Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Like a Clear and Quiet Sky

Whether we every imagined being a monk or a hermit, all of us who are limiting our contact with the world in a time of Covid are experiencing a bit of that cloistered life. I suspect all of us are learning that without some of the usual activities of life, our inner thoughts and feelings are unavoidable. I am one of those folks who has, from time to time , wondered what it would like to be a monk, and I often have books of monks or hermits on my meditation table. Those folks who have chosen to live of separation, of renunciation for spiritual reasons, no matter what tradition, they all acknowledge that this is not an easy life. They have known for thousands of years what you and I are learning, that once you have removed some of the distractions, we have no choice but to face ourselves fully.

Thomas Moore, who lived in a very traditional monastery for 13 years writes:

“The life of the monk seen through sentimental eyes can be easily misunderstood. It’s a tough life, in which sensitivity to interior thoughts and feelings are intense, and a similar attention to the presence of others in the community makes relationship particularly challenging. In modern life it may appear that real work is located in the heroics of surviving and succeeding in the world. For the monk the challenge is in nonheroic intimacy with oneself, others and the world.”

As we wait the rollout of the vaccine, for a time when we can let go of some of the restrictions on our cloistered lives, perhaps it would help to think of ourselves as accidental monks, and just notice what it is like to live in this non-heroic intimacy with ourselves and others.

The other day a friend mentioned that her thoughts are like a bunch of threads she wants to untangle, but that she never seems to be done. Another friend mentioned that her mind defaults to a running commentary about her inadequacy. Some of us worry endlessly about the future, especially in times like these when the future is so clearly uncertain, others tend to try to make sense of the past. All of that is very normal Buddhist teachers have long talked about the “monkey mind” – it naturally leaps and is distracted by shiny things.

I want to invite you to just take a moment and notice what your thoughts are doing right now. Just notice- are they about the past, or the future? Are they fast or slow? What feelings do you notice?

So the part of us that notices our thoughts, that’s called the observer. Sometimes just noticing our thoughts, just noticing “I’m remembering the past” or “I’m planning for the future” or “I’m feeling impatient right now” can help us get a bit of space from those thoughts and feelings. Instead of getting totally hooked or caught up in those thoughts, I notice that I’m not those thoughts, I am the one observing those worried thoughts about the future. I am the one observing feelings of impatience.

A monk’s life is very orderly- time for prayer or meditation, time for work, time alone, time in community. This kind of daily structure helps provide relief for the overactive mind, and is somet6hing you might play with in our own life- there is a time in the day to make plans, a time to scrub pots or chop carrots, a time to think back and make meaning out of the past, and of course for every monk, a time that today I will call “gazing at the sky”- a time to set down all the thoughts and worries and focus on something larger, more spacious. Taking this time offers us a change in perspective that I’ve found can make a big difference in my ability to deal with the goings on in my own brain.

Our time together on Sunday morning is one such time. We have nothing else to do, no where else to be. We set aside this time together to nourish our spirits.

At the start of class, one of my first meditation teachers used to say “just allow the mind to release its contents” and I find this really helpful. Like the Jar in today’s story, the contents of our mind, of our day release and settle.

I invite you to try that with me now, starting as we often do by getting a comfortable seat, really arriving in our seat.
You don’t have anywhere else you have to be, except right here in this moment. There will be plenty of time later for planning and problem solving, Just now I encourage you to lost allow your mind to release its contents.
Let your body and mind settle into gravity, like sparkles in a jar of water
Just observe the thoughts drifting,
Return to that sensation of settling into your seat, into the ground...

Now lets try something else. Returning our mind to our comfortable seat, noticing the breath that is always happening without thought or effort.
Whatever is arising is okay.

Allow your busy mind to let go, knowing everything will be there again after the service.
If you like thank your busy mind for all it does for us.
Invite your mind on a little vacation.

Imagine you are laying on your back someplace pleasant and safe, looking up at the sky, and any thoughts and feelings are like clouds drifting though...

There’s nothing you need to do about those clouds, just notice them as they pass through your awareness...

If you were going to describe your mind like a weather report, what word or image would be kind of like the weather in your mind right at this moment?

Now I encourage you to shift your focus from the clouds to the sky surrounding them. Can you notice any bits of clear sky among the clouds? ...

Whenever a thought or feeling comes into your mind, just notice it passing by, and return your attention to the empty spaces as you are able...

Thank you for trying that with me.

When I first was asked to imagine my thoughts like clouds in the sky, I assumed that was something I could master pretty quickly, and soon I would have an empty sky whenever I called on it. Instead, after years of practice, I notice some days big patches of blue, some days little scraps of space between the clouds, and some days a storm so intense I just have to trust that the sky is there at all.

