Monday, December 15, 2008

Waste Not Want Not- Please Share

How are you reducing waste this Holiday Season? What did you learn from your parents and grandparents about how to reuse, how to stretch, how to make do? Please leave your ideas in the comments section below.

Waste Not Want Not (December 14, 2009)

Back during the boom times in Silicon Valley, a co-work of my husbands had decided to retire early. He and his wife looked over their finances, and figured that if they were committed to living simply, and if they moved to a less expensive part of the world, they might be able to make it work. We went to visit them a number of times in their new life, and they became sort of role models for us. First of all, they were the most wonderful hosts. Incredibly gracious, amazing cooks. The house was decorated simply with an elegant yet whimsical aesthetic. They had a circle of chairs that included all sizes and shapes, so that a child of any size could find a place in the circle, as could a stuffed doll or friend. They were both writers, so bits of poetry had been pinned to the walls, and hand written lines penned in large letters across doorways. Life for them was reading, writing, friends, and savoring beauty. We’d talk for hours over a cup of coffee or home made scone, and one thing we always talked about was the quest for simple living. It was from these friends that we first heard Ben Franklin’s words:
Use it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without.

These words were so different from everything we were hearing in the land of the inflated tech-bubble. My husband and I spent the 8 hour car ride home repeating it to ourselves like a mantra.

As a child my parents always modeled for me a careful use of resources, but at the time it had just seemed like one of those crazy parent things. Adults would say things like “Waste Not Want Not” but when I was a little girl this phrase was confusing to me. How could not wasting things keep you from not wanting things? I didn’t realize that in the older use of the word “want” it meant to “to be needy or destitute.”

The wisdom of that phrase takes on a whole new layer of meaning as we think about the kinds of ecological issues coming to a head for the generations living today, and the generations to follow. If you have been out shopping this holiday season, it is not hard to see the waste, and to imagine the “want” it could lead to in our eco-system. If we keep clear cutting forests to make paper for catalogues, our children and their children will want. We can’t afford that kind of waste.

Think about your typical exchange of presents. The shiny bleached wrapping paper is ripped off the hermetically plastic shell that protects the un-recyclable personal electronics that have a 6 month obsolescence cycle. You know those “blister packages” that big retailers hang on hooks to make a product look bigger and to make it harder to steal, and consequently impossible to open once you buy them? Often it seems like the package is 8 times larger than the product! Now I find out those blister packs are often made of PVC, the most one of the most toxic plastics. (1) Packaging is the largest part of US solid waste – 32%. As of 2000 just over of third of that was being recycled. When we celebrated holidays in California, where the city gives you a waste can of a fixed size, Some years we can’t even fit all our trash in the can and had to wait a couple weeks before it all could be taken away.

But the products themselves are also wasteful. My first PDA broke after just a year. I went to replace it, and the new model required had all new power configurations, and required a new set of cords to recharge and sync with the computer. My cell phone fell in the sink, and since in the 4 months I had own it my phone had become obsolete, I had to buy a new model and the new model had a new jack, which required a new head set, new outlet charger and new car charger. I have a whole drawer at home of perfectly good cords from electronics I no longer own. Waste is built into this industry.

As part of an environmental leadership class I took few years ago, we met with the green team from a Silicon Valley company. They explained proudly about their composting program in their lunchroom, and green building plans. I took a designer aside and said “wouldn’t the most important thing you could do be to design a product that lasts, that is not disposable?” He looked blankly at me before taking out the prototype of the latest and greatest, showing how one could Google a local pizza place from one’s phone, see a map of the area and then click the icon to call them and order pizza. I had thought the industry was consciously planning obsolescence, but this designer at least felt he was simply responding to the needs of consumers who demand new products that are smaller and faster and look really cool. The industry does not believe there is a market for electronics that last. They don’t understand that some of us are willing to use a product that is a few years old, and would pay a little more for something that would last.

Because the computers and phones and ipods that are designed to be updated every year or so have to go somewhere when we throw them “away.” And where is “away” exactly? When I had the good fortune to hear Sheila Davis, Executive Director of Silicon Valley Toxics, give a lecture about the recyclablitly of computers and other consumer electronics, she explained are created to be disposable, and to toxic to go in landfill. There was not thought put into how the parts would be recycled, so the plastic cases are not made to be opened, and otherwise recycled materials are coated with non-recyclable materials to turn both into trash. It was determined that he process of smashing open the shells with a sledgehammer was to dangerous for Americans, so now “recycled” can mean shipped to china to a village where children walk bare footed over a pile of our electronics pulling out the small bits of copper or other valuable metal while the plastic bodies become part of the landscape. (2) While I have been rolling my eyes at all the adds for luxury products on TV the last few weeks, I was happy to see what I believe is the first recyclable laptop body now coming out from apple. My partner astutely noticed that they make no claims about what’s inside the body. And while I acknowledge there is a long way to go, I am thrilled that someone has taken this first step.

This is just one example of an emergent idea: “extended producer responsibility.” Some manufacturers are taking it on themselves to think about what happens to product and packaging after it leaves the factory, but more and more governments are using this concept in legislation. It is now a state law in California that anyone who sells cell phones ore reusable batteries must take them back. The hope is that if producers realize they are going to be responsible down the line, perhaps in the very design process of a product and the product packaging the producer will be motivated to think about what happens to the product after it leaves the warehouse.

At this time of ecological crisis, we want to believe our grandmother’s wisdom: if we could really “waste not” would the plant be able to sustain a population of this size of 7 generations? As David Imhoff says in his book Paper or Plastic “The proper answer to the paper/plastic conundrum is still “neither.” Eliminate, reduce, refill and recycle as much as possible. ” (3) The emerging Zero Waste is the 21st century version of what our grandmothers new. When Zero Waste guru Gary Liss lectured in Silicon Valley he introduced the concept that all discarded materials are resources. Is it possible? Mother Nature’s model is zero waste; in an undisturbed forest all waste is food. The International Zero Waste movement has taken to saying “zero waste or darn close” and is asking manufacturers all over the world right now to adopt their current goal, which is that no more than %10 of solid waste go to landfill, and no waste is processed in facilities that are hotter than ambient organic temperatures (about 200 degrees) (4) 3 dozen municipalities in the United States have adopted these goals and standards.

When a cherry tree drops its blossoms all over the ground, we don’t think of this as waste, because we know these blossoms will replenish the soil and provide nutrients of the surrounding environment. When the tree finally dies every bit of it will be used in some way by some other creature. William McDonough calls this “Cradle to Cradle” thinking . (5) On the other hand the one-way path of most manufactured things from factory to house to landfill is a cradle to grave thinking. Could we ever be as efficient as the trees in our human manufacturing? To do that we would have to consider this from the very first moment of product design to participate in a cradle to cradle life cycle.

McDonough and Braungart notice that whereas an apple blossom will become part of the earth’s natural process to turn waste into food, A plastic water bottle does not function the same way. They have “conceived as the Earth’s two discrete metabolisms, the biosphere- the cycles of nature – and the technosphere- the cycles of industry.” They postulate that “Synthetic materials, chemicals, metals and durable goods are part of the technical metabolism; they can be designed to circulate within closed-loop industrial cycles, in effect, providing “food” for the technosphere.” Some companies are already working towards this goal. Milliken Collins and Aikman don’t sell carpet, they lease it to customers so that when it wears out, the manufacturer can reuse the material in new carpets. This cradle to cradle thinking also being done in the Biological metabolism. Desightex has created a carpet that is so non-toxic that it can be used as mulch when it is done being a carpet. It turns out the process they have designed is so clean that when they tested the water coming out of the mill they found that it was as clean as the water going in – the manufacturing process itself was filtering the water. Now some carpets contain PVC and heavy metals, which cannot be truly “recycled” and are shredded and blended into what McDonough and Braungart call “Downcycled material” because they are no longer able to be used at their highest use. But a new fiber produced by BASF called Savant is made from an infinitely recyclable nylon fiber that can be “upcycled” instead of “downcycled.”

What does it mean to put something to its highest use? Let’s take the life of a glass jar. The highest and best use for that is as a jar to store stuff. The least wasteful thing we can do with a jar is to re-use it. This is why you always find bulk foods in eco-friendly stores. You don’t need a new glass jar every time you buy maple syrup, the best highest use for a jar is to fill it again and again until it finally breaks. Or return it; the average life of a returnable glass bottle is 5-10 years with 5 fillings per year. (6) The next highest use might be to use the jar or the broken pieces to make something else- like art, or building materials. If there were no other use for a broken jar, then it could be recycled to make new glass jars. Even when it finally has to be recycled it saves ¼ to 1/3 of the energy over making new glass.

