Monday, January 20, 2014

The Deep Way (January 19, 2014)

I am not sure you can become a Unitarian Universalist minister without knowing at least a few poems by Mary Oliver. When I was in seminary, we used her poetry in worship again and again because it seemed to speak right to our desire to live in the world in a deep way.

One poem we often heard in chapel was “The Summer Day” which ends:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
On first hearing it spoke directly to my most urgent questions about what I was called to do with my life. What better life could I choose than being the minister of a church like this one? “To Serve Lovingly, live ethically and grow spiritually."

And so these past 15 years I have poured myself out into the shared ministry of our faith. I have tried my hand at just about every aspect of church life- I have been a church secretary, a church musician, a youth group leader, a Sunday school teacher. As a minister I’ve washed dishes and visited members in the hospital. I’ve weeded the garden and officiated at weddings. I’ve organized political action and led discussions of biblical criticism. And through it all I learned the hard way that it's not more meetings, more spreadsheets, more programs, or even more skillful preaching that lead to spiritual growth. As some of you dedicated volunteers know, it is possible to spend all of your spare energy serving your church, your community, your principles until you are all used up. If we are only serving lovingly and living ethically without growing spiritually, the quality of our presence, the spark of life we bring to one another sputters and goes out. 

When I shared Mary Oliver’s poem from the pulpit a few months back, I was startled to find a whole new way of looking at this question “What will I do with my one wild and precious life.” There’s nothing in that poem about the work of building up our world, instead she writes:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
What Mary Oliver has chosen to do with her one wild and precious life is "to be idle and blessed."  

I want to acknowledge right now that this is profoundly counter-cultural. As I mentioned in my sermon on “emptiness” last month, we have come to value the worth of our lives by our productivity, by how much we do and the profit therein. But when we seek healing for the broken parts of our world, I don’t feel like we are a few over-time shifts away from repair. I don’t feel, as I walk through the mall, that we are a few more sales away from repairing the environmental damage to our planet, or one more iPad upgrade away from mending the broken hearts in our community.

For millennia, religious community has offered something different than the status quo. The great Unitarian religious educator Sofia Fahs wrote:
"The religious way is the deep way, the way that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon. The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships; that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of kinship." [ii]

I think this is a great explanation of what we mean by “spiritual growth” in our mission statement. We are growing high, wide and deep. We are looking for the intangibles at the heart of everything.

Like everything of importance in our lives, this deep way takes time and attention. Spirituality doesn’t just happen. Okay, sometimes it does. Sometimes you find yourself gazing at a sunset from the peak of a mountain, or at the hospital bed of a beloved who is suffering and something deep comes to your heart and soul un-bidden. But most days we choose, consciously or unconsciously, whether to take the deep way or to skim along the surface of life.

I submit to you that it is possible to do each and every one of the long list of action items that make up church life without growing a jot. This happens not only when we are “going through the motions” instead of bringing our full self to a task, but it also happens when we confuse the purpose of our task with religious purpose. We can create worship that is excellently prepared, but still does not help us touch the ineffable. We can have meetings that complete every task on the agenda, but that still do not satisfy the longing in the soul. For this is the other part of what I am proposing; it is also possible to do each and every one of that long list of action items that make up church life in a deep way, in a religious way. You get this- this is part of what I love about you- you know the difference between what is important and what is merely urgent. I see you looking for the heart of our shared life together in this beloved community. I see you looking for the deep way.

My seminary professors Bob Kimball and Til Evans used to talk a lot about this-- about that special thing that can happen between people when they are really truly present with one another, something deep and real. We don’t have complete control over when and how this will happen but, as Bob used to say, we can do things that “increase the odds” that such moments will occur. This, they felt, was the essence of the religious life, the essence of ministry. Sometimes, as a clergy person, I forget that it matters more HOW we are at a meeting, than WHAT we accomplish. I notice that the busier I am, the more things on my to-do list, the easier it is to forget. My attention strays from the needs of the soul to the needs of the agenda. That is part of the reason that ministers take a study leave in the summer and a sabbatical every few years--creating a space that “increases the odds” of authentic, real, presence.

And of course, ministers are no different than any other person when it comes to the need for deep, authentic, relationship. It’s not just ministers and academics (and I hear now researchers at Google take sabbaticals). Everyone needs the time and the space to connect to the deepest wellsprings of life. Every soul needs space and time to develop. Every spirit needs room to grow. That is to say, as a Universalist, I believe that no one comes into this world cut off from their one-ness. We are all part of this amazing unity that is life, though sometimes it’s easier to remember that than other times. I believe therefore, I take the Universalist leap, that true religion must be accessible to each and every person. The religious life, life on the deepest level is by this definition something that every living being is connected to. Living a religious life is about our attempt to renew that connection to our one-ness with all that is.

