© Calista Ames 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 15, 2012
Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. I was 15 years old. A sophomore in high school, I was an intense, sensitive and idealistic young woman, intent on coming to grips with the slowly growing awareness that the world was full of scary, mean and just plain 'bad' people. I found it very difficult to reconcile the premise that my religion taught me - God is perfect and creates only perfection - with the devastating observation that bad things do happen to good people. Firmly believing that God created and loved all people equally, and never having been exposed to bigotry, I had no basis on which to understand why anyone would kill such a wonderful, peaceful man as Martin Luther King. The politics behind the event frustrated, frightened and confused me. I saw hate - hate for a person of color, hate for his religion and hate for his non-violent beliefs.
On September 11, 2001 I awoke very early in the morning. I was agitated and upset. Getting out of bed I wandered about the house trying to settle down and could not. The agitation grew stronger. Shortly after 9:00 a.m. I got a phone call from a relative telling me to turn on the television. The horror of that morning ripped through me like a physical blow. The politics behind what happened frustrated, angered and frightened me. I saw hate - hate and intolerance, for our nation, our ideals, our political policies and our religions. In the days that followed I saw more hate - hate against the attackers, their nation, their people and their religion. Our dear, wonderful, peaceful Sikh neighbors became a target of ignorance and intolerance. My Aunt and her Middle Eastern husband practically went into hiding, leaving the house only when absolutely necessary. Yet I have also seen and been part of our community as we responded with shock at racially motivated and homophobic attacks in the city of Fremont. Yes, I have witnessed and felt prejudice aimed at me and at my family. Yet much more frequently,I have witnessed the growing awareness that we each need to be doing something about the problem. Our attitudes matter, things will not get better by themselves. This awareness allows each of us to accept the responsibility to be part of the solution.
The solution. What does that mean? What is the solution? What does the solution look like? How can we be part of the solution? To me, the solution is as simple as, and as difficult as living our values - every day, every moment, with each breath.
So much of our culture is spiritually malnourished. Spiritual leadership is not limited to the clergy. It is essential that each one of us embodies and expresses spiritual leadership. By our individual devotion to our highest sense of good and by living our values, we can both challenge ourselves to grow and inspire others to develop and reflect their own inherent humanity.
The murder of Martin Luther King, the horror of 911 - these events, among other less dramatic ones, have played a pivotal role in helping me to crystallize my convictions. Tolerance is not enough. Tolerance has a rough edge to it - an edge that can easily become razor sharp under stress. Hidden among the folds of 'tolerance' is the attitude of 'I'll outwardly put up with your differences but I secretly know you are wrong and I am right.' We must all move into acceptance and appreciation. Even acceptance alone is not enough. We must all appreciate and value our differences. It is not necessary to agree with one another, but we must completely believe in and support each individual's right to their own "responsible search for truth and meaning." I believe the survival of the human race is dependent on it.
I have struggled since childhood to always reach beyond my limitations - to understand, develop and express my highest ideals. The need to somehow make a difference in the world has whispered to me since a young age. In the last decade that whisper has flared into a deep burning desire, one that cannot be ignored. The thirteenth-century Muslim poet Rumi says, "There are lovers content with longing. I'm not one of them." That is how my call feels - it is an intense longing, an ache, to face and challenge my weaknesses and my shortcomings and to embrace my talents. By reaching an acceptance and appreciation of the uniqueness we each bring to the whole, we can be an integral part of 'the solution.' I know no higher spiritual leadership than to live and foster equality though compassion and love. To recognize, and honor "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." My life, your life, our lives, by our very existence, is an act of worship.
I'd like to share the story of how I found this community here at Mission Peak, whose shared values I can, whole-heartedly, stand behind. While doing research in a class on politics and religion, entitled "Religious Controversy," taught by Dr. Jennifer Rycenga, I ran across a religion I had never heard of - Unitarian Universalism. I remember excitedly emailing the rest of my study group telling them that I'd found a church that claimed it had no dogma and even openly accepted LGBT's. A few days later a friend and I were discussing our worldviews when she told me that I sounded like a U.U. The synchronicity of the whole thing amused me and I decided I needed to check out this Unitarian Universalism stuff. This was a huge step for me as I had not set foot in a church in 20 years, and had thought I never would.
