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Birth Pangs – 12/24/2011

The Christmas story – the angels, the shepherds, the manger – should be familiar enough to most of us that we know it by rote. That story talks about things happening before Jesus is born, and things happening after, but it doesn’t have much to say about the birth itself. There are other stories, though, that fill in that gap. Read More >>

Barn Hospitality – 12/18/2011

When Wilbur came to Zuckerman’s farm, it was a difficult adjustment. From the time that he was born he had been raised by a young human girl named Fern, and she had treated him as something between a baby and a pet. Sold to Homer Zuckerman, Wilbur found himself in a new world, leading a new life with very different rules. Life in the barn was harsh and uncomfortable for a pig who was used to having a warm, soft place to sleep. But most of all, without Fern as his constant companion, Wilbur was lonely. That was until the day when a tiny little spider called out to him from the barn rafters: “Salutations!”

There would be no story to E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web without the kindness and hospitality of barnyard animals.  And it is a theme shared in common with the Christmas story, as the Gospel according to Luke seems to describe Mary, Joseph and their newborn spending the night in a place normally reserved for livestock. No animals are mentioned in that version of the story, but for hundreds of years it has been common depict creatures of every sort in nativity scenes, including our own.

St. Francis of Assisi, who was famous for his love of animals as spiritual beings, is sometimes credited with popularizing the presence of live animals in Christmas pageants. In major annual productions put on by any number of European cities, you might find live camels or even elephants to help make the setting of the story seem exotic and foreign, and to increase the impressive and expensive nature of the display. But the first direct reference to specific animals in the company of Mary and her family comes from the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, a book written centuries after the more popular Gospels, to try to fill in some gaps in their accounts. In it, the author describes the infant Jesus being set down between an ox and a donkey. The two large animals, rather than ignoring the child or endangering him with their heavy bodies, immediately show signs of love for him, and look after the child with care and adoration.

If we are to learn anything at all from this small episode in this otherwise very familiar story, we must consider the place of a donkey and an ox. It is much the same today as it would have been two thousand years ago. To be a non-human animal, a work animal, is to be a thing devoid of rights. Powerless in a way that many of us humans would struggle to imagine. But in the moment when Mary lays her child between a donkey and an ox, so much power lies with them. Ignore for the moment the physical risk, however great it is. Imagine being the parents of a newborn – some of us do not need to imagine very hard here – all either of these two creatures has to do is bray or low, or make any other sort of sudden noise, and Mary and Joseph will have a wailing little son keeping them awake again. The sleepless nights spent caring for a newborn Jesus are a subject sorely neglected by all of the Gospel writers.

But none of that happens. Instead, the ox and the donkey, these two creatures that live at the mercy of human beings to be used by them for work or for food, they both turn with kindness towards the little one between them. They welcome him in, and show him love. No matter what we have or do not have, no matter the wealth or the power that we possess or do not possess, the opportunity to practice love persists.

Near the end of the novel, after his life has been nearly lost and then saved by Charlotte the spider, Wilbur asks her why she has done all that she has for him. She answers, “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” May each of us seize every opportunity we can to lift up our own lives a trifle by helping those we can. And when we are in need of help ourselves, may it come to us from the corner of the rafters where we least expect it.

The Hills are Clothed with Joy – 12/11/2011

Jumping up and down, up and down, up and down. Falling over and rolling around and jumping back up again. Colliding with the brightly-colored vinyl of the wall and the floor and smiling and giggling all the way. This was me and my three-year-old, recently, as we played together inside of one of those big inflatable houses you see at country fairs and the like. Read More >>

What It’s Really About

Listen; I want to tell you a little story: It’s about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a prominent American Rabbi during the second half of the 20th century. But really, it’s not about him at all. You see, in the last years of his work, the rabbi spent hours and hours receiving visitors at his office in Brooklyn, NY. Thousands of people came to see him just in his last few years, so there wasn’t a lot of time for each visitor. There were so many that they had to file by his door in a line, but the Rabbi still took the time to greet each one, and he would answer a question, or say a prayer, or offer a blessing for them.

Rabbi Schneerson also gave a gift to each visitor: a single dollar bill. The rabbi’s dollar came with the understanding that it would be passed on by that person to the charity of their choice. He was trusting each person, nearly all of them people he had never met before, to make a choice, and to find something good and worthy to do with that little bit of money. The gift multiplied the value of each dollar: more than just cash, it became a tangible reminder that someone believed in the person who received it, and was depending on them to make a choice to help heal and sustain the world. Each dollar affirmed that the rabbi had recognized the goodness in the person he had given it to.

