Wednesday, January 27, 2021

When Words are Not Enough

What does it mean to you when we light our chalice each Sunday? 
 We heard the story about where it comes from, and what it was meant to mean at the very start- “we are here to help”. It has been a beacon of hope. A symbol of our commitment for working for justice. If you were to pull out our hymnal right now and search under chalice lightings, you would see that authors have compared it to:
  • the light of truth, 
  • the warmth of community, 
  • the fire of commitment,
  • The lamp of our heritage
  • Spark of the universe that warmed our ancestral hearth
  • The flame of ongoing life in our time of grief
Did any of those jump out at you as “Yes, that’s it”? Did any seem strange or wrong?

When I was a little girl sitting in the sanctuary of my childhood Unitarian Universalist church next to my family, I wondered “but what does the chalice REALLY mean?”
Here’s the thing about symbols, it means all of those things at the same time, and more besides.
To me, since we have been meeting by Zoom, I love seeing folks light their own chalice in their own homes- the UU Diaspora. It is a strong symbol that we are connected in purpose, in community even when we are apart.

With shared symbols, like a chalice, there are public meanings. When the chalice logo was first created, it had a shared public meaning of help to refugees. When you and I see it on a website or email from the UUA we know “this is from the UUA” As simple as that. Back when we used to go to General Assembly in person, we would wear our chalice pins and t-shirts as we traveled, and as we got closer and closer to our destination, we could pick out our fellow UUs and greet each other like old friends.

But a symbol also has private and personal meanings. For me, the lighting of a chalice means something important and sacred is about to happen. One new UU who was a retired Episcopalian priest, thought of the communion chalice when he first attended a UU worship, and was blown away by the symbol of drinking the flame.

A really good symbol has room for many meanings and grows in meaning over time. Our chalice holds within it every time we’ve ever lit a chalice. It connects us to UUs who come before us and after us, it also touches other kinds of candles we’ve lit, even the campfires we’ve gazed into.

Sometime when there are intangible, abstract things we want to talk about, to communicate with others or just to make sense of our own reality, a symbol can help. As UUs we don’t have a lot of symbols, but the world is full of symbols that can support us in our meaning making.

Since the start of this pandemic, there has been a kind of waiting, a kind of in-between time as we hope for a future when Covid doesn’t constrain our lives. People talk about going back to what it was like before, but I suspect that our future will feel quite different. Take a moment now, and think what this time has been like for you… are there words or images that you use to describe it? That help you make meaning of this time?

If a word or image doesn’t come to you, don’t worry about it, (sometimes it takes me days to come up with a good image) but as you hear other people’s words and images, try them on- do any seem right to you?

One word for an in-between waiting time is a “liminal” time; the word liminal comes from a Latin word for threshold, for the cross piece in the bottom of a door way. A liminal time is like hovering one foot over the threshold, crossing between one space and the next. [i]

Let’s play with that image for a moment- try it on. Imagine a closed door, locked. Where are the places in our lives when we come up to a locked door and batter ourselves against it? A door that opens, we peek through, wondering at what’s on the other side? Are there moments in your life that have felt like an open door? Or crossing through that threshold, leaving one space and entering another?

Today I’m not being too picky about the difference between a metaphor and a symbol. But I liked this description of a symbol: “a symbol is used as a stand-in for a much more complex, and generally more abstract, idea.”[ii] Like a liminal space-- that’s pretty complex and abstract. And when we use a symbol like “threshold”, it reminds us that our specific experience right now, is like something tangible and concrete – we all have a lot of experience of doors from our daily life. That symbol also helps us feel connected to every other person, every other in-between time anyone’s ever experienced. It’s like a node, a point of connection that could help me look at my situation, at our situation in a bigger way, from many different directions. When I read Jan Richardson’s poem Blessing the Door, it showed me something that helped me make meaning of my own experience- not one door that you go through but many doors. I felt a sense of “aha” when I read that- it feels real to me that we don’t just step through one door and everything changes. It gave me a new way of looking at things.

