Acts of Gratitude

If you follow the positive psychology movement, you’ll see that gratitude gets a lot of positive press. The researchers have developed measurements to separate people into grateful and ungrateful types. (You can reflect for a moment as to where you think you might fall)

Here are a few characteristics of grateful people. Grateful people:

  • Have positive outlook independent of the events of their lives (could be dying of cancer and still feel grateful)
  • Focus on the blessings and gifts in their lives rather than slights and deficits.
  • Tend to compare their situation with those less fortunate and feel lucky rather than those more fortunate and feel envy
  • Notice pleasant sensory experiences, like a sunset, the smell of freshly baked bread, a breeze on the skin, the sound of sweet bird songs … and savor them.
  • Embrace a difficult experience as a learning opportunity, and
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the contribution to their lives of family and friends.

Researchers notice those people who are grateful types, statisically speaking, tend to be healthier. They have fewer strokes and heart attacks. They live longer. They are much less likely to suffer depression and other forms of mental illness. They have happier relationships and fewer divorces. On the whole, people who are grateful types turn out to be happier people.

The good news is that one can become more grateful by nurturing this quality.

Almost every religion focuses on stimulating gratitude in its adherents. They do that by asking people to be grateful to God. Expressing praise and thanks dominates the purpose of worship. I suspect though, that the positive effects of loving, praising and thanking God may not be paid back by the deity as a reward for being faithful. More likely, to my mind, the benefits come from cultivating the inner climate of gratitude that then generate the positive effects I just mentioned. Whether you believe in God or not isn’t as critical as acting authentically grateful.

What is clear from the research is the importance of both feeling and expressing gratitude on a regular basis. So today, I’d like to explore ways to act grateful. The research also suggests that just acting grateful even when you’re not fully there can stimulate the experience of gratitude to develop.

I learned this at the first meditation retreat I attended. The seven day retreat didn’t cost very much money. The registration only covered food and lodging. The teachers offered the teachings without charge … just as they had been offered for the last 2500 years. We would have the opportunity, at the end of the retreat, to make a donation for the teaching but didn’t have to give anything if we didn’t want to. “Great,” I thought, “I can get enlightened on the cheap and save my money for other things!”

The problem was, every day of the retreat we did many different practices of gratitude. We honored each other through keeping the silence. We helped run the retreat with different yogi jobs like sweeping the floors, chopping vegetables, washing the dishes, and cleaning the bathrooms. People were so nice to each other, like making sure that there was enough food for everyone by taking smaller portions of special desserts. The teachers were very helpful and supportive. Being the recipient of so much generosity and feeling gratitude for the quieting and sharpening of my mind and the heightening of my senses, by the last day I was feeling very generous, ready to give far more than I had originally thought I might give.

The idea that a sense of gratitude, developed by receiving freely offered gifts, will stimulate generosity is one of the underlying principles of the gift economy. Gift economies are a controversial area of social research as scientists strive to understand the nature of gifts as a social transaction and the degree of expectation of reciprocal response. Gift economies, unlike exchange based economies, theoretically do not include the expectation of anything in return. All the gifts are given altruistically. In an exchange economy, a goods or services transaction would be evaluated based on fairness of the exchange. Did I get my money’s worth or have I been cheated? Gratitude is unlikely to be evoked.

Eating at Karma Kitchen however, is not like this at all. At Karma Kitchen, you are seated at a table for lunch. A server takes your order just like a regular restaurant. The server delivers your food and you enjoy it. Then your server delivers you the bill that says, You owe ZERO dollars. Your meal has already been paid for by other diners. You are then given the opportunity to buy a meal for someone else and offer any amount of money you choose.

All the staff running the kitchen and serving the food are volunteers. They freely give their time once a month. They are inspired knowing that for a poor person, this may be their only opportunity to have a nutritious meal prepared for them and be treated like any other guest.

The Karma Kitchen in Berkeley California rents a regular restaurant for $750 from noon till 3pm on Sundays. It is a popular destination so you’ll need to come early to get a seat. They started doing this in 2007 with the idea that the meals should be entirely supported by donations and volunteer labor. If the donations didn’t cover their costs, they’d just stop doing it. So the fact that they’ve been in continuous operation for the last six years says a lot about the model.

Panera Bread corporation has picked up on the idea. In the spring of 2010, they tried a similar experiment in Clayton, Missouri, near St. Louis, called Panera Cares. They set up a store where, when you get to the end of the food pick up line, there is a donation box for you to pay what you want. Some of the workers in that first store were at risk youth getting on the job training. That same year, they opened two more stores, one in Dearborn, Michigan and the other in Portland, Oregon. In 2013, they opened one in downtown Boston that I saw when I was visiting to participate in the UUA Board meeting.

As a provider of high quality food to the public, they see this effort as a way to give back to the community in a novel way. They want to make sure everyone who needs a meal gets one that is of high quality. They do list suggested donation levels but guests can also volunteer to work as a way to offer payment for their food. They see this as a way of offering a hand up rather than a hand out.

And what is interesting is the result. I’ve heard that people are often generous in response to their donation for food policy. People are so generous, that the non-profit stores are the most profitable of the chain!

