Monday, December 28, 2015

Waiting in the Dark

I preached this sermon on Sunday December 27, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock.

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."

Waiting in the Dark

It is so good to be back here with you all again!  It is always so good to see familiar faces.

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. I realized there was about an inch between the floor and the door 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 Henry Nowen, he also cautions us against rejecting the darkness. 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 when we let go of our fear of the dark and our anxiety about what we don’t know or can’t see 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 I am a J meaning I like plans and closure.  I like structure.  All of this is in stark contrast to being at peace with the dark and letting myself just live fully into the present.  Yet I know there is great truth in Nowen’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.  The last few months have brought this home to me in new and frankly very frightening ways.   I have been in the midst of a time of deep uncertainty and barely knowing where my next step will take me.  Many of the events have been outside of my control and the plans I had made did not work out in the ways I expected leaving me in the proverbial dark most of the time, looking for the light in all the wrong places it seems.

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. With everything uncertain and with a very real experience of scarcity, I have had to learn to ask for what my family and I need. I have had to accept that we could not make it on our own and to accept the help of others.

I have been battling the demons of darkness and worry.  While the dark can be a place of healing and renewal, it it is also place where our private demons come to dwell.  They eat away at us with messages of: What if it never gets better?  What if this is your life forever?  Or that You will never be able to make this any different. I am sure many of you can relate to the critical voices that can rise up and become even louder as we walk through these periods of darkness, waiting for the light.  While in the light of speech and acknowledgement, often these messages are exposed for the lies that they are, but in the dark, they seem so true and so very real.

In a culture that stresses individualism, in a political culture feeding on the very worst of our fears, we often believe the lies of isolation.  That the only way to survive is to circle the wagons and trust no one - certainly no one different, no outsiders.  Yet what if the answer actually lies in making the circle wider?  What if it lies in welcoming the stranger? What if the light lives in our coming together? What if the answer to our fears is becoming vulnerable?  Certainly that is one message of the Christmas story.  God humbles God’s self to become a vulnerable defenseless baby born to a poor family, far from home and on the run from those who would do harm.  What if this story tells us that it is in becoming vulnerable that we find light and hope?  What if in sharing our vulnerabilities, in opening ourselves to one another that greater dreams are born?  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?  As I said earlier, the darkness contains healing and renewal and yet it is often where our demons live as well.

Our  story today offers fanciful remedies to our fears of the dark.  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 calling to all of us?  Is it time to spend some time in the dark, listening to the silence, watching the shadows?  Are we needing a time of rest, lying fallow until what is next is ready?  What is waiting to born in you? What is waiting to be born in us?  What seeds are you planting?  What seeds can we plant together? 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? What are we waiting for?  What might our sharing our vulnerability, our story, opening up authentically, bring forth in us this year?

I invite each of us as 2015 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 us to wait in the dark and discover what is there waiting for us. I invite us to sit in this darkness together and see what light emerges.  Maybe it is a dream long delayed or one that we 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.  And remember you do not have to sit alone, being vulnerable and scared is easier when we hold the hands of others and just think how much better finding the light will be when it can be shared with those who have witnessed your journey in the darkness.

May we stop our planning for some day and plan just for today. May we look to what is needed today, right now, and may we trust that we will have enough light to take the next step.

Blessed Be!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Lights in the Darkness

I preached this sermon on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Lynchburg.

Story: adapted from  The Christmas Menorahs

Good morning, I am so glad to be with all of you this morning!

Our story this morning is about true events that happened in Billings Montana.

A number of people affiliated with hate groups moved into Billings. They started harassing people of color, Jewish people, anyone who was different than them.  They sent hateful mail. Some of the people in the town felt that the groups should just be ignored, that giving them attention was what they wanted. Others felt it was important to speak up and stop the incidents that were occurring. Those who wanted to respond and stop the mail and the harassment started doing community teach ins where they educated people about what was going on and how to respond.

