Posts Tagged fear
This reflection was part of a multigenerational holiday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/20/15. It talks about finding hope in times of hardship.
For three years now, I’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This past Friday night, we went to see the Paul Winter Consort. Think classical music with a gospel singer, but with a global twist. Each year, guest musicians join them from around the globe. This year we heard from two Brazilian singers – in the style of basso nova and world-beat, along with an African-style dance troop with a whole lot of drumming.
The concert lives out the longest night of the year. The cathedral darkens as the moon rises and sets. Stars lighten the gothic ceiling. The classical instruments make you think whales are singing, and wolves are howling in the night. They even recreate a thunder storm with a combination of classical instruments and lighting. And the festive performance ends with the audience being invited into singing our own “Howl-alleiuh” chorus – with folks making wolf sounds of our own. But in the middle of the show, there’s an immense golden gong that gets lifted up the height of the cathedral – resounding and resounding – showing the lightening of days and the shrinking back of the night – as the sun rises once again from the darkest hour. It gives me hope and chills. And celebrating the Winter Solstice in such a multi-cultural way, honoring the music and art of people all across the world, feels especially healing, in these days of confusion and hatred for folks who are different. Joy in the face of fear is healing. Joy in the face of hatred, is saving.
This reminds me of a traditional folk tale: (tell story of “The Golden Ball.”)
Sometimes, when life gets routine, or boring, or maybe even rough, we see the amazing things in other people’s lives and wish we could have that. We can pine for brighter times and forget what gifts are right in our lives. The folk tale I just shared about the Golden Ball, reminds us that even as we look on into other people’s lives and see the shine and joy, other people may also be looking back into our lives and see something that shines all the same.
I look at our own community in these days of hardship in this season of joy. Our youth shared stories of hardship they have witnessed for people who are seen as different from others. Our own faith community teaches that every person matters, and that diversity is a spiritual value. I have felt worn down by many of the stories we hear in the world; but I am deeply heartened to know that we are part of a community that teaches these values of love, of justice, of compassion. I am deeply heartened by being part of a religious community that empowers our youth to speak love in the face of fear. We have a big shining golden ball hanging from our Fellowship windows, and there are people who look to us in wonder and gratitude. When you are feeling low or down and out before all the hardship of the world, take heart in that truth.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on March 1st, 2015. It looks at the role of “doubt” in our life of faith.
Have you ever been in a spot where you’ve got to make a decision about two or three difficult choices? You run all the options through your head over and over and over trying to make some sense of where you are with the choice. You weigh the pros and cons and find yourself unable to commit one way or the other. You then drag in as many friends as possible – if it’s a decision that’s a big deal. They all have opinions of their own; and to your great frustration they may even have opinions that agree with one another, but you still can’t be swayed by their advice. You keep seeing the other side of the issue, and the solidarity between your trusted advisors simply confirms your concerns for the opposite take. Or is that just me?
The problem is partly one of indecisiveness. Fearful of mistakes, or lost opportunities we shirk away from committing to a course of action. We paralyze ourselves before the great “what if.” I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?
I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 55 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.
Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, but their ultimate concerns theologically wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)
Universalism on the other hand was an American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.
So starting about 55 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.
Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spiritually needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.
I’m starting to feel Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t define relations – they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.
One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …
When I first converted to Unitarian Universalism 21 years ago, I was a former Catholic who in some ways was still harboring anger with the Catholic Church. I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Morristown, NJ. The congregation was overwhelmingly Humanist at the time, and although I no longer identified as Catholic, I still identified as Theist even while I was wrestling with Christianity. I joined that congregation, not because our theologies were the same, but because the community was strong and warm and faithful. They were faithful to their sense of caring for the world they lived in. They never did it perfectly, thankfully not perfectly, but they did it as best they could. Their best rubbed off on me and helped to make the place feel like home for me.
Lest one think I’m painting my first home as a paragon of the heart – no. We were largely centered in our heads, not our hearts. There were frequent arguments around theologies and there was little room in Morristown for the G word, or the J word; and H forgive us if the C word was used. We cared for one another and sought to make the world a better more just place; but the mind ran rampant and trod all over any difference of religious belief. I was in the minority as a theist, but gratefully they still carved out some space for me. The cycles of fear around talking forthrightly about how we make and understand meaning in the world though, really broke my heart. The 1990’s were a very difficult time in our religious tradition because of this. We didn’t always do so good a job in educating converts to Unitarian Universalism. We certainly didn’t always do such a good job in ministering to the pains and hurts converts were carrying with them into our pews. We also lost the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood. As a tradition, we still lose the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood.
All of these issues are complex and difficult, but I feel that part of the reason for these challenges is our aversion to dealing with the heart/mind challenge. We are hesitant to stake a mind-centered claim on our faith lest we become guilty of creeping creedalism; while ironically succumbing to the staunch certitude of not believing or stating anything. We are hesitant to speak the heart-centered truth of our faith because we may not yet have resolved all our issues relating to where we came from (even if that place we came from is Unitarian Universalism); while ironically not meeting the needs of our covenantal call to deeper relationships with one another. In combination, we risk forming a mind made up and a heart that is closed.
