Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stories Like Constellations

 10 stones, 3 stories

I was noticing how you could use the exact same group of things to make 3 very different stories:

Story 1: 

It had been cloudy all weekend, but the last day of their vacation was a sunny day and so the family set off on a walk. The walked through the woods, and followed the stream all the way down to the great lake. The family played on the shore there, scrambling over rocks and exploring, putting their toes in the cold lake, and gazing out at the horizon, amazed that a lake could be so big. The day was so beautiful, and they were so glad to be together as a family. But the knowledge that this was their last day hovered over them like a cloud, and it was sad to leave the beautiful lake, and their special time together. They promised themselves they would always remember this wonderful family adventure.

Story 2: 

Water flows down through all the tiny creeks and streams into larger and larger tributaries until finally it flows into the lakes and the oceans. The sun shines on the water and it evaporates into the clouds, then the water rains down back onto the earth and feeds the trees, and the people and life itself. And this water cycle repeats and repeats endlessly all over the world.

Story 3:

The young geologist was out doing research in the forest. Her research required her to be out in sunny weather and terrible weather surveying, but she didn’t care, because she loved being out in nature, and she loved her research. One day as she was out taking samples, she followed our human footprints and found that toxic chemicals were flowing into the local watershed. She was so sad and angry to see that this was happening to a place she loved and had spent so much time studying, and so she vowed that day that she was going to dedicate herself and her research to protecting this ecosystem from harmful human footprints. She vowed that one day she would come back and see this watershed clean again. 

I wonder what story you would make with those very same stones?

A special note of thanks to Dr. Leanne Hadley for these symbols, her beautiful "Holy Listening Stones" I encourage you to explore visit her website and explore.

Stories Like Constellations

Do you remember the first time someone showed you a constellation? I remember thinking “that doesn’t look anything like a bear” I mean, the big dipper does look kind of like a ladle, but most of those constellations are real head-scratchers. Of course the important thing is not that it looks like a swan, or a hunter, or a bear, but that constellations helps us orient ourselves to the sky, to notice that it’s really the same stars every night, even when the earth’s motion causes their position in the sky to change. Imagining constellations helps us to make connections across time and space, Noticing, naming, and then tying it to a story, all help us orient ourselves when we look at the night sky.

We do this same thing in our own lives - constantly making up stories about why things happen and what those events mean. Out of the millions of events of our lives, small and large, when we tell the story of our life we choose a few that feel important to us, like stars that shine most brightly, and tell our story that way. For example, when I write my bio that is on the church website, I chose growing up in a musical family, going to music school to become an opera singer, dropping out of opera school, moving to California to go to seminary, serving the Palo Alto congregation as their Minister of Religious Education and becoming a mother at the same time, then moving back east with my family and Son, settling in Ithaca and becoming your minister. That’s a pretty good story, it explains where I cam from and why I’m here today. It totally leaves out many important stars in my sky though, it leaves out my love of plants, and my passion for the environment, it leaves out my white privilege, and how race has impacted my life. All stories center some things and leave others out, or leave them in the background. As Author Rebecca Solnit says “The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.”

Consider how peoples who live in different places have different names, different stories for the constellations. I was taught that the big dipper is part of a constellation called Ursa Major (Big Bear) after ancient Greek myth about a nymph turned into a bear to protect her from a God’s jealousy. In the Ojibwe culture, the same stars are named after the Fisher, a 4 legged hunter common in the great lakes area, who was pinned to the sky by an arrow as he fled, having successfully rescued the birds and the spring form the spirit monsters[i]. In Hindu Astronomy, what I think of as the big dipper is called Sapta Rashi- the seven great sages. In Arabian culture, the bowl of the big dipper is a coffin, and the handle is the mourners following it. Depending on where you live, where you stand, what time of day it is, what time of year, different stars are more visible, more prominent in the sky. Where some see a bear, others look at the same stars and see sages. It’s okay that we have different stories, and when you notice that you don’t seem to be on the same page as someone else, it can help to ask their story about what you are looking at together.

Stories can be helpful tools- they help us remember where we are headed. Here’s a super simple story “I’m going to go to seminary because I want to understand what it all means and I want to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.” So even though it takes 5 years or longer from making that decision through getting your first minister job, you have a story to hold all those millions of everyday events from researching seminaries, filling out applications, taking out student loans, moving, writing papers, doing an internship… you get the idea. The story gives a shape and a purpose to that time. That’s a tiny little personal story. There are big stories too- Joanna Macy has one I like called the Great Turning. It’s the story of how we the people had participated in damaging and endangering life on earth, and causing this great extinction event, but we are gradually waking up to the harm we were causing, and slowly but insistently turning the great ship of society towards healing and justice for humans and all living beings. It’s a story that takes some sad and challenging facts, and forms them into a shape that provides hope and purpose. All of us have a role in that story, it’s like a giant constellation that holds my little one, like how the big dipper is part of the Ursa Major.

You could easily look at the world and tell another story. One story I hear a lot is “humans have ruined the earth, we are terrible and selfish, we are headed for an inevitable apocalyptic hellscape, and there is nothing we can do about it. We see that story on TV a lot. I remember asking my husband “don’t we have any shows that aren’t set in an apocalypse?” (We switched over the Great British Baking Show and that helped a lot.) You can see why we would tell that story- looking at the exact same facts that give shape to the story of the great turning but the question is- how does the story impact our mental health? How does it impact our actions? I know when I hear the “all is lost” story it makes me depressed and I want to just give up. In fact the Research shows that stories of guilt and hopelessness are not great at motivating people. Some stories have the power to heal, other stories are like viruses. Finding healing stories is part of our role as a faith tradition.

