Thursday, December 18, 2014

Uncovering the Names of God (December 7, 2014)

God is a sticky word. Some of you will remember that a couple of ago the worship team asked you to write down words that for some are part of a “language of reverence” but for you feel, well, sticky. When some of us hear the word “God” in a conversation, for example, the conversation which may have been going along fine suddenly gets stuck. “What do you mean by god? Do you mean what I mean by god? Or do you mean what the preachers on the family life network mean by god?”

Check in with yourself right now and notice the “feeling tone” of that word “God”…Does it change when I say “Spirit of Life”….or “the universe”?

The feeling tones evoked by different names change over the course of our lives. They may change from day to day. For example, it is very common to use the name “father” or “mother” for the divine. Everyone knows the power these roles have in our lives. They are not only powerful archetypes , but also deeply personal. The most common Christian prayer begins: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Notice the feeling tone as you hear that. Just notice. Inside that word “father” is contained all our societal archetypes about fathers, for better or for worse. For several centuries there the father was considered the head of the house, whose will was law, who could control the freedom of his wife and children. Another image of a father is a supportive father who is always there to lean on when you need help. What each of us brings with us to the name “father” is going to depend highly on our own experience of our own father. For some of us it will contain our own experience of BEING fathers. When we hear that word we might hear: 

The problem solver

The judge

The comforter

The playmate

The one who leaves

The provider

The abuser

The punisher

That one word is so full of meanings, of implications. 

When my son was very little, maybe 4, we used that same story in worship, and afterwards, hoping to start a little parent-child conversation about the topic, I asked him what name of God he liked to use. He said “father in heaven.” I have to admit this is a sticky name for me. As a feminist I had spent many years reclaiming God from the patriarchy, reading the works of those radical theologians who insisted that if God had any gender at all, we must be able to envision and honor female aspect of the divine. So I said to my little 4 year old child “In the paradigm in which there is a father in heaven, there must also be a mother earth.” Which he accepted with grace. 

So let’s unpack the name “mother.” First, if feels to me a little revolutionary. Because I grew up not even knowing that God could be female, it can be a symbol of female empowerment. For those who grew up Catholic, it may bring to mind “Mary, Mother of God” who has the characteristics of purity, compassion, patience, gentleness. But again, our own life story will profoundly inform how we hear this name. In our own experience the name “mother” may call to mind:

One who brings new life into the world

The playmate

The perfectionist

The confidant

The one who leaves

The provider

The punisher

The nurturer

Usually all that happens in our minds so quickly we don’t even notice it. It is in the nature of a symbol to contain all those different feelings, memories, associations without our consciously calling them up. When we hear a sticky word, we may not even realize that we are sort of clicking off- “nope- I’m not going there.” Today I’d like for us to take a little time with these names, and find some new ways of responding to them.

One thing we can do is look for words that best express what theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern” -- words that express wonder and reverence, words that help us communicate how profoundly we are connected to something larger than ourselves. Unitarian Universalists affirm the radical notion that because each of us is so unique, the collection of words that have meaning for each will also be unique. Every person much uncover for themselves the words that express the ineffable- those mysterious parts of being alive that are so hard to express. I hope during our meditation today you were able to find a word or two like that. It can be really empowering to do our own naming. Moreover, there is a certain integrity we claim when we use exactly the word we mean to express our own reality in this moment. That honesty of language is an important part of being Unitarian Universalist- choosing language that really expresses what we know or feel to be true. It is part of our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”- our 4th principle. As we change and grow, the images we use will naturally change and grow as well, or they will become too small, too limiting. The names we use can offer greater freedom, or they can box us in.

When I first was introduced to the Song of Solomon in my Hebrew Scriptures class in seminary, I could not figure out what on earth a book of love poems was doing in there. I had never heard anyone call god “beloved.” It turns out that the writings of the mystics are filled with this imagery. The Beloved is the object of desire and love whose presence makes the heart sing, and whose absence creates loneliness and grief. Notice your response to that word “beloved”

Around the same time I was introduced to the name “co-creator” through the writings of German Liberation Theologian Dorothee Soelle; we are right now engaged in co-creating the world with every other being on this earth. We co-create with the plants, the animals, the tectonic plates who are shaping the very earth, and, if you are a theist, with God. But you don’t have to believe in God to know that the forces tiny and huge constantly shaping our world form a vast web so complex we will never truly comprehend in all its ever changing subtly. Notice your response to that name “co-creator”

What about “Friend”? That has a very different feeling, doesn’t it? The name friend draws to it every friend you’ve ever had. The ones that stood by you when you needed them most, the ones who let you down. Or maybe it calls up the times when you felt friendless and alone. What would it mean to call the divine “friend?”

Father, Mother, Beloved, Co-creator, friend. These are just 5 of the infinite number of names for the divine. Maybe one or more of those names feel “sticky” to you, but that very stickiness can be a clue for our own spiritual growth. By paying attention to the names that feel like closed boxes, that seem to take away our freedom, self-knowledge, greater consciousness and spiritual growth are possible. Instead of “clicking off” we can turn our attention to that sticky feeling and consciously notice our response. I was reading a book recently written by a Catholic author who used a lot of very traditional names for God, like “Lord” which I must confess is one of my sticky words. Normally I would have just put the book aside, but instead I took outmy pencil and every time I found a word that riled me up, I just drew an arrow pointing to the word. Because there is energy there in our reaction to sticky words. That anger, that inner disturbance, can help us learn more about ourselves -- can help us grow spiritually. 

It’s like my yoga teacher was saying, it’s great to do the poses that feel good in the moment, but if you don’t balance the practice of poses that feel delicious with the poses that are a challenge for you, you won’t grow in strength or flexibility. The next time you hear a name for the ineffable that pushes your buttons, you can challenge yourself by asking “why does that word push my buttons?” For example, when I hear the word “lord” the image that comes to mind is that of a feudal landholder who has the power over the life and livelihood if his vassals. He rules without any understanding of their lives from his mansion on the hill far away. Unconsciously I put myself in the role of vassal, and feel oppressed, feel a lack of freedom. But I can ask myself “Why do I call to mind the type of lord who constrains freedom, rather than one who “supports and protects”? What might I learn about my own instinctive response to hierarchical power?

When we start to uncover and open up the deeper layers of our response, maybe some insight will come like a light bulb lighting up, or maybe it will take a long time of just noticing and wondering. Because that little flare of “not that” which happens when we read or hear a certain name shows us that the name has power over us. That reflexive pulling back, like a hand over a hot stove, shows us a wall limiting our freedom. Maybe that wall is there for a really good reason. Maybe it’s telling you it’s time to stand up to a patriarchal theology. Or maybe there is an old wound there between you and your father that shapes you in some way you don’t fully understand. I believe that by just noticing compassionately, non-judgmentally, we expand in freedom. Part of being a congregation that encourages one another in spiritual growth means that while we do try to avoid pushing one another’s buttons theologically, we know that if we are going to go really deep, we are going to touch some tender places from time to time, so we need to gently support one another in going to the hard places and being present to the reality of what emerges.

Later in the conversation with my son all those years ago we were discussing the difference between religious traditions and when I mentioned our friend’s congregation Nick asked “do they believe in many Gods like us?” I felt like I wasn’t doing very well as a religious educator, so I tried to redeem myself, explain that Unitarianism has right in the root of the word “uni” meaning one. We believe in the one-ness of God, the one-ness of everything. The theological rift that gave birth to Unitarianism came from the insistence that God was one, and not three as the Trinitarian majority believed. I think this makes UUs a little nervous about using ANY names for God, because once you use a name like “father” for God, you are not naming the whole truth. 

Perhaps if I had been an Islamic mother, or a Hindu mother, I might have done a better job. In Islam, a tradition where creating an artistic rendering of the divine is forbidden, lest these images might become idols, the tradition mentions 99 names for God. Since the qu-ran says “Nothing resembles him in any way whatsoever[i]” the Islamic names for God refer to qualities, like: "the Compassionate" and "the Merciful." Yet the Islamic creed (Shahada ) is very clear “There is no god but God.”

Hinduism throws caution to the wind when it comes to naming and creating detailed images and stories about the many aspects of God. Think of the fantastic images of Ganesh, the elephant headed God of Wisdom, or Krishna, the blue faced boy playing the flute. Or Kali, the dark goddess of destruction. There is a common misconception in the west that Hinduism is polytheistic, and that its followers worship idols. Vivekenanda told the audience at the World Parliament gathering: 
“At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshippers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism”

So Vivekananda is saying that the worship of these different attributes of God is not a worship of many gods. Instead, it is a path that some follow in seeking ultimate unity. In fact, the Hindu belief in unity extends beyond one unified God, to a fundamental unity (or non-duality) of all that is.

