Sunday, December 5, 2010

Enough! (December 5, 2010)

At this time of year, our whole consumer society is set up to make us itch for more. I mean, don’t you kind of feel like you should be shopping right now? The advertisements, the promotions, the coupons have been coming fast and hard, and I confess to you that I am a sucker for a coupon. I go into the store to replace the mittens with the holes in them, and I totally lose hold of my senses. Suddenly I’ve got my arms loaded down with good deals and sales. Sometimes it only takes the walk outside through the parking lot to come back to my senses. By the time I have my keys in the ignition, I suspect there will be some returns in my future. I know I’m not alone in this, because when I friend of mine posted on Facebook “I went to the store for milk and somehow spent $100” and he got almost 50 sympathetic comments on his status. It is just hard to say “Enough!”

Today, we turn to the wisdom of Buddhism to help us bring some sanity to the season, to return us to our senses as we inhabit a culture that encourages us to want more and more until it is too much.

It is said that the first truth given to us by the Buddha when he rose from his meditation under the Bodhi tree where he achieved enlightenment were the 4 noble truths. These are also the kernel, the most basic of teachings of Buddhist philosophy, and yet also the most advanced. The 4 noble truths are:
1. Thus is the Noble Truth of Suffering
2. Thus is the Noble Truth of the Accumulation of Suffering
3. Thus is the Noble Truth of the Elimination of Suffering
4. Thus is the Noble Truth of the Path that Leads Away from Suffering

So the first truth of Buddhism is that suffering exists. It is further analyzed this way in one of the longer sutras: “Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with what is not loved is stressful, separation from what is loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful.” And what causes this stress, or suffering? According to the second noble truth it is suffering is caused by carving. We “cling to a certain sense of existence, to selfhood, or to the things or phenomena that we consider the cause of happiness or unhappiness.” Or we have craving that things were not as they are. The word for Craving is Tanha, which literally means Thirst, but can also be translated as desire.

I think what happens when we encounter the American Marketing Machine, is that it speaks to our thirst, our craving. We become dissatisfied with what we have and long for more. But the Buddha is talking about not just thirst for superficial pleasures, but the suffering that comes from losing things we love, people we love, our health, it comes from realizing that someday we will lose our lives.

And he says, in the 3rd noble truth, there is in fact an end to suffering, which is good news. In the 4th noble truth he tells us that there is a path to follow to lead us away from suffering. That path is called the Eight Fold path. That is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Obviously, if we are doing or saying things that are causing harm to ourselves and others, this will cause us stress or suffering. But the inner work we do with our own thoughts and how we focus our attention is part of that path as well. Cultivating mindfulness helps us retain our equanimity. It cultivates that “inner strength that allows us to be with things the way they are instead of how we wish they could be. Mindfulness practice does not involve trying to change who we are, instead it is a practice of seeing clearly who we are…”

But despite our best intentions, suffering and stress are inevitable. American Buddhist teacher Gil Fonsdel teaches that “It is possible to experience the inevitable pain of life in a straightforward, uncomplicated way….The suffering addressed by the Four Noble Truths is the suffering and stress that arises from the way we choose to relate to our experience. When we cling, it is painful. When we try to hold our experience at a distance, to push it way, that too is painful. We cling to or push away from our experience in an infinite variety of ways”
I propose that in this season of rampant consumerism, business, and dearly held expectations, I think cultivating mindfulness can help us come to a place where we can finally say “enough”. It is not through doing more that we will find that sense, because we know there is always more we could acquire, more we could do. To break the chain of wanting, the Buddhists tell us that we must turn not to more buying or more doing, but inward to our own minds. This is where the wanting begins, this is where suffering and stress arise. I know from personal experience that shopping never leaves me MORE satisfied than when I started. Does this ever happen to you? I go to the store for those new mittens, and realize that there is a new kind of scarf without which I am now itching to have? Now I am dissatisfied, I have another action item on my to-do list and my stress is increased, not decreased.

That example shows the most superficial kind of wanting. But the concept is the same for the big wants- I want a home to call my own. I want a partner when I am single. Perhaps I always wanted to have a child, but never had any children. But Says Buddhist teacher Gil Fonsdel, we can use our small every-day experiences to help us with the big ones when they come. He writes: “If we attend to the small ways that we suffer, we create a context of greater ease, peace, and responsibility which can make it easier to deal with the bigger difficulties when they arise.” [P. 13].

This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing all your attention into the present moment. We don’t judge the present moment, we are just aware of it. If something happens that we don’t like, instead of saying “I hate long lines at the cash registers!” we notice the line. We notice our response to it. We observe the anger rising, but we don’t cling to the anger, we just observe it. When we find the “perfect” gift, we don’t get attached to that either. We notice what thoughts and feelings arise without clinging to them, noticing “excitement is rising, pride is rising” Because all things that rise also pass away. If we get too attached to our great prize we won shopping, think how much greater the suffering will be when we drop it on the way to the car and it breaks, or the person we got it for already has one.”

Says Fonsdel, “In mindfulness practice, we learn how to pay attention in the present in moment so that when suffering arises we’re able to notice it. We can take an interest in it instead of running away from it. We can learn how to be comfortable with suffering, so that we don’t act inappropriately because of our discomfort. Then we can begin understanding its roots, and let go of the clinging.” So as we are standing in the mall and notice the craving, the clinging, the stress, we breathe in and breathe out, observing each breath, observing our experience and our reaction to it, without clinging and without judging. We develop an inner observer which exists with equanimity. The more we practice, the easier it is to find that observer. The desire for a new smart phone is fleeting, but the presence of the observer, this will endure, can be with us our whole lives.
Mindfulness also helps us navigate the business of the season. There are an infinite number of actions we can take this time of year- so part of the challenge is to choose the “right action” -- actions which are going to be the best for our emotional and physical health, and for the health of our communities. We choose wisely which of the 100 activities are going to make the healthiest difference in our lives. And then once we have chosen, we mindfully inhabit those choices. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, there was one night where I thought “I’m so glad I passed up the opportunity to see that wonderful show, because I really needed a night home with the family” and there were other days when I thought “I can’t believe I scheduled a day where I have so much to do and visitors on the way” But on good days and bad days, I can be mindful and breathe.

The real danger is not that we won’t have enough time to “get it all done” over the holidays, but that we will not be present to the time we have. In his book “Miracle of Mindfulness” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes about a friend who was a father of 2 small children who told the monk one day “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for [my son] another part was for [my wife] another part of r household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. But now I try not to divide my time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joe and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself.”
How do we have enough time in this busy season? we breathe. In… and Out… Each breath is my time. Each breath is enough. “Breathing in I calm my body” Breathing out I smile. Breathing In it is a pleasant moment. Breathing out is a wonderful moment.

It is very simple, but not easy. I challenge you throughout the holiday season, to remember to breathe. To continuously draw yourself back into the present moment. Not so that you can experience perfect equanimity, but so that you can just be. Observe anger and frustration as it rises and falls away. Observe joy and satisfaction they rise and fall away. Observe your wanting as you see the new car commercials on tv. Observe that thirst as you see images of happy families, and you know this winter is a time when your family is in crisis. Observe the wanting as you see the ornament your grandmother gave you and you anticipate your first Hanukah without her. Observe the good times too, mindfully, without clinging or judging. Observe the times you get caught up and forget to breathe, and choose to bring yourself back to your breath.

Thich Nhat Hanh talked about eating tangerines with is friend Jim. He said “Jim became so immersed in [his thoughts about the future] that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing it, had another slice ready to pop into his mouth again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, “You ought to eat the tangerine section you’ve already taken.” Sometimes we celebrate the holidays in this way. Young children give a perfect expression of this when the open one present after another without stopping to enjoy any of them, and when they are sitting in a pile of wrapping paper ask “is that all?” We adults often feel the same way about time. We are disappoint to find we will have only a short visit from our mother or grandson, and as they come to an end think “it’s a shame we didn’t have more time together” As Hanh says “If you can’t eat a single section, you can’t eat a tangerine” If we can’t enjoy one gift, one moment with a friend, one bite of Grandma’s apple pie, the holiday season will pass away without our ever having tasted it. But sometimes just one moment of connection with someone, one moment listening to the snow fall under the stars can be enough. This present moment is enough.

Silent meditation
“Breathing in I calm my body” Breathing out I smile. Breathing In it is a pleasant moment. Breathing out is a wonderful moment.

1) The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1999–2010
3)The issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfunless and Practice by Gil Fronsdal p. 17
4) The issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfunless and Practice by Gil Fronsdal p. 4
5) The Miracle of Mindfilness! A manual opn Meditation Thich Nhat Hanh Beacon Press 1975 p. 2.
6) The blooming of the Lotus Thich Nhat Hanh
7) The Miracle of Mindfilness! A manual on Meditation Thich Nhat Hanh Beacon Press 1975 p. 5
8) The blooming of the Lotus Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morality and Politics (November 7, 2010)

Morality has become kind of a dirty word these days. It smacks of nosy neighbors trying to see past the hedge into your bedroom window. But I think it is a word we should not give up on. Morality means relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior -- thinking about what is good and bad. But maybe that still feels uncomfortable for us as a culture; maybe we think of ourselves as a post-moral culture, and “right and wrong” as outdated. I know we often like to use the word “ethics” instead, as somehow more humanist or scientific, but actually ethics are just a system or set of moral values and issues. For example, in the Buddhist tradition “non-harming” is a moral value, and falls within a whole set of Buddhist Ethics. When it comes to Ethics in our own life we have a choice- we can observe a an ethical code grounded in a tradition we trust, or we can use community standards and laws. As Unitarian Universalists, we have our common principles, and a tradition of ethical action to guide us. We don’t have a clear set of rules for every situation, but a set of principles to help us find our way. For example, our principles don't tell us we can't kill, but if we truly “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” then some kinds of behavior are “right out.”

