Tuesday, December 15, 2020

It's Tradition

I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of this story: the young person is making the holiday meal for the first time, and their parent explains how to prepare the roast for the oven. One must cut a slice off each end before putting it in the roasting pan. Why do we do it that way? They ask. I don’t know, the parent replies, we’ve just always done it that way, it’s how my parent taught me.

When the holiday arrives, and they sit down to the holiday meal with the grandparent, the proud new cook asks the grandparent “why is it that we cut the ends off the roast each holiday?” “Because” replies the grandparent, “we had a small roasting pan, and that’s the only way it would fit.”

This story is a clear example of the wisdom and foolishness of tradition. We wisely cut the roast to fit the pan, but when the pan changes, we keep the tradition that is no longer useful.  

Traditions are an intricate and mysterious web of life hacks. Our winter holiday traditions contain generations of wisdom gathered over decades and centuries from cultures all over the northern hemisphere. How wise to have a celebration to anticipate during the difficult transition to winter. How wise to reach out to family and friends at a time when we might easily become isolated. The blue and white and silver of the Hanukkah tradition reflect the beauty of the winter night sky. The red and green colors draw our attention to the persistent life around us- the green of the evergreen tree, the red of a holly berry. The traditional foods are ones that could be made from local seasonal larders, like the traditional beef brisket and potato latkes, made from the potatoes and onions that most folks could have on hand in the winter. Like the fruit cake that lasted through winters before shrink wrap and refrigeration, long after the fresh fruit of summer and autumn were gone.

In my own family the holiday traditions are an intricate set of family accommodations that have evolved over the years. I grew up in a family that did most of our traditional celebrations early Christmas morning before breakfast. My husband’s family did most of their celebrating Christmas Eve before midnight mass. Now we have to consider things like my Christmas eve work schedule, and a complicated dance of visiting relatives who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s challenging to sort out, but once the traditional holiday dance is working, miraculously meeting all those conflicting calendars and expectations, it tends to continue on its own magical rhythm, until something changes- a marriage, a death, a new child, a new job. One change can throw the whole family tradition into flux, until we find a new balance again.

This is the miracle of cultural traditions, as hundreds of thousands of people try to sync up their collective seasonal spiritual, logistical, emotional and economic needs and desires to observe and celebrate.A good symbol, like the light that does not go out for 8 days, means something to the spirit in a prosperous year, and still has relevance in a year of scarcity. It offers hope when hope is hard to find. It speaks of resilience. Over the thousands of years people have celebrated Hanukkah, those traditions have been touched by generation after generation, smoothed into a shape worn by the touch of ancestors, the warmth and wisdom of each generation adding to its richness.

Thomas Moore, who was a Catholic monk for 12 years before leaving for secular life, writes:

“Traditional rituals and images rise out of an historical fog in which the founders and authorities are more mythological than personal, and in which so many different layers of meaning lie packed together that the sacred literature becomes genuine poetry. .. Tradition is a pool of imagination...”
But the humans and cultures that create those traditions have shadows, and so inevitably our shadows find their way into those traditions too. I agree that our traditions carry a great depth of wisdom, but they also carry our oppressions we never intended. A patriarchal culture tends towards patriarchal traditions, for example.

Or consider the shadow side of cultural hegemony- the American Christmas calendar is so powerful, that it shuts down banks and schools, giving folks a much needed pause to spend time with spirit and with family.

But that machine has been used to fuel consumerism as well, hijacking the traditional wisdom of the winter holidays and cover our screens with images of an empty soul filled with a new car, or with a pile of toys to open. Our superficial, materialistic culture brings a superficial focus to our traditions, eclipsing the true miracle of new life, a miracle that comes to us out of the long nights of waiting, the labor of birth.

The Christian calendar also eclipses the wisdom and traditions of other cultures. No American school will schedule your final exam on Christmas day or on Easter in our Christian culture, but it is not uncommon for folks to have exams, or other secular obligations on the Jewish High Holidays, or during Ramadan. Traditions can be oppressive to folks who find themselves on the margins. If you were listening to Weekend Edition yesterday, you might have heard Jewish Author Arthur Levine talk about feeling “really erased by Christmas” as a child.  Even the most beautiful traditions cast a shadow.

That’s why Unitarian Universalists have always had a complex relationship with tradition. For parts of our history, we have even tried to let go of all traditions; when the chalice lighting was first introduced in our congregations it was met with skeptical resistance, even so innocuous a ritual felt dangerous. I believe, with Thomas Moore, that tradition is not what is dangerous, but the authority it holds.
“Tradition is often confused with institution, yet we could be guided by countless generations of ancestors without becoming oppressed by the words and structures they have left behind. We could be members of an institution without sacrificing our intelligence and our capacity to think and choose.
Tradition is a pool of imagination, and not a basis for authority.”
This sounds like a wise way for us to engage with tradition, that we allow ourselves to be guided by our generations of ancestors, while continuing to think and choose.

This year, when many things will be different, it’s a chance to re-evaluate the traditions, and find those that serve us today. This winter holiday season will not be like last year, but we are not the first generation to observe the winter holidays during a pandemic. We are not the first to observe the holidays during a time of great economic and political stress. Consider the wisdom that both Hanukkah and Christmas ask us to share what we have with folks who are struggling. In the Jewish tradition sharing with those in need is called Tzedakah. Union for Reform Judaism encourages folks on the 6th night of Hanukah:
“On the 6th night of Chanukah, we encourage families to teach their children about the needs of those less fortunate and donate the value of the gifts they would ordinarily exchange (or the gifts themselves) to local or national organizations assisting the poor..”
Or consider the origin of Hanukkah itself- it comes from the need to purify the temple after it was destroyed by King Antiochus IV. The desire to honor tradition as part of healing that devastating loss to the community created a new tradition that now speaks to people of hope, of religious freedom, of light in the darkness.
mask card from https://lafamiliagreen.com/

The changes we are pressed to make to our traditions this year may help shape and add to the wisdom of the traditions we inherited. Maybe years from now some parts of these new traditions will live on. The Christmas masks? The Hanukkah zoom call? Because we are wise too. We will add our wisdom to the centuries of wisdom that have shaped our rituals,

Traditions are like touchstones, made smooth as they have passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. As we hold these traditions in our hands in this very difficult year, we connect back to all those who have struggled with illness, with pandemic, with poverty, with political oppression, with sorrow, with depression. We connect with all those ancestors who have found hope and creativity and affirmed life in difficult times. We know when we enter into these traditions that we are not alone, that we are not the first to pass this way, nor will we be the last. May our wisdom, our choices, our imagination connect us to our children and our children’s children, their struggles and hopes. However you choose to observe the holidays this year, let our traditions be a reminder that we stand in a long line of humanity’s struggles and hopes that holds and supports us in this difficult time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Wise Dark

The sun set yesterday at 4:33, giving us almost 15 hours of night. We are now 2 weeks away from the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Even though we have electric lights and can stay up all night working or playing if we choose, still our psyches and our bodies are affected by the long dark nights. My husband and I were done dinner by 6:00 last week, we both noticed a strong desire to go to bed. We resisted this on principle, of course. But there is a powerful inner urge to curl up with a blanket on the sofa as the nights grow.