I’ve also heard a story that goes: “don’t worry about Global Climate change, technology will save the day” But this story leaves out lots of important information about suffering and loss that are happening right now. It may not make us depressed, but it doesn’t spur us to action either. Stories that are unconnected to reality are unreliable guides for life in the real world. Stories that are grounded in reality are better guides.

Here’s a story I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; what is the meaning of the second half of life? I’ve just turned 50, my son is off at college, and I’ve been a minister for almost 25 years. People tell themselves all kinds of stories at midlife. One common story is of regret- the great love lost, the accolades never won. Another story is of the glory days- The good times gone and never come again, and things are all downhill from here. Some folks tell a story about a fresh start- the story of midlife where you leave your family and your career and start again, a new life for the second half. But what if you like your family, and you like your job? One story I could tell goes: “well, I did it- I became a minister, I raised a son, I have a long record of service to our denomination, I did what I set out to do. I have served my purpose” but that story doesn’t really help me figure out what to do next. I am looking for a story with a new chapter. Betty Freidan wrote in her exhaustive book “Fountain of Age” that while the story we tell is that it’s all downhill in the second half of life, human development has new stages we’ve hardly studied, that there are parts of our minds that grow and develop into our elder years. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller contend in their book “From Age-ing To Sage-ing” that everyone grows old, but not everyone becomes an elder. Of all those different stories about the 2nd half of life, I find most inspiring the story where now at age 51 I am want to be an apprentice elder. This feels like a story that gives a sense of meaning and purpose and hope. You could tell all those stories about the second half of life looking at the same facts, but each leads to different places. I want to choose a story that inspires, heals and strengthens me for the journey ahead.

Even if we find a really good story, there is a danger in holding our story too tightly. When new stars appear, perhaps because you’ve got a new more powerful telescope, the story must be flexible enough to include them. Consider Galileo whose gazing at the stars and planets through his new telescope revealed new proof for Copernicus’s theory that the earth revolves around the sun. But the Religious hierarchy was telling another story, a rigid story that could not be moved. That scripture said :

The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. [Psalm 96:10]
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. [Ecclesiastes 1:5]

And there was only one possible interpretation of those scriptures, so Galileo’s new story about how the universe worked could not even be entertained. This has always been one of the great strengths of our Unitarian tradition- the ability to take new discoveries, new information into our story. That’s part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

Such flexibility is important in our more personal stories as well. Think about the teens who graduated high school during Covid and headed off to college this very pandemic year. Now think about every movie you’ve ever seen about college life. Those usual stories of college life are just going to bring sadness and confusion to our Covid freshmen. I say to my son as he struggles through a hard semester in near isolation “college is always hard, but you are also making history. You are not just going to college, you are also surviving a pandemic” There is a great crisis of meaning whenever a beloved and useful story is challenged, that’s a basic truth of being human, but the gift is that we can also change our stories, a little or a lot, responding to changing world we encounter.

Finally, we have to remember that people are not their stories. Even that super factual bio I gave you at the beginning; all those statements are true, but that’s not me. Each person is more complex, more subtle, more dynamic more interconnected than even a methodically researched biography. A story is just a tool, that helps us remember where we have come from and where we are going. The stories we share help us head in the same direction with a common purpose.

This week I invite you to notice the stories all around you- Notice different the stories about the same events. Notice the stories we tell on the news and on social media - the stories that heal, the stories that harm. Notice the stories we tell about our own lives, and if you notice the story you are telling feels limiting or uninspired, change it- it’s just a story. And when you find a story that inspires you, delights you or gives you a sense of purpose and hope, share it so whenever we feel a little lost we can look up and remember where we are.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The April Fool

Being an adult is great for some things. I know how to do my taxes, when to take the car in to have the snow tires off, and that even though it looks like spring out there, we have not seen the last of the snow and frost, and it is way too early to plant tomato plants in the garden. I know things about myself- that there will be consequences if I eat dairy, and that I do my best writing in the morning.

But sometimes These same gifts of experience are also the greatest challenge for we who consider ourselves to be grownups. We have seen government leaders come and go, we have seen rampant corruption, we have seen intractable problems continue year after year, decade after decade. I started a fantasy novel recently in which the idealistic protagonists set out to create a utopian society. “we know how well that will turn out” I said to my husband. He looks up from the news and replies “what could go wrong?” It’s easy to become jaded. We put together all those thousands of past experiences, and have trouble imaging a future that doesn’t contain all those same old pitfalls. We create a life based on what we have learned of ourselves, of what we prefer, of what is expected of us, and it can easily become like a pair of shoes that are too tight. The world can become small and predictable. But this pandemic is a perfect example of how things can change so quickly in ways we did not expect. April fool’s day reminds us that there are universal patterns, archetypes, that open doors from our adult confinement. Today we will consider the fool, the trickster and the Child who remind us that the unexpected is not only possible but inevitable.

An archetype is sort of a character that all of us is familiar with, is a character that all humans have encountered at some point in their life. Today I want to describe 3 archetypes, the first archetype is the fool. The fool, at least as it is presented in the tarot deck, is a character of innocence. The one who acts without knowing. The common picture in many tarot decks is of a young person about to step off a cliff onto thin air. Any sensible adult would look at that and say “What is he doing, that’s crazy and dangerous, foolish.” But this archetype contains the possibility that somehow things might turn out okay. Like Mr. Magoo, do any of you remember that old cartoon? That nearsighted fellow was constantly teetering on the precipice of disaster, only to be caught by some accident of fate.

