Monday, December 26, 2011

Sermon - "Sharing the Light"

For Christians around the world, Jesus means a great many different things. And of course Christmas means a great many different things. For some, it’s a time to celebrate the birth of a savior. For most Unitarian Universalists, it’s a holiday of light in the cold dark winter. And it’s a time to celebrate the birth of a great spiritual teacher named Jesus.

But tonight, I want us as Unitarian Universalists to dive into the Christmas story in a deeper way. I want to dive into what it means for God to be born into a human body, in a cold dark time of year, born to an unsuspecting mother, a traveler in a foreign land without a proper place to stay for the night.

Every year when Christmas roles around and I begin to work on this particular homily I’m reminded of how rich and powerful this story is. The story of the birth itself is amazing and reminds us of the hope that rests in every single child born. But the piece of the story that I want to focus on tonight, is that God chose to be born this way. In the Christian tradition, God’s greatest gift to the world is Jesus Christ. He could have come at any time, to any person, glorious or humble. But he chose a cold dark night, and a young unwed migrant mother.

I’m not asking you to accept the details of the story. I am asking you to sit with me, and wonder what it means for the greatest gift to the world, to be born as human, fragile, vulnerable, in the cold dark night?

The power of this story is in its unlikely nature. One possibility is to point to all those details and be wowed my miracles. Another possibility is to be wowed by the simplicity. An unwed mother, travelers in a foreign land, few resources, sleeping in a stable on a cold night. All of these pieces that point to miracle, also point to the humble, to the earthly, the human.

It reminds me that the greatest gift that we can give is our humanity. The most precious thing we have to offer is the messy, humble, real humanity that rests in each of our hearts.

Just like you, I went to a few different holiday events this year. But one stands out in my mind as something special, something embodying Christmas in a special way. It was the pot-luck held at the Morris’ home. It wasn’t special in the way you might think. It had little to do with the food or decorations. It was special because of the pieces of humanity that were shared that evening. I talked with people about mental illness in the family, I talked with people about the struggle and hope to create a new life as a spouse fades in old age. I talked about the joys of parenting and the difficulty of navigating holidays after a divorce. And I was touched most of all by hearing one of our members say that this community is the only place in his life that he really feels accepted.

It’s no secret that the Morris’ have a lovely home and they throw a great party. There was plenty of food and wine. The Christmas carols were amazing. But something about this party resonated with me in a whole new way. I encountered people offering the gift of their genuine self. It was beautiful and I felt incredibly blessed to receive what was offered there.

These are the Christmas gifts that I’m interested in this year. This is the kind of giving that resonates when I hear the Christmas story. God so loved the world that he became born in flesh and blood of an infant child, to an unwed mother in a foreign land. He so loved the world that he offered the most sacred thing of all, he offered the gift of vulnerability.

You see giving the gift of ourselves is sort of like choosing what dishes to serve your guests on for dinner. Just go with me for a minute on this one. There is a choice to be made when you have gusts for dinner. Do you want to use the everyday cereal bowl… the one that you used this morning perhaps, or do you want to use the good china. It’s a choice that we make, if not with our dishes, then with our hearts. Do we want to pull out the valuable stuff, maybe dust it off, and offer something really special to the people who have gathered near. Or do we want to use the same old every-day stuff, the stuff that isn’t so rare, the stuff that’s much sturdier.

It’s true that we don’t get the most precious pieces of ourselves out all the time for every occasion. If we did that, they would be chipped and worn, and there would be hardly anything left worth enjoying about them. But if we don’t pull that nice china down from the cabinet every once in a while, if we keep our true selves hidden away, sure, they will be protected. They will sit there, safely in the dark. And they will never be enjoyed for the beauty that they hold.

If ever there is a time to pull out the special stuff and offer it to loved ones, it is Christmas. This is the season of giving, but this year I challenge you to give something more than boxes or bags. I challenge you to offer a little piece of your self, a piece of your heart, to the safekeeping of another person in your life. Because the real stuff that makes you human, the doubts and anxieties, the hopes and dreams, the mistakes, the joys, all of that messy stuff that makes us human, is the best gift of all.

This night, we gather to celebrate the story of the birth of a child. But it’s not just any birth. This is the story of how God chose to be born on earth in the form of all that is messy, all that is vulnerable and week and in need of support. This is the story of all that is good and beautiful becoming embodied in humanity. It’s that same beauty and goodness that finds expression in our messy lives. Our questions, our foibles, and joys and fears. They are the best stuff about us, and they are the best gift that we can share with one another if we choose to.

In a moment we will pass the light from candle to candle. As we do, as the room fills with a warm glow, I want you to remember that this light is beautiful, but it is only a symbol for the real gifts that we could share with one another. Unlike the material gifts that are sitting at home under the tree, the gift of our hearts is something that actually grows when we share it. Just like the candle flame that we share. Offering our genuine selves to one another is a gift that we can both give away and keep for ourselves.

The words of a lovely Christmas song sum up this idea. It’s called “Be a Candle of Hope.” The song says “Be a candle of hope, be a candle of light, a beacon of truth in a dark hopeless night. Share the light with a friend and watch the flame grow. The more light we give, the more love we’ll know. When you light another candle, you keep your light but give it away. Yet the flame grows even brighter as the darkness turns into day.”

As we move into the candle lighting and closing hymn, I want to send you with a challenge this holiday. I challenge you to let the best give you give this Christmas season not to be something that comes out of a box or a bag. Let the best thing that you give this Christmas season be a piece of your heart.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Sermon - "Hope in the Darkness" - Advent

The past week here has been glorious. It’s the perfect California winter weather. I love it, and I try not to talk too much about it to people who don’t live here. Wearing a T-shirt at the beach in mid December simply can’t be beat. I love it, and yet still somehow, I miss the sunshine. Still, in the midst of this winter paradise the days feel short now. The nights are so long. Darkness is a bigger part of our lives.

And somehow it always surprises me. Around Thanksgiving I start to feel a little down. I want to spend more time at home alone. I want to slow down. And every year it takes at least a week to realize. Oh yeah. There’s a reason for this feeling. It has little to do with me, or the people in my life. It has everything to do with the rhythm of nature.

This is a time of darkness in the Northern Hemisphere. It always has been and it always will be. It’s a time of darkness, and a time of hoping for more light. Hoping for something new. Maybe you have a simple wish for our personal lives, maybe a revolutionary vision of how Love will save the world. But it’s a time of hoping.

As you may know we have a monthly theme for our worship services here at UUFLB. It’s no coincidence that the theme for worship in December is hope. For many of us, Christmas and other holidays are a time of hope. But there’s more to it than that. During this dark month of December, we celebrate hope like a light in the night. You see hope always has a sense of longing to it, there’s something to be gained, some improvement needed. There is no hope in a perfect world.

Just last week we were talking about how for many people’s hope came in a sense of a promised land, a far off place that might offer a better life one day. You see hope isn’t wrapping up all your problems in a pretty package with a bow. It’s not the conviction that everything is perfect, or even that it will be perfect. Hope is not satisfaction, it’s longing. Just like a candle doesn’t have the same illuminating effect in the daytime, our sense of hope finds expression in the dark times, the challenges of life.

The Christians knew all of this when the developed the season of Christmas. Particularly when they developed Advent, which we are celebrating today.
Advent isn’t something that we don’t do much of in Unitarian Universalist churches. So I did a little research and I had a very helpful conversation with Rev. Elizabeth Recther at St. Mary’s. They are after Episcopalian and they take their ritual very seriously after all. What she said jives with what I know about Christian history, and really makes sense.

The first Christian holiday was Easter. By the time of Jesus’ death, there were enough followers for the community to already begin building at that moment. They knew when Jesus died. And they knew when the resurrection occurred. So, from the very beginning, Christians celebrated Easter. It was their one big holiday. Of course in Christian tradition, Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, and the promise of salvation for human kind. It is the main event.
Not long after they began celebrating Easter, some church leaders realized, well we can’t just celebrate salvation. We have to have some preparation, something leading up to it. So they began celebrating Lent for 40 days. Lent was a time of making atonement for sins. A time for fasting and purification. A time to prepare for the celebration of salvation.

Now Christmas and Advent are a different, but related story. It’s no secret that Christmas grew out of a pagan holiday. Most Christians freely admit to that today, at least the ones who take history seriously. The December 25th for Christmas date is based on the Roman winter solstice celebration. And the Christians came along and said, we have as Son that we worship too. So in the early 4th Century as Christianity was sweeping the Roman Empire, the Western Christian Church first placed Christmas on December 25. The Eastern Church followed shortly after. Over much of the word, December 25th became recognized as Jesus’ birthday. And they all celebrated the joyous occasion. Then they realized, like Easter, you can’t just jump into the celebration, you need some time to warm up to it. But Christmas and Easter are different holidays with different meaning. Christmas isn’t so much about salvation as it is about joy at the birth of Jesus. So the time of preparation for Christmas, Advent, was created to be a season of hope and anticipation. The Christians knew that to fully experience joy, we need to spend some time preparing our hearts with anticipation. So advent is a season of resting with that anticipation, longing, hoping, for a better world.

