Monday, January 26, 2015

Does Gender Matter? (January 25, 2015)

Part One: Does Gender Matter

Something big is happening. Something so big is changing, that we didn’t even know it could change. Our notion of gender, of male and female, seemed like these endless mountains, older than time, something you could count on. But, in point of fact, mountains do change and grow[i] and shrink through volcanic eruption, through the movement of deep plates in the earth , or just through the daily wearing of erosion. Gender, too, is changing. 

I was born into the women’s rights movement in 1970. Women wanted the freedom to work outside the home, and they wanted access to fields that had been exclusively for men. I didn’t know anything about the complexities of these issues, being in preschool at the time, but I knew that my mom worked, and my dad worked. I listened to that classic album Free to be You and Me and my mom gave me a copy of that book we ready this morning Girls can be Anything. It made an impression on me. This was a time when gender was changing rapidly, as if by earthquake and volcanic eruption. The women of my mom’s generation moved the edge of cultural expectations for women giving us all greater freedom. This congregation has some great examples of women who have been successful in fields traditionally populated by men.

 My generation, in turn, has tried to widen the boundaries further still for my son’s generation. One of the moms in my yoga class wears her “Ithaca Girl’s Math Circle” t-shirt, and coaches her daughter’s math club, because as far as we have come, fields like math and engineering are still dominated by men, And books about a girl being the president are still in the fiction section, not the biography section. The role of women is still changing, slowly, like a mountain.
[here we paused a moment for women to share how gender has changed for them]

 I’m going to say something controversial here- I think that when the right wing pundits and preachers say that the changing role of women is breaking down the fabric of society – I think they are right. Feminists have always known that if you change the roles that women occupy, once those boundaries are in motion, they will change not only the workplace, but also family life, and even the roles of men. When you realize the mountains are moving, that is a powerful, frightening, exciting thing. Where I differ from the Right Wing Rhetoric, is that I don’t believe the solution is to force women back into their boxes, the question instead is how we as a society provide the freedom for men and women to live with integrity and to serve the spirit of life.

Recently my family and I watched that goofy 1983 movie Mr. Mom. The whole premise of the movie is that when the Dad gets laid off, Mom gets a job to support the family. And while Mom struggles to be heard and respected in her advertising job, Dad stays at home with the kids and the house and a giant identity crisis. As you might expect in a 1983 movie, dad has never done housework before so he is hilariously incompetent. There are no male role-models for him- he is the first stay-at-home-dad in the community. Now, 30 years later, the idea of a stay-at-home-dad is not a hilarious novelty, there are roughly 1.4 million such dads in America.[ii] 

If part of how the male gender is defined is by the work that we do, the statistics from the opening reading are really important- as we see manufacturing jobs that paid a living wage for a family decline, as we see fewer men complete college. The fact that the suicide rate for men has increased is something we should pay attention to. It shows that men are in pain. It is my impression that as hard as it has been for women to come up against the boundaries of gender expectations, it has been even harder for men who are working to stretch those roles. I remember listening to the classic song sung by the Football player Rosie Grier “It’s alright to cry” because in 1972, crying was not always culturally acceptable for men. Since I don’t have firsthand experience with this, I wonder if there are any men here who can think of the ways gender has changed in your lifetime?
[here we paused for a moment for men to share how gender has changed for them].
 What it means to be a man has changed, is still changing. And men who are carving out a new place for themselves on the frontiers of gender need our support. 

Think of the Yin Yang symbol- white on one side, black on the other, female and male in balance. So if one gender changes, the other must change, to retain that balance. Well, the nature of that line is changing too. Some brave pioneers have started to hold a middle space. For decades we forced people to choose, black or white, yin, or yang. But recently a new idea is growing- that you don’t have to choose. You don’t have to line up all your gender indicators with one team or the other. You can be a woman mathematician caring for her children. You can be a football player who cries. You can be a man called Barb serving in the traditionally female profession of UU religious Education. The rainbow, which has long been a symbol of Gay rights, is also a wonderful metaphor for gender- not black and white, not even shades of grey, but a rainbow of how we express our authentic self, and a rainbow of how we serve our family and community. 

