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“And Now, a Word from Our Shepherds!”–Christmas Eve 2008 Candle Light Service

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento
7:00 PM, December 24, 2008
Rev. Roger Jones & Rev. Doug Kraft

Words of Welcome
1) Doug
2) Roger:
Welcome to everyone, especially those here for the first time. If you are visiting us, we hope to get to know you better. You are always welcome to our Sunday morning services, which take place at 9:30 and 11:15. Religious education programs for children and youth take place during the 9:30 AM service, and we offer nursery care on Sundays. In tonight’s service, Nativity readings from the Bible alternate with traditional songs. During most of the songs please remain seated, but we will invite you to rise as you are able for some, including our first hymn, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” You will see in your order of service that its refrain is in Latin but you are welcome to sing it in any language you know. By the way, if you have a cell phone or pager, please be sure to
turn it off.
Responsive Reading
for Lighting of the Chalice

adapted from the Rev. Sophia Lyon Fahs

For so the children come, and so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come.
Born in flesh, born with spirit.
No angels herald their beginnings.
No prophets predict their future courses.
No wise men can see a star to show where
to find the babe that will save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Parent and grandparent, sitting beside the child’s crib,
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”

Each night a child is born is a holy night—

a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshiping.
Christmas Prayer

Please join me in the spirit of contemplation as I offer these words of prayer. Creative Spirit of Love and Goodwill, we give thanks for the gift of this day and all the gifts of life. Among us here on this evening are many joys and cares, personal reasons for gratitude and for worry.
Most of us who gather here remember loved ones who are no longer with us; our memories remain precious. Many of us come with nostalgia for lovely times in the past, and many come with excitement for the night and morning ahead of us. May our being together teach our hearts to sing in all times of life.
As we sing, pray and hear the message of peace this evening, we know there are many without peace. Let our prayers extend beyond these church walls to a world in need of peace and healing. May we do our part for peace and understanding.
May our being together give us assurance of the warmth of human fellowship and the goodness of our own hearts. Let us know that every member of the human family is connected to everyone else.
May we know that everyone is held in the embrace of love. May peace be in our hearts, this night and always. So may it be. Blessed be, and amen.

Readings:
Prophet Isaiah 9:2-9, Gospel of Luke 2:1-20, and Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12

Homily:
“And Now, a Word from Our Shepherds”
The stories about the nativity of Jesus were not written down until about 40 years after his death. The many stories and memorable sayings and lessons of Jesus were passed around by word of mouth, and eventually some scribes put pen to papyrus and wrote them down as Gospel books, with multiple versions and variations one the theme. In a few hundred years, once there was a formal church, the leaders of the church decided on an official set of only four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Of these four, only the books of Matthew and Luke tell about the baby in Bethlehem. And, of these two, only the Gospel of Luke tells about the angel and the shepherds. Luke has the shepherds “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
Suddenly an angel appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them. A heavenly messenger brings big news…to plain-old humble shepherds! Why shepherds? The shepherds may be asking themselves the same thing: Why us? Why us?

Imagine being one of them! Shepherds work alone, or nearly alone, wandering out in the middle of nowhere. (To be sure, in Palestine 2,000 years ago there was a lot of nowhere in which to wander.) You are watching your flock by night, as you do every night, and you see a flash in the dark sky, and someone speaks to you, and urges you to go on a journey. And before it vanishes, it sings, and it has backup singers, known as the Heavenly Host. “Holy, holy, holy! Glory to God in the highest,” they all sing. Now this would be freaky, wouldn’t it? The angel says to them, “Be not afraid,” but I don’t think that would help very much.
If I were a shepherd, such a cosmic light and sound show would leave me feeling dizzy and faint. Maybe the shepherds have to sit down on a rock and put their heads between their knees. Once they are able to sit up and speak, they have to figure out what to do about this news. “Why us?” They must be saying. “We’ve got work to do!”
Having the job of shepherd means working the day shift and the night shift. You tend the animals by day so they will not get lost, and lead them to all the grass and shrubs they need to grow big and fat. You guard the animals by night so wolves won’t rush in from the dark and eat them. If the shepherds were to leave their flocks, they could lose their livelihood. This risk must weigh on their minds. “Babies are cute,” one might say, “and a savior baby must be really cute, but can we afford this journey to go see one?” Perhaps they consider that might work if a few of them go to the city and a few stay behind and watch the flock.

