Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Breaking Open

You know what it’s like to be broken. No one gets this far into life without breaks and tears, if not in our body, then broken hearts, broken spirits. Imagine a favorite mug, used every day- it develops cracks, and stains. As we move through life we develop cracks in the self we present to the world, the self that feels competent, and in control. How brittle and easily broken our sense of who we are and what we can depend on feels in times like these. Things that used to make sense no longer can be assembled into a meaningful whole- even our sense of meaning feels fragmented.

Imagine our hearts as vessels for the movement of life, of love. Sometimes I feel as if something is pulverized in the center of my chest as I process some new loss, some new disappointment. There is pain in the breaking, and in feeling broken, and even in the mending. Pain and fear, sorrow and anger. We need our spirituality to accompany us in those places. A spirituality that would desert us in our brokenness is, itself broken.

Sometimes our breaking is precipitated by some choice or action of our own, but more often it is out of our control. Either way, we are broken not because we are bad or wrong or inadequate, but because humans are breakable. This is important- a theological point- that parts of us the feel broken are not left out of what is sacred. Our broken parts have inherent worth and dignity. Our broken parts are holy too.

Perhaps you woke this morning feeling broken- and Good for you for joining us in that tender state. I bet all of us have felt some proximity to brokenness this past year, so I want to give us a grounding in a spirituality of brokenness -- for those moments when we feel like a pile of shards.

We begin with compassion for our broken places. If you were mending a broken bone, you would put it in a sling, and treat it gently. We can all probably remember physical injuries that hurt with each jostle- an injury to the body heals more quickly, and more cleanly when we treat it with gentleness, with patience, with quiet. The broken places in our hearts and spirits need the same gentleness, patience, quiet. Compassion makes space for healing.

The path of the spirit asks us to open our hearts to our brokenness, which requires compassion and courage. We might feel unproductive, out of control, unkempt, and the first instinct is to put ourselves back together again as quickly as possible, to hold ourselves together with an act of will if necessary. Because the demands of life keep going- the kids need to be fed, the bills need to be paid, so the question is-- can we keep our hearts open, instead of doubling our defenses as seems instinctive after an injury. This takes so much courage- to be open-hearted after heartbreak, to allow our spirits to be tender when they feel crushed.

I was struck by this poem by Max Mundan who often writes about his struggles with addiction:
Why do we spend all of our precious soft?
trying to be hard
talking like we’re hard
dressing like we’re hard
pretending to be hard
moving like we’re hard
acting like we’re hard
writing like we’re hard
living like we’re hard

until we wake up one morning
and we’d give anything
to feel a little bit of

That softness is often hiding underneath our hard exterior; sometimes when we are broken there is a rare and precious opportunity to touch that soft part of ourselves that many of us have been trained to hide away. That soft, vulnerable part is sacred, is holy. A broken heart cannot be puffed up and proud, it is humble, and open to the reality of what is. If you catch a glimpse of softness, vulnerability, humility when our hearts are broken, please honor it as a blessing and a gift.

When I was on retreat, right after the death of my father, my heart felt trampled. Fortunately, I had nothing to do, nowhere else to be for a week, and so my spirit seemed to take the occasion to bring me every broken shard, of every loss that had never healed. It also brought up past mistakes I had made, failures and disappointments. I allowed myself to just be broken that week. It was the first week of Lent, as it is today in the Christian tradition, and one evening in worship the congregation repeated the response “God loves a broken and humbled heart[i].” And I felt that was speaking right to me, to where I was in that moment. I felt so broken, I was relieved by the reminder that the spirit of Love included even me. As a Universalist, I believe that the divine is a love that will never let us go, but I was amazed that even in my brokenness I was still loved by the divine in a compassion more perfect than my own heart was able to offer. And, in fact, I noticed that my heart was more open to the divine than it had been in a long time. That the hard protective coating that allowed me to move and work in the world had muted my perception of that love, but now was stripped away. [ii]

When our hearts are broken, sometimes things shine through those new openings. Many of you have spoken to me of the love that reached you in times of deepest grief - the love for the person you have lost, or the love of your family and community supporting one another in the loss. In the very place of the breaking, love is shining through.

