Unifying Purpose

Call to Celebration

I begin this morning with the words of the Rev. Dr. George Kimmell Beach, Unitarian Universalist theologian and deep thinker on the future of our faith. These words come from an essay he presented to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s Convocation in 1995 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I was in the audience and heard these words:

The twentieth century is/[now was] the age of the crisis of liberal democracy. The prospect of our liberal faith is intimately bound up with that crisis. We face this one question in many guises: Is freedom the right of individuals to think and to do as they please, or is it the human capacity to respond creatively to the possibilities and limits of human existence? …

James Luther Adams said, “I call that church free which in covenant with the divine community-forming power brings the individual, even the unacceptable, into a caring, trusting fellowship that protects and nourishes integrity and spiritual freedom. Its goal is the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers—the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing. …

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity: We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavors for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that, in the words of Johnny Ray Youngblood, “We’ve caught a moving train,” and, together, we’re on our way….

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity: We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. …. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonehearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness.

In the spirit of freedom to creatively discover a common unifying purpose, we join together in the celebration of life.

Reading

A lovely book that has been aging to perfection on my bookshelf came off as I was preparing for today’s service. The title is delightful, Humanity: The Chimpanzees who would become ants by Dr. Russell Genet, director of the Orion Observatory and former President of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He teaches Astronomy in California. He looks at the cosmic sweep of the evolution of life from the Big Bang to the pinnacle of complexity: Super-organisms. Here is how he describes them:

From the viewpoint of ever further increases in complexity the most important capability of animal brains is their ability to communicate with other brains in members of the same species—to pass information between brains. This has allowed animals to form the large-scale organizations termed “superorganisms.” Super-organisms are similar to multi-cellular organisms but one step up in the hierarchy of evolution. The individual animals within a superorganism take on the roles of the various specialized cells within an organism. In both cases, individual units have to communicate, work together for the good of the whole, follow rules that facilitate cooperation and accumulate useful information over generations on how best to do all this. There are some twenty thousand species of animals that biologists classify as superorganisms. Half of these, about ten thousand, are ants, which share a close link with other superorganisms such as the social wasps and highly organized bees. Not closely related to ants are several thousand species of highly successful termites, the social descendants of solitary cockroaches. The members of these various lines of incredibly organized insects are perfect little communists, one and all.

Other mammals, such as wolves, lions, and chimpanzees certainly form social groups, but they retain considerable selfish individualism, refusing to be subjected entirely to higher-level organization. Thus, packs, prides, and other such groupings are associations, not superorganisms.

Sermon

To survive and thrive, every organization needs a compelling and unifying purpose.

We can learn a lot about the process of organizing from the animal kingdom. Their compelling purpose, when they do organize, isn’t mysterious. They are driven by survival and propagating their genes. But some species resist social life while others enthusiastically embrace it.

You’ll rarely see a flock of hummingbirds. They are very territorial, guarding a large area of nectar producing plants for themselves. They may decide to adopt a hummingbird feeder and drive off other hummingbirds.

Not only do birds defend territory, they also express dominance over other birds. Both these behaviors can interfere with their willingness to be part of a flock

But birds still do flock together. The benefits of flocking are:

  • Reduced predation risk (safety in numbers)

  • Increased time foraging (time not watching for predators can be used to look for food)

  • Cooperative foraging strategies

  • Behavioral thermoregulation (huddling to keep warm as bats do) and

  • Information exchange (see where someone else has found food)

Birds use their brains when they get together to forage. Ground hornbills in Africa walk in a horizontal line across fields cooperatively flushing insects. When they share an abundance of food, there is little need for expending precious energy defending territory. Better to use that same energy defending a mate and chicks.

But when it comes time for mating season, that cooperation can start falling apart.

Not so for ants since everyone in an ant colony is genetically related. While many other species gather in groups for mutual defense, none have the kind of cohesion that ants do. Bees, termites and ants really understand being all for one and one for all. They do not hesitate to defend their colony or hive with their lives. And that is one of the reasons why they are the most successful super-organisms on the planet.

As the reading points out, ants create community as autonomous beings not so unlike how our cells relate in our body. Ants have specialized roles and functions to serve the well-being of the whole. Ants use touch and chemical scents to communicate as our cell groups communicate with nerve impluses and chemical signals. Our white blood cells correspond to soldier ants. Each cell just like each ant functions autonomously but their activity is highly coordinated. It makes sense to talk about an ant colony as a whole rather than individual parts.

Dr. Genet chronicles our evolutionary path from being tribal hunter gatherers driven by improving technology and population growth gradually to start behaving like a super-organism ourselves. This happened in a very short time scale given the length of time it takes for significant mutation to reshape a species. We are still mostly genetically equipped to be good hunter gatherers and not successful super-organisms. But if we want to eat, mate and reproduce successfully for the foreseeable future, we’ve got to learn to behave more like ants than chimpanzees and hummingbirds.

In lieu of significant genetic adaptation, the most effective strategy so far to get people into the hive mentality has been religion. The Hebrew Scriptures are a wonderful record of that struggle to get people to forgo their self-interest and their kin-interest to participate in a greater sense of unity. As groups got bigger than a powerful leader could dominate, the super-organism forming power started coming from an invisible, supernatural source. Monotheism trumped all the other local gods by creating the biggest God imaginable. Putting aside the metaphysical questions of the reality of that God, functionally the idea of God worked perfectly to create a Jewish super-organism. Christianity and Islam basically follow the same Jewish template to demand social conformity to the higher God ordained good.

