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.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Art of Listening (or Why do we always think we know?)

Delivered March 2, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Not super edited version) 

It is said that listening and hearing are two different things. Hearing is a biological process, very complicated and elegant having to do with particles and vibrations and a bunch of sciencey things that I don’t understand.  Hearing can certainly be a process with challenges that range from natural causes at birth, or problems that arise as we age and/or in relation to how many Bruce Springsteen and concerts we have been to in our lives. Something I have never told anyone before is that I have been to enough loud concerts where I have developed problems with my right ear hurting often when decibels reach a certain level.  Listening though is different than hearing.  Listening is a “neurological cognitive process” where we interpret what we hear. In many ways hearing is all the stuff that comes in, listening is how we process it through who we have been, who we are and who we could be.

I often wonder about what people are thinking about when they are listening.  Of course we all listen to various degrees at various times based on various circumstances.  I have observed that there is an age, I think it is around 4 or 5, where some children just talk.  Often they don’t care if anyone is listening or paying attention, they just kind of keep going with whatever story they were telling when someone was listening until they are finished or move on to another subject.  That always makes me wonder about parents who can completely tune out their kids at some times and yet hear the littlest peep when a noise is made after being told to go to sleep, (or at least it seemed that way in my house).

Listening can be hard.  It can be hard to focus sometimes, I think we have all been there, the TV is on, you are watching your favorite program and someone comes into the room with the most important thing ever to tell you and you feign listening.  Or someone is telling you about something and your thoughts turn to which restaurant has the best brunch and you start wondering what time it closes. Or you find yourself waiting for the person to take a breath so you can tell them exactly what you really think about what they are saying.

Listening is complicated further by the filters through which we hear and there are layers and layers of filters.  Let’s say we are listening to FOX news for example and they say the exact same thing that was said on MSNBC, I wonder if many of us would we react the same way.  Or if we were listening to Pat Robertson and he said the exact same thing as Bishop Desmond Tutu or Pope Francis or UUA President Peter Morales, would we have the same thoughts about what Pat had to say.  Well, the answer to all that is that it depends.  It depends on how we were raised.  It depends on what part of the country or world we are from.  It depends on our education.  It depends on our political leanings. It depends on our religious teachings. It depends on so many things. I heard a line many years ago that I always say which is, in the absence of clarity people fill in their own meaning and context, but clarity is a funny thing, what we listen to and how deeply and attentively we listen to it, can become “clear” to us in large part because of our own meaning and context.  Sometimes we hear what we want to hear which makes me wonder how truly deeply we are listening.

In poking around on the web I found a sermon coincidentally called, the Art of Listening written be a colleague of mine I have never met, Rev. Daniel S. Schatz who is a minister of a UU congregation in Pennsylvania.  In his sermon he says, “Listening is about paying attention to the person in front of us and being with them in that moment.  Honestly, that’s the most important thing.  If we can learn to do that, then we will have mastered the art of listening. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Just pay attention to the person in front of you.  Be with them in the moment, that’s all.  But within that simplicity is a practice of pure spirit and profound humanity, a way of being in the world that takes us out from our separated selves and brings us together with other people.  All we have to do is be with each other and listen, but doing that means letting go of our ego and our self-doubt and our preconceptions.”

This isn’t easy in a world that seems to constantly place an enormous amount of value on individual opinions, debate, and free advice. I am not saying that there isn’t a place for all of these for there is. Great expressions of thoughts and opinions can further the world.  Civil discussions of important issues serve to broaden consciousness and make us consider and reconsider our own frameworks.  Well placed advice can help in all sorts of ways. Yet, with all the media talking heads and bloggers and status updates and letters to the editor and op-eds in paper and to be honest, sermons, we are a culture with a lot to say and with never-ending places to say it. And often our listening seems so incredibly diffused by all the things that I have just mentioned, an endless stream of thoughts and opinions.

And there is more to the art of listening than what comes in our ears. It is about paying attention to the thoughts AND the feelings of others.  It is about body language and soul language and heart language, language of that which is said and unsaid.  If we are really listening, maybe we are not just listening to the words but really listening to what the person is saying in the multiple ways that we actually communicate with each other.

Many people know that I had the experience as a part of my ministerial training as a Chaplain at Rady Children’s Hospital in the cancer unit and in pediatric intensive care but I have not often talked about it.  For me it was a sacred experience, one I did not take lightly and one that I hold in deep respect. One of the reasons I wanted to do my training there was I thought I would be able to work with children, it seemed natural, it was a Children’s Hospital after all.  I did work with children, but I ended up working a great deal more with the families of the patients.  When I went to work there, I wasn’t terrified, I was excited and really overwhelmed.  I had no idea what I was going to say to families whose children were suffering, how would I help them, who was I to say anything about anything to a parent needing comfort in a time of terrible uncertainty or pain.  I entered into it thinking, I am training to be a minister, but I’m not yet and I will be speaking with people who are dealing with some of the most challenging and tragic issues we can possibly face, what wisdom do I have to give?

