Monday, May 26, 2014

Life Is Not Like School

Now maybe for some of you out there this does not come as a major revelation, yet for me this hit home.  I was on a Confidence Coaching call with David Kaiser from Dark Matter Consulting and David said "Work is not like school. Your boss does not give you assignments and then you turn them and get approval."  Yet I realized when he said that how much I unconsciously expect life to work like school.

You see I am good at school. I played school as a child (it comes honest, my mother and grandmother were teachers), I have a degree from Georgetown, a Masters Degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara (ok it was Berkeley when I graduated) and enough credits for an M.Div. thanks to my years at Wesley Theological Seminary and my year at Starr King.  See I got very very good at school, not to the point of being top of my class or earning top honors but I know how to do school. I know exactly how much work I needed to do to get the grade I wanted.  I had teachers who pushed me and inspired me to do my best. Probably if I had had some good mentoring and support, I probably would have done great getting a PhD and spending my life teaching.

What I realized on that call is that I keep expecting, again not consciously, for life to respond to me like school. That life will give me assignments, with clear directions as to completion, my job is to create the product that has been assigned.  Now granted graduate school did give me the opportunity to explore some of my own ideas, to create my own final project for my MTS (which was terrifying by the way). For the most part however, I was given the assignments, did the work and rewarded for my efforts.

Yet work does not work that way, certainly life doesn't work that way. Life doesn't give you assignments, it gives you experiences and opportunities.  Life is about what you will do with those experiences and opportunities. There is no guaranteed outcome.  You can do the very best job at an opportunity and you can still  fail or be fired or someone won't like it. You can be the most qualified, amazing person for a job and may not get it or you may get fired from it.  It is a myth that we base things on merit.  Only school, and even then not always, rewards merit.

What it all means? Well that it is really up to each of us.  For some people being fired from a job is the best thing that has ever happened to them.  They are overjoyed (oh sure it may sting) or if not overjoyed they are relieved.  Others it is truly the end of the world and they can't recover. They may take their life.  They may sink into a depression that it will take them months or years to emerge from.  Some are born into situations of incredible adversity and they are able to overcome it and for others, far too many others, they can't. Yet somehow we expect them to.  It is about the story we tell ourselves and too often the story we have been told to tell ourselves.  Far too often others tell us what an event or experience is supposed to mean, and far too often we listen and believe it.  So if you are told often enough - you will never amount to anything, your circumstances are too far gone then chances are you will believe it even if your soul is screaming "No No No No!"

Also key is that in life we are not in control. You see school taught me that I was in control.  That as long as I did the work assigned and got the right answers I would be rewarded.  I was taught it didn't matter if I didn't like my teacher, it didn't matter what other students did or did not do, I was master here and whatever I did or did not do was all that mattered. Yet in life other people do matter.  In fact those people who overcome all the odds, behind them you will find teachers, mentors, parents who supported them, believed them, coached them.  They help silence the voices that say it won't ever be different.  I was blessed by amazing educational opportunities and yes while I created some of that myself so much of it came because of my family, where I was born, what I was given, what I was not in control of in the least.

In addition, somewhere along the way, maybe because I went to all Catholic schools growing up, my initial ideas about vocation were very much like school. God has a plan for each of us, each of us has a gift to give the world. Our job is to figure out what God has planned for us - the assignment - then we are to live that out as best we can and then at the end God will let us know how well we did.  Now obviously if you read this blog, you know that my ideas, thoughts and reflections about vocation have grown beyond this. Yet this still resides within.  One thing we often forget in developmental theory is that whether we are talking about stages of moral development, faith development, emotional development etc. we all still have the stages within us. Just because I am not just at the magical thinking stage of faith development doesn't mean that part of me doesn't still practice it - particularly at times of stress.  So sometimes when it feels really hard, I think I didn't get the assignment right, or that I am not doing the assignment the way I am supposed to (goodness knows there have been enough people letting me know that they don't think I have it right or that I am doing it the right way in the least) - then I need to stop.  I need to be reminded that life is not school, there is no assignment and I am not necessarily doing it wrong. It is just hard right now - so as one of my favorite memes right now says "Yell Plot Twist and Move On."