The fool relies on intuition and faith to make his way into the unknown. Even we sensible adults have to do this all the time. Here’s a really mundane example- I just made a vacation reservation for September. What is the world going to be like in September? Who knows! There could be a whole new strain of the virus that our vaccines don’t protect us from. One of us could lose our job and we could be broke. There could be an early cold snap and It will be too cold to put the kayaks in the water. I sat there with my finger hovered over the “reserve now” button for quite a long time, thinking of all the uncertainties, and finally clicked, stepping out past the edge of solid ground, into the uncertainty and the unknown. Any new adventure, any new project requires all of us to be a bit of the fool.

The fool is the archetype of beginnings, and so is perfect for spring. Those beautiful spring days of March invite us to hope, even though we know winter is not done with us. Our spirits need a fresh start with a fresh season, We need to go out in to the spring, enjoy spring, hope for the growing season, even knowing winter’s return is guaranteed. The fool is a helpful archetype for living with uncertainty.

A related archetype is the trickster. Where the fool is innocent, the trickster is wily. Many folk tale traditions have tricksters- like Anansi, or Briar Rabbit. Or perhaps Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. The trickster comes up with the plan no one is expecting, and so can find solutions and outcomes that folks expecting the ordinary will not see coming. This is why the trickster is a popular archetype among folks who live outside privilege, outside traditional power structures. The GameStop stock drama, where day traders drove the stock prices up defying all market expectation [i]- that was an act of the trickster archetype. Banksy[ii], and other graffiti artists are tricksters. The legislator or lobbyist who slips something into a bill that no one reads is a trickster. I will admit to you this archetype is a challenge to me. I like when things follow a plan, but writer Elizbeth Johnson, in her book Ask the Beasts reminds us that nature too is a trickster. She writes:
“if all were law, the natural world would ossify; its ordered structure would be rigid, repetitive deterministic. If all were chance, nature would dissolve into chaos; no new patterns would persist long enough to have an identity. But chance operating within a lawlike framework introduces novelty within a pattern that contains and directs it. Their creative interplay brings forever new living forms. Rather than being an enemy of law, then, chance is the very means by which nature becomes continuously creative” [Johnson p. 170-171]
Life needs both regular predictable things, and new and surprising things- that is what makes nature creative and sustainable, that is how the natural world has adapted and survived all these billions of years.

In fact, the origins of April Fools day may be rooted in the unpredictable nature of spring itself. There’s much debate about the origin of our April Fool’s day, but it seems like folks at our latitude have been celebrating something at this time of year since at least as far back as ancient roman festivals called “Hilaria” to the goddess Cybele. There are foolish traditions around the spring equinox in France and Scotland, and historians theorize that underlying them all is the quixotic nature of spring, a beautiful 70 degree day with sun, followed by an unwelcome wintry mix. I think we’ve all been caught up in mother nature’s spring pranks at one time or another. I’ll never forget the year I preached at Big Flats on Easter, and watched the snow fall thickly all through the sermon, hiding all the eggs hidden for the Easter egg hunt under a blanket of snow. Mother nature the trickster in all her glory.

The Child archetype is one I need the most right now. It’s easy for us adults to lose some inner vitality. When we get stuck in “what will probably happen” the well-worn patterns of how things usually go, how we need things to go to keep the bills paid, the gutters clear, to present a professional persona at work that folks can trust and depend on. In a hard year like this one, we need not only our adult self who can figure out how to make an online vaccine appointment, but we also need the child archetype who has a wisdom our adult self has forgotten.

I loved that story from Susan’s reading, of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung trying to get in touch with his inner child. After thinking about it, analyzing it, with no success[iii], he had to get down on his hands and knees and start building things out of blocks. This is not always easy. Adults are used to being good at things, at being competent and in control, and if we truly take up the inner child, we might appear a bit foolish.

I remember being, maybe 7, and coloring in my Winnie the Pooh coloring book. I remember the satisfaction of just filling in the shapes with my crayons, and enjoying the result. I hadn’t really drawn anything since, because my adult self knows I’m “not good at drawing” and I don’t have any training or experience. Like the child in our Panda story today, I decided to put aside drawing something perfect, and just drawing “my own way” to reconnect with that satisfaction I got coloring when I was little. I don’t post my drawings on Instagram or anything, if I’m really pleased I might show one good friend, because I have made a decision that I’m not trying to make good art, I’m just trying to give my inner child an opportunity to play.

I think part of the reason I like yoga so much is because you get to roll around on the floor. Adults are definitely not supposed to roll around on the floor- unless you have your yoga outfit on and you are exercising, then it is perfectly okay.

I was at the lake with my husband last weekend, and he was throwing rocks into the lake. This was what he did with his grandfather when he was little, he explained, his grandfather took him down to the edge of the Susquehanna and they would throw rocks into the water together. And I was glad his inner child had come out to play.

What does your inner child love? What does it need right now? Our poor inner children have been trapped inside being responsible for so long. Spring is calling us out to play. There are so many opportunities for stomping in the mud, for digging in the dirt. Before long we will be able to pick dandelions and make dandelion chains. I remember endless battles over whose turn it was to swing in my friend’s hammock that lasted all summer long. There are plenty of things our inner child can do inside too- making forts, decorating Easter eggs, playing with play-doh or Legos or Lincoln logs. I invite you to ask yourself, what were you drawn to as a child? What was the activity you could not tear yourself away from when your parents called you for dinner? As your minister, I encourage you to find time this week to check in with the child archetype; what would delight them right now? It doesn’t have to make sense, or be useful or productive. Experiment, try a few things and see what feels most delightful. If you feel foolish you are probably on the right track.

