Storytelling

We tell stories. It is part of how humans make sense and order out of their lives. While many of our stories spring from something that might be called objective reality, the narratives that we create are seldom free of subjectivity, that is, our interpretation of events.

Take any particular event. Ask three different people to describe it. You will most likely get three different stories.  Where they disagree, we sometimes conclude that one person is right and the others are wrong. Sometimes we may be able to recognize that each person is each telling the story from their individual perspective.  Can truth be found by focusing on what the three descriptions have in common? Maybe. What happens when person four comes along?

It is interesting to try to get people to describe an incident using only factual information, no evaluative words at all.  If you haven’t tried this, give it a whirl. It is often harder than we think.

One of the benefits of meditation is training the mind to focus, most particularly, to focus on what really is.  So often, an event happens and we “see” not only the facts, but an entire overlay of our own creation. Too often, we do not know the difference between what really happened and our story about what really happened.

Take an example of Penny and Janet, two members of a congregation. As Penny arrives at church one Sunday morning, she see Janet out front pulling a few weeds from one of the planters.  Penny greets Janet cheerfully… but gets no response. As she continues inside, Penny’s brow furrows. Why is Janet mad at me? Then she sees Juan and that reminds her of the hospitality meeting last week when Penny and Juan had advocated a different position than Janet. Penny and Juan’s position had prevailed. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time but…

Juan greets Penny and asks how she is.  “Well, I was fine, but apparently Janet is mad about last week’s hospitality meeting and now she is giving me the cold shoulder.” Juan commiserates adding, “I’m surprised Janet would be so petty.”

It never occurs to either of them that the only “fact” is that Janet did not respond to a greeting. All the rest is story. And it is story that could have done harm, had it spread further. Fortunately, a more accurate story emerges before the tale goes any further.  In worship, Juan catches Penny’s eye when, during Joys & Concerns, it is shared that Janet’s mother was hospitalized earlier that morning. The single fact of Janet’s non-response now becomes part of the different story in which Janet, lost in thought regarding her mother’s health, was loving tending the garden. Janet is no longer a petty source of irritation, rather she is a caring person deserving of compassion.  Interestingly, nothing in or about Janet changed to cause that transformation.

We will tell stories. We will create meaning. But let us discipline ourselves to ask the question, what happened, what really happened? And let us not confuse our subsequent interpretation with reality.

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Abiding in Peace

After almost 20 years of marriage, it is nice to know that there are still new things to try and to learn.

Last weekend, Charlie and I attended a silent meditation retreat together. From Friday evening at 7:30 until noon on Sunday we did not speak to each other – or the other retreat participants. The only speaking was during specifically designated periods in which the teacher offered instruction (Dharma talks) or answered questions asked by the participants. We were even advised to avoid eye contact. Our time was spent alternating sitting and walking meditation. Did I mention that it was silent?

Silence is not my natural state. Professionally or personally. Speaking is part of my calling.  I’m an extrovert. I know what I think after I have said it out loud and can hear how it sounds. Of course, part of the point of participating in a retreat such as this is to switch things ups – to step out of our normal way of being and see what we find there.

What I found in this external silence was how really not silent it is inside my head. Honestly, this was not a surprise. What was a surprise was one particular noise I found there. I worried about Charlie. Was he happy? Sad? Bored? Frustrated? Peaceful? Silently cursing me for getting him into this? I was aware how very much I am used to being able to check in with him if he is with me. I don’t think I would have been worrying about him if he had stayed at home. It wasn’t that I needed to tell him how I was. I wanted to know how he was. Over two decades, we’ve developed a lot of nonverbal communication so even eye contact would have helped, but we used that only to determine it was time to turn off the light in our room at night.

To quiet my concerns, I tried to construct scenarios in which I didn’t need to know.  Maybe he’s happy, in which case, I don’t need to worry.  Maybe, he is unhappy, in which case, at least I don’t have to hear about it and have it potentially spoil my time.  For every possible state I could imagine for Charlie, I needed a “story” that made it OK.  Did I mention, it wasn’t really so quiet inside my head?

