Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fooling Ourselves


We readily recognize the biases in the thinking of others. But our own biases? Not so much. Let me start with a bold comment:

Much of what passes for “religion” -- beliefs, rites, statements, commandments, holy artifacts, sacred places, theories, histories, hierarchies, etc. ranges from sheer ranting to misguided, unfounded, warped and sometimes dangerous ideas.

Most of what we label “religious” is self-based and generated -- like urinating in your boots to keep your feet warm. If all the “religious” wars, religious hatreds, religious-generated pain and suffering throughout human history is not convincing enough of such thinking, then we are not thinking.

So, what works with us ? For us?

If a major goal of life is to grow, what in our religion supports that? That’s a good starting thought. All living beings are meant to grow. If consideration feels life giving, let’s be considerate and choose that which achieves consideration. All life is enabled by consideration. Consideration is moral. It supports. Love is often supportive, but it waxes and wanes. Consideration is steadier as a support. What in a religion is considerate, kind, helpful is of value to us all.

We all know what growth is and what consideration is. We do not all know what love is. I do not want my neighbor to love me: who knows what he or she thinks “love” is? One “loves” mom, ice cream, scotch, french fries, bacon, dogs, baseball, wearing masks, being macho, taunting gay people …. the list is endless for each of us and often hurtful. Some feel it a religious duty to defend, fight for or even kill for their concept of religion. Many “love” their guns, or swords or dogmas.

One’s individual faith or belief is generally harmless to others when it is held alone, but often aggressive and potentially dangerous when organized by a particular sect. Some beliefs are merely a form of prejudice meant to elevate the status of the believers, or to foist some kind of behavior upon others. Not so long ago, it was the cry of the New England zealots: “Let us burn the witches to save them.” Salvation by murder!

There is little more unsettling or frightening than to be faced by a Christian bearing down upon you determined to “love” or to “save you”, unless it’s a radical Muslim who sees you as an unbeliever representing the Great Satan of the West, or the teenager in your granddaughter’s school itching to quit and join ISIS for thrills.

Most of us rest rather securely in our beliefs, little realizing that many of our beliefs are not just unreasonable or unfounded, but actually costly and even self-defeating. There are those who believe everyone needs 8 glasses of 8 ounces of water a day, or that so-called “natural” foods are best, or that bottled water is better than tap water (after all it costs about 1500 to 2000 times as much)! To them these things are “common knowledge”.

Knowledge is not wisdom or truth. Much of our “knowledge” is false, misleading. We don’t even know what we see. A 5-year study of the accuracy of eyewitness testimony versus DNA evidence has shown that eye witnesses court testimony is wrong 76% of the time.

There are two things to remember about seeing. We see what we believe, we do not believe what we see; we interpret everything. We have attitudes, reactions, and prejudices.

What is the truth about what we see? Could it be that truth cannot be seen? Therefore: There is always another way to see something. Whenever you get angry or annoyed because of what someone says or does, take a few seconds to see it another way before reacting.

Many believe one should avoid irradiated foods. But the radiation passes through the food and there is no harmful residue and the radiation kills much of the bacteria and helps preserve the food. Some are passionate about organic foods although a 50-year review by the Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that all the research so far shows no health advantage or nutritional superiority in organic foods. But they cost more.

Perhaps we have more passionate beliefs that are just wrong or insignificant about food than almost anything else. 
Here are a few that many are almost “religious” about:
· Sugar makes children hyperactive
· Vaccines cause ADHD or even AIDS

Many of us believe:
· You can boost your immune system with supplements
· Herbal remedies are ancient so therefore they are safe
· Eat a lot of beef, it’s good for you

Some people believe:
· Microwaves alter the chemical composition of food
· Magnets will draw iron from your blood
· Ear candling draws out impurities
· Hypnosis can aid memory, and that
· We use only 10% of our brain

In the 3rd world, others believe:
· You can get rid of HIV by having sex with a virgin
· Killing a non-believer will earn you a special spot in paradise.

And here at home, many believe:
· An ice bath can treat a fever
· Don’t put an infant to bed on its side
· Playing Mozart recordings for a pregnant woman increases the chance of her having a smart baby
· Farm-raised Atlantic salmon is as good for you as wild Pacific salmon

Knowledge is not benign. Beliefs affect your attitude, your behavior and your health. Are your religious beliefs positive or negative basically? Do they promote growth or decay? Are they considerate, supportive, caring? Are they inclusive rather than exclusive? Are they truer than your beliefs about food?

One way to make your own religion helpful to you and others is to practice gratitude as a belief – even as a “religious” act.

Gratitude helps you heal yourself and forgive others. It leads you to a state of peace. It does what religion ought to do. It teaches us to take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. Gratitude makes a fine religion, as does consideration.

Your first job is not to save the world or straighten out humanity or even to die on a cross for others. It’s not to spread the truth – whatever that is – or to make others aware of anything. It’s not even to forgive others or accept unkindness or to reconcile with those who have hurt you. No, important as those things are, your FIRST job is always to start with you. First, forgive yourself. Let anger or guilt or grief or disappointment go. Give it up willingly, as fully as you can. Empty yourself.

A religion may instruct you that your first duty in life is to commit your life to a god on high and to praise him always. Well, we creatures do not do “always” very well and, as Henry Thoreau well said: “I do not want to live what is not life for life is too dear and some have somewhat hastily concluded that the chief end of man here is to 'glorify God and enjoy him forever', rather than to let reality that surrounds us drench us.”

Your thoughts are yours. They control you. They can lead you to do unhealthful, even dangerous things. You are responsible for you. If you don’t take good care of you, then you have less to offer, less ability to care or be considerate because you cannot turn outward and grow if you are bound up inside. When you are calm, at peace, grateful, whatever religious attitude you develop will be more healthful and the God you turn to for guidance and growth will not be vengeful, hateful, or discriminating and therefore too limited to be of help. Life is coping with growth and change, not avoiding it through orthodoxy. “Status quo” is Latin for “the same mess we were in yesterday is what we are in today.” Change is the only constant in life, not orthodoxy.

I know that you and I sometimes feel overwhelmed, tired out, defenseless, depressed, denied, scared, hurt. We long for a Big Brother with broad shoulders. Someone to take over and make it all right. Maybe we cling to a loved one, call a friend, pray or go to a comforting place. A place “religious” to us. That’s helpful.

Or we could be bursting with good news, feeling so expansive we could run a mile on the beach. We want to hug someone special, dance, sing, tell a silly story, give thanks, to say or do something “religious”. That’s good.
On a very special occasion we want to get together with others and share an event meaningful to some or all of us. A marriage, a birth, a thanksgiving for the end of a stressful time, or the beginning of a better time. Celebration in a “religious” venue is appropriate.

Religious scripture may teach us ways to think about life, or direct our behavior in mutually helpful ways when it guides us individually. But, when our religious actions are directed by our “religion” we need to be careful. When the noun “religion” controls the adjective “religious” we become puppets, controlled from outside.

