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The Welcome Table – 11/20/2011

One of the things about being a minister is that you collect lots of stuff. I’m sure that my dear colleague, Sylvia, can attest better than I to what a lifetime spent in ministry accumulates, but if you’ve seen my office, you know that I am already well on my way in the acquisition of curious items. Among these are, this panel of stained glass, which is a replica of one of the windows at Arlington Street Church, where I was an Intern Minister. There’s also this peace crane, which was a gift from a group of nuclear disarmament activists who slept on the floor of the church I served in Albion, NY.

And I also have this stack of little slips of paper. Last year at this time, our congregation shared a ritual where we each wrote or drew some things that we were thankful for on a

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piece of paper. And after we’d hung them around the sanctuary and taken them down, they ended up with me. Here’s one that says, “I’m thankful for the ocean and the sunlight, for my family, my friends, and other people’s patience with me.” This one just says, “The 3 Best Daughters in the world!” A couple of them are unlabeled drawings. This one is a family with a house, two cats and a dog. And this other one is a pretty fair likeness of our own church building. In fact, several of you listed your congregation as something you were thankful for last year. One of you wrote with gratitude about your “community based on love and abundance, not based on fear and scarcity.”

Now we are just a few days from another Thanksgiving. Like so many of our civic traditions it is a holiday with more twists and turns in its history than we usually acknowledge. A celebration of Thanksgiving in November was not an annual observance in this country until late in the Civil War, and its current place on the fourth Thursday of the month wasn’t set until World War II. But it is generally agreed that some of the roots of the holiday trace back to the English colony at Plymouth, almost four hundred years ago.

The first English-speaking settlers in what is now Massachusetts came to these shores with terrible odds of survival – they did not know the land, nor did they have any understanding with the native inhabitants here. Their celebration of the first successful harvest after their arrival is thought to be one of the forerunners of our Thanksgiving, but they never would have reached it without the help of the Wampanoag people, on whose land they chose to settle. The people of Plymouth received instruction in how to farm corn and hunt animals native to the area from members of the Wampanoag nation, and their leader, Ousamequin, sometimes called Massasoit, donated enough food to the settlement to see them through their first winter. What followed the success of English-speaking colonies here in Massachusetts and elsewhere on this continent – the wars, the stolen land, the broken treaties, the slavery, forced migration and mandatory reeducation – would seem to make Ousamequin’s gift a bitter object lesson in the dangers of generosity.

But although we need to remember the pain and injustices that are connected to the ‘first Thanksgiving,’ we should not let it harden our hearts to all that is good in that story. One group of people had come to a land they did not know – they were hungry, and at the mercy of the winter cold. And another group of people more secure and better prepared made the choice to be generous with their fellow human beings. This is the real ‘first thanksgiving,’ if there can be said to be such a thing. Not the party that the people of Plymouth held when their crops finally came in, but the gifts the Wampanoag gave to them during the hard winter. Because when we are truly grateful for what we have, the best way we have of expressing that thankfulness is by sharing that blessing with others. You sit down at a table set with good food, surrounded by people you care about, and it makes you want to pull up a chair, and invite someone else to sit down.

It is a bit like a story that is told in the Muslim tradition about Uthman ibn Affan, one of the great figures in the early history of Islam. The story goes that there was a famine that year in the city of Medina. Medina is an oasis city set amidst a vast desert, and much of the food that its people depended on, even then, had to be brought in from far away. The people grew hungry in waiting, until a great caravan, a collection of carts and wagons and camels and horses and people finally arrived with food to sell. That caravan was led by Uthman, and the merchants of the city went out to meet him and to bargain for the food he was carrying, so they could resell it to the hungry people of Medina, and make a nice profit for themselves. But Uthman refused to sell; no matter what they offered him, he shook his head and said that he had a better offer. Then he went into the city, and he gave all the food he had brought with him away for free. When the merchants turned to him, angry and puzzled and asking what sort of better deal this was, Uthman reminded them of a line in the Qur’an, the holiest text in Islam. “Those who spend their wealth in the way of God are like a grain of corn. It grows seven ears and each ear has a hundred grains.”[i] In other words, caring for others and sharing what we have with them is a gift that renews itself, over and over.