We need our child archetype not only for the health and wholeness of our spirits, but for the health and wholeness of our society as well. When adults lose hope looking back at the history of racist policing in this country, and lose heart that real change is possible, the inner child fills the sidewalk with brightly colored professions of love for black lives and of hope for a better world.

We have all had a challenging year, and even with the days getting longer and the vaccinations proliferating, we are not so naive as to think life will all be smooth sailing from here. The April fool invites us to hope despite the knowledge of winter, to invite our child to play despite feeling foolish, to take that leap forward into an unknown future, knowing life needs both the predictable and the unexpected to unfurl her creativity. Invite the fool, the trickster, the Child out to play. 


[i] https://www.msn.com/en-us/entertainment/gaming/gamestop-stock-drama-continues-as-price-soars-and-hedge-fund-blinks/ar-BB1d9aHK

[ii] https://www.biography.com/artist/banksy

[iii] I twice went over the details of my entire life with particular attention to childhood memories; I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be the cause of my disturbance. But this retrospection led to nothing but a fresh acknowledgement of my own ignorance. Thereupon I said to myself, “Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” This I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Our Historic Year Together

 Today we are talking about the history of our congregations. It’s important to realize that this time right now, this moment, will be written about in history books, and in the history of our congregations. I wonder what our church histories will say? Maybe something like this:

“On March 11, 2020, the World health organization declared that Covid was not just an outbreak, it was a pandemic. The people did not know what to do. They had never experienced anything like this before. Wash your hands, the news said. Don’t shake hands or hug when you meet people in public, maybe just bump elbows. When our congregations heard about the outbreaks in Washington, in New York, we wondered, “surely this doesn’t impact us, those places are so far away”. But each day the news got scarier, and we thought “just to be safe” let’s not have church this week. And maybe next week too. Then this whole thing will blow over and we can go back to normal. The grocery stores ran out of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Things felt far from normal.

The churches had heard of Zoom, and some of the people had even used it, but it was hard and confusing. “let’s try” the people said; it’s hard to be apart and maybe this will help. And so the people who knew how to use Zoom helped the others.

Things got bad first in New York state, especially near the city. The government asked people not to meet in big groups. “But we are small” said our congregations “Small enough to be under the limits, small enough to stay 6 feet apart” “but some of us are immune compromised” said the people, it wouldn’t be fair for some of us to meet and others to have to stay home.

The minister said, “I know 2 other congregations who are really great - I think you would like them. Their congregations are small too. If we are going to do this hard thing, of not meeting in person, and learning to meet on Zoom, why not do it together?“

And so they did. They came together to support one another on Zoom, and though they missed each other terribly, they were amazed that even worshiping on their computers and phones helped a little. They were amazed that they met new people who soon felt like old friends, because they were doing a hard thing together.

They shared not only worship but goodie bags, and technology, and music and anti-racism work and picnics and bonfires. They shared their joy of graduations and new grandchildren; they shared their sorrow as loved ones died.

They liked collaborating so much they went visiting distant congregations together. Though they were stuck at home, the people visited places and saw things they never would have seen in the before-times. 

 Most importantly they shared hope, when hope was hard to find. They shared caring.

Perhaps the historians of this time will say something like that, adding “That is why to this day we give thanks to our fore-parents who lived through the Covid 19 pandemic, that they kept our congregations going, that they kept each other going through that hard time.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Why Justice?

I introduced myself to the Priest after the service, to thank him for his homily and let him know how much it touched me. He asked me to introduce myself, and finding I was UU said “there’s a Unitarian Universalist church in my town, I’ve always been impressed with their commitment to justice.”

That’s not the first time a stranger from outside our faith tradition has linked Unitarian Universalism and Justice. Why is that? Why is working for Social Justice part of our identity? Let’s start with a historical perspective that goes way back, back before Unitarian Universalism. Social Justice is an important theme in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Think about the Prophets in the Hebrew scriptures:

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness” — Isaiah 58:6
The Christian Scriptures are likewise full of examples of the importance of social justice. Today I was struck by this passage:
"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
From the early days of the Enlightenment, our Unitarian Fore-parents were also drawn to visions of a more just system of governance. Some of the framers of the US constitution were Unitarians or attended Unitarian churches and shared Unitarian ideas. The abolitionist movement, the movement to end slavery, was likewise full of Unitarians and Universalists, who saw clearly that slavery conflicted with the teachings of scripture and with God’s universal love.

In 1845, when 173 Unitarian ministers signed
A Protest Against American Slavery, they mentioned the foundational documents of the country, saying to "constantly to profess one thing and constantly to practice another must destroy the sinews of national virtue." This is, I believe, at the heart of our UU evolution towards justice- the conviction that there must be integrity between our beliefs, our words and our actions.

Suffragists like Susan B Anthony (a Unitarian) and Olympia Brown (a Universalist) or  were key to the work for Gender Justice as we heard in this morning’s story. Rev. Brown rode the circuit speaking in small towns throughout Kansas and what was then the far west. This was before shock absorbers, remember, and before asphalt. Imagine her fortitude and determination to ride on a hard wooden seat over a rocky road through the plains, not knowing whether this next town would be open to her message or would be outraged and call her names. It must have been hard and lonely, but she accepted it as a challenge. She spoke over 300 times in those 4 months. Though in the end only 1/3 of the male electorate in Kansas voted for women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony considered this a wonderful triumph.

