Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Scarcity and Abundance; Dreams and Reality: A Midlife Reflection

Over the past year, I have been doing a lot of reflection on scarcity and abundance, doing what I love and doing what I have to do.  Can I make money doing the things I am good at doing, the things my education and experience have shaped me to do?  I think this article from December 2013 captures well some of my own feelings and reflections.  The article discusses the choice made by two people out of college - one to pursue calling and one to pursue money.  I want to believe that we can have both and yet my experience is that I choose calling and have followed calling and yet the result of that has been a constant struggle financially.  Now I want to be financially stable, I want a few nice things in life.  I want to provide a life of financial security for my family. So I find myself asking the question how do I make money given my education and work history.

I have also been reflecting on the experience of scarcity, both real and imagined.  Over the past year I have experienced real moments of scarcity.  Real moments of how am I going to survive this?  All the things about short term thinking, making short term decisions without looking at the long haul are true.  Yet the culture assumes that if we change the thinking we will change the circumstances. So we think the poor make poor choices so let's have them make different choices.  Yet if we have done nothing to address their scarcity, the very real reality of scarcity in their lives, the very real lack of options and choices then all they are left with is making decisions to get through the current moment.  If there is not enough money for rent and food, there also won't be any money to save. Telling a poor person "to pay themselves first" a common piece of advice from financial gurus is ridiculous.  Saving cannot be the priority when food and shelter are at risk.  When you live with scarcity and survival mode long enough, it just becomes your default even if the situation doesn't warrant it.

So what about dreams and doing what you love.  I think this article capture well the falseness of these claims.  We can't all do what we love and sometimes dreams die.  I know I was raised with the belief that I could do whatever I want.  No I couldn't and as I get older the options for what I can do become even fewer. I have made choices, some beautiful and amazing choices that I wouldn't change for the world, and some that I might like an opportunity to do differently yet for better or for worse they are the choices I have made.  The questions now are what are my options, given my life circumstances, my skills, my education and from that what can I create.

Some have followed all the rules, did all the right things and are now among the used to haves.  How many used to haves are in our faith communities?  How many are hiding in plain site among us? We don't talk much about these people. College educated, corporate experience that are now discarded, barely making it.  We talk about the 1% and we talk about the poor.  What about these people?  As a white educated person from an upper middle class upbringing, their stories scare me the most.  This isn't supposed to happen to people like me.  Are they hiding in our UU congregations?  Do they include our ministers or religious educators?  Do we know their stories? Is shame and anger keeping them away?  They too live with scarcity coupled with the knowledge that they once had abundance - maybe not 1% abundance but abundance.

What are your experiences of scarcity and abundance?  What dreams have you had to let die?  How did you move forward?  Do you know a story of "used to have"?   Which roommate are you - looking for meaning in mid-life or looking for financial security? 

Can we break our silence so we can make true one of the affirmations of our UU faith - 
"you don't have to do it alone"?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Easter: Looking at Resurrection Anew

I preached this sermon on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story for All Ages: The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williamsadapted
Reading: Matthew 28: 1-8 and Luke 24: 1-12

Happy Easter!  Today marks the most holy day of the Christian calendar, the day in which Christians believe that after being arrested and put to death, Jesus arose from the dead.  Depending on the Christian and the Christian community, it might be literally that Jesus rose body and spirit from the tomb; for others Jesus spirit arose; many probably don’t know what they believe about what happened in that tomb; in fact the diversity of what “Christians” believe about the Resurrection is similar to the diversity of beliefs within this community.

The stories we have just heard from the various gospel accounts tell us that the women went to the Tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, to mourn the loss of one they loved so much, and much to their surprise his body is not there.  They are told to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them.  Later accounts in the Gospels and in the book of Acts describe the disciples’ encounters with the risen Jesus.  They describe them walking with him along the road; sharing a meal and breaking bread; visiting them in an upper room.  Sometimes they recognized him immediately and other times it was not until well into the encounter.  Mary Magdalene is called the Apostle to the Apostles because it is she who delivers the news that Jesus is risen and where they can find him.

No one knows for sure what happened, no one knows what the women and other disciples saw.  There was no video camera in the tomb.  No one recorded their accounts.  Whatever it was they experienced however transformed their lives.  It led them to continue to spread Jesus’ message of love.  Out of it came first a sect within Judaism of Jesus followers. Later, much later, an entire separate religion with the blessing of the Roman Empire emerges becoming over time what we know as Christianity.

