With Hearts On Fire (text & audio)

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”

This is crazy stuff.  Even the people who were there “were amazed and perplexed!” They experienced something unbelievable, and wondered what it meant. I’m sure that even as it happened, there were some in the room who did not believe their eyes – or their experience.

You know by now that I was raised in a fairly skeptical family – the idea of God, even in the untraditional sense was something I didn’t learn about until much later in life.

And even once I had learned that the word “God” meant so much more than the dude with the big pointy finger painted in the Sistine Chapel, it took me a long time to reconcile the idea of a constantly moving and changing Spirit which infuses all living things with what I had been taught in my early life.  But most importantly, I had to accept that experience is not always rational or logical.

Let me give you an example. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe that the spirit within us lurks nearby once our body has died.  As far as I’m concerned, ghosts don’t exist. Except I saw one once.  Back when I still worked in the theater, I attended a tribute concert for a much-loved gentleman who had run the box office for decades. I was sitting in the back of the theater with my friend who had worked with Charlie for many, many years, and gradually I became aware of a presence behind me.  I turned around to look, and there he was.  Sitting in the seat directly behind my friend, with a cigarette in his hand and his beloved dog Ginger, a golden retriever who had also died a few months before, at his feet.

It is a great mystery to me what that was all about – because like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts.  But as sure as I am standing here before you today, I saw one once.

The story of Pentecost is one of the great mysteries found in the world’s scriptures—and like my experience, is open to reflection and interpretation. I learned about Pentecost in my very first class in my very first year of seminary, when I had to run to the bookstore and purchase the last copy of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms so that I could look it up! It was a class on the History of Ancient Christianity, and the professor had breezed by a reference to Pentecost, assuming that we all would understand.  But though I had heard the word before, I didn’t understand what it meant.

“Pentecost” was one of those words.  The words I thought I knew were part of a special story, one from which I was omitted at best, and more likely, actively excluded. Upon further study, however, I discovered that one of the most important parts of the Pentecost story is that it was the first time that the Spirit had been revealed to more than just a select few.

According to the story, Jesus gave the Spirit to the twelve disciples on the evening before he died. But on Pentecost, “The Spirit, once the exotic possession of a prophetic few, is now offered to all.” For me, this biblical story about one aspect of God seemed almost Universalist in nature.

We can use this story as a metaphor—calling on the idea of the power of fire to connect us to the power of the Spirit to transform.  It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit comes down as tongues of fire. “Spirit of Life, come unto me…”

According to theologian Peter Hodgson, “Biblical and classical metaphors of spirit represent it as a fluid, pervasive, intangible energy whose fundamental quality is vitality and freedom and whose fundamental purpose is to create, shape and enliven.”

For Unitarian Universalists, the flame symbolizes the light of truth, the warmth of community and the fire of commitment… it symbolizes the refiner’s fire, the flame that transforms us, the flame that keeps us warm, the fire that lights our way and draws us home.

In astrology, fire signs are mutable—they are changeable. And just as fire is always changing—just as fire is a dancing light throwing shadows on the wall, the flame that exists at the center of our shared symbol is always changing.  It reminds us of our history, illuminates our present, and prepares us for our future.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are constantly evolving, and so are our congregations. UU history is a dance of change and continuity, not a static, fixed doctrinal deposit that must be preserved and passed on unchanged.

My friend Alison puts it this way, “Today, as a minister, I use the flaming chalice to symbolize many things on different occasions.  Sometimes it is truth, or love, or hope; sometimes the energy of a life, of one of us, that is gone but not forgotten’ sometimes I simply hold the flame up as a reminder of our good intentions…

Some days it is the chalice part we hold up, sometimes it is the flame.  But for me, I will always think of the flaming chalice as a vessel of sorts, one that can receive but also one that can share and give of itself.  One that contains the past but is open to the future. Most importantly, my chalice is a vessel that holds something significant and powerful to which it is worth paying attention.”

Today we are holding up the flame—that dancing, burning heat of the refiner’s fire—the flame that tempers steel, making it stronger and more flexible.  And that image of the flame is significant and powerful. It is worth paying attention to!