One night during Hanukkah, some of these people started throwing rocks at the synagogue and into a home with a Menorah in the window.  The rock went through the window of a little boy and landed on his bed.  Fortunately he was not in it.  No one was harmed but the little boy was very scared.

His family, the police chief and a lay woman from one of the Christian congregations all rallied around.  The woman, Margaret MacDonald, remembering a story of a Danish town during World War II, encouraged everyone to put menorahs and pictures of menorahs in their windows.  And the people did.  Shops, homes, all put pictures of menorahs in their windows. The local newspaper ran a full page picture of a menorah that people could cut out and put in their window.

Now the little boy was still scared but he put his menorah back in his window too.  On the night of the Hanukkah service at the synagogue all sorts of people turned out, so many that they could not all fit in the building. Many people stood outside the synagogue ready to protect it and the people inside should it be necessary.

Eventually the hate groups went away, the hate mail and harassment stopped.  All because a town came together and said “Not in Our Town.”

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.”

Lights in the Darkness

Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you this morning!
At this time of shortening days and long nights, we are blessed with an abundance of celebrations of light – Advent, Hanukkah, Solstice.  All of them put at the center the lighting of candles – to remember, to acknowledge and to celebrate both the darkness and the light.

Right now Advent and Hanukkah overlap, as we begin the third week of Advent and the eighth day of Hanukkah.  Both of these holidays have rich stories that have much to say to us in our current context.  Hanukkah 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 and fried, jelly filled donuts.  Playing the dreidel for chocolate gelt is another fun Hanukkah tradition along with gifts for children.

The Hanukkah story is a 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 that begins on Dec. 25 marking Jesus’ birth.  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.   The stories of Advent are the foretelling of the coming of the Messiah. A savior that will usher in peace for the Jewish people and the world.  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. Our reading is a crying out of a people in exile and the prophet pleading for comfort for his people.  Many people around the world and in our country are crying out for comfort, for mercy, for relief.  Advent asks how will we respond to their cries.

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.  Solstice celebrations use fire and candles to welcome back the light, huge bonfires were lit in some places.
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?  What is crying out in our lives and in our world for comfort, for relief, for a light to shine in the darkness?

Recent events, the regular reports of mass shootings, the crisis of Syrian refugees and raging debate about whether or not we welcome them to the United States, the words of a presidential candidate who would create a registry of Muslims with id cards and not allow any Muslims to enter the country. Much like in our story this morning, we are faced with choices about how to respond to the fear and hate being demonstrated in our public discourse.  The number of acts of harassment and violence against Muslims are escalated all over the country.  The current rhetoric has tapped into the fear of the other, provided a scapegoat and even if the policies of targeting Muslims and others never come to pass, they give permission to people to incite violence on their own.
James Luther Adams, Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, would say that the free liberal church is where we learn to resist oppression. JLA wanted a faith that would be strong enough to resist the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.  For Adams, this begins within ourselves and spreads out.  Adams writes, “We need conversion within ourselves. Only by some such revolution can we be seized by a prophetic power that will enable us to proclaim both the judgment and the love of God. Only by some such conversion can we be possessed by a love that will not let us go.”

So as we face the challenges of our time, will we allow ourselves to be converted by a love that will not let us go?  Will we find the courage to speak both of love and judgement? Will we spread that love to others?   Will we speak words of judgement to those who seek to spread divisiveness and fear?  Will be a faith community that shines light and hope into the darkness?

As we celebrate this season of light, of hope, of lights in the darkness, how can we respond with love, light and hope to the fear and hatred being sown in our culture.  This season of lights calls to us respond with courage and love.

As we reflect on these celebrations of light let us think about what they have to teach us.  Let them call us into a deeper understanding and wisdom. 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?  How will these traditions inform our own spiritual practice?

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.

