Monday, March 23, 2015

When Faiths Meet (March 22, 2015)

Reading- from Rev. Rebecca Parker's Introduction for 2015 Starr King President Lecture
I had been raised in a liberal Methodist home and was devoted to the sense we had of the purpose of liberal Christianity. That purpose was formed for my parents in the early fifties in the aftermath of the horror and the tragedy of the Shoah. For my parents’ generation the revelation of the magnitude of the human capacity to destroy human life and human culture out of racial and religious hatred, out of a search for some kind of pure identity and its preservation was the life shaping shock and sorrow. And my parents, perhaps like some of you… my parents made a decision as young adults to devote their life to fulfilling the cry “never again.” Never again let there be such war. Never again let there be an enactment of human hatred. Never again such exploitation of human life and destruction of human life and attempted destruction of religious culture. 

…”Never again”, they felt, could be advance through the life of progressive religious communities. I inherited that life, that belief that in covenanted life with one another centered in devotion to the holy and engaged in on caring not only for one another and all the generations but the communities of the world. There was hope for peace and justice and compassion in the world .

I carried that with me. .. But I found myself as a young Progressive Christian restless with the experience of life within an exclusively Christian sphere. it seemed wrong to me as a Christian of conscience that after the Shoah, after the holocaust, that Christians would presume to worship in exclusive Christian communities. I thought the only way you could be a Christian after the holocaust was to enter into multi-religious community. To be in a place …where people of Christian and Jewish heritage could be together in some way. And UU enticed me as such a place-- A place beyond the religious violence of the holocaust. Within my work … at Starr King, the joy of being in a multi-religious community, the challenge of it and the importance of it has been the heartbeat of the work. And it has opened to me experiences beyond my wildest dreams, of entering into and learning from the religious practices of others...

As a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church, we took it for granted that a basic religious literacy, not only of our faith tradition, but of our neighbor’s faith traditions was an important part of religious education. But it was not until I heard Rebecca parker tell this story at GA that I really got a sense of why this it was important. Growing up in a community which encouraged multi-religious dialogue, I didn’t understand what an important gift it is to our children and to our world. 

A couple of weeks ago I saw on a news story about a day when the Texas Council on American-Islamic Relations visited their state capitol, much like some of us and UUs from around the state are going to do on May 12 to meet our legislators and let them know what issues are important to us. Other folks had taken the day off work to drive to the Texas state capitol to shout hate slogans at their Muslim neighbors. They held placards that said things like “Go Home and take Obama with you” one protester rushed the podium and grabbed the microphone from the speaker.[i] One of the state representatives, Molly White, made news with her Facebook post saying that she had left instructions with her staff “to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.”[ii] This story, while not as dramatic as the massive anti-Islamic protests in Germany[iii], shows the depth of our ignorance. It didn’t dawn on Representative White that these visitors were her constituents, were American Citizens. She imagined that all of them were in some way connected to terrorist groups, and felt somehow exempt from the laws of their own country. 

After 9-11 it occurred to many of us in a blinding flash of the obvious that we were profoundly ignorant of Muslim culture, theology and history. At the Graduate Theological Union where I prepared for the ministry there were centers for Buddhist, Jewish and just about every flavor of main stream protestant and catholic traditions, but when my seminary offered an elective class on Islam, some of the other seminaries forbid their students from attending, lest it be a bad influence on their students in their ministerial formation. In the whole of my 3 years of coursework preparing for the UU ministry, there was only a single unit in a survey of “world religions” class to provide all we would need to know about Islam. 

According to a 2010 Pew study, %23 of the world’s population is Muslim. But what we see in the media represents a very narrow and fringe perspective on that ¼ of all the people on earth.[iv][v] Our ignorance of Islam and its people leads western cultures to view this incredibly diverse population with a monochromatic paintbrush of fear and anger. In a climate where Islam is painted as a boogyman hiding in our collective unconscious closet, the role of UUs and all those who remember the horror of the holocaust is to remember that part of “never again” is an inter-religious dialogue and relationships of care for one another. 

