Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Blessed Are You Who Are Poor (April 2, 2017)


In Washington, in state capitols, and in boardrooms around the country there is war raging against the poor. This war is justified, in part, by a myth that if you are rich it is because you are clever and hardworking, and if you are poor you are just not working hard enough. This year a draft Statement of Conscience on Escalating Inequalities appears before the UU General Assembly. It’s a rich document, full of important ideas, but today I want to focus on this one sentence “Another myth is that that the poor have only themselves to blame, which discounts systemic racism, the sources of inherited wealth, exploitation of low wage earners, and other factors.”[i]

I want to start here, because our Unitarian Universalist theology is fundamentally at odds with this myth. The very first of our principles is the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This is the modern way of thinking about the very old Universalist idea that God’s love embraces the whole human race. And that idea arose as an alternative to the popular Calvinist idea, that actually god’s love did not embrace the whole human race. Some were God’s chosen, or “elect” and the other folks were… not. Well, I am noticing that old Calvinist idea creeping out of the churches and into our legislatures and social institutions. I encourage you to listen to the news next time with this in mind - listening for the idea that some of us are worthy and others are unworthy.

Consider how this subtle theological point impacts social policy. If I am rich or middle class, it is because I am chosen, because I am worthy, and you are living in poverty because you are not chosen, because you are unworthy, then I am absolved of any responsibility to help you survive. In fact, if it’s your fault you are poor because of something you did or didn’t do, then maybe we should add some punitive obstacles, so you learn your lesson. Straighten up and fly right. I think the drug testing for welfare recipients is a perfect example of this.
Saying it is “unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction,” Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation requiring adults applying for welfare assistance to undergo drug screening…
The aid recipients would be responsible for the cost of the screening, which they would recoup in their assistance if they qualify.[ii]
When the law went into effect in 2011, during the four months the state tested for drug use, only 2.6% of applicants tested positive. It’s important to notice that in the whole state of Florida there is an illegal drug use rate of 8%, “meaning far fewer people on services are using drugs than their better-off counterparts. The drug testing cost taxpayers more money than it saved, and was ruled unconstitutional [in 2014]”.[iii]

When we separated myth from fact, we find out that actually people on public assistance tested positive at a LOWER rate than in the population as a whole. Notice this myth playing out here in policy in 2 ways, first the assumption that people requesting public assistance were more likely to use drugs, and second the creation of punitive obstacles that we don’t impose on other folks receiving money from the government, like, for example, State governors or State senators.

But I’m a Universalist. I believe that the rich, the middle class, the poor are all chosen, are all worthy. And every one of us has certain inalienable rights. I believe everyone has a right to food to eat, clean water to drink, and a safe place to sleep at night. Every person. That includes people living in poverty. That includes people struggling with drug addiction.

“But” I hear so often “what about my cousin who manages her money badly, and wastes money on soda and her smart phone and comes up short for her rent?” Yes, even her. Even people who are bad at money management have basic human rights.

“But” they say “what about that guy who shows up late for work and doesn’t have a good work ethic?” Yes, even him. People with poor work ethics have human rights.

Moreover, I know rich people who use drugs, rich people who manage their money badly (there are some famous rich people in the news right now who have declared bankruptcy multiple times.) I also know rich people who are lazy. All of us have gifts, and all of us have faults. UUs are not charged with dividing people into groups called “worthy” and “unworthy.” When we talk about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that word inherent means it is intrinsic to our nature. We don’t have to earn our worth, we don’t have to earn our dignity. We don’t have to earn basic human rights.

