Tuesday, March 9, 2010

new blog location

I've now moved my blog to a personal website: RevRicky.com. Click on "blog" from the menu on the welcome page. You will be able to comment on blog posts, subscribe with an RSS feed, and search posts for key words.

I took it as a Lenten exercise this year to learn a new website creation software, and to reconstruct my personal website. I'm using the iWeb software from Apple. I've now got the site up and running. I'll be posting sermons and prayers on my website as well as blog entries.

Come visit.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

February music

I made a new year’s resolution this year to write a new piece of music every month. Before I became a minister I worked in Human Resources with AIDS Project Los Angeles. And before that I was a composer. I was part of a composer’s writing/performing group called Lo Cal Composers Ensemble. We put on concerts of our own music several times a year in venues all around Los Angeles. I worked at a bookstore, too, to pay the bills. My undergraduate degree is in music composition from Cal Arts.

But I hadn’t been doing much composing in recent years and I realized that writing music was still an important part of my identity. So I made a resolution to make time for composing this year.

My January music was for solo piano. For February I had planned to write a piano/cello duet. But then I got inspired to write a song for tenor and piano. The text was written by a schizophrenic man who attends my Los Angeles church and sings in our choir. He had written a description of what’s going on in his world. It was so strange, and sad, and beautiful. Full of paranoia, but also tender. I set it to music.

If I can figure out how to post an mp3 here I’ll share it with you.

Friday, February 26, 2010

what's beautiful?

If you search for "Beauty" in Google Images, what do you get?

Page after page of beautiful women.

On the 4th search page there's a sunset. On the 5th search page there's a polar bear. Other than that the only image that says "beauty" is beautiful women.

No beautiful trees. No beautiful mountains. No beautiful lakes or tropical islands. No beautiful images of the moon. No beautiful architecture. No beautiful paintings. No beautiful animals except that one polar bear. No beautiful babies or children. And no beautiful men.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

new website

I've just posted a major overhaul of my RevRicky.com website. check it out.

Back in September I bought a new Apple computer. The operating system that came with the new computer would no longer support the old DreamWeaver software that I had been using to update my RevRicky.com website. So the website had been frozen as it was just before I bought the new computer. Then, over the last several days, I finally had some time to learn the iWeb software that came with the new computer and re-create the site.

On the new website you can read all the sermons I've written since last summer, as well as all the prayers I wrote for worship during that time. There's also a calendar of where and what I'll be preaching from now through the end of the church year. I'll be adding more stuff to the website as I get to it over the next several weeks.

For now I'll continue to use this Google site for my blog, but I'll no longer be posting sermons and homilies here, nor will I be posting my prayers on the affiliated UUSCV Prayer and Meditation group blog. Eventually I'll probably move this blog on to the RevRicky.com site as well.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

If I Were a Real UU...

A homily for Lent.

Delivered, Ash Wednesday, 2010
Valley Vespers, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills

Christmas Day. Thanksgiving. Fourth of July. I don’t know if Ash Wednesday is anybody’s favorite holiday.

There's no bunnies painting colored eggs. There's no groundhog looking for his shadow. There’s no Ash Wednesday equivalent of Santa Claus; that’s for sure. Perhaps the Lenten Santa Claus would come down your chimney and then deliberately track fireplace ashes across your living room carpet in the shape of a cross.

There is no Lenten wreath on the door or Lenten lights on the roof. I don’t think they sell strings of grey holiday lights. There are no presents. There’s no special food. In fact, you’re supposed to give up special foods. It’s the holiday where it’s better to give up than recieve. It’s the anti-holiday: the holiday where you can re-use the Christmas cards you got two months ago by crossing out the word “Joy” and sending them back to your friends marked postage due.

Mardi Gras gives us parades and dancing and drinking. Then, against the drunken fun of Fat Tuesday, Lent stretches out like a 40-day hangover. Except, instead of guilt for one night’s drinking we’re get guilt for all our sins. Instead of a headache that merely feels like death, we supposed to spend 40 days contemplating actual death. Instead of a half-hearted oath to never drink again, that’s forgotten by Saturday, we’re supposed to give up some joy that makes life fun from now all the way until Easter.

