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Sermons

audette_fortcollinsThe Sermon begins at 17:45, but please be sure to listen to the reading that comes before it also.
I think at times we imagine that our moment in history is the worst human moment. While it is true that human-made climate change and the related issues of population are severe, the truth is that most of human history is a story of trial and suffering. Plague, war, famine, internecine strife of all kind have been our lot throughout history - usually accompanied by a heavy dose of ignorance and fear and the kind of acting out and short-sighted self interest that follows such behavior like the lingering stench of a dead skunk.

I hope this cheery observation has lifted your spirits some.

No, my point is simply this: we always live in the best of times and the worst of times, especially those of us who make it past the 25 year mark. And right now, for all it often feels frightening and completely overwhelming, there are many markers that humans are capable of change and progress. For instance, Did you know that according to official FBI and U.S. Department of Justice reports, the rates of violent crime in the U.S. are now at their lowest level in 40 years? Did you know that violent crime rates of 2010 were 1/3 the rates of 1994? Other countries are experiencing a similar decline. In 2010, the deaths of law enforcement personnel were at a 50 year low -- and last year, deaths of law enforcement officers fell 14% from 2014, the majority being deaths from vehicular injury.

The US economy, writ large, has pulled back completely from the collapse we experienced in 2008. Renewable energy growth “smashed records” in 2015. But, as some folks won’t hesitate to tell you, to many of us “it doesn’t feel like” these facts are true. It often feels like things are scarier and more awful than ever in human history.

In light of these differing realities: that there are always very real and very serious problems affecting human life...and, there are real reasons for hope and comfort buried within the avalanche of information with which we are bombarded with each day...how might we navigate? In a world that often leaves us feeling black and blue, bruised within and without, we need a theology that can help us rise above the dross and be whole, healthy and fully human, able to bring our creativity and love to the table of humanity. We need a theology that will comfort and nourish us when we despair, and one that coaxes, nudges, and even shoves us toward justice, peace and love-in-action when we are strong. A Black and Blue theology. I believe that’s exactly what Unitarian Universalism is.

One of our Unitarian foreparents, William Ellery Channing, also lived in a time where religion and political life found itself at a nasty intersection. A leader of his day, frequently demonized for his religiously liberal positions, Channing said:

“Human nature has never shown itself so fiendish than when it has cloaked its bad passions under the garb of religion, and let them loose,” he said. “Religion was given to bind together, refine, soften human hearts. Its great ministry is that of love.”
The reason I have been a UU for more than 30 years is that the theological imperatives of our Unitarian Universalist faith, throughout its long history, have held out before us essential truths and values that give me strength to deal with good days and bad. When I am tempted to write off a person or dismiss a relationship, it whispers in my ear that all persons have inherent worth and dignity, worth and dignity that I may not have taken the time to look for fully. When I feel alone and as though I am unliked and unloved, it reminds me that we are not meant to be alone - religion, as Channing noted, comes from the root to bind together. It pushes me back toward relationship with those with whom I have made the great covenant - not to join together because we all believe exactly the same thing, but rather, to join together because we have agreed to work on common goals in love. “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Our faith insists that we use reason, the results of science, and the full faculties of human ingenuity when confronting the challenges of our day. It also acknowledges that our spiritual lives, nurtured in the wisdom of our still, small voice of intuition and grace, as well as gleaned from the great religious traditions of the world, are guiding stars as we do this work. Morality does matter. We may change our understandings of the details of moral good, but not the bright guiding lights of them: we seek to create a world in which human beings can be welcome in the wholeness, not separated because of who they love, where they are from, their body’s ability or disability, the color of their skin or their gender identity. We have always believed that creating Beloved Community means radical welcome, an inclusion that will not only enlarge us, but will change us. We understand that by welcoming new friends to the table, we are not exclusively asking them to “be like us,” but we are asking them to offer the best of their insights and ideas, so that we may be changed by them. One of our Universalist ministers, the Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, who was dean at St. Lawrence seminary, said, ““Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer . . . is that we do not stand at all, we move.” Our faith reminds us that spiritual maturity demands that we deepen and be open to change, always forged in the fire of our reason and insight.

I could, and will, continue to talk about the Black and Blue theology of Unitarian Universalism - the spirit of our faith which seeks to lift us up when we are hurting, calls us home to one another regularly so we may be encouraged and reflect together on where wisdom lies in a confusing world dedicated to separating and distracting us, a faith which asks us to live morally: to bring love to our every action, justice into our churches, homes, workplaces and the community square. We may practice our faith here, but we live it everywhere.

Unitarian Universalism is a black and blue theology. The theology and the community that sustains it offers comfort when we are struggling and encourages us to live better, more morally centered lives. Those are true in the abstract, but let’s consider it in the concrete as well.

At this moment in history, our Unitarian Universalist movement is deeply engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement, as most of you know. Black Lives Matter arises in a context in which we understand that because racism is systemic - which means it is embedded in the institutions of our society, our schools and courts, many of our businesses and our media - the lives of our Black beloveds remain at risk for their health, their safety, their freedoms. I’ve preached many times here on systemic racism; if there are any among you who do not understand or still doubt that racism is built into the structures of our culture, I’m sorry to hear that and we’ll get back to education another day. This morning, I’m going to trust that you understand that there are urgent needs that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Unsurprisingly, there has been pushback from the dominant culture. Since policing and police violence was the genesis point of the Black Lives Matter movement, let’s lift up the “Blue Lives Matter” movement as a counterpoint. “Blue Lives Matter” is intended to say “those who serve as police officers in our community matter.” Keeping in mind that we are born into bodies that may be Black or brown, and we choose whether to become a police officer, so these things are not the same, let us consider how a Black and Blue theology of Unitarian Universalism might engage these two perspectives. The first thing we UUs bring to the table is the reminder that we share a common humanity. It has never, ever in our history been our work to separate folks from each other. Our goal is to see our common humanity, seek connection in love, and use our reason and insight to work toward solutions that create, in the words of our 6th principle, peace, liberty, and justice for all. Not for some. For all.

