Posts Tagged Generations
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/22/18 and looks at the perennially changing nature of life and spirit.
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”Pema Chodron
I’ve been reflecting a lot this year about being immersed in a season of change in our lives. It seems perpetual. I hear our congregation talking about all the transitions going on for our community as well. Some of the stories are energizing and sustaining; some of the stories speak of slowing down; some have suffered losses in their family or continue to wrestle with health concerns that don’t seem to go away; while others are celebrating new beginnings with college, or school, or work. Each of these are happening all the time. On any given day, look around and you’ll see a little bit of sorrow and joy in each of our faces. (Although sometimes it’s hard to notice if the person doesn’t want you to see the vulnerability.)
We often talk about the Springtime of our life being childhood, and the Winter being our elder years. In some basic ways, the metaphor has merit on its own, but I’m not sure it goes deep enough. Reincarnation aside, Winter inevitably turns to Spring – and I have yet to meet anyone who’s successfully turned back the clock to childhood. It’s more helpful if we consider the seasons in each time of our life. However old we are, there are always beginnings and endings. There are always times of excitement and exhaustion. We can be renewed by Spring, or we can be reflective in the Winter. This can happen through the course of the day, but over the arc of our lives it’s most visible in hindsight. We see it most clearly when we turn a new leaf in our story. They come together and they fall apart.
What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? Ask yourself right now –What season are we in, at this moment, in your own life? What season is our congregation in? What changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?
Change happens. And will continue to, for a very long time. Someone comes along and hears a thing, or a phrase, or a way of living, or a tradition. She thinks it’s meaningful, and helpful, but has a new use for it. She takes it and runs with it; hopefully bringing the idea a new life and a new direction. She makes it meaningful and relevant to her generation or to a new time. All of that’s critical in the life of a community or a person. Times change and so do needs and outlooks. But an idea or a ritual or a tradition came from somewhere and had a meaning and a value all its own. It grew out from a place of shared values of another people or another time. It can be a snapshot of a generation or a family. Where it goes and grows toward is just as important as where it came from – what soil it was rooted in. An idea or practice can grow ignorant of its foundation, but will be more rich and certainly stronger for the knowing.
What season we’re in will often influence how we react to the intrepid new leader or idea. Maybe more importantly, how we feel about the season we’re in will influence our response as well. Are you in a dry time of your life? Will new pathways offer renewal and a turning to Spring? Or are you feeling bitter and willing to allow the coldness to wither new openings? Or are you in a time of reflection in your life where it’s not yet time for new beginnings?
And in the life of this congregation, I’m especially wondering about our new staff team in the coming year. When I got here five years ago (This weekend is the 5thanniversary of when you voted to call me to the ministry here with you,) all the other staff were here from periods ranging from 1 year to 16 years. Now the only staffer with more seniority is our bookkeeper who comes in twice a month. We have had a tremendous amount of transition, and we continue to. Some things we can control, and some things we can not. “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”Pema Chodron
Shortly we will hiring an acting religious education coordinator to cover our program while our DRE is on medical leave, though should she return after this long medical leave, the permanent position will no longer be full time. And after 21 years of service, our music director will be enjoying retirement. (Thank you Richard again for all that you have given us.) Whoever comes –next, will not be Richard. In the coming months, we will need to allow ourselves to leave room for grief, for relief, for misery and for joy. These are the days we are given.
And we choose to spend these days in community. What emerges from community can be the spiritual discipline to manage the pain, and to celebrate the good. In community, we grow, we fail, and we achieve. In community we learn, interact, exchange and connect. As Rev. Nguyen’s reading earlier reminds us, “We are part of community when we show upshiny and not so shiny. When we bring our sour and our sweet. When we shed the shiny and show up hungry.”
As a religiouscommunity, our central purpose, our strength on our good days, is in the realm of values. These days, we seem to be that rare place that explores values, ethics, and theology in a communal- and self-reflective way. And this is wherein our community saves lives and renews dreams. And yes, change will happen here, even here – maybe especially here.
