Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Homily: "Dark of Winter" (Delivered 12-16-12)

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  This line is a quote from the existentialist author Albert Camus, a man who will never be accused of na├»ve optimism or of having a sunny disposition brought on by ignorant bliss.  “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  It was a dear friend who introduced me to this quote, a friend who had seen some real depths of winter in her day.  She was a survivor of abuse and a survivor of cancer, but also one of the happiest and most positive people I’ve ever known.  She lives that quote, not naively, not foolishly. 

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  It is a quote that makes me think about the winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.  As UU minister Mary Wellenmeyer puts it in her “Solstice Meditation,”

Winter arrives at the moment
when the shifting ends and begins –
a moment of pause.

In these latitudes, increasing sun
blesses the coldest days,
and so it is in our hearts,
though our orbits are irregular.
We wobble, too, and grow cold in spirit,
Until the sun begins to brighten.

The winter solstice is held to be spiritually significant for earth-centered, pagan, and mythic religions throughout the northern hemisphere.  Those who religiously observe the winter solstice acknowledge the dark, but they also celebrate the inbreaking of light, that moment when the world has become as dark as it can possibly become, and the light breaks through.  In earth-centered and mythic religions, the winter solstice is often associated with the birth of the sun.  It is no coincidence that in Christianity, a day in December just a few days after the winter solstice was chosen to observe the birth of the messiah.  The sun’s birthday became the birthday of the son of god.  Listen to how the Gospel of John speaks of Jesus coming to the world, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Or, as Camus put it, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

When I first planned this sermon, I was planning to focus on the spiritual significance of darkness.  Poets, artists, and spiritual practitioners have plumbed the depths of darkness as metaphor and emotion.  But this is a reflection for another day.  There has been more than enough darkness in the world the past few days.  The thing I can do, the thing we can do, the thing we need to do is to keep lighting candles in the darkness, candles to remind us of the invincible summer that lies within, candles to remind us of hope, candles so that if we look around us we will grow aware of the inbreaking of light.

Fred Rogers, who was not only the star of a show for children on PBS but who was also a Presbyterian minister, knew about the importance of seeking out light in the midst of darkness.  He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  Like candles in the dark, the helpers are there one hundred to one and one thousand to one.

Listen, I want to speak as a pastor for a moment here, as the spiritual leader of this church.  When our hearts are broken and our souls are shaken, when we grow sick with grieving and sadness for the world, and when we are confronted with unspeakable horror, we may respond as individuals in different ways.  Some of us seek out a place of tenderness and comfort, a safe place to weep and mourn, a place where our raw hearts are not alone and we find a hand to hold onto and a community that will hold us.  Some of us prefer for our anger and outrage to be matched from the pulpit and from the community that surrounds us.  We want action, real action, now, a way to channel the urgency of our love and our loving anger.  And others of us would rather not have anything said at all.  This is a reaction that should not be treated judgmentally and called avoidance or denial.  This reaction comes from a sense that this is what is healthiest; that it is best for the television to be turned off, and that too much attention is a form of unhealthy emotional manipulation and exploitation.  This response comes from the desire not to be retraumatized.

I think that we need to listen to our hearts.  I think that we all have within us some innate wisdom, a sense of what we need and where we need to be and who we need to be with.  I think we can listen to our hearts calling us towards that invincible summer in the midst of the depths of winter, calling us to mourn as a response to grief, or act as a response to grief, or keep calm and carry on as a response to grief.  Listen to your innate wisdom.  Trust that the people around you are also listening to the wisdom from within their hearts.

I want to talk to you a little bit about what I will be doing in the coming weeks and months.  The last time I met with worship leaders in our church, I sketched out my preaching schedule for early 2013.  My sermon title for the first service I lead in January is “The Race to the Bottom.”  I’ll talk about the consequences of living in a society that doesn’t invest wisely in health and education and the cost that this exacts on us.  That sermon idea was especially inspired by conversations with members of this church who work in the field of mental health and who can share stories every day of the enormous human cost of underinvestment and disinvestment in mental health services.

I also have to confess that although I’ve given nearly four hundred sermons, I don’t believe I have ever preached directly on the subject of guns and weapons and the role of violence in American culture.  This is a failure of mine and it is not something I can preach with any integrity because I haven’t yet done the work.  I don’t mean the intellectual work, the work of coming to favor a specific public policy position.  I mean the work of having actually lived my values by having done real work.  That is my pledge and my promise: to use the power of my position and the power of my voice to write to legislators, to connect with organizations working for different laws and trying to change the culture and then doing what these organizations tell me is the most effective thing I can do.  And if that is something you’ll join me in doing, then we’ll find this path of authenticity together.

Beyond mental health services in our communities, which are absolutely necessary, and beyond rational gun policies, which are absolutely necessary, I think there is another part of our need as a society.  We live in a society in which there is too much anger and rage.  There are too many fantasies of cathartic violence.  There is too much isolation, too much disconnect, and too many black holes of pain in which people live, especially youth but adults too.  It is a spiritual disease.

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  In this mid-December darkness, this tragic time, find in your hearts that light.  Find those who have lit candles around you.  Light candles so that someone else can find their way through the dark.  Keep a vigil for the inbreaking of light, the promise of summer even in the midst of winter.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How Come This Creature?

Here is my response to an email from a religious publisher asking me to comment on the selected cover art for a book by Pope Benedict XVI.  The original inquiry appears below my response.

William B. Eerdmans, Jr.
2140 Oak Industrial Dr NE
Grand Rapids, MI  49505

Dear Bill,

It is not every day that a Unitarian Universalist minister in the American Midwest is asked to provide commentary on a book by the Pope.  (Well, to be precise, you asked me to comment on the cover art selected for a book by the Pope, but let’s not ruin a good story.)  To make matters more mysterious, it seems that I was referred to you by a professor at a Lutheran seminary whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met.  Unfortunately, as I will explain below, I must refute the claim that the cover art you have selected depicts Jesus and the disciples eating guinea pig at the Last Supper.

