Monday, September 23, 2019

Positive Expectations and Positive Fantasies preached by Revered Tom Capo on 9/22/2019

This is from Roller Skating as a Spiritual Discipline by Reverend Christopher Buice:
“I have a theme song for roller-skating.  It is by the pop group Chumbawamba.  The words to the chorus are, ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again.  You’re never going to keep me down.’  If you have ever seen me skate, you can appreciate why the song is so appropriate.
When I put on a pair of roller skates, I sometimes feel vulnerable.  I become aware that I might fall and hurt myself.  If I give into fear, I will never be able to experience the fun of flying around the rink…
Roller-skating is not the only activity during which I get knocked down.  I’ve been knocked down.  I’ve been knocked down on many occasions: by the death of friends and members of my family; by disappointed hopes, broken promises, and shattered dreams.  I think very few of us make it around the roller rink of life completely unscathed.  Many of us learned a lesson or two from the Theology of Hard Knocks.
One of the most significant decisions anyone can ever make is how to respond when hurt or injured by life.  When I am roller-skating, I realize that I have at least three choices.  One temptation is simply to remain sprawled out on the roller rink floor, wallowing in my misery, hoping for some pity.  Another choice is to crawl off the floor, get on the bench, nurse my wounds, and sit out the rest of the session.  Or I can get up again and say, ‘You’re never going to keep me down.’  In my life it has been important to make the decision to get up once more, brush myself off, and try one more time to make it around the rink.  This has not always been easy.  And on more than one occasion I’ve needed a helping hand to get me back on my feet again.  Yet I know I do not want to be a permanent spectator on the sidelines of existence.  In the fullness of time I want to be back in the flow of things, to re-enter and move with the rhythm of the circle of life.”

I want to start by sharing a blog post by Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD.  He is the founder of PsyBlog: “Researchers wanted to see how people cope with four different challenges that life throws at us: getting a job, finding a partner, doing well on an exam and undergoing surgery (hopefully not all at the same time).
Across four studies the researchers examined how people thought about each of these challenges. They measured how much they fantasized about a positive outcome and how much they expected a positive outcome.
The difference might sound relatively trivial, but it’s not. Expectations are based on past experiences. You expect to do well on an exam because you’ve done well on previous exams, you expect to meet another partner because you managed to meet your last partner, [you expect to throw a baseball better because you have gotten better at it] and so on.
Fantasies, though, involve imagining something you hope will happen in the future, [as if it is happening] right now. This turns out to be problematic.  The researchers found that when trying to get a job, find a partner, pass an exam or get through surgery, those who spent more time entertaining positive fantasies did worse.
Take those looking for a job. Those who spent more time dreaming about getting a job, performed worse. Two years after leaving college the dreamers had applied for fewer jobs, unsurprisingly had been offered fewer jobs, and, if they were [working], had lower salaries…
        Although positive fantasies were associated with failure, positive expectations were associated with success. People who had positive expectations about finding a partner, recovering quickly from surgery and passing an exam, did better than those whose expectations were negative.”
When you were meditating earlier about improving something in your life, how did you imagine it?  What attitude did you have—did you think of it as something that you expect that you can accomplish, with work, effort, time?  Or did you imagine improvement as if it had already happened—Shazam!—with no effort on your part…a fantasy?  Neither fantasies nor expectations are bad or destructive per se.  But, according to Dr. Dean, you are more likely to find success if your attitude is more one of expectation than of fantasy. 
            And what did you think about the wise person you talked to about improving something in your life in the meditation.  What did they say to you?  Was it helpful? Did they reveal some of the ways you might sabotage yourself, or did they point out obstacles you might face, or suggest how to manage whatever obstacles you do face?  Perhaps the wise person suggested that you were capable of achieving your goal, or told you that what you hope to change was not really possible, and that you needed to accept it.  Or perhaps nothing at all happened for you during the meditation.  It’s like that sometimes, and that’s okay.
            I have been to many workshops that included meditations not unlike the one I offered you today.  I remember the first time I experienced a meditation like this.  I was attending Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, a Catholic High School.  Each year our class was expected to attend a retreat.  I was a sophomore at the time and very involved in my home Catholic Church.  At the retreat, the visualization they suggested focused on how we could improve our faith.  I was young, so my attitude going in was that what I visualized was actually going happen, simply because I was able to see it in my mind.  What did I see? 
