Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Breaking Open

You know what it’s like to be broken. No one gets this far into life without breaks and tears, if not in our body, then broken hearts, broken spirits. Imagine a favorite mug, used every day- it develops cracks, and stains. As we move through life we develop cracks in the self we present to the world, the self that feels competent, and in control. How brittle and easily broken our sense of who we are and what we can depend on feels in times like these. Things that used to make sense no longer can be assembled into a meaningful whole- even our sense of meaning feels fragmented.

Imagine our hearts as vessels for the movement of life, of love. Sometimes I feel as if something is pulverized in the center of my chest as I process some new loss, some new disappointment. There is pain in the breaking, and in feeling broken, and even in the mending. Pain and fear, sorrow and anger. We need our spirituality to accompany us in those places. A spirituality that would desert us in our brokenness is, itself broken.

Sometimes our breaking is precipitated by some choice or action of our own, but more often it is out of our control. Either way, we are broken not because we are bad or wrong or inadequate, but because humans are breakable. This is important- a theological point- that parts of us the feel broken are not left out of what is sacred. Our broken parts have inherent worth and dignity. Our broken parts are holy too.

Perhaps you woke this morning feeling broken- and Good for you for joining us in that tender state. I bet all of us have felt some proximity to brokenness this past year, so I want to give us a grounding in a spirituality of brokenness -- for those moments when we feel like a pile of shards.

We begin with compassion for our broken places. If you were mending a broken bone, you would put it in a sling, and treat it gently. We can all probably remember physical injuries that hurt with each jostle- an injury to the body heals more quickly, and more cleanly when we treat it with gentleness, with patience, with quiet. The broken places in our hearts and spirits need the same gentleness, patience, quiet. Compassion makes space for healing.

The path of the spirit asks us to open our hearts to our brokenness, which requires compassion and courage. We might feel unproductive, out of control, unkempt, and the first instinct is to put ourselves back together again as quickly as possible, to hold ourselves together with an act of will if necessary. Because the demands of life keep going- the kids need to be fed, the bills need to be paid, so the question is-- can we keep our hearts open, instead of doubling our defenses as seems instinctive after an injury. This takes so much courage- to be open-hearted after heartbreak, to allow our spirits to be tender when they feel crushed.

I was struck by this poem by Max Mundan who often writes about his struggles with addiction:
Why do we spend all of our precious soft?
trying to be hard
talking like we’re hard
dressing like we’re hard
pretending to be hard
moving like we’re hard
acting like we’re hard
writing like we’re hard
living like we’re hard

until we wake up one morning
and we’d give anything
to feel a little bit of

That softness is often hiding underneath our hard exterior; sometimes when we are broken there is a rare and precious opportunity to touch that soft part of ourselves that many of us have been trained to hide away. That soft, vulnerable part is sacred, is holy. A broken heart cannot be puffed up and proud, it is humble, and open to the reality of what is. If you catch a glimpse of softness, vulnerability, humility when our hearts are broken, please honor it as a blessing and a gift.

When I was on retreat, right after the death of my father, my heart felt trampled. Fortunately, I had nothing to do, nowhere else to be for a week, and so my spirit seemed to take the occasion to bring me every broken shard, of every loss that had never healed. It also brought up past mistakes I had made, failures and disappointments. I allowed myself to just be broken that week. It was the first week of Lent, as it is today in the Christian tradition, and one evening in worship the congregation repeated the response “God loves a broken and humbled heart[i].” And I felt that was speaking right to me, to where I was in that moment. I felt so broken, I was relieved by the reminder that the spirit of Love included even me. As a Universalist, I believe that the divine is a love that will never let us go, but I was amazed that even in my brokenness I was still loved by the divine in a compassion more perfect than my own heart was able to offer. And, in fact, I noticed that my heart was more open to the divine than it had been in a long time. That the hard protective coating that allowed me to move and work in the world had muted my perception of that love, but now was stripped away. [ii]

When our hearts are broken, sometimes things shine through those new openings. Many of you have spoken to me of the love that reached you in times of deepest grief - the love for the person you have lost, or the love of your family and community supporting one another in the loss. In the very place of the breaking, love is shining through.

It’s hard to keep our hearts open -- we feel so vulnerable. Jan Richardson wrote, in "Blessing for the Brokenhearted" for the first Valentines day after her husband’s tragic and untimely death:
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still,
What our heart contains, what flows through our heart, is love. When our hearts are broken, it is ironically love that helps them heal.

Other blessings can flow through those broken places too. Once, when my heart was broken by bullying, I was full of rage, and in that rage I felt truth shining through- the truth of who I was, and the truth of what life needs to thrive. For the bird in our story today it was the beauty of her song that shone through her broken places. If we leave ourselves open, even in our brokenness, we make space for something new to flow through, some gifts form outside ourselves to flow in, or some gift from deep inside we had no idea was in our depths. Some call this Grace.