I think this gives a good grounding for our own Unitarian Universalist process of uncovering the names of God. To me the Hindu concept of “Brahman” is very like my own sense of the one-ness of everything, that fundamental unity that Vivekananda mentions. As it says in the Upanishads:
That supreme Brahman is infinite, and this conditioned Brahman is infinite. The infinite proceeds from infinite. If you subtract the infinite from the infinite, the infinite remains alone.

So that which is infinite is the pure, ineffable state. But it’s hard to relate to infinity, so we speak instead of “aspects” of the infinite oneness. Perhaps we might call to mind the difference between the immense power of the ocean, and the gentle habitat of a particular tide pool. 

Given the impossibility of really naming the divine, of naming that which is by definition beyond our understanding, many people use the name “mystery.” Because no responsible search for truth and meaning is ever going to arrive at the one final right and true answer. This amazing world we share is constantly changing. Any theological answer you pursue, no matter how well reasoned, is ultimately going to meet a cloud of un-knowing. Always there is the potential for surprise, for the unexpected, the new.

Whether you are theist, atheist or agnostic, the names we ourselves use for the divine, or the names we hear from our neighbors, in the news, in sacred texts, shape our relationships with God. These names also tell us something about who we are, and help us bring to consciousness our usually unconscious responses to the world in which we live. I leave you this morning with a challenge- to notice the names that help us feel empowered to live an ethical and meaningful life, and to notice the names that make us feel shut down, feel that our freedom is constrained. The more we simply notice without judgment both our positive and negative responses to all the many names for the Spirit of Life, the more we will grow in understanding and in freedom.

[i] in Surat ash-Shura, ayah 11:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Coming Out (November 10, 2014)

Ritual of Remembrance

Let us honor of the Transgender Day of remembrance, celebrated around the world each year on November 20, with the words of Geena Rocero, Transgender Activist and Model. These words are from the Ted Talk where she came out to the world.
Ayla Nettles [was] from New York, she's a young woman who was courageously living her truth, but hatred ended her life. For most of my community, this is the reality in which we live. Our suicide rate is nine times higher than that of the general population. Every November 20, we have a global vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance. I'm here at this stage because it's a long history of people who fought and stood up for injustice. … Today, this very moment, is my real coming out. I could no longer live my truth for and by myself. I want to do my best to help others live their truth without shame and terror. I am here, exposed, so that one day there will never be a need for a November 20 vigil.

We light a special candle today for all those who were victims of violence or who live in fear because they are transgender

We light this candle in memory, but also in hope that someday no one will be afraid to live authentically.

Harvey Milk gave that speech in 1978, 7 months after he became the first openly gay person in the United states to be elected to office. He had come to San Francisco at a time when the police regularly raided gay clubs, arresting folks they found there on “morals charges.” In those days you could be evicted for intimate acts in your own home. Gay business owners were refused business licenses. You heard Milk mention “Prop 6,” also called the “Briggs Initiative,” which would have banned gays and lesbians (and may be folks who supported gay rights) from working in the public schools in California. Discrimination was everywhere.

In the 1960s the Gay and Lesbian community had begun to fight back. Milk, who served in the Navy during the Korean war, and now owned a camera shop in the Castro, began running a grass roots campaign for City Supervisor in 1973. It took him 5 years, but through growing a web of relationships in his community, and by building coalitions with other communities, on election day in 1977 he was elected and prop 6 was defeated.

When Harvey Milk made that speech, coming out carried some significant risks. You could be fired for being gay, you could be evicted and you would have no legal recourse. Many who came out to their families were cast out or disowned. Milk was calling on all who would listen to do a very brave thing. I’m told that in those days Gay and Lesbian clergy met secretly together, organizing by word of mouth, knowing they would lose their ministry if anyone knew their truth. Today clergy are out in the pulpit, and out in the streets advocating for marriage equality. This fall two couples from our congregation were married in big public weddings in Bradford County Pennsylvania! There was a time when none of us could imagine such a thing. But by coming out to our families, to our friends, to our communities one by one, we have facilitated a great turning of the minds and hearts of people all over the world.

Meg Riley, one of the many openly gay clergy in our movement, believes that the way we began to turn the tide on marriage equality, and the way forward is “deep intimate conversations with people you know, and people you don't. Values based [conversations], where you start with what they think instead of bombarding them with facts about what you care about.” The tide started to turn when the Gay and Lesbian sons and daughters of Congressmen came out to their parents. By coming out to our neighbor, our barber, or boss we interrupted entrenched ideas about what it meant to be queer, about what it meant to be married. People opened their hearts and were changed. When I started writing this sermon 32 states legally recognize same sex unions, but with the latest rulings in South Carolina and Missouri it is now 34. When I was ordained 16 years ago, there was not a single state where I could perform a legal wedding. This is an amazing transformation that we should celebrate. We can be proud that Unitarian Universalism has been part of this good work.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook came out recently he was the first CEO of a major corporation to out himself while still serving in that capacity. He says of his decision:
"I don't consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I've benefited from the sacrifice of others," he said. "So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it's worth the trade-off with my own privacy."

Fortunately he serves Apple at a time and place where probably his job was not at risk for his courageous truth telling. But when Jason Collins, a Center in the NBA, became first openly gay man to actively play for a major professional sports team [vi] he knew that he worked in a profession rife with homophobia, where fellow players went on the record saying discriminatory things against gay and lesbian people. This is part of what he wrote in that now famous op-ed article in Sports Illustrated:
“No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”

Collins was a free agent at the time, and he knew he might never play professionally again because of this decision. In fact many hateful things were said about Collins when he chose to come out. But the first time he took to the court after his public disclosure, the fans gave him a standing ovation. Collins said in an interview later “The atmosphere was incredible. Even my first game back during the regular season when I entered the game and getting a standing ovation from the crowd in Brooklyn is something that I will never forget. This amazing moment shows the character of the fans in Brooklyn.”
We have come so far on this issue, but there is still a ways to go. Even now that Pennsylvania recognizes marriages equally, it is not really “safe” to come out, is it? In the state of Pennsylvania, it is still legal to deny a person housing, or employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states prohibit the second parent from adopting their own child when the parents are of the same gender. We recognize Transgender day of remembrance because we know there is still bullying and violence experienced by our transgender neighbors and friends. Coming out today still takes courage, still has power, still requires discernment.
My colleague Nada Velimirovic said once “When I feel that tension in my stomach, I know that it is time to come out.” Do you know that feeling? It happens to me not only when I come out as queer, but whenever I reveal some part of my identity that doesn’t feel completely safe. When your relatives are bashing Obama and you feel compelled to mention that you voted for him. When someone at work says “we’re all Christians here” and you say “Actually, I’m a humanist. ” When you are seated around a big festive table and the person next to you hands you the platter of Turkey and you have to say “Actually, I don’t eat meat.” It happens in a hundred little ways in our ordinary life whenever we risk saying the truth of who we are -- we get the sweaty palms or the lump in our throat that tells us that what we are about to say is a risk.
Coming Out is not the only choice we can ethically make. Wiccan Author and Activist Starhawk tells the story of being welcomed into the home of a Muslim woman while she was in the middle east protesting the treatment of Palestinians. She spoke to this woman in the role of a woman born Jewish in America in the 1950s, feeling that being present across that Muslim – Jewish divide was as much as the meeting could bear, without beginning to explain what on earth Wicca was. She chose not to come out as Wiccan that day. For folks who follow the goddess traditions, there is a realism that comes from remembering the times when women were burned at the stake for such things. A friend of mine who was trained in the tradition of the goddess Hecate, told me that her teacher lived in a very proper British home, all the elements of her religious observance folded into the appearances of ordinary culture-- sometimes passing as mainstream is the smart thing to do.
In UU culture and history we hold up the stories of Servetus, burned at the stake for outing himself and his heretical beliefs. We honor Joseph Priestly who fled to America when his home and his church were burned by an angry mob for his radical political and religious beliefs. And usually I do cone out is bisexual, and usually I do come out as Unitarian Universalist, but recently when I was at a training for clergy on mental health issues and the presenter asked, rhetorically “We’re all Christian here, right? We all know where we are going when we die?”  I considered interrupting his presentation to out myself, but I struggled with what I would say: "Actually, I'm Unitarian Universalist, and while some UUs are Christian, I myself am not..." ultimately I just sighed and let it go.Each of us must discern in our own hearts when to answer that call to come out, when to stay quiet and when let that nervous knot in our stomach call us to speak truth of who we are.
In 1992, Oregon was considering an anti-gay rights initiative called Measure 9. The Portland UU church wrap the whole church block in a large yellow ribbon and declared it a “hate-free zone.” Some families left the church over the decision, but many more new members joined, drawn by their courageous stand. "Brothers and Sisters… you must come out." Said the great Gay Activist Harvey Milk in 1978. Who could have imagined how the world would be transformed between then and now, and how our coming out changed the world. These words are not only an important part of our history as Americans, as human beings, but they are also a prophetic imperative in our own times. Part of supporting the inherent worth and dignity of all people is supporting one another when we speak the truth of who we are. Coming out both closes and opens doors. That nervous ball of energy that builds as we will ourselves the courage to speak releases an energy for change in ourselves and in our communities. And we know now, 36 years after Harvey Milk made his impassioned plea, that it can transform the world in amazing ways.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

