Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: An End of the Year Reflection

So I have blogged more in 2013 than any year since I began in 2010.  I created a much more disciplined practice of posting at least once a week.  As I look over my posts for 2013 I shared a great deal of my spiritual and vocational journey here.  Not shocking that those two labels were the most common.  Since I left my position at the congregation in March I have been seeking and living into what is next for me.

As I start 2014 I begin two new adventures.  I will be serving as the Consulting Minister for the UU Congregation of the Outer Banks and I will be an Adjunct Instructor for the Prince William Sound Community College.  Finally after months of seeking I have two new part time positions that I am excited about.  I will get the chance to stretch my congregationally based ministry skills at UUCOB and my teaching skills teaching Religion and Popular Culture.  In a good way it is both exciting and terrifying. I know that both positions will be pushing me further out of comfort zone while also honing skills I have mastered.

In an interesting way though the search continues.  Both jobs are part-time and time-limited so discernment will continue. I think this is the way we will all have to be thinking about our careers, that we must always be in discernment about whether it continues to be a good fit and if a particular job ends, where will we look for what is next. It is an interesting balance to both deep dive into what is right here, right now while noticing what is on the horizon with the hope that past, present and future will somehow meld into opportunities as yet unseen.

I continue to be inspired by Parker Palmer.  In particular I continue to learn to listen to both where the path opens and where it closes.  It was clear that a path that opened to a new full time job with one organization was closed at least for now and that a path to a more entrepreneurial, portfolio career of putting many part time things together opened.    I am blessed that the part-time opportunities that opened for me were in my field, will stretch me, and replace my take-home pay from my previous full time position.  For so many others, far too many, are forced to put together part-time jobs far from their dreams and from the income they need to survive.

This year has been challenging on so many levels.  There was a great deal of grief from leaving my former position.  There has been the feeling of being lost and searching and not finding much.  There has been financial scarcity and the accompanying stress and fear.  There have been far too many dark nights and I am grateful for the friends who listened and loved me, my spouse and daughter who loved me through them and the help of medication that pulled me out of the darkest corners.  There has also been deep joy.  I have met so many interesting people this year through my networking. I have discovered organizations doing amazing work.  I have developed a deeper love of writing and posting to this blog.  I had the privilege to work with Dave Kaiser, who is an amazing coach!  I had the opportunity to participate in the Choice Center Discovery and Breakthrough weekends where I met 50+ amazing souls, was pushed way outside my comfort zone and found ways to conquer my fear.  I am closer to my sister and her family. I have longed to have a closer relationship with her and it is developing.  I also have been reaching out to my niece who like my daughter is an amazing young woman.  I have been the recipient of amazing generosity from both expected and unexpected places.

So as much as on one level I am ready to kick 2013 out the door, on the other I want to honor the many gifts and blessings of this year.  It was not all bad and it was not all good.  I have been changed profoundly by the events of this year.

My hopes as I go into 2014 is that I find balance and abundance.  That I push myself to read more, learn more, to feed my creative side even more through drawing, through writing.  I want to keep writing and maybe even attempt a book.   Maybe 2014 is the year I actually do the NaNo write. That the new professional opportunities that I am beginning will be fruitful, both for those I will be serving and for me. That as I embark on these new ministries, my professional life will blossom leading to greater and even deeper ministry. My deepest hope for 2014 is for abundance. Yes abundance on a material level, but also spiritual and emotional abundance.  I want to have a deep, full well from which to give and serve others.  My hope for this blog is that it will continue to spread.  That more of you will interact and comment, make suggestions, offer your feedback, share my posts (hint, hint).  Oh, and I certainly look forward to quite a few walks on the beaches in the beautiful Outer Banks of North Carolina. May you find your own slice of beauty in 2014.

What are your thoughts as we close out 2013?  What were its gifts?  What about challenges? 
 What are your deep hopes for the start of this new year 2014?

May you bring forward the very best of 2013 into the new year and 
may your New Year be filled with the deepest of blessings!

See you next year!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Religious and Spiritual Humility

Earlier this year I read this article on When White People Don't Know They're Being White.  The author is a white Christian and she talks about the importance of cultural humility rather than cultural competency. It is a place where people can make mistakes and keep learning.  As I was reflecting on the article, I thought about the need for humility in so many areas of life, but in particular I wanted to talk about Religious and Spiritual humility.

