Monday, February 28, 2011

I Don't Know

The last sermon I preached while the settled preacher in Yarmouth, Maine was titled, "Everything I've Said Was Wrong."  In this sermon I looked back over eleven years of preaching and tried to show how every single thing I'd said from that pulpit was as wrong as it had ever been right; that the words we use to describe the ineffible are, by the nature of the task itself, going to be short of the mark.

I was really proud of that sermon -- proud of the intellectual and spiritual humility I believed it demonstrated, proud to see those words on the sign board out in front of the church as if they summed up my ministry.  And, in a sense, they did, although I'll confess that I put a lot of thought into the sermon that showed that my thoughts had been wrong, and the idea of being proud of your humility is a bit of a head scratcher.

This morning my friend James Ishmael Ford -- who is both a Unitarian Universalist minister and a Zen priest and teacher -- wrote a really fantast piece on his blog.  In it he said,

"[D]on’t know.

For heaven’s sake don’t know.

It is the universal solvent to all human ills.

Doesn’t mean give up.

It means don’t know. Really don’t know, right down to the soles of your feet."
Now I know all about the Zen concept of "Don't Know Mind," and have always advocated it myself.  I think that that's partly what I was trying to point to and embrace in that sermon.  Yet I was reminded again this morning of this advice and saw more clearly than I have in a while just how hard it is to put into practice.

And I mean, I want to be clear, how hard it is for me to put into practice.  I can remember the summer I first learned to juggle.  Or, to be more precise, the summer I was first taught to juggle.  Now, in the years since I have used exactly the same technique to teach a couple of thousand people how to do the basic three-ball cascade that is the foundation of most juggling.  I can teach you in an hour and, if you practice for fifteen minutes each day, you'll be juggling solidly by the end of the week.  I can say this with some certainty because I've done it so often.

Yet that summer that my friend Donna Hunt tried to teach me I just couldn't get it.  No matter what, I couldn't pick it up.  Forget the one-hour lesson, she tried for days and weeks . . . nothing.

I've come to realize that at the camp where this was all taking place I had something of a reputation.  I was a magician and a clown.  Everyone assumed that something like this should come easy to me; that I'd be a natural.  And, so, for psychological reasons of my own, I developed a real block.  I didn't want to not-know how to do this and, so, I was unable to learn.

I've seen that in other situations in my life, too.  (And I've heard about it in the lives of many of the people I've talked with over the years.)  Not-knowing requires a willingness to be a beginner, to risk appearing less than.  If I don't-know, why would anybody want to listen to my sermons (or read my blog)?  If I don't-know, how will I demonstrate my worth (having grown up so valuing intellect and knowledge)?  If I don't-know, how will I gain status, or prestige, or respect, or . . .?

And yet, not-knowing is the only way to learn.  (Unless you embrace your not-knowing you'll never have any room inside for learning anything.)  And, truth be told, not-knowing is pretty much the real state of things anyway, just as not-in-control is.  (But that might be the subject of another blog sometime.)

So todayt I'm thankful for James' reminder of the importance of not-knowing, "right down to the soles of your feet."

In Gassho


Friday, February 25, 2011

Wondering About Worship

I've been thinking a lot about worship lately.

That may not seem like such a surprise, given that my job at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is Director of the Office of Worship and Music Resources.  If I'm not thinking about worship . . . well . . . then . . . what am I doing?

Yet recently three things have come together to get me, perhaps, not so much thinking about worship as wondering about it.  Pondering.  First, I've just finished reading a fascinating book by Laurene Beth Bowers, Designing Contemporary Congregations:  strategies to attract those under 50.  This book has both affirmed some of the things that I thought -- and did -- while a parish minister and challenged others of them.  (I like that in a book!)  It's got me wondering about this thing we do week after week and how/why we do it so that it is both meaningful and relevant to folks living in the world today.  Not just its content, but its form -- its location, its time, the liturgical elements, who participates and how . . . everything.  If we were creating it today, rather than continuing it from yesterday, what would it be like?  (Next on my reading list, Emerging Worship:  creating worship gatherings for new generations by Dan Kimball!)

