Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Symbols of Hope (December 20, 2015)

I want to begin with the words of Poet Wendell Berry
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself. [This Day p. 305]

Sometimes it feels like there is no reason for hope…especially if you’ve watched the news recently. There are many reasons, large and small, why we lose hope. In this darkest time of year, even in a mild winter like this one is starting off to be, many of us are affected psychologically and physically by the loss of light. For each person who looks forward with eager anticipation to the delights of winter, I bet there is one more whose mood is as dim as a grey winter sky.

For folks like us who live in a climate of dark cold winters and sunny summer days, winter itself is a powerful symbol. Driving through the hills of the twin tiers, through the brown grass and the bare grey branches, there is not a sign of new life to be seen. But you and I know, at least intellectually, that this is only temporary. We know that those bare grey trees are not dead, just dormant, just conserving energy through the cold months until they are ready to grow and fruit again.

That’s why marking the solstice is such an important observance in this part of the world. We witness around us dead leaves decaying on the ground. Autumn’s bounty is gone, and there is no hint that it will ever come again. But come it does- every year. We can check the progress of the sun’s return against our watches, and see that slowly, too slowly to notice, the day light grows, and with it will come the reliable parade of new green growth.

This return of light and growth is so reliable, that it too is a symbol. When we find ourselves in a dark season of our lives, through loss or illness or conflict, we can call to mind the winter- how dark and lifeless it seems, and how inevitably it is followed by the sun’s return. Whether or not it is winter in Pennsylvania when those feelings come, we know what it is like to experience a winter in our hearts and souls.

A good symbol is powerful because it manifests reality in a way that words can only gesture at. I can say “things will get better- this too shall pass.” but even to my ears those words sound empty. Poet Jeffrey Burten Russell writes “as the sign of a deeper truth, metaphor was close to sacrament. Because the vastness and richness of reality cannot be expressed by the overt sense of a statement alone.”  As I look out my window at that bare lifeless tree against the grey sky, I can’t help but see the green summer leaves, I can’t help but watch for the buds to emerge as the ice melts and the days lengthen. So any time I feel bleak and hopeless, I can remember the bare grey branches of a tree in winter, and perhaps I will find hope in the idea that maybe I too am not lifeless but dormant. Perhaps someday I too will bud and grow and fruit. A symbol teaches us through the “vastness and richness of reality” – a tree teaches us something about ourselves and about life each time we meet one in the world.

Symbols are complex and deeply personal, though they don’t always seem that way when we first encounter them. Maybe your preschool teacher had a poster like my son’s classroom had- a symbol for each season, and the symbol for winter was snow. I always thought this was strange because his classroom was in a climate where snow was a virtual impossibility. Winter in Santa Clara California was the season of drenching rains and green grass. Even we who live in the North East where a snowy winter is a distinct possibility, know after years of experience that Some years this darkest season can be filled with treacherous blizzards or ice storms, or these odd balmy days with small green leaves poking up from the muddy ground.

So a symbol is both the cultural expectation- that winter is a cold and snowy wonderland, and the reality we meet each day. We adults know that winter is never the same twice. We remember hard winters like last year, that seemed to last forever, and from which some of our trees lost branches or never recovered at all. And there are mild winters when you never do get enough snow to build a decent snow man. When we celebrate the winter solstice each year, as we will this week, we mark the darkest night, we look hopefully toward the returning light. The Solstice itself becomes a symbol of welcoming back the light in our own spirits, and each year we celebrate it becomes more complex and more personal.

When we are young we are taught symbols like equations- a heart = love, a dove = peace. But no symbol means just one thing, it means all those layers and layers of things, each memory, each song, each story. A good symbol holds them all. A good symbol provides a new way of looking at our experience.

Let’s take a moment now to think about what winter means to you. When you hear the word “winter” what images come to your mind? … Allow your mind fill with the sounds and smells of winter, the unique quality of light. .. Does that image you just conjured, does it match your inner state, or does it contrast to that state?... Who are you in this picture? Are you like the evergreen, stable and sturdy through the darkness? are you like the creatures who hibernate, drawing into their nest and themselves as winter begins? Are you the hungry squirrel, still gathering food against hard times ahead? … Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

The Christian tradition offers us another symbol of hope this time of year- birth. Unlike the symbol of the evergreen, which reminds us that it is possible to survive and be green even during a harsh winter, the birth of a child reminds us that life continues even when we ourselves may not. Remember that phrase in the poem I opened with, “It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,” as Berry wrote “you … have withdrawn belief in the present reality of the future” The birth of a new child assures us of the reality of the future. It reminds us of the possibility of new generations, that life itself will continue even though eventually we will not.

But a new born baby is not one single static thing like a picture on a greeting card. One thing new parents quickly learn is that no matter what advice your friends and relatives and authoritative books have given you, what your child needs and wants is absolutely unique. A sleeping baby looks at once like any other sleeping baby, but even before he or she is born, the unique self that is that child is already emerging. An infant is a mystery, full of potential. To me this is the miracle in the Christian Nativity story- with or without angels and Magi- the miracle of new life entering the world. How it is that a complete and unique person emerges from the splitting of cells, how it comes to be full of the spirit of life is still pondered in the halls of science.

As we grow and live this symbol too becomes more complex and personal. When I was young, the nativity scene was simply a well-known story, but now that I am a mother, an aunt, a minister who has heard the great variety of experiences lived by people I care about, all of that hovers around that simple sentence as we hear in the gospel of Luke: “the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” That sentence is laden with meaning. Memories crowd around of new born babies we have known and loved and celebrated, each one totally unique. We understand the tremendous relief and gratitude that accompanies the birth of a healthy child. If you have known a woman who has given birth, you think of the travail of labor, of the inherent risks to both mother and child. Of the helplessness of the father or partner or helper. The birth of a new child becomes somewhat bittersweet when we remember all those who struggled to conceive and couldn’t, who meant to have children but whose path took them in another direction. The miracle of birth becomes all the more miraculous the more you know, the more you experience.

Let’s take a moment to paint that picture in our minds this morning. The newborn child, laying in a manger. His mother and father keeping watch, along with the whole community of shepherds, and angels, of donkeys and domesticated animals... What would it feel like to be inside that moment? …Where do you see yourself in this story?.. How does it make you feel today? … Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

I want to offer you one more symbol. A candle in the dark is similar in its symbolism to the returning sun, but it is, literally something you can get your hands around. We can only wait patiently wait for the sun’s return, we can feel it on our skin, or wrap a coat around our shoulders in its absence, but we can never touch it or hold it. A candle is a more intimate thing, an ordinary thing that we can probably call to mind the feeling of wax on our fingers, the weight and texture of it. Generations of people in our culture have had that same experience. Its meaning has changed over time, of course. In some ages, a candle was the only way of providing light in the darkness. I’ve noticed in old stories that candles are rationed and saved in hard times, not used lightly but preserved for future need. Consider the Hanukkah story. Their holy temple was seized by foreign soldiers, and used in ways considered sacrilegious. When it was rededicated to the Jewish Faith, the ritual included burning oil in the menorah for eight days, but there was only enough oil for one. But out of scarcity – abundance. The flame burned for all 8 nights exceeding their hope. There are many beautiful stories of Jewish people in times of hardship drawing strength from the act of lighting a menorah, sometimes a makeshift menorah made from a potato, or a cork, or whatever poor scraps were at hand. When candles are hard to come by, when light is hard to come by, a single flame becomes a precious and hopeful thing. 

For most of us in this room, we can light the darkness with just the flick of a switch. Candles are special to us not because they are a rare and critical resource, but because they are no longer ordinary. Lighting a candle shows we are leaving ordinary time and entering ritual time. A candle brings light to the darkness as surely as the stars, or the moon, but it is only a candle that we have the agency to light and to share. Think of the powerful symbol of neighbors standing shoulder to shoulder on a dark night, each holding candles during a peace vigil. The candle symbolizes, to me, something of the individual spark inside each one of us. It reminds me how when we let our light shine, not only can we light the way for others, but sometimes we can help them rekindle their own light. Perhaps this is why we love our annual candle light ritual as we do- it gives us hope in our ability to spread and share warmth, the light of truth, the spark of hope. 

