Monday, April 19, 2010

Finding Abundance in Scarcity (April 18, 2010)

Among my collection of beloved children’s books is one by Barbara Shook Hazen that helps me explain the economic downturn to children. It was written in the 1970s during the recession when so many were unemployed. The book is called “Tight Times” The boy explains that “Tight times are why we eat Mr. Bulk instead of cereals in little boxes. I like little boxes better. Daddy said tight times are why we went to the sprinkler last summer instead of the lake. I like the lake better.”

Economists say that we are living in tight times right now- this is the first time since Barbara Hazen wrote her children’s story that unemployment figures have gone over 10%. We’re no where near the 34% unemployment of the Great Depression, but everyone is feeling the effects of the tightest times in a generation.

When I went back to California I heard that unemployment there is up over 10%, my one friend has been laid off 3 times in 3 years. Another said that although being laid off was discouraging, she is using the time to focus on her 2 young sons and pause and consider the big picture in this next part of her life.

Living in tight times calls for us to stretch ourselves in 2 ways. The first is to be prudent and use our resources carefully. I noticed that during the tech bubble of the early part of the decade, what folks thought of as “ordinary everyday expenses” expanded with the bubble. People around the country thought the economy would keep growing forever, and grew their spending and borrowing as if it would. The fear and loss of this economic crash has taught us some hard lessons. Americans are saving more than they have in decades and recent changes to the credit industry mean that folks are using their credit cards less often I couldn’t find any hard data on this- but I bet more families are paying more careful attention to their finances than they were 5 years ago. I bet everyone in this room has a example of something they have done to tighten up their budgets during this recession. [A pause as people are invited to share aloud their experiences]

As the wise Ben Franklin said: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. Speaking for my own family, we have learned to cut back a little at a time. There were things we thought we couldn’t live without, but it turns out we can live without them just fine. Other things we really need we’ve found new ways to get. Learning to cut back is easier when so many of us are in the same boat. Reporters started doing stories on such topics as “how to save 30% on your grocery bill” NPR ran a series “how to make dinner for a family of 4 for under $10. Suddenly it’s become social okay to talk about cutting back and saving money. It’s okay to say no to something because of the price. Many folks have taken the opportunity to enter into a period of “fiscal fitness,” through a practice of voluntary simplicity, and others through unrelenting necessity. Either way, I don’t think those of us who have lived through this crash will ever look at money the same way again.

But sometimes these new habits make me feel kind of miserly. I like being fiscally fit, but I don’t want to just say “no” to everything all the time. So the other important lesson of “tight times” is how to continue to be generous and to live abundantly. Just because our economy has shrunk does not mean that the gifts of life on this earth are any less abundant. We know for example, that folks go hungry in this world. WE might think from this fact that there is not enough food to go around. But those who study hunger , like the World Hunger Education Service, say that the food crisis is not one of production- there is enough food on the planet right now to feed everyone. In fact down in Florida they are plowing under their strawberry crops they are so abundant. No, hunger comes not from scarcity of food, but from poverty. Douglas Boucher, author of The Paradox of Plenty writes that: “We see now that [combating world hunger] is not simply a matter of whether food is available in the market; people must have the money to buy it. In a world economy in which food is a commodity, poverty will lead to starvation no matter how productive agriculture becomes.” (p. 77 quoted in Ellen Davis) So making sure there is abundant food for everyone requires us to be creative when conventional ways are not doing the trick.

Some of you will remember back in January I talked about the return of African farmers and eaters to native plants. They are moving from Western crops like Corn and Soy to things that grow abundantly in their ecosystem, like spider plant, African nightshade and vegetable amaranth.

So the second discipline of living in tight times is noticing abundance wherever we find it. This week, for example, the tulips up in Ithaca are mad with joy at this particular balance of sun and wet and cool. It looks to me like there are about twice as many in my garden this year as last. In fact, nature is the perfect model for abundance. Says green designer William McDonough:
“Nature is nothing if not extravagant. Four billion years of natural design, forged in the cradle of evolution, has yielded such a profusion of forms we can barely grasp the vigor and diversity of life on earth. Responding to unique local conditions, ants have evolved into nearly ten thousand species, several hundred of which can be found in the crown of a single Amazonian tree. Fruit trees produce thousands of blossoms – an astonishing abundance of blossoms – so that another tree might germinate, take root, and grow. Birds, too, seem to have a taste for the extravagant; who could say the wood duck’s plumage is restrained?” (Sustainable Planet, p. 13)

Even during tight times, we can find wonderful examples of abundance and generosity if we are looking. I heard a story on the radio the other day that guy who is giving away $10 to a complete stranger every day for a year even though he himself was recently is laid off. He calls it “A year of Giving”

