Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sermon: "Fatherhood & Spirituality" (Delivered 6-16-13)

Happy Father’s Day!

Was there ever any doubt about what I would preach about today?

As most of you know, I became a dad last fall.  Our daughter Lydia, our first child, is now eight months old.  And what a whirlwind these last eight months have been.  A few weeks after Lydia was born last October I was back in the pulpit helping us to say goodbye during our final service in our old church building.  And, at the end of October we held our first services here in our new church home.  Not one to believe in embracing change incrementally, my wife Anne changed jobs less than a month after returning from her maternity leave.  It has been a whirlwind, a mix of blessings, frustrations, joys, humbling moments, exciting and wearying times.

A month ago, for our Mother’s Day service, I admitted to you that I was far from the resident expert on the meaning of motherhood.  During that service we heard instead the perspectives from new and relatively new mothers in our congregation who shared their feelings, reflections, and understandings of motherhood and the spiritual dimensions of stepping into that new identity.  That’s the approach I’m going to mirror today.  Over the past several weeks I’ve written to a number of newer dads in our congregation, asking them to share with me their reflections about fatherhood.  I will mingle their reflections with my own.  And, as you listen to these reflections, I would invite you to listen for something, not for the researched conclusions of the experts, not for the long-toothed wisdom of experienced elders, but rather for that hope and wonder and sweet admiration that we might feel when we encounter someone becoming something new, growing into something new.

I’m reminded of a couple of lines from Denise Levertov’s poem “Beginners” in which she writes, “But we have only begun to love the earth.  We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life.  How could we tire of hope?...  So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”

These thoughts I share are the thoughts of beginners.  These are the words and thoughts of new fathers, new dads.  If these reflections remind you of an earlier time in your life, let them carry you back there.  If these reflections describe a future that is not yet yours, let them tickle your imagination.  If these words describe a reality that is not yours, whether by choice or circumstance, let them help you feel a holy connection with your fellow congregants.

In all honesty, I have to tell you that for about the first three or four months of being a father, I wasn’t sure that I was going to really connect with fatherhood.  I did feel an enormous sense of responsibility, an overwhelming sense of duty, but my heart was not exactly leaping either.  One of the new dads in our church wrote the following about his early days with his children,

My experience of the birth of my children was not one of instant unconditional love.  It was more of a “Hi... Sooooooo... you are moving in. Which is great!  We have been expecting you for a while now.  Really excited to get to know you.  Hope you like it here.  Well… ahh… ummm… Yeah, your Mother is terrific.  I can’t get enough of her either. What's that? Oh. Yes, I'll give you back to her.”  Who was this little guy that would be waking me, spitting on me, making diapers dirty for me, etc.  I needed time to get to know him before I was truly in love with him.  [My wife] had a completely different experience.  The kids came out and she was already in love.

After her maternity leave was over, Anne went back to work full-time.  Tuesdays are my day off and Tuesday became my father-daughter day with Lydia.  To be completely honest with you, for the first several months I completely dreaded Tuesdays.  I started each Tuesday morning by saying, “OK, mom is leaving.  For the next nine and half hours I have to keep you fed, dry, amused, and occupied.”  We’d read the same book three times in a row and I’d look up at the clock and see that only ten minutes had passed.  If we’re being honest about parenthood here, I’ll confess that I once even had to beg for Anne to come home from work early.  “Anne, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon, but I’m at wits end.  Please come home.”  At the beginning, I dreaded these days.  I put out an open invitation pleading for someone, for anyone, to drop by, visit, and help the time pass.

Then there was a switch, gradually, and Tuesdays with baby became tolerable and then even enjoyable.  Part of this was realizing that I could take her places – the museum, the zoo, the store.  But, more than that, it was a change in perspective from doing things for her to doing things with her, if that makes any sense at all.  It was a change from, “As your father I am bound by duty to do these things for you” to “As your father I get to do this with you – how wonderful.”  It was like a repositioning of my heart.  One new dad puts it this way:  “I just wonder what [my son] will discover and share with me.  I am excited to find out!  Every day I learn a little more about him.  That time together is what changes when you are a Father.  It is your air some days.” 