They Wyrd of Universalism (Ocrober 19, 2014)

When you go to big gatherings of Unitarian Universalists, there is always buzz about the future of our movement. Together we try to cast a vision of who we are becoming, who we are called to be. One of my favorite presenters at such events is Galen Guengerich who serves the All Souls Church in New York City. They have 1000 members there and three full time ministers. Whenever Galen gives a workshop at GA it is going to be on the cutting edge. There might be a full jazz ensemble providing meditative interludes. There is certainly a high tech AV system, so that when he wants to references something from popular culture, he pushes some magic button and there is perfect cinema quality music and sound, seamlessly integrated into his presentation.
Sometimes at these national events where large abundantly staffed congregations take the lead, it’s easy to feel left behind. We are told that if we are not skillful about our presence on twitter and Facebook, we won’t appeal to a younger populous, that if we don’t sophisticated technology, and current popular music in our worship, the millennial generation won’t feel at home. We begin to wonder if our low-tech churches are relics of a time past.
When I was a very little girl participating in the town Easter egg hunt for the first time I found the whole experience kind of overwhelming and confusing. After 5 minutes of chaos the hunt was over and I returned to my mom, probably crying, holding my basket with only one egg, Mom told me this story, which has been almost archetypal for me ever since. She said “When that crowd of children headed left, you headed right. There you were alone with dozens of eggs, but when you looked up and saw where the other kids were, you left the eggs and followed the crowd. Of course by the time you got there, all the eggs were gone, and when you came back to where you started, all those eggs were gone too. If you had just stayed where you were, you would have a basket full of eggs right now.”
I have been mulling over that story ever since. When I realize that I have been separated from the crowd, I try to ask not “how can I get back into the crowd” but “where are the eggs around me, right now, that only I can reach.” This morning’s sermon is not a challenge to keep up with the crowd, to have higher resolution visuals in your sanctuary or to design an App for your congregation that works with the latest smartphones. You already receive plenty of encouragement from our culture to move in that direction. Instead, let’s look at the eggs hiding around us right now. 
First, we here at UUCAS, and many of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention churches, are family sized churches. I don’t have to tell you the challenges of being a small church- we live those each week. But I want to remind us of the special gift of the small church, which is relational-ity. Anyone who has ever gone to a large church knows that sometimes it can be a lonely experience. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt lonely at UUCAS. Even when I came to preach here for the first time your friendliness shone and I felt welcome. There is no chance of getting lost in the crowd here, we know each other and we know each other’s lives. We open our hearts to newcomers and visitors. Younger generations have a lot to teach us about the rapidly evolving web of social media, but people of every age will always want a place in the physical world where they can be with people they know and trust, and where they can meet new people in a web of community.
There are other hidden gifts of being small. I hear story after story from colleagues at larger institutions about how hard it is to maintain a large salaried staff. At General Assembly a speaker referenced with a nervous laugh the emerging trend that more and more ministers will be piecing together part time and multi-site ministries. I thought to myself- well on this one at least we are ahead of the curve! When the Alban institution closed after decades of being leaders in church life, a journalist theorized that we are headed into a time when many such institutions will be closing because they have an infrastructure that is unsustainable. At UUCAS we have always used our money carefully, staying lean. We don’t confuse the success of our shared ministry with the trappings of monetary success. It’s easy to look longingly at churches with full time youth ministers and a state of the art AV system for seamless video content in worship. But when the crash happened, UUCAS had a lean infra-structure, and no debit, and a board that understands the importance of stewarding its resources carefully to keep our institution sustainable. Moreover, we have the incredible privilege and responsibility of being part of the PUC, another community that has a long term view toward the survival of Universalism. 
Our small size also makes us nimble. I came from a church where even after 2 years of meetings we could not begin to imagine how we could make composting church food scraps into a reality. Here at UUCAS the children were painting compost buckets one Sunday, and Katie bought an extra one for the church. Now Chris or Carol or Katie take the scraps home whenever the bucket is used, and so composting happens. Now that doesn’t mean anything we want will just happen. My first year as your minister a Coming of Age program with the Fellowship in Big Flats came together quickly and the whole congregation jumped in to support it. It was important to the young UUs who came of age, and it was powerful to me. Last year we had no teens at all here most Sundays. There was no force of will that would have made a Coming of Age program happen. It would have been like a Fish trying to go adventuring on land. But it’s starting to look like next year may be one of those magical Coming of Age years again. This is not a church where we can promise families that every week there will be a Sunday school class at each grade level, but today I have no doubt that Chris and those kids are up to something cool. Because we are nimble we are able to respond as the moment unfolds to the needs and gifts of our community. The full moon drumming circle is another example. When I first arrived at the church there was a lively bunch that came to drum under the leadership of Marion Minnick. When Marion no longer lead the circle, that field lay fallow for several years. Then the gifted Janelle came into our membership, and up it springs full of life. 
Another gift of this church is our location. The Valley NEEDS us. So often I get advice like “you should connect with the local GLBT community center” and I think, well, I guess that’s us. “Why don’t you work with the local interfaith group?” I guess that’s us too. “What about a local humanist group.” That’s DEFINITELY us. The Valley is what you might call an “underserved community.” We are needed here. Folks from the valley reach out to me to marry them when they don’t know where else to go. Can I marry GLBT folks? Of course. Atheists? Naturally. Whether or not this congregation could ever grow large enough for a full time staff, we have an important ministry in this community. We are needed here. Moreover, the UUA need us here. When I stand up at national UU gatherings and explain that the technology gap is alive and well in rural Pennsylvania, that members of my congregation have limited access to the internet not only because of financial realities, but also because no one will run high speed cable lines out to some of our homes, my colleagues look genuinely surprised. When we remind our colleagues that the impressive list of webinars offered to our congregations don’t works so well over dial-up, we speak for all those UUs and folks who might never find UUism because they are on the wrong side of the technology gap. 
Here in Rural Pennsylvania, we also understand the political diversity of UUs. We know there are Unitarian Universalists who support second amendment rights. We know that UUs have complex feelings about hydrofracking. If there is ever going to be a true dialogue between genuinely different opinions, if we are ever to reach across the gap between liberal and conservative, it is going to start in a community like ours, where our neighbors have changed their minds about same-sex marriage because of that nice couple down the road, and we, in turn, have the opportunity to have our own minds stretched by our neighbors and friends. Or, what was it Kathleen McTeague called it yesterday? “Glad Curiosity.”
That, already, is a field of eggs wider than we can ever gather in –even with all 40 members of UUCAS working diligently together, even with every congregation in the PUC. So how do we discern our Wyrd, our own unique path? Recently our congregation adopted a mission statement: to be a liberal religious community dedicated to service, spiritual growth, and ethical living. The heart of that, the starting place has to be “spiritual Growth.” That’s what makes us different from the Food bank of the Southern Tier, or the United Way. One of the teachers in my Spiritual Direction Training, Don Bisson, introduced us to Karl Rahner, the famous catholic theologian who influenced Vatican 2. Rahner said “Christians in the coming age must all become mystics or be nothing at all.” Don interpreted his statement this way: “[Rahner’s] vision is: the future of the church-- if the church is going to have a future-- is how do we initiate men and women into the universal call to holiness and union with God because that’s where the world would change. Not on what denomination you belong to, or whether you are Christian or not Christian, the transformation of the world is dependent on our call to holiness.”
Rahner is saying a very Universalist thing here. He is saying that whatever deeper truth lays at the heart of things, spirituality must either be at the core of who we are as a church, or we may as well close our doors. For all the folks who check off “none” on surveys about religion, it is not obvious why they would want to support the Unitarian Universalist tradition or any other tradition. But the soul hunger for the depth of life, that is universal. And the capacity to seek and find that depth, Universalists believe that this is the right and potential of each and every person. The first source of our UU tradition 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 which create and uphold life.” In other words, mysticism. This is the single most important thing we can offer the world, direct experience of the forces which create and uphold life. Which renew our spirit.
Rahner calls this “union with God.” But we know that not all UUs, nor all those in the wider community who are spiritually hungry are comfortable with the word “God”, so let’s switch gears a bit and look at this from the psychological perspective. Don continues “We get lost if we don’t experience something deeper in us than just our superficial ego needs. We get lost. This is what Jung called soul murder.”
There is no App to feed our spiritual hunger. It is not Facebook that brings us back to the deeper self when we are lost. The reason I like, for example, to sit and hear Galen’s talks is not because of how his beautiful technology (okay, maybe a little. It is pretty cool) but it is because he has a message worth hearing. And you, you left your home this morning not because everyone on Twitter was talking about today’s service, not because you wanted to follow the crowd, but because you wanted to experience something directly- you wanted to connect with other people, face to face, you wanted to connect with something deeper inside yourself. You wanted to connect something bigger, larger, wider --the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. And from that place of holiness, from there we can serve lovingly. From there we can live ethically, from there we can transform the world. 
I believe that far from living in a time when these old rural churches are a historic remnant, these hills and valleys where our churches were planted over a century ago are filled with ministry that is calling out to us- filled with Easter eggs, if you will. The need for our Universalist tradition and for our beloved communities is so great, that an equally great discernment is needed. We have to be willing let go of everything we “should be doing” --all those ideas we hear at conferences, the ministries we witness at other churches, in order to hear our own destiny. Sometimes we have to have the courage to take our eyes off the crowd, and the faith to look for our wyrd, our ministry right here where we are.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Loving Your Wyrd (September 28, 2014)

