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.



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.



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



UU Teenager’s testimonial during church for the 2013-14 Pledge Drive: Sustaining Our Vision: From Year to Year and From Generation to Generation

A young woman from our UU Youth Group delivered this testimonial on Sunday at both services.  The congregation was quite responsive!  I look forward to the Pledge Drive Kickoff this Sunday, Feb. 17.  I also look forward to training our Pledge Visitors this Saturday (for those who would like a home visit to give feedback and make a more personal connection to UUSS).  Enjoy…

Why should the UUSS community be around for future generations?

I know a lot of people who have been coming to UU churches since before they were born. They have always been familiar and comfortable with their church. Or there are people on the other end of the spectrum, who hadn’t started coming to this church until they were well into adulthood.

           Neither of these were true of me. I think most of the people here come to church willingly. I can see why. We are what I would consider the ideal church. But I did not come to church willingly by any means for a long time.

When I was younger, my mom would decide my brothers and I were inadequately holy, and pick a church at random that we would attend for about a month. Then she would have a disagreement with somebody or be offended by something the minister said and we would never go there again. I grew to despise churches. I did not like how looked down upon questioning that which was preached was. I did not like being compared to a lamb because lambs are invariably dumb. I did not like the painful christian rock that was played before or after church, even though the musician had a cool beard. I did not like that God’s love or a vast eternal plan we weren’t allowed to know about could explain away every mystery in this world. And I certainly did not like that the minister referred to the children as “cherubs”. I knew I was anything but a cherub, and I was convinced my little brother was a little ball of evil.

In hindsight this church was not that bad. It was open-minded, as churches go, and not everyone considered original thought slanderous. The minister was well intended. But the assumptions and stereotypes had solidified in my mind, and to me church had become nothing more than getting up way too early on a weekend to go listen to people I don’t like talk about things I neither cared about nor believed in. I had lost any interest I’d previously had in learning about other people’s beliefs or culture.

My mom has since given up on making me go to any church. It helped that I no longer stay at her house on weekends.

    When my dad announced that we were going to church, I was horrified. He was supposed to be the sane one. And what person who wasn’t crazy would want to go to church? I fought this new, alien hexagonal church with my entire being. The people here only want to tell me what to think and what kinds of people are okay and all about this great God and how much he loved me and wanted the best for me and whatnot and about how those other churches who were saying the same thing were utterly wrong.

I didn’t want to hear any other opinions about this church. I would not hear it. I had developed the same blind insistence that what I believed in was all there is that had made me so intolerant of religion in the first place.
But slowly I began to warm up to this new church. It wasn’t like the others. I was never told where we came from or what entity was out there or what happens before or after this life. Those were all questions for me to determine the answers to. This church had values, not strict beliefs, and I recognised after reciting them for a few months how much I agreed with them. They seemed like perfect ideals. There was no judgement of those who strayed from our moral views. There was no judgement, period. We were welcoming, and open. Recognising the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Who needs a heaven when you’ve got that?
I know there are a fair number of people who don’t like churches for the same reasons I had. And church isn’t right for everyone. But there will always be people who question. There will always be people who traditional religions don’t approve of. But if there is always a church like ours available, there will always be an option for these people.
A lot of what we preach isn’t contradictory to what is preached in other churches. But what I like most about us is that big questions are left to the individual to answer, because everyone has their own truth or lack thereof, and a right to decide what that is. It’s okay to believe the same things as other people, but it should also be okay not to.
And our values are that of acceptance. Everyone deserves to be accepted in a community, regardless of who they happen to be or what they happen to be like. The people in unitarian churches are, as a group, incredibly accepting. Everyone is welcome. That is amazing. I would previously have thought it unachievable.
And UUSS is the biggest UU church in the area. It has amazing ministers and youth leaders and coffee people. It is an incredible community as a whole. There are few people who would not fit in among us.
That is why UUSS needs to stick around and grow. Future generations will inevitably be in need of a church like this, and they deserve to have it available. Thank you.



