Monday, December 29, 2014

Waiting in the Dark

I preached this sermon on Sunday December 28, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story for All Ages:  If You Are Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens
Reading:  excerpt from Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey, Jan. 8 reflection
"Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, "How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?" There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let's rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away."

Sermon:  Waiting in the Dark

When I was a child I was afraid of the dark.  I always slept with a night light and I remember being nervous the night of my first confession because the box was dark and I was worried about being in the dark. Confession boxes when I was young were small dark rooms with a kneeler in front of screen. When it was your turn, you went into the room and knelt down, waited for the screen to open. As I looked around in the church the night of my first Confession, I realized there was about an inch between the floor and the door that would let in just enough light and I would be ok. I was ok.  About a year or two later, the confession boxes were renovated.  They installed lights and gave an option to sit down face to face with priest.  How many of us go through times of being afraid of the dark?  How many of us go through times of our lives that are dark and often scary?

The dark can be a scary place.  Things do not look the same in the dark. It is hard to walk because we can’t see all the things we could run into.  If it is both dark and quiet, we hear all the sounds that are normally drowned out.  The shadows and the sounds, can make the dark a very scary place indeed.

Yet it is in the dark that each of us begins.  Life begins in the dark – whether the seeds of plants or an egg. All life begins by waiting, growing and changing in the dark until it is ready to come into the light.  Life requires both darkness and light – it cannot flourish just in the light.

We also have times in our life when we need the darkness, we need that time of rest, renewal and to experience re-birth.  One of my favorite poems is Sweet Darkness by David Whyte. It begins, “When your eyes are tired the world is tired also. When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you. Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognize its own.”  In the poem the darkness is a place of healing, of renewal.

In our reading from Henri Nouwen we are cautioned against planning too far ahead, of being so busy planning our lives that we cease to live them.  Nowen reminds us that we only need enough light to take the next step, to trust that there will be enough to take the next one, and that we will continue to get just the light we need to move forward.  In this he says we will be free to live in joy and surprise with less anxiety about what is coming next.  For Nowen we let go of our fear of the dark, our anxiety about what we don’t know or can’t see and then we are free to live fully in the present.

I confess that I do not do this very well.  I want to know where I am going. I want there to be a plan. I want to make a choice and stick with it.  For those of you who are Myers-Briggs knowledgeable yes I am a J meaning I like plans and closure.  I like structure.  All of this is in stark contrast to be at peace with the dark and letting myself just live fully into the present.  Yet I know there is great truth in Nouwen’s words.  We can’t have a five or ten year plan for our lives because we, as frightening as this is, do not have control of all the events.  We are not single entities, we are connected beings to one another, to other life, to the planet.  So much of our current politics and culture try to convince us that we just need the perfect plan, or the perfect item, or course, or book or workshop and then we will be in control, able to live the life of our dreams.  Our culture tries to convince us that we can make it on our own, that actually to need others or assistance makes one weak. Yet what if our dreams are too small?  What if there is so much more than we can imagine? What if the real truth is that we are stronger and can do so much more when we work together, help each other out and recognize the ways we are connected?

That is where sitting in the dark, being still may bring forth a bigger dream than we could do with all our planning.  Sitting in the dark may allow us to leave room for Spirit, for inspiration, for our authentic selves to come out of hiding and show us something that the light could not.  Parker Palmer when talking about the authentic self, the soul, describes it as shy. Our authentic self after having been pushed aside for so long, cannot be chased out. One must wait, one must prove oneself trustworthy, and then the authentic self, which has so long waited, will show itself.  Darkness allows for that. It slows us down.  There is a natural silence and quiet that comes with the dark.  It invites forth what has been hidden.

Yet too often we run. We run from our authentic selves, from our dreams, from being quiet or still for too long.  It can be a frightening thing. What might we find there, in the dark, in the quiet?  Yet our story today offers fanciful remedies.  If you are afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow. A night rainbow – what a wonderful image – just sit with that for a  moment. What does a night rainbow look like? If night falls, use stars for streetlights.  The writer invites us to imagine new possibilities if our worst fears were to happen.  If you lose the keys throw away the house.  If the moon gets stuck in a tree, fill the hole in the sky with a strawberry. If there is no happy ending, make one out of cookie dough.

Is the dark calling to you? Is it time to spend some time in the dark, listening to the silence, watching the shadows?  Are you needing a time of rest, lying fallow until what is next is ready?  What is waiting to born in you? What seeds are you planting?  Are the seeds just beginning their long journey to becoming a plant or a flower or a wonderful fruit or vegetable?  Are the seeds you planted almost ready to burst the surface and into the light?  What is it you are waiting for in this season of darkness?