If we are talking about food donation however, right now one of the most amazing donation programs in the capital region is happening: the Equinox Thanksgiving dinner. Every year 3500 volunteers come together at the Empire State Plaza over several weeks to take donations of over 11,000 pounds of turkey, 400 gallons of gravy, a ton of green beans and two tons of potatoes and yams and 1200 pies to assemble 10,000 thanksgiving dinners. 500 are served at First Presbyterian in Albany and the rest are delivered to needy people’s homes. Equinox started this 40 years ago to feed 200 students from SUNY who weren’t going home for the holiday. It continues to grow today, all based on gifts.

(This is how I finished these words on Sunday – If you’d like to sample one of my delicious muffins, put the Sunday before Thanksgiving on your calendar for next year for a visit to our congregation!)

So if hearing about these acts of generosity hasn’t yet stimulated your sense of gratitude, I hope to inspire you in a few moments with and act of gratitude, a gift of food from me: a corn muffin. All are lactose free and some are gluten free. I made them all this morning for your enjoyment. I hope this small act of gratitude for the opportunity to serve as your minister, will inspire your gratitude to help start off a restorative week of thanksgiving.

Shramadana

“We build the road and the road builds us.” – Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement Slogan

I’m dedicated to Buddhist mindfulness meditation and social justice work to address the ills of society. I’d like to be happy and peaceful and I want others to be happy and peaceful too.

Sometimes people think of Buddhists, however, as navel gazers who want to escape the world rather than helping save it. In Southeast Asia, it is common to see monks who like to stay in their temples, accept donations and appear not to be doing much for others. They meditate a lot with the goal of becoming enlightened and escaping being reborn again in this world.

One of the positive aspects of the contact between Buddhism and the West is a movement called Socially Engaged Buddhism. Preeminent in that movement is an organization called Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka.

Given my interests, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t noticed them before listening in May to a podcast by an American Buddhist activist named Joanna Macy. In 1980, she spent a year in Sri Lanka studying Sarvodaya and then returned home and wrote a book about them. Between what she said in the podcast and reading her book, I felt strongly attracted to this movement.

My goal for this service is to excite your interest in this organization that has been transforming village life in Sri Lanka for over fifty years. I think they have some great lessons for us that we may find enlightening as we join together this morning in the celebration of life.

Spoken Meditation

An adapted translation of a traditional Metta Meditation from the Buddha

The embodiment of loving-kindness
begins with the practice of morality.
It requires uprightness and being straightforward
being gentle in speech,
being humble and not conceited or demanding.
Being contented and easily satisfied.
Be not burdened with duties but
Be peaceful and calm,
Be wise and skillful.
Be careful in action and above reproach.
To embody loving-kindness,
May your intention be
with a feeling of gladness and security

May all beings be at ease.

Whatever livings beings there may be
Those who are weak or strong
omitting none.
Those who are great or mighty,
non-distinctive, short or tall,
Those seen and those unseen,
Those living near and far away
Those born and yet to be born
May all beings be at ease.

Let none deceive another,
nor despise any being in any state.
Let none, through anger or ill-will,
wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;

Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upward to the skies,
and downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking,
seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
Let us remember and sustain this beautiful intention.

Reading

From: Collected Works of A.T. Ariyaratne, Volume III, pages 55-56

The type of human being we need for the world today is one which has the courage to reject [the] dreadful systems of organized evil which have made us decivilized; we need the type of leadership which will strive to re-build a new person who has the strength of character to harness the good that is in all of us. This new person in turn shall re-build our human society and a new human civilization on more abiding values.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (USA branch) is determined to build a new person and a new society. In Sri Lanka we started this process by enabling human beings to come together to share their time, thought and energy for the awakening of a process of sharing which is called Shramadana.

We selected several of the poorest of the poor villages in Sri Lanka and while living and working with the villagers, together we evolved a series of concepts and a methodology to improve their quality of life by their own efforts. Self Reliance, Community Participation and a Planned Program to satisfy their basic human and community needs were three important ingredients in this self-development process.

Sarvodaya defines development as an awakening process. An ever increasing accumulation of goods and services created to feed greed in man is not development. On the contrary development is an awakening process taking place within individuals, families and communities in which their needs are first satisfied without polluting the mind, poisoning the body, destroying the ecological balance, violating the cultural boundaries, widening prevailing disparities or demeaning human nature.

Development in a true sense should enrich people both materially and spiritually so qualities of sharing, brotherhood and peace ennoble all people.

Sermon

Unitarian Universalists value the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. As we well know, that value isn’t universally embraced around the globe. It isn’t embraced right here in Albany for that matter. This becomes abundantly clear by spending some time on the North side of Central Avenue, east of Henry Johnson Boulevard and south of Delaware Avenue. As someone who has done faith based community organizing in these areas, I have some awareness of how difficult making a positive difference can be. So, discovering an organization that has had significant success at this kind of transformation in 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka for over 50 years got my attention.

