Monday, July 10, 2017

Developing a Taste for Zest

For the next 18 minutes or so I’m going to talk to myself. You’re welcome to listen, of course. You don’t have to leave or anything. I may use second and third person some -- you, they, them -- but I’m really just talking to myself. When I preach I try to do what Emerson suggested good ministers do -- present “life passed through the fire of thought” or in my case, “anxiety and insecurity passed through the fire of thought plus a little Ativan.” Anyway, enough meta, let’s dig in.

Some months ago, Dana and I agreed on a date for me to preach. She then told me the theme for the month was zest---and some part of me groaned. I don't really like the word zest. I'm not sure I trust it. It seems a little false, a little saccharine, a little _much_. You see, I like reserved. I like measured. I like sang froid. Zest strikes me as being entirely too energetic. Zest feels exposed -- I'm sorry, is my zest showing? I'm happy enough to zest a lemon -- but anything else and I draw the line.

Zest comes from the the almost identical French word. They just add an "e" at the end because they're, well, y'know, French. No offense, Maryse. Though that said, they do have this weird thing where the person who gets the most votes becomes president, so make of all that what you will. Anyway, the word derives from cooking---that little bit of lemon or orange peel that we add for flavor. Zest adds flavor to cakes, scones, and, it turns out, lives.

What do we mean when we say someone is living with zest, doing something with zest?

Zest connotes engagement. Zest conveys enjoyment. Zest speaks of enthusiasm.

And isn’t that how many of would say we wish to live. The blessed Saint Henry of the Pond summarized it when he said, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” We want to live authentically, intentionally, consciously and with a deep passionate engagement. We want a life full of rich, poignant flavors. Who wants a bland life? We want to live, in short, with zest. And yet many of us don’t.

My wife Julia will be the first to say that enthusiasm is not my strong suit. It's something that causes stress in our relationship because Julia is a very enthusiastic person. She does many things with an admirable amount of zest. If she's going to do something she really digs in and gets the dirt under her nails. Julia makes little happy noises and gets messy when she eats. Me, I am quiet and my fingers are pretty much always clean after a meal. Julia will get up and dance even if no one else is dancing. She’ll sing out whenever the spirit moves her. I admire that...and also cringe a bit.

Enthusiasm, zest, takes engagement. It takes commitment. It takes trust. It takes letting go. And I have trouble with all of that. I grew up in a family where there wasn't a lot of room for my feelings or needs. Pretty much all of the emotional energy in the house went into yelling and arguing. Anything left over mostly fueled an impressive amount of seething resentment, anger, and fear. I didn’t grow up in some Dickensian hell, but there wasn't a lot of space for healthy emotion. There was way too much drama between my parents for my feelings to get acknowledged or validated.

And so I learned not to express much. I learned restraint and disengagement. I didn't practice zest because the only thing my family did with zest was hurt each other. I explored Buddhism and even, if I’m honest, misused its teachings to convince myself that lack of feelings was some kind of spiritual progress.

Ultimately zest is hard for me because it implies vulnerability -- you can't fully engage anything worthwhile without putting yourself out there. You can't dance with zest if you're worried that everyone's looking at you. You can't sing with zest if you are worried about being off-key. You can't make love with zest if you're mostly worried about how your thighs jiggle or if your belly's too big. You simply cannot live with zest if you're routinely splitting your mental and emotional energy between doing what you're doing ...and... worrying about what you're doing.

Sometimes we don't live with zest because we've bought into the culture of celebrity and expertise which says if you’re not really good at something, you shouldn’t do it. Kids don’t usually have this problem. Ask a kid to sing or draw a picture and they’ll usually dig in whether they do it “well” or not. My guess is that there are a number of folks in the room who enjoy singing but don't do it with zest because they fear they don't sing well -- and sometimes that fear is justified. But we too often buy into this idea that we have to sound like Beyonce or Lin-Manuel Miranda. If we're going to dance we better look like John Travolta or Ginger Rogers. I frequently hear people say things like, "Oh, I love to paint, but I'm not very good at it." "I want to dance, but I'll just look silly." Well thank the gods you didn’t do what you enjoy, but at least sort of kept your dignity. How many times do we not do things, not for lack of enjoyment, but because we fear we’re not good enough? Simply put, we think too much and experience too little.