I believe with Fahs that “The religious way is the deep way.” So I hypothesize that to find the “heart of every intangible thing” you go deeper and deeper until you reach the point where everything actually is one. Go so deep that there is not even the distinction of “this is a religious life and that is not” or “this is me but that is not me.” Seeking such a level of being is, to my mind, the essence of both the Unitarian tradition — the one-ness of God, and the Universalist tradition — the one-ness of our common plight.

Many people have asked what I will be doing on my sabbatical, and the training I will be doing in Spiritual Direction is just part of the answer. A better answer is that I want to go deep. Recently I mentioned to some friends that in addition to taking a leave from my usual work here in this congregation, I will be taking a break from all the committees on which I volunteer in the community as well. They were amazed-- Darcey without committee meetings? My partner Eric said “I don’t think I’ve ever known you when you didn’t have committee meetings.” A friend said “I’m looking forward to getting to know what you are like when you have no committee meetings.” I replied “me too!” What will this look like? I’m not totally sure. If I’ve learned nothing else about trying to follow the deep way it is that the first step is letting go of expectations, letting go of attachment to the outcome.

The spiritual adventure can look many different ways, it can take many different forms. It can look sometimes like sitting in meditation, and other times like weeding a garden or being fully present in conversation with a toddler. It takes patience and a persistent curiosity to penetrate beyond the surface of things to the deep well-spring at the source of life. 

Raised as we have all been in a culture that measures our value by our productivity, I must reassure myself that restoring, nurturing, lighting my soul with this in mind is not insular and selfish, but is one of the critical pieces of co-creating a religious community like ours, and co-creating our world through these troubled times. As Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs writes in her “Letter to a Young Activist”:
“...One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires ... causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”[iii]

 If we believe that a soul who is “fully lit” is important to our world, then we must give whatever time and attention is necessary to “shine like gold in dark times.” As far as I know I am the only person in this congregation who is headed off on sabbatical this spring (and I am deeply deeply grateful to you for this gift of time to re-ignite my own soul) but I invite each of you, as you are willing and able, to follow the deep way, the religious way. While washing the dishes, while meeting in committee. I invite you to taking time for contemplation or to fall down in the grass-- to be idle and blessed. To “see what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon.”

[ii] Sophia Lyon Fahs, Today's Children and Yesterday's Heritage, from Cornerstones, p.5. [iii] 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Boundaries, Membranes and Walls (January 5, 2014)

Part 1

In the beginning, okay not really the beginning, but 4 billion years ago when the earth had cooled enough for rocks to harden and for water to settle into oceans, life first emerged on earth. How amazing! We can’t really know exactly what happened in those early days of life on earth. All scientists can do is create theories based on the geological evidence that we do have and the life that survives today. We know that due to the tremendous creativity of life, many forms of being emerged and only a fraction thereof survive. Today, in honor of Evolution Weekend, we honor this incredible journey we share with all living things.

First, as the story goes, simple organic molecules began to emerge, chains of simple nucleotides. While scientists haven’t been able to exactly replicate conditions on the early earth, back in the 1950s a scientist called Stanley Miller showed that when electric sparks were discharged into water containing the building block elements, organic molecules would emerge. [i] Then RNA evolved – chains of nucleotides that could reproduce its own patterns and pass these patterns on to offspring. Now the base molecules of life could learn and remember and grow. Those patterns that were most successful in the conditions of that early earth would continue to reproduce themselves. Other patterns that were less effective at surviving or replicating would fade into extinction.

One of the patterns that emerged was to for the genetic material to be enclosed in a cell membrane made up of chains of hydrocarbons- they were similar to modern bacteria. This was so effective that it quickly outpaced the “naked” molecules- those without membranes. This is successful because without a membrane to keep the enzymes you produce for yourself, those enzymes will tend to get co-opted by your neighbors- as if all the neighboring molecules are parasites. A cell with a membrane, on the other hand, can keep its enzymes all for itself. Having a membrane also meant that the contents of the cell could be different from the outside environment- helping these complex molecules remain stable. [ii]

I know on a cold week like this one you have thought a lot about how to stay warm. The thing is it’s much easier to STAY warm than to GET warm. We all know the difference between a well-sealed house on a cold day. Imagine if we opened the doors and windows right now- all the heat we’ve generated here inside would vanish in a few minutes. This was the evolutionary benefit that made those first cells so successful. But we have to open the doors to let in everyone who wants to come to services. So we need not walls, but permeable membranes.

