Sermons

Earth Tale

A UU Sermon about the Flower Ceremony (with a Buddhist lens)

Homily                 Earth Tale             Rev. Taylor

terra #earth | Earth at night was holding in human hands. E… | Flickr

https://youtu.be/B-SojsecwMo

It is said that the shortest of the Buddha’s sermons went something like this: The Buddha had his disciples sitting around him; he reached down, plucked a flower and held it up. He spoke not a word. In that silence, one of his disciples became enlightened. Consider these flowers and consider how we fit into this amazing universe together.  

There is something in our annual Flower Ceremony that always puts me in a certain frame of mind. I grow contemplative bordering on the mystic. What is it about flowers that we find so alluring and companionable? Certainly, their fragrance and color, their variety and wild abundance. And we find meaningful connections to these flowers and ourselves. We too have fragrance and color; we too arrive in such variety and – when we let ourselves – are capable of wild abandon. But there is more. These flowers are transient, they blossom and die all around us constantly. And yet they persist. So, it is with us as well.

Allow me a second Buddhist story, it pairs well with the one about the flower. This second story is from Thich Nhat Hanh (from at least a few decades back.)  He has walking across a collage campus with several people after a lecture. This story is an autumn story, rather than a spring story about flowers. In this story, Thich Nhat Hanh and the others were walking and the ground was strewn with many-colored leaves that had recently fallen to the ground. Suddenly Thich Nhat Hanh stops, points to a leaf and shouts, “You’re faking!”

I love this story. I know I’ve told it before and some of you may remember it. I know my inclination is to look at autumn and think of things dying, or everything letting go. But the Buddhist teacher is right. Autumn is simply one point in the ever-circling spiral of life. The dead leaf is part of the grander cycle of rebirth – it just isn’t revealing that aspect of it at the moment. The leaves that are dying are not really dying.

What if the flowers are faking too? Because they are, you know. They are no more the epitome of life than the leaf in autumn is the epitome of death. The flower is one moment in the full cycle. And like us, it has unfolded into this moment of being and is on its way to somewhere else. But in this moment, ah, such color, such vibrance, such life.

Yes, the flower may be fixed in my mind, in my memory like a photo. A moment out of countless moments when it happens to be in its fullness. But in truth, that moment is a tension. The flower is in its fullness, in beautiful bloom; and it is at the same time on its journey from seed to compost – the full breadth of its living. The flower is faking when it shows us only its full glory, because it is not only that moment; it is also in the middle of a long, elegant journey.

We call it ‘living in the moment’ when we do it. We call it, ‘mindfully present.’ But the flower is faking. Its wholeness is not contained in the moment of full bloom. So it is with us. When we are living in the moment, when we are mindfully present, we do not stop being part of the ongoing circle and cycle of living. When we are living in the moment we are not escaping from the past or ignoring the future. We are in that full journey right now.

One more story. This one is from Anthony DeMello in his book One Minute Wisdom.

The Master smiled, “Tell me, my dear, when you were born did you come into the world like a star from the sky or out of it like a leaf from a tree?” All day long [the student] pondered that strange question of the Master. Then she suddenly saw the answer and fell into Enlightenment.  (DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom, p121)

We were not dropped here into this moment, we grew here. We are not transplanted into nature, we are nature. We, like the blooming flower and the dying leaf, are the earth. We are a local embodiment of the universe. Walt Whitman famously said “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” We, like the grass, are the journey-work of the stars. And at any given moment, we are here – a leaf on the ground, a flower in bloom – ebbing or flowing; we are here.

I hope you may remember that when you are in a more barren or difficult season of your life, the flower is always part of the journey. even when it is ‘not yet’ or is ‘no longer.’ The flower is always with us and it is always on its way. And so are we.

In a world without end,

may it be so.

Our Old Unitarian Argument

Our Old Unitarian Argument

May 23, 2021

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Unitarianism in this country began as an argument within the liberal Christianity of its day. It began as a response against certain theological doctrines. From those first arguments, on through to today, there has been a steady, albeit sometimes unnoticed, series of arguments at play among us. Our old Unitarian argument is still part of our identity and shows up not just in our history but in our present experience as a faith tradition today.