In the Middle East, Indonesia and Africa, we are witnessing “religions” directing rapes, abductions, beheadings, wars. No-growth marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Sunnis and Shias do not share consideration or gratitude. Passion and hatred characterize “religious” behavior when a “religion” feels stressed anywhere.

When religions become organized, bureaucratic, they become problematic because they tend to become top-down in power, self-absorbed and even prejudiced and cruel.

We learned in school about the Catholic rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, who commissioned Columbus in 1492 to sail westward. We did not learn that on that August 3rd when he was to leave, he had to wait until the ship carrying the last of the Jews who chose deportation over forced conversion or execution had sailed.

I enjoy joining with Unitarians and Quakers because it is hardly likely that their organizations – such as they are – will ever solidify and turn belligerent in any cause. They encourage growth and they exude consideration. They are pro-human enterprises and the religious actions of their members are individually based. Orthodox religions beheaded people in the West as some now do in the East. So far, Quakers and Unitarians have not done that.

It’s as if they believe in a God who is a good parent who doesn’t force a dogma on them or praise them for forcing others to convert to their dogma. A God who doesn’t care to stamp them with a “religion” but encourages them to be considerate, who fosters their growth as individuals rather than form them up in ranks as “Crusaders”.

I started this talk with the statement about how we fool ourselves and I rambled on about a number of day-to-day beliefs we have that are untrue. “Religious” beliefs are a hotbed of un-truths. When a religion enforces the beliefs about infallibility and the necessity to force others into those beliefs or else, we need to remind ourselves that we don’t know even some basic things we “believe” such as: when Jesus was born or where (Nazareth? Bethlehem?). Even our celebration of Independence Day is wrong -- nothing happened on July 4th: it was voted upon on July 2nd and signed August 2nd!

 So relax and remember:
· When we mix politics and religion, people get burned at the stake, and that
· We should believe the truth seekers, not those who claim to have found it, and that
· God is too big to fit into any one religion, and that
· God’s original plan was just to hang out in a garden with a couple of vegetarians.

May the God of your choice help you grow, to feel gratitude, and be considerate in and with your “religious” beliefs.

Fooling Ourselves, a sermon delivered by Chip Chapin at 1stUUPB, Dec 14, 2014.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holding On

A few days ago I received a Facebook message from a former congregant from a church I served in Massachusetts. Struggling with divorce, the loss of his 14-year-old son, and other stresses, he was reaching out. He writes, “Some thoughts as I enter the holiday season...It is important to remember that not everyone is surrounded by large wonderful families. Some of us have problems during the holidays and some of us are overcome with great sadness when we remember the loved ones who are not with us. I have no one to spend these times with and I find myself besieged by loneliness. I need caring, loving thoughts right now. I know you may be overwhelmed with giving a moment of support for all those who have family problems, health struggles, job issues, worries of any kind and just need to know someone cares. Do it for all of us, for nobody is immune. I’m sorry this is my holiday message, but it is real and painful. Pray for me.”

I share this with you not to be a drag or to bring you down. I promise to bring you back out of the dark places we visit this morning. I offer this to remind ourselves that this season is sometimes labeled “Blue Christmas” and some of us here struggle this time of year needing our attention and affection.

The Rev. Phyllis Hubbel writes, “Ask yourself about your ideal holiday and you will experience and can almost compute -- your risk for anxiety and disappointment. Would you prefer that your entire family be together rather than separated along the lines of in-laws, divorce constraints, or undeniable geography? What about those we’ve lost or those we’ve lost and struggle to recall. Would you prefer to pick and choose your relatives and how they would ideally behave? What about the state of things all around us? Are there perfectionist “shoulds” shouting their suggestions for your dinner, designs and relentless demands decorating your internal conversations?

Do these days serve as a reminder of things lost and past hurts?” The power of greed, the race to be good enough, our losses of people, our safety and well being, our health, and wealth tries to steal the ingredients that strengthen the magic of this season. Your best shot against being overtaken by holiday disappointment — the shadow side of holiday joy, is to take stock of what you expect, what you wish, what you need and what you desire. If we can shine a light on what we are expecting of ourselves and others, we can modify and lighten up the unwanted cloud of downheartedness that can often get in the way of holiday joy.

One particular family and community we can’t ignore this morning is the family of Michael Brown and the community of Ferguson, Missouri. You will remember Brown as the black youth shot and killed by police and most recently a grand jury decided that the police officer would not be held accountable for his crime. This season will go on Ferguson, Missouri. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that the Thanksgiving parade that was canceled due to protests will be rescheduled, the Twilight Tour of Homes will begin December 9th, shoppers are being rerouted to stores that are away from the hot spots of Ferguson, and decorating has commenced. The decorations are being placed over boarded up and broken store fronts, but the holiday season goes on despite the grieving family, community, and the injustice. We remember them this morning. We hold them in our hearts. And so will the bright lights, greeting cards, carols, parties, and events go on around us though we may be in a space not worthy of celebration.

We cannot easily compare grief. “Some tragedies,” says Hubbel, “are clearly more soul searing, traumatic, than others. What we do know is that tragedy visits all of us. When it comes, it challenges us. Some of us break. Some burdens are too great for any to carry. Some of us are not strong enough to handle even the ordinary heartbreaks that are part of our human experience. God or the universe does sometimes give us burdens too great to bear. Some of us find strength we didn’t know we had. Some of us grow stronger, more compassionate.”

I’m talking about a Blue Christmas. We will all sometime face the birthdays, the anniversaries, Thanksgivings, Hanukkahs, Christmases and New Years with loss heavy on our hearts. Too often, the heartache actually occurred at one of those special times. Even if the heartache didn’t happen near an important holiday, these special times with special memories -- these times when our loved ones are supposed to be with us, when we are supposed to be happy -- bring our loss right back to us. December is especially bad as it is a whole month intended for celebrations with those we love.

Yes, here come the holidays,” says the Rev. Arthur Severence, “full of unrealistic expectations and psychological baggage heavy enough to choke any airport carousel. Let’s put the fun back in dysfunctional family get-together as so many of us start our regimen of over self medicating for the holidays and counting the days until we can get back to so- called normal when we don’t have to pretend that we’re happy or in good spirits! That’s part of the problem, you see, with the holidays; we’re surrounded by them!” Surrounded by people and songs wanting us to be of good cheer and in the holiday spirit after all, right? Where’s your holiday spirit? someone will ask us if we’re not appropriately happy. That dreaded holiday spirit, mostly in the form of endless songs seems to surround us everywhere we go. It can quickly have the opposite effect!

