Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A Yes/And Faith by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 3/13/2022


A Story

 There are many stories.  Some offer wisdom.  Some offer different perspectives.  Some makes us wonder.  Here is a story from Andhra Pradesh in Southern India called “A Pig’s Life.”

One day, a guru foresaw in a flash of vision what he would be in his next life. So he called his favorite disciple and asked him what he would do for his guru in return for all he had received. The disciple said he would do whatever his guru asked him to do.

Having received this promise, the guru said, "Then this is what I'd like you to do for me. I've just learned that when I die, which will be very soon, I'm going to be reborn as a pig. Do you see that sow eating garbage there in the yard? I'm going to be reborn as the fourth piglet of its next litter. You'll recognize me by a mark on my brow. When that sow has littered, find the fourth piglet with a mark on its brow and, with one stroke of your knife, slaughter it. I'll then be released from a pig's life. Will you do this for me?"

The disciple was sad to hear all this, but he agreed to do as he had promised.

Soon after this conversation, the guru did die. And the sow did have a litter of four little pigs. One day, the disciple sharpened his knife and picked out the fourth little pig, which did indeed have a mark on its brow. Just as he was about to bring down his knife to slit its throat, the little pig suddenly spoke. "Stop! Don't kill me!" it screamed.

Before the disciple could recover from the shock of hearing the little pig speak in a human voice, it said, "Don't kill me. I want to live on as a pig. When I asked you to kill me, I didn't know what a pig's life would be like. It's great! The mud is soft and silky.  My mother’s belly is warm and comforting.  I truly believe that it is a fair reward for my past life.  Now, please let me go."

As the disciple walked down to the river to wash off the filth from the barn, he wondered, “How strange it is that you can know the future and yet not understand it at all.”



Would you want to know what life offers in the future or in the next life, if there is such a thing?  How do you think you would respond if you knew?  Like the guru perhaps, so afraid of his future existence as a pig, that he asked his student to kill him as soon as he was born as a little piglet.  Did you wonder about the disciple’s question: “How strange it is that you can know the future and yet not understand it at all.”

            This story touched me in so many ways.  When I was a 14 year old, I could not have imagined that I would be living Miami—I always thought I would live in Houston, near my family-- that I would be a Unitarian Universalist minister—at the time I was very clear I was going to be a computer scientist-- that today I describe my belief as a Buddhist—practicing Zazen meditation, mindfulness, non-attachment, and the transitory nature of life—Panentheistic—believing that the divine exists in all things and that all aspects of existence deserves to be treated with love and reverence—Humanistic—asserting the value of humanity, reason, and science, as well as the importance of dealing with issues in the here and now, not waiting for a possible afterlife--and Unitarian Universalist— affirming values and Principles that help guide my choices as I move through an ever-changing spiritual journey.  As a teen being anything other than Catholic was unimaginable. I attended Mass regularly; I believed in the wisdom of Jesus, and I was a church and diocesan youth leader and retreat organizer for the CYO.  How would I have responded if I had had a flash of what the future offered?  A future so different from the future I was working toward, a future completely alien to me.  Would I have tried to prevent this future? Would I have just accepted what lay ahead? Would I have tried to understand what lay before me?

            This week, I started a group on eldering or perhaps a better way to describe it, is a conscious aging group.  In our first session together, I asked those gathered to look backward and forward in their lives.  I started the class with this quote by Leon Trotsky: “Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to us.”  And then I offered Hindu guru Eknath Daswaran’s reflections on this quote:

“When the first grey hair appears on our head, it is a critical juncture in life. We go to the mirror with a sinking feeling of dread and try to pluck out the evidence – one here, two there. But the more we pull out, the more seem to come in.

I tease my friends by asking which of them would like to relive their adolescence. It always brings a groan. Youth has a lot to offer, but so does the experience of age. In India we have a joke about a man going to a barber and asking, ‘Do you have anything for grey hair?’ ‘Yes,’ the barber says, ‘respect.’…

This is the paradox of life: when we cling to the body, it loses its beauty. But when we do not cling to the body – and use [the body] as an instrument given us to serve others – it glows with a special beauty...”

How do you see old age? From the perspective of the guru from our story seeing his future--- as an awful lowly existence, as a pig.  Or from the perspective of the guru when he actually became a piglet, experiencing it as comforting and quite enjoyable?  The Conscious Aging group is about exploring aging, trying to understand our past and how it has impacted who we are today.  It’s about understanding the present, what life offers now.  And it’s about looking forward, considering what life still has to offer.  I remember hearing someone in the class say that what we were exploring were things they had not thought about in a long time. 