In the early 20th century, a school of thought called the “Social gospel” emerged that influenced key Unitarian Thinkers. The main idea was being a faithful person included trying to create a fair and just world right now. Not waiting for a reward in another life, but creating, as it was said “the kingdom of God on Earth.”

When the horrors of world war 2 were unfolding, the Unitarians and the Universalists each send money and staff to Europe to help where we could. In fact, it was our work together on social justice that eventually brought the two denominations together as one UUA. James Luther Adams, a Unitarian minister who later became an influential professor UU seminaries, went to Europe in 1935 specifically moved by the social gospel. Adams witnessed the Nazi government in action. He was part of the Underground church movement, and was on one occasion questioned by the Gestapo, at risk of imprisonment for his actions. While in Germany Adams used his home movie camera to film great leaders like Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer who worked with the church-related resistance groups, and also the pro-Nazi leaders of the Christian Church. By the time he came back to the US, he was more convinced than ever that any church which could stand by and passively let such oppression happen, was irrelevant and impotent.

And so when the great civil rights movement happened in the US in the 1950s and 60s, and there was a call for allies to join the march in Selma, UU ministers and lay people showed up in numbers that belied our small denominational size.

UUS have been on the leading edge of LTGBTQ rights. In 1970 the Unitarian Universalist Association “becomes first U.S. mainstream religious group to recognize LGB clergy and laity within its ranks and to demand an end to anti-gay discrimination”[i]. In 1988 we were the first denomination to ordain a transgender minister. We were on the frontlines of the fight for Marriage equality.

Our “Side with Love” campaign, which started its work organizing for marriage equality, became deeply involved in the movement for immigrant rights. The current president of our UUA Rev. Susan Frederik Grey was minister of a church in Phoenix Arizona that was part of a “long-term campaign to end the constitutional violations of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio”.

When we tell the history of our UU work for justice, it’s easy to paint a picture which shows that we have always worked for justice from our earliest days, but that is not the whole story.

When we tell the story of our participation in the Abolitionist movement, we rarely mention those UU churches and leaders who opposed it. When the Fugitive Slave Act, was signed into law by (Unitarian) President Millard Filmore, the bells of the Congregational, Methodist, and Universalist churches in Waltham tolled in protest but, William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his weekly abolitionist newsletter the Liberator, “The bell on the Unitarian Church being clogged with cotton would not sound.” That is to say, the Unitarians of that town were so bound up in the cotton industry, they would not speak out for abolition.

And friends, there were some UUs who said some terrible racist things as part of the debate, I can’t bring myself to say them out loud, so I’ll put a link in the blog to a historical collection of quotes by UUs to give you a fuller context.[iii]

And after the March on Selma, when People of Color joined our congregations in larger numbers than ever before, heartened that this was a denomination that really walked their talk, that really believed in Justice, equity, and compassion for all, unfortunately when they got into leadership roles in our congregations, and started really promoting an agenda for racial justice, they met with a lot or resistance, and what we now call White Supremacy culture.

When Rev. Frederik Grey was elected our president, we were on the crest of a turning point­ – the people of color in our denomination were challenging the white majority to walk our talk- to show a deep and lasting commitment to racial justice that would not fade when the work got hard, when the news cycle ended.

This is where we are right now- looking back at a history full of heroes working for justice, as well as the times we were slow to convert our hearts to justice, and those times when our people, our congregations, our institutions were actively working on the side of the forces of oppression. When we identify with heroes like Olympia Brown and her fight for women's equality,  [ii] we have to remember that those institutions that discriminated against her were Universalist- they were us too.

We talk about justice here in this congregation to remind ourselves of that it is not enough to raise up our heroes who gave their lives to the cause of justice, but that our commitment to affirm and promote our 2nd principle of justice equity and compassion requires each of us to live out. As James Luther Adams said “any church which could stand by and passively let such oppression happen, was irrelevant and impotent”.

But why would we talk about justice on Sunday morning, in worship, a time given to our spirits? Because I believe that working for justice has a healing power not only for society but for our own spirits. I believe that working for justice is a spiritual practice. My professor Jeremy Taylor always said “the outward journey will lead us inward, and the inward journey will lead us outward.” Many of us sought the inward spiritual journey because we needed comfort, because we needed meaning in our life. We sought the inward journey as a refuge for our troubled spirits. Amen- we all need a bit of refuge these days I believe. But when we sit down in meditation or prayer, when the mind and heart settle into stillness, eventually things begin to bubble up- all the grief and struggle and conflict in our outer lives leave their mark on our spirits and psyches. Our spirits call us toward a life of integrity, and if we notice a dissonance between what we say we believe and what we do in the world, it troubles our spirits, our stillness, our peace.

Some Buddhist teachers say that the whole point of meditation is to help us grow in compassion. That the longer we are mindfully present with our own reality, our own inner journey, the more it increases our compassion to the living beings around us. That if we are truly committed to our spiritual journey, it does not lead us simply to a peaceful bliss, but to compassion, and as we hear the cries of those who are oppressed and suffering, we are compelled back out into the world to do what we can to help. Our work for justice in the world is connected to our search for integrity of spirit mind and heart, and to our growing sense of interconnection with the web of life. In the words of Cornell West “Justice is what love looks like in public”.”

