Thursday, September 20, 2018

Finding Our Way

The Way It Is by William Stafford
 There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


I’m really honored to be joining you today for my first Sunday as your new Consulting Minister. I grew up UU, and was a student for the UU ministry back in my 20s, so over the decades, I’ve been to a lot of General Assemblies, and District Assemblies, and Ministerial Conference’s. And one thing you can count on when you go to big gatherings of Unitarian Universalists, there is always buzz about the future of our movement. Together we try to cast a vision of who we are becoming, of who we are called to be. One of my favorite presenters at such events is Galen Guengerich who serves the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. They have over 1000 members and three full time ministers. Whenever Galen gives a workshop at GA it is going to be cutting edge. There might be a full jazz ensemble providing meditative interludes. There is certainly a high tech AV system, so that when he wants to references something from popular culture, he pushes some magic button and there is perfect cinema quality music and sound, seamlessly integrated into his presentation.

Sometimes at these national events where large abundantly-staffed congregations take the lead, it’s easy to feel left behind. We are told that if we are not skillful about our presence on twitter and Facebook, we won’t appeal to a younger populous, that if we don’t use sophisticated technology, and current popular music in our worship, the millennial generation won’t feel at home. We begin to wonder if our low-tech churches are relics of a time past.

When I was a very little girl participating in the town Easter egg hunt for the first time I found the whole experience kind of overwhelming and confusing. After 5 minutes of chaos the hunt was over and I returned to my mom, probably crying, holding my basket with only one egg, Mom told me this story, which has been almost archetypal for me ever since. She said “When that crowd of children headed left, you headed right. There you were alone with dozens of eggs, but when you looked up and saw where the other kids were, you left the eggs and followed the crowd. Of course by the time you got there, all the eggs were gone, and when you came back to where you started, all those eggs were gone too. If you had just stayed where you were, you would have a basket full of eggs right now.”

I have been mulling over that story ever since. When I realize that I have been separated from the crowd, I try to ask not “how can I get back into the crowd?” but “where are the eggs around me, right now, that only I can reach?”

For the past 11 years I’ve been serving congregations that have a lot in common with the UU Church of Cortland; family size congregations who can’t afford a full time minister …or any full time staff at all really. For the past 10 years I’ve been the settled minister for the UU Church of Athens and Sheshequin which is, like Cortland, a historic Universalist church in a beloved historic building, although UUCAS was not founded until 1808, so you are a full 5 years older. I want to reassure you that this morning’s sermon is not a challenge to keep up with the crowd, to have high resolution visuals in your sanctuary or to design an App for the congregation that works with the latest smartphones. You already receive plenty of encouragement from our culture to move in that direction. Instead, let’s look at the eggs hiding around us right now.

First, let’s start with what it means to be a family sized church. I don’t have to tell you the challenges of being a small church- we live those each week. But I want to remind us of the special gift of the small church, which is relational-ity. Anyone who has ever gone to a large church knows that sometimes it can be a lonely experience. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt lonely at a family sized church. The very first time I went to UUCAS as a guest preacher their friendliness shone and I felt welcome. I hope that is how it was for you when you first came here. There is no chance of getting lost in the crowd in a family sized church, we know each other and we know each other’s lives. We open our hearts to newcomers and visitors. Younger generations have a lot to teach us about the rapidly evolving web of social media, but people of every age will always want a place in the physical world where they can be with people they know and trust, and where they can meet new people in a web of community.

There are other hidden gifts of being small. I hear story after story from colleagues at larger institutions about how hard it is to maintain a large salaried staff. At General Assembly a speaker referenced with a nervous laugh the emerging trend that more and more ministers will be piecing together part time and multi-site ministries. I thought to myself- well on this one at least we are ahead of the curve! When the Alban institution closed after decades of being leaders in church life, a journalist theorized that we are headed into a time when many such institutions will be closing because they have an infrastructure that is unsustainable. One thing I suspect Cortland and UUCAS have in common is that we have always used our money carefully, staying lean. We don’t confuse the success of our shared ministry with the trappings of monetary success. It’s easy to look longingly at churches with full time youth ministers and a state of the art AV system for seamless video content in worship. But when the crash happened, UUCAS had a lean infra-structure, and no debit, and a board that understood the importance of stewarding its resources carefully to keep our institution sustainable.

