Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Hospitality


I hope that each of you has, at some point in your life, experienced skillful hospitality; that you have been welcomed by a host or hostess who knows how to make us feel truly at home, easing our awkward transition to a new situation. Hospitality is a Mitzvah, that is to say a religious commandment not only in Judaism from which tradition we get the word “Mitzvah” but in many of the world’s religions. We offer hospitality because it is the right thing to do, the caring thing to do. But I would like to suggest that it is also a spiritual practice, one that works on those who practice it. Today we want to consider the question, “if one took on hospitality as a spiritual practice, how might it change the one who practices, and how might it change the world?”

In this past year I have served as your minister, you have shown me that hospitality is one of the strengths of this congregation. Could we host and feed 30 people for a workshop on congregational preparedness? No problem. Not only did we put together a feast for all the UUs overflowing our social hall, but the cooks put careful thought into how to make sure there were plenty of delicious choices for vegetarians, folks who needed to avoid gluten, people allergic to nightshades, and guests who just really hate onions. Everyone who attended felt welcomed and nourished by your hospitality.

Could we host the first ever interfaith pride service in our town? Of course we would! For a number of years this congregation has been working to become a “Welcoming Congregation.” (This is the phrase used by the Unitarian Universalist Association to refer to a congregation who has intentionally opened their doors to Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender persons.) I’m sure being officially recognized as “welcoming” seemed unnecessary to many members of this congregation- Unitarian Universalists were one of the first denominations to ordain openly Gay and Lesbian clergy, and have long been at the forefront of the movement to widen this circle of inclusivity. I wasn’t here when you all began your work, But I know that in the first welcoming congregation I ever served things were not so simple. Many of those who joined in discussion groups and classes, and scanned the church for heterosexism, found that the issues were more complex than they had imagined. For example, we begin to notice hetero-presumptive language in talking about relationships. We realize that unless we publicly speak our intention to be inclusive, say by hanging a rainbow flag out front, folks would have no reason to assume that our church was any safer than those who publicly condemn same sex relationships. We realized that we each had to root out our own internalized homophobia, so that it would truly be a safe place for our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members to speak their stories. Being a “Welcoming Congregation” takes commitment and self awareness and hospitality.

I am proud to say that just last week the Director of LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs at the UUA sent us a letter congratulating us as the newest Welcoming congregation in the UUA. I am proud of our work together, and on our commitment to being welcoming. He also let us know that although he will be sending us to beautiful color posters in honor of this accomplishment, this achievement is not like a merit badge; we are invited to continue our work as a welcoming congregation and to renew it each year, through worship, learning and acts of advocacy in the larger community. I will be bringing these commitments to the board next week, and together we will consider how to keep welcoming in the coming year.

Hospitality, loving radical hospitality, is a living thing -- an awareness, a way of being in the world. And because you are so good at it, I think this is a great place for us to focus our loving attention. It is easy for a caring and close-knit community to focus on meeting the needs of folks already in the community and to not be aware of the needs of folks just outside our door. For example, when folks came to that Congregational preparedness workshop, they literally didn’t know how to get in the building. We, who have made it inside, all know that there is a side entrance that we use on most occasions, but to a newcomer, if the front doors are locked, it’s not clear that you are welcome. All we need to do to fix that is make a little sign to let folks know what to do if the doors are locked. An easy fix that just requires us expanding our awareness.

When we hosted in the Interfaith Pride service, however, my eyes were opened to some other ways in which we aren’t welcoming. Yes, we prepared a lovely worship, and spread out a warm and charming feast downstairs in the social hall afterwards. We opened our home, we opened our hearts. But it wasn’t until I invited colleagues up to the microphone to speak (please use the one at the pulpit, I said, it’s much better) that I realized how hard it is to get up these stairs to the pulpit. I mean, I myself had joked about how one of these days I was going to look out the wrong part of my glasses and tumble off the side of the stairs here, but it never occurred to me to think, how does that affect our guests? Guest speakers walked all the way around the wall using the railing, and then hung on this chair here for balance while waiting to speak. My eyes and ears opened, I watched folks nervously navigate the steps down to the social hall after the service, and then heard other guests say “the ones in front of the church are the most difficult.” I bravely asked if there was anything we could do to help short of installing a lift. “A railing” they said “would help a lot.” I noticed as folks walked out the back door newcomers stopped at the threshold of that vestibule, and realized that it’s quite a dark spot there, and folks who can’t see well were confused about whether it was safe to step into, or whether there would be a drop. A light in that spot could make us more welcoming to visitors of all ages and abilities.