Let’s drill down. By the promotion of the Justice Department, I serve on the local Police Citizen’s Advisory Committee. This means that I am able to have close conversations with our local police department, to ask questions and to see how things come to pass in the local policing system. As a UU and an engaged citizen of this country, I am familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement and its goals. This placement allows me to work with police toward goals that increase justice for all - including our Native American community, the undocumented people who live in our community, and others.

It is in the horrifying deaths of our Black siblings at the hands of police that the Black Lives Matter movement arose. We need to keep in mind that similar deaths were occurring prior to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner - the only difference is that now we are more likely to see and hear about them nationally. But one common response is: why aren’t our officers de-escalating in these situations? We need to offer de-escalation training…

That seems reasonable, right? So I took that question to our local police, and the answer is fairly simple: funding. We don’t have enough officers on the streets, so taking them off the street for training hours is difficult to begin with. But with low funding, other training is prioritized during the relatively small amount of training hours allotted each year. On the one hand, there is funding to equip local police departments with paramilitary gear, because since Reagan, there are federal funds for military equipment...but training and staffing budgets are local. When police departments are understaffed due to funding issues, officers find themselves more frequently in situations where they feel at risk because they are dealing with an issue in ones or twos. When officers feel at risk, they, like all humans, are more reactive and anxious. When you add to this a restricted budget for training, limited hours available for all the training elements our officers need, incredible legal standards for use of force, the implicit bias we all have, and the very real tensions that come from either being in or feeling as though one is in life-threatening situations frequently piggybacked with inadequate trauma care for officers and down time for mental health or responsible pay and health care...you have a system that the only wonder is that is does not fail us even more often.

So what’s a UU to do? The first thing we can bring to the table is the understanding that the systemic and social issues that Black Lives Matter lifts up are real and they devastate communities. The second is that we understand that the policing in our communities is under strains we have not paid appropriate attention to. And we can understand these not as separate things but as connected, and we can care about and love the people affected by policing violence and the people serving as police. There are solutions to these problems, and in seeking them without dismissing or resisting either, there are real changes that will serve us all.

The point being, Unitarian Universalism is a Black AND Blue theology. It a theology that can hold the truth that we live in a white supremacist culture and that the majority of people who serve in our communities as officers are almost always trying their best. Over time, we have unintentionally allowed the creation of capitalist systems in policing that do not serve any of us well, including the officers. But together, we can make real change. We really can, together. Our Black and Blue faith uplifts and encourages us while insisting that we show up in new ways to create a world of peace, liberty, and justice for all.

One of the voices of liberation in Unitarian Universalism, Janice Marie Johnson, reminds us simply: “We are often called to do the difficult, if not the seemingly impossible, and it is vital to our spiritual growth that we not ignore these challenges.” And I believe the words of that remarkable child, Anne Frank, say it all:

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes of a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too. I can hear the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”
A Black and Blue theology reminds us that the world was ever thus, and our way through is to join hands with one another, seek the truth in love, serve the world in all the ways that we can, uphold our ideals, and refuse to become separated from one another. If we remember to do this, we can rise above the noise of the day and walk a higher road. May it be so, today and every day. Amen.

It’s strange to think of being grateful for the worst moments of our lives - for horrors like racism or betrayal or devastating health news. To do so seems to invite the charge of being a “Pollyanna,” if the expression still speaks - someone who is not dealing directly with truth or perhaps, someone who doesn’t have true experience of sorrow or pain. Yet I think there is no-one here who doubts these simple facts: that into every life, pain and sorrow enter in. And the greatest people we know are people who have faced and overcome some tremendous hurt or hardship. The Dalai Lama is exiled from his country; he had to flee in his youth. Gandhi faced fierce racism in South Africa before facing down violence and hate and civil strife for the fullness of his adult life. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was bombed, arrested, faced the wrath of a government determined to bring him low by any means at their disposal. Dorothea Dix fled her home at the age of 12, to escape an abusive, alcoholic father. One of my own heroes, Joanna Macy, had a nervous breakdown.

The fact is, we will all face suffering in our lives. Some of our suffering may bring us to the breaking point - I think of the parents of the children shot to death at Sandy Hook; I think of any parent who has lost a child, anyone who has hit “rock bottom,” those millions scrambling day to day to make ends meet, and feeling desperate and lost, who wake and are unsure how to face another day.

Yet still a new day dawns for most of us, and rising again is what we are called to do. Does it not then make sense that we should seriously consider reflecting deeply on suffering, and how we might choose to respond? Because that is the only choice. We can’t choose whether or not we will ever face suffering. We can choose to bring full consciousness to our suffering, rather than merely reacting, being buffeted pillar to post by the painful experiences of our lives.

I married my high school sweetheart when I was 21. I divorced him when I was 22. At that age, having made a seriously unwise decision and realizing it almost immediately, I was ill equipped to deal with that suffering in an intentional, respectful, considered way. I acted more like a trapped animal: I wanted out of a trap that frightened me -- I was willing to gnaw off my own leg to do it, but would much prefer to gnaw off someone else’s leg. So I dived into an affair. It’s probably too true at any age, but when you’re a young 20-something, it’s certainly not difficult to find someone willing to casual betray others. I left my husband for another man, and then, when the divorce was done and the dust had settled, recognized I did not want to be tied down to the new guy, either, and walked away from that relationship as well. Hearts broken all around, my own among them, but I didn’t deal with it directly. It would take another few years before I just stopped trying to avoid dealing with myself and the damage I’d done - first by making mistakes, and then by not dealing with them honestly and directly. But eventually I did. And I did not even consider marriage again for another 11 years.

Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and some become strong at the broken places.” The Japanese have an art dedicated to honoring brokenness: kintsugi. It is the art of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer resin containing powdered gold. The finished product looks like this: (image) Most find that the pottery is more beautiful after it’s been broken and repaired in this way. But consider the metaphor: the broken pottery does not get repaired by magic. It requires attention - someone to notice the brokenness, to collect the pieces, and then to do the painstaking work of repairing. It requires an artist’s mind to believe that the piece can both be repaired, and be more beautiful afterwards.