The backbone of Sri Lanka is small, rural villages; about 23,000 of them. With lush vegetation and fertile land, carefully cultivated with an intricate water storage and irrigation system developed over a thousand years ago, the country has a proud heritage as being the the breadbasket of the region. Buddhism came to the island 2300 years ago and today is the religion of 90% of the population. They preserved many of the earliest Buddhist texts and have a proud heritage of being a light of the Dhamma in Asia.

That proud identity and heritage suffered greatly under four hundred years of colonial domination, first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally by the British. That domination had a devastating impact on those villages. The tea and coconut plantation system took away their control of their land. Their culture, traditions and religion were diminished by the Europeans in comparison with their culture. Over the years, that oppression turned into a self-destructive, downward spiral of disease, stagnation, poverty, harsh speech and conflict in the villages. That social disease infected the villager’s spirit with the negative spiral of ill-will, disunity, ignorance, possessiveness, competition and egoism.

In the glow of independence from Britain in 1948, a new generation of leaders sought to address this damage. The misery in the villages was much on the mind of a young science teacher, named A.T. Ariyaratne, or Dr. Ari as he is commonly referred to today. In the 1950’s, he and others were wondering how to restore the pre-colonial greatness to their country.

One of his inspirations was a prominent follower of Gandhi in India named Vinoba Bhave. Vinoba is known today for starting a land reform movement called Bhoodan. It encouraged plantation owners in the early 1950’s to share, without rent, a little of their land with landless peasants for them to grow their own food. How Vinoba started this program is worth retelling because in the story are the seeds of Dr. Ari’s later work.

In 1951, Vinoba, already a respected figure committed to non-violence, stayed overnight in a small village in an area of communist military activity. Two thirds of the villagers were landless, many of the untouchable caste. He asked a group of them why they had taken up arms. They told him the communists promised them land. He asked if they would lay down their arms if they could get land non-violently by asking for it and farming it cooperatively. They agreed. He wanted to go to the government with this request but the villagers urged him to make the request at a local meeting that included landowners especially a man who was known to be a generous fellow. At that meeting, “to everyone’s surprise, that landlord, Ram Chandra Reddy, got up and said in an excited voice: ‘I will give you 100 acres for these people.’”

In this story, I believe Dr. Ari became aware of two very important truths that have guided his work. First, the people already knew what their problems were and what they needed. Second, the people collectively had wisdom about how those needs could be met. What was needed was getting people to talk to each other and work together for the good of all.

But how to translate these ideas and methods from India to Sri Lanka? Dr. Ari looked within Buddhism for the principles that paralleled the Gandhian ideas that Vinoba used. Attracted to Gandhi’s “uplift for all” movement he titled Sarvodaya, he realized that another way to translate that word could be “awakening for all.” The Buddhist goal of enlightenment could join social welfare with spiritual development.

A friend of Dr. Ari’s had participated in post-World War Two work camps sponsored by the Quakers. Dr. Ari borrowed the work camp idea for his first attempt to make a difference in a village in 1958. A group of 16 and 17 year old students from his high school spent two weeks in a poor rural village working side by side on projects that the villagers guided them to do.

Sarvodaya’s first Shramadana was born.

Shrama or labor and dana or donation, together name the engine that powers the Sarvodaya train. The very first step for organizing one is to bring villagers together for what they call, a “family gathering.” These gatherings always begin with prayers from the villager’s religious tradition, multiple prayers if more than one faith is represented so everyone feels included. They also include silent meditation to establish that universal spiritual practice to join people together. Then the conversations begin about the problems and the needs of the village. The ideas for work projects come from the villagers themselves rather than from the Sarvodaya leaders. They use familial address calling each other brother and sister, mother and father, to counter any inequality of social status, so all voices are valued equally.

A common initial project that people can get behind who are unfamiliar with working cooperatively is cleaning and making improvements to a temple or church. This is an attractive project in a Buddhist community because of their understanding of dana. Every Buddhist knows that they can individually get a lot of merit for a better rebirth by giving to monks. Monks eat based on the generosity of the villagers who offer them food every morning. What they may not know is the joy of a group of people coming together for a joint work project. Other common projects are building access roads, cleaning irrigation canals, digging latrines and building schools.

The next step is to canvass the community for resources for the project. Typically, food and materials are donated for the camp. The goal is to get as many people involved in the project as possible.

Once the resources have been promised and pooled, the shramadana can begin. The work is structured so people of all ages can participate either in the work itself or in meal preparation and other kinds of support. Family gatherings start the work camp with chants, prayers and ritual. Communal meals are served morning, noon and night where the discussions continue. A celebratory atmosphere is encouraged, particularly in the evenings when there may be singing and dancing. A work camp could be a single day or go on for a week or more.

In parallel with the project, sub-groups will be organized. Youth and young adults, mothers, elders, farmers, and other sub-groups find common interests for continuing shared labor. One very common project is to build a preschool. The government will pay for a teacher but not to build a classroom. Economic development through micro-loans are another common project to support the development of the village using appropriate technology.

The foundation of their shramadana methods are spiritual, the awakening, the liberation of all from suffering, stress, dissatisfaction and misery of every kind. While this goal comes from Buddhism, it resonates with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, the other predominant religions in Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya is intentionally interfaith and non-partisan. Their focus is on bettering the lives of people rather than promoting a religion or political party. Their constructive activity supported by sharing and cooperation, lead to pleasant speech, equality, love and selflessness. The resulting unity leads to organizational development, greater health, and spiritual and cultural development which supports education and economic development.