Lent’s no party. Spiritually Lent can seem like a worthless downer. Why bother? Unitarian Universalists focus on the gifts of the spiritual life: the abundance, not the privations; the ecstatic, not the miserable. Our faith encourages us to enumerate our capabilities and inherent worth and dignity, not our sins and failures.

But there is something important to Lent. Though not my favorite holiday, I have come over the last few years, to respect and value the Lenten season as an important stage of a yearly spiritual cycle. Even without the fun of presents and decorations and a big holiday meal, even with a focus on mortality and where we’ve fallen short. Even with the sobriety and seriousness, and maybe even with a reminder of death smeared across the forehead on Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent is not a worthless downer, but a valuable spiritual step forward and upward.

Here is what Lent offers the spiritually serious.

For 40-days, each year, a season to observe who you really are as a human being, and remember who you are really called to be. 40-days to do some sober self-reflection. A chance to ask, Where am I on my spiritual trip? How am I doing on my task of growing a soul? If the Unitarian Universalist spiritual path asks us to achieve salvation for ourselves by being the perfected people that we can be, how are we doing? 40 days to remind yourself that you are after all a mortal being and that your time on earth is limited. 40 days to notice what you’ve really done, so far, with this one life you’ve been given. 40 days to be honest about your short-comings, while you’ve still got a chance to work on them.

You might find it helpful to give up something for Lent. That’s a helpful way to remind you to keep pushing forward on the self-reflection work that the season is supposed to be about. I prefer, instead, most years, to add something for Lent, to take up some spiritual practice, like journaling, or reading, or exercise, or meditation; or to learn some new skill that will help move me toward becoming that person that I want to be.

The bottom line Lenten question, for every Unitarian Universalist, is, “What would a real Unitarian Universalist look like, and do I look like that guy?” What would my life look like if I really lived by the principles that I proclaim each Sunday? What would my relationships look like if they were founded on justice and compassion? How diligently am I searching for truth and meaning? How am I participating in the democratic process in my congregation and society at large? How would I spend my days if I more completely contributed my life to the goal that is the goal of my faith: a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all?

40 days isn’t actually a very long time to create a vision of what a real UU life would look like for me, and honestly assessing the life I’ve created so far, and notice the difference between my current life, and the life I feel my faith calls my to lead. And then to put together an action plan with some concrete steps for change, and maybe learn a new skill, that will get me from here to there.

40 days from today, not counting Sundays, we’ll arrive at Easter, the holiday of new life. Easter comes with a miracle of re-birth, of a re-awakening to a new reality, of a new chance at life after we thought the old life was finished for us. If we do nothing between now and then, then the Easter miracle is the kind of empty fiction rational UUs often accuse if of being. It’s just magic, and superstition, and might be temporarily uplifting without being really transforming.

But if we take the 40 days of Lent between now and then seriously, if we do our work, if we commit to our practice, if we name the changes we want to make and we do what we need to do to make the changes really possible, then our Easter can be earned. We can have an Easter we deserve. We can celebrate a new life at Easter that isn’t just a myth and a miracle, but is the lived truth and the new reality of who we are.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Hilton Long Beach Boycott

A picture from the picket line on Saturday, February 13, part of the Young Adult Urban Ministry weekend.

The ironic thing is that this is the hotel the PSWD has contracted with to host our 2011 District Assembly. Obviously few of us (none of us) would be willing to cross the picket line. But breaking our contract would incur a substantial financial penalty that the District can ill afford. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months, and how we can continue to support the hotel workers in their action.

photo courtesy Frederick Martin

Young adult urban ministry weekend

I'm still glowing from a really exciting weekend spent with 22 young adult unitarian universalists at First Unitarian Church, Los Angeles. Jointly sponsored as a program of the UULMCA and the Pacific Southwest District, and hosted at the urban Los Angeles church, we put together an experience of what our faith can look like in an urban setting and with a commitment to a vision of a church placed in service to the larger community, rather than only focused on serving the church members.

Here's what we did:

Friday night we gathered at the church for dinner and worship. Then we had a conversation with PSWD District Executive, Ken Brown, who was involved with First Church 20 years ago, and helped form an intentional urban ministry program at First Church as a way of healing after the Rodney King Riots. Some of the urban ministry programs started at that time still exist, and that program became the foundation for a new, outward-focused vision for the church. We spent Friday night at a local hotel.

