Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons

Siddhartha was born a prince in the region of Nepal sometime in the 6th century Before the Common Era.  When he was born, the story is told that astrologers told his parents that Siddhartha was destined to either become a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted his son to become a great king so he insulated Siddhartha from all awareness of suffering in the world.  As long as he would live within the palace walls, he would never see someone sick, nor someone old or dying. He would only see the abundance of the world.  Siddhartha we are told married a princess and had a son.  They were happy. Life was good.

But Siddhartha had never been outside of the palace and he insisted to see the world.  His father ordered the city to be cleared from anyone old or infirmed so Siddhartha would only see happiness and joy.  However, Siddhartha did see someone who was feeble and old and he was very moved by this.  He went out into the city a few more times and saw someone sick and someone dead.  And he saw someone who was considered a sage, a seeker of the truth.

Siddhartha realized that this was the fate of all people to grow old, sick, and die.  He needed to find a way to handle this realization.  Siddhartha renounced his family and privilege as a prince and left the palace forever.  He wandered the countryside joining the various groups of seekers to understand.  Eventually, he settled under a Bodhi Tree and meditated for a long time.  And during his long meditation he had hallucinations of demons tempting him but he stayed true to his quest. And then one day, he had a realization.  It is said that he attained enlightenment and was thereafter called the Buddha.  He spent the rest of his life teaching others what he had learned.

But what was his realization?  And how is this realization still relevant today.

The Buddha taught what he called the Four Noble Truths.

1)    There is Dukkha—a word that is really untranslatable into English.  Dukkha has been translated as suffering but this word alone does not capture the fullness of this word. It also includes the notion of impermanence, emptiness, imperfection.[i]  A recent conversation I had with friend of mine who is a Buddhist Abbott suggested that a better word to use to translate the word Dukkha instead of using the word suffering is to use the word Stress.[ii] We all experience it.  And in our country of privilege, it is perhaps a more prevalent an experience than suffering. So the first Noble Truth states there is stress.

Stating there is stress does not negate that there is suffering, or  happiness or joy, only that there is stress.  There are three aspects of stress; there is ordinary stress, stress caused by change, and conditioned states.  Not getting what one wants, the death or separation from a loved one, these are examples of ordinary stress.  The being downsized at work, the beginning of a marriage, these are examples of stress caused by change.  We are saddened when a love affair ends.  The conditioned state of stress refers to the notion of a being, of an individual self, this conditioned state is made up of the flow of energy that differentiates you from me.  The Buddha refers to five aggregates that make up the self.  There is Matter, Sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These are the things that define this being from any other being.  They include the physical characteristics, the ability to sense and form ideas about the information those senses deliver, the ability to act in word and deed, and the awareness.  All of these work together to make up the self which as a conditioned state results in stress.  All three aspects of stress is the result of attachment. How does one cling to this moment, to this moment, now to this moment?  One cannot, no matter how enjoyable that moment may have been, it is now gone.

2)    The second Noble Truth states there is an origin to Stress. Stress comes from desire, or thirst for something.  That something can be tangible like wanting a nice house to live in to something more intangible like will my retirement fund be solvent or cover my living expenses when I retire. It is easy to see how the desire for power can be a source of stress but even the desire for peace can also be a source of stress.  Not having peace or rather the lack thereof is stressful.
The continuance of the thirst or drive or volition “denote the same thing: they denote the desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more, to grow more and more, to accumulate more and more.[iii]”  All of this desire is stressful.

The notion of karma arises in this second noble truth. Because this thirst, drive, volition is the cause and its actions have an effect.  It may either be good or bad in its effect, but it continues in the direction set forth and additional stress is the ultimate result.

3) The Third Noble Truth is There can be a cessation to Stress.  The answer is rather simple.  This reminds me of a childhood joke.  A person goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor my arm hurts when I do this.”  The doctor said, “Stop doing that.”  The cessation to stress is to stop craving and desiring. Part of this stopping is to no longer be attached to what is craved or desired.  If we must have something to be so in order to be happy, then we will never be happy.  If we are in a state of want, we are not happy.  If we should receive what it is we want, we are fearful we will lose it, and therefore we are not happy.  So letting go of attachment to the desired state be it tangible or intangible is the key to ending stress.

4) We do this through the fourth noble truth which is the middle way in between the two extremes of pleasure seeking and avoiding stress.  It is also known as the Eightfold path.

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

This Eightfold path is combined into three categories of ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.  This path is not like an AA step where one focuses on Right Thought this week and then next week focuses on Right Speech.  These are meant to be worked on simultaneously.

Ethical conduct is based on love and compassion. It includes Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood of the Eightfold path.  Right speech is abstinence from lying, slander, gossip, maliciousness, and hate speech.  Speech is to be truthful and kind, purposeful and meaningful.  My mother would say to me when I was a child, if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.  This is practicing right speech.

Right action is promoting moral and peaceful living.  We are to abstain from destroying life, stealing, dishonesty actions, and sexual misconduct. We are to help others to lead a peaceful life.

Right Livelihood means to work in a profession that will not lead to harm of others.  There are many professions today that while the professions themselves might not lead to harming others, the way they are being embodied are leading to harm.  Today we have extended the concept of harming the lives of others to contain the entire ecosystem in which we live and breathe.