The art on the book cover of Pope Benedicts XVI’s Holy Days is a detail from the altarpiece of the Sigena Monastery and is currently on display in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona.  It is believed to have been painted by Jaume and Pere Serra in the late fourteenth century, approximately one hundred years before the Spanish conquest of the Americas.  I suppose one could hypothesize that the painting is misdated or that this detail was altered at some point after Pizarro conquered the Incan empire in 1532, but such a theory would not explain why an Incan symbol would be included on the altarpiece of a monastery in Catalonia.  At this point we have overstrained the limits of credulity.

A few years ago while on sabbatical in Peru I dined on cuy (guinea pig) in Aguas Calientes, a tourist town at the end of the Incan Trail that is a staging area for visitors to Machu Picchu.  Souvenir shopping offered an exercise in pluralism; one could purchase votive candles emblazoned with images of the saints, jewelry with symbols of Incan deities, crucifixes, and T-shirts depicting scenes of Amerindian spiritual power.  One restaurant, in a fantastic feat of commercial syncretism, displayed a wall-sized mural of the Last Supper with Jesus joined by fourteen Incan Kings instead of the twelve disciples.  Naturally, they dined on maize and avocado.  You might also be interested to know that the specialty of this restaurant is wood-fired pizza, an unexpected culinary dish in Peru’s high-altitude jungle.

The Serra painting should not be confused with depictions of the Last Supper by Peruvian artist Marcos Zapata (1710-1773) that decorate the cathedrals in Cusco and Lima and in which a cooked guinea pig can be found on the center of the table.  It is possible to make the case that by featuring cuy in artistic representations of the Last Supper, the Catholic Church was intentionally seeking to appropriate Incan religious practices.  We might note that guinea pig is thought to have played a role in Incan religious rituals.  We can also make the case that the inclusion of cuy represents a symbolic resistance to Spanish imperialism.  Residents of Cusco believe that Zapata’s depiction of Judas Iscariot is a portrait of Francisco Pizarro.

While we can confidently say that the creature in Serra’s Last Supper is not a Peruvian guinea pig, we have not yet considered what it actually is.  According to Wikipedia (and please, Bill, let’s keep it between ourselves that I’m citing Wikipedia; my professors would be horrified) there are some 115 species of wild mammals native to Spain.  Unfortunately, while ministry is a profession that requires a wide range of diverse skills, I claim no special expertise in mammalian taxonomy.  However, allow me to propose a few possible options for your consideration.  It occurs to me, and to the members of the congregation I serve and to assorted fellow clergy colleagues, that the creature in question might be:

            ∙ a poorly painted lamb
            ∙ a very poorly painted fish
            ∙ a thin, suckling pig
            ∙ a weasel, ermine, or marten
            ∙ a rabbit or hare
            ∙ a dog (whippet? Whippet good?)

I wish you good luck in solving this mystery.  Please do not hesitate to let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

My kindest wishes to you and yours for a peaceful and joyful Christmas,

Rev. Thom Belote
Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church

Dear Father Thom:

I’m sending you a copy of Holy Days by Benedict XVI just published, the cover art of which must raise questions for many people, speaking mainly of the rather live animal on the platter on the table surrounded by Christ and the Disciples.  It would be nice for our next printing to be able to add an explanatory historical note about how come this creature.

The painting of The Last Supper is by Jaume and Pere Serra.  I’m advised by Ted Peters, New Testament Professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, that you can supply an explanation of why the artist chose to put somewhat central to the depiction a guinea pig, or cuy.  Such a contribution by you would be helpful to all who view this cover art.

Thank you for whatever you may supply, I am

Very cordially yours,

William B. Eerdmans, Jr.
2140 Oak Industrial Dr NE
Grand Rapids, MI  49505

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sermon: "The Spiritual Practice of Rest" (Delivered 12-9-12)

Call to Worship
The theme of this morning’s service is “The Spiritual Practice of Rest.”  There were a few ideas for this worship service that were considered and rejected.  I believe they deserve to be shared with you.

In keeping with the theme of rest, hold our first ever wear your pajamas to church day.

Extend the time of silence after the meditation by twenty minutes.  Turn down the lights in the sanctuary for everyone to take a nap.

Invite those sitting on the bleachers in the back of the room to bring pillows and sleeping bags.

Have the minister show up without a service prepared and explain to the congregation, “I took a few days off and boy do I ever feel refreshed!”

During the sermon, point out the person in the congregation who has fallen asleep and is snoring and declare, “He understands what I’m talking about.”

Come into this place.  Step away from the noise and crowds.  Put aside hurry and worry and the flurry of demands for just this hour.  Take time to laugh and sing and breathe and be still.  As Kathleen McTigue puts it, “Resist the headlong tumble into the next moment.”  Let us worship together.

This reading comes from the book Local Wonders by former Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser.  Ted Kooser is a member of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, NE.

Lots of people on the Great Plains pack up and go south from November through February, but my wife and I enjoy winter in Nebraska.

Spring is downright impatient with people in their fifties and sixties: we’re under steady nagging pressure to turn over and plant a vegetable garden, to gas up and check out the lawnmowers, to wait endlessly while the other party selects bedding plants at the greenhouse, and to begin the five-month-long, everyday chore of picking wood ticks off the dogs.

Summer is one weary, endless, hot, dry, mowing of grass, with interludes of garden weeding and chigger bites, and after every thunderstorm there are fallen branches to cut up with the chain saw and drag from one place to another.  It is also a time when nature’s weedy disorder reclaims the little bit of territory we thought we had cleared for ourselves.

Autumn is beautiful, my favorite season, with its clear skies and long shadows arrowing across the red hills, but it is also a time when the lawnmowers have to be drained and stored, when the pressure tank in the well house must be drained and checked, when the block heaters need to be installed on the cars, and when the dead plants in the garden must be pulled up and burned.  It is also a time of sighing and regret, of the admission that during the spring and summer we didn’t get done what we had hoped to.

