Sunday, November 16, 2014

Staying in Shape: integrity, wholeness, and relationships

So Dana sent me an email about a month ago asking if I'd like to preach today. I was excited to get the invitation, but then I saw the theme for the year was relationships. I mean I know I'm a minister, but I'm still a guy—do I really have to talk about relationships? But obviously I said yes and so here we go.
Now the sub-theme for the month is integrity. Relationships and integrity. As I thought about the sermon, my thoughts turned to Italy and high school. I thought of Dante and his story of a journey through hell, purgatory and finally heaven. He constructed his epic poem, The Divine Comedy out of series of circles—hell has a series of levels reflecting different sins culminating in his meeting with Lucifer embedded in ice gnawing on the most damned of all. Purgatorio and Paradiso are likewise a series of circular structures. We'll get back to such orbits later.
Contemplating Dante's genius, brought me back to the Latin I studied in high school. Alan Santinon was my teacher—I was a reasonably good student, but was mostly known for my willingness to wear a toga for Rome Night. Anyway, the English word integrity come from the Latin integritas—to be intact or complete in itself, integer—a whole number. So the origin of the word integrity contains a sense of wholeness, of completeness.
But what do we mean when we say someone has integrity? Usually we're saying that someone is honest, has high moral standards, is trustworthy. “I did the right thing, I told the truth because I didn't want to compromise my integrity” I didn’t want to compromise my integrity--it's an interesting concept. “I did the right thing, because I didn't want to damage my wholeness.” To be dishonest is to somehow make ourselves less than complete. I do the right thing because to do otherwise makes me less than whole.
When I use the term whole or wholeness I'm thinking loosely of what the Greek philosophers held as the aim of all life and action, eudaimonia (you-da-monia), often translated as happiness but that is too narrow a definition—human well-being or flourishing is better--though it should be noted that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others held often divergent views of what this meant in practice. Still, I think we can generally conceive of what I mean—wholeness is my word for a life that allows one to live fully, with what is necessary physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. In recent years the study of positive psychology has grown enormously—and is dedicated largely to this idea—how does one live a full and gratifying life. Almost all of my non-fiction reading these days is from the field of psychology. Study after study shows that material goods beyond a relatively modest point bring no increase in happiness, perfect health with no supportive relationships is of limited use, intellectual gifts without emotional health also falls short and so on. A good life is one of balance between the head, heart, body and soul. The good life may be hard to strictly define. I think it's rather like how supreme court justice Potter Stewart described obscenity—I know it when I see it.
I prefer to think of integrity in terms of wholeness rather than the usual connotation of morality. I prefer this sense of wholeness because it appeals not to the outward adherence to society's expectations, but rather to a deeper sense of justice and reality. Morals change as societies change. Slavery, sexuality, wars, women's rights, gay rights have all had society's negative or positive moral judgment over time. I'd like to think leaders within our tradition have often listened to a deeper voice than politics, tradition, or theological dogma. They understood and then prophetically proclaimed the singular theme that really underlies each of our purposes and principles. To deny anyone wholeness in terms of life, liberty, or love is to diminish us all. To deny anyone wholeness in terms of life, liberty, or love is to diminish us all. All human beings desire wholeness and that should be the aim of society—human well-being, flourishing, not wealth or power. And wholeness requires participation in society's decisions; it requires adequate food, water, and shelter; it requires healthcare; it requires the right to love who you love; to free speech and free spirituality, and it requires a clean, sustainable environment in which to live—that really covers most of our seven .
Most importantly perhaps, wholeness knows satiety (sah-tie-it-tee), knows when enough is enough. Emptiness, ironically, is what primarily propels us toward massive homes and cars—and the environmental and emotional impact of our unfortunate quest to possess external space when it really is an interior hole we seek to fill—when we lack true integrity, when we lack wholeness.
And let me be clear, I am not holding myself out as the model here. I struggle with this too—probably more than many of you—as Julia would attest, pointing to my ever-expanding collection of hiking gear. I know that fear drives much of the behavior that I find most unhealthy in myself. I know that I struggle to live a life of wholeness and to cultivate that in others. In fact, that may be as good a summary as I can articulate regarding the ministry I do---to try to inspire and create the conditions in which individuals and communities can live lives of wholeness.
Metaphors of wholeness and shape are widely used when we talk about integrity in a broader sense. Someone who is not right is said to be “twisted” or somehow missing pieces, “a few sandwiches short of a picnic” “not playing with a full deck.” When we're feeling upset we might say that we're “bent out of shape.”
And for something to be bent there must be some kind of force applied. What is it then that makes us less than whole, what compromises our integrity, and ultimately our relationships? I would say that there is a particular emotional, psychological, spiritual force that distorts us the most--a feeling that subverts almost everything else and distracts the nobler impulses of the soul out of sometimes quiet, sometimes screaming, desperation.
In the end, what we constantly struggle against is fear. Fear is what separates us from each other and, indeed, from ourselves. Fear is what bends us out of shape, robs us of completeness, the ultimate compromiser of our integrity. Fear of the other, fear of losing power, fear of not being enough, fear of being vulnerable, fear that the universe is against us. {Fear keeps us out of sorts, out of shape, out of time, out of place.} Think about any time you've lied or compromised your integrity. Fear, I'd wager, was at the center of that breach. Fear of punishment, fear of speaking out, fear of insufficiency--emotional as much as material. When we can move past fear, we step into a brave new world. Dante has to travel all the way through hell and then climb past the devil himself just to get to purgatory let alone paradise. Rejecting fear helps lead us to a place where make choices informed by our strengths and by reality. I am not saying that there are no risks or dangers in life to be afraid of. No, they are real and all too common—the question is what happens if fear is the primary driver of our choices. Fear was the blunt evolutionary instrument of our ancient animal ancestors who faced immediate physical risks and lacked the pre-frontal cortex that allows one to contextualize risk and make judgments—to move toward that which is difficult, that which we fear. As Rilke wrote, “we must trust in what is difficult.” And most of our daily fears are no longer inspired by the tiger in the dark, but by the judging gaze of our social group or the warping effects of a culture obsessed with money and youth.
Fear is the whisper in our hearts and heads that make us ask if we are thin enough, smart enough, rich enough, sexy or sexed enough, masculine enough, feminine enough, talented enough--- good enough. Fear is what sabotages relationships as well as our own integrity. Fear sabotages our national integrity on topics like immigration, gay rights, healthcare, military spending, privacy, and certainly guns. Fear will make us give up on anything or anyone.
Fear of lack is what drives greed, fear that others might have more or better drives economic injustice and our insatiable consumerism, fear that others will snatch up what I need or keep me from living my own life of wholeness drives war and conflict the world over. Fear is far more contagious than any physical disease.
The snake in the garden was not evil, it was fear. Fear is what drives us to create mythologies that ultimately create more fear.
We lose our wholeness when we allow fear to guide our choices. The emotion of fear isn't the issue—everyone feels fear. It only compromises our integrity when we allow it to move us. And unfortunately one of the directions it tends to move us is away from healthy relationships. I'm trying very hard these days to pause when I feel stressed, angry, indignant, or embarrassed and ask what feeling is at the center of the experience—and it is almost always fear if I dig deep enough.
A lack of wholeness is part of what ruins relationships. At some deep level we know we must have good boundaries, be individuals, be whole in and of ourselves. When one or both partners or the overall family system doesn’t allow for this development of individual wholeness—the system weakens, the individuals struggle and lash out, and relationships are broken—all integrity eventually lost.
But it doesn't have to be this dramatic—indeed it often isn't. Fear isn't just a ravening monster that devours all in its path, fear is also the thousand and one ducks that slowly peck us to death.
A friend recently reposted a list of tidbits he'd seen about good relationships. There's a million of these and I tend to ignore them, but my friend is a smart guy and a Jungian psychologist so I figured I'd take a look. Many were common suggestions, but one stood out. “Relationships are not a cure for loneliness.”
How many folks have seen the movie Jerry Maguire? Fair number. Tom Cruise's character famously walks in during the last scenes, looks at Renee Zellweger soulfully and says, “You....”? Right, “You complete me.” Sweet sentiment, but what does that say for his integrity, his own wholeness? I don't want to make too much out of a generally enjoyable movie—but I think about the failed relationships of my own past and about some of the couples I've worked with as they prepared for marriage. The strongest relationships are not the ones in which each completes the other—the best relationships are ones where each protects and nourishes the growth of the other, the wholeness of the other—stands guardian over the solitude of the other, as poet Rilke noted—to help the other find their integrity.
I know some of this first hand. I grew up in a family that had few boundaries, didn't understand healthy relationships, and focused way too much on acquisition and intellectual accomplishment. It has taken me years of therapy and self-work even to understand the tremendous gaps that I still struggle with. And, of course, we all too often seek out communities that simply match up with our own gaps, our own neuroses. I remember confiding in a professor when I was at Boston University working on my PhD. Nervously I told him that I was leaving academia for ministry. He told me, in surprisingly strong words, that I would never be happy anywhere else. He insisted that I was an academic at heart. At the time I was terrified that he was right. He wasn't. Truth is, I was quite unhappy in academia for many reasons and it was the move to ministry that allowed me to actually turn toward wholeness. But it was hard and frightening to abandon the doctoral studies I had spend most of a decade on. Wholeness takes courage.
Although we've mostly visited this from a Western perspective, this sense of integrity lies at the root of various philosophical and spiritual systems. The Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching can be translated as the Way of Integrity. Te, while difficult to translate, may also be interpreted as power or virtue. Integrity serves well though and points to a central element of philosophical Taoism—the concept of power through flexibility and adaptability. The 22nd chapter speaks of this:


