Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Resistance is the Secret of Joy"

Delivered December 7, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version)

I began this joy service my 2nd year at UUFSD because I felt that we all needed more joy, and when I say we all, that includes me, UUFSD as a congregation and the world in general.  I have always thought this time of the year calls to us to be joyous whether we actually find our way there or not, and I wanted to do what could to support that as much as possible, so we started a joy service that now always takes place on the first Sunday of December.

Until today’s service, nothing really has made me think how hard it would be to have a service on joy when I am not feeling particularly joyful. I understand that there is a wide range of both awareness and thoughts on the current stand of racial issues in America.  I understand that people have different opinions about what is happening across the country, what did the grand jury evidence say, who really saw it and what did they see, who is right and who is wrong?   I want you to know that as a minister in a tradition that heeded the call of Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma and that is very connected to social media, it is hard not to be inundated and frankly overwhelmed with the volume of information and opinions surrounding these issues.  I have been trying to sort all this out for a couple of reasons, one certainly is to understand it myself, and the other is that I take my calling as the minister and spiritual leader of this congregation incredibly seriously.  Taking it so seriously, I feel a need to understand what to do with all this information when it comes to my duty to you, this congregation that I serve, to the broader faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism which I also serve and perhaps most importantly to my conscience.

So I think to myself, here we are in a pretty affluent area of the country compared to many, with wonderful people that mirror the average demographics of many UU congregations, pretty well educated, middle to upper middle class and almost entirely made up of Caucasians. And then I wonder, with all the information, opinions and suggestions I am reading and hearing about how to deal with the recent grand jury decisions and resulting upheaval, as the spiritual leader, should I comfort the congregation, should I challenge the congregation, should I push the congregation to the limits of their comfort, should I hit the streets in protest and see who joins me?  These are all questions that I have pondered.

I was talking about this with my wife Alice the other day and she reminded of a quote from Possessing the Secret of Joy, a very challenging book from Alice Walker that I have read about but haven’t read and the quote says, "resistance is the secret of joy." Having read about the book, the story and the intent of the line, my interpretation is that the secret of joy is the birthing of a new way through resistance to the ways that have brought us to pain, anguish and broken relationship.  My understanding of this line is that the way to joy is resistance to the systems that always bring us back to the same point, that keep an unjust status quo, that keep us ill-informed, that favor unearned privilege, that cause pain and inequality, and that value a white life more than a black life.

We have had a number of joy services and we have had fun and we have been silly and we have also been serious at times.  In 2011 at the Joy service I said, “Opening to joy actually does come with another question for me.  A question that has deep meaning, and for me is one of the most essential questions of the world, the question is, “what in life really matters?’ We are facing substantial challenges in this world, but I really think we can't let these challenges, just like the news we watch, read or listen to, overwhelm the joys that come to us all the time in our lives. Sometimes, life is about just being able to keep perspective about what really matters.  Perspective is such a valuable thing.  Perspective and taking stock of what truly matters isn’t easy and doesn’t happen all that often.  We get so caught up in the details of our everyday lives that sometimes we find it hard to break our patterns.”

Well, I would like to augment that today, and in some ways apologize for saying that because I really am reflecting on the question “what in life really matters” today much differently than I did in 2011.  Today I am thinking that dealing with the challenges we are facing in the world are the things in life that really matter.  Can you imagine the joy we would feel if we had social and political agreement on climate change and took actions that reversed the degradation of our planets’ ecosystem?  Can you imagine the joy if we all were able to open up about race and deal with hundreds of years of systemic oppressions in this country?  Can you imagine your joy if women were paid equally to men?  Can you imagine the joy if every American had good health care and it was affordable?   Can you imagine if you personally went to bed at night and said, I really did something today where I resisted the forces of hate or fear, oppression or racism, or any of the deepest divisions that cause us such pain, anguish and broken relationships in this world?

I have to tell you, in thinking about this and in reflecting on this sense of the deepest joy, there have been a couple of time in my life when I have actually gone to bed with that incredible sense of joy and if I were willing to take the risk, I think there could be many many more. I am not specifically saying go out tomorrow and march as allies with the African American community protesting police violence, although you could.  I am not specifically saying go out and get arrested protesting the keystone pipeline, although at least one of among us has.  I am not saying run for office to make sure your Unitarian Universalist voice is in the public arena, although our congregation has a good deal of representation in Encinitas. I am not specifically saying you should become a teacher of small children, a doctor, a social worker, a volunteer board member for a non profit or so many other things that so many of you have done to live your values, contribute to this world and hopefully reap a deep sense of joy. What I am saying that we are at a moment in this country on a couple of very very important issues and of those issues what may be the hardest, the most challenging for us personally, and certainly at the top of the list is the culture of violence in which we live, highlighted by systemic racism and injustice that persists in institutions of power and authority like police departments all over the country.

What I am also saying is that I have decided that I should do all of the above;

I should comfort the congregation in times of need when the flashpoints of violence, racism and tragedy rise to the surface,

I should challenge the congregation to respond with resistance to the ills that plague the world,

I should push the congregation to the limits of our comfort, comfort around our own thoughts and assumptions as well as our activities and our actions,

And, I should challenge myself to stretch beyond my own limits of comfort which may include hitting the streets in protest and then see who joins me.

For those of you who have worked on civil rights issues in the past, guess what, however good the work has been, however far we have come, there is still a long way to go.  This social illness has raised its ugly head in a big way and the movement is mobilizing.  The issue of our culture of violence in this country, both non-institutional and institutional has been brought to the surface.  The pain and anguish of the constant loss of human dignity of people from communities of color has always been bad and is continuing more publicly today.  We are Unitarian Universalist, our very first principle is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  For a long time that was focused inward about our individualism within a congregation.  It is time to send that focus like a laser beam outward to each and every person who suffers oppression from the systems that privilege one skin color over another. There is a small group of people who have expressed interest to me about coming together to discuss our next move.  Some of us our going to meet today at 1:00 here in the hall.  If you are interested, please join us.

Next Sunday the 14th, after hosting the Interfaith Sandy Hook Anniversary Candlelight vigil here at UUFSD, I hope to lay my head on my pillow at the end of the day knowing that sense of deep joy that comes from resistance.  I will do that in part through the persistence of one person who has challenged his own comfort level and mine, Steve Bartram whose desire to do something about this culture of violence had led us to hosting this vigil.

