Music as a Spiritual Practice

This is the text of a worship service at First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on October 27, 2013.  It was a non-traditional service that I led from the piano.  It combined recorded music, spoken word, live musical performances, readings and congregational singing.

Music: James Brown, “Doin it to Death”

“Some songs make you feel good. Some songs make you feel bad.  Some songs just make you ‘feel.’  You may not understand all the words, but your heart truly understands the feeling.”  Those words are from R & B singer Peabo Bryson – the “real” pre-Disney movie theme Peabo.  In 1981 he released a live version of his 70s hit “Feel the Fire.”  I started playing it on my then-new Walkman cassette player before every exam, every trial and every big presentation. I played it the day I was sworn in to the United States Supreme Court.  I played it two months ago in July the day of my surgery. I played it today.  It’s always among the Top 25 played songs in my iTunes library.  There’s something about the energy of that particular version that makes me feel invincible.  The song you just heard is called “Doing it to Death” by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.   Nothing can make you “feel” like a James Brown song.  Young or old, black or white, I’m sure that song made you feel something.  I hear that song and instantly feel good. Hopefully it made you feel good, too.  But maybe it didn’t and that’s ok.  That’s what today’s service is about – the power of music.  Eight simple notes.  Arranged in various combinations, played on different instruments, sung by humans or animals.   Whether it’s funk, opera, jazz, easy listening or heavy metal, it’s all the same eight notes.

For those who do not know me, my name is Connie Simon and I’ve been a member of this church since 2009.  I’ve been on the Ministry Leadership Team, the Membership and Multicultural Ministries, the Bylaws committee and am proud to be your Moderator this year.   Some of you know that I come from a musical family.  My mother and her sister were the organists of their respective churches. My sister sings in the church choir.  My niece Suzanne Burgess is a professional singer here in Philadelphia.  As a kid I sang in the choir and all the school choruses, played the saxophone and clarinet in marching band and have played the piano in all kinds of venues since I was eight years old.  Over the past few years, I’ve filled in for Jen Heyman, our previous music director and performed here with Cory Walker many times.

Even though I’ve made my living in law and business, music has always been the constant my life.  It’s my solace and my comfort.  It’s the one thing that is always with me.  No matter how I’m feeling – happy or sad, sick or well, fragile or unbreakable, loved or unloved, I turn to music.  It’s my “spiritual practice.”  It can calm me, excite me, motivate me and sometimes in its beauty even move me to tears.  Bach, Beethoven, Bryson or Brown, there is an arrangement of those eight notes for every occasion in my life.  I feel their vibrations in my soul and use them to heal and sustain me.   Today, I’ll share with you the power of music as a means of spiritual practice – as a vehicle to ground you, to carry you to a higher place or simply to take you home.  I hope you don’t mind but today will be a little bit different – a cross between a summer service and a Music Sunday.  With Reverend Nate as my worship associate, Cory, Suzanne, Joy, Zemoria, Dan and Schelly assisting, I’ll lead the service from the piano through Wonder-Joy, Prayer, Gratitude, Presence, Reverence and Hope.   My mission is for you to leave here feeling good.  I hope you enjoy and have a funky good time. So, let’s begin the way we do every week by saying simply “welcome home.”

Wonder-Joy

What exactly is a spiritual practice?  Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers.  The Spiritual Science Research Foundation defines it as “honest and sincere efforts done consistently on a daily basis to develop Divine qualities and achieve everlasting happiness or Bliss…. It’s “our personal journey of going inward beyond our five senses, mind and intellect to experience the Soul (the God) within each one of us.”    I’ve also seen it defined as something that “moves a person along a path towards a goal.”

You can define it any way you choose.  My spiritual practices are those things that keep me sane and guide my steps through this life and into the next.   My spiritual practices are tied to my core values and to the fundamental principles by which I live my life – honesty, kindness, knowledge and service.  I always speak my truth from my heart and I don’t compromise my integrity.  I believe in showing kindness and compassion to the other creatures with whom I share this universe.   I strive to learn something new every day.  And I truly believe in service.  In the words of one of my favorite authors, SARK, when asked what I do or who I am, I say “I am a creative spirit.  I just came here to help.”

Honesty, Kindness, Knowledge and Service are the outward manifestation of my spiritual journey.  Today, we’re going to talk about those practices that reflect internally and guide me on my path.  I’m going to use music as the medium through which I’ll explain what I mean.  Understand that I’m using “music” in the broadest sense.  I’ll introduce each spiritual practice with an explanation of what it means to me and then share with you a few songs, poems and stories that illustrate that practice and that are personally very important to me.

