The Courage of Faith, and Doubt

belief-and-doubt-1Reading – from “Faith and Doubt” in Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith
An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. It is a finite act with all the limitations of a finite act, and it is an act in which the infinite participates beyond the limitations of a finite act. Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy.

But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage.

Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty. To accept this is courage. In the courageous standing of uncertainty, faith shows most visibly its dynamic character.

Sermon – The Courage of Faith, and Doubt 

The first time I met the man that many had told me could fund a full time minister in the church I was then serving – if he liked the minister enough, he hadn’t even asked my name, or told me his, when he leaned in to ask: Are you a believer?

It was a trick question, I knew – or rather, it wasn’t – and that was the trick.

He was looking for a specific answer, obviously an acceptable orthodoxy you might say, and then I’d pass the test, I suppose. I knew what he wanted me to say, knew he wanted me to put myself in one category or another, affirm my fitness for the congregation in doing so– maybe for UU ministry entirely…

Are you a believer?

I paused for a small moment, contemplating how much easier it would be,
if I just gave him that simple no that he was clearly looking for.

But….it turns out I’m not often lured in by something being easy….so, I instead responded….What do you mean?

Believer. He said – Are you a believer?

I’m not sure I know what you mean. I do believe in many things.

He became obviously impatient with me at this point: I mean, are you a deist?

Showing some restraint, I did not ask if he meant that I was a time traveler from the 18th century who believed in a cold and distant supreme being.

Instead I shrugged. Hm. I’m not sure why that matters.

And I walked away.

Obviously, I did not pass his test, and they did not end up with a full time ministry position funded that year.  And thus ends the story of what brought me to Foothills…just kidding. Mostly.

Asking about belief is not, regardless of what this man, and many others might think –
the same as asking about one’s faith.

Belief indicates a sense of certainty – like he was asking me to say, for sure, where I came down – did I believe?

Lately, I have been longing for this sort of certainty, something to hang on to would be solid, clear, concrete.  To have a list of answers, and know what’s right, what’s wrong–
to have clear black and white definitives for what to do, what part to play, how to react, and why.

And as long as we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind a feeling of confidence that God – still not the deist version mind you, but one that would be watching over us, and would never give us more than we can handle, and is also is totally taking care of climate change in ways we don’t yet see or understand.

Heck, these days I’d even take being in the 77% of adults who believe in angels – or as the studies put it, believe that “ethereal beings are real.” Because, clearly, we can use all the help we can get.

But, to answer the question that man asked me a number of years ago in the direct way he was looking for, No – I am not so good at belief like that. More often, I’m not a believer.
I’m a doubter, constantly navigating waves of uncertainty, confusion, and complexity.
Like Fox Mulder, I may want to believe. But, more often than not, I’m much more like Scully, skeptically squinting, “I’m not convinced.”

Luckily, I find myself in good company. We Unitarian Universalists are not – historically – known for our belief. Many of us have – as the Rev. Christine Robinson calls it, a “wintry faith,” where we live much more in the realm of doubt than in clarity. This is somewhat ironic given that our denominational designation – that 10-syllable sometimes-source of confusion to newcomers and media alike – Unitarian. Universalist –indicates a belief statement.

As in: Unitarian – an affirmation of the oneness of God, originally specifically, anti-Trinitarian. Universalist. Describing our theological conviction that ultimately, all people are saved, or healed, and loved, no exceptions.

Despite our name, however, our tradition has had a pretty complicated relationship with belief – I’d say for two main reasons -first, because both of our founding theological claims were in reaction to the orthodoxy of the time, which meant that the seeds of our religion were sown in the context of stating what we didn’t believe, rather than what we did – so that here we are hundreds of years later, and still sometimes we struggle to articulate a positive affirmation and construction of our individual beliefs, let alone those things “commonly believed among us.”

But secondly, and more importantly, our relationship with the idea of belief is clouded by the fact that all along, even in times when our churches have had creeds – which sometimes they did –there was always a clause in the church by-laws that said that ultimately all members were encouraged to follow their conscience, that “we need not think alike to love alike,” and that there was no helpful way to require someone to believe what their heart could not believe.

And therefore, membership in one of our churches could not be predicated on assent to a list of beliefs. This clause was what was known as the “liberty clause.”

In our covenantal tradition, belief has never been understood as our critically binding element. Instead, religious practice has been oriented towards faith as something much riskier, less controllable, and more dynamic than belief and its static, fixed, certainty –
something grounded in our actual experiences of being human, and what we discover as we come together in relationship with others.

Writer Sharon Salzberg – who was raised Jewish and is now a Buddhist – captures our idea of faith so well when she says – “Faith – in contrast to belief, is not a definition of reality, not a received answer, but an active, open state, that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside – from another person or tradition or heritage – faith comes from within, from our alive participation in the process of discovery.”

As the 19th century German theologian Friederich Schleiermacher would have it –faith is a feeling we each have, an experience of absolute dependence – an experience of life, of be-ing, an awareness of – everything – and the way we fit into all of thisand a surrender into this experience.

This feeling of absolute dependence is what Tillich means by the certainty of faith- (rereading the text)

This feeling is, however, pre-lingual; which is to say, words to describe it come later –
as are any attempts to attach meaning or ascribe beliefs to these experiences – and all of these are inevitably inadequate approximations attempting to capture what is unexplainable. And here is where we come to an uncertainty (read it).

My colleague the Rev. Jan Christian – who serves as staff for our Unitarian Universalist Pacific Western Region – tells a story about when she was about 10 years old. She was out on Lake Mead with her family, when her dad stopped their boat and asked Jan if she’d like to swim. She looked out at the water, unsure.

“How deep is it here?”, she asked.

“Oh, about 500 feet, I think.” her father responded.

She was alarmed. “I can’t swim in water than deep!”

“You swim in the deep end of the pool. Your feet don’t touch there and they don’t touch here.”

Her dad responded, quite reasonably.

“But, here I can’t see the bottom.”

Faith is the leap into the deep waters, where we cannot see the bottom – the willingness to trust, to relax, and to swim in the same ways we would have if we could see, if we did know exactly what is there, and to live with the unknowing.

Unlike belief, faith does not try to resolve the unresolvable tensions of existence, or attempt to make solid what is always dynamic and mysterious, changing and sometimes scary, or terrible.

Instead, it incorporates into itself our inevitable doubt, acknowledging all that we cannot see, all that we don’t know – all the ways we could be wrong, and how little control we have over how most anything will turn out. It takes all of this in and says, ok. Yep. That’s how it is. Let’s get on with the living anyway.

This understanding helps differentiate faith from hope, as hope is not so detached as this – hope is often oriented towards specific outcomes. In the quote on the front of the order of service, Vaclav Havel offers a definition of hope, but it seems to me, that instead this definition gives us a vision for what it means to release hope, to move into a steadfastness of living and loving, a loyalty to values and vision, regardless of how it will turn out. I’d call this not hope, but faith. And as Tillich asserts, its practice requires courage, particularly as the waters and the waves around us grow more active.

I’ve never been to Lake Mead. But I’ve been to other lakes that seem similar. And in most cases, the water is relatively calm. Even if it’s especially windy, or if the lake is particularly crowded – there’s no undertow, and even if the waves are especially big, if you have a life jacket on, and you know how to swim, you should be fine. You can trust that the water will hold you.

But this is not when faith is most needed, or tested. Faith is not only about leaping into the calm waters where you can’t see the bottom, but just as often, it is the practice of as diving into the open sea – where surrender to the waves might just take you under – take us all under. What does faith mean, in times such as this – which is to say, times like these.

The temptation in these moments of life’s greatest uncertainty, as I shared earlier about my own longings, is to lean into our own versions of faith as belief –to strengthen these beliefs into certainty, squelching all doubt within, or around us, hoping our sense of the truth might offer us a source of stability in the turmoil.

