2021-02-28

Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, part 1


“I just want them to be happy.”

It’s a sentiment commonly expressed by parents about their children. But a life of meaning – a life that feels real – is more important than happiness. Parents who say they just want their child to be happy may be talking themselves into letting go of some expectation. Secretly they were hoping the girl would go to medical school – or that the boy would become a teacher – or that their child would one day take over the family business -- and when it becomes clear that’s not going to happen, the parents coach themselves into accepting that alternative career paths are fine. So they say: “I just want her to be happy.” Or him. Or zir.

If meaning is more important than happiness, then why don’t parents say they want their child to have meaning? I’m not sure. Maybe they think “meaning” would convey that that they are projecting their own assessment of what would constitute meaning, and “happiness” seems more objective -- and feels more like you're leaving it up to the child. Or maybe they wish they could spare the child the challenges and some degree of unhappiness – the toil that may come with a life of meaning.

Another way to say "meaning" is to say that we want to be of use. Marge Piercy expressed it well in her poem, “To be of Use.”
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
It says something that we’re more likely inclined to wish happiness for our children, or perhaps for our partner, than for ourselves. You’ll hear, “I just want them to be happy,” more often than you’ll hear, “I just want to be happy.” At some level, we understand that contributing to someone else’s happiness is meaningful – that a life helping others be happy is a life of purpose, of being of use. But a life of just being happy feels rather shallow.

In the 1999 film, The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne offers Keanu Reeves the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill frees one from the machine-generated dream world and allows escape into the real world, but the "truth of reality" is harsher and more difficult. On the other hand, the blue pill represents a beautiful and pleasant life without want or fear within the simulated reality of the Matrix.

We admire the one who chooses reality – with all its struggle and anguish -- over the one who chooses happiness. Nowadays "red pill" and "blue pill" have become political metaphors. Naturally, we all believe our own political opinions are the correct ones – otherwise, they wouldn’t be our opinion. But if our certainty grows rigid – if we lose the context of humility that recognizes that we could be wrong, that our opinions were formed by the same sort of hodge-podge, higgledy-piggledy brain deeply oriented by its built-in cognitive biases as every other person – then we begin to wonder how it is that other people can be so foolish or pig-headed as to disagree with us. We can fall into the trap of thinking we ourselves see reality while those others have taken the blue pill of ease and delusion. Of course, this trap is itself the blue pill. The most common blue pill there is, is the ease and delusion of thinking yourself to be among the few who have taken the red pill – that you see the truth while most other people are stuck in their dreamworld.

What this reflects, though, is that we want the red pill. We want reality, truth, meaning – and will choose the difficult challenges of meaning over meaningless comfort. Not always. There are times in every life – and in some lives more prevalently that others – when one is so worn down, tired, abused, oppressed, or in pain that one would gladly reach for a blue pill if one could. But by and large, most of us, most of the time, choose meaning over happiness – choose reality over withdrawal. Of course, discernment of reality is inherently skewed and distorted, so I might better say we choose engagement over withdrawal, for what we engage with IS our provisional sense of reality.

We choose to be present, as much as we can be, over being absent. There is that in us which stirs and moves in resonance with John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech in which he said:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard – because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Whatever you might think of the moon mission – and its impetus to display military might -- we do yearn “for work that is real,” for undertakings that are hard – hard enough to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

And yet, there is also that in us which is influenced by a culture obsessed with happiness. This idea that we should pursue happiness is in there -- in our hearts and the presumptions of our thought -- in most of us. And, you know, I don’t think it’s helpful.

I’ll come back to that in part 2.


2021-02-02

The Longing for Belonging, part 2


The longing for belonging, we have seen, can be the enemy of true belonging, of resting in the awareness that it is impossible for you NOT to belong, that your belonging is inalienable.

But the longing arises nonetheless, doesn’t it? We have noted that your belonging does not depend on everybody knowing your name. You belong even if no one knows your name. Yet it still feels nice to be known, to be seen, to be respected, doesn’t it?

Take, for example, the neurophysicist that Brene Brown interviewed for her work on belonging. He told her:
“My parents didn't care that I wasn't on the football team, and my parents didn't care that I was awkward and geeky. I was in a group of kids at school who translated books into the Klingon language. And my parents were like, ‘Awesome!' They took me to the Star Trek convention!"
Dr. Brown concludes:
“He got his sense of belonging from his parents' sense of belonging, and even if we don't get that from Mom and Dad, we have to create it for ourselves as adults — or we will always feel as if we're standing outside of the big human party.”
If we don’t get that from Mom and Dad, we have to create it for ourselves as adults. If you can do that – if you’ve been doing that – developing your self-acceptance and strengthening the abiding awareness of your inherent belonging – great!

Maybe you’ve had some help along the way. If you didn’t get it from Mom and Dad, your belonging might have been affirmed by teachers, by trusted friends, by spiritual practices, by inspiring books like “You Belong” by Sebene Selassie.

Most of us could use a little help from time to time remembering the inalienable belonging that gives us the courage to stand apart. Maybe you could use a little help in appreciating that the unique beauty that is you belongs in the world. Here’s the thing. One of the best ways to get that help is to offer it to others. The way to feel more welcome and accepted and warmly received is to be welcoming, accepting, and warmly receiving.

And that brings us to the Jan Richardson poem that I started off this service with. She begins:
“You hardly knew how hungry you were to be gathered in, to receive the welcome that invited you to enter entirely — nothing of you found foreign or strange, nothing of your life that you were asked to leave behind or to carry in silence or in shame,”
Yes, that does feel good. And even if you know that your belonging is inherent, that it does not depend on others inviting you in – even if your self-acceptance is high and does not require the approval of others – it can begin to get hard if we have no sanctuary from people finding you foreign or strange.

Even if you know that your belonging is inherent, it does get hard to sustain that knowing in the face of unrelenting hostility, or even in the face of unrelenting indifference.

That hunger to be gathered in, to receive the welcome that invites you to enter entirely is not a hunger to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed to be self-accepting and aware of your inherent belonging. You do belong, everything does belong, and your hunger also belongs.

If you have been coming back to this congregation for a while, long enough to have become a member, it’s because this place fed that hunger for, as Starhawk put it, “a circle of hands” that will “open to receive us, eyes [that] will light up as we enter, [and] voices [that] will celebrate with us.”

If you have kept coming back for a while now, it’s because this place has been a blessing. “But the deal with this blessing,” as Jan Richardson says, “is that it will not leave you alone, will not let you linger in safety, in stasis.”

As Reverend Lauralyn Bellamy says in words that those of you who have been coming regularly for a while have heard me say a number of times as the benediction:
“If, here, you have found freedom, take it with you into the world. If you have found comfort, go and share it with others. If you have dreamed dreams, help one another that they may come true! If you have known love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world.”
Because once you’ve found a little bit of comfort, the way to find more is to share it with others.

This blessing – this blessing of belonging and sanctuary – comes as seed of joy planted in your heart, and once planted it wants to grow. For it to grow you must become the sanctuary. The seed, as Jan Richardson wrote,
“desires for you to become the sanctuary that you have found — to speak your word into the world, to tell what you have heard with your own ears, seen with your own eyes, known in your own heart: that you are beloved, precious child of God, beautiful to behold, and you are welcome and more than welcome here.”
The seed of awareness of inherent belonging wants to sprout and grow and send forth new seeds of joy to plant in other hearts.

If you have ever found comfort and sanctuary, ease and acceptance here, then go ahead and bask in that for as long as you can – because you won’t be able to simply bask in it for too terribly long. It is the nature of this blessing that it will not leave you alone.

And if it seems to you that the ease and sanctuary of this place doesn’t feel quite like it used to for you, then you’re ready – ready for that next step. The way to feel more welcome and accepted and warmly received is to be welcoming, accepting, and warmly receiving. That means making our congregation a place more welcoming of people who have sometimes felt unwelcome. That also means the work of social justice – making the world a place of greater acceptance and celebration of diversity.

When we talk about injustice and oppression, it isn’t to make you feel bad. It’s to help you feel good, by lifting up the wonderful meaningful work there is for us to do together. If you need comforting, be a part of offering comfort to others – and justice to all. That’ll do it.

May it be so.
Amen


The Longing for Belonging, part 1


OPENING WORD

“A Blessing Called Sanctuary”
by Jan Richardson

You hardly knew
how hungry you were
to be gathered in,
to receive the welcome
that invited you to enter
entirely—
nothing of you
found foreign or strange,
nothing of your life
that you were asked
to leave behind
or to carry in silence
or in shame.
Tentative steps
became settling in,
leaning into the blessing
that enfolded you,
taking your place
in the circle
that stunned you
with its unimagined grace.
You began to breathe again,
to move without fear,
to speak with abandon
the words you carried
in your bones,
that echoed in your being.
You learned to sing.
But the deal with this blessing
is that it will not leave you alone,
will not let you linger
in safety,
in stasis.
The time will come
when this blessing
will ask you to leave,
not because it has tired of you
but because it desires for you
to become the sanctuary
that you have found—
to speak your word
into the world,
to tell what you have heard
with your own ears,
seen with your own eyes,
known in your own heart:
that you are beloved,
precious child of God,
beautiful to behold,
and you are welcome
and more than welcome
here.

SERMON, part 1

Do you belong?

It’s been almost 40 years now since the TV sitcom Cheers first aired, with its theme song that said:
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”


It was, perhaps, an unfortunate sign of the times, that by the 1980s the most plausible such place for such belonging was the neighborhood bar.

It feels good to be recognized and seen – for everyone to know your name. It feels good to be liked – to be around people who are glad you are there. It feels good, for many people, to have a mug of beer in hand. The show attracted viewers by rolling those good feels together into one.

But it doesn’t really much work that way. If you were inspired by the show to seek community in a neighborhood bar, you were probably disappointed. You may have had some enjoyable evenings, but in the end there wasn’t a lasting life satisfaction there. The pleasure of a shared libation at the end of a day of working together depends on being grounded in the working together -- and without that grounding soon becomes a simulacrum of itself.