That first old argument – the opening salvo – I am referring to is revealed wonderfully in William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 entitled “Unitarian Christianity.”  It was our opening shot. In it, Channing made the argument that the Character of God is good: meaning God is not angry or vengeful or jealous, as some of the orthodox theologies would have it. God is Good. Next, Channing said God is one. God is a unity, not a trinity. Following from that he argued that Jesus was not God, that Jesus was likewise a unity, namely fully human. And the final big argument Channing made was that humanity has the capacity to be good, that we can follow the example of Jesus. Again, this was counter to the prevailing orthodoxy of the day that said humanity cannot be good without first being saved by God through Jesus.

I am breezing through the actual arguments because – and here is the best part – we did not say such doctrines were the creeds of a Unitarian faith to which all Unitarians must adhere. We instead choose to be non-creedal. In effect, what we did was establish a house in which our faith community could exist, but we did not put a lock on the door. We said anyone can join in our community if you agree with us in principle. You don’t need to believe the exact doctrines we’ve just declared; you don’t need that key to unlock the door to our community.

Pretty soon after Channing’s arguments were aired and Unitarian churches were established, there began to be a group of Deists showing up. And an argument began: Was God actively involved in the lives of the people? The Deists said no. Channing and the other Unitarian Christians said yes. But rather than kicking the Deists out, they all found a way to share the space. There was, after all, no creed saying the Deists could not be part of Unitarianism. So, we expanded our circle and kept going.

Next the Transcendentalists showed up. They found the door unlocked and moved in. And an argument began. Is the Bible the only valid revelation of God? The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Alcott, Thoreau and Fuller, argued it was not; while the Deists and the original Unitarian Christians argued that it was.  But rather than kicking the Transcendentalists out, the Unitarians instead recognized that there was no creedal lock on the door. And we expanded the circle and kept going.

This became our pattern. Throughout our history, we’ve had significant theological arguments against the culture and theology around us and against cultures and theologies among ourselves. Yet our history is about how we stayed together through these arguments rather than the more common religious history pattern of splitting into factions and sects.

Today we Unitarian Universalists are at the point that our inclusivity is a bright beacon to the world and all those hungering for an open community grounded in values of truth and respect, personal integrity and communal support. We are not grounded in a creed or set belief as our center. As Rosemary Bray McNatt said in our reading this morning,

Whether you revere God, Goddess, nature, the human spirit, or something holy that you have no name for, you are welcome to join any Unitarian Universalist community and to worship, study, work, and be in relationship with people who are all on their own spiritual paths.       (From “Our Faith” essay in UU Pocket Guide, 2012 edition)

But it is worth noting we have not arrived at this stance of openness by chance, nor have we been in this exact spot all along. Ours is an evolving dynamic faith history. And I suggest, we are not done.

My colleague Rev. Craig Schwalenberg shared this insight with me when we were talking about it yesterday. He said this pattern of argument and expansion in our history found in our beginnings, has subsequently reappeared roughly every few generations. This pattern did not stop with the Deists and the Transcendentalists of the early and mid-1800’s. Every few generations, a new group would show up among the Unitarians, find the door unlocked and move in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they would say. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response would come. And an argument would ensue.

And every few generations, this argument would rage through our churches and congregations, our fellowships and societies and meeting houses. And for a time, people would draw lines in the sand, churches would get into fights, ministers would loss their jobs, some people would get hurt. These conflicts were real. It was hard. But in the end, our history shows that we would eventually find our way to expand the circle and keep going.

That first old argument was about the nature of God and of Jesus. It was also about what it means to be human. As the years have worn on and the generations have come and gone – our arguments have continued. We’ve argued about the centrality of Christianity in our identity, about the relationship of science in our beliefs, about the importance of activism in our deeds. In early 1900’s we had a good, long argument about whether or not we even needed God in our theology at all. The Humanists pressed the question. They showed up among our Unitarian communities, found the door unlocked and moved in. And after some acrimony and struggle, we again expanded our circle and kept going.

