The DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church exists as a beacon of liberal religious thought and practice. Amid the challenges and changes of a chaotic world, we aspire to proclaim and embody the possibilities of meaning in human life, of freedom in human thought, and of peace and justice in human community.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Making Meaning during the Winter Holy/Holidays Days By Reverend Tom Capo

           Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice and/or Christmas and/or Hanukkah and/or Humanlight holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice to practice religious or secular traditions at all.   Oh what the heck, merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, joyful Solstice, and peaceful Humanlight; may you have a meaningful holiday.
            But how can we possibly have a meaningful holiday with all the chaos, black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, multiple and perplexing traditions, the controversy over red Starbucks cups, multiple seemingly mandatory family gatherings, buying presents, setting up decorations?  And we miss our loved ones who are far away, or who are no longer with us, particularly those who have recently died.  And maybe we have too high expectations of having a wonderful holiday, and those expectations are not met.  Some of us feel hammered by the unrelenting commercialism of the season.  And those of us who don’t celebrate this season at all feel trapped and assaulted by all the noise and lights and ceaseless ho-ho-hoing.  There is no escape from it.  No wonder many people get depressed over the holidays.  Yet this chaotic time of year is “supposed to be” a time of celebration: the winter solstice, burning the Yule Log, the New Year, the birth of the Christ Child, the Maccabees winning freedom for Judah, remembrance of the history and roots of Humanism. 
            This reading from the Old Testament book of Amos speaks to the meaningless ritual. 
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
This prophet was speaking to the Hebrew people who were not living righteous lives, not living lives that were moral and ethical—while practicing their religious rituals.  Amos and the other eighth century prophets were clear; don’t just do rote ritual, empty ritual, meaningless ritual; live a moral, ethical, spiritual life and let ritual be an outgrowth of your life.
            Do we do that today?  Well historically, some of the seasonal celebrations seemed a little less than meaningful.  In the England of 1066, celebrations at Christmas got out of hand.  King Henry the 8th and his court tried to outdo each other in outrageous abundance.  It is said he had 600 oxen killed and prepared for a single feast.  And gambling on the altars of the church were a common part of the festivities.  Perhaps we can see from the extremism where celebrating for the sake of celebrating can go—we don’t do that today.  Or do we?  Fighting over gifts at Best Buy or Walmart on Black Friday, and some stores opening at 2 PM on Thanksgiving day, resulting in people not actually having time to gather with loved ones and give thanks, so they can buy the newest best gift on the market.  I do have to admit to partaking in this Black Friday ritual in years past.  I rationalized that I was able to give more gifts by saving more money on each gift.  But the reality was I was caught up in the high, the buzz, the addiction to the chaos and consumerism.  I have come to understand my addiction.  I understand now that there is no meaning in consumption for consumption’s sake.  I have let go of this meaningless ritual.
However, inside each of us, whether instinctive or not, is a desire to light up the night, to celebrate with yule logs and candle lit feasts, when the darkness lasts so long.  As the poem ‘Miracle of Light’ suggests “though the gloom may crowd us still, the light may lift our hearts …”   We Unitarian Universalists often find ourselves wondering what exactly we’re supposed to celebrate, how are we and why are we lighting up the night?  How do we discern which, if any, traditions we find personally meaningful.  I believe most of us don’t want to celebrate meaningless festivals. 
I believe we might start to discern what to do during this season by asking: Am I doing this (whatever “this ritual, tradition, or feast” is) out of habit?  Or as an authentic part of my spiritual or non-spiritual seasonal expression?  I ask you for a moment to reflect on this time of year: what makes it meaningful to you? (pause) Perhaps certain decorations, stories about Santa Claus, music, gatherings, religious stories, childhood memories.  Or maybe this time of year has lost all meaning for you.  And you might be okay with that, and that’s fine.  But if you find yourself wishing you could find more meaning than the Early Bird Sales might offer you, you might consider some meaningful ritual.  A ritual is a set of sequential actions or a ceremony, religious or not, that is supposed to offer an opportunity to make mental and spiritual space to experience something meaningful, whatever that intangible “something” may be.  I talked about ritual at our bread sharing service—we don’t have many specifically Unitarian Universalist rituals—other than lighting our chalice.  Rituals can give us the opportunity to go a little deeper, learn a little more, grow in heart and spirit, if we accept their invitation to do so. 