I’d like to start with the practice of “Wonder-Joy.”  Initially, in my mind, these were two different things with “wonder” suggesting amazement and appreciation for the things around me and “joy” referring simply to happiness.  And then I read “Experiencing Tears of Wonder-Joy: Seeing with the Heart’s Eye” by William Brand.  And finally, all those times I found myself stopped dead in my tracks by something I’d seen or heard made sense to me.   All those times I’d felt that indescribable feeling in my chest and the tears welling up – finally made sense.  Braud says “My skin erupts in gooseflesh, hairs standing on end.  Something literally takes my breath away; I gasp, involuntarily.  Chills run up and down my spine.  I feel a tingling around my eyes, my head, and the back of my neck.  The tone of the experience is positive.  Toward the end of the experience, or afterward, there may be some sadness.  In the midst of the experience I feel love and compassion.  My heart goes out to what I am witnessing.  I feel gratitude.  I feel a yearning, a poignancy, an intensity.  Around me, and between me and the provoking event, there is what I can only describe as a thickness, as though the surrounding air somehow has a greater density.  The experience comes up me – unexpected, spontaneous.  My attention is focused strongly upon what I am witnessing, what is provoking these feelings.  Other things fade from my attention.  … The rest of me pauses, shuts down temporarily.  I must cease, and allow the feelings to subside before I am able to continue.”

Wonder-Joy isn’t something you can look for; it’s something that’s already inside you, always waiting to be released and anxious to be set free.  As children, we’re taught that we have to “grow up and get serious.”   Sure, we all have responsibilities and obligations but we also have to keep our hearts and minds open to the world around us. Robert Fulghum says, “Surprise is the core of existence. It’s true. You never really know what’s coming next.”  Even the most mundane things can be amazing.   It is said that “Wonder begins in the senses, comes alive in the imagination, and flourishes in adoration of the Divine. It arises from our natural curiosity about the grand adventure of life. It increases our capacity to be a bold inner space tripper and an avid explorer of the physical world. … [it’s] all right here, a feast of epiphanies and astonishments in the daily round of our spiritual lives.  Put very simply by Ted Kosser, “I delight in the things I discover right within reach.”   I’ve experienced Wonder-Joy many times in my life.    In January 2009, I had a pretty good ticket for President Obama’s first inauguration.  The crush of people around me was incredible.  It was freezing cold.  But when we got to our seating area, I saw those thousands of people all there for the same reason I was.  We were one.  We were there to celebrate not just a new president but a new president who looked like us.  All at once the hopes and dreams of my ancestors were realized and in an instant – I was overcome by Wonder-Joy.  This summer I was driving through my hometown and spotted some cows hanging out on an Amish farm.  The sky was a perfect blue; the grass was verdant and plush.  When I stopped to admire the scene, one cow looked up at me as if to say “Nice day, huh?”  That’s Wonder-Joy.   Then there’s the song you’re about to hear.  My brother Doug introduced me to Chuck Mangione back in the 1970s and his soundtrack for the movie “Children of Sanchez.”  The movie, starring Anthony Quinn, didn’t do well at the box office, but the soundtrack is amazing.  One particular melody, “Consuelo,” which you’ll hear in a moment, is so haunting and beautiful in its simplicity that it always moves me to Wonder-Joy.  But first, you’re going to hear a poem by English poet Adelaide Anne Proctor about an episode of musical Wonder-Joy.  This 1858 poem was set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1877 as a death-bed tribute to his brother Fred.  When I was young my mother used to play and sing it to me.  Even now, when I sit down at my piano at home, it’s one of my favorite pieces to play.

Poetry Reading: “The Lost Chord,” Adelaide Ann Proctor read by Dan Widyano

Music: Medley – “Consuelo’s Love Theme” and “Children of Sanchez” by Chuck Mangione, arranged by C. Simon performed by Suzanne Burgess, Joy Wiltenburg and Connie Simon

Prayer

Poetry Reading:  “The Old Slave Music” by Sarah Piatt read by Rev. Zemoria Brandon

Much of the “old slave music” referenced in that poem came from the anguish and despair of the slaves who had been torn from their homes and families only to be worked like animals, bought and sold like crops and often beaten until they died or escaped.  Many of their songs were pleas for help and deliverance from the hell in which they found themselves.   Sometimes we find ourselves in our own personal versions of hell.   Sometimes it’s poverty, hunger, loneliness, danger, poor health – or sometimes all of the above.  We cry out sometimes aloud and sometimes in quiet silence for help.  That’s what prayer is.

My brother-in-law has been asking me a bunch of questions about what this church is like.  Last Saturday he asked me if we were going to pray here.  I answered “yes.”  Whether it’s in our meditation/moment of silence, our sharing of names or the songs we sing, we do pray here.   Think about the lyrics of some of our hymns.  “Help of the helpless abide with me.”  “Roots hold me close, wings set me free.  Spirit of Life, come to me.  Come to me.”  “Precious Lord, take my hand.” [Opening line only sung a cappella by Suzanne Burgess]    Each of those songs is a prayer.  A Mahalia Jackson recording of that last one plays continuously at site of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  I can’t tell you how many big strong men I’ve seen reduced to tears when they walk down that hallway and hear that song.

