Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon - God Is Not One Pt. 2

God is Not One Pt. 2

This morning’s service is the second part of a two-part series. But don’t worry; you won’t be lost. Last week we learned about Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This we I’m going to talk about Hinduism, Buddhism and Atheism. See, it’s all new stuff.

This sermon comes largely from a recent book by Stephen Prothero called, “God is Not One.” He believes, and I tend to agree as I think about it more and more, that different religions are fundamentally different at their core. That’s not just because they believe different things. It’s more foundational than that. Different religions are different because they start from a different question, a different challenge of life, so obviously they will have a different answer.

In a way, comparing different religions is like comparing apples and oranges. They are fundamentally different things because they each respond to a different challenge. True, they respond to core challenges of human experience. But each religion is essentially asking a different question, solving a different problem. So to compare them, as if they all have the same goal is simply a mistake.

Last week I talked about these questions and proposed answers. Sin and salvation were the core problem and answer in the Christian tradition. In Islam, the central problem isn’t sin, but hubris, and the answer is submission. In fact, Islam means submission. Muslims are submitters who seek peace in this life and the next by surrendering themselves to the one true God. The problem posed in Judaism is exile, and the answer is return to relationship with God, and return to a true home. The path to that return is an interweave of narrative law. That’s right, for Judaism the answer is not so much about something that we should believe, but about something that we should do. It’s very different in that way. So today, I will follow that same track, first describing the core challenge or question that the tradition faces, and then the answer that they offer.

Before diving into the question and answer, the theology of Hinduims if you will, we first need to get a little bit of its vibe. When we think about Hinduism, I want you to think big. Think Bollywood films. Hinduism is BIG in every way imaginable.
It is the third largest world religion today with 900 million followers, about 15 percent of the worlds population. It is also the oldest of the major traditions, dating back at least as far as 2500 BCE. And it’s library of sacred texts is overwhelming. It’s oldest and most sacred text the Vedas, dates back to 1200 BCE. And the Mahabharata, contains 1.8 million words, dwarfing the Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey combined. As outsiders, we may notice the extreme noise, color and fragrance of Indian temples. And devotees perform feats of pain and endurance beyond compare. Hinduism is BIG in every sense of the word. But perhaps most of all, Hinduism is big in all that it encompasses. It is without a doubt the most diverse world tradition. That is probably due to its very old age and its tendency to incorporate rather than reject new influences. So, more than any other tradition, please take what I have to say about Hinduism with a grain of salt.

Speaking in vast generalities, in Hinduism,the problem to be solved is samsara. Literally samsara means wondering or flowing by, but here we are talking about the cycle life, death, and rebirth, or what we know as reincarnation, over and over again. It’s an endless, and unsatisfying cycle, so the goal is moksha, or release. Moksha is spiritual liberation, freeing the soul from the endless cycle of samsara and reuniting with the eternal spirit of the universe.

There are two important pieces of Hinduism that I want to highlight. The first is Brahmanic Hinduism. Although it’s not the most popularly practiced, it is what Westerners mostly understand as Hinduism. Within the Barhmanic Hinduism we each have an eternal spirit, called Atman. This Atman, or spirit is ultimately indistinct from Brahman, the universal spirit. According to Hinduism, the goal of life is to recognize that simple fact that one’s own Spirit, or Atman is in fact the same as Brahman. The goal is to come to the realization that we are fundamentally one with each other and with the entire universe. And once we realize that interconnection, we escape the cycle of samsara and enjoy moksha. It is this truth that reminded me of our opening hymn. There’s a River Flowin in my Soul, and it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody. There’s a River flowin’ in my soul.

But what Hindus do mostly is something completely different. They practice devotional worship to seek favor with their god. Hindus go on pilgrimages to sacred cities, rivers, and mountains, places associated with their chosen gods. They also observe a variety of festivals.

There are tons of opportunities to offer devotion to the god of your choice. But the central ritual for American Hindus and around the world is puja. Pujas are something like ancient priestly sacrifices, offering a gift to the gods. If these offerings are made in a temple they are typically lead by a priest. But they can also be given by ordinary people at a home or shrine, with oil lamps and incense sticks lit in front of an icon. The simple act of devotion is by far the most popular religious practice for Hindus.

Just last week, Kimberly LeMon lit our chalice, partly because she had studied sacred dance in the temples of India for two years. While she was there, as a gesture of hospitality some locals built for her an altar to Jesus. They assumed that because she was from American, she was Christian. The gesture seems a little strange from an American perspective. But hopefully we now see, that this is just how Hindus worship their gods. They build temples and shrines to venerate the god that inspires them. In so doing they may find favor with that god, or even better, be granted enlightenment and liberation from the endless cycle of reincarnation.

The next tradition that I want to talk about is Buddhism. It comes from a similar theological world-view, an endless cycle of reincarnation, but it takes a very different turn.
For Buddhists, the primary problem in life is suffering or dukkha. And the obvious goal is relief from that suffering. The final relief from suffering is called nirvana, which literally means blowing out. This is where one of the key differences comes into play. I described Hinduism’s moksha as a union between two eternal souls, the soul of the self and the soul of the universe. In Buddhism the goal is the opposite. The goal is to finally burn off all of one’s karma, a sort of soul residue, so that like a candle, your existence along with your suffering is extinguished.

The Buddha taught that life is suffering, or dissatisfation. Time and time again we don’t get what we want or the things that we love in our lives slip through our fingers. Life is suffering because of attachment. We get attached to material things that are fleeting. We also get attached to disappointments of the past, or anxieties of the future. We are attached to the way things could have been, or the way we didn’t quite make the mark that one time. We even get absorbed in how wonderful life used to be. We get attached to what is not here and now, and we long for a different experience. And thus we are dissatisfied.
The challenge within the Buddhist framework is to live in the present moment. Are you focused on the past or future, or maybe some other place? Or is you mind present in the here and now? That is the primary goal of Buddhist practice, to live in the present moment, free of attachments that only bring dissatisfaction. It’s a big challenge if you take it seriously.
That is where the practice of meditation comes in. Various methods of meditation work toward the goal of stilling the mind. We practiced one form of meditation earlier together, as we sat in silence and followed our breath to still our minds. Later in our closing hymn we will practice another form, called Metta. It’s a practice of extending compassion to the world, starting with ourselves and offering wider and wider circles.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Buddhism as a religion is its utterly disinterest in theological speculation. In fact it warns against it. One of the more popular stories is about a monk who comes to the Buddha with a litany of questions. He wants to know about the soul and death and reincarnation and the cycle of karma and a whole gamut of things that we might traditionally call religion.
The Buddha responds with a question of his own. He says, “If you were shot with an arrow, would you not first remove the arrow before seeking out who shot it or what kind of bow was used. So it is with the teachings of Buddhism. We should first aim at removing the suffering from our lives because that is a far more important than speculating about the theological reasons behind it.
Many religions claim to be a way of life more than a set of beliefs. But it is especially true to Buddhism. As a tradition that eschews theological speculation, some have questioned whether Buddhism is a religion at all. Is it really just a philosophy? Well defining what is and is not a religion can fill volumes. But I’ll leave it to you. Is Buddhism a religion?

I also raise that question because it’s on that many people raise about atheism. Is it a religion?
Following the problem and solution equation that we have used so far, atheism has a particular answer. For outspoken atheists, especially those who have published popular books recently, the human problem cannot be solved by religion because religion is the problem. The solution is to flush out this poison from our system. Several of you have read books by the New Atheists. In the past ten years several very popular books have come out with just that argument.
According to Richard Dawkins, “faith is one of the world’s greatest evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” According to Sam Harris, theology is “ignorance with wings.” According to Christopher Hitchens, organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
These atheist frequently pursue a straw man argument against religion, picking out the most radical and damaged branches of religion as an opportunity to condemn them all. But I think it’s important that we don’t do the same things in return. There is another kind of atheist, the kind that many of you are.
Unfortunately the author of “God is Not One” gives only minor recognition to this group. These are the atheists that do not believe in God. But more importantly, they believe that religious traditions, no matter what they are, should never lead us to demean or exclude, oppress or diminish anyone else, including those who believe in God. These later atheists, the kind that I think many of you are, simply don’t believe in God but don’t express the urgent need to make others agree with you. It’s very much a humanist approach, a belief that the health and wellbeing of people is more important than the religions to which they subscribe. Religion exists to serve humanity, not the other way around.

I want to close our time together addressing the unspoken question. Which of these traditions is best. Like I have explained, comparing religious traditions is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Each tradition aims to answer a different question or life challenge, so comparing them is extremely difficult.
But that doesn’t mean that all religion is good, or even that all religion is acceptable. Some of it is in fact very bad. As we read earlier together, it matters what we believe. Some beliefs build walls and separate us, while other beliefs open our minds and our hearts.
It is often misstated that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want. As a Unitarian Universalist you can have a huge spectrum of different beliefs. But your belief must fall within two basic criteria. It has to make sense, and it has to make a difference. Your core values and religious principles must resonate with what seems true and reasonable to you. And your faith must make a difference; it must make you a better person in the world.
We have two standards within Unitarian Universalism. For the rest of religion, I set only one standard. Your faith must make a difference. Your religion must make you a better person. I don’t mean that it must make you believe in the same politics as me. It likely will not. But it must make you a more generous and compassionate person.
If we take it seriously, the role of faith is to transcend the self, and come more fully into community with our wider world. Each tradition has its own unique way of pulling our concerns beyond ourselves to care for a wider world. The theology involved comes in staggering variety, almost as much variety as the methods of practicing those various beliefs. But if any religion is worth its salt, it must make a difference. It must make its adherents more compassionate and generous people.