What world religions have been mostly good at and getting better at is integrating people from different cultures, races and ethnic backgrounds into one super-organism to fulfill its purposes. What they have been less good at has been coexisting with each other. Nazi’s aside, most human super-organisms aren’t as vicious as ant colonies that fight until they kill every last member of the other colony. Religions do have the idea of assimilation of converts once they have defeated the other. While war continues between different religions, the advent of weapons of mass destruction is putting a damper on genocide as a way for super-organisms to relate to each other. Much as the world has been exploring interfaith dialogue as a way to prevent war, most faith traditions still have elements that prohibit accommodation with other faiths.

Unitarian Universalism contains an evolutionary adaptation to solve this problem. We are striving to create a super-organism that binds people together through universal religious values rather than through sectarian religious beliefs.

That binding process can be stronger or weaker depending on how clearly and effectively we articulate those values. Without a clear, unifying purpose, informal factors such as race, culture, politics, ethnicity, and social norms can become the driving organizing principle of any group. I’m sure many of us are highly tuned to when we feel comfortable in a group. It takes a powerful purpose to overcome those interfering social factors and create unity in a diverse group.

So how are we doing in that regard here in Albany?

I want to assure you we are doing better than many Unitarian Universalist congregations. We do have a good mission statement, poetically cast as our chalice lighting, that articulates our unifying purpose. Our strategic plan we’ve been implementing over the last four years reflects that purpose. I think about welcoming seekers, exciting the human spirit, inspiring growth and development, responding to a troubled world and sustaining a vital and nurturing religious community on a daily basis as I go about my ministry here.

My challenge for us today however is this: Is this statement compelling enough? Could it be stronger and more powerful?

I ask that question as I contemplate a world in crisis. We have a dysfunctional government in Washington DC that can’t agree on funding its own services and programs. We are facing an environmental tsunami as the effects of increasing greenhouse gases stimulate massive global climate change. The swing away from liberal religious values toward conservative, orthodox, anti-progressive, anti-science, religious values threatens hope for world peace. Technology is changing the nature of work and our sources of meaningful employment. Resource depletion, water shortages, soil erosion, and environmental destruction and species extinction threaten our very survival. I could add to this list but I sense you appreciate my point already.

How well does our unifying purpose equip us to apply ourselves to these problems? How does it help us organize our personal lives in ways that will alleviate our own suffering and the misery of others? Could revision of our mission do this better than the current one?

I read books and go to workshops and trainings on strengthening congregational health, growth and effectiveness. I’m very active in our denomination monitoring what is happening in other congregations. If someone has figured out how to create a better congregational super-organism, I’m all over it wanting to know more. I’m striving to bring back home all the best ideas I can find. Here’s what I’ve learned about the importance of a unifying purpose:

  • A unifying purpose effectively communicates congregational identity to non-members increasing inclusion and diversity.

  • A unifying purpose structures efficient use of our time, talent and resources by members and staff.

  • A unifying purpose organizes, hones and directs our activities to promote our values in the larger community.

One bane of every voluntary organization is becoming inwardly focused on serving its own needs rather than serving a purpose greater than itself. An organization’s purpose can soften to become about its own survival rather than about the greater purpose which caused it to come into existence. A strong unifying purpose becomes a tool for the organization to evaluate what it does as it directs its time and money.

So what might be elements of a stronger unifying purpose for the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany?

I expect there will be overlap with the same unifying purposes found in the Purposes and Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. A core value of those common purposes is individual freedom of conscience in answering metaphysical questions without the compulsion of scripture or religious authority. No book or clergy person may command what we believe or don’t believe about God, heaven, hell, an afterlife or the meaning of birth, life and death. Each person is free to come to her or his own conclusion, guided by their own personal experience and process of study, dialogue and reflection.

This free search means we don’t have formal answers to the big questions of life we all accept. We may have personal certainty, but ultimate uncertainty. This ultimate uncertainty permits us to accept each other and create a community of theological diversity. Rather than tolerating our differences, we aspire to have our growth and development stimulated by those differences. We think of those differences as sources of creative tension. This is a very new, counter-intuitive way to do religion with great potential we have yet to fully tap.

That ultimate uncertainty also opens us to questioning humanity’s place in the planetary ecosystem. Rather than a launch pad we can despoil before we blast off for heaven, maybe this blue-green cradle of life has a purpose that transcends humanity. Maybe we are out of balance with it as we violently devour it and reshape it to serve our desire. Maybe we are an expression of an evolutionary process toward a far greater goal than we can now imagine.

And there may be uniqueness to the purpose of this congregation based on our history, our location, and the people who have been part of its growth and development over the years. Our congregation is not a blank slate any one of us can write our name on and make its purpose self-centered.

Which is why, much as I could be tempted, I can’t stand here and say what our unifying purpose is. Our ancestors, remembering the excesses of the Catholic Church before the Reformation, put the members of the congregation in charge rather than the minister.

I think they were quite wise in doing so. Democracy is one of the hallmarks of our faith. There is great power and intelligence in our collective mind, much as can be witnessed in an ant or termite colony. The whole can be much smarter than any individual when facilitated by good process.

While we may discover lessons from ants considering their ability to sustain a super-organism, we don’t want to be like the Borg. The Borg are

a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the Collective, or the hive. A pseudo-race, dwelling in the Star Trek universe, the Borg force other species into their collective and connect them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails violence, abductions, and injections of microscopic machines called nanoprobes. The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection” (from wikipedia 2013-10-05)

 Remind you of any religious traditions?

 They are opposed by the United Federation of Planets

The Federation members agree to exist semi-autonomously under a single central government based on the principles of universal liberty, rights, and equality, and to share their knowledge and resources in peaceful cooperation and space exploration. (from wikipedia 2013-10-05)

And what religious tradition does that sound like? The Borg would say, resistance is futile. We would say, resistance can be creative and affirming.