Kintsugi is the approach I am recommending as our approach to the suffering of our own lives. We may be broken by this world - we may have a mental breakdown. We may lose everything we hold dearest. We may even lose our health, or a relationship we profoundly want. Who among us has not experienced or does not know of someone whose nearest and dearest have betrayed them in some almost unimaginable way? The thing is, that is not the last word. Unless we make the most heartbreaking choice of all, to voluntarily leave this world, then the story is not over. The question then becomes: how do I get up and write a new page? How do I mix gold into a mortar to repair my world? How will I grow stronger in the broken bone of my life?

Winston Churchill described the first principle of surviving the breaking point in his own inimitable way: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Keep waking up. Keeping breathing in and out. Keeping drinking water, eating a little food. Sometimes, that is all that can be managed. Count it enough for now. And keep in mind what that eternally light-hearted optimist Frederick Nietzsche said:

“[They who have] a why to live, can bear almost any how.”
There’s a story told about Thomas Edison. In 1914, his laboratory burned to the ground. Because it had been constructed of cement and therefore was imagined to be largely fireproofed, it was underinsured. He lost almost everything. But the story persists that he called his son and wife to watch the flames, and later, when the fire was over, he is said to have said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start over.” He was 67 years old at the time.

This, perhaps, is the metaphorical gold resin: a simple, unshakeable belief that it’s not over until it’s over; that you can start again; that there is more love somewhere - perhaps most of all, that you are not alone. Especially as people of faith - or at least for me, as a woman of UU faith - in the end my most essential belief is that we are in this together, and we have others who will be our companions on even the hardest roads.

There’s a young adult novel called The Fault in Our Stars. Far better than any sermon, this story articulates a kintsugi experience of life. Two teens meet at a support group for children with cancer. Veterans of suffering, this band has said goodbye to most of its members - occasionally, because they have been cured. Mostly, not. Together, these two particular teens face their experiences with a pervasive joy and a profundity that belies their youth. It’s not really how long you live that makes a life. It’s how deeply you live, how much you love, how much you are, sometimes, willing to risk.

I was going to say here that playing it safe is not an option. That’s ridiculous. Playing it safe certainly is an option, but it is not the prophylactic we want it to be. There are simply no guarantees in this life. I’ve confessed to you before that as a parent, especially, I tend to be a “play it safe” kind of mother. I practice the voodoo of safeguarding: I spend a lot of time - let me say plainly, too much time - on the effort of seeing as far as I can down the road and symbolically bubblewrapping my girls from possible danger. This is not what I am recommending for you. This is the time when I fail as a minister - when I implore you to practice what I preach, but ask you to avert your eyes from what I’m actually doing. Well, in a way. What I mean to say is only this: you cannot protect yourself or your loved ones from pain, fear, suffering, or injury. At least not to any serious degree. And in trying to do so, you mostly rob yourself or those you love of the experiences that will help them grow. Has there ever been a child who learned to walk without also learning something about falling down? Has there every been a human being who learned to succeed at something without also learning the bitter taste of failure and disappointment? Very few of us even have been able to come to life-sustaining love of another without also having our hearts shattered at least once. Can you remember? I remember the first time my heart was broken. I can still remember that I didn’t eat for almost a week. I just didn’t have an appetite; couldn’t remember how to do something as pointless as putting food in my mouth. When after a week I decided my pride at least needed a little something more from me, what followed next was only weeks of going through the motions. That’s how it works. Breathe in, breathe out. Drink water. Wake up in the morning.

In all of life’s most miserable and devastating experiences, we are not alone. In the concentration camps, there were those who walked among the others and comforted them, sharing bread, sharing a single wild strawberry. Out of the horror of murder in a school arises the Sandy Hook Promise. To help a sick friend feel less alone on a scary journey, an entire class shaves its heads.

There is gold to mend the damage, my friends, if you will persevere. Be the artist of your suffering: mend your life with gold and hope and friends. Be patient, keep going. You belong to that largest fellowship of humankind: those who have known suffering. As our forefather Emerson said, “We acquire the strength we have overcome.”

In closing, to set before us a moment of reflection and meditation, let me share this poem. It’s called “The Future,” by Wesley McNair, and like all good poetry, it says in a few words all that I have tried to say in these many.

It’s been said frankly that what the majority of people coming to church are looking for is very simple: they are looking for an experience of God. Not for stories about God, or to hear someone like me give good, bad, or indifferent messages about God, the Universe, and Everything - but to actually have a spiritual experience. Here’s the plain truth, however. Churches, especially great churches like ours, do many things well - but the likelihood of you having a transcendent or personal experience of that you might call is only slightly more likely here than anywhere else you visit from day to day.

Let me allow that truth to sit for just a moment.

Churches are communities of people seeking spiritual connection, and the opportunity to practice being their best selves and perhaps serving the world. These are things a church can do, and do well. And there are some churches that do work to offer ecstatic worship - a certain kind of high emotional openness is creating through music, culture, and vulnerability and openness to a charismatic leader.

I think perhaps you, like me, are here because you long for something - connection, the chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself, new insight and knowledge, friends for the journey...and you don’t want to have to check your intellect at the door. But the very first source of our UU faith is :”direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Direct experience is just that: it is personal and deep and could come at any moment -- yes, in church, but just as easily in bed or walking down the street. Worship services are not created so much to invoke that transcendent moment as they are to create people more open to having them. The Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach put it this way: “Full experiences of God can never be planned or acheived. They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.” After he said this, he was asked, “Rabbi, if God-realization is so accidental, why do we do all these spiritual practices?” His answer? “To be as accident-prone as possible!”

That is why we are gathered today: to become as accident-prone as possible to the grace and wonder and direct experience of God as possible. It is also why some spiritual teachings have entered the world and remained, echoing down through history and reshaping experience: it is because they create spiritually accident-prone people...they give guidance to us about how to live in a complex and even painful world, beautifully and with wholeness. So this morning, we will again turn to the words and ideas offered by some of the spiritual masters. The title of this sermon was inspired by a book by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who is one of the leading spiritual lights of our own age. He also reflects on the wisdom we will be talking about today.