I was a weird little kid. I learned this from the kids in my class at school, who were quick to point it out. It’s hard for me to look back now and imagine what they saw to earn me this label. From the inside my child hood was full of daydreaming, reading piles and piles of books. Maybe it was because I told long rambly stories and postulated unusual ideas. To be weird, I know, was to be an outsider. But I also knew (probably because I went to a UU church, and because of the bolstering talks my mom gave each time I was teased at school) that being weird had something to do with being true to myself. I remember one time a cluster of schoolmates yelling “you’re weird!” at me, and yelling back rebelliously “ I know I am !” “She admits it! They laughed incredulously to one another.” 

A couple decades later an old school friend had come to visit. Andy and I talked about the strange twists and turns that had lead us to the lives we were living today. I think part of the reason we were friends in high school was not only because our names were near each other in the alphabetical seating chart, but because I imagine that as an intellectual and an aspiring writer he must have at some point faced similar accusations of being “weird.” But here we were in adulthood, both of us loving the unconventional lives unfolding before us. He asked “When did you come to love your weird?” It was a beautiful articulation or something I’d never heard spoken before. The realization that it was the very things that made me “weird” that had blossomed into the life I loved. Reading and pondering may make for a weird kid, but are great qualities for a minister. The weird theories I was always spouting about feminism and kindness to plants and animals now fill a notebook of sermon ideas. My friend now has a very prestigious writing job, and I get the sense his weird has lead him to some really amazing and unexpected places over the years since we were in school together. Both of us are happy creative adults who managed to integrate our “weirdness” into our cohesive lives.  

Yes, I thought, that’s really the question. When did I stop my unsuccessful efforts to be like everyone else? When did I realize that the unfolding of my own authentic self was my best bet for inner happiness? When did I come to believe that my weirdness was inseparable from my special calling to serve the world?  

When Andy asked “When did you come to love your weird?” it occurred to me that “weird” had 2 meanings. I had recently been introduced to the Nordic idea of a “Wyrd” which is similar to that of fate or destiny. This word describes the flow by which past actions lead us to our present, the flow by which we shape our future in the present. This was first explained to me with the metaphor of a stream, the way it tends to run in its bed in a certain way, running around this rock or that tree-root. So in the moment when he asked “when did you start to embrace your ‘weird’?”, I also thought about how by embracing the things that were weird about me, I had also begun to embrace the path which most organically unfolded in front of me, available to me because of my past actions and my particular biology. (Nature and nurture if you will).       

Unitarian Universalists tend to believe strongly in our freedom to make choices, but even a creek perhaps has only freedom of the creek to ramble in its bed. The free flowing water shapes its bed over time, but there are limits to its freedom. There is no question that for each of us some things come easy, some things are hard won, and others seem to be unobtainably out of reach. It is tempting to imagine a different fate: “If only I had been born in a different time and different place” “If only I hadn’t chosen that job instead of the other” or “If only I hadn’t had that accident that left me with a limp.” Sometimes we raise our fist to the powers that be in rage and grief asking “Why can’t I be like the other kids at school?! Why isn’t my life like the ones on TV?” 

There are two reasons to love your wyrd. The first is to save your own life. For the great 20th century psychologist Carl Jung, this effort of trying to be something we are not is what leads to neurosis. “Behind the neurotic… is concealed his vocation, his destiny; the growth of personality, the full realization of the life will that is born with the individual. It is the man without amor fati who is the neurotic; he truly has missed his vocation.” [Jung collected works v 17 p. 313] Amor Fati means “love of fate” For the purposes of our conversation today I am going to use the words “Wyrd” and “Fate” interchangeably. Although perhaps he word “fate” evokes the bed in which the stream flows- the reality of your life now in this historical moment. And “Wyrd” evokes the process of flowing over and through that reality. When we don’t embrace our fate, when we try to fit ourselves into some stereotyped role, when we try to keep our path from rambling, it takes a huge amount of psychic energy, and prevents us from growing into our best selves. And yet as a culture this is exactly what we do. We discourage people from being “weird” from truly expressing their unique potential. Our schools prepare them to take standardized tests, and then to fill standardized jobs. We even do it to our streams, cementing them into straight channels. Ostensibly we do this to prevent flooding, but it turns out that a meandering stream or river is better at preventing flash floods and distributing nutrients than even our best engineered channels.[i]

When I headed off to seminary I thought of my spiritual journey as a quest with a single goal- as something that could be expressed in a single word, like “Minister” or “writer.” But I am beginning to see that my own wyrd is more like the path of a creek, one that unfolds day by day, choice by choice, interaction by interaction. Who knows where our wyrd will meander day by day, and what our impact will be- the unique meandering of our wyrd allows you to give voice to the insight only you could have. To grow the relationship only you could grow. As Wyldstyle said in the movie: “making whatever weird thing pops into our heads.”

This brings us back to our text for the morning- the Lego Movie. [Warning- spoiler alert. If you have not seen the Lego Movie, go do so now. It's a great movie. Come back when you're done.] Early in the movie our hero Emmet is challenged to show his stuff- to make something, anything. And he comes up with…. The Double Decker Couch “So everyone can watch TV together and be buddies.” His friends are far from supportive: “That is literally the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Even the wise prophet says “That idea is just… the worst.” The Double Decker Couch becomes a running joke, the epitome of a lame idea. But when their ship is blown apart and all seems to be lost, it is the double decker couch, buoyed up by the handy coolers under each seat, that floats to the surface, saving all our heroes’ lives. In the words of Wyldstyle: “it turns out Emmet had great ideas, and even though they seemed weird, or kind of pointless, they came closer than anyone else to saving the universe.”

This is the second reason to love your Wyrd- because the world depends on it. You might expect that the hero of the movie would be special, would have a special destiny. But it turns out this movie is a Universalist movie. As the prophet Vitruvius says:
 “I knew that whoever found the piece could become the special, because the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be. I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true…”
Emmet Protests (a good Unitarian Protest): “How can I just decide to believe that I’m special. I’m not”
Vitruvius replies: “Because the world depends on it”

It is not due to some kind of predestination that Emmet is “special,” it is because he embraces his wyrd, because he says yes to his fate that he is able to play his role in saving the universe.

This requires a leap of faith, but I am not asking you to make a leap that is magical or mythological. The faith that it requires is in the web of life. We tend to look at the big huge problems the world has today and to ask “how can I solve global warming?” or “What can I do to bring peace to Palestine?” Having the faith to follow your wyrd requires having faith in the rest of us to follow our own. We think of great leaders like Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa, each of whom touched millions of lives, each of whom helped change the world. But not one of them did it alone. When Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech, there at the Lincoln Memorial were 250,000 people, each of whom has a story about how they chose to leave their homes and travel to Washington, to stand in the crowd all day. As he said in that speech “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Think about the tremendous web it took to turn the tide of civil rights. Consider each child who marched with King in the Children’s Crusade. Each person who chose to walk to work day after day, month after month instead of taking the bus during the bus boycott. All of these individual streams fed the great river of social change. But the web of our intermingled fates is much wider and more complex than that. Think of the teachers that might have inspired King, or Rosa Parks, or Dorothy Cotton when they were children. A word of kindness or encouragement at the right moment. We will never completely know how our lives shape the lives of others, how we shape the world even as we are being shaped by it.

 And Universliasts believe that each of us has a role to play. Take “80s spaceship guy.” All through the Lego movie , all he wants to do is build a spaceship. He is compelled by some inner desire, some single-minded compelling drive to build a spaceship. Even though time after time people roll their eyes when he offers to build one, finally when it matters most, when the universe is on the line, his wyrd leads him to build that spaceship. I will confess to you that when he finally got to build his dream ship in that scene I just showed you, I burst into tears. There is a deep primal hope in me, faith even, that someday by being truly who we are, by “making the weird stuff only you could make” that we can help make the world a better place. Some of us will be able to see the fruit of our actions- that pure joy dawning in spaceship guy’s face as he leaps into his spaceship to save the day. But most of us will not. Sometimes all we have is that feeling of “rightness” that feeling that right now, right in this moment I am doing what I need to be doing, the only thing I can do, the thing only I can do. Following your wyrd, your fate just feels right, it feels natural. 
It’s not always easy, in fact that we know it can be hard, and so sometimes we resist our wyrd- we fear we may be called, like Emmet, to jump off the edge of the known universe into the abyss. But most often our fate calls us to be exactly who we are, a caring father, a meticulous accountant, an ethical citizen, a dedicated physical therapist. Maybe this sermon right now is a double decker couch- weird, or kind of pointless, but if one of you is inspired, encouraged to love your wyrd, then it played a part in the healing of the world. Most often we will never get to build a spaceship, or confront Lord Business face to face, but wherever our wyrd leads, it makes a difference whether we love our fate, or struggle against it.