The flame we lift up today reminds us where we came from—it calls to mind people like Thomas Potter, committed to his vision, and John Murray, willing to embrace a miracle.

I particularly think of Michael Servetus, our anti-Trinitarian forbear who was burned at the stake in Geneva, all but three copies of his major written work destroyed.

This is the fire of commitment.

We must also remember the cost of commitment to the light of truth—and be willing to risk our comfort and our assumptions in order to realize our greatest dreams.  Hopefully you and I will never find ourselves making such a drastic choice as Servetus did, but nonetheless, I ask, what are we willing to sacrifice for our faith? It is possible to allow this life-changing faith of ours to enter into our hearts and souls.  It is possible that in the mystery, we might find a common understanding.

The flame also reminds us of the work it takes to create and sustain a fire: to build a strong foundation, we must begin with lots of kindling, shelter the young flames and then tend the embers. This is the warmth of community: it is work to nurture and tend our families, our communities of faith.  And yet, this work does not have to be drudgery—it can be joyous and enlivening, as dancing flames in a warming fire.

It is no coincidence, I would argue, that the first major appearance of the Holy Spirit moving on earth was first revealed in the sounds of wind and the appearance of fire.  This is the unpredictable non-rational, mysterious, playful part of the trinity.

My own experience of the divine is exactly that sort of astonishing, pervasive power that lives and moves anywhere and everywhere, most especially where I least expect it. Like the ghost I can’t explain, but know that I saw, God is inexplicable and surprising, and over the years I have learned to let my rational mind have a little break and not work too hard to understand.

And that is why I love Pentecost. Pentecost is real, it is immediate and it is miraculous. The inbreaking of the Spirit is troubling, unsettling, even scary, but it is where we find the greatest gifts, if only we allow ourselves to let go of our worries and fears long enough to give it space to move.

When the tongues of fire descended, the writer of Acts reports that the people “…were so on fire with new hope that outsiders who watched them concluded they must have been drunk on new wine…” UU minister John Nichols continues, “So much about the spiritual life is difficult to describe in conventional language. We owe it to our friends and ourselves to pay attention to a vision, dream or a thought that comes to us in a very compelling way.  Of course, it could be a delusion, but it could be a much more powerful message.”

And we are a spiritual community.  We are a Unitarian Universalist spiritual community, steeped in the historically beloved and effective trifecta of freedom, reason and tolerance. These essential historical concepts are deeply important to who we are as a faith community, but I do believe that we sometimes rely on them to our detriment.

According to a sermon by Rev. Bruce Clear, “To be rational does not mean to believe only those things which are proven to be logically true.” In order to fully live our faith, we must be open to the unexpected, the non-rational, the unproven. We must look for the mystery.  We must make room for Spirit.

Fire is part of many religious traditions: the hearth of Brigid, the angel of the Lord appearing to Moses—it is also an integral part of most any shamanic initiation.  Pentecost was an initiation of sorts, but a communal ecstatic initiation experience rather than an individual one.

How do you feel when you think about this? Is it scary? Threatening? Perhaps you are a bit frightened.  Perhaps you fear that letting go and embracing the mystery might cause things to spin out of control? Can we trust in the power of the Spirit of Life to light our way as we walk forward into the mystery, out onto the edges of our known world and step into what the future promises to bring?

At Pentecost, it was through the mystery that the people found a common understanding.  They were lost and afraid, missing the man who had inspired and led them, worried for the future of this tiny movement that would become Christianity.  And yet, they experienced the mystery of the tongues of fire, and they were able to understand one another and move forward.

As Unitarian Universalists, we do not always understand each other’s language – we have different theologies, different life experiences. But we are in covenant together, which means that we are committed to walk forward into an unknown future together with compatriots whose language we cannot always understand.

Embracing the mystery, as at Pentecost, changes us.  We are not changed so as to be unrecognizable, but transformed, transmuted, through the fire of Spirit and the light of truth into something more.  As the small gathering of disciples was transformed into something more.  Not changed into something different so much as propelled into a new stage in their development, with new energy, vision and purpose.

We have a powerful image here in the chalice, and the story of Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the importance of paying attention to the things we do not understand.

