‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

“‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple”
Rev. Fred L Hammond
20 March 2011 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Back in the 1990’s as I began organizing a non-profit agency serving people with HIV/AIDS, I distinctly remember having a conversation with my staff of the time wondering how in the world we ever managed without Fax machines. Now those FAX machines used thermal paper so we had to make a photo copy of them or else the paper would brown over a short period of time making the information unreadable. This led to the question how did we ever manage without copiers. When word processing became standard, the conversation became how we ever managed without computers. Then it was cell phones, the internet, emails, text messages, facebook, twitter, all methods to assist us in communication. And now that we have Kindles and Nooks, how did we manage without having a complete library at our fingertips. All of these technologies were to make our lives easier, so we thought. And it isn’t just in communications that these advances have occurred; it is in other fields as well…

My grand uncle Luther worked the farm, where he and my grandmother were born, in the same way that my great, great, great grandfather worked it with horse drawn plows and with tools that he blacksmithed himself. There is a film in the village’s museum of my great grandmother hand churning butter, she also hand churned ice cream. The farm did not have electricity until my grandfather wired the house in 1948. And then it was only a light bulb here and there. My great grandmother’s first purchase after getting electricity was an electric butter churner. There was an outhouse placed just so over the running brook until the health department came and told them it had to be moved away from the brook. And there was a well with a hand pump that came up into the kitchen. My uncle lived this way until his death in the mid 1980’s.

How differently they lived from us today. My family is only slightly atypical to have had family members still living as if the year was 1840 instead of 1986, the year my grand uncle died.  Everyone in this room is only two or three or four generations away from having family who lived in this simpler fashion.

We hear from many sectors of society of nostalgia for simpler times. There is a desire for a time when life was not so complex, not so demanding. We expect emails to be answered immediately if not sooner. We expect our computers to be as responsive to our direction as our muscles are to our brain’s commands, anything slower than that result in frustrating expletives coming from our lips.

The push for our children is for them to have a fully developed resume of athletic, music and the arts, civic volunteerism, and academic achievements just to be considered for a college application. Their schedules are just as hectic as and even more so than their parents. The pressure to perform is fierce. We have so many demands on our time that it seems that even breathing is an intrusion. Oh for a simpler time!

So just how do we achieve a simpler time. Well clearly, it is not by reverting back to how my grand uncle Luther lived with no indoor plumbing or electricity. Some may choose that but that is not what I am suggesting.

I am suggesting however, an examination of what fills our cups? There is story about this. It goes something like this: A philosophy professor stood before his class with some items on the table in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, about 2 inches in diameter.
“He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
“So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks.
“He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
“The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.
“He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous ‘Yes.’
“‘Now,’ said the professor, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.
“The pebbles are the other things that matter – like your job, your house, your car.
“The sand is everything else. The small stuff.’
“‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ he continued ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life.
“If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal.
“Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand .’”
I want to suggest that the jar is still not full. There is another thing that can be placed in the jar and that is water. The water can be considered to symbolize faith and the values we hold dear in our lives. But if all we have is faith in our life then it can lead to fundamentalism, it can lead to dogmatism, it can lead to easily being swayed by the tossing waves of fanaticism. Unitarian Universalists are just as prone to this as anyone so while some might think I am only referring to fanatical groups such as the Westboro Baptists, I am not. I am also referring to us.

If faith, water, is placed in our jars first, then we place the sand in the jar, which is all that stuff, the sand will cause the faith to spill out and leave the jar. Our families, our children, our relationships will suffer horribly under all the busy-ness of our lives. Our families, our children will suffer also if our jars are filled with water first because they will threaten the faith we have and cause it to spill over.

For example, if faith is first in my jar and filled to the brim and that faith tells me that homosexuality is wrong, then when one of my rocks in my life such as a child or a sibling comes out as gay, there is no room for them in my jar without sacrificing some of my faith. And since I have placed my faith first in my jar the child or sibling is cast aside because it is more important than anything or anyone else in our life. But if I have placed my child or sibling first in my jar and then add faith, faith surrounds them in love and I find myself enriched by their presence in new and miraculous ways.

