Rejoicing and Dreaming

UUCSF Board members, February 5, 2012

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.
– James Baldwin

Dreams are the touchstones of our character.
– Henry David Thoreau

       
We are a spiritual community.                                  Margaret Pulkingham
In thinking about this phrase I dipped into my experience and pulled up a few memories to help me express to you what it means to me personally.

I recall my father kneeling at his bedside daily praying and reading from a selection of prayers and meditations as well as saying the rosary. In this context spirituality had something ritualistic, quiet, private and “other worldly” about it.

In second grade in a parochial school, my teacher, a youthful nun took our class into the sanctuary of the church as she had a task to perform on the altar. Instead of the usual genuflection, signing of the cross and bowing of the head that I was taught and accustomed to, she ran up to the altar waved her hand high and shouted “Hi God.” From this I gleaned, with a smile, that spirituality involved relationship and glee.

In 8th grade I was contemplating the idea of becoming a nun. My mother (even though she was not Catholic and not in favor of the idea, she didn’t want my head to be covered with a veil) lovingly took me to a convent to investigate the idea as a possibility for further down the road. What attracted me was a group of people set aside for a common purpose. This seemed “spiritual” to me.

For more than a decade I was a member of The Community of Celebration, a nondenominational religious community under the auspices of the Anglican Church in Great Britain. That is a story all unto its own. For today’s purposes, this was an intentional community living out life differently than the mainstream. We had a common purse and worked out a vision for our life of service together reviewed annually through a week of conversation, meditation and fasting. This gave me a vision of spirituality involving commitment and permission to walk to the beat of a different drummer, as well as an example of what working in communion with others can do. There is power and comfort in numbers.

In another decade I was cofounder of Pathways Wellness Center in Galveston, Texas. Among other things, I practiced and led guided meditations and facilitated workshops about conscious, mindful living. Once again spirituality meant reflectively walking a different path in service to others.

About 6 or 7 years ago on a Sunday I walked into this sanctuary and was washed in yellow light and knew immediately that this was part of my next step on a spiritual path. What struck me then was the light, the sharing of common concerns and joys and the mindful attention given to how to “be” in this world. The words shared from the podium were both intellectually stimulating and in service to the heart (A necessary combination for me). With continued attendance I found a place where one could explore one’s own spirituality within a supportive context. At the time, I was in the midst of a family of teenagers and so wanted them to have such a place. Through their religious education classes, Coming of Age preparation and OWL I believe UUCSF made significant inroads in the discovery of their evolving selves.

So, in closing…. The statement “We are a spiritual community” means to me …
An intentional group of people set aside to be:

*reflective            
*in gleeful relationship with one another
*marching to a tune of a different drummer
* visionaries in service to others modeling a different way of life based on thoughtful intention and commitment, leaving behind mediocrity.
This is my dream for UUCSF in the years to come.

 We honor every individual’s search for truth and meaning.       Imke Littman

UU’s have a long history of religious tolerance, where the first edict of religious toleration was declared in 1568 during the reign of the first and only Unitarian king, John Sigismund. This is still one of the cornerstones for UU mission and principle statements. The freedom to express ones believes and thoughts in public, in our case, to a congregation and not be ridiculed or punished for it. 

Out of this tolerance our denomination has stood up for many discriminated groups such as LGBT, fighting racism by welcoming and including multicultural all people regardless of race or religion and affirm everyone’s search for truth and meaning. Indeed, one of our mission statements says the following:
“We honor every individual’s search for truth and meaning” OR multiple truths and multiple meaning, as I see it. 

I am struggling with the concept of truth and meaning. It is one of the most complex and versatile concepts mankind has always struggled with and still does.  But before we honor the “individual’s search” I think we should know what truth and meaning might be.

Truth is a hard concept; it depends on each person’s perception.  It sounds so black and white and I will leave it behind.

Meaning, again each person’s perception of it, seems elusive, but I can relate to it.  My life’s tragedies and I know we all have had our unfair share, have made me more pensive.   Let me state right here:  I truly love life! I have outlived my entire immediate German family and that is the problem.  Why were they taken by illness and war and not I?  Why is it I who is hiking the Sabino mountains in Tucson and not them. Why is there so much suffering which nobody is able to alleviate?  For me, meaning of life has become random events.  Randomness has supplanted meaning.

