Sermons 2004-05

Who Are You Talking to Anyway?

Who Are You talking To Anyway?
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I really learned how to pray only about a half a dozen years ago.  Not, as I would assume most would learn how, through grace and necessity, but because I took a class in it.  I have mentioned before that I spent the first two of my three academic years in a Methodist seminary.  Having grown up in a strongly humanistic UU church, this was my first real foray into things Christian.  It was, you might say, an immersion not a sprinkling.  Anyway, I was sitting at a table with a rather ecumenical mix of students and our teacher, Sister Joan Marie Smith, who was explaining the sheet of paper that was going around the table for us to sign-up on for either the opening or the closing prayers of the next eight class sessions.  And I learned to pray right then and there, “O God, please let the list be full before it gets to me.”

But that was not the way it worked out.  And about half way through the quarter, I lead the rest of my class in one hell of a prayer.  I had spent the prior three weeks composing it in my head and editing it so that it would neither shock nor scare them too much, but was something I could authentically say.  And I practiced it late at night to get just the right emphasis here and inflection there.  It was a great performance, if I do say so myself.  And I even ended it with theological integrity.  I didn’t do the “In Jesus’ name we pray,” as most of the students did.  I said, “In the name of all that is holy, may it be so.”  I felt really good afterward, and everyone seemed to be fine with it.  It wasn’t until about a week later that it began to bother me that what I had really given to my classmates was not a prayer, but a performance.

Since then I have grown more accustomed to and more honest with prayer, due in large part to grace and necessity.  Since my first unsettling experience with prayer back in the classroom, I have been seeking to find through reason and study a deeper understanding as to what is going on and to be able to articulate this.  But as someone once said, “We learn to love by loving.” (Iris Murdoch) I found it a little helpful to try to think through what function prayer served and what language to use.  But I also kept praying, hoping, really, that no one would catch me doing it because I had not at that time figured out why I was trying to figure this out!

In my searching, I found a wide variety of prayer styles, of ways to pray, from throughout the world’s religions.  Some pray with legs crossed and hands on knees.  Others pray standing up with arms and eyes stretched high.  Some pray with eyes closed, head bowed, and hands clasped.  Others pray knelt down, head to the ground, with arms stretched out toward a holy city.  Some pray with dance and song, others with work and toil.  As the Sufi mystic Jalal Ud-Din Rumi says, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”  There are hundreds of ways to express to that which is holy the things which you need to say.

The antiphonal reading today was a composite I made of sayings from a variety of people, saints and mystics, educators and reformers among them.  The commonality was that for all of these people, prayer was central to their lives.  Perhaps this is most noticeable in the quote from Susan B. Anthony: “Work and worship are one with me.”  I like that a lot.

And yet many people, including myself at times, take a more banal view.  The entertainer, Flip Wilson, is noted for saying, “I’m going to pray now, does anyone need anything?”  This view of prayer, as some form of wish-fulfillment technique, is common, insidious, and unfortunately scriptural.  “Ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened.”  I’ve heard some of my fellow students at the Christian seminary push this view.  When one person had a car that kept breaking down, his friend said, “Pray for a new car.  If you need a new car, ask God, and He will provide.”

Now, this is not the type of dilemma faced among Unitarian Universalists.  We don’t tend to go to that extreme.  We seem to have a different set of obstacles.  Now, with all blanket statements such as the kind I am about to make, there are exceptions.  But there is an abundance of reservation about prayer among Unitarian Universalists, to say the least.

I have often felt rather out of place around some of my Unitarian Universalist acquaintances when I admit that I pray.  Prayer is one of those things one does not readily admit to in our circles without a disclaimer.  And I imagine that people look at me funny when I admit to praying.  And I sometimes worry that those UUs with whom I share the fact that I pray will somehow poke holes of theological inconsistency in my spiritual practices with questions like: “What happens when you pray?  Do you think that your prayers will somehow change the structure of the natural universe?”  Or, “How can you tell whether it works or if you are just fooling yourself?”  And even for prayers that do not ask for anything, I imagine I will be asked, “Who are you talking to, anyway?”

I pray to God.  One of the well-worn jokes about Unitarian Universalists says that UUs pray “to whom it may concern.”  We have a lot of difficulty with that word “God” and what it means.  Even if we talk about the non-personified concept of God, does this ‘ground of being,’ this ‘cosmic urge’ have an ear to listen to our prayers?  Our way of faith is the thoughtful and reasoned way.  We are the skeptic’s choice.  This would seem to rule out corporate prayer.  And for some of us, it does.  There are those among us who certainly do not pray and perhaps feel uncomfortable when prayers are recited during Sunday service.  There may be a variety of reasons for this.  Some may feel that prayer smacks too much of an anthropomorphized deity, with ears to hear and a long flowing beard and all that.  Others may find it is a matter of conscience and theological integrity.  For these members of our church I say: well and good!  Ours is a free church.

However, I would press you a bit.  Because if it just bothers you, if it is just the idea of prayer that seems a bit off to you then I would suggest to you what Sister Joan Marie suggested to a student in that class I mentioned earlier.  This student expressed growing discomfort with intercessory prayer, with prayers that ask for things from God.  Sister Joan Marie smiled at him and said, “You’ll do fine, sweetheart.  Just keep praying.  It takes some people longer.”  Just keep praying.  Just stick with it.  Our prayers on Sunday morning are communal prayers.  It’s not YOUR prayer; it’s OUR prayer.  Communal prayers are based on “We.”  Eventually it comes around to you.  Just keep praying, particularly when you have trouble believing it.

I recognize that this is not easy and I won’t pretend that it is.  I would not go so far as to say that what is being suggested here is akin to forcing yourself to believe that the world is flat by repeating it again and again.  No.  Prayer should never be about denying the natural world.  But how then does one both affirm the natural universe and engage it with what one would hope to be a dialogue?  Perhaps we have the wrong end of the dialogue image.

I have found many people who say that they do not pray; instead they meditate.  They don’t talk.  They listen.  Soren Kierkegaard tells a story of a man who thought prayer was talking.  But he became more and more quiet until he realized that prayer is listening.  But listening to what?  What does God sound like?  And how is one to tell when one has heard it?  Thomas Keating, a Catholic teacher and theologian, agrees with Annie Dillard as we heard her in this morning’s reading.  Keating says, “Silence is the language Gods speak and everything else is a bad translation.”