Chapter 22
If you want to become whole, first let yourself become broken.
If you want to become straight, first let yourself become bent.
If you want to become full, first let yourself become empty.
Those whose desires are few gets them, those whose desires are great go astray.

For this reason the Master embraces the Tao, as an example for the world to follow.
Because she isn’t self centered, people can see the light in her.
Because he does not boast of himself, he becomes a shining example.
When the ancient Masters said,
If you want to become whole, then first let yourself be broken,”
they weren’t using empty words.
All who do this will be made complete.
-Lao Tzu
Again the concept of wholeness in relation to integrity—“all who do this will be made complete.”
This might seem like a contradiction. On one hand I'm saying not to yield to fear and yet here I am elevating a text that tells us “if you want to become whole, first let yourself be broken.” But being broken is not the same as lacking integrity—and the Chinese philosophers understood this. We only lose integrity in brokenness when we refuse to see it or admit it.
A lack of integrity, a lack of wholeness is notoriously hard to escape. It reminds me of the old Sufi story about a servant who runs into the angel of death in the Baghdad market. Death gestures toward the man who runs away terrified. The servant goes to his master and begs for a horse. He rides, fast as he can, to get far away from Baghdad and the menacing angel. He rides all day and all night to the distant city of Samarra—once there he feels safe. The merchant, curious as to what transpired, goes to the market, finds the angel, and questions him. The angel of death apologizes saying, “I didn't mean to scare the poor fellow, I was just so surprised to run into him here in Baghdad since I have an appointment with him tomorrow morning in Samarra.”
Our culture provides us a million ways to distract ourselves from the challenging work of wholeness and justice. We have created entire industries, cities even aimed at filling that void. And we too often pathologize and then medicate the anxiety and depression that comes from this lack of wholeness and the compromised relationships it leads to. Look at what people will do to their bodies with chemicals and surgeries to try to defy the reality of time. Look at what people will believe in an effort to fill the void. But no botox or facelift, no black and white theology or bank account will give you a sense of completeness. We preserve our wholeness when we are honest about where we are broken—and in this honesty, in this humility, we connect with our power and our ability to change.
One nuance of meaning that gets lost in translating Te as Virtue, Power or even Integrity is the animistic quality—the sense of the word that speaks to the inherent spirit or power that imbues the natural world. The mountains, the oceans, the forests, deserts, and rivers—and certainly the animals—all have their own integrity, their own innate state of wholeness. When our own integrity is compromised, when we are not able to be whole, to contain ourselves, we spill out into the natural world disrupting the integrity found there. How else can we understand the deforestation, the pollution of the oceans, the extinction of life except in terms of some serious breach of human integrity—some lack within us that drives us to disrupt the natural world and, as a species, largely ignore the integrity of the earth?
We live in concentric circles, like Dante's imaginings. Circles of relationship: the inmost, our relationship with ourselves, the next circle our family, and so on progressively outward to community, country, planet. I don't have to go all the way back to a poet now dead 693 years to find images of circles, but it's not just the geometry—it's the fact that the inhabitants of Dante's realms are where they are because of the choices they made in life. Those suffering in hell were those who had in some way or another what Dante considered dis-ordered appetites—they turned away from wholeness and followed a narrower, backward, usually fearful path. How often do we engage in behaviors that wind up nibbling away at the edge of ourselves? How often do we turn away from the path we know to be right? How often do we inhabit hells of our own creation?
I have borne witness to many forms of suffering over my years as a chaplain, but without doubt, the people whose suffering feels most intense and most resistant to palliation are those who are suffering in emotional and spiritual pain of their own devising.
Wholeness requires space to assume one's full shape. This is the process of becoming an adult—learning the shape of one's whole being and then striving to live into that form. In relationships then, we ought to listen deeply, to watch closely to see the healthy shape those closest to us are seeking to fulfill—and then support them in that growth. I see already some of the outlines of my son Ben's growth—and I see myself struggling at times to allow that shape to expand beyond the bounds that I've grown comfortable with—to let go of the baby, let go of the toddler and create room for the boy who is already, inevitably moving toward individuation and adulthood. What I seek as a parent perhaps more than any other thing, even more than sleeping in, is to be brave enough, to have enough integrity in myself to allow the same in my child.
So as we leave this place, the question before each of us is how are we going to live with more integrity? How are we as individuals, as a society, as a spiritual community going to live in ways that fosters wholeness for ourselves and those around us. How are we going to strive for this in all our relationships? How are we going to live our lives and our relationships with wholeness, with integrity.
In Dante's vision of heaven, his final moments have him circling the divine presence moved not by money, power, or fear, but as Aristotle suggested, the “L'amor che (kay) move il sole e l'altre stelle.”“The Love, that moves the sun and the other stars.” Love, not fear, is what will move us toward wholeness in relationships, in all things. Move us toward the good life and toward integrity.

Blessed be, namaste, and amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

To the Ground


I am not a psychologist or physician, nor is this sermon meant to take the place of professional help. If you are having difficulties or concerns please get help. Contact a mental health or medical professional. The mental health crisis line is 719-635-7000. If you are thinking of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911. Help is available.

