Wednesday, May 12, 2021

What Mothers Really Want

Most people are unaware that the founder of Mother’s Day was a Unitarian[i]. Julia Ward Howe, mother of 6, was an abolitionist, co-founder the American Woman Suffrage Association, and peace activist. During the Civil War, she nursed and tended the wounded and worked with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both sides of the war. She saw first-hand the devastating impact on the bodies of soldiers on the battlefield, and on their families[ii]. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian war was raging in Europe, she was disturbed by “"the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. . .. a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed" And invited “mothers of all nationalities to band together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”[iii] in the Mother’s day proclamation Susan read for us. She encouraged folks to come together one day each year dedicated to the work of peace.

She wrote 30 years later in a speech she gave called “The development of the peace ideal”:
“I bethought me of the sacred right vested in the women of civilized communities to keep the bond of Peace and to protect the lives bought by their bitter pain, and fashioned by their endless labor.”[iv]
In her time, of course, it was common to conflate women and mothers, but let’s set aside the gender binary, and focus on her conviction that those who had labored to bring each child into the world, and those who labored to raise them, would have a special motivation to keep them safe, to protect them from the violence of war.

In Boston, where she lived, she initiated a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June and held a Mother’s Day meeting for a number of years. For the rest of her long life she lectured widely, particularly for the Unitarian Church, founding clubs wherever she went.”[v]

The Peace Alliance tells us that “As the call for a Mother’s Day carried on, it gained new momentum and finally became a national holiday in the early 1900’s with the lead of Anna Jarvis, who had been inspired by her mother, also named Anna Jarvis, who had worked with Julia Ward Howe in earlier efforts for a Mother’s Day.”[vi]

Activism for peace is deep in the roots of Unitarian Universalism, like abolition, like women’s suffrage. Not every Unitarian of Julia Ward Howe’s time was convinced -- her ideas were often considered ahead of her time, and her calls for peace were often dismissed, just as such calls are often dismissed in modern times.

This year at Mother’s day, I invite us to take up the challenge she issued back in 1870, and see how we feel called today. Her challenge that "The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.” In 2021 I see her challenge in our militarized police system.

Howe stood up against the use of violence and bloodshed to resolve conflict, creates neither justice nor peace. I would argue that what we are protecting with all our military, and police forces should be peace. But the way we use our military, our police force seems to be in service of defending territory, defending property, rather than peace. Violence creates violence, Violence creates trauma not peace. And when folks return from war, we see that the ripples of that trauma take generations to be healed. We see those same ripples of violence and trauma in the policing of communities of color. Protecting peace is not the same as defending territory.

Howe calls us to turn our attention to the “means Whereby the great human family can live in peace.” Peace is not merely the absence of war, but a proactive way of being that holds space for healing and growing and creativity. Peace must be cultivated, nurtured so that it can to spread and establish peaceful spaces. Not spaces that avoid conflict, but “braver spaces” where we have the courage to speak truthfully and compassionately to one another about those things which concern us most. Cultivating peace is not about avoiding conflict. It requires that we teach and practice non-violent conflict resolution. It is about finding ways to hold the forces which deny and oppress life accountable in a way that avoids adding to the harm being done.

I think Su’s thoughtful reflection today "Being True to UU Ideals" is a challenge to practice peace, particularly at this time when our country is so divided. Lao Tzu, (Chinese Philosopher, author of the Toa Te Ching wrote:
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
These words are encouraging to me when I feel too small to make a difference in national or global politics. It reminds me that cultivating peace in my own city, in my own home, in my own heart is important. Perhaps you have been in a room with someone whose peaceful presence has affected your own heart? I have seen people leading with peace turn an embattled situation into one where solutions are possible in all kinds of situations, large and small. Imagine cultivating peace on social media!

Cultivating peace, embodying peace is not easy. It requires intention and practice and courage. We become angry, we are imperfect. We may never live up to the example of great peace activists we admire, but we can challenge ourselves by asking: how can we cultivate a more peaceful response as we move through our days, enjoying with appreciation the life giving things we encounter, and naming with clarity, and working to change the things that diminish or oppress life? How can we restore peace where it has been interrupted with violence?

There is an important critique of those who call for peace; peace is easy to confuse with quietism, it is easy to mistake with conflict avoidance. It is not true peace when we endure injustice, or encourage others who bear the brunt of injustice or violence to endure it peacefully without resistance, to avoid upsetting the status quo. Consider Colin Kaepernick, the first to take a knee on the football field to protest police violence. His quiet peaceful action disturbed many people. Calling for justice is by its nature disturbing, because we must first see the injustice, and that should disturb us. The chant we hear in many protests is “no justice no peace” – and this is important. Our work for justice is part of our work for peace.