Severance shares his ten commandments of making it through the holidays. I offer you an interpretation of seven of the ten because three of them were absolutely despairing in my eyes. My apologies to Rev. Severence.
  • 1. Remember that Pain is Inevitable; suffering is optional. Accept this at the beginning that there will be a variety of kinds of pain from physical to mental to spiritual -- all connected, by the way -- depression to headaches to heartaches to anger and so on.
  • 2. Express Yourself Clearly. Talk about how you’re feeling to someone who will truly listen. Remember what happens when we ASSUME we know what someone is feeling? Remember that your minister reminds you to call him if you feel the need to talk!
  • 3. Beware of Nostalgia. Don’t let comparing the past ruin the present, especially because no one can ever bake a pie like grandma use to bake when we were children! At the same time, let yourself enjoy the positive parts of basking in the glow of warm memories. Just don’t expect the present to measure up to your nostalgic past!
  • 5. I love #5! Take it easy on yourself; lower your standards. Martha Stewart doesn’t live here and isn’t likely to visit! Don’t compare yourself to the family favorite or success story; be glad for who you are.
  • 8. Spend more time with people you love! (and yes, that may NOT be relatives) If you can't, or don't want to, be with family, get with friends, go to church, or volunteer somewhere, but be around people!
  • 9. Reach out and touch someone (and be touched)! We need the human touch; we need to be hugged and touched on a regular basis.
  • 10. Come to church! You didn’t see this one coming, did you? Cultivate your spiritual dimension that is in community with others and that sense of the divine, however you define that. Relationships are at the core of all religion!
Something that Severence found out during this season as UU ministers share stories, the author of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, a Unitarian minister named Edmund Hamilton Sears, had had a difficult time in ministry and his song was written as a protest song against the Mexican war, in the 1840’s, but was written after he first had suffered a nervous breakdown! The third verse, especially, sounds like it could have been written yesterday and reflects our times:

But with the woes of sin and strife
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Along with this we look to the celebration of the Winter Solstice which commemorates the night of the year with the most darkness and to celebrate the coming of the light . In this spirit, I invite you to listen to a Blessing for the Longest Night written by the artist Jan Richardson. The blessing is written in the hope that being authentic and honest about our experiences of this season can be part of what leads us — sometimes without us knowing how or why in advance — to a different time, a different place, and a different space in on our journey through this life. And perhaps the pagan practice of choosing to celebrate the “coming of the light” precisely on the darkest day of the year can point us toward the hope that on the other side of even the darkest night, dawn will come. I offer you this blessing:

All throughout these months as the shadows have lengthened, this blessing has been gathering itself, making ready, preparing for this night. It has practiced walking in the dark, traveling with its eyes closed, feeling its way by memory by touch by the pull of the moon even as it wanes. So believe me when I tell you this blessing will reach you even if you have not light enough to read it; it will find you even though you cannot see it coming. You will know the moment of its arriving by your release of the breath you have held so long; a loosening of the clenching in your hands, of the clutch around your heart; a thinning of the darkness that had drawn itself around you. This blessing does not mean to take the night away but it knows its hidden roads, knows the resting spots along the path, knows what it means to travel in the company of a friend. So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see. This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn.

This is a season for holding on. No matter where in the darkness you find yourself this season, walk in any direction and you will be moving toward the dawn. Let us stop the rush and allow the spirit of the season to enter our being. Let us clear our vision and deepen our concern. Let it move us away from an isolating concern for self to a relationship of love and care and wonder and joy with all of life around us. May this season of peace on earth, good will to all be one of potential that may be realized in all of us. Let love be born in us, let love never die. May we walk together and love one another. Hold on.

May it be so.

Holding On, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Nov 30, 2014. 

Giving Thanks

What do we have to be thankful for? I mean, with all that is happening around us, in our families, and with ourselves, why should we be thankful for that which darkens the heart and makes the soul weep? Endless war, death, disease, divorce, absent adult children, heartache, health issues, hypocrisy; financial, friendship, and fulfillment woes. What do we have to be thankful for?

I attended a party last week. I wasn’t invited. I invited myself. I did hang the balloons and streamers and set the stage for the best party of the season. It was my pity party. You may know that I was hospitalized last Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure how you wouldn’t be aware, I mean I’ve been sending emails and posting on Facebook drumming up all the sympathy I could get. I found myself, 45 years old, facing serious cardiac issues. Feeling low, afraid, and confused I relied on my old standbys of anger, defiance, and why me?

Yes the pity party was in full swing and I was on the dance floor refusing to feel anything and refusing to name one single thing that was good in my life. As far as I was concerned there wasn’t anything good. nor would there be anything good in the future. I wonder if you’ve planned or accepted invitations to pity parties? Hey, pity parties work just fine as long as my friends self loathing, denial, lack of control and responsibility are there. Pity parties have usefulness in the short term, but you don’t want to be the last one at the party with the lampshade on your head.

Today, I stand before you stronger than last Sunday, pulling myself out of the demoralizing experience of sudden illness and giving thanks. I’m giving thanks that my family was by my side. I’m giving thanks that my congregation reached out again and again. I’m giving thanks that I left the party. You see, we get confused when it comes to giving thanks. We understand that we should be thankful for the big things, things we want -- not necessarily the small things we need. Seeing only the absence of the things we want, we see nothing to be thankful for.

It can seem like being thankful, or focusing on what’s good in our lives, is of out of vogue”, says author Beverly Flaxington. Why aren’t we overall more grateful for the gifts we are given in our daily lives? Why do we have to stop and really think about what we can be thankful for? How many things do we simply take for granted throughout our day? Are you breathing right now? Are you sitting up of your own accord? Do you have any friends, family members, or pets in your life? Do you have interests, hobbies, or a talent? Do you live in a country that provides some sort of support to its residents? Do you have a congregation that listens, provides, and loves? Flaxington says, “ It’s amazing to me when I listen to people talk about their “bad day” what that really means to them. It can mean they were stuck in traffic, or late to a meeting, or we become unexpectedly sick. A bad day could be when someone rear-ended your car, or you didn’t get your way or you were just plain bored!” All of us can get so focused on what’s wrong, what we don’t want, that we forget the things going on around us that are gifts and blessings.

How do you practice gratitude? Gratitude might be risky business, depending on your life circumstances, but I would suggest that especially when we might be down on our luck, or in tight financial circumstances, or having phases of ill-health, that it is especially important to engage in regular expressions of gratitude. Gratitude gives us something to hold on to, a way to remain engaged and connected to life. And it is not only positive events ... we can find gratitude in what initially may seem like negative experiences, as these negative experiences turn us on our heads and see the world in new ways.

How do you practice giving thanks? What does it feel like, that sense of wanting to show appreciation, that sense of awe for the amazing realities of being connected to others around you? However, your feelings of gratitude aren’t enough. How do you act on your feelings, how do you demonstrate gratitude? It’s not hard: there is much to be grateful for. We simply need to pay attention.

We might use the words of e.e. cummings: “I thank you, God, for this most amazing day.” “Or, if that doesn’t work,” says the Rev. Barbara Coyne, “I thank you, Great Spirit, for this most amazing gift of a creative and reasoning mind.” Or, “I thank you, Mother Earth, for this most amazing blue sky.”