I read the ‘Cajun Night Before Christmas’ because reading this story is part of my family’s ritual celebration during this time of year.  We decided on our traditions as a family.  When our kids were growing up, our Christmas ritual went like this; we went to our local Unitarian Universalist Church on Christmas Eve; we especially enjoyed singing Silent Night by candle light.  Then we went home, put on our Santa hats and read the Christmas Story from Christian Gospel of Luke, ‘A Night Before Christmas’ and ‘The Cajun Night Before Christmas’.  The kids liked the ‘The Cajun Night Before Christmas’ best.  We would then open one gift each and go to bed; usually the boys wanted to open the gift they got each other, a small but always thoughtful gift.  My wife and I would set up for Christmas morning—presents under the tree and building whatever toys that needed to be assembled.  I still remember the trouble I had putting that Little Tykes fort with a slide together; I was supposed to hold one of the feet of the fort while holding onto the base of the fort, while hammering the foot and providing pressure on the base so the hammering actually resulted in the foot setting firmly into the base.  I needed four hands to do this.  It took me most of the night.  Then many Christmas Eves, Martha and I would take a little time, with some hot chocolate, to look at the lights on the Christmas Tree.  The next morning we’d wake up and open presents together; packages and wrapping paper strewn everywhere.  We then went to my parents’ house to have a family celebration and a feast.
            Why are rituals important to humans?  Well, I can tell you these traditions were important to my children.  They made sure that each year we followed these traditions to the letter, even reading the story from Luke, which they pretty much only tolerated.  Being a psychotherapist, I know that routine helps children feel safe and secure.  They can feel trust in their parents, and in their world.  And while small children may not be able to understand the abstract concepts of sacred, spirit, holy, or even understand the meaning of the ritual and traditions this time of year, they see their parents practicing their faith, and they participate in traditions that are given importance by their parents.  Our children understand what faith, belief, and values are by seeing their parents live their faith, beliefs, and values.  And they, in turn, do the same in their time, and so the generations go forward.
Lots of people have told me Christmas is just for children.  Well, at the very least there is a child inside of many of us who wants to participate in the traditions and celebrations this time of year.  But also, the rituals and celebrations we choose to participate in this time of the year are important external expressions of our faith, beliefs, and values.  We share our love for our family, friends and church community this time of year.  We express traditions that have meaning to us.
            Perhaps you think, “I don’t believe in Santa Claus or Jesus.  I don’t care about Maccabees or famous Humanists.  I don’t want to burn a yule log, or join in a Solstice celebration.  And I don’t like giving gifts, decorating my house, or singing Christmas carols.  I don’t have any children.  I am not going to celebrate or participate in any rituals this time of year.”  Bah, Humbug!   Well I encourage you to stop, and take time to reflect on the meaning of this time of year for yourself before you decide not to do anything.  Consider what connects you with your faith, beliefs, and values.  Perhaps there is a way to affirm, remember, promote your faith, beliefs or values during this season.
Recently, I have been trying to consider the meaning of the gifts that I give.  I intentionally buy gifts that are locally made or gifts that support far-away oppressed groups, like Fair Trade items made by individual crafters, usually women.  A couple of years ago I gave my mother a herd of geese.  When she opened the card saying that I had bought a herd of geese for her, she was not sure what to make of it.  But then I told her it was from Heifer international and the geese would be given to a group of people somewhere in the world who could use them to be more self-sufficient.  Well, she got it and appreciated the meaning of the gift.  This year I am giving all my nieces and nephews water bottle holders made by the Guatemalan artisans from A Thread of Hope, supporting their fund for scholarships for young Maya and helping to fund ergonomic chairs for backstrap loom weavers.  It’s a way I can honor and express my Humanist values while participating in the Christmas Ritual of gift-giving, and doing this opens opportunities for conversations about income inequality and fair trade economics. 
