Friday, March 30, 2012

That Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder (March 25, 2012)

Because I am a Universalist, I believe that everyone has the capacity for a spiritual life, that everyone is on a spiritual journey. In fact, because I am a Universalist, I believe there is no part of our lives that happens outside of our spiritual journey -- it is the nature of life. So I preach about washing the dishes, because this is part of our spiritual journey. I preach about social justice, because this is one of the main spiritual practices of Unitarian Universalism. But sometimes there comes a longing to know spirit in its distilled form. The name our tradition gives to this is: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life”

This Unitarian Universalist faith tradition holds, as the very first source of our living tradition, our own direct experience. We believe a person does not need a religious authority to mediate their relationship with the divine. We believe, with the humanist Curtis Reese “that every age must achieve its own faith.” The Muslim tradition holds that Mohamad was the last of the prophets and in Judaism it is said to be Malachai. Both traditions hold that with these prophets there is a seal on revelation. But traditionally Unitarian Universalists don’t believe this. We believe that revelation is ongoing, we, like the younger siblings in a large family, don’t want to settle for a “hand-me-down” revelation. We want to be pioneers and explorers ourselves. We, with the Psalmist, want to “Taste and see” (Psalm 34:8)

But part of the reason we talk about washing the dishes and working for justice as a way of seeking the spiritual life instead of climbing to the proverbial mountain top is that not everyone feels called to climb that mountain. Some folks pursue wisdom and insight from the stories and writings of the great prophets and teachers, others by doing good work in the world. Right at this moment, that’s all I want. A quiet moment of reflection now and again, a thought provoking story, and good work to do. But when I was in seminary I wanted to taste for myself. I felt a deep seated desire to know more. Last week I talked about how those early humanists did not deny the existence of God, but “were in a distinctly anti-metaphysical mood” Well, this is the exact opposite impulse. For me the hunger that drove me to seek direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder was a hunger to know God.

I had spent already a couple of years in graduate school trying to know God through the intellectual search, reading and studying theology and all the other things folks need to know for the ministry. I had spent some time trying (and mostly seemed like failing) to learn to meditate. But at some point I wanted more than to write and think about the divine, I wanted to know for myself. When I was studying in Berkeley, there was then as there are now a group of teachers who lead “Satsang” which means “being in the presence of truth.” One of those teachers talked about this hunger, this craving to experience spiritual truth, and she said that this hunger is the prerequisite for this kind of seeking. Without this hunger, one cannot experience the truth.

I went to see one of my professors- Prof. Yielbanzie Charles Johnson, one of the only professors who talked explicitly about the life of the spirit. He had said often enough in class “If you want to have spirit in your life, you need to invite spirit into your life.” Even so, I felt a little crazy asking him my questions- both about how to invite spirit into my life, and how to grounds that search to keep from drifting away into the ether. Most of the esoteric spiritual practices come from outside our UU tradition, but Yielbanzie reminded me that being deeply present with the natural world is one path that has been part of our UU tradition for generations. Immersing oneself in nature, listening and emptying and being filled in a forest or in a desert like the girl in this morning’s story. Yielbanzie advised “ask earnestly, pay attention.”

All of the major religions traditions have these seekers of direct experience, they are called mystics. (Our UU mystics are the transcendentalists.) If you read some of the poetry or writings of mystics from very different traditions you will notice tremendous similarities in what they describe. Many traditions suggest that one needs a teacher of some kind, a guide. Many recommend a community of learners. Because if you go on this journey you are specifically seeking something beyond your understanding, you are seeking something powerful. It is good to have people to talk with and keep you company on the way, to keep you on the right path.

Most traditions suggest that the first step is living an ethical life. For example in the 8 limbed path of yoga, the first limb is “Yama” which means ethical living. If you are going on a journey up the spiritual mountain, you don’t want to be carrying a lot of baggage. If you are stealing from your boss and cheating on your wife, this is the very first thing that is going to jump out at you on your journey – the demons of not being right with yourself and your community.

