Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Emptying (December 15, 2013)

I was at a committee meeting here at the church just this week, and each person, during the check-in, mentioned how busy they were; they felt scattered, overwhelmed by all that was on their plates. It’s not an unusual thing to hear at check-in, especially not during this time of year. Many of us have holiday traditions that require preparation, on top of the usual business of repairing the furnace, putting snow tires on the car, doctor’s visits, meeting deadlines at work, or volunteer projects we give our time to. If you are in school there are probably some kind of end-of-semester projects or tests.

On top of these very real demands on our time, there are the ones that come at us through the media. The whole world seems to have a lot of things I need to do right away, most of them at the mall. Economists and reporters call this “The holiday shopping season” because it accounts for between 20 percent and 40 percent of typical retailers' total annual sales.[i] This time of year I get a staggering number of e-mails from retailers insisting that I “Shop now and save” alerting me to “One day only special offers” to “get them now before they are gone. My inbox is also full of e-mail from non-profits who are needing end-of-year donations or end of congressional season action, whose subject lines all end with exclamation points.

Let’s interrupt that. This season, this “dark of winter” is a time of emptying and letting go. The trees have dropped their leaves, and now we have a wide open view of the sky. In the Christian tradition Advent is a time of emptiness, a time of waiting. A time of “emptying ourselves of ourselves” [ii] A time to remember that there is a value not only in the many things we choose to do each day, and the many things we never get around to and possibly feel guilt or regret that we just couldn’t cram them into our already full lives, but there is also value in empty spaces and places. As the Buddhist saying goes “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

 Some of you were part of our fall adult RE offering “Spirit of Life” in which we provided a period of time for each person to share, and if they didn’t to use all their time, we would just sit in silence until the bell rang. The first session it was really weird. We kind of looked at each other, or at the floor, not sure what to do-- not sure how to be in those empty gaps. But over the 5 weeks we met together, we grew comfortable with those silences. We noticed how special it was to share silent times with one another, and then to share from that deep place of contemplation.

When I attended the first intensive retreat at the Linwood Center [this is part of the training to become a spiritual director in which I am enrolled for this next year] they told us that our training was to be contemplative in focus- that contemplation “is rediscovering your true self, your real identity, which has been buried and forgotten in the depths of our unconscious. Contemplation “ moves us out of a personal point of view, away from ego through the True Self.” But a Contemplative way of being in the world is different than the usual way of things in our culture. As a culture we believe very strongly that work, productivity, profit are the measures of our worth as persons. So contemplation is, therefor, countercultural. In our very first session our teacher Don talked about the barriers that come between us and contemplation. I want to lift four of those up for us today:

1) “Doing over being- This is want we were talking about before. Our culture is centered around “productivity, achievement, honor and success. Being for itself has diminished in value. Busyness leaves no gaps.”

2) “Noise- There is a constant background of noise so silence is more and more foreign, strange and disturbing”

3) “Technological imperialism- Technology has quickened our expectations creating an inability to wait” we have come to “seek immediate gratification.”

4) “Excessive restlessness-“ it is like there is a “hungry wolf inside who” consumes “whatever space exists.” We are uncomfortable with gaps and in-between spaces, so the restless wolf gobbles them up.

I recognized myself in this list. 

So the whole retreat was set up with these principles in mind. We ate breakfast in silence each morning. There was a kind of quiet that permeated the place. The schedule, though our seminar times overflowed with useful information and discussion about the practicalities of spiritual direction, had surprisingly large gaps in it. Breaks between sessions or activities would often be an hour or two long. Gaps were left in worship, in lecture, just moments of silence where we would just… wait, for whatever might come.

By the second day, what had seemed to be awkwardly long pauses now seemed very full to me, very important and precious. By the fifth day I felt a clarity about what I wanted and needed for my life, but also an open-ness to whatever might come. I felt both full and empty, still and peaceful, and with a renewed energy for life. All that business, all that chatter of the mind, tends to keep us from reaching the depth of things. When we are too full of doing it ruffles the surface of the water, and it makes it hard to see down into the depths. It keeps us from noticing our true nature, it keeps us from what we really need. This kind of emptying the mind and heart that we practiced at Linwood allowed the wisdom of that “still small voice” to emerge, a voice too quiet to be heard above the daily bustle. 

By emptying we also make space for the “other,” the unexpected. I remember one afternoon many years ago I was headed down to the marina to enjoy an afternoon off. I had intentionally kept this time unscheduled- leaving space for whatever might arise. As I neared the marina, I saw a car stopped in the middle of the street. The driver had jumped out to help a small dog who had wandered into the middle of this busy 4 lane road. I pulled over to see if my help was needed. In fact, this fellow was late for whatever was next in his day, and was very grateful when I offered to take the dog in my own car, my afternoon suddenly given an unexpected purpose. 

Emptying also allows us to learn and change and grow. Like the scholar in our story this morning, if our cup is too full, there is no room for any new ideas about the universe to enter in. Each of us has learned many things on our journey thus far, whether from academic journals or in the laboratory of life. Paradoxically, the more experience and knowledge we have amassed, the easier it is to forget that there are infinitely complex variables at work in the world. That each person is radically different, that each moment is fresh and new. In reaching for what we expect, we often forget to make room for all that is unexpected, all that is undiscovered. Sometimes someone dear to me will say “You’re not listening to me!” and I will realize that I am making assumptions about that they are saying, where they are coming from. (Has this ever happened to you? That you feel like no matter what you say, the person you are talking to has already heard what they want to hear, and you are talking to a brick wall?) If I can remember to empty my cup, to stop and say – “okay, try again. I’m really listening this time” I empty my cup of some of my preconceptions and try to hear something new, a deeper communication, a deeper relationship is possible. To truly be in conversation, we have to empty ourselves first, so there is room to hear something new.

