Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Atheism & Spirituality — Sermon Excerpt March 23, 2014

Spirituality has to do with renewal, when we take our worn lives and cultivate a new enthusiasm for what is ours. It’s about building bridges of connection between our solitary self and others. It’s about finding your place in the family of things, in the family of life.

When I meet people socially they often ask what I do, where I work. I usually tell them. In reply, they might say, “Oh, well, I’m an atheist.”

Their tone implies: If you’re angling to invite me to services, Mr. Minister, I’m off the hook! But I say, “Oh, good. I have plenty of atheists in my congregation! Agnostics too.”

. . .

I like to think of a UU congregation as an inter-faith community. We strive to welcome differences of theology while celebrating common ethical values. But it’s not easy.

It can feel vulnerable to speak from the heart, to express your personal views. When we dare to speak from the heart, it calls for trust and courage. When we ask another “What do you believe?” it calls for the practice of curiosity and a discipline of respect. Let us help one another to practice courage and respectful curiosity.

At our best, we can be an intentional inter-faith community. What holds us together in our diversity is a set of shared values, and a set of promises, which we call a covenant.

 

Listen to the whole sermon, and find others, at http://uuss.org/Sermons.



Icons and Agitators: Maladjustment to the Way Things Are–UUSS Sermon for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday

Rev. Roger Jones, Acting Senior Minister

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

January 19, 2014

Hymns: #116, I’m on My Way; #155, Circle Round for Freedom; #1018, Come and Go With Me

Choir:  Hush!  Somebody’s Callin’ My Name

Piano:

Prelude:  Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Meditation:  Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Offertory:  Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

Postlude:   It Is Well with My Soul

 

Sermon

What fascinates me about the study of history is learning how the social advancements we consider to be normal, to be “the way things are,” did not come about easily.  To people who lived in the past, the achievements of equality and fairness that we take for granted were not assured or guaranteed.  Indeed, every step toward equality involved struggle and upheaval.

Should women have the right to vote and run for office?  Of course!  Few in public life would now say that’s a debatable question.  But until 1920, the road toward voting equality was messy and full of setbacks.  Some states allowed voting, others did not.  After the Senate approved the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and enough states ratified that amendment, voting equality became the way things are.  Twenty-five senators had voted no, but history moved on, passing them by.  Many women who had begun the struggle in the 1800s were dead by then. They had given themselves to a cause that would outlive them.  Success was not predictable or guaranteed.

Likewise, ending American slavery was not predictable or guaranteed.  Nor were any of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, of which Martin Luther King Jr. was the most prominent and inspiring leader.  But after we expand the circles of opportunity and freedom, it becomes easy to talk as if justice was obvious and success inevitable.

It is tempting to frame the history of a struggle for freedom in sweet words and warm images.  We can use the words of daring women and men not to urge us to achieve more, but merely to comfort ourselves, to make ourselves comfortable with the status quo.

We can use the words of heroic people only to honor them, while we avoid hearing them.

Martin Luther King worked against racism and segregation.  But he also preached against militarism and economic inequality.  According to scholar Michael Eric Dyson, in the later years of his brief life Dr. King’s views grew more radical.  Upsetting his colleagues and staff, Dr. King became one of the first high-profile leaders in America to oppose the American military involvement in Vietnam.  King highlighted the hypocrisy of suppressing freedoms in the name of protecting freedom.  We could not defend freedom by supporting rule by generals in Southeast Asia, he said.

Many politicians and the press ridiculed him for expressing his opinions about the war.  They questioned the ability of a southern black Baptist preacher to analyze international affairs (according to Dyson).  However, King had a Ph.D. from Boston University.  He had won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The historian Taylor Branch writes that King was the “the moral voice of America,” more than any office holder or elected leader.[i]   His opinions mattered, and he felt compelled to speak out.

His colleagues didn’t want his involvement with another controversy to dilute and distract from civil rights.  They feared he would alienate the Congress and President Lyndon Johnson, who had been a forceful supporter of the civil rights agenda.  Indeed, Johnson did feel betrayed by King’s opposition to the war, according to Dyson.[ii]

King’s response to his critics was this:  “I have worked too long now and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern.” By articulating the linkages among types of injustice and oppression, he raised our discomfort, raised our national tension.

This was Dr. King’s gift and his role as a leader.  He could orchestrate a mix of tension and inspiration, the right blend of discomfort and conciliation.  To change, America needed challenge.  This took standing up and sticking his neck out.  That is a challenge that many of us can recall having in our own lives from time to time.  Dr. King did it for all our lives, for our common life and the common good.  Many times, Dr. King said:  “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”  Such words, and his commitment to them, unsettle my comfort with the way things are.

Since his assassination in 1968, Dr. King has been turned from a strategist and an agitator into an icon. Leaders from all across the political spectrum and the range of religions now salute Martin Luther King.  It’s easier to honor someone who’s dead.  You don’t have to listen to him for real.   Leaders from across the spectrum make their own assertions about what Dr. King wanted for our society and what he would want.  This is what you can do with icons. With real people who carry out real movements for change, you have to wrestle.  They make us uncomfortable.  They unsettle our adjustment to the way things are.

We may be comfortable imagining Dr. King and his challenges to the America of 50 years ago, but what would his challenges be for us today?  What tension and what inspiration would he bring to us?

In King’s last years, he addressed poverty and economic injustice.  He launched the Poor People’s Campaign and argued for another March on Washington, like the one in the summer of 1963, but one lifting up economic injustice and poverty.  Men on King’s staff opposed this campaign—and they were all men on his staff.  They feared it would be a disaster, generating only the resistance of Congress and the anger of President Johnson.

According to Michael Eric Dyson, in 1966, King admitted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had failed to improve the condition of poor blacks.  He said that progress had been “limited mainly to the Negro middle-class” (Dyson, 87).  With his Poor People’s Campaign, King endeavored to focus on the need to lift all people out of degrading poverty, including all black people.