So let’s take a moment of silence to think about some places in your life where you have observed abundance recently. [A pause as people are invited to share aloud their experiences]

So scarcity is real, and though it is painful, it helps us be fiscally smart and strong. And abundance is real, and helps us live vital joyful lives. In these times we are called to marry the two together, to create a life both prudent and abundant. I experienced this in my recent trip to California. My partner and I had saved up some frequent flier miles back when we used to do more traveling, and planned a trip to see our old friends. As we got ready for our visit I worried aloud to my partner: How could we enjoy this rare and special visit on a budget? How could we keep from feeling miserly and ungenerous? He said “We’ll buy groceries and we’ll cook for our hosts” and so we did. Almost every night whatever friends were gathered would bustle around the kitchen taking our time over a home cooked meal. (My goodness Eric has a way with a dry rub when he puts his mind to it, my friend learned an amazing mole sauce when he was in Mexico, and I managed to fake a Strawberry pie one night in honor of the early strawberry season in California). We’d hang out until past our proper bedtimes talking or making music, until finally everyone collapsed on some combination of beds, air mattresses and sofas. It was one of the best vacations ever, and it sure didn’t feel like tight times.

One of the days it was raining pretty steadily outside, yet all the kids were out in it undeterred. A bunch of the younger kids were playing princesses under the awning, but Nick was nowhere in sight. I finally saw him, about 10 yards up the hill rain streaming off the hood of his raincoat. He was standing next to a tiny lemon tree, and had dared to pick a lemon, peel it, and taste it. When he caught my eye, he showed me the lemon, bit into the exposed flesh, and made the puckery face mouthing “Sour!” before taking another bight. The tiny tree had a hundred or so ripe lemons weighing down its branches, and I told Nick he could pick as many as he liked. This he did, returning to the house only when he was thoroughly drenched and he had filled every pocket of his rain coat. None of the adults had seen past the rain to the bountiful harvest that lay just outside the door. This story reminds me of groups such as Village Harvest which arose for just such a purpose. It seems like everyone has fruit trees in their yards in California, and yet most of the fruit is never harvested. This group of volunteers goes neighborhood to neighborhood, and with the homeowner’s permission, will harvest their fruit trees, give the resident all the fruit they want, and take the rest to a food pantry.

I think that finding abundance in scarcity is one of the gifts of UUCAS. We run a pretty tight ship when it comes to our operating fund, and yet there is a sense of abundance and generosity in our community. The abundance of good conversation at our recent neighborhood desserts, the abundance of good food and shared talent last night at the our Open Mic night. Even in tight times we receive a profusion of gifts from one another.

Four our pledge drive year, when times are tight, we wanted to try a new kind of challenge. We wanted a challenge goal that everyone could help with, a goal where every gift matters. This year we want to challenge ourselves to increase the total numbers of people who make a pledge by 10%. We know that this is a diverse community, and that our gifts come in all shapes and sizes. So we are asking that everyone make that pledge, that promise, for whatever amount feels good to you this year. We need regular pledgers to keep pledging, and folks who have never pledged before to make their first pledge. Having a pledge drive that is more inclusive, that more people participate in is a goal we can feel proud of. This year we celebrate an abundance of gifts, in all sizes and shapes.

We can think of ourselves like the neighbors who come together to harvest fruit which might otherwise go unappreciated and un-tasted. We could see this as a calling of our community, to notice the abundant fruit right in our back yards, to help one another harvest and share. This year, let us find abundance in scarcity, noticing with gratitude the rain storm that quenches the land when it is thirsty, the tulips that fill the eye with color and joy, and the gift of the lemon tree hiding in our own back yards.

May it be so.


* 32 percent of consumers said they were using credit cards less often than they did a year ago
* "The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9). The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food."
* Other interesting programs include: Fallen Fruit, Harvest Sacremento, and and Neighborhood Fruit (NF)

Monday, April 12, 2010

How are we Saved? (March 28, 2010)

A couple of years back we were driving down a rural road and saw a church whose changeable letter sign said “Walmart is not the only saving place." I thought that was awesome. I made a guess, based on the stereotypes I’ve got in my head, that this was probably a conservative church. In my imagination, this was probably one of those churches where all the members have a copy of “Left Behind” on their bookshelves somewhere. But that sign resonated truth to me on another level. Because I believe that our church is a saving place, and yet I don’t have any designs on being raptured. So lest you feel “Left Behind” I want to give you the saving news of Universalism this morning.

