Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Living the Best Vision of Ourselves by Reverend Tom Capo

An Amidah is the core of every Jewish worship service, and is therefore also referred to as “The prayer.” Amidah, which literally means, “standing,” refers to a series of blessings recited while standing.  The Amidah is also considered a person's opportunity to approach God in private prayer.   Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote an Alternate Amidah for Rosh Hashanah and I have slightly adapted it to reflect on as we consider a vision for a better self.  You are invited to express a vision of your better self in words or images on the paper after the questions posed in the Amidah.  This paper is for you alone; this reflective writing is just for you.
I invite you into a time of prayer or reflection:
Let us ask ourselves hard questions for this is the time for truth.
Did we fill our days with life or were they dull and empty?
Was there love inside our home or was the affectionate word left unsaid?
Were we a help to our mates, family, or friends, or did we take them for granted?
How was it with our friends: Were we there when they needed us?
The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?
Did we respect the rights and feelings of those who worked with us, went to church with us, lived near us?
Did we acquire insights or just possessions?
Did we speak out when something hurtful or negative was said? Or did we fear what the crowd would say and keep quiet?
Did we live according to our values, ethics, morals, and, if not, then have we learned, and will we change? 
Now take some time to express a vision of your better self.

Sermon: Living the Best Vision of Ourselves
Reverend John Dietrich, the founder of Unitarian Religious Humanism wrote: “[Religion is] the up-reaching and aspiring impulse in a human life.  It is life striving for its completest fulfillment, and anything which contributes to this fulfillment is religious, whether it is associated with a god, or not.”  Our Unitarian Universalist Sources   (https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources), from which we draw for our spiritual sustenance and grounding aid us in this striving for “completest fulfillment”.  They remind us of our religious heritage, call us to consider time-honored wisdom, and invite us to draw on these Sources as we look deeply within ourselves.  Two Sources from which we draw include:  Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; and Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Some people might experience these two Sources as being diametrically opposed, as being mutually exclusive, that it’s nonsense to put them in the same sentence.  But, I think of them as a call for dynamic balance.  We need both the spiritual and the scientific in exploring our faith, beliefs, ethics and morals.  Leaning too much in the direction of the spiritual can lead to idolatries of the mind and spirit, leaning too much in the direction of science can lead to a lack of empathy and compassion.  As Unitarian Universalists we seek balance in our beliefs, ethics, morals, and expression of our faith.  And as Unitarian Universalists, we understand that balance is not the same thing as static; it’s an active state of being.
A number of years ago this congregation decided to be intentionally pluralistic, thus embracing our Unitarian Universalist Sources, all our sources; considering what we all might learn from the various religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions that exist in our world.  As a result of that decision a number of affinity groups have formed over the years.  One of those is our DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church Jewish Heritage Group.  I have felt privileged to join the Jewish Heritage Group at celebrations of Hanukkah and Passover.  What I noticed right away was that while the members of this group treasure the myths and traditions of their Jewish faith, they do so from a more humanistic perspective—in other words god is not the focus of their beliefs, they instead consider the meanings this religious tradition offers them in the here and now. In other words they practice a Jewish theology that finds expression on the moral plane, between individuals. I hope I am not misrepresenting the group when I say that they believe Judaism is not the result of divine intervention, but was molded by the experience of the Jewish people.  That the holy days are human responses to events and celebrations of human development.  And the music and literature are inspired by human experience.  I know for a fact it is accurate to say this church honoring Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in a Sunday service is important to the Jewish Heritage group. 
            Remembering Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in our Sunday morning service can also remind Unitarian Universalists of our Judeo Christian roots and gives us an opportunity to consider what we might learn from these time-honored traditions.  We are not here to usurp Judaism or to in any way claim their practices as our own, but to reflect on some of the wisdom and practices of Judaism and consider what we, as Unitarian Universalists, might learn from them. 
            Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld of the Society of Humanistic Judaism wrote: “Rosh Hashanah reiterates [the] themes [of]: forgiveness, resolution, peace-making, and ultimately our ability to choose to change. In making such a choice, Rosh Hashanah is not simply a single day’s observance, but it has a message to be taken to heart and applied daily. It has a particular purpose, if we are wise enough to recognize it. Rosh Hashanah asks that we pause, assess, and recalibrate. We reflect on the past year, and look ahead to the next. It need not be a one-day experience, and indeed traditionally Rosh Hashanah began a ten-day period of introspection leading to Yom Kippur. We can develop the mental habits started on Rosh Hashanah and practice them every day. For example, make a point of setting aside the time to think and share your own company with yourself. The effort will be rewarded with renewed energy and creativity, with greater patience and enjoyment, and with a deeper understanding of ourselves and the meaning of our lives.  It demands that we pay attention; its very name involves using the head, the 'rosh'. Paying attention is the purpose of hearing the Shofar, the ram’s horn. Awaken the senses, now. Listen to those around us, now. Enjoy the blessings in our lives, now. Notice the small wonders, now. That is where the extraordinary lies, where the true sense of awe emerges. The present is where life happens.”
            I have often felt that one thing that we lack in Unitarian Universalism is a tradition or ritual that calls us to intentionally reflect on where we have “missed the mark” and how to move forward after “missing the mark”.  The Hebrew word for sin is “chet”, which literally means “missing the mark.” According to Jewish beliefs, a person sins when he/she/they strays away from making good, correct choices.  For a Unitarian Universalist the term sin may be problematic, but the concept of “missing the mark” by not making choices that are consistent with our values, ethics, morals, and/or beliefs is a concept that we’re all personally familiar with—unless you’re one of the lucky people who never does anything wrong.  We have all made choices that we regret because they are not consistent with our values, ethics, morals, and/or beliefs, that is the human condition; we are not perfect.  The question is what do we do once we have missed the mark.  Do we reflect on what we did?  Do we consider how to forgive or make amends?  Do we learn from this behavior?  Do we make changes in our lives due to this experience?  And how can we consistently hold our values, ethics, morals, and/or beliefs in the front of our mind so that we reduce the frequency of missing the mark? 
            The beginning of the Jewish year is also more or less the beginning of our Unitarian Universalist church year.  I wonder if we UUs might find a way to incorporate an intentional time of reflection and renewal into the beginning our church year or if not then, perhaps another time of the year.  Not to appropriate the Jewish tradition, but to find a way to honor the importance of learning from our times of missing the mark.  And a time to envision being our better selves. 
            During the time of reflection I led you through earlier, I invited you to write a vision of your better selves.  Notice I didn’t say “best” self.  It’s not about perfection.  It’s about improvement.  What, if anything, about your better self is different from who you are, how you are, today?  Consider where you might put that paper if you want to hold onto that vision.  Consider if there is more to learn as you go deeper into that vision—where it might take you on your journey. 
          When I talk about a vision of our better selves, I am not talking about better in the sense of materialism making more money, having a successful career, fancy cars, and club memberships.  I am talking returning to truest selves, about being the most authentic self we can envision – the person that we know ourselves to be.  UU minister Reverend Suzelle Lynch goes even further with this thought, writing: “Vision is like passion, it surges up from our roots, from the core of our being.  Vision is a force within us based in the principles by which we know we must guide our lives.  Our vision rises up from the values we hold dear – it’s the calling which we cannot ignore, it is the most powerful motivating moral force within us…when we look inside, into our hearts, that’s where our vision is, waiting to awaken us.” 
         If we’re going to have an honest relationship with ourselves then we must make time to stop and let that vision waiting within to awaken us.  We also need to stop and reflect on who we are and how we are in our relationships with other people.  Hopefully, you find opportunities to do both of these here in this church.  And here we can practice being our better selves; here we can ask ourselves difficult questions; here we can share parts of ourselves that are not always accepted outside these walls.  Here we can be affirmed for who we truly are and for being better.  And when we miss the mark—and that does happen—here we can practice forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking.  While we find wisdom in the religious and spiritual traditions of the world and from many prophetic people and from science and reason, we are not here to emulate Jesus or Buddha or Mouhamed or Confucius or Lao Tzu or anyone; we are here to encourage each of us to be the most authentic person you can be.  Being your most authentic self takes work and practice and we will be there to support and encourage you in this work, and rejoice in what you accomplish.  We are all capable of being our better selves.  This church is a place “where we encounter each other with wonder, appreciation, and expectation, where we call out of each other strengths, wisdom, and compassion that we never knew we had.” (Beverly and David Bumbaugh, UU ministers)  And may it always be so. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Being a People of Welcome

