Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Sense of Purpose

I strongly encourage you to listen to this tune.  Then listen to it again.  (You might want to have a copy of the lyrics with you so that you can keep up with her . . . this girl can spit!)

Invincible (born Ilana Weaver) is easily one of my favorite rap artisits.  (Although she apparently now considers herself "a multimedia hip-hop artist and activist.")  As it says on her web site:
Her spitfire wordplay has gotten her acclaim from Hip Hop fans all across the world, while her active involvement in progressive social change has taken her music beyond entertainment, and towards actualizing the change she wishes to see.
She's someone worth keeping an eye on and an ear open to.

I was listening to some cuts from her debut album Shapeshifters as I returned to the Cape from my candidating week in Charlottesville, VA.  [Which ended, I'm humbled to say, in a unanimous call to serve the congregation as their next settled pastor!]

I especially love "Shapeshifters" -- the rhythm(s) of it, the complexity of its lyrics, the way it feels almost as if there are three songs going on at once.  I've listened to it a lot.  But recently I've gotten caught up in the story of it -- these radical, musical freedom fighters whose mission is "going door to door ta / Reconnect the cord from the brain to the aorta."  They intend to "Stop nothing short of / Everyone understanding / That all the power's within em to counteract this," the this being, of course, this often times cruel and oppressive world we live in.  There's such a drive, a sense of purpose, of mission (if you will), along with a flexibility, a willingness to "Time travel to the next art form we adapt to."
I've found myself asking this question as I listen to this young woman's art -- what if the church was like this?  What if we, in the church, had this same sense of urgency?  Of direction?  Of focus?

Well, it certainly wouldn't be church-as-we-know it.

Listen to the song again.  (Bring along the lyrics if you want.)  Imagine that instead of talking about hip-hop activists she was talking about the people in your congregation.
I have been, and I'm nearly giddy with excitement.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Appointment With April

I was recently reminded of the following story about the philosopher George Santayana by a friend's FaceBook posting that he wanted to call in "blissful" from work.

Apparently, while Santayana was still a professor at Harvard, he was giving a lecture when he was stopped mid-sentence by the brilliant yellow of a forsythia blooming outside the window. He stood in silent reverie for several seconds, staring at this yellow. Then he said to his students, “Gentlemen, I very much fear that that last sentence will never be completed. You see, I have an appointment with April.” With that he left the room and never gave regular lectures again. 

Do you ever play hookey from -- or, at least, go in late to --work because the white of the clouds against the blue of the sky was just too perfect to leave outside? 

Do you take off your shoes and walk barefoot in the grass because it just looks too lush and green to be separated from?

Have you ever come home from work and demanded that your family follow you outside because the night sky was too amazing to ignore?

Or have you "grown up"?  Have you left such things for the children in your life?  (Please, please say that at least you have some children in your life!)

Another FaceBook friend posted this line from the Mary Oliver poem What Can I Say?:

"The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still."

It is still April, for a few more days.  And then it will be May.  Then June, July, and August.  Then will come the fall, and each month, each season, each moment has its beauty.

You are part of that beauty. 

Have you been forgetting to keep your appointments lately?

In Gassho,


Nothing Else Matters

This was the second sermon of my candidating week with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (April 17, 2011)  As it turns out, it is also the second sermon of my ministry with these good people!  I am so looking forward to many, many more.

Reading: On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

~ Annie Dillard, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Sermon: Nothing Else Matters

Well . . . it’s been quite a month since we were together here last week . . .

Only a week ago, when I stood here and told you all that none of what we do here matters in the least . . . if, that is, this is all we do; if we allow ourselves to settle for living “life that is not life” instead of continually going deeper, and wider, and higher, and discovering for ourselves “life that is life.”

I thought about how I should start this sermon this morning. I considered telling you that I believe firmly that we live in a “both/and” universe. But then I realized that that must also mean that I believe in an “either/or” universe, too, so I figured that wouldn’t really tell you anything.

And then I thought of the words my father used to tell me with some regularity, words he took originally from Walt Whitman who said in his poem Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I also thought of the last sermon I offered to the good folks of the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, after eleven years of being their ordained preacher. I gave the sermon my all time favorite sermon title: “Everything I’ve Said Was Wrong.” In it I looked back over all of the sermons I’d delivered over the years and demonstrated how, viewed from different angles, none of what I’d said would hold water. A humbling experience, to be sure, but a good reminder. We all – this world – contain multitudes.

