Monday, December 14, 2009

The Soul of Friendship (December 6, 2009)

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Author Thomas Moore address the Convocation of UU Ministers in Canada. He was talking about how we tend and feed the soul, and suggested that the most important way we can sustain our souls is friendship. I was, I have to admit, feeling kind of lonely at that moment, kind of empty. I felt suddenly as if someone had mentioned water to a thirsty person. I mean, sure I was surrounded by 400 amazing colleagues, but as I had been wearing your “I am a professional” shoes for 4 days, and trying to weigh everything I said so it wouldn’t be taken wrong in a professional context, I was starting to long for my pink fleece thermal slippers and an equally comfortable companion. In his book Soul Mates (out in book exchange right now) Moore writes “We may believe that friendship, like so many things of the soul, is tangential to life, an added boon, or an accessory… Friendship makes a major contribution to the process of soul-making, and without it we feel a painful lack and a debilitating weakness of heart. (p. 93)

Think of a close friend from childhood. You could play together for hours and hours and still be disappointed when your parent came to take you home. In his poem called “Childhood friends” the 13th century Persian poet Rumi writes:
“A close childhood friend once came to visit Joseph.
They had shared those secrets children tell each other
when they’re lying on the pillows at night
before they go to sleep.
These two were completely truthful with each other.”
["Rumi and the Celts", by Coleman Barks. Parabola, Winter 2004 p. 28].

As I heard Thomas Moore talk I realized how the soul hungers for such a friendship. Yet somehow as an adult I had kind of gotten the idea that responsible grown ups didn’t crave that kind of friendship, that it wouldn’t have the centrality it did when we were children. It was so affirming to hear Moore talk about the importance of Friendship not just to our “networks” or to our social life, but to our SOUL.

Moore went on to talk about Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, how he called them friend, and how he often ate and cooked and even drank wine with them. Friendship was in the fabric of Jesus’ ministry. Ivone Gebara, Latin American Eco-Feminist Theologian, has written extensively about the importance of “relatedness” in theology- She writes “God is relationship. And it is by means of relationships and of relational behaviors that we speak of God... Long ago Saint John said that those who do not love their brothers and sisters do not love God!” [Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water. p. 104-5]

In both theology and friendship, there is a dance between separateness and unity, a dance where two become one. This dance echoes our relationship with God, reflects something of the nature of the universe, and is present in our relationships with one another. This dance has been explored by theologians and poets, school children and mystics for as long as anyone can say.

It should come as no surprise, then, that all the spiritual traditions I know lift up friendship as an important spiritual practice. The Sufi’s say there are 3 ways to relate to mystery: Prayer, meditation, and “Sohbet” (which can be translated as exchange or conversation.) Buddhism in particular lifts up the importance of a “Dharma Buddy”, someone who will be a companion to you on your spiritual path. And when a community of friends comes together with the shared purpose of spiritual growth, this is a “Sangha”

So why is friendship so important, and what makes a good friendship?
What moves me in that Rumi poem about Joseph’s childhood friend is the intimacy there. When someone has heard your secrets and you can trust them, this is very precious. The soul craves a friend who has seen your kitchen messy and still wants to be your friend. How precious is a friend who can see you as a real person, not some ideal, not a front, and who shows you their own true self. And as a related quality, friends are those who forgive one another again and again. A friend is not necessarily someone who likes your weaknesses, but one who does not let those weaknesses come between you. Because we can’t be truly intimate with one another, we can’t get really close unless we are willing to be seen in our whole self, both for our strength and our weaknesses. Says Moore “Without intimacy, soul goes starving, for the closeness provided by intimate relationships fulfills the soul’s very nature.” [p. 93]

We’ve all heard the saying “A sorrow shared is a sorrow divided,” I hope everyone in this room who has ever grieved or been in pain has felt the flood of relief when a friend is able to enter your solitude, and just be present with you in a hard moment. Sometimes we don’t even realize how deep our pain is until the companionship of a friend makes us feel safe enough to bring those emotions to the surface. It continues “a joy shared is a joy multiplied.” During my Clinical Pastoral Education the other minister’s-in-training and I met for lunch every day. As we studied pastoral care in a hospital setting, we had the privilege of being with patients in their most scary moments, and in times of grief . It was a challenge for all of us, and it was such a relief to have companionship on that journey. One day after a powerful morning of work, we had to cut lunch short and so found ourselves at Burger King, where there was a row of cardboard crowns set out for customers. After the kind of morning we had all had, we felt compelled to put them on and in so doing just cracked ourselves up. One of my colleagues said conspiratorially “I think the other customers are looking at us.” Another replied “They are wishing they had friends like this.” It is much less funny to wear a crown when dining alone, but downright hilarious when in the company of 3 friends who have your back no matter how foolish you look.

A good friendship is reciprocal. Each listens and each talks. Each helps and each is helped. There is a balance in the relationship that makes it sustainable. Each brings a gift to the friendship. I have to admit I get a little too carried away with the seriousness of things sometimes, and with my passion for my work. I surely am grateful for a friend who can make me laugh or distract me from my e-mail. What a blessing is a friend who can help you be a better person, a more well-rounded person. I have heard it said that on your spiritual journey it is good to always have a friend who you admire who can teach you something, and a friend whom you, in turn, teach. But I think the best friendships are those where each admires and learns from the other.

Another way that friendship becomes a spiritual practice, is that friends act as a mirror for one another. When we are in relationship we see ourselves better, or in a new way. Says Joseph’s childhood friend as that Rumi Poem continues
“I have brought you a mirror.
Look at yourself and remember me.”
["Rumi and the Celts", by Coleman Barks. Parabola, Winter 2004 p. 28].
The friend reflects back to you your good qualities, but also those parts of yourself that need strengthening. When your friend is driving you nuts, there is probably something you need to work on in yourself. This is when friendship gets hard- when we have to keep looking in that mirror where we see ourselves in our places that need to grow.

The shadow side of friendship is loneliness. I bet everyone in this room has experienced periods of your life when you were lonely. Periods when you were a stranger in a strange land, or had lost a really close friend. Or maybe you were so deeply in grief or depression you just could not reach out to connect with others, or couldn’t participate in the genial social conversation that stays above deep pain. Loneliness is real, and the reality of that pain, that emptiness gives more power to Thomas Moore’s words about how the soul needs connection. But the spiritual traditions speak to this as well. The Sufi tradition holds that the spiritual path of conversation can be practiced without another person. In that lonely time we cry out into the emptiness we feel, perhaps we cry out to God if that is part of our theology. Moore says that the emptying that life brings us unbidden is an important part of our spiritual growth. The emptying makes space for us to know ourselves it may bring us closer to mystery or to the divine. Loneliness brings with it the mandate that we come to know our own darkest selves. It asks us to search for whatever it is in this living universe that is present with us even when we are alone. If you are willing to follow Gebara’s logic, that God is Relationship, or that the fabric of the universe is fundamentally relational, we can never be truly alone, even in our deepest loneliness.

Sometimes that loneliness makes room for new friendships. What a delightful surprise it is when you and this one person of the many people you interact with each day are both free for coffee tomorrow. You both have a friend-sized whole in your lives, and this other interesting, friendly person seems to enjoy your company. Becoming close friends with a new person is a tremendous and delightful gift that does not happen often. It is both ordinary and extraordinary.

But not all friendships have the same depth of intimacy. Each friendship brings with it a different gift. Someone who is very fun to watch football with, might not interested in the issues of hydro-fracking, or the implications of process theology. Not everyone wants to hear the minutia of your yoga practice, or stand in a loud club for 3 hours listening to your favorite band. Looking to that Minister’s convocation in Canada, though I missed the flannel slipper intimacy of my home life, I did certainly have friends there. I mean, who knows better about the strange life of a UU Minster than another UU minister? I re-connected with friends I had known since all the way back in my seminary days, friends from my years serving on the West Coast, and new just-sprouting friendships with the ministers here in my new District. There were folks there I knew I could call on if I had a crisis in ministry, and folks who could make me laugh. Together our friendships weave a web that supports and sustains us as no one person could. But all are a gift, and need to be nurtured and cared for.

There’s a lovely story from the Hasidic tradition, about two Rabbis who were reunited after being apart for over a year and greeted each other with the words ‘Blessed art thou, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, who raises the dead. ” One of the younger students asked why the prayer for greeting a friend one hasn’t seen in over a year is a blessing to God for reviving the dead. The teachers explained that each person on earth has a unique light “burning for them in the world above” and when two friends meet their light is united, and out of that light an angel is born. But when the friends are apart for more than a year, the angel weakens and wastes away. So on reuniting they bless the dead to revive the angel. And just as the Rabbi finished speaking all heard the sound of rustling wings, and knew the angel had been reborn. ["The Angel of Friendship." Parabola, Winter 2004 p. 76].