I saw a flaming heart.  I later was told this was the Flaming Heart of Jesus and that the image was very special. 
            I was on top of the world.  I felt more connected to my faith than I ever had been.  But still my Jesuit teachers trained me to look deeply into concepts and ideas even beliefs, and to not to accept ideas, concepts, or beliefs without comprehending them.  So after my visualization, I dug deep into Catholicism and I tried to live that faith to the core of my being.  As it turned out, digging in deep and trying to live that faith, well, it eventually led me away from Catholicism.  And I realized that the flaming heart I imagined didn’t belong to Jesus, it belonged to me.
I continued to study Catholicism, and I began to explore how people around me lived their Catholic faith.  I started with my parents.  My mother used birth control pills, which the church taught were sinful.  My mother never really talked about her beliefs, but she lived them in her life.  My father was an alcoholic and a rager, yet talked about his beliefs frequently.  I was confused.   The deeper I went into the teachings of the church, the more confused I became.  What I saw being practiced by some people was not what I understood as the Catholicism taught by the priests.
        So I started attending to what my flaming heart and intellectual curiosity told me was right for me on my faith journey.  The journey still held many aspects of Catholicism, but there were some significant exceptions. 
Perhaps due to the influence of my mother, I decided that it was a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child or not.  It shouldn’t be up to the church to guilt a woman into having children when they did not want to, regardless of the reason.
This particular issue, Women’s Reproductive Choice, came to a head for me when a priest at my high school asked me to march in a Pro-Life rally.  I knew I was not anti-abortion, but felt pressured because many of my classmates and teachers were attending.  I struggled with this for some time, and finally decided that I was no longer a Catholic because there were beliefs and ideas within that religion that I just didn’t believe, and I could no longer practice a faith that was inconsistent with what my heart and mind believed to be true.
I tell you this story because I had based my deepening connection with my religion on a fantasy, not on an expectation.  The Jesuits had drilled into me to “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science” and follow the teachings of your heart.  When I tried to do that with a fantasy that I had imagined as a grounding for the religion, a religion that I had loved, my connection to that religion dissolved and I was left depressed and disconnected, knocked to my knees.  I had choices then.  To just stay down, wallow in my pity and sorrow.  To crawl to the side and just be a spectator of life, not being involved in any religion or spirituality.  Or to get back up again.  I decided I had to get back up; I wasn’t going to let this new revelation keep me down.
Building my own theology in terms of positive expectations and reconciling some to the aspects of my childhood faith would come later in my life when I found Unitarian Universalism.  But for years, I tussled with how my faith would be expressed.  What were its tenets?  What would make it strong, yet tensile?  I thought about it, visualized it, read about different religions.  I held on to the idea, foundational to all the major religions, of treating others as I would like to be treated, and I held that love, the connection I felt for others and that they expressed to me, was what I expected in a religion, remembering what Jesus was reported to have said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no other commandment greater”.  But what about the concept of deity?  At that time in my life, the concept of a god didn’t seem to connect with me, perhaps because of my disappointment in Catholicism.
A positive expectation has its grounding in being reality-based; in having been experienced in some way previously; in being possible to achieve; and in being something the person feels should be achieved—for whatever reason. 
A positive expectation isn’t an instant fantasy.  Positive expectations have infrastructures.  They take effort, time, patience, resources, and often emotional resilience.  I didn’t realize this until after I had struggled with my own faith and my own beliefs about how to live my life with meaning and purpose.  Today, one of the foundational components of my positive expectation about my faith is that it is not static, that my faith will continue to change as I have experiences, as I learn, as I look within and reflect on my life and the lives of others who I connect with; and that’s very much in line with Unitarian Universalism.  You see Unitarian Universalists believe that revelation is not sealed.  In Unitarian Universalism “faith” is a verb.  