Which is why we began a project last year called Simple Gifts. Our society is very well practiced at helping us to want things that we don’t particularly need, and that won’t make us particularly happy or satisfied if we get them. And we know from the music and the decorations in the stores that the Christmas buying season has already begun. So last year we decided to work on helping ourselves and each other show our gratitude for what we have by sharing with others. Last year we raised $3,114.95 together, and this year I believe we can raise even more. Here’s a reminder of how it works:

It starts with a challenge to all of the individuals and families in our congregation. Take a real look on what you spend on Christmas, Hanukkah, and any other winter holidays you celebrate. If there’s more than one of you in your household, sit down at the kitchen table together and really think about this. Imagine together the ways in which you might spend more energy saying ‘I love you, I care about you, I want you to be happy,’ directly, and less on buying things that will wind up in an attic or a basement or the free section of Craigslist in a few years. I know a few of you shared with me last year that you just lived to give presents and you couldn’t imagine cutting back on that part of the season – but for you there may still be some room in holiday budget. Maybe in decorations, or perhaps in travel. Wherever you find it the challenge is to make giving one of the central practices, and one of the main expenses, of your household’s holiday season.

In two weeks, on December 4th, our children and young people will vote on a list of worthy non-profit groups that serve the common good. That’s right, Sunday School folks – you are in charge of what cause we’re going to give our gifts to. And in four weeks, on December 18th, we’ll gather whatever checks and cash and loose change we’ve set aside to practice our gratitude with, and pool it to give to the organization our children have chosen. Most of us, I know, have more stuff than we can reasonably use in a lifetime. A holiday that is about accumulating more stuff hardly seems helpful. But all of us, I also know, need ways to practice being grateful for what we have, and this is one such way: a way to help others, and also ourselves. I look forward to all the new ways of living our gratitude that we can discover together.

[i] Qur’an 2:261

The Six Impossible Things We Believe – 11/13/2011

In Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass, his most famous character, the precocious and imaginative young woman named Alice, finds herself in another fantastical world, after her previous adventure in Wonderland. In order to return home, she tries to make her way across a bizarre landscape laid out like a giant chess board, and populated by characters based on pieces from the game. In her travels, she meets the White Queen, who explains that she is “one hundred and one, five months and a day.” In a story full of irrational characters and nonsensical statements, Alice must be used to this sort of thing by now, but still she says that she can’t believe the queen could be that old.

The queen offers this solution to her inability to believe: “Try again: take a long breath and shut your eyes.” That, of course, just makes Alice laugh, and she reminds the queen that “there’s no use trying to believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”[i]

As Unitarian Universalists, we share a tradition that cherishes reason, trusts in the lessons of science and sometimes chuckles at the willingness of others to believe in impossible things. Thomas Jefferson, who was never exactly a member of one of our congregations but who spent a lot of time talking theology with his Unitarian friends and expressed sympathy with them, went so far as to edit his own version of the Christian Gospels. He took the four accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings and edited them together into a single story, taking out as he went all of the fantastical, supernatural elements – what he called “nonsense.”[ii]

It is true, that our religion finds its roots among people who could only scratch their heads at the peculiar math of the doctrine of the Trinity. Three gods is really one God? It just never seemed to make sense. And because we have been willing to ask hard questions about dogma and scripture and what the purpose of religion ought to be, we have many times been outside the general grouping of religious people. As outsiders often do we have come to wear that rejection as a badge of honor. And so sometimes we grow a bit too proud and snicker at those who believe in stories about the sun standing still for a day, or the dead being restored to life.