He saw people as connected, no matter our identity and life circumstances.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is how he said it.  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In private, Dr. King told colleagues that he believed America must move toward democratic socialism. However, in public he did not use the term socialism.  The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had waged a campaign to discredit the movement by smearing Dr. King as a Communist sympathizer.        King did not have Communist sympathies or alliances.  Communist regimes were anti-democratic, and Communist theory was anti-religious.  King said:  “I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx.  I got it from a man named Jesus.”  He said that Jesus was “anointed to heal the broken hearted” and to deal with the problems of the poor, and those in captivity” (Dyson, 130).  In this spirit, King called for job creation programs, for full employment and for a guaranteed minimum income.

Dr. King said that full-time work should yield a person enough money to support a family.  In the years since 1980, for most of this nation’s people, income and wealth have stagnated, even shrunk when you consider the eroding effects of inflation.  Wealth has been concentrated more and more in the hands of a smaller percentage of people at the very top.  Two years ago, the Occupy Wall Street Movement brought to public attention the idea of the 99% and the 1%.  At the top, the 1%, are those who have gained by the shifting structures of economic policy, international trade agreements, tax breaks, and lax regulation in the financial services industry.[iii]

Meanwhile, for a growing mass of people, it has become harder to support a family on full-time work, even if two parents work full-time.

If Dr. King were alive right now, perhaps he would embrace campaigns for better funding of public schools and a restoration in financial aid for college.   Perhaps he would lead campaigns for a single-payer health care system available to all and for a higher minimum wage.  In pursuit of economic fairness, he might advocate for regulation of the financial services industry, and a reform of crop subsidies to move away from industrial agriculture and toward smaller, sustainable farms.  Perhaps he would speak for these goals, but I can’t be sure.

Such goals have come to seem less radical in these times, as ordinary American have grown more desperate, and as more working people feel the loss of economic security, and the loss of food security.  I am sure Dr. King would have would have made us uncomfortable.  He would have turned up the tension that political leaders feel about these issues.  Maybe he would call for more subsidized housing for low-income families and more mental health care for the lost souls wandering and sleeping on the streets.  He said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

If he were speaking to most of us right now, would he ask us if we need all the square footage many of us enjoy in our homes?  Would he challenge us for having a car of our own and the petroleum to run it, given what oil extraction does to local and global environments, not to mention to indigenous tribal communities who live near oil wells?  Would he ask us if we couldn’t still do okay financially without investing in portfolios that grow by pushing down worker’s wages and benefits, and by tearing down rain forests for beef grazing?

In India, Martin Luther King met with Mohandas K. Gandhi, to learn about the “soul force” of nonviolent resistance, which had been a tool of the Indian Freedom Struggle.  King saw dissent and rivalries among Gandhi’s inner circle, something he would find among his own leaders and staff members at home.  And he saw the massive poverty of people sleeping on the streets in Calcutta, hungry children and begging parents and elders.

Ten years ago I traveled in India, during a sabbatical for five weeks.  In cities around the country, I saw masses of barely housed and homeless and hungry people.  Many were begging, but some only were sitting in the heat, exhausted.  I even saw some of them weeping.  What came to my mind on my journey was the idea that most Indians seemed to accept this as normal, inevitable, the way things are.  There will always be destitute people around you.  Your task is to learn how to refuse the destitute, walk around them, ignore them.  The task of one who is not hurting in that way is to do anything except ask why such hurt persists.   If this is the way things are, you need not imagine how to change the system or why.  I could be wrong about Indian social attitudes—I bet I am wrong—but it made me think about us.

I see people begging for money at street intersections around here, holding cardboard signs.  I see more of them at more corners than I did just a year ago.

In thinking about India, I’m thinking about the person I saw Friday night at my apartment building in a sleeping bag, lying in the car port by the dumpster.   I’m doubtful that a handout of money would change such a situation.  But I wonder how normal we have let it become that so many people live on the street.  Is this now the way things are?  Is the choice now merely whether to give a dollar, or smile, or look the other way?

Is the question no longer, how did we let this happen?  Is the question now just whether to call the cops or the landlord so the person can be rousted from beside our dumpster, and find another dumpster to sleep near?

In May of 1966, Dr. King addressed the ministers and lay delegates of the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Association, meeting in Florida.   Every year the General Assembly holds a major lecture, the Ware Lecture, and he gave this lecture in 1966.[iv]

He called on our congregations to assert the basic sinfulness of racial segregation, refute the idea of racial superiority, and engage in action on legislation to expand the circles of equality and fairness.

And he cautioned us against the “myth… of exaggerated progress,” the idea that we’ve arrived.   He said:  “We should be proud of the steps we’ve made…. On the other hand, we must realize that the plant of freedom is only a bud and not yet a flower.”   He said we cannot stop with the way things are.

He spoke about the psychological term or label of a maladjusted personality.  He said:  “I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted….  I call upon … all people of good will to be maladjusted to those things until the good society is realized.”

He listed the problems of life in America to which he wished we could remain maladjusted.   He said:   “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

King’s life, and the deeds of so many people in the struggle for civil rights, unsettled a country that had adjusted to the way things are, as if it was always how things were going to be.

His words and life and the movement he led continue to challenge us to pay attention, take steps toward healing, stretch ourselves and let ourselves feel discomfort and maladjustment/ for the sake of a better world.

King said that life’s most urgent and persistent question is, “What are you doing for others?”  His legacy is the legacy of standing up for others, and standing up with others.

This legacy should discomfort us, and unsettle us, but it shouldn’t paralyze us.  His words and deeds should not freeze us in a sense of smallness or shyness or shame.  We should hear his words as the call to community, the call to standing up with others.

Part of the King legacy is the fact that today many organizers, leaders, volunteers and advocates of all generations are doing this work, bringing attention to unfair and unsustainable conditions.