There are a lot of texts we could have used to illustrate this idea. For example, I almost used the text from Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, which states “It is better to fail in one’s own Dharma, than to succeed in the Dharma of another.” By chosing the Lego Movie I run the risk of implying that this is not a serious idea, not an important idea. I chose the Lego Movie partly because I think it’s a great movie and I thought you’d all enjoy it. But mostly I chose it because we are an intergenerational community, and I wanted to make sure that when we talk about “Each and every person” we Universalists mean each and every person right now as they are today, not someday later when we grow up, or finish school, or get that job, or become some fully developed hero like you read about in history books. 
Each and every one of us is living out our fate, our Wyrd right now. And when our Wyrd gets a little weird, we will have a choice to make- we can embrace or deny it. We can go ahead and make the weird and seemingly pointless thing, or we can ignore our inner voice and try to be the person other people expect us to be. 
This week as you go back out into the world, I want to encourage you to listen for your special path, like a creek rambling over rocks and through tree roots. I encourage you notice where your wyrd is leading you, even when, or especially when it is different than where your friends or neighbors are being lead. “All of you have it inside you to be a groundbreaker. And I mean literally, break the ground, tear off the pieces, tear apart the walls. Build things only you could build.” Take the leap of faith that your wyrd is part of a vast web you share with every other being. Follow that call wherever it leads. It is your wyrd to love.

Closing Words
At a certain moment in [Nietzsche’s] life, the idea came to him of what he called 'the love of your fate.' Whatever your fate is, whatever … happens, you say, 'This is what I need.' It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment—not discouragement—you will find the strength is there. Any disaster you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege! This is when the spontaneity of your own nature will have chance to flow.

Then, when looking back at your life, you will see that the moments which seemed to be great failures followed by wreckage were the incidents that shaped the life you have now. You'll see that this is really true. Nothing can happen to you that is not positive. Even though it looks and feels at the moment like a negative crisis, it is not. The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes.
-Joseph Campbell


Monday, September 29, 2014

It Is What It Is (September 21, 2014)

Don't believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn't make it so. Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it's wrong. Get over it. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence reserve judgment. Remember you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. ..

Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and others. These values undermine fanaticism and ignorance. After all, the universe is mostly dark dotted by islands of light. 

Learning the age of the earth, or the distance to the stars, or how life evolved, what difference does it make? Well, part of it depends on how big a universe you want to live in. Some of us like it small. That's fine. Understandable. But I like it big. And when I take all of this into my own heart and my mind, and when I have that feeling I want to know that it's real. That it's not just something happening inside my own head. Because it matters what's true. And our imagination is nothing compared to nature's awesome reality. I want to know what's in those dark places, and what happened before the big bang. I want to know what lies beyond the cosmic horizon and how life began. Are there other places in the cosmos where matter and energy have become alive and aware? I want to know my ancestors, all of them. I want to be a good strong link in the chain of generations. If we come to know and love nature as it really is then we will surely be remembered by our descendants as good strong links in the chain of life, and our children will continue this sacred searching, seeing for us as we have seen for those that came before. Discovering wonders yet undreamed of, in the cosmos.
 [Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey- episode 13 "Unafraid of the Dark"]

This year our whole family has been watching the remake of Carl Sagan’s classic show “Cosmos” this time narrated by Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the very last minutes of the very last episode he said two things that I think sum up the key to Unitarian Theology. The first shows a faith in truth and a faith in process:
“Don't believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn't make it so. Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it's wrong. Get over it. Follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

We believe that religious truth is not something we receive from an authority. Nor do we subscribe to that popular refrain “Unitarians can believe whatever they want.” Instead we believe in observation and experiment, in following the evidence wherever it leads. The root of this faith in evidence and observation is the well-spring of our tradition - and deGrasse Tyson puts it so beautifully: “… it matters what's true. And our imagination is nothing compared to nature's awesome reality.” Our imagination is nothing compared to nature’s awesome reality. 

This is a fall full of weddings. I have the incredible privilege of marrying two couples in this congregation who have been together for decades, and a young couple I recently met who have been together for just a couple of years. New couples are full of visions of an imagined future, whereas couples who have already spent a lifetime together are not entering into marriage in the abstract, they are committing to and, celebrating a very particular relationship.

When I was a young married woman, I often felt self-conscious that my marriage didn’t look like marriages in the movies. Older married women would fill my mind with should: “he should do this” “if he loved you he would do that” “a healthy marriage is like this.” But as years passed, and against all expectations my partner Eric and I stayed together, I realized my fundamental mistake. We as UUs believe that each and every person is unique and special. Well how on earth could you put together two absolutely unique people and create a marriage that looks just like, well, any marriage you have ever seen before? Our marriage was so much happier when I finally let go of what I imagined a marriage “should” be and just enjoyed the very really marriage I was living each day.

Like our handsome prince Ronald [from the Paper Bag Princess], we have to decide if the princess of our dreams is the one who will risk life and limb and come to our rescue with her courage and quick wits, or whether she is the princess that looks like the one we have imagined.

In her introduction to the Starr King Presidents lecture this past June at General Assembly, Rebecca Parker carefully proposed that:
“Love seeks to know the other as "other." Not as an extension of oneself, not as a reflection or as utilitarian presence to be there for one's use but as an other of sacred worth in the other's own rights. From the other's own perspectives, the other's own practices and values. Love seeks to know the other as other and to preserve and protect the just-so-ness, the "otherness" of the other."
This is something Prince Ronald has not yet figured out, but I have a strong suspicion that any partnership that can last for 31 years is made up of two people who understands their partner to be “an other of sacred worth in the other’s own rights.”

This is part of what makes the early days of a relationship so challenging. Not just a romantic relationship, but with friends, co-workers, neighbors. Because we are constantly creating in our imaginations the person we expect them to be. “A good neighbor does this” “ A friend would do that” or on the other side of things “What else would you expect from that kind of person”. And so when your princess shows up in a paper bag, when your friend forgets your birthday, when your son drops out of art school to become a football player, this is a powerful moment. This is the moment when you know you are witnessing the other as other- not just as the person you expect them to be. 

Let’s face it those expectations are powerful. Every day each of us does something because “it’s expected of us.” So when you experience someone exercising their freedom to be who they truly are, that moment can be disappointing, can be frustrating, but, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says “Our imagination’s nothing compared to nature’s awesome reality.” We may have to grieve the loss of the beautiful, spotless princess, but if we can let go of that imaginary being, we give and receive the gift of being present reality. The reality of, for example, a roommate who doesn’t wash the dishes the way I would. A partner who doesn’t show love the way I do. A friend who doesn’t grieve the way I expect. Here is the other-- defying and frustrating our expectations. The challenge is, can we lay aside which “might” have been, what “should” have been, and give our attention, our presence to what IS. 

Unitarian Universalist have preached tolerance of the other for many decades, but I am proposing something further. Love, as Rebecca Parker says, seeks to know the other as other. This is where the alchemy of love occurs, the magic of love- when something totally UN-expected happens, something I would never have come up with myself. This is the moment when we realize our relationship with our partner, our child, our friend is “real. That it's not just something happening inside my own head.” There are, in fact, strains of theology that propose that this whole reality that we perceive is “all in our own heads, just a dream” and maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but the moment your grandson says that surprising, jaw-droppingly unique thing, you know that at least this is a dream you share with another.

When I was young I looked everywhere for the God I had read about in the Old Testament-- the God of burning bushes and parting waters, who offered commandments on the mountaintop. I never did meet this God. But remember what God says to Moses in the story of the burning bush, when Moses asks “who shall I say has sent me?” God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ [exodus 3.14] What could that mean for our free and responsible search?

One of the new authors I have been introduced to on my sabbatical is Thomas Hart --a Catholic Theology professor and a Family and Marriage Counselor. He writes:
“Coping well with reality is coping well with God. Escaping reality into a separate realm, however spiritual the motive, runs the risk of missing the real encounter with God, and the kinds of growth that come from that encounter.” [p. 34]

Hart is suggesting that if we are only looking for God in burning bushes and parted waters, maybe we are missing something. I know that we here today are a very theologically diverse group. And so I offer to the theists and the agnostics this proposition- to try to know God as God is, instead of what we expect God to be. 

