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Why?

UUFP Changing the World

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardRev. Andrew Clive Millard

Many parents dread that age when their child starts asking “Why?”  Not because they don’t want their child to be curious, but because whatever the answer, it usually leads to another “Why?” until the final answer, out of frustration, is something like “Because I said so!”  (The theological problem that answer represents is a topic for another time…)  Olivia hasn’t reached that phase yet, but she certainly asks plenty of other questions and I know it’s just a matter of time!

While it’s a phase that’s usually outgrown within a few years, the question still sticks with us throughout our lives.  And “why” is distinct from the other question words: “what”, “where”, “when” and “who” often have concrete answers, and in fact the rule of thumb for announcing an event is to include those answers as the most important details.  Even “how”, though more…

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Finding Our Purpose

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 30th 2012.)

Kwanzaa was created, in the words of its creator, Dr. Karenga, as “an expression of the recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s.”  Celebrated as an African-American cultural holiday between December 26th and January 1st, it fits nicely with the other seasonal holidays that occur at this time of year, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations have a kinara with candles that they light just as they do an Advent wreath or a Hanukkah menorah or a miniature Yule log.

There is, of course, much more to Kwanzaa than lighting candles, just as is the case for those other holidays.  A table is to be set with a beautiful piece of African cloth, on which is placed a straw mat and the kinara as well as a bowl of fruits and vegetables, particularly those that are native to Africa.  Also on the mat are one ear of corn for each child in the family, a unity cup used to pour libation to the family’s ancestors, and other African art and books and heritage symbols, including gifts for the children.  There are ritual greetings and responses, and a big feast is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa which coincides with New Year’s Eve.  The seventh and final day, on New Year’s Day, is devoted to meditating on where we have come from and where we are going; it is, in Dr. Karenga’s words, a time for courageously asking the questions:  “Who am I?”  “Am I really who I say I am?”  “Am I all I ought to be?”

Now as Kwanzaa approaches its fiftieth anniversary, just about everybody in the United States has heard about the holiday.  If nothing else, the US Postal Service has been issuing Kwanzaa-themed stamps for fifteen years now.  There are, however, a number of myths about the holiday.  One of these I heard, not long after coming to the US, is that Kwanzaa was invented out of whole cloth, without any real historical basis or validity as a holiday.  Well, such a claim is obviously intended to question the legitimacy of this celebration of African-American culture, and it’s a claim that we as UUs ought to regard with suspicion, given that the same sort of thing is said about Unitarian Universalism, which technically came into existence in the 1960s, too.  Just as our faith has roots going back hundreds of years, however, Kwanzaa has roots in African traditions, particularly harvest celebrations known in ancient, classical and modern African cultures.

Three other myths about Kwanzaa are addressed by actress and producer Masequa Myers, in a series of videos she created on the traditions and customs of Kwanzaa.  The first myth is that Kwanzaa was created to replace Christmas.  This may have come out of the idea that Euro-American culture goes hand-in-hand with Christianity, which is unfortunately a common assumption even today, as shown by the unfounded arguments over President Obama’s religion and nationality.  Still, Dr. Karenga has clarified that Kwanzaa was not intended to be an alternative to Christmas, much less a replacement for it, and many Christian African-Americans celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas and, for that matter, New Year’s, too.

Myers’ second myth is related to this, namely that Kwanzaa is a religious holiday.  She responds to this one quite simply: “No, it is not.”  Though it has some of its roots in the religion of Yoruba, which provides some of Kwanzaa’s ethical positions, it is a non-religious holiday.  Or perhaps inter-faith would be a better word: Myers remembers with fondness a Kwanzaa celebration in Phoenix that was well attended by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Jews, because it’s a cultural holiday that cuts across all religions.

The third myth Myers addresses, then, is, the obvious one: that you have to be of African descent to celebrate Kwanzaa.  Well, looking at the annual messages that Dr. Karenga sends out, it is clearly a holiday lifting up African culture and traditions, particularly as it is remembered, reflected upon and recommitted to by African-Americans.  Myers makes the point, though, that not everyone who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day is Irish, not everyone who celebrates Cinco de Mayo is Mexican, not everyone who celebrates Chinese New Year is Chinese.  Myers concludes by noting that “Kwanzaa is based on seven principles that anyone from any walk of life, any race, ethnicity or religion can benefit from.”

Now, we can question what it means to celebrate these holidays, particularly in terms of being authentic and respectful as opposed to what little most of us actually know about them.  Drinking green beer doesn’t mean you’re actually observing the Feast Day of Saint Patrick any more than commemorating the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on 5th May 1862 is merely about having dinner at Taco Bell.  And, as I said, Kwanzaa is about much more than lighting black and red and green candles.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, for instance, are at one level, as Masequa Myers says, broad enough that anyone can benefit from studying them.  Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are universal values of communitarian ethics that parallel our own UU Seven Principles, for instance, as well as the Humanist Manifesto.  At another level, however, Dr. Karenga makes clear that each of Kwanzaa’s principles has a specific rôle in “building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community.”  When it comes to his description of the fifth principle, Nia or purpose, for instance, which is “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness”, Dr. Karenga’s use of “our community” and “our people” is clearly in reference to “the world African community” and “people of African descent”.

