Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spiritual Friendship

Once a month, I get in my car and drive to a religious retreat in another town that is exactly equidistant between my house and the Hysteric Cleric's. We meet to discuss spiritual things (right now, we're in the middle of Nouwen's Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith).

There are paths winding through the woods of the retreat. We have one path we usually take, but this time, we decided to go a different way. First we wound up at at a disc golf course, then we went another way and wound up blocked by a giant cobweb across the path. We didn't want to disturb Ms. Spider, so we went back to our old faithful path. Talking, talking, talking ... we looked up -- where were we? Where was the bench we usually come to?

We eventually turned around and went back. Never could figure out where we missed a turn. It's like we landed on a different path than had ever been there.

I'm sure there's a metaphor in there. 

We encourage each other, and we push each other to go deeper, to connect with our understandings of the Divine, and to ask ourselves important questions about being.

(And frankly, we give our loving spouses a break from all the "How is your soul" stuff that they tolerate, but must grow weary of.)

I have another spiritual friend, the DRE-BFF. Among other aspects of our relationship, she holds steady in her unwavering ethics and has high expectations of me. (And I, of her.)

Last year, Oprah interviewed Martha Stewart and they talked about how the woman Martha Stewart thought was her best friend testified against her.

I retold this story to the DRE-BFF. She didn't pause a second. "You commit insider trading, I'll testify against you, too!"

If you don't have a friend who holds you to the highest standards, who would testify against you if you broke the law... I'm sorry. And I hope you can find one.

The Hysteric Cleric and I were talking about being "The Beloved" this time, and I asked him when he felt beloved. I won't go into the details, but it will suffice to say that he feels deeply, profoundly loved by his spouse.

It is a tremendous gift and one I wholeheartedly relate to. People often talk about how our understandings of God come from our relationship with our parents. Yet religious texts also often speak of God in the terms of a lover. It seems only logical, to me, that romantic or eros love can give us insight into what we know of the Divine.

The Husband is a spiritual friend. He knows the depth and breadth of what I envision for my call; he cheers it on, makes my steps toward it possible. He calls me back to it when I feel a little lost.

Enlarged in his vision, I feel beloved and I feel I am The Beloved.
"...How do we know that we are not deluding ourselves...that we are not just listening to the voice of our own imagination? Who can judge their own heart? Who can determine if their feelings and insights are leading them in the right direction? ... We need someone who helps us to distinguish between the voice of God and all the other voices coming from our own confusion...We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it all, and to just walk away in despair. We need someone who cautions us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly toward a nebulous goal...we explore in the presence of another wise companion or two God's claim upon our lives, what has been and what may now be." -- Henri Nouwen
I am blessed with spiritual friends. I hope you are, too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Illimitable Mind

What do you get when you cross The Three Little Pigs with Forrest Church’s Cathedral of the World?

Three very different theological houses.

That first thrill of Unitarian Universalism lies in discovering your own power … having a church affirm that you have the right to discard whatever doesn’t fit your worldview and you are free to explore that vast cathedral of thought about ultimate reality. I have heard Unitarian Universalism described as a religion where “you take what you like, and leave the rest.”  This is freedom, but it is freedom without responsibility. 

It is important work that we do, systematically building an examined faith.  Because in all of our lives, the Big Bad Wolf is going to come calling. 

If you have a house of straw or even sticks – and this is something I can personally confess to – when the big bad wolf comes, your entire theological house can be swept away.  And you’re left with nothing. 

I think this is something that happened to John Lennon.  The Beatles had gone through a hateful breakup, he had numerous personal losses, he was bitter and disillusioned.  On his first solo album, he wrote the song God:

God is a concept,
By which we can measure,
Our pain,
I don't believe in magic,
I don't believe in I-ching,
I don't believe in bible,
I don't believe in tarot,

He goes on and on, all the things he no longer believes in, both secular and spiritual.  I don’t believe in Jesus … Kennedy … Buddha … yoga … Beatles.  He sings, “I just believe in me, Yoko and me.  The dream is over.”

It’s a complete stripping away of everything.

Well, some of us have to do that.  We have constructed houses of straw, taking the things that sound good, ignoring the things we’re not interested in or don’t like.  The Big Bad Wolf comes to the door and everything we believe is all blown away.  And we have to start all over again, from scratch.

But there is another way.

Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said, "An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is a faith worth discussing and testing."

An examined faith does not just mean ignoring the things we don’t like.  An examined faith is not only characterized by what we reject, but by what we embrace, and what we put into practice. 