Let’s go back to that myth “that the poor have only themselves to blame, which discounts systemic racism, the sources of inherited wealth, exploitation of low wage earners, and other factors.”[iv] The math is not hard - we know for a fact that there is enough food on this planet to feed each and every person, but caring for each and every person is not the goal of economic system - the goal is to see who wins the game by having the most money. We know that there is a gap between the minimum wage and a living wage. (A living wage is the amount it really takes in any community to live.) The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour here in PA, but in Bradford a living wage for a single adult is $9.42[v]. And if you’ve got just 1 child who you are parenting alone, a living wage is $19.97 per hour. That means no matter how virtuous you are, no matter how frugal you are, how hard working, there is always going to be a gap between what you make and what you need to live. You are always going to have to choose between the heating bill and the rent, groceries and a visit to the doctor.

This myth is not based on math or statistics, it is really theological. That old Calvinist idea has given way to a new idea called the “Prosperity gospel.” This is a new theology which came to American in the 1950s. According to David W. Jones, Professor of Christian Ethics, “Simply put, this ‘prosperity gospel’ teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy… Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers to pray for and even demand material flourishing from God.”[vi] “Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.”[vii] Suddenly everything makes sense to me. If you view the world through this lens, it’s clear who has the most faith in God, the most favor - it’s the wealthy people. And who does not have enough faith in God? The poor. This theology is affecting social and economic policy for all of us, especially those most vulnerable. So let’s dust off our Bibles and take a hard look at this.

First, I want to tell you that many Christian preachers, even conservative preachers, agree that the prosperity gospel is a heresy. They caution that it makes wealth into a false idol. They caution that it treats God like a vending machine or ATM. So let’s look at what the Bible does say. First of all, let’s look at who has God’s favor in the Bible. Consider Moses; after following God’s instructions and leading the people out of Egypt, Moses becomes, with the people, a wandering refugee. He is homeless for 40 years.

Or let’s look at Jesus, who was born into probably a middle class family (carpentry is a skilled trade) but renounces His privilege to live as a mendicant, a teacher traveling from place to place staying at the homes of supporters and students and eating at their tables. Consider His birth in a stable. If God showed His favor to those who pleased Him by providing wealth and ease, shouldn’t Mary have had the penthouse suite it the inn? But in case there was any doubt, Jesus’s teachings are very clear about this: “Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” — Luke 6:20-21

These examples, and many others, show us that economic status is not a sign of God’s favor, and the Bible is also very clear about our obligation to help people living in poverty. I found literally 12 pages of quotes supporting this, throughout both Jewish and Christian scriptures.
Here’s one from Deuteronomy:
If anyone is poor among you… do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need — Deuteronomy 15:7-8
And here is one from the new testament in the letters of John the Evangelist
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." 1 John 3:17-18
Even though it’s not always visible to those of us with full refrigerators according to a 2013 study 20% of children struggle with “food insecurity” here in Bradford county.[viii] So I spent some time last week making up a quick reference guide for people in urgent need. It’s a list of places you can go, if your heat is about to be turned off, or to get a hot meal. It’s interesting that almost every one of those places is faith-based. Catholic charities, the Bridge, Salvation Army. From the far right to the far left, the different faith traditions agree, that people of faith have a duty to help our brothers and sisters in need.

At the same time, I think liberals and conservatives agree, that food pantries are just a Band-Aid on the problem. Surely everyone would rather have their own income, so they could walk into any grocery store when they realize they are out of milk, instead of waiting for the 3rd Wednesday between 10-11 am when the food pantry is open. So we are called to help create a more just system, where all people can meet their basic human needs and live lives of dignity and purpose. The book of proverbs has some clear statements on this:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy — Proverbs 31:8-9
And the prophets speak, quite passionately about this:
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. — Isaiah 10:1-3
In America today this means not only standing up to protect programs like Meals on Wheels, but it also means continuing to fight for a minimum wage that is a living wage. It means searching out the roots of our economic inequalities like systemic racism. And we do make a difference - our hard work to raise the minimum wage worked in the state of new York did help change the law, we are up to $9.70, and are on a path to $15 per hour by the end of 2021.[ix]

In our proposed statement of conscience, this is where we placed our emphasis - building a just system for everyone. I completely agree with that - but something started to bother me about our UU stance on poverty. I don’t see anything in the statement that calls us as simply as Jesus did: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Yes, we must work to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, but we have been fighting that battle for years – where are folks trying to support a family at a minimum wage job going to live while that battle continues? What is our responsibility to folks at the losing end of economic inequity right now? Our safety net has holes, and people are falling through it right now, today.