When I ask people who grew up Unitarian Universalist what they remember about Sunday School, I often hear about an experience called “Neighboring Faiths” which I personally count as one of the coolest things I did at my own UU church. The idea is that we would study a variety of religious traditions, and make a visit to their places of worship. I remember visiting a Greek Orthodox church, a reform synagogue, and a fundamentalist Christian church. I remember how empowering it was to go into a completely new religious community, like the Greek Orthodox church, prepared by our teachers and surround by other kids my age. We were greeted by a leader in the church who welcomed us, showed us to our special spot in the balcony, and could answer questions like “can we take communion?” His answer, “anyone who has been baptized can take communion here” left us with even more questions like “does a UU dedication count as a baptism for purposes of taking communion? We decided it probably didn’t.

We have learned some lessons over these decades of multi-religious dialogue. The first is that sometimes when we engage in this important conversation with our neighbors, we lose our grounding in our own faith tradition. A lay leader in one of our Midwest churches told a story about a youth in his church who asked in all earnestness “do you teach us about the world’s religions because you expect us to leave the UU church?” Another religious educator told me that whenever her students studied the Jewish and Christian traditions their UU kids became confused. Were they Christian? Were they Jewish? This raises some important questions for us so as we try to engage religious diversity with integrity: What is our intention in studying and participating in these faiths? What is our role? What ethical precepts shall guide our engagement? I'd like to look at these questions this morning to see if there are any central principles that can guide our way.  

If you turn in your hymnal to the page where our principles are listed.  You will see that “the living tradition we share draws from many sources.” These sources were adopted after a decades long struggle to articulate who we are and where we came from. Remember, both Unitarianism and Universalism were born out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But while most of the Universalists still self-identified as Christian at the time the Unitarians and Universalists were considering merging in the 1950s, many of the Unitarians were humanists. Add to that all dauntingly diverse theological perspectives of our membership, and you can imagine why it would take almost 20 years after our merger to arrive at those 6 sources which finally felt large enough to hold our plurality.

These 6 sources reflect our openness to the ideas we encounter at the religious crossroads. They reflect our willingness to be changed and moved by what we find at the crossroads. That’s why we call it a living tradition because change and growth are an innate part of our identity as a religious movement. In exploring these sources, we begin to understand our own roots, both historic and contemporary. Some root systems go down deep, like the Acacia tree, others reach out along the surface, connecting neighbor to neighbor, like the redwood. These sources show organic our connections to our ancestors and to our neighbors.

As we study these sources – when we open the Upanishads or visit a Catholic Mass how might we understand our role. The role of sociologist or cultural anthropologist is a popular model for UUs, but this has some limitations. If we use ONLY the objective gaze of evaluation, we miss the chance to let any of the religion into our own hearts or spirits. The role of religious consumer is common in our contemporary culture. I could go online to buy the scriptures or ritual objects from a great variety of traditions. Right now my grocery store sells all the consumer goods you could want to celebrate Passover - but I want something different. I come to this church because I believe that the spiritual journey is both safer and more powerful when practiced within a community of people who inspire and watch out for one another. If we participate in religion only as a consumer, we loose the grounding and context being part of religious community provides. The Kabalistic tradition so popular with celebrities right now is an ancient aspect of Judaism that was hidden for centuries, taught only to initiates who had proven themselves ready. Now its sacred symbols are sold at teen accessory stores along with the mala beads used by Hindus and Buddhists for their prayer practice. As part of our “free and responsible search” I believe we have an ethical responsibility to the traditions which feed our spiritual life, a responsibility that goes beyond what is expected of us as “consumers.”

Let's take that communion question my Sunday School faced at the Greek Orthodox church. I nervously asked the same question at a Catholic Mass I attended with my roommate in college. She replied "Oh, no. Even if you are Catholic you can't take communion unless you've been confessed,” and sure enough as I looked around I saw almost 30% of the congregation remain in their seats as others formed lines in the aisle to receive the host. But later that year, when I attend a Presbyterian service with a friend in her tiny old white-steepled church, she looked amazed that I would even ask. "How could we turn anyone away from God's table" she responded, and so as the basket of rough cubed bread passed hand to hand, I took a piece and ate. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am not going to tell you whether or not you may take communion in a particular tradition. I can only encourage you to act with integrity. Does the gesture feel false and empty? Then please don't sacrifice your personal integrity. But if you are invited to participate in a ritual that is sacred to your friend or neighbor, and you want to be in communion with that community in that moment, I encourage you to accept that gift in the spirit it was offered. 

