Monday, September 26, 2011

Simply Living and Giving

Because Simple is GOOD!
(A sermon for our 2012 Canvass Kickoff)

Simplicity is…
(An Excerpt from Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin)

Simplicity fosters a more harmonious relationship with the Earth – the land, air, water.
Simplicity promotes fairness and equity among the people of the Earth.
Simplicity cuts through needless busyness, clutter, and complications.
Simplicity reveals the beauty and intelligence of nature’s designs.
Simplicity helps save animal and plant species from extinction; and responds to global shortages of oil, water, and other vital resources.
Simplicity yields lasting satisfactions that more than compensate for the fleeting pleasures of consumerism.
Simplicity blossoms in community and connects us to the world with a sense of belonging and common purpose.

While doing my research for this sermon, I ran across a blog posted by Rev. Gary VanderPoll, pastor of a nondenominational evangelical church in Boston.

The question at the top of the blog posting was:
What if Jesus were your financial advisor?
I read it out loud – and my “matter-of-fact” economist husband heard it and responded: “I wouldn’t want Jesus to be my financial advisor. He didn’t know ANYTHING about finances.”

And that is probably true, but he still gave out lots of advice. In fact, as this pastor acknowledges in this blog posting, there is much more advice in the Christian scriptures about money and wealth than there is about other ethical issues that receive for more attention by pastors – such as sexuality.
I read on just to see where this guy was going with this – and found his research efforts to be quite deliberate. He went through the whole New Testament writing down every reference to wealth, money, and possessions. And he has a big excel spreadsheet with all of that on there.

Then he did a pretty good meta-analysis to categorize the gist of the message of these passages. And the result was this pie graph.

From my knowledge of the New Testament, I’d say this is pretty accurate. Jesus has lots of warnings about accumulated wealth and possessions – and often encourages folks to sell it and give it all away to the poor.
Now he and his band of disciples did have funds they collected or worked for – for their living expenses. But then they put Judas in charge of that bag of money – so go figure.

In any case, I think I would concur with my husband and not choose Jesus as my financial advisor. He’s way too radical. He’s beyond socialism – even beyond Marxism.

Heck, I can’t even go as far as our own Unitarian Ancestor Henry David Thoreau did – when he moved out to the woods to simplify his life, although his words do inspire me.

Here are some quotes from Thoreau encouraging us to live simply:
"Still we live meanly, like ants; …. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest.
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”
“Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”

Basically Thoreau was telling us that “Simple is GOOD.” And Thoreau’s a good guy – but his kind of simplicity is a regressive simplicity – a sort of utopian, back to nature throwback to an earlier time. Folks today who follow this kind of simplicity might take on a primitive lifestyle with no indoor toilet, no computer, no car – NO WAY! I like my Prius!

But I do have a simplicity guru that I can try to follow. His name is Duane Elgin – and those were his words we shared for our reading. He is the author of Voluntary Simplicity, first published in 1981 – with subsequent revisions including this 2010 publication.

I had read an earlier version of this work, and was already a fan and – I guess you could say – a disciple. Greg and I have been attempting to move to this lifeway for a quite few years now. Actually, our awareness or this need was challenged here in a UU service about a decade ago, when Guest speaker Will McIntosh asked us to go home and count the number of shirts that we owned and see if that was really necessary! It worked. And we’ve been looking for ways to simplify since then.

Yes, we’ve discovered what many others have – that Simple is GOOD.

Although there are other good books on this as well, Elgin’s earlier work had given me a framework for studying and attempting to implement simplicity in my life. I decided to get his latest edition and review it before this service.
Chapter 1 begins with the words --- “TIME IS UP!! Wake up alarms are ringing around the world with news ranging from economic breakdowns and the end of cheap oil to climate disruption, crop failures, and famines. The time has arrived for making dramatic changes in how we live.”

I think the biggest difference in this edition is the awareness that we have moved from warnings about the need to move in this direction – to a total awareness that our world is now in crisis and that we MUST learn the lessons offered by people like Elgin – and he is, of course, just one of the many folks raising awareness of this need. No longer is simplicity seen as an alternative lifestyle for a marginal few. It is a creative choice for the mainstream majority, particularly developed nations. Elgin states: “The circle has closed. The Earth is a single system and we humans have reached beyond its regenerative capacity. It is of the highest urgency that we invent new ways of living that are sustainable.”

