Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fail!! - The Worthy Lessons of Failure

Delivered May 11, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca

Some of you may know that the word fail has become part of the lexicon in America.  I track the modern meaning of words online at the Urban Dictionary website and here is what the entry for fail says, “Fail - either an interjection used when one disapproves of something, or a verb meaning approximately the same thing as the slang form of [a more crass version of stinks]. Using it in a sentence would sound this way, 1] "you actually bought that? FAIL" 2] "this movie fails."  There is a worse version of this, it is called epic fail – which is the “complete and total failure when success should have been reasonably easy to attain.”

Today’s topic could just as easily have been titled “what we learn from our mistakes,” but the concept is sort of the same which is, we will try all kinds of things in life, some of them will succeed and some of them will fail, some of them will be noble and valid attempts and some of them in hindsight may turn out to have been mistakes, of course the $64,000 question for today is, when we fail or when we make mistake, what do we learn?

Since scheduling this sermon for today, I was initially unaware that I was going to be talking about this subject on Mother’s Day, I have been made aware of it a number of times by, you guessed it, women who are mothers. I have never done a sermon specific to Mother’s Day or Father’s Day and I don’t really think about that when planning them, so I didn’t really have much to say about that until one of the mother’s talked to me a little about both feeling like a failure and the stress that comes with seeing your children fail.

These are both great examples of what we all can face at some time or another, feeling like a failure and seeing those we love struggle and/or fail.  I love what she said about having to watch your children fail.  She basically said that you spend so much of your life trying to make sure that they are fed and clothed, that they do their homework and try to make good choices in life and then they get to an age where you can help as best you can, but you can’t follow them around all the time like you did when they were three.  At some point, they will fail, they will make mistakes and they hopefully will learn valuable lessons.  Parenting books are filled with how to do all of this so I leave your further study to those, however I will say that millenniums worth of parents have struggled with this conundrum and as much as I could say about it, or you could read about it, it feels much more real when it is happening in your life instead of reading it in a parenting book.

The other thing that I think is pretty universal is the fear that we are somehow failing, and we are doing that somehow in an epic way where complete and total failure comes when success should have been reasonably easy to attain.  I have to be honest with you.  I struggle with this as your minister.  I want this to be a loving, healthy and vibrant congregation and care deeply about all of you, and yet I often worry about making mistakes and failing myself and you.

For example, we have a vision statement for this congregation and this is what it says “Inspired by our Unitarian Universalist principles, we are a vibrant, intentionally diverse congregation that models and promotes both locally and globally: love, spiritual growth, service, right relations and sustainable living.” Although I think in many ways we are embarking down the road that we had hoped for when we went through the process of creating it, I know that very few of you could even say a version of this without first finding where it is written and then reading it.

Let me tell you what the plan was when we started the process of creating a vision statement. The plan was that we would be enriched by the process by working together and getting excited about producing something that was bold, flowed deeply though our hearts and motivated our collective actions for years to come.  The plan was that it would be easy to say and easy to remember so that everyone in this congregation would know it, understand it and hopefully embody it.  The plan was that we would finish that process and be ready to filter every single decision about congregational life, about our programming, about our budget, about our strategic plan and about our building process through this visionary statement.  And, the plan was that I would help promote this, not get distracted by all the other demands of ministry at least enough to keep it in the forefront of our minds and hearts.

Of course I thought I could do this because I have been leading board retreats for about 20 years and have been consulting with people and organizations on how to do this very thing for a long time.  Based on my experience, I thought I surely could help facilitate this statement for us and have it really be moving and motivating.  I admit to this being part hope, part desire for our collective sense of being inspired, part my faith that we could find something that we all could grasp on to and of course, and leaning into my discomfort and vulnerability, part ego.

It isn’t always easy for me and for maybe some others in the world to admit to our visions of self, that level of expectations that we set or demand from our own efforts which can make it even harder to deal with failing and to live up to those visions in our own and anyone else’s mind.  It is a place of discomfort and certainly can be a place of vulnerability.  Discomfort and vulnerability is a place that we often try to avoid.  Last week I talked a little about this; we can often build walls, false fronts, and even systems that can cover our discomfort and vulnerability.  These systems can be used to deflect, attack, defend, repel, blame, shame, detach and more.  At times they also can stop us from being honest with ourselves and others, being understanding of our shared frailties, or being forgiving.  These protective systems of comfort can also keep us from stretching our comfort zones by being bold and taking chances.

So one of the lessons I have learned from any sense of failing I have is that it helps to lean back into the discomfort and lean back into the vulnerability for those are where the areas of growth are.  I don’t think growth comes when we use systems designed to deflect, attack, defend, repel, blame, shame, and detach not that we are always responsible for everything, we are not.  There are certainly cases when others can contribute to failures because as much as some of us like to be responsible for everything in this world or want to control it, we can’t.  These cases do however call us into some deep reflection in order to understand our part in the process.  And of course there are times when what has happened, whether in small or large part, is the result of something of our own doing and as exhausting as it can be, it is a time for us to lean into that which challenges us and may help us move beyond.

Last week after District Assembly I posted this on my Facebook page, “I am so filled with the possibilities of this UUism after being surrounded by so many people with so much love in their hearts and so much yearning for the possible. I have felt like we are building a new way for a long time and today, I feel like the articulation of that new way is getting closer and closer. With each gathering of UU's I come away with hope. With each gathering I make connections that bring me joy. With each gathering I get closer to colleagues that deepen my love. With each gathering I feel jubilation when my congregants get filled with spirit from attending. My mind is swirling tonight with the possible, but I will rest well full to the brim with joy, love, hope, jubilation and spirit.”  As you can tell, I was moved and motivated by attending our District Assembly as I know others were in this congregation.  I think with staff included we had 10 people there.

Meg Riley the keynote speaker, the minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the online UU congregation, talked about how we must be willing to make big mistakes in the service of this faith.  I think the gist of what she was saying was that in order to move effectively into the future, we must be willing to try things, make mistakes, learn from the mistakes and try something else.

A couple of days after this, I was thinking about all this, discomfort, vulnerability, and making big mistakes and I posted this on one of the national UU facebook pages, “If you were going to do one really radical thing that you always wanted to do (or just thought of) that would change your congregation or Unitarian Universalism for (hopefully) the better for a very long time, what would it be?”  Here are some of the answers:

  • I'd shift to calling ordained UU people clergy (still Rev), but use term minister much more freely -- youth ministers, social media ministers, etc... Still need accountability, structure, supervision and job description. But we need to empower people to do ministry in way out the binary "your either a real minister or your not" culture.
  • We need to focus resources on planting a thousand new missions (some called churches) in a thousand different ways by 2025
  • Being more focused on society instead of our congregations.
  • I want UUs to be proud of the part their faith plays in making the world a better place, and willing to say so. That would be the best kind of marketing, in my opinion.
  • We need to learn how to invite people in besides the following: NPR listeners, Prius drivers, professors, the families of professors, local artists, former hippies, Humanists, Atheists & the list could continue. Not that these people aren't important to us & we should keep the doors open where they are concerned, but they already know we're here. There are SO many who do not, because while they may agree with our principles, they have no idea who we are or where to find us, & we make no effort to reach out to them because they don't look like us or participate in the same activities we do. Opening the doors & walking as far as your usual haunts is not outreach
  • Then someone replied, if we got all the NPR listeners, Prius drivers, professors, the families of professors, local artists, former hippies, Humanists, Atheists, etc., we would be a lot bigger and stronger than we are now.
  • And perhaps my favorite: I would wave my papal crosier and require, as a condition of membership in good standing, that each person develop a plan for becoming the best person she can be, that each person shares at least some of his goals and objectives with the community and that the community hold each person accountable for working the plan.