I give thanks for those who give of their time in service, their treasure in generosity, and their courage and hope toward a better country and a better world.  I give thanks for those who dedicate their lives to the needs of others and those who risk their lives for the betterment of all of us, everywhere.

May the deeds of all those who struggle, serve, hope and give of themselves give us the courage not to get too adjusted to the way things are.  May their deeds challenge us.

May they awaken us into attention, imagination, action and courage.  So may it be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes


[i] Branch, Taylor. The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[ii] Dyson, Michael Eric.  I May Not Get there with YouThe True Martin Luther King, Jr.  New York:  Free Press, 2000.

[iii] See more analysis and stirring comment in columns by Chris Hedges on truthdig.com.



Breaking News: UUA Rethinks Trinity
Today the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, indicated that there is serious consideration of undoing the Unitarian heresy his denomination was founded on.  “When you think about it, God as one is just less effective.  You can get so much more done if God is in three persons. Our lawyers are researching alternative names and websites, like Trinitarian Tunaversalists.  We can eat fish on Fridays or on any days, or never at all if we are vegan, so why not put Tuna into  our name?”   A Vatican spokesman said Pope Francis was open to this development.   “In the Catholic Church, we take anybody.  Why not some former heretics?  And we could always use a few more Prius drivers.  It’s good for the soul.”
What about the reaction out in the Unitarian Universalist hinterlands?  When contacted by the press, Rev. Roger Jones of Sacramento said that he has no opinion on the matter until he determines whether 90% of his congregation thinks it’s a good idea.  “Until January 26, I am sticking with my usual talking point:  Unitarians believe in one God at most.”
Now back to the news about unemployment benefits.


The Spirituality of Expectation–What Are You Waiting For? UUSS Sermon for December 8, 2013

 NOTE:  Many folks did not hear this sermon because the California International Marathon made it very hard to get to church.  It closes Fair Oaks Boulevard from Folsom, CA, to the Capitol.  Traffic near the church slows down as race fans try to find parking to walk over to Fair Oaks and as the police make drivers detour at both of our nearby intersections.  The first hymn was my conciliatory nod to the Marathon, but it remains an annual frustration!

 UU Society of Sacramento

Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013

Shared Offering benefits St. John’s Shelter Program for Women & Children

Hymns:  #348 “Guide My Feet (While I Run this Race),” #100 “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” #352, “Find a Stillness,” #91, “Mother of All.”

Sermon

“Do you know what message I am going to preach to you today?”  This is what the great Islamic Mullah said as he looked out on the people gathered for Friday prayers.  Nasruddin, the Mullah, appears in many Sufi stories as a wise trickster and sort of a goofball.  He asked the crowd this question, and they shook their heads—no.  He said: “Well, why would I waste my time speaking to people who don’t know my message? Go home!”  They did, but they invited the great Nasrudin to come back the following Friday.

“Do you know the message I am going to tell you today?” he asked.  Yes, yes!  We do!  they smiled.  “Go home!” he shouted. “Why would I take the time to repeat what you already know?”

This troubled the congregation.  They really wanted to hear from this wise Mullah!  So they made a plan.  The next jumah, the Friday prayers, they had him back.  He asked, “Do you know what I am going to say to you?”  And half of them shook their heads no, and the other half nodded and said yes!              “Finally,” Nasrudin said.  “Now, those of you who know what I am going to say, turn to those who don’t know what I am going to say, and tell them.”  And he left.

This is a story about one kind of expectation—an assumption of the way things are.  It’s when you are counting on something—and in this story, you don’t get it.  Something else happens from what you expect.

On Monday I was at a Catholic retreat center in with a group of UU clergy colleagues.  In the dining hall we found these little plastic containers of coffee creamer.  On the cover it reads:  “Non-Dairy Creamer.”  Under that it says, “Contains Milk.”

This wording led to speculation on our part.  Can you get milk without a dairy?  We laughed it off, and someone found a carton of 2% milk and a box of soymilk.  We were amused by this experience of having our expectations upended.  We didn’t get what we were counting on.

That’s one kind of expectation.  The other kind of expectation is the experience of waiting.  The Reverend Dr. Christina Hutchins is a professor at Pacific School of Religion.  A year ago she gave a sermon on Advent, the season of waiting for Christmas.  She said that the experience of waiting is a complete and authentic spiritual experience on its own.  It is not merely the delay of an event, not the denied gratification of an authentic experience. Expectation is a complete experience on its own.  Like all spiritual experiences, it’s worth paying attention to it.  This is the spirituality of expectation—finding wisdom in the waiting, seeking to gain from the journey along the way.

Right now we are waiting for Solstice and Christmas and New Year’s Eve and Kwanzaa and so on.   Growing up in a mainstream Protestant household, Christmas was what I waited for.  But in truth, I just wanted to get it over with!  This Thursday morning I will be one of the speakers at the UUSS Alliance’s holiday lunch program.   Alliance chairperson Vivian Counts invited four of us to tell of a holiday memory from our lives.  I’m glad there are three others talking, because I can’t think of any inspiring Christmas memory from the years before I was a minister.

As a child I dreaded the loneliness I felt when school was out for those two weeks.  Television was the distracting technology of those days, and the TV often was on, but it did not satisfy.  I craved the many shiny packages under the tree, but after tearing into them on Christmas Day, the emptiness inside me felt even sharper.  The alcohol abuse and animosity among my relatives made me feel as if I was walking on eggshells.  For me, Christmas was to be gotten through.  My family  went to church many Sunday mornings, but somehow it never occurred to the family to go to church on Christmas Eve, nor to attend  any community concerts or special programs in our town.  Had we done such activities together, it might have given us a little spiritual nourishment.   Perhaps by this Thursday’s Alliance meeting I’ll remember some suitable holiday memories to tell.  If not, I could ask the gathering, “Do you know what I am going to say to you today?”  Then they can tell one another.