It is also recommended that one have some kind of spiritual practice, or discipline. When I was at the University of Creation Spirituality on my sabbatical, we would have a seminar each morning, then for 3 hours each afternoon we would have “art as meditation.” During one of our intensives I studied chanting and meditation with Russill Paul who called this practice the “technology of ecstasy.” Because this is not a new search, folks have been on this path for as long as there have been people. There are helpful guideposts and teachings passed down to us for generations. One could spend one’s whole life following these different practices and noticing different energetic sensations and trance states not usually found in the ordinary experience. But as the Buddha and so many spiritual teachers have pointed out, there are a number of traps and detours on the way to pure experience. For example, I practice Hatha yoga. This is only one part of the 8-limbed path. It would be easy to get trapped in trying to do poses perfectly, or in accomplishing that cool pose on the cover of Yoga Journal, but the actual goal of yoga is “Samadhi” or union with the divine. Any path you take has the risk of sidetracking you from your real journey. I heard a student of meditation explain how after practicing for years he finally reached a state of pure bliss. He rushed to his teacher to share the good news and the teacher gives them a good whack on the head, because bliss is not the goal- pure awareness is the goal.

For myself, I spent a number of years devoted to this search. I didn’t have children to care for, and my work was preparing for and then beginning to serve the UU ministry, so such a search fit very well with the other factors in my life. I am so blessed to have had that time, a time I think of as my climb up that proverbial mountain. Yielbanzie had suggested that I “look for that thing that may not appear to be obvious… your help may come from where you least expect it.” I took his advice seriously. Instead of looking for confirmation of what I already thought I knew, I changed my focus to those things which surprised me, and realized I was thrilled to know there was still something in the nature of our experience that could surprise me. One fellow traveler said “whenever things get really weird or confusing or difficult, you know that you are really in it- you are right there in the mystery.”

I began a habit of listening to everything as if it was that help coming from some place I wouldn’t expect it. And I kept up my practices- I was at this time keeping a journal of my journey, I was keeping a dream journal and participating in a regular dream group, and I was studying Kundalini yoga, which included some very interesting and exciting things and also sometimes just the mind-numbing process of focusing your attention on a single point until you wanted to climb out of your skin. I never did get to the top of the mountain, but just high enough up to get above the tree line where the air is clear, and where you have a clear view of everything around you. I came away with a feeling that we were all part of something so much bigger than ourselves, that we were held in love. I finally had answers to some of the questions I had been asking my whole life, and also just became comfortable just being in the presence of mystery.

Theology, which had seemed so complicated in my systematc theology text books, started to seem simpler and simpler, and eventually it occurred to me that there is no you and I, there is no other to search for because all are one. How far I had to travel to come home to this very Universalist truth. But, as Gangaji says “to hear it, even to understand it, to memorize it, to hope it’s true is not enough. It has to be discovered Directly.”

When Yielbanzie preached at my ordination, he preached about getting lost, because I had taken so fully to heart this idea that if I wanted to find truth I had to follow the spirit even if it lead to strange places. And in particular because when the seminary class went to do our final ritual at a nature preserve, and the whole class followed the sign that said “I took the path less traveled by” I assumed that meant I should take the other path, and went tromping deep into the brush by myself. On that very real journey, as on my spiritual journey I eventually realized that if I was ever going to rejoin the community of persons, I was at some point just going to have to turn around and head back-- that eventually I had to go back down the mountain. Some folks are called to be holy men or women living on the side of the mountain, making camp in the desert, but it became clear to me that I had to ground my spiritual life in the daily fabric of living. The 15th century Sufi poet Kabir writes “Be strong then, and enter into your own body; there you have a solid place for your feet. Think about it carefully! Don’t go off somewhere else!”