Being honored as a Welcoming congregation is not the end of our journey to be welcoming, but perhaps a deputizing to becoming more welcoming still. In the same way that Miss Manners advises us to occasionally spend one night in our guest bed to feel for ourselves the kind of sleep our friends might experience in our homes, we look around our world community with the eyes of a good host, wondering what we could do to make others feel at ease.

What makes this challenging, is that in assuming the role of host, we must view the world through the eyes of others; we must anticipate needs that are not necessarily our own. How do we create a welcoming space for all? This becomes most difficult when we realize that there are many subtle cultural factors which can make a community seem hospitable or hostile. It is one thing to hang a rainbow flag, but if we’re not willing to learn each other’s pronouns, how welcoming are we? If radical hospitality is not a central value of our culture as a community, then these are merely superficial gestures. We may find ourselves in communities which are both figuratively and literally gated.

How could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the world? Imagine how this radical hospitality would impact our social and political policies if, for example, we considered immigrants to our country to be guests, and ourselves to be their hosts, to welcome them as the family did in our children's story. Imagine if we challenged ourselves to broadly apply our call to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” Imagine the impact on the walls of “race” or “class” of religious and political difference if we approached them with radical hospitality.

I use the phrase radical hospitality first because I want us to be radical about the extent of hospitality, extending it to affirm the worth and dignity of each and every person. But I also use the word “radical” because I believe such hospitality is radical in its capacity to change us and the world. When we welcome someone new into our lives, into our congregaton, into our country or community, that meeting is a powerful place where we learn both about the world and ourselves. When we open ourselves to the stranger, to the unknown we open ourselves to learning and transformation. By approaching the limits of what is known and comfortable, our universe expands and perhaps our spirits expand as well.

How could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the individual who practices it? In his book “The World’s Religions” Huston Smith describes a noble quality of chun tzu. He writes
“Fully adequate, poised, the chun tzu has toward life as a whole the approach of an ideal hostess who is so at home in her surroundings that she is completely realized, and, being so, can turn full attention to putting others at ease…the chun tzu carries these qualities of the ideal host with him through life generally. Armed with a self-respect that generates respect for others, he approaches them wondering not, “What can I get from them” but “What can I do to accommodate them?”
If we engage the world with the quality of chun tzu, a feeling of always being at home, where might that practice lead? In order to risk extending ourselves, we must first know that we are at home in this world. I believe this logic is reversible as well; if we can act as a host wherever we go, perhaps it will remind us that this world is in fact our home.

When I was starting my internship at the Mount Diablo UU Church, I nervous about the many things I would be doing for the first time, but I was most terrified of the coffee hour. Oh the agony of standing on the patio trying not to look uncomfortable, hoping someone would talk with me. I decided, nonetheless, that this was my job now. People expected their minister to make them feel welcome, to play the host. I realized that it was important that I take the risk that visitors might leave saying “boy they would not leave us alone!” rather than wondering why no one had approached them, why they felt more lonely after coming to church than before. And so that first day on the patio I screwed up my courage, deputized myself with the nametag reading “Darcey Laine, Intern Minister” and challenged myself to engage as many strangers as I could. I tried to imagine who might welcome that extra effort. Certainly newcomers deserved a warm welcome. Obviously those who had shared some pain or joy during “caring and sharing” might want a chance to talk further. The children and youth of the congregation needed to feel that the ministers of the congregation are their ministers too. And the list went on. Before long there were so many people I wanted to connect with, that I had hardly gotten started each week before the patio cleared out and I was left to turn out the lights and lock the doors. I understood that hospitality is one of the primary gifts of a church community, one member to another. And by stepping boldly into the web of relationships as a host, I felt I truly belonged.

Hospitality is not identical to love, because it pays attention to the boundaries between individuals, between peoples. We treat the other with dignity, humble in the awareness that there is much we do not know about one another, yet when we extend ourselves to put another at ease, we act from a position of personal power. We welcome courageously and with skill those who knock at our door.

Today when coffee hour beings, I have my nametag labeling me as “Reverend Laine”, deputizing me officially to act as host for this community. But it is not because I’m a minister of this Church that I have the right and the responsibility to be a host, but because I’m a member of this community. I hereby deputize all of you to be a host at our social hour, and out in the world. Think of your nametag be your deputy’s badge - a symbol of your job as greeter, host, vice-president for east coast introductions and friendliness to strangers. Let this deputy’s badge remind us of one of the oldest and most important religious practices- remembering this world is your home, and so making one another feel welcome in this world.