 Now I’m not saying you have to be a Star Trek enthusiast to be a Unitarian Universalist. I am suggesting the beautiful vision of the future created by Gene Roddenberry be a source of inspiration to allow us to flock together and share our values with the world.

 May this congregation accept the challenge of reconsidering and potentially revising our mission statement, our unifying purpose as a path to strengthen it and call it to greater service to the Spirit of Life and the Spirit of Love.

 Benediction

Most Unitarian Universalists do have one last thing in common I’d like to mention. We are not waiting for some super-human being or divine-like figure to appear and rescue us from ourselves.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

May we take responsibility for our personal beliefs and philosophy, as a way of making peace on the inside and then being a light of peace in the outer world.

Liberating Habits

Woman doing a yoga pose with the sun setting over the ocean behind her.Here is the service on habits I did this Sunday to kick off a series of three sermons on Purpose.

Call to Celebration

The Buddha encouraged his followers to make four great efforts:

 

 

  • to prevent from arising negative states that have not arisen
  • to let go of negative states once they have arisen
  • to give rise to positive states that have not yet arisen
  • to sustain positive states once they have arisen.

 

These efforts encourage the cultivation of positive patterns as a means to help overcome negative patterns. But although they are simple, they are by no means easy…

Beneath the surface of our consciousness lie numerous mental and emotional patterns that, when certain conditions arise, prompt us to behave in a destructive, self-defeating manner. These patterns are easily triggered and once triggered take us to those same familiar but painful places. Yet, if we spend time cultivating constructive and positive responses in their place, we will discover that they have the capacity not only to weaken the power of our negative patterns but even to disable the trigger mechanisms that spark them. Much of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice consists of a systematic cultivation of positive patterns that enable us to engage creatively with those negative patterns that cause us pain.

Batchelor, Martine (2007-06-27), Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits (p. 18-19). Wisdom Publications. (Kindle Edition)

Readings

Hundreds of habits influence our days— they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves.

However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. (p. 270).

Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business . Random House Publishing Group. (Kindle Edition)

 It takes around 21 days to form a habit. That means repeatedly practicing said habit and stopping yourself when you aren’t employing it where it should be used. Adjusting your behavior in that way for 21 days forms a habit that you will from there onwards no longer need to work on so vigorously. After that 21 days it will have become a part of your normal thinking and behavior and thus will reinforce itself automatically…

All great habits of people with great character are learned. Some consciously, others by a process of acquisition over time and as a result of other habits. The beauty of bad habits, if there is such a thing, is that they are often easily acquired. This is because you often do not realize you are forming them, you are doing the behaviors for whatever reason you choose to and the habits form. The beauty of that is that it can be applied to good habits. This means no obsession over results or progress is necessary, actually it’s a hindrance. All you need to do is apply the behavior when it’s necessary, and trust your mind to do it’s job.

http://resonateswith.me/all-habits-whether-limiting-or-liberating-are-learned-heres-how-to-improve-your-life-with-great-habits/

 Sermon

Good habits guide us away from trouble. Bad habits get us into trouble. No surprise here.

The surprise is how hard it can be to undo bad habits and create good ones … unless we understand how the habit formation process works in our brains. Changing bad habits and creating good ones is much easier than you might think once you know how.

Rats and people form habits in similar ways. Researchers at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done some ground breaking work measuring the brain activity of rats running mazes. They put a rat in a T shaped maze, at the base of the T, and let it explore. On the hidden left side of the T, there was a piece of chocolate. The rat could smell the chocolate but couldn’t see it. The rat got very excited moving round sniffing and seeking the chocolate. Researchers measured a lot of activity in the rat’s brain as it searched. Finally it found the chocolate through a random search. Very quickly the rat learned to run to the end of the T and turn left to get its reward. What was interesting to the researchers was the steep decrease in brain activity. The rat stopped thinking and just reflexively ran through the maze. How different are we when passing a cookie on a plate, or drive past a Starbucks or McDonald’s and automatically pick up the cookie or turn into the pickup lane for something to eat or drink?

Brains are energy hogs, more than any other organ, using up to 20% of the available fuel. Habits reduce our brain’s energy consumption … and can save our skin. I wouldn’t want to be thinking too hard about what to do when a tiger appears out of the jungle and starts sniffing my scent. I’d want my plan already programmed in my head. Soldiers drill their routines over and over to make them automatic. Hear a loud sound or see a flash, don’t think about it, drop to the ground immediately.

Imagine if we had to figure out each morning how to stand up, put our clothes on, brush our teeth, make breakfast, and all our other routine tasks as if we’d never done them before. We’d be exhausted before starting our day. Habits have been critical to our survival as a species … but also a source of a lot of problems.

Dr. Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, does research with monkeys. He wanted to understand what happens inside their brains during the habit formation process. His subject for this experiment was an eight pound macaque named Julio.

He inserted a very thin electrode in his brain that allowed him to observe neuronal activity as it occurred. Then he put Julio down in front of a computer monitor. When yellow spirals, red squiggles and blue lines appeared on the screen AND Julio touched a lever at the same time a drop of blackberry juice came down a tube near his lips.

Julio really, really, liked blackberry juice.

At first he didn’t recognize the connection and was restless. It didn’t take him long to make the association between seeing the shapes, touching the lever and the reward. Once he figured it out, he stared intently at the screen without moving. As soon as he saw one of the colored shapes appear, he pushed the lever, got his reward and smacked his lips contentedly. Dr. Schultz measured a spike on his instruments of neuronal activity he associated with Julio’s pleasure sipping the blackberry juice. Julio had formed a strong habit pattern.