I thank you, my children who never return my phone calls, for reminding me of the amazing gift of patience.” “I thank you, my children, who when you do call always seems to pick my busiest times, for helping remind me of my promise that family always comes first.” “I thank you, driver who slows down to allow me to enter the highway, for the difference a courtesy can make.” “I thank you, congregant who just commented on my sermon, for the gift of knowing that I have touched at least one person.” “I thank you, congregant who disagrees with my sermon, for the gift of my exploring more deeply what I really understand and value.” “I thank you, farmers and producers, for the food I am privileged to put on my plate everyday.” “I thank you, architects and builders, for the warm, dry roof over my head.” “I thank you, unbelievable sea for holding my body and raft.” “I thank you, mountains, for being strong and firm and reliable, even when I feel weak and vulnerable.” “I thank myself, for my resolve to live a grateful life.” “I thank you Life, for this amazing gift of being alive.”

In his poem “Envirez-vous,” poet Charles Baudelaire writes, “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But get drunk. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch in the mournful solitude of your room you wake again drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that flies, everything that groans, everything that rolls, everything that sings, everything that speaks. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to get drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, as you wish.”

Baudelaire isn’t advocating literal drunkenness. He tells us in order to step out of hardship and focus and remember the small, but important, things, we must immerse ourselves in the things we love, the people we love and count them as things to be thankful for.

Henry David Thoreau writes a similar message in “To Live Deliberately” which is Responsive Reading #660 in our hymnal. Thoreau writes, “Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived. I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear, nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary. I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.” Thoreau is truly deliberate about living and choosing the essentials of life. This suggests giving thanks is a virtue, a practice, a spiritual practice.

The defining element of our faith must be a practice of some kind. The Rev. Sam Trumbore writes that this is a spiritual discipline. He says, “For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.” What should be our essential spiritual discipline? As Trumbore tells us obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith. Ours could be giving thanks. In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by giving thanks or gratitude. Giving thanks is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist theology. “Grateful individuals live in a way that leads to the kind of society human beings long for.” Writes Benedictine monk David Rast.

It is with a grateful heart that we are Unitarian Universalists. Let us raise up the virtue of giving thanks. We have the opportunity on Thanksgiving to begin or deepen our practice of giving thanks. Let this season wake our hearts and minds and guide us on our journey toward wholeness and to be bold enough to embrace the practice of giving thanks. May you and yours be blessed this holiday. I give thanks.

May it be so.

- Sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on Nov 23, 2014.

Monday, November 3, 2014


I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my ministry over the past year with the Board, and with the Committee on Ministry the last couple of weeks. I’m paying attention to not jump into situations or create change without thorough discernment. Through my own reflection I’ve discovered that I want you to have what you deserve. I want you to have the things you’ve waited for and I want you to have them now. There is just one problem. The few times I’ve jumped in too quickly created a “situation” that undermined our shared ministry. In the context of silent power I lost power in these instances. The power of restraint, the power of confidence, and the power of my authentic self, which knows to do the opposite. I hope you’ve learned that I didn’t arrive to mastermind a power grab which, truthfully, stops ministry dead in its tracks. The power I am intentional about is the power of being trustworthy, credible, restrained, non-judgmental, faithful, and honorable. All of these are silent power, power that is revealed and afforded by those around me and only grows when I am centered.

When I say the word “power,” what comes to mind? I wonder if words like oppressive, unjust, controlling, and privileged come to mind. We mustn’t be surprised as this is what our society teaches us that this is what power is and what power must be. Who has the power in our nation, our communities, and around the world? You need only pick up the newspaper and those with power will instantly be revealed, like yesterday’s Palm Beach Post in which a 20-year-old woman was said to be sexually assaulted by the police officer transporting her to where her family was waiting for her, or in the New York Times where big business has the power over our economy AND our government. These are two examples of how we might view power. It’s the abuse of power that comes to mind.

I want to share other examples of power. Power that isn’t necessarily related to oppression, but inward power that we may not understand or know that it even exists. A new kind of power.

Tracy Cochran, the Editor of Parabola magazine, tells us, “new powers may be revealed in beings and situations we judge to be powerless.” I’ve been reflecting on examples from our human history that explain new and revealed power. Believe it or not George Washington and Gandhi fall into this same category. Both possessed revealed power. I’m sure they grew to understand that power, but might have been unaware of it at the starting point. George Washington’s ability to appear as an eloquent statesman was power. Author Linda Kohanov writes, “Jefferson complained that the persistent image of the elder Washington on horseback always seemed to trump spirited speeches and persuasive intellectual arguments anyone else devised in opposition. Without saying a word, the man radiated dignity, compassion, and power.” In his book Quiet Gandhi writes, “I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of truth. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”

Washington’s mere dignified presence and Gandhi’s passivity was strength, was power. They are excellent examples of silent power. Power that is revealed. Silent power is not “in your face” power. We may not recognize it in others or in ourselves unless we begin identifying and relating to a new idea of power -- not the first words that came to mind when I asked you to think about power minutes ago.

Let me offer an example of being transformed by power we didn’t even know we had. If you haven’t visited our Thrift Store lately, please do. I usually tell Barbara, our office administrator, that I’m going to the Thrift Store to pop in and say hello to the volunteers. Unfortunately, for me, my ability to simply pop in is a farce. I don’t pop in anywhere. I’m a talker. I lose track and apologize to Barbara and she always says, “I know it’s hard for you to get out of the Thrift Store.” My last visit was this past Friday. I didn’t realize who would be volunteering that day. It was Mary Reynolds. Mary and I are the worst possible combination. We are both talkers. Not your average talkers, but major league talkers. We are able to flip from conversation to conversation, topic to topic, and sometimes even finish sentences for one another. This gift of gab is a slippery slope for people like us. I leave with advice, book recommendations, recipes, and enjoy our laughter and storytelling. However, I did leave on Friday with a recommendation from Mary that caused me to rework my already- developed sermon for this morning.

Mary recommended that I watch the documentary titled Buck, and so I did. Buck is a man with a traumatic childhood. He was a blindfolded roper as a child. The first one in fact. His father forced Buck and his brother to perform. If he did not perform in a way that was acceptable to his father he would receive a vicious beating. In fact he would be beaten immediately after the performance, on the way home when his father would stop the truck and beat him, and when he arrived home he received another beating. Buck would never look at his father because his father would rage and ask him what he was looking at and offer a severe beating. Buck was eventually removed from his home by authorities and remained in foster care until he was an adult.

You wonder what happens to a child who endured such a life. Buck thought of himself to be powerless. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that his power he didn’t know he had was revealed. Buck was able to tame horses and teach people to tame horses that no one else could tame. You see we often think of power as control or in this case needing to break the spirit of a horse. Some have a need to dominate to feel their power. Remarkably, given his childhood, Buck tamed horses using his power of gentle teaching, earning trust, restraint, and so on. He is a true horse whisperer because of his revealed power. He didn’t know about the power that was inside of him, not until he began working with horses. You see it became power for Buck because everyone around him had been unsuccessful with what comes naturally to him. Buck was capable of exercising an expansive, non-predatory power, one that would transform into mindfulness, courage, and poise. Buck’s capabilities became his power.