There is even an explanation for this in the Bible.  The story is from the time when the Israelites had only recently begun to wander in the desert.  They are camping around mount Sinai while Moses is going up and down the mountain fetching commandments and dietary restrictions and tabernacle measurements, and the people witness the “Thick darkness where God was” … “And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking.” And it scared them witless; and they went to Moses and asked him to talk to God about it and to beg God to please not speak to them directly.  “Let not God speak with us lest we die,” they said.  And Moses took this message to God, who apparently agreed.  He agreed not to speak with the people anymore.

Annie Dillard, in reflecting on this exchange, this request of the Israelites and God’s apparent agreement, writes:

It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave.  It is hard to desecrate a grove and then change your mind.  We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.

This is a continuation of what she was saying in the reading this morning about her neighbor Larry, who is trying to teach a stone to talk, and how “Nature’s silence is its one remark.”  “We are here to witness,” she continues.

There is nothing else to do with those mute materials we do not need.  Until Larry teaches his stone to talk, or God changes his mind, all we can do with the whole inhuman array is watch it.  The silence is all there is.  It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things.  You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence.  Distinctions blur.  Quit your tents.  Pray without ceasing.

That last line, “pray without ceasing” is from the letters of Paul in the Bible and has given many Christians as well as other religious folks no small amount of consternation.  To “pray without ceasing” is not to necessarily mutter your pleas for mercy and adoration to God constantly.  To “pray without ceasing” surely cannot mean that one is to do nothing else!  It must mean we are to have prayer be central, to lead a prayerful life.  As Susan B. articulated, work and worship can be one.

Perhaps we tend to have difficulty with prayer because it is of an intimate nature.  This intense element of intimacy may be the reason why it is often so difficult to talk about prayer with other people.  And further, if work and worship are to be one, if we are to live a prayerful life, can we stand to live at that intense level of intimacy constantly?  No small task, I assure you.  I have tried.  I have listened to the silence, I have sung to the wind my joy and have shouted my pain to the swaying pines.  I have knelt on the floors of cathedrals and at the shores of quiet lakes.  I have held lonely hands at hospital bedsides, and have felt the long embrace of dear friends.  I have nailed drywall for Habitat for Humanity, and I sing my children to sleep most every night.  All of this has been prayer.  I have tried.  I have tried.  Prayer can be, and perhaps at its best is, of the utmost intimacy.  What more can I say, other than, “Thus it is with my experience of prayer.”

Meditation is a silencing; prayer is more a breaking of silence.  With prayer you can express those things within you at your deepest level, even if you do not have words for it.  I believe my prayers do not change God or the structure of the natural universe; they change me.  I find this to be a far more fearsome and miraculous position that the opposite.  If you will let it, prayer can change you, as well.  Just begin where you are.  “We learn to love by loving.”  “You’ll do fine, sweetheart.”  And I suppose, failing all that, if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Global Citizenship

Global Citizenship

October 26, 2004
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I must have been sixteen the night I snatched the political candidate sign from my neighbor’s yard.  I certainly don’t recall the name on the sign of the person running for senate and I’m not so sure I could even tell you who the opposition, whom I supported, had been.  Or whether the candidate I favored won or not.  But I remember stealing the sign.  It was dark as I ran across the road and grabbed the sign.  My sister sat in the driver’s seat as I hastily lumbered back to the car with the opposition’s advertisement.  It was a heavy-duty metal job, too.  Not this modern poster board kind attached to coat hanger wire.  This was designed to be permanent!  It was a thin sheet of painted metal with a half-inch wide strip of metal holding it up.  It was serious signage!  We hid it down in the basement and it must of sat there for a couple of years before we figure out some way to get rid of it.

Ronald Reagan was in the middle of his second term as president.  Nuclear war was a looming threat to the world.  Sting had released a solo album the year before with a song that said, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”  In church we had watched and discussed the made for-TV-movie “The Day After,” a dramatization about the likely effects of nuclear holocaust on a mid-sized American city.  There was a lot of fear and anxiety floating around at that time.  Fear and anxiety provoke normally rational people to do irrational things.

Lately I’ve read in the Press &Sun Bulletin regular letters to the editor from individuals who have had their political signs stolen or the “support our troops” magnets snatched from their cars.  A letter-writer in yesterday’s paper lamented that it was the second time magnets had been stolen from her car.  Now, I haven’t been keeping careful track of these, but it certainly seems as though there are a couple of letters like this each week.  The question implied if not out right stated a by a few is: why do people do this?  Why do they take my magnets from my car or my signs from my yard?

I certainly wonder with them: what is gain by such thefts, what statement is made, what greater good is served by such actions?  Why do people do this?  Why did I do it way back then?  It certainly does not fit with any commitment to the freedom of speech to be tearing down the opposition’s signs!  I suppose it might be in line with the ideas of the first amendment to sneak onto someone else property and add your own signs!  But nobody does that.  Instead we have this petty pilfering of each other’s political propaganda.

Both sides do it.  Politics does seem to bring out a certain divisiveness among people.  Political campaigns push a shallow black and white perspective, a simplistic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ mentality in which shades of understanding and layers of nuance cease to exist.  At the extreme I hear even the demonizing of those in the opposing party and their supporters, a rather dramatic claim.  As William Sinkford wrote in the pastoral letter sent out recently, “Our congregations have been ministering to a deeply divided nation.”  We seem to have lost our unity “beneath the battle lines drawn between blue states and red states, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.”  When I read the letter earlier, I ended with the prayer.  The letter does, however continue with this: “there is more that unites us than divides us, and there can be but one common destiny for this nation.”

It would seem so obvious that there is so much uniting us in this country, and yet, we stand so strongly divided on the issue of this election that I wonder if there is more going on this time through compared with other election cycles.  I have certainly heard some of my older colleagues witness to such an idea.  I can’t attest to it one way or the other but I can certainly see that there is a problem now, there is no denying this presidential campaign has been too often malicious and disturbing.  Seminal ideals of our nation such as a commitment to fair play and the strenuous use of reason just go right out the window as both sides sling mud across the aisle.

The Reverend A. Powell Davies, Unitarian Preacher from the 1950’s regularly spoke and wrote about the idea of democracy.  He would claim that democracy was a governmental system secondarily and a spiritual system first.  He railed against the idea that democracy was merely a system of checks and balances held together by self-interest.  Self-interest alone lead too easily into corruption when given opportunity, and what is America but the land of opportunity!  “[Democracy] sees the individual in relation to all his obligations and asks him to rise, of his own accord, to the level of them.  Democracy is not a system of checks and balances, except in a secondary way.  Democracy is brotherhood in political and social embodiment.  In short, democracy is spiritual.  It is not a way of government unless it is first a way of life; it is not the form of a society unless it is also the faith of that society.”  (from The Urge to Persecute, p205) He further defined this saying that the United States was not founded merely on freedom – the liberty to do what you like – but also on unity.