To go and feed the hungry is a good thing. To know and understand what is the greater meaning deep in your soul that drives you to feed the hungry or march for the rights of the immigrant will give you the strength to continue when you face setbacks and failures. And unless you’re playing it too safe, you’ll face both of those. But your theology will feed your actions and vice-versa.

Systematically engaging with the deep issues helps you form a fully-examined faith. And you’ll discover not only what you believe, but who you are.

Michael E. Duffy wrote a book called the Skeptical, Practical Christian. Frankly, I don’t recommend it for UUs, not because of the Christianity, but because the majority of the book is spent saying, “It’s okay to be skeptical!”

Already there, guy.

But his 4th chapter is good, because he lays out a process for “being able to claim a personal faith conviction on a given issue.”

You identify your issue, examine why you care about it, what you currently believe, you explore other beliefs about it, and then you discover what happens when you live it.

So, first, identify your issue.  This can be something that you’re curious about or something that is affecting you at this point in your life.

If something doesn’t immediately come to mind, try this.  When was the last time you responded emotionally to something you heard? If you catch yourself feeling defensive when someone questions something you believe, or you just find yourself instinctively rejecting an idea … this might be an opportunity. I’ve come to see those kneejerks, or intense feelings, as a big neon light lighting up a door, “GO HERE!”  If I strongly believe or reject something, going deeper, beyond my surface reaction, always leads me somewhere I needed to go.

Second step: we need to examine why we care about this issue. 
Why do we have a horse in this race?  If our identity might be wrapped up in it – why?  What it is about this issue that we need to reflect on it now? 

When you are doing a deep search for meaning, it may take you to some scary places. That means you’re doing it right. There may be things in your life that you don’t want to revisit. Things you don’t want to think about. But make no mistake – just because you don’t revisit it, doesn’t mean it’s not shaping how you view the world.  It’s kind of like having one of those malware programs running on your computer – you ever have that?  It’s a program that you don’t even see, but suddenly, your computer is running slower.  Occasionally doing weird things.  We can have shadow beliefs running in our background that are affecting us – and we don’t even realize it.

Third step: you articulate your current convictions about the issue. And forming the words to explain what we believe is crucial. We can have fuzzy concepts in our mind, but articulating them – either by writing about them or talking about them to others – helps to process and produce an explanation about what we believe. This is the raw material that you have to work with.  The scientific method parallel is to construct a working hypothesis.  You’re finding your starting point. 

Now it’s time for the real work. 4th step. Take your starting point and enter into conversation about it with ‘conversation partners.’

A conversation partner need not be another person. Conversation partners are religious texts, world religions, the theologians and philosophers, your experiences, reason, ethics. And we need to look at a combination of these.

If we limit our conversation partners to only one religious text and doctrinal writings, we’re headed toward closed fundamentalism. And limiting our conversation partners to only our own experiences and reason leads to theological narcissism. And to leave out ethics means that we will not connect our deeply held beliefs with our part in healing the world.

Let me be blunt about why conversation partners are a necessary, required part of examining our faith.  We must have the humility to understand that no human possesses absolute truth.  Including us.  For a religious fundamentalist, the tendency is to make the Bible the sole authority on truth.  God said it, I believe it, that settles it.  Not a whole lot of room for growth there.

But we are just as dangerous if we decide that our sole authority on truth is us. “This just feels right to me,” means that we are limiting wisdom to our individual experience. And it means that we have no spiritual accountability.

We have to be willing to consider other ideas and philosophies, not just those that support our starting contention on an issue.

Now along with books and writings, conversation partners can and should be other people. We joke about “what do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness?”  “Someone who knocks on your door and asks, ‘What do you believe?’” 

Well, before we knock on doors, why don’t we start with the people we know – including each other.  Rather than just asking, “So, Joe … how’s your job?”  try something more meaningful – “So, the anniversary of Sept. 11 has me thinking about the nature of evil – what do you think about it?  Do you think it’s a force or a result?” 

It’s not necessarily appropriate water cooler talk … unless it’s the water cooler at your church.  This is why we are here.  To grapple with these big questions.

Then, the last step. Application. “Discover what kind of world is created when you live out your new commitments.”

We have to test our new belief and see if it works. Will we be better persons for having this belief? Will it serve us well, or will it hold us back?

What kind of world will we help create when we live out this new faith conviction?

If you are not currently living by that belief, do you need to change that belief or your life?

We have to test our accountability. Even though these are our own personal beliefs, we have to ask, “Will believing this contribute to a life-well lived for all people?”

If everyone believed this, what would that mean for the world?