Those expectations come from many places, from scriptures, from an old Sunday School teacher, from television. Sometimes those expectations come from past experiences -- times in our life when we had a felt sense of the divine, or sought God and found nothing. We found god hiking on a mountaintop one awe filled day, but when we return to that very spot it feels empty. We create a very small place for God to exist in our own imaginations, one with clear rules and expectations that God so often disappoints. What if our spiritual expectations are coming between us and what Is? Because God is most certainly “other” – can we allow God to be God? To be other? " Not as an extension of oneself, not as a reflection or as utilitarian presence to be there for one's use but as an other of sacred worth in the other's own rights.”?

In my own personal theology I believe that God is indwelling in everything that is. There is no place in this amazing universe of ours where God is not. Whether you are looking through a telescope, or a microscope or into the face of your roommate or neighbor, the divine is not separable from what you see.

Now I want to assure the atheists in our community that I didn’t forget you. The words of deGrasse Tyson are not only the principles of scientific exploration, but can be guidance for spiritual exploration as well:
“Don't believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn't make it so. Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. ... Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence reserve judgment. Remember you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. .. Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and others. These values undermine fanaticism and ignorance.”

When a scientist comes across something in their experiment and observation that defies their hypothesis, I imagine this must be very discouraging. When you realize that the person you married is never going to take ballroom dance classes with you, or even pick up her socks off the floor, this can fill us with anger and grief. But when we can begin to let go of what we hoped would be, when we can grieve and release what we expected to be, we can finally begin to see what is real, to come closer to the truth of the other, of our world. 

Jesuit Theologian Walter Burghardt describes contemplation as “A long loving look at the real” and this is how I see our UU spiritual journey, whether we are theist, atheist or agnostic. This is where our shared mission to “grow spiritually” begins. I want to draw special attention to that word “love.” Rebecca Parker used it, Neil deGrasse Tyson used it too when he suggested “we come to know and love nature as it really is.” Remember back to a time when someone in your life looked at you with love… remember how that made you feel…Now remember a time when someone looked at you with disappointment, looked at you as if you had failed a test you didn’t even know you were taking. Love matters. It shapes how we respond to all we encounter. While reality is constantly growing and changing and evolving, let us be careful that our dreams of what might be doesn’t keep us from looking with love at what it already is.

Let’s open our hearts and minds to the world around us as it really is. Let’s take time to appreciate it and love it, not as we want it to be, as we expect it to be, but as it is unfolding in this moment. Reality does not exist in the abstract. By definition reality exists in you, as you really are in this moment, in me, as I am in this very moment, and in the sometimes surprising and even maddeningly unpredictable moment that emerges between us. “I want to know that it's real. That it's not just something happening inside my own head. Because it matters what's true. And our imagination is nothing compared to nature's awesome reality”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Meeting the Shadow (August 17, 2014)

Reading- from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

The Island of Gont… is a land famous for wizards. …many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day become both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

 He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain … The name he bore as a child, Duny, was given to him by his mother, and that and his life were all she could give him, for she died before he was a year old. His father, the bronze-smith of the village, was a grim unspeaking man, and since Duny’s six brothers were older than he by many years, there was no one to bring the child up in tenderness. He grew wild, a thriving weed, a tall quick boy, loud and proud and full of temper. With the few other children of the village he herded goats on the steep meadows above the river-springs…There was not much work to be got out of Duny. He was always off and away; roaming deep in the forest, swimming in the pools of the River Ar … or climbing by cliff and scarp to the heights above the forest, from which he could see the sea, ...

A sister of his dead mother lived in the village. She had done what was needful for him as a baby, but she had business of her own and once he could look after himself at all she paid no more heed to him. But one day when the boy was seven years old, untaught and knowing nothing of the arts and powers that are in the world, he heard his aunt crying out words to a goat which had humped up onto the thatch of a hut and would not come down; but it came jumping when she cried a certain rhyme to it. Next day herding the longhaired…, Duny shouted to them the words he had heard, not knowing their use or meaning or what kinds of words they were: North hierth malk man Hiolk han merth han!

 He yelled the rhyme aloud, and the goats came to him. They came very quickly, all of them together, not making any sound. They looked at him out of the dark slot in their yellow eyes.

 Duny laughed and shouted it out again, the rhyme that gave him power over the goats. They came closer, crowding and pushing round him. All at once he felt afraid of their thick, ridged horns and their strange eyes and their strange silence. He tried to get free of them and to run away. The goats ran with him keeping in a knot around him, and so they came charging down into the village at last, all the goats going huddled together as if a rope were pulled tight round them, and the boy in the midst of them weeping and bellowing. Villagers ran from their houses to swear at the goats and laugh at the boy. Among them came the boy’s aunt, who did not laugh. She said a word to the goats, and the beasts began to bleat and browse and wander, freed from the spell.

 “Come with me” she said to Duny. She took him into her hut where she lived alone. …. It was low and dusky, windowless, fragrant with herbs that hung drying from the crosspole of the roof, ... There his aunt sat cross-legged by the firepit, and looking sidelong at the boy through the tangles of her black hair she asked him what he had said to the goats, and if he knew what the rhyme was. When she found that he knew nothing, and yet had spellbound the goats to come to him and follow him, they she saw that he must have in him the makings of power. ..This was Duny’s first step on the way he was to follow all his life, the way of magery, the way that led him at last to hunt a shadow over land and sea to the lightless coasts of the death’s kingdom.

 Reading- Romancing the Shadow

… the shadow, is us, yet is not us. Hidden from our awareness, the shadow is not a part of our conscious self-image. So it seems to appear abruptly, out of nowhere, in a range of behaviors from off-color jokes to devastating abuses. When it emerges, it feels like an unwanted visitor, leaving us ashamed, even mortified. For instance, when a man who views himself as a responsible husband and provider is suddenly taken over by a dream of freedom and independence, his shadow is speaking. When a woman with a health-conscious lifestyle craves ice cream and feels compelled to binge in the dark of night, her shadow is acting out. When a normally kind mother belittles her child, her shadow is showing…

In each of these instances, the individual’s persona, the mask show to the world, is split off from the shadow, the face hidden from the world. The deeper this rift and the more unconscious the shadow, the more we experience it as a stranger, an Other, an alien invader. Therefore, we cannot face it in ourselves or tolerate it in others.” [P. 4]

We suggest that you relate to the shadow as a mystery, rather than as a problem to be solved or an illness to be cured. When the Other arrives, honor that part of yourself as a guest. You may discover that it comes bearing gifts. You may discover that shadow-work is, indeed, soul work.

When shadow-work is neglected, the soul feels dry, brittle, like an empty vessel. Then, people suffer depression rather than embark on a fruitful descent. When shadow-work is denied, the soul feels banished, exiled from its habitats in the wilds of nature … or in the sacred objects of art. Then, people suffer anxiety and loneliness, cut off from a sense of place, the mystery of the Beloved, or the beauty of things.

But when Shadow-work is attended to, the soul feels round, full, sated. When shadow-work is invited into a life, the soul feels welcomed, alive in the gardens, aroused in passion, awake in sacred things.” P. 9

Sermon- Meeting the Shadow

I am so happy to be able to introduce you to one of my all-time favorite Authors, Ursula LeGuin. Have any of you read her books or stories before? I recently re-read The Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, and realized it is a perfect parable about the Jungian Shadow archetype which I had been studying in my Spiritual Directors Training program. So in celebration of summer reading, I propose that we use a fantasy of wizards and magic to lead us deeper into our own souls.

 As we heard in the opening story, Duny did not receive a lot of attention as a child. His mother died in his infancy, his aunt kept her distance. His father was stern and abusive. Each of us is raised in a unique family system that nurtures some parts of us and discourages others. For our own survival we become the person we have to be to gain attention and approval in that family, in school, in society. Even in the most loving, healthy family, there will be parts of our self that we disown, that we “repress” as the Jungian’s say, in order to fit in.

When Duny reaches the limits of what his Aunt can teach, he goes to study with a local Mage called Ogion who performs the ritual of coming of age, giving him his true name, Ged. He is frustrated with his studies because while Ogion is trying to teach him about patience and restraint, Ged wants to learn showy spells of great power. After about a year of study, his teacher offers Ged a choice:

“If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great. Greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will.” [ 24]Ged chooses the Isle of Roke , because much as he loves and respects his teacher, “other cravings were in him that would not be stilled, the wish for glory, the will to act.”

So Ged boards a boat bound for Roke, and once there an upperclassman is assigned to give him a tour.
… he was met by a tall youth who greeted him very courteously, bowing his head. “I am called Jasper, Enwit’s son of the Domain of Eolg on Havnor Isle. I am at your service today, to show you about the Great House and answer your questions as I can. How shall I call you, Sir?”
Now it seemed to Ged, a mountain villager who had never been among the sons of rich merchants and noblemen, that this fellow was scoffing at him with his “service” and his” Sir” and his bowing and scraping. He answered shortly, “Sparrowhawk, they call me.” [p. 37]

Has this ever happened to you? You meet someone who immediately dislike, before you really even know them? This is a perfect example of projection. A new person we meet is like a blank screen on which we project our own shadows. The next time you are among new people, notice- whom do you imagine would be fun to get to know? Who rubs you the wrong way in just the first few moments of sharing a room? Since I started thinking about my shadow this past year, I have taken to really noticing these strong, unfounded reactions, positive or negative. I even have a little list I am making in my journal to see if I notice any patterns.