When we place our rocks in the jar first and then the pebbles and then the sand and then the water something else happens. The water is able to interact with all of these and make the jar of our life conducive to growing life. The values we treasure enable our lives to support the lush green plants of our life as well. Our lives are no longer a desert of dry rocks, pebbles, and sand instead our lives become able to sustain life. They become able to weather the storms that certainly will cross our paths and seek to blow the rocks and pebbles away.

Faith is not something that flourishes in a solitary fashion. It is something that when shared with family, friends, and those we meet can create the environment where life can be nurtured and held in love. It can be the transformative act that helps us engage our world to create a more just world.

Simplifying our lives by removing the sand so that there is room for the rocks in our lives becomes an important goal. Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity, outlines several forms of simplicity that people across the globe are seeking.

These are:
Uncluttered Simplicity: … means taking charge of lives that are too busy, too stressed, and too fragmented.

Ecological Simplicity: … means choosing ways of living that touch the Earth more lightly and that reduce our ecological impact on the web of life. … An ecological simplicity feels a deep reverence for the community of life on Earth and accepts that the nonhuman realms of plants and animals have their dignity and rights as well.

Family Simplicity: … means placing the well-being of one’s family ahead of materialism and the acquisition of things.

Compassionate Simplicity: … means feeling such a strong sense of kinship with others that, as Gandhi said, we “choose to live simply so that others may simply live.”

Soulful Simplicity: … means approaching life as a meditation and cultivating our experience of direct connection with all that exists.

Business Simplicity: … means that a new kind of economy is growing in the world, with healthy and sustainable products and services of all kinds (home-building materials, energy systems, food production, transportation).

Civic Simplicity: … means that living more lightly and sustainably on the Earth requires changes in every area of public life—from public transportation and education to the design of our cities and workplaces.

Frugal Simplicity: … means that, 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 .

There are lots of ways for us to explore living more simply and making sure that the rocks and pebbles in our lives are well grounded and supported. It does not necessarily mean that we live in poverty or that we not purchase the technological gadgets that can cause our lives to be filled primarily with sand. What it means is that we consciously and deliberately choose what we have in our lives. It means we do not fall prey to the Best Buy commercial where the gadget we bought is obsolete the minute we purchase it and therefore must spend more money to upgrade ASAP. It means that we do not spend hundreds of dollars on the special edition Nikes when the no brand shoe will suffice.

It means that we sit down as a family and have face to face conversations instead of the Sprint commercial where the mother texts the teenage daughter that grandma is moving into her bedroom. What is really disturbing about this commercial is that everyone at the dinner table is more attuned to their cell phones than they are at verbal communication. If this sounds like your household, then consider banning cell phones at the dinner table. There are some times when we do not need to be instantly accessible to the latest Facebook or tweet being posted. I realize this is the new heresy of the modern age.

The benefits of voluntary simplicity (1) to the individual are great:
• More time to spend with family, friends and community.
• Less money spent on almost everything.
• Less stress in high-paying jobs or commuting to them.
• Less worry over possessions getting stolen or damaged.
• More satisfaction in learning to do things for oneself, such as fixing and maintaining possessions, cooking, gardening and … by mending and sewing, as well as making music and fun.
• Other benefits that are corollaries of these, including more time to read, less ill health, more opportunity to exercise and do satisfying physical work, less chance of getting in an accident on the freeway, and a general reordering of values from a focus on materialism to a focus on relationships.
But the benefits when people live a voluntarily simple life go beyond the individual and the family. Benefits to society as a whole and to the Earth are significant, and include:
• Less pollution from transportation and less traffic congestion, accidents and need for new roads.
• Less environmental impact from resource extraction and manufacturing.
• Less need for new power plants and new water treatment plants as people waste less electricity and water.
• More community cohesiveness, resulting in less crime and more neighborliness, safer streets and better schools.
• More grassroots democracy as people take more interest in how their communities operate.
• More ecological restoration as people find simple pleasure in connecting with their local environment and seek to heal it.
• A flowering of local culture–music, storytelling, drama, games, poetry.
Voluntary simplicity is a means to re-prioritizing our lives so that we are able to enjoy life more with those whom we love. It enables us to be stewards of this earth by using its resources in a more responsible manner.

