Monday, December 5, 2011

Hospitality (December 4, 2011)

“So glad you’re here”
“So glad you’re here”
Like a mantra
They repeat with warm smiles
“you must be tired”
“you must be hungry”
“you must be cold”
“It means so much
that you would come
all this way to be with us”
“Do still drink decaf?”
“I made those walnut cookies you like
when I heard you were coming”
“honey take her bags”
“tell us about your trip”
“No, take my chair,
I’ll get another from the den”
“take your time”
“rest a while”
“stay as long as you like”
“so glad you’re here”
“so glad you’re here”

Hopefully each of us has at some point in our lives experienced really skillful hospitality; we have met the host or hostess who knows how to make us feel truly at home, easing our awkward transition to a new situation. Hospitality is a Mitzvah, that is to say a religious commandment not only in Judaism from which tradition we get the word “Mitzvah” but in many of the world’s religions. We offer hospitality because it is the right thing to do, the caring though to do. But I would like to suggest that it is also a spiritual practice, one that works on those who practice it. Today we want to consider the question, “if one took on hospitality as a spiritual practice, how might it change the one who practices, and how might it change the world?”

I begin with the easier question, how could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the world. For example, about 6 years ago this congregation took upon itself the task of becoming a “Welcoming Congregation.” This is the phrase used by the Unitarian Universalist Association to refer to a congregation who has intentionally opened their doors to Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgendered persons. I’m sure it seemed unnecessary to many members of this congregation- Unitarian Universalists were one of the first denominations to ordain openly Gay and Lesbian clergy, and have long been at the forefront of the movement to widen this circle of inclusivity. But I know that in the first welcoming congregation I ever served things were not so simple. Many of those who joined in discussion groups and classes, and scanned the church for heterosexism, found that the issues were more complex than they had imagined. For example, we begin to notice hetero-presumptive language in talking about relationships. We realize that unless we publicly speak our intention to be inclusive, say by hanging a rainbow flag out front, folks would have no reason to assume that our church was any safer than those who publicly condemn same sex relationships. We realized that we each had to root out our own internalized homophobia, so that it would truly be a safe place for our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members to speak their stories. Queer clergy, like myself, had to be willing to say our truth as a gesture of hospitality, as it were, to others. Being a “Welcoming Congregation” takes commitment and self awareness and hospitality.

How could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the world? I remember the first time I attended the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. As I watched the Dykes on Bikes roll by, leading off the festivities, my eyes welled with tears, grateful that San Francisco had become home to a community so long marginalized. To get a closer look at the parade, I found a line of sight from behind a fenced off seating area. It turned out I was standing behind a section set aside for folks in wheelchairs. It seems like just good common sense that persons in wheelchairs will need a large flat space in which to maneuver, and a lower line of site, but in so much of our history, no one bothered to make such a space. It occurred to me that the City of San Francisco was behaving like a loving family who always remembers to pull out a chair for Uncle Bob when he comes to Thanksgiving Dinner.

In the same way that my mother in law carefully makes a huge and luscious fruit salad whenever I come to visit so that I will feel at home each time we break bread together. In the same way that the Athens UU Church recently converted their mail room into a bathroom wide enough for a wheelchair. In the same way that even when we have no young children in our church we keep our nursery full of toys and supplies ready to make new children feel welcome. In the same way that Miss Manners advises us to occasionally spend one night in our guest bed to feel for ourselves the kind of sleep our friends might experience in our homes, we look around our world community with the eyes of a good host, wondering what we could do to make others feel at ease.

What makes this challenging, is that in assuming the role of host, we must view the world through the eyes of others; we must anticipate needs that are not necessarily our own. How do we create a welcoming space for all? This becomes most difficult when we realize that there are many subtle cultural factors which can make a community seem hospitable or hostile. Can we use language, for example, in a way that is understandable to people outside our field, to folks with different kinds of education, to persons who are unfamiliar with our idioms and colloquialisms? Our art, music, theology, all mark us as belonging to one demographic or another, and all have the power to include or exclude. It is one thing to renovate the bathroom or to hang a rainbow flag, but if radical hospitality is not a central value of our culture, our community, then these are merely superficial gestures. We may find ourselves in communities which are both figuratively and literally gated.

How could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the world? Imagine how this radical hospitality would impact our social and political policies if, for example, we considered immigrants to our country to be visitors, and ourselves to be their hosts. Imagine if we challenged ourselves to broadly apply our call to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” Imagine the impact on the doors of “race” or “class” if we approached them with radical hospitality.

Now we move on to a more difficult question: how could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change our congregations? Let’s be clear. When we practiced a truly radical hospitality, it does change us. Members of this church still remember their struggle as they welcomed their first transgender members long before I came to be your minister. As a community and as individuals they had to reexamine their way of looking at gender and see if those old prejudices and taboos could be relinquished so that they might become truly welcoming. It was a time of soul searching for individuals and for the community as a whole. It lead this congregation into the Welcoming Congregation process for the first time. And change we did. Our new members stayed through what must have been a less than open-armed welcome, and continued to bless us with their gifts. A few folks who just could not open their arms to the new members left the congregation, but for all who stayed, being welcoming is now part of their identity, calling them to wonder “what other prejudices or oppressive structures might need to be opened up to make us more welcoming still?”

I can’t help but remember my first days in California when my husband and I were subletting student housing at the Franciscan School. Not knowing a soul in 3000 miles, we were taken completely aback when we opened our apartment door one day at the same moment our neighbor was opening his. He greeted us immediately with a smile and the words “Hello Protestant Neighbor!” He was very friendly, introduced himself, asked how we were settling in, and invited us to coffee “any time.” Eric and I, being from a less outgoing community, couldn’t figure out what his motivation might be. There was something a little weird about someone so friendly. But we eventually became great friends with our Catholic neighbor, and learned that he is indeed a wonderful host.

That summer afternoon in Berkeley our friend took the risk that he might frighten us off with his overture, that we might be more attracted to someone aloof and cool. This is the risk each of us takes when we extend ourselves, when we invite someone into our lives. They might judge us, they might use us, they might ignore us. More likely they will be grateful for the introduction, the generosity of spirit, the attempt to make them feel at ease. This boundary between “me” and “you” is one that must be confronted on both the spiritual and ethical journey. The edge between my ego and the other can be a scary, powerful place where we learn both about the world and ourselves. When we open ourselves to the stranger, the other, the unknown we open ourselves to learning and transformation. By approaching the limits of what is known and comfortable, our universe expands and perhaps our spirits expand as well.

But hospitality in congregations is not just about welcoming strangers and visitors. It is also about welcoming newcomers into the heart of our community, inviting them to “take off your coats and stay a while” as my Grandmother used to stay. Think about the things a good host offers you in their home to make you feel comfortable. For a short stay you need to know where the bathroom is, where to hang your coat. But when you are staying for a few days, you need to know how to get yourself a glass of water, where the towels are kept, how the shower works. You need not just to have someone fussing over you all the time (which works fine for a 3 hour visit). You need the information to really “make yourself to home.” Now what if you were going to stay… well, forever? You would need your own niche. Like when you introduce a new plant to your garden, if it can’t find a niche it will not flourish.

Next Sunday we are welcoming three new members into our community. Our challenge is to offer them not only a friendly smile, and a warm cup of coffee, but a meaningful way to engage in our community. They need a niche. Part of a deep practice of hospitality will be evoking from one another our gifts, Just as an apple tree provides fruit for humans and other critters, and shade for the soil and shade loving plants, some of our members give us the gift of music, others their thoughtful insights, or practical common sense, or warm hearts. We have to be open to the idea that newcomers will bring new gifts we have never experienced before. Just because there has not previously been a knitting group, doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Newcomers bring us gifts that will change us. The other part of our practice of hospitality is to discover and respond to one another’s needs for nourishment. Much as some garden plants need sun and others need shade, some members of our community need quiet private conversations, and others thrive in large, lively groups. Some folks need a way to be in community that involves their children. Others need a way that works around their strenuous works schedule. By being aware of and responsive to newly emerging needs for nourishment, our “Support our aging parents” group was created, and “coming of age” was offered to our youth for the first time.

