Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Love My Enemy? (February 25, 2018)

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. -Matthew 5:43-45

To be genuine, compassion must be based on respect for the other, and on the realization that others have the right to be happy and overcome suffering just as much as you. On this basis, since you can see that others are suffering, you develop a genuine sense of concern for them.
... Genuine compassion should be unbiased. If we only feel close to our friends, and not to our enemies, or to the countless people who are unknown to us personally and toward whom we are indifferent, then our compassion is only partial or biased.
…, genuine compassion is based on the recognition that others have the right to happiness just like yourself, and therefore even your enemy is a human being with the same wish for happiness as you, and the same right to happiness as you. A sense of concern developed on this basis is what we call compassion; it extends to everyone, irrespective of whether the person's attitude toward you is hostile or friendly. [p. 302-304] -Dali Lama

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” Mainstream culture demonstrates day after day that anyone who does something we don’t like is our enemy, and once they are our enemy, it is currently culturally normative to insult them, to bully them, even to threaten their lives and their families.

So Jesus knows he is calling his students to do something counter-cultural when he says “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Dalai Lama and many other religious teachers arrive at the same place following their own traditions. And I believe it falls to us, not only as people of faith, but as people of this particular community who have championed Universalism for over 200 years, to remember a different way of being in the world- to be leaders and role models in spreading the good news about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, even the people we love to hate.

This fall, the drama department at my son’s high school was preparing a production of “Hunchback of Notre dame.” Students were concerned about the fact that the female lead, Esmerelda, was to be played by a white student, and they protested the practice of “white washing” where white actors are hired to play people of color. (You probably remember some recent Hollywood movies which were criticized for this same practice.) Well, the drama department decided to change to a different play, and to try to address the underlying “longstanding” racial tensions in the department. [i]

Then it was picked up as a leading story on Fox News and other right wing forums, and the vitriol began to pour out in public comments. According to the Ithaca Voice, “The addresses and phone numbers of family members were posted by commenters on the sites. Both students and parents alike were contacted directly on social media with vulgar, often racist comments and messages, sometimes to their personal accounts. Their group’s Facebook page received numerous messages from commenters around the country, calling the students.” such horrible things I won’t repeat them here, one even suggesting that we return to the practice of lynching. [ii]

How easily we, who claim to be a Christian nation, have forgotten Jesus’s words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

Police are now involved, sorting out any real threats of violence from the thousands of comments. The school district is standing behind the students saying “First, we condemn the cruel and threatening attacks on our students, staff, families, and community. Our children deserve civility and love.

Second, we support our students and their right to protest. Our district leaders have encouraged just this type of analytic thinking and bold approaches to dialogue around inclusion. We may not always agree, but we greatly appreciate the important and complex conversation our students have started regarding issues of identity and inclusion in the arts.”

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

Identifying any person, any group of people as the enemy leads us to build walls, to isolate ourselves, to commit acts of violence that would never feel okay if directed at someone “like us” at someone who was a neighbor or friend. Remember the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville where a car attack killed one person and injured 19 others?[iii] From the hateful slogans that were shouted and chanted, it was pretty clear that people of color were identified as the enemy I was filled with righteous outrage as I watched thee hateful actions and attitudes that swirled through that event and the aftermath. As a congregation committed to the idea that Black Lives Matter, it logically follows that the hate groups who marched in Charlottesville are our enemies, right? Surely we can hate the white supremacists who marched that day, right? Surely there is no insult too extreme for hate groups, right? Surely since we as a congregation are working to end racial prejudice and white supremacy, these guys are the enemy right?

Christian Picciolini[iv] was a white supremacist at 14 and by 16 was a neo-nazi leader, but now devotes his life to helping people leave extremist groups. He co-founded of a nonprofit peace advocacy organization called Life After Hate[v] . He was a lonely kid who remembers that when someone from a white supremacist group first approached him “it was the first time in my life that I felt like somebody was paying attention to me.” Picciolini believes that people join hate groups because the “wanted to belong and. they were marginalized that was the group that brought them in”

He explained in a recent interview that “The secret to stopping people from becoming extremists is to understand that in most cases they’re not monsters, they’re broken human beings who are doing monstrous things.”[vi]

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

There’s such a strong drive in us to think of our enemies as monsters. There’s a kind of rush courses through us when we boo that other football team, when we make course jokes about the leader of the other political party. Don Bisson argues that this is partly because of the sense of unity this gives us – us against the enemy. We strengthen our own sense of identity when we know who we are not, who we are against. When we make the other guy into an enemy, part of the reason that feels so good is because we finally have someone to carry that part of our own shadow. It makes us feel clean and righteous to externalize our shadow onto the other. If a racist looks like all those images of white men holding tiki torches shouting hateful things, we can all focus on how to stop “them” and no means of confronting or attacking them is immoral. If they are the enemy, I don’t have to struggle with my own shadow, my own white privilege, my own participation in white supremacy culture.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