There are a lot of different symbols for hope of advent. The one we have here today is an advent wreath. The blue candles are lit on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. The pink candle is lit the Sunday most immediately proceeding Christmas to represent Mary. And the white candle in the center is lit on Christmas day and represents Christ.
And there are advent calendars. Now many of them for children have a little piece of candy or charm that they get to open, one section for each day. And there is special liturgy selected for the season. And the colors of the church change to blue.
There is a lot of powerful symbolism and ritual in the Christian church. They use those symbols well to embrace this period of darkness and waiting for the embodiment of hope. And there’s a certain power in waiting. It’s certainly not something that we celebrate much in our culture today. Patience. Maybe we need a 21st century metaphor for the importance of Advent. How about this, preparing for Christmas and the New Year, this season of hope, is like charging your cel phone. You can’t just plug it in, then take it out and go. You have to wait for the power to build up. To be filled. It takes time to charge a phone, and it takes time to prepare our hearts for the turning of the year.

So here we are, waiting in the darkness and hoping. But waiting doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you don’t know what you are waiting for. As Unitarian Universalists, we are not waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ the savior of the world. I have a proposal of what we may be waiting for as a faith community. Rev. Mike Moran in Denver has created a list of things that he thinks compose a core Unitarian Universalist theology. I’ve decided I’ll be preaching on all of them this Summer. But today, in our season of waiting, our season of hope, I want to share with you one of those ideas of UU belief. It is a belief that “Courageous love will transform the world.” Like any good theological statement it is both vague and exact. Courageous love will transform the world.

It’s exact in the certitude of the statement and in the future orientation. Courageous love WILL transform the world. It is a statement of faith. Saying that any one particular thing will happen with certainty is a bold statement. And saying that it will happen to the entire world goes far beyond the normal sort of prediction.

What is also specific in this statement is the nature of the love that will bring about this force. Courageous love. Not simple or sweet love, or easy love. But courageous love. Love that risks being hurt, love that is willing to be a minority opinion, love that may not be easy to explain. Courageous love is the kind of love that has the power to make this revolutionary change.
And like any good theological statement it also has a high degree of ambiguity. He doesn’t tell us what love will change the world. He doesn’t say that love for the environment will help us turn back from a path of environmental destruction. He doesn’t say that love for our human brothers and sisters will lead us to caring more about everyone having enough food, than caring about building up a supply of fighter jets. He doesn’t tell us that love of justice will guide us toward more humane and fair forms of government. Courageous love will transform the world. He doesn’t tell us love of what. It’s my hunch that if love is going to transform the world, it’s going to involve all of these heart strings.
He doesn’t tell us what kind of love and he doesn’t tell us how it will go about transforming the world. This is perhaps the most important piece. You see the beauty of the statement, “courageous love will transform the world,” is that it invites each of us to interpret the statement on our own terms. AND it invites us to be a part of that hope for transformation.
Unitarian Universalism is a practical religion. If there’s any talk of hope for transforming the world, or salvation, then everyone has an opportunity to be a part of that hope, a part of that salvation. We’re not hoping something will be done for us, or something will happen to us. Our hope is an engaged one. Our hope is in being a part of the transformation that saves our world.
In these dark days of winter, there’s a certain amount of anticipation and energy. This week I have been thinking about what it might look like, if instead of anticipating the chaos of holiday commitments, or the gifts we might receive. What if we spent our time in anticipation of how courageous love will transform the world. It seems to me that that’s a season of anticipation truly worth celebrating.

Making religious / theological statements for our entire community is difficult business. I think Mike Moran has done a nice job with the conviction that courageous love will transform the world. It resonates with me and with our UU history.
But I want to get a little more personal. I don’t think belief or hope is something that can be just handed to you. Sometimes the phrase is used, “giving the gift of hope.” But that is really misleading. No one can be made to hope, any more than they can be made to hate. Certainly we can do a lot to influence one way or the other, but hope isn’t an object that you can just give someone. Hope can’t be given to someone who isn’t willing to receive it with an open heart.
So rather than trying to tell you what to hope for in this season of anticipation, I want you to think a little bit about your own lives and what your deepest yearnings are for the world. With Christmas and Solstice and the New Year just around the corner this is the time for setting new intentions.
So I want you to think with me, what is your hope for the world. What do you want to spend the next couple of weeks incubating in your heart? The only requirement, is that it must be something that you can personally be a part of. What hope do you hold in your heart this season?

Call them out. What is your hope? What are you wanting to see in the world?

Let us be bearers of hope for one another, and bearers of hope for a world in need. It’s not an easy task. But it is perhaps our most important task as a religious community. May our collective hope for the world be nurtured until it takes shape, until it is born, until it changes the world.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Sermon - "Reaching out in Faith"

Reaching Out in Faith

This morning we are talking about the way our faith leads us to action, or our action leads us to faith. You see it happens in both directions. Sometimes we are filled with the spirit of compassion, hope, and love, and that spirit calls us to reach out and help improve the world around us. For other people, others of us, we find that by reaching out to help others, our faith is renewed. It is in our action that we find religious experience.

This morning’s hymns talk about both of those experiences. Earlier we sang, “One more step, we will take one more step, till there is peace for us and everyone.” Because through acting to help our world, our spirit is renewed.
And later, we will sing “Love will guide us, peace has tried us, hope inside us will lead the way on the road from greed to giving. Love will guide us through the hard night.” And indeed the love that rests in each of our hearts is the seed of hope, as it moves us to reach out and help those in need.
So I encourage you, as we sing these two amazing hymns, to really absorb them, and ask yourself, which one of these resonates with you. Which of these songs is the story of your heart? The music that we sing isn’t only about creating something beautiful. It’s also about coming to know ourselves in a deeper way.

For many of us, faith leads to action. We feel inspired from a multitude of sources, and that inspiration moves us into taking action. So we make our faith manifest in the world.
The best way I can think of to describe this understanding ourselves as a vessel, a bowl. We are an empty vessel that gets filled up with love from God, from the world around us, from natural beauty. We get filled up, like a bowl being filled up with water, until that water has to flow out somewhere. And we pour out our love in the form of action. We are moved to reach out and share some of what we have been given.
The moment I came to understand this in a very real way was doing hospital chaplaincy work. As a part of the ordination process I did a short stint of chaplaincy at a large hospital in Denver. If you ever run across hospital chaplains, they are amazing people and the work that they do is incredible.
For me, hospital chaplaincy was a mind boggling, and heart boggling thing to jump into. But I was doing it with a small group of other students. Together we shared the technical challenges of knowing what to say when, how to enter a room, how to interact with the variety of families. But more than that we shared the difficulty of being present to crisis, joy, death, hope, dysfunction, loss and love, as we visited one room to the next.
We shared these challenges with one another and we held short worship services to share our sense of faith in the process. In one of the worship services another student shared with us her sense of faith, flowing through her. And how that sense of love and purpose nourished her ability to help others. And she gave us each a small bowl that represented the filling up and pouring out of love. I brought that bowl to share with you today.
The object itself is nothing much. The bowl is from Crate & Barrel. It’s probably meant to use while eating your sushi. But the simple symbol has meant a lot to me. It sits with my other chalices, and reminds me of the flow of love in my life. It reminds me that I need to both fill up, and pour out to keep life in balance.

For a lot of people their faith leads them to reach out. For others I know, the relationship between action and faith is just the opposite. Many people find that through reaching out to improve the world, their hearts are filled and their faith renewed. For these people, for many of you I know, doing good is your religion. It’s through reaching out that faith comes into your life.
Something happens to us when we reach out to help others. Something in our heart gets cracked open a little. Part of it is that in helping others, we get to know them, and get to know ourselves a little bit better. It is reminiscent of the Sanskrit word, Namaste. Throughout India the world is simply a greeting and a sign of respect. It is basically the equivalent of “hello.” "Nama" means bow, "as" means I, and "te" means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means "bow me you" or "I bow to you."
But Western oriented yoga practices have extrapolated more from the original word. They describe it as meaning, "the spirit in me respects the spirit in you," or "the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” Maybe this isn’t totally what they mean in India when they casually use the word. It may not be the indigenous to India, but I like the concept. The divine in me respects the divine in you. That’s a big part of what happens when we help others. We get to know them in a new way, and get to know ourselves better as well. We get to see the sacred in those around us, and in so doing, we recognize the sacred in ourselves.

For us as Unitarian Universalists, salvation happens in this lifetime. In this life we learn and grow, that’s the reward for reaching out. In this life we reap the benefit of our actions. Reaching out in faith isn’t about earning a spot in heaven or burning off Karma. It’s about a sense of fulfillment and connection here and now, in this life. Part of it is feeling good about our self, but a much bigger part is feeling good about the world. When we reach out to help others we get to know them, and we come to understand that one day in our own time of need, someone will be there to help us. In reaching out to help, our hearts get filled with love.

I am thrilled to share with you today the news that just this week at their meeting, the UUFLB Board approved offering space in our building to serve as an overflow shelter for the homeless during the winter season. As you may know, our local shelter only has room for 45 people to sleep, yet on any given night many more than that are without a place to sleep in our city. In warmer weather the problem isn’t quite as bad. But over the winter, months, sleeping outside, even in Laguna Beach is not really an option. So for two weeks, we will open our downstairs space for a handful of people to stay warm over night. A volunteer from outside the church will stay over night with them. If you would like to volunteer to open the building at night to let people in, then check them out again in the morning, please let me know. We’ll tell you more as details of the arrangement unfold.
Obviously, I’m glad that we are able to keep people warm and dry. For a relatively small sacrifice on our parts, we can make a real difference in keeping people safe. But our effort is also important because it is an opportunity for us to reach out, and in so doing, to build our faith. When we reach out, or in this case, when we welcome in, we go out of our way just a little, we move just a little, making room for growth in our lives.