Here’s the hopeful part. Ben Franklin’s advice might just be a path through the hard times, both economically and ecologically. A friend of mine quit her jobs a few years back to be a full time mom. She said she found it was almost a full time job making all the food from scratch, buying things on consignment, and using her time to help her live more simply but that by doing so she could make up the full time salary they had lost. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got at least one shelf of books I have not yet read, and several more of favorite books I haven’t read in at least a decade. We’ve got a book swap shelf in the social hall, and a fabulous free library down the street from my house. I think I could read for the rest of my life without ever chopping down another tree for paper pulp. For the past few decades the ecological movement has been one for elite. We’ve all gulped at the prices of the organic foods at the Wegman’s. My hope is that in this economic downturn we will remember that Gramma had it right. You don’t have to buy a Prius to be green. Almost 30% of the total Carbon Output in the life of a car comes from the manufacturing process . (7) Keeping an old car running well is green too. When we can no longer afford the organic tomatoes at he store, it’s time to grow them in our backyard.

“Waste Not” or “Zero Waste” or “Cradle to Cradle” are different ways of thinking about a model for living that ask for a lot of creativity within our waste-filled culture. It’s time for neighbors to teach neighbors about how to can and preserve food, how to sew and alter our own clothes. At a time when so many are worried about money, we can feel proud every time we use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

Perhaps this will be silver lining of this economic downturn. Many common sense ways or reducing waste were practiced by our grandparents or parents during the depression. One of the master knitters I have known said each winter she would unravel old knitting to have a fresh look for the new year, or larger clothes for the kids as they grew. And perhaps the silver lining of under-employment is that if we don’t have to work 60 hours a week, we have time to cook our own food, which is cheaper and uses less packaging than buying prepared foods. We can make some of our own holiday gifts and decorations. My mom, god bless her, tried to address the waste of Christmas wrapping paper; she sewed a set of re-usable gift bags one year when I was little and they have been circulating around our family every since. But we know that it is equally probable that in a time of crisis we will excuse ourselves from our ecological responsibilities as if the economic and the ecological were not one at their core. We are not going to change our culture without an act of shared will, and it is not going to happen over night.

Such a change will effect not only our thinking process, but what we value, and where we find beauty and worth. I went to Re-Craft sale where only vendors who were re-using materials could exhibit their holiday crafts. The creativity displayed there was tremendous; old sweaters felted and made into trendy handbags, a wind chime made from antique spoons rolled flat, old white shirt buttons woven into necklaces. We used to roll our eyes at my dad’s use of Sunday comics to wrap gifts, but viewed through the lens of creative reuse, it is beautiful. I admit I am not ready to be zero waste this holiday season, but I challenge each of us to think about the impact of the gifts we give, the food, the decorations, the things we buy or make. Let’s show our love this season not only for our friends and family, but for our earth, and for all the generations who will follow so that they will never want.

End Notes:
(1) Imhoff, Dania Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. p. 34
(3) Imhoff, Dania Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. p. 13
(4) Zero Waste International Alliance
(5) William McDonough and Michael Braungart “The Extravagant Gesture: Nature, Design, and the Transformation of Human Industry” from Sustainable Planet p. 13-32.
(6) Imhoff, Dania Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. p. 16.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hide and Seek with God (December 7, 2008)

I love a candle light service. I have so many Christmas Eve memories of sitting next to my mother as a child, expectantly holding my candle waiting for that lovely peaceful magic that came when the lights are turned off, and the candles flicker in each person’s hands, and the soprano sings “O Holy night” with the sweetness of milk, and as she finishes the silence is deep and shining. But I also remember the service not too long ago when I was surrounded on all sides by coughers and wigglers, and I couldn’t pay attention to what the minister was saying, and there must have been lights on in the parking lot because it never really got that dark, and the candles never really shone, and if that child in the back would have stopped making those annoying noises for a MINUTE I could have had my magical Christmas eve…

Have you had this experience? I was looking for something “special and amazing and wonderful” just like the children in today’s story, but I failed to find it, and left my search disappointed and disgruntled. The second noble truth in the Buddhist tradition says that suffering is caused by Tanha, often translated as desire. I bet most of us can remember a time when you were a little kid, and DESPERATELY wanted some certain to or gift, and when that is the case not getting the new toy you wanted can ruin your holiday. As an adult our desires and expectations are more subtle, as Anne Sexton illustrates in her poem “The Lost Ingredient”. She writes about stopping at the great salt lake in Utah “to wash away some slight need for Maine’s coast” but
“…Later the funny salt
itched in my pores and stung like bees or sleet.
I rinsed it off in Reno and hurried to steal
a better proof at tables where I always lost.”

So she stops to touch the lake to fill some longing, and when that proves itchy and unsatisfying, she heads instead to the gambling tables in Reno, even though she already knows she will not be filled by what she will find there.
She says that she is
“...waiting for the lost
ingredient, as if salt or money or even lust
would keep us calm and prove us whole at last.”
I think this is what I was doing that Christmas Eve, waiting for the lost ingredient that would keep me calm and prove me whole at last.

There is nothing wrong with our desire for wholeness. It is that desire, that drive that calls us to our spiritual journey. Some might call this a search for God, but I prefer the phrase "Ultimate Concern” used by Harvard Theologian Paul Tillich. He says in his Systematic Theology “Ultimate concern is the abstract translation of the great commandment: ‘The Lord, our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary. The ultimate concern is unconditional, independent of any conditions of character, desire or circumstance. The unconditional concern is total; no part of ourselves or of our world is excluded from it…”

My old theology professor, Bob Kimball, used to say that for some people their ultimate concern is synonymous with God, but for others it is Football which is their ultimate concern. If you live out the rest of the week waiting for game day, if your future happiness or sadness turns on how your team performs in a pivotal game, this is your ultimate concern. Tillich understood that for generations we have used the word “God” as a shorthand when what we really mean is “that which is of ultimate concern.”

I believe that what Maryann Moore had in mind when she wrote our children’s story was the search to experience something ultimate, which some people find in the wonder of nature, which others find in community. Not everyone in this room would say they are looking for an experience of God, but I believe we are all looking for an experience of something that is real, that is meaningful, whose value transcends time, which can be felt with one’s whole being. There is a sense that if we could connect with that ultimacy, it would sooth us, calm us, give us rest in a way that “salt or money” cannot. St. Augustine wrote that “the heart is restless until it rests in thee.” Perhaps that is what I was looking for that grumpy Christmas Eve, some rest for my heart.

My own search for meaning, for rest has led me to try meditation. I had never meditated before coming to seminary, but wise people, trustworthy people had suggested that a practice of meditation could lead to self awareness and might be source of the rest I was seeking. Each time I sat in meditation, however, my legs became numb, my skin itched, my mind was restless. The longer I sat the more annoyed, and then angry I became. “I’m not a good meditator” I thought. “I don’t feel the bliss of my true self, I must be doing it wrong. If I was really meditating, I would be feeling bliss, I would feel inspired and uplifted, My heart would be filled with perfect compassion and love for all beings.” Though I had been meditating off an on for several years, I kept signing up for beginning meditation classes, thinking perhaps there was some rudimentary technical information I had missed, or learned incorrectly. Finally I realized where I was going wrong; first was the idea that there was a “wrong” way to meditate, and second was the idea that if I was doing it “right” that it would feel good.

I’m guessing that we all have some preconceived notion of what it would feel like to “Find God” in the cosmic game of Hide and Seek. You notice that in our children’s story, the author describes finding something “special, amazing and wonderful.” But this or any preconception can be a real obstacle in our search. This is one way of interpreting the story in the Hebrew Scriptures when the Prophet Elijah goes to the top of the mountain, possibly the same mountaintop where Moses saw god “face to face.” The scripture says:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here Elijah?"
-1 Kings 19:11-13

By using the images of fire, wind and earthquakes the author evokes the kind of archetypal symbols that are often associated with the divine. From the religious stories of many traditions and ages we are reminded of other times and places where God has appeared in the transformative power of fire, in the quixotic wind, in the destabilizing force of an earthquake. But in this story God is not where we might expect God to be. The great prophet of Israel goes looking for God and what he finds is “a sound of sheer silence.” Sometimes when we go looking for Ultimacy, for a restful heart, we find silence. We find a big gaping void where our ultimate concern should be. We sit in meditation looking for peace, and find emptiness instead.