Every single faith tradition, including our own has the capacity to build up walls or to tear them down. Not all beliefs are equal. As people of faith, we are called to the difficult task of examining our own beliefs. Which ones make us more loving people, and which ones separate us. We are called to the difficult task of examining our own beliefs. And we are called to engage compassionately with others about their beliefs. And learn from one another in the process.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Sermon - God In Not One - Part One

God Is Not One (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)

For the next two Sunday’s we will talk about what might be a controversial statement. That is, the belief that not all religions are suggesting the same thing. For many years now interfaith dialog and new-age thought have moved in the direction of saying that all religions are suggesting the same theme. The popular metaphor is that there are many paths to reach the top of the mountain, which presumably is God, or the divine. Each religion is simply a different path to the same God.

Well, the atheists amongst us, that’s about 30-40% of you, will certainly say your interested in UUFLB has little to do with following a path to God. That’s just one very small and quick window into how profoundly different religious traditions are.

In his recent book, “God is Not One,” Stephen Prothero pushes this controversial stance that in fact at their core, religious traditions point to profoundly different realities. It is true that some focus on God, but other are completely devoid of that sort of conscious supremely powerful deity. He argues that to fully respect religious traditions of different people, we must accept that they are not all trying to say the same thing. In fact they are saying radically different things. And rather than mashing them up into a Christian mold, and calling them different pathways up the mountain, it behooves us to take the time to understand the real differences between these traditions, if not out of respect, then to understand the world view through which societies and countries function.

In a way, comparing different religions, is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. They are fundamentally different things, because they each respond to a different challenge. True, they respond to core challenges of human experience. But each religion is essentially asking a different question, solving a different problem. So to compare them, as if they all have the same goal is profoundly misleading.

Today I’m going to talk about a few of those questions and answers that the Abrahamic faiths address. That’s Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although they are all monotheistic, often referred to as “people of the book,” as Muslims would say, they each come out of a different society, and answer a profoundly different question about human existence.

Lets start with the most familiar, the religion that vastly predominates in the United States, Christianity. Christianity essentially answers the challenge of sin. Sin refers generally to the human propensity toward wrong-doing. The key is that everyone sins, and if we deny our sinful nature, we are only fooling ourselves. From the very beginnings of time in the Garden of Eden, when Eve chose to defy God and eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, humans have perpetuated a sinful nature. It’s in our theological DNA.

But there is hope. Christianity could be called a rescue religion in this way. Rescue is made possible by the one and only savior Jesus Christ. Sin and salvation, that is the core problem and answer in the Christian tradition. Salvation classically means attaining eternal life in heaven after death. There are a variety of mechanisms and time frames for that coming to pass, but salvation, is about eternal life with God.

And Jesus Christ is the key to this rescue from sin. The person of Jesus has meant different things to different people throughout history. Perhaps the most hotly disputed question has been how divine he was. Is he God incarnate, or was he a really good guy, very holy, but less than God. He also has been understood as a social radical, a freedom fighter, a friend, a healer, a compassionate figure. You can find just about anything if you look hard enough at the person of Jesus. You will most likely find there who you want yourself to be, a reflection of your own highest values.

Jesus means a whole bunch of different things to different people. But his real raise d’etre is salvation. Jesus offers salvation from sin through two different means. Mostly through atonement, his suffering on the cross is understood to atone, or be a sort of payment for the sins of all humanity. Thus, Jesus has paid for our sins. The other way that Jesus offers salvation is through instruction on better living. He is an exemplar of how we might live better lives and to help each other out of the mess of our sinful ways.

So there you have it, Christianity in a nutshell. From sinful human nature to salvation, through the person of Jesus Christ. I’m glad to give this quick summary of Christian theology right now. With Christmas right around the corner we should know what the Christian understanding of it is. Because for Christians, this holiday is very different from what we celebrate as Unitarian Universalists. In a couple of weeks we will talk about how we celebrate the holiday. But for Christians, Christmas is the birthday of THE one and only savior, it is the moment that God came down from the heavens in the form of Jesus Christ to offer salvation to sinful humanity. It is a hugely important religious holiday. It’s like a day at the crux of the Christian question and answer. Chirstmas is a very big deal, and it’s not because of Santa.

In the Muslim world, the problem is a little bit different. The central problem isn’t sin, but hubris. We silly humans think that we are independent, we think that we can do it all on our own. And the answer to that hubris is submission to Allah. Islam is not so much about sin and salvation, as it is about recognizing our limitations and submitting the power of Allah. In fact, Islam means submission. Muslims are submitters who seek peace in this life and the next by surrendering themselves to the one true God.

This sense of hubris being overcome by submission became very apparent to me in Africa. Having spent time in two predominantly Muslims countries, I became accustomed to hearing the phrase ‘Insha Allah,” or “God willing.” Obviously it’s not a unique phrase. I hear Christians use it on occasion. But in the time that I have spent with Muslim communities, it was used constantly. Any time you suggested something that was going to happen in the future, something you were planning on doing, it was followed up but “Insha Allah.” It could have been the simple statement, “I will go buy some bananas at the market today. “Insha Allah!” At the time it drove me a little batty, but now I get it a little better. Their whole religious being is about expressing submission to the will of Allah. Insisting anything will be is almost an affront to that sense of submission.

First and foremost, Muslims practice that submission through the exercise of prayer. Five times a day, they are supposed to stop what they are doing, clean themselves up a bit, and participate in a prayer. But it’s not just any prayer. This is a very specific kind of prayer involving the whole body.

Their hands move from behind their ears to their torsos. They bow forward at the waist, hands on the knees, back flat. They stand up straight again. They prostrate themselves into a posture of total and absolute submission to Allah, planting their knees, hands, foreheads and noses on the ground. Then rise to a sitting position. These prayers begin with Alahu Akbar, “God is Great.” Worshipers themn bless and exalt Allah above all pretenders. They call Muhammad His prophet and messenger.

Of course as in any religion, Muslims practice in differing ways. Some devout people do not participate in prayer five times a day. But around the world many, many do. It’s also worth noting that since prayers are said in Arabic, the majority of the people who say them, don’t know exactly what they mean. They probably have a rough translation of the prayers, but they certainly cannot read the Koran in Arabic as intended. But much like Hebrew is for the Jews, Arabic is a sacred language. The sounds produced through praying in Arabic are inherently powerful and pleasing to God, even without a full grasp of their meaning.

But as I said before, each of these religions answers a particular challenge of the human experience. For Judaism, the central problem that religion deals with is exile, the problem of distance from God and from where we ought to be. In Jewish tradition that problem arises from the very beginning. The experience of the Garden of Eden for the Jews was not so much about the sin of eating the fruit. It was about exile. From the very beginning the result of breaking the rules was exile as Adam and Eve were sent out, sent away from paradise. Over and over in the Bible and modern history the Jews struggle with exile, all the way up into today’s struggle over the right to maintain Israel as a Jewish state.

One of those stories, rooted in the heart of Jewish culture actually informs a much broader community. The story of being slaves in Egypt and the eventual escape with the help of God has had immeasurable impact on American civil rights movements. God, through Moses, enabled the Israelites to flee from the Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. Following that escape of course was a journey of wondering in the desert, in exile for forty years. But they eventually found home again. The quintessential story of exile comes from the history of the Jews, and it has shaped that community to the core.

The problem posed in Judaism is exile, and the answer is return to relationship with God, and return to a true home. The path to that return is an interweave of narrative law. That’s right, for Judaism the answer is not so much about something that we should believe, but about something that we should do. In religious terms, Jews are more concerned with orthopraxy (right practice) than it is in orthodoxy (right belief).

For a long time, especially in early Christian world, Jews were stereotyped and demeaned as a community that was obsessed with the rules. That stereotype is still brought out today as some people discuss the Jewish community. It is true that following rules is important. But those rules are being followed because they are a big part of the answer to coming back into relationship with God. Also the rule following that is most apparent to us as outsiders is that of orthodox Jews. But we should keep in mind that a vastly larger portion of the Jewish community follow rules that we don’t see. They are good Jews by doing good deeds for others and supporting their wider community. They do mitzvah, good deeds, holy work by helping rebuild the world. And it’s not about dietary restrictions or dress-codes, it is about treating people ethically, and obeying God’s commandments to do so.

As for the telling of stories, this is the central piece of Jewish ritual. Over and over again the Jewish community tells the story of their heritage. As we saw earlier, the celebration of Hanukkah is about the rededication of the Second Temple. A moment of return from exile. The biggest Jewish holiday is Passover. The central event of which is a Seder Supper, where families and friends gather to retell the story of escape from Egypt.

