Monday, March 26, 2007

03/25/07, Sermon

We have aspirations for our lives that our lives don’t share. And, we don’t know where to draw the line. We don’t know what we have a right to expect. We don’t know when to stop trying to change the way our lives are and adjust ourselves to how they are. When do we recognize the futility of resistance and give up, get over it, and get used to it? I don’t know. Neither do you.

We would still be in the caves if someone hadn’t decided we could do better. We are still fighting wars because we will not accommodate ourselves to the fact of significant differences among us. There is a point beyond which we cannot change the world to suit ourselves. There is a point at which we have to let things be as they are because that is how they are. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” We have lost sight of the difference.

We think everything can be changed, which is crazy enough, but the worst part is that we think that when it is changed we will be happy. Let me explain something to you. Happiness is an inside job. Happiness is perspective all the way. Happiness has nothing whatsoever to do with the way things are (which isn’t quite true, by the way, but it’s close enough). Happiness has everything to do with what we tell ourselves about the way things are, with how we think about the way things are, with what we say about the way things are.

Think of the most unhappy people you know. I’d bet you twenty dollars, if I still did that kind of thing, that they are always wanting to change something about their lives. If only this were different, or that were, then they would be happy. But nothing is ever different enough. Now, think of the happiest people you know. I’d bet you another twenty dollars, if I still did that kind of thing, that they have lives that are just fine exactly as they are. Now, make them swap. Give the unhappy people the lives of the happy people, and give the happy people the lives of the unhappy people. Guess what. Nothing changes. The happy people are still happy, and the unhappy people are still unhappy. Happiness is about attitude. Not about acquirement and acquisition. If you want to be happy, well, be happy!

We are back to the deal. There is life, and there is what you think about life. And, there is no necessary, or logical, connection between the two. I don’t care how life is, your thinking can make it all right or unbearable. Nothing can happen to you that you can’t make worse by how you respond to it. Or better. We hold the power of better or worse over our lives. Shakespeare has it: “Nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).

That being the case, why leave the caves? Why not just accommodate ourselves to our lives? “Let be what is”? Practice mind over matter—“if you don’t mind, it don’t matter”? What are we trying to do, anyway? Here’s what I think: I think it comes down to doing what we care about, and, during those down times when we don’t care about anything, doing what we ought to care about, what needs to be cared about, and waiting until something stirs within and we find ourselves caring, about something, again. We certainly ought to care about what needs to be cared about—children, for instance, and the environment, and one another—and we certainly ought to care for the things that need to be cared about, whether we actually care about them or not. We ought to pretend that we care, and treat the things that need to be cared about the way we would treat them if we did care about them. We ought to care for the right things whether we actually care about them or not. And, we ought to also do the things we actually care about doing. That’s my total prescription for life. “A bargain at twice the price,” as Ron Williams says. I can’t give it away.

We have this fascination with “authenticity,” and think we shouldn’t do anything we don’t “feel like doing” because it wouldn’t be “genuine.” Look. If the baby has a dirty diaper, change it. I don’t care how you feel. We think children have to be “true to themselves” and shouldn’t be made to share their toys if they “don’t want to.” Look. Everything hangs on our children learning to do what needs to be done whether they want to or not.

No one just wakes up one morning feeling like doing something he, she, doesn’t feel like doing. Feeling like living within limits. Feeling like imposing restrictions on her, or his, boundless desires. Feeling like a little self-discipline. Feeling like forcing himself, herself, into doing what needs to be done regardless of how much resistance he, she, generates in doing it. We don’t just suddenly one day decide to spend the rest of our life doing the things that need to be done no matter how we feel about it.

Of course, there is the other side to consider. Some of us have never done anything we wanted to do all our lives long. Some of us, though we are getting older now, and there aren’t as many of us as there used to be, have only done what needed to be done because it needed to be done, when what really needed to be done was left undone because we were told it was selfish and unconscionable to do what we wanted to do. What we want to do—what we care about doing—needs to be done as much as any of the other things that need to be done.

The trick with authenticity and genuineness is this: We have to be true to ourselves within the context and circumstances of our lives. We cannot say yes to ourselves always at the expense of the context and circumstances of our lives, and we cannot say yes to the context and circumstances of our lives always at the expense of ourselves. Sometimes I say yes to me and no to you, and sometimes I say no to me and yes to you. And I am in charge of, responsible for, deciding how much for me and how much for you. I am in charge of, responsible for, deciding what needs to be done. And, my needs are on the table along with all the other needs. And, all the other needs are on the table along with my needs.