Dr. Schultz didn’t let poor Julio just play with the lever and get his reward. He sometimes didn’t give him any blackberry juice when he pushed the lever. This made Julio agitated and angry. What Dr. Schultz measured on his instruments was even more interesting. The more Julio repeated the habit, the spike of neuronal activity moved forward from receiving the juice to seeing the shape on the screen even before pulling the lever.

When Julio anticipated juice but didn’t receive it, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted inside his skull. When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression. (Duhigg p. 47)

Combine craving with habit’s non-thinking, automatic quality and we start to get a sense of how powerful habits can become. Habits don’t sit in our minds like a computer program that can be easily erased by flipping a switch. Habits are laid down as synaptic connections. Once they are made, they are there for the rest of our lives. Rats, taught to run a maze will remember how to run it for the rest of its life.

That’s the bad news about habits. They are permanently wired into our brains and cannot be removed. They can however be changed.

To understand how, we need to better understand cues, behaviors and rewards, the three elements of a habit.

Habits begin with cues, something that triggers them. Cues predominately come from one of five sources:

a location
a time of day
the arising of an emotion or urge
an interaction with another person or
An action or sensation that precedes the habit starting.

These can be identified by asking five questions about a habit activation.

Let’s say you have an urge to buy a soda, a common habit. Ask:

Where are you? (sitting at my desk)
What time is it? (3: 36 P.M.)
What’s your emotional state? (bored)
Who else is around? (no one)
What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)

If you were to do this over several days, you’d find variation in all but the primary driving cue for the habit that would be unique for each person.

The cue initiates a sequence of behaviors that stimulate a reward, some positive affect that motivates the behavior. Like the cue, the reward may not be obvious. The reward that is sought may not be sweetness of a Coke. It might be the caffeine lift. It could be the stimulation of the bubbles. It could be the exercise of walking. It could be passing an attractive person’s desk and stopping to chat.

To modify a habit, it is critical to understand both the cue and the reward.

Now, for the hard truth about habits. Because of the physical mapping in the brain of cues to rewards, they can’t be removed. We can’t forget them. The cues and the rewards remain intertwined for the rest of our lives. This is sobering to reflect on as we consider initiating or repeating unhealthy behavior patterns. On the other hand, initiating and reinforcing healthy behavior patterns can program them into our brains. (This is a great gift to our children, establishing life affirming habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.)

What we can do is substitute a new pathway between the cue and reward that is far less destructive and far more healthy.

That’s what Mandy did to solve her nail biting problem. And a big problem it was. She nibbled on her finger tips so much, she had scabs all over them. Those scabs caused her to walk around with her hands in her pockets so no one would see them. Embarrassment about the appearance of her fingers with missing nails interfered with her dating and spending time with her friends,. Yet she just could not stop the nasty habit she had repeated daily since childhood. Finally she broke down and sought a therapist skilled in habit reversal training for help.

First the therapist helped her identify the cue that triggered the habit. She would run her thumb along the surface of her nails. If it caught or she felt some tension, into the mouth they went. Mandy was surprised by the cue question because she hadn’t even considered that there was a cue for the habit. She was only aware of the habit when it was already well underway.

Mandy was also unaware of the reward she was getting from causing herself all this discomfort. After considering several different alternatives, she finally landed on the sense of completion she experienced after biting all her fingernails.

The next step was to make her aware of when she felt the cue. The therapist gave her an index card and asked her to put a check on it when she felt the urge. She came back the next week having checked the card 28 times. But something had changed already. She had only chewed her nails three times that week. Her awareness of the cue had given her a new option. But that wasn’t quite enough.

Now the therapist introduced a new behavior for her to do when she felt the cue.

Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation— such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk— anything that would produce a physical response. (Duhigg p76)

After a few weeks, the nail biting habit, one that had tormented her for years, was gone.

Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training says:

It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” (Duhigg pp. 76)

This is good news that can give us hope. Hope that we can change our habits if we understand our cues and rewards then rewire them with new behaviors.

But it doesn’t always work since the old habit is still there along with the new one. Sometimes those habits revisit us when we are under stress.

The most heartbreaking for me are cases of addiction relapse. An alcoholic has been in recovery for years, hasn’t touched a drop, then has an emotional crisis. A beloved relative or pet dies, a relationship breaks up, a job is lost and all of a sudden the old urge takes over. The patterns of behavior are right there in the brain waiting to be reactivated by an unanticipated cue. It’s why in Alcoholics Anonymous, the expression, once a drunk, always a drunk lines up with what we know about habit formation. The patterns don’t go away even if new patterns are added. The risk of relapse cannot be eliminated.

But some people under stress do not relapse. One critically important factor in preventing relapse is belief.

Is it belief in God? Not necessarily. There are plenty of devout believers in church who are active alcoholics and drug users. Not a few priests who serve communion become dependent on the sacramental wine outside celebrating the Eucharist.

The concept that AA uses of the Higher Power points to something outside the self. My favorite higher power that worked for one fellow was a bed pan. He chose his bed pan as his higher power, worked with it, and it worked for him.

The key insight of belief in a higher power is the process of believing itself. Firm belief that somewhere, somehow, there is some resource that is dependable and not self-created or controlled that can be called upon in a crisis to help, does make a difference.

Is it God in disguise? Is it the Spirit of Life? Is it the Power of Creative Imagination? What the alcoholic discovers, and usually discovers in a crisis situation, is that the process of having a belief is enough to not drink for one more day. And that is sufficient.