Today it seems we are the divided states of America.  The unity is lost, and seems to have been lost for some time.  Perhaps the last time we felt national unity was when we were united in sorrow and pain in the wake of the events of September 11 a little over three years ago.  Though I don’t recall much unity of spirit in the nation before 9/11.

We are, I believe, a nation in trouble.  Aristotle said, “A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak, and is supplanted by oligarchy.” (Oligarchy is a government run by an elite few.)  I think our democracy has been under strain lately: the strain of disinterest and disenfranchisement, the strain of greed and corporate self-interest, the strain of moral decay!  [Moral decay?  Did our liberal minister just say moral decay?] Yes!  The worst form of moral decay in our society today is the excess of public moralizing about sex that sticks its nose in everyone’s private affairs and yet completely ignores the economic immorality of accounting fraud, tax evasion, and the exorbitant pay of top executives.  These are public issues of morality that are being ignored in favor of the sexier issues!  Our democracy is groaning under such strains.  And I would not be the first to suggest that Aristotle’s prediction concerning a strained democracy turned oligarchy has indeed come to pass, and likely some time ago.

We have been asleep.  We lived trough the turmoil of the depression in the thirties and the second great war in the forties, the committee on un-American activities hunting out communists in the fifties, the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement in the sixties, and seventies had disco, and the eighties had greed, and the nineties had the soaring stock market, and in 2001 we were reawakened to the turmoil and woe of the world around us and even at our own front door.  We seem to have been asleep these past few decades dreaming of a new age, dreaming of peace and prosperity while pockets of discontent and anger simmered around the world.  Perhaps you personally lived in or were well aware of one or two of these pockets of pain in the world.  Perhaps you personally were not asleep, perhaps you saw that the dream of peace could never become reality through merely the dreaming of it.  But for the rest of America, September eleventh was an awakening into a new age indeed: an age of terrorism and exploitation, fear and division and the building of walls.

It was an awakening for America that lasted for an unfortunately brief time.  I fear that even now we have slipped back to sleep, dreaming of superheroes and victory, shallow entertainment and cheap gas just on the horizon.  I wonder if what we are seeing is in fact the symptoms of a deep moral sickness of the people, an illness unto the very soul of our nation.  I wonder if the strains of greed and meanness that threaten our democracy are merely symptoms of a deeper ill.  Perhaps our rampant civil disinterest and shallowness, our quest for titillating entertainment ironically coupled against the rise in excessive public sexual moralizing, and the sheer meanness of the current political climate are all symptoms of some deep spiritual disease!

I suggest a very simple and yet alarmingly insidious possibility.  Isolation: a basic refusal to adhere to a social compact, a distain for the ties that bind.  A. Powell Davies called the unity written in the constitution our ‘spiritual inheritance.’  For all our interconnectedness and global trade of goods and information, we have managed to isolate ourselves from quite a lot.  The average American managed to be extremely clueless about anti-American brewing in parts of the world prior to 9/11.  How often did you hear the refrain, “But why do they hate us, so?”

Dare I even suggest that in attacking the disease of our own isolation, we will be picking up the same tools needed to really deal with terrorism in the world.  Terrorism is not a place we can go conquer, or a set group of people we can hunt down.  Terrorism is a style of fighting, it is a tactic used by desperate people fueled by anger and hate.  In his book “Reason” Robert Reich says “fighting terrorism by taking over unfriendly regimes is comparable to fighting cancer by removing affected organs.  Sometimes it can help, but it’s dangerous and it often comes too late.  Taken to its logical extreme, this approach would require America to assert control over many of the world’s unstable regions.  We would have to a permanent occupying force, fighting guerilla wars over vast segments of the globe.”  (p166)

To defeat terrorism we must break out of our individual and national isolationism and build real alliances again with our neighbors.  We need to stop being the world’s bully and become again the beacon of light.  We must accept that the common good for our nation is intricately tied in with the common good of some many more nations.  We must take up our spiritual inheritance, the unity Davies spoke of; we must take up our inheritance and engage with one another and with the world.

This means we must be in this world with an eye toward the reality that we are at the same time American citizens and global citizens.  Davies again, “There must be dedication to the common welfare.  It must even surpass a dedication to the national interest of America.  I agree with the writers of the city of man who say that “he who is only an American is not yet an American.”  For the founding principles are universal. … Today, the earth – we have heard it over and over again – is just one neighborhood.  Fair play is needed not only in one place but in all places; justice is essential everywhere.  And more than justice.  Mercy!  Compassion!  And that is part of what it means to be American.” (Ibid, p206)

There is but one common destiny for this nation and whatever the results of the election we will continue to reach out and break the cycle of isolation.  Unitarian Universalism has a great message to offer to the situation: a message of love and engagement with the world around us.  Bill Sinkford’s wonderful pastoral letter has one final paragraph that I had to save until the end of the sermon.  “So let us stand purposefully on the side of love. The message of fear has been trumpeted throughout this election season. The message of love is quieter, but it is the antidote to that fear. Let us do what we can to help this quieter message be heard. And let us all do our part to bless and make whole a country wounded by partisan conflict and weary of division.”

I am a relentless optimist who struggles to also be a realist.  I know how easy it is for me to grow angry and cynical and weary and finally disengaged from the cruel reality around me.  Perhaps this is so for you as well.  My confidence and hope arises from my connection with all of you and with all those who reach out in spite of the brokenness of our days.  I see the work we do together and feel the connection built on that work, and my faith in humanity is restored again in my eyes.  I shall not despair for I see the beacon of light we are becoming.

I remember a story from a decade or so ago of a teacher who asked her class of first or second graders about the possibility of nuclear war.  And as startling as it was to discover that all but one child was resigned to the fear of this potential, there was that one remarkable child who said in effect, “I am not scared because every Tuesday night my daddy goes to a meeting at church to make sure that won’t happen.”

We are here, and this is why!

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Zen Parenting

Zen Parenting

Rev. Douglas Taylor


So my daughter says to me this week, “You’re preaching about parenting this Sunday?  Are you going to read up on that?”  It wasn’t that she was worried about my competency on the subject matter, rather she was worried that I would neglect her favorite book on this topic: “Always Wear Clean Underwear!” And other ways parents say, “I love you.” (which we used for the reading.)   Later during the week when she saw the title on the church sign out front she said, “Zen?  As in ‘Zen’ gardens?”  “Yeah,” I explained, “Zen is a branch of Buddhist thought that is grounded in the practice of meditation.”  She raised her eyebrows as only a teenager can do and said, “Meditation parenting?” with that tone of voice that I can only imagine is taught during secret teenager meetings because they all know how to do it.  “Yes, meditation and parenting.  I’ll talk a lot about patience!”

