Posts Tagged Spirituality
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/26/17 for our Thanksgiving Contemplative Service. It looks at the dual nature of peace and risk in the natural world through the comic foibles of one Unitarian Universalist minister.
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.” – Wendell Berry
This culminating line to the poem about the Wild Geese by Wendell Berry is the quintessential description of spirituality. Poetry is possibly the best medium for the definition to such an elusive word: Spirituality is a word that’s better encountered, than defined. It’s a word that we can know what it is, without knowing what it means; and poetry sometimes helps us know what it means, even if we can’t readily articulate it in words.
The peace of wild things is one of those phrases that evokes a range of reactions in people. Some of us, made quite sure we’d be here today, because that phrase is the bedrock of how you do “church”, even more than Sunday morning worship. And others, maybe, have an “allergic reaction,” so to speak, to that sense of spirit – the natural world is anything but peaceful.
Both sides speak to me – in the love of the natural world, and what emanates from the transcendent made imminent – as well as the frantic New Yorker hyped up on anti-histamines, fearful of the welts mosquitoes leave, and who subsequently loves spiritual Winter hiking. The swatting of my hands to stave off the bugs, makes warm-weather hiking with me anything but peaceful.
I remember one trip that brought out both extremes for me. It was the morning of my 31st birthday. I had spent the summer working on my Spanish in Guatemala, mostly through a language school in the city of Antigua. I was ending my trip by traveling across the country, and closing it out by hiking through the jungles of Tikal. There were enclosures at various spots, so don’t think I was camping out on the ground, that would have been suicidal really – there were enough threats for anyone in the daytime waking hours.
When I got to Tikal, it was probably around 85 degrees, and I think the humidity was somewhere around 120%. This didn’t stop me in the slightest from dressing up for the occasion in the fashion that suited a person who was allergic to everything – and who upon being bitten by a mosquito will usually have welts the size of quarters. I put on jeans, and boots, t-shirt, covered by a long sleeve shirt, covered by a hoodie (which of course was up the whole time I was in the jungle.) Guatemala also, thankfully, has more lax laws on how much deet that can go into bug spray. I was covered in it – on my skin, on my hoodie, on my belt and my boots. The peace of wild things is all good, as long as they aren’t crawling on me.
I recall seeing all sorts of insects I’ve never seen before or since, from giants ants with tiger striping on them, to the lovingly placed spider webs at head height with spiders the size of your fists in them. I only walked into three or four of those nests. Probably the most disturbing, was a moment with my small group, where I was a few feet ahead and the air in front of me started to waver – it took on a fuzzy appearance – much like the old static on black and white TVs for those that remember them. It was maybe five feet in front of me. I asked the local tour guide, what was I looking at? I honestly couldn’t interpret what I was seeing – it was so absolutely new to me. He casually said – “oh, those are army ants on the march. You should probably take a step back now.” (You should probably take a step back…)
Maybe this is the Unitarian Universalist in me – and our fervent anti-creedalism – but any theology centering the peace of wild things – needs to also make room for army ants five feet in front of you. It’s nice to say, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you, but that’s not vaguely true. Sometimes you’re just very lucky.
Spirituality that pretends we have more control than we do, may be comforting, but it’s not deeply rooted. You probably haven’t been so close to actual army ants on the march, but most of us have faced far worse in our personal lives up close, and lived to see the other side of it. Or maybe you’re facing such a travail right now. If you can, maybe you should take a step back. Some things aren’t meant to be faced head on….We’re not always, or even usually, in control of the big things of life….
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way…”. The peace of wild things is about abandon, and faith. It’s the very opposite of control. What is essential is all around us, but we don’t achieve it by our strivings, we come to it with abandon, as in love or sleep.
