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.