One of the things, I think, that we do well in our congregation is our various book discussion groups.  I try to attend most, and even if they do not necessarily answer the issues of meaning and truth, they often address these issues in different ways, open up my mind and give me a sense of serenity at times.  It is these discussions and some of the Sunday’s worship sermons which I ponder on my long walks along the ocean with the world’s best dog.

Coming back to King Sigismund and his declaration of religious freedom and thought, I had my own epiphany as a young teenager.  Attending Lutheran confirmation classes, the fatherly pastor declared at one point that God is not necessarily in heaven, but that he can be found in the root of tree.  As our congregation continues to evolve, this freedom of thought and being allowed to do my own search for meaning, probably lead me in my adult life to the UU denomination and its empowering mission statements.

We act against exclusion, oppression, and violence.   John Andrews

 I’d first like to thank Chris Epifania for some helpful insights that went into this.  

 As we look around us today, we have many opportunities to strike a blow against exclusion, oppression, and violence. The problem isn’t lack of opportunity. On the contrary, there are so many wrongs that need righting that it’s easy to be overwhelmed and end up doing nothing.

As individuals we can donate to causes that tug at our hearts. As a congregation, we can lend support to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. It seems to me, though, that as a faith community we need to do more. And although supporting far-away causes is very worthwhile, I think we need to do something right here on eastern Long Island.

Do we have exclusion, oppression, and violence in the Hamptons? Of course we do. Think of immigrants facing expressions of hate. Think of victims of domestic violence. Think of African Americans who, for all the progress our country has made, still face discrimination.

But these groups, although they experience exclusion, oppression, and even violence on a day-by-day basis, are usually able to find some faith community that welcomes them. That’s not so true for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They find that the doors of faith are often—I guess I’d say usually—closed to people who so identify unless an essential aspect of who they are is hidden.    

We Unitarian Universalists of the South Fork undertook a process to become recognized by our denomination as a Welcoming Congregation. It seems, though, that once we got that purple plaque on our wall, we mostly adopted a “been there, done that” stance. Are we accepting? Are we welcoming? I think we are. But most of us—including myself, I’m afraid—haven’t taken the critical step toward becoming effective allies. 

The difficulty of taking the step from acceptance to alliance should not be minimized. To be an ally is to be identified with those we’ve joined in alliance. We take on any stigma that others project onto them, and, even worse, any stigma that still resides in the recesses of our own unconscious. For a straight person to become an ally can be as much of a struggle as for a gay person to “come out.” For this reason, the very idea of alliance often meets with resistance, which can take the form of not participating in events that address gay concerns or annoyance when the issue is brought up.

The fear has not gone unexpressed that if we were to attract many lesbian and gay members, we’d become known as the “gay church.” Could that pose difficulties? Yes it could. But it’s a problem I’d love to have.

We nurture the health of the earth.   John Andrews  (standing in for Myrna Truitt)

It’s been a long journey. In 2008, Chris Epifania and I attended a week-long UU retreat where Alison was one of the presenters. There the idea was born to establish a Futures Team in our congregation. To collapse a lot of history, that resulted in our mission/vision statement. It was a huge effort, but the statement we have, which today our Board is honoring with these reflections, is a beautiful expression of aspiration and hope.

Yet even as we were crafting our statement, our social justice work was getting stuck. This congregation, which in past years had earned a reputation for standing up for justice and peace, seemed to be losing lift. 

That’s why, last summer, our Board established the Living our Unitarian Universalist Values Team, or LUUV Team for short. Its purpose was to see how we could bring renewed life into our efforts for social justice, which by no coincidence takes up half of our mission/vision statement. Throughout the fall, Tip Brolin, Ken Ettlinger, Marianne Koerner, Diana Lindley, and Myrna Truitt, along with Alison and me, met and corresponded by email.

First we surveyed the congregation to determine where our interest and passion lay. No single issue dominated, but environment stood out as the most common concern. That seemed too general and unfocused, though, to serve as a basis for concerted action, and so after further discussion we selected water as the specific theme. We chose the name Water Justice for this initiative, and we concluded that it should emphasize both local and global aspects of water as an essential requisite for human flourishing in a healthy environment. 

On March 25 the LUUV Team will conduct a service on this initiative. There’ll be a congregational conversation afterward, to see what specific projects draw enough interest and commitment to predict results worthy of the effort. We’ve outlined four potential projects, two local and two global, and are open to additional suggestions. Details will be forthcoming soon. 