When we hear the question “are you saved?” We might well ask “saved from what?” The answer, in most cases, is “hell.” First I want to point out that not all the religious traditions answer this question the same way. When I invited the 2 ladies from the Jehovah’s into my house for coffee and indoctrination, they explained that in their tradition there are 3 sorts of folks- the elect who rule with Jesus in Heaven, the righteous, who live on earth during 1000 years of peace, and the wicked, who are destroyed and miss out on that 1000 years of peace on earth. Now I’d been studying Buddhism for a while there in Seminary, and what Buddhists want to be saved from is the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It occurred to me that what was salvation to them was pretty close to the punishment for the wicked the Witnesses wanted to be saved from.

So some are concerned about being saved from eternal damnation, others are concerned about being saved from death, others want to be saved from the never-ending cycle. The study of this question- the study of salvation is called “soteriology” which means to “preserve”- so another way to look at salvation is to ask “what needs to be, or can be preserved.” The root of the word “salvation” is the same root as a salve- a balm that sooths and heals. So another way to look at salvation is “what saves and heals us?”

Our Unitarian Universalist tradition has some thoughts on this as well. The earliest Universalists believed that there was surely a heaven and a hell, and our souls needed be saved from hell. But in the second generation of American Universalists there was a fellow called Hosea Ballou who didn’t believe in hell. He believed that what we had to be saved from was sin. And let me reassure my contemporary audience that what he meant by “sin” is the same stuff we would be appalled by now-a-days: Murder, theft, cheating, so don’t get distracted by that old fashioned word) He wrote in his landmark work of Universalist Theology Treatise on Atonement ”why [should I] fear sin?” “Answer: Because it will make me miserable if I commit it. There is no priest that I can apply to, who can prevent my suffering, if I am a sinner. If I fear a prison or a gallows, or a punishment in the future world, I may flatter myself some way may be provided by which I may escape them; but if I fear sin itself, I know, if I am a sinner, I must endure that evil.” So he is saying that the down side to sin is not hell or even jail, but that sinning feels bad- it takes you out of right relationship with your world, with your community. He also says that “There is no necessity of promising a reward in a future state for the practice of duty in the present. All that is wanting for his purpose is to understand and to be persuaded that righteousness brings an ample reward, in the present life.” Sin is it’s own punishment, and righteousness is its own reward.

Ballou believed that ultimately we are all going to be reunited with God when we die, that we all return to a metaphysical unity. He believed that when you die, no matter who you are, you return to the primordial one-ness. You are gong home- but home is not a heaven with pearly gates. Some of the more conservative Universalists thought this was ridiculous. Said one such, the Rev. Charles Hudson in an essay hew rote criticizing the “ultra Universalists” like Ballou: “You represent the soul of man as an emanation from the deity, and contend that this future happy life consists in returning to the fountain from whence he came.” And what did Rev. Hudson think was wrong with this? he writes “This opinion was not only embraced by those ancient heretics, the Gnostics, but is the popular opinion of infidels to this day.” Good company as far as I’m concerned.

So Ballou doesn’t feel we need to be saved from hell in the afterlife, but from hell on earth, the hell that we create for one another. According to Ballou, the goal of religion, the goal of a good life is no longer to save souls from hell, but to save life. To save ourselves and all the people in the world, since they are all our brothers and sisters, from the forces that deny life in this world. In the early 20th century, Clarence Skinner spoke of this as a “Universal Brotherhood”
(as a side note, did you all know that the Athens Universalist church was called “The church of the Universal Brotherhood? So named in 1871!) Skinner was a prominent Universalist thinker and activist who wrote in 1915 that “…Universalism inspires…faith not only because it teaches the divine origin of all men, but likewise because of its belief in the common destiny of humanity in all times and in all stations of life.” (Robinson p. 172)

A few years back I was feeling very jaded about my religious tradition. It happens to the best of us. Sure UU raised me from when I was younger than the youngest of the kids in our RE program, gave me an ethical framework, a life’s work. But what had they done for me lately? I talked to my colleague Sheri Prud’homme about the fact that I was having trouble getting excited about my UU tradition, and asked what was it that made her passionate about her faith? Her explanation boiled down to the idea that with Universalism “We’re all in the same boat.” Whatever salvation there may be, it is for everyone. Sheri believed this was important, that it was a precious part of who we are.

At our UU history class last Thursday, I read from the church record in 1878 which reads in part: “Our partialist friends in the surrounding community ,becoming much disturbed and alarmed by the spiritual condition of their ‘awful neighbors’ in the Valley, occasionally send a “Screaming Moses” to warn us of the wrath to come.” I love this story. First, I love that the opposite of a “Universalist” is a “partialist” those who believe that only part of humanity will be saved. And of course the partialists are concerned and alarmed by other points of view, because when part is saved, the rest are damned. When part is holy, the rest are unholy. Part is right and the other part is wrong. How much destruction has been done in this world by those who understood themselves to be good, to those whom they understand as bad? Think about our political discourse right now- one must be completely right and the other completely wrong. One is a force of democracy, and the other a force of fascism. One must be victorious and the other must be destroyed. And yet we are all in one boat: if we tear this country apart it will hurt us all. If we waste and poison the earth, it will hurt all living things.