I invite each of you as 2014 comes to an end, as the season of winter and darkness is just beginning to take the time to sit in the darkness.  I invite you to wait in the dark and discover what is there waiting for you. Maybe it is a dream long delayed or one that you could have never imagined.  Maybe it will be a time of rest and renewal; a time to simply step back from the busyness and brightness of the days, to discover the quiet and rest of the dark.

May you trust that you will have enough light to take the next step.  Blessed Be!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Eve Reflection

This is the reflection I offered at the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service on December 24, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Poem The Longest Night by Jan Richardson
Reading: Matthew 1:1-25
Reading: Luke 2:1-7

A Christmas Eve Reflection

Happy last day of Hanukkah, which ended just before 5 pm today and Merry Christmas Eve!

As we gather tonight, we take part in something human beings have been doing for thousands of years – listening to ancient stories that tell us something of importance about our people, we have lit candles, and we have sung to mark these historical, spiritual events and then the turning of the year.

We are story-telling people – we have the gift to hear, tell and remember stories, transforming them over the years so that we continue to find meaning in them hundreds and thousands of years after the actual events.

Maybe it is the tradition in your families to tell and to hear the story of the birth on birthdays.  I know my mother told my story to me every year.  So tonight we hear two stories about the birth of Jesus.

From Matthew we hear about Jesus’ lineage, his genealogy.  In the Hebrew Scriptures there are numerous genealogies and they are a way that time was marked, leaders were placed within their particular time and place.  For Matthew’s community which was a predominately Jewish community who followed the teachings of Jesus, it was critical that Jesus be placed in the line of King David. Matthew uses the ancient tool of genealogy to link Jesus to Joseph and Joseph all the way back. Matthew has the holy family traveling after the birth to flee Herod.  Matthew uses dreams to let oseph know it is ok – like Jacob’s dream and Abraham’s dream.

Luke, on the other hand, has a slightly different tale to tell.  Luke’s community is more of a mix of Jews and Gentiles.  He needs to tie Jesus’ birth to King David and prophesies about Nazareth.  Yet Luke also wants Jesus’ birth to be about a gift for the Gentiles too – so it is Luke that we have the Roman Census and the message to the shepherds in a field.  Mary and Joseph travel before the birth, seeking a place to stay and finding none stay in a stable. Jesus did not come for the rich and the powerful, but the poor and the outcast.

One child, one great teacher and two different stories; neither Matthew or Luke was concerned about the actual events of the birth of Jesus – they had another purpose.  Their purpose was to tell their communities something about this teacher who had come and changed their lives. Whose message of love, of justice, of inclusivity, of loving God and loving your neighbor had transformed them and has the potential to transform the world.  Each told the story of what a blessing, like in our opening poem, came into the world.

Each child, each of us, comes into this world and each is holy, each is made in the image and likeness of the divine, each has inherent worth and dignity.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith affirms over and over again the sacredness of each person.  This comes deeply from the Jewish faith, which values life over law – if a law is broken such as working on the Sabbath in order to save a life it is not a breaking of the law.  It comes also from the Christian faith which affirms that God’s love is for all and Jesus’ message was not just for the world.

Tonight we remember that each night a child is born is a holy night including the night of our own births. Each child, each person is a blessing!  I think it is too easy as we move through life to forget that each of us is a child of the holy, that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God. I look out at your faces and in each of them I see the holy; I see a gift for the world.   So tonight when you are home, maybe when you are getting ready for bed, take a moment, look at your face in the mirror. See that face as a loving parent would see your face, look into that face as you have looked into your own children’s faces.  Remember, remember on this night where we celebrate birth and re-birth, renewal, peace that you too are precious, valuable, a miracle.  Regardless of your own birth story  - you are a child of life, a part of the great on-going story and history of this world.  You are a blessing, a blessing the world has been waiting for.

As you look around you during this holiday, look into the eyes of those you have gathered with – friends, parents, children, spouses, partners, cousins, aunts and uncles and see in their faces that divine spark, that spirit of life and love.  Jesus says Love one another as I have loved you”  Love one another!  Love abundantly, love generously, love with your eyes and arms wide open.

Then take that love into a world that needs it, that needs our healing, our help.  We are not here just for ourselves but to do our part to uncover and create more paradise and less suffering, more heaven and less hell. A world that is waiting, holding its breath, clutching its hands, has darkness around its heart – a world that needs each of us to be the one to guide this world and its people through the dark, that knows the roads, the resting places and that we need each other to make the journey, to receive the blessing, to make it through that longest night.

As we leave this place, let us remember where we came from, the stories of our ancestors and our birth. Remember that each child is holy even you and I. Share your love with both those in your family and community but also with the world. Be reminded that the birth of one teacher over 2,000 years ago still carries meaning in our world today … would it not be a real miracle if we each lived as though we too would impact the world 2,000 years from now?