There is a name for the moment when our faith is shaken, when we go to the mountain seeking God, and find only silence. When we seek peace in meditation, and feel betrayed when there is no peace to be found. Martin Luther and other Theologians have called this the “dark night of the Soul.” This is the time when you have been searching for heart’s rest, and begin to despair of ever finding it. These theologians say that we have to give up our search as we are used to conducting it, and search in a new way, searching the silence, searching the anger. All life is woven of one cloth, the blissful, the tragic, the mundane, the absurd are bound up together; we will find all of these things on our search for our ultimate concern.

We don’t get to pick and choose which strands we will encounter in our life, and so any structures of meaning we make for ourselves that hold only bliss and peace cannot serve us when we need them most. At times life has shaken all of us like an earthquake shifting, unsettling the foundations upon which we rest, upon which we have built our lives. It is often when your foundations are shaken, the search for something ultimate that can withstand such a quake begins. Religious Educator Jerome Berry man calls this a rupture of our theological circle. This happens when the meaning making you have done in your life no longer fits with your lived experience. For many people the death of a loved one, a betrayal of trust, or an act of violence leads us to question the circle of meaning in which our lives are inscribed. This circle grows and changes throughout our lives, sometimes because we make a conscious choice to go seeking, and sometimes because life happens.

And once that circle is disrupted, when we need a place for the soul to rest and cannot find it, we just want to shout “Ollly Olly Oxen Free” And sometimes that rest will come, in a night sky, in a helping hand, in a warm heart. But the relief will probably not come in the way we want it in the time and place we expect it. This is a hard lesson. I used to talk to my spiritual director about this, when my life seemed empty of the spirit. And she would remind me that there is no place that is separate from God, or as we UUs say, that we are all part of an interconnected web, we could not be separate if we tried. Whatever has ultimate meaning binds us all.

Universalists have always said that salvation is accessible to everyone. I think that for contemporary Universalists it means that no one is ineligible to uncover that which is ultimate, that which gives rest. There is no elect handful of people for who the search is fruitful. I would extend universalism to assert that no part of experience is out of bounds for ultimacy. If something is truly ultimate, it must transcend the bounds of the “good” of the “appropriate” of perfection even. If something can exist only under perfect circumstances, then how can it be of ultimate significance? As Tillich writes “The unconditional concern is total; no part of ourselves or of our world is excluded from it…”

When I am able to exchange my search for a “lost ingredient” with an image of playing Hide and Seek, I remember to be present with whatever I experience in the moment, and let go of my expectations. I have heard several advanced students of Buddhism tell a story like this: after experiencing the bliss of their true nature for the first time, they eagerly tell their teacher expecting praise. Instead the teacher looks disapproving, because the student has become attached to the experience of bliss, and has lost her equanimity. And attachment, even to the bliss of religious experience, leads to suffering.

That Christmas Eve when I could not find what I was seeking, I was so attached to my expectations about Christmas that I never did let in the experience of what it was. At the time it seemed to me a failed worship service, but since then I have come to understand that there are no such thing as a “failures" of spiritual practice or worship, only moments that were not what I expected, not what I hoped for. If our search is really a search, we are looking for something new, looking to be surprised by our world and by ourselves. When we search beyond our expectations, beyond our preconceptions, we increase the odds of experiencing mystery, awe and wonder like children playing a game of hide and seek.

1. For more on this see Huston Smith The World’s Religions p. 99-103.
2. Anne Sexton “The Lost Ingredient” from Selected Poems of Anne Sexton p. 25.
3. Paul Tillich. Systematic Thelogy. v.1 pp. 11-12.
4. Mary Ann Moore “Hide and Seek with God” from Hide and Seek with God p. 4-7.
5. Paul Tillich. Systematic Theology. v.1 pp. 11-12.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Gratitude in Hard Times (November 23, 2008)

Do you ever have a day when it is really hard to be thankful? Maybe someone in your family is sick and hurting. Maybe the money you were counting on to get you through your retirement is shrinking. Or maybe you just couldn’t sleep last night and then your waffle was cold, and your sneaker got full of water while you were running for the bus.

Being thankful is a way of saying “yes” to life. This is why it can be so hard to be grateful when life is tough. How can we be thankful when people are losing their jobs, when kids are getting teased by bullies at school, when war is happening right now in far away lands? Maybe that’s how you felt during our reflection when you had a chance to write your thoughts on a card. Maybe you felt like “how can I say yes to life when life keeps saying no?”

The Pilgrims, when they arrived from across the sea, arrived in the fall, too late to plant crops for the coming winter. They hadn’t brought enough food to last, and food was rationed very tightly. It was a tradition in this church back a generation ago to hand out 5 grains of corn to each person in the Thanksgiving service, to remind them of the 5 grains of corn that was all each pilgrim was given to eat each day during that cold hard first winter. In order to remember those harsh times and maintain their gratitude for the plenty they now enjoyed, some New Englanders started the custom of putting five kernels of corn on each plate at their feast.

Gratitude is an important practice in all of the world’s religions. It was an important practice for the first nations people who helped the pilgrims survive in an ecosystem that was strange to them. The Algonkian tribes held six thanksgiving festivals during the year. The beginning of the Algonkian year was marked by the Maple Dance which gave thanks to the Creator for the maple tree and its syrup, whenever the weather was warm enough for the sap to run in the maple trees. Second was the planting feast, where the seeds were blessed. The strawberry festival was next, celebrating the first fruits of the season. Summer brought the green corn festival to give thanks for the ripening corn. In late fall, the harvest festival gave thanks for the food they had grown. Mid-winter was the last ceremony of the old year. When the Indians sat down to the "first Thanksgiving" with the Pilgrims, it was really the fifth thanksgiving of the year for them! (1)

This Algnokin annual cycle of gratitude reminds me that when every season of every year there are things to be grateful for. So even on a bad, grumpy, hard to get up while it was still light out to walk to the bus stop morning, it is still possible to be grateful.

Do you remember a character called “Eeyore” from the stories of Winnie the Pooh? Well one morning he came knocking on Christopher Robin’s door.
"Hallo, Eeyore," said Christopher Robin, as he opened the door and came out. "How are you?"
"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is."
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately."

Eeyore is the king of the Grumpy day gratitude -- hard times gratitude. And Eeyore gratitude is the MOST important, because those are the days when it takes real willpower to let your mind enter a grateful state. On these days you have to start with something basic. Your breath. Breath in. Breath out. Feels pretty good. We are in a warm dry place together this morning. We have time to come to church and sit and think and listen to stories, because we don’t have to work or school 7 days a week. There’s going to be food afterwards- none of us have to go hungry.

On a good day I can also feel grateful for the people that I know who love me and listen to my jokes. I can feel grateful for a certain quality of blue in the sky, and the shape of the endless mountains as I drive down 220. On a really really grateful day I can even be thankful for the hard things of life. For challenges that helped me learn and grow. Even for getting up in the dark to walk to the bus stop.

When you say thank you to your Gramma for the nice Birthday Present, you say it so that she knows you got it, and that you appreciate that she went to the trouble of buying you that toy, or knitting you that sweater. But when you say the Thanksgiving kind of thank you, you are doing a spiritual practice. You are remembering that even when the universe seems to be saying “no” you can still say “yes” to life.

It was traditional in this church to read the “ancient Scripture” at the Thanksgiving service, and so we chose one that reminds us to be thankful for this earth. Some people in our church believe in God, and some do not. But all of us can be grateful for the good gifts our earth provides. “a good land, a land of brooks, springs, and fountains flowing forth in valleys and hills, 8:8 a land of wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey, 8:9 a land where you may eat food in plenty and find no lack of anything, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper”

Every day we have food to put on the table, we can be grateful.

Well, what about the people who don’t have food for their table? You might ask. Our Thanksgiving tradition has something to say about that as well. Historians say that The Wampanoag tribe who helped the pilgrims believed it was important to give charity to the helpless and hospitality to anyone who came to them with empty hands. The Wampanoag were actually invited to that Thanksgiving feast for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. So the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims were more like neighbors or people doing business than like family, but the Wampanoag guests, maybe out of a sense of charity toward their hosts, ended up bringing most of the food for that first Thanksgiving feast.

When we are grateful, it is easier for us to be generous. When I realize how much I have, it feels good for me to give some of it to someone who is hungry. That’s why our kitchen is full right now of soup and pies and turkey. The soup was made with love for us by the people in this community. The pies and turkeys we brought to share with folks in the Valley who don’t always have enough food to eat, so that they can feast on Thanksgiving. Giving is a way of saying “Thank You” Giving is a way of saying “Yes” to life.