May we find our way to welcoming the unknown.

May we embrace the mystery together.

May our shared history and our commitment to the light of truth and the fire of commitment bring us to new and unimagined places.

May it be so.

What Needs Saying (text & audio)

In February I told you about Randy Pausch, the computer scientist who became an Internet sensation and best-selling author for his “last lecture,” a talk he gave at Carnegie Mellon University, where he taught, while he was dying of pancreatic cancer. You remember he talked about how important it is for us to find the passions in our lives that bring out the best in us. None of us knows how long we have. Indeed, Randy ended up living only into his 40s. But he was happy with a life in which he gave himself to those he loved and the work that filled him.

It’s an inspirational story, but you know the world may never have even learned about Randy’s story but for the work of someone else, the writer Jeffrey Zaslow. So, today I’d like to begin today by telling you a little bit about Jeff.

Jeff was a reporter living in Detroit working for the Wall Street Journal and writing about, what he calls, “life transitions” when his editor passed along a release from Carnegie Mellon announcing Pausch’s lecture. He thought it might make for a nice story.

Jeff checked on last-minute flights from Detroit to Pittsburgh and found out it would cost him $300, more than the Journal was willing to spring for. His editor suggested that Jeff stay home and interview Pausch by phone the day after the lecture. But Jeff thought that wasn’t good enough. He wanted to meet Randy and get a sense of the scene. So, he decided to drive the 300 miles from Detroit to Pittsburg and the next day was in the second row when Randy delivered his talk.

Like everyone else in the room, he was touched by Randy’s presentation of what essentially was a love letter to his colleagues and family. When Jeff’s story about it ran in the Wall Street Journal online, it included a link to a video of Randy’s lecture, which had been recorded by Carnegie Mellon, and it quickly went viral on the Internet.

Given that reception, Randy’s friends and colleagues urged him to expand the lecture into a book. Randy initially wasn’t keen on the idea, figuring that writing a book would take away precious time that he wanted to devote to his family. But then the idea arose of contacting Jeff and seeing if he might put the book together based on the lecture and interviews with Randy. And that’s what they did.

Jeff said that Randy, the engineer, was, in his words, “a time management freak.” Determined to stay as fit as he could, he went on a daily hour-long bike ride, so the two worked out a routine in which Randy would wear a cell phone head set on his bike rides, and Jeff would interview him. And so it went: an hour a day for 53 days.

The book came out in April 2008 with a press run of 400,000 that sold out in two days; the publisher went back to print five million more. “The Last Lecture” remains hugely popular both as a book and a You Tube video.

Jeff said that he thought what made Randy’s lecture, in fact his whole story, so popular was that it was clearly authentic. In a time where the air waves and Internet are full of “reality” shows that are little more than set-ups for people to strut in front of a camera, this was the real deal: a brilliant but quirky fellow who sought not to bring attention to himself but to urge us all to give our time, our love to what matters most.

Jeff said he was delighted to be able to place a copy of the completed book in Randy’s hands three months before he died. Although, he said that when he would call Randy to tell him all the places where the book was appearing or another language it was being translated into, Randy would bring him up short: “Stop Googling my name, Jeff, and go home and hug your kids,” he would say.

For you see Jeff had shared his own story with Randy in their conversations. Married and the father of three daughters – a situation I can relate to – Jeff would say, “I’m quite comfortable being outnumbered by women.”

Before moving to the Wall Street Journal he worked at another newspaper as an advice columnist, and he often found himself in the position of giving advice to clueless men about dealing with women. He tells of one column he wrote after a boy stood his daughter up who he asked to the prom. The night before, he called and said that he and his friends thought the prom was stupid and they were going to spend the evening in a friend’s basement. She was welcome to come.

Not only was Jeff uninterested in having his daughter spend the evening in that basement, he was outraged that the boy had backed out at the last minute, after she had brought her dress and everything. So he used the power he had at his disposal: he wrote about it in the newspaper, telling his readers. “The lesson of the story – and of that night – is to teach your sons to be chivalrous, and your daughters not to take it.”

