Sunday, April 30, 2017

Change the Story (April 30, 2017)

It’s time to change the story. Whether we are watching the nightly news, reading our twitter feed, or enjoying a popular novel, the stories we have been telling ourselves recently and for many years have not lead us where we want to go.

Why does it matter what story we tell? Stories shape our expectations—If you thought you were in a horror movie you would know never to go into a dark place alone. But if you are in children’s fantasy novel, that dark wardrobe might be the start of an amazing adventure. If we expect something to happen, and we see a path that leads in that direction, it seems natural and right to follow it.

Stories shape our attitudes. We could look at, for example the Rich Housewives of Atlanta and say “I will never be wealthy and famous like them, my life is unimportant. I lost the great lottery when I was born because I’ll never experience that.” Or I could look at the exact same life and notice that I have a roof over my head, and food to eat, and a community of people who care for one another. I could remember that even Americans at the bottom end of income inequality live better than 68% of the world’s population[i], and we could be filled with gratitude for our amazing good fortune, and spend our lives trying to share the amazing gifts we have received. I can't seem to find that one on cable though... The stories we tell give meaning to our experience.

One of the most important stories of our time is the story we are telling about Global Climate Disruption. Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian Economist and Psychologist, has taken on the question- if Climate Change is such a big deal, why aren’t we doing more about it? He came to a number of very interesting conclusions, using research from a wide range of disciplines. One of the findings that spoke loudly to me is that when we tell ourselves over and over that the apocalypse is coming, it renders us feeling too powerless to act. He writes “climate messages have been unpalatable because they – in their apocalypse form – evoke fear, guilt and helplessness…. Any story that tells me that my identity and lifestyle are wrong and destructive will be subconsciously resisted.” [p. 149] “When Climate change is framed as an encroaching disaster that can only be addressed by loss, cost and sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid the topic. We’re predictably averse to losses. With a lack of practical solutions, helpless grows and the fear message backfires. We’ve heard that “the end is nigh” so many times, it no longer really registers” [p. 82] We tell the story so often that “it’s all going to hell” hoping it will spur us to action. But instead of driving us to work harder, we are paralyzed by despair.

David Korten, author, activist and former professor of the Harvard Business School, identifies 3 basic stories that he believes underlie 21st century American life.[ii] He talks about the “distant patriarch” story- in which a distant God is running the show and is “Creation’s sole source of agency and meaning.” This is the story folks are living inside of when they say “we don’t need to worry about Global warming- God will take care of us.”

Then there’s the “Grand Machine” story, which Korten says comes from the lineage of science; the world is just one big machine, driven by its own mechanisms and random chance, without purpose or meaning. We humans are driven by evolutionary self-interest to pursue profit and financial security for ourselves and our genetic line. “Economists urged us to turn to money as our ultimate measure of value and look to markets as our moral compass.” If you live inside this story, it’s hard to imagine any future for ourselves other than the inevitable depletion of the earth’s resources for our personal profit.

Then there is the “Mystical Unity” story; all that we experience is only an illusion, all that is real is our one-ness with the divine. If you live inside this story, you have no obligation to work to turn back climate change, because our world is only an illusion. A life of meditation and prayer is the only sensible choice.

I do agree with Korten that these 3 stories are very powerful in our times, but I look at Korten’s 3 stories, something doesn’t quite fit our story as Unitarian Universalists. I think the UUs have always found gaps those stories. We’ve long challenged the Distant Patriarch story, arguing since our earliest days that humans have fee will and what we do matters. As a religion born out of the enlightenment, we often fall under the sway of the great machine story, but we tell a different version. If the machine has no intrinsic meaning, we have long understood it is up to us to provide that meaning, to create together a meaning that leads not to a competition of wealth acquisition, but to the greatest good for all. We challenge the Mystic Unity story as well- while we believe deeply in the underlying oneness of all things, still we have always rolled up our sleeves to be part of co-creating a world of opportunity and justice. Because of that very oneness we hear the suffering of others and want to help. Our hymnal is full of songs inspiring us to “roll up our sleeves.”