Author Linda Kohanov tells us, “Power is discovered … the seemingly more mysterious abilities involved are nonverbal and unphotographable, but not supernatural.” That is, the silent and hidden power we possess is available to all of us to experience. We simply need to take the time and practice for discovery and claim our power. In all the cases and stories we’ve shared this morning, we are, as Lorraine Krhealing puts it, “using power that we inherited as living members of Earth’s community; we are transforming what the earth yields into energy we humans can use.”

Understand that silent power works just as effectively for the immoral. Sometimes we can go into overuse of our personal power to an extent that we act against our values. Think about leaders in our history that possessed a charisma, a silent power so influential that they were able to lead millions. Hitler and Alexander the Great come to my mind. If we think about all of the traits we would expect in effective leadership we would find them in these two men. Here is the problem, they are fine examples of immoral leadership. Humans have the capacity to use their silent power for evil. Both Hitler and Alexander were possessed with the need to conquer, to kill anyone in their way, and use power immorally. So the attributes that are revealed as power for Gandhi are the same attributes revealed as power for Hitler and Alexander. They understood their silent power but used it in opposite ways. The difference between compassionate, disciplined, and moral power and effective yet harmful immoral power.

It’s like I’ve told my children, “If only you could use your powers for good!” It's a funny line but think about how true it is. As Unitarian Universalists most, if not all, of our work is to live our power in ways that heal, support, provide, and build. Personal power is our personal brand -- where we come from a place of strength -- aligning and igniting values, personality preferences and what we stand for with how we behave and live in the world. Power, at its core, is not evil. In fact, it is a standard theological concept dating back to at least St. Augustine that abused power is not power at all, but a falling away from true power. Power needs to be used rightly, which means shared, cooperatively and creatively, for the sake of the common good. We should not fear power; we should fear its misdirection and rely on ethics to direct our personal power. We are on the front lines of teaching the world to divest ourselves from the immoral use of power and work toward justice and transformation; to use our silent powers for good and not evil.

Let us do ourselves a favor and invest some thinking into how we access each of our sources of power -- for good and for evil. Let us become connected to our unphotographable or silent personal power. Eighteenth century American essayist William George Jordon, writes “Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power for good or evil -- the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. This is simply the constant radiation of what man really is, not what he pretends to be.”

Let us engage the work that our Unitarian Universalist faith and tradition calls us to do. Let us use our marvelous powers be a beacon of hope and radiate love, compassion, justice, and peace for others to follow. Good will triumph. Good must triumph.

May it be so.

Power, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor delivered at 1stUUPB, Nov 2, 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Walking Toward Trouble

One of the highlights of my summer was attending a lecture where Sister Simone Campbell was speaking.  You might remember her from “Nuns on the Bus.”  Campbell said when she was on the first Nuns on the Bus social justice tour, a full-time videographer came along. Near the end of the trip he said, “It seems like whenever there is trouble, you seem to walk towards it; most people run away.” She said: “I realized that all of our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards it. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal. If the high level leaders do that, isn’t that the witness that we all try to follow?”

Campbell looks at our society as a pluralistic society. Campbell explained, “Where we meet is in community. Where we meet is in the first three words of the Constitution, which is ‘We the people.’ It is an unpatriotic lie that we’re based in individualism, and we’ve got to cut it out.  It’s we the people that are going to make something happen because we can create the vision.”  She challenged us, as described in the UU World, to do “grocery store missionary work”: talk to people you don’t know about things that really matter. Talk to people in line at the store, she said; ask them what they think about immigration reform or raising the minimum wage. Her experience has been that people have thought about it and have something to say, but no one asks them.

She tells us “that if you walk towards community, we become deeply aware of the truth that we’re in this together. That we are not separate, that there is no real discernible difference when you get right down to it. … We may have different stories to tell, but it’s the same hunger, the same desire, the same passion to make a difference in our world, to be who we are called to be.”

As Unitarian Universalists we have a history of walking toward trouble.  All the way back to Michael Servetus, the anti-Trinitarian who went underground, but eventually visited John Calvin’s church on October 27, 1553 in Geneva and stood face to face with him.  Calvin burned Servetus, along with his writings.  Servetus knew what he was doing.  He was walking toward trouble.  Walking toward becoming a martyr for the sake of freedom.  The religious freedom of Unitarian Universalism.  The best example of Unitarian Universalists walking toward trouble in our history might be when in 1965 Unitarian and Universalists joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.

The Unitarian Universalist Association was not quite four years old when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent an urgent telegram to its Boston headquarters on March 7, 1965, asking religious leaders and concerned citizens to join him in Selma, Alabama, where African-Americans, when marching for their right to vote, had been brutally attacked. The President of the UUA at the time was Dana Greeley who arrived for work that morning and found the telegram on his desk marked by a staffer who had already begun getting the word out. That telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King ultimately inspired the UUA Board of Trustees and more than 200 other Unitarian Universalist laypeople and clergy to go to Selma, Alabama. That famous telegram can be viewed in Harvard’s library and reads:
In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America. No American is without responsibility. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma. (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., telegram, March 8, 1965)

Two of the Unitarian Universalists who responded to King’s appeal paid with their lives. In a way that few deaths do, the murders of the Rev. James J. Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo helped change the course of history. James Reeb had been in Alabama less than a day when white assailants attacked him and two other white Unitarian Universalist ministers on a Selma sidewalk, fatally injuring him with a blow to the head. Reeb’s death on March 11, 1965, inspired a wave of nationwide protests, memorial services, and calls for federal action, transforming Reeb into a martyr.  I am proud of this instance where Unitarian Universalists walked toward trouble.  I often wonder what we will do when we receive a telegram.  Last week Unitarian Universalists showed up in Ferguson, Missouri to join police brutality protests.  Several were arrested and some injured.

What is it that would allow us to walk away from trouble?  Isn’t it true that if we stand by with our heads in the sand we become complicit? Research points to a few reasons why we might walk away. The first is pluralistic ignorance. One of the first steps in anyone's decision to help another is the recognition that someone is actually in need of help. To do this, the bystander must realize that they are witnessing an emergency situation and that a victim is in need of assistance. When we are in an ambiguous situation we often look to others to see how they are reacting. We assume that others may know something that we don't, so we gauge their reactions before we decide how we will respond. But if those around us are not acting , then we may fail to recognize the immediacy of the situation and therefore fail to intervene.

The second is diffusion of responsibility. People may fail to intervene if they do not take personal responsibility for intervening.   The problem is that the more bystanders there are, the less responsible each individual feels. When you are the only eyewitness present, 100% of the responsibility for providing help rests on your shoulders. But if there are five eyewitnesses, only 20% of the responsibility is yours. The responsibility becomes defused or dispersed among the group members. In these situations, people may assume that someone else will help or that someone else is better qualified to provide assistance. But if everyone assumes this, then no one will intervene.

The third and last is fatigue.  We’ve seen all of the issues needing our attention before. It seems we have now become immune to that which ails the world and it takes more for us now to contribute, react and support.