Today I describe myself as a humanist, panentheist, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist holding some affection for aspects of my past Catholicism.  Let me define these terms.  Please keep in mind these are my definitions and how I live these definitions.  They are not common definitions and I am not sharing them as such.  They’re personal, as I believe all faith definitions are especially personal for people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists.  Humanism for me is a belief in living in loving connection with creation.  Humanism also calls me to minster to and protect all creatures and this planet. Panentheism is a belief that there is a spark of the divine in all things and I must respect all of creation as expressions of the divine.   Buddhism is a belief in non-attachment, neither grasping nor rejecting my experiences, instead being open to and exploring experiences to determine their meaning and purpose in my life.  In addition, I affirm the value of meditation from a Zen Buddhist perspective.  And I think of Unitarian Universalism as the container for me to safely explore who I am, what I believe, and how to live my life with meaning and purpose, within a loving community.  Perhaps that is what Unitarian Universalism can be for you as well.  A place to safely explore who you are, what you believe, and how to live your life with meaning and purpose.
I want to share something else Dr. Dean wrote in his blog: “…Expectations are built on solid foundations while positive fantasies are often built on thin air…The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here and now. However they don’t …[take into account] the problems we are likely to face …[as we seek to bring an expectation to life,] and can leave us with less motivation—after all it feels like we’ve already reached our goal.”  He goes on to say, “It’s one way in which our mind’s own brilliance, lets us down. Because… [our minds are] so amazing at simulating our achievement of future events[, a fantasy]…they can actually undermine our attempts to achieve those goals in reality.”
            What positive expectations do you have about your faith? What are the foundations you build your faith on?  What are its cornerstones?  Where do you hope your faith journey will take you?  When you look deeply within and around you with your heart and soul, as you consider your beliefs with the guidance of reason and the results of science, as you reflect on your direct experiences and learn from the world religions and earth-centered teachings, what do you see?  What takes shape in your mind’s eye? What will you discard?  What will you take with you as you journey through this life?  Will your experiences be positive or negative?  “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”  Either way, there is still a journey waiting to be experienced, a life to be explored.  May your expectations be positive, may the odds be ever in your favor, and may you journey well. 

Monday, September 16, 2019

Expect Nothing? Preached by Reverend Tom Capo on 9/15/2019

Our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles call to us to make a positive difference in the world, in particular our Sixth Principle: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”   Our forebears can seem like social change and social justice giants to many of us.  “Both Unitarians and Universalists became active participants in many social justice movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker was a prominent abolitionist, defending fugitive slaves and offering support to American abolitionist John Brown.  Other reformers included Universalists such as Charles Spear who called for prison reform, and Clara Barton who went from Civil War “angel of the battlefield” to become the founder of the American Red Cross. Unitarians such as Dorothea Dix fought to “break the chains” of people incarcerated in mental hospitals, and Samuel Gridley Howe started schools for the blind. For the last two centuries, Unitarians and Universalists have been at the forefront of movements working to free people from whatever bonds may oppress them.”  (
            Today, we can still find ourselves in dire need of prophets, reformers, defenders, affirmers and promoters of peace, liberty, and justice for all.  I would be one of them.  But there are times when I am overwhelmed and weary, I stumble and struggle with how to make a real, tangible difference.  How many of you feel the same way sometimes?
            Last week, I attended MCCJ, the Miami interfaith leaders dialogue group.  I was excited to meet many of the long-time leaders in Miami’s interfaith community.  After socializing, there was a presentation by Sylvia Heller, Co-Chair of the Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Committee of the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove.  She is also a member of the Human Trafficking Committee of the National Council of Jewish Women.  She is working in collaboration with the Office of the Florida State Attorney, the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force and the Events Committee for the Anti-Trafficking Campaign for the Super Bowl 2020 in Miami.  She read quotes from women who had been trafficked for sex.  She told us of people as young as 3 months abducted for the slave trade.  She told of the documented increase in sex slavery that occurs in any city that hosts the Super Bowl and of incidents of children and women abducted and put on a plane with hours transported to another city or country, and forced in the slave trade.  Sylvia described the process of grooming and the various forms of torture to break the spirits of children and women.  She pointed out that young men and women in our country are increasingly learning about sex through pornography, learning unhealthy attitudes and practices about sex that in turn supports sex slavery.  Sylvia told us that Florida is one of the three worst human trafficking states in the US; California and Texas round out the top three.  By the end of her presentation, I was angry, overwhelmed, depressed and sad.  I wanted to get involved, to do something, anything, to make a difference.  And so I talked with her about helping local children and youth by starting Our Whole Lives, OWL, Lifespan Sexuality Training in this area.  I went on to discuss how this program helps teach children and youth to respectfully and honestly talk about healthy sexual attitudes and behavior, along with getting a clearer understanding of what consent means. 