On that fateful morning of my 31st birthday, in what in hindsight appears to have been an attempt to activate every one of my primal fears and terrors, right before sunrise, we climbed up on one of the step pyramids in Tikal. It would be later in the day, when I found myself clinging 50 feet up to a ladder that was needed to access a tier where the steps had eroded – paralyzed for a solid five minutes – where another guide would again casually comment later, “oh yes, we added that in a few years ago when some German tourist fell to their death.” But I didn’t know that fact yet. Hanging from that ladder was the very moment in my life when I learned the deep truth that you don’t always have to prove you can do something.
In the first pyramid we climbed though, much of the hillside had been left intact from a dig, and you could gradually climb to the top like you would any other hiking trip in hill country. Scary for some of us, but still doable. In my undergraduate years, in addition to religion, I dual majored in anthropology and archaeology and focused on ancient Mesoamerica. I was not going to miss this chance to see the world from that ancient angle – not because of a hill.
So as I was sitting up top, as the sun was rising, about 50 feet above the tree line of the jungle – you could look out and see for miles and miles – with other step pyramids peeking out from the tree-line. When, with what seemed to be spontaneous generation, dragonflies began appearing all around. They were waking up to feed in the early morning light – but I could not see where they were coming from. Just more and more were in front in the blink of an eye. Easily 30 or 40 dragonflies whipping about within fifteen feet of where I was sitting. It was one of the most magical moments in my life. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. I did not know where they came from, or notice where they went, but for a time, they were all that I could see.
May we attend carefully to the moments that come swiftly, unbidden, in new and unexpected ways. Those new moments to our clear eye, and our quieted heart, are the ancient faith, found in abandon; abandon of our worries, and our thoughts, our accomplishments, and our fears. Letting go, to let a little more of life in, much like as in love or sleep.
Amen and Blessed Be. And I’m glad to say this was the first, and only hiking excursion I’ve gone on in the warm weather months, where nothing succeeded in biting me.
Hello! Today, I’m launching a new podcast series looking at the Spirituality of Doctor Who, a favorite TV Time Traveler for the past 50 years on BBC. You can hear the first podcast on “The Shakespeare Code” over here.
This sermon was preached on July 6th, 2014 in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby/Eden Soy cases.
When our nation’s founders colonized this land, their predecessors from Europe were largely seeking a world free from religious or social persecution. Tragically, our succeeding waves of colonizers would commit the same acts of persecution – this time to the Native Americans – who were here first. They would also persecute, or banish, other Europeans now living in our colonies who had different religious views from their own. Our colonies would become a mishmash of religious practice, segregated in the name of religious freedom. With little sense of the irony of each religious persecution, towns like Pocassett and Providence, Rhode Island, would form when Puritans exiled other Puritans on the basis of religious grounds.
Roger Williams, one of those exiles who built the city of Providence (where our denomination just held its annual General Assembly last week that 7 of us from the Fellowship attended) would be the first Puritan leader to advocate for the separation of church and state. Rhode Island would become of the first places in the Christian world to recognize freedom of religion.
At our start, religious freedom didn’t mean the right to segregate communities or for secular authorities to dictate religious practice. It meant, the freedom to live someplace with the same autonomy as everyone else, regardless of what religion one held. Since then, US courts have upheld that this also meant regardless of whether one even had a religion.
That’s started to change in our country. This week, when a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled to enact a practice that allowed corporations to have religious beliefs, thereby placing one’s boss in between one’s body and one’s doctor. The all male, all Roman Catholic majority, would rule that a craft store (Hobby Lobby) could refuse offering certain forms of contraceptives to employees through normal health insurance on the basis of religious grounds. Not to paint too broad a swath on religious identity, one Roman Catholic woman and one Jewish man would join two Jewish women in the dissent of the ruling. Despite the court originally saying this would be narrowly applied to specific contraceptives that were believed to be tied to abortions, the court two days later would clarify that there would be no restrictions on reviewing lower court cases tied to all forms of contraceptives. This is so egregiously different than what the majority said two days earlier, that Justice Sotomayer would add to her dissent, “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word, not so today.” She would go onto say, “…the justices’ decision in [this] separate contraceptive case “‘undermines confidence in this institution.’”