The angel says: “I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” After hearing this pronouncement, one of the shepherds might ask his companions:
“Did he say what I think he said? Or was it a she? How can you tell, with angels? Well, whoever it was, that angel told us to go to Bethlehem. Can you believe that—into the city!”
Shepherds are nomads–wandering guys. They do not live in one place. Definitely not city dwellers. Out in the fields they do not shave, do not bathe very often, and have no fancy clothes. They keep to themselves. In the literature of the Ancient Near East, being a shepherd was the archetypal occupation. An equivalent character for us today would be the cowboy of the Old West, out on the range. Imagine an angel appearing at night in the big sky of Montana, or in Wyoming, telling cowboys to take a trip into the city. Cowboys don’t like to be told what to do. Nor do shepherds
To make matters worse, the angel’s directions are vague:
“You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” That’s it. No hints to turn right at the first dirt road in Bethlehem, and certainly no angelic Mapquest or Google.
And once they arrive at Bethlehem, then what? Surely every cattle shed there looks like every other cattle shed? There must be some confused cows in Bethlehem, with shepherds looking for a baby in their feed-troughs. And if the owners of those cattle were to see shepherds snooping around, it would not be good. Yet another risk for the shepherds.
But they do agree to go. They go “with haste,” the story says, and they find the right place.

“They find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” What an experience this would be—leaving behind your livestock, hiking all the way to the city, and finding this baby. This is the baby, according to the angel, whose birth is a promise of peace and goodwill in the human family. The birth is a promise of love to all people.
While the trip to the manger in Bethlehem is not a race, let us note on behalf of our shepherds that they arrive before the wise men do. What a coup! Luke’s Gospel, in fact, makes no mention of the wise men at all. By the same token, Matthew’s Gospel makes no mention of the shepherds, so they’re even.

As we heard in Matthew, the wise men open their treasure chests. They give Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All these gifts are precious, and all have symbolic value in the New Testament. These wise men come from the East, where they are magicians, astrologers, men with wealth and fame. Of course this delegation of well-dressed ambassadors would come to see a child who is born to be a king. But shepherds! Why shepherds?
Of the four Gospels, Luke has the greatest social conscience, according to some New Testament scholars. Luke makes many references to the dignity and worth of the poor and humble. And, of course, the story starts out with a poor family—a young couple having their baby in a shed.
These are humble beginnings for a boy who will grow up to be a rabbi, healer, prophet, and martyr. He gets no room in the inn, and he sleeps with farm animals. Like this baby, shepherds sleep with animals. They do not sleep in nice places, and they live a simple life. Yet they are the first ones to be invited to see this baby.
Poor, humble, hardworking loners, they are neither rich nor famous. Even so, they are worthy of a front-row seat at this drama, a first glimpse of this new promise of peace and love. The only gifts they bring are their humility and their sense of wonder, but that’s enough.
Maybe this is why they have risked so much for this journey: It means something special for them to have been invited. Shepherds may be strong and silent types, but I can imagine that, as the shepherds kneel before the baby, their eyes are welling up with tears.

I like to imagine that each one is thinking: “Maybe this poor little baby can indeed be a source of human goodwill and love. Maybe he can be an instrument of peace on earth. Maybe he can.  And, if he can, maybe I can too.”

Rising from bended knee, the shepherds make the return journey to their flocks. Luke says they go back “glorifying and praising God for all they have seen and heard.” Perhaps they sing and whistle along the way. Or maybe they travel in solemn silence, pondering how this journey has changed them.

However they go, they must be glad they made the trip. These humble shepherds go home, now so grateful for the invitation to go on the journey. It matters that they have been included in this promise of peace, goodwill and love.

On this Christmas Eve, whoever we are, may we know that all of us are invited to make this journey together. All are worthy of it.
May we know that we all are included in the promise of peace, goodwill and love. Everyone is included.
So may it be. Blessed be, and amen.

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Waiting for the Gifts of the Spirit: Sermon Nov. 30, 2008

 

Advent:  Waiting for the Gifts of the Spirit

 

Hymns              For the Beauty of the Earth, I’ve Got Peace Like a River, Give Yourself to Love.

 Conversation with Children           

Today I’m inviting you to join me in an experiment in what is called mindfulness mediation.  (“Oh, no,” a girl shudders; “Does that involve sitting still?”) 

As a matter of fact it does involve sitting still.  We’re going to sit together for half a minute or so, in silence, and just see what it feels like.  We’ll sit here and just pay attention to our breathing.  You might see or hear squirming or squealing or chattering around us, but that’s okay.  Just notice it and let it happen.  Notice what it feels like to be sitting on the floor, to be breathing.  You may have thoughts go through your mind; they will come and go, come and go.  Just let them.  You adults in the chairs are invited just to notice what’s going on with you, too.  Let’s see what it feels like.  I will ring this chime to start our meditation time and to end it. 

(30 seconds pass.)  What did you notice?  Let’s start on the right side here and go around the circle to see if any of you wants to say something.  “I noticed I was hungry.”  “I noticed I felt weird.”  “I noticed it was boring.”  “I noticed I felt peace.”  “I noticed I was thirsty.” 