Zest implies getting lost in the moment, getting lost in the joy. And here's where I see in myself the need to get on-board with zest. As I get older I see more and more how useless it is trying to manage other people's expectations and experience of me. Being up here, even as used to public speaking as I am, feels a little scary, a little threatening. Am I doing a good job? Will I say anything useful? Is this just all really obvious and trite? Am I going to offend anyone?


But I can't manage your experience of me. I can't tell you how to feel or what to think or determine if you'll get anything out of my words. The only thing I can manage is myself. I can't manage you or Julia and certainly not my eight-year-old Ben. I can't manage other people's attitudes or experiences. I can just manage myself.

But I'd be dishonest if I suggested that it’s easy to let go of everything that holds you back. Those chains aren't so easily broken. And so zest requires not only vulnerability but courage. Anyone who's overcome any fear knows how difficult it can be. So what do we do? One thing is to embrace life's brokenness. Nothing was perfect to begin with: not you, not me, not America, not Sweden, not anything or anyone. Once I remember that everyone feels some kind of crack in their soul -- that everyone is afraid of something, insecure about something, worried about something -- then I can be more gentle with myself and others. I get doctors and nurses bringing cases to the hospital ethics committee complaining how irrational a patient or family is acting. When I talk with the purported crazies, I see people who are fighting for the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy -- just trying to stay alive. We’re asking them to make incredibly high-stakes complex decisions and we’re surprised when they act out. Any animal will lash out when cornered. And I do with these poor people what I’m learning to do with myself -- slow down, really acknowledge how difficult this is, and, above all, be gentle. It’s amazing how far gentleness can go with others and with ourselves.

Our internal voices can be so harsh. My experience as a chaplain and as a person with a trauma background is that we often talk to ourselves in ways we would never tolerate from other people. If I make a mistake, it’s not uncommon for the voice inside to go on a rant about how stupid or lazy I am. I wouldn’t put up with that from someone else. I see this need in the people I counsel, but I often forget to be a bit gentler with myself. Self-compassion is critical. We need to be forgiving of ourselves and lower the stakes a bit.


And the stakes are usually pretty low especially if we remember how little interest anyone else really has in how we live. I think this is one of those lessons we need most when we’re younger, but I still need to recall it. Most people are as self-absorbed as we are. Ask yourself how much you actually pay attention to or remember the foibles and quirks of others and you’ll have a good guide to how little anyone is paying attention to you.

I’ll be 48 this week and I now have the privilege of looking back and seeing how dumb I was for most of the preceding decades. How much I worried what other people thought. How much I tried to fit in. And I have absolutely no doubt that it simply wasn’t worth it. What do we lose by acting with zest? Maybe we protect a few pounds of dignity, but lose of ton of fun.

Because part of living and enjoying life with zest is acknowledging the finite nature of it. We all die -- some way too soon, many unexpectedly, and a few having accomplished everything they wanted to. Some allow awareness of death to inspire them to live more fully. Some, however, let that specter hover over their shoulder for much of their lives.

And that unknown endpoint requires us to live an examined life. And we can start with something most of us have with us right now in our pockets or purses. What is the item in your life which most accurately represents your life priorities? What do you think? It's not your house, or your books, or even your browser history. It's your calendar. Show me your calendar and I will show you what is most important to you.

The simple fact is, any hack minister can get up here and spout platitudes exhorting you to live with more zest. And if the only effect is to create a slight stirring in your soul and a transient feeling of commitment then we've both wasted our time. But when we get down to the proverbial brass tacks, you are the only one who can make these changes. If you look at your calendar, look at your life and don't like what you see, then schedule your life differently. Ideas are great, intentions are lovely, but I am challenging you to actually make a date with zest. What is something you want to do that fills you, that gives your life more flavor? It doesn't have to be a trip around the world or volunteering to do relief work in Syria. It can be taking an art class or scheduling 30 minutes to do some coloring. It can be a walk in the woods or reading a book you never thought you’d enjoy. If you feel like you've been spending your time wrong, take an hour or a day to mourn those choices and then reorient yourself to the present and future and make different choices. Everyone says, "I need to make time for X." I do it too. It's one of the dumbest things we say. No one makes time for anything. You have every drop of time you're ever going to have. The only choice you have is how you spend your time.

Now if you’re a single parent or struggling with serious issues then there may be a period where you’re focusing on survival more than zest--and that is completely understandable. But I encourage you, even in the midst of those incredible demands to find bits of time for a little zest. If for no other reason than to remind yourself of why you’re trying to survive. Everything passes eventually: ulcers and cancer and infidelity and even adolescence I’m told--and as long as you’re living, it’s worth seizing moments here and there to help sustain you.