UU Sermon: Epiphany of the Face
 
January 6, 2012                                                             
Unitarian Universalist Society, Sacramento, California
Roger Jones, Associate Minister
 
Hymns  
SLT 100 (I’ve Got Peace Like a River), SLT 38 (Morning Has Broken), STJ 1010 (Oh, We Give Thanks), SLT 315 (This Old World).  Vocal duet:  “Simple Gifts,” congregation sings third time.

Pastoral Prayer

Now I invite you to a time of contemplation in word and silence.  This time will be followed by music.

Please settle your mind and spirit.  Notice your hands resting. Notice your feet and bodies, resting in the Spirit.  Notice the breath of life coming through you…as I offer these words.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.

Give us hearts full of gratitude for the gift of life, and the blessing of this new day and this new year.  May this new year come as an invitation, an opening to possibility.  May we strive to greet the days ahead with serenity and courage, patience and compassion, curiosity and wondering.  May we be surprised by joy.

As we seek a fresh beginning, we know we cannot ignore the past.  We may grieve damaged relationships.  Let us release ourselves from the prison of resentment.  May we take a few more steps in the direction of healing and freedom.

At this time we may be thinking of loved ones we have lost to death—those lost recently, and those whose absence we mark at this time of worship.  Pat Setzer passed away last Monday after a long decline; she will be missed.  Other names of those we have lost are on our hearts.  Let us now speak their names into the space of our sanctuary.

We reach out in care to those facing a family crisis, medical challenge, financial distress, heartache and loss, and burdens of the body, mind or spirit.  At this time, life is ebbing away from Bill and Dorothy, two longtime members and loyal elders of this religious community.  Let us say the names of any of the others who need our love, and whose faces we can see in our minds.  Either whispering to ourselves or calling out our concerns for others to hear, let us now speak the names on our hearts into the space of our sanctuary.

Life has its light moments and joyful milestones also.  We give thanks for the moments of celebration, and we invite those names or events to be spoken into the space of our sanctuary. Alice, going into Americorps for a year of service.  Hillary, going to Germany to study this semester. …

May one another’s good news give all of us reasons for joy.

Let us remember the divine spark dwelling within us, and let it shine.  May we notice the needs and hungers of others; may we hear the lamentations of our human family.  We pray for the simple gift of a world at peace.  We long for violence to end, and we mourn the lives lost and bodies injured… here in this region, around this country, in all parts of the globe.      When we can make a difference, let us reach out.  When we have the chance to speak out, let us say what must be said.  When we can offer help, let us extend a hand. When we need help, let us ask for it, even when our voice is trembling.

Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us, and bless this world with peace and healing.  Blessed be, and amen.

 

Sermon

For Christmas I received a booklet of sticky notes entitled Commandments.  On the cover:  Moses in red robes, on Mt. Sinai, holding two stone tablets up in a lightning storm.  Open the little book, and on the left side, a pad of gray sticky notes, shaped like stone tablets.  Each one has the heading: “Thou Shalt.”  On the right side, a pad of notes that say:  “Thou Shalt Not.”  Could be handy for those with kids.

Though these two little pads hold more than 10 Commandments, this gift got me thinking about those commandments of Bible fame.   Jewish tradition is filled with commentaries, debates and stories about how to apply and live the Commandments, and which are most important.  And the Jewish teacher named Jesus got a question or two.

As reported in the Gospel of Luke, a religious scholar demanded to know what was most important for obtaining  eternal life.  “Well,” Jesus answered, “What’s written in God’s Law?”