Saturday morning started with breakfast at the church and the opportunity to observe our food distribution program in action. Every Saturday from 8 to 10 AM volunteers hand out about 650 bags of groceries. When the distribution ended we had a chance for questions and answers with Rochelle McAdam, the church member who has been spearheading this program for years.

Then we had a presentation from Michael Mata, an urban ministry specialist, currently working with World Vision, who has created a tool called "exegeting the city" as a way of quickly identifying the needs, and potential ministry areas, of an urban neighborhood. Then with the tool in our heads he led us on a walk around the neighborhood to practice our observational skills.

We ended the walk with lunch at the Francis Avenue Garden, the neighborhood garden started by the church a dozen years ago and now a jointly owned and operated community resources. While we ate lunch we listened to a presentation from a volunteer with CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice) who told us about their current work in support of hotel workers who are being prevented from unionizing and are being paid a less than livable wage. CLUE is specifically targeting the Hilton Long Beach hotel. BOYCOTT THIS HOTEL. So after we got the background we all piled into vans and drove down to Long Beach to take part in a demonstration with the workers in front of the hotel. We picketed and chanted for about an hour, and then spoke to some of the workers and heard about their experience and their frustration with management who won't talk with them.

We drove back to the church for dinner, for a talk about young adult programs with Lindi Ramsden, the Executive Director of UULMCA, and then a Karaoke party, donated by a young adult friend of the church. Then one more night at the hotel.

Sunday morning we had a wrap-up session and then a really incredible worship with both Tera Little (from the PSWD) and I preaching, the entire congregation of Santa Clarita joining the First Church congregation, a combined choir, and then a potluck lunch.

I was consistently impressed with the participation of the young adults. They were present, generous, thoughtful, engaged, reflective, passionate. I felt honored to be with them. Hopeful about the future of this faith. And hopeful about the direction that our ministry might take us in the coming generation.

Monday, February 15, 2010

email from an Islamic reader

An Islamic reader posted a long comment on a recent post with a lot of theological questions (rhetorical questions). Rather than respond in the comments to that post where it wasn't really relevant I thought I'd post his comment here along with my responses. You will notice that the commenter assumes I have more orthodox Christian beliefs than I actually do.

Hi friend, peace...

Your blog very interesting.
But I have some questions for you:

First, why were you believe that Jesus is your God? Would you have evidence that Jesus is God? Or that is only your faith? What do you mean about “Jesus is God”? Does this mean have not same with mean “God of the Universe”? Or that is only mean “man as God”, like ancient Egypt peoples call Pharaoh as God?

I don't believe that Jesus is God. I believe, as do Unitarians generally, that Jesus was a human being, essentially like all other human beings. Jesus is special to me in that he seems to have lived a life more aligned with Divine principles than most of us, but the same kind of access to Divine principles is equally available to all of us, which I think was the heart of Jesus' message. He provides instruction on how to live in a manner pleasing to God, and an example of what that kind of life might look like. And, of course, Jesus is not by any means the only person to have lived this kind of life.

Second, what do you response? If you know that the “God” which attribute on Jesus is created by Constantine (the Roman Emperor at 325 AC) and the leaders of Christians in Nicea Counsel on 325 AC (After Christ). In this councel, Constantine made huge changes in the faith, like “Jesus is Son of God”, and “Jesus is God”. The Emperor Constantine took “Jesus Conception” from Apollo, the son of the Greek God (Zeus). At the counsel of Nicea in 325 AC, the New Testament Cannon was changed. The writings of the New Testament were changed to be the books used by the church since Jesus they call God (Jesus is Son of God, Jesus is God).

The commenter is correct that the orthodox Christian faith was not received all at once, directly from God, or the lips of Jesus. Most of the beliefs now held as orthodox (including which books Christians call sacred) were worked out over the course of centuries by hundreds of human beings discussing and deciding among themselves. And, of course, they brought to this discussion not only their own opinions, but their various cultural histories (including stories they knew from Greek and Roman mythology and other mid-Eastern cultures, including Judaism). And the final positions taken were also influenced by the Roman government under Constantine, including the idea that it was important for the Christian believers to be unified around a single set of beliefs in the first place. Although for convenience we often point to the Council of Nicea as the occasion when these decisions were made, they were actually debated and decided over a series of many church councils stretching for centuries.

