Wednesday, January 30, 2019

All Things New?

This morning's reading from the book of Ezekiel is strange- I just want to say what I’m assuming you all are thinking. That whole book attributed to the Prophet Ezekiel is one of the strangest things in the whole bible. Growing up Unitarian UNiversalist I don’t think we ever mentioned Ezekiel. But when a preacher named James Forbes shared this passage with a group of clergy I had a shock of recognition. Because at that moment I felt like a pile of dry bones, and I think a lot of my colleagues did too.

This is a fact of life. Everyone goes through times when they feel invigorated and excited -- full of purpose and curiosity. And everyone goes through times when you feel like a crusty old fossil. But this passage suggests that God can renew even a pile of very old bones, can “Cause breath to enter them” and to bring them back to life. Traditionally this passage refers to the people of Israel, but in that moment at our preaching workshop Forbes , a minister himself, was trying to give encouragement to us and to our congregations. He wanted us to have faith that even if we felt like dry bones, the spirit of life can re-animate us.

Have you ever felt like a pile of dry bones? Sometimes it’s easy to re-animate ourselves; going out of town for the weekend, a fresh coat of paint, or reading a new book will make us feel right as rain. Other times, the dryness goes on so long and so deep that we begin to think “well, this is who I am now.”, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But his strange passage in Ezekiel makes a promise that when we are dried up and hopeless, so hopeless that we can’t even imagine renewal, it is still possible.

That promise is hard to believe no matter who you are, even for folks who believe in the God of the Hebrew scriptures. But it can be even harder if you are an atheist or an agnostic. Whenever I struggle to believe I turn to nature; when I look at the natural world I learn things as amazing as any miracles in the bible. Recently I found such a promise in the ecosystems of the dessert. Writer Craig Childs has spent years wandering deserts in search of water, finding ephemeral pools of all sizes that come and go as rains fall and water evaporates. Here in the twin tiers, we sometimes have a dry month or two, but in the dessert it could be years, decades or centuries without a drop of water, and yet when rain does fall the pools spring to life as Childs describes here:
“Skirting a pool that measured about one hundred feet in length, we could see a prickly pear cactus lurking in the depths. It was surrounded by Triops and a cloud of fairy shrimp. The cactus had not fallen in. It had grown there prior to the water, indicating that years of drought must have preceded this water. When this pool is dust, it must retain the seeds of aquatic life for however long it takes a cactus to grow.

To survive, these aquatic-desert organisms have taken an evolutionary course that rejects mechanisms of survival used by most everything else. … They shrivel up until they are dry as cotton balls, releasing all of their water, entering a state known as anhydrobiosis. Life without water. [p. 61]

“There appear to be no working parts in these orgnaisms; they are as dead as rocks. If a Mars lander were given a scoop of dust from a dry water hole and allowed to run all of the spores and shrimp eggs and desiccated adults of various species through its battery of life-finding tests, it would conclude that no life was ever present.” [p. 64]
This, to me, is a hopeful promise. Even when all indications lead us to believe we are dry dust devoid of life, somehow life finds a way. Like a valley of dry bones these little organisms wait for the water that must one day come.

A few Christmases ago, a friend gave me an amaryllis bulb. Who knows how long it had sat in a box on a warehouse shelf before I put it in my window and watered it. This poor thing went literally months without growing. A fingernail of green kept me hopeful so I continued to care for it. Then all of a sudden, with no change in the care I was giving, it began rapidly growing what seemed like inches a day. A beautiful flower bloomed and then withered in its time. Long green leaves filled up my window long after the flower was gone. The following winter I waited obediently for it to die back and flower again, but it never did. The lush greens enjoyed the sunny window, but it never flowered that year. Without a dormant period, the plant never flowers. I took it outside over the summer and waited, as fall came, for it to die back. The days got shorter and colder, some nights neared freezing, but still no change. Finally the first hard frosts came and I put it in the basement to force a dormant period. It was sad, when I went down there to get the snow shovels, to see the green leaves looking wilty and desiccated, until it died back to a brown husk. Finally the alarm I had set on my calendar chimed and I was free to bring it back inside. It looked really dry and brown. A week went by. No change. Had I killed it? Finally after 10 days that fingernail of green peeked up like hope.

The story of the amaryllis not only reminds us that renewal is possible, but that renewal is part of a cycle. Dormancy is not a disorder. Periods were we don’t grow, don’t flower are inevitable parts of life, are necessary parts of life, as we rest and preserve our resources for the return of the rain. If you feel like dry bones right now, that doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. It just means you are in a dry patch. It doesn’t always feel good to be dry, to be dormant, especially when we can’t see even a sliver of green, to assure us that renewal is possible. But life promises that no matter how old we get, no matter how dried up and withered we feel, something new is always possible. That’s the nature of life; life finds a way.

This is what I think the poet Longfellow meant in our hymn
“O Life that Meketh All things New
The blooming earth
our thoughts within
…in gladness hither turn again”
The renewal of other creatures that we can see with our own eyes, gives us faith that our own thoughts, our own gladness can also been renewed. We Unitarian Universalists put this promise right there in our principles and sources “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, …, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit.”