To portray the richness of simplicity, Elgin presents eight different flowerings of what he sees growing in the Garden of Simplicity -- because Simple is Good. So what are these flowers?
1st – Uncluttered Simplicity – taking charge of lives that are too busy, too stressed, and too fragmented – focusing on the essentials. As Thoreau said, “Our life is frittered away by detail.”
2nd – Ecological Simplicty – Choosing ways of living that touch the Earth more lightly.
3rd – Family Simplicity – Placing the well-being of one’s family and other close relationships ahead of materialism and the acquisition of things.
4th – Compassionate Simplicity – Feeling such a strong kinship with others that, as Gandhi said, “we choose to live simply so that others may simply live.”
5th – Soulful Simplicity – approaching life as a meditation and cultivating our experience of direct connection with all that exists.
6th – Business Simplicity – a new kind of economy is growing in the world, with healthy and sustainable products and services.
7th – Civic Simplicity – changing every area of public life – from public transportation and education to the design of our cities and workplaces.
8th – Frugal Simplicity – By cutting back on spending that is not truly serving our lives, and by practicing skillful management of our personal finances, we can achieve greater financial independence. Living with less also decreases the impact of our consumption upon the Earth and frees resources for others.

This garden cannot be grown overnight – and takes much tending. But, it does not mean sacrifice. It means living more fully. And that means living more simply – because Simple is Good.

Now, I’m probably the Queen of Frugality. I buy mostly used clothes – giving them a 2nd chance, you know – and I’ve learned many tricks of good frugality from my mom and my grandmother. And for the last decade, I’ve lived with the King of Frugality. So that works! But it does not mean that we are not generous. I will gladly pick up your tab at lunch. Sometimes I may be a little too generous – if there is such a thing. And that leads me to the 2nd part of this sermon title.

This sermon is entitled Simply Living and Giving – because – it is indeed our canvass weekend. What we hope to do through this canvass is simplify a little ourselves – and help YOU to be able to more simply give the time, talents, and treasures that you WANT to give to our wonderful congregation!

One way we’ve simplified is to make all the packets the same – and not do these by households – with some having different numbers of pledge cards and volunteer forms, etc. If you didn’t pick up a packet at the concert Friday night, please get one before you leave today and sign one of the sheets on the back table letting us know you got a packet so that we can save stamps by not mailing one to you. And please pick one up even if you’ve recently started attending here; because we want you to see the variety of volunteer activities and other activities we have available- and get involved!
#1 – Everybody get a packet!
#2 – Please read the cover letter with the directions! It really does help. The cover letter is white and has two sides.
#3 – Fill out the pledge card with your estimate of giving for 2012.
On the back of these cards you will find UUA’s Giving Guide. This is a progressive guide. YES, one that assumes that if you are more blessed financially, you are in a better position to give a bigger percentage. But it also takes into account that you sometimes have unusual circumstances; including medical bills, childcare, costs of higher education, and other possibilities. This is a Giving GUIDE – that also takes into account that your commitment to our congregation may be at different levels. Our hope is that you will move toward being committed at the visionary level – looking with us to the future. But understandably, you may need to grow to that point in commitment. So use this guide -- or don’t use it. But it is a good way to at least start thinking about your gift.
NOW – you can give as a household – if you are in one of those households that pool their money and prefers to give as a unit – or you can give individually. If there are two or more adults who get packets (but you are doing one pledge card together) simply indicate on the other pledge cards that you are part of that household unit.
#4 –Complete the YELLOW Volunteer Form. We ask that you check one of the major committees for membership – then you can also check various activities under any of the committees. So for example – you may check the building and grounds committee, but also check under social justice that you want to participate in the MLK parade. If you are willing to give leadership to any of these committees or activities, please let us know that by writing that in the margins.
#5– If you have folks you’d like to recommend for our board – including yourself, use the blue form for doing this.
#6 – Put them all in the envelope provided and bring them back to church next Sunday or the one after that – or you can put a stamp on the envelope and mail it in.

SO – that’s how we’ve hopefully simplified the part about the packet. BUT we also want to encourage you to find ways to SIMPLY give!! Because Simple is Good.

We do not have a system in place that allows us to DRAFT the money from your account – like the Georgia Power does – but actually, I think that the BILL PAY system your bank offers is better anyway – because it allows you to totally be in charge – and when the time comes that you need to change what you are giving – like hopefully after you get that new better paying job or that raise - then you can do this without having to have someone else involved. I have my check sent automatically to the church PO Box – soon after my paycheck ENTERS my account. And that way I don’t have to worry about remembering to bring a check to church – or perhaps get in a situation where I get behind while on vacation and then have a more difficult time catching up, etc. It just makes it simpler – and SIMPLE is good. If you need help setting this up, we have folks in our congregation who are pretty good about things like that and can assist you. Just let me know and I’ll connect you with them.