Child rearing tends to be one of those topics sometimes lumped with religion and politics: you don’t talk about it in polite company for fear of upsetting deeply held convictions.  Luckily we have a parent’s group here at the church where people can share with others the experience of raising children.  I solicited thoughts and comments over e-mail from the parents, and received several thoughtful replies that helped in preparing my sermon.  Not all of you here today are actively parenting children right now.  For many of you your parenting years are finished or never existed or are still yet to come.  ‘Though certainly all of us have had parents of one sort or another.  This topic touches you because it takes a village to raise a child and to the extent that you participate in this community or in society at large, you participate in the raising of our children.

Unitarian Universalism is a wide path and includes multiple sources of inspiration in the search of truth and meaning.  In a Christian church the minister would probably preach about Christian parenting; in a Jewish congregation, the rabbi would likely speak on Jewish parenting.  Why then, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, do I speak of Zen parenting?  Why not Unitarian Universalist parenting?  Unitarian Universalism is a wide path including multiple sources of inspiration in the search for truth and meaning.  In the same way that we look to the Bible and the Upanishads and the Humanist Manifesto for insight in Unitarian Universalist living, we look to many sources for Unitarian Universalist parenting.  So, today, I want to dig a little into the eastern religion of Zen Buddhism for insights that prove helpful to Unitarian Universalist parents in raising children.  You may find, however, these insights prove helpful for all relationships.

Zen Buddhism is a stricter and more ascetic strain of Buddhism than, say, Mahayana Buddhism.  Zen is very popular in America.  Those little desktop Zen gardens of sand and rocks are all over the place.  I’ve got one in my office.  In Unitarian Universalist congregations, the Zen Buddhist practice of sitting meditation is common.  Using the word “Zen” in a title has become very trendy.  The appreciation of Zen in America was certainly fueled by popular books like Zen and the art of Archery and Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

A quick browse through the Internet turns up lots of copycat titles for websites and books.  Some of them really do tug at the idea of a How-To manual that runs counter to step-by step logic and draws on concepts of mindfulness and awareness, while others are just cheesy rip-offs of the clever title.  I can’t differentiate for you, but here is a sample of what I found:  Zen and the Art of Teaching, Zen and the Art of Writing, Zen and the Art of Eating, and Zen and the Art of Falling in Love.

Zen and the art of small claims, of Post-Operative Maintenance, and of Ferrets.  (Yes, Zen and the art of ferrets!)  Zen and the Art of slam dancing.  Zen and the Art of retirement planning. Zen and the Art of breastfeeding. Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement. Zen and the Art of counterinsurgency. Zen and the Art of the coffee break. Zen and the Art of tying shoes. (Which, by the way, is the only website of this long list that I looked at; and glad I did because I found an interesting essay on mindfulness.) Zen and the Art of Procrastination, (Which is probably why this list appears in this sermon in the first place.)  And, of course: Zen and the Art of Anything.

Usually when “Zen” appears in the title, the author is trying to find a new perspective on an old issue, typically through greater awareness and attentiveness, or what Buddhists call “mindfulness.”  Now, while mindfulness is a real and rather basic concept in Buddhism, it is also (as a stand alone concept) the over-simplified version of Zen Buddhism that pop-culture has gotten a hold of and tamed for American consumption.

Mindfulness is a significant part of what one might consider “Zen” parenting, but a deeper concept I want poke at first is non-attachment. Many people misunderstand the concept of non-attachment.  For a long time, I misunderstood the concept of non-attachment.  Non-attachment is not about being unkind or uncaring.  It is not about being a rugged individual without being tied down.  Non-attachment is not about non-relationships.  Instead it is about healthy relationships that are not driven by ego.  It is about not clinging.  It is integral to the third noble truth.

A basic Buddhism 101 class would start with the four noble truths.  Buddhism begins with the statement that all life is suffering.  This is not to deny that there is joy and happiness in life, but you can’t cling to it because it is transient.  The second great truth is that the root of all suffering is attachment.  The reason we experience suffering is we are trying to cling to something: desires, love, or happiness.  The third noble truth is that there is a way out of the suffering, a way to “extinguish the thirst,” to not get caught by all the attachments.  The fourth noble truth explains that the way out is the eightfold path of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  It takes many, many pages of holy text to unpack that eight-fold path mentioned in the fourth great truth.  It is the third truth, about non-attachment, that I find so applicable to parenting.

A line from one of William Blake’s poems reads, “Kiss the joy as it flies, and you will live in eternity’s sunrise.”  That little bit of poetry is about non-attachment.  Don’t try to cling to it, just love it as it goes by.  And that is exactly the way non-attachment is a tool for healthy parenting.

A Theravadan meditation master named Achaan Chah Subato offered this wisdom:  “One day some people came to the master and asked, ‘How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?’ The master held up a glass and said, ‘Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass.  It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight.  I touch it and it rings!  One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table.  I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.’” (From Sitting Zen by James Ishmael Ford; p85 of Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander, ed.)

The glass is already broken.  Don’t cling to it.  The day you will be most proud of your child and the moment you will be most disappointed with your child are transient and impermanent, and are as if they have already happened.  Don’t cling to it.

The prelude this morning, “Everything Possible,” was written by folk-singer and activist Fred Small, (who has recently become a Unitarian Universalist minister.)  The song was originally written as a lullaby.  It is one of the songs that over the years my wife and I have sung while putting our children to bed.  The sentiment that “you can be anybody that you want to be” and “you can love whom ever you will,” echo the idea of non-attachment.  You are my child, but your life is your own and who you choose to be is yours to figure out.  I can give you guidance but cannot determine your path.  I can give you opportunities to grow, but I cannot define how you will grow or even what opportunities you will take advantage of.

The meditation this morning came from a book called The Parent’s Tao Te Ching.  Taoism and Buddhism are similar enough that common lessons are found is each.  The eleventh chapter of the Parent’s Tao says, “A wheel spins in a circle.  The still point at the center gives it direction.  Be still and your children will see the way ahead.  A pot has beautiful sides.  The emptiness inside makes it useful.  Empty yourself of agenda and you will be available for your children.  A good house has strong walls.  The space within the walls makes it a home.  Create space within your heart and your children will always rest secure.”