Our small size also makes us nimble. Before I served in Athens, I served a church of about 400 in Palo Alto, California where even after 2 years of meetings we could not begin to imagine how we could make our vision of composting church food scraps into a reality. So when I first preached at Athens, I was amazed to see a composting center, and had to find out how that had come to pass. Turns out, the children were painting compost buckets for a Sunday School lesson, and one of our members bought an extra one for the church. Now members take the scraps home whenever the bucket is used, and so composting happens.

Here’s another example: My first year as the minister in Athens a parent asked me if I could create a coming of age program for his daughter. I had been running Coming of Age programs every year or two for a decade at the various congregations I had served, and I told I’d be happy to design a program for his daughter to do by herself. Bur miraculously when we created the program, all those teenagers who’d stopped coming to church when they aged out of RE came back for Coming of Age, and teens at the Fellowship in Big Flats wanted to participate too. Both congregations jumped in to support it. It was important to the young UUs who came of age, and it was powerful to me.

Now that doesn’t mean anything we want will just happen. The following year we had no teens at all most Sundays. There was no force of will that would have made a Coming of Age program happen. It would have been like a Fish trying to go adventuring on land. Neither Athens nor Big Flats are congregations where we can promise families that every week there will be a Sunday school class for each grade level, but whenever we have a critical mass of teens, we offer coming of Age to the folks who are ready …it’s starting to look like next year may be one of those magical Coming of Age years again.

Because we are nimble we are able to respond as the moment unfolds to the needs and gifts of our community. In 2011 a flood immobilized the Penn York Valley, where the Athens congregation is located. The rains came down hard on Thursday, and by the time the streets were clear on Saturday we had to pass through a National Guard checkpoint on the way to the church to assess and repair the damage. Volunteers filled the parking lot sanitizing and drying the contents of our basement. Sunday we worshiped without power, without potable water. At coffee hour, two members wondered how we could be of more help to our neighbors. We held an emergency board meeting, and decided to open our building to folks who just needed to use a restroom, or a clean place to rest. The next day we began serving a hot lunch and all were welcome to join us in the social hall. Other volunteers delivered sandwiches to people who didn’t want to leave their work salvaging their homes or businesses. For weeks we fed and cared for our neighbors until the crowds died down, and our work helping repair the damage of the flood continued in other ways.

Another gift of this church is our location. Both Cortland and Athens are situated in the historic downtown of rural cities which have significant economic struggles. And while there are many challenges that come with that, there are abundant opportunities for ministry. I don’t yet know what that might mean here in Cortland, so in the coming months I’m counting on you to teach me. Each community is unique, with particular needs and gifts. When I ask my colleagues for advice about working in the community where UUCAS is located, I often I get advice like “you should connect with the local GLBT community center” and I think, well, I guess that’s us. “Why don’t you work with the local interfaith group?” I guess that’s us too. “What about a local humanist group.” That’s DEFINITELY us. The Penn-York Valley is what you might call an “underserved community.” The Valley NEEDS us. Folks from the valley reach out to me to marry them when they don’t know where else to go. Can I marry GLBT folks? Of course. Atheists? Naturally. Whether or not our small congregations could ever grow large enough for a full time staff, we have an important ministry in our communities. We are needed here.

That, already, is a field of eggs wider than we can ever gather in –even with all 16 members of UUCC working diligently together. So which eggs will we gather? The Anglo Saxon tradition says that each of us has a Wyrd, formed in our unique intersection of nature and nurture, of time and place. Our Wyrd, like that thread in the poem by William Stafford, is hard for others to see. Sometimes it’s hard even for us to see in the chaotic web of culture and life. So how do we discern our Wyrd, our own unique path? One strand has to be our unique Universalist history and theology. That’s what makes us different from the Food bank of the Southern Tier, or the United Way. Karl Rahner, the famous catholic theologian who influenced Vatican 2 said “Christians in the coming age must all become mystics or be nothing at all.” One of the teachers in my Spiritual Direction Training, Don Bisson, interpreted Rahner’s statement this way: “the future of the church-- if the church is going to have a future-- is how do we initiate men and women into the universal call to holiness and union with God because that’s where the world would change. Not on what denomination you belong to, or whether you are Christian or not Christian, the transformation of the world is dependent on our call to holiness.”

Rahner is saying a very Universalist thing here. He is saying that spirituality must either be at the core of who we are as a church, or we may as well close our doors. For all the folks who check off “none” on surveys about religion it is not obvious why they would want to support the Unitarian Universalist tradition or any other tradition. But the soul hunger for the depth of life, that is universal. And the capacity to seek and find that depth-- Universalists believe that this is the right and potential of each and every person. The first source of our UU tradition is: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” In other words, mysticism. This is the single most important thing we can offer the world direct experience of the forces which create and uphold life. Which renew our spirit.