It’s hard to keep our hearts open -- we feel so vulnerable. Jan Richardson wrote, in "Blessing for the Brokenhearted" for the first Valentines day after her husband’s tragic and untimely death:
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still,
What our heart contains, what flows through our heart, is love. When our hearts are broken, it is ironically love that helps them heal.

Other blessings can flow through those broken places too. Once, when my heart was broken by bullying, I was full of rage, and in that rage I felt truth shining through- the truth of who I was, and the truth of what life needs to thrive. For the bird in our story today it was the beauty of her song that shone through her broken places. If we leave ourselves open, even in our brokenness, we make space for something new to flow through, some gifts form outside ourselves to flow in, or some gift from deep inside we had no idea was in our depths. Some call this Grace.

Now we may feel pressure from ourselves, form our families, toward a premature closure. Sometimes people can’t bear to see us broken, and so they want us to hurry up and go back to being the person they knew before. But the miracle of healing can’t be rushed, because as we are healing, we are re-forming, like a broken bone knitting back together. We have undoubtedly experienced a sort of battlefield healing, where there is not the safety, or the time, or the compassion to stay open, and so we become smaller and more heavily defended after a break, bound up by the scar tissue that saved our lives. Let us shine compassion on these tight places, and strive to create a world where everyone has the safety, the time and compassion they need for their healing.

Even if you know in your head that healing is possible, a broken heart will never be truly the same again, and we have to first grieve the old form before we can see the new form that is taking shape. If we don’t take time to grieve, we betray the reality of that broken moment, the reality of the loss.

Like the bird in today’s story, The Wing, we can’t always be put back together as we were before the breaking, but healing in a new form is possible. Again the words of Jan Richardson, in her poem "Blessing for a Broken Vessel":
I am not asking you
to give up your grip
on the shards you clasp
so close to you

but to wonder
what it would be like
for those jagged edges
to meet each other
in some new pattern
that you have never imagined,
that you have never dared
to dream.
Sometimes, miraculously, people grow bigger and more open to life in the midst of their brokenness. I hope you have had the gift of witnessing people who have experienced great loss, transform, grow and heal beyond what can be imagined or promised. People like Jan Richardson -- whose compassionate and wise poetry has been a comfort to others in their time of great loss. In this very congregation I have known many hearts broken open.

One of the new capacities brokenness makes available to us is greater compassion. Once we know in our hearts what it is to experience a certain breakage, deeper compassion may be possible for others who have suffered a similar loss. The word compassion comes from the roots “suffer together.” I believe compassion is one of the most sacred qualities, because it connects us to one another. I have noticed this is most available when we are first compassionate with ourselves. If we harden our own hearts to our own suffering, it’s likely that hardness will ripple out to the suffering of others. If we can be brave enough to be compassionate with ourselves, to let our hearts stay open even when they are broken, we increase the odds that when finally we begin to heal, we will heal hearts and spirits that are larger, that are more compassionate than before.

Sometimes, we may find in retrospect, the veneer of control, of competence, that we prize so highly, and lost when we were broken, had been limiting who we are and how we could grow. When we break, it sometimes opens us to new truth about what it means to be alive in this world. Please understand, I’m not saying that the breaking is somehow worth it, that our losses were a necessary price for growth. As Richardson’ writes; “Let us agree/ for now/ that we will not say/ the breaking / makes us stronger / or that it is better / to have this pain / than to have done / without this love.”

Only that because we are human, loss and betrayal and pain are part of what it means to be alive. Sometimes in our pain, in our brokenness there is also a blessing, and it is worth the risk of staying open to make space for that blessing.

Our Brokenness is sacred, and the new form we take as we heal is sacred too. In fact we are breaking and healing all the time, it is part of being human, part of being alive. Have courage, friends, when your heart or spirit is broken, have courage to keep your heart open, your spirit open, your mind open however much you are able. And may we be patient, hopeful, courageous and compassionate for all who feel broken. Let us be a blessing to one another in those tender times.