Perhaps the most important questions are asked and answered in our own hearts at the front door of the synagogue or mosque. Am I prepared to enter a sacred space that is not my own? Can I, with integrity, align myself with this worshipping body for this time? Can I help them hold a sacred space? Can I honor and respect their sanctuary while being true to my own core? Christianity is an evangelizing faith, and so it seems natural for many Christian communities to share their sacred texts (as the Gideons do) and to invite their neighbors to hear the words they hope will bring salvation to a newcomer. Not all traditions feel the same about their sacred rituals and traditions. Some Native Americans, for example, feel that religion is tied to a particular place, to a particular community; it belongs to the people and the land they share. And so when European-Americans borrow a chant or a symbol, it can feel like appropriation, it can feel like one more act in the imperialism that destroyed the very cultures we now turn into objects of consumerism. And so when we study Christianity we might be bolder than when we study indigenous traditions. We look for ways to learn from our neighbor’s faiths without opening old and unhealed wounds.  

As the vilification of Islam began to gain momentum in this country in recent years, Dr. Conde Frasier, a professor at Claremont Theological Seminary, a Christian School, asked a Muslim friend to talk to her about Islam. She wanted to have something real, personal and deep to inform her thinking about her Neighbor's faith. After several conversations, her friend invited her to worship. And so after receiving instruction in the Moslem way of prayer Dr. Frasier covered her head, entered the mosque, kneeled on her prayer mat, and prayed to Allah. She reports that she did experience something of Allah that day. Dr. Frasier remains a Christian, but I have to imagine that she now has a much deeper experience and knowledge of Islam that brings her closer to her Muslim neighbors, and gives her a new understanding each time Islam is in the news, each time she is in the classroom teaching. She also experienced something that enriched her own religious life.  

One of the concerns people have about exploring the world's religious diversity is that it can be done in a very shallow way. It takes patience and intention to get beneath the surface, where most of the gifts of a religious tradition lie. The Celebration of Easter without the struggle of Lent loses it’s power. If you were here last Sunday you may remember Don Bisson’s words: “Suffering, death and resurrection is one mystery. Whenever you try and separate these mysteries, you miss the mysteries.” Think how different Dr. Frasier's experience would have been the first time she joined her friend in prayer if she had done so without all the study and preparation. When I heard Dr. Frasier tell her story during the Fahs lecture at General Assembly this summer, I was moved by her courage, and by the clear respect she showed to her friend, and to the ancient tradition she encountered. Keeping her example in mind, I offer respect, humility and integrity as the primary ethics of our sojourns in other traditions.  

More and more I like to take the role of guest. For example, I love the traditional lighting of the menorah to honor the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Sure I can buy a menorah and candles on my way to the checkout at my local grocery store, but I believe that without the depth of tradition behind that ritual, without the grounding in community, the ritual loses most of its depth, content and meaning. That is why I prefer to invite someone raised in or otherwise grounded in the Jewish tradition to light the candles that celebrate Hanukah, so that I can participate with humility in an observance as their guest.  

When Parker spoke those words at General Assembly, they were as introductory remarks for a panel on “Multi-religiosity.” This strange phrase is trying to express something new that the word “interfaith” does not. It is trying to articulate something that has been present in our UU contraptions for decades. That, for example, if you were raised Catholic and now attend a UU church, you don’t lose all those formative experiences that shaped you growing up in the Catholic tradition. When Marcia blew the Shofar for us to celebrate the New Year this past fall, it was because that tradition still had meaning and power for her as one who grew up Jewish, even though now she is a member of a UU congregation. Priestess Lady Hawk is coming to lead us in a Beltaine ritual next month, and she is also the president of the UU congregation in Towanda. We don’t always have to leave our own sanctuary to be guests in a new faith, If we open our hearts and minds we find a richness of experience right here in our own beloved community. 