And then, thanks to my serving on the editorial board of Skinner House Books, I've also just recently read the manuscript for a book on the theology of preaching that's being considered for publication.  The author uses Ralph Waldo Emerson's well known Divinity School Address of 1838 as a touchstone, and essentially asks what it could mean in the twenty-first century to be a "newborn bard of the [Spirit]"?  There is a lot to chew on in this manuscript -- it was the author's D.Min. project -- and it's got me pondering, too.  What makes Unitarian Universalist preaching and worship distinctly Unitarian Universalist?  And what makes it, again, meaningful and relevant in this day and age?

These aren't, of course, new questions.  One of my favorite expressions of it goes like this:

“Is it possible to create a form of worship so wide in its humanity, so inclusive in its symbolism, its resources in art, literature, and music, that it can encompass the whole drama of [humankind’s] religious quest?”  The author goes on to note, “We are a very young religion, without the rituals and traditions of most of the other religions of the world.  We are still seeking our true voice and rightful manner in celebration.  This we cannot find without experiments in worship.”
These words were written by the Rev. Kenneth L. Patton, and come from his book A Religion for One World:  art and symbols for a universal religion.  [I don't want too digress too far, but I feel it important to note that Patton was careful in his use of language.  He was not interested in creating "a one world religion," which would be a syncrtistic religion supplanting all others.  Rather, he was interested in upholding what he understood Universalism -- and, then, Unitarian Universalism -- to already be:  a religion for people who understood themselves to be "citizens of one world," members first of the same human family.]

The picture above is a view of the sanctuary of the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston, circa 1960.  This was the congregation that Ken Patton was called to lead, and it was designed as something of a laboratory to address the question -- what would authentically Universalist (or Unitarian Universalist) worship in the modern age look like?  One answer was found in their renovated sanctuary, which placed the congregation in a circle around an inlayed map of the earth (because their concern encircled the whole world), and between the painting of the Andromeda Galaxy at one end of the sanctuary and a mobile of the atom that hung at the other (because humans reside between the atoms and the stars).  The pulpit was moveable -- because there was no single locus of authority -- and the sancturary was literally surrounded by symbols, sacred texts, and art that reflected humanity's on-going search for meaning.

This picture hangs on the wall in front of the desk in my office.  It reminds me of what is possible, even while the majority of our congregations still look more or less like the churches of the Protestant tradition from which we sprang and, if we're being honest with one another, act more or less like them too.  (Although the content may be different, the forms are so often nearly indistinguishable.)  Patton's question hangs there too -- what makes Unitarian Universalist worship specifically, uniquely, Unitarian Universalist?

The third thing that's got me pondering on all of this is that, as I noted last week, I'm looking to return to parish ministry in the fall.  My time thinking about worship -- and helping others to do so -- is drawing to a close and it'll soon be time to be doing it again.  Now, I know full well that wherever I land will already have its own patterns and practices, its own structures and forms, its own history and culture.  These will have helped to make it the congregation that it is -- and the congregation it is will be, after all, what will have attracted me to them and made them think that I would be a good fit.

Yet I'm hoping that this congregation -- wherever it turns out to be -- will be willing to see itself as a laboratory, will be willing to ask the questions and explore the answers, will be willing to risk seeing what the future might really be holding.

So I find myself pondering . . . what is and what could be; the answers we've already found and the questions that still want asking; the needs and desires of the people who are here and those of the people who are yet "outside;"  the intersections of the potential, the possible, the problematic, and the promising.

I'm looking forward to the fall.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You Are Love

The revelation came to me abruptly.  It was a moment of grokkingAn epiphany.

I was putting my youngest son to bed and saying the things I often say when putting one of my boys to bed -- that I love him.  A lot.  More than anything.  More than everything put together.  More than he could imagine.  And that somehow, mysteriously, tomorrow I'd love him even more.

