I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Art of Happiness 2.5 Mk2

Actually, I will start with Sunday's sermon...

Yeah, this "Art of Happiness" series just gets more confusing. This is really the second version of the second sermon. Those of you who attended "What You Think" at Eliot Church not too long ago can get a copy by emailing me. This integrates many of those ideas and adds some things as well. I am posting this version because I got more requests for it and, since it was not preached in Medford, the requesters cannot necessarily get back in touch with me...

Again, the Dedication was lovely. Congratulations to Ruth and to her parents, grandparents, family, friends, etc! We had a great time, believe me...

Oh, yes, it is "2.5" because I did an "emergency" service at Eliot Church when a guest preacher had a family tragedy and could not make it. Stranded as I was in Maryland without my usual preaching library, I fell back on what I was reading. One of those books was "Getting More Out of Life" by Waldemar Argow, the book that this series is based on. Also, I was reading "The God We Never Knew" (or something like that) by Marcus Borg. Borg's book might make a good review if I ever have the chance to post it...

Anyway, my sermon notes:

Text: Proverbs 8:11-21
Also, John Sturdy can be found on line, James Austin in that "Everyday Spirituality" book edited by Scott Alexander, and W. Argow in the work mentioned above. Finn can be found on line and in numerous anthologies of Irish folk stories.

The Birth of Wisdom
Adam Tierney-Eliot
UU Church of Medford, MA
May 29, 2005

In the book of Proverbs we read:
I, wisdom, live with prudence, I attain knowledge and discretion…I have good advice, I have insight, I have strength

In Holliston, not too far from where I live in Natick
Near Memorial Day
A group of volunteers
Place signs on every telephone pole along route 16
Each with the single name, age, and rank
Of someone in the US, or British armed forces
Who has died in the war in Iraq or Afganistan

A local Postal Worker, Bobby Blair made the signs
Which, in 2003 numbered 147
Now the names of the dead number in the thousands
And The project has branched off onto side streets
For almost 33 total miles
Encompassing parts of six different towns

When combined with the many civilian deaths
Those of the Iraqi people
And the sacrifices of many others
In wars throughout history,
One cannot help but hope
Regardless of where we choose to lay blame for this
Or any other war or crisis
We cannot help but hope
For the Birth of Wisdom

By [wisdom] rulers rule and nobles, all who govern rightly

So, where does it come from?
(Not just that wisdom
Which we expect presidents and kings to possess
But that we all need
To live lives that are fulfilling
And plan for the future of our children)

How do we give birth to Wisdom this day and every day?
That is a question for the ages
One that each of us struggles with
And one that drives us to church on Memorial Day weekend

Proverbs has one answer
But there are others
For example, there is the story of Finn McCool
(Have you heard of him?)
I am sure that Hank has talked about him before
The ancient Irish King, giant, and hero
Who studied with the even more ancient Druid Finegas
Finn’s power, we are told,
Came from a magic salmon
Which, if eaten, would grant the diner
All the knowledge of the universe

Now, Finegas actually caught the fish
But then he gave it to his student,
Finn, to prepare for dinner
With the admonition not to eat it himself

However, Finn, apparently, was not a very good cook
And sitting at the fire, started poking
The hot fish with his thumb,
So…popping his now burning thumb into his mouth
It was Finn, and not Finegas, who tasted the fish
And gained its reward

Knowledge of the Universe is what Finn achieved
And what more of a definition do we need?
Wisdom is about understanding who we are
And our place in that great web of existence

Tradition has told us that the salmon
Was called the salmon of knowledge
But we are really not talking so much
About the knowledge of facts
No, instead, the knowledge he received made him wise
Intelligence, factual knowledge, the storage of information
These are good things
But wisdom is more than that

One popular description of the difference states that
Intelligence is what tells you it is raining
And wisdom is what tells you to get out of the rain
You need both, they are dependent on each other
But they are different

This story has something else to tell us, too
From Finn and the fish
We learn that wisdom
Does not necessarily reside where we might think
It may exist in the salmon or the student
As much as in the great master

The wise can surprise us with their identity
The problems of the world have shown
That kings and rulers aren’t always wise
And the wise aren’t always kings

Wisdom requires balance between
The various ways of knowing and feeling
And it requires mindfulness/openness
Which is harder than it sounds
We need openness as much as facts
Jesus said whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward
That is, whoever is willing to listen to the truth
Will find it

To be open to the prophets, wherever they come from
We have to look toward our own interior lives/our thoughts
And make room
We need to prepare a place in ourselves

Waldemar Argow writes:
More people poison themselves by what they think than by what they drink. Vastly more people find happiness and contentment by what they hold in their minds than by what they hold in their bank accounts.