Now I know that studies of mitochondrial DNA that trace the maternal ancestry of modern humans show that we are all descendents of a single woman who lived, most likely in East Africa, around two-hundred-thousand years ago.  There were other women who were alive at the time, of course, but Mitochondrial Eve, as she has been nick-named, is the most recent ancestor from whom all humans living today are descended.  There was, similarly, a Y-chromosomal Adam, who probably also lived in Africa, though — in a blow to anyone who was itching to claim the Garden of Eden story was literally true — he was alive tens of thousands of years after Mitochondrial Eve was alive.  In any case, if you go back far enough in our family trees, we are all, in that sense, of African descent.

That, of course, is not at all relevant to the celebration of Kwanzaa, and to claim that we are all equally and identically entitled to the holiday is to cruelly discount many hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, exploitation and oppression committed against Africans and African-Americans by Europeans and Euro-Americans.  Since most of us here are in the latter ethnic group rather than the former, we cannot participate in Kwanzaa’s call to Nia in the way that it is intended for members of the world African community.  We can be allies, though, and make sure that we have our own sense of purpose than includes regard for the value of cultural diversity even as we strive to remember that we are all part of one larger human family.

And purpose, I think, is one of the critical aspects of our lives as individuals and as communities that gets taken for granted, or forgotten, or left behind.  It’s very easy, when struggling to keep up with our ever-growing “to do” lists, to forget why we even have those lists.  The phrase “rat race” has been part of our vernacular for at least fifty or sixty years, describing in particular the life of working for other people in stressful jobs to get enough money to buy things that we’re too stressed out to enjoy.  But that’s not living, and it’s the opposite of having a purpose, having a goal to achieve something meaningful.

Our society’s apparent sense of purposelessness may, in fact, be part of our fascination with the end of the world, whether that’s a religiously ordained judgment day or a zombie apocalypse, as I mentioned last week.  After all, if you believe the Rapture is coming, you now have a very clear purpose: to be ready for it and to make absolutely sure that you’re amongst the elect who will be taken up to heaven.  Or, if you prefer the idea of a plague of the living dead, your purpose is to stay alive while taking out as many zombies as possible; the advantage there is that you can quantify how well you’re achieving your purpose by keeping score, just like in a video game.

Now another part of our fascination with the end of the world, I believe, comes from our ability to try to make sense of the world by looking for patterns.  In fact, we’ve become so good at that, thanks to our evolutionary history, that we insist on looking for patterns, for order, when there is only randomness, whether that’s natural or the consequences of illness or selfishness or bloodymindedness.  Even if no order, no rhyme nor reason is apparent for given events in life, we convince ourselves that that’s just because we can’t see it, and so we come up with conspiracy theories.  And if we don’t seem to have much control over what’s going on, we tell one another, then surely the government or a secret society or space aliens or some supernatural power must actually be running the show.  The end of the world as a satisfying conclusion to that reality is one consequence of such thinking, but so is the idea that we need someone else or something else outside ourselves to tell us what our own purpose in life must be.

For as long as there have been beings with sufficient self-awareness to realize, first, that they exist and, second, that someday they won’t, they have been asking themselves questions such as, “What is the purpose of life?”  I’ve long thought that that’s not a very helpful question, and that if it has an answer, it’s something like “Our purpose in life is to figure out our purpose in life.”  I like that answer because it’s very deep while at the same time being very unhelpful.  I think we need to ask ourselves questions that might be more useful, questions such as: “Who are we?”  “Where do we come from?”  “What are we?”  “Are we really who we say we are?”  “Are we our best selves?”  We do need a sense of our own purpose as individuals, but we also need to figure that out for ourselves, based on who we think we are and who we want to be.

It’s a little easier to articulate purpose when it comes to free associations, communities that people intentionally create together.  After all, there must have been a reason for those people to come together in the first place.  Congregations are such free associations, and though we, here at the Fellowship, tend to lift up our congregational mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — most often, we also have a stated purpose, though it’s quite a bit more involved.  Here it is:

“The purpose of this Fellowship is to encourage religious tolerance and to support individual spiritual growth, further[ing] individual freedom, discipleship to advancing truth, the democratic process in human relationships, brotherhood and sisterhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to the cause of a peaceful world community.  Relying upon reason and compassion as our guide, and giving freedom to our method, we seek to grow in understanding of ourselves and of our world, to promote and serve the Universal human family.”

Obviously there’s a lot in there to unpack.  Congregations are multi-faceted communities and as such can be involved in a lot of different things at the same time.  You might also have been wondering about some of the wording, particularly the phrase “discipleship to advancing truth”.  As it turns out, that language was contributed by A. Powell Davies, minister to All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington DC, as part of the effort to reform and reinvigorate the American Unitarian Association in the 1940s, and he proposed five principles that were common within Unitarianism at the time.