Among the human family, with the broad variety of conditions and situations in which we find ourselves, we human beings have all sorts of waiting to do.  We have many ways to experience waiting, ways to think about our waiting, and make use of the time.

People in prison are people who are waiting—waiting for their sentence to end, waiting for a friendly visit or a letter, waiting for the next meal.  For some, the wait is a long time.  Yet in that time of waiting, some prisoners are lucky to find a way to grow.   Some have access in prison to theater arts and poetry, or to study for a GED or a college degree or to learn, simply, to read and write.  It’s my impression that prisons are some of the places where people are most likely to begin an intensive spiritual search or to deepen one.  Great spiritual classics have been written in jail– by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Apostle Paul for example.

I’ve read and heard many ex-inmates testifying that a spiritual practice is what saved them.  In prison many people experience conversion to Islam, or accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, join a 12-Step group, or begin Buddhist meditation.  The online congregation known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship supports a prison ministry by mail, and some UU congregations have their own ministries to nearby prisons.  In a book about Buddhism behind bars, one convicted felon writes that mindfulness meditation has been a tool for him in prison, and a blessing.  His waiting for the end of his sentence is the occasion of his practice in mindful awareness.  Sometimes, he says, they throw him in solitary confinement, a common management practice in prisons today.  Solitary sounds frightening and lonely to me.  Yet this man says that he tries to think of it as an opportunity for a deeper practice of mindfulness.  This blows my mind!  Those in confinement have no choice—only the choice between awareness of the moments at hand and suffering in agony about the long wait for confinement’s end.

Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in prison under the white Apartheid government of South Africa.  What a long, uncertain wait!  His passing last week at age 95 makes me want to learn about that experience, as well as other details of his life in the freedom struggle in South Africa.  I want to know what sustained him.    He could never be sure if he would live his entire life in prison, be released, or be executed.  Did Mandela know his people had not forgotten him?  Did he know that activists around the world were demanding his release?  He practiced the spirituality of waiting.

A friend has told me a story about Mandela’s time in confinement.  After some years, he was transferred to the Robben Island prison, infamous for its harshness.  He found himself doing hard labor, with other political prisoners. Their task:  breaking rocks in a quarry, pointless.  Robben Island also held other inmates, those convicted of murder, armed robbery, sexual assault.   Many were members of criminal gangs with reputations for terrorizing other inmates.  They tried to push the political prisoners around, take their food, or disrupt any political conversations.  By this harassment, they were trying to provoke the activists to reacting.

Members of these gangs labored in the quarry, but in separate groups from the political activists.  One day they began singing a song, taking a popular tune and changing the words to mock the political prisoners.  They were again trying to provoke them into a reaction.  And they got one.

The political prisoners decided to fight back–by singing.  In response they chose a rousing, familiar song.  Typically it was not a political song, but in this context, they charged it with political accusations.  The two groups competed by singing, back and forth.  For several days, these opponents confronted one another–in song.  Nelson Mandela later claimed that his men had much better voices, with wonderful harmony.  He and his group would often get lost in their music-making.  They would forget all about the gang members, who had taunted and threatened them.  Soon the gang members became quiet.  They only listened, as the political prisoners made music.  The singing brought peace.

When the prison guards figured out what was happening, they demanded that the music cease.  They didn’t even allow whistling.   In the stillness that followed, it was clear to Mandela that fears had melted away.  By pushing back, creatively, the political prisoners converted hostile opponents into people with a shared plight, a shared condition of confinement and waiting.  By choosing creative action, Mandela’s colleagues sang away their passive despair and their fear.  They brought meaning into their time of waiting by choosing to be creative.

When I think about the waiting of people in such painful situations, it’s embarrassing to say I want to get the month of December over with!  It puts into clear perspective my feelings of dread of the loss of daylight, my irritation with holiday commercialism, my frustration with traffic, like the slow traffic on this Marathon Sunday here in our neighborhood.  I say to myself:  So what!  How lucky I am only to have to wait for traffic to move!          The Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh writes that waiting in traffic at a red stop light is a chance to practice being mindful.  Red light, notice the moment.  Notice our experience of sitting in the car or waiting at the cross walk.   Red light, notice the moment.  Blessed be the red light, great companion of our waiting!

What are you waiting for?  Most of us are waiting for something… a job, a pension or Social Security, a baby to be born or an adoption agency to call with good news.  We wait for an upcoming trip, happiness, our next birthday, this semester’s grade report.  We wait for a diagnosis or lab results from a clinic, for moving day, for Christmas Eve.  Most of us are waiting for something, most of the time.   Meanwhile, we have days and moments in which to live and move and have our being, we have a journey called what’s going on right now.

Personally I am waiting for January 26, the day of the congregational vote here at UUSS, on my candidacy to be the called senior minister.  I’m now in month number six of my seven-month job interview with you.  It’s a long wait.  Part of me would like it to be over.  But you and I have seven months of life to live and ministry to do before then, while we wait.

So I am doing my best to enjoy the journey, enjoy the moments of ministry that pass before that big day.  After all, if I were walking on a sidewalk under a tall building and moving men were maneuvering a grand piano out of a window and it slipped out of their control, and it fell on me, my waiting would end right then.  This example, this wise warning, is handed down to us in the sacred scripture of the Warner Brothers cartoons, with which I grew up.

Given the uncertainty of anything we are waiting for, why not choose to pay attention?  Give some attention to the complete, authentic experience of waiting?  Explore the journey of our experience of each day.

Sooner or later, what we are waiting for does not arrive, or we do not arrive at that point.  The piano falls.  The traffic light turns red and does not change back to green.  In matters of life both great and small, we will end… before we reach the end.  To do authentic waiting is a challenge–and a paradox.  It means we need to invite patience, be gentle, and practice curiosity.  Yet given that we cannot count on reaching every goal, every end, it seems we should not wait on some things.

We should not wait to live with courage.   Should not wait to speak the truth and speak with kindness.  Not wait to live as our conscience and heart are asking us to live.  We should not wait to be grateful.  Not wait to be generous.  Not wait to take care of our health and our spirits.