Perhaps Jesus is calling us, as Christina Picciolini is suggesting, to separate the broken human beings from the monstrous things they do. Because love doesn’t mean letting people walk all over you. The monstrous behavior absolutely has to be named, and we have to create cultural limits for what behavior is allowed. But can we love the broken human being underneath? Can we look at that mob and - simultaneously- resist those ideas and oppose those actions, AND have compassion for whichever of those white supremacists might be like Christian Picciolini, a lonely confused person who has the potential to turn himself in a more compassionate and constructive direction?

What would it look like to love your enemy? Probably not a Valentine’s day style profusion of hearts and colored hearts. Perhaps like Rev. Rebeca Parker’s words at the Starr king president's lecture back in 2014 “Love makes and re-makes connections where connections have been broken”

Megan Phelps Roper[vii] grew up in the Westborough Baptist church, you know, the people who show up at funerals to yell hateful things? She eventually realized that these hateful tactics were not only ineffective, but actually were hurtful. She left the church, even though that meant leaving her family behind. What made the difference? It was her Twitter critics, her online enemies who eventually turned her around. Megan began a dialogue with them that eventually changed her mind her heart and her life. She even ended up marrying one of her trolls. It was by making and remaking connections with the very people she had cut herself off from that she was transformed. When hate rips, tears, slashes those connections to ribbon, Love begins the slow process of re-weaving connection, like scar tissue in a wound.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

When I hear the tragic news about another shooting, I think – please, let’s finally do something about gun laws. And yes, let’s provide so much more support for folks with mental illness. But I also wonder, is there something we should be doing about all the hate bouncing off the walls in our culture? Is there a way we could teach our children and model for one another, that there are other possible responses for that swirling feeling of hate and rage inside us than bullying the objects of our hatred on the internet? Than chanting hateful slogans at marches? Than, god forbid, picking up a gun? What if someone had taught that young man in Florida to love his enemies? What if someone had loved him?

What would it be like to love our enemies? I find it hard even to hold those two concepts in my heart at the same time… enemy.. and love. I must confess that there are when I see the face or hear the voice of certain political figures, when I hear certain ideas, I turn away, I turn the channel, I walk out of the room. This is going to take intention and awareness. The Buddhists suggest that we start with a ground of compassion and openness. That is one reason why we begin the traditional Metta Meditation by calling to mind a person we care about. [insert song lyrics here] We remember that feeling of caring, that feeling of compassion. We make room for it in our bodies and hearts and establish it there. The traditional Buddhist practice does not rush this process. You cannot will yourself to feel compassionate, you can’t force yourself, you can only open yourself up to it, soften and allow it in. You can take as long as you need to establish that foundation of compassion- days, weeks, years. When you are ready, you extend compassion to yourself. Even the parts of myself that judges and hates my enemies. Even the part of myself that is hard as a rock with hatred and anger. I invite that part of myself into my heart, into the stream of compassion like a child climbing into his mother’s lap. And like a parent listening to their child tell of the cruel playground bully, just listen, returning again and again to the ground of compassion. And that takes as long as it takes. And if you choose, if you are willing to consider that maybe each of us has some small role to play in increasing the compassion in the world, in reducing the number of enemies in the world, in creating the kind of collaborative solutions this world needs, you can invite someone who feels like an enemy into that space of compassion,

This is what it means to love unconditionally. This is the core teaching of Universalism. As Richard Rohr puts it: “[Jesus] teaches what they thought a religious leader could never demand of his followers; love of the enemy. Logically it makes no sense. Soulfully it makes absolute sense, because in terms of the soul, it really is all or nothing. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all.” This kind of love is not necessarily affection, nor desire, but perhaps a deep knowing that we are all interconnected; despite our personalities, despite our politics, despite even hurtful actions, actions which we do not condone or accept, stripped naked of all we have ever done or been, we are one. As Rohr says “trusting that love is the bottom stream of reality.” [Everything Belongs p. 70] and touching into that stream.