Laws also help us stick to our shared ethics as a society. They clarify what behaviors are clearly crossing a line that our society has agreed upon, and back them up with our legal system. We have started to notice that the law doesn't really help us in all areas, so when we encounter murkier ethical areas, our religious community helps us clarify our highest ideas. It's right there in our mission which is “to provide a forum for liberal religious expression in an atmosphere which encourages spiritual growth and ethical living.” For example: we as a congregation and as a movement have spent a lot of time this past year thinking about the ethics of eating, so that we can live out our principles. We have noticed that there is a huge gap between what the law allows us to eat, and law around how food is produced, and what we believe shows respect to the interdependent web of existence. As a community which encourages ethical living, it's not enough for us to say “do what you want as long as you don't break any laws.” We call ourselves to something higher, knowing that sometimes our own integrity and principles can call us to be leaders in creating a just and compassionate world, when the law is slow to respond, or is downright unjust. IN the same way that we cannot assume that whatever is legal is moral, we must not assume that social norms describe what is moral. Sometimes our community standards do help us keep track of what is ethical. If you park in a handicapped parking spot without a permit, even if you don’t get a ticket, you are going to get a lot of dirty looks. But segregation was socially acceptable in the southeast even after it was not longer legal. “Everyone else is doing it!” didn't even fly with your mom when you were in high school.

Morality is about doing what is right, not what you can get away with. I have a bumper sticker on my car that exemplifies this point: it says “A Living Wage is a Moral Value.” The law says that employers have to pay their employees $7.25 per hour. Now it happens that the Tompkins County Worker's Center where I got this sticker learns with surprising frequency of folks who aren't making that $7.25 for some reason – this is called wage theft, it is illegal and a fine can be levied by the Department of Labor. You might get voted “Goat of the year” by the worker's center if you are guilty of wage theft- you are violating not only the law but societal norms. But if you do the math, you will find that people living in Tompkins County cannot actually live on $7.25 an hour. The Credit Union has calculated that in order for workers to be able to provide for their basic needs, a living wage is $11.11 per hour. And there is a group of employers in Tompkins County who are committed to being moral leaders around this issue- even though they could probably get away with paying folks minimum wage. They have decided the moral thing to do is to commit to paying this higher wage.

Now in American Ethics, there is another “guiding hand” at work - the “free market.” If you hear folks talk about the free market long enough, you will realize the faith folks have in the market is like that which generations past had in the divine. “If we just have faith in the market, and trust in the market, and let it do its work our lives, everything will turn out for the best” we are told. We have a similar faith in technology- that it will lead us onward and upward forever. In his analysis of agribusiness and the academic fields which supports it Wendell Berry writes: “They have no apparent moral allegiances or bearings or limits. Their work thus inevitably serves whatever power is greatest… Lacking any moral force or vision of its own.” [Berry p. 156]. The market is just a tool, like money is just a tool. It is only as good or bad as the moral vision which guides it. It does not reflect the whole of life. It does not reflect the love and care we give to one another. It does not reflect the health of the earth. It does not reflect the strength of our communities, or the sustainability of our futures. It does not reflect awe and wonder, or beauty or justice or even truth. I submit to you that the market is not an appropriate moral center- profit, money is not the best thing to put at the core of who we are as persons or as a society. And when we ask our government to put this at the center of value, there will be no morality in government.

Because what we put at the center of our own life, at the center of the ethical system we use to guide our life must have a broad glance. Compassion, that’s a pretty safe choice. A Buddhist Monk once explained that compassion is something all persons must hold on to until the moment of enlightenment, even when they have relinquished everything else. If you put compassion at your center you are bound to make sure that not only your life but those around you will be respected in the living of your life. There are other values that are worthy too- beauty, justice, truth but you can see how easily they can go awry if compassion, if respect for the inherent worth and dignity of each life, and of the interdependent web are not there to guide their unfolding. Even Justice as a guiding principle could be wielded like a weapon if not paired with compassion.

In all the ancient religions of the world, I have yet to encounter one that put money at its center, at it’s heart. I believe the reason we see such a fuzzy moral center in our political life is because we have for too long abdicated our own moral responsibilities to market, as if had a heart and a soul and was looking out for all of us. As if the choices we make don’t matter. As if we are all just tumbleweed blown about by its winds. I say, it’s time for us to put a stake in the ground, no better- a tree. Let us sink our moral roots deep into things that really do matter, really do endure. Like this religious tradition- it has turned out plenty of heroes worth emulating- Susan B Anthony, Clara Barton, The Waitsil-Sharps who personally helped evacuate hundreds of persons during the Nazi occupation before WW2, and so founded our UU service committee. Beacon press, which has been a voice of truth even when it had to choose between that and profitability. Linus Pauling who was not only a Nobel prize winning scientist, but also an activist. And when it comes right down to it, there are a lot of ethical, principled people in this room whom I admire deeply for the integrity with which they live their lives.

Our roots must not only go deep in to the wisdom of the past, but out into the neighborhood, into the community. There is more and more research to suggest that trees connect and even share resources through their roots and through the mycorrhizal fungi that links networks of trees below ground to share nutrients and water among them. This connection enhances their chances of survival, and of regeneration . Now imagine the strength of a trunk that has grown straight and true, that won’t fall in the first storm. That straight trunk is like our own integrity, how we grow ourselves according to our moral center. From there we can grow all kinds of leaves and branches, changing season by season, taking in the nourishment of the sun and shaping the winds that pass through the canopy, but by growing straight and true and sinking our roots deep and wide, we become people of character.

It’s easy to say “everyone does it” or “it’s legal” but it is often hard to ask ourselves “is it moral?” and “Is this compassionate to my community and to future generations?” Brian and I share a disappointment that so many of our political leaders today do not seem to be moral leaders. I think it is time for us as people of integrity, as people of character, to change the conversation -- from one of mud slinging to one of integrity. Let us provide the moral leadership that seems so absent in our world today. Let us raise our children to be leaders with integrity, and let us continue to support one another in this small community as we which encourage one another to spiritual growth and ethical living.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Spooky Universalist Halloween Story (October 31, 2010)

I want to tell you a family secret, a secret the Universalist historians don’t want you to know. Have you ever seen a movie where a bunch of well dressed old-timey people are sitting around a table holding hands while a medium calls on the spirits of the dead: “rap on the table if you can hear us” the medium says. Well, chances are that at least one of those folks at the table were Universalists. In fact, there’s a decent chance the medium was a Universalist, maybe even a Universalist Minister. Then you know how later in that movie, someone will say, “Bah, this is hogwash! You’re tapping on the table yourself!” Chances are that guy was a Universalist too.

You see, back in the 1800s there was a new religious movement sweeping the nation- it was called spiritualism. Now it was nothing new for folks to have experiences in which they understood themselves to be having visions of those who had died, or to have communications with celestial spirits. It seems to me that over the past few thousand years of western culture, depending on the current fashion, these visions have been treated either as demonic and evil, mystical, or signs of mental illness. It was generally the position of Christian folks before this time that all voices or visions were demonic; so most folks did not mention their experiences to any but a trusted friend. But in the mid 1800s several different persons, such as the Rev. John Dods, Universalist minister, began to speak of their experiences.

As a 13-year-old boy, Dods had seen a vision of his father, who had died 2 years before. His father said “The spirit world was not what people supposed- that great darkness and error hung over the religious world – that the sects differed as widely from the truth as they did from each other – but that a new era of light was soon to dawn on earth.” When Dods told his family, they laughed, and when Dods was next visited by his father, the vision advised him not to tell anyone about the visits saying “The world is not yet prepared to receive them” And so Dods hid his experiences for many years, though they caused him to re-think his conservative beliefs. Dods beliefs changed particularly about the fate of souls after death, since the ones who appeared to him seemed glorious, not suffering in hellfire as his old theology would lead him to believe.

In 1824, the “hauntings” began. “Sounds like the striking of heavy stones forcibly thrown against the building, rumbling sounds, explosions as of a cannon near the house, violent shakings of the whole building, the movement of various articles of furniture, even to that of a bed with a heavy man upon it, across the room, with great force.” Even relatives and visitors noticed the strange happenings “One of the curious gentlemen visitors encountered something like an invisible cannon ball, which fell from the ceiling; rolled, hopped, and bounded about the room, up and over the furniture and careening off the walls; and then hopped up on a bed, where the apparent depression of its weight on the bedclothes moved from the head to the food of the bed. A gentlemen in the room walked towards the bed… but one of the company caught hold of his arm, and said ‘Do not touch it for your life’ It then dropped on the floor, and rolled out of the side of the house.”

So it was his experience of these visitations, or hauntings, that drew Dods to convert to Universalism and to become a Universalist Minister. To Dods these hauntings were “Evidence of a providence whose saving grace extended to all” Then in 1836 Dods saw an exhibition of the French Mesmeric Charles Poyen St. Saveur. He became enthralled both with mesmerism, and with electricity, which was considered a related field. Remember, the study of electricity was an exciting new field in the 19th century, and by the second half of the century, the field of Electrical engineering was emerging, with such greats as Thomas Edison turning this field of study into a viable electrical light bulb in 1879. Dobs believed that “Electricity was the body of god, and all spirits God’s emanations.” He worked for a while with the theory that these visions were actually an electrical or mesmeric phenomenon- that they were in some way all in the mind, and worked for years to prove his theory, until in the 1850s a new series of spirits revealed themselves to him, He became a speaker and preacher in the field of “electrical psychology” just as the brand new spiritualist movement was emerging.