Ultimately our knowing, our search for the divine must be grounded in our body- in our very particular time and space. So my husband and I bought a house, we had a son, and I got a full time job, and I committed myself to building a just world. For me such mundane acts as working in the garden, helping my son with homework, cooking – these are right at the heart of spiritual living. Even though I am no longer blinded with the brightness of the spirit within them, I know from my time on an explicitly spiritual journey, from the insights I gained during that part of my life, I know that these things are infused with spirit. I would go so far as to say they are brimming with God. Whereas before I started an intentionally spiritual journey these things may have seemed boring or beside the point, today they seem infused with meaning and purpose. Even on those days where I feel stressed out or uninspired, that knowing lingers. The simplicity of the vision that grew for me on my journey supports me on my path even in the ordinary time when I can’t even see the mountain from under the grove of trees I call my life.

While I was at Satsang one evening, back in Berkeley so long ago, a middle aged man mentioned that when he was young he had had experiences of being overwhelmed with the presence of God, with the spirit in his life. He had lived in that feeling for a while, but then it had receded and he, all these years later, missed it very much. The teacher said that this was not uncommon to have an intensity of experience as we first come to know God, but that later in a mature part of the journey, we don’t need to be hit over the head, we can listen for the divine in more quiet everyday places.

This brings me to the two main points I want to leave you with this morning. First, because I am a universalist and I believe that everyone has access to that transcending mystery and wonder, I believe that one does not have to follow complicated or esoteric teachings to reach truth. The simple breathing meditation is both appropriate for beginners and a practice that leads to enlightenment. One of the central teachings of Gangaji is that we can, in any moment, cut through our normal way of thinking and get to the truth of things. It is fine to follow the esoteric teachings, the scenic route through the realms of spirit, but there is always a direct path, a simple path, because there are no elect, no chosen who have the special skills to achieve union with the divine. WE are all on the path, but not all of us choose to climb this particular part of the mountain. I believe that those who hunger can find the spirit, as Lalla (a 14th century North Indian Mystic) says:
No ritual,
No religion,
Is needed.

Just cry out one
Unobstructed cry.”

Second, the heart is the best door to this journey. When I was studying Kundalini yoga, we spent time each class meditating on our heart center --literally on this area in our chest, which is also the location of the heart chakra. We would practice centering our attention there and cultivating a certain kind of feeling, or energy. I’m making both a metaphysical and a humanist point here; the heart is the node of the energetic system where the spiritual and the physical meet. But more importantly, it is the seat of compassion. No matter what kind of journey you are no, no matter where you are your journey, always start with your heart, always ground yourself in compassion. Compassion for yourself, and compassion for all living beings. This is why in a beginning meditation class, one will practice observing the breath, and loving-kindness meditation. Truly this is all one needs for the journey. Paying attention, and compassion. Says the great Christian Mystic Teresa of Avila, “if you are not certain about your relationship with God, stop worrying about it, focus on loving your neighbor, and the God-question will take care of itself.”

Everyone is on a spiritual journey all the time. We cannot escape it. The monk on his meditation cushion, the mystic in her cell, the householder at the sink filled with soapy water. Because God, the spirit, the meaning of life, are fully present in the faces of our neighbors, in the quiet of the forest. They are as close as our own breath moving in and out. But if a hunger comes for more, for knowing more closely, for a direct experience of that transcendent mystery and wonder, treasure that hunger, nurture that hunger, and see what new place it might lead.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Three Gifts of Humanism (March 18, 2012)

Earlier this winter we were gathered for a class about early Unitarianism and Universalism, reading excerpts from the sermons of our earliest fore-parents who were explicitly Christian and believed in the authority of scripture and the saving power of Jesus, someone asked “so how did we get from there to where we are today?” This is the story of one huge turning point in our movement, the bend around which we turn to find a clear view of the Unitarian Universalism of today. This is the story of the dawn of modern humanism.

It begins with a minister born right here in Pennsylvania, in Chambersberg to be exact. A John Dietrich who grew up and started his career as a minister of the Reformed church, but was tried by his church for heresy and defrocked. And so he did what so many good heretics have done, he converted to Unitarianism and moved to the west coast where he began his career as a Unitarian Minister in Spokane Washington in 1911.