Photo from NBC News
One mother who is in my heart today, who embodies the ideals of that original Mother’s day proclamation is Gwen Carr. After her son, Eric Garner, was killed by police, she has worked for years to make sure that the men who killed her son, the system that killed her son would be held accountable. She said in an MSNBC interview
"We have to go further, as mothers, as families, we have to go further. And that's the only way that we are going to push them to do the right thing."

At the same time Carr is also reaching out to other mothers who lost their children to police violence to support them in their grief. Gwen Carr embodies those words spoken by Julia Ward Howe 150 years ago:
“Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace,”
Gwen Carr is my mother’s day hero this year, a modern role model of a mother’s wisdom and compassion, and the urgency of her call for peace. She embodies for me what Howe called: “the sacred right vested in the women of civilized communities to keep the bond of Peace and to protect the lives bought by their bitter pain, and fashioned by their endless labor.”

This Mother’s Day I propose that what those who mother really want, is to know that their children will live in peace, will be safe from violence. That they will see their children grow to be adults. This year at Mother’s Day we recommit ourselves, each in our own way, to work for peace, whether that means an end to foreign wars, or a demilitarizing of our police here at home, calling for accountability when sons and daughters are killed by police, working towards nonviolent resolution in the everyday conflicts and disagreements, or cultivating peace in our own hearts.

[i] Later she wrote, "I studied my way out of all the mental agonies which Calvinism can engender and became a Unitarian."






Thursday, May 6, 2021

Blessing the seeds

The 6th source of our UU tradition is “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”. For those of us who grew up in Jewish or Christian traditions, we were taught that you can take your religion with you, like a book, wherever you go. But earth centered traditions are, by definition, tied to a specific place. We learn not from ideas about earth, but from the earth herself.

Long before my family and I arrived in this region, this land was cared for by the Haudenosaunee confederacy of first nations peoples. The Haudenosaunee are still providing guidance and leadership today for those who would listen. They are still doing ceremonies which grow out of the wisdom of the earth herself, and this ecosystem we share.

The Haudenosaunee have 13 ceremonies representing the 13 moons throughout the year in rhythm with seasonal changes. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy website tells us that “Most ceremonies are a way of expressing thanks to the people, the natural world, the spirit world and the creator. It is hoped that this will help to maintain the health and prosperity of the nations.”

This time of year is marked by the Seed Ceremony in the middle of May. The first peoples of this land have long known what your neighbors who garden know, that where we live right about now is the time for planting many things. That these seeds we plant will feed ourselves and many in our ecosystems for the coming year. We are beholden to these seeds and to the mature plants they become for our lives.

Donna tells me that “Chief Bill Lazore of Eel Clan Haudenosaunee would come down to Towanda in early Spring and Summer and Fall to collect medicines. We were taught when coming upon a plant (all are medicines) whether for humans, animals or the earth we never gather the 1st or 2nd but start with the 3rd plant. Gather in respect and with a good heart. Before starting on the path we gave tobacco as an offering of thanks and that we would be mindful of the gifts given. We were told that was ceremony. Each person planting seeds may choose to hold their own ceremony in a way that shows their respect and love for where the seeds began. The soil, the rain, the sun all connected to us - as we began as a seed also. The circle is unending.”

So today we take time for or own Unitarian Universalist seed blessing, each in our own way with respect and love. With gratitude to the first nations peoples for their wisdom, we remember the importance of approaching life with respect and with a good heart.

I invite you to take your seeds in your hand right now, or just imagine a seed if you don’t have one. We begin by cultivating a good heart. Gently bring your attention, your presence inside your own body, gather your attention into your own chest, where your physical heart resides. Remember the basic, ordinary goodness of life, the goodness of breathing in and breathing out. Of food, of shelter, of a community to gather. If you are having a hard morning, allow yourself to soften in compassion towards yourself, and those around you - the kind of compassion you would offer a new being at the start of life.

Now bring your attention to the seed in your hand.
Consider the miracle that this small, hard seed can grow into a plant hundreds of times its size. And that our plant siblings not only feed us, and feed non-human animals, but produce the very oxygen we breathe. Feel the texture of the seed in your hand, and honor the amazing intelligence of nature that could store everything an adult plant needs to unfurl into life in this sturdy beginning.

