Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Between Godliness and Godlessness

Growing up, my spiritual life had a single story. That is, my spiritual life had only a fraction of the truth or one perspective. My mother was an ultra-Catholic and my father couldn’t have cared less. So Catholicism won out in our house. The single story was dogma. Jesus was the son of God, he died for our sins, was killed, rose again, and would someday return to take me to heaven where I would live in the clouds with no worries forever and ever. If ever one of us in the family would stray from this single story my mother would say, and I quote, “That's blasphemy!”

I knew what blasphemy was before I memorized my home address. There wasn't a gray area in this single religious story. There was no chicken or egg line of thinking allowed, and there were no other possibilities, period. This made my growing extremely difficult.

At the age of 12, realizing I was gay, I had to decide and declare to myself that I would simply need to accept that I would be alone in life and would be just fine. That is what my single religious story told me. There wasn't an alternative in that single story. As I grew older and started to question, to engage all that was forbidden, and create my own religious story, I waited for God to reject me or, even worse, condemn me. I literally would look up into the sky looking for the disappointed and vengeful eye of God. I would actually physically cower as a way to possibly avoid punishment. I had to accept that I was a spiritual failure, that I was not worthy and if I was condemned, I deserved it. The culture raising me reinforced that.

Some time ago I listened to Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk about how our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story we risk a critical misunderstanding. When talking about being Nigerian and how the West thinks of Africans she says, “If I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.” She goes on by telling us that “to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." And so regarding Adichie’s experience with how the West experiences Africans and how my and our spiritual experiences are reduced to a single story, we realize that our location is not the only story or the only truth. Our view and belief or the view and belief of the other is not the only, not the correct or most logical way of thinking. Perhaps through the evolution of our stories and fluidity of our Unitarian Universalist theologies we realize that we do not own the truth and that others that make such a claim are sadly mistaken.

This understanding of the pitfalls of the single story will help us to consider an article in the New York Times written by op-ed columnist Frank Bruni. Bruni holds up Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and best-selling author who famously took a buzz saw to major world religions and whose new book is an example of an atheist evolving from his single atheistic story of godlessness to the consideration of godliness. Bruni writes, “Almost  midway through Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up, he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists. He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it.” In Waking Up Harris describes when that evolution happened. It happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”  Bruni asks the questions had Harris at last found God? Is Waking Up a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?

Hardly. Harris is actually up to something more complicated and interesting than that. He’s asking a chicken-or-egg question too seldom raised publicly in America, where religion is such sacred and protected turf, where God is on our currency and at our inaugurals and in our pledge and, unfortunately, is being written into legislation as a way to exempt the worshipful from standards that apply to everyone else. Bruni writes, “That [chicken or the egg] question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? ” Another way to ask that question is: Is the faith really an elaborate attempt to explain and romanticize the feeling of transcendence, rather than a bridge to it? “Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?” asks Bruni. 
Reflecting on the high that he felt by the Sea of Galilee, Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.” But that conclusion, in his view, would have been a prejudiced, willed one, because as he writes in his book he had felt similar exaltation and rapture at his desk, or while having his teeth cleaned,” or in other circumstances where he had slowed down, tuned out distractions and focused on the moment at hand. In other words, there are many ways of flight from commonplace worries, many routes of distraction. “They include prayer, but they also include meditation, exercise, communion with music, immersion in nature” writes Harris.

If you’d like to read Harris’ book I have it here available to you. It’s a worthy read as is the book by Greg Epstein, Good Without God, also here available to you. We can surely identify with the growing number of people around the country and the globe who are increasingly comfortable claiming that they aren’t finding the comfort they desire, or as Bruni writes, “the truth that makes sense to them,” within organized religion.

Twenty percent of adults in our country fall into that category. That’s significant. Interestingly, of that 20 percent, one out of three labelled themselves atheists or agnostics. However, more of these people had a belief in a higher power. Bruni reminds us that they aren’t “looking for a church, but may want some of the virtues — emotional grounding, psychic grace — that are associated and sometimes conflated with one, and that many Americans are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety,” and says, “In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.” Harris brings that to them — a guide to spirituality without religion.