All this brings to mind another quote, this one is from Rumi and it says, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” It is time for us to do this work of the soul, this opportunity to feel that deep sense of joy. A joy that comes from saying, “I really did something today where I resisted the forces of hate and fear, oppression and racism, I resisted the deepest divisions that cause us such pain, anguish and broken relationships in this world?” These times are calling for us to resist, the universe is providing us an incredible opportunity to do the work of the soul and fill our lives with joy, and as Unitarian Universalists, people who place the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person as a primary focus of our faith, we all have the ability and the responsibility to come together and help heal the world.

May that be so and Amen.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Complications of Healing - A Post 2014 Midterm Election Sermon

Delivered November 9th, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version)

When I was preparing to write this sermon, my thoughts drifted back to childhood and a time when I fell off my bicycle. I remember the skinned knee and the attention from my mother with the ever present Bactine and Band-Aid.  I was pretty young at the point, maybe 6 or 7.  At 6 or 7 you shake that stuff off pretty quickly and that wonderfully smooth young skin just heals right up, maybe with a little scar, but it sure doesn’t seem to take long.  Now, I can’t even imagine the damage it would cause if I fell off a bike today, that is of course if I could even still ride one. Like most of us, there have also been scrapes of the spirit from childhood that weren’t always so easy to heal and have taken more time, effort and intention.

The subject of healing is so vast and deep.  We all have physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual scars that range from small scraps to wounds that never seem to heal. In exploring healing and forgiveness, the theme for this month, it seems that they are two sides of the same coin. I guess part of my healing from scraping my knee on my bicycle would be forgiving myself for falling, but maybe I was riding my bicycle in a risky way because I was being teased about how I ride by my brothers or friends on the block. Or in some childhood homes it possible that the one riding the bike was being yelled at by a parent about being uncoordinated.  All of these scenarios lead to vastly different kinds of wounds and can create complicated layers in the need to heal.

Different wounds can also require different types of healing.  Our meditation today lists some of those it says: “Have forgiveness in your heart for anything you think you've done wrong.”  This is such an important subject we are devoting next week’s service to it. Then it says, “Think of your parents. Forgive them for anything you have ever blamed them for.”  This in part will be the subject of our pre-Thanksgiving service but another important topic. Then it asks you to “Think of your nearest and dearest people.” People who are near and dear are usually people we have let in, people we have been vulnerable around and people where there has been some risk involved.  These people are the obvious candidates to cause wounds that are hard to heal because family and those near and dear can cause pain and wounds, but the one I want to concentrate on today is this one listed in the meditation where it says, “Have a look again and see whether there's anyone or anything, anywhere in the world, towards whom you have blame or condemnation.”  I was thinking about this one as I was watching the Fox News election coverage.  I will tell you, the glee and smugness, the joy in what I perceive to be voting for in many cases a couple of years of anti-climate, anti-science, anti-healthcare, anti-compromise, anti-anything Obama, just seems so petty and small and I have to admit that I had some condemnation in my heart.

I thought deeply about this and I worried about the future of our country and the future of the planet. And then, like we have talked about so many times before, I got on Facebook. I saw a great deal of angst and anxiety about the election from my clearly mostly liberal democratic friends, all kinds of anger, frustration and in some cases lashing out.  I went to bed and the next morning, this was one of the first things I saw from a friend in Orange County, she said, “Note to self: stop reading political Facebook post comments. I've just been reading up on what was happening while we were camping with no cell service during the election. (We voted by absentee lest someone jump on that) I am repeatedly appalled at the hateful speech, judgment, racism, sexism and superiority online. My friends, we have lost more than an election. We are losing our kindness, our right relations, our compassion, our civility, our inherent love and dignity of one another. Worse than election losses, we are losing our very humanity. Ok, off the soapbox and onto kitten videos. For now. My mind is working on the next steps, but for now...kitten videos. Other animals are so very much wiser than we (and cuter too!) Spread love.”

This has had me thinking all week, not about kitten videos, although they are really cute, but about healing, how are we ever going to heal this country?  And I must admit I am conflicted about it. I have struggled with what healing in this case would actually mean and whether or not healing will really accomplish what I want because I am one of those people who are fed up with politics, and angry, and really frustrated.  I often wonder what the best thing is for getting the things done that I care about.  Should I quit ministry and become a community organizer?  Should I get more radical than that and join an anarchist group? Should I go to law school and put corrupt and unscrupulous politicians in jail? Should I run for office myself, and speak my truth no matter if elected or not?

The interesting thing about all of this is that there certainly been times as bad as this if not worse in our political heritage.  The New Deal faced fierce critics. Presidents from both parties have to deal with the opposition that sometimes said and claimed horrible things.  Corporations and capitalism has always influenced policy through lobbying, corruption an influence peddling. I guess in part, this is why I supported the Occupy Movement to some degree.  As disorganized and unfocused as it was, I saw for the first time in my life, people rise up in peaceful protest and really point to the broken nature of the political and capitalistic system in this country.  Like the economic focus that Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had at the end of their lives, the occupy movement saw the system itself at the root of the brokenness in the country.  I know that in 2016 the pendulum will swing back like after most midterm elections in the last 100 years or so but that is not the issue, swinging back and forth doesn’t help heal a broken system that is far too influenced by the powerful, the corporations, and the rich.

So I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. I believe in all the things I have read to you in sermons before. I agree with Matthew 18:21 - 23 from the New Testament says, “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.” I love the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who says, “our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves.” I have studied the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” I have taken to heart the words of modern day profit Maya Angelou when she wrote "We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude toward it. Uproot guilt and plant forgiveness. Tear out arrogance and seed humility. Exchange love for hate --- thereby, making the present comfortable and the future promising."

I have taken these words in to my heart and I am working on the complicated work of healing from the anger that rises in me when I read articles about the ploys of enacting voter registration laws that claim to be addressing fraud when everyone knows that is complete and udder BS, because all it is meant to do is to stop minority voters from voting.