One more holiday that I just learned about is Simchat Torah. You see, In Jewish worship services, a portion of Torah is read every week, until the whole thing is read in one year. When they get to the end, there is a holiday of Simchat Torah. It’s a huge celebration of the Torah, the sacred writing, most of which is a collection of stories of the people. What fascinates me is just at the moment when the Torah ends with Deuteronomy, a new cycle is begun with Genesis. If there are multiple Torahs to read from, they simply switch. If there is only one though, the person reading or singing holds the note from the passage at the end, while the Torah scroll is wound backward, all the way back to the beginning of Genesis and a portion is read as the story begins again. For the Jewish people the story never ends. The story that tells them who they are, and the laws that they follow to create community are sacred, they are an answer to the problem of exile that has plagued humanity from the beginning.

As we wrap up this very, very quick tour of Abrahamic faiths, I want to take a moment to mention what we might learn or borrow from them as Unitarian Universalists. Each religion answers a different challenge of human existence. And those challenges are things that we share. My hunch is that the answers have something to offer us as well.

Christianity offers us a sense of humility and the power of forgiveness. In our culture of achievement and appearances, sometimes it is difficult to admit our failures. None of us is perfect, but there is always hope. In Christianity the sense of salvation from through forgiveness from God. But forgiveness can be an incredibly powerful thing when we offer it to one another. Perhaps we can learn something from Christianity, learn that we all make mistakes sometimes, and that we all need to be to forgiven and to forgive one another.

Islam I think offers us an invitation to lose ourselves to something greater. For Muslims recognizing our own limits and submitting to the power of Allah is what religious life is about. But we to can lose ourselves in the healing power of love and a sense of awe and respect of the web of life. This is what sat with me the most from last weeks worship service about Walden. I spoke with the kids about Thoreau losing himself in something greater. He just sat in nature and was able to loose himself, rapt in reverence. So often our individualism and need for control trumps our ability to loose ourselves in a wider love. Perhaps we can take this invitation from our Muslim sisters and brothers and move beyond our independence.

Finally, Judaism, I think is our most kindred spirit in the realm of religious traditions. That’s because much like us, they are more concerned with treating one another rightly, than they are with what you believe about God. Over a very long time, spread across the globe, Jews have found a way to keep their tradition alive. They tell their story over and over, and they do their best to live well. What might it look like for us to do the same, to share our story, until it resonates with the heartbeat of this community. Even more importantly, what might it look like for us to offer to our children a religious heritage, a sense of belonging to a people with a past and a future in this world.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Sitting By the Pond

¬ Henry David Thoreau’s little book called “Walden” is a touchstone of American literature. It is a primary example of Transcendentalism, perhaps THE most influential theological movement within Unitarian History, and it’s a forerunner in the tradition of American nature writing. This one little book, that was tells no particular story and reads almost as one man’s musings, like a journal really, is a literary workhorse. It’s impact has been tremendous.

As we heard earlier, it was a project of Henry David Thoreau’s. He set himself up in a one-room cottage outside of Concord Massachusets. It was his experiment to live deliberately. In fact the reading that we did together earlier was excerpted from the beginning of Walden. It sums up his intent pretty well. He went into the woods to live deliberately, to suck out the deepest and truest experience of life.

Today I want to talk a about the ways that Thoreau explores this new deliberate lifestyle. Three different aspects of the project are striking to us as outsiders, and those were precisely the themes that Thoreau was playing with for himself. The thing that comes to mind most readily is how he lived simply in a one room house for two years. He left behind many of the conveniences and comforts of his life, to live very simply.

The second theme of his project that we notice off the bat is the solitude involved. He didn’t head out into the wilderness with his family, Thoreau was intent on getting away from it all. He wanted some solitude, but it was for a very particular reason.

The third piece of Thoreau’s experiment, and the piece that I have the most trouble with, is his attempt at being self-sufficient. He set out to see how well he could thrive on his own, with just the natural world around him.

Let’s go back to his experiment with simple living for now. One of Thoreau’s primary concerns was that the pace of modern life was exploiting people, and separating them. Certainly, his life in the mid 1800s was a far cry from the age of the internet and videogames. And, he could not have imagined the environmental degradation and human exploitation that would follow. But he lived at the beginning of the American modern age.

He saw the railroad and the telegraph come into existence and intrude on Walden Pond. As production of textiles was mechanized, he pointed out that the huge cloth mills of New England weren’t being used to provide the world’s needy with clothing, but to earn unprecedented profits for the owners. These marvels of modern technology were used almost exclusively to make the people who owned them more rich. In his moment, Thoreau realized that an old way of life was fading. And he saw even then, that what was replacing it was not necessarily an improvement. (Stern, 8.)

For Thoreau, it became deeply important to unplug from the cycle of consumption and wealth. In his retreat to the woods, he deliberately engaged in a simpler life, a life that not only avoided technology, but saved time to savor the richness of nature the rhythm of simpler ways.

But, Thoreau was not an ascetic; he was not rejecting pleasure. Quite the contrary, he lived deeply and richly with appreciation for the natural world around him. He submerged his time in the simple yet rewarding tasks to baking bread, planting and harvesting vegetables, reading, and simply observing the world around him. In this two year experiment, Thoreau reorganized his appreciation from fabricated symbols of wealth, to the fecundity of the natural world. In short, simple living was not a sacrifice, but finding a different kind of richness.

In the past three years, Americans have had a hard lesson in simple living. Out of necessity many of us have changed our lifestyles, slowing down, consuming less, spending less. Out of necessity many of us have made a shift. Others of us have political and environmental motivations for the effort to live more simply. I’m reminded of the powerful saying, “Live Simply, so that Others May Simply Live.”

But what if we took a cue from Thoreau, what if we didn’t just sacrifice. What if we just took time to appreciate simpler things. Simple living doesn’t have to mean sacrifice, or at least it didn’t for Thoreau. Quite the contrary, it can mean, it should mean slowing down to appreciate the beauty that exists in our world at every moment, and slowing down to appreciate the rhythm and craft of our daily tasks. Thoreau knew that living simply was not about sacrifice, but a different kind of appreciation of beauty.

The second striking aspect of Thoreau’s experiment is the solitary nature of it. It seems odd to many of us that he would spend two years in the woods alone. He sounds like a bit of a hermit, well now that I say it, like the Unabomber. But that perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.
First of all, Thoreau was NEVER out of touch with what was going on in the wider world. He frequently entertained visitors, and he regularly read the newspapers. He was not totally isolated. But more importantly, we need to understand the purpose, and result of his retreat to the woods. Thoreau set out not to be a recluse, but to gain a more objective view of society by removing himself from it for a while.
His years at Walden were some of his most important years of writing and thinking. While there, he was deeply engaged in the affairs of the wider world. In 1846 he was arrested for not paying six years worth of poll taxes. After his arrest he refused to pay his taxes because of his objection to the Mexican-American War and slavery. But, against his wishes, the back taxes were paid by his aunt and he was released the next day.
That one night in jail is a little adventure that many of us know about Thoreau. But that one experience, was the source of perhaps his most influential piece of writing. Three years later, Thoreau published the essay Civil Disobedience, which deeply influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and an entire lineage of advocates for justice.

The social fabric of the United States was still in formation during Thoreau’s life. He bridged the careers of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. In his short lifetime, he saw the United States make tremendous promises in its founding ideals and documents. And he saw many of those promises squandered in the midst of slavery, exploitation of the working class and unnecessary warfare. Thoreau spoke out against the exploitation of Irish immigrants who had fled their own country to escape starvation. He was indignant about the treatment American Indians, who had been driven even farther west into territory that nobody wanted. And probably Thoreau’s strongest writings were in he rejection of slavery.
In his experiment at Walden, Thoreau wasn’t trying to escape from society. He was trying to take a small step back to get a little better perspective on the world that he lived in. And it seems to have paid off. Time and time again Thoreau stood on the right side of the debate. He seemed to have a sense of wider perspective on American society.

This attempt at gaining perspective on one’s own society is perhaps the most inspiring piece of Thoreau’s project. What he attempted, and seemingly achieved is one of the most difficult endeavors that we can make as humans. Stepping outside of ourselves to understand the social network that we participate in is tremendously difficult. Whether it is the network of our family, or our church, our country of our world, stepping beyond, to see our own role in that web of relationships is incredibly difficult, but also incredibly powerful.
Lately I have heard this effort to gain perspective, described as trying to take a view from the balcony. You can take any moment, and step out of yourself for just a moment, especially a moment that is heated. Take a moment to pause and look at the situation from above, as if you are looking down on it from the balcony. You can see how all the players work together to make the scene, including yourself.

What role do you play in the system? How do you benefit from maintaining that role? Who has the power over the resources? Who keeps this structure established? What would change if these relationships changed?

Every once in a while in our lives, we get a chance to step outside of ourselves to look at our world with fresh eyes. This is defiantly my favorite part of travel. When you get to know other cultures, you can see your own with fresh eyes. For Thoreau, he simply retreated to the woods for a short while to see American society with new eyes. But we don’t have to go to such great lengths to gain perspective. Any kind of travel can often do the trick, or just reading, learning about different ways of thinking and being in the world, helps us to see our own world anew.
We often think of Thoreau as a solitary wilderness guy. The one who went off and lived in a cabin alone by Walden Pond. But, Far from a loner, Thoreau’s heart and soul was engaged with the wider world. One of the most important things we can learn from his experiment at Walden is the power of gaining perspective on our own lives and our own society.