Take a moment now to consider the light of the candle. Imagine holding a candle in your hand, and gaze at the flame. How is your own light right now? … The light of your mind, body, heart and spirit? … How is it with the light of this community?.... Where is your light needed?... Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

The tree in winter, the newborn child, the candle. There are many more symbols of hope, but this is a start. If there was a particular symbol that spoke to you today, or caused you to feel something unexpected, you might revisit it as the winter unfolds. Pay particular attention to any image that gave you hope; I encourage you to notice when this symbol appears during this winter’s holiday celebrations, and in your daily life as well. Maybe you happen to have an evergreen tree in your living room right now. What a special opportunity to observe it, and to listen to your own inner response to that symbol as you pass it during the day. Observe the evergreen trees on these endless mountains as you drive by them. Each time someone lights a candle, this can be a moment to reconnect with yourself- how is your own light? And if your own light needs brightening, feel free to dust off those candlesticks someone gave you as a gift years ago that you were saving for a special occasion. Let the light you kindle be an object of your meditation, let it feed you and reflect back to you something deep in yourself. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Intuition and Proof (December 6, 2015)

Has anyone here seen the Star Wars Movie- the first one, from 1977? Remember when our heroes escape the Storm troopers by diving into the trash shoot, and Han Solo says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” just before the walls begin to move together and we realize our heroes are trapped in a trash compactor? I wonder if everyone hasn’t felt that at one time or another- the sense that even though you have no specific evidence that things are about to go wrong, there is some kind of visceral feeling that trouble is coming. For most of my life I had dismissed these feelings – I would talk myself down from such feelings of dread saying “that’s just silly- you have no reason to feel that way.” Then one day I had this feeling of intense dread about a meeting I was scheduled to attend. As usual I dismissed the feelings, but they kept coming back. I was totally blindsided to find that some members of the committee who were upset had been getting together in secret developing a plan to present their grievances at this meeting, along with an ultimatum that ended up splitting the program into factions. It was the turning point in a conflict that took many months to heal. And it was a turning point in how I treat those funny feelings I can’t explain.

Unitarian Universalism claims as one of its sources: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit”. So having been born and raised UU, I was always very careful to discount things that didn’t pass through the filters of reason and science. Then I went to Seminary in Berkeley California, where people were constantly telling me to “trust my intuition.” I wasn’t even sure what they meant. I think I had so completely stopped paying attention to my “bad feeling about this” or even to “Ooo, That’s what I want!” that such information barely bubbled up to the surface of my consciousness. I tend to agonize about decisions, tallying up an inner list of pros and cons. which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The trouble is that “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” wasn’t even making it to the list of cons to be considered among other input. and “this thing is really calling to me” was not making it to the list of “pros.” To be truly reasonable, I thought, I must not be swayed by my gut feeling about a thing. Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever chosen the thing that made the most sense, the logical thing, perhaps the thing a loved one or authority figure advocated for, setting your gut feeling of what you really wanted aside, only to find yourself walking down a path that never did feel quite right?

I like to know where my information comes from. I like at least a Wikipedia article, but I prefer to trace any data back to its source- the book where the quote first appeared, the study where the data was tested and peer reviewed. So allowing a feeling or an intuition into my decision making process was a big leap for me. Fortunately scientists have started looking at this too. Malcom Gladwell, a science reporter, wrote a whole book called “Blink” about this phenomena of how sometimes we know something really important in only a moment, as with our statue story this morning. Scientists have come up with a number of names for this. Gerd Gigerenzer calls it “fast and frugal” [ p. 11] Scientist John Gottman calls it “Thin-Slicing” [p. 23] Both these terms imply a way of quickly noticing the data that is most important to the outcome and acting accordingly, rather than sorting and processing ALL the millions of inputs we are each getting every moment. The more official name for this field of psychology is “Adaptive Unconscious” [p. 11] – that faculty we all have that turns “a bad feeling about this” into action before you are eaten by the lion, before you head down that dark ally. It’s a really important survival mechanism that we are all hard-wired for, but that we barely understand.

A group of scientists in Iowa did an experiment where participants were given 2 decks of cards. The Blue deck was rigged to pay out regularly. The Red deck was rigged for a few big payouts but more big losses. The scientists found that after about 50 cards, participants had a “hunch” about which deck was better, and after 80 cards most participants could explain what was going on. But the scientists were also measuring response form the sweat glands under the skin of the hands, and found that after only 10 cards they started to have a stress response to the red deck. Probably all of us have noticed that sometimes we have a hunch that something is happening before we can explain it. But what was new information to me, was that sometimes our body is having a measurable response long before- 40 cards before- we even get that hunch. The scientists also found that the behavior of those participants started to change not when they got that hunch, but at the same time their palms began to sweat. The adaptive unconscious is steering us away from that “bad feeling” even before the conscious mind has an inkling this is happening. [Gladwell p. 8-11]

Well, I have to tell you-- knowing about this and other scientific studies made me feel a lot better about listening to my intuition even though I don’t really understand how it works.

According to Author and contemporary Mystic Carolyn Myss, following this kind of wisdom is key to choosing an intentionally spiritual life. She, and other spiritual writers use the word “guidance” for this. In her book Entering the Castle she proposes that one of the most important steps on the spiritual journey is listening to the guidance we are receiving all the time. To be honest, I am agnostic about whether this guidance comes from the Spirit, from our intuition, or from our adaptive unconscious. Whether we are talking about “direct revelation” as Ingerman calls it in today’s reading, or a stress response in the body, may be something we never know for sure. But I hate to see us shut off these kinds of information just because we don’t know the mechanics of how it works.

The spiritual journey is one that includes the whole self- the mind, heart, body and spirit. Part of being “open minded” is that we take in information even if we don’t understand it. We don’t have to act on that information, but it is important not to shut it out just because we don’t fully understand it yet.

Let me give an example from my own life at this church. We moved to this area from Silicon Valley California, in part because the pace of life was unsustainably busy there. Everyone complained about how busy they were, and no one knew how to fix it. Even at church we were too busy to stop and just be. So my first year at UUCAS, I was at a board meeting where we were trying to choose our holiday outreach to the community. Tioga Outreach had given us the names of 2 families who were struggling and a list of their Christmas wishes. Someone suggested we make one of those wish trees I’d seen before- a Christmas tree decorated with paper ornaments, and on each ornament was written a wish, and the name and age of the child the present was for. Then people take home the ornament and bring it back with the matching gift. I loved the idea- I’d participated in those programs before, but my stomach started to hurt as I thought about pulling it together between our November board meeting and Christmas. I just felt tired all over. I took the risk of saying out loud to our board: “when I think about someone cutting out all those ornaments and writing names on it I just feel tired” The board chair asked if there was anyone who felt excited by the idea of making those ornaments, and the room was silent. Helpfully one of the members suggested “why don’t we just put out a clipboard in the social hall for folks to sign up?” It was quickly done and we had a hugely successful gift drive that year. I use this as a reliable indicator more and more in church life; if an idea makes people feel tired, it is not quite right for us. If we feel energetic, we are getting close to something which is a better fit for us.

I believe that sometimes what Myss is calling “guidance” can feel as simple as that- the ebb or flow of enthusiasm or energy in your own body. Our intuition speaks to us in many ways- a word like “fresh” a picture in our minds of how things are or might be, an emotional response like excitement or dread, or a very visceral feeling in the pit of our stomach. Everyone receives the language of has a certain natural and inevitable energy to it. That if you are really being called by the spirit, or by some deep inner know if your true self, or just getting the okay from your adaptive unconscious, there is a feeling of rightness. And that this is the touchstone against which we measure – if it feels wrong, it is not for us to do. If it is impossible for us, it was not for us to do.

