Thursday, May 11, 2023

Covenantal Love by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 2/5/2023


        Q: What’s the difference between cats and dogs?

A: Dogs look at people and say, “They feed us. They give us shelter. They take care of our every need. They must be gods.” Cats look at people and say, “They feed us. They give us shelter. They take care of our every need. We must be gods.” In the 19th century Thomas Starr King was asked to describe the differences between the two denominations Unitarianism and Universalism. He replied, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them to hell forever. Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.” And so we might say that Unitarians are cats and Universalists are dogs.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been contemplating whether the core of our faith is love or covenant.  I think it is love, one of my colleagues argues it is covenant.  And as many of you know this summer at our denominational meeting, a new description of Unitarian Universalism will be presented and voted on.  The description of our faith does not come from a god, goddess, bishop or higher ups in our denomination, it is voted on by you—by Unitarian Universalist congregational members.  What is being presented this summer is the idea that Love is the foundation of our faith and that from this foundation come our core values—honoring and affirming interdependence—the interdependent web of all existence, equity—every person has the right to flourish with inherent worth and dignity, transformation—growing spiritually and ethically in an ever-changing world, pluralism—diversity in culture, experience and theology, generosity—cultivating gratitude, hope, and compassion, and justice—dismantling all forms of racism and systemic oppression and support of the democratic process.

I have to say I jumped on the Love is the center of our faith bandwagon right away.   I have always wondered why love was nowhere in our present description of our faith. 

In Junior year of high school, as I left the Catholic church, I felt an emptiness, a need to believe in something.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “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 worshipping we are becoming.”  So I didn’t jump into a new religion, though I have to admit, I did check out what the Catholic youth group was doing with I arrived at Texas Christian University.  I think I did this because I was looking for community more than anything else.

            Yet as I looked to fill that hole, that emptiness, the only thing I felt I could count on was the love I gave to my friends and the love the gave to me.  Now I have a small group of very close friends.  They are great guys.  We did almost everything together.  We also learned many lessons together, but that is another sermon.  One friend I have known since third grade, another I met in Jr. High, and the last few in High School.  We trusted one another with our lives, our secrets, our fears and sorrows.  When one of us was in need, we were there for them.  So this is what I filled that emptiness inside me with.  And this is what I held onto until I found Unitarian Universalism.

            My first impressions of Unitarian Universalism were at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church or as we affectionately called it the church with the too long name.  This is the sanctuary.  And actually they changed their name recently to All Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist due to Thomas Jefferson’s complicated history.  Each Sunday, we said a covenant, not unlike how we say a covenant here at UU Miami each Sunday.  The FJUUC covenant was: “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.  To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with one another.”  This covenant made sense to me, it affirmed my belief in love.  That love was foundational to what held me together and what held Unitarian Universalism together. 

            As I studied Unitarian Universalist history, this love foundation was affirmed in what I learned about Universalism.  Universalism always held love as most important, more important than belief.  A loving God, loving one another.  The symbol on the screen was the symbol of the Universalist Church of America before the 1961 merger with Unitarianism.  The early Universalist churches were more about pastoral care, communal care, support of those in need.  Some of our early Universalist Social Justice workers found love to be foundational in their belief that they were called to help those in need by being abolitionists, by helping the injured in war, by working for woman’s rights. 

I have been all set to vote at General Assembly this year for Love being the foundation of Unitarian Universalism.  But my colleague made a good case for covenant being foundational to our faith.  As he talked, I decided to look up some of our forebears’ thoughts on covenant.  Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Alice Blair Wesley wrote: “A covenanted free church is a body of individuals who have freely made a profoundly simple promise, a covenant: We pledge to walk together in the spirit of mutual love. The spirit of love is alone worthy of our ultimate, our religious loyalty. So, we shall meet often to take counsel concerning the ways of love, and we will yield religious authority solely to our own understanding of what these ways are, as best we can figure them out or learn or remember them, together.” 

            I have also thought more on this idea of Covenant.  I perceive covenant as coming from our Unitarian forebears.  They believed in being independently minded, not simply believing in something because other people believed it.  They were so independent that for years they couldn’t form a denomination because they feared losing their independence of thought.  That coming together as a denomination would result in dogma and creed, and less theological acumen.  This quote is from forebear Reverend William Ellery Channing: “I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whence soever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from Heaven.” That is why we are the Unitarian Universalist Association. The idea of independent democratic spiritual communities in community with one another is a legacy from our forebears.  They wanted to maintain our independence of thought and belief while still being able to have a larger association for support, for a larger prophetic voice, for sharing ideas, practices, beliefs, and ultimately to affirm our common values.  They also affirmed that being part of a Unitarian congregation is and must always be a personal choice.