So life is not like school.  It is not about assignments and checking off requirement lists.  God doesn't hand out assignments along with hair and eye color.  Life is more like home school.  You have to dive in and figure it out. You have to follow your interests and figure out they ways you learn best.  As a homeschool parent who was schooled, my first task was to let go of what it means to "learn" to be "educated" and what school "has" to look like.  Our home school does not look anything like school as I experienced it.  Our homeschool is experimental, involves cooking, videos, books, and lots and lots of talking.  Oh and the thing that is the most different?  We do it as a family.  While Donna takes the lead, I get to come along on the field trips. If I post the article about the lunar eclipse at 3 am (why are astronomical events always at 3 am?) then I am the one getting up to see if we can see it.  School does not happen between 8 and 3, M through F with summers off.  Homeschool happens whenever and wherever - like life does!

The key to vocation and to life is making a study of yourself, of who you are.  It is understanding who you are at your core, not the person you are supposed to be, not your parent's dream of who you are or would be, not the person society says you should want to be.  Life and vocation are about fully and authentically becoming the person you came into this world to be.  The person you have to be because your soul will not let you be anything less!  When will you graduate? Only when your life is done!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Flower Communion: Celebrating the Beauty of Diversity

I preached this sermon on Sunday May 18, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.
Story: The First Flower Communion
Reading: "For the Flowers Have the Gift of Language" by Reginald Zottoli

Flower Communion is one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist Services.  I love that we all bring a wide range of flowers. Some come from our own gardens, some from other people’s gardens, some from stores and I have even been in congregations where congregants bring them from the grounds of the congregation itself forgetting until they get there that they were asked to bring a flower.  And every congregation I have served always made sure there would be more than enough flowers for those who are new, those who forgot and those who did not know it was Flower Communion Sunday. 

Norbert Capek wanted a ritual that his congregation, many who had left and been hurt by Roman Catholicism, could relate to.  He actually called it a Flower Festival in order to be sensitive to the feelings of his congregants.  The first flower festival took place in June 1923.

It was Norbert Capek’s wife, Maja who brought the Flower Festival Ritual to the United States.  Norbert and Maja, a Czech born American, met in New York where Norbert was studying for his PhD. After he finished his studies and discovering Unitarianism, Maja and Norbert founded the Unitarian church in Prague. Maja became a minister herself, ordained in 1926.  Maja toured the United States in 1940 and introduced the Flower Festival to the members of the Cambridge, MA Unitarian church.  Unfortunately the outbreak of World War II prevented Maja from returning to Prague. After the war ended, she learned that Norbert, who was vehemently opposed to the Nazi regime, was caught listening to foreign broadcasts and accused of high treason and died in a Nazi death camp.

The Flower Festival honors the diversity found in our faith communities.  Each of us comes here, each unique, each with a different view, looking for different things, exploring different paths and here we find community. Here we find other seekers to share the journey. We listen, learn and laugh with each other.  We gather together affirming that while we may each be seeking our own truth, it helps to have others to learn and share with.  As Unitarian Universalists we affirm that we are interconnected – that we need one another.

We gather together in community and take full responsibility for the health and vitality of this faith community.  It is our hands that do the work, our hands that raise the money, steward the funds assuring that there will be enough for today and enough going forward.  The pledge campaign going on right now, will let us know how much we can spend next year. It will direct the budget.  The offering each week is not just about collecting money. It is a collective spiritual practice of abundance.  It serves not just the needs within this faith community, but it allows us to support organizations in the Outer Banks.  Our practice of abundance supports us and the larger community of the Outer Banks. 

We cannot talk here about a leadership that is “them” and not “us” for we are the leaders, those who we will elect to serve in formal leadership positions in about month are voted upon by us, and they are us.  It is a requirement to serve in an elected leadership position that one be an active pledging member of this faith community.  Literally without us, without the people, there is no Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks. 

While I am not usually a big fan of Puritan austerity there was something to that style of plain architecture, with no pictures, no images to remind the community that the church was not the building but rather the people within. 

It reminds me of a game my mother used to play with me when I was a child.  She would put her hands together like this (demonstrate) and “here is the church, and here is the steeple, open the doors and there’s all the people.”  She taught me an important lesson that the church was the people; that without the people the church was just an empty building.