[The man responded:] “That you love … your God—with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.  “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”  Looking for a loophole, the man asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead [in a ditch]. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road…, but when he saw [the man] he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite [, another] religious man [,] showed up; he also avoided the injured man.   A Samaritan traveling the road came to him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, [cleaning] and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’   

“What do you think? [Jesus asked.]  Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”  “The one who treated him kindly,” the religious scholar   responded.  Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”[i]  [Luke 10:25-37]

 

This old parable has generated much reflection and many interpretations.  A striking aspect, of course, is the hypocrisy of the holy priest and Levite, passing on by the hurting man.  But the story has a big surprise after that.  In any story told among Jews, a Samaritan would be an unlikely hero.  Samaritans were a strange, different tribe.  They were hated and feared. They were OTHER.  To hear that one of them would be merciful, generous, neighborly, and self-sacrificing.  That would get your attention.  So:   Why did he choose to be a neighbor, to care for this man in the ditch who was from a different belief system and culture?

Perhaps the Samaritan had an epiphany.  A spiritual experience, a moment of insight.  Today, January 6, is called Epiphany in the traditional calendar of the Christian year.  One kind of epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being.  But another kind, a more universal epiphany, is a sudden revelation, an insight.  I call it a cosmic kick in the head.   It’s when we see what we didn’t see before, and we are transformed.

This helpful Samaritan—what was his epiphany?  Perhaps it was as simple as this:  he looked on the face of that wounded man.  He didn’t turn away, but looked.  The priest and the Levite were too busy to see him; they crossed the road.  The Samaritan saw him in the face.

The late philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has said that the face of the other is an epiphany.  It is a revelation.  It is a moment of ethical challenge.  He explains that our human bodies are vulnerable and life is precarious.  Our identity comes from our dependence on others, our dependence on one another.  At the same time, Levinas says, our human nature can be violent; we have an impulse to exploit, harm, cheat, even kill.  Yet we also have the power to be merciful, kind, and generous. The human face communicates our vulnerability, but it also communicates an ethical demand: Do not kill me.  The epiphany of the face is humbling.  When we look on the face of the other, it speaks to us:  Do not kill me.  Do not let me die.  Do not let me die alone.

Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1906 to a Jewish family in Lithuania, and he died in 1995.  He moved to France for graduate studies and became a French citizen in 1930.  He spent much of the Second World War in captivity.  After the war, his philosophical teaching focused on ethics.  He argued that in philosophy, ethics is more important than truth-seeking.  We don’t need to know the nature of existence to sense our ethical duty to other people.  One’s ethical relation to “the other” comes before one’s relationship to the world, even before one’s relationship to himself or herself.[ii] (Levinas 1986, 21)

Are we basically good, or bad?  Are we worthy, or unworthy?  These are questions of human nature and identity, not of ethics.  They are not the first question of philosophy, for Levinas.  The first question, the first challenge to us from philosophy must be:  What is my duty to the other?

Levinas says that “the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness is, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace.”[iii] (Butler, 134)

University of California professor Judith Butler, writing about Levinas, explains:  “The Other’s face … at once tempts me [as a human being] with murder and prohibits me from acting on it.  The face operates to produce a struggle … [the] struggle at the heart of ethics.”  (Butler, 135)

Levinas says this demand is the heart of our identity;  “I am defined [he says] as … a singular person, as an ‘I,’ precisely because I am exposed to the other.”  It is because I am [inescapably answerable] to the other that makes me an individual.” (27)

Levinas was a secular thinker who identified with the tradition of Greek philosophers.  Yet he was Jewish, and he did write commetnaries on stories in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures.  Whereas traditional theologians might say the Bible is about the relationship of humans to God, Levinas would say that the stories in the Bible are about human beings encountering one another, face to face.  They are about the question:  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s keeper?

Levinas says yes.  He reports:  “There is a Jewish proverb which says that ‘the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs.’”

In the story about Jesus, the scholar starts out selfishly: how can I get eternal life.  Jesus reminds him of Jewish law:  Love God all that you can and love your neighbor as yourself.  The next question is not:  Who or what is God?  And it’s not:  How much shall I love God?  The question is:  Who is my neighbor?  Jesus tells a story, and there’s not an easy answer to be found in it.