That song is a frequent prayer of mine.  When I first started coming here, I noticed that the words “God” and “Lord” had been removed from many of the hymns I’d learned as a child.  I didn’t quite know what to make of that at first.  The invocation of “God” and “Jesus” used to bother me because I didn’t accept Christian beliefs.  Then one day I realized it was all ok.  As Unitarian Universalists, we value and appreciate the wisdom to be found in other faith traditions.  It’s ok that I sometimes pray to my “Creator” using Christian songs with lyrics that mention God.   It’s all about the feeling of the music and the sincerity of my heart.  If the song moves me and stirs something in me, then it works.  And this next song definitely works for me.  It’s another one of my “go to” songs.  I have a lot going on in my life right now and sometimes it just gets overwhelming.  But as this song says, “after you’ve done all you can, you just stand.”

Music: “Stand,” by Donnie McClurkin performed by Cory Walker and Connie Simon

Gratitude

Gratitude is the simplest of the spiritual practices, yet it’s also the easiest for us to mess up.  Scientist Robert Emmons says that gratitude is not just about acknowledging the goodness in one’s life but also recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside the self.   It’s more than just saying “thank you” for the things you receive – that’s the “simple” part of gratitude.  Where we mess up is in being greedy and wanting more, better or different.  We mess up when we feel “entitled.”  We mess up when we become jealous and envious of others.  I overheard someone say that you can’t be grateful while you’re coveting what somebody else has.

But what if that thing you are coveting is life itself? I was privileged to witness true gratitude as my mother was dying of cancer.  One day in her room at Lankenau, she said to me “It’s ok because I’m going to go be with my husband and my parents.”  I would have been angry – really pissed off – that after fighting so hard, was there really nothing else that could be done?  It just wasn’t fair.  But instead of railing against the injustice of it all, she truly was grateful for the life she had been given but understood that it soon would be time to go.  To me, that’s the ultimate express of gratitude and something to which I can only aspire.

I was given just that chance in April when my brother Rick died.  He had survived 23 years after a traumatic brain injury that should have killed him.  Sure, he missed driving and riding his motorcycle and playing with his kids.  But with the use of just his left arm, he built a new life for himself that was more active than that of many people I know. Even though he was still ornery as cat dirt as my niece would say, Rick was now gaunt and weak and his organs were failing.  My sister-in-law and I made the decision to let him go.  I didn’t want to, but I remembered back to that day with my mother.  I was grateful for the time I had with my brother but I knew he was tired it was time for him to go.

It’s not easy to let go of someone we love.  We get angry and upset at what their absence will do to us.   And that’s only natural.  Yet somehow, despite our sadness in their passing, we have to find a way to be grateful that their suffering has ended and pray that their soul found peace.

Music: “Safe from Harm,” by BeBe Winans performed by Suzanne Burgess and Connie Simon

Presence

We talk about presence a lot in this church.   When I first started  coming here, I didn’t quite get it.  I knew being present was more than just raising my hand and saying “here” but I didn’t understand how one could not be “present.” Then one day it hit me. I realized that I wasn’t living my life – my life was just happening to me. Sure I had moments of focus and clarity but I was not “present” on a consistent basis.  I’d “lose” whole hours of time during the day because I was always thinking about the next task, the next appointment, the next thing to be done.  I wasn’t living each moment.  I don’t know why I’m telling you this in the past tense as though it’s something that I’ve overcome.  I DO struggle with presence.  Think about how many more moments of Wonder-Joy I could have experienced had I just been present!  I made a promise to myself yesterday to slow down and stop letting my life live me.

When I walk through the sanctuary doors each Sunday, I make a serious effort to leave everything else outside so that I can truly worship and recharge for the week ahead.  This one hour each week is my time to lay it all down as Rev. Nate says and be still.  I come here to feed my heart and my soul and to spend time with each of you.   “Presence” for me is sitting quietly in the pews and feeling the essence of the members past and present who have attended this church since its founding in 1796.  Presence is getting my weekly hug from Barbara Higgins and seeing the latest pictures of Harvey’s grandchildren.   I enjoy being present for these moments – they nourish my soul and make me feel good.

What about our collective presence?  Each spring we do our flower communion.  We bring so many different kinds of flowers!  Each person adds his or her flower to the bucket and we make the most beautiful arrangement.  Our collective presence is reflected in the floral arrangement that we create together.

We light and extinguish our chalice each week with words spoken in unison.  Sometimes we get distracted in church – it happens to everyone.  I will admit that I have checked sports scores on my phone during service once or twice over the last few years.  But when it comes time to light and extinguish the chalice, we are all focused, together and collectively present.