It is said that there have been only two people in history about whom it was asked, not “who are you?” but rather, “What are you?” About the Buddha, the story goes like this: “...after his enlightenment, Siddhartha Guatama - the historical Buddha - was walking down the road when he met a fellow traveler. The other man perceived a great radiance emanating from Siddhartha, so instead of asking “Who are you?” he asked “Are you a god or divine being?” “No,” answered the Buddha. “Are you a shaman or sorcerer?” “No,” answered the Buddha. “Are you a man?” Again the Buddha answered “no.” “Well, then,” the man asked, “what are you?” “I am awake,” the Buddha answered. (this version from Jesus, Buddha, Krishna & Lao Tzu: the Parallel Sayings, by Richard Hooper, pg. 1)

Jesus also faced down temptations in the desert, in a story with many similar echoes to that in Buddha’s story. The temptations of Satan in the desert were like those of Mara under the Bodhi tree. Resisting them, great enlightenment came. About Jesus it was said that “the holy spirit descending into him” at his baptism. In the Gospels, they describe it this way - that people who met Jesus were astonished that he spoke with “authority.” Something passed through Jesus, giving people deep confidence in his words, and their experience of him so transformed them that they were willing to following him, even up to painful and horrific death. There were many itinerant preachers and healers in Jesus’ day. The experience of Jesus was such that it still transforms people today.

With the long view of time and the lens of history, we have come to see certain truths - one of which is that the great spiritual leaders of history tend to say some very similar things. They said and say and live by example some basic spiritual principles and ideas, and offer us the choice to follow or not. This morning, I am going to share some of what are called the “parallel sayings” of Jesus and the Buddha. And of Krishna, a god of Hinduism, and Lao Tzu, who wrote the Tao te Ching. Being sayings, they should be received as spiritual jewels. Some may speak to you, while others you may admire while remaining untouched. After each set, we will pause, so as to create space to “hold” the sayings for a moment.

About “the Way,” or that which is Ultimate:

Jesus: “The Kingdom of God is within you and all around you, yet you do not see it. … The Kingdom is not coming in any way you can observe. The Kingdom of God is already here - within you.”

Buddha: “The Way holds all things within Itself. Like the vastness of the Universe, it lacks nothing and nothing needs to be added to it. ...Before you set on the path, master yourself.”

Krishna: “Why should their be a reservoir when there is a flood everywhere? ...Those who seek to find the One without ceasing will find the Lord dwelling in their own hearts.”

Lao Tzu: “The Way is complete in itself. All blessings come from it, and it holds back nothing from anyone. ...The Way is empty, the Way is full. There is no way to describe what it is. Find it within yourselves.”

Jesus: “I am a beacon of light to those who see Me. I am a mirror to those who look for me. I am a door to those who knock on Me. I am a way for you, the traveler.”

Buddha: “Those are fortunate who have eyes to see the great Way. They know there is no other path to purifying the intellect. Seek this Way.”

Krishna: “I am the Way for the traveler. I am the Master who watches in silence. I am your friend and your shelter. I am the beginning and the end of all things. I am the seed of the Universe. I am the supreme treasure.”

Lao Tzu: “When the wise [one] hears of the Way, [s]he tries hard to follow it. When the average person hears of the Way, he tries to keep it, but eventually loses it. When those who are ignorant hear of the Way, they just laugh. If people didn’t laugh at it, it wouldn’t be the Way.”
About the Self:

Jesus: “In order to know everything, you must first know yourself. If you do not know yourself, then you know nothing. Those who know themselves also know the All. ...Do you not understand that what you see is what you will become? Therefore seek the Self within yourself, because this is who you really are.”

Buddha: “In the realms of Suchness there is neither “self” nor “other.” The only way to see what is real is to consider all things as being “not two.” ...Recognizing the unity of all life, one sees the Self in all other beings.”

Krishna: “If you would become perfect, discover the Self within. Seek this awareness, not intelligence….Recognizing the Lord everywhere reflects the self within. This is the eternal reward.”

Lao Tzu: “Wisdom comes from knowing oneself. [One] who knows [one]self is enlightened….Some people recognize the Self and are amazed. Other people hear of the Self and just wonder. Still others don’t understand at all.”
About Love and Compassion:

Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself. ...You receive no benefit from loving only those who love you. Great benefit comes from loving those who hate you. … Be compassionate, as your father in heaven is compassionate. Judas asked Jesus, “How do we begin our journey on the path?” Jesus said, “By being kind and loving.”

Buddha: “Seeing the Self in others, one who is in a state of higher consciousness feels compassion for all beings, and holds only positive thoughts about them. … The only way you can become free is to love those who hate you. ...Have compassion for all creation. Nurture within yourself compassion that is limitless.”

Krishna: “The true yogi, with [a] heart centered in Me, recognizes the Self in all beings and acts accordingly. ...Practice gentleness, seek truth, give up anger, do no slander, and have compassion for all beings. All these things belong to the one who wishes to see Me.”

Lao Tzu: “Nothing but good comes to [one] who loves others as the self. ...Compassion and mercy bring victory. Heaven belongs to the merciful. Do not turn away those you consider sinful and unworthy. If you have wisdom, you will try to save everyone.”
These are just a tiny fraction of the parallel wisdom sayings of the spiritual masters from Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. In my experience, it is knowing how deep the spiritual roots intertwine that matters most. So it matters less which path you choose than that you choose a path and walk it. One things Unitarian Universalists can be prone to is either spiritual neglect or a spiritual self-satisfaction. Neglect comes when we live as though the spiritual, compassion-based search for depth and meaning is not important; self-satisfaction comes when we think, having found something that we believe, we act as though the search is now over and we are done. The reality is that seeking truth, depth, meaning - even God, if we can find ourselves in that language -- is a lifelong search and practice, not something, once done, we can set aside and it will serve us just fine for the rest of our lives. It is a way we engage life, not a Truth we simply come to know. Just like church cannot often “give” us a transcendent experience, so too can spiritual insight not sustain us for a lifetime. We must be engaged in practice and seeking, conversation and those experience most likely to make us “accident prone,” by Rabbi Carlebach’s definition.