The idea liminal space feels right to me for this time, but the door symbol doesn’t capture all of it, because we’ve been in it SO LONG, and the way forward is so unclear. Let me offer a poem by our UU poet Lyn Ungar that she wrote early in the pandemic called Twilight.

When I read that poem I felt “aha- yes, I know what that’s like”- feeling turned around, and not knowing if things are getting better or things are getting worse- wandering in the half light. And I think it must be how other people have been feeling too, because I noticed in the inauguration ceremony and festivities how many artists used images of sunrise, of dawn. Bon Jovi sang “Here comes the sun” on a pier in Florida, as the sun rose behind him. John Legend sang Nina Simone’s lyrics in front of the Lincoln memorial: “It's a new dawn/ It's a new day / It's a new life for me, / And I'm feeling good.”

And when our poet laureate Amanda Gormin ended her inaugural poem with these words:
“when the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
I know I was not the only person whose eyes filled with tears imagining dawn blooming, “if only.”

Dawn seems a universal symbol for us humans- it speaks of a fresh start, of new life, of hope. If you’ve ever been up all night worrying or ill, a night that feels like it will never end, there’s a kind of relief that comes when the sun finally begins to rise. When I was on sabbatical last year I committed to the practice of waking up before dawn and watching the sunrise. I can tell you that not all dawns are the same, but if the weather is mild, the birds are there too, in gathering number, and a growing chorus of song. Some birds are up getting breakfast or doing whatever work birds do in that crepuscular time, but I swear to you there are always birds that are just sitting still on a branch, for what seems to be the sole purpose of witnessing the sunrise. Dawn is a powerful symbol for humans of something intangible and complex -- what it feels like to make it through a hard night, and the relief, and hope and awe that comes with the return of the sun.

I heard a lot of words this week amid the pomp and circumstance, words that people worked hard on, and most of them I forgot immediately. But my spirit responds to the idea that “the new dawn blooms”, it gives my soul something to hold on to. I encourage you as our service comes to a close, to choose a symbol that feels helpful to you- one that names where you are right now, or where you’d like to go. Keep it by you in the coming week, in a physical way if possible. Light a chalice, get up early for sunrise, pause as you cross through a doorway, find a picture of your chosen symbol online and make it your wallpaper on your phone or computer …whatever feels interesting to you. (Of course as UUs you can always pass- you can choose no symbols of all if that feels most authentic). Even symbols we share with others are highly personal- you get to decide what is meaningful to you. Like a light on the horizon, symbols give us light to navigate by in unmapped times. Today I’m imagining a new dawn, and go out hopefully to meet the day.
End Notes
[i] liminal (adj.)- "of or pertaining to a threshold," 1870, from Latin limen "threshold, cross-piece, sill" (see limit (n.)) + -al (1). Related: Liminality.


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Freely Given

I grew up with the commandment from the Jewish and Christian scriptures[i] saying “though shalt not steal.” The Buddhist Precept says “Do not take that which is not freely given.” I suspect most religions include some sort of admonition against stealing, but recently I’ve been curious- is this a difference that makes a difference? I think it does. When I thought about what stealing meant as a child, I imagined shoplifting, or a bank robber. As an adult I learned about more subtle kinds of stealing, like wage theft, or tax fraud. In our culture we talk about “taking what is rightfully mine” or “what I deserve.” But how do we define what is rightfully mine? In a country where the laws themselves have injustice and racial bias woven into them, just following the law may not be the most ethical position. If we consider the precept “do not take that which is not freely given” we are asked to consider not only whether I need something, or have a right to it, but the wishes of the one from whom I take it.

As a congregation committed to ethical living, I think it’s important to challenge our ethical thinking with new perspectives. I want to offer just 2 examples today of where this might make a difference, but I encourage you to get curious and notice where there is a difference in your daily life and in the news of the world. I suspect you will find many more than 2.