So if last week I wanted to tell you that none of this matters, today I want to explain my deep conviction that nothing else matters quite so much.

During this week you’ve asked me a lot of questions, given me many opportunities to (as my mother used to say) “exercise my little grey cells.” On Wednesday night, when a group met here to discuss the topics of worship and spirituality, someone asked me just why it’s important for us to be engaged in worship at all. When Active Minds recently discussed this very topic, it was noted there that some people think that there’s no need for us to gather together in a place such as this – that a much more “worshipful” experience could be had by taking a walk in the woods, imbibing the beauty of a park. That’s true. Yet being in community, and being on our own, are two vastly different things.

I want to tell you a story. There was a Christian monk who lived in community, but was known to take long, solitary retreats to the monastery’s hermitage. He would get permission from the Abbot for a retreat, pack his bible and, perhaps, a change of clothes, and then hike down the mountain to the secluded shack the Order used for private retreats. Sometimes he wouldn’t return for a month or more.

One time, though, this monk returned the evening of the day he had set out. This was so unusual that the Abbot called for him and asked him to explain why he was back so early. The monk replied, “Father Abbot. I began my retreat as I always do, opening the Gospels at random to see what God would have me meditate upon. This morning I opened to the story of Christ washing the disciples’ feet. I settled into my meditation yet I kept finding myself disturbed in my prayer by a nagging question, one which has caused me to return to the main house.”

“What was that question?” the Abbot asked. “It was this,” the monk replied: “Whose feet can a hermit wash?’

On Wednesday night, when I was asked why we do this “worship” thing I responded that I think that there are two fundamental realities which are incredibly easy for us to forget. In fact, most of us live our lives most of the time as if they were not true, so, it is imperative for us to come together in religious community to help us to remember. Because remembering is key to living “life that is life.”

The first reality we so often forget is that we are intimately interrelated with all that is. Most of us live most of the time as if we were out here on our own; fundamentally, existentially alone. The truth, though, is that we are connected to everything that is. As I like to point out, this is true if only because we’re literally made of the same stuff – we, and the trees, and the jaguars (both the cats and the cars) are all made out of the same elements, the dust of stars. We don’t live outside of the universe; we are intimately interconnected with it. Part and parcel of it, as our own St. Ralph once said.

The second reality is that we are not the Be All and End All of all things. As one of my colleagues once put it, rather memorably, “Whether or not you believe in God, you need to realize that you, yourself, are not God.” Let me say that once again, “Whether or not you believe in God, you need to realize that you, yourself, are not God.”

These two things – that we are intimately interrelated with all that is and that we, ourselves, are not God – are apparently really difficult to remember with any kind of consistency. Nearly impossible, if we try to do it on our own.

And so we come together to remind one another.

Yet we don’t just remind one another, here, in words. Rather – and this is what I think is most tremendously exciting about all of this – at our best we remind one another because here we enact these truths, we embody these truths, we manifest these truths in how we do what we do.

We come together with others, an expression of our realization of our interconnectedness. We need one another, and here we come together with others – folks who think like us; folks who don’t; folks who inspire us; folks who irritate us; folks we know well; folks we’ve yet to meet. Yet we call one another “one community” just as we are, in fact, one with everything.

This is partly what my friend and colleague Erika Hewitt meant in the words we used for the opening: “You do not have to do anything to earn the love contained within these walls. You do not have to be braver, smarter, stronger, better than you are in this moment to belong here. . . . You only have to bring the gift of your body, no matter how able; your seeking mind, no matter how busy; your animal heart, no matter how broken.”

Isn’t that just what this place has been for many of you? Isn’t it what we all believe it can be? In a world as frustratingly fractious as ours, as foolishly fragmented as ours, could there be anything that matters more than creating beloved community like this? South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that church should be, “an audiovisual aid for the sake of the world,” showing how the world could be.

And then there’s that other thing, that remembering that we’re not the Grand High Poohbahs of Creation. That can be a tough one. And it’s probably important to be clear that I’m not talking about what a UU high schooler once called, “that buff Santa in a toga” – you know, that bearded, Zeus-like old man in the clouds who gives gifts to all the good people and an eternity of coal to the bad ones. That’s not what I’m talking about, ‘though I might use the word “God” to describe it. Or, perhaps, Spirit of Life. Or, you know, The Force – that “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” I like to call it, “The Sacred Something.”

