Sunday, January 22, 2012

Moving to the Beloved Community

Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
January 22, 2012

When I was growing up in Statesboro in the 1950’s, we used to visit my granddaddy’s farm.  We would go out there to ride the ponies or pick vegetables from one of the gardens, or pull-up peanuts, or fish in the pond.  Now I don’t want to pretend that I was ever really a farm worker.  My daddy once told someone that the only cotton I had ever picked was out of an aspirin bottle.  And that’s the truth.  But my daddy loved that farm.  And when my granddaddy died in 1962, daddy sold the extra property he owned – like our cabin at Cypress Lake and the little house that he and mom first lived in – and borrowed money – so he could pay his other family members for their shares of that farm and own it for himself.  And he farmed it for a good long while – when it was still possible for one to be successful as a businessman and part-time farmer.  Although he visited the farm often, his goal was to move to the farm and live there.  So he and mama worked really hard and saved their money till they could build their dream house on the farm.  In the last days of his life, his dementia was pretty bad and sometimes he would forget where he was.  Once, he asked my Mama – “I didn’t sell the farm, did I?”  And she said, “Oh No!  You didn’t sell it.  We live here.  We built our house right on the old Turner place.  That’s where we are right now.  We are at home - on the farm?”  And he said, “We are?”  And he just smiled a big smile.   

You know – just like my childhood visits to the farm, we tend to visit “the beloved community” sometimes.  I was so proud last weekend when Rev. Francys Johnson preached at our annual MLK service, that he noticed and commended our congregation as one that dreams King’s dream and Stands on the Side of Love.  And there have been many times recently when I’ve thought to myself – yes, we are in the midst of the “beloved community.”  It’s a wonderful place where our 2nd principle of affirming justice, equity, and compassion in all our human relations seems to shine.  What a wonderful gathering of the beloved community we had here in this place last Sunday morning in the MLK service and afternoon at Marvin’s Memorial Service.  The love in these rooms just lifted us all up.  And as our choir sang “I’ll Fly Away” Sunday afternoon, we did feel like we were flying in the beloved community.

Then during the week, we’ve had opportunities to share and work with folks of different faiths  -- most more conservative than ours – as we celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday and worked with others to provide a nutritious meal to about a hundred folks in need. 

But like my granddaddy’s (and later my daddy’s) farm, the beloved community tends to be somewhere we visit – but not where we live.  We go there at special times – in a crisis situation – or when a special celebration occurs – but then we go back to our regular homes and draw the curtains.  Our goal should be to make the beloved community our home.  Not that we won’t leave it sometimes – because we are human – but it should be home, the place we come back to and where we work and live and have our being.  Now it may not be that easy.  We may not be able to do it all at once.  But like my hard working mom and dad, we should be working on getting there.

 “‘The Beloved Community’ is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of good will all over the world."

 According to the King Center Web page:

“For Dr. King, the Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony….

“In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, …love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

“Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.”

If you look at or read the news, we seem to be so far from this goal in the world today, that you wonder if we should just throw our hands up in despair.  It seems impossible.  When things in my life seem impossible, I try to remember the serenity prayer.  That is – to be granted the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  And there ARE things we can do that will help us toward that bigger goal of living in the beloved community.  Our “story for all ages” provides us with a good example.  We can begin with our neighbors.

Jesus said – “love your neighbor as yourself.”  And when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” – told the story that we’ve come to know as “The Good Samaritan.”  Now, I’ve heard this story all my life.  And for much of it, I thought – YES, we need to be good neighbors to the Samaritans – to those who are oppressed and looked down upon.  And, in fact, one reason I was drawn to Unitarian Universalism was because of our work for social justice and civil rights.  But I was missing a major teaching of this story.  The SAMARITAN was the good neighbor because HE reached out to one who was a member of a group that was narrower in their focus.  He reached out and cared for those whose teachings were
oppressive.  And that’s where we Unitarian Universalists seem to have a hard time.

Who is our neighbor?  As the Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt reminds us:  "Not just the hungry, not just the homeless, not just the prisoner, not just the lonely heart.  (She goes on to say) Our neighbor is the brother – like my own brother – who is a born again Christian.  Our neighbor is the mother, like my own mother – who is a member of an evangelical church.  Who is our neighbor?  Our neighbor is the co-worker who leaves tracts on your desk; our neighbor is the family who won’t let your children play with their children because they are not saved.  Who is our neighbor?  Our neighbor is the protestor who claims that God hates faggots; our neighbor is the evangelist who declares women should be silent in the churches; our neighbor is the neighbor who invites you to prayer meeting and encourages you to leave that place you say is a church but she knows is really a cult.  All these people are our neighbors:  not just the ones we like, or feel good about talking to, or have hopes will one day see the light of liberal faith.  We cannot create the radical change in the world that liberal religion is meant to create if we are only hanging out with one another; we cannot offer a healing alternative to the religiously injured, lying half dead on the road of life, by keeping our faith a private pleasure.  We can create radical change only with radical engagement, only with the radical faith modeled in the ministries of so many faithful prophets and sages and wise people."  (Rosemary Bray McNatt, address to CMwD, 2005)

Now let me quickly add that it’s understandable why many of us have a hard time reaching out to some groups, especially more conservative Christians.  Many of us have been in situations where we personally have been hurt by some of the teachings of these churches.  And the sting of rejection of who we are or what we believe lasts a long time.  I know that. 

