Thursday, September 29, 2011


photo (c) Andy Welsh

I have begun reading a book called Praying Dangerously:  radical reliance by God by Regina Sara Ryan.  She begins her book with a prayer, and the prayer ends with these words:

Let us say Yes, again and again and again.
and Yes some more.
Let us pray dangerously,

the most dangerous prayer is Yes.

The most dangerous prayer is "yes."

This really resonates with me.  I love the word, "yes."  My friend and colleague, Naomi King, once told me that since she'd heard the opening of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word . . ." she's liked to think about what that word might have been.  She likes to ask people what they might think that Word was.  And I told her, without hesitation, when she asked me, that I think that original Word was, "yes."

There's a poem by the Sufi poet Hafiz that confirms my opinion:

I rarely let the word "No" escape
From my mouth

Because it is so plain to my soul

That God has shouted, "Yes!  Yes!  Yes!"
To every luminous movement in Existence.

It is so easy, and so common, to respond to things with a strong "no."  No, I don't know what that would lead to.  No, we've never done it like that before.  No, there just isn't enough (time, money, energy, what have you).  No.

Often this is just our first reaction.  Given time to think on things we make our way to seeing how something to which we'd first said "no" might be possible after all.  We warm to the idea.  But it can take a while

Yet what if we could find our way to "yes" more quickly?  What if our first instinct was to say "yes," and only then take our time to see what we'd just gotten ourselves into?  Could our prayer become, "yes"?  Could our lives become, "yes"?

Long ago I came across words from Dag Hammarskjöld that I would love to have as my epitaph:

For all that has been -
For all that will be -

The most dangerous prayer is "yes."

In Gassho,


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Radical Hospitality

This is my sermon from September 25, 2011, delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist.

[Listen to the Sermon]

Just a few moments ago we sang, “Come, come, whoever you are.”   Did you feel the energy in the room?  Those words may have come from a Sufi poem, but that’s our song, isn’t it?

(Singing)  Come, come, whoever you are
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
ours is no caravan of despair,
Come, yet again, come.
That’s us, right? 
And last week we sang about gathering ‘round the “welcome table,” and how there’re all kinds of people and no fancy manners there.  Everyone is welcome.  We’re a welcoming congregation, after all, right?  Anyone is welcome here.  Everyone is welcome here!

That’s us.  That’s what we aspire to.  That’s what we aspire to be.  No caravan of despair – there are enough of those around us these days; a welcome table where everyone is invited.

Did you know that according to anthropologists you can tell a lot about a people – a community, a clan, a nation – by the rules they’ve established about eating.  Commensality.  That’s the word for it.  Commensality.  And more accurately it’s about the  rules for who can eat together, and under what circumstances.
When I was growing up my family and I were faithful watchers of the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs.  The show depicted the goings on of the Bellamy family in Edwardian England (the people “upstairs”) as well as among their domestic servants, led by the indomitable Mr. Hudson (the people “downstairs”).  And oh you’d better believe that there were rules about who could eat together.  These people knew their place or, rather, their places since they most definitely did not share the same place.

And while I haven’t seen it yet (or, for that matter, yet read the book it’s based on), I’ve understand that the same thing comes through in the recent movie The Help.  There is a place for everyone, and everyone has their place.
I came across this concept of commensality in the writings of John Dominic Crossan, a Catholic theologian and perhaps one of the most well-known members of the so-called Jesus Seminar.  Crossan says that we can tell a lot about Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom of Heaven by looking at the way Jesus ate.  And according to Crossan, the way Jesus ate needs to be called “open commensality.”  (So, can I say that Jesus was an early proponent of, “open sauce”?)

Jesus ate with anyone. Everyone.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, and Pharisees.  The elite and the neglected.  Anyone who’d eat with him, Jesus would eat with them.  This, says Crossan, is what it’s really all about.  This is what that Kingdom Jesus kept talking about looks like.  All kinds of people at that welcome table, and no fancy style keeping folks apart.  Come, come, whoever you are. 