If we offer truly radical hospitality, we will be changed, we will be transformed as a congregation and as individuals. Let’s try this. Please stand up if you came to this church for the first time in 2011. Now stand up if you came for the first time in 2010. Now stand if you came for the first time since 2000. Imagine how different our congregation would be without these folks. (You can all sit) Now anyone who has been a member for more than 3 years please stand. These folks all stayed because they found a niche, a special unique place in our community where they could share their gifts and also be nourished. In gratitude for the place each of us has found here, we offer the gift of hospitality to all, because and even though it will change our beloved community.

Finally the most difficult question of all: how could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the individual who practices it? In his book “The World’s Religions” Huston Smith describes a noble quality of chun tzu. He writes
“Fully adequate, poised, the chun tzu has toward life as a whole the approach of an ideal hostess who is so at home in her surroundings that she is completely realized, and, being so, can turn full attention to putting others at ease…the chun tzu carries these qualities of the ideal host with him through life generally. Armed with a self-respect that generates respect for others, he approaches them wondering not, “What can I get from them” but “What can I do to accommodate them?”
If we engage the world with the quality of Chun tzu, a feeling of always being at home, where might that practice lead? In order to risk extending ourselves, we must first know that we are at home in this world. I believe this logic is reversible as well; if we can act as a host wherever we go, perhaps it will remind us that this world is in fact our home.

This practice of hospitality can be a spiritual one not only in the way it brings us in contact with our own boundaries and limits, but extending the notion one step further, in the way we invite that transcending mystery and wonder into our lives. My seminary professor Yielbanzie used to remind us: “If you want to have spirit in your life, you have to invite spirit into your life.” We treat the ineffable with the same respect and care that we would a neighbor, a guest, a stranger or a friend. Perhaps if we adopt the role of host, it will give us the courage to come closer to God, or if we are an atheist, to whatever is of ultimate concern in our lives.

When I was starting my internship at the Mount Diablo UU Church, I nervous about the many things I would be doing for the first time, but I was most terrified of the coffee hour. Oh the agony of standing on the patio trying not to look uncomfortable, hoping someone would talk with me. I decided, nonetheless, that this was my job now. People expected their minister to make them feel welcome, to play the host. I realized that it was important that I take the risk that visitors might leave saying “boy they would not leave us alone!” rather than wondering why no one had approached them, why they felt more lonely after coming to church than before. And so that first day on the patio I screwed up my courage, deputized myself with the nametag reading “Darcey Laine, Intern Minister” and challenged myself to engage as many strangers as I could. I tried to imagine who might welcome that extra effort. Certainly newcomers deserved a warm welcome. Obviously those who had shared some pain or joy during “caring and sharing” might want a chance to talk further. The children and youth of the congregation needed to feel that the ministers of the congregation are their ministers too. And the list went on. Before long there were so many people I wanted to connect with, that I had hardly gotten started each week before the patio cleared out and I was left to turn out the lights and lock the doors. I understood that hospitality is one of the primary gifts of a church community, one member to another.

Hospitality is not identical to love, because it pays attention to the boundaries between individuals, between peoples. We treat the other with dignity, humble in the awareness that there is much we do not know about one another, yet when we extend ourselves to put another at ease, we act from a position of personal power. We welcome courageously and with skill those who knock at our door.

Today when coffee hour beings, I have my nametag labeling me as “Reverend Laine”, deputizing me officially to act as host for this community. But it is not because I’m a minister of this Church that I have the right and the responsibility to be a host, but because I’m a member of this community. I hereby deputize all of you to be a host at our social hour, and out in the world. Think of your nametag be your deputy’s badge - a symbol of your job as greeter, host, vice-president for east coast introductions and friendliness to strangers. Let this deputy’s badge remind us of one of the oldest and most important religious practices- remembering this world is your home, and so making one another feel welcome in this world.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Building from the Ground Up (November 6, 2011)

(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture. The 8 principles we are using come from Starhawk's "Principles of True Abundance")

"MAKING THE DESERT BLOOM, SUSTAINABLY" from Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

In 1986, [sculptor Roxanne Swentzell] moved onto a parcel of bare land on the Santa Clara homelands. She describes the place as "no trees, no plants, no animals, just pounded-down dirt and lots of ants." She and her two young children built a passive-solar adobe house and began planting. But the climate was too harsh. Dry winds swept down from the scoured, overgrazed hills and burned up the seedlings, killing those that hadn't frozen in winter or baked to husks in summer.

Local permaculture designer Joel Glanzberg …helped her ferret out techniques for gardening in the desert. They dragged in rocks and logs to shade seedlings, and dug shallow ditches, called swales, to catch precious rainwater and create sheltered, moist microclimates. To cast much-needed shade and generate organic matter, Joel and Roxanne planted just about any useful drought-tolerant plant, native or exotic, that they could find. Thirstier species they placed within reach of the … irrigation ditch, that surged with water once a week by tribal agreement.

They hauled in manure and mulch materials to build rich soil that would hold moisture through drought. Once the hardy young trees and shrubs had taken hold, they set more delicate plants in their shade. They blended berry bushes and small fruit trees into an edible hedge along the north border, to provide the family with food as well as to block the winds that roared down the nearby canyon. All these techniques combined into a many-pronged strategy to build fertile soil, cast shade, damp the wild temperature swings of the desert, and conserve water. Together, these practices created a mild, supportive place to grow a garden.

Roxanne told me, "The garden was hard to get started, but once the little seedlings took off, then boy, they took off." At my visit, the landscape was eight years old, and trees, where none had been before, were as tall as the two-story house. Blessed, cooling shade, from dense to dappled, halted the searing rays of the sun. Instead of baking the soil, the fierce solar heat was absorbed by the thick leafy canopy and converted into lush greenery, mulch, food, and deep-questing roots that loosened the soil. ... Even in the shade, a many-layered understory of shrubs and small trees divided the yard into a path-laced series of small rooms.

I caught glimpses of birds dancing from twig to twig before they disappeared into the shrubbery. A constant rustling and chirping enveloped us on all sides, and I knew that dozens more birds were hidden in the foliage. … Roxanne carried pruning shears with her as she walked, and lopped off the occasional too-exuberant branch from [the] vigorously growing trees and shrubs that lined the paths. These would feed her turkeys, or become more mulch.

Roxanne and her helpers had rejuvenated a battered plot of desert, created a thick layer of rich soil, and brought immense biodiversity to a once-impoverished place.

Before I begin, I want to say a little something about the sermon series this worship service is a part of. This year the worship team has chosen to explore in a series of sermons the principles of permaculture, which is a school of agricultural and garden design in which human and environmental sustainability are they key values. Wiccan religious leader and activist Starhawk uses a different name for these- “Principles of True Abundance.” This is really at the heart of what we are doing with this series- look at principles that will bring true and lasting abundance to not only our human community, to our spiritual lives, and to our eco-systems. It is a system of values and virtues that we learn from the earth. With this series we ask ourselves this year “how are our lives like a garden?”

I believe that though it is an objective fact sometimes folks who have plenty of money they are not living lives of true abundance. And I know folks who live lives of abundance without much money.

Today, I want to talk about how sometimes building from the ground up can help us create true abundance in our gardens and in our lives.