Offer now, in this spirit of love and respect a blessing for these particular seeds in your own spirit, in your own way

Now we expand our blessing to all those seeds that are being planted at this season, all that new green life we all depend on. Bless these in your own way

Consider now what seeds need to grow and flourish- clean water, living fertile soil, space and time to grow undisturbed.

All the other plants and animals and fungus necessary for the complex web of life. Offer a blessing to the whole ecosystem, and your commitment to support and protect your ecosystem.

Finally we pause to ask our inner wisdom “is there anything in myself that I would like to plant this season?”

Blessed Be.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

From You I Receive, to You I Give

I admit to you that sometimes I feel very small. I wonder- does anything I do really matter? The problems of the world seem so big, the needs of the community seem so great. Most of us are not Senators, are not on the coordinating team of the Movement for black lives, are not Greta or Malala. Most of us are, as in Mary Oliver’s poem "I Want" , not the tiger lily, but one of those sweet blades in a clutch of curly grass. Grand heroic acts make up only a small part of the fabric of life which is an infinitely complex web of tiny acts, some so small we can’t even see them, like the thin filaments of fungus that help trees share resources and communicate. Most of life, most of the time is woven of small acts, of giving and receiving.

The UUCAS Board of Trustees has been learning about white supremacy culture, and one article we read explained one of the characteristics in white supremacy culture is that “little appreciation is expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway -- more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate” In Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups aythors Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun tell us that the antidote is to “develop a culture of appreciation “noticing and appreciating what is given. What a lovely way to unravel white supremacy! I think as a congregation we do pretty well at seeing the contributions each of us makes, but some contributions are easier to see than others.

I know that a kind word from a friend can make a big difference in my day, but it’s harder for me to believe that my small actions matter. So today I want to invite us to practice seeing not only the eye-catching lily but the blades of grass, to practice seeing how vitally important are all the ordinary and often invisible ways we give and receive.

At the start of the pandemic, the slow wheels of government could not respond quickly enough to meet the changing needs of people, so we turned to one another. Powder blue Sharing Cabinets sprang up all over Ithaca, the city where I live, and a network of ordinary people bought extra groceries or harvested extra produce from their gardens and helped fill the gaps of larger food pantries flummoxed by the pandemic and by increased demand. Across the country Mutual Aid societies have bloomed into being, people helping one another directly with basic needs unmet by agencies or nonprofits. Neighbors are helping neighbors as humans have done long before there ever was a formal safety net. This past winter the Mutual Aid list on Facebook was full of folks asking directly for what they needed, and then sharing with us what they received- “my son’s first Christmas tree” “a science kit for my daughter” “decorations for the home of my grandmother who lives alone” “sheet music so I can play my new piano.” Together all these little acts not only add bright spots to those who receive, and a sense of meaning to those who give, but the very smallness of those acts allows us to get into the nooks and crannies of need and care invisible to larger organizations.

When I think about the struggle against racism, the struggle to bring accountability to police and justice system, I feel hopelessly small. The verdict this week in the trial of the former policeman who killed George Floyd shows us that change is possible. The death of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police is an old, old problem, but this is the first time a white officer has ever been charged in the state of Minnesota. It is sad but true that holding this first police officer accountable marks a change, and what made that change possible, were the thousands of ordinary people, most of whose names we never know, showing up. The sea of black and white and brown faces showing up all over America, tiny shapes in a sea of protest, that is what gives power to the spokespeople who are invited to speak on television, what powered the legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing act now before the senate. Without all those voices, all those bodies, such legislation would never have been passed by the House of Representatives.

We see the lilies, like Stacy Abrams, a great hero of voter rights activism, nominated for a Nobel prize, but her work relies on thousands of activists, of poll workers, of election monitors, of hundreds of thousands voters who stood in line for hours. Today we notice with gratitude to all those ordinary acts that make great change possible.