When I worked in Palo Alto, Calfiornia, folks came to our church every week asking for material help. The head of the non-profit who helped un-housed people in our community gave me her card, suggesting I give her a call, whenever I needed help. So when a man came in saying he had been evicted from his home and was having trouble putting together the funds to sign a lease at a new place, I called her. I told her, that he said he had tried every social service agency he could think of. I was shocked when she replied with a sigh “what he’s telling you is probably true. There really is no help for folks in that area.” There was not enough money in the Minister’s discretionary fund to meet his need, nor in my pocket. He went away empty handed, both of us feeling powerless.

One of the sources of our UU tradition are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves” and the Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear - we are called to remember the poor, not to look away. Are we looking away by climbing up into our heads and analyzing the problem, instead of opening our hearts in compassion to the hardship all around us? It feels better to say “I wonder how this guy screwed up to get himself in this situation” or even to blame the 1% than to confront the depth of real need in the world.

As Jesus said “the poor will always be with us.” As a faith that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, each of us is called to stay present with that difficult reality, and to offer a helping hand whenever we are able. And we are called to help in 2 ways - the first is “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter when you see the naked, to clothe them” (Isaiah 58:7)” That’s why today, after social hour, I’m going to offer a workshop about “being a good Samaritan”- so we can talk in more depth about specific strategies and challenges in responding to people who ask for our help. Second, we are called to help by working to change a system of escalating inequalities. It means having your congress member on speed dial, and buying fair trade goods. Our statement of conscience has dozens of other suggestions for things we can do as individuals, as congregations, and in our legislative ministries like UUPlan and Interfaith Impact NY, to fight for justice.

We are all responsible for people living in poverty, and for the unjust system that permits poverty to exist. When we encounter the myth that “the poor have only themselves to blame,” we need only remember that Jesus called the poor blessed, and, that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.


[ii] http://www.snopes.com/politics/medical/welfare.asp
[iii] http://time.com/3117361/welfare-recipients-drug-testing/
[v] http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/42015
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology
[viii] http://www.hungercoalition.org/sites/default/files/uploads/BradfordCounty%20hunger_factsheet_final.pdf
https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/11/nyregion/andrew-cuomo-and-15-minimum-wage-new-york-state-workers.html

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Being Mortal (March 19, 2017)



Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas wrote, as he anticipated the death of his father. These words capture something of our cultural attitude ; we live in a death denying culture. We believe and behave as if life must be preserved at literally all cost. We spend a surprising amount of our health care budget as a nation trying to prolong the end of life. “According to one study, 30% of all Medicare expenditures are attributed to the 5% of beneficiaries that die each year, with 1/3 of that cost occurring in the last month of life.“ That makes sense to me- what wouldn’t I give to help a loved one in their critical hours. Unfortunately it turns out all that intervention may not really be making our dying easier “…In the Archives of Internal Medicine, a study asked if a better quality of death takes place when per capital cost rise. The study found that the less money spent in this time period, the better the death experience is for the patient.”[i]

If all those extra interventions at the end of life aren’t making the patient happier, making their death easier, we must be doing those interventions for another reason. I think on some level we believe that it is our duty to fight, as long and hard as we can. As if the value of a life is measured in the number of hours our heart beats. As if longevity were a form of virtue. But, as my teacher Don Bisson assured us, death is not a failure. The very fact that we are alive means that someday each of us will die. Let’s take a moment and just sit with that truth. How does it make you feel? Sad? Angry? Scared? numb? Perhaps in our culture there is a subtle taboo against even thinking or talking about our own very real mortality- as if by thinking about it we make it so.