I love my house. It is a little slanty and crooked in places, since it was built in 1890 and has been “settling” ever since. But from the moment we saw it we know it was for us. We love the kitchen. It is about twice the size of our old kitchen in California, and there is plenty of storage and counter space for everything we want to do. Here’s the thing though, that we didn’t really think about until we’ve lived in it for a while. The refrigerator is right by the door to the kitchen, so if someone has the refrigerator open, no one can enter or exit the kitchen. The dishwasher door opens right in front of the sink, so that if the dishwasher is open, no one can use the sink to, say, pre-wash the crud off a plate before putting it in the dishwasher. Someone didn’t think that through when they were installing the updated cabinets into this hundred year old house, and so it will annoy us multiple times a day for as long as we live in this home. As Permaculture designer Patrick Whitefield writes “Time spent in careful and patient observation before acting will pay for itself many times over when you are planning permanent fixtures like woods, buildings and earthworks.” (Permaculture in a Nutshell p. 38) Our kitchen is an example of a design that wasn’t patiently thought through before it was implemented.

So why did we buy a house with poorly positioned appliances? Because the house itself is positioned just exactly where we wanted it. This whole story begins when we were living in California. We were 20-60 minutes from everything. Nearest friend? 20 minutes away. Yoga studio? 20 minutes away. Daycare? 20 minutes away. And those were the close things. My commute? 25-45 minutes each way. The farms that supplied the local CSA programs were about 100 miles away. All the great culture in San Francisco that we moved to the Bay area to enjoy? 60 minutes away on a good day, 2 hours away during the weekend rush-hours. Anything you wanted to do involved sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on a 6-8 lane road. We had looked for a home where we could walk to things, but those pedestrian friendly towns were way out of our price range. And a house in a good school district? Definitely out of our price range.

Our decision to move 3000 miles was made after a lot of patient observation and thinking and planning. We learned that in Ithaca ordinary people like us could afford a home in a good school district. Moreover, if we were willing to sacrifice a few things like off street parking and a big yard, we could even afford to live in walking distance to things worth walking to. I can’t tell you how happy we are now to live 3 blocks from a public library, 4 blocks from 2 different yoga studios, restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores. We re-built our life from the ground up.

Permaculture teaches us that (Permaculture in a Nutshell p. 25) “ A year’s careful planning is much better than a rush to get he plants into the ground followed by a lifetime’s regret” So the first thing to do is just to observe, and watch. And maybe make a map of all the things you notice and observe. Then when you begin to build, you can make use of the microclimates, the trees, the existing communities already in place. So for example, one of our dreams when we came to Ithaca was to have a little coffee shop where musical events would happen. Thank goodness we didn’t start that project before we’d had a chance to observe because it turns out that niche is already filled in Ithaca. Before tearing down the old to build something new, stop and listen and observe. The vision you may have in your mind can and should change as it meets the very specific and very local place you want to plant your garden or build a life.

Now once it is time to plant and build, you have a better idea from all your observation of what will flourish where. One of the main ideas of permaculture in gardening is the idea of zones. It’s a simple idea but one we don’t use as often as we could. For example, you put the things you use every day right by your back door. If you want herbs in your morning omelets, and cherry tomatoes in your dinner salad, plant your herbs and cherry tomatoes right by the back door so you can get them without getting your bedroom slippers wet. That’s called zone 1. The compost bin should be close enough to the kitchen so that you don’t procrastinate taking the compost out because you hate tromping through the mud to get there. Then zone 2 is things you don’t need to look at every day, This is the area of your yard that you put on your old gardening clothes on a Saturday to work with, for example pick stewing tomatoes for canning. These areas can be further from the house. Zones 3 and 4 are farther from the house, things you only need to deal with once or twice a year. I don’t have these zones in my yard. Zone 5 is the edge of your property, the wild part of your property, whether it backs up on uncultivated woodlands, or onto a downtown parking lot. Permaculture design is very supportive of leaving wild un-tended places in our own lives and in our ecosystems.

But I think it’s not much of a leap to apply this idea of zones in our lives beyond gardening. For me Zone two includes my yoga studio and the library. These are places I go several times a week. I assure you that since I moved my home to within a few blocks of the yoga studio, from a house where it was a 20 minute drive, (more if there was traffic) I do a lot more yoga. Same with the library. So We chose our home with the idea of what we wanted in our “Zone 2” Once we bought our home, we had other decisions to make about what would fall in which zone, even though our property is so small all of our yard is really zone 1. When I first moved to Ithaca I got recommendations for a dentist about half an hour form our house, but I was persistent, and managed to find a good dentist who is about a 25 minutes walk or a 5 minute drive from our home. I recently found a primary care physician about a 15 minute walk away, and a vet who is about a 10 minute walk away. Even City Hall and the places where most political rallies are held are walking distance from my home. Because we spend that time at the beginning finding a home in the right location, and finding services that are located in walking distance, I can say to my partner “you can have the car all day, I can walk to everything I’m going to do today”

Once you are done observing and ready to roll up your sleeves, remember to build from the ground up. The first step is the earth moving and amending. If you need to change a slope or amend the soil, it is much better to do this before you plant anything. The next thing to do is to plant trees, because they take a long time to mature and they are going to impact the little microclimates in your yard and garden by changing the areas of shade and sun, they are also going to form complicated relations with their roots that you don’t want to disrupt later.

I think that story of Roxanne’s desert garden is a wonderful example of building from the ground up. The first time she planted everything died. But by planning carefully, by moving rocks and building walls and digging swales, those first plants were able to take root and grow.

I want to draw another parallel with how we plan our lives. There are some things that we may wish were in our lives, but we never seem to have the time for them. Maybe we’ve always wanted to go back to school. Maybe we want to spend more time at home with our family, or supporting an aging parent, but there so much going on we can never seem to find the time. Let’s think of those like trees in a forest garden. What are the metaphoric trees you’ve been wanting to grow in your life? The big things that might take years and years? The things you are never going to have time to squeeze in before dinner one night. Like any time management schema, you might find in the business section of the bookstore, this value of “building from the ground up” shows is that we need to plant these big important long-growing things first, or there will never be room in our lives for them.

Now I don’t want to discourage folks who already have full lives and are realizing there is a tree missing. Many folks get to midlife and realize that the life they planted as a young adult could be better planned. Permaculture teaches us that is certainly easier to do this planning when you are building something new, but sometimes we need to move structures if there is going to be a long term benefit. Take our move from California to New York. It took a lot of energy, worry, planning and money to make a move of that magnitude, but because we spent a lot of time and though planning and knew what we were trying to plant, it was worth it for us.

Because we weren’t just guided by a vision of life with more cafes and bookstores, we were also motivated by a vision of a life that left less of a carbon footprint, a life without quite so many hours on the freeway. Maybe a life with only one car! Part of our vision was about leaving a sustainable and fertile world for our children and grandchildren. And I don’t just mean from an ecological perspective, but from a perspective of justice and equality for all.

When I was a brand new minister with a brand new baby, the other parents would commiserate with me- it’s hard to work for justice when you have children. It’s impossible to find time for your spiritual life when you are a parent they would say. The metaphor of the permaculture garden shows us that if those things seem too far out of reach, we need to move those things, those critical important things into zone one. If you can’t move your whole family nearer to your yoga studio, keep your yoga mat in the living room where you always see it. Build your altar next to your desk, keep your senator’s phone numbers on the desktop of your computer where they are so easy to find you can use them every day. Find a place at your daughter’s soccer practice where you can sit under a tree and meditate.

There is one more concept that gives help to those of us who feel there is no room in our lives for some of these critical important things, like spirituality, or relationships or justice. It is called “stacking.” “Nothing in nature has only one purpose- it’s furiously efficient this way” (Gaia's Garden p. 26) Remember Roxanne had planted fruit bearing shrubs that cut the wind. Those shrubs give her two gifts instead of only one. Her walnut and pomegranate trees provide not only food for her family, but have a critical function providing shade for the other plants, and their deep roots loosen the soil. Stacking is not the same as multitasking, it is about collaboration and synergy. I want to suggest that in our lives we don’t have to choose between time to leave a legacy and time to play with your kids, you can plant a tree together which does both, and one that bears fruit and it can be a tree that you can meditate under. That’s what nature would do.

