Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Pastoral Prayer for UU worship service, July 20, 2014

Rev. Roger Jones, Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Now please join me in a time of contemplation, in words and silence. Notice your feet on the floor and your body in the seat. Notice your breathing, in and out. Relax your eyes, whether open or closed.

O Spirit of the calm summer clouds, ease our souls, as we gather in reflection and in hope. We give thanks for those around us in this community of encouragement and welcome.

We give thanks for the gift of life and the gift of this new day.

Life is fragile and fleeting, and many of us are thinking of those we have lost, perhaps recently, or some time ago. Let us make the sound of their names now at this time and, by our speaking, let us bring them into the space of our sanctuary with us.

Life holds many kinds of challenge. We hold in our hearts those who need our good wishes and help for all kinds of struggle, and we offer our own burdens to compassion’s warm embrace. We ask for serenity, courage, and wisdom as we make each new step on the journey of life.

Life brings occasions for joy and gratitude. Let us call to mind the milestones and celebrations that lighten our spirits. Whether speaking aloud into the sanctuary or whispering to ourselves, let us now speak of our joys or those of others.

Many another’s good fortune lift our own hearts in praise of joy.

Life brings change to this hallowed spiritual home. As this congregation prepares to vacate this building for a year of construction, we recognize the dedication of our volunteers and staff members. Their vision, purpose, collaboration, reliability and generosity have brought us to this point of promise. We give thanks!

At the same time, we must look beyond these walls to the desperation and agony afflicting the human family. We lift up the people of many tragic scenes, including three in recent weeks or days. A Malaysian jetliner was destroyed by a missile fired from separatist rebel-held areas of Ukraine, killing hundreds of innocent adults and children. Fighting in the Gaza Strip in Palestine is now in its 13th day. The Israeli military and Palestinian Hamas militants ratchet up the violence, with Hamas missile strikes into Israel and a military incursion of tanks and troops into Palestine.   At last report, the lives lost include at least 5 Israelis and 336 Palestinians, including 65 dead children. [As of July 21, per the New York Times, 27 Israelis and 556 Palestinians have been killed.]  It was the killing of teenagers from both sides that sparked this wave of pain and chaos. It makes the heart weep.

On the United States border with Mexico, hundreds of thousands of Central American youngsters arrive as refugees from the destitution and violence of their home cities and villages.   While fragile children wait for mercy, U.S. government leaders vacillate and fight.   While some citizens argue, others go to guard the children or send money for basic needs.

We lift our voices to the sky to call for a world without violence. We long for a renewed wave of dignity and healing to cover the human family. We extend prayers for peace to all places of conflict and oppression, near and far.

May each of us have the courage to do what we can. May we choose the ways of peace and courage.

Now let us take silence together for a minute. May we come home to our breathing.   May we come home to the feelings of being alive. Now May the breath of life breathe in us a new sense of hope and the motivation to make that hope a reality. Blessed Be and Amen. Namaste.



Learning Spirituality from Plants! Flower Celebration Sunday Message

Homily (Sermonette) by Rev. Roger from UUSS Flower Communion Sunday, June 2, 2013 (All-Ages Worship Service)

 

Writing in his journal in 1859, Henry David Thoreau says that “the mystery of the life of plants” is like the mystery of our own human lives. He cautions the scientist against trying to explain their growth “according to mechanical laws” or the way engineers might explain the machines that they make.   There is a magic ingredient, to go along with air and sun, earth, water and nutrients. There is one part miracle to every living thing, he says. The force of life. A force we can feel and recognize, but cannot create or control.

For my birthday I received a planter from our Religious Education staff person, Miranda.   To ensure its longevity I left it in her office, and it has flourished. But when she departed for two months in Ghana, a post-it note appeared on the planter: Roger, remember to water me.

            I am not reliable around green things. I have nearly killed off a cactus—a small one I got last Christmas. I remember when I was little, in school, planting seeds in Dixie cups with dirt an inch deep.   Watching the sprouts, helping them along; it was fun. Then, a few years later, a friend of the family helped me plant a garden in the back yard: green beans, tomatoes, onions. Delicious, for one or two summers.