When I was 5 years old I remember lying in bed as my mom, having been awoken by her terrified daughter in the middle of the night, patiently explained that we did not live near a volcano, and no one in Pennsylvania was going to die in a volcano before morning. Her patient explanation did nothing to sooth me though, because once you realize, deep in your bones, that your time is finite, it awakens our most basic human fear. When I was growing up I had, as one family therapist called it, a precocious sense of my own mortality. When I was about the age my son Nick is now, I remember writing a will and telling my family that I wanted every intervention, every modern marvel of medicine used to keep me alive as long as possible.

Part of the reason I ended up going to seminary was because this dread of death was keeping me from truly enjoying life- death seemed too high a cost to pay for living. Fortunately, my very first semester in seminary I took a class in Buddhism which teaches us that much of the suffering we experience comes from the energy we spend pushing way, denying, and otherwise trying not to look at our own impermanence and the impermanence of everything under the sun. I began during that class a practice I continue to this day; whenever I think about death now, instead of trying to run from the idea in my own mind, I just slow down, breathe, and with compassion for myself notice those difficult ideas and feelings. From that compassionate place I began to wonder- does death have a value of its own? Consider that every death is as unique as every birth, as every person. Dying is the end of every life story, so what if we allowed ourselves to give attention, thought, even grief to shaping the end of our story. Are we empowered to shape our death as we shaper the rest of our life? Could we ever feel clear enough to say "enough" or "this is my time"? Could we give our own death at least as much thought as we would give moving to a new town, or starting a new job? Because I believe in doing so we might not only make our own death easier for ourselves and easier for our loved ones, but we might improve the quality of our living as well.

Psychologist Erich Fromm writes, “To die is poignantly bitter, but the idea of having to die without having lived is unbearable.” It’s easy to let the ordinary patterns of life carry us inexorably through the years as we wait for our life to begin. When we remember the reality of our own death, it can be the shock that wakes us up. Perhaps it has happened to you that a scary diagnosis, or the death of a loved one, or even a scary moment in traffic as you white knuckled your way out of a near crash has woken something in you that remembers what a precious gift life is, that its brevity makes it only that much more urgent that we live fully and well. This past Friday the Adult RE class explored the writings of UU minister William Schultz who said:

“I think the great Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard had it exactly right when he suggested that “fear and trembling” are requisite to being a religious person and that only when we overcome our denial of death are we likely to truly “remember existence.” [Finding Time and Other Delicacies William Schultz p. 120]


So let’s take some time this morning to sit with death; to look deep in ourselves and see what comes up for us as we do. First, let’s take just a moment here together in this safe and loving space, to imagine ourselves at the end of our own lives. [You’ll find an insert in your order of service that includes a place where, if you choose, you might take some notes for yourself if you choose. ]

As you imagine the end of your own life, what images or feelings come to mind?.....Most of us can’t choose the moment or circumstances of our death, but there are often choices we can make. Imagine what death you would choose for yourself? [pause for reflection]

I asked my son’s permission to share my memory of a time when Nick was about the same age I was as I worried about those volcanoes. He asked me, inconsolable, what would happen to him if we died. I talked to him about feelings and about theology, but ultimately it was when I explained that we had a plan, called a will, all written up that his worries seemed to calm a bit. I told him that his Godmother Suzanne had the plan and would make sure it got carried out, and that my sister and her family had agreed to take Nick into their home and raise him like a son, like a brother to his cousins. And I explained about life insurance, so he wouldn’t have to worry about money. He seemed much comforted. By bravely considering the practical aspects of our own end of life, we have a chance to make a challenging time a little smoother for our loved ones, and to ease our own worry as practical planning often does. Let’s take a moment now to think about what things we’d like to do to make our own death easier for those we care about. [pause to reflect]

As a beloved community we also think about how we can support the dying process for everyone. For example, in January the Medical Aid in Dying Act for 2017 (S.3151/A.2383), was reintroduced in New York State. This is “a bill to give New Yorkers the option to make end-of-life healthcare decisions that are right for them in the final stages of a terminal illness”.[ii] If there are options you would want in facing your own death, you might consider calling or writing your state representatives to let them know. 