Gender is always changing. Right now it is changing rapidly. Gender has a fluidity to it that is giving us a freedom that is both scary and exciting. Folks who felt imprisoned by the limits of gender expression finally have room to move. And folks who felt comfortable with those clear lines of role and expression may feel insecure, threatened. 

It is still not always safe to express the truth of our own gender. Today’s news is full of the tragic stories of bullying and discrimination faced by people on the growing edge of gender boundaries. Incredibly the state of Pennsylvania still has not passed a law protecting us from gender discrimination based. UUPlan will advocate again this year to bring HB300 to a vote to make those rights into law.[iii] Unitarian Universalists have been on the forefront of redefining gender limits since we stood with the women’s suffrage movement in the 1900s. And we have stood with the transgender rights movement as it has emerged in this century. I hope that we have also stood by men who have experienced the change in what it means to be a man, because I think this is going to be increasingly important. Because at the core of our UU history has always been this belief that each person should have the opportunities to develop the Self, the wholeness of who we are. That when we live out of that truth we are this brings a wholeness not only to our own lives, but to the larger society. In this scary, exciting, changing time, let us support and protect one another. Does your gender matter? Only inasmuch as it allows you to express the truth of who you are. That matters very much.

Part 2: Does God’s gender matter?

As the tectonic plates shaping gender have moved, our ideas about the gender of God have changed. Whether we are theist, atheist or agnostic, how we see God, how society sees God can constrain or liberate us. Most of us grew up without questioning the male-ness of God. I certainly did. In the children’s bible I got in 2nd grade, all the gender pronouns for “God” are male. The traditional Christian prayer talks about “our father.” So I was surprised to find that God’s gender is less black and white then I was taught in Sunday School. For example, Shekinah, or “indwelling presence of God”, is a female word that appears in Hebrew Scriptures. There are hints about a female aspect of the divine all throughout those scriptures. The Phrase “Queen of Heaven” appears in the book of Jeremiah which inspired the title of a UU curriculum that came out in the early 1980s called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” exploring feminist theology. I took this class at a local UU church not long before I decided to go to seminary, and it blew my mind. I felt angry that in all the years of going to UU church no one had ever questioned the gender of God. It shook the roots of every assumption I had made about God and church and spirituality, because if God wasn’t necessarily a man, then God could be… anything. Biblical scholars and anthropologists have gone back and back and back through the written and archeological record searching for a female face of God. And they have found her. 

And why does it matter? What changes when you call god Mother instead of father? I think the most seismic change is that it took holiness from being exclusively male, to be something shared by both men and women. For centuries the male father in heaven represented all that was holy and good, and the earth mother represented our fallen-ness, our sinfulness even. The male was associated with the spirit, and female with the body. So over these past 30 years since “Cakes” was first taught, the goddess movement has reclaimed the worth and sacredness of women, of the body, of the earth. 

This uncovering of the divine feminine co-arose with the feminist political movement. How we see ourselves feeds how we see God, and vice versa. Some Neo-Pagan traditions are explicitly feminist. They focus explicitly on the female aspect of the divine because western religion has been focused on male images of the divine for so long. As Starhawk says “you can’t change the balance on a teeter-totter by standing in the middle.” But as Folksinger Ani Difranco sings:

half of divinity
Out there trying to make harmony
With only one voice

It was that lyric that inspired me this morning. The Sky Father God is incomplete without the earth Mother Goddess singing in harmony. Those pagans who invoke both goddess and god in their worship are calling for balance, believing with the Juingians that all people have aspects of male and female in themselves, and we want to encourage balance, harmony and wholeness.

But these archetpyes could easily reinforce gender boundaries rather than increasing freedom. It is important to honor and recognize those yin values, patience, receptivity, nurturing others (often attributed to the female). It is also important to honor the yang attributes, of action, light, directness (attributed to the male). The Virgin Mary is a perfect example of the “yin” principle in Christianity. When the angel comes to her to tell her of the birth she says “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ She is said to portray the values of humbleness and piety. I remember being pregnant with my son, and feeling like there was a lot of waiting, and feeling helpless, and passively nurturing this new life. There is no question that that is one aspect of being female. But what a tiny confining box that would be if that was all a woman could be. Consider the Hindu Goddess Kali, who when monsters threated to destroy us, slew them with her sword and then devoured them. Our imagine of the divine feminine must be large enough to hold all the great mutiplicities of femaleness.