This is and will continue to be a complex issue. But imagining ourselves as guests in a friend or neighbor’s home might provide a central organizing metaphor for our explorations. We treat their space and treasures with respect. We observe the house rules, just as some of my friends like me to take my shoes off when I visit, and others like me to leave them on. We listen from a place of shared humanity. And we humbly remember there are dynamics, history, wounds and gifts present of which we are not aware. We take only what we are given, and offer our gratitude in return.  

When we next hear the anger and fear of religious bigotry in the news, remember, as Rebecca parker reflected, “ I thought the only way you could be a Christian after the holocaust was to enter into multi-religious community.” Likewise, as UUs, whenever we are reaching out to our neighbors, or reaching deep into our roots and sources, this act is part of what it means to say “never again.” Moreover, it is a practice which helps us connect to the sources of our own religious wellspring. There is much we don't know about our neighbor’s faiths, so much they have to teach us about ourselves, about our roots, and about the world. As humble and respectful guests we undertake this journey, grounded in this our religious home, centered in the wisdom that lies in every human heart.






Monday, March 16, 2015

Why We Suffer (March 15, 2015)

Each one of us has experienced loss. Each one of us has experienced pain. And on those blessed days we ourselves are free from suffering, we have only to look out at the world with a compassionate heart to know that suffering is always present. I suspect that this is one of the main reasons people lose their faith: when confronted with the reality of suffering it all seems meaningless. When we come to church on Sunday morning we want to be renewed in hope and gratitude and compassion, but if our religious tradition cannot accompany us to the depths of life, it will not be deep enough support us when we need it most.

We are atheists, agnostics and theists together here today, but our common ground is the physical world in which we live. Walking in a path through the woods, or even just through my own back yard I observe that no living being seems to be exempt from pain and loss. All forms of life know death. All forms of life seem to experience destruction and decay. When we drove through Yellowstone park for the first time, we were amazed to see acre after acre that burned during the great fire of 1988. Decades later the charred remains of trees were the dominant feature of that landscape. 248 fires that burned that summer; hHundreds of thousands of acres burned, as the fire raged on for months. The first fires began in July, but it wasn’t until November that the snows had cooled all the fires enough for rangers to assess the damage, to tally the destruction to buildings, to count those elk, deer, moose, bear and bison who had died in the blaze.

 As the fires raged, so did the political debate about how they could have been prevented, about how we could keep this from happening ever again. Maybe, some argued, if we had allowed more fires in the park in earlier times there would have been less fuel this one summer of drought. Of the 7 major fires that did 95% of the damage, 3 were caused by human hands. So in a very pragmatic way, we know why suffering happens: some is caused purposefully, some by human accident, but the great majority is simply the interaction of natural forces in an apparently impersonal, inevitable way. That is to say, loss is part of life. Pain is part of life. Decay is part of life. Even the sudden, violent force of a great fire, a blizzard, or a tsunami are part of life.
 By the time we drove through the park in 2007, a new generation of trees and undergrowth and elk had rushed to fill in the scarred landscape. While the charred remains of the burned trees still stood starkly against the sky, an abundance of new growth crowded in dramatically illustrating the way that pain and loss are always followed by new growth, by new life. For those of us whose faith is grounded in the natural world, this is the meaning of suffering; each life that ends feeds the new life that follows. As Wendell Berry writes so elegantly “They die into each other’s life, and live into each other’s death…what they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind. And this exchange goes on and on, round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures.” [The Unsetting of America p. 85-86] This is why pagan traditions that grew up in a climate like ours, (where a cold dark winter is followed by a riotous growth of new life in the spring and summer) celebrate the spring equinox as a holiday of rebirth. The earth reminds us with her very body that dark is followed by light, that what seems to be an end is followed by a new beginning.

The question of suffering is more challenging question for those of us who believe in not only the immanent presence of the holy dwelling in all living things, but believe in a transcendent God, a personal God who cares about each being. Why would such a god allow suffering? It is easy to imagine that it has something to do with us. It’s a popular theological idea that suffering happens when someone has been bad, that suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure. Being free from suffering, therefor, has something to do with being good, with being faithful. I think the reason we make this leap is more psychological than theological; it allows us to look the other way when we see suffering because “they probably deserve it.” when we see someone suffering we want to assure ourselves that this will never happen to us- if we are good enough, careful enough. When we ourselves are suffering we want to believe that there is something we can do to end it, to control it. But our Universalist tradition does not believe that a loving god would have punished all the inhabitants of those Yellowstone forests for some wrong they had done. When that Tsunami hit Japan in 2011, we do not believe it was the providential hand of God intervening to smite. It was a natural disaster which swept away innocent and guilty, careful and reckless, lonely and loved.