Our friendships need tending or they will languish and waste away. Our friendships are not tangential, they feed us and challenge us and help us grow. This is why we are here together this morning. To cherish and honor our friendships, to eat and laugh and restore our souls.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Celebrating Samhain

The Neo-Pagan wheel of the year is divided into 8 equal parts. They honor the summer and Winter Solstice, the Fall and Spring Equinox, and the “Cross quarters” which fall evenly between them. Samhain (which is a name that comes to us from the Celtic tradition) is the most important of these holidays, and marks the New Year. Most American Neo-Pagan families enjoy the usual secular Halloween celebrations- the costumes and pumpkins and treats- because these symbols grew in large part from the much older pagan traditions. In the neo-pagan traditions, however, there is a sacred element to the day that must also be observed. It is a harvest festival that honors the end of the harvest and the first glimpse of winter. In addition, it is a day to honor the ancestors, and to gain wisdom from them because at this time of year it is said that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at it’s thinnest. The veil is said to thin day by day leading up to the New Year, and to be at its most thin on October 31 at midnight- the cross-quarter between fall and winter.

I think one of the reasons that Unitarian Universalists feel an affinity with Neo-Paganism is because much of the tradition is grounded in natural science. It is theologically un-complicated to mark the Winter Solstice and the growing daylight. We notice with our own eyes and with common sense the recurring cycles of sun and moon and stars, and bring our own observations and experiences to the marking of those cycles. The observations of biologists and physicists affirm our noticing, and help us understand dynamics of the natural world we cannot observe with the naked eye. So as we talk about Samhain today, I want to focus on that aspect of the festival- the part that comes to us intuitively as we notice carefully our eco-system and how we respond to changes in the seasons.

These past two years as the wheel of the year turned towards fall I have felt something new- fear. I am afraid of winter. I worry about how cold it is going to get. I worry about whether it will be too cold or icy for my regular jog through the streets of Ithaca. I worry about those famed $400 heating bills. I dread the shortening days, and getting my son ready for school in the dark. I feel anxious about getting all my fall chores done- draining the hose and bringing it into the basement along with all my garden tools, finding places inside for all my potted plants, planting the bulbs, locating the snow shovels, figuring out whether last year’s snow pants and mittens still fit everyone. But sometimes I just feel fear, and it mystifies me. Living in the Southern Tier has touched some primal part of me that knows winter can be deadly. For annual plants, this is the end of their life. Bugs fly drunkenly into our homes to live out their last days. And the cold and lack of food make life very tough for our wild brothers and sisters; many beings will die from hunger or from cold. Some part of my "Reptilian brain", (the brain stem and cerebellum) knows this. Death, which is present all year long, reveals itself in the fall in a dramatic way.

As humans living in a time and place where the grocery stores are always full, where all we have to do to create a warm haven of our homes is to turn our thermostat to 68 degrees, it’s easy to ignore this fear. But for this one weekend, let’s not ignore it. Because the felt presence of death in our own life has power. It has the power to remind us of what is ultimate. Ask yourself the question: what do I have to do today before I go to bed? [pause] Now ask: what do I want from this life before I die? [pause] Feel which question has more power. Have you noticed that when we speak of death, when we call to mind the reality of our own deaths, there is an energy that changes in the room? An alertness? A presence almost, of this intangible universal? Perhaps this is what the wisdom of the pagan tradition has noticed- there is a kind of veil which normally keeps us from obsessing on our own deaths and on the loss of those we love, a veil that allows us to focus on life from day to day. This veil is thin in the fall. And death is naked before us. And in this window when the veil is thin, we need guides. We need our elders, our teachers, those who have crossed this way before us as companions in this space.

As the choir sang this morning:
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass, they are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth.

There is something grounding about linking ourselves to our past, to the millions of generations of beings who have come before us, and to all who will come after us. This remembering has the power to bring us comfort in the presence of impermanence without denying its reality.

How can we ask the beloved dead to be with us? (Especially we who are lovers of science and reason?) Ram Dass is a Harvard professor who left his academic life to go study with a Guru in India becoming a spiritual teacher for westerners. A few years ago he spoke of the death of his guru saying “he is still with me, I talk to him every day. And people say ‘that’s all in your imagination’ and I say ‘exactly’.” I am not going to address the metaphysics or mechanics of our relationship with our ancestors, only suggest that something which happens in the imaginary realm may even so lead us to comfort, transformation and wisdom.

When I moved into my current home, there small shelf on our dining room wall that I imagine is just the right shape for a statue of the Virgin Mary or some other saint. I suppose I could put Margaret Fuller or some other UU luminary in that spot, but when my uncle died, it seemed just the right place for his picture and for Pap’s picture when he died, and of course Nan should be with him there. And when the anniversary of our dog Waldo came around, he needed to be there too. It’s not a very big shelf, so the ancestors come and go as I think of them and want to remember them. This is one easy way to honor and remember your ancestors at this time of year. Hunt down those old photos and bring them out where the whole family can see them throughout their days.

Hopefully when the pictures come out, the stories will follow. In my family there are some precious stories we have heard over the years. The story about how my grandmother and grandfather married when he was on leave during WWII, and they had to borrow fuel rations from a neighboring farmer to be married near my grandmother’s family. The story about how when he was down and out my Pop Pop invented a way of cleaning the tubes that bring beer to the tap at taverns with a Ping-Pong ball. When my mom tells the story, she says this a better feat of salesmanship than engineering.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever told my son these stories. Maybe it’s time. Samhain is a great time to tell and hear stories about your family. It may happen organically, or you may want to set aside s special time by candle light or firelight to tell them. If you have objects of the recently departed, bring those out to help you remember and retell their stories. Another favorite custom is to make the favorite food of your beloved family and friends to honor their memory. Some go as far as to set a place for the departed at the dinner table, or to put food for them near their picture. But then be sure to remember, part of honoring the memory is then to let it go. If you have, for example, cut open a pomegranate or an apple in memory of your ancestors, the following week you could plant it in the back yard. Return the picture to their usual places. This act of letting go is as important as the act of bringing the “beloved dead” to mind.

Our own Unitarian Universalist tradition is somewhat mixed about how we deal with the presence of our ancestors. There is a strain in Universalist history which intersected with Spiritualism in the 19th century. An intriguing book of by John Buescher called “The Other Side of Salvation” looks back at those who felt that they had experiences of contact with the dead, and how Universalism responded. Many Universalists, then as now, who hold to the rational and scientific roots of our tradition would definitely raise an eyebrow at this. Others had experiences they felt could not be explained with reason. But whether or not you believe that contact with ancestors is possible in a concrete way, I would like to put forth the idea that we all have something to gain from setting aside time to remember those who have died. When someone has died recently, we first need to take time to grieve and come to terms with the death, lest that un-expressed grief haunt us and play out in un expected ways. Later, when the loss is not so fresh, we can to remember the stories of our family and community history, lest they be lost. Finally, there is something comforting about calling to mind those we love and miss. By adding ritual to the act of remembering, we bring a strength to those memories- it is common sense that the more senses we involve in the act of remembering, the more clear the memories become. Smelling Gramma’s favorite food and rubbing the lace on her handkerchief between our fingers help us remember more than we could while waiting in line at the grocery store. Whenever we call something to mind and share it, we “add another episodic memory of that memory, which enriches and reinforces the original representations.”

So whether you think of honoring the ancestors as a psychological or a metaphysical exercise, I encourage you to set aside a time to tell stories and honor the memories of your family and ancestors. Now that the costumes are crumpled and the treats have been exchanged, take a moment later today to pull out those old photos, or to ask your elders for some new story, or a well loved and oft repeated story of their parents or grandparents. In this way we strengthen our sense of connectedness to all the generations that come before and those who will follow, telling stories of us each Samhain.

Those who have died have never never left.
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in the home
They are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living

So listen more often to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors breath when the fire’s voice is heard
Tis the ancestors breath in the voice of the waters

["Breaths" in Singing the Journey. Adapted from a poem by Birago Diop by Ysaye Barnwell]

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When They Outlaw Jellybeans (October 11, 2009)

Today people all around the country are celebrating “coming out day” as they have been on October 11 since 1988. The fight for Marriage Equality has been going on since the 1970s as part of the ongoing movement to end discrimination against Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Americans, part of the struggle for the recognition of Queer folks to win respect and recognition, to have pride in who they are. Much has changed over the past generation or two. Though a young queer person coming of age today still faces discrimination, the world they grow up in is radically transformed in terms of the public dialogue happening all over our country, in terms of role models available. The kids of our congregation, be they straight, queer or questioning have amazing role models to show them their power to be whomever they will discover themselves to be. They see great examples of committed long term relationships and I hope will learn implicitly that despite the high divorce rate in this world, that having a committed partner for better or worse, in sickness and in health is still a worthy goal. It might not even occur to them to think some of the committed partnerships in our congregation have been legally recognized as marriages, and others cannot yet be afforded that legal standing.

I used to think of Marriage Equality as mostly an issue of pride and recognition. I thought that marriage of any kind was mostly a symbolic act. A woman of my generation, I grew up knowing that I didn’t have to get married. My partner and I could live together indefinitely in a committed partnership. Why marry? But things did change once we became engaged. Somehow the word “fiancĂ©” had a power that “boyfriend” did not. I remember talking to the insurance company or the credit card companies; and noticing the power the words “wife” and “husband” had to change my access to certain information. I noticed that my family treated Eric differently once we became engaged- they figured he was going to be around for a while and they might as well get to know him. When I ask the couples I marry why they are having a wedding, they often say it’s because they want family and friends to be part of their union, to make public their private commitment. I know that as a UU minister I can address that desire by marrying committed couples regardless of the gender of each. Marriage is a religious act, I thought, and no one can stop me from performing the marriage of two loving partners of the same gender.

