Are You Living Your Dream?

Reading: 8 Ways to Create the Life You Want by Phil Keoghan
So what’s on your list? I’m not talking about a grocery list. Or a to-do-around-the-house list. I want to know what’s on your List for Life. Show me the list where you’ve written down all the meaningful, memorable, or just-plain-crazy things you want to do in your lifetime.
You mean you don’t have a list like that? You’re not alone. Most people never take the time to even think about such things – let alone write them down. We’re all too busy dealing with the everyday realities of life. There are children to raise, jobs to do, bills to pay, houses that require tending. Who needs a list of even more stuff to do?
You do. I do. We all do. Human beings crave new challenges and experiences. We always want a little more out of life, even if we’re not sure what that more is, exactly. Scientists have found the desire to experience – to explore, try new things, learn, be stimulated and test ourselves – is hard-wired in our genes. Even if you think your hectic daily routine is demanding enough, something inside you (specifically , the D4DR gene, which I call Gene Wild) yearns to break out of that routine occasionally to try something different.
If you ignore Gene Wild, you will always have a little itch in your soul that remains unscratched.

Sermon: Are You Living Your Dream? January 4, 2015 Rev. Nancy O. Arnold UU Congregation of the South Fork

It has been a long time since I allowed myself to dream. As a child I lived for my dreams — creating the life I wanted in my mind. The dreams were mostly for the present back then. I was going to be transformed from the fat ugly duckling into the girl who was popular and got chosen for the team. I would make the winning throw/kick/hit/basket – depended on which “team” I was on – and I would be adored for my talent and embraced by my teammates.

There are some dreams that are best put aside. There was a reason I was never chosen to play the games. I do not have an athletic bone in my body. I can’t think and move at the same time, and I just don’t get competitive sports. However, I’m a great fan. My strength is in cheering for the other players.

More than twenty years ago, writer-director-teacher, Julia Cameron, introduced The Artist’s Way. She developed the program to encourage creativity as a spiritual practice. When I did the Artists Way program many years ago, it reminded me once again of what it felt like to dream. There had been many years when my life had detoured to accommodate the needs and dreams of others. But there were also some when I set my sights on something and achieved it. Returning to school and becoming a minister were among those dreams. But what I had forgotten is that the dreaming can’t end when you reach the goal.

“If your ideal self has been achieved,” Gail Sheehy writes, “what happens after the dream comes true? If you don’t replace it with a new dream, there may be no zeal left for the future, although there may be plenty to fear.” (Gaily Sheehy, Passages) The Artist’s Way helped me to recognize that there were still things I wanted to do. There was still an unknown woman waiting to become a creative spirit.

Since then, I met Jerry, my life partner; I fulfilled a lifelong dream of going to Ireland. With Jerry, I’ve traveled more than I ever hoped – to places like Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Israel, Romania, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and Nova Scotia. England and Scotland are on

the roster for March of this year. After treatment for breast cancer, my dream list was reconstituted. Before the year was out, I had gone parasailing for the first (and probably last) time and I went to a free concert in Central Park to celebrate Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and saw, not only Arlo (a favorite of mine from the sixties), but the entire Guthrie clan including small children. And then participating in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage fulfilled another long held dream.

Along the way, my home office has been organized – disorganized, and reorganized – several times now. As a minister I worked with one congregation to fulfill its dream of building a new Fellowship Hall, and with others to prepare for new ministries. And this last summer, after biking more than 30 miles on the Erie Canal towpath with my friend Sue, I realized that riding three or five miles around town was not the impossible venture I had made it out to be. Now I create opportunities to bike to various appointments and stores whenever possible.

And yet, I find that once again, I am waiting to unleash that creative spirit. The dreaming detoured a bit as I devoted myself to relocating and exploring different forms of ministry. I find myself putting up the roadblocks that keep me out of those restricted pathways to the unknown. It’s easy to fall back into old patterns of behavior in which meeting the needs of others, and putting “the greater good” before personal hopes and dreams takes precedence. We may not even notice when we stopped dreaming, or perhaps settling for the life we have.

There’s a 30-second “Are You Living Your Dream? Quiz” that may help to awaken a dormant longing.

  1. Do you know what your dream is?

  2. Are you living the life that you were meant to live?

  3. Does your current profession make you feel alive and grateful to do the work you do?

  4. Do your daily activities match your heart’s desire?

  5. Are you content with your self-expression in the world?

  6. Are you content with your current fantasies?

  7. Are you content with your level of skills, training or education?

  8. Are you content with the image you project about who you are?

  9. Do you make time every day to focus on yourself in some kind of positive and rewarding

    way?

  10. Are you following your passion?

If you answer one or more of these ten questions with a “no,” you probably aren’t living your dream life.

What is it we tell ourselves to keep from acting on our own dreams? “I could do that, if only…” “It’s too late.” Julia Cameron suggests we stop waiting for things to be different:

Stop waiting until you make enough money to do something you’d really love.
Stop telling yourself, “It’s just my ego” whenever you yearn for a more creative life. Stop telling yourself that dreams don’t matter, that they are only dreams and that you should be more sensible.

Stop fearing that your family and friends would think you crazy.
Stop telling yourself that creativity is a luxury and that you should be grateful for what you’ve got. (Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, p. 7)

In the movie, “Shall We Dance?” the main character celebrated one too many birthdays with his wife not knowing what to give him. She said to him, “You don’t want anything. I can’t think of anything to give you that comes in a box.”

Though he didn’t respond to her challenge at the time, the seed was planted for him to think differently about his life. He decided to take dance lessons, and didn’t tell his wife. When the conversation between them finally happened, he explained to his wife: “I was ashamed. With the good life we have, I was ashamed to want something more. And I couldn’t tell you because I didn’t want to hurt you.”

One might think that taking dance lessons was the turning point in this man’s life. But the real transformation began when he first acknowledged he wanted something more. The turning point was in his relationship with his wife, when they started communicating with each other about their deepest desires. What he wanted didn’t come in a box. But until he stepped outside the box of his life as it was, there was no way for him – or anyone else – to know that.

Howard Thurman posed the challenge this way:

Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Doing what makes me come alive is not something that comes naturally, or easily, for me. Doing the responsible thing is much more my style. So it is fortunate that through my ministry, I have met some amazing people – people who spark my own sense of what is possible.

Like Lisa, a woman I knew in Akron. She exudes joy, and takes pleasure in what she calls “little dreams every day.” When she was a child, her father once told her, “You don’t want to look back on your life when you’re old and say ‘what if?” That message was reinforced for her in college when the professor in a Psychology class posed the following questions:

“How many people live their dreams? And, how many of us live out the dreams of others (our parents for instance or our spouse)? Can you truly be happy living the dream someone else has prescribed for you? Whose life is it anyway?”

The messages from her elders remain powerful memories that keep Lisa living her dream. What is her dream?

Live my life and be happy (she says). Be true to myself and follow my heart over my head. And, live little dreams every day! (Lisa Dennis’ reflections on “Living My Dream,” May 22, 2005)

If Lisa weren’t true to herself, she would not be with her life partner, “the most amazing woman” she’s ever met. They wouldn’t be parenting a beautiful daughter together. Little dreams for Lisa include running with her daughter to “touch the clouds as the fog lay low over a

neighbor’s lawn” and running “half naked through the sprinklers on the country club’s golf course on a hot and humid summer night.”

For Lisa, life is a series of tiny dreams unfolding before her eyes. She wants to seize each one and not waste one opportunity. For her, “Dreaming is living and living is dreaming. The two cannot be separated.” As a result, Lisa is grateful for the small moments of joy that might escape some of us.

Although I didn’t know him well, a man I greatly admired was John Looney, a Quaker whose motto in life was “to see what love can do.” “To him, love toward others was not sentimental or naïve.” Love “was the most moral, ethical, and practical means toward personal fulfillment and fundamental social change. One of his common retorts was, ‘What good is faith if not put into practice?’” (obituary, Akron Beacon Journal, May 19, 2005)

John Looney was a “tireless, committed, and joyful educator; he was an organizer for peace, non-violence, and justice.” He “was also a dedicated husband, loving father, and devoted friend. He and his work with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social action organization, and Peace GROWS were known and respected in Ohio and across the nation.” John was the recipient of many awards for his work on behalf of peace and justice. But he saw these awards only as opportunities to convey his message. What was important to him was living “his life as he wanted the world to be” – a place in which all people were respected and loved.

George Bernard Shaw wrote: “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” Writer Sonia Choquette suggests that

When you think of the word “desire” you think of passion, yearning, intense longing. When you have a true desire, you have a burning urge for some particular experience or outcome. This burning, intense, passionate longing is the creative spark that sets miracle making into motion. Without it, nothing gets going. If you do not have this spark of authentic intensity, your creative miracle-making process will lie dormant. (Sonia Choquette, Ph.D., Your Heart’s Desire, p. 10)

After we consider the question: “What makes me come alive?,” the next step is to visualize what you want, focus on it, and set your sights on it.

How do you know what to focus on? Open your mind to the possibilities, Phil Keoghan says:

You may have no clue what types of things to include (in your list), but that’s only because you haven’t devoted enough thought to it. (Keoghan, “8 Ways to Create the Life You Want,” Family Circle, March 8, 2005 issue)

What is it that makes you come alive? What is uniquely yours?
Your list should be different from mine…(Keoghan writes) It’s important to create a list based on experiences that have special meaning for you… (Keoghan)

He suggests that it may help to spark ideas if you divide your list into these themes:

Face Your Fears, Get Lost, Test Your Limits, Rediscover Your Childhood, Express Yourself… Think of an interesting idea that ties in with each of these five themes and you’ll have a great list.

Once you have the list:
Go public. Stashed away in a desk drawer, a list is easy to forget about or ignore. Once you’ve written it, keep it in plain sight. Keep copies all over – on the fridge, near your desk – so you constantly see it and are reminded of your dreams. Show it to your spouse, your kids and your friends. Soon they will be encouraging you to take action.

Lose the guilt (“Ha!” you say.) You’re a “responsible adult.” People depend on you! If you’re off having fun, how will everyone survive? Answer: They will manage. And maybe everyone will be better off. But leading a fuller life [an authentic life] you’ll make yourself a happier, healthier person and a better spouse and parent. Your loved ones will probably be thrilled and supportive (and willing to fend for themselves for a day as you go chase a rainbow). Don’t be surprised if they begin to follow your inspiring example and make their own dream lists.

Make time for dreams. Your life is big, and there’s room in it for work and dreams. It’s simply a matter of how you prioritize it. If you consider fulfilling your dreams unimportant, you’ll never find the time. You must choose to rank them… and maximize (y)our limited time on earth.

(Remember that) failure is not an option. Fear of failure often stops us from trying something that challenges us…. Just by going out and trying it, you guarantee yourself a memorable experience regardless of the outcome. (Keoghan)

When I meet with Coming of Age youth, I often ask them: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I love their answers. Climb the tallest mountain. Skydive. Work for world peace. Help other people. Take care of animals. Travel. Learn to fly.

What I learn from these youth is that we are always coming of age. The dreams that move them are available to us at all ages. Sure, there will be things that are now beyond our reach. That’s part of our life passage too. Scoring the winning run in a softball game is no longer on my list. But writing that book is. Being happy and at peace still make the top ten. Becoming a grandmother — well that may be a dream for another lifetime…

“To love life is to be whole in all one’s parts; and to be whole in all one’s parts is to be free and unafraid,” Howard Thurman wrote. I look to people like him, I look to people like Lisa, and John Looney, and to our youth, and I look to you, to learn how to live with wholeness. I invite you, too, to see “life as a series of tiny dreams unfolding before” your eyes. Seize each one. Don’t waste one opportunity. As a Lisa says, “Dreaming is living and living is dreaming.” Ask yourself: “What is it that makes me come alive?” And when you find the answer, don’t look back. Just go and do that. And do it now (before it’s too late).