But my horticultural karma was all downhill from there. In high school I mowed grass for a few neighbors and friends of my mom. One family had a large yard around their large house. They asked me to pull or cut out the weeds growing close to the house.  This was before the days of the weed-whacker, which would have been fun to use. Using my bare hands—not fun. So I drizzled gasoline on the weeds near the outside walls, all the way around. Killed all their weeds. Filled the house with fumes, I found out later.

To the good fortune of the plant kingdom, in my adult life I’ve never had a yard or a garden, nearly always lived in an apartment. Here in the church’s community garden, which we call UURTHSONG, a few summers ago at lunchtime I helped myself to a few meals of tomatoes and chard, but I haven’t dared to plant a garden plot.

I know many of you garden, with lovely flowers and gorgeous vegetables. You have citrus and plum and fig trees and so many other kinds. Some of you are Master Gardeners. Some of you sell plants for a living, or you work in landscaping and grounds-keeping.

Some of you volunteer with plants, like our member Jerry, who spends many a weekday tending the flowerbeds and flowerpots here at the church. Some of you, like Nancy and Gail, give tours at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center on the American River Parkway, among other outdoor places. Annie and other UUSS Waterbugs tend our thirsty trees and bushes year after year.

As I noted, my experience with plants is questionable, so I can’t be sure what it’s like for people who put hour after hour into the lives of growing green things. But this is what it might be like.   Planting, tending, watering, weeding, harvesting, transplanting… it involves a mix of your own physical power, and the patience to wait and see what happens. It calls for intention and effort, and then for humility.

            One cannot bring plants into bloom, or force them to bear fruit. You have to learn enough to know when and where to plant them, how much water and fertilizer to give, how much to weed, when to prune or plow over, and of course you need to know what not to do.

You do your part, waiting, watching, tending. You wait on the force of life. You wait on a miracle, an everyday ordinary miracle. Seeing a vine crawl, blossoms yielding fruit, colors calling for bees and other pollinating insects. Miracles happen a lot. But we can’t make them happen. We can’t make life happen.

I wonder if this is a helpful way to think about our spirituality. There are new and modern resources for spiritual growth, and there are ancient practices.   We can draw on all of them, of course.   Yet the main ingredient is paying attention. Watching ourselves, noticing reactions, sensations, desires. Observing the world around us—the plants, the people, the traffic, the sunlight. Gently tending to the needs around us.

Preparing ourselves.

Perhaps we can think of spiritual growth from the perspective of a faithful gardener.   Not a prizewinning perfectionist whose work is on the cover of a magazine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I bet most of us aren’t up to that much effort in spiritual practice (or in gardening).

I’m thinking of a gardener like a humble companion, a curious visitor. As a humble gardener tending our own growth, we remember to check in with ourselves, on a regular basis. We notice the world around us. We tend our gardens. We wait in humility, and we remember to practice patience. We don’t worry about explaining too much, about figuring ourselves out, as if we were machines, predictable and controllable. We don’t try to fix, only to encourage, nurture, water and feed.

We can’t make plants grow, but we can help them, and watch the miracle happen. We can’t force ourselves to grow spiritually—and we certainly can’t make somebody else grow. But we can be present and attentive. Be intentional. Notice what might help, or ask. Practice a bit more patience.

Then, we can enjoy the results. We give thanks for what we are able to harvest, thanks for the results of our waiting and watching.

Give thanks for the ground of our being. And celebrate every ordinary miracle.

So may it be. Blessed be. Amen.

 



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.



Chalice Lighting Words, Ordination Ceremony, March 29, 2014

Words for Chalice Lighting by Roger Jones

Ceremony of Ordination of Amy Moses Lagos to the UU Ministry

Saturday, March 29, 2014, in San Francisco

Good afternoon. When Amy Moses-Lagos was growing up in Springfield, Illinois, she attended the Abraham Lincoln Fellowship, Unitarian Universalist, now the Abraham Lincoln Congregation.

I know this, because when she was six, I was one of her Sunday School teachers there, when I was younger then, than she is now. Of course, this means that of everyone in this room who has had a formative influence on Amy as a Unitarian Universalist, I had the earliest influence, and therefore I guess the most profound…unless you count her mother, brother and sister, who are also here

Back then, in that congregation, at the start of every Sunday service, a child would lead the congregation in words for lighting the chalice.

Those words, and ours today, are combined from two sources: the late Rev. Elizabeth Selle Jones, now departed, the minister emerita of our church in Livermore, and from a Passover Haggadah, whose words are in the gray hymnal.

 

This flame affirms the light of truth, the warmth of community, and the fire of commitment.  [Selle Jones]

Please repeat each line after me:

 May the light we now kindle -PAUSE

Inspire us to use our powers -PAUSE

To heal and not to harm, -PAUSE

To help and not to hinder, -PAUSE

To bless and not to curse, -PAUSE

To serve you, Spirit of Freedom!

 

So may it be.



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.



Time of Darkness and Light– UUSS Sermon from Sunday, December 15, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Music:  Hymns:  #226 “People, Look East,” #118 “This Little Light of mine,” #1008 “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place.”  Solo:  “The Dark” by Mary Grigolia, sung a capella by Rev. Lucy.

Litany of Darkness and Light    (see at end)

Sermon

I sat looking out the kitchen window well before 7 in the morning, just last week.  I felt the chilly air seeping in, and a mug of warm tea in my cold hands.  I was ready to watch the morning light emerge, was waiting for the sunlight to change the look of everything.  But I felt sadness.  The tea had caffeine—how long would it take to change my mood, if it could?  This mood was not of deep grief, and not a heavy burden of depression on my shoulders, yet it was a decidedly not-fun feeling of sadness.   I said my morning prayer anyway.

I gave thanks for the gift of life and the new day, for a night’s rest in a warm, safe place.  I lifted up the names of parishioners who need good wishes or prayers, brought their faces to mind, plus those of colleagues, friends, and relatives.  I stated my intentions for living the day with gratitude, generosity, curiosity and kindness.  The light was now making the street visible, and showing the colors of the cars parked on it.

Then it occurred to me:  that pre-dawn darkness was just the right place for my sadness.  The shadows could receive it.  The shadows could let the sadness move, in its own gentle way.  Had it been 7 AM in June or July, the sun would have claimed the whole scene by now.  It would be urging me into the many tasks of the day:  Get going, look alive!  But the morning darkness of December seems to say, “Take it easy and slowly–I am taking it easy and slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

Soon it was bright and clear, and my day was on its way.  And it went fast.  The night came in the middle of the day—5 o’clock.  Wait!  I’m not finished with my day yet!

For years I have resisted and resented the early evening.  I’ve dreaded the shrinking hours of daylight, starting in early November, when we set our clocks back an hour.

But as this December Solstice approaches, I try to appreciate what can happen in the dark.  I would like to mention a few of the gifts of the time of darkness, but first I want to say:  it’s not a gift for everyone, no matter what a preacher or a poet might say.

Like many people, a friend of mine has a clinical, biological reaction in the winter darkness, called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  It does not help that she lives at a latitude even farther north than we do, and it’s cold there, for a long time.  You know what they would call the chilly weather we’ve had this past week?  Springtime (without the mud).

She sits under a special kind of lamp every day, to give her body and spirit some extra rays of light.  In retirement she has the time to travel, so she spends a few weeks in the winter visiting friends in warm, sunny places.  When she can save up enough money and find a cheap deal, she takes a trip to a warm country.  Not speaking Vietnamese, she made her way around villages in Vietnam by pointing and smiling.  In the sunshine of Egypt a few years ago, she heard people speak with hope right after the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.  She enjoyed the January summer of Argentina, taking in the spray of Iguazu falls, the marvel of a glacier, and some penguins in their stiff cuteness.  Rather than cursing the dark and cold, she follows the sun.  Of course, this is not an option for most people, and she gives thanks for the privilege to do so.