So with a system that at its heart really does think about fairness and the common good, but has long since been molded to be just free and fair enough not to tip everything over, what do we do to heal this country?  Of course, I don’t have a great answer for that because it often feel like there isn’t that much we can do.  But no matter what we do, I agree with my friend, that we really do lose if we become what we are standing against, if we lose, “our kindness, our right relations, our compassion, our civility, our inherent love and dignity of one another,” we lose are our very humanity.

I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t deep divisions but I also don’t want to tell the self-fulfilling stories that these are the worst times we have ever faced politically, although I am guessing they are pretty close.  I don’t want to believe that anarchy and violence are the only ways to change system. I also don’t want to invent a story that I have somehow been personally wronged by the Republican control of congress.  I have amazing privileges in this world with all kinds of freedoms that a huge portion of the people on this planet don’t have. I am free to travel, eat, waste natural resources, love who I want, vote, live how, where and however I pretty well can afford. I am not oppressed and I am actually pretty happy. I think about the level of my freedom and I bow deeply to the words of those who haven’t always lived in a system with these freedoms and have had to do some really serious healing from much deeper wounds than I, wounds I hope I will never carry with me, wounds of the flesh and spirit. I bow to the words from people like Bishop Desmond Tutu who said that both "Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing."

Our honest confrontation, our honest reality is that maybe the system has never really been as good as it can be.  The system is just like humans who don’t always live up to our best selves and need to be reminded of that, held accountable to that, shown new ways to get there and how to love like hell even when we fail miserably. I am not sure how it would be to sit in a room and talk to John Bohner or Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz, we seem to come from such different perspectives, but I can’t image healing the rift between us by shouting at the top of our lungs while they shout at the top of theirs.

I haven’t talked about this but after we went to the city council with the Gun Control resolution a couple of years ago and after the Fox news story was done about me and the gun store owner trying to have a honest conversation about things we could agree on, and after having a very nice lunch where we talked about those things, he abruptly sent me an email that basically said he wasn’t interested in talking any further.  I try not to make assumptions about things that I don’t know about, but I have to admit, I have made an assumption and my guess is that after that news story aired on Fox News he somehow was pressured and felt it could harm his business.  I have NO idea if this is the right assumption, but I have no further information and to me, it was a very sad thing.

I could have been angry about this, I could be furious about the elections, I could be enraged that the Senators about to take over the environmental oversight committee in the senate is a climate change denier, but I am not sure how effective my anger is at helping people change and I feel like unless we engage people in ways other than anger and this constant back and forth tug of war of the American political system, the system itself will never really be healed and we will never really move on.

There is another quote that I have used before, I love it and I find it to be true and insightful, Frederick Buechner said “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” This country and this world have systems supported by assumptions, distrust, frustration, superficial understandings, cultural differences, and deep and complicated wounds from generations of pain and suffering.  Violence, anger and an eye for an eye will never ever lead to healing.  I believe it has never been more important to listen more deeply, tell our stories to each other more often, be honest about the personal and societal issues that keep us apart, but radically engage the other in conversation from a place of love, kindness, deep understanding and a willingness to change and be changed.  We must change this broken system, we must engage with our minds focused on healing.  I am convinced this may be the most complicated healing for us to do but perhaps the best and only way for us all to move forward together.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Like Sands Through the Hourglass, So Are the Days of Our Lives

Please listen to this James Taylor song before reading the sermon, it was the meditation preceding the sermon and is woven into the sermon.  It was sung live by the wonderful muscian Peter Mayer -

Delivered October 19, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version)

Yesterday we had an event here called the Death CafĂ©. Here is the description from the website, “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'.”  And if you haven’t heard this news, I am sorry to be the one breaking to you, but yes, all of our lives are finite.  All of us, no matter how rich or how poor, our body type, the color of our skin, whether we went to Harvard or the University of Utah, will at some time cease living in the world as we currently know it. 

Will there be something else? Well, until there is some sort of scientific proof, or massive verifiable religious event, or even some sort of mass consciousness exploding experience, there will continue to be many debates and discussions about anything that may come after this life that we now are consciously sharing together.  We each can and probably do have a little different opinion about all of this but since this is a UU congregation that’s ok. We also all have a bit of a difference of opinion about what living this life actually means and I find that to be true specifically with those I have had the amazing privilege to walk with as their journey on this earth reaches its end.

Although through my training and my personal experience with being with people as they journeyed through their final days was informative and meaningful, I learned so much more about this after entering the ministry.  Frequently, as people are getting ready to die, they take stock in lives.  They revisit moments and experiences, feelings and thoughts, which sometimes hold great meaning and others times are just trivial details or events.  They remember songs or movies, books they’ve read or people they once knew, loves made and loves lost.  These are the stories I hear when I sit in the room listening to those who know they are passing from this life, these are the stories I hear no matter where they think they are or aren’t going.

In fact, when I sit in the room and talk or sometimes just listen, I can tell you what I think has never come up.  Not once did I ever have a discussion about anything political. Not once. Not once have I gotten into a debate about religion.  Not once.  Sure there has been expressions of regret, or “I wish I had done this or that” as many look back, take stock of their lives and think of the roads traveled and untraveled, but mostly what people seem to remember and want to talk about are the stories, the stories of their lives.

In preparing for memorial services, sometimes I know the story of the roads traveled and sometimes I don’t.  Often when I think I know much of the story I discover that I know virtually nothing.  I sit like the rest of us, listening to stories that come to us from the different angles and perspectives of those involved in these life stories.  Sometimes at memorial services I talk about how impossible it is for any of us to know the complete story of a human life. Even if we are spouses, daughters, sons or parents, we can only really know a portion of each story, the portion that we know, have seen or heard about.  Rarely is that the whole story of a human life.  Human lives are amazingly varied and complex weaving through times, people and places that is hard to track and even harder to completely understand.