But the very first couple I ever married had been together for 21 years. In California that is automatically considered a common law marriage. So I asked “why after all these years have you decided to have a wedding now?” The Bride-to-be turned with shining eyes to her husband-to-be and said “Because he wants me to have his pension if he dies before me… Isn’t that romantic?” Being much younger then, that didn’t seem romantic to me at all. Having lived now with my partner for 18 years, I understand a little more about what it means to be able to offer your partner substantive support, to be able to care for him or her thorough a life crisis. When I perform a wedding for a man and a woman, with the stroke of a pen I provide a legal status that allows for all kinds of support and mutuality. When I perform a wedding for two men or two women, I really am offering a ritual that is only symbolic.

The United States General Accounting Office has calculated that there are over 1,400 separate legal rights and protections that come along with a civil marriage. That includes 1138 federal rights and roughly 300 rights that vary from state to state. It’s kind of a mind blowing number- I sure didn’t realize that my wedding to a man afforded me 1400 special rights. I took for granted that a wedding performed in the state of Pennsylvania would be legally recognized not only all over this country but in any country in the world. I just kind of thought we were going to love and cherish until death do we part. The promises I made to my partner, witnessed in a Unitarian Universalist church and officiated by my minister were a religions matter, but those rights and privileges it grants me are a civil matter. Since our country is limiting who can be married based on gender, what we are really talking about here is a lack of equal protection under the law.

If, like me, you have trouble even imagining 1138 rights, The (NCLR) National Center for Lesbian Rights has broken it down a little:
o There are laws protecting married couples in the event of death- from inheritance, to bereavement leave, to social security benefits to decision-making authority over remains and funeral rights.
o Laws protecting the marital relationship include the right to support and care for one another, including medical leave to car for your spouse, to be responsible for each other’s debits, to file taxes jointly, which results in a lower tax liability.
o The laws protecting your relationship to your own children is particularly harsh to those who are denied the right to marry. Imagine having to hire a lawyer and submit to inspection by an adoption authority to adopt your own children? Imagine raising your child from birth to age 10, only to have your partner leave you and take your daughter with her, and you have no claim even for visitation as you are legally a stranger to your own daughter. Or imagine that your partner leaves you and your infant son, and has no legal requirement to pay any child support because again, you and your son are legal strangers to your ex.

Until we need them, we may not consider the benefits our employers provide to our partners. Beyond health care, which is a significant benefit to any family, there is the family leave act which allows one time to support a sick family member, and bereavement time to mourn one who dies. There are pensions and workers compensation which are extended to partners, and more. But federal employees who are gay have no protections or support at all for their partners. This became particularly visible in the aftermath of 9-11. The partners of Gay and Lesbian victims of the attacks were ineligible for employee benefits or government aid. Long-time partners of heroic fire-fighters who gave their lives to protect others during that national emergency, were unable to receive the support we expect any widow or widower of a hero to receive. Our UU Service Committee worked with grass-roots organizations like the Stonewall Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund to advocate policy reform. Subsequently New York state issued a change in policy declaring surviving partners of gay and lesbian victims of 9-11 eligible for benefits of aid programs.

Now, it is great that first Massachusetts, then Connecticut, then Iowa, and now Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have legalized marriage, but those laws don’t cover you if you travel; if you get injured on vacation, tough luck. It is great that California has a Domestic Partnership Registry, and Hawaii recognizes reciprocal beneficiaries. But once again those rights disappear once you leave the state, and moreover they do not in any way impact the 1,138 federal rights granted to heterosexual partners. Only a federal law can do that. That is why today, probably right as we speak, there is a march in Washington DC to ask for federal legislation extending the right to be married, and the 1138 rights that go with it to all committed partners who wish to be married.

I know that the journey towards full equality has been a long one, but we need to keep “coming out” in favor of complete equality, not settling for crumbs. Many of us thought that New York was close to passing some legislation last spring, and yet the bill still languishes between Assembly and Senate. So we have to keep a steady pressure on this issue until we have that full equality. Here are some ways we can do that.

First, our congregation will always be here to marry all committed partners in the witness of community and the holiness of our cherished tradition. I wonder if the queer community in the valley know that we are here to celebrate their union with them, and to recognize their marriage in the eyes of God, even though we cannot grant them the legal rights that only the civil government can give.

If you are in a same-gender partnership, the way you use language can help educate your friends and neighbors. If you have been married in the religious sense, I encourage you to use the words “husband” or “wife” and “married” and to publicly celebrate your anniversaries. Or you can choose to convey the secondary status the law affords by writing “domestic partners,” “reciprocal beneficiary” or “legally married in another country” on forms and applications. When the person accepting the form furrows her brow and asks for clarification, this is a moment for education. Understanding the relationship between these strange laws and real people may help educate America one person at a time. Said one Bradford County resident “folks here are very conservative, but they are able to appreciate good neighbors even if those neighbors are different.” This says to me that a conversation with a co-worker or neighbor may be more powerful and effective in the valley than a letter to the editor ever will.

For those of us who have the un-earned privilege of being married to someone of a different gender, we can relinquish some of that privilege by using the word “partner.” That way people will not always know the gender of your spouse or your legal relationship and will have to live in the ambiguity that such a word creates for all who use it. At our weddings and anniversaries we can take a moment of solidarity with our friends and neighbors who don’t have the right to marry, and speak that truth in a wedding ceremony or anniversary party. I married two dear friends a few years back and it was the first time I included these simple words “This day is made possible not only because of your love for each other, but through the grace of your parents and our whole society. We recognize the privilege Erika and Eugene have in being able to publicly witness their love. We acknowledge that it is a privilege not afforded to all in these times. In solidarity, we hope for a day when all people everywhere can express their love openly without fear.” At the reception a gay friend said he had never enjoyed a wedding more- by including those words he felt truly welcome, truly part of the congregation to have his truth spoken.

We can continue to work on the local and state level for change, but particularly in conservative Bradford County, our best efforts might be put towards the federal legislation that actually has the most power to grant those 1128 rights. The three areas that need our attention are:
1) Repealing the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy under which any military personnel who legally or publicly acknowledging his or her partner must loses career, pension, and military benefits.
2) Overturning the Defense of Marriage Act which puts a firewall between same-gender couples and those 1138 rights.
3) Providing domestic partnership benefits for federal employees. The Federal government is the largest American Employer, and civil servants should not have to choose between serving their country and providing basic protections to their partners and children.
4) Passing the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, which will stop the rending of committed partnerships between citizens of different countries.

There is a petition created by Standing on the Side of Love out in the Foyer that will allow you to express your desire for “Full and equal protection under the law for Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people”

On the news you often see “people of faith” being outspoken on the side of denying folks their equal rights. Let us ask the government to separate church and state- we are not telling anyone they have to marry someone their religious forbids them to marry, we are only asking that the religious ideals of some not be used to deny rights to others. Because we too are people of faith: faith in the worth and dignity of all people, faith in the power of love, and the right to give and receive love, faith in the importance of committed partnerships and family. Let us stand up for our faith, and stand on the side of love.

Major Sources:

The title comes from a children's story called The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans by Johnny Valentine published by Alyson Wonderland Press.

Kotulski, Davina. Why You Should Give a Damn About Gay Marriage. Los Angeles: Advocate Press, 2004.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dreams and the Rational Mind (October 4, 2009. UU Church of Cortland)

When I finally took Rev. Jeremy Taylor’s class, “Dreams and Dreaming” I was in my last year at Starr King School for the Ministry. I knew nothing about dream-work, except that Jeremy’s class was one of the most popular at the Graduate Theological Union, and that it had taken me 3 years of begging and some good luck to get in. I approached the subject with good UU skepticism, which was somewhat allayed when I realized that Jeremy, an Ordained UU minister, approached the topic with questioning and high intellectual standards. Eventually I realized that beneath my skepticism was fear. I was afraid that my dreams had nothing to tell me. I was afraid that dream-work would be useless to me if I could not lay aside my doubt and rational mind frame.

But I followed the professor’s instructions. I made myself a dream journal, and kept it by my bed with a pencil. If I woke up in the middle of the night with a dream I tried to write at least a few words before going back to sleep. Each week in class we would start by going around the circle and each person would tell the title of a dream he or she had recorded. After a lecture and discussion about dream-work in general, then one brave soul would volunteer to share a dream with the class. We would listen to the dream once through, then ask clarifying questions of the dreamer. If we had an idea about what the dream might mean we began “if this were my dream” and gave our thoughts -- always speaking in the first person. We used this formulation so that both we and the dreamer could remember that whatever we projected on the dream were only our projections. However carefully our classmate described a dream, the vision we each had in our own heads would surely be different, our own imaginations filling in the details. We agreed that only the dreamer could say for sure what his or her dream was about, and the way the dreamer would know would be a sense of “Aha.” As the first dreamers told their dreams, it was mostly our teacher who offered “if this were my dream” or “in my years of looking at dreams about water, there is usually something having to do with the emotions” It was like learning a new language. Eventually the images began to come together in my own mind, and then I had my own projections to offer for each dream that was shared.