We’re not just building a theological house for our own sake.  We are building what will house our soul, so that we are spiritually empowered to engage with the world we live in.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Gathered and Sent

Gathered and Sent
A Sermon Given by Lizard Eater 
at half a dozen churches in South Texas

Okay, so there were three blind people and  … (Congregation: “An elephant.”)  Elephant?  No, no, man, that’d just be weird.  Three blind people and a Unitarian Universalist church.  They’d taken a quiz on beliefnet.com that said they were all UUs so they wanted to see what a Unitarian Universalist church was.

The first came in and heard the choir practicing. “Oh,” he said.  “Music.  A Unitarian Universalist church is where you make music and celebrate.”

The next stumbled over a toolbox. Picking up a hammer, she said, “No, church is where we find purpose.” 

The third reached out to her so he could examine the toolbox, but as he did, he also stumbled.  She caught him and he reached up and touched her cheek.  “Ah,” he said.  “A Unitarian Universalist church is where you make community.”

They then walked down to the corner coffeeshop to continue arguing about it, because that is what we blind Unitarian Universalists do!

Of course, they were all right.  A Unitarian Universalist church is where we celebrate, find purpose, and make community.  And learn.  And connect.  And find meaning. 

But at its core, church is where we are gathered, before being sent back out.  We are a gathered and sent people.  We are gathered together to strengthen our souls … and we are sent out to strengthen the world.

When we gather together, we worship.  Worship, from the Old English weorthscipe, means to shape what is of worth.  It’s where we take time to focus on what we value.  And when we do this, when we gather together to worship, we give praise, we receive inspiration and we are fortified.

Now, praise is one of those challenging terms for Unitarian Universalists, because we’ve heard it used as a requirement – that there’s a God that created us just to praise him … for most of us, that just seems awfully human for the Divine. 

But praise is about pausing and paying attention to what we value. And celebrating it. Because it’s so easy to take things for granted.  We just get busy with our lives. When we praise, we pause.

I’m yet again trying to get on a regular exercise regimen.  I went down to my YMCA and since the weather was nice, rather than exercising inside, I went down to a path they have around a pond.  I had my mp3 player with good music and just walking along, looking at the lilypads, and the water, and the trees, I just felt so close that process of life that I call God.  And I was going along, and there’s a bench down by the water.  I didn’t stop, though, because, I had my groove on.  Next time around though, (pants) …. I'd lost my groove.  So I sat down on the bench.  And then I took out my earbuds. And I could hear birds and the sounds of the trees.  And I noticed all the details … a pillbug trotting along, a fish down in the water … here, fishy fishy fishy. I paused..  And then this great, cool, burst of honeysuckle scented air just hit me full in the face.  You can’t buy gifts like that.  You can only receive them.  I paused.  And I praised.

And when we gather together, one of the gifts we receive is inspiration.  Whether it’s in the pulpit, or the coffee hour, or during RE, or the corner forum … we get to hear the ideas of others. And that’s one of the great, precious gifts that we inherited in this liberal faith.  That we  have so many places to look to find our own answers. Our answers may be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, humanism, process theology … for many of us, they’re found in our rich theological heritage of Unitarianism and Universalism.  We read Hosea Ballou, Margaret Fuller or James Luther Adams, we take the What Moves Us classes and learn about Forrest Church and the Cathedral of the World … we find, as did one of our fine youth, an epiphany.  We gather and we are inspired. 

The Rev. Forrest Church, who gave us much inspiration, died last year.  At the first service at his church after his funeral, the Rev. Galen Guengerich told of a conversation he had had with Forrest.  See, Forrest always ended his sermons with, “Amen.  I love you.  And may God bless us all.”  He explained to his friend why he did so. 
He said,  “I think people understand what I’m trying to communicate when I say “I love you” from the pulpit.” He listed the three kinds of love that are described in the New Testament: romantic love, friendship, and divine love—agape. “People know I’m not saying “I love you” in the romantic sense,” he explained, “or even in the sense that friends would say “I love you” to each other.” He went on to say, in a typically self-deprecating observation, that he thought some people found him rather reserved in person. “But when I say, “I love you” from the pulpit,” he said, “something connects—I get connected to the congregation and they get connected to each other. It’s almost like, for a moment at least, we all part of each other—of something larger than ourselves. It’s the human form of love divine, as Blake put it.” “And besides,” he added, “someone once told me that I’m the only person in her life who ever says “I love you.” She comes to church to hear someone say that she matters.”
She comes to church to hear someone say that she matters.

Everyone turn to someone right now and say, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it!” (congregation does so)

We gather to feel that love.  We gather to remember that we matter, and that our values matter.  And we are fortified.

And so, having given praise, and received inspiration, and been fortified, our souls have been strengthened.

And so we are sent out to strengthen the world.

Unitarian Horace Mann said “Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity.”  What will your victory be?