As I read the news, particularly the latest about the Duck Dynasty star's racist and homophobic comments, that seem to boil down to a lack of humility about one's faith and belief.  There seems to be this understanding that in order for my faith, my beliefs to be right, everyone's faith and belief must be like mine. For if I were to allow for the possibility that other faiths, other religions, other cultures, have wisdom, beauty and truth, then mine might be wrong, I might be wrong.  We seem to need to be right, more than we need to be in relationship with one another.

And this is not just a fault of the conservative right, they just seem to have a very noisy voice in our public square.  Yet I have found this same arrogance, this same lack of humility in the liberal religious, spiritual circles that I inhabit.  I have heard and cringed at the comments that express how much more enlightened, welcoming, justice seeking we are than our conservative counterpoints.  Some atheists have claimed reason as their own, dismissing all people of faith and their belief in a force beyond ourselves as unreasonable and bound to believing in six impossible things before breakfast.  I have read articles like this one, that no part of science is based on any kind of faith and that to be a person of science and faith is an anathema.

Some express this arrogance as a desire to reduce all the religion and spirituality down to some simple truths like the Golden Rule.  Yet part of the beauty of the diversity of the world's religions and spiritualities is that they are in fact different. I do think that finding commonalities is an important piece of building tolerance and understanding, yet it is only a first step. This distilling down of diversity to a few simple universal truths, allows me to stay comfortably where I am and not be deeply challenged.  While it may produce a certain level of tolerance on my part, it will never generate deep respect, nor understanding and it is far from love. Spiritual humility calls upon us to accept that we may not have all the answers, that we might be wrong.

In Unitarian Universalist circles, I see two ways this religious arrogance operates.  The first is in the how much more enlightened we are then those in other religions, particularly Christianity. There is still far too much "anything but Christian" among us even as acceptance of theism, the language of reverence and an embrace of ritual has become common in our communities.  Secondly, it is this notion that because in our six sources we embrace the truth of the world's religions, that somehow we are uniquely and best suited to lead interfaith/multi-faith work.  Again, it is not enough to just assume all religions boil down to the same universal truth and just because we embrace all these perspectives does not mean that we are fluent in them all.  Also affirming that there is wisdom and truth to be found in the world's religions does not give us the right to decide to appropriate rituals and holidays of particular religions for our own uses, or that somehow we can bring a reasoned faith to lead multi-faith efforts.

Now this is not to say that UUs cannot do multi-faith work - many UUs do such work every day.  The work they do is grounded and powerful.  Yet anyone who has ever engaged in multi-faith work knows it requires deep humility.  It requires that first I understand myself and my own faith. I have to first know deeply who I am and who I belong to as a person of faith and then I have to listen deeply.  It is humble work. We have to acknowledge that despite our embrace of the world's religions, there is no way we can be deeply competent in the faith, beliefs, practices and customs of all those religions.  We must begin with "we don't know."  From this unknowing, can be the beginning of deep wisdom, deep respect and deep love. When I can accept that openness to other traditions does not equal knowledge or experience of that tradition, then I can begin to walk with another in the work of discovering our unique journeys and traditions ... that requires humility.

Being humble doesn't mean that I have to minimize or reject my own faith, my own sense of the holy, what I know or who I am or that I lack conviction.  Rather humility means that I say "I don't know it all" and that my experience is not everyone's experience. It is really letting go of the need to be right. It is being able to allow for the possibility that another perspective, another faith, another person might also have access to the holy, to beauty, to truth. In the multi-faith work that I continue to do, I am always struck by how much deeper my own faith becomes when I really listen to another's experience of their own faith without trying to translate it into my own experience or immediately dismiss their experience. It is certainly important to acknowledge where our faith leads us to different conclusions, different values but if we do so with humility then perhaps we can stop becoming such threats to each other and find the holy between us.

Spiritual and religious humility, one might say any humility, is sadly lacking. In our need to have good and bad, right and wrong, we seem not be able to hold paradox, to hold that there may be more than one way, more than one good, more than one truth.  Maybe at this point, nature has something to show us, just as we turn the corner to the return of the sun, of more light and the promise of spring and summer, winter begins here in the northern hemisphere.  A deep paradox holds, just as the days begin ever so slowly to get longer, we will experience the cold of winter (well theoretically anyway as I sit writing this in 70+ degree weather). Spring and summer will still feel a long way off as we deal with rain and snow, layers of clothing to stay warm - coats, scarves and gloves.  Yet nature tells us that slowly but surely spring is making its way here. Slowly the sun will come to warm the air.  As we embrace the practice of spiritual humility, let's embrace the paradox of knowing and holding to our own sense of faith, our own experience of the holy while making room for others to hold different beliefs, different experiences.  May we open ourselves to seeking not to know but to understand, respect and love those differences.  May we embrace our unknowingness and learn to live easily with it.