In keeping with today’s theme, let’s talk about our collective presence as we sing together – our voices in unison.   Maybe it’s a hymn you don’t know very well, or one that’s too high or too low for you to sing – it doesn’t matter.  We’re all singing together.  Collectively present musically.

Hymn: Blue Boat Home by Peter Mayer

Reverence

The last spiritual practice I want to share with you today is “Reverence.”  One definition of “Reverence” is a “feeling of profound awe and respect and often love.”   Virtue.net says reverence is a combination of “loyalty, deference with love, devotion, honor and adulation.”     To me, reverence is simply remembering where I came from and living my life in a way that honors my ancestors and preserves their legacy while at the same time adding my own contributions for future generations.

As Blacks in America, my ancestors endured, persevered and thrived.  My maternal grandfather’s family were free Blacks as far back as 1820 and, with three other families, settled a town called “Hinsonville” that is now the site of Lincoln University.  They were brave and resilient people.   My mother told me stories about refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner as part of civil rights protests.   That took courage.   This is where I come from.  This is the stuff I’m made of.

As a Black person in America today, I know firsthand that racism still exists.  I know firsthand that there are still people out there who judge me by the color of my skin.  They think they know all about me.  We’ve come a long way from slavery and even from the civil rights era of the 1950s-60s but we haven’t made it all the way yet.  When I first prepared my notes for today, I was going to share with you a story about a time 13 years ago I was stopped by a policeman in my own neighborhood who didn’t believe that I had just purchased one of the new homes there.  But I don’t have to go back that far.  We can pull one of the stories in the news just this week about African Americans at Barney’s and Macy’s who were detained for “shopping while Black.”

In 1900, Florida school principal James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem called “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to be read at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  With his brother John, they set the poem to music.  The song became known as the “Negro National Anthem.”  Today we still call it the “Black National Anthem.”  We are very protective of this song – like the Star Spangled Banner, it must be treated with respect.  That is why we always rise when we sing it.  The first time I heard it sung here as part of a service, I have to tell you it made me a little uneasy.   But it turned out ok.  You see, it’s a very special song.  To me, it’s a WONDER-JOY experience of collective PRESENCE for me every time I hear it.  It is an expression of GRATITUDE for how far we’ve come and a PRAYER for the future.  I sing it with profound awe and deep respect, with loyalty, love and adulation.   I sing it in honor of my ancestors and every Black American who came before me and who will come after me.  I sing it with REVERENCE.

So now, I ask you to rise as you are able and join me in singing all three verses of hymn number 149 – Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Hymn: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson

Benediction

Voice still and small, deep inside all,

I hear you call, singing.

In dark and rain, sorry and pain,

Still you remain singing.

Calming my fears, quenching my tears

Through all the years, singing.

 

Text of hymn “Voice Still and Small” by John Carrado

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Why Are We So Afraid of “God”?

This is the text of a sermon delivered August 3, 2014 at First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. 

You’ve heard me refer to this church as “my house.”  I feel a spiritual connection to this place – not just the building but to the people who’ve been part of this congregation over the last 218 years.  I feel “safe” here.  Safe to be my true self, to share what I feel.  Safe to ask questions so I can learn and grow.  That’s why I know I can stand before you today and ask the question, “Why are we so afraid of God?”

For the sake of our discussion today, it’s important that you know I consider myself to be a “strong agnostic” when it comes to God.  As I am today, I cannot know whether God exists.  I do believe in an Ultimate Reality – that every living thing emits energy that vibrates at various frequencies creating a sort of “life force” but I don’t know how it started or whence it came.  I study and draw from religion, philosophy, literature and the natural world as spiritual guides in my life.

When I was a child at Second Presbyterian Church in Oxford, every hymn and anthem we sang offered praise to God with a capital “G” – the traditional Christian God sitting on high in the clouds.    When I came here, I found familiar tunes but often unfamiliar lyrics that often excluded the word “God.”  I sat through many sermons in the sanctuary that celebrated faith traditions from around the world but, other than when we said “Merry Christmas” on Christmas Eve, I don’t recall any that celebrated Christian traditions.  In fact, I heard many messages that seemed to me almost derisive of Christian beliefs.  Both the Unitarian and Universalists faiths had God at their core and today we count among the sources of our Unitarian Universalist living tradition “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”   It’s right there on the UUA website.  So God’s still part of our denominational mission but not welcome as part of our worship?

I have to admit this has caused me a great deal of confusion and angst.  I want to make clear that I’m not criticizing or questioning those who define “God” as something other than the man in the clouds.   I’m talking about the God in those Christian teachings.   Over the last couple years, I have felt that somehow that God and those Christian teachings were being left out.