Early American Unitarians and Universalists wrestled with Scripture. They wrestled with its meaning, how to understand it.  William Ellery Channing in his famous sermon in Baltimore, which articulated Unitarian Christianity for one of the first times publicly,  stated “We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. In addition to the remarks now made on its infinite connexions, we may observe, that its style nowhere affects the precision of science, or the accuracy of definition. Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment. -- We find, too, that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.”  Channing took the Bible seriously but not literally and challenged his opponents that reason was essential to understanding Scripture.  This was true of all our Unitarian and Universalist founders even though they did not all agree with each other.

Just as there is disagreement today among the many different Christianities, there was disagreement among early American Unitarians about the nature of Jesus and the Resurrection.  Channing while rejecting the full equality of Jesus with God the Father held onto the miracles, the Resurrection stories and that Jesus was in some way uniquely divine.  Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson on the other hand rejected the miracles, the Resurrection and the Divinity of Jesus.  For Emerson, Jesus’ represented the best of humanity, sent to show us what it meant to live a life of virtue and as a child of God.

On the Universalist side, Jesus’ death and resurrection was a basis for their belief in universal salvation. Jesus died that all might be saved.  The love of the Divine excluded no one.  That was the message of radical love of the Universalists – that all of us, each of us were saved.

Yet both the Unitarians and Universalists found deep truth and wisdom in the Christian stories. It would be all too easy for us to just ignore the Resurrection stories. To insist that they are just that stories, with no relevance to our lives.  Is that really true?  Have we not had resurrection moments in our lives? Yet then we also dismiss the stories of those early followers, their experience of profound transformation that continues to have meaning and value, in age after age.

Let us begin with what the word resurrection means. It means the act of causing something that had ended or been forgotten or lost to exist again.  Something that has ended or forgotten exists again.  The disciples had lost Jesus and somehow they found him to exist again.  In what way we can’t say for sure but the fact that their story survived and others found transformation, hope and faith in those stories indicates that something profound happened. So let’s begin that for the disciples and the early Jesus followers there was something that had ended that came to exist again. Something so powerful that they were willing to risk their lives – for Rome prior to Constantine was not in favor of these Jesus followers. After all they were following a man Rome had executed for treason - a man who they believed was a threat to Roman peace and reign.

Rev. Bruce Epperly who I knew as a campus minister and professor at Georgetown, writes this about the Resurrection: “While we can’t literalize the gospel stories, the recognition that Jesus was recognized by his followers and known by his wounds points to a continuity of his post- resurrection body with his pre-resurrection body.   Such events are possible in a lively, dynamic universe, and are surely no more marvelous than invoking the big bang as the first moment of our universe. How can one not be amazed to recognize that from a microcosmic energy event a universe of 125 billion, and counting, galaxies emerged? All is natural, yet all amazing, mysterious, and beyond our imaginations. “

There is wisdom here in Bruce’s words.  We do not yet know or understand all the mysteries of the universe.  It is just as amazing to imagine that out of one singular event the galaxies and universes began and evolved in such a way to support life as we currently experience it. Isn’t just the fact that we exist at all a miracle?  It reminds me of the Peter Mayer song, Everything is Holy Now.  Is resurrection so out of the question when we think about how life in all of its beauty and diversity surrounds us?

So is there something in here for us Unitarian Universalists?  In what ways in your own life have you experienced resurrection?  Have you ever lost someone you loved so much, and you thought the grief would never end, that the sadness was almost too much to bear?  Yet then over time, with healing, you found yourself coming back?  You were still sad but you could laugh again.  You were sad but you found that instead of the person’s memory bringing pain, it brought joy of remembrance?  Maybe it wasn’t a person but an event that was devastating.  At the time, it felt like life would never be right again. Again though with time, life renewed.  The wheel of life turned.  Almost without you knowing how, there was joy again. Maybe you re-discovered something you loved doing and had stopped. Maybe a person you lost touch with re-entered your life.  Maybe a lost dream got revitalized in a new way.  All of these are ways we experience resurrection. What was lost, what was forgotten comes back. It is different and the same. Much like the flowers in spring which come back – they are not the same exact flowers but we count on those daffodils to start pushing their way up and out – year after year without us doing much other than the initial planting.  They remind us that life continues.  Spring follows winter and then summer and then fall until we return again to the sparse bareness of winter. Creation demonstrates resurrection!