Over the first month of class, I had only remembered and written four dreams. I had written in my class notebook “I am concerned that my subconscious will not have exciting new messages for me, only things I already know” and in fact the first dream I recorded was one in which I had to go to my actual waking-life bank to transfer money from savings to checking, which in literal fact I had on my to-do list that night). During class following week I had asked “what about boring dreams?” and in my notes I find the response “Maybe the bank dream is showing me that dreams will remind me of something I already know but have forgotten and need to remember.”

Finally it was my turn to offer a dream. It was a longer dream with a dramatic story and had some emotional content for me. I was amazed by how different my classmates interpretations were from my own first impressions of the dream. There really was something new and fresh and radically different to be found in my dreams. Still for most of the class I had this fear that my dreams would not have anything new to say despite Rev. Taylor’s belief that “No dreams come to tell you what you consciously already know” and that “There is no such thing as a dream with only one meeting”

Despite my doubts, I liked the practice of keeping a dream journal -- a collection of these colorful worlds. I now have a row of journals dating back to that class in 1996. Some dreams were easy to call to mind, but others would have been lost forever if I hadn’t written them down. My dreams became like friends to me, each one a strange new world as amazing as any television show or storybook.

That’s how dream-work changed my life. Here was a daily practice that helped me make a link between the conscious and the subconscious, the waking and dreaming worlds. Regardless of how or why humans dream, these dreams are part of the same mind-body system that makes shopping lists or writes a newsletter column. Dreamwork gave me a kind of faith in my own innate creativity -- unconscious though it might be. It gave me faith that the flow of the strange and the new could not be stifled by my conscious limitations. It gave me faith that there were more ways to understand and relate to this constantly unfolding life of mine than I had even imagined. It helped me have faith in and curiosity about mystery. It also helped me by-pass my very controlling rational mind, to get at that knowledge some part of me had access to that my conscious mind could not yet express or understand.

Here is what it could look like to welcome your dreams more deeply into your waking life. Just paying attention is a start. Many folks find that they are more likely to remember their dreams when they give their dreams some attention. If you wake up in the morning with the sense that you have had a dream, don’t move, don’t fully wake, just allow your conscious mind to go back inside the dream and review it, revisit it. Notice the landscape, notice the colors and how you feel. Have you been to this place before? Have you felt this way before?

Many folks put forth the “day residue” theory of dreams and I think that’s partially correct. The sleeping brain sorts and puts away experiences and memories. That’s why some dreams don’t mean much more than the pile of stuff on your desk- the ideas and experiences in the dream are still unsorted or miscellaneous. Such dreams echo a sorting process that is just beginning and kind of random. I brought one of these dreams to dreamgroup once and there just wasn’t much there. I kind of had suspected as much because the dream didn’t feel powerful to me, there were no special emotions attached to it, and in fact working the dream yielded only minimal results. Other times we have dreams with intrinsic power. I propose that this is when the sorting is really getting somewhere. Some learning or growing is occurring for the dreamer and the dream may be a culmination of the synthesizing that the whole self has been working on for some time. If I the dreamer have a dream that feels powerful, either because it is delightful or terrifying, it is probably tied in to some important learning or growth in my life.

That brings us to nightmares. Many folks get in the habit of ignoring their dreams because at one point in their life they were beset by nightmares. But Rev. Taylor reassured us that “All Dreams Come in the Service of Health and Wholeness.” According to that theory the bad dreams aren’t caused by evil gremlins who want to ruin your sleep and have fun at your expense, but instead the dreams come from some part of ones self, a part of me that is scared, or worried, or knows some important choice is coming and wants to say “wake up and navigate this path in a wise way.” Looking at such dreams is a way of confronting the nightmares, of confronting the self. In the same way that psychologists would tell us that talking through our issues can help us move beyond them, dreamwork proceeds with the idea that if we notice and listen to our dreams, with the help of others if possible, we may be able to use the wisdom of our nightmares in a way that will help us live a more whole and healthy waking life.

The nightmare that had haunted me for most of my childhood was of being kidnapped or taken hostage. Occasionally I can break free, but if I tell an authority figure they never believe me. I can’t run away because I know I can’t outrun the bigger stronger adults. I had this dream quite frequently as a child, and even occasionally as an adult. During seminary I started running regularly, and when the dream recurred I had the thought “good thing I like to run” and was free. My nightmare changed and never was the same again. I like to remember this dream because it shows how the dream life can evolve as the waking life of the dreamer evolves, and because of the clear interplay between waking and dreaming life.

Sometimes we can work on these things on our own, but some important insights may be hidden from our conscious minds. When we work with a group they sometimes can see things about us that we hide from ourselves, or that are in our blind spots. Being in a dream group can be different from other kinds of group experiences, because sometimes when we are talking about dreams we can get right to the truth, while when we re talking directly about waking life we might fear to tread on such intimate or tender ground. Over time one comes to know the dreams and lives of other folks in the group, and we are able to see patterns and connections. At first folks may feel that a week when they don’t work their own dream is a wasted week, but eventually one starts to see the way when I work someone else’s dream, the things I project on my version of the dream show me about myself. As Rev. Taylor once quipped: just cause it’s a projection doesn’t mean it isn’t true and just because it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t a projection.

As I look at your own dreams and the dreams of others, I start to notice that some images are very personal and other images are more broadly shared. Those images we share most widely are called Archetypes. Said Joseph Campbell “a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” [The Power of Myth p. 40]Carl Jung had said that “The archetype is a kind of readiness to produce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas… When an archetype appears in a dream, in a fantasy, or in life, it always brings with it a certain influence or power by virtue of which it either exercises a numinous or a fascinating effect, or impels to action.” [Quoted in Taylor Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill p. 238]

For example, I had a dream that I was in a small boat on a large body of water that capsized, and that in my bag were my cell phone, wallet and electronic organizer, all of which would be destroyed if wet, leaving me without resources. The image of water is commonly tied to emotions across culture and time. I’m sure thousands of people have dreamed about being in a small boat in a big body of water, and of capsizing. Perhaps this has to do with the hugeness of our emotions, and fear of drowning or getting immersed in them might be a common theme for folks who have this dream. I even bet there are more and more folks who have dreams about losing or damaging their cell phones- now that the cell phone plays such an important role in the daily lives of many. For me personally I often have a bag of crucial things that I carry with me in many dreams, and in any dream where I am conscious of the bag, it is usually because I am about to lose it. Perhaps there is something there about fear of letting go of my “baggage” (dreams love puns) or losing my connections to my community and friends whose contact information I keep in my cell and PDA. Perhaps confronting the great sea of emotions was more frightening to me without my network, or perhaps I worried that in falling into the sea of emotions I would endanger my friendships and networks.

The communal and the personal symbols flow and interrelate. Take a moment now and notice your response as I talked about my dream and my interpretations. Did you have a moment where you said “yes, that’s probably it” or “boy that doesn’t ring true?” That is an example of how each of us projects our own meaning onto any dream. If I have any kind of response to hearing a dream, it can tell me something about myself, whether or not it was my dream to begin with. Moreover, each dream may have multiple layered meanings for each person and across cultures. There are so many ways water has appeared as a symbol in different cultures over the generations. Water cleans, water flows and ebbs. Water is the birthplace of life on this earth, and reminds us of the womb. Water is crucial for life itself. Now I can go back over the dream with each of those meanings in mind, and see what other layers of meaning emerge.

The more I studied my dreams, the more I became interested in symbol and story, even the scriptures of more orthodox faiths. Now when I look at Jonah in the belly of the whale, I feel connected to all the folks who have ever dreamed of being lost at sea. I notice the special feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when someone in a movie puts down their bag and you know they are going to leave it behind. When I hear of oppression in the world or hear about our freedoms being impaired here in the US, my dreams of captivity and the refusal of authorizes to respond or help link me empathetically to my brothers and sisters who live that waking life nightmare.

When I took my sabbatical several years later, I was happy to see that Jeremy was teaching a dreamwork class at the University of Creation Spirituality where I was doing my sabbatical certificate. I had been part of a regular dream-group for several years after seminary, but then had moved out of town. Since that time I have not stopped writing down my dreams but had very little chance to work deeply with them. It was wonderful to sit in a circle each week telling dreams, and engaging in group projective dream work together. My understanding of archetypes and the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self deepened, and I came to a better knowing of my own self on this level.

I strengthened my belief that story and archetype are the greatest intergenerational teachers. The stories and dreams we tell one another shape our culture and our future. I returned to church recommitted to consciously choosing the stories we teach our children and lift up in worship, and committed to teaching them in such a way that they might be touchstones throughout our lives.