May you and those you hold dear experience blessing during this rich season of holidays!  Blessed Be!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Importance of Gifts

I want you to think of a gift that you have received. This gift should be a material item that someone picked out and purchased for you.  It could have been to mark a birthday or other holiday.  Not an engagement ring - that is different.  This is a gift, you know, with wrapping and everything.  Make it one of the best gifts you have ever received.  Were you a child?  Youth?  Adult?  Who gave it to you?  Why is this gift one of the best you have ever received?

Don't worry I'll still be here once you have that gift in mind.

Okay, now hold onto that feeling and that gift as you read the rest of this.  My spouse, Donna, is one of the best gift-givers I know.  She just has this way of really listening and paying attention to what people around her would like.  Over our nineteen years together she has given me a number of amazing gifts. Some have been practical, like the perfect sweater.  Some have been utterly frivolous like a dozen flowers or earrings that she knew I really wanted.  She buys me the best earrings...not too heavy, perfect colors, just what I like.

This is a tremendous gift and one unfortunately that I don't possess in nearly the quantity I wish I did.  I have had some outstanding moments like when I found the Beatles Rock Band guitar at a price we could afford or the fountain pen I bought her at a time when we had more income.

This time of year, maybe more than any other, shopping and gifts are all around us whether or not we are Christian and whether or not we celebrate Christmas.  Sometimes even those choose not to celebrate are forced into compulsory gift giving - like at their child's school or the office.  I think this is why so many hate the emphasis on shopping and buying this season. For some, gift giving is no longer a freely given expression from the heart but rather an expectation.

There is another phenomenon I have come up against in the last few years particularly in Unitarian Universalist and other progressive circles. It is this disdain of gift giving.  I have sat in a room with people that have said "well we are not exchanging gifts this year and I am so glad.  There is nothing we need."  They say this oblivious to the obvious privilege that statement expresses.  There is nothing I need.  In a world filled with people, most of whom are hidden from sight, that live with less than what they need every day it is only from a place of enormous privilege that one can say "there is nothing I need."  Even worse than that though is this disdain of gift giving or only wanting hand made gifts. What does that say to those who don't have everything they need?  Maybe Christmas is that one time of year when extravagance is permitted.  What about those who do not have the time or inclination for home-made gifts?

I love gifts.  Some of my fondest Christmas season memories are going to the shopping mall with my parents and buying gifts. I loved thinking about the perfect gift for a person. I loved being in the mall, with the people, with all the decorations, the Christmas music. In my family, children always created lists and letters to Santa. I loved this annual ritual.  Well into our teens and even today my family will ask for lists for Christmas.  It is that desire to give the perfect gift. Maybe because my family did do lists and everyone created one, I am not as a creative as my wife in thinking about gifts. In my family, you asked for what you wanted, you didn't always get it, but it was the time of year to ask.

So when I hear this disdainful attitude, this superiority about not shopping, avoiding malls like the plague, it makes me sad and angry.  It seems to me that because they cannot see the joy or the value then it must not have any. In an effort to point out the problems with consumption, we seem disgusted with those who head to the mall during the Christmas holiday or disdain shopping at Walmart and don't understand why anyone would shop there.  It is an attitude that can make Unitarian Universalism not very hospitable place for those not of a certain income and wealth level. We seem to miss that some people only get that little extravagance or that bigger needed item at Christmas and we forget that it may be more expensive to shop at stores more closely aligned to our values ... certainly we should decry consumerism and fight for better practices by retailers but perhaps we need to stop blaming all of those who have to make choices different than our own.

This translates more generally in overall attitudes toward the poor.  We judge their poor choices.  This powerful article  (it is long but worth reading the whole thing) on the story of one homeless teen and her family in New York brings home some of the choices.  This girl doesn't want the moon, she doesn't even dream of big expensive gifts.  Her world is small. She lives in one of the busiest and biggest cities in the world and yet her world exists of the deplorable shelter her family lives in and school. Everything else is possibly dangerous or a place where her status as a "shelter kid" will be discovered.  In her family, getting the monthly check means being treated to ice cream.  Maybe we could all say that there were better uses for that money but who are we to judge. It was a rare treat in a world where the money goes to necessities and often isn't enough to meet those.

