Archive for November, 2017

The Peace of Wild Things

This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/26/17 for our Thanksgiving Contemplative Service. It looks at the dual nature of peace and risk in the natural world through the comic foibles of one Unitarian Universalist  minister.

“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.” – Wendell Berry

 

This culminating line to the poem about the Wild Geese by Wendell Berry is the quintessential description of spirituality. Poetry is possibly the best medium for the definition to such an elusive word: Spirituality is a word that’s better encountered, than defined. It’s a word that we can know what it is, without knowing what it means; and poetry sometimes helps us know what it means, even if we can’t readily articulate it in words.

The peace of wild things is one of those phrases that evokes a range of reactions in people. Some of us, made quite sure we’d be here today, because that phrase is the bedrock of how you do “church”, even more than Sunday morning worship. And others, maybe, have an “allergic reaction,” so to speak, to that sense of spirit – the natural world is anything but peaceful.

Both sides speak to me – in the love of the natural world, and what emanates from the transcendent made imminent – as well as the frantic New Yorker hyped up on anti-histamines, fearful of the welts mosquitoes leave, and who subsequently loves spiritual Winter hiking. The swatting of my hands to stave off the bugs, makes warm-weather hiking with me anything but peaceful.

I remember one trip that brought out both extremes for me. It was the morning of my 31st birthday. I had spent the summer working on my Spanish in Guatemala, mostly through a language school in the city of Antigua. I was ending my trip by traveling across the country, and closing it out by hiking through the jungles of Tikal. There were enclosures at various spots, so don’t think I was camping out on the ground, that would have been suicidal really – there were enough threats for anyone in the daytime waking hours.

When I got to Tikal, it was probably around 85 degrees, and I think the humidity was somewhere around 120%. This didn’t stop me in the slightest from dressing up for the occasion in the fashion that suited a person who was allergic to everything – and who upon being bitten by a mosquito will usually have welts the size of quarters. I put on jeans, and boots, t-shirt, covered by a long sleeve shirt, covered by a hoodie (which of course was up the whole time I was in the jungle.) Guatemala also, thankfully, has more lax laws on how much deet that can go into bug spray. I was covered in it – on my skin, on my hoodie, on my belt and my boots. The peace of wild things is all good, as long as they aren’t crawling on me.

I recall seeing all sorts of insects I’ve never seen before or since, from giants ants with tiger striping on them, to the lovingly placed spider webs at head height with spiders the size of your fists in them. I only walked into three or four of those nests. Probably the most disturbing, was a moment with my small group, where I was a few feet ahead and the air in front of me started to waver – it took on a fuzzy appearance – much like the old static on black and white TVs for those that remember them. It was maybe five feet in front of me. I asked the local tour guide, what was I looking at? I honestly couldn’t interpret what I was seeing – it was so absolutely new to me. He casually said – “oh, those are army ants on the march. You should probably take a step back now.” (You should probably take a step back…)

Maybe this is the Unitarian Universalist in me – and our fervent anti-creedalism – but any theology centering the peace of wild things – needs to also make room for army ants five feet in front of you. It’s nice to say, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you, but that’s not vaguely true. Sometimes you’re just very lucky.

Spirituality that pretends we have more control than we do, may be comforting, but it’s not deeply rooted. You probably haven’t been so close to actual army ants on the march, but most of us have faced far worse in our personal lives up close, and lived to see the other side of it. Or maybe you’re facing such a travail right now. If you can, maybe you should take a step back. Some things aren’t meant to be faced head on….We’re not always, or even usually, in control of the big things of life….

“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way…”. The peace of wild things is about abandon, and faith. It’s the very opposite of control. What is essential is all around us, but we don’t achieve it by our strivings, we come to it with abandon, as in love or sleep.

On that fateful morning of my 31st birthday, in what in hindsight appears to have been an attempt to activate every one of my primal fears and terrors, right before sunrise, we climbed up on one of the step pyramids in Tikal. It would be later in the day, when I found myself clinging 50 feet up to a ladder that was needed to access a tier where the steps had eroded – paralyzed for a solid five minutes – where another guide would again casually comment later, “oh yes, we added that in a few years ago when some German tourist fell to their death.” But I didn’t know that fact yet. Hanging from that ladder was the very moment in my life when I learned the deep truth that you don’t always have to prove you can do something.

In the first pyramid we climbed though, much of the hillside had been left intact from a dig, and you could gradually climb to the top like you would any other hiking trip in hill country. Scary for some of us, but still doable. In my undergraduate years, in addition to religion, I dual majored in anthropology and archaeology and focused on ancient Mesoamerica. I was not going to miss this chance to see the world from that ancient angle – not because of a hill.