It begins with a Baptist preacher called Curtis Reese who, while he was in seminary found that the new theories of biblical criticism undermined his fundamentalist upbringing, his belief that the bible was the literal unerring truth. He too converted to Unitarianism in 1913 and worked for a more “democratic” religion as opposed to what he thought of as the “autocratic” Christianity.
It begins with Charles Potter, another Baptist preacher, whose colleagues questioned the theology in his preaching. He preached a sermon for the AUA national secretary Lewis Wilson about Jesus, and after hearing the sermon Wislon “Declared him a Unitarian.” Potter also converted to Unitarianism in 1914 and was called to us first Unitarian church in Edmonton Canada, where he was introduced to the ideas of Dietrich, and realized that he was not alone in his crazy ideas. Potter was called on as a witness for the defense in the famous “Scopes” trials.

One of the things you will notice about all these folks, aside from the fact that they were “come-outers” that is to say, folks that left another religion to become Unitarians, is that they all served Unitarianism in the west. Whereas on the East Coast many Unitarians had grown up in the faith which embraced the older UU theologies and practices, Western Unitarianism (which included the mid-west) was a hotbed of new thought populated mostly by other “come-outers.”

This is the first gift of Humanism. “Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.” In this time of great scientific advance, people wanted a faith that harmonized with the teachings of science, and demanded a higher burden of proof for their belifs. In the words of Reese, folks “who are afraid to face the facts about their own beliefs lest they lose their faith altogether…such people are building their faith upon the sand” (Reese in Robinson p. 150) At a time when the shape of modern life was crumbling some old beliefs, humanism emerged as a strong place to stand, a faith based on the hard physical laws of reality, rather than the metaphysical beliefs which required a leap of faith. we see in the First tenant FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. And SECOND: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process. These humanists refused to profess anything that they couldn’t’ stand firmly on. As AUA President Frederick May Eliot (president from 1937-1958) remarked of the humanist “He may not believe very much as measured by orthodox standards, but what he does believe he believes with his whole mind” (Frederick May Eliot in Robinson p. 148).

The existence of God is not denied by these earliest humanists- this is a common misunderstanding by folks who use the words “humanist” and “atheist” interchangeably. Instead these humanist tenants show us a faith where religion had a “natural character” as

As Curtis Reese wrote in his “The Content of Present Day Religious Liberalism” “This is not the denial of the existence of significant and objective worths, but only the removal of the sat of authority from an indefinite something somewhere, to a definite self known to be native ot human existence.” (in Parke p. 135)

The debate that arose between the (mostly) west coast humanists and the (mostly) east coast opposition. The Humanist theist debate raged throughout the 1920s and 1930s and nearly split the denomination apart. One of the leading proponents of Unitarian Christian Theism was William L. Sullivan who was raised Roman Catholic and was ordained as a catholic priest in 1899 Roman Catholic Priest). It was a 1907 encyclical of Pope Puis X condemning modernism that caused Sullivan to leave the church, feeling like he couldn’t stay and feel honest. Despite his love for his church, he entered the Unitarian Ministry in 1912. He preached here on the east coast, in New York City and in Germantown Pennsylvania, and was an influential defenders of theism in 1920s. When Reese spoke of theism as “a monarchic view of religion that placed God in the role of master and humans in the role of slaves” Sullivan responded with a character of Reese’s God as “The Big Democrat whom we are to clap upon the back with an equalitarian ‘Howdy do, Camarado!”

When these early pioneers of humanism were going to seminary and starting out in their careers, Raymond Bragg was just a small boy, growing up in a Congregationalist family- Congregationalism is one of our closest religions neighbors- in fact we have often teamed up with them on things like women’s suffrage and abolition. While he was at college he was exposed to Unitarianism, and after graduating applied to Meadville theological school for seminary- one of the 2 Unitarian Universalist seminaries still training our ministers today.

It was Bragg whose name is headed up the effort to create the first Humanist Manifesto. He commissioned Roy Wood Sellars (another Unitarian who was a professor and prolific writer of philosophy) to make the original draft. Bragg and committee of other Humanists, revised and expanded the document. 34 humanists co-signed it, all men (it is assumed that no women were invited to sign) and of those 15 were Unitarian. The document had only 1 universalist signer- Clinton Lee Scott (who wrote our opening words and our closing words for worship today) . The Manifesto was published in the New Humanist, of which Bragg was then an editor.