We live our lives in the service of what needs to be done, and our needs need to be served as much as any need. But, other needs also need us. And we choose, in each moment, whose needs will be served.

Congregations seem to think they pay me to make them happy. To meet their needs. To take care of them. I think congregations pay me to wake them up. But, you can’t wake anyone up AND make them happy. I’m sure you see the problem. In order to make, and keep, congregations happy, I have to put myself to sleep—in the veterinary science sense of the term. I have to euthanize myself. Well. If I’m dead, we are all dead. But, it is only right that I pay a price for waking up and being alive. There is a price to be paid. It is the hardest thing in the world, waking up and being alive. When we wake up, we wake up to the fact of competing needs and the necessity of decision and choice. When your needs are on the table with all the things that need you, whose needs are you going to attend now? You have to decide. To choose. But, it is like dying to decide. To choose. It is better to be asleep, and “happy.”

It comes down to doing what we care about and what needs to be cared about whether we care about it or not. To do that is to be authentic, and genuine, and awake, and alive. To do that is to live successfully, regardless of the outcome, in spite of the results, of our living.

To do what we care about and what needs to be cared about whether we care about it or not has nothing to do with achievement, and accomplishment, and attainment, and acquirement, and acquisition—the Five A’s which typically are used to gauge the degree of one’s “success” at life. Every person society considers “successful” has been successful in these five areas. When we “do something” with our lives, we do it in these five areas. When we “make a difference,” we make it in one or more of these five areas. No one ever “made a difference” just changing a baby’s dirty diaper, unless, of course, you take the baby into account.

All this changes when we spend our lives doing what we care about and what needs to be cared about whether we care about it or not. Then we don’t look to see what good we are going, or what difference we are making, or what results we are amassing. We are just doing what needs to be done. We are just doing what we care about and what needs to be cared about. No matter what. That is my sure-fire, never-fail, prescription for life. And, I can’t give it away.

Monday, March 12, 2007

03/11/07, Sermon

We stand before the door. Sometimes. Sometimes we don’t even know there is a door. Sometimes, we walk among a hundred doors, a thousand, each claiming to be The Door. How do we know? We’ve been fooled before. We need a guide. Of course, they rush to assist us. A hundred voices call out, a thousand clamor to be the one who shows The Way. Who shall we trust? We’ve been fooled before.

At any point in our life there is the rest of our life to consider. How shall we live the rest of our lives in order to squeeze the most living out of it, to cram the most living into it? How shall we live so as to be alive—fully, vibrantly, joyfully alive—in the time left for living?

And, don’t think the question is only about cotton candy and blow-pops. Being alive is not about you and all the sugar you can eat, or all the money you can spend, or all the experiences you can accumulate. Acquisition—whether in the form of money, property, or experiences—is just one of the doors claiming to be The Door. You’ve been fooled before. Yet, the question is the only question: How shall we live so as to be alive in the time left for living? What does it mean “to be alive”?

Just as the fish is most alive in the ocean, we are most alive in God. The fish is one with the ocean. Ocean and fish are not separate entities. They are one reality in separate forms. You can see this more clearly if I say the ocean and the ice berg are one thing. You can see the ocean being the ice berg because, well, the ocean IS the ice berg, and the ice berg IS the ocean. If you practice, you can see the fish in the same way as you see the ice berg.

The ocean becomes the ice berg. The ice berg becomes the ocean. In the same way, the ocean becomes the fish. The fish becomes the ocean. If this is a difficult step for you to take, it’s going to be really hard when we get to God. So, we might need to sit for a while with fish and ocean. Out of the ocean comes the fish, into the ocean goes the fish. In between the coming and the going there is not so much ocean and fish but oceanfish. We are so used to separating things out into different categories—kingdom, phylum, class, order, you know—that we go blank when we try to reverse the process and blur the boundaries that give us our world, our reality.

We argue for separate-ness. NO! We shout. The fish is NOT the ocean! We won’t have it. We can’t see it. We refuse to look. Look. The rest of this sermon depends on you humoring me here. Just pretend the fish is the ocean, and the ocean is the fish. And hang on to your seats.

The fish is most alive in the ocean because the ocean and the fish are one. If you take the fish out of the ocean, throw it on the beach, say, or into the frying pan, the fish dies. It’s comforting to think that the spirit of the fish returns to the sea, while the body of the fish provides you with the nutrients required for your life, making you, in a way, one with the ocean, but we won’t go there. Let’s just stay with the fish dying when taken from the ocean. And, let’s say, as with the fish, so with me and you.