It was a far more formal process when the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961 – but in many ways the pattern holds true for the outcome. The Universalists declared God was too good to damn humanity for eternity and the Unitarians countered that humanity was too good to be damned. (Credit to Thomas Starr King, who said this more eloquently). But still we found our way to expand the circle and keep going. I have intentionally been talking about just the Unitarians in this fun romp through our history. The Universalists had different patterns echoing along the ages, but that is a sermon for another day. Today I am lifting out the pattern within our American Unitarian history of argument and expansion. Because today I want to notice we are in the midst of that exact pattern now.

But I’m running ahead a bit. Let me finish the survey and then I’ll jump off this last ledge with you. It matters because the really exciting argument was next in our chronology. In the late 70’s and early 80’s we had a big argument brought to us by the pagans and supporters of feminist theologies. I call it exciting because something in the pattern seems to have shifted. The argument brought to us by the pagans and feminists suggested, among other thigs, that the Earth itself is holy, that we are more interconnected and relational than independent and isolated, and also the perspective that our journey is more a spiral dance than a climb onward and upward forever.

Interestingly, this argument fits the pattern at first. The pagans and feminists showed up, found the door unlocked and moved in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they said. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response came. And an argument ensued. We eventually expanded the circle and kept going. But here is the part that is different. In the past, whenever a new group or theological cohort would come into the fold, and the circle expanded to include them, a strange thing would happen. The group that was finally received would turn around and shut the door. Then when the next group would arrive, the most recent addition would lend the loudest complaints about the infiltration of the new trouble-makers in our midst!

When the Transcendentalists showed up, it was the Deists and Theists rallying against them. When the Humanist showed up, the Transcendentalists joined the hue and cry against them. When the Pagans came knocking, the Humanists were among the loudest to say that Paganism went going too far. This is not to say any of these theological groups were then or are now hypocritical by nature. No. It is simply the pattern of group dynamics we fell into over the years. I mention this part not to denigrate any theological perspective. I mention it to show that we all fall into the patterns at times and it is hard work to shake ourselves free.

And here, now is the interesting bit: the earth-centered traditions … the pagans and the feminist theologies … did not shut the door behind them once the circle was expanded and they were firmly recognized among us. Part of the perspective they brought was this exact shift in recognizing how to keep the circle open for the next people who may need to be let in. I thank God for those feminists and pagans from fifty years ago, for the influence their theology and perspective has had on me and on our faith history.

All of which leads me to our current situation. Unitarian Universalism has been overdue for a theological argument. If you have been paying attention to the themes and scuffles in the broader Unitarian Universalist movement – I won’t assume any of you have – then you may be pondering this exact question. What theological argument is going on now?

About 15 or 20 years ago there was the beginnings of a good theological argument among us. We were talking about the Language of Reverence a lot. People were lining up for and against the use of particular words in our churches such as church, God, prayer, and worship. It had the feel of the pattern. Almost. There was not a group or cohort in particular championing this argument against the current establishment within Unitarian Universalism. It was just some of us arguing with some of us. Plus, the argument eventually faded away without resulting in increased inclusion or notable exclusion in our circle. And it never quite reached the level of people getting hurt or losing their jobs or feeling like they were getting excommunicated – all of which does tend to happen when the conflicts get significant among us. 

When I back into the question I find an interesting possibility. When I ask what theological dispute is brewing among us, I don’t notice anything happening nowadays that has folks concerned. When I ask instead, what is going on now that has some UUs getting hurt, losing their ministry and field work jobs, or feeling like they are getting excommunicated? Well, that question cracks open some possibilities. Almost.

The answer to who is getting hurt in UUism by UUs today is people of color, trans people, and some other similarly marginalized identities among us. Today in Unitarian Universalism there is a heated argument unfolding about anti-racism and multiculturalism as well as about how welcoming or unwelcoming we are to transgender and gender queer people, particularly leaders among us. The thing is: that’s not a theological perspective. So, this almost fits the pattern, enough to make me very curious.

I will pause here and say: I am “all in” for being inclusive and supportive of folks on the margins in our faith. I say this not to virtue-signal or toe a party-line, but to acknowledge that there are somethings we ought not, we cannot, be neutral about.