All these experiences are some of the most common things that people say after they meditate.  It’s interesting what we notice when we pay attention.  I want to let you know that you can do this experiment with yourself any place and at anytime you want to.  Thank you for your attention and participation, and I look forward to seeing you after the service.

 

Reading             Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House  

A poem by Billy Collins

 Sermon

 

As my first Christmas with this congregation approaches, I have a confession to make.  For most of my life I have had an ambivalent relationship to Christmas.  It’s not so much a love/hate relationship with the holiday season.  No, depending on circumstances, I either like it or loathe it.  I won’t go into the whole sad story of my materialistic childhood or the let down of my college Christmas homecomings.  I know many people and families who have borne much heavier holiday-season hardships.  I was blessed in many ways, and I am today.  Even so, I can identify with Dr. Seuss’s Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and I’m sure the Grinch came from a dysfunctional family.

I know there are others like me who have Grinches lurking in the shadows of the soul, or maybe just nagging little gremlins, supplying their unique and personal reasons for holiday ambivalence.  For some, it’s being part of a non-Christian spiritual practice or faith in the midst of society’s dominant religion.  For others it’s the frustration of trying to find the peaceful message of Jesus’ holy birth amid the idolatry of commercialism.  And many of us are burdened by the high expectations that we put on one another and ourselves at this time. We may feel as if we are on a holiday treadmill:  so many things to prepare for, pay for, do, attend, host, drive to, buy, wrap, write, send, give, reciprocate for, eat, drink, and remember not to forget, all in a few weeks’ time.  Oh, and of course there is the expectation look happy while you’re at it!  We pack so many expectations into building toward the climactic day of December 25th. This can set us up for a letdown.

As a young adult I took a second look at the Christian tradition, which I had left behind in college, and I found some freedom in it.  My adult-level introduction to the Christian liturgical tradition was through the Episcopal Church.  Thanks to its lesbian and gay outreach and its campus ministry in my university town, I began friendships with active lay persons there as well as clergy.  Though my friends occupied the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church regarding social concerns, when it came to the calendar of the church year they were traditionalists.  For them, Christmas did not begin on the day after Thanksgiving, but nearly a month later, at a Christmas Eve church service.  Some still wait until the day of Christmas Eve for the hanging of the greens and trimming of the tree.  The season is called Christmastide, and it goes from December 25 until January 6.  Hence the 12 days of Christmas, made famous in the song about the gifts of three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.  January 6 is the beginning of the season of Epiphany, and the day that marks the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts from the East. It’s also the day to take down the greens and dismantle the Christmas tree. 

In the traditional calendar, the season that leads up to Christmas is Advent.  The Advent season begins today and it covers the four Sundays before Christmas.  For centuries, Advent has been a time of reflection, a time of waiting and spiritual preparation.   Many churches that observe Advent hold off singing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve—instead, they sing hymns about waiting for the arrival of hope, love, joy and peace on earth.  Traditional Christians see that arrival in the birth of Jesus, and they celebrate it on Christmas.  Of course, some of us Unitarian Universalists don’t observe any Christian holidays.  Even so, our tradition affirms the possibility that the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace can arrive in any season of the year, at any moment.  And we affirm that these gifts can come to any person’s life.  Our religious tradition affirms that everyone is worthy of these gifts— hope, love, joy and peace —and everyone has a role to play in giving them to the world and to one another.

We all want peace on earth and joy in our hearts.  We want a world based on love and blessed with hope.  But Advent says:  Not so fast.  Whoever you are, in whatever faith tradition you might be–or in none at all– bringing forth such gifts will require patience.  We must learn to wait awhile. 

            Simone Weil, the 20th century French philosopher and social activist, writes:  “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  The first time I read that, I said, “Oh, great! Patience!” 

            It’s true, though.  The practice of waiting and watching is found in many spiritual traditions.  The emotional pain of waiting comes from the idea that where we are going is the only place to be, from the certainty that what we are waiting for is just what we need.  We say:  Let’s tear open the wrapping and get to the good stuff.  Advent says:  Look inside first.  Unwrap your own attitudes and habits of mind. 

            Our own forbear Ralph Waldo Emerson splashes cold water on our face.  You may feel a lift in your hearts, he says, from political changes, economic improvements, recovery from sickness, the “return of an absent friend, or some other external event.”  This “raises your spirits,” Emerson says, “and you think good days are preparing for you.  Do not believe it.  It can never be so.  Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

Henri Nouwen makes the observation that much of our waiting is really an attempt at controlling the future, trying to direct the future.  This is understandable, he says, for we live in “a world preoccupied with control.” 

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who taught and ministered in the fields of mental health and developmental disabilities in the U. S. and Canada until his death in 1996.  His writings on the spiritual life are popular in many denominations.  In an essay about the spirituality of Advent, Nowen writes:  “Waiting is not a very popular attitude….  Most people consider waiting a waste of time,” and for many of us “waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go….  People do not like such a place, [and] they want to get out of it by doing something.” The modern-day holiday season suits this urge just right.  Seldom are we without something to do.