When I finally worked up the courage to attend a service I was surprised by everything - the location (it was in a non-'church' building), the deep warmth of the greeters, the table with flyers and information - with a welcome brochure on LBGT's prominently displayed . . . and then there was the service. I was amazed and completely impressed, when four young adults took turns telling their story. Standing before the congregation they spoke of their beliefs and convictions. They told of the thoughtful process they went through clarifying to themselves what those beliefs were. But what amazed me the most was that each of their perspectives was different. One young woman was Wiccan. Another individual was Christian and yet another was an atheist. These people meant it. If they fostered and promoted this level of individual thinking in their youth, then they meant it. They had no confining, restricting, 'this-is-the-truth-and-there-is-no-other' dogma. Wow. Four months later on October 2, 2005, I signed the membership book.
Shortly after I was introduced to Unitarian Universalism I had the privilege of attending a three-day conference in Berkeley, hosted by Rabbi Michael Lerner. The thrust of the conference was the need for more cohesiveness among the religious left. The various lectures, workshops and discussion groups all focused on the deep need for each of us to put our energy, both mentally and through our actions, into supporting liberal spirituality. The country and the world must step beyond tolerance into acceptance of one another's individualities and personal paths of worship. With the goal of establishing a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, held firmly in place, each of us can take a bold stand through the act of embodying our values. Through allowing and encouraging the concrete, tangible expression of the values we affirm and promote belief in, we can breathe life into our principles. Our actions, not our words, give credence to our morals and our mores.
It was due to Dr. Rycenga's class, combined with Rabbi Lerner's conference, backed up by my now positive 'church' experiences, that I joined Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I realized with startling clarity how important it is for each individual to stand up and be counted. I realized that within a like-minded community I could experience and express "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth," not only in our congregations, but also in the larger community, and ultimately the world. By being 'out' as a member of the religious left I can be part of the solution, rather than standing idly by on the sidelines.
This conviction was fostered and deepened during a senior seminar class I had with Dr. Rycenga, titled "God Bless America." The class focused on the underlying psychological thrust of diverse religious factions that shape our country. During that semester we investigated and challenged the idea of 'divine destiny' that runs as a persistent thread through American history, religion and culture. We compared and contrasted this with other religious ideals, such as the Native American beliefs surrounding land and the Aztec cosmologies concerning warfare. We looked closely at historical documents and contemporary uses of sacred language in both popular culture and political rhetoric. We saw clearly the result of what happens when "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" are not expressed, when 'conscience' goes underground and the use of the democratic process becomes a facade to promote the interests of the dominant culture.
What we were, in fact, looking at, in each of Dr. Ryenga's classes, were ways in which that interdependent web can be and is plucked, creating ripples far beyond what we can see - how attitudes and actions spread, how they affect the whole, how what we do matters. It is difficult sometimes to see how one single individual can make a difference. How can I, through what I think, do and feel, forward the goal of a world community? A community of peace, of liberty and justice, not just for humans, but for the whole web of existence! We each matter. Whether we do anything or not, we affect the web. For better or worse, our actions, or lack of actions, cause ripples affecting the movement within the interdependent web. As each of us adds our awakening, our awareness to the continuum, we affect the balance and growth of the whole. There is a deep need for each of us to live our individual highest ideals. Not just think about them, or talk about them, or even plan how to implement them - as important as these steps are - we need, above all else, to live them. Our ability to "counter oppressions and create just and sustainable communities" lies in direct proportion to our awareness and understanding that there is a problem! The awareness that we each need to be doing something about the problem, that 'things' are not going to get better all by themselves, allows us to accept the responsibility to be part of the solution. This awareness has led me to the decision to continue with my education and seek to fill that particular niche in which my talents can be of service - to discover how I can help to "counter oppressions and create just and sustainable communities" - to live the principles I have covenanted to uphold.
Mission Peak UUC is on a threshold, a precipice, the brink of possibilities. We can step boldly forward into action. We can truly 'practice what we preach' and in so doing provide spiritual leadership through our day-to-day actions. We can minister to our neighbors, not by going door-to-door, but by letting our values shine through what we say, what we think, and how we act. Yes, change is frightening. Yes, we must look at the steps involved in any new venture. But the future is calling to us. The world needs what we have. We have a chance to be an inspiration, to promote spiritual leadership, ours as well as others. Let's not - to borrow a wise man's words - 'hide our lamp under a bushel.'
I believe that by tapping into our own inner-knowing and bringing that wisdom into expression that we can heal - first ourselves, then our families, our communities, and our world. Through our individual and collective spiritual leadership, though embodying our principles, every day, every moment, we can help to provide the spiritual nourishment our world so desperately needs. And we are not alone. We have each other, we have "a spiritual community of caring hearts and open minds." We can "provide opportunities for worship and personal growth based on . . . values of justice, compassion and reverence for life." We can manifest "these values in service to each other and the greater community."
May we each allow the moments of our lives to reflect our values.
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