Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


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.

 



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.



New UUSS Family Pledge Drive Testimonial from February 24 service–Sustaining Our Vision From Year to Year, From Generation to Generation

Every Sunday during the pledge drive we have been hearing what this UU community means to people, and why they support it with their financial pledge.  Our pledge drive ends soon.  So far we have received 98 pledge forms for the 2013-14 fiscal year.  Only 300 to go!!

This is from Amanda, a mother of two little ones who is new here and already on the Religious Education Committee.  Her husband, Darrel, has been here on Saturdays working on the grounds of our church campus.  Their kids are quite charming too.  You can tell that the words she quotes are from a few decades back, as now our baby dedication ceremonies use gender-inclusive language, but clearly the sentiment and heart were there in 1979.

Testimonial
It was a cold morning in March in the year 1979. The place, My Grandfather‘s “old” Unitarian Church on North Broadway, New York. The minister spoke, “When one baby is born it is the symbol of all birth and all life, and therefore all men must rejoice and smile, and all men, must lose there hearts to a child.” The words spoken and heard there were the words that have traveled with me in the depth of my heart wherever I have gone. This was my dedication ceremony at two months old, as a Unitarian.

Given that I was dedicated as a baby in the church, one might assume I have been in a Unitarian congregation throughout my life. But the truth is the furthest thing from that. I cant say for sure, but I am pretty sure I hadn’t stepped foot into another Unitarian Church until I arrived here at UUSS. This isn’t to say I wasn’t involved in any religious movement at all throughout my life. We regularly visited the Self Realization Fellowship, the church of Science of Mind, and whatever other alternative form of seeking my family interested themselves in.

But here I am back where I began. It was about a year ago, after a major move here to Sacramento, I found myself wondering about reconnecting to these roots. I was a transplant. My roots were in major need of some good wholesomely rich natural nutrients to grab a hold of. So, I returned.

In my dedication ceremony the minister said, “In the church the child will be introduced to his world, there he will learn meanings men has found in the skies, the fields, the hills, the valleys, and the cities of men. There he will be able to count the number of his days and weigh their meaning, to gather into his mind the wisdom of his ancestors, to know why men call one thing right and another wrong, to treasure beauty, mercy and justice in the deep places of his being.”

I am a mother now. I have been given two amazing children to guide and help grow. But I believe children are guided not only by their parents but by the people surrounding them; their friends, their family, their neighbors, and their elders. What the Unitarian Universalists are and are not, what they stand for or against, what they consider, what they notice, what they act on or not at all, is what I want my children to grow up around.

And I don’t want to stop there. What I want for my children, is what I want for all children. I want all children to grow up learning how to stand up tall. I want all children to grow up learning how to use their minds. I want all children to grow up knowing they can make a difference. This is why I think it is important for this congregation to stay strong, keep growing, and be the force for healing in the world it already is for many generations to come.



Last Chance to Register: Spiritual Parenting Monday night—Perspectives & Practices–Ministry Circle for UUSS members/friends begins Monday

“A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Please join me in a focused ministry circle, during which we will consider our role as spiritual guide in parenting our children. In this circle will ask ourselves:

What is my definition of spiritual…parenting?
What do I really mean when I say I want my child(ren) to be happy?
What kind of example am I setting?
How do I help turn values into practices, and then fit them into our busy family life?
How can I listen more deeply, speak more wisely?
How are my physical & spiritual health interconnected?
How can I become more aware of my own spiritual experiences, and how do I help my family discover theirs?
As a family, how can we be a force for healing in the world?

The topics will be guided, but we’ll learn from each other’s ideas, successes, and, perhaps most importantly, our failures.

We will meet in in Citrus Heights (off of Greenback and Mariposa). We will meet once a week, for 8 weeks.  We began on Monday, September 26th.

It is still possible to register… if you can make the next 7 sessions and can show up Monday, October 3rd, from 6:45-8:45. This will be a very focused time of adult interaction so that you can go home and have more focus for your little* ones.
*They may not be so little—last time I facilitated this workshop, the age range of children represented was 18 months to 25 years, and everything in between☺

If you have any questions regarding the group, please feel free to contact me, Karen.