And what about men? If virtues such as humbleness, piety, receptivity, nurturing are the sole province of the female, then a man would feel forced to either abandon those parts of himself, or wonder if he was not “truly a man?” Since Gender is changing, then God must be changing too. What if God the father is not only the punishing judge of the old testament, but God the stay-at-home dad, who waits up with us all our sleepless nights, sometimes wringing his hands helplessly when we ride our bike for the first time. A God who not only holds us when we cry, but cries with us. 

If God can be Male and God can be female, then God must be transgender too. God must occupy an in-between place --A place where qualities are fluid, a place where aspects combine in new ways. There have always been people who occupy this in between place. Chrystos, a writer from the Menominee nation, says “Most of the nations that I know of traditionally had more than two genders. It varies from tribe to tribe. “ [Transgender Warriors p. 27] Usually these two-gender persons held sacred roles in the ritual life of tribes. I just learned about the androgynous Hindu god Ardhanarishvara, which splits the god Shiva and the goddess Parvati right down the middle, symbolizing the inseparable nature of the male and female principles. 

In God’s most expansive, abstract, mystical form, God has no gender. Gender is a human concept that will always be inaccurate when applied to the divine. One of my seminary professor encouraged us to relinquish any male or female pronouns for God. Feminist theologian Mary Daly asks “Why indeed must “god” be a noun? Why not a verb—the most active and dynamic of all? …the Verb in which we participate – live, move and have our being. [Cries of the Spirit p. 240]

Does God’s gender matter? Only inasmuch as it limits or liberates our the Spirit of Life. Only inasmuch as it leads us to compassion or judgment about the truth of who we are. Gender is changing, and I hope it keeps changing until all these qualities are available to each of us, man, woman, or transgender as we are called to use them to grow our Self and to serve the world. 



Monday, January 19, 2015

Escalating Inequalities (January 18, 2015)

Reading: From Where do we Go From Here by Martin Luther King
“Earlier in this century… economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a wont of industrious habits and moral fiber. WE have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in a constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed form our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter now dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.” [Where do we go from here p. 173]

Reading: From Unemployment as a Spiritual Issue by Rev. Peter Morales
In the current strident debate about unemployment, we hear politicians and pundits argue about economic policy. The talk is about deficits and economic stimuli and tax policy.

All of this rancor obscures a more fundamental issue: We choose the kind of society in which we live. The choices we make are moral choices and, as moral choices, they are ultimately based on our central religious values.

We tend to treat changes in the economy as if they were like the weather -- natural phenomena governed by forces beyond our control. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have chosen to live in a society with high unemployment and with income distribution that is becoming medieval. A tiny percentage of Americans owns most of the wealth. Meanwhile millions of willing and able people are without work. This did not just happen. We created this situation. 

When the market crashed in 2009, I didn’t really believe it would affect me, or the people in my life. At first the only evidence that things had changed was on my quarterly statement from my 401k. But my friends who lost their jobs couldn’t get new ones. My friends and thousands of others visited a food bank for the first time in their lives. Banks began calling in loans and jacking up interest rates of those who were already in financial trouble. Young friends graduated from college at the time of a vast hiring freeze. They moved back in with their parents, and did volunteer work to have something to put on their resume in preparation for a time when hiring would begin again. I remember talking to a banker at the time and smiled knowingly when he said “these things never last longer than 6 months.” I assumed eventually things would go back to the way they had been, but they never did. 

I used to believe the adage that if you work hard and get an education you could find some financial security for yourself and your family, but since the recession, we see gaps in the system that good, hardworking people are falling into. Every morning as I listen to the news on my radio, I hear these huge numbers like “11.3 million people unemployed — 4.3 million out of work for 27 weeks or more… 7.9 million people working part-time but looking for full-time .”[ii] It’s hard to remember that every one of those millions is a person with a story, a person with inherent worth and dignity.