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Lessons from Moss

Why Moss?
In our part of the world, summer draws us outside with a certain urgency. The longer and darker the winter, the greater is our hunger to get into the lake, to hike in the woods, or just sit on our porch watching the birds and the wind in the trees. What we feel in our bones, that spending time in nature is good for body mind and spirit, is increasingly backed up by scientific research.

To turn this natural instinct into a spiritual practice, all we have to do is pay attention. This practice is not complex, just look, and listen, and be. Let your attention be drawn in whatever direction offers delight or curiosity. The more I do this practice, the more nature reveals its beauty, its complexity, its intelligence. Each summer as I take my spiritual practice outside, I grow in confidence that no matter where in the living world I turn my attention, if I am patient, I will find something fascinating and surprising.

Lately my attention has been drawn to that subtle bit of green fuzz that seems to glow when it rains, that coats the branches of the older trees in my neighborhood. The more I looked, the more fascinating it became. Someone asked to see photos from my sabbatical, and I realized 70% of my photos from this past spring are of different species of moss from wherever I traveled. Wherever I go, I am curious to see what moss lives there, and how it is doing. When we love something, when we are moved by it, it is only natural that we want it to flourish.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are a part. The more we listen and watch, the clearer those connections become, and the concrete and specific ways we can help heal that web. Recently I heard the first job of being an ally as “listening and amplifying.” It occurs to me that this is something the natural world desperately needs from us right now. The more we listen to the web of life, the better our chance of acting in harmony with what our local and global eco-systems need to survive and flourish. It doesn’t have to be moss- I am coming to believe that anywhere in the web of life we take the time to notice the complexities and gifts of another, we will be amazed, and will receive gifts of new wisdom.

Note- this worship service is almost entirely built on the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Gathering Moss. She's my hero. Read her books. Take her workshops. 


Small is beautiful
Moss is easy to overlook because it is so small. You have to get pretty close to even notice that, moss is not just one thing. Moss is a phylum name[i] for thousands of different species. That’s right, that green fuzz you see on your trees, sidewalk and roof could be one of 15,000 difference species. My appreciation of moss grew immensely when I read “Gathering Moss” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. A lot of today’s service is in her words, because not only has she spent much of her life studying moss, but she uses words so beautifully. Mosses are so small because they don’t have the vascular tissue, like trees, to help them stand up. Even the tallest moss can’t grow more than a few centimeters. But it is precisely because moss is so small that it can grow where no other species can grow. as Kimmerer describes “between the cracks of the sidewalk, on the branches of an oak, on the back of a beetle, or on the ledge of a cliff, mosses can fill in the empty spaces left between the big plants.” [p. 15]

Another gift of being small is that moss can live in a unique micro environment called the boundary layer where the air is quiet, and warmth and water vapor create a humid zone to which mosses are specially adapted. Kimmerer compares this boundary layer to a “floating greenhouse hovering just above the rock surface.” Because moss is so small, it doesn’t need a big rainstorm to survive, it can live on dew, even in a desert like environment (p. 20).

As I read that, I immediately thought of us. Our little church is the perfect size for this little community. It must be or it wouldn’t have lasted over 200 years. Small churches are nimble, intimate and authentic in a way big churches can’t be. If mega churches or businesses are the giant trees that rely on their specialized infrastructure to grow tall, little churches like us fit snugly into all kinds of diverse environments all over the world. Moss teaches us that small is beautiful.

We are better together
I always thought the patches of moss I saw were one plant, like a bush, or a tree. But really, each centimeter of moss is a tiny forest. Tetraphis moss, for example lives as 50-300 plants in a single centimeter. Says Kimmerer:
“Moss plants almost never occur singly, but in colonies packed as dense as an August cornfield. The nearness of others with shoots and leaves intertwined creates a porous network of leaf and space which holds water like a sponge. The more tightly packed the shoots, the greater the water holding capacity. A dense turf of a drought-tolerant moss may exceed three hundred stems per square inch. Separated from the rest of a clump, an individual moss shoot dries immediately.” [p. 38]

Holding water against the pull of the sun, and welcoming it back again is a communal; activity. No moss can do it alone. It requires the interweaving of shoots and branches, standing together to create a place for water.” [p. 43] 

Moss teaches us that we are better together.

