Friends and Lovers

April 16, 2009

This by Cynthia B. Johnson:

Comes the day when life stops.

Sometimes abruptly. Unscheduled. Unplanned.

The calendar full of appointments for tomorrows not to be.

Large things, like tickets bought but not used.

Like dinner parties for which invitations have been mailed, responses received.

Like speeches scheduled and project deadlines agreed to.

Small things, like clothes at the dry cleaners.

Like a small stack of phone messages to be returned.

Like two lamb chops thawing for tonight’s dinner.

No one’s daytimer lists “Death –

all day Wednesday” as the final appointment.

[“Sudden Death and the To Do List” from A Theophany, Please]


Again and again it defeats me—

This reliance on others for bliss.

—John Weldwood

We celebrate the right of all people to marry this day closest to Valentine’s and as we proudly host our GLBTQ friends here at the Interweave Convocation. But we remember that we face new assaults on Love here in California and elsewhere. Thursday was Freedom to Marry Day here in California, a reminder of the legal right once had but hoped to be regained. March 5th the California Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the constitutionality of Prop Hate…er,…8. Of course, assaults on the freedom to love are all the more powerful when the end of life faces us. St. Valentine died in jail, himself in love with the Jailer’s daughter, because he performed weddings of two people in love in spite of family customs of the time.

Love is always more poignant in the face of death. Death brings a certain urgency to love. Dana Lawrence and her partner of many years came to me three years ago to be married. Dana was dying of cancer and she wanted to know that feeling of being recognized by a church in the eyes of love. She joined PUC and was married right here two years ago by yours truly. What none of us realized is how soon the dark angel would come for her. Dana was gone within two months. So few of you knew her. She was quiet but we were here for her. Before she died she told me how happy she was to find such good friends who could love her as she was

Friends and Lovers are each affected by mortality. We often parse friends as different than lovers, but we forget that the best relationships start as friendships, indeed the love of a friend can withstand even death.

In fact, I propose the following distinction: Friends are stout lovers, broad at the base if not always capable of making sharper points –such as sexual love allows. As Cicero (who himself died for his friendship with Pompeii, and not Caesar) noted, “Friendship is the greater love because it involves a constant choice….Friends are another self.” (paraphrased from On Friendship) God gives us friends to fulfill the imperfect love we need even as we seek a more perfect love than there is. How many of us, especially in the face of death, have found lovers abandoning us, but friends at our sides? Think of the end of Jesus’ life; his male followers, lovers of his logos, abandon him at death, while his female friends (who are, ironically, not his lovers) are there beyond the end.

John Weldwood, a Buddhist teacher writes: “While most of us have moments of loving freely and openly, it is often hard to sustain such love where it matters most—in our intimate relationships. This creates a strange gap between absolute love—the perfect love we can know in our heart—and relative love, the imperfect ways it is embodied in our relationships. Why, if love is so great and powerful, are human relationships so challenging and difficult? If love is the source of happiness and joy, why is it so hard to open to it fully?

“What lies at the root of every relationship problem is a core “wound of the heart” that affects not only our personal relations, but the quality of life in our world as a whole. This wounding shows up as a pervasive mood of unlove, a deep sense that we are not intrinsically lovable just as we are. We experience ourselves as separated from love, and this shuts down our capacity to trust. So even though we may hunger for love or believe in love, we still have difficulty opening to it and letting it circulate freely through us…..Similarly, when a friend … is dying, all your quibbles with that person fall away. You simply appreciate the other for who he or she is, just for having been here with you in this world for a little while. Pure, unconditional love shines through when people put themselves—their own demands and agendas—aside and completely open to one another.

“Absolute love is not something that we can… fabricate. It is what comes through us naturally when we fully open up—to another person, to ourselves, or to life. In relation to another, it manifests as selfless caring. In relation to ourselves, it shows up as inner confidence and self-acceptance that warms us from within. And in relation to life, it manifests as a sense of well-being, appreciation, and joie de vivre.

….“ What feels most affirming is not just to feel loved but to feel loved as we are. Absolute love is the love of being. …..

“However—and this is an essential point—the human personality is not the source of absolute love. Rather, its light shines through us, from what lies altogether beyond us, the ultimate source of all. We are the channels through which this radiance flows. Yet in flowing through us, it also finds a home within us, taking up residence in our heart…” (Weldwood in Shambala Sun, Jan. 2006)

All of us have experienced this absolute love. But not for long. In time, the blemishes of life mask the ecstatic nature. I tell those getting married to call me in a year. A year seems to be just about the time it takes for love’s sharp light, her absolute brilliance to settle down. And then? Well, then we go about falling in love all over again but for different reasons. Because she still makes me laugh, even as she drives me mad. Because he remembers to put the toilet seat down even if he forgets the flowers. It’s the daily love between lovers that has to be re-invented over and over again. But that love is there, perhaps more so in friends than lovers…. Who do you call in the middle of night when you have lost your way? The love between friends, while perhaps not as bright, is sometimes much more forgiving. When a betrayal happens between lovers it is very hard to come back from, especially if sex or its emotional equivalent has happened, but friends betray friends all the time, and somehow we forgive them more easily. Imagine the love of a lover, the Eros of the gods, to be vertical; and the love of friends, the logos, to be horizontal… the heights of erotic love are addictive, but the breadth of friends often more sustaining. What Walt Whitman, gay and a Unitarian, once called the “adhesiveness” of a love between friends, such as he had with his own lover Peter Doyle. (See Leaves of Grass, 1860) I have come to believe that we are created with both capacities and it is our spiritual makeup to love both deeply and broadly. The most lasting love I know is if the lover is also your friend. One does not negate the other; despite that my teenage girlfriends told me they only wanted to be friends, as if sex were somehow the next level (which of course to my hormonal mind it was!). Sex is another dimension to love, a deeper one, but it does not make the love between friends second rate. As Antoine Saint d’Expurey put it “Lovers gaze into each other’s eyes but friends stand side by side and gaze into the distance.”

As Weldwood put it “Our ability to feel a wholehearted yes toward another person fluctuates with the changing circumstances of each moment. It depends on how much each of us is capable of giving and receiving, the chemistry between us, our limitations and conditioned patterns, how far along we are in our personal development, how much awareness and flexibility we each have, how well we communicate, the situation we find ourselves in, and even how well we have each slept the night before. Relative means dependent on time and circumstance. ..Ordinary human love is always relative, never consistently absolute. Like the weather, relative love is in continual dynamic flux. It is forever rising and subsiding, waxing and waning, changing shape and intensity. …So far all of this may seem totally obvious. Yet here’s the rub: We imagine that others—surely someone out there!—should be a source of perfect love by consistently loving us in just the right way. Since our first experiences of love usually happen in relation to other people, we naturally come to regard relationship as its main source. Then when relationships fail to deliver the ideal love we dream of, we imagine something has gone seriously wrong. And this disappointed hope keeps reactivating the wound of the heart and generating grievance against others. This is why the first step in healing the wound and freeing ourselves from grievance is to appreciate the important difference between absolute and relative love.” (Ibid, Weldwood)

What is so great about the love of friends, and why I think they should be the baseline to any personal relationship, is that they recover so quickly from life’s mishaps. “Relationships continually oscillate between two people finding common ground and then having that ground slip out from under them as their differences pull them in different directions. This is a problem only when we expect it to be otherwise, when we imagine that love should manifest as a steady state. That kind of expectation prevents us from appreciating the special gift that relative love does have to offer: personal intimacy.” (Ibid, Weldwood) What friends teach us and we as lovers should learn is that love is only possible when two people accept each other simply as they are, not as you would have them be. Frances is never going to make me less bookish and she fiercely defends my time to read, even though she would much rather have me in the yard building a deck. I am never going to make Frances plan out a trip, even though I will do all I can to provide enough empty time to let us explore as the spirit moves us. We are each other’s best friend first, lovers second. Yes, we are disappointed at love. All of us are. So what?

“Love can fail us and it does one of the most fundamental of all human illusions: that the source of happiness and well-being lies outside us, in other people’s acceptance, approval, or caring. As a child, this was indeed the case, since we were at first so entirely dependent on others for our very life. But even if at the deepest level our parents did love us unconditionally, it was impossible for them to express this consistently, given their human limitations. This was not their fault. It doesn’t mean they were bad parents or bad people. Like everyone, they had their share of fears, worries, cares, and burdens, as well as their own wounding around love. Like all of us, they were imperfect vessels for perfect love. ….When children experience love as conditional or unreliable or manipulative, this causes a knot of fear to form in the heart, for they can only conclude, “I am not truly loved.” …..As Emily Dickenson describes this universal wound in one of her poems: ‘There is a pain so utter, it swallows Being up.’” (Ibid, Weldwood).

The point is to remember that to love is human, but to be free from pain is perhaps divine, but ultimately impossible. Whether it is the stouter love of friends, or the vertical love of Eros, what we do know is love is only a means to our humanity. And that humanity is full of ecstasy, comfort and pain. I always counsel those in search for love to stop pursuing it, lest you lose her as Apollo lost his Daphne. “Those who go on a search for love,” D. H. Lawrence writes, “find only their own lovelessness.” Start with friends and let love happen last.

Weldwood writes that “As earthly creatures continually subject to relative disappointment, pain, and loss, we cannot avoid feeling vulnerable. Yet as an open channel through which great love enters this world, the human heart remains invincible. Being wholly and genuinely human means standing firmly planted in both dimensions, celebrating that we are both vulnerable and indestructible at the same time….at this crossroads where yes and no, limitless love and human limitation intersect, we discover the essential human calling: progressively unveiling the sun in our heart, that it may embrace the whole of ourselves and the whole of creation within the sphere of its radiant warmth. This love is not the least bit separate from true power. For, as the great Sufi poet Rumi sings:

When we have surrendered totally to that beauty,

Then we shall be a mighty kindness.

So may it be. Amen.



April 16, 2009

How will the world change in the next ten years? It’s not easy to know. But consider this: In 2000 gas cost $1.50, there were no iPods, no YouTube, no Facebook, 9-11 hadn’t been seared into our memories, leading us into trillions of dollars of debt and two wars. No Hurricane Katrina. (From Willamette University promotion brochure, 2009) We have no way of knowing what the New World will look like. It may be very different than today, resources and wealth made scarce, but love and compassion on the rise or… it may just stay the same. Trying to imagine what our world will look like next week is hard enough, beyond that it’s as about reliable as last year’s economic forecast.

I come from a long line of worriers. My mother was a real pro, bless her soul. She would be at the airport the day before we had to leave. My dad on the other hand lived by the motto, “there is always another plane”. Coming out of this bi-polarity, I find myself mostly non-anxious unless fear really has me in its grip. . It used to be worse. So much so that my friends bought me a copy of “Mr. Worry”, the story of a little man who worried too much. I had always thought of myself as cautious, a realist, but certainly not a worrier. Naturally, when I received the book I worried about what they thought of me. I was the Boy Scouts’ boy scout, prepared for almost anything. I had not one, but two pocketknives. It was a real ego death to realize I was seen as a worried man. It took me twenty years, but here I am, not worried about almost anything, much to the chagrin of some of you and the amusement of my family.

With the current economic climate we have good reasons to worry. As I mentioned last week, some of us are facing real hardship. What we need to remember is that we are here to help. And since last Sunday, several of us have found help. So with that worrisome sermon behind us let me turn to understanding just how we can tell the difference between what we really need to worry about and what we don’t. That is the more hopeful side of the equation. Discerning the difference is a spiritual practice.