The first awakening that Sarvodaya encourages is to interdependence. Together people can do what it would be difficult for anyone to do by themselves. The disunity and downward spiral of oppression is reversed through cooperation. Mutual care for each other is encouraged through the cultivation of qualities of heart described in Buddhism as the four heavenly abodes, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and an equanimity to the ups and downs of life. Shramadana gives participants, a direct experience of those four abodes through the skillful organization and execution of the work project.

Both interdependence and self-reliance are developed using shramadana. Again rooted in Buddhism, one’s progress toward liberation comes through one’s own efforts. The value of each person’s individual involvement in the common work is stressed from the very beginning. This means speaking up with one’s ideas in the family gatherings. Each person’s contribution to the joint effort is honored and appreciated. Each person’s ethical practices, such as gentle speech, generosity, social equality, and constructive work build both self-reliance and interdependence.

Sarvodaya believes what they are doing is more than village transforming and awakening. It is nation and world transforming as well. It envisions the goal of development very differently than the predominant corporate globalized vision of increasing material prosperity through endless growth in consumption. Sarvodaya presents us with a model of sustainability that puts human happiness and the well-being of all life as its central purpose. They build a new order from the bottom up rather than the top down. Interdependence and self-reliance are the methods that lead to the awakening of all.

I’m bringing you a little taste of this organization that most people have never heard of because they are one of the most extensive and successful efforts to date in socially engaged Buddhism that I believe could also have much value for Unitarian Universalism.

This weekend is a fine example of our own version of a Shramadana project, the Holiday Bazaar! People have come together numerous times to create items for sale. There was a gathering to make dry soup mixes. There was a gathering to make holiday pies. There was a gathering to set up Emerson Community Hall. Randy’s kitchen is another joint effort. And beyond this weekend, there are the gardening work parties to care for our grounds. People coming together to cook for the homeless shelter. Volunteering at Sheridan prep to read to students. Some will remember our joint work to build a Habitat for Humanity house. I remember our gathering to hit the streets to register people to vote in our neighborhood. These are just a few of the joint ventures we do regularly … but probably could learn to do more skillfully by studying Sarvodaya.

Our congregation is, in one way of looking at it, a virtual village. We pool our resources of time, talent and treasure to create this community. We network with other congregations to build a world-wide movement to support and promote our values. The values and methods of Sarvodaya have a lot of overlap with our principles. The core Sarvodaya interfaith spirituality that is self-reliant and interdependent parallels our evolving Unitarian Universalist religious development. Both serve to reverse racism and oppression while creating a sustainable world community that meets everyone’s basic needs while striving for peace, liberty and justice.

With a new mayor in Albany, there are some great opportunities for systemic change in our distressed neighborhoods. What we can learn from Sarvodaya might be very helpful in that process. The dysfunction in some Albany neighborhoods parallel Sri Lankan village dysfunction that may be transformed through their bottom up methods.

For these reasons, I’ll be traveling to Sri Lanka January 13 to immerse myself in Sarvodaya for three weeks, participate in a shramadana, and see for myself if Sarvodaya is as good as they appear to be from my research and from my conversations. By turning the tables and going to the developing world and bringing home their ideas for our use, perhaps we can help restore some balance to this world so far out of balance.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has articulated and is practicing a compelling vision of how to bring awakening to villages that could be of great value in the developed world too. May we benefit from their wisdom and adapt their methods to support our common work of building community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Benediction

I close with these wise and generous intentions offered by former Sarvodayan regional director Dr. Herat Gunaratne:

May all beings be well and happy.
May no harm fall on anybody
May we look only at the good of others
May nobody suffer because of my actions.

Taking a Stand

Call to Celebration

What does it mean to be courageous and what are the challenges?

Theodore Roosevelt (not Franklin) spoke some wise words on the subject in a speech he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris over a hundred years ago. It is sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena” speech. This passage made it famous:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;

who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.…”

May we consider this morning what it means to dare greatly by taking a standas we join together in the celebration of life.

Sermon

We all know courage when we see it don’t we?

Philomena and I saw the movie about Captain Phillips last Friday. It’s the story of a cargo ship boarded by Somali pirates with the purpose of ransoming it for millions of dollars. Captain Phillips cleverly and courageously managed to get the pirates off the ship and into a life boat with him as the only hostage. The whole movie has you on the edge of your seat as the captain takes risk after risk. We also saw the movie Gravity that showed a lot of courage, but in this case, the kind of courage it takes just to survive in space. I think I’m going to avoid boating off the Somali Coast or space travel from now on.

In the 1960’s, there were many examples of courage during the struggle for civil rights. Those courageous souls who faced police dogs and fire hoses. The Freedom Riders who were attacked and assaulted. All these people put their lives on the line for freedom and justice.

I’m grateful for the inspirational record of courageous action in our Unitarian and Universalist histories. The Boston abolitionists who upset the manufacturers and merchants who were profiting from slavery. Unitarian ministers like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker. Higginson actually served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized African-American regiment, from 1862–1864. Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony were courageous in their fight for women’s rights.