Both Unitarian Universalists and Americans state that we value diversity, affirming “that all are created equal.” Yet still we struggle with diversity; we struggle with the living the truth that all are created equal and to value the ways we are different. As human beings it often seems like we are hard wired to seek out only those who are like ourselves and to fear those who are different.  Now maybe in the early days of human history this was a wise strategy.  Maybe we needed just our own small like-minded, like-looking tribes to survive.  Yet in our globally interconnected world, this in-ward focus is dangerous to ourselves, others and to the planet that we share.  Now we live in a country that is rapidly becoming a majority of minorities. This is already true for those children being born today.  Today it is necessary for us to interact and get along with those who are different from us.

As Unitarian Universalists we have longed affirmed both the worth and dignity of the person and that we are all connected.  We are invited to value the beauty of each person as well as of the whole.  Yet in many ways we Unitarian Universalists too struggle with diversity.  Our diversity is found in our diverse spiritual journeys, our theology, in gender, in sexual orientation and yet one would be hard pressed to look at most Unitarian Universalist congregations and say we are truly diverse.  We are still a mostly white, mostly well-educated and an increasingly older faith community.  We struggle to attract younger people and people of color. Yet we know that our message of inclusivity is not just one for us.  Our message that there is more than one path; that we can doubt, wrestle with tradition and scripture is not just for us alone.  We have a message as Unitarian Universalists that is broader and more diverse than just who might typically be within our walls.  We know that our faith communities are stronger, more vital and more relevant when we don’t just play lip service to diversity, but when we actually actively engage with diversity.  We should also remember that we are not just waiting for diversity to come to us, it is already present in our midst … sometimes in only focusing on only what UU communities typically look like, we forget to celebrate the diversity that is already present.

So what does all this have to do with flowers and a flower communion?  Flowers remind us that each flower is unique and beautiful in its own right. There are so many different flowers and they are beautiful in so many different ways.  We don’t become “colorblind” to the flowers – we don’t see just one but we see all the colors in all their beauty.  Some smell amazing and some have no smell at all. Some flower buds become fruit or vegetables. They are all different colors and sizes and shapes.  They remind us that the flowers don’t fight with each other about how their own particular kind of beauty is the superior one.  The rose is not bothered by the beauty of the iris or the strawberry.  Each blooms, each reminds us of the beauty of life.  We use flowers to celebrate so many occasions, happy and sad.  We give flowers to performers, to graduates, they are present at weddings, and births. They are present at the hardest times as well – when people are sick, when they are facing surgery, flowers are present at our funerals and memorials.  In the midst of death, the flowers remind us of the beauty of life. 

Flowers can remind us to value difference, to seek out the unique beauty found in each.  The flower communion itself reminds us that the bouquet we make together is a thing of beauty … so that both the individual flower and the collective joining of flowers are pieces of art. For diversity requires more than mere tolerance; tolerance won’t lead to thriving, vibrant diverse communities.  It might keep us from killing each other but for true diversity to thrive, we need to respect, to appreciate, to seek the beauty that is different than our own.

So today we celebrate the diversity present in this community!  We celebrate our different ages, our different life experiences, our different genders, races, sexual orientations, different theologies, belief and non-belief, parents and non-parents, adopted and not, temporarily abled and disabled.  We celebrate all of us.  As Capek spoke in 1923:

“We are like these flowers,” he said. “Different colors, different ages, different sizes. We are different in so many ways. But each of us is beautiful and important, in our own way. Like these flowers.”

Without each person, each unique person’s beauty, this community of UUCOB would not be the beautiful warm and welcoming faith community that it is.  Each person present here whether for the first time or the 100th, whether they are life-long Unitarian Universalists or not, whether this is their first UU congregation or their 10th – each person is a part.  Each time we invite a new person in, each time a new person walks through that door, their beauty is added to the bouquet.  When we lose a member of this community, we mourn their loss and the memory of their beauty, like the beauty of the flower after it withers, remains in our hearts and minds. 

Flowers remind us, as well, that life is short and to live fully while we are here.  We have the opportunity in the brief time we are alive to share our beauty with others and with the world so that after we are gone, our memory will be a blessing, our beauty will live on in the memories of those whose lives we touch.  Norbert Capek lived to be seventy-two years old and seventy-two years later, his memory and beauty live on in the Flower Communion!  Thank you Norbert and Maja, for this gift of the Flower Festival – May it live on and may your story not be forgotten!