We project on all kinds of things all day long. When you are watching the news or scrolling through your Facebook feed, notice what are the issues that really push your buttons, that fill you with righteous indignation? (Not that sometimes our indignation isn’t justified- as Jeremy Taylor says, just because something is a projection doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and just because something is true doesn’t mean it isn’t a projection)

I’ll give you an example for Unitarian Universalism. What are we as a people knee-jerk intolerant of? Religious intolerance! Oh that makes our blood boil. But as soon as we focus our righteous indignation on “them” this is a clue that we are dealing with our own shadow. As soon as we identify an external group, or person to wag our fingers at, what we are really doing is projecting our own shadow. Like the strange monster Ged saw lurking in the corner, we identify it as “whole-ly other.” As Dr. Zweib explained: “the more unconscious the shadow, the more we experience it as a stranger, an Other, an alien invader. Therefore, we cannot face it in ourselves or tolerate it in others.”

For example, I have heard many good UUs talk about evangelicals as embodying the opposite of all that is good and noble about UU. In making this kind of gross generalization, we are projecting our shadow on them, instead looking at our own complex attitudes and unexamined behaviors about tolerance and intolerance. Our shadow stalks us, each one of us, as individuals, as families, as organizations, as cultures. 

This is what happened when Jasper’s first words to Ged awoke something of Ged’s own shadow. Over the next few years of Ged’s studies, it becomes apparent that Ged has a natural talent and a drive to learn. He yearns for power and devotes himself whole heartedly to acquiring it. But Jasper, an older boy further along in his studies, is unimpressed. 
Standing there with rage in his heart, looking after Jasper, Ged swore to himself to outdo his rival ... He would prove himself, and humiliate Jasper. He would not let the fellow stand there looking down at him, graceful, disdainful, hateful.
 Ged did not stop to think why Jasper might hate him. He only knew why he hated Jasper. The other prentices had son learned they could seldom match themselves against Ged either in sport or in earnest, … Jasper alone neither praised him nor avoided him, but simply looked down at him, smiling slightly. And therefore Jasper stood alone as his rival, who must be put to shame. [p. 45]

The animosity grows between them, and one day when Ged is 15 Jasper challenges him during an argument about who is more powerful to “Summon up a spirit from the dead.” To everyone’s shock and fear, Ged complies.
 “In a great slow gesture he stretched out his arms, the gesture of welcome that opens an invocation. He began to speak.

He had read the runs of this Spell of Summoning in Orion’s book, two years and more ago, and never since had seen them. .. But now he understood what had read, speaking it aloud word after word, and he saw the markings of how the spell must be woven with the sound of the voice and the motion of body and hand…

The shapeless mass of darkness he had lifted split apart. …, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his opened arms, a faint oval reaching from the ground up to the height of his raised hands. ..

Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms great bright. It widened and spread…, a ripping open of the fabric of the world .Through it blazed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face.

Staggering back under the weight of the thing, Ged gave a short, hoarse scream. .. Ged fell, struggling and writing, while the bright rip in the world’s darkness above him widened and stretched. ..

The intolerable brightness faded, and slowly the torn edges of the world closed together. Nearly a voice was speaking as softly as a tree whispers or a fountain plays. [p. 60]

This was the voice of the Archmage Nemmerle. The effort of closing this rift and saving Ged’s life is too much for him, and he dies from the effort. Ged, however, lays in the infirmary for many weeks, and wakes weakened, ashamed, and with “Deep, ragged, and evil wounds” on his face and through and shoulder.”

Ged is humbled and the course of his life has changed forever. Not even his great and powerful teachers are sure of the nature of the thing he has loosed into the world. Ged stays at the school for several more years regaining his strength, protected from this nameless thing by the powerful magic of the place, until he decides it is time for him to go out in the world and make his way.

 His teacher, Gensher of Way, says to him “You have great power inborn in you, and you used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you had no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of … good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and hate. Is it any wonder the result was ruin? ... Uncalled it came from a place where there are no names. Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you; you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast.” [p. 66]

So Ged sets out on his own, leaving the protection of the island, and always his shadow chases him, coming closer and closer. Finally when the thing is almost on him, Ged changes himself into a hawk and flies home to Gont, to his first teacher. He almost forgets himself, is almost unrecognizable to his teacher, but with his teacher’s help comes back to himself.

This again parallels the meeting of the shadow in our own lives. It is usually in young adulthood, or perhaps in midlife, when the structures that protected us in childhood begin to chafe, or limit the expression of our souls.

We flee this stranger, this monster but still it pursues us. It sneaks up on us at the strangest times. As Zweig says in their classic book about how ordinary people can recognize and work with their shadow: “When a woman with a health-conscious lifestyle craves ice cream and feels compelled to binge in the dark of night, her shadow is acting out. When a normally kind mother belittles her child, her shadow is showing.” And like Ged sometimes we transform ourselves into a form that is not our true form to hide from our shadow, to survive in the world.

 It is Ogion that finally suggests a solution not only for Ged’s dilemma, but for ours as well.
“There is no safe place,” Ogion said gently. “Do not transform yourself again, Ged. The shadow seeks to destroy your true being. It nearly did so, driving you into hawk’s being. No, where you should go, I do not know. Yet I have an idea of what you should do. It is a hard thing to say to you.”

Ged’s silence demanded truth, and Ogion said at last, “you must turn around.”

“Turn around?”

"If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet anger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunger.”…

 “You returned to Gont, you returned to me, Ged. Now turn clear round, and seek the very source, and that which lies before the source. There lies your hope of strength.”…

“If I turn,” Ged said after some time had gone by, “if as you say I hunt the hunter, I think the hunt will not be long. All its desire is to meet me face to face.”… [p. 127]

This is the nature of shadow work. This is what I am asking you to consider today, that instead of running from our shadow, avoiding our shadow, externalizing our shadow, we turn around and meet it. And as Ged and Ogion acknowledge, this is not a process without risks. But continuing to hide from our shadow has risks as well. As Ged’s teacher tells him on Roke: “the thing you loosed would find you at once, and enter into you, and possess you. ..”

If we don’t turn and meet our shadow, it has tremendous power over us. Whether it lashes out in a harsh word, or in addiction, or our repression of it keeps us trapped in a muted life, a life where we miss some part of our true self, some depth of our soul, or our relationships, because we do not turn and face it. 

Let’s also notice that Ged wisely sought the help of a teacher, one who cared about him and knew him. Remember that if you ever feel lost or afraid in trying to meet your shadow work.

So Ged and his friend sail off deeper and deeper into the unknown seas, far past land, and finally Ged meets this monster who has haunted him since he was a boy.
In silence, man and shadow met face to face, and stopped.

Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow’s name in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: “Ged.” And the two voices were one voice.

Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.” [p. 179 ]

  “look,” [says Ged returning] “it is done. It is over.” He laughed “The wound is healed,” he said, “I am whole, I am free.” Then he bent over and hid his face in his arms, weeping like a boy. [p. 181]

For Jung and those who follow him, the work of a lifetime is to come to know your shadow, to meet it, and then to integrate it into yourself, because the self is partial and incomplete. The shadow, it is said, carries the gift. As Zweig says:
“When the Other arrives, honor that part of yourself as a guest. You may discover that it comes bearing gifts. You may discover that shadow-work is, indeed, soul work.” 

This is my offering to you this morning, as you go about your ordinary life, devoid of dragons and enchanted islands: the next time you experience something either in yourself or in the world as “totally other” as so completely “not- you” that it effects your emotions, pay attention. Just notice what you feel. Maybe that stranger can point you towards your shadow. See if you can catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye. It may bring strong feelings- that means you are close! So be kind to yourself, don’t judge, just breathe into whatever you are noticing. The more we become conscious of the inner forces that drive us, the more deeply we will know ourselves. The shadow which first appears in terrifying intensity may someday reveal a gift that will enrich our lives.

This was true for Ged. It was because he turned to meet his shadow and said it’s true name that he gained the wisdom , the restraint and the power to become the Archmage and to defeated an even greater evil- the shadow of the whole culture of Earthsea. But those stories, as they say, are for another book, for another day.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Inward Journey (June 8, 2014)

Over my sabbatical I spent some time almost every day reading the collected works of the great 13th century Sufi Mystic Rumi who wrote these words:
Which is worth more, a crowd of thousands,
or your own genuine solitude?
Freedom, or power over an entire nation?
A little while alone in your room
will prove more valuable than anything else
that could ever be given you. (p. 260)
Rumi is proposing the very ancient, but still radical idea that the inward journey is more valuablethan anything else.

