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.