Monday, January 23, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am? (January 15, 2012)

These reflections bookended a series of readings about the nature of the divine presented by participants in our Adult Religious Education Class.

Reflection part 1:
For as far back as anyone can remember, talking about God has been a problem. That one word is so powerful and so loaded. Richard Dawkins, a contemporary humanist and Atheist writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” [Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion ]

Many of us are here in this UU church today because at one point or another we have heard stories about God that we just could not believe in, like the god of Genesis who destroys all the beings of the world in a flood except those saved on an Ark because “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth.” When I heard stories like this in Sunday school I knew that I could not believe in such a God.

The very first Universalists risked being ostracized by friends and family, losing their jobs, and facing persecution because they could not believe in a God who would damn to hell most of those people he had created and save only an elect few.

I arrived at seminary with just such images of God in my mind. Starr King is part of an interfaith Theological Union, and I didn’t really appreciate until my first semester the opportunities we would have to take classes at the other seminaries -- with Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Jews and Baptists and to engage in deep theological conversation with an incredible diversity of folks. I was repeatedly surprised to hear them struggle with and often reject those images of a vindictive, misogynistic, homophobic God and offer instead a variety of visions of the divine all of which were bigger and more inclusive than I had ever imagined.

John Buehrens, a former president of the UUA writes “to those who tell me, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ I often reply. ‘Tell me about the God that you don’t believe in,’ ‘The changes are that I don’t believe in Him either’” [“Experience” by John Buehrens in “Our Chosen Faith”] Whether we are atheists, theists or agnostics, when we hear the word “God” a set of images and stories and feelings come immediately to mind. What I have come to understand is that for each of us that set of images and feelings is unique. When someone uses the word “God” I assume that I have some idea what is meant, but more and more I have come to realize that we will never know for sure what is really meant unless we ask, and listen.

Reflection part 2:
Many who do believe in God say that God is ineffable, can never truly be described or understood. By definition the word “God” refers to something so different from us as to be outside our capacity to comprehend. As Forrest Church said in our opening reading “None of us is fully able to perceive the truth that shines through another person’s window, nor the falsehood that we may perceive as truth.” So a tremendous amount of humility must accompany any discussion of the divine.

What we can understand is how our beliefs cause us to act in the world. Early Universalist Hosea Ballou argued that those who believed in a judging vindictive god tended to become judging and vindictive themselves. Since, in our limited human view, can never know the true nature of the divine, we can ask ourselves, “do my beliefs cause me to be more compassionate, more ethical than if I did not believe them?” We can ask “Does the model I use for understanding my relationship to the divine and to the world around me lead me inexorably towards working for a more just and sustainable world for all the beings who share this world with me?”

It is this question that brings us together as Unitarian Universalists week after week despite sometimes significant theological differences. Atheists, Christians, Neo-Pagans and Jews can worship together, because we know that ultimately metaphysical questions are most important as they are lived out day to day. Whatever you believe about God, may your beliefs lead you to help build a world shaped by beauty, justice and compassion. May it be so.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Heeding the Call (December 11, 2011)

On the occasion of the installation of Rev. Doug Stearns at the Universalist Fellowship of Towanda


Exodus 3:7-12
Exodus 4:10-14
"The Journey" by Mary Oliver

Sometimes when we hear folks talk about “calling” we imagine a scene much like the one in our reading today: an anthropomorphic God having a conversation with his chosen prophet. And so many of us who are humanist or atheist or agnostic, or who just don’t identify with an anthropomorphic deity discard this traditional idea. Today I would like for us to reclaim the idea of “calling” for Unitarian Universalists. And I’m going to get the help of one of those contemporary scriptures we Uus tend to rely on to help us connect to the holy- the poetry of Pulitzer prizing winning poet Mary Oliver, many of whose books of poetry are published by our own Beacon press. Her poem “the Journey” helps us imagine what “calling” might feel like to an ordinary modern person like us:
“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,”

And I want to suggest to you that calling can be as simple as this. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began;” have you ever had that feeling, that you knew what you had to do? For the purposes of our service today, for purposes of our Uu lives, it doesn’t matter where that feeling comes from, because as Oliver goes on to write:
“there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,

Ah, here is the voice. Here is the language of calling. Perhaps we are called when we learn to recognize our own voice. And though that is critically important, and can take a lifetime to do, that is not all that calling is. Having a calling is not just about listening, but also about turning what you hear into action “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began,” There’s the rub. And that rub is where the story of Moses points us toward a universal human experience, because I believe just about every prophet in the scriptures, when they hear the call say exactly what Moses said ‘Who am I that I should go?” I bet every one of us who had heard a call has also asked such a question.