Notes From Pastor Cranky (the very grateful Family Minister):

Note: This is not for the general public, but for parents who are members, friends or newcomers to our church.

Flyers will be at Connection Central Table after the services this Sunday. To reach Karen now about next Monday night’s launch of this important Ministry Circle, send Pastor Cranky a note or post a COMMENT here.



Joys and Terrors of the Religious Education Volunteer Ministry

A Sermon Dedicated to Janet Lopes, Retiring Religious Education Assistant

Unitarian Universalist Society. Sacramento, CA, Sunday, March 14, 2010                                                                        

Hymns:  #324, Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads; #16, ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple; #299, Make Channels for the Streams of Love.

Reading:  “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs (#657, Singing the Living Tradition)

Today’s responsive reading is based on the words of Sophie Fahs, the minister after whom our Fahs Classroom is named. 

In 1937 the American Unitarian Association hired her to edit the children’s materials in a new series of religious education curricula.  Her books include Tomorrow’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage; Jesus, the Carpenter’s Son; Beginnings of Life and Death; The Old Story of Salvation, and The Church across the Street.  She taught at Union Theological Seminary.  She was ordained a UU minister in 1948, at age 83. 

            

Sermon

            If you haven’t visited our Community Garden (out at the end of the parking lot), I invite you to do so–today or any day.  Last Sunday morning in Religious Education we had a Garden Day, thanks to the organizing efforts of several volunteers.  Children and youth decorated bird houses made out of hollowed-out gourds, which were then mounted on the wooden fence.  They made signs to stick in the raised garden plots or take home for their own use.  Then they explored.    

Children, youth and adults wandered around our enormous garden, investigating, collecting, chatting, wondering, delighting.  A few kids wanted to show me the many ladybugs crawling on a pile of composting weeds–and crawling over their arms and hands.  Others harvested shiny green snap-peas and greenish-yellow broccoli flowers.  One showed me green onions and the skinniest little carrots, with fresh brown dirt clinging to them.  The carrots were a far cry from those uniformly cut mini-carrots  you find in a plastic bag in the supermarket, the ones that look like big orange capsules.  On the last Sunday in April, we will invite youth and children again to the garden–to do a lot more hands-on work, and by then the harvest will have more variety. 

Wandering in the garden gave me a chance to chat with adult volunteers as well as kids—much less rushed than I usually am on Sunday.  It seemed that once you entered the garden, the boundaries between being a teacher and student, between leader and learner, became fuzzy.   People of all ages were giving one another a helping hand.  We showed one another new discoveries.  We learned again about feeling excitement about ordinary things, like plants and bugs.     

Some of you might think this sermon is a plea for volunteers in our religious education program for the summer or next fall.  Not really.  I do hope that you can appreciate the ministry that we do with youth and children, and the ministry they do with us.  Even if you never spend more than a few minutes interacting with a child, your support of our religious education ministry makes possible so much inspiration and insight, so many transforming moments.  Well, to be truthful, I hope you can’t resist stopping by the Religious Education table outside to ask how you can be part of the fun. 

             Often when we say the words “education,” what goes off in the mind is an image of teacher and pupil, of children in rows hearing facts and not saying much in return.  Or maybe it’s an image of kids not staying in rows and not hearing a thing, all talking at the same time, a great chorus of chaos and noise.   Maybe when you hear the words “Sunday school” you think about learning rules, doctrines, dates, famous names, and other forgettable facts.  That’s not really the way it is, and not how it should be, if we are true to our liberal faith tradition.

The late Harold Howe was a professor of teacher education at Harvard and a Commissioner of Education in the federal government.  He was also a UU.  After a church service, he gave this note to his minister: “Here’s a definition of a Unitarian Universalist: a person who can ask children, ‘What is God?’ and listen seriously to their replies.

“P.S.: I once went to Sunday school for about 7 years, but no one asked me ‘What is God?’ Instead, they told me.”

Our tradition affirms the value of hearing what stirs the spirit of every person, at every age and stage of life.  When we ask another:  “What do you think?  What do you feel?” we open ourselves to be changed.  This interchange is the heart of religious education.   