J. Scott Tonigan, a researcher at the University of New Mexico who has studied AA for over a decade said:

I wouldn’t have said this a year ago— that’s how fast our understanding is changing—but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. “Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.” (Duhigg p.85)

So if we want to be free of bad habits and develop good habits we need both determination and we need faith. One or the other is not quite enough. Enduring change requires effort and the confidence there are resources that we can rely on to see us through.

May we seek those resources as we strive to bring peace to our troublesome habits and to our troubled world.

Benediction

William James, whose story of overcoming youthful ennui could be an inspiration to young people who have yet to set upon a meaningful purpose to guide their lives, sent a letter to the philosopher Charles Renouvier, who had expounded at length on free will. James wrote to him:

 “I must not lose this opportunity of telling you of the admiration and gratitude which have been excited in me by the reading of your [work]. Thanks to you, I possess for the first time an intelligible and reasonable conception of freedom.… I can say that through that philosophy I am beginning to experience a rebirth of the moral life; and I can assure you, sir, that this is no small thing.”(Duhigg pp. 272-273)

 Let us use our self-determination to shape our habits in ways that lead to freedom for ourselves and others. Let us not squander our most precious asset, our will.

 

Living With Purpose

A house called The Person surrounding a smaller house called various life rules surrounding a heart in the center titled Life PurposeI grew up surrounded by people driven by inner purpose. Barbara wanted to be an excellent flute player so she practiced, tried out for the orchestra at Newark High and got picked as first chair. My friend Nick with a beautiful baritone voice auditioned to be one of our high school madrigals. Matt had a dramatic flair that he took to the stage for lead roles in our high school plays. Steve loved to play football became a first string offensive lineman. All of these friends found an inner drive that they translated into a purpose.

How well I remember taking a class on numerical methods as a freshman at the University of Delaware. As part of that class, I wrote my first BASIC program on a 300 BAUD DECwriter terminal connected to a Digital PDP-8E computer. That experience of typing a line of text, hitting return and having the computer respond deeply excited me. It felt like there was something alive on the other end talking to me! Young people today take the enormous power of an iPhone or an iPad for granted. For me back then, my passion for these amazing machines formed a strong purpose in me to understand how they worked and explore what they could be programmed to do. This purpose drove the next ten years of my life.

But before that purpose had run its course, a new and unexpected purpose started shaping me as I finished my electrical engineering and computer science degree at UC Berkeley. This new life purpose drove me to open my heart and develop my capacity for insight and wisdom. Instead of being concerned primarily with my interests and needs, now I was driven toward developing virtue and serving ethical principles. My religious life began to dominate my personal life.

Religion has long served as a dominant purpose to organize individual and communal life. In traditional societies, one’s religious life completely structures one’s personal life. Observant Jews are constantly reminded of their relationship with God by offering prayers throughout the day, following rules of behavior and consumption. Muslims surrender to God, don’t eat pork and pray five times a day. Christians strive to love God and love their neighbors. Buddhists vow to save all beings and abstain from killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and the use of intoxicants. If you claim a religious tradition, it claims you too.

Unitarian Universalism isn’t quite like that. We take responsibility for our own search for truth and meaning. We support each other in that search, but we may not find the same truth and meaning. We strive to appreciate what others find but do not feel bound to another person’s moral code of conduct. We are not all vegetarians, vegans or carnivores. We do not all agree on the same child rearing practices or philosophies of education.

What we do have are shared purposes and principles within our association of congregation. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all is a purpose most of us share. Respect for the interdependent web is a looser purpose that does prod us toward serving the whole rather than just ourselves. Honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person, maybe even every being, is a noble purpose that could organize one’s whole existence.

Purpose points toward the Spirit of Life itself. On a deep level, the source of unique expressions of purpose are mysterious and amazing. The purpose that drives someone to keep going, even in agonizing pain, to run a marathon for the first time is a marvel to me. The scientists and engineers that train their minds for years and years to master their field impress me. Watching the graceful movements of a gifted dancer, listening to the ethereal sounds riding on airwaves from a virtuoso’s instrument, gawking at the stunning reproduction of light on glass in oil on canvass , fill me with awe and wonder.

The Spirit of Life is not a neutral, chaotic process seeking rest. It has purpose and that purpose is imbued with meaning. Our challenge is to recognize it’s energy in us and find purposeful ways to bring it to life.

Welcoming All Free Seekers

Our theme this month is hospitality.  Here is what I had to say on the subject today.

Call to Celebration

We will be considering the theme of hospitality this morning, so I looked for a suitable nineteenth century etiquette guide for advice on just how we should be hospitable. Fortunately I was able to find A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding by Daisy Eyebright. That wasn’t her real name by the way. Her given name was Sophia Orne Edwards, wife of Colonel James Hutchins Johnson of Bath, New Hampshire, member of the 29th and 30th Congressional sessions in Washington DC and a timber baron. In the 1860’s, when Johnson had severe damage to his trees after a windstorm, Sophia started writing for magazines including The Country Gentleman, published here in Albany, New York. Her book on Etiquette was published in 1873.

I begin with a little of her advice on hospitality. (By the way, her advice was also directed to parents on raising children):

BEHAVIOR at home is one of the best touchstones of good manners; for many persons will appear well abroad, and yet cannot exhibit any degree of ease at their own fireside and table. But to entertain company without embarrassment or excitement, is an art which it requires some usage to perfect….

We were not designed to live alone, to shut ourselves up in our houses, and enjoy the blessings which have been given us in a spirit of exclusiveness.

Nature teaches us a lesson in this direction. She keeps open house for innumerable winged and creeping insects, and their banquets are always spread among the beautiful, fragrant flowers, whose hospitable abodes are ever filled with guests, from the bees and the butterflies to the tiniest winged gnat. Elegant hospitality can be exercised at a moderate expense; and those of us who cannot afford to give costly dinner or evening parties, can surely entertain a few friends at tea, or of an evening, and thus promote a social feeling among neighbors and acquaintances.