And these human lives are all so unique, everyone stands out for one reason or another, but there are some that stand out to me a little more.  This story is about a memorial service I did for someone who lived a very long time.  I sat and visited a lot with this person as they came to the end of their life, a life that was sad to me in many ways.   We talked often about their regret of not having a bigger impact on the world. It was consuming to them no matter how much I tried to lift up all the wonderful things that they had done. At some point I understood that they had lived a very hard life with much tragedy and came from a home that valued work and a stiff upper lip more than anything else. It didn’t matter what I was lifting up because they just were going to review their life from a framework of a long life of stories in their own head of never being good enough and I found my role to be listening, comforting and trying to reassure them of their impact on, if nothing else, me. At the memorial service, there were many stories that reaffirmed the challenges experienced, the struggles and tragedies of this life, but there were also stories I hadn’t known of warmth and love, openness and vulnerability. These pieces all came together to create a storybook full of depth, complexity and wondrous tales.  It was just confirmation that we can never really know the totality of one life including the totality of our own.

All of this is a long explanation why I asked the wonderful Peter Mayer, who is gracing us with his gifts and talents today, to sing a song he didn’t write. I know weird eh. I did that because as I was driving to work this summer, the song, The Secret of Life, came on the radio.  I sort of remembering hearing the song before, but of course, my life travels brought this song to me at the right moment for me to hear it.  Sometimes when I hear, see or read something I think to myself, maybe the congregation will be fine if this is the sermon for today.  It is exactly what I want to say and if I use it, I can play golf or go see a movie on Friday instead of writing all day.  Hearing this James Taylor song was kind of like that:
(Peter Mayer sings)  
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
Any fool can do it, there ain't nothing to it.
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
But since we're on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride.

I didn’t enjoy the passage of time much this summer. I have talked about this a little, but one of those memorial services I attended was one of my best childhood friends.  I have suffered a good deal of loss in my life, but I am guessing not that much more than people my age and of course, dealing with loss is a part of my profession, but personal loss that weaves its way past my training, my defenses and deep into my heart is hard.

It was after I returned from attending his service that I heard this song and when I reflected back past his death, through the good and challenging times of our relationship, I found I really could really enjoy and appreciate the passage of time.  My memories are filled with bits and pieces of our lives together starting from our first meeting in 6th grade through our final meetings during the final years of his illness walking slowly together through the streets of my hometown. I Remember sitting by the fireplace in his house on a cold winters night listening to James Taylor, for the first time. I remember being introduced to fluffernutters a concoction of marshmallow fluff and peanut butter on wonder-ish type bread, in his kitchen followed by copious amounts of milk. I remember endless games of ping pong, bicycle rides and us being together at the little neighborhood park meeting the girl from whom I received my first kiss.

These are memories that stick out in a lifetime of remembrances for it was a long a full relationship, that lasted over 40 years. I think about him often and I am grateful that I have the memories I do, for they are precious and I wouldn’t want this journey that we shared together to have been any other way.

I remember these as they are close to my heart and also I think of these with an open heart for as James tells us that the secret of life isn’t only enjoying the passage of time:
(Peter Mayer sings)   
The secret of love is in opening up your heart.
It's okay to feel afraid, but don't let that stand in your way.
Cause anyone knows that love is the only road.
And since we're only here for a while, might as well show some style.

Maybe James, Peter and I can’t help sounding like a self-help book today, but I really do believe that a secret of life is in opening up your heart and lord knows, it is ok to feel afraid for opening up your heart and being vulnerable is risky. No matter what the risk however, opening up your heart is something I believe is essential to all of our life stories and actually to the ultimate connection we will have to each other in this world. M. Scott Peck, the author of the book The Road Less Traveled say it like this, ““There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.” Enjoying the passage of time, love and community, all important things in life and realizing that the sand is meant to keep flowing through the hourglass.  The sand doesn’t stand still.
(Peter Mayer sings)   
Now the thing about time is that time isn't really real.
It's all on your point of view, how does it feel for you?
Einstein said he could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face, welcome to the human race.

Time is really a relative thing.  Whether you think that this planet was created 5000 or so years ago or millions of years ago, our lives are really just one little piece of the puzzle, one grain of sand if you will.  In talking about this I need to walk a very fine line because even though we are here for a relatively very short time, each and every life is important and we especially think that if it is the life we are living.  It is however a part of the larger story of us all and all of these planets spinning through space, so many stories interdependent, intermingling, interconnected.

Something else I frequently say at memorial services is, “We never have any way of knowing how the joys or sorrows of the lives of others can touch our own, but they will.   We never have any way of knowing how what we do in this world can affect others, but it does. Life is precious and all that comes with it changes and evolves, is wonderful and painful and with every experience that touches us we grow.  As we leave here, this day, this week, this year becomes part of who we are and we will endeavor to soften to love and to hold these memories in our hearts as we walk together on this mysterious journey.”

Life is so very precious.  I mean that.  I know I am not the only one here today who knows this, but part of the experience of ministry is to see that we as humans are capable of sinking to the depths of pettiness or rising to heights of possibilities.  For the short time that we are on this planet we struggle with the delicate balance between mystery and understanding, self-importance and self-giving, taking ourselves too seriously and taking things seriously enough.  We have a choice about how we go through this world, of how precious we treat this gift.  We have the opportunity to make it so when our time comes to look back we can tell beautiful stories of love lost and love found, of books read and movies seen, of how we opened of hearts, of how we were effected by others, of people we have helped and contributions we have made, and of how we have enjoyed the passage of time.
(Peter Mayer sings)  
Some kind of lovely ride. I'll be sliding down, I'll be gliding down.
Try not to try too hard, it's just a lovely ride.
Isn't it a lovely ride? Sliding down, gliding down,
try not to try too hard, it's just a lovely ride.
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.


Monday, October 13, 2014

But We Have Always Done It This Way: Theodore Parker, The Doctrine of Discovery and Coffee Hour

Delivered October 12, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version) 

A famous line of Martin Luther King Jr. was, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  The origin of this line was by Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker born August 24, 1810.  According to the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, Parker was a preacher, lecturer, and writer, a public intellectual, and a religious and social reformer. He played a major role in moving Unitarianism away from being a Bible-based faith, and he established a precedent for clerical activism that has inspired generations of liberal religious leaders.

The origin of Dr. King’s line came from a collection of “Ten Sermons of Religion” by Parker in 1857 and actually said, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. 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. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Parker was an amazing figure in UU history and transcendentalism and I would recommend looking him up for further study, but perhaps the major thing that he is remembered for and the thing that all UU ministers have to study in order to be a UU minister is a sermon titled, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. This is a benchmark piece of work that had a significant influence on the course and direction of Unitarianism and one of the reasons we are all sitting in a Unitarian Universalist congregation today.