Now we may feel pressure from ourselves, form our families, toward a premature closure. Sometimes people can’t bear to see us broken, and so they want us to hurry up and go back to being the person they knew before. But the miracle of healing can’t be rushed, because as we are healing, we are re-forming, like a broken bone knitting back together. We have undoubtedly experienced a sort of battlefield healing, where there is not the safety, or the time, or the compassion to stay open, and so we become smaller and more heavily defended after a break, bound up by the scar tissue that saved our lives. Let us shine compassion on these tight places, and strive to create a world where everyone has the safety, the time and compassion they need for their healing.

Even if you know in your head that healing is possible, a broken heart will never be truly the same again, and we have to first grieve the old form before we can see the new form that is taking shape. If we don’t take time to grieve, we betray the reality of that broken moment, the reality of the loss.

Like the bird in today’s story, The Wing, we can’t always be put back together as we were before the breaking, but healing in a new form is possible. Again the words of Jan Richardson, in her poem "Blessing for a Broken Vessel":
I am not asking you
to give up your grip
on the shards you clasp
so close to you

but to wonder
what it would be like
for those jagged edges
to meet each other
in some new pattern
that you have never imagined,
that you have never dared
to dream.
Sometimes, miraculously, people grow bigger and more open to life in the midst of their brokenness. I hope you have had the gift of witnessing people who have experienced great loss, transform, grow and heal beyond what can be imagined or promised. People like Jan Richardson -- whose compassionate and wise poetry has been a comfort to others in their time of great loss. In this very congregation I have known many hearts broken open.

One of the new capacities brokenness makes available to us is greater compassion. Once we know in our hearts what it is to experience a certain breakage, deeper compassion may be possible for others who have suffered a similar loss. The word compassion comes from the roots “suffer together.” I believe compassion is one of the most sacred qualities, because it connects us to one another. I have noticed this is most available when we are first compassionate with ourselves. If we harden our own hearts to our own suffering, it’s likely that hardness will ripple out to the suffering of others. If we can be brave enough to be compassionate with ourselves, to let our hearts stay open even when they are broken, we increase the odds that when finally we begin to heal, we will heal hearts and spirits that are larger, that are more compassionate than before.

Sometimes, we may find in retrospect, the veneer of control, of competence, that we prize so highly, and lost when we were broken, had been limiting who we are and how we could grow. When we break, it sometimes opens us to new truth about what it means to be alive in this world. Please understand, I’m not saying that the breaking is somehow worth it, that our losses were a necessary price for growth. As Richardson’ writes; “Let us agree/ for now/ that we will not say/ the breaking / makes us stronger / or that it is better / to have this pain / than to have done / without this love.”

Only that because we are human, loss and betrayal and pain are part of what it means to be alive. Sometimes in our pain, in our brokenness there is also a blessing, and it is worth the risk of staying open to make space for that blessing.

Our Brokenness is sacred, and the new form we take as we heal is sacred too. In fact we are breaking and healing all the time, it is part of being human, part of being alive. Have courage, friends, when your heart or spirit is broken, have courage to keep your heart open, your spirit open, your mind open however much you are able. And may we be patient, hopeful, courageous and compassionate for all who feel broken. Let us be a blessing to one another in those tender times.

[i] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm%2051&version=HCSB

[ii] I want to be careful to make a theological point here- I don’t believe that we must suffer to receive such compassionate grace. I think that kind of transactional theology has allowed us to let suffering go un addressed. We don’t earn grace through suffering. Brock and Parker do a beautiful job of explaining this in their book Proverbs of Ashes


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

A Season for Imagining

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” wrote Henry David Thoreau, Walden What does it mean to live this season right now?

The beginning of February marks the “cross quarter” – halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Is marked by “Imbolc” an ancient Celtic festival, whose name some say comes from a Gaelic word for “ewe’s milk” or “an Irish word meaning “in the belly” that marked the beginning of the lambing season, It is also called “Brigid’s Day” by the Celts in honor of the goddess Brigid, Christianized into St. Brigit’s day.

I reached out to Julie Perry, a friend of the Athens Congregation, who raises lambs in our area. She writes: “Yes, the farm cycles here in Bradford County are very similar. Most people in the area are in the thick of lambing season. ..Lambs are born with no body fat, but a fast metabolism and significant "brown fat" around the kidneys that provide the energy for warmth. Sheep milk has triple the fat content of cow's milk so they put on insulation quickly! …. Imbolc timing for lambs has their rumen (stomach) maturing to a point it can digest forage in the latter third of April ...which is right when pastures begin to green up and tolerate grazing pressure. “[i]

Julie also reminded me that right about now, tree buds are setting, and that maple syrup begins to flow any time now. On February 2 we woke to a foot of snow, and it snowed all day and into the next. The Algonquian tribes call the February full moon the “Hunger moon” because the winter stores are running low, and no new food has grown to replace it. It is a time of hibernating, of hunkering down. The air is crisp and cold, it stings my nose. Here in the twin tiers, we drink hot things like mint tea, and the last apples of fall, oranges from the south. Let’s take a moment now and share what this season is like for you- what is happening out your window? What are you tasting, breathing, drinking that feels just right to you for this season?

When I first started to observe the wheel of the year, the 4 quarters and 4 cross quarters observed by ancient and modern pagan traditions, I read about each holiday, and tried to memorize the meanings, but in any truly earth-centered tradition, we celebrate not by memory but by observation.