But I am here to tell you: we believe in impossible things, too. We may not teach the literal truth of stories that break the laws of thermodynamics, but in our tradition, again and again, a number of themes arise that cannot be proven by the scientific method. Our faith holds to a set of broad ideas that cannot be gained or held by reason alone. Wisdom from the world’s religions, the words and deeds of prophetic people, the wonders of the natural world and our own personal experiences may give us reason to affirm these values, but ultimately, they remain matters of faith. In honor of the new members who have joined our congregation today I want to articulate some of these points. Following Lewis Carroll I have chosen what I consider to be the six most important ones, and continuing on that theme I will ground each of them in stories normally meant for young children.

The first story from a picture book from the 1960s called Amelia Bedelia. Amelia has her first day as a maid in the home of a wealthy family, and she does her best to follow all of their instructions to the letter. When her employers return home to check on her work, they find she’s been far, far too literal. Told to ‘dust the furniture,’ she actually threw dust onto it. She drew a fine picture of the living room curtains because she was told to ‘draw the drapes.’ And because Amelia was told to ‘dress the chicken’ they were planning to have for supper, her family came home to find the bird wearing a darling set of miniature clothes. Amelia’s are so angry about the state that their house is in that they are ready to fire her. But then they taste something else that Amelia managed to accomplish that day, while getting everything else wrong: a pie. A pie so delicious and heavenly, that its worth forgiving everything else.[iii]

There are lots of people in this world who make me angry, and sad, and disappointed. Sometimes they are people I love, sometimes they are complete strangers, and sometimes, ‘they’ are ‘me.’ But no matter what, our Unitarian Universalist tradition counsels me even when my head forgets: all are worthy. There is value in every human life, even when we have nothing but evidence to the contrary. This is an in-born quality. It is inescapable, and it is not because of what they can do for us – what sort of delicious pies they can bake, for instance – but occasionally we are reminded of the potential in every person by the beautiful things that they, or we, accomplish.

The second story I want to talk about is the most famous tale of the One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of folk stories put together in Arabic almost 1000 years ago. You might be familiar with the story of Aladdin from an animated movie that featured a blue genie doing bizarre impressions unsuited to a children’s film. The original is similar in many ways: Aladdin is still street kid trying to find a way out of poverty, he still falls in love with a princess and gets tricked by an evil sorcerer. But there are also key differences. The story has two jinn (powerful magical spirits) and it takes place in two locations, in Western China and in Northern Africa, on nearly the opposite side of the Earth. Aladdin is one of the first global stories.

I mention the story because it points towards the second impossible thing we believe, which we actually affirmed together a little more than a half an hour ago. After we lit our chalice we read together as we do every week that, “beyond all our differences, and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity which makes us one, and which binds us together.” No matter where you go on Earth, people still love, and struggle and hope to make their lives better. Even light years away from this place, where no life lives or ever has, the stars still burn with the same constancy as our own. None of these things is proof of that mysterious underlying unity – and yet it seems to point in that direction, to we who share the faith that we are all connected.

A frightened lion, a scarecrow with a level of intelligence only slightly above that of normal scarecrows, and a man who has had every part of his body replaced with metal in a series of increasingly unlikely woodcutting accidents. This is the motley crew assembled to help a young woman and her dog find their way home in L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz. They are strangers and laughingstocks, at the mercy of magical and political forces far greater than them, making their way through an unpredictable and often hostile land. And yet, by the end of the story, each of them has gained what they set out in search of, and young Dorothy is back home on her farm in Kansas.

Life is full of challenges, particularly for those of us willing to struggle for a world more just and fair than it currently is. Faced with tall barriers to our goals and hopes, we can lose heart all too easily. But despite this, despite all the demoralizing evidence of history and the present time, our ancestors have passed onto us the lesson that the world is enough. We have what we need, here and now, to live the lives we are called to lead. We have it in ourselves to practice what our souls preach to us; we simply have to work, and work together. We are sufficient to the challenges before us, and even our apparent failure cannot disprove that we, humanity, have the means before us to make the Earth into a paradise.

In the story of Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh and Rabbit and Piglet and Christopher Robin have silly adventures and practice being good friends to one another in the imaginary world of the Hundred Acre Wood. And all of these tales are told by a parent as bedtime stories to the young Christopher Robin, with his own stuffed animals as the main characters. Even though they are imaginary imaginings, they have a realness to Christopher, and he talks about trying to remember them even as they are being told to him for the first time.

Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists teaches us that revelation is not sealed. Fresh meaning is always pouring into the world, and the power of prophecy, of saying the truth most needed in any given moment, can be found in all people. Any book can reveal the secret your heart needs most to hear; even a book about a silly stuffed bear with a head full of fluff. Made-up stories can still be spiritually true: things that have never happened and are always happening. And when we hear stories like that for the first time, it feels almost like we are remembering something we had known once, but forgotten.

There’s a German folktale called Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten: the Bremen Town Musicians. In it, a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster team up to travel to Bremen and make a new life for themselves as musicians. On the way there, by a strange turn of events they find themselves spending the night in a warm, comfortable house. A thief sneaks in that night and accidently wakes the four animals up, who do their best to defend themselves in the darkness. Running from the house, the frightened and confused thief warns his accomplices that the house is occupied by a witch with long claws – the cat – an ogre with a knife – the dog – a giant with a club – the donkey – and a judge screaming about the mans crime – the rooster. With the thieves all afraid and word spreading that the house was haunted by monsters, the animals were able to live there together in comfort and peace.

Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did not all believe the same things; their diversity of opinion and belief is one of the great gifts they have handed on to us. But as they gathered into communities in different places and times they kept coming to a similar understanding over and over again, and that is another of their great gifts to us. Like them, we hold that the path comes from walking together. This is the foundation of our tolerance, acceptance and celebration of the differences between us, whether spiritual, political, physical or otherwise. And it is also the root of our reverence for democracy; making our decisions together isn’t a chore, it is a spiritual discipline.

The final story I want to mention is another picture book from the 20th century. In The Runaway Bunny, a young rabbit plays a game with its mother, imagining all they ways it might run away from her by changing into a fish or a bird or a sailboat. Each time, the mother bunny has an answer for her child, “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me, I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are…If you go flying on a flying trapeze, I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.” No matter where that bunny goes or what it changes into, its mother will always find a way to be there too.

The sixth impossible thing our tradition teaches us is that love is greater. What is it greater than?: What do you got? It is greater than hate, it is greater than fear, it is greater than despair, and it is greater than death. Love is fundamentally, cosmically, mysteriously greater than any other thing that there is. It is love that ought to guide the decisions we make and the lives that we lead, and it is the practice of love that we are ultimately alive for.

All are worthy. We are all connected. The world is enough. Revelation is not sealed. The path comes from walking together. Love is greater. These may not be the only impossible things you believe, before or after breakfast. But they are at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, and though they are not the sorts of things that can be proved by reason alone, they are worth believing in, for the changes they make in the lives of the people who believe them.

[i] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass: and What Alice Found There, p. 102-103

[ii] Letter to John Adams, 13 October, 1813

[iii] Peggy Parish, Amelia Bedelia, 1963

As a Fire Burns a Forest – 11/6/2011

A man stands in the bread aisle of a super market, wearing a wrinkled, bedraggled tuxedo. He selects a bag of hot dog buns from the shelf, tares open the plastic and pulls out four of the rolls, tossing them back on top of the unchosen buns. Satisfied, he twists the bag closed again and tosses it into his cart.

This image comes from the movie Father of the Bride – the Steve Martin version – in which the titular character struggles with all the possible, and some seemingly impossible, frustrations and indignities of being a, well, Father of the Bride. Steve Martin’s character has reached his limit: the house full of unwanted guests, the prospective son-in-law he disdains, the ballooning cost of the whole affair – he just has to get away from it all. And so he has escaped on an errand to the local super market.

One of the market’s employees sees the customer doing this and asks him what he’s doing. With the tension in his voice rising, the father responds, “I’ll tell you what I’m doing. I want to buy 8 hot dogs and 8 hot dog buns to go with them. But no one sells 8 hot dog buns. They only sell 12 hot dog buns, so I end up paying for 4 buns I don’t need. So, I am removing the superfluous buns.”