Covenant, from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, has two parts: a personal choice to be a part of a congregation and deciding how we will be in community with one another.  When I meet with someone interested in joining UU Miami I affirm that this their own personal decision—I will not try to manipulate them or try to make them feel guilty, nor will anyone else in the congregation.  I tell them that they should join this congregation because this community means something to them, is important to them, and not because of some trans-nationalism. This is not a transactional faith—in which you are always looking for what you get from being part of this congregation.  It is a covenantal faith.  You voluntarily agree to be in a community with shared values—values that include treating each other and everyone you meet as having worth and dignity.  That includes a belief that decisions should be made both within these walls and beyond these walls through the democratic process.  Being part of this community means we covenant to treat not only each other, but everyone compassionately, justly, equitably.  We affirm in our words and our actions that we are part of many interdependent webs—this community web, our family web, the web our nature/mother earth, the web of existence.  Since we embrace this interdependence, we know that what we do to one affects us all. 

            I believe in the importance of covenant.  It shapes the natural of our relationships here.  is how we agree to be with one another.  In this congregation, we decide how we will worship, how we will govern, what committees, programs, educational experiences there are, who is the minister, what staff we have, everything is decided by a democratic process by you, the members of UU Miami.  You have elected leaders to be fiscal agents and policy developers, but ultimately this is your, and only your, congregation.  Your covenanted community.

            Are we a faith with love as its center or covenant at its center? That’s something each of us has to answer for ourselves.  I believe in the values that we affirm and promote.  But here’s the chicken or egg dilemma, is love where our faith comes from?  Is love foundational to our values, the place where our values come from?   Or it being in a covenantal community, where we decide how to be together, where we decide what love means and how we will live that love in community the foundation of our faith?  On Sunday mornings, do we say our UU Miami covenant to affirm how we will be with one another?  Or does the covenant come from a place of love for one another?  What do you think?  I look forward to hearing what you think.

Off Center? by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 1/22/2023


Are you off-center?  I mean off balance internally and/or off balance between your inside and the outside world.  Sometimes I feel I am.  Sometimes I know I am.  Sometimes I am, but I don’t know it.      

Near the end of my career as a psychotherapist—this was over 25 years ago-- I noticed some things about myself.  I was more tired than usual during work hours, finding myself even getting sleepy between clients.  I wasn’t as interested in my work.  Before that time, I attended many Continuing Education programs, always interested in learning more, talking with colleagues about various techniques, strategies, and client types, and taking on clients with novel conditions—many of whom other therapists refused to see—being fascinated by the human mind.  I couldn’t learn or experience enough.  I loved helping people, making a real concrete difference in peoples’ lives. 

Then something changed. I wasn’t really aware of it initially. I realized that some of my particularly difficult clients were draining me emotionally and I might have been able to endure this to some extent if they were getting better, but they did not seem to be getting better.  I had really never told any of my clients that I wasn’t a good fit for them and referring them to another therapist.  But I was starting to wonder about both my limitations—I had always thought I could or could learn to help anyone-- and I began to wonder about the unique needs of some of my clients that I just didn’t seem to understand well enough to help them progress beyond a certain point.  And I just didn’t feel the same about my work, the joy, intrigue, wonder that had been there for years, just wasn’t there.  It had become a drudgery; it was work to just go to work; it no longer felt like my vocation. Something inside me was off center and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Looking back and being honest with myself, I think it may have started with my overworking, taking on more clients than anyone else in my practice.  I was motivated by the financial rewards—important due to my now growing family-- as well as the accolades of my boss, peers and office staff.  I can now very clearly see how I was like the man who stole the gold, despite being in a crowd of people.  All I could see was the money I needed to pay the credit cards, to pay for a new home, to give my children all the things they wanted or I thought they wanted.  I was more worried about getting behind on debts and fearful of needing to file bankruptcy, although realistically I was paying my bills, and paying them on time. There was no real need to file bankruptcy other than my own irrational fears.  But I was off-center.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I was younger, I was much more susceptible to being off center, not guided by my deepest self.  Instead, I found my center by focusing on my job, on what I owned or earned, and by what others said about me.  And I would acknowledge today that I was unaware that I was off center within myself and between my inner self and the outside world.  I mean I did feel the tiredness, the reactivity about money, and the loss of interest in my vocation, but I didn’t realize it was due to being off center. 