And we feel good, listening to this, because we know that TJMC is such a place. 
But what if you’re a Republican?  How welcome would you feel here, really?  Or if you’re a believing Christian?  Or an immigrant with rudimentary English skills?

I’m not asking these questions to try to make any of us feel bad, or to suggest that we’re a bunch of intolerant heathens (although a lot of us would probably resonate with the “heathen” part).  I ask these questions, and the myriad I could add, because I want to encourage us to stop.  To stop and look at ourselves as we are, and not simply as we wish we were.
Not everyone is welcome here.  There are a whole lot of folks who would feel downright unwelcome.  Who’d feel uncomfortable.  Out of place.  Wounded by some of the things we say and do here without even thinking, the assumptions we make.  And, to be brutally honest, that’s natural.  It seems to be human nature to feel most comfortable with folks who seem the most like you.

So this is exactly where the idea of hospitality comes in.  Anybody can welcome a friend into their home; anyone can make a member of the family feel welcomed.  Hospitality, though, is different, and it’s a lot harder.  A lot harder.

The root of the word “hospitality” is the Latin word hospes which means “stranger” or “guest.”  Even in Greek, the word for hospitality is philoxenos which means love (philo) of stranger (xenos).  The practice – the spiritual practice – of hospitality, then, is all about offering a welcome to the stranger, or The Other, the person who is not part of our circle.  The truly hospitable welcome table will have not only all the folks you’d expect to see there but the ones you wouldn’t, as well.  In Jesus’ day it was radical that he would eat with “tax collectors” and “harlots.”  I remember the day I was shocked to realize how often he ate with the Pharisees!  Hospitality – true, radical hospitality, the kind that’s worth our time talking about as a spiritual community – has to reach out to those beyond our circle with as warm a welcome as to those within it.
And there’s another dimension that etymology reveals or, rather, maybe it’s just an expansion of this first point.  The word hospes means “stranger” but in some circumstances it also means “host.”  In the same way, xenos means both “stranger” and, sometimes, “host,” so philoxenos means both “love for the stranger” and “love from the host.”  There’s a blurring of the lines, a dulling of the distinctions, when hospitality ripens in its fullness.  There is, as we heard in our reading a little earlier, an “anemic” form of hospitality – or, I would say, pseudo-hospitality – in which, “the host is always the host, the guest is always the guest, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind who is in charge.”  There is a façade, but no real substance. 

This might be helpful in describing the difference.  (This image also comes from John Dominic Crossan, who was trying to describe Jesus’ open commensality.)  Imagine that you’re at home one evening when you hear a knocking.  You open your front door and discover a homeless family that’s recently been living under a nearby bridge with some other folk.  They tell you they haven’t eaten all day.  Do you:

a)      Invite them to go around to the back door where you meet them with some food?

b)      Invite them to go around to the back door where you invite them in to your kitchen for something to eat?

c)      Invite them to come in and join the dinner party that’s going on in your dining room?

d)     Invite your guests to take all of the food and beverages and go down to the bridge to share the party?
Let’s set aside for now the deeper systemic issues that are unaddressed in this example.  I know a lot of you want to go there.  I do too, honestly.  And I’ll admit both that I want to go there because I think we need to address those systemic issues, and because this other thing – this issue of hospitality – scares me.

Because, to be honest, I’ve got to confess that I kind of like the idea of keeping the host the host and the guest the guest and leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind who is in charge . . . especially if I’m the one in charge and the guests are the kind of people I feel kind of uncomfortable around.  After all, I get to reap the benefits of my hostliness (if I can coin a term).  I can feel good about my generosity, my hospitality, my inclusivity, and whenever things get uncomfortable I can ask people to leave and let things get back to “normal” for me.