Instilling values is an art. It’s integral to the process of growing up. I have the suspicion that growing up is not so much about learning more stuff and knowing how to do more things and better. I expect it’s less about expertise. Growing up is coming to grips with the reality of the brevity of life. An appreciation for how precious and delicate we all are; that life ultimately is more about the questions of value than the details. The “whys” that lead to who we become overshadow the “hows” and “how tos” of daily living. If values are the central act of religious community, and I believe they are, then this is the greatest gift we can offer – both to the wider community and to ourselves.
Pema Chodron’s quote points us to the “longer view.” (Tell Buddhist Parable of the lost horse.) The failings and disappointments that sometimes feel like catastrophes may in fact be the doorways to new opportunities. The new, the fresh, the next great thing sometimes can’t come about without something else ending. The longer view reminds us that “not all that is bad,” is actually bad, in the long run.
I find that it comes down to what stories we tell about our lives – what stories come out in the moment, and which ones paint a decade or a generation. When we’ve experienced less, we may be more prone to fixating on how difficult, or downright awful, an encounter might seem. But in the longer view, most of these stories seem to open up more doorways than we can possibly imagine. It doesn’t take away the horribleness of the sudden turn in or lives though. (The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy)
Last Sunday I told a little more about my own time growing up, laughing at the absurdity of all the well laid plans we make. I want to quickly focus in on one of those moments with today’s lens. When I was in my early twenties, I was working in Information Technology. I had a solid job supervising a 24/7 computer Helpdesk; with what was then my longest term relationship, little debt and more vacation time than I could possibly use. That was a story I told for several years. But most of it was really a trap for me. I had taken that job as an opportunity to get professional experience right out of college and save up enough money to actually go into non-profit work. The truth is that I was never going to leave that job unless it became a horrible place to work. One new Vice-President later, and suddenly so many qualified, capable and expert colleagues left; many of us emotional wrecks in his wake. I could find no place of compassion or care for this particular VP. I could not find a way to “story” that experience in the affirmative. In the blink of a few months, I was miserable and needed a way out, and couldn’t see the silver lining at the end of the road. Looking back with that longer view, without that Dilbert-esque VP, I simply would not be where I am today. Back then, I honestly couldn’t imagine this new world at all.
The acute clarity of the short-term vision brings the pain and difficulty vividly to the forefront. We can choose to revision all that has come before us and see it in the bigger picture – and still – we don’t need to be old to realize this truth about life, just like we don’t have to be toddlers to still throw a wailing tantrum. (As I said last week, we are all the ages we have ever been.) Doorways forever open and close, but the ones we walk through were necessary to get to where we’re going. We can always choose differently, excepting the realm of death, but the new destination will never be the same. I personally think it’s very bad theology to say everything happens for a reason; but I do think it’s true that we can find meaning and purpose in all the things that happen. It’s how the story of our life emerges. That ability to tell a story, may be the very thing that defines our humanity.
Our elders among us can help remind us of this truth; they can help steer us back on the path of moderation, compassion and forgiveness – ever reminding us that our family and our religious community matter more for how well it strives to support us than it seeks to always agree with us. Our longest-term members (regardless of age) have seen a congregation of shared values living out the past thirty to fifty years. We pass on our values in light of the changing seasons, and activities, and habits, and styles. There is an essence to the life and spirit of this congregation that can be felt and can be lived, but words would rarely suffice. It is our task, regardless of age, to witness this transition; to strive to crack it open for the next generation to partake and to be enlivened by this sacramental work; for the transmission of communal spirit is a sacred endeavor.In the awareness of the precariousness of life and the appreciation for endings that enliven our beginnings we come to know the time of our lives.We honor the best of ourselves by blessing the sanctity of the lives we share in community. In doing so we become a blessing ourselves to the world around us.