[i] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm%2051&version=HCSB

[ii] I want to be careful to make a theological point here- I don’t believe that we must suffer to receive such compassionate grace. I think that kind of transactional theology has allowed us to let suffering go un addressed. We don’t earn grace through suffering. Brock and Parker do a beautiful job of explaining this in their book Proverbs of Ashes


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

A Season for Imagining

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” wrote Henry David Thoreau, Walden What does it mean to live this season right now?

The beginning of February marks the “cross quarter” – halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Is marked by “Imbolc” an ancient Celtic festival, whose name some say comes from a Gaelic word for “ewe’s milk” or “an Irish word meaning “in the belly” that marked the beginning of the lambing season, It is also called “Brigid’s Day” by the Celts in honor of the goddess Brigid, Christianized into St. Brigit’s day.

I reached out to Julie Perry, a friend of the Athens Congregation, who raises lambs in our area. She writes: “Yes, the farm cycles here in Bradford County are very similar. Most people in the area are in the thick of lambing season. ..Lambs are born with no body fat, but a fast metabolism and significant "brown fat" around the kidneys that provide the energy for warmth. Sheep milk has triple the fat content of cow's milk so they put on insulation quickly! …. Imbolc timing for lambs has their rumen (stomach) maturing to a point it can digest forage in the latter third of April ...which is right when pastures begin to green up and tolerate grazing pressure. “[i]

Julie also reminded me that right about now, tree buds are setting, and that maple syrup begins to flow any time now. On February 2 we woke to a foot of snow, and it snowed all day and into the next. The Algonquian tribes call the February full moon the “Hunger moon” because the winter stores are running low, and no new food has grown to replace it. It is a time of hibernating, of hunkering down. The air is crisp and cold, it stings my nose. Here in the twin tiers, we drink hot things like mint tea, and the last apples of fall, oranges from the south. Let’s take a moment now and share what this season is like for you- what is happening out your window? What are you tasting, breathing, drinking that feels just right to you for this season?

When I first started to observe the wheel of the year, the 4 quarters and 4 cross quarters observed by ancient and modern pagan traditions, I read about each holiday, and tried to memorize the meanings, but in any truly earth-centered tradition, we celebrate not by memory but by observation.

Since we are not raising lambs, this February 2 my family was hunkered down, in a precautionary quarantine so my son could return to school yesterday and I noticed how the season outside my window, was so like the season of this pandemic, and the season in my spirit right now- a time of waiting, of spareness, of preserving our energy. (I feel most like I am living into this season when I can curl up on the couch under a blanket with a good book and a warm dog).

As the days become longer, as vaccinations begin to proliferate, we look forward to spring. The days grow longer, and an observant eye can see the buds on the trees, But here in the North East it is way too early to plant anything.

In their wonderful book Circle Round, they write “Brigit is a time of initiation, which means becoming. We look forward to spring and summer, and start thinking about the work done in the warm time of year. We order seeds from catalogs, make plans for vacations.” [p. 125]

Since I don’t have lambs to raise or maple trees to tap, to me Brigit is seed catalogue time. If you are a gardener, this can have a delicious quality, pouring over the catalogue, imagining all the many things you’d like to grow.

This year, in particular, I believe that imaging, dreaming is important. As my community lies under a blanket of snow, and physical distancing, it is too early to plan many things- I feel like this whole past year any time I try to plan something the world changes and all my plans must change as well. But dreaming is important. Imagining is important. Like the dreams in Appelemando's story today, if we dream big colorful dreams it can help us bring color to the drab times, and light the way forward, especially when we feel lost.

Let me tell you about some of the dreams I’ve been dreaming:

I’ve been imaging that when it is safe to be together outdoors, we could build a temporary labyrinth in the yard of the old Sheshequin meeting house, and invite the whole community to join us – one household at a time- to walk the labyrinth in memory of all we have lost, and our hopes for the future. In my imagination this labyrinth is made of rainbow yarn, knit by volunteers. Will this really happen? Maybe, but the dream of it helps me imagine a hopeful time in the future.