To help us consider what makes this time of year special, I’d like to speak of “yin” and “yang” a duality that comes from ancient Chinese philosophy. Yang is the bright, active quality. Our culture loves this yang energy- we love doing, love knowing, love productivity, those active “yang” activities. “Yin” - associated with darkness, the moon, passive, cold, wet -is rarely celebrated in our culture.[i] Our culture is out of balance.

Here at the start of winter we feel like the absence of bright active yang, but in Chinese Philosophy, the Yin and Yang are both needed for the universe to exist. The long dark nights are not merely an absence of sun, they have a subtle quality of their own, special gifts unique to this early winter season, where nights are long and getting longer, Our human bodies, minds and spirits need the long nights at winter solstice as much as we need the long days at the summer solstice.

American teacher Jeanie Zandie speaks about this cultural imbalance, and our need to value Yin. She talks about the moments in the human life cycle that are yin moments; when we are gestating in the womb, when we are toddlers wobbling, when we are healing from illness or injury, when we sleep or rest, when we come to die. In our culture which values Yang so strongly, we tend to devalue those yin times as inefficient, wasteful, keeping us from doing what matters- our active productivity.

But some things can only happen in the dark. Consider a child growing in the womb, being held, surrounded, fed by its parent’s body. It grows without conscious intention. The parent too, while in the process of the great miracle of growing another life, embodies this yin energy. I remember when I was carrying Nick, I was often so tired I couldn’t make it through the workday without a nap. I would look at my book about baby growth, and see “ah, I’m tired today because we are growing lungs.” I noticed that not only was I tired, but my mind was less focused, and I joked “thank goodness growing a new life is an unconscious process- I can’t even remember where I put my keys, how could I be responsible for something so complex as forming a human lung?” Gestation is just one process that requires that dark yin energy to flourish.

Many religious teachings use imagery of moving from darkness toward light, as if light is sacred, and darkness unsavory. Our Unitarian tradition was born out of the enlightenment, rooted in the idea that humans could and should shine the light of reason and science into all the dark corners of our unknowing. This revolutionary new way of understanding the world empowered individuals to know for themselves based on the evidence of their senses. It was a turning point for humanity and our culture, shaping who we are today.

But the more we explored, we also came to understand the limits of our knowing. Jung, in his work with the psyche, along with many other psychologists how shown us the unconscious patterns and processes that inform our actions. Neuroscientists today understand that a large part of human processing happens without our conscious awareness[ii]. Even if we work our whole lives to shine the light of consciousness on the workings of our psyche, there will always be unconscious material. There will always be both yin and Yang.

Starhawk, author, activist, teacher in the Reclaiming tradition, writes in her book The Spiral Dance: “Starlight vision, the “other way of knowing,” is the mode of perception of the unconscious, rather than the conscious mind. The depths of our own beings are not all sunlit; to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.”

This dark time of the year is ideal for such “starlight vision.” At this time of year, when the sun is fully set before dinner, the light is more subtle, and it allows us to see more subtle things. By being quiet and still and listening deeply to ourselves, we notice all sorts of subtle, interior movements, like a feeling of peacefulness, or a settling of all the debris of daily life, of tenderness, of softening towards some old wound or tension. This is the reason many people close their eyes in prayer or meditation, to reduce the visual and auditory nose of our busy cluttered lives. Sometimes we will stop a business meeting and ask “how is everyone doing” and in that pause, folks will notice they feel angry, they feel frustrated, they feel anxious, they feel exhausted. Even big feelings like anger, frustration, anxiety can be hard to notice in the bustle of our activity. But as soon as we pause, they become immediately obvious. Perhaps that is part of what this bustling season is about- we keep busy because we may be afraid of what we will notice, what we will feel if we slow down.

We are a bit afraid of that inner dark I think that yin. But as Starhawk says: ”to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.” The transition from the long bright hot days of summer, to the cool dim velvety nights of winter is challenging every year, for humans and for other living beings, But as our eyes and psyches adjust, there are many beautiful things to see.

Consider the star-lit sky on a clear night. From my back yard in downtown Ithaca, I can see no more than a couple dozen stars on the clearest night. There is just too much human-created light. But I’m told the further one gets from the city, the more stars become visible. Some things are just too subtle to be seen in the full light of sun.

Often we talk about these early December weeks as a time of waiting for the return of the sun. But there is another quality of waiting I’m thinking of this year, like the waiting of an expectant parent, that cannot be rushed, where will and effort are not helpful. Like waiting for a loss or illness to heal. Preserving our energy for the unconscious processes of knitting tissue together or allowing the tears of grief to flow.

This month, as we celebrate the growing darkness, I encourage you to notice its subtle gifts to the psyche, to the spirit, and to our eco-system. Release the urgent striving of the harvest season, be, as poet Wendell Berry says “dark and still.” May you notice the many ways that “the dark, too, blooms and sings.

If you are inspired to take some time for a meditation on the wise yin of darkness, let me recommend this beautiful meditation by Jeannie Zandi


[i] . The philosophy also traditionally ascribes malensss to Yang and femaleness to Yin. but I don’t want to get trapped into a gender binary today- so I am going to talk about the duality without gender, which is a departure from traditional philosophy.

[ii] In a current text on the topic, Gozyaniga, Ivry and Mangren report that “The vast staging for our mental activities happens largely without our monitoring.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Humanist Practice for the Holidays

 As we approach the dark of winter, our practices are more important than ever; they keep us grounded and keep us pointed in the right direction in a quixotic world.

In the humanist tradition, our practices are grounded in the life around us in the present moment. Humanism strives to building a future that is ethical and just for all, that draws out the human capacities for goodness and helps us realize our own gifts in service to the interconnected web of life of which we are a part. This practice is about remembering what is truly important to you.

My ongoing touchstone space

Creating Your Touchstone Space:

  • Find a place in your home that can be undisturbed by cats or other roommates throughout the season.
    • Using your own aesthetic sense, do something to remind yourself that this is a special, set aside place. That might mean taking a cloth and polishing the space, or it might mean finding a scarf, doily, place-mat that you enjoy to mark the spot. It can be a simple or flamboyant as feels good to you right now.
    • Take a moment while the space is empty to think of what values and qualities you want to be reminded of this winter. Compassion? Truth? The scientific method? Democracy? Love? Make a list either in your mind or on paper.
  • One at a time, choose an item that reminds you of those qualities from around your home and place it in the space you have chosen. Items can be as mundane as a calculator that reminds you of reason, or a photo of a loved one to reminds you of compassion. It can be an object you already have, one you search for on a walk outside, or a word or image you draw on a card or slip of paper.
    • Take a moment to think of how you feel when you are really grounded in yourself, when you feel strong. Chose an object to remind you of that feeling of inner strength.
    • Remember where you get support when you don’t feel strong. Chose an object to remind you where you have experienced that support in the past.
    • Think of someone (a living being, a community) whom you know needs support, and add an object to keep them in your mind and heart. Maybe an object from the gift bag to remind you of your community?
    • What about words? Consider including a Favorite poem, prayer, or just write a word on paper.
    • Be sure to add some things that delight your senses. If you like things simple, enjoy the simplicity. If you want to add seasonal decorations, or a sprinkling of sequins, add something that draws your eye to this special place.
  • Next, Check for balance and harmony. Does it seem too heavy? Lopsided? Move things around, add, change, remove until it has a unified feeling as a whole.
A temporary space from spring of 2020

Throughout the season:
From time to time take a moment to stop at your touchstone place, and notice if there is something that catches your eye, or something you want to remember. Take a moment to hold the object in your hand- (we remember best when multiple senses are engaged). As the season progresses, notice, is there anything you would add, change, remove?