But this thin-slicing, this intuitive response requires discernment. There are very real mechanisms that can thwart or even coopt our thin-slicing. An example that is in the news right now a lot is unconscious racism. Perhaps you heard the ProPublica study[i] which showed that “young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police is drawn from reports filed for the years 2010 to 2012”. Or I’m sure you’ve heard similar statistics on the news in the past few months. These numbers reveal the unconscious bias that has led to the recent death of innocent unarmed citizens in America today. And they are a harsh reminder that sometimes our split second response does not come from inner wisdom, but from a kind of social conditioning that leads us tragically astray.[ii]

The size of the advertising industry in our culture is more evidence that our thin-slicing can not only be mistaken, but can be lead astray by design. There is a whole industry devoted to helping us go astray of our inner wisdom-- because apparently when left to our own devices, we don’t buy enough. Study after study shows that consumers can be redirected with certain colors or sounds or associations. A 2008 study out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Shows us that simply showing us the product over and over increases the likelihood we will buy it.[iii]

But the most difficult misinformation to detect comes from inside ourselves. Each and every one of us has things we can’t bring ourselves to look at. Whether that’s because it clashes with something we were taught as a child, or with the expectations of our boss and co-workers. I suspect each one of us can think of a time in our life when a sudden flash of insight like “I need to leave this job” was rapidly stuff back into the dark recesses of our unconscious because it seems like following that intuition would rend the fabric of our lives. A friend told me the story of standing on the steps of the church on her wedding day and having a strong intuition “I should not marry this guy- I should run right now.” and wondering after 20 years of a difficult marriage and a painful divorce- “Why didn’t I listen to that intuition?” But we all understand why; how can even the strongest intuition stand up against the deposit already paid to the caterer, and the expectations all our friends and family seated in the pews in their Sunday best? Sometimes our intuition asks us to do difficult things we’d rather not do, or to look at difficult things that are painful to look at.

So how do we discern the difference between regular old dread for something hard that is ultimately going to be good for us- like getting up before the sun is up on a winter’s morning to go for a run, and the dread of something that is really not good for us- like going out to lunch with that friend that always talks us into things we ultimately regret.

This is why listening to intuition is only one part of our discernment process. Usually intuition and reason are great partners- like in the story of the statue that didn’t seem right- the funny feeling all those art experts had wasn’t enough to kybosh a multi-million dollar sale that had taken months to put together, but it lead the researchers in the right direction and could then be backed up with hard data. That voice of doubt also lead them to get a 2nd opinion, and a 3rd. Which reminds us how helpful it can be to invite others into the discernment process with us. The people in our life whose judgement we trust and who know us well can say “Darcey, remember that you are always nervous when you preach in a new place- could that be what you are feeling?” or the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement imploring us to look at the data which shows that our cultural fear of African American men is not rooted in reality, but in an unconscious bias.

I believe that with practice and discernment we can get better at telling which of our those inner voices are useful guidance, and which are rooted in bias, ignorance or fear. Most of us are out of practice with this. So the first step is just to notice that guidance, and how it is generally communicated to you. Sweaty palms? An increase or drop in how energetic you feel? Or maybe you, like all those characters on Star Wars, sometimes just have “a bad feeling about this.” The practice of listening to guidance is not only practical, it is a spiritual as well. An important part of the spiritual journey is listening to that still small voice which is so often drowned out by cultural expectations and norms.

As you go back out into the world this coming week, my suggestion is that we listen respectfully and with an open mind to our intuition when it speaks. Even when we can’t heed it right away, we can allow that voice to be part of our discernment process. As UUs we are encouraged to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science” but not so that the guidance of reason drowns out the guidance of the adaptive unconscious, the guidance of the spirit which sometimes leads us in the right direction before the conscious mind can catch up. The voices of reason and intuition in harmony may just lead us to wisdom.

[i] http://www.rawstory.com/2014/10/analysis-shows-young-black-men-are-21-times-more-likely-to-be-killed-by-police/
[iii] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081209125828.htm

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Encountering the Divine (November 15, 2015)

“Why don’t we UUs talk more about our spiritual experiences?” I asked my theology class. There was a deep silence, and then the student across the table said “because they are private.” 

It’s not easy for UUs to talk about our spiritual lives. It’s not just because we are so diverse in our theology, that sometimes we flounder to find a common language to express our experiences; it is also because there is something profoundly un-knowable about the divine. This is why some folks use the word “mystery” to refer to God. And those who seek to encounter the divine are called “mystics” 

This morning we had a series of readings trying to describe what it feels like to encounter the divine. Individuals putting into words their experiences of wonder and awe. Rev. Hamilton-Holway, who gathered those readings together, was trying to express something of the great variety of such experiences. A common thread I see is that while these encounters are profound, they are also wildly ordinary. These experiences happen to people “bathing in a pond” or watching a moon rise, listening to a Beethoven Symphony or “messing about in boats.” 

UUs call the first source of our Living Tradition: “ 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”

We describe this source in a very universalist way- these experiences of transcending mystery and wonder are not the prevue of our special religious sect, but an experience universality available to all persons, and “affirmed in all cultures.” We tend to be of the opinion that the transcending experience that may be had “messing about in boats” is no less important, no less profound than that of a monk who has spent years in practice. And that a numinous experience while “watching a moon rise” may be just as awe-filled as one found kneeling in prayer. 

Some folks have never had an experience they would describe that way- and I want to be very clear that it doesn’t mean you are not having a spiritual life- it just is taking a different path for you. Some people have stories of Moment of Wonder that came unbidden and without warning which they cherish and allow to bring meaning to their lives. Some folks encounter the great mystery, find it terrifying, and run fearfully in the opposite direction.. And some see their numinous moments as an invitation to seek the deeper mysteries of life. They want to understand the experiences they have had, and wonder if there is a path they can follow to lead them back to that transcendence. 

Prof. Yielbanzie Charles Johnson used to say to his students “If you want spirit in your life, you have to invite spirit into your life”. This is a paradox- because if you believe in an immanent divine, that is to say, if you believe that the Spirit of Life pervades all living thing, then God is in and around us around us all the time. So when we sing “Spirit of Life, come unto me” What do we mean? Maybe this is a way of expressing an intention to know that spirit more deeply. It implies a relational nature of the divine. It implies that, as with any friend, or patch of earth, or field of study, we know something or someone better when we spend time consciously together. In the same way that your relationship with that neighbor you wave to each morning when you walk your dog changes when you say “want to come in for a cup of coffee?”

This idea “if you want spirit in your life you have to invite spirit into your life” implies a tremendous freedom on our part. It implies that the spirit is both waiting for our invitation and offering us an invitation all the time, which we are free to decline or accept. Some teachers say that whenever you have a thought like “I wish I had more time for my spiritual life” that this very thought is an invitation from the spirit to come closer. And the choice is profoundly yours to make.

If you do decide to invite spirit into your life, the next step is to make room for the spirit. We fill our lives so full of doing, that we rarely leave enough space to be truly present in the moment, to those around us, or to our self. That isn’t to say the divine isn’t present in all our busy days, only that when we talk about a spiritual life, when we talk about encountering the divine, we are talking about bringing that spirit of Life that is present in all things into our consciousness, and this takes time and space. 

The traditional way to do this is with a daily spiritual practice. Whether this is meditation, or painting, or a walk in the woods doesn’t really matter. As the great Mystic Teresa of Avila wrote “the important thing is not to think much, but to love much. Do, then whatever most arouses you to love.” [Interior Castle p. 49] That’s why a particularly powerful spiritual practice is mindfully serving others- they experience God as Love in the face of a child they are helping tie her shoes, or a patient on their rounds at the hospital. We all have probably experienced a moment when helping someone, for example putting a shoe on a child who has already kicked them off 3 times and now we are late for work, is just one more piece of busy-ness. But time when we are fully present to another can also be a numinous experience, full of meaning and a felt presence of something larger than either of us. 

Part of the spiritual journey is figuring out what this “making space” will look like for you- where are you being drawn? Where do you feel the pull of desire or yearning? Following that desire is not just a first exploratory step of the spiritual journey, but because our relationship with the divine changes over time, I encourage you to follow desire the whole journey through. we must be continuously alert to moments when we are feeling alive and passionate, and when we are feeling dry, when we are feeling resistance. We follow the spirit of Life wherever it leads.
Buddhist teacher and activist Tich Nhat Hanh in his new book “How to Sit” writes “You do not need to sit to meditate. Anytime you are looking deeply- whether you are walking, chopping vegetables, brushing your teeth, or going to the bathroom- you can be meditating. In order to look deeply, you need to make the time to stop everything and see what is there.” [p. 18]

Tich Naht Hanh uses language big enough to include atheists in this discussion. Hanh writes “with mindfulness and concentration you can direct your attention to what is there and have a deep look. You can begin to see the true nature of what is in front of you. What is there may be a cloud, a pebble, or a human being. It may be our anger. Or it may be our own body and its nature of impermanence. Every time we truly stop and look deeply, the result is a better understanding of the true nature of what is there inside us and around us.” [p. 19] So when those who are comfortable with God language are talking about “encountering the divine” the very same practices can be used by atheists to “understand the true nature of what is inside us around us.” This same language is makes space for Agnostics, because the they are free to be fully present to a state of un-knowing, with encouragement to look deeply into their own experience, without having to arrive at any particular conclusion about what it means. Ours is a non-creedal faith. Ours is a faith built on experience, on knowing life deeply. Remember, our first source is “direct experience” – I believe that comes before all the other sources because we give it priority. Because what you experience in prayer or meditation, or just living in the world will naturally be different than my experiences. Whether you are theist, atheist or agnostic, the basis for your spiritual life is your intention to know deeply, and a careful listening to whatever you find in the depth of your experience.

