THE HEART OF A SPIRITUAL COMMUNITY
Rev. Don Beaudreault
First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist
June 5, 2016
OPENING WORDS: “Can I See Another’s Woe?”
Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief and not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear, and not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no, never can it be! Never, never can it be!
MEDITATION: “The Heart Knoweth”
We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.
The whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether.
How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor and who honor us!
How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with!
Read the language of these wandering eye-beams.
The heart knoweth.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
SERMON: “The Heart of a Spiritual Community”
What Is Essential to a Religious Community
What I believe to be distinctive about Caring is that it is absolutely essential within a community of people who purport to be religious or spiritual or ethical or charitable or kind or generous or loving. Caring need not be limited to a congregation, a church, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque or any other classically designated place of worship.
Still, Caring is traditionally the stock and trade of a religious/spiritual institution.
It need not be part of other organizations – political, social, business, or recreational – although it would be a nice reality.
But if Caring is not evident as THE foundational principle and practice of a religious/spiritual organization, how religious or spiritual can such an organization be?
People do forget this. And it really does not matter which religion we are talking about.
But they forget it when clergy are overly trained in the business model of ministry where the bottom line is profit not the prophetic; administration not ministration. (Do not get me wrong, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with ethical business and administrative practices, but need these be the focal point of “ministry”?)
Is that really why spiritual seekers pay a so-called “religious professional”?
Sadly, people confuse “religion” with “spirituality” – the former connoting organizational necessities, the latter, matters of the heart.
This transcends denominational allegiance.
So it is exactly these matters of the heart that we want to talk about today. It is the idea of Caring that we are about.
The Insight of Thomas Moore
Let us set off by exploring the word itself. The most helpful person for me in this regard is the contemporary author Thomas Moore. His now-classic book among therapists as well as theologians (and others) is Care of the Soul. In fact, Moore was the major speaker at a gathering of hundreds of Unitarian Universalist ministers in Ottawa in November, 2009.
For Moore, “caring” is an art-form. But for what are we caring? The “soul” says he.
Now here is a weighty term, one which can be an anathema to free-thinking Humanists.
But, do not fear, says Thomas Moore, a liberal theologian/post-modern therapist/ insightful etymologist.
The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is “loss of soul.” When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning…
“Soul” is not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance. I do not use the word here as an object of religious belief or as something to do with immortality…
I like this. For truly, don’t we come to this religious community to gain meaning and purpose in life through relating to each other – to caring for each other – and if that be a “soulful” thing, then so be it!
Moore also speaks of the “caring” aspect of the “soul.” Here he explores some classical allusions before bringing the discussion to modern times.
For him it is a utilitarian practice, this “caring” – of one’s own “soul” (I will call it the “deeper self”) and the caring for another’s “deeper self.” It need not be an arduous, dramatic, overblown action.
Tending the things around us and becoming sensitive to the importance of home, daily schedule, and maybe even the clothes we wear, are ways of caring for the soul.
He speaks of 500 years ago when the writer Marsilio Ficino wrote a book he called The Book of Life. He wrote it for himself, so that he would find a sense of caring within himself. In the book he emphasized the importance of how we choose things in life: what colors we choose, what spices and oils, what places we visit. All practical decisions that help or hinder the care of our souls, of our deeper sense of self.
And before Ficino, there was that much-misunderstand Epicurus who proclaimed:
It is never too early or too late to care for the well-being of the soul.
And he was not talking about “eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die” – he was talking about choosing the simple things of life to please yourself – and in helping others to see this choice as a satisfying way to live.
You see, the “Epicurean” way (at least for the man himself) was a vegetarian way! In fact, he taught his classes in his garden so he and his students would appreciate the simple things of life.
Moore says of this Epicurean principle:
that the rewards we are seeking may be quite ordinary and may exist right under our noses, even as we look to the stars for some extraordinary revelation or perfection.
Helping others achieve such a care of one’s “soul” – is illustrated in that word “curate” – a word meaning a clergyperson. Says Moore:
The role of the curate…was to provide a religious context for the larger turning points in life and also to maintain the affectional ties of…community.
Yes, indeed, that is a sound premise for anyone’s entering the professional ministry – to care for such ideals – realizing, of course, that such a task is often a day-to-day, pedestrian reality. Caring for souls can even become tedious unless one periodically gets connected with one’s own inner fire – “soul” perhaps?