When the season Ends:
Take a moment with each object to remember why you added it, and notice if anything has changed or shifted in you or in the world since that time. Perhaps say a statement of gratitude as you feel moved, remembering that science tells us gratitude is good medicine. Return the objects to their usual places, knowing they will hold the power of memory wherever they are.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A Very Covid Thanksgiving


Friends, I suspect that the upcoming holidays are going to be a challenge for many of us. With Covid cases at a sharp incline many places around the country, Thanksgiving is bound to feel different than in ordinary years. Whether or not we feel we can “celebrate” thanksgiving this year, I would encourage you to “observe” the holiday.

So much in our lives has been disrupted that it can be disorienting. Just this week, several people told me they missed meetings because they “forgot what day it was.” If we are sheltering at home most days, they all can begin to run together. I believe this is one of the reasons we have holidays- to orient us in the year, and to create a contrast to our strange new “ordinary” days.

My own family has decided we will not travel this season. We are going to observe the holiday in our own households. I have no small amount of sadness about that- but I know that we forego being together in person this year so that we can celebrate together next year. Surely this strange thanksgiving of 2020 will stand out in our memories in years to come. Since the holiday will not be usual, we can’t count on the usual landmarks of the day, whatever they may be for your family. So I encourage you to proactively make a plan for how you will observe this very strange Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, we can be creative with our observances- while we respect tradition, we know that humans created those traditions and so we are empowered to make new ones. Maybe you will still dress in your holiday finest and sit down to Turkey dinner for one, or however many are in your household. Perhaps you’ll set your phone or computer at the other end of the table and share pumpkin pie with a friend or relative through video magic. Doesn’t feel right? Perhaps instead you will stay in your pajamas all day, order a pizza and watch a Star Trek marathon, enjoy the autumn day walking outside, or fold 1000 paper cranes. Here are some usual parts of a holiday observance to consider:

  • Food: What food would feel special or comforting, decadent or healing?
  • Dress: Is there something fun you don’t usually wear that might be fun or meaningful?
  • Connecting: it is particularly important that we reach out to one another. Bring to mind folks who would make you feel better if you were sad, who would be fun to connect with if you were ready for fun. Bring to mind folks who might be lonely and would appreciate a call, text, video chat or letter from you.
  • Decorating: Is there some way you’d like to change the space where you will spend Thanksgiving? You could bring in leaves and pinecones from the outside, or get out Gramma’s special occasion tablecloth, or make a blanket fort in the living room.
  • Giving: Many observances are marked by finding ways to give. Donate money online or by check. Take a box of food to the local food pantry. Drop packages of pumpkin cookies on the porches of your neighbors and run away giggling.
  • History: the American Thanksgiving story we were taught in school does not acknowledge the painful and oppressive reality of the Indigenous peoples who lived on this land for thousands of years before colonists arrived. This day is observed as a Day of Mourning for many indigenous people. Consider taking some time to learn more about history, perhaps even joining into the UU Teach In on the subject.
  • Gratitude: Scientists tell us that taking just a few minutes to call to mind things you are grateful for is good for both physical and mental health. Start small- food to eat, a roof over your head,  people you care about who care about you…

When the holidays finally come, hold your plans loosely. Sometimes the thing we thought would make us giggle makes us sad. If you had meant to be solemn and mournful and find yourself giggling so be it. Give authority to the present moment. There are a lot of feelings to feel this year. Allow yourself permission to drop your plan and call a friend, take a walk, take a nap, and give yourself time to process whatever arises for you.

Blessings for your Holiday Observance.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A LIberating Faith

 What gives us the strength, patience and courage to do hard things? We choose to do hard things, we endure hard things because they fit into our sense of what is right, our sense of what is possible. I’ve got a little scar on my arm from the smallpox vaccine, and I'm sure I cried and kicked when I got that vaccine, but from 1958 to 1977, enough people in the world got that vaccine that smallpox is now gone, making it the only human disease to be eradicated. Today’s children don’t have to get that vaccinated, because enough people did that hard thing because they believed that action would spare themselves and their children from getting that terrible disease. We imagined a world without smallpox, we believed it was a worthwhile goal, and the whole world united in that common purpose we ended what used to be a source of great human suffering.

Underneath the will to do a hard thing are our beliefs about who we are and what is possible. Right now, our country, our denomination, and our congregation are doing the hard work of racial justice. Working to end the oppression of transgender persons, of disabled persons. Why do we do it? Because we believe it is necessary, we believe it is the work of compassion, and we believe it is possible.

In 2017 our denomination was called to accountability by Unitarian Universalists of color to root out the structures of oppression inside our own organizations contained. We UUs have been working on this a long time, but it seems that whatever we were doing was like pruning the weeds back in a garden, instead of getting at the root of the problem. So we convened a national group called the “Commission on institutional change” to help us get at the root of the matter. Their report was published this past summer. There’s a lot of interesting things in there, and it’s well written, I’d encourage you to read it. One of the recommendations that surprised me most, was the need for us to focus on liberating theologies. That all UUs need to know, in a deep way, that working to end oppression arises directly from the root of what we believe, and who we are.

“We need to articulate a theology of liberation, experimentation and innovation grounded in our UU principles and sources of inspiration. Developing a shared theology that centers on helping to unearth, manifest and point the way toward liberation along with experimentation that strives for our collective flourishing. This theology will also call us to be accountable to the legacies of our past deeds and to work for an equitable future. This will lay the ground work for our work around truth, transformation and reparations.” P. 16
The phrase “liberation theology” comes from a grassroots movement in Latin America in the 1960s in a time of crushing poverty, social injustice and violence. Liberation theology arose in a Catholic context, in “base communities”- small church groups gathered to help meet basic needs like food and water, and to study the bible to search for meaning – specific, particular meaning about what it meant to be poor in Latin American in that historic moment. The Base Communities looked for themselves in the scripture and found that there were plenty of examples of God’s compassion for the oppressed. Over and over again, especially in the books of the prophets, we find examples calling out oppressive behavior as unethical. Out of this community study grew a Liberation Theology in which the God of the Judeo Christian Scriptures wants freedom for all of us, notices the cries of the oppressed, and is moved by them. Liberation theology honors the specific wisdom of the poor and their relationship with the divine. This theological spark made its way around the world to folks everywhere grappling with oppression.