Maybe another way to think about it is in our story this morning.  The Velveteen Rabbit asks what it takes to be Real.  He learns it takes a long time, that it hurts, that it means having your fur rubbed off but that you don’t mind.  Isn’t it true?  How becoming real, becoming ourselves takes a long time, that it hurts, that we may lose our external beauty.  How many remember an object like the Velveteen Rabbit? How many of us as parents have searched for that beloved lost object – the panic that it is gone and the joy that returns when what has been lost is found.  How many of us remember as children the urgency of having that one particular object to sleep with? That no other would do.  That it could not just be replaced.  Yet when it was found, a moment of resurrection!  This story speaks of the transformative power of love, of its ability to make something real.  In our lives too, our true selves are shaped by love – the love we show ourselves and the love others give to us.  On that early morning of the first day of the week, those who had been loved, loved for who they deeply and truly were by a man named Jesus went to his tomb to mourn, to show their respect, to show their love to one who had loved them so much and he was not there.  Something happened, something so transformative that 2000 years later we are still telling their story.  What does their story have to teach us?  What does their story have to do with our story?  That love wins!   That while those we love may die, they are never truly lost to us!  That the universe is filled with wonder and mystery!  That resurrection moments never erase the wounds we carry but instead allow us to integrate them so that we become more of who we are! That love makes us real!

May it be so!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Living into Covenant: Sharing our Abundance

This is a sermon I preached at the UU Congregation of the Outer Banks on Sunday April 6, 2014.  The text was an adaptation of Stone Soup - which I used shells instead of stones given our location here on the Outer Banks.  We also used "I Call That Church Free," reading #591 in Singing the Living Tradition by James Luther Adams.

During March, I led a two-session orientation to Unitarian Universalism.  It was an opportunity for people, both those who have been around for quite some time and those who have come along more recently, to learn more about Unitarian Universalism, its history and what it means to be a member.  At the very heart of our faith is covenant.  Here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks, we bind ourselves to the covenant that was created and voted on by the members of this community.  Each time someone walks through those doors, we invite them into covenant and we have expectations that those who enter here respect our covenant – even before they formally sign the book.  To be invited into covenant means that each individual makes a commitment to live in covenant with one another.  It does not mean we will all do it perfectly all the time. It means we will fail, we will have to say we are sorry, we will need to forgive.  To live in covenantal religious community is to live up to high expectations and promises. It is here that James Luther Adams believed that people learned to resist injustice, to speak out against what is wrong.

Our reading this morning is from James Luther Adams.  Adams was a Unitarian Universalist minister and professor. He taught ethics at Harvard, Andover Newton and Meadville Lombard.  Adams had spent time in Germany during Hitler’s rule. He worked with the Underground Church in Germany.  Adams wanted a liberal religion that could stand up to the horror of fascism and the Holocaust.  He called upon Unitarian Universalists to recognize both the blessing that human beings can be in the world and the evil that we can do.  He felt that it was within voluntary communities, like this one, where we could learn to speak out against injustice in the larger world. That our faith communities would be places that promoted healing of one another and spoke out against injustice; it is here that we learn to be both priests – those who bring healing to a hurting world, and prophets – those who speak the truth to power in love.

Covenant is not unique to Unitarian Universalists.  The idea of covenant goes back to the Hebrew Scriptures.  God called the Israelite people into covenant. He promised to be faithful to them, he promised to always be there and the people in return were called to be faithful to God and to treat one another justly. The whole of the law of the Jewish people can be summed up as to love God and love each other as you love yourself.  The Golden Rule!  The people of Israel often broke the covenant – sometimes by worshipping other Gods, most often by treating others poorly; for God judged the people by how they treated the most vulnerable among them – the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan. God remains faithful even as the people do not. Yet again and again the people are called back into covenant, the covenant is renewed and there is the opportunity to begin again.