What is spiritualism? It was a movement growing out of Christianity that in some ways thought of itself as a scientific movement. Science was going through some exciting revelations in those days; such luminaries as Charles Darwin were in the midst of their groundbreaking research. “[Spiritualism] treated even the spirit as natural phenomenon susceptible to scientific explanation and manipulation.” [p. 17]What if we could use science, use direct experience to prove once and for all the nature of God? What if we could use the brand new knowledge of electricity or speak directly with St. Peter to pose our theological questions to him directly? And in fact Spiritualism did seem to provide external validation of the Universalist idea that all souls could be saved, since many of the spirit messages were of the Universalist theology even when given by non-Universalist mediums. [p. 93]

This was at the time, the cutting edge of religion. And the churches in the area now called the St. Lawrence District were the hotbed of religious radicalism. Elmira, Utica, Glens Falls, Poughkeepsie, Canandaigua, Buffalo, Albany, Oswego, and Auburn are all congregations who play a role in the Spiritualist movement. Remember this was the heady days of the Abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage, and both Universalists and Spiritualists were active in these movements for justice. Their radical egalitarianism and sense that a new progressive theology was in harmony with their work for progress in the world. Dozens of Universalist ministers became spiritualist mediums or healers. They felt that Universalism had begun to calcify, relying on revelations from other generations. They felt that any generation could encounter new revelations of religious truth, and that the truth learned from interactions with the spirits would help them connect past present and future. They could use these modern spiritual techniques to help clarify religious truth, and guide us all into the future. Their visions were not only theological in nature, but often scientific, since they believed things of the spirit were subject to natural law. In fact, it was the spiritualists who were strong advocates for Evolution, often lecturing on paleontology and archeology during a spiritualist lecture. Some of the more conservative Universalists found this uncomfortable in their theology. What did this mean for the progression of human souls after death, if all animals were on a path of evolution?

Historian John Buescher in his book "The Other Side of Salvation" compares the early spiritualist movement to the early history of universalism, when pietistic small groups and study circles formed the core of the movement as the message was spread by itinerant preachers. Spiritual séance groups could be seen the same way, gathering in a circle in a member’s home, hands held around a circle calling on the spirits together. Buescher remarks that “spiritualism renewed the sense of the spirit that had begun to disappear from their faith. Heaven was not far way from earth; the spirit (and the spirits) was close by. Angels were busy in the world” Some Universalists found Spiritualism a natural evolution of Universalism. Others were not so sure- not sure how much to believe, not sure what to make of the séances and speakers they heard. Said Rev. William Allen Drew of the much-touted Rev. Andrew Jackson Davis, a spiritualist medium “His whole art is shown to be the art of humbuggery and nothing else.”

The Universalist church was split over these events. There was a strong reaction from the more conservative of our brethren. In a Universalist publication based in New York called “The Christian Messenger” Rev. Thomas Jefferson Sawyer proclaimed “They know themselves to be rank infidels, and yet persist in claiming to be Christians.” He said, “Let Universalists be on their guard” against this “duplicity “ and “Knaves” [41] He was one who called for all the Universalist associations to withdraw their fellowship from ministers who associated with Rev. Davis. And many did. It lead, in fact, to a time of creedal tests, if you can believe such things possible in our movement. In fact much of this debate happened here in our home territory; the New York Convention of Universalists voted that no minister could come from another Universalist district into their convention unless they “subscribed to it’s creed” [p. 60] And the Buffalo association of Universalisms adopted a creedal test in the early 1850s. Many Universalist ministers were either “De-fellowshipped” or withdrew from fellowship when their Convention adopted such creedal tests. Many went on to be freelance spiritualist lecturers. Some congregations left the association to become Spiritualist congregations. By 1948 Dod, the minister who experienced the hauntings in our story, was no longer in fellowship with his Universalist Convention.

But the Susquehanna Association of Universalists resolved “Several of our ecclesiastical bodies have established tests of fellowship hitherto unknown in our denomination, and in our opinion inconsistent with the freedom of human mind and the liberty of thought, speech and opinion.” A reporter in 1879 asked a Universalist Minster, who himself was a spiritualist and his wife a ‘partial medium,' and who estimated 1/3 of his congregation were spiritualists, “Why don’t you call yourself a Spiritualist” and her responded “I could not get a living, I have 4 children and they must be educated. Were I to leave my pulpit and become a traveling lecturer, what would become of my family?” [p. 119]

So why would Universalist clergy risk their livelihood with this movement? Universalist Minister Rev. Byron Brittan retorted on behalf on the spiritual camp that they believed “the granted old prophets, Jesus and his Apostles, absorb and monopolized all the revelations of God; and hence, that [all] we poor followers of the 19th century get is second-handed, stereotyped forever!” [p. 43] Theodore Parker was not a spiritualist, but was interested in the movement. He wrote about it “Every man bearing within ‘lively oracles’ the present witness of God.” “The Spritualists are the only sect that looks forward and has new fire on its hearth.” [140]

Other Universalist ministers took the route of trying to evaluate the rappings and furniture movement at séances. Some worked actively to expose frauds. Daniel Mason Knapen exposed local mediums that were found to be stealing jewelry and other valuables from those at séances. [p. 98] Rev. Charles Chauncey Burr toured denouncing spiritualism and “expose[ing] its adherents and practitioners as “weak, insane, deluded creatures.” 2 magazines expressed the poles of the movement The Banner of Light “made little effort to distinguish sincere mediums from deliberate frauds.” On the other hand the Religio-Philosophical Journal steered away from the more sensational phenomena like levitation and disembodied voices and noises. In the late 1800s they turned their attention to investigating séances to expose frauds. They championed a “more scientific psychical research” [p. 124]

There are 2 themes I see in all this. First, it reminds us of the perennial tension between religious establishment and novelty even within so radical a religion as Universalism within a couple of generations from its settling on these shores. Now they were instituting creedal tests, de-fellowshipping ministers, and refusing to rent their buildings to Spiritualists because they were not proper Christians. They expressed strongly that the bible was all the spiritual wisdom that any proper Christian needed. The spiritualists on the other hand, found the church had become stuffy and calcified. They were returning to the small circles of the early days of Universalism, where they could be comforted by their sense of connection to loved ones who had died. They were craving that “direct experience” that is our first source of our tradition today. They believed that a new generation could still discover new truth, and experience new revelation.

But even in the biblical times folks rarely believed the prophets and visionaries. How is a person to tell the difference between newly revealed truth and ordinary claptrap? This is our second theme, and it’s the theme I was trying to get at with my silly children’s story today. Sometimes those in authority refuse to listen to us, even when we are right, so how can we tell when the authorities are right and when we should trust ourselves? Whether that authority is the church, or a spiritualist telling of a vision she has seen. Or even, if we ourselves have strange visions, how can we tell what to make of them?

Many contemporary UUs have had powerful spiritual experiences they would be hard pressed to explain. Many folks keep these secret for fear of being judged. It is also true that many UUs have also been betrayed or hurt by religious experience, and so are skeptical of all such things. This is a particularly important tension for us as a movement today- to keep our minds open, while also guarding against “idolatries of mind and spirit”. I think this is a question that can never be resolved one way or the other. Instead we live into that tension, and keep our minds open and also questioning.

The spiritualist movement has largely been left out of our history books, even the history of our own movement. Seances are not so popular any more, and we no longer us the electrical engineering to try to understand the nature of god. We leave these unfashionable practices out of our story when we tell it. But surely the creedal tests, the de-fellowshipping of ministers and the loss of many Universalists from our movement left their mark on our history. Mediums and Mesmerism are completely gone from our religious tradition. But let us keep the wisdom we gained from that part of our history - the lesson about the importance of not letting our movement become calcified and rigid. Let us be open to new revelation, and let us be wary of humbuggery even as we are open to new truth.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Keeping the Sabbath (October 17, 2010)

When I was in 2nd grade, I went for a while with my Friend Suzanne to her Presbyterian Sunday School. That year the class was studying the commandments, (we were awarded a scroll if we memorized all 10!) I was a little put off by the commandment to keep the Sabbath. I was raised in a solidly Humanist UU church, and was suspicious of anything we were supposed to do because God commanded it. It was a time when Pennsylvania’s blue laws kept stores closed on Sunday, and this seemed inconvenient and silly to me.

Then I got a job. It only took one Memorial Day shift, sitting in an empty restaurant while my family went to a picnic, mentally adding up the $1.67 an hour I would make while the tables sat empty to make me realize that I would gladly eat at home a couple of days a year so that waiters and waitresses could have a day with their families. When that national department store chain advertises that it will be open on Thanksgiving Day, I don’t feel grateful that I get some extra time to shop; I feel sympathy for all the staff who will be required to work instead of taking time with their community.
But this is not the message we get from our culture. You are almost never going to hear your boss or client say; your life has become too focused on doing, go rest and renew yourself. It is easy for busy-ness to fill up every nook and cranny of our lives if we don’t carve out time for rest and renewal. So it is time to ask ourselves- do we believe that rest has value? Do we believe that our quality of not only our own lives, but of our society improves if we take at least one day a week for renewal and reflection?

We live in a culture that values profit and productivity very highly so to answer those values in their own terms I offer you some wisdom I learned during a Franklin Covey time-management seminar. It turns out that leaving one’s desk for lunch increases productivity for the afternoon. They also claimed that productivity drops off at the end of an 8 hour day. And I believe it. We can rest knowing that time away from work increases the quality of our work, but that also misses an essential point, because I believe there is more to leading a full and balanced life than work. Things like healing, connecting, learning, reflecting are higher functions on Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. They come long after eating, drinking, and running from tigers. But these are the things that turn surviving into living. Robert Reich, form secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, believes that one of the 3 fundamental principles of our democracy is that people have the right to develop themselves. William Ellery Channing, one of our Unitarian forefathers also held that self development was a basic human right. It is part of our liberal religious heritage to believe that we are called to grow, learn and become our best selves.