Rahner calls this “union with God.” But we know that not all UUs, nor all those in the wider community who are spiritually hungry are comfortable with the word “God”, so let’s switch gears a bit and look at this from the psychological perspective. Don continued “We get lost if we don’t experience something deeper in us than just our superficial ego needs. We get lost. This is what Jung called soul murder.”

There is no App to feed our spiritual hunger. It is not Facebook that brings us back to the deeper self when we are lost. The reason I like, for example, to sit and hear Galen’s talks is not because of how his beautiful technology (okay, maybe a little. It is pretty cool) but it is because he has a message worth hearing. And you, you left your home this morning not because you knew everyone would be tweeting about today’s service, not because we have so many followers on YouTube, but because you wanted to experience something directly- you wanted to connect with other people, face to face, you wanted to connect with something deeper inside yourself. You wanted to connect something bigger, larger, wider --the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. And from that place of holiness, from there we can transform the world.

I believe that far from living in a time when these old Universalist churches are a historic remnant, these crossroads where our churches were planted over a century ago are filled with ministry that is calling out to us- filled with Easter eggs, if you will. The need for our Universalist tradition and for our beloved communities is so great, that an equally great discernment is needed. We have to be willing let go of everything we “should be doing” --all those ideas we hear at conferences, the ministries we witness at other churches, in order to hear our own destiny. Sometimes we need the courage to take our eyes off the crowd, to follow the thread of ministry right here where we are. This is at the core of why we gather in our UU tradition, to listen for and know our own thread, to see and know the thread we hold together as a community. When you feel lost remember, there is a thread you follow. There is a thread we follow, together.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Getting out of Our Bubbles

Like the warrior women who live on Themyscira, birthplace of Wonder Woman, we all live in a bubble, though it’s rarely as obvious or literal as the bubble of protection that shields them not only from harm, but also from all knowledge of the outside world. When army pilot Steve Trevor crashes through the bubble, the community has to decide- do they ignore the new information he brings from the wider world? Or do they act? It’s our hero, Diana, who decides her calling as a warrior is to serve, and to do so she leaves the only world she has ever. It is only when she leaves the protection of her sheltered world that Diana fulfills her calling and begins to understand the true scope of her powers.

Yes, each of us lives in a bubble. Each morning on my walk to yoga I see the same trees, the same construction projects, and I see many of the same faces in my 7:30 yoga class. When I sit down at my computer, Facebook and Google reflect back to me the small slice of the world I already know, and when I walk my dog at lunch, I see only that one other dog owner who walks their dog at lunchtime. You would think, in fact, that there were no other dogs living in the neighborhood, but the smallest change can stretch my bubble- if I walk the dog a couple hours later, I encounter are dogs and people I had no idea lived in my neighborhood.

Why does it matter? First of all it can be fun. It’s fun to meet a new dog, to make a new friend. It’s fun to find a new author, or new cuisine. When life feels stuck and stuffy, chances are we’ve spent too much time in our bubble. There’s a huge wide world out there of new things to try and learn.

Second it teaches us something about ourselves -- our own culture, our own bubble. In my own bubble I am like the fish who doesn’t know what it means to be wet, because wet is only a normal inevitable state, the only state he has experienced. I grew up culturally Christian, so I’ve been listening to a podcast called “See something, Say something” about being Muslim in America. It’s written by Muslims for Muslims, not for me and my bubble. Listening to podcasts during Ramadan has given me a peak into a different bubble -- what is it like to be the only kid in your junior high school fasting during Ramadan? What is it like in a high school with a larger Muslim continent who get their own space in the gym during lunch when they are fasting? What are the logistics of a working person getting up before dawn to eat, and trying to work a full day alongside co-workers who are not fasting? As I peer outside my own bubble I am invited to notice that I am part of a religious tradition that has no required fasting; in fact our tradition does not really ask us to face any physical hardship, and does not emphasize restraint. What’s up with that? What are the lessons Muslims are embodying during Ramadan that UUs are missing? Or consider that UUs have a lot of different relationships to Christmas, but most of us get the day off regardless. No one in Pennsylvania would think to schedule your biology final on Christmas Day, but most wouldn’t think twice about scheduling an exam during Ramadan, or Yom Kippur .