Sometimes the season we’re in in our lives isn’t going to shift neatly to the next, or turn back to an earlier time. Sometimes when we live out ourselves fully, and honestly, we can help another person make a profound choice toward wholeness – wherever they are in their path – whichever season.
At the start of this sermon I asked two questions. “What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?” I cannot answer the first for any of us. But I can ask all of us to be open to accepting a new look and a new feel to the next page of our communal story, for the leaf must now turn. For the second question, I hope that for each of us we learn from the perpetual transition in our communal story. May it remind us that in our own lives each new challenge or adversity is for but a time – and it might just be something that opens a new path that is wondrous all in its own. With each new step, something may pass away as the Autumn leaves; something may finally birth anew as our current Springtime demands; and sometimes the change is nothing more and nothing less than our souls bending toward the motion of that perpetual light which transcends and imbues all life.
Let us be a house of welcome
knowing each of us comes here,
not our own,
formed by earth,
and the generations that came before;
may we welcome each other
as life as welcomed us into her home.
We gather once more around our sacred fire, much like the generations have since the dawn of humanity, to share story and song. We make holy this place through our commitment to gather. From the light we carry in our hearts, we kindle this flame as a beacon of liberal religious faith.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington for the start of our new stewardship year. It talks about how we respond to difficulty, trauma and loss.
This coming Memorial Day weekend will be the five year anniversary of when, as a pedestrian, I was hit by a car going about 25 miles an hour. I had been crossing a major avenue in Brooklyn, in the crosswalk, with the walk sign in my favor, and a group of pedestrians right behind me. The driver was making a left hand turn and accelerated thinking he could beat the crowd and simply didn’t see me. That happens to be the most common set of circumstances in car-on-pedestrian accidents. I was fortunate. I went airborne and landed about 10 feet away – on my butt. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t land on my head, or on the edge of the curb. He stopped. Offered to drive me home. In trauma shock, I said no thank you. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that driver. Instead of then calling 911, he left. Someone else offered to call 911, and I foolishly said to them – no, I’m ok. I then walked to a friend’s who was a few minutes away and later got a car home. I was sore, but fine.
The next morning, when I came out of shock. I realized that I was not fine. I was in a lot of pain. I could just barely walk at about 1 mile an hour. Living alone, I hobbled my way to the doctor who chastised me something fierce. She wasn’t surprised though of my bad choices. When we go into shock, the brain stops working properly. I remember being worried the driver would get in trouble, or that I would be stuck in the hospital too long. Strange thoughts after you’re injured. But I was lucky, the injuries were bruises and cartilage damage. Apparently, healing from cartilage damage tends to take much longer, but you can also be on your feet much sooner. It was this ordeal that taught me to take any injury seriously for those around me; that the injured aren’t always thinking straight. To make sure to call for help.
The most intense period of recovery would be the first 3 months. Physical therapy twice a week would lead back into regular gym workouts. When I finally got back to the gym, I remember being shocked at how much weaker I was after only a short time. My physical therapist explained that in these types of injuries, some biological or chemical interaction happens around impact. The muscles internally stiffen to protect organs, but they then wither or weaken at an astonishing rate. The weight room showed me that I had lost 75% of my strength in my legs.
At first, you go into recovery mode. You think – I got this. I can do this! And you’re doing everything you should or need to do to get better. And you can get better. But after the initial willpower runs its course, you realize that you’re not easily going to get back to what you once were. I had more or less held a 4-5 day a week workout routine for the better part of fifteen years. As time went on, it became difficult to face that reality. Going to the gym meant I would be faced with how much weaker, how much slower, I was. And part of me still doesn’t like seeing that. And my health routines suffer for it. What I need to do, to get back in my old shape again, is the very thing that forces me to see the ways in which I feel less than I once was. And it’s hard to be present to that – to those feelings.