Again from the, Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, “Parker emerged as a major Transcendentalist spokesman in May 1841, when he delivered A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity at an ordination in South Boston. Parker intended the main point of the sermon to be that Jesus preached the Absolute Religion. What made the strongest impression on Parker's audience, however, was his vehement denial of the factuality of Biblical miracles and of the miraculous authority of both the Bible and Jesus. Particularly outraged were three Trinitarian guests in the audience. They published an attack on the sermon in the newspapers and demanded to know if Unitarians considered Parker a Christian minister. During the resulting uproar, most Unitarian ministers, and a large portion of the Unitarian lay public, concluded that Parker's theology was not Christian.” Just like Emerson who had been banned from Harvard Divinity School for his heretical views that challenged the Unitarian Orthodoxy of the times, Parker was in the theological doghouse with the mainstream.

Here is a little of what that sermon said, “... Looking at the Word of Jesus, at real Christianity, the pure religion he taught, nothing appears more fixed and certain. Its influence widens as light extends; it deepens as the nations grow more wise. But, looking at the history of what men call Christianity, nothing seems more uncertain and perishable. While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the Pulpit, which is the religion taught; the Christianity of the People, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out; has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name... Let us look at this matter a little more closely. In actual Christianity -- that is, in that portion of Christianity which is preached and believed -- there seem to have been, ever since the time of its earthly founder, two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions, the impiety of man; the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth, decay, and reproduction, bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all...”

What I think Parker was getting at was that he believed there was the core truth of religion which was permanent and unchangeable, and the way it had been used and interpreted since it was created, which was always changing and not changing in a good way but more in a way that met the needs of those who changed it, straying far from its original intent. This meant it had to be examined, it had to be explored and it was important to always be searching for a way back to the core meaning.

Unitarian Universalists have been questioning orthodoxy and convention for a very long time. That may be why a little bell goes off in my head when I hear the phrase, “but it has always been this way,” because one of the things that Parker is educating us about is the way it has always been is rarely the way it has always been. It may be the way we have come to know it, but that may have come from a series of evolutions or events that formed things in a certain way that may never have been done all that intentionally, but now all the sudden they are a part of “our tradition.” I am not saying that tradition is all bad.  Traditions can be wonderful, can be grounding, can inform people and cultures to important aspects of their history and shared meaning.  But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be explored and examined.

There is a very important tradition that I observed as a child.  It was about the discovering of America.  In school, the way it was always done was to know the date of 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Generations were taught about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. What they weren’t taught was about the Doctrine of Discovery. “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in a papal decree issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.” (UUA Website)  And as the UUA has noted, the reason this matters is that, “The Doctrine is woven into the fabric of United States law via nineteenth century case law that is still used as precedent. It is still the basis used by courts today to violate existing treaties with Native peoples and take away their mineral and water rights.” 

I don’t think that this papal decree of Pope Nicholas was the original Christianity that Jesus preached, so it isn’t always the way that it was done, but it now has been done this way for a very long time. As children, we were taught many things about the native people of this land, but it certainly wasn’t taught to us from their perspective.  And now, as awareness grows around the impact of this history to native communities, according to the year 2000 census data a Native American born today, compared to all other ethnicities and races has a:

 (Source: U.S. 2000 Census and Dept of Justice)

Educational outlook

50%will never finish high school
86%will never obtain a college degree
2.5 times more likely to be a victim of violence than any other ethnicity
80%more likely to die a violent death by accident, murder or suicide
1 in 3 native women will be raped or sexually assaulted at least once
86% of perpetrators are non-native, causing jurisdiction issues and no prosecution
Lower life expectancy - 10 years lower than the national average
2.5 times greater chance of committing suicide before 24
3 times more likely to suffer from illness (i.e. diabetes, heart disease, cancer)
6 times more likely to be unemployed
2.5 times more likely to live in poverty
5 times more likely to be placed and remain in foster care as a youth
6 times more likely to become homeless

“Theodore Parker saw slavery as the greatest obstacle to achieving industrial democracy. He denounced the Mexican War (1846-1848) as an attempt to expand slavery and led Boston opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act established a federal bureaucracy to catch slaves who had escaped to the free states. Most Boston Unitarian ministers either refused to oppose the legislation, or publicly supported it as a constitutional obligation and as a politically necessary concession to the South that would "save the Union" and "settle" the slavery issue. Some argued that catching fugitive slaves was sanctioned by Scripture. Parker pronounced the act a violation of Christian ideals and a threat to free institutions. In his Sermon of Conscience (1850), he openly called for it to be defied.”

There are all kinds of things that we have always done this way in our lives, at our work, in our communities, in our congregations and around the world.  Whether they have grown into something that corrupts the original intent, or conversely have come straight from a long established tradition, the way things have always been needs fresh air, light and examination.

I think it would be unfair of me to compare some cherished beloved tradition we may have here at UUFSD to slavery or the Doctrine of Discovery.  I am thinking coffee hour for instance wouldn’t be on the same level.  But just for fun, let’s take coffee hour as a more practical example of an organizational tradition to examine.  I guess we could get rid of coffee hour, but then maybe we wouldn’t talk at all after the service.  I guess we could expand coffee hour to be a catered meal for sale every week, but then we are running more of a restaurant.  It has been suggested that we have someone with an espresso cart and pastries for sale come in and we get a percentage of the take and a lot more choices of coffee.  These are all way to think of transforming coffee hour, ways that are all transient, ways that may change the way it has always been done.  But I think it is important to also look at what may be the permanent about coffee hour, or the questions that lie at the core.

For instance, what should we do after our service that gives people a chance to talk, connect and share this important Sunday experience in meaningful ways?  Or how can we transform our Sundays together to be opportunities of healing, wholeness and transformation, and what would that look like if we weren’t bound to have coffee and eating carbohydrates on a patio. What if something happened here on Sundays between and after services that fed you so deeply, that connected you so completely, that transformed the way you approached your life so much that no one cared if we ever drank another cup of coffee again.  I will tell you that some would leave because they would miss the taste and the simplicity of the coffee and others would come because they are looking for whatever replaced it that brought that deeper sense of connection and transformation.