The Moses story is one story where oppressed peoples can easily find themselves. It’s a story that has spoken to our spirits over thousands of years. The importance and power of that story is why it is told every year in the Jewish Passover celebration, is why it is found in the gospel and Spiritual musical traditions, speaking to black Americans across the centuries- a story of how freedom is possible against impossible odds. We don’t really know what story Rosa Parks was thinking of as she did that hard thing back in 1955, (as today’s children’s story imagined) but we know the Moses story has inspired oppressed peoples in many ages, and that as people marched for Civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the story was in the music of the movement, and in the sermons and the grassroots gatherings of the civil rights movement.

When you feel called to do hard things -- to face oppression in our own life, or co-conspire dismantle systems of oppressions for others, what story is in your heart?

There are other stories that also have great power in our culture. For centuries scripture and religious teachings have been used to encourage the oppressed to accept their lot in life, to practice forbearance and patience, a kind of quietism that discourages revolution and uprising. Religious authorities have used those same scriptures to argue that God wanted slavery, because it appeared in the bible, to argue that slavery was the natural order of things.

Some teach that God, or karma, rewarded some worthy with an easy life, and oppressive those unworthy. I hear talk like this on the news these days more than I ever have before- that some lives are just worth more than others. And we see how those beliefs are turned into oppressive laws, policies and structures.

It matters what we believe. And UUs must notice and name the beliefs that allow systems of oppression to flourish. It’s a common mistake to say that “UUs can believe whatever they want” because we believe that every life has inherent worth and dignity and some beliefs, stories and actions clash with those principles. We are called as individuals and as a movement to make sure our beliefs and values more and more come into alignment with our lives. Clarifying our beliefs is an important part of that process

As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition draws from many sources, including:

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • ·Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Whether or not any one of us come from the Jewish or Christian traditions, we are encouraged to learn from that wisdom. Some will look at the story of Moses, and see a powerful story of liberation, seeing the miracles and plagues as metaphors for the obstacles all of us face as individuals and collectively on the road to freedom. Others UUs look at stories of miracles and plagues and feel a clash with our belief in the importance of reason, and the use of the scientific method. We need liberatory theologies that hold all of us, Theist, Atheist and Agnostic. While we can look for inspiration in the liberatory theologies of the world religions, it is time for us to articulate our own liberatory theologies.

When we read in the writings of the great Black liberation theologian James Cone that “The God of the biblical tradition is not uninvolved or neutral regarding human affairs; God is decidedly involved. God is active in human history, taking sides with the oppressed of the land. [5]” We UUs feel all kinds of ways about the idea of a God who is active in history. But Cone was a powerful voice in his own context, and we need to be careful to honor the context and the tradition in which he wrote. As a white person, raised outside the Christian tradition, I try to be conscious of my own context, not appropriate the stories, songs and cultural traditions of the very peoples with whom I am co-conspiring for liberation. We carefully honor the wisdom of those traditions in our UU sources with respect, and within the context of their particular history and present moment. Which is why we UUs are being called to “articulate a theology of liberation” drawing from our own theological roots, speaking a language that is authentic to us. We need our own theology, or own language, symbols and stories to support our work for liberation.

Consider our UU principles; the first calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That’s a good foundation on which to build. Folks ask, isn’t that enough? How could racism or transphobia or ableism exist inside a paradigm where every person has worth and dignity? Yet we know, from the stories of people who are part of our UU movement, that all those oppressions continue to exist in our denomination. Because they are not superficial, these oppressions, they have deep roots in history and culture, and their roots pervade the soil in which our garden grows. Somehow we need a theology that makes acting to dismantle those oppressive structures, that makes pulling up those roots natural and inevitable. The word liberation has a call to motion in it. To do the hard work that needs to be done, our belief must be in a verb that overcomes quietism. This is why many churches have signed on to an 8th principle: ”journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” There are some good verbs in there: journeying, building, dismantling. Articulating our own liberatory theologies is about drawing down deep into our roots -- our history and traditions – and from that reserve of nourishment and wisdom, creating new growth that will allow us to flower into an anti oppressive world.

Our 7th principle is also a nourishing root of our tradition- “the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.” – This principle helps us remember that we are not talking about an individual struggle for the liberation of that person. Instead we notice that these oppressions are collective- they are also a web, woven through culture and history and our structures of power. This principle also gives us hope that our actions impact one another. That what we do here in our community tugs and pulls in other parts of the web, and that we don’t do this work alone.

Right now, at this moment in history, there is no question that we are being called to do many hard things, none harder than pulling out the roots of oppression so that liberation can flourish. We’ve been at this for a long time- UUs fought to end slavery, provided havens on the underground railroad, marched on Selma in the Civil Rights movement. Let us put into words the beliefs and values that supported us then, and will support us now. Let us reach down together into our roots and find there what we need for the liberating work ahead.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


 I want to tell you about a plant friend of mine. It was a little succulent I got last fall and over the winter grew so big and beautiful, that I had to repot it in a bigger pot this summer. When a squirrel knocked it over, I wasn’t too worried. I repotted the biggest part in a fresh new pot with plenty of room, and I took the smaller parts that had broken off and started them fresh in their own pot. I knew that when Succulents break, they have great resilience to start again.

The word resilience means to rebound, to bounce back, like when you bounce a ball. The ball deforms when it hits the ground, absorbing the energy of the drop or throw, but then it releases that energy, and bounces back into its original form. But living, growing things, like my plant friend, change and they don’t change back. The need to find a new form that adapts to changing conditions. When we talk about resilience, we think of something elastic like a ball, like a tree bending and swaying with the force of the wind. But Succulents deal with that force by breaking cleanly and easily, to reduce damage to the main plant. They have evolved to turn that breakage into a form of reproduction and are good at growing new roots wherever the broken pieces fall. 

But the squirrels weren’t done with their mischief yet, just a few weeks later I found this guy had fallen 6 feet and crashed on the ground. It must have lain there for a while, because a slug had found it and had taken big bites out of the leaves. It broke my plant lover’s heart to see a little plant, barely acclimated to it’s new pot, meeting with misfortune after misfortune.

When a plant has been through that much trauma, it seems like they go into shock for a bit. I notice they just stop growing for some period of time, perhaps orienting to their new reality, perhaps waiting to see what fresh mischief the squirrels and slugs may wreck, not wanting to use up precious resources until the coast is clear. It takes some time just to stabilize itself. Sometimes the outer leaves will die back.

This aloe was knocked over by the  the squirrels at my neighbor’s house knocked over. I’m nursing it back to health for her.You can see in this first photo,how these leaves are turning brown, and losing their plumpness. Plants have the power to move resources around, to let a leaf or branch die if there is just too much plant to maintain. When it does start regrowing, many plants put all their resources into regrowing roots, already rebounding before we can see any evidence. But soon enough the leaf closest to the core on a succulent fills in with plump green life, (hopefully you can see that in the second photo) ready to try again, carefully and cautiously, needing to grow without using up all their reserves.