Recently, however, part of Harris’ evolution to finding himself between godlessness and godliness, between faithlessness and piety, is his understanding of what a mistake it is to forget the goodness of religion and only harp on the cruelty done in the name of religion. In an interview Harris said, “You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma.”  Harris, Bruni, and Epstein advocate for  “unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science” equal with the loyalty to any seemingly divine word.

How do we live then as Unitarian Universalists falling somewhere, everywhere, on the spectrum of spirituality and our view of organized religion? Where do we fall as the self-described nonreligious on the spectrum of godliness and godlessness? Do we believe that we can evolve, like Harris -- one of the most noted atheists of our time -- experience transcendence and slide up and down the scale, or do we really and secretly believe we own the truth?

We’re friends here. We can share that we may, as religious liberals, think that we’ve cornered the market on the truth and that the Christian sitting in front of us, the Muslim sitting next to us, or the earth-centered pagan in the next row is lost and simply need to find us, find the real truth. But it’s like a family secret — it’s gauche to talk about or claim our ownership of the truth. Instead we may outwardly reject that.

These are challenging questions and ideas for sure. The real truth is that there is more to understanding reality than science and secular culture generally allow. How we pay attention to the present and recognize and be open to transcendence largely determines the quality of our lives and the quality of the lives of those we serve, support, and advocate for.

Spirituality remains a great hollowness in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other protective postures that reasonable people strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. We know the single story doesn’t serve us well. These postures may serve some of us well, but not in isolation and not in the place that denies the evolution of one’s own spirituality or the acceptance of another’s. Let us be open to sliding forward and backward on the spectrum, open to the fluidity of our intellectual and spiritual understanding. Let us live as authentic Unitarian Universalists working not only for freedom, reason and tolerance for others, but also for our own minds and spirits.  May it be so.

Between Godliness and Godlessness, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, April 12, 2015.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Have you ever played the Telephone Game? You know, the game where a group sits in a large circle? One person starts the game by whispering a short message into the ear of the person sitting to the right of them. The message is whispered once, then the new messenger passes the message on to the next person, and so on and so on.  When the message reaches the person to the left of the person that started the game, the message is announced out loud, and then the first person announces the original message. The final message is always very different than the original message.

If you are involved in our congregational life I guarantee you’ve played the game.  For example, I might say, “I wonder if we could have the outside surfaces of the piano cleaned.” And one week later I am asked why I dislike the piano and want it removed from the sanctuary. This is very human and quite amusing to me. I mention that game because in studying scripture related to the resurrection of Jesus I feel like I’m trapped in the Telephone Game. You see the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all have different stories.  There are a few similarities but each gospel presents a different account.

I’ve decided to use the account as written in the gospel of Luke which reads: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about it, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' "Then they remembered his words.”

Today our focus is on the phrase “he has risen!” Now before you get your coat and leave I assure you we will simply be using the text of the gospel as a story. There will be no conversions, baptisms, resurrections,  or any other supernatural tricks.  We are simply reflecting on a very popular story being told around the globe this weekend.

After the women had experienced the resurrection they of course ran to spread the news.  People then visited the tomb to see it with their own eyes and because at that time it was the law not to trust what women reported because, well, they were women.  No, Indiana wasn’t the first to have problems. Anyway the most noted followers of Jesus that rushed to the scene were Peter and another man, likely to be John.  Jesus’ followers were not dismayed, concerned, or affected by the missing body. They knew that the physical body was gone but what was left in the world and in the time they were living was Jesus’ ministry. A ministry of love, compassion, equality, generosity, and freedom.

Sounds like Unitarian Universalism to me. But I’m a heretic what do I know? All these and a multitude of other points of ministry  abide in Unitarian Universalism. We practice a living faith and agree that a religion should be fully lived, not simply believed. This is, of course, what early Christians believed, oh so many years ago.