The winter sets in, and the obligations of our sixty-two acres are buried under the blessed somnolence of snow and ice.  It is the time of lingering over suppers of meatloaf and squash and of wrapping ourselves in shawls in our chairs and reading books and nodding off at eight-thirty or nine.  Then to bed under heaps of blankets and comforters, my wife in wool stockings, sweatshirt, and sweatpants, and I in the long flannel nightshirts my mother made.

The goal of religion, it’s been said, is not to get you to believe in God.  The goal of religion is to help you to see that you are not God.  I might add that even God rested, so what makes you think that you don’t need to?

The amazing singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock has a song called “Ella’s Song” that begins and ends with the lines, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.  We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”  I last heard this song performed at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association several years ago, a gathering held at the end of June when many ministers and church leaders are feeling most exhausted and worn down from long and eventful church years.  “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”  Yes, I do believe in freedom, I thought to myself.  But, I’m still going to take the vacation I had planned to take in early July.

At gatherings like General Assembly we sing all sorts of songs and hymns that declare our intention not to rest.  “Gonna keep on moving forward, never turning back” are the words of one song.  Another declares, “One more step, we will take one more step, ‘til there is peace for us and everyone, we’ll take one more step.”  I don’t think the Sweet Honey in the Rock song and the various beloved songs and hymns of our religious movement are meant to be taken so literally as to suggest that believing in freedom means we cannot take a coffee break or sleep in or get away for the weekend.  To say that we who believe in freedom cannot rest is not the same as saying that we who believe in freedom cannot nap.  No, in reality these songs are about having the type of long-term commitment that will last for the long haul.  They’re songs about having the depth of dedication that can only really be sustained by habits of regular spiritual practice, renewal, and rest.

My message this morning is that rest and work are not mortal enemies.  They are complementary, not combative.  They are not polar opposites engaged in mortal combat, but elements of a natural cycle that need one another.  Work is to rest as yin is to yang.  Work is not to rest as God is to Satan.

Are you following so far?  Is this something you can agree with so far?  If this is how you feel, I invite you to say it along with me.

“Rest is not bad.”
“Rest is not a sign of weakness.”
“Rest does not make me a bad person.”
“I shall not feel guilty about rest.”

OK, how many of you said it and really believe it deep down in the depths of your soul?  And, how many of you said it but still harbor some doubts and reservations?

That’s OK.  We live in a society, after all, that doesn’t have a particularly good relationship with rest.  The other day I ran across a document entitled We’re Number One that compares the United States to other industrialized nations.  According to this document, quote, “among industrialized nations, the United States has the lowest average number of days for paid holiday, annual leaves, and maternity leaves.”  In fact, unlike most industrialized nations, United States employers are not mandated to offer paid vacation days.  Even though workers in the United States receive less vacation than workers in other nations, many US workers do not take even the small amounts of vacation that they do receive.

This past summer I read an article about a software company in Denver that tried to motivate its employees to take better vacations by offering a vacation bonus.  The $7,500 vacation bonus is given annually to employees under three conditions.  First, you have to promise not to do any work while on vacation.  Second, you have to unplug from cell phones, computers, and the internet for the duration of your vacation – so no spending your vacation making Facebook updates.  And third, you actually have to travel somewhere – so no staycations.  The head of this company wrote an explanation of their vacation policy, saying that their employees were less likely to take good vacations if they had to pay for them, so the $7,500 was about overcoming that barrier.  He also wrote about how this vacation policy was good for his employees as individuals, but also better for them as a team.  As individuals, they returned refreshed, reinvigorated, more creative, and more positive about their work.  As a team, though, the reality of vacations that involved people actually getting away created a culture where the members of the company had to work better together, share information, and nobody could afford to become a savior, a person whose presence was so crucial that the entire company would suffer if they were gone and unreachable for several weeks.

The goal of religion, it has been said, is not to get you to believe in God.  The goal of religion is to help you to see that you are not God.  And even God rested.

If it seems that I spent a lot of time talking about that software company in Colorado, it is probably because ministers as well as priests, rabbis, and imams have proven to be bad examples when it comes to rest.  A 2010 New York Times article reported that “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans…  Public health experts who have led studies [on clergy health] caution that there are no easy answers… but a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.”

The story goes on to mention that apparently in the United Methodist Church, ministers who are known to skip taking vacations can expect a call from a denominational administrator bugging them to schedule a vacation.

As much as I may feel tempted to compare Unitarian Universalism favorably to other religion traditions, I have to say that, anecdotally, we fare no better than these other traditions, and possibly worse.  The other day I remembered the story of an overworked Unitarian Universalist minister who died of a heart attack in the pulpit, but I was a bit fuzzy on the details of who and when and where.  So, I threw this question out to the email list of UU ministers.  The responses I received were troubling.  You must be thinking of a minister a few years back in Massachusetts, one person wrote.  Something similar happened in New Mexico, offered another respondent.  I believe it was a UU minister in Minnesota, wrote a third.  One colleague shared the story of a 19th century Universalist minister named Thomas Whittemore who suffered a stroke while preaching that paralyzed the right side of his body and left him slumped in the pulpit.  At that moment the preacher decided to abandon his notes and deliver the rest of his sermon extemporaneously.  Only during the final hymn did Whittemore allow a friend to help him to the hospital.

In actuality, I wasn’t thinking of the minister in New Mexico or Massachusetts or Minnesota.  I was thinking about a minister from New Hampshire.  When Bob Karnan became the minister of the UU Church in Portsmouth, the congregation numbered about 100 members.  A decade later the church had 750 members.  If you’re interested, you can find an essay by Bob Karnan in the book Salted With Fire in the church library telling the story of how that congregation grew.  Let’s just say that rest does not seem to have been a part of his recipe for success.  The church he served was the fastest growing church in Unitarian Universalism and, as Karnan himself wrote, he had the scars on his body and soul to prove it.  Some of his minister friends told me that they had grown concerned about his well-being and expressed their concern to him.  “Bob, you sure seem like you’re pushing too hard and not taking time for yourself.”  And, a few months after the essay he wrote was published, Bob Karnan died of a heart attack.