Can you imagine the risk of failure in some of these answers? Can you imagine how uncomfortable and vulnerable we might feel coming up with a plan for becoming the best person we can be, and standing up here on a Sunday morning and sharing at least some of our goals and objectives with the entire community and then, opening ourselves up to the community to hold each us accountable for working the plan.  Who is squirming in their seat right now?  But let’s take a minute and release us from all that might hold us back.  Let’s maybe even switch off for a minute those systems that serve to protect us. Let us just imagine if we can, what might be possible if we actually took the time, the effort and the risk to develop a plan for becoming the best person we could be, whatever that looked like and then had a community of people devoted to helping us work that plan.

After District Assembly one night a group of us went out for dinner and I ask a colleague of mine “If you were going to do one really radical thing that you always wanted to do (or just thought of) that would change your congregation or Unitarian Universalism for (hopefully) the better for a very long time, what would it be?” He said he would take his congregation out from the walls of the church and hit the streets to work with homeless children.  He said he wanted his congregation to understand that Unitarian Universalism has the power to save lives.

We may not all know the vision statement, we may not all yet be on the same page about the potential this congregation has for transforming this community, we may not all be creating plans to better ourselves, but let’s not fall into to the trap of thinking that we have reached some finite point in any of these efforts.  We can do whatever we can think of together, we can go boldly into the future.  If I said to you today that we were free to think of huge and unreasonable ideas, ideas that cost too much money, ideas that would take too many volunteers, ideas that might add too many staff people, ideas that take us streaming into this community to bring love to people in need, what would those ideas be?  What would change us and change others forever? What could we do together, as a force for good that would hit the national news, go viral and demonstrate our UU values in such an amazing way that there would be no doubt?

I can’t tell you today what this looks like.  I don’t know what this means to our vision statement our how we implement our strategic plan.  I am not even sure what this means about how we do congregational life moving forward.  But this is what I do know, this world needs us. It is in urgent need of healing.  Our political systems need healing.  Our nations need healing.  Those who are hungry need healing. Those who cross borders for economic reasons need healing. Those who cannot live without a living wage need healing. Those who feel lost, lonely and without community need healing and our climate is in grave need of healing.  How can we not risk big mistakes in the hope that we can help heal and transform the world?  So as we move forward from here, I ask that those of you on the fringes of congregational life get involved and come to the center, lend your time and talents, for this can be a vehicle for big ideas and vital healing.  So let us pledge to support boldness, let us not succumb to the seduction of our natural tendencies of critique and skepticism, let us be people of unrealistic vision, and let us be willing to risk the big mistakes on the always possible path to success. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Your Knee, My Shoulder - Aging and the Depth of Life

Delivered May4, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca

The title and the topic of today’s sermon has prompted some feedback from older members of the congregation even before it was written. I think the assumption is that I was going to write a sermon about being old. I never planned on writing a sermon about getting old although the title of the sermon came from a joke I heard somewhere along the way about two old Jewish men which I can’t remember, I can only remember the punch line.  The irony of that is not lost on me, the fact that I am writing a sermon on aging and I can’t remember the joke. The point of the joke was something akin to, whatever ailment you have as you age, I can always one up you with mine.  But once again, the point is this isn’t about older folks, it is about all of us because we are all aging all the time.

We are all aging all the time and we go through various developmental stages as we age.  My wife’s sister is a professor of child development and I am sure that there are some sitting here today that have some expertise in this, but I have only studied human development in terms of how to understand it as a minster, I am certainly not a scholar as some of you might have guessed, so I will approach it from that place--what I have seen and experienced as we travel through this community together.  I do this remembering that as we travel through our various stages there are no hard and fast rules because human development after all is based on humans and we are complex, interesting and at times, unpredictable creatures although there surely are some observable patterns.

I know that one of our patterns is something that I can fall victim to specifically when someone asks me how I’m doing, I can go into a litany of aches, pains and aliments. I do this often thinking that I didn’t talk about this when I was 25.  At 25, I could go out all night, have a bunch of drinks, grab about 2 hours of sleep and go back to work.  At soon to be 55, if I have two beers I feel stuffed and if I don’t get any sleep, I am close to useless and according some people around me, like my wife for instance, pretty cranky.

I think many of us tell stories that start, “well when I was your age,” or, “when I was that age,” and we make the stories sound so incredible.  It was as if we could leap tall buildings in a single bound. I have to tell you, although my body is certainly not able to function like it did when I was that age, I am so much happier than I was when I was 25, and although I just recently gave up my dream of being a professional baseball player, I still have some fun left in this weary frame.

I don’t really think that one stage of our lives or development is inherently that much better than another stage, they just in many ways are different and are what they are.  One of the benefits and challenges of being an intergenerational community is that there are many different stages of development and maturity all happening at once and all experiencing different needs at once.  Our children of course have needs and we care deeply about trying to fulfill those needs. We care a great deal about keeping them safe, about preparing them for a multi-cultural and intercultural world.  We care a great deal about preparing them to be good and ethical human beings that will contribute to the common good of our society.  We care and we do what we can to influence their lives because during these formative years, we have but a brief time to inspire them as they are learning about the world and about themselves.  That is their stage of development.  They are sorting through what it means to participate in the human family and we do our best to support that.

When children move into the high school years in the UU model of aging and development they are no longer called children, they are called youth.  My gosh, do I have to tell anyone here about high school, this challenging time in that strange place between childhood and independence.  It is a place of triumph and tragedy and that could come in any given day or hormonal minute for that matter.  It is the meat of the teenage years.  It is a time when much practicing of adulthood happens. With hormones firing and bodies and minds changing and growing, it is place of much learning even if it doesn’t always come from doing homework. It can be a very difficult place and we do our best to love them and support them as they navigate their choices.

Then comes Young Adulthood.  The official UUA designation is 18 – 35 but I have to tell you, my experience brakes that group down more like 18 – 23 and 24 – 35 for when you are at the younger end of this category, you can spend a lot of time just trying to figure out which way is up.  Balancing work, school, relationships and individualization, these are an interesting balance for any of us and seem even more interesting between 18 and 23.  Moving into the mid-20s, there is a progression of thoughts that relate more to career choices, relationship commitments, thoughts about creating families of one’s own and a deeper foray into adulthood.  This is where many choices are made about what kind of adulthood do I want to carve out for myself and how in the world do I actually make that happen? We have a great Young Adult group here at UUFSD.  Listening to the worship service they did earlier this year, and getting to know them it has been clear to me that they come here to process some of these needs and to participate in helping to create a better world.

So much is being written now about 40 being the new 30 or 50 being the new 40 or whatever, that you realize that nothing that I am talking about today are hard and fast rules.  I know parents in their 60s and 70s whose children have moved back in with them after many years of independence, and I know children in their 30s and 40s whose parents have moved in with them.  Economic and changing social environments certainly affect our situations but if you are a child in your 30s and your parent in their 60s has had to move in with you, that doesn’t mean that all the issues associated with your stage of development go away.  If you are thinking about marriage, family, career, you are still going to think about marriage, family and career, you are just going to have to do that in relation to the situation.

That said, we now move into adulthood which some call 35 to 65.  This is the time of life when we are frequently juggling all the “normative” societal expectations, let’s call these the “American Dream” years. Years with potentially a lot of pressure and a lot of joy.  Can I grow and launch my children?   How many jobs and career changes will I have? If I get married, can I stay married?  Will I be able to afford a house, or need and then buy a bigger house?  What about doing the things I like to do, can I have time to meet my needs?  How can I live a fulfilling and meaningful life with all of this swirling around?  All questions that come in these middle years.