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The Gift of Loving Kindness

December 7, 2014

Reading: The spirit of this season is loving Kindness. Waldemar Argow tells this story:

An old Buddhist said: ‘Tell me, what is this day you cherish so, that you call Christmas?’
And the stranger from the West said: ‘Christmas is not a day, really. It is light, I think. It comes when days are shortest and darkest and hearts despair, and it reminds us that winter death is a temporary thing and that light and life are eternal.
And it is hope. For it demonstrates how kind and generous and self-forgetting human beings can be. And we know that what people can be sometimes, they can, if they will, be most times.
And, assuredly, it is love. Its symbol is a newborn babe, warm and safe in its mother’s arms. To be sure, he was born a long, long, time ago. Yet through the ages his influence as he became a man and the truths he taught and the love he incarnated have proven stronger and dearer in matters that matter more than all the kings and armies and governments in history. Oh, whatever else it may be, Christmas is love.’
‘I think I understand,’ the old Buddhist said. ‘Christmas is like a lotus blossom. When it blooms, it holds, as in a chalice, the beauty of the world.’
‘Yes, you do understand,’ said the Stranger from the West.
‘When it comes, Christmas brings the light that redeems us from the darkness, the hope that casts out fear and the loved that overcomes the world. ‘It is Christmas. We rejoice. And, suddenly, the lotus blooms…’

Sermon: The Gift of Loving Kindness December 7, 2014 Rev. Nancy O. Arnold UU Congregation of the South Fork

We are in that time of year when, in addition to our usual responsibilities, we prepare for the holidays. To our already over-scheduled lives, we may add more shopping, more socializing, and more doing. With all the activity associated with this season, we may lose touch with the deeper meaning of this time for our lives.

There is no shortage of religious and secular significance from which to draw for inspiration. Religiously, we are in the Christian season of Advent, the time of anticipation before the “birthday” of Jesus.

There are other markers on the liturgical calendar. This week alone includes the feast for honoring the feminine divine spirit celebrated by Hindus, Sufis, and Christians. Zen Buddhists mark this time with Mindfulness Day – a day for “mindfully seeing and acting with compassion for the poor and oppressed.” (from The Mystic’s Wheel of the Year 2014) Several members of the Zendo, which now makes its home with us, will be sitting through the night in preparation for Rohatsu, the celebration of the Buddha’s awakening tomorrow. It is said that while deep in meditation under a Bodhi tree, Buddha attained enlightenment upon seeing the morning star just

at dawn.

In the secular world, we remember events in the world that changed us forever. On this day 73 years ago, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, precipitating our entrance into World War II, the most widespread war in history. Many families lost loved ones in this war that involved the vast

Most of us were touched by it in some way. At the end of the war, we witnessed the formation of the United Nations. It was hoped that in the future, nations would use that forum to negotiate – rather than to fight. On December 10, 1948, the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, and fundamental rights were recognized world-wide.

These fundamental rights are consistent with our own Principles and Purposes in their recognition of the “inherent dignity and of the equal inalienable rights of all members of the human family…”

These significant events speak of the deep contrasts that mark our lives. Anniversaries – whether religious or secular – provide an opportunity for us to remember what was, and to prepare for what yet might be.

Not an easy task, given today’s climate. It is difficult to hold fast to hope in the wake of cruel reminders of the racism that continues to permeate our country. There are many things not in our control. But within our grasp is the potential to live and to speak with loving kindness.

For many, gearing up for Christmas Day is the secular part of this season. But there is a sacred dimension to this time of preparation as well.

The spirit of this season can be viewed as promise, preparation, hope, and anticipation. The late Fr. Thomas Berry characterized it as a time of “intimate communion with the larger human community and with the universe itself.” (from Dream of the Earth) This opening of the heart comes about with the practice of loving kindness.

In A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield describes “The quality of loving-kindness [as] the fertile soil out of which an integrated spiritual life can grow. With a loving heart as the background, all that we attempt, all that we encounter, will open and flow more easily. While loving-kindness can arise naturally in us in many circumstances, it can also be cultivated.” (Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart, p. 19)

Advent is a time of quiet gestation, a time to go inward. In this season of anticipation, we are given the opportunity to examine our lives and our world anew. We are invited to imagine the world – and ourselves – as sacred space. It is as if we are becoming that new-born child, each and every year. By going deeper within ourselves, we make room for the sacred in each person. And we are reminded that nothing of value comes into being without patient waiting – not a baby, or a loving relationship, reconciliation, a work of art, a new understanding, nor hope for the world. There is something about this season that can change us, if we accept it as a gift. The gift of loving kindness.

The gift is an opportunity to transform our own lives, and the tiny space in the universe we inhabit. It presents itself with each gift we prepare, and with each card we write. When we are fully present and intentional about what we do, we honor our connection with other people.

Advent is a wonderful opportunity for us to begin to live mindfully — with an intentional sense of expectancy and hope. “One dimension of our faith journey consists of waiting, watching, (and) patiently offering hospitality.” (Marilyn Brown Oden, Advent Devotions, p. 36)

Christians are guided by the belief that they are to treat each person as if she or he is Jesus Christ. (As UUs we would say that we honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”) Advent is a good time for us to look into our hearts. We can strive to replace hostility and fear with compassion and kindness.

If we accept the gift, and cultivate loving kindness, we become like the child born to love. Or the lotus blossom that holds the beauty of the world when it blooms.

I don’t think it is possible to live with loving kindness toward others if we do not cultivate it in ourselves first. The meditation on loving-kindness begins with the focus on ourselves.

May I be filled with Loving-kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.
(from A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield pp. 20-21)

Until we cultivate happiness and peace for ourselves, it is difficult – if not impossible – to offer it to others. Jack Kornfield recommends that this meditation be practiced repeatedly for a number of weeks until the sense of loving-kindness for ourselves grows.

The meditation itself “is a 2,500-year-old practice that uses repeated phrases, images, and feelings to evoke loving-kindness and friendliness toward oneself and others.” It’s “best to begin by repeating it over and over for fifteen or twenty minutes once or twice daily in a quiet place for several months.” (Kornfield, p. 19)

If it evokes feelings of irritation or anger, “it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. In its own time, even in the face of difficulties, loving-kindness will
develop.” (Kornfield, p. 19-20)

When you feel ready, in the same meditation period you can gradually expand the focus of your loving-kindness to include others. After yourself, choose a benefactor, someone in your life who has truly cared for you. Picture him or her and carefully recite the same phrases:

May s/he be filled with loving kindness, and so forth.
When loving-kindness for your benefactor has developed, begin to include other people you love in the meditation, picturing them and reciting the same phrases, evoking a sense of loving- kindness toward them.

After this you can gradually begin to include others: friends, community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, the whole earth, and all beings. Then you can even experiment with including the most difficult people in your life, wishing that they, too, be filled with loving-kindness and with peace. With some practice a steady sense of loving-kindness can develop and in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes you will be able to include many beings in your meditation, moving from yourself, to a benefactor and loved ones, to all beings everywhere.

Then you can learn to practice it anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses and airplanes, in doctors’ waiting rooms and in a thousand other circumstances. As you silently practice this loving-kindness meditation among people, you will immediately feel a wonderful connection with them – the power of loving-kindness. It will calm your life and keep you connected to your heart.

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that:
Once you have established yourself as a center of love and kindness radiating throughout your being, which amounts to a cradling of yourself in loving kindness and acceptance, you can dwell here indefinitely, drinking at this fountain, bathing in it, renewing yourself, nourishing yourself, enlivening yourself. This can be a profoundly healing practice for body and soul.

(Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, p. 165)

Through a spiritual practice, we take time to re-connect with a deeper part of ourselves. The key to this is creating the time and space in our lives. Jon Kabat-Zinn believes that
There is really no natural limit to the practice of loving kindness in meditation or in

one’s life. It is an ongoing, ever-expanding realization of interconnectedness. It is also its embodiment… Practicing in this way is not trying to change anything or get anywhere, although it might look like it on the surface. What it is really doing is uncovering (that which) is always present. Love and kindness are here all the time, somewhere, in fact, everywhere. Usually our ability to touch them and be touched by them lies buried below our own fears and hurts…below our desperate clinging to the illusion that we are truly separate and alone. (Kabat-Zinn, p. 167)

A spiritual practice creates greater awareness and connection. We cannot predict the outcome. We can only experience the process. To live with loving-kindness might be the goal. But it is also the process. We can only experience loving-kindness by living with loving- kindness. Fear and hurt often keep us from being aware of the loving-kindness that resides within ourselves. We feel unworthy. So we give ourselves to others who are more deserving or needy than we are.

At this time of year we have ample opportunity to give to others. There is a hope at work that casts out fear, and that cultivates love in the world. This same hope is available to us in our own lives. I don’t mean to compete with worthy causes. But I want to suggest that you are a worthy cause. You are worthy of being a recipient of loving-kindness. We must begin with ourselves, by thinking of our own good qualities. “May I be happy. May I be at peace. May I find my joy. May I be filled with Love. May I be happy. May I be at peace.”

It may be uncomfortable at first to focus attention on ourselves. It’s too self-serving, we think. I believe that we want to live with loving-kindness. But, normally we are too caught up in other things to take time with ourselves. The message of this season is to accept this opportunity to cultivate loving-kindness. Not just for right now, in this particular season. Advent simply opens the door to possibilities. When we allow ourselves to receive the gift of this season, we are filled with “the hope that casts out fear and the love that overcomes the world… And suddenly, the lotus blooms…” (Waldemar Argow)

What if we celebrated Christmas as if we really needed it?

I believe we do need Christmas. We need to be reminded of the possibility of peace on earth, good will to all people. We need to be reminded that in the birth of a child exists the potential hope for our world. And we need to be reminded of the hope and potential that resides within each of us.

That hope is born of our desire for communion with the larger human community, and with the universe itself. We have before us the opportunity to transform our lives, and the tiny space of the universe we touch. Let us honor the spirit of this season with gifts of the heart, and prepare ourselves for the new life within.

Let us begin now:

Meditation on Loving Kindness adapted from A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield (p. 20-21)

Sit in a comfortable fashion. Let your body relax and be at rest. As best you can, let your mind be quiet, letting go of plans and preoccupations. Then begin to recite inwardly the following phrases directed to yourself. You begin with yourself because without loving yourself it is almost impossible to love others.

  • May I be filled with loving-kindness.
  • May I be well.
    May I be peaceful and at ease.
  • May I be happy.

As you say the phrases, you may also wish to use the image from the Buddha’s instructions: picture yourself as a young and beloved child, or sense yourself as you are now, held in a heart of loving- kindness. Let the feelings arise with the words. Adjust the words and images so that you find the exact phrases that best open your heart of kindness. Repeat the phrases again and again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind…

If you feel ready, … expand the focus of your loving-kindness to include others. … choose a benefactor, someone in your life who has truly cared for you. Picture (him or her) and carefully recite the same

phrases:

  • May she or he be filled with loving kindness.
  • May she or he be well.
    May she or he be peaceful and at ease.
  • May she or he be happy.

If you feel ready, invite other people you love into the meditation, picturing them and reciting the same phrases, evoking a sense of loving-kindness for them.

  • May they be filled with loving kindness.
  • May they or he be well.
    May they be peaceful and at ease.
  • May they be happy.

If you wish, include others: friends, community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, the

whole earth, and all beings.

  • May they be filled with loving kindness.
  • May they or he be well.
    May they be peaceful and at ease.
  • May they be happy.

If you feel ready, include the most difficult people in your life. Picture them, and wish that they, too, be filled with loving-kindness and peace.

  • May they be filled with loving kindness. 
  • May they or he be well.
  • May they be peaceful and at ease.
  • May they be happy.
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The Next Steps: Unitarian Universalism in the 21st Century

Keith Kron

Bridgehampton, NY, July 21, 2014

How do the lyrics go? You know….from The Sound of Music? Ahh, yes. How do you solve a problem like Maria?

It’s not every day history comes knocking at your door. So when it did, the people of Bainbridge, New York, were surprised. In 1811, a young woman of 30, a Universalist, preached. Women had not been allowed to preach. This was unusual. Some considered it wrong. It had not been done before.