We talk about justice because we need each other to do this work. When I hear on the radio about some new outrage, I may feel that I am too small to make a difference. But I know for a fact that when UUs came together to fight for Marriage equality, we made a difference. I know that churches coming together on the underground railroad made a difference. So we talk about justice on Sunday mornings to help us link our contributions into a larger whole, to help us remember our shared commitment, and to assure our spirits that we are not alone in doing this work.

We talk about justice on Sunday mornings to help each of us discern our part. It’s easy to think that only the protesters standing in front of the police line are working for justice, Or maybe you think of Olympia Brown, riding all over Kansas to promote the vote for women. But justice is not just about the acts of famous heroes. Martin Luther King made an impact because he gave voice to a moment of thousands of men, women and children. Think of all those who marched, all the preachers who you’ve never heard of who preached, Freedom Educators like Dorothy Cotton who helped people understand their rights. The people who provided hospitality, or expertise. Remember every person who boycotted the buses and walked the long walk to work until the tide had turned. Remember that when the tide finally turned for marriage equality, organizers told us what had made the difference was all the hard conversations ordinary people had with their families and friends and neighbors.

When we bring our joys and concerns as we worship on Sunday morning, we do so not only so that we can lay down our grief and worry, but so that the community knows the joys and sorrows outside their own home, and can discern “is there anything I could do to help?”

We talk about Justice when we gather so that we may feel our small and large actions to be part of a great whole, to be part of the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice.

I was reminded the other day that when MLK said those inspiring words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” he was paraphrasing the words of Unitarian abolitionist minister Theodore Parker back in 1853. In that sermon, Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Might we also keep in mind Eric Holder’s exhortation that “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”[iv]

We talk about Social justice on Sunday morning, to see again that long arc, longer than our single lifetimes, to “divine it by conscience” and to remember to put our hands to it, and pull.


[i] https://www.ucc.org/what-we-do-2/justice-local-church-ministries/justice/health-and-wholeness-advocacy-ministries/lgbtq-ministries/lgbt_lgbt-history-timeline/

[iii] https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop12/178743.shtml

[iv] In a 2016 interview with CBS, (Eric Holder is former Attorney General)

Friday, March 5, 2021

Reflections on Science

 Reflections from 2 scientists in our congregation

Reflection- by Katie Replogle

I come from a family of science geeks. My father, my brother and sister, my mother’s two brothers and two of their children, my niece and her husband – all of us are or were scientists or engineers. Whether due to nature or nurture, I look at the world through the lens of science.

The word “science” comes from the Latin “scientia,” which means knowledge. In practice, science is a disciplined process of observing and experimenting in order to acquire knowledge about physical and natural phenomena. It’s a way of making sense of the world.

Of course science can’t explain everything, which is why art, literature, poetry, and human emotions are largely impenetrable mysteries to me. But science does help us understand a lot about natural and human-made systems, from how a tree produces oxygen to how a piano produces sound.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been curious about things natural and mechanical. I was privileged to grow up in a family and community where I had the resources and opportunities to experiment and discover. My engineer Dad was a great teacher and exemplar of how to apply scientific principles to solve everyday problems. My elementary school’s grounds included a wooded area, where our science teacher taught us to identify trees by genus and species. My high school best friend had a professional-quality microscope – courtesy of her father, who worked for a pharmaceutical company. We collected pond water from near her home, put a drop on a microscope slide, and watched microorganisms swim. My own home had a small wooded area, where, one spring, I found the complete skeleton of a rabbit that had died during the winter. I carefully collected all the bones and glued them back together.

I went to college expecting to major in biology, but, after a few semesters, I realized that chemistry better fit my interests. I found the complexity of biological systems to be overwhelming. For me, chemistry was a more satisfying approach to understanding the forces that control how materials behave and interact. 

Understanding science affects how I perceive beauty and wonder in the world. Scientists and non-scientists alike are awed by, for example, the brilliant colors of leaves in the fall. But, for me, knowing what is going on inside the tree that causes the color change – how reduced daylight causes the leaves to stop photosynthesizing food for the tree – adds an extra dimension of wonder. The ingenuity of living beings is amazing.

The spiritual concept that we are all “one” is supported, in a physical way, by science. The atoms which make up my body are all recycled from those of other living beings, as well as from the earth itself. The carbon dioxide that I exhale eventually becomes the oxygen that you inhale and the food that you eat. (I know that sounds a little disturbing in this time of COVID, but it’s totally safe!) We truly are part of an interdependent web of existence.

Over the course of human history, science has chipped away at the world’s mysteries and miracles. Loss of mystery can be disappointing, like when a magician explains how they perform a magic trick. For me, however, the scientific explanations themselves are a source of awe and wonder.

Reflection by Aurelio Catano

I think that :
  1. Science is Wonderment,
  2. Science is fun and,
  3. Science brings hope
Science is wonderment
Science is amazing. To realize that the human brain can comprehend, at least, some of it, is fascinating. We can ask questions in many ways and we always obtain the same consistent answers. Nature is amazingly stable. The same laws that we are learning today had been true since the beginning 13.7 Billions years ago. It is also amazing that, using Science, we can calculate that our earth has been rotating steadily around the sun for about 4.5 Billion years. It is fascinating to know that our bodies are made from the dust of exploding stars. It is amazing that Science is teaching us, through the study of genetics, how our brains and our bodies are put together and that we are genetically related to all known living beings.