The fabric of life is woven of thousands of tiny threads, small acts of generosity and kindness. When you visit a loved one in the hospital, bring soup or send cards to those recovering from illness. When we listen compassionately to a burdened heart, we are a sparkling life-giving thread in that fabric. In the village green of Homer, near our Cortland congregation, artist Liz Sharp asked the community to fold paper cranes for hope and peace. Her ambitious goal was 2000, but so many schools and groups got involved, that 5000 cranes were folded, and hung across the town green in honor of loved ones and essential workers, to express wishes for peace and unity. “This pandemic has brought all of us down — now we have to lift each other back up and turn the negatives into positives.” The artist said. A clergy colleague there described it as a beautiful meditative space, with neighbors pausing contemplative in that transformed green. Cranes folded one at a time, by hundreds of hands, making their small contribution to a public expression of beauty and generosity.[i]

Notice that each time we come together as a community we create something that none of us could do alone. There are 9 people on the worship team this morning, some whose contributions you can easily see, like Jill who lit the chalice, and some whose contributions are totally invisible, like Chris who made the slides, and Andria who makes sure we can see and hear what we are supposed to see and hear. That doesn’t even count the people who wrote our hymns and readings, nor the software developers that made zoom happen. And anyone on the team would agree that each one of you who logs on whether you are nodding along and typing in the chat, or just listening with your camera off, magnifies the spirit of our time together. Each of us is a unique and precious thread in the fabric of our community.

I’d like to take some time now for reflection- on moments when you have received or experienced something that made a difference in your life, to your spirit, to your community this past year. You are welcome to grab a pencil and paper if that helps you think. Consider practical things that made your life a bit easier, or intangible things that lifted your spirit. Consider things you received perhaps from this community, perhaps from a friend or neighbor, perhaps from the non-human beings who are part of your ecosystem. I’m going to give us a couple of moments for reflection. You will be invited to share in the chat one or two of these after the time of reflection if you choose....
-Pause for reflection-

I hope this practice of sharing has helped us notice the gifts small and large we have received, even and especially in this challenging year.

In sharing let us begin to see the vast and beautiful weaving we are part of . Let us notice that in ordinary acts of showing up, of giving, of kindness, of beauty we will impact one another. May this noticing also help us have faith that each of us has in our own way contributed. May we have faith that our own thread is there, even when we can’t see it.

Now I want to enter one last time of reflection. This time i invite you to reflect on the things you have given this past year, that you hope have been received, that you hope have helped. The things you gave from the heart.
-Pause for reflection-

 Whenever we are feeling small, and the problems and sorrows of the world too large, let us practice noticing the power of small contributions. Like a single paper crane, a single blade of grass, a single voter patiently waiting to vote, a single thread in a beautiful tapestry, we are woven into a vast, beautiful and powerful web of life.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stories Like Constellations

 10 stones, 3 stories

I was noticing how you could use the exact same group of things to make 3 very different stories:

Story 1: 

It had been cloudy all weekend, but the last day of their vacation was a sunny day and so the family set off on a walk. The walked through the woods, and followed the stream all the way down to the great lake. The family played on the shore there, scrambling over rocks and exploring, putting their toes in the cold lake, and gazing out at the horizon, amazed that a lake could be so big. The day was so beautiful, and they were so glad to be together as a family. But the knowledge that this was their last day hovered over them like a cloud, and it was sad to leave the beautiful lake, and their special time together. They promised themselves they would always remember this wonderful family adventure.

Story 2: 

Water flows down through all the tiny creeks and streams into larger and larger tributaries until finally it flows into the lakes and the oceans. The sun shines on the water and it evaporates into the clouds, then the water rains down back onto the earth and feeds the trees, and the people and life itself. And this water cycle repeats and repeats endlessly all over the world.

Story 3:

The young geologist was out doing research in the forest. Her research required her to be out in sunny weather and terrible weather surveying, but she didn’t care, because she loved being out in nature, and she loved her research. One day as she was out taking samples, she followed our human footprints and found that toxic chemicals were flowing into the local watershed. She was so sad and angry to see that this was happening to a place she loved and had spent so much time studying, and so she vowed that day that she was going to dedicate herself and her research to protecting this ecosystem from harmful human footprints. She vowed that one day she would come back and see this watershed clean again. 

I wonder what story you would make with those very same stones?

A special note of thanks to Dr. Leanne Hadley for these symbols, her beautiful "Holy Listening Stones" I encourage you to explore visit her website and explore.

Stories Like Constellations

Do you remember the first time someone showed you a constellation? I remember thinking “that doesn’t look anything like a bear” I mean, the big dipper does look kind of like a ladle, but most of those constellations are real head-scratchers. Of course the important thing is not that it looks like a swan, or a hunter, or a bear, but that constellations helps us orient ourselves to the sky, to notice that it’s really the same stars every night, even when the earth’s motion causes their position in the sky to change. Imagining constellations helps us to make connections across time and space, Noticing, naming, and then tying it to a story, all help us orient ourselves when we look at the night sky.