We have evolved under conditions in which our primary concern is to protect ourselves and our families. Son Pham, a writer for the Ottawa Times, tells us “There was no adaptive value in protecting hundreds of thousands across an ocean. Today, technology brings us news of famine and genocide in distant lands, but still we are likely to react as we would have in earlier times.”  Psychologist Paul Slovic asks how we can "overcome the psychological obstacles to action." He says, “we must create laws and institutions to enforce appropriate action even when we are not psychologically equipped to act.”

One of those institutions is the Unitarian Universalist congregation. We are compelled to act not because of a compelling pictures or stories, but because it's morally right.  Listening to Sister Simone I could tell that this wasn’t just a strategy to instigate action, it was a calling from a place of our shared longing and it was a place of significant risk as she told us, “But what you have to do is you have to let it sink down from the head into the heart. Walking towards trouble means we're willing to open ourselves to the surprise, to different perspectives. So” Sister Simone said, “the importance of being uncertain means that I live a life that is slightly disturbed, if you want to know the truth.”

So as we walk toward trouble, “as we walk to meet the needs of human pain and human healing”, writes my colleague the Rev. George Milarr, “we walk with doubt and with the risk of the unknown and to me that is where we come to the edge. That place where doubt meets faith, that place of leaving certitude behind, that is the edge and the edge is a place where we find discomfort and the edge is the place where we grow. Business as usual is no longer enough. We are at the edge of crisis in how we live together with each other and with the planet.” He describes our living as being at the edge. I am at the edge when it comes to the struggle between fundamentalism vs. reason. We are on the edge of how we practice religion in this world as fundamentalism is growing in opposition to other fundamentalism and the response worries me as much as the original problem. I am on the edge when I think about our government’s inability to come together and solve problems. I am on the edge with how we can learn to live with, let alone love and embrace, difference in our communities.  And, I am on the edge regarding Unitarian Universalism as it has been practiced over the past 50 years and its relevancy as we struggle to understand how to meet the needs of a growing discomfort with traditional religious communities and new generations defining community in very different ways than the times and communities that many of our congregations were born to serve.

“We can move away from the edge, says Milarr, “by reaching out in love. Reaching out in love implies moving beyond our places of comfort, including those we have placed around meeting our individual needs, and radically reaching out to those who may be searching for whatever we have found, and what we may be able to offer the world including those who are needing to find help for their human longings.”

Reaching out in love was the theme of General Assembly this year and it really struck me deeply and asks us to think about what does reaching out in love actually mean?  First, it is about reaching, reaching out past the edge of our traditional comfort as individuals, and as congregations. It is totally understandable that we look for and hope for a community that wraps us in the comforting blanket of familiarity and reaching out in love can challenge that equilibrium.  But radically reaching out in love can also challenge the systems and structures that have brought us all to Ferguson, Missouri, that deny and complicate our climate crisis, that continue the political stalemate the impedes us coming together to solve problems, and that feeds the growth of fundamentalism that threatens long-term peace. Reaching out in love is hard to do and our work is to think about  how to crawl back when we get too close to the edge, how to care for ourselves and each other when the edge feels really scary and how to deal with the unknown when we reach the edge of what we know or have known.

When we are reaching out to the world with the values and principles that we cherish to address the threats to our ecosystem, we should be mustering the strength of members throughout the county so more voices can be heard. When we stand with those who are oppressed due to sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity, we should be doing that arm-in-arm and shoulder to shoulder with other UUs, other faith communities or partner organization who may not share our faith but certainly share our values. And, when we stand before a city council with a resolution on gun violence, there shouldn’t be two UU’s in the room, there should be 200 wearing shirts that state that we are willing to stand with anyone on the Side of Love.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed today with the chaos and lack of love in the world, I am encouraged  by the incredible efforts being put forth by so many. There is so much good, there is so much love, there actually is so much progress, we have come so far with so much more to go in what may be a shorter time than we think. Find sources of strength and sustenance. Be willing to appreciate your comfort spots and yet, being willing to let go of things as they have always been done. Love still can prevail as we continue to walk towards trouble, reach out in love, and stand together on the edge.

Campbell concluded her lecture by reading “Incarnation,” a poem she wrote in Baghdad, a portion of which was:

Let compassion be our hands, reaching to be with each other, all others to touch, hold, heal this fractured world.  Let wisdom be our feet, bringing us to the crying need to friends or foe to share this body’s blood.  Let love be our eyes, that we might see the beauty, see the dream lurking in the shadows of despair and dread.
May it be so.

Walking Toward Trouble, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor, delivered at 1stUUPB on Oct 2
6, 2014.

Monday, September 29, 2014


Most of you have probably heard Richard and me tell stories about our two sons. With his permission I want to start this morning by telling you more about my oldest son, Antonio. We call him Tony and he lives in Massachusetts. Tony is now 26 and we met him when he was seven and adopted him when he was eight.

Tony had a traumatic early childhood. When he was three he was found on a city street eating from a trash can placed on the street corner. He was neglected and abused by his parents and was removed from his home and eventually placed in the care of the state. When we met Tony we did notice that he had some cognitive delays but thought that they might be caused by his early childhood. We eventually scheduled a neuropsychiatric evaluation and we were told that our son had a pervasive developmental disorder. In other words he had a developmental disability or, more commonly, mental retardation.

Tony was not fazed by this label. He got on with life. I remember Tony as an athlete when he was a child. He played basketball. The only problem was that he held the ball like a football and ran in the opposite direction than the rest of his team. Eventually there was a coach on the correct end of the court waving to Tony when he got the ball. He was on his high school football team. Tony doesn’t know this but the coach let Tony play if he knew the team was going to win or if he knew the team was going to lose. Tony played when it didn’t matter what he did. He would be part of the team and not have to live with unnecessary consequences from his peers.

Tony also ran track and was a swimmer. Excellent at both except a coach would need to intervene because Tony would run and swim until someone told him to stop. Tony completed high school and now works in the library of the university where he lives. He is on committees and in the choir of the UU church we raised him in. He has friends and everyone in town knows who he is because of his charm and warmth. He lives a life larger than any of us thought was possible. I share all of this with you to help us understand that embodiment is not a fixed state but a process requiring deep listening, honesty, and a willingness to leave the known for the unknown –- to leave the realm of familiar ideas and ways of thinking for the wide open territory of truth. Can our lives be larger than we were led to believe possible? Despite all of the challenges Tony faced he was the embodiment of courage, resilience, risk, and determination. He lived his truth and was willing to try and try again … and again.

I often compare embodiment to the words of Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian James Luther Adams claiming our theology. He says there is no need for us to go from person to person to tell and explain our personal theology. They only need to look at our voluntary associations to discern what we believe. That is, they only need to look at the life we are living, engaging, and practicing to tell what we believe. Let me make this a little more clear. Our dear member and friend Judy Bonner rolls in our parking lot, car covered with bumper stickers encouraging peace, equality, justice, and compassion. We only need to look at Judy’s car to understand what she believes, the life she embodies. If you know Judy well you know that she embodies the qualities her bumper stickers champion. She dedicates her living to peace and justice. Our lives are a journey toward embodiment; a quest that continues.