So that we are drawn to assert – not the existence of angels, necessarily – but to harden into whatever our own beliefs really are – even if they are unbeliefs. To lock into a story about what is happening – to us, around us, in our world – and who’s to blame. To harden the categories between those of us who believe as we do, and those who do not. To turn to our neighbors and ask, Are you a believer? And to use the answer as an indicator if they are the sort of person we can know, or that we can love.

Sharon Salzberg acknowledges that “Beliefs can provide a thread of continuity and perspective as we undergo the tumultuous changes and storms of everyday life. It’s not the existence of beliefs that’s the problem, but” – she says, “what happens to us when we hold them rigidly, when we presume the absolute centrality of our views and those who don’t share our views remain the ‘other,’ and we don’t really need to listen to them. Our story becomes the story.”

Even we who – at least in theory – appreciate a diversity of views – and who honor the many and sometimes-contradictory pieces of truth we all hold as valid – can be drawn into what philosopher Richard Bernstein called “Cartesian anxiety,” wherein – ever since Descartes – humans have been longing to claim a degree of ontological certainty – a singular and unchanging narrative that explains our lives, and life itself – mostly through the use of science, but also, through scripture, or even politics, or maybe today, political parties, and their rhetoric.

Unfortunately, or fortunately – ontological certainty, would be what some might call an alternative fact, or more simply, a lie. Because there is no way to know for certain – what it all means, what’s going to happen, how to make things better, as there is no way to reconcile our finite understanding with an infinite reality.

So instead of growing our orientation to belief, times like these invite us to take that courageous leap into faith – a faith that as Paul Tillich says – understands doubt not as its opposite, but as its elemental partner.

Last week I spoke about the practice of courage in our courageous love as taking action out of a sense of duty, regardless of fear – duty specifically connected to the value and vision of agape love. Tillich defines courage as “the daring self-affirmation of one’s own being in spite of the powers of ‘nonbeing’ which are the heritage of everything finite.” To translate a bit – he’s saying courage is the act of continuing to live, as if your life matters, as if it has a purpose – in a truly ultimate sense – even in the face of fear, and risk, and the realities of this ocean and its mad waves – even in the presence of doubt. Courage, he says, is an essential aspect of faith, because it is always a risk to live with such a willing awareness of all that we can’t know, to take doubt into one’s self, and yet persist in love, nonetheless.

Faith is the capacity to remain unresolved – to love the questions – as Rilke would have it – yet still remain confident – to acknowledge the mystery, the confusion, the pain at the center of life– and to love courageously anyway.

Margaret Wheatley reminds us, both Moses and Abraham were charged with great tasks, yet “had to abandon hope that they would complete these tasks in their lifetime.” Still, they persisted….Leading not from certainty, or even optimism, but from faith, and “from a relationship to” a vision “beyond their full comprehension.”

Courageous love calls to us with this vision, though so much remains out of our view –
beyond our knowing –  and calls us to have the faith that we might allow it to lead us on.

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Courageous Love

courageous-loveIn my life, the earliest example I remember of what I would call courageous love was from Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Archbishop Hunthausen was the Archbishop of Seattle from when I was born until I was 15. Since I grew up, Catholic, in a small town about 2 hours outside of Seattle, he was my Archbishop for the first 15 years of my life. I am told he was a constant advocate for the poor and for peace, which didn’t always make him the most popular.

But it’s a memory from when I was about seven that has stuck with me. My mom – a lifelong catholic was wearing this button one day, it said “I support the Archbishop.”

What’s that? I asked her.

She responded simply, “He held mass for the homosexuals, and people were very upset.”
It was 1983. “Very upset” was surely an understatement.

But in that moment, I didn’t hear the “upset” part. I only heard my mom saying the word “homosexuals,” and that my Archbishop had held mass for them. And she was good with that.

Fifteen years later when I was terrified to come out to my parents, that button flashed in my mind, and gave me hope, and courage; and surely that button had something to do with their eventual love and acceptance.

I am so grateful for that man, still, and for his sense of call, and duty.

He must have been so brave, received so much hateful criticism, it’s astounding he held his ground. The Cardinal even came in to investigate. How was he able to keep that clear about the call – the requirements of courageous love – it’s inspiring.

“Courageous Love” as an idea has been integral to my formation as a Unitarian Universalist, and as a minister.

Still, when we picked up this phrase in our mission statement last year, it was with a certain leap of faith – as in, we generally think we know what “courageous love” means,
and we even believe it’s what we are meant for in these times.

But also, in some ways, we knew we didn’t know, and it’s the unknowing that is the leap of faith– because you can’t really know – what courageous love is, until it’s asked of you,
and by then, well, we’ve already printed it on the t-shirts.

This leap of faith reminds me of that in the first book in the Lord of the Rings when our hero, Frodo, confesses that he isn’t feeling all that heroic.  So much has already happened,
and yet there’s still so much ahead,  pain, and loss he knows will come – he’d really just rather not. Why couldn’t he forget this grand adventure, this hero’s quest, and go back to the shire where he could enjoy a good second breakfast.

As he tells his teacher, Gandalf, ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time.’

Gandalf responds simply – “So do I. And so do all who live to see such times.”

I used to read the stories about Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks – or Galileo and Charles Darwin – or hear about Archbishop Hunthausen – all these heroes who worked to call forth the truth in a world invested in its opposite – and feel inspired, and eager to do what needed to be done to bring about the necessary change on behalf of justice, and righteousness, and compassion.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve started to feel a little less eager – as I have come to understand that answering the call of courageous love requires a capacity to live with a lot of pain, a commitment that persists through great sacrifice, and a willingness not to turn away, but to move towards what in regular times we might call, danger.

Whatever romantic notions I’ve had about the call of courageous love have, in recent days, fallen away.

This past week, I started an online class on strategic non-violent resistance led by Unitarian Universalist theologian and ethicist Sharon Welch – you may recognize her name as the leading thinker on what she calls, a feminist ethic of risk. She thought she’d have 40 or so clergy sign up, but over 60 were there. “I guess you’re all ready to take in a little theory to go along with your practice,” she observed as we started.

This is what I’ll try to offer today – a little theory around this idea of Courageous Love that we’ve been practicing, and that we’ve said we will unleash.

Let me start by dispelling any worries you may have that I’m about to get too heady
by asking you to repeat after me:

Going on a bear hunt
I’m not afraid
Oh look! It’s some wavy grass
Can’t go over it
Can’t go under it
Can’t go around it
Gotta go through it

OK. This campfire chant is a great summary of courageous love.  Seriously.

We say what we’re going to do (going on a bear hunt.)

This is like I said last week – we take a stand. And then, we give ourselves a pep talk to deal with our fear – I’m not afraid – like, “keep cool.” Then, we pay attention to what is right in front of us – stay connected – and go through it.

As Gandalf also says to Frodo, We do not get to decide which times we are born into. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

To make such a decision, we must begin with the love in courageous love.

This love is not squishy, romantic love, not even a love that’s about “liking” the other.

King reminds us that the English language limits our understanding of love – we have just one word to describe what took the Greeks three. They spoke about eros – that is the squishy, romantic sort of love; and also philia, which is like the way you love your friends –
and does have to do with liking them (at least most of the time).

But courageous love is neither of these – it is instead the sort of love captured by the word agape. As King wrote, “Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all. It is the love of God working in the [human mind]. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you come to love on this level you begin to love people not because they are likeable, not because they do things that attract us, but because God loves them.”

Agape is the sort of love that formed our Universalist tradition – that grace that is holding us all, and transforming us, but in courageous love this receptivity to grace meets our activity, as it calls us to become its active agents in the world.

Courageous love pursues – to use another Greek word – Eudaimonia – which is, the highest human good – that flourishing of all of life, in wholeness and health – that Sean spoke about a few weeks ago, what in the Jewish tradition we would call Shalom. Courageous love lives in the place where love of self, love of other, and love of the whole world come together into a love for all.