James Ford, Unitarian Universalist Minister and Zen teacher puts it another way.  He states[i] we are to

  1. “Foster Life
  2. Speak truthfully
  3. Respect boundaries
  4. Respect your body and others’ bodies
  5. Remain clear and open”

The next category in the Eightfold Path is Mental Discipline.  This encompasses right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  Right effort is to focus on thoughts that foster life, respect self and others.  Right mindfulness or right awareness is also known as being attentive in the moment. Attentiveness is not only to the activities of mind; but also to the sensations of the body, the sensations of the heart or emotions, and to ideas and thoughts.  It is to be aware of what is without pushing away or pulling towards oneself.  One of the exercises that Buddhists use to strengthen this ability of right awareness is sitting meditation.  This is the meditation practice that allows one to become attentive to ones breathing.  How the air flows in and out of the lungs.  Thoughts that arise are to be noticed and then let go.

In order to strengthen one’s ability to be aware this meditation needs to be done daily.  This is where the work is in Buddhism.  It is one thing to have a philosophical understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and it is another to allow it to transform one’s life.  The person doing sitting meditation applies right effort and right mindfulness into the process of sitting.  They notice their thoughts, their emotions, let them go and as they do they raise their awareness towards equanimity.  “To be rightly aware on the absolute level is to be aware of the true nature of reality…no-self, impermanence and the nature of stress.[i]”  This is training the mind towards becoming open to the enlightenment the Buddha experienced.

The final two aspects of the Eightfold path fit into the category of Wisdom.  These are right understanding and right thought. Right thought includes detachment, love and non-violence towards all beings.  Right understanding refers to seeing the true nature of everything.

So here we are, 2600 years after the Buddha lived on this earth. He has attained nirvana. Another word that is hard to translate. Nirvana is the moment when the burning wood is no more and the fire that was held to it is then set free.  Nirvana is the mind set free.

The teachings of Siddhartha are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago. This is especially true when we use the notion of stress as being a more accurate  translation to Dukkha. We are always hearing the warnings of stress on the physical body.  Obesity and heart disease have been connected to the forces of stress in our lives.  There is stress in our workplace, in our households, in our families.  We live in a world where the possibility of a new war is one day away.  Terrorism is no longer just something that happens over there. It is happening in our schools, in our communities.  Stress is mounting. Many people are at the breaking point.

What are we to do?

Thich Nhat Hahn describes the self as being a garden filled with weeds and flowers.  The weeds are anger, jealousy, fear, discrimination.  The flowers are love, compassion, and understanding. If you water the weeds you strengthen the negative seeds.  If you water the flowers, you will strengthen the positive seeds.  Which kind of garden will you grow?

Another way of looking at this is that we are all addicts to our emotions.  And like addicts when the craving of an emotion wells up we frantically look to find something to quench it before we get the shakes.  We do not know how to handle them when they rise up.  Some of us run away from what we are feeling.  Others seek to subdue them with drugs and alcohol.  And still others push other emotions up front as an act of bravado to hide the true feelings felt inside. The truth is emotions are not permanent.  They will rise and fall away.   We already know this.  Perhaps there is a way to release the negative emotions sooner through meditation.

Meditation has been used as an anger management tool for decades.  Not only does it help relieve stress, it also can help a person who is angry to take a pause and regain their sense of control so they do not lash out in a harmful manner. Be attentive. Take some time out of your day to go and do some focused breathing.  Use the song we sang as a chant to guide your breathing—”when I breathe in, I breath in peace—when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” Or simply just count your breaths, 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale. Etc.  And if you lose count, and you will, simply begin again, 1 on the inhale.  And if your mind wanders, and it will, notice that it did and begin counting your breaths again.

Those who meditate everyday have noted they are more attentive throughout their day.  Not only do they have lower blood pressure they are more able to cope with the stressors of the day.  Aim for ten minutes a day and then in time stretch that towards 30 minutes over time.

Siddhartha found a way to help the world be together. The fact this has lasted for over two millennia is testament that it is a viable way.  Unlike some of the faddish methods that one finds in the self-help section of the bookstore, this middle way has worked in and out of season.

Blessed Be.

 

This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on November 3 2013 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond


[i] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT


[i] James Ishmael Ford, If you are Lucky, You’re Heart will Break, Wisdom Boston, 2012


[i] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

[ii] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT

[iii] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 5:18 pm  Comments Off on Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons  
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Justice as a Spiritual Practice

This past week was a difficult one for me. Watching the state house accepting lies as facts in their passing HB 57 shutting down a women’s ability to have dominion over the fate of her body by restricting access to clinics was difficult to bear. It was also difficult to learn the Accountability Act has the negative impact of reinforcing and securing segregation once again of our schools. Alabama Senate also passed the open carry gun law allowing people to carry guns anywhere even at places of employment against the employer’s policies. This on top of the ongoing draconian actions taken against migrant and immigrant families and the Governor’s refusal of accepting an expansion of Medicaid that would potentially save the lives of 550 people annually. An expansion that would be paid in full by the Federal government the first 3 years and then gradually increase Alabama’s share to cover a mere 10% of the cost by 2020. These actions by our state will increase the suffering our citizens experience.

