Thursday, May 23, 2019

What is Money For?

Money is hard thing for people of conscience to talk about. We believe each and every person has worth and dignity, and we value economic diversity in our midst. But society treats us differently based on how much money we have. Even in our beloved community, we are afraid of being judged for being rich, we are afraid of being judged if we are poor. Our church needs to be a place where we can simultaneously embrace diversity and actively address social concerns while creating a caring community. We can’t actively address social concerns if we are afraid to talk about money; Money is a part of the fabric of our society.

Money was invented as tool to help facilitate the trade of a dozen eggs for a jar of jam. But it has become something very abstract. You only have to listen to an expert explain how mortgages are bundled and about hedge funds, to see how far we’ve come from eggs and jam. Our sense of money, and the resources it represents, has become ungrounded. So it is up to us ground it. As individuals and as a faith community we need to figure out what money is for.

Everyone makes choices about how they will spend their money, some are big choices like what rent you will pay for your new apartment, or whether to own a car, or to have children. Other choices are made on a daily basis- can I afford the free range eggs? Do I need a new sweater? Folks who are struggling financially have to make impossible choices, like whether to pay rent on time or pay the electric bill or go see the doctor. Folks who make more than a living wage have a lot more freedom in what they will do with their money.

There’s a funny thing that happens when we realize that choices are being made, and that we have made different choices than our friends. We question our choices. Maybe I am afraid that you are judging me for making the choice I made. Maybe we are confounded by the choices our neighbors make. So sometimes we don’t admit to ourselves that choices are being made. A friend told me recently “I had to get unlimited data- I didn’t have a choice” and I thought to myself “that might be the best choice, the only sensible choice, but it is still a choice.” Sometimes we didn’t make the important choices consciously, we let them just kind of happen. Maybe we didn’t realize that we were making the choice to pile up debit so we could eat lunch out. Many Americans didn’t realized that their choice to go to a certain college was a choice to take on loans they might not be able to pay. But as a community of seekers, I hope this can be a place where we can think about these things. That we can think about our values, and how we put those values into action in our lives. Because whether we are aware of it or not, our money helps us express our values in the community, and indeed helps shape our community, for good or for ill.

Back in 2009 when the market crashed, many of our family budgets changed, my family and I started to look again at many of the choices we were making, and realized there were choices where we hadn’t seen choices before. Whenever our income changes, it changes how we express our values, it changes the choices we make. And so it has the potential to change our self-understanding. For folks whose sense of self has gotten tangled up with who they are as a consumer, (and that’s most of us here in America) this can be a frightening, confusing time. If you are used to working, and are suddenly out of work, or under employed, we suddenly realize how much of our sense of our self was tied up with the work we do, and the resources we bring home. We received the messages of our culture that “you are what you buy” or “the value of your work is reflected in how much you make” that we might not even notice. So it is up to us as a community of faith to remember that we are not workers, we are not consumers, we are not rich or poor, we are much more than that. We are miracles of evolution and biology, we are living souls, unique and precious.

This congregation has seen budgets go up and down over the last 200 years. These past few years have been a tight time for our congregation, but you have responded with great thoughtfulness and care. You have given more of yourselves and been very prudent to meet these financial challenges. The core of who you are as a congregation is strong. As individuals, as a congregation, as a nation, whenever our economic health is shaken, we are called to strengthen the other layers of our being. Our relationships with one another, our support for our eco-system, our integrity, our compassion, our agency as change makers in this society, our love of beauty. Whenver money is tight, it is a moment when we have an opportunity to learn how much more to ourselves as individuals than that part of us which is bound up with money, And it is also time for us to strengthen our values, to know that our values, our ethics, our integrity need not be weakened by this weakened economy.

For example: when the recession hit our family, I had gotten into certain habits in the grocery store. I tried to buy paper products made from recycled paper. I tried to buy free-range chicken, and cage-free eggs. But now that we are trying to make our grocery dollars go farther- I must have stood there in the poultry aisle for 20 minutes. I made the hard choice that I was going to buy the conventional chicken for $2.50 a pound instead of the free range chicken for $10 a pound. But I also affirmed that I would support local farmers whenever I can, buying eggs laid in Thompkins county, with preference to those laid in my friends back yard by chickens I have met personally. Was that the only choice I could have made? No. I could have given up my yoga classes and still have purchased the free range chicken. I could give up eating meat. My choices was not perfect- I don’t deceive myself that I made the only possible choice. You might have made a different choice. And that might be part of why we don’t talk about these things.