Stability in an Unstable world

Did you know that some moss is gender-fluid?
Kimmerer tells us that “Tetraphis is unique in having specialized means of both sexual and asexual reproduction… Most mosses have the ability to clone themselves from broken off leaves or other torn fragments. These bits of debris can grow into new adults that are genetically identical to the parents, an advantage in a constant environment. The clones remain near the parents and have little ability to venture into new territory. Cloning by dismemberment may be effective but it is a decidedly crude and random way to send genes into the future. Tetraphis, however, is the aristocrat of asexual reproduction, possessed of a beautifully sculpted design for cloning itself. When I kneel to look closely at the patches of Tetraphis on the old stumps, I see that the surface of the colonies is sprinkled with what look like tiny green cups. These are gemmae cups, formed a the ends of the upright shoots, … Each gemma is poised to establish itself as new plant, cloned from its parents. It rests in the nest, waiting, Waiting for an event that will propel it away from its parent, where there’s room to grow and start its own parents.” [p. 73-74]

When rain falls into the gemmae cup, the gemmae are propelled away up to 15 centimeters, “more likely to land in the same neighborhood as their parents. As clonal propagules, the gemmae carry a combination of genes that has already proven successful on this stump.” p. 74

“There are other patches of Tetraphis on the very same stump which are the cinnamon color of old redwood. They take their rusty tint from the dense swath of sporophytes which rise from the green shoots… When the capsule is ripe, millions of spores will be released into the breeze. The product of sex, the spores will carry the shuffled genes far form their parents. While these spores have the advantage of variety and distance, their success rate is exceedingly small” -- one plant for every 800,000 spores. Whereas the gemmae success rate is 1 in 10. When population is low, Tetraphis produces the little bowls of gemmae to keep doing what is working. When things get too crowded, it makes spores that help them spread to hew homes. “Tetraphis is a sequential hermaphrodite, changing its gender from female to male as the colony gets crowded.” [p. 78]

And sometimes – disaster happens. Big chunks of the rotting logs that Tetraphis inhabit just fall off like landslides on a mountain. A fresh new space opens up, and in the next rains, the “little green eggs splash into the gaps” In Kimmerer’s words, “in the aftermath of disturbance the seeds were sown for the next wave of Tetraphis.” [p. 80] “Tetraphis… achieves stability in an unstable habitat by freely switching between reproductive strategies.” [p. 80] “In this changeable habitat, natural selection flavors flexibility.” [p. 81]

Moss teaches us that to find stability in an unstable world, we are capable of great flexibility.

Be ready for abundance
Moss loves water, but has special ways of surviving when water is scarce. In Kimmerer’s words “Profound changes in the shape of the mosses occur as water is pulled back to the atmosphere. Some mosses begin to fold their leaves or roll them inward. This reduces the exposed surface area of the leaf and helps the plant cling to the last bits of surface water. Nearly all mosses change their shape and color when they dry out… Some leaves wrinkle, some spiral and twist their leaves around the stem, a sheltering cloak against the dry wind. ..Crisp, dry and contorted, the mosses are transformed form soft fronds to brittle blackish tufts… like a ship being readied for dry dock the essential functions are carefully shut down and packed away. The cell membrane undergoes a change that allows it to shrink and collapse without sustaining irreparable damage. Most importantly the enzymes of cell repair are synthesized and stored for future access. Held in the shrunken membrane, these lifeboat enzymes can restore the cell to full vigor with the rains return… Only twenty minutes after wetting, the moss can go from dehydration to full vigor.” [p. 42]

“When the first drops begin to fall, … the water finds its way through the capillary spaces and soaks deeply into every cell. Within seconds the eager cells grow turgid and contorted stems spread towards the sky, leaves outstretched to meet the rain…branch by delicate branch unfolding to recreate the symmetry of overlapping fronds. As each stem uncurls its tender center is exposed and all along the midline are tiny capsules, bursting with spores. Ready for rain, they release their daughters upon the updrafts of rising musts.” [p. 43]

We all go through dry times: times of loss, times of heartbreak. The leaves and stems of our hearts and spirits curl in protectively. Moss reminds us to be ready for rain, to be ready to unfold and allow the waters of life in as quickly as we can. To hold every drop of life we can in those moments of abundance.

Everyone has a role to play in healing the world
When the Benson Iron Mines left the Adirondacks, the mine “closed and left behind hundreds of acres of sandy waste, a Sahara in the midst of the wet green Adirondacks.” The beautiful rich hummus that plants need to grow is now buried under the sterile sand “mine tailings” left from the mining process. Benson dodged its responsibility, and left this land an “orphan mine.”

Kimmerer tells us of her visit to the orphan mine with her student Aimee: “I walk up the tailings slope, slipping backwards in the loose sand, like walking on a beach. .. The sand can’t hold water so any rains percolate quickly, leaving it dry again. Without vegetation, there’s no organic matter to soak up water or build the foundation of a nutrient cycle. Without the shade of trees, the surface temperature can reach extremes—I’ve measured it at 127 degrees Fahrenheit, more than enough to wither a tender seedling. The slope is littered with spent shotgun cartridges, and cans shot full of holes….