What I learned in that experience changed my life and changed me forever.  And although I still practice and certainly at times struggle, what I learned was that it wasn’t what I had to say that would bring these families comfort, what was far more important was how I listened.  Was I fully present? Did I see the human need in what they said and what they didn’t say? Was I able to hold the space for the moments that we shared together? These were much bigger questions than what pearl of wisdom could I share.  What I learned was to truly listen, with an open mind and an open heart for this was a transcendent act that bridged cultures, religions and differences.  And just as a side note, I then often prayed with people in whatever religious language they needed because when one is grieving or in fear about the health or life of their child, the need for compassion and comfort completely trumps theological or philosophical debate or reasoning.

This experience helped me think about another tendency I have often seen and certainly dealt with in my own life, the need to fix things.  When I read the sermon from Rev. Schatz, I love what he said about this.  He said, “The most powerful experiences of being listened to that I have known were the times when I knew I could talk without making sense, when I could say things because I was thinking them or feeling them, not because I knew them, and when the person with me could just be with me, a presence and an affirmation that I didn’t have to go through whatever it was, good or bad, alone.  Somebody else cared enough to make time, and they didn’t try to solve my problems, and they didn’t tell me I was wrong, or right.  They didn’t place blame on me or try to absolve me of anything.  Maybe they asked me some questions; maybe they even thought of something I hadn’t, but they didn’t pressure me.  They just sat with me or walked with me.  They just knew me.  And it was powerful and beautiful and healing.”

I am not sure if it’s because we place such strong emphasis on success or if it because there is pressure to conform to some form of morality or because we think we always know the best way to do things or whatever, and I guess it doesn’t really matter, if we enter into a conversation thinking that our job is to fix everything, let me just let you off the hook on that one right now, we never will.  We can give good advice when the time is right, we certainly can be companions with someone when they need companionship, we can even have a spirited discussion when that need arises, but as Rev. Schatz says, “when a soul reaches out for human presence and you give yourself to that soul in that moment; allowing yourself to be that companion, listening becomes a sacred act.  Listening becomes connection.  Listening becomes prayer.  Listening becomes the greatest gift that one human being can give to another.”

I ask this question of myself at Rady, and I ask it to all of us, do we really know what’s best? Do we really know the right course of action, or the perfect thing to say?  Do we really know what someone is thinking? Do we really know the motivation behind what we think we are hearing?  Why do we so often think we know?  And when we ask questions of others, do we ask them really wanting to hear what someone has to say, or do we really just want to hear what we want to hear?  We may not like it, we may disagree, but trying to listen, truly listen to another person is just one more thing that takes practice, of the mind, of the heart and of the spirit, for us all.

Rev. Schatz says that, “All that it takes is letting go of the barriers.  Don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right; just be with them and care.  Don’t try to solve the problems; just listen and let them know they don’t have to go through it alone.  Don’t try to impress them with how much you know; this isn’t about what you know.  Don’t try to lighten the mood, at least not until you know they’re ready, not because you feel uncomfortable and awkward.  Let go of the awkwardness; deal with the discomfort.  This isn’t about you.  Be with them.  Care.”

In the end, this is about all of us because a big part of all of this is our desire to actually make the time, take the energy and hold a space for this process to occur.  It needs to be something that is intentional and filled with true desire.  We may not always know the right thing to say, we may not always have words that comfort, we may not be able to change anything, but our lives can be changed “when a soul reaches out for human presence and you give yourself to that soul in that moment; allowing yourself to be that companion” it is a sacred act, it is deep connection, it is a prayer and it can be one of the greatest gifts that one human being can give to another and it is something that this world truly needs.

May it be so.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Think Locally and Act Globally? Faith, Action, Words, and Meaning

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

How many of you have watched a cute cat video on the internet in the last week?  If not cat video, maybe it was a video of Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight show or a news story about the Olympics or a TED talk.  Of course, maybe you just received an email with pictures of your children or grandchildren.  It is amazing how much information comes to us via the world wide web.  It is also amazing how fast it can come, I could take out my phone right now and email a picture to any of you and you would have it in seconds. Of course, I am not sure how far that data actually had to travel, and at what phenomenal rate of speed, but I can take a picture of all of you and then send it to all of you and seconds later, you could be looking at the picture I just took.

