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.