I wish each of you a very Merry Christmas 
and a very Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Importance of Gifts - revisited

For today's Throwback Thursday Post I have chosen the Importance of Gifts.  In this season of gift-giving I want to remind us of the beauty and gratification of the giving and receiving of gifts.  Let us not in our critique of consumerism, denigrate the practice of finding that perfect gift for the ones we love.  Let us also remember that it is not just children who appreciate and find great joy in receiving gifts -- so don't forget the adults!

Importance of Gifts, December 2013

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!  

Wishing you a joy filled, abundant holiday season!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Celebrations of Light

I preached this sermon on Sunday December 14 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story for All AgesHanukkah Song - Adele Parody by Ash Soular
Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-5
40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
    double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Sermon: Celebrations of Light

At this time of shortening days and long nights, we are blessed with an abundance of celebrations of light – Advent, Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanza.  All of them put at the center the lighting of candles – to remember, to acknowledge and to celebrate both the darkness and the light.

While these festivals share the lighting of the candles over a period of days, 4 weeks for Advent, 8 nights of Hanukkah and 7 nights of Kwanza, each has its own story and context. Hannukah celebrates the Maccabees victory over the Greeks who had forced the Jewish people to denounce their religion, to worship the Greek Gods and banned all Jewish festivals including Shabbat.  The Greeks had turned the Jewish temple into a temple for Zeus.  The Maccabees refused to follow the Greek laws and waged a rebellion. The first miracle of Hanukkah is that the small group of Maccabees were successful in their revolt against the Greek.  The second miracle is the one we are more familiar with – the oil used for the eternal light – a symbol still in use in Jewish congregations today, lasted for 8 days rather than just the 1 day it should have.  The celebration for Hanukkah is found not in the Torah, psalms or other portions of the Hebrew Bible but rather in the Talmud.  It is also associated, as many Jewish holidays are, with specific foods – namely fried food.  Latkes or fried potatoes is one at least I grew up knowing about and just last year I learned that fried, jelly filled donuts are a traditional food in Israel.  It is a story of the celebration of freedom after overcoming one’s oppressors. It is refusing to sacrifice one’s faith and identity to the will of the majority.  It is a reminder that the freedom to worship and believe as one chooses for many has been challenging and a hard won fight.  Even here in a country where we affirm the basic right to worship or not as one chooses we know that we as Americans have not always lived up to assuring that fundamental freedom.  All too often some want freedom of religion to mean only their religion.

Advent does not so much mark the actual event of Jesus’ birth but rather is a season of hopeful anticipation leading to Christmas.  Christmas is actually a 12 day holiday in the Christian calendar. Advent is a joyful, hope-filled season.  This reading from Isaiah, which in Christianity is interpreted as foretelling the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, in which the people are longing for a Messiah to deliver them, to save them.  On this third Sunday of Advent, as the joyous occasion of Jesus’ birth is getting closer, a pink candle is lit for joy.  The questions for advent are about what are you waiting and hoping for; for what does your soul yearn.  This season of preparation in the Christian tradition is not about shopping for presents or putting up the tree, rather it is a preparation of the spirit, a time of joyful meditation and reflection of hope; of the light shining in the darkness.

Kwanza is the newest of these December holidays. It is an African American holiday which celebrates family, community and culture. Each day a candle is lit to represents a different principle inspired by a communitarian African philosophy. These principles of unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are rooted in freedom, pride in African American identity and culture and a call to live the best life one can live.

All of these celebrations are dated around the winter solstice. It may be easy now with our electric lights to forget how dark winter was and how frightening.  There were no crops to harvest, one had to hope that enough had been stored away to last through the cold, long winter.  In fact, in Latin … ‘Solstice means the sun standing still.’ As the days got shorter and there was less and less light, it makes sense that people would want to find ways to remember, to entice and to welcome back the light. After all the solstice marks the turning of the year, after the solstice, once again the days grow longer and while many months of winter remain, the days will be brighter and longer reminding us that spring and summer will once again return.

It is critical for as Unitarian Universalists, to be mindful of the ways we think about and acknowledge these various celebrations.  It is important to remember the stories and history that come with these celebrations. For example, do we as predominately white congregation find it appropriate to light the Kwanza candles that celebrate the hard earned, not yet over fight for equality and freedom of African Americans?  It is critical that we not just pull out the parts of these holidays we like and ignore the stories. Rather our quest is for deeper understanding and connection.

So what are we yearning for in this season of light and darkness? What seeds are planted deep within in the darkness waiting to take root and burst forth?

Today where do we find those who cannot believe and worship in their own way even here in this country where we celebrate religious freedom and tolerance?  Where are people fighting for the freedom to worship as they please?  What are the limits of our collective religious tolerance?  As the Jewish people remember and mark the freedom over the oppression of the Greeks and reclaiming of their sacred space, are we in our own lives respecting the beliefs and worship space of others?