I will close with this thought also from Duane Elgin: “Mahatma Gandhi advocate[d] a blind denial of the material side of life. He said, ‘As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you.’”

Creating a simpler life is not about giving up things because of the need to sacrifice for the sake of others but rather it is when the desired outcome has increased in value for you that giving up the sand in your life is done voluntarily and easily.

In a world that is increasingly placing demands on our time and on our resources, it becomes a life giving act to consciously place priority on what matters most in our lives. It becomes a transformative act that can model for the world another way living that is healthy for our selves and for our planet. May we all examine our lives to see if the rocks in our life are placed first in our lives. Blessed Be.

(1) http://www.greatriv.org/vs.htm

Other quotes unless noted within the text with a hyper link are from Voluntary Simplicity Secondition: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Duane Elgin)

Published in: on March 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm  Comments Off on ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple  
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Lapsed Unitarian Universalism

This past Sunday, a person introduced themselves to me as a Lapsed Unitarian Universalist.  We didn’t get a chance to discuss this concept so I do not know what the person fully meant by this statement.  They might have simply been referring to their attendance.  The Lapsed Catholics, Lapsed Baptists I have met in the South and elsewhere tend to have moved away from some piece of the doctrine that those Christian sects teaches.  Sowhen you are a member of a creed-less faith, what have you lapsed into if your faith lapses?  

I don’t know the answer to the question entirely.  But perhaps it lies in another phrase I recently heard by a colleague of mine:  Essential Faith versus Discretionary Faith.   An essential faith as my colleague defined it is one that is held so dear that one would sacrifice for its existence.  A discretionary faith is one that can be disposed of if personal time and money is demanded elsewhere.

A recent poll indicated that there are about 675,000 people in the USA who identify as Unitarian Universalist.   Our official numbers as of 2006 indicate that we have about 158,000 members in the US and Canada.    So are all these other people lapsed Unitarian Universalists with a discretionary faith? 

I found my faith as an Unitarian Universalist to be essential to who I am.  It is part of how I identify myself to the world.  It speaks to the values that I hold dear and want to emulate into our society. 

I gave a talk on Sunday about Judith Sargent Murray based on the excellent biography by Sheila Skemp.  Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) was a woman who enjoyed the privilege her family’s prestige and social status gave her.  When she and her family embraced Universalism she lost that prestige and social status in the community.   They lost the ability to do business with people in Gloucester.  People they considered through the generations as family friends no longer associated with them.  Her faith in Universalism became a hardship for her.  Yet, this faith was an essential faith to her.  It enabled her to find her voice regarding the rights of women.   It gave her a basis from which she could discuss the financial independence and full citizenship she thought all women should have. 

Her faith was not discretionary, it was essential to her living her values.  She received support for the developing and sustaining of her values from her church community.   I doubt she could have journeyed this path alone.  

And perhaps that is the key to defining a discretionary faith.  Are you walking alone in your journey or are you somehow connected to a community of people who share your values and support your attempts to live those values in society?  

Unitarian Universalists value the independent spirit American society has fostered over the generations.  Yet, it is a value that has its corollary in community.  Without the two values, juxtaposed and in a dynamic tension likened to that tension that a belt on a pulley has in play in order for the pulley to work, the faith cannot sustain itself and grow; either for the individual or for the community. 

Here in the rural south, it is quite possible that the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation is several hours away.  Yet, a person who believes their Unitarian Universalism is an essential faith can find a community of resources to help them stay connected and to be sustained by their faith.  The Church of the Larger Fellowship is a resource for these individuals and small groups of people who find themselves isolated. 