            What can you do that might bring some personal meaning to this season?  Maybe you could put out evergreens as a symbol of life like the Celts, or put out holly berries that live through winter and symbolize life in the face of death, like some Christians.  Maybe you put out a crèche scene, a tradition that St. Francis of Assisi started in 1224, considering the meaning of the Christian birth narrative.   Maybe you have a feast this time of year, a tradition that goes back to the Sumerians and Old Babylonians, to light up the darkness of the earth and lighten up our hearts with celebrations.  Maybe you choose to give gifts, a tradition that dates back to Saturn’s triumph over Jupiter in the Golden Age of Rome, to express your love to those that you share your life with.  Maybe you light candles to ritualistically ward off evil spirits, or light the darkness in remembrance of the sun’s return or to send your prayers to heaven.  Maybe you celebrate and express humanist-oriented values and ideals in a positive manner, choosing gifts that reflect your ethics and that better the worldwide human condition. 
            Perhaps a place to start is to reflect on what memories of this time of year are meaningful to you?  What calls to you from your deepest self this time of year that wants expression?  Look within for what you remember, celebrate, for why and how you decorate, what you participate in, what you teach your children about this time of year.  I would suggest that filling this time of year with people you love is not a bad idea for anybody.  But you are the one who has to make the decisions about what rituals and traditions are important to you, your family, friends and church; especially in this Unitarian Universalist Church for we celebrate what you as a community want to celebrate.   This year we have a Haunnaka meal, two Christmas Eve services, two Solstice celebrations and a Humanlight gathering. 
           The best way to search for what is “right” for you this time of year is through silent reflection, prayer or meditation.  As Unitarian James Martineau says of silence, it is “the great storehouse of our spiritual dynamics, where divine energies lie hid for any enterprise.”  While in that time of silence, ask yourself not only what traditions feel right for you, also ask “What traditions from my childhood, my faith, beliefs, and values are important or meaningful to me?”  Ask yourself “Why are they important or meaningful?” You might also ask “Am I willing to put in the time and effort needed for this to truly be an individual, family or church tradition?  Something that I will carry forward for years to come.” These seasonal rituals are spiritual practices.  A lot of people keep meaning to get around to a spiritual practice, but never find the time, energy or resources.  Find a tradition that you can put into practice, one that is meaningful to you.  And perhaps even more important, take the bold step of dropping a holiday practice that isn’t feeding you, no longer brings you joy, and then use the time and energy you used to spend on that to create a moment of silence in the seasonal chaos or create a spirit space to reflect on the meaning of the season for you, or create a heart space for yourself to affirm the love you have for those you share this life with.  Just give yourself the gift of time during this season; this can be the beginning of a deeply meaningful spiritual practice. 
              Bring the spiritual and ethical into this time of year--express your beliefs, your spirituality, your values in this season of celebration—not only to model for your kids, if you have them, but also to feel the light of the spirit in your own heart during this dark time of year.
Let us now turn inward in the spirit of meditation:
Let us remember those times over the years that we spent with our loved ones during holiday seasons past,
And as we reflect, let us explore our hearts and souls, to help us find the significance that speaks to us about this time of year.
And let us find ways in the present, in this holiday season, to let our spirits and values show.        Let them show, let them show, let them show.
Amen, Blessed Be, Shalom               

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Transistions by Reverend Tom Capo

Responsive Reading:
According to M. J. Ryan, author of How to Survive Change… you didn’t ask for, there are seven “truths” about change.   Reverend Tom Capo has adapted them into a responsive reading. 
Change is the one thing I can count on.
Everything in life is impermanent.  Accepting this truth diminishes our suffering because we are in alignment with the way life is.
Change is not personal.
The world is transforming at a breakneck speed and each one of us must adapt to those changes.  No one is exempt. 
In the midst of change my thinking is not always my friend.