As we reflect on these celebrations of light we can think about what they have to teach us, to share with us which knowing that they call us into a deeper understanding of these traditions. Our third source states that our living tradition draws on “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life” and our fourth source states “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves” so what wisdom are we gaining?

One of the draws for me to Unitarian Universalism was this inclusivity of the world’s religions including an equality of sacred texts.  For me, it is yearning to understand, to be informed, to seek wisdom. The challenge is to do so with respect of the traditions and people whose religions these are. It is to be a respectful visitor and learner, the pilgrim who humbles herself to listen and to seek to understand rather than to be understood.

So as we read the text from Isaiah of a people crying out for comfort, for deliverance, we ask how are we making a pathway for justice, for peace?  How are we preparing not just our homes, but our hearts this holiday season? How will you celebrate?  What are your most cherished traditions – spiritual and secular? For me I love sitting in the living room with all the lights out except those on the tree; the small lights of the tree illuminating the darkness.  I love our family baking traditions of sugar cookies, fudge and usually a few new items to try.  For me the holidays are about being with my family, welcoming back the light and reflecting on the year that is coming to a close.  I know that yearning for a smooth, clear path as one year closes and another begins. I know that darkness can seem overwhelming and to be searching for that one small light to keep hope burning.  What is it you are hoping for in this season of darkness and light?  What are your favorite traditions?  Will you put up a tree? Light the menorah?  Eat latkes?  What candles are you lighting? How are you honoring the communities and cultures of which you are a part this season? Make a point of sharing your stories and traditions with others in our community.

As a community we lift up and celebrate the diversity of traditions here – Jewish, Christian, pagan, humanist.  We seek deeper wisdom and understanding. We come together in recognition of our common search for meaning and for truth.  So however you celebrate this December, may it be filled with love, joy and wisdom.

May it be so!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Scandal of Universalism: You Can't Earn It - Revisited

For this week's Throwback Thursday post, I am revisiting this piece on Universalism. In this month of holy holidays - Advent, Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, Kwanza, it seems appropriate to talk about the affirmation of the goodness of both the holy and humanity.  So in this season of light and darkness, let us remember that we are all made in the image and likeness of the holy; we are all worthy. In this time where the lives of those of color are not as valued as white lives, we must work for a world where we can say with truth that all lives matter.  Where the lives of those labeled "enemy" or "terrorist" we justify torturing in the name of national security and the safety of American lives, we must work for a world where all are treated with worth and dignity.  At the core of these injustices is the belief that some are less worthy than others, that some lives matter more than others, that we can treat people differently based on race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation. The truth of Universalism is that we are all worthy, all loved by the holy, and that we are bound together by our humanity.

The Scandal of Universalism: You Can't Earn It

So I have been thinking about and doing some reading about Universalism lately.  Rachel Held Evans  is doing a Universalist series on her blog.  My thoughts about it came to me in the midst of a couple of recent conversations.  I was talking about my job search and the networking I was doing and the comment was made to me "Well, it isn't about who you know; you have to get the jobs on your merit."  I think the comment was a bit naive and yet it also reflects a deeply held American value of individual achievement and that it is merit that makes the difference.

First, we are steeped in this myth of merit and individual achievement.  As I wrote about in my post on What Job Searching Has Taught Me, all the job search advice will tell you that the number one thing to focus on for a successful job search is networking, finding out who knows someone who works where you want to work and connect with them.  Most jobs are found through networks.  So it isn't just about merit and sometimes it is not about merit at all, at least not in a particular field or industry. Many of us have worked with or encountered people who are not qualified for the job they are doing but they got the job because they knew someone.

It is the way that racism, sexism and all the other isms are perpetuated.  Those with privilege have access to make connections through school, family, work or community that others do not. It is why women have worked so hard to get access to men's only establishments.  It is through these connections that people get into positions of leadership and power.

The myth of meritocracy is one that privileges the most privileged among us.  One of the most important pieces of work that I have personally had to do is understanding that my "normal," my expectations of how the world works and the access people have to education, jobs and the political process is not universal.  I pointed this out in my post on voting - I have never questioned that I have the right to walk into a polling center and cast my vote without being questioned, without having to prove my worthiness to be there.  As a white person in this culture this is my normal, it is my world view.  I don't get followed in stores.

So what does all this have to do with Universalism?  Universalism is still a very controversial issue in religion, in Christianity in particular.  People and institutions remain very attached to the belief that the "good" will get their reward in heaven and the "bad" will be punished.  We want that sense of justice - it may not happen in this life but in the next one "I" will get "mine" and "they" will get what "they" "deserve."  Usually the opposition to Universalism is justified with Scripture, many (not all) Christians believe that only Christians are saved - that one must be a Christian to be saved.  At the heart of most of this is a belief that heaven, that salvation is something we earn.  The scandal of faith, the scandal of Jesus' life and message is that we can't earn it.

