Monday, March 31, 2008

The Wisdom of Willie Nelson

A while ago I had the idea of preaching a sermon series called "The Wisdom of . . ." with each week focusing on the wisdom of another figure. The idea came to me one day while I was cleaning the house and having my CD player shuffle through a number of different artists. "Wow! There's a sermon in that!" I kept thinking again and again and again. So I imagined preaching on the Wisdom of Stevie Wonder, the Wisdom of Sting, the Wisdom of Chris Williamson. You get the idea.

The closest I've come to seeing this idea reach fruition is a sermon I called "Willie Nelson and the Non-Toothache," in which I took a stanza from a Willie Nelson song and linked it with a teaching of the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh about the state of "non-toothache."

Simply put, this teaching is that it's worth noting that most of the time we don't have a toothache. That may not seem overly important, but take a minute to think about that! When we DO have a toothache we're crying and moaning and saying, "If only I didn't have a toothache . . ." Well, unless you have a toothache right now (in which case you need the non-charlie-horse meditation) you are presently in that longed for state. Are you aware of that? Are you appreciating it?

There's a great Willie Nelson song called "Good Times" in which he reminisces about times past that were the kinds of moments from a life that you remember as the good times. The last verse goes like this:

Here I sit with a drink and a memory. / I'm not cold, I'm not wet,
and I'm not hungry. / Classify these as good times. / Good times.
I'm not cold, I'm not wet, and I'm not hungry. I don't have a toothache. And neither, probably, do you.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can you believe your eyes?

Isn't this amazing? In actual, objective fact this is a static picture. Yet our minds create the sense of movement in it. (If you really want to get it spinning, click on the image to blow it up. You can get it to stop if you stare at one point for a couple of seconds. )
Do you know what's even more amazing? The computer screen on which you're looking at this, the desk on which the computer screen sits, the chair on which you sit--you, yourself, if you want to go all out with this--all seem to be static objects and yet, in actual, objective fact are collectives of infinitesimally small bits of energy whirling and swirling around mind numbingly huge expanses of empty space
I went to see Horton Hears a Who the other day and was reminded of all those late night conversations I had in high school and college about whether or not our whole universe is really a microscopic organism in some giant's big toe. And I recently read an article in a popular science magazine about the lively conversation among scienctists about concepts of a multiverse in which our universe is but one of an infinite number of universes.
What is "real"? Am I, as Chuan Tzu asked, a person dreaming I'm a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I'm a person? Am I a concrete independent person or a swirling pattern of energy? Am I a static two-dimensional image or a moving picture?

in Gassho,

Monday, March 24, 2008


There might be some who would say that Eastertide is the wrong time to be writing about ephiphany. But "epiphany" is not only the Christian holy day twelve days after Christmas. AN epiphany is defined as, "a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something," or, "a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization." For those who remember their Robert Heinlein, an epiphany is extremely similar to the Martian notion of grokking, which means, "to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed." (That's from Stranger in a Strange Land.)

An epiphany could be described as a spiritual realization, one in which you do not simply understand something new but through which you and the world around you become something new. Once experienced, things are forever different.

I thought of this recently when I found myself musing on an experience I keep having since my partner gave me an ipod for my birthday. I've downloaded a number of songs that I'd listened to growing up, and I keep hearing things--bass lines, drum rhythms--that I hadn't noticed before. Now that I've heard them, though, I can't not hear them, even when I'm listening to my old LPs in less than perfect conditions. What once was inaudible to me, now that I'm aware of it, sings out crystal clear.

And that reminded me of those old optical illusions in which two images are together in one picture. Is this an image of a young woman with her face turned away from us, or is it an elderly woman with her chin tucked into the fur of her coat? Usually people see only one or the other at first. Sometimes it takes a real (and oft times frustrating) effort to see the other. When one does, though, it becomes virtually impossible not to see the image--sometimes to the point of it being hard now to see the image one saw at first.

And so it is with the spiritual realization. What at first was unseen or unheard--what was in the background is now the foreground. Take, for instance, the idea that the real question of Eastertime is not "do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus" but "have you experienced resurrection in your own life?" The most important thing to consider this season is not whether or not a Jewish teacher of some two thousand years ago got up and walked out of his tomb, but whether or not you have ever gotten free from the "tomb" of your own experience.

Perhaps that "tomb" was a depression, or the crushing end of a relationship, the loss of a job (or hope), the death of a loved one, an encounter with your own mortality. The real question raised by Easter is whether or not you have ever risen from your tomb, whether you've ever been raised to new life, renewed life.

Once we realize that these ancient stories are our stories, are pointers to our own lived experiences, you and the world around you become something new.