After the program, still feeling overwhelmed by everything Sylvia had shared, I got in the car and turned on National Public Radio and heard about the Environmental Protection Agency rolling back water quality protection standards, which would allow industry to pollute our drinking water.  And I heard about Trump wanting to roll back standards on light bulb efficiency.  And I heard a debate about the Supreme Court letting the new asylum restrictions go into effect, limiting people from being accepted as asylum seekers in this country if they had passed through another country before coming here.  It was just after lunch, yet I wanted to turn my car around, go home, and crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.
            So many things to do, so many needs, so many atrocities, and there’s only one me, and I have limited energies, limited focus, limited resources.  I want to help; I want to make a difference; however, the needs just keep piling up: more and more assaults on human rights and on our planet. It would be so easy to give up, sit back and watch Jeopardy, and lower my expectations of myself. I can’t do it all, so I won’t do anything.  It would be easy to give up and just let it all go to hell anyway because “What can I really do about any of it?”  What can one person do? What can a congregation do?  And how is it possible for a person or a congregation to keep up the energy, emotional resilience, and motivation to make one difference after another after another, day after day, after day. 
Unitarian Universalist Reverend Elizabeth Nguyen writes “Our faith teaches us two truths: That we are always enough…. And that we are responsible for bending our small piece of the arc [of the moral universe].”  She goes on to say, “When we find our [personal] front lines, we find not only our hope, but we also find our most effective action.”   These are heartening words, but let me tell you, after Thursday morning, I’m not sure I would have been able to hear them, much less write them on my heart.
There are those of us in this room who try do everything we can to be enough until we burn out.  I remember a time in my life when I spread myself out as wide as I could serving on the Board of Planned Parenthood for Eastern Iowa, being on the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, leading the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, serving on the Board of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and traveling across the state of Iowa for marital equality, all at the same time.  Oh and I was the full-time minister of the local UU church, too.  I finally realized I couldn’t do it all.  That I had to choose my small piece of the arc to bend.  Perhaps some of you have had that experience as well. 
I had to choose my own personal front line, where I could dig in and offer my most effective action.  A single area that touched my heart, my life, my experiences most authentically, and where I could make a difference.  That is not to say I wouldn’t continue to offer my presence and my experience and expertise to other causes, but I couldn’t do everything for everyone.  I chose one social justice area that I personally could put energy into, and also reserve some of my personal resources to support whichever social justice initiative the congregation I served chose to get involved in.  In choosing to refine my focus, I have more energy to support the causes I choose.  And one thing I have come to realize, in stepping back from so many leadership roles, I was given the opportunity to trust that others can and will take on the other issues, causes, needs that I cannot. 
Refining my focus has been a helpful to me, might be helpful to some of you, and can also be helpful to a congregation.  What would be different if this congregation, as a whole body, chose one social justice focus?  If this congregation focused its energy and resources toward one social justice initiative with one project that bubbled up from that initiative, to make a difference in the world?  You, we, this congregation, do not have an inexhaustible amount of energy and endless resources for all the causes out there.  The process of choosing a focus for an individual or a congregation takes time, reflection, discernment.  In a congregation it also takes one-on-one conversations about our deeply held values and about experiences that have affected how we view the world and the needs of the world.  In addition, this congregation would have to vote on a specific social justice focus, then proceeding from there to really educate ourselves on that focus.  Book studies, outside speakers, learning from allies, exploring gaps in services, looking for where we can make a difference.  This is a tangible way that this congregation, can find and bend the arc in find our personal front line.