Another male reader wrote to ask how he could persuade his girlfriend to have breast augmentation surgery. He responded that the woman “deserves someone who loves her for who she is, not how she looks in a sweater. If you can’t do that for her, she won’t need implants anyway because she will already have a big boob in her life. You.”

As you can tell, Jeff had a talent for zingers. But he said that the most important lesson his reporting had taught him was how fragile life is and how important it is not to leave words we want to share with our loved ones unsaid.

In one column he wrote around Valentine’s Day one year he told the story of a judge who often told his children that he loved them. One day as his 18-year-old daughter was leaving the house, he called out to her, “Kristin, remember I love you.”

“I love you, too, dad,” she replied. That day she died in a car wreck. It was a story that Jeff took to heart and led him to make a practice of saying “I love you” to his wife and daughters before saying good-bye or hanging up the phone.

This story comes to mind when we come to occasions like today that are transitions in our lives. We pray that the youths of this congregation that we send out to the world will be back many times to tell of their adventures and to share how they make their way in the world.

But we also acknowledge that this is a time of passage: there are things that these young women and men are leaving behind and new things they are taking up. So, it is a good moment to say some of those things that we want them to know: how proud we are of the people they have become, how impressed we are with their maturity, and how grateful we are to have known them and have been a part of their growing in this brief space of time they have been with us.

Too often, pride or shyness keep us from speaking our heart’s truth, or for that matter from taking the time to hear it from another. So, we make do with substitutes such as greeting cards or gifts, all appropriate in their own way, of course, but not what we really need to say and hear.

What we need to say and hear is the truth. It doesn’t have to be flowery words or orations. It simply should come from and be received by the heart.

My wife, Debbie, is a hospice nurse, and she tells the story of one day doing some work on a computer at another person’s cubicle at her office, when she saw a small piece of paper with a list of words posted on a bulletin board at work.

“I love you . . . Please forgive me . . . I forgive you . . . Thank you . . . Good-bye”

She wondered what it was about, and so she asked one of the chaplains. She was told that they feel that these words summarize what chaplains believe we all need to hear and to say before we die.

“I love you . . . Please forgive me . . . I forgive you . . . Thank you . . . Good-bye”

The end of life, after all, is a stressful time. We each approach it as innocents: we have no experience at it. And so it’s not unusual for us to be consumed with all the medical details of the dying process, treatments considered or refused, all the ways that the body slowly shuts down. Add to that the emotion burden everyone brings – regret, anger, shock, grief – and it’s no wonder that it often is a traumatizing experience.

Amid all of this, though, there needs to be time given to the truth of relationships, finding time amid all the turmoil to tell each other how much we care, how grateful we are for each other’s company, and how we hope to be reconciled at last. And finally, acknowledging the truth of parting and making our peace.

We may not fully achieve it. Life is not always tidy, and there are wounds we carry that can make it hard to find reconciliation. But it’s worth giving it a shot.

In a subsequent book after The Last Lecture, Jeff Zastrow told the story of Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed a crippled airline in the Hudson River in 2009. He recalled how a Holocaust survivor living along the river in New York City observed the whole scene and wrote to Sullenberger, applauding him for keeping a cool head and doing what he could to help the passengers survive. Jeff said the man told Sullenberger that we never know if one person someday may make the difference that will save the world. Who knows if someone on that plane might have been that person, he wrote? “So, thank you, for saving the world.”

Zastrow said in a TED talk on the Internet that the lesson he learned from Sullenberger’s feat was that we can’t know what’s going to happen, but whatever life gives us, “We’ve got to be honorable, be moral; we’ve got to work our hardest.”

And here’s the coda that adds another twist to this story. A little over a year ago, not long after his TED talk, Jeff Zastrow was on his way home from a book signing in northern Michigan when he died, much too young, in a car accident on icy roads.

None of us can know what life will give us, but we have the choice of deciding what we bring to life. We owe it to those we love to let them know that, and often. We owe it to ourselves and others not to duck our responsibilities, but to step up to them. If we at this congregation have done our job, we have given you who leave the world of high school and our Religious Education program a sense of what some of your duties are: to treat each person you meet as someone with inherent worth and dignity, to see yourselves as agents of justice, equity and compassion, to be accepting of others while holding to your own conscience.