This does and has had amazing ramifications if we look at the some of the world news in the last couple of years. In many ways the Arab Spring, the series of popular uprisings in the Arab world, they have been fueled by social media. A report I read recently said:

“The protests [in Egypt] were kickstarted by a Facebook campaign run by the opposition “April 6 Youth Movement,” which generated tens of thousands of positive responses to the call to rally against government policies. Over the past decade, fast scalable real-time Internet-based information and communication tools have become relatively accessible in Egypt (with broadband access starting at $8/month). According to the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), the country has over 17 million Internet users (as of February 2010), a stark 3,691 percent increase from 450,000 users in December 2000, and 4 million Facebook users. This total includes over 160,000 bloggers, with 30 percent of blogs focusing on politics.  The profile of the most active users—young, urban, and relatively educated—fully correspond to the core of the first anti-government protesters in January that later led to a larger and more mass-based campaign. Overall, the input of the social media networks was critical in performing two overlapping functions: (a) organizing the protests and (b) disseminating information about them, including publicizing protesters’ demands internationally (Facebook reportedly outmatched Al Jazeera in at least the speed of news dissemination).”

This is amazing and makes me rethink the phrase, think globally and act locally.  I am rethinking that because in a world that can send videos thousands of miles in a matter of seconds, in a time when revolutions use Twitter and Facebook to communicate news and strategy and in the borderless reaches of the internet, can’t almost anything become global in a matter of seconds? One of these events took place on June 20th 2009 when Neda Agha-Soltan became an unintentional hero.  On June 20, the 26-year-old Iranian had just stepped out of her car on a quiet side street near a clash between pro- and anti-government forces when a shot rang out. She died from the shot and her last moments were captured by a mobile-phone camera and uploaded to the Internet, which Time magazine calls perhaps the “most widely witnessed death in human history. Almost immediately, the philosophy student with little interest in politics became a symbol of the opposition movement against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's widely disputed re-election. In the days and weeks that followed, Agha-Soltan's name became a battle cry for Iranian protesters, her face a symbol for the thousands of people who suffered under the government's heavy-handed crackdown.” Read more: Neda Agha-Soltan - The Top 10 Everything of 2009 – TIME http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1945379_1944701_1944705,00.html #ixzz2u03ILUlq

I don’t know if we can continue to think that our actions may only have an impact just locally.  At this point, we have no way of knowing what will remain local and what won’t.  It brings into question all kinds of issues.  For one, what truly is the definition of community?  In this kind of a world, where do our borders begin and end, especially in a political and economic environment that is interconnected in so many ways.  We monitor court decisions instantaneously, as they are released on the Supreme Courts website.  When the Arizona Legislature passes yet another law fueled by ignorance and fear, we can see the headlines in our Facebook newsfeed within seconds, when China orders less goods due to an economic slowdown, we lose jobs in America.  The world is more interconnected than ever and of course, if you believe Lynne Talley, Jeff Severinghaus and the other 97% of climate scientists, you know that our use of fossil fuels makes this world one community in danger of causing permanent harm to ourselves and our planet.

Another issue that seems to rise to the surface is how do we balance the I and the we, the needs of the individual and the needs of the community.  I have talked about this before and I will talk about it again for it is not only a constant tension in Unitarian Universalist communities, it is a constant tension in the world.  A couple of years ago, I pulled up to get coffee at the little stand that used to be in the parking lot at Flower Hill Mall just down the hill.  I pulled up in my 2010 Prius and headed the few feet up to the stand to order my coffee.  A minute later a man in a Humvee pulled in and parked next to me.  He got out of his vehicle, I say vehicle because I don’t really think of Humvees as a truck or a car, and walked up to order his coffee.  He asks me if that was my Prius and if I drove it as slow as all other Prius drivers.  Me, thinking that this was a perfect opportunity to engage the other in love to create a deeper connection and understanding said, “yes, that is, and no, I drive pretty fast, probably faster than I should, oh and by the way, I am just curious, how many miles a gallon does that get?” pointing to ya know, the vehicle.  

At this point I should confess that there are two things that make me a little crazy in this world, graffiti, which I have explored before from this pulpit, and Humvees driven for personal use, which I don’t know if I have ever mentioned.  So he said, “well, I am not sure exactly but it doesn’t really matter because I can afford all the gas I need.”  Many things went through my head at that moment, here is a partial list:
1.     Wow, does this rich white male need some work on privilege
2.     Should I now talk about how his over consumption of natural resources and how oil use keeps America dependent on foreign oil
3.     Isn’t it better for us as a species to not create the excess CO2 emission that I am sure your vehicle emits
4.     Should I take my key out and scratch that nice paint job before I get back into my car.