However, if we are going to swim with Christian churches in our efforts to make the world a better place, we don’t need to dive in that shallow end of the water and hit our head on the rocks causing us more pain.  We can dive in at a deeper point – or wade in shallow water – and let our love stir it up - and we’ll be okay – especially if we have other UU swimming buddies with us. 

Actually, our congregation HAS been wading and swimming in these waters for some time.  We’ve made some connections with African American ministers and churches through the years in our civil rights efforts.  And in 2007, we joined forces with the First Presbyterian Church of Statesboro to build a Habitat House.  In more recent years, we’ve joined an interfaith / community coalition as a partner in Feeding Statesboro.  Other partners include Trinity Episcopal, First Presbyterian, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and the Christian Believers Outreach Mission.  And there are community volunteers who represent a variety of faith traditions. We are so pleased that these folks are willing to work openly with us.  Not everyone will do this.  We’ve reached out to some who have basically let us know that they were not comfortable working with us.  And we have thanked them and shared our hopes that our separate efforts will lead to a better world for all. 

Now please know that my encouragement of our efforts to work in these interfaith and community efforts does NOT mean that we refrain from Standing on the Side of Love for our principles, some which may offend others.  We are not trying to offend, though.  We are trying to promote those principles which we believe are important if we are to live together in a beloved community. 

You know, last year we finally completed all of our Welcoming Congregation workshops and had our vote – which was unanimous – to apply to the Unitarian Universalist Association for official welcoming congregation status.  And they have granted us that status which we will be celebrating in a service on February 19.  After we had our vote, I ordered some rainbow flags for us to use in various programs.  One of the AA groups that meets in our building – the one that is intentionally inclusive – was hoping for some kind of symbol, like the rainbow flag, to let others know they had found the right place.  So initially, I thought of putting one of our little flags out on the lawn or somewhere on the day that they met. And what initially went through my mind was that I would take it down on the days the other AA group meets, because the flag and what it symbolizes may offensive to some of them.  But then I thought – “NO Jane, this is one symbol of who we are as a welcoming UU congregation.  And if an AA group meets in a synagogue, they don’t expect them to take down the Star of David.”  So I nailed that flag up to the post on the front door, and there it has remained. 

Now, some may ask – “but aren’t you afraid that people will think that our congregation is a GAY church?”  And my response to that would be…  Hey – we WANT them to know we are a GAY church, and a Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Church – and one with lots of good straight folks who serve as advocates and allies.  And yes, we are a Pagan church – and a Buddhist, Christian, Mystic, Humanist Church.  We’re even the Agnostic church and the Atheist Church.  And hopefully we can become the Church for that growing group of NONES – spelled, N-O-N-E-S, who need a spiritual home.  We lift up that quote from Unitarian martyr Francys David who said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” 

Here’s a joke I found that is funny because it’s so true. 

A visitor to a Unitarian Universalist church sat through the sermon with growing incredulity at the heretical ideas being spouted.  After the sermon a UU asked the visitor, “So how did you like it?” 
I can’t believe half the things that minister said!” sputtered the visitor in outrage.
“Oh good – then you’ll fit right in,”  the UU replied.

Now that doesn’t mean we can believe and do whatever we like as Unitarian Universalists.  We do have principles that include the respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all as well as justice and equity for all, and support for one another in our own spiritual paths.  In short, we support Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community – which in reality was the hope of Ghandi, Jesus, the Buddha, and many other religious leaders.  We support the idea that we must love our neighbors as ourselves – and in this global community, our neighborhood reaches far and wide. 

Who is our neighbor?  It’s the man who needs a pair of shoes as he walks around Statesboro looking for work, as well as the young girl in the Central Asia hoping for an education and a chance for a better life.  It’s the believer and the unbeliever, the conservative and the liberal, the 99% and the 1%.  It’s the Democrat and the Republican; and yes, it’s me and it’s you.”   If we want to not just visit the beloved community, but live there, we need to learn to love all of our neighbors. 