The first was “individual freedom of belief”, which has long been a hallmark of our faith.  It goes back at least as far as the 1568 Edict of Torda which was a decree of religious freedom issued by King John Sigismund Zapolya of Transylvania that, in part, legitimized Unitarianism in that country.  Then there’s that “discipleship to advancing truth”, which combines not only the idea that “revelation is not sealed” but also the idea that, as people of faith, we should continually update our own religious views based on the best understandings of the world around us and within us.  Davies’ third principle was “the democratic process in human relations”, recognizing that people should be free to determine their own fate, both in society and in congregations.  The fourth was “universal brotherhood [and sisterhood], undivided by nation, race or creed”, recognizing that we are all one human family, and the fifth, which follows directly from that, was “allegiance to the cause of a united world community.”

For me, this is where the rubber hits the road.  What we believe and how we arrive at those beliefs are all well and good, but it’s what we do with them that really matters.  Even how we govern ourselves and make decisions together is, while a reflection of our beliefs about the inherent worth of the individual, a means to another end, though I would note that our UU affirmation of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” means that we should fully support Kwanzaa’s second principle of Kujichagulia, the value of self-determination that those of African descent may “define [them]selves, name [them]selves, create for [them]selves and speak for [them]selves.”

The rubber hits the road when we affirm universal brotherhood and sisterhood, for we are all children of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromasomal Adam.  And yet, the fact that we are all part of one larger human family does not erase our differences, any more than I am the same person as my sister.  We have all come to our places in the world by different paths, not just as individuals but also as the groups that we call cultures, and we need to respect not only the different roots that feed those cultures but also the different branches that will flourish if only we nurture them.  A united, peaceful world community, then, will not be like a single cup that holds us all within its bowl; rather, it will be like a tree, growing in many directions and all of us as leaves growing from it.

The New Year seems like a good time to think about purpose.  It’s a good time to remember how we got to where we are now, to thank the people who made it possible for us to be here.  It’s a good time to reflect on our lives, to be thankful for our blessings, to evaluate how we are facing our challenges.  And it’s a good time to recommit to a brighter future, to declare our intent to bring good into the world.  As we light our candles to mark the promise of lengthening days and the turning of the year, let us remember, reflect upon and recommit to all that is good and beautiful.

So may it be.

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Summer Serenity

Summer tends to be a time of transition and replenishment.  One year of school has ended and another has yet to begin, and though work continues through June, July and August, almost all of us feel the change of pace, the shift in activities.  More than in other seasons there are camps and conferences, picnics and parties, visits to friends and family, weddings and vacations.  The sunny splash of the beach beckons, as does the coolness of the forests and the mountains.  Weekday work may not be so different, but regular schedules are relaxed, the precision of the kitchen replaced by the carefree delights of the grill, the glow of the television abandoned for the shade of a porch or a tree, the electric hum of air conditioning silenced on cooler days when open windows invite in gentle breezes.  There is a sense of lull but also of activity — of pausing, but also of anticipation, enjoying the season for itself but also looking ahead to the Fall.

Churches tend to go through their own time of transition and replenishment during the Summer, too.  Spring elections are behind us and new leadership roles are taken up; ministers and staff review, regroup and make plans for the coming year; formal religious education classes are in recess and instead there are camps and retreats for children and adults alike.  Those who have studied such things tell us that most “church shopping” takes place during the Summer, when families in particular look for spiritual homes where they can feel part of a supportive community, where their questions can be answered and their answers can be questioned, where they can join with those of like heart and mind to give thanks and build the common good.

Sometimes Summer’s transitions are bigger than usual.  There may be a new school, a new job or even a new career, perhaps accompanied by a move of many miles.  Such changes, even if deliberately chosen, are often bittersweet, the promise of the new offset by the absence of the familiar, the excitement of possibilities for the future dampened by the distancing of the comforts of the past.  If unchosen, they bring with them feelings of loss and regret, perhaps fear of the unknown, and usually anger at the causes of the unwanted changes.  Change, though, is inevitably a part of life, and there is no escaping it; indeed, it is a major part of life and since most changes, large or small, are not chosen, it is in how we respond to change that we do our living.

The Serenity Prayer is a well-known expression of what it might take to do that living, appealing as it does to “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  I have kept a copy of this prayer pinned to the wall above my desk since I was a child, finding in its simplicity a deep wellspring of hope that I had not encountered elsewhere.  As an adult, I have come to recognize and appreciate the power of being in community that brings life to that hope, that fosters in us wisdom, builds in us courage, and nurtures in us serenity.  We do our living in response to change to the extent that we are resilient — able to bounce back from all that our world throws at us, able to give thanks for the simple gift of life and all its challenges and graces alike — and we are so much more resilient when we are, as individuals, joined in community with others.  Families and friends, colleagues and congregations, all can offer us the love we need in our daily lives to not just survive, but thrive.

May you enjoy replenishment of life and the spirit in these Summer months, in yourself and in the company of those who bring joy to your heart.  If you are in transition, may you find those who will comfort, support and encourage you, never able to do your living for you but still accompanying you on this journey of faith, hope and love that we call Life.  And, with a song in your soul and a smile on your lips, may all your days be glad.

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