 Other plants are resilient in different ways. Some plants will begin to frantically flower and reproduce when trampled, others will use their reserves to put on rapid growth. All living things are resilient, but not in the same way. Which is good. I wonder if you can remember a time in your own life when you have bounced back, remember what resilience looks like in your own life?

Right now I am hearing from my queer friends that they are exhausted. They are afraid that their marriages will be invalidated. Nonbinary friends are afraid that they will lose protections for their safety, for their jobs. I hear people of color saying they are demoralized that white people keep voting for candidates who actively support racist structures, or more overt racism.

So if you are a person with privilege, it’s time for us to step up. People with marginalized identities are exhausted. Immune compromised people need us. Over the coming days and weeks, look around you for the people who seem deflated, who are scared, who need to pull in their energy to regrow their roots.

Nkem Ndefo, creator of the Resilience Toolkit, has spent much of her career working with “distressed populations including IV drug users and youth in foster care” [i] finding ways to help people be more resilient. She is concerned about the focus on individual resilience. Our society asks too much resilience of individuals; the system puts more and more stress on folks, more stress than a person should have to bear, sometimes more stress than a person can bear. Systemic forces put an unequal amount of pressure on some bodies, some spirits. Resilience must be collective when there are collective problems. It is up to us to change the system so that no one is under more pressure than they can bear, than they can rebound from.

Nkem Ndefo cautions; “We build this reservoir, this big wide lake of flexible strength, this capacity, and we use this capacity to change the conditions of adversity, to a system that doesn’t demand so much resilience. It’s nice to have, but that you shouldn’t always have to be digging into that pot.” (ends 26’23”)

Metaphorically speaking, just as no plant can survive in a squirrel superhighway, especially if they have been inappropriately planted in a pot with a narrow base. A broken and trampled living being needs time and a safe place to grow a new wholeness for themself, to bounce, maybe not back, but forward into fullness.

Life is tremendously resilient. I use my poor little plant as concrete proof that resilience is a great gift of living things. That’s why I talk about plants so often in worship, because when it can be hard to believe in something like resilience, it helps to see with our own eyes these ordinary miracles -- a ball spring back into its fullness, a plant turning broken pieces into a new and growing shape. If plants don’t speak to you, look all around and you will see life’s resilience. Now is the time to nurture our own resilience, as individuals, as a community, restoring our wholeness for the journey ahead.

On the Trail Together

When my husband and I moved to California in our 20s, we were amazed by the beauty of the landscape, and the mild weather, and were determined to get out into it. We were not experienced hikers, and had no idea, for example, how to read a topological map. On one particular hike, we chose the shortest, straightest path, which turned out to go almost straight up. The hill was so steep, I had to keep stopping to rest. We ran out of water just over halfway up the trail, but figured there would be some at the trailhead at the top. We kept thinking we were approaching the top of the hill, and several times we scrambled up an incline, sweaty and muscles burning, to find only another hill before us.

That’s how I have felt this week. I had hoped that, with election day behind us, we would have reached the summit of our journey, or at least a rest area with a water fountain. Instead, achey and sore from the road we have hiked so far, we see another hill in front of us. As we prepared worship for this day, we knew that no matter what happened, half of America would be angry and disappointed. The pandemic is swelling into its 3rd peak, and racism is still entrenched in our culture and institutions.

Friends, let us sit right down here on the trail, at the foot of the next hill to climb, and rest our weary limbs -- rest our weary spirits for a moment.

Sit right down on the earth who holds us. Rest into the gravity of this biosphere that is so heavy that it pulls us toward it. Have you ever had a small child crawl into your lap for rest and comfort? Or perhaps you were lucky to have such a lap to climb into when you were a child? Let yourself imagine now that the earth is such a lap, and we are just a handful of the millions of beings in our eco system tucking into her strength for winter.

Feel on your skin the air, the breeze that blows seeds and pollen to fresh new homes where they grow and spread. The subtle breeze that lifts the wings of birds, who are right now migrating thousands of miles to their seasonal home. Change sometimes happens at the speed of wind. A fresh breath is available even in this moment.

Take a sip of water, if you have some near. Let it assuage your thirst, feel that delicious smoothness -- grateful that we can relieve that basic need any time we choose. Let it symbolize our capacity to restore ourselves.

If you’ve lit a chalice this morning, gaze at that flame, or if there is a spot of sun out your window. What fiery power that sun has to warm our planet. What power fire has to transform fuel into heat, and the power of plants to turn sunlight into food for our biosphere. And there is a fire inside you- the fire that turns food into action, into change. The fire of your commitment, the fire of your spirit. Maybe it is low today, but it is burning still.

Now, check your metaphoric backpack. What provisions do you have? First, you have a community of people who care for you. Click over to grid view if you like, and gaze around at all those faces. If you were sick, here are people who would worry over you, send a card or a hot meal or a phone call. If you went to a business who discriminated against you because of who you are, as happened to some of our members just before I joined this church, here are people who would sit down with the manager, and make sure management knew it was not okay. If you couldn’t pay your elective bill, here are people who have already contributed to a fund to help you keep the lights on. Here are people who will listen to your journey, and wonder with you “what does it all mean?”

What else do you carry with you today, at this moment, and up the hill ahead? Look around the space you are in right now. What can you see that will support you on this journey? I hope that you have food in your kitchen, and running water, blankets for a cold day. Each of us has different resources unique to our needs and location. What resources do you see around you right now?

We pause now, just for a moment, assured that whatever lies ahead, we will climb it together.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

All the Feelings

 Do you remember how you felt when you first heard our congregations would not be worshiping in person because of the pandemic? …Do you remember how you felt when you realized that was going to continue into the next church year? Last spring, the president of the UUA, Susan Frederick Grey sent out a letter to congregations encouraging us to plan to meet online until May of 2021. I remember that when I got the letter I thought “Wow. Well, that seems logical given the projections I’ve seen, and it seems sensible to give ourselves a concrete plan for the future we can begin to work on.” It wasn’t until several hours later, maybe the next morning, that a wave of emotion washed over me- May of 2021? I felt sad, I felt discouraged, I felt grumpy. I was overwhelmed by emotion off and on the whole day. Part of me wondered- why would I be upset over a decision that made sense? A decision that was the right thing to do? But of course, the mind and the emotions process the world in different ways.

When I watch the news, it’s clear that these are not ordinary times, but sometimes in my home, in the ordinary activities of living, I find myself wondering why I’m tired or grumpy or confused about what it all means. I have to remind myself again and again- everything feels strange and unsettled because these are strange and unsettled times. My feelings often surprise me these days. I experience fear, loneliness, sadness with unexpected frequency and intensity, and new complicated feelings that don’t really have names. I am surprised to find myself moved to tears by simple stories of kind, decent people helping one another. It’s as if I was holding my breath waiting for a reminder that the world is full of good decent people doing the best they can, and reaching out to help one another.

