Monday, July 18, 2011

Sermon - "Experiencing the Mystery"

Experiencing the Mystery

The title of today’s worship service is a little odd, I know. But, It’s the best way I could summarize the first in the list of sources of Unitarian Universalism. That list is in the gray hymnals and on that the back of the order of service. Along with the seven principles that we talk a lot about, there are six sources that are the building blocks of our religious tradition. This particular source is, and I quote:

“Direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”

I did my best calling it, “Experiencing the Mystery.” It is listed as the first of our six sources. But I also think it is first source or our religious lives as individuals. Our first source of inspiration, our first source of wonder, or spirituality, our fist and most important source of our religious life is what we experience for ourselves.

On rare and intimate occasions I have heard some of our members share those moments of inspiration, when they felt connected to something greater. One of our leaders has had that experience of connection in the California Redwoods. As he began to grasp their tremendous size and history, he began to place himself in a much broader web of life, a web that reaches further than he had ever really grasped. Another of our members talks about reconnecting with the source of life every time she drives down from her home at the top of the world. Every time she sees the vast expanse of ocean she is reconnected to the earth and reminded what a splendid world we live in.

A lot of us experience that sense of awe and wonder in the midst of nature. I know I do. But there are other sources as well. She’d probably shoot me if she knew I was including this in a sermon, but the conductor of the community choir sometimes waxes poetic about her experience leading a choir. She talks about the rare and beautiful experience of making music as one body of people. The alignment of harmony and consciousness as a choir melds into one voice, and one heart. It’s an amazing experience.

And it’s not unlike what we try to create at the community drum circle. Yes, part of it is getting together and meeting new people. But the drumming, when it comes together right, when everyone in the circle plugs into the rhythm and lets go of their own personal agenda or self consciousness, time stands still. You can totally lose yourself in the depth of connection and the moment.

Direct experience of the transcending mystery is listed as the first source of Unitarian Universalism as a religious tradition. As Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate that ever person, every single person has the capacity to experience what is holy and true. Every person can through prayer, through inspiration, or through their own personal reflection come to know and feel the sacred life-affirming power that we share.
That may not seem like such a big deal to you or me today, but it’s actually quite significant in terms of a religious tradition.
The first source of our faith is not a sacred Text, or tradition. It’s not the word of others. The first source of our faith is an individual’s direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder that touches each of our lives. It is available to each and every person, from the time we are quite small. It’s not limited by gender, class, age, race, education, language, sexual orientation, nation or origin. It is the mystery and wonder that touches every human being at some point in our lives, the power that moves us. That spark that is available to all, is first and foremost the source of Unitarian Universalism as a religious tradition.

And so it should be. Because that spark of awe and wonder is also the first source of our own individual religions lives. I use religious here and throughout this sermon not to talk about a personal relationship with God. But religious in a broader sense. Religious in the sense of relating to our highest values and deepest understandings of our world.
Experience of the transcending mystery and wonder is the first spark for our religious lives. The experience of human compassion or awe at nature, or the miracle of life, is the bedrock upon which we build our faith. It happens before we read about religion or are taught about it. It certainly happens before any rational argument can be made to us about the existence or non-existence of God, or the nature of the divine. I think children understand these feelings much better than we do as adults. Because it’s about feeling something beyond words, feeling something that’s not been labeled and dissected and processed and trapped by our critical minds.

The sad truth is, religious traditions, including our own sometimes, can do a very good job of extinguishing that spark. More and more I hear my pears, and just about everyone young than us, describing themselves as spiritual but not religious. They know that on occasion that have felt a deeper stirring, a connection to the world around them that goes beyond explanation. They have had that direct experience.
They have also had the mind-numbing experience of boring churches, dry lectures about ancient books, dull music, money sucking institutions, and dim dank spaces that would depress even the happiest of people. There’s something wise about this spiritual but not religious movement. These people seem to be protecting that spark within them. They are protecting their experience of the transcending mystery and wonder from the words and baggage that might diminish it.