When they say the “middle class is shrinking”[iii] they are talking about, for example, those folks who used to work in tech jobs in Silicon Valley and now live in a tent city. Economists report that jobs are coming back, but the most recent statistics show that the jobs that are coming back are much lower paying jobs, many of them temporary or part time jobs. People who used to have jobs that could support a family, are now working at McDonalds. According to a report by the National Employment Law Project, “Fast food is driving the bulk of the job growth at the low end — the job gains there are absolutely phenomenal”.[iv] When we hear politicians and CEOs argue about pensions, each of those millions of people is someone who spent their whole life planning for a retirement knowing their pension was one source of income they could count on. And they thought this because they had a legal contract promising that it would be so. 

The numbers also show that poverty isn’t just something that happens to someone else: it’s a “live risk for huge numbers of Americans”. The author and professor Stephen Pimpare tweeted that, while the number of people consistently in poverty for the last three years is small, nearly a third of Americans experienced at least few months of poverty at some point over those years. “Insecurity is the American experience”.[v]

Several of us gathered here on Thursday to watch Robert Reich’s movie “Inequality for All” with plenty of statistics and graphs about the growing gap between rich and poor Apparently right now this gap is the largest it has been since just before the great market crash in 1928[vi]. What was true for our parents’ generation is not true for us today. We are living in a fundamentally different financial reality. I believe our UU values are going to be critically important to bring justice, equity and compassion to human relations, and affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

As Martin Luther King wrote back in 1968 “Earlier in this century… economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a wont of industrious habits and moral fiber.” Sadly those ideas that King thought were behind us are back again- I hear them on the news all the time, often coming out of the mouths of candidates for public office. Where do these attitudes come from? Sociologist Daniel Little suggests: “One piece of the puzzle seems to come down to ideology and a passionate and unquestioning faith in "the market". If you are poor in a market system, this ideology implies you've done something wrong; you aren't productive; you don't deserve a better quality of life. You are probably a drug addict, a welfare queen, a slacker”. [vii]

These ideas clash so deeply not only with our own UU ideas of the inherent dignity and worth of every person, but with ideas fundamental to most of the religious teachings of the world. We have just come through the Christmas season and remember freshly the story of Mary and Joseph unable to find a place at the Inn. The scripture says that God blessed Mary above all women [Luke 1:42] but in our Judeo Christian tradition, being blessed by God, being chosen by God does not mean you get to go to the front of the line. The God of the Judeo Christian Tradition does not bless good people with Wealth and punish bad people with poverty. If you’ve watched even the TV commercials for “Real Housewives” you can see that moral rectitude and wealth are not directly linked. But this message “wealth is a sign of a life-well-lived” is everywhere in our culture. We as people of conscience must offer a different “poor people have inherent worth and dignity. Rich people have inherent worth and dignity. Money is not a measure of worth.”

I was playing a game with my son a few months back, called Settlers of Catan, a game we had often played before. We were playing a new way we hadn’t played before, with different rules. After a few turns, I could see that every turn he got further and further ahead, and I got further behind. I was about 3 turns from losing everything, and getting frustrated and definitely not having fun. I finally just quit in a funk, seeing that there was no hope. Nick said “yes, I had read in the manual that when you play [this way] whoever goes first almost always wins.” Part of the reason that hard work and staying in school are no longer guarantees that you will be able to feed your family and have financial security is because the rules of the game have changed. For example, the Minimum wage has been getting father and further from a living wage. Our politicians tell us we can’t possibly raise the minimum wage, because industry couldn’t handle the increase in wages. But several research institutes all over the country have shown that not only do the numbers not support that theory, the numbers DO show that it is literally impossible to live on what one makes working full time at a minimum wage job without public assistance. That’s just one example of rules that aren’t fair. 

UUs all over the country are speaking out in favor of making the minimum wage a living wage. Up in Ithaca there is a program to support and certify employers who pay a living wage. I was talking to an employer who was having trouble paying their employees a living wage. They pointed out that they were wage leaders for their industry- that they paid better starting wages and had better benefits than any of their competitors. And while I honor them for being leaders, and know how hard it is to compete with other stores paying minimum wage, that number- $13.94 is what it actually takes to live on. No matter how good the employers intentions are, no matter how hard the workers work, if that number and the minimum wage are not the same, people making minimum wage are going to fall further and further behind.