When looking through my dreams at something as simple as water shows me many possible meanings, it begins to expand my sense of the complexity and richness of the language of the soul. Looking at our dreams not only helps us see our own lives through a different lens, but helps us add layers of meaning to stories and symbols and even to ordinary objects or events. Our dreams show us new paths for exploration, encouraging learning and growth in a deep and multi-layered way.

Monday, September 28, 2009

There is a Thread (September 27, 2009, Pennsylvania Universalist Convention)

Thank Rob Eller Isaac who used this poem in his address to the SKSM alum this past GA.

The Way It Is
~ William Stafford ~

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

How good it is to be together with all of you- people who care about our Universalist Heritage, who tend it and preserve it for coming generations. This faith we cherish we call a “living tradition” because it is not static, but grows and changes over the generations. As Lewis B. Fisher noted in 1921 “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.” [Howe, p. 96]

And truly Universalism has moved and changed radically over these past 200 years, but still our strong sense of identity and pride remains. What is the thread that we Universalists follow? Over those 170 years of Universalism before the merger with the Unitarian tradition, there were only 3 professions of faith adopted by the whole body of Universalism. The first was passed in Philadelphia in 1790. Then in 1803 The Winchester profession was passed and served our movement for many years. In 1899 the “Boston Declaration” affirmed the Winchester profession but lifted up 5 essential principles of UU faith, and finally in 1935 the Washington Declaration was a substantively new re-statement for the 20th century. This statement remained through merger with the Unitarians in 1961, and in fact was printed in the front of the Sheshequin congregation’s hymnals, and the avowal was repeated each Sunday as part of this congregation’s regular liturgy for many years. Today I would like to take a close look at these statements and see if there are threads we can follow as we move.

The first thread I want to follow is the idea of restoration, of “final harmony with God.” When I describe Universalism to my neighbors or to our children, this is one of the main ideas I mention- that Universalism grew in response to a prevailing belief that some folks would be saved and others would not- in fact that some folks had been elected for salvation and others never had a chance. So we find in the articles of faith from 1790 that Jesus will “Restore the whole human race to happiness” and that the Holy Ghost will “Reconcile the hearts of the children of men to God.” (The language in all of these historic professions is not inclusive in terms of gender, so we will notice that and be grateful of how far we have come).

In the 1803 Winchester profession is a shorter, tighter statement without so much detail about the nature and work of Jesus and of the holy spirit, but great consistence with the statement that God will “restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.” It is this Universalist notion of restoration and reconciliation that reminds me of the story of our two rivers this morning- the idea that all are worthy and that in the end all are coming to the same place. And that in that final destination all are joined as one.

Later, in the 5 principles of the Boston Declaration, we find this idea with only a poetic change of language in the 5th principle “The final harmony of all souls with God.” What I think is interesting is that the Boston Declaration spells out so clearly “The certainty of just retribution for sin.” Some of you will remember the great restorationist controversy of the 1820s which caused a great rift in our faith- would all souls reach that ocean of one-ness right away when they died, would death itself would destroy any sin of the soul, or would there be a period of punishment or of the soul before they could reach that ocean? So we see clearly in 1899 that the official party line is that there must be “just retribution” as surely as there will be final harmony. This also reminds us that the idea of sin is very much part of this tradition. This is a theological tradition that doesn’t gloss over our failings and the harm we do to one another.

But the huge change comes in the language of the Washington Declaration. Evil is right there in the statement, but the idea of restoration and final harmony has a radically new face. We are now talking about establishing the Kingdom of God. It doesn’t say something about individual souls entering the Kingdom of God, or being restored to the Kingdom of God, but “the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God. It also says that a common purpose of our convention will be to “co-operate in establishing the kingdom for which [Jesus] lived and died. This is a huge shift of focus. We are not even going to mention the fate of souls after death, our primary concern is now to co-operate to progressively establish the Kingdom of God.

The notion of establishing a Kingdom of God intertwines the thread of final harmony with another thread we find in even the earliest of Articles of Faith in 1790- the section on “Good Work” in which we promote a holy, active and useful life. So at our very beginning there was clarity that your restoration to happiness functioned independently of your good works, which were separately important. In the Winchester profession we say that ‘believers aught to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.” You see, the idea that our good works, our effort has any impact on the establishment of the Kingdom of God doesn’t appear until the 20th century, even though the earliest statements of Universalist common ground always included the urge to good works, and a social conscience. But here in 1935 is the moment in history where the two ideas come together into one. Today we almost never talk about the final disposition of the soul, there is still a thread which connects us back to that idea, the thread of ultimate reconciliation and restoration, and the thread of our social conscience and the value of good work. These two twine together as establishing the Kingdom of God. Today in our principles we call this thread “The goal of world community, with peace, liberty and justice for all,” but we also have something of this in our seventh principle in our “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part;” instead of seeing separate rivers flowing towards one ultimate ocean, we are learning to see the whole of the water cycle here and now.

Not all things follow in an unbroken line from the days of our formation. For example, our sense of where truth comes from has changed dramatically. The Philadelphia Articles are quite clear that “We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain a revelation of the perfections and will of God, and the rule of faith and practice.” This was hardly changed in the Winchester Profession. In the Washington Declaration there is a dramatic shift. All reference to scripture is removed and instead they avow their faith in “the Authority of truth known or to be known” and in what might be called the Liberty Clause of the Washington Declaration it says of all our previous avowals “They are commended not as tests but as testimonies to the free quest for truth that accords with the genius of the Universalist Church.” And though there had been a liberty clause from the very beginning (removed during a period of orthodoxy in 1870-1899) the sense of the earliest clauses were generally “you don’t have to say these exact words, but just adhere to these general principles” In 1899 those principles were summarized:

The universal Fatherhood of God
The spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ:
The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God
The certainty of Just retribution for sun
The final harmony of all souls with God.

It was really only that last statement that differentiated Universalism from its more orthodox neighbors. But now in 1935, we are talking about a free quest for truth, the authority not of the bible but of “Truth known or to be known” No longer is all truth about the will of God to be found only in the scripture. There is truth yet to be known. Revelation is not sealed. Looking only at these avowals, the source of truth is almost unrecognizably transformed between Philadelphia and Washington.

Now, because I’m a little bit of a mystic, my favorite words in the Philadelphia Articles of 1790, “We believe in One God, Infinite in all his perfections; and that these perfections are all modifications of infinite, adorable, incomprehensible and unchangeable… Love.” Wow. All the perfections of God are aspects of God’s love. The Winchester profession says it more simply “there is one God, whose nature is Love.” Granted we are not all theists here today, we are atheists and agnostics. But can we have faith in love? That’s a serious question I’m putting to you. You don’t get to adulthood without having your heart broken, without encountering hatred and violence in the world.

“Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.”

Can we have faith that at some ultimate, some fundamental level, love is under girding and supporting life? The Philadelphia Articles of Faith say “We hold that the love of God… is the best means of producing obedience …and promoting a holy, active and useful life.” Do I believe that I want to express that fundamental love in the actions of my life? when I ask myself a very practical question “If I believed that God was unchangeable love, and that the way I could love God Back was through a holy, active and useful life, do I have faith that that if people acted out that faith, this would be a better world?”

Then in 1899 in the Boston Declaration, in that list of principles which must be professed … love is missing. Take a look at those 1899 principles, where did the love go? I just felt my heart sank when I noticed that. As if the thread had been broken. And I was delighted to reassured that in 1935 love came back it says “we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love.” But now look at the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism on the back of your order of service. Where is the love? Such a powerful statement in 1790, and the word love does not appear at all in our principles today. We find the goal of world community which connects to the thread about reconciliation, about establishing the kingdom of God. We also see that free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which is that thread of revelation which took a left turn in the 1930s. But where is love? Here is where I think it is hiding. I think it is hiding in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and in the interdependent web of existence. I think those two principles show a faith that all of creation is holy and worthy, but our current principles stop short of saying we are worthy of love. We are two cynical and jaded to use the same word we see on hallmark cards for how the universe needs and values us and is connected to us. How the universe loves us, because love is its nature. Perhaps we have lost our faith in love.

Now if you look at the six sources you will find love again. We turn to our prophetic women and men who confront structures of evil with the transforming power of love. We turn to the Jewish and Christian teachings by responding to God’s love and by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Of all the threads we follow, I think this is the most important. We have to hold on to love, or we will be lost. I don’t care about truth, or being restored to harmony with God if the truth is that God is capricious and judgmental with a bad temper. The biggest leap of faith we as Universalists can take is the faith that love is in the very nature of things, in the very web of life. You can imagine my righteous indignation, and feeling even of betrayal when I thought we had lost hold of this thread during the merger of Unitarian and Universalist. And then I came across a photo I had take at this year’s General Assembly, a Giant banner in front of the convention center reading “Standing on the Side of Love.” Because we Unitarians and Universalists have sponsored an advocacy campaign whose mission is “Harnessing Love’s Power to Stop Oppression”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.