We do this same thing in our own lives - constantly making up stories about why things happen and what those events mean. Out of the millions of events of our lives, small and large, when we tell the story of our life we choose a few that feel important to us, like stars that shine most brightly, and tell our story that way. For example, when I write my bio that is on the church website, I chose growing up in a musical family, going to music school to become an opera singer, dropping out of opera school, moving to California to go to seminary, serving the Palo Alto congregation as their Minister of Religious Education and becoming a mother at the same time, then moving back east with my family and Son, settling in Ithaca and becoming your minister. That’s a pretty good story, it explains where I cam from and why I’m here today. It totally leaves out many important stars in my sky though, it leaves out my love of plants, and my passion for the environment, it leaves out my white privilege, and how race has impacted my life. All stories center some things and leave others out, or leave them in the background. As Author Rebecca Solnit says “The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.”

Consider how peoples who live in different places have different names, different stories for the constellations. I was taught that the big dipper is part of a constellation called Ursa Major (Big Bear) after ancient Greek myth about a nymph turned into a bear to protect her from a God’s jealousy. In the Ojibwe culture, the same stars are named after the Fisher, a 4 legged hunter common in the great lakes area, who was pinned to the sky by an arrow as he fled, having successfully rescued the birds and the spring form the spirit monsters[i]. In Hindu Astronomy, what I think of as the big dipper is called Sapta Rashi- the seven great sages. In Arabian culture, the bowl of the big dipper is a coffin, and the handle is the mourners following it. Depending on where you live, where you stand, what time of day it is, what time of year, different stars are more visible, more prominent in the sky. Where some see a bear, others look at the same stars and see sages. It’s okay that we have different stories, and when you notice that you don’t seem to be on the same page as someone else, it can help to ask their story about what you are looking at together.

Stories can be helpful tools- they help us remember where we are headed. Here’s a super simple story “I’m going to go to seminary because I want to understand what it all means and I want to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.” So even though it takes 5 years or longer from making that decision through getting your first minister job, you have a story to hold all those millions of everyday events from researching seminaries, filling out applications, taking out student loans, moving, writing papers, doing an internship… you get the idea. The story gives a shape and a purpose to that time. That’s a tiny little personal story. There are big stories too- Joanna Macy has one I like called the Great Turning. It’s the story of how we the people had participated in damaging and endangering life on earth, and causing this great extinction event, but we are gradually waking up to the harm we were causing, and slowly but insistently turning the great ship of society towards healing and justice for humans and all living beings. It’s a story that takes some sad and challenging facts, and forms them into a shape that provides hope and purpose. All of us have a role in that story, it’s like a giant constellation that holds my little one, like how the big dipper is part of the Ursa Major.

You could easily look at the world and tell another story. One story I hear a lot is “humans have ruined the earth, we are terrible and selfish, we are headed for an inevitable apocalyptic hellscape, and there is nothing we can do about it. We see that story on TV a lot. I remember asking my husband “don’t we have any shows that aren’t set in an apocalypse?” (We switched over the Great British Baking Show and that helped a lot.) You can see why we would tell that story- looking at the exact same facts that give shape to the story of the great turning but the question is- how does the story impact our mental health? How does it impact our actions? I know when I hear the “all is lost” story it makes me depressed and I want to just give up. In fact the Research shows that stories of guilt and hopelessness are not great at motivating people. Some stories have the power to heal, other stories are like viruses. Finding healing stories is part of our role as a faith tradition.

I’ve also heard a story that goes: “don’t worry about Global Climate change, technology will save the day” But this story leaves out lots of important information about suffering and loss that are happening right now. It may not make us depressed, but it doesn’t spur us to action either. Stories that are unconnected to reality are unreliable guides for life in the real world. Stories that are grounded in reality are better guides.

Here’s a story I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; what is the meaning of the second half of life? I’ve just turned 50, my son is off at college, and I’ve been a minister for almost 25 years. People tell themselves all kinds of stories at midlife. One common story is of regret- the great love lost, the accolades never won. Another story is of the glory days- The good times gone and never come again, and things are all downhill from here. Some folks tell a story about a fresh start- the story of midlife where you leave your family and your career and start again, a new life for the second half. But what if you like your family, and you like your job? One story I could tell goes: “well, I did it- I became a minister, I raised a son, I have a long record of service to our denomination, I did what I set out to do. I have served my purpose” but that story doesn’t really help me figure out what to do next. I am looking for a story with a new chapter. Betty Freidan wrote in her exhaustive book “Fountain of Age” that while the story we tell is that it’s all downhill in the second half of life, human development has new stages we’ve hardly studied, that there are parts of our minds that grow and develop into our elder years. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller contend in their book “From Age-ing To Sage-ing” that everyone grows old, but not everyone becomes an elder. Of all those different stories about the 2nd half of life, I find most inspiring the story where now at age 51 I am want to be an apprentice elder. This feels like a story that gives a sense of meaning and purpose and hope. You could tell all those stories about the second half of life looking at the same facts, but each leads to different places. I want to choose a story that inspires, heals and strengthens me for the journey ahead.

Even if we find a really good story, there is a danger in holding our story too tightly. When new stars appear, perhaps because you’ve got a new more powerful telescope, the story must be flexible enough to include them. Consider Galileo whose gazing at the stars and planets through his new telescope revealed new proof for Copernicus’s theory that the earth revolves around the sun. But the Religious hierarchy was telling another story, a rigid story that could not be moved. That scripture said :

The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. [Psalm 96:10]
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. [Ecclesiastes 1:5]

And there was only one possible interpretation of those scriptures, so Galileo’s new story about how the universe worked could not even be entertained. This has always been one of the great strengths of our Unitarian tradition- the ability to take new discoveries, new information into our story. That’s part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

Such flexibility is important in our more personal stories as well. Think about the teens who graduated high school during Covid and headed off to college this very pandemic year. Now think about every movie you’ve ever seen about college life. Those usual stories of college life are just going to bring sadness and confusion to our Covid freshmen. I say to my son as he struggles through a hard semester in near isolation “college is always hard, but you are also making history. You are not just going to college, you are also surviving a pandemic” There is a great crisis of meaning whenever a beloved and useful story is challenged, that’s a basic truth of being human, but the gift is that we can also change our stories, a little or a lot, responding to changing world we encounter.

Finally, we have to remember that people are not their stories. Even that super factual bio I gave you at the beginning; all those statements are true, but that’s not me. Each person is more complex, more subtle, more dynamic more interconnected than even a methodically researched biography. A story is just a tool, that helps us remember where we have come from and where we are going. The stories we share help us head in the same direction with a common purpose.

This week I invite you to notice the stories all around you- Notice different the stories about the same events. Notice the stories we tell on the news and on social media - the stories that heal, the stories that harm. Notice the stories we tell about our own lives, and if you notice the story you are telling feels limiting or uninspired, change it- it’s just a story. And when you find a story that inspires you, delights you or gives you a sense of purpose and hope, share it so whenever we feel a little lost we can look up and remember where we are.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The April Fool

Being an adult is great for some things. I know how to do my taxes, when to take the car in to have the snow tires off, and that even though it looks like spring out there, we have not seen the last of the snow and frost, and it is way too early to plant tomato plants in the garden. I know things about myself- that there will be consequences if I eat dairy, and that I do my best writing in the morning.

But sometimes These same gifts of experience are also the greatest challenge for we who consider ourselves to be grownups. We have seen government leaders come and go, we have seen rampant corruption, we have seen intractable problems continue year after year, decade after decade. I started a fantasy novel recently in which the idealistic protagonists set out to create a utopian society. “we know how well that will turn out” I said to my husband. He looks up from the news and replies “what could go wrong?” It’s easy to become jaded. We put together all those thousands of past experiences, and have trouble imaging a future that doesn’t contain all those same old pitfalls. We create a life based on what we have learned of ourselves, of what we prefer, of what is expected of us, and it can easily become like a pair of shoes that are too tight. The world can become small and predictable. But this pandemic is a perfect example of how things can change so quickly in ways we did not expect. April fool’s day reminds us that there are universal patterns, archetypes, that open doors from our adult confinement. Today we will consider the fool, the trickster and the Child who remind us that the unexpected is not only possible but inevitable.

An archetype is sort of a character that all of us is familiar with, is a character that all humans have encountered at some point in their life. Today I want to describe 3 archetypes, the first archetype is the fool. The fool, at least as it is presented in the tarot deck, is a character of innocence. The one who acts without knowing. The common picture in many tarot decks is of a young person about to step off a cliff onto thin air. Any sensible adult would look at that and say “What is he doing, that’s crazy and dangerous, foolish.” But this archetype contains the possibility that somehow things might turn out okay. Like Mr. Magoo, do any of you remember that old cartoon? That nearsighted fellow was constantly teetering on the precipice of disaster, only to be caught by some accident of fate.