Getting out of your bubble from time to time is probably good for everyone, but I would argue that it is particularly important for those of us who occupy a place of privilege. Last year’s summer read was a book called Waking up White which really helped me see the shape of the bubble I live in called “white culture.” For example, in the white culture I was raised in, I was taught that it’s not polite to talk about race. In one of the author’s college classes she was asked to fill out a survey asking “how often do you talk about race with your family and friends” she chose “a couple of times a year.” she was amazed when a young black woman in her class responded “I couldn’t believe it when I found out white people don’t talk about race very day. I thought everybody talked about race very day. Not talk about it? How can you not talk about it?” [p. 101] If Debbie had not intentionally tried to go outside her bubble, she could have spent her whole life thinking that everyone agreed talking about race was rude, she might never have realized that actually this rule was one of the forces holding her bubble in place, the bubble of white culture, and that outside her bubble other rules applied. Because white culture is the central, privileged culture in our society, the culture of a majority of law makers, judges, teachers, doctors, and UU ministers, if we don’t take time to get out of our bubble, we might never know that things that seem “normal” to us are just one bubble in a sky full of bubbles, and we might never know the effect our culture, our actions are having on folks who don’t live in our bubble.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been listening to a podcast called “Code Switch.” The term “code switch” describes the requirement that to survive outside your own bubble, you need to quickly and fluidly switch from, for example, the norms of your own home to the norms of your workplace or school. Because white culture is dominant in America, the culture in my home, in my yoga studio, in my grocery store, is pretty similar to the culture at my workplace and at my son’s school. When I interact with people from another bubble inside my bubble, most likely they will be code-switching, adapting to my culture. To get a true glimpse outside my own bubble, it won’t be as illuminating to invite people into my bubble, I need to visit theirs: listening to, reading, visiting a space where I am in the minority, where I don’t have any authority or power, where people feel safe to be themselves allows me to glimpse the limits of my own bubble, and peer into other cultural worlds.

As people of privilege, we face a similar choice the heroes in this year’s blockbuster film Black Panther. Their central dilemma is whether to keep their gifts hidden, or share them in service to the world. But we have to be careful with this; white supremacy culture is infused with paternalism -- the thinking that “I know best for you”. For centuries, white supremacy culture has assumed that its ways would work just the same outside their bubble as it did inside. Our disregard for the values and wisdom of local cultures and ecosystems has often produced disastrous effects from invasive plants, to desertification, to the cultural genocide of native peoples[i].

So how do we respectfully get out of our bubbles? When we boldly leave the confines of our own bubble, we enter someone else’s space, like a house guest in a new home. We follow the local rules and conventions. For example, Wiccan teacher and activist Star Hawk writes in her blog:
“In our own communities, we have a lifetime to absorb the norms and adapt to them. But when we move into a different culture, we may not even recognize what the norms are nor be aware that we are violating them. I once attended an Ohlone ceremony and was blithely singing along with the chants in my high soprano. Had not another white woman tipped me off, I would never have guessed that in that culture, singing an octave above everyone else is considered rude and insulting.”[ii]
At some level it comes down to remembering it’s not all about us. In our own bubble we are at the center, but just as I am not the center of my cousin’s wedding, we are called to de-center ourselves when we witness or participate in someone else’s culture. When the movie Black Panther premiered, it was an important event for my family, as we always go to see new Marvel movies opening week, but it was an even more important event for the Black community. It would have been easy to experience the movie with my own as a Marvel fan at the center, but I also wanted to know how folks outside my white bubble were experiencing and creating meaning from the event. My son and I listened to the full 2 hours a podcast called “Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood” in which very funny men of color explained in great detail their experience of and response to the movie. It was not a very bold endeavor, but it gave us a chance to de-center our experience and peer into a different bubble. Although we had all seen the same movie, the commentators used slang I didn’t know, used references I didn’t know, discussed cultural norms I didn’t know. If I had seen the premier in one of the theaters these guys went to, instead of in my home theater in Ithaca, I imagine I would have felt like a fish out of water. But if you are trying to get out of your bubble, that’s the point -- catching a glimpse of a world where you are not at the center. One of the characteristics of white privilege is that we swim in a culture that assumes that it is right and good for white people to be at the center, for white values and cultural norms to be dominant and that white culture is “normal. So each time we allow ourselves to be a fish out of water, we are challenging that aspect of white supremacy culture.