The manifesto laid out clearly the substance of what I offer you today as the second gift of Humanism- the idea that human life, far from being sinful and something to be denied in favor of a glorious afterlife, human life is of deep value. The Seventh tenet of the manifesto reads “Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation--all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.” This idea that the sacred and the secular were not distinct was not a new idea. We remember this idea from the transcendentalists who believed that God could be found in nature. In fact many of the transcendentalist ideas opened the way for humanism in the following generations. The eight tenant holds that “Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man's life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.” As Curtis Reese wrote in an address he gave at Harvard divinity in 1920 “He is not willing to accept the promise of a distant estate of doubtful character and location in lieu of concrete worths and measurable values here and now. He believes that whatever the future may hold for him it must be the outcome of his own spiritual achievements.” (in Parke p. 134) No longer is our goal to earn an eternal reward, but to fulfill our human personality- and it is not just the fulfillment of a few intellectuals or historic figures the humanists are pointing to – but each and every human on the planet. "Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life."

This is part of what makes humanism an essentially optimistic way of looking at the world. They put their faith in a belief that at the core human nature is good and worthy of being “of supreme worth” (Reese in Robinson p. 146), a belief in progress both of the individual spirit and of society. But this was also the source of the primary critique of humanism as well. Folks who looked at the atrocities humans have committed in our world, or folks who had experienced great tragedy in their own lives felt that this faith in humankind was not enough to, as it were, get them through the dark night.

Well, you can see why if the development of every human personality is the sole purpose of the human enterprise, you can see why a commitment to social justice would be so important. How could we stand by and see our brothers and sisters degraded, starving, or sitting behind a machine in a factory making $9 for 56 hour weeks as was the custom in industry at the time. (more on that when I speak on worker’s rights next month) How could one develop the human personality in such circumstances? Says the manifesto: “Humanism will… endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few” If we believe in progress of the self and of society we must role up our sleeves.

So the third gift of humanism is its commitment to social action and the betterment of all. In this first manifesto we see a shining vision of what life should be for us all: “ The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate [does this sound familiar? Still resonates with our political landscape today, doesn’t it] and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.” Wow. I want to live in that world. I want to work for that world. Moreover, this work we do for the betterment of society helps us to develop ourselves, the great end of human life. This work for social justice is the spiritual practice of the humanist. The NINTH tenant of the manifesto reads: “In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.”

The name of this document is “A Humanist Manifesto” not “The Humanist Manifesto” and indeed two more manifestos followed, one in 1973 and one in 2003. The 1973 manifesto explicitly acknowledges that: “Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic. Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable. Other totalitarian regimes have suppressed human rights without ending poverty. Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good. Recent decades have shown that inhuman wars can be made in the name of peace.” But if you take a look even at the 2003 manifesto you see that the core tenants are still the same – a religion based in science and in the physical, natural world, an elevation of the role of humanity to provide their own meaning and fulfill their own lives, and a knowing that we are all in this together, and that it is up to us to improve society for everyone.

It was just about 100 years ago that the first Humanist sermons were given in our Unitarian pulpits. Humanism changed our Unitarian and Universalist traditions forever, describing a bend in the road of modern thought. Today in this room we are humanist and Christian, Jewish and Pagan, but these humanist gifts are a legacy for all of us.

David B. Parke, ed. The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion. Skinner House Books, 1985.