Pema Chodron, the Ordained Buddhist nun, now spiritual director of the Gampo Abbey monastery, is often quoted as saying: “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” And I have found this change of perspective makes a big difference for me. To turn my attention away from trying to get the dancing monkey to sit and behave, or the threads untangled, to noticing that in every moment the sky is there.

I asked some Unitarian Universalist ministers what their monkey mind liked to do during this pandemic, one colleague said “My brain likes to save up all the most worrying scenarios for just the moment when I have turned off my lamp and hit the pillow for the night.” I think this is a perfect example; there is some part of ourselves that really believes we can’t fall asleep until we have solved all the problems of the day, and all the problems of the future. But here in the light of morning, we can probably agree that very few problems actually get solved as we lay in bed trying to sleep. When we chose to put on our Pajamas and get into bed, some wise part of ourselves knows that it is time for sleep, and problem solving is antithetical to sleep. If we grasp at every cloud that floats by, we will never have time for sleep, and indeed, grasping and fixing just leads to more grasping and fixing. Ideas and feelings tend to generate more idea and feelings. Imagine trying to put each of the clouds in the sky into a box, and maybe to alphabetize them to keep them orderly. Instead of trying to sort clouds as we are falling asleep, the practice is simply to allow the thoughts and feelings to do what they do -- to drift by.

Of course there are truly problems to be solved in our world and in our lives. [This week especially!] We are not trying to escape into the sky. I asked a Buddhist meditation teacher once “if we are always trying to be in the present moment, how do we plan for the future?” and he replied “if we are planning for a future, then that is the activity, planning for the future. When we are done that activity we set it down.” We have the power to chose where we give our attention. There is time when we write our government officials, when we think how we could help the poor in our community. Time when we heal an interpersonal conflict, or a difficult memory from the past. And there is time every day to set down problem solving, to allow our mind to release its contents, and let the clouds drift as we turn our attention to the vast sky that holds them.

If we notice the storm clouds and they need some action on our part, but would be foolish not to close the windows, to get out our umbrella, but once we have done what we can do, we need the rest and spaciousness that comes from remembering that storm clouds come and go, that they are ephemeral and temporary, and that we are something larger and more spacious.

The monk’s life is not easy, but it has real gifts, the gifts of intimacy with your self, with community and with the world. And we are supported in that intimacy by remembering whenever we are able, that holding all those clouds is a vast sky that is always present.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

It's Tradition

I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of this story: the young person is making the holiday meal for the first time, and their parent explains how to prepare the roast for the oven. One must cut a slice off each end before putting it in the roasting pan. Why do we do it that way? They ask. I don’t know, the parent replies, we’ve just always done it that way, it’s how my parent taught me.

When the holiday arrives, and they sit down to the holiday meal with the grandparent, the proud new cook asks the grandparent “why is it that we cut the ends off the roast each holiday?” “Because” replies the grandparent, “we had a small roasting pan, and that’s the only way it would fit.”

This story is a clear example of the wisdom and foolishness of tradition. We wisely cut the roast to fit the pan, but when the pan changes, we keep the tradition that is no longer useful.  

Traditions are an intricate and mysterious web of life hacks. Our winter holiday traditions contain generations of wisdom gathered over decades and centuries from cultures all over the northern hemisphere. How wise to have a celebration to anticipate during the difficult transition to winter. How wise to reach out to family and friends at a time when we might easily become isolated. The blue and white and silver of the Hanukkah tradition reflect the beauty of the winter night sky. The red and green colors draw our attention to the persistent life around us- the green of the evergreen tree, the red of a holly berry. The traditional foods are ones that could be made from local seasonal larders, like the traditional beef brisket and potato latkes, made from the potatoes and onions that most folks could have on hand in the winter. Like the fruit cake that lasted through winters before shrink wrap and refrigeration, long after the fresh fruit of summer and autumn were gone.

In my own family the holiday traditions are an intricate set of family accommodations that have evolved over the years. I grew up in a family that did most of our traditional celebrations early Christmas morning before breakfast. My husband’s family did most of their celebrating Christmas Eve before midnight mass. Now we have to consider things like my Christmas eve work schedule, and a complicated dance of visiting relatives who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s challenging to sort out, but once the traditional holiday dance is working, miraculously meeting all those conflicting calendars and expectations, it tends to continue on its own magical rhythm, until something changes- a marriage, a death, a new child, a new job. One change can throw the whole family tradition into flux, until we find a new balance again.

This is the miracle of cultural traditions, as hundreds of thousands of people try to sync up their collective seasonal spiritual, logistical, emotional and economic needs and desires to observe and celebrate.A good symbol, like the light that does not go out for 8 days, means something to the spirit in a prosperous year, and still has relevance in a year of scarcity. It offers hope when hope is hard to find. It speaks of resilience. Over the thousands of years people have celebrated Hanukkah, those traditions have been touched by generation after generation, smoothed into a shape worn by the touch of ancestors, the warmth and wisdom of each generation adding to its richness.