As the great Unitarian Religious Educator and author Sofia Fahs writes: “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.” [i]
Within this space we have created, all we have left to do is listen. To have a deep look. What does that mean, to “have a deep look?” What does it mean to listen for the spirit? How do we hold ourselves open to seeing or hearing something we are not expecting? It requires a very open mind and a very open heart. It requires a quality of surrender to the present moment.

I must be honest with you that sometimes what happens is that when we first make room for this deeper experience of life, some old unhealed pain might come back to us. Or perhaps a sense, that we have been trying to ignore, that some part of our life is not quite right for us will emerge. It may turn out that we have made ourselves so busy for a reason- to drown out some difficult message from our deepest self. Again, we have freedom in our spiritual lives. We don’t have to leave the job or the relationship or the bad habit that causes us pain, but neither can we listen selectively when we are hungry for the spirit in our lives, when we are hungry to know ourselves deeply. While the time that we dedicate to our spiritual lives may be peaceful, may be restorative, may even be numinous, this is just part of the soul’s journey. I’m worry that there has been some false advertising about the spiritual journey. Meditation, or prayer, or service are not necessarily a quick fix for a wounded soul. Our spiritual practice will not always brign us comfort in the short term. Someitmes it may bring us up against the deep pain of our lives. Our spiritual lives are not an anesthetic to take away this pain, but a support, a container, a companioning for all that is our lives, both the joyful and the painful. 

 In my experience, sometimes seeing or listening deeply takes patience. Yes, Sometimes the spirit moves quickly like a darting breeze. Other times it seems our deepest self is speaking as slowly as the shifting of tectonic plates. Deep things often unfold slowly, maybe over months or years or a whole lifetime. This is why a daily spiritual practice can be so helpful; it helps us keep faithful to our journey when it is slow, and serves as a touchstone revealing the slow changes as they unfold.  

And sometimes the deep way takes us through rough territory- that doesn’t mean we are “doing it wrong” it is only a reminder that because the sacred pervades all of life, we are listening for the spirit in calm seas and troubled. We patiently listen and discern where the Spirit of Life is leading us. Sometimes things are confusing or mysterious as they unfold. That’s why it helps to have company. Most spiritual traditions encourage us to find companions for the spiritual journey. This is why we come together as a congregation. This is why people seek out a spiritual director. We need these companions not to tell us what to do, but to listen , to ask good questions, help us discern.

The great mystics suggest that if you feel a desire to encounter the spirit of life directly, if you feel even a tentative curiosity, is an invitation. We then, choose whether to accept the invitation, or to take a rain check. Because all of us are on a spiritual journey. We are on it whether or not we explicitly choose to give it our attention. And if we do feel a longing to deepen our relationship to God, or simply a desire to experience life deeply then we have only to open our hearts and minds to wonder, to love and to the truth of whatever we find there. Really, the path of the mystic is as simple as that: to invite the spirit into your life, to make space, and to listen. 

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

Faith at the Crossroads (November 1, 2015)

Diet at Torda, 1568
His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he - together with his realm - legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.

 Many years ago I was teaching a New UU class, and one of our new members, with the furrowed brow of someone thoroughly bemused asked “so are we Christian or what?” For many years I have answered that question by painting the picture of a family tree with Christianity at its roots that began over time to reach out to other faith traditions, perhaps as far back as the 20th century, when we created the innovative “Charles Street Meeting House” a Universalist congregation which sought a truly universal religion for one world. Then I learned that we were part of the leadership that helped convene the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893.[ii] But even before that the transcendentalists, who influenced and were influenced by Such Unitarian Thinkers and teachers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, were aware of the philosophical teachings of India. Emerson had been was introduced to Hindu literature by his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. In the 1840s he began to publish excerpts in the transcendentalist journal The Dial, whose editor, Margaret Fuller, was also an influential Unitarian. [iii]

But Dr. Susan Ritchie, a UU Minister and historian, who several of us heard speak at this fall’s PUC in Smithton, argues that “Unitarian identity in Europe emerged as a defense of the inherent kinship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Thus Unitarianism was multicultural and multi-religious from its beginning. [p. xviii] That is to say, at a time when people were being persecuted for not being part of the “right” faith, many Christian leaders were trying to create clear boundaries between the faiths, Unitarians noticed the similarities in their own theology with the Jewish and Muslim traditions, and tried to point out our common ground. 

This time of the reformation and the counterreformation was also the era when Unitarianism was born. was a time of great religious intolerance, when rulers would choose the faith of their country, and capriciously expel all those who didn’t fall in line with that faith. And since Unitarianism was a heretical faith, the history of our movement in those early days is one of exhile as Unitarians and Jews and others who fell outside the religion du jour, had to pull up stakes and find a new country more tolerant of their beliefs. So it was that Unitarianism traveled from Spain to Poland and Italy to Transylvania fleeing persecution, and in so doing spread the very teachings those in power were trying to stifle. 

The border lands, the area just past the grasp of persecution, have always been an incubator for radical ideas, Ritchie argues. Where, for example, those exiles of the counter-reformation not only brought their diverse and heretical ideas, but found themselves living side by side with neighbors of different faith traditions. So Multi-religiosity is not theoretical, but a way to describe the experience of actual people who live in multi-religious ways. It was my sister’s Mother-in-law who first introduced my husband to Mazza Ball soup one year when we celebrated Passover together- and I believe her soup was a transcendent life changing experience for him. And even though I am not Catholic, and don’t know any Croatian, there is something special about going with my Mother-in-law to the Croatian Christmas mass. People today who live in the literal and figurative borderlands experience a kind of neighborly multi-religiosity just as folks did in the lands on the border of the Ottoman Empire 400 years ago.

UUs often tell the story we told this morning of King John Sigismund who issued the most sweeping edit of toleration Christendom had known. But Ritchie was the first to show conclusively the “direct demonstrable influence of Ottoman edicts” that is to say – we learned this from our Muslim neighbors in Turkey, who showed us an example of how to be tolerant. We know, for example that
“Any monotheist willing to accept the political rule of the Ottomans was given protection and legal rights by the empire. [p. 25] Ritchie notes that in 1548 when the Catholic authorities in Tolna asked the Sultan’s representative to either kill or drive out the Hungarian Protestant pastor Imre Szigeti, the chief intendant of the pasha of Buda not only denied their request, but issued an edict of toleration saying that “preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody, whoever wants to hear, freely and without fear, and that all Hungarians and Slavs (who indeed wish to do so) should be able to listen to and receive the word of God without any danger.” [p. 32]
“By the time Unitarian congregations gather as communities in the sixteenth century, their more radical theologians are arguing that Christianity, Islam and Judaism have a familial relationship. These theologians specifically construed Unitarians as a safe and conciliatory space for multi-religious relationship. Their theologies both enabled and were enabled by Unitarians’ creative, real-world encounters with Muslim and Jewish communities.” [p. xviii]

That’s powerful- even 400 years ago Unitarians were felt to be “a safe and conciliatory space for multi-religious relationship.” So our reaching out to other faiths is not something new, it is in our very DNA.

During my graduation ceremony from Seminary, each student was given 3 minutes to speak. Rev. Daniel Canter talked about growing up in a Jewish Family, practicing Buddhist meditation for years, and having found a home and now a profession in UU. He called himself a UU Jew Bu. We all laughed, but something about the messiness of that bothered me. Shouldn’t we just be one thing? In fact, the fancy name for this is “syncretism” -- the bringing together of disparate religious practices or ideas. It’s considered kind of an insult or heresy in some faiths[iv]. There is an idea that true faith needs to be kept pure. 