David Robinson. The Unitarians and the Universalists . Greenwood Press, 1985.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

At the Edges of the Garden (March 4, 2012)

(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")

Growing up in Pennsylvania, there were many things that amazed me when we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, but nothing more than the coast where the Pacific Ocean meets the land. Now as you might imagine, growing up outside Philadelphia I had been to the jersey shore on occasion, but the Pacific coast is different. Instead of these long stretches of beach where hundreds of families put up their beach umbrellas, the Pacific is edged with rocky cliffs, and the distance from water to cliff is often quite short. Those cliffs provide a more fruitful home for vegetation and wildlife than a wide expanse of sand. The most amazing thing of all was tide pools. I didn’t think I would see a real tide pool in my lifetime; I thought that was something only National Geographic photographers got to see. But within an hour or two from my house there were several different state parks where at low tide you could see these tiny eco-systems inhabited by hermit crabs, snails, lipids, muscles, even occasionally a starfish and most amazing of all, anemone- those colorful ocean flowers. Each of these little tide pools is its own world – sometimes only a couple of feet in diameter. I read in a children’s book in the state park gift shop that if you were to pick up, say, a lipid from one tide pool and put it down in another it might not survive. These amazing little critters can only live on the edge where the land and sea meet. You could see how tide pools only a few inches deep was a great habitat for a hermit crab, but only in tide pools a foot or deeper would you find a starfish. Each anemone needed it’s own piece of edge to call home, preferably in the shade, and would only open when covered by the tide.

It turns out that the edge between water and land creates the most productive eco-systems on earth [Permaculture in a nutshell p. 48) for example, plants growing immediately adjacent to rivers and streams (they call this riparian vegetation] has greater diversity and grows more densely than just a few yards further away fro the waterway. I learned a new word- “ecotone” which is an overlapping edge between two bioregions, where there is greater diversity than one bioregion could produce on its own – the mixture not only of each of the two bioregions but also those special species that can only survive in such transitional space. For example, David Holmgren, one of the originators of Permaculture, reports that in his native Australia you normally see only 2 different species of eucalyptus trees in any given area, but in the Towamba Valley where 2 bioregions overlap, he counted 13 different species [p. 225 Permaculture Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability]

But our industrial culture doesn’t value edges. We try to reduce the number of edges, for example, by creating huge multi-acre farms, or by building houses in big residential developments. Consider those suburban areas where there are literally no mixed used areas, where you must drive past a mile or more of residential housing to get to stores or libraries, or to anything besides just residential housing. This is what we are used to- it feels efficient, and tidy and safe to us. It’s easy to see the benefits – if you are a farmer with a huge field of corn you can set a giant agricultural machine to go back and forth in neat horizontal passes. If you are a developer, you can buy a big tract of land, maybe an old farm, and just fill the whole thing in with houses without having to worry about all the complexities of city planning. Permaculture, which is a theory of agricultural and cultural design focused on sustainability, shows us actually the farms I pass on my way to work with a patch of farm next to a stand of trees may have environmental benefits. The edges of farms have great habitat for birds who provide pest control, the edges are allow for cross-pollination and hybridization that might provide needed diversity in times of drought or other farm disasters.

But many of us actually moved to the suburbs because we wanted to be on that edge between the farm or the wilderness and the city. Many of us would love to live around the corner from a state park or pedestrian business center, yet we build to minimize edge. In permaculture we are advised to actually try to create more edges. Now I learned the hard way in my 5th grade math class that a square or rectangle is not the way to make the most edges. A big block of housing or a large rectangular field has the least edge possible. IN my 5th grade math class I was stuck for weeks on the assignment to “Draw they shape with the greatest perimeter (that is to say, the most edges) with an area of 25.” I sat with my graph paper day after day drawing different shapes until finally the teacher took pity on me. It turns out that the shape with the greatest perimeter is a shape like a set of stairs- those open construction where you can walk underneath. Making nooks and crannies creates the most perimeter, the most edge. Think about the clean lines of the beaches in Atlantic City, and the many nooks and crannies of the tide pools on the pacific coast. The more edge, the more robust diversity of life. So the most diverse, productive farm or garden is going to be a patchwork of plants and trees and ponds and hedges.