By looking at our financial choices, we learn something about what our values really are. Part of the Coming of Age program I’ve done with 8th-10th graders over the past 20 years involves values clarification. We found some questions you can ask yourself to help clarify what your values are:
• Is this something that's important to you?
• Do you feel good about this being important to you?
• Would you feel good if people you respect knew that this was important to you?
• Have you ever done anything that indicates that this is important to you?
• Is this something you would stand by even if others made fun of you for it?
• Does this fit in with your vision of who you are?
My story about agonizing in the poultry aisle shows me a few things about myself and my values: Yoga is important to me, Animal rights are important to me, and the environment is important to me. Take a moment right now to list some of your core values…

Now think of your checkbook register or your bank statement. What appears there? How closely does it match that list of values? Our work as people of faith is to create as much coherence and integrity as possible between what we value and how we live. Notice how personal those choices are. I can’t tell you what your values are, or how to do the complicated calculus of how to weigh those choices in the grocery store. But sometimes by talking together we get the courage to make tough choices, or new information, or a new perspective that helps us choose. When I was talking to a friend about my own hard choices, she pointed me to the Union of Concerned Scientists list of the 10 most important things we can do to save the planet. They put buying organic produce right there at the top. So my family is recommitting to our CSA this year, knowing that will mean we will have less money to spend on other things, because that is a choice that is possible for us and is in line with our family’s values.

I want to assure you that to be an ethical person doesn’t mean you have to live an ascetic life with no money for things you enjoy. Sometimes what we see looking at our checkbook is that certain expenses that don’t appear on our list of values appear there with surprising regularity. Columnist Dayana Yochim writes for the “Motley Fool” series “Fiscal fitness 2009” and confesses:
“I spend $1.62 many mornings just to get my fix from the Subway soda fountain. I do so even knowing that I could save $1.37 a day -- $27.40 a month -- by buying a can out of our 25-cent pop machine at work. It may seem like a wasteful expenditure to most, but a fountain soda -- particularly from a machine calibrated to deliver that perfect mix of carbonation and syrup -- is my guilty pleasure. And I'm not going to give it up anytime soon.”
So instead she budgeted for it, and cut out $30 a month of other things that just didn't bring her the same joy as that fountain soda. It reminded me that joy, play, fun, taste are values too. This is important because one of the things that goes wrong when people budget, is that they make a budget so ascetic that it sends them screaming into the marketplace to assuage their feeling of deprivation. A wise friend once said “My parents raised me to believe I could have it all, they just didn’t tell me I couldn’t have it all at once.” Maybe this month I make a special gift to the food bank, and next month I take my Husband out to dinner. I don’t feel guilty at all when I go see a favorite band play. ‘Supporting Local Music” is a proud member of my list of top 10 values, and I’m willing to give up other things to do it.

Of course there are other ways to express our values that don’t require a lot of money. If “good food” is a value, we are lucky to be part of a religious community with some awesome cooks! A potluck here is as good as eating at many restaurants. One of the top 10 ways you can save the world is to fly less and drive less- and that doesn’t cost anything. We remember that saving the environment is not at its core about being able to buy the latest eco-chic product. When we “reduce, reuse, recycle” it is good for the planet and for our checkbook.

 No matter what our financial circumstances, each of us can make a difference in the world. Our story this morning about the magic pomegranate is a beautiful story from the Jewish tradition about how we each have something special to give, and much as the gifts of all three brothers were needed to save the princess, each of us is called to find and cultivate our gifts, and all of our gifts are needed as we come together to create a community of compassion and integrity.

It reminds me of another story taken from the Christian scriptures:
It begins when Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, for they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” [Mark 12:41-44] [1]

Whether rich, poor, or somewhere in between, we have the opportunity to contribute the way this widow did, with a felt generosity that will ripple into the way she lives her life. This is the conversation we can have together; what does it mean to use the money we have earned or saved in a way that reflects our values. This is why as a community of faith, we are called to see beyond the hard numbers to the heart, the soul of each gift. Said the treasurer of a congregation I worked with years ago: "nobody else knows what goes on in your home and your heart."

The occasion of our stewardship campaign gives us the opportunity to look at generosity and stewardship on the level of the soul and heart. This is particularly important in a culture that respects wealth and commerce above all.