In October I attended a five-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California.  It was a silent retreat, except for a brief time for questions before lunch and a sermon-like talk after dinner each night, known as a Dharma talk.  We had a couple of 45-minute group interviews with a teacher, but most of the time all 84 of us observed silence, practicing mindfulness throughout a daily schedule that alternated between sitting meditation and walking meditation, with silent meals together and a 45-minute job to break up the day, if not the silence we kept. 

The practice of meditation is to notice your experience every moment, accept it, and then experience the next moment.  The practice is to notice feelings and sensations, impulses and fleeting thoughts, but only to notice them, not to judge them, repress them, or hold on to them. 

The teaching is that our feelings and thoughts arise and pass away, arise and pass away, moment by moment.  The practice is to notice, to be present.  The primary anchor to the present moment is our breathing in and breathing out.  When the attention wanders or the mind gets hooked in reactions or in planning, kindly bring your attention back to the present, by watching the breath or noticing the sensations of the body. 
            It is simple, but it’s easier said than done.  That’s why, on retreat, we practice over several days.  Seeing your own habits of mind is humbling.  Coming face to face to face with your own reactions, attitudes and knee-jerk judgments can be embarrassing.

            One of our teachers suggested that we think of the practice of mindfulness as being companions to ourselves.  Imagine, she said, that you are visiting a friend who is sick in bed.  You give that person company for a long stretch of time, just being quiet.  Whatever your friend is experiencing, you are present.  It may take some effort, but you think the effort is worth it, and so is your friend.  We can show the same kindness and patience to ourselves.  We can be present with our own experience.  As we would with a loved one, we might say, “I’m here for you.”  We can be a companion to our feelings, even if we feel that we’d rather run out of the room.

In the words of Nouwen, the friend who cares is the friend who can wait with us, “who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, … who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness.”  We can learn to be a compassionate friend to ourselves, to watch and wait with ourselves.

Nouwen says that the activity of waiting  “is never a movement from nothing to something.  It is always a movement from something to something more.”  The key to waiting is the faith that where we are now, where we are in any moment, is worth our attention.  “The secret,” he says, “is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”  The moment we are waiting for is already here.  It is this moment. 

Here in the northern hemisphere, starting in December many people struggle with the growing time of darkness and the shorter days.  For some, the challenge can be clinical depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder, called SAD for short.  I have a friend in the Upper Midwest who has this.  She lessens her wintertime pain with special bright-light lamps, medication, and travel to places with a sunny climate, but so far it cannot be avoided altogether. While I don’t usually get heavily depressed as December comes and daylight hours dissipate, I do resent it.  I curse the shorter days.  I get up early to have as much daylight as possible and I work near windows as much as I can.  Even so, by late January I get squirrelly and cranky, with bouts of anxiety and loneliness.  

A popular quotation says you can curse the darkness or you can dare to light a candle against it.  This is really a metaphor about eliminating ignorance and injustice, but it’s how I feel sometimes about real darkness.

A teacher of mindfulness might say:   you can curse the darkness, or light a candle, or you can watch the darkness, every moment you’re in it, rather than fleeing it.  You can watch it, and notice yourself as you experience it.   Every day and every night are made of moments, and things change, moment by moment.  Even the quality of the darkness changes.  Last night I was driving to church at 5:00 PM, and I happened to notice the degrees of darkness and light that were in the sky.  I saw the color the sky gave off at that moment, and how it was changing.  I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, when I go outside at night, when I start to wish the night away, I can pause to see it and feel it, and know it as a companion. 

American poet Wendell Berry writes this about exploring the dark:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

            Nouwen says that impatient people “are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go there.  The moment is empty.”  I think that there are almost no totally “impatient people,” nor are there purely patient ones.  We all can experience impatient feelings, and we can let them drive us.  Yet, in the face of impatient feelings, we also can practice patience.  In spite of the temptation toward another moment instead of the present one, we can “dare to stay where [we] are.”  Nouwen says, “Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there.  Waiting . . . is not passive.  It involves nurturing the moment, the way we might nurture a child.”

            Most spiritual traditions teach that waiting and watching, learning and growing are done with the support and help of a community.  Furthermore, each one of us plays a role in providing the gifts that a community offers.  We do this just by showing up. 

When we gather in a spiritual community, we create a space for each other to wait. A Buddhist community is called a Sangha; that’s what a group of people become when we join together on retreat or just for an evening meditation—a Sangha.  My retreat leaders have said that Buddhism sees the Sangha just as important as the teachings themselves, and just as important as the Buddha, who set an example for the way to understanding and freedom.  During our five-day retreat, my 83 fellow meditators and I spoke only a few times, mostly at the beginning and the end of it.  Yet by showing up side-by-side for our meditation sessions, we supported one another in our practice of noticing and watching. 