This is a powerful idea, that we must be the walls of the house to insure there is a home inside.  Zen meditation emphasizes the emptying of your mind, the still point of being.  The image in Taoism of the house made with strong walls and the empty space within that is the home resonates to the heart of what Zen parenting must be all about.  With clear strong boundaries, children have both security and freedom to thrive.  What children need most from parents is love in the form of attention and security.

When we were living down in the Washington D.C. area, our older two children became involved with a martial art called Aikido.  Outside of a few lessons in Tai Chi Chuan, I have not taken any martial arts, but we found the Aikido lessons of such value for the kids, we did not mind in the least the 45 minute drive each way to get to the dojo, a trek we took at least three times a week.  Aikido is a martial art based on non-violence.  It emphasizes rolls and how to fall without getting hurt rather than punches and how to throw other people.  Aikido is about balance and in this way it is very similar to Tai Chi Chuan (only faster).  The principle difference from other martial arts such as Karate and Judo is that in Aikido you do not try to meet your opponent’s force and overwhelm it, you try to move out of the way of your opponent’s force and control it.  Instead of blocking a punch and hitting back, you step to the side, allow the punch to follow through by grasping the other person’s wrist and pulling them off balance.  When a person is off balance they are not a threat.  Certainly other martial arts teach balance and control, and so any martial art, well applied, can be of great benefit.

Practical techniques for dealing with violence are critical for youth today, unfortunately.  Aikido taught my children balance and how to deflect and control another person’s energy with balance.  I have seen that it also gave them an inner balance to control their own energy.  In the Dharmmapada it says, “If a man practices himself what he admonishes others to do, he himself, being well-controlled, will have control over others.  It is difficult, indeed, to control oneself.”(#159)

The 69th chapter of The Parent’s Tao Te Ching says, “The martial master understands how to yield and triumph.  When his opponent’s blow arrives, he is not there.  He moves, yet maintains position, bends, but stays balanced.  As a parent you must do the same.  When your children oppose you, do not meet their opposition with force.  Bend and they will topple.  You will win your point without harming them.  Thus in yielding, you will truly triumph.”

Now, I like this analogy except for the way it sets the parent/child relationship as an adversarial one.  I suppose the point could be made that on occasion it can turn that way, and in such a situation, it is best for the wise parent to triumph over the growing child.

When my nearly three-year-old toddler decides to do exactly what you ask him not to do, it is important to give him boundaries.  They can be wide boundaries.  “If you want to control your sheep or cow, give them a spacious fenced in meadow.”  I can’t match Piran’s energy.  I can pick him up and carry him kicking and screaming into another room, but not for too much longer!  But I don’t have to overwhelm his energy with greater force.  Sometimes it is just a matter of picking your battles.  Sometimes it is just fine for him to jump on the bed or run around the house naked.  It’s not that big a deal.  Other things are a big deal, like not squishing your brother’s clay figures or not banging the bottom keys while your sister is trying to practice piano.  In these cases it is best not to try to meet and overwhelm the child’s energy.  Instead I try to step to the side of the conflict and control his energy by showing him how to touch his brother’s clay figures gently and to admire them.

I’ve said to Brin and Keenan, when they get frustrated with Piran getting into their stuff or bothering them when they are trying to do something, “Think of it like Aikido.  You can use his energy to get him to do what you want.”  For that to work they have to notice not just what is going on from their point of view, “He keeps pounding on the piano when I’m trying to practice,” but to also notice what is going on from his point of view, “Do you want to play the piano just like your big sister?”  Then they can suggest things like, “how about you play the piano for a minute and then it will be my turn again.”  Most toddlers don’t linger too long with pounding on the piano unless they get people screaming at them when they do it.

This tactic works for all ages.  Rather than getting angry with my teenage daughter for yelling at her little brother when he pounds on the piano, I can step past her conflict and suggest a new solution.  To do that, I need to be paying attention to what is going on.  I need to be mindful for the situation.  I also need to not let my ego get into it.  I need to let go of the thought that everything going on is somehow about me.  I can’t just sit in the den and shout “Brin, stop yelling at your brother, I’m trying to write my sermon about parenting and your being to loud!”

Zen parenting recognizes that by emptying my ego from the relationship I can be involved and remain non-attached.  Zen parenting relies on mindfulness and patience.  Zen parenting fits with the philosophy of many Unitarian Universalist parents because it emphasizes self-control:  The best way to control your children is to control yourself, that they may see your example and learn.  “Parents who reveal themselves in all their humanness become heroes.  For children look to these parents and learn to love themselves.”  (Parent’s Tao Te Ching, Chapter 22)

In the end, the Zen of parenting is the same as the Zen of teaching and the Zen of tying shoes, and the Zen of slam dancing, and the Zen of falling in love.  In the end we all need balance and attention and love, and to get the ego out of the mix as much as humanly possible!

In a world without end,

May it be so.

The Core of Us

The Core of Us
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton
October 3, 2004

Over the handful of years during which I have been a minister I have ardently strived to hone an answer to the persistent question: “What is Unitarian Universalism?”  I have particularly tried to articulate an answer that is concise.  I have sought an answer which can be given while standing on one foot or in the brief duration of an elevator ride; a difficult task due to the complexity of the subject.  This tradition with its fervent respect for the individual has a struggle defining itself as a group.  And until recently my attempts have focused around the concept of “covenanting.”  By this I mean, the central facet around which we Unitarian Universalists gather is the way in which we gather, the set of promises we’ve made as to how we will be together.  That is “covenanting” and that is what is at our center.  About a dozen members of this congregation heard the president of our denomination, William Sinkford, speck in Ithaca for a growth conference.  When asked the question, what is at the center of our faith, he responded along these lines: that we are Covenanting communities.  We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to be a diverse and supportive religious community.  What binds us together as a faith community is the way we do religion rather that any particular belief statement.  At least that is what I have been saying all along.  I want to let you all know that I have recently changed my mind.

It’s not that I no longer think we are covenanting communities.  I still see that to be the case.  Instead, what I’m digging at now is an attempt to articulate the theological core of who we are.  “Well, Douglas,” you might say, “Covenant is a theological concept.  Why are you discounting it?”  Because the concept of covenant describes how we are together, not what we are together.  Covenant is the vessel, the container, I want to be able to describe what is in that container.  I believe we have an enduring and clearly definable core theological identity.

Now, some say there is not a particular shared core of that sort in our denomination.  We are non-creedal, we do not have a doctrine around which we all must adhere, we do not have a single belief which we are compelled to hold in common.  We’re all over the map, theologically speaking.  And this is quite true.  Even in this congregation today, there are folks among us who find the holy in nature and in rituals and call themselves pagans.  There are others among us who believe in God and call themselves Theists and perhaps even call themselves Christian-UUs or Jewish-UUs.  There are those here who do not believe in God and call themselves atheists or religious humanists.  Then there are folks among us who don’t know how to define the holy from one day to the next if ever, and they call themselves mystics or agnostics or simply seekers.  And within each of these are nuances that spread us quite wide.  There are as many ways to approach the holy as there are people to approach it.