Third, how about this informations? Nowhere in the Bible is the day of worship changed from Saturday to Sunday. This change was not made by the Almighty, but by the Roman Church. Christianity was corrupted by Paganism. The pure Deism of the first Christians was changed, by the Church of Rome, into the incomprehensible dogma of the trinity. There are many similarities between the pagan god of Christ and the Christian version of Jesus. For example, Greek mythology tells of Christ bring born to the virgin Isis on December 25.

The Jewish Sabbath is undoubtedly Saturday. Shabbat means Saturday. The early Christians, who considered themselves Jews worshipped on Saturday. When Christianity became the established church of the Roman Empire they switched the sabbath celebration to Sunday so that it would coincide with the day of the week already held holy under the Roman religion: Sunday, the day of the Sun god. So should Christians (and Unitarians) switch their sabbath to Saturday? Only if you believe that God actually commands us to worship on one special day of the week. I don't believe it matters in the least. The seven day week is a human convention, not God's ordination. That Saturday was chosen as the Sabbath was a human convention, not God's ordinance. Obviously Christianity was influenced (I don't say "corrupted") by pagan beliefs. Christianity was obviously influenced by Jewish beliefs. Jewish beliefs were obviously influenced by the beliefs of the people they lived with. Religion is a cultural human construction. There is no "pure" religion from God. Every religion begins with human persons responding to the Divine Spirit, and receiving that spirit through the goggles of their culture, prejudices they are mostly unaware of. We should not, now, enshrine those conventions and prejudices as divine revelation.

Fourth, how about this information? God is Allah, the One and Only. Allah is God, on whom all depend. Allah begets not, and nor begotten; and none is like Allah (The Holy Qur’an 112:1-4).

Islam is also a religion that begins with a human person (Muhammed in this case) responding to an experience of the Divine Spirit, and interpreting that experience through the goggles of his particular culture. Allah is as good a name as any for God.

Thanks for you answer.
I hope we can be friend, although we have different perspective.
If you willing visit my blog, and read my article at http://sosiologidakwah.blogspot.com
And... if you love books, don’t forget to read The Holy Qur'an please...

I have read the Koran. And I'm glad I did. I don't regard it as any more holy than other books.

Love Doesn't Take Sides

My homily for "Standing on the Side of Love" worship service, Valentine's Day, 2010

Of course I’m standing on the side of love. I’m not a hater. I love everybody.

It’s the other people that are the haters. And boy do I hate them.

I mean I love them, because I’m a lover. But I just can’t understand how those other people take political positions that are so filled with hate? How can anyone not want gay and lesbian couples who have been together for 20 years or more to get married? What a bunch of haters! I hate them.

I mean I love them, because I’m a lover. But how can anyone support a health care system that gives billions of dollars in profits to insurance companies that don’t provide actual medical services, and meanwhile deny upward of 30 million people the protection of basic health care? What a bunch of haters! I hate them.

I mean I love them, because I’m a lover. But how can anyone not be grateful for the benefits that immigrants bring to our communities and to our culture and to our economy? Why would anyone want to make it more difficult for hard-working people to enter our country and do the jobs that need to be done? How can anyone think it’s justice to split up families between two countries or harass good people who are peacefully living in our neighborhoods? What a bunch of haters!

Here on the side of love we don’t have to stand with the climate change deniers, and the gun-toters, and the folks who would take away a women’s right to choose, and the folks who would imprison gays and lesbians just for being who they are. On the side of love we don’t have to stand with those haters who think prisons and war and tax cuts are the solution to every social problem. Boy do I hate them.

I’m glad I’m standing with you all on the love side. It’s all so pretty and nice and comfortable on this side. It’s all Sees candy and roses and bunnies on the love side of every political issue. This is the side of baby chicks. This is the side of Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

The other side is the side of Dick Cheney. That’s the side of Darth Vader, after he turned evil. It’s so ugly and cold and depressing on the other side. They don’t call it the Dark Side for nothing. It gives me the chills to even think about it. Here we don’t have to stand with torturers. Here we don’t have to stand with bigots. Here we don’t hate anybody except the people that hate us – and they started it!

