Thursday, January 30, 2020

Mary and Martha

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ -  Luke 10, 38-42
The passage of Mary and Martha always bothered me. Anyone who’s ever hosted guests knows there’s a lot of work to do, making up beds, preparing food and tons of cleaning up afterwards. I remember one time when my son was very little we had friends and family over to watch football, and someone turned to me and said “why don’t you sit down?” And I wondered: why don’t I sit down? Why don’t I just relax like everyone else? I moved over to the sofa and just as I was sitting down I heard my son cry from the other room, and remembered “that’s why I don’t sit down!” Reading the passage as the mother of a small child who worked full time in the church, I often felt like Martha- wishing for a little help with the endless work. I thought this parable reflected the blindness of the patriarchy to the realities of women’s work.

But the thing is, the work really never ends, does it? There is always something that could be cleaned, or put away, or prepared for the future- especially if there are toddlers in the house! And in this story a famous teacher has come to visit, and most likely will not be that way again. If ever there was a time to leave dishes to soak, perhaps that was it.

In the Christian Tradition, Jesus is not only a great teacher, but the divine incarnate. So another way to look at this passage is -- when the divine is visible to us, when the divine is speaking to us, the better part is to lay down whatever we are doing and listen.

We Unitarian Universalists are very diverse in what we believe about God. You notice the children’s story,  The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor, didn’t mention God at all. But it did mention a deep kind of listening, a listening that expects something to speak into it. To me that kind of listening is sacred, regardless of what we believe about the nature of what exactly speaks back, whether it is the divine, whether it is the earth, or whether it is the deepest, truest part of the Self. I tend to be of the theology that whatever is sacred is around us all the time. I believe the divine is not something that comes and goes, the divine is part of everything that is. You could call this the Spirit of Life, because it is part of everything that lives.

When I began my first ever silent retreat last winter, my Spiritual Director gave me these words by Ann Lewin:
"You do not have to
Look for anything, just
You do not have to
Listen for specific
Sounds, just
You do not have to
Accomplish anything, just
And in the
Looking, and the
Listening, and the
Being, find Me.
This became an important touch stone for me over the course of the 8 days. I’m used to doing things with purpose and intention. I’m used to looking and listening and doing with a goal. But when we truly listen, we can’t assume we know what we are about to hear. Have you ever had a partner or a good friend finish your sentence assuming they knew what you were trying to say, when that’s not really what you were saying at all? Whether you are listening to a great teacher, or to a bird, or to a bush, if we assume we know what we will hear, that’s what we will probably hear. If we want to hear something new, we have to set aside our preconceived notions, our expectations, and just listen. If we expect to see what we’ve always seen then we will most likely see what we have always seen.

As Franciscan writer and teacher Richard Rohr says “We have to learn to see what is there. That’s hard for us to understand. We’re used to focusing on attainment and achievement, a sort of spiritual capitalism… That expectation keeps us from the truly transformative experience called grace.” [Everything Belongs p. 28]

Rohr points out the similarities between Jesus’s teachings, and the teachings of Zen Buddhism. “Jesus Calls us to exactly what the Zen master calls his students to… calling monks who had been [in the monastery] for years to what they called “beginner’s mind” We must never presume that we see. We must always be ready to see anew. [p. 231]

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
“Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” [From Aurora Leigh]
In two different moments we can look at the exact same thing, and some moments it seems like a miracle, and some moments it seems ordinary as dirt.

I used to assume the poet was judging the people in this poem who “sat round and plucked blackberries.” But I think that’s most of us most of the time. As the girl in our story said “I thought there must be something wrong with me because I only heard wind and quail and coyotes and doves—just things that anyone could hear.”

I get that. I used to think that if I could practice hard enough, if I could learn to look at the world the right way then once I could see it I would always see it. They say this is true for the awakened masters. Many say this is what Jesus meant when he said “The kingdom of God is at hand.” But like the heroine of our story, I find that it’s often hard to hear the spirit of life, the still small voice, even when you are looking. No matter how much I practice, I never know when I will glimpse the sacred nature of the world, and when it will seem ordinary. That’s why it’s so important to cherish those moments when the hills sing back, those moments when you really see that every common bush is afire with the divine.

There are plenty of days to pluck blackberries, days when it’s hard to see that Earth is Crammed with heaven – and fortunately plucking blackberries is a fun and joyful event if you are careful of prickers. What is more delicious than a ripe blackberry? Spiritual Director Gerald May writes: “The problem is not that Martha is working, but that she is obsessed with working. Indeed it is Mary who has the contemplative heart; she has chosen the one thing necessary which is to attend to God. It just happens that in this particular moment she does it by sitting still; in another time, perhaps even in the next moment, she could do the same thing while helping with the work. The story might have been told better that way. It might have been better still if Jesus had been helping with the work. But Martha’s problem was that her preoccupation had kidnapped her awareness away from the divine presence.” [The Awakened Heart p. 210-11]

I don’t believe the bush is more or less sacred on any given day, but I know that what I experience changes. And the way I now hear the Mary and Martha story, is that when the world speaks to you, when you see the sacred in the ordinary bush, when the world seems numinous, the better part is to sit and listen.