And I do agree that and one thing all 3 of these stories have in common is that they don’t show us a way humans can participate in steering our world in a positive direction through this unprecedented crisis. “The old stories do not fit anymore, and the new stories are not yet fully formed.” Says teacher and author Llyn Roberts.

I believe part of the reason we are gathered here each Sunday (in addition to the promise of potluck and some great entertainment to follow) is because we are hungry for a different story to be part of , and we find that here. I believe this is one of our most important jobs as a faith tradition, and as this very particular beloved community. Here are some important aspect of our UU story:

1. Reality is important. We honor not only the data from the scientific community, but the data we observe in the world around us every day. We notice the creeks flooding more often than they used to, and strange periods of drought in the summer. We bring in our scientist friends to help us understand what we are seeing. Any story we tell has to harmonize with the facts, and when we get new data that doesn’t fit with our story, it is the story that must be changed.

2. UUs believe that we are all part of something larger than ourselves. Our story is a big story, from the flaring forth of the big bang, through the evolution of life on our planet, and we have a responsibility to the future generations not only of humans but of all life here, knowing that the story continues long after we are gone.

3. For a long time the UU story has told about the importance of each and every person. The struggle we are part of is not for the victory of one, or even of a few, but a world where every person has basic human rights and an freedom to grow, change and express themselves. Now, as we stand on the verge of changing our first principle from “every person” to “ever being” we honor how our story is changing, must change, to include not just humans but the great web of life of which we are a part. In the story we are weaving today, we see that from the great wolf, to the bacteria in your gut, to the trees of the rain forests, living beings play crucial roles in the health of our world that we had failed to imagine.

4. In our UU story, we believe that what we do matters. What you do and I do, and what we do together matters. Whether or not we believe in god, we tell a story where we are not passive observers of this unfolding story, but each of us can make a difference in what our world is becoming. Our story is a web to be woven one strand at a time- and each strand will shape the cloth in a unique and important way.

5. In this story, there is not one big boss battle to fight, not one evil king to destroy, We are not trying to win the contest of who has the most. Our story does not culminate in a great battle for victory, but an ongoing search for meaning. In our story, there is something more important than money or success, or even safety. Ours is an ongoing quest for less tangible trophies, like love and justice, beauty and truth.

6. When folks all around us are telling the story of how we are all going to hell, UUs have always agreed with what psychologists are proving today- that fear and despair are not the best motivators to change our lives toward the good. As the founder of American Universalism, John Murray, once said “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.” Our story is not about the fiery pits of hell, but about the heaven we are building together here on earth.

7. In our ever unfolding story, I think there is always a place for listening. The hubris of humans has led to much destruction and far-reaching unintended consequences. Let ours be a story where we listen, not only to one another, but to people who are different than us, and to beings who are different from us. Remember the old stories where the youngest son goes out into the world to seek his fortune, and though he is neither as strong nor handsome as his older brothers, he listens to the wisdom of the ants an the birds and so has all the wisdom he needs for a happy ending? There is much wisdom we will need to face this crossroads in our story, and fortunately we have only begun to learn from one another and from our living earth. Let us listen, with our eyes and hearts and spirits and rational minds too.

8. Korten calls his new story “the living Universe story” he says “I am an intelligent, self-directing participant in a conscious, interconnected self-organizing cosmos on a journey of self-discovery toward ever-greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility” or as we like to say it “the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part.” This world we share is not an inert machine, but life seeking life. Life growing and changing and learning, and dying and healing. We are deeply embedded in that web- when a hurricane sweeps the eastern seaboard and wipes out homes and businesses, when the harvest comes and the first delicious strawberries of spring delight our senses and feed our bodies. When we clear-cut a forest, and the weeds and brambles rush in like scar tissue protecting the wounded earth. We are part of the fabric of life, infused with the spirit of life that flowed long before humans evolved.

Once upon a time, there was a tribe of seekers who loved each other, and loved the world. By listening to the rivers and the rains and the maple trees in their valley, they knew that a great change was coming. “What can we do?” they wondered. They remembered that this was not the first time a great turning had changed the face of the world, they remembered that the universe had had many forms before this one. This was not the first time the living beings of earth had to transformed themselves or face extinction. They wanted to help turn the path of change in a direction of abundant life, so they told the stories of all they knew that had come before, and of the new problems that had never been faced before. They talked, and they cried, and they sometimes raised their voices in anger.