Our president and other politicians point to education as the solution to this problem. I agree that it would be great if every person in America got to go to college. But even in that glorious day, we are still going to need pizza delivery guys as long as we want pizza delivered. If most of the job creation is in Fast Food, then even if every American had a college degree, we would still need the same number of works doing fast food jobs. If those jobs don’t lift people out of poverty, then the rules of the game are not fair. And as Reich said in his documentary “Losers of rigged games can become very angry.”

UUA president Peter Morales reminded us in our reading: “We tend to treat changes in the economy as if they were like the weather -- natural phenomena governed by forces beyond our control. Nothing could be further from the truth.” In fact the rules change all the time. The Citizen’s United ruling was a huge change in the rules. Now money is speech, and the 1% can speak as loud as they want. The rules can be changed to create a more even playing field too. Just this past year in the county where I live, Tompkins County, two workers at the recycling center came forward asking why, if the County called itself Living Wage Employer, the employees of the Recycling Center were not making a living wage? Was the county using outside contractors as a loophole to being truly a living wage employer? The workers and the community organized to create awareness and pressure on the County legislators, who responded with a genuine desire to do the right thing, and after many months of budget talks and negotiations, on January 6 the legislature voted that starting February 2015 all County employees, even those at the Recycling center, will be paid a Living Wage. Says County Legislator Carol Chock, who cosponsored legislation that created the Living Wage Contingency Fund: "We shouldn't even be discussing whether or when to achieve a livable wage for all workers, it is in the interests of all of us that anybody who works be able to support their own basic expenses."

No, the market is not a force like the weather. The invisible hand of the market is not like the hand of God reaching down to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. It is your hands and my hands. This is good news and bad news. The Bad news is that with the rules we have right now, billionaires with plenty of money to fund campaigns and pay lobbyists have a louder voice in the creation of those rules. The good news is that we are the 99%. And the people of this country have come together before to influence the creation of rules that provide a more level playing field. In the years when Martin Luther King was preaching and marching, the years when he wrote the words Mike read earlier, the distance from the rich to the poor was much smaller. We the American People have seen the game played by fairer rules, and we the American People know that when we come together, as we did in the days of King, rich and poor, white and black, big Cities and small towns, our voice will be heard. 

This struggle is often portrayed as class warfare, rich against poor. But in his famous Ted Talk[viii], Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer explains that jobs and wealth can’t be created by the rich alone. We need a robust middle class to grow our economy. Study after study shows us that when inequality widens things get worse for everyone. Things as seemingly unrelated as mental illness, teen pregnancy, and school dropout rates are directly related to income inequality- not to the wealth of a country. As Robert Reich said in his documentary “The rich do better when everyone else is doing better.”[ix] This movement towards justice and compassion needs people like Billionaire Warren Buffet who spoke out against this imbalance, even though he is richer because of it. “No household making more than $1 million each year should pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than a middle class family pays. This is the Buffett Rule—a simple principle of tax fairness that asks everyone to pay their fair share”.[x] This struggle needs people like Milton Webb and Stanley McPherson, the two workers with ReCommunity Recycling who lead the fight to make Tompkins County truly a living wage employer. And this struggle surely needs the Unitarian Universalists. 

That’s why our 2014 General Assembly- delegates from UU churches around the country, like Alice and Marcia, voted to make Escalating Inequality our Congregational Study/Action Issue for the next 4 years. That means we turn the beacon of our attention to this important issue and see what our UU values call us to do. This is why our UU Pennsylvania Legislative Action Network is embarking on a RaisetheWage PA campaign. A kickoff is planned for January 27 in Harrisburg to remind legislators that hard-working Pennsylvanians cannot survive on $7.25. UUPlan is also working with grass roots partners to create a constitutional amendment to reduce the influence of money in politics, to reverse the Citizen’s United decision. I think these are two core issues that come up again as we learn more about escalating inequality- that a fair playing field must include a living wage for all, and equal access to our democratic institutions.

It’s time for those of us who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person to stand up to the prevailing notion that if someone can’t make ends meet it is because they need to work harder. The number of hardworking Americans who can’t find jobs, or who aren’t paid a living wage for their hard work is growing. If we believe in the American dream, that if you work hard and stay in school you can provide financial security to your family, then we are going to have to fight for that dream. There was a time in this country when that dream was real- it was a time when the rules of the game meant everyone could play. But the rules have changed. To affirm and promote Justice Equity and Compassion in Human relations, we must stand up and say we want rules that are fair. Rich and poor and everyone in between must come together to create a just world for everyone.