And now imagine holding everyone in this room in a spirit of compassion. In this compassionate space, look back over your life knowing it is finite, and notice if there is anything that you feel called to do in your remaining time? To hold your loved ones more closely? To have more fun? To mentor someone younger? To seek forgiveness or reconciliation? Is there anything you might do that would give your life greater wholeness and meaning? [pause for reflection]

I believe with Mary Oliver that:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

There is a real danger that an awareness of our own mortality could cause us to closer our hearts to all that is mortal, knowing that we will lose it. But Oliver counsels us to courage. Loving the impermanent things of life, loving them deeply is what life is made of. We hold the things we love “against our bones” knowing that our life does in fact depend on it. This is the only thing that can protect us from dying without having lived.

Part of the reason I no longer live in my teen-aged panic of death, is because I finally feel I have lived. I have had adventures and made mistakes. I have loved people dearly, and been helpful where I could. And so I went back to my family and said I no longer feel like I want and need every intervention science has to offer. That if I have a chance to die quickly, peacefully, near people I love, I ask them to let me go. That’s other part of Oliver’s advice - “when the time comes to let it go.” The Buddha taught that much of suffering comes from our attachment to things just as they are, things as we want and expect them to be. At some point we must turn our energy from holding what we love to our bones, to letting it go. And if we are lucky, that letting go may have some grace and peace to it. If we prefer to rage rage against the dying of the light, that is our choice too. But let us bring as much consciousness, as much compassion as we can muster to our moments of loss and transition, because they are an important part of life.

As difficult as it is to even consider our own mortality, I believe it is one of the most important parts of the spiritual journey. And one of the most important parts about being in beloved community is sharing these questions and concerns with one another. Consider who you want to talk with about these issues, whom you want to be there with you at the end, who should know what you want and what you value. We, your beloved community, want to support you and be present for you in the whole of our lives together, including all the complexity and intensity of our dying.

A couple of years ago we had a class here called “Ending Well” where we had an opportunity to talk together about these difficult questions. I will make the same deal with you that I made with the class – if you think of something you want to do to prepare for your end of life, we want to help. If you create a document about your choices and need witnesses, bring it to church and we will witness it. If you need someone to talk to, look around the room and consider who you would feel comfortable talking to. This is definitely you are welcome to call your minister, but there may be others here with whom it would be easier to speak, or who have more experience. On the back of your note sheet, there are some useful links that can help with practical plans if you are feeling called in that direction. One is called “the conversation project” whose only aim is to help us have these important conversations with our friends and families. I have also included links where you can find forms for advance directives for Pennsylvania and NY state. If you create a goal and then accomplish it – if you have a conversation with your partner, or create an advance directive, or update your will -- I personally promise to bake you a dozen cookies. Just let me know.

Death is not a failure. Not our own death, nor the deaths of our loved ones. Death is an important part of life, the last chapter of each story. When we deny death, we miss the chance to make choices and decisions that will affect us and our loved ones. We miss the chance to grieve and to rage and to find peace. We miss the wake up call that death brings, reminding us how precious is this very moment -- how precious is the life of every being. Let this be a community where together we bravely shine the light of consciousness on our own mortality, and ask together “knowing that each must dye, how then shall we live?”