So finally, the third and final piece of Thoreau’s adventure that I want to talk about today is his quest to become self-sufficient. As I said before, Thoreau planted several different crops, chopped wood, baked bread. He did an amazing amount of work for himself at Walden. It’s pretty incredible. and easy for us to romanticize Thoreau’s efforts. We also usually think that such a lifestyle is far removed from any possible living in today’s world. But the truth is, it total self-sufficiency was impossible for Thoreau as well.
He was in regular contact with guests and went into town on occasion. But, those were not only social visits. He had food brought to him often. Also, we tend to think of him living in a little cabin. Well, it was little, but it was actually a one-room cottage, with a bed, a desk and other household goods.
I don’t mean to diminish Thoreau’s hard work or his creativity. I’d be pretty hard pressed to make due at Walden, especially for two whole years. But his experiment in self-sufficiency wasn’t all that independent. In fact, I wonder if it might not have been a little misguided. What I see Thoreau doing at Walden is exploring his independence from human community, while he nurtured and explored his relationship with nature. He made a dramatic shift in the focus of his attentions, but never became completely self-sufficient. In fact, quite the opposite from isolation or independence, Thoreau simply deepened his relationship with the natural world as he learned how much he depended on it.
One of the few pieces of Christian theology that sticks with me from seminary comes from St, Augustine. He talked about “disordered love.” He meant that as sinful humans, we have disordered love. Instead of loving God, we tend to love the world around us. I find this idea of disordered love very compelling, because it’s a way of talking about how we prioritize our relationships. We can choose where to place our affections, we can choose to love those things that are life-affirming rather than those that are trivial. To me, that is what Thoreau was experimenting with. He never became self-sufficient, an island unto himself. He simply re-arranged his priorities. He re-ordered his relationships and his loves.

So Thoreau’s attempt to be self-sufficient, points us, or at least me in a slightly different direction. He never achieved total self-sufficiency. But he did achieve something else. Thoreau managed a dramatic shift in his relationships, away from the trivial, and into the profound. He intentionally chose to deepen his relationship with nature, while letting the trivial relationships with the masses of society drift away. Perhaps he is not a model of independence, but a model of nurturing those relationships that are most sustaining and life giving.

As much as the actual book that he published, Thoreau’s experiment in deliberate living has inspired the imagination for generations. More than running away from society, Thoreau spent this time to engage his world in a more profound way. Perhaps the book and the experiment remain so prominent in American culture because of the lessons they still carry.

Live simply, not for the sake of sacrifice, but for the sake of enjoying the beauty that surrounds you everyday.

And, When you get a chance, take a step back from it all to gain a little perspective. You’ll have a much better understanding of your life situation and be able to deal with it more proactively when you return.

And finally, celebrate those relationships that are life affirming. Nurture them, cultivate them, because they are essential to thriving in this world.

For Thoreau and for us, being wrapt in wonder at nature is not about escape, but about touching a deeper knowledge. Going to the woods is a spiritual practice, and one that we all might benefit from now and then.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Sermon - Giving Thanks, Giving Help

Giving Thanks, Giving Help

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday; it is probably my favorite holiday, probably because it centers on lots of food. But rather than talk about food while I have your attention, I want to talk about gratitude. Thanksgiving always brings up the question, what are you thankful for. I know a lot of families actually go around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and encourage everyone to name something they are thankful for this year.

So, today, I want to take some time to name a few of those things that we are thankful for, or that I am thankful for at least.

I am grateful for this community. The enthusiasm that has bubbled up here in the past year is astounding. The spirit of kindness and generosity and curiosity. Our Fellowship is on fire with enthusiasm. I am deeply thankful for this community and for the spirit that you bring to it.

And I am thankful to live here in Laguna Beach, in Southern California, in the United States. We have a vast array of opportunities here. We have access to healthcare. We have clean air. We have a pretty charmed life, and I try to be mindful of that fact. I am grateful for the bounty of my life here.

It’s good to take a little extra moment to name the things that we are grateful for. But in a way, Thanksgiving is what we do every Sunday at church. In the midst of all our differences of belief, expressing gratitude is one of the things that we do really well. We join together, not just today, but every Sunday to give thanks with our worship.
Worship is a sticky word, and I have unpacked it a few times. It’s especially important to do today as thanksgiving approaches. When we worship together in this congregation, we are not all joining together in deference to a supreme being, We are not offering supplication and praise to God for the most part. Now don’t get me wrong, for many of us God is the name of the game and very, very important.
But what we do most in worship, is simply name those things that are most important in our lives. That’s where the word worship comes from, and why I insist on calling what we do, worship. Worship is a religious activity and it comes from the Old English “worthscipe,” meaning worthiness or worth-ship. At least in its simplest form, worth-ship, or worship is to give worth to something. When we name and celebrate those things that are most meaningful in our lives, we give them worth. And that’s what we do together on Sundays. We name the sacred, we name our values, our hopes, our aspirations, and our love. We name our relationships with friends and family and the divine. All of these things we lift up, and give worth. So the practice of Thanksgiving is not so far off from what we normally do here together on Sundays.

Now some would say that we need to give thanks for material wealth. That was actually my initial reaction, we should be grateful for the material gifts of our lives. And in some ways that is true. We live in a beautiful area. We are experiencing an economic hard time, but still the material wealth that you and I have access to is tremendous in comparison with the majority of the world’s population. So yes, we have reason to be grateful for the material things that we have.

But at the end of the day, we have much more important things to be grateful for. All of those goods don’t really buy happiness… It’s true; you can’t buy happiness. What sounds like a feel-good cliché is actually now being proven with research. Princeton University researchers have found that the link between wealth and happiness is exaggerated and mostly an illusion. It’s true. Contrary to consumer culture and a constant drive for more, the researchers found that money’s role is less significant than anyone thought, and that people with higher incomes do not necessarily spend more time in more enjoyable ways. Two Princeton professors, economist Alan B. Krueger and psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, collaborated with colleagues from three other universities on the study, being published in the journal “Science.”

Not only does money not buy happiness, it can actually be a bit of a burden, especially when we get into talking about responding to gratitude. That is the point of the reading that we heard earlier, the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler. Jesus told him to give away all his possessions if he wanted to do what God required. Ouch. That’s a pretty scary request, almost cultish. Giving away everything seems extreme. But that’s sort of missing the point. The point isn’t that he had to give away everything or that people with wealth are somehow less worthy. The point was that wealth is a burden in a way. To whom much is given, much is expected. It wasn’t that big of a deal to ask some of the other folks to take on a life of service because they didn’t have that much to begin with. But for the rich young ruler, following Jesus would have been a huge burden, because it would have meant giving more.

You can’t buy happiness, and in a way, wealth is a burden. So what are we thankful for this season? It seems like naming the material things is missing the point. There is so much more than that, so much that at the very core of our beings we cherish and embrace.

As I said before, those are the things that we celebrate when we worship together at church. They are also things that we have glimpses of in our most profound individual moments.
Just this past week at Coffee Talk, we found ourselves in a conversation about white-water rafting in the Grand Canyon. It is exhilarating I am told. It offers a sense of vulnerability and centeredness that clarifies what is important in your life. Someone there compared it to sky-diving. She had done both, and she said that after sky-diving, she could hardly sleep, for three days she just felt alive, and awake. Something had been jolted in her, something was somehow clear, she knew what was important. Then another jarring adventure was shared. Not a fun one, but one that most of us can probably more readily relate to. Someone described driving on the 405 at 70 miles per hour when suddenly all lanes of traffic seemed to be coming to an abrupt stop. Cars were skidding and swerving. And in the moment of terror, a sense of call came over him, a sense of centeredness.

In our conversation of those moments, everyone agreed that the calm and focus were fleeting. The window of clarity is short-lived. But I want to ask you,

Have you ever had one of these moments of exhileration or terror? Do you remember what came to your consciousness? If you can, those are the things we are thankful for this season. Those are the things that fill our hearts and make our lives full.

And how are we to respond to these full lives and full hearts? How are we to respond to the gratitude that we feel? Well, the title of this sermon should be some indication of that, “Giving Thanks, Giving Help.”

I think it is appropriate that this Sunday, the Sunday before Thanksgiving we turn our focus from Fellowship to the wider world in need. This Sunday is the last Sunday we will be talking about the pledge campaign in the service. I wanted to share with you where we are in the campaign. We still have a number of members who have not yet pledged, but we are in communication with them and hope to get their pledge cards in soon. So far, we have raised around $75,000 in pledges. Hopefully in the coming months that number will rise as we collect pledges from a few remaining current members and new members to join in our community.
If you are a member of the Fellowship and you have not pledge to contribute financially in 2011, please do so soon, so that we can wrap up this campaign. It’s sort of like the NPR pledge time. We’re all tired of hearing about it, so help us wrap it up.