People know the musical Fiddler on the Roof? It's the story of a Jewish family in 1905 dealing with the anti-Semitic dictates of the Russian government and the huge challenges of a changing culture. One of the more popular songs from the musical is "L'Chaim, To Life." A raucous song that speaks to the need to celebrate even in the midst of challenges and pain -- indeed, this is one of the main themes of the movie. How does one balance the constant "slings and arrows" of life while not succumbing to exhausted sadness? Life is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof. Zest does not imply obliviousness. Ignorance is not zest. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Many of us feel over-scheduled, under-slept, and being propelled forward at a disturbing rate. And the news these days can simply be exhausting. The vulnerability and courage of zest calls us to stay thoughtfully engaged.

I struggle with this. My job involves bearing witness to an entire catalog of human suffering. And I am one of the many who feel a background level of stress that I never anticipated and that can be directly traced to a Tuesday evening last November. I am living with an existential dread of where my country and planet are going. And I know this congregation is no more politically homogenous than we are spiritually homogenous, and so I am speaking for myself. How do I live with enthusiasm and zest when I fear for my safety, the safety of innocents caught up in a freshly uncovered and seemingly endless supply of hate, and a political system that seems horribly disfigured by money and made dysfunctional by an appeal to the lowest common denominator of our most selfish instincts? I've found myself rather closer to tears these days and more afraid for the future.And here I come back to Jewish culture. Victor Frankl was a Jewish physician and well-known author. He and his family were captured by the Nazis and most of them killed. Viktor survived and went on to live a life of joy, purpose, and meaning even having endured some of the most hellish dehumanizing environments people have ever endured. And he did so, in part, by recognizing that one cannot control the external world. Ultimately we have little control over what happens to us. You can eat vegan, run marathons, and still get cancer or Alzheimer's or be killed by Nazis or terrorists. Tragedy takes no account of love or desire. Frankl saw this and came to understand that the only thing he could control was his response to events, his attitude in any given set of circumstances.

And I am trying to follow his lead and understand that the only thing I can manage is my own attitude, my own response to the events in my life. And ultimately, what is my choice? I can succumb to the worry and stress or I can acknowledge the horror and injustice of a universe that has precious little concern for my own world and still choose life, choose zest. Because I lose much more in the worrying than I gain from preemptive dread and pessimism.

Zest in life is a choice just as it with food. You can choose a lifetime a bland meals and experiences or choose spice. And yeah, you’ll get indigestion every once in a while. There’s a saying about how “I don’t regret the things I have done, I regret the things I haven’t done.” It’s true enough that it’s attributed to a number of people. And generally speaking, I think it is true. I regret more the times I said no, the times I didn’t dance, didn’t sing, didn’t let myself sink into the experience of the moment. It can be hard to add more zest. It’s just like a kid -- they tend to dislike new flavors. But if you can get them to keep trying, just a few bites at a time, they will eventually develop a taste for whatever it is. And we can do the same. We can say yes a bit more. Sing a little louder. Learn a few dance steps. And eventually develop a broader palate, develop a real taste for zest. I hope you’ll open life’s menu and look for some spice.

Thanks, namaste, blessed be, l’chaim.