I called this sermon a Yes/And Faith because life offers us many things, at different times in our lives, and we are different in each stage, responding to what life offers in very different ways depending on our life experiences and our hopefully ever-growing understanding of who we are and how we change.  Aware that we are not static creatures in a consistent, never changing world.  When I was 14, and probably at other times in my life, I was not to keen on change.  For me, life was about yes or no.  I said yes to things I was familiar with, that kept me close to home, family, friends, church, and didn’t push me toward being different.  I reflect back now on that nerdy, anxious, mama’s-boy teenager who really didn’t look at life too deeply, and marvel at how I became the person I am today. 

I invite you to take a moment and think about how you were when you were 14 years old.  How did you interact with life?  How did you view your spiritual journey?  What was important to you?  What were your goals and the things you desired?

Perhaps you wouldn’t have been as open when you were 14, but how about 30?  Did you say Yes/And to what life offered?  Yes to new and different experiences?  And--being open to the changes within you that a “yes” might offer?  Have there been times you’ve answered “Yes/And” to what life offered?  What was the result?  As you look forward to the future, what might be some opportunities you could answer “Yes/And’ to?

At certain points in our lives, Yes And might seem inevitable.  For instance, when we leave home, when we start a job or career, get married, or start a family.  Sometimes we might be excited about Yes And, sometimes not so much.  Sometimes we might feel ready for Yes And, and sometimes, very much not.  I look out at you all, and I wonder if you approach Yes And opportunities like I do, with a little hesitation, a little or a lot of reflection, some trepidation, and a little or a lot of excitement.  That anxious 14-year-old is still part of me, warning me not to do too many different things and not to change too much.  And that 14-year-old has gotten a little louder as I have gotten into my 60’s.  Do I listen to him?  A little?  But I want to continue my life by answering Yes/And to life. 

And so, I wonder about my self-described faith. I have been very comfortable as a Buddhist, Panentheist, Humanist, Unitarian Universalist.  I wonder how I would respond to an opportunity, a “Yes/And” opportunity, that might alter how I describe and live my faith walk.

Let me stop for a moment and ask you all can you describe your faith in one word?  Raise your hands. How many of you when you try to talk to someone about your faith use a lot of descriptors and qualifiers?  Like you try to explain how you accept these practices or truths from this religion, but you don’t accept the rest.  Or you find yourself wanting to hold onto certain aspects of your childhood religion, but find some or many of its teachings untenable for you today.  Let’s say I give you a survey about how you identify your beliefs and the choices are:

Atheist, Pagan, Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Theist, Jew, Naturalist, Humanist, Wiccan, Unitarian Universalist, Zoroastrian, Baha'i, Taoist, Confucianism, Shinto, Sikh, seeker, unsure, in process, none of the above. 

How many categories do you identify with in some way or another?  You can shout them out or answer in the chat.  Most Unitarian Universalist don’t identify themselves as one specific faith or belief system.  And for each belief system they offer as an answer, they qualify it with Yes/But. 

            What happens when you answer Yes/And?  With Yes/And, you are willing to explore all parts of a belief system, and sit with all these parts—even the ones that you’re not immediately drawn to—for a period of time.  You are willing to be open to being changed by the belief system.  I have offered this advice to many Unitarian Universalists, advice that I have found challenging, but enriching in my own life.  Take on a belief system and live it fully for a period of time—let’s say at least 6 months.  Let yourself delve deeply into its texts, beliefs, and traditions.  Let it influence your decisions.  What are you feeling as I describe this task?  Anxious, scared, bored, excited, joyful, angry, impatient?  Are you willing to try this Yes And experiment?    If not, what are you doing to ensure you don’t become stagnant in your belief system?  How are you challenging yourself spiritually?

            I leave you with this thought.  Beware the faith walk that does not cause you some discomfort, anxiety or unease, as well as joy and peace, that does not call you to look within to discern who you were, who you are, and who you will be, that asks you to look at the world through a different lens and see it as if for the first time.  On any faith walk, it is easy to reject an idea, a belief, or a tradition.  It is much harder to say and live Yes/And.  And as Unitarian Universalists, saying “Yes/And” is really what we’re all about, isn’t it?



