Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Welcome the Stranger (March 18, 2018)

Ever since I went to that Red Cross disaster training right after Hurricane Katrina, I meant to put together a disaster preparedness kit for our family. But I procrastinated for more than a decade. It was finally watching the videos of folks fleeing their flooded homes in Texas this past summer that firmed my resolve. I finally got a couple of used backpacks and filled them up with rain ponchos, water, trail mix, blankets and a change of socks. Then I added water purification tablets after I heard the stories of folks in Puerto Rico. Now when I see a car stuck in the side of the road in a snowstorm I think “I should add hand warmers.” When I see coverage of folks evacuated into a red cross shelter, I think “I’ll need a deck of cards and a favorite book.”

My family thinks I’m a bit strange to spend so much thought on a bag that we’re hoping never to use. But I know that when the whole rest of the family is standing there with their coats and shoes on, I’m the one who is looking for my cell phone and saying “I feel like I’m forgetting something.” And since scientists tell us that that when we are in a crisis rational, systematic thought shuts down[i] I thought it might be a useful exercise. As I told my family, hopefully this will just be a quirky thing about mom that you joke about when we’re old, but there’s another layer of value to the practice I think- the realization that floods aren’t something that happen to those people far away, that when there’s a flood in Texas, that has something to do with me.

This month, Jewish people all over the world are going to celebrate Passover, a ritual remembrance of a time thousands of years ago when Jewish people left their captivity in Egypt, fleeing into the wilderness even though they could take no more than they could carry, even though they had no other place to call home. A whole generation of people lived as refugees; for 40 years they wandered in the desert. And now during Passover, thousands of years later, Jewish people remember the time when they were refuges, and tell the story of their exodus from Egypt. In the book of Deuteronomy, after Moses comes down from the mountain for the final time carrying the carved stone tablets and God tells Moses it’s time for his people to journey to their final home, the scripture asks “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?” Right near the top of that list is Deuteronomy 10: 19 “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This idea appears again and again. Exodus 23:9, reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egyptian. And Leviticus 19:34 “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

In point of fact, none of the millions of people enacting the Passover Seder this year could personally remember being strangers in Egypt, so the scripture here is asking us to use our imaginations to enlarge our sense of “we” – we were strangers, and so we have some obligation to strangers. As we retell the story of the exodus, we imagine ourselves wandering in the desert, to feel in our hearts and in our moral imagination what it feels like to be a stranger, and feel a calling to love the stranger as you would have been loved.

We who live and work in the Valley, we know something about floods. We remember what it looked like here on North Street back in 2011, the streets and cars and trees covered with several inches of beige mud. We remember there were boats down on Main street. We remember that some of our neighbors had no power or water, couldn’t stay in their homes. We know there’s a river just a couple blocks that way. And we know that floods come with living by a river. Even though many of us have never been forced out of our homes for days or weeks or months, our sense of “we” is bigger, “we” know what it is like to have our homes flooded.

So strong was our feeling of kinship with those who were flooded out of their homes, that we were moved to open our own church building to welcome the stranger, at first just to use the bathroom, or be in a clean dry place. And because we are who we are, cooking immediately followed. There was a great outpouring of people wanting to make chili or cornbread or brownies. Day after day we served lunch in our little kitchen, and day after day we walked out into the neighborhood delivering brown bag lunches to neighbors who wanted them. And when we see coverage of the great floods this past fall, our hearts go out to them. We want to offer a hand, because we remember what it is like when your community is flooded.

Flooding is not new, there have always been big storms and human beings have always migrated, moved from place to place when conditions changed. But scientists tell us that as a symptom of the climate disruption now underway, we can expect an increase in extreme weather events. We can expect rising sea levels. For those of us who inland, it might be hard to get a sense of the urgency of these changes, of the impacts they are already having on people’s lives. Island nations far away are already seeing their homes irretrievably changed by rising sea levels. Like the islanders of Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, this is not a future crisis; their way of life, their home is coming to an end right now. The seawater is contaminating their water supply. The tides come up into their gardens, into their homes, and the salty water is making the land less fertile so they can no longer grow enough food in their gardens. School ends midday because the hungry children cannot pay attention into the afternoons. [ii] And sea levels keep rising.