At some point in this stage of life, I think we can take a turn, not always precipitated or resulting in a midlife crisis, where we start to think a lot more about mortality. Thoughts about mortality come and go.  They can come to us as children as the sun sets, as the seasons change, at death of a pet, or the loss of loved ones.  It often doesn’t speak to us directly but passes through us as it lands somewhere else.  In youth and young adulthood we can feel invincible as if our smooth skin and tight muscles will last us far into the future, a future we can’t see and often can’t imagine.  And then, we know not when, the thought start to linger that we too can and will at some point die.  This thought can be brought on by our inability to move the same way we used to, think as fast as we had or simply we come to understanding that all things must pass.  That thought often comes and sits next to us sometime during adulthood and it can sit next to us or pull up a front row seat in our minds that serves as a motivator for things from diets, to New Year’s resolutions, to career changes, to becoming a churchgoer. 

There is also something else that can happen, we can understand our own vulnerability in a whole new way. We spent a lot of time not admitting to our vulnerabilities, the things that lie at our soft underbellies.  We often hide them or protect them or at times even figure out how to suppress them and cover them.  We can spent a great deal of time thinking that if we show the right face or tell the right story maybe no one will see this side that can be hurt or scared more easily than feels comfortable.

Which does finally bring us to our senior years.  This is an interesting time of life. It can be a time of searching and introspection, it can be a process of grieving and letting go, it can be a time of deep thoughts of our legacy to the world, and it can be facing a redefinition of life from lives devoted to other purposes. These other purposes are the things that fall between the developmental stages of children and the years of senior living.

I think the patterns as we age are on some kind of a continuum, it is a continuum that deserves some serious reflection.  On one side is the realization of the vulnerability and fragility of life.  On the other side is getting so deeply set in our ways that the hard shell has completely covered any opening.  These years when our gaze often turns more to what is behind then what lies ahead, the choices about what lies ahead can be even more precious.
“What though the radiance which was once so bright         
Be now for ever taken from my sight,          
Though nothing can bring back the hour      
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;      
We will grieve not, rather find         
Strength in what remains behind.”
― William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood

The lives we lead are not just defined by our high school victories.  The lives we lead are not only made up of the jobs we had or the children we have raised. In the end of course, I don’t think that many of us will be remembered for the things we bought or the money we have accumulated.   Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “It is not the length of life, but the depth.”  Which I wish to paraphrase be saying, there is a spectrum of color in any life, it starts the day we are born and it ends the day we die.  We can live lives with fewer colors, fewer colors are easier to paint with and can be replenished pretty easily.  Or we can live lives with multiple colors, splashed upon a canvas in some modernistic masterpiece that starts with an idea and ends with a beautiful collage of experiences, openness and exploration.

There is no need for this to be limited to any of the age groups I have talked about today and it certainly can be extended throughout our whole lives for each day is a day of decision, whether child, youth, young adult, adult or senior.  No matter where we are, our lives are no less interesting or no more important than any other.  We are unique blends of color that all come from a single palate.  This is, all of this is life, a place where beautiful and terrible things may happen, it’s what shapes us when we are heading forward and it is measure of our depth when it comes to an end and how we choose to respond to it all is what defines us.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Born Again and Again - An Easter Sunday/Flower Communion Homily

Easter Sunday/Flower Communion 
Delivered April 20, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca

Born and reborn again, but to what?  I have often wondered if spring fools us.  Every year we come through the season of darkness, into a season where blooms burst forth and hope springs eternal.  I wonder though on this Earth Day weekend, this weekend with the message of rebirth and resurrection in Christianity, what are we being born again into.

I walk in Balboa Park about 3 times a week.  For those of you who don’t know, there is a hill that goes down from the parking lot near the organ pavilion past the barns where they used to keep the San Diego Police Horse Patrol, and then it climbs back up to the plaza in front of the Natural History Museum.   At this time of year, that little valley at the bottom of the hill, has beautiful wildflowers, pink and red with lots of lovely yellow flowing up the hill like a delicate blanket moving softly with the shift of the morning breeze.  In the past couple of years there has been a construction project that has taken out most of those flowers in order to build new facilities for the Japanese Friendship Garden.

I am sure that the new facilities will be tasteful and also beautiful in its own way, but I have struggled with the loss of the wild and unplanned blooming every spring of this comforting blanket of flowers.  Of course the canyon is the way that I know it in my time here in San Diego, but I am going to guess that 30, 40, or 50 years ago, that canyon looked different to those who may have walked it then and to them what they lost perhaps was reborn into the concrete sidewalk that I tread now through my changing landscape.

What I worry about is when the time comes for rebirth, will there be less and less to be reborn.  At what point will we cover so much of what is natural or wild, or we dig up so much of the natural resources, or we burn too much of the carbon based fuels, that the cycle of rebirth so important in our shared stories and mythologies will not just no longer have the same meaning, but will also struggle to bring forth the rebirth that is essential to our common welfare.

Is there some cosmic coincidence that Earth Day, Spring and the Easter Story happen the same time every year?  The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a story of a miracle and quite frankly in my book, the story of the Earth and of Spring are miracles too. How can things look and feel so lifeless only to bloom with such incredible color and life again and again each full trip around the Sun.  And like those who take the miracle story of Easter seriously, those who believe in the miracle of this earth should not take it for granted and indeed take it very seriously.

In many ways I admire the passion of the Christian world that can be experienced around Easter.  I admit to having many judgments about some of the theology and the practice of modern day religion, but I do appreciate the story of resurrection, hope and possibility at the core of the story. And I believe that those of any faith who feel a deep sense of religious connection with the natural world, and those of any faith who see the holy in the this creation, and those of any faith who feel the miracle of life coming from lifelessness as the seasons change, must protect this miracle with a religious passion of our own.

Rebirth can happen with each act of love toward ourselves, each other and the earth. Rebirth can happen with the reclaiming of our need for space to breathe and places to connect with the natural world. Rebirth can happen when our passion for the reverence for life becomes a foremost thought in our minds and in our hearts.

There are ways for us to view stories of rebirth and rising above despair as a prayer of hope for the future. To be born again and again is to return to the forefront of our minds the things that are important to us, things that can slip away in the course of the daily lives that we live.  We celebrate rituals and holidays like Easter, Passover and Earth Day to bring back to our thoughts the things that we hold central and things that we hold dear.  Whether Christian, Jew, Theist or Atheist, whatever belief system we hold, let us hold on to this notion that the rebirth of life is intertwined with us bringing to the surface what is dear to us again and again in our hearts and minds.