The brain is hardwired to scan for the bad, and when it inevitably finds negative things, they get stored immediately for rapid recall.  Due to the complexity of change, this recall may be too simplistic and negative to help us adapt to change.
Change isn’t the enemy, fear of change is. 
Fear shrinks our world and limits our choices. Practicing innovative thinking reduces our fear response when change happens. We can learn to manage any fear that does arise.
There is a predictable emotional cycle to change.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the emotional cycle.  There are endings with any change, a death of some sort; grief is a part of change.
I am more resilient than I may think.
We are survivors of our own lives.  We have dealt with changes that we have not anticipated or wanted.  We have made it so far and that is pretty good evidence that we will continue to do so.
My future is built on bedrock that is unchanging.
We have a purpose and values that provide stability and continuity during change.  Understanding this truth helps us see the difference between who we are as a person and our behavior.  Behavior may need to change, your essence remains the same.


            What is it about change that freaks some people out?  I mean life is all about change.  We go from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age.  If we decide to get into a relationship with another person there is potential to move from being a friend to a significant other.  And if we are in a relationship, we could go from a committed couple to having children to raising children to children leaving home (hopefully).  Most of us experience changes in our jobs, in our beliefs, in our income, in our homes/cities where we live.  Changes can be as small as someone canceling a meeting or a date, to as large as deciding on a new career in mid-life.  Change has always been a part of human existence, and yet we experience powerful emotions anticipating, coping with, and looking back on change.
            One day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field with his old sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and desired to lift its burden. So he let his horse loose to go the mountains and live out the rest of its life.
Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, "What a shame.  Now your only horse is gone.  How unfortunate you are! You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?" The farmer replied: "Who knows? We shall see".
Two days later the old horse came back now rejuvenated after meandering in the mountainsides while eating the wild grasses. He came back with twelve new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral.
            Word got out in the village of the old farmer's good fortune and it wasn't long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck.  "How fortunate you are!" they exclaimed. You must be very happy!"  Again, the farmer softly said, "Who knows? We shall see."
At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer's only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer's son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg.  One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer's latest misfortune.  "Oh, what a tragedy!  Your son won't be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You'll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad".  they said.  Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, "Who knows? We shall see"
            Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor's men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor's army.  As it happened the farmer's son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg.  "What very good fortune you have!!" the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. "You must be very happy." "Who knows? We shall see!", replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.
As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. "Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you"!  But the old farmer simply replied; "Who knows? We shall see."
             As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: "Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy", to which the old farmer replied, "Who knows? We shall see!"
What do you think about this story?  Do you see yourself as the farmer or the neighbors?
My son younger son Jacob is a very bright person.  Martha and I always thought he was gifted and talented in many ways.  In 8th grade, his grades plummeted and his moods seemed to swing from anger to disinterest to exhaustion.  We felt frustrated and helpless; I felt like everything was awful.  Jacob’s teacher described him as being in a fog.  He’d forget to bring written work into the classroom, and when he was sent to his locker to retrieve it, he’d forget why he was at his locker by the time he got there.  Being a psychotherapist, I thought our hope might lie in getting Jacob into therapy.  After a few sessions, the therapist talked to us about putting Jacob on daily medication, but we decided to get some bloodwork done with his pediatrician before taking what seemed to us to be such a big step.  By now it was spring break.  Martha took Jacob to see Dr. Lee, and 30 minutes after they got home, Dr. Lee called to say that Jacob’s blood sugar was dangerously high.  She sure he was diabetic and we went straight to Texas Children’s Hospital.  They took one look at him and confirmed that he was a type I diabetic.  All his symptoms, trouble concentrating, mood swings, exhaustion, were a result of the diabetes.  We were relieved.  At least we had an answer.  Then the doctors went on to tell us that Jacob would have to manage his diabetes for the rest of this life, and that diabetes could cause problems with his cardiovascular system, his vision, and so many other things, including shortening his expected life span.  We were scared to death.  But, the doctors went on, if Jacob managed his diabetes well and took care of his health, he could live a normal active life.  We were relieved.  And then scared again.  Then a bit relieved.  Then relieved and scared at the same time.  And that’s kind of where we’ve been with Jake’s diabetes for the past 12 years or so.  I don’t remember during this time ever saying to myself as these events transpired, “Well, who knows what the future will bring; let’s just wait and see what happens.”  My moods were swinging back and forth, and my thoughts raced around trying to figure out how to fix this situation.