At that moment I had one of those experiences like in the movie Matrix when Keanu Reeves had the entire human knowledge set about kung fu downloaded into his mind at once -- I had an instantaneous on-rushing of images, ideas, and intuitions which led to a powerful realization:  We are love

It'll take some upacking.

First, I thought of the expanding universe as an illustration for my son of the way I can say I'll love him more tomorrow without implying that I love him any less today.  The universe, today, consists of all there is and yet this all-there-is-universe is continuously expanding.  Tomorrow it will be bigger than it is today.  Yet today it isn't really any less than it will be tomorrow -- it is still all-that-there-is.  It's just that tomorrow it will be a bigger all-that-there-is.  So in the first microsecond I apprehended that this would be a good metaphor for the love I have for my children.

Right on top of this came the classic three-word expression of Universalist theology -- "God is love."

This was followed -- although no time passed between these thoughts -- by the question, "What if the universe is the manifested expression of God's love?"  I have a friend and colleague who likes to use the term, "tangibilify" -- what if the universe is God's love tangibilified?  What if the universe is, if you will, the "incarnation" of God's love?

I've always liked the creation story J.R.R. Tolkien wrote for his mythological world of Middle Earth.  In it, Ilúvatar, the One, sets forth a chord from which the Ainur (think "angels") begin to weave a melody.  It's a great story -- you'll find it inThe Silmarillion -- but in the end, Ilúvatar tells the Ainur to look upon what they have sung, and it turns out that they have literally sung the universe into being. 

If the universe could be the "song of the Ainur" made manifest, why couldn't it be the manifestation of God's love?  Certainly if I tried to create something to represent and give expression to the love I feel for my wife and kids it might well turn out to be something as astonishing as the Cat's Eye Nebula and the Grand Canyon.

So in no time at all I went from the idea that the expanding universe makes a good metaphor for the expanding love I feel for my kids, to the idea that God is love, to the idea that the universe is the tangible expression/manifestation of God's love.

The final step was when I thought that, literally, we are all made of star dust, that all matter in the cosmos shares the same origins in the primordial elements that flared forth in the big bang some 13.7 billion years ago.  Everything that is, comes from the "dust" of the stars and, so, in a very real and concrete way, we are all related.  And we human beings, you and I, as the poem Desiderata puts it, "have a right to be here . . . no less than the trees and the stars," because we are quite literally the children of those stars and kin to the trees.

And if the universe is the created, manifested expression of God's love -- and we are made of the same stuff as the universe -- then we, too, are the created manifested expression of God's love.  Literally then -- we are love.  Not simply loved.  Not merely capable of loving.  We -- you and I -- are love itself materialized, incarnated, made real.  And just as it can truly be said that each beat of our hearts is an echo of the Big Bang so, too, can it be said that each one of our actions is -- or, at least, can be -- an echo of Love.

Think about that for a while and see how the rest of your day goes.

In Gassho,


Monday, February 21, 2011

Another Danger

Last week I wrote about the danger that's lurking in notion that we should not be striving for "perfection."  Rather, it's often said these days, we should recognize that we are works in progress and that our attempts -- our "trying" -- is enough.  The Twelve Step movement talks about focusing on "progress not perfection," and that's well and good as long as there is, indeed, progress.  If we're honest with ourselves, though, it's all too easy to let ourselves loose sight of the goal when we don't make attaining the goal our goal.  That's the danger, that we'll settle for trying and that that will make it too easy for us to slip into not trying.

There is an analogous danger that I've seen often among those of us with a "liberal religious" bent.  I've known it myself firsthand.  We note that, as it's often said, there are many paths up the mountain to God and no one path is necessarily "better" than another.  We recognize, and I believe rightly, that the spiritual journey takes many forms and that no one can say "this one way is THE way for all people for all time."