I want to give a much less lofty example from my own life, an example of calling found in the most mundane of all places – in the trash. I remember coming home from shopping one day, and I unpacked my purchases I noticed that every single thing came in a plastic container that at least matched the bulk of the product. For example, I had bought maybe an ounce of moisturizer, which came in a plastic bottle, that came in a plastic box, that came in a plastic bag. I had bought a plastic toy for my son, that came in a giant plastic hermetically sealed container, which came in its own plastic bag. When I finally finished unwrapping my purchases I had a pile of trash that would fill a kitchen trash can. And though I had making such shopping trips for years, on this day for the first time something bubbled up from deep inside me and said. “That can’t be right”

But then of course my second thought was a sense of powerlessness. “This problem is way too big for me,” I thought” there’s nothing I can do about this. Our whole society cooperates to create that giant bag of non-recyclable trash. What are you gonna do?” And this, I believe is the moment that famous bible story describes. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ IN fact, and I love this kind of storytelling, Moses protests 3 different times. He says first in Exodus 3 “ Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring he Israelites out of Egypt?” Then in Exodus 4 he says ‘‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’’ and finally in Exodus 6 Moses asks ‘Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?’

Well I sat carried that pile of trash around with me in my mind for a couple of weeks, like a pebble in my shoe. And then “one day I finally knew what I had to do, and began” I couldn’t worry about how small my actions would be, I couldn’t wait until everyone else had received the same calling,
“determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
I had to stop allowing that kind of waste into my life. I had to start carrying my own shopping bags, I had to stop buying products that were so packaging intensive, and I had to start learning something about the impact of all our plastic packaging waste on the planet. I had to reorganize my theology to include care for the earth in a more holistic way.

It took a few weeks for that simple vision to unfold and even longer until I bought my first canvas bags, and even longer before I remembered EVERY time I went shopping to bring them with me. And let me tell you I NEVER feel like Moses when the lady at the Target makes me bag my own items because she can’t deal with my non-standard bags, or when I have to walk back to the car in the rain to get the bags I forgot AGAIN.

Except it says right there in the bible that the greatest prophet of the Jewish tradition felt insecure and not up to the task : “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” I also am encouraged by the fact that Moses says he is STILL not eloquent “now that you have spoken to your servant” When we are called, we are called just as we are, with all our human failings and weaknesses. We are not let off the hook just because we are “slow of speech and slow of tongue”

In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we don’t believe that the days of the prophets are past. We believe that a calling can and does come to anyone, not just the famous prophets of old, not just to our eloquent brother Aaron. We believe in the prophethood of all believers. One of the great 20th century Unitarian Theologians James Luther Adams coined this phrase. He writes:
"The churches of the left wing of the Reformation …demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laicism -- that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers."

Adams was converted to his world view after visiting Nazi Germany in 1935 and seeing the complacency of the churches there. While in Germany Adams used his home movie camera to film great leaders like Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer who worked with the church-related resistance groups, and also the pro-Nazi leaders of the Christian Church. By the time he came back to the US, he was more convinced than ever that any church any layperson or clergy was called to speak out, to act against such oppression. And any which could stand by and passively let such oppression happen, was irrelevant and impotent.

So if we are all prophets, what does it mean for us to be called? When I was at seminary we were often asked about our sense of call. Most of us had a story about a time when that still small voice in each of us, the voice we had “slowly begun to recognize as our own” had beckoned us to serve our UU congregations in one kind of ministry or another. But as the years of seminary and formation wore on, it became clear that this was not all there was to a call. There is not only this sense of inner rightness, of what “I am meant to do” but there must also be, our mentors assured us, a relationship between “What I am meant to do” and what the community needs. It is not simply enough for us to go into our places of silent meditation and emerge with this vision of our calling, our vocation. The passage from Exodus we read this morning begins with a witness of the realities of the local community
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,”.

So we each of us have the capacity to be called by that inner voice that always tells us the truth, but that is only one part of the call, the other part of the call will come from the people around you, the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. A vocation (a word which comes form the Latin root “Vocare” meaning to call) is what we do in response to what the voice we hear inside, but also the voices we hear in the community of beings.