Just like I did for Mother’s Day, I sent an email to all the new dads in our church to ask them to share their reflections on fatherhood.  I was interested in the responses that I received.  Several men commented on how their identity as a protector or as a defender rose up within them instinctively.  Here’s how one new dad put it,

You know those forms you occasionally have to sign where it asks for the signature of a parent or guardian when the child is under the age of 18?  I think I now identify with both of those terms.  Not only am I a parent to my child, but I am also her guardian.  I am her protector from anything that could bring her harm.  And I would go to the ends of the earth to do so.  I've never felt so strongly about being this protective.  Don't get me wrong (and my wife might be a little offended if she heard me say this) - I certainly feel protective of her, but this is different.  A little baby is pretty helpless and needs you to be there - whether that's to protect them from touching something hot or from a booming thunderstorm outside.  As my daughter grows, I'll be there to protect her from dangers, whether they're real or imagined.  Trust me, I'll be pretty awesome at battling monsters under the bed and boogie men in the closet.  They won't stand a chance.

Another new dad put it even more succinctly, “I've been a bit surprised by the strong, innate feeling of protectiveness over my wife and my child. I can see now understand stories on TV about vigilante justice executed by dads against someone who harms their family.”

Similar responses came from just about every new dad who shared their experiences with me.  Let me tell you, these are guys I know and I would not describe any of them as extraordinarily macho, or aggressive, or combative.  They are actually some of the gentlest men I know.  I am led to believe that fatherhood probably includes a biological change in our body’s chemistry evoking a biological impulse towards vigilance and protectiveness.

Another reaction that several of the men in our church wrote about was a strong sense of feeling contented.  Their identity as a father gave them a sense of serenity and tranquility, at least when they weren’t zealously guarding their children from threats and dangers.  Here’s how one dad put it, “The overall experience of becoming a dad has brought me an overwhelming sense of calm. I used to toss and turn in my sleep, restless and feeling like I needed to be out and doing ‘something.’ I now sleep more soundly and I'm incredibly content with my life and my family.”  (I trust that this father was speaking metaphorically when he described sound sleeping.)

Another dad described fatherhood as more of a struggle.  “It has been a constant push and pull between work, marriage and fatherhood, that has at times, made me want to pull my hair out, drink a beer, and laugh and cry at the same time... but in the end I know that I will always look back at this as being one of the greatest periods of my life.”

My good colleague in Houston, Joanna Crawford, in the Father’s Day sermon that she is giving this morning, makes an interesting observation.  She notes how in our culture, how in our language, the words “father” and “mother” have quite similar meanings when we use these words as nouns. As nouns, the words “mother” and “father” are gendered versions of the word parent.  However, when the words “father” and “mother” are used as verbs in our culture, they have radically different meanings.  She explains that “to father” – the word used as a verb – means to sire, to contribute genetic material.  Think of that trashy day-time television show, I’m not even sure of the name of it, with the host who announces, “You are not the father.”  (I’m embarrassed that I even would mention this, except to say that this is an extremely limited view of fatherhood.  That’s all I’ll say on that subject.)

To mother, on the other hand, as we use this word as a verb in our language, means to nurture.  The verb “to mother” is not a statement about biology.  It is an affirmation of care, nurturing, concern, and attention.  I don’t want to belabor this point, but you could say, “She didn’t have any children herself but she mothered all the children in the neighborhood,” and everyone would understand what you meant.  Saying, “He fathered all the children in the neighborhood,” is to say something very different.  I’m grateful to Rev. Crawford for sharing this linguistic observation with me.

Her observation leads me to ask whether there is a dichotomy when it comes to the identities that women and men assume when they become parents.  The mothers who wrote to me last month about their experience of becoming new parents all wrote at length about what it meant for them in terms of changing identities, stepping into new roles, and often sacrificing or losing some part of themselves in the trade-off.  One mother wrote, “I’m occasionally concerned that I’m now a less interesting person to talk to.”  Another wrote, “Growing-up I just knew in my gut that there would never be time in my ‘conquer the world’ life for anything as time consuming as family.”