Have you felt ever felt off center?  I would be surprised if you said “No, not me, never me.”  There are so many things within and around us that pull our attention, that want to masquerade as our center.  Advertisements use every means possible to manipulate us.  They want our center to be Medicare Advantage plans, Video Games, Doritos, Coca Cola, Tick Tock trends, big HD or OLED TV’s.  They use sex to sell beers, sodas, food, cars, or really anything.  I remember a hamburger commercial that had some beautiful young woman eating a hamburger in a very sloppy way to associate sex with their hamburgers. I would laugh, if it is wasn’t so obviously manipulative. These are all designed to make us see only the gold, thus centering only on something outside of us, so our actions are determined by what the advertisers want our actions to be. 

And it not just the advertisers, every person and experience we have can pull us off center, if we allow our center to be outside of ourselves.  I know it is challenging to live life without dealing with the various stresses and strains of the outside world.  I mean I let myself get off center a few days ago when I heard that Governor DeSantis formally approved measures to protect Florida’s investments from “woke” environmental, social, and corporate governance, ensuring that all investment decisions focus solely on maximizing the highest rate of return.  What the heck is he thinking?  Sorry, but you can see how easy it is to let something outside of you get you off center. 

Back when I was struggling with my vocation as a psychotherapist, it was the physical repercussions of being off center that helped me realize I was out of touch with my deepest, truest self.  Backpain—debilitating muscle spasms, frozen shoulder--stomach aches and all the other wonderful digestive problems, headaches from my eyeballs to my neck, as well as the tiredness that forced me to stop and reflect on what was going on within me.  I have learned that, at least for me, it is my body shouting at me through aches and pains to pay attention, that makes me stop and pay attention.  Because of that learning, that I unfortunately had to learn multiple times, I have developed habits/rituals that help me stay in tune with what my body was communicating to me, before I reach the point I am in significant or debilitating pain.  I am mindful of the slow creep of tension in my back telling me, Tom, you are off center, reconnect with yourself stop letting things outside you control how you feel, how you act and react.

I wonder what you experienced as we did the body part meditation earlier in the service.  Did you notice something physically off center within you as the two body parts touched?  Perhaps a little tension in your neck or rumbling in your stomach.  Perhaps an awareness that the clothes you are wearing to look good, don’t feel good on your body.  Perhaps you noticed racing thoughts about any of a number of stressors or fears or anxieties or resentments.  And when I read the prayer, did you notice how your inner self responded to it?  Were you able to accept the message, let the words strengthen you, ground you, help you feel more flexible?  Were you able to affirm that you, all of you, is as beautiful as the Almond tree in blossom?  Or did you notice resistance to these messages within you?  Did you say to yourself, “I am not that strong, or as grounded or as flexible as I need to be” and “I am certainly not beautiful as the Almond tree in blossom.”?  Pay attention to these reactions.  They may be telling you are out of touch with yourself. And of course, your reactions can let you know if you are close to your center as well—can you imagine hearing within you “yes, your are as strong and grounded and flexible as you need to be right now.”  Or “yes you are beautiful inside and out.” Or maybe you may simply notice feel a calm, relaxed body.

Now I think we all know that being out of balance or being centered can ebb and flow.  But by paying attention, we can get back to our center, we can calm our bodies, we can acknowledge the stress, and deal with it effectively, without letting what is bothering us or what is impacting us control us or cause us irreparable harm.  As you pay attention to what is going on within you and you focus on guidance from your deepest self rather than what the outside world wants you to focus on, you will gain new awareness, learn more about yourself, and become more confident in your ability to re-center yourself and deal effectively with whatever comes your way.  As Gautama Buddha once said:  “Be ye lamps unto yourselves; be your own  confidence; hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp.”

I was able to come to some peace and center myself back then, but it took a dark night of the soul and a lot of soul searching to break the habit of going for the gold.  But that is a different story.  I can tell you today, I am much more aware of when I slip off center and have many strategies to help get myself back to listening to my deepest, truest self.  I encourage you to make time to stop and attend to what your body, mind, soul is telling you, especially when the outside world is telling you to go for the gold, to go buy a sexy cheeseburger, or that you, your finances, your parenting, your work, is not okay.  Realize your center will see you through, if you stay attuned to it, connected to it, even if there is a lot of stress, even if you don’t agree with the direction of the government in Tallahassee, even if you have debt.  There will always be things you have to deal with, just don’t let those things cause you significant harm or get you too far off center.  There is wisdom within you if you just listen.  There is peace within you if you open yourself to it.  There is love within you, always within you. 