Argow tells us that We are What we Think
And this idea has some less than pleasant implications
After all, most of us spend a great deal of time
Thinking about nothing in particular
Or about things that are less than helpful

In his reading today
He compared what we think to what we eat
Sometimes what we like isn’t all that good for us
After all, we’re not eating magic salmon all the time!
There is junk food
And junk food of the brain
That sticks with us even after we turn off the TV
Or tear ourselves from the tabloids and the supermarket counter

Sometimes, just like when we overeat
We can over think/Over analyze
And even if we do not
There are thoughts that discourage us
That oppress our free spirit
Even as there are thoughts and ideas
That inspire us toward
Greater understanding, wisdom and happiness

Those discouraging, negative thoughts or voices
Keep us from realizing our potential
They come from many places
The words of well meaning parents and teachers
The perceived lessons of past failures
Even resistance to the very modern pressure to succeed
All of these experiences and more
Contribute to that little voice deep down inside
That tells us that we have fallen short and always will
That we are not good enough

Now, it is a good thing to know
When we could do better
A certain detached self-criticism is necessary
For us to recognize our limitations
And to learn how to get the job done
Whatever it may be and to do it well
Wisdom says in Proverbs
I love those who love me and those who seek me diligently find me
This diligence requires us to sacrifice
And to face the less than pleasant parts of ourselves

But, having said that
There are times when the negative voices
Take over; they try to control our self-image
To listen to them then
Is not very wise

John Sturdy, a Lay Franciscan from Ireland
Who suffers from depression
Writes that People who are depressed typically think in a biased negative way. They have negative views of themselves (“I’m no good”), the world (Life has no meaning), and the future (I will always feel this way).

This negative attitude that Sturdy talks about
Can be extremely destructive
For some, depression is a condition
That they must struggle against their whole lives
For others it is temporary
Brought about by a loss, boredom
Or no one thing in particular
We all struggle with negative thoughts from time to time

We all struggle and our attempts to escape this affliction
Can drive us to consume other ideas
That we may think will help
But are really just as dangerous as
The ones we are trying to escape
One of the most obvious examples is the pornography
Now rampant in our society

And there are others that don’t at first seem so evil
Many who are feeling depressed or confused
Will bury themselves in their work
To avoid confronting the problem
Thereby strengthening the hand of negative thoughts
Giving them the power to drive our actions
And, also, it is quite possible to have too much religion
Yes, too much religion (you heard it here first)

People want to believe in something and we will
It may be Christianity, it may not
And it may be healthy, or it may not
It could be, instead of a system
That allows us to celebrate life
And answer questions we haven’t thought of yet
It could be a particular political or scientific, or religious view
Designed to promote either our sense of superiority
Or inferiority, to move us out of our human place

These are the oppressive thoughts
They make us give up our freedom
And our natural inclination toward adventure
They make us, instead, follow
Only the well worn tracks of those in control

The Hymn Writer Elizabeth Bennett
Described the perfect mental and emotional state
Of free religion in one of her songs:
My thoughts are as free as wind over the ocean and no one can see their form or their motion. No hunter can find them no trap ever bind them my lips may be still but I think what I will

Now, as Unitarian Universalists
Most of us spend a good deal of time
Celebrating our call to act in the world
As religious liberals we often claim that
What is important is not what we believe
But what we do
OK, but, of course, one influences the other
Requiring that, as we go about our business
We be wise
And, as I said earlier,
Part of the exercise of wisdom is mindfulness

James Austin, a member of the Arlington Street Church
Explains mindfulness
Through the example of carrying a very full cup of tea
We have to keep our minds on that cup
So that we do not do anything to spill it

To truly be what we think
(And have that be a good thing)
We need to be like that as often as possible
And not just in little ways
Like watching the sunrise and washing dishes
But in our relationships
In the way we talk to strangers
So we are aware of our situation,
Able to monitor ourselves
Listening all the time to the conversations
Inside our heads as various urges thoughts and ideas
Battle for our attention
When we consider all that is really going on
Often we will discover that what we are ashamed of
Isn’t necessarily irreparable
And what we are proud of isn’t entirely our own doing

When we seek after wisdom, we need to be mindful
Of where we are and who we are
And to welcome the prophets
The obvious ones as well as the less so
The very old and the very young
The very young like Ruth Keziah Scott Peirce

The apostle Paul once said
That the foolishness of God is wiser that the wisdom of humanity
Now you can define God however you wish
But the purpose of our mindfulness
Is to seek out that foolishness
That brings understanding

To ensure our own happiness
And that of future generations
We must be good carriers of tea
And keep the door open

So we can all pray, with Reinhold Neibuhr:

God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other