I haven’t told you all this because for the purposes of shocking or worrying you.  Rather, I mention these sad stories to say that if you are in a career or have loved ones in a field where burnout is common and workaholism is rampant, believe me, I understand you.  Lots of people in my chosen profession are really awful at the spiritual practice of rest.  I also tell these stories as a kind of confession.  For a host of reasons, it is hard for people to rest, even though it seems like it should be the easiest and most natural thing in the world.  Even the people who are supposed to know better, the people who, you know, should be expected to model healthy living and a life of balance, struggle, and I mean really struggle, with the basics.

I should also tell you, in the interest of full disclosure, that while I’m far from the best when it comes to taking as much time to rest as I am given, I am also far from the worst.  I admit to being imperfect and could stand to do better when it comes to the spiritual practice of rest.  I give myself a C+, not an F.

Call it what you will – rest, vacation, time away, down time, renewal – what I’m talking about here is something that I think very few of us would disagree with if we put it in strictly rational language.  Rest is a human need.  Nobody is going to argue with this.  So, if we understand this intellectually, then we might puzzle over why people don’t do what they know to be good for them.  Why do people not do what they know they should do?

Three years ago I took a three month sabbatical.  I was eligible for six months.  Like I said, I’m far from the best but I’m also far from the worst.  During that sabbatical I traveled to Ecuador and Peru.  Why did you go there, someone asked me.  Because it was just far enough away that I wouldn’t be tempted to do church work.

I have a friend, another minister, who never took a sabbatical in his quarter of a century in the ministry.  I asked him about this once and he said that the timing was just never right.  There was always something happening in the life of the church that was exciting, important, urgent, or critical.  He either had the world’s most thoroughly exciting quarter century of ministry or he had deluded himself.

I want to read to you part of what Bart Lorang, the CEO of the software company in Denver, wrote about his philosophy of vacation.  I invite you to translate what he writes into language that works for your situation.
I love [this company.]  I love the people.  I love the problem space we’re in. I love our customers.  I love inventing solutions. 
However, if unchecked, love can also have a smothering effect. 
Just as parents can smother their children when they leave the nest for the first time, founders, managers and employees can do the same: 
What happens if a key customer calls?
I’m the only who knows this! What happens if my people need me?
Did you think about X? What about Y?
Perhaps it is a sense of ownership or desire to feel needed, but in many company cultures (especially startups), there is often a misguided hero syndrome that encourages an “I’m the only one who can do this” mentality.
That’s not heroic. That’s a single point of failure. It’s not good for the employee or the company.
But here’s the thing: If people know they will be disconnecting and going off the grid for an extended period of time, they might actually keep that in mind as they help build the company and empower others to make more decisions.
At the end of the day, the company will improve.
As an added bonus, everyone will be happier and more relaxed knowing that they aren’t the last line of defense.

How many of you feel like he could be talking to you?

My message this morning also applies to our life as a church.  For the previous year and a half, leaders in this church have worked incredibly, incredibly hard to make this move into our new church home possible.  Each stage has been important and intense and exciting in its own way.  Now, we’ve been here for a month and a half.  And the work and the possibilities and the opportunities for ministry now are important and exciting.  And six months from now there will be more things happening that are exciting.  And a year from now…  Do you see where I’m going with this?  There will always be something happening that is urgent and exciting and critical and important.  Which speaks to our need to be mindful about rest, to share work, to love but not to smother.

For bears rest comes instinctively.  They know when it is time to hibernate and they trust that they’ll wake up again just in time for excitements of the spring.  Birds don’t need a monetary incentive to head to the tropics.  We humans have the flaw of needing to be convinced to rest.  May we have the compassion to remind one another.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Sermon: "Be Not Afraid" (Delivered 12-2-12)

Less than two weeks ago the Pope released a new book about the childhood of Jesus of Nazareth.  I haven’t read it.  But, you may have heard that the contents of the book have provoked a bit of controversy.  For example, the Pope points out that the Gospels make no mention of the presence of barnyard animals at Jesus’ birth, and that the scriptures say that the angels speak rather than sing.  Further, the Pope explains that December 25th was most certainly not the date of Jesus’ birth.  None of this is new information.  One tabloid newspaper decided to run with the headline, "Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas Nativity Traditions."   That seems more than a little unfair.

Beneath this manufactured controversy, there is a deeper question that has to do with what sacred texts are and how they’re supposed to be read.  I don’t read the Bible in order to become informed about what happened thousands of years ago.  The point of reading scripture is not to find out about things that took place in the past.  For me, the point of reading scripture is to become a bit more thoughtful about the human condition.

As Unitarian Universalists we have an exceedingly broad definition of what constitutes our scriptures and holy texts.  This past week we were visited by a comparative religion class from a Catholic girl’s high school that was taking a field trip to learn about worship practices in different religious traditions.  They stopped here and I spoke with them about what our worship services are like.  One girl asked whether we had a sacred text.  I had each of the students open up to the back of our hymnals where, in the span of just two pages, they could find readings from a contemporary female poet, an Inuit shaman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, a Catholic liberation theologian, a Bengali author, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and a guy whose named I confessed to them did not even recognize.  (I looked him up later and discovered that he was a British nature writer from the nineteenth century.)  Ours is a very broad understanding of scripture, indeed.  We turn to many sources to inform our understanding of human experience and the human condition.  In just a minute I’m going to get around to talking about fear, but I think this broad understanding of scripture says something about a lack of fear on our part.  We are not afraid to imagine that the holy might speak in many different lands, in many different tongues, in ways that are alien to us.

I want to tell you about how I chose the subject of my sermon this morning.  Each year when the calendar turns to December, I always find myself rereading and revisiting the accounts of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke.  Each time I reread those stories, I’m always struck by the repetitive appearances of angels, and by the fact that each time an angel appears in the Gospels, the first words spoken by the angel – or sung by the angel, because we don’t have to be scriptural literalists – are always the same.  Spoken or sung, the first words are always, “Be not afraid.”  I always find these words to be somewhat striking.  For one thing, I think it is an interesting thing for an angel to say.  And, for another thing, the spoken words of the angels always remind me that we live in a world where fear exists.  They say something about the human condition.