In her introduction to Ritchie’s book, Rebecca parker encourages us to “let go of fictions of purity” [xiii]– that’s a powerful phrase “fictions of purity” because it reminds us that religion evolves and grows, just as our very biology evolves. One could argue that to be religiously or ethnically pure we would all be living in the African birthplace of our species and practicing the earth-based religions of our first human ancestors. But everything grows and changes- it’s unavoidable. That’s why our hymnal refers to our “living tradition”

Professor Ibrahim Farajaje encourages us not to think of religious silos, not as a series of Quaker Oats boxes, but to imagine dumping all those boxes out on the table. He assures us that the beautiful mixity we of fruit loops an cheerios and granola and raisin bran is how religion really functions in the world. He reminds us that religious traditions do not have impermeable walls between them; most traditions arrived in their current forms by combining and flowing out of each other. Farajaje encourages us to honor multiple traditions with depth and seriousness. Depth and seriousness. 

It was only 15 years ago that the US census made space for those of multiple ethnicities on the census form[v]. In this culture we have historically thought that only something “pure” could be serious. perhaps we thought when we became the member of a UU church we must give up all our previous practices and beliefs to be a “serious” UU. And I know that our UU movement has at various times in its history had trouble being taken seriously because people just don’t have a place in their minds for, for example, a UU Jew Bu. But the reality of American families today is that about 45 percent of American couples married since the year 2000 are interfaith,[vi] There is societal pressure for one or the other to convert, to maintain some kind of religious purity. As this morning’s reading shows, choosing one over another just doesn’t feel like it authentically represents the reality of a mixed family. Maybe this is part of our calling as a UU movement- to take a serious, deep look at multi-religiosity, in history and culture and in our everyday lives with one another. 

Our UU publishing house has recently come out with a series of books called “Jewish Voices in UU” and “Buddhist voices in UU” and “Christian voices in UU” so we can learn from the lived experience of UUs who live this religious mixity. 

Perhaps you are one of the many UUs whose life reflects this mixity. I know some of us in this room were raised Catholic. Some were raised Jewish. Some were raised Mormon or Episcopalian. It’s quite common among UUs. The question is, what do we do with all that history? All those years of Sunday School classes, The shining moments where our childhood faith spoke to us deeply, and the moments where the faith of our families felt like a pair of too-tight shoes, it just didn’t fit the reality of who we really knew ourselves to be.  

Truth be told, all of that is part of who we really are. For example, a number of members of our congregation were raised Catholic. For some, there was a beauty to the Catholic rituals, and they have fond memories of their childhood church. For the person sitting next to them in the very same UU church, their relationship to their catholic upbringing may be quite different- perhaps they felt shamed for asking questions, or for their sexuality. But each of those very different experiences are part of our spiritual lives. And our spirits don’t thrive and grow when we put up walls between the parts of our selves. We know this. Somewhere inside ourselves the parts of our story that “don’t fit” with our current sense of ourselves itch for our attention, for integration. We long for wholeness, rather than fragmentation. All the pieces of ourselves, our UU pieces, our Jewish pieces or Catholic or Evangelical Christian pieces, we need all of them to make us whole. 

When Marcia blew the Shofar here in the sanctuary to celebrate the New Year, it was because that tradition still had meaning and power for her as one who grew up Jewish, even though now she is a member of a UU congregation. Priestess Lady Hawk is coming to lead us in an Imbolc ritual, and she is also the president of the UU congregation in Towanda. If we open our hearts and minds we find a richness of experience right here in our own beloved community. 

The seminary I went to (Star King School) was part of the Graduate Theological Union, an interfaith consortium of theological schools. I studied meditation at the Buddhist Center, Jewish Mysticism at the Institute for Jewish Studies, bible from the Jesuits and , and preaching from the Unitarians. The San Francisco Bay Area is a great crossroads of culture, where people from all over the world settle to work and study, and so my spiritual practice today includes hatha yoga which comes from the Hindu tradition but has been profoundly owned and transformed by American Culture. I practice contemplative prayer and spiritual direction which come from the Catholic tradition. I observe the cycles of Sun and Earth in a way I learned from the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca. And my practice of beloved community, and of working for Social Justice, I learned from you- my Unitarian Universalist faith. As I studied there at the crossroads of the world, my faith and my practice became a crossroads faith. 

 This is the challenge of the faith tradition you have chosen -- of composing these pieces large and small into a whole that is pleasing to the spirit, a whole that has integrity to itself and to the real life context in which it evolves: The family in today’s reading did not take the easy way- there are challenges in trying to be an authentically multi-faith family, but they are willing to do the hard thing because it grows with integrity out of their family faith, and their relationships to one another. 

At the crossroads of your heritage and today’s cultural reality, at the crossroads of your community and yourself. At the intersection of your spiritual life and this present moment, that is where you will find yourself. That is where you will find deep and complex relationships, and that is where, in the depth of that mysterious mixity, you may find the divine.

So I encourage you to metaphorically dump out the Quaker oats box where you store your “UU self” the one where you store your “Childhood religion” self and any others you have stored in your pantry and allow them to create the beautiful mixity that we are.
[i] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/opinion/being-partly-jewish.html?src=me&ref=general&_r=2& 

[ii] A 16-person General Committee was charged with settling on a mission and program, inviting participants, and hosting the event. Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones served as the Committee's Executive Secretary. http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop14/178841.shtml

[iii] For more about the history of Buddhism in UU read http://www.uuworld.org/articles/stub-23667 

[iv] here is an example of such an analysis http://www.gotquestions.org/syncretism-religious.htmhttp://www.gotquestions.org/syncretism-religious.html

[v] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/census/2010-03-02-census-multi-race_N.htm 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Things Come Up (October 18, 2015)

Remember the first day of school? For some of you this happened just a couple of months ago, for most of us it’s been a good number of years. But I bet we all remember that feeling- new teachers, new classes, maybe a new backpack if we are lucky. It’s an exciting and/or terrifying time, because the year has so much potential- and so much is unknown. By this time in the year much of the newness has worn off and potential becomes cold hard reality.

 We all start off the year with the same text books, the same teacher, the same lessons. It seems like we should all be able to achieve the same results, like we should be learning the same thing. But eventually each one of us stumbles over obstacles we may not even be able to identify. A young woman works hard at reading but just can’t seem to master it; it turns out she has dyslexia and reading is never going to be as easy for her as it is for the classmate that spends her playground time under a tree reading for fun. Perhaps that classmate spends her recess reading because the social relationships that come so easy for her classmate mystify her. I was one of those kids who was always picked last in gym class. I was the youngest and shortest in my class, and tended to cower and shield my face when a ball was thrown right at me. It turned out I have poor eye hand coordination.

We all have limits. Some of us have limits that are visible to others, like if you wear glasses, or carry a cane. Some limits are invisible to anyone but ourselves. As we get older our physical limits become more and more apparent. As children we may have thought we ourselves would always have complete freedom of mind and body, part of becoming and adult is realizing that everybody has physical limits, and that physical limits change over time. This is part of being human -- part of being mortal. This is one of the primary existential questions and one of the most important theological questions. This is the issue that religion must address or be irrelevant. 

For those of us who are out of school and maybe haven't been in school for a very long time, we might still have that back to school experience at the beginning of the new year, or new project; we have such visions and plans for our future.

Then our car breaks down or the furnace breaks or we become very ill or maybe we lose somebody close to us that we lean on and count on. ( I have this metaphoric image in my mind of all of us running a race together, and suddenly one of us hits an invisible wall they cannot cross, a wall that doesn’t appear to be stopping any of our fellow racers.) In truth there will never be enough time in our lives to do all we can imagine even if we live to be very very old. Our UU faith teaches us that these realities-- these existential limits -- are not a punishment for something down wrong. Some limits will slow us down or stop us all together no matter how hard we try. This is what it means to be human, this is what it means to be mortal.

Running into any of our limits is frustrating. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to grieve. Sometimes that anger, that frustration gives us the energy we need to do a hard thing- to learn to read despite being dyslexic, to make it through the rounds of chemo therapy , to care for our children alone after our partner is gone. But denying the reality of our limits, as natural a response as that is, doesn’t honor the wholeness of who we are. I was practicing yoga with an injury a few years back, and feeling like my injury was keeping me from my yoga practice. The yoga teacher reframed it for us: Yoga is not something we do when we are healthy, not something we try to do in spite of injuries, but yoga is a practice we bring our whole self to-- injuries, weaknesses and all. Our spiritual lives are like that too, as is our life together as a beloved community. The spiritual journey is not about overcoming our limits, but becoming fully who we are- the parts of ourselves we enjoy and are proud of, as well as the limits with which we struggle. 