The final thing we want to hold with this idea of building from the ground up has to do with relationships. Grass roots community organizing uses this idea. The basis of organizing is talking to people. Getting to know them. Getting to know what scares them, what they are worried about, whether it’s the health of our planet or the need for a stop sign near the school. Then when it’s time to act you can incorporate everyone’s worries and need into the plan, but you don’t’ stop there, you keep talking to one another, you keep building relationships you stay in touch. Have you ever planned a big party and sent out invitations and not as many people showed up as you had hoped for? When you build an event from the ground up, you start with the people. You start talking to them well in advance and making sure the date works for everyone, including them in the process and asking for their advice and input. By the night of the big party, or if we are talking about community organizing, by the night of the big Action, if you pretty much have spoken to everyone who you hoped would be involved, you will have a clear picture of who will be there.

Big culture changes in these past 2 centuries have happened because the people joined together to create a swell of momentum. Movements like civil rights and GLBT rights and women’s rights were built from the ground up. By the time legislation was passed in the Congress, those representatives and senators knew their constituents would stand behind them and back their decisions. We see this same premise in the Occupy movement. A group of ordinary citizens building consensus about what concerns them and what they are calling on our country to do. I’m not saying there aren’t leaders, that there isn’t organization, but the organization starts from the ground up. “Real change takes place from the bottom up, not form the top down." [Intro to Permaculture p. 5]

True abundance is not really about having what you want when and where you want it. True abundance is not about having it all right now. Sometimes the most effective thing to do is just to watch, and listen and wait. We gather information and make a plan. And in that plan we start with those critical things we can’t skip over if we want our plan, our vision to succeed. Whether we are planning for a garden, for a life of meaning, or a more just and sustainable world, we start by watching and noticing. Then we plant the trees- those long term slow growing pillars of our vision that will protect and nourish not only our own lives but those of our children and grandchildren. We take the time to consider what things we need close to hand, and which can be further away. And we take time to understand the needs and dreams of those around us as we build relationships and set down roots, these will give strength and cohesiveness to our shared and enduring vision as they are planted in the ground. True abundance is about stepping out on your patio in your bare feet and clipping fresh chives and cherry tomatoes fresh off the vine for your morning omelet. True abundance is having a beautiful library in walking distance from your home. True abundance is having a community of people working for a common vision.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Facing Death

I am 4 years old, laying in bed at night, afraid to go to sleep because the inevitability of my non-being has dawned on me. I am afraid to die.

I am 5 years old, lying in bed at night, remembering what we learned in school about volcanoes, about earthquakes. My mother tries to re-assure me: there are no volcanoes in Pennsylvania. I tell her I am afraid of earthquakes. She tells me earthquakes only happen in California. This doesn't help. I am afraid of dying.

I am 24 years old. I am in California, I moved here to attend seminary because I still don't understand how to live knowing that I will die. I had thought that maybe if I spent a few years studying the wisdom of the world religions I might finally understand this mystery; I might finally find some peace. The Bay Bridge has only recently been repaired from the Loma Prieta earthquake when the top level collapsed onto the bottom level, killing those trapped on the bridge at that unlucky moment. I white knuckle my way across the bridge at least once week. I am afraid of death.

I enroll in a Buddhism class without knowing what a good idea this is -- to start my inquiry with a tradition that looks directly in the face of death. I mean this figuratively, but also literally. Our teacher is a Theravadan monk, and our textbooks are not from American Buddhism, but Buddhism as it is practiced Malaysia. In that land when a person dies, the professor Bhanti explains, they are not buried under ground, but laid out to decompose. We read in our text Buddhist Meditation: In theory and practice about the Asubha Bhavana, a meditation on the ten stages of the decay of the body after death. The text explains in great detail the preparations leading up to the meditation, and the many things that should be noted during the meditation on a dead body decaying in the graveyard. I am shocked.

I don't, actually, meditate on a corpse, but I do imagine what it would be like not to jerk my eyes away when I see a squirrel lying on the ground. What if I could just breathe, in and out? What if I could cross the Bay Bridge, knowing that earthquakes do happen here, and that bridges do collapse, and I could just breathe. I encourage myself not to run away from the idea, I don't push it away but I allow it to be present, and then without grasping let it fade. I develop the habit of mind of looking at my fears as unflinchingly as I can. It makes me feel braver.

I take the required systematic theology class, and have the good fortune of studying with Bob Kimball, who is a very wise man and who exposed me to the writings of his teacher, the Theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich says that there is only really one source of anxiety, and that is the anxiety of non-being. “The ontological question, the question of being-itself, arises in something like a “metaphysical shock” – the shock of possible nonbeing.’ (Systematic Theology p. 163) I recognize that metaphysical shock from when I was a little girl with anxiety- induced insomnia. Tillich writes “Finitude in awareness is anxiety…” We attach that anxiety to real things, like earthquakes or volcanoes and they become fears, but really at the root is this anxiety of non-being. “A danger, a pain, an enemy, maybe feared, but fear can be conquered by action. Anxiety cannot, for no finite being can conquer its finitude. Anxiety is always present, although often it is latent” (p. 191) And finally I understand why as I tossed and turned grappling with my own non-being when I was just a little girl my mother couldn't comfort me.

And what is it that does assuage this anxiety? Courage, the “Courage to be." How do we find the courage to be, knowing that our lives are finite? Tillich uses an “ontological argument” which means that if we can conceive it, it must exist; Because we can imagine the courage, it already exists in us.

Tillich writes “In order to experience his finitude, man must look at himself from the point of view of a potential infinity. In order to be aware of moving toward death, man must look out over his finite being as a whole; he must in some way be beyond it.” Tillich’s language is difficult, and I slog through even the smallest reading assignments. But Prof. Kimball is patient, and passionate about the power of Tillich’s work, and I challenge him and challenge him across his desk during our seminar which gathers weekly in a small circle in his office. Some courage begins to grow in me.

I am researching a paper and I read these words by the psychologist Erich Fromm, and copy them into my journal: “The common suffering is… the awareness that life runs out of one’s hand like sand, and that one will die without having lived.” This is it; my greatest fear here in this book. Finally I understand what I have to do. I have to live. I have to live passionately, creatively, vibrantly right now, living a life so full that when it comes time to die it will have been enough.

This is the heart of what I want to talk to you about today. I believe that whenever we realize that we are mortal, whether it is because of something scary the doctor finds during routine tests, or just because the reality of our fragility comes fully to mind, it changes how we see our lives. It changes what seems important and what seems urgent.

So I want to invite you to join me in a moment of meditation. This meditation is by our dear Thich Nhat Hanh meditation from Blooming of the lotus
(Exercise 10 p. 50-51)

When we dare to become present with our own impermanence, what thoughts rise?

What things in your life surge to importance when you look at your life from that vantage point?

When you look back at your life today, as if there might be no tomorrow for you, what parts of your life are you most proud of? most grateful for?

The next is a more difficult question- when you look back at your life as if from the end, are there things you feel are missing from your life? Lost opportunities or dreams? Some of these lost dreams that come to mind we can only grieve: if we turned away from a path we regret never taking, if we wish we had spent more time with a loved one who is now deceased. It is healing to take time to grieve these losses, these parts of our life that never were. To grieve and let go of that which will not be, even if that takes time and patience, lightens us for whatever is ahead.

A great gift of facing the reality of our death is that we can make choices about the time that remains for us. If you learned today that your remaining life had a discreet number of days, what would you do?