But our state wasn’t the only state considering and passing laws that were void of any sense of justice. Tennessee sought to specifically create their voucher program for private schools to exclude benefiting Moslem parochial schools and to deny welfare benefits to families whose children are doing poorly in school. The voucher program was killed in session but the welfare benefits in exchange for good school grades passed the TN house on Wednesday.

Then there is the town of Nelson, Georgia that passed an ordinance requiring every head of household, unless a felon or mentally ill, to own a gun and ammo . It isn’t the first town in Georgia to have such an ordinance; the town of Kennesaw has had such an ordinance, albeit unenforced, since 1982.

Our country claims to have a moral compass but I am having difficulty finding true north on this compass. It only seems to point at those things that seem expedient, that seem to support pharisaical righteous indignation and not anything resembling the core teachings of our major religions.

At the same time, our denomination seems to be very active in a variety of social justice issues. Last week there was a very strong presence in Washington DC for the Supreme Court hearings on marriage equality. And Unitarian Universalists are preparing to join thousands this coming week for the Immigration march on Washington to push for humane immigration reform. Unitarian Universalists have joined the protests against the building of the Keystone Pipeline—some even pledging to participate in civil disobedience. At the School of Americas Watch protest every fall, Unitarian Universalists join in seeking closure of this international military training camp that has resulted in millions of lives lost and displaced in Latin America.
These are in my mind important issues but how does one keep from being swallowed up in the search for justice for all. How does one keep from becoming bitter and sardonic in the face of so much pain and suffering these injustices cause?

There are three people who I believe can provide some insight into how Justice can be a spiritual practice. These three people are Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But first we need a working definition of what defines a spiritual practice. Venerable Deo Kwun gave a dharma talk to Unitarian Universalists in Grand Rapid Michigan. He was looking for a definition of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice and came to understand spiritual practice for us as being: a repeated action coupled with clear intention to connect with all things in a way that rests in wisdom, love, kindness, compassion, and joy.

Leave it to a non-Unitarian Universalist to come up with a viable working definition of what we do as a spiritual practice. That is another sermon topic.

I am going to use this definition to present some ideas regarding creating Justice as a spiritual practice. I begin with Bishop Desmond Tutu.
For those who may not know Desmond Tutu. He is the first black Anglican archbishop from Capetown, South Africa. He fought for the end of apartheid. He insisted not to become bitter in the face of his adversaries. Bitterness, one might think, would be a justified reaction given the pain and suffering he and his people have endured under apartheid. He chose not to go there.

In order to do the work for freedom and justice he followed this daily routine: He sought to think positive. He would remember all the positive and loving actions he experienced from others and think about those actions. He would seek to recognize present moments of positive and loving actions in his day to day life. These memories and present encounters would motivate and provide direction for his life. He awoke each morning with quiet time, a walk, and prayerful reflection. Now his prayerful reflection because he is Christian included reading and reflecting on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a parallel to what was happening in his life. And because he is Christian, he sought to hear his god’s voice in the midst of all that was happening around him to aid him in guiding his journey.

Reflection is important in doing Justice work. I believe that it is essential regardless of the faith doctrine one hangs their hat. Without it, creating justice becomes another exterior action that has no central conviction behind it. Creating justice should be expanding the realm of freedom and liberation and not forging steel bars of anger, resentment, and bitterness exchanging one prison cell for anther one.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. followed a practice of ‘Satya-graha’ or soul force. Soul force was created by Gandhi from his study of many religions. He took the Hindu concepts of Ahimsa—non-violence and Anaskati- detachment, the Christian concept of loving your neighbors as yourself and redemptive suffering and Jainism’s anekantavada—the many-sidedness of truth to create this notion of Soulforce.  Martin Luther King adapted Soulforce for his non-violent resistance through out the 1950’s and 60’s.

Gandhi and King had their followers in various marches sign pledges of Soulforce action. For both Gandhi and King, Soulforce was not just a tactic in order to win victory but rather a way of life that transforms first the individual engaged in it and secondarily the world around them. For them the goal was not victory but justice and reconciliation. To achieve justice, it was important to live justly. Both men sought this level of commitment in the people who marched with them.

There is a quote in the Movie Gandhi that has him saying something along the lines of “when the British leave India we want to see them off as friends.” And this attitude of reconciliation was at the heart of his message and his commitment.

Many years ago now, I joined Rev. Mel White in a similar venture for justice. He is the founder of Soulforce, an organization that seeks justice and reconciliation within the conservative faiths regarding gender and sexual diversities. We engaged in a 17 week course of reflection on being gay and oppressed in the context of Soulforce with the goal that we would sit down to dinner with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

We too had to sign a pledge similar to the pledge that Gandhi’s and King’s followers were asked to sign. We also were asked to take five vows as life long commitments. Some of them are harder to keep than others.
The vows were the following :

Five Soulforce Vows or Promises
1. Vow to Truth
I promise to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it.
2. Vow to Love
I promise to reject violence (of the fist, tongue, or heart) and to use only the methods of nonviolence in my search for truth or in my confrontation with untruth.
3. Vow to volunteer suffering
I promise to take on myself without complaint any suffering that might result from my confrontation with untruth and to do all in my power to help my adversary avoid all suffering, especially that suffering that may result from our confrontation.
4. Vow to control passions
I promise to control my appetite for food, sex, intoxicants, entertainment, position, power that my best self might be free to join with my Creator in doing justice (making things fair for all).
5. Vow to limit possessions
I promise to limit my possessions to those things I really need to survive and to see myself as a trustee over all my other possessions, using them exclusively to help make things fair for those who suffer.