So whatever you are feeling these days, I encourage you to just notice, without judgement. When I was growing up my mom always said “it’s not the feelings, it’s the feelings about the feelings.” It’s very human for us to sit in judgement of our inner processes. So many people have shared some variation of “I shouldn’t be feeling this way when others have greater struggles than I do.” But adding judgment to our already difficult feelings only makes us feel worse. Instead, could we take on the practice to just notice whatever is arising, to meet ourselves wherever we are? Like rabbit in our story today. Even if what we notice is “wow, I am really pushing away those feelings today.” Just notice. When we meet our feelings with judgment, they tend to either run and hide, or amp themselves up to justify their continued existence. When we meet our feelings with compassion, we allow space for them to move and change.

Each of us has our own way of processing these events in the world and in our own private lives. Some folks tend towards anger, others towards tears, and some folks may feel nothing at all. No matter what we are feeling, I have a propound respect for our unique ways of responding. This is a particularly challenging time for feelings, and I’m noticing that what feels safe to us in ordinary times, can seem overwhelming now. So even though I often suggest checking in with our emotions, feeling our feelings in the present moment, that might not feel safe to you right now. One of the natural defenses of the body mind is that sometimes we go numb[i] when we are afraid, when we don’t feel safe. It reflects a deep wisdom and survival skill. Some inner knowing says “It’s not safe enough right now for me to feel things.” However you find yourself responding, please honor your own inner wisdom, with gratitude that your natural coping mechanisms are ingenious survival strategies you devised probably as a very young person.

Earlier this fall we talked about touchstones. I encourage you to think of this practice as one more touchstone in the river of events and emotions: To let ourselves know how we really feel right now in the present moment. No matter what we are doing in church on a Sunday morning, I encourage you to notice your inner wisdom. If you notice that a hymn makes you grumpy, if you notice that other people are talking about their feelings and you feel nothing at all, That is your unique wisdom and response to what you are experiencing. If you feel a strange melancholy when we meet like this on Zoom, know that you are not alone. I thought Vox writer Laura Entis said very insight-fully that “… there’s something lacking — even painful — about digital togetherness. It’s a feeling rooted in dissonance”, says psychiatrist Gianpiero Petriglieri, “Every time you connect to a Zoom call, you are having two experiences at the same time: the experience of reaching, and the experience of what you’ve lost.”[ii] I want to give you permission to feel whatever you feel during worship, this is your time. Use it however you need to be your unique self, to remember your own unique wisdom

Because anxiety is so widespread in our culture right now, I want to say a special word about how to be present with those anxious feelings. Just listening to the news for 10 minutes and trigger your amygdala (what some call the reptilian brain) into flight, flight or freeze. We know that once our amygdala is triggered, it causes stress to the body, and it shuts down our creative problem solving. So, if we have a feeling of gratitude, it can be really healthful to allow that to fill us up, to wash over us. On the other hand, it’s not necessarily healthy to dive into our reptilian feelings- we can get stuck in kind of a feedback loop of anxiety.

Psychologists tell us we need a different way of being present with those feelings. When the emotions are threatening to overwhelm, when we feel afraid, It’s best not to let fear, or despair, or rage into the driver’s seat. If you notice that those feelings are driving, it’s best to pull over and help those feelings move to the passenger seat so we can still notice and honor them, without letting them drive. So how do we do that? One strategy is to “come to our senses” to literally ask, “what can I see right now?” try this with me, just look around the room you are in, and notice what you are able to see… What can you hear right now? …What can you feel?... The chair under your thighs, the air on your skin. If you have your touchstone handy, notice the sensation of a stone between our fingers. One therapist calls this “bilocation” -- we can feel our emotion, and at the same time notice something else.

Our feelings come not only from our own inner response to events of the world, but by the feelings around us. When we are around anxious people, or even hear someone else’s anxiety on the radio, or in the grocery store, our bodies instinctively and wisely ask “am I safe?” Rather than turning on the news to find the answer to that question, because we know the news is designed to rile us up, to keep us clicking, ask your senses. What do you see right now? What do you hear? What support do you feel under your body right now? This season of Covid is a marathon not a sprint. Our bodies and hearts need us to slow down. We need some space to process and to just be in this moment exactly as it is, without taking on the stories of the past or the future. For the health of body, mind and spirit, we need times of non-judgmental compassion for ourselves, and for others.

It can be hard to hold our fears of the state of the world, the sadness of what has been lost, alongside the simple gifts of life. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. We ask ourselves “how can I feel so terrible about the suffering of the world, and my own losses, when I have enough to eat, a roof over my head, the beautiful fall colors out my window?” But all of that is part of what is real, for us, in the is moment. As we are able, we notice all these pieces of a larger whole, which sometimes seems harmonious, and sometimes dissonant. That is part of why we gather on a Sunday morning, to hold something bigger than our individual selves.

This summer my husband and I wanted to get out of the house after so many months sheltering in place. We picked a little rustic cabin on Lake Ontario as far away from people as possible. The landlord warned us that the stairs down to the water were broken, did we still want to rent the house? But when we arrived, we found that it wasn’t just the stairs that were broken, a huge chunk of earth was leaning precipitously over the water, stairs included. The alternate path to the lake shore he had mentioned now lead through a construction site of dirt and rubble, not a wooded path like in the picture he had sent us. I felt grumpy about this but tried to stay positive. As we sat gazing at the beautiful lake view, it bothered me that our view was interrupted by caution tape. I felt myself try to set aside my negative feelings and just enjoy what was good, to enjoy this getaway I had looked forward to for so long, but the more I pushed away my grumpy, negative feelings, the louder they became.

Eventually, I remembered my practice and slowly let it all in. What swelled up was sadness for the loss of this beautiful shoreline to flood. The sadness was greater because the beauty was so great. I thought about the family that had come here the summers for years, generations together, and how sad this loss must be for them. We walked along the shore climbing over trees felled in the storm, noticing the details of branches worn by water on one side of the tree, and fresh green growth on the other. On our left, the beautiful colors of a sun beginning to set, on our right, the rock and roots exposed by 2 massive storms. We were watching this sunset in a world struggling with Covid, in a community beset by floods. By the time we got back to the cabin, I felt myself to be part of something bigger than our weekend getaway, part of a great web of people and water and earth and life. Gradually a host of feelings filled my heart at the same time. The sadness of all that is lost, the beauty that remains, compassion for all those caught up with me in the events of the world. Somehow by letting the grief and anger unfold, the world shimmered with a new vibrancy. I took a photo of the stunning sunset over the lake, shining on the caution tape and the broken earth below. Broken and beautiful, all at once.


[i] Joann Macy, the great Buddhist teacher and activist and deep ecologist as the first person I ever heard talk about numbness as a feeling. Her work is a great resource for folks who want to work with this.

Friday, October 16, 2020

What a Universalist Hero Looks like Now

This moment we are living right now will be in history books. This pandemic, this recession, this election, and the movement for Black Lives, you can just feel that the world is not going to be the same after we pass through this time.

This morning we've heard the story of John Murray's Universalist Miracle, we've heard the story of Olympia Brown's fight to claim a voice for women. But Universalism is not a story that ends in the past. Universalist heroes are not only found in our storybooks, they are making history right now.