I’d like to call out another group who have been and continue to be examples of courage. Those who challenged the dominance of Christianity and questioned its doctrines and beliefs. The one who comes to mind for me from the latter half of the nineteenth century is Robert Ingersoll. Within Unitarianism, John Dietrich and Curtis Reese were early humanist ministers. On the Universalist side, Ken Patton distinguished himself. They challenged theism to make room for a non-theistic approach to religion that is common in our congregations today.

This only begins to identify the many courageous people who have been leaders within our religious tradition. Institutionally, we have a lot of pride about the ways we, as a movement, have both participated in and led social change that has brought more freedom and fairness to the world. And there is plenty more to do.

I was just at the October Unitarian Universalist Association Board meeting doing a presentation on good governance procedures for our Association. I chair a UUA committee that monitors our Association’s openness and transparency. At the meeting, I learned more about the high level of commitment by the leadership of our Association to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive force in society as well as encourage that commitment in our congregations.

Closer to home, our Green Sanctuary Committee reminds us of the urgent need for the whole world to temper our insatiable appetite for consumption and transition to living sustainably on our planet. They have proposed a statement against fracking that our congregation will debate and hopefully pass so our congregation can take a stand on the issue.

These are a few examples of opportunities to take stands as individuals and as a congregation that may take courage to accept … or resist. And here is the rub. Will we have the courage to take a stand for or against… or will we let the opportunity pass by?

If we believe that you have to be a heroic figure like those Unitarian and Universalist luminaries I’ve mentioned to do this work, you might be a little discouraged. What is an ordinary person to do just trying to keep food on the table and take care of their families? I can’t put aside my responsibilities or risk my security or my relationships tilting at windmills.

Yet, maybe I could be MORE courageous than I am. So what holds me back?

The philosophers separate courage into two types. The first, physical courage, is the capacity to face fear, pain, danger, intimidation, uncertainty and death. These are potential physical assaults on the body. The second is moral courage, the ability to do the right thing when the right thing isn’t popular. Maya Angelou says of courage:

Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.

And there is also a quiet dimension to courage, we might miss. This is the courage of questioning one’s own beliefs and opinions in the search for the truth. I like how Winston Churchill put it:“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Bryan Stevenson is a wonderful example of quiet wholehearted courage. The origin of the word courage is: to have heart. Stevenson is:

a public-interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

The message he brought to the TED audience was an agitation to care about injustices in our criminal justice system. He pointed out that if plane flights crashed every one out of ten time no one would buy a ticket. Today we tolerate one innocent person out of ten being executed. Many are silent in response to this error ratio.

Speaking in Germany, he talked about this error rate and the very high proportion of people of African descent who are incarcerated and put on death row. One of the Germans responded that they don’t have the death penalty there and could never have it because of their oppressive history. Stevenson reflected on what this might mean if they did have the death penalty and most of the people being executed were Jews. That would be unconscionable. Yet, here where we have a history of oppression of people of African descent, in the old south, a defendant is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black. The defendant is 22 times more likely to get a death sentence if they are black.

I was moved by Stevenson, as I hope you will be too if you watch the talk. He modeled taking a stand in a non-alienating way that moved the heart – something many effective activists strives to do. And he moved us, because he was willing to be vulnerable on stage.

The key to moral courage is being willing to be vulnerable. When one is courageous, one is open to attack and capable of being wounded. Vulnerability is where courage and fear meet. The researcher and writer, also made famous by a TED talk in 2010, who researches vulnerability is Dr. Brené Brown. She points out that being courageous requires vulnerability. Without a sense of risk and exposure, no courage is needed.

So here we have the center of the problem. We admire and respect people who are courageous, am I right? And how many of us like being vulnerable? Notice that gap? If we want to be more courageous, we need to tolerate being vulnerable.

Brown’s research helps us understand what makes being vulnerable difficult. What often underlies an unwillingness to be vulnerable is shame.

At its core, shame is a self-inflicted wound to prevent a loss of connection. Brown asserts that shame is unavoidable if we want to be a person who loves and cares about others and wants love and care and a sense of belonging in return. Shame is based in the fear of disconnection. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. I suspect shame evolved as a powerful way to keep groups together by stimulating internalized submission to dominance.

So if we want to be more courageous, and tolerate vulnerability better, we need to become shame resilient. Brown suggests we can’t become resistant because of our social needs. “As long as we care about connection, the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real.”

Here is how Brown describes shame resilience as:

the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy— the real antidote to shame.

Shame is different from guilt. If I do something harmful to someone, there are two predominant ways to respond. The guilty response would be to regret the behavior and resolve to not repeat it. The shame based response would be to think I’m a bad person for doing such a bad thing.

Shame has within it a belief in one’s self as depraved and unworthy. Recognize any Calvinism here? Thinking of oneself as depraved and unworthy undermines one’s sense of self-worth and creates internalized oppression. The king, the dominator, the master crawls inside our head and enslaves our minds with self-judgment and self-doubt.