Renewal is something that every spirit needs. So this morning I invite everyone to consider, where are the places in your life, in your spirit that feel dry and withered right now?...
Join me in a moment of silent reflection…
Just notice whatever feelings, whatever images arise…

As a symbol of our innate capacity for renewal, I brought a gift for each of you today- a Gladiolus bulb. [Acidanthera Murielae]
I invite you to take one, to hold it in your hand, this living being in its dormant period.
As dry and brown as this bulb may be, inside it is stored everything it needs to grow two feet high with beautiful white flowers.
You might invite the spirit of life to bring renewal to this little bulb, and to those places in your own life where it is most needed.
When you get home, put it someplace where you can see it. Unlike the crocuses and snowdrops starting to bloom in my backyard, this plant needs to wait until after the threat of the last frost to be planted.

And when that day finally comes,  find a sunny spot and plant it about 5 inches under the soil with the pointy part pointing up. If you don’t have a spot for it, give it to a plant-loving friend you trust. And then hope, and wait.

Whether or not we believe in God, our hope for renewal is ultimately an act of faith; we don’t really know what will happen to these bulbs, or to our own spirits. We don’t really know what change, what renewal might be possible. But whether you prefer the promise of Ezekiel and the dry bones, or you prefer the promise of fairy shrimp in the dessert, or  bulbs in the winter, let us have faith in the promise of Life that maketh all things new. That’s what life does when it has the chance.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

What Are We Going to Do With All This Old Stuff?

While walking through an airport I once saw an ad for some business magazine, with a quote by some successful capitalist who said “know what you have and why you have it.” I was coming home from a retreat, in a thoughtful frame of mind, and it struck me as good wisdom for many parts of our life – a sort of mindfulness for our stuff.

Last summer I decided to apply that wisdom to books. I’d reached the point where I could not fit one more book on the bookcase, and knew it was time. Once I finally get the process started, it actually felt pretty good. I looked at each book, dusted it and the bookshelf beneath it, and decided its fate. There were some obvious candidates for the friends of the library book sale, and some surprise gems I totally forgot I had. and then the really hard choices- do I want these books more than I want a little bit of empty space on my bookshelf , than I want a clear surface on my nightstand? The end result? 8 boxes of books for the friends of the library book sale, 2 boxes to share with local ministers, tidy bookshelves with a little extra space, and some old friends rediscovered.

Another outcome- I did not go to the book sale last fall. The process of tidying up my books reminded me that having stuff is actually a lot of work. It takes up space, it takes up time. We live in a time and place where we can have stuff delivered to our door in 24 hours if we choose. It’s really easy to get new stuff. As a wise soul once said “we’re really good at getting stuff, but we’re not really good at having stuff” How often do we really know what we have, and why we have it?

Ever since her house flooded and much of her stuff was ruined and mildewed, my sister has been putting a lot of care and attention into reducing the stuff in her life. She enjoys all the space that emerges when it’s not full of stuff. She asks Marie Kondo’s question “does this bring me joy” and ends up with great bags of donations to the local thrifty shoppers store.

For whatever reason, I’m on the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps there’s just a lot more stuff that brings me joy. Not just the dresses my Gramma made by hand for me and my sister when we were kids, and 40 years of diaries, but games my son played as a child, and too many cozy sweaters, and yes walls and walls covered with books. I love knowing that if a family of 6 needed a place to stay on a cold, cold night we’d have blankets and pillows for all of them. Not surprisingly I’m the family archivist. I’m the one who has Gramma’s college scrapbook, and the records my father made.

My sister’s house has big open spaces; our house has furniture on every wall. My drawers are so full it’s often hard to find things, much less close them. Hers are orderly and there’s always room to put things away. Both of us are very concerned about waste. We both compost and recycle, and trade tips about how to avoid plastic wrap. We both have been thinking a lot lately about what we have and why we have it, with very different outcomes.

As a congregation, we have stuff too and it takes some diligence to know what we have and why we have it. At least once a year the library here at the church gets so full of newly donated books that books start overflowing the shelves. That’s why a few years ago we created a library policy- we decided that our library would focus on books that were useful to church leaders right now, and we would also be an archive for historic UU books, which you can’t get at the Sayre public library.

What, then, to do with the books we are ready to release? Whereas Marie Kondo talks joyfully about filling garbage bags with clutter, as an environmentalist I cringe. If I fill up 8 boxes of books that no longer bring me joy, I feel strongly that I still have a responsibility to those books. The highest use for a book that no longer brings me joy, is to be used by someone else to whom it brings joy.[i] If old books are beyond use, they could be upcycled into art, or journals (there’s lots of this on Etsy)[ii] If it is ground up to pulp it can be made into new paper, that’s a lower purpose, but anything is better than keeping it out of landfill, where it’s of no use to us or the earth. On the other hand, if something lingers forgotten in the back of a closet, it’s not helping anyone either. The highest purpose for anything is to use it.