Poet Mary Oliver writes of this journey saying, “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?” We will embody our personal truth only if we risk the journey, are honest and leave behind our ways that keep us bound and unable to journey toward the truth.

Let us unpack the notion of embodiment as a journey a bit more. Embodiment, in our religious lives is not a list of qualities we like best about ourselves. It is a practice, a journey, to acquire these attributes through our living. Within embodiment we have listening, honesty, willingness to take risks, and the search for the truth. The journey of embodiment is one with unexpected or unintended results.

I recently read a story by Tracy Cochran titled A Shared World. Cochran describes her decision to travel to India as a place unknown to her other than what she was told or had read. She writes. “I came to India braced for darkness. But in all my planning, I hadn’t anticipated the light.” She describes living in the unknown when her tendency was to seek the known. She said yes to this trip because she wanted to live life in a bigger way. What she found were the joys of being in community and the generosity of a people. She expected darkness but received light. She realized that we are meant to give ourselves to life and that we can turn away from life or be open to receive it. It is on the journey toward embodiment that we give ourselves to life and the unexpected, embracing both.
Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, tells us in the Tao Te Ching, the fundamental religious and philosophical text for Taoism, “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.”

The purpose of embodiment is to exist in the emotional and spiritual space of freedom, separate from the burdens of others' expectations. Embracing our own journey through life transcends us into creating our own voyage, in our own vehicle, with no hitchhiking needed. While driving ourselves we learn to take the scenic route through life while growing in emotional and spiritual intelligence. Life presents the opportunity to learn about ourselves in order to grow spiritually, not the other way around. This is the listening of embodiment. Listening to ourselves. Listening to the still and small voice within whether it be your voice or the voice of something or someone you believe to be greater than yourself. Honesty is staying true, honest, to one's beliefs. Honesty and integrity go hand in hand. Unitarian Universalists may find this easier than most because we are encouraged to be seekers and find our own truth versus managing the dishonesty of dogma.

In his 2013 commencement address at the University of California, DJ Patil says, "Actively take chances on others, even when it is at a risk to you and seek out others who will take a risk on you. Life always requires some level of risk taking. Risks are necessary to make changes happen and there will always be both personal risk, as well as to others involved. Comfort zones are really the perfect opposite for risks. They are the decisions and ways of doing things that have the least risks, the least unknowns and are easy for us to do. We should never let these comfort zones dominate us. Having a willingness to take on risks means also to have a willingness to step outside our comfort zones. Comfort zones are everything from our daily routine, to our lifestyle, to our work and habits or roles in our lives. All of these things that are repetitive and lasting become comfortable but, the new things in life really make things change over time. Anyone who is too afraid to step outside their comfort zone is also too afraid to take the risks that are often needed on the journey toward embodiment. If we give up comforts and ease to move towards and tackle the next challenge, we surely show great signs of personal and spiritual growth.

My colleague, the Rev. Carol Altman-Morton writes, “The challenge for Unitarian Universalists is not really in convincing us that there is a connection between mind, body, and spirit. The challenge is in getting us to move from thinking about it intellectually — knowing that there is a connection — to really experiencing it, being attentive and attuned. When and where do we experience it? It can be most easy to access when our senses are engaged: in relationships, nature, music, art, poetry. Through our experience we can move from knowing there is a connection, to learning about what that connection really means. We can know ourselves and each other more fully. “We are called to be the walking embodiment of our liberal faith.”

As messengers of Unitarian Universalism we must be the embodiment of our message. We must not live in a fixed state in our congregation or our lives. We must listen, deeply to ourselves and to the calling of our principles and tradition. We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the realities of our living, We must be willing to leave the known for the unknown and become familiar with the wide open territory of truth. We are seekers not of a single truth but our personal truth. We must be willing to take the journey of embodiment. We will only be rewarded by the promise that it is possible to live our lives and our faith beyond anything we could have imagined. There is no need to pack our bags. This journey is not a trip. It’s not a vacation. It is a process. A discovery. It is a process of self-discovery. A journey that brings us face to face with ourselves. The journey is life itself. Where will it take us?

The Rev. Jim Eller-Isaacs tells a story of what the journey might be for us as seekers. He recalls going to a Buddhist monastery for a retreat. He had forgotten to take his meditation cushion and so he looked around for one there. He was accustomed to the traditional type that is firm and inflexible. Nothing was available. He looked for one of those buckwheat-filled ones to use instead. No luck with that, either. Finally, he decided to do something radical and try out an inflatable meditation cushion that had been made for general use. Despite his distrust of anything new, he discovered the inflatable meditation cushion to be bliss. Even though a part of him whispered that “no real Zen student would use such a thing,” another part of him reminded himself that his Zen teacher — one of the most highly regarded Zen teachers in the U.S. — had been using one for years with no ill effect. Later it occurred to him that the traditional cushion is a metaphor for orthodoxy, rigid tradition, and the presumption that pain is good for us. “Sit and cope with it,” it suggests. The buckwheat cushion is better, but after a while, every nugget of buckwheat becomes engrained on your posterior and numbness is the result.

Dealing with religion can be like that, too. The inflatable cushion he observed was a good metaphor for our tradition and journey toward embodiment. It says, “pain is not required — you need not assume a painful position of body, mind, or spirit.” Your mind need not become paralyzed or numb. Just sit, be open, and see where your spiritual journey can take you. Let us prepare for the journey, the quest, that never ends.

May it be so.

Embodiment, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Sep 28, 2014.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I Don't Know

At the end of college and seminary I thought I knew a lot. I wondered why more people didn’t ask me anything. I had read and loved, but not self-applied, those great lines of Alexander Pope: “We think our fathers fools so wise we grow. Surely our younger sons will think us so.”

I remember my former in-laws at the time of a breakdown saying to me, you say something very annoying to us. What could that be? They said, you start a lot of statements with, “You’ll have to agree with me.” I knew I said that a lot, but I did not see how that could be annoying. I had read and loved, but not self-applied, the line of thinking of Plato that wisdom comes with age and only people of a certain age and wisdom, which includes humility, can be trusted with any kind of authority over others. I think I am learning and self-applying the fact that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. When I hear someone say, or myself think, we are older and wiser now, I want to chime in, You are surely half-right.

Hadn’t we all learned in school that life is a journey of actually learning how little we do know? And if you happen to have children, or be close to somebody else’s, they will remind you how little you actually know. I have been impressed with a scientist’s presentations of a Great Courses series on modern advances,  and the conclusion he would often state in his responses: science is progressing along many lines, but we really don’t know very much.