The first vow was based in the notion that we all fall victim to untruth. Jerry Falwell was not my enemy, even though he said hateful things about my character as a gay man, he was instead a victim to untruth just as I had been a victim of the same untruth. The interactions we had with him were not so much as to reach a victory as it was to find reconciliation and end the sharing of untruth about us.

The second vow to love was to refrain from all forms of violence; of the fist, tongue, or heart. I served as a peacekeeper for the celebration of Lynchburg Virginia’s first gay pride event. We were told that the protesters  including some of Westboro Baptist folks, were to be on the opposite side of the road from where the event was taking place. I and other peace keepers created a human shield between them and the festivities. The police did not keep their word to keep the group on that side of the road and soon they were up against our backs, saying all sorts of vile things in our ears hoping to get a rise out of us. They were leaning into our bodies hoping for us to make a move in which all hell would break loose. We remained steadfast in our restraint. We said no words, we used no fist, and I hope I was keeping a calm heart as well.

The Vow to voluntary suffering means acceptance of any consequences that may arise from my keeping the first two vows. There is a powerful scene in the Movie Gandhi where there is an attempt to shut down the salt mines. Row after row of men lined up to move in and the police and guards hit them hard to keep them from advancing forward. The sheer volume of men coming forward to insist on closing down the mines is overwhelming. Vince Walker, in reporting this scene says: Whatever moral ascendancy the West once held was lost here today. India is free, for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.
They accepted the consequences of their actions. To work for justice means to be willing accept the consequences in the process, not to complain about the consequences but to accept them and to take the next step forward. The forces of untruth are often virulent in their desire to maintain prominence in a culture.

One only needs to see the virulence of untruth as it swirls around the reality that we have a black president. It has struck with a vengeance and so many people in the US today are being forced to reckon with the idea that their prejudices and racist beliefs about others are false. A reelection to office has not tempered the vile untruths being spouted. But Soulforce would ask us to have compassion on those who are so trapped in the prison cells of untruth because they are victims just as much as those who suffer from their racially charged laws and judgments.

It could be argued that the first three vows are specific to causes of justice and the last two are more life style choices; to control passions and to limit possessions. But consider that if passions are allowed to run free how might that impact on the justice we seek to create? How many people in religious or political settings have been destroyed because they have allowed their passions to control them instead of them their passions? Trying to live up to these two vows as Mel White suggests is a personal decision. They cannot be standardized or quantified. Therefore, how I might live these would be vastly different from how you might choose to live them.

Here in the south we see all too frequently what happens when a group of people attempts to quantify or set up a behavioral standard as to what these might look like in our lives. It results in imposing one’s will or one’s doctrine onto another person or group. That attitude results in suffering and oppression instead of reducing suffering.

So to take on these last two vows is to commit to the hard work of discerning the parameters of passion and the parameters of living simply. It is hard work. And Gandhi and King were no saints in this regard, far from it. They each have stories circulating around them where these two vows were clearly broken. But that fact does not undo the justice they attempted to create in the world. It does keep them human and hopefully away from the iconic images of saints being above reproach.

To live with Justice as a spiritual practice is to allow oneself to be transformed in order to change the world. Rep. John Lewis in an interview stated: “… hate is too heavy a burden to bear. And if you accept nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, then you must be true, you must be consistent. Because if you only accept nonviolence as a technique or as a tactic, it becomes like a faucet. You can turn it on and turn it off. You have to go around deciding who you’re going to hate and who you’re going to love today, who you’re going to like or dislike, and I can truly say that I don’t have any ill feeling or malice or hatred toward anyone that attacked me or had me arrested or jailed during that period. I saw the men and women that engaged in the violence and the mob, whether it was a Bull Connor in Birmingham or a Sheriff Clark in Selma, as victims. We all were victims.”

Justice as a spiritual practice is not like faucets that can be turned on or off, you have to decide that this work is important to who you are in the world. It means extending love to all we meet. Even those who are adamantly oppositional to us, we are called to love with justice. May we begin again in love. Blessed be.

“Justice as a Spiritual Practice” by
Rev. Fred L Hammond  was offered on 7 April 2013 ©  to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

[1] http://thecontributor.com/medicaid-expansion-could-save-over-500-lives-year-alabama

[1] http://thinkprogress.org/education/2013/04/03/1815461/tennessee-may-deliberately-exclude-muslim-schools-from-new-voucher-program/

[1] http://www.tennessean.com/article/20130404/NEWS0201/304040068/TN-bill-linking-welfare-benefits-grades-passes-House-committee

[1] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/02/17567999-georgia-town-passes-law-requiring-citizens-to-own-guns-and-ammo?lite

[1] http://grzen.org/talks/What_is_Spiritual_Practice.pdf

[1] http://www.archives.soulforce.org/1998/01/01/take-the-five-soulforce-vows-or-promises/

[1] http://paceebene.org/nvns/nonviolence-news-service-archive/hate-too-heavy-burden-bear-interview-rep-john-lewis-0

Published in: on April 23, 2013 at 11:32 am  Comments Off on Justice as a Spiritual Practice  
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What Endures?