Since we are not raising lambs, this February 2 my family was hunkered down, in a precautionary quarantine so my son could return to school yesterday and I noticed how the season outside my window, was so like the season of this pandemic, and the season in my spirit right now- a time of waiting, of spareness, of preserving our energy. (I feel most like I am living into this season when I can curl up on the couch under a blanket with a good book and a warm dog).

As the days become longer, as vaccinations begin to proliferate, we look forward to spring. The days grow longer, and an observant eye can see the buds on the trees, But here in the North East it is way too early to plant anything.

In their wonderful book Circle Round, they write “Brigit is a time of initiation, which means becoming. We look forward to spring and summer, and start thinking about the work done in the warm time of year. We order seeds from catalogs, make plans for vacations.” [p. 125]

Since I don’t have lambs to raise or maple trees to tap, to me Brigit is seed catalogue time. If you are a gardener, this can have a delicious quality, pouring over the catalogue, imagining all the many things you’d like to grow.

This year, in particular, I believe that imaging, dreaming is important. As my community lies under a blanket of snow, and physical distancing, it is too early to plan many things- I feel like this whole past year any time I try to plan something the world changes and all my plans must change as well. But dreaming is important. Imagining is important. Like the dreams in Appelemando's story today, if we dream big colorful dreams it can help us bring color to the drab times, and light the way forward, especially when we feel lost.

Let me tell you about some of the dreams I’ve been dreaming:

I’ve been imaging that when it is safe to be together outdoors, we could build a temporary labyrinth in the yard of the old Sheshequin meeting house, and invite the whole community to join us – one household at a time- to walk the labyrinth in memory of all we have lost, and our hopes for the future. In my imagination this labyrinth is made of rainbow yarn, knit by volunteers. Will this really happen? Maybe, but the dream of it helps me imagine a hopeful time in the future.

Here’s another dream- that when it is safe for us to star meeting together again in our various buildings, we livestream our services by zoom, so all our friends near and far could join us whenever they were moved. That folks could join us for worship even when they had car trouble, even when they were recovering from some illness or injury.

Just because I’ve imagined these things and said them out loud doesn’t mean they will come true, but if I can imagine it, and you can imagine it, if a moment ever comes that the “bright colors and hues of it” will guide us together into that new place, into making real something that has only ever existed in our imaginations.

I believe the principle works for huge changes, changes that effect a whole country, or a whole globe. Consider Marriage equality. For decades people shared the dream that all people would have the right to marry, and when the moment was right it called to all the people who had seen it, who were moved by it, and reality changed, reality moved toward that dream.

If you watched Star Trek when it first came out, the tricorder was a fantastical thing, but now most of us carry a device in our pockets far more powerful than even Science Fiction could imagine.

Women’s suffrage seemed like an outlandish fantasy for almost a century, but it is an established reality for all of us in the room here today.

So today, in honor of Imbolc, as we wait for the snow to thaw, for the Covid pandemic to come under control, and time to be right for planting, let’s spend some time imagining- big things, little things. I’m going to give us about 10 minutes to do this -- to put into words or images what you’d love to see in the future. For example I suspect some of you have already imagined reunions with family, or sharing dinner with friends in a noisy restaurant. Because I believe dreams have power, we will focus on good dreams -- if they came true you’d be delighted.
  •  What have you already been dreaming of for a time when social distancing restrictions relax? For yourself? For your family? For your community?
  • Consider small dreams that seem pretty realistic, and also your biggest dreams: what would a world that was just and compassionate for people of every race and gender look like? What would a thriving ecosystem look like where all living beings could flourish look like? What kind of world would you like to live in?
  • Consider lighthearted, whimsical dreams as well- what fun and color would you love to see in the world?
  • Just dream- don’t worry about the practicalities of it just now. Who knows what the world will be like in a few weeks, or months or years. It’s the dream we are cultivating today.
Now sometimes, as when the whole town was watching Appelemando, no dreams come. If that happens for you, I encourage you to focus on what you notice in the season today. What is it like where you are right now, this very day? Make a list or a poem or a drawing of what it means to live into this season for you.

[Time for Dreaming and Noticing]

Thank you everyone for dreaming with me. May your dreams add color to your winter days and nights, may they bring us together when we are lost, and may some of them even stick, and make the world more beautiful.


[i] Julie notes: "Your domesticated grazing animals (cows, buffalo, sheep) are all "flowing milk" right now ...Predators are mostly in the woods and do not like open spaces. By the time grass is tall enough to hide a coyote or bobcat and the bears reappear, lambs, calves and goat kids are fast and big enough to out run/outmaneuver them. "

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Cancel Culture?

What shall we do when someone says or does something hateful or hurtful in the public sphere? Let’s imagine that this hurtful thing is, for whatever reason, not being addressed by our laws and our justice system. Maybe the thing is hurtful but not illegal, or maybe it falls through the cracks of our justice system because of systemic racism, or like in a case like Harvey Weinstein, our system puts more energy into protecting powerful people, than crimes against women’s bodies and spirits.