At the core of Universalism is that all, every person regardless of merit, status, religion will be gathered into salvation - that all will go to heaven if you will.  Much like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights it declares that salvation, like rights, comes simply because we are human.  In the case of humanity, salvation is assured because God, the Holy, loves human beings.  I became convinced of Universalism by about the age of fourteen.  I could not reconcile the notion of a loving God, who I was taught wanted nothing more than to be in relationship with us, with a notion that that same God would damn people to eternal torment and punishment.  I finally just came to the place that God's love would keep reaching and keep giving chances until all were reconciled.  As I look at the life of Jesus, his message over and over again is that we are loved unconditionally by God.  God is faithful, God keeps covenant even when God's people break it over and over again.  A reading through the Hebrew Scriptures shows this unconditional love, the reaching, calling, pleading to turn back, to be in relationship, to practice justice and mercy.  In the Jewish tradition God saves a people - not just individuals, but God loves the people and keeps reaching out to them.  They can't earn it, in fact they fail miserably at earning it.  Yet God through the midst of it, remains faithful. Jesus doesn't ask those he heals if they have earned it, he just heals them.  His message to the Pharisees is not that they are wrong for following the law - their mistake comes from thinking that they can earn it - that they are better than others because of the way they follow the law.

For those religions that believe in reincarnation, the point of life is to learn. It is continually to be learning how to better live.  The point is not that we earn it - it is that we can learn, we can do better. Yet in reincarnation is the belief that you don't earn that second, third or hundredth chance, it is that those chances will continue to be given to you - unearned.

This makes us uncomfortable!  We want to earn things - we like the notion of "deserving."  We talk about the "deserving poor" which of course tells us there are "undeserving poor."  We want to have earned our degrees, our jobs, even our good health - well at the very least we are responsible when we have bad health it must be our fault particularly if we have things like Type II diabetes or lung cancer.  We want to believe   that life is fair, that the good always get their reward and the bad get punished.  Politicians love to use the phrase, "If you work hard and play by the rules, then you should expect to have" health care or marriage equality or success and access. Unfortunately, those who work the hardest are not always rewarded and sometimes those who have the most material success do not play by the rules or even work all that hard. The scandalous message of Universalism is none of us can earn it - it is a gift, a freely given gift.  This gift is not one that we have to wait until we die to recognize - it is here now.  God's love and grace are present here.  The scandalous message is that we are truly called to be just, merciful and loving to all - regardless of merit. This message calls all of us to see the merit in every person, to cultivate the unique gifts of every person.

Where in your life do you experience the scandal of universalism?  Does the notion that we don't earn many of the things we believe we do offend you? Surprise you?  If we let go of the myth of merit how would life be different?  How would you live differently?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Silence = Death

I have been struggling to find words to write about the death of Michael Brown, the failure of the Grand Jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson and once again the majority of white people feeling like justice has been served. We can add to the list the failure to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.  We can add the deaths of Trayvon Martin, the death of 12 year old Tamir Rice who was shot 2 seconds after the officer emerged from his car, and the countless others. Every 28 hours an African American is shot by the police, vigilantes or security persons, some are armed, some are thought to be armed and many are unarmed.  In these cases the person in authority is acting in the role of jury and judge with no defense to be mounted. In these cases the person in authority is believed and the victim is to blame.

Finally on World AIDS day, Dec. 1, the words finally came. Silence = Death was the slogan used by ActUp and others to demand attention to the AIDS epidemic that was killing gay men. I have seen signs now around the internet with White Silence = White Consent.  Yes it is true, we as whites have been silent - liberal, conservative, independent, we have all been silent.  We have been silent because we don't know what to say or we just believe that if there has been an investigation or a trial or something official then there must be something we don't know, we can't know and so we must trust our authority figures and move on. Sad yes, tragic yes, but we can't do anything about it.  They should have done better, known better, did what they were told, not been in that place, it was just bad timing, he feared for his life.

Our silence or our words that somehow the person shot could have/should have done something different are quite literally killing people.  I cannot look at a young African American boy and not think when will you stop being cute and adorable and be seen instead as a threat, as a thug, as an object of fear. How soon will your parent(s) have to sit you down and tell you that the police can often not be trusted, how you have to be careful. Living in a middle class neighborhood won't protect you - look at Trayvon Martin.  Education, money, fame and status will not fully protect you from the assumption that you are a criminal, a thug seeking to harm white people.  My heart aches for those parents that will have to teach their children that no the police will not always help and may very well hurt.  My heart aches for those parents who send their children out the door with the prayer that nothing bad will happen.

I have heard it from my own family the words of white privilege.  The Civil Rights movement was 50 years ago - we are not that way anymore.  We have to wait for the investigation to be completed then we will know the truth.  We can't know what happened because we are not cops or security or trained in the use of a gun.  The most common phrase - there must be something we don't know because the police would not just have killed him.