When we venture outside our bubble, we learn that our bubble is not what everyone’s bubble looks like, that our bubble is not normative. This is hugely important, because difference exists, and difference matters. It matters especially in situations where some folks are making decisions that affect other folks. If we think our experience is universal, we are going to participate in co-creating a reality that is a bad fit for many. As we visit other bubbles we begin to learn how to be a better guest. Cis-gender folks learn  to use the preferred pronouns of our gender-queer friends. Culturally Christian folks could learn not to hold a lunch meeting with your friend who’s observing Ramadan, or white folks who value informality might learn that dressing up is a sign of respect when going to a Black Panther premier. We also learn to be curious about our own culture -- how we usually use pronouns, what we usually wear to a movie premier. We learn that we are making choices. And eventually we gain confidence being a fish out of water; we learn how to notice local etiquette and cultural norms, how to be a good guest.

We live at a time when we are encouraged to put a lot of energy into strengthening the walls of our bubbles, but now more than ever there must be some who are called to make their own bubble permeable enough to allow in new information, new experiences and new ideas. Like Wonder Woman and the people of Wakanda, I think the Unitarian Universalists are being called to leave the shelter of our own bubbles, to explore bravely outside our bubbles, and to learn how we are called to serve.


[i] https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/chapter-7/cultural-genocide
[ii] http://starhawk.org/blog/page/5/

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Fusion Pride

June was chosen as “Pride month” in honor of the June 28, 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan - a “tipping point” for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States.

The first pride marches were held the following year in Los Angeles, in Chicago, and a big week long celebration in New York City. But these marches took on a unique character. The parades became a critique of heteronormative and 'straight' culture. These parades became a place where gay culture was normalized, out of the closet and into the streets. 

I’d grown up on the east coast, where folks hardly ever talked about such things, so when I moved to the Bay Area to attend seminary, my first semester I took a class called “LGBT Spiritualties” where I learned that people like me, who are attracted to both men and women, are called “bisexual.” (the “B” in LGBT). A friend who identified as Bi asked if I wanted to go to the San Francisco Pride Parade. Now I had attended the modest pride events in Baltimore but I’d heard about the massive Pride Parades in San Francisco, talked about with almost mythological reverence. I asked “are bi people allowed to go to that?” Yes! she said confidently. In fact, Brenda Howard, known as the "Mother of Pride", was Bi. As LGBT rights activist Tom Limoncelli put it, "The next time someone asks you why LGBT Pride marches exist or why [LGBT] Pride Month is June tell them 'A bisexual woman named Brenda Howard thought it should be.'"

My friend and I arrived in time for the start of the parade, but since we hadn’t gotten up at the crack of dawn to put out chairs and claim our spot, it was hard for me, short as I am, to find a spot where I could see. We finally found a spot where we could see over the heads of parade viewers through the chain-link fence as this magnificent display of LGBT pride marched by. I realized the section we were standing behind was reserved for folks in wheelchairs and their partners. As the tears began to roll down my face, what moved me the most was not only the bravery of folks publicly outing themselves with such joy and flair in solidarity at a time when many lost jobs, family , friends by coming out of the closet, what also moved me was that of COURSE there was a section for folks in wheelchairs. This was THAT kind of movement, And as we wandered the events after the parade and found the tables set aside for bi-activists, I knew there was a place for me too.

When I heard the story of the 504 disability rights sit-in recently, I felt a wave of that same emotion sweep through me, so I want to tell you a bit of that story today. In 1973, just 4 years after the Stonewall riots, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act first acknowledged that Americans with disabilities experienced discrimination, and the first federal civil rights protections for persons with disabilities became law. Unfortunately, the Department of Health, Education Welfare failed to issue the regulations that would have put this new law into action. Years dragged by and the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) formed to demand action. “Over months and years, they cultivated relationships with groups such as the Black Panther Party, Glide Memorial Church, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, Delancey Street, the United Farm Workers.” After many years of asking politely, the ACCD decided to stage a series of sit ins during the spring of 1977. The largest and longest sit in was in San Francisco.

In her article recounting her personal experience of those days “ Short History of the 504 Sit In” one of the organizers Kitty Cone reports that:
“In the Bay Area, a broad cross-disability coalition, the Emergency 504 Coalition, began building for a rally on April 5th, knowing we’d sit in afterwards. We set up committees to take on different tasks such as rally speakers, media, fund-raising, medics, monitors, publicity, and outreach.

The outreach committee was very successful in garnering broad community support: from churches, unions, civil rights organizations, gay groups, elected politicians, radical parties and others.