Let’s consider the case of the king in today’s story, "The Dog and the Heartless King". As king, he had the power to hoard resources. His community was organized in a way that allowed people to go hungry, and that did not hold the king accountable. Let’s imagine that the people had already filed all the appropriate petitions, had exhausted all their options, and were still hungry, suffering, starving.

The dog is a vivid metaphor for call out culture- we begin to bark, long and loud, until the king can’t stand it anymore, or maybe the king’s neighbors can’t stand it anymore, the barking creates pressure in a new way that has the potential to lead to change. Call out culture is simply that- calling out publicly a behavior we believe is harmful or hateful.

We the people have long had the power simply to stop supporting the one doing harm- to stop staying at his hotel or buying his comedy albums. If enough people withhold their financial support to hurt your livelihood, you might notice, even if you were rich and powerful.

The term “Cancel Culture” is a new phrase for this old response, one predominantly used by right wing media to describe this use of popular power to hold one another accountable.

According to the website for Adreienne Marie Brown’s Book “We Will not Cancel Us:”

“Cancel or call-out culture is a fraught topic these days. Originating as a way for marginalized and disempowered people to address harm and take down powerful abusers, often with the help of social media, it is seen by some as having gone too far. But what is “too far” when you’re talking about imbalances of power and patterns of harm?”[i]

That’s a valid question- what is too far? As we strive to live ethically, we must be cautious whenever we begin to imagine that the ends justify the means. 

Our UU Principles, simplified
So today I want to invite each of us to begin to formulate our own inner compass around call out culture, so that when we call someone out, or share a call out on social media, we do so firmly rooted in our Unitarian Universalist (UU) Values.

First, UUs believe in speaking truth to power. We’ve been speaking truth to power since Servetus, one of the thought pioneers of what became Unitarianism, stood up to Calvin in the 1500s. Part of what brought the Unitarians and the Universalists together in the 20th century as that we both believed in the social gospel- that we are called to live our beliefs in the world, in making a world in line with our values of “Justice, Equity and Compassion;” so it makes sense that if we see injustice in the world, we would name it- and now we have social media as a huge new forum to do that. Speaking truth to power is often referred to as “call out” culture- where we publicly expose the wrong steps, the hurtful and hateful actions and words of public figures, but also of everyday people. There is no question that call out culture helped push forward a cultural shift around the Me-Too movement, that like the loud barking of the dog in our story, powerful people like Harvey Weinstein, and the studios that had protected him for decades, finally had to ask “what can I do to make the barking stop?”

Now there’s a bit of a problem with my metaphor today, because as we’ve discussed before, there are many terrible example of people comparing marginalized people to animals, as “less than human”. So it might help to know that in the original story, “Sakka, the ruler of all the gods made the god Matali into the shape of a huge black hound, with four tusks each as big as a plantain, with a hideous shape and a fat belly.” [ii] so maybe it would help to think of people who ethically engage in call out culture as “people who embody the divine by barking”

And these mighty barks have indeed brought down the powerful, have caused people to look at a whole range of misdeeds they might never have looked at otherwise.

The problem comes when critique becomes click bait. I asked my husband, who loves to watch YouTube videos each time a new Star Wars movie comes out, why all the titles were like “the top 10 stupid thing about the new movie” has told me that harsh, critical titles are more likely to get clicks, and so to increase review for the Youtubers who make their livings making such videos. Our culture rewards harshness and sharp pithy jabs to what I believe is an unhealthy degree.

Call out culture can be used the same way- there are plenty of stories of an ordinary person making a bad joke, who lost their job, whose lives have been destroyed with public shaming. how might we make sure that the consequence is proportional to the crime? What should the public punishment be for making a bad joke on Twitter? And how long should it last? If that bad joke you made, and the subsequent public shaming is the first thing to come up in every Google search for decades, is there no way to be restored?

I think our Universalist values have something helpful to say about this. Something actually quite challenging and sometimes difficult to live into. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of EVERY person. Even internet trolls, even people who incite insurrection against constitutional democracy. The very foundations of the Universalist movement is that we don’t divide people into groups of “good people” and “sub-humans who don’t matter.” We believe in forgiveness, but sometimes we forgive too quickly because we hate conflict, and just want peace to be restored. In seminary we were challenged to “speak the truth with love.” As we speak truth, we challenge ourselves to do so in as compassionate and non-violet way as we are able.

Our universalist Fore-bearers also had a lot to say about restoration. They believed that every person, no matter how terrible their words or deeds, would ultimately be restored to the wholeness of God. Now, many theologians argued that you might need a good long process first to make you ready, that it might take millennia for some souls to be ready to be restored, but there was no one beyond divine forgiveness.

This reminds me of something folks are calling “call in culture”- where the point is not just to shame and hurt the one who has wronged us, but to call them to accountability, to call them to be better. Can you think of a time in your own life when someone called you in? Where someone pointed out a misstep you took, maybe a misstep that hurt someone, in such a way that your eyes were opened, and you were able to apologize and make changes so you would avoid that mistake in your future? Calling someone in is challenging, both for the person who is probably ashamed and embarrassed and defensive about what they did, and for the person who speaks the truth with love, and helps you grow in a way you can hear.