But Maria was mesmerizing. And she would become the highest grossing Universalist evangelist that year. She was invited to preach all over New York and Pennsylvania. She was offered the hand of fellowship, to become the first woman preacher in the Universalist Church, in the state, in the country. She had both a genteel and commanding presence.

Maria, however, did not believe the offer was sincere. She believed that the male Universalist ministers of New York and Pennsylvania were really not ready for a woman minister. There were male Universalist ministers trying to keep her out.

So she did not accept the hand of fellowship and preached about her right to preach. She was eventually jailed. In jail, she preached Universalism to the inmates. She was released. She never became an ordained minister. She was just too ahead of her time.

It would be over 50 years before the Universalists ordained Olympia Brown as the first woman minister. Maria did not live to see this. Yet her legacy changed Universalism and Unitarian Universalism.

I was talking with a friend recently who told me this story of her early days of working, where she and other women had started a shelter for battered womens . She said she was working one day when a woman walked in. The woman walked up to my friend and handed her a ten dollar bill. The woman said to my friend, “Use this to help other women.”

The two women talked for a while then the woman showed my friend her bruises and cuts. My friend tried to persuade the woman to stay, that there was space for her here in the shelter. The woman shook her head. “It’s too late for me,” she said. “Help the ones who still have time.” And with that she walked out of the door.

She thought her time had passed.

I told my friend her story made me think of a quote by the mother family systems therapy, Virginia Satir: People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.

One Easter, I was asked to preach at our congregation in Salem, MA, 1st Unitarian. I knew this to be a Unitarian Christian congregation.

Being a part of the generation that had come into Unitarian Universalism where the most stated theology was, The-Church-of-the-Not- That-Christian, I was uncertain that I was the best Easter speaker. But I had some strong views on the resurrection story, in particular that it was not a story about a resurrection from death, but from deadness. The deadness that keeps us from being fully alive.

I was told as long as they could sing Christian songs about Easter and as long as I was willing to lead them in the Lord’s Prayer, all would be just fine.

Thinking this would have to be different Easter experience than that I had known growing up in Southern Baptist church, one that had told me I

was going to Hell, I decided this would be a good way to push myself into a more Universalist theology.

Besides, Maria Cook, was a heroine of mine. I could channel her.

So we sang the hymns, I led the readings, including the resurrection story from the Bible, and did the sermon. I invited the congregation to join me in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

And so I began to recite with the utmost confidence:

The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…

It was by the time I’d gotten to “maketh” that I realized something was amiss. No one but the most generous congregants were speaking with me. This was not the Lord’s Prayer. And I knew that. I just couldn’t remember any part of the Lord’s Prayer at the moment.

I stopped myself and looked out at the 250 people gathered.

“That’s the 23rd Psalm, isn’t it?” Some people giggled. “I believe at this moment on this Easter Sunday morning I have completely forgotten the Lord’s Prayer.” Uproarious laughter.

“You do realize this is the minister’s worst nightmare.” More laughter, and I joined in.

“Would you all please start the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ll join you.”

They began, “Our Father who Art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name…” and we all concluded the Lord’s Prayer together. It was a humbling yet oddly gratifying and healing moment.

And in the receiving line after the service, I believe I shared more hugs than I had in any of the other over 450 UU congregations I’ve visited in my 17 1⁄2 years working for our Unitarian Unversalist Association. Though not one person other than the other minister present mentioned my mistake.

I was clearly not a UU Christian minister but had been welcomed and heard and loved.

The world is changing quickly. The technology we have in theory turned off in pockets and pocketbooks will undoubtedly be obsolete in 5 years. In ten years, the technology we will be using has not been dreamt of today.

We live on an increasingly smaller planet, where we can turn on our computer and see a live picture of Africa, look inside a brain, and discover ancestors and relatives we’d never thought we’d meet.

This has changed religion. The regionalism that determined beliefs based on a particular geography or culture no longer work. And on some level we already know it. We no longer pray to a god for Snow or believe or worry about cattle grazing with other kind of cattle. We just have more information than we did 3000 years ago, even if it doesn’t always make us wiser.

Indeed, the Christian church of the 1950’s and 1960’s that didn’t trust even Catholics (and vice versa) now seems like ancient history.

So what does it mean to be a church, a religion, a faith in this time? And what will it look like in the future. How do we find comfort, community and hope in an every changing world? How will we go on?

As I talk with more and more Christians, what I hear from them is Maria Cook’s Universalism. There’s a sea change in how women, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and people from other cultures are seen. More and more Christians and Jews look at the stories from the Scriptures as metaphors, as teaching stories used by a people to live in the world some 2-3000 years ago.

And where does that leave us? What is the future for Unitarian Universalism? What legacy will we leave for the next generations?
In terms of our religious future in a changing world, we are more in danger of being the metaphorical ministers who thwarted Maria Cook than being Maria herself. We are more likely to NOT push ourselves out of our comfort zones, to NOT heal ourselves for fear of reinflicting wounds, and to think, if not say, that it is too late for us.

All you have to do is look around and talk with people and realize that the faith saved each of us, can save so many others. They may not have our history.

Indeed, the next generation of Unitarian Universalists will come from the ranks of the unchurched. They will be without the baggage of a previous religion and filled with questions about God, spirituality, and so many other

words that are hard for those of is with the theology of “The Church of the Not That Christian” to hear. To say.

Are you ready? Such was the question for our congregation in Boulder, Colorado some years ago. Following ministries of clergy misconduct, the congregation of 300 had dwindled to the point of not having a minister.
There were times in the 60s and 70s that some of our congregations were afraid they would be taken over by Christians but this congregation’s worship was now being led weekly as a pagan circle. Sunday attendance was down to 30. Many wondered if it was too late for them.

But the leaders decided it was not too late. They decided on risking uncertainty. In working with denominational leaders they agree to a five year contract with a minister who would help them look at themselves and journey with them together as they worked out goals for this new ministry, which would later be called developmental ministry. And the congregation risked something else. With the new minister they risked trust.

They agreed that if they moved to fire the minister they could do so at any time but only if the minister were then paid for the entire five year contract.

The minister knew his work was cut out for him. He knew that regardless of what he did or didn’t do, because of the congregation’s history, someone would get mad at him. It is an inevitable outcome following clergy misconduct.

Trust with a minister is usually built over time anyway as the new minister interacts with the church members, especially for weddings, child dedications, and memorial services. It is more complicated after misconduct. Because people expect misconduct or at least something they don’t like from the new minister. Conversely, there were people who liked the misconducting minister, never experienced the misconduct or, in some cases, benefitted from it. Sides get drawn and quickly.

So regardless of what a new minister does, some will like the new minister. Others won’t. And usually there are trigger moments. Moments that revisit the divide.

So the new minister in Boulder new that job one was to be rebuild trust. Job two which is a part of job one was to have impeccable boundaries. Job three was to work on the congregation’s self esteem. He did this by making the

church building which had fallen somewhere between storage unit and decay a more attractive and inviting place to be. And then he waited for the storm.

All the while he helped the congregation on the agreed upon goals. Note that he didn’t do the goals for the congregation but helped the congregation achieve them. He helped them achieve them by bringing in resources, being a cheerleader, letting people get angry at him, and weathering storms. By rebuilding trust and helping the congregation see itself in a new light—a place where people could figure out how to go on in the face of life’s challenges however small or large. He reminded them again and again that these where the congregation’s goals. He, over time, and mutual hard work—because the congregation risked working as hard as he did, has helped the congregation return to size of 300 and to begin to see itself as a place of hope and the church of the place where people can make meaning in the world.

In my travels to UU congregations across the continent, I see this struggle again and again. Will we continue to be the church where we are certain of who we are, where we are both comfortable and possibly quietly miserable or will we be a church that risks hope, meaning, and a new future.

I see a struggle between those who believe Unitarian Universalism must be The Church of Not That and the newer folks who ask the question: Can we be the The Church of Helping Us Make Meaning in the World including some of That? The church where we deal with the How, Why, and Where of it all? The church where we journey together with life’s unanswerable questions and figure out our answers that may only be somewhat adequate for now.

The church that helps us figure out how we will go on? And who will go on that journey with us.

And I’ve seen people shamed, scolded, and silenced out of our congregations for asking the same kinds of questions we had about meaning, but with different context and wording. They want to wrestle with theological questions yet take them deeper. They want to wrestle not over wording but over ideas of mystery, justice, equity, compassion, and wholeness.

The next generation of Unitarian Universalists will talk differently from us. They will act differently from us. Yet it many ways they will be us, if we let them. They are the product of a generation of our teaching about how unimportant things like Stars upon Thars are. Don’t ever forget that you’ve helped changed the world already.

They are us, if we them. If we let them in, if we let them preach, if we help them heal their wounds and let them help us heal ours, if we tell ourselves now that it is not too late for us. If we are willing to develop and if we are willing to companion each other and find ways to go on. And you can be a part of making that happen.

Maria would be appalled at how little we evangelecize about God and Universalism. She would recognize the Unversalist and the Unitarian Universalist in all of us and in almost everyone she met.

Can you? What will your legacy be?

When we look toward the future can we see that in a fast changing world the next generation of Unitarian Universalists will not be like us, but will still be Unitarian Universalists?

Will we be able to forgive? Will we be able to be forgiven? Or are we the church of “it’s too late for us? The church that is certain it is right. Or can we be the church that is only certain it is somewhat adequate for now.

This is my wish for Unitarian Universalism.

Risk uncertainty.

Navigate an ever changing world by seeing the Unitarian Universalism in all those around you. Be strong enough in your own convictions and theology to honor the convictions and theology of others, of those who will join you and those who will follow you.

Imagine what Unitarian Universalism could look like in 50 years if we made room today for that which is changing and new, even when it feels uncomfortable, even, at times, miserable. Live with the faith that will never say, “It is too late for me.”

Preach the good word of Unitarian Universalism here. Make room for the next generation yet don’t give up on yourselves. It is not too late for both. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Deliver yourselves from the evil: the evil of the rigid thinking we tried to escape from.

Be of comfort to each other as you move forward, heal, and make mistakes.

Imagine what this congregation would look like if there 500 Unitarian Universalists.

Make the most of an ever changing future that desperately needs Unitarian Universalism.

EB White once said, “Life’s meaning has always eluded me and I guess it always will. But I love it just the same.”

Risk the uncertain. Be the place that helps people develop, hope, love life , go on.

As Dr. Seuss once wrote:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

May you care enough to resurrect Unitarian Universalism into its next stage of life. May you risk being ahead of your time.

How will you solve a problem like Maria’s?

 

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Quest for Inner Peace

Rev. Ned Wight

July 13, 2014

Congratulations! You’ve just made it through another holiday weekend of fireworks, hyperpatrioBc slogans and symbols, ubiquitous red, white and blue . . . and this season of intensifying poliBcal bickering, conBnuing economic uncertainty, and ongoing war and violence in Afghanistan, Syria, the Central African Republic and other hot spots around the globe.

So let’s focus our aTenBon this morning on something completely different . . “inner peace.”

Just returned from a week at GA in Providence, RI
FreneBc round of plenary meeBngs, workshops, recepBons, worship services, one-on-one conversaBons with friends, old and new
Even religious conference like this can be hard place to pursue inner peace. But there were moments: Singing together, Praying together, Si[ng together in silence. Taking in words of hard-won wisdom from ministers compleBng 25 and 50 years of service or words of challenge and hope from well-known religious acBvist for jusBce, Sister Simone Campbell, urging us to “walk toward trouble.” Not to menBon my own opportunity to rappel down the six stories façade of the Rhode Island ConvenBon Center to help raise money for the UUA. If there were ever a Bme to culBvate our own capacity for “inner peace,” it is now—for our own benefit, and for the benefit of a hurBng world.

In fact, General Assembly is a microcosm of much of life in 21st century America
Can feel overwhelmed by ads, e-mails, music or talk blaring from loudspeakers,

visual and aural cluTer everywhere
and it is this very chaos and confusion that invites us to seek something different, some experience of slowing down our breathing, our heart rate, of sBlling the exhausBng busyness of our scheming minds, of opening ourselves to an immediate felt connecBon with the heart of being
Is this quest the expression of some universal longing?