By its very nature, the type of experience we are talking about is far beyond what words can capture. Which obviously makes it a little odd to talk about in a sermon. It is a little bit like giving a long lecture on the beauty of music, without ever actually listening to music. These moments of inspiration, like music, far exceed what words can express.
Maybe that’s why we are uncomfortable talking about it, because we feel like we don’t have the right words. I don’t know if you have noticed this, but we UU’s are very , very reluctant to talk about our own personal experiences spirituality. We’ll talk all day about political opinions, or who should do what to make our world a better place. But talking about the experiences that mold our hearts, is a whole different ballgame.
Maybe we don’t feel like we have the right words to adequately explain those moments of mystery. But it’s my hunch that something else holds us back. I think we don’t talk about our experiences because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to be considered unscientific, or overly emotional, or overly religious. It’s true. We are worried that if we talk about feelings of spiritual connectedness, or overwhelming beauty, that we would appear, frankly stupid.

Today, I’m asking us together to let down some of those walls, to open ourselves to sharing some of those stories. If you can’t share your own, just start by listening to others with an open mind. I know it is asking a lot, but it could change our lives as a community.

You may know that I went to a liberal Christian seminary, not unlike Claremont School of Theology just up the road. In seminary it broke my heart to hear my Christian class mates say that they would never be able to preach the cutting edge information we learned about the Bible. We learned all sorts of fascinating stuff about Christian history and the way the Bible was put together. Things that both enriched and transformed the common understandings of Christian teaching. They knew if the spoke freely about the historical detail of Christianity, if they told the truth that rested in their mind, they would lose their jobs or cause havoch in their churches. It was a very sad thing to hear then.
Today it breaks my heart to hear UU ministers who can’t talk freely about faith and spirituality, for fear of the exact some thing. Because they fear if they told the truth that rested in their soul, they would lose their jobs or cause havoch in their congregations. I want to test that fear today, and prove it wrong.

For me, the experience of the transcending mystery and wonder first came as a child. Although I am still moved today by the beauty of nature, as I child it was simply breathtaking. I was fortunate to grow up in a family where outdoor adventure was a standard part of our lives. We backpacked every year in the rocky mountains. We camped locally. We scuba dived. For me growing up being outdoors was expected. As I think back on it, there was never a particular stated value to these activities. We weren’t doing it to be fit, or to save the environment. It was just understood that outdoors in nature was the place to be.
I guess it’s no wonder then that my earliest, and still my deepest connection to the wonder of life is through the natural world. In a general way I feel connected to life when in nature. But beyond that, there are a few moments of profound connection. They are moments I will never forget. One was watching the sunset, and the stars appear in the mountains in New Mexico. I had been out backpacking for ten days with a group of Boy Scouts. Needless to say it was a ruckous bunch. But our last night out on the trail I managed to spend some time alone, walking by myself, I decided to sit, and wait and watch. The night sky that came alive before my eyes filled my soul. It opened for me the beauty of possibility in infinite space. It was a breathtaking moment that I knew I would cherish forever.
Years later, in seminary I had a similar experience. I was camping in the hill country outside of Austin Texas. I went down to a shaded stream area to do some reading. Whatever I was reading didn’t last long. I found myself setting aside the notes on theology to sit in nature. And there in the shade next to a stream something stirred in my soul. A sense of connection to the earth was absolutely overwhelming. Frankly it was almost erotic. I sat there, and I simply felt connected, and held by the universe. Again, I knew it was a very simple moment that I would cherish forever.

For me, there have been a couple of amazing, aha moments. The rest of the time, I just try to be open to them. You might call it a spiritual practice, but there’s nothing resembling discipline about it.
To tap into a sense of connection to the Universe I pray. Not because I think God necessarily hears my prayers, like Santa or something. But I pray because it gives me some familiar way of being in relationship with a much broader much more complex life-affirming force that I believe in. It’s like having a conversation with the interdependent web of being.
I pray and I visit the ocean twice a day, nearly every day. Watching the waves churn the water I see, I feel the circulation and respiration of the earth. I feel the source that makes life possible, that makes life beautiful. I visit the ocean twice nearly every day and I am grateful to be alive and to be a part of this magnificent world.

If experiencing the mystery is our first source of faith, if it is the bedrock of our tradition as I believe it is, then we have a lot of work to do in getting that foundation beneath us. We have a lot of work to do in naming what is sacred, in reaching back to that time, that moment when we knew a deeper connection. We have a lot of talking to do.
Only you can share what is sacred for you. Only you can explain what you came to see in a glimmer of hope. No one can do that for you. Hopefully I started a conversation. This is your invitation. Hopefully you will jump in the deep end of the pool with me and tell someone a story of when you felt something stir in your soul.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Value of Democracy

The Value of Democracy

This weekend and the fourth of July marks a pretty big celebration around here. I know I’m planning to have a few friends over to go to the beach and Barbeque. We pause every year on the 4th of July to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate our country in all of its uniqueness. That’s just about an affinity for red white and blue. It’s about celebrating our county as a democracy.