Thomas Moore, who was a Catholic monk for 12 years before leaving for secular life, writes:

“Traditional rituals and images rise out of an historical fog in which the founders and authorities are more mythological than personal, and in which so many different layers of meaning lie packed together that the sacred literature becomes genuine poetry. .. Tradition is a pool of imagination...”
But the humans and cultures that create those traditions have shadows, and so inevitably our shadows find their way into those traditions too. I agree that our traditions carry a great depth of wisdom, but they also carry our oppressions we never intended. A patriarchal culture tends towards patriarchal traditions, for example.

Or consider the shadow side of cultural hegemony- the American Christmas calendar is so powerful, that it shuts down banks and schools, giving folks a much needed pause to spend time with spirit and with family.

But that machine has been used to fuel consumerism as well, hijacking the traditional wisdom of the winter holidays and cover our screens with images of an empty soul filled with a new car, or with a pile of toys to open. Our superficial, materialistic culture brings a superficial focus to our traditions, eclipsing the true miracle of new life, a miracle that comes to us out of the long nights of waiting, the labor of birth.

The Christian calendar also eclipses the wisdom and traditions of other cultures. No American school will schedule your final exam on Christmas day or on Easter in our Christian culture, but it is not uncommon for folks to have exams, or other secular obligations on the Jewish High Holidays, or during Ramadan. Traditions can be oppressive to folks who find themselves on the margins. If you were listening to Weekend Edition yesterday, you might have heard Jewish Author Arthur Levine talk about feeling “really erased by Christmas” as a child.  Even the most beautiful traditions cast a shadow.

That’s why Unitarian Universalists have always had a complex relationship with tradition. For parts of our history, we have even tried to let go of all traditions; when the chalice lighting was first introduced in our congregations it was met with skeptical resistance, even so innocuous a ritual felt dangerous. I believe, with Thomas Moore, that tradition is not what is dangerous, but the authority it holds.
“Tradition is often confused with institution, yet we could be guided by countless generations of ancestors without becoming oppressed by the words and structures they have left behind. We could be members of an institution without sacrificing our intelligence and our capacity to think and choose.
Tradition is a pool of imagination, and not a basis for authority.”
This sounds like a wise way for us to engage with tradition, that we allow ourselves to be guided by our generations of ancestors, while continuing to think and choose.

This year, when many things will be different, it’s a chance to re-evaluate the traditions, and find those that serve us today. This winter holiday season will not be like last year, but we are not the first generation to observe the winter holidays during a pandemic. We are not the first to observe the holidays during a time of great economic and political stress. Consider the wisdom that both Hanukkah and Christmas ask us to share what we have with folks who are struggling. In the Jewish tradition sharing with those in need is called Tzedakah. Union for Reform Judaism encourages folks on the 6th night of Hanukah:
“On the 6th night of Chanukah, we encourage families to teach their children about the needs of those less fortunate and donate the value of the gifts they would ordinarily exchange (or the gifts themselves) to local or national organizations assisting the poor..”
Or consider the origin of Hanukkah itself- it comes from the need to purify the temple after it was destroyed by King Antiochus IV. The desire to honor tradition as part of healing that devastating loss to the community created a new tradition that now speaks to people of hope, of religious freedom, of light in the darkness.
mask card from https://lafamiliagreen.com/

The changes we are pressed to make to our traditions this year may help shape and add to the wisdom of the traditions we inherited. Maybe years from now some parts of these new traditions will live on. The Christmas masks? The Hanukkah zoom call? Because we are wise too. We will add our wisdom to the centuries of wisdom that have shaped our rituals,

Traditions are like touchstones, made smooth as they have passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. As we hold these traditions in our hands in this very difficult year, we connect back to all those who have struggled with illness, with pandemic, with poverty, with political oppression, with sorrow, with depression. We connect with all those ancestors who have found hope and creativity and affirmed life in difficult times. We know when we enter into these traditions that we are not alone, that we are not the first to pass this way, nor will we be the last. May our wisdom, our choices, our imagination connect us to our children and our children’s children, their struggles and hopes. However you choose to observe the holidays this year, let our traditions be a reminder that we stand in a long line of humanity’s struggles and hopes that holds and supports us in this difficult time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Wise Dark

The sun set yesterday at 4:33, giving us almost 15 hours of night. We are now 2 weeks away from the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Even though we have electric lights and can stay up all night working or playing if we choose, still our psyches and our bodies are affected by the long dark nights. My husband and I were done dinner by 6:00 last week, we both noticed a strong desire to go to bed. We resisted this on principle, of course. But there is a powerful inner urge to curl up with a blanket on the sofa as the nights grow.