One of the labor songs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, is "As We Come Marching, Marching."  I first sang this song, which I knew as Bread and Roses, at a monthly feminist ritual at WATER, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual.  The hymn speaks of the need not just for bread, for necessities, but for beauty.  We all need beauty. We want things that are not just practical but beautiful as well.  Isn't that part of the genius of Steve Jobs?  He not only created something practical and amazing that would change the way we work, the way we think about communication, the way we play and the way we connect with one another, he didn't forget it also needed to be beautiful.  At the end of each verse of this song are the lines: "Bread and roses, bread and roses!", too often we think those with less should only want bread and be grateful for whatever casts off they receive and that they should forget about the roses, in fact, sometimes we don't even think they 'deserve' the roses.

As my family and I have struggled financially, this time of year has become difficult and challenging,  Not having money sets you apart.  Your world becomes smaller because after all having lunch with friends or even coffee may represent money you don't have.  Social interactions become challenging out of the fear, that money will be involved.  Also struggling financially comes with shame.  As I wrote before, shame and fear are poor teachers.  Ironically, just when you need all your strength and all your self worth, the shame that can accompany financial struggle sucks it away.  It takes tremendous energy to resist believing the shame, to resist the lies that your self-worth is tied to your credit score or the number in your bank account.

At this time of year, I ache for the joy I found in shopping at the mall, looking for just that perfect item for someone I love.  I love watching my daughter's face on Christmas morning when she opens that perfect gift that she was really hoping for.  For gift giving is not just a gift to the receiver, but rather when we give out of love, it makes us feel amazing.

So I invite you this season that if you are one of those disdainful of the shopping mall and the gift giving, recognize that for some that represents joy and tradition.  Go ahead and buy your gifts free-trade, or make them or shop small, local businesses that give part of their profits to an environmental cause.  Please watch your judgement of those who shop at Walmart or one of the other big commercial stores.  Maybe that is all they can afford or maybe they work there.  Re-discover the joy in giving something utterly frivolous and extravagant!  If you go for practical, make sure it is beautiful too!  People need both! Our souls thirst for it.

I have always loved the memes that suggest that if the three wise persons had been women, they would have brought food and practical gifts.  Yet as I reflect more deeply on it, there is a beauty and meaning in the gifts that are totally impractical (well, okay, I am sure the gold was helpful!).  They were aromatic and exotic. The gifts were an extravagance, unsuited to the humble child of a carpenter but a reminder that even a child born in a barn should be celebrated.

Now are you still thinking about that gift? Was it practical?  Was it beautiful?  How do you feel when you think about it?  That is what gift giving is about.  It is about showing our love in concrete ways.

So I invite to give and receive extravagantly this year!  Enjoy the process of choosing that perfect gift!  If you too are struggling financially this season, remember fear and shame are poor teachers and masters!  My hope is that others will gift you with "bread and roses" and that you can receive deeply without feeling obligation in return. For those of you who do 'have all that you need,' remember to be gracious and joyful in your receiving ... whether it be a baked good or the perfect earring or a box of candy from Walmart ... try looking for the beauty in it if even only in the giver's twinkling eyes. May we all let people give to us, opening ourselves to receive the gift. May we all know the joy of giving "bread and roses."

Let's reclaim the joy of gift giving and receiving!  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Magic Happens Outside Your Comfort Zone

This is the text of a sermon I preached at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013.  The readings for the sermon are "The Pilot" by Gaia Brown and "Prospective Immigrants Please Note" by Adrienne Rich.

It is pleasure to be back with you!  Thank you for your warm welcome to me and to my family.

Lately I have been challenged to go way outside my comfort zone.  It has been wonderfully liberating to break free of the voices that tell me “you will look foolish”  “what will other people think” and just be.  How is it that we come into this world small, vulnerable and yet so open, so trusting, so ready to learn and explore and then somewhere along the lines it gets lost and muddled?