This is where Unitarian Universalism comes to the rescue. We completely reject this view of the depravity of humanity. Yes, we do bad things. Yes, we do really wretched things. But we have inherent worth and dignity too. We have goodness in us that cannot be removed. In our faith, we have tools to support and build shame resilience.

What shame thrives on is silence. Brown learned a powerful technique to break the mesmerizing grip of shame. She suggests we just speak out loud, “pain, pain, pain, pain, pain” until it’s grip begins to loosen. She observes that when shame descends, it hijacks the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and the primitive fight-or-flight reflex is activated. Reactivating critical thinking skills through verbal activity helps us regain rational perspective.

But probably the most effective way to counter the experience of shame is to reach out. Again, this is another source of support we have here: community. But we are special kind of non-judgmental community that will allow us to try on new ideas and ways of being. In Brown’s words:

We need a hand to pull us up off the ground when we get kicked down in the arena (and if we live a courageous life, that will happen). Across the course of my research, participants were very clear about their need for support, encouragement, and sometimes professional help as they reengaged with vulnerability and their emotional lives. Most of us are good at giving help, but when it comes to vulnerability, we need to ask for help too.

Without supportive friends and community, I know who will be there to knock you down again. It will be the critic, the authority, the judge, the master, the naysayer, the one who doesn’t see you as a human being. It will be the one who sees you an object to control and extract work.

It takes courage to face the dehumanizing forces in the world. It takes courage to face the forces that treat our planet as an object to control and from which to extract useful resources. If we want to make a difference in this world and counter these forces, we must be courageous. We must learn how to stand together against some pretty strong headwinds. If we can build our shame resilience together, we’ll have the strength to be vulnerable. If we can be vulnerable, we can be courageous. And if we can be courageous, we can become real.

Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse of the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Benediction

I’d like to end with the words Bryan Stevenson ended his TED Talk.

I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we cannot be fully evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our vision of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything, for those of you who share [my vision], I’ve simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

 

Notes:

The Brené Brown quotes are from:Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012-09-11)Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

The Courage … To Be Wrong

I didn’t discover the courage to be wrong until I was married.

Oh, I’m sure I was wrong lots of times before that. My parents corrected me many times. My sister pointed out my wrongness without timidity. But I fought off being wrong rather aggressively. After all, I had my father as a model. He was fond of saying, “When have I ever been wrong?” His lack of humility was compounded by his evasiveness. My sister and I would carefully watch for his mistakes so we’d be armed. Then we would attack him after he asked that question and itemize the times he was wrong. He would then artfully manipulate our evidence to obfuscate the facts. This could make for some heated arguments with my mother irritatedly telling us to stop it.

Living with housemates in college also presented me with opportunities to be corrected for being wrong. I’ve been fortunate to live with people that I got along with fairly well so we didn’t get into the right/wrong struggle too much. Or maybe I was compliant enough not to get into too many arguments with them.

The first time I had to deal seriously with being wrong was with a former partner I lived with before entering seminary. She was clear that I was wrong about the way I didn’t express my feelings. Because I loved her and wanted to please her, I agreed she was right and I was wrong. I strived to be who she wanted me to be, going to different therapeutic groups trying to fix myself. I asked her to marry me several times and when our third engagement period ended without getting to the altar, I suggested we separate. I didn’t have a problem expressing those feelings.

Intimate relationships can amplify differences. And the closer people get to each other, the more intense those differences can be. The closer we are, the more vulnerable we are. That vulnerability can also make those differences that much harder to deal with. “How can you say you love me and still leave dirty dishes on the counter!”

One of the joys of marrying Philomena was discovering that the way I expressed my emotions wasn’t a problem for her. This was a great learning for me, discovering a new constellation of issues in our relationship very different from my previous ones.

But, at times, I was still wrong in Philomena’s eyes.

What has made the most difference when this happens, is cultivating courage. In the face of her disapproval and in the certainty or uncertainty of my own position, sensing the danger to the well-being of our relationship, I take a breath and strive to be present to what is happening. If I feel discouraged, shamed, or threatened, I strive to stay put and not attack or run away. I also resist the urge to defend myself. For me, courage requires examining the flood of chemicals being pumped out by the amygdala, honoring their primitive intention to protect my body from harm, and allowing them to calm down before acting.

Amygdala driven conversations tend to end badly. But courageously pausing until I am able to remember my love and care for my partner before continuing the conversation can make a world of difference. The solution to most relationship conflicts will not be found in establishing who is right or who is wrong. It will be found in comprehending what each party is feeling, then examining what unmet universal human needs are driving those feelings in that moment. Once we both understand the needs that motivate our feelings and actions, we can, with care for each others needs, explore ways to resolve the conflict.

When my focus moves away from being right or wrong but toward respect, caring and the desire to understand, a foundation for trust and mutual commitment can be built and reinforced. That takes courage. The courage to look at one’s own reactivity and the sources of it. The courage to attend to the hormonal soup sloshing around in the brain stimulating that reactivity and to question its impulsive conclusions. The courage to put aside temporarily one’s truth claims to better comprehend the other and their claims.

The peace we seek in the world requires us to have the courage to nurture and to develop peace in our hearts, minds and spirits.