Author Brandon Ambronsino writes, “Some 2002 years ago, or thereabouts, a child named Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in Palestine. From age 30 to 33, this Jewish man taught a new way of approaching the Torah, seeing the Eternal One, not as a jealous vengeful God, but as a Loving, Beneficent Parent God summoning us to our own divinity. He was killed because he threatened the status quo and commanded such compelling personal power that those who would otherwise rule over the masses became afraid.” The followers who survived Jesus witnessed to his extraordinary ministry and carried on his message as best as they could, by word of mouth, written testimony and letters, calling themselves various names until the label "Christian" stuck.

For 300 years theological debates could be heard in small circles at any time, in the field, in the house, in the marketplace, outside the temple. Sometimes it was dangerous to wonder aloud and other times the gathered had secured a safe place. Who was this Jesus some name the Christ? Was he the Messiah of the Jews? Is he God? Who killed him and why? What does his gospel mean? How shall we carry out his mission?  There were no set rituals, no statement of belief, no standard of meeting.

Christians endeavored to live their faith through service and study of Jesus' ministry as they received it. They made their priority love of neighbor and of creation and believed this was the way to enter into the Peaceable Realm which they thought would happen in their lifetime. As politics would have it, when Christianity became more popular and compelling to the masses, the Holy Roman Emperors saw opportunities for government. Sound familiar? Enter Constantine, who believed in ruling by absolutism. By the time he became emperor, the debates about Jesus were heated, causing much strife and confusion amongst church leaders. So the Council of Nicea was called to order which created a doctrine. Gone were the days of living your faith.

The root of the word "heretic" means "to choose." So, either you professed to the Nicene creed or you were a heretic, choosing to believe differently. And with the power of government behind that way of thinking, you could be killed, tortured, imprisoned, exiled or excommunicated for your choosing to believe differently. Does that sound familiar? It marked a significant point in Christian history, because from that point forward, mainstream Christianity changed from a religion that valued first how you lived and treated one another to valuing first what you believed. Because of the mixing of church and state, it became far more important to know what to say rather than live what you believe.

Ambronsino tells us, “Ironically, this change of emphasis weakened the Christian ministry, because people could profess a creed out of fear or expedience and yet not follow through on the precepts of the faith. Blurt out what you have to say to get into the door. Remember, Christianity was compelled to change, not because of a new prophet, but because of an emperor trying to control his empire. The authority that could be wielded by religious mandate was and remains powerful. Political leaders the world over, given that opportunity, could not resist it.” We can witness its temptation in our government today with all the evil speak that's rolling off tongues. It is the work of trying to win and control the soul of a nation toward a certain mandate -- but that's another sermon.

“He Has Risen!” for us today meant something similar to early followers. Unitarian Universalists don’t necessarily believe in the miracles and supernatural stories, but we do believe in no doctrine, and that how we live and treat one another is our religion. We believe just as the followers showing up at an empty tomb that love, compassion, and freedom must be alive in our present world, not a future world to be revealed after death. Just as with early Christians ignorance, power and greed are destroying freedom of belief, the separation of church and state, and the inherent worth and dignity of each person.

“What’s radical about Easter, then, is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in,” writes Ambronsino. Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In that kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do LGBTQ lives and the lives of the undocumented within our borders -- “Remember the stranger in your midst” is a common refrain in that kingdom.

Many with political agendas are guilty of branding their particular ideologies with the name of Jesus, both on the right and left. But there’s no denying that, at least in recent U.S. history, conservatives have been ready to marry God and government. As a result, Christianity has come to be associated less with policies aimed at helping the poor — and more with those that often serve to keep them down -- keeping everyone down.

“The gospels, philosopher John Caputo writes, invite us to imagine a new way of life where the poetics of that early ministry are transformed into political structures: “What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad? What would it be like if there were a politics of and for the children, who are the future; a politics not of sovereignty, of top-down power, but a politics that builds from the bottom up, where “the nothings” enjoy pride of place and a special privilege?” Caputo then asks this frightening question: “Would it not be in almost every respect the opposite of the politics that presently passes itself off under the name of Jesus?”