So I try to set time aside bringing balance to my life, but it takes a conscious effort. It’s hard to patiently wage a Pokemon battle with my son when the energy of busy-ness is still driving me like an inertial force. That’s why this morning I want to turn to the wisdom of the World’s religions, the 3rd source of our UU Tradition, to help us find our own way to create space for stillness and renewal in our lives.

The famous commandment which guides the Jewish Shabbat tradition is found in Exodus and says: "9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns." So conservative and orthodox Jews set aside the time from just before Sundown on Friday night until just after sundown on Saturday evening. They set aside that time for rest and for “Sacred Assembly.” This is a time where you not only don’t go into the office, but refrain from "all and any kind of creative 'generative' endeavor, changes to the environment or any object" because on the 7th day God refrained from God’s creative work. There’s a list of 39 such activities, like writing, plowing, building, sewing, or kindling a fire, I think it’s interesting despite all those prohibitions, the Sabbath is also a feast day, a day of celebration.

Terry Goldstein, who wrote the first of this morning’s readings, made a choice to observe the Sabbath, and has built her life around that. And I wonder, would you believe me if I told you that your religion offers this commandment in the same spirit? As a religious and observant Unitarian Universalist, you have the same authority to take time to reconnect with others, with yourself, with the earth (and for the theists, God as well). Could I give you the courage to say to your boss “as part of my religious observance, I will no longer be calling in to check messages or e-mail one day a week. I will not be available for meetings or overtime on that one day.”

A few years back when my Junior High class was studying Islam [through the neighboring faith curriculum], they had a chance to speak with a Muslim man and ask some questions about his life and faith. The students and teachers were all struck by the fact that this observant Muslim prayed 5 times a day, every day. One of our bright children asked “What if your boss didn’t let you stop work to pray” and the guest responded “I would have to find a new job.” This man believes that his religion requires him to take time every single day to pray, to reconnect if you will. He takes this assumption as a basic given in his life, and shapes the rest of his life from there.

Not long ago I was reading Nadine Gordimer’s novel “The pickup” and was struck by the religious observance of the mother. When she is in prayer, the household knows not to disturb her. It strikes the protagonist as it struck me- those times of prayer were probably the only moments of quiet in the life of a mother of several children. 5 times a day she could count few moments of quite reflection, for that which was most holy to her. No one would tell her she was being a bad mother, but a good Muslim.

If we Unitarian Universalists had the courage to set time aside, how would we use it? Shopping and mowing the lawn are definitely not in the spirit of these religious practices.

I consider the practice described in this morning’s reading by Tich Nhaht Hahn. He doesn’t mention it, but it seems to harmonize with a Buddhist observance called Uposatha which has been observed since Gautama Buddha's time (500 BC), and is still being kept today in Theravada Buddhist countries. It occurs every seven or eight days, in accordance with the four phases of the moon. Buddha taught that Uposatha is for "the cleansing of the mind", resulting in inner calm and joy.

Hanh writes “you might do household work such as washing dishes, dusting and wiping off the tables, scrubbing the kitchen floor, arranging books on their shelves. Whatever the tasks, do them slowly and with ease, in mindfulness. Don't do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention. Enjoy and be one with your work. Without this, the day of mindfulness will be of no value at all. The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.” For Hahn, it is not so important WHAT we do on a day of mindfulness, but that whatever we do it, we bring our attention, bring our whole self into that very moment.

Over the past few years I have tried to find a Sabbath practice for myself. For ministers, Sundays are specifically NOT a day off, and Saturdays inevitably involve some final editing of sermons or memorizing stories. So when Nick was just a small child I took Fridays as my day off. We called it “special Ma Nick Day” because while his father was still at work, I would have a couple of hours of quiet alone time in the morning, then I would pick Nick up from preschool at around noon and we’d head off on some adventure. For a while we were in the habit of stopping at a coffee shop for mini-scones and milk, then driving over to the library that had a wonderful children’s section, and about an acre of gently rolling hills out back past the bronze statues of characters from “the wind in the willows.” I tried to avoid e-mail and business calls all day, even though this often meant people were quite exasperated with me when I tried to get caught up on Saturday.

Now that Nick is in Elementary School, I have to re-think how I want to set time aside. I thought at first I would make Monday a Sabbath, which is what most ministers do, but because I really need some quiet time alone to write a sermon, I just can’t give up that Monday writing. I’ve decided instead to try to really focus on that time from 2:30 when I pick Nick up at the Bus stop and dinner time as a time to turn off the computer, to help Nick with his homework and find a way for us to connect. We still enjoy a trip to the library together, and now that he’s older we have found new things to do. It’s working pretty well so far these first couple weeks of school. It provides an important balance to all those times I regretfully have to say to my son “not now honey, wait until I finish this e-mail.”
Then a couple of weeks ago my husband was out of town, and Nick and I were home together with no car and some gloomy fall weather. In my search for a Unitarian Universalist Sabbath I decided it was time to apply a piece of wisdom I picked up at this year’s general assembly of UUs, which had come to me in the lyrics of a song by Peter Mayer, the one who wrote that beautiful song “Blue Boat home” in the teal hymnal. As he sang this song the light of new wisdom dawned:

You can sleep till afternoon
Make some chocolate chip pancakes
Wake up with Einstein’s hairdo
And let it stay that way all day

You can be an unclean slob
Skip the shower, skip the shave
As if you don’t have a job
Not even a resume

On Jama Day…

Now I had always felt a little pretentious saying to friends or co-workers “I can’t do that today, I’m observing the Sabbath” Because UUs don’t have a specific Sabbath tradition, and I felt like maybe I was culturally appropriating a neighbor’s traditions. But Jama Day I knew in my heart was a holiday I could observe. Not every week, mind you, but maybe a couple of times a year:

Read a book by Dr. Seuss
Play canasta, play ping pong
Make a list of jobs to do
Then do none of them at all

I want to tell your our jama day was awesome, even though we did put our jeans on and walk to the park when the sun came out. And when my friend called to see if I wanted to come help can some tomatoes, I said without any fear of pretension or cultural appropriation, “I promised Nick we would have Jama Day” The friend completely understood.

Work, whether paid or unpaid, is important. Each dish we wash, each time we diaper a child, we help create this world we share. But as the Judeo-Christian creation story models, after 6 days of creating, comes a time of rest. This is part of what it means to live a balanced life: work and rest, action and reflection. Whether we follow the Sabbath laws in Exodus and Leviticus, or take time each day for meditation or prayer, Whether we set aside time for mindfulness, or create something unique in keeping with our own natural rhythms for health and balance, what is important is that such a balance is a part of our lives. As the great poet Wendell Berry writes:

"Then workday
And Sabbath live together in one place.
Though mortal, incomplete, that harmony
Is our one possibility of peace."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Called to Justice (October 10, 2010)

[Note- this reflection was present along with 2 given by lay-leaders in the congregation]

I suppose it began for me one spring day when I got home from shopping at the Target, and began unpacking my purchases. I couldn’t believe the volume of waste- the amount of packaging I pulled off everything from moisturizer to my son’s new toy was more than 3 times the volume of the products themselves- and I don’t mean the bottle the moisturizer was in, but the plastic shelf hanger that the bottle was in that the moisturizer was in. Or course this was something I had probably experienced many times before- but on this day it just made me feel bloated with waste. I felt guilty and impotent.

This was in the time right before we invaded Iraq. There were some massive marches in San Francisco, and I felt powerfully moved to participate. I taped anti-war signs to my son’s stroller and off we headed. He was completely overwhelmed, poor thing, by the energy of 40,000 people who were, frankly, full of righteous indignation. I had to carry my 2 year old in my arms for the whole march because he didn’t feel safe in his stroller. Thankfully I had found the UU contingent, and a friend pushed the stroller the whole way so I could carry Nick.
When I got to church the next day, a long time activist explained that organizers of that march often had kind of belligerent-feeling rallies, and that I might check out the upcoming march by the local peace center. It was there my son and I found a woman sitting on a quilt with a hand lettered sign “story time for peace” There she sat with a cluster of preschoolers around her as she read stories about peaceful conflict resolution. It slowly dawned that even though I was the mother of a toddler I could still find ways work for justice.

I craved my own sense of calling- a cause I felt passionate about, for which I had the means to respond. I remember standing in line at the Subway sandwiches and offering a inglorious plea to the universe “please help me find a calling of my own.”

It started with those plastic packages, and turned into canvas bags. I made a resolution that I was going to bring those darn canvas bags to the store every single time I went grocery shopping, and if I left them in the car, I would walk back and get them no matter how far away I parked. I joined the green sanctuary team just being formed at church. I chose for my sabbatical the University of Creation Spirituality, where I could study a theology that had sustainability and justice at it’s heart: I knew it would be hard to make the changes in my own life unless the work I was called to do would was grounded in my own sense of love for the earth, grounded in my own deep beliefs and values, and in the same sense of motherly protection I felt for my own son.

Bit by bit I noticed that the environmental movement was a good fit for me- because, for example, I like long-term thinking, and really there is no movement that thinks more long term than the environmentalists. Moreover, there were ways for me to take action while still being a good mom. I made a vow to stop buying individually wrapped cheese sticks and renounced bottled water. We instituted a monthly program at the church called “Cool deeds for kids” in which all our children and youth would spend their RE time together learning about an issue and then doing something to help with our own hands. That might be making bag lunches for the local homeless shelter, or making models of erosion and permafrost in baking tins, then writing letters to our senators to ask for funding to save the disappearing village of Shishmaref Alaska.