The First example I want to offer today is about how we use Art and Music. Many of you know that I grew up in a family of musicians, so I know first hand that many musicians and artists struggle to make ends meet. There are very few salaried positions in the arts, and very few gigs pay enough money for artists to actually live on.

Since the time of Covid, things have been desperate for many musicians. I have a conductor friend who was one of the lucky ones making sustainable living in music, and had her calendar booked for years out. She posted on Facebook last spring as each one of her contracts was cancelled, and she looked out over a year or more with no discernible source of income. Musicians are a vulnerable population right now.

The internet is full of amazing music just a click away. If you play it on Spotify, or other streaming services, it returns some fraction of a penny to the artist. Some music on YouTube provides artists with a small advertising revenue if it has enough views. Other music is illegally posted and the artists never see a penny. How we compensate musicians for their labor is a big spectrum from “what can I get away with” to “how does the law define stealing” to “what do the artists who created this piece of music need to live.” 
Katie, our gifted pianist
Our worship team has generally made the decision to receive in gratitude the live performance
by Katie each Sunday, or to hire Brin to play for us, rather than playing videos. The UUA has encouraged Worship teams to ask artists directly for permission to use their work. When we used Lang Elliot’s bird sounds last spring, it was after I wrote to him and asked his permission to use it in worship, and purchased his album. I wrote a note to the author of today’s reading through the messaging app on Facebook, and we had a good conversation about how I would use her story, before she gave me permission to read it here today to you all. I was looking for more information about our song of the month, and found on the UUA site this “If you choose to sing his music or show Jim Scott's video in your online worship service, Jim kindly requests that you make a goodwill financial contribution, via PayPal, using the link on his website.” The worship team talked, and decided that playing his video today, and making a donation was a good way to support one UU musician, and by honoring his specific request, to practice only taking that which is freely given.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Brin

Now let’s take look at the systemic issues in the music industry. There is a long history of people stealing, borrowing, co-opting, or otherwise using the cultural products of artists who may live a life of poverty, despite creating a hit song that makes millions for someone else. There is a history of racial injustice specifically in the American recording industry that really pushes this point of how Secular America defines stealing, and what it would mean to take only what is freely giving.

In “Race & Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic.” Charles Gallaher and Cameron Lippard explain that white owned record companies had a practice of paying artists a flat fee for their songs, instead of paying royalties. “Unfamiliar with U.S. copyright laws, the artists would sign the contract, collect the fees — and lose all ownership rights (hence, future royalties) to the song.” They offer the example of Fred Parris, who wrote the song “In the Still of the Night,” which sold between 10 million and 15 million copies. If he had been offered a standard contract, he might have made $100,000 in royalties. Instead they paid him a flat fee of $783. Ahmet Ertegen, the founder of Atlantic Records, remembers a Columbia Records executive who said their company never paid its black artists royalties.

In R&B, Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music, editor Norman Kelley describes a time in the ’50s when this practice was rampant:
“Often catapulted to success from a neighborhood street corner or, like Little Richard, from a bus terminal kitchen where he was washing dishes, black musicians seldom had access to good advice about record contracts, royalty payments, marketing, promotion, or career development. As a result, they were routinely swindled out of their publishing rights and underpaid for record sales.”[ii]

Certainly there are artists who have had their intellectual property stolen, in the traditional sense, but this injustice – where white corporations made millions while the actual songwriters made a few hundred dollars- this was completely legal. It was entirely legal to offer your white artists royalties, and to offer black artists a one time payment withholding the information that it was standard for artists to receive royalties, and that the record company stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars form the song you recorded.

Now I’d like to shift to a 2nd example – how might we, a faith that “honors the wisdom of the world’s religious” approach those religious ideas, practices, sacred texts, in a way that is respectful, in a way that takes only what is freely given. This can be a little confusing to us, who grew up in a culturally Christian country, because every hotel room has a Gideon’s bible. Christianity is an evangelizing faith, Christians believe they are called to share the good news far and wide: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” - Mark 16:15. I feel like I have clear consent to quote Christian scriptures in worship.