As one who was not raised in the Christian tradition, I have always wondered about the centrality of the cross in contemporary Christian Theology. But slowly I am beginning to understand something about that symbol. In Christian Theology Jesus was the incarnation of God. Christ is God manifest in the world, in flesh like ours. Christ’s suffering, which Catholics ritualize in the stations of the cross during lent, tells a story not about a god who punishes the bad with suffering, and protects the good, but of suffering coming even to one who was closest to God. The story of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus depicts a God who took on the suffering of humans, and suffered with us in this world.

There has been a great debate throughout Christian history about whether or not Jesus truly suffered on the cross. Some feel that because of his divine nature Jesus escaped suffering, that perhaps even as a man he was so holy that he experienced only his closeness to God. To me that reduces the power of the story. A loving God, a caring God is not one who is exempt from the suffering all living beings share. A loving God is one who knows our suffering, and who suffers with us.

When we lay in a hospital bed scared and in pain in a hospital, when facing foreclosure on our family home, or when reeling from a betrayal by someone we loved and trusted, it is natural to feel that God has abandoned us. The story of the crucifixion offers a different perspective- that God is never separate from any part of this living world we share, even when it suffers.

As we noticed in the great forest ravaged by fire, new life follows suffering. Jungian Spiritual Director Don Bisson asserts “Suffering, death and resurrection is one mystery. Whenever you try and separate these mysteries, you miss the mysteries.” We know this cold long winter will someday turn into spring. In the Christian story, the crucifixion is followed by resurrection. What we don’t get to know is “why.” Science and our observation of nature show us “why” in a causal sense- we know what forces lead to a Tsunami, investigators discovered how those fires in Yellowstone were started. But theologically, this suffering will always be a mystery. We can imagine an alternate history, an alternate universe in which there are no deadly forces of nature, in which humans never betray or do violence to one another. Saying “suffering is a mystery” can sound like a cop-out. But I know that when I hear about a tragedy, my mind immediately protects itself from the reality of suffering by imagining I can defend myself from it: I take comfort in the fact that I live too far from the ocean for a tsunami to ever threaten my home, I lock my door, I buy homeowners insurance. We want to protect ourselves from the truth that suffering comes to all living beings, and we cannot control or predict it. This is what I mean when I say “suffering is a mystery.” It is easier to hold on to the idea that if I am only good enough, suffering will pass me by. But if we look at the lives of those we elevate as living truly good lives- Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, these are not lives free from suffering. These are folks who responded to suffering with transformative goodness.

Part of the question “Why do we suffer” is “how do we respond to suffering?” I believe the first thing we are called to do is to “stay awake” as Jesus asked his followers to do in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is really hard, whether it is our own suffering, or the suffering of others. But as Jungian psychology suggests, there is an enormous psychic cost to trying to escape our suffering. I imagine each of us in this room has events in our past that we’d rather not think about, memories too painful to examine. And so our psyches provide us with the useful coping mechanism of being able to repress, ignore, turn away from those memories. But I hope that each one of us has also had the experience of looking with courage at some painful memory, or dynamic in our life and found that when we did the energy for transformation, for new life was released. Some healing and growth and is only possible when we can stay awake to that pain. Not clinging to pain, not pushing it away, but just being able to stay awake in the presence of it.

Buddhist Activist Joanna Macy has devoted her life’s work to the belief that staying awake to suffering is necessary to the healing of the world. She writes “[pain] is inseparable from the currents of matter, energy, and information that flows through us and sustain us as interconnected open systems. We are not closed off from the world, but integral components of it, like cells in a larger body. When the body is traumatized, we sense that trauma, too. When it falters and sickens, we feel its pain. Whether we pay attention to it or not.”