So in this time of Thanksgiving, we turn from our own community, to consider the needs of the wider world around us. That’s right, we are called to respond to our gratitude by giving something back to our world. In the next month, our congregation will offer an array of different ways for you to give back to the world in a financial way. Starting in December we will help support the Heifer Project. We have already dedicated one thousand dollars from the church for this years campaign. We’ll learn more about that from Riva and Mark in December. Another tradition for this congregation is to adopt a family. We will adopt one or two local families and provide needed gifts for Christmas for them. Helen Scholfield will be handling that project. And a brand new opportunity to help the church and spread some cheer is the new UUFLB music CD that will be available for purchase in December.

Of course this Sunday, we begin the Guest At Your Table project. The Guest At Your Table program is a wonderful concept. It’s a simple reminder to us to act as if there were someone joining us at our own dining table. It’s an opportunity to offer hospitality as you would if someone were in you own home. But if you scratch the surface a little deeper, it can be a reminder that, in a way, there is always a guest at our table. Not in the offering of hospitality sense, but in the sense that the food that we eat, and the way that we eat it is deeply related to other people in the world.
There are probably a few of you who grow some of your own vegetables. I am still nursing one tiny tomato that hopefully might be edible for thanksgiving. That was my crop for the year. Perhaps you have had better luck than I. Even if you have grown much of your own produce the majority of your food comes from super-markets. It comes from fields, owned by companies and staffed by workers. Your food is grown in the ground, which is the home of someone. Your food was driven to the store, and put neatly on the shelf. Your food was sold to you by a friendly person at the checkout line.
In a way, each of these people is a guest at your table, every time you sit down to a meal. The food that we eat connects us to each other, in a physical very sense. So let the box at your table be a reminder not just of hospitality, but that our basic physical comfort, the food that we eat, the resources that we consume, depend on other people and impact other people. Whether we realize it or not, there is always a guest at our table. For the coming month, these boxes will help us to be more mindful of that fact.

There are tons of ways to give help this season, and I encourage everyone to find some small way to participate in these financial activities. But writing a check or tying a bow on a gift is just icing on the cake as far as I am concerned.

You cannot buy a handshake or a hug. You cannot buy those things that fill our hearts and make us grateful. It’s just like the hymn that we sang earlier. There’s really no fancy style at the welcome table, because that’s not what it’s about. The real giving that I hope we all have the courage to engage in, this season comes from the heart.

I want to leave you with a gift idea that has been an incredible inspiration to me this year. It has taken a while for the value of this gift to sink in, but I think it is amazing. But this gem of a Christmas gift embodies the key of giving thanks, and giving help.

Rather than gift certificates or goodies, a couple of members of our congregation simply wrote letters to their love ones. I know that sounds easy, but this was no ordinary letter. This was a letter that described in detail why and how they loved their family members. They were letters written through tears, they were letters that changed some lives. The kind of letter that takes courage to write. That why I said I hope we all have the courage to engage in the sort of giving that comes from the heart this season. It’s not easy.

So as we go our ways into the world, as we experience gratitude for all that is our lives, I invite you to give something back. Give a little help, not just from your wallet, but from your heart. It takes courage, but you are generous people. I know you can do it.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sermon - In The Beginning

In The Beginning

Most of us know about the Christian story of God creating heaven and earth in seven days, and Adam and Eve and their travails.

But what about the time when out of the swirling chaotic waters, Atum willed himself into being, and then spat out a son, Shu, god of the air. Atum then vomited up a daughter, Tefnut, goddess of moisture. These two were charged with the task of creating order out of chaos. Shu and Tefnut generated Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. Or at least that’s the story of how it all began from an Egyptian perspective.

There are countless stories like these. Some are wonderfully fantastic, but they all answer one very basic question, “Where did we come from.” For time immemorial, human beings have offered up different stories of their beginning. We call them creation myths. Nearly every human society has one. And it is always a story, a rich story that can be passed down generation to generation. Remember most of these stories are ancient. They were told long before language was written. The story of where we come from had to be remembered and passed down, generation to generation.

Creation stories aren’t always understood literally. They aren’t seen as a detailed description of the way it all happened in a realistic way. But they are metaphors for the source of life, and the way a community understands itself. Creation myths hold profound truths for every society, including our own They tell the story of why things are the way they are, or more importantly, the way things should be.

In a minute, we will talk about the big bang, the Creation Myth that most of us adhere to, but for now, I thought it would be fun to look at a couple of other stories of the beginning of time.

For the Aztecs in Mexico, the Universe was born out of the earth mother. She’s called Coatlicue, or “skirt of snakes,” because that’s what she wore, a skirt of snakes. She also sports a necklace of human hearts, hands and skulls.

The story goes that Coatlicue was impregnated by an obsidian knife and gave birth to the goddess of the moon, and to 400 sons, who became the stars of the southern sky. Later, a ball of feathers fell from the sky and Coatlicue became pregnant again. But the moon goddess and her brothers turned against their mother because they were angry about her being pregnant again. They didn’t know that the child inside Coatlique, was the sun god, the god of war. When the time came, the sun god sprang from his mother's womb, fully-grown and armed to the teeth. He immediately attacked the moon goddess, and killed her. Cutting off her head, he flung it into the sky, where it became the moon.

The story goes on from there and the violence continues. We can only guess that the violence in that story has some relationship to the Aztecs use of human sacrifice in religious life. It’s a fascinating story and a far cry the garden of Eden and Noah’s Arc of the Old Testament. It’s a little violent for my taste. Strangely enough, most of the creation stories I cam across are really violent.

I think my favorite creation myth that I came across this week is from China. Of course we are talking about a huge area and many stories were told there, but this one is lovely. In the beginning, a cosmic egg floated within the timeless void. That one egg contained the opposing forces of yin and yang, light and dark, male and female. After eons of incubation, the first being, Pan-gu emerged from that egg. When the egg came apart, the heavy parts, the yin of the egg drifted downwards, forming the earth. The lighter parts, the yang rose to form the sky. Pan-gu, fearing the parts might get all mixed up and re-form the egg, or totally separate, so he stood upon the earth and held up the sky. As he held these two forces together yin and yang, he grew 10 feet per day for 18,000 years, until the sky was 30,000 miles high. When his work of holding the world together was completed, he finally died. When he died, Pan-gu’s body parts transformed into elements of the universe, the animals, weather phenomena, and celestial bodies. Some say the fleas on Pan-gu became the humans.
But this isn’t just a story. The cosmic notions of Yin and Yang presented here are one of the core concepts of Confuscianism, the teachings and social order that have been the underpinning of Chinese civilization for a couple thousand years. These stories stick with tremendous impact to their societies.

I love these stories. They always have a certain tension to them, and wonderful characters. There is almost always a balance of forces and some amount of conflict and triumph involved. But there isn’t just one creation story about the universe. There are billions of creation stories. We each have our own. We each came into this world in a particular way, in a mixture of pain and hope, struggle and light.

And just like the creation stories of the universe, these are stories that we can’t confirm first hand. Sure there is a birth certificate, but we certainly don’t remember what was happening the day we were born. What time of day was it? What kind of emotions flooded the room? What kind of joy emerged? What was the struggle? We have to take someone else’s word for what it was like. We get the story passed down to us.

And for some of us, there is no story passed down. For those who are adopted, or for some reason are separated from their family of origin, that story of creation is never told. And so we make one up. Speaking from my own experience, as an adopted child, when you don’t know the story of where you came from, you eventually make one up. This is too big of a question for the human psyche to leave blank. If there is no explanation provided, no story of creation, then we will patch together what little information we have to come up with some reason for our existence in the world.

We need a story, we need the story. But what I want to focus on today, is that there is a choice in how we tell them. We always have a choice in which version of the story we tell, or which pieces we emphasize. In that great cosmic tension is it the darkness of light that wins out. Do we remember the pain of delivering a baby, or the joy of new life in the world. Which story will we choose to remember? Because the story that we choose to remember, is the story that will shapes our future.

These creation stories, both the stories of how we came into the world as individuals, and the story of how the universe came into being are very powerful. It’s easy to see how for other cultures, their understanding of where they cam from influenced their experience of the world. The way they understood animals, and the cosmos, the way they understand themselves in relations to the earth each other. The stories get passed generation to generation. With each retelling they become more ingrained and they shape the way we understand the world. They are not just stories. They are myths that tell us why the world is the way it is. They are stories that shape our understanding of the way things are, and the way that things should be.

Even today, here and now, our understanding of creation impacts how we will respond to it.

There’s one more creation story. One that we are deeply invested in. It’s the Big Bang. It’s the story that shapes most of our awareness of the way the world is. So I want to tell you this story, in a couple of different versions.

Around 13.7 billion years ago, all that existed was a single dot, a fleck of energy. That speck was hotter and denser than anything we could possible imagine. For a very long time, it was so hot and so dense that particles actually collided with one another and destroyed each other. But eventually it started spreading and cooling.

As it spread out from that speck, and cooled down, the particles stopped destroying themselves from this constant collision and three different types of matter formed, dark matter, hot dark matter, and baryonic matter That’s the sort of stuff we would understand for the periodic table of elements.

