The Palms of Our Hearts

compassion-500x333pxI cannot imagine the terror that must have been on the Malaysian Airplane that disappeared almost two weeks ago. Apparently the plane changed altitudes and speeds abruptly at various points, and flew on in some direction for a number of hours. Whatever the cause of its disappearance turns out to be, it is frightening to think of the passengers and what their last hours must have been. We all want our lives to go well, to be filled with joy rather than sorrow, with happiness rather than terror, with health rather than sickness. And, for most of us, and for the most part, our lives are pretty good. Most of us are among the privileged on the earth, and we ought to be ever grateful for that. But that is not true for everyone.

The lines from the Seamus Heaney poem stay with me:

Finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

I am reminded that we are linked into the network of eternal life; we are linked to everything that is, which means that the sorrow of others is our sorrow, the terror of others is out terror. And pity, the kind of pity that can create compassion and care, is the right response. And, then, as the poet says, we hold these things close until they are hatched and fled and flown.

This means that we should care for others, that our lives are made whole by holding others in the palms of our hearts and minds. This means that compassion matters above all else, that giving really is better than receiving. It means we should want the best for others. But terror does strike; tragedies do happen; violence is all too common; sorrow and pain are constants in the human condition.

But joy happens too, and love is abundant; beauty exists everywhere. Spring is here and perhaps it symbolism as new life and new beginnings is apt, that life has sorrow and joy, tragedy and triumph.

It is just good to remember it all.

-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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The Redemption of the World

Last night, Kathe and I went to see the LA Opera’s production of “Billy Budd”
by Benjamin Britten based on the novella by Herman Melville. The novelist E. M. Forster (Howard’s End, Room with a View, A Passage to India) co-wrote the libretto. The manuscript of Billy Budd was found in Melville’s desk when he died in 1891, and most scholars believe Melville has mostly completed it. It was finally published in 1924, and Britten wrote his opera in 1951. It was a wonderful production with a marvelous staging. The whole book takes place on a ship at sea. Our own Mark Beasom (bass-baritone section leader of our choir) was in it.

This is the first opera we have been to here in LA (maybe the last – I am just not an opera fan)and were surprised and delighted to find out that the words were projected high on a screen so we could follow the text. The music was terrific and the whole staging was really superb. We caught a bit of the director James Conlon’s talk describing the opera before the performance. Conlon suggested that the point of the novel was that goodness must be sacrificed for evil to be overcome, that Billy Budd is a Christ-figure who willingly is sacrificed so that evil – John Claggart – might be redeemed.

This was the standard interpretation of Billy Budd for many years, that it was Melville’s testament of acceptance, that after a whole life of protesting the flaws in the creation and suggesting the malevolence or at best the indifference of God, he had resigned to the idea that the good does indeed triumph in the end and that all, in the end, is well. Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

But that is a sermon for this Fall. I did my PhD thesis on Billy Budd. There is a good movie produced by Peter Ustinov who also stars in it.

The point of this is that questions of good and evil, right and wrong, hope and despair are real and questions we all face now and then, at some point in our lives. We try and find ways to talk with our children about these essential questions. Philosophers, theologians, artists all struggle with how to understand our world. We are meaning makers. What does it all mean? How do we decide how to live? Why is there evil? Or why is there good? What separates the two?

Neighborhood Church is a place of searching for meaning. Gathered together we believe we can make some sense of this world and our lives and perhaps become better people; we believe we can add to the good of the world. Neighborhood Church has been dedicated to that for all of its 129 years of its existence, and will, I know, for the next 129 years. Each year, we add to the structure of the good; each year we build a future that is a bit better; each year we build for a tomorrow where justice and compassion, wisdom and love are a bit stronger.

You have a part in that – all of you. The redemption of the world will not come because the ‘good’ are sacrificed. No, the redemption will come through places like Neighborhood Church.