Whatever we call it, we enact it when we come together – because all of us is greater than any one of us. When we come together in community we acknowledge something greater than ourselves, if only the community itself.

If we do it right, of course. That’s where covenants come in – promises, expectations, commitments, responsibilities, accountabilities . . . I know that not everyone is comfortable with the language of “covenant,” yet we are a covenantal people. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did not bind together their communities through mutually shared creeds, as have most other religious traditions. Instead, we have always formed our community through covenant – promises made about how we would be together.

James Luther Adams, one of our movement’s greatest theologians, and a fierce proponent of what he called “the free church tradition” once wrote this:

“I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence, that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands. It binds together families and generations, protecting against idolatry of any human claim to absolute authority. This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life. I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship, that protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom; that yearns to belong to the church universal; it is open to insight and conscience from every source; it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship. It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit."
That’s what we’re trying to do here, and what else could possibly matter more than that?

Annie Dillard said, in that reading I love so well, that she thinks of those of us in church as children, “playing on the floor with our chemistry sets mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.” And I said last week that this means she thinks we’re fooling ourselves if we take what we do here seriously. And yet . . .

And yet she affirms a truth, a reality to that power she says “we so blithely invoke.” She reminds us of the “sleeping god,” and the “waking god,” and tells us that what we’re doing—whether we know it or not, whether we understand it or not—is serious business. (“We should be lashed to our pews.”)

Transforming lives – your life; my life. Healing the world—this beautiful, broken, breathtaking world. How could anything else matter as much?

This week you’ve asked me a lot of questions. And many of you have shared with me your hopes, and dreams . . . and fears. This is a beautiful community you have here. And if there’s still work to do, know that that just means that it’s a human community. Know, too, that you have done, and are doing, so much so well.

This afternoon you will engage in one of the most sacred rituals of our faith tradition – the communal discernment of whether or not to call a particular individual into your community to serve in the role of settled minister. In some ways this is a totally insignificant act – you’re voting on one minister among so many. In other ways, you are considering opening a new chapter in the life of this church, a new phase in that “adventure of the spirit.”

It’s been an honor to be among you this week, and I can tell you that it will be an honor, a privilege, and a great pleasure to write that new chapter and chart that new course with you. But that’s for later. Right now I can’t think of anything better to do than sing with you all. (“The Fire of Commitment”)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

None Of This Matters

This morning I delivered what might well be the first sermon of my new ministry with the good folks of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA.  Here's what I said:

Reading: On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, [and maybe we could say "religious persons generally"] sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ~ Annie Dillard, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

* * *

This . . . is a little weird.

I mean standing here, in this place, at this time, with all of you – it’s a little . . . weird. Don’t you think? I mean, this could be the first sermon of the next chapter of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church’s mutual ministry with its next settled minister. I mean, this could be . . . historic!

Which, of course, leads me to thinking that, in a way, this is a little bit like a job interview. With a few hundred people, ultimately. Kind of intimidating.

So to keep myself grounded as I prepared I focused on the reality that – no matter what else might be going on this week and no matter what the future holds for you and me – today I am a guest preacher who’s been asked to offer a sermon to a congregation of Unitarian Universalists. As such I have two opportunities – this week and next week – (and perhaps only two opportunities) to share with you some thoughts on Life’s Big Questions.

I want to begin by telling you a story, a story of the Sufi holy man Nasreddin Hodja. It is said that the Hodja was once invited to a certain city to share his wisdom. On the appointed day he entered the mosque, ascended to the pulpit, and cried out, “People of Aksehir, do you know the truth?” “No!” the people shouted, eager to hear his wisdom. “Well,” the Hodja replied, “why should I waste my time with such a bunch of ignorant fools?” And with that he left.

The next week the Hodja returned, as did the congregation still eager to hear this famous holy man. Once again the Hodja stepped into the pulpit and surveyed the gathered crowd. “Oh people of Aksehir,” he shouted. “Do you know the truth?” “Yes!” the people responded whole-heartedly, having learned their lesson the week before. The Hodja smiled. “Well then,” he said, “I needn’t tell you what you already know.” And again, he turned and left.