The fool relies on intuition and faith to make his way into the unknown. Even we sensible adults have to do this all the time. Here’s a really mundane example- I just made a vacation reservation for September. What is the world going to be like in September? Who knows! There could be a whole new strain of the virus that our vaccines don’t protect us from. One of us could lose our job and we could be broke. There could be an early cold snap and It will be too cold to put the kayaks in the water. I sat there with my finger hovered over the “reserve now” button for quite a long time, thinking of all the uncertainties, and finally clicked, stepping out past the edge of solid ground, into the uncertainty and the unknown. Any new adventure, any new project requires all of us to be a bit of the fool.

The fool is the archetype of beginnings, and so is perfect for spring. Those beautiful spring days of March invite us to hope, even though we know winter is not done with us. Our spirits need a fresh start with a fresh season, We need to go out in to the spring, enjoy spring, hope for the growing season, even knowing winter’s return is guaranteed. The fool is a helpful archetype for living with uncertainty.

A related archetype is the trickster. Where the fool is innocent, the trickster is wily. Many folk tale traditions have tricksters- like Anansi, or Briar Rabbit. Or perhaps Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. The trickster comes up with the plan no one is expecting, and so can find solutions and outcomes that folks expecting the ordinary will not see coming. This is why the trickster is a popular archetype among folks who live outside privilege, outside traditional power structures. The GameStop stock drama, where day traders drove the stock prices up defying all market expectation [i]- that was an act of the trickster archetype. Banksy[ii], and other graffiti artists are tricksters. The legislator or lobbyist who slips something into a bill that no one reads is a trickster. I will admit to you this archetype is a challenge to me. I like when things follow a plan, but writer Elizbeth Johnson, in her book Ask the Beasts reminds us that nature too is a trickster. She writes:
“if all were law, the natural world would ossify; its ordered structure would be rigid, repetitive deterministic. If all were chance, nature would dissolve into chaos; no new patterns would persist long enough to have an identity. But chance operating within a lawlike framework introduces novelty within a pattern that contains and directs it. Their creative interplay brings forever new living forms. Rather than being an enemy of law, then, chance is the very means by which nature becomes continuously creative” [Johnson p. 170-171]
Life needs both regular predictable things, and new and surprising things- that is what makes nature creative and sustainable, that is how the natural world has adapted and survived all these billions of years.

In fact, the origins of April Fools day may be rooted in the unpredictable nature of spring itself. There’s much debate about the origin of our April Fool’s day, but it seems like folks at our latitude have been celebrating something at this time of year since at least as far back as ancient roman festivals called “Hilaria” to the goddess Cybele. There are foolish traditions around the spring equinox in France and Scotland, and historians theorize that underlying them all is the quixotic nature of spring, a beautiful 70 degree day with sun, followed by an unwelcome wintry mix. I think we’ve all been caught up in mother nature’s spring pranks at one time or another. I’ll never forget the year I preached at Big Flats on Easter, and watched the snow fall thickly all through the sermon, hiding all the eggs hidden for the Easter egg hunt under a blanket of snow. Mother nature the trickster in all her glory.

The Child archetype is one I need the most right now. It’s easy for us adults to lose some inner vitality. When we get stuck in “what will probably happen” the well-worn patterns of how things usually go, how we need things to go to keep the bills paid, the gutters clear, to present a professional persona at work that folks can trust and depend on. In a hard year like this one, we need not only our adult self who can figure out how to make an online vaccine appointment, but we also need the child archetype who has a wisdom our adult self has forgotten.

I loved that story from Susan’s reading, of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung trying to get in touch with his inner child. After thinking about it, analyzing it, with no success[iii], he had to get down on his hands and knees and start building things out of blocks. This is not always easy. Adults are used to being good at things, at being competent and in control, and if we truly take up the inner child, we might appear a bit foolish.

I remember being, maybe 7, and coloring in my Winnie the Pooh coloring book. I remember the satisfaction of just filling in the shapes with my crayons, and enjoying the result. I hadn’t really drawn anything since, because my adult self knows I’m “not good at drawing” and I don’t have any training or experience. Like the child in our Panda story today, I decided to put aside drawing something perfect, and just drawing “my own way” to reconnect with that satisfaction I got coloring when I was little. I don’t post my drawings on Instagram or anything, if I’m really pleased I might show one good friend, because I have made a decision that I’m not trying to make good art, I’m just trying to give my inner child an opportunity to play.