I am not attacking coffee, as most of you know, I love a good cup of decaf and a little nosh on the patio, but what I am saying is we come from a long line of people who challenge the way things have always been.  We are planted firmly in a faith tradition that often challenges the meaning of faith and challenges the meaning of tradition. It can be unsettling, but it also can help us look at the structures and systems of injustice. It can help us overcome complacency and fear. It can move us in new a creative directions.  It can help us understand what holds us back and it can help us with our growing edges.

I don’t think it is helpful or useful to be questioning all the traditions all the time, and, I want to remind us all that sometimes we question them and we discover that they are exactly what they need to be, some of you may remember the whole new Coca Cola debacle for example. But I guess the point is, we shouldn’t be afraid to question them, to examine them and to decide if they are still serving the needs at the core of our purpose.

At the 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ, delegates of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on Unitarian Universalists to study the Doctrine and eliminate its presence from the current-day policies, programs, theologies, and structures of Unitarian Universalism. "BE IT RESOLVED that we, the delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples."

And then, much like Parker did with regard to slavery, the UUA states, “As people of faith, we are called to understand and dislodge the Doctrine of Discovery and its present-day effects, and advocate for our government to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an aspirational declaration passed by the United Nations in 2007 and to which the United States became a signatory in 2010.”

We are human and we are comfortable in patterns but sometimes those patterns need changing, need evolution, need fresh air, and in some cases we need to look at the facts of the world and although we may see a continual and progressive triumph of what is right we cannot pretend to always understand the moral universe, for the arc is a long one, and our eyes can only reach but little ways. We may not be able to calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but if we search deep enough, we might be able to divine it by conscience and if we keep working on it, we hope it will always in the end bend towards justice.”

May that be so.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Edge of Reason: Faith in an Unreasonable Age

Delivered September 28, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version) 

Without going to a dictionary, Wikipedia or any reference other than my own brain, I am going to explain what being a religious humanist means to me.  I do not believe that there is a supernatural power that orders the universe.  As I have said many many times, I certainly don’t believe it is the traditional European Caucasian male-centric image portrayed in art and mythology.  I believe that we are conscious of this time and this place and we are certainly responsible for the choices we make and the ripples they cause in the world.  To me, that simple explanation, if you have to label it, makes me a humanist.

But I also think of myself as a religious humanist.  I have grown to appreciate various aspect of religious life. As you may guess, this is not about blind obedience or strict adherence to anything, but more about the ongoing search for meaning, for depth, for understanding, for exploration of the mysterious and of course the ever present desire to feel love, live love, project love, understand love and be a vessel of love in the world.  I believe that this falls under the heading of religious life and beyond this, I have thoroughly come to appreciate this quest within the context of this Unitarian Universalist religious tradition that dates back hundreds of years and has with it rituals, community, structure and shared context.

This enters into a mix that places me firmly in the corner of science and reason which can put me at odds at times with those close to me when it comes to things I think haven’t been tested and scientifically proved.  I will say however, that just like the amazing distance I have traveled from religious skeptic to minister, I have also traveled a long way on the path from the western need for proof, to seeing value in ways of eastern mysticism.

This all goes to say that I believe in science, I believe in the use of reason and also totally believe that there are just some things that we don’t know, will never know, we can’t control and are absolutely astounding. Let’s talk about science for a moment and this time, I am going to Webster’s. Here is what comes up first, “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.”  In fact, I would like to go one step further and give us the definition of the scientific method, “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” So, mashing them together in the Miller Dictionary for Sermon Illustrations, it would sound something like this, “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned using principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”

Ok, this is our starting point and it is also the place to insert the use of reason because once we have studied and gained knowledge through observation, experiment and gathering facts, the formation of the hypotheses stage is our using reason as the way to take all of this and put it together.  Now, you can certainly say that many things are provable, and that the use of science and reason have indeed taken us beyond the horizon to the moon.  You could say that things known are increasing in numbers and things unknown will be someday be more known.  And it certainly could be said that we can chart our understandings and interpretations through the firing of neurons, through measurement of brain activity, through psychological processes and by observation, experiments and gathering facts.  I also believe that the scientific advances that have come since we thought that the universe revolved around us have been astounding.

But, I think there is an edge to science and reason and although I think it could be as simple as describing something as ethereal as the pleasure one feels from watching a sunset, I don’t want to be quite that simplistic.  I think it is much deeper than that, and it happens when we get to the edge of what we understand through science and when we get to the edge of what makes sense by using reason. The edge of reason can be a place of much dissonance.

As human beings, as a species, we have sought the answers to questions since the beginning of time. We have looked to the skies and wondered what was out there. We have wanted to boldly go where no one has gone before. But this desire for knowledge and for proof has existed alongside of a world also consumed by religious impulses, of deity worship and the constant search to answer two basic questions, where did we come from and more than that, why are we here? 

These are two completely unanswerable questions at the edge of science and reason as we know it.  I know, some of you are out there thinking about the big bang theory, but that only really describes where we came from only up to a certain point in time in the history of this universe.  There are two things I always think about with regard to the big bang theory, which by the way I believe to be true, but the two things that creep into my mind are, what was happening before the big bang, and it’s too bad that none of us were actually here to record it. 

These two big questions of life are questions of meaning and purpose, things that are hard to prove and often hard to find in observable facts. They come from the sheer mystery of our existence of being alive on this planet. And these are no small questions. I guess there are some pretty huge questions still left to science which mostly I am sure I have never heard of and probably wouldn’t understand.  They probably have something with smashing particles together, or Quarks, or the answers to our degrading climate. I barely made it through high school chemistry so my guess is, I may not understand any of this even if someone who is currently in high school tried to explain it to me.

But questions and of meaning and purpose, especially questions like why are we here, those are questions that philosophers and theologians have been kicking around for thousands of years. For me, they lie just past that edge of science and reason, and enter into the realm of awe, mystery, and wonder.  This part of our lives always leaves me a little frustrated when it comes to the structures that have been created to explore these questions.  Karen Armstrong, in her book, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, says it this way,

“What seems wrong to you is right for him
What is poison to one is honey to someone else.

Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship,
These mean nothing to Me.
I am apart from all that.
Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better
or worse than one another.

Hindus do Hindu things.
The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do.
It's all praise, and it's all right.

It's not I that's glorified in acts of worship.
It's the worshippers! I don't hear
the words they say. I look inside at the humility.
That broken-open lowliness is the Reality,
not the language! Forget phraseology.
I want burning, burning.
Be Friends
with your burning. Burn up your thinking
and your forms of expression!”
Many poets and prophets, seers and sages have tried to describe the burning within, the mystical need for connection, the overwhelming sense of something beyond just the existence of ourselves in this universe. Religions have been structured based on what I believe are the core questions only to be pulled far from their original purpose by the far too common insecurities and needs of being human.  And it always seems to lead to endless dynamic tension and an endless series of questions.

Is there a god?

Is there a heaven or hell?

If there isn’t anything, why should I pray?

If I pray, what or who should I pray to?

Can science and reason coexist with religion and faith?

Why do we even use the language of religion as a context or framework?

In many ways what I come to is that it really doesn’t matter. I don’t feel a need to argue all the fineries of all the points. These conversations make me feel like we are fiddling while Rome burns.  Words are important, religious beliefs are important and reason is important, but I've come to a place where what is really important to me is not an endless discussion of what we believe, what is important to me is how we act.  How we act based on our religious systems.  How we act based on our beliefs in reason and science.  How we act no matter what language we use.  We have used the metaphor during the month of September of being on the edge of so many things and whether you come from a framework of science, engineering, psychology, Unitarian Universalism, Christianity, Judaism or Islam, the world isn’t on an edge because we can’t come to a shared definition of the word spiritual, in part, the world is on the edge because we keep fighting about whose definition is right.

These are all certainly questions that I considered before Unitarian Universalism.  I didn’t believe that religion and faith could exist in a world that needed to be more based in science than in faith. But I too was searching for something that allowed me to explore more, to imagine more, to hope more, to open more. Searching for things I couldn’t find in the classroom or in discussions around the water cooler.  Things that didn’t happen at social gatherings or in movies or reading a book. And in fact, being in nature and viewing a gorgeous sunset didn’t really do it completely for me either. 

             I don’t think science, reason, mystery, awe, wonder and faith actually are as separate as we sometimes think they are.  I think that the baggage that comes with traditional religion has made us feel that there is a huge schism, that the structures and institutions of many of the world’s religious traditions have indeed led us away from the exploration of these questions of meaning in faith communities.  And, I think if we really look at it, they really aren’t that far apart.  Carl Sagan in his groundbreaking effort Cosmos said, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us -- there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” 

I look up at the stars at night and I wonder about so many things.  I wonder if we are alone in this universe.  I wonder if there is something out there that we don’t know and may not even possibly understand.  I wonder why we don’t take better care of our connections to each other and this precious place we live. I wonder about my place in all of it.  And, I am in awe of the beauty of the night sky, of the constant presence of the big dipper, of the moon as it rises, of the smell of the ocean carried on the breeze from the mist of the waves, of the owl in a tree hooting the sounds of the coming night as the sun sets over the pacific. There are times when I marvel at creation and pray for us to find faith.   And by faith I mean the faith that reaches beyond our edges of language, or culture, of religious tradition, of atheism, or of theism. A faith that allows us to understand the precious nature of our short presence on this planet.  A faith that searches for connection rather than increases the gulf between us.  A faith that someday our shared need for meaning will lead to ripples from each one of us that build life, sustain life and assure life.

May it be so.

Monday, September 22, 2014

That's All I Can Stands, I Can't Stands No More: Finding Your Still Small Voice In Overwhelming Times

Delivered September 21, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version) 

Sometimes being a Unitarian Universalist feels very freeing.  I don’t have to choose from any specific scripture which for today will allow me to explore a line from popular literature, Popeye the Sailor.  The line is “That’s All I Can Stands, I Can’t Stands No More”  and he usually uses this line when he has reached the edge or limit of his ability to deal with a situation and it is right after he says this that he eats his can of spinach which gives him super strength.  This made me think of what it means to be on the edge of not being able to stand any more.   This is a time when it is so easy to feel overwhelmed with what is going on in the world.  Events and catastrophe, scandals and conflicts come flowing past us at an unbelievably high rate of speed.  Just when you think one crisis is over another one begins.  Just when you think one flare-up of tensions has subsided, another one heats up. And it is hard to know how to deal with all of that in our public lives together.   What do we do, do we take to the streets, do we huddle quietly in our homes and pull the covers over our heads? 

I have talked before about being overwhelmed, a couple of years ago I spoke about what happened when I saw that people couldn’t stand what was going on in the world anymore and it seemed they often dealt with it on-line by going into an electronic rant.  They would take that anger, frustration and hopelessness and zing, it would come out online. At the time I said I felt bombarded by it.  Some days, all that venting would come flying through my Facebook newsfeed at a dizzying rate so much so that no matter how righteous the thoughts were being expressed, my eyes seem to glaze over as I viewed the many angry words surging through my field of vision.  This can be true with my email box as well, whether from well-meaning friends or organizations like which I have to say I have moved on from.  What I have found is that all this new media, all this electronic communication, has given us a completely new way of venting our anger or frustration, hurt, wounds or pain.

Of course, politics and all the news isn’t all that can drive us to the edge of all we can take.  It can be dealing with children, or parents.  It can be stress at work.  It can be money problems or relationship problems. It can be just the constant flow of what to do next in an incredibly busy life, or the lack of busyness in a life that once was much busier. And, of course, the point is that when you are on the road to the edge, what can be done to help make sure you are not going to go over it?

One of the things I know that can sometimes send us right up to the edge is what I call the 95% - 5% rule or the 5% rule for short.  The 5% rule is when 95% of your life is pretty amazing but the 5% that is bad or challenging at the moment seems to take up 95 % of your brain space. It happens when you let that 5% blow out of proportion and encompass everything, then it seems like your whole world is revolving around that 5%.  Sometimes this is totally understandable.  If you have a sudden major diagnosis or illness, it doesn’t matter if you have the most fabulous life in the world.  Even if you wake up every morning filled with gratitude and joy, when you get a call and the news on the other end of the line is that sudden kind, the kind that rocks your world, it can easily fill up 95% of your consciousness.  I think this can be true with many things that take us by surprise, they can end up taking a disproportionate amount of space in our consciousness and they stay there until we deal with them one way or another.