To help us consider what makes this time of year special, I’d like to speak of “yin” and “yang” a duality that comes from ancient Chinese philosophy. Yang is the bright, active quality. Our culture loves this yang energy- we love doing, love knowing, love productivity, those active “yang” activities. “Yin” - associated with darkness, the moon, passive, cold, wet -is rarely celebrated in our culture.[i] Our culture is out of balance.

Here at the start of winter we feel like the absence of bright active yang, but in Chinese Philosophy, the Yin and Yang are both needed for the universe to exist. The long dark nights are not merely an absence of sun, they have a subtle quality of their own, special gifts unique to this early winter season, where nights are long and getting longer, Our human bodies, minds and spirits need the long nights at winter solstice as much as we need the long days at the summer solstice.

American teacher Jeanie Zandie speaks about this cultural imbalance, and our need to value Yin. She talks about the moments in the human life cycle that are yin moments; when we are gestating in the womb, when we are toddlers wobbling, when we are healing from illness or injury, when we sleep or rest, when we come to die. In our culture which values Yang so strongly, we tend to devalue those yin times as inefficient, wasteful, keeping us from doing what matters- our active productivity.

But some things can only happen in the dark. Consider a child growing in the womb, being held, surrounded, fed by its parent’s body. It grows without conscious intention. The parent too, while in the process of the great miracle of growing another life, embodies this yin energy. I remember when I was carrying Nick, I was often so tired I couldn’t make it through the workday without a nap. I would look at my book about baby growth, and see “ah, I’m tired today because we are growing lungs.” I noticed that not only was I tired, but my mind was less focused, and I joked “thank goodness growing a new life is an unconscious process- I can’t even remember where I put my keys, how could I be responsible for something so complex as forming a human lung?” Gestation is just one process that requires that dark yin energy to flourish.

Many religious teachings use imagery of moving from darkness toward light, as if light is sacred, and darkness unsavory. Our Unitarian tradition was born out of the enlightenment, rooted in the idea that humans could and should shine the light of reason and science into all the dark corners of our unknowing. This revolutionary new way of understanding the world empowered individuals to know for themselves based on the evidence of their senses. It was a turning point for humanity and our culture, shaping who we are today.

But the more we explored, we also came to understand the limits of our knowing. Jung, in his work with the psyche, along with many other psychologists how shown us the unconscious patterns and processes that inform our actions. Neuroscientists today understand that a large part of human processing happens without our conscious awareness[ii]. Even if we work our whole lives to shine the light of consciousness on the workings of our psyche, there will always be unconscious material. There will always be both yin and Yang.

Starhawk, author, activist, teacher in the Reclaiming tradition, writes in her book The Spiral Dance: “Starlight vision, the “other way of knowing,” is the mode of perception of the unconscious, rather than the conscious mind. The depths of our own beings are not all sunlit; to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.”

This dark time of the year is ideal for such “starlight vision.” At this time of year, when the sun is fully set before dinner, the light is more subtle, and it allows us to see more subtle things. By being quiet and still and listening deeply to ourselves, we notice all sorts of subtle, interior movements, like a feeling of peacefulness, or a settling of all the debris of daily life, of tenderness, of softening towards some old wound or tension. This is the reason many people close their eyes in prayer or meditation, to reduce the visual and auditory nose of our busy cluttered lives. Sometimes we will stop a business meeting and ask “how is everyone doing” and in that pause, folks will notice they feel angry, they feel frustrated, they feel anxious, they feel exhausted. Even big feelings like anger, frustration, anxiety can be hard to notice in the bustle of our activity. But as soon as we pause, they become immediately obvious. Perhaps that is part of what this bustling season is about- we keep busy because we may be afraid of what we will notice, what we will feel if we slow down.

We are a bit afraid of that inner dark I think that yin. But as Starhawk says: ”to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.” The transition from the long bright hot days of summer, to the cool dim velvety nights of winter is challenging every year, for humans and for other living beings, But as our eyes and psyches adjust, there are many beautiful things to see.

Consider the star-lit sky on a clear night. From my back yard in downtown Ithaca, I can see no more than a couple dozen stars on the clearest night. There is just too much human-created light. But I’m told the further one gets from the city, the more stars become visible. Some things are just too subtle to be seen in the full light of sun.

Often we talk about these early December weeks as a time of waiting for the return of the sun. But there is another quality of waiting I’m thinking of this year, like the waiting of an expectant parent, that cannot be rushed, where will and effort are not helpful. Like waiting for a loss or illness to heal. Preserving our energy for the unconscious processes of knitting tissue together or allowing the tears of grief to flow.