“Shhh” one of them said- “listen…” after a time a voice said “I hear the land where we bury our trash calling out to me, it is calling me to recycle” and so she put a recycling bin and a compost bin in the kitchen. “I hear the worry of people who can’t find work to feed their families” said one man, “so I want to figure out how to create jobs here in the Valley.” “You know”, said the first woman, “if only we had curbside composting, it would make it so much easier for all our friends and neighbors to compost, and that would help keep the soil healthy and create new jobs too.” Others who were listening felt full of the spirit of life and formed a task force to create green jobs in a brand new curbside recycling venture.

Again there was quiet for a time. A boy said “this spring I didn’t see many bees hovering over the flowers in my garden, does anyone know how we can help? An adult said “let’s go learn about pollinators, and see what we can do.”

And then there was more listening. “I’ve been listening to the air and the storms, and I feel called to do something to slow climate disruption. Would anyone like to carpool with me?” “I’m worried about that too, said another, everything I do from heating my apartment to driving my car to cooking my dinner uses fossil fuels. Let’s start a community solar program so that everyone has access to renewable energy.”

One woman heard the despair of people in jail for minor offences, and heard that not everyone was being treated equally, and others felt moved by her story and carpooled over to the city hall and created a citizen watch group to create fairness in the justice system.

“Well I don’t hear anything yet” said one woman “so I will water the garden. Maybe the garden has something to tell me, so I will listen while I work. And I will make sure we keep always a place for listening in our community.”

And this little community-that-could kept listening, and doing, and listening again. Listening to the voices of suffering, listening to the return of birds in the spring. listening the rush of storm water rushing over the banks of the river. Whenever they weren’t sure what their part of the story was, they listened. And though sometimes they felt alone in their work, they never were. The soil did its part, turning the compost into nutrients into life, and the sun shone down on the solar panels and the tomato plants. Some of their neighbors saw what they did and it made them think about their own stories. And all over the world there were other groups of folks, listening and responding. The story they were part of was so big, we could never tell it all here, but for seven generations each spring the earth awoke, and the people listened, and the spirit of life called them to a vision of hope for the whole living world.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Blessed Are You Who Are Poor (April 2, 2017)

In Washington, in state capitols, and in boardrooms around the country there is war raging against the poor. This war is justified, in part, by a myth that if you are rich it is because you are clever and hardworking, and if you are poor you are just not working hard enough. This year a draft Statement of Conscience on Escalating Inequalities appears before the UU General Assembly. It’s a rich document, full of important ideas, but today I want to focus on this one sentence “Another myth is that that the poor have only themselves to blame, which discounts systemic racism, the sources of inherited wealth, exploitation of low wage earners, and other factors.”[i]

I want to start here, because our Unitarian Universalist theology is fundamentally at odds with this myth. The very first of our principles is the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This is the modern way of thinking about the very old Universalist idea that God’s love embraces the whole human race. And that idea arose as an alternative to the popular Calvinist idea, that actually god’s love did not embrace the whole human race. Some were God’s chosen, or “elect” and the other folks were… not. Well, I am noticing that old Calvinist idea creeping out of the churches and into our legislatures and social institutions. I encourage you to listen to the news next time with this in mind - listening for the idea that some of us are worthy and others are unworthy.