A while back I posted an article on our congregation’s FaceBook page about another church – in Winnipeg – that had voted in 2000 to suspend its Food Pantry program because, and I’m quoting the headline here, “it is attracting too many poor people.”  A minister of this church is reported to have said, “It’s attracting a lot of street people that makes it uncomfortable.  It’s creating social unrest in the church”

Now, I have done some checking and it seems that this may be one of those things that fly around the web without taking the full context of the situation into account.  Be that as it may, as an illustration it just couldn’t get any better.  I do have some other ones, though:

I know of welcoming congregations that have gotten quite uncomfortable when people who were deemed too “flamboyantly” or “politically” gay started showing up.  And congregations that started to freak out a bit when their diversity initiatives actually started bringing in real numbers of people of color who wanted to do things a little differently. 

Let’s face it – as long as things continue to look and feel pretty much the way they always have, then diversity is a great thing.  As long as I get to retain my self-identity as host – and the whole backpack of privileges that go along with it – then I’m eager to welcome anyone as my guest.

But that’s not what it’s about.  Not by a long shot.  The call of the welcome table, the imperative of the spiritual practice of hospitality, is for me to step down from the seat at the head of the table and offer it to the stranger who is in front of me.  The invitation is for me to shed the roles and labels I’ve collected and to stand face-to-face with this other person in our common humanity.  That’s the Beloved Community.  That’s the Kingdom of God.  That’s the world we dream of.

And that’s really, really hard.  And scary.  Yet it can happen.

Earlier this month I took part in our monthly Food Pantry and I was struck by something I thought of as really beautiful.  There weren’t a whole lot of church people there as volunteers.  There were some, to be sure, but a lot of the volunteers were women and men, and even a child, who’d come to receive a bag or two of food.  These people were giving as well as receiving, as were the people from the church community.  In fact, it’d have been a challenge to a casual observer to say with certainty just who was from the church community and who was from the wider community because we were, in that moment, just one community.  There was a blurring of the lines, a dulling of distinctions.  Only “us” there.  I can’t wait to go back on October 7th to experience this again.

(Singing)  “All kinds of people ‘round that table.  All kinds of people ‘round that table one of these days hallelujah.  All kinds of people ‘round that table.  Gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.” 

As we continue to “cultivate connections” this year let’s remember that it’s not just the plant that undergoes transformation.  The soil changes, too.  The entire ecosystem evolves.  Everything changes, and that’s just the way it should be.

In Gassho,


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Smartphones Come To Church

Several weeks ago we began an experiment in worship at the congregation I am privileged to serve, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church– Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.  It is an expansion of an idea I first saw discussed on the UU Worship Lab, a FaceBook group dedicated to exploring the art and science of worship.

At the beginning of the service we ask that people silence their cell phones but leave them on.  Near the end of the service, during the Offering/Offertory, we ask everyone to think of a person or people who had had an impact on their lives and who are not in the sanctuary this morning.  Congregants are invited hold these people in their hearts and minds, or to take out their mobile devices and text, tweet, FaceBook, or e-mail those people.  In this way, we've said, we can each make an offering not only of our financial support, but also of our reaching out to others.

After the first service in which we did this one person said to me, “I’ve never been told to text in church before!”  And it is clear that many people have eagerly taken up the invitation.  I’m sure that not everyone is happy about it, though.  I know that there are some people who think of the sanctuary on Sunday mornings as just that – a sanctuary.  And one of the things these people are wanting a peaceful haven from is the incessant bombardment of all things tech.  Why, then, in this of all places, should we be inviting people to engage in such behavior?

Why indeed?  I’ve been thinking about this a lot leading up to actually giving it a try.  Is it just a fad?  An attempt to reach out to younger people?  A novel way of saying, “We’re hip and cool; give us a try”?

Perhaps.  All of these are certainly possible and, I’d be the first to admit, probable at some level.  And yet I think that there’s more to it than this.  And as I looked for what it is, I’ve found myself thinking about Martin Luther.

That sixteenth century German priest sparked a revolution, in part, because of his belief that all baptized Christians constituted a holy priesthood – “the priesthood of all believers” – and his insistence on translating the Bible from Latin into the German vernacular so that it was accessible to more people.  Both of these ideas were scandalous at the time.  I also think that both of these ideas are present in the idea of including a time for tweeting in our service.