Now I’m well aware that things are difficult financially for some of you right now. And I’m certainly not trying to guilt you into giving more money than you can afford to give. I’m just saying – that after you figure out what you DO want to give, we can help you figure out a way to do that in a simplified way. Because SIMPLE is GOOD.

Please know ALSO --- that we know things can happen that you can’t predict. We ask that you fill out these forms based on how things are now. But if something happens – you lose your job – a family member becomes ill and needs more of your financial assistance --- whatever – and you need to change your pledge, just let our treasurer know so we can adjust our budget --- and the same is true with your commitments of time. We understand that things can happen.

Hopefully, you will not be shipwrecked and end up on a deserted island like these guys.
But if you do, we’ll come look for you!

In any case, we do hope that you will take some time this week to consider your gifts of time, talent, and treasure to our wonderful congregation. If we all share together, we will be truly blessed.

Monday, September 19, 2011


This week five years ago was an unusual one for me. Preparations were underway for our congregation to ordain me as a Unitarian Universalist minister and install me as the first called minister. I was busily preparing the orders of service for adults and special ones for the children, and others planned for a grand reception at the Averitt Center after the ceremony.

That same week we moved dad to the hospice facility just down the street from our church. Dad had been under hospice care at home for his Alzheimer’s and other serious problems. However, he needed to be moved for some procedures to make him more comfortable. Once we moved him there, we realized that he probably would not be coming back home. The end was very, very near.

What to do? Calling off the ordination would be very difficult. Major plans had been made and airline tickets were purchased for special speakers, etc. Changing these plans would be disruptive to many people. And who could tell when my dad would go?

On September 24, 2006; the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro ordained and installed me in a wonderful ceremony. My dad had wanted to be there. He had told me earlier – in a rare moment when he knew what was going on in our lives; that we may have to wheel him in on a stretcher – but that he would be there. Indeed, he was close by – just down the street, with my nephew taking a turn at his bedside so that other family members could be with me. And as family and friends joined this congregation in a laying on of hands ceremony, I felt his strong hands there as well.

Early the next morning (September 25th), my brother called and shared that my dad had just breathed his last breath. My seminary friend Lee Page was with me when I got the call and accompanied me and my mom to the hospice facility.

My son John’s birthday was on September 26. That evening we had Dad’s visitation at the funeral home with so many folks from the community who had known my dad through the years coming through to share a moment with us. Then we had the funeral and buried him on September 27th.

That week I had traveled back and forth from our building to the hospice building with so many mixed emotions. And the combination of my son’s birthday with my dad’s visitation service was also surreal. Yet, it is at times like these that we often enter a spiritual realm that somehow gives us a holy strength and energy that is incomprehensible. My mom and I were reminiscing about this today and I shared with her my thoughts about this special realm. She replied, “That’s what some of us call God.”

Me and my daddy, J.G. Altman, in 2005

Monday, September 12, 2011

These Three…Lost in the Debris of 9-11: America’s Ten Year Search for Faith, Hope, and Love!

Sermon delivered by Rev. Jane Page on September 11, 2011.

Like some of you, I may not remember what I had for supper last night – but I remember exactly what I was doing on this morning 10 years ago. I was in riding in Nate Hirsch’s car. Nate was then the owner of two radio stations in town – and “The Voice of the Georgia Southern Eagles.” We had been paired together to collect money for Georgia Southern’s “A Day for Southern” – and we were out doing just that.

Nate got a call from the people at his radio station, telling him that he needed to know about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. He shared that with me and I envisioned a small plane – somehow – off course – perhaps with the pilot having a heart attack or something – and then having this terrible accident crashing into this large building. That of course was what it must have been. And Nate and I discussed that possible scenario. Then he got another call – saying that indications were that it was perhaps not an accident.

Our next stop was at the Nursery School where my grandson JD (now 14) was attending pre-kindergarten. We decided to continue our efforts to collect the money for GSU – still not understanding what was happening. When we entered, however, we saw much of the staff hovered in a room with a television – and we saw and heard this being replayed.
(News video of plane crash into second building) This was no accident.