It turns out, according to an article published in the journal Science, that there is a gene for worry. It seems that people who are fretful, crabby, neurotic – what in New York we call Kvetches – tend to have a shorter version of a certain gene. (gene number slc6a4 on chromosome number 17q12, if you must know). If you are worrier (and I know some of you are) it’s not necessarily because you have a lot in life to worry about, but because you are genetically inclined to worry. Feel better? Well, of course you don’t. You can’t feel better; that’s the point. (As published in the New Yorker 1997)

The discovery of the worry gene follows directly on the discovery of the “throw it all to the wind” gene. The bungee jumping, spice of life, novelty and excitement gene. Turns out that many of the people who have this gene are also impatient. The lucky ones become cab drivers and for the rest of us, these foot-tapping people just drive us crazy. (Ibid, New Yorker)

I have my doubts about determining our personality through genes; it’s akin to the defense some criminals in the 1970s used claiming that they had an extra Y chromosome, which made them genetically more aggressive. Perhaps this ascription to genetics is really the reemergence of polytheism. A long time ago, our little quirks and life’s mishaps were blamed quite conveniently on unseen gods; the struggle among the gods and goddesses of war, love, wisdom and so forth. How silly and primitive that was! Now we have a little science to describe the same thing but instead of gods we have our own genes to blame. The gods aren’t angry; it’s in the genes. Of course, in between blaming it on the gods and blaming it on our genes there are many other explanations (God must have his reasons, or Freud’s Oedipus complex, or bad diet and so on). (Ibid. New Yorker)

But whether you call it determined or not, the fact remains that some people worry more than others. Under it all, I find a deeper spiritual message to worrying in our lives. Sometimes it is good to worry, such as when your life depends on you being cautious but most of the time worrying doesn’t change a thing. I can remember one woman who prayed for an entire flight from New York to Chicago. When I asked her if she was all right; she said she would be fine once we were on the ground. “Don’t worry,” I told her, but she worried anyway. And when we got on the ground I said, “see nothing to worry about.” To which she replied, “Only because I prayed the plane down safely.” Reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon I saw once wherein the co-pilot says “Frank, oh my God, Frank, the fuel lights on! We’re going to die!” And then he takes it back, saying, “Whoops, my mistake. That was only the intercom light.”

The spiritual underpinnings to worry have more to do with how we see our world that in what causes our world to falter. It’s like a fight with the ones you love. If you look hard enough you can always find a fault. So it is with worry. If we see the world as half empty we will never be able to appreciate it the half that is full. I am convinced that our ability to transcend the world and live a more joyful life is inextricably tied up with our degree of anxiety about what might happen.

All genes and gods aside, the ability of any one of us to see the glass of our lives as half full has much more to do with how we were raised. Susan Vaughn, a psychiatrist living in New York, (now that is something to worry about) does a wonderful job in laying out a convincing argument and resolution on how we might learn to worry less and laugh at life more. (Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism Harcourt and Brace, 2000)

Vaughn begins with the premise that reality is highly overrated. Now this may come as shock to a few of you who pride yourselves on being “realistic,” but studies have shown that people who consider themselves realists are in fact more worried than those who create another reality for themselves as to what they want live to be. Reality is simply not what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, says Vaughn, people who worry less are more likely to achieve more and live longer. Illusion, while not real, may be psychologically healthier. When studies were done on the levels of anxiety compared to recovery from disease there was a direct inverse correlation: the more anxious you are the greater your susceptibility to illness. Not always, and certainly not forever, but often enough. In fact, those cancer patients whose prognosis was terminal found that the quality of life was enhanced by their ability to find that life was still worth living.

What does all of this mean if you are worrier? Well, for starters, don’t worry about it because you can change. What Vaughn and so many others figured out is that we are taught to worry, not consciously, but subtly. And it all has to do with control. If as an infant for instance, you were left crying in your crib because that was what some expert told your parents to do, you soon realized that your crying had little effect or control over the actions of your parents. Chances are you stopped crying, but chances also are that you began to believe that your actions didn’t change your world. Now crying alone does not a worrier make. It takes time and emotional distance. Worriers tend, as a group, to come from homes in which emotions were not well expressed, meaning that we tended to internalize our feelings rather than testing them out in the world to see what we could change.

People like me began to believe that my actions had little effect on the world. This is not to blame anybody; it’s just the way we put two and two together. “Why bother?” translates into “the world is out to get me.” So what is a worrier to do? How do we transform ourselves from a pessimistic Eeyore to an optimistic Tigger?

Well, the mystics tell us that we begin when we create a better world in our minds. I have been urging our leadership to take a new look at our vision for the future as a church. Some might argue with the worry of the economy that this is a bad time; I argue it is the perfect time. Let’s fill the void of anxiety with positive possibility — not wait around for the worst to come. Imagination. Its God’s second greatest gift, the first being life itself. We dream and we see where it is we want to go. We begin with an end in mind. I dream of this church home, wherein songs are sung, art is shown, children play and people laugh. I still dream of a refurbished hall and a new building at the end of our campus for classes and chapel. I turned the chairs this to use this glass wall as a canvass for our imagination.

Now that is all well and good but what does that mean to some of you who might like to imagine being happy again, surviving your disease, or finding a job? You start with imagination and then you create your reality by gaining control of your world in some way. I have come to believe that love is most possible when we use the most positive language we can find. As our first African American President refrained “Yes We Can.” You have to teach yourself to feel empowered. In other words, as AA says, “You fake it to make it.” I have lived my whole adult life faking it to make it. I have my dark nights of doubt, just like you, but never on Sunday morning. The prescription for worry and the health of your spirit depends on gaining control, as Jean Cocteau once put it, “to massage the organs no masseuse can reach.” Optimism is a learned behavior and it starts by putting reality in its place. “Get real,” one treasurer yelled at me years ago, “we can’t afford that now.” “I know,” I said, “but now only lasts for a moment.”

We gain control over our lives by naming our emotions. Fear is the first great enemy of life and love. Fear is, in many ways, what is running this recession. We can’t possibly know the future, why are we permitting our imagination to see the worst. In our meditation I asked you to name what you were feeling. If we name it, just like Jacob wrestling the angel, we have some power over it. It’s the “Rumpelstiltskin Effect”. When I am angry I try to shut my mouth and say, “hello anger.” You can disarm another that way as well. Next time you are in an argument try telling someone, “I see that you are angry,” and watch the temperature fall. Begin by verbalizing your emotions and then letting them go. Studies have shown that abused children who grow up to be adults have almost no vocabulary for anger or sadness. In fact, they can’t cry. It leads to a silent cycle of abuse that can last for generations.

Next, remember that failure is a perspective. There is always a lesson to what didn’t work. Always. Look for it. There is a treasure in each sinking ship of our lives. Find it. Be careful to not equate fault with a person, including yourself, but with their actions. Right being, taught the Buddha, follows from right action. First act, then become. Not the other way around.

Watch what you say. Words like can’t, shouldn’t, wrong, need to be used carefully. My favorite is, “we tried that before.” So what? Try it again, but pay attention to what didn’t work. Anxiety is caused in large part by our own language, verbalizing what we don’t have control over. Verbalize what you do have control over. When any one of you is facing disease or even death I ask you to find out a little more about your disease and your plan of treatment everyday and then to verbalize it, write it down. Knowledge is power.

Learn to be your own judge. We taught our children to judge for themselves. Even if you received a bad grade, evaluate what you missed, but don’t evaluate your worth by what others say. It’s worrisome to turn over our worth to someone else. Maybe they are having a bad day. Remember you are not the victim, you are the actor. Act like you are in control and you will be.

Limit the domain of your troubles. I used to yell at inanimate objects. “Stupid computers, they never work.” Learn to not extend your anxiety to all of life. Try instead “Today is a bad day for me and this computer.” Recognizing our limitations is not the same thing as giving up in despair. Despair is the greatest disease of the soul, a cancer of negative energy. All of your life is not lost. And even when it seems lost, your reaction to it is still yours. When the musicians played music as the Titanic was sinking they were not mad, or even hopeful, they realized the domain of their troubles: they were going to die. But they played on because the music soothed the last moments of life for hundreds of people. They took control of the smallest part of their life.

Finally, my friends recognize that your mind is your most powerful muscle; all the way from how we look at the world to what constitutes sex, our mind is the spirit incarnate within us. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

But in order to change to a more positive self-image we must first change how we view our reality. Dominique Bauby was a successful editor at Vogue magazine in Paris. While driving one day to pick up his son from school he got into a terrible accident. When he awoke he realized that he was completely paralyzed; no movement in his body, no voice, only one eyelid that he had control over. The horror of his loss was immense, more than any of us could imagine. To be trapped without expression fully cognizant and feeling everything happening to him. Worst yet, he had become a ghost. Even his family talked over him as if he was already dead. He knew first hand what Jean Paul Sartre called ‘the anatomy of despair.’ His greatest anguish and worry was the loss of his voice. (I too have imagined what it would be like) until he remembered what the French philosopher Voltaire once wrote, “your voice is your mind.” Suddenly life changed for Bauby. One nurse, knowing full well that he was alive in that shell of a body, devised a system of yes and no answers using his eyelids. Two blinks for yes, one blink for no. With this the nurse could identify each letter Bauby meant to use, and although painstaking, he could spell words. Bauby went on to write a beautiful book in this way: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, describing the paradox of living life strapped to a diving bell in the ocean of stillness while outstretching the wings of his mind like a butterfly. One day, a physician came in to sew shut his bad eye as the lack of control of it was damaging his cornea. Like some Kafkaesque nightmare he wanted to yell at the doctor to not sew his good eye as well. Bauby blinked away madly. Finally, as a way of meditation he imagined himself returning to the womb, going back into the stillness from which he had come like some journey in reverse. That small imagination kept him from going mad. The doctor did not sew his good eye shut, but Bauby died several months later.

Why worry? Worry, yes, to escape danger and keep yourself and your loved ones safe, but beyond that work towards freeing yourself from worry’s hold. Our imagination, like our memory, is what we make it; and by so being we are free to choose so much more about what our life will become in the short time we have. I believe we are destined, each one of you in this room, to be a great person. A person who laughs loudly, sings fully, loves completely and hopes for something more than we now see. I believe that each one of us in this room is moving not towards death but towards a life if only we could imagine the journey in a different way. Imagine a different world, after the correction, ah, er, recession. Imagine yourself getting younger. Imagine that and you will find little to be worried about.

Blessings Be

Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

April 16, 2009

I want to thank Joanna and the choir for taking my adapted words to this old time spiritual and putting it to music so beautifully! What a treat. The original song was written by Alda Haberson, concerning the death, funeral, and mourning of her mother. (Wikipedia, 2008) The song was meant to be a question of faith: would we be prepared to meet our loved ones in heaven through our atonement with Jesus or to hell because of our lack of faith. Of course, I have a different take on the relationship between the here and now and the thereafter. As I mentioned last week, I believe the real work of making heaven is in front of us right here on earth.

So let me give away the store right up front. I believe the circle is by nature broken, but we have the chance to make it whole. Let me re-tell an old story from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his twin brother Esau are the children of Rebecca and Isaac, the son of Abraham. Jacob, whose name means “to trip up,” is literally holding on to his slightly older brother Esau’s heel. Although Esau is the older and stronger brother, he is rather dim-witted, and while Esau is the favorite of his father, his mother Rebecca favors the more cunning and smoother Jacob. Through his young life Jacob gets his way by wile and tricks, and with the help of his mother, even cheats his older brother out of his inheritance by dressing up in sheep skins and presenting himself as Esau to his blind father for the blessing. Well, as the saying goes, what comes around goes around, and in time, his cheating ways catch up with him and he is finally forced to move away from Canaan. As time went on he was indentured to his father-in-law Laban twice, after having been cheated into marrying his first daughter, Leah, when he thought he was marrying the younger one, Rachel, whom he finally did marry after another term in servitude. Finally, wiser and humbled, Jacob leaves Laban and decides to return to Canaan to face his brother whom he had cheated out of the family estate. The night before he is to cross the Jordan back into his homeland Jacob is attacked by a mysterious being, an angel, and they fight until dawn. Jacob, wounded, is renamed Israel, he who struggles with God. The next day, anxious and worried for his life, Jacob, aka Israel, meets his brother Esau who, rather than striking him, embraces him. The circle is made whole.

What is it that helps us see the hell of our making and turn it around towards heaven? Sadly, we must first suffer our own sins. As a young man I was incredibly angry at the world. Not that I had much reason to be; I had graduated near the top of my class, married, was even given a beautiful home on the shores of a lake by my in-laws at the time. But something in me was raging. I would slam doors, break dishes, scare away customers. Eventually I scared away my first wife and lost my business as well. Then came the drugs and the booze. This was my time to wander in the wilderness, as Jacob had done. It wouldn’t be until much later, long after I had married Frances that I would find my way home and make peace with myself. I can’t say I have found heaven yet, but the circle is not nearly as broken as it once was.