We can stretch ourselves, open our hearts, and practice a bit more courage as we wait.  By the way we live in the time of waiting, we can prepare ourselves better for whatever we might be waiting for.

We are waiting for Solstice, when the night is longest, and the days begin to have more light once again.  Meanwhile we have a new day to welcome, every day.   We have sundown by 5 PM and sunrise by 7 AM, and a day full of whatever it brings, with the touch and flavor of waiting as an authentic part of the experience.

The experience of expectation is an authentic and complete spiritual experience by itself.  Waiting for the green light, for the holiday, for the solstice night, is not the delay of the prize or its absence; it holds a prize all its own.  With awareness, we can move toward wholeness in the moment.  On every day of our journey, we can pause to notice what is already here, and give thanks.  And give thanks.  So may it be.



Back to the Future– Re-thiking and re-learning congregational mission and purpose with major cultural shifts and progressive religious decline

This article comes from the Alban Weekly, an email from the Alban Institute, of which I’m a member.  It’s by a well known mainline church consultant whose lectures and workshops I have attended.  Of course UUSS is not in decline but poised for new growth and a renewed mission in the larger community.  But Unitarian Universalism has barely held steady over recent decades as other liberal denominations have lost hundreds of thousands of members–or not replaced the members who have passed away.

This is an excerpt of the article, which is adapted from one of his books, Adapted from A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Back to the Future
by Peter Steinke

At a workshop I was leading, a woman stood up and said, “If 1950 were to return, my congregation would be ready.” Succinctly, she summarized a nagging problem for many churches. The context in which congregations now find themselves is quite different from 1950. “How we do church,” though, has been quite persistent: Become a member of the local congregation, contribute money and effort, participate in communal events, volunteer time and goods, and worship regularly or at least several times a year. This pattern of “church” continued for decades in North America, but then things changed quickly.


There once was a world where the church functioned according to what some have called the “attractional” model (others have named it the participatory model). People come to a place, consume the spiritual goods, and serve as patrons to “meet the budget.” But a shift has happened. North American culture has taken new turns.

We are living in a new context where old certainties are disappearing, old institutions are less dependable, old assumptions are questionable, and old neighborhoods are less cohesive. Logically, if not spiritually, we may even have to allow for the possibility that these dislocations could be part of God’s new creation. It may be God working through the unknown …. taking history into unexpected turns.


The challenge of change for a congregation on a steady downward slope is precisely to redefine and redirect its mission. They have to realize that decline is not an end to mission. Yes, they are mere shadows of their past. Yes, rethinking mission is difficult, for congregations are burdened by big or deteriorating buildings, smaller staffs, a paucity of young families, and a shortage of hope. But expansion is not the sole gauge of mission orientation. One problem with this thinking is the belief that, for congregations, all things are equal. But congregations are not in the same place, same stage, or same circumstance. That’s not reality.


Congregations may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result—but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation!


Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey and the learning that takes place. Maybe a word of caution should be stamped on all programs: “Not transferable.” Transition time is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning.
… The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons. Congregations need to remember that no handbook is available on freelancing mission. Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey.



Trees Full of Angels or Infinity in Your Hand — UUSS Sermon

 UU Society of Sacramento

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shared Offering for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes

Dance with Music:  Sarah Bush Dance Project with “Sing When the Spirit Says Sing” by Sweet Honey in the Rock and “The Last Bird” by Zoe Keating.

Hymns:  #126 “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” #21 “For the Beauty of the Earth,” #163, “For the Earth Forever Turning.”

Reading (followed by “The Last Bird”) with Dance: William Blake:

To see a World in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour…

 

Sermon

“A spiritual awakening is taking place in the world today.”  So writes Macrina Wiederkehr, a Catholic sister who lives in a Benedictine monastery in Arkansas.  She says: “An authentic yearning to touch the depths of who we are is urging people to seek out ways to rekindle the soul.”   In her book about “seeing the holy in the ordinary,” she finds this a “promising sign” for the future.  But as a spiritual teacher, she does offer a warning.

She explains:  “I am concerned about the many people today who are lured to extraordinary spiritual phenomena that are manifested, … in sensational ways.  Stories abound about visions and trances, weeping statues, rosaries turning gold.  Celestial beings are emerging everywhere, and angels are in danger of becoming trendy.”  In other words, across the wide landscape of spirituality, she sees a few “cautionary flags.”  These flags look like angels. Too many angels for her, and she’s a nun!  Too many supernatural events.

Of course, questionable accounts of unnatural occurrences have been splashed on the cover of tabloid newspapers in the supermarket for decades.  Now the Internet provides a nonstop supply of sensational spirituality.  This may not be just a harmless and amusing distraction.  It can be spiritually dangerous.  This is because, when we look outside our own lives for spiritual validation, we may neglect our own gifts.  We may diminish the ability to find meaning in our own lives and comfort in our everyday surroundings.  When we seek the sensational, out there, we cannot explore the depth of our own souls, in here.

The nun seems to say:  You want miracles? Go down to the river or up to the mountains.  Visit a local park, or a nature preserve, and look up at the trees.  You want angels?  A tree is “full of angels,” Sister Macrina says.  She’s talking about leaves, flowers, and fruit, about the miracle of growth and the web of nature.  There is holiness in the here and now.  Whether we identify as religious or not, too many of us today are suffering from a lack of noticing the grace of the world at hand.

Yet she is not blaming us, only diagnosing a problem for us.  She says:  “The fast pace of our lives makes it difficult for us to find grace in the present moment, and when the simple gifts at our fingertips cease to nourish us, we have a tendency to crave the sensational.”