Consider how this subtle theological point impacts social policy. If I am rich or middle class, it is because I am chosen, because I am worthy, and you are living in poverty because you are not chosen, because you are unworthy, then I am absolved of any responsibility to help you survive. In fact, if it’s your fault you are poor because of something you did or didn’t do, then maybe we should add some punitive obstacles, so you learn your lesson. Straighten up and fly right. I think the drug testing for welfare recipients is a perfect example of this.
Saying it is “unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction,” Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation requiring adults applying for welfare assistance to undergo drug screening…
The aid recipients would be responsible for the cost of the screening, which they would recoup in their assistance if they qualify.[ii]
When the law went into effect in 2011, during the four months the state tested for drug use, only 2.6% of applicants tested positive. It’s important to notice that in the whole state of Florida there is an illegal drug use rate of 8%, “meaning far fewer people on services are using drugs than their better-off counterparts. The drug testing cost taxpayers more money than it saved, and was ruled unconstitutional [in 2014]”.[iii]

When we separated myth from fact, we find out that actually people on public assistance tested positive at a LOWER rate than in the population as a whole. Notice this myth playing out here in policy in 2 ways, first the assumption that people requesting public assistance were more likely to use drugs, and second the creation of punitive obstacles that we don’t impose on other folks receiving money from the government, like, for example, State governors or State senators.

But I’m a Universalist. I believe that the rich, the middle class, the poor are all chosen, are all worthy. And every one of us has certain inalienable rights. I believe everyone has a right to food to eat, clean water to drink, and a safe place to sleep at night. Every person. That includes people living in poverty. That includes people struggling with drug addiction.

“But” I hear so often “what about my cousin who manages her money badly, and wastes money on soda and her smart phone and comes up short for her rent?” Yes, even her. Even people who are bad at money management have basic human rights.

“But” they say “what about that guy who shows up late for work and doesn’t have a good work ethic?” Yes, even him. People with poor work ethics have human rights.

Moreover, I know rich people who use drugs, rich people who manage their money badly (there are some famous rich people in the news right now who have declared bankruptcy multiple times.) I also know rich people who are lazy. All of us have gifts, and all of us have faults. UUs are not charged with dividing people into groups called “worthy” and “unworthy.” When we talk about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that word inherent means it is intrinsic to our nature. We don’t have to earn our worth, we don’t have to earn our dignity. We don’t have to earn basic human rights.

Let’s go back to that myth “that the poor have only themselves to blame, which discounts systemic racism, the sources of inherited wealth, exploitation of low wage earners, and other factors.”[iv] The math is not hard - we know for a fact that there is enough food on this planet to feed each and every person, but caring for each and every person is not the goal of economic system - the goal is to see who wins the game by having the most money. We know that there is a gap between the minimum wage and a living wage. (A living wage is the amount it really takes in any community to live.) The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour here in PA, but in Bradford a living wage for a single adult is $9.42[v]. And if you’ve got just 1 child who you are parenting alone, a living wage is $19.97 per hour. That means no matter how virtuous you are, no matter how frugal you are, how hard working, there is always going to be a gap between what you make and what you need to live. You are always going to have to choose between the heating bill and the rent, groceries and a visit to the doctor.

This myth is not based on math or statistics, it is really theological. That old Calvinist idea has given way to a new idea called the “Prosperity gospel.” This is a new theology which came to American in the 1950s. According to David W. Jones, Professor of Christian Ethics, “Simply put, this ‘prosperity gospel’ teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy… Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers to pray for and even demand material flourishing from God.”[vi] “Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.”[vii] Suddenly everything makes sense to me. If you view the world through this lens, it’s clear who has the most faith in God, the most favor - it’s the wealthy people. And who does not have enough faith in God? The poor. This theology is affecting social and economic policy for all of us, especially those most vulnerable. So let’s dust off our Bibles and take a hard look at this.

First, I want to tell you that many Christian preachers, even conservative preachers, agree that the prosperity gospel is a heresy. They caution that it makes wealth into a false idol. They caution that it treats God like a vending machine or ATM. So let’s look at what the Bible does say. First of all, let’s look at who has God’s favor in the Bible. Consider Moses; after following God’s instructions and leading the people out of Egypt, Moses becomes, with the people, a wandering refugee. He is homeless for 40 years.