That to me is the key component of this question of reaching out in faith. It’s about an openness to change. We are changed by the faith that flows through us and into the world, and we are changed when we see the face of God in another human being, if we are willing to open ourselves to the experience.
That’s why that simple little bowl is still a helpful reminder today. Yes, it reminds me of a particular moment in my life. But more importantly, it reminds me of the flow of life. That sometimes we need to be filled up, and sometimes we need to pour out the love we have been given. That little bowl is a reminder about letting the spirit flow through me, rather than trying to grasp it too tightly.

Reaching out in faith is about allowing the spirit to flow a little bit. The Unitarian songwriter Peter Mayer encapsulates it beautifully in his song “God is a River.” The song begins talking about looking for a solid ground, a stone to hold onto in the unpredictable stream of life. Finding a resting place he called his savior, a divine rock. Then the chorus comes: “God is a river, not just a stone. God is a wild raging rapids and a slow meandering flow. God is a deep and narrow passage, a peaceful sandy shore. God is a river swimmer, so let go.”

Having faith is about letting go. Letting go and being moved by the torrents of our heart and mind. Letting go until we find ourselves moved into action. Letting go until we have not choice but to make manifest the love that fills us. If we are open ourselves to change, our faith can lead us to make a tremendous difference in the world.

And if we are open to change, our actions can make a tremendous difference in our faith. That’s why we do Guest at your Table every year. It’s not a huge source of revenue for the UUSC. Yes, some of you have been very generous over the years. And I’m sure this year we will raise a nice amount of money. But we could do that on one Sunday by simply asking you to write a check.
Guest at Your Table is something different. It is the kind of reaching out that is intentionally open to changing your heart in the process. The title says it all, Guest at Your Table. I sincerely encourage you all to leave this box on your table or wherever you and your family eat most of your meals for the next month. When you enjoy a meal, simply notice the box, and consider having a guest there with you, a guest who needs a little help.
All too often we think of those in need of help as sad, depressing, beggars. People who are different from us. Those commercials with Sally Strothers come to mind. There are newer versions on today. You know the commercials I’m talking about, with a totally emaciated child and flies swarming, while a well-fed American tells the viewers about the desprate need of these desperate people.
As I see it, Guest at Your Table aims to be the total antithesis of that sort of project. Rather than seeing those in need as desperate and different, Guest at Your Table invites us to understand that everyone has a story. Often it’s a story not too terribly different to our own. So we take this opportunity to reach out and give a little support, while at the same time we learn about the lives of people around the world that we are supporting. So that the divinity in us can honor the divinity in them. So that we can reach out and grow in faith.

Unitarian Universalism is an expansive faith. It calls us to go beyond our walls and to help those in need. But more than that, it calls us to go beyond ourselves, and open our hearts to the possibility of new growth. Talking about which comes first, faith or action, is a little bit like talking about the chicken or the egg. It’s a matter of perspective. What is certain however, is that neither of these things exists without the other. These two pieces of our religious life, faith and action are inseparable. Faith without action is a self-congratulatory emotional exercise. And social action without a foundation in principles of love and dignity is certain to fizzle and die.

So let us follow the invitation of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Let us open ourselves to the possibilities. So that in our acting we may be filled, and in our faith we may be moved to action.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Sermon - "The Serenity Prayer"

Serenity Prayer
For the first time in a VERY long time, I went to a high-school football game last a couple of weeks ago. I live just a couple of blocks away from Laguna Beach high school, so when I heard some of my friends were going to the game I decided to join the. Unfortunately the Laguna Beach Breakers got hammered by the Costa Mesa… what ever they are.

At half time we went and got something to eat. And we noticed the level of energy and anxiety in the middle schoolers and highschoolers around us. There was some low level fighting, there was making out, there was some obvious posturing. It was like social life on steroids. And it made us think back about those days. How exciting it was, and how important every moment of every day was. I don’t mean in a Buddhist sense of living in the moment. I mean in the terrible anxious sense of, “if I don’t do well on this paper it could drop my GPA and I’ll never get into college.” Or “If I don’t get on the team I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.” Or “If I don’t have a date to the dance, a place to eat my lunch, or an exciting plan of the weekend, my life is ruined.” Oh, and “If my totally misinformed and uncool parents don’t get with the program, I’m going to go insane.”

Everything mattered so much. For me, and for a lot of people I think, those years were hard, because so much pressure was placed on every little detail of life. That Friday night at the football game we chuckled a little bit at the youth that we saw around us, and the lack of perspective that we had back then. But the more I reflected on this sermon, the more I realized how easy it is to lose perspective at any stage of life. It’s easy for any of us, in the moment, to be flung back to being an anxious highschooler.

A sense of perspective is a huge gift. It’s something that we can cultivate, and it’s one of the cornerstones of religious life. To me, that’s what the well-known serenity prayer is all about, a sense of perspective. That’s why it is so powerful and speaks to just about anyone who hears it. Who couldn’t use a little help letting go of the little things, or courage to face up to the challenges of life. And most importantly, we all can use some help from time to time in remembering what is worth worrying about and what isn’t.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Some of us may stumble at the first line of this prayer. Some of us may stumble at the word prayer. I understand that. But exploring a little bit of how this prayer is most often used today may help us as Unitarian Universalists get a better grasp of it. This prayer is best known today for its role in the community of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups.

The beauty of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it revolves around people telling their own story, and sharing with one another where they have found hope and meaning in their own lives. It’s only fair to say that a good portion of that comes in the form of religion, and faith in God. And, so some AA meetings take on a more religious / gody tone than others.

But within AA and the twelve steps, there is no test of creed. There is only a commitment to be a part of the group and try to make your life better. Does that sounds familiar to anyone? It should. Because that’s the way I explain Unitarian Universalism to anyone who asks. We have no set doctrine, no specific thing that we all believe in, but we agree to be on a journey together as we improve our lives.

You don’t have to believe any particular thing there, or here. But in AA they talk a lot about believe in a higher power. The second step of AA is “Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Of course for many people that power is God. But for lots and lots of others, that power is something different. It is something like the power of human community, the power of the fecundity of nature, the power of love. Any number of different things are identified to help those in recovery lean on some source outside of themselves.

And just in the way a power greater than themselves can help a person in recovery feel supported and gain perspective beyond the immediate circumstances, any of us can replace the word God in this prayer with whatever we hold in high esteem. Weather that is love, community, nature, God or something completely different, calling upon our highest ideals is a great place to start in our search for serenity and perspective.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

That alone is a tremendous prayer and the spiritual discipline to fill a lifetime. Accepting the things we cannot change is so difficult, and so important. Much of our lives are shaped by things that happen to us. We come into the world from the very beginning shaped by circumstance beyond our control. The family we are born into, the culture, the economic resources, the country, all of these things shape us before we take our first breath.
But it doesn’t end there. Life is filled with things that just happen to us, things beyond our control. Sometimes what we want to change most, are other people in our lives, whether they are friend or foe. One of the hardest things to accept in life has to be the inability to change other people, especially the people that we love. Certainly we can provide encouragement and resources, but it is virtually impossible to force another person to change unless he or she is willing to change themselves. Anyone who has loved someone through addiction knows that struggle.
And anyone who has moved through recovery knows the struggle of not being able to change the past. Every one of us has regrets, a bad decision made here and there. We can do our best to mend a relationship that has been damaged, but the past is the past, there’s no erase in life. There is nothing we can do to change it. God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.
And then there is the nagging desire to change ourselves. There are a great many things that we can change about ourselves, but there are many more that we are stuck with. We are imperfect beings, by nature. We are not going to be perfect parents, perfect spouses, perfect homemakers, perfect professionals. And we also aren’t going to have perfect bodies or perfect health. Try as we might, some things are beyond our control.
We spent the month of October focused on death here at UUFLB. That is not primarily because death raises religious questions. We spent a month on the topic because it’s a question that we avoid dealing with in the rest of our lives. We are magnificent creatures, you and I, but we are given limit resources to work with. The sooner we accept the things we cannot change about ourselves, the sooner we can move on to focus on the things we can change.

Grant us the courage to change the things we can.

Faith engenders courage. It inspires us to move beyond ourselves and our immediate concern, to bring about a greater good in the world. People often mention the litany of terrible things that have been done in the name of religion. And it is true. Countless wars have been fought over religion. And religion has been used to justify injustice and oppression in terrifying ways. I’m not going to deny that.
But the religious impulse has also motivated some of the most beautiful moments of humanity as well. Those who rallied to confront injustice did so empowered by their faith. And religious experience has been the inspiration for a vast amount of art, music, philosophy, and even scientific discovery. Faith has a tremendous potential to bring courage into our lives.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “All great ages have been ages of belief. I mean, when there was any extraordinary power of performance, when great national movements began, when arts appeared, when heroes existed, when poems were made, the human soul was in earnest.”

Earnest. That’s a helpful way of describing the kind of courage that faith engenders, or at least the kind that I’m advocating for. It’s about earnestness. It’s about embracing your convictions and living them out in the world.

God give us courage to change the things we can. Give us courage to stand up and speak truth to power. Give us courage to be a beacon for justice. But even more, give us courage to engage small changes, small moments that come every day that we have the power to control. Courage isn’t just about doing the big stuff, it’s also about choosing to do the little stuff right. Whether that means offering a smile to someone who needs it, continuing an uncomfortable conversation to a real conclusion, or making one more little change to make our lifestyle more earth friendly.
People who know this prayer know that change is a hard thing to do. As creatures of habit, we rarely choose change, even when we know it will bring about an improvement in our lives. No one likes change. I recently read the only person who really likes change is a wet baby. So while we hope our faith leads to courage to change the world, we also hope it leads to courage make the little changes that improve our life, baby step by baby step.