Most of the images of the divine we are familiar with are about perfection, and it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that if the divine is perfect, and we humans are imperfect, then our imperfections are less than holy. As Universalists, however, we believe that there are no humans who are separated from divine love, no matter how imperfect we are. A Universalist God embraces everyone and everything - including everything that we are and everything we are not.

I want to make a distinction here between being conscious of your limits and integrating them into your sense of self and allowing your limits to define you. Many years ago I was an adult literacy tutor to a fellow who, despite having already been in tutoring for 6 months, could not master the sounds of the alphabet. Imagine the strength of will on this guy to stick with it for 6 months without getting any closer to reading! I finally turned to my supervisor for help, knowing I’d hit my own limit as a tutor, and a trained volunteer tested his learning capacities. It turns out that he was having trouble with oral closure (which means c at was never going to become “cat”) but had a college level verbal recognition (which means he could memorize and learn to recognize the whole word “cat” when he saw it). So we abandoned phonics all together, and switched over to sight words. he read his first story that very day. When we own the reality of both our limits and our gifts, we can use our strengths to support our weaknesses rather wishing we were something other than who we are. Both your limits and your strengths are part of the unique and irreplaceable person you are. 

Never forget, though, that part of being human is changing and growing. Our limits change as we change. Think about all the limits you experienced as a child that don’t trouble you at all as an adult. Did anyone else find learning to tie your show kind of maddening? Or long division? I thought I was NEVER going to get Long division. Some limits change suddenly or rapidly, others grow so slowly you can barely notice them growing. When Eric and I were newly married, we had this beloved dog Waldo who became paraplegic at the age of 6. His surgeon explained how slow nerve regrowth was, and said though he would never walk again, we should be on the lookout for slow changes. Well after his surgery Waldo’s fur grew back, and his wound healed, and his scar faded bit by bit. He never did walk again, but his pain and depression faded. He learned to use wheelchair and could run across a field faster than we could chase him. And darned if after 3 or 4 years, he wasn’t able to get a bit of a tail wag going. At first we didn’t believe it- surely we were imagining things, but that tail wag grew in strength and frequency until it was undeniable. We are always changing and growing, and should never assume our limits are where we left them. Think about the societal change that's possible. Think about the progress that’s been made on marriage equality, and let that give you courage and hope to keep testing, keep working to grow as individuals and as a society. 

And when you reach the limit of what you can do, remember you are not alone. When you have tried and tried, and don’t seem to be getting anywhere. When the limits feel so much stronger than you feel, and you are ready to give up, remember that we are part of an interdependent web that is much larger than ourselves. For theists, and agnostics, this is a moment to call out in our despair, in our frustration to the divine. We acknowledge our limits, our finitude, our mortality. We acknowledge that we need help. We never know how that help may come, but a true cry of the soul is honored in theistic religions the world over.

The Sufi poet Rumi writes:

“Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.
A nursing mother, all she does
is wait to hear her child.
Just a little beginning-whimper,
and she's there.
God created the child, that is , your wanting,
so that it might cry out, so that milk might come.
Cry out! Don't be stolid and silent
with your pain. Lament! And let the milk
of loving flow into you.”[i]

To whom, you might well ask, does the Atheist cry out? Without a faith in God, where do we put our faith when we are at our limit? This is at the core of what humanism is all about- we have faith in one another, in our community. This is why we bring a casserole to one who is sick, or bounce a colicky infant on our knee. We know that we have no choice sometimes but to rely on this web of life of which we are a part, and it is up to us to keep that web strong. Whether or not you believe in god, you are not alone.  

Independence is valued highly in our society, but truly none of us will ever be independent. Even Thoreau who made his own food, and built his own cabin and lived off the grid for months still relied on the generosity of his friend Emerson for the land he lived on. He relied on the plants and the trees and the animals to feed and shelter him. It is hard to say to your community “I can’t do this- I need help” but in fact that is the reality. In every moment of any day, we are relying on one another.

When you are frustrated about your limits- that you had to stop running because of your knees, that right now the needs of your body are keeping you from doing something you would really like to do, that your empty bank account is keeping you from doing something you really need to do. Remember you are not alone. When you are watching the news, and hear about the imperfections of our world- that the state of Pennsylvania still does not protect the rights of GLBT persons from discrimination by employers or landlords, when you hear words of hate and bigotry against immigrants or Muslims. Maybe you think to yourself, as I do, what can my one letter to my state representative do? How can I face this overwhelming societal limit? remember you are not alone. Remember that no one person could have turned the tide on Marriage Equality. When you visit your representative you are not alone. When you send a letter to your senator you are not alone. When you screw up the courage to speak up to a relative across the holiday table who says the racist thing- “I have to disagree with you on that” you are not alone. When we wonder “how can our little church survive in this huge ever-changing world” know that we are not alone. We exist in a web of neighbors and friends, and people we have never met, of plants and animals and forces of nature we don’t even fully understand. Like a single tile in a mosaic, or strand in a weaving, we don’t need to be everything, because we are woven into a much larger whole.

And just like us, every neighbor and friend and tree and bird and river has real limits they run up against every day. Be compassionate to yourself and to those around you when we reach our growing edge. And when we meet our limits, we need not feel that we are less than whole, because we are part of a larger wholeness that holds us all.


[i] Source: Jalal al-Din Rumi, Maulana. The Essential Rumi / Translated by Coleman Barks, New Expanded Edition. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. 1995. Excerpts from “Cry Out in Your Weakness,” pages 156-167.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Staying Home? (October 11, 2015)

At the end of the environmentalist’s presentation, he took questions from the audience. A young voice in the back of the room asked “What’s the most important thing we can do to help the environment?” and the expert answers “Stay Home.”

By this I believe he meant two things- first, travel has a significant carbon footprint, whether we are driving or flying, we need to carefully consider our impact on our eco system.

The second thing he was getting at was that in this highly mobile culture we under-value our commitment to place. There is a cultural expectation that, for example, as we move forward in our education or in our career, this so far outweighs our connection to place, to our web of relationships, that moving away from them is a natural and inevitable thing. Let me give an example from my own life. Although I had spent my whole life in Wayne Pennsylvania, (a town about half an hour outside Philadelphia) I chose a college a 12 hour drive away in Indiana based only on the quality of the music program, I moved again to Baltimore for Grad school, and a couple of years later and I moved to The San Francisco Bay Area for Seminary. In California it seemed like everyone we met was in the same situation- apparently less than half the residents of California had been born there. It was a highly mobile culture to which people migrated from around the world, mostly to work in the booming technology industry. But it turns out this is a nation wide trend- only half of adults 25 and older in this country still reside in the state of their birth[i].

It wasn’t until I became involved with the environmental movement that I realized all this migration might have a negative effect. I learned about native plants of California, which are tolerant of the long dry summers and short rainy winters, and began to notice all the Maple trees, rosebushes and other imports in my neighborhood that required daily watering. Almost every family had installed a sprinkler system to support these imported plants. You see, each family had brought with them the expectations and habits of their home ecosystems. People who moved to California from the North East planted all their favorite plants to make their adopted place feel more like home.  We treated our new home like a blank canvas waiting to be filled.

In my first 5 years in California I moved 6 times- tossed about by the volatile real estate market. Most of those times we moved I never did register to vote. I certainly didn’t know who my local elected officials were, or where my drinking water came from. In each new home I would plant a few plants, and just hope when we left that the new residents would notice them and care for them.

As I finished my seminary training, I realized I was training for a career in which it was expected that I would be willing to move every 3-7 years to whatever part of the country needed a UU minister. Yet everything my UU values were showing me was that both our eco-systems and our human communities needed a loyalty to place. Those of you who garden know that any time you move a plant, this is a stressful and dangerous moment in the life of the plant and disruptive to the garden. You have to be very careful to dig a wide circumference to get as much of the root structure as possible, and we humans who only have metaphorical roots often underestimate how far and deep those plant roots go. Then we must dig a hole for the new plant big enough to make room for all its roots and for new roots to grow. Then we water every day until it is established, because the compromised roots can’t yet do the job all by themselves. Even so , the plant will probably loose leaves or flowers as it uses all its energy to make the transition.