Once the retreat was over, we talked. Charlie had had a full range of experiences and feelings. So had I. He was surprised to learn I had been worried about him. He had not been worrying about me. While he felt cared about, I felt the confidence that he had in me.  We had very different reactions to our shared experience, and yet I found it comforting that we could interpret them both positively.

Perhaps the most important reminder of the weekend was of our tendency to create stories to explain our experience. As meaning-making beings, stories are inevitable. Stories are not the problem. The problem comes when we mistake them for reality.

More on that tomorrow…

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What’s Your Question?

Yesterday was the annual Question Box service. Titled, What’s Your Question?, it was described this way:

This morning Rev. Kathy will use the time typically dedicated to the sermon to address questions from the congregation. Everyone will have an opportunity to submit questions earlier in the service and they can be on any topic including UU beliefs & history, 1U happenings, about Rev. Kathy, theology, or politics or current events. Not all questions can be answered in the time allowed, so some will become fodder for future sermons.

Questions were submitted on index cards that people received as they entered the sanctuary. Cards were collected after about 15 minutes giving volunteers 15 minutes to sort them into the 5 predetermined categories listed in the description above. Many of the questions could have gone into more than one category. (I’ve listed all the questions, by category and service time, below.  I did not necessarily answer them in the order listed.) I had a quick chance to look through the questions during the offertory before jumping in.

You can listen to the 9:30 am service responses here or the 11:00 am service responses here. To view the whole audio archive check here.

I did manage to at least read all the questions out loud though some were only addressed tangentially. I may come back to some of those in sermons, or posts, or other ways. Some I would probably address a little differently with more thought but there is nothing I currently feel compelled to “take back” this morning.  So, I guess that’s a good thing.

I love finding out what is on people’s minds.  I also love the challenge of addressing questions that have been framed in new ways. An example from yesterday was: Some might say UUism is a religion stripped of true faith. Do you see it that way? Why or why not?  When our own beliefs are questioned, it can help us to clarify them.

For those who wish to continue the celebration of questions, there is a monthly chance to do so at the Francis David Cafe one of our Sunday morning adult religious education programs. Each session, those present submit questions for the group to consider and everyone has a chance to respond. It’s a great way to hear the views of other folks and be challenged to articulate your own. Check the Weekly Update email (also posted to the front page of the website) to see when that is currently scheduled.

Meanwhile, here are the questions that were on people’s minds at First Unitarian Church of Orlando yesterday morning.

Questions from the What’s Your Question? Service 10/20/13

UU Beliefs & History

9:30

  • I still don’t have an easy/short way to explain what it means to be a UU. Can I hear what other people in the congregation say?
  • What’s your “elevator speech?”
  • When asked what I believe, “Is the worth and dignity of all enough?” It is for me.
  • How do we balance our principles of tolerance and a free, open search for truth against our righteousness and outrage for those opinions we deeply disagree with and which offend our spiritual values.

 11:00

  • Is Unitarian Universalism a religious philosophy or a philosophical religion or both – or who cares? It is what you make it. Does that work?
  • Some might say UUism is a religion stripped of true faith. Do you see it that way? Why or why not?
  • Traditional church membership/attendance is waning in this country. Can/will UU fill the void?
  • The move of the UUA from Beacon St to 24 Farnsworth in the Innovation District (of Boston) seems to be signaling much more than just a change in buildings. Could you comment on the move, and growing emphasis on technology?

1U Happenings

9:30

  • I am wondering why people clap after the band or individuals sing during the service, It makes it seem more like performance than a part of the service. Thank you.
  • At 1U we have groups: couples’ dinner, retired men, children’s programs. Are we practicing separate and unequal?
  • Is there a way the youth of 1U can hear some of our wonderful musical presentations?
  • We are a Welcoming Congregation. Are we truly welcoming to children and adults with special needs?
  • I was particularly struck on the day of your service after the Trevon Marin verdict that, although the sanctuary was full, there were less than 10 people of color in the room. This made me wonder what we do as a congregation to be attractive to all people?
  • I need some tips – There are 2 families I would like to encourage to join us but I can’t seem to come up with a good enough inventive – HELP!
  • As a visitor looking for a new spiritual home, what are the strengths of 1st U?

