Friday, January 19, 2018

Doing and Worth (January 14, 2018)

I love to get things done. I love that feeling of satisfaction I get when I complete a task- anything from folding a load of laundry to sending my column off to the editor of the Daily Review. Every year before the annual meeting I make this big long list of things we did together during the past year, and I feel proud of how much we do together.

Early in my ministry the size of that list felt important to me; I could prove my worth to my congregation with the many things I had done. The San Francisco Bay Area is a very busy place, and I felt swept up in a tide of busyness. Sometimes I swam on it purposefully, sometimes I barely kept up and sometimes it swept me under. Everyone felt this tide, and I think we all believed that this was the natural state of things. “I know you’re very busy reverend, but could I set up a meeting with you?” It made me feel relevant, part of the forward motion of progress.

It’s taken me 20 years of ministry to realize that non-doing together is just as important to a spiritual community as doing. Just because one meeting ends at 2:00 doesn’t mean you ought to schedule a second meeting at 2. If our goal as a congregation were to hold the maximum number of meetings, that would be very efficient. But it turns out some important things happen after a meeting ends. Questions get asked, the meeting gets digested, we stretch and move our long-sitting bodies, people catch up about one another’s lives. If I’m really being intentional about non-doing, I’ll go spend some time meditating, or just staring blankly into space. Like a weaver finishing a garment, ends need to get tied in, tools put away, the finished work celebrated and enjoyed before resetting the loom for a new piece. So it is with our less tangible work- our bodies, minds and spirits need that spaciousness. There are benefits to creating a little emptiness before filling up again with the next task, the next meeting. I always knew in theory that how we did things mattered at least as much as how many things we did, especially in religious community. What I’m finally learning, after 20 years, is how much non-doing it takes to give the “doing” the right quality of attention.

Our spiritual Direction group is a great example of this. We start with an optional half hour of silence, and people come into the circle and sit as they are ready. Each person gets a change to speak, and between each person we leave a period of silence. Some of us love the silence, some of find the silence difficult, but all of us seem to agree that the quality of the sharing and the quality of the listening is really special. Like a margin around a page of words, the empty white space helps us notice and focus on what is special, what is important.

Last summer, after I attended the last meeting, preached the last sermon and turned on the vacation reply on my e-mail, I didn’t know quite what to do with myself. Instead of trying to fill up my schedule with the long list of household chores that had been neglected in the rush to the end of the church year, I took the weekend really off. I decided that aside from the daily chores, I was only going to do things I really wanted to do so I sat and listened for that inner voice- what do I want to do? “I don’t want to do anything” came the petulant reply. So I sat on the front porch and read and started at a tree. I tried again later “what do I really want to do?” “nothing- Just want to go to bed” At the time I was worried- had I lost my joy in life? Was I sinking into a great depression? But I went and took a nap. By day 3 I was sitting in mediation when it hit me- I really did need to do nothing. I really did just need to catch up on my sleep. How lovely it was to have time to read a page of my book, and then let it rest on my lap as I watched the squirrels scamper through my tree. By day 4 what I really wanted was to mop my long neglected kitchen floor.

Clearly a balance is needed between doing and non-doing. We have to somehow feed and shelter ourselves every day, diapers changed, bridges built. But our American culture is out of balance. “Productivity” and “growth (numeric growth that is) are seen always positive things. But look at our landfills- we live in a society that is producing more than we can digest. It might be better for quarterly profit reports to produce more, but I think our bodies, our hearts, our eco-system could really benefit from a little more non-doing.

A few years back, a delegation of workers from the garment industry in Haiti came to speak in Ithaca, and the workers explained that even though there was a new minimum wage, few workers got it. For example our speaker was in charge of 2 seams on t-shirts. His quota was 300 dozen per day, which broke down to 900 seams per hour . So you could make minimum wage ONLY if you met that standard. Otherwise you had to stay late and finish up your minimum when you were off the clock. Folks who had never personally worked at piecing garments, had determined “production targets”[i]. When the labor activists questioned the garment industry executives they would say only “that number is an industry standard of production.” The human body, the human being actually producing those t-shirts is not relevant. If you can’t keep up you can’t feed your family.