Beads and Bling: It’s a Mardi Gras Thing by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 3/6/2022

 Mardi Gras has been celebrated in one form or fashion in New Orleans for over 300 years.  That, my friends, is a lot of celebrating.  Over the years this carnival has become more elaborate, with more crowds and Krewes—Krewes are the groups that put on each of the parades.  The Krewes were more generous and socially conscious with their throws—the things thrown from the floats.  This year, one parade, Iris, threw branded coffee, red beans and jambalaya mixes, soap, tooth brushes, all of which were made locally.  The king of the Hermes parade threw roughly 100 strands of real pearls, each valued at something-like $1500.  To say that Mardi Gras is a celebration of excess would be an understatement. 

            New Orleans is predominantly a Catholic city, so it is no surprise that this celebration has thrived.  For weeks prior to the Lenten season, New Orleans is getting all of its most outrageous celebrating out of its system in preparation for Ash Wednesday and giving up something for Lent.  You are probably aware of people giving up candy or meat or something special for the 40 days of Lent.  In my house growing up, we ate Fish on Fridays during Lent and were encouraged to give up something, most often sweets.   

Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been a tradition in my family since before I was born.  By the way I was born in New Orleans.  I remember going to Mardi Gras when I was a small child camping out on the side of the street to get the best spot for the biggest parades and sitting in the seat on the top of the ladder, as so many children do during that celebration, to get the most throws.  Throws most often went to children and pretty women.  As I remember Mardi Gras, people fought for throws, pushed and shoved for throws.  If two people caught the same strand of beads, often they would both pull so hard on the beads that the strand broke apart.  And we are talking about cheap plastic beads.  The throws, besides beads, were generally cheap plastic toys and doubloons.  Although some Krewes threw special items, for example Iris threw decorated high heel shoes and Zulu threw decorated coconuts. 

            I participated in a truck parade when I was in elementary school, but I generally stopped going to Mardi Gras when I turned 18.  I did bring Martha to one Mardi Gras early in our relationship, I think in part for her to understand more about me and my family.  And I did ride in one more Parade, one of the biggest, Bacchus, when I was in my early 30’s, because my father and brothers were on the Krewe of this parade.  Today my brothers and one of my nephews continue as part of Krewe Bacchus, and my middle brother is a sergeant of one of the Floats—BacchaKong.  Mardi Gras is fun, but for me once every ten years or so is enough.  The gaudy costumes and outrageous behavior, including the excessive drinking did little for me after so many years being a part of it.  It seemed to lack any spiritual grounding or emotional connection for me. 

And as a Unitarian Universalist, the African Americans carrying flaming torches, flambeux, before hooded and masked white men on horses and on floats, so that people would toss them coins, upset me. 

            I attended this year with joy in my heart because this was my mother’s last Mardi Gras and I wanted share it with her.  Also, my aunt, brothers, their wives, and a nephew were attending; we goy to spend 5 days together, something we don’t often get to do.  And my bother got me into the Pete Fountain, who is a famous New Orleans jazz clarinetist, Half Fast Walking Parade on Fat Tuesday.  I decided I would be okay with the lack of spiritual enrichment that the celebration itself would offer.  After all, not everything I do has to be about spiritual enrichment, does it?

            I knew right away that I would fall back into old behaviors, pushing to be in front of the crowds, desperate for beads and tokens, often ignoring the beauty of the floats and pageantry.  But my perceptions, experiences, and yes, even spiritual growth surprised me as the week proceeded.


The first surprise occurred before I even saw the first parade.  Before parades, there are the hawkers with their wagons full of trinkets, toys, and flags.  Look closely; what flags do you see?   You will notice this Pride Flag, which adds five arrow-shaped lines to the six-colored Rainbow Flag, which is widely recognized as the symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.  The flag includes black and brown stripes to represent marginalised LGBT communities of color, along with the colors pink, light blue and white, which are used on the Transgender Pride Flag.  You will also see a Trump flag, Let’s Go Brandon, a marijuana flag, a thin blue line flag police flag, a Mardi Gras purple, green and gold flag all being sold by the same vendor, actually being sold by all the vendors I saw.  Martha and I and even my politically conservative aunt talked about this unusual sight.  My aunt felt it was a sign of the gumbo of cultures that co-exist and define Mardi Gras and New Orleans.  Martha and I wondered at the transactional culture class right before our eyes.  A sort of Laissez-faire of “If you will buy it, I don’t mind selling it.”