So – right now I’d like for you to think of just one thing, one thing you can do this week to bring you closer to living in the beloved community; one way that you can love your neighbor, and pick something that may be a little challenging for you.  I’m not going to ask you to tell someone else or report back on it. Okay – do you have one in mind?  Now this may sound a little silly for some of you – but just go with me on it.  Now whisper that in the cup of your hands, share “I’m going to…” and whisper it in your hands.  (READERS -- you do this too!)  You have it in your hands?  Now place your hands over your beating heart as a symbol of your commitment.
Our children’s affirmation says: "We are Unitarian Universalists:  People of Open Minds, Loving Hearts, and Helping Hands."  We think, we feel, we do.  Now you may say – “But Jane, you had us go from head to hands – then to heart?”   Yes, I did – because sometimes that’s the way it is.  We may not FEEL motivated to do that which we know we should.  But if we know that right thing – and we do it – then sometimes the feeling, the peace, and the joy that comes with loving acts will grow.  But, you don’t have to wait for the feeling.  As Dr. King says, “It’s always the right time to do the right thing.”

You have connected your plan in your mind for loving your neighbor metaphorically now with your hands and your heart.  May that symbolic act and connection go with you from this place as a reminder to do the real thing. 

Oh, may it be so! 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Art of Happiness: Lessons from the Dalai Lama

(Sermon shared on January 8, 2012 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro by Rev. Jane Page)

Happy New Year!   How often have we heard that in the last couple of weeks!  How often have we wished it for others?  And are we serious?  Do we really expect happiness?  Do we deserve happiness? 

Our forefathers must have thought so!  The Declaration of Independence includes these words:  “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; these rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Fortunately – “All men” has expanded through its fullest vision to include “all people.”  Now Jefferson didn’t pen that we had the RIGHT to happiness – just the right to pursue it.  Still, it’s included right up there with life and liberty, so certainly it was deemed important by these founders. 

I’m afraid our forefathers would not have liked this map. 
This is a map showing where countries stand on the Happy Planet Index.  “Each country’s HPI value is a function of its average subjective life satisfaction, life expectancy at birth, and ecological footprint per capita. The exact function is a little more complex, but conceptually it approximates multiplying life satisfaction and life expectancy, and dividing that by the ecological footprint.” The light bright green ones are the countries at the top.  The brown ones are at the bottom. (

Now you may be thinking – well, the USA is so low because we use so many of the world’s resources – and that is factored in; and that certainly does make a difference.  But even if you just look at the life satisfaction surveys, we are at the VERY bottom.  How can this be?  And does it matter?

Is “being happy” important to us today in our complex world? Can we be happy? Should we strive to be happy?

His Holiness the Dalia Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, believes so – and shares his ideas with psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler, who incorporates them with some of his own perceptions in their book, The Art of Happiness:  A Handbook for Living. 

This book was recommended to me by Steven Rowe when I asked folks to share some “contemporary sacred texts” for me to use in my sermons.  Well, actually Steven recommended a whole slew of books – but this is the one that I chose.  I read the 10th Anniversary Edition published in 2009 – but it’s the same book as the original, with a different preface and introduction.  It took me a while to get through it – because I kept putting it down to read other things – then picking it back up.  Perhaps I needed time to digest it – or perhaps I wanted to really pursue happiness instead of reading about it.  But I did, indeed, find it helpful.  It was a good reminder to me of many things that I’ve perhaps learned through books like this – or more likely – through experience, through listening to others, and through thoughtful contemplation.  Now I’m not saying that I’ve already strongly developed “The Art of Happiness” – but I’m certainly a believer in many of these principles and do try to practice them.  I do not really identify as a Buddhist though.   I do not have the gift of faith in things like reincarnation or the gift of maintaining the spiritual practices that most would require to truly be able to claim that identity.  However, this book is not just for Buddhists – and in fact, the Dalai Lama says he does not believe that we should all be Buddhists.  This book has some gems for all of us – regardless of our theology or cosmology.  I only have a small amount of time – so I’m just going to share a few of those gems with you today.

Before I do though – I want to emphasize that when the Dalai Lama speaks of happiness, he is not talking about immediate pleasure or gratification.  Now there is nothing wrong necessarily with having some pleasure.  But the kind of happiness he is referring to would more likely be thought of by us as “joy” or “contentment” – a happiness that is more long lasting.  So that being said - I’d like to read something to you that the Dalai Lama wrote in the preface of this book – that does a good job of tying in his former encouragement that we work our state of mind – especially on compassion – with the latest research on happiness.  He says:

“Many years ago I wrote:  ‘If you want others to be happy practice compassion, and if you want yourself to be happy practice compassion.’  (Then he goes on to say) "Today, growing scientific data confirm this insight.  Researchers on human happiness identify compassionate service to others as one of the key characteristics shared by many of the world’s happiest people."