Most of my meditating and praying take place when I am alone.  Yet I could not do it alone if I did not have the knowledge that others are also engaging in this practice, or if I did not have opportunities to be with others, to watch and wait together.  This applies to the Unitarian Universalist communities to which I have belonged.  I have my own values and hopes, my questions and answers, my aspirations, and my commitments.  But it is crucial that I join with others to explore, deepen and express these matters of ultimate concern.

Even though we could do so alone, by ourselves, we explore and speak our values together because the companionship can encourage us and give power to our affirmation.  Nouwen says that a spiritual community “is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us.”  We affirm the spirit in one another. We celebrate “what has already begun in [our lives].”  We affirm what is already there as we watch its fulfillment, day by day, year after year. 

In Morning Watch, her book of meditations, prayers and poems, my colleague the Reverend Barbara Pescan puts it this way: “When I am with you, my friends, I know better who it is in me that sings.”

The late composer John Cage caused one of the great musical controversies of the 20th century when he wrote a work in three movements entitled 4’ 33” [Four minutes and thirty-three seconds.]  During the performance, not a note of music is heard.  Those who defend this work, or at least appreciate its intent, note that its performance includes the sounds that the audience hears in the absence of music.  Hence each performance requires active attention, and each one is unique.  Even as much of Cage’s audience hated the work, even as they rejected it, they were made part of its creation!  In a sense, this is what happens here:  We each play a part in creating the experience of the service or other church activity that brings us together.

   When we gather in a religious community, we affirm the importance of taking some time to consider the questions that matter. John Cage writes:  “We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life.”

Our highest business, I believe, is also to reach out and lend a listening ear, to ask for the same in return, to speak from the heart with one another.  Our highest business is to offer an assuring presence, the kind of attentive gaze that says, “I’m here for you.” 

We’re here for you.  We’re here for one another, with patience, kindness and compassion.  We’re here to receive the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace, and to share them with the world.  So may it be.  Amen. 

             

[Note:  please do not circulate on the internet; make printed copies only]


Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Self Reliance.”  1841.

Nouwen, Henri.  “Waiting for God,” the November 28 selection in Watch for the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas.  Plough Publishing House, 2001. 

Nouwen, Henri.  Out of Solitude.  2004, Ave Maria Press.

Cage, John.  From “Where Are We Going and What Are We Doing?” in Silence.



Pastoral Prayer on Solstice Sunday 12/21/08

Solstice Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008
UU Society of Sacramento, CA

Let us take a deep breath together, in and out.
Now please join me in the spirit of reflection as I offer this prayer for the season.

Eternal Source of Love and Grace, we give you thanks for the gift of life and the gift of this new day. As people of all ages, we have gathered here this morning to receive and to give the gift of community. We are blessed to be together.
The month of December links together holidays from varied spiritual and cultural traditions. As we acknowledge the diversity of heritage and expression, let us affirm humanity’s longing for understanding, respect and peace. As we mark the sun’s change and these days of diminished light, let us open our minds and hearts to insights and wisdom from many sources.
Let the Winter Solstice remind us of our dependence on the sun, this planet Earth and the generosity of the oceans, rivers, lands, plants and creatures of the world. Let us know that we are embraced by nature, and part of it. Let us care for the earth.
Holidays for many of us are a time to remember those who have died, including those we’ve lost in the past year. Whatever causes of grief or sadness any of us may have, let us hold ourselves, and one another, with tenderness.
The coming days and weeks are a time of reunion. For all those who are traveling, we send our wishes for safe journeys. For those receiving guests, we wish for ease and authenticity. May our connections with others be blessed with kindness and gratitude. When circumstances make it hard to feel grateful, let us respond with patience and kindness, for ourselves no less than for others.
Let our prayers extend beyond these walls to all those those in places near and far who are sick, starving, or homeless and those in zones of war and occupation, both the people serving there and those who call such places their home. May love reach around the globe to comfort and sustain them.
The Christmas observance includes the telling of an ancient story–the birth of a baby and the rebirth of hope. May our own deeds and words help us to reclaim hope and restore the vision of goodwill in the human family and peace on Earth.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen. Now let us take a few moments of silence together. Our silence will be ended by music.



Christmas Reflection
December 17, 2008, 6:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

from the late Rev. Howard Thurman:
When the song of angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the peoples, to make music in the heart.



The secrets of strong families around the world
December 7, 2008, 10:18 pm
Filed under: Children and Youth, Family Ministry, Pastor Smiley Speaks | Tags: , , ,

 

The secrets of strong families around the world

newsletter column by the  Family Minister

In 1995 Meadville Lombard Theological School—my seminary—held a conference on the above topic.