So as you enter this season of Thanksgiving, remember that saying “thank you” is not just something that happens while everyone is seated at the holiday table and waiting to eat. If it helps you to remember, hold those 5 grains of corn in our hands, remember the hard times, and give thanks the simple things we have. Let holding both the hard things and the goodness together in gratitude be a spiritual practice in all the seasons of the year.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Seven Fat Cows and Seven Thin (November 16, 2008)

The story of Joseph and his brothers [Gen. 40-46] that our Children are studying this morning speaks to me at this moment of economic uncertainty; every night on the evening news we hear about the lean years ahead. I hear about banks failing, car companies failing, homes foreclosing. I hear from my friends in Silicon Valley about the widespread layoffs that are sweeping through the tech industry on top of the crash in housing prices and stock values. At such a time as this we look at the story of Joseph and see the wisdom of his putting away 1/5 of their crops in anticipation of the tough times ahead. But it begs the question “where are we in this story?” We no longer have 7 years to store up grain for the coming hard times. In my mind the point where we enter the story is where the grain has been stored, the people are struggling, and it is up to Joseph to make wise choices about how to share the resources.

I tend to look at ancient stories like this one not from a historical critical perspective, but from the perspective of archetypes and the collective unconscious. One of the tools each person can bring to such a story comes from some schools of dream interpretation (including the Gestalt Method developed by Fritz Perls) which holds that the dreamer is each part of the dream. This same technique appears in Jerome Berryman’s approach to teaching sacred stories in religious education for children. Each person who hears the story is asked “where are you in this story today?”

Sometimes we are Joseph, who is sometimes in the dungeon, and sometimes in the seat of power, who has to make hard choices and sometimes does wisely, and sometimes is selfish and petty. Because remember, in the Hebrew Scriptures all the heroes make mistakes, all the heroes have weaknesses. It is up to us to determine whether their behavior is noble or selfish. So when we are listening to the stories from the Torah, sometimes we are the narrator, observing what happens, noticing what is fair and what is not, except we have the power to interrupt the story and say “Wait a minute Joseph, who are you to throw your brother in Jail, even if they did sell you into slavery?” So if I can imagine myself as Joseph I can see in this story the times I am blessed with foresight, the times I responsible to share resources justly and times when I am slow to forgive.

Sometimes I am like the brothers making the long journey to get the help I need, sometimes caught up in the pettiness of the distribution system. Sometimes I am like the Pharaoh who is worried about the future and needs help to make good choices. Sometimes I am like the grain, often abundant and plenty in what I offer the world, and suddenly I have nothing left to give.

I was excited to see that the story the children are talking about today has something to do with our focus on the UU Service Committee, because the UUSC is the organization that we as a whole denomination built to look out for our brothers and sisters in the world during the lean years. But unlike Joseph’s charge to mete out grain, the main concern of The UUSC is to make sure that basic human rights are shared by all our world neighbors.

Today the UUSC divides its work into 4 primary areas:
1) Defending civil liberties and access to democratic processes which is particularly focused on strengthening individual liberties and democratic processes in the Global War on Terror.
2) Advancing economic justice which means addressing the issues of globalization and privatization, with a focus on defending workers' rights and supporting living wage campaigns.
3) Promoting environmental justice : UUSC's primary focus in this area is promoting and defending the human right to water, especially in communities facing water-service privatization and resource depletion.
4) Protecting rights in humanitarian crises; UUSC responds strategically to disasters, whether natural or man-made, focusing especially on defending the rights of marginalized and oppressed populations. It is under this heading that we find the UUSC work in the aftermath of Hurricanes like the ones in New Orleans and Burma.
One these humanitarian crises is the genocide in Darfur, which has been a Major focus of the UUSC over the past 5 years. UUA president Bill Sinkford has also named this a primary focus of his work, traveling to visit the refugee camps in 2005 and lobbying his leaders. Some of you may remember the story of his arrest during a protest in 2004 at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC, as part of an ongoing protest against genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The UUSC continues to work for “ development of a viable and inclusive peace process in Darfur that will lead to sustainable peace”. “At the same time”, they say in a statement about their current focus “we are deeply concerned by the protection crisis facing Darfurian women and girls, who continue to use all the resources they can find to protect themselves and their families. We believe it is imperative to find new and creative ways to protect women and girls from the violence that they face as they go about their daily lives. The protection of women and girls in Darfur cannot wait for an end to the war.”

And so the UUSC is working in practical ways with local partners and within the refugee camps to help the safety of women in and out of those camps. For example, they are helping provide ways women can make money inside camps so that they have do not have to enter dangerous territory to earn money to sustain their families. If they can find ways to reduce the need for firewood the women won’t need to leave the camps to get it. They are coordinating efforts among different agencies to improve protection for women leaving their camps to search for firewood and other resource. They are also rebuilding women's centers in the camps and provide leadership and organizational training to women so that they can make their voices heard by camp leadership. Finally they are offering human-rights and women's-rights training to people with authority in the camps so they understand the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls.

You’ll notice that “partners” are mentioned a lot in the projects of the UUSC. One of the most fundamental principles that runs like a recurring theme through the work of the Service Committee is that their role is primarily supportive to those whom are most deeply effected by that work. It would easy for an organization like UUSC, empowered to act for the common good, to assume that their own vision of how to serve that good was true and sufficient in all contexts. By asking those actually living with injustice, instead of imposing their own vision of justice, the UUSC is acting out of the Unitarian Universalist faith in the individual’s innate wisdom and dignity. They call this style of collaboration “eye-to-eye partnerships”, because they know that the grass-roots organizations with which they partner are the authorities on the communities which they service, and the UUSC honors their wisdom as we assist them through grants, technical assistance, helping them network and building advocacy skills. In this way we might think of the UUSC as the Pharaoh, the one with the grain to share, giving those resources into the care of Joseph who had spent time in servitude, spent time in prison, known first hand how cruel humans can be to one another, and who has shown wisdom and can distribute those resources fairly.

Let me tell you about our partner in Peru, where a deal with the Inter-American Development Bank to modernize water services came with a requirement to privatize water. Many were afraid that water would be come prohibitively expensive as it did in Argentina and Bolivia when water was privatized there, causing major social unrest. The UUSC paired with a local grass roots organization FENTAP, the Federation of Water and Sanitation Workers of Peru which was “decertified” once privatization began. FENTAP organized a group of grassroots coalitions called Agua y Vida including environmental groups, union members, consumers and faith communities. FENTAP held workshops on human right to water within those coalitions and with local governments and together they developed a plan for responsible modernization. One Agua y Vida Coaltion partner challenged the privatization in court and local municipalities are withdrawing from the privatization. [UUSC “Rights Now” Fall 2008, p. 7].

I believe that each of us is called to serve the cause of justice, to be Joseph who was asked to make sure resources are shared fairly. The resources we share with UUSC through our annual Guest at Your Table progrm have this kind of power. Our gifts enable just action, and the manifestation of our principles in the world. Or maybe we are like the Pharoah when we give to the UUSC, asking the Service committee to help put our gifts to good use, and to give us good council on how to act rightly. It is good to know that if the you feel called to speak out against the genocide in Darfur or the privatization of water in Peru, the UUSC is there, not only to act on your behalf, but to help you learn how to act for justice as you feel called. The UUSC is also the observer who tells the story- noticing who is being treated fairly and who needs our voice and our helping hands so that they will not be left out.

Then what about those times when we are the people of Egypt who need grain in times of famine? The UUSC helps closet to home as well. For example after the bombings of 9-11 the UUSC relief effort was directed entirely to partner grass-roots organizations in New York who work with those disenfranchised persons overlooked by other relief organizations. One such organization was the Stonewall Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund which supported the partners of Gay and Lesbian victims of 9-11, who were ineligible for employee benefits or government aid. The UUSC also worked with partners to advocate policy change. Subsequently New York state issued a policy change declaring surviving partners of gay and lesbian victims eligible for benefits of aid programs.

Or most of us are concerned for the protection of our own civil rights, and the way they have eroded since the “war on terror” began. The UUSC takes as one of their primary goals the protection of our civil rights and to this end they work with U.S.-based program partners to defend civil liberties. For example they work with such partners as Appeal for Redress which represents active duty military personnel whose civil liberties (e.g., freedom of speech and freedom of assembly) are threatened. Most members of Appeal for Redress have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are opposed to the Iraq War. UUSC supports their public education programs and public demonstrations.

The UUSC also endorses and/or opposes national legislation that threatens civil liberties, especially the Military Commissions Act, and they mobilize the members of UUSC, (us) to help defending civil liberties. The UUSC has an Action Alert network, which anyone in this congregation can join if you haven’t already. The Service Committee will let you know when a piece of crucial legislation is coming before congress and show you how you can contact your representatives to let them know how you would like them to vote.