Because I haven’t been a UU for very long and I’ve only been to services at a few other places, I don’t have a solid set of factual experiences on which to rest this belief – I only know what I “feel” and that’s it’s been eating me up inside.  How could it be that my open-minded, liberal new faith was somewhat closed-minded when it came to Christianity? This is serious.   It hit me hard after one particular service this spring.  Here I am thinking about seminary and all of the sudden I’m having some kind of crisis of faith?  I needed to figure this out.  I looked at information from other UU churches around the country and the world.  I kept my eyes wide open at General Assembly last month.  To my relief, I found mention of God and principles of Christianity in UU sermons, in prayers, in song and in general worship.  I reached the conclusion that what I was feeling here was the particular beliefs of our former minister.  And that’s ok.  We’re all unique individuals.  I fully support each person’s right to define his own spiritual truth.  Even though I may have perceived bias in some parts of those sermons, I still learned something – even if it was something I didn’t like.

I was encouraged to read and study more on my own.  And as I was doing that research and later preparing for this sermon, I found something quite unexpected.   Instead of just general avoidance of Christianity, I found a disturbing amount of anti-God rhetoric – actual enmity toward people just because they believe in the traditional Christian God.  Here are some examples:

  • Actor and comedian Norm MacDonald was publicly berated in the Twitter-verse for saying that he believed in God and read the scriptures daily.
  • Christopher Hitchens, a Vanity Fair columnist and author of “God is Not Great” draws large crowds at his public appearances. At one such event, he was quoted as saying “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt and I claim that right.” The audience roared and cheered with approval.
  • A Florida Atlantic University student was told by a professor to write “Jesus Christ” on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. The student refused and was disciplined. Once word got out, the school issued an apology and the disciplinary action was dropped.

I found op-eds, essays and articles with titles such as “Do Only Dumb People Believe in God,?” “People Who Believe in God are Idiots,” and “People Who Believe in God are F***ing Retarded.”  For those with shorter attention spans, there’s even a list of one-liners they can use that includes such gems as “Religions are cults with more members,” “So many Christians, so few lions” and “God is just pretend.”

The most shocking thing I discovered is the movement known as the “New Atheists,” headed by authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  They’re not simply atheists, they are anti-God, anti-all-religion advocates.  They believe that religions “should not simply be tolerated, but should be countered and criticized.”  In an interview with NPR, Sam Harris talks of “exerting so much pressure that it becomes ‘too embarrassing’ to believe in God.”

Reading this stuff blew my mind and made me think:  how would we react if instead of Christians, the statements referred to a different group.  Because of who I am, when I hear something that doesn’t sound right, I ask myself whether I would be upset if they substituted Black people in their statement.  I turn it around and make it personal.  So what if someone said blacks should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt?  Maybe someone else would flip it to say homosexuality simply should not be tolerated but should be countered and criticized.  Can you imagine?   We’d be up in arms!  So maybe it’s not really that people are “afraid of God,” (although I’m sure there are some who might be).  Maybe they just can’t tolerate those who believe in him.  They aren’t able to accept those who have a different belief than they do.

Tolerate and accept.  We often use these words interchangeably but they’re really very different.  Quantum Leadership, an anti-bullying organization for school-age kids, describes it best:  “Tolerance [says] ‘I understand your beliefs are different than mine so I’ll just put up with it and put up with our differences.  Acceptance [says] I understand that your beliefs are different than mine and I still love and respect you.”  You and I may not like the same music or the same food or the same books.  We may not support the same candidates for office or agree on issues such as immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or same-sex marriage.  Maybe you believe in a Christian God and I don’t.  It doesn’t matter.  Our world is getting smaller every day.  The times of living in one community your whole life and only seeing people who are just like you are gone.  With television, the internet, Facebook and Twitter we can visit anywhere or talk to anyone in the world in an instant.  People move around the country and around the world without giving it a second thought.  As a result, we’re constantly exposed to people of other nationalities, cultures and religions.  The worst thing we can do is to be indifferent to them.  Both love and hate require intense emotion but to be indifferent to someone, to harden your heart and pretend they don’t even exist, is the cruelest thing you can do to another human being.

Intolerance is only a little bit better than indifference.  When you tolerate a person or group or belief, you at least acknowledge that it exists.  But your heart is still closed.  You acknowledge that differences exist but make no effort to see beyond those differences and to make a real human connection.  I think intolerance is rooted in fear – fear of things that are different, fear that maybe our beliefs or our way of thinking just might be wrong.  We’re afraid to look inside ourselves and challenge our assumptions.

Our goal should be acceptance – recognizing our differences and still choosing to love one another anyway.  You can hold true to your own path and still accept another who is on a very different path.  Author and poet Joana Ukali says acceptance “can be elusive, like a beautiful butterfly darting in front of me.  I want it, I know it will feel beautiful inside when I embrace it fully.  Sometimes the thought of acceptance has me pretend I am willing.  Often, I build a case of reasons why I should not have acceptance of a situation or person. … Then, with nothing but willingness, grace enters my heart and overrides my righteous mind.  It does not matter if I have acceptance or not.  I am transformed by grace and it is the only decision there is to make….I am transformed.”