We cannot only consume and then count on nature to replace what we have consumed.  We must remember that we are a part of this system of life and what we choose not only affects our lives but the lives of future generations.  As the poet Wendell Berry writes slightly modified for inclusive language, “Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest - the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways - and re-enter the woods. For only there can we encounter the silence and the darkness of our own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can we recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without us, of our inferiority to it and our dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, we will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in - to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into our hearing, and its lights and colors come into our vision, and its odors come into our nostrils, then we may come into its presence as we never have before, and we will arrive in our place and will want to remain. Our lives will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. We will be with them - neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them - and so at last we will grow to be native-born. That is, we must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.
(pg. 27, "A Native Hill")”
― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

In this season where blooms burst forth and hope springs eternal. In this time of year when the hills have beautiful wildflowers, pink and red with lots of lovely yellow flowing like a delicate blanket moving softly with the shift of the morning breeze, let us not forget our interconnection and responsibilities to this beauty, let us act to resurrect as often as possible our sacred ideals that can lay dormant in our hearts and let us act now to assure each year at this time that we will be reborn together, again and again and again.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Reluctance To Do A Sermon on Emerson

Delivered April 14, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca

A subject I have been pondering lately is the difference between wisdom and knowledge and I am going to talk about this today without visiting a dictionary definition.  Here is what the difference is for me.  When you have knowledge you have amassed information.  I know people with many many advanced degrees who have a great deal of knowledge.  Wisdom on the other hand, is the ability to use knowledge of any level, in a way that is wise, or in other words, in a way that helps build understanding that can weigh information in order to have meaningful, helpful and enlightening understandings, conclusions, deductions, inferences, judgments, decisions, elucidations, and/or interpretations.  Remember, these definitions are from Miller’s dictionary, not Webster’s Dictionary.

Another thing about wisdom versus knowledge, knowledge is information which by itself can be fleeting.  For instance, if you helped design that first cell phone, you know the one that looked like a military walkie-talkie and you didn’t keep up with the changes in technology, you may have knowledge, and may always have that particular knowledge, but the usefulness of that knowledge in its application becomes limited at a certain point in time.  Wisdom is timeless. Remember, wisdom and knowledge are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they certainly can exists one without much of the other.

When we are growing up, as children we often confuse the two.  When we are very young, we think that those who are older than us have both wisdom and knowledge.  We certainly think they have more information, for they are older, have lived longer and when you are 5, that can be both helpful and daunting.  As we move into our teen years, we still know that older people have more knowledge, but we often doubt their wisdom.  As a teenager, I didn’t think my father was being wise when telling me that I have to be home at a certain time on a school night, or that if I didn’t do my math homework I wouldn’t be able to function in life.  Both wise pronouncements that rang true, I ended up not in math 101 in college, not in math 100 in college but in math 50, where I was grateful for the knowledge and the wisdom of the professor, not to mention compassion and patience.

As we get older, and move into adulthood, we realize that we have to make all these decisions and judgments eventually about what is wise and what isn’t.  It certainly happens that we come to realize that people we looked up to or thought were full of wisdom, were full of many things and maybe wisdom wasn’t really one of them.  This can lead to disillusionment and disharmony and discombobulation.  It also leads us to our own paths of gathering knowledge and exploring wisdom both for ourselves and how we relate it to others.

Before I became a minister, in some ways I was like a child. I went into seminary thinking that there was all this knowledge and all this wisdom that I had to learn and I had to figure out how to extract it.  Certainly that process was influenced by listening to other ministers, people who I would look up to as I was going through my ministerial formation who would talk about our Unitarian Universalist forbearers and their wisdom.  Somewhere along the way, I decided I didn’t really want to talk much about the white male long deceased forefathers of our Unitarian Universalist heritage, I was from a new breed of UU minsters who cared more about interculturality and doing anti-oppression/anti-racism work.   I was a man of the 21st century who wanted to mold the world for the next 100 years, not dwell in the past couple of hundred.  I wanted to talk about things that were relevant to our lives now whether individual or collective, and I felt like these were people who lived long ago and what could they possibly teach us now?

I think a bit of that may have come from not really practicing any religious tradition where I studied scripture or writings from those who came before me.   I also think it was from being a product of a generation that really wasn’t interested in hearing much from authority figures, certainly not old white guys from days gone by, I have talked many times about my heroes, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Rosa Parks, and Bruce Springsteen (before he was an old white guy) to name a few.  So I went into seminary and came out of it not that interested in recapping thoughts from our “traditional” historical figures.

To be honest, I also think that this partially also comes from ego and arrogance.  I think new generations sometimes feel that they don’t have much to learn from the ones that have come before and as I entered into the ministry, there was a part of me that said, yes, I have my own thoughts and why should I refer back to those guys.  But of course, one of the benefits of age and experience is to learn lessons about what you don’t know in life and to tell you the truth, seminary itself is pretty humbling as I would guess most graduate programs are, one of the things they teach you is how much you actually don’t know and how much there is to learn beyond the time and ability to learn it, a lesson I am still learning.

So here I am almost 9 years into my journey of ministry and I keep hearing about these sages of Unitarian Universalism.  I specifically keep hearing about the Harvard Divinty School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I was poking around the internet looking for the text and I found an article on Huffington Post by author Richard Geldard titled, “Divinity School Day: Ralph Waldo Emerson Shocks Harvard.”  In it he says, “Today (July 15) is celebrated among a small group of dedicated scholars, readers and thinkers as Divinity School Day. On this day in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech (some call it a sermon) on the occasion of the graduation of the Class of 1838 from Harvard's Divinity College, as it was called then.  He gave his talk in the evening in a small chapel on the second floor of what is now Emerson Hall, to a group of fewer than 100 people, made up of six graduates, faculty, parents and friends. Emerson was not exactly a welcome choice for speaker that evening. There were grumbles from the faculty in particular because, even though Emerson himself was a graduate, he had a few years before resigned as a minister and begun a lecture and publishing career, and worse, his ideas were revolutionary. How so? Here are a few key lines from his speech that July evening: “Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.”  Then the article goes on to quote the sermon further citing the section that was radical for the day, a commentary on the current nature of the church, “Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.”

It is often thought of that this is an address about leaving behind the walls of the institutions of religion to go out and find spirit, wonder, divinity and/or God for yourself and he goes on to write beautifully and brilliantly about finding that in the presence of nature in future works.  I think, in many ways this is also about this idea of knowledge vs. wisdom.  He was talking about moving beyond what was taught or held forth as the orthodoxy of tradition and forming and understanding life in a way that didn’t just fill you with knowledge but also helped you form your own wisdom. Exploring further about the institution of religion of his time he said, “Certainly there have been periods when, from the inactivity of the intellect on certain truths, a greater faith was possible in names and persons. The Puritans in England and America, found in the Christ of the Catholic Church, and in the dogmas inherited from Rome, scope for their austere piety, and their longings for civil freedom. But their creed is passing away, and none arises in its room. I think no man can go with his thoughts about him, into one of our churches, without feeling, that what hold the public worship had on men is gone, or going. It has lost its grasp on the affection of the good, and the fear of the bad. In the country, neighborhoods, half parishes are signing off, — to use the local term. It is already beginning to indicate character and religion to withdraw from the religious meetings. I have heard a devout person, who prized the Sabbath, say in bitterness of heart, "On Sundays, it seems wicked to go to church." And the motive, that holds the best there, is now only a hope and a waiting. What was once a mere circumstance, that the best and the worst men in the parish, the poor and the rich, the learned and the ignorant, young and old, should meet one day as fellows in one house, in sign of an equal right in the soul, — has come to be a paramount motive for going thither.” Yes, Yes, yes, he was saying that the church had lost it’s way but, in a small stretch, I also think he was saying, you can certainly have all this knowledge that gets handed down and spoon fed, but if it is not tempered with wisdom, with acting wisely, without thinking critically and wisely, religious instruction is meaningless. By the way, it is well noted that as a result of this sermon, Emerson was banned from Harvard for more than 30 years.