Our theological diversity has been referred to as “cafeteria-style” theology.  “Take what you like, but believe what you take.”  Another description portrays us as the safe harbor for any soul disillusioned and/or abused by the mainstream religions, the catch-all alternative religion.  One colleague told me Unitarian Universalism is technically not even a religion, it is simply an interfaith group because it has no core theological identity of it’s own, according to that colleague.  If, however, Unitarian Universalism does not have a common core theological identity, a unifying center, then our unity must be on the surface.  We do have a surface unity.  We share a name: Unitarian Universalist, we meet together regularly for worship, we share a hymnal.  But is that all there is – just a surface unity?  Are we just a surface level faith?  Or do we indeed have a defining unity at our core?

Unfortunately, when we start talking about having a core and a center, the implication here is that we then have fringes and boundaries.  We don’t like to talk about that implication!  We are still a non-creedal community.  As there is a core, there will certainly be many who are closer to the center and some others who are further out.  What is at our core as an organization will not necessarily be what is at the core of every individual’s personal belief structure.  But it is better to recognize that we have a fringe than to continue to consider ourselves to be a fringe!  That’s okay.  And as much as we don’t like to talk about it, Unitarian Universalism has boundaries.  They are fairly indistinct, but they do exist.  In many ways, our theological boundaries are self-selected.  I know I fit in here.  You need to decide if you fit in here.

This level tolerance is how we get so much theological diversity.  But there is a danger in this.  It almost seems like diversity and tolerance are the only common values around which we can root out a core theology.  Freedom of belief, or as previous generations put it, freedom of conscience, is one possibility.  Again, however, that does not quite define what we believe, only that we are free to believe it.  David Bumbaugh, a colleague now serving as a professor at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, had an article in our UUWorld magazine several years back in which he wrote that our denomination is

. . . much clearer about wanting to attract more people than we are about what we want to attract them to . . . [I]t is easier to embrace diversity than to define who we are and what we stand for.  I fear we are attempting to put diversity at the center of our religious life … because we fear the consequences of defining too precisely the core . . . blind to the fact that diversity can only flourish with a strong, clearly defined faith. (World, March/April 1995, p.26)

It wasn’t always this way.  We didn’t always have this wide a spread.  Originally, both Unitarianism and Universalism here in America were quite specific about their theological core identities.  They each had a very clear message which distinguished them each from other denominations of the time.  When I look back at documents from those founding times, the “Ames Covenant” and the Preamble to the National Conference of Unitarian Churches as well as the “Winchester Profession” and the “Boston Declaration,” documents dating from the early 1800’s, I find faith statement fraught with phrases like: “We believe in one God, infinite in all his perfections,” and  “We unite for the worship of God and the service of man.” A big one from the Universalists in 1803 was: “We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.”  And the Unitarians wrote this one in 1853: “We desire openly to declare our belief as a denomination, so far as it can be officially represented by the American Unitarian Association, that God, moved by his love, did raise up Jesus to aid in our redemption from sin…”

Now, I’m not suggesting we should go back to those days, even if we could.  Some have tried.  I just want us to see that who we were back then is very different from who we are now.  And more to my point, they were quite clear about it.  Sure there was that hedging moment in the Unitarian statement: “so far as it can be officially represented.”  And the Universalist often had in their statements something called a “Liberty Clause” which allowed for the freedom of conscience.

Over the years both Unitarianism and Universalism underwent several significant theological shifts.  Unitarianism broadened beyond Christianity and then even beyond Theism, though continuing to include all that it had held before. Universalism broadened in these ways as well, and developed a focus on the here-and-now rather than the here-after.  And then, interestingly, the two group joined together in the early 1960’s.  And according to my colleague, Gordon McKeeman, it was at this point in which we suddenly stopped talking about beliefs being at our core and instead started referring to our plurality of beliefs.  And further, the values we lifted up as central to our newly merged religion, were instrumental values, not terminal values, according to McKeeman.

Terminal values are values we hold for there own sake.  Truth and meaning, for example, are terminal values.  Reason, on the other hand, is a tool we use to discern truth and meaning.  Reason is an instrumental value.  At the moment we stopped talking about beliefs being at our core we also switched all our values from terminal to instrumental.  If you recall our Principles, they speck of truth and meaning, but we don’t say “We affirm and promote truth and meaning.”  It says, “We affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  We affirm and promote the instrumental values that lead us to truth and meaning.

Instrumental values are instruments with which we can reach terminal values.  Diversity and tolerance also are not terminal values; they are instrumental values.  Freedom of conscience is not a terminal value; it is an instrumental value.  These values lead us toward and allow us to get to the deeper values.  Why would we want to allow for diverse religious perspectives?  Way should we tolerate other’s views?  Because they lead us to something deeper; and is something deeper which we are after.

For whatever reason, we have not been jumping up and down in front of the rest of the world or with each other about that something deeper, we’ve been getting very hot, however, about our diversity and our tolerance!  I’m not knocking tolerance or diversity!  Indeed, I have really only been speaking of theological tolerance and diversity, but I fully support all our efforts to further our racial diversity, our economic diversity, our cultural diversity, and our theological diversity.  I just don’t want to put that cart before the horse.  I am not interested in diversity for diversity’s sake.  I am in favor of diversity because it helps us arrive at that something deeper, that essential principle behind our Principles and Purposes, that core theological identity.

It is hard to articulate what is at our core, not because it vague or contrived or non-existent, but because it is complex.  Ours is an evolving faith.  We grow as a people and who we are grows with us.  We do, however, have a core theological belief that binds us together.  It is more than simply agreeing to disagree, or covenanting to walk together but on different paths.  Yes, there are many paths found among us, but all of them, Pagan, Theist, Humanist, Agnostic, they all hold the core belief that human beings have a basic worth, an essential and innate value.

The enduring theological core of our evolving Unitarian Universalist faith is our radical understanding of human nature.

Roberta Finkelstein a colleague from Virginia, has said,

“We broke away from the liberal Protestant wing of American congregationalism, but the break wasn’t over what many people think. It wasn’t really over the doctrine of the trinity, though it is true that our first name, Unitarian, refers to the belief in the unity rather than the trinity of God.  And it wasn’t really over the question of salvation, although our second name, Universalism, refers to the belief that a benevolent God saves all.  It was really over the doctrine of human nature that we declared our independence.”