Or let’s look at Jesus, who was born into probably a middle class family (carpentry is a skilled trade) but renounces His privilege to live as a mendicant, a teacher traveling from place to place staying at the homes of supporters and students and eating at their tables. Consider His birth in a stable. If God showed His favor to those who pleased Him by providing wealth and ease, shouldn’t Mary have had the penthouse suite it the inn? But in case there was any doubt, Jesus’s teachings are very clear about this: “Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” — Luke 6:20-21

These examples, and many others, show us that economic status is not a sign of God’s favor, and the Bible is also very clear about our obligation to help people living in poverty. I found literally 12 pages of quotes supporting this, throughout both Jewish and Christian scriptures.
Here’s one from Deuteronomy:
If anyone is poor among you… do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need — Deuteronomy 15:7-8
And here is one from the new testament in the letters of John the Evangelist
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." 1 John 3:17-18
Even though it’s not always visible to those of us with full refrigerators according to a 2013 study 20% of children struggle with “food insecurity” here in Bradford county.[viii] So I spent some time last week making up a quick reference guide for people in urgent need. It’s a list of places you can go, if your heat is about to be turned off, or to get a hot meal. It’s interesting that almost every one of those places is faith-based. Catholic charities, the Bridge, Salvation Army. From the far right to the far left, the different faith traditions agree, that people of faith have a duty to help our brothers and sisters in need.

At the same time, I think liberals and conservatives agree, that food pantries are just a Band-Aid on the problem. Surely everyone would rather have their own income, so they could walk into any grocery store when they realize they are out of milk, instead of waiting for the 3rd Wednesday between 10-11 am when the food pantry is open. So we are called to help create a more just system, where all people can meet their basic human needs and live lives of dignity and purpose. The book of proverbs has some clear statements on this:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy — Proverbs 31:8-9
And the prophets speak, quite passionately about this:
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. — Isaiah 10:1-3
In America today this means not only standing up to protect programs like Meals on Wheels, but it also means continuing to fight for a minimum wage that is a living wage. It means searching out the roots of our economic inequalities like systemic racism. And we do make a difference - our hard work to raise the minimum wage worked in the state of new York did help change the law, we are up to $9.70, and are on a path to $15 per hour by the end of 2021.[ix]

In our proposed statement of conscience, this is where we placed our emphasis - building a just system for everyone. I completely agree with that - but something started to bother me about our UU stance on poverty. I don’t see anything in the statement that calls us as simply as Jesus did: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Yes, we must work to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, but we have been fighting that battle for years – where are folks trying to support a family at a minimum wage job going to live while that battle continues? What is our responsibility to folks at the losing end of economic inequity right now? Our safety net has holes, and people are falling through it right now, today.

When I worked in Palo Alto, Calfiornia, folks came to our church every week asking for material help. The head of the non-profit who helped un-housed people in our community gave me her card, suggesting I give her a call, whenever I needed help. So when a man came in saying he had been evicted from his home and was having trouble putting together the funds to sign a lease at a new place, I called her. I told her, that he said he had tried every social service agency he could think of. I was shocked when she replied with a sigh “what he’s telling you is probably true. There really is no help for folks in that area.” There was not enough money in the Minister’s discretionary fund to meet his need, nor in my pocket. He went away empty handed, both of us feeling powerless.

One of the sources of our UU tradition are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves” and the Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear - we are called to remember the poor, not to look away. Are we looking away by climbing up into our heads and analyzing the problem, instead of opening our hearts in compassion to the hardship all around us? It feels better to say “I wonder how this guy screwed up to get himself in this situation” or even to blame the 1% than to confront the depth of real need in the world.

As Jesus said “the poor will always be with us.” As a faith that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, each of us is called to stay present with that difficult reality, and to offer a helping hand whenever we are able. And we are called to help in 2 ways - the first is “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter when you see the naked, to clothe them” (Isaiah 58:7)” That’s why today, after social hour, I’m going to offer a workshop about “being a good Samaritan”- so we can talk in more depth about specific strategies and challenges in responding to people who ask for our help. Second, we are called to help by working to change a system of escalating inequalities. It means having your congress member on speed dial, and buying fair trade goods. Our statement of conscience has dozens of other suggestions for things we can do as individuals, as congregations, and in our legislative ministries like UUPlan and Interfaith Impact NY, to fight for justice.

We are all responsible for people living in poverty, and for the unjust system that permits poverty to exist. When we encounter the myth that “the poor have only themselves to blame,” we need only remember that Jesus called the poor blessed, and, that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.