Of course the crux of this prayer is in gaining the wisdom to know the difference. God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Notice the request is for wisdom, not intelligence, or information. What we long for isn’t so much a laundry list of what is worthy of our time and what isn’t. Because you and I both know that we would ignore that list.
I hesitated to tell the story of attending a high school football game and the anxiety of youth that we saw there, because I don’t want to be condescending to youth. I don’t want to say, “You know you may not even remember prom. There are lots of colleges you can attend. Everyone else has acne too. Maybe that wasn’t the one and only true love of your life.” We don’t say those things because they are insensitive to the real pain of the moment. And we also don’t say them because we know they won’t be heard.
It is impossible to absorb the information that this thing that you are so upset about is really no that big of a deal. You have no power to change this thing that you are so hung up on, and meanwhile the rest of your life is flying by. It’s not something that information can impart or something that intelligence alone can process. Try telling that to a fifteen year old who has just ended a relationship that in the grand scheme of things, its not that big of a deal. It’s a message that doesn’t sink when it comes from another person.
The wisdom to know the difference is something that we cultivate for ourselves, and it’s something that comes through a relationship with a higher purpose. It’s a little odd to dedicate an entire worship service to one short little prayer. But this prayer is one that has application for each and every person’s life. And more importantly, as we talk more about faith this month, this prayer is a beautiful description of what faith has to offer us. Having a relationship with something greater than ourselves, be it God, or our highest ideals gives some context to our lives. It helps clarify what really matters.
The wisdom to know the difference isn’t something ANYONE can tell you. But it is something that each one of us can cultivate for ourselves, when we check in with that higher purpose, that reality beyond ourselves. That’s what having faith is all about.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Sermon - "Wrestling with God"

For the month of November, we are focussing on the theme of faith in our worship services and children’s Religious Education here at UUFLB. And we are going to start that discussion of faith in a very Unitarian Universalist place, by talking about doubt.

“Wresting with God” is a peculiar name for a sermon in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The name comes from the story of Jacob wresting with an angel. It’s a story of grappling with the holy, wrestling with the most important pieces of our lives. This story is pretty far removed from our lives, but it still points to a very important idea.
To give some background, Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. So he’s way up there in the Biblical family tree, a pretty important figure. The whole story of Jacob begins in one of those really, really strange Bible moments. Jacob, God’s chosen leader essentially cheated his older brother out of his birthright of inheritance. Jacob dressed up as his older and much dumber brother to trick his own father on his death bed. He pretended to be the older brother Essau, so that their father would bless him and make him the official heir. And Jacob pulled off the stunt so he could be the leader God wanted him to be. It’s strange stuff.

Eventually the cheating caught up with Jacob. In adulthood his brother found him and came after him with an army of 400 men. So Jacob ran. He sent his family and his flocks of sheep across the river at a river crossing one night. Then he came back across, all alone to get his possessions. While he was there, a mysterious being appeared. Some say it was a man, some say and angel. The two of them wrestled until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of his hip so that it hip was wrenched terribly. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak. 
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, "What is your name?"
Jacob," he answered.”

Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

This story is often used as the moment of a personal struggle with faith. It’s quite literally, if one reads the story that way, a moment of wrestling with divinity. It’s a hard fight. Jacob walks with a limp for the rest of his life from where the angel injured his hip. But Jacob struggled with divinity and he refused to let go of that struggle until he got a blessing out of it.
Jacob wasn’t the only person to wrestle with God in the Bible. I might even say most of the significant figures in the Bible have their major moments of doubt. The first response of every single one of the prophets is “no.” It’s a formulaic story of the prophetic call in the old testament. Every single one of them says no at first at least once, and often twice. It took getting swallowed by a whale for Jonah to accept his mission in life. The first time God came knocking on his door he took off and sailed away to escape what his life was shaping up to be.

And Sarah, the wife of Abraham laughs at God when she is told she will have a child. Even after the whole run in with the burning bush, Moses said over and over again, “No. No not me. You must be mistaken, I can’t lead people.” Until God finally said, “Okay you can use your brother to help you. He’s a better public speaker anyway.” Then there is the quintessential doubter, Thomas the disciple. He wants to see and touch the wounds of Jesus after the resurrection, to prove that he is who he claims to be. Over and over again, in the Bible the example of a faithful life is the one that contains a serious level of doubt.

The Bible is full of incredible stories of burning bushes, whale attacks, wrestling angels. They are pretty fantastic stories that don’t make sense in our lives. But we have our own moments of wrestling. Seismic shifts in our lives shake us from the foundation up. It may be the death of a loved one. A spiritual awakening, gradual maturation, the birth of a child, or a near death experience. I’m sure you have had one or two of these in your time. They change the logistics of your life, but they also change what we believe in.

My own faith has been shaken several different times in these sorts of moments. Growing up in Oklahoma, a very Christian notion of God shaped my religious identity. It wasn’t totally simplistic, but I hadn’t seen enough of the world to mold my faith into something that was more sustainable.
So just a couple of months into my time in the peace Corps, that faith slid away. I was a Unitarian Universalist so the idea of not believing in God wasn’t terrifying. But it just change in my mind. In the Peace Corps I came to see that the God I had believed in before simply didn’t make sense in this world of inequality and poverty. The God that I knew didn’t fit the equation any longer.
But two years later, I landed in seminary. It was the exact opposite experience. There, God became completely expansive as we learned different possibilities through theologians’ ideas. God was many, many different things, each one of them exciting. I tried on lots of these different ideas of God. One after the other, across continents and centuries, these different ideas of the divine spoke to different pieces of me.
In the end, I don’t think any of them completely fit. Where I landed mostly was a fascination with Buddhist teachings. The Buddha explained that life is very difficult, but if we can let go of our clinging to the things that don’t matter, we can let go of that suffering as well. It’s a philosophy and lifestyle choice, designed to bring peace and wellbeing in this life. And Buddhism brought some peace, without God.
But even more recently, this year as a matter of fact, my relationship with God has been turned on its head once again. It’s a story that I’m still coming to terms with, still trying to understand. But I came to learn that much of my life I had been prayed for, without my even knowing it. Prayed for by someone who cared deeply about me and my journey. And the revelation of this prayer has rekindled a deep faith in a God that has watched over me, walked with me, for years. It has led me back to into calling that mysterious sacred peace of my life God.
My beliefs have shifted over the years in infinite mutations. Those are my major shifts. I’m sure you have plenty of your own shifts in belief that are interwoven with shifts in your lives. It’s tough to get very far in adulthood without some shifting in belief.

So far I have been talking about wrestling with whether or not something called God exists. And wrestling with different ideas of God. But that’s not nearly a wide enough scope. As Unitarian Universalists we have a great many different beliefs. And the sort of wrestling we do involves all of those beliefs. Both the diversity of beliefs within our community, and the diversity of beliefs within our selves are too expansive for plain old wrestling with God. You see the wrestling comes when we try to put our beliefs together to make some sense of the world around us.
More than a question about God, what I’m talking about wrestling with our world view, how we understand the world around us, how we make sense of it, and where we find hope in the midst of that jumble. That’s why theology is a huge academic discipline. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle. It’s not just a question of whether or not God exists to you, but a much, much more complicated question of how do all of those pieces of your belief fit together.

Lets run a little test. I want to ask you some questions, and you don’t need to respond or raise your hand. Just think of the answer for yourself. Do you think there is something called God? Are people basically good, or bad? Do we have more free will or do other factors dictate our actions? Is there life after death? Do we have a soul that is separate from the matter and energy of our body? Can prayer change the world outside of ourselves? Finally, Do the answers to these questions fit together? It’s hard enough to come up with answers to these individual questions. But it’s all the harder to make the pieces fit together.

A lot of this sermon is inspired the book by Rev. Chris Schreiner is going to present a workshop on this Tuesday night. The workshop is about how atheists and theists can engage in meaningful dialog. In talking about the way our beliefs fit together, Chris uses the metaphor of the bricks of a house. Our beliefs are built one upon another, sort of like the bricks or stones of a house. Over they years they build up, layer upon layer. But sometimes in our lives, something happens that changes one of those beliefs. And if we take out one of those beliefs in the wall of our house, you can’t just stick another one in its place with a little glue. It takes some masonry skills, to build up and whittle away at the bricks that surround the hole. When one of our beliefs is changed, the beliefs surrounding it change, and making things fit back together again can be exhausting work.

This is a big piece of what we do as a church. On Sundays I try to explore a variety of different viewpoints. In fact I frequently contradict myself between different sermons on a similar topic. If you listen closely you’ll notice it. That’s because I do my best to offer different perspectives. The goal is to help our masonry, to help you whittle away or build up existing beliefs to make room for the changes as we learn and grow.
And it’s what happens when I talk with people in pastoral care. Yes part of the discussion is social, but the much bigger part, comes in questions that friends aren’t likely to ask. “What does this all mean for you?” “Where do you find hope in this situation?” These are the questions I ask and talk through with people when they are ready, when their lives change and a brick is disturbed. “What does this all mean to you.” When we are at our best as a religious community, we walk with one another, as we rebuild our houses. We stay with one another and offer support in the times of wrestling with God.
The reason why that story about Jacob is so amazing and used frequently isn’t because it is a good wrestling match, or because Jacob’s name gets changed to Israel. The real nugget of the story is when Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” If nothing else that’s what I want you to take home from today’s worship service. When wrestling with God, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” I will not let go of this struggle until I get something out of it. Because the only way out is through. The only way out of those transformational moments is to actually go through them, and grab a hold of whatever blessing there is to be found.
As Unitarian Universalists we do doubt well. We can deconstruct and analyze others and ourselves with great speed and accuracy. And it’s a skill we have earned. Most of us have come from other religious traditions. Most of us have made the conscious decision to step away from a religious community of our family and upbringing, to saying no, that doesn’t sound right. No I won’t say those words that I don’t believe in. Most of us coming here having already consciously chosen to doubt the beliefs that were handed to us.