The truth of the matter is that any time a white person says "I felt afraid, I thought he would hurt me" it is nearly automatic that we believe the white person regardless of the facts and then anything that happens from there is the fault of the black person. Darren Wilson can claim that he looked at him with rage that he had never seen before and we as white people believe him.  Probably Darren Wilson is telling the truth of his perception.  I have no doubt that Darren Wilson was afraid and that Daniel Pantello was afraid, that George Zimmerman was afraid. We never ask the question, was the fear justified in such a way that taking of a life was justified.  Once a white person says "I was afraid" that is the end of it.

I am a white, queer woman of faith with an advanced degree. My white skin gives me privilege, privilege that I do not have to examine.  Our society will let me walk right through never questioning the white world I live in. That is privilege - I don't have to think about race. I have to think about other things like being a woman in a world dominated by male privilege, being queer in a world dominated by heteronormative privilege but I do not have to think about race.  I can choose to be silent.  Yet I will not be.

I will not be because it is not about the details of each of these deaths it is about the fact that it is ok with us that black lives still matter less. Latino lives matter less. Asian lives matter less.  We cannot look at these deaths without also looking at the countless deaths of black men since the first ones were forcibly brought to these shores 400 years ago.  How many were lost in the abduction of Africans? How many lost in the sea voyage? How they were enslaved, beaten and killed?  How many had their children ripped from their arms and sold to others?  How many were lynched?  How many died and how many white people were held accountable for those deaths?  This is not new, this is very very old and we don't want to acknowledge that. We as white people want to pat ourselves on the back for what a good job we have done.

We can't say somehow that the killing stopped and then started back up again. The killing has never stopped. It has gone underground. It is draped in different stories now.  Now we say well it was justified, he had no other choice, if he just hadn't been walking there, stole cigarettes, sold cigarettes, if he had not had a toy gun, if he had done as the officer said - just obey and then nothing bad will happen. That is simply not true. It is simply not true.

In this season where we celebrate the Prince of Peace, the miracle of a lamp burning 8 days instead of 1, of the return of the light, we as white people need to stop and listen, then we need to speak. We need to say "no more" "I believe you" "Black Lives Matter" and "Each of us is holy, each of us is a manifestation of the divine" and we must mean it. We must listen, until our hearts are broken open to the reality that our silence, our complicity is killing people.

My prayer in this season of darkness and light, is that we as white people will allow our hearts to be broken open. Yes it will hurt and it will not be comfortable. We will not like it.  We must let the Spirit of life and truth, the Holy Spirit if you will, transform us, break us open, and then we must speak. We must speak up and not wallow in guilt.  We speak to add our voices, to join our voices in a chorus demanding change, demanding peace, demanding an end to the killings.  In this season where Christians celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace we must join our voices to others calling for peace for people of color.  In this season of the miracle of the light and the overthrowing of oppressors, may we add our light, our energy to work for a world where all lives truly do matter.  As we await the return of the light and the rebirth of the earth, may we see a rebirth of humanity - replacing fear with love.

That is my prayer for this season!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Celebrating Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving!  It seemed appropriate to post my sermon from this past Sunday, November 23, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.  May you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Story for All Ages: The First Thanksgiving, adapted and drawn from this piece from National Geographic.
Reading: Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Oct. 3, 1865

Celebrating Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday.  As a child I believed with my whole heart the image of Native Americans and Pilgrims sitting down to a wonderful feast, celebrating cooperation and friendship.  I was taught little about the settlements at Roanoke and Jamestown.  It seemed to me that American history began with the Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims.  My understanding of the relationship between the colonists and Native Americans was also rather simplistic that did not encompass the genocide inflicted on the Native people of this land by the Colonists.

Now my understanding is much more complex. Yes there was a Fall Feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans. There was cooperation for many years until the Colonists decided they did not want to cooperate any longer and wanted full scale control of the land.  In our reading for today we learn that the agreement between Wampanoag  and the English settlers for mutual support and defense, lasted only for one generation.  Many Native Americans in New England and other places refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving and instead gather together to remember and grieve the broken promises and those who lives were lost.  A powerful reminder that Thanksgiving is complicated filled with both celebration and grieving.

It was for this sermon that I first read Abraham’s Lincoln Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. Funny how that while I knew well the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, I knew little or nothing about Lincoln and Thanksgiving.  So Lincoln offers this Thanksgiving Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War which will not end for another two years.  It was a woman, Sarah Joespha Hale, who began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving after discovering the 1621 fall festival labeled as the first Thanksgiving back in 1846.  Lincoln actually declared two Thanksgivings, one in August of 1863 following the battle Gettysburg and the second for General Blessings in November of 1863.