So now you have an idea of how the brain of a minister, or at least of this minister, works.  Only, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me.  A few days ago I was having a conversation with an esteemed minister in our movement.  We were talking and she suggested that I should preach a sermon on the subject of fear.  What a coincidence, I replied, explaining to her that it was the theme for my service this morning.  She shared with me that she once did an entire sermon series on fear in the month of December.  And did I know, she asked, that whenever an angel appears in the Bible the angel’s first words are always…  “Be not afraid,” I said, finishing her sentence.  It’s like there was this uncanny, freaky, Vulcan mind-meld going on between us.

Fear, as we all know, is present our society today.  Incidences of senseless and random violence in public places lead some to a certain degree of nervousness or a heightened vigilance.  Economic confidence continues to be shaky and people experience economic insecurity.  From arsenic in rice to mercury in fish to concerns about the genetically modified foods, there is fear about what we put into our bodies.  Our fears have to do with weather and climate, with privacy and identity, with health and wellness.  For some in our society, shifting racial demographics are seen as a threat and as cause for alarm.  In the past four years our nation has seen a troubling increase in the activity and number of hate groups, a fact that is appropriately frightening to people of color as well as anyone who cares about racial justice.  To these fears we might add our own personal ones that lurk in the dark recesses of our imagination.  That fear is so abundant might strike us as perplexing if we would only take a wider view and realize that we live at a time and in a place that is extraordinarily safe in comparison to most of recorded human history.

Yesterday was World AIDS Day and earlier in our service we heard from a member of the congregation who spoke powerfully and passionately about observing this day.  In addition to his words, I might observe just how linked HIV/AIDS has been with fear and how important dealing with fear is when it comes to combating the spread of HIV.  Those of us who remember the eighties and early nineties may remember what a scary time it was, especially for those of us who happened to come of age during those years.  We’re aware in the fight against HIV/AIDS that this disease is not just physical, but there has also been a social stigma to address, and I think it can absolutely be said that fear has played an enormous role in stigmatization and discrimination.  I don’t claim any public health expertise, but I would have to believe that addressing fear and denial, which is a form of fear, are probably an important part of public health strategies.

In his book Freedom from Fear the late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church offers a typology of fear:

Fear, when it is located in the body, is called fright.  It is instinctive fear that causes a fight or flight response within the body.

Fear, when it is located in the intellect, manifests itself as worry.  It is “produced by our worst imaginings.”  Worry is a thinking form of fear.

Fear can be located in our conscience.  When our conscience is troubled by fear, the result is guilt.

In our emotions, fear shows itself as insecurity; it is “prompted by feelings of inadequacy.”

Finally, fear can be localized in our souls.  Such fear takes the form of dread, an existential “fear generated by life’s fundamental uncertainty.”  “Dread,” writes Forrest Church, is “a particularly crippling form on anxiety driven by the desire to control things that lie beyond our control… [Dread] takes our entire future – which really does lie beyond our control – and casts a pall over it.  The epitome of negative thinking, dread paints such a bleak picture that any attempt to shine a light on the subject seems in vain.”

Fear, Church continues, darkens the future and ruins the present.  He writes, “Even if safety should become our primary objective in life, to keep ourselves safe is impossible… To be free of acceptable risk is not life’s goal, but its enemy.  By inviting non-being to the party years before one’s own death day, fear protects us not from death but from life.”

Fear protects us not from death but from life.  One of my professors used to bring his family’s golden retriever with him to the office, the gentlest and dopiest creature I’ve ever met.  In conversation one day I learned that some days his dog went to work with his wife, a psychologist whose practice specialized in helping people to overcome their phobias.  Her patients were people whose lives had become paralyzed by fear.  A fear of dogs meant not being able to walk around the neighborhood.  A fear of flying meant separation from loved ones.  Other kinds of fear led her patients to obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression, isolation, loneliness, and lack of success in romantic relationships, work, and other life pursuits.  “Fear protects us not from death, but from life.”

In Forrest Church’s book, he talks about courage as the key to facing fear.  He talks about cultivating the courage to act, the courage to love, and the courage to be.  These forms of courage do not insulate us against pain, loss, or struggle.  They do not guarantee a life that is easy or a life that is always pleasant.  However, these forms of courage move us in the direction of being able to make our own lives worth living.  With the courage to act, “the story of our life will be something we are eager to develop, not something we are apprehensive to watch unfold.”  The courage to love involves making ourselves vulnerable, but it turns out that this is a necessary risk.  “To avoid the risk of love is to cower from life’s only perfect promise.”  And, the courage to be involves having the maturity to live in the face of uncertainty and to accept that most things are beyond our control.

In my conversation with my esteemed colleague she said something that I think is incredibly wise.  Great blessings spark fear, she said.  And this is the meditation I’d like to conclude with.

In the Gospels, whenever an angel appears, whether the angel appears months before Jesus’ birth or days after Jesus’ death, the angel always speaks the same message, “Be not afraid.”  And then the angel announces a wonderful blessing.  It is not that after the angel arrives everything turns out perfectly or becomes easy.  Rather, the angel announces a way forward that is deeply meaningful, filled with awe and wonder and the possibility of joy.  When the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.  Chill out.  Relax.  Don’t panic,” I don’t think it is in reference to the fright of seeing of angel.  It is more of a way of saying, “There is a blessing before you that will require love and courage from you.”

Great blessings spark fear.  Has this ever been your experience?  You get the job and then you wonder, “Am I really up to it?”  You start a project and you think not what if this fails, but what if this succeeds?  What then?  You receive love and you worry that love will demand more from you than you could possibly imagine.  Has a blessing ever made you afraid?  Has the threat of blessing ever made you shiver?  What fears have blessings awakened?  I write these words in awareness that this fall for me – having become a father and having moved with the church into this new church home – has included blessings and the fear awakened by great blessings.