Compare those statements with these words from a new dad.  “Fatherhood. I have no idea where to start.  I remember life before my first child. And I understand how it was different, I think.  Honestly I am clueless.”

On the level of spirituality, on the level of identity, what I felt the most from the men who wrote about their experiences, and what I’m coming day by day to notice myself, is this sense that we are all stepping into this new identity and new role without a whole lot of direction or instruction and certainly not a model that we’re pressured to conform to.  I think that is true.  And there is something very Unitarian Universalist about this understanding of fatherhood.  I say this by no means to denigrate my own father, who is a great dad, or the heroic dads I know who are amazing with their children and display a grace of which I am envious.  And, when I speak of some degree of liberation in the role of fatherhood I am in no way denying the responsibility and duty inherent in fatherhood.

Emerson once told a graduating class of preachers, Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say ‘I am also a man.’”

Paraphrasing Emerson I might say, “Thank God for these good fathers, but say ‘I am also a dad.’  Dare to love your child without mediator or veil.”  This is overwhelmingly the sense I feel eight and half months into this adventure, eight and a half months along the path.  Like Denise Levertov I am filled with this sense that, “We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life.  How could we tire of hope?...  So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”

From a proud, joyful, tired, tentative, invested, and imperfect new dad to all the other new dads, to all the other dads, I sing out praises for the journey and bless your journey.

For all of us in this community – proud, joyful, tired, tentative, invested, and imperfect – may we bless the journeys of those in our midst, may we support one another on the paths we walk, may we praise the courage of the beginners in our midst, and may we savor the sweet June days.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

8 Things to Watch for at UUA General Assembly 2013

I will be traveling to Louisville, Kentucky, from June 17- June 22 to attend the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association’s Ministry Days professional development event and the first two-thirds of the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.  Here are 8 things to watch as several thousand UUs from around the country (and world) gather for business, worship, witness, learning, and inspiration.

(If you’re interested, there are lots of ways to follow GA as it happens, both by live-streaming certain events, and following coverage on the web.)

8 Things To Watch

1) Peter Morales to be Re-elected UUA President
In 2009 Peter Morales was the underdog running against Laurel Hallman for the UUA Presidency.  Though Hallman outspent him $232,646 to $92,420, Morales’ campaign strategy was a work of genius.  This GA he’ll be re-elected to a second 4 year term.  He is running unopposed.  Also being elected this year at GA are five members of a seven member presidential search committee to look for candidates interesting in running for UUA President in 2017.

2) UUA to Elect a New Moderator
UUA Moderator Gini Courter is coming to the end of her tenure as Moderator, a position she has held for nearly a decade.  Her first two years in the position were to fill a vacancy when the previous moderator resigned.  Then she was re-elected twice. In the only contested election this year, Jim Key and Tamara Payne-Alex are each vying for the position of head of the UUA Board of Trustees.  After perusing the websites of both candidates, Key is leading the way in endorsements from established power players in our movement while Payne-Alex has a young, upstart following.

3) A Brand New UUA Board
Only six members of the 23 member UUA Board of Trustees will still serve on the board following the end of General Assembly.  That’s because the UUA is transitioning from a 23 member board to an 11 member board.  The current board consists of four at-large positions and seventeen members representing districts within the UUA.  The new board will consist entirely of at-large positions.  Seven board positions will be elected by the General Assembly and four board positions will be appointed by the board.  All seven candidates for the UUA Board are running unopposed.

4) Covenant is the Theme
Many of the programs, worship services, workshops, and other events center around the idea of covenant.  Here is how the theme of this GA is described:  “From Promise to Commitment.” Promises call us into relationship. The experience of making, breaking and remaking promises is the reality of our lived faith. We will gather in Louisville, Kentucky to examine and renew our covenant to our faith, one another, our congregations and the larger world.”