So as I was sitting up top, as the sun was rising, about 50 feet above the tree line of the jungle – you could look out and see for miles and miles – with other step pyramids peeking out from the tree-line. When, with what seemed to be spontaneous generation, dragonflies began appearing all around. They were waking up to feed in the early morning light – but I could not see where they were coming from. Just more and more were in front in the blink of an eye. Easily 30 or 40 dragonflies whipping about within fifteen feet of where I was sitting. It was one of the most magical moments in my life. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. I did not know where they came from, or notice where they went, but for a time, they were all that I could see.

May we attend carefully to the moments that come swiftly, unbidden, in new and unexpected ways. Those new moments to our clear eye, and our quieted heart, are the ancient faith, found in abandon; abandon of our worries, and our thoughts, our accomplishments, and our fears. Letting go, to let a little more of life in, much like as in love or sleep.

Amen and Blessed Be. And I’m glad to say this was the first, and only hiking excursion I’ve gone on in the warm weather months, where nothing succeeded in biting me.

 

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Hunger Communion 2017

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/19/17 as part of our annual Hunger Communion service reflecting on the reality of hunger in our world. This sermon reflects on my own journey of dealing with 40 days of pain from migraines.

 

I’m generally not too prone to headaches. But earlier this week I had to endure a day and half long migraine, that had moments where it receded, but I went to sleep in pain, and woke up in pain. I made a comment about it on Facebook, and those who follow me there began sharing their own stories of enduring long periods of pain. Sadly, some of us live with this reality off and on for years at a time. And we slog on, often with the people one step outside of our immediate circle never knowing it’s going on.

Fortunately, I haven’t had a migraine in years. But my last one, about 7 or 8 years ago, was a true nightmare. It lasted for exactly 40 days straight. It was debilitating. I couldn’t really go out. I couldn’t manage night meetings, a staple of ministry these days. I would dose up on ibuprofen, or the like, and do my best. Short meetings; short ventures into email; ear-buds in my ears while navigating the loud subways. People were largely respectful – almost all of us have had a bad headache, but after a week or two of them, you start to see it in the person’s eyes, and folks go gentler around you.

I saw my doctor and had tests after a week of it going on. Blood-work, then a specialist, then cat scans or ct scans, I think I even had an EKG done at one point. Medications would shift between visits. Can’t even recall what they put me on these 7 or so years later. As one week, turned into three and then 5 weeks, I was very much at my wits end. Everyone in my life had recommendations that would make things better: From sleep (which was hard when the head felt like a nail was behind your eye), to exercise (even though I was an avid walker who back then did 3-9 miles a day,) to herbal remedies, and on and on. Nothing worked.

My third visit to a neurologist had her scratching her head wondering what it could be. Thankfully, all the very serious matters, like cancer, were ruled out. Desperate, and what felt like on-a-whim by her (though I’m sure it wasn’t a whim to this top speciliast), she said, “let’s try this one other thing. Not sure that it’s going to do anything, but it won’t hurt and we’re running out of next options.” She hooked me up to an IV and for the next ten minutes, gave my blood an infusion of magnesium. …The pain ceased immediately…. It was quite literally on day 40, that my wandering through the medical world with a largely incapacitating condition, found a way out.

I was immensely grateful. I could think again. The inner new Yorker in me, wondering why we couldn’t have started with that simple remedy 40 days sooner, but I wasn’t going to complain. It was over.

Earlier this month, Greta spoke about Sabbath as a counter cultural spiritual practice that’s not only healthy for us, but empowers us as citizens  to remain engaged and to have the energy not to be complacent. Being exhausted makes us vulnerable to so many other things in life. In the ministry, we’re trained with buzz words like, self-care, and healthy boundaries. Like most of us these days, it’s quite easy to slip into perpetual exhaustion mode and become vulnerable to illness, or emotional fatigue, or migraines. Especially when the world around us seems to be spiraling further and further into corruption.

But rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. During my 40 days of wandering with a migraine from doctor to doctor, I was getting rest, I was exercising more than my average neighbor – at least by what I could still do with the pain – walking. I did take days off, like a normal human being. But my body was missing something, a nutrient. That’s on my mind today as we celebrate our annual Hunger Communion service. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients.

As a twenty-year vegetarian, before adding a small amount of fish into my diet somewhere around three years ago, I often had people worry for my health. How can you ever get enough protein? Oddly enough, for most of us vegetarians, protein isn’t the thing we’re likely to be missing. We need a lot less than American Steakhouses would like you to think. I wound up adding a small amount of fish to my diet, not for protein, but to help with good cholestrol. But we have to be intentional around getting all the vitamins and minerals found in meat too. That was the problem with my migraines.