Higher Purpose

Readings

No fear Shakespeare version of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nastiness that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all? Dying, sleeping—that’s all dying is—a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us—that’s an achievement to wish for. To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream. Ah, but there’s the catch: in death’s sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come, after we’ve put the noise and commotion of life behind us. That’s certainly something to worry about. That’s the consideration that makes us stretch out our sufferings so long. After all, who would put up with all life’s humiliations—the abuse from superiors, the insults of arrogant men, the pangs of unrequited love, the inefficiency of the legal system, the rudeness of people in office, and the mistreatment good people have to take from bad—when you could simply take out your knife and call it quits? Who would choose to grunt and sweat through an exhausting life, unless they were afraid of something dreadful after death, the undiscovered country from which no visitor returns, which we wonder about without getting any answers from and which makes us stick to the evils we know rather than rush off to seek the ones we don’t? Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.

from “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground that is given him to till…

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. …

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude…

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which the universal reliance may be grounded? …

The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, that last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.

Sermon

Poor Hamlet, such a troubled character.

The recent death of his father, the king of Denmark, and the hasty remarriage of his mother Gertrude to Claudius, his father’s brother, paralyzes him with grief and anger. Yet, he has no focus for that anger until he meets his father’s ghost and learns of his mother’s betrayal and his father’s murder by Claudius’ hand. As Sir Walter Scott put it so well:

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

The ghost of Hamlet’s father, stuck in purgatory because he died before he could confess and be absolved of his sins by the church, wants revenge and his son is the one who needs to step up and even the score.

Sadly, Hamlet isn’t quite up to the task, and partly because he has been infected by the changing attitudes of his time. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy reveals his reluctance, perhaps born of exposure to the Calvinist view of eternal torment or a flirting consideration of Greek philosophy that reemerged during the Renaissance. What is the meaning of life anyway?

Hamlet’s sense of being ungrounded in a changing world, feels so true to our time as well. Remember, only a few hundred years have passed since our planet has gone from being the center of the universe to an insignificant speck of dust on the outer rim of a galaxy in an incredibly large, expanding universe on its way to fizzling out some short billions of years from now.

Science robbed humanity of ultimate significance by showing us how small we are in the greater scheme of existence. The forces that shape stars, planets and solar systems operate at a scale that minimizes our importance.

Listen to how William Lane Craig, author of Reasonable Faith puts it:

“If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.”

The philosophers who’ve expressed this angst well are the Existentialists. The world can only be approached as absurd, lacking inherent order and value, unsound and devoid of rationality. French philosopher Camus, used the Greek myth of Sisyphus to express the ultimate futility of human existence. King Sisyphus was a very crafty fellow. He promoted navigation and commerce but was avaricious and deceitful. He offended Zeus by killing travelers and guests, a violation of hospitality, to maintain his iron-fisted rule. Sisyphus even tricked death, the god Thantos, and locked him up with his own chains. Zeus condemned Sisyphus for eternity to roll a huge stone up a hill then watch his efforts made meaningless as the stone then rolled back to the bottom each time.

Camus thought Sisyphus was still able to make meaning of his eternal punishment. Remember Sisyphus was a crafty fellow. He still could make meaning in the act of rolling the rock up the hill rather than the achievement at the end. After all, time will eventually wash away all of our achievements anyway. Who remembers who invented the wheel after all.

This parallels the central proposition of existentialism, that existence precedes essence. In other words, the fact our individual existence is more important than the preexisting forms into which society may wish to mold us, be it labels, roles, stereotypes, and categories. The life we make for ourselves individually creates our essence, rather than a preexisting form that we must shape ourselves into. We are free to create our own values and determine our own meaning and purpose, not submit to one imposed upon us by society, religion or the state.

But that freedom to shape oneself is a heavy burden as we see Hamlet waffling about what to do. In an earlier age, he would have taken up his sword and avenged his father’s murder without a second thought. Polonius, the duplicitous courtier hoping to marry his daughter Ophelia to Hamlet and set her up to be queen, is killed by Hamlet while hiding behind a curtain spying on him for Claudius. Laertes, his son, doesn’t hesitate after hearing of his father’s murder. He returns from France, hot headed and ready for revenge. But Hamlet would rather hold the skull of Yorick the clown and blather on to his faithful companion Horatio, about how many times he kissed his lips as a child. Hamlet will not step up and claim his essence, claim his purpose.

For better or worse, many of us, at times, are like Hamlet. We too are driven by events and opportunities. We are rarely able to stand apart from the onrushing rush of life’s demands and calmly make a free and reasoned choice. Being born in the Hamptons will shape vastly different opportunities than being born in Outer Mongolia. The good or bad fortune of our birth, the good and bad parenting we received, our genetic aptitude for hand-eye coordination, talent of ear and eye, ability for clear thought, to reason and analyze, the fitness and health of our body, all these factors cast the die before we are ready to choose a direction and form a purpose. And the circumstances around us may vastly limit our options. None of us can conjure genius out of the skillful use of learning styles. Mozart was born not made.

So we are far less free to create ourselves than we might like. And those who rise to greatness often have uncommon advantages.

But whatever our limited choices might be, we still can choose the higher purpose over the lower one. Discerning that higher purpose and choosing it imbues our lives with meaning.

Here are four qualities a higher purpose has to assist you in that discerning process.

First, a higher purpose isn’t self-serving, it transcends the self. The Biblical Prophets were not arguing about the size of slice of the pie they should be getting. They spoke God’s anger at the violation of God’s covenant. The authors of the Declaration of Independence were not doing a cost-benefit analysis of what they would get by rejecting British rule. Give me liberty or give me death. Malalai Joya, the Afghan woman who I heard speak here on Wednesday about the crimes going on against her people, especially women, by the warlords and fundamentalists who’ve been backed by the faith and credit of the US Government, doesn’t advocate to advance her personal wellbeing. She has survived seven assassination attempts made against her. She is working for a greater vision of justice, equality and democracy than the Afghanis knows today.

She is an example of the second quality of a higher purpose. A higher purpose serves the good of the whole rather than any person or group. I’d put all the work being done to stop dumping sewage and toxic waste products in our rivers and landfills in this category. I find the movement to get to zero waste, in which chemist Paul Palmer was an early leader, terrifically exciting. Engineering manufacturing processes so well that the effluent leaving a plant is cleaner than the water that came in, is example of that vision we desperately need for every industrial facility.

A government dedicated to serving a higher purpose would look for ways to care for all people without endangering the ecosystem upon which we all depend for life. It would treat all the peoples of the world without prejudice assuming their inherent dignity and worth. Now that humanity dominates this planet, we must take responsibility to care for its future. The greater good of earth is in our hands right now. I believe we can both love people and live sustainably on this planet.

The third quality of a higher purpose is its timeless nature. A higher purpose will have the same value it had in Sumeria, Greco-Roman times, Biblical times, in Medieval times, the reign of Asoka in India, the Han and the Ming Chinese dynasties, the Kofun and Shogun periods of Japanese history, during the Renaissance, during the Victorian era as it does today. The care for and preservation of life has a timeless quality. Honesty and respect have a timeless quality. The pursuit of knowledge, truth and meaning has a timeless quality. Forming community and connections has a timeless quality. Generosity, compassion and wisdom have timeless value.

Which leads me to the fourth and last quality of a higher purpose I’ll mention: it must, in one way or another, be a creative expression of love. Every higher purpose points us to the greatness of which we are made and have our being. For some that love is identical with God, but that word cannot convey the lived reality, the water in which we swim. What I know is that love is more real than what our senses can report to us and our mind can conceive. The best we can do is ponder it with awe and wonder … and give our lives to its service. I love how Emerson puts it in the Oversoul which we read quotes from this morning together:

When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius, when it breathes through our will, it is virtue, when it flows through our affections, it is love.

For all Hamlet’s angst about what to do, he is very fortunate to have faithful Horatio by his side. Horatio is the hidden-in-plain-sight model of virtue for us to observe and appreciate. From the first scene, Horatio embodies rationality, and calm. He is fearless in the face of the ghost as he demands to know it’s purpose. Hamlet praises Horatio for his virtue and self-control. His stoic bearing, a model of ancient character, doesn’t waver, inspiring Hamlet’s confidence and trust. Yet Horatio feels deeply and loves Hamlet with all his heart.

At the end of the play Horatio, moved by duty and honor, is eager to drain the last poison from the cup that has killed Gertrude so he may accompany Hamlet in death. Hamlet must forbid him this act so Horatio may live to tell his story to the world.

As we see in the contrast between Horatio and Hamlet, discerning a higher purpose is not the same as acting upon it and living it in the world. And many of us do not follow just one higher purpose but have several of them that sometimes compete with each other. My calling to ministry sometimes conflicts with being a husband and father. And those may not square with taking a week of time to do a meditation retreat. Walking the Buddhist Eightfold Path may not always dovetail with a western lifestyle. Our hardest struggles can be to reconcile seemingly conflicting higher purposes.

This is why we need some source of inner guidance to bring it all into balance. Emerson suggests that source, one’s intuition brought to life and refined by being passed through the fire of thought.

In that refining fire, can emerge a common thread. In Emerson words:

One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. (from Self Reliance)

As the late, Rev. Dr. Forrest Church put it:

Is Shakespeare right? Is all the world a stage, with all the men and women merely players? Not exactly. Remember, we help write the play in which we are featured. This is a challenge, because we don’t control our own material. The curtain may fall before we have a chance to perform our monologue or sing our swan song. On the other hand, we needed to follow the script. We can improvise, try out lines, strike poses, experiment while discovering, as best we can, what the play in which we’re featured, is all about. (from Lifelines)

What I know, from the time I’ve strutted on this stage, is the satisfaction and meaning I’ve found, following my intuition and translating it into genuine action. To follow my example, though, would be folly. However, to follow your own inner light, passed through the fire of your thought and your experience, can be an excellent path to finding and fulfilling your higher purpose.

May this congregation be an excellent resource and support for you as you walk that path toward meaning, satisfaction and fulfillment.

Benediction

I close with words by Dostoyevsky

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

May our lives be guided by both higher purpose and high resolve to work for the benefit of all beings.

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.

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.