And you have come to the right place. As an institution we are not keen on authority. We pride ourselves on the democratic process, ensuring that no one person is given authority over others without their consent. Unitarian Universalism is a tradition of doubters. We can knock those bricks out one after another. But eventually we have to come through to the other side, to believe something.

Doubt is good thing. Asking hard questions is good and it’s something we do very well. As UUs however, we are not always great at following through with the struggle to it’s conclusion. We ask questions long enough for the status quo to be unsettled, for our beliefs to be challenged. But our mission is deeper than that. Our role as a religious community is to hold onto those questions, to continue to wrestle, until we come upon an answer, a meaning, a blessing on the other side.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sermon - "A Great Cloud of Witnesses"

Great Cloud of Witnesses
For the past year, Unitarian Universalist ministers have been wrestling with the question “Whose are we?” It sounds simple at first, but it actually leads to some pretty deep theological discussion. Whose are we? To whom are we ultimately accountable? One reasonable answer seems to be, that we are accountable to our ancestors. We are accountable to those people who have shaped the world we live in and who have made our lives possible.

Obviously I don’t mean that we are responsible for living our lives exactly how they would have lived theirs. You know that whole saying about history and being DOOMED to repeat it. We’re not dooming ourselves to repeat the lives of those who have gone before. But I do think we are called to live with a sense of gratitude for the way that has been paved for us, and for the way these people helped to mold us when they were in our lives. Each one of us, young and old, has been shaped by a group of people who are no longer alive. They were our parents, and grand-parents, our partners, our friends, in some cases maybe even children. They have all shaped our lives, a great cloud of witnesses who lived and died have made us who we each are today. And we honor them all today.

This expression, “the great cloud of witnesses” comes straight out of the Bible. Hebrews 12 says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,”

This is all about early Christians having the courage to pursue their faith in the face of persecution. The cloud of witnesses here are the saints who had been martyred for their Christian faith. They were tortured to death. And the other Christians were to look to them to find courage in appreciating the sacrifices that had been made for them, and for their religious community.

Getting tortured to death is heavy stuff. And frankly I find it gruesome more than inspiring. It seems like sainthood may not be all that helpful a source of inspiration in the twenty first century. What is inspiring though, is being grateful for the lives of real people. Real complicated lives, just like our own, lives that were filled with challenges and learning and tough choices are what we celebrate today. Those are the ones we are accountable to. Along with all the heroes of history, the people we know and remember, the ones we knew and loved, form a great cloud of witnesses that inspire our own lives.

I first became familiar with these words from Rev. John Wolf, the minister I grew up with. I had no idea these words came from the bible, but I knew that he had, and we should have, a sense of respect for those people who have died that inspire our lives. Living with a sense of gratitude is one of the most important, and simplest lessons we learn in church. And it’s something we all can practice, from the youngest here today, to the oldest: gratitude for the lives we live and the world we enjoy.

I don’t know what Rev. John’s religious background was. He famously refused to tell the church when he interviewed at the church if he was a theist or an atheist. He told them, “If you are a theistic congregation, then I am and atheist, and if you are an atheist congregation, then I am a theist.” We didn’t know exactly what he thought about God, we knew what he meant about the Great Cloud of Witnesses. You don’t have to believe that Peter is at the pearly gates with a long scroll of names to celebrate the lives of people who have formed the world we live in. It’s a perfectly vague reference to a reality that we all can relate to.

Most of all, I love this phrase because it speaks of the multitude of people who make up the community of the dead. It speaks of not just one or two people that we may have known and loved. It speaks of a vast and thick body of numerous people to whom we owe respect. Today we invoke their names and their memories, all of them, a multitude of loved ones, a great cloud that blesses us.

Some might call Halloween the season for conjuring up ghosts. I suppose it is. But Halloween is quickly followed by holidays that for many of us bring us much, much closer to our departed loved ones. Memories of people we have loved and lost flood Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, sometimes in wonderful ways, sometimes in painful ways. Of course time makes a huge difference in the way we feel about those memories.

For me, memories of grandparents are most pronounced when we sit down for a holiday dinner. To begin with, we still sit at the dining table that my grandmother had made for their home, probably 65 years ago. And my uncle, the rambunxious youngest child of the family tells about grandma chasing him around that very table trying to catch up to spank him. Then, without fail, we recount the recount the story about how one Christmas dinner my grandfather caught the napkin of the dinner rolls on fire as he passed the basket over a candle. Someone quickly grabbed them and threw them outside in the snow. That was one of the few White Chirstmasses in Oklahoma. Even the recipes that we make during the holidays remind us of who would have made them decades ago. Some of you have eaten the Banana Nut Bread that was my great grandmother’s recipe. She was the famed baker of the family.

For me the holidays are packed with memories of people who are no longer in my life. And I know the same is true for many of you. It’s only natural that we remember those people who were pieces of us.

Remembering the dead isn’t morbid or ghoulish or anything negative at all. It’s something that people have always done in one way or another. Every religious tradition has some sort of recognition of the dead. Whether it’s through funerals or specific holidays. Some of our kids may have seen the Disney movie Mulan, about a Chinese girl who wants to be a warrior. Part of the tension in her family and in the village is about what the ancestors would have wanted. In that movie, they were probably Taoists. That’s a religion where paying respects to ancestors is one of the most important things you can do.

We celebrate our ancestors and deceased loved ones in a huge variety of ways. Today we borrow from the Latin American tradition of Dia Des Los Muertos. It’s probably not a custom that most of us do outside of church. I don’t think many of us have altars set up in our home. We visit graves sites, or maybe if you have scattered ashes, we remember fondly when we look out at the Ocean. Some people talk to their loved ones in private moments, especially immediately after their death. In my family, remembering folks is mostly about funny stories. We remember our loved ones and celebrate the great cloud of witnesses in a huge variety of ways.

And for us as Unitarian Universalists, one of the most important ways has to be living meaningful lives that reflect gratitude for our loved ones. We show our love and respect through actions that give life to the aspirations of the great cloud of witnesses. As we celebrate Halloween, All Saints Day, and Dia Des Los Muertos let us celebrate the lives of those we have lost, by living more fully ourselves, by living lives that honor the countless gifts we have each been given.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Sermon - "Leaving a Legacy"

As we all know by now, we are in the middle of the 2012 pledge campaign. Part of that effort is legacy giving. That’s planning to give a portion of your estate to the Fellowship after death. It has been a vital piece of our income, and we hope it will continue in the future. If you want to learn more about the possibilities, please talk with Barbara and Tom. In conjunction with the UUA, they can support a pretty wide variety of types of planned giving.

But leaving a legacy isn’t just about leaving money. In fact it’s not primarily about giving money. I think of it sort of like parenting, and more generally caring for the people that you love. One big piece of that role is providing material resources, a home and food. The basic necessities make life possible, and a range of other material resources can make life easier or open wider opportunities. In the end, those things are about providing financially. But we also offer other gifts in caring for children or loved ones. Arguably, we offer much more important gifts of guidance, love, support, patience, discipline. We offer our outlook on the world, our sense of right and wrong. Implicitly we offer our ideas about God and religion.

So leaving legacy is sort of like caring for our loved ones. There are a few different ways that we provide support. Some support is financial, and some is emotional. The financial piece you can talk about with your accountant or with Tom, our VP for fiannce. The more emotional piece is what I want to talk about today.

Whether we understand it as a financial gift, as a spiritual presence, or as an ethical / emotional legacy, there will be a continued presence after each of our deaths. We talk about it in many different terms, but something continues on.

While I have been with many other grieving families, I have been fortunate to have not lost many people close to me. My primary personal experience of death has been that of my grandparents, most recently the death of my grandmother. Time finally snuck up on this wonderful firecracker of a southern belle. After some sever medical complications she struggled and slowly declined over a couple of years.

I went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home where she was staying. We had a nice visit. Her attention span varied from day to day, but I remember her being clear this particular day. We had lunch with her friends and chatted a bit. Eventually it was time for me to go. I was leaving to go back to Colorado and then out of the country for several weeks. I knew very well that this might be our last time to spend together. “I’ll see you soon.” I said, kissed her cheek, and walked out the door.

Before reaching the end of the hallway a sinking feeling settled into my gut. Why had I allowed myself such a causal parting? Why didn’t I have the courage to end our conversation with goodbye? “I’ll see you soon,” I said. It felt like a complete cop out, a total denial in the face of death. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to let her go.

I’m not sure when this came together and made sense to me. It probably came to me the driving the car or brushing my teeth one morning. I have a sort of contrived fantasy of an epiphany as I stepped out of the nursing home and into the sunlight but I know that isn’t the case. Regardless of the time or place, I finally came to see that my last words to my grandmother were not an empty lie. I knew that I would indeed see her again soon. That I would see her in the smile of my mother, in the wonderfully irreverent family gathering at Thanksgiving, and most of all in myself.