Life is before you.  Be not afraid.  May you face it with the courage to be and the courage to love. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Sermon: "Simplicity: Finding Soul in a Season of Stuff" (Delivered 11-25-12)

Call to Worship
If you give people an opportunity to say what it is that they want most during the holidays, what they’re most thankful for and what’s most important to them, they would probably say that they want quality time to enjoy togetherness with family as well as dear and close friends.  They would say they want to feel a sense of connection to their community and to have the ability to give something back.  They would say that they want to enjoy traditions that are meaningful and fun and convey a sense of identity.  They would say that they do not want to feel rushed or stressed or harried, but that they want the chance to slow down and savor some peaceful moments and be able to give thanks for this precious day and for the time we share.  Does that sound about right to you?

A comparison with reality, however, might bring to mind that line by Saint Paul that goes, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but instead I do the thing I do not want.”  We come together this morning to remind ourselves to pay attention to those things that are most important to us.  We come together to be reminded of our values and what we wish for most.  We come together to examine and explore how we want to live.  It is good to be together.

The reading this morning comes from the book Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living by UU minister Michael Schuler.

Buddhist teachings describe perpetually dissatisfied, grasping, overanxious people as “hungry ghosts.”  As much as they long for happiness and the experience of true contentment, these sad individuals are unenlightened about how an abiding sense of well-being might be secured…  The “hungry ghost” subsists, therefore, on the deceptively thin fare its culture provides – easily appropriated pleasures that dull the cravings but do not satisfy them.  The habit of happiness, beauty is more than skin-deep, and trustworthy relationships all lie beyond the ghost’s reach.

In the Chinese language, the two words pin and tan look very similar on the printed page.  The first means “greed” and the other stands for “poverty.”  This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of the hungry ghost:  greedy for experiences and possessions to fill its emptiness; yet for all the effort the ghost expends, it still feels impoverished.  The hungry ghost may compensate for its emptiness through the compulsive quest for pleasure and prestige, but it is unlikely to find in such pursuits any antidote for its chronic discontent.  This Buddhist metaphor is compelling; it graphically describes a condition that afflicts many Americans.

The promising road maps offered by our hard-won consumerist culture have too often led us down blind alleys and into cul-de-sacs.  Novelty, excitement, sensory stimulation, and satiation are supplied in abundance, but in terms of what human beings truly want and need, the systems we have devised have proved less than salutary…

Too many of us have lost our connection to a sustainable life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, human communities where all are well served and feel secure, work that makes a genuine contribution to the common good, play that restores one’s body and lifts one’s spirits, to mention only a few estimable goals.  “To live lightly on the earth with simple, joyful elegance” is how one writer characterized the overarching purpose of sustainability.

When I hold my two month old baby it is impossible not to notice that she is much more fascinated by my face than by any brightly-colored stuffed animal or jingling, rattling, sparkling toy that I might try to wave in front of her face.  When my niece was toddler, when the family would gather for Christmas, she used to be much more interested in playing with empty boxes than in playing with whatever toys those boxes once held.  And, I don’t mean to offend anybody with the comparison, but it also occurs to me that my parents’ cat seems to think an empty paper bag and some loose pieces of wrapping paper and ribbon constitute a splendid Christmas, as far as cats go.  I’m not sure I’d classify the baby, the toddler, or the kitty as world-class religious thinkers.  As a congregation you should expect me to cite more recognized and esteemed theologians.  All I’m saying is that in terms of realizing that people come before stuff, that a playful imagination can go a long way, and that it is best to be thankful for what you have, these creatures seem to have at least a little wisdom to impart.

This morning I’m going to talk about finding soul in a season of stuff, and as I thought about what I wanted to say, I realized that a lot of what I had to say was things that many of us already know.

We know that the societal focus this weekend and this month on purchasing, shopping, and consuming is a symptom of unhealthy aspects of our society.

We know that bargains are not the same thing as values, and that there is often a high cost to low price. 

We know that many of the people working the checkout lines and stocking the shelves at the box stores earn poverty wages.

We know that many of the goods we purchase are manufactured in sweatshops or in factories with exploitative and inhumane working conditions.

We know that credit card debt is rampant in our society, that financial health is a challenge for so many people, and that many people struggle with compulsive and addictive behavior at this time of the year.

We know that our society lives and consumes in ways that are not sustainable.

We know that we are not alone in our criticisms of consumerism, and that good critiques come to us from secular organizations such as Adbusters and the organizers of Buy Nothing Day and from religious sources such as the Advent Conspiracy movement within evangelical Christianity whose core message asks people to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. There are even secular sources pretending to be religious sources such as performance artist Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.  During Friday’s Celebrate What You Have Day festivities, I showed a video of Reverend Billy protesting at the Disney Store in Times Square.

However, we also know that despite the criticisms of consumerism that we encounter, that mainstream coverage of holiday shopping will fail to challenge the larger cultural values and assumptions at work.  The media will certainly sensationalize the predictable annual stories about a shooting, a trampling, or a felony assault connected with Black Friday shopping, but the deeper questions that might be posed will likely remain unasked and unexplored.

These are the sorts of things most of us probably know.  But, I want to go beyond that to say a few words about simplicity and finding soul in a season of stuff.  What I mean by connecting these two ideas is a bit like what Thoreau meant when he declared, “Simplify! Simplify!” and wrote, “The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it… [is] simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”  “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau asks.  “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

When I talk about finding soul, what I suppose I’m really speaking about is the ability to connect with those forces and practices and habits of happiness that increase and sustain our human sense of being alive, and rejecting those practices and habits that hollow or diminish life.  I think it is the same thing that Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren meant in the speech when she spoke about what it means to be human, “People have hearts. They have kids. They get jobs. They get sick. They thrive. They dance. They live. They love. And they die. And that matters.”

For me, moving towards life means moving towards those ways of living that recognize my own living complexity, and away from those forces that would try to diminish my own humanity.  The culture of consumerism tells me that my worth is tied up in what I am able purchase, or even that I am what I buy.  But, I know that I am not a PC and that I am not a MAC.  I’m not a Sony or a Yamaha, a Nike or an Adidas.  My identity is so many things before it is a brand.  I am not a commodity and I resent being commodified.  However, we live in a culture that ascribes worth to people, ascribes value to people, based on their habits of consumption.  We are given the identity of a consumer.