Yes.  It’s hard to find grace in the moment if we’re struggling “in the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life,” as Henry David Thoreau pictured our situation, and he was writing back in 1854.  We live with a stressful pace of life, and the distractions of technology, media, and a consumer culture that doesn’t know the meaning of enough.  We feel the tensions of economic uncertainty, the growing inequality of wealth, the pressing demands on our time.  We see suffering around the world, and in our own towns and in our circles of care and kin.

So much can weigh on the spirit.  We need spiritual comfort and nourishment.  I know I need it, and I think some of you feel the same way.

Sister Macrina’s message reminds me of something from our own religious tradition.  The Unitarian Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson made a similar pronouncement.   In 1838, a few years after he left parish ministry, he spoke to the graduating class at the divinity school at Harvard, nearly all of them freshly minted Unitarian ministers.

In Boston in 1838, Unitarianism was barely two decades old.  Many Unitarian ministers still believed that Jesus of Nazareth had conducted supernatural miracles.  Even some Harvard professors still taught the miracle stories as literally true events.   To the Boston Unitarians, even though Jesus was not God, the fact that Jesus conducted miracles was evidence of God’s favor.  The miracles proved that the moral teachings of Jesus were true.  This name for this doctrine is supernatural rationalism.

Emerson would not have it.   According to Emerson, “the word Miracle,” as most churches use the word, “gives a false impression.”  By their worn-out literalism and limited imaginations, he said, they’ve turned the word miracle into a  “monster.”

A true miracle is the life of a human being, of every human being.  A true miracle is visible through nature.  A miracle, he said, must be on par “with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Whatever faith you preach or practice, Emerson said, “[that] faith should blend with the light of rising [suns] and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.”

You want miracles?  Go outside on a clear night and look up!  Emerson said:  “Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. [Any person] under them seems a young child.”

The Reverend Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar is a Unitarian Universalist from New Hampshire.  She says that children are inherently spiritual beings.  Naturally open, children are predisposed to experience the world as a place of mystery and wonder.  They are “natural poets and natural mystics,” she writes.  They can become totally absorbed in the progress of a caterpillar or the movement of the clouds, losing all sense of themselves.” (Nieuwejaar, 65)

Nieuwejaar recounts a story about Howard Ikemoto, who is an artist.  He said: “When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work.  I told her I worked at the college, that my job was to teach people how to draw.  She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’” (Nieuwejaar, 62, citing Gregg Levoy)

As an adult, Henry David Thoreau kept and cultivated his childlike wonder.  As another of our Transcendentalist spiritual writers, Thoreau devoted his time to doing just enough ordinary work to sustain his life, and used the rest of his time to reflect on his life.  Thoreau said:  “I see, smell, taste, hear, [and] feel that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves.”

The good news from our Unitarian Transcendentalists is this:  everyone has the right to a sense of connection to life, to all the forms of life around us, to the Mystery of life.  We may not wish for mystical visions, but in any case the sense of connection and wonder is not the privilege of the few.  The wonder of life should be available to all, here and now.  It should be open to us if we but open our hearts!

Yet some people may still ask—what’s all the spirituality stuff about?  Some of us may feel left out, uncertain, non-mystical, un-poetic, even spiritually inadequate.  Sometimes I can be one of those people.  As today approached, I worried what to say in my sermon about seeing the holy in the ordinary.  But then I decided to take some time, a few moments every day to slow down and watch. Slow down, take some time.

As I sit in the morning light at the kitchen window of my apartment, I decide to trust that miracles will reveal themselves to me, or at least I will be able to say I tried to be open to them.   Just outside the window between the sidewalk and the street is a big tree with narrow tapered leaves.  This week, they look so yellow and full on the tree, even though the tree has shed many already.  A few of its leaves still have a trace of green in them, but mostly it’s a big ball of yellow fire coming out of long, rough angled brown limbs.  Wow–I have a kitchen window with a big bright yellow tree just outside!  How did I forget that?  Even though I’ve sat at that window more than at any other window in my apartment, for five years, it feels as if I haven’t noticed it before.  Noticing.  I want to remember to notice.

This is what I take from the notable spiritual teachers of our heritage and those less famous ones who on Sunday mornings are seated in the chairs of this sanctuary, this Unitarian Universalist congregation.  If we are open to noticing the feel of every day and every night we’re given, maybe we can sense the power and energy around us.  If we decide that we wish to take some time to slow down, sometimes, we might be surprised.

Thoreau said:  “We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery.  May we not probe it, pry into it, … a little?” (Journal 1851)

Thoreau did his daily chores, but he did not let practical concerns get in the way of his open study of life.  He said:  “The things immediate to be done are very trivial.  I could postpone them all/ to hear this locust/ sing.”  How wise he was!  And how lucky, that he did not have to worry about making a house payment.  And how convenient that he did not have children to shuttle to school or medical appointments or athletic practice.  How lucky that he did not have to prepare a sermon to deliver on Sunday!   His simple and single life made it easier.             Yet he was not writing to boast about his spiritual depth, he was writing with care and compassion for our shared spiritual hunger.  He was suggesting:  Just say that you wish to notice life’s miracles.  Just be open.  You deserve it.  You deserve to be nourished by the ordinary miracle of life.

This past Thursday morning I rose early, shaved and brushed my teeth, and walked to the nearby YMCA to exercise.  It still was mostly dark outside, but sunrise had begun.   I walked to the corner and turned east.  The dawn sky was cast with a bold purple-pink light.  A long stretch of wide, flat ruffled clouds glowed with that beautiful color.  I gasped:  “Oh my God.”  I usually don’t speak out loud when I’m walking alone, but I did.  As I turned another corner, heading south, I kept my eyes on that view, knowing that as the sun and clouds moved the view would not last much longer than my walk to the Y, where in any case I would be indoors.

I must confess that right after I gasped at the texture and color of the dawn, I felt a sense of relief.  I thought:  “Sermon illustration!  I found an ordinary miracle with days to spare before Sunday. Whew.”  Perhaps I was not as deficient in the spirituality department as I had feared.