And on this day when we celebrate the work of the UUSC , and on a day when the fate of our own economic future, and the fate of our own civil rights is uncertain, each of is the one who notices when justice is not served. Each of is the one who gives, the one who receives, the one who advises and the one who needs advice, and the one gives of oneself as if we are the stores of grain who have only ourselves to give. May it be so.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Universalized Universalism (October 19, 2008)

When this church was founded 200 years ago, the people who gathered together as Universalists knew that they were Christian. They aligned themselves with the Universalist statement of faith put forth by the first Universalist convention in 1790:
They said they believed that the Old and New Testaments contained a revelation of God’s Will
They believed in one God who at his essence was love
They believed that there was one mediator between God and Man,
They believed in Christ Jesus, in whom God lived, and who would restore “the whole human race to happiness”
They believed in the Holy Ghost,
and they believed in good works, in “a holy, active and useful life.”

I’m guessing that if I took an informal poll of the folks in this room who identify themselves as Universalists, the only one of those 5 principles that they all would agree with is the last one, the active and useful life. And if I asked the Universalists in the room whether or not they also identify as Christian, I think we would have a varied response.

So for our Universalist Heritage Sunday I want to look beyond the stories of our founders, of Murray and Ballou and DeBenneville, to the pioneers who preached of a Religion for One World. It is a story only half a century old, from the 1940s. It is from a time when there were 4 Valley Universalist Churches, who practiced the ritual of communion 4 times a year, and who repeated each Sunday morning that avowal of Faith, passed by the Universalist convention in 1935, still found in the front of the old blue hymnals we still have over in the Sheshequin building. At this time the Sheshequin church was mourning The Rev. James D. Herrick, who died in 1944 had served the congregation longer than any other minister -- 30 years. At this time The Church of the Universal Brotherhood of Athens, then almost 100 years old, was struggling, as was the Universalist movement as a whole. The members of the Athens church found it so difficult to attract a minister and maintain the building that in 1947, this very church building was sold to the Christian Scientists for $2000.

Their story was not unusual in the Universalist movement. The great depression had left the Universalist church depleted, and the 1930s were a time of decline for both the Universalists and the Unitarians. Then when the nation headed into war, resources and attention were focused away from church life. But Universalism was struggling with something else as well. It had lost its fire of the early days. With a general religious paradigm shift away from predestination and hellfire preaching, the Universalists were not sure what made them special. This point was eloquently expressed by the minister who dedicated me at the church in which I grew up, Rev. Mason McGinness when he addressed the Massachusetts Convention in 1947:
“The truth is that, in many instances, the only thing that distinguishes the Universalist church from the neighboring Congregational, Baptist or Methodist church in some communities is the name, not the gospel that is preached, nor the program of education… If the Universalist Church has no message, no program that is different from other churches in the community, nothing that is distinctive, then let’s unite with some other church quickly… We have been drifting and disintegrating.” [Howe p. 111]

But leaders of the new generation of Universalists, like the Rev. Robert Cummins the General Superintendent, of the “Universalist Church of America” started to point in a radical new direction. When Cummins addressed the General Assembly in 1943 he said
“Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is Universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must succeed in making it unmistakably clear that all are welcome; theist and humanist, unitarian and Trinitarian, colored and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable. “ [Howe p. 107-108]
And though some of the conservative delegates grumbled, the younger generation warmly embraced this vision of Universalism.

It was around this time that the Universalists were invited to apply for membership in Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, later to become the National Council of Churches. There was internal debate about this, but in 1942 they decided to go for it. Imagine their shock when in 1944 the executive committee of the Council voted against the Universalist Application 12 to 6. Despite this rejection, we applied again 2 years later, and were again rejected. Said Angus MacLean of the St. Lawrence Theological School, “after being turned down twice as not being good Christians, we decided we should look somewhere else.” [Howe p. 109]

Some Universalists responded to this rejection, and to our flagging membership, by dedicating themselves to strengthening our “Christian Witness” [Howe p. 111] while Universalists took a more liberal track, One of these liberal ministers, Rev. Tracy Pullman preached in 1946 a call for a new religion that is “greater than Christianity because it is an evolutionary religion, because it is universal rather than partial, because it is one with the spirit of science and is primarily interested in bringing out that which is God-like in man.”

This growing idea of “One World Religion” became the subject of an issue of the Universalist Magazine. This idea came not only from our theological struggles, but also from the “impulse toward global commonality” that 2 world wars had brought. The authors who contributed to the magazine all seemed to agree that while we should honor our Christian origins, it was time to “welcome the truths of other religions on an equal basis.” But editor Emerson Hugh Lalone, foreseeing the shadow side that echoes down into today’s Unitarian Universalism, warned that “he who believes everything ends up believing nothing…there is no easy route to world religions fellowship.” [Howe p. 112] I will come back to that warning in a moment.

A group of young clergy who called themselves the “Humiliati” took as their symbol an off-center cross signifying that within the all-embracing circle of Universalism, the cross which acknowledges our Christian Roots is off center showing that it is no longer central to our faith. I find in our own church archives an order of service from 1946 for an “All Souls Sunday which was to be a “day of rededication” to Universalism for all of the valley Universalist Churches. And on that order of service I find that new Universalist symbol, the circle and the off-center cross. So our Valley congregations were right there in this denomination tension and transition.

This growing “emergent Universalism” was very controversial, and angered the more conservative within our movement, but began to open a new way for our faith. Just a few years after the rejection by the Council of Churches, Skinner Clarence Skinner who had been a force for social Action in the Universalist Church, and Clinton Lee Scott, the only Universalist to sign the Humanist Manifesto encouraged the Massachusetts Universalist Convention to start a Universalist church in Boston. Surprisingly, though Boston was the national headquarters of Universalism, there was no Universalist church there. The Boston Unitarian Churches were quite conservative, and this new church would be created as an intentional alternative. The historic Charles Street Meeting House was purchased, and the Rev. Kenneth L Patton, who was known for his creativity in worship, was hired to be the minister of this brand new church. He was installed February 2, 1949 in a service attended by Universalists form all over Massachusetts. Writes Patton “We do not know of another instance where a religious society was set up on a distinctly experimental basis, in order to produce inventions in religious form and practice.”

The congregation took on the task of creating a church that embodied deeply this notion of a “Religion for One World.” Symbolic objects and art of all kinds were gathered and displayed with the idea that “If these objects from all the world religions can be seen together, significantly arranged, the basic unity that underlies their diversity will make itself clear.” Performing arts were integrated into worship, often with a use of film and recording to incorporate religious arts from around the world, and a dance program evolved late in the tenure of Rev. Patton.

Instead of the denomination’s hymnal, the congregation created what they called an “open hymnal” a 3-ring binder imprinted with the church’s seal, with mimeographed hymns “assembled in order for each occasion… In effect, the result was a new hymnbook for each service”

Instead of one holy book, which had for been for the first 150 years of Universalism the Bible, they had a book case, which was made by a master cabinet maker and contained the major books of the world religions. It was placed centrally on the platform at the front of the hall. It became their ritual that when a reader would have a reading from one of these sacred texts during the worship service, they would walk to the book case and take the book to the “reading desk” to read aloud, and at the end of the reading would return the book to their book case of sacred texts.

The Charles Street Meeting House wanted to find a central image to to fill the empty arch in the meeting house 25 feet tall and fifteen feet wide. A committee met on the subject for some time, and finally settled on an astronomical photograph of the Great Nebula in Andromeda. Patton writes
“We have called the arch that encloses the mural “a window into the universe,” through which we look through a screen of stars in our own galactic system out across the heavens to our nearest neighboring star system. We have called it a “symbol of the fact,” since it is simply the enlargement of a photograph, with no attempt whatever to interpret it for the viewer. We have said that the onlooker might say, “The heavens declare the glory of God, “or “the heavens declare the glory,” or simply “My heavens!” the choice is up to him. “ [Patton p. 316]

On the opposite side of the auditorium they commissioned a sculpture of the atom, to balance the image of the whole universe, with the congregation between the two ends of existence.

Finally was a quest for symbols. The Universalists had chosen the circle as the symbol of Universalism a circle including the off-center cross. But the Charles Street Meeting House chose to empty the circle. The pews were taken out and seating was arranged in a circle, which was seen to be the central symbol of the meeting house, as it is a symbol of unity. A large brass circle was installed over the reading desk. A polar projection map of the earth laid into the floor the center of the sanctuary, the one world at the center of their worship, and this image of the earth surrounded by a gold circle.