Sharon Welch calls this overlapping place, generative interdependence. Meaning, the creative, dynamic, energy born of all of us being in this together.  Courageous love doesn’t get stuck on just one way for us to “get through this,” but keeps discovering new ways –
like dressing up as clowns to disarm white supremacists, or resurrecting Frederick Douglass on social media to protest Presidential ignorance. Courageous love uses all the tools of art, and dance, spiritual practices, that we might keep finding that new way where there seems to be no way.

This is one of the repeated phrases in the Hebrew Bible, and one that is central to the theology of the black church – that God will make a way out of no way.

Or as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?”

So often the answer to this question when it comes to courageous love is – sort of.

hunthausen_portrait

Archbishop Hunthausen

Remember my Archbishop, he surely felt a sense that he was making a way where there was no way – but also, he couldn’t have known all the many ways that was true, the ripple effects, how a second grader in a little logging town would’ve carried his ministry in her heart for the next few decades until she herself would be telling the story of his courageous love to the congregation she serves.

 

All of that, he could not have perceived, but could only trust, and have faith.

Which brings us to the courage in courageous love.

There is a misunderstanding about courage. That it is a matter of fearlessness – that in order to act with courage you must have no fear.

But in these days, I’m pretty sure that would mean not acting at all.

Anxiety is a normal response to living in abnormal times, that is, to times such as these. Studies have shown that we act courageously – not when we have squelched all fear –
but when we are able to remain connected to some deeper sense of purpose, values, or vision – when we feel a sense of duty, in our core.

As poet-activist Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less and important whether I am afraid.”

Courage looks fear in the eyes and says, so what. Courage says, something matters to me more than this fear, something motivates me to see beyond flight or fight, to persist with creativity, and humor, and life-giving generativity – to claim a life of joy, even in the midst of heartache.

At our workshop on Courageous Love last weekend, when we asked for definitions,
the first word that came up was risk. Courageous love embraces risk. Which is not something people go around advertising when they want you to join their group…
like, join us, we’ll make your life less safe…..

But…Courageous love confesses there is no moral life that guarantees safety. Courageous love knows that the only way to make everyone “safe” is through an ethic of domination and control, where one or more controls and dominates one or more others….and ultimately, if you want total safety, you’ll have to cut off life entirely.

It reminds me of the story of the Buddha – before he became the Buddha – his parents kept him all locked up in the palace when he was younger so he wouldn’t know suffering. But eventually he wanted to actually live –so he left the palace – and guess what – suffering, everywhere.  Which became the main teaching of Buddhism – life is suffering.  OK, it’s a little more nuanced than that, but you get the idea. There is no way to allow – let alone unleash – human flourishing and ensure total safety. To imagine total safety is privilege, and likely indicates that our safety is predicated on another’s risk.

Coming to understand this – our privilege, and another’s risk – takes stepping out of our bubbles – and stepping in to the grace of an intentionally diverse community – like this one, in all of its messy imperfections.

When courageous love and following the call of courageous love feels impossible –
too much to bear – community reminds us, we don’t have to do it alone.

When the weight of courageous love feels like too much to carry, Sunday comes around once again, and we remember, it’s not just on us – it’s a shared task, this repairing the world. And there’s all these partners, walking together – so much so we had to add a third service!

We hold the babies in the social hall, and we hear about the new hearing aids, or the new job, we meet each other at the latest protest line and hug, and we watch each other picking up a piece, our own parts, and then we realize, we can keep going. Together, we can do hard things – with love. Courageous love.

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Making Space for Grace

 

Audio podcast available here.

Reading: X by Wendell Berry 

making space for grace (1).pngSermon: Making Space for Grace 

How am I going to live through this?

This is the question people ask when they are in the middle of a crisis, a trauma, or in grief that won’t seem to find its bottom.

It’s a question I’ve heard more than a few times in recent days.

It’s not always about the actions of the US President, but almost always, those things are in there somewhere.

There is a collective anxiety and dread washing over our country – and even, over much of the world – as the campaign promises to turn our backs on desperate people seeking refuge, or to end an imperfect but better-than-nothing health care law, or to erect a $15 billion wall across mountains and rivers to keep people out…or maybe, in – as all of these and more start to move from theory to reality….fear is growing, as is a sense of helplessness.

Meanwhile, it’s not like all the regular parts of life got themselves figured out– life continues to be filled in big and small ways with struggle – broken relationships, illness, money troubles, job stress and strain. The work of simply trying to make a life, to become the person you are meant to be. Put all of this together and you come to that question: How are we are going to live through this?

Collectively and historically, as a faith tradition, we have answered this question in one primary way – which is, to get busy. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, busiER.

In our Unitarian Universalist faith, as theologian Rebecca Parker says it, “WE are the agents of history, we are the creators.” We will build a land where we bind up the broken. We will.

And this feels good, necessary, and justified….until….we find ourselves in moments like the one we’re are currently in. Moments where we’ve been working hard and efforting, and marching and doing ALL THE THINGS, yet still the outlook for justice feels bleak, and even science is considered just somebody’s “opinion,” and we’re tired.

As Parker says, “We come up against our helplessness, the inability to stop loved ones from dying, or turn our children from paths of self-destruction, or from those we love from breaking our hearts. And we find ourselves asking, ‘Is there any source of help beyond my own strength? Is there anything I can trust beyond our power to make it right?’”

Today marks the fourth and last official service in our sermon series that we’ve been calling “We all go together,” which is exploring Universalism for the 21st century, although as we turn next to Courageous Love, we’ll keep coming back to this theology that can be summed up so well in the song that we’ve sung each of these Sundays:

There is a love holding us. There is a love holding all that we love. There is a love holding all. We rest in this love.

While the Unitarian strand of our faith would tell us that we better get busy, it’s all on us, the good news of our Universalist theology is that there is something bigger than us that we can trust, something that is holding us and healing us, that has nothing to do with our effort. As Parker puts it, “There is a gift, already given, to all people, a gift that does not have to be earned, that will never be lost, that cannot be taken away.”

This is grace. And in these times, it feels like exactly the good news we need.

Which is why we decided to step back from our usual monthly themes, and instead dig into Universalism, because we knew we would need to remember – there IS a love holding us – there is a GIFT already given – we are already blessed – already healed – and it is by resting in this love that we have any hope of remaining awake to all that’s broken in our world – and NOT becoming ourselves broken.

Yet even as I was working on this sermon, and then hearing the latest crazy news, I started to think – this isn’t the message we need! We need to take action. We need to do more, call more, read more articles, create more outrage, wake ourselves and our world UP to this tragedy, …this…pain….it’s up to US.

The early Christian monk, Augustine of Hippo – a great proponent of the idea of grace – once said, that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.

This is one of those sayings I should write on post its and place everywhere as a reminder…..because grace is the gift that life keeps trying to give to us, but if we’re so busy doing ALL THE THINGS, and our hands, which is to say our HEARTS and our LIVES are FILLED UP.  We cannot find our way to grace. There’s just NO ROOM.

In place of grace, we just see US, and WORK, and ALL THERE IS TO DO, and ALL THE NEWS ARTICLES and the LATEST thing to be OUTRAGED ABOUT.

But when we pause. When we slow down. When we imagine ourselves not in charge of everything, responsible for everything – but rather, as partners with something greater than us all.

Then, things like – the National Park Service going rogue – appear.

Or, spontaneous mass-gatherings happening at airports across the country with chants saying over and over, let them in, let them in, let them in.  And there too, lawyers working pro-bono on behalf of those detained. And taxi drivers rising up.  And then suddenly, a judge in New York City agrees, and there’s hope, again. All while most of us were resting.

This is grace.

Grace breaks through, and we breathe, and we notice how the sun came up once again – none of us did that – yet here it is.

“No leaf or grain is filled By work of ours; the field is tilled And left to grace. That we may reap, Great work is done while we’re asleep.”

To our great surprise and delight, we arrive in a room filled with these others who have come to sing, even to surround us in song – these souls who come still to hope, to figure it out, still not pulling the covers over our heads afterall, but feeling called by this possibility of peace, this righteous sense that Love still connects us, heals us, holds us. That we could rest in this love.