To the Ground”
Two broad areas to think about this week: psychology and theology—for me there often isn't much difference. I've got a strong utilitarian slant to my spirituality. I want to know and share practical ways to improve our lives and the world around us. And I happily draw from any tradition or science that meets those needs. And this has been a week that I feel calls for a certain clear practicality—how do I manage during high-stress times when I am mostly out of control?
I've been asked a lot this week “how do people cope with this kind of crisis, this sort of stress?” Of course, there is no one answer. Each of us is a blend of a genetic inheritance, our past, our present circumstances, and our expectations of the future. We are all embedded in complex webs of relationship that can strengthen or weaken us—and oft-times, both, depending on the moment. How we handle difficulty is unique to the individual and the particular family system of which you are a part. Still, there common human elements that we look to, while respecting the singularity of the individual soul and psyche—which is another way of saying, what I say may or may not apply to you—it's really not all that unlike our overall approach to spirituality—celebrate what we share, honor what is unique. And I think this is important as a faith community. We don't need to have identical answers to find comfort here. I sometimes hear us lament our lack of shared theology or specificity of faith. And, no doubt, during hard times, having an overarching theology can be comforting, but generally it's not who we are. Our values are based in our shared humanity, not shared mythology. And so, during times of crisis we don't tend to turn to supernatural sources of comfort, we turn to each other. Facebook is fun, email is convenient, but nothing can really replace putting a reassuring hand on your friend's shoulder, looking into their eyes and seeing your own worries reflected even as you listen carefully to their story, getting and giving handshakes and hugs. Don't mistake being connected for connection.
I've been interviewed for television a couple of times this week, a new experience for me, and if you want to talk about stress, try being a ragingly liberal Unitarian Universalist minister talking to Fox News. I know it's just the local affiliate, but I kept waiting for them to ask me if I saw the president set the fire myself or just saw Hillary driving the get-away car. Luckily, all they wanted me to talk about was the warning signs and what people can expect to experience under these circumstances. I understand the intent, but I'm also not real keen on setting out long lists of symptoms people may experience when under high stress---I think it mostly predisposes people to start having those symptoms, and, as the son of an Olympic-level hypochondriac, and I myself have placed in nationals twice, I can tell you that folks who think they should be suffering, all too often suffer.
You and your loved ones will know if you're having trouble. Other than thoughts of harm to self or others, give yourself some time. If you're having problems that affect the quality of your life and aren't getting progressively better or are worsening, seek professional help. If you want to know if what you’re experiencing is “normal” talk to me or your primary care provider or a counselor.
In the past few days, speaking with you at Shirley Plapp's memorial or at our Friday pizza gathering, I heard a few themes that need addressing.
First I heard several people say that they don't know why they felt stressed. Other than a little smoke and staying with friends for a few days, there wasn't any real damage done to their lives. In other words, all's well that end's well and so I shouldn't feel stressed. That is like saying if you started at 6000 feet, ran to the top of the Peak at 14,000 ft, and then ran back down, you shouldn't feel tired or sore because the total elevation gain was zero. Yes, your house may still be there, and you recognize that things are fundamentally OK, but that doesn't mean you didn't do a lot of work between then and now. Stress impact isn't measured in a linear equation that just needs to end up at zero at the end of the day. Stress is more like mileage on a car---you may come back to exactly where you started after a long road trip, but the wear and tear still happened to the vehicle. And now you may need to do some repairs and preventative maintenance.
I'm also hearing some “survivor's guilt”--which is a normal reaction. When chance seems in control of whose home is destroyed or preserved, our minds and hearts struggle with the why's and wherefore's. Human beings don't tend to do well with blind luck—we are pattern-creating, pattern-perceiving, pattern-hungry creatures. And yet, the fire, or other tragedies, rarely if ever have any perceptible pattern. Lasting, disruptive feelings of guilt are part of post-traumatic stress issues and counseling can help. Folks sometimes regret not thinking clearly enough to help others, for example. A couple things to remember about times of true crisis—our fight or flight instincts are incredibly strong and very literally shut down the part of your brain concerned with sophisticated thinking. Evolution had very little interest in you pondering the subtleties of sabre-tooth tiger biology when under attack---all evolution wants is to get you and, more importantly, your genetic material, out of harm's way...now. Blake's famous poem that begins “Tyger, tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night” was not written while the tiger was in mid-pounce. Remember that being injured or having your home destroyed would help no one else. And no one who cares about you wishes your home was damaged as a way to make them feel better about their own loss. It's not your fault someone's home was destroyed anymore than you did anything special to merit your good fortune.
Your own stress doesn't have to be compared to someone else's to see if it is worthy. Accept your own feelings. One thing I can pretty much guarantee is that our perception of how “together” someone else is, is almost always wrong---internal experience and external expression are radically different.
My best advice is really, deeply, honestly acknowledge the pain and fear of these events. Even if your home was not damaged or destroyed, being forced to leave it in a rush, unsure if you grabbed what you needed, unsure if you'd see it again, if you were physically safe, if friends were OK, the smoke that turned day into night and the flames at your back---sounds pretty stressful to me. Sit down with a friend, here or elsewhere, try to relax your body, know that you are safe in the moment, and just tell your story. Our lives are stories we tell ourselves and others—every event in our life has to be integrated with our narrative—when we don't, when we are so traumatized by painful or frightening events that we refuse to acknowledge and incorporate them, our minds can keep those memories active—waiting to be integrated. Active memories of high stress events can persist—causing things like flashbacks or nightmares. These un-integrated memories retain their power and so keep stimulating that fight or flight reaction—and so we stay keyed up, anxious, unsettled. You don't have to like what happened and I'm not saying you need to come to some rosy, “I'm a better person now” resolution, you don't have to like it, but you do you need to accept it—and in doing so let those memories integrate and then lose their power over you. This is true of this fire or most other traumatic events.
I want to take a few moments to go over something I talked about last time I was up here. In a nutshell, our autonomic nervous system has two opposing modes—sympathetic or parasympathetic. Sympathetic dominance basically means fight-or-flight and stress. Great for escaping from a tiger, burning brightly or otherwise, but not good for day to day living. The other side, the parasympathetic is the rest-and-digest mode. This is where we really should be most of the time. Unfortunately we perceive way too much of daily life as a threat and so we tend to live sympathetically dominant and over-stimulated. Without going into much detail, there are a couple quick ways you can shift yourself toward parasympathetic dominance and so, essentially, force your body to relax. And it is all but impossible to be stressed feeling or traumatized if you have a relaxed body. So, let's do what we did last time. First, let your gaze open up—expand your peripheral vision—sympathetic vision is narrow, tight; parasympathetic is relaxed and open. Hold that for 30 seconds or so and you basically force your body into that rest-and-digest mode. The other, very powerful, technique involves, yep you remember, sitting on your hands. Find your sit-bones, then find the tops of your hips. Close your eyes, make a square or rectangle out of those four points, now expand that square, breathe and just see it growing, expanding. Feel the muscles in your lower abdomen and pelvis relax. You're taking the pressure off the inferior portion of the vagus nerve which is part of what controls the autonomic nervous system. When those muscles are relaxed, you can't be physically stressed—and your mind will follow. You may still be afraid, or worried, but you won't have the negative effects of physiological stress and you'll gain the benefits of being parasympathetically dominant—calmer clear thinking, lowered pulse, deeper breathing, and reduced muscular tension. Learn to monitor your stress level and use these techniques to shove you back into balance—and you can learn to do it pretty automatically.
I haven't said much about children, the main thing they need is be reassured that they are safe, that adults in their life are in control, and to have sense of routine. Help them express themselves as well—art projects can be a great way to see what's going on in those little heads. Like adults, they need to be heard in their worries, process, and feel connected and reassured. It's not unusual for kids to act out a bit, regress developmentally a bit, or be extra clingy under high stress. Their resources are far more limited than adults’—this even goes for teens who often feel out of control anyway even if they can't name it as such. Make extra time for your children—your attention is the most important thing to them. Their world changes so rapidly as they develop that they really need a stable container in which they can grow—and crisis shakes that up pretty hard.
And that brings to a close the psycho-babble portion of our program—on to theology.
So, not the best week ever for the Springs. How do we think about this spiritually? Merle graciously wrote the order of service, so I didn't need a title for my sermon, but as I visited with many of you at Shirley's memorial service, as I sat with hospital staff who have lost their homes, watched the constantly-on television in the incident command room at Memorial, listened to KRCC, a phrase kept entering my mind: "To the ground." People I know, colleagues at work, members of this congregation, have had their homes burned to the ground.
I teach classes on end of life at the hospital and in the community. One thing I tell my students is that it is OK, important even, to use the "D" word. Don't say "lost," don't say "passed away." Say "dying," "died," "dead." I can see their reticence, their worry that to speak too plainly causes more harm, as if the euphemisms and circumlocutions somehow take the sting out of death--but, of course, no artful turn of language provides any lasting balm against loss. So when I think about what so many in our broader community have endured, what some of our dear ones right here have come home to, I don't want to minimize it by saying "lost in the fire" as if, once the smoke clears, these structures might be found again. Our friends’ and neighbors’ houses have been, in many cases, burned to the ground. Burned to the ground often with decades of the happy flotsam and jetsam of a full life now gone.
To the ground” sounds harsh, but I began to realize why those three words did not feel entirely devastating to me. When I think of "to the ground" two others explications—both spiritual in nature---come to mind.
First is the ground itself, this wonderful earth that we float about on--our Blue Boat Home. While the human cost of this fire has been both staggeringly large and small at the same time---lots of homes damaged or destroyed, so few dead or injured—the cost to the earth comes to mind, and again how staggeringly large and small at the same time. I hurt for the landscape that I love so much—and I'm afraid of what our beautiful mountains will look like when the fire is gone and all that's left is blackened ground. But our planet has recovered from so much worse—and will recover from this. Life always has and always will arise out of death—there is no other way. The death of stars created the atoms that make us up, our own existence is built on generations of death, and we ourselves will eventually make room for those to come. New life will come to our mountains, indeed renewed by the destruction we've witnessed. What can be reborn out of our own ashes, the losses we endure physically, emotionally, or spiritually? All change involves loss—sometimes the cost is light, sometimes it is much higher and not chosen.
But we always have the ability to respond to our life, we always have the ability to choose how we respond to the events of our lives. Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl based an influential school of psychology on this very premise—and he suffered tremendously at the hands of the Nazi's, far worse, I dare say, than any of us did this week. He writes of this revelation:
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles... The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. ...Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. ...
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
And Frankl's words brings me to the final point. The second perspective that comes to me when I say to myself "to the ground" is even more explicitly theological. I think of going “to the ground” of being, what some call "God" or "Goddess" and I tend to simply think of as “Mystery.” The underlying, supportive mystery from which we ourselves, the earth, our fellow animals, the weather and even the fire itself all arise and participate. So, without any intention of being flip, when our houses, literally or figuratively have been burned to the ground, how do we return to the ground of life, of being. And, as we began, so we end. There is no one answer. How do you feel connected to the deep mystery of life? What intentional work have you done, will you do, to remind yourself that at the deepest level, no matter what happens to you, you are a beautiful, integral, necessary part of this heart-breakingly exquisite intricate existence? One answer that I do believe is universal is Love—the way we connect to the ground of being is through giving and receiving love. So give the love and help you can, ask for the love and help you need. Find connection, even in the midst of the smoke and the dark, especially when things seem worst, reach out for and in love. Blessings to us all.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Past Perfect, Future Perfect....Present Tense