I had the honor or conducting a memorial service last week for a woman called Dale Bryner, who was a great artist and environmental educator. Her message to her children and to her students over those years had been clear- be exactly who you are, because you are wonderful, and know that you are part of something larger than yourselves that is happening, and that is going to be amazing.

As I carried Dale’s words around inside me this past week. I thought of you – the Towanda Universalist Fellowship, and your new minister Doug. You are still a small tribe, but you’ve been around since maybe 1866. Back then you had about 100 members. Over these past 150 years your congregation has ebbed and flowed, changed and been changed. Recently, when there were no services being held here, we thought maybe the life of this congregation was over, but then you were reborn. At this time of rebirth, this is what you must ask yourselves: Who are you? And what are you called to do? I challenge you to remember that your true vocation will be not only an interior calling, about how you will be together as a congregation and what you will learn about together, but your calling is also about the intersection where that place of inner integrity meets your place in the in the community of beings, and you will understand how you are called to serve the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

You may say to yourselves “but we are not eloquent, the community will not listen to us” but remember you don’t have to do it alone. Remember when Moses beseeches God saying “‘O my Lord, please send someone else.” And God says, though at this point he is getting to the end of his rope “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.”

So when you are feeling “slow of speech” or otherwise not up to the task, remember the Rev. Stearns can speak fluently. Remember your friends are coming even now to meet you. Like Moses had his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, you have not only my congregation, the UU Church of Athens and Sheshequin, which has been a partner of yours off and on for 150 years, but you have the Brooklyn Church, and all the churches of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention, of the Joseph Priestly District, and of the UUA. You are not alone. You have allies in this community, in Towanda, and more who will emerge as you discover who you are, and how you are uniquely called to serve this your community.
I asked Doug, was there anything special he wanted to be sure you knew, as you set out on your covenant together. He said he wanted to give you courage for all that lays ahead for you as a congregation. I believe it is the sense of call that gives one courage. If you know what you have to do, if you begin to recognize that voice that is your own, then you will have the courage to stride deeper and deeper into the world. I wish for you the courage that comes from the strength of knowing who you really are, and the courage that comes from your desire to serve, knowing that you are part of something larger, and that it is going to be amazing.

Habit, Ritual and Addiction: Building a Day (January 8, 2011)

Last summer my son Nick and I took advantage of a clergy scholarship to visit Star Island for the first time. This is a UU conference and retreat center on the Isle of Shoales off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. It can be reached only by ferry. We stayed at the historic and now somewhat dilapidated Grand Oceanic hotel built in the 1800s when time when that sort of thing was all the rage. It was bought by a non-profit and started offering conferences in 1916. Many of the folks we met as we nervously boarded the ferry had been making the annual pilgrimage for years. There is a history center on the island where you can see old timey black and white photos showing people engaged in many of the same traditions that still live on there today. One of those traditions is polar bearing at 7:00 am. Now remember this island is pretty far north, and out a few miles into the Atlantic. The ocean water is not warm even on a sunny summer afternoon, but these folks start their day every morning with a walk out to the end of the dock and a dive into the chilly early morning water.

When I first heard of this tradition, I knew it was one that was not for me. Just taking a ferry out to this strange island to spend a week single morning it with my son and 200 some total strangers was challenge enough. But one day as I sat at lunch getting to know yet another new person, she told me that she was 80 and had been coming to the island for decades. I noticed around her neck the plastic beads that reward those brave enough to take the plunge. I was amazed. I had imagined a gang of burly 2-something men lining up on the dock in the early morning, but my dining companion said she never missed a morning. It was all the more remarkable since weather was just horrible for almost the whole week. There was drenching rain every day; Nick and I quickly ran out of dry clothes. The winds were so sever that the ferries to and from the island were canceled, and staying warm was a challenge even in the middle of the afternoon.

What got me through those rainy days so far from home, what I had to be sure of even before I registered for the program, was yoga. Every afternoon there were several programs to choose from, and I always chose yoga. I had discovered the first day that this was to be a gentle yoga class- the teacher was very specific about that. Some of the women who enjoy the same kind of vigorous yoga that I enjoy left the class to do their own practice, but in an island full of strangers, I needed a yoga community. Even though this was not the same kind of yoga I was used to, what was important to me was to have that yoga discipline to anchor my day. Even on the days when the storm was so intense that rain dripped through the roof onto the yoga mats of the folks in the back row, even on the days when a cold wind whipped through the swinging doors. Even, and this was the hard one, on the beautiful sunny day when sensible people played hooky from their workshops and basked in the sun after days of being locked up inside in the rain, there I was on my yoga mat.