The fine art of disappointing oneself and others


 A quick search of books on Amazon in the self-help category yields just about 614,000 results.  Sex, just for comparison, has only about 314,000 results.  Amazon may therefore be the only place on the Internet where the topic of procrastination beats out fornication.  Let me also note that searching once for books on sex radically changes your “you might also like” suggestions.  
I myself have bought a number of so-called self-help books over the years.  Some have been truly helpful, a number less so—but even when the book itself has been helpful, I find myself often slipping back into the very patterns of behavior I hoped to change.  I find myself continuing to disappoint myself and others.  I’m not neat or well organized.  I procrastinate.  I’m much more acquisitive than I would like—I’ve rarely met a backpack or a book I didn’t want.  I don’t eat as well as I’d like.  Don’t exercise as much as I would like.  None of these are deal breakers in my life.  But I still feel this sense of frustration with myself.  After all, it’s my brain and body, why should I have any difficulty doing what I say I want to do?
This isn’t recent.  I’ve struggled with this for the past maybe 30 years.  Much of my life, I have questioned how one creates change within oneself.  As I’ve grown over the years, I’ve come to wonder about this frustration and dissatisfaction and question the general concept of self-help as it is sold and bought by so many of us.
I grew up in a household characterized by chaos, emotional abuse and neglect, and even some violence.  My home was not a Dickensian hell, but it wasn’t healthy and the emotional scars I have I’ve come by honestly enough.  And the emotional trauma of youth produces lifelong effects.  From early on I felt a powerful need not to repeat these patterns.  Not to treat my wife as my father treated my mother, not to treat my son as my father treated me or my brother.  Some of the chaos of my childhood left me without much ability to know where to set the bar.  What’s good enough?  As with many people who have traumatic childhoods, I usually wind up setting the bar unreasonably high. But I’m not much of an overachiever, instead I just feel bad about myself.
I started studying Karate when I was 11.  Japanese martial arts became the rock I could cling to.  When everything was craziness and out of control at home, I found peace in the discipline and values of Karate, Judo, and Aikido.
My first contact with Buddhism was through Karate.  Buddhism promised a path to deeper meaning and understanding, a path to personal transformation I started learning little bits about “enlightenment,” and I began to believe that I could, through hard work and practice, become a different person—or more specifically the person I would be if I hadn’t gotten all messed up along the way—the person I was meant to be.  All the things that I didn’t like about myself, I came to believe could be burned away, purified, transcended.
When I was 20, I went to Japan to continue this journey.  I eventually went to a small Zen temple to live, study, and meditate.  I believed that the qualities I found unattractive in myself were like, following a number of Buddhist metaphors, just so much dust and dirt hiding the surface of a mirror—once polished sufficiently I could see myself clearly and that person would no longer be burdened by such substantial flaws.
Twenty years later, I can see all of that as youthful naïveté and a fundamental misunderstanding of what Buddhism and other wisdom traditions actually offer, but a quick perusal of self-help books, seminars, and gurus shows that a lot of people are themselves looking for a truly transformative experience or method.  And maybe it’s out there.  Maybe Tony Robbins really can, as his book title claims, awaken the giant within me, and perhaps Dale Carnegie can teach me how to win friends and influence people.  I may have been naive, but I certainly was not alone.
It’s part of our own tradition too.  One of our Unitarian saints, His Holiness, St. Henry of the Pond, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in Walden, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
Japan was 26 years ago, and for my entire adult life I have primarily identified as Buddhist.  For much of that time I continued to believe in the chance for profound transformation.  Now I don’t claim to be a particularly good Buddhist.  While I’ve done a fair amount of meditation, I haven’t had a regular practice for many years.  That said, after my years of academic studies, I shifted to more practical education.  I have over the past ten years spent many many hours with people from a much wider swath of humanity than I had before I became a chaplain.  I’ve sat with people’s pain, suffering, and disappointment.  I have seen an entire catalog of human suffering.  I’ve spent many years in counseling with a variety of therapists.  I spent two years going through the professional training for chaplains which is a combination of really intense group and individual therapy all in an effort to prepare you to be present to others in their struggles without having too much of your own baggage getting in the way.  While I haven’t been a particularly dedicated Buddhist, I have been working on myself and trying to grow.
 And while I have certainly grown and changed, many of the flaws that bother me most are still right here with me and now I start to suspect they will follow me to my eventual end. This is, of course, not unique to me nor unknown in the spiritual literature.  It’s right in the New Testament in the Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In this passage he points to the central struggle I’m talking about.  I recognize myself in these words written a couple thousand years ago when he laments, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do. …I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