If we believe that there is a deep, sacred dimension to life, and if we believe that is important, this parable suggests that sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and listen. Like the old man in the story said “Most people never hear those things at all… they just don’t take the time you need for something that important.”

The world still needs dishes washed, and beds made, payroll run, and snow shoveled. But sometimes stopping and listening to the teachers around us is the better part. We may go on many walks listening to the hills before they begin to sing back, but still we walk, or pause, or just open our minds so we can “always stop and listen at the right time.” When the hills sing to us, let us listen long and deep.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

What do we beieve about the Power of Intention?

If a wish fairy appeared right now and offered you 3 wishes, what would you wish for? When we were kids we often ask each other this question, and strategized about the best wish which is of course “I would ask for more wishes.”

As adults we don’t talk much about wishes, we use words like “vision” or “intention” or “goals.”  Teachings about the Power of Intention are big part of American spirituality right now, so when a  friend recently gave me a novel Magic Mala about the power of intention, I decided I needed to figure out what I believed. Because it is so prevalent in our culture right now that I’d like to take some time to consider together “What do Unitarian Universalists believe about the power of intention?”

One of the big theological questions that seems to be part of every religious tradition is something like “do I have any control over my life?” Working with intentions is one way to explore the answers to that question. If life is a big river, and our own lives a boat upon it, we are tossed by the wind and waves and current unless we have an oar or a rudder to steer. At its most basic level, that’s what an intention is, a rudder to help us steer in a particular direction.

Just being able to know and articulate your own preferences increase the odds that you will get what you want. Have you ever been trying to find a restaurant for a group of people, and no one knows what they want? You are stuck swirling around in indecision until some says “actually, I’m kind of in the mood for sushi.”? Something as simple as writing up a grocery list or creating an agenda for a meeting seems to help me do what I intend. A goal like going to college, or buying a house requires many coordinated actions over a long period of time, it’s very unlikely that your boat will just drift you into home-ownership, so keeping that goal in mind whether it’s a wish, a goal in your journal, or a vision board you look at each day helps navigate in the direction you choose to go.

In the  Magic Mala a couple are down on their luck being evicted from their home. A friend encourages our heroine to set her intention, to write it down and speak it aloud, and then to act on that intention. This is really very similar to techniques used by mainstream corporate organization teacher Franklin Covey. Many people, myself included, find that this kind of process increases the odds that you can achieve the goals you set. A study at Dominican University showed improved outcomes by a couple of percentage points for folks who wrote down their goals, or otherwise shared or repeated those goals.[i] So on that count I would say yes, UUs do believe that intention setting can help us achieve our goals.

In my own experience, I notice that setting intentions can help people feeling empowered, feeling some sense of control over your life, realizing you can make choices that impact outcomes. When we create an intention to manifest something in the world, it can be empowering; it helps us learn something about our agency can allow us to participate in the game of life. Sometimes just identifying and making a choice can be helpful- if you can name it it’s easier to ask for, and to identify opportunities when they come your way. I have seen folks set their minds to going back to school or going back to rehab and through persistence and dedication of purpose, change the direction of their lives. This is an important part of the Wiccan tradition – using ritual to set intention, to ask for what we want. Why does it work? I personally am agnostic about the mechanics of that. Maybe there are forces outside our own self, outside the web of human community that help us, and I’m sure there is a great range of what UUs believe about that.

Another phrase that is popular today is the “law of attraction” which encourages us to think positively- to believe that our wish or intention will come true. The idea is that positive thoughts attract positive outcomes, and negative thoughts attract negative outcomes. The characters in the Magic Mala practiced positive affirmations many times each day. There’s been some scientific research showing that positive thinking can make a real difference in outcomes[ii] and that negative thinking can create more negative outcomes. Positive thinking seems to harmonize with our UU beliefs and values.

But you don’t have to get to far down the river with the power of intentions to find a place where it is hard for UUs to follow. An important part of any theology is how it addresses suffering. Can it hold a tragedy like the fires still burning in Australia? The folks in Australia who have lost not only homes but whole communities to fire- did they somehow bring that into their lives through negative thinking?

How does this theology of intention address issues like poverty or racism? The Magic Mala approaches suffering from an individual perspective- people in poverty have limiting beliefs that keep them from getting out of poverty. Folks who experience hardship are just manifesting their negative thoughts. This simply isn’t compatible with UU theology. About 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.[iii]. Are we saying that all that’s keeping %80 of the world in poverty is lack of imagination? That if the 750 million people who live in extreme poverty (Less than $1.90 a day)[iv] began to really devotedly practicing their intentions and affirmations we could eliminate poverty? Maybe. I’m sure it’s hard to stay positive when you have always been poor. But living in a material world has material limits. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that for everyone on earth to live as Americans do it would take 4 earths?[v] No matter how much we all want to live like Americans, the laws of our physical reality make that impossible.