“On the other side of the pile, there is a place where the land is healing itself. .. Here are clumps of bright hawkweed and clover and scattered evening primroses rooted in the tailings, they would be weeds in other situations, but their presence here is welcome…. Most of this slope is a carpet of Polytrichum moss… I admire its tenacity in enduring this place where others would wither away in the span of a single day. In last year’s field season, Aimee found that the wildflowers were almost never rooted in bare tailings, they almost always occurred in the beds of Polytrichum.” [p. 46-47] So Aimee has made this her thesis- to find out exactly how and why moss seems to help.

Her experiment involved planting seeds in three places: directly in the mine tailings, in a shag carpet that mimicked some of the characteristics of moss, and in patches of moss. In the harsh unprotected land of the orphan mine, only in the moss could the seeds find a hospitable place to begin life. The super-power of moss is how it traps and holds the ingredients for life- water, nutrients, and the seedlings of wildflowers and Aspen trees- the possibility of a fresh start. Kimmerer writes “out of the carpet of living moss came a crowd of seedlings, the next step in binding up the wounds of the land, life attracting life.” [p. 50]

In an amazing parallel, moss also has healing properties for humans, and was used as bandages by native peoples for thousands of years. During World War I moss was used in Great Brittan to pack the wounds of soldiers because of its absorbent and antibacterial acidity.[ii]

And in case the healing properties of moss seem irrelevant to our most pressing worries, the peat bogs that grow that very moss that bandaged soldiers still serve as carbon sinks, helping store thousands of years of carbon and slowing global warming. “Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store; the area covered by near natural peatland worldwide (>3 million km2) sequesters 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.”[iii]

Unitarian Universalists affirm the Interconnected web of life of which we are a part, but sometimes that web is overshadowed by our values of independence and individuality. We look at the destruction of an orphan mine, or the threat of global climate change, and we think “what can I do? This is too big for me to fix!” Moss reminds us that we are never alone. The web of life is huge, and deep, and miraculous and we have barely begun to understand it. It is absolutely true that I cannot fix climate change by myself. We need the moss, and the trees, and the coral reefs, and we need one another. Like the moss, our contribution as individuals might be small, but we are not alone. We are part of a huge and complex web of life yearning for life. Moss teaches us that we all have a role to play in healing the world.

So this summer as you sit on your porch or walk out in the world, notice our little moss cousins in their amazing diversity- whether you are deep in a nature preserve, or on a city street, moss has probably found its way there, let it be your teacher.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

What Happens When You Follow Your Bliss?

 My path to ministry began with that Joseph Campbell interview. I had spent years training to be an opera singer, but the longer I kept at it, doors no longer opened, and the path became increasingly hard to follow. I had finally dropped out of the Masters’ Program at the Peabody conservatory with great sadness, but also some relief, and was working as a receptionist at a company that made non-ferrous fasteners. The path I had assiduously followed towards a career in classical music hadn’t led me where I wanted to go. The folks at my new job told me how lucky I was to have landed in a family-run company that promoted from within – I could have a salaried position in the accounting department if I stuck with it. I struggled with depression and a sense of purposelessness in my life, but also a lightness that came from choosing to leave music. I had practiced every day since I was a little girl, and I had a newfound sense of freedom, and a sense that somewhere out there was a path that would be right for me.

Having been raised in a family of musicians, I also knew that having a career in music required a lot of hard work, that it would require sacrifice. Perhaps that's why I had trouble leaving- because I had never thought it would be easy. Campbell questions the idea that hard work and dedication are all it takes to make a meaningful life. There was this other quality,  Bliss, by which that one could orient... like a compass. My dad gave his life to music, and while he knew hard work and sacrifice, while music never made him wealthy, I think it always brought him bliss. It always felt right to him. Our very last conversation was about the new music he was discovering, and bringing him joy.

The idea of following your bliss is finding a new way of orienting that is not dependent on material success, because such success comes and goes. Campbell said, later in that same interview: 
“In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there’s the revolving rim of the wheel. And if you attached to the rim of the wheel, let’s say fortune, you will be either above, going down, at the bottom, or coming up. But if you are at the hub, you’re in the same place all the time. And that’s the sense of the marriage vow, you know. I take you in health or sickness, … in wealth or poverty, but I take you and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, nor the social prestige, but you. And that’s following your bliss.”
So following your bliss is about finding the hub of the wheel - the place inside yourself that is a touchstone in good times and in bad. That is our primary job as a faith tradition; to seek the hub, to seek a center which isn’t dependent on wealth or circumstances.