[ix] For more information about effects of income inequality

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Through a Screen Darkly (January 4, 2015)


For our texts today we viewed Prince EA's video “
why I won't let technology control me
And the iPhone 5 commercial which appears at about 5'39"
Our primary text was an interview of Louis CK on Conan on the topic "Why I won't let my kids have a cell phone". Due to some PG13 language, we read a transcript of the interview instead of watching it. But you should watch it, because it's really funny. 
I was at a family wedding recently, sitting near the back of the chapel, and in front of me was a sea of glowing screens. It seemed like every person in the place was watching the wedding ceremony through a screen. It’s amazing to remember that the iPhone is only a few years old. When my son was born 13 years ago we got our first cell phone “for emergencies.” And our first digital camera. (These were two separate objects of course.) I never suspected then how profoundly this rapidly evolving technology would change our lives. It has changed not only how we communicate with one another, but how we shop, how we play games, how we watch movies, how we listen to music, how we interact with other people in the room with us, and apparently… how we celebrate a wedding ceremony. 

When technology is rushing ahead at such a pace, it may take our human-ness a while to catch up. It is delightful to share photos instantly with relatives far away, or find the nearest pizza parlor anywhere you go. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to research sermons now that all the information in the world seems to be available at my fingertips. But when I saw that phone commercial we just watched together, I felt like that summed up everything that was troubling me about our personal screens. All those beautiful places, all those wonderful moments...and between the human being and the living world was always a screen. I began to wonder- how can we develop a healthy balanced relationship to our screens? As a faith community, and as individuals, can we develop a response to the cultural messages that the latest phone or tablet or phablet (or whatever) is always necessary, always central to what we need and want? I think there are 3 basic questions that can guide us to a balanced, healthy relationship to our seductively brilliant technology.

The first question we can ask ourselves: “ is my screen coming between me and this moment?” The reason I was so surprised to see all those phones glowing during the wedding was because I believe when we gather in worship we are creating a living moment together that cannot be captured or duplicated. That wedding was an important event in the life of my family, one we all wanted to remember forever. But I wondered, are we losing something of our lived experience of the moment to create a digital record of that experience? 

Psychologist Linda Henkel, who researches human memory at Fairfield University in Connecticut, has found what she called a "photo-taking impairment effect." In her study, she asked students to take photos of statues and other artworks at a museum and afterward found that:
"The objects that they had taken photos of — they actually remembered fewer of them, and remembered fewer details about those objects. Like, how was this statue's hands positioned, or what was this statue wearing on its head. They remembered fewer of the details if they took photos of them, rather than if they had just looked at them," 

Henkel concluded “relying on an external memory aid means you subconsciously count on the camera to remember the details for you.”

Psychologist Marion Garry (a professor at Victoria University in Wellington NZ) has also been studying the impact of the relationship between photography and memory. She has found something troubling. She says about those parents who take thousands of photos of their children (and I assure you I am one of those parents):
"I think the problem is people are giving away being in the moment" …"and their devices are only going to capture so much...I wish they'd put their camera down and just watch what was happening. It's the idea that they think what they are doing is amplifying their memory, and I worry that what they are doing is just giving the memory away. So if they are paying less attention because what they've got to do is take all those photos. They are splitting their attention between what's going on and the act of taking the picture… It seems to me to be a kind of loss." [1:59]

Garry also noticed that having thousands of photos seemed to reduce the occurrence of a parent and child sitting and looking at a single photo together and telling the story together of that shared memory (which, it turns out, is an important skill that is transmitted from parent to child) . Better, she says, is to have just a couple of photos that we share with our children and one another. Often that one photo can be a jumping off point for many shared memories.