That said, let me pull your attention back to the broader topic at hand. This is an argument happening among us as Unitarian Universalists, but is it a theological argument? Might we be looking at another old unfolding of the doctrines around human nature – who is worthy, who is included, who counts? Is this culture war around identity and racism rooted in some old ideas of human nature that we are being called upon to refute once more? Maybe. I might just be fishing here. And I wonder if the argument is about plurality and multiculturalism is a stand in for the old argument about the saved and unsaved, good people vs second-rate people.

Thankfully, I can tell you how this argument will eventually turn out. One way or another, we will eventually find our way to the other side of this and discover our circle again expanded and we will have grown as a faith tradition.

Until then, I encourage us all to be mindful of how we can have arguments and conflict in ways that are healthy. I encourage us to step closer to the troubles we notice; to allow the differences and disagreements to be present but not harmful. And in so doing, may we remember we are not just talking about interesting ideas and theological positions; we are talking about people. May we proceed with grace and may we engage our differences openly and respectfully – for that is what our faith calls of us in times like these.

In a world without end,

may it be so

The Tale of the Storyteller

The Tale of the Storyteller

Rev. Douglas Taylor

5-3-21

(Using “The Storyteller” by Evan Turk)

https://youtu.be/LRsKnXGI8m0

Prologue:

Our story begins like this:

Long, long ago, like a pearl around a grain of sand, the fertile Kingdom of Morocco formed near the great, dry Sahara. It had fountains of cool, delicious water to quench the dangerous thirst of the desert, and storytellers to bring the people together.

But as the kingdom grew and life became easier, the people forgot their fear of the desert. Soon they forgot the fountains and the storytellers, too. One by one, the voices of the storytellers were drowned out by noise and silenced by age, and one by one the fountains dried up.

As the last fountain dried, far away in the Sahara a great wind began to stir.

That is how the story begins. It sets the stage, if you will. It lets you know we are about to go into a story that is about the struggle between living at the desert’s edge and needing water. But it will also be a story about storytellers.

Here’s what I can tell you, by way of warning. Stories are not only told to entertain us. They also serve to give information. They impart wisdom and – here’s my favorite part – they can tell us about ourselves, about our hopes and fears, about our struggles, and about who we really are. This story will do that, if you let it. You might begin by imagining we are living at the desert’s edge – that we are living near something dangerous, maybe not a desert exactly, but something that could be harmful if we are not careful. And that there is a resource like water that is usually readily at hand, but lately has been in short supply. I’ll leave it to you to ponder what the parallel might be while we listen to the story. 

As a second warning, I will tell you this story is a story within a story, which also has a couple stories in it.

A boy listens to a story from an old storyteller by a dried-up fountain. In the storyteller’s tale, a young girl listens to a blind woman’s story. In the blind woman’s story, a young weaver listens to the story of an older weaver who used to be a princess. 

And you will see the princess’ story is the foundation of the young weaver’s story, which in turn leads into what is happening in Blind woman’s story – which is what the Old storyteller has been talking about all along. All that said, you may still find this confusing. So, I’ve asked Jan F. and Trebbe J. and Amanda J. to help me out. They will take over the tale in turns as we get into the different layers. And later when we get to part II, Nathan E. will join in the fun

[instead of including the text of the book, I offer this youtube link of someone reading the story]

https://youtu.be/tewAB8yAvu0

Epilogue:

So, what do you think this story might mean? A good story, of course, will have more than one meaning. Perhaps a better question is, why do you think Douglas chose this story to tell us today?

Certainly, there is the obvious answer that this is a story with many little stories embedded that seem to be about the importance of stories. So, on a Sunday when we are talking about stories, this one seems like a good choice. But there is more to it than that.

Let me offer you this, as a blessing, the preacher smiled across the zoom screen …

In this story with many stories, the desert is a dangerous reality. We have been dealing with this pandemic and its dangerous reality for over a year. We have been struggling and we have suffered. And the important thing to notice after the desert is the role of water. Water, in the story, is the resource everyone wants. Water is what helps everyone survive and keep the danger at bay.