What would it take for you to mend your own circles? How can we be bring healing and holiness to our lives, this long pause between the bookends of birth and death? For me it begins, much as it did with Jacob, with a wrestling of what we believe into what we do. We say we believe in the inherent worth of each individual, but can we really say that human worth doesn’t depend on what we do with it? I don’t think so. In fact, how we live our lives is, for me, the first and most important step to closing the circle of strife and creating a bit of heaven on earth. Here, I hold to a sort of modified version of the ancient Hindu concept of karma, you reap what you sow, so start sowing the better seed.

Specifically, listen to our friends and family as if they were vital to your life. Be sure you are putting into your body what your body needs, remember the mantra of our last Thanksgiving from Michael Pollan, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” and avoid, as I have resolved to do this year, drugs of all kinds. Beyond that, ask yourself is what we are doing is in line with your values, both in livelihood and spare time. “Right thinking follows right livelihood,” preached the Buddha. Is this the year, in midst of turmoil to change your vocation? (I always have to be careful about this: one middle-aged man in a congregation I served wanted to quit his high six-figure advertising exec job to go into consulting, which I urged him to do –his wife didn’t speak to me for a year).

The point is not to shame you into living an integrated life, but to point out to you that our religious understanding of heaven here on earth require us to walk the talk; so that when the shadow of death passes over us and calls us on, we will die as we lived. In fact, Teri tells me, this is a truism of hospice, we die as we lived. If we lived at least attempting to be fair, compassionate and most of all brave, chances are we will die that way as well.

Of course, there is much we can’t change. My heart is breaking over the carnage we are seeing in Gaza this week. This past week during the UU minister’s meeting up here on the Hill, of which I am the convener, I offered a prayer for peace, asking the Spirit to infuse a sense of responsibility into the leaders of both sides that they might remember who they really serve; not ideologies but people, and call for a cease fire. Like the story of Jacob and Esau we are witnessing the struggle between two brothers for the fate of a blessing. May at least one have grown up enough since.

Will the circle be unbroken? Not if we can come to grips generations hence, with the reality that we are all in this together. That the world we have, this broken and wounded world, is still the home of Eden. I don’t believe in Armageddon as a theological necessity, but I do believe that like human worth, we have the potential to destroy what we have created. The question is whether we, here, right now can make that heaven on earth a possibility.

Before I die I want finish the work of integration. I want to live a balanced life, eating right, sleeping well, loving you the people I serve. Before I die, I want to have lived my faith, built up churches that have the potential to save the world, love my family with all my heart, die depleted of wealth (that won’t be hard), knowing I gave it to who needed it most. Before I die, I want to know that I did what I could to make the world a better place, and though I will die incomplete (we all do, I guarantee it), I want to have cried at loss, laughed at misfortune, and stared down adversity with a smile. I want what I do to fully fill what I believe. I want my circle to be complete as it can be. As my colleague Forrest Church preached just before he went in to hospice to die:

“For us to be here in the first place, for us to earn the privilege of dying, more than a billion billion accidents took place. Even the one in a million sperm’s connections with the equally unique egg is nothing compared to everything else that happened from the beginning of time until now to make it possible for us to be here….

“What a luxury we enjoy wondering what will happen after we die, even what will happen before we die…..We see little of the road ahead or the sky above. And the dust we raise clouds our eyes, leaving only brief interludes to contemplate the stars. All we can do, every now and again, is to stop for a moment and look….Morning has broken and we are here…breathing the air…admiring the slant sun as refracts through…windows and dances…calling us to attention, calling us homeward. (“Love and Death” adapted from a sermon delivered at All Souls Unitarian Church, New York, Feb. 3, 2008. Printed in The World, Summer 2008)

Calling us to attention. That work of paying attention to the world and our actions in this world has another name: What the ancients called Atonement. At-one-ment with creation, with the creator if you will, with the spirit, heaven on earth. My colleague Susan Lamar, and our own Diane Hayden’s cousin wrote:

“Atonement is some of the hardest work there is. It happens exactly at the intersection of individual and community. The liturgical act of placing sins (before God, reminds us of how fragile and human we are) …. And yet because it is a liturgical act—part of the work of all the people, collectively—it also, like all good liturgical acts, is a reminder that we are not alone in our need. We all make mistakes. We all fall down.

“We all bear responsibility for creating a community, nation and world that listens and hears and looks and sees. It is an act of visioning, first, an act of seeing in our mind’s eyes a promised land, a beloved community, a world made whole.

And then it is an act of the will—the will to keep trying, even when we stumble and fall, and when it seems just too hard to get back up again. It is an act of the will to see through another’s eyes. …. Communities have to do it collectively. But the work can only really happen collectively if it first happens in the hearts of individuals. In my heart, and your heart.” (From QUEST 2008).

Will the circle be unbroken? The question is rather will the circle be mended? Behind me on the memorial wall outside is a slightly broken circle that represents the on-going work before us. I believe we will heal the wounds of our time, and meet our ancestors in the spirit of love and reconciliation, long after we have been gone, our whole lives, will bring a heaven to earth, by and by Lord, by and by. Amen.

Where On Earth is Heaven?

April 16, 2009

It’s a lesson in geography really. I might have just as easily titled this “Where in Space Is Heaven?” But something was pulling at me to ask the question this way instead. Because if we can’t find it around here in this first place, then it wasn’t very useful.

Where is heaven – indeed, what is heaven? It depends a great deal on where you look for it. Heaven is clearly not a physical space despite the National Enquirer’s claim that astronomers have located heaven about seven billion light years from here, which, if you think about it, makes the concept of heaven pretty dated at best! I think we can do better than that. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that heaven was a paradise, set aside but very much on Earth. Eden, from which we get our biblical Eden, was always to the East, near the “navel of the world” from which all waters flowed. In fact, the Garden of Eden story in the Hebrew Scriptures is a re-telling of the ancient myth. Heaven was not yet a place where our souls came to rest, but to which we yearned to return. Heaven for the ancients was a place of abundance, an idea which stretches down to Islamic ideas of heaven today. In the European Middle Ages, Heaven was a place wherein you could eat until you burst, a fitting image in a time of plagues and starvation.

Regardless of the myth, heaven, at least in Western mythology, is a place of rest, abundance and light. And, since the Christian church adopted the Zoroastrian idea, heaven was the complete opposite of hell. Of course, there has been much more written about hell (see Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost to see how heaven is a boring second to the hot place). But there are other views as well: in Hinduism, heaven is the state of unity with the divine, Brahma, which also happens to be the same as the entire universe. According to Hindu thought, you are already sitting in heaven and you didn’t even notice it! Buddhists don’t believe in heaven as a place –in fact, given that all life is energy in motion amid a series of casual events, they don’t really even believe that earth is real – but the closest they do come is the concept of Nirvana, or cessation from all being. Indeed, many of my generation, impaired as my teenagers think I am, could never understand how the rock group “Nirvana,” who sang of despair and end the malaise of life, could be so close to the truth. It’s a long way from the nirvana of the 60s and its drug-induced idea of bliss.

The Tibetan Buddhists went into yet another direction in search of heaven, developing a complicated cosmology of heavens that our souls pass through after the many lives of the waking world. Seven heavens in fact, which is the reason seven is such a mystical number in mythology, from Judaism to New Age religion. When we say we are in seventh heaven, we really are at the top. There are still other views of heaven’s place. Up seems to be the predominant direction. (From Paradise: A History) It has only been in the last few thousand years that heaven has moved off the earth and up into the sky. But since it is uncertain to many of us what happens after we die, I decided to focus my exploration today on earth. A bit like the man who lost his keys on the street and while on his hands and knees looking for them a passerby asked, “did you lose them around here?” To which he replied, “No, but the light is better here.”

The reason I asked where on earth was heaven is because, I believe, heaven is not a place, but a state of being which humanity is a part. There are many views on heaven. One of the most important articles of faith for a fundamentalist is that this world, this stained, broken, hurricane and war ravaged world is worth nothing. It is only the afterlife that really matters. We here at PUC, dedicated to creating a compassionate community, believe this world is what matters most.

In the West, up until the renaissance, our view of heaven was quite literal. Heaven is the home of God and his angels, and far above this earth; an earth separated into threes by creation: up, middle and down. We believed that our earth was the center of the universe, a primordial battleground between the good above us and the evil below. There are no fewer than 113 references to the place of heaven in Hebrew and Christian bibles.

With Copernicus’s discovery of elliptical orbits, we not only learned we were not the center of anything, but that the gods don’t live there anymore. Just as science has made hell less of a burning issue, so too did it deflate our lofty expectations of heaven above us.

Still, most of us expect something happens to us when we die. I have seen enough evidence, a great deal first hand, to be convinced that there is an afterlife. But rather than speculate on that, let me explore instead how heaven can be made in us. As my colleague John Corrado put it in our opening reading, we UUs are less concerned with how to get into heaven, than how to get a bit of heaven into us. (see John Corrado, QUEST, 1995)

To ask where heaven is might be to look through the wrong lens. In a rational, physical sense, heaven doesn’t exist. You simply can’t take a myth like heaven and make it physically real. You see, by even asking, “Where is heaven?”, we buy into a dualistic view of the universe which I believe is a trap to keep us arguing with each other about reality. Many of us were taught in organized religion that God is apart from us; distant, powerful, and all knowing. We were taught that we are human down here, and God is up there. And, if God is not us, we reason, God can only be seen as out there away from us. But what if God, or whatever you name the ultimate in life, is not out there, but in here; in each of us? Where then would the abode of the divine be?

What we need is not a telescope, but a spiritual microscope. Every love song ever written is about heaven on earth. That feeling, that joy, that ecstasy that is heaven. And that is why I am suggesting we start looking and working towards a heaven on earth and not just waiting for the rest of the story when we die. That is why I am suggesting that we here are about building a church that is a model of what the world could be. It was Emmanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, who suggested that without a heaven there is little reason to have a morality. I think he meant it as more of goal to reach than a reward to withhold. But nothing is to stop us from trying to create heaven on earth. And with just two weeks until the inauguration of President Obama, we have a lot to look forward to. We have a world still to build. Yes we can!

To find heaven, to make heaven, is a story of completion for what is already in all of us. And you know what? It is as story as old as time. Let me pick it up from what we do know. Starting with the story of Adam and Eve. We all know it. Adam –which means earthling- is completed on one side by Eve – which means completion – in the Garden of Eden, that is, heaven on earth. (A little aside here: according to some Mesopotamian myths, Adam was married before to the Goddess of Life, Lillith, “stiff necked”, feminist that she was; Adam, in effect, divorced her and asked God to send him a new mate, someone more compliant. Since then fundamentalists speak of the myth of Lillith as demonic, while feminists hail her as the original woman) Anyway, back to Eden: You will all remember from your Bible study (what? No bible study? We’ll have to do something about that) that there are two trees in the garden which they are forbidden by the God to eat from. One is the tree of life and the other the tree of knowledge. The serpent, representing eternal life and that most unlike humanity, tempts them into eating the fruit on the tree of knowledge.

Religion has only pulled heaven and earth farther apart. Christianity has made this story about disobedience. But is it? Did we want to live like children, always obedient to God, never conscious of our diversity or free to make our own choices? What kind of heaven would that be? Western religion has demonized the entire earth, and women as the feminine beings of that earth with this fairyland kind of heaven. If that is what we have to look forward to when we die? I say ‘no thanks’.

Our task is to reclaim the rightful union of heaven and earth as the Hebrews once promised. To bring together the respect of one another as all part of creation. Heaven is on earth in how we make it so. How do we make it so?

We listen. We listen for what is the same between us, not just what is different. When the Zen master asked the student to listen during meditation, the student replied that all he heard was silence. “No,” said the master, “silence only holds us, heaven is in what the silence holds.” And with that the student heard more than silence alone, chickens, and children and bells and laughter and crying. “This then is what we are” said the master.