There are real dangers from demanding that all “call outs” should be transformed to “call in.” There’s a clear critique of people of privilege using “niceness” to silence dissent. Even Martin Luther King talked about this in his Letter from Birmingham Jail
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate...who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

I turned to Sonya Renee Taylor author of “The Body is Not an Apology” to help me understand how not to fall into that trap. I highly recommend her Ted Talk[iii]Let’s Replace Cancel Culture with Accountability” (It was really helpful, and I want to honor her contribution to my thinking about this sermon) She pointed out the emotional labor required to “Call in” someone who has been hurtful and hateful. Folks who face racism or misogyny or transphobia every day cannot possibly call in all those abusers, nor should they have to. Taylor uses this metaphor; if someone is stepping on your foot, you get to say “get off my foot” and if you are in pain, you might not say it diplomatically or nicely. This is really important. So often our culture has asked those being abused to take responsibility for the feelings of their abuser. If someone is on your foot, it is not your responsibility to fix them or change them or make them comfortable. May you be simply blessed with the courage and strength to say “no” to say “get off my foot.”
Image by Janet Meyer

Taylor invites folks who do have privilege in a certain situation to call in their own folks- for white folks to call in other white folks who are ignorantly or maliciously saying or doing racist things. For cisgender folks to call in cisgender folks. If you see someone stepping on feet, please say “get off their foot.”

Sonya Renee Taylor proposed the idea of “calling on” people- just naming the behavior that his hateful or hurtful, and calling on that person take responsibility for their own growth and change. Being loving and compassionate must include healthy boundaries. It must include accountability. Part of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is believing that each person is accountable for their own behavior, that each person has the capacity to grow in ethical behavior, to make amends, and when they do, to be restored to the community of beings.

As a Universalist I believe in restoration, I believe there must be a path back. I believe, with the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative that each of us is “more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I think we need to collectively imagine a path back from being called out, from being cancelled. We need to teach and practice what it means to remove our own feet and say “I am so sorry I stepped on your foot, let me take responsibility for taking dance classes, or sensitivity training, or whatever it’s going to take for me to stop stepping on people’s feet. And to ask- would you like me pitch in for your medical bills? that looks like it still hurts.” This is something we need to teach and learn and practice as a culture. Whether it’s being called out for a micro-aggression[iv] or for more serious offenses, a Restorative justice, where offender and victim are involved in a process to repair harm. That’s a complex topic, probably best kept for another day. But creating opportunities for restoration is an important part of imagining how what our UU values might be put to work in the world.

As Unitarian Universalists called to living ethically, we challenge ourselves to think beyond “what is normal” or “what is usual” in our cultural context, to “what would produce growth and health, what would be life-giving in our time?” Your context will make a difference in how you answer; is your foot so bruised you only have the strength to yell “stop?” Might you speak up with you see others feet being trampled? Do you feel moved to a longer conversation of restoration and transformation, or is it enough to say “here is what I see, and that is not okay?” This week as you hear the news, read your social media feed, or notice that family member who has a habit of stepping on feet, I invite you to wonder, “how do my UU values call me to respond? Is this a moment I feel called to speak the truth with love?

End notes

[i] https://www.akpress.org/we-will-not-cancel-us.html
[ii] http://kj6zwr.org/from-long-ago/the-dog-and-the-heartless-king/
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vCKwoee27c
[iv] https://hbr.org/2020/07/youve-been-called-out-for-a-microaggression-what-do-you-do
[v] https://restorativejustice.org/

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

When Words are Not Enough

What does it mean to you when we light our chalice each Sunday? 
 We heard the story about where it comes from, and what it was meant to mean at the very start- “we are here to help”. It has been a beacon of hope. A symbol of our commitment for working for justice. If you were to pull out our hymnal right now and search under chalice lightings, you would see that authors have compared it to:
  • the light of truth, 
  • the warmth of community, 
  • the fire of commitment,
  • The lamp of our heritage
  • Spark of the universe that warmed our ancestral hearth
  • The flame of ongoing life in our time of grief
Did any of those jump out at you as “Yes, that’s it”? Did any seem strange or wrong?

When I was a little girl sitting in the sanctuary of my childhood Unitarian Universalist church next to my family, I wondered “but what does the chalice REALLY mean?”
Here’s the thing about symbols, it means all of those things at the same time, and more besides.
To me, since we have been meeting by Zoom, I love seeing folks light their own chalice in their own homes- the UU Diaspora. It is a strong symbol that we are connected in purpose, in community even when we are apart.

With shared symbols, like a chalice, there are public meanings. When the chalice logo was first created, it had a shared public meaning of help to refugees. When you and I see it on a website or email from the UUA we know “this is from the UUA” As simple as that. Back when we used to go to General Assembly in person, we would wear our chalice pins and t-shirts as we traveled, and as we got closer and closer to our destination, we could pick out our fellow UUs and greet each other like old friends.