I want to close again with another of Rumi’s poems. Rumi, as many of you are aware, was a Sufi mystic. Sufism is a branch of Islam, so I just want to lift up that we have also included this morning the insights of Islam, although our parallel sayings did not include the words of the Prophet Muhammed, as they might have.

“One Who Can Quit Seeing Himself” pg. 242 The Soul of Rumi

So, what I want to lift up today is the difference between transfiguration & transformation. Transfiguration is when we make the superficial changes. It’s more botox and Spanx, hair implants and a new outfit. It can even be more significant; perhaps you defeat a habit of being late, or manage to accomplish more at work. That can be a powerful step along a personal path, but’s it’s not what we come to church for. We’re here for transformation: a complete or major change in self and the world.

Huston Smith is very high on my list of my favorite spiritual writers. In particular, he is one of the great voices who thoughtfully and knowledgeably pushes back against those public figures who declare all religions and religious pursuits harmful, stupid and dangerous. In his book, Why Religion Matters, he says: “The religious sense recognizes instinctively that the ultimate questions human beings ask - what is the meaning of existence? Why are there pain and death? Why, in the end, is life worth living? What does reality consist of, and what is its object? - are the defining essence of our humanity. They are not just speculative imponderables that certain people of inquisitive bent get around to asking after they have attended to the serious business of working out strategies for survival. They are the determining substance of what makes human beings human. This religious definition of human beings delves deeper than Aristotle’s definition of [humans] as a “rational animal.” In the religious definition, [humans are] the animal whose rationality leads [her] to ask ultimate questions of the sort just mentioned. It is the intrusion of these questions into our consciousness that tells us most precisely and definitively the kind of creature we are. Our humanness flourishes to the extent that we steep ourselves in these questions…[And] we conduct our search together - collectively, in congregations...Emile Durkheim, the 19th century sociologist, thought religion was entirely a social affair, a reification of the shared values of the tribe. Today our individualistic society comes close to assuming the opposite, that religion is altogether an individual affair….As usual, the Buddha walked the middle path. “Be ye lamps unto yourselves,” for sure; but do not forget that the sangha (the monastic community, and by extension, the company of the Holy) is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism.” (pps. 274-6)

As Unitarian Universalists, and as human beings congregating together, trying to find our way to transformation and wholeness, we have to wrestle with just the specific to which Smith refers: radical individualism, which held profound sway for about 50 years in our faith tradition, and with it contributed both positively and negatively. The gifts of a radically individualistic notion transformed our faith tradition into one where it was not just accepted, but expected and then considered essential to a free faith, that each would seek their own highest truth. No creeds. No doctrinal tests to determine if you are in or out, based on your beliefs. It demands two things of the seeker: one, that he do his own spiritual work and study; and two, that she enter the community with an open heart toward accepting that others may hold quite different religious beliefs. The shadow side of this has been too much adoption, over time, of the larger culture’s consumerist mindset: what I want is paramount; if church doesn’t please me in every respect, it should change and if it doesn’t, I’ll leave; too much emphasis on personal happiness and comfort. My way or the highway.

We have been in a period of transfiguration as a faith tradition, perhaps one leading to true transformation. We now see a much greater emphasis on relationship and journeying together. We retain that deep commitment to “being lamps unto ourselves,” but at the same time, we understand that the best crucible for wisdom and transformation is the sangha - the community of co-religionists.

Over the last 25 years, there’s been a lot of research done on “happiness.” And it boils down to some things that common sense once told us. Here’s what’s perhaps not as well known: Happiness is not highly related to our circumstance. Indeed, statistically, there’s no measurable difference in reported happiness a year later between a person who has won the lottery, and a person who has lost a limb. Certainly, if given the choice, most people would prefer to win the lottery than to lose an arm or a leg. But if its longterm happiness you’re after, then it doesn’t matter; you’ll end up in the same place either way. Which points to the common-sense part: money doesn’t buy happiness. It may buy expensive cars and houses and vacations, but those things do not contribute in any longterm way to life satisfaction, which comes instead from deeper wells: good friendships with at least a few people; having and experiencing “enough;” work or pursuits that are meaningful; feeling that you’re genuinely contributing; living authentically.

So if we come to our churches, this church, seeking those deeper wells and a place to resist the maddening noise of a too-busy world, fraught with messages of gluttony, superficiality, and Me First!, then how do congregations respond?

I want to pause on that question, because it’s so important. How can congregations respond? How should we respond? How are we doing with that work?

First: keep in mind, this church is you. I know, a lot of the time, it’s easier to think the church is me, that is to say, your minister of the moment. But it’s not. It’s us, together. All of us - from the person who has kept the faith the longest, to the newest person to walk through the door. Sure, we have a building - but the church is the people in this room, the people who show up. It’s lived in our every interaction. So if I put on my bravest face, stiffen my upper lip, and pretend everything is perfect this morning, then that has an effect. Similarly, if I smile, take a chance on speaking to someone I don’t know well, share something that truly delights or is troubling me - in other words, if I am as authentic as I can be, then that has an effect, too. Are we practicing authenticity and trust, or what my colleague Eric Banner frequently refers to as “terminal niceness?” Or its disturbing relatives, “careless hostility,” “uncomfortable avoidance,” and “insider trading?” (In churches, “insider trading” is the bad habit of forming cliques or only talking to or spending time with people you know well.) So, just to hit those highlights again: first, we have to take seriously the understanding that this church is us, and our relationships with one another. Second, what we practice is both who we are and what we are becoming. So every time you risk being authentic, every time you share from your heart, you build the Beloved Community; you create true sangha, where we live into the meaningfulness which is the essence of our humanity.