© 2015 Nancy Pierce/UUA

The hero I want to lift up in our celebration of Universalism today is Elandria Williams. Elandria grew up in the Knoxville Tennessee UU church, in their Sunday school, in their youth group. Elandria came to her passion for social justice early and found support for that passion in E’s congregation and in our movement. Elandria experienced firsthand the ways in which our movement is not always welcoming to people of color, and yet E stayed, and worked to change our movement to embody our Universalist values. E was a founding member of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) Organizing Collective, served on the UUA board for 6 years, and was the first UUA co-moderator. E came to that position at a time of great tumult and conflict in our organization when we needed bold new leaders to guide us into a more just future, to help us create the beloved community we dream of.

Elandria also was a change agent in the wider World. E worked as an educator at the Highlander center, “a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South. [working] with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny.” E had gone to camp at the Highland Center as a young person, because a member of E's UU congregation was a founder of the center. E joined the education team at the Center and created experiences that brought youth and adults together across cultural difference. Elandria’s work supported and nurtured the growth of emerging organizers and leaders. Part of E's legacy lives on in those leaders who are shaping a more just world even now.”[i]

For the past 3 years Elandria was executive director of PeoplesHub, an online education center for “connecting and supporting people who are resisting, reimagining, and restoring our communities.” In their tribute to Elandria, the People’s Hub wrote:

“Elandria learned early on that as a Black, queer, disabled and chronically ill person, you have to carve spaces for yourself because the system will not. In carving out space, E brought others along with them, and made space for so many more to join in. Their life was a testament to the collective, to claiming space and creating space for Black, Southern, disabled, queer, elders, youth and more.”
Elandria died at the age of 41, E’s whole life having embodied our Universalist values. Hundreds of people gathered with Elandria's UU congregation in a virtual memorial, to honor E's warm heart and bold vision. The words of that video we just heard were Elandria’s, written for worship at E’s Tennessee Valley UU congregation. They speak the essence of modern Universalism- “All are worthy”. You can tell how deeply Elandria believed those words, because E lived them out again and again.

Today as we celebrate 250 years of American Universalism, let us commit ourselves to be like Thomas Potter, building a space to share the good news of God’s universal love. Let us be like John Murray, and keep sharing even when we are broken-hearted. Let us be like Olympia Brown, using our voice every day, ensuring everyone has a voice and a vote. Let us be like Elandria Williams, carving spaces for ourselves and others when the system will not, listening deeply across the lines of difference, supporting and nurturing emerging leaders, “Let us everyday live our [Universalist] values out loud”[ii]

[i] https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/btwwdaya/workshop7/highlander-school

[ii] https://www.usworker.coop/blog/rest-in-power-elandria-williams/

Wednesday, September 23, 2020


When our church administrator Barbara George died, many years ago now, I was doing a pretty good job of holding it together right up until the moment I asked for my favorite breakfast muffin- the carrot ginger muffin- at the coffee shop counter, and they were totally out. The counter-person said, “I don’t think we make those anymore.” I requested my emergency backup muffin, and they were out of that too. The grief of losing Barbara, the stress of supporting the staff, keeping things running, planning a memorial I had been able to hold, but the loss of this muffin, somehow was too much. I returned to my car full of rage and grief and unable to face my day, I sat in the driver’s seat overwhelmed with emotion, and couldn’t bring myself to start the car and head to the church. Intellectually I knew these feelings were the wrong size for the loss of a muffin, but it seemed this muffin served some role of comfort and support I needed now. It was a load bearing muffin.

In late march, early April when we were all trying to adapt to the shelter at home directives, friend after friend posted the loss of a favorite food missing from the stores, of a favorite ritual with their child that was no longer possible, an electronic device which chose just this moment to break down, and every post started with some variation of “I know it’s wrong to get so upset over a muffin when there is so much true suffering just now, but…”

So many things are changing now, so many things in motion -- Things we didn’t even realize could change. We are doing without things we never imagined we’d have to do without. Take a moment now to think of things touchstones that have been lost this year in your own life...

Let’s acknowledge that losing those touchstones is hard. It’s destabilizing. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel at that loss.

May of us rapidly found new touchstones. A social distance hike with friends, phone calls or video chats with family. I find that sitting on my porch for a few minutes off and on throughout the day helps me feel connected to the wider world and the interconnected web of life. If you’ve developed some new touchstones, type those in the chat if you like. [pause]

Before my son went back to school, he was supposed to quarantine for a week. His bedroom was so tiny, it would have been cruel to ask him to shut himself in there for a week, so we all quarantined together. I worried whether we could make it 8 days without shopping, but we determined to fill up our fridge, and I reassured myself that could always order from that new local business that offers same day delivery of groceries. But just before the quarantine, our fridge died, we lost most of that food, and the only repair guy in town couldn’t come until after the quarantine had begun. I went to the website of the grocery delivery company and there was a new banner that they had closed their delivery service the previous day, as business had been too slow. I thought I had shored up my pandemic life, but everything I had counted on disappeared right when I needed it.

I had already committed to talk to you about touchstones today, about the loss of old touchstones and the creation of new ones, but of course any touchstone can be lost, that is what is making this time so difficult, not one loss, not one change, but one loss after another. The losses of Covid, the losses to our democracy, the storms, the fires, the economy.

What will endure all these changes? What will we hold on to?

The home I grew up in was bordered by a tiny stream in which my friends and I loved to play. On the other side of the creek was a big rock that stuck out like a shelf. Over the years as the bank eroded more and more of the rock was exposed until it was large enough to climb on. Recently I was back in my old neighborhood and saw that “big rock” was still there, now completely exposed and surrounded on both sides by water. Big enough for 2 small children to play on.

Sometimes in the rushing river of change, we feel like we are the soil, the silt washed away. Today I want to focus on what remains. What is the solid rock that is revealed by all this change? What is strong enough that it can split the creek in 2, can shape a river with its strength and solidity? Perhaps the word for that inner strength is integrity. When we hold onto our principles and values while wind, water and fire storm around us, that is integrity. Integrity is the act of holding onto a moral core, so that when the storms come there is a strength at our center which is not washed away.

Think about our Universalist fore-bearers who believed that no one was left out of God’s inclusive love -- that each and every person had inherent dignity and worth. Remember the Universalists who turned that core belief into action as part of the abolitionist movement, remember universalist congregations like our Cortland church who participated in the underground railroad. Consider UU churches today who act as sanctuary churches. Love, compassion for all persons -- these are the strong stones of universalism.

Think about our Unitarian fore-bearers who believed that reason and scientific truth must be part of religious integrity -- Fore-bearers like Joseph priestly, a chemist who discovered oxygen and carbonated water, who was also a founding minister of English Unitarianism. Even when he was driven from his home in England he held fast to his Unitarian principles. Science itself is constantly revealing new truths, and debunking or complexifying old findings. Our knowledge of chemistry has grown exponentially since Priestley’s time, and we now know some of his theories turned out to be wrong. Knowledge itself is changing, but an intention to know the truth, to test and retest, that can endure. The guidance of reason and the results of science are strong touchstones from our Unitarian tradition.