It’s important to note that seasons of darkness and cold can be very hard on the spirit, hard on the emotional health of many people around us.  It may not only bring up grief or painful memories of past experiences, it may bring depression that weighs on our minds and even on our physical bodies.  This can happen to people young or old, in any occupation or stage of life.  When other ways of dealing with the shadow side of this dark time don’t seem to help us, it may be worth seeing if anti-depressant medicines, psychotherapy, or a 12-Step recovery group can make a difference for us.  Whether as individuals or as families, we can look for professional resources and community support as we pursue emotional healing, personal growth, and the ability to accept the gift of life with joy.

Personal growth can happen in the dark times and places.  Seeds will sprout in the cool dark of the earth, and begin their journey toward the light.  As a tree stretches toward the sun, it also grows downward, inward, into the dark earth.  We can be like the trees.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “In winter we lead a more inward life.”

Another friend of mine lives not so far north, so the weather’s not as cold and the nights not as long.  Yet the winter darkness does mean a change of her pattern of living, toward a more inward life.   She spends more time under the covers, reading a book propped on the pillow next to her.   In the living room she brings out candles and a string of holiday lights.  They remind her of our inner light, of an eternal spark.  Believing that winter is the best time for exercise, she puts on layers and goes out for a brisk walk.  The leaves crunch underfoot, the air chills the skin of the face, the nose runs.

In winter, she says, we need exercise to stimulate our endorphins.  Of course, we can be tempted to medicate our mood by drinking more alcohol and eating more, especially sweets and other carbohydrates.  But the boost we might feel by consuming alcohol and sweets can have a down side.  It can make us feel worse—edgy–after the boost wears off.   This December I am taking some of her advice.  Of course, I may never stop my holiday consumption of cookies, cake, fudge and anything else any of you might wish to make for me.  But I’m eating more almonds and pecans and not forgetting my veggies.  And I am having less alcohol, and drinking less often.   I’m not crazy about green tea, but I’ve been drinking so much of it lately that soon I may turn the color of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

One Unitarian Universalist family I know has created their own Solstice tradition.  With candles and cloths they make an altar of their table.  They bake a light brown, round ginger cake—dense and only an inch thick.  They serve it on a large round plate with a rim glazed with dark blue like the sky, and specked with stars.  They pass the cake around, each one cutting a piece for the next person, who indicates by nods and silent gestures how large of a piece to cut.

As the cake is served, what is revealed underneath it in the center of the plate is a round red sun.  The sun returns!  For Solstice dinner, they eat only foods with round shapes, evoking the sun.  They read prayers to the divine light and sing chants to the source of returning warmth.  The parents hide little suns around the house and the kids go searching for them.  By finding a likeness of sun, they are bringing the sun back, helping it return.  This family does not rely on the dominant culture to tell them what they need to do or to buy for making spirits bright—they create their own traditions.  Any of us can be creative.  We can join with nature and with other people to create our own light, and share the light, now in the dark of winter.

For many people, winter is a time for making soup and other warm foods, and eating more of the fresh foods that our season brings out.  In California we have so many winter crops.  Those in cold climates now can benefit from quick transport of fresh foods, but in the old days they kept food in the root cellar, and dried meat and beans from the summer crop.

Back home in Indiana, my mother’s fridge held many frozen foods for our winter meals, and this was fine.  But around the corner from our house, my uncle and aunt had shelves of clear glass jars with green beans, tomatoes, corn and other produce they had canned in the summer.   My uncle Roger had been a cook on a ship in the Navy during the Second World War.  As a boy I helped him in the kitchen, including his major undertaking of putting up all that food, with Mason jars boiling in big pots of water and other steps for cleanliness and safety.  That was a summer activity, but the memory of it warms me in the winter.

Now I can see that we were storing sunshine in shiny glass jars.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

The darkness can help us to see the truth… that we are not in control of everything.  We can be so busy in our lives, have so many expectations.  So many technologies at our fingertips and conveniences in our daily experience can lull us into thinking that there is an online menu tab for peace of mind or an iPad application for wisdom, courage, and grace.

The world does not revolve around any of us, including me; nor does earth rotate at my command.   Its creation is a miracle and a blessing. The operation of the heavens is a wonder.  And it all goes on without my permission or involvement. It will go on without me.  The darkness comes and goes—my cursing it or my blessing it affects only the condition of my own spirit.  The season’s advice to me:  you need not be in control, and in fact you are not in control.  Let the darkness hold the future.  Let go!