Part of the reason this environmental leader wanted us to “stay home” was so we could develop a sense of place. We would notice the things you only see when you live in a place year after year- that apple trees do great here and lemon trees struggle, that you just can’t plant certain things in the spring until the very last danger of frost is past. Why does that matter? Because the more closely we observe and know our local ecosystem, the better chance that we will act in harmony with that system. We will notice that it's not a blank canvas, but a living system.  When we know where our water comes from, we can keep an eye on it as the volunteers in our local water monitoring project are doing, making sure it stays clean and that if it is contaminated we notice and can do something about it. If we know what ward we are in, and when the city council meets, we can have a conversation with our city council person about the things that are important to us.

When we commit to a particular place, we have a chance to know a place deeply, we put down roots. And just like the deep rooted plants in any eco system, our metaphorical human roots not only provide us better access to the resources we need to live, as trees and plants have better access to water and nutrients when their roots are mature and healthy. But those deep-rooted plants and trees also help hold the eco system together, they prevent a disaster like the dust bowl of the 1930s[ii] and are helping to heal desertification of Africa[iii] So by putting down roots we preserve and protect the places we know and care about.

When we moved to Ithaca, I made a commitment to myself and my partner that we would try to stay in this area at least until Nick graduated from High School. It seemed crazy at the time- we’d never been able to stay any place for 12 years before. But we wanted to try. We wanted to know our trees, our creeks, our neighbors, our city council people in a way that only happens when you “stay home.” And after being in this area for 8 years, I can see both the gifts of growing these connections slowly over time, and also how much more I have to learn, how much deeper roots could be.

But healthy systems need not only those who stay, but those who move -- no community is self-sufficient. Migration is a natural part of life for many species, for many people. A tree cannot migrate, but its seeds can be carried in the bodies of migrating birds as far as those species can travel. Think of those people who move as carrying the seeds of ideas. How many great ideas have come into this community from people who brought those ideas with them.

Migrators are able to follow the availability of food through the seasons. In the same way modern humans follow jobs as our ancestors used to follow the ripening fruits or the animals they hunted for food. Our current political rhetoric ignores the fact that humans have migrated since their birth as a species, to the fill the planet as we see today. [iv] In fact, some of the places where we have erected national borders are right through traditional human migration paths. Think about the Valley- how folks here think of the Valley as one community, and how odd it feels that neighbors on one side of the community have access to certain food banks, for example, and neighbors in the another part of the community do not. That state line that runs through the Valley does not describe how people here have always lived.

Or let’s take the massively controversial issue of migrant farm workers. Anyone who has ever worked on a farm knows that when a crop is ready, there is a surge of work that needs to be done RIGHT NOW or the crop will rot in the fields. No farmer can keep enough hands on staff at their farm all year round to handle that surge. Each year as I look forward to peach season, I pay attention to the sticker on my produce that tells me where it comes from. I notice how my peaches start out in Georgia, then move to Pennsylvania, before our local orchards in Ithaca start bringing them to the farmer’s market. The most natural thing in the world is for workers who pick peaches to follow the fruit as it ripens. Many industries need workers to move  when the work moves.  If there is a shortage of nurses in rural towns, we surely want some nurses to move where the need is greatest.

Sadly, not everyone has the choice to stay. Just this year so many people I care about lost their funding, grants came to an end, jobs disappeared. People who love this place had to sever their roots, their connections and move, often very far away. As we read about the rising ocean waters, or the growing severity of storms -- scientist, economists agree that many of the places where people have grown their roots for years are just not going to support them anymore. It seems very sensible after a storm like Sandy, or these floods in South Carolina,  to say “maybe we shouldn’t rebuild those areas which are just going to be destroyed again.” But realize that when we say that, we are saying that people who have put down deep roots for years, or sometimes for generations, are going to have to cut those life- sustaining roots and move someplace where they have to start again. It occurred to me that “staying home” is not only a virtue, but it is also a privilege which an increasing number of people in this world will be denied by the realities of changing weather, changing economies, and by war.

I no longer feel like I can stand in this pulpit and ask you all to “stay home.” I know that some of you did just that; you live within 10 or 20 or 100 miles of the place where you were born. Others of you have adopted your current home and put down roots here. Some of us have just arrived. We may be loved by this community for a few months or years, and then we may be on our way again a for work or family or even a love of adventure. Both staying and moving is necessary for a healthy society. Most of us have been or will be both movers and stayers at some point in our lives. They are polarities on a continuum that includes us all. So we need an ethic both when we are staying and when we are moving.

In this mobile society, we need an ethic for movers. If you are new to this area, or thinking of moving some place new, I encourage you to develop a sense of place. Before you plant the tree that reminds you of home, spend a year watching the trees around you , the plants, the critters, the weather. Learn where your food comes from and where your waste goes. I encourage you to meet your neighbors. For introverts this is kind of a challenge, but as we discussed last Sunday, just knowing the names and the faces of the people who live to your right, to your left and across the street will enable you to help one another in storm or fire. If you know your neighbors, they can bring back your dog when he digs under the fence (for which I was very grateful) or let in your cat on a cold afternoon (as I do for my neighbor cat who has figured out I have this power). 

I challenge you who are movers to be open to the inner wisdom of a your new place, your new community. I remember at my first minister’s retreat in this area thinking it was strange that they didn’t have a winter meeting like we did in California. I made this suggestion and they all burst out laughing- “you’re not from around here” they said. I surely do understand now, 8 years later, why you schedule any driving adventures in February at your own risk.  

Finally, be open to being changed by your new home but Honor your own traditions and wisdom as well- Consider our children’s story from this morning. The Jewish tradition of honoring the Sabbath was developed during a period of exile and grounds Jewish families around the world in their religion and heritage no matter where they may move or stay.

There are ethics for those who stay as well. First, meet your neighbors. The old tradition of bringing a pie to the neighbors who move in is a good one. It not only makes the new folks feel welcome, but it gives you an excuse to introduce yourself and get to know them a little bit, and help them begin to root in the local network of relationships.

Second, make the local rules and traditions explicit. In communities like this one where some people have lived here for generations, we don’t always realize that what we think is “just the way it’s done” is in fact simply “the way we do things here.” For example, we’ve been doing “check in” so long in this congregation it wasn’t until a brave newcomer asked us to explain the rules that I even realized that there were rules that needed explaining. A master teacher once suggested that the key to classroom management was to clearly explain the rules, rituals and expectations the first day of class, and to revisit those rules any time someone new joined the class. 

Third, be open to being changed by the newcomers- they bring the seeds of new things that may be just what you needed.

Finally, remember that stayers occupy a privileged place. This really hit home when we started hearing reports about the Syrian Refugees. Here are shopkeepers, teachers, doctors, farmers, mothers, fathers, children arriving tired and broken sometimes with only the clothes on their backs. Ripped from their roots, looking for a place to start again. 

When Iceland offered to take in 50 refugees, Icelandic radio reports that “a local children's book author, Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir created a Facebook page asking for people to take refugees into their homes. Over the weekend, 12,000 people out of Iceland's population of just over 300,000 signed up and now Iceland's government says it will consider taking in more Syrians. One woman Wrote:
Dear Eyglo  I can take care of children, I can take them to preschool and to school and everything that is needed. I can offer people food in my house, and I can show them friendship and warmth. I can also pay for airline tickets for one little family, and I can put my knowledge into helping pregnant women.[v]

Wow. What amazing generosity. When I imagine a family of refugees staying in my own home, I am really humbled by her offer. Not all of us are in a position to pay for airline tickets, or invite a family into our homes, but this refugee crisis invites us to reconsider our ethic of place. Whenever people are displaced from their homes through war or hurricane or fire, it is up to those of us who have the privilege of being rooted in community to consider -- what is our moral responsibility? And whenever we ourselves are pulling up roots and moving our home, it is ours to ask, what ethical responsibility do I have to my new home? How do I care for my temporary home so that it can be home for all the beings who will call this place home long after I am gone? Whether we are movers or stayers, we have a responsibility to all the places we live.