Hi,  thanks for stopping by my blog.  I so appreciated the positive feedback on today's service and the sermon.  I want to make sure folks understand my statements about the past-perfect and future-perfect ideas really imply no judgement or blame on my part--not about Matthew or Roger's ministry or about the financial choices the congregation or board made about our current home.  They are there as illustrations of the fuzzy nature of looking back or forward.  High Plains is an amazing congregation that, from my perspective, has made consistently good choices over the years that, like any choices, sometimes turn out the way we hoped and sometimes not.  The point is to see where we are now and respond thoughtfully and faithfully--as I know we will.  --N


Past Perfect, Future Perfect...Present Tense
a sermon for High Plains Church UU, May 20, 1012
So does anyone actually pay attention to the title of the sermon? Does it create expectations for you? So I titled this sermon “Past perfect, future perfect...present tense” which, a couple of months ago when I came up with it, I thought was pretty clever. I, of course, then have to write a sermon to go with that title which isn't always easy. It's like trying to place the cherry on top of a sundae when nothing much else is in the little parfait cup. And, I'll tell you, I rewrote 80% of this sermon at 4:00 this morning when I realized I wanted to say something different.
So who are the real grammar geeks in the audience? Come on, don't be shy, in as over-educated a group as this there's bound to be some. So who wants to define the past-perfect and future-perfect in terms of tense? See, you call yourselves geeks but really, you can't quite figure out if it's affect or effect, who versus whom—and here I am asking you to define the “past-perfect” or pluperfect.
Now, I would be lying to you all, if I don't admit I had to look it up. This stuff is confusing—hell, there's a reason they call it “tense.” The past-perfect refers to an action that happened before another past action. “Things had been fine, until I gave the sermon title to the worship team.” And that gap between the one action and the other—both now done, not to be undone—both in the irretrievable past is the past-perfect tense. Now mind that gap, we'll talk about it more in a few minutes—that gap between past perspectives is important. What are some other examples we might come up with-- “this place had been fine, until Matthew left” or “the congregation had been on track, until Roger came” or, for that matter, “I had been really enjoying church, until Roger was forced to leave.” Do those sentences so familiar to anyone? Have you written that history for yourself or this church?
Future perfect isn't that different—an action that takes place before a time in the future. Example from ten days ago: “it's ok to write the sermon next week, because nothing will have happened that might make that difficult.” “Will have” is the key here. “It's OK to take on this mortgage because the church will have grown or the golf course will have made enough money by the time we need to start paying it back.” The future-perfect is all about assumptions. And here's that gap again—between what we planned, past and future, and what is. Mind the gap.
Well, now that I've caused disturbing flashbacks to college writing 101 in two-thirds of the audience, and made somewhat vague references to the London subway system, we can move on to the real subject. Whatever we tell ourselves about the past or the future, what we actually have to work with is the present---and that can be pretty tense too.
That pesky gap, the one that opens up between where we thought we would be today and where we actually are—and between where we are with what we plan for the future—that frustrating, painful, exciting, confounding gap often goes by another name as well. Change. And I don't know about you, but I feel like I could happily be spared a fair amount of change these days.
Change. How many times do we hear that change is the only constant. It's such a trite saying—but it's also certainly true---the only things that don't seem to change are the inanimate and the dead—and I say “seem” for even both the never-alive and the once-alive are acted upon by the universe and do transform over time, coming from the stars and eventually returning to them as well. So all changes, everything is in flux, and yet for something so absolutely pervasive, so completely inevitable, it can be so hard for us. Harder for us, we assume, than for the rock because we have the twin curse and blessing of awareness. We are such paradoxical creatures—so resistant to change and yet, on some level we are absolutely hardwired for change and challenge—indeed every single being in this room is changing at a frantic rate—we are aging, digesting, growing, repairing, learning, dying. I don't say much with certainty, but this I can make as an absolute pronouncement—not a single person here, man, woman, or child will leave this place exactly as they were when they entered. It is a physical, temporal, and hopefully spiritual and intellectual impossibility. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it 2500 years ago—you cannot step in the same river twice---the river is different and, more importantly, of course, so are you. At his death, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said that all things were vayadhammā saṅkhārā ---a wonderful Sanskrit phrase that both implies that all things are subject to decay, to change, and that all experiences are, in some sense, unsatisfactory because of this ceaseless entropy.
As many of you know, the theology that motivates my thinking most deeply is Buddhism, and I think basic Buddhist psychology is correct in it's diagnosis about why we struggle so much with something so inevitable and essential to our nature. Change is difficult for us because of the gap that almost always opens up between the course we've set for ourselves and the actual road we find ourselves on. And the degree of symptoms we feel—the anxiety, the anger, the sadness, the frustration---are often directly proportional to the distance between what we think should be and what actually is. And so we resist change because we know we may wind up someplace we don't want to be—and the loss of that future perfect state, which was never actually real, is too hard and we fear we won't be able to adapt to a new reality.
I think we experience this in ways both large and small all the time. I experience it when writing sermons frequently---it is, after all, a somewhat odd thing to sit down and try to be insightful—and where a sermon winds up isn't always where I thought I would be—and that can be, to be honest, stressful. I can see in the, sometimes quite great, distance where I thought my sermon would end up, and yet, here I am, someplace quite different. And the more I struggle and try to get back to where I had projected myself into the future as my goal, the more stressed I feel, the more tense I get---and the recipe for trauma, both large and small, is undergoing unpleasant experiences in a state of tension.
This applies to relationships as well—and to groups also, not just individuals. Where we thought we would be as a congregation, the hopes we had, that future perfect, or at least future-pretty-good state, we had anticipated and where we find ourselves are likely two different places emotionally, spiritually, financially—and the more we struggle, the more suffering we experience. And loss recapitulates other losses—so the past-perfect intrudes—how good things were then before something else happened. And yet again we find ourselves in the present...tense.
Now please be clear, I'm not saying that just ignoring one's sadness at past disappointments or dismissing the genuine pain that arises when our hopes are dashed is the way to happiness. Those emotions are real and important, and need to be honored and, in some sense, metabolized. I am not in anyway saying that those hurt by past actions of the minister or congregation should be told to “get over it.” Nor am I saying we shouldn't mourn the loss of those hopes and goals that have now changed. What I am saying is that awareness of these gaps, indeed acknowledging them fully is needed before we can realign ourselves with what is and reduce some of the tension we may feel.
This is a time of transitions. The person we called to be our minister has left, our director of faith formation, Laura, just resigned, we are struggling with growth, both generally and with the move from a pastoral to program-sized church, and just yesterday we had what I believe was the first memorial service in this space for Ulf Fagerquist, now of blessed memory. Change is endless for us as individuals, families, communities, and countries. And there is a catchy name for those individuals and groups who don’t master change, anyone know what it is…those who don't learn how to deal with change are sometimes call “extinct.”
So given the ubiquity of change, the inevitability of change, the question then must be—how do we deal with it—as individuals and as a congregation of people bound not by theology or dogma but by shared ideals and hopes. And this sermon, indeed this church, is useless unless we take the events in the life of this church as opportunities to reflect on our lives more broadly—I think there are few people here because they feel the fate of their immortal souls depends on their time in these seats. We are here by choice, because of what this community brings to our individual lives—and, of course, the converse is also true—you are here because of what your individual life with all its gifts and foibles can bring to the life of this church and this free faith.
For me coping with change comes down to a few beliefs. First, that we need to really acknowledge where we are broken and not try to hide or deny it. Joe played Peter Mayer's song, Japanese Bowl which talks about a technique of pottery repair practiced in Japan for many years call Kinstugi. Instead of discarding a cracked pot, they used gold solder to repair it—the resulting pot has these lovely lines of gold. There's no effort to hide the repair—the piece if often considered more beautiful and more valuable for the evidence of having endured brokenness and having returned to a new wholeness—never the same, but not simply shattered either.