Unitarian Universalist covenant began with the Puritans as they stepped onto the shores of this new country. They pledged each other their mutual support and mutual accountability.  Our seven principles and six sources are the covenant that each Unitarian Universalist congregation makes with every other UU congregation.  They are a promise of how we will be together as a movement, as a faith.  They are not static and in fact we pledge to review this covenant every fifteen years to remind us that revelation – knowledge – is always on-going, always open.  A key tenant of our liberal religious faith is that revelation is never sealed – that truth, beauty, the holy are always revealing something new.  Another way to say it is that creation is not a one-time event, but an on-going event.

The UUCOB covenant echoes that of the UUA covenant.  We affirm freedom, love and reason in religion. We promise to come together knowing we are stronger together than apart. We come together to learn, to be inspired and to face the deep needs in our community and world.  We affirm that we can achieve our goals even if we do not agree on all that we believe. We can be a community of diverse beliefs – theist, humanist, follower of Jesus, a Buddhist, pagan – a wide range of beliefs and spiritual practices yet we come together in this free liberal religious home to learn from one another, to help one another, to inspire one another and to transform the world.  We welcome all people especially those that have been marginalized. We strive to be a place that practices radical hospitality.   We dedicate our time, our gifts and our financial means to the support of this community.

For without the members and friends of this community, there is no community. It is because of the generosity of the friends and members of this community that worship happens every Sunday, that this beautiful building was built and will not in the too distant future be fully paid for.  It is by the generosity and abundance of this community that I am here with you, that coffee gets made and cleaned up, that a newsletter goes out, a web site is maintained, that people are welcomed as they come in the door. That our grounds are cared for, the plants tended, the building cleaned.  That this campus can also be shared by other groups and organizations.  It is the generosity of this community that makes possible all that happens here.  There is great abundance here!  As affirmed in the covenant “We commit ourselves to an organized religious community, recognizing the greater effectiveness of common effort.”

James Luther Adams taught that the Unitarian Universalists were an optimistic, hopeful people because we affirm that the resources – both human and divine - are available for the achievement of meaningful change. The resources are available and we have reason to hope.

Just like in our story this morning, there is reason to hope. There is reason to trust in the abundance present here in this community!  Just like in our story we do not rely on one person to feed the many, we all come together to make sure all are fed. All ate like kings, because they pooled their resources. You as a congregation know this – you affirm it in your covenant –your collective effort is greater than what you can on your own.

There is deep abundance here.  From the leaders who step up to serve on the Board.  To the Program Committee and lay leaders who plan and create worship each and every Sunday.  To your pastoral care team, that cares so deeply about the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people in this community. To your buildings and grounds volunteers who make sure the grass is mowed, the light bulbs are replaced, the plants are tended and the building is clean.  To your membership stewards and sextons who welcome people at the door, invite our visitors to come back, set up and clean up the coffee each Sunday. To our Treasurer who makes sure the offering is collected, the money deposited and keeps the books. To those who make possible events like the Chocolate Auction, game night and the concerts.  To those who take action for the most vulnerable in our community – bringing food for the food pantry, giving of their time to local organizations, to sharing our plate each week with a local organization so they can keep meeting the deep needs in this community.

In a few moments we will welcome any new members who wish to join. Also all of us – members, friends and visitors will say the words of the UUCOB covenant. Members and friends will re-commit themselves to the well-being of this faith community.  This month we kick off our annual pledge campaign.  The pledge campaign is where all members and friends are asked to pledge, to promise, a certain amount of money to be given to this faith community.  It is through the generosity of this community that the budget is met.  It is the member and friends that make the work of this community happen and continue.  We are the ones we are waiting for – there is no one else.

So I invite you to remember the story of Shell Soup.  That through the generosity of everyone a feast was created.  I invite you to remember our covenant and to pledge yourself to live into more deeply.  I invite you to give generously; to believe in your own abundance and of the other members of this community.  As you re-commit yourself to this community through your words, your time and your resources; I ask you to reflect on what this community has meant in your life and to imagine all those gifts being shared even more broadly because of the commitments that each of us makes during this pledge season. Your pledge is an act of faith, of faith in this community; your trust and love of this community, it is an act that affirms that truly we are more effective together than apart.

So today we celebrate being people of covenant, people of promise.  We celebrate our abundance and our willingness to share!  We celebrate being both healers and truth speakers!  We celebrate gathering together in this community for the well-being of each of us and for a world that so needs our healing and help!

Blessed Be!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Same As It Never Was

The title of this post comes from the television show Ghost Whisperer and it was the name of Melinda Gordon's antique shop.  I always loved that name because while we will say "Hindsight is 20/20" all too frequently we romanticize the past and long to go back to a better, simpler time.