At the same time, we emphasize that the goal of the journey is not as important as the journey itself.  As I once put it, it doesn't really matter if you get to the top of the mountain or not.  God is the mountain, as much at the base as at the summit.  As long as you are on the journey, you have already arrived.  (This is why the great Zen masters have said that to sit on your cushion is to attain enlightement.)

And yet . . .

Once again we come to that, and yet . . .

I have noticed that this kind of thinking can lead to a spiritual laziness in which we either stand around in the crossroads admiring all the various paths there are and congratulating ourselves on our enlightened understanding that any of them could get us where we want to go, or else we take a rest at some scenic overlook, knowing that we needn't hurry to arrive at our destination, yet somehow never quite get up and get moving again.

Note this point -- no one ever said that the journey isn't important.  The journeying.  Standing still isn't enough.

In Gassho,


Friday, February 18, 2011

Trying is Trying

I wrote on Wednesday about a new two-part resolution of mine -- from now on in my preaching I won't tell people to do things that I, myself, am not doing and won't spend so much time telling people what to do (or not do).

I've continued thinking about this because, as I said the other day, this is a whole lot of what most people think preaching is all about.  If I take this off the table, what's left?  Well, I suppose, we could explore together those things that we ought to be trying to do.  I remember hearing a Buddhist monk once talking about the sense of overwhelming dread she felt as she approached the day she was to take her vows.  "How can I vow to be mindful?" she said.  "How can I vow to be equanimous?"  There was no way, she thought, that she could promise to do those things, and so she couldn't see how she could take her vows.

And then, she said, one day she realized that the vow was not to be mindful but to "practice mindulfness."  Not to be equanimous, but to "practice equanimity."  She would only be promising to try and that, she realized with great relief, she could most certainly do.

To try.  And here I see a solution to the challenge offered by the story of Gandhi refusing to tell a young boy to give up sugar until he, Gandhi, had first done so.  Here is a solution to the challenge I gave myself of only being able to preach to the congregation about things I, myself, am already doing.  I could, instead, allow myself to include the things I am trying to do; to explore those goals I am trying to attain; those practices I am trying to make a part of my life and living.

And yet . . .

And yet there is, I think, a danger here.  My spiritual guide, the great Jedi Master Yoda, once famously said, "Do or not do.  There is no try."  "Trying" can -- and I want to emphasize that it can -- provide too easy a way out, too comfortable an escape route.  "I'm only trying to do this."  Yet even trying is doing -- you have to actively do something to be trying to do something.  You have to be trying.  And yet how easy is it for us, if we allow ourselves to think of our efforts as "only trying" to soon begin letting ourselves off the hook when we don't feel well, or the weather's bad, or it's just too inconvenient?  How easy is it for us to watch "trying" turn into "not trying?" 

From my own experience, I'll admit, it's all too easy.

And, so, maybe Yoda is right.  (And when was he ever wrong?)  Maybe there is no such thing as "try."  There is only "do or not do."  Because even our attempts at something are something we must do.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Life is My Message

I have long loved this quote from Mohandas Ghandi.  He is reported to have said it in response to someone asking him to sum up his message in a succinct way.  "My life is my message," was his reply.  And so, in a very true and deep way, it was.

"Generations to come will not believe that such a man as this, in flesh and blood, did walk upon the earth."  That's what Albert Einstein said at the end of Gandhi's life.  He could tell that someday, people would imagine that they were listening to legends when they heard about his life.  Perhaps somebody said something similar about St. Francis.  Or Jesus.

But I was recently reminded of Ghandi when my colleague Peter Bowden used a story from Gandhi's life as a starting point for a marvelous piece in his own UU Growth Blog.  The story he used was of the time a woman brought her son to Gandhi, asking him to tell the boy to stop eating sugar because it is so unhealthy.  Surely the boy would listen to Gandhi-ji.  Gandhi said that he would do it, but asked her to bring the boy back to him in three days.  Three days later the mother and son returned, and when the boy was brought before him Gandhi simply said, "stop eating sugar.  It's bad for you."  The mother said, "Why couldn't you have said that to him when we were here three days ago?"  Gandhi replied, "Because three days ago I was still eating sugar."