I recently went through some specialized training to become certified in some treatments and interventions for secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. The instructor began the day by handing out 3x5 cards and asked each of us write three things that we have suffered with as a result of the work we do---the room was full of nurses, chaplains, social workers, and others who are repeatedly exposed to the victims of traumatic events—like many of my peers I've lost track of the number of tragedies I've witnessed—cancer and car accidents, suicides and child abuse, shootings and overdoses, I don't know how many deaths. I took my card and jotted down my top three negative effects from my work—it didn't take long. He then asked us to stand, and walk around the room holding the card at chest level, allowing people to read it and to read theirs in return. You could feel the room tense up. We thought we were just engaging in a little self-reflection. I certainly didn't anticipate sharing what I'd written.
I stood and started wandering the room of 50 or so professionals. I saw what I was intended to see—that I wasn't alone in my struggles and that my experience was ordinary not exceptional. We tend to think that our sufferings are unique, our particular brand of brokenness is ours alone. I can tell you right now, that the moment I openly acknowledged how hard some of my work as a chaplain has been, I found more healing than I expected. Confession, as our Catholic brothers and sisters know can be a powerful source of healing. Some here may, knowingly or not, have a sense that somehow we're unique in having an unsuccessful ministry. We aren't of course, ministries end for many reasons, but the pain and concerns are what we'll have to address in the next few years as we move forward. And more generally speaking, the pains we honor and hold up to the light are the ones that lose their power over us. It's the wounds that we keep sealed up—pushed down that keep intruding on the present. Pain is in some ways like food, the only way to derive any nourishment from it at all is to digest it. Pain and food that just lie in our bellies never going anywhere make us sick. And, my experience of seeing some of the worst things that can happen to people has also shown me that there is nothing that cannot eventually be a catalyst for growth and even strength. Viktor Frankl survived the death of his spouse and horrible tortures of a Nazi concentration camp and yet found ways to find beauty in life and went on to found a school of psychology that teaches that we cannot control many of the events in our life, but we can control how we respond to those events—and our response is really what shapes our reality far more than the naked facts of our experience.
Since we cannot escape change, the question again then becomes how do we go with the tide, rather than getting swept away by it. Despite the enormous complexity of our bodies and minds, we are, at some level, incredibly simple creatures. We have two primary autonomic or involuntary nervous system sides: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Our response to anything that scares us is pretty much the same one our ancestors experienced when seeing a saber-tooth tiger---fight or flight—that is to say that the sympathetic nervous systems shifts into high gear. We release adrenaline and a bunch of other hormones which then go to work on us---getting us as ready as we can be to face the challenge, pulse jumps, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, gut shuts down. The problem is that our problems are rarely lions or tigers or bears anymore. Now the fear is primarily generated by overfull email inboxes, confrontations with difficult bosses, traffic jams, and the constant buzz of cellphones—and for some of us, the far more pressing problems of serious illness, financial struggles, and the like. Now, I am not trying to minimize anyone's fears and worries. The feelings are important and real and I'm not suggesting you repress them, but spending huge amounts of time sympathetically dominant is incredibly bad for you—and tends to lead the very things we fear most—illness, depression, and failure. It is possible though to feel the emotions without all the associated stress reactions.
I want to share with you two quick ways to shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. First, as you are willing and able, let your eyes defocus and try to expand your peripheral vision—really bring that awareness to the sides, let that visual field open up. Sympathetic vision is tight and narrow and when we force ourselves to shift to a broader visual field we also shift ourselves toward the parasympathetic.
Second, again as you are willing and able, I'd like you all to sit up straight and sit on your hands—now kind of feel around to find your ischial tuberosities or the the sit bones. Without getting in a lot of trouble with the UUA I can't help you find them personally. Just kind of feel around.
See now, this is a beautiful thing, this is trust, you're all, in church, feeling your bottoms, just cause I asked you to—I love y'all.
OK, found them, now bring your hands up, really, stop grabbing your bottoms, and feel the tops of your hip bones—the iliac crests. OK, now visualize those four points—the sit bones and the top of the hip bones. Draw an imaginary rectangle connecting them. See that rectangle in your mind—now expand that shape, open it up, make it larger. Relaxing all those muscles in that lower core area. If you're doing it right, you should feel yourself relax some. This works for most folks and works because what your declenching, especially when you're feeling stress, are the muscles that then compress the lower portion of the vagus nerve which also controls a lot of our stress response.
And by the way, if you've ever practiced meditation, at least part of the effect comes from this shift the stress-oriented tightness of the sympathetic nervous system to the open, ready, and relaxed states of the parasympathetic.
I don't know who the next settled minister of this congregation will be—male or female, gay or straight, theist or atheist, young or old, black or white, Hispanic or Asian. The one thing I can tell you is that they will staggeringly, frustratingly, joyously human—flawed and broken, gifted and brilliant in his or her own way. Those of us who have felt called to ministry, made our way to ordination, and had some experience learn that we are blank screens to some extent upon which a fair amount of projections are made. You see us through the filters of your memories and hopes, fears and needs. And likewise, we react through filters of our own history---and both sides of that equation need to react to the current reality and less out of past negative experiences and expectations.
Still, one of the strengths of our tradition is that we have no strong hierarchical priest-hood. Yes, ministers have special training, experience, and hopefully bring a certain perspective to congregational life, but ultimately we are lenses through which the energy of the congregation is focused. And this is the real work we need to do—reconnecting with our own sense of commitment to this community. I want to say that again, the work we need to do is reconnecting with our own sense of commitment to this community.
Overall, I guess what I'm saying is twofold. First, the more we can reduce the gap between where we are and where we think we should be—either by adjusting expectation or action—the less we tend to suffer. The more we can let go of the past-perfect stories and the future-perfect fantasies, the less we will experience the present as tense. Second, what I just told you is pretty tough and so we will inevitably experience fractures in our sense of wholeness---fractures from both broken dreams and past pains. And since we all have been and will be broken in this way, we should try to cultivate a gentleness for our companions and for ourselves. We should find rituals of healing and understanding that allow us to show each other these broken places so that together we might fill them with gold—and find new meaning and perhaps even beauty in the very places we felt most torn apart. And, when we feel stress, feel the tension building in us, find ways of releasing it—meditation, exercise, or just feeling your bottom. I am serious, if you can release that physical tension and shift more toward the parasympathetic system, you will experience less as traumatic and more as experience.
The past is never perfect, and I'll spare you the suspense, the future won't be either. The question before us is the one each of us faces every day. How do we live in the present moment, fully aware of our limitations and brokenness, while still having the courage to act? And I think the question itself is the answer—courage, awareness, and action. In a few minutes we'll hear Joe's rendition of Leonard Cohen's brilliant song, Anthem. The chorus, as some of you know and I've quoted before, is wonderful. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” So we've collectively, and some more than others, sustained a few cracks. But those cracks are the opportunities for growth, let us fill them with gold and let them shine. We must live, as we always have in the only place accessible to us, the present, tense as it may be.
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I want to take a moment to point out just some of the resources available during this time without a minister. The caring team has done and continues to do an amazing job of supporting the basic needs of congregation members in need. They can also use help, so I'd like you to consider what we're calling micro-volunteering, just agreeing to do a single task—cook one meal for example.
I'd also like to call attention to the pastoral care team. These folks have special training and experience and have done a great job of supporting a number of our members who are dealing with some kind of acute or on-going challenges. I met with them recently to discuss our various roles. We will be working together to meet the pastoral needs of the church before the interim arrives. I will be available for any, for lack of better term, high-intensity pastoral needs—deaths, serious illness, and so. Any of the pastoral care team can call me if they think someone needs another level of care. I'll either provide that care myself or make a referral to another resource.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cake or Death: A sermon on humor and spirituality