Interestingly, the contraceptives cited in the Hobby Lobby case were not in fact actually tied to abortions. Apparently, medicine, science and facts no longer have a place in our highest court, as well as the original meaning of the phrase religious freedom. Hobby Lobby claims it won’t offer contraceptives that might be tied to abortions (but remember factually aren’t actually tied to abortions) to its employees, but it’s very willing to invest in the companies that produce such contraceptives because they have good returns for their retirement plan investments (401k’s.) They won’t care for their employees who may need contraceptives for a whole host of medical reasons on so-called “moral grounds”, but are fully willing to profit from contraceptives on wholly financial grounds. That is not the picture of religious freedom I was taught around the 4th of July.
When I hear of our hallowed worship of the ideals of independence and freedom, I have begun to feel like we’re in the story of the fire-starter – the folk tale I told earlier this service. The fire-starter is a teacher who becomes beloved by the people for teaching them how to build fires on their own – granting safety, invention and food. The powers-that-be have the teacher killed and train the populace to revere the idea of the now dead teacher in rituals, and statuary and in celebrations. In the more modern-day take on the classic story of Prometheus, the people no longer know how to do all these things. The people revere only what they no longer understand or can no longer live. I’m concerned that we as a people only revere the ideas of independence and freedom, and we’ve forgotten how to live them in community, with care and common sense. I’m concerned that power and privilege now trump all else.
Our nation was founded partially through objecting to the monarchy. The idea that any one individual was sovereign on the basis of birth and luck, was anathema to our founding fathers. They were opposed to forcing citizens (or maybe I should say subjects) to share the same faith as their sovereign king or queen. Or that any one individual was above the law based upon their stature or position. Being sovereign is the very image of privilege without repercussions, or power without sacrifice. Both qualities are dead ends for our spiritual lives. Our principles begin and end in diametric opposition to privilege without repercussions or power without sacrifice. If we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual while recognizing that were are part of an interdependent existence, as our 1st and 7th principles state, then our use of power and privilege must keep the virtues of worth and interdependence in mind.
This is particularly challenged by the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, perversely adapting the freedom of speech to corporations’ ability to buy elections. This is where we first hear the phrase, “corporations are persons.” Our national heritage, our nation’s founding documents, and our own faith perspective shout loudly that this idea is a lie! We lose each of our individual freedoms to voice and influence democracy when we trade voter transparency for practices of oligarchy where the top 1/10 of 1% get to secretly buy elections, transmute news into propaganda and to confuse facts for simply more partisan noise.
What we’ve created is a world where corporations are persons – except we can’t throw them in jail for criminal behavior, punitive fines often have no teeth, individual members of a corporate Board are often not liable for the debts or liabilities of the corporation they profit from, and there has been little accountability for public malfeasance throughout very visible scandals tied to the collapse of Wall Street and the bailing out of the banks while the individual perpetrators received six figure bonuses for their failure of leadership.
We can certainly reasonably argue for the governmental efforts spent to keep the banks working and our economy from a complete collapse, but there has been no lasting or meaningful repercussions for privilege or sense of shared sacrifice by those corporations. Corporations are not in community with anyone, so they can’t be citizens, yet we’re giving them privilege over people.
If we return to the beginning, looking back at what our founders fled from in Europe and eventually rebelled against England for, we see that we may have repeated familiar ground. “Persons” who are not subject to the same laws as the rest of us, who are able to force their employees to follow the same religious restriction they hold, who can control elections without accountability or transparency, and who can act with impunity – sound awfully like the monarchs of old. Corporations are not persons, but we’ve allowed them to become sovereign. On this holiday weekend, we are worshiping the idea of freedom and independence, but we’ve forgotten how to govern with freedom and independence.