Yet this sermon is not really about why we get lost it is really about what happens when we step out of the comfort zone.  So let’s begin what is the comfort zone. Each of us has our own comfort zone.  For some it may be very narrow and confining, restricting us to a small circle of people and experiences.  For others the zone is wider, includes more people and experiences but still there is a border there, one that once it is crossed discomfort sets in.  Now comfort zones are not all bad.  Typically they are the zone in which we feel competent.  I actually believe that the goal is not to get rid of our comfort zones rather it is to recognize the limits of the comfort zone and when it may benefit us to stretch ourselves, move outside of it.  For example I hate roller coasters and the thought of them is not at all pleasurable.  For some of you, the exact opposite is true.  Now whether or not I ever ride a roller coaster again will not determine the quality of my life or whether or not I can live an authentic life. However when I was a teenager, that fear of roller coasters was an impediment to enjoying being with my peers. It set me apart.  Since I was unwilling to step outside my comfort zone, my fear kept me within it, and I may have missed out on a number of fun activities in my youth. As an adult woman, the urgency of enjoying roller coasters has passed and I am grateful that my daughter loves them!

Yet what if the things we are unwilling to try or explore are bigger than my fear of roller coasters?  What if the things we fear are paths to our authentic self?  What if it is about realizing our deepest held dreams?  What if within that comfort zone we are withholding our gift that will help heal the world?

The comfort zone is not limited to individuals.  Groups and communities and even whole nations have comfort zones.  On this level the stakes are even higher. On the positive side the comfort zone of the group, protects the group and makes it feel secure.  Yet this is also its shadow!  When the group refuses to step out of its comfort zone, it can cease to change, to evolve, to let new in and ultimately that can lead to the extinction of the group.  Sometimes the comfort zone takes priority to such a degree that it will do anything, including acts of violence, to protect it.  This can lead to war, genocide, systemic oppression like Jim Crow Segregation or South African Apartheid.  When the group refuses to allow “the other” in … then the other becomes an object of fear and hatred.

As the poet Adrienne Rich states in her poem, you can choose to go through the door or not go through.  There are no promises.  She even assures us that it is possible “to live worthily, to maintain your position, to die bravely.” Maybe we think “Hey that doesn't sound so bad.  That sounds like a decent life.  I can live with that.”  Then she reminds us “but much will blind you, much will evade you, at what cost who knows?”  Ah there is the rub isn't it.  We may not even know the cost we will pay.  Are we willing to live knowing that life inside the comfort zone may not be truly living at all?

See inside the comfort zone our egos and our fears rule the day.  The ego is all about preservation of the status quo.  Now the ego gets a bad rap. It is not all bad. It is like money. It can be a good and helpful servant but it is a terrible master. For the ego uses fear as its ultimate source of control. Now sometimes fear is a good thing. Fear can keep us from taking a dangerous action, it can help us listen to that warning feeling that danger is imminent.  It can keep us from making some foolish, reckless choices. Choosing to step outside the comfort zone doesn't mean taking foolish risks for the sake of taking risks.  Stepping out of the comfort zone is choosing to step forward into the unknown to achieve a bigger goal or purpose.  We do not step outside the comfort zone merely to step outside of it.  In other words, we go through the door to “remember our name, to have things look at us and look back at them and to let things happen.”  It is about what happens after we take the leap, not the leap itself.  So to go back to my roller coaster example, it might be worthwhile for me to ride a roller coaster if in fact I need a harmless way to practice stepping outside my comfort zone, but the reason I may want the practice is so I can take an even bigger risk. So some of the ways I have been stepping outside of my comfort zone lately have been funny, foolish and fun.  Yet I had to overcome my ego which said “what will people think?  This is foolish.”  One example of this is that I participated with a small group in seeing how many hugs we could get in a shopping center … so as a group we offered hugs to shoppers.  It was so much fun!  We brought so many smiles to so many faces.  Yet my comfort zone would never have let me do such a foolish thing.  Yes we looked foolish and people looked at us like we were fools but it didn't matter!  There were so many more smiles and lots and lots of laughter.  It was one of the most fun things I have ever done!

In taking these fun risks, it broke up the fear so I can take bigger risks.  Such a risk may mean reaching out to a new person to talk about a project. Maybe it is standing up here to preach this sermon. Maybe it is saying what needs to be said knowing it will not be popular.  When we learn to step outside the comfort zone we also find joy.  I have to tell you since practicing going outside my comfort zone, I dance with a lot more abandon and freedom. It is fun and other than embarrassing my teenager daughter, a really good thing. Overcoming those fears means I am more connected to myself, more connected to others and more alive.