Closer to home coastal towns in Alaska, Boston, Miami, New Jersey[iii] can expect similar impacts -- residents of low laying areas are already seeing effects “on available drinking water, roads and sewer lines”.[iv]

It’s just so hard to wrap your mind around; how could the way of life of towns we know and love be changed forever? The mind just shuts down when trying to assimilate that information. I think that’s
Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, New Orleans, Spring 2006
part of why I packed “Go Bags” for my family- to cross the boundary from “probably things will always be just like they are now” to “climate change is already happening.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, (the last year such a report was taken). Scientists predict this number will rise to at least 50 million by 2050. Some say it could be as high as 200 million.[v] I want to make it real for myself that we can’t take our warm dry home for granted. I want to imagine a larger we that includes the folks who will be forced out of their homes in Boston, New Jersey, Louisiana[vi] whose children will not be able to live in the homes they now inhabit. A “we” large enough to include the folks of Puerto Rico and New Guinea. We remember what it was like to be flooded, and so we reach out to support others who can’t go home because of flooding. We welcome the stranger.

So what does that look like? Here’s where our imagination comes in. If I were flooded out of my home where would I go? What would I bring? If you heard that your cousin in New Jersey or your sister in Boston were flooded out of their homes, how might you help? My friends’ parents live in Puerto Rico, and of course they flew to Ithaca to stay with her as soon as the airports reopened. It’s reassuring to have a pull out bed and an extra pile of blankets just in case our friends or family needed them. The Red Cross actually recommends making such plans for yourself and your family. There’s even a sheet you can fill out to help think it through. A useful conversation to have, especially during hurricane season when floods are on people’s minds.

The people in New Guinea we don’t know but it breaks our hearts when we hear the stories of vulnerable people with no place to go. Fortunately, the mission of UU Service Committee, who this congregation has supported faithfully for years, is to work with grassroots partners in effected areas. And one of those issues is climate forced displacement.

In addition to our partner work in Papua New Guinea, “to relocate households from the Carteret Islands to areas in mainland Bougainville,

· In Alaska, UUSC is supporting our partner is working with 16 Alaska Native Tribes “to to ensure the protection of their human rights if they are required to relocate as a consequence of climate change.”

· In Kiribati, a small nation in the Pacific ocean, “our partners are …. working to raise awareness about the unique needs of People Living with Disabilities in Disaster Risk Reduction planning and responses.”

· In Palau and Micronesia, our partner is [helping] remote rural villages to build protections against climate change hazards, [helping] communities self-organize and to advocate for assistance from their governments and the international community.”

And just like we can talk to our families about where we would go if we had to leave our homes, The service committee is advocating for a Global Compact on Migration[vii] “In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted in September 2016, the [UN] General Assembly decided to develop a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration. … The General Assembly will then hold an intergovernmental conference on international migration in 2018 with a view to adopting the global compact. ”[viii] This is a “significant opportunity to improve the governance on migration, to address the challenges associated with today’s migration, and to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development.”

Because, as generous as folks in this congregation might be, we can’t put up all the climate refugees in the world in our guest bedrooms. Fortunately global leaders are starting to understand that this need for migration in response to changes in climate, to extreme weather event, to rising sea levels, this is the new normal. “Developing countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kenya, … generously host the bulk of the world’s refugees without the GDP to match, while wealthier countries increase border controls and security checks at increasing expense.” Sadly the United States is one of those countries who is putting more energy into keeping refugees out than helping them to safety, which is ironic because we are one of the countries contributing most to the climate disruption that is displacing them. “In early December, the US pulled out [of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants ] Rex Tillerson saying, "in this case, we simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders." [ix]

All of us, every American family were strangers on this shore once. “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” That go-bag by my door reminds me, that we may be strangers once again someday. As people living in Huston and New Orleans know only too well.

Fortunately we here in this beloved community are good at this. Just as we welcome Sunday morning visitors to our congregation with open arms and delicious baked goods, as we welcome visiting speakers with new ideas. Just as we served meals to hundreds of our neighbors displaced by flooding back in 2011, as we made macaroni salad and peanut butter cake last June for the free meal at the Methodist church, The “we” of our little congregation is a big “we.” So big that it reaches all the way to Huston and Florida and Puerto Rico, all the way to Alaska and New Guinea. And just as we make a plan with our own family about where we would go in an emergency, we support the Service Committee and all those world leaders with the foresight to prepare global equivalent of a family emergency plan.

There are a lot of people in the world right now who have lost their homes, and sadly more will follow. And since for we ourselves know the feelings of a stranger, since we are all one, it’s time to get out our metaphorical pull-out- beds and soup pots and welcome the stranger, as we would want to be welcomed.










Living in Body (March 11, 2018)

My new yoga teachers Ilana and Nicole kept telling us to “ask the body what it needs” and would give us time to “do whatever movement the body is asking for.” It used to stress me out. I mean, how would you know? I tell my body what to do, and it does it. My discomfort begs the question- how could I not know? My body is me, why would doing what I want and doing what my body wants be any different? Why would the idea that your body had useful information that it could share with the mind seem silly and weird?