This month, as we celebrate the growing darkness, I encourage you to notice its subtle gifts to the psyche, to the spirit, and to our eco-system. Release the urgent striving of the harvest season, be, as poet Wendell Berry says “dark and still.” May you notice the many ways that “the dark, too, blooms and sings.

If you are inspired to take some time for a meditation on the wise yin of darkness, let me recommend this beautiful meditation by Jeannie Zandi


[i] . The philosophy also traditionally ascribes malensss to Yang and femaleness to Yin. but I don’t want to get trapped into a gender binary today- so I am going to talk about the duality without gender, which is a departure from traditional philosophy.

[ii] In a current text on the topic, Gozyaniga, Ivry and Mangren report that “The vast staging for our mental activities happens largely without our monitoring.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Humanist Practice for the Holidays

 As we approach the dark of winter, our practices are more important than ever; they keep us grounded and keep us pointed in the right direction in a quixotic world.

In the humanist tradition, our practices are grounded in the life around us in the present moment. Humanism strives to building a future that is ethical and just for all, that draws out the human capacities for goodness and helps us realize our own gifts in service to the interconnected web of life of which we are a part. This practice is about remembering what is truly important to you.

My ongoing touchstone space

Creating Your Touchstone Space:

  • Find a place in your home that can be undisturbed by cats or other roommates throughout the season.
    • Using your own aesthetic sense, do something to remind yourself that this is a special, set aside place. That might mean taking a cloth and polishing the space, or it might mean finding a scarf, doily, place-mat that you enjoy to mark the spot. It can be a simple or flamboyant as feels good to you right now.
    • Take a moment while the space is empty to think of what values and qualities you want to be reminded of this winter. Compassion? Truth? The scientific method? Democracy? Love? Make a list either in your mind or on paper.
  • One at a time, choose an item that reminds you of those qualities from around your home and place it in the space you have chosen. Items can be as mundane as a calculator that reminds you of reason, or a photo of a loved one to reminds you of compassion. It can be an object you already have, one you search for on a walk outside, or a word or image you draw on a card or slip of paper.
    • Take a moment to think of how you feel when you are really grounded in yourself, when you feel strong. Chose an object to remind you of that feeling of inner strength.
    • Remember where you get support when you don’t feel strong. Chose an object to remind you where you have experienced that support in the past.
    • Think of someone (a living being, a community) whom you know needs support, and add an object to keep them in your mind and heart. Maybe an object from the gift bag to remind you of your community?
    • What about words? Consider including a Favorite poem, prayer, or just write a word on paper.
    • Be sure to add some things that delight your senses. If you like things simple, enjoy the simplicity. If you want to add seasonal decorations, or a sprinkling of sequins, add something that draws your eye to this special place.
  • Next, Check for balance and harmony. Does it seem too heavy? Lopsided? Move things around, add, change, remove until it has a unified feeling as a whole.
A temporary space from spring of 2020

Throughout the season:
From time to time take a moment to stop at your touchstone place, and notice if there is something that catches your eye, or something you want to remember. Take a moment to hold the object in your hand- (we remember best when multiple senses are engaged). As the season progresses, notice, is there anything you would add, change, remove?

When the season Ends:
Take a moment with each object to remember why you added it, and notice if anything has changed or shifted in you or in the world since that time. Perhaps say a statement of gratitude as you feel moved, remembering that science tells us gratitude is good medicine. Return the objects to their usual places, knowing they will hold the power of memory wherever they are.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A Very Covid Thanksgiving


Friends, I suspect that the upcoming holidays are going to be a challenge for many of us. With Covid cases at a sharp incline many places around the country, Thanksgiving is bound to feel different than in ordinary years. Whether or not we feel we can “celebrate” thanksgiving this year, I would encourage you to “observe” the holiday.

So much in our lives has been disrupted that it can be disorienting. Just this week, several people told me they missed meetings because they “forgot what day it was.” If we are sheltering at home most days, they all can begin to run together. I believe this is one of the reasons we have holidays- to orient us in the year, and to create a contrast to our strange new “ordinary” days.