So, what might the water be symbolizing for us today? If the desert symbolizes the pandemic and its dangers, the water would be the resources we have to keep the danger at bay. Perhaps it is not just the pandemic but also the consequences of it such as our loneliness, our fear, our powerlessness, and even our loss. The water, then, is hope and connection. Our water is whatever keeps us engaged with the best parts of our lives.

It has been many long months. Our wells are growing dry. Impending doom has been at the gates of our cities howling about destruction. And yet we still tell our stories. We share our memoires and our simple joys with each other. We are buoyed by hope. Such stories and memories and connections keep the danger a bay. So tell your story. Share your messages of hope. Reveal to others your connectedness. We still struggle, we still suffer. The storm has not passed. But even now, there is more water among us than we thought we’d had. Even now, we have what we need and we will see each other through.

That is our story. That is our water.

And as a small extra bit of spice, I will tell you there is a very little bit remaining to the story that I will share with you now. If you remember,

[The sand storm in the form of a djinn] had retreated farther and farther until he was deep in the dunes of the Sahara …

“And that,” said the [young] storyteller, “is the story of how not long ago, a young boy saved Morocco from the desert.”

“But what happened to the boy?” asked a small girl in the audience.

“Ah, well,” he replied with a wink. “That is a story for another day.”

In a world without end,

May it be so!

The Sacrifice and the Promise

Crocuses are spring flowers free image

The Sacrifice and the Promise

Rev. Douglas Taylor

3-28-21

Spring is upon us. The snow has melted and the temperature has come up. There are Crocuses popping up where once the Snowdrops had dominated the gardens. This past week, people have been out walking, strolling, sauntering even, in the sun. It is a time of light and life and the refulgence to good things.

This has been a hard winter with heavy snow, heavy news, and a heavy burden of illness and plague. Spring arrives with an easing, a lifting of the heaviness. Even now when the weather gives a sudden, momentary turn back toward cold, we know it is not in earnest. In countless cultures over untold eras, celebrations existed to welcome this turning of the year to spring. Not to say everything is suddenly okay, only that there has been a lightening of the load, an easing of the hardship that is an archetypal and almost expected aspect of spring’s return.

As with our Time for All Ages story, we notice how people the world over have created these grand celebrations for the return of spring, with color and fragrance, with symbols of freedom, life, and fertility. In our Unitarian Universalist practice, we often note Passover and Easter and the Spring Equinox. These three holidays help us celebrate the shift from oppression into freedom, from loss back into hope resurging, and from the cold and dark season giving way once more to new life and light and warm days.

They help us recognize the pivot, the shift, from what was into what will be. They remind us that such cycles are echoed in our own lives even when our personal experiences don’t align to the calendar – you may find spring in your life during July some year, or an Easter resurrection in some December. But here we are in this moment of Spring, and the holidays ask that we all take note of what is happening in the world around us, take note and notice that it can and does happen within us as well.

These holidays invite us to honor our experiences of winters, to know and name the experience injustice and oppression that occur to us and those around us, to live through our share of loss and death.

Just recently, my mother died. She passed on March the 20th just ahead of the equinox and the return of spring. And in noticing that I recalled the opening line of a memorial reading by Rev. George C. Whitney, “If I should die, (and die I must)/ Please let it be in springtime/ When I and life up-budding/ Shall be one.”

But that reading was not in the small packet my mother left for me of readings and songs she wanted included in her memorial service. As I consider the messages of Passover, Easter, and Spring, I am struck by a different piece from that packet of memorial readings my mother left me. This piece, by Nancy Wood, is from one of my mother’s favorite poetry books, Many Winters.

Reaching back from here

All that I remember of my life

Are the great round rocks and not

The unimportant stones.

I know that I experienced pain and yet

The scars have healed so that

I am like the tree covering itself

With new growth every year.

I know I walked in sadness and yet

All that I remember now

Is the soothing autumn light.

I know that there was much to make my life unhappy

If I had stopped to notice how

The world sings a broken song.

But I preferred to dwell within

A Universe of fields and streams

Which echoed the wholeness of my song.

I want to talk for a moment about what we experience of our losses and our suffering. As this reading suggests, it is good to focus on our great round rocks, our healing and growth, our time in the soothing light and song. Yes. Looking back, remember the light.

And Spring invites us to notice the return of life while by bidding a grateful farewell to winter. Easter asks us to not rush past Good Friday without honoring the loss first. Passover would have us remember where we have been and the sacrifices we’ve made. As we heard in the reading, Wendell Berry reminds us “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.”

As the reading from Many Winters suggests, we will remember the best parts. But to embrace the message of these spring holidays, let us sit for a moment with our loss and our sacrifice. For in so doing we can honor the reality of our hardships. We do not need to stay here, but we do all pass this way. We do not live in our hardships; they do not define us – but we do not ignore them either. The reality of our losses and our sacrifices shows our strength and patience and resilience.

We are entering spring, we come now into a good time – and it is this time we will remember. But more importantly, when next we find ourselves in hardship, we can remember the promise of this season and of these celebrations.

Listen to a little more from Erik Walker Wikstrom. In our reading he said: “…if we are to honor life—not just the wonder of it but the whole of it, not just its triumph but its truth—then we must learn to honor, even embrace, both winter and the tomb.”

He goes on to say:

There is a promise here. And, as Martin Luther noted, the promise is written not just in books but in every springtime leaf. It’s even closer than that. The question is not whether we believe in resurrection but whether we have known it —known it in our own lived experience, seen it in the lives of others, felt it in the world around us.

Persephone returns to the world of light; Osiris is resurrected by the power of the love of his wife Isis; the Phoenix is born anew from its own ashes; Jesus leaves behind the tomb. Snow and ice melts, giving way to new life.

The promise of our Unitarian Universalist faith is the promise of the seasons and these stories—winter is not perpetual, the wheel will keep on turning, the tomb is not the end. We affirm the promise of rebirth, of resurrection; of life’s ultimate victory over death; of hope’s triumph over hopelessness—not just as some abstract concept but as the miraculous reality of our lives. This is what we celebrate today!

(from A Rite of Spring: An Eastertide Celebration in Three Acts By Erik Walker Wikstrom)

I have always felt drawn to the power and the promise found in the celebrations of Easter and Passover and the Spring Equinox. I sometimes grow concerned that we Unitarian Universalists will shy away from the deep massages by getting caught up in what we don’t believe about Jesus or the God of the Hebrew scripture. Our early Unitarian and Universalist history is often an extended theological argument against orthodox interpretations of God and Jesus and how we see ourselves as human beings in the grand universe.

I have wanted to honor Easter and Passover not only because I want us to know the joy and the bright promise, but also because I want us to honor the sacrifices and losses and sorrows through which we have traveled.

I suspect I have, at times over-compensated to defend Easter and Passover and the messages of resilience and promise they contain. And I suspect, I needn’t worry for the message. I have been amazed in our Unitarian Universalist communities by the depth of strength and resilience I witness among us in the face of hardship and suffering. I have seen our capacity to honor winter while living spring – and honor the coming spring while living winter. I have seen out capacity to fight against oppression both out there and in here, to allow the reality of loss and sacrifice while holding close to hope and the transformative power of love.

I should not be so concerned for redeeming the messages of these seasons. Instead, as I learn from watching my mother, from witnessing many of you, from allowing myself to embrace my own aching, blossoming heart: We know about the promise. We know the struggle and the suffering, and still rise to embrace hope and rejoice in the beauty of life’s resurgence and resurrection and deliverance.

Let us enter the celebration of flowers and festivity, of the triumph of hope and love, of the ‘miraculous reality of our lives.’ A new day is again dawning. Let it be a day of joy and song. Let our hearts echo the songs of promise and of wholeness. Let us say: It will be enough. And it will be enough.

In a world without end

May it be so

Our Commitments

Our Local Commitment - Disposable Plastic Aprons

Sermon            Our Commitments                  Rev. Douglas Taylor               3/7/21

I officiated at a wedding yesterday. Very sweet – there were 7 of us in the house along with a few more watching on zoom. It was brief and everyone wore masks, most of us wore two masks. It was perhaps the fourth time in this past year that I’ve worn my dress shoes for work. I wore my slippers to our Christmas Eve service, for example.

My point, really, is that weddings are special. It is the most common example of a commitment, a vow, a promise, that we all understand in our society.