These two maladies have a fair bit in common, even though we often talk about the mind and the heart in very differing ways. A mind made up knows how things are, what’s true in the world, who’s correct and who’s wrong. Take a moment to think of someone in your life that relates to you in this way… (or consider who in your life do you relate to in this way) … and be present with the feelings that arise in your stomach… or the tension that rises in your shoulders and neck.. or the pressure in your head or throat. That’s what a mind made up does to the world and the people around it. It doesn’t mean that indecision is better than decision, rather it clarifies that extreme certitude is often felt as toxic to those around it. What is the thing that you are absolutely convinced of to such a degree that no amount of conversation could sway you? … What changes for the better in the world by holding onto that view?… Is there any way in which it causes harm? For the fundamentalism of the mind-made-up, a healthy reverence for doubt in our lives can be life saving – or maybe just character-saving.
A heart that is closed is a real loss. Like the mind made up, there’s little room for changing the person. Emotional and loving connections are hard to forge for the closed heart. It’s convinced that it’s too dangerous, or not worth trusting, undeserving of love from another. It carries with it a similar certitude to the mind made up. The world is a certain way, I know it, and that’s that. There’s little room once more for complexity or nuance. Either/or perspectives kill genuine relationships between family, between friends and between loved ones.
Both of these idolatries of the mind and the heart are guilty of a sort of creedalism; the kind that claims that we know best the verities of life and no one else has any capacity to better inform us. We raise up our egos, or our pain, up as little gods and thereby close ourselves off to the world. We limit our ability to encounter and play in the same reality as the rest of humanity when we lift up our own worldview. Our faith tradition teaches us not to do this; fundamentalisms of the mind, and hearts-shut-tight, are against our religious values. Or they are at least challenges Unitarian Universalism hopes to help us grow through, or for some of us, to heal from.
Let me explain this a different way. Just this week, some of you may have seen the social media controversy surrounding “the dress.” (queue slide.) What colors do you see? Who here sees White and Gold? Who here sees some shade of Blue and Black (or purple and brown?) In my own household, I clearly see White and Gold, and Brian staunchly sees Blue and Black. There is a bit of an optical illusion going on, in that the lighting in the picture plays off different genetic adaptions humans have going on in their eyes. In a later sermon in April, I’ll go into more detail about optical illusions, but this viral image was too timely to not include this week. Apparently, some of us see daylight colors slightly differently. I’ve heard this explained in a few ways, but apparently, how we biologically have adapted to day vision and night vision influences how the white light in the picture affects our interpretation of the image. Yes, two humans can see the exact same thing and see it completely differently. Households across the nation have been arguing for days over what color it actually is. (Apparently, the answer is Blue and Black when the dress is not shown with this background lighting.) But in this image, here, right now, half of us see one thing and about half see the other. And there are many people out there this week that are very worked about it; some taking one side or the other, others equally worked up about not caring about it. This quirk of human sight reveals so much about how invested we get in our opinions and beliefs.
I feel that Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey our take on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings.
Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.
And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.
Following this service will be a special Stewardship luncheon where we talk about our community. Money is certainly part of the discussion, but stewardship is also another word for community. Many of us get incredibly awkward when we speak about money. We can feel stressed about how to manage it, earn it, save it, spend it. We can feel guilty or grateful, generous or strapped. We’re all in different places, and our Fellowship respects that. But at the core of this community stewardship ministry, is the desire to get a sense of what’s on our hearts and minds; what stirs us; moves us; sustains us. How does our purpose, and our dreams, fit here and in the larger world?
Our Fellowship is really entering a time of reflection; a time of community building. Everyone should expect to be contacted by a Steward who will schedule a face-to-face visit with you. This conversation is an essential part of our community building efforts. It’s an opportunity to hear from one another and practice community. When you get that call, please be nice; be open. Remember, our Stewards are fellow members. They will be asking for your financial commitment to this Fellowship that you chose to join and support. But just as importantly, they have questions to ask you about how we are doing as a congregation – what we are good at; what we have to improve. Everyone’s input matters. All of it will be collected, analyzed, and heard for future planning. And we want you to be part of that feedback and visioning work. Your time, your skills and your financial donations are important, necessary and appreciated.
And be open. This is not about a zero sum game. We are not competing with other worthy charities to balance a line item. We’re exploring what meaning our community has to us, and asking each other – how do we support the place that we value so that it is here for each other and future generations. We’re making commitments so that our small, quirky, vital, progressive faith movement continues to keep its doors open to our children and their children, as well as future seekers who are coming for a message that allows room for our hearts and minds to be connected with integrity and purpose. We all know the injury and trauma in the world caused by a lack of a healthy reverence for doubt. Strident calls to arms – emotionally or physically – pervade our world where ideologies are allowed to rule for the sake of certitude of belief. We may not have the only answer to this, but we are fooling ourselves if we make ourselves mistakingly believe that our message is anything but life saving and life affirming in light of the world’s crises. We need to be here. The world needs our message, our muscle and our hopes. How will you be part of that hope?