“The heart of [being a people of welcome] is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.”   Author and blogger, Shauna Niequist

 “[Being a people of welcome] is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person.”   Best-selling poet and essayist, Kathleen Norris

 “[Welcoming people do] not try to impress, but [they try] to serve.”   Author, Karen Burton Mains

[Being a people of welcome means] invit[ing] strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”   Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian, Henri Nouwen

 [Welcoming people don’t] have to be perfect, just heartfelt.”   Counselor, Susan Karas

People of welcome offer not wisdom, but love.

 [A people of welcome offer] the exceptional blend of love, humility, hospitality, and persistence [that] can overcome …barriers…”   Christian Apologist, Nabeel Qureshi

 [And finally, as people of welcome we remember that:] “The places in which we are seen and heard are holy places. They remind us of our value as human beings.”   Author and Integrative Medicine Professor, Rachel Naomi Remen

            So what does it mean to be a people of welcome?  For us here at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church to be a people of welcome?  Well, first I encourage you to read the newsletter this month, Mary Law, our Congregational Life Director, Steve Cooper, our Director of Religious Education and I have offered some ideas about the practical aspects of being welcoming.  Effective ways to engage a visitor to our congregation, strategies to help them feel at ease in this unique faith of shared values, but different beliefs, and tips about how to connect them with the various affinity groups here—from the humanist group to the pagan group, as well as the chalice circles and covenant groups.  You might think that how you engage with a visitor doesn’t make much of a difference in the long run, but it does.  A few weeks ago Martha was telling a new church friend where she goes to church, and the person replied, “Oh, I visited that church years ago—I remember they actually talked to me!”  So yes, you do make a difference.  These kinds of positive interactions are part of being a people of welcome.  The quotes that I shared today all speak of welcome, but I think there‘s more to it than being friendly to strangers on a Sunday morning, something that pulls all those quotes together.   And just the other day I found it.
            As background to how I found what I was looking for I want to tell you that I am going to Washington, D.C. to take a course offered by the American Humanist Association called The Humanist Lifestance.  I will be in class from 9 AM to 5 PM for a couple days with two leaders from the Ethical Society and take a field trip to the Hall of Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. In preparation for this course, I have to read about 5 books, 8 or so articles, and write four papers.  It seems very much like a college course.  It is in one of those books, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology by Anthony B. Pinn, that I found what I was looking for.   
            Just to make sure we are on the same page this morning, I offer this definition of humanism.  Humanism is living in the here and now, focusing our lives on making ourselves and our world the best we are able in the time we have been allotted to live on this planet.  Pinn would add that humanism includes a “quest for complex subjectivity…[and] a push for greater life meaning.”  I really have no problem adding that to the definition we will use for humanism today.  Pinn describes theology as a “method for critically engaging, articulating, and discussing the existential—[what it is to be an acting, feeling, living human individual]-- and the ontological – [the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality—in other words, theology is engaging the] issues that are part of every human life.” Then he begins a theological exploration of the history of the African American religious experience.   He delves into two different types of humanism, and these are his terms: weak humanism and nontheistic humanism.  I don’t particularly like the term weak humanism or weak humanist, probably because I am one.  Weak humanism allows for the possibility of a belief in a divine or god while at the same time living according to humanistic values.  He rejects transcendence and supernaturalism, while exploring how humanism can embrace a sense of awe and wonder in the everyday experiences of life, and he describes how ritual and celebration can enhance those mundane experiences.  Pinn experiences awe and wonder in the world and explains this by explicating the works of theologian Howard Thurman, author Alice Walker (she wrote The Color Purple), and Transcendentalist and Unitarian Henry David Thoreau; he also finds inspiration in the lives of Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas.  One of his ideas is to consider place, spelled p (l)ace, as both a physical space and a place in time.  The physical space is embedded in time place embodying complex subjectivity—thus the world embodies complex subjectivity and how we experience and make meaning of it cannot be a simple process.  I will probably expand on all that in a later sermon.