A professor of family studies from the University of Nebraska told us that he and a colleague had reviewed 53 extensive studies which 60 researchers had conducted on families, covering more than 15,000 people in all the States and in 27 countries.  They

consisted of long interviews with people who felt their families were strong and healthy.

The interviewers simply asked the participants to tell what their family lives were like.   Their conclusions:  Family strengths include (drum roll)…showing appreciation and affection, commitment, positive communication, time spent together, a sense of spiritual well- being, and the ability to cope with stress and crisis.

Each of the above could be an essay, sermon or course title, to be sure!

The remarkable thing to me was that the basic qualities of strong families are similar from one culture to another around the world. The researchers concluded that the ingredients of strong, emotionally healthy families do not differ much by the type of family or by culture.  Best wishes to us all in building strong relationships of all kinds.

Yours in faith,

Roger

 



Advent Sermon: Waiting for the Gifts of the Spirit
December 3, 2008, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Family Ministry, Sermons and a Whole Lot More | Tags: , , , ,

November 30, 2008

 UU Society of Sacramento, CA 

Advent:  Waiting for the Gifts of the Spirit

 

Hymns              For the Beauty of the Earth, I’ve Got Peace Like a River, Give Yourself to Love.

 

Conversation with Children

           

Today I’m inviting you to join me in an experiment in what is called mindfulness mediation.  (“Oh, no,” a girl shudders; “Does that involve sitting still?”) 

As a matter of fact it does involve sitting still.  We’re going to sit together for half a minute or so, in silence, and just see what it feels like.  We’ll sit here and just pay attention to our breathing.  You might see or hear squirming or squealing or chattering around us, but that’s okay.  Just notice it and let it happen.  Notice what it feels like to be sitting on the floor, to be breathing.  You may have thoughts go through your mind; they will come and go, come and go.  Just let them.  You adults in the chairs are invited just to notice what’s going on with you, too.  Let’s see what it feels like.  I will ring this chime to start our meditation time and to end it. 

(30 seconds pass.)  What did you notice?  Let’s start on the right side here and go around the circle to see if any of you wants to say something.  “I noticed I was hungry.”  “I noticed I felt weird.”  “I noticed it was boring.”  “I noticed I felt peace.”  “I noticed I was thirsty.” 

All these experiences are some of the most common things that people say after they meditate.  It’s interesting what we notice when we pay attention.  I want to let you know that you can do this experiment with yourself any place and at anytime you want to.  Thank you for your attention and participation, and I look forward to seeing you after the service.

 

Reading             Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House  

A poem by Billy Collins

 

 Sermon

 

As my first Christmas with this congregation approaches, I have a confession to make.  For most of my life I have had an ambivalent relationship to Christmas.  It’s not so much a love/hate relationship with the holiday season.  No, depending on circumstances, I either like it or loathe it.  I won’t go into the whole sad story of my materialistic childhood or the let down of my college Christmas homecomings.  I know many people and families who have borne much heavier holiday-season hardships.  I was blessed in many ways, and I am today.  Even so, I can identify with Dr. Seuss’s Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and I’m sure the Grinch came from a dysfunctional family.

I know there are others like me who have Grinches lurking in the shadows of the soul, or maybe just nagging little gremlins, supplying their unique and personal reasons for holiday ambivalence.  For some, it’s being part of a non-Christian spiritual practice or faith in the midst of society’s dominant religion.  For others it’s the frustration of trying to find the peaceful message of Jesus’ holy birth amid the idolatry of commercialism.  And many of us are burdened by the high expectations that we put on one another and ourselves at this time. We may feel as if we are on a holiday treadmill:  so many things to prepare for, pay for, do, attend, host, drive to, buy, wrap, write, send, give, reciprocate for, eat, drink, and remember not to forget, all in a few weeks’ time.  Oh, and of course there is the expectation look happy while you’re at it!  We pack so many expectations into building toward the climactic day of December 25th. This can set us up for a letdown.

As a young adult I took a second look at the Christian tradition, which I had left behind in college, and I found some freedom in it.  My adult-level introduction to the Christian liturgical tradition was through the Episcopal Church.  Thanks to its lesbian and gay outreach and its campus ministry in my university town, I began friendships with active lay persons there as well as clergy.  Though my friends occupied the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church regarding social concerns, when it came to the calendar of the church year they were traditionalists.  For them, Christmas did not begin on the day after Thanksgiving, but nearly a month later, at a Christmas Eve church service.  Some still wait until the day of Christmas Eve for the hanging of the greens and trimming of the tree.  The season is called Christmastide, and it goes from December 25 until January 6.  Hence the 12 days of Christmas, made famous in the song about the gifts of three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.  January 6 is the beginning of the season of Epiphany, and the day that marks the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts from the East. It’s also the day to take down the greens and dismantle the Christmas tree. 