But a symbol also has private and personal meanings. For me, the lighting of a chalice means something important and sacred is about to happen. One new UU who was a retired Episcopalian priest, thought of the communion chalice when he first attended a UU worship, and was blown away by the symbol of drinking the flame.

A really good symbol has room for many meanings and grows in meaning over time. Our chalice holds within it every time we’ve ever lit a chalice. It connects us to UUs who come before us and after us, it also touches other kinds of candles we’ve lit, even the campfires we’ve gazed into.

Sometime when there are intangible, abstract things we want to talk about, to communicate with others or just to make sense of our own reality, a symbol can help. As UUs we don’t have a lot of symbols, but the world is full of symbols that can support us in our meaning making.

Since the start of this pandemic, there has been a kind of waiting, a kind of in-between time as we hope for a future when Covid doesn’t constrain our lives. People talk about going back to what it was like before, but I suspect that our future will feel quite different. Take a moment now, and think what this time has been like for you… are there words or images that you use to describe it? That help you make meaning of this time?

If a word or image doesn’t come to you, don’t worry about it, (sometimes it takes me days to come up with a good image) but as you hear other people’s words and images, try them on- do any seem right to you?

One word for an in-between waiting time is a “liminal” time; the word liminal comes from a Latin word for threshold, for the cross piece in the bottom of a door way. A liminal time is like hovering one foot over the threshold, crossing between one space and the next. [i]

Let’s play with that image for a moment- try it on. Imagine a closed door, locked. Where are the places in our lives when we come up to a locked door and batter ourselves against it? A door that opens, we peek through, wondering at what’s on the other side? Are there moments in your life that have felt like an open door? Or crossing through that threshold, leaving one space and entering another?

Today I’m not being too picky about the difference between a metaphor and a symbol. But I liked this description of a symbol: “a symbol is used as a stand-in for a much more complex, and generally more abstract, idea.”[ii] Like a liminal space-- that’s pretty complex and abstract. And when we use a symbol like “threshold”, it reminds us that our specific experience right now, is like something tangible and concrete – we all have a lot of experience of doors from our daily life. That symbol also helps us feel connected to every other person, every other in-between time anyone’s ever experienced. It’s like a node, a point of connection that could help me look at my situation, at our situation in a bigger way, from many different directions. When I read Jan Richardson’s poem Blessing the Door, it showed me something that helped me make meaning of my own experience- not one door that you go through but many doors. I felt a sense of “aha” when I read that- it feels real to me that we don’t just step through one door and everything changes. It gave me a new way of looking at things.

The idea liminal space feels right to me for this time, but the door symbol doesn’t capture all of it, because we’ve been in it SO LONG, and the way forward is so unclear. Let me offer a poem by our UU poet Lyn Ungar that she wrote early in the pandemic called Twilight.

When I read that poem I felt “aha- yes, I know what that’s like”- feeling turned around, and not knowing if things are getting better or things are getting worse- wandering in the half light. And I think it must be how other people have been feeling too, because I noticed in the inauguration ceremony and festivities how many artists used images of sunrise, of dawn. Bon Jovi sang “Here comes the sun” on a pier in Florida, as the sun rose behind him. John Legend sang Nina Simone’s lyrics in front of the Lincoln memorial: “It's a new dawn/ It's a new day / It's a new life for me, / And I'm feeling good.”

And when our poet laureate Amanda Gormin ended her inaugural poem with these words:
“when the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
I know I was not the only person whose eyes filled with tears imagining dawn blooming, “if only.”

Dawn seems a universal symbol for us humans- it speaks of a fresh start, of new life, of hope. If you’ve ever been up all night worrying or ill, a night that feels like it will never end, there’s a kind of relief that comes when the sun finally begins to rise. When I was on sabbatical last year I committed to the practice of waking up before dawn and watching the sunrise. I can tell you that not all dawns are the same, but if the weather is mild, the birds are there too, in gathering number, and a growing chorus of song. Some birds are up getting breakfast or doing whatever work birds do in that crepuscular time, but I swear to you there are always birds that are just sitting still on a branch, for what seems to be the sole purpose of witnessing the sunrise. Dawn is a powerful symbol for humans of something intangible and complex -- what it feels like to make it through a hard night, and the relief, and hope and awe that comes with the return of the sun.

I heard a lot of words this week amid the pomp and circumstance, words that people worked hard on, and most of them I forgot immediately. But my spirit responds to the idea that “the new dawn blooms”, it gives my soul something to hold on to. I encourage you as our service comes to a close, to choose a symbol that feels helpful to you- one that names where you are right now, or where you’d like to go. Keep it by you in the coming week, in a physical way if possible. Light a chalice, get up early for sunrise, pause as you cross through a doorway, find a picture of your chosen symbol online and make it your wallpaper on your phone or computer …whatever feels interesting to you. (Of course as UUs you can always pass- you can choose no symbols of all if that feels most authentic). Even symbols we share with others are highly personal- you get to decide what is meaningful to you. Like a light on the horizon, symbols give us light to navigate by in unmapped times. Today I’m imagining a new dawn, and go out hopefully to meet the day.
End Notes
[i] liminal (adj.)- "of or pertaining to a threshold," 1870, from Latin limen "threshold, cross-piece, sill" (see limit (n.)) + -al (1). Related: Liminality.