That last weekend of our stay, the sun finally broke. Nick insisted we join the group of singers who gather each morning to walk the whole of the residential part of the island singing a wake-up song at every dorm and cabin. As we gathered, another group of folks sat in the white wooden rocking chairs on the deck enjoying a pre-breakfast cup of coffee and watching the island wake up. The polar bears were also gathering there at the edge of the dock in the glittering early morning sunlight. There were people of all shapes and sizes from elementary aged children to the octogenarian friend I had met at lunch earlier in the week. While I could see the appeal of taking an early morning walk around the island singing, I had this sudden knowing that I MUST polar bear before I left the island, or I would always regret it. So the next morning I got up even earlier, left my son abed, wrapped a towel around me and headed out to the dock. It was just as scary and cold and exciting as I’d thought it would be. There was a lovely sense of camaraderie, and after I proudly emerged from the water I reported to the guy in change for my very own plastic beads on a string to show I had been a polar bear at Star Island. I could see why those folks did it even in the cold and the rain. Because you felt like you had already DONE something, even before breakfast. No matter what else the day held, you had had your moment of excitement and camaraderie and you were awake and ready to face the day.

I thought about all the little traditions that made up the Star Island Experience, and how different people needed different things to make up their day- the folks who went door to door singing, the folks who gathered quietly on the deck with their coffee, the kids who massed in the snack bar in the evening, the night owls who walked out to the stone village for coffee house after the rest of us were tucking in for the night. I thought fondly of the morning worship after breakfast, and the procession of the lanterns in the darkness for worship at the close of day.

Here on this island where everything was new and strange to me, where the weather was so extreme that even the staff wasn’t quite sure what to do sometimes, there was something so grounding, so comforting and also strengthening about building those anchors into my day, that kept me from feeling adrift even in the tempestuous storms. Now I don’t know if yoga would have had that same grounding feeling if I had not had my yoga practice as part of my ordinary every day life for so many years. Day in and day out, when I am full of the energy of a spring day, or the excitement of learning a new challenging pose, or when I am grumpy, sleep deprived and even injured, yoga is there like an anchor.

Our everyday life is full of habits and rituals, whether or not we have been intentional about creating them. Being stuck on the 220 behind a water truck is probably not something you intentionally chose to be part of your day, but there it is, regular as clock work. Waiting for my son to get off the school bus is not something I have any control over, but there it is, a critical pillar of my day. Even the dogs know it is coming and start to run in little circles and pat me on the knee as that magical time approaches. Committing to dive into icy water every morning is an intentional choice, but many of the rituals and habits that make up our days we stumble onto accidentally. Because I work at home most mornings, I brew a pot of coffee and boil water for oatmeal while I get my son off to school. Then my work day starts with a quiet moment alone in the house, and whether I’m reading up on theology or writing the first sentences of a sermon, that cup of coffee is warm and lovely and helps ease the transition into the day. Recently when the morning was so cold and dark, and I had slept only restlessly the night before, I heard the sound of my alarm clock with despair and disbelief. Then I remembered- there would be that moment of warm coffee and warm oatmeal and quiet, and that gave me the will to get out of bed and begin the day. I didn’t mean to create that ritual, but there it is- a pillar of my day.

Now a couple of years back I was at a professional conference at this super fancy hotel- I had NEVER even been inside a hotel so fancy. It was so fancy that the planning committee hadn’t been able to afford the cost of the morning coffee break, so when we came out of our first event of the morning at 10:00 all the coffee had been cleared away. I just stood there incredulous and pouting in front of the empty space where just an hour before the coffee tureens had been. My anchor was gone! Here I was hundreds of miles from home and without my anchor! I ended up riding the elevator back up to the 10th floor to brew a pot of coffee in my hotel room. I think that was when I knew that my morning coffee wasn’t just a ritual, it was an addiction.