Looking back, I think what I was feeling here wasn’t intolerance but rather a kind of “acceptance.”  We’re very proud of our open doors – proud that our membership includes people of color, proud that we have a significant LGBT population, proud of our positions on issues of social justice.  We show visitors that we can celebrate Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu and pagan traditions, but  when it comes to embracing Christianity, we sometimes fell short.

We can be welcoming and accepting of Christianity and those who believe in God without compromising our congregational and denominational integrity.  I see three benefits to doing so.  First, we would hold true to our history of drawing on Jewish and Christian faith traditions in an effort to help worshippers determine their own true spiritual path.  We’d be giving them a more comprehensive bucket of tools and resources to reach the conclusions that are best for them.

Second, we would be more in line with the principles of our faith – particularly our third principle, “acceptance of one another and encouragement of the spiritual growth of our congregation,” and the fourth, “dedication to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Lastly, we would have an impact beyond the walls of this church.  If we all learned to be more accepting and carried that practice with us everywhere we go, we’d make our communities and our world a more peaceful place.

Going forward, I hope we won’t be afraid to include God and Christianity in our worship.  I hope we won’t be afraid to seek acceptance and not just settle for tolerance in our relations with others – whether the subject is God, politics, sexual orientation, race or anything else.

I want to leave you with the words of Quantum Leadership’s JP Butler:

“We are all human. We are all subject to our own truths. We are all subject to our own opinions. So is everyone else. And everyone else must choose his/her own truths just as you have. You are not above others because your truths are ‘more right’. They have struggled, just like you have, to find truth in the world. To block out and exclude everyone who does not share the same beliefs as you do (or even just the ones whose beliefs are TOO far removed from your own beliefs), is to deny the joys and tragedies of the journey we all face as human beings. You do not know how s/he came to his/her beliefs, so don’t judge their truths.

Differences exist. You are free to hold your own beliefs high, but this does not mean you, yourself, are higher than others. And because of this, my challenge to you is to love, respect, and accept all people, because they are just like you…human.”

May it be so.

The True YoUU: Living Your Best Life

This is the text of a sermon delivered August 17, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County. 

How many of you truly believe that you are living your best life?  Do you even know what your “best life” is?   As Unitarian Universalists, we believe strongly in making the world a safer and more loving place for all creatures.    We want to do it all, give our all and create that utopian existence where everyone is loved and treated fairly regardless of their race, creed, age, marital status or sexual orientation; where everyone has an equal opportunity to be self-sufficient – to do fulfilling work that matters and to be paid a fair wage for it; where everyone has access to adequate food and water, education and health care.  As Unitarian Universalists, we work hard to promote the power of love and to foster social justice in the world.  We work on marriage equality; mass incarceration; immigration reform and environmental issues.  These are all lofty and admirable ideals.  And I believe they are attainable.  But sometimes I get overwhelmed trying to do all the “right things” every day.  I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to lead that “perfect” life.  I realized I had to give myself a break.   All I can do is live my best life.  For me that means doing the best I can each moment of every day.  When it’s time for me to die, I hope I can look back and see that I strung together enough of those moments to be able to say that I lived my best life.

Your best life is one in which you live according to your principles.  Your actions and behaviors are in line with your core spiritual beliefs.    You have found your “voice.”  The late Dr. Stephen Covey, defines your “voice” as your “unique personal significance.”  It “lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate and inspire you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for) and conscience (that still small voice within that assures you of what is right and that prompts you to actually do it).  When you engage in work that taps your talent and fuels your passion – that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.”   When you find your voice – and use it – you are living your best life.

You have figure out what it is you want to do. No one can do this for you.   What’s really important to you?  Dr. Covey says “[d]eep within each of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contribution – to really matter, to make a difference.  We may doubt ourselves and our ability to do so…but you can live such a life.  You have the potential within you.  We all do.  It is the birthright of the human family.”  Aristotle said “where talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation.”   As UUs, we want to do it all and fix it all.  But I don’t think that’s humanly possible. We end up being scattered among a variety of causes and concerns yet not really accomplishing any one thing.  So let’s revisit that definition of “voice.” The intersection of talent, passion, need and conscience.

Let’s start with talent.  What are you good at?  Merriam Webster defines it as “a special ability that allows someone to do something well.”  I have a law degree and many years of business and corporate experience.  I’m also a musician.  I’d like to think I’m a good lawyer, a good writer and speaker and a decent musician.  I also recognize that there are many more things I’m just not good at.  I can handle Twitter but I can’t get the hang of Facebook and I have no idea what “Vine” is despite the fact that my 18 year-old great niece is on it constantly.    I am not good at statistics.  You get the point.  Each of us has innate special talents given to us by our creator.  We were given these talents for a reason – to use them.  When you go home today, take a minute and think about what your talents are.  What can you do well?  What special skill or ability do you have?