This is what it means to be part of the interconnected web of life. When the mangrove trees are cut down to make room for shrimp farming, the coastline suffers. When the prairie dog is exterminated, dozens of other species suffer, even the soil suffers. Many Unitarian Universalists have had profound spiritual experiences in nature, feeling the beauty and peace of an old growth forest, feeling deeply connected in a numinous moment. But that very connection to nature opens us up to profound pain as well, when we see that forest ravaged by fire, or clear-cut by human hands. 

Macy continues: “That pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world. It is not only natural, it is an absolutely necessary component of our collective healing. As in all organisms, pain has a purpose;’ it is a warning signal, designed to trigger remedial action.” [Coming Back to Life p. 27]

For those of us who believe the divine is not separate from the world, that the spirit of life is present in every tree, every cricket, every human being, we know that God is part of the body of the earth as we are part of the body of the earth. This calls us to deepen our connection to the web of which we are a part, and to witness, to speak out, to call one another to action when we are aware of the suffering in any part of the web. That complicated recycling and composting system we’ve got in the other room- that is part of our response to the suffering of the earth. When this congregation hosted a water testing program so that we could test local creeks for changes on toxicity, that is part of our religious response to the suffering of the earth. When Maggie and Chris and Katie went down to Selma last weekend, it was because they wanted to witness to the suffering caused by racism that is also a part of this web of life.

One reason we start each service with Joys and Concerns, is because we know this beloved community must be able to hold our good news with sympathetic joy, and to hold our suffering with compassion. This is not always easy. When I hear about the death of someone in your family, maybe I am flooded with memories of the death of someone close to me. When I hear about your upcoming surgery, maybe I am frightened over my own health. When I hear about your pain, maybe I am struck by my helplessness to take your pain away. The very word “Compassion” comes from the root words meaning “to suffer together.” The more we are able to stay awake to our own suffering, the more we are able to be present to the suffering of others. Even when we can’t fix it or take it away, acknowledging the reality of suffering in the world helps us grow in our compassion for one another.

During this time of year when our Christian neighbors are celebrating Lent, let us not turn away from suffering. Even there in those hurting places the divine is present. Now when the muddy earth is just beginning to emerge under the melting snowpack of a long hard winter, remember that the spirit of life cannot be separated from the body of the earth, any more than we can. It can be found both in the joy and in the sorrow. And there even in the deepest suffering is the promise of growth and new life.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Platinum Rule (March 1, 2015)

I bet everyone has a story like this one my friend Teresa shared on Facebook. She wrote:

I made a special dinner for two friends who helped me move into an apartment. VERY special - lobster! My Jewish friend let me know he appreciated the thought....and we laughed through the entire dinner (he ate peanut butter)

All of us learned the “Golden Rule” at a young age, a rule that appears in different traditions all over the world, and in the Christian tradition is spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” [Mat 7:12]. But I think we have found the flaw in this golden rule. My favorite celebratory meal- lobster, might be a religious taboo to my guest. This is why the facilitator at our Intercultural Competancy training Beth Zemsky, suggested a platinum Rule: “do unto others as they would do/have done unto themselves”

As Unitarian Universalists, we value diversity in our congregations and in our world. But sometimes we don’t notice diversity when it is right in front of us -- much of the diversity in this congregation is invisible. This diversity can be seen not primarily in the color of our skin, or in the languages we speak, but it is real. We stumble across it in moments of miscommunication, or uncomfortable silences. Let’s go back to the example of our dietary diversity, because it is visible, and because we have really worked hard to raise our consciousness around that. Last night the Valley Vegan Supper Club had its 3rd gathering. I suspect part of the reason the supper club has been such a success, is because it balances out all the times vegans have attended potlucks in the valley and could pretty much only eat the dish they brought themselves.

Families and organizations that are not used to diverse dietary needs usually roll out their famous house specialty in honor of all their guests. But once you have seen one of your guests sit with an empty plate in front of them, you start to ask before they arrive “I’m making up the shopping list for your visit, any foods you like to avoid?” I recently visited some long lost relatives and was SO grateful they asked me that question, because as a guest it feels awkward to make demands on the folks who are already providing you with a place to stay and food to eat. Part of being a really skillful host, making guests feel at home, is not just to open your home to them, but to make them feel a little like they are in their own home. Take my friend Theresa --one time you serve lobster to your kosher friend is a hilarious miss-step. But if your friend has to watch you eat lobster while they make themselves a peanut butter sandwich every time they come to visit, it is going to be hard to follow the hostly injunction to “make yourself feel at home.”