My own family has decided we will not travel this season. We are going to observe the holiday in our own households. I have no small amount of sadness about that- but I know that we forego being together in person this year so that we can celebrate together next year. Surely this strange thanksgiving of 2020 will stand out in our memories in years to come. Since the holiday will not be usual, we can’t count on the usual landmarks of the day, whatever they may be for your family. So I encourage you to proactively make a plan for how you will observe this very strange Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, we can be creative with our observances- while we respect tradition, we know that humans created those traditions and so we are empowered to make new ones. Maybe you will still dress in your holiday finest and sit down to Turkey dinner for one, or however many are in your household. Perhaps you’ll set your phone or computer at the other end of the table and share pumpkin pie with a friend or relative through video magic. Doesn’t feel right? Perhaps instead you will stay in your pajamas all day, order a pizza and watch a Star Trek marathon, enjoy the autumn day walking outside, or fold 1000 paper cranes. Here are some usual parts of a holiday observance to consider:

  • Food: What food would feel special or comforting, decadent or healing?
  • Dress: Is there something fun you don’t usually wear that might be fun or meaningful?
  • Connecting: it is particularly important that we reach out to one another. Bring to mind folks who would make you feel better if you were sad, who would be fun to connect with if you were ready for fun. Bring to mind folks who might be lonely and would appreciate a call, text, video chat or letter from you.
  • Decorating: Is there some way you’d like to change the space where you will spend Thanksgiving? You could bring in leaves and pinecones from the outside, or get out Gramma’s special occasion tablecloth, or make a blanket fort in the living room.
  • Giving: Many observances are marked by finding ways to give. Donate money online or by check. Take a box of food to the local food pantry. Drop packages of pumpkin cookies on the porches of your neighbors and run away giggling.
  • History: the American Thanksgiving story we were taught in school does not acknowledge the painful and oppressive reality of the Indigenous peoples who lived on this land for thousands of years before colonists arrived. This day is observed as a Day of Mourning for many indigenous people. Consider taking some time to learn more about history, perhaps even joining into the UU Teach In on the subject.
  • Gratitude: Scientists tell us that taking just a few minutes to call to mind things you are grateful for is good for both physical and mental health. Start small- food to eat, a roof over your head,  people you care about who care about you…

When the holidays finally come, hold your plans loosely. Sometimes the thing we thought would make us giggle makes us sad. If you had meant to be solemn and mournful and find yourself giggling so be it. Give authority to the present moment. There are a lot of feelings to feel this year. Allow yourself permission to drop your plan and call a friend, take a walk, take a nap, and give yourself time to process whatever arises for you.

Blessings for your Holiday Observance.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A LIberating Faith

 What gives us the strength, patience and courage to do hard things? We choose to do hard things, we endure hard things because they fit into our sense of what is right, our sense of what is possible. I’ve got a little scar on my arm from the smallpox vaccine, and I'm sure I cried and kicked when I got that vaccine, but from 1958 to 1977, enough people in the world got that vaccine that smallpox is now gone, making it the only human disease to be eradicated. Today’s children don’t have to get that vaccinated, because enough people did that hard thing because they believed that action would spare themselves and their children from getting that terrible disease. We imagined a world without smallpox, we believed it was a worthwhile goal, and the whole world united in that common purpose we ended what used to be a source of great human suffering.

Underneath the will to do a hard thing are our beliefs about who we are and what is possible. Right now, our country, our denomination, and our congregation are doing the hard work of racial justice. Working to end the oppression of transgender persons, of disabled persons. Why do we do it? Because we believe it is necessary, we believe it is the work of compassion, and we believe it is possible.

In 2017 our denomination was called to accountability by Unitarian Universalists of color to root out the structures of oppression inside our own organizations contained. We UUs have been working on this a long time, but it seems that whatever we were doing was like pruning the weeds back in a garden, instead of getting at the root of the problem. So we convened a national group called the “Commission on institutional change” to help us get at the root of the matter. Their report was published this past summer. There’s a lot of interesting things in there, and it’s well written, I’d encourage you to read it. One of the recommendations that surprised me most, was the need for us to focus on liberating theologies. That all UUs need to know, in a deep way, that working to end oppression arises directly from the root of what we believe, and who we are.

“We need to articulate a theology of liberation, experimentation and innovation grounded in our UU principles and sources of inspiration. Developing a shared theology that centers on helping to unearth, manifest and point the way toward liberation along with experimentation that strives for our collective flourishing. This theology will also call us to be accountable to the legacies of our past deeds and to work for an equitable future. This will lay the ground work for our work around truth, transformation and reparations.” P. 16
The phrase “liberation theology” comes from a grassroots movement in Latin America in the 1960s in a time of crushing poverty, social injustice and violence. Liberation theology arose in a Catholic context, in “base communities”- small church groups gathered to help meet basic needs like food and water, and to study the bible to search for meaning – specific, particular meaning about what it meant to be poor in Latin American in that historic moment. The Base Communities looked for themselves in the scripture and found that there were plenty of examples of God’s compassion for the oppressed. Over and over again, especially in the books of the prophets, we find examples calling out oppressive behavior as unethical. Out of this community study grew a Liberation Theology in which the God of the Judeo Christian Scriptures wants freedom for all of us, notices the cries of the oppressed, and is moved by them. Liberation theology honors the specific wisdom of the poor and their relationship with the divine. This theological spark made its way around the world to folks everywhere grappling with oppression.