Campbell came to the word bliss as a translation of Sanskrit word “Ananda” also translated as sacred joy, or blessedness, or rapture. The problem is that we so often confuse “rapture” with mere happiness. Certainly our consumer culture encourages this. The American narrative is that the new Lexus or the trip to Disneyland are the peak experiences towards which our whole story is leading, and once we have our Lexus, our gold medal, our wealth, we will be happy ever more. But happiness is like eating an ice cream cone, before you take the first lick it has already started to melt.

I was reading an article critiquing parents who tells kids “all we want is for you to be happy.” It puts the pressure of all the meaning making for a whole family onto a kid’s happiness, and creates unrealistic expectations. The “tyranny of happiness” sets us up for failure. It is not humanly possible to be happy all the time. Happiness is just one emotion on a rainbow of emotions.  Some of the most profound and meaningful experiences I’ve ever had weren’t necessarily happy ones. Leading a family through a memorial service, for example, is profound, meaningful work, I would say there are moments of “Ananda” in that work, but I wouldn’t say it makes me happy. Even the enlightened masters don’t claim to have achieved perpetual happiness, only equanimity, an ability to face life’s turmoil from the center of the wheel.

The Hindu sense of “Ananda” or bliss is a joy that comes from inside, not from any external good fortune or treats. Some traditions claim it can only be reached through meditation. But Campbell is encouraging us to use it as a compass to show us where our true north is. How do we find our rapture or bliss? Campbell says: “we’re having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your joy is. Grab it; no one can tell you what it’s going to be. I mean, you’ve got to learn to recognize your own depths.”

When I was in college my favorite class was called “Women in Ancient Israel” which was a feminist hermeneutic of the Hebrew Scriptures. And I didn’t so much feel “happy” in that class but deeply engaged, and curious in a way I didn’t feel in any of my music theory classes. It kind of blew my mind. When you come across one of those bliss experiences, how do we follow Campbell's advice first you just enjoy it, and notice it, and remember that feeling is possible. There’s a temptation to get ahead of bliss, to clutch it and project it into the future. To immediately turn that experience into a career. (Or in my case a minor in women’s studies, which did not bring me joy, but that’s a story for another day). The mind takes that one experience of joy and builds expectations and stories around it. Perhaps that’s what had happened to me with music.

Some of my happiest experiences in Jr and Sr High School were spent sitting on the floor of my room singing along with musical theater and later, opera. My best moments in High school were in the drama department. But Bliss, that kind of deep fulfillment of the highest self, does not come to show us a career path. Moyers asks “what happens when you follow your bliss” and Campbell replies “you come to bliss.” He doesn’t say “you have a stable career” or “you become financially independent.” Bliss leads us to bliss. And the most important place bliss it leads us is the bliss of the moment itself. Bliss leads us to the present moment.

If we start with the notion that bliss leads us to the center of the wheel, then we should be able to use it as a compass when the wheel is up and when the wheel is down. Sometimes you are the lead in the high school musical, other times you are one of 600 voice majors and no one remembers you well enough to write you a recommendation for grad school. Is the singing still leading to bliss? Is it still leading you home to your true self?

Now as Campbell hints, bliss sometimes also leaves a breadcrumb trail that helps us find a calling. And again, calling is not the same as career. In a way I’m a bad example of this because although following my bliss did not lead to a career in opera, it did lead me here. Well, maybe that’s not such a bad example. That moment of joy in my “women of ancient Israel class” did not lead me to become a scripture scholar, in fact I hardly ever get to do that kind of work in the parish, but it did lead me (eventually) to seminary. And seminary led me to study meditation, and yoga, and theology, and to many moments of deep self knowledge and bliss. It also prepared us to be ministers to middle to large size congregations, which it turns out is not my favorite ministry. When I served a large congregation, what brought me joy was teaching and preaching, not supervising staff and administrating the infrastructure of a large church. My family an I left the economic prosperity of the San Francisco Bay area following the intuition that somewhere there was a home that would be a better fit. Colleagues thought I was crazy to leave a settled position to move cross country without a new job in hand. I certainly had my doubts. In seminary I never once said to myself “I’d like to be the part-time minister of small churches” but that is where following my bliss has lead me. I think I might serve the 2 kindest, most loving, generous churches in the UUA.