In the traditional calendar, the season that leads up to Christmas is Advent.  The Advent season begins today and it covers the four Sundays before Christmas.  For centuries, Advent has been a time of reflection, a time of waiting and spiritual preparation.   Many churches that observe Advent hold off singing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve—instead, they sing hymns about waiting for the arrival of hope, love, joy and peace on earth.  Traditional Christians see that arrival in the birth of Jesus, and they celebrate it on Christmas.  Of course, some of us Unitarian Universalists don’t observe any Christian holidays.  Even so, our tradition affirms the possibility that the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace can arrive in any season of the year, at any moment.  And we affirm that these gifts can come to any person’s life.  Our religious tradition affirms that everyone is worthy of these gifts— hope, love, joy and peace —and everyone has a role to play in giving them to the world and to one another.

We all want peace on earth and joy in our hearts.  We want a world based on love and blessed with hope.  But Advent says:  Not so fast.  Whoever you are, in whatever faith tradition you might be–or in none at all– bringing forth such gifts will require patience.  We must learn to wait awhile. 

            Simone Weil, the 20th century French philosopher and social activist, writes:  “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  The first time I read that, I said, “Oh, great! Patience!” 

            It’s true, though.  The practice of waiting and watching is found in many spiritual traditions.  The emotional pain of waiting comes from the idea that where we are going is the only place to be, from the certainty that what we are waiting for is just what we need.  We say:  Let’s tear open the wrapping and get to the good stuff.  Advent says:  Look inside first.  Unwrap your own attitudes and habits of mind. 

            Our own forbear Ralph Waldo Emerson splashes cold water on our face.  You may feel a lift in your hearts, he says, from political changes, economic improvements, recovery from sickness, the “return of an absent friend, or some other external event.”  This “raises your spirits,” Emerson says, “and you think good days are preparing for you.  Do not believe it.  It can never be so.  Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

Henri Nouwen makes the observation that much of our waiting is really an attempt at controlling the future, trying to direct the future.  This is understandable, he says, for we live in “a world preoccupied with control.” 

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who taught and ministered in the fields of mental health and developmental disabilities in the U. S. and Canada until his death in 1996.  His writings on the spiritual life are popular in many denominations.  In an essay about the spirituality of Advent, Nowen writes:  “Waiting is not a very popular attitude….  Most people consider waiting a waste of time,” and for many of us “waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go….  People do not like such a place, [and] they want to get out of it by doing something.” The modern-day holiday season suits this urge just right.  Seldom are we without something to do.

In October I attended a five-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California.  It was a silent retreat, except for a brief time for questions before lunch and a sermon-like talk after dinner each night, known as a Dharma talk.  We had a couple of 45-minute group interviews with a teacher, but most of the time all 84 of us observed silence, practicing mindfulness throughout a daily schedule that alternated between sitting meditation and walking meditation, with silent meals together and a 45-minute job to break up the day, if not the silence we kept. 

The practice of meditation is to notice your experience every moment, accept it, and then experience the next moment.  The practice is to notice feelings and sensations, impulses and fleeting thoughts, but only to notice them, not to judge them, repress them, or hold on to them. 

The teaching is that our feelings and thoughts arise and pass away, arise and pass away, moment by moment.  The practice is to notice, to be present.  The primary anchor to the present moment is our breathing in and breathing out.  When the attention wanders or the mind gets hooked in reactions or in planning, kindly bring your attention back to the present, by watching the breath or noticing the sensations of the body. 
            It is simple, but it’s easier said than done.  That’s why, on retreat, we practice over several days.  Seeing your own habits of mind is humbling.  Coming face to face to face with your own reactions, attitudes and knee-jerk judgments can be embarrassing.

            One of our teachers suggested that we think of the practice of mindfulness as being companions to ourselves.  Imagine, she said, that you are visiting a friend who is sick in bed.  You give that person company for a long stretch of time, just being quiet.  Whatever your friend is experiencing, you are present.  It may take some effort, but you think the effort is worth it, and so is your friend.  We can show the same kindness and patience to ourselves.  We can be present with our own experience.  As we would with a loved one, we might say, “I’m here for you.”  We can be a companion to our feelings, even if we feel that we’d rather run out of the room.

In the words of Nouwen, the friend who cares is the friend who can wait with us, “who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, … who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness.”  We can learn to be a compassionate friend to ourselves, to watch and wait with ourselves.

Nouwen says that the activity of waiting  “is never a movement from nothing to something.  It is always a movement from something to something more.”  The key to waiting is the faith that where we are now, where we are in any moment, is worth our attention.  “The secret,” he says, “is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”  The moment we are waiting for is already here.  It is this moment. 