I heard Julia Butterfly Hill say once that really there is only one movement. The anti-war movement and the environmental movement are not 2 separate factions vying for our time. We prevent wars when everyone has clean water to drink, when we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. And war is incredibly destructive to the environment, destroying ecosystems and agricultural lands for generations. Nick and I kept attending our local peace marches as the war began, and when someone said “they are cutting down the boreal forest in Canada to print catalogs” I heard that call too. We held a “Cool Deeds” about reducing and recycling paper, we changed the paper policy through the church board, and I started a personal practice of writing letters to every mailing house that sent me a catalog to explain the issues and ask to be dropped from the their lists.

At the beginning, each time I heard the call it was like following a thread in a mystery as I looked for the work that was meant for me. Today my e-mail in-box is stuffed with calls to action every morning, and I have to pick and choose which call to answer. I feel bad that I can’t be at every lobby day, but I no longer feel guiltily and impotent. I have my work, and part of that work is leading a balance life with my family. I am proud to be part of of the Community Shale network, and that some of us will be headed to Syracuse on October 30 to present a picture of what it’s like in a county where drilling is a reality to folks in New York who are at a critical point in legislative decisions that will have ripples for many years. I still carry my canvas bags to the grocery store, and have switched to cloth napkins and locally laid eggs.

Rev. Rebecca Parker, one of my seminary professors, said in her childhood Methodist home she was taught that if there is work that needs to be done, and you can do that work, that this is your calling. I believe that this world needs each of us, that each of us is differently called, and that that calling changes over the course of our lives. Even in our busy complicated everyday lives, there are ways for each of us to act for justice if we listen closely for the call. I invite you to take a moment quietly to consider how you are uniquely called to help create a more just world.

[moment of silent meditation]

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Getting Right (September 19, 2010)

These past 10 days Jewish people around the world have been celebrating the Days of Awe- the period from Rosh Hashana (the new year) to Yom Kippur (The day of Atonement) During this time observant Jews are engaged in a process of worship, fasting, prayer, and tzedakah (performing righteous deeds and giving money to charitable causes). It is also a custom, as Paul mentioned last week, to ask forgiveness form anyone you have wronged. The great Maimonides said that when we hear the sound of the shofar during this time of year it’s call says, “Awake, you sleepers, from your slumber…examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator.”

The focus of all these customs is the process of teshuvah, or repentance, whereby a Jew persons recognize their sins, asks for forgiveness, and resolves not to repeat their errors. This is not something one is expected to do in a single hour of worship, it is, in some traditions, a 40 day process culmination on Yom Kippur, which is a day devoted entirely to fasting and repentance.

We Unitarian Universalists do not have a ritual of our own for atonement, and I think this is sometimes problematic for us. We tend to question authority, and generally we feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that we need to ask God for forgiveness. But I think we kind of throw out the baby with the bathwater here, because surely none of us believe we have never done anything that needs to be forgiven. So this is a crucial question for us- a practical question not a hypothetical one, how do we ask for and receive forgiveness if we are atheist or agnostic, or just have one of those theological constricts of the divine that are more egalitarian? I recognized that same question in the song by the great country singer Lucinda Williams:

I would burn the soles of my feet
Burn the palms of both my hands
If I could learn and be complete
If I could walk righteously again

'Cause I want to get right with God
Yes, you know you got to get right with God
I think this is a basic human yearning regardless of our spiritual tradition or theology. Whether or not we believe in God, how do we get right?

So I turn to our Jewish neighbors, as one of the sources of our own tradition: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves” and “Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;” I turn to this tradition to see what wisdom they can offer our yearning to get right. I see a lot of wisdom in the ritual and tradition of the days of atonement, because I have found in my own life that setting aside time for intentional reflection, and engaging in ritual acts have the power to transform our hearts, and maybe the power to help us “get right” with ourselves and with the community of beings of which we are a part.

One tradition in particular is very moving to me. It is the tradition of Tashlikh which in the Hebrew means "casting off" and has been practiced since the 13th century. It is usually performed on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but we are not too late this year, because it can be said up until Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or this year September 29 on the solar calendar. In this ritual people throw pieces of bred into a body of flowing water to “cast off” all their sins from the previous year. The name "Tashlikh" and the practice itself are derived from the Biblical passage (Micah 7:18-20) recited at the ceremony: "You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea."

18 [God] does not retain his anger for ever,
because he delights in showing clemency.
19 He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our* sins
into the depths of the sea.

Now I know I have to stop here and talk about the word sin. [I know, it’s the first sermon of the year and already I’ve mentioned God and Sin] As far as I’m concerned sin is just a really old fashioned word for any of those things that I’ve done that I regret, that I feel I need to seek forgiveness for, anything that keeps me from being right with myself or with the community of all beings. But I know a lot of people, probably some of the folks in this room, were really wounded by the word sin. Over the centuries it has been used like a weapon to make people feel judged, unworthy, cut off from God if they believe in God, and cut off from other people. I’m pretty sure doing science was considered a sin at some point, so was playing cards, or using birth control. So if you don’t want to use the word “sin” I don’t blame you. Unitarian Universalists believe that no persons is inherently sinful. We’re just human. Even if we try hard to create a world of justice and compassion, at some point we are going to do something that falls short of the person we want to be.

So instead of “sin” we might say “imperfections” I bet every one here could come up with a quick list of those things. I’ll tell you a couple of mine- I still eat conventionally farmed meat sometimes even though I know it’s not ethically produced. I didn’t vote in the primaries. I was more than half an hour late for the Shale Network meeting because I didn’t heed the detour signs. Everyone has this list of things they know they have fallen short. Some of those imperfections we are able to cast off pretty easily, but some really weigh on us; we know we are not acting as our highest self calls us to be, and we long to “get right.” I don’t mind using the word sin because it leaves the same bad taste in my mouth as the actions I live to regret, like saying an unkind word in anger to someone I love. I want to reclaim that theological language from those who wield it like a weapon. But I know that word is never going to feel right to many of you, so please feel free to use language that feels like a better descriptor to you.

But one way or another we will have an incomplete world view if we don’t have a way to talk about the theological idea of “sin” (whether or not we use that word) and we don’t know how to talk about “repentance” that is to say- how to get right once we have gone wrong. Without those ideas, I am going to have an impossible job of dealing with my human imperfections. I might just stick my fingers in my ears and sing “lalala” because knowing you are not right with yourself and your community feels bad, but if there is no way to talk about it, and nothing you can do to fix it, that’s even worse. Then it feels like that badness is part of me, and always will be. But if I could let go of all those things? If I could put down the weight of all my failings and screw-ups from the past year and start fresh

“If I could learn and be complete
If I could walk righteously again”…

We need to create a language and a process in our UU tradition to come face to face with our humanness, to own our imperfections and to get right with the community of beings. Let’s take a moment in mediation now to honor our human-ness, and our desire to get right.

Now Imagine if our congregation stood up and walked to the river and you had in your hands or pockets some bread crumbs each one representing some failing, some regret, imperfection, or disconnection in your own life. Feel the crumbs in your pocket, and then one at a time, you scatter a crumb for each one into the river that flows by our Sheshequin church. What crumbs would you wash away this year?

[pause in meditation]

Then you shake out your pockets to make sure you got every last bit (in some traditions folks observing the ritual actually immerse their whole bodies lest any crumbs be left, so imagine that if you choose, immersing yourself in the river and washing away every last crumb in the rushing water. [pause] Then you turn back to shore, walking with your community back to this sactuary.
As you return from this imaginary journey, notice if there is unfinished work for you to do. Are there people you want to apologize to? [pause] Are there actions you want to change in your life?

Though our mediation is over, this process of letting go, of getting right is a process that Jewish tradition allows days or even weeks to unfold. If you feel so moved, you might want to continue this work, maybe repeating the ritual we just visualized with real crumbs and living water. Participating in a ritual like this one is a way of putting more of yourself into a psychological process that you have chosen. Your intention to let go penetrates more deeply when those ideas are put into your mind but also your body. Many Jewish congregations hold a tashlich service formally together, but a ritual of letting go can also be quite simple and private. I encourage you to take a few quiet moments in these coming days and think about the things you would like to cast off, and maybe walk to a creek or river near you with a piece of bread. Cast your crumbs on the running water to help the process of letting go, of starting the new year with a clean slate, and of getting right with your self and with the community of all beings.

“The High Holidays”
“Tashlikh: A Rosh Hashanah ritual for the whole family.” By Lesli Koppelman Ross

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Water is Life (August 8, 2010)

Who owns the water? It sounds like a rhetorical question, doesn’t it. Like “Who owns the air?” or “How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” But as a culture that takes private property seriously, people know what I mean when I say that I own a little piece of land, of earth, on the south side of Ithaca. It means that I can say who comes and who goes, I can dig it up and move it around. I can plant herbs and harvest them, and no one will challenge me about whose herbs they are. So what about the rain that falls on my land? What about the wells that provide drinking water to residents of the city of Ithaca?

The water system is one of the most profound ways that we are connected one to another as living beings on this planet. We learned as children the science of the water cycle, that the water from the glaciers melts and runs down into creeks, and then rivers, into Marshes and lakes and oceans. We know that all water exposed to air evaporates and becomes the moisture in our air, clouds, rainfall, frost and the snow that melts in the spring to feed our creeks. You look at a weather map and see the great sweeps that air makes, carrying the water that evaporated off the Great Lakes, and off of my back eastward toward the Atlantic ocean. And so water is a profound metaphor for inter-connection. This is one of the reasons our annual water communion is so powerful. Once again this fall we will each pour our own portion of water into a common bowl as we regather in our sanctuary in Athens. And once those waters mingle, the nutrients, the organisms, the toxins that were brought by each become part of the whole.