Now some of you might say you already have active social justice initiatives and actions going on within this congregation, and I will tell you that is true, especially most recently with the work you have done in Homestead at the detention facility.  I honor the work you have been doing and continue to do.  I offer my thoughts about social justice because this congregation-wide process has worked for me, for the congregations I have been a member of, and for those I have served.  The decision on how to move forward together making a difference in the world is up to you.  What I propose is an intentional process.  With all that is going on this country and world, many of us feel we need to do something right now.  Right now!  And what I am saying is that immediate action is one type of social justice initiative; sustained action require we take the time as a congregation to discern and identify the social justice action which speaks to our collective heart.  Like so many things in Unitarian Universalism, it is not either or, it is both and.
One more thing, having done social justice work for many years, I have had to learn how to keep my social justice focus while coping with the constant barrage of attacks on people’s rights and attacks on the health of our planet.  After the MCCJ meeting the other day, I took some time to meditate and replenish my resources.  I encourage you to find ways to fill yourselves back up when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, unable to face another attack on rights and freedoms in this country, to restore your hope when all seems lost.  For some of you, it may be coming to this congregation on Sunday morning for an uplifting word from the pulpit, or to be with people who accept you just as you are, who share similar values, and who brighten up when they see your face, just as you brighten up when you see theirs. 
That’s how it works for me…when I am paying attention.  When I remember to look for, be mindful of, and open up to those things that replenish me.    But in order for them to work, I need to pay attention, to look for, be mindful of, be It is so easy for us humans to focus on and be consumed by what repels us, upsets us, and caused us internal conflict, rather than attending to what we need to replenish our hearts and souls.  I read somewhere we humans are genetically predisposed to be vigilant to the threats around us, and now in this current age, with fewer immediate threats to our lives that vigilance comes out sideways, as we give our attention to things that bother us, scare us, and cause us discomfort, rather than giving attention to things that fill us spiritually and give us hope. 
Reverend Teresa Soto wrote (“When There is no Happy Ending” in Spilling the Light by Reverend Theresa I. Soto):  “Hope is the thing inside you that says yes in the face of every no…We find ourselves [today] in a time that is equal parts cruelty and confusion.  [And] There are… times when the confusion is a tool of systems of oppression… Our ongoing acknowledgement that each of us is somebody means that we don’t need many finely crafted ways to say that in an uncertain and confusing world, the certainty we offer isn’t that we have all the right answers or even all the right actions.  Rather, we present the certainty that no matter what happens, we aim to move forward together…Our hope is not indefinite…Hope is a practice we create.  Just as mastering physical skills takes a lot of training and practice, mastering communal hope requires that we stay at it and do the actions that will bring about new states of being and new futures.  ‘We are in this together’ means that we choose each other, over and over, as sources and communities of hope.  Maybe we will repeat this often.  [and we will remember that] Changing our reality often takes more than one try…”
How do you practice hope?  Perhaps by being part of a Unitarian Universalist faith community.  Perhaps by reminding yourself of the other communities of hope that are in your life.  Perhaps by acknowledging that change happens, human systems don’t last, that the administration in Washington will eventually change.  Perhaps your hope practice involves doing something to make a difference.  When I am witnessing at a rally, lobbying a legislator, when I tell a person who is from a marginalized group that I will walk with them, support them, and bring my resources to bear for them, I feel hope.  When I am actively listening to someone tell me about the countless issues in my community, I can find myself slipping back into distress.  My hope seems to slip. 
And that’s when I turn back to our Unitarian Universalist Principles.  That’s when I remember we are a people of the Principles, a denomination founded and grounded on building a new way, and I am not alone in this work.  What gives me hope?  You do.  Hope that shines like a beacon in the world sorely in need of deeds, not creeds.  What give me the energy to get us and keep trying to right the wrongs around me?  You do.  What replenishes my soul?  Why, it’s you.  You and Unitarian Universalists like you across the world that inspire me to
            “go out into the world singing songs that proclaim [peace,] liberty [and justice for all.]
Songs that turn ashes into garlands
Songs that bind up the afflicted and those who mourn.
Songs that, like oaks, have roots that go deep and stand strong..
They are the songs that give us life.
They are the songs that give us meaning.
They are the songs that give us purpose.
[And once again] it is our turn to take these life-giving songs out into the world.”
(from Into the World Singing by Reverend Dawn Cooley)