If the first week of this Presidency is any indication, it’s a long road ahead, my friends.

We don’t know which way the universe is going to toss us, what ups or downs – and sometimes this is daily, hourly.

If we are going to make it through – we need to make space for grace – that is – we need to make space between ourselves, and everything, and everyone else, so that love can break through. We know to know what part of the work is ours, and which is not.  We need to know where we stand, what we’re willing to do.  And we need to do this all from a deep connection to our center, to that peace within, that grounding. To live from this place, even as we are engaged with openness towards all that comes our way.

In our courageous love workshop yesterday, we called this the practice of compassion, with boundaries, although you might just as easily name it using the concept from family systems theory called “self-differentiation.”

Our colleague the Rev. Jake Morrill, he’s a UU minister in Tennessee, and a guru when it comes to systems thinking describes self-differentiation as a matter of three puzzle pieces. They go like this:

1. Take a stand.
2. Keep in touch.
3. Keep cool.

Taking a stand is the part of knowing where you are, what’s ok with you, what isn’t, and sticking with it. It’s the piece of the world, and the work that is yours. And it is discerning and maintaining a great clarity of self, no matter what.

Keeping in touch on the other hand is about connecting openly with others- individuals, and also, the news, and all that’s happening. It is observing, and staying awake, with a great curiosity and care, including a willingness to consider how or if this information could or should alter your “stand.”

The trick is not to let this second piece destabilize the first. Which is where we come to the third practice – keeping cool. Maintaining both 1 and 2 is anxiety-producing, for everyone. There’s no getting around it – if you’re human, trying to figure out how to be a differentiated in relationship with others– you’re going to be anxious. So keeping cool isn’t about no anxiety. Just about regulating that anxiety.

I encourage the use of the word “fascinating” to help with this. As in, that is so fascinating that humans behave like that. It reminds you that YOU are NOT them, and yet keeps you connected without being toppled over.

Especially in a highly anxious time such as today, this can be a great challenge. We may find ourselves being touchy about stuff that isn’t that big of a deal – being stubborn or over-reactive about something we can usually let go of, or trying to solve the whole world by way of adding to our personal to-do lists….these are great indicators that anxiety is trying to derail us – even for ourselves we can say “isn’t that fascinating that I’m reacting like that.”

There are many things to help when anxiety gets the best of us. Breathing deeply. Singing. Taking a walk.

Still, none of these in-the-moment things will help as much those practices we take up outside-of-the-moment, those regular habits that help us know where we stand, who we are, whose we are, and by what, and to what we are called.

There are many sorts of practices that help with this, but I want to end my sermon today by focusing in on one in particular that I believe would be transformative and sustaining for all of us individuals, and as a congregation, and would be a radical act of faith – Universalist faith – for we who still often seek salvation by way of the to-do list.

It is the ancient spiritual practice of “Sabbath.” Anyone who knows me even a bit will realize that here we reach the part of the sermon that is aimed almost entirely at myself. It’s ok, it happens sometimes.

Over the past few weeks, my family has been trying out a mini-version of Sabbath. We call it “Family Fun Night.” It starts whenever I get home on Sunday, and it is completely tech free – that means no TV, no phones, no screens at all, and all four of us are together, and we do something that we think is fun. One time we played charades, and laughed hysterically. Another we made paper airplanes and had flight competitions all around the house. Most recently we played basketball and went swimming.

I confess that we all are terrible whiners as we attempt to begin – we’re too tired – or too worried about the text we might miss – or too lazy to come up with something that doesn’t involve a screen. But without fail, every time, once we’ve given in, it’s the best. It reminds us who we are, and what really matters. And guess what, the world keeps on going on without us….

Next up in my Sabbath practice, I want to let these Family Fun Nights move right into Monday rest day. It’s something I’ve tried with partial success over the years, emphasis on partial. But like with everything else these days, it’s time to get serious. It’s time to lean in to this major premise of our faith – the promise of grace.

So I wonder if you would you like to try this out with me – one day a week – no tech, or at the least, no social media….one day a week for rest, for remembering, for reclaiming who you are, whose you are, and what really matters. Don’t get too stuck on the particular day – I’ve heard that Sunday is a popular choice….but like I said, I’m on Mondays. All that matters is that you choose one day – every week where

As Wayne Muller says – “there is no rush to get to the end, because we are never finished.” Sabbath, he says, “reminds us to be still. Stop. Take time to rest, and eat, and drink. Listen to the sound the heart makes as it speaks the quiet truth of what is needed.”

Every other day, we can be the ones doing, marching, writing, reading, calling….just one day, we make space for grace to show up and do its healing work on our hearts, and in the world.

In this turbulent world, and in these trying times, let us rest in this faith – our faith, and in this love.

May it be so.

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Harden Not Your Heart

Audio Podcast available here.  mlk service meme.png

MLK Service 1/15/17 “Harden Not Your Heart”

You might remember a few weeks ago I spoke about my momentary anxiety around how you all would react to the signs that we put out on Drake. I braced myself for someone to feel anxious about the particular adjectives and groups we identified there. But then, I got nothing.  Nothing except positive affirmation and pride that we would make such a clear statement of solidarity.

It was only in this past week, when we changed out one of the signs, that suddenly I got a flurry of comments in person, over email and on texts.  Republicans?!

Let me be clear that just as we have representatives from all of the other signs in our congregation, we also have republicans in our congregation. Also like the others, they tend to be in the minority. And yet unlike the others, this one caused people to question. One person semi-joked….”Republicans?!  We love Republicans?!”

This is the crux of the challenge of Universalism today, it seems to me. It is the tension that especially in the few weeks after the election I knew so many were wrestling with,
and many still are – does compassion for all and love for all mean endorsing all? How do we imagine that our call for Universal Love can be put together with the need to resist injustice – naming clearly and transforming forces of evil and oppression?

The topic of evil deserves its own sermon – and in fact that IS Sean’s sermon topic next week, which I confess gives me some relief….thanks for tackling that Sean.

For today, I am starting with the assumption that there is evil in this world. There is injustice. And there is a brokenness that exists both within each of us and among us all that we are called to resist and transform. Universal Love, and our commitment that “no one is indispensable” as Sean talked about last Sunday does not mean that we are not also fiercely drawing lines of right and wrong. Because the other part of that mantra he spoke about last week is equally, “no more victims.”

Since November I have been traveling back and forth to my home with this book  – it’s the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. MLK wrote so much more than just his I have a dream speech, or his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Each essay and sermon, interview and book excerpt is so powerful, and filled with so many layers of theology and political and social analysis – so much of it relevant for our times.

Early on I was struck by just how Universalist King seemed to me in his theology and practice – I wasn’t exactly surprised – King attended UU churches here and there and considered seriously becoming a Unitarian Universalist – except felt that he wouldn’t reach the size of audience he had in mind through Unitarian Universalism.

And then, he also came to some struggles with some of the liberal insistence on a high regard for humanity….but his core philosophies, especially that of non-violence come across as if he was reading a 19th century Universalist as he was shaping them….

Which in some ways, he was. As Eleanor shared, and as Richard Trudeau writes in his book Universalism 101, “King was inspired by the freedom fighter Mohandas Ghandi, who was inspired by the religious writings of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, with whom Ghandi corresponded, at the end of Tolstoy’s life.

Tolstoy consulted with Ballou about his thoughts on and experiences with pacifism as he wrote his master work on non-violent theory, [The Kingdom of God is Within You].

Adin Ballou – not to be confused with his distant cousin Hosea Ballou who Sean spoke about last week- served Universalist congregations for 56 years, beginning in the early 19th century.  He was a leading theorist of non-violent resistance and pacifism, and had a keen sense of optimism and faith for the possibilities of the future – ever-hopeful that the message of love that he felt in his heart would prevail and transform the world.

As he said in one of his most influential works, “A great transition of the human mind has commenced and the reign of military and penal violence must ultimately give place to that of forbearance, forgiveness, and mercy.”