A few years back I had the great gift of hearing author Thomas Moore speak at a minister’s convocation. He spoke about the “emptiness parables” in the Gospel of Thomas like [97] in which:

“Jesus says: "The Kingdom of the Father is like a woman who takes a vessel of flour and sets out on a long road. The handle of the vessel broke: the flour spilled out on the road behind her without her knowing it and stopping it. When she arrived at the house she put the vessel down and found it was empty." [iii]
He said the Gospel of Thomas is full of such parables about emptiness, and how at this time in his life, emptying was his core practice because “what you don’t know leads you to God.” What did he mean by that? Well, partly what we’ve been saying, that we can’t hear the deepest wisest parts of ourselves when our lives and minds are too cluttered. He also meant that we can’t really listen for something other than our own selves if we don’t make room first. And in his view, God is by definition “other” than us. When we are seeking for God, we are seeking for something that satisfies, that soothes, that endures beyond our experience of daily-ness, otherwise we would not be seeking. Whether we believe in a Transcendent God, or are instead seeking our truest deepest Self, he and many other wise religious scholars and practitioners advise us to begin our search at the edge of what we don’t know. Once we have decided we Know the Truth, we have constructed a false idol, because God, the Self, the universe is an ever changing, living, growing process. Once we pin it down, we have lost something crucial. Moore said that Zen, the emptying process of Zen Buddhism , is about not making an idol of anything. 

Then he said “life will empty you out all the time” through losing a job, through divorce and that “that emptiness really creates soul.”

Wow. That was not what I was thinking of as emptying. But he is saying that when we get into our familiar grooves, our habits of mind, we begin to feel comfortable that our teacup full. We think we know all we need to know to make sense of the universe. We see what we expect to see. It is sometimes through loss, through these often painful losses, when our cup spills, cracks, that we realize how much we don’t know. Now there is room for something new to enter in. Sometimes even a painful loss opens our eyes to some important new truth.

As we wait in this darkest time of year, let us allow something deeper, something more important than “the holiday shopping season.” Let us be grateful for the gaps and in-between times instead of rushing to fill them up. Let this be a time of emptying our hearts and minds -- a time of listening. May we find here a return to our deepest, truest self. And always the possibility that something new may enter in.


[i] 10 Surprising Stats About the 2013 Holiday Shopping Season by Selena Maranjian Dec 13th 2013 5:00AM

[ii] “Prepare the Way for the Lord: Why We Celebrate Advent” By Deacon Keith Fournier 12/2/2013


Friday, November 22, 2013

Language of Reverence: Queer (November 17, 2013)

Story for All Ages

I think most of you probably know a story about a family of ducks, where all of the children were yellow and fluffy, except one which was sort of a subdued earth tone with a long skinny neck. He was not very attractive by duck standards, so they called him … yell it out if you know?

Well, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if those ducks had gone to the kind of church where the children’s teacher might have heard the mean things they were saying to that different looking duck, and said:

“you don’t have to be yellow to be beautiful,
a long skinny neck is just as beautiful as a short thick one.

But more importantly, Dave, the one you call the ugly duckling, is caring, and funny, and helps take care of the lake he lives in. His outsides don’t really tell you much about who he is.”

And even though all of you are yellow and fluffy,
that doesn’t mean you are all the same inside.

Why don’t we each share something that makes us different and special.”

And maybe then the ducks would have understood
how important it is that each person is unique,

The moral of my story was best said by one of my professors, Elis Farajaje-Jones "None of us is just like everybody else. We don’t have to be like everybody else to be guaranteed the right to safe and whole existences. We want to create a world where everyone is able to discover and define and live by who they are, who they are becoming, with the option to change several times throughout the course of their lives. "

Maybe a decade ago I used the word “Queer” in a public meeting to describe myself. One of the members of my congregation came to me afterwards and admonished me “NEVER use the word queer about yourself- you don’t have to put yourself down like that.”

Her comment shocked me into remembering that for many people “Queer” is a sticky word. But for me it is just right. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I have always felt that both the words “gay” and “straight” didn’t fit right; either word felt a little dishonest. I’m also not crazy about the word “bisexual” – not only does it sound kind of clinical, but it doesn’t sound like you can be monogamous when you’ve got the prefix for “2” right in the word there.

When one of my seminary professors, who name was then Elias Farajaje-Jones, delivered the Sophia Fahs Lecture in 2000 (the lecture is named after the famous UU religious educator) I had just made the choice to enter into the Ministry of Religious education, which many people perceive as kind of a marginal sort of ministry that involves mostly cutting out construction paper shapes and lining up magic markers. When Elias delivered his lecture “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching the R(evolutionary S9ub)V(ersions)! Or Relax!... It’s Just Religious Ed” it was like some walls I had in my mind came crumbling down. I suddenly knew that I was a queer person doing a queer ministry. I knew that the ministry of Religious Education is not tame and marginal to our movement, but radical, revolutionary and at the core of religious formation as Unitarian Universalists.

