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Sunday, November 20, 2011

For All that is Our Life

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with John Sebastian, Worship Associates; Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration, and the Choir


For All that Is Our Life

A sermon by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

November 20, 2011

On Halloween a neighbor told me that’s her favorite holiday, because it’s so easy:  buy the candy and answer the doorbell.  Every other holiday, she complained, seems to involve lots of work for the homemakers in the house. I love Halloween, too, for the chance to interact with the children and youth, and to witness the dark night lit up and alive with their excitements. 

But Thanksgiving is a close runner-up. The typical meal may be a lot of work, but that’s an expectation we put upon ourselves. Thanksgiving may be so appealing because it is a specifically American holiday, even as we humbly recognize the imperialism of the Puritans that led them to be on the land of the Native Americans whose hospitality the holiday celebrates.  But more so, its appeal is in its praise of gratitude and generosity, principles to savor even more than the meal; they leave us as spiritually contented as the food leaves us pleasantly satiated (if we are so fortunate to have enough, and smart enough to not eat too much!)

Humility, praise, gratitude and generosity… these are spiritual values, but they are secular, too, not tied to any one religion. The Thanksgiving cuisine can be adapted to a family’s cultural background, but the gathering of loved ones and the sentiments of thanksgiving expressed are universal.

For these reasons, Thanksgiving is perfect for interfaith families. Our former UUA president, John Buehrens, before and since then a lowly parish minister, tells a story about the mixing of family traditions in the first year of his own mixed marriage.

First I have to tell you, his marriage isn’t all that mixed:  he’s a Unitarian Universalist minister and she’s an Episcopalian priest. He tells this story in the book A Chosen Faith which I recommend to anyone looking to understand our living faith tradition in greater depth and breadth; copies of which are for sale on the counter in the foyer today and whenever a Newcomers Class is coming up – the next one will be in March.

           

Buehrens writes, “ It was [our first] Thanksgiving – that most inclusive of American holidays. From my point of view there was too much of everything:  too many guests (her family, my family, her friends, my friends); too much food (her mother’s recipes, my mother’s recipes); and too much fuss altogether.  From her vantage point, …an important moment … was omitted, and I was to blame.

I had been asked to carve, something I had never done before, but I was willing. I put on an apron, entered the kitchen, and attacked the bird with as much artistry as I could muster. And what reward did I get? She burst in to tears.

In her family, the turkey is brought to the table, laid before the paterfamilias, grace is said, and then he carves. “So I fail patriarchy,” I hollered later. “What do you expect?” (pp. 139-140).

It’s true, the tension can run high at holiday time! Much of it has to do with our expectations. If we could all just be good Buddhists and let go of our attachments to things, there would be a lot less suffering in the form of family conflict!

But if we would let the material things go on this holiday, what would be left?

What would remain are the principles of Thanksgiving Day: humility, praise, gratitude and generosity. A few of these sometimes seem to be lacking in Unitarian Universalism, but not generosity – we are okay with being generous with our time, talents and treasure. But I think we have mixed feelings about the others: humility, praise, and gratitude. And I think it’s time to resolve those mixed feelings.

Some years ago, I was seeing a “spiritual director.” At first I was very uncomfortable with the notion, not liking the idea, or being too Emersonian for the notion, that any other person could direct me on my spiritual path; it’s my spiritual journey, is it not?  After all, we Unitarian Universalists first source of inspiration is our own “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that crate and uphold life.

But talking with other UU ministers, I learned that the role is not one of pushing you but rather one of walking with you, guiding you, and so I decided to find a spiritual director. Not far from me there was a training program for spiritual directors in the Roman Catholic tradition, which several colleagues recommended, so I enlisted.

My first director was a nun from Spain who had served as a missionary abroad, in Africa, if I recall correctly, and was retooling for a new ministry in spiritual direction. She tolerated my spiritual humanism fairly well, mostly embracing her role of companion rather than director.

I’m bringing it up because during the year I met with her, I came to appreciate the power of gratitude as a spiritual practice. At that time, we lived near some conservation land, through which I walked on a daily basis – for a kind of walking meditation. The trail went through woods and grassy fields on a hillside. Along its way you could see a working farm below and I loved to watch the fields change through the seasons. I tried to cultivate the ability to pay attention as I walked, to let go of the tapes of messages in my mind, and just be, absorb, notice, and appreciate what I could see, hear, touch, smell, and experience within me.