Keep them far away from me. I’m standing on the side of love. Everybody here agrees with me, and we’re friendly, and there are free hugs, and I never get challenged in my opinions. And it feels so good to be so right all the time. I’m standing on the side of Jesus. I know they say Jesus is on their side, but they’re clearly wrong. I’ve got God on my side. And I know that they say God is on their side, too, but they must be wrong because I’m a Universalist and I know that God is love. And I know that God is standing on the side of love.

And as a Universalist I know that God loves everybody and brings everybody to salvation, universally, no one left out. I know that God doesn’t separate out one group of people from another group of people and push some people to one side and keep them apart. I know that God wants us all together, and whether we like it or not eventually we’re all going to have to figure out a way for everyone to stand together because in the eyes of God there is no outside. There is only one people and only one place and only one side: the inside.

Wait a sec.

I’m suddenly remembering that passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Jesus tells us that we ought to be like the Divine Spirit that moves over all the earth, you know the passage? “God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). That’s the kind of people we are called to be. That’s what love means.

So how can we stand on the side of love? There is no other side to love. If you’re standing on the side, keeping yourself apart, and disengaged, and feeling all self-righteous and superior, than that isn’t love. And if you really are standing in love then look around because you’re not off to the side, you’re being pressed in to the middle from every side.

I don’t mean standing in love requires taking the middle position of every political issue. But standing in love requires being in the middle of the political process. You can hold your opinion. You can be sure you’re right. You can even be sure the other side is wrong. You can be stubborn and unyielding and committed to justice, and I hope you are. But you can’t be disengaged from the other side. You can’t be dismissive of the other side. You can’t be right all by yourself. You can’t be effective if the only people you ever talk to already agree with you. You can’t tell yourself that the people on the other side should just shut up and go away, one, because they won’t, and two, because what kind of love is it that says to anybody, “Shut up and go away?”

Love means including all. Love means embracing all. Love means everybody together. Love means nobody left out. Love means no separation. In the words of the anthem Scott Roewe wrote for us and the choir just sang, “Love Lives Everywhere.” If you’re going to tell me that love lives just on this side of the issue and not that side, than I don’t think you know what love means. If you’re going to tell me that love is concerned with these people but love has nothing to do with those people, than I don’t think you know what love means. If you think you can be loving while ignoring or despising or screaming at people who disagree with you than you don’t know what love means. Or let’s say you’re more polite and you don’t actually scream at the people who disagree with you but still in your heart you hate them, and you tell your friends that those people are idiots, and if the only motivation you can imagine for someone to take the position they take on an issue is that they must be evil, selfish, hateful, bigots, well I’m sorry, sisters and brothers, you ain’t standing on the side of love.

But the real point is that you’re not standing on the side of love if you’re standing on the side. Love is in the middle. Love is in the thick of it. Love is mixing it up. Love is reaching out and touching and inviting in and opening up. Love is listening and hearing and seeking to understand. Love is forgiving, and looking behind the fear, both theirs and our own: the fear that keep us apart. Love is creating safe places where everyone is welcome. Love is humbly asking, “What don’t I know?” not arrogantly boasting, “I know it all.” Love is community, not self-sufficiency. Love isn’t independent. Love isn’t dependent either. Love is the interdependent web of all creation (including Dick Cheney) of which we are not standing on the side, but of which we are all a part.

Love means, first of all, not labeling the people on the other side of an issue as haters. No one thinks they’re a hater. No one of any church or political party is holding a rally today standing proudly under a banner that says, “Standing on the Side of Hate.”

Love is not chocolate and bunnies. Really being a lover is hard work. Love means engaging with the people we really don’t want to engage with. Love means opening up a dialogue with people who we’re pretty sure have nothing to say we want to hear. Love means trying to understand people who we just can’t understand. Love means staying in there even when things get hot and hurtful and mean, without getting hot and hurtful and mean yourself.