5) Environmental Justice is the sub-theme
My UU friends in Louisville have a bumper-sticker that announces, “Topless mountains are obscene.”  Each year the General Assembly holds a public witness event around a social justice issue.  (In Phoenix in 2012 it was Immigration and the human rights abuses at Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City; in 2010 it was a prophetic call for marriage equality in Minnesota.)  This year’s witness will address the theme of environmental justice, as we gather in an area of the country known for its coal production.  Poet, writer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry will help lead the witness alongside UU Tim DeChristopher who was recently released after serving 21 months in federal prison for disrupting an oil and gas lease auction.

6) Eboo Patel to Deliver the Ware Lecture
A few weeks ago I helped my friend prep for an interview with Patel’s organization Interfaith Youth Corps.  Patel is a young, charismatic man doing extraordinary work promoting interfaith service, understanding, and dialogue across the country.  He is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation which was the UUA’s Common Read book in 2011-2012.  On Friday evening he’ll be delivering the Ware Lecture, a distinguished lectureship that dates back to 1922.  Previous lecturers include Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, Van Jones, and Karen Armstrong.

7) Vanessa Southern to Preach the Service of the Living Tradition
Each year General Assembly features the SLT, a celebration of ministry and professional leadership.  New ministers, retiring ministers, and deceased ministers are honored alongside religious professionals in religious education and music who are becoming accredited.  Vanessa is the minister of the Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ.  She’s served there since 2001 and that congregation is doing lots of wonderful things.  Not only is she a fine preacher, but she’s also great at karaoke.

8) Who’s In Charge Here?
One of the committees in our larger movement is the Commission on Appraisal.  The COA is elected at General Assembly and charged with studying and appraising an aspect of UU religious life.  They issue a report every four years or so.  In 1997 they issued their report on Congregational Polity.  In 2001 their report dealt with the meaning of membership.  In 2005 they wrote about “Engaging Our Theological Diversity,” a report that studied the benefits and challenges of theological diversity within our congregations.  In 2009 they spearheaded a review of the Principles and Purposes, although an attempted revision of them failed.  This year they will be reporting to the General Assembly about Who’s In Charge Here? The Complex Relationship Between Ministry and Authority.  The Commission on Appraisal will be addressing the delegates in a plenary session on Friday and hosting a workshop on their report on Saturday.

Plus One More:  A Shout-out to SMUUCh?
Did you know that Closed Captioning for the business meetings, worship services, lectures, and other key GA programming is provided by one of the members of our church, Kim Meyers.  For years I’ve been trying to get her to put a shout out to our congregation up on the screen during one of the assemblies.  Will this be the year?

Also worth noting:
I’m looking forward to having lunch with Mary Benard, the editorial director at Skinner House Books who wants to pitch me on writing or editing another book for them.

I’m looking forward to visiting the city of Louisville for the third time.  I was there way back in 2007 to attend the UUA Growth Consultation and I was also there in 2011 to preach the sermon for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Thomas Jefferson UU Church in Louisville.  It's a fun little city.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sermon: "Choose Your Own Attention" (Delivered 6-9-13)

Call to Worship
Let me describe a famous psychology experiment.  There is a video of six basketball players in a gymnasium.  Three are wearing white shirts, three black shirts.  The players in white shirts run around passing a basketball between them while the players in black shirts do the same thing, passing their own basketball amongst themselves.  Participants in the experiment are instructed to watch closely and count the number of passes between the players wearing white.  After the video ends they are asked whether they noticed the gorilla.  Yes, during the video a person in a gorilla suit had walked directly through the middle of the basketball game.  The gorilla even ducks at one point to avoid being hit by a basketball.  According to the experiment, a full 50% of the research subjects do not notice the gorilla.  “What gorilla?” they say.  In fact, many of the participants who did not see the gorilla became incredulous.  They are adamant that there had not been a gorilla.  If there had been, they certainly would have noticed it.

