Towanda Universalist Unitarian Fellowship

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"All In" Modified by Paul Shapiro

I want to tell you a story told to me by Peter.

The first time that he went to Las Vegas, He gave himself a $100 budget for gambling. You can tell that he was a real “high roller,” can’t you? About the only game he had any notion of knowing how to play was Blackjack. So, he found a table with a $5.00 minimum—I warned you he was a high roller—and a dealer with a friendly face, and he sat down to play a few hands. He lost the first hand. Then he lost the second hand. Then he lost the third hand. He sat and watched as the $100 pile of chips rapidly dwindled. He won a hand here and there, but soon his stake was cut in half. So he got up and walked away from the table. He failed to see the appeal of gambling. But the next day he decided I’d give it another shot. And the same thing happened. Within the space of about 10 minutes he was wiped out.

As he tossed and turned in the hotel bed later that night, He reflected on the experience. “That wasn’t at all fun,” He thought to myself. “He could have just kept handing $5 bills to the dealer, one after the other, and it would have felt the same.” To me, it felt like I had flushed $100 down the drain and had no fun doing it. “What was the appeal of gambling?” He thought. And then it occurred to him that what he’d done wasn’t gambling. He had come to Vegas prepared to lose $100 and that’s exactly what happened. And it had happened in small, $5.00 increments, “death by 1,000 cuts,” as they say. And then he had a brilliant idea. A crazy idea. he decided that he would really gamble.

Here’s what he thought he’d do: He would get another $100 out of the hotel ATM, go to one of the $25 minimum tables, sit down and place all $100 on one hand of Blackjack. he’d either recoup his losses or double them. Either way, in what seemed to him like a semi-spectacular “all in” moment. Now THAT felt like gambling.

And it did. he spent the next three days wandering the floors of the Vegas casinos, looking for the right opportunity for my big play. As he wandered, his adrenalin was pumping, his palms were sweaty and his heart was racing at the prospect of betting it all. He had this “rush” going on as he wandered. And as he wandered, He wondered to myself: What if I win? Will I walk away? Or will I try a second hand? And what if I win again? How much could I come home with? My tactic was having its desired effect. Yes, now I knew what gambling felt like.

Finally, on the last night of his trip, He lurked around the $25 tables long enough and saw his chance. He screwed up his courage and sat down at the table. He handed over the $100 bill that had been burning a hole in his pocket all week long and the dealer gave him four $25 chips. He thought she’d seen this gambit before, but he was undeterred. He slid all four chips out in front of him. She dealt the first card. His mind was racing. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to add his two cards together. Here comes the second card, face up: a nine. Nice! he thought to myself. Then he peeked at the other card: a six. His heart sank. 15. What do you do with a 15?

Do I take another card and risk being busted, or do I stand pat and pray the dealer busts herself? She was showing a two; no help there. The dealer looked at him impatiently. All my gambler’s dreams were dissolving in front of his eyes. He didn’t have the heart for this. He sat down at the table ready to risk it all, but in the moment of truth he couldn’t pull the trigger to make the bold move, to ask for that next card. So he stood pat. The guy to his right took a card. His card, had he had the courage to take it. A four. Then the dealer flipped over her card, showing a ten. She drew another card, this time a six. Eighteen. Before he knew it, she swept away his chips and his dreams. He had doubled his losses. As he walked away from the table, all the clichés ran through his head: “No Guts, No Glory.” “Go Big or Go Home.” And that night he tossed and turned again, wondering about what might have been.

I remember the first time I went to a gambling casino. I was with a group. We ate in the casino restaurant. They gave each of us a role of quarters. I guess they thought that we would go into the casino and gamble. Some of my companions went to the tables. One even won a few dollars. I came away with $10. Of course that was because I put the role of quarters in my pocket and just watched the others.

I know that his little foray into gambling didn’t really put him at much risk. But it did cause me to reflect on those times in my life where I’ve faced a choice of consequence, and to consider how I responded in ways that either were or weren’t fully committed.