As the universe cooled, the three types of matter started to emerge. Most of the universe consists of cold dark matter. Anything that we would understand as matter, the “stuff” of the universe, makes up less than 18% of what is out there. And as most of the universe is made up of cold dark matter, so too, it is dominated by a mysterious form of energy known as dark energy. It permeates everything.

Since the Big Bang, the moment the universe started to expand, it has continued expanding. But it cannot expand forever. Everything has its limits. Some say that once it reaches its maximum size, it will begin to collapse in on itself again, ending in the opposite of the big bang, which would be a Big Crunch. Or perhaps it will just keep spreading out and cooling down as stars burn out and black holes consume all the matter and it all ends in a Big Freeze. But those scientists who are interested in dark energy, you know that mysterious force that makes up the vast majority of the universe, They think that as the universe spreads farther and farther apart, that galaxies and eventually particles of matter themselves will be pulled apart, so that everything, every piece of matter is ripped into nothing. They call it the Big Rip.

That’s one version of the Big Bang, one version of the way that we can understand the world around us. It’s dominated by a dark mysterious force and one day will be crunched, frozen or ripped into oblivion. That’s a very real summation of the scientific understanding of the Big Bang theory. But it’s not all that inspiring.

Fortunately, there is another version of that story. A version that I hope we can celebrate, a version that we can share in worship.

This story also starts out with a single speck. It’s a speck of energy and of matter that would be the source of everything we know. No-one knows where that speck came from, we only know that it once was there, a speck holding within itself the seed of all the energy and matter of the universe.

In the speck were two competing forces. On one hand particles began to clump together to form matter. On the other hand, they were so hot and so fast that these clumps just destroyed each other. But through a mysterious anomaly, eventually the clumps of matter found a way to stick together and not be destroyed . As that matter formed, a tremendous force pull the particles to one another, attracing them into larger and denser groups. That wonderful attraction pulled matter into stars and planets and all of the things that we can see today.

Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space.

(Follow is adapted from Robert T. Weston)

Out of the stars have we come,
up from time.
Time out of time before time in the vastness of space, earth spun to orbit the sun,
Earth with the thunder of mountains newborn,
the boiling seas.
Earth warmed by sun, lit by sunlight;
This is our home;
Out of the stars have we come.

Mystery hidden in mystery, back through all time;
Mystery rising from rocks in the storm of the sea.

Out of the stars, rising from rocks and the sea,
Out of the sea to the land, out of the shallows came ferns.

Out of the sea to the land, up from darkness to light.
Rising to walk and to fly,
Out of the sea trembled life.

Life up from sea:
Eyes to behold, throats to sing, mates to love.

Life from the sea, warmed by sun, washed by rain,
Life from within giving birth rose to love.

This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love.

This is the marvel of creation, rising to see and to know;
What a wonder that we live!

Our past creates our future, our foundation sets the possibility for growth. So I ask you as we close our time together, what story of this creation will you tell. What will motivate your life and our shared future? A story of darkness and eventual anhialation, or will you choose to believe in and participate in a story that creates life? The choice is yours. How will you tell the story?

Monday, November 1, 2010

November Newsletter Column

Today I was driving on Pacific Coast Highway to a meeting at another church. When out of the blue, the woman driving next to me failed to notice that her lane was ending. Rather than attempting to yield and get behind me, she decided to accelerate, to squeeze in front of me and make me slow down to let her in. Well, I was running late, I was angry. Before I knew it, I was gesticulating like a fool, and lets just say neither my tone of voice, nor my language respected her inherent worth and dignity.

A few miles later I arrived at my destination, still angry, huffing really. As I walked in, my car betrayed me. The peace-sign bumper-sticker nearly leapt out and slapped me across the face. I had to laugh at myself. How often do we not live up to our best selves? It’s a great comfort to know that even when we don’t live up to our ideals, there’s still a community that embraces us.

A few weeks ago, we showed a wonderful film at the Fellowship about some of the intense challenges of parenting in the 21st Century. Most of the people attending were from the wider community, but a few of our members were there. After the film there was this moment of relief, a moment when parents could admit to one another how overwhelming, difficult and frustrating parenting can be. And how they knew they had made some mistakes. All those things that parents aren’t supposed to talk about were suddenly no longer taboo.

My driving experience, and that window of parents supporting one another reminded me of something. It is crucial that we have a place to come not only in our glory, but also in our failures. No one is perfect. Our congregation, like many, has some of the most accomplished and educated people around. You all amaze me. But we are all human. We all have hurts; we all make mistakes. To build real community, the kind of community that we each long for, we have to build it with our whole selves, one beautiful and flawed person at a time.


Sermon - "Remembering the Good Things"

“Remembering the Good Things”

All this talk of altars and being visited by spirits may seem a little odd in our UU church. But, it’s not completely outside of our own history. In the 1800s a handful of Universalists called spiritualists, were holding séances to commune with the dead. Spiritualism offered an incredibly strong attraction for some people for several different reasons. But people were especially attracted to it, because for them, communicating with the dead was a way of proving immortality.
Spiritualism sounds pretty out there, even on Halloween. But in a fascinating way, many practitioners understood spiritualism as a continuation of scientific discovery. Spiritualism coincided with the growing belief in the power of science to uncover all truths. And that’s how Spiritualism became a part of our history. It sought broader ways to understand the natural laws of the universe.
So we have our very own history of believing in the continued presence of the spirits of the dead. I’m not so keen on Spiritualism and séances. But, I will stand solid and say with all the conviction in my being that they are still with us. The dead are still with us in a profound way.
I call them the “Great Cloud of Witnesses.” You can call them what you will. But the fact remains that our lives are profoundly influence by those who have come before us. As we sang earlier, we are a grandmothers’ prayers and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings. We are the breath of the ancestors, and they are still with us.

I think I like calling them the “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” because it’s, well it’s foggy. Like naming shapes of the clouds in the sky, having a relationship with our ancestors can mean different things to different people. Undoubtedly as we have named out loved ones who have died, their continued presence in our lives means different things to different people in this room. It’s foggy, but their continued presence is real.

I also like the concepts of a great cloud of witnesses because it’s sort of a mysterious mass. There are those amazing historical figures that we know about, some whose dreams we hope to live up to. There are the saints, the heroes and heroines that inspire us. And then there are the real regular old folks who have touched and shaped our lives. They were inspiring, they are inspiring, but they are not perfect. Perhaps we learn most of all from their flaws.

As we celebrate those good things about our loved ones who have died, it’s not to say they were all perfect. They weren’t; no one is. That is after all why in Catholic tradition they split the two different days. One is for remembering the Saints, in all their inspiring perfection. And the second day, All Souls Day, is for remembering all the real people in our lives that we have loved.

We celebrate both here today, and both have a place in our hearts. But personally, I have to say more interested in real people than I am in saints. Saints are perfect, they are washed clean of any complexity or any challenge. Saints are pious and pure. They are something that we will never be.

We know saints through books, and marble and stone. I’m more interested in the messiness of real men and women, who have lived real lives of struggle and love, real lives that offer us hope, not a perfect future, but hope that we too will live on in the hearts of humanity.
That’s the way I remember the people I have lost, as complete souls. My grandmother was a deeply compassionate person. She was also a real person. When upset, she could let flow a string of obscenities that would make a sailor blush. And she was always, always fun. She taught me to roller-skate on my parents’ hard-wood floors. Round and round the house I would go, of course only when my parents were gone and grandma was babysitting.
And my grandfather was a good man to his family. He was kind, and funny. Unfortunately, his world-view was defined by his Southern background. His bigotry was ugly and undoubtedly hurtful. But he was a man who cared so deeply for his own children, and grandchildren. They were beautiful people, not saints by any means, but beautiful people that inspire my life.

There are so many euphemisms, so many artistic expressions, and different cultural celebrations and explanations to deal with the final mystery of death. As critical thinkers, we Unitarian Universalists have an unfortunate tendency to squash mysteries. We label them, and dissect them, and explain them as clearly as possible.

But, death is one mystery that we uphold well. If you have been around this church for long, you know that as Unitarian Universalists we perform memorial services, not funerals. We set aside special time for the community to come together to celebrate a life and share stories. We also share our pain and comfort one another as best as we can. Naming ten good things is a wonderful way to remember a cat or a person. On the one hand, and certainly in the beginning, it’s a time to say what you will miss, a time of loss. But remembering the good things is also a time to celebrate that person. Remembering the good things is a time to give thanks for having him or her in our lives.

For Unitarian Universalists, there is no one answer given in the face of death. No one answer is enough. However each of us, through sharing with one another come to make our own meaning out of death. In time we parse out what final gifts we have received and in turn pass them on to the world.

We, the living, carry out the tremendous task of lifting up the souls of those we have loved. We remember their names, and their lives. And we carry on our way with what we have learned from them.
Our faith tradition answers the question of mortality not with quick reassurance of an after-life. Certainly we hold the possibility open. But always the focus is on life, this life, the life that we are certain of. For Unitarian Universalists, accepting death is a part of what makes life more beautiful. Life is not a given – not something to be taken for granted, or transcended after death. Life is a gift, an undeserved and unexpected, holy, awesome and mysterious gift.