It is possible to choose to step outside our comfort zone. We can make the choice to live more authentically, to take risks, to be more fully alive.  This recent experience was very much one of those times.  I agreed to take part of a personal development workshop.  Now probably if I had known everything that was going to happen I might have hesitated but trusting my sister and taking the leap worked out.  It can also happen in therapy or on retreat.  For some it can come through reading any number of books. Personally I highly recommend Parker Palmer if you are looking for a place to begin.  In fact the process of learning to step out of our comfort zone is a lifelong one.  It is not one of those things we learn once.

I find however that many of us find ourselves forced out of our comfort zones.   Once forced out we then have a choice to make … is this the worst thing ever and as soon as I can I am getting back into that zone or OK this is not very pleasant, yet look at all that I am learning and experiencing out here. OK so maybe there is something too this whole getting out of the comfort zone.  For many of those we are like The Pilot. We find ourselves in the dark, lost, over a desert, and running out of fuel, and suddenly we are way outside our comfort zone.  How many can relate to those moments?

Nelson Mandela is good example of this.  Forced into the horror of Apartheid and then sentenced to life in prison for fighting against the imposed comfort zone. Let’s face it Apartheid was designed for whites to never have to leave their comfort zone. Mandela could have made some very different choices in response to the imposed circumstances of his life.  When he was finally released, he chose to forgive and to leave bitterness in that cell.  He could have retreated and quietly lived out the rest of his life upon leaving prison. Instead he used the things that had happened to him to lead his nation to freedom and in the process inspire us all.  Yet Mandela did not claim divine-like power, he said this “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”  So we do not honor Mandela by saying “Well there won’t be another Mandela” and go back to our comfort zones. We follow his example by using our circumstances to become leaders of our lives.  That is why we leave the comfort zone.  Hopefully in the process we also do our part to do justice, bring healing and more love to a hurting world.

Probably one of my biggest critiques of Unitarian Universalism is that we love the comfort zone.  I am not the first person to offer this critique.  Henry David Thoreau offered a similar critique in his Harvard Divinity School Address when he talked about “corpse cold Unitarians.”  For Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists the problem with Unitarians was that they were so stuck in their heads that they could not feel, they did not live, they were emotionless.  Too often we Unitarian Universalists fear depth of emotion, embodiment, and passion.  We are very rational.  We want things to make sense.  On the one hand that is a tremendous gift. Yet human beings are also feeling, passionate, embodied beings.  As James Luther Adams reminded us human beings are not simply rational creatures.  I would say “Thank Goodness” we are not just rational creatures. Life is about so much more than our rationality!  Yet we UUs really like to stay in our heady comfort zone.

For a faith community to not merely survive but to thrive, especially today, it must be willing to step out of its comfort zone.  We must be willing to take risks not knowing if they will succeed or fail.  Stepping out of our comfort zone means we are going to get it wrong sometimes. We may end up looking foolish.  For a heady group of perfectionists, this is terrifying. I don’t want to make light of that very real fear.  Yet as Nelson Mandela reminds us, it is not about getting rid of the fear. It is about conquering the fear.  It is about not letting it rule the day.  I believe our congregations have a saving message for the world, yet we can only offer our message by stepping outside of our comfort zone, conquering fear and yes having faith that in doing so we can transform the world.

All of you here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks are standing in front of a door. You are standing at a moment of transition and you will have choices to make about how you will go forward.  Transitions are perfect moments for stepping out of our comfort zone. The choice, however, rests with you.  Will you risk trying new things?  What is the larger vision that is worth the risk?  Who do you see yourselves becoming and is the vision large enough?  Again you are asked as a community, will you walk through the door or won’t you?  Will you step outside the comfort zone or not?

Conquering our fear, making our comfort zone a servant and not a master, risking failure, risking success beyond our wildest dreams - that is the magic outside our comfort zone.  Deep within, our authentic selves know this.  We know this to be true and yet the challenge remains “Will we walk through the door or will we not” and are we willing to walk through it again and again.  For the choice to live authentically, the choice to live is one that we will be asked to answer again and again.  I will close with these words from Nelson Mandela:  “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sabbath: The Exhale of Creation

Well I thought I had posted this sermon before but apparently I didn't. This sermon was preached on Sunday November 3, 2013 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.  The texts for the sermon are an except from Wayne Moyer's book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and the story "No Lists on the Sabbath" by Rabbi Marc Gellman.

As always I welcome your thoughts and comments!

Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you this morning.  Thank you for your warm welcome to me and my family.  I look forward to getting to know you better.