In the late 20th century we enlarged our conception of the “universal brotherhood” as we began to think in terms of the interconnected web of life of which we are all apart. The social sciences taught us how violence begets violence, and recently proved that there is a relationship between happiness and proximity to other happy people. We understand now that nitrates used in American farming effect coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean. Our sense of what it means to be a Universalist has expanded. We used to sing “God’s love embraces the whole human race.” [#298] now we sing “Respect the water, land and air which gave all creatures birth; protect the lives of all that share the glory of the earth.” [#175] Who will be saved? Either all are saved or none are saved. The kingdom of heaven is not a gated community.

Still we have to ask; how can we be saved? Our friend Clarence Skinner writes “The idea of Universal Brotherhood is the great social dynamic of the twentieth century. Sometimes it is dynamite. It fires our hopes, builds our dreams, unfolds before us the messianic vision of an imminent Kingdom of heaven on earth.” Skinner believed that we could transform the word through our faith in human dignity. By the end of the 19th century, Universalists no longer about talked how to get to heaven but how to “progressively establish kingdom of God” here on Earth. (This idea can be found in the affirmation this congregation said every Sunday through most of the 20th century.)

Universalists wanted to save souls not from hell, but to save souls from the forces in this world that crush and diminish the spirit of life in each one of us. The Unitarian preacher and writer William Ellery Channing talked about the “capacities of the soul” and felt the purpose of life was to grow those capacities, of mind, creativity, love, justice, reason and many others. Folks who live in oppression, in crushing poverty, in fear of violence never get the chance to develop the powers of the soul; their life, their creativity is lost. This is how the 19th and early 20th century social activists wanted to build the kingdom of god, by creating a just world where not only was life saved from violence and death, but saved for something- saved for a full, rich, and deep life- that every soul might have a chance to grow. How will we be saved? We will save each other.

Building a Kingdom of God, or as a seminary buddy called it, a Kin-dom of god, one where we are all kin, is not something one of us can do on our own. It is not something one group can impose on another. Building a peaceable kin-dom is something that can only happen through our interactions, our relationships with one another. Our relatedness is not optional. We are deeply embedded in this web, in a “network of mutuality.” Says EcoFeminist Theologian Ivone Gebara “relatedness is the primary reality; It is constitutive of all beings. It is more elementary than awareness of differences or than autonomy, individuality or freedom. It is the foundational reality of all that is or can exist. It is the underlying fabric that is continually brought forth within the vital process in which we are immersed.” Or to put it another way “the interconnected web of which we are all part.” We build a peaceable kin-dom in the context of this relatedness, this web. Or if “relatedness” is too cumbersome a word, how about love? Contemporary UU theologian Rev. Rebecca parker says “Love generates life, from the moment of conception to the moment when we remember with gratitude and tenderness those who have died. And in the darkest night, when our hearts are breaking, love embraces us even when we cannot embrace ourselves. Love sages us and redirects us toward generosity.” (p. 14)

Well this leads us to our final question- when will we be saved? In the “left behind” books, we are waiting for a final battle between good and evil that we are inexorably heading towards. And this sense of “being saved later” follows us over into our UU theology sometimes. We will be saved when all people are treated justly and equitably, when science has a cure for the world’s diseases, when our fight is finally won. Parker had the audacity to ask “what if the apocalypse has already happened?” She calls our minds to all the destruction and violence of the 20th century and proposes that “In the aftermath of Apocalypse, the religious enterprise can be imagined as a kind of salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life- resources that are ready at hand, not in some distant promise land.” (p. 22)

Parker finds in our UU theology a “realized eschatology” which I preached about last spring. Some of you will remember this idea that the end times are here and now- that when we say “the kingdom of god is nigh” we don’t mean “the end is coming” we mean, it is right here, it’s all around us.

So the time for salvation is now. The place for salvation is here in this neighborhood, this earth, this body. Who is to be saved? All of us. We all need saving, and we all have the capacity to be preserved, protected and salved. And what we are saving is love, this beautiful web of life- not just to allow life to survive, but to allow the profound beauty and vibrancy of all beings to flourish and grow. And how can we be saved? Through relationship. By connecting and re-connecting to one another and with the web of life of which we are all a part. If anyone asks you “are you saved?” feel free to answer “yes, I am. We all are.”