The culture around us shows us, day after day, what happens when we lash out at our enemies with hate. What happens when we love only our neighbors and hate our enemies. Perhaps it’s time to break that vicious cycle of retribution and violence, and turn instead to the slow, vulnerable work of cultivating compassion, of weaving and re-weaving connections. We are called to love one another as the early Universalists believed that God loves us- unconditionally and without exception. We are called to trust that at the bottom stream of reality is love, to enter that stream, to let love fil our hearts, and let it flow out to friend and enemy alike. Let us step into that stream as our prayer for one another and for the world.

Closing Words
“[Jesus] teaches what they thought a religious leader could never demand of his followers; love of the enemy. Logically it makes no sense. Soulfully it makes absolute sense, because in terms of the soul, it really is all or nothing. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all. Once we see it, we’re trapped. We see it once and the circle keeps moving out. If we still try to exclude some: sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays (or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there. We don’t understand. If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred too. The ability to respect the outsider is probably the litmus test of true seeing. It doesn’t even stop with human beings and enemies and the least of the brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting. One God, one world, one truth, one suffering and one love. All we can do is participate. [Rohr p. 51-52]


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A New Year for Trees

Putting Down Roots

When I first moved to Ithaca, I wanted to learn how to ground myself in a new place, how to put down roots and become part of a community.
So I found a yoga studio, registered to vote, got my library card, started to explore.
When fall came I remembered the beautiful colors from my childhood in PA
In winter I watched the strange shapes of the bare trees against the grey winter sky
In spring I was amazed at the profusion of flowers
and summer as the sky disappeared again replaced by a canopy of green.

As I walked the dog over our same path each day, past the same trees I noticed:
how the trees struggled that year of the drought.
After a hard winter, I noticed all the bare branches that never leafed out in the spring.
When roadwork season finally came to my block, I noticed how the heavy machines scooped up all the good black soil teaming with life, and replaced it with brown fill that nothing can grow in.
I watched with sadness as 4 trees on my block were cut down and replaced with spindly new trees that I watch to see if they are settling in okay.
I noticed how last summer when there was so much rain how the moss glowed a special kind of luminous green.
I watch the squirrels and the birds come and go.

Now, 10 years later, I feel very rooted, maybe too rooted because when I was all signed up for the Minister seminar last month, I was really dreading it.
When would I do yoga?
What if they didn’t have the right kind of oatmeal at breakfast?
What if I got homesick in a strange place with all those strangers?
When I complained to my friends that I had to go to a golf resort in Florida, they told me to suck it up.

As soon as I arrived at the airport, I noticed:
the trees- tall spindly things with mostly brown needles and leaves in their crown. I wondered if this was a particularly dry season, or if this was what they normally looked like in the winter.
I noticed the strange grey moss drooping everywhere,
I wondered if it helped the trees like the moss in my neighborhood,
or if it hurt the trees.
I arrived at the hotel very early, so as soon as I unpacked I set off on a walk.
At first I walked quickly, trying to walk of all those hours traveling.
I noticed that the trees were highly manicured,
and saw the fresh wounds where large limbs had been cut off.
I heard the whir of heavy gardening machinery.

I began to slow down
I noticed a tree that bent way over, arching over the path.
Finally I came to a stop in front of an older tree,
I guessed at least a hundred years old if it was like the tress I know.
The bark was thickly textured, many of the branches had died and broken off.
It had leaned way over to one side, and a row of younger branches were growing straight up, getting ready for that inevitable day, maybe decades hence, when the tree would finally give in to gravity.
It was draped in moss, and the strange fern vine had snuggled into its nooks in a joyful green.
I just stood for a moment and breathed deeply. I began to find my roots in this strange new place.

A New Year for Trees
On Wednesday the Jewish Tradition marks the “new year for trees” or Tu bishvat. So I thought it would be fun to imagine together a year in the life of a tree. Of course what’s happening in the life of a tree is right at this moment is different all around the world, so I thought we’d stick close to home. Here in the twin tiers, trees have slowed way down for their winter rest. Did you know trees need rest? If trees don’t get some time off, they get weak and die [p. 142].

As we wait eagerly for spring, the trees are waiting too, waiting and, amazing as it seems, counting! They need a certain number of days of cold, and a certain number of warm days before they will wake up. Have you ever noticed in the early spring how some trees are in full blossom and putting on leaves while other trees are still fast asleep? That’s because each tree has its own magic number.

Some trees are counting not days but hours- For example, beech trees don’t start growing until it is light for at least 13 hours a day. That means they have to be able to “see” light, and then remember how long it was light that day- wow. Because they have to sense this before their leaves come out, the hard scales covering the buds are transparent, allowing in just enough light so that the leaves can tell when it is time to start growing. [p. 149]

Just before the leaves open up in the spring, the water pressure in the trees is at its highest. “At this time of year, water shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.” They are so pumped full of water their trunks sometimes increase in diameter. – That’s why this is the time of year our friends who make maple syrup tap sugar maples.