Perhaps it made a difference that I had told myself that I wanted to notice.  I had made the intention, had actually said that I wish to be open to seeing ordinary miracles.

There are many ways to experience the holy in the ordinary.   Whatever that might be for you….  Merely take time–with others or by yourself–for a practice, an activity, or a pastime that has no obvious practical purpose.  Just say to yourself that you wish to be more open to the miracle of ordinary life.

Thoreau asked:  “What kind of gift is life unless we have spirits to enjoy it and taste its true flavor?”  [8/10]

There are many ways to make our spirits ready to enjoy the gift of life.  Let us remember that we deserve this enjoyment.   You deserve it, and I do, and so does everyone alive on this earth.   May we strive to shape a world more just and fair, in which the whole human family can taste the true sweet flavor of life.

May we live with openness to the miracles of the ordinary day.  And, being open to them, let us enjoy them, and give thanks.   So may it be.              Blessed be, amen and Namaste.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Divinity School Address,” July 15, 1838.  See http://www.emersoncentral.com/divaddr.htm

Nieuwejaar, Jeanne Harrison. Fluent in Faith. Boston: Skinner House, 2012.

Thoreau, H. D. A Week on the Concord & Merrimack River  and Walden.

Wiederkehr, Macrina. A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009, p. ix.

 

 



Caring for the Body Is Caring for the Spirit, UU sermon, Sunday, July 28, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

-Songs:  “Ven, Espiritu de Amor,” “Comfort Me, O My Soul,”  “Touch the Earth, Reach the Sky.”

-Yoga Practice in the Service with Paige Labrie

-Reflection on a Tai Chi Contest by Lonon Smith

-Testimonies about Yoga Practice by Jerry & Patty

  • Reflections on Chair Yoga by JoAnn Anglin

What I like is how each lesson is both dependable and surprising.

The order of the moves varies, but they still have a flow and rhythm, so it becomes like following a partner in a dance.  And it ends up feeling logical, as if that is the perfect order for that day’s motions.

I walk for an hour 3 days a week, but aside from gardening and occasional house work, most of my ‘activity’ is done while sitting – writing, reading, driving, conversing or on the computer.

Then at chair yoga, I get a real sense of where my body is, and a heightened feeling of its core, the centering connection for all the other movements. And I think this helps my sense of balance overall.

Another good thing is that there is no emphasis on perfection – just an opportunity to do what you can, and maybe a little more.  We are many shapes and sizes and abilities in our chair yoga class, but our instructor helps us see our possibilities – in a way, she introduces us to parts of our bodies that we didn’t realize were there.

And finally, we get reminded to breathe deeply, which is not as automatic as one would think.

And you know, another word for breathing is ‘inspiration,’ the same root from which ‘spiritual’ comes.

-Pastoral Prayer and Meditation by Roger Jones 

Please join with me now for a time of contemplation in words and silence.

Notice your feet on the floor and your body in the seat.  Become aware of your breathing.            After these words, we will take a minute of silence, and the silence will be followed by music.

O spirit that breathes in us, we are alive!

Let us give thanks for this new day of life.

O love that moves in us, we are here.

Let us give thanks for each person around us,

as they give thanks for our presence.

O ground of being, hold us and sustain us

as we live each day with joys and sorrows, longings and hopes.  Help us take one step at a time, living one breath at a time.

O spirit of compassion, show us the strength dwelling in our hearts, the courage to behold the tragedies and perils of our human family….  Among other events, we call to mind the ongoing strife in Syria, the killings in Egypt, the train crash in Spain.

We strive to extend our care to those who grieve or those who suffer in body, mind or spirit within these walls with us, and those far beyond these walls.

We touch this earth with gratitude for its beauty, and we are mindful of its countless inhabitants, mindful of all the forms of life on earth.

Now in the moments to come, let us be in stillness and become aware of our breathing.  Aware of our neighbor’s breathing.  Aware of our common breath, which is the breath of life.

Let us take some time in that silence which is more than the absence of sound but which is the source from which we all emerged and to which we eventually return.   Amen.

  • Sermon by Rev. Roger Jones

An Effort

Paige has been teaching Monday Yoga here at our church for a number of years.  She also volunteers several Sundays a year in our Spirit Play religious education program.  [The fees for Monday Yoga are modest, and a good value, by the way.] We appreciate the gifts of her time and attention, and her grounding in her own spiritual practice.

People attending Paige’s Monday morning session at 10:00 use chairs for seated Yoga and for stability while standing—chair yoga.

On Monday night at 6:30, it’s the more familiar kind of Yoga.  We used to refer to these classes as Easy Yoga. Then I went to one of them!  “Easy” was not my experience.  So now I say, let’s call it Mat Yoga, and bring a mat if you have one.  Of course, when a new person enters a class, an attentive Yoga teacher like Paige will notice how the person is doing and will give extra encouragement and instructions that are more thorough.

But any kind of Yoga remains a challenge, and that is its purpose.  After all, the root of word YOGA, from the ancient Sanskrit, means an effort!  It also means a joining, as Paige told us.  But it is an effort, and of course all disciplines do take effort.

It’s the same for any spiritual practice as it is for any physical practice, whether it’s an exercise workout or physical therapy.  Honoring and caring for one’s inner life takes intention, effort, patience, and some discipline.   Honoring and caring for one’s physical body also takes intention, effort, patience and some discipline.

Walking and mindfulness

I have always enjoyed walking, and try to walk when I have that choice, such as when running an errand.  Rarely do I just go for a walk as a practice for its own sake, for just slowing down and calming my spirits.  But in classes on mindfulness meditation I’ve been taught that walking can bring us to the present moment, noticing every step, moving with intention and ease.

While walking, or even while running, we might notice our breathing, notice how the parts of the body work together.  We might also notice how the ground holds us up, how the earth sustains us, and welcomes us.  We might imagine the whole round earth on which we move, along with so many other beings.