Blessed Be!

Monday, May 5, 2014

May Pole - Life Renewed

I preached this sermon Sunday May 4, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Today we celebrate Beltane which literally means “bright fire.”  In many places, this festive holiday is celebrated with fire as well as flowers, braided ribbons and the May Pole.  May 1 is also International Workers Rights Day and marks the anniversary of many key battles on the way to securing basic labor rights such as the 8 hour day, the weekend, safe working conditions, and the right for workers to organize and bargain collectively.  Here in the United States we don’t celebrate labor until September as the government sought to distance the holiday from its links to communism and the more radical fringes of the workers’ rights movements.

I tried to find a connection between this festive celebration of fertility and the renewal of life and workers’ rights.  I could not find a direct correlation, it does not seem that workers intentionally chose this particular time or holiday to fight for decent and fair working conditions.  Yet as I have been looking at the juxtaposition of these 2 events I have been thinking about how life is cyclical.  That while the way we measure time is very linear with beginning, middle and end.  Nature and the earth show us that a spiral is a more holistic vision.   And it seems that history too is more a spiral, with what may have thought to have been settled in one era, comes back in new ways, with new challenges and new opportunities.

Beltane is one of the major pagan holidays and it marks the turning of winter to summer.  In some traditions the story of the King of Winter and King of Summer is told, dueling out for supremacy until finally summer wins out.  I know for us here in the southeast, we have been very ready for the defeat of winter and renewal of life and warmth.  In ancient times of course this was literally a time of life or death.  A hard winter took its toll on people, animals and the earth.  Food stores would be low.  The imperative of a good spring and the harvest to follow meant how well the people and animals would survive the return of winter.  In our industrialized world we have lost touch with many elements of this.  Most of us have the privilege of enjoying a bounty of food choices all year round.  As we remember that in the midst of such bounty, many of our neighbors are suffering from food insecurity relying on local food pantries to make it through each month.  The cold winter was hard but for most not life threating.  We were grateful for heat pumps and lights and warm clothes. Yet I know for me this spring is deeply welcomed.  I love the green on the trees, the blooming flowers.  We have been following three families of geese along the canal as the goslings seem to get bigger every day.  Even in this body that often lives disconnected from the rhythms of nature, I feel, see and smell the renewal of life.  Yes the wheel has turned again and life is renewed.

I also sense the cycle of history turning again.  We are once again paying attention to the deep chasm between the haves and the have nots.  Another gilded age has emerged and with it a renewed attention to workers, wages and working conditions.  Just this week the Senate considered a bill to raise the minimum wage.  Just like before the fight for justice for working people will not be easily won. It will not come quickly.  It will come too late for many.  Yet once again, people are organizing, they are talking and they are taking action for an economic and labor system that is more just.  The wheel turns again and once again the rights of workers calls for our attention.

Here in the Outer Banks the season is also shifting.  The tourists and seasonal residents are returning.  Spring break had the pottery place where I do office hours filled with patrons.  There is more traffic on the road. Many here are ready and already busy with the rental season, homes being cleaned, residents in and out.

Here at UUCOB the annual pledge drive is underway.  The letters have gone out.  We reflect on what this faith community has meant to us.  What gifts has it given?  What is our gift to this community?  How can we do our part to support financially the life and work of this liberal faith community here in the Outer Banks? Our nominating committee is hard at work searching for leaders … those who will give of their time to help the important work of this community move forward.  The wheel turns and life renews as some of our leaders step down or take different jobs and others step up.  The wheel turns and we start a new fiscal year in just a couple of months celebrating all that we did this year and looking forward to what we can do next.

What in your life is shifting and changing?  What cocoons and hibernations are shedding? What new possibilities are emerging?  As new life emerges around us, what is emerging within you?  What hopes do you plant for this spring and summer?  What do you hope to harvest?  This is the season of planting after a season of dreaming.  What dreams do you hope to manifest?

In a few moments, we will go outside and dance the May Pole, Its meaning is to ask for an abundant harvest, a blessing of the land. That new life would be abundant – animal life, plant life, human life. It celebrates possibility.  As you dance the May Pole what are we hoping to move from possible to probable to real? What is waiting to be born within each of us? Within this community?

Come let us celebrate the possibilities!