It was true then and it is true now.  We cast a resounding opposition of the old doctrine of Original Sin.  Human beings are not born with some cosmic divinely ordained flaw. We don’t need to be fixed.  Sure, we have flaws — we’ve got problems.  But we believe in the transformative power of love, and that by addressing flaws and failings we can learn from them and grow.  That’s what it means to be human.  I’m not saying all human beings are always displaying their innate worth and goodness: witness world events and we can all see how untrue that statement would be.  Humanity has got problems, to be sure, but they are our problems.  Unitarian Universalism has at its core a belief that every person has worth and value.

When early Unitarians and Universalists declared their understanding of human nature, it was radical.  It is radical still today.  This is basically a very Humanist message.  Religious Humanism focuses on life as we know it while letting its mysteries be.  Humanism can be confused with Atheism, but where Atheism says there is no God, Religious Humanism says the questions of God’s existence is irrelevant.  Religious Humanism says: We are born, we live, and we die.  This much we know, this much we can talk about.  There is a great deal of suffering and injustice in the world that will not be dealt with by a magical, wish-fulfilling deity.  The only way there will be change is if we do something about it.

Deep down, we Unitarian Universalists are all Religious Humanists.  It’s just that some of us also believe in God or the Goddess or an Eternal Spirit.  Look, for example, at what we do when it comes time to bless our babies.  We do not baptize them in the sense of cleansing them of sin and bestowing a membership upon them.  We have Child Dedication services in which we name the child, recognize the blessing, and dedicate the parents and the supporting community to the task of creating a healthy environment in which the child can grow.  In our Child Dedication services we do not dedicate the child, we dedicate ourselves to the child.  We do not make the child change from inherently depraved to suddenly blessed by God.  If anyone changes as a result of our Child Dedication services it is the parents and the supporting community!  And we do it this way because we have a core belief that every human being has a basic worth, an essential and innate value.

Our emphasis on social justice, our commitment to diversity, our love of the environment and our place in its intricate web, our dedication to the education of our children, our fondness for the democratic process, our loyalty to civil liberties and the freedom of belief, our appreciation of beautiful music and art; all these strong values arise from our core belief statement at the heart of our faith that each human being is of value; that every person matters.

In a world without end,

may it be so.

If I Ran the Zoo

If I Ran the Zoo
Douglas Taylor

Theodore Geisel was a Unitarian Universalist author better known around the world as Dr. Seuss.  He revolutionized children’s literature with his early reader books like The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and my personal favorite, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.  My sermon title is a direct rip off from one of his book titles.  In his book, If I Ran the Zoo, a young lad whose name is McGrew is leaning against a fence dreaming about what he would do if he ran the zoo.  He imagines all kinds of attractions and animals that he would feature if he were in charge.  It is a great idea for a fun little book, and it turns out to be a great idea for a sermon about the first major step in a congregation’s Long Range Planning process: the dreaming phase.  The first step in planning out where we want to be in fifteen or twenty years is to lean back and dream for a little while about what the ultimate Unitarian Universalist Congregation would look like.  It is to see the glimmers of possibility and imagine them in their fullest potential.  It is to let go for a little while of what is really going on right now and contemplate what could be.  What would this zoo look like if they put you in charge?

A few years ago, my older son received a delightful computer game for Christmas called Zoo Tycoon.  In this game with its really good graphics, you build a zoo from the ground up, creating the cages, choosing the size of each exhibit, what trees to put in, and how many of each animal to adopt.  The game is more than just learning about different animals and what sort of exhibit would work best for them.  It also gives you a glimpse of what it would be like to run an organization of this nature.  You have to keep an eye on the happiness of your animals and of your guests.  Your guests restrooms and trashcans and hotdog stands, and you can follow them around a see what they think of your zoo.  You also have to watch your finances.  As witnessed by the trouble Ross Park Zoo is experiencing, a good zoo program is not cheap.  So you build your zoo and get it just right and then one of the lions gives birth to a few cubs and pretty soon the cage you built is too small and what are you going to do about it.  You have to keep your eye on so many different things.  You can’t just set it up and let it go.  Did you hire enough zookeepers to take care of your beasties?  And now look, you bought the wrong kind of fence for the monkeys and they just escaped, and they’re running all around the zoo!

They make an Aquarium Tycoon game and an Amusement park Tycoon game, and I got to thinking:  What if we had a “Church Tycoon” game.  I mean, ‘tycoon’ is just the wrong word there.  But if we could fix that glitch, I think we’ve got a potentially hot ticket here for the upcoming Christmas season!  Just imagine, great little computer graphics showing you the different sorts of pews and hymnals and carpets you could get.  You’d have to buy a couple of coffee urns but maybe forgo the little communion cups for now.  Where should you put your front door?  In the front, facing the street or in the back facing the parking lot?  Or forget the front door altogether and just have a bunch of side doors like most UU churches do!  You would want to hire a zookeeper, (I mean a minister,) and other staff.  Now think about your music program: should you get an organ or a piano or both?  How about a jazz trio?  What about your Education program and your Pastoral Care program and your Social Justice program?  You could fund a controversial justice ministry and watch to see if the neighbors come out with picket signs.  Just imagine the fun you could have with this little game!  Create the church you’ve always wanted!

I know computers and computer games are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I bet our Long Range Panning Committee would love to have a copy of “Church Tycoon” or whatever we end up naming it!  Our Long Range Planning committee was formed in the spring and have been preparing for this first major step in the process, which begins now.  They will be gathering your thoughts and ideas, your dreams and visions for our congregation using a delightful survey.  Not all surveys are delightful, but I think you will enjoy this one because it the midst of its questions about what you think about the current stuff going on it also asks you to dream a little and imagine new possibilities.

Imagine what the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton might be like in fifteen years.  What would you want it to be like?  What do you hope it would be like?  Perhaps you could imagine particular programs or events that you remember loving from the church of your childhood.  Perhaps you hope to see a program here that your friends from another church have told you about.  Perhaps you have a favorite group or event currently happening here that you could see growing into something more.

After the Long Range Planning Committee has gathered, complied, and analyzed the survey results there will be more steps involving the whole congregation such as expanding and developing ideas gleaned, focusing the ideas into an actionable 5-year plan, and then voting on the plan.  So your input at this and subsequent steps will help shape the plan we develop for the future, and indeed, you may find yourself creating the church you’ve always wanted.  Your input will help me, and the board of trustees, and the various committees, and indeed all of us to discern where to put our energy.