Each and every one of us is different, but sometimes it only becomes visible because things don't work smoothly, or don't seem right. Things that never have to be looked at or spoken of suddenly don't work, and we don't know why. When “the way we do things around here” doesn’t seem to be working, that's how you know you are encountering difference.

I was attending a conference recently at a center that purported to have wifi, but maybe too many people were trying to use it or something, because I never got it to work. This was no problem for my friends with Smart phones, but for me it meant I couldn’t check my e-mail or go online for the duration of the conference. I ran into a colleague in the hallway who said “you haven’t answered that e-mail I sent you. Can you read it and get back to me today?” I started blankly at her and finally sputtered “I don’t have access to e-mail here, I think you are just going to have to ask me your question now.” My colleague assumed we had access to the same technology, until her attempt to communicate failed, and we had to figure out.

Technology is an easily visible example of how our differences sometimes keep us apart. You can’t open the minutes from the meeting, because you don’t have the right software. You can’t participate in the webinar because the website won’t open on your computer. You try to attend the meeting by skype but it crashes your computer and you spend the whole meeting trying to just get your computer to function again. Sometimes you power through and make it work, or find some kind of work-around, but sometimes navigating those differences is hard enough that you just don't participate. As far as I can tell, dealing with our very real technological diversity here at UUCAS is something we put a lot of care into. We still print out and stick our newsletter in the U S mail to our members who are not online. We learned how to use Skype for people who couldn’t make it to meetings in person, and have a conference call line for folks who can’t use Skype. Whereas Golden Rule invites us to say “I love having a paperless office, so I’m going to make sure everyone gets a digital copy of the minutes before the meeting” the Platinum rule invites us to ask “Can everyone open this document? Does anyone need me to print out a hard copy?” My colleagues have asked “how can you be a minister without a smart phone? Without being able to answer e-mail everywhere you go?” But I never feel like I let you down by not having a smart phone, because our community understands technological diversity. 

So there are two reason for us to think beyond the golden rule to a platinum rule. The first is practical- folks might not be able to participate if our community if it is not accessible to them. The other is more emotional. My dear friend said her mother-in-law never quite “got it” that she was a vegetarian. She would make the whole traditional thanksgiving turkey dinner, and figured the Brussel sprouts and mashed potatoes were plenty of food for her vegetarian daughter-in-law. Year after year this continued, and it started to really hurt their relationship, as my friend felt un-heard, unwelcomed by her mother-in-law. They stay home on thanksgiving now.

Because we are different and unique, each one of us, there is sometimes a gap between our “intent” and our “impact” on those around us. The “intent” of the host in our first story, was to offer the most generous, special celebratory meal she could think of- lobster. It sounds like her guest had a good sense of humor, and the impact was that he was able to appreciate her intent- to be generous, even as he watched them eating lobster while eating a peanut butter sandwich himself. But what if it had hurt his feelings? What if this was just the most recent in a long line of peanut butter sandwiches and he felt excluded and misunderstood? Just because someone doesn’t mean to hit you in the face with their carry-on luggage as they board the plane doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

Because we are so different and unique, churches are full of such mis-alignments of intent and impact. A newcomer to our congregation in Palo Alto who was confined to a wheelchair after a horrible accident could no longer attend the Buddhist fellowship of which he had been part of for many years because there were 25 steps leading up to the front door. His Buddhist congregation had not intended to exclude him, but the impact of their architecture was to exclude him completely. But we were not always as welcoming as we hoped to be either. As the 2nd Iraq war was threatening to begin, my congregation was very active in the peace movement, expressing our collective desire to avert another war. A military family pulled me aside one day and asked if they were truly welcome. Some of our anti-war rhetoric made them feel like Unitarian Universalists didn’t care about our Service Men and Women. My heart broke to hear it. It had never occurred to the peace activists, myself included, that our actions for peace would make one of our own families feel unwelcome.