[ii] https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/53324/metaphor-vs-symbol

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Freely Given

I grew up with the commandment from the Jewish and Christian scriptures[i] saying “though shalt not steal.” The Buddhist Precept says “Do not take that which is not freely given.” I suspect most religions include some sort of admonition against stealing, but recently I’ve been curious- is this a difference that makes a difference? I think it does. When I thought about what stealing meant as a child, I imagined shoplifting, or a bank robber. As an adult I learned about more subtle kinds of stealing, like wage theft, or tax fraud. In our culture we talk about “taking what is rightfully mine” or “what I deserve.” But how do we define what is rightfully mine? In a country where the laws themselves have injustice and racial bias woven into them, just following the law may not be the most ethical position. If we consider the precept “do not take that which is not freely given” we are asked to consider not only whether I need something, or have a right to it, but the wishes of the one from whom I take it.

As a congregation committed to ethical living, I think it’s important to challenge our ethical thinking with new perspectives. I want to offer just 2 examples today of where this might make a difference, but I encourage you to get curious and notice where there is a difference in your daily life and in the news of the world. I suspect you will find many more than 2.

The First example I want to offer today is about how we use Art and Music. Many of you know that I grew up in a family of musicians, so I know first hand that many musicians and artists struggle to make ends meet. There are very few salaried positions in the arts, and very few gigs pay enough money for artists to actually live on.

Since the time of Covid, things have been desperate for many musicians. I have a conductor friend who was one of the lucky ones making sustainable living in music, and had her calendar booked for years out. She posted on Facebook last spring as each one of her contracts was cancelled, and she looked out over a year or more with no discernible source of income. Musicians are a vulnerable population right now.

The internet is full of amazing music just a click away. If you play it on Spotify, or other streaming services, it returns some fraction of a penny to the artist. Some music on YouTube provides artists with a small advertising revenue if it has enough views. Other music is illegally posted and the artists never see a penny. How we compensate musicians for their labor is a big spectrum from “what can I get away with” to “how does the law define stealing” to “what do the artists who created this piece of music need to live.” 
Katie, our gifted pianist
Our worship team has generally made the decision to receive in gratitude the live performance
by Katie each Sunday, or to hire Brin to play for us, rather than playing videos. The UUA has encouraged Worship teams to ask artists directly for permission to use their work. When we used Lang Elliot’s bird sounds last spring, it was after I wrote to him and asked his permission to use it in worship, and purchased his album. I wrote a note to the author of today’s reading through the messaging app on Facebook, and we had a good conversation about how I would use her story, before she gave me permission to read it here today to you all. I was looking for more information about our song of the month, and found on the UUA site this “If you choose to sing his music or show Jim Scott's video in your online worship service, Jim kindly requests that you make a goodwill financial contribution, via PayPal, using the link on his website.” The worship team talked, and decided that playing his video today, and making a donation was a good way to support one UU musician, and by honoring his specific request, to practice only taking that which is freely given.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Brin

Now let’s take look at the systemic issues in the music industry. There is a long history of people stealing, borrowing, co-opting, or otherwise using the cultural products of artists who may live a life of poverty, despite creating a hit song that makes millions for someone else. There is a history of racial injustice specifically in the American recording industry that really pushes this point of how Secular America defines stealing, and what it would mean to take only what is freely giving.

In “Race & Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic.” Charles Gallaher and Cameron Lippard explain that white owned record companies had a practice of paying artists a flat fee for their songs, instead of paying royalties. “Unfamiliar with U.S. copyright laws, the artists would sign the contract, collect the fees — and lose all ownership rights (hence, future royalties) to the song.” They offer the example of Fred Parris, who wrote the song “In the Still of the Night,” which sold between 10 million and 15 million copies. If he had been offered a standard contract, he might have made $100,000 in royalties. Instead they paid him a flat fee of $783. Ahmet Ertegen, the founder of Atlantic Records, remembers a Columbia Records executive who said their company never paid its black artists royalties.

In R&B, Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music, editor Norman Kelley describes a time in the ’50s when this practice was rampant:
“Often catapulted to success from a neighborhood street corner or, like Little Richard, from a bus terminal kitchen where he was washing dishes, black musicians seldom had access to good advice about record contracts, royalty payments, marketing, promotion, or career development. As a result, they were routinely swindled out of their publishing rights and underpaid for record sales.”[ii]

Certainly there are artists who have had their intellectual property stolen, in the traditional sense, but this injustice – where white corporations made millions while the actual songwriters made a few hundred dollars- this was completely legal. It was entirely legal to offer your white artists royalties, and to offer black artists a one time payment withholding the information that it was standard for artists to receive royalties, and that the record company stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars form the song you recorded.

Now I’d like to shift to a 2nd example – how might we, a faith that “honors the wisdom of the world’s religious” approach those religious ideas, practices, sacred texts, in a way that is respectful, in a way that takes only what is freely given. This can be a little confusing to us, who grew up in a culturally Christian country, because every hotel room has a Gideon’s bible. Christianity is an evangelizing faith, Christians believe they are called to share the good news far and wide: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” - Mark 16:15. I feel like I have clear consent to quote Christian scriptures in worship.