Historians trace the body mind spit back to Descartes who cut a deal with the Pope; Descartes could do dissection on human cadavers if he promised to ONLY research the body, not the emotions, mind or spirit. Others trace this split back much earlier to the Zoroastrians or the Gnostics.

And though this sense of duality pervades our culture, I don’t think we are born with it. When my son was little he used to wiggle his little fingers in wonder, and nothing made him happier than grabbing his toes. Babies know what their body wants, and they are miserable until that need is met. As a child I loved nothing more than spinning and leaping around the house spontaneously. Like most children I struggled to learn to ignore the desires of my body- no leaping or dancing in school. NO putting your head down when you are tired. Sit up straight, hands quiet, please stop wiggling.

And the amazing thing about bodies is that they do learn. You can make your body more quiet, more strong, more flexible. We literally shape and reshape ourselves with the actions we take each day. Because they mostly do what we ask them to do, we begin treat our bodies like a car, or some other machine; we don’t give it much attention unless it stops doing what tell it to do. And as in any relationship, if we stop listening, the other party eventually stops talking.

When I was in seminary, Neo-Paganism was in ascendancy, as were women’s spirit groups who suggested that women were sacred, the body was sacred and the earth was sacred. I was introduced to the work of Eco-feminists, who suggest that part of the reason our culture subjugates women was because they represent the body, and that the subjugation of the body was directly linked to the subjugation of the earth. I strongly identified as a feminist, but that seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. But I had certainly noticed that our culture had a dysfunctional relationship to women’s bodies. Our culture teaches us that some people should wear bathing suits and be in magazines, other bodies should be hidden. Feminists pointed out that many kinds of bodies are invisible in media, are essentially erased. On the magazine covers are the Ferraris, and most of us feel like we are driving lemons, and are properly hidden in the garage.

I, like so many other young women, had a very poor body image. I felt honor-bound as a feminist to figure out how to love my body, just as it was. It seemed to me that whenever I gave my attention to my body it had a million complaints. It was not very rewarding. Fortunately at some point on that
journey I found yoga- an activity where mind and body work together. The word yoga means “union” or “yoke” and the kind of yoga Westerners practice, Hatha yoga, is designed to support a linking of mind, body and spirit. It turned out a lot of that flexibility and alignment I had as a dancing child came back pretty quickly, that even though it had been a decade or so, my muscles remembered. My low back pain went away. My posture improved. It was fun to be in my body again. There was a period where nothing made me happier than the challenge of a new pretzel to get myself into. I was delighted to watch my strength and flexibility increase, and loved the challenge of learning more and more advanced poses. It made me feel like a Power Ranger. This is called “proprioception” the ability to know where your limbs are in space, and to get your body into the shapes you choose.

Then I moved to Ithaca, and started a new job that involved a lot of prolonged data entry at a desk that was not the right shape for my body. I acquired a wrist injury that just would not go away. I responded with my standard approach- to push through it. “No pain no gain.” My yoga teacher Steven suggested I not do anything that made it twinge. Sadly that included all my favorite poses, all the ones that made me feel like a Power Ranger. Frankly, I began bursting into tears during yoga class I was so disappointed and sad to lose the capacities my body had always had. For months I refrained from doing those poses, and my teacher taught me how to modify with blocks and alternate hand positions to avoid stressing that part of my wrist. I convinced HR to get me a drawer for my keyboard, and I even stopped knitting. After months of patient listening to my wrist, the injury gradually healed and I could do yoga again!

Then I pulled my psoas. My teacher, once again, suggested that I not do any poses that caused me pain. What poses don’t involve bending over? I just stood there in Tadasana blinking back tears until my teacher passed by and asked “how does it feel?” “Of course it doesn’t hurt- I’m just standing here!” I thought angrily. Then it sank in. Oh. What a privilege that I can stand without pain. I wonder what other poses are like standing? I very carefully and mindfully tried out pose after pose- nope, nope, nope, oh- that’s okay. I was listening to my body in a different way. Not “how do I get into the pretzel the teacher is leading us in” but “Where is the source of this discomfort, and how can I support my injured body?” I had joked with yoga friends that nothing teaches anatomy like an injury. I began to believe that if I listened to my body and was careful with my injured parts, I would eventually heal and I could get back to doing yoga.

One morning my teacher Rachel spoke about integrating the strong and the weak parts of the self into one whole. My evolving thinking about my practice suddenly was clarified. If you believe in the wholeness of the self, then your weak, tight, or injured places are not the bad parts of you holding you back from the perfect pose, they are just part of the self which must be integrated into your practice as much as the strong, flexible, healthy parts of yourself.