How we handle these gaps between intent and impact will make a big difference in how welcoming we really are as a congregation. The tools for handling these gaps are the same whether we unthinkingly put “just a little bit” of flour in the diner we made for our gluten-intolerant friend, or used the wrong pro-noun for a transgender member, or made one of a million other faux pas that have the unintended impact of making people feel unwelcome. Comedian Hari Kondabolu told this story as during one of his shows:
I was at a party last week and this guy came up to me and he was like:
"Hey Man, where are you from"
So I told him- "Queens NY"
"No, I mean, where are you really from"
Which for those of you who don’t know, that’s code for “No, I mean, why aren’t you white? I noticed your skin was a different color from mine”
I was offended, clearly

I’m assuming that party guest hadn’t intended to offend, he was probably just expressing his curiosity. But the impact on our comedian was quite different from what he intended.

 So what do you do when you realize you’ve asked the stupid question, or when you realize your guest is kosher and you have served him a lobster? First, you state your intention “I had intended to show you my gratitude by serving the most fancy thing I could think of." Second, try to slow down your “knee Jerk” defense response. It would be easy to think to yourself “they have no right to be upset, I did the best I could!” but if you can just silence that impulse for a moment, they you can give them a chance to share the impact on them. I asked some of my vegan friends to tell me about their dinner-guest challenges. Most of them replied with some variation on the theme of “I’m used to it. The important thing is to spend time with friends.” But we have to be ready for someone to say “There are no alternative protein sources at this retreat center and I’m literally starting to have trouble functioning!”  

Now here’s the tricky part. Our friend may reply with more anger here than really this situation alone deserves. Let’s take your transgender neighbor whom you called by his former name just this one time. If he responds with anger, remember that anger comes from not just this moment, but from every other person who calls him by the wrong name, uses the wrong pronouns, refuses to see him as he really is. Our mistake was relatively small, but it touched a nerve where he has a deep wellspring of hurt. What a gift you could give to just listen. Probably the first time someone asked Hari where he was from, “really” from, it wasn’t that big a deal, but as it happens again and again, compounded with all the other cultural obstacles people of color face in this country, it touches a very sore place.

While our friends are sharing the impact, we are listening empathically, trying to understand now they feel, rather than arguing or explaining or excusing ourselves. Then both parties can share information and be open to new information. If you can stay in this conversation and really listen, the next time your friend comes to dinner you will understand a little better what makes him feel truly at home. Maybe he has some favorite recipes that will become your favorite too. This is the most profound gift and the most profound challenge of being truly welcoming; if, when we encounter difference, we stick with it through the embarrassing fails, through the emotions and the tough conversations, it will change us. We will grow not only in our hospitality, but in our deeper and wider understanding of this world we share. 

This congregation is more diverse then we might guess at first glance- economically, politically. We are different ages, different sexual orientations. It is especially impressive how diverse we are theologically, considering we are all one faith community. We are Theists, and atheists, we are Jewish and Christian and pagan. Some of us grew up in a faith community, and for some of us this is our very first faith community. As Universalists, we like to focus on what we all have in common, our inherent worth and dignity, our humanity. But as part of a free and responsible search for truth and meeting we will encounter our differences to. Be proud that not everyone in this congregation voted the same in the last presidential election. Be proud that last year a 2nd amendment rights activist and a die-hard pacifist both spoke about gun violence from this same pulpit. I know that it is hard to say something when you think it is not the majority opinion of the community. But in this world where your search engine gives you the information it thinks you want to hear, where even the news channels are partisan, coming to a church where you might hear something you don’t believe is important for the healing of the world. I encourage each of you to be brave and say the true thing that is in your heart. And just as important, if you hear someone say something that is the absolute opposite of what you believe, to say “I have never thought about things that way. Help me understand.”

This is what it really means to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” – to affirm not only the common ground among us, but our differences too. In the words of Rebecca Parker, “Love seeks to know the other as other and to preserve and protect the just so ness, the "otherness" of the other.” The Golden rule helps us remember that all of us have the same basic needs for food and shelter and safety, to love and be loved. But in this world of tremendous diversity, and among the diversity of this our beloved community let’s also remember the Platinum Rule: “do unto others as they would do unto themselves.”