Maybe yes, maybe no . . . but if it’s your longing, you know that it just won’t let you go

Quest is for something experienBal—something so compelling, immediate and powerful that you “know” it to be true, trustworthy, reliable not because you’ve been shown the best argument to support it, but because you’ve felt a wave of assurance that’s close to “certainty”

There seems to be a curious relaBonship between “inner peace” and “thinking”—certain kinds of brain acBvity can get in the way
Point made by Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now
Inner peace operates beyond the boundaries of the intellect alone
Is, therefore, tough to experience if you have a ceaselessly acBve mind that never stops—that never gives you a moment’s peace

consistent with the wisdom of mysBcs from Buddhist, Sufi, ChrisBan, Jewish tradiBons
spiritual task is to quiet the mind so that the self can be in communion with Being itself

Tolle led to this realizaBon by his own mysBcal experience of being brought out of deep despair into profound joy

Thought and consciousness are not the same. To expand our consciousness, we need to quiet our thoughts
as long as the brain is whirring along, generaBng all kinds of images, thoughts, ideas, solving problems, generaBng reasons to feel anxious, inner peace will elude us

doorway to inner peace opens when we give up the illusion that thought is the only key to life’s deepest meaning
This is very scary for some people
giving up deep loyalty to “conscious thought/reason” risks losing track of who we are

too big a risk to take—don’t even want to consider going there

some, like Tolle, come up against life situaBons where they seem to have liTle choice–thought and reason just don’t seem to work

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may be a personal crisis—admi[ng that you can’t control an addicBon, suffering the dissoluBon of a marriage or other relaBonship, discovering gay/lesbian inclinaBons within your deepest self, coping with the death of one you deeply loved

reason no longer works to maintain equilibrium, much less “peace” what’s a person to do?
Open up to the possibility that there might be another key to the door of inner peace than “thinking harder”

SomeBmes this possibility knocks us over the head
Bmes in my life when I was in the midst of a muddle of conflicBng thoughts and all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, I’ve had an experience of startling inner clarity–an “aha!” moment—moment of insight, a clear sense of what’s real—an epiphany

Such a moment occurred one summer night more than 40 years ago Living at Beacon Hill Friends House, Quaker residence, on Beacon Hill in Boston
Had just come back from seeing a film, “The Summer of ‘42”
I was lying in bed, feeling uncommonly restless
Suddenly overcome by an intense wave of posiBve energy—a kind of euphoric state
I got up, went to my desk and here’s what I wrote:

“Don’t love others by trying to remake them . . . want them to grow, but not according to your specificaBons, by your Bmetable
Learn to say no . . .stop fooling yourself about things you “should” be doing. Do things you want to do, things you know you’ll follow through on . . . be open to new things, but discriminaBng

Don’t wallow in despair . . . the ulBmate wall. Learn to be creaBvely selfish Tenderly meet needs, your own and others . . . as they come along . . . as they present themselves
Keep links of communicaBon open . . .

DuraBon is not important—depth is. Each moment, each experience— deep, thick, rich

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You aren’t perfect—don’t be saBsfied forever, but be saBsfied at each moment with yourself—accept yourself as you are, with imperfecBons, shortcomings, failings . . .
Love neighbor as self—self-love . . . Tomorrow is a new day . . . rejoice in the creaBon. Shalom.”

Amazing insights from more than four decades ago—gist of the sermon I’m sBll preaching to myself every day
wisdom from a place of inner clarity that is sBll valid

Believe that this experience in 1971 was a moment of deep inner peace not as a kind of spiritual sleepwalking—but as heightened vitality, a greater sense of being fully alive
I recall this moment whenever somebody speaks of “inner peace” as if it were some sort of state of semi-consciousness
it is more like a state of heightened consciousness
Same sense of Hebrew “shalom”—not passive “peace” as if drugged, but acBve “peace” as if you were in right relaBonship with everything else in the universe

So we can’t think our way into inner peace
But neither can we—nor should we–force our minds into submission by turning them off through an act of will
Maybe some people can—some people do
Not my path—not the path of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears

If not through the willful suppression of thought and reason, then how do we access “inner peace”?
The quest for “inner peace” is a quest for connecBon—a desire and an intenBon to

“make a connecBon with the ‘source’ of all life, all intelligence, all wisdom, all compassion”
Like love—we can’t make it happen, but we can invite it to happen by culBvaBng the virtues of the peacemaker

Offer on this summer weekend Rev. Ned’s list of nine pracBce that we can pursue to prepare ourselves for the experience of inner peace in turbulent Bmes:

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Awareness . . . that “our minds are part of the whole mind”—the collecBve unconscious (Jung)

Inten+on

“want inner peace above everything else”
“being willing to be wrong, foolish, willing to forgive—and start over again”

Physical Ac+vity

We are embodied creatures—brains within bodies; as I have grown older, I have become ever more aware of the connecBon between physical acBvity and inner vitality
We need to be deeply intenBonal about aTending to our physicality

Simplicity

Stop allowing yourself to be drawn into the relentless “complexificaBon” of your life, your Bme, your commitments
As Trappist mysBc Thomas Merton wrote, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a mulBtude of conflicBng concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”

Quiet

Cu[ng out the background noise is crucial to inner peace
Frederick Buechner (Whistling in the Dark) says this about quiet:
“An empty room is silent. A room where people are not speaking or moving is quiet. Silence is a given, quiet a giq. Silence is the absence of sound and quiet the sBlling of sound. Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is sBll.”

Openness

Live as if every moment were important—laden with giqs
And as if you were going to receive the next big giq at any moment

Mindfulness

PracBce being fully present in the present moment Use your breath, use techniques of meditaBon

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Allocate Bme each day to pracBce being mindful about your being in that present moment

Pa+ence

Sages tell us “inner peace” is always available to us
But ge[ng rid of the barriers is no small task
Like prince charming coming upon Sleeping Beauty’s castle
Lots of hacking away at briers and brambles before happening upon the princess
PracBce paBence

Trust

Makes paBence possible
A form of faith, combining confidence, hope and love

Awareness, intenBon, physical acBvity, simplicity, quiet, openness, mindfulness, paBence and trust
Worthy companions to bring along on your quest for inner peace

Why set out or persevere in this quest?
As I said before, some of us don’t have much choice
The quest just won’t let us go
Like the liTle boy on the farm who was excited beyond belief when he ran out to the barn on Christmas morning and found a pile of manure: “Oh boy! Surely there must be a pony in there somewhere”

And there is a larger reason for us to join forces with one another on this quest:
The world stands in need of the power that comes from the deep inner peace I’m talking about

It’s the power that inspired Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa to work with those abjectly poor and sick
It’s the power that inspired 19th-century Unitarian prophet Theodore Parker and 20th-century naBonal prophet MarBn Luther King, Jr., to proclaim the equality of all people before God

It’s the power that inspired mysBc writers Thomas Merton and Anne LamoT to write of their circuitous journeys from perplexity to faith

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It’s the power that inspires many of our Veatch grantees to call to account those who put ungodly greed before the common good
It’s the power that inspires all of us to act as if a beTer world were possible, and to partner with others to make this beTer world a reality

As one of my parishioners once said, “The only hope for the whole mind to which we all belong is that we alter the thoughts and acBons that are wrecking the earth”
only way that will happen is if our thoughts and acBons spring out of the “inner peace” that is consciousness of our connecBon with all other living beings

The quest for inner peace is especially challenging in this Bme of war, economic distress, environmental degradaBon, poliBcal and social conflict. It is also especially urgent and colossally important. It is my hope for you that these hazy, crazy, lazy days of summer might also be days of increasing awareness, intenBon, physical acBvity, simplicity, quiet, openness, mindfulness, paBence and trust. I encourage you to keep your eye on the prize that is inner pace, and I wish us all every success in our quest.

So may it be. Shalom. Blessed be. Inshah’allah. Aho! ShanB. Amen.

 MeditationUUCSF140713NedWight

Prayer for Meditation at the UU Congregation of the South Fork Sunday

July 13, 2014

God of all people, all faiths and all doubts,
we thank you for calling us together once again.
Be present here in our midst
as we renew our vision of a community transformed.

We ask for your gift of wisdom, granting our minds new insights about what our community needs to make it a place of nourishment and enjoyment for all who call it home.

We ask for your gift of vision, opening our imaginations and giving us creative ideas for strengthening the bonds of community among diverse and even conflicting interests.

We ask for your gift of courage, emboldening us as we work together to draw upon the highest dictates of our faith, far removed from any and every form of narrow self-interest.

We ask for your gift of patience, teaching us the art of “non-anxious presence” with one another in our efforts to build community, reminding us that change takes time, and that progress, not perfection, is our goal.

Finally, we ask for your gift of compassion, kindling in our hearts the fires of love and mutual respect that will knit us together into a single caring community in which our children and our children’s children can and will thrive.

God of all people, all faiths and all doubts,
Be present here in our midst,
inspiring us with your gifts of wisdom, vision, courage, patience and compassion
as we seek to build a transformed community in which all the gulfs that divide us are bridged
and all that is broken is made whole.
So be it. Shalom. Blessed be. Amen.

 

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Mere Faith

by John Andrews

July 6, 2014

What do Unitarian Universalists believe? This is a perennial question, too often answered by listing things we don’t believe.

It is good that we don’t have a laundry list of metaphysical propositions and historical truth claims to which we must agree in order to be members. Anyone who wants that in a church has plenty of choices elsewhere. We do have principles, of course, but these are located in the here and now, and not in any separate spiritual realm. This, too, is a good thing.

Still, is it really the case that Unitarian Universalists must avoid transcendental beliefs altogether? Are such beliefs entirely valueless?

Most people use such beliefs to help make sense of their lives. I’m reminded of the character Annelle in the film “Steel Magnolias.” After the tragic death of her friend Shelby from complications of diabetes and childbirth, she says that Shelby is in heaven and will always be young and beautiful. She goes on, “Some people might think that sounds too simple, it’s stupid, and maybe I am. But that’s how I get through things like this.” Most of us are not quite that self-aware.

I love Annelle, but I’m afraid I can’t ride on the same evangelical Christian bus with her. I’d have a problem going with any group whose ticket to ride requires me to believe a lot of unprovable things, especially if the requirement is accompanied by a threat of punishment if I don’t go along. That’s why I like our tradition. Our tradition is based on reason. Reason tells me that the more such things I’m asked to believe, the more likely it is that some of them will be either false or meaningless. The proliferation of dogmas is at best a silly business, and at worst an excuse for persecuting heretics. If this is at all on the right track, it would be prudent to pare one’s core religious beliefs down to the bare minimum necessary to have a healthy spiritual life.

The minimum, however, is not zero. Reason does not demand that we be nihilists. I therefore make bold to argue that there are two transcendental beliefs that do fit well with our liberal religious tradition and that can also have great value for living our present lives.

The first of these is that there is an end to suffering. This is a positive way of saying that there is no such thing as eternal punishment. The idea of hell was invented long ago by priestly classes as a means of social control. The only real hells are the ones we humans too often create in the here and now.

Actually, this is more than a belief. Traditional religious teachings about heaven and hell are logically inconsistent. How could I be happy in heaven knowing that you are suffering eternal

torture? Moreover, I do not understand how anyone who truly believes in a loving God could possibly believe in hell, except as the result of persistent indoctrination beginning in early childhood.

Is it important to state this explicitly? Don’t we all take this for granted? Well, I would think it is probable that nearly all of our members do take this for granted, but what about those who pass by on the Turnpike? Many polls show that a majority of Americans believe in hell. I think we should actively spread the good news that we are a hell-free religious community. What a relief!

The second proposition is that as participants in the interdependent web of existence, it matters what we do. For better or for worse, we can make choices that other animals can’t. Those choices will ultimately decide whether conscious life on earth, including human life, flourishes or is extinguished.