In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Al-yo-sha Karamazov says:  “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”  He takes responsibility for his duty to the other, but refrains from imposing it on anyone else, from demanding of others ethically as much as he demands from himself.   

Once during a dialogue, another philosopher asked Levinas, if we aren’t  “ethically obliged to struggle for a perfect world of peace?”  Levinas said, “Yes, but I seek this peace not for me but for the other.”  This, he said, is his standard for himself. (31)

I’ve often wondered about the difference between ethics and morality.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  In any case, to Levinas they are not the same.  As I understand him, ethics is about a primary personal duty to the other.  Though morality “is … founded on an ethical responsibility,” it is about “a series of rules relating to social behavior and civic duty.  [Morality] operates in the [political and social] order [for] … improving our human survival.”

Levinas explains:  “If there were only two people in the world, there would be no need for law courts [or other social structures], because I would always be responsible” for the other.  “As soon as there are three, the ethical relationship with the other” involves community structures and political systems to balance competing needs and claims.  (21)

Ethics is not a rule of conduct or “a manifesto.” (29)  It is a struggle, a search, and a call.  We can feel it and hear it when we look upon the face.

Judith Butler says the face of the other speaks to us, “Speaks in a voice that is not its own.”  It speaks “in something other than language.”

She says:  “We need to hear the face as it speaks to know the precariousness of life that is at stake.” (151) This is the epiphany.

Butler recalls:  “In the Vietnam War, it was pictures of the children burning and dying from napalm that brought the US public to a sense of shock, outrage, remorse and grief.”  Seeing those pictures, seeing the precarious lives in whose deaths our fighting was involved, this country turned against our involvement in the war.  The public was not meant to see those pictures, Butler says; we were to see only images chosen to be portrayed as the face of the enemy, not images of as the face of suffering real people.

She writes:  “Media representations of the face of the ‘enemy’ [often remove or] efface what is most human about the face.” (Butler 2006, xviii).

Butler notes that in our recent wars in the Middle East, government and media have shown us few faces of civilian families destroyed by our weapons.  They have spoken few of the names of the civilian dead.   Now we use drone aircraft for waging war, which is undeclared but real.   A drone is a remotely flown plane for surveillance and for bombing.   Most often from the government we hear of terrorist leaders killed by drone strike; in the media we see a face pic of an enemy.  Yet, as activists and eyewitnesses are learning and trying to tell us, this new arms-length mode of smart combat can eviscerate as many civilian bodies and end as many children’s lives as the old fashioned kind.

Levinas has described ethical responsibility “as insomnia or wakefulness.” He says this is “because it is a perpetual duty … that can never slumber.” (30)

To be ethical, to love neighbor, is to be watchful and vigilant.  Love of neighbor “cannot sleep.”

Yet, Levinas writes, it is common for us to drift off to sleep, to give up watching.  It’s a choice commonly made.  Yet he says:  “Even if I deny my … responsibility to the other… I can never escape the fact that the other has demanded a response from me before I [assert] my freedom not to respond.”  (27)

This makes me think of panhandlers on the street.

Perhaps it is a common sight for you, as you walk, drive or bike around, to see men and women begging for money by the side of the road, at intersections, or on sidewalks near stores.  Perhaps you or someone you know has been in that situation, has been so desperate that panhandling seemed like the only option left.  Holding up a cardboard sign:

Please help.  Need food.  Homeless.

 Have kids.  Have AIDS.  Veteran.  Hungry. 

Thank you and God bless.

I can imagine that when we encounter this reality, we experience a wide variety of reactions.  Among us here is probably a range of opinions about how to respond when asked for money.  Some of us don’t want to say no.  We tell ourselves:  it’s not much money to me, and it can mean a lot to them.  Some of us feel we just can’t spare the money; things are that tight.  Some who work hard every day resent a person standing outside collecting money every day.   Some are afraid of getting scammed.  We may worry about financing an active addiction.   We may suspect that a given panhandler is not really homeless; what if he has disability income and a facility in which to live?   With a diversity of perspectives among us, this can be a rich and challenging topic of conversation.  For the record, here is my approach.  It’s not the perfect one, just the one I use.