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We pause in our nation this week to remember all the people, and things and dreams we are grateful for.
We try to take less for granted,
amidst a world that too often teaches us to always grasp for more.
Help us to enjoy what we have, who we know, and where we are,
before seeking to find solace in having what we do not yet have.
May this practice of gratitude teach us to war less,
to judge less,
to argue less.
May we learn to raise peacemakers,
and to welcome strangers into our towns,
and friends back into our lives where we have lost our priorities.
We continue to pray for refugees seeking a safe harbor;
may our nation’s hearts grow wisdom in their hour of need.
We pray for the people of Chicago and Minneapolis,
who struggle toward justice,
at a time where White Supremacy stretches into the light.
We hold in our hearts the people of Colorado Springs,
and the good workers at Planned Parenthood clinics across our nation.
We especially remember, Officer Garrett Swasey, who was a good man,
and a brave officer. May all the people affected find healing where they may,
and strength for the road ahead.
And may our nation cease the demagoguery that feeds fear and hatred and misunderstanding.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 9/13/15. It imagines how we can be a people of invitation.
I was swimming in a hotel pool over the Summer when a large Praying Mantis landed next to Brian and I, and she began flailing in the water. Brian went to try to push it to the edge, and I stopped him because I was worried it was going to make the insect more likely to drown. I went over to her, and put my hand under the Praying Mantis so that she could climb out. I took her over to the edge of the pool and gave her time to dry in the sun. Brian asked if I was sure this was a good idea, and I said that it was totally safe. Praying Mantis don’t bite humans, they just eat the things that do bite us.
For the next twenty or thirty minutes, the insect sat on my hand sunning herself, and drying. She diligently would clean off each of her 6 legs in her mandibles, eating the saltwater off while drying. She’d even stretch her back legs up over her head and put them in her mouth to clean up. It was fairly marvelous to watch! I’ve always loved Praying Mantis – and this was a super treat to watch. But as time was going by, my arm was starting to get tired, and I knew that she couldn’t stay there forever, so I tried to get her to jump from my hands to the plants that were near to the pools. But without going so far as to flick her off, she was not going to budge.
SO… I turned around to walk her back through the pool to the dry ground and head toward the hedges nearby. But when I turn around, I realized that every, and I mean every, person lounging by the pool was staring at me. Some with looks of confusion, some were smiling and others looked absolutely horrified by the idea that someone would have a giant Praying Mantis on their hand.
When I got out of the pool one person mentioned how absolutely brave I was, and better me than her. I tried to explain that they eat bugs, not humans, but that wasn’t going to convince her. Another guy said “that’s good luck.” I smiled and said, “yes, for the praying mantis, this was very good luck.” I finally got her to the hedges, and she eagerly jumped off and went on her merry way. I felt really good about what I did, and getting to watch the mantis up close was pretty awe-inspiring in its own way.
This memory reminds me of a folk tale some of you may have heard. I’ll share that now, and then we’ll talk about why all this matters.
(Tell story of the two frogs and the bucket.)
For the frogs, life and death came down to what view they held in their minds. Did they hold onto hope or give into fear and despair? Sometimes, when things are really rough, and we’re stuck in a tough situation, just treading water can be all we have to give, and all we need to do. When the world is throwing its worst at us, or we’re going through a rough depression, or the kids at school won’t stop being mean – in those times, we might feel really out of control and helpless. We can’t always change how we feel, or the randomness of bad luck, or how other people act, but we can choose to keep on trying to get through. Sometimes we have to do that for a long while. If you’re in one of those hard places right now – please – keep treading water. Reach out to us. Even if we can’t fix whatever it is, we’re here, and this community cares. And maybe, we can help you out of the place where you’re feeling like you’re drowning from the pressure.