We cannot say whether consciousness is unique to this planet, but certainly it is rare. And consciousness with love is priceless. The extinction of conscious life on earth would be a tragedy, not only for us but for the cosmos. And the possibility of cosmic tragedy is an idea that is religious at its very core. It implies that what happens on this planet matters in a sense much deeper than what could be inferred from physics alone. In other words, it is a matter of faith. Yet one need not believe in any particular theology in order to feel the truth of this.

The deeply religious Christian writer C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled Mere Christianity, in which he laid out the minimum set of beliefs he thought were needed in order for one to be considered a Christian. In similar fashion, the above two beliefs, which I consider to be all that are necessary for a healthy spiritual life, I like to call “Mere Faith.”

Mere Faith captures, at least for me, the essence of our Unitarian Universalist heritage. “Suffering is not eternal.” Is this not the message that itinerant Universalist preachers spread throughout 19th century America? “It matters what we do.” Isn’t that the logical end point of the centuries-long doctrinal housecleaning undertaken by Unitarians ever since the days of Michael Servetus in the 16th century? And yet these beliefs are expressed in a simple form that is attuned to a 21st century sensibility.

But what about other beliefs, you might ask? What about God? What about death? [musical interlude]

So: What about God? What about death?
Belief in God is not part of Mere Faith. Why not?

First of all, if by God you mean the vindictive monster who dangles sentient beings over an eternal fire, that God is dead, and good riddance. Some people claim we can’t live moral lives without such a God, but I’ve seen little correlation between belief and ethical behavior. Some

of the noblest acts have been done in the name of God, and so have some of the worst atrocities.

That, however, is not the only God on offer. One must be careful, though, in trying to define the word God too precisely. Any verbal description of God must be metaphorical, and it also must recognize that God is beyond human-made categories such as matter and spirit, or, to put it another way, beyond belief.

The suggestion I would make is that if believing in God makes you a more loving person, then by all means believe. If disbelieving makes you more virtuous, then I hope you are an atheist. And if your faith is more about being faithful than it is about belief, that is best of all.

I think that both Confucius and the Buddha would approve of this.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask the deep questions. I’m talking only about whether it matters what we end up believing. Here’s an analogy. It matters whether an asteroid is about to hit the earth, but my belief or disbelief in the asteroid only matters insofar as if affects how I feel or how I act. The asteroid will hit or not hit regardless of what I believe.

The good news is that we won’t be punished for guessing wrong. How our beliefs affect our actions is more important than whether those beliefs are true.

What about life after death? Why isn’t that part of Mere Faith?

Death isn’t something we like to think about, but is there anything good about it? Well, for one thing, without death we wouldn’t be here at all. Evolution requires death in order to operate. That’s well and good, but wouldn’t it be great if—now that we’re here—scientists discovered a way to eliminate death and let this generation live on?

Probably not. If the magic elixir were to be found, tyrants would live forever. It’s likely that most humans would be subjected to an eternity of servile misery. I keep this in mind so that, when my time comes, I might say to today’s tyrants, “I’m taking you with me.”

All well and good, perhaps, but the question remains. Is there an afterlife—of any kind? I find disembodied souls unbelievable, though to explain why would take us way outside the bounds of Mere Faith. However, the image of the soul leaving the body the way a lifeboat leaves a sinking ship is not the only metaphor for the continuation of life. Buddhists believe in universal consciousness but not in individual souls. They say that their collective experience in deep meditative practice supports this claim. It is not possible, from the outside, to confirm or refute this.

Mere Faith’s answer is—to repeat a thought expressed already about God—that what we believe about life after death won’t change what is or is not. If like me you are confident that

we won’t be punished for guessing wrong, then there’s no need to lose sleep over it. In any case, we do live on in the minds and hearts of people we have influenced in our lives. It seems to me that this is reason enough to stand on the side of love.

Even for the traditionally religious, there’s no way to make death easy. People who believe in immortal souls cry just as much at funerals as those who don’t—maybe more, if they’re bogged down by a fear that their beloved might be doomed to eternal fire. Charles Darwin’s wife loved him dearly and was afraid he would be damned because of his theory. At the risk of seeming trite, I feel her pain.

Whatever we believe, the price we pay for love is the pain of leave-taking. Perhaps the supreme comfort on facing death is to be able to reach out to those soon to be left behind. To look death in the eye and still say Yes to life—that is the last, best gift we can give to those we love. I hope I’ll have the necessary courage.

And so to conclude: I’m not arguing against imagination, speculation, inspiration, wonder, or even theology. I indulge in these things myself, just about every day, with no need for apology. One of my favorite spiritual poems is just three words long: “God is evolving.” I love Peter Mayer’s song, “God is a River.” I am not afraid of God language, but I need to remind myself that theology is poetry, not physics. That is not meant to demean poetry, but to exalt it. Poetry —and the arts in general—are how we apprehend aspects of reality that are beyond the reach of science.

Still, such poetic expressions are not core beliefs. If someone said to me, “You’re wrong, John. God is definitely not a river,” I’d be more amused than upset. It’s a metaphor, after all. But “Suffering is not eternal” and “It matters what we do”—these are core beliefs. I’d have to take serious issue with their negation. My message today is that these are the firm strata we need on which to construct the edifices of our spiritual lives. So what if we build in many different styles, some sleek and simple, others resplendent with ornamentation? So what if they sometimes clash aesthetically? Down at the bedrock, we’re all on the same foundation.

 

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Sailing Between Scylla And Charybdis

John Andrews

Part I: The Scylla of Scientism and the Charybdis of Creed
In our First Message today, we heard how in Homer’s second great epic poem, Ulysses had to face two monsters, the voracious, six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool-causing, ship-sinking Charybdis. He had to contend with one or the other, his only choice being which one.
The spiritual history of the modern age is very much like that. On one side is the Scylla of scientism, the idea that everything can ultimately be explained by the fundamental laws of physics. A corollary is that there is no room for spirituality or meaning. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness.” The American physicist Alvin Weinberg famously said, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
On the other side of the strait is the Charybdis of creed. Traditional religion demands unswerving loyalty, whether to the Bible, a church hierarchy, or a defined set of beliefs. This comes in many forms, some perhaps not too corrosive, but others downright lethal. Whether it’s a fundamentalist preacher shouting, “God hates fags,” or Pope Benedict XVI asserting that “Hell is real, and it is eternal,” the result is the same, a dimming of the human spirit.
Even Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose bright words, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” you heard this morning, was haunted in his last years by severe melancholy. Perhaps this was simply a chemical imbalance that today would be cured by drugs, but it wasn’t helped by the fact that his religion (he was a Jesuit) had a dark side, a vale of suffering with the bottomless pit of hell at its center. His late poems display his anguish exquisitely.
So it would seem that we must choose between materialism, with its message of emptiness and meaninglessness, and traditional religion, with its emphasis on guilt and condemnation.
The point I wish to make here is that the choice is a false one. Both of these ways of seeing the world are fatally flawed. The good news is that there are other ways of being.
—–

So what, actually, is wrong with creed?
I might be tempted to answer that question with objections to this or that religion. Many of us came to Unitarian Universalism after rejecting the belief system in which we were raised. We tend to give reasons why we left our family’s church. In my case, for example, it was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s objection to contraception.
I could, of course, have gone over to one of the mainline Protestant churches where birth control was allowed, but I had a strong feeling that my uneasiness with religion was far deeper than just that one issue. The harder I looked, the harder it became to find a religious creed I could even think about believing.
It gradually be came clear to me that it wasn’t just finding the right belief system that was the problem; it was the idea of creed itself. A set of metaphysical doctrines, none of which can be checked against reality, is the ideal nursery for developing an exclusive group identity, one that too often erupts into violence. It is all too easy to go from “You are different, and therefore you are wrong” to “You are wrong, and therefore you must die.” This may not occur in our neighborhood this week, but over wider spaces and deeper times, it happens a lot. Faith based on belief may give some individuals comfort, but for humanity as a whole, it is a disaster.
I once saw a young man with a T-shirt that said, “A man has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.” After enjoying the joke, my second reaction was to note the shallowness of our culture, which the joke was intended to lampoon. Now, though, I sense a hidden depth to it. Whatever evil that young man may have done in his life, it was probably less than that perpetrated by many a true believer.
—–
What then about scientism? What’s wrong with that? Hasn’t science explained just about everything that scientists have put their minds to? Aren’t we on the verge of a Theory of Everything?
My answer to that comes in one word: Consciousness. It’s true that neuroscience has made startling advances in the last few decades. We now know much about what goes on in the brain when we have conscious experience. But why is it that shifts in chemical potentials and the ebb and flow of ions in nerve cells give rise to inner experience: the greenness of grass, the tinkle of bells, the smell of a rose, the pleasure of sex, the pain of torture, the joy of human bonding, the anguish of loss, the “aha” experience when we solve a difficult puzzle? About that we are as much in the dark as were the ancient Greeks, or indeed as were the even more ancient people who painted the walls of caves with images of sacred beasts.
Materialist philosophers dance around this. Some even argue that consciousness doesn’t really exist. If you find them convincing, then, fine, you should be a materialist. But to me, conscious experience is the only sure thing there is.
It’s important here to point out a confusion of language. One can be a scientist without believing in scientism. On the other hand, many people who are not scientists are devotees of scientism. It is curious that the militant atheists and the Intelligent Design folks both think that science can tell us whether God exists. They just come to opposite conclusions about what science says. To my mind, they’re both asking more of science than science can deliver. That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with scientism.
—–
If you are with me so far, then the two competing metaphysical world pictures contending for the minds and hearts of Western civilization are both off the track. So what?
Here’s so what. It gives Unitarian Universalism an opportunity to help save Western civilization from spiritual collapse.
I’ve thought this for some time, and in some of the letters I wrote to our congregation while I was your president, I tried to articulate aspects of this vision. But always I have been held back by the thought that this was only the opinion of a self-taught person. I may have read widely on these matters, but I have no formal education in theology or philosophy.
Then, a couple of months ago the Fall issue of UU World appeared. There, the Rev. Peter Morales, president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, published an editorial that struck deep chords within me. Its title immediately arrested my attention: “Belief is the Enemy of Faith.”
What could that possibly mean?