While I may offer food if I have some, and I’ve bought meals for some people, I don’t give money to those begging for it.  Instead I direct my donations to local organizations that have a mission to help.  I trust their expertise in making good use of the money.  I let their staff decide who really needs what.  I trust them to set limits.  I trust them to wrestle over the question:  How much is enough?

So if I am walking down the sidewalk, and I get a request for money, I say, “I’m sorry, sir,” or “I’m sorry, ma’am.”  And I try to look at them.  Or, sitting in my car waiting for a red light to change, if a beggar is holding a crude sign six or eight feet from the window, I make myself look.  I look them in the face. I greet their eyes, nod once, or smile.     Of course a smile is not what they are soliciting, but it can’t hurt.  And looking into their face reminds me that they are human.  It challenges me.  It gives me questions I can’t answer.

Philosophers and spiritual teachers give us challenging questions.  They do not give us airtight answers. Often they can sound unrealistic, even utopian, in the ways they challenge us.

Levinas admits that he is accused of being utopian, of being unrealistic:  “’Where did you ever see the ethical relation practiced?’ people say to me.”

He replies:  “This concern for the other remains utopian in the sense that it is always… other than ‘the ways of the world.’”  Even so, he reminds us, “there are many examples of [this concern] in the world.”  (32)  Concern for the other is not the way of the world, but there are many examples of it in the world.

Even if our ethical relationship is utopian, he says, this “does not prevent it from investing our everyday actions [investing them with] generosity or goodwill towards the other:  even the smallest and most commonplace gestures, such as saying ‘after you’ as we sit at the dinner table or walk through a door, bear witness to the ethical.”

Reading philosophers is hard for me–learning a new vocabulary, wading through their wordiness, straining to make sense of a dense book.  Fortunately, some philosophy can be lived and felt without words.  We can practice our ethical awareness by looking at the face of the other, whoever that might be, however we might be given a glimpse of that face.  We can feel what the face has to say, without words, without language, with a voice we hear in our hearts.

When it comes to ethics, we can start with what is revealed when we encounter the face:  face to face, vulnerable human being to vulnerable human being.

Our actions matter.   We are bound together in vulnerability and in our need.  We need one another more than we know.

Blessed be, and peace.  So may it be.  Amen.


[i] Luke 10:25-37 from The Message translation by Eugene Peterson.

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke 10:25-37&version=KJV;MSG;NIV

[ii] (Levinas 1986)

[iii] (Butler 2006)

 

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2006.

 

Levinas, Emmanuel and Richard Kearney. “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas.” In Face to Face with Levinas, by Richard A. Cohen. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986.

 



Sermon: Money, Stress and Sources of Meaning

Roger Jones, Associate Minister

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society

Sacramento, California

 Hymns:   #346 in SLT (Come Sing a Song with Me), #21 in Voces del Camino (Ven, Espiritu de Amor), #201 (Glory Glory Hallelujah), #298 (Wake Now, My Senses) both in SLT.

Sermon

            In our culture and society, money and stress…seem to go together.  The topic of money occupies our time and mental energy.  Disagreements about money can divide people in families, congregations, and communities from one another.  Secrets about money can leave us with lasting regrets, can poison or damage relationships.

Spiritual or emotional problems with money can exist whether you make a ton of money or a little, whether you are wealthy and well-situated or struggling under enormous debts.

What amazes me, though, is how many folks I know who don’t let it get them down. Not all, but many of them seem to pursue lives of meaning and purpose, and remain grateful and optimistic, even with financial challenges.

I know a man who is now 40 years old.  After high school, he served a tour in the military.  Then he worked various jobs, learned a new language during overseas travel and moved across the country to live near the mountains of the American West.  He lived simply, renting rooms from friends or sharing an apartment with a girlfriend.  In some years, he received financial help from his parents, and once or twice he moved back across the country to live at home.  After many jobs and schools, he graduated from a good college at age 36.  Unfortunately, just then the Great Recession was revving up and the economy was going down.