Most of us have had to deal with similar situations in their life. Maybe it wasn’t a nasty accident. Maybe it’s your heart, or chemo, or your weight, or maybe you’re recovering from some other type of surgery. Maybe simply the affects of aging. We’re all challenged at some point to be present to the aftermath of trauma, or weakness, as a fact of life.
Sometimes though, it’s a lesson or a community. Sometimes as a people we have to deal with trauma, and to grow through it. I can think of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some of us, some of our neighbors, lost their homes or their livelihoods to the ravages of the storm. Even after things were rebuilt, it takes time and dedication to get back into old routines. To see old places the way we might once have viewed them. To walk back into your home after it was rebuilt and learn to feel safe there once more. To be present to the difficulty and to move through it.
Other times it’s more about responding to the depredations of social injustice. Any of the stories I’ve preached about this year could be that for you. Many of them are certainly that for me. Gun violence. Racial injustice in our judicial system. The ongoing barrage of social engineering that continues to go on in places like Arizona. Laws like SB1070, that diminished the humanity of immigrants and migrants, almost became codified this week targeting LGBT people. Under the lie of religious freedom, legislators sought to write discrimination into the state’s code of laws. Any business would be seen as a church. And for religious reasons, you could refuse services to any person. The intent was to target LGBT people, but the law was worded in such a way that you could apply that to anyone. The law was ultimately vetoed by the state’s governor because it had unforeseen financial implications. Legislators forgot LGBT people spend money. They were surprised that businesses ranging from Delta to the NFL were outraged and considering boycotting. It hit the state’s pocketbook, but not it’s soul. The law was vetoed because of finances, not ethics.
When the earlier law, SB1070 was enacted – turning local police into pretend immigration officers – I remember traveling to Arizona to protest. We spent a week protesting and drawing national attention. At first, you do the hard work of acting and protesting and putting your all into it. It’s like physical therapy for our social consciousness. Our national ethical life has been hit by a large object moving at an accelerating rate, and we don’t always respond rationally at first. We have a lot of daily work we need to do as a people to get our collective soul back to health after legislation like these. We have to be present to the injustice – to witness it – to bend into the pain to make it go away. Pretending it’s not there will not make it go away. And if we rely only on our self to figure it all out, we’ll be less effective. There’s a whole host of specialists that make us more effective, that can keep us on track, that can ensure the long term care of our nation doesn’t fall back to a permanent place of weakness. But the work is daily; it’s weekly; it’s yearly. There will continue to be laws threatening injustice so long as we as a people don’t do our work – together. What we do, together, matters.
I know in some ways this congregation felt like it went into shock. For those who have only been here for the past two years or so, you probably don’t notice any of it. For others who have been here longer, caring for your ailing former minister, Rev. Paul at about the same time you were caring for your former Director of Religious Education – Carolyn – as she was caring for her dying husband – must have felt like a shock. At first people responded incredibly admirably. People stepped up, kept the pastoral and education ministries of this Fellowship strong. Sunday services kept happening through more and more lay leadership. People did what had to be done to keep the community vital. And time went on, some people got tired, others left. Gratefully, many are now coming back – as is so clearly evidenced by Sunday attendance over the past seven months.
But for many of those who had to do some really heavy lifting, it can become hard over time to see the places of weakness, or the places of hurt. You might remember a time when the Fellowship was much larger – or felt stronger – and it’s hard to see it any other way. I ask those who this speaks to, to continue to stretch into the places that feel rough to go. Breathe when you need to, and continue loving this community as you have, and as its loved you. Congregations are as resilient as we allow them to be. And this community has shown a great deal of resilience.
And strength does come back, even if it’s not going to do that quickly. Turning away will not strengthen us; being present to the challenges, and the successes of our ministry together, will.