So what do I mean by “Queer” in this expanded context? First, queer means “non-normative.” We have been raised to believe that some things are “normal” and other things are “not normal.” We get the message every day that being straight is normal, being white is normal, being able-bodied is normal, being middle-class is normal. (Or if you watch a lot of tv it starts to seem like being rich is normal). Living in this valley we start to get the impression that being Christian is normal, being politically conservative is normal. When I use the word “queer” I mean anything that defies those norms.

When the Gay and Lesbian rights movement started here in the US, those brave activists were fighting to add “Gay” to the possible categories that a person could be. So we had “Gay” and “straight” – expanding the number of norms to 2. It’s even in our Hymnal [sing] “we are Gay and Straight together” Then the Bisexual folks came along and said “Actually…” Our thinking has evolved as we realized that not only is straight not “normal” but there is no “normal” way to be gay. Being a person who identifies as bisexual, I don’t want my own third box, I want to queer all those norms. I want to have room to be whoever it is I really am. Dr. Farajaje said that day: “Heterosexual identity exists only by virtue of defining itself as the norm over against queer deviation. But if there really is no norm, then there aren’t really any deviations. We’re all then just a big mix of possibilities of desire just waiting to happen!” [p. 29]

I am reminded of a song by that great singer-songwriter Ani Difranco:
when I was four years old
they tried to test my I.Q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
they said,
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong
We were all taught at a young age to assume that if there is 3 of one thing it is “normal” and whatever is different “does not belong”. What I am trying to suggest that not only can the pear take pride in being “queer” but that oranges are not normative.

My fruit analogy is breaking down quickly, so let’s look at Race for example. Scientists tell us that race is not biological, but an intellectual construct. In American we often talk about race by dividing it into two neat categories “White” and “People of Color” even though we know that, for example, Irish immigrants used to be considered non-white and are now considered white. We know that President Obama is of mixed race, he is often referred to as the first Black president. What if we changed the way we thought about race to acknowledge that there is no such thing as “racial purity” -that we are all racially queer? It was only in the year 2000 that the US Census allowed people to check more than one box under “race”, that people didn’t have to choose one part of themselves and discard the rest.

Moreover, Dr. Farajaje is proposing, with many others in cultural theory, that gender, sexuality, race, class, whether we are temporarily able bodied, “These things are inseparable for us; we cannot and will not pull these apart without doing irreparable violence to our very bodies, souls, and minds.” [p. 26] He calls this “Intersexionality.” All the parts of who we are intersect. In our adult RE class last spring I invited all the participants to write down 5 identity words for themselves. People wrote things like “White, gay, mother, UU, able-bodied, male” Many of us struggled with the exercise- how do you know which 5 to pick? No matter what words you pick you are leaving out part of yourself.

Each of those words describes a whole multiplicity of ways of being. For example, how many of you self-identify as “white”? Now look around at all the different ways there are of being “white” --what Dr. Farajaje might call “multiplicities of whiteness”. Or let’s take another one- If you are willing to out yourself as identifying “temporarily able-bodied” please raise your hand. Look how many different bodies this describes! There are multiplicities of being temporarily able-bodied.

By looking at the world, at one another, in this complex, intersexional, holistic way, I propose that we are doing something radical. We are interrupting that conversation about “which one is different and does not belong” We are interrupting norms, we are breaking walls and boxes. Scholars in the field of cultural studies love to use words like “interrupting” or “interrogating” which to me is describes the moment in the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls the curtain back and we see the “wise and powerful Oz” as he really is- an ordinary man from Kansas who got lost. These boxes, these walls, these definitions of who we are and what is normal are not divinely given, which becomes clear as we pull back the curtain to see how they work and where they come from. This we can call “Queering” the conversation, because we are creating that space not defined by walls and boxes.

This is a dangerous act. Today we honored transgender people who have been victims of violence. Gender theorists believe this violence arises because our culture finds it so threatening that anyone lives outside the two-box gender system- male and female. We also honored those who took their own lives because it was too painful not to be able to fit easily into the two boxes our society defines… to painful to live in a culture which asks “Which one is different and does not belong.” I call us to interrupt this conversation, to “queer” this conversation by saying “everyone is different, and everyone belongs!”

That is why Queering the conversation is also healing. Back when I was doing the internship every UU minister has to do in a hospital, I worked in the outpatient Cancer center. A kind, wise, circumspect woman I had the privilege of talking with told me: “my doctors don’t treat me, they treat people like me, that is --people with cancer.” It is hard to heal when people don’t see you, they just see a box. When her treatment wasn’t working like it should, when she had unusual side effects, or when she wanted treatment alternatives, she was constantly banging up against the walls of that box “Cancer patient.” I suspect every one of us has some part of our self that does not fit neatly into boxes-- some part of ourselves that does not look like the images we see on TV or in the movies. This leads us to feel “broken” or “incomplete” or “damaged” or “abnormal.” By radically acknowledging all that we are, we become whole just as we are. By radically affirming that each and every one of us belongs, our communities are made whole.

For me, reframing myself from “not-really straight and not-really gay” to someone who was perfectly and completely queer filled me with a sense of pride and belonging. To hear that my non-normative call to the Ministry of Religious Education was still at the heart of ministry, to hear that I was not giving up my radical, questioning revolutionary self to in taking on “religious Educator” as part of my identity was so healing and affirming. This reframing helped me realize that I didn’t have to throw away the box called “religious Educator” to enter a box called “parish minister” when I came to this congregation, because religious education is not just something that happens upstairs with children, if we let it out of its box, it is happening right here, right now.

When I was in the process of applying to seminary, I sent away for the catalogs for the 3 uu seminaries. I looked over the high gloss brochure from Harvard and noticed that there was a page about their “women’s studies” department. I read the brochure from Starr King and I noticed that women and queer people didn’t have their own department, they were right there in the body of the catalog. As Dr. Farajaje, who joined the Starr King faculty when I was in my last year at the school, writes about his approach to teaching “Each class that I teach, whether it be liberating the Bible for UUs , African Religious in Diaspora, or the Divine Feminine in Russian Orthodox religious thought is taught in a way that calls us to continually and simultaneously consider issues of race, class, gender, embodiment, environmental issues, cultural representations, sexualities etc. These are not treated as peripheral considerations.”

We often wonder “what is UU?” Members of every congregation I’ve ever served have come to me and said “Can I really be UU because I am … in the armed forces, republican, Christian, a person of color, transgender, Jewish, pagan, atheist, undecided?” “Do I fit in this UU Box?”

This, I believe, is part of our calling as Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century. Let this church be a place where you don’t have to leave your sexual orientation at the door, you don’t have to leave your financial situation at home, you don’t have to leave your body at home. Theology, spirituality is not something that hovers above the body, but I believe it is deeply embedded, imminent in everything that we are. We are all part of one interdependent web of life. From the very first days of Universalism we were rejecting the two-box system (the elect and the rest of us who were damned) We reject the two box system of heaven and hell. We reject the two box system of God and the Devil. Back in 1805, the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou suggested:
Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on Atonement p. 81-82)
We believe in a God who can hold all our queerness, all our multiplicities.

Our Unitarian Tradition has always been one that looks behind the curtain, to see who is defining the parameters, who is making the boxes into which we are asked to fit. Our Unitarian Tradition challenges us to open our minds beyond the conventional ways of looking at things. Our Universalist Tradition challenges us to open our hearts to hold every being in the oneness of the divine.

This is why I propose to your with great pride, that ours is a queer theology. Or perhaps that in this ambitious tradition we stand in, we are “queering” theology. We are “queering” church. We have talked about many words over this past year that constitute for us a “Language of Reverence.” I humbly suggest that we add “queer” to this list, because it honors something special about the radically inclusive place we strive to occupy among religious communities, and because it honors the wholeness of each and every one of us; all that we are, and all that we bring.

Gun Violence: A Dialogue (November 3, 2013)

Note- This sermon was part of a dialogue. A member of the congregation spoke first about the right to bare arms, then I spoke, then he spoke about the responsability for safety, then I spoke again. I will try to encourage him to consolidate his remarks in writing so they can be included here.

First Reflection

I remember walking home from the bus stop with one of the older girls from my elementary school. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but I remember her asking:

“Would you kill someone if you had a gun, and they had a gun, and you knew if you didn’t kill them they would kill you?”

“No” I said.

She pushed again- disbelieving: “But they will kill you if you don’t shoot them.” As a kid prone to night terrors, I could easily picture the scary man with the gun.

“No” I said “I would never kill anyone for any reason.” It’s surprising to me today that I came to have such strong pacifist convictions at such an early age.

Later, in I was in high school, I remember learning about the Vietnam war from my freshman history teacher who was a veteran of that war. When he taught us about conscientious objectors, I knew that was who I aspired to be (a moot point since there was no draft, and women were not allowed in combat back then anyway.) This right seemed so precious to me- the right to be a pacifist, to refrain from bearing arms.

When I was in seminary, I heard that story about the general and the zen master. This seemed to me to be the pinnacle of Buddhist practice- to face peacefully whatever life presented to you, even if it be a violent threat against your life.

So the position I take about the proliferation of guns in America will not surprise you. I read the Literature review by the Harvard school of Public Health, and see that in study after study there is a direct relationship between the availability of guns and homicide. Across geographic area, across age, across economic class, the more guns that are available the more people die by gun violence. We choose not to have a gun in our home, and I prefer to live in a community where there are limits on access to guns.

When I was young I looked at that famous photo of pacifists putting daisies in the gun barrels of the national guard, and wanted to believe that “love is all you need.” I still believe that sometimes such a tactic does work to de-escalate a violent situation. But I also believe the presence of those guns in such situations were part of what escalated a moment at Kent State University from one of civil unrest into the violent death of 5 unarmed students shot and killed, and 9 others wounded, one of them paralyzed forever. Thinking about Kent State now with 4 decades of hindsight, it is clear that love is not all you need. Today I want us to think carefully about bringing guns into volatile situations because they seem to be too easily used.

I believe that pacifists have an important role in our world- a role I feel called to. A colleague once told the story, probably apocryphal, about a teacher who asked her students to gather in a circle. The students were invited to pass a touch around the circle, from student to student. As the contact passed, it escalated. Each student wanted to pass on a more violent contact than he or she had received. The contact escalated until finally one student stopped, choosing not to continue the cycle of violence. It only took one child to stop the cycle that day.

I choose to live in this country unarmed, even though I know there are 9 guns for every 10 people. I no longer have illusions that putting a daisy in a gun barrel is my best defense, nor that I can “be run through without blinking an eye.” Only that someone has to stop the cycle of violence, and there is a better chance I will make that choice unarmed.