I received an interesting comment  on my post A Unitarian Universalist Theology.  “…why should we concern ourselves on [relationships t]hat will pass , instead of what will endure?”

The question, even though I attempted to give an answer, remained with me.  Here is a portion of what I wrote:

What does endure? Everything that I see and experience dies in this universe including the stars above. Some ancient scriptures state that love endures. But where is love found? In relationships. I have never seen or experienced love that existed independently or was separate from a relationship between two or more entities. …  So if love endures as many various scriptures indicate, then focusing on relationships is a means to experience love and to have that love endure beyond us.

I have reflected more on love enduring beyond us and remembered several events in my life where this is true, at least in my life.  My father’s parents were conservationists, a term that today would probably be translated as environmentalists.  They co-founded the local chapter of the Audubon Society. The both loved being in nature;  exploring the various ferns and fauna that grew on their property.  I was fortunate to have them live across the road from me and so I was surrounded by their love of nature. They introduced me to raising Monarch Butterflies and other caterpillars.  They would teach me to be awed by the diversity of life even within the same species.  My grandparents have now been gone for over 40 years, yet when I stop to look at flowers or butterflies pirouetting in flight , or to listen to the warbler’s  song, it is my grandparents’ love that is being expressed here.  Their love surfaces to my memories and hold me in that grace.

I had a childhood friend who was my best friend through out middle school and high school.  He was gay. We continued our friendship into adulthood. And while I struggled with acceptance of my sexuality, he was able to be there for me. I  would argue with him about the sinfulness of it all and he would listen and still accept me for where I was.

Then Glenn in the late 1980’s was diagnosed HIV positive.  I wanted to do something that would let him know that I supported him, that I cared for him. An opportunity opened up for me to become involved with the founding of an Interfaith response to HIV in the Connecticut city where I lived.  This opportunity based in the desire to support my friend was to shift the direction of my life for ever.

I was on the founding board of this new entity.  Then I was president and then through some heavy duty risk taking, I stepped into the director position not knowing if sustainable funding would be established. That position grew into full time and then had a complement of eight staff.  Fifteen years later the ministry was providing family preservation supports to hundreds of people living with and affected by HIV.  We were educating our youth with a youth directed,  youth organized HIV/AIDS education program. We were doing outreach into the immigrant Brazilian population.  We were providing a full service food pantry with fresh meats, fresh vegetables, fresh dairy, fresh fruit and a nutritionist at 20 hours a week.  And we were the first in that community to be a tri-lingual agency with English, Spanish, and Brazilian dialect Portuguese spoken.

My relationship and my love for Glenn endured through this time even though Glenn did not live long enough to see or hear the full story of his inspiration on my life. He died just before I became director of that organization.

When I came out of the closet and subsequently excommunicated from the Charismatic Christian intentional community I lived in, it was my relationship with another friend that carried me through and lives on in me now.  Wayne’s wife was active in the AIDS ministry in those early years. When she retired our friendship thinned as friendships sometimes do. A few years had passed and she died.  I attended her memorial service and Wayne and I reconnected our friendship.  I was floundering spiritually.  Wayne invited me to attend his Unitarian Universalist congregation.   I did and while I did not join the congregation for a good length of time, I was beginning to sense that this was home for me.  Wayne was a good mentor for me.  He had a perspective on things that was delightfully refreshing.

When I began talking about entering seminary for the UU ministry, Wayne was the first to encourage me.  Wayne was a phenomenal knitter.  He was knitting me a sweater for those cold Chicago nights when the cancer thought in remission was discovered to have metastasized in the brain.  Wayne spoke with the knitting ministry of the church to finish the sweater even as he lay in the hospital bed approaching his final hours.  While I have not had much opportunity to wear the sweater here in Alabama, I treasure it as another example of love enduring.

In many ways these relationships continue on in my life in various ways.  It is their love that endures and sustains me.  They have shaped my vision of life and they have steered me into uncharted waters at the right time.  There are others whose lives have intersected with mine whose love endures and shapes mine.  I am sure that there are lives that I have intersected with and perhaps have shaped their lives, hopefully for the fuller, happier side of life.

This for me is part of what I would refer to as having a relationship with the holy.  That indescribable flow of energy between two or more that creates something new and different.  It could be something as simple as an awe and appreciation of the wonders of nature or the creation of a new entity that lets people know that they are loved and not alone with a frightening disease called AIDS.

And so I emend my answer. Love endures.  The physical may pass away, but the love shared endures and can still inform the present.  It is through relationships that love develops.  It is through relationships that love informs. It is through relationships that love shapes our lives into new creations. It is through relationships that our lives are directed on a path towards what exactly, I do not know.   Some say to the holy, some say to an afterlife of bliss, some say to come back and do it again.  And some say this is life is all we are given.  Whatever the destination, I have come to believe  having quality relationships with others is key to an abundant life.  And love endures.