Just as there is ocean, and there is not-ocean, as in the frying pan, so there is God and there is not-God, or, perhaps, not-yet-God. Just as the fish is one with the ocean when the fish is in the ocean—and even when the fish is out of the ocean the fish is one with the ocean, but will die if not returned quickly to the ocean—so we are one with God when we are in the right kind of company. The right kind of company is God. The wrong kind of company (and no company at all is the wrong kind of company) is not-God (Here, though, you have to remember the distinction between isolation and solitude. No company at all, at least for a while, can be God. Don’t you find this to be very interesting? You aren’t asleep, are you?).

We can’t be alive by ourselves. It takes relationship with the right people to really live. It takes the right kind of company. The right kind of company brings us to life. Brings God to life. Unites us with God, and neighbor, and self. Wow. Relationships. Community. God.

But, of course, you might know, there is a catch. The catch is that we can’t have relationships, community, without sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the relationship. We pay a price to be alive. In living we die, in dying we live. I’m talking spiritual life and spiritual death here. Relationship does not exist on our terms. Relationship asks hard things of us. Being alive is not the easiest thing we ever did. Being alive is like dying.

The agony involved in choosing The Door does not go away when we open The Door. The agony, you might say, is the path of life. It is the agony of being alive. Which means it is much more difficult to be alive than to be 98.6 and breathing. It is much more difficult for us to be in God than for the fish to be in the ocean. Yet, for us to not be in God would be like the fish deliberately beaching itself, and thinking in the few minutes before it’s actual, physical death, “Ah, this is the life!”

We can certainly live without being alive—without being in God. There once were opium dens where people gathered who didn’t have what it took to be alive. They were like fish beaching themselves in order to live out their days in blissful highs. If that’s what you want, a similar door can be found today. Open it. Step through. You’ll be wasting your life. You will be voiding your opportunity to be alive. It happens all the time.

Joseph Campbell says, “Either you can take it or you can’t.” No point in me trying to give you life when you aren’t interested in living. “It hurts too much! It costs too much! It’s too hard!” No one can give us what we don’t want.

“If you want to be my disciple,” says Jesus, “you have to pick up your cross, daily, and follow me.” Life comes with strings attached. Are we going to live, or not? We don’t have to open The Door. The rest of our lives will consist of something whether we open it or not. We will live until we die, alive or not, awake or not, enlightened or not. We can even call it Life. People do it all the time. No problem. People fool themselves all the time. Pretending is what we do best. Why not?

If I have to sell you on the idea of opening The Door and stepping through, it’s no use. If you have lived all these years without seeing the importance of living the rest of your life in the service of life, and living, and being alive, there is nothing I can say to change your mind. Just know that there is a door, and if you ever decide to open it, it is always there, waiting.

This place is about that door. This place is about living the rest of our lives in the service of life, and living, and being alive. What does that mean, actually, really? This place is about exploring that question. Imagining a life that is connected at the level of the heart with LIFE. Playing with the possibilities. Playing. That word again. Opening the door is about playing.

Now, here we have an interesting arrangements of opposites, don’t you think? If you’ve been listening, you have heard me say, “In living we die, in dying we live,” and you have heard me say “Being alive is about playing,” or words to that effect. Well, which is it? Do we play, or do we die? Of course, the answer is “Yes.” Don’t think for a moment that playing will not ask hard things of you.

Do you know how hard it is to play? Why has it been so long since you played? Life gets in the way, doesn’t it? Life gets in the way of living. Living can take the life right out of you. Who can even think about playing in this world, in this life? See? Told you. Playing is hard. Playing is hard because we take life so seriously. But, playfulness is an essential quality in creating and maintaining the right kind of relationships. Good company is playful. And, good, playful, company is exactly what we need to open the door to the rest of our life, and step through, into the wonder of being fully, vibrantly, joyfully alive. Amen! May it be so! May it be so!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

03/04/07, Sermon

The readings: Luke 13:31-35; Hebrews 13:2; Rumi—The Guest House;

In introducing The Guest House, Coleman Barks says:

One of the models Rumi has for the Psyche is the image of the guest house. He says we are not the moods, the impulses, the desires, the fears that visit us. We are the source from where they arise, and we are the host. And, the problem is to be a good host—to welcome those emotions that come. Jealousy comes up the walk, you say, “Come on in. I haven’t seen you in five years (or fifteen minutes). I thought you were dead.” Ecstatic love comes to the door. “My pleasure!” A sentimental sense of oneness with everything comes: “I knew your mother.” A cynical doubt, sarcastic about anything spiritual comes up: “Bro! How ’bout that game last night? Unbelievable!”