A book sits on my shelf. I bought it a long time ago but haven’t got far into it. The title is, TWO WORLDS ARE OURS by the theologian, John Macquarrie. It is an exploration of the history of Christian mysticism, which frankly I have read about in the past but not found that interesting. The idea of the book or at least the title is age-old. We are body and spirit, physical/material and spiritual. We can know a lot about the body, the human body, plant and animal life, fauna and flora, and we can know a lot about the body of the planet and heavenly bodies in space. The laws and rules for knowing and learning more about all those physical realities are well established. The Dalai Lama in his book our midweek class read, THE UNIVERSE IN A SINGLE ATOM, restates the rules of science pretty well: cause and effect, repeatable experiment, objective observation and measurement. That’s one world, one reality so to speak. The other world suggested in TWO WORLDS ARE OURS is something else altogether. We call it spirituality, our spiritual journey. We all have it, we all own it, TWO WORLDS ARE OURS.

We here are proud of our heritage of respect for everyone’s spiritual journey. No one here has more of a grasp on that world than anybody else. What we hope to do is to encourage each other to keep growing in your own spiritual brand. I suspect all of us at times feel, we don’t have much grasp, and sometimes we feel we are losing what grip we have on that world within. We are here to reassure each other, when some of us walk through the valley, we want to reassure one another: it will come back and you will come back. You will keep growing. That’s one thing we want to do and be for each other in a congregation. To be human means to be shaky at times; love will do that to you; people we care about will do that to you.

A major turnoff for me in religion is people claiming to KNOW more than they can possibly know, which often means confusing metaphor talk, which is really the only way we can talk about the spiritual world, confusing metaphor talk and scientific, objective physical world talk. I can’t believe there are so many American people who actually believe the world was created on a certain date in 4004 BCE. People who believe that cling to BC, forget BCE. You know there are theme parks to take you back as close to that year as possible. At least Disney is up-front about magic and fantasy; you go there for escape and to help the Florida economy, and because your grandchildren make you.

What we know and how we know about matters spiritual is completely different from what we know and how we know about matters physical. And here I can say with conviction, I really don’t know. But that doesn’t keep me from grasping, grappling, groping, searching, often, seemingly in the dark. The fact is, we even mean different things by spirituality.

For me -- and of course I can only talk for me -- spirituality is not about another world I can hope to figure out some day, or even enter some day, that day seeming sooner than it used to. That sense of spirituality as another world has been affected, I would say, in a clearly prejudiced way, has been warped by creative people like Cecil B. DeMille and Rod Serling, creative people who tried to translate the metaphorical into the physical. which reminds me of the Mormon pavilion of the 1964 world's fair. They showed a movie of people in heaven, all ages, happy, in white robes. And I left thinking I would be better off dying soon so I can be young for eternity.

For me, spirituality and holy are about worth, not what we are worth in assets but what we are worth as humans, and what we deem as the most worthy, worthwhile, valuable, and what our actual living, our practice shows that we love. Worship means what we ascribe worth to, what we center our lives around, what we value more than anything else. So, spirituality for me is reflecting on all that, how honest am I and how committed am I to that being the real for me? How big is the gap between what I profess and how I live? Big enough to bring  the word hypocrisy to mind?

One area or concern that most people would place under the umbrella spiritual -- and really all I can say is I don't know -- is the whole matter of the afterlife. In that area I think the rules for knowing are a whole lot different than what we usually mean when we say we know something. Those of us who were present in one of our book discussions years ago when we got onto the topic of eternity and what we thought it meant, those of us who heard our beloved and late friend Martha Michelsen, a proud UU,  say she didn’t know how it could be but she hoped and she believed that someday she would be with her daughter who had died of breast cancer just a few years previously. As we heard her say that, we could only feel, (i)May it be so.

In our book discussion, which we call a faith discussion, we invite sharing with this understanding: You won’t try to talk us into it and we won’t try to talk you out of it. I guess that’s also what we mean by encouraging each other on our spiritual journeys here. I know there are people in the class and in this congregation who believe in reincarnation in some way. Belief in reincarnation is as old as the human race, which I assure you, predates 4004 BCE. It goes against my grain, or my core belief, but if I am wrong, I hope I won’t be penalized someday, or, at the worst, have to come back as a fundamentalist.

(Parenthetically, one thing that deeply impressed us about the Dalai Lama’s book was, here was a very spiritual man studying with his vast resources the world of science and finding similarities between ancient Buddhism and modern science. One point he made over and over was that people err by closing the door to new knowledge. He calls that a metaphysics, or an ideology or a world view and that commitment may focus us or orient us but the error is in concluding there is no more truth or reality than what we can see. Here is one of the world’s most spiritual people writing this: “I have argued for the need for and possibility of a world view grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than the scientific.” The error lies in closing the mind too soon and to me that’s also the error of religious fundamentalism.)

I got a clue about what knowing means in spiritual matters when I came home briefly from college and was taken to lunch by my home minister in Troy NY, the minister who had a lot to do with my wanting to be a minister. He was very loving and very conservative theologically, from Asbury Kentucky, and I decided to add to the lunch menu all the doubts I had discovered in college. So I asked him how in the world he could be so sure about things like the virgin birth of Jesus, the physical resurrection, the absolute inerrancy -- meaning, no human flaws, no human anything, it was all of divine origin -- the perfectness of scripture. He responded in this disarming way: He did not know any of the things he believed for sure, but he was living as if they were true. And he thought that, even if wrong, they had positively guided his life.

That conversation has guided mine. Religion, spirituality is not about what we know and can prove to be true in this world or the next. A line from Christian scripture puts it this way, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” A similar phrase from the Judeo-Christian tradition is “by faith and not by sight”. Meaning, what we believe, what we’ve committed to, not what we can prove to be true. As I keep saying, it’s more about what we want to be true, and what we want to contribute to being true more so than what we know to be true.

What we know religiously is what we are committed to as if it were true, because it is true for us. What are the basics of this truth that hopefully we are living by?

The Dalai Lama says that compassion, the alleviation of suffering was Buddha’s driving passion, and Karen Armstrong, historian of the great religions, writes that all the main world religions lifted up compassion as the ethical core. I don’t think it’s unwarranted skepticism that makes me ask, why in the world isn't there more evidence of that? Why do the religions we have known best seem better at separating the sheep from the goats, and what did goats ever do to earn that negative? In that time-worn distinction, the sheep are those loved and tended by the good shepherd and the goats are the rejected. Jesus, take that put-down of the goats back!

As alike as we all are, and scientists say our DNA is about 99% the same, and our DNA is even about 98% the same as the animal world, as alike as we all are, humans seem to need to fix on differences. And differences, minuscule in the scheme, the DNA of things, can be used to use and abuse, to put down goats or people for just being who they are.

We UUs say we believe in the inherent dignity of all people. Do we really treat each other as if we know that to be true because we want it to be true and are committed to it?

A little humility about how much we actually do know is a good thing, and hopefully opens us up to learning a little more. But more than one author has written, we know enough to live committed lives, lives committed to the truth, like the dignity of all. The problem isn’t the knowing but the commitment. We are against putting down and separating out, even goats.  Amen.

I Don't Know, a sermon delivered by the Rev. Bob MacDonald at 1stUUPB, Sep 7, 2014.