How Do You Eat Your Grits?

I have just completed my final Sunday service at Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville, MS.  I was the consulting minister there for four years.  In reflecting back on my service there, I have learned a wonderful lesson about what it means to be a minister and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Four years ago, Eunice Benton, District Executive (now retired) of the Mid-South District of the Unitarian Universalist Association asked me to consider coming to Mississippi to serve two congregations at half-time each.  She asked if I had ever lived in the deep south before and the answer was no.  Eunice wisely asked me to come down and visit before making any decision.  I met with the two congregations. The first congregation asked me the typical minister search questions; what was my theology, what are my views of religious education, etc.

The interview at Our Home held over dinner was one question and one question only.  “How do you eat your grits?”  I was a bit startled by the unorthodox question but I answered, “with butter, salt and pepper.”   I was then welcomed to come to Mississippi and be their minister. The rest of the dinner conversation was filled with logistics of transition and good humored conversation.  If I had answered with sugar or maple syrup or heaven forbid, “what are grits?” I dare say I would not be here to tell the tale.

How we create and sustain loving relationships with one another is the essence of our covenantal faith. Cultural competency is one important aspect of our faith that enables us to be in relationship.  The grits question certainly addresses this point.

Theology, creeds, or doctrines we might hold, while important to have them defined for ourselves,  take a much smaller role in living the Unitarian Universalist faith.  The real question, the vital question is how do we translate our theologies, creeds, doctrines into our day to day relationships with one another.  In short, how do you eat your grits?  Are you going to be able to relate to people who come from a very different background, a different culture, a different theological perspective on what is true and still find common ground?

This is where our work is.  This is what defines our faith as different from other faiths.  16th century Unitarian minister Francis David is quoted as saying, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.”   It does, however, help if our thinking, our theologies, our doctrines, and our personally held creeds aid us in loving alike.  If they do not help us in loving our neighbor as ourselves or to do onto others as we would want others to  do onto us,  then it may be time to reconsider our theologies, our doctrines, or our personally held creeds.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not concerned with whether you are a Christian or a Humanist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, a Pagan or a Jew.  Our faith is more concerned with how the doctrines of those beliefs help you build sustaining loving relationships with others.

If your beliefs empower you to be more loving, more generous, more able to fulfill your highest potential, more able to be just in your relationships, then that is what is vital to this life.  If they hinder you from being inclusive of the other, cause you to shun and fear others who are different, solicit an attitude of me and mine first, then those beliefs are not serving you well. It might be best to either let them go or re-examine them to find how they can aid you in living a more generous of spirit and heart life.

Unitarian Universalists recognize that what enables one person to become more loving and more generous may not enable another to do so.  And so for one person Christianity may be the path that empowers this love, for another it may be Buddhism, and for yet another it may be one of the Earth centered faiths. This is reflected in our fourth principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Rev. Doak Mansfield, former minister at Our Home Universalist,  once stated that Unitarian Universalism in the deep south is about grace and relationships.  We best express our faith in how we relate to one another.  It is our personal relationships that are our best calling card for our faith.   It is also in how we develop our public witness for justice.  The desire to create partnerships with those who are oppressed and to follow their lead towards freedom.  Grace and relationships.

Wherever two or more are gathered, it is in the relational aspect of the gathering that the spirit of love is either present or absent.  Unitarian Universalists strive to allow the spirit of love to be present.  That is the essence of our faith the rest, to paraphrase Hillel, is commentary.

Blessings,

Standing on the Side of Love–a Spiritual Practice

Yesterday I went to the Statehouse in Montgomery to testify against HB 56, Alabama’s version of Arizona’s SB 1070.  As I listened to the testimony of those who were for this bill, I was struck by the anger they felt towards the values I hold dear.

Values like compassion for others.  Values like acceptance of diversity.  Values like equal opportunities for all.  Values like honoring the integrity and dignity of others. Values like having life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness accessible for everyone.

My faith denomination, Unitarian Universalist,  has been the sponsors of the Standing of the Side of Love Campaign.  It has been used in several ways.  It is prominent in the ongoing immigrant rights struggle in Arizona and elsewhere.  It is prominent in supporting Muslim’s right to freedom of religion in Tennessee and in New York City and other places in America.  It is prominent in the right to marriage campaign across this country.  And most recently, it has been supporting workers rights for collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

One of the criticisms lobbied at Unitarian Universalists is that we are not spiritual, that we are too much of the head and not enough, if at all, of the heart.  It has been a fair criticism.  We Unitarian Universalists value reason and critical thinking skills as a way to cut through the unprovable and the improbable in order to see the core of the matter in the hopes that we can make a difference for the better of all of our lives.  Sometimes we have succeeded and sometimes it has been our thorn in our side.

