Monday, September 17, 2012
Thank you for your wonderful stories from the water communion earlier. There is such a rich diversity in our experience, and at the same time a common thread. Because after all the adventures, the heartache and joy, the learning and relaxing, after all that we are as individuals, we come back together, to share with one another.
Today we recognize the flow of water, the give and take of life. So many people have walked through these doors, countless people who you and I will never knew. Countless people who have made this church possible today have been here and moved on to new adventures. And our little church will live on to shape the lives of still more people in the future, people who we have not yet met, people who haven’t yet found us in the flow. All this business about community and is slippery and difficult to trap.
But that is just our job, to catch the water of experience and the souls that flow through our community. Our job is to create a strong and hearty vessel, a space with room for all to join in. Let our church not be simply an empty institution, but a vessel that will safely hold and nurture this community.
After all, our community, our relationships make us who we are. Our Western individualism tells us we are our own people. We must go out into the world and make something of ourselves. We must be independent and strong. But, no matter what we do, no matter how much we achieve, we will never escape the fact that we live in this world in relationship with other people. From the very beginning, we are in relationship with others and those relationships define us.
That means I am a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a minister, a member of this community, I am a friend, and enemy to some. Those aren’t simply labels for who I am, they are relationships that carve out my space in this world. Each day those roles influence my life, those relationships rest in my mind and my heart as I choose how I will live in this world. For better or worse, I am defined by my connection with other people.
At the very least, we are each a child of someone, and we fill a good many other roles for other people. Relationships do a large part of making us who we are. So, who are you? What are the relationships that make you who you are? What or who are the other drops of water in the sacred stream of your own life?
I mentioned before that Western culture would have us define ourselves as individuals. But the Western modern idea of self, the rugged individual, is not the only way. In other societies the power of relationship is central. The sense of interconnectedness is a core value, a religious value. Most Eastern religious traditions share this sense of fundamental relatedness. That’s why today’s reading and story came from the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.
That’s the point of the story we heard earlier about the salt in the water. I have used the story tons of times in my preaching and personal meditations. This story is so powerful not because of a great adventure or wonderful characters. It is powerful because it provides a perfect metaphor for understanding the holy in our lives.
It is the same traditional imagery that has been used by Hindus and Buddhists alike for thousands of years. They talk about the holy, the spirit that infuses the universe with life as salt. It is a very real and obvious thing when separated out. But when it is dissolved water, it becomes an indistinguishable, part of the water, just as the spirit of life infuses the universe and our own lives. The only task then is to remember it. Though we may not see it all the time, the spirit that sustains us, also courses through the rest of the universe. It always has, and it always will.
Hindus aren’t the only religious group that uses water as a metaphor. In fact every religious tradition that I know of uses water as a metaphor in its stories and uses actual water to enact religious rites. It evokes something in us that is beyond any one tradition.
Water alone is a holy and sacred thing, the object of veneration, a source of life. It is literally what makes life possible on this planet, and somehow, we seem to know that. Little reminders here and there point to water as sacred. My biggest Summer adventure was going to the Beach in Mexico with my family and Christopher. There was no agenda, just to be together by the ocean, and occasionally go for a swim. That was it. And it was wonderful. Even though I live just a few blocks from the beach here in Laguna, still every morning there I was glad to be renewed and refreshed by the sight of the sea. And I know I’m not alone in that.
I know I’m not alone because I see other people finding the same sense of connection and groundedness simply being near the ocean. Some of you know I go for runs through town every couple of days. I always make it a point to run through Heisler Park. No matter what day of the week it is, there are always other people running and walking, I see homeless people camping on the beach, I see people doing Yoga and Thai Chi in the park. There are people reading, especially Bibles in lawn chairs they had pulled out. There are the essential surfers and sunbathers. On any given morning, here in this beautiful place I see person after person transfixed by the ocean. Just spending more time here has made me realize what a common human experience standing and looking at the water is. There is an indescribable, unreasonable draw. The Ocean, this vast powerful force seems to hypnotize us.
There is something about water, and the ocean in particular that has a universal appeal. It is as if somehow we know that there is something out there, something that connects us to deeper meaning, something that speaks to our commonality.
As I said earlier, water is a bit of a slippery thing. It’s not always easy to see the spirit that connects us, like the salt in the water. And yet our job as a faith community is to build a strong and sturdy vessel. Our task is to catch the disparate drops that come our way. It’s no easy task though.
As we enter the Fall together, I want to invite you in helping me to build the vessel that is our community. I’m not talking about committees or projects. I’m not talking about budgets or communications. I’m talking about a network of personal relationships that make a church a home. I’m asking you, each one of you, personally, to help strengthen our vessel by deepening personal relationships.
This is probably an unorthodox story to tell you as my congregation, but I think it is important to make a point. I am making more of an effort myself these days to make some space between my work life and my home life. It’s so that I can be more fully present to each of these needs at the right time. So, last weekend, when I went out sailing, it was my first time to skipper the boat on my own. I gave everyone a little introduction to the boat and described their jobs for the day, what ropes to pull when, and that sort of thing. Then I gave the most important instruction of all. I told my friends and family that while we were on the boat, anyone who said the word church, Fellowship, or Unitarian owed me a beer.