I went to JD’s room and asked his teacher if I could come in and hug him. That is all I wanted to do right then. I’m sure JD wondered why his Nana Jane was paying this special visit. He did give me a big hug and smile – then pulled away and went back to his playing. The juxtaposition of those happy children playing in one room with the videos on the screen in the other room was surreal.

Now all of you (unless you are very young) have a story like that to tell – forever burned into your memories. America has not lost those memories – but we did lose other things that day. Some of us, of course, lost family members and friends. Even I had a friend that died in one of those towers that day. But we seemed to have lost more than that. To some degree – not entirely – but to some degree – we have struggled since that time to find and hold on to some of our most important treasures – even – to some degree – faith, hope, and love.

The falling of those twin towers seem to mimic the falling of dominoes –taking out so much more: one disaster after another, one crisis after another, one failure after another, domino after domino…on and on. (And certainly each crisis was not a direct cause of the 911 events – but our reactions to them certainly were colored by those events.)

I’m going to pause now – and let those of you here lift up some of the difficult crises, tragedies, and concerns that we’ve witnessed in the last 10 years. What do these falling dominoes represent to you?

One of the most difficult and devastating of these tragedies is the cost in lives, money, and soul – of our violent response.Americans have always wanted to be winners – and that’s fine for a ballgame, and perhaps even for the Olympics, or maybe this board game.

But, how do you WIN a “War on Terror”? Unlike this board game or ball games, there are no clear rules, no uniformed opposition, no referees. Yet, once we begin – like the TV game show and reality talent show judge Howie Mandel cheers, we’re “In it to Win it.”

No matter the cost of blood, sweat, and tears – no matter the neglect of other concerns through the years, we are left with QUESTIONS. Many of us asked:
Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?
Did we learn nothing from the Soviet experience with their war in Afganistan?
Did we learn nothing from our math classes?
Where is the money coming from?
Who pays for this?

And now the politicians cut the very services that provide some semblance of security for those in desperate need. And we search for our lost faith, our lost hope, our lost love.

After I decided on the title of this sermon and my selected text, I decided to study this passage we read earlier from 1st Corinthians a little more – looking at some of the exegesis of so-called biblical authorities about the meaning of it; (not that I myself view either the apostle Paul as an authority or the Bible as an authority; although I do include those writings as a source of inspiration.) But I thought – if I’m going to use this passage, let me see what others who do view it in a more authoritative manner say about this. Of course – they don’t all agree. But many do say that Paul viewed both faith and hope as spiritual concepts that endure – but are not as powerful as love.

Faith – according to other writings of Paul – is based on knowledge. And it’s the step we take after acquiring what knowledge we can. Now many put their faith in some supernatural beings or ideas. But we also put our faith in other kinds of things.

If I’m going to sit in this chair, I put my faith in design principles and in the workmanship of those who built it. And based on my knowledge and experience with past chairs like this, I feel confident sitting down in it. But my faith (which can be questioned, because some chairs do give way) …my faith is built upon my knowledge and experiences, or the confidence in the knowledge and experiences of others whom I trust.

Now HOPE is a more emotional quality, that feeling we get when we have some optimism that something good can happen!

Then there is LOVE. LOVE is what we DO for others – sometimes translated in this passage from Corinthians – as charity. And what we DO supersedes our faith and our hope.

I kind of like that explanation. It reminds me of our children’s affirmation – when they say –“We are Unitarian Universalists – people of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands.” We have all three aspects, but it’s really the helping hands that make the biggest difference.

The title of this sermon implies that “these three” have diminished in America since September 11, 2001; and that we continue in our search for them. That’s just a metaphor, of course; but I’d like to explore it a little more with you.

Has America lost faith? Some folks probably hope that we have. In fact, some folks blame faith and religion for acts like those that occurred that day. Sam Harris makes that argument in his book entitled: The End of Faith. And, if you have read this compelling book, you’ll probably find yourself nodding your head in agreement with much of it. And I hear John Lennon singing, “Imagine no religion…” – and think, yeah!

But then, I love connection, I love worship services, I love and need to be with others who are striving to become better themselves and to make the world a better place. And I have faith that we can join together in some kind of loving connection and make that happen.

But many HAVE given up on any kind of formal identified faith. “According to a comprehensive national survey released in 2009, those identifying with no religious tradition, or as atheists or agnostics, account for 15 percent of the population, up from about 8 percent in 1990. "No religion" Americans are the only religious demographic that's growing in every single state.”