Let us now promote good social feelings and open to the spirit of hospitality as we join together in the celebration of life.

Spoken Meditation

Guest House

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~Rumi

Readings

Genesis 18:1-8

And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Matthew 25:31-40 (my translation of Lord as Blessed One)

When the Child of Humanity (aka Son of Man) comes in glory with all the angels, then sits on the throne of glory; and all the nations will be gathered, and the Blessed One (aka LORD) will separate the people – just as a shepherd separates sheep from goats – placing the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the Blessed One will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, enter into possession of the realm prepared for you from the beginning of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer, saying, ‘Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the Blessed One will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of these my brothers or sisters, however unimportant they seemed, you did it to me.’

Buddhist Parable

“There are these three persons found existing in the world. What three? The one who is like a drought, the one who rains locally, and the one who pours down everywhere:

And how is a person like a drought? Herein, a certain person is no giver of food and drink, clothing and bed, lodging and lights to the wretched and needy beggars.

And how is a person like a local rainfall? In this case a person is a giver to some, but to others gives not.

And how does a person rain down everywhere? In this case a certain person gives to all be they recluses and Brahmins or wretched, needy beggars; that one is a giver of food and drink, clothing and bed, lodging and lights.

So these are the three sorts of people found existing in the world.”

Sermon

We Americans today have a problem with hospitality.

In Ireland,” C.E. Murphy writes, “you go to someone’s house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting.

Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.

In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don’t get any damned tea.

I liked the Irish way better.”

Not that we didn’t know any better back when Daisy Eyebright was writing her etiquette book over a hundred years ago. She writes this about welcoming guests:

You should try to make their visit as agreeable as possible, but without any apparent effort; so that they may not think that you are putting yourself out of the way to afford them pleasures in which you do not often indulge. It is your duty to endeavor to make the time pass pleasantly, but if your visitors perceive that you are altering the daily tenor of your life on their account, it will detract greatly from their happiness.

Now I know we have many fine hosts and hostesses in our congregation having visited many people’s houses, perhaps we are more exceptional, I don’t know. What I do know is we all have limits to that generous hospitable welcome. Who has passed someone on the street who is asking for a handout and not averted their eyes?

One of the challenges of urban living is not knowing the people who live around you. In a small town or village, from the beginning of time, where people were born, grew up and died on the same plot of land, no one was a stranger. Strangers in those settings are a novelty and a source of curiosity and interest. Not so in the urban setting where a stranger is perceived as a potential threat.

Mass media has stoked that fear with stories of strangers outside schools with candy luring trusting children into their cars with bad intentions. Advanced weapons technology has permitted one suicidal, crazed person to enter a school and do tremendous harm. My family never locked the doors to our house when I was growing up. That wouldn’t happen here – in fact we keep the door to our congregation locked except on Sunday morning and pay a lot of attention to security issues. We are very aware that strangers can be very dangerous.

What we are less aware of is the low level of the risk of violence, at least right here and right now. Almost all of the strangers we meet are worthy of our hospitality.

Who would be intimidated, for example, if an elderly woman came to visit our congregation as happened in one church I heard about. The usher welcomed her and asked if he could help her find a seat. She said:

Thank you young man. Please assist me to the front row.”

The front row,” he gasped. “No one ever sits in the front row. Why would you want to sit there?”

Well I’m a little hard of hearing and I so much want to hear every word the minister preaches.”

Well, okay,” said the usher, “but I doubt you’ll want to hear him that much. His messages tend to be a little boring. You’ll not want him seeing you yawning in the first row. Won’t make a good impression.”

Do you know who I am?” demanded the woman.

No,” said the usher.

I’m the minister’s mother.”

Do you know who I am?” said the usher.

No,” said the minister’s mother.

Good, I’ll be happy to usher you to your front row seat now.”

I know a little about being a stranger. In the fall of 1977, at the tender age of twenty, I bought a rail-pass and set out for adventure from my hometown of Newark, Delaware. I visited friends in Athens, Ohio, Madison, Wisconsin, and Wenatchee, Washington, stopped in Corvallis, Oregon, and ended my journey in Palo Alto, California. I checked in to an inexpensive residential hotel, along with drug addicts and the mentally ill. (I didn’t know it at the time as I didn’t know anybody in the whole state). My first Sunday there, I visited the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. Having grown up a Unitarian Universalist in Newark, I felt this would be the place I would not be a stranger. And yes, a woman at the Membership Table, Peggy Polk George, welcomed me. I will never forget that welcome. I was no longer a stranger in a strange land, I had a home.

My experience of being a stranger in a new community is hardly unusual. It is more the norm today in our mobile society. People move all the time for educational purposes, for employment, to care for relatives, for retirement. Many immigrants today are forcibly uprooted from their native land because of strife and conflict. Many of our neighbors right here are refugees. As part of our Board retreat last Saturday, we did a 15 minute walk around our neighborhood, dividing into groups of three and walking in four different directions. Our group said hello to a Hispanic woman living a couple of doors down on Washington Avenue, saw a woman in a burka, passed a large family of Burmese refugees outside the 7th Day Adventist church on the corner of Western and Lake and saw a great variety of people in Washington Park walking around the lake. Being a stranger is a very common American experience.