Certainly it was this instinct that lead Prince Siddhartha to give up his comfortable life, his wealth, literally his “power over an entire nation”. We told the story of Siddhartha on the day we bridged our High School seniors.. The story of how he was raised in luxury, heir to the throne, and protected from human suffering his whole life, until finally he demanded to be taken out of the palace and face the realities of life. When confronted with the sources of suffering—greed, illness, poverty and death, he renouncing everything, and went to learn meditation. Really, it’s the classic mid-life crisis, a man established in life, with wife and family, a career set out for him. All his physical needs met. But the luxuries of life were no longer enough. All the power he could want was no longer enough. And so a growing sense of dissatisfaction draws him to ask “what else is there?” All his privilege could not make him feel whole, feel satisfied. His luck was that he could understand with certainty that wealth does not ease this inner dissatisfaction. Many of us go our whole lives thinking “If only I had more money I would feel satisfied. If only I could get that promotion I would feel satisfied. If only I had a partner and a family I would feel satisfied.” 

So leaving behind everything except the simple robes he wore as he left the palace, he wanders for a while until he finds a teacher who introduces him to meditation. This is the first step in the inward journey, learning to quiet the mind --to stop doing for a little bit of time, to slow down the racing thoughts and be still. For most of us, this is hard. At the end of a long busy day, the body finally comes to rest and the mind spins and spins. We try to sleep and the mind is so active that we can’t sleep despite how tired we are.

One of the requirements of the spiritual direction training program I have been part of this year is to pray or meditate 20 minutes a day. I will be honest with you, until the start of my sabbatical, I was kind of pretending I hadn’t seen that requirement. I am not good at sitting still. If I sit down to watch “Cosmos” with my family I need a pile of laundry to fold, or at least some knitting to keep me there for the duration of the program. Besides, I do yoga almost every day, that’s the same thing right? And where was I going to find 20 more minutes a day to do anything? But once the sabbatical started I had no excuse. I found a seated posture that didn’t make my back hurt and turned my attention to my breath. I started paying attention to, well, my attention in yoga as well. Constantly bringing my mind back from its wanderings. At first I used to be hard on myself for the uncontrolled antics of my mind, but a yoga teacher had said “think of the mind as a little puppy, and gently lead it back.”

 I was amazed at the variation from day to day how long it would take for the mind to “release its contents” and finally settle into something like stillness. After a couple of months it became easier to really be present during yoga; I was amazed that for so many years I had let my mind wander wherever it wanted during my practice. Then just one day back to work after sabbatical I noticed during yoga that I was more present at a meeting I had just scheduled for July than I was in that moment. I took a deep breath and gently lead my mind back like a beloved puppy. Some days it’s harder than others, but there is a value to whatever stillness can be found that tends to reduce anxiety, to reduce our attachment to doing and thinking so we can just be. But this is not the end of the journey.

Siddhartha left his meditation teacher once he had learned the basics of meditation, because he had not yet found the cause and cure for suffering. He had not yet found the enlightenment he was looking for. The quieting of the chatter of the mind is just the doorway to the inward journey, because now we are alone with our Self. We are free now to look at the material from our life that begins to emerge and ask for our attention. Loneliness. Anger. Fear. All the old wounds that were never fully healed, that we never have time to look at in the busy stream of doing and planning. If you took up meditation to find peace, this layer of material is going to make you wonder what went wrong. When these inward electrical storms arise, meditation is not peaceful, prayer is not peaceful. Many people feel some kind of taboo about bringing their anger, fear, loneliness to prayer or meditation. But in fact our spiritual practice is the BEST place to be present with these things. Otherwise our spiritual life stays shallow. The Jungians call this “shadow material” and believe that the goal of human development is to become more and more conscious of our self so that, for example, that hurtful thing that bully said on the playground all those years ago doesn’t unconsciously cloud my interactions with my community today. When this material arises is a great time to talk to your spiritual director. The job of spiritual directors is not to fix this discomfort as it arises, but simply tobe present with the directee and whatever is emerging. The teachers in my training program mentioned many have found comfort “praying the psalms” at such times because the Psalms are filled with all the emotions that real people bring to prayer. Like the words of Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

About this time in my own process, surrounded by Catholic religious brothers and sisters, and protestant clergy I thought “I am completely out of my depth here. I was born and raised UU, I don’t really know what it means to “Pray with the psalms” and moreover, I have a complicated relationship to the Judeo Christian scriptures.” A helpful classmate asked what helpful answers I might find in my own religious tradition. I muttered something about thinking that over and went off to be alone.

Beloved community, I think this is one of the critical questions facing our religious movement today; how does our tradition support us on the inward journey.  And we are not alone in facing it. I asked my husband the other day who went to 12 years of catholic school and 4 years of Jesuit college if he ever received any instruction in prayer, and he said he had only been taught the words of the spoken prayers of his childhood tradition. All these protestant clergy are taking part in this spiritual direction training program because they are not finding the teachings they and their congregations need in their own tradition. In point of fact teaching about the inward journey has been “underground” for centuries. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian Abbot, writes that around the end of the 16th century there was a clamping down on “affective prayer” [p. 23] that is, prayer that explores these emotions as they arise. He says that for centuries “Contemplation was an extraordinary grace reserved to the few” [p. 21] In the twentieth century things began to change. Says Keating, “The idea of laypeople pursuing the spiritual path is not something new. It just hasn’t been popular in the past thousand years. In the spiritual traditions of the world religions, both East and West, there has been a tendency to isolate seekers…” [p. 28] from laypeople raising families, holding down jobs. In not only Christianity but also in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, teachings about the inward journey were reserved for a few initiates, and not made available to people like us. Both the traditions of Spiritual Direction and Contemplative prayer returned to public view in the Catholic tradition after Vatican 2 [ p. 33] with the realization that laypeople were hungry for teachings to support them on the spiritual journey, and that if their own tradition would not help them, people would turn elsewhere. Keating believes “We need to refresh ourselves at this deep level everyday. Just as we need exercise, food, rest, and sleep, so also we need moments of interior silence because they bring the deepest kind of refreshment.” [P. 35]

 Back to Siddhartha. Our story tells us that he began practicing with a group of ascetics- folks who “practiced hardships to conquer their desires, sensations and fears.” With them he denied himself food, sleep, and exposed himself to the harsh elements meditating for days on end. He became so frail from these hardships that he was near death, yet still he did not find what he was seeking. Sometimes when we are too hard on ourselves, too focused on our own “goodness” the discipline, the goodness itself becomes the object of our focus, becomes a detour from the true end of our journey. Gautama thought about the luxuries of his early life, and the hardships of this ascetic practice. He realized that there was a middle way. 

When Gautama left behind this harsh practice and hobbled to a river to bathe, a village girl, Sujata, brought him a bowl of sweetened rice and he was renewed by her kindness, reminding us of the importance of compassion on the inward journey. Both Buddhism and Hinduism have the virtue of “Ahimsa” or “non-harming.” We hold ahimsa not only for others but also for the self both on the inward and outward journeys. As the 8th century Buddhist teacher Saraha puts it “He who clings to the void and neglects compassion does not reach the highest stage. But he who practices only compassion does not gain release from the toils of existence.” [cited in Ram Das “Be here now” p. 95]

Finally Gautama takes his seat under the Bodhi tree and determines not to rise until he has found enlightenment. He focuses on the space between his thoughts to experience for himself the ultimate nature of reality. There Gautama faced Mara, the shadow material all of us face deep in ourselves. He faced his desire to return to his wife and child, the temptation to become king, his self-doubt until finally he found the place deep in his own interior that was free from suffering-- because there is something more permanent, more enduring, more valuable than any of those things. In different traditions people call this different things, the ground of being, the river of pure awareness, Christians say there lies union with God. In general the religious traditions agree that the closer you get to this ultimate reality, the less useful words are. Silence is the best way to reach this place, and perhaps the best way to express it as words begin to fail. That day Gautama found this state he called enlightenment and became Buddha.

Then the Buddha realized that others would need a path out of suffering. He understood that he must become a teacher and spend the rest of his life helping others on their journey. As Buddha’s story illustrates, the inward path leads back out into the world. Compassion leads one who has found a place without suffering to alleviate the suffering of others.

I know that Unitarian Universalists are traveling this inward journey. The drive to know for ourselves what is at the heart of this life is part of our mission. The question is – are we prepared to support one another, as our UU principles call us, to “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”? What tools, what skills, what attention do we offer one another in support? I believe there are maps for this journey so that we do not have to enter this way blindly and alone, maps like the one the Buddha taught to all who asked. And I believe more and more in the value of having companions on the journey, the value of someone like a spiritual director who listens and offers guidance, and the value of a community to hold one another in covenant. But some part of this journey we can only take in the quiet of our own hearts. As Rumi says:
A little while alone in your room
will prove more valuable than anything else
that could ever be given you.