Have a faith that is essential to living your values in the day to day.  Find a community who will support you in doing so.  You may find as Judith Sargent Murray did that having a faith that is supported by a community empowers you to live your values in society.  Blessings,

Reframing our Unitarian Universalist Narrative

I gave a sermon today examining Brian D. McLaren’s book,  Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.  In this book Mr. McLaren presents two narratives that are running underneath the Christian message.   The first what he calls the Conventional view and the second he calls the Emerging view.    I will quote the conventional view so you will have a clearer sense of how Mr. McLaren interprets this view. 

The Human Situation: What is the story we find ourselves in?
“Conventional View: God created the world as perfect, but because our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, did not maintain the absolute perfection demanded by God, God has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all its contains will be destroyed, and the souls of all human beings—except for those specifically exempted—will be forever punished for their imperfection in hell.

“What question did Jesus come to answer?
“Conventional view: Since everyone is doomed to hell, Jesus seeks to answer one or both of these questions: How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment in hell and instead go to heaven after they die? How can God help individuals be happy and successful until then?

“How did Jesus respond to the crisis?

“Conventional View: Jesus says, in essence, If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you must repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell. This is the good news. ”

The Emerging view is a bit more hopeful but still contains orthodox Christology where people rebelled against God and now God is seeking to redeem humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  A commitment to Jesus will allow God to do his transformative work through us and heal the world and establish the reign of God here on Earth.   This is a social gospel of working to transform society’s injustices on all levels–political / economic / social.   McLaren comes up short to saying that this emerging view includes a universal salvation message, though that seems to be a subtext of his book. 

In reading this book, I wondered about our Unitarian Universalist narrative.  Our current narrative seems to be what we are not. We are in opposition to the conservative religious voice. We are not Christian yet we have those who claim Christianity among us. We are not Jewish yet we have those who claim Judaism among us. We are not Buddhist yet we have those who claim Buddhism among us. We are not dogmatic yet we are opinionated in our individual views. We tell our story by telling what we are not, not by what we are. We even do our best social justice work in the negative; we do anti-racist, anti-oppression work instead of racial equity and justice work. Is it just me, or does anyone else see a problem in this anti-narrative?

In considering McLaren’s book, I considered what a re-framed Unitarian Universalist narrative using McLaren’s format might look like:

The Human situation: What is the story we find ourselves in?

Through a variety of convergences of mysterious events a series of evolutionary events occur causing simplex molecules to create with ever more complexity life on earth. Eventually, humanity evolved as the most complex creature on earth with an ability to control the environment, to develop complex societal clusters, and to self-determine its own destiny and evolution. Humanity is still very much in its infancy in its development as a species. Yet, humanity’s evolution as a species has not kept pace in its emotive, rational, and spiritual development in contrast with its explosive growth of technological adaptations. This has resulted in clashes within humanity and with its environment often with grave consequences. Humanity, therefore, needs to further develop its emotive, rational, and spiritual abilities to allow for the most freedom, the most justice, and the most equitable way for all of humanity and all of life to continue thriving on this planet. Humanity is currently the only creature on this planet capable of achieving this harmonic existence for humanity and for all of life.

What questions did Jesus come to answer?

Jesus, along with other great teachers, dead and alive, answers these questions: How are we to live our lives with justice, equity, and compassion for all people? How are we to honor the interconnected web that binds us all as one? With the emphasis on technological advancements, people are focusing on getting theirs first with the fear there won’t be any left if they do not compete aggressively. This has created a gap between the haves and the have nots in the world. It has led to exploitive practices against others and against the environment.

How did Jesus respond to the crisis?

Jesus and these teachers taught us that life is permeated with an inherent worth and dignity simply by its existence. Through their teachings and diligent adherence to a variety of spiritual practices humanity can evolve to a higher moral code of living and being with one another reaching towards our potential as a people. Jesus, and others, modeled for us how we could live at this higher moral code of equity, justice, and compassion in human relations. Practicing this higher moral code is transformative work; it frees humanity to live justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly upon the earth. This is the good news. 

