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?”