May you be filled with lovingkindness; may you be well.  May you be at peace.  And may you be whole.  Amen, blessed be, Ashai, Shalom.

On Finding Our Center by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 1/15/2023


I have learned a little about myself as I have traveled this life.  One of the important lessons I have learned is that if I don’t set something, even an important something, as a priority and carve out specific time just especially for it, I will get distracted and will not make time for it in my life.  Does that resonate with you?

            Back when I was new to ministry, serving Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I felt something stirring in my heart and soul.  I wasn’t clear what it was and I was prepared to ignore that restlessness, and just keep doing what I was doing.  That would have been easy.  But I was also aware that stirrings if ignored might leak out sideways—in some reactive, perhaps even destructive way.  I knew that left to my own druthers, I would just keep my routine, so I signed up for a Spiritual Direction group with other clergy that was being led by a nun at a local retreat center.  Being in a group would hold me accountable in my personal growth, give me focus, and most important, since I paid for this experience, I would make myself attend every week.  

Now I had heard about Spiritual Direction, but had not been in individual or group Spiritual Direction.  My understanding was that the time in the group would be spent with someone sharing something they were struggling with.  Then the group members would offer thoughts or questions to assist the person who shared.  The members weren’t supposed offer advice.  What they were supposed to do was listen for what touched them in what the person shared and offer a question that might deepen the person’s reflection.  Questions like, “I wonder if you have felt this way before.”  “I noticed that you almost came to tears as you were talking about – whatever it was that the person was talking about.” “Why does this problem feel too big for a solution?”  “Do you feel that this situation in your life needs light, but that darkness is mysteriously beckoning you?”  I realized that whatever was going on within me probably had a solution and yet while I wanted insight, light if you will, I was finding myself being beckoned by darkness.  Counterintuitively, for me that meant going deeper into some dark places to uncover the light within and I wasn’t clear on how to do that myself.  I knew it meant I needed silence, reflection, and questions that I was not as of yet asking myself.

How often have you taken a significant amount of time to be silent, to listen to the voice within, and then give voice to your life stories, to your heart felt yearnings, time to attend to where your god or the great whatever is messing with you, or to explore those places within that don’t feel whole?  How often have you carved out a chunk of time to reflect on the larger meaning of your experiences or the purpose of your life?  How often have you given yourself the gift of time to sit alone or in a group of people with different beliefs who are there to support and help you as you look within?  I have talked with many people within and outside of Unitarian Universalist congregations, and time and again, when they realize that I am clergy, I hear from them a yearning for an opportunity to look within in a safe, accepting, supportive environment.  Do you feel that yearning to look within?  To explore what is stirring or troubling your heart or spirit? To find your center?

Well, as I entered the retreat center, which I had been to many times, I noticed that a couple of people were at the back of the main hall beside a door.  I went over and asked them if they were there for the Spiritual Direction group.  One elderly man said yes, and introduced himself.  He was a chaplain at a local hospital.  And the other person was a middle-aged woman who was the pastor of a local Episcopal church.  They both had been part of this group for some time.  They told me some of the basic rules.  Take off your shoes before entering the space for the group.  The space was a small room with floor to ceiling windows, very comfortable chairs and a small table in the center.  They told me that we were asked to be silent upon entering and to respect the silence until asked to share.  I held back entering, not wanting to silent any longer than I had to be.  As I was taking off my shoes, a small very elderly woman approached, she was the nun who would be leading the group.  She said hello and we greeted one another, then she took off her shoes and entered the room.  I followed her in. 

As the group started, she lit a candle, offering a centering prayer.  A Centering Prayer is a method of meditation used by Christians placing a strong emphasis on the intention to be open to the presence and action of the Divine, spirit, the holy, or your deepest self or center.  It starts with a few words or simple prayer, then silence.  It reminded me very much of the Zen practice of Zazen meditation.  Sitting in silence and letting whatever is going on in your heart, mind, spirit pass freely within you, being open to whatever you might experience, without expectation of whatever particular wisdom, enlightenment, connection you might be given or experience. The word she offered for this centering prayer was “grace”. 