We can be intentional about living in the darker season. This is why candles appeal to us:  the darker it gets around them, the more they show their beauty.   Looking at a candle flame, or a string of lights on the tree or around the window, we can think about the meaning of light, and the bringers of light—like our nearby star, the human mind and heart, the source of love and light eternal, the creative spark, the divine fire of courage and compassion.

Solstice rituals use fire and food and song—to bless the darkness with beauty, while praising the cycles of the seasons of the earth.   People hang lights at Christmas to praise the source of life, celebrate the story of the star of Bethlehem, and remember that sun and warmth will return.

On Christmas Eve at UUSS, our sanctuary fills with members and their friends, and with guests we see only once a year.  In the weeks leading up to it, folks ask me the time:  seven o’clock, same as always.  They ask me if we will light candles and sing “Silent Night,” at the end.  Of course!  We will make a circle around the walls of the sanctuary, and exchange the light with one another, and then enjoy the darkness, filled with song and silence, and with faces illuminated by the flames.

Folks never ask:  will we sing the carols and hear a homily, will we have some instrumental music, prayer and silence and an offering?  All those things are like the setup to the “Silent Night” candle light finale!  Yet without those elements, the finale would be weak.

Without the darkness, our candles would be weak.  Likewise, without the embrace of the darkness, we might not have the reminder to plan ahead, create meaning in the season, and reach out for fellowship and support.  The darkness holds an invitation to let go of all that we cannot control, and accept with serenity all that we can’t change.

At my kitchen window, in my early morning watch for the light, the dark of winter seems to say:  “Take it easy, and go slowly–I am taking it easy, and going slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

The dark of winter is a time to consider the sources of light we can count on, and give thanks for them.  It’s the season for tasting the warmth of nourishing food, made by human hands from the gifts of the earth for our sustenance and our joy. It’s a season for creativity, planning ahead, self-care and care for others.  It’s a time for digging deep and for reaching out toward others with compassion, openness, and kindness.

It’s a time for patience and letting go of control, for releasing the past and opening to the mystery of the future.  May we all be so blessed.

In the days to come, may you welcome the gifts of light and warmth you can bring into the darkness.  May the days and nights ahead bless us with light, learning, warmth, patience and peace.               Blessed be.


 

Litany of Darkness and Light

 

Part A (Before silent meditation/prayer)

 

Voice 1:  We wait in the darkness expectantly, longingly, anxiously, thoughtfully.

Voice 2:  In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected.

All Voices:  May we feel comfort in the darkness.

 

It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe– blankets of stars, the solitary glowing of distant planets.

In the darkness of the night sky we feel beyond time – in the presence of the past, and with the promise of the future.

May we feel hope in the darkness.

 

In the solitude of the darkness we may remember those who need our love and support in special ways–

 the sick, the unemployed, the bereaved, the persecuted, the homeless, those who are demoralized or discouraged, those whose fear has turned to cynicism, those whose vulnerability has become bitterness.

Sometimes in the darkness we remember those who are near to our hearts – colleagues, partners, parents, children, neighbors, friends, congregation members.   We pray for their safety and happiness.  We offer our support.

May we know healing in the darkness.


 

 

Part B (After musical interlude following sermon)

 

In the quiet darkness of the night, we may hear that still, small voice within.

In the blessed darkness we may be transformed, changed by what we face in the dark.

May we feel the challenge of the darkness.

 

In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed.

In the darkness of sleep dreams rise up, calling us to possibilities, calling us to know our connection to the world.

May we feel joy in the darkness.               

Sometimes in the solitude of darkness our fears and concerns, our hopes and our visions rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves.   We find the road that lies ahead of us.

Sometimes in the darkness we wonder about the important things, the deep things, and inexpressible things.  We watch for glimmers of hope and glimpses of grace.

May we feel renewed in the darkness.  May we be guided by the light of our hearts.  Reflecting the divine love that shines at the heart of life,  let us reach out to this troubled world with compassion.

New Century Hymnal, adapted



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.