Part II. Belief Is the Enemy of Faith
Let us listen now to our association president. These are his words.
I believe the future of religion is a spirituality that is interfaith at its core. I am convinced we Unitarian Universalists have a historic opportunity to help create that future.
For the last several years I have spoken about the momentous changes in the American religious landscape. Young people are rejecting all religion in numbers we have never seen before.
While this is troubling at one level, at another level I find cause for great optimism. The good news is that people, at least in the developed world, are rejecting cultural and religious exceptionalism. By religious exceptionalism I mean the conviction that my religion possesses the truth and, by extension, yours is false. As people mix more and more, they come to appreciate the contributions of all the great religions. All across the country we see students at college campuses engaging others from different religious backgrounds in interfaith settings. . .
So far, nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Unitarian Universalist minister, right? But later in his essay he says:
Many current UUs came to our faith out of a rejection of the faith into which they were born. The search of many young people today is fundamentally different. They are not in flight from oppressive orthodoxy. Instead I see them searching for something much deeper than an absence of dogma. Something new is struggling to be born.
What is holding back a new spiritual awakening? How can we help it emerge? How can we play a role in this great cultural movement?
I think we can help change the conversation. We need to think about faith, religion, and spirituality in a new way. When I grew up I was taught that religion was about what we believed. What made my denomination different (and correct, of course) was our sound doctrine. We were right. This made religion too much about being right, about us and them. Too much attention then goes into defending our beliefs.
And now, please listen carefully to what he says next. This is his central message:
I am now convinced that “belief,” in the way we usually use the word, is actually the enemy of faith, religion and spirituality. Let me say that again: belief is the enemy of faith. When we dwell on beliefs we ask all the wrong questions. My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think.
Again, these are Peter Morales’ words, not mine. Now, if you happened to read my final president’s message in the June 2013 UUCSF Newsletter, you may understand why I was so taken with this. Here’s what I said then about faith:
We tend to think of faith as equivalent to belief and consider doubt to be the opposite of faith. However, the great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, emphasized that doubt is not opposed to faith. Instead, faith takes doubt into itself and lives with it as an essential part of the human condition. It’s only when doubt expands into total doubt, or nihilism, that it becomes a threat to spiritual life. As Tillich says, “faith is the state of being grasped by being-itself.” This is no more an intellectual exercise than being grasped by a thirty-foot anaconda.
I sent Rev. Morales an email applauding his editorial, and attached a copy of what I’d written to this congregation. This is how he replied:
Thank you for your comments about my column. Interestingly, I gave a sermon a few years ago entitled “Religion Beyond Belief,” in which I explore these themes. I used it as one of my “traveling sermons” several times. Each time the response is quite strong.
Thank you, too, for the copy of your letter to the congregation. It is thoughtful and wise. Along that line, I think of “faith” as a relationship, as in being faithful. This is what the original Hebrew meant. It was about being faithful to the covenant and had nothing to do with “belief.” For us today I think faith is about being faithful to what we hold sacred, to what we value most deeply.
I wish you and your congregation well.
—–
In Peter Morales’ statement, “Belief is the enemy of faith,” we have a striking answer to the perennial question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?”
Unlike traditional religion, and equally unlike materialist philosophies, we do not begin with concepts poured into our heads, whether from the Bible, the Koran, or scientific textbooks. We begin with the still, small voice within, the voice that tells us to stand on the side of love.
This is the central message of Peter Morales’ essay. As he so neatly put it, for us, our faith is much more about what we love than about what we think.
Now, I don’t think he’s saying we shouldn’t have any beliefs at all. He did, after all, begin his essay with the words, “I believe.” Instead, it seems to me that he’s making the case that beliefs are, at the very most, secondary in importance to a more fundamental wellspring of faith. The genius of Unitarian Universalism is that we can share that faith even though we have different beliefs. Some of us in this room believe in God. Others believe in no God. Yet we all share a faith that transcends both theism and atheism.
Let us listen to the concluding paragraphs of Rev. Morales’ essay:
When the conversation shifts away from our beliefs to what we hold most dear, to what moves us at the depths of our being and what calls us, wondrous new possibilities emerge. We share and explore our deepest experiences. We discover what we have in common. Our attention naturally turns to how we want to live our lives and to the commitments we are willing to make. Our concern at the personal level becomes one of developing our awareness, of spiritual disciplines, of growth. At the interpersonal level, our attention turns to loving relationships. Finally our attention turns to issues of compassion, justice, and interdependence. Faith becomes a relationship. Faith is about being faithful to what we hold sacred.
A new interfaith, multifaith spirituality is struggling to be born. Ours has always been a faith beyond belief. We have a historic role to play.
—–
That is a clear call to action. What can I possibly add? Only this personal note.
The image of UUlysses and his sister UUlyssa piloting the ship of faith between the Scylla of scientism and the Charybdis of creed into the open sea of hope beyond is one that has stuck in my mind ever since I joined this congregation.
I’ve felt a call to sail with them. That’s why I became a UU. I’ve also felt a desire to invite others onto our boat. What I’ve lacked, and what I think many of us here have lacked, is a concise explanation of why anyone else should get on board, when at first glance it might seem that we’re not going anywhere.
We have plenty of long explanations, but attention spans tend to be short. What we’ve needed is a darn good sound bite, one that makes people do a double take. Peter Morales has given us one: “Belief is the enemy of faith.” If that doesn’t invite questions, nothing will.

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Bittersweet Life

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork July 21, 2013

It was as if all of the happiness, all of the magic of this blissful hour had flowed together into these stirring, bittersweet tones and flowed away, becoming temporal and transitory once more.                                                                          Herman Hesse

Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.  Joanne Harris, Chocolat

First Message        The Lost Horse            Chinese Folktale[1]

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?" Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a disaster?" Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?"

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

Reading                 The Gold Stars and the Bittersweet  Victoria Safford[2]

One afternoon someone left a strange and beautiful message scotch-taped to the office door. The author didn’t even leave a name, though I knew who it was; her message simply said “I forgot to tell you when we met this morning, there are little gold stars all amongst the bittersweet. It’s all there, mixed together.”

I had just met with this person, who was not quite in crisis but dancing on the edge talking and weeping and raging through one of those hard, hard moments that can last for weeks or months or years. It was painful stuff, faced with courage.  Here, hours later, was this slightly mysterious, elegant message, and I thought how amazing it is that some people can render even the most desperate experience poetically, and what a gift this is, this making of art out of ashes, and how rare. I was very moved.

The next day, there came a second message from the person [this time] on the answering machine, slightly altering my view of things.  “It’s me again, calling back about the stars and bittersweet. I forgot to tell you, I stuffed it all in garbage bags, and they’re in the closet in the Social Hall. Those berries make an awful mess.”

Well, there’s not much poetry in that. As it turns out, there were no metaphors at work at all. Before our appointment that morning, this person had been cleaning up after a church party for which the decorations had included branches of cut bittersweet from members’ autumn gardens and long lengths of gold tinsel wire to which tiny metal stars were fixed.   So it really was all garbage.

But I’m intrigued by conversations and by language that can speak of trash bags, closets, golden stars and bittersweet, and refer with equal accuracy to the very depths of human hope and suffering or to the details of committee cleanup.  And I know that I am called – as I suspect we all are called – to places where the sacred and the ordinary are all mixed up together, where work is prayer and prayer is song and songs are sacraments and sacraments are silent or spoken brokenly in messages we sometimes barely comprehend, in words we speak in love to one another and to the golden stars.

Bittersweet Life                                           The Rev. Alison Cornish

That life is bittersweet is a given.  It is bittersweet because of the full range of circumstances that give rise to the fullness of experience and feelings.  As humans, we are capable of joy, wonder, peacefulness and love …and also sadness, pain, anger and anxiety … sometimes, it seems, all in very short order, or proximity. Shauna Niequist, writing in Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way writes of this:

The world is changing all the time, (Unitarian Universalism would say – so are we) at every moment.  Someone is falling in love right now, and someone is being born. A dream is coming true in some city or small town, and right at the same moment, another dream is crashing and crumbling. A marriage is ending somewhere, and it is someone’s wedding day, maybe right in the same town.  It’s all happening.

Every Sunday, we model this with our own joys, sorrows, concerns, hopes – as a  microcosm of real life. (Once I read a post on a listserve about worship, suggesting that we separate these different sharings into categories … first all the joys, then all the sorrows …I found myself shouting NO! at the computer screen.)

We could leave the subject there … yes, it is a Bittersweet Life. Yes, for everyone, everywhere, all the time.  But that wouldn’t be much of a message … and, as UUs, we are called to dig a bit deeper … to search … to question

First, how is it that the experience of life is both bitter and sweet? How was it that the world wasn’t ‘constructed’ differently – just bitter, or just sweet? 

And, that it is the way that it is … is it simply fate? A grand plan playing out this way, and we, actors upon the stage, the play already scripted?

Well, no … and yes …Life is a rich mix of “that’s just the way it is” and “our lives are the products of thousands – millions – of choices.”  In the words of the UU theologian, James Luther Adams, we are “fated to be free” – he goes on to say … “We cannot escape from freedom and its responsibilities.  Freedom is our fate as well as our birthright.” 

In fact, this rich mixture of fate and freedom – and how to be with it – is well reflected in the opening words of the familiar prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr: 

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

So, our task, as humans, is to look the world in the eye, to take in all of its sweetness and bitterness, to acknowledge what is immutable … and what is not … and use our human agency, our ability to make choices, for the good, to make more “sweet.”

Here’s an example that’s been on my mind this week … we cannot (yet, at least) control the color of someone’s skin.  But, the way we view and treat others, irrespective of their skin color, for that, we have all the choice imaginable.

Another lesson I glean from opening my eyes to both the bitter and the sweet in life … is that of humility.  It’s what the Chinese folk tale teaches … we just don’t know everything. 

As much as I don’t believe in a “grand plan” that has my, or anyone else’s, destiny all mapped out, pre-arranged, neither can I, from my vantage point, from my own knowledge and experience, possibly know for sure what might be bitter and what might be sweet – and most especially for someone else.  I can have my own experience, and my own interpretations of the moment, but that is all partial. It’s like holding up one piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and thinking that you now know what the whole picture will look like.  We don’t. We can’t.  Remembering that “bitter” and “sweet” are not hard and fast categories – for all people, and for all time – helps me to keep my mind open, to not make assumptions and judgments, and that is a very good thing for this assuming, judging human (of course, I’m the only one so susceptible …)

Remembering that life is both bitter and sweet also gives us the opportunity to both experience, and extend, compassion.  Compassion – to feel with – is something that the Buddhist Jack Kornfield speaks of as witnessing the suffering of another, and, in that suffering, seeing the reflection of one’s own pain.  “I understand that. I suffer in the same way. It’s a part of life.”  These are not just words but a true “being with.”  And this empathy is important not just in the suffering and pain, but also in sympathetic joy.  To feel joy in the happiness others experience is, again, a “being with” – free from enmity, jealousy, competition.  This empathy is what people report from their Sharing Circle experiences here in this congregation, and it comes from a deep listening to one another, through the fullness of life, the invitation to bring all of oneself to the circle, leaving nothing behind.

Finally, knowing that life is both bitter and sweet … keeps us honest.  What do I mean?

As I prepare to take my leave from you, many of you have spoken of the sweetness of our time together. And I am most grateful for your appreciations.

Some of you have also spoken about what has been bitter, and I am just as grateful for those sharings.

Why?

By most measures – we have shared a successful ministry together. But it has not always been all sweet.  For my part, I know that I have had an occasional bout of, shall we say, stubbornness, a willfulness about doing things in a particular way that I know has contributed to conflict and frustration.  And I have sometimes expressed irritation and exasperation in less-than-sanguine ways (I am sorry about the way I pounded the table at that Council meeting a few months ago …) thus not heeding the injunction to “help and not to hinder” right relationship.  Perhaps most “bitter,” I have, more than once, caused hurt. Never intentionally, but for those I hurt, I know the feelings were still painful.  Those are times I did not live up to the call to heal and not to harm, and they are as real as any other part of my ministry.

I say these things now to keep us honest, about the fullness of our time together.

I say them as a reminder that, ministers, like the Velveteen Rabbit, are made real by love – but perhaps unlike stuffed animals, we are also made real by imperfection.

And, I say these things now because, at least for me, and I hope, too, for you, real as it is, this “bitter” does not overshadow all the sweetness we’ve shared –

The completion of this wonderful meetinghouse – and its more extensive use by the larger community each and every year we have been here –

The journey we’ve been on to become a Welcoming Congregation, doors wide open to all, regardless of sexual orientation –

The spiritual home you will continue to dream and make real, including a place where children and youth will find themselves to be at home –

The solid community of care and concern and celebration that has walked with those no longer here, and prepares a place for those yet to discover Unitarian Universalism as lived here on the East End of Long Island –

In fact, I would venture that the bitterness we have experienced – whether sadness or frustration, disappointment or conflict – only, in the end, makes the sweet sweeter …

This is a bittersweet moment for me, my taking my leave of you. But it is one that brings with it both the memory and promise of the fullness of life. Which is what I pray for you as well.

 [1] As told by Ellen J. Langer, in" The Power of Mindful Learning," Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, page 99-100. (1997).

[2] Victoria Safford, Walking Toward Morning (Boston:Skinner House Books, 2003), 21-22.

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Faith: Is It A Gift or Does it Keep Us From Reality?

Faith: Is it a Gift or Does it Keep us from Reality?

(Reverend Christopher McMahon)  July 7, 2013

A few weeks ago I called a friend of my uncle’s to console him on the loss of his wife of 62 years.  He thanked me for the call and proceeded to tell me how powerful his loss was.  He then said to me, “I don’t know if you are a person of religion but my strong faith tells me she has gone to God in peace and love.”  I reminded him that I am a minister and was a person of religion although I did leave out the part about being a Unitarian Universalist minister and one who considers a broad range of theological possibilities.

 

That conversation reminded of just how powerful faith is many people’s lives.  But faith is, however, complex.  In some cases it provides hope and consolation.  In others cases it seems to provide the basis for bizarre beliefs and in the worst of scenarios, it provides justification for heinous acts. 