            I asked a few volunters in our own Religious Education program for their reflections.  One writes:  “Given my own Sunday School experiences of expecting to be proper and very quiet, I am constantly amazed that UU kids are … polite, not afraid of adults, confident that their opinions matter and won’t be laughed at, and [that they are ] able to ‘pass’and not say anything as an option.  UU religious education is such a good foundation for children.” 

The Reverend Til Evans is retired from a career as a director and minister of religious education and as a professor of seminarians at Starr King School for the Ministry.  Now in her late 80s, Til says that whoever we are, when we give time and attention to children in our congregations, we are educating them religiously.  It’s not about giving them facts and concepts, she says.  By our actions and by our presence, we’re teaching about relationships, community and love. We’re teaching children and teenagers about their own dignity and worth, and about the value of their own ideas and sources of inspiration.  She adds that when we religiously educate others, we are religiously educating ourselves. We are engaged in the work of transformation, not forthose we teach, but with them. We are all changed by what we do together. 

Several years ago, in my former congregation  I interviewed some Religious Education volunteers.  I asked, “How has doing this work changed you?  What have you gained?”  One volunteer said: “Doing this teaches humility! The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” Another said that helping with kids, even on an occasional basis, teaches patience and self-confidence.  One teacher said she became more flexible and observant: “I listen better now.” Another said he was learning to use his intuition, especially when a dry lesson called for some spicing up.  A fairly new member of the church said working in religious education has “Made me more accountable to working thorough my own journey in becoming a Unitarian. These kids are so sharp. They want to know how this material relates to their lives. Teaching has made me do my own reading and walk my own path.”

A religious education volunteer here at this church says this:  “I … know from watching my own kids that having adults other than your folks take an interest in you is so important.  It gives the kids another perspective and an opportunity to see themselves in others’ eyes.  (School) teachers are helpful, but at church we can serve in a personal way for the kids. I also believe it’s important to give parents a break and allow them to be in roles other than mom and dad all the time.  I remember as a mother of small children, I really needed adult contact, interaction and accomplishments.  I’m pleased that I can give back to my church community by being with the kids.”

Often when we talk about volunteer work, teaching, or other kinds of service, it can have a sense of duty about it.  We want to think well of ourselves, so we might think we should be of service, should help out.  How about if we approach our altruism… selfishly!  How about asking: What’s in it for you? What are you getting out of this experience?  How is it changing you?    

You could ask these questions to anyone, about any of their chosen activities, in or out of the congregation.  How has joining this venture changed you?  What do you gain from giving?

Our growing group of Religious Education volunteers here ranges in age from 18 to 80, and older.  They must be getting something out of it. 

One of our newer volunteers writes this: “The RE kids always enrich me with their honesty, openness, confidence, and humor (even if they don’t mean to be funny).  I go away feeling like the future will be okay.”   

            I myself never wanted to work in Religious Education.  When I was asked to teach Sunday school for the first time,  I was 26 years old.  It was a year or two after I had joined my first UU congregation, in Springfield, Illinois.  I didn’t want to work with kids; I had barely spoken to them.   Why would I want to give up hearing the speaker every Sunday or give up mingling with adults?  To be honest, I was afraid. But somehow, I said yes. 

It was a small class of early elementary-school aged kids.  My co-teacher was a guy named Steve, older than I was, and the father of two children, one of whom was in our class. I forget the topic of our curriculum, but one Sunday we learned about Harriet Tubman, the black slave in the American South who escaped from slavery and then risked her life by going back to help many other slaves to escape.  For this we made a house out of a cardboard box and crawled in and out of it on the floor.   

One day I led a discussion that included pussy willow branches. The thin branch of a pussy willow tree has buds covered in a furry skin—hence the name. The size of a vitamin capsule, the buds are fun to hold and feel. As I sat there talking to the kids, a girl named [Annie] said: “Roger?” “Yes?” I said. “[Jenny] has been playing with a pussy willow bud that she took off the branch. And she put it up her nose and now she can’t get it out.” Sure enough, tears were rolling down Jenny’s little face.  She was poking in her nose, pushing the bud up farther as her panic increased.  Those were the days before churches had two adults in the classroom all the time, so I was there alone.  To the other girl, I said, “Would you please go upstairs to the service and get Kathleen?” She did. Kathleen was not the girl’s mother, but a woman I knew who had seemed to be a take-charge kind of person. Either I didn’t know who the girl’s mother was, or I was afraid of getting into trouble. Kathleen came downstairs and held the girl in her arms. She spoke easily to calm her down. She coaxed her to blow gently till the alien object came out. Crisis over.  Jenny must be over 30 now. I don’t know if she has remembered that traumatic experience, but I know I’ll never forget it. 