Take a moment now to consider- what principles, what values, what intentions are part of your own sense of personal integrity? What is it that we strengthen, that we cling to in the storm? 

I invite you now to take in your hand the touchstone you have brought with you to this service. Take a moment to feel its unique texture. Feel how it keeps its shape when you squeeze it, feel its weight as it rests in your hand. Bring to mind your intentions for what you want to strengthen in yourself, what will guide you through this tumultuous time. [pause] let this stone remind you of those things. You might keep this stone on a windowsill where you see it often or put it in your pocket. As you see it or feel it in the coming days, let it remind you of your inner strength and integrity, of those principles and intentions that will not be washed away, but by your strength and commitment, will cause the stream to change shape, to flow around the strength of those principles.

Nothing lasts forever, even the hardest rocks are shaped by the flow of water over time. There’s nothing wrong with being, like the soil, washed into new places and forms. But as we head into what is sure to be a tumultuous fall, in what continues to be a challenging year, remember your own inner strength- even when the bakery stops making your favorite muffin, your critical technology fails, or you cannot reach out and hug your dear friends and family, you have an inner strength that you can call on. Even when the fabric of society seems to erode, hold fast to those touchstones of truth, of compassion, hold fast to your integrity and let those shape the new world that is taking form around us even now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Tending our Fires

When on silent retreat, with no screen-time and no one to talk to, sitting by the fire became an important touchstone for me each evening, and I spent time most nights setting, tending, gazing at and thinking about fire.

This past winter on sabbatical I stayed at a new retreat center. When the sister who greeted me showed me around she made a special point to show me the common room and the fireplace and said she hoped we would light a fire during the retreat.

That night I as I looked into the fireplace, I noticed it had been totally set up for us- logs, kindling. All I had to do was light the corner of a piece of newspaper and the fire grew effortlessly. The retreat center was near empty this time of year, and no one joined me at the fire but taking time to light a fire for myself warmed and comforted my spirit.

The next night I came back and saw that the fire fairies did not come every day; things were as I had left them the night before and I was on my own.Fortunately there was a neat pile of wood, a basket of kindling, and a lighter.  I had a steep learning curve though; always before I had built fires in community. There was always a surplus of would be fire builders; everyone wanting to poke the logs, to add new logs. Now, alone and silent, there was no one around to help or give advice. The logs had trouble catching, and the fire often died back. I spent a lot of time futzing around with newspaper and kindling, rearranging things so that there was enough fuel to spark the larger logs, enough air to feed the fire. I saw time and time again that fire only spreads up, and that no matter how perfect your kindling is, if it is outside the path of the upward flames, it will not catch. Even once once the fire is burning strong, the parts of the logs outside that upward path of the flames will not be consumed, but by rotating a log to reveal that unused part to the flame an old log begins making its contribution to the fire again.

I thought about how my own spirit at that moment was like a fire burning low. I was encouraged to notice that a fire burning low does not necessarily need a new log, but maybe some kindling to get things going, maybe just some rearranging to bring the fuel where it is needed. So let’s pause for a moment to consider- where is your flame burning low? Where could you use a little kindling? What parts of your life do you want to bring closer to the center of the fire?

As I stared into the flames, I thought about you, my congregations; I thought about how folks had said they felt burnt out. Sure enough the logs in my fire did burn down over time. Tiny sticks would leap into dramatic flames, and disappear quickly. The big logs took a while to catch, but once the flames caught would burn for long enough that I could sit back and drink my tea, or read a few pages of my book, but even once the big logs are burning well, the fire still required care.

I thought about the ways that our congregations are really like a fire; they need little bits of fuel that burn hot, and they need big logs that feed the fire evenly for a long time. And if the fire were to continue, they needed new logs from time to time. Even the best laid fire needs help – they need someone to notice when the flames are burning low, when the logs are burning out,  to notice when they need new fuel,when they need to be rearranged. Sometimes we need to stir things up, making sure there is good air flow helps even when there is no more fuel to add.

As I gazed into the fire, it brought to mind a vision of our congregations that I’ve often shared: I imagine our congregations to be like a bonfire of love and hope, so that all who need to be feel the warmth of that love can come sit by our fire. These fires were burning long before we arrived, but because they have warmed us, we tend these fires of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, of our congregations so they may continue to warm all who need that love and inspiration decade after decade. We invite newcomers to our fire so that no one need feel cold and alone.

It occurs to me now that this fire for racial justice has been burning for a long time too- for hundreds of years, and sometimes it burns hot, and sometimes it’s just smoldering coals. Remember, fire is not an object, it is a PROCESS; in its fundamental nature, it is transformation. Fire changes what it touches, or it wouldn’t be fire. Right now the flames of transformation are burning hot. How can we keep the flames hot enough to make the transformation significant, and lasting? Take a moment to reflect- Which fires are you committed to sustaining and tending? Who is tending them? How might we invite others in?

When I went on my second silent retreat this winter, I used what I had learned, and built and started a fire that first night. How happy I was when someone walking through the hall stopped to enjoy the warmth with me. How happy I was to have made the fire that warmed and comforted someone. Over the following evenings, other folks would come and sit by the fire, enjoying the flames and the silence for a while before heading off to bed. They gave me an appreciative smile and I felt glad I had helped created this space of community and warmth for them. But I wondered, did they want to be part of the firemaking? Were they holding themselves back from adding a log, worried about overstepping? I couldn’t just ask, because we were all keeping silent. So one night when there were a couple of other folks gathered around, and I thought it might soon be time to either add another log, or to let the fire find its natural end for the night. I got up and walked to the kitchen to get some tea. When I got back another woman was adding logs and clearly had things under control, so I sat and enjoyed her handiwork for a while before going to bed.

Another night I seemed to be the last one left at the fireplace. I stopped adding logs as I grew tired. The fire was just an orange glow when I left to get my chamomile tea. As I walked back through the fireside room on my way to bed, I saw a quiet man had taken the opportunity to sweep away the ashes and rebuild a fire from the bottom up using those glowing logs.

Fires are not meant to burn forever. At some point we have to step away. It is only when the fire is out that we can sweep away the ashes and make space for something new. When we step away from tending a fire we can do so in a way that ensures that the folks who come after us can make their own fire: A pile of wood and kindling invitingly and safely nearby. A fire circle cleared of brush and ready for a fresh start. I Invite you to reflect now, are there fires you are ready to stop feeding? And if so, are there ways you can prepare the way for those who come after to take over when you step away?

I’ve never “banked” a fire myself, but people in novels do it all the time. Apparently if you protect the coals just right they will still be hot in the morning if you are going to need a fire to , say, cook your breakfast.

This summer our 3 congregations are taking a break from a lot of our normal programs. We will be visiting other congregations in worship and not creating our own worship on zoom until September. Today we take a moment to “bank” our fire, to protect those glowing coals that they will be ready to reignite in the fall

I’m hoping each of you this summer will have some time to sit by a fire. Think of us as you watch the flames flicker, think of us as you tend your fires.