We believe. I am asking you to believe that you are the stuff of stars, the children of an unknown god, the beings of the same quilt. We believe that in our commonality we are divine. “We don’t see angels,” proclaimed Wordsworth, “we see them in what we do.”

And finally we do. By pledging our selves to one another and to our children, we make a heaven on earth. It’s no small thing to do but it can be done. This church exists as a little bit of heaven on earth. Right here and right now. You might think that it’s about you and what you need, but it is much more than that. Every week someone amongst us reaches out to someone in need here. Every week a card is sent and a phone call is made. Our groups help us to see how we matter to one another and in caring we affirm that we are more the same as we are different. Did you know that there is absolutely no genetic difference between so called human races? Did you know that calling them races is in fact scientifically inaccurate? There really is only one race. The human race. We call it race, our population differences; but deep down we are all created from the same stuff. Literally.

Three and half years ago I answered your call to lead you into a bold future. We have accomplished much in our ministry together. We are responsive to the needs of our people, we are widely known in the community for our good work, and we are example to other UU congregations. This year we will catch our breath and deepen our community together, taking to heart the work of making a “little heaven on earth” right here at PUC. This year I want our community to appreciate our gifts and strengths, heal the broken and create an even more compassionate community, so that when this economic downturn is over, we are ready to move to the next phase of our dream together.

Your Board of Trustees, on the recommendation of our UUA consultant Dave Rickard, will be chartering a “Strategic Planning Group” to help appreciate our gifts, clarify our vision and set our goals for the coming five years. This is an ideal year to do this important work. If you are interested in being part of this group please talk to a Board Member or our Nominating and Recruitment Committee. In the months and years ahead I dream you here will make this church a bit of that heaven on earth. A bit of a place where our free will is exercised to recognize and celebrate what is the same. And in that making become a little more like God every day. Creator and created. Ultimately we are all on earth together. And that is the kind of heaven I want to be in now.

May our blessings endure and our struggles

How Does the Spirit Move?

November 20, 2008

What a tremendous moment to be an American! Indeed to be alive. With Obama’s election so much is possible; exuberance has come over the country, if not the world, about the prospect of seeing our values come full circle into the public square. It seemed to me, as I listened to Obama’s victory speech from Grant Park late Tuesday night, that we were in the midst of spiritual shift in our consciousness as a people. Not all of us to be certain, but most of us could sense a sea change, moving out of the dark and stagnant eddies of past years, into the fresh current blowing across our waters. If prayers were answered, this would be one: abolishing torture, caring for the poor, ending this war, saving the planet. It was and still is, at least for me deeply profound and therefore spiritual. By like all matters of the spirit, this one was tempered by a shadow. For while we felt that shift into clean open water, a part of us was snagged on the sharp rocks of bigotry. Prop. 8’s narrow passage by those who misunderstood the civil rights they were denying of our GLBTQ people, was as sour as Obama’s victory was sweet. Honestly, I am still coming to grips with it; the loss, the heartache, the personal affront and insecurity I felt for those who have been married by me, and those who plan to be. I am still coming to grips with the fear and hatred that infected the whole campaign. I admire our direct propositional system of democracy here in California, but find it maddening as well. This tragic loss was also a spiritual moment.

Our Third Principle as Unitarian Universalists is “the acceptance of one another and the encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations.” Our acceptance of those of different backgrounds is built into the very stones of this church; we welcome you as you are, whatever your color, your background, your economic background, your sex, your orientation, your politics and yes, your theology. I will not claim we always live up to that mandate, but it is clearly our mission here. What really sets us apart as a religion though, is not our openness, but our encouragement of open spiritual growth, without any creed or dogma; we are here to move. Our religion is more a process that a product, more a means than an end, a verb rather than a noun. So it’s entirely fitting that on this sweet and bitter moment in our political life, I consider just what it means to be spiritual and how we can all grow from it.

The election was a spiritual moment because it achieved, as Bill Schulz coined it, an “experience of the profound – not our beliefs about meaning death, hope, suffering, the Nature of God…but our experiences of those realities.” (From Finding Time and Other Delicacies, Skinner House Books, 1992) Not beliefs, but experiences of those beliefs. I belief in democracy and hope; but on election night I experienced democracy and hope. I believe in marriage rights for all people, but this week I experienced the tragic loss of those rights. Spirituality then is the experience of what we believe, the moving of us from one moment to the next. And if we are open, then we will, necessarily grow from that. When I first came here in 2005 we invited Larissa Stowe and her band to lead us in a service of Sanskrit Chanting. I told her to go easy on you, since I knew such chanting could go on for hours. I explained that we worship for an hour. Well, it was quite a Service: music, singing chanting and it went on for an hour and half before it wound down. Admittedly, some of you just walked out exhausted, others were dancing on air. The point is you were open to it and many of us grew from understanding religion, in this case Hinduism, not cerebrally, but through song and movement. It brought life to our belief in being truly open.

How does the Spirit move you? Sometimes it is brilliant preaching, but a wise preacher knows that she is only as good as her last sermon. We also need music, we need ritual, we need action in the world, we need to move. Last week’s Service on the Day of the Dead, was most moving when you all came forward to place your ancestors memories on the altar while Joanna played Somewhere Over the Rainbow. That was a spiritual moment.

How do we recognize a spiritual moment? How can we encourage each other to grow spiritually? Well, I like these five steps to responsible spirituality, adapted from Bill Schulz.

1. Can everyone join in the fun? Everybody has to have access to the profound. Some forms of spirituality are limited to those who conform to preconceptions of the universe; IF you believe this way, you can play. Or only some can have access to the divine. That is why we believe in a free pulpit here; the prophethood of all believers.

2. Does your spirituality have a sense of humor? I am not sure there are many Catholic priests who tell jokes from the pulpit such as, “How many UUs does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

“We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, you are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.”

3. What are the implications for the world? Too many spiritual practices only serve the interests of the adherents. What you practice of your religion should make a difference in the world. What good is enjoying the bounty of life if you are not using it to help others? “Religion which shuns politics is inconsistent with the Unitarian Universalist tradition,” writes Schulz. That is certainly true here at PUC. We are moved by our beliefs to vote, stand up for the rights of all people and even provide a polling place here.

4. Does it pay homage to the tragic? Our spirituality moves us to deal with loss. As I have dealt with the denial of marriage rights passed by our electorate this last week, I am moved to remember that we, as UUs will continue to recognize those unions in our Church. I am saddened by this loss, but remain hopeful that time and effort will move us ultimately towards the good.

5. Where does it locate the most precious? In or out of the world? In movement, in song, in music, in words, in silence, in action helping those who are in need? It should have a place in our hearts. I believe that we are placed on this planet to achieve a mission to be discerned and acted upon. I place my spirituality in the stories of those who have made a difference in the world or even survived the tragic. I place my spirituality in laughter and tears. I place it in power of a community to choose the right course in difficult times. (Ibid, Schulz)

How does the Spirit move you? The beauty and mystery of our lives as UUs is that we have the power to find meaning in our lives. For some that meaning may be that there are many paths to the Holy, that beneath our diversity there is a unity that makes us one, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars. For many of us we are moved by the knowledge that there is no wrong way to love, and no wrong way to discover what is holy in your life, like so many spokes on a wheel. The point I remind you of here today is that the beauty of our faith tradition is that it doesn’t really much matter which path you take as long as you are not hurting another. I remind any of us today, different as we are in political sentiment, sexual orientation, even class, that we are here to be moved towards that unity that makes us one. Hate and exclusion have no place in these walls.

I have been an atheist, a Buddhist, a Christian, a mystic, an enchanted agnostic, and as I moved from one perspective in my faith journey to the next I realized that they are really all pretty much the same. The Spirit moves me to be compassionate, just and honest. I have left behind the worry I am going to Hell, life is hell enough. I have left behind the worry I am going to Heaven, life can be heaven enough as well. Gone, really for me, is the need to argue about the existence of God or even the validity of the Trinity. I have decided that at the end of the day what matters most, is love and other people. That is where the Spirit moves me. For too long now I believe we have wasted our time in mental gymnastics as Unitarian Universalists with questions like “Was Jesus God or human?” “Is the bible fact or fiction?” “Is prayer useful or illusory?” (Ibid Schulz) Instead, I believe we need to be asking, “How are we going to get along?” “What can we do about poverty and injustice?” “How can survive through a struggle and celebrate life?” In short, the Spirit moves me towards a unity that binds us all. The principle we live by that all life is interconnected. That is what matters most to me. All the rest is just the means to an end. I know that prayer moves many to a place of solace and peace. I know that for many the personal relationship with Jesus as a Son of God makes the divine accessible in their lives. I know the Bible contains both wonderful truths and horrible prescriptions. The kind of beliefs we have are really only useful if they move you to becoming a whole person, capable of loving and being loved. We “live every day in an intimate acquaintance with (our) own fragility and the fragility of those whose lives (we) touch…”(Ibid Schulz)

How does the Spirit move you? What matters most to you? My family matters most to me, so the Sprit moves me to do all I can to love them and provide for them. For some of you, what matters most is this Church. But a church is only the people in it, so the Spirit might best move you to care for one another, as we say, in loving transformation and trusting hope. For some of you, what matters most is saving the planet from pollution, so for you the Spirit moves you to advocate and live a greener life. For some the Spirit moves you to care for those who cannot care for themselves, so the Spirit moves you to take action. For some the Spirit moves you to care for all our children, our future, so the Spirit moves you to come to our RE visioning after the Service. For some, the Spirit moves you to just survive another day and so you are here, just to know you are part of a community that accepts you as you are.

“The (Spirit) yearns to be felt and it begs to be lived. This is the supreme paradox of spirituality: it can almost never be captured but it can always be seen.” (Ibid, Shultz)

I would ask you to ponder again as we say those closing words each week, “there is a unity that binds us together”, a unity that binds us and yet moves each of us slightly differently. The paradox of being one and many. Above all else, may the Spirit move us to stay together, in this Church, to use it as a launching pad out into the world, to where the Spirit needs us most. Blessed be!

Our Civil Religion

October 30, 2008

In his correspondence, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, most well known for being the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States, that, “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.,” going on to profess it as the most natural and reasonable religious stance one could have.  Jefferson, despite our claims to him otherwise, was not a Unitarian.  He was, rather, a deist — that brand of faith held in such high common esteem by almost all of our founders and characteristic of the high enlightenment from which our nation was born.  Deists believed not in the personal God of the Bible, but in the impersonal deity of ‘natural law’.  A God who had set in motion the wheels of the universe but left it up to human endeavor to complete.  Far from the endorsement we might want to claim of Jefferson, his statement was more a reflection of what he and all the founding fathers believed to be the natural conclusion of the grand experiment of the American Republic: That of a people endowed with certain inalienable rights, as all people everywhere should be everywhere.  The Unitarian faith in a God for all people, subject to the dictate of reason, seemed a natural conclusion for Jefferson and many others.

Thomas Jefferson is a good place to begin my thoughts on “Civil Religion” because, like our religion, Jefferson is a study in paradox.  The author of our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson spoke boldly of the need for free discourse in the service of liberty.  The freedom of speech, assembly and religion is at the heart of our nation.  But Jefferson had a shadow side as well.  He was a racist despite his hopes for “eventual” emancipation, a keeper of slaves, even those his own offspring born to his slave Sally Hemmings.  Apparently his claim that all men are created equal had a footnote.

So it is also with our freedoms.  We are both free and enslaved.  Free to speak out for what we believe, but limited in what we say.  This week is the anniversary of the so-called USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001, a knee-jerk reaction to limit the civil liberties of many in hopes of catching terrorists.  It exists as a shadow to our national identity.  Likewise, we are free to practice religion – a freedom earned through such brave men as Roger Williams, who, in the early days of our colonial expansion, broke away from the theocratic Puritanism of New England and founded the colony of Rhode Island, the first free religious community in America.  But our freedom to practice religion is limited in fact by the overwhelming Judeo-Christian character of our country.  We here, who celebrate the freedom of belief, have to be circumspect about our promotion of freedom.  The fact that we welcome theists as much as pagans is not well known, nor, perhaps, should it be – yet.