How many times in our lives do we face these critical choices, these moments of truth? And how many times do we later wonder what might have been? What might have been had we taken the bold step? What might have been had we not been afraid? Had we had enough courage? Had we ignored the naysayers and trusted our gut? Had we gone “all in” instead of holding back?

Many years ago when I was working as a research biochemist for Warner Lambert I received a letter from a company in St Louis offering me a job. This came right out of the blue. What had I done to get this offer. More importantly exactly what was the job about? I pondered this for days before I decided not to take up this offer. I frequently wonder what my life would have been if I had gone to St Louis.

The only way to avoid the wondering of the “what if” is to make a full, unrestrained commitment to a course of action, whatever challenge it is that we’re facing. It’s like standing on the edge of a swimming pool when we know the water’s cold. Dipping our toes isn’t going to get us into the water; we’ve got to jump in with both feet, or even head first. I’m learning this every time I think about putting on a harness and hooking it up to a paraglider. If you don’t know what paragliding is, it’s a sport where you attach yourself to a large fabric wing, like a kite, and then hurl yourself off the side of a hill or a mountain and glide back to earth. If you know what you’re doing you can actually soar like a bird for hours. What I’ve learned so far with paragliding is that you’ve got to commit .Once your wing is inflated above you, you’ve got to run as fast as you can toward the edge of the mountain. If you balk, if you run half-heartedly, you’re never going to fly and you’re likely to end up in a heap or in a tree. To gain the freedom of the flight you’ve got to overcome the fear of failure. It’s about going “all in” every time. I never did go paragliding.

What is it that’s expected of us as members of this Fellowship, as members of this faith? While belonging to a congregation and living our lives as Universalists isn’t likely to be as physically risky as paragliding, I’d like to believe that the same lesson applies. If we’re going to fly, we’ve got to commit. We’ve got to go “all in.”

I’ve heard about a captivating book titled Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World. This is the story of the sixteenth century Unitarian Michael Servetus. Servetus is one of our Founding Fathers. Talk about committed. Imagine living in 16th Century Europe, where the Church of Rome is burning heretics at the stake in virtually every town on the Continent. Where Martin Luther and John Calvin are protesting the abuses of the Catholic Church and starting a powerful new religious movement that is becoming equally violent in the enforcement of its doctrine. And imagine telling both the Pope and Calvin that they are wrong. Telling them in a very public way that their doctrines are unsupported by Scripture. That Jesus was a man and not God incarnate, that there is no such thing as the Holy Trinity, and that God lives in each of us.

As you might suspect, this “good news” of Unitarianism that Michael Servetus declared did not go over well. He was first jailed by the Inquisition for heresy against the Catholic Church, but he escaped before they could kill him.

Then he was arrested by the Calvinists for heresy against the Protestants, and he wasn’t so lucky the second time around. John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake along with all the known copies of his books. Michael Servetus went “all in” for his faith, that’s for sure.

Here in the relative comfort of the 21st Century, we don’t think that declaring the principles of universal love and acceptance is such a dangerous thing. But let me remind you of the Rev. Mark Kiyamba, who is the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kampala, Uganda. A church that is openly accepting of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons, a church that provides safe haven for people who identify as GBLT. And that is no small thing in Uganda, because that country has essentially legalized the murder of homosexuals and those who harbor them. In Uganda, if you know someone who is gay you are required to report them to the authorities and if you’re gay you’ve got a target on your back both from the state and from armed thugs who are out to kill you. And here is Mark Kiyamba, declaring our doctrine of universal love and salvation. His life and the life of his wife and his children have been openly threatened because they are living out the principles of our faith. Another case of going “all in” for who we are and what we stand for.

So, am I asking you to bet your life on our faith? If it came down to that, I suppose I would hope that our commitment to Universalism Unitarian would cause us to stand up for justice, to proclaim our gospel of hope, to stand on the side of love, even in the face of death. But on most days, thankfully, none of us faces that kind of test. We’re not asked to make that kind of sacrifice. In the face of that kind of commitment, though, doesn’t it seem almost ridiculous to think that we would say “No thanks” when we’re asked to open our doors to host a meeting of Equality PA or not to attend the meeting?