After a while he got a job in a business call center, which didn’t pay well and was a miserable environment.  Not a sweatshop, of course, but not enjoyable.  Last year he found a job with a landscaping maintenance company.  There is plenty of overtime work, and on Christmas Day plowing snow earned him double-time pay.  That’s good, as he makes only $12 an hour.  He hopes, before long, to advance to a salaried management job, with benefits.  At age 40 he is married, and he has no health insurance or savings for retirement.  Nor does his wife.  She also works at a low-wage job.

Their economic situation is like that of many people of their generation—those born in the 1970s and 80s.  So are their leisure habits:  local entertainment and restaurants, costly computer and phone technologies, and a modest vacation now and then.   They work very hard, and they enjoy a lively urban life.  He told me:  “I might not ever do another office job.  And I don’t know if I even want one.”

Of course, this couple’s parents worry about their future.  So do I.  Yet they feel blessed.  Are they making the right choices?  Who am I to say?  On the one hand, they are not planning aggressively for needs of their health, possible children, and retirement.  On the other hand, they are making choices about what gives meaning to life from the available options.  They feel blessed.   Given their measures of meaning, life is meaningful.

The experience of meaning is important to all kinds of people, all over the world.  No matter our wealth or poverty, no matter our culture, human beings pursue the experience of meaning.  A Silicon Valley friend of mine wrote a book entitled Making Meaning, along with two of his colleagues.  As business consultants, they work in the field of design strategy—that is, how a firm can design its offerings to appeal to customers, meet their needs, and build customer loyalty.

Using demographic research, the authors conclude that people increasingly seek meaningful experiences when we make our consumer choices.  No longer is convenience, color, a catchy slogan or even “coolness” enough to engage consumers.  People are looking for a sense of connection with sources of meaning in all parts of life, including the realm of consumption.  Companies that connect us to our sources of meaning can make a lot of money.

Their company conducted over 100,000 interviews in different countries to help its clients understand their markets.  The authors list fifteen categories of what people consider   meaningful experiences.     The fifteen categories include most of the common types of meaningful experiences across the countries and cultures of the globe.

Are you curious? These categories appear on the cover of your order of service, so you can take the list home.  Perhaps you can talk about them during coffee hour today, or bring them up for conversation in any small group in which you participate.  Thanks to Julie, the member who offered to design that “word cloud” on the cover.  I assume it was a meaningful experience for you!

I ask you now to stop looking for a moment, and just listen as I read you the list.  See if it makes sense to you as a whole.  Then I’ll quote a definition for each one.  The authors put the list in alphabetical order (as no category is more important than any other). [i]   They are:  accomplishment, beauty, [creativity], community, duty, enlightenment, freedom, harmony, justice, oneness, redemption, security, truth, validation, and wonder.

Here they are again:

Accomplishment—achieving goals and making something of oneself; a sense of satisfaction that can result from productivity, focus, talent, or status.”

Beauty—The appreciation of qualities that give pleasure to the senses or spirit.”

Creation [or creativity]—The sense of having produced something new and original, and in so doing, to have made a lasting contribution.”

Community—A sense of unity with others around us and a general connection with other human beings.”

Duty—The willing application of oneself to a responsibility.”

Enlightenment—Clear understanding through logic or inspiration.”

Freedom—The sense of living without unwanted restraints.”

Harmony—The balanced and pleasing relationship of parts to a whole, whether in nature, society, or an individual.”

Justice—The assurance of equitable and unbiased treatment…a sense of fairness and equality.”

Oneness—A sense of unity with everything around us.”

Redemption—Atonement or deliverance from past failure or decline, … or deliverance from a less desirable condition to a more pleasing” one.

Security—The freedom from worry about loss.”