I was so relieved and grateful to find the thread again. To know that whatever work we do in our own community, in our own church to stop oppression is a way of holding on to that thread. There is so much that has changed about our Universalist faith over these past centuries, but at its core something remains the same. Something those early American Universalists expressed as they came together back in 1790 still provides guidance and connection for us today. And that is faith in love, and the ultimate harmony of all beings.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Ethics of Lunch (August 16, 2009)

Is it peculiar that I seem face my greatest ethical dilemmas while standing in the grocery store? Yet it would seem I’m not alone, because UUs from around the nation have voted to take a closer look at the ethics of eating for a 4 year period as our Study Action Issue. We are a strongly ethical faith but lacking the dietary laws of some of our neighbors, we crave an ethical framework to support us as we make the perilous journey down the grocery store aisles.

Just a few generations ago people knew what to eat- it was guided by what crops had done well, what grew best on their land and what season it was. Today changes in food technology have removed this natural feedback loop which constrained our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and our ancestors who lived on a family farm. Now when I go to the grocery store the only feedback factors are the cost of the consumer goods, the effectiveness of packaging and my desire. Yet we know that the true cost of our food is not represented in its retail cost, so the feedback loops which have historically connected me to the food chain have been broken, and it takes a considerable act of consciousness to be an ethical eater.

So lets pull apart some of these tangles and see what grounding UU provides for our ethical framework. Our UU principles encourage us to: remember our interconnection (which leads us to consider the impact of our eating on animals, the eco-system, our carbon-footprint, and even the war for oil in a food system based on oil) and to remember the worth and value of every person (which reminds us to consider the justice of food distribution, and justice for those who harvest our food.). I also want to invoke the Native American vision to remember 7 generations in our decision, believing that what my son feeds his children is a valid ethical guiding post. I also would like to recommend the Buddhist encouragement toward compassion. Says the Dali Lama : “ For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe." [from The Compassionate Life]

So though we don’t have the benefit of the chapters and verses of dietary laws in Leviticus, these principles can help us tease out a few ethical guidelines. And I want to start with one of the thorniest ethical dilemmas- meat. Most of us have heard that statistics about the inefficiency of meat as food- that it takes fare more of the sun’s energy, more grain, more water to create a meal which contains meat than one without.

For these reasons, and because their compassion for all sentient beings has so moved them, many UUs have become vegetarians. But for a variety of reasons, this is not a choice all of us are ready or able to make. So I offer a more inclusive guideline that strict vegetarianism- (1) eat less meat. This means that for each meal where we do not include meat, or each time we take a smaller portion of meat than we are accustomed to, we are making a positive difference in our eco-system, and in the world food system.

For those of us who choose to eat meat, we still have more choices to make. The meat in most super market aisles and at most restaurants is currently part of a system that is not humane to the animals, and that creates toxins for our environment. Friends of mine decided a few years ago that they were only going to eat meat if they could know that the animals were treated humanely, and in a way that reduced the load on the environment. They’ve been building up their homestead over the past few years, and now have a whole flock of chickens, turkeys and ducks. They have goats for milk, and recently found two calves on Craig’s list who they are raising for meat. When they purchase animals for meat in the past, the do the butchering themselves, so that they can be assured that they are butchered in a humane way. These women love animals- they care dearly about not only their dogs and finches and rabbits, but also these animals who they raise for eggs or milk or meat. This is a strong ethical place to stand; I am constantly impressed with the courage of their convictions.

Because even when we buy meat that is “grass fed” or “free range” we don’t’ really know what that means. Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma exposes not only the seedy side of the meat industry, but his surprise on his visit to industrial organic farms that the “free range” chickens have only a marginally better existence than the conventional ones, despite the cute pictures of happy hens we see on the shelf at the store. Of all the choices I make when I shop for food, I feel best about the eggs I buy from my friends, because I know those chickens, I have seen where they live, and I know how deeply my friends care about the earth and about their animals. So I offer a second guidelines: (2) where possible, know your farmers. Visit the places where your food is raised. What you witness with your eyes and ears and nose will tell you much more about the compassion and ethics with which your food is raised than any USDA label on a product in the supermarket

Let’s move to something easier, like carrots. We all feel pretty good about eating carrots, still we remember with gratitude that these carrots are living beings too, and we live because of them. When you buy a carrot you don’t have to read an ingredient list to check for MSG, it is exactly what it purports to be- it looks like a plant root and tastes like a carrot. It is at the bottom of the agricultural food chain (it eats compost and sun and in turn is eaten by animals) and it is also at the bottom of the industrial food chain (it can be processed into those cans and boxes and listed as an ingredient in fine print on the side. When you eat a fresh carrot it is a very efficient conversion of the sun’s energy, and all the nutrients are still just the way the carrot grew them. It’s good for you and good for the earth. This is our 3rd guideline: (3) eat as low as possible on the food chain. This is just common sense. Corn is healthier for you and for the earth when it is still on the cob than when it has been processed into either a hamburger or into puffs. The less processing a food has endured, the more nutrients it retains- not just the ones listed on the side of the box, but other more subtle nutrients that scientists are only just discovering are necessary for healthy life. Eating less processed food is not only healthier, it’s also cheaper- you can buy 5 pounds of rice for the cost of a couple of “Lunchables”. This is partly because you are not paying the marketing cost of your rice, which doesn’t have to run commercials during Saturday morning cartoons to convince us to buy it. My 5 pound bag of rice, and my bunch of carrots together has way less packaging than said Lunchables, which reduces your footprint further both in terms of less packaging to end up in landfills and petroleum needed to make the plastic packaging in the first place.

But even though you are eating a carrot, there are still ethical dilemmas. Just because carrots don’t come with a list of ingredients doesn’t mean they aren’t full of chemicals or drenched in fossil fuels. For industrial agriculture grows carrots in a way that includes bonus chemicals that may or may not be safe for you and your children, and are definitely not safe for the water supply downstream from the conventional farm where chemicals were used. Because of these concerns, our fourth guideline is “buy organic produce whenever possible”. (our 4th guideline).

Here’s the tricky part- Just because you’ve found yourself a raw carrot stamped with the USDA organic seal, still doesn’t mean that it isn’t produced in a fossil-fuel intensive green house gas producing way. If your organic carrots are from Venezuela, they are not carbon neutral. So our 5th guideline is “eat local”. This is my favorite, because this is one where I have a lot of choices and control. When I grow cucumbers in my backyard I know exactly what chemicals were applied and the 8 foot walk out to pick them is not only carbon neutral but good for my soul. I think planting a few foods in our own yard or in a container on our balcony is one of the most enjoyable ethical acts I know. Because not only do you have a very light footprint, but you learn so much about the life cycle of your plants, and the cycles of seasons. This is practically a religious practice as far as I’m concerned. But if your yard is as small as mine, this is not subsistence farming, this is mostly just for the joy of picking a cucumber off the vine and serving it for dinner. The next best thing is to get your produce from your neighbors: stopping at the roadside stands, visiting farmer’s markets.

If you do a web-search for Farmer’s Markets nearby, you find our own Andy Fagan as the contact for the market in Muldoon Park on Monday Evenings. You find that Small Castle Farm in Ulster is our local member of the PA buy fresh Buy local network, and I pass any number of farm stands on my way to and from church. Another option is Community Supported Agriculture, where members pay a share of the cost of growing vegetables to the farmers at the start of the growing season, and receive a box of fresh vegetables here at the church once a week. Buyers clubs and Community Supported Agriculture shares not only make sure you have a steady stream of locally grown produce into your home, but it also provides a reliable source of income to small farms at a time when our national legislative bias towards agribusiness makes it hard for small farmers to persist.

By supporting local agriculture, we not only reduce our carbon footprint, but we also preserve the beautiful open spaces we love about this part of the world, and we provide food security for our community by ensuring that local farmers grow a diversity of food people could eat for substance instead of just cash crops. A friend who was driving cross country recently said the worst produce she saw on her whole trip was in an agricultural area in Iowa, because they grow only commercial grade corn and soy which are cash crops, and all the food those farmers eat has to be imported from other parts of the world. Now anyone who’s tried to grow a fruit or vegetable knows that some foods just don’t grow in some places. We are just never going to find local coffee, or local oranges. But Apples, zucchini, maple syrup, honey, corn, these we have in abundance. This brings us to our next precept:

The 6th guideline for ethical eaters is to keep studying and learning. We study and learn not only by reading but by observing- arrange a visit to your local farm or bakery. Watch the cucumbers grow in your own back yard. Sadly most of our food comes from a pretty opaque system. It’s crazy that we live in a time when, as Pollan ponders: “What am I eating, and where in the world dit it come from?” Not very long ago an eater didn’t need a journalist to answer these questions.” It was only through his writing did I learn that grass fed beef is healthier for us and for the environment than corn fed beef, or learn that the USDA organic label permits additives and synthetics such as ascorbic acid and Xantham Gum (Pollan p. 156) Reading and an inquiring mind is how you find out that “natural flavors” can mean that corn has been broken down and processed in test tubes until it tastes like grape. That what “free range” means anything from hens raised in tight quarters in a barn with a door that is unlocked for 2 weeks of a chicken’s life, to the hens you see running across the street sometimes as you drive through your neighborhood. This is how you find out that most of the farm workers who grow the food in California have to constantly fight for safe and sanitary conditions as they work, and are not even close to a living wage.