Our faith, and membership in this Fellowship, comes with strings. To belong to this Fellowship and to be a Universalist Unitarian is to say “yes” to those strings. We say “yes” to life. We say “yes” to hope. We say “yes” to a belief that all people are worthy, all people carry a spark of the divine. And more than that, we say “yes” not just to these principles, but we say “yes” to doing the work of our faith, the work of this church, when we’re asked. We can be that “place of quiet and reflection” my correspondent longs for only if, only when, we all commit ourselves to creating that place, sustaining that place, loving that place, and working that place into existence.

We are often asked by newcomers to our Fellowship what is expected of our members, and this is what we tell them. We tell them that to be a member of this Fellowship and to claim this faith as one’s own, you must do four things. First, you must commit to showing up on Sunday afternoons. Worship is the central, communal act of the Fellowship, and members should participate in worship on a regular basis. Second, you must commit to actively engaging in your own spiritual growth. Take an Adult Faith Re class. Sit in meditation. Attend a Small Group Ministry. Go to one of the JPD workshops or even to the annual UUA General Assemblies.

Our Fourth Principle, which I see as the keystone holding the arch of Universalism Unitarian together, says that we engage in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I expect all our members will do that.

The third thing that’s required of all our members is that they will support the Fellowship financially, to the best of their ability. Generosity is an important spiritual practice, but it’s not just a spiritual practice. It is a practical necessity. We cannot keep the lights on and the doors open, we cannot offer self-sustaining programs without your financial contribution. Give us your pledge. Put money in the offering plate. Buy something at the rummage sale. Your commitment to this Fellowship and our faith must take tangible form in your giving as best you’re able.

Finally, the last string that’s attached to membership, or maybe it’s the first string, is that you will get involved. That you will serve others. That you will embody your commitment to us by joining a one of our teams. That you’ll simply make coffee on a Sunday afternoon. That you will help clean up after the coffee hour and take out the trash. Making a commitment to membership means that you’ll bring all your creative energy to our community and either join or start a program that strives to create a just and sustainable world, to use the language of our Mission Statement. As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, over and over , ours is not a Sunday afternoon faith.

It’s a faith that must be lived out every day in your workplace, in your family, with your friends, and, most of all, by offering your talents to our community, all for the greater good.

These four things—attending worship, growing spiritually, supporting financially, and serving others – are the only things we ask. And they are everything. This is what Parker Palmer was talking about when he referred to being and becoming a part of “the community of our lives.” This is what I mean when I speak of making a commitment and going “all in” with the Fellowship. And for those of you who are already members of this Fellowship, I hope I’ve been clear about what I think it means to be a part of this community, our community.

Perhaps there was a time when we didn’t put expectations on our members. Perhaps there was a time when we were an “anything goes, believe whatever you want to believe” kind of Fellowship. Perhaps there was a time when you could be a member with no strings attached. And perhaps, just perhaps, that’s why our numbers are dwindling and the very future of our faith is in jeopardy.

Membership comes with strings attached. Those strings bind us to the Fellowship. They bind the Fellowship to us. And most importantly, those strings bind us, each to the other. With those strings we are woven together into one body, one spirit, one united Whole. You can’t sustain a congregation, or any community of meaning, without them.

You will shortly be asked to pledge to this Fellowship. Our expenses have gone up. We have to budget in order provide the services. I hope that you will pledge the most that you can, hopefully increasing from last year. I know some of you put money in the collection plate and that is good but if it is not documented as for your pledge we can not know it is part of your pledge. But if you do not pledge we can not prepare an accurate budget. So please return the pledge forms when you get them. Lets strive for 100% return of the forms with the most you can do.

I leave you today with these words, taken from a prayer of the Arizona Hopi Nation:

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.

now the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

The time of the lone wolf is over.

Gather yourselves!

Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.

All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

We are the ones we've been waiting for.

This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

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