The Standing on the Side of Love campaign is in its very essence a remedy to that criticism.  Many years ago now, I decided to join Rev. Mel White, founder of Soulforce, in a seventeen step journey towards preparation in confronting the homophobia and violent rhetoric within the Christian Church.  This was a series of essays and reflections which I was invited to journal about and discuss with a friend before joining Mel White in Lynchburg, VA to speak with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell about his vitriol against gays.

One of the things Mel White wrote was this:

“When we seek freedom for someone else, we find freedom for ourselves. When we finally make the decision to take a stand against oppression (or the rhetoric that leads to oppression) that stand itself leads us to spiritual renewal whether we win or we lose the battle.”

Those who begin to engage in Standing on the Side of Love have an opportunity, to not only achieve the desired goal of undoing a grave injustice but also to experience a spiritual renewal within themselves.  Okay so that sounds self-centered and not altruistic in the least.

Yet, it is only ourselves that we can change. I cannot make someone else love their neighbor as they themselves would like to be loved.  But I can do that.  I can choose to love my neighbor.  I can reflect on what that action means to me and reinforce it into my behavior.  I can join with others who also choose to love their neighbor and together we can reflect on our common experiences of doing that act and build that into our way of being together.  This is what our Unitarian Universalist congregations aim to do every Sunday.

We can role model that behavior for others to witness.  Standing on the Side of Love is spiritual work.  It is not simply wearing a yellow t-shirt or placing a heart logo on our facebook page.  It is and can be a spiritual practice that helps us be fully in touch with our humanity’s soul.

I do not know how I will be able to face the anger that I faced yesterday if I do not choose to stand on the side of love daily.  I do not know how I will address that anger and possibly soften their anger to seeing another way if I do not choose to stand on the side of love daily.

I invite you to join me to stand on the side of love as if your life and faith depends on it.  I know mine does.  Blessings.

Peace on Earth; Good Will Toward Men

Peace on Earth; Good Will Toward Men was originally published in the Our Home Universalist Unitarian monthly newsletter for December 2009.   

Another year is coming to a close and our thoughts begin to drift to the holidays of gift giving, parties, and celebrating each other’s company.  These are all good things to do; especially as our economy still struggles to rise from the ashes of mortgage and banking schemes of greed that backfired on millions of people. So what does this season of joy mean to us in the face of such struggle?  Is there true hope that shines over a manger in Bethlehem?    I believe there is. 

Conservative Christians see the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of the promise of God to redeem the world from sin. To participate in this redemption a person has to confess with their mouth that they have asked for forgiveness of their sins and accept Jesus into their hearts. To quote Joel Osteen; to say this prayer transforms one into a Christian.  

Unitarian Universalists tend not to believe that a simple confession of the mouth will save or transform anyone.  It is not words alone that save us.  If there is a contention between liberal and conservative religion, perhaps it is whether repeating a prayer will save a person from anything let alone from judgment day.  This is not the hope that shines bright each December.  

No, the hope that shines bright is the belief that we can indeed fulfill the promise of “Peace on earth, Good will toward men.”  The purpose of Christmas is not eternal salvation as Rick Warren’s popular book of the same name claims but rather to instill the hope that humanity can evolve to the point where violence—physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual violence—towards one another no longer needs to be the norm.  This sort of transformation does not happen over night, it takes diligence.  It takes discipline, rigorous discipline of the every day kind for that sort of transformation.  

I spent over 20 years of my life as a Charismatic Christian. I have seen many things that I cannot explain.  But the one thing I can explain is why individuals who claimed to be instantaneously freed from addictions (defined as broadly as possible) did not remain in their sobriety of that addiction.  It did not last when the holy chills of the moment wore off unless they committed themselves to the work of one day at a time.   Jesus’ command to “go and sin no more” was not just an idle saying.  As anyone in alcoholics anonymous can tell you it takes a recommitment every day and sometimes every hour, every minute to fulfill Jesus’ word of “go and sin no more.” 

It is the same for all of us.  The spiritual journey is not a blanket that is wrapped around us on a cool evening but a diligent stoking of the fires of warmth and generosity.  It is not a check off list— complete laundry; buy groceries; accept Jesus into my heart—that’s now done, where’s the party? The teaching of Jesus’ to love our neighbor as our self takes the kind of discipline that a person in AA takes to remain sober. Unitarian Universalists believe this is the way towards the Christmas promise.   Whether you claim to be a Christian, a Unitarian Universalist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Mormon; by whatever stripe you are healed, work out your salvation not just in words but in your commitment to actions that bring peace on earth, good will towards all.  Blessings,

Published in: on November 29, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Comments Off on Peace on Earth; Good Will Toward Men  
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Covenantal Faith

One of the comments I hear from time to time is that because Unitarian Universalists have no core doctrine, no central dogma therefore Unitarian Universalism cannot be a religion, let alone foster spirituality.  While it is true that other religions have doctrines and dogmas that shape the boundaries of their practice, our covenants shape ours.  One popular covenant that is heard in our congregations is this one.