Second Reflection
There are guidelines for pacifist safety too:
You can study how to stay calm and grounded at a political action (I don’t think you can throw a bottle through a store window or hurl epithets at a policeman and call yourself a pacifist).
There are martial arts traditions like Aikido that are purely defensive and never used to attack
There is a school of non-violent communication designed to bring peace and compassion even into our daily interactions. I should probably take this training one of these days- I can’t even get stuck in traffic without allowing my emotions to boil up and over.

What does it mean to be a responsible pacifist? When my friend’s son was born, they decided to raise him without toy guns. No Nerf guns, no squirt guns, no space-alien- laser-blasters. I remember one evening hanging out with that young family watching the child turned every stick, pine-cone and leaf into a pretend gun. His moms shook their heads at this collision of their ideals and their lived reality.
When I was young I believed that if we could just somehow clean every gun off the face of the earth we could all live in peace. Now I suspect that we must acknowledge the reality that we are living in a time and place where incredibly violent and destructive weapons are woven into the fabric of our society, and this is the context in which each of us must look deeply into our own hearts and choose how to live.

I want to be clear that just because I have searched my own heart and know that I am, at this moment in time, a pacifist, doesn’t mean that I believe that is the only position possible. So many peace- loving communities, like Tibet, have been swept off the map when an armed invading force has set their sights on possession and domination. This is a question with no easy answer- is it better to lose your country than to lose your principle of non-violence?

I believe that Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violent resistance was critical in allowing race relationship in this country to evolve, yet I wonder about the impact of the emergence of the well-armed Black Panther movement. Did the brewing threat of violence hasten the desire to bring racial justice into the legislature? There is a complexity to the way this world works that defies simple answers.

I know that each of us hears a unique call in our hearts, which is why, though I would object and resist if drafted in wartime, I will fight for the rights of veterans returning from duty. In the Hindu text, The Bagavad Gita, the prince Arjuna rides out between two armies, poised to battle one another. He is overcome with a moral dilemma, saying: “We are prepared to kill our own relations out of greed for the pleasures of a kingdom. Better for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra, weapons in hand, were to attack me in battle and kill me unarmed and unresisting.” (p. 56) Sri Krishna (an incarnation of God in human forms) responds “Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate. For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil.” (P. 64) I think as the minister of this community, my job is not to convince you all to become pacifists, but to discover your own dharma- the ethical path you are called to walk.

Perhaps you remember news reports about the Trappist monks in Algeria who found themselves in the middle of a burgeoning civil war. When the Prior of their community refuses armed protection on behalf of his brothers, they call him to task- they remind him that such a choice which puts all their lives at risk must be made by the whole community together in reflection and prayer. After many weeks of discussion and indecision, each eventually decides to stay in this community which has already witnessed increasing violence. They stay, not seeking martyrdom, but because they believe that their non-violent presence in their Muslim neighborhood offers much needed support to a suffering community. Sadly, the worst does come to pass, and 7 of the brothers are kidnapped in the middle of the night, held hostage, and killed. But each had time to reach a decision in his own heart, and each had the support of their brotherhood as they faced their end.

Each one of us has a choice to make, about how we will support and protect our community. We hold in our hearts all those [who were victims of gun violence] whose names we spoke at the beginning of our service as we choose.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Danger of a Single Story (October 13, 2013)

This title comes from a wonderful Ted Talk by Chimamanda Adichie, which was the inspiration for this sermon.

Tomorrow is Columbus Day. Going to elementary school in the 1970s we used to celebrate it by making construction paper cut-outs of ships…we all remember those ships right? The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria... and we learned the story this way:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
I was taught that while most people in the 15th century thought the world was flat, Columbus believed it was round. We visualized how brave it would be to risk sailing right off the edge of the world for the great cause of science and navigation.

Columbus Day is a holiday in many places around the country, a day to honor Christopher Columbus as the first European to sail to the Americas. A day to celebrate Columbus as the brave explorer who discovered the New World.

If you are of Scandinavian heritage, however, you might point out that Leif Ericson, the Viking explorer, is thought to have landed in the North America some 500 years before Columbus.

And of course we should ask “how can anyone discover a continent already home to roughly 50 million people?” [i] When I was in elementary school, I was only taught a single version of this story, so no one in my class was even asking these questions (except my friend who lived across the street who had Vikings in her family tree. She sure had something to say about this.)

When I moved to Berkeley to go to Seminary in 1994 the holiday “Indigenous People’s Day” (celebrated on the same day as Columbus Day) was only 2 years old. Critics of the new holiday responded with a general rolling of eyes and complaints about the tyranny of “Political Correctness.” It was then that I started to hear other stories. These were stories about cultures and peoples long established in this land and Stories about the beginning of a genocide which decimated many indigenous cultural centers. Even the story of our intrepid explorer Columbus was being retold using more recent and comprehensive scholarship. For example, According to Bryan Strong in his new York times article:

“On his second voyage, in December 1494, Columbus captured 1,500 Tainos on the island of Hispaniola and herded them to Isabela, where 550 of ''the best males and females'' were forced aboard ships bound for the slave markets of Seville.

Under Columbus's leadership, the Spanish attacked the Taino, sparing neither men, women nor children. Warfare, forced labor, starvation and disease reduced Hispaniola's Taino population (estimated at one million to two million in 1492) to extinction within 30 years.”[ii]

Wow. That is a difficult story. Not one you would want to share with your first grade class.