During this time in the life of our country, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with the violence of mass shootings, the loss of life in some communities at the hands of those who are charged to protect us and the rhetoric of politicians that seem to be tapping into the worst of our citizenry’s fears and prejudices … we can feel a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. However, if we tap into this season’s message of light, love and peace, we may find that we can offer hope in the midst of despair. As individuals, we can speak up in our communities, on social media with a voice that judges what is contrary to our beliefs and offers a vision of hope especially to those who feel outside. As a community, we can support one another in standing for justice, we can offer welcome and sanctuary to those who are being turned away and we can be a beacon of light and comfort in the midst of violence.

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.  We come together to make justice in the world - work we cannot do alone.  So however you celebrate this December, may it be filled with love, joy and wisdom. As JLA said, may we ‘be seized by a prophetic power” and “possessed by a love that will not let us go” so that we can speak truth to power and offer love and comfort to those who need it most.

May it be so!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

I Will Not Stay Silent!

Now is not the time for silence, or saying it could never happen. Bad things happen when good people don't read the signs of the times.  The signs of our time are very dire and bleak. When a person running for President of the United States can systematically insult, demean and put in grave risk whole groups of people of these United States and the world, then we as good people cannot stay silent.

As many have seen, Donald Trump called for a complete ban on Muslims, even those who are US citizens from entering the United States, in addition to calls for monitoring mosques and ID cards for Muslims.  Certainly Muslims are not the only targets of Trump's anger and violence - people of color, women, people with physical disabilities and immigrants (documented and not) have been targets of Trump.  His message is resonating with a whole group of people, mostly white men who are angry. The anger of this group of white men is not without cause - after all many are working class who see every year that their jobs are vanishing and wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living for decades now.  Our political rhetoric, particularly from the right, blames immigrants, poor people, people of color for their problems rather than an economy that privileges the top 1% over everyone else. Donald Trump is tapping into their anger and frustration and giving them someone to blame when ultimately those like Mr. Trump who are a part of the 1% are cashing in on that anger in a myriad of ways.

Does this blame game sound familiar?  It should, because it is the foundational story of nearly every act of genocide.  Jews were to blame for Germany's problems, Tutsis in Rwanda, Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.  In the United States, we rounded up those of Japanese descent under the guise of national security. Over and over again, after the truth comes out, we are horrified and we pledge "never again." We see the pattern that good people ignored the signs, they didn't think it could happen, not here, surely it is just rhetoric or that they spoke up too late or not at all.

We cannot just sit back and say "Oh No it will never happen here." We must speak up now and over and over again.  We cannot let Trump's words go unchallenged.

This list, which came from Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, a Unitarian Universalist friend and colleague, of things we can do right now to be allies to the Muslim community.

I do not use Nazi analogies lightly, but the leading contender for one party's nomination has suggested we should shut down mosques and close immigration to Muslims. It is time to talk about fascism, religious persecution, and how we stop them.
What did Jews need German non-Jews to do when anti-Semitic demagoguery threatened them?  
Please. Do it now. 
I asked Samina Sundas what we UUs could do to support Muslims in our area and she said, please come to our Eid celebration and sponsor it if you can; I'll be asking the Board to do the latter, and urge you all to do the former. Dan established a relationship with the new mosque on San Antonio so that our middle schoolers could visit for their "Neighboring Faiths" program--we'll be asking them what they need from their non-Muslim neighbors.

Writing to the paper and declaring your support tells anti-Muslim cranks that it's they, not Muslims, who are isolated.

Make a video of yourself saying how you feel and put it on YouTube so that the world knows the people at Trump rallies don't speak for us.

Choose one thing and do it, so that we will not look back on this time and say "Why were the 'good Americans' silent?"

Each of us can do our part and most importantly we can pay attention and take seriously the threats that are being made against whole groups of people. Faith, authentic living, decent humanity demand that this time we don't just look back and say "never again"; if we mean it, then we will speak up and act now to stop this.

During this season of lights, of hope, of celebrating the return of the light after the darkest, longest night, of the oil that burned for eight nights instead of one, may we let our own light shine into these dark corners bringing light, hope and love!

Blessings during this holiday season!  May it be one filled with 
hope, peace and love for each of us and the world!