But following your bliss never leads to an end point, to a “save game” where everything is stable and happy for ever. It requires a constant attention and vigilance. Each of us is changing and evolving our whole lives through. Following our bliss can help us navigate those changes. A colleague of mine spent 20 years as a yoga teacher, she was passionate about it. Later she became a religious educator, then a minister, and now in her retirement is passionate about learning the guitar and jamming with other musicians. “Why’d you give up yoga?” I asked, truly mystified, since yoga is such an important part of my life. “I was just done” she said. Something in her shifted and she followed it where it led. I have never seen a happier or more dedicated guitar student. It brings her such joy.

At some moments in your life, like when you are graduating from school, or changing jobs, or moving to a new town, following your bliss has big visible manifestations. But the million small moments and choices each day are just as important in this practice. Because bliss comes not from choosing the right major or the right job, but from choosing bliss.

Even committee meetings are an opportunity to choose bliss. I was leading a board retreat for another congregation a few years back. Someone suggested that communication might be improved if each committee submitted a written report each month. I asked “and when you think of writing and reading those reports, does that bring you joy?” Laughter filled the room. They decided instead they would make an effort to connect with the committees chairs over coffee hour and have a conversation about how they were doing. By letting the experience of joy be part of the decision, instead of a niton of what we aught to do, they  made room for the possibility of bliss.

Now I am the parent of a young man heading off to college. What advice could I possibly give? I mean obviously I hope he has academic success, and it would be great if he found a field where there are jobs available for graduates, but I think what I most want to say is “we’re having experiences all the time which may …render …a little intuition of where your joy is. Grab it; no one can tell you what it’s going to be. I mean, you’ve got to learn to recognize your own depths.” It won’t necessarily help you get a job or make money, but if you can learn where your own joy is, life will open for you.

This is the same advice I would give to anyone in my congregation, even those of you who are grown. Cultivate Joy. Notice the inklings, the intuitions of bliss, of blessedness, of rapture, and take the time to be present to them, to notice and experience them. If doors open on that path, dare to go through those doors. Dare, even now, to follow your bliss.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Of Moss and Ministry

Preached on the occasion of the Ordination of the Rev. Aileen Fitzke


For over a decade, Aileen and I have been part of a group called “Interfaith Action for Healing Earth.” Together we have fomented study, discussion and action about how our faith traditions are called to participate in the healing of our earth. Let me tell you Aileen knows all the best books, because she has read ALL the books.

Most recently we’ve been reading Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who works just up I-81 at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, as a Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Even in a group of die-hard eco-geeks, some of us were not convinced we wanted to read a whole book about moss, but we have learned time and time again that the natural world can be an amazing teacher if you take time to look closely. Even moss can teach us something about ministry, and about how to heal the world. Kimmerer assures us that a piece of moss from the forest floor the size of a muffin top hosts hundreds of thousands of living beings. If you look at it under a stereomicroscope, it is like a tiny forest teaming with life so tiny most humans don’t even know it’s there. [p. 53]

My favorite inhabitant of the moss forest is the microscopic tardigrade, also called a water bear. “Trundling along on 8 stumpy legs, the water bear bears a remarkable likeness to a tiny polar bear. Low slung, with a round head, its body translucent and pearly white.” [p. 59] The water bear relies on the microscopic moss forest, and for food and a moist environment. Now moss is great at holding water, but when drought comes moss, and the water bear, have an amazing adaptation. Both have a dormant form when water is scarce. They “shrink to about 1/8 of their size, forming barrel shaped miniatures of themselves called tuns. Metabolism slows to near zero and they can survive in this state for years. The tuns blow around in the dry winds like specks of dust, landing on new clumps of moss and dispersing farther than their short water bear legs could ever carry them.” I had seen moss as merely a lovely green fuzz, but it turns out it’s a whole world in there!

UUs affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all apart and the more I pay attention to the web, the more strands I see. There’s a certain kind of moss that only grows on the top of logs. Kimmerer spent quite some time trying to figure out why, in some probably gross experiments that involved picking up slugs, until one day she and her grad student saw a chipmunk running across the top. After a series of experiments which involved picking up chipmunks and tracking their footprints, they were able to determine that this special kind of moss (D. Flagellare) reproduces and spreads because chipmunks love to run across logs. Whenever they stop to check for predators, little bits of moss are kicked up from the surface, creating spaces for new propagules, which they, conveniently and unknowingly carried around on their little chipmunk bellies and toes. [p. 89-90] Without knowing it, moss, chipmunks and the trees that became logs have been evolving in a profoundly interconnected way.

In our individualistic consumer culture, we have been raised to believe that we are independent beings. That we can take our money and go to our grocery store, and buy our food for our dinner, and that our ability to feed ourselves is a consequence of our individual responsibility and achievement. Even the way we have studied evolution is about the survival of the individual gene.