Here’s another dream- that when it is safe for us to star meeting together again in our various buildings, we livestream our services by zoom, so all our friends near and far could join us whenever they were moved. That folks could join us for worship even when they had car trouble, even when they were recovering from some illness or injury.

Just because I’ve imagined these things and said them out loud doesn’t mean they will come true, but if I can imagine it, and you can imagine it, if a moment ever comes that the “bright colors and hues of it” will guide us together into that new place, into making real something that has only ever existed in our imaginations.

I believe the principle works for huge changes, changes that effect a whole country, or a whole globe. Consider Marriage equality. For decades people shared the dream that all people would have the right to marry, and when the moment was right it called to all the people who had seen it, who were moved by it, and reality changed, reality moved toward that dream.

If you watched Star Trek when it first came out, the tricorder was a fantastical thing, but now most of us carry a device in our pockets far more powerful than even Science Fiction could imagine.

Women’s suffrage seemed like an outlandish fantasy for almost a century, but it is an established reality for all of us in the room here today.

So today, in honor of Imbolc, as we wait for the snow to thaw, for the Covid pandemic to come under control, and time to be right for planting, let’s spend some time imagining- big things, little things. I’m going to give us about 10 minutes to do this -- to put into words or images what you’d love to see in the future. For example I suspect some of you have already imagined reunions with family, or sharing dinner with friends in a noisy restaurant. Because I believe dreams have power, we will focus on good dreams -- if they came true you’d be delighted.
  •  What have you already been dreaming of for a time when social distancing restrictions relax? For yourself? For your family? For your community?
  • Consider small dreams that seem pretty realistic, and also your biggest dreams: what would a world that was just and compassionate for people of every race and gender look like? What would a thriving ecosystem look like where all living beings could flourish look like? What kind of world would you like to live in?
  • Consider lighthearted, whimsical dreams as well- what fun and color would you love to see in the world?
  • Just dream- don’t worry about the practicalities of it just now. Who knows what the world will be like in a few weeks, or months or years. It’s the dream we are cultivating today.
Now sometimes, as when the whole town was watching Appelemando, no dreams come. If that happens for you, I encourage you to focus on what you notice in the season today. What is it like where you are right now, this very day? Make a list or a poem or a drawing of what it means to live into this season for you.

[Time for Dreaming and Noticing]

Thank you everyone for dreaming with me. May your dreams add color to your winter days and nights, may they bring us together when we are lost, and may some of them even stick, and make the world more beautiful.


[i] Julie notes: "Your domesticated grazing animals (cows, buffalo, sheep) are all "flowing milk" right now ...Predators are mostly in the woods and do not like open spaces. By the time grass is tall enough to hide a coyote or bobcat and the bears reappear, lambs, calves and goat kids are fast and big enough to out run/outmaneuver them. "

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Cancel Culture?

What shall we do when someone says or does something hateful or hurtful in the public sphere? Let’s imagine that this hurtful thing is, for whatever reason, not being addressed by our laws and our justice system. Maybe the thing is hurtful but not illegal, or maybe it falls through the cracks of our justice system because of systemic racism, or like in a case like Harvey Weinstein, our system puts more energy into protecting powerful people, than crimes against women’s bodies and spirits.

Let’s consider the case of the king in today’s story, "The Dog and the Heartless King". As king, he had the power to hoard resources. His community was organized in a way that allowed people to go hungry, and that did not hold the king accountable. Let’s imagine that the people had already filed all the appropriate petitions, had exhausted all their options, and were still hungry, suffering, starving.

The dog is a vivid metaphor for call out culture- we begin to bark, long and loud, until the king can’t stand it anymore, or maybe the king’s neighbors can’t stand it anymore, the barking creates pressure in a new way that has the potential to lead to change. Call out culture is simply that- calling out publicly a behavior we believe is harmful or hateful.