I first became concerned about water justice when I was volunteering with The Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry in California which has embraced Water as one of their key for the past few years. They adopted a set of 7 principles to guide their work that I think will be helpful in organizing our thinking about this crucial set of issues.. The first is this:

• Water is essential for life, and holds spiritual meaning for many.

Every living being in our biosphere needs water, is in some part made of water. It is written in the Koran "We have made of water everything living." Water is such a fundamental building block of life, that every religious tradition that endeavors to sorts the world into its most essential elements includes water among them. It’s a powerful part of story, ritual and archetype in all cultures whether island or desert peoples.

Is water sacred to Unitarian Universalists? We might as well ask ourselves “is life sacred?” because water is the source and substance and sustenance of all life as we know it. Surely we must treat with reverence anything that sustains life, treat with respect that which when withheld causes life to wither and die. This year we have decided to include some earth science in our children’s Religious Education program. When our children here at church have a lesson about their local watershed, we should be ready to explain what is sacred about water, why we would spend time at church thinking about it, because water is so completely ordinary. But I believe that the ordinary everyday life is sacred, and worthy of our awe and our respect. I want our children to experience the joy and wonder of water, whether that comes from unlocking its scientific mysteries , or by running under a sprinkler. And I want them to respect water, because it cannot be separated from life -- our lives and the lives of the other beings who share this biosphere with us. I know of nothing more sacred than life.

A Second principle of water justice is that:

• Access to clean water for basic human needs is a fundamental human right and is essential for human health and dignity.

Just a couple weeks ago, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations adopted a nonbinding resolution that recognizes the human right to water and sanitation. The resolution “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” Proponents of water rights were very careful to not allow the phrase “access to water” into the resolution, because that could imply that as long as water is for sale in your area the government has done it’s job. Instead they pushed for water itself as a human right.

The resolution passed by a vote of 122 to 0 with 41 countries, including the United States, abstaining. In a recent interview after the passage of the UN Resolution, Maude Barlow, director of the Council of Canadians, a citizen’s organization which has been a long time supporter of the right to water, spoke about the politics around those 41 abstentions this way: “…really, what you’re seeing is a split between those countries that see water as a public trust, although that wasn’t in the language of the legislation, but that see water as a public trust and a human right and that should belong to all, as opposed to those who are going to move to a market model. And I think that’s the truth behind what happened.”

Which leads us to our third principle:

• Water is a public trust and part of the global commons; it should not be treated as a commodity.

Are there some things so basic to life that they should be governed by different rules than those of private property? Like air? Like sunshine? Like water? Like our genetic code? I believe there are. The phrase that is used to describe this idea is “reclaiming the commons.” has argued that water isn’t a private good and shouldn’t be in any trade agreement.”

The idea of a commons arose in counterpoint as an increasing number of countries are moving towards water privatization, including New Zealand and Australia. In the United States a number of local communities fight the drawing down of their aquifers by water bottling companies like Nestle. according to The Economist (August 27, 2008) “Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone consume almost 575 billion liters of water a year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet,” Across the globe the world Bank makes water privatization a condition of loans and debit relief, and encourages sale of public water utilities to private corporations rather than helping fund public utilities. Between 2000 and 2003, 94% of World Bank loans for water and sanitation required recipients to sign contracts with private companies. As of 2006, Three European corporations: Veola, Suez and RW Thames controled over 70 percent of private water systems worldwide. Water has been removed from the “essential services” category and made a commodity available for profit.

This is what happened in Chualar, an agricultural community in Monterey County. There the California American Water Company (owned by RW Thames, one of those giants I mentioned before) bought the town’s water system in 2001. Local residents had been paying a flat rate of $21, but then bills jumped as high as $400 a month. Rebecca Trujilo, a local resident, reported that “All of a sudden we got a bill for over $100. Now our wages are pretty low. We earn $280, or at most $300 a week. If we have t o pay a bill of $280, will that’s a week during which we can’t eat, we won’t have money to buy food” Community members rallied, and presented community demands to the California Public Utilities Commission. As a result of this mobilization, Cal-Am went back to a flat rate, and CPUC supervised the private utility more closely with local community advocates.

Each time you or I buy bottled water, we are passively supporting water privatization. And if we’re buying it in the little sport-sized bottles we are paying more per gallon than we pay for gas. Companies like Nestle and Coke a Cola are buying public water rights (that’s my water and your water). They are within their rights as private property owners to overdraw the ground water, emptying local wells which provide drinking water to local residents, and then selling our water back to us at seriously inflated prices, in plastic bottles that some say will make us sick if we re-use them.

So what’s a thirsty citizen to do? Go back to your tap. That’s what most bottled water is anyway- tap water. Reconnect yourself to the water that comes out your faucet- each time you bottle your own you are making a political statement. It’s your right as a being on this earth to have access to clean drinking water. Do you have confidence in your tap water? A few minutes on-line at the EPA website could help. Find out where it comes from. If you don’t like what you find out, remember your right to have a vote and a voice- assert and reclaim that right.

This leads us to a third of the basic principles of water justice that :

• All people, including those in low-income and marginalized communities, must have meaningful input into water management decisions in their own communities.

Currently water is governed in very different ways across the country. In some states they are governed by “Special Districts” which are often controlled by real-estate developers and corporations. In some districts called “landowner districts” property owners are entitled a number of votes based on the number of acres they own. This means that while we all need water to survive, we can only participate in the democratic process if we own land, and our vote counts more depending on how much land we own. So next to the loud voices of industrial agriculture and developers, homeowners speak in a whisper and renters have no voice at all.

Here in Bradford County, I know that decisions about our water are made by the Susquehanna River Commission, and the Conservation Commission, but I’m going to admit my ignorance about where the water that flows out our taps at the Athens church comes from, and which public agency is responsible. So I hereby issue a challenge to you all here- the first person who can explain the source of and governance over the water that ends up in our church building gets a dozen homemade cookies. I will also award a cookie to anyone who can tell me the story of the water that comes out of the tap at your own home.

That will help us better ensure justice for our families and our neighbors, as Thomas Jefferson said “An Informed citizenry is the Bulwark of democracy” But what other beings who need water to survive? They also have no voice unless we give them one. There is a movement afoot to give rights to local ecosystems. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, was founded right here in Pennsylvania, and is helping local governments all over the country pass laws granting rights to Mother Nature. In 2006 Tamaqua in Schuylkill County was the first in the nation to pass such an ordinance. Executive Director Thomas Linzey put it this way: "What we're advocating is a wholesale paradigm change: that Nature is not just property. We're saying natural communities have an inherent right to exist and flourish.”

This leads me to a 4th guiding principle that:
• The health, integrity, and stability of ecosystems must be respected and preserved.

Do we believe that other beings have rights? I do. I believe that water is not only a right for humans but for all beings. We have lived long enough with our 7th principle to know that the decisions we make about the path of a river effect more lives than our human lives. We also know that Our fate is inexorably intertwined with the other beings with whom we share this eco-system, but our laws do not reflect this reality.

For example, the California Water Code’s definition of “reasonable and beneficial use” acknowledges no intrinsic worth to such beings as the Salmon of the Klamath river. Hydroelectric dams along the river block salmon from 350 miles of spawning habitat. The once abundant Klamath salmon runs have now been reduced to less than 10% of their historic size. Some species, such as Coho salmon, are now in such low numbers in the Klamath River that they are listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). As the health of the salmon population is threatened, so is the health and viability of the Karuk tribe of Northern California who have lived in and with the Klamath Basin for thousands of years.

A fifth of the basic principles of the Legislative Ministry’s water justice work is that :
• Public control and regulatory oversight are necessary to ensure the public's interest is protected.

Let’s go back to the water that falls on my yard. That doesn’t have anything to do with you, does it? It’s my land! But of course, all the water in this watershed, and in fact on the planet, is interconnected. This leads to 2 different kinds of concerns. First, anyone can put a well on their private property- ‘cause, hey, it’s my land. But the groundwater doesn’t pay attention to property lines. When we pump groundwater to sell for bottled water or to turn into fracking fluid, it can lead to an “overdraft” of groundwater- meaning that more water is pumped out of the ground than is replenished by rainfall or runoff.

Second, what you do to the water on your property doesn’t stay on your property. There are many examples of this, but one that has so many of us worried right now is what happens to the water used in hydrofracking. I just don’t feel confident that when known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters are pumped into the ground in the hydrofracking fluids that they will stay where we put them. Many of us in the congregation went to see Gasland over at the Elmira Theater and were shocked by film footage of folks lighting their water on fire. Apparently just a few days ago the cap blew off a water well in Monroe Township, and subsequent tests found methane in 3 wells at the private residence less than a mile away from a natural gas drilling pad. The DEP has investigated, and Chesapeake Energy is taking remedial action.
This is why we need to keep working to close the Halliburton Loophole by keeping the pressure on our federal legislators to pass legislation such as H.R. 2766/S. 1215 “The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009 which has been stuck in committee for over a year. We have a right to clean, drinkable water, and need oversight to make sure our watershed stays pure.

The last of the UULM guidelines is this:
• Water conservation, responsible use, and stewardship should be a top priority for all.

This summer my son and I have taken every chance we could get to swim in the gorge at Treman State Park- it’s a favorite place of his. Last week as we were swimming there a worried look came over his face: “Mom, is the water from the Gulf Spill going to get in this water?” “No, honey” I assured him “That is very far away from us, it’s in a different watershed” (I didn’t want to worry him too much by talking about how water from the gulf would certainly evaporate and join the weather systems that move around the planet) “But let’s work to keep this and all the other creeks and lakes near us safe and clean” I replied.