-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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Responding to the World We Are Given

DF-02868FD.psdWe watched some of the Academy Awards the other night, but turned it off half way through.  Just too much self-congratulary excess for me.  We had seen some of the movies – Gravity, Twelve Years a Slave, Nebraska, American Hustle.  I did not think much of Gravity – great special effects for sure, but too predictable.  Like others I wondered if the alligators or sharks were going to appear when she lands in the lake at the end. I loved Nebraska – talk about the death of middle  America and fine and human performances.  American Hustle was wonderful – just a great entertainment and the part where Jennifer Lawrence stares and talks down Amy Adams was superb.  But just an entertainment.

It is good that Twelve Years a Slave won.  I thought it a brave and true film, and we as a nation need to be reminded over and over about that part of our history.  With all the rage about American exceptionalism and the talk about how wonderful we are, there are stains in our character, none greater than slavery.  Its remnants are alive today and we ignore them at our peril. The movie is no romance, but there are acts of dignity and courage throughout as well as acts of cowardice and evil.  The slave owners are my ancestors (not literally or biologically but certainly culturally) and I should be aware of that.

Art matters. A recent editorial in the LA Times argued that we need to pay more attention to the teaching of math in our schools.  Obama made that comment about art history.  While I loved math and do think it can be beautiful, I think we need less focus on math and science and more on the humanities. Both matter of course, but art above all helps us understand the link between  ourselves and the world, more so, I believe than math or the sciences can.

In his poem “Asphodel,” William Carlos Williams writes: “It is difficult to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” I don’t know how true that is, but there is certainly some truth in it.  My experience of the world is more qualitative than quantitative; the world has feel and heft and meaning and this is more the language of the arts than of numbers.  Again, without science and math, we would be lost, but without the humanities we can’t know the direction of the road we are on.

We know the facts of slavery.  All the numbers in the world cannot make its evil as present as that segment in which Patsey is found with a piece of soap. See the movie if you have not.  It is tough to watch, but then sometimes life is tough.  The arts can break down the barriers between ourselves and the world and that can be the road to compassion and to justice. The humanities are named that for a reason.

The sermon this Sunday focuses on my very favorite poem, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” and is, I think, about this very process – about how we respond to the world that is given unto us and what we do with what we are given and then how we understand our relationship to the larger whole.

I loved math when I was young and thought seriously about being a mathematician. There is a beauty to math and it can be enormously useful.  But the arts matter too, and too often they have been victims of the budget axe. Williams is right.  I hope we pay attention.

-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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Saved by the NFL

AP_arizona_gay_rights_protests_sk_140227_4x3t_384While it is good news that the governor of Arizona vetoed the recent bill allowing discrimination of LGBTQ persons based on “sincere religious beliefs” and the NFL, MLB and major businesses urged her to veto it, the amazing thing is that the bill was written and passed by the legislature in the first place.  You would think that fifty years after the sit-ins in the South and the Civil Rights movement that legal discrimination would be out of sight.

One commentator said that he was of the “viewpoint” that sexual orientation was biological and not a lifestyle choice.  Good for him, but “viewpoint?” Facts aren’t viewpoints.  Like those who deny climate change as caused by human activity – it is not a “viewpoint.”  Someone once said that while you are entitled to your own opinions, you aren’t entitled to your own facts.

The history of religion is filled with the good and the bad, with freedom and with tyranny.  It is a human construct, after all, and we can’t expect human systems to be any better than the creatures who create them – those creatures would be us – human with all of our ability for weal and for woe.

While there is enough bad to go around, there is also lots of good in religion too– like those who stand up to discrimination, those who struggle for freedom, those who maintain their dignity under oppression. In this vein, I hope Twelve years a Slave wins for best Oscar.  I don’t know if it is the best film, whatever that means, but it is the film showing us something important about the human condition and has lessons about dignity and survival, about good and evil.