          Organizational Consultant, William Bridges (Transitions) writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in; it’s the transitions.  Change is not the same as transition.  Change is situational…Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation.  Change is external, transition is internal.”  Changes can be difficult; transitions are crucial, and both external change and internal transition must be addressed mindfully if we are to learn how to cope with, make meaning of, understand, and grow from the chaos that seems to be all around us and within us when change happens. 
           I invite you to think of a change that recently happened in your life. (pause) I invite you to hold that change in your mind and heart, replay it.  Notice what you thought and felt before the change, during the change, and after the change.  (pause) What do you notice?  Do you feel a variety of feelings, some at the same time?  Are your thoughts racing or do they seem diametrically at odds?  This internal process of thoughts and feelings is the transition you will have to find a path through.  Sometimes, in situations that don’t have major consequences, minimizing your reaction to change by waiting to see what happens may work.  But this way of facing the change, while it may seem a fairly calming, also limits the potential for more creative adaptation of our behavior and internal transformation of our thinking. 
            Jacob’s life changed when he became an insulin-dependent diabetic, and so did our lives as his parents.  I can guarantee you we were not thinking at the time, “Yay! What an great opportunity for creative adaptation and internal transformation!  Thanks Life!”  But, looking back, that’s exactly what happened.  We chose to  realize that we were afraid, and used the energy from the fear to motivate us to learn about diabetes, and more importantly to help Jacob learn about and take ownership of his diabetes.  He was the one who would have to learn to live with this disease and we could not make him eat right, sleep 8 hours a night, take his insulin, and exercise.  We knew our son was capable of managing his disease if we got him the resources and education he needed.  We could not take the burden of diabetes from him, though believe me, we would have done that in half a heartbeat if we could have.  We grieved that Jacob would have to fight this disease his whole life, but we ultimately had to accept this was his fight.  We could give him access to the tools he needed, but he had to be the one to use them.
            In the midst of this awful change, it could easily have been possible to believe that I couldn’t cope; that this was too much; or that I or Martha or Jacob wouldn’t be able to adapt.  But we did make it; all of us made it.  I know that I feel much more capable of dealing with changes that come up because I mindfully, intentionally recognized that I did adapt to that change and I did make it.  And I saw my family do the same.  This gave me hope that we could face other changes, individually and together.  And I learned that we could find new ways of behaving if we needed to.  Jacob is probably one of the most physically healthy persons that I know.  He eats well, not too much.  His weight is stable, not overweight like his dad.  He works out regularly.  And he manages to keep his A1C low; this is the measure of his blood sugar over time.  And none of us have changed at our core.  We are still the same people we were before Jacob was diagnosed with diabetes.  Jacob is the same bright, somewhat compulsive, person who walks to the beat of his own drummer as he always was.  Martha and I are the same people we were before we learned our baby boy had a life-threatening disease.  And we are all doing well despite knowing that Jacob has a life threatening illness, although every once in a while we do try to sneak a quick glance at his feet without him noticing.  Diabetics lose feeling in their extremities due to nerve damage, and Jacob doesn’t always notice when there’s something wrong with his feet because he can’t always feel the pain signals.  It makes him crazy when he catches us at it, but for us it’s the compromise we came to instead of over-parenting him.  We just love to be sneaky about it.
            Wendel Berry wrote: “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be home.”  This is how it feels to me, each time I face a change and transition.  I learn that the journey I face is not one of miles, but of one inch, a very arduous, sometimes awful-feeling, frequently scary, often humbling, and even at times joyful inch, and I learn to arrive at the place where I am and find myself back within my own skin, the same person I was.