Here in the midst of much suffering on both sides of the Civil War – with young people dying, with families pitted against each other and the unity of the country at stake, Lincoln calls us on to stop and give thanks.  He acknowledges all that there is to be grateful for – bountiful fields, riches from the land such as coal and precious gems and a growing population despite the loss of life on the battlefield. He makes clear that resources that could be used to further peaceful industry are going to war.  He calls upon people not just to remember that is not ultimately themselves that created this bounty but rather to remember that these gifts come from God.  He called for Americans to be humble and thankful.  Secondly he called for people to remember those suffering the most during the war – widows, orphans, mourners and suffers due to the war.  It was not just to be a day of thanks but also a day of penitence, a day to remember what injury we had inflicted on others.  He wrote “And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

This afternoon I will be preaching at the Ecumenical Thanksgiving service and the Hebrew Scripture reading is from Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Jewish Torah.  It is a record Moses’ final instructions to the people of Israel as he won’t be leading the people into their entry into the Promised Land.  In this particular reading from Chapter 8, Moses instructs the people that the purpose of their wandering in the desert for forty years was a test of their faith and faithfulness. It was to humble them and prepare them for the abundance that awaited them in this new land.  They had known hunger and eaten Manna – a new food to them.  Moses tells us that their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. In short God had provided for them during the wilderness and now finally long promised and long awaited here was the Promised Land.

One cannot help but draw parallels between the Israelites and all the various peoples who ventured forth to find a “new to them” land.  The English, French, Dutch and Spanish all found their way to this North American continent.  They wrote letters home describing the riches.  See if any of these descriptions sound familiar as I read the description from Deuteronomy of the land the Israelites are about to enter “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.”  Who would not want to enter such a land?  Who after a long journey of searching would not want all of this?  Does this not resonate with the letters the colonists wrote back to England, France and Spain about the abundance of the land on this new to them continent?

Lincoln, like Moses, warns the people to not become arrogant, to not forget that they are not self-forming and self-creating, to remain humble, to remember that all of this bounty is a gift.  Moses reminds the Israelites to remember where they came from – for the Israelites, they had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Lincoln reminds the people to give thanks to God for all their blessings.

Like the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, the story of the Israelites and the Promised Land is a complicated one. A story that continues today in both lands as Native Americans continue to suffer in this land of plenty and war continues in Israel as well.  All of us would do well to be humble and penitent as well as grateful.

So as we go into this week let us give thanks for the many blessings in our lives, in our families and in our community. May we enjoy time with friends and family.  May the food, storytelling and laughter be abundant.  May we stop and take a moment to give thanks.

Let us also remember those who are suffering – those who will be working to serve the ever growing hunger of consumerism rather than being with their families, those who are working to continue to keep us safe, to put out the fires, to care for the ill and the dying.  Let us remember those who are hungry in body and hungry in spirit, those who are alone, those alienated from family, those who are without homes, those who are grieving, suffering in body and spirit.

Do not let suffering diminish our own gratitude but rather deepen and fire our commitment to do our part to heal this hurting world.  Let us hold the paradox – hold the complexity. Even within our own lives let us hold the paradox of abundance and want.  Some of us may be celebrating a first holiday without a beloved friend or family member, others may be far away from children or parents and yet may their love and memory fill our hearts.  Let us commit ourselves to doing our part to heal this world.  May we work for a community where there is a little less suffering, fewer people alone, fewer people hungry in body and spirit.  Let us give thanks for the ability to make a difference so that this land becomes a bountiful and abundant place for all of life – human, plant and animal.

May it be so!

Monday, November 24, 2014

God's Love is for All

I preached this sermon at the Community Wide Thanksgiving Service. This ecumenical service was sponsored by the Dare County Ministerial Association and took place at Outer Banks Presbyterian Church.

Deuteronomy 8: 7-18
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Luke 17: 11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Sermon: God's Love is for All
“And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”  These words come from Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.  These words resonate with the words of Moses from our reading from Deuteronomy. Moses reminds the people to remain humble, to remain faithful to the covenant.  They are as relevant today as they were in 1863.

Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Torah.   It is book that chronicles all of Moses instruction and teaching as the Israelite people are about to enter the Promised Land.  Just before the passage we read, Moses tells the people that God tested them in the wilderness, provided for them that even their clothes did not wear out nor their feet swell, during that entire forty year journey.  
This beautiful description of a land filled with abundance, with flowing water, plenty of fertile land and that none should be hungry, none will be in want.  I cannot help but think of the early explorers and settlers from England, France, and Spain who arrived on this new to them land, praising its abundance.  What must it had been like for those first English explorers landing at Roanoke Island seeing the beauty of this place for the first time?  Do you remember your first time to the Outer Banks?  Do you remember how you fell in love with this place?  I am a newcomer to this island and the first thing I say to anyone about this place is how beautiful it is, how breathtaking and awe inspiring.  