I was taught in UU Sunday School, that when we visit another faith community, we always ask before we take part of their private traditions. The answer is often yes but not always - some communities require a Christian Baptism to participate fully, other Christian traditions require a particular training or status. When I applied to the Spiritual Director training program I warned them that was UU, and still they welcomed me warmly. The teachers and other participants were mostly vowed religious priests and nuns who know something about contemplation and the movements of the spirit that comes from centuries of wisdom and is just not part of what we UUs have to teach. I have been repeatedly moved by their generous inclusion and grateful for the traditions and wisdom they have shared with me, which have changed my life in powerful ways.

But just because those communities of liberal Catholic contemplatives have freely shared their gifts with me, doesn’t mean every tradition is mine to explore. For example, some of the ways UUs use Jewish tradition in worship that feel like microaggressions to Jewish people. This is why as a UU minister you will never hear me lead the Jewish prayers in our worship – if there are Jewish members of our congregation who want to lead the prayers, we are delighted to accept their gift freely given. But if some year our Jewish members don’t want to take a leadership role, or tell us it feels weird or wrong to, for example, light Hanukkah candles in the daytime at our Sunday service, we will respect that too.

This is particularly problematic in our relationship to the spiritual practices and teachings of indigenous traditions. Why? Because peoples of those traditions tell us so. Native traditions do not tend to be evangelizing, they tend to be closely tied to a particular place and a particular community. Some native folks say “you have taken so much from us already, why must you take our private sacred traditions too?” Now of course Indigenous peoples don’t speak with one voice, and there are lots of different opinions about how and with whom culture is shared. So we ask every time “May I?” and we respect the answer.

It occurs to me that the idea of “only taking what is freely given” is a lot like the important dialogue going on in our culture about what does “consent” mean. The organization “Breakthrough” believes fighting for the rights of women and girls begins with changing culture:
“We create ‘consent culture’ when we value the feelings of people we are interacting with either casually or professionally. It’s about respecting each other’s personal and emotional boundaries every time...
“Consent culture goes beyond sex and applies to everyday interactions- from sharing a photo of someone online, to asking before giving a hug. Consent should be voluntary, enthusiastic, sober, verbal, non-coerced, continuous and honest.” [iii]

I think this is a great rubric to understand what is “freely Given” “Voluntary, enthusiastic, sober, verbal, non-coerced, continuous and honest.” That “continuous” – that’s an important point. It means that consent can be taken away. That what was once freely given, may no longer be, so we keep asking. Consent is specific, and we ask each step of the way.

I attended a virtual workshop about ancestor practices with Enroue Halfkenny, and he spoke to us about cultural appropriation. He was very clear when he lead us in a particular practice- this is for your use, he said, this is not for you to teach or share. I could say “I paid to attend that webinar, that’s mine now to use as I want” but that would not be freely given.

This can be disappointing. When someone answers "no" to a request I made, it sometimes feelse terrible;  I felt ashamed, angry, righteous, all the things. If I want something, and I feel like It is reasonable, and someone tells me “no” I have a choice to make.

In 2016 our Coven of UU pagans wrote a statement about their commitment to consent culture:
“Consent culture is a culture in which asking for consent is normalized and encouraged. It is respecting the person's response even if it isn't the response we had hoped for. We will live in a consent culture when we no longer objectify people and we value each other as human beings."[v]
That’s really where the rubber hits the road- “even if the response isn’t the response we hoped for.” I’m not sure what we would have done for worship that Sunday if Lang Elliot hadn’t given us permission to use his bird sounds, or if Jessica Chase had not given us permission to share her daughter's moving story this morning. But that is our challenge as a community dedicated to ethical living, to wrestle with the subtleties of what I can and should take, and what is freely given.

The Buddhist precept “do not take that which is freely given” seems to me to harmonize beautifully with our UU values, and challenges us to stretch ourselves ethically. So I invite you as you go about your week, to notice this spectrum of ethical living- from “what can I get away with taking” to “what is mine by law and by right” to “what is freely given?” I believe that we Unitarian Universalists are called to manifest and grow a culture of consent. To empower one another and even our little children to ask “may I?” and to be willing to listen to the answer even when it is “no” even when it is disappointing to us. And like the wise people at CraigPokesU, may we have the wisdom and the courage to step back graciously when consent is not given, or withdrawn, and may we have the wisdom to accept gratefully all the wonderful gifts that are freely given.

End Notes
[i] I want to note that if you read the wise commentaries of Jewish Scholars on the scripture, they will also give a much more nuanced interpretation of the commandment not to steal[i], so I’m not really comparing the Jewish and Buddhist teachings, but our popular American definition



[v] From <>


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Like a Clear and Quiet Sky

Whether we every imagined being a monk or a hermit, all of us who are limiting our contact with the world in a time of Covid are experiencing a bit of that cloistered life. I suspect all of us are learning that without some of the usual activities of life, our inner thoughts and feelings are unavoidable. I am one of those folks who has, from time to time , wondered what it would like to be a monk, and I often have books of monks or hermits on my meditation table. Those folks who have chosen to live of separation, of renunciation for spiritual reasons, no matter what tradition, they all acknowledge that this is not an easy life. They have known for thousands of years what you and I are learning, that once you have removed some of the distractions, we have no choice but to face ourselves fully.

Thomas Moore, who lived in a very traditional monastery for 13 years writes:

“The life of the monk seen through sentimental eyes can be easily misunderstood. It’s a tough life, in which sensitivity to interior thoughts and feelings are intense, and a similar attention to the presence of others in the community makes relationship particularly challenging. In modern life it may appear that real work is located in the heroics of surviving and succeeding in the world. For the monk the challenge is in nonheroic intimacy with oneself, others and the world.”

As we wait the rollout of the vaccine, for a time when we can let go of some of the restrictions on our cloistered lives, perhaps it would help to think of ourselves as accidental monks, and just notice what it is like to live in this non-heroic intimacy with ourselves and others.

The other day a friend mentioned that her thoughts are like a bunch of threads she wants to untangle, but that she never seems to be done. Another friend mentioned that her mind defaults to a running commentary about her inadequacy. Some of us worry endlessly about the future, especially in times like these when the future is so clearly uncertain, others tend to try to make sense of the past. All of that is very normal Buddhist teachers have long talked about the “monkey mind” – it naturally leaps and is distracted by shiny things.

I want to invite you to just take a moment and notice what your thoughts are doing right now. Just notice- are they about the past, or the future? Are they fast or slow? What feelings do you notice?

So the part of us that notices our thoughts, that’s called the observer. Sometimes just noticing our thoughts, just noticing “I’m remembering the past” or “I’m planning for the future” or “I’m feeling impatient right now” can help us get a bit of space from those thoughts and feelings. Instead of getting totally hooked or caught up in those thoughts, I notice that I’m not those thoughts, I am the one observing those worried thoughts about the future. I am the one observing feelings of impatience.

A monk’s life is very orderly- time for prayer or meditation, time for work, time alone, time in community. This kind of daily structure helps provide relief for the overactive mind, and is somet6hing you might play with in our own life- there is a time in the day to make plans, a time to scrub pots or chop carrots, a time to think back and make meaning out of the past, and of course for every monk, a time that today I will call “gazing at the sky”- a time to set down all the thoughts and worries and focus on something larger, more spacious. Taking this time offers us a change in perspective that I’ve found can make a big difference in my ability to deal with the goings on in my own brain.

Our time together on Sunday morning is one such time. We have nothing else to do, no where else to be. We set aside this time together to nourish our spirits.

At the start of class, one of my first meditation teachers used to say “just allow the mind to release its contents” and I find this really helpful. Like the Jar in today’s story, the contents of our mind, of our day release and settle.