Water is not a commodity, it is the very substance of life, it is sacred, and it is precious. We study our watershed, our water cycle knowing it offers as much wisdom about sustaining life as a sacred text. Let us make sure that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

1. For a discussion of some water rights in Pennsylvania see: “FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS Public Rights in Pennsylvania Waters” by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commission
2. The Koran (21:30)
3. “General Assembly Adopts Resolution Recognizing Access to Clean Water, Sanitation as Human Right”
4. Democracy Now July 29, 2010 “In Historic Vote, UN Declares Water a Fundamental Human Right”
5. Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, California, “UULM-CA Water Justice Guiding Principles”
7. UUSC,Right to Water.”
8. The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, Thirsty for Justice: A people’s Blueprint for California Water p. 50
10. Ibid p. 47
11. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review “Ecosystem rights move forward in Washington County” by Mike Cronin, June 19, 2007. More about CELDF can be found at
13. Ibid p. 22
14. Thirsty for Justice p. 48
15. “Methane found in well water in Monroe Twp.” The Daily Review. BY JAMES LOEWENSTEIN.August 12, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

Forgiveness (June 6, 2010)

We are all human. WE all make mistakes. Sometimes our mistakes cause inconvenience, discomfort or even pain to the people around us. Most of us carry around in our psyches our mistakes, and the injury others have done us, often for years and years. I know sometimes I will suddenly remember something that happened years ago, and will be filled with fresh emotion that belies how long ago it happened and how relatively small the event was in the whole of my life. Not only do our religious traditions ask us to forgive these errors and injuries, or as it says in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But doctors and scientists are now telling us that holding on to these errors and injuries can create physical illness and can delay recovery of illness and injury. In fact a recent study by the mayo clinic showed that people who focused on a personal grudge had elevated blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increased muscle tension and feelings of being less in control. When asked to imagine forgiving the person who had hurt them, the participants said they felt more positive and relaxed and thus, the changes dissipated. Moreover, forgiveness is the key to creating beloved community and long lasting deep relationships; you can’t be friends with someone for 20 years without forgiving often. But it’s not simple to let go of those old hurts, so today we want to take some time to think about forgiveness and the process by which it happens.

In her article “Moving Toward Forgiveness” Presbyterian Pastor and author Marjorie Thompson defines forgiveness this way. “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who as wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment might seem.” In forgiving, she assures us, we are not resigning ourselves to martyrdom, and we are not trying to excuse unjust behavior. We commonly hear the phrase “forgive and forget” but the two are not the same. To forgive and to heal we don’t need to forget the injury happened. Sometimes the experience that came along with the injury has brought us important knowledge and wisdom. What we want to let go of is not the memory of the event, but “its power to hold us trapped in continual replay of the event, with all the resentment each remembrance makes fresh.”

So let’s take a moment right now to think of a moment in your life to think of some time when you were hurt through another’s actions or inaction. Something that still makes your blood boil when you think of it, but I’d like to recommend that it be something not too fresh, something you’ve had time to live with for a while. [pause].

You may be surprised that there are a number of folks out there writing about forgiveness, from all different fields, and they have come to some agreement about how forgiveness works. I’m going to use the language of Robert Enright of the Forgiveness Institute today. The first step, which Enright calls the Uncovering Phase, is to take an honest close look at your feelings. Sometimes we forgive without doing this uncovering – we say “it’s okay, don’t worry about it” while our foot is still throbbing from being slammed in a door. Then we get home and realize that it’s getting all big and swollen, and our new shoes are ruined, and we may still be upset and resentful days later every time our foot hurts when we try to walk on it. So the Uncovering phase is where we really take an honest look at the “cognitive, psychological and spiritual impact of the injury.” Forgiving is not denying that any hurt happened, on the contrary, true forgiveness happens in response to our honest assessment of our feelings.

So take a moment with the injury you have chosen, to examine how it has impacted you. [pause] This process can take a while to really explore. If you are uncovering that time your friend slammed the door on your foot, probably a few minutes is all you need to really process it, but if it is a deeper injury, a more complex injury, it may take some time to really do all the uncovering you need to do to fully forgive. Maybe you want to plan to take some time later today or tomorrow to work more on this.

The next phase, Enright calls the Decision Phase, “in which the injured party has a change of heart and is willing to commit to forgiving the offender.” This is crucial. If we are not really sure we want to forgive someone, we are going to do a half-hearted job of it, and will find ourselves harboring those same resentments in years to come. Bring to mind the image you are working with today. Do you really want to forgive this injury? Are you really ready to forgive this? Is the relief of setting down the resentment worth giving up any desire for revenge or judgment?” [pause]

If decide that you are ready, the next step is the “Work Phase… Accepting and bearing the pain of the injury as well as reframing one’s perspective on the offender as to have greater empathy and compassion for the offender.” This is hard. That’s why it’s called the work phase. Often when we are wronged, we think of the person who wronged us as completely evil. In psychological terms this is called “splitting” because we are disowning our own capacity to do harm. We all have make mistakes like slamming the door on someone’s foot, or breaking someone’s favorite glass. We all have failed to live up to promises, I would even go so far as to say we all have in us the capacity to do violence. Because we are Universalists, we don’t believe that the world people is divided into good people and bad people, just people. As we do our work on forgiving, we are moving from “that person is evil” to “that person is human, and did something that caused me a great deal of pain.” This “work” phase is not a single act. In a way it is creating a new habit so that, when I think about my sore foot, I give up wanting vengeance on the person who hurt it, and letting go of judgment. Every time I think of that injury during this phase it is an act of will to say “I am choosing to forgive this injury, because it is not good for me to carry it around any more. I need to let this go more than I want vengeance.”

You know that you are done your work when you have that memory, and your blood doesn’t boil. You might feel sad, you can remember the hurt, but you don’t feel ready to go into battle against the person or who hurt you. See if you can recall any hurts from your past that are no longer charged when you think of them. Often, for example, when we become adults we are able to forgive some of our childhood wounds, because we realize adults are just people who make mistakes and bad choices or self interested choices, and we watch ourselves as adults making similar mistakes. This enables us to forgive our own parents and to let go of our judgments about some of the parts of our childhood that didn’t suit us.

The Final stage is the Outcome or Deepening Phase, “in which the injured person finds deeper meaning for self and others in the suffering associated with the injury; realized that one is not alone; and awareness of decreased negative feelings and of internal emotional release.” Another way to think of this is “learning something the hard way.” The wounds you bear have made you who you are today, but don’t keep you from being in community, and don’t keep you from having a whole and meaningful life.

I want to offer an example from my own life in hopes that this will help our discussion be more concrete and real. When I gave birth to my son, I had prepared for a home birth. I had done everything my midwife had suggested, taken the classes, read the books, done the exercises and felt I had really done my work getting ready. But the baby wouldn’t come, and eventually I was transferred to the hospital. As I checked into the hospital, frightened and exhausted, the doctors treated me like a delinquent and irresponsible child for having my prenatal care with a midwife instead of a doctor. I was seen mostly by student doctors, since I didn’t have an OB at the hospital, and midwives are not allowed to provide care in California hospitals, and it seemed that these students had not gotten to their unit on bedside manner. Finally, our whole birth plan went out the window, and I was wheeled to the surgery unit for a C-Section. Let me assure you I was filled with anger, sadness, and a sense of betrayal after that experience. I was angry at the hospitals, the doctors, the American OB system, my midwife and myself. It took years of work to let go of all that resentment, and forgive myself for not giving my son a natural childbirth. One day after a couple of years of working through all my issues, a thought went off like a light bulb: “Healthy baby, healthy mom.” What could be more important than that? Today when I think of how the doctors treated me, I take a deep breath and let it go. I don’t want to carry that resentment with me any more. I no longer think of the hospital staff as “evil” instead I can remind myself that they kept me and my son alive. Truth be told, whenever I hear the birth stories of my friends who had natural childbirth, I still feel a little sad that I will never experience that, and I still think the American Obstetrics industry and the laws that support it need to be changed, but that sadness, that hunger for societal change is just a part of my honest relationship with my past, part of letting go. Because that event undermined so many things I thought I knew, because it undermined even my theology, it took the help of with the help of friends, a few “art as meditation” classes and my spiritual director to weave myself back together into a whole person. But it finally did heal, and the marks it made on me, like the scar I have from the surgery I had that day, are part of the person I am today one a little wiser about how the world works.

Really, as injuries go, a hospital transfer during a home birth is dwarfed by some of the injuries our brothers and sisters have suffered. No one would blame a person whose loved one had been killed for holding that resentment, that desire for vengeance for the rest of their life. But some who have experienced grievous wrongs find the strength and wisdom to forgive even the unforgivable. When I hear of a mother or father whose child was killed standing outside the penitentiary where the one who committed that grievous crime waits on death row, and what the parents are calling for is to spare the perpetrator’s life, it is an amazing testimony about our power to forgive even the unforgivable.

And since we are all human, we all need forgiveness. So I want to ask you to set aside this injury you are working on forgiving, and search in your heart for something you need forgiveness for. [Pause]

Homer Ashby, a professor of Pastoral Care, hypothesizes in his article “Being Forgiven” that the steps for being forgiven are the same as those for forgiving. In the uncovering phase, we become aware of the mental, emotional and spiritual impacts of what we have done. We acknowledge that because of something we did, someone else was injured. A lot of us skip this step, because if we think we have done something that might have hurt someone else, it doesn’t feel good to think too much about it. But doing this uncovering might help us make the hard decision to seek forgiveness, and to enter the work phase. The work phase for seeking forgiveness, though, is where the main difference lies. Prof Ashby suggests that the work “might include a confession to oneself, to the person offended, or to a transcendent other to whom the offender feels a moral duty. Now, we have to be careful to make this a true apology. If we say “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said” that’s not an apology, that’s an indictment of the other person’s sensitivity or psychology. A true apology is for our contribution “I am sorry that I said something that hurt you.”