Democracy, especially as we use the word isn’t so much about a particular form of government as it is about and ideal. Of course we know the word comes from Greek: (dēmokratía) "rule of the people". In its simplest form, a government in which all the people participate equally in making decisions. It is a lovely concept, and it’s one that we don’t practice. Having that type of equal participating in making community decisions is lovely for a group of about fifty people. But, with over 310 million people that we have in the United States, making decisions is a little more complicated.

When we talk about democracy as something we celebrate or hold dear we’re not talking just about a form of government, we’re talking about something much broader. This reality came to light for me in college. As a political science major, I took a class called “Democracies and Democratization.” We looked at what’s the best way to describe and rank democracies around the world, and what are the things that lead countries toward being more democratic. What I got out of it was, well, that it’s not as black and white as my grade school civics class taught. In fact there’s a whole lot of grey.
Beyond a government where the people vote on occasion, there’s not much agreement on exactly what makes a democracy. What about equitable distribution of wealth, access to education, peaceful turnover of government, freedom of speech, free markets, having the word “democracy” in the name of the country, freedom of religion?

I found a couple of pictures for you to make this point. This first picture is a map created by Freedom House. The countries designated in blue here are electoral democracies. This is the black and white picture, or blue and white as the case may be. There are few surprises here.

A more interesting map comes from a think tank through “The Economist.” This map ranks how democratic different countries are. We see the palest blue countries get a higher score (with Norway being the most democratic country, while the darker blue countries scoring lower, with North Korea being the least democratic.

When we talk about democracy, especially when we celebrate it, we are talking more about an ideal than a simple governmental structure. We are talking about the ideal of a society where people are treated equitably and each person has an opportunity to make their concerns heard. It’s an ideal, and like any ideal, it’s not black and white. Not something that you suddenly are or are not. Democracy is something that we strive for. It’s something that takes a degree of vigilance, as we constantly yearn for a more perfect community, with more equality, more justice.


Democracy is sort of like faith that way. It involves a sense of longing for something more. People don’t often talk about faith this way because it sounds a little negative. But, there is an aspect to faith that is a yearning, a longing that is never quite fulfilled. I guess it’s about having hope, in a better world, or in God, or personal growth.
What is it you long for in your faith? What are you seeking? Is it personal relationship with God? Is it human connectedness that you seek? Maybe you long to have the mystical experiences of awe and wonder that come in a flash of insight. Do you long to heal and connect with the Earth, the source of us all? There has to be something that you’re longing for, or you wouldn’t be here. Perhaps worst of all, without longing for something better you wouldn’t have much hope. Faith is hoping, it is longing for something better.

And that longing can be tiresome. Sometimes that personal moment of transcendence and enlightenment that you long for, just never happens. Sometimes you’re disappointed by the people you see around you, and your hope in humanity withers a bit. Maintaining a longing for our ideals can be exhausting. It requires a certain level of vigilance. Not in the sense of being overzealous, but in the sense of patiently waiting, holding vigil through the night, waiting for the morning, waiting for a better day to arrive. Our faith takes a certain amount of vigilance to sustain, and so does democracy.

Just as our faith is both a sense of longing and a sense of comfort, so it is with the value of democracy. As July 4th roles around, I’m confident that we can be both grateful for the democracy that we enjoy, at the same time as we seek even more justice and fairness in our country. We can be both grateful and seeking at a better democracy at the same time.

Patriotism is a touchy subject with Unitarian Universalists. Many of us are deeply concerned about the state of civil liberties in the United States and our nation’s propensity for war. I admit those are valid concerns. But, we also have to put those concerns into context. We are incredibly blessed to live our lives with a functional democracy.

Remember the map that I showed earlier. The United States is a pretty pale shade of blue. Not the palest, but we’re doing pretty well. I have one more map to show you to make this point. This is similar to the comparison of democracies that we say earlier. The Democracy Index measures the state of democracy in 167 countries. The darkest green is the most democratic, while the darkest red is the least. Again, we score near the top, as a “full” democracy. What’s important about that is only about 12% of the world’s population falls within that category. Only 12% of human beings enjoy the freedom that you and I hold dear, the freedom that we celebrate on the 4th of July. Compare that to 36.5% of the population who live under totally authoritarian regimes. I think it’s essential that we keep a sense of perspective. Yes, there is room for us to improve as a democratic country. But let’s not forget how fortunate we are.