I don’t defend our faith, because it is defended by our principles as a nation.  I remind our detractors that we are all bound by our “civil religion”, by which I mean not only the principles (deist that they are) which we live by, but also by the fact that we are all religious.  America, observed the Frenchman, Alex de Tocqueville, is the most religious nation in the world.  The forgotten premise to that is that we are religious in different ways and that is the very foundation of our democracy.

As a religious nation we are bound together by what Forrest Church and others have called the American Creed.  While each of us has our own “religion” it is not the same religion.  “America is faithful just not of the same faith,” wrote Forrest Church.  Our creed, based as it is in the rights of all to basic necessities (what Jefferson called ‘the pursuit of happiness’) and the freedom to believe and act on that belief, are the true heart of this great country, not Christian values.  The mistake that the “religious right” makes here is assuming that our core American values are necessarily Christian.  Our values are informed by Judeo-Christianity, we are a majority Christian nation, but that does not make the American Creed or our Civil Religion Christian.  Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, all agreed on this point.  A natural law, even a higher law, but not a Christian law, binds America. The same higher law that informed Martin Luther King, Jr. to civilly disobey the laws of the land.

Just what is that law?  In short it is the belief that in order to be faithful to our belief in the goodness of all, the extension of compassion and the pursuit of happiness that is our Republic we must have the freedom to follow the faith we hold most dear.  Echoing Roger Williams a century before, Jefferson proclaimed the paradox that in order to live up to the principles of good that the creator has endowed us with we must have the freedom to choose the good.  In other words, any faith, whether it is in the principles of our nation or a faith in Jesus, must be freely chosen to be real.  A coerced faith is no faith at all.

This then is the heart of our civil religion.  We are bound together, each with our own beliefs under One God, E Pluribus Unum, not because there is one true faith but because there is a freedom to have a faith.

This is why such legislation as the “Patriot” Act flies in the face of our civil foundations.  By limiting our expression of belief in the fear of finding “terrorists” we are undermining the very faith in freedom that makes us great. In many ways, this is a sort of “official terrorism”.  We have become afraid ourselves to speak out against the government and in so doing we are being terrorized by our government.

Walt Whitman, the great American poet and Unitarian once wrote, “religion in America, knows not the bibles of the old way but in new ways, the soul freed.”  Why is our civil religion so vital to life?  Because, my dear people, without the very faith in freedom, there would be no freedom of faith.  Without the freedom of expression, there would be no freedom of service.  What makes our nation, just like this church, so spiritually possible is that we couple our freedom of expression with a call to serve.  Look at any totalitarian regime of history and what do you notice?  They don’t last.  Why?  Because without the rights of freedom, there is no responsibility to serve.  And you can only pay or coerce people to serve a dictator for only so long.  True service, the very civility that makes our country, indeed this Church, run from day to day, is the result of the freedom accorded those of us who do serve.  Without it America would fall.  No one to serve the food to the hungry, to drive the sick to doctors, to clean up the cities.  Our freedom of expression naturally entails a freedom to serve, and volunteers make this and any democracy possible.  This is what Whitman meant, by not the old ways of bibles, important as they are to some of us, but the power of the freed soul.  In the freed soul rests the possibility of change.

Jefferson believed that democracy could instill greatness, not because it was rooted in religion, but because its freedom allowed us to choose the possibility of religion as one among many guiding forces in our lives.  Freedom gives us the potential to choose greatness.  And even when we fail – and we have failed often, witness our destruction of Native Americans, slavery and the subjugation of minorities – we are at least called to higher principles by the very fact that we can choose.

This is the heart of how we do religion here as well.  People ask me what we believe, and, when I tell them that we believe in the freedom to believe, they shake their heads and say, “why, that is no belief at all”.  But I say, “look again”.

The very process of democracy keeps us true to a moral pathway.  In choosing to do good over evil, we help to define what is possible.  Is this not Holy?  Is not the power to choose at the heart of every religion?  Choose we must, for without that we already slaves to another truth.  As long as there is a spark of life within us, implied Jefferson, there will be a God calling us to choose and in the choosing we grow.  Amen.

Sources used and recommended:

“The American Creed” by Dr. Forrest Church, 2003

“The American Soul” by Jacob Needleman, 2001

The United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.

Reclaiming Worth

October 12, 2008

Today I begin an occasional yearlong series on our Seven UU Principles. The principles, voted on by successive General Assemblies of our denomination in the 1980s, will be reviewed over the next several years. These were never meant to be a creed or a testament of faith, but were, in fact, agreements about what our congregations agree on. Still, over time, they have become touchstones to our faith. Dozens of books and courses have been produced, and our own Julie Hernandez and our Addiction and Recovery Ministry have designed and taught a course linking these seven principles and the twelve steps of the recovery movement. These seven principles, broad and barely religious though they are, are at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. The first of these, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is foundational to our own vision of building an inclusive community. It is also the principle most at odds with the existence of evil in the world. After all, how can you believe in the inherent worth of a mass murderer or a child abuser? It’s a legitimate challenge. Let me start with a story.

“You stupid good for nothing idiot. Why, a flea has more brains than you. What do you think you are, smart? You won’t be nothing.” I winced, as this 300-pound man yelled his teenaged son. “I can’t see why you were even born. What a waste of time.”

The old man waddled off. The boy stood there blank faced. I was witnessing a terrible family fight. But the saddest part was that it wasn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, the old man yelled at his son daily this way, taking a little bit of his humanity away each time he did it. The boy who had learned to shut out most of the abuse wasn’t able to shut it all out.

When someone tells you that you are good for nothing for 20 years you begin to believe it, and lo’ and behold, most abused children become much less than they could be, or even worse, they pass on that abuse.

And lest you think that this is just some underclass phenomenon, let me assure you, this sort of deprivation occurs in many guises. Children of high achievers who think they are less than worthy if they don’t come home with straight A’s. The man that amassed three fortunes to gain the love of his father who had been dead 20 years, but to whom he was sacrificing his marriage. Athletes who die from strokes, not because their bodies weren’t in shape, but because their sense of self-worthlessness put such a strain on them they snapped. Beauty queens who suddenly end up in the hospital with an eating disorder because their own mothers never felt beautiful enough for their father, who ran off with a younger woman anyway.

I could go on and on. I am talking about some of you, aren’t I? And it hurts doesn’t it. It hurts a lot. Today I want to talk about guilt and forgiveness. I want to talk about the journey from worthlessness and worthiness. I want to talk about reclaiming worthiness.

The belief in inherent worth is actually deeply ingrained in the bible. Jesus proclaims that the “kingdom of God is within” in the Gospel of Thomas, and Isaiah proclaims, “my whole being shall exalt in God.” In fact, up until the Middle Ages, the early Church defined its saving message not in Jesus dying for our sins, but fulfilling the promise of an earthly heaven, “…the creating wisdom and power of life dwelling in human beings” (Parker and Brock, Saving Paradise, 2008). In fact, it could be argued that the inherent worthiness of all people is deeply imbedded in the coming of age story in Genesis.

It’s an old story. In the Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve, Adam (which literally means earthling in Hebrew) is given a mate, his other side, literally taken from his other side. And the two of them are given a life of luxury in the Garden of Eden. God has placed two trees in this garden that are important. The first one is the tree of life, from which they may eat and retain everlasting life. The other tree is the tree of good and evil. “From this you may not eat” says God “for when you do you shall surely die”. Now, of course, this is a set-up, like putting a plate of cookies in front of three year old and saying “Don’t touch those.” Eve (which literally means “New Life”) is tempted or drawn to the tree by the snake. A word about the snake: We associate snakes with evil, but in the ancient Near Eastern myth, a snake is actually a sacred sign of divine power. It often represents infinity. The snake offers the apple to Eve; she takes a bite and offers the apple to Adam.

Now the traditional interpretation of this scene is that of original sin. We are just too weak to obey God. But hold that thought for just a minute. Because what happens next is very important. They eat the apple and see that they are apart from their creator, that they are indeed separate beings. As separate, they “hide themselves,” both from each other and God. When God comes strolling through the garden he calls out for them. When they finally come out God asks, “Why are you hiding?” They tell him about the apple. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake and the snake doesn’t have a leg to stand on. No, seriously. But blaming now becomes the second act of independence, deciding to eat the apple was the first. For this, God sends them out of the garden and condemns them to toil, work and bear children.

There are two ways to read this story. The first and the more traditional is the crime and punishment model. One little mistake and wham! You unworthy, disobedient and depraved human beings. God throws him out. What does this sound like? Who here has made one mistake in their life for which they are forever regretful? Who here after making that mistake felt like they could never make it up? Who here remembers the hurt and the shame? This, my dear friends, is the basis for much of what we perpetuate in our families and our society. We are flawed beings, that is true, but it seems we cannot forgive our flaws. Like Adam and Eve, we are forever cursed because we couldn’t live up to the expectations of the One God.

But that is only one way to read the story. There is another. What if Adam and Eve were exercising their free will, which God gave them in the first place? How could they have known, ask some, what bad was until they had eaten the apple? In fact, isn’t this the point? Aren’t Adam and Eve compelled to eat the apple because of that very power which God gives all of us in her image: the freedom to choose? Adam and Eve were framed. If they hadn’t eaten the apple they would have never been imago dei, in God’s image. When they ate the apple they became truly human. In exercising their freedom, they were reclaiming their worthiness.

While they disobeyed this direct order from God, they obeyed their humanity by showing some independence. This then is the mythical beginning not so much of right and wrong, but of guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling wrong about something we did. We don’t do a lot of guilt around here, but some is not all bad. I’ve done some pretty terrible things in my life and I still feel guilty about doing them. I’ve had to work at changing myself so that I wouldn’t do them again. I’ve had to earn the love and respect of those I have hurt. But shame is something else entirely. Shame is the feeling that we ARE bad human beings. Adam and Eve aren’t shameful, they’re human. Perhaps what they did was wrong, but it doesn’t make them any less as people. This is why we as Unitarian Universalists do not believe in original sin; original sin says we are evil by our very nature. We say no. We say we are flawed by our very nature, capable of doing incredible evil, but we are also born with a natural light which while flawed and flickering still burns brightly. Doing something wrong is not the same as being wrong by our very nature. This is another way of proclaiming this first principle of ours, we may do terrible things, but we are, by nature of being, free thinking actors worthy of consideration.

It is not always easy to defend this inherent worth. To be fair, there are some real challenges to this belief. William Schultz, past president of the UUA and past Executive Director of Amnesty International, calls inherent worth into question. In his 2006 Berry Street Lecture “What Torture Has Taught Me,” Schultz can no longer accept that every one has inherent worth; having seen the pleasure torturers, even seemingly normal good people such as those at Abu Gahrib prison, took in hurting others. Evil incarnated in human actions makes it very difficult to accept inherent worth. Schultz asks, “So is the worth and dignity of every person inherent? No, inherency is a political construct—perhaps a very useful myth but a myth nonetheless–designed to cover up the fact that we all are sinners and that we are not always certain which sins (and hence, which sinners) are worse than others. Each of us has to be assigned worth — it does not come automatically — and taught to behave with dignity because, as Sartre once said, “If it were not for the petty rules of bourgeois society, we humans would destroy each other in an instant.”

I accept his challenge that inherent worth is hard to accept as innate, but I still consider it innate because the alternative is much worse. If human beings are not inherently worthy and worth is “assigned” by virtuous deeds in a society, who then is to decide what virtue is? The clergy, politicians? We saw this relative assignment of worth in the torture by Americans in Guantanamo, were the designation “enemy combatant” (a designation of relative worth based on actions) led to a stripping of basic human rights, not the least of which is the right to legal defense. No, I cannot accept that inherency is relative. I have to separate the action from the worth of the doer, or we have nothing to rely on in assigning basic human rights.

Which is not to say it isn’t hard to do. Torture is one instance, but so is abuse, especially of children. How do we uphold inherent worth for abusers?