Is this a narrative that would work for Unitarian Universalists?  As I suggested in today’s sermon, we need to become aware of the narratives that are around us in our daily lives. What questions and concerns are people looking to have answered or what relief are they seeking to experience?  That is where Unitarian Universalists need to be focused in their community’s justice work.  It may be slightly different depending on where one lives.  In Mississippi it seems to be surrounding the economic injustices and how these injustices are interwoven within the fabric of our school systems and criminal justice systems.  If Unitarian Universalism is to survive as a viable faith in the 21st century it needs to seriously consider what its narrative is that will make life better for the living.  It must be a faith that is relevant by offering solutions and ways of being that our individual narratives encounter in our daily lives. It must offer good news.  Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond 

Published in: on May 19, 2008 at 12:04 am  Comments Off on Reframing our Unitarian Universalist Narrative  
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Alone in the Universe?

Today, the good people at Maryland-based Space Telescope Science Institute is releasing a series of photographs of galaxies colliding taken by the Hubble telescope in celebration of the 18th anniversary of this telescope.   I was hoping to insert some photographs of these amazing galaxy formations but there seems to be a glitch with wordpress’ program since their most recent upgrade.   Stay tuned I will try again. 

Any way, this announcement and these remarkable photographs got me remembering a conversation I had years ago when I was still very much a staunch christian with another staunch christian.  I made the heretical comment of life being on other planets.  [I should have realized then I was on my way out] His comment was that god had his hands full with sinful humanity on earth and therefore would not create life elsewhere.  I thought this was a very arrogant statement to make.  It also questioned god’s omnipotence–another theological doctrine but at the time, that thought did not occur to me. 

I don’t know how many people believe today that we are alone in the universe.  With the proliferation of successful sci-fi television series and movies with themes of inter-planetary interactions, it is hard to know if people are more accepting of the possibility of life elsewhere or not.   While interaction with extraterrestial beings remains within the realms of fiction and hypnotic trances, there is no proof that we are alone or that we have counterparts in the universe.

If first contact with an extraterrrestial did occur, what would that do to the majority of our world religions?  Would it disintegrate the truths they espouse?  Or would it shine a light on the exclusionary facets of many world religions and only those facest would fade away making the world religions more inclusive more universal in thought?    

There was an excellent movie several years ago entitled: Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett, Jr in the leading roles.  The story line was an intergalactical war between two species, Humans and Dracs.  The lead stars in this movie chase each other to a hostile planet and in order to survive have to work together.  In the process, Lou Gossett, Jr.’s character begins to teach Dennis Quiad’s character about the Drac religion which had strikingly similar values to our world religions.  The movie is a fable about tolerance and acceptance of others different than ourselves but for our discussion here it asks the question “if life did exist elsewhere, what truth that we see as truth remains?” 

There is a fear, at least in fundamentalist Christianity, that if one iota of doctrine is found to be untrue or unaccepted that the whole fabric of the faith will unravel.   I have heard this argument regarding the doctrines of creationism, virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, homosexuals, original sin and many other revered religious doctrines. 

I think my friend would include life on other planets into this unraveling because he would likely quote me John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (New International Version).  If there was life on other planets, How would god save them from their sins?  He already sent his only son to us?  He already “so loved [this] world”; how could he so love another?    Again the questioning of god’s omipotence.  I really do have to talk to him about his contradictory theologies. 

If there is life on other planets, and this universe is so vast and wide to deny life on other planets ‘would be illogical’ to quote a wise Vulcan; but what remains of faith?   One of the wisdoms of Unitarian Universalism is that it is not hinged to a specific doctrine or doctrines or even specific events being true in order for Unitarian Universalism to retain its integrity.  We are a non-creedal faith.  If there is a hinge or an anchor to Unitarian Universalism it is to the values that we seek to live in our lives.  

The value of inherent worth and dignity of every person.   This value is not dependent on some event in order for it to be true.  The verse I quoted earlier supports this value, “For God so loved the world…”  but it is not contingent on god [or even the existance of god] to make it true, each person has inherent worth and dignity in and of themselves.  This value does not disintegrate if we discover that we are not alone in the universe. 

The question then remains… how committed are you to your values that they will not be shaken by the removal of your doctrines?  Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond 

Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm  Comments Off on Alone in the Universe?  
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