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Simple Abundance – September 26, 2010

It is sometimes said of Unitarian Universalists that our greatest competition for attendance on Sunday mornings is not our Catholic neighbors down the street, nor the Methodists up the road or the synagogue across town, but rather a pot of coffee,

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a comfortable chair and a copy of the newspaper. Now, those of you who read the Salem News already know this, but for any who missed yesterday’s issue: consider yourselves notified. [Hold up copy of the Saturday edition.][i] One way or the other, we’re still gonna get you. But you know that makes a lot of sense, because we Unitarian Universalists find meaning in all sorts of places. Not only in scripture and ancient revelation, but also in the events of the present day.

So in that vein, I’d like to tell you a story, that a friend of mine told me this week. It’s about a congregation who were having a holiday food drive for a local food bank. Members of the congregation, and in this case that’s several hundred people, were asked to fill brown paper shopping bags with food. The suggestion was that they go to the grocery store and the sorts of things they would buy for themselves, limiting themselves to canned and packaged goods that the food pantry could stock without needing to refrigerate. And when the food drive was finished, and the congregation had collected all of those bags they had a huge amount of food. So a group from the congregation got together the next morning to sort all of it.

They had to sift and sort all the cans and boxes and bags by type, so that they could be put away as neatly as possible. Now this food wasn’t going to Beverly Bootstraps, our local community service organization, but I did visit their building on Cabot Street just a few weeks ago. Their executive director, Sue Gabriel, showed me the space where they store all the cans and dry goods they collect. They have the pack the food in as tight as they can, she explained, because most of their food donations come in December, so in January, the room is packed so tightly you can barely walk around in it, but by the end of Summer and the start of the Fall, the cupboard starts to look pretty bare. So these folks were sorting cans and boxes for another food pantry, in another town like Beverly, and part of their job was to check to make sure that it was all food that could be donated: public food pantries can’t accept cans that are badly dented or rusted, or boxed or bagged food that’s past its expiration date.

As the volunteers were sifting and sorting, they’d pull out pieces that couldn’t be donated and put them in the pile for expired food. In the beginning none of them thought much about it, but then the pile started to grow. For the most part, it wasn’t recently expired stuff: it was things that were years out of date: packaging from the early ‘90s, and brands that had long since gone out of business. Now at first, the volunteers offered themselves and each other the kindest explanations they could think of, for why someone would donate a whole bag full of expired food. Supermarkets aren’t always careful either, and someone might have bought a lot of spaghetti or rice without checking the label. But that didn’t explain how much there was. And not everybody can afford to donate a whole bag of food, when they’re having trouble keeping themselves and their families fed to begin with. So it might be that some families, ashamed to come to services without a bag to donate, just did the best they could. But that still couldn’t explain how much visibly old – some of it clearly inedible – food there was. The only explanation that was left, was that some of the folks in the congregation had gotten their bags for the food drive and simply swept in the discarded, forgotten contents of their own pantries.

How narrow our hearts can become, when we are not struggling, always struggling to open them wider. Asked to explain the mentality that would allow you to offer to a stranger food you would never serve to your own children, one obvious answer is contempt. Contempt for the poor and the hungry is common enough in our world, where there are powerful messages from many corners telling us that we deserve what we get. That the rich deserve to be rich, and the poor, well, they deserve that too. But if all you had in your heart was contempt, why donate anything? Why even go to the service to begin with? When I try to imagine the folks in this situation what I see, are people trying to do what is right, trying to show a kindness to other human beings. But that kindness is hemmed in, forced into a narrow place by fear: the fear of scarcity, the fear that there isn’t enough.

The story is told of a teacher and a student who were walking by the side of the road together. From around the bend a horse-drawn cart came barreling towards them. Although it was headed straight for them, the driver made no attempt to stop the cart, or to swerve to avoid the two figures. In order to escape, they both had to dive into the bushes that lined the road, bruising themselves and soiling their clothes. As the cart continued off into the distance, the student stood up out of the bush and shook a fist at the driver, shouting obscenities. The teacher also stood and called out to the driver, saying “May all your dreams come true, and may your life be filled with blessings!” When the student asked why the teacher had blessed the man who almost ran them both over, the teacher asked the student, “Do you think that if all of his dreams had come true and his life had been filled with blessings, that he would have behaved like that?”[ii]

A sense of scarcity, a sense that there’s not enough to go around so I need everything I have or can get, can arise from a place of real need. But truly not having enough, to eat say, does not automatically move every person towards that outlook, and it’s easy to take that narrow view even when our basic needs are being met. Commenting on the daily wonders that surround us in the modern age, the technologies and experiences that would have been unthinkable a century ago, comedian Louis C.K. describes the situation this way: “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”[iii] Following the story of the cart driver, life is full of blessings. And yet still, a sense of scarcity haunts us.

In Judaism, Shabbat – the Sabbath – begins on Friday evening and runs until just after sunset on Saturday. It’s a time of rest and celebration, and one of the traditional ways of marking it is with good food. Many of you have probably eaten challah before, which is one of these special foods; it has a distinctive appearance because the dough is braided before it’s baked, and a distinctive taste, because it usually has egg in it, and sometimes a sweetener. One of my rabbis once pointed out to me that for almost all Jews living in Eastern Europe two hundred years ago, challah was a special treat; they couldn’t enjoy it every day, because it took extra work to make, and was too expensive, so having it on Shabbat was something that made the day special. Today in America, you can buy it in the grocery store, for no more than many other breads would sell for. That specialness isn’t there anymore. Challah, like many consumer goods, has become cheaper and more readily available – it has literally become more abundant – but this material abundance comes at the expense of a larger message of spiritual and emotional scarcity.