[i] http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/California-shows-increase-in-native-population-3163810.php
[ii] http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/depression/dustbowl.htm
[iii] http://news.discovery.com/earth/global-warming/stopping-desertification-in-africa-with-a-great-green-wall.htm
[iv] http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/human-migration3.htm
[v] http://www.npr.org/2015/09/02/436820838/iceland-considers-taking-in-more-syrian-refugees

Monday, September 28, 2015

Where Superman Got it Wrong (September 27, 2015)

For generations Super Man has been the ultimate role model. He’s polite, clean cut, humble, and devotes his life to helping others in their greatest need. And this despite the fact he’s not even from around here, his own planet having been destroyed when he was just a baby. At his best, Super Man is a story that calls each of us to selflessly help friends and strangers when they are in crisis, even when that may mean putting ourselves in unpleasant situations.

There are some who say that history is made by great men -- individuals with talent, character, charisma, who shape our destiny. This is called, not surprisingly “the Great Man Theory. ” The theory was put forward in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. This must have been the theory behind history books we read in High school- the names and dates of kings and generals and presidents. But a couple of decades later Herbert Spencer put forward a counter-argument that kind of blew my mind; Spencer said that “great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes”.[i] 

Let’s take the Super Man story itself . It was originally created in the 1930s by 2 high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and over the years the comic book has had 5 different writers, 10 different pencillers, 4 different inkers, and that doesn’t count “the Adventures of superman” series. If it hadn’t touched something important in our collective imaginations, if we hadn’t been buying the comics all those years, Superman would not be who he is today. His story has been told by TV shoes, video games, Broadway musicals and movies, and none of that would have been possible with out “the social conditions built before [his] lifetime.”

Consider the movies -- the 1978 one with Christopher Reeve that I watched when I was a kid, or that “Man of Steel” one that came out just a couple of years ago. If you look these films up online, the title usually appears with the name of the director, or the name of the star. But have you ever sat through movie credits all the way to the end. Like, ALL the way to the end? That’s a LOT of people who work on those movies. No one could create something that big alone.

That’s why I like the Avengers movies that have been coming out lately. Has anyone seen any of these movies? This is a group of Super Heroes from the Marvel Universe -- Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor, black widow, Hawkeye are all recruited by SHEILD to guard us against threats to our safety and liberty. Director Fury quips “there was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so that when we needed them they could fight the battles that we never could” Naturally these strong-egoed super heroes are unwilling to work together at first, but eventually must put their own egos aside to save humankind. I like the fact that they work as a team -- that collaboration is held up as a value for the modern superhero.

The dark side of the superhero archetype, whether our superheroes are working alone or as a team, is the implication that “they could fight the battles that we never could.” It encourages us to look outside ourselves, outside our community for someone who will come out of nowhere in the nick of time to save us. Because these Avengers films still show us, the ordinary earthlings, mostly running and screaming, and slow to do anything to save ourselves. When the Avengers drop in from above, they immediately yell for all the ordinary people to get out of the way so the super heroes can do their work. 

As my family and I walked out of the theater after seeing Avengers; The age of Ultron this summer, I wondered how all these super hero movies that are so popular right now are effecting our sense of who we are, and what we are called to do in this world. It worries me that it divides the world into Super Heroes, Super Villains, and everyone else who needs to run and hide or else be crushed. 

Consider the footage we see after a natural disaster- outside agencies rushing in from around the world, relief teams pulling a child from the wreckage days after the disaster, when all hope was lost. A recent interview [by I forget who] with a reporter who was deconstructing our media coverage of disasters, noted that part of the reason we see the images that we see is because it takes a while for both the media and the outside agencies to arrive on the scene. By the time the Red Cross or MSNBC arrive, they have missed much of the story.

The people who live near the earthquake or fire are the de facto first responders. The people to your right and to your left are your best hope of help, and you are theirs. They know where the greatest need is, and they know where people disappeared and who is still missing. But, according to this journalist, when the NGO or the national guard comes in, the first thing they do is just what the Avengers do- create a perimeter and require those first responders, now categorized as “victims” to leave “ for their own safety.” 

Then, the reporter continued, when the dust has settled, and the last heroic rescue has been made, and photographed the reporters and emergency responders leave. This reminds me of a scene out of superhero movie too. You know the one, where Superman or Ironman hover in the sky looking down on the wreckage of the great battle in which they saved humanity. The ordinary people, dusty and bloody, stare up at them with teary eyed gratitude “thank you superman” they say, as superman flies off to his fortress of solitude, or his date with Lois Lane. But there in the background we see the rubble of people’s destroyed lives, we know the suffering has not ended, and that the rebuilding has just begun.

Consider the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Now 10 years later, many neighborhoods, schools, jobs have never been restored. The grief residents feel lives with them every day. The story does not end when Superman or even the Avengers stop the super villain, or avert the natural disaster; the work of healing and rebuilding continues for a long time. The work is not particularly glamorous or photo ready for the news media as ordinary people, day by day rebuild the world. As the great Adrienne Rich says:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age,
perversely with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

As the Hero in our reading, Michinori Watanabe found, it was ordinary people, you and me, who were there for one another when they needed it most. 

Around the 10th anniversary of Katrina there was a surge of reporting about the hurricane and the recovery effort. It was during that surge that I heard about that fellow Kirk Washington who has done so much over the past 10 years to help his community recover. There were countless other stories of how people really got through those dark days, and how they continue to get through them together. We know now that not all the neighborhoods survived, that not every community came together. As Aldrich found, it is the closeness of our connections, our willingness to reach out to one another that is most important to making it though such catastrophic times. This is part of what we aspire to be as a UU congregation. And I have seen you do it- I have seen you reach out to one another in crisis and tragedy, I have seen you be there for one another. It is that very ordinary kind of heroism by which we are saved.

I propose that this critique of the super hero may emerges naturally from Unitarian Universalist ideals. One of the fundamental ideas of Unitarianism, a movement founded at a time when Calvinist theologians thought of humans as fully depraved , in bondage to sin and subject to God, was the radical idea that humans also have good capacities, including conscience and freedom to act. This has made us a “role up your sleeves” type religion, believing that each human has some part to play in the building and rebuilding of our world. As the great Unitarian Preacher William Ellery Channing wrote:
whenever we think, speak, or act, with moral energy and resolute devotion to duty, be the occasion ever so humble, obscure, familiar; — then the divinity is growing within us, and we are ascending towards our Author. True religion thus blends itself with common life.

Channing was a theist, but the same principle holds for those Unitarians who are Humanists- the use of our powers in freedom is at the heart of what it means to be human and to live a life of meaning.

On the other side of our lineage, it was our Universalist founders who rebelled against the idea that only some special elect were chosen by God, and affirmed that all of us had the potential for salvation. If we extrapolate this into our day to day living, I believe that there are not simply superheroes and supervillains who make history, while the rest of us try to get out from under foot. I know that each of us has the choice, in any given moment, to help, to heal, to save, to protect. We don’t always get it right, of course --we’re human. Sometimes we hurt when we are trying to help, sometimes we miss opportunities, and of course sometimes running and hiding is exactly the right thing to do. 

Imagine us all as one big team of Avengers- every living being on this planet. We are all called to be heroes in ways large and small. And – this is just as important- we need to remember when we swoop into a scene to help, that everyone we are there to help is a hero too. Too often we make the mistake of thinking we know best, we come in from outside the situation with fresh eyes and all our resources, and we actually might undermine the capacities, the needs of the very people we are trying to help. We need to remember that when we come to help, our call is not “everybody back- I’ve got this” but “Tell me what you know. Tell me what you are already doing. Where can I be of use?”

 The next time you are listening to the news, to the stories about NGOs flying in to help distressed populations, remember the thousands of untold stories of neighbors and friends who cared for one another before the relief workers could find them. The next time you are watching a movie about Super Heroes, or a documentary about Great Men from history, remember to fill in all the ordinary people who are part of the scene too, all the neighbors and strangers who helped one another flee and shelter while the Avengers had their great battle, and who together rebuilt their community when the battle was done and the Avengers were off eating shawarma. The most important work of disaster response is done by those who live through that disaster together. The next time some disaster, large or small, strikes your community, think of yourself as a first responder, and use your super or ordinary powers to help save the day.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Man_theory
[ii] http://video.bridgeward.com/2015/08/28/burying-vera-smith-ten-years-after-hurricane-katrina/
[iii] http://www.npr.org/2011/07/04/137526401/the-key-to-disaster-survival-friends-and-neighbors