So I have these things about me that I don’t like—my housekeeping skills can only charitably be compared to how Jackson Pollack painted.  I put the pro in procrastination.  Clearly I’m not talking about more profound challenges like addiction or abusive relationships, problems that threaten your life literally.  Those are a different order of magnitude in terms of challenges—I’m talking about the small things that make my life run less smoothly, that drag at me, that cause friction between the life I want and the life I have.
So what do I do with this?  The problems are small in the bigger scheme of things.  I am reasonably successful, reasonably happy.  Nietzsche famously said that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  I’d also say that which doesn’t destroy you, just annoys the crap out of you.  So what do we do with all the ways we disappoint ourselves and those we love?
Last weekend was Rosh Hashoneh, the Jewish new year—a time of celebration and joy.  The high holy day that follows next, Yom Kippur, which starts this coming Tuesday, is a more sober one.  The ten days between Rosh Hoshoneh and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe when observant Jews repent from their sins.  On Rosh Hashoneh, God writes in the Book of Life deciding who will have a good year, who will have a bad year, who will live and who will die.  On Yom Kippur the book is closed and your fate is sealed.  These ten days are an opportunity to change God’s judgment by making amends, seeking forgiveness and finding reconciliation.  Two interesting elements.  First, you cannot ask God for forgiveness from a sin against another human being—that forgiveness has to come from the offended party, not from God.  Second, forgiveness itself is not enough, you must also achieve reconciliation.  You can forgive someone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve come back into relationship.  Forgiveness can be a solo activity—I can forgive my father for how he treated me, but at this point, he died in 1999, we can no longer be reconciled.  Forgiveness is where we start and can be hard enough, but it is critical for our own well-being.  Lewis Smedes, one of the pioneers of forgiveness research said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”
Forgiving someone else can be hard to do.  If I am honest, there are a couple of people in my life that I struggle to actually forgive.  But in my experience, I often have a harder time forgiving myself for my errors and flaws.  I have seen the power of self in the past decade as a hospital chaplain.
On any number of occasions I have sat with someone who is facing their own death.  These are often, as one might imagine, fairly intense conversations and for those who are traditionally religious, a time that can be filled with literally mortal terror.  I remember the first patient I had such a conversation with.  I had myself given up any fear of divine judgment, stopped believing in a literal hell many years before.  But for this poor fellow, the belief that he had sinned against God, and more importantly, his very real fear that what he had done was simply unforgivable in the eyes of God was petrifying.  I tried for some time to reassure him that God’s grace and mercy was limitless and that if we had true repentance then we could be forgiven.  And yet despite my assurances and citing particular passages of scripture, he remained unconvinced.  He was actively dying and in absolute terror of what he was sure awaited him on the other side.  I sat there trying to think about how I might provide some comfort to him when a question came to me.
Now chaplaincy is often a bit of a tightrope walk.  We usually have very little time with people, no preexisting relationship to draw on, and the emotional and spiritual stakes are frequently very high.  Any good chaplain takes chances on saying something that might be just the right question and might help the patient come to some resolution…or it may be the wrong question entirely and throw gas on the fire and destroy any good done so far.
This was one of those moments.  My patient was incredibly fragile—struggling with a terminal diagnosis and in a true existential spiritual crisis.  After reflecting for a moment I said, “I’ve told you that I’m not worried about God’s forgiveness, but have you forgiven yourself?”  I was shocked at the intensity of his response.  He began to weep like a child and eventually shook his head no.  The real source of infection had been opened up and now we could begin the deeper work of healing that was needed.  I’ve seen this enough to realize that the challenge of forgiving ourselves is fairly universal and often some of the hardest work we do.
It’s true for me. I can be very unforgiving of myself.  To ask myself for absolution is often to face my harshest critic, my least forgiving opponent.  And in this we can add in the greater mistakes we have made.  We have to acknowledge that some of our failures have been catastrophic:  relationships destroyed, people suffer, people die from our actions or inactions.  As I look back at my life there are a few mistakes that still make my stomach feel hollow and ashamed.
Indeed, forgiving others—-let alone ourselves—-is so difficult that we have created incredibly elaborate rituals of forgiveness in our religious traditions.  Catholics, they go to confession.  Jews, at this time of year, they go to a body of water to cast their sins away.  
For those of us removed from traditional theologies, we must still find a way through the narrow gate that leads to a fuller life.  No matter what you’ve done, once you’ve done what you can to seek forgiveness from anyone else involved, once you’ve made the effort to become reconciled with them you’ll have to—-at some point turn—-that gaze inward.  And you’re going to have to forgive yourself at some point if you are going to heal and grow.  Once the trauma is done, to persist in being unforgiving to yourself doesn’t reduce the damage.  Sometimes that guilty, stubborn, refusal only makes it worse and predisposes us to other errors.