 

 As defined (in wikipedia), Faith is the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.  The word faith can refer to a particular religion or to religion in general.

As with trust, faith involves a concept of future events or outcomes, and is used conversely for a belief  “not resting on logical proof or material evidence.”  Informal usage of the word faith can be quite broad, and may be used in place of trust or belief.

Faith is most often used in a religious context where it almost universally refers to a trusting belief in a transcendent reality, or in a Supreme Being and/or this being’s role in the order of transcendent, spiritual things.

Faith is, in general, the persuasion of the mind that a certain statement is true.  It is the belief and the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared based on the declarer’s authority and truthfulness.

Perhaps the best known discussion of faith in Christianity comes from the Gospel of John where over the course of several days following his resurrection, Jesus appears to Mary and to several of his Apostles.  In the Gospel of John Chapter 21, it says:

“Now Thomas, one of the twelve called the twin, was not with them when Jesus had appeared to the others.  So the other disciples told him. We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in his side, I will not believe.” 

“Eight days later, Jesus’ disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them.  The doors were shut but, according to the Gospel, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.”  And Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

I grew up in Catholic religion classes hearing this story over and over – and I tried very hard to have the type of faith that Jesus was talking about.  In other words – believe because you have been told something purported to be religious truth – don’t question religious authority because “blessed are those who have not seen yet believe,” as the Gospel says.

In the end, though, I could not believe and I began a long and lonely spiritual journey from Christianity and through the world religions.  Along the way, I realized that I cannot have faith in anything unless it makes sense to me and it appears to have historical accuracy and meet the test of being rational.

It isn’t just Christianity that relies on faith from its adherents.  Actually every religion to varying degrees requires faith.  Buddhism, for example, requires a degree of faith and belief in the possibility of enlightenment.    Faith in Buddhism centers on the understanding that the Buddha is an “Awakened Being.”   Buddhist faith also accepts the role of the Buddha and, as a superior teacher, his teachings about the truth of his Dharma (spiritual Doctrine), and in his Sangha (community of spiritually developed followers).  Buddhist faith is intended to lead to the goal of Awakening or Enlightenment or Nirvana.

In my view, the less knowledge a person has about the world and creation, the easier it is to have faith in religious doctrine – however human made it most of it certainly is.  A few summers ago, I visited Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts which is a replica of the original Pilgrim village and, right next door, the Indian settlement that was set up by the local Wampanoag Indians to monitor what the Pilgrims were doing.

***(Plymouth Colony was  in operation from 1620 to 1691 and along with Jamestown was the first of the English settlements.  Contrary to what a lot of kids are taught in school, Jamestown and Plymouth were not the first European settlements. The Spanish has already been in America for a century in Florida and New Mexico.  Saint Augustine Florida and Santa Fe New Mexico are the oldest cities in America!)

Many of the Pilgrims could read but they certainly were not well educated.  Over the course of the previous decades they had developed a brand of Protestant Christianity that was as simple in belief as it was absolute.  The world was a certain way according to the Pilgrims and their belief – their faith system was unassailable and there was no separation between their religion and their daily way of life or the way they were governed.

I call people and groups like the Pilgrims “two dimensional” because these type of people only see the world in the dimensions they look at.  An imaginary two dimensional creature, for example, could see length and width but it could not see height.  Though the third dimension clearly exists, imaginary two dimensional creatures are unable to perceive it.  Their faith in the reality of their world and the universe is based solely on their understanding of length and width.  We might call this type of faith simple or uneducated because we have had the opportunity and knowledge to see the third dimension and to realize that reality is not just two dimensional.

One of the great challenges to religious faith is knowledge because knowledge begets uncertainty.  In my experience, the more I learn, the less I seem to know of reality.  If anything, knowledge provides more and more understanding of the complexities of reality and it makes it difficult to accept simple explanations such as – “this happened because it was the will of God.”

Remember a few years ago when 33 miners in Chile were trapped deep in a mine?  I remember watching with hope and fascination as the miners were rescued.   I also read with interest a newspaper article which was entitled, “Which God was with the Miners.”  This came from a comment one of the miners made when he was rescued.  When asked about the other 32 miners he said, “Oh no, there weren’t 33 of us down there – there was 34 because God was with us.”  This comment prompted a number of religious folks to decree that it was their particular faith and their prayers that enabled the miners to be rescued.  These included Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Catholics, Mormons and a bunch of other Evangelicals.  In short, many individuals claimed it was their view of God and their version of prayers that rescued the miners.  I view with as simple if naïve faith.

In general fundamentalists religions display a similar type of simple faith – a faith that accepts as a given, religious creeds and dogmas and a worldview without questioning anything.   No better example of this can be given than the thousands of young Muslims (men and woman) who have killed themselves during the past decades as they have killed others in suicide bombings.  Their “faith” told them that their acts of terror and suicide were holy and blessed by God even though the Qur’an expressly prohibits suicide and the killing of innocent people.

Part of the problem with what I term “simple faith” is that often times people want to believe what they are told is a religious truth.  Believing that you understand why things happen the way they do; believing that taking a certain action or actions in life will lead you to eternal bliss or to enlightenment is comforting.  Such faith enables people to endure great hardships and great tragedy and it gives confidence that, in the end, all will be well because God or the universe has ordained it to be so.

This is also why some people refuse to question religious beliefs and why people refuse to educate themselves on the history and formation of their religion and their religious scriptures.  Knowledge can be a dangerous thing for knowledge will, in the end, create uncertainty and uncertainty often leads to fear and a loss of faith and as one loses their way, their worldview and their ability to cope with the world can be severely challenged.

I have often met very intelligent, well educated people who work in scientific or engineering professions where they explore and challenge scientific and engineering theory everyday and, in so doing, they broaden the frontiers of human knowledge and yet, at the same time, some of these people blindly accept religious doctrines, creeds, and scriptures without question.  It is as though they live in two worlds – one of science and the rational and one where only acceptance and faith apply.

Although I always find myself questioning religious beliefs, I always endeavor to be respectful of other people’s faith because their faith is, indeed, the way that many people cope with the hardships and tragedies of life.  If someone who has lost a loved one believes that “God has taken this person to be with “him” in heaven,” I might personally find this illogical and irrational, but I am not going to express my doubts to this person.  I usually find myself simply reassuring the person that their faith has meaning.

So – there is another important question to ask with regard to religious faith – particularly as a Unitarian Universalist.  Can a person have religious faith despite the fact that they cannot accept any particular religious philosophy or creed?  I think the answer can be yes but it depends upon your general worldview.

To begin with, it depends upon a person’s fundamental viewpoint of the universe we live in.  It depends upon how a person answers three questions:

  1.  Is there something more to the universe than what we perceive through our science, technology and observation?
  2. Is there meaning and purpose in the universe?
  3. Is there meaning and purpose to my life?

Most religions – even non theistic religions such as Buddhism conclude that there is something more to the universe than what we humans can perceive.  In other words, there is reality we cannot perceive.  Certainly the “God religions” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that God exists outside of the universe and God is the creator.  But one does not have to believe in a separate creator being to believe that there is more to the universe than what we can perceive.  God can be defined as a force or reality imbedded into the fabric of the universe we see and know and experience.  In this view, there is “God” but God is merely part and parcel of the universe and all physical laws, and energy and matter that form the universe.

As to whether there is meaning and purpose to the universe, this is a critical question of faith.  The idea that there is no meaning and purpose to life is embedded in nihilistic philosophy discussed at length by numerous philosophers including Fredric Nietzsche.  I find nihilism to be rather depressing to say the least and I, for one, simply cannot accept it because it is both illogical and irrational to me given the magnificent order and beauty of the cosmos.  If a person believes that there is no sense of meaning and purpose, it is rather difficult to have faith in ultimate realities that are beyond human perception.

Finally, as to whether or not there is meaning and purpose to my specific existence, this too is a critical component of faith.   To begin with, consider the question, “is my particular existence as a person a random happening or is it part of some grand design I am unaware of?”  This is obviously a really fascinating idea to ponder.  From strictly a scientific standpoint, each of us is a random happening brought about by trillions of random happenings since the beginning of time.  In other words, my particular existence as a person, and yours, is a fantastic chance event.  Just to consider one of a trillion random happenings – if one of your 16 great, great, great, grandmothers had not met your great, great, great grandfather in the particular way she did and happen to conceive on a particular day through a particular circumstance, the continuing chain would have halted and you would not be here today.  Was this all chance or is there some unknown or unknowable force at work that enabled all of this to be so?

In my perhaps very human view, there is another component to meaning and destiny and faith in the universe and that is the idea of ultimate justice.  If there is meaning and purpose in the universe, is there also justice?

Why should I have been born in an affluent country, into a good family; been given the blessings of a great education and great career opportunities when there are so many in the world who have nothing and will die young in poverty and hopelessness?  If there is meaning and purpose and justice in the universe – how can so many suffer?  Is it just a random chance happening that I have all that I do?   Did I just luck out in the countless random happenings in the ebb and flow of the universe or is there something more I cannot perceive and cannot understand?

Obviously, these are very, very difficult questions and the answers are very hard to come by.  Traditional religions develop answers for these questions through scriptures, creeds, dogmas and belief systems.  But if I cannot accept these human made religious belief systems and the faith they support – can I still have faith too?

My answer is that I can.

It is true that I respect and am often fascinated by the religions of the world.  I have studied all the major religions of the world and have marveled at many of the ideas and beliefs that they express.  Still – I find that all of them are human made and, accordingly, do not express ultimate truth.  But within them there seem to be ideas that I resonate with and ideas that have enabled me to have faith – even though I don’t have faith in specific beliefs or creeds.

I do believe that science and scientific observation are critical in understanding the reality of the universe but I do not think that science can or ever will answer ultimate questions because science and human thought are finite realities.  There is, in my view, something greater than the universe that we perceive.  I call this the “God Event.” 

I do not pretend to be able to define it except to say I believe it is imbedded in the fabric of the universe.   Perhaps it is, as the Buddhists say, the ultimate reality – the oneness of all things.  Perhaps it is true as the 12th Century Islamic mystic Al Hallaj said – “God and I are one.”  And as the Chinese Tao Te Ching states, “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name. But – the Tao that can be told is the mother of all things.”

As to meaning and purpose – I think there is ultimate meaning and purpose in the universe.  The very reality of evolution tells me that meaning and purpose are at work every day in the living world.  The love of a father and mother toward their newborn child, the determination of an athlete to succeed, the passion and gifts of an artist, the need for humanity to explore the unknown – all of these, and more, are indications to me that there is meaning and purpose to the universe.  I see it every day in my life.

As my faith tells me that there is meaning and purpose in the universe – this tells me that there is meaning and purpose in my life and my existence and so, through continual searching and through meditation and prayer, I try to continually find meaning and purpose in my life and, in turn, I try to impart a positive difference in the world around me.

Am I a random chance happening or am I here as a person from specific happenings?  Was I destined to be?  This is where the questions become impossible to answer but somehow I do believe I am part and parcel of this magnificent creation.  I don’t want to begin to describe why because to do so would create yet another human made religious belief system – so I let it go with a faith that my life does have meaning and purpose.

And finally – is there justice in this universe?  Wow – what a hard question to answer since all around us, we see and live injustice every day.  But, in the end, I believe in ultimate justice – not in the sense that there is a heaven for good people and a hell for bad people but through a sense that just as the universe continually evolves for the better and from our primal beginnings human beings have developed compassion, love, and justice – so too do I think the universe is ultimately just.  I don’t know just how this happens, nor when, but I believe it does in ways we cannot know.

Faith is a very personal thing.  Often it is based on the ideas and beliefs of a particular religion – but it is still possible to have faith without accepting particular human made creeds and dogmas. 

A number of years ago as I stood in Sloan Kettering Hospital watching a friend of mine dying from cancer, I told him that in the end, everything would be OK.  He said to me, “but you are a crazy unbelieving UU minister, how can you say that?”  As I began to answer the question, I realized the faith that was really alive within me.  “Because,” I said, “I know – all I can say is that somehow I feel it and I know everything will be OK.”  He died shortly after.