Culture surrounds us.  Culture consists of the attitudes, understandings, worldviews, habits, desires, practices, rules, and behaviors of the people we live with and among.  Culture is usually unspoken, taken for granted, assumed, and often invisible to those inside of the culture.  There are times, however, when we decide and when we may come to understand that our culture – the transmitted pattern of meanings and attitudes towards life – is not promoting our own welfare.  The system seems broken to us.  The attitudes towards life seem like the wrong attitudes to have.  Living with the tide of the culture, we feel, is not leading us in a direction that we want to go.  When we feel this way, it is time to make a decision.

One decision is to become culturally-separatist.  The cultural separatists included the people in the sixties who dropped out of society, went to go live on communes, or went to go live in the woods.  More commonly, cultural separatists are religious minorities such as the Amish and monastic communities of Catholics and Buddhists.  Cultural separatism may take the form of asceticism.

The hymn we sang before the sermon was originally written and sung by a group of cultural separatists known as the Shakers.  The Shakers practiced communal living in villages and rejected various practices within the larger culture that they considered sinful.  “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.”  The gift of simplicity in the song is the gift of removing yourself from a complex culture.  The gift of freedom is the gift of being free from the oppressions of a culture that was thought to be corrupt.  By the way, the bowing, bending, and delightful turning mentioned in the song are references to Shaker worship practices that included forms of ecstatic movement, being involuntarily bended and twisted by spirit.

At the other end of the spectrum from cultural-separatism is cultural conformity.  Cultural conformity is the unquestioning acceptance of the way things are.  However, since cultures are never completely static, never completely unchanging, and never monolithic, the person who has conformed to culture will be required to adapt to changes and choose between competing practices.  Cultural conformists who are less adaptive will grow uncomfortable and try to blame changes on “others” or “outsiders” who are trying to change the way things are.

Between these two poles of cultural separatism on one end and cultural conformity on the other, there are a host of options for trying to live meaningfully.  Christians often speak of being “in the world, but not of the world.”  Paul said “Do not be conformed to this world.”  We might not all share the same analysis of what’s broken in the world, but there are plenty of things in our culture that we would not wish to be conformed to.  What I’m describing here are ways of living in tension with the culture in which we live.  We might adopt habits that are counter-cultural, that transgress against the culture in which we live.  We might practice cultural criticism, a thoughtful challenging of the culture that surrounds us.  Another path is cultural creativity, which involves creating new ways of being and relating, actively choosing to create those habits of happiness, that beauty with depth, and those trustworthy relationships to which our reading alluded.

Challenging and changing culture is hard.  And, I’m not just talking about American culture or Midwestern culture or Johnson County culture.  Schools, businesses, companies, organizations, institutions, and – yes – even churches have their own cultures even as they exist within the larger culture.  I am reminded of two Unitarian Universalist churches that had difficulty with attendance in their church school on Sunday mornings because of the encroachment of youth soccer programs.  One church practiced cultural-conformity; it changed its Sunday schedule and worship times to better accommodate the soccer schedule.  Another church operated at the other end of the spectrum and tried to start a movement to abolish youth soccer on Sunday mornings.  They urged parents to resist a culture that competed with family and church time.

So, how do we find soul within a season of stuff?  How do we choose a path that makes us feel human and alive rather than like a hollow, hungry ghost?  None of us are likely to recreate Thoreau’s cabin experiment of radically simplifying life and reducing it to its lowest terms, but there are other paths available to us.

One of my college professors posted a message about gift-giving on Facebook on Friday.  He wrote, “We have had a rule o' thumb for over a decade that the gifts we give in celebration of Christmas should be things we have made or grown ourselves or things purchased from actual makers/growers whom we've looked in the face and talked to. The Advent season's become much less frenzied, and we've met some terrific people through the years.”

Now, what my former professor said was very specific, and I’m not telling you that is how you need to do it, but what he did was respond to a culture that didn’t feel healthy to him, that felt frenzied and disconnected from his values, and simplified it.  By simplifying it, he was able to better live out his values – making sure that he spent his money ethically and being able to be connected in his shopping by being able to humanize, in this radical and immediate way, those with whom he was connected.  He was able to be mindful and responsible and relational.  Simplicity, in the sense that Thoreau understood, allows us to refocus on our choices and behaviors and choose a path that affirms the life we say we want.

In this season may you find ways to challenge what makes you feel hollow or disconnected, distant or harried.  May you find ways to move against the grain of culture, to move against the tide of culture, to use our own creativity to move in the direction of the forces that sustain and uphold life.  May it be so.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sermon: "Salvation: Liberal Religion Saves Lives" (Delivered 11-18-12)

This morning is our fourth Sunday in our new church home, and it is the fourth and final service in a series on what I’ve called four foundations of liberal religion.  We began by taking a look at what it means to be radically welcoming.  Next we explored how we are a tradition that does not unite around a set of shared beliefs but instead around shared commitments about how we want to be together, an idea captured in the saying “We need not think alike to love alike.”  Then, last Sunday, we explored how liberal religion demands that we follow our own conscience rather than accept a set of external rules.  This morning I want to spend a few moments talking about salvation and what liberal religion has to say about it.

Salvation is a word that you don’t hear that often in liberal religious communities.  It is an idea that we’ve pulled away from, perhaps because we’ve come to associate it with more forward and assertive forms of conservative religion.  Has someone ever come right out and asked you if you are saved?  The question may have come from a co-worker or a classmate or perhaps even a relative.  The question, as it is phrased, does not invite discussion or the sharing of understandings of faith and life.  No, the question is asked in a way that draws an absolute distinction between black and white, yes and no, sheep and goats, heaven or hell.  Religion should not be rendered into binary code.  Or, maybe you were asked if you are saved by a stranger on the street corner trying to hand you a tract, and as you walked by you thought to yourself, “I do not want whatever this guy is selling.”