Now I understood that even when I was standing in Tadasana, too injured to follow the teacher’s directions, I was still doing yoga. Uniting body, mind and spirit includes all your years of practice and the strength you have built, as well as a weak wrist or twitchy psoas. ON the days when everything flows and works and it feels like an ecstatic dance, and on days when the reality is stiff joints or scattered attention, it’s all part of the practice. The way I approach yoga now allows me to grow in not only strength and balance, but also self-knowledge.

Proprioception is only one facet of the relationship between mind and body. Another way of listening to the body is called “interoception” – what’s going on in there. Research is showing that this sense can be cultivated and increased, and when we are mindful of our bodies, health increases in certain ways. That was kind of amazing to me- that without changing what you are doing at all, just by listening to what the body’s up to and how it is, certain health markers increase. [i]

This wisdom is not just about what is a safe hand position for your wrist injury. My first settlement as a minster was in Palo Alto, home of Facebook and Stanford University, a very busy and productive town. Large amounts of work and stress were the norm. I often got belly aches during committee meetings. Since I was exploring this far-out idea that maybe the body has some wisdom to share, I started to say things like “when I imagine us doing that it kind of gives me a stomach ache.” When chose a different plan, the clenching in my gut would lessen. For years I had suffered from these kinds of pains in my gut, but now, after 15 years of listening to my gut, I almost never have them. After years of trial and error, I have gotten better at understanding what my gut is trying to say. I now pay attention when there’s just a bit of discomfort, and can often avoid getting myself into situations where my gut is one big cramp for months at a time.

Since childhood we have been trained to ignore the wisdom of our bodies; our body is tired and we give it caffeine instead of rest and so face the world in a chronically depleted state. We eat when we are not hungry. Our jobs and our technologies cause repetitive strain injuries and when our body cries out in protest we silence it. How often do I pop an Advil without really asking myself- what is this pain trying to tell me? Is there some wisdom in this pain? In most cases pain is not a malfunction of the body, it’s an urgent call to action.

When we silence our own bodies, we participate in a systemic silencing that helps maintain the domination of the powerful over the dis-empowered, forgetting that our bodies are intimately interdependent with all those in the web of life. When we disconnect from our own bodies, it’s easy to overlook, to render invisible all those other bodies. To quote Dr. Achlee Consuolo , social science and health researcher, “There are , tragically, bodies that do not matter in the public sphere, or bodies that have been disproportionately derealized from ethic and consideration in global discourse; women, racial minorities, sexual minorities,… to this list of derealized bodies I would add other-than human bodies.” (quoted in Mourning Nature p. 170) Why would we listen to the suffering of brown bodies, of poor bodies, of transgender bodies, why would we listen to the feedback of the ecosystems around us if we have spent our lives learning to ignore the feedback of our own bodies?

When I was a little girl, my favorite way of listening to my body was dancing- my limbs would choose the shapes, and my mind and heart went along for the ride. It was just a joyful expression of life lead by the body itself. As an adult, you have to be careful where you leap and twirl. It takes a strong ego to advocate for your body when what it needs, defies cultural expectations. It takes intention and practice to "let the soft animal of your body love what it loves". But that soft animal has a wisdom the mind can barely fathom. From listening to the body, wisdom emerges, not from the mind, but slowly, quietly bubbling up from some wordless place. When body, mind, spirit, and emotions are all united, are all yoked together, it’s like the tumblers in a lock falling into place. The lock opens and something sacred has room to breathe and move.
Two weeks ago, just in time for this sermon, I threw my back out again. I’ve learned the hard way that the only yoga I should do, the absolute best yoga I can do for my body on such occasions, is to lay flat on my back with a pillow under my knees, which was my major activity of the weekend. I cancelled all my yoga classes, and booked the first appointment at the Chiropractor’s Monday morning. By Tuesday I decided to give yoga a try. I figured if I ended up lying on my back for most of class that was just going to have to be okay. I put my mat in the back of studio, and warned the teacher I was not sure if I’d be able to do much at all. I approached the practice with compassion for my healing self, surrounded myself with blocks and blankets and only did things my body consented to. Though I had to ignore the teacher and skip most of the poses the other students were doing, it’s hard to describe what a deep and powerful practice it was- the discomfort of the injury helped me tune in attentively to what I was doing- a true yoking of body, mind and spirit.

As the sap rushes back up the trees, and the crocuses bravely unfold, I encourage you to tune in and listen to your own body as part of your spiritual practice. Whether you are hiking in the woods, eating breakfast, dancing in your kitchen, or lying flat on your back I encourage you to bring your attention mindfully to your body. It’s not just a machine you power up and drive around; your body is where life is happening, where reality is happening. It is an amazing mystery waiting to reveal the secrets of you.