I like what Peter did with this story, but I found it taking me to a different place.  How many of the sermons I've preached over the years should I have really put off preaching for a metaphorical three days until I'd taken there message fully to heart?  (How many would I still not be able to preach by this standard?)  As I prepare to return to the pulpit in the fall, I'd like to keep the following two principles in mind:
  • Don't tell people to do things that I, myself, am not doing
  • Don't spend a lot of time telling people what to do
The first principle is pretty obvious, in the context of the story, but the second one . . .  Isn't that what most people think preaching's all about?  Well, I don't think I did a lot of that in the congregations I've served thus far -- at least not directly and explicitly -- because we Unitarian Universalists aren't the kind of people who take well to being told what to do by some kind of external authority.  Yet, if I'm honest, I'll bet that over the years I've indicated and implied paths that I, myself, rarely if ever dare to tread.  I'd like to think not, but I'm sure it's true.

And so in this next time 'round I want to be more careful.  I want to hold my own feet to the proverbial fire even more than the congregation's.  I would like, when my time in the professional ministry is done, to be able to answer, should anyone care to ask me to sum up the message I'd delivered, that my life was my message too.

In Gassho,


Monday, February 14, 2011

Some Inspiration for Valentine's Day

Recently, a friend of mine hooked me up with this very inspiring story from the instersection of the worlds of Texas football and Christianity:

When I first saw this I was moved, deeply moved.  Remember, this took place in the world of Texas football where they're serious about their football.  To root for the other team?  Well, that really took something.  And to ask people -- anyone, anywhere -- to step out of their comfort zones and do something out of the ordinary?  Lots of risks involved here.

Yet, really, in the grand scheme of things, you could say that this was a tiny gesture.  So the story is that such a tiny gesture could make such a huge difference in the lives of these kids from Gainesville State, the prison's school.  In fact, when I posted this video to FaceBook, one of my friends commented immediately that this one "unselfish act" on the part of the Faith Academy families could be a "defining moment" in the lives of these kids.

And maybe she's right.  It certainly seems like it was a powerful thing.

But I'll tell you what I'm interested in.  I'm actually more interested in how it changed the lives -- if it changed the lives -- of those parents and those kids from Grapevine Faith.  They had learned the Gainesville kids' names -- do they remember them?  Or have they forgotten them?  Was it one unselfish act, or was it the beginning of something?

And what about those of us who've watched the video?  What kind of moment has it been in our lives?

It's easy to see those kids and all they had to gain from this experience.  From my position of privilege it's easy to listen to this story and see the gifts going one way.  But that's not the way Love works . . . that's never the way Love works.

In Gassho,


Friday, February 11, 2011

To The Least of These, part 2

Yesterday I wrote about a link that I've been thinking about for some time between the homeless people on our streets who beg for their livelihood and the monks and holy people in every religious traditions who have chosen poverty and begging as a way of life.  I said that I'd been reading about the life of St. Francis and found that even these holy beggars were often ridiculed and reviled.  The question I left hanging at the end was, why?

I suggested in an even earlier piece that one way of looking at the poor and homeless is that they have a job -- an incredibly difficult job.  They remind society that life isn't fair.  That, "there but for the Grace of God go I."  Or you.  That, in the words of the folksinger Greg Brown, "No matter how we plan and rehearse, we're at pink slip's mercy in a paper universe."  Or, as an old friend used to say, "that's why they call it life and not picnic."

Most of us walk around most of the time doing all that we can -- both consciously and unconsciously -- to ensure (or, at least, to convince ourselves) that things will be okay .  We want to believe that, like a fairy tale, there will be a happy ending and that, like a sitcom, even the most difficult situations will work themselves out in the end.  We want security, and we're willing to settle for the appearance of security.