The work of that committee proved to be invaluable once we were inside the building. Those organizations built support rallies outside the building and the breath of the support made it more difficult to move against us. The International Association of Machinists facilitated our sending a delegation to Washington. Politicians sent mattresses and a shower hose to attach to the sink. Glide Memorial Church and the Black Panther party sent many delicious meals that nourished us between days of coffee and doughnuts.”
According to disability activist Corbett Joan O'Toole, in her book “Faded Scars: My Queer Disability History” One member of the Black Panther Party remarked “’We support you because you're asking America to change, to treat you like human beings, like you belong… We always support people fighting for their rights.’[9] When FBI agents tried to prevent them from delivering food, the Panthers held their ground. After that, the Panthers provided hot meals each day until the end of the occupation and never asked for money.” You know it’s a broad coalition when the Black Panthers, Labor Unions, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, and the Salvation Army are all working together.

One key thing for us to remember, especially those of us who identify as temporarily able-bodied, those of us who are learning to understand and recognize privilege, and those of us learning what it means to be an ally, was that this coalition which came together to support the sit-in was not a paternalistic effort, but true allies supporting Disability activists who were defining their own agenda. In Kitty Cone’s words
“For the first time we had concrete federal civil rights protection. We had shown ourselves and the country through network TV that we, the most hidden, impoverished, pitied group of people in the nation were capable of waging a deadly serious struggle that brought about profound social change. The sit in was a truly transforming experience the likes of which most of us had never seen before or ever saw again. Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence. For the first time, many of us felt proud of who we were. And we understood that our isolation and segregation stemmed from societal policy, not from some personal defects on our part and our experiences with segregation and discrimination were not just our own personal problems.
Without 504 — its coverage and example and the disability civil rights principles contained in the regulations we fought so hard for, and the empowerment of tens of thousands of disability activists through 504 trainings, and activities and mobilizations — there might well be no Americans with Disabilities Act, that finally brought us up to parity with federal civil rights laws covering gender and race.”[iv]
Now almost 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, 40 years from the 504 sit-ins, it is time for us to come together again. Rev. William Barber, leader of the modern Poor Peoples Campaign, is calling us to this same kind of broad coalition. Rather than factions fighting for a slice of the pie, he calls us to recognize core moral issues that could bring us together. It is a time when we are called to find new ways to come together as one. Where intersectionality reminds us that not all queer people are able-bodied, not all queer people are white, Fusion politics asks us to come together with people who might seem very different from us, as different as the Gay Men’s Butterfly brigade and the Salvation Army, United Farm Workers and US senators. That kind of fusion is embodied in the process by which the “Gay Liberation” movement became LGBTQIA+; even though the needs of each identity are not identical, we come together to work for change.

Today we celebrate LGBTQIA+ pride. There is so much to be proud of in this 50 year civil rights movement we used to call Gay Liberation. The Pride Parades flow by showing us the incredible diversity of what it means to be human, what it means to love. We celebrate Pride today, a reminder to be proud of ourselves and one another, as diverse as the colors of the rainbow flag. This year, let the pride celebrations also remind us how deeply we are connected to one another. Let us recommit ourselves to show up, to speak our truth with love across an interconnected web of justice. There is a place for every one of is in this web.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Stop, Drop and Feel (May 20, 2018)

Barbara died unexpectedly. Our longtime church administrator complained of feeling a bit foggy headed all week, but we were completely shocked when her husband told us she had died in the night of a brain aneurysm. Over the next days it fell to me, as minister of the church, to break the news to many people as we notified the staff and the congregation and began to plan the memorial service. I remember the people who took the news like a physical blow, tears running down their faces. I, myself, and had not yet cried for Barbara, and I started to question myself. What kind of cold uncaring person was I that I couldn’t cry for the loss of someone I had worked side by side on a daily basis for 5 years? Maybe at the memorial service, I thought, but I soon realized that I had fallen into the role of “the one who has it together” and especially at the memorial service, which was a huge outpouring of emotion for this beloved church administrator and activist in the peace community, I felt numb. I knew who was supposed to be where when but not the contents of my own heart.

It was finally about a week later when I sat down to work on the church annual report, now well past its deadline, and found that the draft I had worked on had somehow become corrupted so it was just gibberish when I opened the file, that I finally lost it. I was no longer the one who could hold it together, I couldn’t even complete this report, and I had promised our church secretary, who had been very close to Barbara and was herself in grief, that it would be done today. Something inside me cracked but instead of the expected tears of grief, what spilled out that in my home office was a very indecorous temper tantrum. Emotions like frustration and anger surfaced like toxic sludge.