Resources for thinking more about these questions:

The Conversation Project is dedicated to helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care. http://theconversationproject.org/

Information about and forms for Advance directives can be found:
New York State:
https://ag.ny.gov/sites/default/files/pdfs/publications/Planning_Your_Health_Care_in_Advance.pdf
http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/relationships/caregiving/2011_01/ad/NewYork.pdf

Pennsylvania:
http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/relationships/caregiving/2011_01/ad/Pennsylvania.pdf
http://www.pabar.org/clips/AdvanceHealthCareDirective.pdf

Alternately, some prefer to use the “5 wishes” format found here:
https://www.agingwithdignity.org/

Frontline: Facing Death- This site contains a documentary about end of life care, and educational resource guides
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/facing-death/

Compassionate Choices has resources both for making decisions about your own choices, and also to support legislation that provides the right to make those choices to all:
https://www.compassionandchoices.org/

Resources for healing grief:
http://www.journeyofhearts.org/
http://www.griefnet.org/about/navigator.html



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Elusive Search for the Nonanxious Presence (January 22, 2017)


Reading- "Thich Nhat 'Hanh: Seeing with the `Eyes of Compassion" by James Forest

Reading: from Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke
“Recessed in the most primitive part of the brain lies the amygdala, a cluster of cells the size of a grape. The amygdala serves as an early warning signal for danger, constantly scanning the environment for information about what might bring us harm, pain or injury. Linked to the sensory system, it is ready to blast off an alarm to the brain stem that will set off the automatic reactions of the fight, flight or freeze.

In studies of people whose amygdalae are active, researchers have found that the subjects’ memory systems have been affected in two ways: (1) less information about their immediate environment and what is happening is available to them; (2) the pool of objects that resemble the original stimulus is much larger. Threat assessment deteriorates with the triggering of the amygdala. A minor comment is perceived as a major insult. Benign details suddenly take on an emotional urgency. Things are out of proportion. ...

When we are flooded with anxiety, we can neither hear what is said without distortion nor responds with clarity. Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist, comments that stress limits our repertoire of responses. Fixated on what is endangering us, we forfeit our imaginative capacities. … With fewer alternatives, we act foolishly. When the amygdala is in control, our perception warps measurably. Our mind is set in imaginative gridlock, we obsess about the threat, and our chances of changing our thinking are almost nonexistent. Reactive forces rule.

The left prefrontal cortex houses our humanity. It is the brain region just behind the eyes that integrates information and inhibits emotional impulses that rise from the amygdala. ... It is crucial for all higher-order, purposeful behavior. Neuroscientist Anexandr Luria has called this region of the brain “the organ of civilization” … if it is impaired, we lose hindsight, insight and foresight.

Notice that when Jesus taught people, he directed his energy to their left prefrontal cortex, not the amygdala. He sought to reach people thoughtfully, not reactively. He told stories; he asked questions. He spoke about the future. He respected and noticed those who came to him. Jesus clearly stated his position and defined himself. Both Jesus’ invitation to trust God’s unconditional love and the instruction on loving action are designed to free us from our survival brain with its defensive instincts, self-serving protective behaviors, and reflexive reliance on aggression.

Sermon

In 1997 when Star wars “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” came out, I was almost done seminary. I had been told, over and over, that one of the most important things a minister can bring to a congregation is what we called a “non-anxious presence.” I was in my first congregation as an intern, and thinking about ministry pretty much all the time, even as we headed out to see the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Towards the end of the movie, the Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn is battling the villain “Darth Maul”, when a Force field comes between them. While he waits for a force field to go down Qui-Gon drops to his knees in meditation. It made quite an impression on me. Was this what a “non-anxious presence” looked like? Could I ever have that kind of self-control and presence of mind to drop into meditation in the middle of battle?

Fortunately, as a UU minister, my job has yet to require a light saber battle. That doesn’t mean I don’t face difficult situations. I know what it’s like to try to minister with my heart pounding, my palms sweating. I chose that story about Thich Nhat Hanh today for 2 reasons. First it so clearly shows the power of how one angry person can change how a whole group of people feel, and then the influence of one nonanxious person. Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk in today’s reading writes:

“Imagine a boat full of people crossing the ocean. The boat is caught in a storm. If anyone panics and acts rashly they will endanger the boat. But if there’s even one person who is calm, this person can inspire calm in others. Such a person can save the whole boat. That’s the power of non-action. Our quality of being is the ground of all appropriate action. When we look closely at our actions and the actions of those around us, we can see the quality of being behind these actions. “ [How to sit p. 15]

We have the power to effect the people around us. We can make choices about what actions and “quality of being” we contribute to a situation.

The second reason I chose this story, is that it shows us that you don’t have to be perfectly enlightened and calm to be a nonanxious presence in community. Knowing that even a Zen Master like Thich Nhat Hanh was sometimes angry made me feel better about my own roiling sea of inner emotions. Peter Steinke, who after serving as a church pastor because a consultant over 150 congregations, writes:
“Regulating anxiety to the point of having no anxiety is humanly impossible. Anxiety is always present; it is a fundamental human expression, even a healthy response to life...”

That was a relief to me – to realize that no matter how skillful or conscious we are, we are still going to be anxious sometimes. So if being a nonanxious presence does not mean not being anxious, what does it mean? Steinke continues:
The nonanxious presence is a description of how a person works to keep the center of control within oneself and as a way to affect relationships in a positive manner. To be a nonanxious presence, you focus on your own behavior and its modification rather than being preoccupied with how others function. In a hospital, a rule for caretakers reads: “In case of cardiac arrest, take your own pulse first.” [-p. 31]
When Nhat Hanh was confronted by that angry man, instead of treating the man like an enemy to be defeated, Nhat Hanh focused on himself, on his own breathing, on his own words. He stayed centered in his own values.

As we heard in our opening reading, the amygdala is what helps us respond to an immediate life or death threat, like a charging rhinoceros, but unfortunately the amygdala sees charging rhinos everywhere. Often big changes that endanger our identity or threaten our world view trigger an amygdala response: when we or someone in our family comes out of the closet. When we fear we may lose a job. Perhaps you’ve noticed the anxiety about the change of leadership of our country. Almost everywhere I go I feel a layer of anxiety thrumming. I feel it among liberals and conservative alike- hoping this peaceful transfer of power really will be peaceful. Fear that our voices will not be heard. Our Amygdalae are being activated, as if we were facing a charging rhino – as if we were in a life and death situation requiring action so fast that careful thinking would waste valuable time.

I imagine that hospital waiting rooms are full of frightened amygdalae. Waiting for a relative in surgery is not too dissimilar to a Rhino charging – issues of life and death are real and present. But Peter Steinke and other Systems Theory folks remind us that freaking out at the nurses will not improve outcomes. Because when the amygdala is activated, it actually reduces our capacity to think, it shrinks the amount of information we can take in, and our capacity to imagine outcomes. Someone has to listen carefully to what the doctor says to be ready to advise and support the patient as they recover.

That is why one of the main jobs of a minister is, as much as is humanly possible, to provide that nonanxious presence. To remind us that a budget deficit is not actually a charging rhino, so instead of flight or fight responses, we want to use our left prefrontal cortex to come up with creative solutions that embody our UU values. According to Steinke, this is not just the most important job of ministers, but of all church leaders, including volunteers. He admits this is not easy, advising: “I know you will need courage to maintain the course… The courage will be well spent because anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation, important learnings, and changes that will strengthen the congregation.” [p. xiii].

Our congregation's discussion about the “Black Lives Matter” banner, for example, has brought some anxiety into our congregation. We do so many things by consensus, carefully making sure we are all on the same page before moving forward, that wading into an issue where we have many different, and passionate, opinions makes us anxious. I bet just about everyone who has waded into the troubled waters of the Black Lives Matter conversation, no matter their point of view, has felt the powerful anxiety of a whole nation in turmoil around this deep and old issue in our country. And we, who meet in beloved community in this conservative valley, know that sometimes standing up for our beliefs, that even “coming out” to the public with dissenting views has real risks-- the risk of ostracization, of nasty Facebook comments, of a rock through the window.