Our church archives seem to be multiplying like rabbits. When I First got here the archives was 2 cardboard boxes under the office desk, and now it’s a tall metal cabinet overflowing with documents. And I believe we have a responsibility to and for this stuff. Having been kept for 20 or 40 or 200 years, they can no longer be replaced with a run to the store. That’s why it’s so important that we regularly take time to ask “what do we own, and why do we own it?” Whenever the history club sits up there sorting through the archives, we always find new pieces to the story of Universalism in our Valley and beyond. But we have agreed that it’s not our job to store all of it forever, but rather to be stewards of it, which might mean offering some or all of these documents to a local historical society, or the UU libraries at Harvard or Meadville Lombard. This is more than altruism, this is a trust that we don’t have to hold everything ourselves. We will do our part by holding the archives we are called to hold, and trust others to hold the traditions and the relics that are important to the wider community.

One reason I have more stuff than my sister is that I feel a calling to preserve our traditions and history, even the parts that don’t bring me joy, even the parts that aren’t useful right now. In the same way that many of us store or off season clothes for the return of summer or winter, we store some things knowing that even if we don’t need them today, there may come a time when we, or another generation, may be glad we saved it. I was on a tour of the Cornell observatory the other night, and in one of the glass cases was a sextant, the beautiful old brass tool that sailors used to guide their way by the stars. The tour guide explained that while these have gone unused for many years, the newest generation of sailors in the navy are being trained to use them again, because while GPS could be hacked by a foreign government or interrupted by a natural disaster, the sextant technology is unaffected by such modern problems. [iii]

It would be easy to slip into thinking like a museum, as we try to be good stewards of all the cool old stuff we have. But a church is not its stuff, beautiful and old as it might be. A church is the living spirit moving in the world, is a beloved community, living ethically and growing spiritually and serving together. The first question we have to ask ourselves before we can answer “what do we have and why do we have it” is what are we for? And what do we need to do that? We could do all of that in someone’s living room downloading hymns on our phones.

The biggest stuff we have, as a congregation, are our two buildings. We have this building, built in 1850 by the Athens Universalists. It was sold in 1949 by Universalists who could no longer use it, and loved and cared for decades by the Christian Scientists. In the 1990s we bought it back, seeking the comforts of indoor plumbing and heat. It makes sense that as a congregation who spends so much of our energy and care on hospitality, community and service, that we would decide we needed a building with a working kitchen, heat, running water, and a social hall to achieve that mission. And now that we have all the amenities of modern life, this building alive with use, a building living its purpose many days each week.

We also have the Old Historic Sheshequin meeting house, with its beautiful architecture and have recently been asking ourselves what we have and why we have it. A team went over to Sheshequin a year back and walked room by room to see the historic treasurers, and also to see what needed repair. We had a big meeting with neighbors and historical society members to talk about the Sheshequin building and asked “does it bring us joy?” and the answer was a resounding yes. But we have to ask- do we need 2 buildings to fulfill our mission of serving lovingly, living ethically and growing spiritually? Not particularly. So why do we continue to invest our money, time and care into the building? I think it might be because we believe the building has its own calling, its own purpose.

My neighbors across the street have an electric mower. It’s really cool. When my own mower broke, I asked if I could borrow it. I told them I was thinking of buying one just like theirs to replace it. They offered to let me just use theirs, rather than let it sit unused in their storage shed most hours of the week. And so for the past 3 years we have used it together. It makes me wonder. Who else needs our buildings? Could being stewards of that Sheshequin building means not only fixing the leaks, and preserving it for future generations, but also finding partners and neighbors who might share in its use? Is there some higher calling that building has right now?

I grew up in a family where Gramma’s tea cups were kept in a glass cabinet where they were safe. How different the cup in today’s story- where each use added to the meaning of that family heirloom. I would argue that the highest use of our old stuff as a church is not to save it on a shelf for our grandchildren, but to bring our treasures out where we can use and enjoy them together.

This isn’t really a sermon about books, or teacups or buildings. Its about knowing what we have and why we have it. So I end with an exhortation neither to tidy up, nor to store things up for the future, but with an opportunity for reflection. As we begin 2019, this is a great time to consider- what am I ready to let go of in my life, and what things have I been saving for this very moment.

I invite you to  pause for a moment of silent meditation:

What things are you holding on to?

What people

what beliefs

what plans

what obligations?

Do these things bring you joy?

Is there anything you’d like to let go of in the new year?

Is there anything you’d like to take out of storage, to enjoy and to treasure?

End Notes
[i] Environmental architect and designer Bill McDonough first introduced me to the idea that to reduce waste, materials should be used at their highest possible use. He was talking about industrial plastics and materials, but the same applies to the stuff in our homes or in our church. If a sweater can be worn, that is its highest use. If a ripped sweater can be mended, it can return to its highest use. If it is beyond mending, it can be cut up and made into a cozy scarf, whichmight be called “upcycling,” or the yarn pulled out and re-knit, we could call that recycling. If it is ground up to use as stuffing in car seats, that’s down-cycling, but anything is better than keeping it out of landfill,