No, I don’t have dreams about conversing with my grandmother in white robes sitting on fluffy clouds. For many people images of heaven or other notions of an afterlife provide comfort and meaning in the face of loss. They are each valid and real responses. But I find comfort knowing that she lives in me. She lives on in the fascinating and wonderful world that she helped create.

And that was her final gift to me. She gave me a clearer understanding of my place in the world and my relationship with God. Thousands of pages of theology texts and countless hours of class time and discussion could not give me the reassurance that my grandmother finally imparted. I will see you soon. I will see you forever.

My grandmother didn’t have any money to leave behind. But the legacy that she left me was invaluable, both in her life, as she helped raise and mold me, and in her death, she lives on as a symbol of unconditional love. That’s the sort of legacy that I want us to think about today. Both the legacies that we have been blessed to inherit, and the legacies that we will leave when we are gone.

If you are a reader of our newsletter, the Sealight, you may remember that I wrote about an effort that I am calling The Legacy Project. What I hope to do is to interview some of our members, to collect their stories and a bit about what their life has been about. Now this isn’t the sort of who, what, where, when interview that you may be familiar with. Yes, I’m looking for stories, but only because those stories, the ones that stick out in memory, are an example. They are an example of what is important in your life. I’ll also be asking participants about what has been most important to them over the years, and what they hope for the future of our world. Then after the interview, everything will be put down in writing and I’ll check back to make sure it is accurate and it is the message you want to share. It will be printed and bound so you can share it with whomever you want. The goal is to encapsulate to the extent possible, the yearnings and learnings of a person’s life. We want to capture those stories and thoughts for two different reasons.

First of all, it is an incredible legacy gift. This legacy isn’t about money or material things. This legacy is about documenting the hard-earned lessons, the years of joy and heartache, to pass on to another generation. It’s a gift of heart and mind, to feed the future.

The second, and no less important goal of the legacy project is that it gives the interviewee an opportunity to do some discernment, and finally get something down on paper. How many of us have half written journals at home, or the book we never wrote, or the letters to loved ones that have never been written? I’m betting lots. The idea of recording these stories and thoughts on paper is to offer some assurance that what is in your heart has been recorded. And what you most want to share with your loved ones will be there even when you are gone. It’s a chance to be sure that your memory will live on the way you want it to.

Believe me, as someone what has sat with plenty of families already in my short time of ministry, recording your thoughts on paper is one of the most meaningful gifts anyone can give to their family. It can happen with something like I am trying to do with the Legacy Project, or it can happen in a much more specific way, in something like a living will. But, I have seen way to many families wringing their hands with uncertainty after a loved one dies. Putting your legacy in writing guarantees the message you want, will get across to the people you care about. It’s that simple.

Putting down on paper the legacy that you want to leave is important, but thinking about death and your legacy isn’t something only to be done in Autumn years. Awareness of our own mortality certainly grows with time, but it comes to light throughout our lives. Just last week I heard from a young mother who was shaken to the core by the death of a peer, another mother with young children. As the reality of the fragility of life set in, she was deeply concerned for her own young children. “What if something happened to me,” she wondered? “What would that mean for my kids?” The reality of our own mortality sinks in at different times and in different ways. It can be deeply unsettling. It can strike fear into the core of our hearts when we know there is so much that remains undone. So many people to be loved more, so many goals to be achieved, so many fascinating things to be learned. Recognizing our mortality can be a very scary thing.

But it can also be an amazing piece of motivation. Not too long ago our world changed when one of the century’s most influential innovators died. I count myself among the many, many people who knew little about Steve Jobs before he died. But as many have learned, his creativity and relentless challenge to improve, were responsible for much of electronics as we know them today. He was an amazing man. And according to Steve Jobs himself, part of his unrelenting nature came from an early grappling with his own mortality.

At the 2005 commencement speech and Stanford University, Steve Jobs said, “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

I love that immediate grasp of perspective. If this were the last day of your life, is this what you want to be doing? The answer may be no, for a day or two. We have all been there. But if the answer is no for too many days in a row, it is time to change something. Thinking about the legacy that we will leave in the world isn’t just about writing a will when we are 80 years old. Thinking about the mark that we hope to leave on the world is a question for everyone, every day of our lives. Because frankly, there’s no telling which one will be our last.

For Steve Jobs, the last day of his life came long before anyone thought was fair. It’s jarring when people die young. It’s really jarring, because it reminds us of our own mortality. But the funny thing about death is that it’s the one thing that is certain. You know the old adage, the only thing that’s for sure is death and taxes.

In the average life there are so many twists and turns, so many unexpected little, and not so little shifts that we never expect. It would be impossible to plan for them all… but we try. We keep a tidy calendar and have disaster kits. We plan for college, and careers and retirement. We do our best to anticipate and plan for what comes next. Yet the one thing that is certain to happen TO ALL OF US, is something we rarely talk about.

Obviously, I don’t mean this sermon to be a big dooms day message. “The End Is Near” or anything like that. I’m not saying we are all doomed so we might as well accept our mortality and let go. NO. Quite the opposite. This is about taking an honest look at our lives, taking account, to see if they add up the way we hope. Because if they don’t, if there’s something that needs to change, then today is the day to do it.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Sermon - "Shiva's Gift"

Shiva’s Gift
Maybe for the first time since I moved to Sothern California five years ago, I feel like we are having an actual autumn last week. No doubt the Santa Anna winds will come and dry roast us in about a month, but for now, I’m reminded of jumping in piles of leaves, hot cocoa, and the always’ changing seasons of our lives.

Throughout the month of October, we will be talking about death in different ways here at church. Today we are talking about death, not in the personal sense so much as the broader, abstract sense. Today we are talking about destructive forces in the universe, whether it is in nature, in us as individuals, or in the cosmic balance of Hindu deities, death plays too big of a role to ignore.

And if we take a couple of steps back from it, we begin to see death as a necessary and amazing piece of the great cycle of life. In the cycle of the seasons the balance of life and death and renewal aren’t so disturbing. The chilling time of Autumn comes around each year. Many of the plants we love die, the leaves on some of our trees shrivel and fall. It’s a season consumed with death, followed by a cold and dark time. But the cold and darkness give way to new life in the Spring, year after year. It’s just the way it goes and we accept that.

But it’s not just in the passing of seasons where we see the cycle of destruction and renewal. Death is a big part of just about every piece of nature that we celebrate. Even the piece of nature that is responsible for our existence, evolution. Evolution is really built on a series of countless destructions, death upon death in order to bring about new potentials for life. It’s grim, but it’s true. An innumerable number of deaths occurred to make way for every single adaptation that made evolution possible.

That reality was really hammered home for me when I saw the film “Creation” that came out a couple of years ago. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it stuck with me, so it must have had something going for it. It was about the life of Charles Darwin. A huge part of the film was Darwin’s personal challenges and illness. And interspersed with this psychological drama were dream sequences. They were rather grotesque dreams of natural selection in process. They were scenes of predators devouring prey, and the death and decay of animals, and the ants and maggots that fed off of the remains. Lets just say, it’s not a movie to watch after dinner.

Initially these images were off-putting. But they were also deeply effective. Sitting there celebrating the most significant discovery in the history of biology, celebrating the miracle of evolution, is the grim depiction of what evolution really required. Death up death until one or two organisms escaped their harsh fate. For four billion years, species developed minute ways of improving themselves. Natural selection, evolution, the interdependent web of life as we celebrate it, is sustained in equal parts by and interdependent web of death.

There are other more tangible ways that Mother Nature deals in death and destruction. Just this past week a colleague who works on the issue of climate change gave me a new perspective on the storms that have begun to ravage our planet.

We were talking about how reluctant humans are to change their lifestyles and the way we impact the environment. The changing weather patterns, the melting of polar ice, and rise of sea levels, these dangers are no longer scientific supposition. They are reality.

So this colleague was talking and he said something that gave me pause. He said that Mother Nature will do whatever she needs to, until we get the message. Mother Nature, source of life, the interconnected web, will thrash the globe with storms, drowning some areas and scorching others. Mother Nature will send destruction, as much as she needs to, until we get the message. She will fight us back, and our odds of winning are not very good.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think these storms and floods are God’s message to this group of people or that group of people for their moral shortcomings. It’s not that kind of message. I don’t believe that God reaches out to smite entire communities Old Testament style.

But I do believe that the earth is crying out, and beginning to literally fight back with incredible force and destruction. Call it mother nature, call it the planet earth, call it the biosphere, it is beginning to fight back with a level of force and destruction that may be the only thing that will shake us out of our ways, and preserve life in the long run. Mother Nature’s slap in the face may be our saving grace.

Talking about death and destruction isn’t something that we do often in church, or in America for that matter. But Hinduism, with its diversity of deities and ideas, has a little gem to offer in this discussion. In fact they have a whole God dedicated to what we are talking about today.

Shiva. Shiva is a major deity, definitely in the top five. What we often see as evil: death, decay, hatred, destruction, these are all a part of the universe and part of our human experience. And rather than rejecting these hard realities and labeling them as evil, many Hindus celebrate them in one of their most significant gods.

In images like on your Order of Service, he is represented as a handsome young man immersed in deep meditation or dancing upon Apasmara, the demon of ignorance in his manifestation of Nataraja, the Lord of the dance, goodness, humility, and every good quality a human should have. It is said that He looks like an eternal youth because of his authority over death, rebirth and immortality.

