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At one time in my life, long before I had the notion to enter the ministry I found myself attending a Buddhist Sangha. A Sangha is the name of an intentional Buddhist Community – Buddhists say intentional to separate the community from the Mahayana or the Great Community of Awakening. Anyway I wandered into this place down in the West Village of New York City and I felt I had come home. Who hear felt that way when you first walked into our congregation? Can I get a amen? Well, anyway I walked into this Sangha and I felt so at peace… my life was a bit of a mess at the time; I was recently divorced, between jobs as they say and generally rootless. Here was a community who professed to accept me as I was, I didn’t have to “do” anything except attend, meditate and put a little money in the basket. Within a few months I was a fervent Buddhist. (Which by the way is completely antithetical to what the Buddha taught, non-attachment including fervent attachment to Buddhism). Reading everything I could get my hands onto about Buddhism, meditate twice a day and loving the reality that the present is all I needed, because the past pretty much sucked and the future kind off terrified me.
I even began to think about taking the vows to become a Zen monk. And then the reality of the communities professed being didn’t quite line up with its doing. The closer I got to the leadership of this community the more I noticed they were fighting with each other. Now don’t get me wrong, every community deals with the tension between what they aspire to be and what they actually do; ours here is no exception. But this, this was nasty. Far from being a place of peace and tranquility it was a community of discord. Almost hostility. And I was pretty sure this is not what the Buddha had in mind. So I left. Too bad, I would have made a great monk! Fat and happy.
My beloveds what I have learned from this early foray into religious life is that action and identity are like two fluids which react differently according to different circumstances. The Sangha professed compassion and acceptance, but they were unable to reach that being beyond what each of them achieved individually meditating on their pillow. We all struggle with this tension, individually and as a community. We are struggling with it mightily as a nation now; we profess equal rights for all, but our judicial systems and government are far from making that being a reality. What I have learned is that it’s not enough to profess what you believe, you have to have the intention to make that belief a reality, and you have to do in order to be. Intentionality, which is our spiritual theme for this month, is about bridging our identities with our actions. Our being with our doing.
We can believe we should be kind and compassionate but unless we are intentional about living out that kindness with our actions we are falling short of the mark. I know I have. Many times in my life I have resolved to be more open minded only to close down as soon as I disagree with what someone is saying. Can you hear me? Even after all these years I have to remind myself to listen twice as much as I talk. To be is to do, and it is not always simple. If I were to commend any New Year’s Resolution this year, it would be this: Write down what matters most to you and then ask yourself once a week, what am I doing to make that a reality in my life.
Sometimes doing and being roll along reinforcing themselves. To effectively undo a wrong we have to look seriously at who we are. Rick Warren the famous pastor of the Saddleback Church in Southern California came right up against this tension between doing and being after he shot to stardom with his bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life, which by the way is actually a great book, full of wisdom on how to intentionally become who we dream to be. On the TED stage Warren said this:
“Everybody’s betting their life on something. You’re betting your life on something, you just better know why you’re betting what you’re betting on. So, everybody’s betting their life on something. And when I, you know, made a bet, I happened to believe that Jesus was who he said he was…. I had no plans to do what it’s doing now. And then when I wrote this book, and all of a sudden, it just took off, and I started saying, now, what’s the purpose of this? Because as I started to say, I don’t think you’re given money or fame for your own ego, ever. I just don’t believe that. And when you write a book that the first sentence of the book is, “It’s not about you,” then, when all of a sudden it becomes the best-selling book in history, you’ve got to figure, well, maybe it is not about me….” https://www.ted.com/talks/rick_warren_on_a_life_of_purpose/transcript
And that is where he had a crisis of faith. Was he really that good? Was God using him as a superstar to sell Jesus? He wondered if he really believed in a God that would make him so rich; he wondered what happened to his simple faith as a pastor. Was he a faithful servant of God or was all this money a sign that he was a superstar for God? He struggled with what he thought was a new identity, but it was only the money from his fame, from a book he wrote. His doing that was changing his being. It would be his wife who would bring him back to ground. She would be the one that would help him refocus his ministry. Some of us here have spouses like that do that don’t we? I preach some great sermon and Francis says “Don’t let it get to your head buddy; you are only as good as your last sermon’. Tough crowd. Anyway it would be Warren’s wife Kay (who is a renowned anthropologist) who convinced him to realign who he was as a compassionate and humble pastor with what he was doing making all that money; they didn’t buy a big house, they started a ministry serving HIV/AIDS victims in Africa.