We the people have long had the power simply to stop supporting the one doing harm- to stop staying at his hotel or buying his comedy albums. If enough people withhold their financial support to hurt your livelihood, you might notice, even if you were rich and powerful.

The term “Cancel Culture” is a new phrase for this old response, one predominantly used by right wing media to describe this use of popular power to hold one another accountable.

According to the website for Adreienne Marie Brown’s Book “We Will not Cancel Us:”

“Cancel or call-out culture is a fraught topic these days. Originating as a way for marginalized and disempowered people to address harm and take down powerful abusers, often with the help of social media, it is seen by some as having gone too far. But what is “too far” when you’re talking about imbalances of power and patterns of harm?”[i]

That’s a valid question- what is too far? As we strive to live ethically, we must be cautious whenever we begin to imagine that the ends justify the means. 

Our UU Principles, simplified
So today I want to invite each of us to begin to formulate our own inner compass around call out culture, so that when we call someone out, or share a call out on social media, we do so firmly rooted in our Unitarian Universalist (UU) Values.

First, UUs believe in speaking truth to power. We’ve been speaking truth to power since Servetus, one of the thought pioneers of what became Unitarianism, stood up to Calvin in the 1500s. Part of what brought the Unitarians and the Universalists together in the 20th century as that we both believed in the social gospel- that we are called to live our beliefs in the world, in making a world in line with our values of “Justice, Equity and Compassion;” so it makes sense that if we see injustice in the world, we would name it- and now we have social media as a huge new forum to do that. Speaking truth to power is often referred to as “call out” culture- where we publicly expose the wrong steps, the hurtful and hateful actions and words of public figures, but also of everyday people. There is no question that call out culture helped push forward a cultural shift around the Me-Too movement, that like the loud barking of the dog in our story, powerful people like Harvey Weinstein, and the studios that had protected him for decades, finally had to ask “what can I do to make the barking stop?”

Now there’s a bit of a problem with my metaphor today, because as we’ve discussed before, there are many terrible example of people comparing marginalized people to animals, as “less than human”. So it might help to know that in the original story, “Sakka, the ruler of all the gods made the god Matali into the shape of a huge black hound, with four tusks each as big as a plantain, with a hideous shape and a fat belly.” [ii] so maybe it would help to think of people who ethically engage in call out culture as “people who embody the divine by barking”

And these mighty barks have indeed brought down the powerful, have caused people to look at a whole range of misdeeds they might never have looked at otherwise.

The problem comes when critique becomes click bait. I asked my husband, who loves to watch YouTube videos each time a new Star Wars movie comes out, why all the titles were like “the top 10 stupid thing about the new movie” has told me that harsh, critical titles are more likely to get clicks, and so to increase review for the Youtubers who make their livings making such videos. Our culture rewards harshness and sharp pithy jabs to what I believe is an unhealthy degree.

Call out culture can be used the same way- there are plenty of stories of an ordinary person making a bad joke, who lost their job, whose lives have been destroyed with public shaming. how might we make sure that the consequence is proportional to the crime? What should the public punishment be for making a bad joke on Twitter? And how long should it last? If that bad joke you made, and the subsequent public shaming is the first thing to come up in every Google search for decades, is there no way to be restored?

I think our Universalist values have something helpful to say about this. Something actually quite challenging and sometimes difficult to live into. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of EVERY person. Even internet trolls, even people who incite insurrection against constitutional democracy. The very foundations of the Universalist movement is that we don’t divide people into groups of “good people” and “sub-humans who don’t matter.” We believe in forgiveness, but sometimes we forgive too quickly because we hate conflict, and just want peace to be restored. In seminary we were challenged to “speak the truth with love.” As we speak truth, we challenge ourselves to do so in as compassionate and non-violet way as we are able.

Our universalist Fore-bearers also had a lot to say about restoration. They believed that every person, no matter how terrible their words or deeds, would ultimately be restored to the wholeness of God. Now, many theologians argued that you might need a good long process first to make you ready, that it might take millennia for some souls to be ready to be restored, but there was no one beyond divine forgiveness.