We UUs remember that we are part of an interconnected web of life. We know that everything we do impacts and is impacted by others. We are co-creating this world with billions of other living beings. Yes, we do create our reality, but we do not do it alone.

I want to introduce now an idea called the “pragmatic theory of belief” that was important to James Luther Adams, a Unitarian back in the early 20th century[vi] The idea is that we can know something about a belief from how we act on that belief and how we feel. “Adams urges us to think about human behavior as both a personal and an institutional activity that reveals the actual meaning of a religious belief.” How might this believe system effect my actions? If I believe that poor people are poor because of their limiting beliefs, and all they have to do is start clarifying their intentions and repeating positive affirmations to get out of poverty, then I have no obligation to help people in poverty, and I have no obligation to overturn the kinds of oppressive structures that create and sustain poverty and racism. How might this belief system effect the feelings of one who holds it? It might lead to feelings of superiority, if I am successful in achieving my goals. It might lead to feelings of shame and guilt, if I do not achieve my goals. [vii] I certainly would not want folks who lost everything in the Australian fires, folks living in poverty, folks in the hospital right now to feel shame and guilt, to worry that a negative thought created their tragic reality. These pragmatics make me skeptical.

The Power if Intention and law of attraction are often invoked by proponents of the Prosperity gospel, which tells us that the Rich are God’s chosen. One of the important founders of this school of thought was Norman Vincent Peale, minister of Trump’s childhood church. If we look at the prosperity gospel through the lens of the pragmatic theory, we find that folks who follow this theory don’t tend act with compassion to those less fortunate, and tend to believe their wealth shows that whatever actions they took, these were favored by God. I believe that if we apply the pragmatic theory of belief to the prosperity gospel, we have to agree that it is not creating a better world for all.[viii]

As part of the UU tradition, which believes in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I cannot believe that the wealthy are God’s chosen, and the poor are God’s cast offs. As a UU I notice that Power of Intention does not account for privilege or for systematic oppression. UUs tend to believe that whenever we have privilege our faith calls us to work toward justice for all. We question any belief that reinforces the status quo in a world where oppression and injustice still exist.

Let’s think about intention from a totally different perspective. Buddhism is built on 4 noble truths, and the Second Noble Truth is “The origin of suffering is attachment”- Buddha tells us that "the attachment to the desire to have (craving) and the desire not to have (aversion)". There’s nothing wrong with making a plan and taking steps to carry it out, but when we get too attached to our objectives, when get attached to having things turn out a certain way, that is what causes suffering. (A study at Cornell proved something very similar- I’ll put the link on the website)[ix] Even if we get exactly what we want, we become attached to what we have, an d because all things are temporary, we feel suffering when we lose what we have achieved.

Teacher Ram Dass tells us: “The first thing my Hindu teacher wrote on his slate in teaching me was the statement, “Desire is a trap; desirelessness is moksha, or liberation;” [x] But Ram Dass also notes that as many years as he spent in spiritual practices trying to burn away the seeds of desire, the desires continued to arise, and whenever desires arise these “uncooked seeds” are something we need to work through to grow spiritually. So if we desire wealth, or if we desire power, or enlightenment, there are important spiritual lessons available through living out the fruition of desire so that ultimately we can let them go.

So desires happen. We can choose to let them go and cultivate desirelessness, or we can choose to follow them and see where they lead us. Once upon a time I decided to become an opera singer, I worked for it for years, and even though I didn’t achieve that goal, I never have to wonder “what if?” That seed is cooked. And I learned many unexpected lessons in the process.

I do believe that Intentions have power, and this is precisely why it is something we should consider as a faith community. How are we going to use that power? If you are going to choose an intention to guide your week, your year, your life, what is your best intention? Yes, you could use the power of intention to accrue wealth. And that might be just what you need right now. But there are lots of other ways to use the power of intention. Our church’s mission is to live ethically, to serve lovingly, to grow spiritually. An intention to live ethically would take us on a very different journey than an intention to become rich. An intention to grow spiritually could take us just about anywhere on that river.

As you consider setting intentions for the New Year, ask yourself, as the angel in our story did “what is your best wish?” What do you want and need? Is there a spot on the river you have always wanted to see? It’s okay if you don’t know how to get there; if it’s something you really want, just articulating that desire increases the odds that one day you will get there. But be sure to choose your best wish. We can choose intentions to feed the hungry, to fight racial oppression, to slow global warming. We can intend to spend more time with family, or learning about the birds at our birdfeeder. Or we could set the intention to just see where the river takes us, and be open to whatever arises. And if we hold our intention loosely, and understand this all to be part of our spiritual journey, we can’t fail. Because whether or not we learn to paint, increase our retirement savings, finally start exercising, or end poverty in our time, we will learn something about the nature of reality, and about ourselves. We will learn something about when to steer and when to let go and just follow the river.

End Notes

[iii] for US poverty-
[viii] In fact, many Christians, both liberal and conservative feel this is in direct conflict with biblical teachings, and call the prosperity gospel a heresy