 11:00

  • What do you see for us in the next 5 years?
  • Web says “Religion 201” on Monday, October 21. Paper update says Tuesday, October 22. Which is it?
  • I would like more “things” behind you on the pulpit. Don’t have any suggestions but, what do you think?

 About Rev. Kathy

 9:30

  • How do you feel about eating at Chickfil-A?
  • What is your vision for 1U’s role in Central Florida’s social justice efforts?
  • What community partnerships would you like to see 1U make, and why? Do you have a vision/dream for how we might find and make these partnerships?
  • What do you predict will be the biggest/best benefit from having an intern? The trickiest/negative?
  • How do you decide what to “take off your plate” & how are you doing with this particular professional challenges?
  • What’s your definition of being successful?

 11:00

  • What does faith mean to you? What place does faith hold in our society?
  • What is your generic overall goal for a sermon?
  • What to you (Rev. Kathy) do for fun?
  • Do you have any daily or weekly spiritual practices you just can’t live without?
  • What are your personal spiritual practices?

 Theology

 9:30

  • Why do people hurt people?
  • Is there a danger that our social justice efforts become a given religious doctrine/dogma (e.g. Catholic reverence for sanctity of life and God’s will means no birth control.)
  • Without traditional Christina promise of everlasting life, what do we as UUS offer to those facing crisis and death? How do we comfort?

 11:00

  • If you don’t believe in God and are generally a humanist, how do you address the small nagging doubt about the ultimate creation question?
  • To your mind, is feminism compatible with Christianity?
  • When my mate had a serious illness, s/he would not tell our children or close friends I was not allowed to share the news either, but I craved some wisdom and comfort when I was SCARED. What’s a mother to do?
  • What about God? What about Jesus? What about the Holy Spirit? (How do we view the trinity?)

 Politics or Current Events

 9:30

No questions put in this catagory

11:00

No questions put in this catagory

 

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Pondering Syria

Much attention this past week has been focused on the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria. What, if anything, should the world do in response? That the situation is complicated is the one thing that almost everyone seems to agree on. This has led, in many cases, to more thoughtful public debate than we often see. It has raised many issues that we need to consider.

In our theoretical debates, we can end with “it’s complicated.” In the real world, some people need to make real decisions – to act or not to act – remembering that to not decide is, in fact, a decision for the status quo. While I do not currently support a military strike, I am also grateful that I am not one of the people charged with making the ultimate decision.

I have been asked about the issue from a Unitarian Universalist (UU) perspective and so share with you here a few resources.

  • My colleagues Rev. Eric Cherry of the UUA’s International Office and Rev. Kathleen McTigue of the UU College of Social Justice offer us A Reflection and Prayer after Sarin Gas.
  • Rev. Peter Morales serves as the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). On Thursday, he issued a short statement about the proposed military strikes in Syria, which reflected the values of many Unitarian Universalists.
  • In 2010, after 4 years of study and action, delegates at our UUA General Assembly adopted a “Statement of Conscience” titled Creating Peace. It attempted to describe the complex, yet thoughtful, perspectives of Unitarian Universalists on broad issues of war and peace.  You can read that 5-page document here.  If you are interested in the process by which this statement, and other statements like it are created using our democratic processes, you can read about that here.

As the world continues through the discernment process, may we continue to raise important issues, to share our perspectives, and to hold those with decision making power in our prayers. May we, once again, commit ourselves to active engagement in the issues of peace and justice, for it is only through such engagement that the world of our dreams will emerge.

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After the Day After

After leading worship, I, like many others, reflect on what I might have done differently. Actually, such insights often come while I am still in the middle of a service. Usually, there is nothing to do but file the learning for another time. But, increasingly, I realize that sometimes there are opportunities to follow up and that the availability of social media increases those opportunities.

Thus it is that I find myself following up on last Sunday’s worship service that began 13 hours after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. There are two major adjustments that I would make. I knew them very soon after the service and have had a chance to talk with some of you about them. I very much appreciate your thoughtful sharing with me.