I invite you to try that with me now, starting as we often do by getting a comfortable seat, really arriving in our seat.
You don’t have anywhere else you have to be, except right here in this moment. There will be plenty of time later for planning and problem solving, Just now I encourage you to lost allow your mind to release its contents.
Let your body and mind settle into gravity, like sparkles in a jar of water
Just observe the thoughts drifting,
Return to that sensation of settling into your seat, into the ground...

Now lets try something else. Returning our mind to our comfortable seat, noticing the breath that is always happening without thought or effort.
Whatever is arising is okay.

Allow your busy mind to let go, knowing everything will be there again after the service.
If you like thank your busy mind for all it does for us.
Invite your mind on a little vacation.

Imagine you are laying on your back someplace pleasant and safe, looking up at the sky, and any thoughts and feelings are like clouds drifting though...

There’s nothing you need to do about those clouds, just notice them as they pass through your awareness...

If you were going to describe your mind like a weather report, what word or image would be kind of like the weather in your mind right at this moment?

Now I encourage you to shift your focus from the clouds to the sky surrounding them. Can you notice any bits of clear sky among the clouds? ...

Whenever a thought or feeling comes into your mind, just notice it passing by, and return your attention to the empty spaces as you are able...

Thank you for trying that with me.

When I first was asked to imagine my thoughts like clouds in the sky, I assumed that was something I could master pretty quickly, and soon I would have an empty sky whenever I called on it. Instead, after years of practice, I notice some days big patches of blue, some days little scraps of space between the clouds, and some days a storm so intense I just have to trust that the sky is there at all.

Pema Chodron, the Ordained Buddhist nun, now spiritual director of the Gampo Abbey monastery, is often quoted as saying: “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” And I have found this change of perspective makes a big difference for me. To turn my attention away from trying to get the dancing monkey to sit and behave, or the threads untangled, to noticing that in every moment the sky is there.

I asked some Unitarian Universalist ministers what their monkey mind liked to do during this pandemic, one colleague said “My brain likes to save up all the most worrying scenarios for just the moment when I have turned off my lamp and hit the pillow for the night.” I think this is a perfect example; there is some part of ourselves that really believes we can’t fall asleep until we have solved all the problems of the day, and all the problems of the future. But here in the light of morning, we can probably agree that very few problems actually get solved as we lay in bed trying to sleep. When we chose to put on our Pajamas and get into bed, some wise part of ourselves knows that it is time for sleep, and problem solving is antithetical to sleep. If we grasp at every cloud that floats by, we will never have time for sleep, and indeed, grasping and fixing just leads to more grasping and fixing. Ideas and feelings tend to generate more idea and feelings. Imagine trying to put each of the clouds in the sky into a box, and maybe to alphabetize them to keep them orderly. Instead of trying to sort clouds as we are falling asleep, the practice is simply to allow the thoughts and feelings to do what they do -- to drift by.

Of course there are truly problems to be solved in our world and in our lives. [This week especially!] We are not trying to escape into the sky. I asked a Buddhist meditation teacher once “if we are always trying to be in the present moment, how do we plan for the future?” and he replied “if we are planning for a future, then that is the activity, planning for the future. When we are done that activity we set it down.” We have the power to chose where we give our attention. There is time when we write our government officials, when we think how we could help the poor in our community. Time when we heal an interpersonal conflict, or a difficult memory from the past. And there is time every day to set down problem solving, to allow our mind to release its contents, and let the clouds drift as we turn our attention to the vast sky that holds them.

If we notice the storm clouds and they need some action on our part, but would be foolish not to close the windows, to get out our umbrella, but once we have done what we can do, we need the rest and spaciousness that comes from remembering that storm clouds come and go, that they are ephemeral and temporary, and that we are something larger and more spacious.

The monk’s life is not easy, but it has real gifts, the gifts of intimacy with your self, with community and with the world. And we are supported in that intimacy by remembering whenever we are able, that holding all those clouds is a vast sky that is always present.