It is our task, as people of faith to appreciate that gift for the awesome thing that it is, and to appreciate the gift of other lives that interweave with our own. The gift, you see, is not only in our own lives, but in the brilliant tapestry of lives that interweave to inform each other. Today, as we remember the great gift of so many lives that have come and gone, that touched our hearts, let us be reminded of the holy gift of our own lives.
After all, the best way to remember the dead, is for us to live our lives well, always know that a great cloud of witnesses accompanies us on the journey.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sermon: Self Reliance of Social Reform

Two of our leading Unitarians lived at the same moment in history. They were both radicals. Their sermons actually shaped Unitarianism as we know it today. They looked at the world in similar ways, but there was one big difference. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most important thing in the world was an individual’s inner drive and commitment to his or her own motivations. Personal moral development would be the saving grace of American society and eventually humanity according to Emerson.

The other man I’m talking about you may not be as familiar with, Theodore Parker. But I assure you, his influence runs just as deep, in both Unitarianism and in American thought. Parker was a radical abolitionist and social reformer. Her believed that changing laws and institutions was a crucial step for people to lead more meaningful lives.

One man believed it was up to the heart of each person, the other believed in building institutions to support those most in need. Fortunately today, we know both are necessary.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a pillar of Unitarian Universalist thought primarily for his wonderful insights into the human connection with the natural world and the ability to find inspiration in all sorts of encounters. He was a champion of individualism. He railed against the pressures of society that encouraged conformity and sameness. Not only was he brilliant, but people actually wanted to hear what he had to say, and they paid for it. Emerson delivered over 1500 lectures across the country. Many to sold out audiences.

Like the other progressive Unitarians of his time, Emerson came to speak out against slavery. In a lecture in Washington DC in 1862 Emerson said "The South calls slavery an institution... I call it destitution... Emancipation is the demand of civilization".

As I said, Emerson spoke out against slavery. But he opposed it not so much as an institution, but as a corruption of the freedom of individuals. Always, Emerson was more interested in what occurred in the heart of a person than in the halls of governments. It was the person and his or her will, curiosity, courage, exploration and development that enchanted Emerson. He was America’s champion of the individual.

But there is a shadow side to Emerson’s focus on individualism. As we are captivated by his prose and his ideas, we forget that Emerson was also a harsh critic of those who did not seem to have the personal drive and inner spirit that he proclaimed. In fact Emerson derided the poor and the destitute. He thought they were essentially lazy, and victims of their own actions.

One of Emerson’s most famous essays is called “Self Reliance.” That should be a clue. It’s read far and wide because it is a major summation of his ideas. One of the paragraphs starts with these words. “Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him.”

For all of Emerson’s personal depth and soul searching, he didn’t care about creating a safety net for those most in need. He believed that personal moral development would be the saving grace of American society and eventually humanity. But an individual without that drive, or without the resources to engage his or her potential, was a drain on society and nothing more.

Surprisingly, one of his contemporaries, Theodore Parker, was so connected with the institutions of society, that he often overlooked the value of individuals. We know him mostly as an abolitionist, but Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral degradation of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor. He advocated for institutional change to address all of these causes, even as they were cutting edge concepts in the 1800s.
Parker was a powerful advocate for changing institutions. He believed that our country and our world could be improved, if only we set up the right systems to care for people, especially those most in need. But Parker also had his blind spot.

Yes, Parker believed that all men had the God-given right to be free. But he also believed the white race was superior to all other races. And herein lies the paradox of Theodore Parker’s thinking:
He said that whites had nothing to fear from Black slaves if they were set free. Because, he said, they were childlike, docile, and unintelligent. He said worse things about the Mexican population. Although he was against the Mexican American war, he described the Mexicans as “A wretched people; wretched in their origin, history, character, who must eventually give way as the Indians did.”

Those words alone are disgusting. But to know that they came from one of our country’s leading abolitionists is simply bizarre. The only thing I can figure, is that Theodore Parker was so consumed with transforming institutions, that he never saw or understood the individuals involved. It’s the opposite of Emerson’s challenge. Emerson was so absorbed with the moral development of the individual, that he failed to see that a healthy society needs institutions to help those most in need, those who don’t have the ability or resources to strike out on their own path of self improvement.

So can we legislate morality? Can we set up institutions to make people better, or is it up to each person to set his or her own course for individual advancement? Well, as
is usually the answer to my sermons, the answer is both. We must build healthy institutions, and we must do it as engaged individuals.

…This is not only a historical question. The disparity between institutional change and the hearts and minds of individuals has raised its head in a very ugly way this past month. Even as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people experience unprecedented freedoms and rights in our country, the evil of homophobia remains anchored in the hearts of individuals. As you probably know, this past month a shocking number of your people have killed themselves, as a reaction to anti-gay bullying in their schools. As state by state gays and lesbians gain access to equal marriage, young people, very young people, are killing themselves because the humiliation that they face is unlivable. And this phenomenon is rising.

And of course the same is true for the rights of Blacks. With a Black president and countless regulations in public and private institutions to ensure that race is not a factor in opportunities for advancement, the evil or racism still rests in the hearts of many individuals. I’ll never forget hearing from my own uncle say that while he like Barrack Obama, he would never, could never vote for a black president. And that’s about as banal of an example of racism and I can give. The real fear and race-based hatred that persists in our hearts is beyond what I can begin to describe.

As we so heartily sang in our opening hymn, We’ll build a land, where sisters and brothers, anointed by God, may then create peace: where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.

We will build a land, together, a better land. I have no doubt about that. But to build that land together, we cannot forget that the heart and mind are the center of human experience. If those things fail to change, then little else will. But also, as we develop our own moral compass and our own well of spiritual truth, we must go beyond ourselves to build institutions that support those most in need.

Not only are we called to develop our own moral compass, and to build institutions of justice. And we are called to bring the one to bear upon the other. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in the political process for it to be effective.

It is unavoidable in some ways with election season. It’s in every newspaper and seems like it will soon be in every television commercial break. The flurry of election time can be frankly annoying. But take it seriously. I promise, that taking your vote seriously and informing yourself about the issues, will make you happier. Even if your issue looses you will have engaged it. And we all know it’s better to put up a good struggle than to flop over in forfeit.

Exercise your vote and talk about it with your friends. More importantly, talk about it with your children. They need to see you vote. Let them help you fill out your absentee ballot or take them with you to the polling center if you can. If you can’t do that, be sure to tell them that that was one of your chores for the day. Rarely do I tell parents how to do there job, but this one I’m sure of. Show your children how important this is to you, and tell them why. Because your vote affects the lives of real people and our planet.

If you have not register to vote, or if you have moved and need to re-register, Jean Raun will be outside after the service with voter registration forms for you to fill out. And if you are baffled by the array of options on the ballot with nine different propositions, come learn about them. Saturday October 16th 9:30 Social Action Committee and League of Women Voters will have a forum to tell anyone interested about the pros and cons on each one of them. With this many things on the ballot it is very confusing and very important.

I want to wrap up by explaining that this is not just a history lesson about Unitarian abolitionists, or a lecture about exercising your vote. It is a sermon. I first came to this topic about the balance between individuals and institutions thinking about church. In particular, and this is something that I think about quite a bit, I was thinking of the peculiar strain of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

I recently heard the conversion story of one of my ministerial colleagues. Before life as a minister she was a lawyer who described herself as spiritual, but not religious. She believed that one could worship as well under a tree as they could at church. Until she went to church one day with a friend, and realized that she hadn’t been spending much time under trees worshiping. In fact, her self-definition as spiritual but not religious was in fact not religious, but the only actively spiritual aspect of her life was occasionally reading a novel that contained some vaguely spiritual phenomenon.

Just like in the political world, the answer is both. Cultivating our own moral compass and spiritual life is the responsibility of every individual. But so to, we build an institution, we build this institution to help us along that path, and to help others in need. It’s a both/and sort of thing.

I heard another short story from that same colleague, the formerly spiritual but not religious minister. It’s the story of a child. One Sunday morning her 5 year was tired and cranky and pleaded with Mom, the question that I’m sure many parents dread. “Mom, why do we have to go to church?” “Why do we have to go to church?” And in a moment of inspiration, or perhaps exhausted delusions, she said, “We have to go to church to grow our hearts.”

We have to go to church to grow our hearts. Let us be about the business of growing our hearts here. And let us be about the business of building an institution that reaches out with a loving embrace to all who need it.


Monday, September 27, 2010

"The Only Way Out Is Through"

Throughout the month of September we have been talking about vision in different ways here at the Fellowship. When we celebrated our water communion and built a common spiritual well, we gained a deeper understanding of the shared vision of our community. Last week, we talked about the keeping a vision of hope for the future and how often the smallest moments of our lives are sources for profound inspiration. This week, we talk about vision in a different way. This week we explore the gift and challenge of focusing on the present moment. Because if we can focus on this moment, the here and now, we can face our challenges one step at a time.

The title of this morning’s worship service, “The Only Way Out Is Through,” I knew only as a witty phrase that reminded me of Buddhist principles. And it still does, we will get into what the Buddha taught later. But in my preparation, I found that the quote, “The only way out is through,” comes from a poem by Robert Frost. It’s called “A Servant to Servants.”