A hundred years later, as Martin Luther King Jr turned to non-violence as a way to address injustice and brokenness, this message and these ideas were still struggling to gain traction – because still there was this idea that Love was not compatible with resistance –
that if we are to meet the forces of evil and injustice with Love it must mean – like the Cobra, we let the forces destroy us, and continue, indefinitely.

MLK talks about this as one state of how African Americans had been before the Civil Rights movement in fact – that they had been accepting of their oppression in a certain way, not making unrest.  Referencing the Hebrew prophets, he calls this a peace where there is no peace.  “True peace,” he says, “is not merely the absence of some negative force – tension, confusion, or war; it is the presence of some positive force – justice, good will, and brotherhood.”

As the Civil Rights movement grew, however, African Americans and oppressed people everywhere started to push and lead towards this positive presence – for true justice – and as MLK said, “privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without a strong resistance,” and for MLK and his Universalist theology, that resistance had to be non-violent, grounded in Agape Love.

We don’t hear King’s own words on this subject enough – and because I have so appreciated reading these with more depth, I wanted to spend some time this morning reading to you from one of King’s articles on non-violence, this from an article that ran in the Christian Century called “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.”

It was published in 1957, so it was a relatively early piece of writing – he was 28.
About six months before, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had concluded, and offered a living example of how to resist injustice with love.

As I read this I invite you to consider the theological convictions he is exploring, and how they sit with your understandings of Universalism and what it means to love courageously.

“The alternative to violence is non-violent resistance. This method was made famous in our generation by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who used it to free India from the domination of the British empire.  Five points can be made concerning non-violence as a method in bringing about better racial conditions.

First, this is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The non-violent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence.
His method is passive or non-aggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent.  But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is non-aggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.”

(Side note – in other works MLK talked about the need to cultivate a tough mind, but a tender heart, and I think that’s a little of what he’s getting at here…..)

“A second point is that nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

“A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. As I like to say to the people in Montgomery Alabama: The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice, and not white persons who may happen to be unjust.

“A fourth point that must be brought out concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns.

“To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify hate in the world.
Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.”

(Let me pause in reading King’s words for a minute to share a story from our colleague Andy Burnette, who serves the UU congregation in Chandler Arizona. Andy tells about a member of his congregation who is a Holocaust survivor who came to tell his story at his church. He says, “I think I will never forget him sitting with his arms crossed in a way that made visible the numbers tattooed on his forearm, saying he wanted children to know that if you let hatred for one person or group of people get into your heart, it makes it easier for you to hate others.

“Then the hate is in you,” he said. “And it’s hard to get it out.” Don’t let it in, friends. No matter what. It takes work, but don’t let it in.”

King is talking about the ways that letting your heart become bitter or hateful corrupts the world, but this story from Andy reminds us that it also corrupts you.)

The title of today’s service – Harden Not Your Heart – is a phrase that appears in both the Hebrew bible and the Christian Scriptures – but when I was thinking of it for today, I was thinking of the Pharoah in the story of Moses and the Israelites as they escape from Egypt.

It’s a really complicated thing that happens in this story because God is helping Moses to appeal to the Pharoah, but then also God hardens Pharoah’s heart and makes him unwilling to concede – over and over this happens, and each time, the Egyptians are hit with more violence and death – it’s terrible. Pain and suffering, and the Israelites still are enslaved. It is only when finally Pharoah’s heart is not hardened, that he releases the Israelites – and his own people stop suffering.

Last week Sean described Universalism as a profoundly difficult faith to hold. Because it asks us to find that path where we are seeking true liberation and justice – staying that line – even while we manage not to harden our hearts. It is a faith that asks us, even when we read the headlines about an action we find morally reprehensible – or the many actions piling up – we remember the humanity, the love that connects and has the power to heal us all ,and that we not lose faith in that love.

Which brings me back to King, for just a few moments to conclude – he says

“In speaking of love, at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion.
It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. “Love” in this context means understanding good will. There are three words for love in the Greek New Testament. First, there is eros, which has come to mean a sort of romantic love.
Second there is philia, which denotes a sort of reciprocal love: the person loves because he is loved. When we speak of loving those who oppose us we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in human life.  When we love on the agape level, we love people not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them”

(Because they are a part of us in a greater sense – held in love as we are)

“Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.”

Love like this is not a simple endorsement – of Republican ideas or every GLBTQ person, or every immigrant – that’s not what our signs mean. Love like this asks exactly the opposite of such an easy acceptance – requiring instead that we hold those we love accountable, call them to their better selves.

Ultimately King’s vision of love, the Universalist vision of love, courageous love asks us to find that difficult practice that offers compassion, with boundaries; radical acceptance with an unfaltering call for justice. It does not stand for a peace that is no peace, but requires the disruptive presence of a Love that keeps rising up, until the great promise and dream of liberty and justice for all might finally ring true.

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Christmas Eve Homily 2016

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Linocut created by Ben Wildflower – text from Luke 1:46-55

Text: Luke 2:1-19

Homily: The Radical Story of Christmas – Mary, Jazz and Turning the World Upside Down 

It starts with being counted.

 

Whether or not they wanted to make the journey,
it didn’t matter. They had to go. In those final weeks of pregnancy, when the discomfort was everywhere and the eager anticipation bursting in every breath right then, these two young Jewish parents-to-be had to make the long and difficult journey. The Roman Emperor required it. He’d declared there was to be a registry, so they had to register.

Joseph and Mary were natives to this land – it was the land of their birth, their families –
but that wasn’t the point. As Jews under Roman rule, they were counted not because they were valued – at least not as people, but because they were sources of income. The registry was a way to make sure they were properly taxed. Their lives, their child’s life, ironically didn’t count for all that much.

This is where our story begins.

In our time, in our world today, hardly anyone knows the bible all too well, but the passage from Luke that I read is something most people have heard, and recognize. It’s a story that’s everywhere. Or at least, a version of it is everywhere – the old-standards children’s Christmas pageant story that can be told without risk or scandal – this story we know well.

But the fuller story – the story that starts with this couple that came to be counted,
but whose lives didn’t really count – this story still hasn’t been heard. And it’s this story that is worthy of our announcing joy to the world, glory to this universe,
go tell it on the mountain.

This story of Christmas is risky – the kind of risk that would put an image of Mary as a warrior trampling death in the image of a serpent with the words “cast down the mighty”
and “send the rich away” in your Christmas program.

I made sure that we printed the scriptural reference there below the artwork – as I was worried you might not realize that these radical sounding words can be found in the chapter right before this part of Luke that we more often read every year.

They are a part of a song that Mary belts out when she meets her sister Elizabeth and they celebrate their pregnancies – when Mary thinks about this new life she’s giving birth to,
she sings out about how God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, care for the hungry, and send the rich away.

See, Mary herself was one of the lowly, the hungry, the powerless. Yet through her, love would be born anew, and through her all people would be brought into the transforming, healing, relentless power of this love. As Universalists we do mean to say all when we talk about the power of this love, as we affirm that there is nothing anyone could do that would alienate them from the presence and pull of this healing, transforming love.

Through this young woman who was required to be counted but whose life didn’t really count, the whole world would change.

All of this has to be in our minds when we hear this story of these young unmarried parents to be, and this story of their child’s birth. So that, for example – at the end of the scripture when it says “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart,”
you might get the sense that this is a sweet contemplation – the way that mothers often ponder their children and how lovely they are – how many people adore them – but when you put this line in context with the preceding fierce proclamation – “from this day all generations will call me blessed” and “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones.”
suddenly you can hear how she was pondering these things in her heart not in such a quaint, saccharine sort of way, but in a powerful, prophetic imaginative contemplation, as she, and we begin to realize just how much the world is being turned upside down.