Another one of these traditional historical figures was Theodore Parker. In an article from the UU World in Fall 2010 titled Theodore Parker, Radical Theologian, author Dean Grodzins says, “Theodore Parker was perhaps the most influential American Unitarian minister who ever lived. He was one of the greatest American preachers; the leader, with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, of the Transcendentalist movement; and a major antislavery leader and theorist of democracy. His example inspired generations of radical activists. . . ”

Although I had read about Rev. Parker before, I appreciated the synopsis of information, “He was one of the first American clergymen to endorse women’s suffrage, and the first to refer to God as both “Father” and “Mother.” He became the intellectual leader of the antislavery movement, opposed the proslavery “Mexican War,” and took charge of the Boston movement to rescue fugitive slaves. Today, his name is hardly known, but we remember Parker without realizing it. For instance, everyone seems to know two statements of his without knowing they come from him.  One is the definition of democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Abraham Lincoln used this definition in his Gettysburg Address, but he was adapting a definition that Parker often used, that democracy was ‘government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.’ Everyone also knows the assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This phrase crops up all over, and most people think they are quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., King did frequently use these words, but he was paraphrasing Parker, who in his book Ten Sermons of Religion wrote: I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” The writer of this article gives us something to ponder when he notes, “We would also do well to rediscover Parker’s thinking about democracy. When Lincoln changed Parker’s “all the people” to “the people,” something critical was lost. That “all” meant for Parker that democracy had not been achieved in America, and never would be, until social and political inequalities were overcome.”

There has been a great lesson for me in rediscovering this connection to the past and that is, wisdom is timeless and can be found in many places.  I look at the pictures of this era of people, like the one on the front cover of your order of service and I think about these two guys as being old white men whose didn’t necessarily have that much to teach me, or us, and I lift them up to having some timeless wisdom that still holds up all these years.  But then, there is another assumption in this story that I have challenge myself to contemplate, they weren’t old when they wrote many of these wise words, in fact, they were younger than me. In 1838 when Emerson shocked Harvard, he was 35 years old.

As for Parker, (again from the UU World article), he was “born in Lexington, Massachusetts, on August 24, 1810, Parker was a largely self-taught prodigy who by age 25 could read twenty languages. Ordained and settled in 1837 at the small Unitarian parish in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (now the Theodore Parker Church), he soon gained a reputation as a powerful pulpit orator. In 1841 he issued one of the great Transcendentalist manifestoes, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in which he denied that the Bible had any miraculous authority, and declared it full of myths.”  “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity” was delivered when Channing was 31 years old. These two men by today’s standards would be in our young adult group when they delivered these groundbreaking sermons which proves, wisdom isn’t a product of a certain age group or of any specific generation.

It’s funny, as I was completing the writing of this sermon I took a little break and ended up in conversation with a couple of parents about their kids.  It echoed a recent conversation that is taking place in my family and in families all over the world about being wise with regard to the best course of action when it comes to the issues of aging parents. Both conversations, reminded me of this quote from― Mahatma Gandhi, “It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”  At all of our stages in life, when it comes to matters of importance, we gather as much information as we can and seek to act as wisely as possible.  We often don’t have the answers to what is the clear course, what is the wisest decision. Part of our wisdom has to be about engaging with an open mind and an open heart. Emerson and Parker were charting new territory, something that we all do every day.  We gather our knowledge, we tap into our wisdom and we move forward.  Wisdom doesn’t have a specific face, nor a clear path, nor the one right answer, and thinking it does may be a bit unwise.  Wisdom is a product of listening, being open, reflecting, gathering knowledge, being vulnerable, understanding our strengths and our challenges, admitting to imperfection, loving deeply, and doing the best we can.  In other words, being as human as possible.

May that be so. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Do We Really Have To Talk About God Again?

Delivered March 30, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca

Today is the third and final sermon in the series we have had this month about spiritual journeys.  The first was about moving on from the religion of your birth, the second was about staying open to the spirit of exploration, and the third and final today is about now that we are here, what do we do next?  By here, I mean where you are now as a person sitting here today as an individual and as a part of member of this Unitarian Universalist community.  You have reached this point in your spiritual journey but if you were to look around, you might realize that the point you are at may only be similar to those sitting around you by virtue of the fact that you are all here together, at UUFSD on a Sunday morning.

It seems obvious but although we are all here together on a Sunday morning, if we look around we see, people of different genders, people at different stages in life, some still in or just out of the traditional formal educational segment of their lives, or those who are retired and experiencing being one of the elders of the community. There are young parents with children, single people, older parents with children, people who work, people looking for work, people who don’t work, people who own a home, people who rent, and probably some adult or “grown” family members who live with their parents or their children.  We also have social liberals and fiscal conservatives and a couple of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives.  We have people who have worked on political campaigns their whole lives or care deeply about politics and probably some adults who maybe haven’t ever voted.

All of these or some of these social or societal factors may influence where people are in their spiritual journeys, journeys that when trying to describe them can be almost as vast.  I know that we have people who may not be here today because the word God is in the title of the sermon.  There are some who can’t stand the thought of a supernatural force responsible for ordering the Universe.  My guess is that there aren’t many, if any that see the white man with the long white beard as god, but I know that we do have theists in this congregation who do have some concept of something larger than themselves that may be all encompassing, or exist in everything or maybe even does help order the universe in some specific way. And of course there are those here today who conform to the common UU list of agnostics, mystics, those who still consider themselves Jewish, Islamic, Protestant, Catholic or whatever but as I have said before, probably don’t like the dogma associated with those faiths.

Alright, so we have made this point before, we have a congregation full of people that are at incredibly different places as they frame their spiritual journeys.  Yet our spiritual journeys aren’t just about our societal, political or social location.  It is not just about our religious or spiritual framework.  Our journeys, the expeditions of us all, are also defined by where we are with our needs, wants, wounds and search for wholeness, healing and fulfillment and when you have all these people coming together, these are very variable factors in any congregation, actually in any community at any given time.

We may all be in very different places at any given time when it comes to what we need and what may feed us and it is hard enough to explore that alone let alone do it in such a diverse community of faith. So as in most any congregation of any typical or mainlineish religious organization in America today, we come together on a day of worship, or Sabbath, or gathering, or as one congregation I saw recently that was allergic to the word worship says, a day for spiritual celebration, and we have common elements that hopefully helps us access what touches us, what moves us and what helps us reflect on important themes and meanings of life.  And like most mainlineish religious communities we create programs, groups and activities that help us access what touches us, what moves us and what helps us reflect on important themes and meanings of life in various ways during the week or month.

This all doesn't take place, this doesn't all happen, this isn't all designed for us to be stagnant in our journey’s, it is all designed so we can be touched, be moved, be thoughtful, and work on our own and support each other’s healing, our own and support each other’s wholeness and our own and each other’s transformation.  For instance, do we think that we are as loving as we can be? Do we think that we are as accepting as possible? Do we think that we are as open as we would like?  Do we think that we are willing to consider things beyond our comfort that may change us for the better? Do we think that we could find more peace and serenity if we made some changes in the way we live?  And what about forgiveness of ourselves and others? What about when we struggle with why evil exists or how we show mercy to those who are in need or what is it like to practice a deep sense of gratitude and of course how do we feel about this thing called God?

It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg, these questions didn't come up because a bunch of clergy and philosophers got together and needed jobs, clergy and philosophers have jobs because these are some of the great questions of the meaning of human existence.  Oh and let’s not forget some of the biggest questions on top of any list of questions of the meaning of life like: Why am I here? What is happiness? What does it mean to be ethical? What is my purpose in life?  And of course, what happens when I die?  These are all things that come up on a pretty frequent basis in the overt discourse or subtext of most of what we do in congregational life.