Freedom is a good thing; oppression is a bad thing.  Courage is a good thing; harming others is a bad thing.  I have been reading about Michael Servetus, an early Unitarian who was burned at the stake for his beliefs by John Calvin, the Protestant reformer.  Servetus believed that we ought to think about what we believe and be open to new discovery and welcome differences.  For that he was burned at the stake.  His example, like those in the Civil Rights movement, in the Women’s Rights movement, in the LGBTQ rights movements should be our heroes and our models in the on-going battle against discrimination.  Servetus was one of the good ones.

Maybe Arizona will catch up one of these days – led by the example of the NFL.  Now there is something to think about.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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The Road to Justice

peek%20through%20the%20fenceThis past weekend, Youth Advisor Lauren Eaton and I took eleven of our senior high youth to Tijuana, Mexico for an immigration justice service/learning trip and border tour.  It was transformational to say the least.  Our goal was to give them a first-hand experience of life in a border town so they might begin to see and feel the real and devastating effects of our immigration system.  As our local hosts reminded us, “Nearly everyone in Tijuana has been deported.”  As we discovered during the course of our weekend, the injustices related to immigration are deeply interconnected to so many other issues—economics, poverty, ecology, the drug wars, the military-industrial complex, etc.  It is difficult to separate them.

Our youth learned about the history of our immigration practices, NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, detention centers and the prison industry and more.  But most of all they got to hear personal stories from the people themselves, people how have been separated from their families, who were raised in the U.S. and are struggling to find their place in what feels like a foreign country.  Perhaps one of the most powerful stories was from Hector, a U.S. Army Veteran who was deported when he committed a minor crime after fulfilling his service to our country, a country to which he swore an oath to uphold the constitution.  He choked back tears as he told us he had left behind his eight year old daughter.

Here are some additional reflections from a few of the youth:

“This wall is containment of nationality (and of fear).  But more importantly, it is an excuse.  The difficulty of both governments to deal with the heartbreak, the loss, the unjust and sad stories, is too great a burden.  The fence is there like a placeholder—like a bookmark in a difficult book to comprehend.  And so, it stays there and we choose to ignore it.”

“It is one thing to hear about oppression and true struggle; it is completely different to witness it.  I had no idea how much pain an unforgiving system could inflict on its own species.  We have grown very smart as a species, but somewhere along the way we have lost our souls.  The greed for a life of comfort, luxury and material belongings has poisoned that which makes us human.  More than greed, we need love, more than acquiring we need giving, more than technology we need understanding.”

“Something that stood out to me this weekend was hope and pride and drive inside the Mexican people.  I picked up phrases like, ‘Every day is a miracle,’ and ‘We still have hope.’ I also heard things like, ‘It is hard to fight against the U.S.’  I have been reminded of the massive power of the U.S.  We, as a country that values freedom and opportunity above everything, are facilitating so much injustice and people don’t know. I feel a great responsibility (but not a burdensome one) to use my position as a member of a society kept running by the peoples’ will to raise my voice and to help to the best of my ability.” 

“There’s a line (border).  Like a millimeter wide line.  It seems so insignificant.  There’s a line, but no line can separate humanity.  No line can give people a right to a better life or a sense of superiority.  No line can define people or families or communities.  This line—this separation—is entirely a social construct.  It is far from permanent and entirely changeable.  So let’s change it.  Maybe more than anything, I’ve come to believe in humanity, hope and community.”

These are just a few samplings of the written reflections of our youth.  I hope to share more of them with you.  In addition to again being reminded to press on in the fight for immigration justice and compassionate immigration reform, the open hearts our youth allowed themselves to have during this weekend inspired me beyond words.  Being with them restores my faith in the world and our future and reminds me why I love this work, this church, and our UU faith.  I have been touched by each of them and hold them very close to my heart. They remind me to keep on the road to justice even when it gets hard.

