Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

Posts tagged ‘Love’

Lessons from the Bread:Joy, Love, and Beginning Again

[This sermon was given at the UU Congregation of the Hudson Valley on October 16, 2016]

If you had told me a year ago that I would make bread for a communion service, I would have thought you were joking. I would have thought that was the most bizarre thing I had heard in a long time and assured you that there’s no way I would be caught dead going to a communion service, much less participating in one. And yet, I did.

I deliberately chose to attend Union Theological Seminary because of its incredible diversity. Its racial, chronological, geographic and religious diversity was a huge selling point for me. What I didn’t know was that there is a chapel service every Monday through Thursday and a communion service happens at the Thursday chapel, every week. The chapel services are an opportunity for various groups to create a service around a theme. It’s a way to experiment, do things that don’t happen anywhere else, and possibly fail in a safe place. But the communion services? I didn’t know how I would respond to them.

I haven’t participated in an actual “this is my body, broken for you” kind of communion service in many, many years. What would it actually be like? Would the language be inclusive of people who don’t necessarily believe in God? Is it okay if I believe in God today but not tomorrow? Will my belief or non-belief be okay in a communion service? Would I truly be welcomed as I am? I decided to acknowledge my fear and try it out and see. Chapel services aren’t mandatory but they are encouraged. I began attending them because I was curious; I keep attending them because they feed my soul in ways I can’t explain.

As someone who believes in living the values I espouse as a Unitarian Universalist, about contributing and making the world a better place for others, when the request was put out to students to bake bread for the communion service, I thought back to my life decades ago when an ex partner and I got on a bread baking kick. We tried our hand at multiple styles of bread and various techniques. I can’t remember why we started baking bread or why we stopped but the memory affirmed for me that I can bake bread, I do have that capability; it’s nothing to be afraid of. I decided that baking bread was a way I could contribute to a service that I was learning to appreciate from a new point of view.

A few days later during a Gospel Choir rehearsal, when we were talking about how to be with anger during worship services, I mentioned that one way to deal with anger is to knead and pound bread. Immediately after the rehearsal I was asked if I’d be willing to make bread for the following week’s communion service. In a moment of desire to contribute to my newfound community, I said yes, not having any idea what kind of bread I was going to bake. I did some research, found a recipe and was determined to figure out how to do this thing called taking yeast, water, flour, sugar and salt and creating a loaf of yummy bread.

I followed the recipe but realized that it wasn’t going to work because of the way part of the recipe was worded. After the bread rose, the recipe said to divide it in half to create two loaves. After I divided them, I realized that two smaller loaves would be too small for the purpose of the service. However, I came to this conclusion after already dividing one large loaf into two. I decided that the only way to rectify the situation at that point was to put both halves back together and see what happens.

What happened was a loaf that had a big ridge across the middle. It clearly was not picture perfect and truly, I was kind of embarrassed when I saw it. Here was my first loaf of bread in many, many years, made specifically for this community, and it had a seam across the middle. I was frustrated, I was annoyed but I also knew that at least it was bread and that’s what I promised to bring to the service.

The next day I brought the imperfect bread to the worship staff before the chapel service began and they all exclaimed about how beautiful it was and affirmed for me that it would be just fine the way it was. They turned out to be absolutely right. My imperfect, seamed bread was welcomed and praised just as it was. It nourished and blessed those in attendance, whatever their religious beliefs were. For me it felt like the ultimate reminder that something imperfect could bless, serve and contribute to imperfect people, which we all are.

Unitarian Universalism holds that, among other things, all people have inherent dignity and worth. Some UU leaders are taking that one step further and saying we are all loved.  Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, wrote a meditation that says “There is a love holding me / us. There is a love holding all that I / we love. There is a love holding all. I / We rest in that love.”

Saying we are all loved implies we are loved by some kind of entity, an entity not all of us are comfortable with or even believe exists. When I first heard someone say this, my initial reaction was kind of a flinch because when we hear this we think we are being told that an entity called God loves us. But what if we could believe that we are loved by other people in our lives? Most of us know on an intellectual level that we are loved, but do we know this as a down-in-the-gut, I know I’m loved kind of way?

As a seminarian, recently I’ve been told that UU ministers are thinking about and praying for me. Until a few years ago, UUism wouldn’t have even talked about prayer and now people are saying, “I’m praying for you.” We as a movement are coming back to our spiritual roots.

I am now in a place in my spiritual understanding that I can be open to some outside source of love, knowing that putting restrictions on where love comes from and who love comes from doesn’t serve to keep me safe, it keeps me from being open to others and to spirituality.

When I was told the theme for this church for October was awe, I thought of the communion bread and how it reminded me that we are all imperfect and yet have the ability to make the world a better place. Our imperfect selves are loved whether we are loved by other humans, the animals in our lives, or our understanding of God.

Whenever I get an opportunity to speak, I think about what religious holidays are happening during that time of year. Turns out, this is the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I like to think on it every year even though I’m not Jewish. The Days of Awe are between Rosh Hashannah, the beginning of the year and Yom Kippur. The Days of Awe is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Rosh Hashannah was October 3-4 and Yom Kippur was October 12.