The neopagan and ecofeminist writer Starhawk got a little closer when she expressed it this way:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done -- arms to hold us when we falter -- a circle of healing -- a circle of friends -- someplace where we can be free.”
Belonging means not just that everybody knows your name and they’re glad you came, but that there is meaningful work to do together. For our us-ness to be real, it must be us-ness in service to something larger than us-ness. To belong, we must belong not only to each other, but also to a shared purpose.

Or, rather, let me now back up and approach it this way. Let’s start with the fact, not the feeling. The fact of belonging is constant; the feeling of belonging may be variable. The fact is you do belong, no matter what. All God’s critters got a place in the choir.

You might feel you don’t fit it. People can feel that way sometimes. They can have the impression that this world doesn’t have a place for them. But everything that is was brought into being, and the causes of its existence establish that it needed to exist.

You are not separate. You never were. You never will be. So the issue is not whether you belong. You do. The issue is only whether you know it, whether you understand it and live like you understand it – because, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we disconnect – or rather, we fall into believing the lie that we are disconnected.

We might try to force ourselves to fit in, or try to dominate others to make them recognize our importance. We might deny our inherent interconnection, and thereby limit our own freedom. You belong to everyone and everything, and everyone and everything belong to you. As Max Ehrmann’s 1927 Desiderata says it:
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.”
That’s inalienable. Your belonging does not depend on everybody knowing your name. You belong even if no one knows your name. Your belonging does not depend on anybody being glad to have you around. You belong even if no one seems glad of it.

You can step into your belonging, or you can step out of it and live from the false belief that you might not belong. To choose to step into your belonging, to accept that you belong and that whatever is happening to you also belongs is to step into your capacity for joy, freedom, and love. Any moment that you meet with joy is a moment you have stepped into your belonging – the belonging that is always there.

Your belonging does not depend on finding, somewhere, the people to whom you can speak with passion without having the words catch in your throats. You belong even if such people never materialize, and knowing that you do will help you speak authentically to anyone. Your belonging does not depend on finding, somewhere, a circle of hands that open to receive you and eyes that light up as you enter. You belong without that, and knowing that you do, you begin to notice all the ways that circles of hands always have been opening to receive you.

Brene Brown once defined belonging this way:
“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
When we don’t grasp our inherent belonging, we are apt to try to fit in. We accept the model of a circle with an inside and an outside, and we are trying to get, or stay on the inside. This is the exclusivity conception of belonging – to be “in” requires keeping others “out.”

I imagine the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6 were flooded with strong, wonderful feelings of belonging. They were with their people, doing work they thought of as important. It’s powerfully attractive, and we are all susceptible to the attractions that can produce mob behavior. We want the feeling and forget the fact. We want the feeling of belonging and forget the fact of belonging. So, as Brene Brown points out, fitting in is the opposite of belonging.
“Fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I've discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely — it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are — love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all. . . . When we fit in, we assess a situation and acclimate. When we belong, we bring ourselves to it and say this is who I am.”
We don’t shape-shift and “hustle for the worthiness we already possess.”

Hence, Brown concluded that true belonging – that is, the feeling of belonging when it comes not from fitting in but from awareness of the fact of our inalienable belonging – “only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” Thus, “our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

I said that the pleasure of a shared libation at the end of day of working together depends on being grounded in the working together and without that grounding soon becomes a simulacrum of itself. Let us now add that this pleasure also depends on bringing to the day’s labor -- as well as to its relaxation -- our authenticity.


2021-02-01

UU Minute #28

Poland before Fausto



Poland, when the 40-year-old Fausto Sozzini arrived there in 1579, was already a land with the beginnings of Unitarian thought. Diversity brings reason and tolerance, the central themes of Unitarianism, to the fore, and medieval Poland was a place of relative cultural diversity. Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, and Moslems coexisted in general harmony.

Among Catholics, Priests could marry; the Mass was conducted in Polish rather than in Latin. The monarchy was limited. The king was elected by a group of nobles, and the nobles met in council to make the country’s laws.

Polish woman Katarzyna Weiglowa professed the unity of God, rejected the trinity, and refused to call Jesus the Son of God – for which blasphemy she was, at the age of 80, executed in Krakow in 1539.

That same year, 1539, Isabella, oldest child of the Polish king, married John Zapolya and became queen of Transylvania where her 1557 edict would promote religious toleration.

In 1546, a character we know only as “Spiritus” questioned the trinity in a meeting with prominent Catholic leaders, some of whom, disturbed by Spiritus’s arguments, would eventually switch over and support the antitrinitarian Minor Reformed Church.

In 1556, Peter Gonesius began preaching Unitarian views in Poland. Gonesius had studied in Italy – and read Miguel Serveto there.

In 1558, the Italian Giorgio Biandrata entered Poland for a five-year stay in between his stints in Transylvania. During that time he became court physician to Queen Bona, Isabella’s mother, led the heretical party at synods, and promoted the Unitarian ideas: antitrinitarianism and religious toleration.

Thus was the way paved in Poland for Fausto Sozzini’s 1579 arrival.


NEXT: Antitrinitarianism in Poland: The Minor Reformed Church