I see a religious community whose attendance is already back up to a high weekly point that matches the highs of 10 years past – even if our formal membership hasn’t returned to the Rev. Beth years yet. The people are here. Our religious education program once more has 100 children and youth registered. Our large team of volunteers have kept our cold weather shelter program serving the needs of an expanding guest list through this very brutal winter; offering food, and shelter and clothes to those in desperate need. We are building partnerships with various neighborhood groups who serve our communities’ needs through our weekly split-the-plate program and the volunteer work of members connecting with those service groups. Coming together, nurturing our children and youth, caring for our members and friends who are dealing with the varied challenges life has to offer, serving the needs of the world during times of strife and times of plenty – that is the work of religious community – and we are doing that work. In fact, we’re doing it so well that our denomination has recognized and awarded our ministry together. And there is a place for all of us in this work.
As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world. Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?
Many lament that the broader world continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda media often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.
Membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.
But those changes won’t happen overnight. Our members who were at Selma fifty years ago have seen that the world doesn’t change like that. That progress slides backward a little less often than it moves forward. Progress made today requires intentional communities of effort to continue to exist to ensure future generations have the support they need to do the work they will still have to do. We’re here today because others before us paved the way. And as Kathryn Johnson said earlier today, it now falls upon us to ensure this institution is vibrant enough to ensure our presence for future generations, future struggles, future needs and future celebrations.
So much in our culture teaches us to equate our spending power with goods rendered. In religious community, sometimes, you’re choosing to leverage that power toward another purpose. A progressive religious institutional presence is a force for sanity in our world. Every progressive religious community specializes in some areas over others. Over the twenty years of my membership in Unitarian Universalist religious communities I have seen so much good done. One congregation housed a statewide suicide hotline for LGBT folk in crisis. Getting the training and resources needed to help people at their worst hour is not something I could ever reduce to dollars and cents. Another congregation prepares over 350 meals a week to homeless and underfed neighbors while taking an active role in housing reform. Sometimes our religious homes offer a place for teens who are struggling with their sexuality, who have families who are far from supportive. It’s the kind of life-saving ministry our congregations offer, that you may never see for yourself. We can’t always share those stories because of the complexity of privacy and healing. But without our presence, some youth make dangerous choices in the face of public ridicule. For others, our ministry is that of affirming interfaith families – allowing couples with differing religions to raise their children in a space that honors both of their paths – and teaches the spiritual value of diversity.
Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming. That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.
As we begin a new chapter in our Fellowship’s life, all of these things are the bread and butter of our work – they’re our purpose. With a new covenant that clarifies our promises to one another, we’re moving along with updating and making more concise our mission statement. Our mission is a fancy word for sorting out our purpose. It will likely entail all of this work, but be a visual reminder of our commitments as a community. Our mission will not reflect the services rendered here, but inspire the work we’ll continue to do. Like our covenant building process, you’ll have a chance to give feedback to our Committee on Ministry as it leads us in this work through the end of April.
Our canvass will go to all of these purposes. As we stretch into more financial support we will be able to staff appropriately to our needs. Our search for a new Director of Congregational Life is well under way. We expect to find an excellent professional who can help us reach out to the world around us, care for the institution we have built, and deepen our ties to one another. With the additional secretarial support our plan offers, Austen our Transitional Director of Religious Education and myself will better be able to connect with all the new families and folks attending – and better able to help all of you connect more with each other. I also look forward to having more time to help lead service and justice work in our communities. We are at an exciting time that has some amount of urgency to it. With our Sunday morning attendance up by fifty percent since Ingathering in September, now is definitely the time to take advantage of that renewed interest and commitment. With our attendance back to our past high, it’s time to help our membership return to the same levels. This congregation offers so many life-saving and life-affirming services – it falls to us to be its stewards.
Everyone has differing means here. There’s no minimum or maximum to give. I am new to this community, and new to Long Island. I’m paying off ridiculous amounts of student debt – 30% of my take-home pay goes to student debt management – and debt burdens are something that I know I am not alone on here. With all that in mind, I’ve chosen to tithe 5% of my salary to this Fellowship. I made that commitment because I believe in this congregation. I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.