What would Jesus do if he showed up today, say, in Washington, D.C.? Would he turn a blind eye to racial injustices in Ferguson and elsewhere? Would he lobby to ensure that entire swaths of our population continue to feel as if they don’t belong in their cities, in their religious congregations, in their local bakeries? Would he, interested as he is in the physical bodies of all he encounters, enact policies that bar people from the health care they desperately need?

But Easter doesn’t deny our broken world. For us as Unitarian Universalists it is not about resurrection, but the rising of a faith, a tradition, a time where our faith and religion are lived and not indoctrinated. What Easter teaches is this: Even in the midst of the world you’re living in, it’s possible to actually pledge loyalty to a different one. Two thousand years later, the promise of Easter has not lost its power. The hope from the risen, then as now, invites us to live in this world as if it is somehow a different world.  A world created and influenced by all that we hold so dear.  May it be so.

Risen, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Supporting Roles

True Story.  My family is very casual with death.  As a child I learned about death at an early age and had even been to a few wakes and funerals by age 10.  Well, that was until the Aunt Shirley incident of 1979.  My great Aunt Shirley died in 1979.

I remember her well.  I went to the wake and can remember standing on the stool meant to be used for kneeling to take a peek at Aunt Shirley.  I was unafraid.  I was also bored and was expected to be quiet as were my cousins around my age.  In our family we have 3 days of wakes and then a funeral.  It’s exhausting.  I think it was on the second day of wakes that the incident happened.  The visitor line had ended, we were all sitting quietly, restless and bored child and adult alike.  It was quiet and we still had an hour to go. My cousin Christy who was 12 at the time had had enough.  You see Christy craved to be the center of attention and would do most anything to get it.  Christy mounted the stool in front of the casket and in a voice not unlike Ethel Mermen began to belt out Everything’s Coming Up Roses.  Christy got attention alright.  She was snatched from the stool and escorted out of the funeral home.  I don’t think we saw Christy for 2 weeks.  Christy is 47 now and still is the center of attention.  We still laugh at the Aunt Shirley incident of 1979.
After a good laugh we processed the incident.  Christy is well aware of how her ego can sometimes cause chaos, cause her embarrassment, and make it hard to maintain relationships.  Christy’s ego will never let her take a supporting role.  She needs to be the star.

When we worship only at the altar of our own egos, our own self-importance, we are worshipping at a really small altar.  Sometimes, we need to know that we are not 'masters of the universe", but that we stand profoundly humble before the greater forces of the natural world and the unfolding cosmos -- and humble before one another with whom we share this earth. It is only by rooting our lives within those greater forces, and directing our sights toward those greater goals, that the so-often-absurd, always-limited, oh-so-finite lives of any of us can grow to become truly meaningful.

If we cling with all our strength to our own little lives as the center of all meaning, then we ultimately drown in a sense of our own absurdity -- or we grow tired and lose hope and give over control of our lives to some outside authority.  The point isn't to get rid of the self, but to cultivate it and develop it until it becomes a greater self.

Ego isn't a bad thing. It's just not everything. It has to grow, and become something more.  It needs to consider a supporting role.  Ghandi once wrote “I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.”  Ahimsa is referred to as nonviolence or causing no injury.  You see when in a supporting role you do bring yourself down to zero and are available, accessible, present to others.

American writer and philosopher Ken Wilber asks, "What existed before human beings had ego?" "Was it something better, holier?" Then he answers his own question:  "Prior to the ego was not angels, but apes; and prior to that, worms; and prior to that, ferns; and prior to that, dirt. The [development of the] Ego was not a Fall down from the Ground [of Being], but a major step up" toward the realization of human possibility and our greater consciousness of who we truly are.”

Spiritual growth for Unitarian Universalists has never been  about denying the self.  It's about letting the self evolve.  “I guess you could say it's about replacing the lower case self with the upper-case Self,” says Unitarian Universalist minster the Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz.  “Lower-case self,” he says, “ the good old little ego, is made up of fear and defenses. There is another Self inside of us, the greater self, the capital-S Self, which we neglect only at our own emotional and spiritual peril. It's what Emerson called "the Oversoul": "that the Highest dwells in us; that the sources of nature are within our own souls"...