When I moved to Huntington last August I was surprised one day when the lawn in front of what I think is the Town Hall became overrun with US flags. It looked like the photo on our screen today. Every two feet another large flag. It took patriotism to the comedic level. As if all we had to do was fill every other cubic foot with a flag and our patriotism would shine forth. I have no idea the reason for the invasion of flags, nor any sense of who made that call, and who decided one day to take them down – so I’ll not read into their motives or character. But it’s become emblematic to me of a blustery sense of patriotism – all show and little depth. We’re strident with our visible symbols of freedom filling our lawn, but there’s no room to walk there anymore for all the flags.
True patriotism is working toward the ideals of our nation; that all people are created equal. That one’s personal beliefs should not impinge on another – especially not to the detriment of their health, well-being or reasonable exercise of the pursuit of happiness. Placing one’s boss in between a woman and her doctor is not patriotic. Forcing an employee to check in with their manager to determine what religion they now are, is not patriotic. Ensconcing corporations as people, with the same rights as citizens, but with none of the accountability the rest of us must maintain, is not patriotic. Willfully being ignorant to the science and medicine that clearly indicates birth control practices that manage a women’s period to prevent pregnancy is not an abortion technique, and then changing the law of the land based upon your willful ignorance, is not patriotic.
True patriotism is living up to our ideals. It’s also accepting the fact as a community, we’re not all going to see the world the same way. And the answer is not to fight to win the world to our view. Patriotism is leaving room for difference. Patriotism allows diversity of view to have a say – and doesn’t silence it through the force of millions of political dollars. Patriotism is being more concerned with being accountable for one’s own actions than trying to become sovereign over the will’s of others.
In our faith tradition, this sense of patriotism reflects our principles. How are we guilty of forcing our will upon others in our own lives? When does our privilege or power, command the room? Even here, in our Fellowship, are we each ever guilty of the same sorts of things on a much, much, smaller level. When do we have to have things exactly our way, to the detriment or disagreement of many others? How does it feel to be on one end or the other? When we exercise power without accountability, when we demand our way without personal sacrifice, it taxes the spirit. We disconnect our sense of self from the interdependent truth of our existence, and we all walk away a bit bruised for it.
Our nation is feeling a bit bruised right now – to say the least. For far too long, women’s rights have been the battle ground for an ideological debate that is deeply rooted in power, agency, and differing sexual morales hidden behind the facade of biblical text. I say the facade of biblical text, because any serious reader of Christian or Jewish scripture will know that the story teaches us life began at breath. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Gen 2:7” One would think that was clear enough for anyone reading scripture literally or figuratively. It’s strange to pretend these scriptures say anything else.
And I can imagine that for many women, the battle ground doesn’t feel like something over their rights, but over their personhood. I saw a meme (a photo shared in social media) recently that was showing the “We the people” text from the Constitution with three pictures. A corporation with the word person written over it. The second was a church with the word person. The third was a picture of a woman that instead had the word meh written over her. The highest court of our nation just said meh to half our population, and it was said by 5 men deciding the health and future of these women and their families. Power without accountability or personal sacrifice.
It’s tough to end with a call to action. The highest court of our land ruled. In our system of checks and balances, we’re left with trying to influence the legislature of our 50 states to make an amendment to the Constitution. Apparently we need a 28th amendment that places an asterisk next to “We the People.” “*And by the word people, we mean actual – individual – people.” I believe there is already a movement to this effect. I hope it gains more traction in light of this farcical court ruling. In the interim, before such a legislative miracle occurs, we can educate ourselves about the corporations, schools, and businesses that are the most egregious abusers of this new ruling – and spend our money elsewhere. We can also lobby for a single payer health plan run by the government, like every other developed Western nations does, so that no citizen will ever have to rely on the faith of their boss to care for their personal health and the health of their family.
And to those of us who feel real bruised right now. I’m sorry we’ve gotten to this difficult place. Know that your individual worth, and your importance to our community and our nation is not reflected in this decision. Power and privilege will win out some times, but it doesn’t diminish your soul. Power and privilege diminishes the perpetrator, not the victim.