We call those early forms “proto-cells” because they were so much simpler than many of the cells that make up living beings today. These early cells continued to evolve, becoming more complex like the ones in your body today. It took 2 billion years for those proto-cells to involve into new more complex cells, we call eukaryotic because they have all their genetic material separated from the cytoplasm by yet another membrane around the nucleus- this is called the nuclear envelope. (Karyon is the root word meaning “nut” or “kernel”) All the cells in your body today are eukaryotic, and so each has at least 2 membranes.

These cell membranes are not impermeable barriers; they have the job not only of keeping things out but also of letting things in . And the important job of knowing the difference. [iii]

 About 700 million years ago the first multi-cellular beings evolved. The first multi-celled organisms looked something like modern algae, or worms or jellyfish. There are several theories of how this happened, but the most prevalent says that and first they were just a loose affiliation of identical cells, that over many generations began to divide up the work of the colony, and those cells began to evolve in a way that optimized their form to optimize their job. Your human body has about 200 different kinds of cells! These multi-celled organisms developed membranes of their own. Your body has 5 types of membrane- the most obvious being the skin- the “cutaneous” membrane.[iv]

As we heard in our opening reading from the “Journey of the Universe” these membranes, whether the most primitive or the most sophisticated, these are where “the capacity for discernment resides.” Pretty amazing, to think of your tiny little microscopic cells being capable of discernment, and realizing that this is a quality they share with ancestors 4 billion years ago.

Part 2

Something there is that doesn't love a wall” writes the poet Robert Frost. I feel this too. As a person who is looking for the religious life, the deep life, I am constantly challenging myself to break down walls in my own heart and mind. I want to be more patient, more giving, more generous. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” they seem almost contrary to our UU values of openness, service, growth. But I have learned the hard way that as for those early proto-cells, good membranes are life-promoting, are crucial for our health and for the integrity of self.

Endocrinologist Hans Selye, who made his name studying biological stress, quipped:
“At first sight, it is odd that the laws governing life’s responses at such different levels as a cell, a whole person, or even a nation should be so essentially similar”

So I propose that some of those same principles that apply to cell membranes are true for the human being, and for the human community- that to be healthy each of us need permeable membranes. Or, that in community, as Robert Frost says “Good walls make good neighbors.”

Now of course a membrane is not a wall- it is much more sophisticated. A membrane does more than just keep cows in and keep neighbors out. The most healthy successful boundaries are a delicate balance of strong and permeable. Finding this balance is a perennial struggle for individual and society alike. The tension between liberal and conservative religions, between liberal and conservative politics is often said to be the tension between love and the law. Liberals tend to lean heavily on the idea that “love is all you need” and conservatives tend to lean on the idea that tougher laws, tougher punishments create safety and justice. In reality, the evolution of life on this planet shows that an organism without any membrane is quickly out-survived by one with a membrane. And on the other side of the polarity, a being surrounded by an impermeable membrane will suffocate and die. The question is not really whether open is better than closed, but what is the delicate balance that keeps us most healthy and life-giving.

Let’s review the jobs of a membrane and see how we can use this living text to inform our daily lives.

The first job of a membrane is to keep things out. When you shower, for example, some of the water is absorbed by the top layers of the skin (your cutaneous membrane) but doesn’t penetrate into the body. There is a lot of controversy right now about which chemicals do penetrate through the skin into the body. But big things, like marbles, or cookie crumbs, or most if not all the water in your shower stay outside your membrane all-together, or don’t get any deeper than the outer layer of the membranes. But skin is not an impermeable wall. Some things do get through – like oleoresins of certain plants (like poison ivy and poison oak), or the salts of heavy metals such as lead,[v]

In our bodies different kinds of membranes are more or less permeable. Remember when everyone was unsure how people contracted HIV and aids? People were afraid to hug or even shake hands with people who were infected. Later we learned that the skin is a good barrier against transmission, but mucus membranes are not. This is why people contacted aids from infected dentists or sex partners.
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out”
Sometimes liberals err on the side of making their boundaries too permeable. We are a hopeful people and want to believe that we can trust everyone. But the ability to say “no” to what is unhealthy for us is part of being a loving community. I love marbles as much as the next person, but I’m glad my skin keeps them outside my body. Being able to say “no” to things in the environment is critically important to survival. I can lock my door and choose who to let into my house. I can say no to physical and sexual abuse. I can choose to spend time with healthy people who help me be a whole person, and limit the time I spend with people who make me feel less than whole. I can even choose what issues and concerns I am going to let in and make my own, and which I am going to keep outside of myself. And I can change from day to day, year to year, what I let in and what I keep out.