How many of us have had something happen to us that shattered who we are? Maybe not making a fortune? Am I right? Maybe you faltered, had an affair, struggled with addiction, hurt someone you loved. Maybe it happened to you. What are you doing to restore the true you? When I fall down, I have learned that the best way to restore the balance between who I am and what I have done, is to apologize and try to do better. It’s humbling and profoundly simple, but it works for me. It restores my intention of being better than I am.
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this intimate relationship between doing and being better than most. When he was recruited by the civil rights movement as its spokesman he did so reluctantly; knowing full well that by accepting that role his actions would need to full his words; his doing would need to fit his being. It’s called integrity. Reluctantly at first, more fully as time went on, Dr. King intentionally kept aligning his actions with his words. Yes, he did have his hypocrisies, not the least of which was his marital infidelities. But through his all too short life he kept his doing in line with his being. Towards the end of his life, King took up the seemingly unpopular cause of protesting the Vietnam War. Urged by his fellow civil rights activists to not “dilute his message” of civil rights with the “white man’s burden” of ending the war, Dr. King answered them “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain. ‘” (From MLK Stanford Papers Collection at http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/)
Traditionally, religions have been about the task of providing a set of beliefs upon which a person takes action. That is the meaning of ethics; the doing of a moral understanding. But, as Dr. King understood, we have to sometimes stand against what our religion tells us to do. Reformations continue to evolve religious understanding even today. I sense one such reformation happening even in evangelical Christianity, not especially known for embracing the troubles of this world. I see it happening with the Rick and Kay Warrens of the world. It seems to me in my rather unscientific survey that conservative Christians are uniting with other groups to affect positive change in our society. No, not on the so-called core values of marriage and abortion, but in terms of global warming, the causes of poverty and yes, war. Not all of them but many more than the news would have us believe. I would ask us as religious liberals to pay attention to that, perhaps even in my lifetime we will see us realigning our being with our doing, reforming the way we work with other religions to affect change. It is my hope for this new year that we will continue to build interfaith coalitions, perhaps even with those we have traditionally eschewed as “too conservative” to change our world.
Truly, in the spirit of Dr. King, I ask us to be aware when we are speaking ill of Christianity. I do not want Unitarian Universalism to be known as a bully religion. I want our search for truth honored but that truth to be presented in love. I want us to be in community with those we live with and join with them in a common being and doing. I want us to be known for our open and honest search for truth AND known for our willingness to engage with others inclusively in solving our problems.
When Dr. King wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail he answered the charge by white and liberal colleagues that his methods, his doing, were too radical. He decried the suggestion that the status quo was good enough when the Kingdom of God on earth required a challenge to that status quo. King asked “was not Jesus an extremist for love; ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them’? Was not Amos an extremist for justice when he said ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’?” The question for us is: Are we willing to do what it takes to live out what we believe? Are we willing to accept our Christian sisters and brothers or our Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or B’hai or Sufi friends as co-equal with us in the struggle to live out our beliefs? Are we willing to live out our profession as being a religion of love and service with welcoming those who are different from us? Are we willing to open our own minds? I believe we are. To be and do. It is more than just a “can do” attitude. We have to measure our actions with our beliefs, our values, and our faith. I am not asking us necessarily to do more than we are, if we are doing all we can do to live out our faith. I have come a long way since my foray into Buddhism those years ago. Just before I left that Sangha, I learned that one of the leaders of that community was dying of cancer while all that infighting was going on. I realize now that I failed to align my own being to my doing. Where was my intention? My compassion? My love? My spirit?
I am more forgiving now of those who make mistakes. For some it is all we can do just getting to get here that is all good enough. Fine, you are doing your being. But if you are in the least feeling the call to reach out to those who you know you share at least some of your values with, let this be your New Year’s invitation to do it. Invite someone you know to our church. Resolve to life with intention this year. Not to be perfect. Lord knows I am not. I often end our worship service with the words “And now the service truly begins”. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty about not doing enough! Heavens no. This is only meant to remind us that living our faith out in the world is all this is really about. That might be just finding the energy to get here. But it might mean more. Its not a commandment, its an invitation. To do what you are. I believe that our faith is both a sanctuary, a place of renewal, and a model of what we want the world to be. For those who are called, let our congregations, our worship; give us the inspiration to do more, in whatever small way what we hold true in the world. A refueling station for the spirit. An alignment shop for our being and doing. Do be do be do. I close with this poem by Denise Levertov entitled “A Gift”
Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.