When the clerk is unsatisfied with this response, the angry customer launches into a rant about the root cause of this injustice: collusion between the manufacturers of hot dogs and hot dog buns. An assistant manager is summoned, the irate customer escalates the matter further and finally tries to make a break for it, pushing his cart the whole time, before crashing into something or other and landing in jail.[i]

While I have never started a one-sided shouting match with a supermarket clerk, there have been times in my life that I have gotten angry or upset about something just as ridiculous as this. I look back on those moments and a shudder to see myself as such a fool. Its not enough to stop my getting angry again in the future; anger is a powerful emotion, and I find that I can still be goaded into it by some silly and petty things. But it does make me shake my head, and feel a little sheepish.

You see, I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, and while we are not all of us pacifists, we are generally a peace-oriented movement. We highly value love, trust, reconciliation and forgiveness, and in this setting anger was not an aspect of my self that was encouraged. Particularly as a male, there was a sense that my anger was a dangerous thing; it needed to be tightly controlled and maintained, and it wasn’t appropriate in basically any situation or context.

Now, each of us has had our own upbringing and experience, but I would venture to guess that many of us here today have an uneasy relationship with anger. Because the idea that anger needs to be tamped down and restrained is a very common one. For people who grow up female, especially, there is a message that pervades our culture and says that showing anger is not appropriate or acceptable or polite – its not what good girls do. In the Simpsons movie from a few years ago, daughter Lisa is understandably angry with her father for his senseless pollution of a local lake. Her mother Marge tries to change the subject. “But I’m just so angry.” Lisa responds. “You’re a woman, you can hold onto it forever,” her mother instructs.

Nonetheless, anger is a part of each of us. And because it is a hard emotion to endure: both on the giving and the receiving end, many of us look for ways to reduce our anger’s ability to shape what we do and how we live our lives. In fact, many religious traditions offer ways of addressing or transforming the anger we have within ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher and peace activist has devoted much of his public work to encouraging others to move through and beyond their anger. In one striking image, he counsels his students to approach their anger as a mother would treat her infant child. When we become angry, he instructs, we must not ignore or suppress the feeling, just as a parent would not ignore the cries of their young child. We must respond by embracing it and giving it our full attention – this will help to relieve our anger, as a child is relieved to be held in its mother’s arms. In that embrace, we can learn from our anger what is wrong, what needs to be addressed. Ultimately, the goal is to express anger peacefully and carefully.[ii]

The teaching in Buddhism, in fact in most religious traditions, is not to run away from anger. But in the context of a our wider culture, strategies like Thich Nhat Hanh’s can sometimes be oversimplified and misrepresented as ways of overcoming our anger. So when in our work of prayer or meditation or yoga or any other spiritual practice, we encounter our anger, we may attempt to misuse these tools to do away with something that we deeply need to feel.

The necessity of anger, its purpose and its meaning, is a lesson that took me a long time to learn. I had to address it, however, as part of the process of my own justice work, of seeking to affect positive change in myself and others. Compassion is a powerful force, and listening to someone, holding their hand and affirming the best parts of them while offering sympathy against their worst habits and inclinations – that can sometimes help folks to become kinder, and more loving and understanding. But used all on its own, compassion has its limits; it can only take you so far.

Several years ago I became involved, really through a bumbling series of well-intentioned but wildly ignorant choices, with a campaign to support a group of hotel workers who were trying to form a union. These folks, who worked long hours for low pay in a very expensive and profitable hotel were being harassed, intimidated, and in some cases forced to quit their jobs by a management that was determined to keep them from using their right to bargain collectively. I found out about the case and I read up on it a bit. I went to meetings where I heard from the workers themselves about their situation and the wrongness of it. My compassion was fully engaged, as I nodded and shook my head and listened patiently.

Still utterly green-around the gills I went along on my first delegation: a trip with several other students to the hotel to find the manager or the highest placed person we could and challenge them directly to change their ways. It went alright; to be honest with you I don’t remember doing much other than watching and standing near the back. But then, some weeks later, when the hotel owners still refused to budge, it was time for a second delegation, and when the group gathered this time I found myself one of the people elected to lead it. You see, I was one of the few there who had actually been on a delegation before.