For a generation of people, the smart phone (and related devices) are not just tools or gadgets – they are truly an extension of self.  This may not be true for me, or even you, but it is undeniably true for many people in our world today.  They have grown up texting one another even while talking to someone else, and the ability to make immediate comments on and connections with what’s happening around them is taken for granted.

I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that texting, tweeting, instant messaging, and the like are a part of the vernacular of this generation.  And just as Luther came to realize that insisting on a Latin Mass was keeping his generation of Christians away from a deeper connection with their faith, I can’t help wondering if our “no cell phone” policies are doing the same thing for this generation. 

Think about it for a moment.  For those who do use such devices regularly, anything and everything that’s considered at all relevant is instantly shared with a circle of cyber “friends” who, then, comment in return.  And yet in church, which I believe should be the most relevant of experiences in the week, this behavior is actively discouraged.

As an aside, for those who think that encouraging the use of these handheld devices would be distracting – either to the people doing it or the people near to them – how many of our congregations forbid knitting during the service?  I known of parishioners who bring their mail into worship and pay their bills.  I’ve even heard of a parishioner who brought his copy of the New York Times and would unfold it and read it during the sermon.  Is quietly sending a text any more disturbing to the “sanctity of the hour” than that?

And from the point of view of those for whom this is all second nature, not doing these things is distracting!  Imagine, if you’re a note taker, that you were forbidden to bring a pencil into worship.  Or, if you like to close your eyes to focus on what you’re hearing, you found that the church had instituted an “eyes wide open” policy.  And yet this is exactly what we do when we tell everyone that they must turn off and put away these extensions of self.

At first, we're limiting the use of these electronics to this one place in the service and this one purpose, to reach out to people who aren't with us in the sanctuary.  (Although folks have confessed to me that they've taken advantage of the invitation to text the spouse who was sitting right next to them!)  But who knows?  I recently came across a video advertising the free services of YouVersion Live, a way to seamlessly interact with worship leaders and fellow congregants during worship on your mobile phone.  Some of the things they suggest seem odd to me; some seem amazingly useful.

I hope that there'll be conversation about this idea.  I hope, even more, that others will be encouraged to give it a try so that we can learn from one another's actual experiences (rather than simply sharing all of our own biased and preconceived assumptions).