Truth—A commitment to honesty and integrity.”

Validation—The recognition of oneself as a valued individual, worthy of respect.”

Wonder—Awe in the presence of a creation beyond one’s understanding.”

This book offers advice on how to design and market services and products to appeal to our need for meaningful experiences.   The book’s business message is:  understand the customers—your current or potential ones.  Consider what’s important in their lives.  Consider how they might experience what it is you are offering.  What sense of meaning do they feel?

In the 1960s and 70s there were just a few soft drinks on the market.  The leader was Coca-Cola—just plain old Coke in one or two standard sizes.  Coke’s marketing appeal was the experience of community.  Some people had drunk it all their lives; it had become a friend.  Advertisers turned a popular song about human kinship into a commercial:  “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”  By now, Coke is merely one of many types of soda pop.  There are numerous flavors, containers and serving sizes.  These options are aimed at the experience of freedom of choice.  The authors write that freedom of choice has grown in significance in the consumer field.[ii]  I confess that it’s not so meaningful for me.  I am often overwhelmed by the multiplicity of options out there.

From the crassness of a carbonated beverage, let’s look now at the experience of meaning in an important human endeavor: the rearing of children.

For many people, this activity is filled with meaningful experiences.  Yet, the kind of experience it evokes will depend on your personality, circumstances, background, culture and location.  For example, children can reflect the creative urge—the desire to extend your family through adoption or birth, and to shape a new life.  Or… in many societies, children provide security, a guarantee against isolation, or a source of extra hands to till the fields or staff the family business.   In many traditions, having children is what you do to be a responsible member of society, so it reflects a sense of duty.  It can also give a sense of accomplishment to have reared a child.  Some of us do not have children, but we find meaning in connections to them—in our families, in work and volunteer activities, and here in this congregation.   For many non-parents as well as parents, children can evoke an experience of wonder—a sense of awe at a fragile, growing person, and a sense of unity with a child, with humanity, or with life itself.

The book Making Meaning does not encourage companies to trick people into accepting false experiences of meaning, though some companies try.  A sense of meaning is not something you can force on others.  Nowadays more consumers pursue experiences that resonate with our values and sources of meaning.  To be successful, companies must try to understand such motivations.  Such an approach calls for inventors, designers, and marketers to cultivate empathy for the customer, to imagine the customer’s experience.

To some veteran business people, this may feel too philosophical.  Empathy?  Sounds touchy-feely! Does this have any place in business?

Some religious people, on the other hand also may have an urge to reject this. To link the search for meaning to the pursuit of profit?  How crude, how petty!  People should find meaning on their own.  Nobody needs to sell it to them.

Yet we do pay for meaningful experiences in various ways.

Consider the gifts of culture, the arts. Remember that beauty and creativity are in that list of sources of meaning.  We pay to attend concerts, plays, and wine tastings, and to come to fundraising dinners and concerts here at UUSS.  We pay to visit zoos, nature preserves art museums and aquariums.   Many of us contribute money to support them.  We pay to see movies.  We pay to read books and magazines and buy songs from the Internet.  And companies make money when they make these experiences available to us.  Of course, many songwriters, novelists and poets write without expecting to make much money; they do it for the love of creating.

In a poem by Marge Piercy (“For the young who want to”), an experienced and celebrated writer offers advice on doing the work of writing for its own sake, its own meaning.  She writes:

           

            Talent is what they say

you have after the novel

is published and favorably

reviewed.

Beforehand what

you have is a tedious

delusion, a hobby like knitting.

 

Work is what you have done

after the play is produced

and the audience claps.

Before that friends keep asking

when you are planning to go

out and get a job.[iii]

 

…. [The poem concludes:]

Work is its own cure. You have to

like it better than being loved.

 

While other folks were not paying for this poet’s work back in the early days, she was paying for it.  Her pursuit of the meaning she found in creativity did have a cost.  By devoting her time to writing, she was making a sacrifice.   A sacrifice full of meaning for her.  An investment.