Next, there’s passion.  This one can be tricky.  Oprah says “Passion is energy.”  It sounds simplistic but it’s actually a pretty good starting point.  It’s also said that passion is “an intense emotion compelling enthusiasm, or desire for anything.”   Passion is that state of truly caring about a person, an issue or a thing, all the way down to the core of your being.  Passion is believing in something so fiercely that you are willing to fight for it and maybe even die for it. Andrew Carnegie said “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.”    Napoleon Hill wrote that “the starting point of all achievement is desire.  Weak desire brings weak results.”   So what are you passionate about?    I’m passionate about a lot of things but I’ll give you a couple of examples.  I’m passionate about financial literacy.  My father died when I was very young and I watched my mother struggle to take care of us on very limited resources.   My father didn’t leave a trust fund or a retirement account.  I had no idea what those things were until I started working myself.  Now I dedicate myself to making sure that the people I encounter know the basics of financial literacy – budgeting, saving, etc.  I make sure every woman knows the basics.   I speak on the topic at churches, women’s groups, to children and at community centers.  I take every opportunity that arises to promote it.

I’m also passionate about preventing people from driving under the influence.  My brother was killed by a drunk driver and I’ve spent many hours doing Victim Impact Panels in the hope that I can dissuade just one person from having a drink and getting behind the wheel of a car.    I speak on the topic every time I’m asked and share my story.  I give of myself to advance this cause.   As Tiffany Madison writes, “[if] we don’t fight for what we ‘stand for’ with our passionate words and honest actions, do we really ‘stand’ for anything?”    I embrace my passions full-on.  They make me who I am.  As Nichols Sparks writes in Dear John, “[t]he saddest people I’ve ever met in life are the ones who don’t care deeply about anything at all.”  In my mind, those people aren’t just sad.  They simply aren’t living.

Let’s move on to “need.”  This is perhaps the easiest for us UUs to grasp.  What does the world need?  Clean water, renewable energy sources, affordable quality health care and education for everyone.  The list goes on and on.  The key in living your best life is in identifying that thing that the world needs that you have the talent and the passion to provide.  Maybe you have the formal education and training to be a doctor in a rural or underserved low-income community.  That is a need that you can fulfill.  But don’t sell yourself short – there may also be a need for volunteers to make outreach phone calls for that doctor’s office.  That might be the need that you can fulfill.  Revisit your list of talents and see where they line up with the need you see in your community.

Finally, there’s conscience.   Trudy Govier writes that “[t]he ‘voice of conscience’ is something we have constructed for ourselves, taking into account personal experience, feelings, social teaching, scientific findings and relevant religious teachings.”  Conscience is that inner law by which we live. It is our innate sense of right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair.   According to Reverend Thomas Berg, “[a]uthentic moral conscience, however, is not merely something that I roll up my sleeves and produce—the product of having weighed my feelings, likes, dislikes, my friend’s opinion on the matter, advice from others, and so on.  While all of this might serve to help me arrive at a genuine judgment of conscience, that judgment—if sound and genuinely proceeding from conscience—will proceed from the core of my being, and will correspond to objective moral norms  anchored in the truth about what perfects us as human persons.  It will be a weighty and carefully distilled judgment of what—given the objective ends of human nature—is reasonably required of me (or someone else) in the present circumstance.”

By now, I imagine there are a few different types of thoughts bubbling up out there. Some of you are thinking I already know all this; I’m already living my best life.  She isn’t telling me anything new.  If that’s you, I’m happy that you’ve already taken the time to be fully present with yourself and do this work.  It’s not easy.  For some of us, it takes years to discover who we really are, what matters most to us and how to make a difference in the world.

Others of you might be overwhelmed because you’ve never really taken the time to think about your individual voice.   Some time ago, Jane Romeyn of the UU Fellowship of Vero Beach in Florida wrote a letter to UU World.  She wrote ”[t]he articles in the Spring issue about undocumented immigrants and the various ‘Occupy’ movements are yet additional examples of UUs deciding that certain current events will become UU dogma, and that anyone claiming to be a UU must agree with the UUA position.  This makes it especially painful for those of us who joined because of the UU openness to all of the various religions in the world but now find most congregations to be much more concerned with ‘social justice’ than with helping members think about and work through all the complexities of spirituality and personal growth.”  This letter struck a nerve with me.  I’ve shared with you some of the things I’m passionate about.  They don’t necessarily “line up” with UU hot-button issues.   For a minute, I seriously thought I was a failure as a UU.  Then I remembered what drew me to Unitarian Universalism in the first place – the recognition of diversity of thought and the encouragement for each of us to find our own truth – our own path – our own voice.