C.J. McMahon

July, 2013 *

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The Third Unseen Guest: Love

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork  June 2, 2013

     There is no life apart from one another… The question is not whether we are social, connected beings. That is a given.  The question is how we shape our modes of being with one another and with the sources that uphold and sustain life.
                                                                                           – Rebecca Parker

The Third Unseen Guest: Love                The Rev. Alison Cornish

Today we begin our third month of our “unseen guest” series. We started in April, with Hope, explored Faith during the month of May, and that brings us to Love for June.

Now, when this was planned, many months ago, none of us knew we would be on this threshold of change – that I would be taking my leave of the congregation this summer.  And yet, looking back from here, we could imagine that we planned this all along, it’s just what we needed.  For when we talked about hope, it was about the importance of staying in the moment. And when I announced my decision to leave the congregation, that was certainly an invitation to a leap of faith for us all.  And now, love, as expressed particularly in community; and next week, as instrumental in the work of social justice.

Today I want to speak particularly of covenantal love, something that is central to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.  What this means is that we promise to walk together in love. 

Actually, there are three dimensions to this covenantal love – as well as two directions, given and received. First, there is love given and received to ourselves – that’s the love we reflect in our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Next, the love given to, and received from, others, where we “accept and encourage” one another.  And finally, love for, and from, something greater, beyond our sphere – what some would call God.

But before we get too far down the road, let’s figure out what it is that we mean when we use that heavily loaded word, Love.  This morning I’m going to draw particularly on the work of Erich Fromm, and his classic work, The Art of Loving.  Fromm talks about love as a “syndrome of attitudes,” which includes care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.  He captures the essence of this by defining love as “an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s own capacity to love.”  (Fromm, 55)

Now these are great and grand words.  But also quite abstract. So let’s bring it down to earth with a story – a true story, actually.

Here’s a story about the power of covenantal love that taught me well the lessons of a circle of caring.  Many years back I was a member of a congregation that had a large and vibrant group of young people in their religious education program.  As sometimes happens, one age group “clicked” and bonded, and so they stayed a sizable group as they progressed through the years.  It came time for this large group of kids to begin the UU curriculum, “About Your Sexuality,” taught to 7th and 8th graders.  Not surprisingly, the specter of this class raises lots of emotions from kids – those who want to appear cool, like they know it already, and those who are nervous about having these conversations with their peers while adult leaders are present.  So a lot of them lobby to opt out. 

In the midst of all of this was Scott.  Scott was one of the gang.  Scott had been diagnosed with cancer when he was 8 years old.  He had already endured large doses of radiation and chemotherapy.  In all my time at that congregation, I never saw Scott with hair.  When it came time to sign up for the course, Scott declared he wouldn’t participate.  He didn’t see the point of it.  From his perspective, he wasn’t going to live long enough to enter into an intimate sexual relationship with another person.  Why bother? he said.  Why make myself even more depressed?

Scott was unprepared for the response from his peers. When they heard about his decision, they all, as one, declared that if Scott didn’t take the class, they wouldn’t either.  Scott – and the rest of us – were completely taken aback.  Scott rebutted:  “But you – you all have a future.  You need to learn this stuff.”  The kids stood their ground.  No Scott, no class. 

Eventually, Scott relented.  He signed up for the course.  And everyone else did, too. 

They had an incredible, memorable, time together.  Scott cracked jokes about everything and everyone, including himself.  Everyone laughed, a lot.  And later that spring, at the age of 14, Scott died.

Some kids get it – they do the loving thing naturally. And, for some of us, walking together in love is learned behavior. But I will always remember what Scott taught all of us about the potential of the congregation as a setting for this huge lesson in loving.

Here’s another story, closer to home.  When I first started my ministry with you, back in 2004, I was still a beginning minister, in what the UUA calls “preliminary fellowship.” Every minister in this stage of development chooses a mentor with whom to work. My mentor was Kay Greenleaf, who this congregation honored at one of its summer galas for her work on marriage equity upstate.  In my monthly phone calls with Kay, I would share particularly my stories of struggle, of what wasn’t going so well.  Kay would listen patiently, and then offer her one searching question, “but, do you love them?”  Kay delivered this question every time we talked, and always with complete sincerity.  It was never “gotta love ‘em!” or “dontcha just love them?” – but, “are you offering your love to them?”  “How, Kay?” I asked. “How am I to ‘love them?’”

Kay didn’t give an answer to that question – she was indeed a wise mentor who expected, and helped, me to find my own way. 

In fact, I found an answer I hadn’t expected – that it became much easier to love all of you once I let myself be loved by you.

I also discovered that it wasn’t possible for me to do this work, this ministry, alone.  It became increasingly clear that I needed to tap into something bigger, broader, more aspirational … what I’ve come to know as “the source and force in Life.” What is sometimes, in some traditions, called God.  Another heavily loaded word, so let’s turn again to Fromm for some insight, for he speaks of “… faith in the principles which ‘God’ represents… To love God [if that word were to be used] would mean to long for the full capacity to love, for the realization of that which ‘God’ stands for in oneself.” (Fromm, 66)

Now, I know that both the word, and the very idea of God, do not resonate with many of you here in the congregation.  But the ideas that I’m trying to speak to today are so beautifully expressed in the First Letter of John from the Christian New Testament that I’m going to invite you to read them together with me – # 639 in the hymnal:

Let us love one another, because love is from God.

Whoever does not love God does not know God, for God is love.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another God lives in us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.

Those who say “I love God” and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for those who

do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom

they have not seen.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us.

 What I understand from these words is that Love as God, and God as Love, is not about belief so much as a way of life. It’s about being, acting, doing. Which takes practice, commitment and dedication.

 Your greatest gift to me, after I depart from you, would be that you continue to walk together in love.

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Standing on the Side of Love

Unitarian Universalist Congregation  of the South Fork  June 9, 2013

     We should be happy that [Jesus] did not say “Like your enemies.” It is almost impossible to like some people.  Jesus recognized love is greater than like.
                                                                                               – Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Fear Strikes, We Stand on the Side of Love       The Rev. Alison Cornish

We are in “love month!” In our three-month series – April, hope; May, faith; and June, love, we are welcoming those three unseen guests, and exploring different aspects of these rich human endeavors.  Last week we took on covenantal love, exploring the meaning of the precept of “We walk together in love,” which is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.  It’s the kind of love that honors the worth and dignity of all, that draws us in to knowing ourselves as capable of giving and receiving love.  It’s the kind of love that holds us fast through conflict, and times of unknowing … the love that – hopefully – characterizes faith communities such as this one.

Today, we continue to build on that understanding by talking about love in action.  By this I mean love as a force for change, especially where there exists exclusion, oppression and violence as we say in our own Statement of Identity.

This week, I draw particularly on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh, who draw respectively from their faith traditions of Christianity and Buddhism, and their experiences emerging from two major conflicts of our own lifetimes – striving for civil rights in the U.S., and the struggle for peace in the face of violence and warfare in Viet Nam.

Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh understood their work to be to confront injustice by engaging in nonviolent action – with love at the heart of all they did.

This is the kind of love that Martin Luther King talks about as a “Love-Force” –

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality … At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.  (from Beyond Vietnam, MLK, Jr.)

And it’s the love that Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of as “Love in Action” –

The essence of nonviolence is love. Out of love and the willingness to act selflessly, strategies, tactics, and techniques for a nonviolent struggle arise naturally … Nonviolent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity. (from Love in Action, TNH)

The love they speak of is not reserved for those we like, or even might come to like if we knew more about them.  It is a love particularly for our enemies – our oppressors, for those who have hurt us, done us harm, for those who have rejected us, conspired against us – for those who have fomented hate against us.

This is the love we talk about in our mission statement when we say “When fear strikes, we stand on the side of love.”

But how?  How do we do this? How do we find the courage, grace, wherewithal – how do we conquer our own fears, tap in to places unknown even in ourselves, to respond to the cruelty and violence and hatred the world hurls our way with strength of love?

Continuing to draw on both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hahn …

First, and at the heart of all nonviolent action, is forgiveness.

Martin Luther King, Jr.:

How do we love our enemies? First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive… It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression… Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. (from Strength to Love, MLK, Jr.)

I suspect that starting with forgiveness … is a surprise. It just doesn’t seem fair. Or just.  It seems like it might let people just go on doing horrible things, as if we have given them permission, a pass, to act badly.  But remember the objective here … to love our enemies so that we – and they – may be transformed.  This is ultimately about the power of love, and for love to be that powerful, there must be at least the potential for relationship.  And that relationship depends on forgiveness.

Forgiveness, given and received, is perhaps the most difficult of all spiritual practices.

We simply don’t get enough practice – so let’s get some now by joining together to read number 637 in your hymnals, A Litany of Atonement …

Now, let’s share the silence, bringing to mind someone specific … someone who you might need to forgive for their acts of exclusion, oppression or violence … sit with that possibility, that potential … of beginning again in love.

[shared silence]

There’s something that has always struck me about that reading, in the phrase “we forgive ourselves and each other.”  It’s reminder that we all have the potential to be a victim and a perpetrator of violence, an oppressor and one oppressed, the one excluded and the one who shuns.  It’s a reminder that evil acts and deeds are not all that anyone is … that there is good in the worst of us, and evil in the best.

Which is so beautifully illustrated in the Story of the Two Wolves, from the Cherokee –

An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he told the young boy, “a terrible fight between two wolves.  One is evil, full of anger, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity and false pride.  The other is good, full of joy, peace, love, humility, kindness and faith.”

“This same fight is going on inside of you, grandson…and inside of every other person on this earth.”

The grandson ponders this for a moment and then asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

The old man smiled and simply said, “The one you feed.”

Thich Nhat Hahn would call this “interbeing.” It is a recognition that there is no “us and them,” only the whole where we are all co-responsible for the world as it is.  

And Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hahn would agree that, when engaged in nonviolent action, with the goal of transformation of one’s enemies, the means and ends must be all of a piece – all of the same character.  For Martin Luther King, Jr., there could be no action which sought to defeat or humiliate an enemy – the objective was not to defeat the enemy but to win them over – in this way, not only saving the opponent’s face and ego, but also, having the opportunity to “prick the opponent’s conscience so that s/he could change his/her ways before inflicting bloodshed.” 

For Thich Nhat Hahn, “the success of a nonviolent struggle can be measured only in terms of the love and nonviolence attained, not whether a political victory [is] achieved.” Writing about the actions of the Buddhist monks and nuns trying to create a peaceful solution to the hostilities in Vietnam, he wrote, “we never lost sight that the essence of our struggle was love itself, and that was a real contribution to humanity.”

So, this is all good – in the abstract.

What about practicalities?

Will it work? We must have faith.

Can I – each and every one of us – do it? We must have hope.

One thing I do know. We – none of us – can wake up one morning and decide “today, I am going to love my enemies.”

This work takes practice, spiritual practice, discipline, time.  Reflecting on his work with the boat people, the thousands of refugees that attempted to flee Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Thich Nhat Hahn said, “the suffering we touched doing this kind of work was so deep that if we did not have a reservoir of spiritual strength, we would not have been able to continue.” (from Love in Action, TNH)

In order to take on this work, extending love in the face of violence, oppression and exclusion, we need to engage in practices that build compassion, peace, and fortitude, such as fasting, meditation and prayer. 

Nonviolent action – engaging love so that the world may be transformed – is not the same as not doing anything. There’s a big difference between nonviolent resistance and passivity, or do-nothingness.  It takes enormous courage and fortitude to embrace this kind of love. 

We are living in challenging times, in a world of drones, cyber-terrorism, vast inequalities of wealth and poverty, global climate change, to name just a very few places where violence, oppression and exclusion are at work.

It would be fair to ask, “Is love enough?”

In the end, I’m not sure that’s really the right question.

All that I’ve described this morning is, in fact, a way to walk, and to work, towards being the people we are longing to be.  That, I believe, we must do that in the most embodied, human ways that we can.  Which means – in love.

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