Science is fun
Of course, science as done in laboratories is fascinating. To ask a question, by means of experiments, to Mother Nature and to find its answers is extremely pleasurable even if the result is not earth shattering. That pleasure is very addictive, like a drug. Labs however are esoteric, expensive and very few of us can have access to them, but they are not necessary. At home just observing what goes on in the garden, or what goes on in a stream or looking at the snow is fascinating and easy.

This is my personal garden adventure: I came to this area to work in Horseheads. One day while running near my apartment I found a very beautiful purple flower, I took a photo and soon I found that it was a columbine. I also found that purple columbines were wild and native in this region. Then I found that I could buy domestic columbines varieties at the local flower garden store. When I moved to Sayre I bought a white columbine, a red one and a white one with compound petals and I planted them by the side of my house. Two years later I was surprised to find a red and white one, a purple one, and a red and white one with compound petals. I said to myself, ah yes. hybridization. But then I asked myself, which are the pollinators? Surely bumble bees, and probably Italian bees, I said to myself. Every so often, for about two minutes I looked for pollinators. I never saw any Italian bees, and only once I saw a bumble bee. What I saw were many small bees, native to this area. Many of them, I found, do not live I large beehives but in small colonies in the ground. One good day I saw what I believed was a metallic green fly. I looked more closely, its legs were covered with pollen. I knew immediately that it was a bee, a metallic green bee. That was a find! I never had seen a metallic green be. I did some research and I found that there is a large family of green bees, called sweat bees, and about 500 species of them are native to North America. They are very important pollinators. The one that I found is most likely named an Agapostemom. For me, that bit of research was a very delightful adventure.

Science Brings Hope
Probably, the greatest hope that Science has delivered to us in modern times is the implementation of hygiene based on the works of Luis Pasteur and Ignaz Semmelweis. As a consequence of their work, puerperal fever, that killed many women after child birth became almost unknown. Pestilences like cholera typhoid were correctly associated with contaminated water and were almost eliminated by the use of clean water. Another source of hope that Science has given us is the discovery of vaccination based, in part, by the work of Luis Pasteur. I Don’t have to tell you what a source of hope vaccines are today.

Around 1930 Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics and by 1940 antibiotics were in use. I remember a story in my family: one of my mother uncles, around 1910 stepped on a chicken bone, got a small cut in bottom of his foot, his foot got infected and had to be amputated. The surgery wound got also infected, finally, they had to amputate his leg above the knee. Today a dab of Neosporin would have taken care of that problem. In my childhood surgery was extremely dangerous and cancer was a death sentence. Today, due to the advances in the science of medicine surgery is very safe and many types common cancers, such as breast cancer are curable. Science indeed brings hope.

However, Science also brought us climate warming. But even so, Science is teaching us how to correct our abuses. I believe that if we have the will, we can overcome climate warming.

Science also brought to us the horror of atomic annihilation, but Science made war among mayor powers so unthinkable, that the fact that we had not had a mayor war since 1945 is so long that, scholars gave it a special name: THE LONG PEACE. Quoting from the book †“The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker “Zero is the number of times that any of the great powers have fought with each other since 1953….in fact as of May 15 1984, the major powers of the world had remained at peace with one another for the longest stretch of time since the Roman Empire” Let me emphasize SINCE THE EXISTENCE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, THAT IS A VERY LONG TIME AGO.

Experts believe that the horror of atomic annihilation is in part responsible for the Long Peace, but the ease of communications, the ease of traveling, interstate commerce and, I believe, the ideas of humanism, are also important contributors for the phenomenon of the Long Peace. Interestingly enough Science touches all these factors. SCIENCE INDEED BRINGS HOPE


Story for All Ages: A Toast to Joseph Priestly

In 1767, Joseph Priestly got a job as minister of a Unitarian Church - Mill-Hill Chapel. Joseph and his wife Mary and their 4 year old daughter Sally moved to Warrington. In those days a minister lived in a “parsonage” that the church set up for them, but when they arrived it was still being renovated, so the Priestly family moved into a temporary home right next to the Jakes and Nell brewery.

Now Priestly had been doing experiments since he was a kid. He wrote an important book on electricity while he was a school teacher – so influential that he was accepted for fellowship in the Royal Society. It was only natural, living next to a brewery, that he would be noticing and asking questions and wondering. He noticed that the fermenting vats gave off what he called “fixed” air, now called carbon dioxide, which had been discovered only 12 years before, and his neighbors humored him by letting him do experiments with the air over their vats. It was during those experiments that he discovered soda water. It didn’t even take any fancy equipment, as it seems Priestley was able to carbonate regular water by pouring it back and forth from one cup to another.

When his house was ready, and he no longer lived near the brewery, he still wanted soda water, so he invented a simple contraption to make it himself.  Now there was such a thing as sparkling water back then, it was mineral water taken from certain springs. It was a rare thing that had to be found and could not be made. Had priestly kept his knowledge to himself and sold it to industry, he could have been a wealthy man – think about today’s lucrative soda market. But Priestly believed in sharing information freely, and printed a pamphlet right away on how to do it yourself.

This happy discovery set Priestly on a new path- studying the chemistry of air and gas. His most important discoveries were yet to come.

Joseph Priestley is a great example of how UU and Science grew up together. After centuries of science and religion fighting, Unitarianism always believed that really looking carefully at how things behave in the world was important and amazing- that scientific and religious truth went well together, like being a minister and being a scientist.[ii] So let’s have a toast to Joseph Priestley, inventor or soda water, and one of the fore-parents of the Unitarian church.