The poem is far too long to share in our worship service. But I want to share with you what it is about. It is the mental meanderings of an over worked and under-stimulated farm wife. She’s having an imaginary conversation with some free-spirited campers who have landed on the farm. Of course she sees them from her only vantage point on the world: the kitchen window. She’s envious of them and angry that her life is reduced to taking care of loutish farmhands, while her husband runs all over the place. But eventually she gets to the point of seeing that the only way through this life, is to deal head on with what life hands you, and make the best of it.

It’s a pretty universal theme ­ girding yourself to get through what life has to offer you. In this poem we hear the heartfelt yearnings of a board farm wife, wondering what a more adventurous life might have been like. Finally, she comes to realize that most likely, if she were with those free-spirited campers on her farm, she would grow tired of sleeping on the ground, and board with that lifestyle.

The only way out is through. The only way to get through life and get anything out of it is to engage it head on. I think this is a wonderful message, a very Buddhist message, but some may think it an easy answer. If your life is easy, of course you would say, dive in and embrace it. Well, that’s not quite the vantage point hat Robert Frost was writing from. Rather than boredom of the farm, Frost’s life was rattled with challenges.

Here was a man with a childhood so disrupted by his father's drinking and gambling that he was too nervous to attend school till the fifth grade. When Frost was 11, his father died of tuberculosis, leaving the family with just $8. Subsequently he had to put his sister in a mental institution where she eventually died. And, his own children were a lineage of tragedy. One died just after child birth, one died of cholera and yet another committed suicide. His wife died 25 years before him and he gradually grew blind ­ too blind to read the poem prepared for Kennedy’s inauguration so he recited "A Gift Outright" from memory.

I guess I point all of that out to say that if anyone has the backing to be able to say those words, “The only way out is through,” it’s him. Certainly the only way to survive that sort of repeated trauma is to take it one day at a time. And perhaps the only way to survive the cruelly boring domestic life of this mythical farm wife is one day at a time. The only way out is through.

All of that talk of one day at a time may sound familiar to a few of you. It is a bit of a mantra in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs. For many people it’s a life saving mantra. In the midst of recovery, a period that is filled with regret for the past and concerns about the future, the only way to not be overwhelmed is to take one day at a time and focus on the present moment.

But there’s another essential piece to 12 step programs that resonates with the idea that the only way out is through. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and addiction that has overtaken your life. Only when you recognize and admit that you have a problem, can you go about addressing it and moving forward with your life. But you have to start with that moment of confrontation. You have to admit that there is a problem to begin with.
But admitting you have a problem isn’t just about being an addict. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, a necessary step to dealing with any of life’s challenges. Admitting you are scared or angry or hurt, or in danger, whatever the moment presents, admitting what you face is a crucial piece of coming through it.
I say admitting, as if it’s about making some public confession. That is the case for AA programs. That’s what that whole introduction that we know about is. Hi my name is _____ and I’m an alcoholic. It’s about naming your problem publicly. But admitting you have a challenge begins with yourself. Knowing yourself, knowing how you are feeling, and acknowledging that feeling. Admitting to yourself that you are hurt or scared, admitting to yourself the way you feel can be just as terrifying and just as important as making a public confession.

I mentioned that believing that the only way out is through is reminiscent of Buddhist thought. It actually is in several ways, more ways than I can describe in one sermon. But we’ll take a stab at it. You may know at the foundation of Buddhist thought is the Four Noble Truths. This was the great realization that Buddha had when he reached enlightenment under the Bohdi Tree.
The first Noble Truth is that “life is suffering.” At least that’s the way it is usually translated. Life is suffering. From the time we come into the world we are always longing for more. We experience pain sickness and death. Even as we enjoy things, there is a knowledge that they are for a limited time or quantity. We are never satisfied.
In fact, a better translation of this First Noble Truth that is “all life is dissatisfaction.” The Buddha wasn’t a complete pessimist, saying that life is just pain and suffering. It’s not that dramatic. But the essential experience of life is dissatisfaction. We always want something more or something different. We attach ourselves to something other than what we have or what we feel.

Which brings me to the Second Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is that the root of suffering, or dissatisfaction as I prefer to call it, is attachment. Life is suffering because of attachment. We get attached to material things that are fleeting. We also get attached to disappointments of the past, or anxieties of the future. We are attached to the way things could have been, or the way we didn’t quite make the mark that one time. We even get absorbed in how wonderful life used to be. We get attached to what is not here and now, and we long for a different experience. And thus we are dissatisfied.

The challenge within the Buddhist framework, and I think the challenge in all of our lives is to be aware of your mind in the present moment. Are you focused on the past or future, or maybe some other place? Or is you mind present in the here and now? That is the primary goal of Buddhist practice, to live in the present moment, free of attachments that only bring dissatisfaction. It’s a big challenge if you take it seriously.

That is where the practice of meditation comes in. That is the stereotype of the Buddhist, or at least the first thing that comes to my mind, the meditating monk or the Buddha. That’s because meditation is a central practice of Buddhism. And it is also the one spiritual practice that I do on a regular basis.

For ten to fifteen minutes I sit and breath. I know it sounds easy; anyone can breath for ten minutes. But I don’t just sit there. I focus on each breath, each inhale and each exhale in the very moment that they occur. In and out, one at a time. Only breath, only that moment. That’s a very hard thing to do for fifteen minutes. Your mind goes in 50 different directions, wondering what’s for dinner, what time is it, am I doing this right, did I remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
But your breath is always there, in and out, to help refocus on the moment. In and out, one at a time. Only breath, only that moment. It’s a wonderfully helpful experience in my life. I don’t meditate as often as I would like to, but I do do it when I can.

So the first challenge in Buddhism is to focus your mind and heart on the present moment. And then, once you are there in the present moment, you tap into compassion and joy.
The Buddha taught endlessly about compassion for other living beings, and compassion for yourself. Without diving too far into it, the root of that compassion comes from a recognition of interconnectedness. I can feel compassion for other people’s suffering, because I know my own experiences of suffering. As Unitarian Universalists, we talk about it as the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. For most of us that’s a reference to ecological concerns. But it’s also a central theme in Buddhist thought. In the core of our being, we are interdependent, so much so that our identity, our self is blurred with the rest of creation… Okay I’m getting carried away.

Suffice it to say that compassion is a key component of Buddhism, and the root of that compassion is an understanding and embracing of our interconnectedness. And compassion is a multilayered thing. We must have compassion for ourselves, in our times of challenge. And we have compassion for those who are close to us. After all we know some of their pains like we know our own. And then compassion gets a bit more complicated as we stretch to feel compassion for people we don’t know. After all, they too must have disappointments, dissatisfaction occurring in their lives. But we are called to extend compassion to them. And finally, perhaps most difficult, where is the compassion in our hearts for our adversaries, the people who have done us harm? Can you feel compassion for them?

This is one of the most powerful pieces of meditation in Buddhist practice. It’s actually reflected in both of the hymns that we are singing today. We can cultivate a sense of compassion in ourselves, we can stretch our hearts, if we just take a little time to do it. Start with yourself, identifying a dissatisfaction or frustration, and feel compassion in your heart. No one wants to hurt, and you know that. Just hold yourself in compassion. Then extend that compassion toward someone you know and love. Maybe someone in your family facing a challenge, or even someone here. Next, imagine someone you don’t know well, perhaps the grocery store clerk or a waiter at a restaurant that you frequent. Holding that person in your thoughts, know that they too have struggles and disappointments. Hold them in compassion. And finally, and sometimes this is not possible, but if you can, who are you angry with? Who has hurt you? See if you can hold that person in your heart, knowing that he or she also experiences disappointment, dissatisfaction. Maybe, just maybe they have hurt you as a response to their own disappointment.

Those two practices, meditation to center on the moment, and the practice of extending a feeling of compassion beyond yourself are pretty much the core of Buddhist religious life. Usually when we talk about religious diversity, we tend to talk about religions, like Christianity, Islam, Hundism, Jainism, groups of people that believe a certain thing. But we should be careful about how we lump people together. For most Buddhists, their tradition is a practice, rather than a religion. You may hear people describing themselves as Buddhist practicioners. The key isn’t what you believe about metaphysics, it’s how you live your life in the present moment. It is sort of like Unitarian Universalism; what you believe is not as important as how you life your life. And in Buddhist life, two key practices are meditation and stretching your heart to embrace wider and wider circles of compassion.

Buddhism is largely a practice, like a sport or an intellectual endeavor, it takes practice and time, lots and lots of time. And eventually you land in the here and now. You come to realize that this life is full of struggles and dissatisfaction. But, if you take what life offers you, and live it out in this moment, it is possible to find joy there.

Whether you are a Buddhist practitioner or a discontented farm wife from Robert Frost’s imagination, or even an every day resident of Southern California, with hopes and desires unfulfilled, and maybe a few regrets, the only way out is through. As Frosts farm wife puts it, “I 'spose I've got to go the road I'm going.” The only way out of a struggle is through it. The only way to live this life is one day at a time, with as much compassion as our hearts will allow.