The choir’s anthem this morning, 100 years is a recent pop charts hit that gives me the chills when I hear it. It sings of the life of any of us. So many things to celebrate, to commiserate, to weep over. All of these feelings will affect each of us in our lives. As the song goes, we only have 100 years to live. Very few of us will make it that long, but that’s the scope of our lives. We’re present to it, as best we can, through the good and the bad. But it’s our life to live. It evokes in me a sense of the preciousness of it; of the preciousness of relationships, of loves, of losses. I often think the song points toward making deeper connections in the time we have, of leaving a footprint for where we tread. Someone else did so before us, and look at the connections their earlier gifts have offered us. How will you live your 100 years? How will you leave this place better for your passing? Will you help each of us to ensure our healing, life-saving, life-affirming presence is here for another generation?
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on January 24th, 2010. It looks at our 7th Principle in light of our covenantal promises. It engages UU, Islam and Native Spiritualities. And takes a mythic look at the movie Avatar.
I recently saw the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. Some friends really wanted to see it. All I needed to hear were the keywords “blue,” “alien,” and “fey landscape” and I was on my way. One aspect of the movie focused on the alien world’s capacity to relate and communicate with it’s ecosystem. Imagine a world where the trees held our memories and their own. A place where living beings had enough a synthesis with one another that emotions, needs, and intentions were known by all the natural world. The sentient alien race similarly had the capacity to “upload” their thoughts, memories and feelings into this living matrix.
It completely felt fantastical down to the state of the art utilization of new filming techniques to transform human actors into alien CGI with remarkably emotive facial range. Stunning landscape visuals elicited an alternating sense of realism and other-worldliness. Ultimately, we went away feeling like we saw something completely other that was none-the-less readily relatable.
Upon reflection, I’m no longer sure that magical setting is all that different than our world. I grant you that on the whole, our world is less so vividly colorful, it’s no longer as pristine as this alien landscape’s forests and jungles were, and most notably, none of us have “upload” plugs coming out of our hair – please correct me if I’m wrong – particularly on this last point. What I believe is similar is the sense of memory and awareness. Maybe we do sense in the air the needs of one another. Call it mindfulness, synchronicity or actions of the Holy Spirit; I continue to be amazed at how fluidly needs, pains, joys and other “stuff of the heart and spirit” get communicated in human communities without words, and sometimes with barely a glance.
I frequently hear congregants and newcomers comment how a particular sermon or small group ministry topic hit home. Words and phrases like “right on the mark” or “timely” often come up. Or I watch the ebb and flow of conversation and recognize how despite our often seemingly endless capacity to feel “uniquely indisposed,” so many of us are going through the very same sorts of life experiences and challenges. Originating from radically different places, we all end up in this religious home at a time and a place where we have similar needs and common intention.
We could explore the how’s and why’s ad nauseam to identify the cause and effect of this very human phenomenon. I’ve had similar discussions with a close staunchly and avowedly non-religious and non-spiritual friend of mine who leans clearly on the side of the brains’ capacity to make intuitive connections from seemingly disparate information. I tend to lean more toward the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious. Millennia of humanity has endowed us with a substantial and subtle awareness of the world and psyches around us that’s not straight-forward. We’ve been doing this “human-thing” for a long time, and our connections run deep. Simply put, sometimes we just know.
However it is, I’m more concerned with “that it is.” I’m more interested in reflecting on our very human experience of that alien fey landscape’s magical intuitiveness. In the movie Avatar, I saw a glimpse of a powerful world of relation that I wished were here on this earth as well. I’m coming to realize that – it is. We see the fantasy as other and fey because we close ourselves off to the reality of it in the present. If it remains fantasy, we get to hold onto our sense of isolation, of loneliness, of the ego as an island amidst a crazy world.