We live in a world where art, entertainment, even political discourse, is inherently bound up with advertisement, the all-day, every-day effort to convince you that you are not presently happy, but you could be if you bought something. There is a line by Leonard Cohen that I believe describes the problem. He sings, “You are locked into your suffering and your pleasures are the seal.”[iv] It is all too easy to get caught up in the race for signs of outward success, the things we are culturally trained to want and enjoy. But they are distractions from the way of life that our deepest selves are calling us to live.

Siddhartha, the one who is called by some the Buddha, is said to have been born a very wealthy prince, who was surrounded by luxury and every possible worldly pleasure. In fact, his father the king was determined that his son should know only the riches and privilege of the court. He worked hard to keep Siddhartha from meeting anyone who was poor, or hungry, or sick, or even old, because he feared that if his son met such people he would be lured away from the palace by his conscience, and fall in with religious types, and other unsavory characters.[v] But the king could not insulate Siddhartha perfectly, it is said, and after he grew to adulthood, the prince had a few chance encounters with people who were poor, and hungry, and sick, and old. And because his innate capacity for compassion was so great, Siddhartha only needed these few experiences, a handful of seconds in the course of a lifetime, to see that his life in the palace had little meaning, and no depth, and so he renounced his wealth and station, and become a wandering monk, seeking enlightenment.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus felt that life’s greatest pleasures were simple ones: good food and the company of friends. It was a goal

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of his philosophy to attain ataraxia, which means a state of peace and freedom from fear. Epicurus wrote that, “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”[vi] Those words have never been more relevant than they are today, in a world that is driven too much by having, and not enough by enjoying. The scarcity-mentality that saps our generosity of spirit, that keeps some hungry, and others well-fed but afraid, is opposed by the attitude of abundance. Because when we truly enjoy life, we do not fear to share it with others. Epicurus sought ataraxia, and Siddhartha sought enlightenment – both are marked by their freedom from fear, and as we approach either one, we can begin to trust that there will be enough. Enough food on our tables. Enough love in our hearts.

We need to move, each day, away from the disposability which too much of our world is based upon, and towards sustainability. For this to be possible requires first, a certain amount of security. It is certainly possible to think abundantly when you don’t have enough food to eat, or a place to live, or a sense of basic physical safety. Its actually a fairly popular idea that the less you have, the more in tune with the spiritual and the virtuous you are. But that doesn’t make it right – if you’d like to discuss ethics with someone who is starving, you ought to share a meal with them before you start arguing. And even then, your starting question should probably be, “Why were you hungry?”

My grandfather grew up during the depression, and at every dinner for the rest of his life, he always wanted bread on the table. Simple, sliced white bread. That was what he needed to feel secure, to know that there would be enough for him and his wife and his kids. If there’s bread on the table, no one has to go to bed hungry. With that security, he could better enjoy the meal, and the company. He could live abundantly.

The other essential requirement, after security, is service. A pleasure that depends on us hiding from the pain of others is fragile and fleeting, and ultimately false. We know ourselves only by knowing others, and ignorance is not bliss; it is just sorrow, delayed. Ten years ago, I was a volunteer at the Grace Smith House, which is a domestic violence shelter in Eastern New York. My work there was not much to boast about: some light childcare, some manual labor, some household chores and the like. There was one night when I was helping a new arrival get situated in her room. She had an infant daughter whom she had brought to the shelter with her; they’d escaped an unsafe home in the middle of the winter with the clothes they were wearing, a bag of diapers, and not much else. The mom had her hands full with the baby, so I was helping to get their room ready. I got some pillows and bedclothes from a storage room, I put some sheets on the mattress, and I was spreading out a blanket when she said something. She’d been watching me while bouncing her baby up and down, and she said, “I’ve never seen a man make a bed before.” Ten years later, those words still haunt me. They still shape the way I am in the world, they still teach me what sort of husband and father I want to be. In order to live in a world of abundance, a world in which there is enough for us and for everyone, we not only have to believe it is possible, we also must do our part to make it so.

This year, we embark together on a journey. The challenge is that, as individuals and as a community, we might live simply, that others might simply live. This theme, this year-long experiment, is motivated in part by concern for other people, and for our planet. But its purpose is not self-sacrifice, its purpose is to search for ways to heal the world that at the same time heal our own selves. I am not going to tell you what new practices you must adopt, or what new rules you will be expected to follow. And lets be honest, even if I did, God has yet to make a Unitarian Universalist who will do exactly what their minister tells them to do.

Instead, we will consider some questions together, and work hard to practice our answers. How would we have to change our lives, in order to restore a sense of daily wonder to them? How could we rearrange our schedules to make more room for family and friends? What would we have to be doing differently, in order to make a bit of sweet bread taste like paradise? We set out on this path together as a community not to enforce some new behaviors through guilt or shame, but in order to share our ideas and experiences, and support and encourage each other to be bold and ambitious in the changes we attempt. In the days and months to come, we will talk more about possible ideas for living simply together. As we do so, let us be determined that our efforts should come from a place of abundance. Amen.


[i] http://www.salemnews.com/local/x1535828108/Young-minister-leads-citys-oldest-church

[ii] You can find one version of this story here: http://www.story-lovers.com/listsbuddhiststories.html

[iii] You can watch the extended bit – bearing in mind that the language is a bit coarse – here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk

[iv] From his song, “Stories of the Street”

[v] The full version of this story is commonly called The Four Sights, and is recounted in several Buddhist texts and writings, including the Dhammapada.

[vi] Epicurus and His Philosophy, by Norman Wentworth Dewitt

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