And your reading and study will inevitably bring you to our 7th guideline- justice for those who grow our food, and for all who are hungry. I want to devote a whole service later this year to issues of food and social justice, but for today I just want to remind us that this is why we Started our “Feed a Friend” project because we noticed that fresh foods are not always as available to folks living in poverty, and we also contribute foods that are grown the most ethical way we know how, locally in small gardens without industry or chemicals.

But already this is too many guidelines to juggle when you are standing in the aisle of your grocery store, or racing past a farm stand as you are late to work. My friends who are building up their homestead and milking their own goats twice a day have taken several years to get where they are, including a cross continental relocation. So start where you are (as the Buddhists say). Decide what is most inspiring to you and set your intention to change the patterns of your daily life, weaving them in a new pattern. As we enter the harvest season, perhaps you could choose one new thing on your path to ethical eating. It could be something as simple as buying only locally grown corn. On your path you may learn which local farmers grow corn, which tastes the best, which is more convenient to your commute, and when your local corn season is. Or you could decide to make lunch a vegetarian only meal, knowing it will take some time to learn what new foods you like to make for lunch, and how you will shop differently to make that possible. Or you could decide to arrange a farm tour or apple picking trip for you family and friends. Once you have incorporated one new ethical pattern in your life, you will know something new about your self and your world, and maybe what next step you are ready to take.

Changing patterns and habits takes time and energy and a clarity of intention. Part of the reason we buy processed food is because it is easier and less time consuming than buying raw local foods. Getting all your food at one store is easier than picking your own apples at a local orchard. But as Albus Dumbledore said in The Goblet of Fire: "Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy." So give yourself encouragement to do the right thing- find a way to enjoy the beauty and balance of a fresh organic carrot, or corn picked that same day, or time spent in the garden watching cucumbers grow.

Finally, whatever you sit down and eat- do so in a spirit of gratitude, grateful not only to the plants and animals whose lives nourish you, but to the farmers and workers and truck drivers who brought you each meal. Eat mindfully, whether you are eating carrot or cheese puffs, because conscious, mindful eating will help you feed the senses and the soul as you feed your body, and is the first step towards reconnecting with our selves and the interconnected web of which we are all a part.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Deconstructing Gender (May 31, 2009)

By the time a child is ready for kindergarten, it knows some basic things. It usually knows colors and shapes, it knows how to use a bathroom and put on a jacket. It knows the days of the week and the seasons. And it knows gender. It knows from a visit to any children’s clothing store, that there are girls, who like pink and purple and flowers and sparkly things, and there are boys, who like blue and red and trucks. I didn’t understand how well we were teaching this lesson until my son wore his brand new Dora the Explorer shoes to church. For those of you who have not had preschoolers in your home for the past few years, Dora is a cartoon about a little Latina girl who goes on adventures with her backpack and her monkey friend Boots, teaching children Spanish words and sequencing. Dora is not a particularly effeminate character, being an explorer and all, but whoever is in charge of her licensing has decided to put her image on only the most frilly, flowery, pink and purple sparkly clothing, for sale only in the “little girls” department. And this first time my 2 year old son wore his brand new Dora sneakers to church, a UU church mind you, one of the preschool girls raised by very progressive parents announced in a shocked voice “those are girl shoes!”

It makes you wonder. Why do we even have segregated clothing departments for boys and girls? At that age the sizes and shapes of the kids are pretty much the same. We as a society have invested a lot in our gender sorting system. I think of all the time toddlers spend trying to fit the circle and square and triangle blocks into their sorting toys, and realize that gender feels a lot like that. Government forms ask us to check “male or female.” Public restrooms ask us to sort ourselves “girls and boys” We need to know which of those 2 holes each of us fits into, and which hole everyone around us fits into. And what happens when you run into a star, or a hexagon? In western society, violence happens. People who cross gender lines tell stories of being hit by a parent, beat-up on the playground, beaten by police in a raid. There is something about this binary gender-sorting system of ours that is so basic, so deeply held, taught so early and reinforced all our lives, that deconstructing gender feels as scary to some folks as asking “what if there is no God?”

In our culture- women have fought to enlarge their the size of the slot they were sorted into. They had to fight for such basic rights as the right to own property and to vote, the right to be free from violence in their own home. The generations of women today have fought to have access to many things which had previously been rigidly held in the male sphere- the right to study and challenge the intellect, to pursue careers in science, math, ministry, finance. They fought for the right to play football and run the marathon in the Olympics. And in entering the traditionally male spheres, they gained the right to wear clothes that did not encumber climbing a mountain, or serving in the armed forces, or running for president. Whereas a generation ago, woman could be arrested for “impersonating a man” if not wearing at least 3 pieces of woman’s clothing, the lines have blurred significantly. If I put on a pair of trousers or work boots today, no one is going to blink an eye.

But folks whom the doctor called “boy” filling out the birth certificate seem to have a more restricted realm of self expression. When a man puts on a skirt, or a little boy wears Dora Sneakers, is still a dangerous moment in our culture. It seems to be socially normative even in young hip shows like “Heros” to make fun of a male character for being nurse, or for staying at home as a full-time parent. And women’s role is still constricted as well- we know what challenges face a woman who decides to run for president.

So I’m guessing just about everyone in this room has bumped up against the rules of their “gender” at one time or another in their life. I preached a service about gender several years ago, and lead off with the theme song from the progressive 70s musical “Free to be you and me” which reminds us that

“There’s a land that I see
Where the Children are free.
And I say it ain’t far
To this land, from where we are.

Every boy in this land
Grows to be his own man.
In this land, every girl
Grows to be her own woman.”

And my heart sank as my dear colleage got up speak, and told her story about how as a little boy he didn’t want to grow up to be his own man, and how he grew up to be her own woman. I had thought my vision of gender roles was quite progressive, but it left a dear friend out in the cold. As much as I chafe at the restrictions of the gender I express, Leslie Feinberg writes: “Those of us who cross the cultural boundaries of sex and gender are paying a terrible price. We face discrimination and physical violence. We are denied the right to live and work with dignity and respect. It takes so much courage to live our lives that sometimes just leaving our homes in the morning and facing the world as who we really are is in itself an act of resistance.” (This is from her landmark book Transgender Warriors, which I am proud to say is published by our own Beacon Press.)

Feinberg was the author of one of the readings we heard today- talking about how she could not pass as either male or female as she tried to get a job. Gender expression is more than whether your shoes came from the boys department or the girls department, it is more than which box the doctor checked off on your birth certificate. For those of us who have the privilege of having a gender that’s easily read, a gender that agrees with the one on our birth certificate, we don’t question the doctor’s authority to make that call. All you need to do is check under your diaper, or check your chromosomes. But while biology tells us something- it doesn’t tell us everything. Did you know that some folks are born with xxx or xxy or xo chromosomes? Folks are born with ambiguous bodies. The doctor makes a choice, and sometimes even changes the body of a newborn to make sure it fits through one of the sorting holes. And sometimes, for example, a baby with male chromosomes will not produce or process the testosterone necessary to change a fetus (we all start out female) into the shape of a male baby. And sometimes the testosterone will kick in during adolescence, creating an apparent gender shift as the adolescent body develops.

So some aspect of this sorting process is not biologically determined but culturally determined. And not every culture has the same gender system as we do. I read recently that one indigenous culture recognizes 49 genders. While that seems pretty rare, many communal cultures recognize the “two-spirit”, one who holds in some way the spirit of the female and the male. This expression sacred in many tribes, a position of honor and power. Theologically this makes perfect sense to me, because a “two-spirit” overcomes the duality of the world, representing the one-ness of all things. It is also true that magic and power can be found at the crossroads- at the intersection of things, at the edge of thought and belief. Says Holger Kalweit (quoted in Gender Outlaw) “Holiness means feeling many –all – spheres of existence within oneself.” How much richer would our society be if we could embrace the unique wisdom and experience of those who inhabit gender in different ways. You will not be surprised to hear that the Two-spirits were singled out for colonial violence when European settlers came to these shores.

So how can we turn the tide away from violence and discrimination towards a wider embrace that acknowledges one another’s experience and wisdom? With what images can we use to engage gender beyond the preschool sorting boxes? Call to mind the yin-yang symbol, the black and white representing the male and female principles, and the yin holds the yang within itself, and the yang holds the yin within itself. But still we are stuck in dualism- good and evil, black and white, male and female.
One could also imagine a continuum from male to female, with each person their own unique shade of grey. But we are still stuck in a binary system. Male on one end and female on the other. You know, when I print the front of this order of service, I can choose to print it in greyscale, like our black and white continuum, or I can choose to print in full color. You can’t tell from looking at the shades of grey which pane of glass is red or yellow, because Red is not a shade of grey, it’s red. I wonder if we could ever allow ourselves that fullness of gender expression in this culture.

When we listen to one another we hear about the toll it takes on some souls to fit into the binary shape sorter. We hear the voices of folks who feel like circles even when the world tells them they are squares, and we heard from folks that just don’t get why they have to choose one or the other, when their lived experience is something radically different- a star perhaps.