There’s a Native North American word that doesn’t have an easy English spelling pronounced (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen.) It translates as “all our relations.” It’s a sacred word that points to our interconnectedness. It reminds us that we are part of something more expansive than our lonely selves. It understands humanity in terms of relation. I find our 7th principle to echo this; where we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.
Where our 1st principle begins the archetypal journey with the self — “we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (and I would add every being) the 7th principle integrates this valuing of the self in light of the truth of the world around us. If each person or being has inherent worth and dignity, and it is our religious promise with one another to strive toward making that expression a lived reality, then the 7th principle brings the saga of our principles back home. The world is full of meaning and value. We find a mirror of ourselves in the faces and lives of one another. We only truly live out our 1st principle by living into our 7th. We reflect the dignity of all around us by recognizing our places of connection. The relations matter.
Something is lost when we isolate ourselves. In the cinema of Avatar something was lost when the trees and stones were seen as commodities or obstacles. Even if you haven’t seen the movie – imagine any human story where we devalue the world around us while elevating money and power. The same is true for us living in this world. We replicate this in a million ways in our daily lives with less violence or extreme. It happens when the annoying co-worker is seen as simply the barrier between you and an otherwise good day. It happens when you hate your classmate because you believe them to be smarter, or prettier, or more athletic. It happens when we relate to our family or congregation as having obligations rather than having commitments.
The crux of the fantasy dilemma was the rare ore hidden beneath a rich world of interlaying connections. The rare metal worth millions an ounce was called “unobtanium.” A bit cliché a descriptor for that which we forever covet; but it’s aptness makes the sledge-hammer like title forgivable. If we’ve stopped wincing from the naming by now, I’d ask how that relates to our interdependent web of life? In your own lives, what is the thing or dream that lies out of reach? What is the object of discontent that keeps you from recognizing satisfaction? If you think back over your life, what were past things that fit this bill? Did they last?
I remember back when I was 2 years old, I left my stuffed animal lamb – who was aptly named Lamby, at the mall. (I know, I missed my calling as a Hollywood screen-writer) My mom and I scoured the department store for what felt like forever. He was never found. I was a wreck. It mattered acutely. My mom could do no right since Lamby was gone. The world didn’t care about me. I couldn’t see my family as “good” any longer. Feel free to heap on any other great tragedy and my two year old mind probably thought it up. My mom made her best effort by eventually finding another Lamby that was blue instead of beige. It sort of worked. Over 30 years later, it doesn’t even matter to me; except to recall that it was my oldest memory.
I’d guess that we all have our unobtanium’s and our Lamby’s of various stripes and sizes. They ever distract us from the beautifully woven networks of human and natural mutuality that are deeply rooted in our lived experience. We uproot our homes in search of what is not. We give up the most precious stuff we have – our realization of our place in this living world – in the hopes of grabbing the precious rock of the hour; whatever it might be this time.
I sometimes find our beliefs or thoughts about things to be similarly divisive; certainly when they’re centered on us. Our Muslim story of Nasrudden is like this. His belief that the pumpkin ought to grow from the strong branched tree and the walnut ought to grow from the weak thinly vines, makes a certain sense to the human eye. For a time, Nasrudden denigrated these plants for making less sense than they should. As if the world centered around our sensibilities or predilections; and yet we so often act in exactly this fashion. Even the humorous resolution to the story, of the walnut landing on his head and Nasrudden now being very glad that pumpkins didn’t grow on trees, is very human centered.
We see a glimpse in the tale that the world is not about our singular perceptions or preference; while it’s humor makes light of that very assumption. The “way things are” has a pattern that’s not always obvious and reminds us that we may not always notice. The connections and meanings we make or find rely in part upon our awareness; but the connections are there, regardless of our acceptance. When we metaphorically place ourselves under the walnut tree with a commitment to wonder and humor; when we remind ourselves that we are part of the tale and have a role to play, we come closer to the Ah-Ha! moment that hits us on the head because we’re finally paying attention to our own real story; then we rejoin our sacred covenant. The promise we made to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.