This December, our congregation is taking the Simple Gifts challenge for the second year in a row. The society we live in is already well into its frenzy of buying and selling. The commercial world teaches us that we should affirm the goodness in other people, particularly the children in our lives, by buying them expensive consumer goods. That is not the lesson we want for ourselves, and it is not the lesson we owe to our children.  So the challenge instead is to literally practice giving Simple Gifts. To focus on showing our love for each other and the trust we have in the goodness of others with creativity and simple acts of loving kindness more than with items bought at the mall.

That should leave each of us with some money (maybe just a little bit, maybe quite a bit more) that we won’t need to spend on gifts this Hanukkah/Solstice/Christmas/generalized-gift-giving season. So we are going to affirm the goodness in our children by trusting them to tell us what to do with it. On Sunday, December 4th, our congregation’s children and young people will vote on the charity that they wish to see our Simple Gifts collection go to benefit. And on Sunday, December 18th, we will collect all the checks, dollars and loose change in order to send it on as our children have directed. We raised over $3,000 last year, and I believe we can do even more this season. So let us be imaginative in our generosity, together. Just as with the rabbi’s dollar, it’s not really about us; it’s about the unimaginable possibilities that result when people practice trusting in each other.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

 

The Upward Pouring of the Soul – 12/4/2011

“Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret.” These are the first words and the title of Judy Blume’s famous novel about a girl moving into womanhood and facing other difficult changes. As the book opens, the young petitioner continues her address to a God she hopes can hear her: “We’re moving today. I’m so scared God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.”

Margaret’s words might be called a petitionary prayer; the kind that tries to convince God to change the way things are or to cause something to happen or prevent it from happening. That’s not an idea that rests well with me because it imagines a God who can change anything: right any injustice, prevent any evil, reverse any tragedy, but who only chooses to do so some of the time. My experience of the world around me tells me that hope is vast and wonder is great, but suffering and oppression are also terribly, terribly real. So a God that can choose to change any of that, and does for some people and not for others, for any reason – I would like to imagine a more gracious and loving Divinity than that.

But that is not to dismiss Judy Blume and her Margaret. Because nothing is more honest than a cry for help. Calling out your fear, your hope, the deep longing of your heart is an entirely sane response to the hard work of living. In fact, it is not so different from a practice we observed a few moments ago in our ritual of joys and sorrows. We Unitarian Universalists are sometimes held to be ritual-averse, but I know that in this room right now there are people who came today with one thing in mind: lighting that candle, and maybe speaking the grief or the gladness that had moved them to do it aloud. The urge to give voice to what is in us – what we feel, and what we need – is a natural and powerful drive. It is right down in the roots of what draws us to be religious together.

A while ago, one of you asked me if I would preach a sermon on prayer. Well, here it is. Take note, folks: sometimes when you ask for what you need, you get it. There are many things that I am not an expert on, and prayer is one of them. I did not pray for most of my life, or rather, I did not think of any of the things that I did do as praying.

Most of what I know about praying I have learned from other people who asked me to pray for them – or with them. For though the list of things that I do not believe in is long, and I have gotten trouble for some of it, on the playground, and in the street, it’s the things that I do believe in that guide how I live my life. And I believe in treating others the way that I would hope to be treated. So when someone asks me for the small kindness of remembering them in prayer, I do my best to meet their request. And from that small willingness, has come my own growing sense of what prayer is and what it has to offer.

And that is where the odd title of this sermon comes from: prayer is the upward pouring of the soul. It is the release of what is true in us, not to throw it away but to lift it up, to consider it, to experience it more fully and richly. Pouring out our aspirations and confessions, our commitments and our hidden passions helps to clarify our selves: to help us do what is right or correct what we have done wrong. Some of us are going to do that with God, because that name has deep and powerful meaning for us. And some of us do not find meaning in that word. And some of us are going to move back and forth between those groups from day to day.

But if you do not believe it’s possible to pray without believing in God or a very particular idea of God, I would offer you the words of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. In the course of his life, Milosz alternated between an identity as a Roman Catholic, and as an Atheist. In his poem, “On Prayer,” he writes,

 

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,

Above landscapes the color of ripe gold

Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.

That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal

Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’

Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.

Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,

Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh

And knows that if there is no other shore

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

To feel compassion for others entangled in the flesh; it seems to me that anything that accomplishes this outcome can be called a form of prayer. There is an affirmation attributed to the Buddha that is sometimes used as one form of prayer – the form we use to remind us of what we value most highly, what matters most. The prayer is sometimes called the Metta, and this is one version of it:

May these beings be
free from animosity,
free from oppression,
free from trouble,
and may they look after
themselves with ease![i]

It was my time as a hospital chaplain that built much of my comfort with prayer, and showed me gifts from the practice I would never have imagined on my own. Even folks who have no interest in praying every day, or every time they’re especially grateful, even those who would rather focus on other ways of reminding themselves of the ideals they want to live by – even many of these folks find prayer of some sort sustaining in times of crisis and trial. As a hospital chaplain, one of the units that I served was devoted to the treatment of people with dual diagnoses: to make it to that ward, you had to have serious struggles with both your mental health, and drug or alcohol abuse. I met a young woman there who was several years younger than me. Her name wasn’t Shonda, but that’s what we’re going to call her. We had both grown up in the same town, although in very different parts of it. And she told me soon after we met that she loved to sing, loved to sing church music, in fact, something we had in common. I asked her what her favorite hymn was and she answered, “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus.” Now, I grew up a good humanist kid, and if it’s in that silver and gray hymnal in front of you the chances are good that I’ve sung it before, but my knowledge of popular Christian church music is…limited. So Shonda offered to teach it to me. “One day at a time, sweet Jesus, Lord, that’s all I ask of you. So for my sake, help me to take, one day at a time,” she sang, and eventually I picked it up so I could sing along with her. It was a sung prayer, and for a person struggling with drug addiction – or any other human being, for that matter – the goal of taking life day by day seemed to me to make sense.

Weeks later, after Shonda had gone home an older man came in through the ER. He’d had a major cardiac event, and it was serious enough that the doctors decided to take his temperature down very, very low and slowly bring him back out of it to help get his heart stable again. It kept him alive, but he didn’t get much more than that – he wasn’t waking up. For weeks, his family kept a rotating vigil in his room. I would stop by to spend time with him and his wife and daughter and son-in-law. I got to know that man through them. We talked about his work and his love of travelling, and how much he enjoyed music. He had a favorite song, they explained, one that he listened to every morning when he was well, and that his family played for him as he lay in his hospital bed. That song was, “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus,” and because Shonda had taught it to me, I was able to sing it with his family when I visited them. It wasn’t a perfect match to my own faith – I don’t normally address my prayers to Jesus. But the experience of connecting with one person and learning from them, just in time to use that learning to connect with someone else, that didn’t just match my faith, it renewed it.

Prayer can be a source of comfort during the hard night, but it can also shake us up, and challenge us to reshape our lives, to better match what the world’s need and our heart’s deep wisdom are calling us to be. There is a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that hopes for such a radical sort of change. Francis lived 800 years ago in Italy. He is renowned and revered for his kindness, his humility, and his love of God. And in all likelihood, he didn’t actually compose this prayer, which first appeared in French in 1912.[ii] But all words should stand on their own merit: just because a wise person said them, does not make them wise unto themselves, and anything that is true and meaningful is because it is, regardless of who actually said it. It may well be that someone first attributed the original anonymous prayer to Francis because its words were so stirring that they felt it must have come from someone particularly holy. This is the prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

A well and carefully framed poem like this may serve as a very useful prayer, but the free, unguarded mishmash of our own thoughts can sometimes do as much or more. It is the honesty and openness in Margaret’s prayer, that I began with, that gives it such power. We all have fear, hopes, pains – things we are ashamed of, and things that we sorely need. Taking time in the fret and fever of the day to call these things aloud or turn them over intentionally in our minds can help us to know ourselves better, and address the parts of ourselves that we would like to change. It is a simple practice to say, when we are happy, “I am happy,” when we are grateful, “I am grateful,” when we are hurt, “I am in pain.” And when we feel we are past our limit to say, “I need help.”

In closing, I would like to share with you some words of grace come as a gift from the beloved and departed Unitarian Universalist minister Max Coots. I invite you now to turn inward and outward, find the quiet place of truth within your heart, and join me in an attitude of prayer.

Let us pray to the God who holds us in the hollow of his hands,

To the God who holds us in the curve of her arms,

To the God whose flesh is the flesh of hills and hummingbirds and angleworms,

Whose skin is the color of an old black woman and a young white man, and the color of the leopard and the grizzly bear and the green grass snake,

Whose hair is like the aurora borealis, rainbows, nebulae, waterfalls, and a spider’s web,

Whose eyes sometime shine like the evening star, and then like fireflies, and then again like an open wound,

Whose touch is both the touch of life and the touch of death,

And whose name is everyone’s, but mostly mine.

And what shall we pray? Let us say, “Thank you.”[iii]



[i] From the Cunda Kamaraputta Sutta

[ii] According to The Origin of the Peace Prayer, by Dr. Christian Renoux, Associate Professor of the University of Orleans, France

[iii] From his collection, Leaning Against the Wind.

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