            So what does all this have to do with being a people of welcome?  Pinn writes: “Non theistic humanistic theology wants to avoid any tendency to essentialize community, while still retaining a sense that [community] means something akin to the substance of the uncertain, a misty recognition of ‘and’.”  What he is getting at here is the idea that we cannot make a community be what we want it to be.  A successful sense of community comes from embracing the “uncertain…misty recognition of ‘and’”.  I need to unpack this a little.  He feels that many Christian communities--or really any community-- that tries to enforce like-mindedness is counterproductive.  Pinn believes that people really shouldn’t be molded or shaped or even nudged to think a certain way.  He encourages us to embrace the idea of community that is enriched by the diversity of thought that is created when people think for themselves.  He believes there is value in being in that kind of community, but also that we should still avoid any sense of needing to be part of a community in order to have a fulfilling life.  We join a community because we are enriched by it, we grow from being in it, even as we have an awareness that community is not perfect and never will be.  Being part of a community lays “bare the limits and importance of the empty spaces in its geography…[and] exposes [us to] what is and what is not [in our lives and in our world].”  In this type of community we live in the tension of what we label as community and the feeling that there is something absent, some need/want not being fully met by the community.  Thus in a community, we learn how complex our lives and our world are and that is a good thing, an important function of the community.  Pinn writes that community “does not override the ability to achieve personal ends [but provides an opportunity for] collective vision, loyalty, and recognition.”  For him community is a p(l)ace both physical and spiritual.
            Our Unitarian Universalist third Principle states that we affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth within our congregations.  Our Principles are not doctrine.  I agree with this Principle and try to live it in my life because it makes sense to me, and it’s congruent with my values, not because it is doctrinal to our faith.  Members of any Unitarian Universalist church do not have to be in agreement with any of the Principles to be a Unitarian Universalist.  Here is the truth, the Principles are descriptors.  They were created to describe the values of the people who generally come to and remain members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  They were created to describe Unitarian Universalism to people who are not Unitarian Universalists.  The minute they become a litmus test for being a Unitarian Universalist or a member of this church, we are on a path to both essentializing this community and forcing this community to become like-minded—in other words trying to get people to accept that there is one and only one right way to think or believe and they must understand that in order to be welcome. 
            So what is it to be a people of welcome? Being a people of welcome means that we’re not here because we have to be.  We’re here because we want to be.  And we understand that the people who visit us do so not because it’s Sunday morning so they have to find a church to be in; they’re here because they want to be.  As people of welcome we affirm the importance of an uncertain ‘and’, understanding that uncertainty that is intrinsic to a diversity of belief and thought.  We are aware that embracing this uncertainty allows anyone who joins us to know they can belong to this community.  Being a people of welcome means we realize that we will be enriched by anyone who joins us.  As people of welcome we are imperfect and our community is imperfect and that is the way of life.  We are a people of welcome when we understand the complexity of our lives and our world, while understanding that anyone who joins us is just as complex as we are and they have the capacity to help us understand more about the complexity of life.  As people of welcome we need to hold our Principles loosely—understanding that they describe the values of many, but not all of us, and that we use them to help others understand what many of us as Unitarian Universalists value.  And as people of welcome, we do not try to mold, shape or nudge each other, or anyone who visits us, into a particular way of thinking or believing. 
            In Kreves Hall there is a sign that says Welcome at the top.  Welcome to anyone who is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Ally, black, white, Hispanic, latino/a, Asian, biracial, multiracial, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Interfaith, Pagan, elder, adult, young adult, teen, child, infant, native born, immigrant, humanist, atheist, agnostic, theist, conservative, liberal, single, partnered, special needs, a visitor to our church, and each of YOU!  But this is an incomplete list.  After the service I invite you to add more descriptors to the list.  After you write those descriptors of others you feel should be welcome here, think about how we can make it so and share your ideas.  This is another way we can be a People of Welcome.