness
Community Organizing
Systemic Change
It is not just one thing, but all of these together that are needed to create justice
A way of keeping us engaged with multiple ways and working towards our goal.  

And that is an important thing to remember as well and to focus on.
Why are we doing what we are doing.
Our spiritual, religious journey, should help us improve our lives, our relationships, and by so doing increase our capacity for compassion for ourselves and others and a hunger for justice in the world with a generosity of spirit and resources.  
I left that journey in the center of the labyrinth.
Now normally I am disciplined
or I might say stubborn about walking back out the labyrinth the same path that I walked in with.
As I was in the center if I followed my disciplined pattern, I would have been bitten up all over whatever exposed skin I had.
Sometimes you have to change tactics.
You have to experiment with new things.
Maybe try a guided meditation.
Maybe join a new team at the congregation and meet different people and learn something you have never done before.
Maybe find new organizing tactics or be willing to let others lead in certain areas.
The goal can still be the same,
But its important to figure out what works and what doesn’t and be willing use that knowledge to inform our future actions.

Or perhaps your goals will change.
That is why the board goes on a retreat every year to create an annual vision of ministry.
To envision what the environment of and needs of the congregation and community will be in the future,
to determine if our mission and or vision needs updating to reflect and meet those needs
and what we can start doing this upcoming year to live into our vision and mission.
And the same is true for each of you.
What is the vision of your religious and spiritual life. What needs updating and what can you do now to bring about the life and world that you dream about. And change is hard and change can cause conflict, both internally and externally.

But I want to share with you the words of “DRUMM” which stands for Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universlist Multicultural Ministries”
after a particularly difficult situation at General Assembly this year they wrote
“We are called to go deeper and to stay in community.
The great prophetic vision of our shared faith is one in which we know Heaven on earth and the reality of interconnectedness is fully realized.
We do this work because our fate, and faith,
are connected”

So although our journey is never a straight line,
or even sometimes an easy journey.
The path may be broken and have detours and you have walk gently,
and perhaps because of that our journey takes a bit longer then expected
but I invite you into connectedness,
I invite you into commitment to this Congregation,
I invite you into relationship with others,
with an ethic of love and a willingness for all of us to change and adapt to become the congregation we can be,
A congregation Committed to justice,
A Congregation open to diversity,
A congregation willing to go deep to create the beloved community.
May it be so