Creating a family is about building a series of interconnected commitments with other people. In our first small story – the one about Little Critter trying to be www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtiJXg–D6M&ab – we can identify with wanting to keep a promise, a commitment to someone else, but also wanting to have fun and live in the moment. There may be a multitude of reasons you struggle to follow through with a commitment you’ve made to another person. This small story offers that our struggle to be true doesn’t mean we don’t want to be true. It doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying.  

The second most common connection for people into the concept of commitment is found in the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Or among adults at a meet-n-greet, “So, what do you do?” It is a question of vocation or career. What do you do? What are your obligations and commitments because of your work? In the big story we just heard https://vimeo.com/73026206, the thief changed careers and became a sower of acorns and of beauty. She was almost tricked into a commitment, surprised by her own willingness to keep the commitment. She made the promise half-heartedly. When she discovered the depth of what was asked of her, she decided to stick with it. As a thief, she was just struggling to survive. Suddenly she found herself in a commitment that compelled her to do better, to be better – by making the world better.

Maybe these stories connect in some way for you. Maybe they do not. Tell me about your commitments? Think about the times you’ve struggled to keep a commitment (as with our first story) or a time you’ve been surprised to find you made a commitment and then chose to keep it (as with our second story).

And, just to keep this interesting, I’ll now share a third story. I attended a clergy workshop focused on commitments and theology and our calling as ministers. The opening activity was a reflection exercise done in pairs. My partner asked me “Whose are you?” and I would respond. After an acknowledgement and breathe, they asked again. This went on until I ran out of answers. Whose are you?

Whose am I? To whom or what am I most committed? To whom or what am I accountable? Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “A person will worship something – have no doubt about that.  …That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives.” (from Singing the Living Tradition Hymnal, #563).

For me, when I attended that workshop and sat with this question about my commitments, I worked out some answers for myself. I made a list. I find making a list comforting. This may be true for you as well or it may not be. That part is not important. It is the wrestling and acknowledging of your commitments that is more important.

Here’s the thing though – I had my family on my list, my loved ones. Just like in our first story with Little Critter, I have commitments to people in my life and that is part of what drives me to do certain things. I also had work on my list, my calling, this congregation, and so on. Back when I made my list, I thought my work was to put everything in a ranked order. Which commitments are more important than other commitments? I put God at the top of my list, and myself second.

To whom am I accountable? Whose am I? The top of my list is God. Mostly this is a theological concession – what else can I do? I have sometimes clarified what this means to me by substitution the word ‘Love’ in place of the word ‘God.’ Whatever is the ultimate reality – that’s what I’m trying to acknowledge. That is what I am saying holds my highest commitment and loyalty.

Next on my list is myself. At the time that made perfect sense to me. But over the years I struggled to find a better way to articulate this second commitment.

I don’t mean this to say I am egotistical or self-absorbed. But there are so many examples of people in our society who are. Greed and narcissism have allowed significant tearing of the fabric of our society. “This above all, to thine own self be true.” This is a line – not from the bible or a sage, it is from a character in Hamlet written by William Shakespeare.  The Character saying the line, Polonius, is a self-serving and ironically pompous character.

And yet, to list myself as one of my top commitments I am trying to talk about keeping true to my own integrity. I am talking about taking care of myself so that I can keep all the other obligations I have made.

And maybe now I think a list of ranked order is less helpful because these commitments have dynamic interactions. My promises to myself and those to my spouse and these others to my congregation all interact. And sometimes one or another is momentarily more important. What I mean is, this is not something cut and dry. There is a messy imperfection to life and I am a messy imperfect person. Aren’t we all?  Still, it’s worth wrestling with the questions.

How is it for you? To whom are you accountable? To what are you loyal? What are the commitments that impact your daily living?

All of these stories, all of my reflections, this is merely an invitation for you to name and acknowledge for yourself your own lines of commitment and accountability. Where does it fit for you? And tucked into that invitation is the opportunity to make a change if you find it warranted, to struggle perhaps to become better, if that is what would help you keep the commitments that matter.

Come, let us shine what light we have, let us live in our integrity, and we shall love to the best of our ability.

In a world without end,

May it be so.