There is a time for work, and there is a time for play. To honor those two very different activities, sometimes we have to draw a line between the them. We as Unitarian Universalists tend to be very busy people. We like a task. But I want to encourage you to think about separating out what is church work, and what is social time. Make the work time productive, and leave the business out of the social time. If you need a place to start, come to the annual picnic after the service today, enjoy the sun and the food, and leave the business for another day.
The other thing you can do to help strengthen our community is simply reach out. Every Sunday, try to have a conversation with someone you don’t usually interact with. I’m not expecting you to become best friends. But I do expect you to find some point of connection between you. One person every Sunday. That’s something each of us can do.
As our time together draws to a close, let us continue to celebrate the sacred that we have found in our journeys around the world, the sacred that we see in each others faces, and the sacred that rests in our own heart. Remember, as the wise father told his son, though are that. You are the spirit of life, this day and every day, no mater where life takes you.
Monday, September 10, 2012
Though we come to if from different angles, in this faith community we agree on one thing. That is the interconnection of our lives. For many Unitarian Universalists their religious faith leads them to an awareness of deep relationship. Others understand interconnection as an ecological concern, as a calling to care for our planet. The wording of our Seventh Principle leaves the door open to all of those powerful interpretations of connectedness. We covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Sometimes that web can be difficult to see. Sometimes we have to think about it, but imagination can help. One of the best ways to see our interconnection is simply imagining what it might be like to be another person. After so many years living in our bodies, coming from where we do, knowing what we know, liking the things that we like, it can be difficult to imagine what life might be like as another person. It’s easy to get trapped inside our self, as if this is the only way of living in the world. But keep in mind there are about 6.7 Billion people on this planet who have lived life differently from you. Your way is not the only way. It’s difficult to do, but if we take a moment, just a brief moment to step outside of our own experience to see the world from a different perspective, we become aware of the deeper truth.
Some of you may remember me sharing my story of reconnecting with my biological family a couple of years ago. I want to summarize some of that experience for you, and what I learned about seeing things from another perspective. To make a very long story much shorter, I was adopted as an infant. About six years ago I was contacted by my birth parents. It was a slow and tenuous relationship at first. Through several letters, emails, and eventually phone calls, I got to know them.
I say them, because as it turns out, my biological parents were high-school sweethearts when I was born. They ended up married with two children. That’s the very rough shell of the story. It’s necessary to explain that this family that I am biologically related to, a family that I never knew existed for 28 years, carves out a bizarre picture of what my life very easily could have been. This family lives in a very rural part of Arkansas. Like most of their family and neighbors, they are Baptists. They have been in that area of Arkansas for at least three generations, and their children are still there, with no interest in leaving. My life story however, has been very, very different.
What might my life have been like in these circumstances? Who would I be today? Seeing this alternate universe that I could have lived in makes me very aware that I could be a different person today. It becomes very easy to imagine living the life of someone else, when that possibility is right before your eyes. This is my story, but I’m sure each of your lives has been filled with different coincidences and decisions made for you that have made you who you are today.
To understand our deep interconnection, a good first step is realizing that the lives that we know as our own, could very easily have been different. They could be more like the lives of other people, even people that we disagree with.
But the concept of one human family goes far beyond metaphors and what ifs. It’s rooted in science. We hear more and more every day about how the future well-being of our planet is in peril. What is more, we are all in it together, because the resources of the Earth are not static, the pollution that we create affects people on the other side of the globe and vise versa. We know we are ecologically connected and we are slowly realizing that we are called to act upon the situation.
What’s more, we are all way more genetically related than some would have us believe, especially when talking about racial groups.
Evidence from the analyzing DNA shows that the vast majority of physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional ideas of "racial" groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. That means that there is greater variation within any one "racial" group than between different “races.” Overwhelmingly, scientific study indicates that what we understand as “racial” categories, have no meaningful genetic reality. (1998 Statement on Race from the American Anthropoligcal Society)
But if racial categories are socially constructed, if there is no basis for them in reality, it makes me wonder how many other differences that we see between ourselves and other people are less significant than we may think.
I want to tell you a little bit more about my story and understanding the network of mutuality. Eventually, I had my first in person encounter with my birth family, the family of an alternate universe in which I could have lived. We had exchanged several letters and talked on the phone a few times. We exchanged pictures and health information.
Finally, it was just time to bite the bullet and meet in person. I didn’t have any expectations going into the meeting. I had done that before, with the first letter, and then the first phone conversation. What do I say? Will we have anything to talk about? What do I call them? Most of all, how am I supposed to do this. There’s no road map. Anyway, I had been through all that, so I decided that meeting them, simply being in the same space together would be enough of an accomplishment. The rest would take care of itself.
Well, being in the same space was a big step. It was a much stranger step than I ever expected. The first thing that I said when we drove up to the restaurant where my biological family was sitting outside was, “Oh my God, I have a twin.” I don’t of course have a twin, but one of these brothers looked so much like me it was shocking.