For a number of years now I have been reflecting on and exploring Sabbath and the development of my own Sabbath practice.  I have been thinking about it because the work of ministry includes working on weekends – traditionally days of rest from work. Since I have been job searching and living into working for myself rather than a specific congregation – I am finding it takes greater discipline to rest. I am coming to love this new model of work.  Yet I also know that I can be seduced by just doing one more thing, checking e-mail one more time, and it takes a truly conscience effort on my part to unplug, to set down the work, to stop.

I am also concerned about the state of our world, particularly families with children.  I see families pushed and pulled in all directions, two parents working, school, homework, extracurricular activities, and no time just to be, just to be together and enjoy each other.  I also get concerned because it seems that spiritual practice and a spiritual life becomes one more item on the very long to-do list and all too frequently it is the one that can fall off.

I am not alone in my concern.  Wayne Muller in his book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, views our lack of rest, or constant “doingness” as a form of violence.  It is a way that we use up resources –  our own, other people’s (including those we love), the earth – and do so unconsciously because we are moving too fast to savor, enjoy, appreciate, notice.  Muller states:  “If busyness can become a form of violence, we do not have to stretch our perception very far to see that Sabbath time—effortless, nourishing rest—can invite a healing of this violence.”  (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 5) By taking the time to rest, we both refresh ourselves and remember the joy of work.

We have traded rest, time off, for more money and things.  For those in the business of transforming the world, the need is so great and seems to be growing.  Theirs may not be a quest for money and things but the urgency of the need makes it difficult to stop for there is always more work to be done.  All of us need to stop. Yet everything in the culture around us screams to keep going, keep buying, keep working, stay connected 24-7, whatever you do, do not stop, do not step back.  

Sabbath calls us to stop.  Just to stop.  It does not require elaborate tools or objects.  Our consumerist culture tries to tell us if we just have this coffee maker, or this couch or this bed, we will suddenly have the rest we are longing for and that our souls cry out for.  Yet the consumer culture lies.  Muller writes:
“Sabbath is a time to stop, to refrain from being seduced by our desires. To stop working, stop making money, stop spending money.  See what you have.  Look around.  Listen to your life.  Do you really need more than this?  That is, after all, what they are selling in the picture: people who have stopped.  You cannot buy stopped.  You simply have to stop.” (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 137)

Muller argues that catalogs and commercials sell us Sabbath.  They are selling the promise of rest but they cannot truly provide it.  I invite you to look around, to study commercials, ads and notice how they try to sell Sabbath.  With the holidays  approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to see how the culture tries to sell us the rest, community and the peace so many are longing for.

Sabbath is about marking time as sacred--to set it apart.  In his book, A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians and Muslims Find Faith, Freedom and Joy on the Sabbath, Christopher Ringwald writes “On that seventh day, God ends Creation.  He ceases and He divides this one day from the others by marking it as holy.  After blessings things that He has created over six days, God now blesses time, the seventh day.” (A Day Apart, p. 36)  A blessing of time, the Sabbath is about entering into Divine time, a holy time…a time set apart.

Sabbath is linked to creation in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is not just linked in Genesis as we heard in the story, it is repeated throughout the scriptures.  For example, in Exodus, “In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed.”  Muller explains, ”refreshed…literally means God exhaled..  The creation of the world was like the life-quickening inhale; the Sabbath is the exhale.  Without the Sabbath exhale, the life-giving inhale is impossible.”  (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 36)

Our bodies know this sacred rhythm; nature knows it.  We see it everywhere when we pay attention, in music there must be a rest, a silence, a pause.  When one watches young children or pets, when they get tired or sick, they stop, they rest.  They don’t say I’ll go fetch the ball one more time or play one more game, they stop.  They exhale so that they can resume the inhale.  Too often, adults only learn it when their bodies simply won’t let them keep doing.  How many people only learn to rest, to take a break, when their bodies finally break down and force them to stop?  If we don’t chose to make time to rest, then our bodies will make the choice for us and I know that our bodies will not consult our calendars and to-do lists when they do so.

Jews have practiced Sabbath for thousands of years and I think have much to teach us all about it.   It is a challenging practice.   It is a practice of what is forbidden…work, kindling fire, carrying items – which in our contemporary times can include turning on lights, driving, cleaning, planting , weeding etc.  As the story tells us, there are no lists on the Sabbath.  The lists are put away, not because the work is done, but because it is Sabbath.