I was interested to find especially with the parallels with the forces of nature, that Shiva is understood to be the same person as Rudra. Rudra is the the god of the roaring storms, a fierce, destructive deity. In fact today’s Shiva probably developed from this god of storms that was written about in some of the oldest texts of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, dating back as far as 1700 BC. Shiva was and is the God of the storm, but he is more than just destruction.

Just as I mentioned the cycle and balance of the seasons, Fall Winter, Spring and Summer, Shiva’s destructive force is also part of a cosmic balance. Lord Shiva is the destroyer of the world, following the god Brahma, the creator of all things, and Vishnu the god who’s role it is to preserves. And of course Shiva is always ready to bring back the destruction and chaos to get things moving again.

But Shiva’s propensity for destruction isn’t just about the material world. It’s also about the internal spiritual world. While Shiva is responsible for death and destruction in the universe, Shiva is also the God that yogis call on in their journey to destroy the ego. They call on Shiva, the destroyer, to come to help them destroy the false sense of self, that keeps them separated from the great oneness of being. Shiva helps the yogi, and helps us when we acknowledge death, to loosen the obsession with ourselves, with this life and all our everyday needs, to look at a bigger picture. All that has a beginning by necessity must have an end. With his reminders of death and destruction, the impermanence of life, Shiva reminds us that our lives also are impermanent, and helps us to destroy the sense of ego that distracts us from deeper connections.

Beyond destroying a sense of ego, Shiva is also helps break old habits and attachments. Just like the cycle of nature and the cosmic cycle of creation and destruction, Shiva brings helps destroy old habits to make new life possible for us. Thus the power of destruction associated with Lord Shiva has great purifying power, both on a more personal level when problems make us see reality more clearly, as on a more universal level.

Although he is the great cosmic destroyer, Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion, because he protects devotees by destroying the forces of lust, greed, and anger. Shiva actually means auspicious, kind, or gracious one. It’s not what typically comes to mind when we think of the God who symbolizes destruction in the universe, is it. Auspicious, kind, gracious one…

We know that nature can be destructive, and the Hindu pantheon makes room for the destructive inclination of the universe. But the last kind of destructive force I want to explore is more personal. I want to talk about a destructive force that is scarier, and certainly more mysterious than seasons or Shiva. I want to talk a little bit about the destructive force that rests within each one of us. It’s in there for each one of us. For some it has been ignored and denied. For others it has been nurtured and heightened perhaps too much. But each one of us has a seed for destruction within.

It reminds me a little bit of a story that is attributed to Cherokee Indians. I don’t know how true to the culture the story is, but I have heard it several times. It goes something like this:

One evening an old Cherokee man told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One wolf is anger, jealousy, superiority, pride, aggression and ego.

The other wolf is serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Well, grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee told him, ‘The one you feed.’

I love this story as an example of cultivating character traits. The more energy we invest in certain feelings, the more they become manifest in our world. We can spend our time and energy in greed and anger, or we can invest in love and compassion.

But in light of today’s topic and the occasional necessity for destruction and aggression in the world, I’m inclined to find a different way. Perhaps instead of feeding only one wolf, and starving the other, we should do our best to tame both of them. After all both of these inclinations are necessary in the world. Fortunately most of us live in an environment where aggression and destruction aren’t called for on a daily basis. But we are not so far removed from a world in which that aggression was necessary for survival. It was eat or get eaten, kill or be killed.

My point is, perhaps both of these wolves have something to offer in our lives. There is a time for compassion, but there is also a time for defending oneself. For everything thing there is a season.

I’m going to make a leap with this metaphor of the two wolves into the realm of science. It is commonly believed by evolutionary biologists today that the domesticated dog most likely evolved from the Grey Wolf. That evolution and our deeply rooted relationship with dogs occurred for or one very compelling reason, and it’s not chew toys.

Both humans and wolves are social hunters. Unlike nearly every other predator on the planet, humans, and wolves hunt their prey in groups. And there is reason to believe that wolves would gather around and scavenge the remains of human hunts, to the point that these two creatures, learned to hunt together. Both their aggressive capability and their inclination toward sharing allowed them to thrive. The balance of creation and destruction was the key to their mutual survival.

And the aggressive inclination isn’t just there for the hunters of our tribe. Women, perhaps even more than men are reluctant to conjure up the destructive forces within. No, not me. But I challenge any mother here, or any mother anywhere, to allow something hurtful to happen to their child. The emotional and physical response of a mother protecting a child can, and should evoke an untold force of potential aggression.

We do all have two wolves within us. One wolf is anger, jealousy, pride, aggression and ego. The other wolf is serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion. And as scary as it may be to face up to, we rely on both of those forces in time. Creation and destruction, a sacred balance, in the earth, in God, in our hearts.

As we head deeper into the fall, and as we head into a month of discussion death here at UUFLB, I want to challenge us to embrace some of the scary stuff. Embrace the darkness, embrace the cycles of life and death, embrace destruction and decay. Because these are part of life. They are part of us.


Sermon - "Prodigal Children"

Prodigal Children
The prodigal son is a story that is pretty embedded in Christian culture. It’s in songs and art. The picture on your Order of Service is actually Remebrant’s visual interpretation of the story. It’s a story that I didn’t know much about until fairly recently. It’s a prominent piece of a book call “Love Wins” by Rob Bell. It’s basically a treatise on Universalism. Anyway, I found the story and the layers beneath it pretty amazing and I wanted to share it with you, as we talk about forgiveness this month.

I think it’s perfect for Unitarians for a couple of different reasons. First, of all, it speaks to us at various theological levels. Now originally this parable from Jesus is clearly meant to be a description of relationship with God. It’s all about God’s grace and love, and our ability to accept that love. It’s a Christian parable from the Bible. For some of you that means good things, for others it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And there’s the beautiful part. The story works equally well from a Humanist perspective. There’s much to be learned from the prodigal son not just about our relationships with God, but about our relationship with other people, and with ourselves.

I also love this story because it is the perfect example of Universalism in the Bible. It’s all about God’s grace and forgiveness. Remember that’s what that second U stands for in UU. Universalism, Universal Salvation, essentially forgiveness. And it’s that second U that we could use a little more of as Unitarians in the 21st Century. We Unitarians get so caught up in what we do to be good, as if love / salvation is something we can earn. If we just work a little harder, if we just give a little more, if we just learn the right words to say we will somehow be “in.” Well, Universalism and the prodigal son teach us a different lesson. They teach us that the love that we seek, call it acceptance, salvation, community, peace. The wholeness that we seek is there for the taking, if we just open our hearts to accept it.

So on to the story. This story comes up in only one version of the Gospels, it is in Luke along with a huge collection of parables. He’s telling story after story.

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Obviously, this is not the kindest thing for a son to say to his father. “Hey, you’re getting older and I want to have some fun now. “Why don’t you just give me what I have coming anyway, and we’ll call it good?” I can’t imagine that getting a good reaction from anyone I know. But it seemed to work with this father.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.

This last piece is worth unpacking because we don’t get exactly how insulting this situation is. By hiring himself out to a citizen of that country, we put himself in that person’s care. He was not quite a slave, but he was far less than a man of equal rights in that country. What’s more is we can safely assume that those hearing the story were Jews, and they would assume the characters were Jews. You don’t have to know much about Judaism to know that pork is a big ‘no-no’. It is not kosher, it is ritualisticly unclean. So far beyond what you or I might think about the unpleasantness of livestock, this son had sold himself to work in an industry that was both physically unpleasant and morally problematic.

The story continues, “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” That’s a pretty sad state of affairs. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. So he got up and went to his father.

This is a moment of extreme humility. He didn’t say, ‘well, Dad’s wealthy, I’m sure he can take me back into the house. Of course he’ll forgive me. I mean, I’m his son after all. I may have really screwed up, but Dad will get over it.’ No. This is an important transition in his attitude, especially as we are talking about forgiveness.
The son came to a deep realization that he had made a grave mistake. He had squandered everything he had, to live in a sub-human existence. That sounds like shame to me. So he didn’t say, “sure, Dad will take me back as his son.” He thought, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

Can you imagine what it would take for you to say that to your parent. Or what that would sound like coming out of your child’s mouth. “I’m no longer worthy to be called your daughter.” “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” That is heartbreaking stuff 2000 years ago, or today.

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” And this is where it gets really extravagant. “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” Now, killing the fatted calf is like maxing our your credit card to call in a catering company. It’s a big, big deal.

“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ the servant explained, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
Now the Bible really likes s sibling rivalry. “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

I know I can sympathize with the older son’s frustrations. We all get a little cranky when someone else gets rewarded when we were the ones doing all the work. It’s just not fair.
But this little passage to me is the crux of Universalist message, and the crux of what we so need to hear as Unitarians. The son said, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” This is the Unitarian do-gooder par excellence. All these years I have slaved… it begs the question, who asked you to slave? Certainly you weren’t forced to do this work that you are so committed to. And what were you trying to earn in the process? The love of your father? A gold star? The Unitarian of the year award?

“All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.”

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Like I said, this parable is most obviously about relationship with God in the Christian view. God’s grace is always available. Even after we commit the most egregious acts of betrayal, if we return in sincere repentance, we are forgiven and welcomed home with a celebration. That’s what this who concept of being dead and alive again is about. Over and over again there are ideas of finding a new life in faith. You know it through people being born again. But that’s actually exactly what the ritual of baptism is about. “This brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

But this story of forgiveness isn’t just about Christian faith. It’s also about how we treat one another, and how we find forgiveness in ourselves. Especially this piece about celebrating because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. It’s really dramatic language, but it’s practically the same thing when we have a broken relationship with any person. When there is someone in our lives we cannot forgive, we lose them. We lose another human being, with all that they have to offer. That’s a big price to pay for a disagreement. But when we are able to forgive or reconcile, it’s like that person returning into our lives is revived. It’s cause for great celebration. Forgiving is big business.