Let me talk a little now about an element that I wrestle with quite a lot, as a minister. It’s one without easy answers, and I really could use your help with it - your ideas, your deeper reflections. It has to do with worship - which means, of course, our time spent together ritually considering what is worthy…”worth-ship.” What we’re doing now. So one thing we also know about what helps us live deeper lives of meaning and connection is that having rituals and practices that do a few keys things is really, really important. Those key things include having experiences of transcendence; when we feel deeply moved by something greater than ourselves, which reveals to us a unity beyond divisions. Or practices of shared silence which allow our “monkey mind” to quiet, and the small, still voice to be heard. Or rituals that settle our hearts, inspire and fill us, and prepare us again for the world, more whole, more healed. Here’s the hard part: it’s really tough to do that in one hour like this. When some element succeeds, it’s usually more by chance and certainly more about the individual who has the experience than about the worship leaders. We know music is a great tool on that path; and silence. Powerfully familiar rituals that have serious meaning do it. Sermons usually don’t. Maybe a sermon remind us of something that makes a difference; maybe sharing laughter or being touched by the expression of something profoundly human does affect us positively. But it’s very difficult, in the patterns we tend to work with, to regularly offer a religiously significant experience in a Sunday service. If that’s what we want - and I do think that’s what we want - then we’re going to have to think outside this box, and do it together. I’ve been thinking about this a lot for many years. The one time in my life where I was regularly moved and did experience, with some frequency, religiously effective worship, was when I was in seminary at Starr King. Of course, we had weekly and more worship. So what was different there? Here’s what I think. First, we were a small group. Our services, even when a few folks from the community or our professors and maybe other students from the consortium joined us, we were rarely over 40 people. More common was 15 - 20. And 15-20 people with whom we were regularly having fairly significant intimacy-building experiences. Maybe you were not aware, but seminary and boot camp share a few commonalities: they are a bit “break you down to build you up.” Of course, the goal of seminary is to build you into greater wholeness. But the point here is that we were all in a deeper form of relationship outside the worship setting. So, worship happened among a relatively smallish group of people who built intimacy and connection outside of formal worship. Next: seminary is a place where you can be wildly creative with your services. It’s an environment that encourages and affirms risk-taking in creating worship - in the best sense. In other words, by no means are you obligated to a format that has to include x number of hymns and a time for announcements and a sermon and etc. The traditional Protestant service format was just one choice among many. Liturgical dance, drama and poetic forms flourished; highly interactive services were common, and even when a service failed, you were held. We all knew we were there to learn and that pretty soon it would be our turn, so we invested highly in success and were helpful when feedback was needed. Great music - only occasionally drawn from our hymnals -- was prevalent, because frankly, so many UU ministers are talented musicians. Alas, not me at this point in time.

Now keep in mind, seminary is a pretty rarified set of circumstances. The translation to congregations is a tough one. Working with what is familiar and comforting, encouraging many, many people to be directly involved in worship and everyone to expect they might be involved...to introduce new worship forms like liturgical dance and new music...well, it certainly doesn’t tend to happen overnight. And I have to tell you a truth that I know some don’t like to hear: the fact that we can’t rearrange our worship space creates real challenges for many service elements that might otherwise be brought in.

If we want to be a transformational faith lived deeply here in Cheyenne, Wyoming - and that’s the only truth I want to serve, as a Minister - then we have to take seriously that engaging the deep questions in relationships of meaning, framed by worth-ship that heals and inspires us is our first work. So I have a prescription for us. Here’s what I think will make the difference for us:

First, each and every person who decides to really be a part of this congregation, to be a Unitarian Universalist, needs to be regularly engaged in small group work, building intimacy, trust, and fulfilling relationship outside or worship service. The best ways we have to do this are our chalice circles, the circle dinners we’re working on getting re-started, taking the spiritual development classes we offer. So that’s the first piece: connecting regularly with other UUs in small group settings, having real conversations that build trust and intimacy.

The second is to play together. Laughing and having fun at coffee hour, at our social events, at picnics and for example, our Spring Fling all-generation dance on Friday, May 2. There will be the music of your childhood. Heck, just ask, and we’ll play your favorite song -- the internet is a wonder for that! But come and laugh and be together. Take a chance at looking silly, doing the chicken dance or the macarena.

Last, help us take risks in our worship experiences. Those who try to create meaningful services need your love and support to take a chance - to ask you to talk to us, to one another, in church sometimes. To move your body, to sing loudly. If you play an instrument, we need you to share that with us. We need to practice deeper silence together, laugh frequently, cry openly, walk a labyrinth, speak the names of our loved ones, call the quarters, wash the Buddha, tell our stories.

Prof. McGonagall is, in many ways, like the traditional form of worship in the Protestant church. She offered structure, expected rules to be followed, and showed that hard work and singular focus could make remarkable things happen - that the wizard’s will could reshape the world. But without Professors like Lupin, who taught with love, experience, and with trust in his students’ innate abilities...or even those like Hagrid, who took a “eh, just throw ‘em in the deep end, they’ll swim, it’s not hard!” - yet always stood near to help, Harry could not have moved much beyond transfiguring mice into teacups. Harry was able to transform the wizarding world utterly because he was loved, and because he became completely himself - his truest self. So let us be serious about the work of transformation. The world needs us to shape it, not to be deformed by it or conformed to it.

Rituals

audette-wedding-4audette-wedding

Wedding Ceremony for Jane Doe and Juan Herrero

The Rev. Audette Fulbright, presiding Minister, Groom & Groomsmen up front

PROCESSIONAL
Violins, bridesmaids and bride enter

WORDS FOR GATHERING
It is one of life’s richest surprises when the accidental meeting of two life paths leads them to proceed together along the common path of husband and wife, and it is one of life’s finest experiences when a friendship grows into a bond of love. (pause for translation)

This meeting and this growth bring us together today. We gather here to celebrate the union of Jane and Juan, as they stand before you and in the presence of the Holy to create a marriage, and a new family. (Pause for translation)

This is the most daunting and blessed of human arrangements. We come together, therefore, to offer our love, support, and witness.

PRAYER
Will you join me now in a moment of prayer, to center our hearts on the ceremony into which we now enter.

Holy Spirit, be with us now, as we celebrate love with Juan and Jane We pray for peace and creativity as well as for love and laughter in the life together of these two, and when there is pain, may there also be the peace which passes not away. (pause for translation)

We pray for joy that they will share with other people. As they experience the richness of life, so may their hearts and minds and souls be knit ever more closely together. (Pause for translation)

We pray for courage for them when the road is rough. We pray for humility when fortune favors them. May they carry the past gracefully in all the years of their sojourn, and with an equal measure of hope ever face the future unafraid. Amen.