Last year I spoke to a group of seminarians at Starr King School.  One of them was Annie, the helpful girl from that class.  She’s going to become a minister!  

That same year that I began teaching Sunday school, my aging mother’s  health declined fast.  One Thursday evening, a few days after Mom had been hospitalized, I received a call that I should come home right away. It was a four-hour drive to Indianapolis, and I wouldn’t get there till after midnight.  I was scheduled to teach the coming Sunday.  While packing to leave I called my co-teacher to tell him. I offered to drop off the lesson plan and supplies on my way out of town.         Steve was more than willing to cover for me on Sunday, and happy to come to my apartment to pick up the materials.

 We had a brief exchange at my door, and he wished me well. He didn’t say much, and all we did was to shake hands. But it made a difference to have some friendly human contact before setting out on that late-night journey to the hospital.  Had I not been in a teaching relationship with Steve, I wouldn’t have had his kind words to take with me on that long and lonely drive.

I did receive more than I gave in that volunteer job. We cannot predict how we will be changed, enriched or blessed by the experience when we decide to participate.

How might being involved in this congregation change you?  Or has it already?  I believe that any kind of activity can be a source of insight and growth, if we only take the time to reflect on why we’re doing it, what we’re experiencing, what it makes us feel, how it stretches us, how it affects our outlook.  What are we getting out of it?

What is your participation giving back to you?  This is not a cost-benefit analayis.  It’s a question for spiritual reflection.  Giving and receiving, speaking and listening, lending a hand or reaching out for one, we are changed by what we do together.  We are changed by making this congregation our home. 

Another one of our religious education volunteers writes this:  “Working with the kids feeds my soul.  It’s so wonderful to see them learn and develop.  I learn so much from them and gain insights about myself.  I’ve also been blessed with great teaching colleagues and have learned from them as well…. I truly believe that helping children grow into fully functioning adults is the most important thing I can do.  Thanks for letting me do that.”

As Professor Til Evans says, when we work with youth and children in our churches, we are educating religiously—educating ourselves no less than them.

            In my early 30s I was a member of the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago.   After many years doing other kinds of church work, I started helping out  with our teenage youth group.  It had meetings on Sunday mornings as well as service activities in the church and local community, field trips, and weekend parties.  My role was to show up, be present, and sometimes be a chauffer.

I rarely got any evidence that my presence made a difference or that I might be a valued source of advice.  Little did I know that many parents have the same experience with their own teenagers.  That church’s Minister of Religious Education told me not to worry—many teenagers don’t like to show what they are thinking, especially if they appreciate something you’ve done for them.  This advice has given me the courage to reach out and greet the youth of any congregation, including this one. Even if the expressions on their faces look as if they would prefer to do anything else in the world than talk to me, I force myself to ask them what’s going on.

One year I was a  chaperone for some of our Chicago teens at the General Assembly

of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  After our return, I helped them to put on

a service about their experiences.  Both were funny and full of passion. Willy,

a classical pianist, played music in that service. In his remarks he said he had been inspired by the social action discussions at General Assembly, including a vote in favor of same-gender marriage equality. This was 1996, and he was only 14.  Ten years later I was a minister in California.  I flew back to Chicago for a national conference of religiously-based advocates for low-wage workers, especially for the right to organize a union. It was interfaith, with Jews, Catholics, Protestants, UUs and Muslims participating. And it was inter-generational. Many of those faith-based activists were in their 20s and 30s. They were sharp, optimistic, and passionate. They spoke well, sang well, and could articulate practical strategies and long-term goals. 