Let’s move outside the garden into the community of persons. We can all probably call to mind a housing development or area that is single use only. They tend to be pretty quiet, and there is a singleness of purpose. I went walking near a friend’s home recently and we saw maybe one person who wasn’t in a car. Unless you are or out for a jog or a kid biking over to your friend’s house, there is no reason to go outside your house in such a neighborhood except to get into your car. But in what we call “mixed use” zoning, we might find retail stores and businesses mixed in with homes and you will find a greater bustle of activity. I moved from a neighborhood in California that was designed as a bedroom community. It was dense tracts of houses bordered by huge multi-lane roads to help people on their commutes to workplaces sometimes an hour away. Today I live in a neighborhood where people can live, and work and play and shop. It is a diverse and productive neighborhood which maximizes its edges much like the community of plants and animals we find alongside a pond or creek.

At the other edge of things, a lot of folks live out her in Bradford county because they want to be on the edge of agriculture and wilderness. I know a number of folks in this congregation have land where they raise their own food or animals, and other folks who live where they live because they can walk out their back door and right into a hike on uncultivated lands. Life is drawn to the edges.

I remember learning in high school about several different philosophical movements of western history. They always seemed start with the merchants- as the merchants opened up new trade roots or port cities, cultures from new places would meet and interact, ideas were exchanged and cross-pollination happened. It always seemed to happen the same way -- that these great intellectual and cultural growth spurts happened at the edges and overlaps of cultural eco-systems. And when I got to the San Francisco I realized that this was exactly what was happening there. At the edge of the pacific people from all over the world, but especially from the U.S., Latin America and Asia met and created amazing leaps in spirituality and theology and technology. I think it is no coincidence that West coast spirituality is considered so “far out” -- because it is born in a unique place where eastern and western theology meet and live together. I think it is no coincidence that there have been such massive technological advances in what we might call a cultural “ecotone” or that California has an the 9th largest economy in the world – it may be in part because of this tremendous cross-fertilization. Just as Holmgren found 13 species of Eucalyptus in costal eco-tone areas, there was tremendous cultural and racial and religious diversity in the valley where I used to live. My son went to a preschool in Cupertino, the town where Apple computers was born, and he was one of only 2 children in his preschool class who only spoke English. I think maybe 5 or 6 different countries of origin were represented just in his 3-year-old class.

In our political discourse right now, when we talk about “borders” the political rhetoric is all about defending them- defending them from the very diversity that makes borders valuable. We as a nation are saying that having 13 species of eucalyptus tree in the border where eco-systems meet is scary, that we feel more comfortable with the 2 species of tree we are used to.

Our US borders used to be mostly open. Until the 1790s any free white person became a citizen after 2 years. The Page Act of 1875 (Sect. 141, 18 Stat. 477, 1873-March 1875) was the first law to really single out immigrants to exclude, and particularly focused on women from China. We were eager to have immigrants from China to bring desperately needed income and labor into California, but most analysts say that we as a country excluded Chinese women, and in fact women from all over Asia, from immigrating because of, well racism – we were afraid that Chinese families would put down roots and bring the very cultural diversity that has over the centuries been so enriching to our nation. Then in 1882 the Chinese exclusion act singled out immigrants from china who had provided so much of the labor for mining during the goldrush, and for building our railroads – this act said that Chinese Immigrants could never become citizens, and if they left the country for any reason they could never return. It was not repealed until 1943!

Then in the 1920s that we began instituting the quota system based on country. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, "In all its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” Though the diversity in our country has grown, the obstacles faced by recent immigrants to our country today are exponentially more difficult than those faced by immigrants when my grandfather and my husbands father and grandfather were entering this country.

Diversity is not an unequivocally better- there are strong, stable forests that have a simple mix of species, and there are certainly strong stable communities of humans that are homogeneous. And I think I understand why, when it comes to communities of humans, we are scared of margins and edges, why we are scared of the diversity it brings. Because diversity does change a local culture. When biology or culture mixes and mingles, it creates hybridization, which creates “new local cultures of place” (Holmgren p. 219)

Think about how when someone new joins our church, it changes us. When we add a new kind of plant to our garden it changes the garden. Holmgren writes “The change and transformation of the culture mainstream is an implicit part of multiculturalism” (p. 220) And all those immigrants who have come to America over the past 400 years have made our country into what it is today. What would the America we know and love be like without our Irish heritage? Our German culture? Italian? Chinese? African? Mexican? We could not be the country we are without any of these folks. Yet back in the early days of our country Ben Franklin remarked “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” We are stunned now by Franklin’s racism against Germans, yet it is so strangely familiar that we might not be surprised to hear it on the television today. The principles of permaculture ask us to look at the margins, to look at diversity in a different way.