Lastly, there are some of you who have taken this message to heart and have found your voice but aren’t using it.     Many of us simply lack self-confidence.   I’m not making a difference. I can’t change things.  There’s a saying that “Hell would be if God were to show me things I could have accomplished if only I had believed in myself.”  Often we have all the confidence in the world but still have lapses when our voice goes silent.  I know I do.  When that happens, 9 times out of 10, it’s because I’ve become DISTRACTED.  I’m sure many of you can relate to this.  I believe there are five major distractions to cultivating and using our voice.

One – LACK OF RESOURCES –You don’t have the time to do the things that move your spirit.  Perhaps you are the parent of a new infant.  You feel you barely have time to shower, let alone engage in soul searching and self-care.  Maybe you have a demanding career and work 80 hours per week.   But you’re not only short-changing yourself; you’re shortchanging your child or your employer.  You owe it to the child to be the best “you” that you can be.  You’ll be a better employee if you’re emotionally and spiritually balanced.  Heed the words of H. Jackson Brown Jr.:  “Don’t say you don’t have enough time.  You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.”

Maybe lack of money is your dilemma.  My company closed in 2009 leaving all of its Pennsylvania employees without jobs.  I’m not extravagant by nature but after I lost my job, I was momentarily gripped by fear that I’d never earn a decent living again and that I had to hold on to every penny I had.  But it doesn’t take money to think or to feel.  Instead of buying books for my spiritual study, I went to the library.   If you don’t have a computer or internet access at home, you can always visit your local library.  You can participate in free seminars around town or find webinars online. Maybe instead of money, you can give time.  Lack of financial resources is a distraction, but it’s not an excuse.

Two – LACK OF EDUCATION.  I have an acquaintance who never went to college but wants to work with at-risk youth.  She says she “can’t” because she doesn’t have a college degree.  I reminded her she can volunteer at her neighborhood community center, be a Big Brother/Big Sister or simply mentor one or more of the kids in her congregation.  Depending on what she truly wants to do, a degree might be a necessity but it’s not a good reason to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.  It’s a distraction, not an excuse.

Three – LACK OF OPPORTUNITY.  Perhaps the opportunity to do what stirs your soul just doesn’t exist in your area.  If rescuing beached whales is your passion, Kansas is probably not the best place for you to live.  This may be an extreme example, but I think you get the point.  I love tennis.  One of my dreams has been to work at a Grand Slam tennis tournament.  There are no grand slam tournaments in Wilmington, Delaware where I live.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t follow that passion.  It just means I have to be creative.  Maybe I relocate to New York for the two weeks of the U.S. Open each year.  If it means enough to me and if I want it badly enough, I will make it happen.  Living in Delaware is just a distraction – not an excuse.

Four – TECHNOLOGY.  We are bombarded by images and information every day.  Technology is everywhere.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, text messages, phone calls, Instagram, etc.  Every day you see people staring at their smartphones for hours on end, afraid of missing a single message or post.  If something is truly important to you – if it really stirs your passion – you’ll turn the technology off for a little bit.  Technology was meant to make our lives easier – not to BE our lives.  It’s a distraction from living your best life, not an excuse.

Five – OVERLOAD and APATHY.   We all know someone who’s a Superman or Superwoman of causes.  They’re passionate about absolutely EVERY SINGLE ISSUE that you name.  This is the proverbial “Jack of All Trades and Master of None.”  You can’t be passionate about everything and do it well.  It’s just not possible.  Or, you’re not being honest with yourself about what’s important to you.  It’s OK not to be involved in or connected with every single issue.  There is someone in my congregation who is sincerely and passionately involved with the issue of mass incarceration.  I am asked at least once a week to be involved with her program.  I’ve explained truthfully and lovingly  that I cannot take on that issue right now because of my other commitments and causes.  I’ll repeat – it’s ok to say “no.”   Agreeing to do something that either doesn’t move you or would overwhelm you distracts you from living your best life.  Just say no.  Overload and apathy are distractions from living your best life, not excuses.

Can we overcome these distractions? With self-discipline, sincere desire and commitment, yes.   Then comes the best part – LIVING YOUR BEST LIFE.  You’ve already identified what stirs your passion.  Now comes the time to do something about it.  Volunteer your time to work on a specific project or cause – once a month, once a year, whatever works for you and fits the needs of the particular project or cause.  If you can’t give time or are physically unable to give of yourself, give your resources.  Send a donation to that group rescuing beached whales on the California coast.   Or – just talk about how important your cause or passion is and then do nothing at all about it.  Having talent, passion and conscience in the face of great need while doing nothing about it is a waste.

I leave you today with a challenge:  (1) Find your voice – pinpoint that intersection of your talents, passion, world need and conscience.   (2) Remove all the distractions and excuses that prevent you from cultivating that voice.  (3) Use your voice and live your best life.

May it be so.