Cake or Death.
How many people have heard of Eddie Izzard? I'm a pretty big fan of the British stand-up comic and actor. I want to play a brief bit of one of his skits.
Eddie Izzard on Cake or Death
Cake or Death. It seems a pretty easy choice.
This sermon came to be after I was asked to preach on light in the midst of the dark, to preach about the role of laughter and joy in religion and spirituality.
It seemed a good topic then and seems a pretty good one today. Am I the only one who feels a need to take another look at the Book of Revelation? Health care is a mess, corporations are people when it comes to speech, but not when it comes to torture, Super-pacs have effectively put our democracy on ebay, our food supply chain is designed to make us fat and corporations rich, 97% of scientists believe in evolution compared with only 32% of the general population, some of our political class want to take women's rights back to the beginning of the last century--if not earlier.
Of course, all of the difficulties and dangers of the world are starting to take on a new meaning for me as I move into my third year of fatherhood. I'm having a great time, my almost 3-year-old Benjamin makes me smile and laugh all the time. I've even started having some confidence in my ability to be a parent. Most every day, however, some helpful person reminds me how overwhelming parenting can be or tells me to “just wait” until goes off to school, or starts puberty or goes to college—then we'll see who's having a good time. To which I want to say, thank you. Thank you very much. I had already been worried, now I can really settle into some prime, irrational anxiety. Thanks.
It is in these moments that I need to do three things. First, remember to breathe—greatest advice I've ever received or given—just breathe. Second, remember that I am blessed with community—not just you all, but others as well. We are only truly human and grounded when we in community. I am, as most of you know, a hospital chaplain and the one thing I see over and over again---the grease that eases life's sticky passages is connection—the more you have consciously sought connection, the easier life will generally be even in the face of tragedy. Third, I need to remember the healing power, the profound sacredness, of laughter.
For this morning let us think together on three elements of holy laughter—choice, community, and consciousness. All three are profoundly spiritual and important in our identity as Unitarian Universalists. And I do feel a need to connect this with spirituality and Unitarian Universalism. Making folks laugh is a noble enough goal, but I'm not sure its enough for worship. These sacred hours we spend together, when we share together our wisdom, our faith, our fears and our love. For them to mean something we have to, more often than not, touch on that which is beyond the mundane, to make a conscious choice to aim toward the sacred.
But we can still, indeed must still, laugh as we do this. Losing our ability to laugh at ourselves, is the first step toward forgetting that all religions are merely windows through which the light of the Divine pours through. Too much seriousness is like an accumulating layer of dirt on these windows—before you know it, the light gets blocked and you spend your days trying to decipher mystic patterns and perceiving apocalyptic visions in the patterns in the grime. Laughter cleanses our eyes, our souls, our faith---laughter, it turns out, does windows.
By the way, how do you describe a schizophrenic Buddhist...someone who is at two with the universe.
I didn't write all my own material this morning—I've tried to draw from several traditions. I'll share with you traditional wisdom stories from Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism---as well as a smattering of UU jokes that have been around the proverbial block a time or two. Regardless of the source, I've tried to tie everything together to offer some ideas about why a sense of humor is a critical part of spirituality.
Let's start with a story from the Islamic tradition.
One day the news went out that Mullah Nasrudin, the great Islamic Sufi mystic, had suffered a significant loss. His one and only, much loved donkey had gone missing What a loss, how terrible everyone said. When his neighbours heard the news they felt so bad for him they decided to go to Nasrudin's house and help him to find his donkey. So they came to the wise man's home and found him smiling and praising God in gratitude They couldn't understand it and asked the Mullah: " Mullah aren't you sad about loss of your donkey?" The Mullah laughed and said, "I am happy because God has been so good to me.” His friends were still confused. Nasrudin shook his head and smiled, “Don’t you get it? If I had been riding that donkey, I'd be lost right now too!”
For me the first message of sacred laughter is that of choice. We don't have a choice about much that happens to us. Life unfolds as it will, but we always have a choice about how we respond. Within the Buddhist tradition they sum this idea up by saying that “pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” I see this over and over again, in the midst of tragedy so intense it sometimes literally takes my breath away. With precious few exceptions, events come to us all that cause pain, events that shatter our hopes, events that we wouldn't wish on anyone. These things simply happen, indeed it is one of the great tasks of religion to answer the question---why do bad things happen to good people? For the most part, the Unitarian Universalist answer is—I don't know. We don't spend much time trying to tease out the cause, we mostly focus on response. God's plan, karma, fate, or simple random chance—we don't, as a community share a single answer, nor does our history offer a clear systematic theology of evil. What we have now, and what is completely consistent with centuries of Unitarian and Universalist faith is that regardless of why it happened, we can use our freedom, innate wisdom, and goodness, and our community to get through.
Choice is not just individual though, it belongs to us as a community and as part of our spiritual inheritance. Because our religious forebears lived and died for tolerance and the use of reason in religion and the right of the individual to follow their own innate wisdom—because of these precious beliefs we are for the most part freed from the idolatries of the mind and spirit that afflict so many other faiths. We don't suppress questions, indeed we encourage them.
Some time ago now, Julia and I were at a friend's home for dinner. Conversation eventually turned to a Air Force Academy Cadet who happened to visit High Plains on a morning I was preaching. After the service he was, apparently, rather upset with some of the “heresies” I proclaimed. I can easily imagine an exchange he might have had with one of our members, the young man sputtering “I couldn't believe the sermon this morning, I didn't agree with practically anything that was said.” To which any self-respecting UU might have happily replied, “Oh well, then you'll fit right in.” We all know the joke about a busload of UU's who die in a crash. They find themselves at a fork in a road with a sign saying “Heaven to the left” “Discussion about heaven to the right” and the whole troupe heading right.
When you join this open-source spirtuality, when you begin to identify yourselves as Unitarian Universalist, you affirm more than perhaps anything else the value of freedom. You leave behind what seems to be the increasingly narrow dogmatism of many faiths. There are tremendous rewards for this choice but also a cost. The cost, as many of us have found and occasionally lament, is the sense of surety and security that comes from letting clerics and texts dictate your reality in this world and the one to come. The reward, well, the reward is a sense of humor. Laughter only comes out of freedom for to laugh is to see difference, to recognize contradictions and paradoxes, to be aware of irony. To see the profound gap between what we hope for and what is reality is to be aware of the tension inherent in existence—and in that space between what we dearly hoped for and what we feared might happen, in that space we have a choice of how we respond. I see this in my work as a chaplain and in my own life. Do we choose “cake” or do we choose “or death”?
An angel appears at a meeting of religious leaders and tells their leader that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behaviour, God will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty.
Without hesitating, the leader selects infinite wisdom.
'Done!' says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and fire.
Now, all heads turn toward the leader, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light.
One of the others whispers, 'Say something.'
The leader sighs and says, 'I should have taken the money.'
Now, obviously, I’m not suggesting anyone should laugh when given a diagnosis of Leukemia or smile when someone you love dies. Nor should we laugh off every insult and injury. We have to cry sometimes, to struggle sometimes, to scream and rage against reality sometimes—else how do we know when life is sweet? I doubt there’s a person in this room who has not at some time enjoyed an unexpected reprieve—the truck just misses hitting you, the diagnosis is benign, the lost child found playing at a friend’s house, the slide on the ice that comes to a gentle stop. Sometimes the laughter bursts forth at these times in sheer giddiness as the tension leaves so suddenly it does literally feel like a weight lifted from our shoulders.
The fact is, religion is often absurd. For a long time I expressed that sentiment out of a highly critical analysis of religion in general. Church father Tertulian famously once said, "I believe because it is absurd." That kind of attitude drove me nuts, still does a lot of the time, but more and more I feel that the absurdity of religion is only exceeded by the absurdity of real life. Cake or Death, laugh or die—the choice is ours.
Humor and laughter are not just individual responses, but are an integral part of what binds us together as humans—they are part of what creates community. To laugh together is to create bonds, and community is the second aspect of laughter I want to talk about.
Laughter, scientists and sociologists tell us, predates speech by tens of thousands of years, maybe even millions of years. Infants laugh way before they talk. Those born blind and deaf laugh. The ability and instinct to laugh is not learned, it is part of what it means to be human at the deepest level. We are wired for laughter. Groups laugh far more than individuals. Laughter is profoundly social—and that perhaps is the key. Laughter reminds us that we are social beings, that we are connected. When we laugh together, I feel happy, I feel love. Nothing else feels that way. I think of some of the most exciting things I've ever done. Racing against a thunderstorm while climbing a mountain in the Cascades. Driving a motorcycle at 130 mph. That's all adrenaline. That all makes me aware that I am alive. But to be surrounded by my community sharing laughter tells me why it's good to be alive. G.K. Chesterton, an English journalist said, “It is the test of a good religion if you can joke about it.” We are bound together as a community not because of shared dogma, but because of shared ideals. Of course, sometimes it's hard to know just what those ideals are—a trait we make fun of ourselves about:
“How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?” “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose an interpretive dance about your personal relationship to your light bulb and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service. We will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted; all of which are equally valid paths to spiritual luminescence.”
The third aspect of laughter I want to speak about this morning is consciousness. Now the truth is that what I'm actually talking about here is awareness of ego as a component of spirituality, but I was trying to find something that worked with choice and community and consciousness has more alliterative value than ego. There are two modes of awareness or consciousness that are important here. First is how a sense of humor is a natural outgrowth of spiritual development. May I be saved from those who are excessively earnest—I don't trust people who are too sober. I like people who can laugh at themselves, their beliefs, and me for that matter. I'd rather hang out with Trickster Coyote from the Native American tradition than with Yahweh any day. Yahweh seems entirely too serious to me. There are some signs of he has a sense of humor—the giraffe, the platypus, my baldness.
I've had the pleasure of meeting a number of people I'd consider holy or advanced souls or on their way to enlightenment. I've also met a number of people who thought they were in this category. Perhaps the most significant difference is how easily the truly wise laugh—at themselves, at their foibles and failings and even at their faith.
One day a rabbi is overwhelmed with the spiritual realization of how small he is in the grand scheme. He falls to his knees in the synagogue and shouts out over and over again, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” The president of the congregation sees this act of piety and falls to his knees, beating his chest, also exclaiming, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” The janitor for the shul sees the two men and rushes to their side, “ I am nothing, I am nothing.” The second man nudges the first and says, “Hey, look who thinks he's nothing.”
The second aspect of consciousness is how it can be happily derailed by humor. Humor can often lance through the tangles of intellectualism to show us wisdom that isn't linear and remind us of truths that aren't logical.
Mara, sort of the Buddhist equivalent of Satan, is walking the earth one day with one of his demons. The demon observes a man stopping suddenly to pick up a shining item. The demon looks to Mara and says, “Did you see that? That human just found a piece of the Truth.” Mara nods and walks on. The demon sputters and exclaims, “Aren't you worried that he discovered a Truth?” Mara smiles and says, “Don't worry, he'll just make a belief out of it.”
Cake or death. It seems like such an easy choice. What are you going to choose today, tomorrow, and the day after? It seems like such an easy choice. And yet, how often do we choose “or death”? How often do we avoid the risks inherent in genuine community for the safety of solitude, the safety of the expected. Perhaps the most basic platitude about life is that each of us ends in death. We all go there eventually---but we don't have to go there in tiny increments every day. If we are wise enough to bring holy laughter instead of mundane practicality or fateful resignation, if we bring a sacred smile or subversive giggle to more of our situations, we can develop the skill of choosing “cake.” Laughter is often our response to the unexpected. It can be so hard to look for the “cake” choice in the midst of the difficulty, but there almost always is one—people with cancer can laugh, those locked in concentration camps found things to smile about, indeed I'm sure they had to---for the alternative to “cake” is “death.” We find ways to cope, adapt, and eventually laugh or we most assuredly perish. We can learn, as a spiritual practice, to be aware of the choices in front of us and to consciously reach out for the laughter, for the healing it brings, for the community it builds, and for the awareness we all come here to find.
I want to close with one more story from the Islamic tradition starring the wise fool Mullah Nasrudin who, in this final tableau, is sitting with some friends drinking coffee, discussing their eventual deaths:
"When you are in your casket,” one of the friends asks,”and friends and family are mourning, what would you like to hear them say about you?"
The first man says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and a great family man."
The second says, " I would like to hear that I was a wonderful school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow."
Nasrudin says, " I would like to hear them say... LOOK!! HE'S MOVING!!!"
Cake or death. Blessed be, amen, and namaste.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, February 27, 2012