Can we really be that strong in our love? Can we be that brave? Can we be that generous? Could we really be the ones who get off the side and move into the middle of love? Can we imagine getting out of our comfortable churches, with all the people who think just like we do, and talking to some people who are pretty sure that they’re the ones standing on the love side? Are we serious about solving the issues of the world in a way that brings everybody along, or would we rather pretend we can just leave some folks behind? And listen, you Universalists, if you think the other side is just going to fade away and you’ll never have to deal with them, well just wait. They’re all going the same place you’re going. We’ll see them there when both sides disappear into that loving circle where every point is the center, that irresistible embrace of divine love. That heaven of love where there are no sides.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Happiness Isn’t Everything

A Sermon by Rev. Ricky Hoyt
Delivered January 31, 2010
First Unitarian Church, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA

Why do recent studies tell us that people are happier in Louisiana than in California? Maybe “happiness” isn’t the only reason that people want to live in Los Angeles.

In last month’s issue of the journal Science, two researchers, Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu, published a study that ranked all 50 states in terms of happiness.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably would have assumed that California was somewhere near the top of the list, if not the very top. After all, we all have chosen to live here. So there must be some happiness factor that puts this state at the top of our happiness list. And presumably those factors that make this a happy state for us, would also make it happy for other people.

I’ve lived in California my whole life. Actually I’ve lived in the Greater Los Angeles area my whole life. I’m certainly happy here.

I love the weather in Los Angeles. It gets hot in the summer but not as hot as Arizona. And it’s a “dry heat” as they say. We never have to suffer through that miserable humidity that the South and East and midWest have to deal with.

We don’t have hurricanes in the summer. And in the winter, of course, it’s gorgeous here. A little light rain. A few nights when the temperature might get down to the 40s. And that’s it. We don’t have blizzards. We don’t have ice-storms. We don’t have to shovel the sidewalk, or scrape ice off our cars.

I love the diversity of Los Angeles, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities on the planet. I love the opportunity to sample food and art and music from around the world, just by taking a long walk in my own neighborhood. I love that there’s a gay men’s chorus in Los Angeles. I love the sound of foreign languages. I love the signboards in Korean or Armenian that I can’t read. And I love seeing people who don’t look like me everywhere I go.

Yes, we have earthquakes. But we truly don’t have them very often. And the damage is usually pretty isolated.

People think of Los Angeles as being smoggy. But I remember the smog being a whole lot worse in the 1960s and 1970s. Now when I think of somg I think of the progress we’ve made on cleaning up our air.

People complain about the traffic. And the traffic is terrible. But it’s possible to avoid the traffic if you plan carefully.

I love the culture in Los Angeles, a world-class symphony, art museums, theater that’s probably second only to New York in the nation. We have Griffith Park, and we have the beach, and we have mountains within a short drive for ski-ing in the winter, and we have the Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and Palm Springs, and on and on.

There’s no place on earth I would rather live than Los Angeles. And the rest of California is equally gorgeous with most of the same advantages, from San Diego to San Francisco. The Sierras and Yosemite, and the northern coast, and the agricultural bread basket of the nation in the Central Valley.

So I would think that California would be near the top of a happiness ranking of the 50 states. Which state could possibly be higher than us: freezing cold North Dakota? Rust belt Ohio or Kentucky? Poverty-stricken West Virginia? Backward Alabama? Conservative, angry, sprawling Texas? Isolated Wyoming?

Well in the happiness ranking, all of those states I just mentioned are ranked as happier than California. In fact, out of 50 states and the District of Columbia only 5 states are ranked less happy than California. We’re number 46 out of 51. 46!

The least happy state is New York, which I would have ranked nearly as high as California for many of the same reasons that I like California, theater and museums and music, a diverse population, great public transportation, beautiful architecture and so on and so on. Are people really happier in every other state of the Union than they are in New York? And if they are happier everywhere else why do more people live in New York City than in any other city in America? And for that matter, if California is so bad why is Los Angeles the second most populated city and California the most populated State?

So what state is the happiest according to the study? You will never guess. I’m sure even people that live there wouldn’t imagine that anybody would consider their state the happiest in America.

Louisiana. Louisiana!