I love watching the trees in my neighborhood as their first little buds swell, wondering which will leaf first, and who likes to sleep in. I love that special shade of green that leaves have in spring.

I love watching the progression of spring flowers. It’s not an accident that trees don’t all bloom at once; they take turns to make sure there is always food for the pollinators, and each tree has their moment for pollination. Once the flowers are pollinated, seeds begin to form- cherries, peaches, apples, almonds, walnuts, or the whirligigs that flutter off the maple-- all summer long they grow, ready to take their turn.

By early summer all the leaves have unfurled, gearing up for the big growing season. All summer long the leaves photosynthesize, using the sun’s light to turn water and carbon dioxide into food. To do this trees must breathe in Carbon Dioxide and breathe out air. How does a tree breath? Its leaves or needles act like lungs. They have narrow slits on their undersides that look a bit like tiny mouths. [p. 224] In a square mile of forest, trees breathe out about 298 tons of oxygen into the air. That’s the daily requirement for about 10,000 people. “So on summer days, every walk in the forest is like taking a shower in oxygen.”

As early as July, trees start slowing down their activity, because trees need moisture to eat, and before winter they need to reduce the moisture in their wood, because otherwise they might freeze and burst “like a frozen water pipe”.

Trees slow down their growth and start fattening up for the winter, just like bears or squirrels. They fill up the tissues under their bark and in their roots with food. Whenever they are full, they start “shutting up shop” for the year. For little trees, like wild cherries, this happens earlier, because they have less storage space. For bigger trees, they go on storing up food until the first frosts.

Another way trees get ready for winter is by dropping their leaves. Most trees take some time with this- they need to bring energy reserves back from their leaves into their trunk and roots. The chlorophyll, the substance that gives leaves their green color and allows plants to photosynthesize, is a precious resource, so they break it down into its component parts to store for a quick start in the spring. When the chlorophyll is pumped out of the leaves “the yellow and brown colors that were there all along” come out.

Some trees, like Ash and Elders, are so confident they will be able to find what they need in the spring, their leaves are still green when they drop them in the fall. Frugal trees like Oak trees suck every last bit out of the leaves until they are totally brown. Once all the reserves have been reabsorbed, the tree grows a layer of cells that “closes off the connection between the leaves and the branches.” And any breeze sends the leaves to the forest floor. All winter long, the fungi and bacteria are breaking down the leaves into the raw materials the trees will need in the spring.

Of course you know some trees stay green in the winter, those are called “conifers.” Instead of dropping their needles, they fill them with a kind of antifreeze, and coat the outside of the needles with wax. The breathing holes in their leaves are buried extra deep, so they don’t lose water in the winter when the ground may be too frozen to drink. Conifers shed only their oldest needles, and depending on the species, may keep their needles for as long as 10 years.

Then winter comes. The same storms that shut down our schools and make our roads dangerous make life dangerous for trees too. Have you ever been out on a sailboat on a windy day? The best thing to do if you are caught out in a wind storm is to take the sail down. When deciduous trees drop their leaves it’s like letting down their sails to reduce wind resistance, so the winds won’t pull them over. This is also a good way to prepare for snow; without its leaves, the tree doesn’t have to carry a heavy burden of snow. (p. 141) The conifers, who keep their needles are much more vulnerable to the pressures of ice and snow, and branches can crack, weakening the trees. Ice is even more dangerous. It’s so beautiful when the trees are coated with sparkly ice, but it’s dangerously heavy. The best protection trees have against storms is each other. When the wind goes through a forest, the “community stands together to help each individual tree”.

In a particularly cold and icy winter like this one I wonder about my trees, hoping they will be healthy and whole when spring comes. Like the trees, I am once again waiting and resting and counting until spring.

The Life of a Tree
“The main reason we misunderstand trees… is that they are so incredibly slow. Their childhood and youth last ten times as long as ours. Their complete life-span is at least 5 times as long as ours. Active moments such as unfurling leaves or growing new shoots take weeks or even months. And so it seems to us that trees are static begins, only slightly more active than rocks.” [p. 230] So says Peter Wohlleben in his wonderful book “The Hidden Life of Trees” which is the source of most of today’s service. [All page numbers refer to this book]

If you grew up in the suburbs, like I did, you have probably seen a shopping mall or housing development appear where trees used to be. A few little baby trees are planted, and you watch and you wait, and 10 years later, they are still not big enough to make enough shade for you to stand in. And you think “wow, trees grow slow!” Actually, those suburban trees are on the fast track. When a tree grows from a seed in the forest, a tree 8 inches tall might be 80 years old! In a forest, trees sprout in the shade of their parents, where there is not enough light for fast growth. [p. 32] But if they get in trouble, there they are at their mother’s feet connected through their roots, where the mother tree can pass on sugar and other nutrients if needed [p. 24]

Under natural conditions, trees 80-120 years old are “no thicker than a pencil and no taller than a person. Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the trees flexible and resistant to breaking in storms” [p. 33] preparing them for a long life.