We live in relative privilege in this area – at least compared to our global neighbors. And I say that with the caveat that too many Long Islanders are living paycheck to paycheck, and on food stamps, as we spoke of earlier in the service. We have food pantries right here in Huntington for the people of Huntington. It’s not a distant problem. We don’t all have it even vaguely easy. But I’m grateful that even when I started in my career, I had access to a range of specialists, even if it took 40 days for a resolution. That’s not a given for all of us, and in every part of the world.

Our ritual earlier draws this to our attention. Our congregation this month is taking up collections on the related crisis of access to water to support our global ministries in this effort – and as we spoke of earlier, access to water in some parts of the world, means access to education. It’s all interconnected. And many of us help grow food for our neighbors during the warm weather months. That is what we can do. That is what we can do to stave off hunger, as we prepare for our annual celebration of gratitude over a shared meal that many of us will stuff our stomachs and our faces to capacity with family or with friends, or if we’re very lucky, family who are also our friends. That’s not always a given. And if you’re available this evening, at 7:30pm at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenlawn, I’ll be taking part again in the 46th annual Huntington Community Thanksgiving Service. The church is at 497 Pulaski Rd, in Greenlawn. In this world with seemingly increasing division and discord, it’s a beautiful opportunity to worship with many different religious communities. The collection will go toward the local food bank.

But to return from this important aside, rest, and healthy boundaries are not always enough. Rest, good work, and healthy life habits only go so far, if you’re missing basic nutrients. We’ve focused this service on practical or earthly nutrients. But amidst all the stress and strain of our political landscape, there are other kinds of nutrients we seem to be missing. And it’s causing us all a lot of pain. I’m thinking of role models, first and foremost. It seems that almost no one in the public eye is safe from scandal, abuse, or perjury any more. We’ve increasingly fixated on the Television, the paper, the big screen, and now-a-days social media – to see images of people to look up to. Some role models are still safely around, but this distant form of consumption is often hollow. We need real people, with real connections, in our immediate lives. That’s what religious community is about. That’s why so many of us volunteer for our Long Island UU children and youth summer camp – Fahs. We can disconnect from the frantic pace of the ten thousand things, and connect back into real healthy human relationship. I’m not knocking social media – it’s kept me connected in real ways with a lot of people. But when we project onto the wider genre of media all our needs – or our most important needs – I’m concerned we’re missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals.

If you’re exhausted, and frayed, and pulled in 10 different directions – so you can’t find time for a spiritual practice – you’re going to be missing some essential spiritual vitamins and minerals. There’s a famous quip from a Rabbi that said he prayed every day for an hour – except for when he didn’t have the time – on those days, he prayed for two hours. Our calendars are spiritual documents. Take a look at your calendar some time today – whether it’s on your phone or on your kitchen wall. Does it look like a work document, or a document for your own life? Variety, human connection, work, family, giving back to your community – those are all part of balanced living. It’s not just about setting healthy boundaries – it’s also about getting more of what your heart, and your head, and your soul need in this one precious life.

What are you missing in your life right now? Think back to a time, or a hobby, or a practice, that fed you. It probably wasn’t an achievement, or a thing to further your career – but maybe for you it was that too. Definitely not an obligation or a chore. I think by now you all know that I’m a big ol’ gamer geek. I love science and fantasy, and all things mythic. For years, I had a regular weekly gaming group I played with – and by years, I mean starting from the age of 12 and it only really stopped about 5 or 6 years ago. It had no productive value. Pure creativity and fun, plus I got to hang out with friends doing something we all enjoyed. Well, work demands, and living further from those friends, finally put and end to a hobby that I loved for 24 years. Driving from Brooklyn or Long Island to Northern NJ through rush hour on a weeknight, was not for the faint of heart, or for the busy schedule.

But, after attending more and more long-distance denominational meetings via video conferencing, (and I’m seeing some of our commitees choosing to meet via video call to better manage everyone’s dense schedules) I thought “If I can host a 17 person meeting on this platform, I surely can get together with 4 or 5 friends.” A few months ago, I decided to carve out Wednesday nights, and my old gaming group welcomed me back – albeit remotely. I thoroughly swear we accomplish nothing of note. But we are very creative; we laugh a lot; and it’s 3.5 hours every week where I devote to something that’s only purpose is to feed my heart, and deepen human connection.

There’s something deeply human about creating space for being with an activity you love that serves no other person’s purpose. What is that activity for you? Hiking, boating, knitting, sports, comic con? Our life’s diet needs to be diverse, and activities we love are part of that diet. It makes everything else we do and accomplish more meaningful; but we’re not just our doings and accomplishments.

Let us close with the words of the poet Levertov’s, we heard earlier in our service, echoing in our memory, “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water to solace the dryness at our hearts. I have seen the fountain springing out of the rock wall and you drinking there.” … “Don’t say, don’t say there is no water. That fountain is there among its scalloped green and gray stones, it is still there and always there with its quiet song and strange power to spring in us, up and out through the rock.“

 

 

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