To be fair, the data for this study was collected in the years prior to Hurricane Katrina. So there’s been a lot of above-average misery in that state recently. But even without considering the Hurricane, and outside of New Orleans, which I admit does seem like a fun place to visit, would you really think Louisiana is the happiest state in the country? Louisiana hasn’t got a single mountain for ski-ing. It hasn’t got Yosemite, or San Francisco. It’s hasn’t got world class theater or museums. It’s not known for it’s colleges, or for its weather. It’s not a resort destination. It’s not a center for science or education. I’m sure the state has its charms: jazz, I suppose. But there are a heck of a lot more people who have voted with their feet by choosing to live in number 46 ranked California than in number 1 Lousiaina.

So after reading the list, and getting over the insult of seeing California placed so near the bottom of the list, my first reaction had to be that something was wrong. There must be some mistake in the way they measure happiness, because clearly people can’t be more happy in States like Idaho and Arkansas than they are in California.

Well here’s the interesting thing about the study. The two researchers weren’t actually particularly interested in discovering which state is the happiest in America. That’s just an interesting outcome of their researcher. Their real question was whether people’s expressed opinions about how happy they are when you ask them to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 – 10, actually matches up with any objective data about the actual conditions of their lives.

The problem that researchers had always had is that they they couldn’t be sure that if a person told you they were happy, whether they really were happy, or whether that person even really knew what happiness was, or whether one person’s happiness was the same as another person’s happiness. Happiness is a subjective feeling. That means happiness is felt on the inside. A happy feeling isn’t available for anybody outside the happy person to look at or measure or study.

But these researchers put together two different sets of data that had been collected over the years. One was a subjective study where the researchers had gone around, to 1.3 million people it turns out, in all 50 states, and simply asked them how happy they are.

And another set of researchers had, for several years, collected data of various kinds of factors that most people think affect our quality of life, factors, like sunny days versus cloudy days, and air quality, and traffic, and the crime rate, and how long it takes an average person to commute to work, and the number of public parks, and the tax rate, and how many students there are per teacher in the public schools, and how much it costs to buy housing and groceries, and so on.

And what these new researchers found, in their study published last month in the journal of science, is that there is a very strong correlation between the kinds of objective factors that everyone agrees should be related to happiness, and people’s self-reported levels of happiness.

It’s kind of a small point actually, but very crucial for social scientists. The conclusion is, that if people tell you they feel happy, you can trust that they really are happy. People who live in places where all of the objective measurements of happiness are good: low crime, and low taxes, and clean air, and sunny days, and short commutes and so on, will also tell you that they feel happy.

People in California are less happy than people in almost any other state in the United States, because, well, we’ve got terrible traffic, and we’ve got long commute times, and we pay high taxes, and it’s expensive to live here, and the air quality is better than it was but still pretty bad, and our public schools are overcrowded and so on and so on.

Which still leaves me with two questions.

One, given all of that, why do I feel so happy? Why would I still rather live in Los Angeles than Louisiana?

And secondly. If California is such a terrible place to live why do 37 million people want to live here, more than any other state? More than 1 in 10 Americans live in California, when, it turns out, they’d be happier almost anywhere else.

I’ve got two answers.

The first answer is one given by the researchers themselves, who were also surprised that highly-populated states like California and New York ranked so low on the list. They pointed out that California enjoys a lot of happiness-producing features that make people want to move here, but then, because so many people do move here, the huge population creates a lot of unhappy effects. People move here because of the weather and the beaches and the mountains, but then all the people create smog and traffic and expensive housing. In the long run a slightly less beautiful place, that also has fewer people in it, makes for happier living.

My second answer, though, goes beyond the scope of the study. If you tell me that I would be happier living in Louisiana than I would in Los Angeles, my response is first of all not to believe you. But then if you whip out this study from the Journal of Science and prove to me that not only would I be happier in Louisiana than Los Angeles but I actually would be a lot happier in Louisiana than Los Angeles, and happier in almost any state of the union than I would be in California, then my response has got to be: happiness isn’t everything.

With the copy of Science waved under my nose, I suppose I have to admit that by both objective and subjective measurements people are happier most everywhere in the country than they are in Los Angeles. But I’m still not leaving. So there must be some other reason than happiness that keeps me here.

And that reason that I stay here might also be the reason that so many other people stay here and that makes Los Angeles and New York the most populated cities in the country, and California and New York the number one and number three most populated states in the country despite being 46 and dead last in happiness ranking.