The Moses story is one story where oppressed peoples can easily find themselves. It’s a story that has spoken to our spirits over thousands of years. The importance and power of that story is why it is told every year in the Jewish Passover celebration, is why it is found in the gospel and Spiritual musical traditions, speaking to black Americans across the centuries- a story of how freedom is possible against impossible odds. We don’t really know what story Rosa Parks was thinking of as she did that hard thing back in 1955, (as today’s children’s story imagined) but we know the Moses story has inspired oppressed peoples in many ages, and that as people marched for Civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the story was in the music of the movement, and in the sermons and the grassroots gatherings of the civil rights movement.

When you feel called to do hard things -- to face oppression in our own life, or co-conspire dismantle systems of oppressions for others, what story is in your heart?

There are other stories that also have great power in our culture. For centuries scripture and religious teachings have been used to encourage the oppressed to accept their lot in life, to practice forbearance and patience, a kind of quietism that discourages revolution and uprising. Religious authorities have used those same scriptures to argue that God wanted slavery, because it appeared in the bible, to argue that slavery was the natural order of things.

Some teach that God, or karma, rewarded some worthy with an easy life, and oppressive those unworthy. I hear talk like this on the news these days more than I ever have before- that some lives are just worth more than others. And we see how those beliefs are turned into oppressive laws, policies and structures.

It matters what we believe. And UUs must notice and name the beliefs that allow systems of oppression to flourish. It’s a common mistake to say that “UUs can believe whatever they want” because we believe that every life has inherent worth and dignity and some beliefs, stories and actions clash with those principles. We are called as individuals and as a movement to make sure our beliefs and values more and more come into alignment with our lives. Clarifying our beliefs is an important part of that process

As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition draws from many sources, including:

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • ·Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Whether or not any one of us come from the Jewish or Christian traditions, we are encouraged to learn from that wisdom. Some will look at the story of Moses, and see a powerful story of liberation, seeing the miracles and plagues as metaphors for the obstacles all of us face as individuals and collectively on the road to freedom. Others UUs look at stories of miracles and plagues and feel a clash with our belief in the importance of reason, and the use of the scientific method. We need liberatory theologies that hold all of us, Theist, Atheist and Agnostic. While we can look for inspiration in the liberatory theologies of the world religions, it is time for us to articulate our own liberatory theologies.

When we read in the writings of the great Black liberation theologian James Cone that “The God of the biblical tradition is not uninvolved or neutral regarding human affairs; God is decidedly involved. God is active in human history, taking sides with the oppressed of the land. [5]” We UUs feel all kinds of ways about the idea of a God who is active in history. But Cone was a powerful voice in his own context, and we need to be careful to honor the context and the tradition in which he wrote. As a white person, raised outside the Christian tradition, I try to be conscious of my own context, not appropriate the stories, songs and cultural traditions of the very peoples with whom I am co-conspiring for liberation. We carefully honor the wisdom of those traditions in our UU sources with respect, and within the context of their particular history and present moment. Which is why we UUs are being called to “articulate a theology of liberation” drawing from our own theological roots, speaking a language that is authentic to us. We need our own theology, or own language, symbols and stories to support our work for liberation.

Consider our UU principles; the first calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That’s a good foundation on which to build. Folks ask, isn’t that enough? How could racism or transphobia or ableism exist inside a paradigm where every person has worth and dignity? Yet we know, from the stories of people who are part of our UU movement, that all those oppressions continue to exist in our denomination. Because they are not superficial, these oppressions, they have deep roots in history and culture, and their roots pervade the soil in which our garden grows. Somehow we need a theology that makes acting to dismantle those oppressive structures, that makes pulling up those roots natural and inevitable. The word liberation has a call to motion in it. To do the hard work that needs to be done, our belief must be in a verb that overcomes quietism. This is why many churches have signed on to an 8th principle: ”journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” There are some good verbs in there: journeying, building, dismantling. Articulating our own liberatory theologies is about drawing down deep into our roots -- our history and traditions – and from that reserve of nourishment and wisdom, creating new growth that will allow us to flower into an anti oppressive world.

Our 7th principle is also a nourishing root of our tradition- “the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.” – This principle helps us remember that we are not talking about an individual struggle for the liberation of that person. Instead we notice that these oppressions are collective- they are also a web, woven through culture and history and our structures of power. This principle also gives us hope that our actions impact one another. That what we do here in our community tugs and pulls in other parts of the web, and that we don’t do this work alone.