I think part of the reason I like yoga so much is because you get to roll around on the floor. Adults are definitely not supposed to roll around on the floor- unless you have your yoga outfit on and you are exercising, then it is perfectly okay.

I was at the lake with my husband last weekend, and he was throwing rocks into the lake. This was what he did with his grandfather when he was little, he explained, his grandfather took him down to the edge of the Susquehanna and they would throw rocks into the water together. And I was glad his inner child had come out to play.

What does your inner child love? What does it need right now? Our poor inner children have been trapped inside being responsible for so long. Spring is calling us out to play. There are so many opportunities for stomping in the mud, for digging in the dirt. Before long we will be able to pick dandelions and make dandelion chains. I remember endless battles over whose turn it was to swing in my friend’s hammock that lasted all summer long. There are plenty of things our inner child can do inside too- making forts, decorating Easter eggs, playing with play-doh or Legos or Lincoln logs. I invite you to ask yourself, what were you drawn to as a child? What was the activity you could not tear yourself away from when your parents called you for dinner? As your minister, I encourage you to find time this week to check in with the child archetype; what would delight them right now? It doesn’t have to make sense, or be useful or productive. Experiment, try a few things and see what feels most delightful. If you feel foolish you are probably on the right track.

We need our child archetype not only for the health and wholeness of our spirits, but for the health and wholeness of our society as well. When adults lose hope looking back at the history of racist policing in this country, and lose heart that real change is possible, the inner child fills the sidewalk with brightly colored professions of love for black lives and of hope for a better world.

We have all had a challenging year, and even with the days getting longer and the vaccinations proliferating, we are not so naive as to think life will all be smooth sailing from here. The April fool invites us to hope despite the knowledge of winter, to invite our child to play despite feeling foolish, to take that leap forward into an unknown future, knowing life needs both the predictable and the unexpected to unfurl her creativity. Invite the fool, the trickster, the Child out to play. 




[iii] I twice went over the details of my entire life with particular attention to childhood memories; I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be the cause of my disturbance. But this retrospection led to nothing but a fresh acknowledgement of my own ignorance. Thereupon I said to myself, “Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” This I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Our Historic Year Together

 Today we are talking about the history of our congregations. It’s important to realize that this time right now, this moment, will be written about in history books, and in the history of our congregations. I wonder what our church histories will say? Maybe something like this:

“On March 11, 2020, the World health organization declared that Covid was not just an outbreak, it was a pandemic. The people did not know what to do. They had never experienced anything like this before. Wash your hands, the news said. Don’t shake hands or hug when you meet people in public, maybe just bump elbows. When our congregations heard about the outbreaks in Washington, in New York, we wondered, “surely this doesn’t impact us, those places are so far away”. But each day the news got scarier, and we thought “just to be safe” let’s not have church this week. And maybe next week too. Then this whole thing will blow over and we can go back to normal. The grocery stores ran out of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Things felt far from normal.

The churches had heard of Zoom, and some of the people had even used it, but it was hard and confusing. “let’s try” the people said; it’s hard to be apart and maybe this will help. And so the people who knew how to use Zoom helped the others.

Things got bad first in New York state, especially near the city. The government asked people not to meet in big groups. “But we are small” said our congregations “Small enough to be under the limits, small enough to stay 6 feet apart” “but some of us are immune compromised” said the people, it wouldn’t be fair for some of us to meet and others to have to stay home.

The minister said, “I know 2 other congregations who are really great - I think you would like them. Their congregations are small too. If we are going to do this hard thing, of not meeting in person, and learning to meet on Zoom, why not do it together?“

And so they did. They came together to support one another on Zoom, and though they missed each other terribly, they were amazed that even worshiping on their computers and phones helped a little. They were amazed that they met new people who soon felt like old friends, because they were doing a hard thing together.

They shared not only worship but goodie bags, and technology, and music and anti-racism work and picnics and bonfires. They shared their joy of graduations and new grandchildren; they shared their sorrow as loved ones died.

They liked collaborating so much they went visiting distant congregations together. Though they were stuck at home, the people visited places and saw things they never would have seen in the before-times. 

 Most importantly they shared hope, when hope was hard to find. They shared caring.

Perhaps the historians of this time will say something like that, adding “That is why to this day we give thanks to our fore-parents who lived through the Covid 19 pandemic, that they kept our congregations going, that they kept each other going through that hard time.”