This is what I’m coming to see about the failings that seem to follow me.  I can spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to change them.  All of us, have finite amount of time and energy in our lives. There’s not a minute that goes by that you can get back to spend differently.  And I have a better use for that energy and time than trying to change things that ultimately won’t make much of a difference when I’m gone.  I don’t believe that people will be discussing my procrastination or the fact that my desktop was theoretically somewhere underneath the mass of papers obscuring it.  And I want to spend the time I have being more present to the joy in my life with Julia and Ben and my friends and family.  All the efforts to change myself can wind up—-if I’m not careful—-being a distraction from what’s actually important.  
One of my favorite songs is titled, “Still Climbing.”  The central metaphor of the song is that we are essentially climbing a mountain backwards—we can only see where we’ve been.  It’s a beautiful image that speaks to the uncertainty of our lives.  Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, and so beautifully horribly seductive. We can recall the innocent simplicity of our childhood and youth. We see all the ways life could have been different.  We can see all the ways we make mistakes and become entranced by our errors.
Middle age, I’m finding out, clouds much of what I thought would be my reality and the future seems even less certain as I grapple with the reality of life that seemed so distant when I was younger.  Friends have heart attacks and cancer, get divorced, commit suicide, children have real problems that call for desperately unclear solutions, and career can become an odd trap catching us between the comfort of and contempt for the familiar.
But with all due respect and love to the songwriter however, we don’t climb mountain backwards.  We climb them facing forwards.  We may stop from time to time to rest, take stock of our position, and maybe reflect on how far we’ve come, but ultimately we turn to face forward again, and walk on.  In truth, we can never see where we’ve been.  We may remember, we may imagine, we may dream.  But when we open our eyes, the only thing we can actually see is right where we are.  And life can only actually proceed in one direction, forward.  We march inexorably toward our end.
My growing suspicion is that forgiving ourselves, and better yet, doing the work to become genuinely reconciled to ourselves is the main way to get where we want to go.  No matter how painful or scary, we will need to come back into relationship with the most damaged, vulnerable, broken parts of ourselves.  And it is this work that may be the only thing that actually gives us the power to choose either to change or to simply let go.
I hope its obvious that I’m not trying to discourage people from self work, but we do need to be thoughtful about where we put our energy and not punish ourselves for being human.
I am starting to find some peace with is the understanding that some of my bad habits are here to stay.  Maybe I could get rid of them with enough work, maybe I couldn’t.  Either way, I’ve decided to stop focusing on my faults.  I am coming to terms with the fact that I will continue to disappoint myself and others.  Perfection is just not on the menu.  The return on investment simply isn’t great enough at 47 to spend much energy on these things.
Instead I am trying to see myself as a whole.  And, on the whole, I’m good enough.  Great at a couple of things, bad at a few others, and sufficient at most everything else.  And so the question shifts from what can I fix about myself to how can I honor the talents I do have and, perhaps most importantly, how do I extend sufficient compassion, forgiveness, and grace to myself?  How do I encourage instead of berating?  How do I inspire instead of demeaning?  Over the years one thing I’ve seen is that people often speak to themselves in ways they wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else.  All the self-blame, shame and recrimination don’t move us forward.  No matter how minor or major, trivial or tragic your faults are, most of us are still better off cultivating that a far gentler internal voice.  A voice that is sympathetic and speaks to you like wise friend or parent.  Seek to extend a deep gentleness to yourself.  Don’t talk to yourself in ways that you'd never tolerate from someone else.
  I’m trying to stop fighting battles with my past ideas about who I am and will be.  I guess it’s just part of middle-age, though I’ve seen people at every stage in life struggling to free themselves from the bondage of expectation, self-doubt, and the voice of that harsh critic inside our hearts and minds.  I remember going to see the great teacher Ram Dass in ‘92 or ‘93, a man I thought was as close to enlightenment and freedom as I was likely to encounter.  Someone asked him how he had freed himself from desire and fear.  He laughed, a good hearty laugh and explained he still had desires and fear but that they were more like old friends or little “schmoos” he called them, little things that would come to back to visit from time to time.  They were still there, but he could see them now without being moved by them.  I didn’t understand what he was saying back then, but I think I’m starting to see get it a bit.  I can see all my shortcomings and failings and be moved by them.  Moved to fear and shame, moved to putting on fronts to deny my vulnerability and humanity, moved to spending way too much time on aspects of myself that are as much a part of myself as my face or my hair.  I don’t have to be happy with them.  I can keep making small overtures to whatever is still hurting in me that keeps me struggling in ways that come out as procrastination or desire.  I’m trying to come to peace with the variety of ways I disappoint myself and others and transform it from a painful mess into an art—the art of reconciling myself to myself with love and grace.  And isn’t that where much of the world’s great art has come from—the transformation and expression of an inner vision imperfect though it may be brought into the world by an artist with enough courage to be vulnerable.  I encourage all of us to work on this journey.  Amen and blessed be.




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.