My story about the praying mantis was a bit different than the frogs. It wasn’t so much about the choice to hope or despair. I think about the fellow pool-goers nearby in the water, or reclining in their sun chairs, and how they chose to respond with fear, or loathing, or curiosity, or gratitude. How do we respond when we see someone arrive out of nowhere looking for help? Do we hunker down? Are we fearful? Do we extend a hand? We’re reflecting all of this month on what it would mean to be a people of invitation, and these questions are important questions when we find folks in need of welcome in our lives. It’s important to consider where we’re coming from, when we choose to act. I especially have this in mind this week, and we learn more and more about the struggle of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe looking for new homes that are safe and welcoming. We might be safely in our poolside lounge chairs right now, but there are still things we can do to help. For those of you old enough to vote, there’s a petition shared on our Fellowship’s Facebook page that asks our country to open our doors to more refugees than we’ve been allowing to come to safety on our shores. We do have the means; we just need to find our hearts again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “intentions” lately. What’s going on in our hearts and our minds when we choose to do the things we do? If we’re thinking about what it means to be a people of invitation, this kind of reflection also help us to be more welcoming – not just in theory but in practice. Our first story today, told by Starr, is one of those interesting cases where we’d probably say all those people pretending to bring something more than water for the feast didn’t mean poorly. They didn’t think their actions would matter, but when everyone skimped at the same time, there was a real problem. If everyone hadn’t skimped, only you or me, no one would have noticed. We’d probably walk away and say – “oh, I didn’t intend to ruin the feast, I just didn’t think it would make a difference.” That’s the funny thing about intentions; we can often be dishonest with ourselves and say we didn’t intend something bad, when however you look at it – the things we sometimes do don’t have a good outcome. Bringing only water to the potluck is probably not a good thing, right – but I’m sure each person “didn’t mean anything by it”…
Sometimes we can mean well, and even our actions on the surface could be viewed as positive, but they don’t match our real intentions. This is a bit trickier to be honest with ourselves about. I think it comes up the most when we’re feeling self-righteous; when we know we’re the only person who must be right and we act from that place of our heads or our egos. One of the signs – sometimes – is anger. Anger isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes it can be a natural response to great injustices. But I’m trying to teach myself, in my everyday moments, when I respond to something from a place of anger – when I’m feeling angry – I’m trying to teach myself to make sure I’m not acting to feed my anger or my self-righteousness first and foremost – rather than acting to fix the thing itself.
I think we all do this. Who here has ever been in an argument about something, that started out simply to correct or change something and then found themselves all worked up and arguing about the argument rather than the thing they wanted to fix? That’s usually a good marker for when we’re doing this. I don’t think any changes we make (for most things in life) will improve anything if we start from a place of anger. We’ll probably end in a place of anger too. This is especially true if we’re angry about small things. Anger is a natural response to the great wrongs in life, even if we may not want to give in to it, it’s a real and honest response. But when we get angry about the small things – we’re probably not really thinking about the thing anymore – and are more focused on ourselves and our wants and opinions – our head and our egos.
It’s sort of like that praying mantis from the start of my sermon. A whole lot of people had feelings about that insect drowning in the water; fear, curiosity, indifference. But the mantis was still drowning – whatever our opinions or thoughts or feelings. We can be the people that stay lounging in the sun indifferent, or we can get ourselves a little wet from time to time to do what needs to be done – and if we’re really lucky – we can do it with a sense of awe and gratitude. Let us begin this Fellowship year remembering the words our Sunday Schools often say – we are the Fellowship of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hands.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington talking about how we often live our lives from the script in our head and not what’s going on right here and now.
We recently adopted a 3 month old puppy. She’s a boxer/bull terrier mix. Super cute. Super sweet. We brought her home the day she was spayed from the vet’s office. She was so nervous she was shivering in her bed. When it was finally time for her to go outside, she would have none of it. We’d get her to the door, try putting on a leash, and she would pull and pull. We had to pick her up to bring her out for the first week or so. Maybe it was the snow. Maybe it was the cone of shame around her neck. Maybe it was the snow being scooped up by her cone of shame that fell into her face. But all of that would come later. When she got to the door, she didn’t know what she was looking at and she was afraid to go out.
You see, Lola (that’s our puppy’s name), Lola was a city girl. She was born in a NYC apartment and was fostered away immediately to friends of friends of ours in another apartment. Lola had never seen the great outdoors. And whatever she had seen was total asphalt, concrete and metal. This wide open space, that allowed her to see beyond 10 feet, was a scary thing.
I can kind of relate. When I had been living in NYC for just about five years, I got used to seeing the world only so far away. I had taken a vacation trip to see friends in Minnesota and we stopped by a Walmart for something on the way to somewhere else. I went inside – and – froze. I began to have a panic attack. They apparently make Walmarts bigger in the midwest than here. While inside I could see further away than most spots in Manhattan. I had to have a friend walk me out.
We can get used to living in a world whose borders lend us comfort, security, stability. And when we cross into a new space it can be really scary. My puppy had a script. Her script said this world looks a certain way. Outside is a scary, strange, noisy, cold and busy place. Her script told her it wasn’t a place she wanted to go.
So we began coaxing her out with treats, and play time with her squeaky ball. We’d leave her alone for 2 minutes at a time and come back inside. At first she would come back to the kitchen glass door and look back in and whine to come inside. But over time, her time alone would get longer and longer (up to 15 minutes now.) We can still see her through the window, and we’re fenced in, so she’s safe. And now, once she’s past her initial lonely wobblies, it’s hard to get her back inside. She’s finding all these new scents; hearing the range of birds calling; and our next door neighbor’s dog who howls like a fire engine. Lola has a new script. “Outside” now means a place of fun, exploration, running around like a silly ball of energy, and cool new things to smell.