With the Water Justice initiative, our congregation will have the opportunity to honor with action the sentence in our mission/vision statement that says, “We nurture the health of the earth.”

We strive for peace in our hearts and in the world around us.   Kent Martin

The song goes “Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me”.  Our identity statement reads “We strive for peace in our hearts and in the world around us”.  There is a sequence in each of these sentences.  First comes peace in our hearts, then peace in the world follows.  As I reflect on peace in my life, our family’s getting-ready-for-school routine comes to mind.  It is often rushed and with a fair share of yelling.  We try to counter these moments with civil dinner table conversation but once in a while yelling happens there as well.  One of the best things I as an individual, and our family does, that encourages peace is outdoor activity – a walk to the beach, a hike to Penny Pond  or a bicycle ride – even shoveling snow.  Occasionally I carve out time for a brief meditation before the work day – I’m sure many of you have your own practices that bring inner peace.

Stress and anxiety strike me as the opposite of personal peace.  Can the simple act of breathing bring inner peace?  Andrew Weil, doctor and pioneer in natural healing techniques discusses what he has found to be a great de-stressing technique.  After missing a flight to a speaking engagement he finds that taking a deep breath, holding it for 6 seconds, then slowly releasing and repeating this process three times pulls the stress out of your body. I’ve used this technique in the middle of a stressful work day when competing demands come together with a common deadlines.

Peace in the world around us also manifests in the way we greet our neighbors and even strangers.  A “how are you?” to a retail or grocery clerk, or a simple “hello” as one passes a stranger on the street allows each of us to feel valued and respected, building a feeling of goodwill and peace as we move through our day.  This may be especially challenging when we’re in a hurry and behind the wheel – an opportunity for growth for me.  It has been my experience that email communication with colleagues or strangers, or posts on a blog, can be misunderstood if the sender is hurried.  It helps me to reread each email I send to make sure I strike the tone I want.   A card or an email can also be a powerful tool to build peace in sharing care and love for each other.

Our Unitarian Universalist tradition helps us build peace in ourselves and the world. Our national organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association, offers tools for congregational peace work. Our congregation recently held a workshop on Nonviolent Communication – another aspect of our peace work.  I am inspired by my fellow congregation members as we march together in the 4th of July parade bearing witness to the insanity of war.  I struggle to write my congressional delegation and state legislators more often.  Being a peacemaker entails fighting for justice and truth with our pens and our presence at town hall and on the mall in Washington DC.  Our government needs to hear from us.  What if simply envisioning peace in Palestine and other troubled areas is helpful?  I try to reflect on this in periods of meditation when I can.

I look forward to learning more about peace from each of you.

When fear strikes, we stand on the side of love.   Mark Potter

Two years ago my wife and I decided to avoid the interstate freeways and drive to the Adirondacks over blue highways. This took us up a winding route along the Housatonic River, then north on Route 22 to Lake Champlain and the mountains. We passed through dozens of forgotten towns and small cities–diners, factories and homes right from the pages of a Norman Rockwell calendar.

Somewhere in one of these cities, waiting on a corner outside a phone booth, was a lady in a burka. We were at a stop light, so I had time to think about her and the man in a soiled dark suit talking in the phone booth.

My first reaction when I saw this woman was to consider a lecture about the rights of women in a free country… Where did this thought come from?

When we speak of fear in our mission statement, I don’t think we are talking about fear of heights, or fear of the dark, or fear of driving the Long Island Expressway. I think we are talking about the fear of other people, people who don’t behave like you and me.

Each of us has a different fear button. For some it may be a group of young men clustered outside a bar at midnight, for others it may be a line up of immigrants looking for work outside a 7-11, or a squeegee man thrusting a dirty rag onto our windshield, or a homeless person sitting among his treasures.

It is easy to rationalize these fears and easier yet to deny they exist in ourselves.

Fear blinds us to a stranger’s humanity. We forget that behind the clothing and peculiar accent is a human being who loves, reasons and fears just as we do ourselves.

Over the next year, my dream is to see our congregation work to understand and reduce these fears wherever we find them…in ourselves and beyond the walls of the congregation. Perhaps we can become more closely involved with Maureen’s Haven, or help troubled men and women integrate into the community. Or perhaps we can influence our politicians to call back the mandatory sentencing laws.  I am confident we can do more.

An article in last week’s New Yorker informed us that we have more African-American men imprisoned today than were in slavery before the Civil War. I can’t help but wonder what will our great grandchildren think of us?

 

 

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