When trees are old enough they begin making their own seeds, Maple trees start making seeds when they are 30 for beech trees that might not happen until they are 150 years old! [p. 29]

The young trees wait patiently until the mother tree reaches the end of her life or becomes ill. Maybe in her weakened state she topples in a storm, leaving a new gap in the canopy, and all the seedlings start photosynthesizing as fast as they can, growing sturdier leaves and needles that can enjoy that bright light [p. 34]. This lasts just 1-3 years, as all those youngsters who have waited patiently now race straight as an arrow toward the sky. Whichever of these teenage trees are the tallest and straightest will become the middle story of the forest.[p. 38]

All the generations in the forest are connected. “Tree roots extend a long way, more than twice the spread of the crown, so neighboring trees roots intersect and grow into one another’s” and in between these roots there is a whole network of fungi that “operate like fiber optic internet cables.” These connections help trees exchange news about insects, drought and other dangers. [p. 10] Some trees will even share food with other members of their species [p. 15] “Whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help” [p. 16] so they grow quite close together, looking pretty cramped to human eyes.

Until recently, humans had no idea that trees share and cooperate. Foresters would cut down trees in a group to space them out more evenly, imagining that this would help the trees who remain. But now the neighbors who were literally supporting them are gone, and the neighboring trees often fall over in the next storm or insect attack. Because trees are slow beings, it takes them 3-10 years to strengthen their own support systems in the absence of the neighbor they had been depending on. [p. 46]

Like humans, trees learn from the hardships they experience- yes learn and remember. For example, a tree that has never experienced drought will pump all the water it can out of the ground. But a tree that survives a drought learns how to ration the ground water, slowing down its growth to a more restrained rate, and then for the rest of its life remembers and repeats that thrifty behavior. [p. 45]

As trees get older their skin starts to wrinkle because as a tree grows in diameter, that outer protection must expand. Young trees have smooth bark, but as they age it wrinkles and deepens, starting from the bottom up. The outer layers crack way down into the youngest layer of bark that fits the girth of the tree. [p. 63] Moss loves to live in those wrinkles where they can suck up the moisture from recent rains. [p. 65]

As a tree grows older, after 100-300 years depending on the species, there is less new growth every year. It’s harder and harder to push water up the trunk, so instead of growing tall, they just get wider. If a tree can’t feed its topmost twigs, those die off, and the next storms sweeps the dead twigs out of the crown. Each year the process repeats until only the thicker lower branches remain. Eventually those die too. “Then one day, it’s all over. The trunk snaps and the trees’ life is at an end… In the years to come the young trees in waiting will quickly push their way up past the crumbling remains.”

But even after death the tree plays an important role it the ecosystem for hundreds of years; [p. 67] the dead trunk is as indispensable to the cycle of life in the forest as the live tree. For centuries, the tree pulled nutrients from the ground and stored them in its wood and bark. As soon as the snapped trunk hits the ground, thousands of species of fungi and insects join in the decomposition process and reclaim those nutrients. [p. 133] A fifth of all animal and plant species (about 60000 species we know about) depend on dead wood!

In our suburban and city lives, we rarely see a tree that has grown to a ripe old age. Most trees grown for lumber are cut down by foresters in as few as 100 years. We love stories about heroes like Johnny Appleseed or Wangari Mathai who plant trees for the future, but I believe it is just as important to avoid cutting down trees in the first place, especially trees growing wild with others of their own species. It’s not as glamorous as planting a new tree, but to allow a tree to live to be 500 years old, we need 16 generations of humans to just leave the tree and its supportive neighbors alone so it can pass to the next generation.

As you go out into the world this week, I encourage you to notice the trees all around you. Pick a tree you see each day out your window, or on your commute. See if you can notice it growing and changing. This will take patience, because trees are so very slow. But the New Year for trees marks an exciting time as buds begin to swell, and eventually leaves and flowers burst forth. Notice, and wonder and maybe offer a blessing as we begin this new year together.