The next job of boundaries is to take things in. We have to breathe. We have to eat. But we need to exclude poison and disease in the food we eat and the air we breathe. On the human scale, we also need information, we need relationships. Sometimes we err on the side of boundaries that are too rigid and we don’t take in enough from outside to allow us to thrive. It’s not hard to find examples in the news of people who simply will not allow new ideas into their minds, and so operate within a paradigm that denies them some of the information they need to effectively live in the real world. Okay, we all do this from time to time. We resist new ideas, ideas that are radically different from how we believe the world to be. But healthy systems tend to let in new ideas pretty freely. Our boundaries are the mechanism through which we discern what ideas will nourish us and which will make us sick.

Let’s extend this idea to relationships. On one end of the spectrum are people who close themselves off to friends and family, isolating themselves with rigid impermeable boundaries. At the other extreme are people who will let anyone into their lives, even people who will use or abuse them. Having good boundaries is about discernment- is this idea food, or is it poison? Is this relationship one that will help me grow and thrive, or one that will eat away at me?

The third job of boundaries is to excrete. After we take something in, we integrate the parts we need and excrete the rest. The word Excrete comes from the root cernere, which means “to separate.” It reminds me of the story of the two monks:

Once there were two monks traveling when they arrived at a river. At the river they discovered a woman struggling to get across. Without a second thought, the older of the two monks asked the woman if she needed help, then swiftly picked her up and carried her across to the other bank.

It should be understood that for monks, especially in ancient times, any contact with the opposite sex would be strongly frowned upon, if not forbidden. The actions of the older monk greatly troubled the younger monk, who allowed his feelings to fester for several miles while they continued their journey.

Finally, the younger monk confronted the older monk, "How could you have done such a thing? We are not even supposed to be in a woman's presence, but you touched her, carried her even!"

The older monk calmly replied, "I put that woman down miles ago, back at the river. But you are still carrying her."[vi]
In this story, the young monk’s boundaries are so rigid they do not allow him to help a woman in need, the older monk has boundaries that are permeable enough to allow him to transgress a taboo when it is the compassionate thing to do, and then to let go of the experience when it is time.

Even with our good friends, our favorite books or TV shows, healthy boundaries allow us to take in what we can use, and separate that which is not useful, or which is toxic, and to let go of it. With a family, within a community, things happen which makes us mad, or ashamed, or sad. If we allow it to sit inside us and festers it can make us sick. But healthy boundaries allow us to let things go that are no longer useful to us.

The final thought about boundaries. Apparently “the surface of the plasma membrane carries markers that allow cells to recognize one another, which …plays a role in the “self” versus “non-self” distinction of the immune response. “[vii] So boundaries help us tell the difference between “self” and “non-self.” When you are part of a group, sometimes we get overwhelmed or seduced by the dynamics of the group. This is the teenager who does something she would normally never do because “everyone was doing it.” This is the employee who does not notice that the demands of his work conflict with his ethics because it is “just the way things are done.” This is the family member who gets sucked into a holiday conflict that doesn’t really involve him. Systems Theory folks agree, the most important way to have healthy systems is to have strong individuals with have a strong sense of self. The teenager who says “hey guys, I don’t think that’s a good idea” not only protects herself, but may in fact help the group a reconsider a risky decision. The family member who says “That’s between Bob and Susan, I’m not getting involved” will not only reduce his own holiday stress, but may help the whole family become less anxious. Remember, even on the cellular level having a membrane means that the contents of the cell could be different from the outside environment. Good boundaries are like permeable membranes, they allow us to be in a chaotic environment and remain stable. They allow us to change and grow without disintegrating.

Throughout my life I have wondered “is love really all you need?” Now I think the answer is “love and boundaries are all you need.” Having boundaries is not contrary to love, they are part of being a good person and leading a generous, loving, compassionate, life. Every living thing on earth has at least one membrane allowing it to be who it is in a chaotic world. To be good neighbors we need not “good walls” but semi-permeable boundaries that support wholeness, and that allow us to let in all we need to thrive and grow and evolve.