I also hear a good deal about how our rights are being chipped away and how our country used to have more integrity in its political system. Any time you hear about the good old days, it is important to ask the question, good for whom?

You know our Constitution, that great hallmark of liberty and democracy came into being only after it’s writers compromised to allow slavery to continue. It took eighty one years, until 1868 with the 14th Amendment that Blacks were considered citizens and granted the right to vote. And women, that’s half the population maybe a little bit more, women were not allowed to vote until 1920. That’s not so long ago. In fact, that is living history for some of the members of this congregation.

To claim that American democracy has fallen from some idyllic past is a gross oversimplification of our history. I find it ironic that both the political right and the political left lay claim to the good old day’s of American democracy, when things were fair and the people controlled the government. That just simply isn’t true.

This history of our country isn’t so different from the history of most. It is a history of government trying to do it’s best. It’s a history of those people with power exerting that power over others, until they resist, until they leverage the power of a constitutional democracy to claim what is rightfully theirs: freedom and equality.

The history of democracy in the United States is a history of oppression and resistance to that oppression. It is a history of people paying a tremendous price to defend democracy. I don’t mean defending democracy against communism, or terrorism, or immigrants, or any other trumped up fear.
The history of democracy in the United States is a history of people resisting oppression. It’s a history of saints and prophets standing up to the crush of wealth and power to say no. You will not take away my dignity as a human being. You will not take away my voice or my rights.

Democracy is the fruit of vigilance. It is a gift that we inherit and a burden we carry as citizens of the United States. But democracy is more than an important political system. It’s important to understand here in our religious home that it’s not just an efficient and effective form of government. Democracy is a reflection of our values as Americans and especially as Unitarian Universalists.

Democracy is interwoven with our faith in profound ways. It’s a theological stance almost. As UU’s we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe that people, when given the tools and opportunity will choose what is best for them, and best for their fellow human beings. We believe that individuals, citizens, are oriented toward the good, and if they have the freedom to do so, they will follow that good for themselves and for the community they live in.

We also believe that people are at their best when they gather in community. That’s why we have churches, or at least that’s why I am involved in church. Because of a deep, deep conviction that you and I and everyone we know are better people when we live in relationship. That’s what our faith tradition is built on. And democracy, as a political system requires a relationship among its citizenry. It requires that people come together in the public square to discuss, to trust, to make decisions, and ultimately to build a sense of relationship. It is an inherently community building form of government.

There’s a saying that I think really sums up Unitarian Universalism and the way we build community. I’ve heard it a few times, and I’ve said it to you many more. Don’t come to church to find the people you love. Come to church love the people you find. We are not here to be a club of people who are exactly alike. We are here to build a community in our diversity. We are here as unique, sometimes quirky, sometimes difficult people. And we come and build this community together as a spiritual discipline. That’s right, building community is a spiritual discipline. Don’t come to church to find the people you love. Come to church love the people you find. And although that’s sort of a pithy way of describing what we aspire to be, isn’t the same true of democracy.

Democracy isn’t about supporting only the people you are like you. Unfortunately the pathetic dialog that makes up most of partisan politics would have you believe that. “Vote for me, because I’m like you and we’re better than those people.” Bleh! That’s not democracy, that’s grade-school recess. Democracy, like church, is about creating a country where anyone can thrive. It’s not just about sticking up for your own interest. It’s about protecting the interest of those who may not have as much power. Democracy, like church, is about creating a place where every individual can thrive, and benefit from full participation in a wider community.

Democracy takes vigilance, it takes work. If you have been around UUFLB for long, and certainly if you have served on our Board, you know that building the community is work. In fact it’s a little easier to grasp in our little community. Just like our country, we are a complex living community, striving to do our best. Trying to do our best. The work will never be done, because there will always be people to care for, hymns to sing, babies to greet, conflicts to resolve, spirits to renew, children to teach. There will always be work. That’s just what it takes to keep a community going. And it is tremendous work.

On this July 3rd, let us be vigilant. Let us stand vigil in hopeful expectation and preparation for more justice. Let us be vigilant in our faith, celebrating the comfort of the sacred, and always yearning for a better world.
Let us be vigilant this weekend, let us celebrate the struggle that is democracy. Because that struggle, that journey is a holy one.