 In Gassho,

Rev. Wik

Teaching and Learning as a Spiritual Practice

One of my favorite figures in all of the world’s spiritual literature is a 9th century Chinese Buddhist monk named Joshu.  I don’t love Joshu because he had his enlightenment experience early –although  it is said that he was only about eighteen when he realized his own Buddha-nature and, therefore, his essential oneness with everything.  And it’s not because of this next thing, although this is pretty cool too.  You might think that after you’ve had an enlightenment experience and realized your own Buddha-nature and your essential oneness with everything you might set up shop and start teaching people.  Not Joshu.  He went on a pilgrimage to visit all of the great minds and enlightened souls in China at that time, to see if there was anything else he needed to learn.   Pretty cool, right?
And this wasn’t a journey of a couple of months or even a couple of years.  He took sixty years to do it!  That’s right.  From the age of about twenty until he was eighty years old, Joshu continued to seek out teachers and continued to deepen his awareness and his understanding of the dharma.  When he was eighty he figured that he could finally settle down and begin to teach, which he did for the next forty years.  (Yes, Joshu lived to be about 120.)  But that’s not even why I love him so.
I love Joshu because of something he is remembered as saying when he set out on his pilgrimage, and which described his attitude throughout his life.  He always said that if he met someone who had something to learn from him, even if that person was one hundred years old, he would teach; he also said that if he met someone who had something that he, himself, needed to learn he would become their student, even if that person was a child of seven.  Joshu knew, and this is why I think he’s so great, that you’re never too young to teach, and you’re never too old to learn.
We Unitarian Universalists say pretty much the same thing.  It’s why we talk about “Lifespan Faith Development,” because we know that it’s not enough to simply offer “religious education” to the church’s children.  All of us, from our youngest to our oldest, the entire lifespan of our community, from “cradle to grave” as it’s sometimes described, we all need to be engaged together in both teaching and learning.  And we know that when it’s really happening, it’s always a two-way street.
I want to tell the children a secret.  Shhh.  You know those adults, those grown-ups who’ve been teaching your RE classes all of these years?  [Grown ups, put up your hand if you’ve ever taught or helped out in the RE program.]  You see all those folks?  You probably thought that they were teaching, but if you ask them I’d bet they’ll tell you that they were learning.  [Right?]
Never too old to learn; never too young to teach.  We know this.  We do know this.  What we do here in this sanctuary on a Sunday morning is one way to expand and deepen our souls.  Yet what we do downstairs, and upstairs, and across in Summit House is no less of a spiritual practice.  In fact, if you were to ask me, I’d say that it’s both a more challenging and, over the long haul, a more rewarding one.
If all the adults did was “teach” and all the children did was “learn,” I could see the point of those who prefer the worship hour to the “church school” hour.  But that’s not what it’s about.  That’s not what it’s about at all. 
In fact, back in the 19th century no less a luminary than William Ellery Channing, who was arguably America’s most well-known Unitarian preacher, had this to say about religious education:
The great end in religious instruction is:
Not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own;
Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;
Not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth;
Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;
Not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision;
Not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought;
Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.
In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.
This was written, remember, in the 1800s!  And in a marvelous image he said that children are not empty vessels, needing adults to pour facts into them; they are more like flowers requiring only careful tending that they might grow strong according to their own individual natures.
Can you see why I say that this is a spiritual practice?  Can you see why I sort of secretly envy those who are free to engage in that practice?    And that’s not to say that what we do here doesn’t have its merits, it’s just that, well, in the words of the All-Church Meeting a couple of weeks back, a part of me has always been kind of drawn to the “do” track more than the “talk” track.
And speaking about “doing” I’m reminded of a quote from the Messiah’s Handbook” in Richard Bach’s fabulous book Illusions:  adventures of a reluctant messiah. 
“Learning [he says] is finding out what you already know.  Doing is demonstrating that you know it.  Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you.  You are all learners, doers, teachers.”  He also notes that, “you teach best what you most need to learn.”
I don’t want this to sound like a plug, although I suppose in a way it is, but there are still opportunities for you to engage with our children’s religious education program, our ministry to and with our children and youth.   I’m kind of stuck here most of the time, but you can sign up to take a turn at engaging with some of the best teachers you’ll have ever explored the world with and to offer something that might just be the thing to change a life . . . yourself.  Whether you have young children, have had young children, or have never known the pleasure, there is a place for you.  And I’ll share with you a dream of mine.  I dream that someday, in the not too distant future, when I ask those who’ve taught or helped out in the religious education program to raise their hands, every single hand will go up.  And I dream that those of you who are children here today will continue to be here, or in some other Unitarian Universalist church, when you’re the adults, and will still be active in the spiritual practice of teaching and learning.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Us & Them: reflections on 9/11 then and now

[Listen to the Sermon]

Ten years ago my friend and mentor, the Rev. Gary Smith, entered the pulpit of our congregation in Concord, Massachusetts, looked out over the people, and began his sermon with these words:  "This," he said, "had better be good."

Gary knew what a jumble of things were present in that sanctuary.  There was grief, and anger, and disbelief, and confusion, and fear, and he knew that everyone was looking to him to say something that could make sense of the senseless.  That could give meaning to a tragedy so obviously meaningless.  They wanted him to say something that would make everything okay again, to find the words that would heal the hurt.  And, so, he said what he knew was on everyone's mind -- this had better be good.