This worldview has allowed us to extract resources and walk away from the waste, without worrying about the impact on other living beings, on the health of our own ecosystem in which we grow our food, drink our water and breathe. We hear the new UN report on climate change, and we despair. The world is in our hands, and we seem powerless to heal it. But moss gives me hope.

A few years ago the city repaired my sidewalk, and left behind a covering of fill dirt on which nothing would grow. Months went by, years went by, but the dirt that is good for laying sidewalks on is not actually good for growing things. I tried amending the soil; I tried writing to city hall. I managed to bring some life back to a small patch by my house, but the bare, sterile patches stretched all up and down our street -- more than I could ever heal. One spring day, I was passing that patch of ground with my now habitual despair in my heart, and noticed that moss had begun to claim the barren spots.

It turns out this is one of the great gifts of moss to our ecosystem. It can grow in places where nothing else can grow. Kimmerer did an experiment on a piece of land covered with mine tailings from an abandoned mine. The company had closed and moved away, and “half-hearted” attempts at restoring the land had all failed. Like I discovered in my front yard, you can’t just stick grass seeds in any dirt; plants need a humus-rich soil to grow. Kimmerer’s experiment involved planting seeds in three places: directly in the mine tailings, in a shag carpet that mimicked some of the characteristics of moss, and in patches of moss. In the harsh unprotected land of the orphan mine, only in the moss could the seeds find a hospitable place to begin life. The super-power of moss is how it traps and holds the ingredients for life- water, nutrients, and the seedlings of wildflowers and Aspen trees- the possibility of a fresh start. Kimmerer writes “out of the carpet of living moss came a crowd of seedlings, the next step in binding up the wounds of the land, life attracting life.” [p. 50]

Our UU principles ask us to affirm and promote “the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part” and I would argue that many of the problems of our day trace back to the illusion that we are alone, that we are separate. This illusion not only leads us to ecological destruction, but shapes the way we respond to refugees, and the way we divide resources in this economy. It has made us the loneliest culture on earth because we don’t see how profoundly connected we are to one another.

But life is tenacious and shockingly creative. I believe the way forward will not come from humans alone, but in what we co-create with life. Moss is just one tiny node in the web that is critical to the trees that make the logs where the moss lives and the chipmunks run need moss too. Moss absorbs incredible amounts of water keeping the forest eco-system moist.

Moss protects the larval phases of insects, and their eggs, food to the thrushes and other birds, who use moss in their nests as do chipmunks, flying squirrels and even bears. “Moss matts often serve as nurseries for infant trees” [p. 147] and the ferns that grow on trunks and branches of old growth trees. Remember those special fungus, the Mycorrhizae, who help trees communicate and share resources? “The density of mycorrhizae is significantly higher under a layer of mosses” due to the moisture of the moss, and the way nutrients like phosphorous that wash down off the trees get stuck in there. [149] Moss is the unsung hero of the forest, and forests are the lungs of the planet -our great allies in the struggle with climate change.

We who worry about the fate of the our living have struggled to communicate the way humans are hurting the earth- the way our emissions are causing global warming, the way plastics in the oceans are injuring sea life. Because our western industrial culture has told us we are separate from other living beings, we haven’t seen all the ways that our footprints, like the chipmunks, are serving the spirit of life. At this moment in the history of our species, we must train ourselves to see the web in every inch of our living earth, and our rightful place in that web. Aileen, this is one of the special gifts that you bring to them ministry. You see the web of life, and you see life springing forth, even in the most unlikely places. The world desperately needs this gift right now

Look for interconnection. Interconnection is everywhere, we just have to train our eyes to see it—to see not only the individuals, but all the strands that connect them in the great web of life. One way of seeing an ordination is the conferring of privilege and honor onto an individual, as a culmination of her discernment, skill and hard work. But you are here today either because Aileen’s life has touched yours in some way, or because the UU community has touched you in some way. Even if you don’t know a soul in this room except someone who dragged you along so they wouldn’t be lonely, you are here because relationships matter. Since the moment Aileen entered this world she was part of a web of relationships, within which she co-evolved with family, classmates, congregations, trees, birds and moss. She enters the UU ministry because in some way the web of life grew her to be that. And we have unknowingly been the chipmunks and water bears who shaped and were shaped by her life.


Today as Aileen receives our blessing on her ministry, she does so within that web -- a web that binds each and every one. That web of life that will never let us go. May we bless Aileen’s ministry by paying attention to the connections that already hold us, that already bind the web of life together. Let our eyes refocus from the individual to the relationships between each and all. Like the dense mat of moss that protects the seeds of the future forest, this web of relationships is where healing and hope will sprout.