And part of what I have talked about also over the last three weeks is what happens when we get hung up on the framework or the words in the course of this exploration?  I am not sure how much more I can say about this. I have been talking about this since I arrived as the minister.  Sometimes I am not sure what to even do about it. And it isn't about just us as a congregation, it is about all of Unitarian Universalism and in many ways religious life in America and the world. If we view UUFSD as a microcosm of Unitarian Universalism or America for that matter, noting the differences that I cited at the beginning of this sermon, such as the differences in the stages of our development, of the places that we come from, of the religions of our birth and our view of religion now, of our ages and societal status, of our theist or atheistic views, we all seem to come from so many different places with different needs that we may never agree to a common framework to explore religious life.  Even more challenging as Unitarian Universalists in part because of the lack of dogma, we seem to get caught between the forces of some who are more inclined to science, intellectual discourse and reason and some more desirous of a version of Unitarian Universalism filled more with spiritual experience and centered in feelings.  With these differences we may never agree on what language, style and format will best help us deeply consider these big questions or help us access what touches us, what moves us and what helps us reflect on important themes and the deep issues of meaning in our lives.

Let’s use the concept or word God as an example.  As the minister, I don’t want to avoid the use of this word, I want us to think about it, look at it explore it and make decisions about how we view it one way or another.  There was a time here and at other UU congregations, not that long ago where the word would come up and people would be chastised for even saying it, something like “you can’t say that here.”  That isn’t exploring the big questions of religion, that is religious censorship.  You can explore it and dismiss it, you can explore it and hate it, you can explore it and reconsider what it means, you can explore it and not care about it, you can explore it and redefine it for your own use, but when you don’t allow discussion on things that you don’t personally like, or perhaps disagree with, that is just a different form of inflexible doctrine.

In a sermon I gave a couple of years ago title, “Is God Love” I talked about some thoughts about God that I came to after some exploration, I said “It would be great, it would be awesome if I believed this kind of supernatural God existed.  I wish I had the deep sense that some have of some existence of whatever they define as God.  Through my life I have done what many of us have done, twist ourselves into knots, reframe our religious upbringing, do whatever we can to both disavow our concept of God, and manipulate the meaning of the word into a form that works for us.  In his wonderful book on Universalist theology called, The Cathedral of the World, UU theologian Forest Church said, “God language can tie people into knots, of course. In part, that is because ‘God’ is not God's name. Referring to the highest power we can imagine, ‘God’ is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. For some the highest imaginable power will be a petty and angry tribal baron ensconced high above the clouds on a golden throne, visiting punishment on all who don't believe in him. But for others, the highest power is love, goodness, justice, or the spirit of life itself.”

So all this makes me think about how we explore what we really believe as Unitarian Universalists. I believe that we can be a saving faith because I have seen it.  I have seen people come here having not felt loved or accepted in other religious communities, many of those the religious communities of their birth, and have been saved by the love and acceptance they have found here. And when I say saved I mean me that they felt in some ways unloved and totally disconnected and lost, and through their involvement with a UU congregation it may have truly saved their lives.  I have experienced those who came here to be able to explore the deepest meaning of their human experience and not have to conform to a strict belief system.  But I have also been witness to those who don’t understand Unitarian Universalism or can’t wrap their heads around it and although they appreciate it, want something deeper and more meaningful.  Which always leads me to wonder if we can be relevant being the place with anti-beliefs, which has been a criticism of Unitarian Universalism for years -- that we know what we don’t want to believe but we don’t much think and can’t really speak to what we do believe. It makes me wonder, do we want to be a religious community that is a refuge from religion, or do we want to be a religious community that offers the world a beautiful, love-filled, nondogmatic alternative to traditional religious communities?

Which means that all of us individually and eventually organizationally need to do some soul searching for what we truly and deeply believe about our individual and collective journeys and central to that question is to explore what is unexplainable and what we think about that and how we feel about that, and by the way when I say feel, I mean feel.  By feel I mean what moves us about it, what makes us feel a deep sense of connection, how do we understand things like joy, like wonder, like awe.  And let’s talk for a minute about awe.  Listen to the definition of awe – “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” Just like the concept behind the word God, part of our religious life, both intellectually and emotionally is to explore our sense of awe. Is there anything that touches us variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime,” if there is, what do we call that, and what do we think about that, and how does it make us feel, and certainly, what is the point of it all?

I am in awe of this creation.  I do dread things that are out of my control that seem bigger than me, that seem to threaten everything that I love about life. I do venerate or revere that amazing intricacy, grandeur and sheer elegance of all there is. And I have this sense of wonder about how all this came to pass and how all of this beauty came together in a way that I can see and be conscious of that is far beyond scientific explanation and the use of my meager abilities to reason the incredible existence of this amazing creation.

The totality of a journey isn’t a snapshot that we take on the drive along the way. It is looking back, seeing where we came from bumps, twists and turns.  It is understanding where we are now.  And it is moving forward to the next step, whatever that may bring.  It is everything.  We can try and be as selective as we want, because there certainly are going to be some parts where we would like to cut out half of the picture from some stop that we made on our trip, ya know, how we do sometimes with an old boyfriend or girlfriend, but even if we cut it out, they were still there. Just like any trip however, time and distance eventually take us from where we were, forward towards where we would like to go.  We may never agree on what language, style and format will best help us deeply consider the big questions or help us access what touches us, what moves us and what helps us reflect on important themes and the deep issues of meaning in our lives.  But, however we frame this pursuit, these are universal questions and we will continue to be challenged by them and we will need to support and hold each other carefully, with deep love and great compassion as we ask the important questions of our journeys and progress in our ongoing search for understanding.

May it be so.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The "Spirit" of Exploration

Delivered March 23, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca

Last week I talked about how and why we move on from the religion of our birth, this week we are going to explore spiritual exploration.  So, what does that mean?  We go through all kinds of transitions in life when it comes to what we believe, or what we don’t believe or what we practice, or how we practice it, or what fills us and sustains us at different times.  I know so many people who have moved from doubt to certainty or the other direction from certainty to doubt.  Frequently it feels like people are trying to settle on something at various points in their lives, like, “ok, yes, I am sure that this is what I believe now,” only to have some other transition or event take them to another place on their path of progression.

I frequently wonder how people get to a place where they are so sure about their beliefs, that it seems like maybe they are holding on a little too tight to what they think is right and maybe are a little too certain about what is wrong.  Although I think that holding on that tight can be very limiting, I’m not saying that we should be swimming in an ever shifting stream of spiritual travel, for that can be disconcerting and confusing.  Sometimes I wonder though, if it would be helpful for the world if we were a little more open to risking exploration or willing to be a little more vulnerable acknowledging our need and our struggle for answers.  We talk about our religious or spiritual journey and it is helpful to remember that journeys take us places, often places unplanned and certainly aren’t about standing still.  This is true with any journey by the way, whether spiritual, political, emotional, psychological or just life in general.  Being open to the spirit of exploration requires us to first of all be open.  Being open is an art form in and of itself.

It is not always easy to be open.  Being open can be enormously risky especially when we have become closed or guarded because of good reasons like being wounded or threatened or experiencing something that made us feel like we were just needing to protect ourselves in some way.  Being open after things like a divorce or death can feel for a time almost impossible. Being open after being wronged in some way can be difficult. Being open after being somehow abused emotionally, physically, or spiritually can be incredibly difficult if not sometimes dangerous.  There are many good reasons not to be open.

And being open can take time and work and the need for healthy support whether friends, counseling, loving community or other healthy tools.  When it comes to spiritual exploration, there certainly can be things that have wounded us or caused us pain that can keep us closed, but disappointment in our journeys is not always about being closed.  Having uninteresting spiritual journeys can be as simple as not having found something that has resonated with us, or after having left the faith of our birth, not having found anything meaningful at all.