One of these activists was Willy, the kid from my former church. Now a college graduate, he recognized me before I figured out who he was. By this time he was no longer Willy, but Will.  Tall, with a mop of reddish brown hair, he was cheerful and energetic, speaking to people of all ages with confidence and conviction. After graduating from an Ivy League university, Will had volunteered for an election campaign in Ohio—his side lost.  Then he moved back in with his parents in Chicago. He told me that in college he had he let his piano practicing slide so he could do a little studying and a lot of activism. Now he was looking for a job as a labor organizer. His mind was set on being an overworked, underpaid activist on behalf of low-wage working families.

Now, I can’t be sure that Will would be any less visionary, self-confident, hopeful and

happy if he had not gone through years of Unitarian Universalist religious education activities

with not-so-confident volunteers like me. I cannot be sure of that. But I am sure that I wouldn’t have come to know him if I hadn’t been one of those volunteers. If I had not stretched myself to do what I felt awkward about–to do what I thought wasn’t sure was making a  difference– I wouldn’t have been able to witness the development of inspiring young Unitarian Universalists.  

In the words of another volunteer:  working in religious education “makes me “optimistic about life in general.  It gives me hope for humanity.”

Last Sunday in the garden, I chatted with a few kids who have recently begun visiting the church.   One recent young visitor had been dragged here—I know that’s true because his grandfather told me he had dragged him here personally.  This young man showed me a handful of green peas he had collected in a Ziplock bag.  He said to me, “You know, this church is 100 times better than I thought it was going to be!  You have a garden… and all these other things to do!” 

“I’m glad to hear that!” I responded, and told him about the program that we would have waiting for him on the following Sunday.    

My hope is that before long he won’t say “You have a garden and all these other things to do”—he will say, “We have a garden and all these other things to do.”  If we convey only one thing to youth and children here, let it be that this community is theirs.  In this congregation, we belong to one another.   May we teach this lesson to them, learn it from them, learn it from one another. 

Giving and receiving, speaking and listening, lending a hand or reaching out for one, we are changed by what we do together.  We are changed by making this congregation our home. 

So may it be. Amen.

             

 

 



Putting Your Whole Weight Down!

Sermon title for Feb. 13 worship services at 9:30 and 11:15: Putting Your Whole Weight Down

with guest speaker, Rev. David Takahashi Morris
with Rev. Roger  & Rev. Doug hanging around looking pretty

Today we celebrate our congregation’s people, programs and mission as we launch our Pledge Drive for the coming budget year.  We won’t ask for pledges at this service–its purpose is purely inspirational.  (And we’ll have soup provided by our Coming of Age youth and their mentors.)

Our great guest preacher serves the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek and chairs the Growth Committee of the UUA’s Pacific Central District.

Raised Roman Catholic, he spent 15 years militantly away from religion until he discovered Unitarian Universalism in 1991, and was ordained to UU ministry 10 years later by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.He is especially interested in nurturing healthy congregations and in growing our faith communities toward reflecting the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of the world around us.  David is an avid singer and former music educator, David would love to sing in the choir if he weren’t afraid of getting caught preaching to it.  He and his spouse and Co-Minister Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris and their son Liam, 11 and daughter Garner, 21, are enjoying California’s beauty and their new West Coast life.



Money & Anxiety: As Old As the Bible

Family Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

February 28, 2010

Introduction

[Minister is holding rural-route mail box on top of his head.

It says PLEDGE CARDS on it.]

Worship Leader:  Roger, do you have something on your mind?

Minister: Yes, Judy, I do have something on my mind.  It’s been on my mind for several weeks.  It was even a little bit on my mind while I was on vacation last week.  Can you guess what it is?    The stewardship drive is the annual campaign when members and friends make our financial commitment to support the congregation for the coming budget year.  Our budget supports most of the programs, facilities, outreach ministries and staff members of the congregation.  We have had positive results so far, and 1/3 of the expected pledge cards have been turned in.  Off the top of my head, [Putting the mail box back on its stand], I’d say this means we expect the remaining 2/3 to be submitted by the end of February. That gives us nearly 12 hours to wrap up.  I’m not ready to panic, but the stewardship season does increase my anxiety level every year.  {PS to web readers.  If you are a member or friend, you can find and print out a pledge card  at http://uuss.org/Forms/Pledge%20Card%202010-2011.pdf.  Thank you!}

Reading

This reading is a poem entitled “Joe Heller,” written in 2005 by the late Kurt Vonnegut about his fellow writer and friend and published in the New Yorker magazine [5/16/05].