Academically, this study on the psychology of attention is interesting.  The real life implications, however, are frightening.  A gorilla might walk right in front of us on the street and we might not even notice.  The experiment tells us that we think we see, notice, and remember far more than we actually do.  There are things happening in the world all around us that we do not notice because our attention is focused somewhere else.  Does anyone else find this to be a distressing thought?

Spiritually, the implications are just as significant.  Spiritual traditions including meditation, yoga, and prayer help us to break our self-limiting patterns of distraction, obsession, and worry. They liberate us to be more present, more attentive to what matters.  This morning we give our attention to the spiritual practice of paying attention, of noticing, of seeing.  Come let us worship together.

First Reading
This reading comes from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life.”

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

Second Reading
from Ralph Waldo Emerson

A person will worship something – have no doubt about that.  We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts – but it will out.  That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character.  Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.

I wavered about whether to give this sermon or not because the topic seemed a little too indulgent.  (But then I figured, that this morning’s sermon is actually the 398th of these preachings I’ve delivered and that maybe I deserved to be a little indulgent from time to time.)

Last month a newer visitor of the church sent me an email out of the blue asking me if I might consider preaching about my reactions to a viral video that was making its way around the web.  The subject of that viral video consisted of excerpts of a commencement speech given by the author David Foster Wallace.  There’s no way that the visitor sending me this email could have known that Wallace held a privileged place in the pantheon of my favorite authors of all time, which consists exclusively of David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, and Marilynne Robinson, with one rising above the others depending on the day or the moment.  There’s no way the visitor could have known that I’ve read just about everything Wallace has ever published, from his amazing novel Infinite Jest and his posthumously published novel The Pale King which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, to his three collections of essays that include A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, to his three short story collections, to his non-fiction book about the mathematics of infinity and the mathematician Georg Cantor, which I admit to struggling through.  I should not that even though he’s my favorite – or near favorite – I also am careful about recommending him.  He can make you want to tear your hair out

So, anyways, back in 2005 David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College.  The title of his speech was “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life.”  And, about a month or so ago, a nine minute excerpt of this commencement speech was made into a viral video that spread all over the web and then just as quickly began to be scrubbed from the web because the person responsible for making the video had failed to obtain the permission of David Foster Wallace’s literary trust.  Maybe the most memorable passage of Wallace’s commencement speech involves him describing a visit to the supermarket in agonizing detail.

[L]et's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your… job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your… job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket.  It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping.  And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating.  But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine…  The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations…  The lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer…  Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

This commencement speech sounds like something that could have very well could have been said by a professor of psychology in our congregation who, among other things, has studied what are called attributions.  Attributions are the meanings that we attribute, that we ascribe, to other people’s actions as well as to our own.  They are the stories that we create to make meaning out of our lives.  In the story that Wallace tells, he is the hero of his own story, the protagonist.  Bravely fighting through traffic.  Valiantly maneuvering through the grocery store.  Heroically surviving other people’s agonizing and antagonizing stupidity and inefficiency and incompetence.  There is the tendency to attribute positive motivations and qualities to ourselves and negative motivations and qualities to others.

But then Wallace reminds us that there are other stories that we may tell, stories that may not come as easily or automatically.  What if the other people that surround us are not trying to persecute us?  What if they are all the heroes of their own stories, demonstrating some amount of grace and resilience in their lives that would astound us if we only knew of it?  What if they are actually as bored and frustrated as we are?  What if they actually have more tedious and more painful lives than ours?

David Foster Wallace chooses a religious word – compassion – to describe the act of paying attention to something besides our own default settings.  Compassion, the word literally means “suffering with.”  To be able to cultivate this quality called compassion requires attention.  You actually have to choose to see another’s pain, to notice the hurts of the world.  You actually need to decide that another’s suffering or discomfort is worthy of your attention.

For Wallace, who is of course giving his commencement speech at a prestigious college, it is education, a liberal arts education, that empowers us to choose our own attention, to choose what we notice and pay attention to and value, to author the story of our experience in such a way that we move away from our default settings and consider other possibilities, make other meanings.
For Wallace this is something that comes from education, the ability to choose, to decide, what we think about, what we worship, what, as Emerson puts it, “dominates our imaginations and our thoughts [and] determine[s] our lives, and character.”