Now I was in trouble. To stare down that manager was going to take something more than compassion, and an intellectual understanding that his policies were wrong. I was scared. On the way to the hotel, I did my best to put on a brave face, and I thought about one of the hotel workers I’d met. She was in her early 50s; she’d worked the same job for more than 20 years. She’d been one of the earliest and loudest voices calling for a union, and when she ignored hints from her supervisor that she should be quiet, her job description was suddenly changed to give her a whole new set of tasks. Tasks that she’d never been asked to do before, and that, after decades working in a physically demanding job, she could not do without causing herself a whole lot of pain. It was clear that her bosses were trying to force her to quit in order to protect her health.

I thought about her story and I began to feel what it only made sense to feel about it: angry. It was a feeling I was very uncomfortable having, but since I was already in an uncomfortable situation, playing the appointed expert at something I’d only ever seen done once before, I didn’t have much time even to choke it down. And that, it turned out, made all the difference. We met one of the managers – when 30 people show up in your lobby talking about worker rights, you usually have to send somebody – and I had to do the talking. He didn’t break down crying or anything; he didn’t have some sort of hallelujah conversion moment. But I got through what I had to say. I didn’t hang back and listen politely to his counterarguments, I was mad, we all were. And I let him know that, civilly but forcefully. And while I wouldn’t flatter myself with any credit, I did feel some satisfaction weeks later when goal of forming a union was finally accomplished.

The activist and poet Audre Lorde talked about the uses of anger, saying that anger results from the experience of oppression, and can be useful against those oppressions. “Focused with precision,” she wrote, “it can be a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” She drew a critical line between hatred and anger, “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”[iii]

There are two reasons why we are taught to fear and crumple up our anger. The first is the good and vital reason that anger can become hateful, and when we act out of that feeling all we can do is harm, emotional, spiritual, physical – to others, and to ourselves. But the second reason is that anger: the warning bell that tells us something is wrong, and the fuel that helps us gain the strength to fight to change it; anger like that is a challenge to the status quo.

We are living in an angry moment. It is an anger that has been building for some time. Folks who have bills but no jobs. Folks who have jobs, but no health care. Folks who have jobs and health care but live life with the creeping awareness that they could lose it just like that. The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement are both signs of the power of anger.

As we look to anger as a tool, and even as a companion, in some ways, our most important work becomes the matter of discernment. “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers,” Audre Lorde reminds us. Anger points out the distortion, the imbalance, the injustice, but it is up to us to look at the situation carefully, to assess what is out of order in the system in front of us, and what needs to change in order to fix it. We must remember that much of the time, when we shout at someone we love or find ourselves raving about hot dog buns in the middle of the grocery store, the person most in need of change is us. The great prophets were well acquainted with the power of anger to foster transformation, but even they could misdirect it. In one episode in the Gospels, the teacher Jesus approached a fig tree, hoping to find some tasty fruit. “When he reached it,” says Mark, “he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.”[iv] Angered by this, the story goes, Jesus cursed the tree to never bear fruit again. Let us reach out to anger for the power to change, but let us also remember our compassion for ourselves and each other, then. For even the prophets may act in haste. Anger is a powerful force, and it is not something to be treated likely. But let us always remember that our anger has something to teach us, something to propel us further onward to accomplish. We just have to take the time to listen to the fire within.

[i] You can watch this scene here:

[ii] Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, 2001

[iii] From “Uses of Anger,” in Sister Outsider, 1984

[iv] The Gospel According to Mark 11:13

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What are We Worshiping This Week?

“Do we have to call it worship?” a congregant asked me once. I have to admit to being a little bit caught off guard by the question. I am well accustomed to the strong feelings surrounding language choices in our Unitarian Universalist congregations: what is said and what is unsaid, what is called by which name and when and how and by whom. But calling what we get together to do on a Sunday morning worship – that’s something that’s so familiar to me now I think I had forgotten that it might rub some folks the wrong way. Read More >>


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