That moment was a turning point for me. It made me wonder if keeping my professional cool, if being the rock when others were troubled was really the only way I could be. And so for the past 15 years, I’ve been paying attention to what I feel, and especially to what I don’t feel, and why.

One of the first things I noticed on this exploration, was how not feeling emotions is a useful adaptation. I could lead folks in a memorial service, I could comfort my son if he was feeling overwhelmed. I met deadlines and got my work done. I was productive and positive. But I also noticed that if emotions surfaced and I told them “not now” it might be a long time before they came back. And they might come back in weird forms. I decided to treat any opportunity to grieve as a gift. Greif, I realized, doesn’t always come during the time you set aside for it- at the memorial service, or during the day you took off for self-care. From observing my own process, I realized a few things about grieving:

One- your grief feels however it feels. Numbness, Anger, tears, hysterical laughter, regret, peace, are all legitimate expressions of processing that loss. Whatever you feel, honor that, feel that.

Second- Grief has its own time table. If you are at work, at the dinner table, at the mall when it comes, treat it with the same respect you would give any other bodily need. Run for the nearest restroom if you need to, tell your boss you are taking a long lunch, or call in sick. Because having a good cry right as the emotion emerges is almost always better than snapping at your family later, or having ulcers in a month. The same exact principle applies to more pleasant emotions, like joy, or gratitude, or the satisfaction of a job well done. If you catch yourself enjoying life, give that a moment too.

The third took me longer to learn- You can’t get around it. Yes, we can defer our emotions, you can choose not to feel them, you can push them away, but there is a cost. One of the costs for me was that when I wanted to feel something, my whole emotional system was set to “hibernate’ and so often feelings weren’t available when I wanted them.

The other cost is that it becomes painful to be in your own mind. Emotions like fear often grow and become more terrifying when we run from them. As the saying goes “don’t run from a bear”. But this is true of even subtle daily emotions, if we run from them, if we avoid them, our own mind and hearts become a minefield of places not to step. This often becomes apparent when we have some time alone, when we are quiet, when we sit in meditation. (I know when I dread meditating, there is some deferred emotion that needs my attention)

When there are things that we are pushing away, it becomes a lot of work to manage them. I think of the Star Wars crew stuck in that trash compactor as the walls pressed in on them. Fortunately, thoughts and feelings aren’t solid like the walls of a trash compactor, they pass right through us. I know sometimes being hit with a wall of emotion, or a painful memory can feel as intense as being hit by a wall, but all emotions rise and pass away. Even the big ones pass. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor found that the actual chemical reaction of emotions that flood our brains lasts for only 90 seconds. If our emotional response lasts longer than that, she theorized, it’s because we got hooked. The feeling, let’s say anger at our friend who is late, starts as a sensation, but our mind quickly hooks it into stories and analysis. “This friend is always late, this is just like that other time she left me sitting at the restaurant for 45 minutes. If she really understood or cared she’d be on time…” and we’re off down a rabbit hole of resentment that could last for weeks if we let it. Or how about this one “I should be more forgiving and compassionate. It’s not right that I’m so quick to get mad at her. She has a lot on her plate. I must not be a very good person if I am so impatient”

The alternative, says Taylor is “that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.” The alternative to being hooked is simply to feel the feeling itself, the texture of it, the color of it, where in the body it emerges, without analysis, without pushing it away or hanging on to it.

This is similar to what I learned at a contemplative formation retreat in a workshop about ‘welcoming prayer”. This practice has been transformative for me, so I’d like to invite you to join me in it now, noticing however you are feeling right now: [this version is by Phil Fox Rose]
"1. Focus and sink in - Feel the feeling. Don't run away from it or fight it. Stay with this until you really experience a connection to the feeling or emotion on not just an emotional but also a physical level.

2. Welcome - Affirm the rightness of where you are and acknowledge [the sacredness of] the moment by saying: "Welcome, [fear/anger/etc.]."

Don't just say this and move on Repeat it and sit with the feeling until you experience a genuine sense that you welcome it, that you are not fighting against it.

3. Let go - Say "God, I give you my [fear/anger/etc.]," At this point, you can turn the feeling or emotion over to God and let it go. Or [if you are atheist or agnostic, just imagine your emotion drifting away in the breeze].