The third week—perhaps this was some kind of extended candidating process, I don’t know—the Hodja once more entered the mosque and once more ascended to the pulpit. Once more he looked out upon the congregation. And once more he cried out, “Oh good people of Aksehir. Do you know the truth?” It is safe to say that by this point the people were more than a little confused. Some of them halfheartedly said, “Yes?” while others called out, “No?” “Well then,” the Hodja boomed, “those of you who know tell the ones who don’t.” And with that he left the pulpit, and the mosque, and the town of Aksehir.

I’m tempted to ask you all a question.

But, really, the question’s already been asked. It’s been asked in our wider culture by the sociological trends that indicate that the fastest growing religious affiliation these days – and “fastest” by far – is “None.” The question’s been asked by leaders of our movement, and in our congregations – even, I’m sure, this congregation – who wonder why it is that we can’t seem to generate greater enthusiasm for pledging to the church (money or time) and why it seems that we can’t quite get to the place of being able to do and be all that we know we’re capable of. The question, asked in greater or lesser amounts of frustration and perplexity, is: Does any of this really matter anymore?

Does any of this – any of the things we do here on Sunday mornings – the words, the music, the space, the silence – does any of it matter? Really matter?

I think that there are probably at least two valid answers to this question, and I plan to – as we learned to say in seminary – “unpack” them both over the next two weeks. Today it’s my intention to assert that, contrary to all of the energy and effort we put into the things we do here week after week, no . . . none of it matters in the least.

And I want to be clear that I don’t say this because we’re Unitarian Universalists. It is true that while we have had a rich and storied history, today we are seen by many as little more than the but of Garrison Keiler’s jokes. You’ve heard it, I’m sure:

• What do you get when a cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness? Some who’ll come knock on your door for no apparent reason.

• Unitarian Universalist churches can be found halfway between the Methodists and the golf course.

This isn’t new. Our opening hymn, written in 1928 by Edwin Henry Wilson, a Unitarian minister and the co-founder of the American Humanist Association, was parodied by the Unitarian Universalist minister Peter Raible in 1968. At the time there was a supplement to the then current hymnal that was called Hymns for the Celebration of Life. Raible called his booklet, Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife, and it contained this gem:

"Where is our holy church? We only wish we knew; it might be those now gathered here, except we are so few.

Where is our holy writ? We really cannot say; it gives us that for which to search, and that for which to pray.

Where is our holy one? Our answer is not clear; we've looked -- and looked -- and looked -- and looked, one must be somewhere near!

Where is our holy land? We cannot answer now; but if we find one, rest assured we'll tell the world somehow.

Why do we sing this song? What answer can we give? Faith and conviction, so we've heard, we all must have to live."
Now, I happen to think a lot more of us and our movement. I do believe that we’d have a reason to knock on doors, and I think that we have a lot more answers than the stereotype of us would suggest. And I think that for however storied our past might be, our future can be even richer.

So I don’t say that “none of this matters” because so many think so little of what we do here. No. I say it because I think that it’s important for us to confront head-on this truth: What we do here week after week and month after month doesn’t really matter.

And, after all, don’t you think that this is part of what Annie Dillard was trying to say to her Christian compatriots when she pronounced that, “outside of the catacombs,” —meaning once the initial period of martyrdom and persecution had come to an end—she finds most of her co-religionists “[in]sufficiently sensible of conditions”? (e.g., unable to deal with things the way they really are.) How else can we understand her image of a bunch of children playing on the floor “to kill a Sunday morning” as her metaphor for worship? She’s saying that we’re fooling ourselves if we think these things we’re doing here really mean anything . . . at least, the way she’s seeing them being done.

Now, if you’re thinking that this is an odd way for a ministerial candidate to greet his potential congregation, if you think that this is a surprising thing for the UUA’s staff person who focuses on worship to be saying, well, to paraphrase the late, great Paul Harvey, you’ll have to listen to “the rest” of the sermon.

You see, what I really want to say this morning is that none of this matters . . . IF . . . this is all that we do.