How do we all do that in our own lives? When do we react negatively to something because our script tells us that’s how we should respond? I don’t only mean trying the new stuff, or the dangerous stuff. We all have to know our limits. No matter how hard Brian will try to convince me, I will not go parachuting. I appreciate that some part of my Id will go crazy wild over the new sensation. While the rest of it is panicking because I chose to put “down” so very far away. I’m talking about the day to day stuff that we respond to as rote.
When you get on the phone with your parents, or your kids, do you know how the arguments will go before they begin? When you perceive that someone wrongs you in some way – will you hold onto that grudge till your dying day, or till they offer abject abasement before your stalwart ego? If a problem comes up – do you just know how it will play out and how everyone will react to it?
In what ways does your script trap you? I find that when we live from the scripts, we’re not really able to respond to the world before us as it is – as it’s actually happening. We’re reading our lines to a scenario that’s not necessarily happening right now. It can make us unable to deal appropriately with new circumstances. It can also force us to relive painful encounters over and over because we can’t see the newness that’s before us.
Sometimes our scripts are a team sport. I lost a long time friend some years ago to a script. We had gone through a lot of personal and professional challenges together over a ten year span of time. We were close with each other’s families, shared a house together – we became family of a sort. All close friendships have their stressors; we always have ways we drive one another nuts. All that aside, I used to be a lot more uptight in my twenties. When I left my home state and moved to NYC for graduate school and later seminary, I mellowed out. My detail orientated perfectionism began to dissolve; my taking the smallest things so seriously mostly disappeared; and I got out of the habit of arguing with people (marital realities not-withstanding.) Seminary doesn’t always help people become more spiritually mature, but my time there really changed who I was for the better. But when I would go back to visit my dear friend (and other long time friends), I realized that she was interacting with me as if I hadn’t changed at all. We would start having fights about whether we were having a fight. (Ever been there?!) Every sentence was heard through the filter of the script of how I used to act. I’d go back to the City and talk to my local friends about how frustrating the trip home had been. That folks back home only saw me as controlling and argumentative – even though I wasn’t acting that way. My local friends would laugh – they didn’t see me that way at all. My old, dear friend’s script, ended our friendship. It was one of the most frustrating losses in my life. It was frustrating because it wasn’t necessary. My legitimately negative behavior had changed for the better, but it didn’t matter to the friendship if the other couldn’t see it for what it was – a new line, a new direction to the story.
Our theme this month is presence. Presence saves us from these losses. Being present to the person or the situation before us allows us to deal with reality as it is and not bring the ghosts of past pains into this moment. We know we’re not being present when our minds our racing through past hurts. Or when we’re perpetually fixated on what will or what might happen in the future. It’s not to say that we don’t learn from the past or plan for the future. But living most of our lives in the past or the future is not learning from or planning for – it’s missing out on this moment. We cease to live in the world that is, and pretend to live in the world that was or will be. But there is only ever the moment that is – right now. We can’t ever live in the past. We can’t ever live in the future. We can only live in the present, and the more we allow our minds to run wild, to live from the scripts of our fantasies, we cease to fully live.
…I’m about to utter a genuine UU heresy…. I make it a habit to preach something heretical every year, and this is the week for it – (so the folks that made it on time despite Daylight Savings will be well rewarded). Take a deep breadth… Our intellect, our thoughts, our minds – they are not us. We are not our heads. Our scripts, our thinking, our fretting, our worry, our dreams, our plans, our arguments – they are not us. Our intellect is a tool, like our vision, or our hearing. It shapes how we interact, understand, and experience the world. Of course, we’d interact differently if our mental faculties were to change. Mental health aside, we as a people have a tendency to over-identify with our intellect and thinking. We confuse the tool with our identity. And that can be a very painful thing. The worlds we create spin fantasies that we confuse for fact. Our congregational covenant talks about assuming good intentions. This goes beyond giving someone the benefit of the doubt – it’s more about not creating a false person we then inappropriately interact with. Leaping to conclusions, without evidence, is our script showing. Sometimes it tells more about ourselves than others.
When our thinking minds go wild, when they run the show, and create the opinions that will shape how we interact regardless of evidence – we lose who we are at our core. It’s as if we’ve become possessed by our thoughts. Our essence, our soul, takes a back seat and something else is driving the car. I find this to be a helpful metaphor because it describes what we experience. Think of a time when you reacted poorly, or strongly, to some set of events. We all have. When the whole thing was over, did your original thoughts match exactly what was really going on? Were you 100% correct and the others 100% wrong? We’re rarely entirely right. There’s usually another side. If the time you’re thinking of you were totally in the right, think of another time. If you can’t think of another time where you were in the wrong, you have an entirely different challenge to deal with that’s out of the scope of this sermon. Since we’re all usually off-base by some amount in almost all things, what possesses us to defend and live into the fabrications of our mind so readily? It doesn’t practically help us to read from an outdated script, yet we do.