If you haven't truly felt it and welcomed it in, you may still experience resistance here. Stay in the letting go, or turn back to the focus or welcome stages as appropriate. "

Martin Laird, who teaches the Christian Contemplative tradition, advises: “Our normal response to an afflictive thought-feeling is to pounce on it with a commentary. In fact much of what pop psychology calls “feeling your feelings” is precisely this. When we “feel our feelings” what we feel is actually not our feelings but our commentary on the thought-feelings” He suggests we “heal this by taking it to a deeper level: meet this thought-feeling before it has a chance to grow into a dramatic story, an inner video… Instead, simply observe the thought as it arises. Watch it come and watch it go. It’s a subtle art.” [Into the Silent Land p. 83]

As we welcome our feelings, memories may emerge. Insights and patterns may emerge, so let them come, don’t push them away or grasp on to them. Notice them, but don’t follow them. Stay present in the feeling itself.

As my classmates and I got up from the first period of welcoming prayer, I gathered my things to leave. I bent over to get my purse, and a wave of emotion hit me. I was determined to follow my own advice and try to feel tings in real time and not save them for later, but feelings can be slippery kind of things, so I just held perfectly still as I tried to stay present with it. It passed and I picked up my bag and stood up. Another set of emotions. I stood stock still and tried to stay open to them. Wow, this was going to be a lot of work.

Not long after I was listening to a favorite podcast on this very topic- staying present to our feelings. Brooke and Vanessa coined the phrase “stop, drop and feel’ and promised to put it on a T-shirt. Yes, I thought. That’s it. To truly experience my emotions in real time, I was going to have to stop what I was doing, drop down into my inner experience, and feel whatever I was feeling. After 15 years of trying to catch grief out the corner of my eye as it snuck past, feelings came closer and closer to happening in “real time” A number of you who are in the Spiritual direction Group or Committee on Ministry have witnessed my journey. For me it’s been a whole new way of being in the world.

This way of being with emotions has the effect over time of not only allowing us a greater degree of authenticity, honesty and presence, but it also shows us something about the nature of who we are. I am not my emotions, I am the one who is aware of the emotions. I keep coming back to the advice given to artist Laurie Anderson by her meditation teacher “’You should try to learn how to feel sad, without being sad.’ Which is actually really hard to do. To feel sad, without actually being sad”.[i] This is the practice. When we can feel the emotions without clinging to them, without pushing them away, we start to see more clearly the relationship between the emotions and our Self. Like clouds passing in the sky, even the worst emotions are temporary, transitory. We start to see that the clouds in the sky are not the sky, are not the ones observing the sky. We are not our emotions. We are something larger, more spacious.

The final, and arguably most important part of this process is compassion. When I was growing up my mom always said “it’s not the feelings, it’s the feelings about the feelings.” It’s very human for us to sit in judgement of our inner processes. “I should have forgiven my friend by now, I should be happy on this special occasion, I should be done grieving by now.” How different, and how challenging, to feel our feelings without judging them. To just notice whatever is arising, to meet ourselves wherever we are. Even if what we notice is “wow, I am really pushing away those feelings today.” Just notice. When we meet our feelings with judgment, they tend to either run and hide, or wind themselves up to justify their continued existence. When we meet our feelings with compassion, we allow space for them to move and change.

This past week I was in Seattle visiting my dad and all the family who had come to celebrate the wedding of my brother and my new sister . My heart responded by opening up to the warmth and affection of all the loving people around me. I was able to be helpful and supportive and open-hearted at the same time. As my brother and my new sister expressed their feelings for one another at the celebration of their marriage tears rushed down my face as I felt many feelings at once. I had moments of gratitude for those who hosted and entertained me, moments of compassion for folks who were struggling. My last day, I got this gross, unpleasant feeling that I rejected like a piece of rotten fruit. But sure enough it came back when I stopped my busy-ness for a moment. I remembered my intention to be present to whatever emotions arose, and turned towards it. Part homesickness, part sadness that I would soon be leaving my west coast family, and part anxiety about the long journey home. Yup. There it was. I sat with it just as it was. “Feelings, no matter how “nasty” they may seem to us, lead us inexorably to our hearts” Said Bill Schulz, former president of both Amnesty International and the UUSC. How lucky I felt to have spent pretty much that whole week, a week of tender moments, sad moments, joyful moments, even frustrating moments, to have spent that week in my heart.


It’s not always easy to be present to our feelings, especially when they are difficult emotions like anger, fear or sadness. But staying open to our emotions can be one of the most rewarding spiritual paths.


Closing Words
l had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest Me-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

[A Man Without a Country p. 132]


[i] https://genius.com/Laurie-anderson-how-to-feel-sad-without-being-sad-lyrics