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:

Joseph Heller, and important and funny writer

now dead,

and I were at a party given by a billionaire

on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel

to know that our host only yestereday

may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’

has earned in its entire history?”

And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”

And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”

And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

Not bad!  Rest in peace!

Sermon

Ongoing political controversies about homosexuality and abortion rights could give you the impression that the Holy Bible is bursting with guidance about same-sex relationships and family planning, but it’s not.  Contrary to the advocacy of religious conservatives, the Holy Bible says less about sexual morality than it does about financial morality.

Here are some examples:   Hebrew prophets in several books condemn the oppression of the poor by the powerful, and the Jewish Bible  prohibits lending money at high rates of interest, the way credit card companies and payday lenders do today.   It speaks of the jubilee year—a celebration every 50 years in which land was to lie fallow, all property was returned to to its original owners or their heirs, all debts were forgiven and indentured servants released.  Contrast this with debtor prisons which existed in Europe and the U.S. until the mid-19th century.  In the New Testament, in one scene, Jesus of Nazareth praises the poor widow for her generous offering to the temple while scolding the rich donors for their pride and their lack of equal sacrifice.

According to the Reverend Stephen Gray:  Of the 38 parables or stories told by Jesus in the New Testament, 16 deal with the relationship between what you say you believe and how you use your money and possessions; of everything that Jesus talks about, the number two topic is the use we make of our possessions.  (He didn’t say what the number one topic is.)

Gray is a United Church of Christ minister who speaks about money.  He gave a workshop at the annual meeting of the UU Ministers Association several years ago.  By his calculation, in both testaments of the Holy Bible one out of eight verses talks about the relationship between faith and the use of our money and possessions.  Of the Ten Commandments, three provide instructions on how we relate to money and possessions, including the possessions of others, such as not coveting what they have.

The individual books of the Bible were composed in different places and times over a span of thousands of years, written by and for different communities.  Yet throughout those varied books are stories, questions, and guidelines about money in personal relationships as well as money and social justice and fairness.  These various passages don’t all say the same thing, but they show the centrality of money to human relationships.  Stress over money is not a new thing.

Gray writes: “If you wonder why money and possessions are referred to so often in the Bible, I would simply remind you of the number one reason for family conflict?  The answer, of course, is money.”  Money was a major source of domestic disagreements long ago, and it still is.  This is why premarital counseling and couples workshops help engaged couples to talk in advance of their wedding about financial priorities and habits, as well as the messages they received about money while growing up.

To demonstrate how important this is, Gray tells this story about an old married couple up in Maine:  Matilda and Bert were visiting the Blue Hill Fair.  Soon enough they came across one of those open-cockpit airplane rides with the advertisement:  Ride for 2 — $10.  Matilda said to Bert:  “You know I sure would like to take one of those airplane rides.”  To which Bert replied, “I don’t think so.  Ten dollars is ten dollars!” But Matilda said, “But Bert, I’m 72 years old.  I might never get a chance to fly in one of those planes.”  To which Bert replied, “I don’t think so.  Ten dollars is ten dollars!”
At that point the pilot, who was listening in on their conversation, said, “Tell you what, folks.  I’ll take the two of you up for an airplane ride for nothing as long as you don’t say one word during the flight.  But if you say so much as just one word, you owe me $10.”  Well, that sounded like a bargain they couldn’t pass up, so Matilda and Bert climbed into the little open-cockpit plane.
Well, that pilot did everything he could to get them to cry out.  He did loop de loops, he did spins, he took the plane into steep dives.  But Bert and Matilda didn’t say one single word.
Defeated, the pilot finally brought the plane in for a landing and turned around to Matilda and said, “Well, I guess you got that plane ride for free.  I did everything I could to get you to say something, but I didn’t hear one word.”  To which Matilda replied, “Well, I was going to say something when Bert fell out of the plane… But then again, ten dollars is ten dollars!” [i][At the first service this story was told to the children before they departed for Religious Education.]

Nothing like that happened in my family, but I did grow up with mixed messages about money.  Instead of learning clear lessons about financial security, frugality or generosity, I learned to be anxious and ambivalent about money.  My relationship to money was shaped in part by the habits, attitudes, complaints and worries I heard from parents and close relatives.  We were secure financially as a family, but it didn’t feel that way.  In contrast, I’ve heard other people say, “I grew up in a poor family, but we didn’t realize we were poor.  We had enough to eat, fun ways to spend time, and lots of love.”

Every Sunday the Sacramento Bee newspaper runs a few articles from the Wall Street Journal, one of which is entitled Yoder & Sons.  For several years the Journal‘s San Francisco Bureau Chief, Stephen Yoder, has written a column with his teenage son Isaac, who’s now in his first year of college.  Last year the team added the younger son, Levi, who is 14 and a high school freshman.  Every week there’s a new topic related to family life and money.  The father and one or both of his kids write their thoughts on topics like kids’ allowances, savings, spending, cell phones, summer vacations, summer internships, selecting a college and paying for it, volunteer work, giving to charity, and balancing work and family life.  They don’t always see eye-to-eye.  The parents struggle with how much free choice to leave to the ikds and when to assert parental control.  But they stay in conversation, and all of them learn from one another.

In January, 14-year-old Eli made a New Year’s resolution to give away 10% of the money he makes from writing the column for the newspaper.  He would divide it between the family’s church and another not-for-profit organization.  A month later he was still putting it off.  He said his church youth group is collecting money to support a clinic in Indonesia “that provides health care in local villages in return for the villagers’ pledging not to cut down trees there, and to restore part of the rainforest by planting seedlings.”  Eli writes:  “For the fund-raiser, we’re going to ask the adults to pitch in, and I figure I should lead by example.”  He notes, however, that the fundraiser will be a temporary event.  He wants to start making donations regularly, and he’s still trying to figure out which not-for-profit agency will benefit from his tithe.   He commits to visiting the bank on the upcoming Saturday and withdrawing 10% of his earnings to give away.

Like many people with the last name of Yoder, this is a family of the Mennonite church.  Related historically to the Amish, Brethren, and Quaker traditions, the Mennonites are a self-proclaimed peace church.  They stand against war and capital punishment, and are involved in ministries of health care, economic development and emergency relief in poor countries.  Steve Yoder, the father, writes that he learned the practice of tithing from his own parents:  10% of his allowance and earnings went into the church offering plate.

Yet he adds:  “Talking to to my sons about their money decisions sometimes means admitting my own failures….  I must confess one here:  We should be giving more money away.”  He explains that he and his wife, Karen, do give away both time as well as money, but they have fallen behind their own standard of tithing, and it’s become less of  a priority.

Recalling the Jewish Biblical tradition of giving away the first fruits of one’s harvest, Steve writes that if any of us waits until we think of all the other things we want or need to do with our money, we will find reasons to give away less than we can—or give almost nothing.  He recounts a story of a Mennonite cattle-farming family.  Every year, the family would designate the first calf born  as the one for the Mennonite Central Committee a service agency that is the Mennonite church’s “rough equivalent of the Peace Corps.”  The so-called MCC Calf would “be fatted and nurtured just like the rest of the herd.  At year’s end, no matter how thin the family finances were, the full-grown cow would be sold, and the proceeds sent to the (service agency).”  Steve Yoder says:  “Giving first–before spending on yourself–has got to be a lifestyle choice, like investing in the 401(K) before buying a new car.”  Now he and his wife are talking about downsizing their home and becoming more frugal in order to “leave more money upfront to give away, while still allowing us to do the things we value, such as travel.” Inspired by his son’s thoughtfulness and good intentions, Yoder says “Levi is on the right track.  Now if Karen and I can just get ourselves on that track too.”[ii]

Even in a family like this, with strong traditions and common commitments, managing money is a challenge, a topic for ongoing dialogue, and a reason for mutual support and encouragement.  I can’t imagine it’s any easier for other families than it is for the Yoders. Stress about money and possessions is a real part of real life.  It’s important to acknowledge our personal reactions about money, or about any other topic brings up strong feelings.  It can help to be clear about what gives us joy and what our hopes are,  as well as about our dilemmas, doubts and fears.  It’s especially useful to talk about anxiety about money.  This is important whether we are a family of one person, two, three, seven or more.  Anxiety is a sign that something deep is going on in us.

Anxiety is a challenge to look deeply—it’s not a feeling to run from, avoid or conquer, as much as we’d like to get rid of it.  It’s a feeling to look in the face.  If we know our own values well and keep to them, if we stick to our personal priorities, we can let anxiety be what it is, without letting it drive our decisions and run our lives. We can respect our anxiety without letting it chase us around.

I know adults who learned to tithe as children, but I didn’t.  My parents were somewhat generous to the church and larger community, but there was a sense of duty about it, even a sense of caution:  Make sure you don’t give away too much!  What I missed then was a sense of joy in giving.  We didn’t experience the joy that comes from living with an attitude of abundance and gratitude.

When I think of the spirit of abundance and gratitude, I see the image of gardeners passing some of their vegetables over the fence to neighbors, or bringing extra produce to church to give away.  I remember  a house I saw last year in a Sacramento neighborhood where I was apartment-hunting.  It had a sign in the front yard:  “Help yourself to fruit from the tree.”  I said, “I want to live near them!”  Alas, the apartment I found was 12 blocks away.  But a few weeks after I moved into my new place, a neighbor from a family in the next building knocked on my door to introduce herself.  I’d already met her spouse when he brought me a piece of mail that had ended up in their box.  As a housewarming gesture, she brought me two cupcakes, freshly baked and frosted.  I was delighted–and I obliged by eating them at once.  Who knows if the joy was greater for her or for me?  But it seems clear that joy increases in all directions by the act of giving and receiving–giving away without expectation, and receiving graciously.

It can be challenging to feel a sense of abundance or gratitude when we are beset by misfortune, loss, illness or money problems.  Yet often we meet or hear about people who get by on little money but show gratitude for life and for what they have, and who give to others with joy.  We see on television or read in the paper about a sick child or an adult with a life-threatening illness, and we’re amazed that they show gratitude for special moments in life.  Perhaps abundance– rather than a measurable quantity of money– is an attitude that we can try out.

Perhaps gratitude is a practice, a way of looking, a point of view, a lens.  Through the lens of gratitude we can see our lives anew, and remember our connections to the world around us, to all of life, to all the gifts of life.

The abundance of life flows around us and through us.  We don’t own it; we are merely its keepers.  We’re the stewards of the gifts of this world.  The word steward comes from an Old English word that means the “keeper of the hall.”  We are the keepers, the temporary keepers.

Stewardship is about giving thanks for our gifts, tending them, sharing them, and —eventually—letting go of them.  Stewardship is about gratitude and relationship.

When money flows through our hands, it represents the abundance of life.  It represents the gifts of hard work and wise choices and good luck.  It represents the gifts of all the other lives that are connected to our lives, all the other beings that make your life possible.   Money reflects our inter-connection and inter-dependence.  It’s not the only thing that reflects inter-dependence, but it does reflect it.

Money is a gift that passes through us. The very first gift that passes through us—through each one of you you and through me–is life itslelf.  Our existence is a gift.  We are temporary keepers of our lives and all other gifts.  As much as possible, let us be joyful receivers and grateful givers of our gifts, and of ourselves.  May gratitude and joy bless our lives, and bless our world.  Amen.


[i] Money, Ministry and Stewardship:  Doing Better at All Three,” copyrighted address by Stephen C. Gray, June 1999, UU Ministers Association continuing education day and annual meeting, Salt Lake City

[ii] “The Joy of Giving, and the Pain of Falling Short,” by Steven Kreider Yoder, Isaac S. Yoder & Levi Yoder, Sacramento Bee, 2/7/2010, p. D6.  See several of his columns at http://topics.wsj.com/person/y/stephen-kreider-yoder/4321

http://topics.wsj.com/person/y/stephen-kreider-yoder/4321