We must be fundamentally about something different in our sanctuary here. We must value the giver more than the gift. Our principles teach us to honor a diversity of gifts that mirror an economically diverse and inclusive community.

I like the fact that my translation of the story of the widow says she gave “her whole living” which invites us to see the wholeness of the gift. It calls to mind the people in this congregation who give hours each week to see our books are balanced. The volunteers who create worship services. I am moved by each volunteer who leads our young children downstairs on a Sunday morning to help them on their own search in this world, and those who start the coffee or bring a pot of stew for our social hour. “Her whole living” reminds me of the people who carry the values of this church out into their jobs, their parenting, their gardening.

No matter how big or small your purse, money is only one of many tools for creating a life of integrity and generosity. But it is a powerful tool in our society. So let us use it consciously as an expression of our deepest values, let it speak saying what we mean for it to say. Let it speak the wholeness of our living.

Thank you for giving life to this place, and thank you for the gifts that only you can give.

[1] this story also appears in Luke 21:1-4

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Don't Panic*

It occurred to me about 48 hours into my 8 day silent retreat that I had probably made a mistake. My father had died just 2 weeks before, and here I was on my first ever silent retreat, in a place I’d never been, with a spiritual director I’d never met, surrounded by strangers, in a religious tradition that was not my own. I felt very far from home.

My general approach on the spiritual journey is to try to meet whatever arises with love. When I first heard my dad had died, and a wave of grief arose, I was able to meet it with love, watch it move through me and eventually ebb. I could be present to that feeling with compassion for myself, and just observe it as it came and went. But 2 days into my retreat, I just couldn’t find that loving feeling. I tried all my usual practices and approaches. Finally I remembered a suggestion from a podcast I listen to a lot called “bliss and grit;” sometimes on the spiritual journey you meet anxiety, and anxiety needs to be addressed separately from the regular search for clarity and meaning. Anxiety arises when our amygdala, the part of our brain evolved to help us locate threats and fight or flee, has been activated. What does it feel like your amygdala is firing? It can feel physical- heart beating, blood pressure increasing, muscles tensed. More subtle is the effect on our thinking- it can feel like your mind is running in circles trying to find the solution to an unsolvable problem. It can feel like there is no space for clarity and objectivity. It can feel like a knot that gets tighter the more you fuss with it. Emotions like sadness or happiness on their own have a natural ebb and flow, even when they are big, even when they are painful. But anxiety seems to grow and take over once it gets turned on.

An anxious mind wants to find a tiger to run from. Reason and logic will not convince your amygdala that there is no tiger, because once anxiety and fear are triggered, real physical effects on the body are also triggered. So when anxiety rises, it’s not just the mind that needs to be convinced, we need to remind the body what it feels like to be safe. The two best ways to do this I know are to breathe and to ground.

I’m going to offer you a few techniques for this today. Let me assure you that everything I offer today is totally optional. If you have a history of trauma or PTSD in your life, please do whatever you need to do to feel safe, and let me know later if you need a referral to a professional who works with trauma. Today while we all (hopefully) feel like we are in a relatively safe space I invite you to practice and experiment. I invite you to notice if any of these practices resonate with you, and take whatever is useful, so that the next time we feel triggered we might remember them.

First we turn to the breath. Just notice your breath, in, and out. Don’t try to change it, just notice, in and out.

Now see if you can allow the breath to slow down. To receive a deeper breath.

If you like you can put your hand on your belly and feel it rise and fall. Gently.

Now let’s try grounding. When we get triggered it is often because we are worried about the future, or because we are replaying something difficult that happened in the past. So the advice from people who work with anxiety is to arrive in the present. If we notice our minds spinning in the future or the past, we can ground ourselves in the present moment. We can simply say, silently to ourselves, our name, and where and when we are. I’m Darcey Laine, it is Sunday May 12 and I’m at church.

then we begin to notice what is around is
  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can touch
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste
Check back in with your breath- in, and out.

Just notice. How does it feel now?
Breathe in and out.

Another grounding technique I really like is to notice all the parts of the body that are resting on the ground; the souls of the feet on the floor, the back of the thighs on the chair. Feel the support of the floor, of the chair. Really give your weight to those surfaces. Allow them to hold you.

If you are in a private place when doing this, you can just lay down, and feel the floor, or your bed holding you, supporting you.

Notice your breath. In and out. Notice the way those surfaces support the breath...