The people saw Jesus coming and closed the door. “How often,” he says, “I would have gathered you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her brood, but you would not.” The writer of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Rumi says we must be like a guest house, welcoming all comers, inviting everyone in to eat and drink, turning no one away, asking all to tell us their story, listening intently to what they have to say. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

There are a couple of things here. One is the matter of receiving graciously the stranger and listening to what he, or she, has to say. “Come in, come in! Have something to drink. Tell me your story.” If what they have to say is accusatory and shaming—if they are disgusted with us, filled with accusations and sarcasm—if they come with malicious intent, with disgust, even hatred, spilling out, we listen. “Say more. Let me hear you out.”

And, if, in the telling, and in the hearing, we find ourselves being defensive, or angry, or ashamed and depressed, open those doors as well, and invite the visitors in, welcome them to the table, to the chair, and invite them to speak. We are the guest house. Whoever comes to the door is a friend in disguise, an angel in street clothes. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond. …This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

That’s the first thing. The second is this: meet them at the door laughing. There was never an enlightened being who did not laugh. Wakefulness, mindfulness, awareness requires laughter. Playfulness is the unified theory. It’s the only way of making sense of the whole ball of wax. You will never get anywhere if you don’t go there playfully.

We take everything too seriously. We think too hard. We talk too much. We laugh so very rarely, if at all. We cannot welcome anything we don’t meet at the door, laughing. We cannot live soulfully without living playfully. Jesus said it. “Unless you turn and become as children, you will never inherit the kingdom of heaven.” There you are. What more do you need?

What child ever refused to play because it was too hard? Because it accomplished too little? Because it didn’t make enough of a difference? Because the payoff wasn’t worth the time and effort involved? Do you remember the tree houses you built in your youth? The doll houses you furnished? The forts you constructed? The miles you rode your bicycle? Do you remember playing baseball with the kids in the neighborhood with no pro scouts on the sidelines and nothing on the line? What in the world were you thinking? Well. Think it some more.

We have to recover the spirit play, the ability to not take things too seriously, the simple joy of being fully alive in the moment of our living. Play is something we do for itself alone. No one pays us to play, or grades our playing. When we play, we don’t worry about how well we are doing, or if someone else is doing a better job at it than we are, or if we should be doing it differently in order to get more out of it, and have something to show for it. When we are playing, we are just playing. We can’t be alive without “just playing” somewhere in our lives. How long has it been? What can we imagine doing for no other reason than because we like to do it?

“Recreational” drug use doesn’t count. Neither do any of the other addictions. Play is not escape, not denial. Play is restorative, regenerative. Play is an oasis, a way of living in the desert, not a way of pretending the desert doesn’t exist.

Jesus didn’t have a plan for doing away with the desert. Jesus did not come with a solution for the problems of life. He did not have an idea about structuring society with abundant equality and everyone being pleased with themselves, their lives, and everyone else. When your idea of a just social order is everyone doing right by everyone else, because that’s the right thing to do, you’re going to have trouble. Asking everyone to “love one another, now,” is not going to get it done.

Jesus couldn’t even create that kind of environment among his own disciples. Jealously, and in-fighting, and positioning for the favored seats in the kingdom completely missed the point of the kingdom. How are you going to wake people up to the fact that there is nothing in it for them? That they aren’t doing it to get anything out of it? That they are just playing around here?

“Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return,” says Jesus. And, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life to set others free—to wake others up, to show others the way of giving their lives to set others free—to wake others up, to show others the way of giving their lives to set others free… How do you think that is going to sell on Madison Avenue, or on Wall Street? We don’t do anything in which there is nothing for us. Yet, that is the hinge upon which the kingdom turns.

We are to live like children play, without an eye on what’s in it for us. Without thinking about what the advantage is, or what we stand to gain, or what the payoff is. What kind of payoff would it take, to make it worth our while? Can you image anything that we wouldn’t want to be better somehow, after about ten minutes? What is the advantage, exactly, of having the advantages? When we wake up, for instance, what do we get that is worth all the fuss?

The only advantage of enlightenment is that we laugh more. We don’t get upset as often, or stay upset as long as we did before enlightenment. We walk slower, and see things we overlooked with unenlightened eyes. We are alive, and present, like little children.

When we see clearly how things are and what we can do about them, we laugh. And do it. And let that be that.