I find it fascinating that I have been reconnecting with Yom Kippur for many years in different ways, usually by re-reading a version of the Al Chayt in Geneen Roth’s book, “Appetites” but until this year I was unaware of the Days of Awe, which are inbetween these two holidays. It’s funny how an opportunity to speak presents opportunities to learn.

As I was thinking about this sermon,  and what exactly awe means to me, I noticed that a friend of mine posted the poem read earlier in the service on facebook and these lines in particular made me stop and pay attention:

And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless
Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
Saving hope.

The secular new year does not include a time of repentance, it is usually all about merrymaking. The Jewish new year, on the other hand, emphasizes repentance, forgiveness, and beginning again, a good practice for all of us to undertake regardless of our religious affiliation.

In my  classes at Union, which is not affiliated in any way with Unitarian Universalism, I’m learning of our early days in the very beginnings of Christianity itself and in the 1800’s when we were practically forced to take on the mantle of Unitarianism (that is a fascinating piece of history I encourage you to look up). At the same time I’m paying attention to the current discussion our UU leaders are having and I’m noticing that we are always in the process of beginning again, of re-evaluating, of re-learning, making space for new ideas and blessing the old ones as well.

UUism doesn’t come with answers but it does come with the beautiful place of imperfection and being willing to start over, much like the Jewish faith, one of the places of our origins. We begin again, and again, and again always believing in the indefinable good that we all are. We have a song in our teal hymnal that says “We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.” This is one of the songs I keep in my heart when I am most struggling with how to keep pressing forward.

Awe holds a space of graciousness and hope. It holds that even when I don’t know what the next step is, or how the bread is going to turn out, I am loved – and you are loved. Awe reminds us that even in the midst of this insane political season we are all living through, the sun still rises, beauty is all around us (especially in the fall leaves), and our common humanity is affirmed. May we know we are loved in all our imperfection.  

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On Love and Vulnerability

This talk was given at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, NC on February 28, 2016. It was our pledge campaign kickoff Sunday.

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One of my favorite movies to watch during the Christmas season is “Love Actually.” It’s a British movie filled with all kinds of hokey stories and totally improbable things happen. Even though I know the outcome, I still shout at the screen and wish people made different choices every time I watch it. One of my favorite story lines in the movie is about a kid who’s mother just died (I promise, it gets better). His adoptive stepfather is trying hard to pay attention to him but he’s having difficulty because his son isn’t talking much. So the father takes him out of the house and down to the River Thames and really tries to get at what’s bugging his son when the son admits something horrendous: he’s in love. The father says, “Is that all? I thought it was something worse.” The kid says, “Worse than the total agony of being in love?” and the father says, “You’re right. Total agony.”

This scene is funny because we can all relate in some way. Thinking back to previous relationships I can certainly understand talking about being in love like a kind of agony. There are the intense feelings but also the fear that the feelings you’re feeling are not going to be reciprocated. And what could be worse than that?

There is incredible vulnerability in love. Here you are, holding your heart out to your hoped for beloved, knowing there is a chance that you could be turned down. Can you imagine anything more terrifying than that? I’ve never had children but I can imagine that raising children could have its own kind of terror. Here you are responsible for keeping this tiny human alive, having absolutely no idea what the future holds for either you or this child, but you are committed anyway.

A few months ago when Rev. Ann Marie asked if I would like to do today’s service, I wasn’t 100% sure the shape the service would take. But I decided to be open to what would come to me. It seems like a really terrifying thing, writing a sermon for the kickoff service for our Annual Commitment Time, pledge campaign. Can you think of anything more terrifying to talk about than money? In our culture we are much more comfortable talking about sex than money but I decided to take it on. Without risk, there is no growth.

I began thinking on a quote from Parker Palmer in his book, the Courage to Teach. I read this book many years ago and no matter how much I looked I couldn’t find the right words but I remember he talked about love and how educators need to acknowledge that they do the work they do out of love. That memory coming back to me has been influencing my work on the board and other work here. I’ve been changing my email sign off signature and using the word “Love.” In my January pledge campaign newsletter column, I encouraged us to remember that the leaders here at UUCG do the work we do out of love.

The interesting thing is, we rarely say the word “love.” That doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, it just means we rarely say it. Over the last few months I’ve worked on getting more comfortable with saying these words and allowing myself to express it to myself and others.

Gary Chapman, a Christian writer, is well known for his books on love languages, how people understand and need to receive love. Each of us understands and expresses love differently. According to the love languages, if I am constantly doing something for my wife Michelle, but it’s not something she recognizes as love, I might as well be talking to the wall.

For some people here at UUCG, coming to the Workday yesterday and doing tasks is love in action. For others, singing in the choir is how they show love to the congregation. For others still, setting out coffee and cleaning up afterwards, is their own way of showing love. But we never say it that way, do we? We say, “We need someone to take care of coffee after the service” or “We need teachers to work with our kids in Religious Education” not, “There are many ways to express love in action here at UUCG. Here are some opportunities.”