Proceeding from that central symbol, Patton reports that they “sought to find the most effective symbols of one world that were available in the world religions and to arrange them so that they would echo and re-echo one another much as several related motifs are developed in a symphony” The project of research, selection, design and fabrication lasted 5 years. The final collection was of 65 symbols and were used in varying ways during the worship services, perhaps placed in the center of the larger circle if they were to represent the topic of the service, or arranged together to show some relationship among them. With the exception of the one large circle, the symbols are “all of approximately the same size, indicating that all the religions of man are to be held in equal esteem” [Patton p. 336] All the symbols, once chosen were made by artists in the congregation of sheet brass, copper and silver.

Patton served the meeting house for 15 years. He was a naturalistic humanist, which alienated some of the more conservative Universalists, to the extent at that Massachusetts Universalist Convention (that’s right, the same one that founded the church) would not admit the Meeting House into membership, saying that the preaching was not truly Universalist. But the convention did by a narrow margin agree to continue their financial support. Clinton Lee Scott reminded the convention of the freedom of the pulpit, the congregational authority, and the lack of a central creed and eventually the Meeting House was accepted into membership.

Near the end of his time there, Patton published a book called “ A Religion for One World” in which he writes “The major argument within the Association centers on whether Unitarian Universalism shall be a world religion or the liberal wing of Protestant Christianity. The “universalists” …would declare themselves to be members of a universal and world religion which included the religious ideals and traditions of all peoples” [p. 3]

After Patton left the congregation, it slowly dwindled, and closed its doors in 1979. What remains are a wealth of worship materials, including several selections in our hymnal. Those Brass and copper symbols were donated to the Starr King School for the ministry, and on my very first day of seminary, as we sat in worship we were introduced to them, and told their history.

But the most important thing that persists from the work of Patton and his congregation is their contribution to the practice of a universal religion, “A Religion for One World” and to the idea that the Universalist faith could draw on all of the world’s traditions. 12 years after the Charles Street Meeting House was founded, the Unitarians and Universalists merged, and adopted together their statement of 7 principles and 6 sources of our tradition. The Universalists at the start of the 20th century knew that theirs was a Christian faith, but by 1961, we knew that there were many sources for our tradition, including the “Wisdom of the World’s Religions”

Today we are often at the center of interfaith work, and often the first to reach out to neighboring mosque, temple, synagogue. By widening our arms to embrace the wisdom of the world, I think we are once again on the leading edge. Where else can those who identify Jewish, Pagan, Christian and Humanist all worship together? And yet here we are together this morning. But that shadow side predicted by Lalone, that “he who believes everything ends up believing nothing” is one that requires our constant vigilance. And our defense against the threat of a religion so wide that it looses itself, is to remember our roots. In remembering our roots we will find our core. Love. Love is at the core of Universalism. A love so big that no one is left out in the cold. And Universalists have known from the beginning that our love, a universal love that knows each person has worth, calls us to work in the world until it is a perfect reflection of that love. You find these core ideas in the very first convention of Universalists in the 1790s, you find this calling in the aspirations and ideals of the “universalized Universalists” of the Charles Street Meeting House, and you find this love in our congregation today. May it always be so.

Primary Sources:
Charles A. Howe. The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. Skinner House Books, 1993.

Kenneth L. Patton. A Religion for One World. Meeting House Press, 1964.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ends and Means (September 28, 2008)

How do you know if you are doing the right thing? Sometimes it’s not too hard to figure out. The 10 commandments from the Judeo Christian tradition give some common sense advice. No killing, no stealing, that sort of thing. The Buddhists have a similar list of 5 precepts. The Golden Rule, to do unto others what you would have them do unto you, is also a very straightforward measure for the rightness of our actions, and some version of that teaching is found in most of the worlds religious traditions. But even these clear ethical statements don’t help in all of the many and various ethical dilemmas we face each day.

Our Mission statement as a congregation (printed on the front of your order of service) is to “provide a forum for liberal religious expression in an atmosphere which encourages spiritual growth and ethical living.” And for a community of people who have already set the intention to live ethical compassionate lives, we are not beginners to ethics. And holding ourselves to a higher standard than “what can I get away with” we know that there exists plenty of ethical ambiguity as we live in the world. So how do we know if we are doing the right thing?

I have noticed that one of the most dominant paradigms in our culture has to do with score keeping. Fortune 500 companies are literally the biggest- the ones with the most money. The score is kept regarding revenue. From the time we are we are quite young our success in school is rendered in grades, and once you are out of elementary school the “e for effort” goes by the wayside. How do you decide who won a football game? Who has the most points. If you grab a player’s face mask, or horse-collar someone, there will probably be a penalty called, but as long as you can make up those yards you can still win the game.

Living life as if there your whole grade depended on your final exam, it turns out, is called “Teleological Ethics.” However you get your “A” is okay as long as the final grade is a good grade. The word Teleological comes from the Greek telos, “end” It is a theory of ethics that derives duty or moral obligation from what is good or desirable as an end to be achieved. It is opposed to deontological ethics (from the Greek deon, “duty”), which holds that the basic standards for the rightness of an action are independent of the good or evil generated by the ethics . For the example, a student acting within deontological ethics would say that it is never right to cheat, even if that means you get a C instead of an A, and so don’t get into med school. But from the standpoint of Teleological ethics, there might arise a situation when cheating in school would serve a particular end, say getting into med school so that you could devote your life to curing disease in impoverished neighborhoods, or cheating on an entrance exam for a job you needed to feed your family.

This debate between teleological ethics and deontological ethics is a really big part of the debate we are hearing right now about presidential politics. Is it okay to tell lies if it achieves the righteous end of winning a presidential election? Is it okay to hit below the belt, to take the gloves off if it achieves that end?

The problem with teleological ethics is the fact that someone has to define what the “end” is. If the written exam counts for 100% of the grade, then whether or not you ever came to class or did any of the assigned reading does not matter as long as you do well on the exam. Someone whose goal for the class is to have a competency in the subject may pursue a different path from someone whose goal for the class is to have an A on their transcript.

Whether you run a clean race or a dirty race for the white house doesn’t matter as long as you get elected. But if your goal is to restore the good name and integrity of your country, do you have to start that during the race for the presidency? Or can you put that off until after you are elected? I think this is a crucial debate for people of conscience right now. If you take the path with integrity and it keeps you out of power, has your virtue rendered you irrelevant? If you take a dirty path to power, have you already corrupted the process whose integrity you had promised to restore?

In some ways this is a false duality. Let’s go back to the final exam; by calling the “grade on the report card” the end, we are excluding many other actual ends. I think we can no longer limit our vision like this. As people who covenant to affirm and promote the web of life of which we are all a part, we know that my final exam does not exist in a vacuum. Here is a more full understanding of what the “ends” really are for a hypothetical final exam:
Grade- A
Body- undernourished, sleep deprived, immune system depleted
Knowledge of material- forgotten most of it already
Home life- roommates grumpy about mess, everyone quick to anger and overly sensitive due to lack of sleep and stress.
Environmental- Pizza boxes not recyclable, but I walked to my exam.

So until recently in my thinking I would have put “Grade” in a column under “ends” and all those other things in a column under “means” and have wanted to see that they balance out. But now I realize they are ALL ends. The victorious “A” does not wipe out the damage I may have done to my relationships or to my body, and it doesn’t guarantee that I will be able to call to mind crucial information when I need it for my career.

But deontological ethics also leave gaps in helping me live an ethical life. If you have ever tried to make the “right choice” environmentally, you know that there are always trade offs. We use mugs in the coffee hour in stead of styofoam cups, and I think that’s a great choice. I’m proud we do that. But we can’t hold up “re-usable mugs” as an ethical absolute, a pure means regardless of the ends. Because we also use water to clean the cups, and chemicals to clean the cups, and energy to heat the water to clean them. And frankly I don’t know too much about how ceramic mugs are made. Were the workers treated fairly? Are there toxic chemicals involved? How much energy does it take to heat a ceramic cup? When you tug on one part of the web the whole thing moves.

So how do we even begin to live an ethical life if we don’t always have ethical absolutes to measure it against?

First, we need a more complete scorecard. Part of the reason that we have been able to ignore the impact of our commerce on the eco-system for so long is that the way we define our ends renders the eco-system invisible. For example, the prime responsibility of a corporation is to maximize profits for their shareholders. Whether that company clear cuts a forest or dumps waste into a river does not appear on the balance sheet, only the quarterly profit. Even if the company has clear-cut their only forest, or pumped their only oil well dry, that still doesn’t appear on the balance sheet until it impacts quarterly profits. Whether your employees have health insurance or earn a living wage or work in unsafe conditions, you are not accountable for this except in the way that it effects your bottom line. This is why the idea of the “triple bottom line” emerged. What if along with the fiscal bottom line, we were also responsible to the people we impact (human capitol), and to the eco-system. (Natural capitol) Folks who advocate thinking in terms of a triple bottom line talk about "Social, Economic and Environmental" or "People, Planet, Profit".