Here in the northern hemisphere, starting in December many people struggle with the growing time of darkness and the shorter days.  For some, the challenge can be clinical depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder, called SAD for short.  I have a friend in the Upper Midwest who has this.  She lessens her wintertime pain with special bright-light lamps, medication, and travel to places with a sunny climate, but so far it cannot be avoided altogether. While I don’t usually get heavily depressed as December comes and daylight hours dissipate, I do resent it.  I curse the shorter days.  I get up early to have as much daylight as possible and I work near windows as much as I can.  Even so, by late January I get squirrelly and cranky, with bouts of anxiety and loneliness.  

A popular quotation says you can curse the darkness or you can dare to light a candle against it.  This is really a metaphor about eliminating ignorance and injustice, but it’s how I feel sometimes about real darkness.

A teacher of mindfulness might say:   you can curse the darkness, or light a candle, or you can watch the darkness, every moment you’re in it, rather than fleeing it.  You can watch it, and notice yourself as you experience it.   Every day and every night are made of moments, and things change, moment by moment.  Even the quality of the darkness changes.  Last night I was driving to church at 5:00 PM, and I happened to notice the degrees of darkness and light that were in the sky.  I saw the color the sky gave off at that moment, and how it was changing.  I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, when I go outside at night, when I start to wish the night away, I can pause to see it and feel it, and know it as a companion. 

American poet Wendell Berry writes this about exploring the dark:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

            Nouwen says that impatient people “are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go there.  The moment is empty.”  I think that there are almost no totally “impatient people,” nor are there purely patient ones.  We all can experience impatient feelings, and we can let them drive us.  Yet, in the face of impatient feelings, we also can practice patience.  In spite of the temptation toward another moment instead of the present one, we can “dare to stay where [we] are.”  Nouwen says, “Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there.  Waiting . . . is not passive.  It involves nurturing the moment, the way we might nurture a child.”

            Most spiritual traditions teach that waiting and watching, learning and growing are done with the support and help of a community.  Furthermore, each one of us plays a role in providing the gifts that a community offers.  We do this just by showing up. 

When we gather in a spiritual community, we create a space for each other to wait. A Buddhist community is called a Sangha; that’s what a group of people become when we join together on retreat or just for an evening meditation—a Sangha.  My retreat leaders have said that Buddhism sees the Sangha just as important as the teachings themselves, and just as important as the Buddha, who set an example for the way to understanding and freedom.  During our five-day retreat, my 83 fellow meditators and I spoke only a few times, mostly at the beginning and the end of it.  Yet by showing up side-by-side for our meditation sessions, we supported one another in our practice of noticing and watching. 

Most of my meditating and praying take place when I am alone.  Yet I could not do it alone if I did not have the knowledge that others are also engaging in this practice, or if I did not have opportunities to be with others, to watch and wait together.  This applies to the Unitarian Universalist communities to which I have belonged.  I have my own values and hopes, my questions and answers, my aspirations, and my commitments.  But it is crucial that I join with others to explore, deepen and express these matters of ultimate concern.

Even though we could do so alone, by ourselves, we explore and speak our values together because the companionship can encourage us and give power to our affirmation.  Nouwen says that a spiritual community “is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us.”  We affirm the spirit in one another. We celebrate “what has already begun in [our lives].”  We affirm what is already there as we watch its fulfillment, day by day, year after year. 

In Morning Watch, her book of meditations, prayers and poems, my colleague the Reverend Barbara Pescan puts it this way: “When I am with you, my friends, I know better who it is in me that sings.”

The late composer John Cage caused one of the great musical controversies of the 20th century when he wrote a work in three movements entitled 4’ 33” [Four minutes and thirty-three seconds.]  During the performance, not a note of music is heard.  Those who defend this work, or at least appreciate its intent, note that its performance includes the sounds that the audience hears in the absence of music.  Hence each performance requires active attention, and each one is unique.  Even as much of Cage’s audience hated the work, even as they rejected it, they were made part of its creation!  In a sense, this is what happens here:  We each play a part in creating the experience of the service or other church activity that brings us together.

   When we gather in a religious community, we affirm the importance of taking some time to consider the questions that matter. John Cage writes:  “We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life.”

Our highest business, I believe, is also to reach out and lend a listening ear, to ask for the same in return, to speak from the heart with one another.  Our highest business is to offer an assuring presence, the kind of attentive gaze that says, “I’m here for you.”  We’re here for you.  We’re here for one another, with patience, kindness and compassion.  We’re here to receive the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace, and to share them with the world.  So may it be.  Amen. 

             

[Note:  please do not circulate on the internet; make printed copies only]


Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Self Reliance.”  1841.

Nouwen, Henri.  “Waiting for God,” the November 28 selection in Watch for the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas.  Plough Publishing House, 2001. 

Nouwen, Henri.  Out of Solitude.  2004, Ave Maria Press.

Cage, John.  From “Where Are We Going and What Are We Doing?” in Silence.



The Devil’s Good Deal–Read the Fine Print! (July 2007)
December 2, 2008, 1:20 pm
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