Now I am Forty-something, and it has been many years since I laid awake at night anxious about my non-being. Every so often I still come face to face with my own mortality. More often I face the mortality of people I love dearly. I try to remain present with that awareness, to summon that existential courage.

Our state of mind when we face death is different than our ordinary state of mind. On a day when the normal priorities are paying bills and getting dinner on the table, mindfulness of death gives us a different perspective; it makes us think of life as a whole piece. It helps us clarify our values. Being present with our own mortality sometimes helps us let the dinner dishes sit if it means we can spend time with some we love. In this season when snow and ice interrupt our plans, remembering the impermanence of all things might help us cherish the fresh snowfall.

The realization of our own death comes to us as a wake-up call. Sometimes our fear tells us that we are afraid of dying un-reconciled, unfulfilled. When we face death we realize how lucky we are to still have time to reconcile, to connect, to fulfill our dreams. Sometimes it nudges us to be fully present to this very moment, even to our fears, because the more we are present the more we will know that we are really living. When we face death, this precious moment, fully lived, is enough. Death robs us of complacency, but shows us what it means to live.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Taking Root (October 2, 2011)

(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture. The 8 principles we are using come from Starhawk's "Principles of True Abundance")

It is easy for Unitarian Universalists to feel rootless. For so many centuries we have been out on the growing edge of religious, ethical, and philosophical thought. Folks hear that we are a non-creedal faith and say “UUs can believe anything they want” but for us it is not a creed that keeps us grounded, it is our principles and our roots. As one of my old professors at Seminary used to say about our movement “This wasn’t something that was born at an EST seminar in California in the 1970s.” No, we have deep roots, and as we learned in the story of the trees of Kenya, the deep roots of the trees protect the soil and the water, and keep it from blowing away in the wind and drying up in the sun. Without deep roots the land becomes a desert. This is the 3rd principle in our sermon series this year on the principles of permaculture, principles that will guide us toward a more sustainable and abundant culture for all beings on our planet. The principle is simply this: “Take Root” -- connect to our ancestors and to the local.

This principle is not only true for soil and trees and eco-systems, it is also true for our hearts and minds and spirits. For example when we proudly declare ourselves to be a welcoming congregation, welcoming to all people be they Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual or straight, that welcome has so much more strength when we realize it is rooted in our universalist theology- the idea that every single person has inherent worth and dignity, a 20th century idea rooted in our centuries old Universalist heritage which says that God is all loving, that god loves all people, that all people will be reunited with God and with one another at the end of days. All are chosen, all are saved. We draw not only on our contemporary principles and values when we protect the rights of our GLBT neighbors and friends, but I feel in me the fiery passion of our stump preaching ancestors, who called on the power of God’s all encompassing love and power to save. Like a tree drawing water and nutrients from its roots, I feel powerful and strong when I call on the wisdom of my ancestors.

The history of Unitarian Universalism is often told something like this: In the 1500s a Spanish physician named Michael Servetus, the same man who discovered respiration in the lungs, published a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity.” He believed that God was one, and that the bible did not say anything about a trinity. He was burned at the Stake by John Calvin in 1553 for refusing to retract this statement.

During this time, such ideas were traveling across Europe. Just a decade later in Transylvania [1568] a young king, John Sigismund was convinced to listen to great preachers of different sects of the Christian tradition before he name the state religion. A preacher named Frances David won the day with his ideas about how the trinity was not in the bible, and how “we need not think alike to love alike.” David advised King John that not only his Unitarian ideas but all Christian religious groups should be allowed to co-exist under an “edict of tolerance.” Now groups of Unitarians began to worship together for the first time under this name. Other strains of Unitarianism grew in Poland and in England.

But Unitarian ideas continued to be met with persecution. Joseph priestly, an English Scientist and Unitarian Minister fled to America after his laboratory was burned to the ground because of his ideas. [1791]

Many in America were responding to a powerful fundamentalist movement called “The Great Awakening.” This was revival movement that grew out of Calvinism. Opponents of this movement emphasized the importance of reason and logic, an approach to the bible that valued historical and critical thinking, and the importance of ethics. Unitarianism is one of the movements that grew out of this opposition.

But the Unitarian churches were still part of the state-sponsored church system. Universalism, which had its roots in similar ideas, believed in a separation of church and state, and were allied with radical fringe groups like the Quakers. Universalism grew up in opposition to Calvinism, which said that only a certain small group had been chosen by God at the beginning of time to go to heaven; The rest of us were going to hell.

Universalists thought that the damnation of most of humanity did not harmonize with the concept of an all powerful all loving God, and they centered their faith with the idea that all persons could be saved. It was in the second generation of American Universalists that this church was founded, that our lovely historic building was built in Sheshequin.

The Unitarian and Universalist movements grew alongside one another. Both were deeply impacted by the transcendentalist movement, which preferred the natural world over the biblical literalism on which even the old-school Unitarians built into their faith. Transcendentalists like Channing, Fuller and Emerson wanted to strip away the historic structures and teachings of the church and center their faith in the direct experience of God. The transcendentalists also introduced Eastern thought into our movement, widening the web of our roots beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This was also a great time for Social Justice as Unitarian and Universalist preachers and activists worked to end slavery, worked to give women the right to vote, and work in other areas which badly needed reform like the Prison and Mental Health systems. Pioneers like Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained into the ministry of an organized denomination in this country, paved the way for gender equality in our own Universalist Tradition.

In the 20th century, the humanist notion that one could be religious and ethical without God was a powerful one in our movement. 20th century Unitarians were atheists, agnostics and theists, humanists and Christians.

In 1961 the Unitarians and the Universalists merged into one association. Together we were allies and activists in the civil rights movement. The women’s movement lead us to re-consider how we thought about God, and searching for a concept of the divine that honored women, we encountered the ancient pagan ideas of God the mother, and were inspired by the ideas of the neo-pagan movement. We have been and still are leaders in the rights of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender persons. Today we provide a bridge between the secular and the sacred, among faiths and theologies.

But we have roots that go even deeper than that. I think of the church I used to serve in California. They had a beautiful Madrone branch as hung behind the pulpit for as long as anyone could remember. I thought about the symbolism of a branch without a trunk, without roots. I used to joke that maybe the place where that branch was cut from its tree is a symbol of the execution of Servetus -- Our break from the Catholic Church and our Protestant cousins. But it is shortsighted to consider a branch apart from the tree, and now I want to say something about the symbolic tree on which this branch grew.

Frances David and Michael Servetus were both raised Catholics, and were part of the protestant reformation that rocked the western world. The Church of England, the Calvinists, the Baptists and many other protestant movements blossomed and evolved within a generation of Martin Luther, the Augustinian Monk, nailing his 95 thesis to the church door in 1517. Luther had been upset about corruption in the Catholic Church, and had grown in his disputes with Catholic theology.

With the invention of the printing press in 1450, common people could now read and interpret the bible for themselves. The spread of the printed bible translated into the popular tongues created a grass-roots movement within the Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church had become the legal religion of Western Europe, tightly allied with political and financial power. Monastic movements, like those founded in the 12th century by St. Francis and in the 5th century by St. Benedict created an alternative to the wealth and corruption which infected the power structures of both church and kingdom. Men and Women religious took oaths of poverty and devoted their daily life to sharing work and to cultivating the spirit.

At the same time mystics like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen held at the center of their faith a direct experience of the divine (roots of the transcendentalists). Throughout Christian history there was a perennial tension between those keepers of the church traditions and institutions and those mystics and martyrs who held themselves accountable only to God, playing at the edges of heresy.

Arius, a parish priest at the turn of the 4th century, found himself on the heretical side of the Nicene Creed when in 325 the Council of Nicaea drew its theological line in the sand. Arius had taught that God created a Son who was the first creature, but who was not equal to God. According to Arius, Jesus was a supernatural creature not quite human and not quite divine. Some call Arius an early ancestor of Unitarianism.