That stranger experience also carries over to our religious life. Unlike most of the world, Americans are much more willing to seek out a new religious faith that matches how they think and believe than many others around the world. I was speaking this past week to the Reverend Priscilla Richter, minister in our sister UU congregation in Schenectady. She has just returned from a visit to their partner Unitarian church in Romania. Part of our Unitarian heritage connects to the Transylvanian region there, where the first Unitarians separated from the Catholic Church during the Reformation in the 1500’s. They have had a continuous presence there ever since.

Unitarians in this region have a strong sense of Hungarian national and cultural heritage. They don’t often have visitors as people don’t change churches much, as that would be a denial of one’s ethnic identity. Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Reform Christians, and Lutherans (the predominant faiths) don’t convert to or even visit each other’s churches.

Unitarian Universalists in this country are at the other end of the spectrum. 90% of our members were not raised UU. People often come to us because they like a Protestant style of Sunday service. They leave their churches and congregations because they no longer believe the things they are expected to say and sing in their home church. Historically that difficulty centered on resisting the view of Jesus as co-equal with God, violating a basic principle of monotheism. Unitarians and Universalists have always focused on the humanity of Jesus, and the ethical and inspirational dimensions of his message. We don’t focus on his miraculous powers (described in scripture) and his ability to get us into heaven. We are much more focused on a form of reality based religion. We care about how we should live in this world believing that striving to live a moral and ethical life will take care of what might happen in an afterlife if one should exist. And our Universalist forbears went even further saying that a loving God wouldn’t punish us eternally anyway for our finite capacity for sin.

So, because our reasoned approach to religion, even after 200 years here in America, is still a very new idea to most people, we are a movement and a congregation deeply committed to offering a wide welcome to all free seekers of truth and meaning. Most of those words are in the first sentence of our current mission statement you’ll find on the back of your program.

One source for our welcome can be found in sacred scriptures from around the world. From Genesis, the story of Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers is often cited as such an inspiration. In the Christian scriptures the story of separating the sheep from the goats is another inspiration. In both cases, hospitality offered without expectation of reward are handsomely rewarded. In the case of the Buddhist parable, the story is more a stimulant for self reflection. What is the quality of my own hospitality and generosity?

Another source are the ancient Greeks who celebrated hospitality through the word xenia which translates as guest-friendship. The Greek God Zeus was thought to be a protector of travelers, embodying the religious obligation to be hospitable. Theoxeny is a theme in Greek mythology in which humans demonstrate their virtue or piety by extending hospitality to the humble stranger. The Trojan war described in the Iliad of Homer actually resulted from a violation of hospitality. Paris transgressed the bounds of hospitality by abducting Menelaus’s wife Helen. Talk about bad manners! These stories, like the Biblical ones, caution mortals that any guest should be treated as potentially a disguised divinity.

Within the Unitarian and Universalist traditions, the focus on hospitality has been there from the start. In the first copy of The Universalist Leader, a journal published in 1832, the editor writes:

Hospitality is the very spirit of the doctrine we profess. This doctrine, more than all others known among men, breathes good will to all mankind, and exerts all its means to benefit the-human race.

Interesting to see how that same concern is expressed differently from the Unitarian side from a story retold in a Unitarian journal in 1876:

Not long ago Mrs. B., while staying at the sea-shore, chanced to meet, at the same house, a charming couple, delightful people, genial, and cultivated. The more she saw of them, the more she liked them; and soon she asked the natural question, “where they lived?” “Why, they had been living in A.,” mentioning Mrs. B.’s city, not far from Boston. It was strange, she thought, that she had never met them in society. “What church did they attend?” she asked, with a little diffidence. “Oh! The Unitarian Church,” said the wife. “We took a pew and went quite regularly to church, but no one but the minister ever called on us. I don’t remember any one in the society ever speaking to us, or calling on us. Except a few near neighbors, we made no acquaintance. We stood it two years, then my husband sold the house, and we moved this spring into the city.” They were Marylanders, far from their own relatives or friends. Mrs. B. said afterwards, in telling the story, she felt ashamed to look those good, refined, pleasant people in the face, and tell them that was her own church, and she had gone Sunday after Sunday, and sat not far off. They had listened to the same prayers and sermons, joined in the same songs of praise, and yet remained all those years greater strangers than if a high wall of partition, not a pew-back, had shut them off from each other. She felt it had been a positive and irreparable loss to the church to have two such people among them, and yet exclude them from all real, vital fellowship with the society, by such entire lack of welcome and hospitality; such lamentable indifference and lukewarmness.

Now I know we are far more welcoming than Mrs. B.’s church. I share Mr’s B’s story because this remains a challenge for us today. This still happens without our meaning to do anything that excludes someone. It is in the absence of the offer of hospitality that the opportunity for relationship is lost.

The other side of this cautionary story is the exciting possibility that exists right now, today, in this room. There are many charming individuals and couples here today each of us has not yet met. As in the story, I know many of them because I have the privilege to meet with so many of you personally and get a chance to experience the light you bring into our congregation. I do my best to connect people together, but I cannot do this alone. We have many programs like Circle Dinners, our monthly Potlucks and neighborhood gatherings, Small Group Ministry, our various interest groups and classes, all to assist in the welcoming process.

In Channing Hall, in Latin, we have words of welcome written in gold letters above those big beautiful bay windows. It translates: “I am human. May nothing human be alien to me.” Another colloquial way to translate those words are, “May no one be a stranger here.”

That is our welcome. That is our commitment. If you are a seeker after truth and meaning, you are welcome here.

Benediction

The great Twentieth Century theologian Alfred North Whitehead said:

I always feel that I have two duties to perform with a parting guest: one, to see that he doesn’t forget anything that is his; the other, to see that he doesn’t take anything that is mine.