Historically, as the reading by Forrest Church told us, the Universalist side of our tradition boldly declared that hell does not exist.  The Universalists believed that God was too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too decent, too humane, too generous and too profligate – in a word, too liberal – to condemn anyone to eternal torment and suffering.  The early Universalists supported this position through their interpretation of scripture and also through moral reasoning.  It was repulsive, they believed, to imagine God as a tyrant or a torturer or a terrorist.  Surely, any God worth worshipping would not manifest the same characteristics as the world’s worst genocidal maniacs.  It is problematic if your idea of God is a being who deserves to be brought up on charges for crimes against humanity.

As the world became modern, the old ideas about salvation being reserved for those with the right beliefs no longer fit with emerging ideas about a global community.  Colonialism, we should remember, was undergirded and rationalized by the arrogant notion that the colonial powers were actually helping the people they colonized.  We’re doing them a favor, they told themselves.  We’re saving them from themselves and from God’s eternal judgment.  Now, in a diverse world made smaller by globalization and in an ever increasingly multi-cultural America, the idea that salvation is limited to right-believing Christians is a scandal and an embarrassment.  It is an idea that is inadequate to life in the modern world.

It is a humorous irony that Unitarian Universalism is named after two doctrines that are no longer commonly held by the members of most Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Unitarianism is the doctrine of the oneness, the unity, of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity that holds that the godhead consists of three distinct expressions of God.  In reality, the early Unitarians did not have much of a stomach for metaphysical debates about the nature of the godhead.  Rather, they were inspired by Jesus’ life, and teachings, and ministry much more than by the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The Jesus that spoke to them was the human Jesus and over time the importance of believing Jesus to be God diminished.  Nowadays, we might joke that Unitarians believe in only one God or fewer.

On the Universalist side, Universalism is named for the doctrine of universal salvation that holds that God is too loving and merciful to condemn anyone to hell.  However, nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find a single Unitarian Universalist church that spends any significant amount of time talking about the afterlife or heaven.  A few days before his death, Henry David Thoreau’s friend asked him if he had any ideas about life after death.  Thoreau’s response was to say, “One world at a time.”

“One world at a time” is probably how most of us tend to see things.  Forrest Church puts it like this, “No experience of being, unknown to us and probably unknowable, that has taken place before this life or will take place after it, could possibly be more remarkable, more wonderful, or stranger than this life we share today.  Life is a miracle couched between mysteries.  It is a miracle incarnate, not a given, but a gift, an unaccountable gift.  When we take life for granted, or beg for something more, we do it violence.”

The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way,

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

The early Universalists believed that every single person would be saved, but today Unitarian Universalists tend to spend extremely little time worrying about any world other than the one on which we live.  So, what does salvation mean to us today?  Can we in any sense speak about salvation today?

I believe that we can and that we should.  Salvation doesn’t mean any less if we talk about being saved for this life in the here and now, rather than being saved for some future paradise.  Salvation doesn’t mean any less if we talk about being saved for this world, this miracle couched between mysteries.  In fact, we should remember that Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven were more this-worldly than other-worldly, more immediate than distant.

It makes sense to talk about salvation because liberal religion saves lives.  It saves lives quantitatively and qualitatively.  This is to say that liberal religion can make a difference in helping people not to die unnecessarily and that it can make a difference in helping people to live better lives.  One pair of heroes from our tradition was Waitstill and Martha Sharp.  Waitstill served as the minister of a Unitarian church in Massachusetts during the 1930s but with the rise of Nazi Germany he and his wife left two small children in the United States and traveled to Europe to help with humanitarian relief efforts.  First in Czechoslovakia and later in Portugal, the Sharps helped hundreds of Jews receive safe passage away from the German occupation.  They saved hundreds of lives.

Another heroic moment for many of our congregations occurred in the 1980s when Unitarian Universalist churches joined forces with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and others to form the Sanctuary Movement.  The Sanctuary Movement was formed as a response to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central American nations like Guatemala and El Salvador who sought asylum in the United States because of civil war in their home countries.  These civil wars resulted in massacres of entire villages, people being disappeared by the tens of thousands, and the widespread use of torture on the population.  The US government played an enormous role in training and arming those who carried out these human rights abuses.  As part of the sanctuary movement, congregations – in direct violation of US law – housed refugees from Central America.  As many of these asylum seekers were killed upon being returned to their home countries, the sanctuary movement literally saved lives.

It is impossible however to say exactly how many lives liberal religion has saved.  One of my mentors in ministry, former Unitarian Universalist Association president John Buehrens, was known to say, “On any given Sunday you never know who has slipped through the doors determined to give church or life one more chance.”  How many youth find in our youth groups a place of safety and acceptance rather than the bullying of their schools?  How many lives has liberal religion saved?  How many people have found in our communities a place of warmth and connection that has made all the difference by lessening the despair of aloneness and isolation?

When we speak about salvation, though, it is important to note that we are not only speaking about lives that are literally saved – the literal difference between life and death – but that we are also speaking in a qualitative sense – the difference between living life in all its fullness or squandering the gift of life.  The salvation that we often need, writes Forrest Church, is “not from others, but from ourselves.  Saved from self-absorption, self-pity, self-hatred.  Saved from self-righteousness.  Saved from unwarranted displays of conspicuous piety.  Saved by love.”

I remember the first sermon I ever preached.  It was thirteen years ago and during the sermon I quoted Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbor as yourself.  In the receiving line after the service I was approached by a woman in the congregation who snarled at me, “How dare you tell me to love my neighbor?  You don’t know my neighbor.  I hate my neighbor and you can’t tell me not to.”

You don’t have to believe in eternal damnation to know that there are some souls that are just lost.  You’ve probably met a lost soul, a person lost to anger, lost to fear, lost to hate, lost to cynicism or despair or negativity.  And if salvation is understood as this-worldly, not as saving us for the afterlife but as saving us for this life, then we know what a shame it is to waste the gift of this life.

The hell that we need to be saved from is not any hell that exists in the afterlife, but the hell that we make for ourselves on this earth.  It is the hell of warfare, oppression, poverty, and hunger.  It is also the hell of anger, fear, hatred, and indifference.  It is a hell of human making, but it is also one that we can overcome.  We can be saved for this life.  What we need is here.  One world at a time.