James Baldwin has a related quote, …“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.”… Baldwin’s quote is in reference to hate, though I think it applies to many more aspects of human behavior. We cling stubbornly to any of our habits, because those habits hide something more difficult below the surface. I spoke last week about how hard it was to get back into an exercise routine after a bad car accident – that the most difficult part was facing the fact that I was much weaker – and exercising – though it would help me – was painful because it made me face a new truth that I didn’t want to see. Our thinking minds are one of these habits. If we quiet our chatter – who are we? What’s our core when the mental volume is muted?
Often we over-identify with our thinking patterns. We’ve identified with a tool, not our essence. It’s comforting to stick to what is known. Experiencing the moment for what it is – is not what most people’s habits are. Our thoughts become identified with our ego, and then all things become slings, or darts, or succor for our ego. In some ways our scripts – especially the negative ones – are preferred because they allow our ego to become more solid. Struggle, anger, hate, indignation all contribute to a vibrant ego. Our thinking patterns create those realities. Without the mental script – anger, hate and self-righteousness lose their solidity. There’s no there there. Self-righteousness is not an instinctual or biological response to evolutionary advantage. Self-righteousness is not hormones, it’s not nature. Self-righteousness is a psychological tool used to prop up the ego. If we silence the chatter, if we toss the script, we see that self-righteousness or anger or hate – are not real.
This is not to say those feelings are bad. I’m not suggesting that we feel guilty over them. We shouldn’t judge them. The trick to tossing the script is attending to those feelings when they occur without judgement. If you’re prone to anger, allow yourself to be angry when it arises. Acknowledge it. Look at it inwardly. Don’t react to it, don’t judge it. And don’t live your life from that feeling of anger. Just pause and watch it until the anger goes away. There’s a classic Buddhist teaching in meditation practice – I had a Korean Zen Nun teach this to me when we were sitting together for a four month, 4 day a week practice – the teaching says thoughts or feelings are like a train coming into a station you’re sitting at. When the train arrives, watch it. You can see it without getting on it. So too, with feelings of despair or frustration – we can greet them without going for a ride with them.
German-born American abstract expressionist painter Hans Hoffman once noted, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” When our mental chatter clutters our head space, our world becomes more complicated than it needs to be. It becomes more complicated than it actually is in reality. As we eliminate the unnecessary what remains behind? What can then begin to speak? For this week, I invite you silence your internal chatter for a couple of minutes a day. If that feels too long, try it for a couple of moments a day. Simplify your mind. Put away your scripts. Exorcise your egos. Be present to the feelings and thoughts without riding their train to where they will take you. Listen for what now has room to speak, for what now has room to live.
It is good to be back in the pulpit again. When last I preached I reflected on the bigger trials of social justice for the year gone past. Those travails don’t stop though, do they. This past month has brought forth many difficult stories. The month we’re in now, in the secular calendar is Black History month. We typically learn about the stories of Black pioneers that we may not have heard of, or folks that we learn and relearn about year after year. This morning I’d like to look at the living legacy of black history alive in our news, and reflect back on the roots of oppression in our nation’s history. In light of our monthly theme, as I talk consider where love is found. Where does fear seem to win the day?
In an interview with conservative columnist Cal Thomas this past Wednesday, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann said, “I think there was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt,” Bachmann said. “People don’t hold guilt for a woman.” She was clarifying why President Obama won the White House twice, and why she didn’t.
We learned this past week that the killer in the Loud Music trial was found guilty of three cases of attempted murder but was not found guilty of murder for the person he actually did kill. The jury was hung, and he may still face another trial for murder. “Dunn, who is white, killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis in November 2012 after having an argument with him over loud music in a convenience store parking lot where Davis sat in an SUV with three young friends. Dunn fired 10 shots, including three at the SUV as it was fleeing. After the shooting, Dunn and his fiancé went to a local hotel, ordered a pizza, opened a bottle of wine, and watched a movie. The next morning he drove two hours away to his home, where he was apprehended. Dunn claimed Jordan Davis, who was African-American, pointed a gun at him and threatened his life. No gun was found by police and no one else heard any threats.” This case was in Florida where a Stand Your Ground law is in place.
According to PBS, “research conducted by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, found that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, “the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks.” Roman concluded that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states. [PBS, 7/31/12]
Elsewhere, “the University of Mississippi is offering a $25,000 reward for tips that can help officials identify and arrest two vandals who were spotted draping a noose around the neck of the statue of James Meredith, who braved angry mobs in 1962 to become the school’s first African-American student.”