In Gassho,


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Let’s Just Follow The Rules

In this campaign season politicians and commentators on the Right are continuing to maintain that the United States was, is, and always should be “a Christian Nation.” Folks on the left seem to be falling over themselves to establish their own bona fides as God fearing religious women and men. Whether or not this is a good thing is open for debate. It is, however, the way things are. Religion and the religiosity of the candidates is clearly and firmly on the table for discussion. And since this is the way things are, I have a suggestion to make to all of the candidates and all of their supporters: let’s just follow the rules.

I want to be clear, from my perspective as a Unitarian Universalist clergy person I am not talking about the rules laid down by the RNC or the DNC, by the Federal Elections Committee or even the US Constitution. I’m suggesting that the candidates follow THE rule, the so-called “Golden Rule,” the rule that says, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” That’s the Christian version of this rule, but it shows up in just about every one of humanity’s religions. Buddhism says, “hurt not others in ways you would find hurtful.” Islam says, “No one of you is a believer until you desire for your brothers and sisters what you desire for yourself.” Judaism says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellows.” The British Humanist Society says, “Don’t do things you wouldn’t want done to you.” From Bah’ai’ to Zoroastrianism there are numerous other variations, yet among them all there is a remarkable consistency in the core message.

And it translates well, I think, into the political realm. So, for all of you candidates—and all of your supporters—for whom being religious is so important, here are some translations of the rules into terms appropriate for you:
  • Do not run such ads as you’d call “false” and “misleading” if your opponents ran them about you.
  • Do not distort statistics in a way that if your opponent did it you’d call it unfair.
  • Do not present your opponent’s positions in ways you’d not want them to do of your own.
  • Do not present your own positions in ways you’d begrudge your opponent. (See again the rule about statistics, for instance.)
  • Do not decry behavior in your opponent which you yourself (or your supporters) are doing.

This does not mean, of course, that you can’t point out real differences. It just means that you shouldn’t do it by means you wouldn’t want your opponent to use. Naturally you will highlight your strengths and try to obscure your weaknesses. And so will your opponent. It’s human nature. So don’t waste time and energy complaining about it when they do—especially don’t accuse them of being misleading or dishonest, since you know you’re doing it too. And when you do it, don’t do it in a way that if they did it you’d have something to complain about. Follow the rules.

The popular wisdom may be that all that we, the electorate, want is drama, but the truth is that what we’d really like is the solid information we need in order to make a truly informed decision come November. Show us who you really are and not who you think we want you to be. Forget the pretty packaging, and show us the truth. Forget manipulating the data and tell us who you are—warts and all, strengths and weaknesses both. We may dream of a perfect President, yet we know we’re going to have to settle for a human being. So show us who you are, and if you really are the best candidate—with both your flaws and your greatness in place—we’ll know. After all, if you’re elected we’ll find out soon enough.

It’s one thing to be seen showing up at a church or other religious buildings and to put religious words and phrases into your stump speeches, but that’s not what being religious is really all about. As the Jerry Rubin once put it, “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me what you do 24 hours a day and I’ll tell you what you believe.” If you want to convincince me that you’re a religious person, then run a campaign that follows the rules.

In Gassho,


Monday, March 17, 2008

Tell Me Where The Miracles End

I have told the story many times in sermons of a walk in the woods I took once during a silent retreat. I came across a piece of quartz sticking out of the ground--it was about the size of a human head, and it was in a clearing so that it had been soaking in sunshine all morning.

It seemed like an auspicious site to me, so I sat down to meditate. At some point I "heard" the words (that's the only way I can describe it), "Take off your shoes, this is holy ground." I did as I was told, I reverently removed my sneakers and set them aside.

When my meditation was over I decided to continue my walk and was about to put my shoes back on when I suddenly realized that I couldn't tell where the "holy ground" stopped and the regular old ground began. So I kept my shoes off for the rest of the walk.

When I got back to the retreat center I was about to put my shoes back on but wondered why the ground outside was "holy" but the floors inside were not. So I kept my shoes off. I'd like to say that I never put my shoes on again, but I did. Still, to remind myself of this experience I do take my shoes off whenever I preach or lead a workshop. Everything, I'd learned, is holy ground.

Yesterday I was flying back to Cape Cod from a conference I'd been attending in Kentucky. I love to fly, and while I understand the physics of flight it never ceases to be a magical, a miraculous experience for me. During my flight yesterday I started thinking about other magical, miraculous experiences. I started thinking about how amazing our "horseless carriages" are. Or that we can press a button and suddenly see moving pictures . Or that we can flick a switch and have light. Or that we can eat food and turn it into body parts. Or that the energy that makes our hearts beat comes from the Big Bang itself.

Oh, for the most part I understand the science behind these things. Yet tell me, where do the miracles stop? Albert Einstein said that we have a choice between two ways of living in the world--as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is.

In Gassho,

Rev Wik