Skeptical, Practical, Mystical

Skeptical, Practical, Mystical
Over the last few years I've been retooling my theology some. Over the years I've discarded, or in some cases lost, so much that I once believed in that I realized that the tapestry of my faith was looking a bit threadbare. I needed some new threads to weave in—ones that are both stronger and more colorful than the one's I'd let go. [And isn't that the beauty of Unitarian Universalism, when we see a gap in our faith we have the freedom to go out and seek that which we need and bring it home to share.] A combination of working with a Jungian psychologist, a Catholic priest some of you met recently, Father Bill, becoming an older parent, as well as some reading and meditation led me to realize some specific needs I have for my spirituality. I hope to always have a fluid, evolving spiritual life, but three themes will, I imagine, remain steady. Of my faith, I choose that it be skeptical, practical, and mystical.

Way too many years of the academic study of religion left me with a lot of knowledge about how religion functions sociologically and how all religions morph over time and steal from other traditions. Someone once said, “The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep at night." I now feel that way about theology. I cannot take religious claims at face value—I know too much about how they're made. And I don't want a religion that flies in the face of basic science or far worse, common sense. I don't require everything about it to be literal, but it cannot simply form a bulwark of denial against reality. Skeptical.

I also want my spirituality to be practical. I have little interest in argument for argument's sake. I love a good philosophical discussion as much as the next fellow, but at the end of the day I want my faith to have a clear, noticeable impact on the quality of my life and world. My faith should encourage me toward wholeness and growth—and moving toward justice in the world. I like author Barbara Kingsolver's take on this, “I've about decided that's the main thing that separates happy people from the other people: the feeling that you're a practical item, with a use, like a sweater or a socket wrench.” Practical.

Finally, and I know this may seem at some odds with my other two qualities, but I do want some sense of the mystical. I define this need for mysticism in two ways. First, to paraphrase David Eckel, a professor of mine at Boston University, mysticism is the experience of union or communion with a larger reality. My spiritual practices have to engender experiences that get me out of the narrow confines of my own ego and make me feel connected to and part of something larger than myself. Second, I also include the meaning of mystic here as “inspiring a sense of mystery, awe, or wonder.” I want a faith that inspires me, surprises me, leaves me staring slack-jawed at the wonder of it all. Too much logic and science makes Nathan a dull boy. My faith needs wonder. Mystical. 
 
And so, having come up with this pithy little triumvirate, I set about trying to see what such an animal would actually look like in the wild. My immediate concern was that this may be an endangered or even extinct species. Does such a thing exist? Everywhere I look I see religions that are mystical, but not practical—too much self-absorbed naval-gazing that doesn't actually move out into the real world of oppression and injustice. Some strains of Christianity suffer from this through an excessive focus on apocalyptic mythologies. Some American Buddhists also suffer from an excess of self-absorption, ironic in a faith that seeks to do away with the ego. Some perspectives offer plenty of skeptical, but no mystical—all head, no heart, no art. Finally, some are too focused on the outer world—lots of marches and occupations but no meditation. I'm not trying to be excessively demanding here, I just need a rational god, if there is one, and well-balanced diet for my soul, if I have one. So I thought, read, lived, and struggled with these questions and challenges looking for another path. 
 
Julia and I love to spend time up in the Salida/Buena Vista area and I happened to pick up a flyer for their yearly lecture series during a weekend trip. Michael Dowd, a pretty well-known name in UU circles, was giving a talk later that summer entitled, “Evolutionize Your Life: How a Meaningful, Science-Based View of Human Nature and the Trajectory of Big History Can Help Each of Us.” That sounded pretty-darn promising. Julia is the plan-maker par excellence, so I asked her to help make sure we were up there for Rev. Dowd's talk. Salida is a little further than I normally go to hear a talk, but I was really struggling with these questions of faith and I had some hope that Dowd's perspective might be helpful. I went, and I was amazed and inspired. How many have heard Michael or his wife, Connie Barlow, speak? I highly recommend them, and I'll just say right now I think we should make a strong effort to bring them in sometime soon.