When we look to the garden we see that diversity creates stability. I’ve spoken often enough from the pulpit about the vulnerability of farming with a mono-culture of crops, and how poly-culture protects against disease and pests, but let’s think about, for example, a diversity of ages. Have you ever noticed how teenagers sleep late into the morning, whereas toddlers wake at the crack of dawn? There is some research now that it is beneficial to a community for different generations to have different sleep patterns, so that someone is always awake to mind the store. Or I think of an example from a campus ministry near a church I served. When I arrived at the church I inquired at the local college about the campus ministry there. They said they had had a good group but then the leaders had all graduated. The very next year a new group of leaders matriculated, and we worked to connect them to the local congregation where folks could give them rides to church, and where our ministry team could reach out to the new leaders and support them through transitions. The campus ministry became more stable as it became more diverse with regards to age.

Another benefit of diversity, whether we are talking about diversity of biology or of ideas, is that diversity provides new solutions to problems. I’ve seen independent bands who couldn’t afford mainstream gear create sounds using anything they could use their hands on- music boxes, drums, tanks (that’s where the steel drums come from - Caribbean musicians transforming old biscuit tins or paint pans or steel oil drums into an amazing new form of instrument ) If you have infinite financial resources there is always a solution for a price, but musicians at the margins must bring creativity to their sound. Or consider the GLBT pioneers whose growth at the edges of our culture just a generation ago have changed the way we see the world. They have made this a much safer time and a place for GLBTQ folks, and just as important, their pioneering presence creates space for all of us to more freely express gender and sexuality, it creates a more diverse numbers of models and ways for us to express ourselves. Says Holmgren, “Diversity provides alternative pathways for essential ecosystem functions in the face of changing conditions.” (P. 205)

It is the edges that provide habitat for diversity, not the great rolling fields of corn and soy, but the old English gardens divided by hedgerows, gardens with a diversity of fruits and vegetables edged by woods and residential areas, a patchwork of diversity that maximizes the edge, much as I learned in my 5th grade math class. Great diversity can be supported as we increase the edge, giving a niche, a tide pool, a “local culture of place” While the dominant culture steers us toward what Holmgren calls the “Global culture of no-place “ (p. 220) in which all local languages and cultures are inevitably lost in the “melting pot,” it is up to us in the local communities where we are rooted to value and enjoy the benefits of a diverse ecology of flora and fauna, of cultures and ages. Communities with diversity have more resources and flexibility as things change.

This principle- of valuing diversity and honoring the edges, is not one which matches cleanly with one of our UU principles and purposes. And yet it seems to me an important part of who we are and how our tradition has always grown. As a people of open minds, UUs have often been at the growing edge with our ideas and have often helped bring them into the mainstream. But we also see in our history for our institutions to codify those now mainstream ideas, and to forget that the edge itself is valuable, that It produces ever more novelty and diversity and growth. Our religious tradition is not just about those ideas and principles we learned at the margins, but is also a process of remembering to turn to the edges for solutions and creativity, instead of mowing them down to create uniformity.

True abundance can be found by honoring the edges, both of our gardens, of our waterways, and of our communities. True abundance is found when we value diversity; when we think of ourselves as one living organism we don’t need to fear the competition or change diversity brings, but be grateful for the both the stability and flexibility it adds to our community, to our ecology. Consider the abundance of the thousands of unique people in our little valley, the hundreds of thousands of unique species all over the world. If that’s not abundance, I don’t know what is. Whether we are in our gardens, in beloved community, or considering national immigration policy, let us remember always to honor the edges, to see what wisdom may be found there.