-Sara LaWall, Director of Religious Education

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Risky Business

riskAs you might know, I turned 67 yesterday and it is hard to get my head around the fact that I am that age.  When I was much younger I figured that 67 would be really old.  It isn’t, and I am in good health and happy.  I love my work, where I live, and have a wonderful family and close friends.  But still, that is a lot of years.

In high school I loved math, and thought of being a mathematician at one point.  I loved prime numbers – that love has it roots (no pun intended) earlier, but there is something magical about a prime number.  Sixty seven is one. I still have some primes to go, I expect.  They are pure numbers, individuals as it happens.  Unique with a singular integrity.  In one of Oliver Sack’s books, he tells of two brothers who shared primes as their private language.  They could not do normal arithmetic, but were able to generate primes up to 26 integers in their head.  At one point they were separated and they lost the ability to do prime numbers.

Primes. Maybe we should have asked for a 7% increase in giving in our Pledge Drive.  That is a prime number, but we are going with 8% instead.  In this world, it is not easy to ask for money, and it feels like a bit of a risk to ask for such an increase.  It is needed in your search for a new senior minister, but still it feels like a risk.  Our pledge drive is our prime task right now.

Risk is a complicated idea.  Most people do not want to be timid, or lack courage, or avoid adventure, but many also want to avoid risk.  Or, as we often qualify it, unnecessary risk.  But we only know that after the fact.  We talk of risk factors in health, or risk in investments.  Olympic athletes risk injury – I guess we all do in some way.  It is a risk of sorts just to get out on the 210 or the 134, or to hike up the hills behind us, to swim in the ocean, just to get up in the morning.

It is also a risk to open our hearts to the world, to be vulnerable, to let others into our lives, to not be so defended that we cannot connect.  It is a risk to think in different ways, to get out of a comfort zone.  Our congregation says both that it is a place of open hearts and open minds, yet we gather in a sanctuary – risk and safety right there.  It is all tied up together.  You are risking something in your search for new leadership – my hope is that you will not be timid in your search.

Those are some thoughts for this Sunday, and I am trying to find my way through the thicket of risk and security in my life – physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  Where are you in this thicket – brave or timid, foolish or wise?

This is a prime congregation – singular and unique.  And this is a singular and unique time for you – a prime time.  Maybe time to take some risks – open your lives to something new.

“Risky business”, sing The Talking Heads.  It certainly is.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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Touching the Homeless on Valentine’s Day

homelessmassageTonight, two Neighborhood Church members and I are visiting the Union Station Homeless Services shelter on Raymond Avenue. to offer free chair massage to whomever would like it.  This is our third visit this week, and we have several more dates scheduled before the month is up.  We have eight volunteers this year, and since the USHS shelter is open year-round, we will continue to visit well beyond February.

I was trained in this ministry by Catholic nuns back in my seminary days in 2001, in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, where the homeless are corralled and live.  My instructor was trained by Mother Theresa herself, so that means our Neighborhood volunteers are only a few degrees of separation away from the Saint!

Are Catholicism and Unitarian Universalism like oil and water?  Sometimes it would seem so – I’m appalled by some recent Catholic institutions’ decisions to fire workers who are married to a same-sex partner.  Catholics could learn from Unitarian Universalists about the truly inclusive love we practice, that Jesus himself practiced.

UUs could learn from Catholic nuns, too, about what it means to be radically compassionate and to embody what Jesus taught.  Religion can’t just be about thoughts and receiving an inspiring message each Sunday.  Religion is not about belonging to a social club.  Religion at its best is about transformation, so that all our actions are in alignment with our deepest values.

One of my deepest values is kindness and compassion.  When I massage a homeless person, I am blessed by the connection and the feelings of kindness and caring my actions transmit.  After an hour of massaging people, I feel light and happy, less locked up in my own personal anxieties.  To acknowledge that humanity is all one and worthy, my heart is transformed.

May we see what all of humanity has in common, well beyond what sets us apart, that our hearts and lives may be transformed.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

-Rev. Hannah Petrie

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