The second question is similar- is this screen coming between myself and others? Our cultural expectations vary widely around this. I remember telling a neighbor that I usually put my phone away when I was in meetings so that I could be fully present. He said at his company it was expected that you always have your phone out checking your e-mail and messages in case a customer needed you. Their company culture emphasized the need to multi-task to maximize productivity. Sometimes screens bring us together, sometimes they keep us apart. I’ve seen young people clustered around a DS screen fully engaged together in a shared experience. On the other hand, I bet we’ve all experienced a time when a friend or family member is starting at their screen and you can’t seem to get their full attention.

A study in the journal of Environment and Medicine looked at this phenomenon which they call “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices"  During the study a research assistant would observe subjects having a conversation at a coffee shop and “during the course of a 10-min conversation noting whether either participant placed a mobile device on the table or held it in his or her hand.” When the data was gathered together they found that “People who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern.” Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech University, who lead the study, writes
“Even without active use, the presence of mobile technologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges, thereby undermining the character and depth of these connections. Individuals are more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and changes in the tone of their conversation partner’s voice, and have less eye contact... If either participant placed a mobile communication device on the table, or held it in their hand, during the course of the 10-minute conversation, the quality of the conversation was rated to be less fulfilling, compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices,”

The message is clear, while our technology can bring us together in many ways, if we are trying to build relationships, it’s best to leave mobile devices out of site. If the conversation is one you care about, putting your screens away is likely to make the conversation more fulfilling.

Now our third question: “is my screen coming between me and my Self?” This is what Louis CK was getting at in our opening text. He contends that “you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something-- that's what the phones are taking away.” The amazing thing is that this is so similar to how my classmates and I were introduced to contemplation at the first retreat in our spiritual direction training. Contemplation is that ability to just be and not do, and then to allow whatever arises to just arise. Sometimes that is profound sadness, or loneliness, or despair, and sometimes it is peace, or delight, or a sense of oneness with all that is. Contemplation requires space and time and patience, and when we fill up all the empty gaps in our life there is no room left to develop the relationship to the deepest parts of ourselves. 

I have this habit- if I am out at dinner with my husband and he gets up to wash his hands, immediately my phone comes out. Sending a quick text to a friend helps it feel less awkward to be alone, and it helps fill up that brief gap in conversation while he is gone. Louis’ monologue hints that there may be something else going on there- why do I want to distract myself from the fact that I’m alone? What if instead I used that brief pause to re-center myself in myself? What if I used that brief gap to just enjoy the environment around me? And if that feels weird-why? Jungian Spiritual Director Don Bisson says “Technology has quickened our expectations creating an inability to wait”. His theory is that because almost everything we seek on our screens happens in an instant, we have become less practiced, less comfortable with waiting. Instead of welcoming moments of quite introspection, we fend them off with a quick look at our Facebook stream. 

Our screens provide innovative ways to get and share information, to reach out to our friends and family across the world. But I haven’t yet seen them provide a way to ground ourselves in our own center. I have never stood up after an hour spent reading my Facebook newsfeed or using my many aps saying “that was refreshing, now I really feel centered and spiritually grounded.” Instead I usually feel scattered and wonder where the time went. 

All our technological marvels are ultimately just tools. Even the iPhone 6. Like a well sharpened knife, a good tool helps us do our work more effectively. Some of these devices can do an amazing number of things, but no tool can do everything. It is not the job of our i-thingies, or even of the Apple Corporation to discern how and when technology best used. It is up to you, in dialogue with your family, with your community, with your ecosystem, to create a healthy balance. 

I’m reminded of that passage from 1st Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Obviously when the apostle Paul wrote this he could never have foreseen a culture full of people viewing the world through their smart phones, but the first century Christians to whom Paul wrote understood that when they looked through their first century glass it was not the same as looking at something face to face. He was reminding his followers that often we see the world in a superficial way, but we are capable seeing the truth more deeply, more fully, “face to face.” This traditional wisdom holds true in our drastically transformed times. The religious way, the deep way encourages us to look at the world face to face, to know as we are known. Remember, the first source of our UU religious tradition is “Direct Experience of that transcending mystery and wonder.” Even the adorable photo of our grandchild that gets 1000 likes on Facebook cannot compare to the experience of holding that little person in our arms. As we enter the New Year, we must constantly discern: when is this shiny marvelous screen bringing me deeper into connection with myself, with others, and with this moment, and when is it time to put all our screens away, and just be.