Sometimes the anchor that gets us through a stormy transition, or gets us out of bed in the morning becomes an albatross around our neck. We get in the habit of drinking a glass of wine with dinner, or a nightcap before bed, and we don’t realize until we try to go without how attached we are. Even something as vital and nourishing as food can become an unhealthy crutch. We turn to a favorite comfort food in difficult times, and soon our cardiologist explains that it is endangering our health. A teenager experiments with smoking and spends the rest of her life trying to break the habit. It is more than the power of habit and the comfort of daily ritual keeping us in an unhealthy rut. The same chemical process by which alcohol, illegal drugs or even certain prescription medications make us feel good traps us. We used to think that recovering from an addiction was merely a matter of will power but now we know that the chemicals in our body and brain are changed by such addictions and, the normal survival mechanisms in the limbic brain are overridden. Our brain tells us that only the drug we are addicted to will provide safety, satiety, security.
Once the very functioning of our brain has been altered, addiction becomes a disease, and requires a medical support. For example I had a roommate who was determined to stop smoking cold turkey. After about 24 hours of misery, he ran for the door like a man possessed- headed to the pharmacy for a patch to help him through the transition. But overcoming the chemical, biological part of addiction is only part of the solution. Because the warm cup of coffee that starts the day, the cigarette break, the drink after work, the snack before bed, these calm and comfort us because they have become anchors in our day. We cannot simply leave an empty hole where those anchors were dropped, we have to fill those transitions in our day with something new. We must practice those new anchors daily so that they are strong and comforting when we need them.

A few years back I was going through a very stressful time. I had built a life that was all work and no play, and felt out of balance. Moreover, I had recently lost about 60 pounds and was determined not to use food as a crutch to get me out of this latest difficult time. A friend asked what I enjoyed as a little girl. I thought back to my Elementary school years and remembered that I spent almost all of my free time doing 2 things, reading fiction and dancing around my room. It was at that moment that I developed a substantive Sci-Fi Fantasy habit. It was only a few days ago, however, when I realized as I stretched out on my mat that the reason I am so devoted to yoga is not only because it is good exercise and a form of meditation, but because as an adult I hardly ever get to dance around in a big open space like I did when I was little; I have built what I enjoy most about being alive right into my day.

As we enter the season of New Year Resolutions, a resolution like “stop smoking” or “start exercising” or “stop over eating” are noble and good. But the mere fact of decision must be linked with intentionally building a day. We increase the odds of success by taking time to reflect “when is it that I most need a cigarette” or “when am I most likely to grab an unhealthy stack” and figure out what you are really needing during that moment. And to ask yourself “what could I give myself in those moments that will someday provide the anchor that a cigarette or a handful of potato chips once provided.”

The ease with which we move within our habits and routines is the same inertial pull that makes changing those habits and routines so challenging. Instead of grooving along the comfortable familiar path we can follow without thinking, we are asking ourselves to stay awake in order to remember to turn left instead of right. Moving across the country is a difficult change, but skipping the nightcap, or ice cream or cigarette before bed is even more difficult, because it comes so easily. So be patient with yourself, encourage yourself. And most importantly give the day you are building your attention and love. When you create a beautiful day that you enjoy you are rewarding yourself and asking the part of your brain that releases dopamine to anticipate those new rewards. Is there something lovely you have always coveted for your life? Something healing and life affirming? Then give that to yourself every day as a gift.

At a continuing education training about addiction our presenter was explaining that part of the reason that Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful is that it offers new coping skills for times of stress to replace the crutches the old addictions provided. Healing the spirit is a critical part of recovery he said, and reminded us that the Lord’s prayer beseeches “give us this day our daily bread.” To him that prayerful request is not just about food, but about whatever gives the spirit sustenance. We need to feed our souls every day, and if we don’t have healthy life affirming ways of doing it, we run the risk of stumbling into unhealthy, addictive ways of making it through the big and little stresses of daily life.

How you build your day involves about 1000 different choices that usually we don’t think about, in the words of Nancy Schaeffer:
“The self is not one thing, once made,
Unaltered. Not midnight task alone, not
After other work. It’s everything we come
Upon, make ours: all this fitting of
What-once-was and has-become.”

As UUs we aren’t bound to pray 5 times a day like our Muslim neighbors. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need those anchors for our spirit every single day. What Anchors your day? What comforts you when times are stressful? What makes getting up in the morning possible? Whether it’s a plunge into icy cold water, a hot cup of coffee, a quiet hour with your partner, a walk alone in the evening, offer that anchor to yourself as a promise you can rely on. When we are building our day, we must be intentional about including our daily bread, about shaping a day to feed our soul in good times and in bad.