I hope we have helped you understand your community as extending far beyond here to people of all places and in the end encompassing all life on Earth, the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

You go with our blessings and our hopes, but we will always welcome you back with joy. And as you make your way in the world, if you find a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the community where you settle, you might want to check it out, and help us keep this great faith tradition vital and alive.

Let what you have found here in this community be a spark to your imagination that you, too, might find your place in the family of things.

Finding Family (text & audio)

Pattiann Rogers’ poem that I read earlier came to mind a little over a week ago when I got some good one-on-one time with Lucille, newly born daughter of our daughter and son-in-law, Anna and Langdon, and our second grandchild. Langdon was off to work, and Anna was getting ready to drive their older daughter, Eliza, to day care. So, I stopped by as one of a rotating corps of volunteers to watch the baby for about a half hour so that Anna could take Eliza without having to pack up the baby for the trip.

As a father of three and grandfather, now, of two, I’ve come to take real delight in having some time with an infant, but it had been a while, and there was much that I had forgotten. I had forgotten how at first when you hold them they’re inclined to hunch their backs and pull their knees up close to their bodies – still not quite fully unfolded from the womb, how much of their time in those early days is spent in a sort of semi-consciousness between sleep and waking with the first hints of a smile playing across their lips.

But most of all, I had forgotten the almost visceral way that they seem to drink you in. As she cuddled against me, I felt her reaching, trying me out in some elemental way, before sound or speech or visual perception, a kind of bodily communication that I seemed to have forgotten I was capable of, but that I suddenly found myself slipping into.

Her: I’m here. Who are you? Me: I’m here. I love you.

One of those old, enduring connections found in all flesh, the finding of family. None of us can know for sure how, where or from whom we will get it – life is complicated out there – but we can’t do without it. Family: something deeper than the channeling wires and threads, the veins, ligaments, filaments and fibers that are our biological heritage to each other.

Rabindranath Tagore captured it with the verse in his poem that we sang earlier. Looking out on “insects, birds, and beasts and common weeds, the grass and clouds have fullest wealth of awe,” but it is family that “gives meaning to the stars.” It is establishes our roots; it centers our identity. It is what makes possible what Pattiann Rogers calls “the grip of voice on presence, the grasp of self on place.”

And so we were introduced to each other, Lucille and I, the first of our interactions and one of many connections she will be making in the world. But, of course, we all know that it’s not long before the reality of family changes and becomes more like the picture my sister, Lisa, paints: scrambling to keep get going in the morning, beating ourselves up for the chaos we find in our lives and hardly present to each other at all, scattered to our various obligations – school, work, and so on – and reconnecting only in passing.

It’s part of a natural drift that seems to have become the norm in the frenetic pace of this busy world. “Things to do, places to be” usually translates as anything but family. At its best family seems to act as a kind of charging station that we return to after our energy winds down, a place of shelter and renewal.

But too often it is the place where we play out the frustrations and unhappiness that build up over the course of our daily lives, a place quickly taken for granted or resented, whose its imperfect denizens, we feel, never quite appreciate what it is that WE need. And for some it can be a depository for shame or a sense of inadequacy, leaving us feeling harried and alone.

But, as my wise sister, Lisa, remarked in her Mother’s Day sermon of several years ago, it doesn’t have to be that way. “We can honor our responsibilities, nurture others and include ourselves in the midst of it,” she said.

For her, the key was offered by a couple of encounters she had with spiritual advisors she had sought out over the course of a year or so. She was looking for help in reflecting on how in her busy life where at times she felt whipsawed by the responsibilities of parenting she might cultivate a deeper sense of spirituality. Unbeknownst to what the other had said, each offered similar advice: your children are your practice.

What she heard them to say was that attention to the daily rituals of family life was a discipline in itself. In raising her children she was not simply providing care that they needed, she was, in her words, “dwelling deep in interdependence.” She was learning what a spiritual practice gives you, which is to see from a larger perspective, to find in the giving to another an avenue to maintaining a centered sense of self.

This doesn’t mean somehow using own children for our own ends. It means seeing in that role a path for growth for parent and child. The discipline entails accepting the role of parent without judgment and acknowledging its power and the duties it entails as lessons for one’s life.