As Gillian Giles said in today’s reading, our productivity and our worth are tied tightly together in our culture. Time spent not being productive is called “wasted time.” Giles talks poignantly about the pain of living inside a body that can’t “do” at the same breakneck pace. Whether you are worker making t-shirts, a student doing arithmetic problems, or a doctor whose insurance company has decided they need to see a new patient every 7 minutes[ii] we are rewarded and punished based on “how many” and “how quickly.” Even the folks at the top of their field, meeting and exceeding quotas experience the toll of this way of valuing life. And for folks whose bodies and minds can’t, our society seems to say they have no worth.

The first of our UU principles is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, (some would say every being). This is one of the most radical assertions of UU, and when we really sink down into it, is one of the most challenging for us to understand and reconcile with the world we see around us. It’s one thing to accept the statement intellectually, but sometimes every person wonders- even me?

In this room on any given Sunday we have a great variety of human capacities. We have folks who are able to enjoy a long vigorous hike, and folks for whom walking from their car into the sanctuary is a challenge. Not with us today are folks who were not able to get out of their beds, folks who need sign language interpretation, and we usually don’t have folks who can’t drive, because this area is designed for people with ready access to a car.

In this room with us today are folks who are right in the heart of their working years- who work for a paycheck most days. We are also people who are having trouble finding work, folks who have retired but stay busy, folks who are frustrated that they can’t do what they used to do, what they want to do, and we have youngsters who have not yet grown into the capacities that will someday be theirs.

And though we all generally covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all those kinds of people in all their capacities, sometimes there is a place inside us where we don’t believe it. A place inside where we feel like we have to earn our worth by striving and doing. But the word “inherent” means that it is woven right into us. It is part of our essential nature, part of who we are. [iii] Saying that each and every one of us has inherent worth is a theological statement- it’s not a science statement we can prove from data (as far as I know) It is an idea that comes from our Universalist heritage- that as Hosea Ballou wrote:
Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82)
Or for folks who are not so sure about this “god” business, there is something special about life itself. Every bit of it. The more we learn about the web of life, the more we see the subtle ways life supports and nurtures itself. An older tree in a grove gifts its very life substance to the younger trees around it, even as it is dying. When foresters tidy up the seemly unnecessary tree, a tree nearby, used to its support, fall over in the next storm. Every time we animals inhale and exhale we help maintain the careful balance of gasses in the air necessary for life. We don’t always know our impact or our use, but our first principle encourages us to have faith that our worth is something we are born with, it can’t be separated from us.

Try to call to mind a time when doing nothing was exactly the right thing to do….
  • Do you remember just doing nothing with your friends when you were a kid? Wasn’t that awesome? Aren’t you glad you did that?
  • Consider the joy a smiling baby gives, doing nothing at all but radiating life.
  • Even at work doing nothing is sometimes best; often when we are in meetings together I feel I must come up with the information, an answer for the question at hand. And if I can just wait, just refrain from speaking for a moment or two, someone else has a much better idea than the one I had on the tip of my tongue.
  • And when you are angry is a great time for non-doing, it can be very compassionate to the folks around you.
  • How often have I been glad I put down whatever I was doing and gave my full attention to my son, or a sound of a bird chirping, or the way the light filtered through a tree.
Doing is important, but for a healthy self and a healthy world it must be balanced by non-doing. Your life is valuable both when you are checking things off your do list, and when you are watching the snow fall. Your life has worth whether or not you are contributing to the Gross National Product. As the river of busyness sweeps you along, I challenge you to remember that doing is not the only worthy way to use our time, that sometimes just being is the perfect thing to do. More importantly- I challenge you to remember that from the moment a life is born until and even after it is gone, it is precious. As we grow into and out of our diverse capacities, know that we are all worthy.

End notes:
[i] Sweat Free Worker Tour of Ithaca 2013. For more about quotas read:


[iii] “involved in the constitution or essential character of something : belonging by nature or habit : intrinsic”