This reminds me of something folks are calling “call in culture”- where the point is not just to shame and hurt the one who has wronged us, but to call them to accountability, to call them to be better. Can you think of a time in your own life when someone called you in? Where someone pointed out a misstep you took, maybe a misstep that hurt someone, in such a way that your eyes were opened, and you were able to apologize and make changes so you would avoid that mistake in your future? Calling someone in is challenging, both for the person who is probably ashamed and embarrassed and defensive about what they did, and for the person who speaks the truth with love, and helps you grow in a way you can hear.

There are real dangers from demanding that all “call outs” should be transformed to “call in.” There’s a clear critique of people of privilege using “niceness” to silence dissent. Even Martin Luther King talked about this in his Letter from Birmingham Jail
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate...who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

I turned to Sonya Renee Taylor author of “The Body is Not an Apology” to help me understand how not to fall into that trap. I highly recommend her Ted Talk[iii]Let’s Replace Cancel Culture with Accountability” (It was really helpful, and I want to honor her contribution to my thinking about this sermon) She pointed out the emotional labor required to “Call in” someone who has been hurtful and hateful. Folks who face racism or misogyny or transphobia every day cannot possibly call in all those abusers, nor should they have to. Taylor uses this metaphor; if someone is stepping on your foot, you get to say “get off my foot” and if you are in pain, you might not say it diplomatically or nicely. This is really important. So often our culture has asked those being abused to take responsibility for the feelings of their abuser. If someone is on your foot, it is not your responsibility to fix them or change them or make them comfortable. May you be simply blessed with the courage and strength to say “no” to say “get off my foot.”
Image by Janet Meyer

Taylor invites folks who do have privilege in a certain situation to call in their own folks- for white folks to call in other white folks who are ignorantly or maliciously saying or doing racist things. For cisgender folks to call in cisgender folks. If you see someone stepping on feet, please say “get off their foot.”

Sonya Renee Taylor proposed the idea of “calling on” people- just naming the behavior that his hateful or hurtful, and calling on that person take responsibility for their own growth and change. Being loving and compassionate must include healthy boundaries. It must include accountability. Part of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is believing that each person is accountable for their own behavior, that each person has the capacity to grow in ethical behavior, to make amends, and when they do, to be restored to the community of beings.

As a Universalist I believe in restoration, I believe there must be a path back. I believe, with the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative that each of us is “more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I think we need to collectively imagine a path back from being called out, from being cancelled. We need to teach and practice what it means to remove our own feet and say “I am so sorry I stepped on your foot, let me take responsibility for taking dance classes, or sensitivity training, or whatever it’s going to take for me to stop stepping on people’s feet. And to ask- would you like me pitch in for your medical bills? that looks like it still hurts.” This is something we need to teach and learn and practice as a culture. Whether it’s being called out for a micro-aggression[iv] or for more serious offenses, a Restorative justice, where offender and victim are involved in a process to repair harm. That’s a complex topic, probably best kept for another day. But creating opportunities for restoration is an important part of imagining how what our UU values might be put to work in the world.

As Unitarian Universalists called to living ethically, we challenge ourselves to think beyond “what is normal” or “what is usual” in our cultural context, to “what would produce growth and health, what would be life-giving in our time?” Your context will make a difference in how you answer; is your foot so bruised you only have the strength to yell “stop?” Might you speak up with you see others feet being trampled? Do you feel moved to a longer conversation of restoration and transformation, or is it enough to say “here is what I see, and that is not okay?” This week as you hear the news, read your social media feed, or notice that family member who has a habit of stepping on feet, I invite you to wonder, “how do my UU values call me to respond? Is this a moment I feel called to speak the truth with love?

End notes

[i] https://www.akpress.org/we-will-not-cancel-us.html
[ii] http://kj6zwr.org/from-long-ago/the-dog-and-the-heartless-king/
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vCKwoee27c
[iv] https://hbr.org/2020/07/youve-been-called-out-for-a-microaggression-what-do-you-do
[v] https://restorativejustice.org/