Though there was as yet no council to declare him heretical, many controversies have followed the teachings of Origen of Alexandria, who lived a century before Arius. (185-232) He preached the eventual return of all souls to a perfection in proximity to God (an early ancestor, some say, of the Universalists).

Before Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and issued The "Edict of Milan" (CE 313), which ended the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, the early followers of Jesus were enemies of Rome, tortured and punished by death. Paul, who is credited with forming the early church, was imprisoned and writes about his imprisonment in the New Testament. Early Christianity was a religious movement which identified strongly with its crucified teacher. It was an egalitarian movement, a reform movement both within the Jewish tradition and within the Roman Empire.

Within the Roman Empire, the Jewish people had lived as a conquered or occupied people. Many spent their lives as slaves, taken in battle. Roman procurators kept the peace and collected taxes, pocketing additional money for themselves. Roman leaders swung between tolerance of Jewish religious practices and persecution. Like the early Christians, Jews were tortured or put to death when they refused to worship pagan gods, or to worship the emperor as a God. In 70 CE the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem was the sad outcome of the Great Jewish Revolt against the Empire.

This time moving backwards to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem under Babylonian rule was a time when the books we now think of as the Hebrew Bible were canonized and began to assume their present form. This was the time when classical Greek philosophy was thriving, and the Jews were known for the strong ethics of their legal code and tradition. The last books that made it into the canon were writings of the prophets like Ezekiel and Zacharia who spoke out against the injustices of the ruling class, and of their contemporary culture as a whole.

The chronicles of Jewish history that appear in the scriptures describe a struggle of kingdom against kingdom, of the rise and fall of powerful men. (This was a patriarchal time when women rarely had political power, and were not part of the Jewish Rabbinate.) The Indian Mahabharata tells similar story. The Hindu and Greek pantheons also reflect the role of war in Classical society. And so it was throughout the world, as the Chinese warred for dynastic control of China, and the Aztecs in this continent.

Writing was also a child of these civilizations, first in Sumer and later in Egypt peoples first wrote down their scared stories and texts. Classical religions such as Judaism brought sacred writing to the center of their religious identity.

But the earliest books of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures share oral roots with the stories of Islam. All 3 religions call themselves descendants of Abraham. The first five books of the bible, called the “Torah” collect stories of a very ancient oral tradition. 20th century feminist scholars have used the stories and descriptions of the life of women to help recreate a picture of what women’s lives might have been like. We notice the presence of deities like “the Queen of Heaven” in these biblical stories. Since women were not taught to read, and in many times and places worshiped separately from men, their stories and rituals would have been passed down orally and many were lost. Scholars like Marija Gimbutas have found evidence of a time before written history when women held power in politics and religion, when God was female.

Before the written record, before the lingering stories of ancient times, we have only the archeological record to help us understand what came before; the residual tools of a Neolithic village, the sediment of an evolving earth. Before people organized themselves and their farms around towns, were the Neolithic villages grown out of small settlements. Only about 1 million humans lived on earth. Archeological evidence of the first shrines and religious art shows us that religions focused on the cycle of life, the return of the sun after winter, harvest after planting. It was the role of early religions to pass on this cyclic wisdom, and to remind people of their place in the natural world. The Great mother deity gave birth to and cared for the universe.

These earliest peoples passed on to their offspring not only their genetic coding, but a cultural coding which preserved the learning of parent and grandparent for each evolving generation. Spoken language had made this possible in a new way.
As far back as our Neanderthal ancestors, ritual surrounded burial of the dead. Evidence of such a burial is found in an archeological site in Lebanon including a thoughtful arrangement of stones and a deer killed as food for the deceased. We identify with the drive of these early hominids to find meaning in the cycles of life and death, establishing traditions for integrating such experiences in their own lives and in the natural cycles of life.

Sometimes as a UU I feel like a newcomer in this valley, with all those new ideas our open minds have grasped. But we have roots here in this valley, going back over 200 years, before even the town of Sheshequin was incorporated in 1820. We have roots in this country going back to the American Revolution. We have roots back to the earliest leaders of the Christian Church – we were cutting edge thinkers (or heretics as Arius was called) back in the 3rd century. We have roots back to the ethical teachings of the Jewish traditions, and to the primal earth centered religions before history. We have roots that bind us to all beings who have ever wondered why we live and die.

Today, on Association Sunday, UUs from around the country gather to remember the web of roots that connects to one another. We honor our roots lest we become rootless and adrift, lest our UU tradition become cut off from the channels that bring us water and nutrients, lest our souls become deserts buffeted by the winds of change. When we take root we become strong, we become wise, and we remember that we are never alone.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Abundance Springs from Relationships (September 18, 2011)

(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture)

Every year since I was an intern I have adopted 3-5 goals about how I can serve my congregation and how I can grow as a minister. Well, the year my son was born I was just starting my second year as a full time minister, and I figured “Time management” was going to be an important growing edge for me. I signed myself up for one of those fancy workshops from the Franklin Covey people at a hotel in San Francisco. It was called “First Things First” and that was really the gist of what they had to say; Figure out what are the most important things, and put those into your schedule first, so no matter what happens that day you can say “well, at least I got the most important thing done.” Well, then we spent a good deal of time talking about what is important. And right at the heart of what is important is cultivating and tending relationships. Each week they suggest you make a list of 7 relationships in your life, and what you need to do to cultivate and tend those relationships. Can you imagine a time management seminar telling you that sometimes it is more important to meet with a co-worker or go to your daughter’s little league game than to finish a report?

I think we at UUCAS understand in a real way the importance of relationships. It’s one of the best qualities of this community; we make building and nurturing our relationships to one another a priority. For example, we take time at the beginning of most of our committee meetings, whether as part of the formal agenda or as just something that happens informally before we begin, to “check in” with folks whom we know have been going through something rough, maybe because they mentioned it during Joys and Concerns. When take part in a program like Evensong it is because we want to take the time to get to know one another in a deep way, and to speak from the heart about what is really important to us.

But sometimes we forget the value and power of relationship when we get down to the work itself. We often say things like “it would be easier and simpler if I just did this myself” Easier than making those phone calls to see who else might want to get involved, easier than training someone to do something we already know how to do. I was meeting with a planning team from the Labor and Religion Coalition up in Ithaca recently. We talked about how we needed to grow our core working group, and get different faith traditions involved in this interfaith effort. We talked about events, and press releases, and articles for the web page in order to spread the word. Then I remembered the story of how I came to be part of that group. I was new in Ithaca, and did not yet have a job or friends or a permanent place to live. After a morning of sending out résumés, I started to search the web for “community organizing Ithaca After some dead ends I found a number to call, and reached a lovely woman named Edie who, it turns out, also happened to be UU. We talked for maybe half an hour on the phone, she asked me all kinds of good questions about myself, and told me about what her group was working on. When she invited me to their next meeting, I jumped at the chance. Now it was July, so as often happens at July meetings, only the 2 staff people and I had come to the meeting. We didn’t have a quorum to do business, so they gave me advice on where to look for Job postings in Ithaca, and got me caught up on their work as a committee. After hearing me talk about my passion for the environment, Edie told me she had a project she was working on doing interfaith organizing around global warming, and I jumped at the chance. To this day I am involved in both of those groups, and all because Edie took the time to build a relationship with me. Her kindness grew in two ways; she made a newcomer feel welcome, and because she took the time to get to know me, she understood what I had to give, what I WANTED to give to my new community.