As you move through the survey and as you dream up ideas, I offer one guide to work from: keep an eye on our mission.  We do well to always hold our mission in mind as make decisions.  Our Mission states why this community exists.  We have a beautiful mission statement that has the tone and form of a poem.  I can sum up our mission statement in one sentence: “We gather in a supportive and nurturing community to create opportunities for all to grow and to serve.”  Our goal is transformation, both personal and social transformation.  This community exists to change lives.  When we forget that, we become a social club. Our reading this morning highlighted the danger of not being mission-focused.  I’m not saying I think we are in danger on that count, I’m just offering a guide you can use to raise your horizon and pull you toward more radical dreams and ideas

Ideas for programs and events will come out.  Ideas about how to best allocate our money will come out.  Ideas for new ministries and opportunities will come out.  The biggest (though maybe not the most important) idea that will come out centers around either moving from our current location or staying put.  The work of the Long Range Planning Committee is not to resolve that, but neither will it ignore it.  The fact is, in the near future we will decide to either leave 183 Riverside Drive or commit to stay for the foreseeable future by making significant capital improvements and modifications.  This has obvious implications on any strategic plan we develop.

I invite you to entertain both sides of this quandary.  One the one hand moving could be very exciting and invigorating and our current space is showing its age.  On the other hand, our current space has great attributes, and real potential hidden in those worn out spots.  But then again, moving would allow us to design and build a place that meets today’s needs rather than those of a few decades ago.  But on the other hand it would be very expensive to try to move.  Am I coming off as too diplomatic?  (I’ve heard that if you tie a minister’s hands behind his back you get a shorter sermon because there’s none of this “On the one hand …and on the other hand” sort of stuff!)  I must admit I am ambivalent about moving or staying.  I haven’t been here long enough to fall in love with the place or develop deep resentment for its limitations.  So at this point I haven’t formed a strong opinion, one way or the other.

Now, I do have some opinions, some relevant ideas about this Long Range Planning that I will share with you.  I offer these ideas in the spirit of fostering your dreams rather than asking you to share mine.  What are my dreams for this community?  If I ran this zoo, what it would look like?  Let me offer five quick ideas.  I have many more, but I offer these five ideas and dreams in the hope of provoking your ideas and dreams.

1) Shift the entrance to the obvious spot.

2) Make the children’s chapel into a dedicated Chapel Space

(I’ll expand on these in a minute, let me just read them all out first.)

3) Spin off regular Social Responsibility projects such as the Rivermede Adoption

4) Create and maintain a Labyrinth

5) Increase the number and variety of the wonderful programs we offer here.

Let me unpack each of these briefly.  First off, my dream for our future is that we will 1) Shift the entrance to the obvious spot.  This is just one of my little pet peeves.  Most Unitarian Universalist churches hide their main entrance, leaving visitors to guess as to how best get in.  Right now, we do have a sign as you come up the steps from the parking lot that says “Welcome” and points toward the left, implying that the main entrance to the church is down the path to the left.  Imagine if we moved that main door to the arching wall directly facing the parking lot.  If you look, you’ll notice that behind the organ there is a wall with a window strip back there identical to this wall up front.  Under that organ loft is a spacious coatroom.  Imagine if that space were our foyer, our entryway, our greeting area.  As we have it now, people enter into a hallway that gets crowded too easily.  With minimal effort, we could create a warm and inviting first impression of our space.  This is assuming we don’t move, of course.

My second idea also assumes we stay here for a while.  2) Make the chapel into a dedicated Chapel Space.  In practice, the children’s chapel room is not used as a classroom or a meeting room very often.  Why not put some effort into making that space look like a dedicated worship space rather than a classroom converted into a worship space.  We have nice benches and a matching tree in there.  What if we could convert that room into a space where you might want to hold a small wedding or a private child dedication ceremony, or even just sit quietly and meditate.

3) Spin off regular Social Responsibility projects such as the Rivermede Adoption.  I really like the way this happened.  Members of this congregation noticed a problem out in our community:  The Rivermede Nursing Home is struggle in part because it accepts Medicare and Medicaid insurance.  Many of the residents are lonely and isolated and the nursing home administration has little resources to meet the needs of its own residents.  Members of this congregation looked at the resources we have among us to help this situation.  Members of this congregation decided to adopt this nursing home, which we did, meaning, several members visit people there and we bring magazines and other things of that sort.  We saw a problem in our local community, recognized the resources we have among us, and stepped forward to help out.  The Rivermede Adoption project is now more of a Caring Committee project then a justice project, but who knows yet what the next project will be: help at-risk youth downtown, or partner up with Lourdes hospital on an issue.  Who knows yet what the next project will be.  Perhaps you know.

4) Create and maintain a Labyrinth. The idea of a labyrinth has bounced around this community a couple of times.  I enjoy labyrinths.  A labyrinth is circling pattern laid out on the ground that you use for a walking meditation.  It is not like a maze, there are no dead ends or wrong turns.  As you wind your way into the center, you shed your worries and concerns and thoughts.  At the center you meditate or pray or bask in the glory of life and nature.  As you wind you way back to the outside of the labyrinth again, you “pick up” again all the pieces of your life that you let go as you went in.  The goal, of course, is that now you hold those worries and concerns and thoughts with a quiet center.  I think it would be powerful to go through the process of creating a labyrinth.

5) Increase the number and variety of the wonderful programs we offer here.  I would love for this congregation to be known for having a range of quality programs going on.  Creating and maintaining a labyrinth would be a program.  Programs are almost anything that happens around here that isn’t a committee meeting.  Choir, Parents group, Building Your Own Theology class, Intergenerational ice cream social, Viewing and discussing a video about depleted uranium, Coffee house, Small Group Ministry, Animal blessing.  That’s just what we have now.  I want to see more.  If I were in charge, if I were running this zoo we would have more music, more intergenerational stuff, and more adult religious education courses.

These are five ideas, five dreams of what I see in us, of what I believe we are becoming.  These are not all my ideas or even my five best ideas.  They are just a sample to provoke your ideas and dreams.  If I ran the zoo, this is what we would do.

But I don’t run this Zoo.  Such is the nature of our Unitarian Universalist congregations: there is no one person who runs everything.  As we saw in the Role Call we did early in the service, the mission of the congregation is made real by the work of a whole host of individuals.  It is not me, it is not the board, it is all of you who do the committee work who see to it that our mission is alive.  And it will be all you who take the time to give voice to your dreams and ideas who will see to it that our dreams expand into reality

Lean back against the fence and imagine what this place might be like with a few little changes or some monumental changes.  Lean back and dream our future into being.  Dream big.

In a world without end,

May it be so.