That is to say no action can be given a final grade by looking at whether it accomplished a single end. Martin Luther King was a great man not only because he changed the dynamics of race relations in America, but because he used non-violent means to achieve that end. His ends were not only legislative, but a model used by many others since of how to achieve change without violence. The ends are not only justice, but integrity.

But in the long term, we need to move away from our current paradigm. Because if we are grounding in ourselves in religious and social paradigms that “winning” is the ultimate end of life, there will always be losers. I’m not saying the rules of football or presidential politics are going to change, but you and I, as ethical agents, as human beings, can bring a different lens to those hard decisions we have to make.

I think one reflection of this current paradigm comes in the prevalent western ideas about the afterlife, of “seeking your reward in heaven.” Of course there have been many people who have lived caring, ethical lives within that paradigm. But what is coming to consciousness for Unitarian Universalists and our spiritual neighbors is an awareness that our current ethical paradigms have not lead to justice for all, nor to the preservation of life in our biosphere.

God says to Moses and the Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,.” And the God of Jewish and Christian tradition, the tradition in which our culture was born, does not say “Choose human life” God says “choose life.” As UUs, who take as one of our sources the teachings of these traditions, we can claim the wisdom of this teaching, but it also speaks to us because life itself has always been the ends for us, more than a heavenly reward. We have already affirmed together that life is more like a web than a race to the finish line. We affirm that there is something precious and even holy about our own lives which are not separable from the web of life, And from that vantage, we cannot separate ends and means.

One part of being a minister is to sit with a family who has just experienced the death of one of their own, and try to find a way to hold the whole of that life. It’s not like a report card. It’s not like the numbers that appear under the quarterback’s picture during a football game. We want to try to see a whole life. Certainly high points of your career will be mentioned, but when your grandchildren get up to speak at your memorial service, it will be about the time you took them fishing. Neighbors mention the warm greetings as you went on your morning walk. Friends remember that you made the best potatoes for potluck, or how you could fix anything. The earth will show your footprint, whether anyone remembers that you composted, or biked to work.

It’s not as efficient to see your ends as “the wholeness of life in a living community”. You may not get as far or as fast. But imagine how different our country would be if your ethical standard was not a bottom line on a spreadsheet or a grade on a report card, but a piece of whole cloth woven day in day out by each action, and our connections to all those we touch. Sometimes goals and numbers help give shape and form to your life’s weaving, but let your eyes take in the whole of it. If the whole of the cloth shimmers with life, if it shows the connections to the whole web existence of which we are a part, anyone who sees its beauty will know that it is good.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Living in Story (September 14, 2008)

I love stories. Unless you and I have never been here on the same Sunday, you know this about me. I love them not only because they are fun, not only because they are a wonderful form of art, but because they are powerful. They have the power to give shape and meaning to our lives, the power to enhance communication, and the power to transform society. But stories have a shadow side too. Because they also have the power to keep us stuck, to maintain the status quo.

This is why our children begin today a curriculum called “Timeless Themes” in which they will spend the year looking at stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but looking at them with our special UU questioning way. Because these stories have power in our society, and knowing these stories, and asking questions of those stories will help us and our children to be agents of healing and change in our world.

I the children’s lesson we told this morning[The Story of the Three Kingdoms by Dean Myers], the people use storytelling to share wisdom and experience. A story can help us remember and share information like “how to move a really heavy object” or “how to catch something that flies” and telling these stories helps us make good decisions for the future. This is one of the reasons we tell stories; so that we understand the mechanics of this world, what works, what doesn’t work. Many of you know the story of Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained to the ministry in a main line church, and a speaker and activist for women’s suffrage. You have heard that she rode in the back of a wagon (without shock absorbers, mind you) over unpaved roads from town to town in Kansas speaking for women’s right to vote where she was often greeted with anger and opposition. And we know that after many decades of her dedicated work, and the work of many others, women were given the right to vote, and Kansas was one of the first states to ratify the 19th amendment. So we tell this story to learn something about the mechanics of how amending constitution works, and we learn something about the multi-generational movement to make sure that women have equal rights. But this is not a civics class. We tell this story in church because the truth I need to hear on a Sunday morning is that changing society is hard, but it is possible. When we get discouraged because the work we are doing for social change is going so slow we are worried we may never see any change, we call to mind this story, and we realize that the slow, thankless work of speaking the truth until the world listens is the unpaved Kansas road of our journey.

This is why the story of Moses and the Israelites is so powerful. Anthropologists have poked huge holes in the historical accuracy of this story, but oppressed peoples around the world have found in this story the strength they need to fight unjust political power structures. It shows us that though the struggle for liberation may be long and hard, that journey can lead to freedom. And in a world where the political and religious powers-that-be are often on the same side, this story shows us that people of faith can stand up to entrenched power. It is a story that has been told and retold by many oppressed people on the road to freedom. Said Martin Luther King in his Nobel Lecture in 1964 “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, "Let my people go."5 This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.”

By seeing the 20th century civil rights movement in the context of a liberation story like that of Moses and the Israelites, suddenly you see the light at the end of the tunnel, and feel the power of history behind you. The story gives you hope and it give you a map of the journey. It also gives you the power to communicate that map. You can say to other people who know the Moses story “Moses stood in Pharoah’s court” and it draws a clear picture of what it looks like to speak truth to power. King didn’t feel he had to tell his audience at the Nobel lecture who Moses and Pharaoh are, because this is one of those stories that “have grown fat in the retelling” as Pratchett said in this morning's reading. [Terry Pratchett Witches Abroad p. 2-4]

But we all know that any powerful tool can be used both for good and for ill. What about the shadow side of story?

Let me tell you about a story that is not working right now-- the story of creation from the Judeo-Christian tradition. As a feminist, I have always had trouble with the story of Adam and Eve, but when I look at the state of today’s environment, I can see that God’s admonition to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the see and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:28) is no longer good advice, now that the earth has been subdued, and our multitudes are on the verge of rendering the earth unable to sustain human life.

Environmental Theorists like Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, propose that we need a new creation story, a new cosmology a new story to change our path. Fortunately, they say, we already have one. The big bang. The story told by science about this history of our universe. In this story we find that we, like the fish, like the trees, are made of stardust. We are part of a story much much older than we are, that will go on long after humanity has left the stage. In this story we are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction that earth has seen since life began here. In this story, which is grounded in the best thinking and research our scientists have to offer, the fact that the conditions necessary to create and sustain life as we know it were met at all fills one with awe and wonder. And wonder, awe and a sense of connection to all life is what we need to move our culture to a sustainable paradigm.

But Swimme and Berry postulate that even those of us in American Society who believe that the Big Bang theory is accurate still function in a Genesis Cosmology- that humans were created to be the stars of the show, and the other living beings are created only as the backdrop for the salvation history of humanity. As long as we live our lives out of that story, even unconsciously, we will think of ourselves as separate and above the physical universe, and will not be motivated to make the changes required for the health and survival of the ecosystem that sustains us. For the survival of our eco-system, we need to change stories.

Here’s another example of being trapped by a story, this time from the Hindu tradition. “A Brahmin [or Hindu Holy man] was having his bath in the river. Then he noticed a scorpion almost drowning. So he lifted the scorpion and put it on the ground. But before he could set it down, the scorpion bit his hand. His companion said to him, ‘What have you done? You have saved him only to get bitten yourself!’. His answer was, ‘I did what I had to do according to my nature. The scorpion did what it had to do according to its nature’. This is a teaching story about non-attachment. It is a powerful and important teaching because each of us encounters things in our life we cannot change, and need to remember not to let our consciousness get stuck in those events or situations. But a western criticism of theologies of surrender is that it does not provide an opportunity for justice-making.

There’s another version of that story called “The Tiger and the Braham” (There’s a great version of it on Rabbit Ears Radio that my son Loves.) In this story, the Brahmin helps a tiger out of the cage after promises that the tiger will not eat him, but when the tiger is freed, he says “foolish Brahman, no one can come between a tiger and his dinner.” After some discussion the Brahmin is allowed to take his case to the next 3 beings he meets. The 3 beings are feeling very cynical and bound by duty, and tell him to accept his fate. But then the Brahmin meets a Jackal, who makes the Brahmin repeat the story over and over “Ah, it is no use” he says “I cannot understand it. My poor Brain! Please take me to the place where this happened so that I can understand.” There, beside the cage, he makes the tiger repeat the story over and over, and finally, in a desperate attempt to make the foolish Jackal understand, the Tiger jumps back in the cage, and the Jackal slams the door shut. The Brahmin decides not to free the tiger this time, and thanks the wise Jackal for teaching him something about the way of the world. So here is the hero in an impossible situation, doomed by fate, but the trickster shows him the side door into a story that “works” for him.