Permaculture is like that. Take Chickens, for example. In the factory farm model, a chicken contributes eggs or meat. But a chicken is more than an egg laying machine. Chickens also like to scratch and peck. If you let them run around in an area you are cultivating, they will with their scratching and pecking clear the ground of weeds and pests for you just because it is in the nature of a chicken to do that. They will also, how shall we say this, turn their food into nutrient material to build up the soil. But if they are in a cage, they are frustrated and irritable that they can’t walk around and scratch, and now you have to clean up their poop. Conversely, if you allow the full complexity of the relationship between a chicken and her environment, there are myriad benefits for the farmer and for the farm. What else does a chicken do naturally? They eat bugs! And kitchen scraps! They are like a walking fast acting compost bin these guys. It turns out that if you put your green house on the south wall of your chicken coop, the body heat of the chickens helps keep the green house warm over night, and in the early morning when the greenhouse is gathering sun, it helps warm the chicken coop. Moreover, the carbon dioxide exhaled by the chickens as a delight to the plants in the green house. It seems like it would be simpler, easier, to put the chickens off by themselves somewhere and just bring them food and take away their waste, but the chickens are actually more productive, more helpful with the health of our whole garden if we give them the opportunity to be in relationship with our garden, with our orchard, with our greenhouse.

And there is one more thing that is important about these chickens. They are living beings. Permaculture has at its heart a life ethic. According to which recognizes “the intrinsic worth of every living thing.” Does that sound familiar? Look at the back of our order of service- the inherent worth and dignity of every living person. Permaculture takes this one step further, and extends it to every living thing. So a chicken doesn’t have to be productive to be valuable. It has some inherent worth just because it is a living being Says Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture “A tree is something of value in itself, even if it has no commercial value for us. That it is alive and functioning is what is important. It is doing its part in nature; recycling biomass, providing oxygen and carbon dioxide for the region, sheltering small animals, building soils, and so on.” I know that’s a pretty radical thing to say, that even though on the open market a farmer can sell that chicken for $.89 per pound it actually has more intrinsic worth than an iPod, even tough the iPod can be sold for more on e-bay.

Now think about the value of relationships in times of trouble. Remember everything we heard this morning and last Sunday in Joys and Concerns. Last Saturday when I came down with that gas pump to pump out the basement, after JC and Joan had gotten the generator going and hooked up work lights so we could see in the basement, they had taken the gas pump to help a neighbor pump out their home. There was a while when it was just me and Alexa and Morgan in the basement. Let me tell you I’d take Alexa and Morgan for my team any day of the week, but it was clear after a while running up and down those steps that this job was too big for us. And in come Carol and John. Boy was I glad to see them. And we worked for a while, but still it felt like a big job. The pulling into the parking lot come Doug and Susan with a carload of cleaning supplies. Now there’s a team shop-vacing and mopping the basement floor, a team running stuff up the stairs, a team cleaning and sanitizing and sorting the stuff that comes out of the basement, and a team out helping the neighbors. And just when we were feeling overwhelmed again,here come Jack and Diane. Katie and Aurelio and Chris call, they are at the airport and on their way. And it feels like we can do this. Eventually folks did getting tired, and we started to close up shop for the night, because we know when we come back on Sunday, there is a web of relationships that will carry us through this. And then.

And then folks are talking on Sunday morning, wondering “what more can we do for our neighbors” and suddenly there church is providing lunch and a place of respite for the whole neighborhood all this week. Diane will be the first to tell you that every step of the way there have been folks bringing donations, helping get the word out, making sandwiches. In a moment of scarcity-- no power, no clean water, for a while there no vehicles allowed into the area at all -- we are overwhelmed by the abundance springing from relationships.

Think about this like a garden. For example, over at West Haven Farm where I work, their onion bed is filled with flowers. Why flowers? Because they attract beneficial insects which protect the onions from pests. Marigolds help control eelworms that eat our tomatoes, and the chemicals they release into the soil deter weeds like bindweed (Permaculture in a Nutshell p. 24). A plant called Comfrey has also long been used as an herbal medicine for bone fractures. But it serves not only the health of the people who plant it but the garden as a whole, because Comfrey draws nutrients form the soil like potassium and when Comfrey returns to the garden as compost, or is left there to rot as mulch, it brings potassium to the other plants that need it. Moreover, when we mix flowers into our vegetable gardens, they look lovely. Maybe fewer people would hide their vegetable gardens behind their house if they were full of vibrant flowers. Maybe if our gardens were right between us and our driveway, we’d be more likely to notice the ripe zucchini on the way to the car, instead of noticing too late a fruit that has gone past its prime because we only trudge back to our vegetable gardens on Saturday. A row of onions alone is vulnerable to pests, and requires a lot of human intervention. But Permaculture suggests that when plants grow in balanced community, they support one another in subtle and complicated ways.

Think about all we experienced this past week. If Diane had shown up here all by herself with a pot of soup, would the same magic have been possible? If Joan had shown up here with her generator and shop lights and faced that basement alone, how quickly would she have become discouraged?

Now I know that relationships are anything but easy and simple. Were you ever introduced to someone whom you were going to “just love” because you were so much alike? It doesn’t always work out the way you want it to does it. I have more than once planted a flower that was supposed to repel snails only to see it eaten down to the ground within days. Relationships take work and patience and commitment. But this moment, right here, right now, is the best example I have ever known of a time when there is real scarcity and profound abundance. We only have to walk down Main Street to see that loss is real, that people have gone without power, without their own home, without a kitchen to cook in. Last week we saw bulldozers scooping out of the mud so many of their material possessions we spend a lifetime of work accumulating. It is becoming clear that some of these homes and businesses are never going to be what they were. And yet there is a hope in the air unpredicted by the destruction we see around us. Real abundance, the abundance of a community reaching out hearts and hands to one another, caring connections old and new are a lasting abundance that persists even when the flood waters have receded. True abundance springs from relationships.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Back to the Garden (September 11, 2011)

When I was a teen-ager, my favorite thing in all the world was to hide out in my bedroom listening to albums on my turntable. Not so much of the rock and roll, but musical comedy and opera. One of my favorites was an opera by Leonard Bernstein called “Candide” based on the famous French novel by Voltaire. It’s the most cynical depiction of human nature that you can imagine in musical comedy form, yet at the end the ensemble unites in one of the most stirring moments from my massive record collection, singing
Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can't be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...
And make our garden grow.

I hadn’t thought about that song in maybe 20 years, but this week the tune started to come back to me. I’ve always been a dreamer and an idealist, and by the time I went off to seminary and grappled with the big questions of life, I decided that the best single statement of truth was best found in the Beatles' song “All you need is love.” Being a dreamer and an idealist, so have often been disappointed in my life by the way things turn out. I experienced betrayal and loss as all people do, and the oppression of un-just systems. I realized that while this was Love is a good guiding principle in general, it must be grounded in the reality of our daily lives. When dreams are grounded in, well, solid ground, change happens.

This year the worship team has chosen to explore in a series of sermons the principles of permaculture. I’ll let the other members of the team speak for themselves about what this means to them, but to me this is the most hopeful vision I have to offer you- the fairest trees, the sweetest fruits are grown in solid ground. I think permaculture speaks to a deep and primal dream- the return to the fair garden where things grow in harmony.

The story of Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures was written probably 5 or 600 years BC, but I was taught that these stories were from an oral tradition that had been passed on through story telling long before that. UUs tend to look at this story not as a historical fact, but as an archetypal story that has spoken to many peoples over thousands of years, and to me, today, it speaks of an ecological system in harmony, where all the beings in the system, including humans, have enough to eat, and can co-exist in peaceful cooperation with one another. Oh, and it’s not too much work, things just kind of grow and are fruitful and self regenerating.