How do we deal with these very different stories? It’s hard to hold those happy memories of cutting out paper ships along with the decimation of the Taino people. It’s hard to hold the bravery of an expedition across the Atlantic alongside acts of cruelty and injustice committed by the same men. Perhaps part of that eye rolling and diminishing as “political correctness” comes from the discomfort we feel at having to try to hold two different stories in our minds. Spiritual Director Janet Ruffing describes a “Fragmentation of identity and the erosion of meaning that often results from encountering conflicting viewpoints”[iii] – for example, when we first heard a new story of Columbus, it interrupted the meaning we had made about our country, and perhaps even about our right to be here. It invited us to question ourselves, to question what we thought we knew. That’s not comfortable.

One approach to this discomfort is to say “well, you have your story, and I have mine.” But I think we have to go deeper. This is different than me and my friend having conflicting stories about who was the first to own that Pat Benetar album when we were kids, because significant power is tied up in the stories of the moment Columbus and his crew first set foot in Hispaniola.

Says Chimamanda Adichie :

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” [iv]

What happens if you start the story with the rich culture of the Taino people living on Hispaniola? The story of a matrilineal culture with nobles and commoners and priests. The story of an Island people who navigated the sea in dug out canoes, a people who farmed and fished and hunted. They were a people who had art and culture distinct from our own, who played not baseball but batu, a game played with a rubber ball with 10-30 players on a team for which ball courts were designed in the town centers. Their sculpture, their jewelry, their archeological artifacts are all that remain to tell their story.

If you’ve been following the debate about the Doctrine of Discovery, you know that what story you tell can dispossess a continent full of people. In Columbus’ own journal he tells us that when he and his men:

“Arrived on shore, they saw trees very green, many streams of water, and diverse sorts of fruits. The Admiral called upon the two Captains, and the rest of the crew who landed, as also [the] notary of the fleet, … to bear witness that he before all others took possession (as in fact he did) of that island for the King and Queen his sovereigns, making the requisite declarations, which are … set down here in writing.

Columbus Continues “Numbers of the people of the island straightway collected together. …As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted,”[v]

This is the story of Columbus “taking possession” of the Americas, a joyful story of arrival after a long journey.

But as his journals continue, we see that it is also a story about greed: as he writes “my desire is to make all possible discoveries, and return to your Highnesses, if it please our Lord, in April. But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.[vi]

And it is a story about power; In 1495, Columbus and his men went on a raid in the interior of EspaƱola capturing as many as fifteen hundred Taino, men, women and children. He picked the 500 best of these Taino people and sent them to Spain. Two hundred of these people died on the way. Columbus’s response? "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."[vii]

As the scholarship about this historic event changes and grows, we learn that Columbus represented not only the best of European civilization- it’s technology, it’s ambition, but also the worst- it’s greed and cruel subjugation of other peoples.

To this increasingly complex story, let me add another. [viii] For Italian-Americans this day is a celebration of their heritage. Dr. JOSEPH SCELSA (Founder and President, Italian-American Museum; Professor Emeritus of Italian-American Studies, Queens College) offers this interpretation of the event:

“In 1892, when Benjamin Harrison, our president at that time, made this a national holiday, which was 400 years after the exploration of Columbus, it was done specifically to bring Native Americans and Italian-Americans and others together.

I mean, it was only two short years after Wounded Knee, and it was only one short year after the largest lynching in the United States, which was of Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

So it's really seen, by me at least, and by many others, as a bringing together of people, not a separating of people.”

Remember, for the first generations of Italian Immigrants to this country, they experienced discrimination, prejudice and even violence [ix] . Columbus Day originated as a celebration of Italian-American heritage and was first held in San Francisco in 1869. Maybe when Italian-Americans marched in their Columbus Day parades back then, it felt like I do at a Gay Pride parade- a day of pride in my identity, and pride in my community. Columbus is still a symbol of Italian American pride to many of that heritage.

But there is without question more than one story to tell on that day. Says Diana King, an enrolled member of the White Earth Indian Nation in northern Minnesota,

“Columbus Day is not a typical holiday. We don't celebrate 500 years of being dominated, exploited, enslaved and nearly exterminated by Europeans. But we do celebrate our survival.[x]

"We should have been wiped out," she says. "It's a miracle Native people still exist. I have never liked the word 'conquered.' We are still here after 500 years. And maybe every time Columbus Day comes around, we should rethink who the real heroes are: the explorer or the survivors?"

Let’s go back to the discomfort we feel at having to try to hold multiple stories in our minds. Remember Ruffing describes a “Fragmentation of identity and the erosion of meaning that often results from encountering conflicting viewpoints.” Seeing these stories juxtaposed next to one another invites us to question ourselves, to question what we thought we knew. It invites us to a deeper, wider, more complex and mature view of the world.

So when we encounter multiple stories, our job is not to figure out which is the “right story.” Because there is no single story that holds our diverse experiences. The European colonizers did not move and think as one- take for example the Domincan Friar Bartolome De Las Casas, who came to live in the Americas in 1502, who wrote a treatise beseeching the pope and the Spanish Monarchy to end the enslavement of the indigenous peoples.[xi] Neither were the Taino people a monolith- sometimes answering the invasion of their land with peace, other times taking up arms. And Native Americans today are not a monolith- each has a different story of how this land was shaped and what it means. The single story is dangerous because it is another form of stereotyping which cannot hold the true complexity of our lives.