Now Unitarian Universalists have a long history of listening to the voices of folks who feel oppressed by societal structures. And we are not just talking here about the right to freedom of expression, which I’m pretty sure is given to us under the constitution. But we are talking about the right to employment and housing without discrimination. We are talking about the right to fair treatment under the law and a right to a life free of violence. Both Pennsylvania and New York legislatures are currently looking at Bills that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. The New York State Assembly passed a bill (A. 5710) on May 14. HB300 is a Pennsylvania bill in process with a similar intent, but it remains to be seen whether either will become law.

This is another chance for UUs to be on the leading edge of thought and leaders as a religious movement. But to do that, we each need to do our own work first. Each of us needs to ask ourselves: what makes me think I know my own gender? What makes me think I know the gender of my friends, of the people I pass on the street? How do I feel when I don’t know someone’s gender? Why? Is there any part of my own expression that I limit because I am afraid of what will happen if I transgress a boundary? Why does anyone even care if a little boy wears Dora the Explorer shoes? Folks who self-identify as “trans gendered,” that is, crossing through the boxes and lines that make boundaries around gender, challenge us to think in a new way about these structures in our society who oppress us all. Says author and performance artist Kate Bornstein:
“Like other border outlaws, transgenderd people are here to open some doorway that’s been closed off for a long long time. We’re gatekeepers, nothing more.”
Because of these gatekeepers, we don’t have to figure this out on our own- there are wonderful writers and thinkers and artists expanding the field of gender theory, and we have our friends and family, each of who has their own way of inhabiting and expressing their gender, each of whom has a story to tell.

May ours be a faith that continues to question the assumptions of our culture, especially when those assumptions result in violence or discrimination. And may we raise our children to know, that we will love them and watch over them, whether their role model is Dora the Explorer or Bob the Builder, or a hero in a new shape and color that opens a new door for us all.

Primary Sources:

Kate Bornstein. Gender Outlaw. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Leslie Feinberg. Transgender Warriors. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Joan Nestle, Claree Howell, Riki Wilchins eds. GenderQueer. New York: Alyson Books, 2002.

Service Readings taken from:

Marlo Thomas & Friends. Free to be you and me, Philadelphia: Running Press, 1997.

Peggy Orenstein. "The Hillary Lesson: What Her Candidacy Has Taught Our Daughters" The New York Times Magazine May 18, 2008

Tom Chiarella "What Is a Man?" Esquire April 6, 2009.

Andrea U'Ren. Pugdog, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is That All There Is? (May 3, 2009)

When Universalism was born, the raging debate was who was going to hell, and who was going to heaven. As you may recall, the Universalists thought that everyone had an equal chance at heaven, which lead to a debate a couple generations later about whether everyone went right to heaven when they died, or whether folks who had done really bad things had to spend some time in hell or purgatory to work off their bad karma before being restored to God.

Have you noticed that we only talk about this when we are learning our Universalist history? No UU has yet to ask me whether I thought he or she was going to heaven or hell. So what happened? How did the theological debate that birthed our movement become a historical artifact?

That old debate about whether we all would ultimately be reunited in heaven comes under the rubric of eschatology, which comes from the Greek roots meaning “the study of last things”. Many of our neighbors have an apocalyptic eschatology, believing that a final battle between good and evil is coming. When you hear about the rapture, you are hearing about a particular eschatology. But when we describe contemporary Unitarian Universalist thinking we have to stretch that word a little bit. Because we are not so much interested in talking about the end of the world- in fact Rev. Rebecca Parker says for us Eschatology means “Where we are coming form and where we are going.”

When we describe contemporary UU thinking we get to use the impressive phrase “realized eschatology” which means that the realization, the culmination of everything is in this present time and place. Folks from the Christian tradition who hold this kind of eschatology believe that when Jesus said that "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14). Jesus was not talking about an apocalyptic scenario, he was saying “the kingdom of God is right here, right now.”

That’s quite a different frame for reality, isn’t it? Think about how you might spend the coming week if you knew that your whole life was leading up to a battle between good and evil at a time of apocalyptic destruction of life as we know it. Now think about how you might spend this coming week if you thought “heaven and hell are both here around me right now, and if I’m ever going to get to heaven, I’m going to have to look for it or create it in this world right here.” If you have a realized eschatology then there are 2 courses of action that seem pretty urgent.

First, we have got to start putting our attention into the here and now. The Buddhist tradition is one that takes seriously this living in the present moment. Even when you are stuck in traffic. Even when you are scrubbing the shower floor. A the Buddha said “

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”. Buddhists believe that the present moment contains the seeds of all things, including liberation from suffering, and enlightenment. So instead of looking for enlightenment or for glorious reward in some future life, we search in this reality for heaven- cause we know it’s around here someplace. And many have proposed that, it’s hiding in plane site. Matthew Fox, the excommunicated Catholic Priest, says that it is crucial for us all to develop a sense of awe and wonder, to see the divine in the world around us. It’s not too hard to find as spring really gets going and the tiny budding leaves have that special young green color, and the whole diversity of the plant kingdom seems to have come together to create a symphony of color. Those of you who have grandchildren also know right where to look for a glimpse of heaven. It is also an idea that mystics from many generations have written about. Author and mystic Richard Jefferies tell us the same thing:
“It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me, in the sunshine, I am in it as the butterfly is in the light laden air. Nothing has to come, It is now. Now is eternity, Now is the immortal life.”

This ties in with our emerging UU pneumatology- (study of the spirit from the Greek root meaning breath) That the spirit of god resides in the natural world, in all living things. This Pneumatology came into our movement in the transcendentalists in the 1900s who showed us that the world is sacred. But sometimes it leads me to wonder, with the great Peggy Lee:

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing

Because not everything we see in our daily life looks like heaven on earth. Frankly, some of it looks like hell. Sometimes it’s hard to have any sense of awe and wonder at all after catching a glimpse of the evening news. Isn’t there anything we can do to create the kingdom of God besides “be here now?”

We call ours a “living tradition.” this means that we believe in Continuous Revelation. We don’t generally hold that Moses was the last prophet. We don’t think there will ever be an end to truth that newly emerges into our consciousness. We also believe in Co-creation- which is to say we believe that God is not the only one creating the world- we are all working together day by day, whether we know it or not. We believe in evolution- not only in biology but in all the living growing changing aspects of our world. Things change and grow and live. And we have a role to play in this. Says Mesle, a Process theologian “But we have hands and God does not. Or rather, when hands are needed, God must rely on the hands of creatures to do that work” (Mesle p. 14). So in this eschatology the “end” of the world, that is to say the “purpose or outcome” of the world is right here among us, we have work to do.

And I think the kind of evolution we believe in is changing. As Rebecca Parker so beautifully articulated in here 2002 address to LREDA, our 19th century eschatology took Evolution to mean: “Onward and upward forever” but for generations that lived through world war one and world war 2, they realized that things weren’t necessarily getting better and better. Sometimes things get worse.

People responded in different ways to the tragedies of the 20th century. Some turned to nihilism in the face of those tragedies- that nothing has meaning. But a concurrent theological movement, process theology, was also emerging. This takes what we have observed motion through evolution and other scientific processes, and makes that the center of theology. Process Theologians hold that God is a process not a static unchanging being, God is motion. Some say “God is a Verb” This means that we can tell Peggy Lee “That’s not all there is” Something new is always unfolding, and we have a role to play in that unfolding. Says Processes Theologian Mesle: “For better or worse, each decision of each creature plays some role in the world’s process of becoming” (Mesle p. 62)
Change is linked to the deepest roots in our theology. The Latin phrase “semper reformanda” or “always being reformed” has been used by protestant churches for centuries to remind themselves that they must always be in the process of reformation. A new twist on the phrase: “Reformatus est semper reformandum” means “reformed yet always needing reformation”. Doesn’t that sound like something the UUs would have come up with? But it is an idea we share with many protestant churches. Ours is a living changing tradition in a living evolving world.

Our Unitarian Universalist eschatology has come a long way from our early history. A Revealed Eschatology allows us to focus our attention and our action in the world around us, instead in an apocalypse to come. A revealed eschatology holds in it two courses for being in the world- they give us 2 different senses of where we might direct our attention as we move through our daily life. Do we find the awe and wonder of our present moment, or do we see the flow of change and lend our hands to guide that change in the direction of life and love? In my own life and practice I think that both are crucial, and that there is a time and a place for each. A friend of mine who is Jewish Reconstructionist says this is part of what Sabbath is for her. That on one day a week we set aside the work of co-creating the world, enjoy the created world as it is. On the Sabbath “The world does not need to be changed.” It is ours to appreciate. But whether we are in the still waters of reflection and appreciation, or the rapids of life’s evolutionary flow, it is for us to use the powers of our hands, our hearts, our attention to seek heaven, enlightenment, the realm of God in this very world we now inhabit.

Primary Sources:

Process Theology, C. Robert Mesle, Chalice Press St. Louis, 1993

A Theology of Religious Education, Rebecca Parker, Delivered at LREDA Fall Conference 2002.