It is ironic that so many of us believe we know this story, that its telling has become almost boring – because it is a story that is supposed to turn our world upside down, shock us with a total reversal, offering a vision of a world that is perpetually and powerfully subversive. The lowly become the powerful, the outcast becomes king, and the social rejects – which is what shepherds were considered at the time – the bottom of the social ladder, rejected as liars and thieves….these are the types of people chosen to first receive this good news…by way of God’s messengers singing in the sky, meeting them right where they were, inviting them to become themselves messengers, hope-bringers, bearers of great joy.

Later we are told, that all of these lowly outcasts drew the attention of the truly wise and wealthy by way of the magi who willingly traveled far just to kneel at the feet of a family
that according to the world powers, didn’t count at all.

Cast down the mighty, lift the lowly, turn everything upside down.

It’s this combination of encountering in the most familiar story of Christmas the most surprising and subversive story that had me thinking about jazz as we started our Christmas service planning.  Because jazz has all the same components as every regular, traditional sort of music – and yet it takes all of this and has the potential to go in a whole different direction- depending on the musicians, and the ways they come together,
their openness to respond to the moment, their willingness to be vulnerable, to make mistakes and to be present for one another, and to the creative forces moving through and among them.

Like the Christmas story, jazz repeats itself – and yet each time it does so with revision –
retelling through a rewrite – it is an expression of both memory and hope, tradition and transformation. Since its inception and throughout its history, jazz has been, a site for subversive collaboration – bringing together white and black musicians and listeners in ways that upended long-standing traditions of racial segregation in music. And along the way created music that had never yet been imagined or heard, something profoundly unexpected, and even upside down.

I’ve heard about Christmas Eve jazz services for a while, but in asking around I struggled to find a Unitarian Universalist example – we tend to do the traditional, the reflective, and the contemplative – less so the improvisational and energetic. But this year I kept thinking about how relevant the surprising upside down parts of this story is for our world today – in this time when the extremely-wealthy have a seemingly unstoppable grip on power and influence, when violence grows and division reigns, when yet again we are talking about who counts, and who matters, where we turn away from the immigrant, the refugee, the young and vulnerable seeking shelter, turn away from our neighbors, our family, ourselves…..

Maybe in other years we might not realize just what good news this story is, and so it could remain for us safe, traditional, distant and theoretical. But this year, this story – in all of its powerful unexpected, risky reversal is for us. This year we need the good news that something new is happening, here among us, even in the most invisible and unglamorous parts of our lives, those parts that society might reject, those places where we feel most outcast that even here a new and transforming love is struggling to be born – and we are the ones who can prepare it room.

Our lives – like the rooms of Bethlehem are often overly full. Filled up with cynicism and debt; busy-ness and bitterness –with all sorts of things that only we know about, that keep our hearts closed off and that get in the way of the love that would heal us, and connect us, upend and transform us and make whole the whole world round.

But this year we need to make the room, prepare the space because we need this Christmas story – in all of its radical vision, we need to clear the way in our lives, in our hearts for a love this powerful, this transformational – to release ourselves from those things that keep us busy yet unsatisfied – getting by, yet still longing for more –
isolated out in the fields believing all hope is lost – Christmas asks us to be this brave –
that we might hear the call breaking through the cold dark night: whispering, be not afraid.
That we might respond to the call of love arriving in all those places that the world says doesn’t count.  In the face and lives of the most vulnerable.  In the places of our lives
we believe are unseen and unheard, in those people who have been cast out, there the holy calls us to risk making the way, risk stepping out into the night, to gather with others,
imagining a whole new world, to say it is possible, to proclaim the good news of its birth.

There is much in the world and in life today that would have us despair, feeling powerlessness. But this two thousand year old familiar story still comes, and challenges us to be radically surprised – to imagine an entirely different world, to see in the darkest coldest night a bright bold light still arriving, to play not the standard melody but to risk a new note and a syncopated rhythm, a brave new story possible when people leave their familiar fields and set out on behalf of strangers and outcasts, on behalf of a love big enough to save the whole world.

This is the promise of Christmas worthy of being shouted from the mountain top
Don’t give up, love is just getting started.
Let us prepare it room – joining our voices in a great and glorious: alleluia!
Amen, and blessed be.

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When God Had a Body

when-god-had-a-body-1Text: The Education of God – The Incarnation by David Bumbaugh

Sermon “When God Had a Body,” December 11, 2016

New Testament scholar and sometimes-skeptic Bart Ehrman tells the story of one special person who lived about 2000 years ago.

Just before this person was born, “a heavenly figure appeared to his mother, telling her that her son would be not just human but also divine. His birth was surrounded by all sorts of supernatural signs, and as a child he taught those who were much older than he about religious insights and ideas.

This person went town to town with his message, gathered around him disciples
who witnessed his teachings, flawless character and multiple miracles. At the end of his life, however, his enemies made up charges and he was placed on trial before the Roman authorities and put to death.

After he died, some claimed he had ascended bodily into heaven; others said he appeared to them, that they had talked with and touched him. A number of followers spread the good news about this man, recounting what they had seen him say and do.” (From Ehrman’s New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings)

Unfortunately, however, this news never made it much further than his own time, so it’s unlikely you have ever heard of the neo-Pythagorean teacher, pagan, and holy man known as Apollonius of Tyana – who is the special man that Ehrman describes.

I start with this story because my plan for today is to go full-on Jesus….for us to explore not just the story of Jesus as human – something we do with some degree of comfort as Unitarians, but less traditionally for us, also the story of Jesus as the embodiment of the Infinite Mystery that some call God….and I know that for some of us, this idea brings up some resistance, annoyance, and injury. And, I understand.

When I first started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, I told some friends, with great passion, that one of the best things about my new religion was that they barely ever said Jesus. Jesus had been used as a weapon against me, and my wounds were still pretty fresh.

Over time, however, I have become even more passionate that we should no more allow a profound perversion of the story of Jesus -for example, any version that could be used as a weapon – to be represented as the truth – than we would allow the perversion of science to stand as the central truth about the earth, or our climate, or our place in this universe.

Both of these, if left unopposed are equally capable of destroying human life. And so we need to be just as willing to engage the Jesus story as we are any of our other sources for truth – especially when the perversion of the story of the “prince of peace” has never felt more pervasive, or dangerous.

Which is all to say, I hope that Apollonius of Tyana helps. Apollonius and the many other stories of the divine becoming human circulating around the 1st century remind us that there is something here that has captured the imagination of many different sorts of people for millennia, in ways that may or may not be related to what we now call the Christian religion.

And so my question is why – what is it about this story of God as a person,
and the divine as flesh – what is it about this that speaks to people – that keeps speaking to people – powerfully, resiliently?

Many of us today feel liberated by the opposite, actually. If we engage with a concept of God at all, it’s usually by way of “Spirit of Life,” or Infinite Love, Great Mystery, or even simply, the Universe. No body, no being.

But here we have this story that proclaims the eternal has been given form, and gender and skin, a particular, living, breathing existence.

What liberation might be found here?
What piece of the truth, and what good news might this story offer us, and our world?

The good news, of course, starts with a baby, which is always good news….except…not entirely. Because babies are beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and smell really good…..but also can be real jerks. They cry and don’t use their words; they refuse to do their own laundry, and they never do the grocery shopping. They wake you up at all hours of the night, and demand you feed them, change their diapers, or just hang out and pay attention to them.

These human realities are some of the many reasons why scholar Cynthia Rigby describes the idea of God becoming “one of us,” as the song would have it, scandalous. (Check out Rigby’s essay in Constructive Theology edited by Serene Jones & Paul Lakeland)

How could something infinite be contained in something so profoundly limited?

And how could the perfectly good and entirely powerful square with something so messy, selfish, dependent, and demanding?

Also, It’s actually wrong to say that this starts with a baby – it starts with a woman who grew that baby, which is to say a woman who created God, formed God, a woman who was pregnant with God, and who gave birth to God with all the mess and blood and curse words that come with labor and birth.

And no one ever seems to talk about the fact that this God necessarily was a teenager – awkward and pimply, eager and even…..horny…

Scandalous.

This is the mystery of the incarnation, and in the earliest days, no one thought to try to solve it. This paradox of God in a human body sought no explanation, no clarification, no resolution, no absolutely sinless life, no doctrine of the virgin birth.