And my last example this month involves, “A veteran investigator with the Tennessee Department of Health (who) was forced to resign or face termination last month for his conduct during a racially charged case. William Sewell was an emergency medical service investigator, assigned to the Upper Cumberland Region, who had been with the state more than 40 years. Last summer, Sewell began investigating a case involving the Algood Fire Department in Putnam County. In an interview with the man who filed the complaint, Shun Mullins, Sewell began telling a graphic story about a black man who was lynched near Baxter, Tennessee, many years ago. The state claimed Sewell’s conduct in that interview could be perceived as a “form of intimidation” toward Mullins.” The news report further explained that “the three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a “strap” of the lynched man’s skin, passed down from his grandfather. ‘They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener,’ Allen remembered.” The original case was based upon Mullins (who) claimed Algood’s deputy fire chief refused to do CPR on his mother because she was black and then falsified medical reports to cover it up.”
Happy Black History month everyone. These stories are why we still desperately need to reflect on our history. The White House, built by slaves, has been home to our first black president for a little over five years now. Poets, Alice Walker, and others, have poignantly noted how we know not where our efforts will eventually lead, nor who will some day reside in the sanctuaries we build this day even in the midst of injustice and pain. We can see a little ahead, and off to the side, but can barely imagine the scope of changes to the landscape that will some day come about. Yet we still have a congressional representative diminishingly say that our president primarily won, twice, because of white guilt.
What can leadership look like? In the American mythology, the answers have always been “anyone.” Of course, “anyone” has always had very specific implications. At one point “anyone” meant land holding straight white men. That was honestly progressive for the time. With it, we successfully moved a bit away from aristocracy and nobility as the places of power. For a decade or two, the American mythology has said it includes people of all races. Although I still feel we have a ways to go in this respect, this presidency (through all its faults and successes) has indicated that our practice has finally met up with our cultural self-conception of what we can be. Racism is not cured, sexism continues to thrive, ageism on both ends of the spectrum is almost a given, and homophobia is often confused with high moral standards. The latest case in point being Arizona, whose legislature has sent to the Governor a bill that would pretend secular businesses are churches, and allow all institutions to refuse services to LGBT folk, in the name of religion.
And yet, we can still find hope that we as a people, can grow past ourselves enough to recognize leadership despite our biases and short-comings. As Martin Luther King Jr once dreamt, we have chosen our president based on the “content of his character, and not by the color of his skin.” Whatever your political affiliations are, this is a remarkable sign of transformation for our country.
Our story this morning talks about the transforming power of leadership. An early Buddhist parable, richly names the spirit of our time. In the midst of the flaming pit of crisis, the Buddha as parrot recognizes his two great gifts; being alive and being able to fly. As the world burns around him he chooses not to panic and succumb to uselessness. He chooses not to use his second gift of flight to preserve his first gift of life. Rather, he employs all that he has to make some difference in easing the suffering of others. His colorful feathers grow black through his efforts to save lives. “What, after all, can a bird do in times like these… but fly? So fly I shall. And I won’t stop if there’s even a chance I can save a single life.”
In contrast, the godly beings are relaxed, bright, covered in white ivory and glittery gold. Well fed, they shimmer and shine and remain clean. All most can do is continue to eat and wax eloquent on the absurdity of the parrot’s efforts. “Trying to put out a raging fire with just a few sprinkles of water from his wings. Who ever heard of such a thing. Why, it’s absurd!”
Where in our lives are we the parrot with greasy black wings who is fed with a mission and destined to make a difference, and where are we the fully entitled god who shimmers and shines and is just well fed? When have you met the well intentioned god on golden wings descend to warn you to stop your efforts because it’s not worth the trouble? When have you been that nay-saying voice? When do you think the mission of our congregation is about serving you as an individual alone? When do you find our congregation’s mission is about serving the world – serving life?
“I don’t need advice. I just need someone to pitch in and help!” cried the parrot. I know I’ve felt that before. Whether it’s combating homelessness, raising children, or struggling through school, it is tough to do it alone, and often times we seem to receive more advice than actual assistance. It would be easy, and a bit triumphant, to preach on how hidden beneath the grime and soot of our efforts are splendid multi-colored feathers that help us soar. But this Buddhist parable seems to indicate that it’s that very blackness, that greasy water that differentiates us from the splendidness of those distant gods. In fact, it’s that blackness that calls one of the gods down from his place of privilege, to do what he ought to have done from the start; use his power to affect change. “All at once, he no longer wanted to be a god or an eagle or anything else. He simply wanted to be like that brave little parrot, and to help.” All gratitude at the story’s end goes to the little parrot, “for this sudden, miraculous rain.” It may have been the god’s tears that put out the fires of this world, but they blossomed from the witness of the action of the parrot – the otherwise dis-empowered, the oppressed, the not-privileged.
That godly nay-saying has woven itself into the fabric of our daily expression. We are burdened down with a difficult economy, the long felt aftermath of enervating wars, mixed successes in LGBT civil rights, and a collapsing environment. Many say they are choosing hope, and yet our collective shoulders seem to indicate spiritual exhaustion. This nagging sap to confidence echoes the sense of impossibility, when so many things seem raw and endless, like a fire that sprung over night and is left by all the world to burn. But I believe there continue to be rivers of hope, and waters of abundance, that eagerly wait for us to dip our wings and dirty our feathers; because there is much work to be done and gratefully many of us here able to do it.