Although I’ve spoken a bit about trees, nature and the natural world, I’ve skirted around the environmental aspects of our 7th principle for a reason. The 7th principle, I believe, does call us to act for the well-being of our earth. But I’m not convinced that we’ll ever learn to treat this world with a life-saving and life-affirming spirit until we learn to apply those teachings to our world of human relations. The Native North American precept of (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen) or All Our Relations is as environmental as it is sociological. We replicate in the natural world how we interact in human society. The two are intrinsically connected. I believe that transforming our environmental stewardship, something implicit to the call of our 7th principle, can only be done by first living with this intention in mind when interacting with all our relations; beginning with our classmates, and siblings, and co-workers and parents. Why would we live more perfectly with the natural world than with our own human world? Why would we be able to get it right there, if we can’t get it right here?
We minimize and objectify the human world around us. How many of us living and studying in NYC have heard, “You should really go to that benefit, or that talk; you’ll get to meet the movers and shakers. It might get you a job, or help you into that school!” I remember so many times in studying at the graduate school for public service (of all schools) this very statement regarding why a function was worth attending. Even, or especially, in the not-for-profit world — who you know matters more than what you do. Human connections serve the utility of personal advancement. …But it’s for a good cause…
Even in the more classically noble professions, it’s the mode of doing things. How do we transform our human relations to reflect our higher aspirations? Yesterday, I was up in Boston for a executive staff planning meeting for Star Island’s annual Religious Education retreat week. I was asked to implement a Small Group Ministries that integrates people of all ages. The theme talks for the lifespan faith development retreat are centered around “Ministries across the generations.” One person on the team mentioned in passing how it’s sometimes best to go to Star to learn how to be in an intentional religious community. You see, at a retreat week like this, you spend about 6 days in a cloistered community of about 200 people of all ages that seeks to live out our principles and purposes every step of the way. We don’t always succeed, like all things in life, but there’s an accuracy to the aim there that I don’t always notice elsewhere. I mention this because everyone around the table easily nodded to the assessment of the intentional religious community on an island 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire for 1 week a year. My own head was nodding too.
As I was reflecting upon it on my train ride back to NYC last night, I realized that I readily believed that it’s easier to do this sort of thing far away from our normal day to day. Being intentionally religious in community – building that “sense of here” – is easier when we’re not distracted by the creep of normalcy. It’s why fantasy and sci-fi writing like Avatar are so successful in transforming human perception. We go away (either to a retreat in the woods or a retreat into our imagination) to remind ourselves of how to be human, and to be closer to the natural world. It’s telling that these two things are connected and seen often as far from home — being human in community and being back in the living world. In fact, our respect for the living world does improve. So many of these retreat centers are on the cutting edge of water treatment and recycling, composting, waste management, energy efficiency and the list goes on. You see it at so many summer camps too – places where kids finally get to be kids in what’s often viewed as safer environments than where they otherwise might live.
Earlier, I suggested that healing the earth must begin with our own human ties. I do believe this to be the core challenge. I should give space that in all likelihood, it will take a little bit of both, to move either forward. Environmental stewardship mirrors stewardship of our own humanity. All are related. And we need both to heal either.
Our second reading this morning ended with the words, “For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The promise of our 7th principle is fulfilled when we make space for the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. When we clear away the fumbling perceptions and projections of our maddened discontent with whatever human relation seems to be ailing us this hour. When we stop turning our connections solely into advancements that are “worth our time.” When we carve out room for substance rather than merely stuff to do; we may come to see the breathing world as worthy of encounter. The “nothing that is” is an openness to experiencing this living world as receptive members with intention rather than competitors acting from reaction. We are connected; we are reliant; we are dependent through and with. The religious promise reminds us that this is so; and calls us to seek to make it a realized presence in our lives and of those lives around us. And it begins at home.