I haven't the time this morning or the expertise yet to recreate Michael's talk—nor would I want to. That said, a lot of what I'll talk about this morning is directly inspired by his work and I've liberally incorporated his insights. I'd like to speak about just a couple elements of his talk that have touched me and helped me move in the direction of reclaiming an awe-inspiring, consistent, coherent theology. One made me hopeful for a sense of the past, one made me hopeful for the future, one I'm still trying to figure out. I hope you find them as exciting.

Stardust
One of my favorite bands is Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and one of my favorite songs of theirs is Joni Mitchel's Woodstock. Twenty-some odd years ago, while lying in a small room in Kuzuha Japan, a friend and I were listening to the song. I opened up the CD case and read the lyrics and were blown away. “We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.” I loved the metaphorical quality of the lyrics—I had no idea that they weren't all metaphor. The concept that we are stardust is literally true. 
 
You see, one thing I think we can lose in Unitarian Universalism is a sense of place in the Universe—perhaps mostly for those of us who are not theistic or connected through a strong earth-based connection. My friends who are more traditionally religious have this clear sense of a personal god. They have this comforting belief that even amidst the chaos, pain, and suffering that is all but inevitable in a human life, God has a plan and so each individual has a place in the cosmic plan. Matthew 10:29-31 expresses this quite beautifully, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." I don't know about the sparrows, but it doesn't take much omniscience any more to count the hairs on my head. Hell, my toddler can do it. I don't believe in a god who is in sovereign control of the universe. And yet, I so want to have a sense of place within the universe and not just be a small, ultimately insignificant mote of dust on a slightly larger mote of dust. I'd like to think that I am connected to the whole in some real way. 
 
Some of our most beloved and learned scientists offer insight on this sense of alienation that lies at the intersection of science and sacred. The holy prophets, one living, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, and one now of blessed memory, Carl Sagan, both connect us to the universe at a deep level by pointing at the origins of our very being. In the beginning, the sages tell us, the universe burst forth in a brilliant explosion that brought forth the most humble element—hydrogen. From this simple beginning, the stars ignited and blazed. As with most beauty, raw material combined with pressure and time gives birth to the new and breathtaking. In this case, the heavier elements like carbon and nitrogen burst forth as the stars themselves die and cross the vast distances and time to form the earth and then, of course, after billions of years more, something grows out of the earth, the universe has finally reached a level of complexity that allows the cosmos to contemplate the cosmos. Human beings emerge. Seemingly so individual, so separate. And yet, each of us here is made up of atoms that were almost entirely born in the infinite heat of an incredibly distant star aeons and aeons ago. We are, quite literally, stardust. Parts of us have been around for billions of years. I don't think a carbon atom has consciousness, but I can't help but wonder at what some of my atoms have seen as they careened across unimaginable distances and through countless iterations of inanimate and then animate life. 

I know this is different than the kind of connection one gets in a personal relationship with the Judeo-Christian God, but if that framework no longer can hold for you, spend a moment acknowledging the literal truth of your ultimate ancestry. You are a child of the stars, and I believe blessed with that same beauty and brilliance. Your millions-times-over great-grandparents smile down upon you every night and ask only that you shine like they do—each beautiful and unique. And if you want magic, majesty, and mysticism, just remember that the stars you see in sky no longer exist in that state. That light is years old—in the case of Polaris, the North Star, it is close to 700 years old, and yet we see it right now. We can't see too much further back without help, but the Horsehead Nebula light is 1500 years old, and the Pillars of Creation were destroyed 6000 years ago by a supernova, but we won't see it for another 1000 years. And the Hubble Deep Field Image looks back almost 13 billions years old to see around 10,000 galaxies. To look up is to look back in time—and that is magical.

It was just Ash Wednesday this week and, as I have for years now at Memorial, I distributed ashes to Christians who want them. The traditional liturgy includes a line from Genesis, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” It is a touching ritual actually, but this year, as I said the words from that ancient text, in my heart, I couldn't help but hear, “From stardust you came, and to stardust you shall return someday.”

Increasing Diversity, Increasing Complexity, Increasing Cooperation
The second idea that Michael talks about that I found genuinely hopeful was what there is a clear overall direction to evolution, sometimes called 'evolution's arrow”—not one driven by an external force or designer, but as a natural consequence of the process itself—though I make no claims to understanding how such a process began—and I don't mean this as a backdoor invite to some theistic explanation, though I don't discount such reasoning either. Evolution is the story of simple structures coelescing into more and more complex structures. In terms of straight biology, life starts as single-celled organisms and progresses, primarily as a result of external stressors, to multi-celled ones to lizard to furry things to us—incredibly complex creatures imbued with not only self-awareness, but millions and millions of little single-celled bacteria now living in our guts in a symbiotic relationship. This simplicity to complexity has a fractal-like quality in that at each level of resolution you get this move from simple to complex. The universe moves from simple elements, hydrogen, to more complex ones like Oxygen or Carbon. Life goes from simple single-celled to more complex multi-cellular forms. And Dowd points out that civilization moves in this direction as well. We go from small roaming tribes to clans to simple villages to city-states to modern countries to global alliances and interconnections. And along the way, at each level; universal, biological, sociological; there are increasing levels of cooperation as well. 
 
I am tremendously pessimistic at times, but even still, I cannot deny that we have far more interpersonal and international cooperation than at any point in human history. We are, and rightfully so, aghast at the wars we now engage in, but war is less frequently the answer now than it was in the past, and we cooperate on so many more things than we fight on the battlefield for. We are making progress, slow though it may be.

I see us as evidence of progress. We are a religious tradition that has, over centuries, increased its commitment to openness, to science, to interfaith understanding and wisdom. Last Sunday I went to the ordination of one of my chaplains. As I sang the hymns and read the words, I was convinced that we are the future of religion. It may take a very long time to get there, but to echo the now famously paraphrased words of our ancestor, Theodore Parker, when he said, in 1853, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Our sight may be limited, but our aim is consistent on the goal of true wholeness and invitation into relationship for all humanity. We have a better story and one that rings true with what our brightest minds have proven—that human beings are not in the world, we are of the world, as Rev. Dowd say, we grow out of the earth like a peach grows out of peach tree. We understand the interdependent web of existence and seek to find our right and responsible place within it. We have a better story, one that understands that the creation accounts of a thousand religions are true stories, even if they are not literal stories—and our ability to see that the power of metaphorical truth is more important in matters of religion than literal truth means that we will support and promote a free and responsible search for meaning for all people. I could go on, and engage each of our principles, but suffice it to say that we have the better story, and we should be far more willing to let our light shine. 
 
There is one final insight from scientists like Sagan and sages like Dowd that I'm still trying to understand the implications of for my own understanding. Let me quote Dr. Sagan:
We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”
It has taken 14 billion years for the universe, at least locally, to achieve self-consciousness. As is often the case, our wisdom traditions intuited what we now now scientifically. Hindu myths talk about a cosmic consciousness that was lonely and so split it's consciousness so that it might now others, but then forgot that is was ultimately one. We are creatures that have grown out of the universe, this earth and yet our actions so often display a forgetfulness of this basic fact. I'm still figuring out what this means for me theologically. What does this journey toward awareness mean and what are its implications. But also more concretely, what does this mean ecologically. How do I act, eat, move so that I show my awareness of connection and responsibility to a global ecology and community. 
 
And so I went to hear Rev. Michael Dowd, and I was inspired. I started finding a set of understandings that were skeptical, practical, and mystical. Dowd spent his hour or so talking about what he calls “evidential theology”—theology that doesn't dismiss science, but rather draws the sense of awe, mystery, and inspiration from the scientific history of the universe. He told a story of the universe and its awesome unfolding, he told what can be a new mythology. One that can blend science and true religion; one that can ennoble our journey and not denigrate discovery. I am now a convert to this new mythology, though I am just learning it's tales. It is tale that can unite us and help move us forward, both as a specific faith tradition in need of common language and as an interfaith community. What Catholic reporter Jane Blewer brilliantly called, “A single tale of such holy and mysterious content as to capture the soul – scientific in its data, mythic in its form.” I hope we as a community will explore this new mythology together: skeptically, practically, mystically. 

Amen, blessed be, namaste.