One of the most difficult topics in this debate are the very painful cases of sexual child abuse committed by several Catholic priests many years ago. Father Rob Jascot is a Roman Catholic priest I knew many years ago. We served together on a local cable talk show I hosted on Faith issues in our community. We talked openly about this problem on the show. I have to say here, I admire Father Jascot a great deal. It takes courage to face this question squarely and talk about it. In our discussion, we brought out the very basic fact that pedophilia, in fact any form of abuse, is an evil and heinous act. It feels all the more evil when it is done by a clergy person because of the sacred trust that is violated, and even more so by a Catholic priest because of the hypocrisy associated with vows of celibacy. Father Jascot responded bravely: Yes, sexual abuse, like alcoholism before it, was the church’s secret for years. But as we break any cycle of abuse we had to bring it into the light. Priests are now required to undergo psychological testing, sexuality awareness training and criminal background checks (all of which Unitarians were doing 20 years ago). The Catholic Church, like our own Congregation, has a zero tolerance policy for abuse.

“It is a tragedy,” said Father Jascot, “for the children, for their parents, for the priest, for the Church and for America, which sees this as one more reason why they shouldn’t trust religion.”

We did, of course, talk about how far we have come and how the vast majority of churches are safe and healthy places to learn and grow and how the vast majority of clergy are kind, safe and helpful people. But the hurt is real. I commented on the fact that most abusers are themselves abused, and abuse others as a way of validating their own lack of worth. Pedophilia is the worst form of shame. Preying on innocent children is the end point of what can happen when we feel we are truly worthless.

In my last church we had a pedophile amongst us. While we are certain that no harm came to any of our children, in large part because of the safety policies we had in place, our course of action was clear and unequivocal. We asked him to leave. For some, that was not enough. For others it reminded them of their own exclusion and fears of being not worthy enough even for a church. We did this not because he was evil as a person, but because his actions (which he has since repeated) were evil and we are not a therapy center here. Any church is a community. And even as respectful as we are, we are forced to protect our community from hurt first and foremost.

Of course, very few of us have done something as wrong as that, and yet we feel that sense of shame. Whether it is abuse of others or ourselves, through substance or behavior, that sense of not being ever quite good enough. We long for acceptance, but feel trapped in our own being. “The prison of the soul is far more darker than any dungeon,” wrote John Donne. This is one reason why I feel so strongly that our first principle is so foundational to who we are as free church. If we can’t separate harmful actions from human worth then who will.

This week we began a course on the 19th century Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickenson. What they all shared was this sense of an inner light, a divine worthiness in spite of what we do. We may spend the rest of our life in prison, but we are still of worth, connected, as Emerson would write, in an Over soul.

We do matter. We can and should reclaim our worth. But how? How can we move beyond a sense of shame to self-acceptance; how do we even move beyond guilt towards forgiveness.

The greatest irony of the story of Adam and Eve is that they were condemned by a Creator who supposedly made them in love. Or were they condemned? Let us look again: And God said “…in work shall you till the ground, thorns and thistles it shall bring forth and you shall eat the plants of the field and woman shall in pain bring forth children…” Our free will made us human and mortal and then left us with a challenge: to bring forth life. Isn’t this the very nature of human creation? If it was all given to you, well then so what? But if we can overcome adversity and create something from “thorns and thistles” and “in pain bring forth” new life, isn’t that what living is all about? Perhaps, as Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, we didn’t so much get thrown out of paradise but outgrew paradise. Didn’t we move beyond having it given to us and feeling ourselves dependent on God, to finding what we valued ourselves and depending on each other? We can claim our worthiness, my friends, precisely because we suffer. We matter because we must find a way to make more out of less; we matter because we have the power to create. Our ability to create is our salvation. Free will, sexual passion, hard work, love and mortality. These are the gifts we take from the Garden of Eden and these are the gifts that make us human. These are the gifts to moving beyond feeling bad about being human, to feeling bad about what we did, and then onto forgiveness. (Harold Kushner How Good Do We Have to Be? Little, Brown and Co., 1996)

Think back to that one act that still lurks in the dark corner of your soul. Or if you are clueless about that, think of some obsession you have, because chances are your obsessions are clues to some old shame. I used to be obsessed about having my day all in order. Five kids and ministry cured me of that, but anyway, that was my obsession. I thought I could never have it together enough. Who knows where this came from? That really isn’t as important as what I was going to do about it. Over time, I realized that this was my prison. I would blow up if plans changed, people didn’t follow through, or even if it rained!

The way out of this shameful cycle was to be creative. Creative is doing something new. A couple struggling with age-old pains takes piano lessons together. A parent and child read to one another every night (with all the voices). Another couple listens to each other’s dreams each morning over coffee. Creativity, wherever you can find it, cracks the door on helping any of us towards feeling worthy. But creativity alone is not enough, because shame and guilt require forgiveness. And forgiveness is often hard to find. Not forgiving another, as Rabbi Kushner observes, “gives us a kind of power over another”. (ibid, Kushner) But it also eats away at your soul. It keeps you from being human. It makes any of us feel like we don’t matter. There is no magic pill for forgiveness. Adam and Eve probably didn’t forgive God. I know those who have been abused who haven’t forgiven their abusers. But consider this: How much power do you still ascribe to your abusers by not forgiving the? When I ask someone to forgive another I am not saying we should forget what they did, or even accept what they did, but I am saying that forgiveness frees us to get on with our lives.

Twenty-five years ago, Sally was abused by her father. She managed to survive all of that, even get married, but when her own daughter was born she started to criticize her constantly. By the age of ten, her daughter was buying beauty magazines, by the 13 she was in the hospital for an eating disorder. The sins of the mother had been visited upon the daughter, generation to generation. It was at the hospital bed where I had the privilege to watch a miracle. Sally looked down at her daughter and whispered “Why?” And that little girl, thin as a rail, managed to say, bless her soul, “Because I was never good enough, Mom.” Never good enough. Sally got it. She started to cry, her daughter cried, I cried. Sally went home that night and wrote a letter of anger and forgiveness to her father. But she never sent it. Her father had died two years before. Her daughter came home and so did Sally.

Churches like this should never be places that tell you that you are not good enough. We should strive to be places of acceptance for who you are. Sanctuaries where God’s light heals and doesn’t condemn. Places which, while we cannot accept behavior that is harmful, can accept those of us who have harmed and been harmed. We are not perfect; we weren’t made to be. I don’t believe in the God that condemned Adam and Eve. My God knows our suffering and wants us to help one another become whole again.

Churches like this one are full of losers. People who have lost loved ones, lost love, lost acceptance, lost their way. But they are also full of people who have also lost their fear to join together with others, many of whom are not at all alike, in the common hope that we shall break out of our soulful prisons. People like you and I know why we matter. We matter because we are not alone. Amen.

Different Beliefs, One Faith: Our Open Spirit

October 12, 2008

“So you’re a preacher,” he said. It was late, about 9:30, in Chicago and it was cold, the January wind tearing at my jacket. I was standing on a train platform waiting for my two-hour commute back to northern Indiana where I lived. I told him that I was a seminary student and yes, I was a “preacher”. “How about that,” he said, “a man of God.” I didn’t have the heart to clarify just what kind of God he thought I might be a man of. But then again, it didn’t matter. “Just great, just great,” he said, “I’ve always admired a man of the cloth.” He continued, “Just found Jesus myself,” he said. I shifted, not sure if my discomfort was with the wind or where this conversation was going. My new found friend went on in great detail: he was a bricklayer, was on this third wife, had six children and was finally in AA. As he explained his conversion I couldn’t help but notice the sound of contentment in his voice, it was almost contagious. That was a difficult year for me: I was struggling over my new identity, with the death of a close friend and with this expansive faith of ours which required such a broad knowledge. I yearned, I admit, for a simple faith, perhaps the comfort of Jesus.

As we boarded the train together, he naturally sat down right next to me He pulled out a well worn copy of the bible and recited his favorite passage from the Gospel of John, “No one shall come onto the father but through me.” I knew that for him this meant that he was already in the arms of a loving God. That in the end, with all his troubles, he would be all right. I have come in the many years since this encounter to feel and know what it is about a simple faith in Jesus that is so refreshing and comforting: If you believe you are saved than there is nothing this world can do to you to hurt you more than for a moment. This kind of faith is not about reason, it’s about feelings. Many of us don’t understand this allure.

But this man understood. He was quite sure of his own salvation. And equally worried about his sister’s soul. She was a Muslim. “What about you, Reverend? What church do you belong to?” he asked. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist,” I replied, trying to let the 10 syllables fall out of my mouth slowly. He was quiet for a moment trying to recall where he had heard that before. Then the gleam of recognition, “Oh yeah, I got a friend who is into the Unity stuff – real spiritual.” Alas, we fall again to the arrows of misrecognition. I started to explain the difference, but his stop had arrived and he thanked me and got off.

Perhaps just as well. I would rather have him leave with that warmth. Many days have passed since that cold night. Many more sermons, deaths, births and doubts and I am still before you, a humble servant of the spirit, searching as you are for that faith which will sustain us; the faith of a community like ours with so many different beliefs. I thought often of his description of us as “real spiritual”. For most of our 500-year history, we wouldn’t be accused of that. Although all of that is changing, and changing fast.

Unitarian Universalism is actually the merging of two streams of faith. The Unitarians and the Universalists. The Unitarians have historically believed that God is one; in all people and that the concept of the trinity, that is the father, son and the Holy Ghost, has no basis in reason. This Unity of Experience based on a reason was proposed as early as 325 C.E. by a Bishop named Arius who was condemned for heresy. Our reasonable approach to religion laid dormant for almost 1,000 years until the idea of only One God resurfaced in Eastern Europe, Transylvania to be exact. Francis David, under the emerging protestant reformation and a lenient monarchy, established the first Unitarian churches in the world which stand, despite centuries of persecution, to this day. Their altars proclaim “God is One” and in all people, their teachings proclaim that Jesus came to love us all. Many of our American churches have partner relationships with these poorer and ancient churches in Eastern Europe. Unitarianism traveled across Europe to Britain and then to the United States and found a welcome home in the Congregationalist churches of New England because the congregation could decide on its own beliefs. This is the basis for our fierce congregational polity: the people, that is, all of you, decide the future of our course. As the most recent issue of our denominational magazine The World (Fall 2008) explains, ours is a “covenantal theology”, we are united not so much by common belief as by caring of one another. Protecting our freedom of belief. And with our relational approach to religion came another very unique institution: The free pulpit. We have a free pulpit meaning that I am free to speak the truth in love as I see it. Our flame in this chalice burns for that truth which we seek openly and together.

We are by our nature a faith of heretics. Heresy only means those who disagree with the orthodox. Unitarian’s bedrock lies in three beliefs: One, that religion needs to make some sense; this is why for instance our beliefs cannot deny the truths of science. Two, our beliefs have to fit our experience of the world. And three, we are open to hearing and exploring other religions and ways to the spirit.

What this means is that we have amongst us people who have a strong faith in God, some who would consider themselves Christians, others who would consider themselves Buddhists, some who don’t believe in God, many of us have doubts about God, pagans, earth worshipers and the just plain curious. We are unique on the religious landscape in that as Unitarian Universalists we do not require you to subscribe to any doctrine or creed – just to come, and in reason and experience, explore the possible Unity of the Divine.

If our Unitarian heritage appeals more to our minds, then our Universalist heritage appeals more to our hearts. Historically, Universalists have believed that we are all saved by a loving God. While the Unitarians cry “God is One” Universalists altars, some even to this day, in the firelands of Ohio declare, “God is Love”. Since the time of Origien in the 4th century, we have had a strong belief in the gnosis – or knowledge of God’s love. Early Universalists said that if Jesus died for our sins, he did so for all of us, for all time. Hell was just not the burning issue that it is for many other orthodox religions. All go to heaven; why would a loving Abba, Aramaic for Daddy, as Jesus claimed in his saying, condemn any of us to everlasting hell. This idea also had its roots in Eastern Europe and traveled through an underground church founded by Jon Hus using a simple chalice, the communion of God, which he gave to each person, before it was reserved only for the priests. The common chalice, God’s love available to all, is the bottom part of this symbol we light each Sunday. The chalice for God’s loving embrace is our Universalist heritage; the flame for the search for God’s spirit is the flame of truth within it. Universalists have been historically much more emotionally charged than their Unitarian cousins. With that emotion, came a love for music, dancing and heartfelt preaching. Your minister, stands before you as a fourth generation Unitarian but a strong Universalist. I believe with all my heart that we have some good and openly freeing news for the world…The Spirit is ours to find, hold and celebrate, even if we can’t all agree on what it means.