If we walk with friends, children or other loved ones, we can appreciate the chance to be together, either walking briskly to get the heart pumping, or gently to slow down and take it easy—sometimes both.  We can talk, and then we can walk for in silence for a time.

Whether together or alone, running or walking is a way to cultivate peace and gratitude as well as to promote our health.  With mindfulness, if we pay attention to where we’re walking or running, we’re less likely to fall in a hole or trip on a rock.  I’ve done such things while running or walking, because I treated running or walking only as a way to get someplace, or only as a way to exercise.

With mindfulness, we can honor the motion of the body and see it for the miracle that it is.   We can do this by walking.  We can do this by any kind of exercise.  We can do this by sitting still.  Just by noticing the body and the breath, and giving thanks for it.  If we can do anything more than sitting still–if we have the time and the ability and health to exercise regularly–we can count ourselves lucky.

Swimming and life

The intentional exercise practice I have sustained the longest is swimming.   In my mid-twenties I started going to a pool a few times a week.  To be sure, there have been phases when I thought I was too busy.  And I have tried other exercises—weights, treadmills, stretching, even using a professional trainer.  But swimming is what I have come back to.

When I think about what happens to me in the pool, I can appreciate the spiritual experience of it… of being held by the water and buoyed up in it, of having a glimpse of a different world under water.  My favorite thing during the workout is to swim the first length of the pool all underwater, on only one breath.  Sometimes I can swim back, doing a second length on a second breath.  When I do, I feel my arms and legs screaming for oxygen.   I know I’m alive.

But I must be honest with you.  I didn’t start swimming as a spiritual practice.  I did it because I was afraid that I would die of a heart attack at a young age, like my father.  Just as when, during my 20s, I obsessively avoided salt and cholesterol, swimming laps was a fear-based habit and a fierce one, so I could stay alive.  There are worse habits, aren’t there!

I’ve done my lap swimming at various YMCA facilities in the cities in which I’ve lived.  Many private health clubs have pools, and they may have newer, bigger facilities, but I like supporting the Y’s mission of building strong kids, strong families and a strong community.   I like seeing neighbors, kids and families taking care of their bodies and spirits, and taking care of one another.              Furthermore, unlike many private clubs, the YMCA always has lifeguards to watch over us while we swim.  Someday I might need one.

In my 20s and 30s, when I lived in Chicago, my habit was to stop off at the New City YMCA during my subway ride home from work.   That Y was on the near north side, with towers of sad-looking public housing nearby in one direction and upscale condos, cafes and shopping centers in the other direction.   At that younger age, I swam longer at a stretch than I do now, and more vigorously.  I pushed myself.

In that YMCA, on the white cinderblock wall above and next to the pool, running its entire length, were painted graphics of dolphins and fish.  And painted above them, in big block letters was this message:  “God Loves Us!”  (Exclamation point.)  Perhaps it was intended for the kids from the public housing projects.  Perhaps it was intended for all of us.  Of course it was.

Sometimes, near the end of a workout, as I pushed myself to do a bit more, a bit faster, I’d look up and read those words.  Then I would feel the energy of that affirmation in my legs and arms.  I’d feel the love of life in my thumping heart, and in the breaths I was taking.  God loves us!  I am alive!  I am so glad I can do this!

That message on the wall renewed my perspective on what I was doing.  It was a reminder, a refresher.  I was not only trying to forestall death by a heart attack.  Not only trying to guarantee a longer life.  I was alive.  I was living, in that moment.

As Paige says, honoring the body, caring for the body, is honoring life.

Pain and Aging: Swimming Less

Unfortunately, in my late 30s and early 40s, I developed neck and shoulder pain while swimming.  It hurt when I turned my head to breathe.  For months I neglected it.  I pushed on through, kept swimming.  Finally the pain was sharp and chronic enough that I took several months off.  After medical examinations, a cortisone injection and many treatments of physical therapy… not much progress.  Finally an MRI scan showed that I have degenerative disc disease in my neck.  So far I have avoided neck surgery.  Since then I’ve managed my condition well enough to be able to swim.  I now use a snorkel that goes right down the middle of my face, so I can breathe without turning my head.  Also, I don’t swim for as long a session as I used to, or as vigorously.  I take it more easily.

At some point in my life I may not be able to swim as much as I do now.  At some point I may not be able to swim at all, or even make it to a YMCA or other location for exercise.

At my current YMCA, I’ve become friendly with several of the regular swimmers and other members and staffers.  We chat and visit.  Sometimes we notice when a fellow member no longer comes to exercise as often as before.  Then we notice, they no longer come at all.  Such a decline and loss of ability is natural, unfortunately.  It’s inevitable for most of us.  It can be frustrating, depressing, saddening, painful.

It is my hope, as I become less able to use my body in the years to come, that I will not hate it, but will remember to honor it in thought and word, and in whatever efforts I’m still able to make.           Whatever happens, we can still honor the body that we were given.  We can give thanks for it.      The march of time, the wages of chance, the inequities and unfairness of the varying conditions of life on this earth—such things can reduce the options we have.  Still, we can give thanks for this gift of the body.  We can honor it.  To care for the body is to care for the spirit.

The body is the vessel of our mind and spirit, our channel for the life force.

Our bodies and the breathing of our bodies connect us to all other beings, to all that is.  Life is a gift, and so is the body.  Let us be good stewards of this good gift.   So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

A Benediction by Rev. Mark L. Belletini

Go in peace.
Live simply, gently, at home in yourselves.
Act justly.  Speak justly.
Remember the depth of your own compassion.
Forget not your power in the days of your    powerlessness.

Do not desire to be wealthier than your peers
and stint not your hand of charity.
Practice forbearance.  Speak the truth, or speak not.
Take care of yourselves as bodies, for you are a        good gift.

Crave peace for all people in the world, beginning     with yourselves,
And go as you go with the dream of that peace alive             in your heart.

–#686, Singing the Living Tradition