Moore extends the idea of soul caring beyond the clergyperson’s role with:
We can be the curates or curators of our own souls, an idea that implies an inner priesthood and a personal religion. To undertake this restoration of soul means we have to make spirituality a more serious part of everyday life…
Again, it is not just about those huge events, those upheavals or extraordinary joys that come to all of us – when we need another’s caring; when this beloved community needs to be there for us.
Caring is sometimes as simple as merely writing a personal letter (something old-fashioned I know but deeply appreciated by some of us).
Soul Caring in Unitarian Universalist History
Well, “spirituality” can mean various things, too, just like “soul” can. But both, I suggest, speak of something more profound about our humanity.
Our own Unitarian Universalist history speaks of this attempt to live “spirituality” day-by-day; to “care” for “souls” as an essential practice of a “religious” life.
Some of our forebears attempted to do that in community 24/7.
I am reminded of our liberating faith’s connection with the Utopian movement in the United States.
Consider one of these groups founded by Unitarians in the 19th century – Brook Farm. It was that Unitarian minister George Ripley and other Transcendentalist Unitarians who created this community, believing it to be the “new Jerusalem.”
Two other notable Unitarians were involved in establishing Utopian communities: Adin Ballou who founded the Hopedale Community, and Bronson Alcott who founded Fruitlands.
Ripley’s group lasted from 1841 to 1847 when it went bankrupt, but before it did, it influenced social movements such as abolitionism, the workers movement, women’s rights, and equal education.
Truly, the ideals of Brook Farm were based on Caring for others and the fulfilment of one’s own self.
Still, the community (which had over 70 people by 1842) never achieved sound financial management. People simply refused to pay their pledges, believing that in some way or other things would just take care of themselves. Other factors for the group’s demise included the very composition of its members – most were single, young and transient – therefore, yet to desire roots.
What hastened Brook Farm’s collapse, too, was Ripley’s attempt to increase its financial status by implementing the ideals of Charles Fourier, a French visionary who believed that the key to a successful utopian community was draconian organization. By such stringent rules, Fourier believed that
the human predisposition toward community-mindedness would invariably, and without violence, master impulses toward individualism…
In early 1844, not without opposition, the elected officers of Brook Farm voted to reorganize..
. This included new bureaucratic procedures, described by a lexicon of “scientific” terms like “rigid inquisition,” “proper authorities,” and “bureau of internal affairs.” All workers were organized into groups and series. (UUA.org)
What this reorganization did, of course, was to cause many of the original Unitarian intellectual types to leave.
So much for “caring.”
What We Can Learn From Brook Farm
Indeed, there are many things that Brook Farm and other idealist communities can teach our own idealist community called “First Parish UU Brewster.”
For one: to maintain our ideals. To base our existence on the ideal that each of us as an individual has dignity and worth. We should be honored for who we are.
And that who we are is also part of a community where each member of the community is equal.
That each of us has the right to expect others to encourage our full development of “self.”
Truly, these ideals are not facile ones to carry through to fulfillment.
Caring for our self or for others never is. We shall sometimes disagree; sometimes we will be put “out-of-sorts” by others or by our own failings. And yet we should, to the fullest extent that we can, continue to support each other with love and concern; and to support the work of this congregation with effort, financial resource, and good will.
Brook Farm teaches us, too, that individual and communal existence is tenuous – there are no guarantees for longevity for any of us.
But it also teaches us that we can make a difference, even if time is brief.
Brook Farm’s ideals of equality for one and all – no matter one’s color, gender, economic or educational status – remain.
And in our time, these have been expanded to include other more detailed classifications such as sexual orientation and physical ability.
Indeed, Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout the land have built upon the ideals of Brook Farm and other Unitarian and Universalist communities – always keeping in mind (although not always successfully carrying out), the principle of Caring.
So may we affirm this ideal, realising that:
In large groups and small, we gather to share and care for one another. Our loving community nurtures the spirit in each of us and celebrates the richness and diversity of life .(From the UU Congregation of Venice, Florida’s Vision Statement.)
CLOSING READING: “To serve the people…”
To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people.
It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes.
All people(s)are members of the same body, created from one essence.
If fate brings suffering to one member
The others cannot stay at rest.
SOMETIMES IT’S MORE ABOUT THE HOW THAN THE WHAT
Rev. Don Beaudreault
First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist
March 13, 2016
Opening Words: “To complain…”
To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.
Meditation: “Bill of Rights” (Unison)
I do not have to feel guilty just because someone else does not like what I do, say, think, or feel.
It is okay for me to feel angry and to express it in responsible ways.
I do not have to assume full responsibility for making decisions, particularly where others share responsibility for making the decisions.
I have the right to say “I don’t understand” without feeling stupid or guilty.
I have the right to say “I don’t know.”
I have the right to say “no” without feeling guilty.
I do not have to apologize or give reasons when I say “no.”
I have the right to ask others to do things for me.
I have the right to refuse requests which others make of me.
I have the right to tell others when I think they are manipulating, conning, or treating me unfairly.
I have the right to refuse additional responsibilities without feeling guilty.
I have the right to tell others when their behavior annoys me.
I do not have to compromise my personal integrity.
I have the right to make mistakes and to be responsible for them. I have the right to be wrong.
I do not have to be liked, admired, or respected by everyone for everything I do.
Sermon: “Sometimes It’s More About the How than the What”
What are we?
A self-governing community.
A multi-generational family.
This is WHAT we are as Unitarian Universalists. Still, we are not the only ones who can be described in these ways.
Let us ask again:
What are we as individual human beings?
We are born.
We get confused.
We get bored.
We seek adventure.
We make mistakes
We are forgotten.
On and on…
But again, we are not the only individuals on the planet with these traits.
WHAT we are as an organization called a religious institution and WHAT each one of us as an individuals is, are shared with others – but still these traits do not fully articulate WHAT we are.
Because it really is not about the WHAT so much as it is about the HOW.
Whereas the WHAT is a description – e.g. 90% of Unitarian Universalists are not born as Unitarian Universalists – the HOW of such a statement allows the story to be told – it explains the process by which this “conversion” occurred. And our story lines have subplots, twists and turns, expression of feelings, and intellectual breakthroughs – none of which are known by using a statistic.
For me, the WHAT exists only because of the HOW that created it.
Both aspects are needed. But sometimes we forget how vital it is to celebrate not just the Result/Accomplishment/Completed Task but also the Process/Methodology/Work in Progress.
Instead of always celebrating the Winners, let us also celebrate the Losers, and the In-Betweeners: the ones who at least made an attempt.
In other words, we fail time and again to live in the present, in the here-and-now – within the nitty-gritty – and to do so with appreciation for each moment – whether or not a Task is completed; whether or not a Task is successful.
And once we complete a Task – we quickly set off seeking another one. And so on and so forth. It is a never-ending, whirl-a-gig of accomplishments which make us think we are living fulfilled lives.
I believe, however, that few people realize fulfillment in life is not about What a person is or was, but rather about How a person lived or is living life
Those who take the advice of Socrates to heart:
An unexamined life is not worth living …
and become deep, philosophical thinkers about the human condition, understand the primary importance of How over What.
For example, a truly meaningful memorial service is more than just an obituary recital; a resume recitation. It is more than a list of accomplishments. It is about sharing stories about the individual whose life is being honored. It is about sharing HOW s/he went about living life: the funny things, the challenges, the successes, the failures – all the subtleties and complexities that blended to create a specific one-of-a-kind human being.
Sometimes I think that if there is a god, s/he created this inordinate restless human spirit that each of us has – some with more of it than others – to keep us busy; but that the real test is not whether or not we accomplish what we yearn to accomplish, but how we go about it
Illustrative of this is a little prayer:
So far today, I’ve done all right. I have not once been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, mean or self-indulgent. For this, Lord, I am very thankful…
In a few moments, Lord, I’m getting out of bed…
… and I probably will need a lot more help!
Well, first off, if we are lucky, we wake up in the morning – and then we have a choice as to how we will approach our day – our life. Will we be grumpy or not?
Cherie Carter-Scott in her book Negaholics: How to Overcome Negativity and Turn Your Life Around has written an amusing but frightening wake-up call to those of us living the so-called American Dream.
Her premise is that negative thinking is rampant among us – and takes very forms.