It seems to me that this is something that religion and spirituality also can help us to do to the extent that prayer, meditation, centering, etc. can keep us grounded and can remind us to open ourselves to others, to practice compassion and hospitality and acceptance of one another, can remind us of how we are connected and can remove from us the sense of our own isolation.

Grocery store.  Rush hour traffic.  Crowded gathering.  The line at the DMV.  These are all examples of times when we have the intellectual choice and spiritual discipline to choose our own attention.  How do you do at this?  If you ask my wife Anne she’d probably tell you that I might as well be preaching to myself here, that I really struggle with patience in some of these situations.

But, if we look past these instances of daily aggravations, we find that we are surrounded with opportunities to choose what we pay attention to.  This happens in relationship.  This happens at work.  This happens at church.  As it turns out, more often than not, our fixations, our obsessive thought patterns, our insistence on focusing on one thing prevents us from seeing the larger picture.  Alternatively, we can choose our own attention .

When I talk about choosing what to give your attention to, I’m not saying that life will become happier if you choose not to pay attention to injustice or things that genuinely do harm to human life.  There are truly awful things that deserve our sustained attention, but perhaps that is only possible when we choose a different way of facing the petty and mundane aggravations of life.

My charge to you is that next time that you find yourself in a situation that you find frustrating – whether that is waiting in line at coffee hour as the person in front of you takes way too long to stir in sugar, or in a long line at the store with far too few cashiers, or getting fed up with someone who offense you are sure is deeply personal – next time you find yourself in such a situation, see if you can’t choose your own attention and imagine a different story than your own default setting.

The person who drives an obnoxious tank of an SUV?  Maybe, as David Foster Wallace suggests, maybe this person was in a horrible automobile accident and has all but been ordered by her therapist to drive this in order to feel safe.

Maybe the person screaming at her children in the store has actually been up for three straight nights holding the hand of her husband dying from bone cancer.

Maybe the person who cuts you off in traffic is rushing to get to his son’s baseball game, the game he promised he’d be there to see.

Maybe.  Maybe. Maybe.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Homily: "Lily, Lotus, Sunflower" (Delivered 6-2-13)

Call to Worship
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  Lilies, Jesus says, remind us to live in the immediate present.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the Song of Solomon, flowers symbolize love and sensuality.  The beloved calls, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.”  The lover answers, “As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens.”

In Hinduism the word for devotional worship, Puja, can be translated as “the flower act.”  In Hinduism the lotus flower is evoked as a symbol of eternity, purity, divinity, youth, and abundant life.  In Buddhism the lotus also symbolizes enlightenment and transcendence.

Marigolds are commonly found at Hindu weddings and in Mexico they are the flower associated with the spirits of deceased ancestors.

In Catholicism the word “rosary” literally means a crown or garland of roses, and the rose is commonly associated with the Virgin Mary.

In Unitarian Universalism we gather each year for our Flower Communion ceremony.  Eclectic, diverse as we are, we welcome almost any flower from amaryllis and aster to zinnia and Zantedeschia.  Together the common bouquet of our gathering is our e pluribus unum, our one out of many.  On our annual Flower Communion Sunday, come, let us worship together!

The reading comes from the poem “Sunflower Sutra” by Allen Ginsberg.  You can read an unedited (and uncensored) version of the poem here.

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed,
surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves
rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust--
--I rushed up enchanted--it was my first sunflower,
memories of Blake
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset,
crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog
and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye--
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like
a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face,
soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays
obliterated on its hairy head like a dried
wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures
from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster
fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O
my soul, I loved you then!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent
lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye
to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited
grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden
monthly breeze!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack's soul
too, and anyone who'll listen,
--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
sitdown vision.

On the morning of our Flower Communion, I want to talk to you a little bit about Jesus’ lilies, Buddha’s lotus, and Allen Ginsberg’s sunflower.  (One of these religious texts is not like the others.)