I can already hear you responding, “This is hardly all that we do around here! There’s Active Minds, and Covenant Groups, and the Labyrinth Ministry. There’s IMPACT and PACEM, and Undoing Racism, and the Green Sanctuary Movement. There’s CareNet, and the Councils, the Christian Fellowship, the Humanists, the Buddhist sanga, and the Pagans. There’s RE teachers and mentors, coffee makers and weed pullers. There’s the UUGuys and those UUpity women. A lot of things happen outside of the Sunday service.” (And I know . . . I left a LOT of things out!)

Yet there is a long-standing critique of the, let’s call them, “institutionally religious” – those folks who go to church (or synagogue or mosque) on Sunday (or Saturday or Friday) but who live the rest of their lives as though they’ve never even heard of Jesus (or Moses or the Prophet – peace be upon him). These folks make a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, between their religion and the rest of their lives. These folks take where they are in their spiritual lives pretty much for granted and see their religious community as essentially that – a place for community. Sunday worship is a time for beautiful music and interesting sermons and a chance to be with our friends. But if this is all we do here, then none of what we do matters.

In preparing for this service I got to collaborate with your entire team of Worship Associates – in my previous congregations we came to call them the Worship Weavers Guild. I love this kind of co-equal collaboration. And during our exchanges Thomas mentioned that he says to his 7th graders whenever they complain that something is hard: “Of COURSE this is hard, if math was always easy then you would always be on the same level – THE SEVENTH GRADE level!!” He then asks them to stand up if they want to remain on the Seventh Grade Level for the rest of lives, and then encourages them to give what they’re working on their best shot and see what they can come up with. When I read this I was immediately put in mind of a comment made by a UCC minister friend of mine. He said that everyone in his church was content to be “children of God,” and that that frustrated him no end because he knew that God wanted them to grow up and become “adults of God.”

I’ve recently had the privilege of being able to publish a book that’s being very nicely received within our Association. In it, I suggest that our congregations ought to think of themselves as the spiritual equivalent of total immersion language schools – only for us it’d be the language of spirituality. Everything we do here, I suggest, should be focused on the purpose of helping people to deepen and expand their spiritual lives. This, I suggest, is why we’re here – to deepen, to grow, to expand.

Of course, for some of us this might raise up the question of “just what is spirituality”? I actually have an answer to this now! I was asked this last year at a conference and it suddenly occurred to me that the answer can be found within our own tradition. The great Henry David Thoreau said that he went into the woods around Walden Pond so that he could “live deliberately” and not have to look back from the end of his life to discover that he “had not lived.” This makes me think that he saw a distinction between living “life” and living “not life,” a distinction that I’d argue can be found under one description or another in every religious tradition we humans have ever developed. We are asleep and need to wake up; we are dead and need to be reborn into new life; we are living “life that is not life” and need to find out how to begin living “life that is life.”

And that, I’d contend, is what spirituality is all about – living life that is life. Or learning how to. Or both, really, because both the learning and the living are on-going works-in-progress, and unless we want to remain “children,” or stay at the “seventh grade level” we must continue to deepen and develop our capacity to be truly alive. And that’s what we need to be doing in communities such as this, or else nothing else we do matters.

There’s a great quote from the legendary civil rights leader, author, activist, and theologian, and pastor, Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that thing. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.”

“To this house we come bringing our boldest dreams,” we heard at the beginning of the service, “seeking here the inspiration and strength to make them be! . . . Strange place, this house -- here we cry, sing, laugh, hurt, dance, touch, survive, celebrate, grow, search, doubt, hope, rejoice, pray, trust, care, learn, think, wonder, be, become!” And if that becoming isn’t happening, if we allow ourselves to be content to stay where we are without expansion and evolution, then I’m afraid it’s true –none of this matters.

But if we do it, then nothing else matters. (But that’s the sermon for next week.)

Right now I invite us to rise in body or spirit, yet put our whole body and soul into the singing of the civil rights era spiritual, “When The Spirit Says Do.” (1024 in Singing The Journey)

Parting Words: If you are who you were,
and if the person next to you is who he or she was,
if none of us has changed
since the day we came in here—
we have failed.

The purposed of this community—
of any church, temple, zendo, mosque—
is to help its people grow.

We do this through encounters with the unknown—in ourselves,
in one another,
in “The Other”—whoever that might be for us,
however hard that might be—
because these encounters have many gifts to offer.

So may you go forth from here this morning
not who you were,
but who you could be.

So may we all.

~ Erik Walker Wikstrom