Well, “grace” was a mixed bag for me.  Growing up Catholic, it had always meant the spontaneous, unmerited gift of the divine favor in the salvation of sinners.  And while that jumped into my mind, I know that this meaning no longer held any significance for me.  As I softened into the word, the meaning I hold now for grace gradually filled my mind, heart and spirit: unearned love, freely given to oneself and freely given to and accepted from others.  In other words, by our very existence, as part of creation, we are worthy of love, self-love and love from others and everyone else is deserving of love, and I feel called to give that love to them.  As I settled on this word, I felt the warmth it offered, the calmness and comfort within me growing, and the peace I needed as the many, many minutes of silence progressed. 

I wonder, when we practiced the Lectio Divina earlier, if there was a word or phrase that you held onto for a little while, that offered you some warmth, calmness, comfort, peace, or that beckoned you forward into something new, some new awareness, some new insight, something that you will take forward beyond this hour together. 

After the silence, the nun gave us some further direction.  She said that each week one or two of us would be given time to share a pickle or stirring with the group.  I don’t remember if she actually used the word pickle but that word keeps popping up for me when I think about what she said.  After the sharing, there would be silence. Then the group would offer questions.  Then silence.  Then personal reflections.  Then silence.  Then we would close the group.  To me that was an awful lot of silence.  But I guess finding my center and gaining some wisdom or insight would be worth it, so I embraced the process.

So as is the case for most of my life in circumstances, when a volunteer was asked for, I volunteered first.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to share.  I just knew something was going on inside me that I couldn’t ignore, and so I said exactly that.  I don’t know how articulate I was, or if I made any sense.  I explained that I was pretty sure it had to do with my ministry and how I should live it out in the world. I felt I had accomplished a monumental task in helping the congregation move from one church home to another; I also felt I had made a significant difference in social action and social justice in the community; but I also felt an unease or like I might be drifting off center, and I wasn’t sure why.  That was it; I was finished,  we headed back into silence.  I surely didn’t know what questions they might offer that might help me.

I will share with you that the questions they asked and the contemplation I experienced did in fact help me discern some new direction.  And I have come to believe that the practices of contemplative prayers/mediation and Spiritual Direction, are both about inner balance/insight and action, and that being able to balance my inner self with my outer actions.  In the ancient Heretical Christian writing, the Gospel of Thomas, it is written: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  This quote has become of a touchstone for me since I have continued contemplative spiritual practices.  I know that if I don’t stop and make time to find what is going on inside me so I can find balance internally and between my inside and the outside world, there will be some negative consequences—stress, discomfort, reactiveness.  I do not want that if I can avoid negative consequences.  And the reality is I can pretty much avoid it by carving time out of my life to be more centered. 

            I am talking with you about finding your center not only because it is important for you personally to find your center, but that this congregation also has to find its center.  Some of the tasks of my Developmental Ministry here is to help you discern who you are as a congregation, what is your mission/mission and what is your covenant with one another.  I am also here to help you discern who you want as your next minister.  For this discernment process to be fruitful, each of you must ask questions, listen to answers that bubble up, and give each other mental and emotional space to live into the truths that you have discerned.  At times, this may not be any easy process, but I guarantee that you will find your center, gain some insight, and it will be worth it.

Let me offer you one more centering meditation to close this sermon.  Sit comfortably. Put your hands in your lap.  Take a deep breath. Bring your attention to your hands?  What is your immediate reaction to your hands.  Look at them front and back.  Put them in different positions.  Hold them up.  Put them back in your lap.  Hold them away from you.  Close them.  Open them.  Bring them together with intertwined fingers.  Take them apart.  Tickle your palms.  Feel that.  Contemplate what your hands have done for you.  Contemplate how you have used them to make the world a better place for yourself, for those you love, for those who come into your life, even for just a little while.  Be thankful for your hands.  Cup your hands.  Imagine this cup holds your truth, your understanding of yourself and others in the world.  Imagine it holds the grace you offer others.  Contemplate how your hands are blessed.  Contemplate how your hands will bless. Contemplate how your hands are open for more truth and more understanding. Contemplate how your hands and the hands of others in this community are open to more truth and understanding, more service, and more love.  You are blessed; we are blessed; let us bless the world.

My friends finding your center takes time.  I invite you to carve out time in your busy lives for some contemplative meditation or prayer, and set attending to your center as a priority in your life.  Notice the blessings that this offers you.  This is your sacred journey to discover, to learn, and perhaps even to tell us about.