And one more, to science!

Why Science? 

A member of a church long ago invited me for a “get to know each other” coffee. He told me about a moment of spiritual awakening that had changed his life. He was a scientist, and had spent years gazing through microscopes at slides, I don’t know how many of you have looked at slides under a microscope, but if you can manage to get it focused, it’s pretty cool to see all the details up close- you can see things you never would have imagined were there. One day he had his first look through an electron microscope, which was an emerging technology at the time. The thing about an electron microscope, he explained, is that you can look at living tissue. That first time he saw a living cell it seemed to him to glow with life. He was overwhelmed with the beauty and mystery of seeing life in a new way. The universe broke open for him and he was filled with awe and wonder.

Some of you have probably notice that I quote scientific studies in my reflections more often than I quote the bible. Why is that? The first reason is that scientists have discovered some truly amazing things- things so amazing that they change the way you look at the world. What Galileo saw through his telescope was so mind blowing it was called heresy by the church. When Louis Pasteur and other scientists figured out the relationship between germs and illness, it changed for ever the importance of the simple act of hand washing. When Suzanne Simard showed that trees communicate and share resources through a fungal network, ordinary trees inspired fresh wonder. The creatures we’ve discovered on the bottom of the ocean are wilder than the wildest science fiction writer could imagine[iii]. Science helps us grow in awe and wonder at our universe; when the world might begin to seem ordinary and uninspiring, science reminds us that there is always something new to experience, something unexpected just below the surface. In the words of Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson “the reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine."

Second, science helps us have faith. I’m agnostic about many of the things we find in the scriptures. For example, I have no idea what happens to our spirits after we die. I don’t know about the resurrection of the body.[iv] I try to stay open minded, but I just don’t know. What I do know is this- right now when I look out my window, everything is grey and covered with ice, slush or mud. You would never know by looking that anything had ever grown in my garden. And yet every spring, the crocuses, the tulips, the bleeding hearts come back. I see it with my own eyes. I believe in it. And when I go online I can read endless articles about why and how these beautiful little flowers store energy in an underground storage bulb while they are dormant. One 3rd grade science lesson called these miraculous storage organs “a big lunch box packed with enough food for the whole growing season!” It helps me have faith in hard times like this to know for a fact that things move in cycles, and that life finds a way. I believe in resurrection with the faith of an amateur botanist. As Joseph Priestly wrote: “Theology and science, different as they are, are far from being at variance. On the contrary, they perfectly harmonize with and promote each other.”

I’m agnostic about how prayer works. I have felt it work, but I can’t explain how it happens, and I sure can’t promise you that it will work the same for you. But there is an increasingly large pile of documentation showing that gratitude is good for humans in all kinds of surprising ways, You don’t have to believe me, just because I’m the authority figure, I can send you a link to the research and you can see for yourself.

Finally, science holds us accountable to reality. In these days when the shared truth of our society seems suddenly flexible, and unreliable, agreeing on what is true and real has a new urgency and importance. For hundreds of years, scientists have agreed on a system of accountability. They have established a community understanding of how we know what we know and what we don’t know. There are established ways of challenging assumptions. You can’t send a spacecraft to mars based on things you wish were true, or that seem true, or because some authority figure said it was true. You can’t end a pandemic with truisms or political ideology or even good intentions. As Astro physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says, "If your belief system is not founded in an objective reality, you should not be making decisions that affect other people." If you want to change or preserve or understand the world, you need a get your information from the physical world. As a person who loves the realms of imagination and concepts, I have learned the importance of grounding our ideas in reality if they are ever to become more than fantasy. 

One thing that saddens me a bit about the way we do science in our culture today, is the assumption that science can only be done by experts with advanced degrees. When Priestly made his great discoveries, he was a school teacher and a clergyman. Charles Darwin was an amateur naturalist. I believe there is a great loss when we turn over all exploration to the experts, and surrender our curiosity, our inquisitiveness to those with impressive degrees. You don’t have to be a trained scientist to receive its fruits, just notice what you see, what you hear, what changes. Notice the patterns, and wonder why? Notice the contradictions, notice the exceptions, notice when things don’t turn out like you thought.

I believe that when we learn the science of ordinary things around us -- trees, birds, stars in the sky- it helps us grow spiritually. Our knowledge of the material world adds depth and complexity to our spiritual growth. An epiphany that something true about the life of a tree, about the chemistry of flame is also true for me and how I experience the world has a powerful and satisfying beauty.

I’ve often used the quote by Walter J. Burghardt “Contemplation is a long loving look at the real.” Scientists who have love in their gaze do work that feeds the spirits. As part of your UU spiritual practice, I encourage you to notice, to wonder, to question. To participate in the harmony of scientific and religious truth.

[i] [The doctrine of air] I was led into in consequence of inhabiting a house adjoining to a public brewery, where I at first amused myself with making experiments on the fixed air [carbon dioxide] which I found ready made in the process of fermentation . When I removed from that house I was under the necessity of making the fixed air for myself; and one experiment leading to another, as I have distinctly and faithfully noted in my various publications on the subject, I by degrees contrived a convenient apparatus for the purpose, but of the cheapest kind.
-Joseph Priestley  from "Life and Correspondence of Joseph Priestley". Book by John Towill Rutt., 1831.

[iii] If you haven't seen "My Octopus Teacher, I highly recommend it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3s0LTDhqe5A