But beggars threaten this.  Those who choose their life of poverty and want are a threat because they call into question my sense that I "need" to be so secure -- and, of course, can cause me to wonder about all the things that I give up to gain my semblance of security.  Those who have their poverty "thrust upon them," as it were, are threatening, too, because they show me that it may not actually be up to me -- one catastrophic illness, one layoff, one bad break and I could watch my carefully constructed house of cards come crashing down around me.

Now . . . the mystics and spiritual teachers who choose, as Francis called it, "Lady Poverty," do so because they believe that the rest of us need to see these facts -- that life isn't fair and that our so-called security isn't as secure as we work so hard to convince ourselves that it is.  They also want us to see that, if that's indeed true, perhaps we don't need to work so hard at building a house of cards but, rather, could put our energy into creating Beloved Community instead . . . something that is real, and enduring. 

Yet some of us are so afraid.  We hang on so tightly to the things we're afraid to lose and, so, must attack those who threaten us.  And so we mock (and worse) those who need us the most.  People like my friends Shaggy, Mike, Jim, and Brother John.  People like St. Francis, and St. Clare, and Brother Juniper.  But it might be worth remembering that in the Christian tradition, God identified himself with the poor and the homeless -- Jesus described himself as having "no place to lay his head," and taught that while all women and men should be seen as our kin, it is by our behavior to "the least of these" that we will be most truly judged.  (Matthew 25: 35-40)

In Gassho,


Thursday, February 10, 2011

To the Least of These

I saw Shaggy this morning.  He's one of the four homeless men I pass regularly on my walk to the office in Boston whose name I've learned and who I've gotten to know a bit.  There's Michael, Jim, Shaggy, and Brother John.  I rarely carry cash so I don't often have any money for them, but I do stop and talk with them and try to give them what I can -- recognition and respect.  I've learned a lot from them about what it's like to live on the streets.

I've written previously ("Get A Job?  They've Got One Thanks.") about how frustrated I get when I hear people denegrate the poor, the jobless, the homeless by calling them "lazy," or "unmotivated," and telling them derisively to, "get a job."  I wrote,
"[W]hen I look through [the spiritual] lens I see people who remind me -- who remind us all -- that the world is far from fair. That those of us living comfortable lives do not represent the vast majority of people on the planet and that part of our comfort comes at the cost of their discomfort. They remind me that there is want and misery and pain and that, as Jesus himself is remembered as saying, "the poor shall always be with you." These people I pass each day put a human face on that proverb."
 Recently I've been reading about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the great Christian saints.  He choose a life of extreme austerity, and made his living by begging for his daily food.  He made that the way of his Order.  Holy women and men in other traditions, as in the photo of Buddhist monks above, have also included this as part of their spiritual practice.

I understand that the intentional adoption of begging as a spiritual practice has two primary foci -- for the person who begs, it is a practice of humility and of trust.  I remind myself that I am not the be-all and end-all of things, and allow myself to be taken care of by others -- be at their mercy, in fact.  I remind myself that without the care of others I am nothing.  "We need one another" means, put in terms we hardly ever use in our culture, that I need you.

And for the person who gives, there is the benefit of allowing for the experience of generosity and freedom.  I could be afraid that whatever I give away is less that I will have for myself and, so, be tied to my possessions.  But when I give to one who begs I remind myself of my own innate freedom and allow my inherent generosity to blosson.

This seems so clear.  So obvious.  So beautiful, really.  Why, then, the disdain heaped upon those like my friends Shaggy, Michael, Jim, and Brother John?  It's not a new phenomena of our modern society, if that's what you're thinking.  As I said, I've been reading the biography of St. Francis, and he and his brothers were ridiculed and reviled because of their choice to become beggars.  They were considered madmen, and worse.  (In some of the stories the men say that it's because of the scorn that would be heaped upon them that they embraced such a life, but that's another story.)  Tomorrow I'll explore a possible explanation.

In Gassho,