And accepting forgiveness is equally big stuff. It’s often something that we don’t do very well as Unitarians. How often do we fall into the trap of being the older brother, slaving for the cause we believe in, or always doing the right thing. How often do we feel like our noble efforts have gone unacknowledged? It’s part of our Puritan history. It’s part of Unitarianism, through and through.

But the other part of our tradition, Universalism has a much more compelling message. It tells us that love and worth can’t be bought with action. “Slaving” for another is missing the point. Enjoying a relationship with them and sharing a life with them is much more productive.

In the end, who is happy in this story? Well, the younger brother has quite the journey of adventure, hardship and humility. But in the end he finds that love is there if he knocks on the door. In the end he faces a huge challenge, the challenge of forgiving himself. Remember, he said, “I’m not fit to be called your son.” But through working on that relationship, he was able to be forgiven, and to forgive himself.

The older brother, who has slaved all his life to make his father pleased, the brother who couldn’t bring himself to come back into the family home after his lost brother returned alive, seems like he never forgave. And he found himself in a self-inflicted hell on earth. He found himself angry and separated from all that he loved, because he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive.

Before I wrap up I want to address one big lingering question about forgiveness, and about the example of these two brothers. Is the point that we should go off and mess around and waste our time and money and not do any good for anyone until our luck runs out, and then ask forgiveness? Is forgiveness a free pass to live life as we choose?

No. If it were, I wouldn’t be talking about it. As Unitarian Universalists, we, and especially I, talk about living your faith, a lot. It comes up in just about every worship service, living our your values, making them manifest in the world.

I realize I say that a lot, “living out your faith.” But the truth is we always live out our faith. Our actions are always a reflection of how we think really think and feel. They don’t always match what we say our values are, but they do match what our values really are. Encouraging forgiveness is not a blank check to go out and live a life that totally contradicts your values. Because the question isn’t about if we will live out our values. The question is which values will we live out.

Will we live out a faith of judgment, like the older brother, where love is something we must earn, something that is meted our like a fee per service, or will we live out a faith of acceptance and forgiveness, with the knowledge that reconciliation is always waiting? Will we live out a faith of judgment or a faith of forgiveness? The outcome of the story I think gives you an indication of which side I want to stand on.

“My son, said the father, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” May we remember the fact that we are always in the midst of the spirit of life and love. And when we drift from that knowledge, which we are bound to do, let us return to that power, with an open mind, and forgiveness in our heart.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Sermon - "The Community Well"

The community Well

According to the Bible, paradise featured four rivers flowing in cardinal directions out from the roots of the Tree of Life. . Their waters symbolized life and nourishment. In Bali, springs are attributed with healing or magical powers. For Buddhists waterfalls symbolize the “permanent impermanence” of the universe, which is partly why they play and important role in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting. In Shinto tradition, waterfalls are held sacred and standing under one is thought to purify the soul.

Throughout human experience water has been a source of life, not just for quenching our thirst. It also is the perfect symbol for our religious lives. Whether it is the ever-changing nature of a waterfall, the peaceful serenity of a still lake, the life-giving sustenance, it is the perfect symbol for the complexity of the spirit.

So coming from our different backgrounds and different life experiences, today we construct together a community well, a vessel to hold our hopes and dreams and fears We have done that in a symbolic sense, through ritual. But I want to challenge us as a community to live up to the potential of what that vessel represents, a container for all of our experiences, our joys and our pains, our hopes and despairs. A source that we can draw from in our time of need. Because that is what church is all about. We somehow were magically reminded of that reality ten years ago.

We all remember where we were when we learned what happened on September 11th. For my generation, it was our version of the JFK assassination. It was the first national tragedy that really flipped our world upside down. From that moment on, nothing would be the same.
Ten years ago today I left my parents home in Tulsa and boarded and airplane on my way to Washington D.C. I was to begin an internship there at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington Office for faith in action. It was an exciting time, I was eager to get there. So when the captain told us we were going to have a detour, my initial reaction was a simple annoyance. “Can’t you get anywhere in an airplane anymore.” Then, probably fifteen minutes later, the captain came back on the speakers to explain that an airplane had run into the World Trade Center, and there was a terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Because all flights were to land immediately, we were being routed to Louisville Kentucky.
Of course if you were at home watching the news you knew exactly what that meant. And there’s not an American alive who doesn’t know what happened that day. But with only those little pieces of information, an airplane ran into the World Trade Center, and there’s been a terrorist attack on the Pentagon, I landed in a city where I knew no one. Fortunately I had the resources and the wits to get a hotel room immediately. So I went, and sat in my room, and I watched as the horrible image of that airplane was shown over and over and over again.
Finally it occurred to me that there was probably a UU church in town. So I looked them up in the yellow pages, and sure enough, there they were. I called and found that the church was open that evening, and they would be holding a vigil for anyone who was interested. All were welcome.
I don’t know how I got to the church. I hardly remember the church itself. And I don’t remember a minister being there at all. What I do remember was a room full of people gathered in a big circle. In the center was a chalice and many candles. And as people felt moved they lit a candle and offered a few words from their heart. Some spoke words of fear and pain. Others were concerned for loved ones in NY. Still others spoke words of solidarity with the Muslim community around the world.
There was no magic in the gathering. No one had the perfect words of comfort or a concise political analysis. We were all too stunned to offer anything resembling perfect. That gathering didn’t offer me any answers. What it did offer was a place to bring my fear and my loneliness. It was a place to come and be real and to be myself in the presence of others.

That was a terrible few days of my life. I dare say some of the worst, being stuck in an unknown city alone at a time of disaster. They were painful days. But at the same time, I feel tremendously grateful for having had a community to turn to in my time of need. It was as simple as pulling out the yellow pages in my hotel room, and I knew I could walk into a place where I would be nurtured. I feel profoundly grateful for that experience, and I wish it had been the experience of more Americans.

Because, being a part of a loving community changes people. Knowing that you can bring all of who you are, knowing that you will be cared for not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are does something to the human heart. It cracks it open a little bit.

That’s why I care about religious community, because it has the potential to change people’s lives, and to change the way they live in the world.

Not religion that comes from on high, but religion that is built on the foundation of community. Not religion that limits God’s love to a few chosen people, but on that celebrates the truth that love is a renewable resource. Not a religion that invests in exclusion, but one that throws its doors open, like the arms of a loving grandparent.

When tragedy strikes we have these momentary opportunities to understand our priorities. It’s happening now as Texas burns. It happened not long ago with Hurricane Irene to residents of New England. And here in Laguna Beach we have had our share of fires, landslides and floods.
Forget about the house or the car. Forget about the objects. Are the people I love still okay? That’s what it boils down to. Are they okay, and how can I let them know I love them?

But ten years ago, in the wake of the biggest national tragedy of my lifetime, our president told the country to go out and shop. He told us to fill the gaping hole in our hearts with consumer electronics and cars. And he promised revenge.
That strategy simply did not work. It doesn’t work, it never will work. We are today more fearful, more militant, more angry, and certainly more cynical than we were on September 12th 2001. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to tell you that shopping and revenge are not the best ways to heal your wounds.

Healing doesn’t come out of revenge and shopping. Healing and growth come out of very difficult and messy work. Whether it is in the face of terrorist attack, or in the face of the pains of our every day life, aging, disease, broken relationships, financial trouble, healing does not come with quick and easy answers of getting revenge or getting new shiny things.
The real challenge of religious community and of our lives is to hold the real and profound pain that enters our life. And at the same time, turn our minds and hearts toward hope. It’s a difficult task for an individual and a difficult task for a community. But it is one of the greatest tests, perhaps the test of a worth-while faith. When you come out on the other end of fear and pain, is there still room for love?

The level of cynicism in our country, and even in our midst as a congregation is overwhelming at times. So I want to lay down a few pieces of Unitarian Univesalist belief for you to chew on the next time you talk about our woes. We believe that people are generally good, and they want to do what is best for their community. We may disagree with their tactics, but we believe that people are at their core, good. THEY are not out to get US. Quite the contrary. WE all want a world where future generations can thrive.

People are generally good, and our world is good, full of life giving resources with the power and potential to heal. That’s right. Nature is an amazing miraculous thing with untold powers of healing.

Yes, there is a tremendous environmental disaster in our midst. Yes there is political turmoil in our country and around the world. But when we let go of hope in a better world, when we let go of our faith in love, our faith in the healing power of nature, faith in community; when we let go of our faith in goodness, we have already lost.

This sermon sounds rather grand with its claims about interpreting September 11th, and our annual water communion. But what I’m talking about is much simpler. It’s actually what we do every Sunday here when we gather in worship and share our joys and sorrows.
Although it takes a while and sometimes people make us uncomfortable, we take time nearly every Sunday to speak aloud our Joys and Sorrows. As we celebrate Joys and grieve our Sorrows, we remind one another of the complexity of life. In sharing our joys and pains our relationships are deepened and we are reminded that we are not alone. Through those connections one to another, we weave a fragile tapestry of hope.

On September 11, 2011 may we embrace hope rather than despair, and love rather than revenge. And in so doing begin the healing of our community, and the world around us.