This is related to another version of the 5% rule that comes from my interpretation of Family Systems Theory.  Family Systems Theory talks about how when a system is moving along a path it is important for the system to stay grounded and centered along the path taking into account the long term health and happiness of the entire system.  In these systems, there will always be 5% that will somehow demands attention and the challenge is not to have the whole system move off course to deal with the 5% that is the loudest, most often heard from or the one that most consistently demands attention.   Let me give you an example. Let’s say there is a family with two parents and six children and they are on a summer trip in a station wagon across the United States.  They have two weeks to get from Madison, Wisconsin to Disneyland.  Five of those children, are mostly pretty happy and do have their occasional issues or differences of opinion but never exhibit behavior that demands for the parents to stop the car and pull over.  One child however, let’s name this child, #4, demands a great deal of attention. #4 knows that every time they cause a problem, the whole system will come to a halt and deal with them so, they often cause problems and each time they do, the parents pull over to address the problem. This is a version of the 5% rule. In this scenario, our final meet up with Mickey Mouse is being threatened because, and understandably so, it is almost impossible for everyone to think, talk or pay attention when #4 is screaming as the station wagon is rumbling down the road.  I didn’t ever say this was going to be easy.

Let’s take this example and apply it to our everyday lives.  In our everyday lives, maybe this looks like a conversation we had at work.  In general, our job is fine.  We may love it or not love it but in general, we are happy and things are about as good as they can be.  Then at 4:30pm on a busy day, right before you are ready to go for the weekend something happens, it could be a conversation with a supervisor, it could be a task that was not completed, it might be an email you shouldn’t have sent and then it happens, you are filled with remorse or regret or fear and child #4 starts screaming for attention in your head, it wants you to pull over your car, it wants you to move the whole system to the edge.

It can be really hard, we have all been there in one way or another.  Maybe we have said something ill-advised to our spouse and then left the house for work. Maybe we have been on a date and told the wrong story.  Maybe we have just not done something that you really feel you should have done to help someone along the way.  It isn’t easy, and it can be very complicated but part of our ability to cope in a healthy way is our ability to not be pulled and sometimes dragged into short term actions that satisfy or help make us feel better about the immediate needs of this 5%.  Our  ability to take a longer view, to gain and keep some perspective, really can help us to understanding what behavior helps us stay on course and what behavior stops us from getting to Disneyland.  If we always react to each problem with actions that pacify the immediate issue, we can be giving into things that lead to short term comfort but threaten our long term health and happiness.

So when we get to a place where that’s all we can stand and we really can’t stand any more, what do we do?  Well, one way to ask that question is, what is your spinach?  What is the thing that you can consume that will help you overcome that 5% that is trying to take over 95% of your brain?  What gives you strength?  What do you rely on? What helps you be your best self?

There are of course some pretty logical, reason-based and therapeutically healthy answers to this.  Things that we use to help us cope, that take a longer term view like therapy or exercise.  They can be hobbies like surfing or making art.  Maybe you journal or maybe you like to cook. These are all pretty healthy and positive ways to deal with that long trip across country. When I mean healthy, I usually say that in opposition to short term solutions that might comfort us but threaten our long term happiness like excessive drinking, substance abuse or other overindulgences.

And short term answers often don’t help us escape the cycles in which we can find ourselves caught.  In some ways I feel sorry for Popeye.  I am sorry that he is in a cycle that seems to be about having relative calm and happiness in his life, then something happens and he feels threatened or he feels the need to act because he gets to the edge of all he can stand and then he can’t stand any more.  When this happens, thankfully he is able to down that can of spinach and although it does help him get past this edge, he always seems to get back to this point again and again and again.

When thinking about this cycle, I couldn’t help but reflect on what we can do to not keep coming back to the same place, some way to keep us on the path for the longer journey and I found myself thinking about what we can do to stay on what some call, the balcony, in other words being able to remove ourselves from being immersed in the pressures of the moment and doing what we can to keep navigating down a healthy course by seeing the larger picture.  Remember, we don’t always know the final destination, but I think it helps us to try and keep our trip as healthy and meaningful as possible.

That is why I use the terms staying centered or grounded.  Being centered or grounded isn’t about being inflexible or about being sure of yourself.  To me being centered means working to understand who you are by understanding what it is that you want in life over the long term and continuously revisiting that as you travel your path. It means trying to understand what is your “stuff” (the stuff that you are responsible for) and differentiating that from what is the “stuff” of others.  It also means opening ourselves up to listen the still small voice inside. This phrase still small voice isn’t from Popeye, it is actually from one of the parts of the Hebrew Bible where I have found meaning.  In 1 Kings 19:11-13 it reads, 11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: 12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?”

Although many of us here today may not believe in God and many may not believe that God will speak to anyone in a still small voice, it doesn’t mean we should discount wisdom where we can find it and I believe that it is wise advice for us to listen for our still small voice, the voice of what centers us, the voice of what grounds us to this earth.  To me we listen because in the midst of all the noise, in the midst of all the Facebook posts, in the midst of all the daily challenges and changes that we face, we need to find a practice, find people and find ways to remind us of who we are at our core and what we strive to be when we are being our best self.  We need to take time, schedule time and have time to reflect on what is important to us, on our own humanity, on the respect and dignity of those around us and how we are living our lives in a ways that brings out the best in us no matter what we face. Grounded doesn’t mean unable to change, in fact grounded means we can change and that we actually keep asking ourselves how are we willing to change as we strive to connect to that deep sense of self. Whether prayer or meditation, beach walking or running, fasting or writing poetry, sitting in silence or singing in jubilation, part of the practice of any spiritual community is to listen for our still small voice, that voice that calls us to our best selves, that voice that reminds us of the common good, that voice that moves us to hope, that voice that connects us to each other, that voice that helps us remember to stay on the path for we are in this for the long run.

Amen and may it be so.