The hard lines of orthodoxy came later, along with the organizing, the power struggles, the boundaries of who’s wrong, who’s right, who’s in, who’s out.

But before all of this, there was only the allure of this impossible possibility: that the eternal would know the mortal, and perhaps more importantly, that the mortal would know the eternal.

That the two seeming opposites would fully co-exist in a great intimacy and partnership between human life and the universal source.

God doesn’t just walk among humans, God is human.

God doesn’t just shape human life, but is subject to that shaping.

God is not residing in some celestial heaven, God abides here, fully present with us, in us.

The story of God becoming human lifts up God’s immanence – instead of an untouchable transcendence that occasionally comes over us in a great and rare sacred shiver, this story says that the holy knows human life intimately – that the universe knows what it means to want what you cannot have, and also the pleasure of getting everything you hoped for, and more. Strong mother God, working night and day;

This story says says the spirit of life gets why you’re losing your temper, and knows how much you long to be forgiven; it says the Ultimate knows what it is to be betrayed by those you love, and also to die too soon, and to long for more life.  Warm Father God, feeling all the strains of human living;

This story says that Life at its very essence understands when things fall apart, the helplessness of realizing there is no fixing this, and the reasons why you’d decide to show up and love anyway. Old, aching God, grey with endless care.

There is something deeply comforting and consoling about imagining the vast infinite this present – that this aging body, this stumbling spirit, this doubting, suffering, hopeful, imperfect person; that every boring, embarrassing, gorgeous corner of our lives; every melting glacier and bullied child, every relapsing addict and terrified soldier – all of it, and all of us is known and held in divinity, known entirely by the infinite universe.

We speak about an infinite love that will not let us go, a love that has not broken faith with us, and never will – this is the promise of this story. Emmanuel – God With Us.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said this was the real scandal of this story – not what it implies about the divine, but what it says about humans – and how much we are loved. This infinite, unconditional love is too much for us – it’s an embarrassment of love, an unfathomable abundance, a scandal.

We should have to earn love like that, we think, only some could deserve love like that – not everyone; only some parts of ourselves should be loved like that….not all the parts….not the pimply parts…The co-existence of God with flesh, however, refuses such a division. All are worthy, all are loved; every part of you is worthy, every part of you is known, accepted, and loved.

It is a problem, however, that this story comes to us with God as man, let’s be honest.
David Bumbaugh’s winking response – that God could learn more about limitations by becoming a man – and also Satan’s question about whether or not God has fallen victim to sexist assumptions – pretty smart, ok.

Some say that the story wouldn’t have had the lasting power if it had been focused on a woman who was fully human, fully divine; others say that the transgressions of a woman in the first century of Palestine would not have held as much social and political power as they did for a man – it had to be a story about a man.

All of these are good ways to think about the fact that this culture-shaping story centers on God becoming a man – but it’s still a problem. Because they can’t overcome the inevitable conclusions that – as feminist theologian Mary Daly put it, “if God is male, then the male is God.”

With that said, focusing too much on Jesus’ gender overemphasizes the humanity in the story over the divinity – the point is that neither is more present than the other –
they are equally co-existent. Which means, as I keep saying about our signs – the particular expression does not necessarily limit the infinite reality it points to, but just gives it tangible expression.

jop.gif

Janet McKenzie’s Jesus of the People

Which is one of many reasons I love the artists who toy with how they portray Jesus – willingly offering a Jesus who presents as female, Hispanic, disabled, or even – Caucasian.
These portrayals remind us that the particular embodiment should not be confused with a permanent limitation.

Despite all this talk of scandal, it was not new or radical to imagine that God is changed or changeable, or even that the source of that change is human interaction. Much of the Hebrew scriptures tell stories of God learning, messing up, trying again, and as the hymn goes, “being changed by what God started.”

The new part of this story is the body. It was the fact that God had a body, the story goes, that changed everything – for humans, and for God, from then on. Which I think makes sense.

It reminds me of a poem I have read at memorials – from Dorothy Monroe, it goes:
“Death is not too high a price to pay for having lived.
Mountains never die, nor do the seas or rocks or endless sky….
they stay eternal, deathless.
Yet they never live!
If choice there were, I would not hesitate to choose mortality.
Whatever Fate demanded in return for life I’d give,
for, never to have seen the fertile plains
nor heard the winds
nor felt the warm sun on sands beside the salty sea,
nor touched the hands of those I love–
without these,
all the gains of timelessness would not be worth one day of living and of loving.”

We idealize the possibility of immortality, omniscience, omnipotence, but there is something particularly beautiful and transformative about our simple, limited, vulnerable human life.

Once God had a body, the idea of living forever like the rocks and the sky, of remaining at a distance from everything and everyone – it just wouldn’t have had the same appeal. We so often curse our unknowing, imperfect existence –  but when you think about it –
how beautiful this stumbling and sometimes surrender can be – you too might understand how it might persuade divinity to abide with us, forever.

Unitarian Universalist minister Galen Guengerich says that in our world today, “each of us are the face of God in this world, and God’s voice and hands.”

And so it may be true that there is no all-knowing, all-controlling force, but rather God is that which is present in all, the presence which remains, that abides – that presence that chooses to stay within and among humankind, and that power that knows how to love –
that presence that loves abundantly, scandalously.

Such an idea would mean that we are all the saviors of the world, or we could be, which is terrifying, especially right now, but only scandalous if we fail to take our responsibility seriously. If we fail to see in every person, a possible partner, an image of God.

And so, in this dark time, let us pray by way of persistent kindness, worship through a practice of relentless compassion, and restore our beloved creation, and ourselves,
through the tender task of seeing one another, in all our humanity, holy, and abundantly loved.

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Eyes to See, Ears to Hear

Listen to this sermon here.

Story – The Beggar and the Box from Eckhart Tolleeyes-to-seeears-to-hear

Sermon
That story is one of my favorites, I’ve told it a few times here.

In this season where we are making lists of all the stuff we’d like to receive or do, things that would feel like a treasure to us – this is a good story to remind us that the “gold” we are seeking often can’t be bought in a store, or even online, and isn’t even a matter of that mythical dream of “completing our to do list.”

But hearing the story this time, I kept getting stuck on how angry that guy must be.
I seriously never thought of it before, but this guy, he’d been sitting there for 30 years (!) starving, and then this other guy comes in and basically mansplains his solution. He spent three decades begging, sitting, striving, longing, waiting for the change to come. When in reality that whole time, he was literally sitting on everything he needed. The story says he was elated but really, how could he not be furious?

Even when the outcome is good, plot twist can still feel traumatic.

I know, it’s a new month, and a new theme – but I have to confess, I’m still not done processing last month’s theme – which was story – and really, just last month entirely…. And that plot twist we all experienced.

In many ways I appreciate the fast pace of life today – it suits my ever-present sense of how short life is and how much there is to do……but also, sometimes even I feel like it would be good if everything could slow way down. Like, if we could hit the global pause button for like, a year, that would be good for everyone – don’t you think? Like, a global time out. Where stuff could stop happening, and we could just take in and absorb where we are, all that’s happened, like, forever, we could take each other for coffee and clean out one another’s basements – literally and figuratively….

But of course life doesn’t work like that. Like poet Adrienne Rich says – ideally we would “make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history, or music, that we should begin with the simple exercises first and slowly go on trying the hard ones, practicing till strength and accuracy became one with the daring to leap into transcendence…. but we can’t live like that: we take on everything at once before we’ve even begun to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin in the midst of the hardest movement, the one already sounding as we are born.”

We are thrown into the story of life already full force, already sounding, and so we just try to show up, to get present enough that we can be actors in this story, characters with a voice, who meaningfully impact the tenor and arc of that story, even as we are trying to understand what’s even happening….