As Universliasts, we believe in an underlying unity beneath all things. We know that we are all part of one interdependent web of life. But the variety and diversity of the lived experience of all beings is incredibly complex. So our spiritual challenge is to be able to hold multiple stories. I don’t mean to hold them all equally- part of holding Columbus’s story when “he before all others took possession … of that island for the King and Queen his sovereigns” is to say “wait a minute now, you did what?” or when he says “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold” to say “That sounds like blatant attempt to use religion to rationalize of a truly unjust act.”

By recognizing the danger of a single story, it calls us to notice who is telling the story, and notice who is silent. Who do we invite to tell the story of the Taino people?

By recognizing the danger of a single story we recognize that, as my teacher Don said at my training this past week “each human being is a mystery- they are really mysterious. If we don’t really know that, we don’t know people, they become just a category.” The reality of multiple stories calls us into a deeper listening for the Other, allowing for their mystery to be revealed.

By recognizing the danger of a single story, we are invited us to notice where our own story leaves the dominant narrative. It allows us to cry: “but I don’t want to grow up to be Ozzy and Harriet- I want something different for myself. My story is a new one that has never been told.” The reality of multiple stories allows us to bravely honor our own story, to honor our own mystery. We are invited to see that there may be more to our story , to our Self than we have dared to imagine.

Universalism does not claim that “underneath, we are all the same.” Instead Universalism is a radical affirmation of the worth and dignity of multiple stories. It suggests that each story is like one thread in a technicolor web, of which we are all a part.

[i] (that figure is controversial- ranges are from 10 million to 100 million depending on the scholar) 
[ii] Slavery and Colonialism Make Up the True Legacy of Columbus. Published: New York Times November 04, 1989
For more information about the Taino People see or
[iii] Janet Ruffing “To tell the sacred tale” p. 21
[iv] from Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story
[v] Thursday, 11 October 1492
[vi] Friday, 19 October
[ix] or
[x] An Ojibwe view of Columbus Day Article by: MARK ANTHONY ROLO , MCT Forum Updated: October 7, 2012 - 6:46 PM
[xi] “Bartolome de las Casas: The Only Way” ed Helen Rand Parish

Monday, September 16, 2013

Language of Reverence: Spirit of Life (September 15, 2013)

What makes us different from a smart phone?

What is it that we have in common with a tree?

Or let’s just ask the question at the heart of the matter- what is life?

We know it when we see it, right? When you see a tree in spring bursting out in those luminous bright green leaves, you know right away that something different is happening there than in the wooden fence that runs right by it. 

Now I know there  are some ambiguities on the margins of life that scientists and philosophers have been debating for millennia, but today I want to talk about life that is unmistakable. A child bursting onto the playground at recess. A turkey defending his territory. Us, here in this room together right now. 

Some have argued over the centuries that we, and other animals, are not that different from a machine- from a toaster or a smart phone. I think that is a semantic argument. Even a child can tell that we, and a turkey and a tree are different from a smartphone. Just because we have trouble explaining it doesn’t mean we don’t know it in our guts. 

One way I try to wrap my head around this is using systems theory. This is the way of looking at the world not as a collection of disparate parts, but as whole things. One principle of systems theory is that parts come together to make a system. Cells make up a body. Bacteria and beavers and fish and plants make up an eco-system. People make up a church. One of the characteristics of a system is that it has “emergent properties.” These are properties that the whole has that individual parts together don’t have. So for example if you put a bunch of brain cells in a petri dish, you don’t have  a brain. If you put a collection of organs together you don’t have a living being. A random collection of 30 people at bus stop is not a church. 

Lately when I hear the phrase “Spirit of Life” this is what I think of- that special quality that living things have that a toaster does not. Maybe  the “spirit of life” is an emergent property --  that which emerges from a system that does not emerge from a collection of disparate pieces.

Each Sunday in this church for the past several years we have sing “Spirit of Life” just as we did today. I suspect that not all of you thought of the emergent properties of systems when you sang that. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that each person in this room imagined something different when they sang those words. But in all the time I’ve been serving UU churches no one has ever complained that when they sung that song that they felt like a hypocrite.  There is a spaciousness about those words that leaves room for a lot of different beliefs.

For the past year we have been talking about a “Language of Reverence” for Unitarian Universalists -- a language that we could use to express deeper truths. We have wondered together whether the language we use shapes our ability to understand and communicate such truths. We have talked about words like “Prayer” and “conversion” – some of which are sticky words that bog us down with their layers of meaning and history. We’ve talked bout reclaiming those words as our own- they are part of our 400 year history, and they are ours as much as any other.

But today I suggest that there are also words that express important religious truths that feel a lot less sticky. Phrases that feel like ours. Yes, not only do we have the choice to reclaim those sticky words -- those traditional theological words --but we can build our own language of reverence. A colleague of mine, Scott Prinster, explained to me that the phrase “Spirit of life” (which I had assumed was  something UUs came up with in the 60s) has actually been used by Unitarian writers as early as the 1830s, and  that the phrase existed well back into the 1700s. 

One of the things I like about this phrase is that it is grounded in the world- in the life that we know. The first source of our living tradition is “direct experience” and life is something each one of us has experienced directly. Ours is a tradition that suggests we have a right to expect our own experience to harmonize with our theology. Ours is a faith that doesn’t require a leap between what we know and what we believe. 

“Spirit of life” draws a wide circle, one that can include atheists, agnostics and theists.  If someone from the church down the street here asked if I believed in God, I would not know whether to answer yes, no or maybe, because the word “God” means such a specific thing in each religious tradition. People have been killing one another for centuries over the exact meaning of that word. 