Now some of us may question his Holiness on this.  We may say something like:

But this correlation of compassion and happiness doesn’t necessarily show causality.  How do we know which comes first?  Does one become happy by being compassionate – or is it just that compassionate people are happier?

Yes, it’s the old chicken or egg question.

Well, the Dalai Lama responds to that question.  He says that on a practical level, it doesn’t matter.  The important question is:  “Can we cultivate both?”  And his answer is a resounding YES! And of course he and his co-author point out that the science does back that up more and more.

But sometimes we may wonder if it’s selfish to want to be happy. The Dalai Lama resists this idea.  He says that:  “I believe the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.  That is clear.”
And of course he believes that happiness can be cultivated by training of the mind.

He further states that: “By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living.” Now you’d have to read the entire book to see lots of the examples of this training, including meditative activities, prayers or reminders, intentional comparisons and acts of compassion, and much more.  But here’s a statement which kind of sums it up:  He says:

“Generally speaking, one begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness and those factors which lead to suffering.  Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those which lead to happiness.  That is the way.” 

Or as Zen Teacher Geri Larken says:  Plant Seed, Pull Weed.

BUT WAIT – I Say – and you may say too!
Much suffering can’t just be eliminated --- “Stuff happens” – Isn’t that the first noble truth of Buddhism?

Oh yes, he spends a good bit of time discussing how we may deal with that kind of suffering – actually looking at it – feeling it – not denying it. But the Dalai Lama contends – and I agree – that many of us add to that suffering by nurturing feelings of bitterness, hatred, and anger, long after the pain should have subsided.  He has a whole chapter on self-created suffering; and others on eliminating anger and hatred and dealing with anxiety.  And that is the kind of suffering we CAN avoid if we train our minds to do so. 

Of course the Dalia Lama has had a lifetime of training – but he says it’s never too late.

One of the chapters that was especially meaningful to me was Chapter 10 on “Shifting Perspective.”   The Dalai Lama uses his own life as an example of the power of shifting perspective.  He says: “For example, in my own case, I lost my country.  From that viewpoint, is very tragic – and there are even worse things.  There’s a lot of destruction happening in our country.  That’s a very negative thing.  But if I look at the same event from another angle, I realize that as a refugee, I have another perspective.  As a refugee there is no need for formalities, ceremony, protocol.  If everything were status quo, if things were okay, then on a lot of occasions you merely go through the motions; you pretend.  But when you are passing through desperate situations, there’s no time to pretend.  So from that angle, this tragic experience has been very useful to me.  Also, being a refugee creates a lot of new opportunities for meeting with many people.  People from different religious traditions, from different walks of life, those who I may not have met had I remained in my country.  So in that sense it’s been very, very, useful.” 

He spends the rest of the chapter giving some insight into how we can work on even taking on the perspective of our enemies.  We can even remind ourselves that a harmful act from someone else give us an opportunity to practice patience and tolerance.  Now that does not mean that we do not stand up for what we feel is right.  But then how far do we take this – and what is the eventual result? 

Reading this book has caused me to question many things that I may say or do.  Is my action going to lead to my own long term happiness and the happiness of others?  Or is it just going to give me some gratification about getting even or something.  I am also trying to understand WHY someone may be saying something hurtful to me or someone else and attempt to understand their perspective and communicate with them from that shift in perspective.  

I’m not ready to necessarily “turn the other cheek” all the time – but I can see Jesus’ point.  Jesus was actually a pretty good Buddhist. 

Now -- another helpful exercise was the idea of thinking of good wishes for yourself, for your friends and those who may be more like enemies.  Can you wish them good things?  The authors of the book provide some ideas for cultivating the ability to do that with all folks – but for today, perhaps we can just start with ourselves and those of us here.

On Wednesday evening, I sent our listserv an email asking you to share words or phrases that you could share as wishes for other members and friends of UUFS for 2012.  Do you all have an envelope?  You can open it now and see what someone has wished for you for 2012.  

Hold it in your hand and in your heart. 

But we are not going to just keep these – we are going to pass on that happiness with a little ritual of sharing to close out my message time. 

Guided Ritual of Sharing Wishes
We’re going to sing “From you I receive to you I give – together we share, and from this we live.”  And I invite you to rise in body or spirit and share that paper with that wish as we sing with someone near you – so find a partner.  We’ll do this three times. 

NOTE:  For those READING this sermon, I'm sharing THREE of the wishes of our members and friends for you for 2012:
  1. To be present for your own life.
  2. Restful nights
  3. Simple pleasures.
Oh, may we all be so blessed.
And yes, let’s have a Happy New Year.