But there are a million stories out there we hear each day. A lot of them we see on TV or in the movies. For example, the story of a rock band discovered by a record label while playing in a local club. The story of the semi-ethical cop who believes the ends justify the means. The story of the wedding that must be stopped by the TRUE love of the bride. The story of the nerds’ revenge. The fantastical story of the rich pretty people who can afford a big apartment in Manhattan and only wear designer clothes and eat at fancy restaurants every night.

My point is that the story of Moses is a powerful one, but these stories from contemporary culture and media have power too. They make us think that it’s worth the risk to express your love, or that being ethical in your work is unimportant if your goal is noble, or that having a certain lifestyle is normal. Some of these are healing stories, and some lead us down dead ends. So we have to notice which stories are creating those channels in which our lives flow. We have to chose a story which allows us to be a hero, and not just an incidental player, and we have to chose a story we can be proud of Part of the reason we share stories at church, in our worship, and in our Religious Education is so that we can become aware of the stories that shape our lives, let them warm in our minds.

So remember to be nice to the animals you meet in the forest, because later they will help you save the princess, remember that even when you feel gawky and clumsy, someday the ugly duckling turns into a swan, remember the child who stood up to the wicked witch, and remember the Jackal who asks you to tell your story over and over until it changes into the one that saves your life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Our Teachers (August 17, 2008)

Our Teachers

A few years ago I read an article on Lammas, the holiday of Early August, the halfway between Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox, which suggested that this is good time of year to honor our teachers. Ever since, when Lammas comes around I think of the teachers in my life and the doors they have opened for me. I also thought it might be a good way for us to get to know one another if we each shared something of the teachers who have helped us become the people we are.

Any one of us has too many teachers to name. We learn from others long after we leave school. Just this past month I learned: how to harvest cucumbers, how many new ways one can prepare and eat cucumbers, and when to plant garlic for the following year.

So we dedicate our service today to all our teachers, great and small, in the classroom and out in the world who helped form us, and helped us form ourselves.

I want to share a few of my teachers with you, so that you can get to know me better, and so that I can express my gratitude to them, and later in the service each of you will have a chance to do the same if you choose.

Our parents are our first and primary teachers. They are teaching us every minute of the day when we are young, whether they mean to or not. Of all those things, today I am grateful to my mother who taught me to honor our family heritage and that our heritage and traditions are precious. She told me the story of the dishes in our glass cabinet that were passed on from her parents and from my dad’s parents. She told me where the recipes she made each holiday came from, and when I got my first apartment on my own, she made me a cookbook of the most crucial recipes necessary to observe the family traditions.

Of all the things my father taught me, today I am grateful that he taught me how to listen. He taught me to listen critically as I helped him choose a new saxophone; “This one or this one? How does it sound if I change the neck? The Mouthpiece?” And he taught me to listen joyfully, as we listened to our favorite soprano Renata Tebaldi on long drives together.

My Sister is also one of my oldest teachers. I remember once I received a sweater as a gift, and it had just too much fringe of flowers for my taste. I passed it on to her, knowing I would never wear it. She accepted it gratefully and then cut of the fringe and flowers to make it perfectly darling and chic. She teaches me again and again that what the universe gives can be thought of as raw material for you to use and make into something beautiful that fits your own life.

I am still learning from my Grandpa John who, though he died many years ago, continues to be a role model for being honest and big hearted. “What would Grandpa do?” we often ask ourselves when we are stuck with an ethical quandary.

I have to mention Dr. Dewsnap, my High School English Teacher, who played a notable Adelaide in the all-teacher production of Guys and Dolls. I wasn’t sure whether I should pursue a career in music and she said “you have to go for it, or you will always wonder.”

Not too long after I met Prof. Jo Ann Hackett, who taught “Women in Ancient Israel” at Indiana University, and later Prof. Gina Henz-Piazza of the Graduate Theological Union Both taught me to love the scriptures, and empowered me to look for the truth hidden there, which is often hiding out behind the stories told by the power structures of patriarchy and institutional religion.

Prof. Yielbanzie Charles Johnson taught a class in ritual while I was in seminary that turned worship from a form that must be strictly followed, into a magical kind of clay that has the power to support people through transitions, to lift our spirits, to hold us when we grieve, and sometimes to unleash the real magic of transforming ourselves and transforming our world. We learned this not only by creating beautiful ritual together, but also sometimes by creating bad ritual. And we found that bad ritual happened when we didn’t take seriously how much power we have, and how emotional it can be to ritualize something together.

My last year of seminary I finally got pulled from the waiting list to take a class called “The Meaning in Dreams and Dreaming” From UU Minister Jeremy Taylor. He helped me see that much of the self is happening outside of our conscious thought, and that dreamworld is full of power and beauty that help make us whole. He opened up a place in my imagination that lead to a spiritual awakening. And on that awakening there were so many other amazing teachers to guide me, Bob Kimball, Olga Luchakova, and my Dharma Buddies who traveled with me on my way.

Much of what I know about youth ministry I learned from my first youth group; 5 Jr. High school boys who I watched grow to be come fine young men. I’ll never forget my first meeting with them. The retiring youth advisor had gone to the other room, and left me with the group who was trying to find out whether Doritos burn by holding them in the flame of their chalice. We learned that yes, Doritos do burn, and we also learned that the metallic tray the chalice was on was not fire-proof, but actually a flammable plastic which we determined when bits of burning Doritos fell out of the chalice onto the tray below. After running the flaming tray to the nearby kitchen sink, I stated “I think we are done with fire for tonight.” When I left the group 2 years later to become the church’s intern, we held a ritual featuring a very fire-safe kettle grill. They taught me what youth empowerment is and what it is not.

Much of what I know about how to balance a budget I learned from the finance committee at UUCPA who taught me what real numbers look like, and how to tell them from pie in the sky. They taught me the value of a sustainable budget when the bubble burst around them, and the church stayed afloat without a single lay-off. I am also grateful to my dad and mother-in-law who continue to be models to me about what it means to live within your means.

In the years after birth of my son, I found a yoga teacher who helped me reclaim my physical body, and helped me fall in love with this practice that is my central practice today. Kent Bond taught basic principles of form and alignment and to “feel like a power ranger” I still hear his voice in my head “Don’t punish your knees for what your hips won’t give you” “When you reach your edge, ease up a bit, don’t hang out there” and “your breath, your body” and generally introduced me to the idea that sometimes the goal in life is not to push yourself to be the best, but to do the right action at the right time. I have also been lucky to have taken classes with many great teachers over the past 5 years, like Michelle who taught me to relax the muscles you are not using, and my new teacher Steven Valloney, who made me feel welcome into the Ithaca community and helped me loosen the grasp of ego long enough to heal an injury.

I had so many great teachers on my sabbatical at the University of Creation Spirituality, I wasn’t sure what one to name, so I realize that I want to give a shout out to Matthew Fox, who founded the school, who called those teachers together, and put in place a pedagogical paradigm that taught me as much about religious education as anything I learned in seminary. I went there because I wanted a spiritual grounding that would help me live a life more focused on our earth, and found this small graduate program in downtown Oakland that showed how awe and wonder for the earth is at the core of a sustainable life and community.

I tried to puzzle out how I learned about Social Justice. When I was growing up UU, there were plenty of stories of Susan B Anthony, and Ghandi, and MLK. In fact for a while there our preacher mentioned those 3 each time he mentioned Jesus, one of the original social activists. They are my teachers, and that church was too. I knew that if you put your life on the line for what you believe, you were probably on the right track, and you were in good company. I want to call out Rev. Kurt Kuhwald who was serving with me on September 11, 2001, and Rev. Lindy Ramsden who made the UULM of CA a model for legislative ministry around the country. They showed me how doing the work of a minister looks when making justice is your core value.

Without these teachers, I would miss much of the richness of the life I now enjoy. It was hard to choose just this dozen or so to hang my gratitude on. This list is woefully incomplete. But it shows me what I value in life, and reminds me how many gifts I have been given. I also noticed in the process of reflecting on this list, that when you list your teachers, you learn something about what you feel you KNOW. It is harder to be grateful for something you are still wrestling with. And so perhaps this is a perfect practice for this part of the year when the harvest is not yet complete. It allows us to ask: “What is your harvest? What is still growing?”