In our Unitarian Universalist history we have often worked to create a more just and compassionate world. In our old statement of belief the (The Washington Declaration of 1935) “we avow our faith in … the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” I’ve always had trouble with that phrase, but back in seminary a friend of mine said she preferred the “kin-dom of God” because it expressed a more egalitarian sense of our vision, of what we were working to accomplish with our lives as individuals as a church community, and as a movement. I think of the Kingdom of God in our Universalist statement of belief not as a heaven with pearly streets, nor as a time in the future when life will be perfect, but as a vision of what could be that guides us in the right direction, that gives us something to work toward. I think we still need that hopeful vision today. A guiding vision of what this world would look like if it were imbued with fairness and balance. Instead of a kingdom, I propose a garden.

To describe this garden I’m imagining, I need to talk first about systems. A System is a “set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole. ” Like the human body, or a society, or a garden. This is a way of looking at the world developed by a German Biologist in the mid-twentieth century who was trying to address the fragmented way science looks at things, dividing them neatly between specialties. He was trying to integrate all the scientific disciples, both natural (like biology and physics) and social (like psychology and sociology). It turns out that there are a number of things that all systems have in common, enough to really change how we look at the world. Because this disciple was seeking for the ways different systems are a like, it has raised some wonderful new questions like “how is a farm like a forest” and “how is a church community like a living being.”

This year as we look at principles of permaculture, we are not just looking at tips for gardeners, we are laying out a holistic map of principles or paths that will tend to get us closer to integrated healthy productive systems in balance, back to the garden. I propose that the Eden of our imaginations is actually a vision of a system in balance. As integral parts of many systems ourselves, we are hardwired to long for homeostasis, to long for a system in balance. Because by any account we are out of balance. And the culture we are living in is not sustainable- we all know this not only because we watch the news but because as living beings we know what balance looks like, we know what sustainability looks like, and this isn’t it.

In this very discouraging time, Permaculture offers a source of hope. The permaculture movement was begun in the early 1970s by two Australians: David Holmgren and Bill Mollison They were disturbed one the issues we have been talking about here in this congregation for the past few years; the way contemporary agriculture is practiced is not sustainable- it uses up top soil and fossil fuels with no thought for the future. Permaculture comes from the words “permanent” and “agriculture” Holmgren wrtires that “The idea which initiated permaculture was the forest as a model for agriculture”, since forests are self-sustaining systems teeming with life.

But Mollison and Holmgren they started to work with these ideas, they realized that the problem was bigger than agriculture, for example even the oil industry agrees that we are due to see an irreversible decline world oil production in the next couple of decades. So they enlarged the scope of their vision to be “Permanent Culture” Permaculture. Sustainable culture. A system where what is coming in is in balance with what is going out. This holistic way of looking at problems and solutions has at its core 3 values: Care for the Earth, (the soil, forests and water) Care for People (our selves, kin and community) , and Fair Share (setting limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistributing the surplus). Because we are part of something larger than ourselves, part of a living system, and therefore it is foolish to think that we ourselves could be self sustaining if we as a global economy are running out of topsoil and fossil fuel.

In this pursuit of a balanced sustainable system, the garden itself will be our teacher. Nature has tremendous wisdom about creating balanced sustainable systems or we ourselves would not be here on this planet. And nature generally tends towards that balance, but nature takes thousands or millions of years sometimes to achieve that balance, and while I have no doubt that my backyard garden will come into ecological harmony if left to its own devices for a decade or two, we are builders and creators. It says in the genesis story that we were put in the garden “to till and to keep it.” That’s who we are, it’s in our nature. This summer I spent as much time as possible in Lake Cayuga. And on the shore there was always a child or two moving around piles of earth and stones. Is there anyone else here who’s ever built something on the beach? It’s almost instinctual for us I think. And anyone who has ever built a sand castle remembers the first time that big wave comes and washes it all away. Oh the humanity! So the next time we build our sand castle maybe we build it further inland, or maybe we build channels for the water to flow so that our castle now has a moat for the tide to flow into instead of just knocking down our castle right away. Or maybe we build a bigger higher castle, with big rocks cause darn it that ocean is not going to stop me building my castle where I want to build it. Permaculture is a school of study that says “you know what? You are never going to stop the tide from coming in, build your sand castle accordingly.”

Our next step when we are building the sand castle is to look around the shoreline to see what nature has done over the past thousand years or so about this whole problem of building near a body of water. WE use nature’s wisdom as a model. This is called “bio-mimicry” It is the hopeful idea that solutions for many of our challenges are already out there in the world. We don’t have to invent a better pesticide- that’s what bats are for. We create solutions that work with nature like a partner, a teacher, a collaborator instead of as a foe to be vanquished and overcome. When we work against nature, we waste time and money. My favorite example, and one I fall into myself, is how every fall we rake up leaves, bagging them up and hauling them off to the dump, then purchasing fertilizer or compost or mulch to replenish our gardens. Permaculture notices that in a forest, no one hauls out the leaves, and no one has to haul in fertilizer. It proposes that if we look to the forest as a teacher we see that perhaps we are wasting not only our time and energy, but the fuel to power the trucks and the financial and environmental costs of hauling it away, the financial and environmental costs fertilizing. Nature has been working on this problem for millions of years- the answer is to use waste as food. The leaves don’t need to be outputs that leave our garden, they can be used right where they fall, or moved to a part of our garden that needs that can use those dead leafs for nourishment.

The most important aspect of permaculture is that we have to look at the garden, the system as a whole- as an interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. If we don’t take the time to time to think of the whole community, the whole ecosystem, the whole culture, then we are like a kid playing whack-a-mole, plug a hole here and the problem pops up someplace else.

Last spring I went to the Rowe Retreat center for the first time to attend a weekend long workshop by my favorite Witch and activist Starhawk. Her topic was “Principles of true abundance.” These can be scary times we are living in; when we lose a job or find our retirement savings plummeting in value with the stock market it is hard to see our world as abundant. It is easy for us to tie abundance to money, and feel insecure and powerless. But true abundance comes from a system in balance, when inputs balance outputs. Remember Ben Franklin said “a penny saved is a penny earned?” Well many are starting to realize that a penny saved is better than a penny earned, because you didn’t have to exert that energy earning it in the first place.

It turns out that her principles of abundance were also the principles of permaculture, counseling us to look in new places for abundance, like our relationships, like the web of life of which we are a part, like the trash heap, like our ancestors, or our diversity. In this time of imbalance and scarcity, we need to know where abundance truly lies. So this year our worship team will be exploring 8 principles of abundance, principles of a sustainable and balanced culture. What makes these permaculture principles relevant for us as a faith community is that they are rooted not only in the pagan tradition, of which Starhawk is a leader, but also in the humanist tradition which honors science, reason and the direct observation of truth in the world, and it also links to this ancient Judeo-Christian tradition of a garden where the fruit trees grow, where all live in balance and harmony.

As Unitarian Universalists, we already are committed to affirm and promote a respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I think we need to take that one step further- we need to be committed to bring the web back into balance, a sustainable balance for the natural and human worlds alike (knowing how intimately those worlds, those systems are interdependent), and as Universalists who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I think we can commit to sharing fairly among all those with whom we share this earth. Way back in 1887 Unitarian minister William Channing Gannett declared: "We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all.”

This is a hopeful vision: a world in balance, a garden where the leaves that fall from a tree become food for new growth, where apples from the tree feed the gardeners and the canopy of the tree provides shelter from sun and wind for creatures and people alike. This vision will be our guiding star, and though we may never reach it except in part, it will lead us in a worthy direction. As our map to lead us there we will use these principles, and I challenge each of us to apply the principles not as a set of directions but as is uniquely appropriate in our own daily lives, in our own corner of the earth. I challenge each of us to think of ourselves not as isolated individuals, but as part of something larger than ourselves, part of countless interlocking systems. I challenge each of us to notice what works and what doesn’t work as we move through this year, and so to add to the wisdom of our tradition. Because a vision is only useful, in direct relationship to what grows from the springs from the ground to which we ourselves are connected. A vision is only powerful if it makes our garden grow.