If there is any inspiration you have received today that is agreeable, please take it with you. If there are any words that are disharmonious to your being, leave them here. But most important, if there are words and ideas that stimulate your growth and development, cherish them as grist for the formation and refinement of your character.

Warm Welcome Home

The separation between summer and the second Sunday of September as our congregation’s “homecoming Sunday” is fast eroding. This summer, as in previous years, we have had summer services that are not led by me (though initially organized by the Religious Services Committee with my help). I attended many of them after leading the mindfulness meditation at 9am. The services this summer have been very good and well attended. Those attending included many visitors, sometimes as many as five or six. Sue Stierer, our Summer Services Coordinator, has done an excellent job making sure everything goes smoothly. Please offer her your appreciation when you see her for a job well done.

I’ve been working on several projects for our congregation this summer. The first two I’ll mention have to do with electronic communication. Your staff has realized how important social media is becoming as a way to keep our membership informed about the many activities that happen here AND as a way of reaching out to potential newcomers.

Whether it’s using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, RSS readers, email, our web site, or some new media, we know many people have a variety of ways they want to keep in touch with our congregation. Our staff recognizes we have to adapt our transmissions of information to meet how our members want to communicate. Amy Lent and Stephanie Hayes in the office, Leah Purcell, our Director of Religious Education, Matt Edwards, our Music Director, and I have lots of events and information to share with you. We want to send it to everyone in a way that is convenient for you and fits with your way of consuming information.

Stephanie, Leah and I have been working on blogs for this purpose that are linked to our congregational web site, http://albanyuu.org . This content will also show up in other more familiar places like our newsletter Windows or on the Thursday email blast.

Another project I’m working on is putting short video’s on our web site. The biggest barrier to visiting any congregation is discomfort with walking through the front door for the first time. A visitor can have that virtual experience by watching a video, meet people like Amy, Matt, Leah, and myself, see where to park, learn where the front door actually is, see what an actual service looks like and learn how to find the bathrooms. When visitors do come, they will arrive with a greater degree of familiarity, comfort and receptivity.

This summer I worked with five other UU ministers to select themes for the month. We’ve picked themes at least two of us will both use in the next nine months. We’ll be sharing resources and ideas for Sunday services. We’re experimenting with collaboration to accomplish more together (particularly research) while at the same time spending less time in service preparation, increasing the quality of what we do, and freeing up more time for our other responsibilities. By collaborating we’ll do more with less.

The one new program I’m starting this fall is called “Meaning Matters.” This is a once-a-month small group meeting modeled on the Soul Matters program developed at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. The format will resemble our Small Group Ministry program with the exception that the topic of conversation will be the theme for the month mentioned earlier. In the beginning of the month, participants will receive a two-four page briefing on the topic including quotes, links to readings, sermons and videos, books and movies, to consider (as much or as little as the participant wishes) as preparation. The meetings will happen towards the end of the month. While this program will be open to all FUUSA members, I’ll be actively encouraging newer members to join as a way to get connected.  You can learn more by visiting:

http://www.albanyuu.org/themes/meaning-matters-guide.pdf

In all these different ways, your FUUSA staff and I are striving to make our congregation an even more hospitable place. Our welcome, as we say in our chalice lighting, to all free seekers of truth and meaning, is generous and adaptive. We are here to serve each person’s individual growth and development as they seek truth and meaning. Let us know how we can serve you better.

Introducing Mostly Mindful Minister

While this site isn’t completely ready for prime time, I thought I’d put a first post up so at least the world can begin to link to it.  I’m moving away from my HTML 1.0 web site I started way back in 1994 as a way to distribute my writing called Sam’s Bookshelf and Cafe (still available via the menu).  That site became cumbersome because adding content was tedious (coding the html) and it didn’t automatically generate RSS links when I posted something.  I realized I had to step into the 21st century and use some more advanced tools.  So I’ve switched to a WordPress platform to host my work.  This gives me all sorts of bells and whistles that I didn’t have to code myself!  I’ll start porting my writing over here then link it off my top menu.  Not sure if I’ll stay with this theme but it works fine for the moment.

The title comes from my long interest and practice of Buddhist mindfulness meditation.  The psychological and pragmatic approach of mindfulness meditation as taught at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts most closely fits what works for me as a spiritual practice and I believe fits Unitarian Universalists very well.  We need a way to develop our moral behavior, the power of our minds, the openness of our hearts, and the wisdom to guide our actions in the world.  Mindfulness practice delivers very well in all these areas without having to sign up for a set of beliefs or belief systems.  The Buddha left a detailed map of how the mind and heart work for developing wisdom and compassion that works for me and I introduce  it to others.

What I’ve realized over the last several years is the importance of what I do as “content generation.”  The distribution of that content could go in any direction be it email lists, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, my Times Union blog or someplace else.  What I need to do is make everything easily cross-link with each other so the content is available to my audience (and congregation) in the way they prefer to receive it.  That could be a blog RSS news reader (my favored way to sample the Internet fire hose) or Facebook pages, or something else.  I’m still figuring out all the technology of interconnection but I know that WordPress is one of the better platforms to make those cross-links.

I plan to put material here that is  useful to my congregation, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, NY.  My more general essays tend to get sent to my Times Union blog.  My goal is to make sure there is regular material available for my members to support their growth and development that may or may not work as posts to the Times Union blog.

So I look forward to this site being also very useful to people who are exploring whether Unitarian Universalism is the right fit for where they and their family are on their growth path and if our congregation can be a home for them in that process.  We cannot be all things to all people but we are welcoming of all free seekers of truth and meaning looking to:

  • excite the human spirit
  • inspire its growth and development
  • respond morally and ethically to a troubled world and
  • sustain a vital and nurturing religious community.