First, our reading for the morning was excerpts of What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? by Frederick Douglass, originally delivered July 5, 1852. I was drawn to the piece because I believed, and still do, that it offers a cautionary tale about religious institutions and leaders not having the courage of their convictions. I knew there would be people present who disagreed with me. I knew there would be people who, although they did not necessarily disagree with the content of what I said, might nonetheless think that I should not be so provocative. I hoped the piece would provide some reference for why I needed to speak as I did. All that said… it was too long. While I would still choose it again as reading, I wish I had kept it shorter.

Second, I wish I had offered more on what comes next… addressed the question “So what do we do now?” Many people told me as they left the sanctuary that they would be getting a copy of the book I referenced, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Plans are underway to provide small group opportunities for conversation. People are using facebook and our 1U Justice email list to share information about how to be involved in related activities in the community. These are all ways we can follow up.

But there is more…

For some time now, my worship calendar has noted the fact that August 28th will mark the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during which The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous, I have a Dream speech. It will be our worship theme on Sunday, August 25th as we consider our progress in turning the dream into reality over the last half century. We will then be using The Dream as a theme for the coming program year. This will be our third year using a theme to connect the sanctuary with both the Children’s and Adult Religious Education programs, particularly on the first Sunday of each month. Together we will have the opportunity to consider the world that we dream about, the beloved community of which King often spoke. What is our vision and what are we willing to do to bring it into being?

The concerns raised in Sunday’s sermon are just one part of a continuing conversation. We are not all riled up with no place to go. On the contrary, I believe that there is much that we can do, individually and collectively, in spite of, and perhaps even because of, our diverse perspectives.

I look forward to being in conversation with you, dreaming with you, and most importantly, working with you to create a world with more peace and more justice for all people.

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The Day after the Zimmerman Verdict

To meet newsletter deadlines, I typically choose sermon topics & titles 4-6 weeks in advance. When I looked ahead to July 14, I knew we would be nearing a verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of murdering Trayvon Martin. Since I serve in Central Florida, not far from Sanford, I picked a related topic, so that if needed I could quickly adapt.

Little did I know how close the verdict would come to the time of the sermon.

My advertized topic was Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

All week, I followed the precedings and thought about Sunday.  The jury began deliberations Friday afternoon.  Saturday evening, I went to a small group dinner at the home of congregation members. One person was there without her partner,  a photographer working the case. I followed the twitter feed of a congregation member reporting on the case. Just as we were about to break for the evening, we learned there was a verdict and turned on the TV.

I am surprised how  surprised I was given that I had had lots of time to consider the 3 possible outcomes.

I’ll have more to say, but for now, Here is a link to the resulting sermon that merged the planned topic with the acquittal.

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Op-Ed on DOMA Defeat

My Word: Defeat of DOMA a leap forward

By Kathy Schmitz (Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed Page)

July 2, 2013

As a pastor who has had the honor and privilege of officiating at a number of same-sex marriage ceremonies, I am delighted that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

I am relieved that the federal government will now recognize the marriages of the 20 couples for whom I signed licenses when I served in Massachusetts. I feel hopeful that the day will come when I will be able to sign the marriage licenses of couples I serve in Florida.

This is a historic moment, as our nation moves a step closer to full equality for all its people. While there is still much work to be done, it is important to celebrate the progress that has been made.

Sitting in a church meeting with an older gay man the evening of the ruling, I was humbled to be reminded of how far we have come. Speaking of the court’s decision, he said, “It’s a miracle.”

He continued to explain that when he was younger, it would have been a miracle just to have the persecution stop. In those days, one could hardly imagine the affirmation that the court has offered this day.

As a Unitarian Universalist pastor, I am committed to affirming the worth and dignity of every person. It is a joy to affirm both humanity and the love of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I urge those who remain unsure to open their hearts and minds to the possibility of understanding.

My experience has been that when people see the commitment and love expressed in wedding ceremonies, and in the living of life, their doubts most often fade away.

Even in our joy, we do not forget that the persecution of old still finds its way into too many corners of our society. No person, young or old, should be bullied physically, politically or spiritually, because of who he is or whom he loves.

It is imperative that people of good will continue to stand on the side of love. May our joy at this leap forward give us the strength and the courage to continue the journey and ensure that all of our people are free.

The Rev. Kathy Schmitz is pastor of First Unitarian Church of Orlando.

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