How can we sit back in a supporting role while as Gandhi says “putting ourselves last” once in a while. What should we listen for in our minds, spirit, and in Emerson’s definition of soul?  A wise woman named Sandy Alemian-Goldberg gives us some pointers for learning how to listen:  "The soul is continually speaking to us," she writes, "but it often cannot be heard through the chattering [of the ego]. But there are a number of ways to connect... We [can] create a sacred and safe place for [us] to connect with the wisdom, truth, and love within [our] soul[s]."  And Sandy then enunciates some of the ways we can discern between the voices.

  • The Ego will tell us: "You need to be perfect."
  • The Soul will say: "You are perfect in this moment."
  • The Ego will tell us: "You have to be right."
  • The Soul will say: "Do the right thing."
  • The Ego will ask: "What if..."
  • The Soul will say: "So what..."
  • The Ego will shrug: "It's just a silly coincidence."
  • The Soul will respond: "Coincidences are guideposts."
  • The Ego screams: "Show me the money!"
  • The Soul whispers: "Follow your bliss. Feel the passion."
  • The Ego demands: "Ignore your pain. Repress it. Stuff it way down..."
  • The Soul says: "Face your fears. Hug your demons. Learn your lessons."
  • The Ego says: "Don't risk a broken heart."
  • The Soul says: "Love is always worth the risk..."
  • The Ego warns: "Stay on the path you already know."
  • The Soul says: "Follow your heart. Follow your calling. Discover your path."
  • "Be like everyone else," the Ego demands.
  • "Be who you are," the Soul invites.

Clearly to sit in a supporting role we need to let go and listen. Our ego and self importance is brought down to zero.  Rev Barbara Merritt once wrote: “Whether or not you believe in God, you need to realize you yourself are not God. For some it takes a lifetime to achieve that realization; for others it’s a daily discipline to remember it. This may be one way to understand what is meant by the term, “spirituality” -- the task of discovering, and then remembering, that we are not God.”

To illustrate Merritt’s point let’s consider the story of two wolves:
An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life...
He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
One wolf is evil -- he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego.
The other is good -- he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.
This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too."
They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied: "The one you feed".

I would like for each person in this room to ask these questions right now.  Which wolf do I most feed?  Who am I creating with my person?  Since I awoke this morning … have I acted out of my ego or through my love and my generosity?

There are so many definitions of what Ego is to people, but mainly ego is a part of our self, it helps determine and define our personalities while on this earth.  Not our true personality, however, but the one that gives us reason to fear, loath, control, isolate and to feel insecurity, to hold back forgiveness & strike out with anger.  Ego believes there is never enough, so it must hold on to and stake claim upon.  It is like a cocoon that we build up around ourselves for all the reasons I just mentioned. Ego is small, inflexible, and judgment-based, it holds truths about us that turn us away from each other and ourselves, providing yet more reason to distrust and isolate further.  Most importantly, I believe, ego is something we are ready to leave behind. Our judgment of people and of circumstances, the way we view situations and the attitude we maintain while engaging them is critical in the decision as to which wolf inside, you will feed.
Albert Einstein wrote, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  The delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Sometimes the best way to care for ourselves is to care for others, and vice versa. Sometimes the best way to care for others is to care for ourselves.  To me, both statements are true.   May we in our service to one another be ready.  Let us be willing to serve in a supporting role versus a role of self importance, a destructive need to be right, to be greater than, better than the people around us. Let us evolve, together. Choose the good wolf. Buddha said,” We are never separated from our enlightenment.” I believe the Journey is not about seeking out, but about discovering what is already inherent in each of us. It’s about peeling back the layers of ego that make us who we are….Or may I say, who we are not, the first key is awareness.  My Challenge to you……Be your Self
May it be so.

Supporting Roles, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, March 22, 2015.