I was taught in UU Sunday School, that when we visit another faith community, we always ask before we take part of their private traditions. The answer is often yes but not always - some communities require a Christian Baptism to participate fully, other Christian traditions require a particular training or status. When I applied to the Spiritual Director training program I warned them that was UU, and still they welcomed me warmly. The teachers and other participants were mostly vowed religious priests and nuns who know something about contemplation and the movements of the spirit that comes from centuries of wisdom and is just not part of what we UUs have to teach. I have been repeatedly moved by their generous inclusion and grateful for the traditions and wisdom they have shared with me, which have changed my life in powerful ways.

But just because those communities of liberal Catholic contemplatives have freely shared their gifts with me, doesn’t mean every tradition is mine to explore. For example, some of the ways UUs use Jewish tradition in worship that feel like microaggressions to Jewish people. This is why as a UU minister you will never hear me lead the Jewish prayers in our worship – if there are Jewish members of our congregation who want to lead the prayers, we are delighted to accept their gift freely given. But if some year our Jewish members don’t want to take a leadership role, or tell us it feels weird or wrong to, for example, light Hanukkah candles in the daytime at our Sunday service, we will respect that too.

This is particularly problematic in our relationship to the spiritual practices and teachings of indigenous traditions. Why? Because peoples of those traditions tell us so. Native traditions do not tend to be evangelizing, they tend to be closely tied to a particular place and a particular community. Some native folks say “you have taken so much from us already, why must you take our private sacred traditions too?” Now of course Indigenous peoples don’t speak with one voice, and there are lots of different opinions about how and with whom culture is shared. So we ask every time “May I?” and we respect the answer.

It occurs to me that the idea of “only taking what is freely given” is a lot like the important dialogue going on in our culture about what does “consent” mean. The organization “Breakthrough” believes fighting for the rights of women and girls begins with changing culture:
“We create ‘consent culture’ when we value the feelings of people we are interacting with either casually or professionally. It’s about respecting each other’s personal and emotional boundaries every time...
“Consent culture goes beyond sex and applies to everyday interactions- from sharing a photo of someone online, to asking before giving a hug. Consent should be voluntary, enthusiastic, sober, verbal, non-coerced, continuous and honest.” [iii]

I think this is a great rubric to understand what is “freely Given” “Voluntary, enthusiastic, sober, verbal, non-coerced, continuous and honest.” That “continuous” – that’s an important point. It means that consent can be taken away. That what was once freely given, may no longer be, so we keep asking. Consent is specific, and we ask each step of the way.

I attended a virtual workshop about ancestor practices with Enroue Halfkenny, and he spoke to us about cultural appropriation. He was very clear when he lead us in a particular practice- this is for your use, he said, this is not for you to teach or share. I could say “I paid to attend that webinar, that’s mine now to use as I want” but that would not be freely given.

This can be disappointing. When someone answers "no" to a request I made, it sometimes feelse terrible;  I felt ashamed, angry, righteous, all the things. If I want something, and I feel like It is reasonable, and someone tells me “no” I have a choice to make.

In 2016 our Coven of UU pagans wrote a statement about their commitment to consent culture:
“Consent culture is a culture in which asking for consent is normalized and encouraged. It is respecting the person's response even if it isn't the response we had hoped for. We will live in a consent culture when we no longer objectify people and we value each other as human beings."[v]
That’s really where the rubber hits the road- “even if the response isn’t the response we hoped for.” I’m not sure what we would have done for worship that Sunday if Lang Elliot hadn’t given us permission to use his bird sounds, or if Jessica Chase had not given us permission to share her daughter's moving story this morning. But that is our challenge as a community dedicated to ethical living, to wrestle with the subtleties of what I can and should take, and what is freely given.

The Buddhist precept “do not take that which is freely given” seems to me to harmonize beautifully with our UU values, and challenges us to stretch ourselves ethically. So I invite you as you go about your week, to notice this spectrum of ethical living- from “what can I get away with taking” to “what is mine by law and by right” to “what is freely given?” I believe that we Unitarian Universalists are called to manifest and grow a culture of consent. To empower one another and even our little children to ask “may I?” and to be willing to listen to the answer even when it is “no” even when it is disappointing to us. And like the wise people at CraigPokesU, may we have the wisdom and the courage to step back graciously when consent is not given, or withdrawn, and may we have the wisdom to accept gratefully all the wonderful gifts that are freely given.

End Notes
[i] I want to note that if you read the wise commentaries of Jewish Scholars on the scripture, they will also give a much more nuanced interpretation of the commandment not to steal[i], so I’m not really comparing the Jewish and Buddhist teachings, but our popular American definition

[ii] https://observer.com/2017/02/capitalism-has-suppressed-black-musicians/

[iii] https://inbreakthrough.org/consent-culture-what-does-it-mean/

[v] From <https://www.cuups.org/CUUPS-Consent-Culture-Statement>


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Like a Clear and Quiet Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for trying that with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

It's Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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