Right now, at this moment in history, there is no question that we are being called to do many hard things, none harder than pulling out the roots of oppression so that liberation can flourish. We’ve been at this for a long time- UUs fought to end slavery, provided havens on the underground railroad, marched on Selma in the Civil Rights movement. Let us put into words the beliefs and values that supported us then, and will support us now. Let us reach down together into our roots and find there what we need for the liberating work ahead.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


 I want to tell you about a plant friend of mine. It was a little succulent I got last fall and over the winter grew so big and beautiful, that I had to repot it in a bigger pot this summer. When a squirrel knocked it over, I wasn’t too worried. I repotted the biggest part in a fresh new pot with plenty of room, and I took the smaller parts that had broken off and started them fresh in their own pot. I knew that when Succulents break, they have great resilience to start again.

The word resilience means to rebound, to bounce back, like when you bounce a ball. The ball deforms when it hits the ground, absorbing the energy of the drop or throw, but then it releases that energy, and bounces back into its original form. But living, growing things, like my plant friend, change and they don’t change back. The need to find a new form that adapts to changing conditions. When we talk about resilience, we think of something elastic like a ball, like a tree bending and swaying with the force of the wind. But Succulents deal with that force by breaking cleanly and easily, to reduce damage to the main plant. They have evolved to turn that breakage into a form of reproduction and are good at growing new roots wherever the broken pieces fall. 

But the squirrels weren’t done with their mischief yet, just a few weeks later I found this guy had fallen 6 feet and crashed on the ground. It must have lain there for a while, because a slug had found it and had taken big bites out of the leaves. It broke my plant lover’s heart to see a little plant, barely acclimated to it’s new pot, meeting with misfortune after misfortune.

When a plant has been through that much trauma, it seems like they go into shock for a bit. I notice they just stop growing for some period of time, perhaps orienting to their new reality, perhaps waiting to see what fresh mischief the squirrels and slugs may wreck, not wanting to use up precious resources until the coast is clear. It takes some time just to stabilize itself. Sometimes the outer leaves will die back.

This aloe was knocked over by the  the squirrels at my neighbor’s house knocked over. I’m nursing it back to health for her.You can see in this first photo,how these leaves are turning brown, and losing their plumpness. Plants have the power to move resources around, to let a leaf or branch die if there is just too much plant to maintain. When it does start regrowing, many plants put all their resources into regrowing roots, already rebounding before we can see any evidence. But soon enough the leaf closest to the core on a succulent fills in with plump green life, (hopefully you can see that in the second photo) ready to try again, carefully and cautiously, needing to grow without using up all their reserves.

 Other plants are resilient in different ways. Some plants will begin to frantically flower and reproduce when trampled, others will use their reserves to put on rapid growth. All living things are resilient, but not in the same way. Which is good. I wonder if you can remember a time in your own life when you have bounced back, remember what resilience looks like in your own life?

Right now I am hearing from my queer friends that they are exhausted. They are afraid that their marriages will be invalidated. Nonbinary friends are afraid that they will lose protections for their safety, for their jobs. I hear people of color saying they are demoralized that white people keep voting for candidates who actively support racist structures, or more overt racism.

So if you are a person with privilege, it’s time for us to step up. People with marginalized identities are exhausted. Immune compromised people need us. Over the coming days and weeks, look around you for the people who seem deflated, who are scared, who need to pull in their energy to regrow their roots.

Nkem Ndefo, creator of the Resilience Toolkit, has spent much of her career working with “distressed populations including IV drug users and youth in foster care” [i] finding ways to help people be more resilient. She is concerned about the focus on individual resilience. Our society asks too much resilience of individuals; the system puts more and more stress on folks, more stress than a person should have to bear, sometimes more stress than a person can bear. Systemic forces put an unequal amount of pressure on some bodies, some spirits. Resilience must be collective when there are collective problems. It is up to us to change the system so that no one is under more pressure than they can bear, than they can rebound from.

Nkem Ndefo cautions; “We build this reservoir, this big wide lake of flexible strength, this capacity, and we use this capacity to change the conditions of adversity, to a system that doesn’t demand so much resilience. It’s nice to have, but that you shouldn’t always have to be digging into that pot.” (ends 26’23”)

Metaphorically speaking, just as no plant can survive in a squirrel superhighway, especially if they have been inappropriately planted in a pot with a narrow base. A broken and trampled living being needs time and a safe place to grow a new wholeness for themself, to bounce, maybe not back, but forward into fullness.

Life is tremendously resilient. I use my poor little plant as concrete proof that resilience is a great gift of living things. That’s why I talk about plants so often in worship, because when it can be hard to believe in something like resilience, it helps to see with our own eyes these ordinary miracles -- a ball spring back into its fullness, a plant turning broken pieces into a new and growing shape. If plants don’t speak to you, look all around and you will see life’s resilience. Now is the time to nurture our own resilience, as individuals, as a community, restoring our wholeness for the journey ahead.