Millions of people enjoy Walt Disney World.  The Disney experience is designed to evoke wonder and awe.  Yosemite National Park also provides an experience of wonder and awe.  So does the Sacramento Zoo. Even a stroll along one of our nearby rivers can evoke wonder and awe.  All of these experiences have a cost involved.  Whether it’s airfare, lodging, parking, food and the price of tickets for Disney World, or the admission charge to the zoo, or just the time you take away from another activity to stroll along the local river, these are expenses; they are investments.  Investments in activities in which we experience meaning.

Some of us buy coffee that’s labeled “fair-trade.”   For us, doing so evokes a sense of justice and fairness for growers and workers in other lands, and the coffee is delicious.  Some fair-trade is brewing for us back in the kitchen right now. Here at church we buy fair-trade coffee for these reasons, and because a portion of what we pay will support projects of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  For me this practice evokes justice and community.  There’s also an aspect of beauty, which is a source of meaning.  That is, when I’ve got caffeine coursing thorough my veins, the world looks beautiful!

Many people in retirement enjoy going on Elderhostel trips.  Elderhostel is now called Road Scholar.  That not- for-profit organization sells cultural and educational travel packages to several thousand destinations a year, with pleasant accommodations, well-planned sightseeing, lectures, and performances.  It’s a success because it has determined the needs and interests of the people it wants to serve.  If any for-profit company provides comparable travel experiences to a similar customer base, it is likely have similar success.  To make money while you offer a meaningful experience is not a bad thing!

Nine years ago I spent several weeks in India. I wasn’t sure what kinds of meaning I was looking for.  I wanted to see what would happen to me.  I did have the meaningful experience of enlightenment—insights about other places and cultures, and about myself.  I also had an experience of accomplishment, because I survived all of the ordeals of that solo journey.  But it took more than my having the proper attitude to get meaning out of the experience, it took money to get me there!

Writing in his journal in 1861, the Massachusetts mystic Henry David Thoreau asks:  “What are the natural features that make a township handsome?  A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly.  Such things are beautiful [he says]; they have a high use, which dollars and cents never represent.”

Of course, nature is a key source of meaning for us.  Often we think of nature’s bounty as priceless.  Not a commodity, but a free gift of creation.   Thoreau continues:  “If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve those things, [even] though at a considerable expense.”  So, he says, we should spend money on this.  Even an idealist like him admits that money is related to sources of meaning.

We must make choices to experience, protect and preserve what we value, and what gives value to us.  Choosing to value some experiences more than others is an investment.  An investment of our time, attention and money.

Yet in these busy times, too much competes for attention.  So much claims to be a valid pursuit of meaning, so much claims our time and money and attention.  How do we know what to choose, and what to leave aside?

Thoreau famously spent weeks and years thinking about what mattered to him.  Most of us do not have that much time.  But however much time we can carve away to think about how we treat the sources of meaning in our lives, it is time well spent.  If we can settle down, calm ourselves, look inside and look around us, it can be time well spent.

Any sliver of time in a day or a night in which we can contemplate what we care about, and how we choose to make use of our time, attention, and money—that sliver of time can be precious.  Consider it an investment . . .when you take time to think about, write down on paper, or speak to another person about what you appreciate and value, what you aspire to, where you express your sense of meaning.

Let’s look not only inward, but look around.  Let’s notice what we are blessed by, what we appreciate, and what we give to.  Investments in our sense of meaning.

If we are lucky, the ways we spend our time, attention and money are wise investments in meaning. In particular, they ways we handle money can reflect how we pursue meaning.

How we earn or gain money, and the gratitude with which we receive it and own it, and the spirit with which we save it, spend it, and share it can express our sense of meaning.  If we are able to reflect on the use of our time, attention and money, it will be worth it.

May we know when it is worth it.  May we know when we are blessed.  So may it be.  Amen.

 


[i] Making Meaning, p. 32.

[ii] p. 131.