BETROTHAL
Jane, Juan, do you come freely to this moment to give yourselves to one another in marriage? If so, please respond “we do.” (P&T)

CHARGE TO THE COUPLE
When I am asked to do a wedding ceremony, I ask the couple to write me a letter, answering two questions. The first: why marriage? Out of all human arrangements, why that one? The second is: why this person? On a planet of well over seven billion people, why this one? (pause for translation)

Jane, you kept your answers very simple: you said that you wanted to create a family with Juan. As to why with Juan, you were more descriptive - you said he was your best friend, your favorite person in all the world, and the love of your life. You just can’t wait for all the things marriage represents to you. (P&T)

Juan, you shared a bit more. In your letter, you shared how this relationship allows you to explore more emotion while also feeling safe. You described how your differences, instead of separating you, bring you closer as they help you know and understand each other better. You said that although you have faced difficult things together, Jane’s insight and her ability to reach her goals has been an inspiration. You love the way she is both beautiful and strong, Her affection and encouragement make every day better. (P&T)

There are no better words than your own to describe this relationship: “Together we sing better, cook better, we laugh more, rest more, learn more, sleep more, and love more.” (P&T)

I wish you all happiness, but my wishes alone cannot grant it, nor can it come from anything outside yourselves. Marriage is not something you do today, and then it is done. It is a promise and a commitment you make every day, indeed, every moment. (P&T)

When you rise, love. When you lie down, be together. In anger, be still. In fear, allow the embrace. In joy, clasp hands and sing. Marriage is created in moments, not in ceremonies such as this. (P&T)

This is your seal, your sign, your sharing with the larger community of family and friends whose support you will need along this path. But it is not your marriage. Take the vows today, not as restrictions and rules, but as reminders and guides for your highest hopes. (P&T)

As you go forward, sometimes together, sometimes with one or the other moving ahead and calling out the path, remember to take time for one another, and to find new ways to trust and laugh. If you can do this, you will always have a home in one another’s heart.(P&T)

VOWS
Juan: Jane, you are my beloved. (translation & repeat)

I promise you that I will always be at your side and disposal for any need/ (pause for translation & repeat)

and even if there is a football game, we always will have those 15 minutes halftime. (trans & repeat)

I Promise you, if there is any adversity, (trans & repeat)

and in the most difficult moments, I will always seek an honest dialogue while I hold your hand. (trans & repeat)

In good times or in bad, my love for you will be strong. (trans & repeat)

I promise from now on, all decisions are taken for the good of the two of us, (trans & repeat)

with the aim of achieving our happiness and our family. (trans & repeat)

I am honored and filled with joy to become your husband. (trans & repeat)

Jane: Juan, love of my life, my best friend. (T&R)

I promise to respect, honor, and be faithful to you every day of my life. (T&R)

I promise to smile with you on the good times, comfort you on the bad times, (T&R)

support you in the most important things for you and advise you when you are in doubt. (T&R)

I promise to watch every important football game with you, (T&R)

be excited when your team wins, and try very hard not to fall asleep. (T&R)

But above all, I promise to dedicate the rest of my life to loving you and being your wife. (T&R)

(Jane's translation:, Juan, amor de mi vida, mi mejor amigo. Prometo respetarte, honrarte, y serte fiel todos los dias de mi vida. Prometo sonreir contigo en los tiempos buenos, consolarte en los tiempos malos, apoyarte con las cosas que sean mas importarntes para ti y aconsejarte cuando tengas duda. Prometo ver todos los partidos importantes de futbol contigo, emocionarme cuando gane tu equipo y tratar de no quedarme dormida. Pero sobre todo, prometo dedicar el resto de mi vida a amarte y ser tu esposa. )

SAND CEREMONY
Jane and Juan have chosen to have a sand ceremony. This ceremony is a beautiful representation of the profound intertwining of lives. In the sand ceremony, we can see how each color, representing a whole and unique human being, blends and creates a beautiful new pattern when it touches other lives. (pause for translation)

In the ceremony, we can see that while all that makes each person unique still exists and is perfectly present, when it is combines with other lives, it is never the same. A new pattern emerges, and the single color can never be completely separated out again. It is irrevocably changed by the love that embraces it and the commitments that sustain it. (pause for translation)

This ceremony is a visual representation of this family. As Juan and Jane our their separate containers and colors of sand into the single vessel which represents their marriage, we can see that their shared life can never be unwoven. They are forever changed by the relationships they have with one another. (pause for translation)

Ring Exchange
These rings are the symbols of the vows here taken - circles of wholeness, perfect in form. (P&T)

These rings mark the beginning of a lifetime journey together, filled with wonder, surprises, laughter, tears, celebration, grief, and above all, joy. (P&T)

May these rings glow forever in reflection of the warmth and the lives which flow through the wearers today. (P&T) I give you this ring to wear upon your hand as a symbol of our unity.

BLESSING
Now you will feel no rain,

For each of you will be shelter for the other. (P&T)

Now you will feel no cold,

For each of you will be warmth for the other. (P&T)

Now there is no loneliness,

Now you are two persons,

But there is only one life before you. (P&T)

May your days be good and long upon the earth. Amen.

PRONOUNCEMENT
And now, by standing together today before this company and the Holy, by the exchanging of vows and the giving and receiving of rings, you have done with neither church nor state can do: you have created a marriage. (P&T)

That being said, as a duly authorized agent of both church and state, it gives me great honor to pronounce that from this day forward you, Juan and you, Jane, are husband and wife. (P&T)

You may celebrate this union with a kiss!

BENEDICTION
May love follow you all your days! Blessed be! It is my privilege to introduce, for the first time as a married couple, Jane and Juan!