Jesus’ line about considering the lilies of the field is found in his Sermon on the Mount, a powerful preaching about our duties to the divine and to each other.  It is a subversive speech.  It overturns commonly held ideals about justice, piety, faith, power, and fairness.  It is a revolutionary speech.  It asks us to disrupt the way society is ordered, and the way we, in our own lives, mimic the conventional values of society.  It is a message of powerful resistance.

Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth.  Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?... And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?...  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” [Matthew 6:24-30]

Jesus is calling on us to resist an economic system that diminishes our lives and to embrace instead a radical vision of sharing and gratitude in the here and now.  Even the excessive wealth of Solomon pales in comparison to the simplicity of the lilies of the field.

In Buddhism, the Lotus flower represents enlightenment and the capacity to rise above, to transcend, the world of attachment and suffering.  In Buddhist iconography, the Buddha is often represented seated on top of the lotus flower.  In yoga, the lotus position with legs crossed and each foot resting atop the thigh of the opposite leg, is a favored posture for meditation.  In Northern India, near the site where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, there is a raised platform in the Mahabodhi Temple decorated with carved lotus flowers.  According to legend, on this site the Buddha paced in meditation and each place he stepped a lotus flower representing enlightenment would rise up from the ground and bloom.

Botanically speaking, the lotus is a most peculiar flower.  Lotus plants grow best in dirty, muddy, mucky water.  Yet they rise above the muck and the mire and appear separate and distinct.  Its petals are always clean and pristine.  Lotus petals were actually studied under a microscope and the petals were found to be one of the most water resistant surfaces in the natural world.  Water on a lotus petal beads up and runs off, washing away any speck of dirt or dust with it.  Like water off a duck’s back, like water off a lotus flower.  The lotus flower, in its symbolism and in its biology, is a flower of resistance.

In the poem “Sunflower Sutra,” its title a play on the Buddhist sacred text “The Lotus Sutra,” beat poet Allen Ginsberg describes watching a sunset with Jack Kerouac near San Francisco’s port.  They sit in the shadow of a giant locomotive.  The air is hazy with the smog and smut of coal smoke.  A film of oil covers the stream.  The landscape is dotted with rusted, gnarled metal.  They see a lone Sunflower, in a pitiful state, standing defiantly amidst the pollution.  Ginsberg writes,

We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset,

The sunflower in this sutra is a symbol of defiance, a symbol of the soul’s resistance.  “We’re not our skin of grime.”  Lotus-like, we can repel bleak, dusty, dreadfulness if we choose to do so.  We can cultivate the spiritual equivalent of the sunflower’s heliotropism, an affinity to face in the direction of light, attentiveness to the sources of life amidst the muck and the mire of life.  The sunflower is a flower of resistance.  It is rebellious, radical, dissident.

So it is that we see – across different faiths, from Jesus’ Judaism, to Buddha’s awakening, to the Beats’ soulful take on the American spirit – across centuries and millennia – across continents and hemispheres – a spirit of remaking our world in a different way, of remaking ourselves.  We hear a message urging us to resist common habits and conventional attitudes that diminish life and stand in the way of what Jesus would call heaven, what Buddha would call enlightenment, and what Ginsberg would call soul.

In just a few minutes, as we hold our flower communion ceremony, and you are invited to come forward to select a flower, I am going to invite you to consider the lilies of the field, to consider what life would be like following Jesus’ teaching:  “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”  Consider this.  Consider how this would change your life.  Consider what Jesus is calling us to resist.

As you are invited to come forward to select a flower, I am going to invite you to consider the lotus.  Consider what attachments, fixations, habits of thought and behavior cake to your life like mud.  Consider what spirituality would allow you blossom and bloom above the muck, water off a duck’s back, dirt off a lotus flower.

As you are invited to come forward to select a flower, I am going to invite you to consider the sunflower.  Consider what it would take to have a “sweet natural eye to the new hip moon” to boldly exclaim, “We’re not our skin of grime.”

Consider how faith is challenging you to live.