As Lisa observed, “the chaos that children bring invites us to steady our sense of self and find our footing. We are echoed, challenged, mimicked, defied, sought after and sent packing. We are put on pedestals and used as furniture, we are intensely visible and not even there. This is all the stuff we need to practice acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, creativity and trust. This is all the stuff we need to enter life fully.”

And it occurs to me that the same observation applies to our larger family roles, too, though with a little less intensity. Grandfather, sister, nephew, aunt: we are given these roles, and most of us are not really sure what to do with them. For some, they are mantles we don grudgingly at dreaded family gatherings, but it need not be that way.

These relationships, too, can and do have power in our lives and consequences for each of us. In that way they are also reminders of a deeper way of living available to us. They are reminders that the life of wholeness and integrity that we each seek doesn’t just happen. It is built brick by brick by each encounter we have, and we don’t get it right from the get-go. We are awkward and uncertain at first, and so it takes rehearsing. It takes practice.

And, it’s important to remember that the fact of family is not limited to those of blood relations, nor does blood relationship necessarily result in these kinds of family ties. Again, life is complicated and circumstances can set people against and apart from each other. Some rifts can be repaired, but others yawn too wide to be bridged. And so we are left sometimes to find family where we can.

I know of people in this congregation who have set about creating family ties with others where no blood relation exists but where they have found or made a connection of caring. In the end, we find family where we make family, where we can give ourselves to others with love and intention and are received with reciprocal care.

This Mother’s Day brings to mind how such a connection happened a generation earlier in my family. My mother, Cynthia, a member of this congregation living in Brooks Howell Home, was only four years old when her mother, Alice, died.

It was, you can imagine, a hard time, and the family struggled for some years – my grandfather a newspaper editor trying to raise three girls on his own with the help of some family. Then, came the day several years later when a new woman entered his life, a phys ed teacher with an unquenchable spirit whose name happened to be Lucille. When she and my grandfather married, the kids weren’t sure what to make of her, but she swept into their lives in those Depression Era days and made a home for them.

Truth be told, when I was growing up Lucille was probably my favorite grandparent. She was a “pahk the cah in the Hahvad Yahd” Yankee who saw to it on our trips to visit her that we saw all the sights of her home town of Boston. I remember that she always took intent interest in us and sent faithful birthday cards with cheery notes.

Unlike Billy Collins, I can’t remember having sent her anything even as unimpressive as a lanyard as a gift, but I will always remember her as a loving soul who helped weave strength into our family. As I take my place in the grandparent generation I would say it is Lucille’s example, Lucille’s practice that stands before me. For she was one who chose to give her heart to those she chose to name as family: something I never had cause to doubt as long as I knew her.

Family, after all, is made in many ways: whether the result of blood ties or circumstances, its central components are the same: love and intention – love, that elemental gift of our very essence, the hope that we live when we are guided by the best that is in us; and intention, the practice of directing our thoughts, our actions, our will to something or someone that we deem worthy.

It isn’t easy work. As Pattiann Rogers notes, there is “seminal to all kin” the open mouth seeking to take and take – You mothers know, right? – and the “pervasive clasping common to the clan” clinging tight like limpets, like the hard nails of lichen, fingers around fingers and the grasp of self on place, and then the snorts, the whinnies, the shimmers of self declaration.

Oh, we weavers, reachers, winders and connivers, pumpers, runners, air and bubble riders, rock-sitters, wave gliders, wire-wobblers, soothers, flagellators –

Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and nieces and third cousins twice removed, stepmoms and foster dads, peace parents and godparents and every stripe of relation there is or can be.

All part of the crazy jumble that is family, blessed family, the great, old, enduring connections that are ours to find and ours to make, a practice that warms us and fills us and that in time and with intention might overflow to a hurting world.

Rites of Passage

The 9th grade youth presented their credos or belief statements on life’s big questions: thoughts on God, existence, why bad things happen, ethics, death, after-life and possibly more. Learning with their mentors and teachers, supported by their parents, and spending time alone in the woods has led them to this place, on this day, to share their journey with us.