Among these manifestations of this malady are those she calls: “The Constant Complainer,” “The Herald of Disaster,” “The Retroactive Fault-Finder,” “The Perfectionist,” “The Premature Invalidator,” “The Never Good Enough Person,” “The Slave Driver,” “The Self-Sabotager,” “The Gloom and Doomer.”
Perhaps there is a bit or more than a bit of each of these manifestations of negativity within each of us.
Eckhart Tolle refers to “The Constant Complainer” in our Opening Reading when he says that
When you complain you make yourself into a victim.
Furthermore, he adds:
Leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.
From my experience, a bigger category of negativists in the congregations I have worked with are those “Premature Invalidators.”
These are the ones who say that the sky is falling; or if the sky is not presently doing so, the Premature types assure us that it will be before too long.
They are the self-appointed doomsday prognosticators, ever-wanting to put a damper on the party.
Now they might think of themselves as “realists” – but in truth, their incessant pointing out what is wrong – even before the situation has fully manifested itself – can really bring havoc and confusion to a congregation – or to any relationship.
Naturally, give any group – Unitarian Universalist or otherwise – a project to be achieved and you will see a variety of attitudes that people will evidence in taking on the task.
Same task, same situation. But different attitudes.
Sometimes the attitude is a negative one.
Sometimes people – those Premature Invalidators – don’t even want to consider taking on a task.
“We already did that!” “Who needs that?” “What’s that going to accomplish?” “Why do we need a ministerial search committee?” “Why do I have to answer another congregational survey?”
Given these same situations, others in a congregation take on the tasks with energy and joy.
Same task/different attitude.
The truth of the matter about one-on-one relationships or group relationship (church or not), is that most people want to be part of a winning, positive situation – and around winning, positive people – with wining, positive plans and objectives.
It is really about attitude. It is about each one of us knowing where our persona – the face we show to others – comes from. And then, if we do not like what we see when we hold up the mirror to our self, creatively taking on the passion to change who we are.
Those who are the negativists might have had childhoods where they were invalidated, criticized, told they were never good enough. Those emotional scars do, indeed, carry on into adulthood – unless people who have them get professional help.
But these scars don’t just cause injury to the individual who lives with them – because that individual can spread negativity like an inferno.
I have seen it again and again in congregations and personal relationships.
Oh, it happens quite often in religious institutions because most people in them don’t want to appear negative themselves.
“It’s not Christian!” they think. Or, if they are not within that theological spectrum, they think: “It’s not civilized!”
Arthur Paul Boers is an expert on this subject and is quite direct in his comments about church being a dysfunctional family system.
In his book, lovingly entitled Never Call Them Jerks, he believes that congregations are the MOST dysfunctional organizations in our country – exactly because people never express what they are truly feeling.
But feelings win out in the end – and in a complexity of ways. Often through lots of passive-aggressive behavior.
I think e-mails were especially created by the technology gods to carry out that psychological function of congregational life!
But there is hope.
We have a Unitarian Universalist gospel and it goes like this: We don’t have to stay stuck!
Simple as that.
Historically, we have been a progressive movement composed of progressive individuals. That means that from our inception we have believed in a developmental, evolutionary process that allows each of us to advance to a higher nature – to a state of more fully embracing the nature of our better selves.
One wag puts it this way:
Life is like a blanket too short. You pull it up and your toes rebel, you yank it down and shivers meander about your shoulder; but cheerful folks manage to draw their knees up and pass a very comfortable night. (Marion Howard)
This statement shows both the “Whatness” of a situation (what the event is) and the “Howness” of it (how people react to the same situation).
We who share a history with Universalist theology that posited a loving, forgiving God who assured every person on the planet salvation after this life (how much more positive can a theology be?), believe up to today in making the best of life’s condition. We will pull up our knees – we will adapt – we will spend a comfortable night. We will try to make the best of it!
And we will try to help others – the negativists – to do the same thing.
Not to say that is easy! But we carry on, despite the negativists who would bring us down. That is our “How” – our way of approaching the world: with goodness and light, and ever aware of the transient, fragile nature of our being; ever aware of our need to hold life gently, as if it were a sweet, sweet flower.
Closing Words: “Let the heart speak…”
…Let the heart speak in rebellion against defeat!
Let the failures of the past be guideposts,
Let the lights of our individual lives
Flame with a dignity and color each its own,
And from each separate life let a fresh glow
Kindle in hearts a greater understanding,