But I know with some certainty that I believe in the spirit of life. I’ve felt it every day. And I have seen it go- like when I saw the life pass from my dog Sandy – it was like a light had gone out in her eyes. It was unmistakable- it takes no theological leap to believe in life. 

But I do, in fact, make a theological leap- I believe that the divine is not separate from life. This is called Pantheism (a favorite heresy for both Jewish and Christian traditions)  -- God is all that exists, and this universe is not different from God. I recognized myself as a pantheist the first time I heard it from the pulpit at a UU church some 30 years ago. Then a teacher in Seminary introduced me to “Panentheism” which means that the universe is a sub-set of God—that is to say, God is the universe plus something more. When I was introduced to Systems theory, I got excited by the idea that the “something more” of panentheism is the emergent properties of  the system of all that is. Does the universe have consciousness?  I don’t know.  I am agnostic on that point.  But as a Universalist I believe in the one-ness of everything,  and when I hear that phrase “Spirit of Life” I don’t feel like an agnostic, because I have felt that spirit of life in my own body  and in the world every day. It is a phrase that brings us back from heady theological explorations -- back into the lived world we know and share. 

This summer, over in our historic Sheshequin meeting house, our worship team showed short films about the history of the universe, about its evolution. When you consider that epic story, it begins to seem kind of amazing that life not only came to be, but that it has persisted for so many hundreds of thousands of years. It has persisted through biological crises that killed off 70 or 90% of all life on our planet.  For example, photosynthesis only emerged 2,800 million years ago, a dramatic change that both saved and endangered life. You see, the oxygen freed in photosynthesis entered our world in larger and larger amounts,  changing the chemical composition of  the atmosphere, the oceans, the very crust of the earth. Oxygen not only degraded the food supply, but also broke down the membranes of cells, causing the helplessness and even the combustion of these early cells.  Then a new life form emerged with a mutation which allowed respiration.  Because oxygen was so plentiful, this new life and its offspring thrived.  The very oxygen which was poisoning the planet created a combustion which powered these new life forms’ activities. What an amazing story of life on earth snatched back from the brink of annihilation!

When I was studying the history of the Universe on my previous sabbatical we were introduced to the radical idea that the actual scientific story of who we are and where we came from could be as powerful as those myths and legends of our traditional cannon. I suppose I should not have been surprised by this idea. Growing up UU I had always been taught that the findings of science could be considered a source of wisdom--  the wisdom of the life we observe all around us.  

When Carolyn McDade wrote the song we sing each week, late one night in the early 1980s, she was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from a meeting for Central American solidarity...  What she remembers most clearly was the feeling she had. “When I got to Pat’s house, I told her, ‘I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I’ll be dust.’ I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me.” McDade then drove to her own home in Newtonville. “I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement.”[i]

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
In this song, in this very personal prayer, here is the point where our conversation turns from an abstract one about theology to a more practical concern- what do I call on, what do I turn to when I am “like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years?” What can we turn to not only for ourselves, but so that we can continue to live with compassion and work for justice in our world? Can we who are Atheist and Agnostic about a traditional understanding of God, can there be some hope for us in life itself?

In considering the emergence of  life forms that first photosynthesized or breathed air and whether or not these life forms had any consciousness of this amazing process, scientists Swimme and Berry write that “A primitive eukaryotic cell would, for instance, be able to detect a temperature gradient, turning itself toward warming regions.  It would possess a limited ability to sense nutrient densities and orient itself to their thickest direction.”[1]  So even our most basic ancestors must have been guided  by some life-sustaining drive. 

This drive brings to mind the words of Lebanese poet, artist and writer  Kahlil Gibran “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of  Life's longing for itself" … Life’ s longing for itself. I know that feeling. I have experienced it in my bones. I don’t understand it, but I know it. For me that longing of life for life is bound up in the phrase “Spirit of Life.”  One of the things we know for sure about life, is that it fights with great tenacity and creativity to keep on living. Not only the individual fighting for its own life, but our shared desire that even when each one of is gone, that life itself should persist.

 I find genuine hope in the indisputable fact that when life on earth was running out of food and on the brink of collapse, somehow photosynthesis was born. And when Photosynthesis inundated the earth with  this poisonous gas called oxygen, life learned to breathe it. That’s the spirit of life. Seeing a tree (that for all the world looked dead during the winter) begin to burst out with those amazing spring green leaves- that requires no leap of faith. It is hope embodied.

Here’s another fact- you are alive. Right now.  Right in this moment. Whatever it is that brings a tree out of dormancy in the spring, whatever it is that evolved photosynthesis, that “spirit of life”  is indisputably within you. So how much of a leap is it to believe that we can call on that “spirit of life” – not as some transcendent spirit from above, but as that which is intrinsic to all living beings –we can reach down deep into ourselves as a tree reaches down deep into its roots at the end of winter, and we can call it up when want to come back from our own winter, when we are dry as a piece of cardboard. 

The Unitarian writers who were using the phrase “Spirit of Life” in the 1830s did not yet have the benefit of Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” They undoubtedly would not have explained it the way I just did. But that’s part of why this is part of our vocabulary of faith – because it is expansive enough to include the old traditional theologies, and all that science has uncovered in the last century or so. Regardless of your theology, this song reminds us that there is something larger than ourselves we can call one when we are dry, when we need hope. It is laying in your own beating heart right now.

[1] Briane Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1992; p. 104.

[i] Carolyn McDade's spirit of life By Kimberly French
Fall 2007 8.18.07