RECESSIONAL

Although 99% of the time, my ceremonies are written with the couple in question, I do also have 2 "standard short form" weddings ready to go for that very rare (so far, I think 4 times in 17 years!) time when I am asked and agree to do a wedding on very short notice, with no personalization. I have done many same sex marriages, both before and since marriage equality, as well as extremely small weddings or very, very large ones.

audette-with-aj-wed

after-orlando

audette-writing-on-bench

BOARD INVESTITURE RITUAL

By Audette Fulbright Fulson

In a free religious community, to serve is the highest expression of our commitment and love. To be asked to lead is the highest honor. This morning, the members of [your congregation] you have chosen to lead you in the coming year stand before you. The relationship between a congregation and Board is one of deep respect and mutual regard. You have asked them to take on the holy work of discernment and guidance. They need you to support them in their work, share ideas and concerns in love, and to offer them trust as they fulfill their office faithfully.

The work of the church is the work of the people. It is the work of building the world of which we dream. It may require time spent poring over budget sheets, hours spent in meetings where small details are hashed out, it may manifest in shared laughter or outright frustration from time to time - but always it is sacred, for it is in pursuit of Beloved Community. As a symbol that the work is always shared, we will engage in the ritual that always accompanies the installation of anyone into our UU ministry: the laying on of hands. Please, join hands with your neighbor or place your hand gently on the shoulder of the person in front of you. Connect until each is part of the circle of this community.

Service is an act of faith. Service done faithfully in love is the work of justice and community building. This is what you have asked of these people before you this morning: that they serve you faithfully and well. To do this, they need your trust and support. I ask now of the Members of [Your Congregation]: will you offer love and trust to your Board, responding when they seek your input, showing up when they tell you that work needs to be shared, and listening carefully when they speak of the life of the church? If so, please respond, “We will.”

To [the members of Your Board]: Will you be diligent and faithful in your work, bringing your best selves and practicing self-care and open-heartedness, tending with love the details of the work, and always keeping the goal of Beloved Community in front of you as you serve? If so, please respond “We will.”

May the Spirit of Love guide you in the coming year, may a spirit of joy infuse the work you engage, and may your service bless the world. Amen.

audette-mlk-speechWith regard to other rituals, I have of course done many baby dedications, a few baptisms, communion services, foot washing rituals, Wiccan and earth-based services of various kinds, blessings of homes and buildings, Coming of Age and Bridging ceremonies, retirement rituals, ordination rituals and service elements, blessings of religious education leaders and leaders of all kinds - and this is by no means a comprehensive list. Noticing that there was no shared Leadership investiture ritual shared among our UUA members, I created a Board investiture ritual that is now widely used.

Other Writings

I’m originally from South Carolina. Since 11/9, I’ve been thinking a lot about the motto of my state. Our state motto in South Carolina is, “While I breathe, I hope.” While I breathe, I hope. I don’t know. There have certainly been days recently when this has been harder than ever. You see, I forgot history. As I played my own small part in the world we’ve been creating, my heart has rejoiced in seeing marriage equality come to pass, I was encouraged by working with DREAMers, I breathed a little more deeply when the Paris Climate treaty passed, I was grateful for the Lily Ledbetter act, I loved seeing Sonya Sotormayor and Elena Kagen join the Notorious RBG on the Supreme Court. The world has seemed a better place to me.

But I forgot history. I forgot, because it was easy for me to forget, that the very foundation of this country is inequality. We are building on a foundation which premise is that not all are, in fact, created equal. Our history chooses, again and again, who are the “less than.” Black and Native peoples and women have always held a place on that lower tier, but we rotate in and out the others who will share it: now the Poles, now the Italians, now Jewish people or Chinese folk - WWII? Japanese Americans. Muslims. That undifferentiated group of people who are undocumented, but be clear: we mean brown people.

What I forgot is that if you’re poor, the United States is set up against you. Life in the States is literally more expensive if you’re poor than if you earn a living wage or better. What I forgot is that no matter who has been President, too many people live feeling unsafe in this country.

But, even if it makes me gullible and a fool, I love the dream of this country: the high goal of the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The ideal of a melting pot nation, the dream that some day, our children might not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. I even dream of a country where the BEST of us enter into public service, not the most venal and narcissistic. We know it’s possible. Right here in Cheyenne we have seen some excellent and faithful public servants, folks who entered public life not for self-aggrandizement, but to try to make our community and state a little better. So, yes, it’s still true: while I breathe, I hope.

So why do I march? I march for myself and my daughters, for our right to own and control our own bodies and minds. I march so that my Muslim and Latinx beloveds have no doubt that their welfare is my welfare. I march because I will not submit to fascism in any form. I march because I believe in a free press and that journalists must be safe to pursue their work. I march because I believe in the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion. I march because the man who ran for President and won is right about one thing: the system is rigged. It’s rigged against the poor, it’s rigged in every place where so-called “voter ID” laws are implemented, it’s rigged against trans people and their health and safety, it’s rigged against public schools and public health and the environment. Yeah, it’s all rigged. So I’m here, marching, because I need to see your faces and know I’m not alone. And tomorrow, I won’t be marching: I’ll be organizing. We will not be silenced.

The motto of the state of Wyoming is short and sweet: it’s “Equal rights.” Equal rights. That’s it. Isn’t that a great idea? Isn’t that an idea worth marching for?

South Carolina’s motto is: “While I breathe, I hope.” I want to close with a poem I wrote in memoriam for Eric Garner, who in the end, could not live out that motto, because he told us all plainly: “I can’t breathe.” It’s called “We Are Not Done”:

We Are Not Done

By Audette Fulbright Fulson

Do not think we are finished—
oh no
we will ne-ver be finished
never just done
until the light of justice is lit behind every eye.
Do not think we will be silent—
no
there will not be silence until the world has sung the names
of the dead with full throats and still
we will sing on.
Do not think fear is the end of us—oh
you are broken in mind and heart if you even imagine
that our fear for our lives is the end of this story.
We are braver than you have ever conceived
and you
will not be the end of us.
We have come to take back the world
the world that is the inheritance of better children
better lovers
better days.
There will be love again but justice is our demand now.
You will not take us down
We are endless
firelit
determined
and we
are coming
for you.

In Memoriam—Eric Garner
I have a prayer-writing practice, called Reverence Road, which I post daily on Facebook. Here is a sample: Reverence Road Daily Prayer #RRDP (samples)