Now of course I would never actually do that fourth one, but even ministers have snarky moments.  What came out of my mouth was something about how I made a choice based on what I thought was good for the planet.  He then laughed and repeated, “for the planet” sarcastically and I decided to pass on this teaching and learning opportunity because it was making me a little crazy and I was late for work.   The moral of that story is that there is a constant tug of war between communal good and individual freedom.

Of course the never-ending question is always so, what do we do about all of this?  How can we act, on behalf of the common good, how can we think globally and act locally, how can we think locally and act globally, how do what we think is right, and without knowing whether it is going to ultimately be something global or local.  I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be simplistic but I think we have to truly and actively live out our faith.

Oh oh, there I said it, I used one of those words again.  Here, let me string a bunch of them together in a sentence, hmm, ok, here goes; Although some of us may or may not believe in God or something divine, we are mostly spiritual or religious people who are non-dogmatic and share a common value about the interconnectedness of all, the desire for the world to be a more loving place and the faith that it is possible.  We will continue to explore these words of religiousness and I am sure we will continue to deliberate about what is spiritual and what isn’t.  We will also continue to explore things like faith and the divine and many other words and concepts that we Unitarian Universalists can’t ever really seem to agree on, but I just want to point out, whether we are thinking globally and acting locally, or thinking locally and acting globally, the verb in the phrase, the constant, in the concept and the request put forth from those who made this a catchphrase is act and I believe that we are asked to act based on our faith.

In a world where any action can change those close to you or maybe even on the other side of the world, I think it is vitally important to know from whence we act. Where inside us does this come?  Our spiritual work in this process is to explore what motivates us and what grounds us.  Our practice is to be mindful of the things that give us meaning and how that meaning is made real in the world. A couple of weeks ago, when we gave Laila her Courageous Love Award the thing that I remember most is when she said something like I am grateful that you are giving me an award for simply living out my faith.

We Unitarian Universalists often use words that allow us to get around the concepts, words and phrases that we don’t agree on, or bother us, or have triggered us from our religious past, or trigger us from the practices of religion that continue to cause us discomfort, but today I have to return to the word faith.  My definition of faith has always been a firm belief in something for which there is no proof, complete trust in something that is believed especially with strong conviction.  There is no proof that if we think globally and act locally that anything will change, but I have faith that it will.  There is no proof that if we think locally and act globally that what we do will have a ripple effect in this world, but I have faith without a shadow of a doubt that it will.  Unitarian Universalism at its core, has always been a faith with this faith.  Our leaders, theologians and practitioners have always believed in the power of love to change the world.  Our congregations and communities have banded together to affirm and promote 7 principles that stand for things that we have faith will help this world be a better place. Our forbearers both locally and globally, boldly challenge orthodoxy with faith that there could be different ways to help create beloved community.  And people all around the world have acted and died, as they do now in the Ukraine and Venezuela, because they have faith that a free, just and democratic tomorrow is possible.

And being grounded in this faith, our faith, asks us to reflect on what role we play in the systems of privilege and oppression that cause injustice.  This faith, our faith, asks us to question the orthodoxy of tradition.  This faith, our faith, asks us to question the words but not let that impinge the deeper meanings. This faith, our faith, asks us to respect the past but not let it impede the future.  This faith, our faith asks us to believe in the power of love to change hearts and minds. And this faith, our faith asks us to act in faith on behalf of creating a beloved community, something for which there is no proof.

And when I say grounding, so you know what that means, this kind of faith takes reflection, takes study, takes prayer, takes doubt, takes hope, takes practice, this is work of the spirit, a word who origins comes from the breath of life itself.  This faith, our faith, asks us to understand and consider what fills our life with meaning and the practice of that understanding can be a spiritual practice however that may look.  And this understanding of meaning helps us comprehend when, how and why we decide to act, if and when we do.  Faith and action is not owned by dogmatic religion.  Faith and action is a part of our inheritance and it is grounded in thousands of year of history and theology that has brought us to where we are today.

I am not asking us to all go out and make a video that changes the world, I am saying, that when we reflect on what is spiritual and what isn’t, that we consider that we have a faith that asks much of us, we have a faith that has a rich tradition, and that we have a faith that calls us to ground our actions, whether local or global, in that which is unseen, in that which is unknowable, and in that which encourages us to live our lives in ways that might help make even the smallest change in the course or direction of this world, because, indeed, acting with faith is the only thing that ever has.  

May this be so.