I could tell he felt very awkward as well. It was the strangest thing, really straight out of the old movie the “Parent Trap.” I was having lunch with someone who looked exactly like me. He was talking, but that wasn’t my mouth over there moving. I’m here, he’s there, but that looks like me. It was the strangest sensations I have ever experienced in my life. Having never in my life seen another person who was genetically related to me, suddenly I was confronted with a near twin.
Mixing up a sense of your identity in relationship to another person is a very strange and disorienting thing. Seeing someone who looks exactly like you speak words that are not your own is a very, very strange thing. But disorientation isn’t always such a bad thing. Often, it’s the only way we can get out of a rut, the only way to see beyond ourselves. To learn new things, we often have to leave the comfort of the known. A moment of disorientation is often the path to deeper insight.
That’s my hope for us as a community. I invite you for just a moment to imagine transcending your own life experience. Maybe it helps you to remember that the circumstances that have constructed your life are largely coincidence. You could have been born to different parents, or in a different country, of a different gender or racial category. Or if you are of a more scientific mind, remember that your genes, the building blocks of your body are incredibly similar to every other human on this earth. Remember that their eyes work the same way yours do. What might it be like to look at the world through their eyes for just a moment.
We believe that there is a interdependent web of existence that connects us to each other, and to every piece of the universe. We believe there is a Unity that makes us one. But sometimes, our beliefs, our ideals, get more complicated when we try to live our lives on the ground. When we come into communities our ideals find hard edges.
I am reminded of story about the blind men and the elephant. And we here at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach have an elephant before us. Several of us have reached out, and we have gotten a sense that something is there, something very big, something that can’t be ignored. There is an elephant that has been here for quite a long time.
Most recently, some of us have reached out into the darkness. Brushing up against that great big elephant leg, we felt a tree, a flowering pear tree to be exact. We reached out and felt a tree in our midst and we had very different opinions of what that tree symbolized and how we should treat it. We have had discussions ranging from curious and respectful, to tearful heartbreaking arguments. We have felt our way through studying the tree. We have posed several different options of what to do with the tree. And eventually we will act as a community to respond to the tree that we feel in the darkness.
But the tree that seems so central and so important, the tree that has captured our attention is only one piece of the elephant in our midst. You see, just like in the story, before one of the blind men reached out to touch the elephant’s leg and felt a tree there, another blind man came along and reached out his hand and felt a rope. We haven’t had many conversations about ropes in our Fellowship. But we have had many deep conversations about what ties us together, what creates the boundaries of our community, what we will and will not allow to come into our community.
The language of metaphor can only go so far, so let me name this publicly. Just a couple of years ago, the leadership of our congregation had to make the very painful decision to tell a member of our community that she was no longer welcomed here. Because of disrespectful behavior to our staff, our facility, and our members, it was decided that we had to ask her to leave, permanently.
That was a heartbreaking time. It was a conflict that permeated the first years of my ministry with this congregation. It was very, very hard for our community, and the pain of that decision persists today. Two years ago many of us reached out into the darkness and found a rope there, a line that defined who we allowed in and who we kept out of our community. We talked and argued and cried over that decision. But the truth is that that moment, that rope, is only one more piece of an elephant that is still sitting in our sanctuary.
In the same way, still others have found a big unidentifiable floppy mass as they reached out and grabbed an elephant’s ear. Just imagine what that giant rough flappy squishy elephant ear would feel like to a blind person. It would be terribly hard to figure out what it was.
In just that way, some in our community are reaching out now and finding a big unidentifiable floppy mess as they try to grab a hold of our committee structures, bylaws and policies, and it is unsettling.
The truth is, we have not done a very good job at creating systems of accountability. Some of our committees exist in name only and it is unclear who is supposed to report to whom. We should have done this better. We, both, you the congregation, and I as your minister, we are both to blame for this shortcoming. So now, some folks are reaching out in the darkness and feeling this part of the elephant in our sanctuary, this big unidentifiable floppy mess of an ear. It is unsettling, but it is a problem with a clear solution that we all agree needs fixing.
For the past several years we have reached out to feel our way in this community. In the dark, we have come across several challenges, several mysteries that we have argued over. It is my deep conviction that these conflicts of the recent past and of today are part of a much larger elephant in our midst. There is an elephant in the room, a big one, that needs to be talked about.
These pieces of church life that come up for us as sources of disagreement are pieces of a bigger mystery. That mystery is who we are as a community, and who we want to be in the future. It may seem like a simple question, what is a church supposed to be? But I assure you, our answers to that question can be just as different as our answers about God.
So I leave you with a small challenge today. Think for yourself, what is your image of who we are as a community, and who should we be in the future. What does YOUR UUFLB look like, what does it sound like? How does it feel to you? Who are we as a community, and who should we be in the future.
And if you imagination allows, try looking through the eyes of someone else, maybe someone you know, maybe someone you make up in your head. Just try to imagine a completely different set of eyes as you approach this elephant. And try with me to imagine how someone else might think what this church is, and what it is supposed to be in the future.