Mardi Gras precedes Lent as a splurging overindulgence in preparation for repentance and purgation. We all enjoy both, often unconsciously. How to reconcile our natural inclination to extravagant display and indulgence with our ESUC covenant to “become the best people we can be?”
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Mardi Gras was last week. All around the world and known by many names. While not celebrated throughout the United States, many traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in America have notable celebrations. New Orleans is the most widely known. The name Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, reflecting the practice of indulging in rich, fatty foods before the fasting, prayer and penitence associated with Lent—which started on Ash Wednesday, March 2.
Historically, people would spend Fat Tuesday (and some areas the days leading up to it) indulging in foods—and behaviors—they would abstain from during the upcoming 47 days of Lent. “Would meat and dairy products spoil if left for so long?” “Why chance it? Let’s eat it all up this coming week!” The occasion became one big celebration—Carnival—a word derived from the Latin for “to remove meat”.
Mardi Gras is celebrated differently in different places. In Rio de Janeiro Carnival is five days of music, dancing, parades, and street parties. In New Orleans Carnival season is even longer, beginning on Epiphany—the 12th and last day of Christmas—and running, this year, for almost two months. Nowadays these Mardi Gras celebrations have become separated from their religious origins and in some instances are not much more than “lost weekends” of bacchanalian debauchery.
Which brings me to the first theme I wish to explore this morning: the dynamic—we’ve all seen it—of reckless abandon, followed by repentance and self-discipline. Sometimes it goes the other way: rigid discipline and focus, put blithely aside for a wild weekend in Las Vegas. The wild weekend’s the lure… and the hangover is the kicker. People, in fact, are quite variable. We all fluctuate in our moods, and it’s a good thing. As they say, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” But too much fluctuation and things begin to go bi-polar, or as though you’re living in the overly hyped-up, ever-anxious world of Reality TV. And that’s not a good thing. How to find that balance?
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Meanwhile, there are two recent developments that I feel called to preach upon. First: Re-opening to on-site, corporate worship for the first time in two years. Ta-Dah! This is great news for everyone; something we have all missed a lot, and something we will be celebrating—if we are able—throughout the upcoming weeks of spring and summer. We’ll also be celebrating—some more joyfully than others, I suppose—the conclusion of my four years of developmental ministry among you. It has been an honor, and a challenge to serve here. The honor should be obvious: beautiful facility, distinguished predecessors, helpful, hardworking staff. And many, many wonderful, good people.
The challenges have been pretty easily identifiable, too. When I arrived: Disputation. Distrust. And disequilibrium. All very distressing. And for some, the church became a place, not of refuge and restoration, but of provocation and pain. Not that religion is supposed to shield a body from pain. Especially a Unitarian church like ours asks us to be provoked and thereby “become the best people we can be.” To grow,” in the words of the Unitarian visionary William Ellery Channing, “in likeness to God.” That is, to grow in sensitivity, in breadth of consciousness, in clarity of conscience, strength of character and purity of heart.
When a church is roiled in controversy, it’s good for a minister to practice rudimentary judo. That is, don’t throw your weight around or you’re likely to quickly get thrown to the mat yourself. Better to find your balance and let the most upset folks come and tell you what’s bothering them. Do your best to listen deeply. Later, if they insist on winning you over to “their side,” use your own knowledge of judo to remain balanced and not vulnerable to their faints and parries. Let those still wound up about the controversy to slowly let it go in an unpressured way. Laugh with them. Have fun with them. Commend them for the many wonderful things they contribute to church life and our UU community. It’s not their values they’re letting go of, it’s the controversy. And doing that requires not taking it (the controversy, one’s own position) personally.
It’s sometimes very hard, if you have been wounded, to not take things personally. We help each other do that when we remember and do our best to live by our covenant. Since we’ve all been wounded at one time or another, let us agree to do our best to be our best! Milly Mularkey, Dennis Fleck, Elaine Cox, and Carrie Cuello are part of a Ministerial Reflection Team that helps me think deeply about what my charge here is, and how to accomplish it. They have asked me to share some thoughts about what your former Assistant Minister Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove said in 2019 regarding her years of service among you: that it was far from joyful or relaxed. And that workplace stress made her cry on many nights of many weeks. And I must say, I know what Barbara was talking about. I don’t want to get into that today, because I want to make clearer that I think you are actually good people and a good church. But you need to be a little more repetitive and insistent about how happy you’d be if the minister and her or his family came by to this event, etc. Invite the minister and their spouse to the symphony. Or the theater, like Tom and Pamula Doe did for Carol and me. Or to a ball game. Or a hike, like the dozens I’ve done with Mike Radow, our President. And if there are children, help make them feel welcome and you are making their parents welcome. Help them find the right neighborhood to live in and be understanding about the cost of home ownership in such an affluent community such that you can think creatively about how you might help your new minister secure a second mortgage.
For me, by far the greatest challenge of this ministry has been the novel coronavirus. Ugh! All of us have been felled by this contagion and all of us are tickled that—we hope—the worst is over. It is great to look out up this beautiful sanctuary and see all of us. And great to know that most likely, our attendance will grow over the coming weeks and months. Hallelujah!
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Now, there’s also a third thing I feel the need to hold before you this morning and consider together as a worshipping community. And to consider morally and spiritually: Russia’s brutal military invasion of Ukraine. Horrors! Such wanton belligerence! Such crude, jackbooted authoritarianism! Former President Trump, in his increasingly hateful and deluded state of mind, commended Mr. Putin’s “genius,” but the rest of the world has lined up in support of the norms of civilization. Admittedly, as a child of the Cold War, I was brought up to never trust the Russians. So, I’m prejudiced, and I admit it. But still, I never trusted Vladimir Putin’s ruthless KGB-schooled skullduggery and I predict he will eventually be exposed as a fraud and brought down, just like Nicolae Ceausescu, and just like Benito Mussolini and just like Adolph Hitler. Autocratic tyrants, every one of them. And hateful, destructive, selfish men. Just like the people who look up to them. Useful idiots to Mr. Putin, but dangerous mayhem-makers to the rest of us.
All of us are brought down low by this development, especially by how close our country came to having a person in the Oval Office who would have easily given Putin a free pass. And who wanted to take America out of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, NATO. Heaven forbids! But what do we do now? How do we support freedom and democracy in a country so far away and well within the historic sphere of Russian influence?
I am glad to read that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has vigorously condemned Putin’s invasion and established an Emergency Relief Fund to provide relief and to attend to needs and protect the rights of Ukrainian refugees. More information about how you can help those trapped and under bombardment will be printed in coming issues of the Beacon. Stand by.
So, what am I saying in this potpourri of a service? So here we are at a crucible. In between indulgence and repentance, and in between the joy of longed for reconnection and the dread of an escalating war in the middle of Europe, led by a megalomaniac. Is balance even possible?
Yes. Let me be unequivocal. Balance is always possible. And it’s always at our fingertips.
Take a break. Sit still. Breathe. Play some beautiful music. Read a few lines of poetry. Watch favorite old movies. Call up your friends and family. Put energy into ESUC reopening and pay less attention to the non-stop news cycle. Dance with your spouse. And laugh with them. And with your kids.
Love abides. And abounds here in this lovely room and across this loved and cared for campus. We are delighted, everyone, to see one another and welcome each other back to this holy place of friendship and art, music and learning. And we are back! We’re back to shine our light on the dark places of terror and destruction as well as the wonderful places of discovery, insight, and growth that is East Shore Church.
May it be joyously so! Amen.
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