Presence is this month’s theme – as in, how to be present in this month, rather than last…not as in – P-R-E-S-E-N-T-S, though we do hope you’ll consider how our presence P-R-E-S-E-N-C-E is inhibited or enhanced by those T-S presents, and also how we go searching for presents TS when really we are yearning for presence CE – as in our story –
looking for something outside ourselves, when really what we need is already here.

The last time I was with you on a Sunday – it was right after the election, it was a powerful day….and embodied well what we mean by presence. We were present to grief, and the pain, and present to what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would call “the cry of the oppressed.”

I didn’t read it to you that day, but every day since the election I’ve been thinking about the poem by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire where she says, “I held an atlas in my lap/ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered/where does it hurt? It answered everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.” We were present that day to the suffering that is everywhere.

It was like we had opened a circuit into the great energy of all the world and its people,
and were in the flow of it. We’ve spoken about the idea of thin places – those holy spaces where we feel more deeply connected and alive to the great big everything that some call God. Usually we think of thin places as being connected to joy, as in a great and ultimate elation. That Sunday was a thin place for me, but it wasn’t elation, it was painful, exhausting, heart-aching.

Which is perhaps why, in the second service, at the end in the part we call the gratefulness response – when I said to you all my usual something like, “let us take a moment to feel grateful.” Someone went – Humh! Like…what?!

And I got it.

Whenever we are present to suffering like that – when we allow ourselves to really see it –
hear the stories of grief and loss –take them in to our person – it can end up feeling like it’s all we see – so that suffering and pain become truly everywhere, everywhere, and everything we hear confirms our sense of how terrible, and broken the world is.
Gratitude?! Humh!

Instead of just seeing and hearing pain, what we tapped into was a kind of seeing and hearing that indicates a deeper spiritual lens – a way of viewing the world, and being present to it. Everywhere, everything.

This is the sort of seeing and hearing that the phrase “eyes to see, and ears to hear” –
a common phrase throughout Hebrew and Christian scripture – is meant to convey.
It’s a phrase that’s asking if we are really understanding the world we live in for what it truly is, in its larger context and larger story – its greater reality. By the way, in scripture, the answer is, mostly we don’t.

In our story, it wasn’t just that the man didn’t see the gold in the box, there was something about his whole world view – is way of SEEING that didn’t lead him to look in the box at all.

For many of us, our way of seeing has been altered in the past few weeks, as we have been present to the pain in this world in new and different ways, perspective-changing ways, ways that – as teachers like Joanna Macy would say – might just inspire us to make the often difficult sacrifices required for necessary change.

Some of you have told me about your desire to keep up this seeing, to keep up a certain vigilance. In this I hear the reminder from Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker who recalls that a full review of Nazi Germany makes it clear that the Holocaust became possible because people lost this sight of human suffering – she says, “somehow those who built and operated the death chambers, those who gave the orders and carried them out, disconnected from what the activity actually meant.”

We do need to be vigilant, and remain present. The important question is – how.
How we will be present, how shall we see?

In my experience, there seems to be two main ways someone might be changed by a traumatic loss. In the first way, there isn’t just the death of the one who has died;
there is another death – the death of the one who technically remains alive but whose entire life is now filled up by that death – it becomes all they can see. Everywhere, everywhere is the loss; everywhere is the pain. Marriages end, jobs are lost, addictions return with a vengeance, or take hold anew. Despair and bitterness are overwhelming.
Or, sometimes, just a kind of numbness. That’s one way.

The other way is when that same person finds in that suffering a new and powerful connection to compassion, love, and joy – that somehow the window into suffering they experience becomes a window into love. And this makes sense, actually, because why would suffering even matter – except because of love? So we can open the atlas, and ask also, where is there love? And it will answer, every where, everywhere, everywhere.

Matthew Shepherd’s mother Judy seems a good example of this type of change –
after the brutal murder of her son, she was not overcome by that loss, nor did she deny it,
but instead went on to start a foundation in his name dedicated to help parents with gay children grow in acceptance, and travel the country telling his story and opening hearts.
More recently, the mothers of the most well-known young black men shot by the police,
the women who have become known as the mothers of the movement – they too demonstrate this kind of response to trauma, this simultaneous connection to pain and love; heartache and hope.

Parker Palmer says – there are two ways for the heart to break – to shatter and scatter,
or to break open into a greater capacity to hold even more of the world’s suffering,
but also joy, love, and hope.

Sometimes, when it comes to holding the suffering of the world, the heartbreak of injustice, it seems like we only know how to live as scattered and shattered. If we’re going to let it in, it must be everywhere and only. We have to be outraged! We can’t be grateful, the world is terrible! We can’t be joyous, we’ve got work to do!  I mean grateful….HUMH!

And yet there is another way to hold this pain. Another way for hearts to break….this place where suffering and love are profoundly connected – even two sides of the same reality….. so that as we lean into suffering, we will see that we are actually sitting on the golden treasure of love. That love we are trying to build in the world is right here, already.

I know you might be making an inner “Humh,” and so I have an example, provided by our signs that are out on Drake.

In the first few days after the election, I was so connected to the thread of suffering that connects human life. In that painful place, it was very clear to me that we needed signs. What they should say, how they’d look, I wasn’t sure – but we needed signs. The suffering required response, because of who we say we are. So we started talking and before too long settled in on the phrase that you see out there right now. We love our / Black / Muslim / GLBTQ / Immigrant / neighbors.

It’s specific – a response to the suffering – but also grounded in our Universalist good news that all are worthy of love. So if you look just at the first and the last sign,
you get the whole of the message – we love our neighbors. Period.

It took a while to get the signs ordered, and then to figure out the logistics, so that by the time our administrator, Carolyn Myers – and one of our members, Rich Roberts – on his birthday by the way, thank you Rich – they were out there on Drake putting them up and suddenly I had a panic. How will people in the community react? How would you all react?

Which is to say, I lost track of the suffering – and instead turned to my own fear and self-protection. Which is absurd – because the message shouldn’t even be controversial – right? Except that it is now, which is the point. I want to lift up this momentary panic because, I think it’s something we can anticipate as we are attempting to make good on our mission. It is called courageous love because the path ahead is going to require that we do some hard things, things that might rightfully make any one of us and potentially many of us afraid. But that fear does not mean that what we’re doing isn’t the right thing to do.

So if and when this happens, my lesson is to connect back – away from fear – to instead return to hear the cries of the suffering, and the call of courageous love.

By this point in the story of our signs, however, it was long past the time for second-guessing – they were going up. So I took a deep breath, and waited to hear about the reactions. It started immediately – the honking, the waving, the thumbs up – all in joy. One woman pulled over to talk to them, in tears of gratitude – she was an International student – would she be able to get back into the country next semester? Did she no longer belong here? Our signs were a light in the darkness.

Since that day, the response has grown. Emails, and calls and facebook messages and drop ins – all saying thank you, and sharing stories of how much the signs mean, and why –
stories of grief, and heartbreak. The signs offered beacon of hope, and compassion. What began by opening a circuit to the world’s suffering, instead has become like tapping into the great circuit of love.

In the gospel of Matthew,  when Jesus talks about the eye as the lamp of the body – the text is on the front of your order of service – he’s pointing to this Jewish tradition of talking about the eye and sight as a metaphor for vision in a deeper sense. And so this text is about how the way we see life – the perspective we choose to take – will shape everything else.

The way we see will make all the difference in whether we spend 30 years starving – or if instead we will SEE the presence of joy and love that is already here, ready to feed not just us but our hungry world.

As we journey together, we get to choose, if we will see in a way that will have our hearts scattered and shattered…..or if we will allow our hearts to break wide open, awake to suffering as connected to love, shadow as connected to light. We get to choose if – like Emma Goldman – there will be dancing at our revolution. If there will remain laughter in our lives, if we will still overflow with gratitude because we are committed to the beauty….

Life is too short, and there is still so much work to do. Let us not spend our years seeking change, only to wake up decades later having missed out on the love and the joy and the good that was right here. Let our broken hearts burst with shouts of joy, and let us sing out in a protest of praise, still, alleluia.

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