It must be that happiness isn’t everything. Happiness is important. And happiness may even be the most important thing. But happiness isn’t the only important thing. People want to feel happy, but people also want to feel challenged, which doesn’t make you feel happy, but may create a more satisfying and meaningful life in the long run. People want to feel productive, like they’ve made a difference and made things better, which means they want to live in a place that needs to be better. People want to feel needed. If it’s too easy and nice and happy already, than there’s nothing to do or to add. People want to feel stirred up and inspired and provoked. Happy feelings are never going to get us out of the house and into the street, but passion, and discrimination and anger over injustice are going to get us motivated. It doesn’t feel happy, exactly, to struggle for an important cause but it feels good. People like to compete, which means there needs to be something to compete against, and the real risk that we might lose now and then. People like the feeling of overcoming obstacles, which means you need obstacles to overcome. We want to feel comfortable, but most people understand that it’s interesting and kind of fun to feel uncomfortable now and then, to feel a little discomfort, and adventure and risk. People like to see new things, and have new experiences, which always means stepping outside of the comfortable and familiar.

People choose to live in Los Angeles and New York City, because it’s kind of tough to live here. It’s a struggle, sometimes, and that feels good. It isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always pleasant. Sometimes it’s miserable. Sometimes it’s infuriating. And then sometimes the sun comes out after a couple of days of rain, or you stumble upon a new Ethiopian restaurant, or a 50 seat theater puts on a great new play in your neighborhood, or the freeway is clear when you expected it to be jammed, and suddenly you feel not just happy, but that kind of joy that comes from happiness that has been earned by a period of suffering for it. Happiness that isn’t just handed to you but is earned happiness and deeply satisfying because of it.

I think, for instance, of this church. I think of the struggle that so many of you have had in this church for so many years. I’m not going say you weren’t happy, because I suspect mostly you were. But I know it hasn’t been easy. By any objective measure, this hasn’t been a place conducive to happy-church going for quite a long time. A researcher would have come in here and they would have measured the deficit budget, and the small size of the membership, and the turn-over in ministers. And they would have counted the broken windows, and the broken tiles on the roof. And they would have sat through a lifeless worship service or two, and counted the number of empty rooms upstairs, and counted the number of evenings during the week when the building was dark. And by any objective standard of church-happiness, I’m sorry to say, the church would have been ranked down in the California and New York range.

There’s a lot of churches in the Los Angeles area, that are objectively happier than this one. There’s a lot of Louisiana churches out there, which you could easily have chosen to go to instead of this one. You probably passed a few “happy” churches on you way to church here this morning. But you didn’t stop at those. You came here. And I believe you came here for the same reason that people come to California from every state of the union. You came here because here you presence can make a difference. At this church there is something that you can do. Here you are truly needed. Here we need your work and your energy and your passion and your vision.

Here there is challenge. There is uncertainty. There’s a risk of failure. And there’s also something crucially important at stake. There’s the long history of the church and all those people who poured their lives into this place now wondering what we’re going to do with their legacy, and whether we’ll be able to pass the church on to a new generation. And there’s the larger faith of Unitarian Universalism in America wondering whether it’s really possible in our movement to have successful, urban, multicultural, multilingual congregations. And there’s a neighborhood around us searching for a center for their community and in desperate need of a safe place to gather for education and fellowship and activism and fun.

And when you put together that challenge and risk of failure with the high stakes of something important to be accomplished, then you create excitement. You create adventure. You create inspiring purpose. You create what they call in religious communities, “mission.”

Our church is called to serve. And the institutions and people who are called to serve don’t go where happiness is, they go where challenge is. They go to Haiti and build houses. They go to Africa and care for people with AIDS patients. They feed the hungry, they free the oppressed, they teach, they organize, they heal, they love.

It is the challenge of this church that calls us to be here. Happiness is our responsibility to create. But there is much more satisfaction available to us here in the good, hard work of taking the rough clay and unrealized promises of this great church, and building it into the fulfillment of our vision, than there is in worshiping in a comfortable cathedral already constructed before we arrive.

We are the designers of the dream. We are the architects of joy. We are the builders of beauty. We are the creators of this church. And on the day when the church we have made starts to look like the church of our vision we will feel a feeling much greater than mere happiness.

I look forward to that day.