            What was most startling to me this year was the generosity and relative politeness of the vast majority of people.  This was not the Mardi Gras I remembered.  I saw smiles, heard “thank you’s”, and while people held their hands out and yelled “throw me something mister”, there was generosity as so many shared their throws with those unable to be on the front-line catching beads. 

This little girl was given beads and trinkets by many of the mostly White people who surrounded her, bringing her joy and a bright smile.  And my mother, who couldn’t stand during the parades she attended, was offered all the beads she could wear by perfect strangers.  Was this due to Mardi Gras being absent for two years during Covid?  Was this due to the shortened parade routes and an excess of beads?  Was this some sort of culture change?  Was it the creole and jazz music everywhere? Everyone seemed joyful, dancing, and most surprisingly, showing kindness to one another.  Again not the Mardi Gras I remembered.  And I wondered, as I watched, could this be how our country could come back together, despite our differences of politics, color, culture.  Could this Mardi Gras spirit spread like a virus around our country?

            By the time Martha and I arrived at the Bacchus Ball, I had collected a number of beads and toys.  But by the end of the Ball, with the Krewe throwing out everything they had left on the floats, I had collected enough beads and toys to fill a cloth bag that was four feet long and 2 and a half feet wide.  It was so heavy that the bag was splitting as I struggled to carry it from the Ball back to my hotel room.  As I looked at my treasure, I no longer felt the need for more, but felt an overwhelming sense of excess.  What had I done?  In all the fun, I had paid no notice to my own excess.  I no longer felt a need to call out “throw me something mister”, instead I wondered how I could donate these to others who didn’t have any tokens of celebration.  I had noticed over the week, my brother and Martha giving away beads to all the service industry workers unable to attend the parades, who had to work for a living during the celebrations.  Martha gave a sales woman whom I bought a few shirts from some beads from each of the parades we attended, and she was so grateful.  We kept a few beads and trinkets that held meaning for us and I donated all the rest.  The hotel actually had a place for people to donate their beads.  And those that were still in unopened plastic bags unopened I put in my bead sack to throw during the Half Fast Walking Parade.  I felt relief and joy.  And I wondered if Mardi Gras could hold some new meaning for me after all.


And so I went off to the Half Fast Walking Parade wanting to share my joy and generosity and my sense of abundance with everyone. This year’s parade theme was My Blue Heaven, thus the walkers were in blue and the wives, including my sister-in-law, dressed up as a blue angel and met us along the parade route.  I found walking, as opposed to riding in a parade, was much more personal.  I could approach people one on one, handing them beads, cups, toys, and doubloons.  They said “Thank you” or “Happy Mardi Gras” and I said “Happy Mardi Gras” back to them.  I could see the joy in their faces when I gave them something.  So many big smiles and happy people.  I made a point to give beads and such to people to who had none.  I noticed my brother doing the same.  He even put beads in empty chairs along the route for people to find when they returned to their seats.  No-one pushed or shoved, despite there being no rails between us and the parade goers.  All we wanted to do was share a happy experience with one another.  When I ran out of beads and throws, my fellow Half Fasters gave me some, so I could continue to be part of the experience of giving.  I know you might say that these were just beads and toys, but to me at the time, it was a way to connect with people I didn’t know.  A way to spread joy, to momentarily lighten whatever burden or sorrow they may have been carrying.  As we passed the rows of people camped and ready for the rest of the parades on that Fat Tuesday, the news of Ukraine and Covid and shootings and legal assaults on women’s and trans rights faded away for a little while.  We were all in the moment, joyfully dancing, sharing, giving, receiving, being in communion for a little while.  We were grateful for this moment and for the time together, even as we were also aware of our grief and pain and loss and trauma.  Pain and joy don’t cancel each other out.  They are the human condition.  As poet William Blake said,

“It is right it should be so;

[We were] made for joy and woe;

And when this we rightly know,

Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,

A clothing for the soul divine.

We need to create joy and beauty even as we are aware of pain, grief or loss.  This part of the work we do to make the world a better place for all.

            Mardi Gras is not a perfect celebration and New Orleans is not a perfect city. Yes, Martha and I did have a little brush-up with some over-served patron at a bar and I saw my fair share of people who were into the greed of the moment, but these were the exceptions and soon were forgotten in the midst of the celebration.  This new Mardi Gras spirit I witnessed reminded me that, no matter what the politicians and the talking heads may say, we are a country of fairly decent people, willing, for the most part, to show others a little kindness. And I hope that a little of the Mardi Gras spirit, with its joy and generosity, might make a positive difference in this divided country. Laissez les bon temps rouler.