I wonder – if those folks know about Unitarian Universalism. I wonder if they know that there IS a tradition where they can find a home – a home that welcomes atheists and agnostics as well as others who follow varied spiritual paths. I’m not so worried about folks not going to church or synagogue though – And I’m not so worried about folks losing faith in God. But I am concerned that many have lost faith in what God represents: goodness and love in the world.

And – what about HOPE? In the Presidential campaign of 2008, we heard a lot about HOPE. I’m sure you remember this poster.

And I think that many of us, regardless of our politics, were somewhat optimistic that we could rescue HOPE from the debris – pull it out, hold it up. But events since then have been discouraging and HOPE seems to be stuck.

And then there is LOVE – which includes tolerance and compassion.
As the hip hop group Black Eyed Peas so effectively shared in their 2003 recording…. Where is the love?

"What's wrong with the world, mama
People livin' like they ain't got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that'll bring you trauma
Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism
But we still got terrorists here livin'
In the USA, the big CIA fightin'
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK
But if you only have love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate
And to discriminate only generates hate
And when you hate then you're bound to get irate, yeah

...Where is the love ya’ll?"

It seems that that hate is focused now on those who are not native born – or who we THINK are not native born; as well as on those who practice non-Christian religions. History repeating itself again! Faith, Hope, and Love – LOST in the Debris!

So what is the debris – and how do we clean it up. To me – the debris is FEAR.
Psychologist Brad Schmidt agrees. In a January 1, 2002 Psychology Today article, he wrote: “On September 11, terrorists did more than destroy buildings; they scarred the American psyche.” The article goes on to explain some of the generalized anxiety that psychologists were seeing throughout America – even in rural areas, after 911.
And perhaps that should be expected.

But it seems that fear has taken hold of us in many ways since that time. And it’s been used by powerful people – selfish people to control us. (and those “People” include some corporations – which, of course as we’ve been told by the courts – ARE people). And it’s been used to cover the faith, hope, and love we hope to regain.

If we are to regain that faith, hope, and love; we have to clean the debris. Remove those unfounded fears; use our brains to help us figure out what we really need to fear and what is bogus hype. Yes, we needed to tighten security after 911 and be on guard. And yes, after hearing of the recent “credible threat” –I’d perhaps be a little more on guard today if I lived in New York City or Washington, DC. But at what cost is this fear?

I saw an interesting statistic recently that compared the number of Americans killed last year by terrorists with the numbers killed by lightning strikes and dog bites. Here is that chart.

Now worldwide – there WERE 13,186 people who died last year from events that could be labeled as connected to terrorism. But then the World Health Organization estimate is that more than 16,000 children in the world die every DAY due to hunger alone. And the UN Estimate is 18,000 a day. So our priorities and our fears are a little messed up.

We have become fearFUL because we devour too much fear food. I’m reminded of the little nursery rhyme about Miss T by Walter de la Mare.

"It’s a very odd thing –
As odd can be –
That whatever Miss T eats
Turns into Miss T:
Porridge and apples,
Mince, muffins, and mutton,
Jam, junket, jumbles –
Not a rap, not a button
It matters; the moment
They’re out of her plate,
Though shared by Miss Butcher
And sour Mr. Bate;
Tiny and cheerful,
And neat as can be,
Whatever Miss T eats
Turns into Miss T"

I’m reminded of that poem as I’m trying to change my own diet and eat food that is healthier for me and our planet. But I’m also reminded of it when I think about what I feed to my brain each day. And if I feed it a constant diet of fear –perhaps watching shows like Nancy Grace – or even the regular news casts – then I’m going to become fearful. I’m not saying we need to stick our heads in a hole in the ground and not know what’s happening in the world – but you know what I’m talking about, folks.

So here are some things I think we can do to clean up the debris of fear that keeps us from being able to fully possess those treasures of faith, hope, and love.
1. Educate ourselves to the facts. Don’t base our actions on hype. Are more children really being abducted or do we just see more on television?
2. Turn off the TV and other media that feed us fear.
3. Feed our brains with more positive possibilities, words, and images. Go to an art show, a good concert, a good walk in nature.
4. Get involved with doing good. Volunteer with something like Feeding Statesboro or Voces Unidas. Plant something good to eat or beautiful to see. Work for positive change.
5. Come here more often. Sing with us. Eat with us. Play with us.
We may not be able to change the nation or the world all at once,but we can start with ourselves and this congregation.

Let’s clean-up the debris and find that “faith, hope, and love” once again.

May it be so!