What I have found in my unscientific study of spiritual journeys, something happens in our lives that serves to tug on our sleeve; that makes us want to have some sort of connection, to something that helps us explore questions of meaning as the spirit of exploration takes us from small step to small step.  As we take those steps, we can travel in a variety of different directions.  We can reconfirm what we already think, and I don’t mean that in a negative way.  If we are open and truly exploring and we examine what we think and feel and understand about the world, and we come to the conclusion that we should continue on the path that we are on, then at least we have been open, we have explored and hopefully we have learned and grown along the way.  We can also take new paths and new directions.  There are plenty of UU’s who came to a place of need for exploration, a place where they decided that their path needed to change, and explored a UU congregation, like many, if not most of us here today.  I also want to point out that there are UU’s who came here thinking it was a place for them to be and decided that it wasn’t and needed something else to fulfill their spiritual needs.  Perhaps they need more ritual, or religious language, imagery or theology, something they perceive to be more spiritual and of course for some to fulfill a craving for a deeper connection with whatever they believe to be God.  My desire for communities of faith, whatever faith they are, is that they don’t hold on to their dogma so tightly that they discourage spiritual exploration, which is why I don’t support us having some form of firm cultural dogma about being all secular humanists or UU Buddhists or religious naturalists.

One of the reasons I try to be open about various spiritual paths is because I try to live my life influenced and informed by our 7 principles, all 7, not just 1, 5 and 7.  Our congregations like 1, 5 and 7 but I don’t often hear us talk a lot about the others.  One of course is, that we affirm and promote, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Great, totally agree and work hard to practice that as best I can. Seven, the other most often quoted principle is the “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Yup, another thing that I can wrap my head around pretty easily.   And getting back to 5, a particular favorite and a subject of much discussion in Unitarian Universalist congregations, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”  We like our democratic process and sometimes it seems this principle and numbers 1 and 7 feel a little dogma-ish to me and certainly seem to be the most known.  And we like other principles, like the 2nd, “Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations” and the 6th Principle, a principle hard to not like, which calls for “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” We do believe in justice, liberty and peace, hard not to like that one.

Now however we come to what one might call the lonely principles, those two principles not often quoted and frankly not that often remembered, even by some minister’s, number three and number four. Here is what number 3 says, “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”  Spiritual growth, oh my heavens, the word spiritual appears right there in the principles of our Association.  My colleague and someone I admire greatly, Rev. Rob Hardies, of All Souls Church Unitarian, Washington, DC, say this about the third principle, “Spiritual growth isn’t about a vertical ascent to heaven but about growth in every dimension at once. It’s spirituality in 3-D. Growth in spirit doesn’t measure one’s proximity to a God above, but rather the spaciousness of one’s own soul—its volume, its capacity, its size. We need souls that can take in the world in all its complexity and diversity, yet still maintain our integrity. And we need souls that can love and be in relationship with all of this complexity. Instead of flight or flight, we need a spiritual posture of embrace.” Yes, I know he used another challenging word, soul, but trying to get past that, we could say we need people that can take in the world in all its complexity and diversity, yet still maintain our integrity. And we need people that can love and be in relationship with all of this complexity. Instead of flight or flight, we need a spiritual posture of embrace.” And being in relationship with all this really calls us to being open to spiritual exploration.

Which bring us to the 4th principle, which is “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” About this Rev. Paige Getty, UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland says, “As responsible religious seekers, we recognize that we are privileged to be free, to have resources to pursue life beyond mere survival, to continually search for truth and meaning, to exist beyond bonds of dogma and oppression, and to wrestle freely with truth and meaning as they evolve. This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, believing that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble, to be open to the great mysteries of truth and meaning that life offers. And those mysteries may speak to us through our own intuition and experience—but also through tradition, community, conflict, nature, and relationships. As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism makes sacred the right and responsibility to engage in this free and responsible quest as an act of religious devotion. Institutionally, we have left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights.” Being open to discovering new insights is part of the calling, history and theology of this faith tradition.  As I have said before not exactly in this way, we are here, in this room, calling ourselves a Unitarian Universalist congregation not only because of who we are and where we are now in our spiritual journeys, but because people for centuries have been open to exploration, have questioned religious doctrine and have left a legacy of freedom and responsibility that we cannot take lightly nor disregard.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that many Unitarian Universalists like Thich Nhat Hanh, for he too calls for freedom and responsibility when searching for truth and meaning.  In his book Interbeing, he lists THE FOURTEEN PRECEPTS OF ENGAGED BUDDHISM.  I would just like to share with you the first 3 today, and encourage you to read the rest, but listen to these and see if they sound similar or familiar in any way:

- Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
- Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.
- Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.

I enjoyed reading the book, which I did in seminary and I really appreciate all 14 of the precepts, but I think that these 3 really speak to us and totally complement our UU Principles.  These and our 7 principles have led me to my own list of questions that I think it is helpful for us all to ask of ourselves when exploring our spiritual exploration.  Here is my list:

- Why did we really come here? 

There are some very familiar answers like, “I wanted me children to have RE” or “I needed to find like-minded folks to be in community with.” Those answers are certainly valid answers, but I think they are level one answers, answers that are easy to find at the surface of our personal exploration.  Sometimes I ask us to dig a little deeper and identify what perhaps lies beneath these level one answers.  Here is an example of a level two answer, “I came here because I have a feeling of disconnection with myself, with my world and with my own soul and I wanted to be able to find that connection again.”  Or, “I crave religious community and there were so many things about church that I loved, and yet I couldn’t get past the patriarchy.” Or even, “I was lonely and I wanted to find people to help me make my life more fulfilling.” These aren’t answers that come up in casual conversation, there are more risky and more vulnerable.

Question number two asks:

- What is the point of our spiritual journeys? What are we trying to achieve?

In this community, we don’t hold people accountable for having a closer relationship with God or spirit, it is part of being a non-dogmatic religious community, but not having that expectation sometimes feels like it holds us back from wanting or knowing how to deepen our lives.  Because we don’t prescribe practice or study we can feel without spiritual practice and spiritual direction.  So I ask, when you undertook this part of your journey, what were you hoping for and is it something you are achieving, and if not, what could you do, or what could congregational life do to help you along your specific spiritual path?

And finally one with two parts that I believe can’t be separated:

- What does it actually mean to practice being a Unitarian Universalist, do you really believe we are trying to build a beloved community of all souls, and what does that mean to you and how do you call yourself to this?

This question is kind of like, we talk about connection, but what are we actually connecting to and why?  Are we just connecting to the person in our discussion groups?  Are we just connecting with me and each other on Sunday?  Are we trying to connect to those who don’t have “like minds.”  If we really believe that we are trying to build a beloved community of all souls, there is a lot more connecting to do and it has to be done being open and creative in our thinking.  It will take being open, it will take humility, it may take love of things greater than we currently love, it will certainly take risk and vulnerability.   If we are on a spiritual journey, and I believe we all are on these types of life journeys no matter what we call it, we are truly called to explore “the spaciousness of one’s own soul—its volume, its capacity, its size. We need souls that can take in the world in all its complexity and diversity, yet still maintain our integrity. And we need souls that can love and be in relationship with all of this complexity.”

Complex and so unbelievably miraculous.  On a day when I have thrown around the word spirituality and soul, let me add one more, miracle, in this quote again from Thích Nhất Hạnh, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”  All of this truly is a miracle and how fortunate we are to be walking through it with one another, let us continue to be open to exploration, to deepen our lives with our journeys and to explore this miracle together.  Amen

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When is it time to move on?