Sometimes, I think we – and by “we,” I mean, “I” … sometimes we hold ourselves back because we think that “victory” must mean something huge, dramatic, and life changing.  But something can also be small, quiet, and life changing.  Because you just can’t know what will change a life. As Mother Theresa said, “we can do no great things, only small things with great love.”   Small things with great love.  We need to gives ourselves permission to bless others, without feeling we must know that the final outcome is, or that we must be judge and jury for whether someone truly deserves our small blessing.

Often, we make simple things so complicated, either because we can see the big, final masterpiece … and don’t realize that we need to first, just start with “what is the minimum I need to do to get this up and running?” … or because we are so attached to a desired outcome that we’re afraid to begin.  We can’t see the entire path, so we’re afraid to take that first step.

I heard the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar talk about this when he was about to take the dramatic step of going to Uganda to help support those fighting the evil proposed laws against homosexuals there.  He talked about the difference between when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and when they crossed the Jordan, like in our ancient readings today.

Sometimes, that path is clear and obvious.  We’re like Moses.  The enemy is at our back, the waters have been parted, “I know what to do, I can see my path.” Now, even when our path is clearly laid out for us, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  We may feel we’re not ready.  We may feel we’re stepping into shoes five times too big.  We may look at that water to the right, water to the left, and be afraid of drowning.  But the path is laid out.  We need only to step out on it.

Sometimes, though, the path isn’t so clear, like in the book of Joshua.  We’re carrying that ark, it’s pretty heavy.  And we don’t see a path.  We have to wade in first, trusting that a path will appear.  Step out in faith. So we do.  And after we have waded in, after our ankles are wet, then the path opens.  Sometimes, we just have to wade in, and hope that the path appears.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine, he’s the pastor of a Missionary Baptist church in Sugar Land, and he said, Yeah, but what about Elisha. 

Oh man.

See with Elisha, he has just watched his mentor be swept away to heaven in a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire. 

What to do now?  Well, first, he needs to cross back over the Jordan River. 

And sometimes we’re like Elisha.  Our souls have been strengthened.  And we are being sent out to strengthen the world.  But there’s no path there.  And we can wade out in the middle of it, but there’s still no path that we can see.  So Elisha he picks up the robe that Elijah left behind.  He had seen him roll it up and strike the waters, so he gives it a try.  And they part.  Sometimes we have to take what we’ve learned from others, and the tools we are given, and strike the waters.  Sometimes, we have to make our own path. 

A wise man said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase.”  Anyone know you said that?  Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, a man who knew both about gathering together in church to strengthen your soul, and then being sent out to strengthen the world.

This whole gathered and sent thing … this is the core of the missional church.  What does that mean, to be a missional church?

It means that every time you leave here, every Sunday, you go out into the world and you actively live as a Unitarian Universalist, you incarnate the values of Unitarian Universalism.  It means seeing people as beings who are meant to be loved and acting accordingly.  Feeding someone who is hungry.  Being in relationship with someone who needs a friend.  And doing these things, not because your church tells you to, but because you are Unitarian Universalism.  You are the hands and feet of this religion, these values, you are the hands and feet of the divine mystery.

I'm willing to bed that there are people here who feel like when they go through those front doors and leave this church, they are going out into a foreign world, a world that does not reflect their values.  A world that says buy this and you “need” that, a world where people ridicule the weak and promote hatred  and intolerance, a crass world that values celebrity over decency, flash over substance.  And you know what?  They’re right!  We are in a culture that often does not reflect our values. 

But the answer is not to hide here, to seek sanctuary here, not even to provide sanctuary here.  We are not a cave to hide out in.  We are missionaries.  We are missionaries.  And our job is to go out into that world out there, and spread kindness.  Love. Tolerance. 

But kindness.  Love.  Tolerance.  Those things by themselves, those forces, have no hands, have no feet.  Love is the most amazing power in the world, but love cannot literally hold open a door for someone burdened.  Love has no hands and no feet.

But we do.

We have hands and we have feet and we can walk out there, walk into that world, and be missionaries for what we hold to be true.  We can be the hands and feet of love.  And we can strengthen the world.

Every time we leave our church and go out to work for justice, we are strengthening the world.  Every time we leave our church and go out to extend kindness, we are strengthening the world.  And then we are gathered back together, to talk about the work we have done, to share how we have been walking humbly with our God and to worship together. And so it becomes this wonderful cycle of strengthening our souls and strengthening the world and the wheel just gets more and more momentum.  

We can build a land where we bind up the broken, restoring ruins of generations, we can build a land of people so bold.  Gathered and Sent, we’ll build a land.

Amen, I love you.  And May God bless us all.