I told Debrah, as we were planning the service for today, that I know how Gary felt.  For we have such a complex community here today, as well.  There are people here who, ten years ago, had their worlds turned upside down and for whom it's never quite been righted.  There are people who lost loved ones and friends, or know people close to them who did; people for whom these ten years are barely a day.  And then there are people who weren't even born ten years ago, or were too young then to have any real idea about what it is the rest of us are talking about.

So what can I say about those horrors without creating new nightmares?  And how can I do justice to the victims without causing injury to the innocent?  And I don't know how many of you are hoping that I'll have some kind of magic words that will make it all make sense, so incantation that will bring peace to our hearts and souls, but I'm betting that at least some of you are.

And I stand here knowing that I don't know what to say.  There are no such words.  I know that I don't have them. 

Yet I don't come before you empty-handed.  I have two things to offer:  one truth and one hope.

The truth.  In the days following the attacks ten years ago I was also trying to figure out what to say to the congregation I served.  And the word "evil" was being bandied about a lot back then.  Even we Unitarian Universalists (who I thought had forgotten that word) were wondering about what evil is, whether it's an external reality or an internal state of mind.  And as I thought about these things I found myself stumbling upon a truth.

I don't know about you, but I know that I have a lot of opinions, I think a lot of things, and I even think I know a lot of things, but the things that I really do know -- know down into the core of my being -- are few and far between.  But that week, as I was thinking about what to say in my sermon, I discovered one of those thing.  I discovered that evil is whatever convinces me that you and I are not related.

Whatever tells me that we are separated and alienated, that is evil.  And so, on that Sunday morning, I told the congregation that there is no "us" and "them," that there is only "we."  "Us" and "them" thinking is what caused people to turn planes into weapons.  "Us" and "them" thinking is what started the wars . . . all wars.  "Us" and "them" thinking is behind every kind of "ism," every form of oppression, every act of injustice.  There is no "Us" and "Them," there is only "We."

And I told them that that "we" is as large as it's possible to imagine -- that it even includes those we wish it wouldn't, those we'd like to keep thinking of as "them."  But we can't.  We just can't.  There is no "us" and "them," there is only "we."

And from that day until this I've been able to sum up our Unitarian Universalist theology in four phrases:

We are one human family,
on one fragile planet,
in one miraculous universe,
bound by love.

That's it.  As Rabbi Hillel said, while standing on one foot, "everything else is commentary."  We are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  That's what it's all about.  That's the truth I learned in the aftermath of September 11th, and the truth I have to offer you this morning.

And the hope . . .  As Deborah said in her story, the immediate response to the tragedy was that of people reaching out to help.  It was a response of love.  It was a response of recognition of the truth that we're one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  The immediate response was one of embracing one another, identifying with one another, looking past differences to see our common humanity.

Now, of course, if I take off the glasses of privilege I'd have to say that if I were a Mulsim, or looked like one, I'm not sure I'd be saying quite the same thing.  Yet even there, even with regards that community, in the days and weeks and months after the attacks there were also unspeakable acts of generosity and compassion.  For a moment, we saw the truth, and it set us free.

Yesterday, during the worship that culminated our "Cultivating Connections" workshop, I reminded people that the Rabbi Jesus is remembered as saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is already among us.  It's not something that we have to wait for in the sweet by and by.  It's here, all around us, right now.

And Siddhartha Buddha, upon his enlightenment -- the same Buddha who said that the essential experience of life is suffereing -- looked around him and said, "How wonderful! How wonderful!  Everything is perfect just as it is."

Of course, everything may be perfect and the Kingdom may be here, but we still have to realize it and make it manifest.  But we've caught a glimpse of it.  In our lifetime we've seen a brief flash of what that world could look like.  Out of the corner of our eyes we saw it.  We got a taste of it.

And now that we've had that taste, we can walk with greater conviction toward that community we're dreaming of.  And we can do this by choosing, every day, every moment, to live by the truth that we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  We can choose to live out of that truth, live into that truth, and make that perfect Kingdom come to be.

And that is the hope I offer today -- the hope that's alive in that choice.