The Unitarians and the Universalists came together in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations of which this one is a part. It’s a proud and wonderful heritage. Like hubs to a wheel we gather to search for that way to inner meaning using both heart and mind. Our way of religion is open and free and it is not for everybody. Some misunderstand our open spirit as meaning we can belief whatever we want. This is not true. Our WAY of discovery is open, our END of discovery is personal, but the COMMUNITY of searchers that we are is united by principles and practices that provide for open exchange and safety. Not everything goes in a UU church like ours: there are limits. We do not permit hurtful behavior; we put a limit on the espousal of abuse, hatred and exclusion. We are not, as I am fond of saying, the ACLU. We are a religion and while we are an open religion we stand for something.

What do we believe as Unitarian Universalists? What is this one faith that unites our different beliefs? Throughout this church year, starting in two weeks, I will speak on each of these seven Principles. In our new Family service, which begins in three weeks, Renée and I will be engaging our young people in these Principles. What are they?

We believe in the free and responsible search for meaning. We tend to the free part openly but we sometimes have a little trouble with the responsible part. Being responsible means that we say what we believe but in love. The truth can sometimes hurt when we are not sensitive to others. I can remember a congregational meeting that we had many years ago in which someone said that if this congregation has anything to do with Christians they were leaving. Ouch! What about those of us who still find meaning in the Christian story? I thought Barack Obama modeled this brilliantly on Thursday evening in his acceptance speech. “… of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and each other’s patriotism.” In other words we can disagree with each other without challenging our character or our faith.

We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We do matter as being on this Earth in our potential and our worth. However, while we are all worthy – even those who commit terrible atrocities – our actions may not be worthy of being here. As I have said hurtful behavior cannot be permitted. But we also belief in redemption and grace. Throughout the month of September we will be exploring this theme of redemption and recovery. Many of us have been victimized, our religion needs to help us overcome that hurt and grow.

We believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Our Social Action Committee works hard on our behalf to join with others in our community to stand up for the poor and the disenfranchised. I have spent many years in community action. Unitarian Universalists work around the world through our own UU Service Committee and our office at the United Nations to secure justice.

We believe in the right of conscience and the use of democratic process. We can and should speak our minds in love and we have a right to our opinion. We also have the right to choose our direction as a Congregation. Our newest members join the heart of this Congregation and have both the right and the responsibility to serve on our committees and vote in our meetings. We do not take orders from high. Being a part of this democracy – and you are all a part in some way – also means we support our mission financially. We are completely self-supporting. We want and need your help in however much you can afford to continue to spread this good news. That is just a fact of life.

We believe in the goal of world peace and justice. Unlike many other religions that focus on the hereafter, we focus on the here and now. Part of our mission is to change the world for the better. WE can do this. It will take generations to do, but every little act of kindness does change the world in some way. Our services throughout the month of August have been devoted to peace, starting with ourselves.

We believe in a respect for the interdependent web of all existence. We do believe in the unity of the divine in all existence. We do believe that we are all connected in a great circle of life. And we do believe that what affects one affects all. Each breath we take has the same molecule of a Cleopatra, Caesar, Socrates, Jesus, Buddha or a Mother Theresa. This same breath extends to our own rich prophets: Emerson, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Darwin, Mary Wright Edelman. WE are connected in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Finally, and I saved this for last on purpose, we believe in the acceptance and encouragement of spiritual growth. “Real Spiritual” describes us more and more. Some may not like that description, but first and foremost what we are about here is a spiritual journey. Your spiritual journey. By spirit I do not mean so mushy gushy idea of something out there, but rather a call to “in here.” I believe that most of us are called to discover that abiding truth in us. I believe we are put on this planet for a reason, even if we don’t know what that reason is. I believe that our search is mystical in that we may have moments of revelation but we will be hard pressed to find “the answer;” and when we do, we will realize along with Lao Tzu, that “that which can be named is not the true name”. But the point is that my wayfaring friend on the train was not so different than any of us. WE too seek answers and while perhaps this tradition says it will be hard to find THE answer, we will be able to journey together and find more meaning to life than we would without each other. More meaning. More understanding. More strength to carry on.

This is why we join together as a community of seekers: to learn from each other, to sense and perhaps live out a destiny. To comfort one another when there are no answers to life’s tragedies and to know that in the final analysis we are not alone. Either with a God or just each other we are not alone. Einstein once said, “that no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it”. It’s a perplexing statement until you realize that it is both mystical and profoundly scientific. This is how Einstein figured out his theory of relativity. To use a sixties parlance, “he got out of his own head”. You can’t always see the forest for the trees. You can’t always see what is Holy when you are a part of that holiness. But when you break it out and share with others and listen and consider with reason and experience another consciousness whether through words, prayer, music or meditation THEN you can see what you didn’t see before. That, my friends, are why we are here. That is the one faith that is ours.

Our open spirit allows us to consider new ways, new ideas, a new path to meaning in our lives. And we can do that together better than we can do it apart. WE are the process religion. More process than product.

Next Sunday during our “Homecoming Service” we will recognize some of our newest members. If you have been coming over the summer and consider this your spiritual home, this would be a good Sunday to sign the membership book and enter the center of our circle. Let me be the first to say welcome to the next stage of our open spiritual journey. In my study I have a quote from a little known feminist – and a great Unitarian – that has sustained many a long night when I have grappled to what to say to you who are searching or to someone who is hurting. Edith Hunter, a pioneer in religious education recognized that as open spirits we had no firm, easy or pat answers. We needed something more realistic to deal with a complex and hurting

“Perhaps we should realize that our need is not to find “something to believe in” but rather to discover what we believe in right now. This is the place to start.”

This is the place to start. Let’s get started. Blessings Be!

Motherhood and the Divine Feminine

October 12, 2008

“Arise then, women of this day!  Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be of water or of tears.  Say firmly ‘We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies’.  Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause.  Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.  We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.  From the bosom of a devastated faith a voice goes up with our own, it says ‘Disarm! Disarm!’  The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.  Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor does violence indicate possession.”

These powerful words were penned and spoken by Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian and a Quaker who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” ten years earlier at the start of the Civil War.  This proclamation, written after that most bloody civil war as a response to the growing bloodshed she had seen in her own lifetime, was translated around the world into many languages.  It was the beginning of Mother’s Day.

Originally promoted as a festival to promote a Mother’s Day of Peace, the holiday envisioned by Howe and other women always began with this proclamation.  Until her death, Howe continued to insist that Mother’s Day should be a call to peace, but it was never made as such by our government.  Finally, in 1914, by popular demand but without reference to its pacifist origins, President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day; a day when we rightly honor mothers — but a far cry from its strident origins. (Source:

In honor of its truly noble and glorious beginnings, we celebrate Mother’s Day today.  Honoring our mothers, yes, but honoring them with the power of the divine feminine power envisioned by Julia Ward Howe.

There are many books written on the power of the feminine in our lives, but today I want to share with you the lessons I have learned from the women in my life, mothers all: my own mother Cynthia, my wife Frances, and my daughters Fiona and Portia — all mothers who have embodied the power of the divine in their role as women and as mothers. Some might find it odd for a man to talk about this today but, in fact, it makes most sense for me, a white middle-aged male, to share with you my lessons.

There is a saying in my house: “Watch out for the goddess.” By which I understand to mean the power of strong women saying what they will, feeling their way to the right answer. The greatest lesson I have learned is that I need to trust my intuition. I have become a very intuitive thinker – not at the loss of my reasoning abilities, which I depend on others for – which means I am prepared to feel my way to the right answer. Now, of course, that has its drawbacks to be sure. But it is the way I operate and it is a divinely feminine trait. Meaning deeply felt and fulfilling.

But the second great lesson I learned from the divine feminine in these mothers is the power of love and dedication. Those who know me know that I am fiercely dedicated to my family, my congregation, and my staff; in fact those who know me closest know that it can even be a fault. But I don’t apologize for it. It makes for a certain order to the world, concentric circles of concern. A love and dedication to the families who raise these children in difficult times.  A love and dedication to this Church, which is the home for our spirits.  And a love and dedication to our community and the world which we serve. With these two divinely feminine powers, intuition and dedication, I call on us to inspire others.

One of the other great heroines in my life is a little known Unitarian woman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who lived and worshipped here at First UU Church Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1891 she was one of the first to break the stigma of domestic violence by writing about in a powerful little book The Yellow Paper. In 1923 she wrote another book entitled His Religion and Hers. Let me quote from this because this mother herself, who finally divorced her abusive husband and began writing, encapsulates the divinely feminine nature to our call as UUs.

“Birth-based religion would steadily hold before our eyes the vision of a splendid race…the duty of up building it. To the mother comes the apprehension of God as something coming; she see his work, the newborn child, as visibly unfinished and calling for continuous service…As the thought of God slowly unfolded in the mind of woman, the great power would have been apprehended as the Life giver, the teacher, the provider, the protector, not the proud, angry and jealous deity men have imagined.”

It is in this spirit, this Divine power which calls us to finish children and the world in dedication, that I call on us to rededicate our lives to those lofty values we hold so dear.  To reject the rhetoric and values which in Julia Ward Howe’s own words “reek of carnage and revenge”.  And to embrace those principles which we hold so dear: the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the goal of world justice and peace, the respect for the interdependent web of life and the use of democratic process.

Many who come here feel both relief and bewilderment.  Relief at finally having found a place to call home; a place that accepts us as we are and encourages us to find that spiritual center which must be a personal choice.  But we are bewildered as well; searching for that definition which so many other religions are all too happy to provide.  What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist?  Just what is it that I am asking you to dedicate your life and the life of our children to?

Across this country, I ask our young people “what is it that we stand for?”  I often get the blank look followed by a response something like “here is where you can believe in whatever you want.”  I cringe a bit every time.  No wonder other religions claim we have no spiritual center when the center seems to reach no farther than our individual preferences.  I am often asked, “What’s next, ‘We can do whatever we want’?”

In one sense our young people are quite right.  This is the place where you can believe what you hold to be true about why we are here and where we are going.  But that is only the door to the deeper life we ask you dedicate yourselves to.

This Mother’s Day, permit me to provide you with what I think we are about here and why we need to dedicate our lives to this church, our children, and the world.  “Arise then, women of this day!…say firmly we will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies’”.  What were these ‘irrelevant agencies to which Julia Ward Howe referred?  Irrelevant agencies are those bodies of governments, religions and pundits who tell us that our faith in the future must be based on the prevailing norm of our time.  In our day, this would be the same thing as an acceptance that war is right, obedience is moral and that questioning is wrong and unpatriotic.  All of which run counter to what our faith teaches us.  Arise then, and speak a new truth.  This is the dedication we are truly about today my friends, a new truth.  We do not believe that revelation is sealed but open (our principle of the responsible search for truth and meaning).  We do believe that all people have the right to self determination (our principle of inherent worth) and that we will speak out against those irrelevant agencies that tell us otherwise (our principle of the democratic process).

Specifically, we are dedicated to the proposition that, on this Mother’s Day: war is not the answer and that we will lobby our elected officials and partner with other faith groups – even in this community – to do something about it.  We will do this because we believe in the essential goodness of people even if they do terrible things; the American people, the Afghan people, the Arab people, the African people, the Asian people, the people who, when we get up close and personal, are still just people.  That essential affirmation is our spiritual truth:  that people are still just people.  It is the original foundation of our Western society and is a deep a humanistic faith as one can have.  And the spirit of those people is greater than any one God, person or agency.  We dedicate our lives, this church and our children to this proposition.  And we take it as a statement of faith:  that we are, as my colleague John Corrado puts it, “more interested in getting heaven into people than people into heaven.” (From John Corrado, Quest, 2005). Amen.

We are, as Unitarian Universalists, dedicated to the proposition that there is a human spirit which is worthy of our regard and our effort and that all people have the right to live in freedom.  That is a faith stance as great as any other.  It is worldly, to be sure, but who said religion should only be about what happens after we die?  Religion is about connecting with each other and with meaning while we are alive; heaven into people, not people into heaven.

As Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian on one hand, but a social progressive on the other, puts it in his wonderful new book God Politics: Why the Right has it Wrong and Why the Left Doesn’t Get It: “Who says faith is something that belongs to one party or another?  What are we progressives so afraid of?  Politics is about power, and faith is about meaning, why wouldn’t we try to use our faith politically.”  Or as Joe Lieberman put it so well in the 2000 campaign:  ‘A freedom of religion is not a freedom from religion’

We Unitarian Universalist have been so afraid to take a stand in our efforts not to ‘offend’ anyone that we have nothing left to stand on!  I say we do have something to stand on!  Five hundred years of speaking about the worth of the human spirit as the first and most important aspect of life; far greater than some unseen God someone else tells us about.  We stand on the tradition of great people, many of them powerful foremothers who dedicated their lives to the proposition that people should be our first concern; women like Julia Ward Howe, or Elizabeth Pinckney the first women in America to own her own business, or Abigail Adams, the conscience and the reason behind our second President, or the suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, or Olympia Brown, the first woman to be ordained in America, or Marianne Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and many, many more ALL Unitarians and Universalists.  Women and men who, like you, had a faith in the essential goodness of humanity.  That is our faith.  Cut away all that complicated verbiage about diversity and searching for truth.  We believe in people, even if they do bad things.  We believe and our dedicated to promoting that belief.

And lest you doubt such a simplistic faith has having meaning let me suggest to you an example: eBay.  How many eBay customers out here?  Do you know the story of this online auction company?  Started by a couple of people who believe in a simple premise “people are good”.  That is their advertising slogan: “People Are Good.”  And it works.  People put things up for bids.  The winning bidder sends payment, cash, check, whatever and the seller sends out the item.  If the item doesn’t arrive or is faulty the seller is ‘reported’ and no other bidders will buy from him.  Likewise if the buyer doesn’t pay or tries to scam the seller, they get reported and no one sells to them.  It is based entirely on trust.  And it works.  We have bought most of what we use from other people this way.  We even bought a car on eBay.

Political winds come and go. As Jim Wallis says, “Protest is good, options are better.”  We will need to dedicate ourselves to this faith to join together with our time and our money and other people of faith in this community: the UCC, the Methodists, the Jews and the Muslims.  We will need to join together to bring our faith into the public square to change our world for our children and ourselves.

I want us to dedicate our lives to the Divine Feminine, that has inspired mothers everywhere, that divinity of life giving, intuitive, completion of our world. I want you to dedicate your lives to this Church and our mission to make the world a better place.  I want you to dedicate yourselves to our children, like mothers and fathers all to a new world.  I want you to dedicate yourselves to the action that proclaims that people are basically good.  Be clear about our faith: we believe in each other and the world.  We stand against acts of evil and oppression, but we stand for people.  I believe in each of you.  I am asking each of you to believe in one another.  With love and dedication we will change our world.  Blessed be!

Our Prophetic Imperative

September 4, 2008

It is rare that a Unitarian Universalist minister begins his or her sermon with a biblical quotation. My subtitle for today’s sermon, “Let Justice Flow,” deserves a citation. The line which has been made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. comes from the wild and wholly Hebrew prophet Amos. It was Amos, not famous first for cookies, but for telling the Kings of Israel and Judah that they had turned to greed, who put it this way:

“I despise your greed and I take no delight in your assemblies even though you have offered up the burnt offerings. God will not hear the noise of your songs or the melody of your harps but let instead justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream (Amos 5:22-24)”

As I thought about this passage I could imagine the world he was railing against. Long gone were the glory days of Saul, David and Solomon. Israel had split into its own version of the red and blue states: a civil war had divided the land into to two states; Israel to the North and Judah to the South, with the power resting in the Southern half of the land. The Jewish empire was faltering under its own weight, made sleepy by its wealth and arrogant by its belligerence. Amos, as all good prophets should, was telling the haughty leaders that false piety wasn’t enough. That prayer in schools wasn’t going to save them, that flag waving, scroll thumping sacrilege was a lost cause. Only justice and righteousness will save them; in fact that is the only offering God really wants from his people.

Sound familiar? It ought to. How different is our arrogance as the only remaining superpower, the openly proclaimed Empire of the World from this fallen age of Israel? Some even suggest the new Star Wars film by George Lucas is a commentary on George W. Bush and the encroaching agenda of fear and the attendant loss of civil rights around us. Part of our effort today is to name the true costs of this war. The facts you can see for yourselves, a billion dollars a week, 4,000 American lives, half a million Iraqis dead or displaced, and our neutering as a voice of compassion and change in the world. As Linda Bilmes who lectures at Harvard wrote in a recent LA Times Op-ed (3/16/08), Californians, because of our disproportionate size in the military industrial complex, are going to bear the greatest brunt for this war. And then there are the personal costs such as this from Jim Wallis’ blog about his newest book The Great Awakening, My Son’s Grave (by Celeste Zappala) ‘The Cost of War’. The sorrowful convergence of the fifth anniversary of the war and the observation of the 4,000th fallen U.S. soldier in Iraq (has sadly past). Soon candles will be lit and vigils held, arguments will ensue as to who was right, and the meaning and value of sacrifice and the chorus of whispers, wails, and anger will be carried on wind sweeping across this country and all the gravestones of war. The stones are silent witnesses to the failure of humans to follow the commands of the Lord of Love. The stones are places where U.S. families gather, as far as can be from the bombs and desert fears. It is in that cold silence that my grandson and I visit his father’s grave. He throws chunks of snow around the fully decorated gravesite. “My dad loves to have snowball fights” he tells me in present tense. “My dad and me always team up against my mom; she doesn’t like snow.” He laughs; and in this moment of transcendent playfulness I look at him with great love and will not speak of horror and lost hopes. Head bowed, snow tears on my face, I let the chill of the day overtake me – but I do not want my grandson to see my thoughts. In spite of all my protests, I could not protect him from losing his playful, tender father. I can only hope now to be a witness to the good life lost – to all the good lives lost. I will add my voice to the wind of remembrance and faithfulness. And I know for the rest of my life I will come to this country cemetery and visit my son who will never be older than 30. And I, like so many mothers and grandsons in this cold season, will stand amidst the stones of this country to listen in the snow for the laughter and forgiveness of our lost’. Celeste Zappala is the mother of Sgt Sherwood Baker, who was killed in action on April 26, 2004. Sherwood was killed while protecting the Iraq Survey group as they searched for the weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. He was the first Pennsylvania National Guard solider killed in Iraq. But where are the Amos’ of our time? Who shall proclaim the truth to let justice flow again?

In the tradition of the ancient Hebrew Prophets, I see our third smooth stone of liberalism as in Adams words “the moral obligation to direct our effort… towards a justice loving community.” Distinctly different than those religions that retreat from the world, our religion must, by its very nature, help justice flow into the world. We, and others, are here to proclaim that prophecy in the old testament way, not only of the future but of what in the present needs to be changed. Prophets, as Adams put it, “foretell” if this continues this will happen, not forth tell, as if they had some crystal ball. As a free church we come from an ancient tradition of foretelling: “The Radical Reformation of the 16th century, the heralds of the Renaissance, the mystical and radically democratic sects of the 17th century, (from which many of our religious forebears hail), the democratic revolutionists of the 18th century (including the founders of our own nation, many Unitarian), the religious liberals….the evolutionists and scientists of the Social Gospel in the 19th century – all were prophet bards foretelling and struggling for a new epoch.” (From The Prophethood of All Believers by Adams). We are right here part of that same prophethood of all believers, the prophethood that brought us Theodore Parker, Thomas Jefferson, Lydia Maria Child (the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate) , Elizabeth Cady Stanton, our own Hope Foye, all Unitarians and Universalists, who foretold and acted upon that prophecy.

The prophets are here and they are more than us. But their voices are not being heard because of the control our government has over the media that allows those voices to prophesize. I think of Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian who is challenging the powers that be. I think of Barbara Boxer, our senator from California, I think of the past President of the UUA and past director of Amnesty International, Dr. Bill Schultz, whose report naming our country one of the worst in human rights abusers in the world has met with a firestorm of protest from the President on down. As Dr. Schultz said on NPR, “I think the President doth protest too much, perhaps there is more truth here than they admit”.

To help justice flow and stem the costs of this war we must begin by unblocking the dams upstream. Its one thing to rescue the victims of our arrogance it’s another to unblock that which holds justice back. Or as William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, put it over a century ago “We can’t just keep picking people up at the bottom of the cliff without climbing up the mountain to see who is throwing them off.” (As quoted in, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis). What are these dams that are holding justice back, not only in the freedoms of our own country, but the very right to life in the world’s poorest countries?

First among them is our failing as a moral country. We have to replace platitudes about religion with the real religion of life. You know we heard all about how the religious right had voted Bush into office on “moral values.” Well we have moral values too! UUs and UCC and most other mainline churches have the moral values which hold that 30,000 children a day dying of hunger is just plain wrong. We have the moral values that say that debt cancellation to the lowest 10% of the world is not only possible but necessary. We have the moral values that hunger and abuse and poverty here or anywhere else for that matter is wrong. We have moral values that say torture – any torture – is wrong. That there is no such thing as just a little bit of torture.

We can begin to live up to our prophetic imperative by proclaiming those moral values in the public square. Not only in good-minded churches binding together, but in YOU speaking out at work and in your community about YOUR moral values. When someone tells you homosexuality is wrong, tell them love is right and then tell them what is really wrong: allowing homelessness to continue, denying aid to Darfur, reforming a tax code that rewards only the wealthy. Whenever we hear a story glorifying this war speak out about its cost. We are the people we have been waiting for.

And when people tell you that this is a time of war and we have to make hard choices, ask them ‘whose war?’ Because the question is not guns or butter, as the commentator Mark Shields put it, but rather caviar and missiles (quoted on Shield and Brooks, Jan. 2003, PBS). Budgets, whether it is the federal government or this church’s budget, are moral documents. It is time to put up a fight for what we truly believe in. It is time to let justice flow with our money.

Only our money will break down the damns beyond our own little worlds. Only money buys us the voice we need to be heard. I would like to believe that citizens alone could turn our world around and they can help but our money will also be necessary. We are always stretching. We are stretching to break through the dams to a new world. The question is why? We are here, as someone a few weeks ago put is so well, to “save lives” — not only the lives of the people who come here but the people who we will never meet who have no Amos in their corner. We and our money have the power to let justice flow again.

Specially, I am asking you to join the UUSC today. Fill out that form, drop a check in it and drop it in the collection basket. I am asking you to help us help justice flow again, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. But I am also asking you this month to make your financial contribution to our annual budget by way of a pledge.

To be of any use to this hurting world – to save the world which is our home – we must broaden our meaning making beyond just what we need. In the words of my colleague, the Rev. Roberta Finkelstein, may we be a place “… whose inward focus is on worship and spiritual development and whose outward focus is on bringing the good news of UUism to the larger community through words and deeds.” (UU Congregation of Frederick newsletter, 2005). We can be the deed doers, the makers of a new world, right here and now.

Some would disparage over the world we live in, but take hope and have courage. I always remember the words of Theodore Parker, our great prophet, ‘the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’. It is our task to create a better world, even just a little bit of it, to remove those impediments towards the flow of justice again, person to person, hand to hand, arm in arm, help does arrive despite the politicians. Our social action committee, these brave souls are here to help you let justice flow again. Our imperative is to shout it out from the mountain tops and the valleys: “stop this war” and change the world! As Jim Wallis puts it, we must stop being the thermometer that measures the temperature of the world and begin to be the thermostat that turns the heat up and melts the dams of injustice, breaking through with the free flow of justice (in Great Awakening by Jim Wallis).

Join us as we change the world. Give generously to the causes we support. As Wallis said, “Imagine politics being unable to co-opt the (religion) but being held accountable to its moral imperatives. Imagine social movements arising out of spiritual revivals and actually changing the wind of both our culture and politics. Imagine a fulfillment in our time of the words of the prophet Amos’ ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Just imagine.” (ibid, Wallis)