Part of our work will include putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, understanding how they feel and grieving with them if that is appropriate. Making amends is also an important part of this work- whether that means trying to “right the wrong that was done.” or changing your behavior so that we know we will not hurt that person, or other people, in that same way again. Taken all together, Ashby calls this “expressing repentance” – apology, confession, understanding the other’s pain, making amends, and changing behavior.

Here’s another important difference between forgiving and being forgiven- the person we have injured needs to decide for themselves when and if they are ready to forgive. Or as Ashby says “The offender must be willing to wait patiently for the gift of forgiveness to be given.” If you have done your work- by apologizing, empathizing, making amends, and changing your behavior, the choice is then up to the injured person. We have to live with the possibility that “we may never receive forgiveness from the person we offended.”

The final step is to receive forgiveness. If the person we offended offers words, a hug, a gesture of forgiveness, we must receive it graciously to bring closure to this cycle, which has the power to bring healing to both parties. The isolation of each is ended, and we feel that we are not alone.

Now sometimes, it would do more harm than good to seek forgiveness in person. Some wounds are so deep, that it would only open old wounds for the offender to approach the offended to ask forgiveness. And sometimes the person you’ve offended has died or is no longer in your life. In all of these cases, you can still seek forgiveness, but the process is internal, and so can be more difficult, because it is often harder to forgive ourselves than others. For people who believe in a higher power, they can ask for forgiveness in prayer or meditation. But for folks who are atheists, I think it can be really helpful to talk it out with someone you trust. Someone who can hold you accountable, help you make sure you are doing your work and not looking for cheep forgiveness, and help you let go.

In this month’s world magazine we heard a story from the childhood of the Rev. Patrick O’Neil : after being pushed into a snow bank by older kids, a neighbor came out to dry him off and offer a cup of cocoa and this advice “Patrick, you are angry at those boys for what they did to you. And it is natural for you to feel that way. But now – you must let it go. This day has other things to give you.” Many years later Patrick learned from his mother that the neighbor and her husband were both survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. With such a history she had a right to be bitter her whole life, but she made a different choice. She had found the deeper meaning to her life, and so had wisdom to offer this little neighbor child. This then is why we forgive, because when we lay down our hurts, our wounds, our mistakes, we can give more of ourselves to life, to community, to our relationships and to all that this day holds for us.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Walking with Thoreau (May 16, 2010)

“In the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day.”
Thoreau’s Journal, January 7 1857

Walking with Thoreau

There is some debate about whether or not Henry David Thoreau was a Unitarian. Sure, he was baptized in the 1817 in the First Parish Concord, which BECAME a Unitarian church with much ado and scandal while Thoreau was growing up. And yes, he did go to Harvard, which was at the time home of the Unitarian Divinity School. And he certainly did fraternize with a number of Unitarians- Margaret Fuller (whom you will hear about next week from Chris) was a Unitarian, as were many of the Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian Minister, took Thoreau under his wing as the younger man floundered upon leaving college. He introduced him to other like minded folks, and encouraged publication of his writings in the magazine Margaret Fuller edited – The Dial. In fact, it was on Emerson’s land that Thoreau began his most famous project- 2 years, 2 months and 2 days of simple living in the “second-growth forest” just outside Concords Mass. It was called Walden.

But whether or not Thoreau claimed us as his people, the question we ask ourselves this morning is did his thinking, his writing, his living help us become the religious tradition we are today? Do they challenge and inspire us in our living? If so, then I believe we can claim him as a forefather of our movement.

Thoreau’s life asks the question: is it possible to live more simply? The children’s story we heard this morning is based on an argument between Thoreau and his friend which Thoreau wrote about in his book “Walden: or Life in the Woods.” It challenges us to think of the services in our lives that we pay for, and asks “isn’t a day walking to Fitchburg better spent than a day earning the money to take the train to Fitchburg?” Throughout Walden, Thoreau keeps this kind of accounting- illustrating how cheaply and simply one can eat, dress, even build a cabin to live in. Critics remind us, however, that it was on his friend Emerson’s land, 14 acres, that Thoreau lived those 2 years, which begs the question- how simply can folks live who do not have their own land, nor a friend with 14 acres? Moreover, who among us has the skills to build our own cabin, to grow our own food, make our own furniture? But still, through his experiment Thoreau has issued the challenge to all of us: “what do we really NEED to live?” What is essential, and what is dispensable? This is a question that many Americans are asking themselves right now. All those folks who pay for takeout because they don’t have time to cook their own meals, who buy new things because they don’t have time to mend the old, whose demanding jobs create a life where there is not time for much else. Thoreau’s example asks us to examine our lives and see if the time saved by convenience is worth the time spent earning wages to pay for those conveniences. Thoreau wrote in Walden that: "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." [39]

Now this Valley tends to be a little outside the main stream on this one I believe. Simple living is not such a hard sell here as it is in other parts of the country. Perhaps it’s because just aren’t that many high paying high-demand jobs here to go around, or perhaps it’s because this county still has family farms where people know how to do things themselves. Or maybe folks choose to stay here or to come to this area because they want a simpler life. Whatever the reason, when someone says over coffee hour that they are planting potatoes or putting up strawberries, or even building their own home, we think it’s cool. Through his writings like Walden Thoreau affirms the higher good of choosing such a life, lest we become dispirited, or feel that we have fallen behind the Joneses. I was getting grumpy the other day about having only one car- and all the choreography that entails - until my partner reminded me that we CHOSE to have only one car- and to live in a town where walking is possible ON PURPOSE, because it allows us to live our values in a way we were unable to do in the community where we lived before. Sure it’s easier to move into a house that’s already been built than to build a cabin in the woods with your own hands, but in Walden Thoreau holds up a vision of the importance and beauty of attempting such work ourselves. He writes “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sin when they are so engaged?” [Walden p. 36] His writing reminds us why we make choices toward simpler living, and his example is a challenge to ask of our own lives “Why ride to Fitchburg when you can walk?”

A second challenge we find in Thoreau’s writing and living is this: Is it possible to live a live a life more connected to nature, to the wildness of things?
In his essay Walking Thoreau writes, “I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a sing day without acquiring some rust… I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.” [p. 9]. As we heard in our opening reading, walking for Thoreau is a moral and a religious pursuit. This he shares with the many Unitarian Universalists who have reported over the last century, that if they had ever felt anything that might be called a “spiritual” experience, it had happened hiking the side of a mountain, or on a brisk morning on the shore of the ocean, or just in a patch of sunlight in an ordinary grassy place. To Thoreau we are rejecting our religious imperative when we forget to just head out walking and lose ourselves among the trees. He feels some pity, and even disdain, for those of us stuck behind a desk in an afternoon.

I picked up that essay in the first place because I’ve recently become a fan of walking myself. There is something so empowering about walking. If you don’t have the money for a train, if your car runs out of gas, just putting one foot in front of the other can take you anywhere in this whole wide continent. Of course walking has about the lowest ecological footprint possible, and I find that I know a place so much better when I walk it than when I drive it. And there is some other intangible benefit- some kind of peace or grounding that comes to one on the best walks; a number of religious traditions honor walking as a spiritual practice. Thoreau reminds us that reconnecting with nature does not require any fancy gear, or an eco-travel vacation in Brazil, just getting up from behind the desk and putting one foot in front of the other, and seeing where your walk takes you, seeing what the out-of-doors is up to these days.

Thoreau also challenges us as a society- he challenges us to value wildness, in the land and in ourselves. It was kind of creepy to notice the change to this country since the time of Thoreau’s writing. He asks for example: “What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” [p. 11] For him, a real walk is one where all evidence of civilization disappears from view. He writes with frightening foresight: “At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off… and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds.” [p. 16]

I wonder if he really knew such a day would come- when so many in this country could only walk in a garden or mall, when the walker has little freedom, little access to wildness. Thoreau saw this as a potential loss to our humanity, and Contemporary journalist Richard Louv has done some important thinking about the real consequences of living without access to what he calls “natural, self-organizing places.” In particular, he wants to know what will happen to children who grow up in a society where there are no wild places? A 2003 Cornell Study finds that “life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions” [Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods, p. 49]

Terry Hartig, a Swedish researcher, has worked on various studies showing that Nature can “help people recover from ‘normal psychological wear and tear’ [as well as improving our] capacity to pay attention” In one study Hartig’s subjects did 40 minutes worth of tasks designed to wear out their direct-attention. Afterward one group was asked to walk in a local nature preserve, another walked in an urban area, and the final group sat quietly reading and listening to music. “After this period those who had walked in the nature preserve performed better than other participants on a standard proof-reading task. They also reported more positive emotions and less anger.” [Louv, p. 103]

Thoreau is as poetic in his emphatic praise of the virtues of the natural world as Louv is careful and scientific. Both challenge us to value wildness as individuals and as a society. They challenge us to preserve wild places for our children and for ourselves, before they are all deforested or landscaped and turned into soccer fields. “What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?”

Finally, Thoreau challenges us to be truly present, awake and alive. To Thoreau going for a walk- REALLY going for a walk involves being present in the moment. He writes “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” [Walking, p. 11] What a beautiful reminder to be present in our lives, to be present with whatever critters and plants and breezes we find on our path. Again Thoreau has a sense of moral imperative that we remember to be present with the natural world, and that it is worthy of our attention.

For myself, I am grateful to claim Thoreau as a prophet and guide on this journey. His ideals are woven throughout my own sense of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. His life is a challenge to us to remember how little of the things we buy we really need, and how deeply we need an afternoon outside. His story asks us to honor and advocate the wild places, so that our children and grandchildren can sometimes walk until society fades from view. As we journey with Thoreau, may we remember to be present in body and spirit. Shake off the village and return to our senses. “…dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.”