Yes despite the very clear need for action, beyond the call for hope in the face of sorrow and pain, we must reflect on the source of the trauma. Why do we continue to hear horror stories perpetrated upon Black Americans – some of which appear to only be worsening rather than getting better? How can this be while at the same time our nation’s highest office is finally open to someone who isn’t perceived as white by many despite his mother being white? A plantation era engineer named J. D. Smith once noted, “One only needs to go down South and examine hundreds of old Southern mansions, and splendid church edifices, still intact to be convinced of …. the cleverness of the [Black] artisans, who constructed nine tenths of them.” This white engineer was taught his trade by a slave engineer. Yet, the image we often get taught in grade school and high school is that of uneducated blacks during the slave era only doing servile work. Why don’t we share both sides of that painful story?
The German philosopher, Hegel, once noted, “The [slave] consciousness is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is evident that this object does not correspond to its notion; for, just where the master had effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved… The truth of the [master] consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the bondsmen.” Hegel’s point is about the extreme qualities of slavery and slaveholding, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to point toward any instance of applied institutional racism. The ego of the oppressor becomes intrinsically linked to the oppressed. What puffs up the powerful, chains their psyche to that which is most base to our humanity. We become less for trying to pretend we’re more. We narrow the scope of our humanity. We are defined by how well we convince ourselves that someone else is less. Or as author and former executive editor of Ebony magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr would put it, “Out of this system (of slavery) came the Black American, and, though some would like to forget it, the White American…”.
We allow fear, fear of others, fear of our own inadequacy to trump love. We say that which we fear is truth so we must stamp it down anyway we can. We convince ourselves that four teens in a car playing loud music, unarmed, are a real and quantifiable threat that requires us to open fire even though they are unarmed, even though they agreed to lower the music. Fear allows the jury to have four of its members think that this kind of violence is justified. And we remember “that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states.” One kind of body is more dangerous than other. Fear trumping love.
Fear teaches us to share stories of lynchings and body parts kept as trophies when a black man dares to sue a fire department for failing to perform CPR on his mother because of the color of her skin. Every part of this story is grounded in fear. Fear of difference, fear of one body touching a different body even if it’s just to save a life, to do the job you volunteered to do for everyone else. Fear teaches dissidents to sit back down quietly. And fear instructs the oppressor on how to keep a hold of his power.
We often think the opposite of love is hate. I am convinced its opposite is truly fear. Love is grounded in compassion, in seeing the connections between one another and saying they matter. Fear is grounded in the antithesis to each of these. What makes us different becomes a danger to our sense of self. And to the fearful among us, our sense of self matters so much more than our sense of interdependence. Interdependence then becomes just another threat to the ego.
But in the culmination of our days, love trumps fear, always. Fear passes away, and love endures in our memories and our hearts…. This Fellowship has lost several long time and very dear members this past year. When each life was remembered, stories of love, stories of compassion, stories of life were what were lifted up time and time again. The rest was secondary. The progress of civil rights movements have time and time again been determined by radical acts of love in the face of fear; in coming to the aid of a stranger because it was the right and compassionate thing to do. It doesn’t mean that danger, or harm, or struggle are not genuine risks. But the essence and scope of our humanity are not rooted in these, nor defined by them in any true way. If it is how we care for others that defines our memory and legacy after we are gone, it’s certainly what defines our lives while we are here. Life is not about you alone, or me alone. Life is about us. It’s about “we.” And as the story of the parrot who saved a jungle from fire goes, sometimes our acts of love change the people who bear witness to them – it doesn’t mean there won’t be tears – but it makes all the difference.
Prayer for Black History Month – 2/19/12
Spirit of Abundance, God of Grace, Mother of Hope,
We pause now to remember those stories that are all around us,
But so often passed over,
Those stories that when told are shared because
Of what someone is, not who they are.
This month in our nation’s character
Is Black History month.
Help us to realize that Black history is
All our histories.
May the day come when these stories
Are so wildly taught that no month need
Be separately divided.
We know this day will not come until we as a people
Make different choices.
We pray now for those new choices.
May we come to see a day where the prison system
Becomes redemptive, not punitive.
A day where the legal system learns to focus more squarely on the facts,
And the not colors of our skin.
A day where our schools are as well funded, as the needs demand.
May our role models be allowed to excel when they thrive,
And not be taken down for their rich heritage.
We know this will require a shift in power.
And this can be scary for some.
Give those full of fear – hope.
May we come to know grace,
So that our hearts will not be hardened to the pain around us.
There are so many beautiful stories needing to be told.
And we need to get the chance to hear them.
Widen our vision so that the history that is shared this month,
And every month,
Come to be known as our history too.
We are most human when we see the humanity in others.