How much more the promise of a new land must have felt to the Israelites?  They had suffered under slavery, they had traveled for forty years in the wilderness suffering hunger, lived on a diet of Manna - a new food to them that must have gotten very tiring after a while.  How good it must have been to hear the promise of a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing. A land where you will lack nothing – Moses addressing the whole of the people of Israel and promising that not one of them would go hungry, that all would have not just enough, but abundance.

Moses also reminds the people that this abundance is not of their own making. He realizes that once they are comfortable in their fine homes with their crops and livestock that they may begin to think that what all of this is of their own making.  They will come to believe that they did it themselves and forget that they did not.  Moses reminds the people to be humble, to be grateful and to serve God, keeping God’s commandments.  What also strikes me in this passage is that the promise of abundance is made to all of the Israelite people – not a select few, not a few of the tribes but not the others – the promise of bread, figs, olive and honey is given to all of the people of Israel.  God’s love and care is abundant, freely given. 

So now let us turn to the reading from Luke.  Jesus is walking along the road and this group of ten lepers cries out to him for mercy.  They keep their distance as required by law. Leprosy is a terrible disease that causes severe physical discomfort and pain.  The skin is disfigured and painful. In Biblical times, lepers were required to live outside of cities as to not spread the condition.  It was a condition that resulted in both physical pain and social isolation, yet this group of ten calls out, asking for Jesus to have mercy on them.  They asked for mercy which for them would be rare and precious as they were feared and avoided by most.  Jesus sends them to the priest.  Along the way they are healed, the terrible pain and social isolation is to end.  It is the Samaritan, the foreigner, the despised one, the despised among the despised that comes back and offers thanks.  It is only at this point that Jesus asks any questions.  Were not all 10 healed?  Why is it only you the Samaritan that came to give thanks and praise?  

Again the message that God’s love is abundant, is for all – even the despised, even the despised of the despised.  Notice too that Jesus does not say well I am just going to un-heal those ungrateful 9.  The point of the story is that the unlikely one, the one outcast by humans that offers the thanks and praise. The point here, like in the story of the Good Samaritan is that God’s love cannot be boxed in, cannot be contained by human standards and judgments.

God’s love is universal, it is for each and every single person.  God’s love is so encompassing, so abundant, so generous that it exceeds all our human distinctions.  Jesus does not stop to ask what the lepers had done for themselves.  He doesn’t ask them to prove their worthiness, anymore than distinctions were made among the Israelites entering the Promised Land.

Lincoln in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation lists the many blessings in the land despite being in the midst of the Civil War.  The Civil War caused all sorts of hardship, pitting families against families and tore America literally apart.  Yet in the midst of this terrible moment, Lincoln lists many blessings – good crops, successful mining, peace with foreign nations and a growth of population. Lincoln also reminds the American people that our bounty and abundance come not from ourselves, is not self-generating but rather the gift of God. It is to God we need to be humble and offer thanks. It is a call to humility.  Lincoln also talks about the effects of the war on people from both sides … he calls for compassion for all not just those on the side of Union. How often in our country today, do we focus on the divisions rather than having compassion for all? How often do we believe that we have created our own success, our own abundance? How often do we turn our backs on those who we see as less than? Today, we celebrate the Thanksgiving that reminds us to reach across our differences and to offer gratitude for the abundance that we have been gifted in this place and time. We also grieve for those who lost their land, their freedom and their lives in the process of creating the country we know today. We remember that the giving part of Thanksgiving reminds us to give back especially to those who are considered the outcast.

On this Thanksgiving Holiday may we offer humble thanks for the gifts in our lives. May we remember the generosity and abundance of God’s love. Then out of that place of humility and gratitude, may we offer the abundant love of God to a world hurting and deeply in need of healing. May we offer the love of God which passes all understanding to each and every person we meet, including the despised one.  May we follow the life of Jesus who offered mercy, offered love, offered compassion to those who asked, without question, without hesitation.  In this spirit of God’s abundant love may we offer our humble thanks whether we are spending this holiday here in the Outer Banks or away from here. May we bring a spirit of humility to our homes, to our families, our community and our world.  The world needs our humble witness to the abundant power of God’s love! 

May it be so!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Religious and Spiritual Humility - Revisited

As I get ready to preach at an Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service this Sunday I thought this particular post from December 2013 would be appropriate.  I need to remember my own humility as I preach this Sunday afternoon!

In this season of travel and spending time with a diversity of family and friends I hope this post provides some helpful ways to embrace those who do not think and believe as we do.  In particular, with the rampant and frankly vile divisiveness in our politics right now, humility would go a long way to bring healing!

Hope you are having a wonderful Friday!

As always I welcome your comments and feedback!


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!