Delivered March 18, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca

Passover and Easter are fast approaching, two pretty big holidays for Christians and Jews.  We too mark these holidays here at UUFSD, it’s kind of hard being a UU and not at least acknowledge these holidays, for many of us identify in some way with the religion of our birth and many of our congregations are full of people still understanding part of their identity to be from these two traditions.  Today, and together for the next three weeks, we will explore our religious journeys from the religion or not of our birth, through the religious choices we have made up until now and then finally where we are going from here.

As you know the religion of my birth was Judaism and I am just one here today who acknowledge various aspects of that birthright. I know many stories about some of you here as it relates to the religious path of your birth.  Of our religious upbringings it could be said that there is a continuum of religious belief or practice from our childhood on which many of us can place a dot.  Some were born into fundamentalism and some were born into liberal interpretation and or even dare I say, loose affiliation.  This continuum by the way, knows no specific religious practice. No one faith has the corner and different levels of adherence.  There are those here that I would say were born into what one might call fundamentalist atheism, being taught that religion was perhaps the opiate of the masses and there was never anything such as a supernatural life force that ran and ordered the universe.  Perhaps even so far as saying that religion was evil, human conceived and the cause of most of the problems in the world. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, or “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” Perhaps the opposite of fundamentalism on the atheist continuum was someone born into homes that didn’t really much talk or think about any of this, maybe more on the side of agnosticism where they didn’t believe in a supernatural god, but didn’t much care and did Easter baskets and put up a Christmas tree every year.

Of course there were similar versions of this in the homes of others in this congregation.  Some come from Christian homes, Protestant or Catholic, which had similar continuums represented in their homes of origin.  Some of these homes took the bible as literal interpretation and the inerrant word of God.  Some saw it more as metaphor but still followed the teachings and traditions that had been passed down from generation to generation.  This was certainly true in my home where I had gone to Seders as a child that were entirely in Hebrew and lasted for what seemed like an eternity, and where for the early part of my life we lit the Sabbath candles and had Chicken soup on most Fridays.  And of course there are others here from other faith traditions that were raised in Islam or Earth Centered traditions, or in any number of other types of traditions that practiced their traditions in many different and unique ways.

And in almost all cases, not all, but almost all, we are here today because at some point we decide that it was important for us to move on from the faith of our birth, to explore different paths, to make our own decisions about what was meaningful for us. This isn’t an unusual, it is part of a natural cycle development, to question tradition, to question authority, to question our parents, all natural aspects of the developmental process.  That doesn’t mean however that it is always easy to move on. There certainly are many things that come with tradition, authority and parents that are complicated and can be challenging and wonderful.

I have spoken lately about my increasing awareness and appreciation of who I am as a Jew, but that doesn’t make me want to stop being a minister and start being a Rabbi.  I appreciate the long history, the struggles, many traditions and rituals that I learned as a child and carry with me to this day.  Here is one of those that I still love and helps me find “spirit.”  I invited you to close your eyes and listen.

I know many former Catholics who have rejected what they perceived to be narrow or harmful theologies and dogma, but miss catholic social teachings and practice and still love to go to a good mass especially at midnight on Christmas Eve.

And it isn’t all about just missing some of the traditions and rituals, some people actually miss the certainty that their faith tradition gave them.  Unitarian Universalists are known for the way we have more questions than answers, but I will tell you that I have seen many people reach the end of their life and it is the certainty taught to them by their religious tradition that brings a great deal of comfort to them and their families when death finally approaches.

We use the metaphor of a journey so often that sometimes I fear that it becomes trite but it is a pretty accurate way to describe this process, but it can get murky.  We come to Unitarian Universalists congregations and we try to say what kind of a journey we are on, for we all continue to be on a journey.  Our journey’s started with birth and our religious, or spiritual or faith journey’s started there too.  It seems, that through the evolution of Unitarian Universalism and those who are attracted to it, the word most often agreed on is ‘spiritual” as it relates to this part of our journey.  So often we talk about spirituality because we are looking for ways to describe this side of our lives that began when we began.  We could call it faith journey, we could call it religious journey, we could call it just journey, we could call it farfigneugan, I guess I think what we call it is a little less important than how we describe it.

Actually, I am not sure why we spend so much time debating what to call it because as your minster, I am much more interested in what you think about it, or how you feel about it, or how you are experiencing it.  And while I am on this subject, I am not the arbiter of what spirituality means. I can, have and will give you my thoughts about it but I do that only in an effort to help us all better understand our spiritual journeys.  And also like all of us, my spiritualty is where it is now and will continue to evolve as it does.  I have heard wishes that I would be more spiritual as your spiritual leaders, just as I have heard comments that I am too spiritual or at least talk about it too often, there just isn’t that much I can do about that, I am as spiritual as I am and that is always in a process of evolution.  We are all in a process of evolution and definition and redefinition, it is in our human nature, which is why today I wanted to give others a chance to express what they think the definition of spirituality is so that we can share that with each other and get a better sense of what some of us are thinking.

Members of the congregation share

I deeply appreciate those who were willing to share today. As we can see, there are a wide variety of ways to interpret spirituality.

Last May I did a couple of sermons about spirituality.  In one of them I said, “Let us look at the root of the word spirituality. The root of the word is spirit and the root of spirit is from the Latin spiritus which means breath.  So if you wanted a very simple definition, spirituality is about living and breathing.  Looking at that a little more metaphorically, spirituality is not about what we do in our lives it is about how we do it.  The way we go through life, the things that fill us with the breath of life when we inhale and exhale all that life has to offer.  That is a pretty important part of life, how we go through our lives breathing in and breathing out all that life holds for us. It is difficult for me to think about breathing in life without thinking about being open to what is possible to breathe in. Life can be a pretty big thing.  I think there are some who try to make it small or narrow for a variety of reasons.  It can be scary when there are too many choices.  It can be difficult to travel unfamiliar paths.  It can be threatening to move beyond what soothes us and makes us comfortable.  But it is hard for me not to think that spiritual paths take us down roads of exploration both internally and externally.”

Exploration is part of what we are doing here for as my friend Cheryl recently said to me, “"Religion isn't about exploring what makes sense it is exploring what doesn't make sense."  Even for those born into Unitarian Universalism who are here today, you have had to explore moving on from the religion of your birth into new ways of understanding and practicing this path. We continue to explore the definitions of the words that we use because it helps us explore meaning and the things that make sense and that don’t always.  We also spend time exploring where we came from and work both psychologically and spiritually to contextualize how where we came from continues to affect our lives. Where we began was filled with many gifts and many challenges and is something that we all need to explore.  To some, there was much pain that continues to influence and shape our lives. To others, there were things that we continue to embrace. And all of it is multilayered with different meanings unique to us all.

While reflecting on all of this, I couldn’t help but think of things that came from religious traditions that I wouldn’t want to be practicing based on their theology or dogma, but do perhaps help us access the spirit, the breath of life.  I understand that there are those in this congregation who will listen to what I am about to play and maybe not think of it as a connection to the spirit, in fact it may trigger an opposite reaction of wounds of the spirit, it is the struggle we have in such an amazingly diverse spiritual community.  We come from different backgrounds, we have different needs, we are at different levels of processing about our religious past, we see through different eyes, but as we come together here on Sunday and in our communal life, we try our best to create rituals, to explore meaning, to struggle through words and concepts, and to bring forth the gifts and challenges of the past. I ask you to listen to this and see if it helps you access that place of spirit, the sense of exploration, that feeling of the breath of life.  It may not, but that is part of the point of the exploration, not always easy, not always comfortable, hopefully here however, always safe, and surrounded by the love of this community.