I recall one morning happening to notice a drop of dew or melted frost or maybe it had rained the night before… anyway, a particular drop of water on a particular red berry. It amazed and enthralled me in its ordinariness. It was truly beautiful in that moment. It was as if the only two things in the world at that moment were me and the berry with the drop of water on it. As I realized that what I was feeling was a deep sense of gratitude, I also recognized a shift in my inner being caused by that feeling of gratitude.

I had experienced gratitude’s spiritual power. It transforms. It results in a sense of humility before all that is, and then praise for all that is, and then generosity - as in wanting to share the experience, or at least its effects on me, with other people. You may have encountered this, too.

I remember wondering at the time:  is gratitude just a beginner’s spiritual practice? Is there something more I’m supposed to experience? My spiritual director intimated that my gratitude would be deeper and more transforming if it was directed toward God. But, I’m content to let it just flow out to the universe – though I am pretty sure that feels to me a lot like what her experience of God feels like to her. So, except for the fact that I usually don’t, I would be okay with using the word God. To me, the important part is the experience, not the words.

It’s been many years since I saw that red berry, and something similar has happened over and over again:  just Friday, on a bicycle ride, which is my preferred spiritual practice preliminary to sermon-writing, my lethargic body and spirit were transformed by gratitude:  thankful that my body is still able to get up some speed, the colors of the leaves on the trees are gorgeous, the sky is a stunning blue, and a Great Blue Heron is wading down the middle of the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River looking for fish! And even though there was praise in the experience, there was also humility before it all.

For some reason I do not understand, it seems to me that Unitarian Universalism is comfortable with quiet wonder and awe, but we are ambivalent about praise and humility. Do you know what I mean? Maybe humility sounds too much like bowing down before the almighty? Maybe praise sounds too much like arrogance, given how well-off many of us are compared to the less fortunate in our society?

Recently one of you sent me a link to a YouTube video of worship at the Tabernacle Church in Laurel where a former member now attends. The first five or six minutes of the service was praise music. Though musically it wasn’t my cup of tea, it struck me that the sentiment was healthy, and not often expressed in our services: praise for life, praise for being alive, and praise for all that is our life. The repetitiveness of the music may serves to bring people together into one motion, one sound, a unity that feels like a community – the words are on the screen above, and they repeat over and over again, so there is no need to be looking down into a hymnal. They can even hold hands while they sing!

But, really, we have personal troubles like everyone else. Right here among us and in our families, we have addictions, self-centeredness, financial stress, fiscal irresponsibility, bad luck, poor decisions, illness, anxiety, greed, mistakes made as we try to do the work of love and justice in our world - we’ve got our share of human foibles - we UU’s are not immune to these personal trials, we have reasons to be humble, or discouraged, just like others do, yet some folks come into their churches singing rousing praise music and UU’s usually do not!

And, their public reality is the same as ours: climate change; faltering economy; weakened democracy; world-wide, local, widespread gaps in income, wealth and standard of living. Yet others come into their churches singing rousing praise music and UU’s usually do not!

Are we ashamed of our troubles? Conscious of our privileges, are we equally ashamed of our good fortunes?

It’s energizing to exclaim in music and word that it is good to be together, that life is good, that we’re lucky to be alive, that we love each other and that we are all held by some larger “spirit of life,” as we always sing at the end of our service. Maybe we are afraid we’ll get carried away if we allow very much energy to get going here? But don’t we need energy to face the trials of our personal and public lives?

On the other hand, someone who moved to another state compared Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church to the UU congregation near her now, saying in an email, “They have a completely different dynamic, though certainly still kind and valuable.  They seem to be much more calm and soothing rather than fun and social like you guys are.  Perhaps they were concentrating more on nurturing hurt souls. Which is fine. But you are welcoming and friendly and caring - just what I had always hoped for in a church home.”

Then she went on to say something about me, which I found totally surprising,  “Plus, you're funny and fun - those are important, too!”  Me? Funny and fun?!!

Maybe there is more energy here than I realize, more fun and funniness, more humility and praise, and more gratitude. And not just at Thanksgiving time.

Gratitude for all that is our life, the ups, the downs, the joys, the sorrows… As we sang a bit earlier, “For all that is our life we sing our thanks and praise; for all life is a gift which we are called to use to build the common good and make our own days glad.”

Still, I hope for rousing energy here, for humility and praise, as well as transformative gratitude, even as the generosity that has been known among you, us, since our founding days, continues.

(Turning to the choir) Can we have some rousing energy here, right now?

So may it be!

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