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth its sacrament and service is its prayer; to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.  Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

These are lovely words though sometimes hard to do. In this covenant we define how we are going to be loving people. We have placed seeking truth as a sacrament, as a holy obligation, and as something that holds a sacred significance to us. Service as its prayer; meaning that in our efforts to support the church, in our supporting our justice making causes, in our compassion to serve human need, and in our seeking to dwell in peace that truth is found in these efforts empowering us to be loving people. The prayer is answered through our loving actions “…to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.” Notice we do not state that all souls shall grow into harmony with each other but rather with the divine. There is great wisdom here. It is in the diversity of our human relationships that new desires / new thoughts / new ways of being together can develop and shine. The divine here is that quality of connecting to our best selves / our higher selves / our higher power. We state in the last sentence that we are going to hold each other accountable to each other and to God.  God being that which is ultimate in our lives; the creative interchange as Weiman states; the ground of being as Tillich states.   

This covenant is sometimes hard to live out consistently. That is okay because it also teaches us how to forgive as we connect to the promise we make. In any relationship there will be opportunities for forgiveness and a church community is no different. We can never know what filters people are wearing on any given day. People could be wearing the filters of exhaustion, filters of feeling overwhelmed with work or projects, filters of not understanding, filters of a day where everything seemingly went wrong, filters of not feeling adequate, filters of being abused, filters of not feeling well physically. The list goes on. So in the process of interacting with one another, words are also spoken and heard through these filters. Misunderstandings occur, misperceptions occur, and feelings are hurt with people withdrawing from the situation or the task at hand.

This covenant reminds us to seek forgiveness from each other, to try to listen to the other person without our own inner self chatter happening at the same time. To reflect on what is being said to us and to grow in new understanding and appreciation of the other. Through this deep attentive listening to the other we can begin again to honor our covenant of faith.

Covenants require re-commitments in order to uphold them as central to our being together.  Covenants act as a centering touch stone that we can call each other back to and help remind of the promise to higher commitments and ideals we seek to reveal in our coming together.  When we fall short of that promise to each other and/or to ourselves we can always renew that promise and begin again. 

It is in examining our covenants on a regular basis that we can discover how we are fairing as a community of faith.  Even for those faiths that have doctrines and dogmas that its adherents are asked to affirm for themselves personally, covenants are sometimes developed to aid the congregants in living the ideals those doctrines point towards.  Covenants are deeply spiritual in their very nature dating back at least to the covenant made between God and Abraham and his descendants.  This covenant was reviewed regularly and was often the topic of the prophets.   Keeping a covenant is spiritual discipline. 

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth its sacrament and service is its prayer; to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.  Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

Blessings,

Swimming in the River

I ended yesterday’s post with a metaphor of needing to swim daily in the river in order to be able to swim around the flotsam and jetsam that are also in the river.  Of course, I was writing about spiritual practices and not actual swimming, although some will tell me that swimming is part of their spiritual practice. 

What  spiritual practice do you use in your daily life to help you remain centered and aligned with your core self?  What spiritual practice do you attend to daily to keep you alert and aware to the stream of well-being that I suggest is the undercurrent of all things?  How do we connect to that mystery that is unfolding and leading us forward on this journey? 

The Buddhists practice zazen.  A form of sitting meditation where they clear their minds of the rampant thoughts and seek to become aware of their present moment.  To be fully present to the now is a powerful experience.  It is a means to then be more fully alert to the events of the day.   There is also the walking meditation where the person consciously and deliberately attends to each breath and each movement of the body as they walk.  This again is a means to become more fully alert and aware of the present moment.  There are two blogs that I have linked to that are Buddhist centered; Monkey Mind by my dear friend and colleague Zen Master Rev. James Ishmael Ford and Wildfoxzen by Zen Master Dosho Port.

Christians practice prayer.  There are many forms of prayer.  There are supplication prayers where a person asks for help and guidance.  There is intercessory prayer where a person seeks on behalf of another.  There are prayers of praise where the person expresses their gratefulness and thanksgiving to the wonders and love of life.  There is also centering prayer which is probably the closest to zazen where the person quiets the mind while using a pre-chosen phrase to focus on.   There are also prescribed prayers such as the Jesus Prayer or the prayer of Jabez  or praying the rosary.  These prayers assist the person to focus beyond themselves and their current strife.  The act of repeating over and over again the same words enables the person to transcend their present state and connect to their core self. 

Muslims have designated times, five times a day, where they pause and pray to Allah. This is an act of worship and is most central to the life of a Muslim. There are prescribed prayers that they recite. The act of designated times connects all of the Muslims together.  It enables them to see themselves as connected to a larger whole, to a larger purpose than just their individual lives.  This prayer is also an embodied prayer in that there are different postures with different prayers that one does while praying. 

Pagans use rituals to maintain their connections to spirit.  They  symbolically see the elements of nature as having characteristics that they would want to be balanced in their lives. So they may focus on the four directions; north, east,south, west;  and the four elements; air, fire, earth, water to help remind them of these characteristics.

There are other practices that one may take.  I also incorporate nature hikes where I consciously take note of the beauty of the world around me.  I notice the blooms, the song of the  birds, the evidence of an abundant life around me.  And give appreciation to the universe for all these wonderful creations around me.   Others journal, write poetry, sing, dance as ways of reflecting, connecting, and being in this world.   Blessings abound, Rev. Fred L Hammond

Published in: on May 13, 2008 at 4:27 pm  Comments Off on Swimming in the River  
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