Part of the anxiety we feel is connected the anxiety flooding the whole country right now. The minority communities are anxious. Police are anxious. Whenever we are feeling a fight or flight response, we need to make a conscious effort to engage the left pre-frontal cortex. As we heard in today’s reading by Peter Steinke:
“The nonanxious presence involves engagement, being there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain, and yet not fighting fire with fire. The nonanxious presence means we are aware of our own anxiety and the anxiety of others, but we will not let either determine our actions.”
So let’s be clear, being a nonanxious presence doesn’t mean backing down. We need people to say the true things that will help the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice. And often that will make people anxious. The challenge is, can we get really clear on our UU values, and hold fast to those values even in the middle of a storm? Even in the middle of a discussion about divisive issues?

When I heard the story of John Murray and the rock through the church window decades ago, I imagined that inside he was as calm as he was outside. But when [our church members] were at ground zero preparing Thanksgiving dinner when the rock came through the window of the Towanda Fellowship, and have told me that when they the surge of chaotic, violent energy that came crashing with the rock through that window it was powerful. So now when I imagine that story in my head, I imagine John Murray a different way- probably when the rock came through the window, his muscles tensed, his heart lept and pounded in his chest. I imagine it took every bit of self-control he could muster to come up with a witty comeback. Maybe when he left the church that day he, like Thich Nhat Hanh, was struggling to breathe. History doesn’t record what he says when he got home to his wife, or how he slept that night. Back when I was a new minister, I hoped that I too could handle a disruption to a Sunday service with that kind of circumspection and wit. Now I feel like even just taking a deep breath and waiting to freak out until I got home would still be an important ministry.

As with any important skill, the best way we can increase the odds that it will be available to us when we need it most is to practice. Just as the imaginary Jedi and the very real monks practice daily, we too can practice our non-anxious presence in the small battles of the everyday. The next time our neighbor insults our political point of view, or the customer service rep says he can’t help us and we feel that fight or flight response, is a great opportunity to practice. First, just noticing consciously that your amygdala is activated is an important practice. Notice how it feels. Notice your responses. Next, consider focusing on your breath. Without changing anything just notice your inhales and your exhales. Then you can create the intention to smooth out the breaths and slow them down in a way that feels comfortable. Now notice your thoughts. Notice any sense of urgency- a desire to solve the problem once and for all in this moment, or a desire to run and never look back. Are these fight/flight/freeze solutions, or are they the kind of creative thoughtful solutions that will serve you in the long term?

When I worked at the farm, one of my jobs was to bring the deposit to the bank. One day when it was my turn to come to the counter, I noticed I had a brand new teller. Now the farm deposit was a thick one, full of small bills and a stack of checks for small amounts. Even with an experienced teller, the process always tried my patience, and those of the folks behind me in line. On this particular day, I decided I was going to follow the example of Qui-Gon Jinn, and use this as an opportunity to meditate. I focused on my breathing, smooth and even, and repeated a mantra about compassion and patience. The practice was so effective that not only did my sense of impatience move to the background, but I began to feel a genuine fondness for this rookie teller, and a compassion for everyone stuck in the line. When finally the teller handed me my deposit slip, she met my eyes and smiled warmly, and thanked me for my patience with genuine gratitude. I didn’t save the world that day, or vanquish evil, but instead of sending our ripples of anger and impatience, I used the situation as an easy, beginner’s way to practice a non-anxious presence.

We live in anxious times. It’s not really a light saber battle, but to our amygdala it feels like one, and may be as important. “Anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation” so I suggest that it is not just ministers, not even just leaders who are called to be a non-anxious presence, but all Unitarian Universalists. Can we be the ones who stay engaged, “being there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain, and yet not fighting fire with fire”? Can we be the ones who “are aware of our own anxiety and the anxiety of others, but we will not let either determine our actions?” Can we be the ones who continue to embody our UU values even when we feel like a herd of rhinos are charging towards us? Because that is what I believe the world needs us to be right now.