I recently saw this video from Youtube. and it does exactly that!  It is addressed to those of who were born in the 50's, 60's and 70's and begins with the assertion that according to today's standards we would never have survived.  It looks back longingly to these carefree and wonderful days where children ran around outside from dawn to dusk, adults, particularly teachers and police were treated with respect and life was just grand filled with personal responsibility and resilient children and adults. So what is the problem?

Well let's begin with who is pictured in the video - there are exactly seven African-American children in the video. The fact that I had to stop and count them (because at first, I didn't see any) and in only one brief shot is there white children appearing with children of color.  I did not see any other children of color.  So the first observation is that maybe this was the reality if you were a white child in a certain economic class.

So when I was growing in suburban California I can relate to much of this.  Certainly, I played outside and was allowed to go by myself to neighbor's homes.  Yet I had to tell my mom where I was and there was an area I was expected to stay within. I agree with the sentiment behind this that children don't just get to play outside in their neighborhoods much these days. With two parents working, there is a needed for structured, supervised places so parents know that someone is around to patch up those skinned knees.  Of course, I guess we leave out the part about latch key children who went home every afternoon to an empty house. Now maybe for some kids that taught resiliency, discipline, and self-reliance. They got their homework done, they started dinner and still had time to play.  Maybe. Maybe for other children, it was lonely and sometimes scary.  Maybe for others, it was the perfect opportunity to get into lots of trouble.

Now let's talk about education.  One line stands out for me, you would be held back a grade if you didn't make it.  Did anyone talk to those kids who were held back? How they were made fun of?  I remember that if you were held back that child was assumed to be "dumb." Also at certain points, they would not hold you back, they would just pass you along. My mother student taught in the '80s and she saw first hand the amount of passing along that went on.  That would give rise to another blog post about the problems of education based on your age instead of abilities, interests or any other criteria.  Maybe we need to re-think the one-room schoolhouse - then there would be no "holding back" simply finding your own pace.

It also references respect for police and authority.  Notice that all the authority figures in the video are white. If you are white then the system works for you - police will take your police report, they believe you when you speak, you are not subject to "stop and frisk." Let's remember other images from this period - like this one of the police turning dogs and police hoses on African American children for their civil rights.  Let's remember that for the vast majority of the civil rights activists killed or injured, no one was ever convicted of harming them.

Also ironically the critique in this video that we have lost something essential was created by the same people this video pictures. In other words, the very children portrayed in this video are the ones that grew up to be the parents of today, folks my age.  We the members of the Baby Boomers and Gen X and early Millenials are the ones who have created a world where children are in structured activities from birth on; that everyone makes the team; no one is held back; parents argue with teachers and police rather than blindly backing them up. The issues of parenting from one generation to another are complicated and perhaps worth further discussion in another blog post for another day.

So while it is easy to sit back and say "Yeah, those were the days" it is not honest or truthful. The '50s had the greatest economic growth with access to the middle class at least for those who were white, Jim Crow, suburban flight and urban sprawl. In the '60s people changed things through Civil Rights movements throughout the nation and then we had the Vietnam War; we also watched great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.murdered. In the '70swhen there were urban riots, gangs, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the gasoline shortage and let's not forget Watergate. The truth is as one who could have been a child portrayed in this video, my memory of the era of my childhood is not so idyllic and certainly not as ethical as described in the video.

Nostalgia is dangerous because it makes it seem if we just went back to the way things were our problems would be solved.  While we say hindsight is 20/20, it isn't always. Too often we look to the past with rose-colored glasses only selectively remembering.

We do this in our faith communities as well.  I have been part of congregations who think longingly of another era with overflow on Sunday mornings, religious education classes that were full, enough money that we didn't have to work too hard for. They remember a faith community that never was or they are blind to why if the numbers were higher at another time why that ended.  Change is constant, the question is will we will looking longingly back, missing the "good old days" or will we realize it is a new time with new challenges and will we adapt what we are doing to meet the demands of a new age.  The past can be a good teacher but it is a poor master.  We may be doomed to repeat the past if we forget it but we are also doomed to remain stuck if we look only to the past and seek to bring it back.

So let us learn from the past and yet keep moving forward, learning new things as we go!