In wondering why this is, I came to think of it as being very risky. Going back to the “total agony of being in love,” the agony is in the fear of the love not being reciprocated. In our world we tend to think of risks as physical things like climbing a mountain, kayaking in rough waters, and major life decisions as true risks. What are some areas in your life, either right now or in the past that were risks?

Would any of you think of love as a risk? I want to suggest to you that love is one of the riskiest things that we humans do. In the larger Unitarian Universalist world, this kind of conversation is happening around our anti-authoritarian streak and debates between individualism vs. the community. Our faith was founded by people who were all about supporting individuals and many of us ourselves are what would be called “refugees” from other religions. We have been so tied up in not being our previous selves, and put so much focus on being individuals, that we are forgetting that we are community. Actually, I think “forget” is a strong word. We know it, of course, because how else would we have this building and our staff, how else would we have the relationships we have where we are known for helping each other out when we are in need? On the other hand, what are we willing to risk for our church? What are we willing to risk for our faith? Are we willing to be public about our liberal religious beliefs? At our strategic planning listening sessions, people have brought up that they want us to be known in the larger Greensboro community, but do we? Is that the truth?

If we really want that, we will need to expand our Director of Religious Education’s hours because we can expect more younger families with children. If we really wanted that, we would say yes to Rev. Ann Marie’s request for an increased salary, not only for her but because it will help get us in line with what will be needed for us to attract the right settled minister for us. If we really wanted to be known in the larger community, we would send leaders to leadership training and we would support leadership training that happens right here at UUCG so that our leaders become more and more grounded in our Unitarian Universalist faith. And yet, all of these things take risks. Risk on my part in even talking about this, and risk on your part in truly evaluating what you want to give to our church, not only to sustain and maintain but to grow and live our values.

When I think of our denomination’s struggle around individualism vs. community, I think of the total agony of being in love. The individuals want to be who they are, no questions asked and certainly don’t ask them to change in any way. They think to themselves, “I come to this place where people are nice and accepting but in no way is my identity changing and I’m not changing anything about myself.” At the same time, they know that we are better together but because they haven’t completely bought into this concept on a deep down, in the bones kind of way, they are still holding onto their individualism.

Well, isn’t that what we are like when experiencing being in love? We are standing on the verge of possibilities, not having any idea what is going to happen if we put ourselves out there. Will we continue to stand in our own place of comfort or will we be willing to risk our hearts and our identity by being in community in a very real, we are in this together, my future is bound up in yours kind of way?  Are you willing, my friends, to move beyond “this is a place I go to on Sunday morning” to “I am a Unitarian Universalist and I am willing to stretch my finances just a bit more to support the work of this church”? I would like you to think on that.

When I began thinking about today’s service, I realized that every year the board, through the Annual Commitment Time pledge drive, asks our members and friends to stand in a place of vulnerability and possibly fear as they examine their budgets. We ask you to think about your income, to think about your commitment to the church, and we ask you to make an annual pledge that supports our church. We ask you to truly consider what you are willing to commit, what you are willing to sign on the dotted line and say, Yes, I’m committed and I will give x amount of dollars every month, quarterly, annually, whatever way works for you.

The board asks you to do this every year but we ourselves have never acknowledged that it’s a scary thing for us, too. We put out the ask, we follow up, and at the same time we are nervous. Will people give what is needed so we can maintain our current level of operations? Or, will our members and friends increase their pledges so we can continue to build our foundation, expand our ministry, and grow into our values? It is a scary process indeed. I wanted to acknowledge that while it can be fear inducing for you to make a commitment, it is also nerve wracking for us while we’re in the process of waiting.

Today the board is going to take an unusual step, something we’ve never done before and literally stand in the place of giving to you. We are doing something called a reverse offering. We ask you to give to the church every year, today we are going to give to you. This gift is coming to you from our church budget. We are going to stand in the place of giving to you from our budget, acknowledging that can be scary. Our gift to you comes with absolutely no strings attached. We ask you to do with it what you want to. We will have more than enough money – yes, we’re giving away money – for everyone here. We ask you to take what you feel is right for you.

When you get this money, I ask you to take it from a place of receiving, a place of love. Can you open your heart to this moment, this time and place, knowing that we do love you. From the bottom of our hearts to the hours we spend writing agendas, to our meetings, to examining budgets, it is all from a place of love.

Parker Palmer has this great quote: Community is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received. This is how the board and all our church leaders approach our work. What we do is a gift to ourselves and to our community, to you. Are you willing to receive?

Now I’m going to ask the board members to come up.  Board, can you give to the members and friends here today from a place of love? If so, say yes. Members and friends, can you open your heart to receive from a place of love? After the service can you say, “thank you” instead of feeling embarrassed about receiving? If so, say I do.

We will begin the reverse offering with the choir then we will give to the rest of the congregation. When the plate is passed to the rest of the congregation, the choir will begin singing. We encourage you to join with them. We truly want you to receive from the heart. You may keep the money yourself, give it away, buy what you need. It is for you.

Afterwards: We gave to you out of love. You received from love. I love you.