Sabbath is not convenient in the way we have come to think of it.  Sabbath in the Jewish tradition requires preparation and planning.  Yet in addition to all that is prohibited and restricted, there is an invitation to enjoy a specially prepared Sabbath meal, a nap, prayer, time with family and friends, lovemaking, and play.  It is a freedom from menial labor.  It is a day of blessing and thanksgiving.

In the Jewish Shabbat service on Friday evenings, Sabbath is welcomed in as a Bride with joy and celebration.  It is not dreaded as a list of what is prohibited (remember no lists on the Sabbath) but rather joyfully welcomed.  Candles are lit. Children are blessed.  Juice or wine and Challah bread is consumed.  It is both an individual family and communal practice.

Sabbath is sensual and connects with the earth.  We connect with our bodies and other bodies—through conversation, through touch, through really seeing each other and the world.  Sabbath is about being truly present to ourselves and to each other. Muller states “At our best, we become Sabbath for one another. We are the emptiness, the day of rest.” (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 183)

Sabbath is both personal and communal.  When we come together here in worship we are reminded that work and the tasks of day to day living are not all there is.  Here we sing, we have time in silence, we hear readings and hopefully we receive something here that we can take out into the world.  We are called to go deeper, to seek the holy, the sacred.  As we raise up our community joys and concerns, we listen deeply and hold those joys and needs in our hearts.  It is a way of practicing being Sabbath for one another.

So what might a Unitarian Universalist Sabbath practice look like?   For I believe deeply, that we as UU’s are in deep need of Sabbath.  As a people we are well-educated and hard working.  We are descendants of the Puritans who emphasized hard work and keeping busy.  They were also an austere people, fearful of too much sensuality.  Many of us are perfectionists.  Many of us want to transform the world and believe deeply that there is no one else to do it.  We are also people of the head who often need to be reminded to pay attention to the heart and to the body.

We can begin with worship.  Worship brings us together in community to sing, to speak, to be silent, to lift up the joys and concerns of our lives.  Worship is a spiritual practice…it gives us both affirmation of who we are and a challenge to go deeper.  Yet a practice requires commitment.  We have no one ordering us to be here, we have to choose.  It is not an easy choice for there is much to distract us…sports practices, shopping, sleeping, work, the internet, television.  I believe our children and youth are longing for Sabbath as well.  We are pushing “doing” younger and younger.  Extracurricular activities start younger.  The homework load is heavy.  In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with any of these things, but all together they take up a lot of time…not leaving much room for stopping, for playing, for just being.

When we participate in worship, we do so with others and we set the example for one another.  We may say that our children, youth and young adults don’t want to come that it is boring.  Yet we need to model for our children and youth the value of religious community and we can only do that when they are here with us.  We need to model a different way of being at least for a certain period of each week.

Sabbath fits into our valuing of the earth.  Sabbath is tied to Creation.  The order to rest was not just given to the people…all of Creation was to rest.  What if each of us set aside some time each week where we didn’t drive? We didn’t buy anything.  Could that become a part of our greening … stopping, resting, playing.

I am also struck that the time is marked not just with rest and stopping.  Sabbath is marked by rest but it also makes room for all those things we just don’t get around to.  Playing with our children, taking a walk, sharing a meal with friends and family.  It is not all about being serious and somber. It is also about play and recreation – literally re-creation.  Sabbath does not have to be quiet to be Sabbath.  It can filled with conversation, with singing, with laughter!  The spiritual life is not just a serious and somber; it is filled with laughter and joy!  Ringwald describes Sabbath this way,  “It is a festival in and of time, freeing us from the shackles of clock time and thrusting us into the freedom of divine time.” (A Day Apart, p. 25)

It will not be easy.    It will mean saying no to some things.  It may mean that people will be annoyed with you…maybe even members of your family.  There will always be an “if only”.  As our reading reminds us we do not stop because the work is done, the work will never be done. It will not always be convenient.  It will require discipline.

Yet we do not have to do it all at once. We don’t suddenly have to adopt a 24 hour Sabbath.  We can begin with a commitment to coming to worship on Sunday morning.  Or we can begin with an evening without tv or the computer and dinner around the table with family.  It can begin with taking 20 minutes out of the day to notice our breathing, to read, to meditate.

So I invite you all into Sabbath..into rest..into stopping. I invite you into re-creation and play.  Develop your own practice filled with things you love but never make the time for – like naps, reading, making music, a long walk, a meal with friends and/or family.  Stop and take the time to notice what is around you.  Take the time to be and not just do.