So there I was, on the retreat that was a probably a big mistake, breathing and grounding. I had many days left in my retreat, I was far from home, so what was I going to do about it? “This is hard, I need help!” I declared. I realized I had brought with me some expectations of what a brave spiritual warrior would do, and maybe it was time to let them go. I decided I was going to use every crutch I knew. First I got out my colored pencils and made a sign that said “breathe and ground” and put it up in my room where I could see it. I was going to stop reading my scary Buddhist book about non-being and sit under a blanket reading my nice science fiction novel with a mug of warm peppermint tea. I was going to do whatever I needed to do to restore a baseline sense of safety in my own mind and body, even if I felt a bit foolish doing it. Fortunately in this retreat center, almost every arm chair had a blanket folded over the back of the chair as if I was not the first person to face some difficult things in that sanctuary. One particularly cozy nook was a sun-room with a beautiful view of the sunrise, and a particularly cozy wool blanket.

As I sat in the sun-room looking at a beautiful statue of Mary holding a small child, I remembered what it was like to hold my son when he was that age, how precious he was to me. Maybe I needed to call on that mothering energy that comforted us when we were small and is still available to us our whole lives. The energy of compassion. The energy of love. This compassionate energy is so helpful as we meet what arises. This compassionate energy is available to us when whenever we realize that we are not really in control of our lives. We need compassion to meet the places in ourselves that feel weak, that feel powerless, To ask for help and then be open to receiving it. That was the promise I made to myself as I folded the blanket and headed off to breakfast, that I would be open to help, because I didn’t want to do this alone. As I walked to the cafeteria, a woman I had sat with at dinner gestured me aside- she had a quart of fresh organic strawberries, and offered them to me. My first thought was to decline- she only had a quart to get her through the whole week, but as a symbol to myself that I was going to accept help from everywhere and anywhere it came, I took the strawberry, and I felt loved.

When the soul grows, when it is in transition, it is like a caterpillar in the chrysalis. It is like a crab casting off the old shell and emerging soft and vulnerable in its soft new shell. To be that open and vulnerable, a sense of fundamental trust is a prerequisite. The soul grows best when held with compassion, and is reminded that it is never alone. Here I was in a warm, dry place whose entire mission was to be a safe place for the work of the soul. It was up to me to receive that, to allow that.

Easier said than done. So let’s try something else together. Return to your breath. In and out. Feel yourself in this time and place

feel yourself held by the chair and the floor

Remember, the main job of this building and this community is to hold you, to hold us, and to give us space to grow spiritually.

Now I invite you to call to mind someone or something who is easy to love. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a brand new grand-baby. Who is easy for you to love? A cat? Your faithful dog? a dear friend? Call to mind any time in your life when you have felt love for someone- and see if you can remember the texture of that feeling.


Could you meet yourself from that place when you are hurting? Could you allow some of that tenderness and compassion for yourself?


Sometimes the answer to that question is going to be “no.”
Sometimes we are too angry, too hurt, too frightened to remember that kind of tenderness.
That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Go back to the breath, in and out. Just breathe and ground.
Whatever feeling is arising, just meet that with the breath, in and out.


Let’s try something else.
Hold your fists in front of you. clench them as hard as you can.
Now allow them to open.Shake your hands out a little bit if they still feel clenched.
To open a clenched fist you are allowing the muscles to soften, just a little bit. Could you soften just that much around whatever difficult thing you are holding?

When I was on the retreat, each time I could soften even a minuscule amount I imagined giving myself a gold star. Then I was judging myself that that was dorky, so I decided to give myself a gold star for allowing myself to be dorky. Eventually I marched myself down to the art cabinet and chose a nice gold pen and drew myself a whole bunch of gold stars- which was so dorky that I started cracking myself up. Eventually I was laughing so hard I had to go outside so I wouldn’t disrupt the other silent retreatants. It turns out it’s hard to be anxious when you are laughing that hard. That day of breathing and grounding and finally meeting myself with compassion, that was an important turning point for me.

But I wanted to remember and make a map of my path out of anxiety so that when I get stuck in that place again, I would have an escape route. So I encourage you now to consider- when you are anxious, what helps you find a doorway out of that constricted space? What simple instructions would you give yourself?

My map is pretty simple


and breathe and ground

until we can

Meet whatever arises with compassion

*This title comes from the great Science Fiction classic The  Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which features a fictional electronic travel encyclopedia by the same name with the words "Don't Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover."