Monday, November 28, 2011

How Large Is The Circle

Yesterday after a couple of moving services at church I received an e-mail from a congregant.  He'd brought a friend with him and something had happened during the service that had made his friend feel unwelcome and had embarrassed him.  The issue was something that was said during the welcome:
"We are an intentionally inclusive congregation and we welcome everyone to our church regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender expression, theological perspective, and even political party. The circle is large."
The problem wasn't with the words themselves, to be honest.  It was the fact that after the words ". . . and even political party," people laughed.  It happened at both services.  And it has been happening, at both services, each week, since this language was introduced nearly a month ago.
I understand that for some it's an example of "nervous laughter."  There are things that we Unitarian Universalist have generally made an unspoken agreement not to talk about in our sanctuaries -- theological perspective and political affiliation are two of the biggies.  So to hear both of these things named in the same breath, well, there was bound to be a nervous giggle or two.
And, too, most Unitarian Universalists self-identify as liberal/progressive folks and it's taken almost for granted that most also self-identify as Democrats, politically.  There is, again, a largely unspoken assumption that Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative and, so, why would a Republican even want to come to a Unitarian Universalist church?  And, so, a chuckle at this seeming incongruity.
And yet . . .
And yet there are people who are liberal theologically, or socially, yet are conservative fiscally.  (For instance.)  There are people who, for any number of reasons, vote Republican and align with the majority of Unitarian Universalist in all sorts of ways.  Many of these people are Unitarian Universalists; some of them are members of our congregation.  And these people hear the laughter that follows our statement of inclusion and wonder if this church really is open to including them.
And then there are other folks who have family or friends with a different political perspective than their own who bring these people to church and they, too, feel the sting of that laughter.  It's like we put out our hand in welcome and then pull that hand away just before the other person can grasp it.  And then we laugh at our clever joke.  It's humiliating -- for that other person, certainly, but it should be for us, too.
Now I want to be clear, I'm not trying to slap our collective hands, here.  I wrote those particular words and was virtually certain that they would elicit some laughter.  I expected it the first week; I even anticipated that there'd still be a reaction the second week.  By now, though, these words have become a mirror, one that it may be uncomfortable to look into.
I have used words like this at some point in every congregation I've served.  (Although, to be honest, the specific challenging category has been different in each one.)  One of my jobs, as a pastor, and one of our jobs, as a faith community, is "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."  It is really pretty easy for us to affirm that "[our] circle is large."  It is harder, though, to keep reminding ourselves that it is not yet all-inclusive, nor even as inclusive as we'd wish it would be (if we're being honest).
There is always work to be done.  As inclusive as this community is -- as truly warm and welcoming as it is -- there are just so many people who have been marginalized, who have come to expect marginalization, who anticipate being unwelcome.  There is so much brokeness, and pain, and fear out there.  And "church" can be a really touchy place for people.  As I've mentioned in earlier posts, being truly welcoming involves a whole lot more than merely allowing people to come in the doors.  It means that we -- the ones doing the welcoming -- must be willing to change, to be changed.  Not an easy thing.
So I'm going to work on tweaking the language of our welcome to soften the "trigger" that elicits the laughter.  And I will continue to search for ways to challenge each of us -- and I certainly include myself in that -- to live more fully into being who we know we can be.

In Gassho,


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gratitude – What Comes Next?

Preparation for the Sermon:  “From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live.” It’s true.

We’ve been sharing thoughts on gratitude this month. Today we’re exploring “What happens when ‘thank you’ becomes not just our continuous prayer but also our way of life?” I wish I could share with you my experiences as someone who has mastered thank you as my way of life, but I haven’t. Not even close.

I have been practicing gratitude more intentionally for the last few years. My partner Jamie introduced me to a gratitude game—one in which I remind myself how truly blessed my life is at those moments of frustration and annoyance—those times when I am feeling particularly un-blessed, ungrateful. It is a very good game, a good practice. I’d like to say I’m really good at it now, but I’m not. I guess that’s why they call it a practice. I know that’s one of the reasons I come to church. Being here, with all of you, helps me practice being my best self.

Our exploration of gratitude, though, has me thinking about the role of “thank you” in my life. When Meister Eckhart said, “If you can only manage one prayer in your life, and it is ‘thank you,’ it will suffice,” exactly WHO are you saying thank you to? Because it’s a prayer, I’m assuming he meant God. That makes sense when you are saying thank you for some great cosmic miracle—the incredible beauty of nature or the birth of a child. Thanking God doesn’t work for everyone, though, particularly the atheists among us.

Today, then, I want to talk about the more mundane, the quotidian events for which we are grateful. Take, for example, an omelet. I’m not talking about just any omelet, but the most amazing veggie omelet I had the other morning at Café Cubano. Hmm. I can taste it now—mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, garlic. This is an omelet to savor, which I was doing quite vocally. My dining partner also enjoyed his omelet, but he took his gratitude one step further, stopping the passing waiter to say, “Please tell the cook that this is one of the best omelets in Charlottesville.” I imagine the ensuing conversation between the waiter and cook, who might well have been grumbling about having to work on Thanksgiving morning, but who was cooking with great care and delicious results. At the very least, I imagine the compliment elicited a smile.

I can imagine her reaction because I’ve had it myself. When someone thanks me for doing something, especially for something I love to do, it reminds ME to be grateful. I think of the time a student said to me, “Ms. Philips, thank you for teaching us.” Really, a middle schooler said that. As you might imagine, this is one amazing kid, so my only response could be, “Thank you, it is an honor to teach you.” Which it really was. But his gratitude, and more especially his taking the time to share it with me, makes me want to be an even better teacher.

The same is true for the work I do in this church. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve filled a few roles in this church—serving on the board of trustees and a few other things. For the most part, these have not been thankless tasks. I’ve been stopped short after a meeting, a class, or a service—when one of you has come up to me and said thank you. I’ve especially appreciated those thank you’s that come at difficult times—when we’ve had to do the messy and hard work of being in community. The thing that I like most about those expressions of gratitude for what I do, though, is that they remind me how grateful I am. It truly is a gift to be able learn and grow within the embrace of this community.

Thank you.

“From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live.”—these words resonate deeply for me, because I know them to be true.    (Pam Phillips)

* * *

Thich Nhat Hanh – yes, another Tich Nhat Hanh reference, and I thought I’d get it in real early this time – tells the story of walking through the community in France where he lives and seeing a beautiful smile on a little boy who was also walking there.  “You have a beautiful smile,” the monk said to the boy.  “Thank you,” the boy said to the monk.  But reflecting on it later, Tich Nhat Hanh decided that the little boy shouldn’t have said, “thank you.”  He should have said, “you’re welcome.”  Because the smile had been a gift to him.

From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live.  Giving and receiving intertwined.  Gift and gratitude inseparable.  “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” as mirror images.

You know those visual tricks where the foreground and the background have been so designed that if you focus on one you see one thing and if you focus on the other you see something else?  There’s the two faces looking at each other and a candle stick or a goblet in between them.  There’s the old hawk-nosed woman with a headscarf who’s a vital young woman in a fur wrap if you change your focus. 

What if giving and receiving were like this, too?  What if gratitude and generosity were really the same thing with the difference being merely a difference in focus?

I want to take what might seem an odd tack here, but bear with me.  Okay?

Over the years I’ve heard people complain about God.  Oh boy have I heard people complain about God.  Lots of the folks who find their way to Unitarian Universalist churches – not all, of course, but quite a large number – have some serious issues with the religious tradition in which they were raised. 

And one of the things that a lot of these folks have a problem with is the idea that God – if there were such a thing – would require people to be good because they were afraid of being punished if they were bad.  That kind of God – the one that “puts the fear of God into you” – just doesn’t make sense to these folks.  And being good out of fear of what’ll happen to you if you’re bad just doesn’t seem right. 

This is the theme of Anthony Burgess’ fantastic 1961 novel A Clockwork Orange and the film adaptation Stanley Kubrick made ten years later.  For those who aren’t familiar with them, the main character, Alex, is the leader of a teen gang who engage in petty crimes and “ultra-violence.”  While in prison he is subjected to an extreme form of aversion therapy that makes him virtually incapable of any kind of negative behavior.  The prison chaplain reflects that this makes Alex’s apparent newfound goodness nothing more than a mechanistic response, like a clockwork orange that would look like the delicious fruit but would in reality be nothing more than a machine.  The book is, among other things, a meditation on the question of whether one is truly good if she or he is only good out of a fear of what will happen if they’re bad.

My only problem with this critique of God is that I don’t believe that this is really what God is all about.  Oh, for sure, there are people who’ll tell you that this is what God is like.  There are even churches that’ll teach this, but I don’t believe that this is what the idea of God is all about.

My reading – and I know that I’m not alone in this – is that, far from doing good out of fear of punishment, we’re supposed to look at the world we live in, to recognize all of the miraculously beautiful things that surround us – from sunsets, to smiling children who say “thank you,” to really great omelets, to great music in church on Sunday morning – and that we’re to respond to all of these gifts by giving gifts of our own.  It is our response to an awareness of how truly blessed we are – not a fear of how punished we might be – that is supposed to generate our goodness, our own giving.

From you I receive, to you I give . . .  Giving and receiving intertwined.  Gift and gratitude inseparable.

Like Pam, my gratitude practice is spotty at best.  Still, if I were to wait until I had perfected this practice before moving on to the next, well, then I don’t expect that I’d be moving on any time soon.  Yet the question comes up for many of us – what comes next?  After gratitude, then what?  Because it seems clear that if all we do is sit around and feel grateful for all the good things in our lives and in the world that that’d be a pretty dangerous practice.  After all, can’t you imagine that a continual focus on the all the good things in your life might well just lead to a sort of pride?  A sense of entitlement?  Of “more grateful than thou?”  (Come on, we know ourselves here; let’s be honest – it’s possible, right?)

That’s probably why pretty much all of the religious traditions I know anything about say that the remedy to such a take-over by pride is to respond to gratitude with generosity.  “Wow!  I’ve been given so much!  What can I give in return?  How can I share from my bounty?”

I’m jumping the gun a bit on our upcoming pledge campaign, I know, but I really can’t help myself because this is what I think those things are all about.  Oh, I’m sure we’ll be talking about numbers and needs – how much money the church needs to keep doing this and that – but I really don’t think that that’s why we should engage in a pledge drive each year.  If that were our real motivation then we’d be no different than NPR – “you know you listen so why not chip in?”

But just like everything else we do here I think that this, too, should be part of the tools and tips for spiritual practice that we offer our members.  The real question isn’t “how much has the cost of copier paper gone up in recent years?” or “how badly do we need increases in staffing or space?” but, “how grateful am I for what TJMC has brought into my life?  How grateful am I for these people and these experiences?”

The same is true of the Leadership Development Committee’s survey that they gave out last week and that’s in the Order of Service again this week.  It’s not really about “we have these holes in our leadership roster and need people to fill them.”  It’s really about offering each of us a myriad of opportunities to find ways to move our gratitude into generosity.

From you I receive, to you I give . . .  Giving and receiving intertwined.  Gift and gratitude inseparable.  “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” as mirror images.

Actually, this reminds me of something that one of my friends in Germany said tome.  She was always astounded that we, here, would respond to someone saying “thank you” with the words “you’re welcome.”  In German, the response to “Danke is “Bitte” which, I’ve been told, really means “please.”  So really the mirror might be “thank you” and “please” – a different feel.

And the really cool thing is that when our response to a gift – the “thank you,” an act of receiving – is “please” – an invitation – then we magnify the spiritual benefits of our gratitude.  Some of the most grateful people are those who give much, whether they themselves have much.  Generosity increases gratitude.

And, of course, if we practice rightly, gratitude increases generosity.  From you I receive to you I give, together we share, and from this we live. 

The truth is that we can’t have one without the other.  Gratitude without generosity begets pride; generosity without gratitude begets paternalism.  But the two of them together?  That’s the key to creating the Beloved Community we dream about.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gratitude in a Complex Context

Preparation for the Sermon:  Can you feel it in the air?  The Holiday season is just around the corner.  For some this is a time filled with stress, maybe with loneliness or with sorrow.  Or maybe even with anger at the commercialism which invades what used to be sacred space and time.  But for me…..  Wow!  Thanksgiving season is the beginning of a magical time.  A time of childish wonder and of rich traditions and memories!   Actually, you have most likely seen the picture of my childhood Thanksgivings.  Norma Rockwell painted it.  The grandparents, the table crowded both with people and with all the traditional dishes—mashed potatoes and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry salad, green beans, pecan pie and, of course, that beautiful golden brown turkey being carried in triumph to the table.

That was my childhood Thanksgiving.  A small Midwestern town. The big white house with the turreted front parlor, the wrap around front porch.  The coats piled in the entrance room on the bench, hats perched on the antlers of the Stag hanging on the wall.  And people….me and my brothers and sisters, mom and dad and my Grandparents, Aunts, uncles, cousins…and cousins….and cousins.  We could be a mass of humanity numbering 30 to 40 filling that big white house with the roars of greeting and the squeal of children wallowing in hugs and kisses from doting aunts and uncles and grandparents.

There was the baby grand piano around which we gathered to sing (Often in 4 part harmony), the living room where we crowded onto sofas and laps and spilled over to fill the oriental carpet on the floor for the stories and the now lost art of the parlor games.  There was the traditional touch football game in the sprawling side yard, and the climbing race to the top of the three story blue spruce in the back yard. And the aromas which filled every room with the hints of the dinner feast soon to follow.  It was idyllic.  Everything was perfect.  Everyone was perfect.  Life was perfect. And the world was perfect. 

And it remained that way until one day in college when I learned that my perfect Midwestern town was a hotbed for the Klu Klux Klan, and home to three John Birch Society chapters and that during the height of the civil rights marches, town fathers were on the roofs of the Elks and the Moose lodges on opposite ends of town with rifles and shotguns waiting for those people to try to march into our town.  The Norman Rockwell façade began to fade away as the realities of the underbelly of my perfect town were exposed. 

And with the passage of time and of childhood innocence, my perfect family began to take on more of the tarnish of common humanity.  I can now see that the holiday suits, dresses, perfumes and colognes only disguised the grudges and resentments and harsh criticism underneath and do not resolve them.  That, in addition to the hugs and the casseroles and the candies and the flowers, other things also come in through the door on Thanksgiving day.  My father’s and my uncle’s alcoholism.  My aunt’s mental illness.  My cousin’s teen-age pregnancy.  My sister’s rape.  My cousin’s drug dealing and drug abuse.  These were also present within the annual family gathering.  As a wide eyed boy I was totally oblivious to most of this history.  Even in adulthood it was never discussed –seldom even acknowledged openly. 

Yet this morning, I can still recall those Thanksgivings of my childhood and how they were filled with love, with music and laughter, the sense of belonging.  I no longer see the world as perfect or my family as perfect.  And, despite the erosion of some of my childhood naïveté, this remains a Norman Rockwell, magical time for me.  I celebrate with thanksgiving for the goodness that coexists in the midst of the imperfection.  It is a time to gather together, to remember, to celebrate and to be grateful.  Happy Thanksgiving.    (Bob Kiefer)                                                                                                   
* * *

The Thanksgiving legend begins in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The original feast was probably held in early October 1621 and was celebrated by the 53 Pilgrims who survived that first year, along with the Wampanoag chief Massasoit and 90 of his men. Rather than the one day event we’ve become accustomed to – followed by the obligatory “Watching of the Football Game” –  this so-called “first thanksgiving” apparently lasted for three days and featured a menu including numerous types of waterfowl, wild turkeys, fish, and lobster, procured by the colonists, and five deer brought by the Native Americans.  (Right now there’s a debate among some of my friends on FaceBook about whether or not seal was also on the menu.)
Of course, now that I live here instead of on Cape Cod I feel compelled to note that many historians point out that the first thanksgiving celebration in what would become the United States was actually held here in Virginia, where Thanksgiving services were routine as early as 1607.  (Take that, Massachusetts!) 
Be that as it may, though, in the popular mind the “first Thanksgiving” took place in Plymouth, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has staged a reenactment of Thanksgiving each year since 1921 (which was the 300th anniversary of that 1621 harvest festival).  People gather in 17th  century costume at a church on the site of the Pilgrims' original meeting house. After prayers and a sermon, they march to Plymouth Rock. Not surprisingly, this annual event has become something of a tourist attraction.
1970 was the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim's arrival.  Wamsutta, a Wampanoag elder, had been invited to the festivities to speak on behalf of the Native peoples.  The planning committee saw a copy of Wamsutta's intended remarks in advance, however, and they expressed concerns over what they described as the "inflammatory nature" of the speech.  They actually went so far as to have a PR person rewrite it and they told him that he could either read their revision or be disinvited. 
So Wamsutta left the event and went to nearby Coles Hill, near the statue of Massasoit, and delivered his speech.  A plaque, the one pictured on the cover ofyour order of service, marks the spot.  This is, in part, what he said:
"It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.
Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.
Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years?"
The Thanksgiving legend and the Thanksgiving reality do not always line up neatly.
In Steve Amick's book The Lake, The River, and theOther Lake, there is a scene which reminded me of something the theologian Fred Buechner said about the Christian Scriptures – it’s "not too good to be true, it's too good not to be true."  As far as I can tell, nothing like this ever actually happened, but it should have . . . and it most certainly has in countless imaginations.  The scene involves Chief Joseph One-Song, an apparently fictional Ojibwe chief who, as one character put it, "knew how to make a statement."  In  the story Chief One-Song is invited to speak before the U.S. Congress in January 1837 at the granting of Michigan's statehood.  Let me read a bit of the book:
"The chief's speech was actually only two lines – eight words plus a healthy helping of wheeze and spittle . . . In translation from the Ojibwe, roughly: "You have all been a great disappointment. When are you leaving?"
I can't find this anywhere in the history books but, as I said before, it should be.  It's essentially what Wamsutta said at the first National Day of Mourning, that Massasoit's "peaceful acceptance" of the Pilgrims was "perhaps [the Wampanoag's] biggest mistake."
Now I feel compelled to point out that the NationalDay of Mourning, itself, is not without its controversy, even within the Native American community.  Russell Peters, one-time President of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council has written:
"While the `Day of Mourning' has served to focus attention on past injustice to the Native American cause, it has, in recent years, been orchestrated by a group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England. This group has tenuous ties to any of the local tribes, and is composed primarily of non-Indians. To date, they have refused several invitations to meet with the Wampanoag Indian tribal councils in Mashpee or in Gay Head. Once again, we, as Wampanoags, find our voices and concerns cast aside in the activities surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday in Plymouth, this time, ironically, by a group purporting to represent our interests."
And so even the protest is protested.  Yet that makes the confusion greater not less, doesn't it?  Is the third Thursday in November a Day of Thanksgiving or a Day of Mourning?  Is it a day to celebrate universal brotherhood and sisterhood, or a day to remember broken promises and a history of oppression?  Should we feel grateful?  Or guilty?
These questions bring to mind for me some of my favorite words from the author E.B. White:
"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."
Because it's not just Thanksgiving Day that offers us such a conundrum.  It's virtually every day.  If you read the paper before heading out in the morning do you curse the world or marvel at the blue sky?  Do you despair about the world we're leaving our children, or wonder at the hope they innocently offer?
It’s often said that most ministers really only have one sermon that they keep repeating in different forms.  I think I have at least a couple.  And one of them is that we need to strive to retrain ourselves away from either/or thinking so that we can embrace the world as it is, which is both/and.  We are called to save the world and to savor it – both.  Life is full of sorrow and of joy – both.  The glass is half full and it's half empty – both.

Actually, I saw a great cartoon recently.  It shows a glass with water up to the midway point.  A line points at the bottom and says, “1/2 water.”  Another line points to the top and says, “1/2 air.”  The caption reads, “Technically, the glass is always full.”

Two weeks ago we talked about the importance of having a practice of gratitude, the development of an intentional awareness of the miracles that surround us.  And remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying that the miracle is not “walking on water or walking in the air but simply walking on this earth.”  Even without burning bushes we are surrounded by miracles.

Last week, though, we noted that sometimes life is hard – sometimes really, really hard – and it might then seem to be impossible to be grateful.  And yet, perhaps, it’s exactly at such times that it’s most important.

This week I want to make things a little more complicated because, of course, we live in a really complicated world.  Photons act as both waves and particles.  83% of the universe is something called “dark matter” that we’re not even entirely sure exists.  And, of course, the world is both challenging and seductive, in need of saving and savoring both.

So the question this sermon was advertised to be about – whether this coming Thursday is a Day of Thanksgiving or a Day of Mourning – turns out to be just one version of a question we face all the time.  It’s the same question as to whether Thomas Jefferson is a paragon of liberty or a paradigm for oppression?  It’s the question Bob brought home even more personally for us – does the family glitter or is it deeply tarnished?  Is this Norman Rockwell or Dorothea Lange?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  There isn’t an easy answer.  There isn’t some over simplification that will work out all of the ambiguities and contradictions.

Life is messy.  It just is.  It’s not always fair.  Even when it seems fair in hindsight we discover how unfair it really was; and sometimes when it seems downright mean-spirited we look back to discover tremendous gifts.  As Ian Anderson said so long ago, “Nothing’s easy.”

The world we live in is not “black and white.”  It’s not even “shades of grey.”  It’s multicolored, a rainbow, with every color coming in myriad hues and tones and shades.  And the religious tradition we share, our Unitarian Universalist faith, calls on us to recognize this complexity; to acknowledge it; to embrace it; and to live in it.

There is much suffering, and there is cause for celebration.  There is promise, and there is pain.  Can you hold that?  Can you live in that?  Can you love that?

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Weight of Our History

Ten years ago, while I was serving the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, I wrote a sermon on "craving"  which ended with the following story:
A few days into his journey to the mouth of the Coppermine River, Thomas Hearne and his party were set upon by Indians who stole most of their supplies. You might imagine that this would engender feelings of fear or, at least, uncertainty about the rest of their journey, about their very survival.  But Hearne's journal entry is telling.  He wrote, simply, "The weight of our baggage being so lightened, our next day's journey was more swift and pleasant."

I'd found this story, with slight variations, on literally dozens of sites -- both in collections of sermon illustrations and within sermons themselves -- and I've used this story several times since, virtually unchanged from its original telling.  I used it again yesterday, as well.  This time, though, while the basic thrust of the story stayed the same the tone was a little different.

In the ten years since I first encountered it I've become considerably more sensitive to the need to look with a inquiring eye at such a seemingly simple story.  Who was Thomas Hearne?  When did this journey take place?  What was the behavior of Hearne and his party with the native peoples they encountered?  What is, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story?

So I did some research.  Wikipedia wasn't the only source I consulted, but I'll the first to admit that it wasn't exhaustive.  Still, I discovered enough to learn that, for instance, contrary to what was written on all the websites I'd previously looked at Thomas Hearne was really Samuel Hearne.  This story unfolds in the early 1770s.  And there is undoubtedly a lot more to the story.

Hearne joined the Brittish Navy at age 11, and at 21 went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company.  He made three trips north to find the copper mine the Inuit (and others) were using for their copper.  The first two attempts were complete failures.  It is most likely during the third trip that the story above occured.

On this third trip Hearne was the only Englishman.  His traveling companions and guides were a group of people from the Chipewyan nation.  Along the way this group was joined by a number of T'atsaot'ine, also known as "Yellowknife Dene" because of their use of Copper.  It is now thought that many of these Dene joined Hearne's party because their nation was in conflict with the northern Inuit and this journey provided them an opportunity to strike at their enemies.

And strike they did.  On July 14, 1771, Hearne's party reached the Coppermine River.  At 1:00 am on JUly 17th, Hearne's guides attacked an Inuit encampment downstream, killing approximately twenty men, women, and children.  This event became known as the Massacre at Bloody Falls.

It seems that Hearne was in no way involved, that this wasn't another case of European's slaughtering Native Americans, and that he was, in fact, horrified by the incident.  It was he who afterward designated the site "Bloody Falls" and in his memoirs he noted, "I am confident that my features must have feelingly expressed how sincerely I was affected at the barbarous scene I then witnessed; even at this hour I cannot reflect on the transactions of that horrid day without shedding tears."  He claims to have pleaded for the life of a young girl who feel literally at his feet, but that he was ignored.

Still, while I could find no reference to the attack on his own party, from whence the story comes, I can't help now wondering -- was that attack in retaliation for the attack at Bloody Falls?  Or was it another example of the conflict which led to that massacre on July 17th?  All I know for sure is that there is more to the story than there'd been when Samuel what Thomas.

The story's still a useful one -- lots of lessons can be drawn from that seventeen word journal entry -- but I can never tell it as simply anymore.  To do so is to dishonor the complexities of real life, real women, children, and men.  And so, yesterday, I told the story in a slightly different way:
I want to leave you with a story.  The story of Samuel Hearne, who in the early 1770s was leading an expedition to explore to the mouth of the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories of Canada. At one point in the journey his party was attacked by a party of Native Americans who made off with most of their supplies. I don’t know whether this incident occurred before or after a group of his party attacked and massacred a group of Cooper Inuit at Bloody Falls.  But you can imagine the feelings after they were attacked and their provisions taken –in a foreign and unknown land, a dangerous journey still ahead, most of your provisions gone, the possibility of further incidents, the guilt, the fear . . .
Now I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne.  I haven’t been able to learn whether he had sisters or brothers; whether he’d had a family of his own.  He seems to have been a good man who was truly horrified by the massacre carried out by his own people.  Still, I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne, but I do know one thing.  I do know is that he was well practiced in the art of gratitude.  I know this not because of any commentary that survives about the man but because of the comment he made in his own journal the day after the raid.  With all of the uncertainty, the tension, the anxiety that must have surrounded him at that time, Samuel Hearne wrote these words:  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."
That’s someone who knew how to find the Gratitude Channel.  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."

There may be more "baggage" now in the telling, but some is worth holding on to . . . and holding up.

In Gassho,


Sunday, November 13, 2011

But What If Life's Hard?

If it were up to me, I might just leave our TV on the Discovery Channel.  After all, that’s where you can find MythBusters, and Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe; Cash Cab and Dual Survival.  It’s the home of Shark Week, and that annual extravaganza of mechanization and mayhem, Punkin’ Chunkin’.

Of course, if we left the TV on Discovery then we’d miss out on some other family favorites – Good Luck Charley, iCarly, Phinneas and Ferb, Spongebob, and the kitty half-time show during the Puppy Bowl.  (Not to mention SyFy’s Eureka  and, okay I’ll cop to it, FOX’s American Idol.)
Why am I telling you all of this?  I’ve been referring a lot lately to the teachings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  I’m going to do so here again.  As anyone who knows his teachings can tell you, Thich Nhat Hanh puts a great deal of emphasis on smiling as a spiritual practice.  He has said, as do most Zen teachers, that it’s essential to put in two daily practice sessions of at least twenty minutes each.  He has also said, however, that if one can’t manage to do that that one session is better than nothing.  And if you can’t manage one twenty minute session each day, then you should aim for ten.  If even that’s impossible, then try and take five real breaths at some point during the day.  And if you can’t do even that, then try to smile one fully authentic and aware smile before getting out of bed.
Smiling as a spiritual practice.  He once famously wrote that it is true that the world is full of suffering.  This, after all, is the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths – “life is suffering.”  But Nhat Hanh doesn’t stop there.  The world is full of suffering, he says, but it is also full of the blue sky and the eyes of a baby.  “It would be a shame,” he wrote, “if we were only aware of the suffering.”  Breathing in, I relax body and mind.  Breathing out, I smile.
But one day one of his students approached her teacher and said, “But what if my heart is full of sadness?  How can I smile?”  What if I’m going through a difficult period?  What if I’m angry?  Or grieving?  Or scared?  What if I’m trying to figure out how to keep everything from falling apart?  What if I can’t imagine how I’m going to make it through another day?  How can I smile?
I know this question.  I’ve known heart ache.  I’ve known pain – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual agony, not to put too fine a point on it.  I’ve known loss, and I’ve known rage, and I’ve known fear.  You have too, so we know this question – what if our hearts are full of sadness?  How can we smile?
Some of you know that I’ve been sick off and on for the past several weeks.  Some of you have been in classes or meetings that I’ve had to cancel or postpone; some of you have been wondering why I didn’t respond to that e-mail or phone message you’d left.  Some of you’ve seen me and just had the feeling that something wasn’t right. 
Most of you, I hope, haven’t noticed anything.  I’ve been here in the pulpit or in the office; in a class or in a meeting; and you haven’t had an inkling that there was anything wrong.  As I said, I hope that this has been most of you.  But some of you have seen something, and what you’ve seen have been the physical and mental manifestations of the Depression I’ve been wrestling with off and on for some time now.
No doubt the stresses of the move here – both the challenges and just the newness of it all – exacerbated something that’s normally quite well controlled.  As most people who deal with depression will tell you – those who have it and those who work with us – it can often be as innocuous as well-monitored blood pressure or well-medicated allergies.  But every once in a while it’ll flare up.  Mine has been flaring lately.
So I know the question of how can I smile when my heart is full of sadness, because I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.  How do I deliver a sermon on gratitude when I’m feeling like this?  How do I offer inspiration or encouragement when I feel such a lack of both?  The answer is the answer Thich Nhat Hanh gave to his student, and it ties us back to my bit of personal revelation about my viewing habits with which I began this sermon.
Each of us, Nhat Hanh said, is like a television set.  We each have many channels at our disposal – perhaps as many as hundreds of channels we could have playing on the screen of our life.  Yet often we get stuck on just one channel – sadness, anger, fear, playing it safe.  Often we get stuck on just one channel – out of all of the channels available to us – and then we begin to think of ourselves as being that channel.
This, of course, would be like my television set becoming convinced that it is the Discovery Channel.  This is like me becoming convinced that I am my depression, or that I am my victimization, or that I am my hoplessness.  I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.
But the truth is far more complex.  (Isn’t it almost always?)  Like a television set I actually have hundreds of channels to choose from.  I may, for any number of reasons, be spending an inordinate amount of time on the Depression Channel, but somewhere on my dial the Joy Channel is just waiting its turn.  Somewhere there is the Enlightened Buddha Channel.  Somewhere there is the Christ Channel, and it’s just as much a part of my basic package as is the channel on which I’ve gotten stuck.
Because life is full of suffering AND it is full of the shinning eyes and impossible little fingers of babies; it is full of cries of suffering AND quiet calm, both.  And when my heart is full of sorrow, when my life has gotten hard, when the suffering overwhelms the miracles, then it is essential that I know where to find the Gratitude Channel and switch out my viewing habits so as to remind myself that life is more than the malaise.
This isn’t easy to do.  Sometimes it isn’t even possible to do, not right now, at least.  Like during Shark Week you really can’t change that dial right then.  Okay, that’s not my best analogy but I know you get my point.  Sometimes it’s too much to even pick up the remote and aim it at the TV; sometimes you just gotta lie there and watch what’s on.
But the time will come – often before you’re expecting it – that you can change the channels, and that’s where the practice of gratitude comes in.  Practice something long enough, often enough, and it begins to become a habit.  Practice noticing the things in our lives that we can be grateful for, and it begins to become a habit.  A habit we can draw on, an autonomic reflex we can stimulate, when we can’t do anything else.
One of my favorite Tich Nhat Hanh-isms has to do with just how important it is to make a practice of mindfulness, a practice of awareness, a practice of smiling, a practice of gratitude; how important it is to make this practice a part of our lives during the good times, the easy times.  Practice, he says, is like sewing a parachute, and you don’t want to begin sewing your parachute as you are jumping out of the plane.  You don’t want to begin sewing your parachute as you’re jumping out of the plane.  It’s important to develop the practice of gratitude when it’s easy to do, so that you will have the practice to help you when it’s not.
Last week, in the depths of despair, I was forced to consider the practice of gratitude because I’d promised to encourage you to consider it.  It’s hard to immerse yourself in the “attitude of gratitude” without at least a little of it rubbing off.  And then there were Wendy’s reflections, and Leia’s story, and Thomas’ ruminations (which he’d intended for this week but which I needed – both professionally and personally – then instead), and there was Scott’s music . . .  and there was the spirit of this community, a wildly healing balm of breathtaking beauty.   (And as those of you on FaceBook know, on the way home I blasted some Cream as loud as I could crank it.)
And the channel changed.  My mood changed.  The world I was living in – or, more precisely, my perspective on that world – changed.
You can smile when your heart is full of sorrow . . . because you can.  Because, at some point, you have to.  Because even if all you can manage is one fully authentic and aware smile at some point during your day, it is another stitch in your parachute.  And if you can keep up that stitching then when the time comes that you jump – or fall, or are pushed – out of that plane, you’ll discover that you’re not really falling as you’d feared you would be.  You’re flying.
I want to leave you with a story.  The story of Samuel Hearne, who in the early 1770s was leading an expedition to explore to the mouth of the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories of Canada. At one point in the journey his party was attacked by a party of Native Americans who made off with most of their supplies. I don’t know whether this incident occurred before or after a group of his party attacked and massacred a group of Cooper Inuit at Bloody Falls.  But you can imagine the feelings after they were attacked and their provisions taken –in a foreign and unknown land, a dangerous journey still ahead, most of your provisions gone, the possibility of further incidents, the guilt, the fear . . .
Now I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne.  I haven’t been able to learn whether he had sisters or brothers; whether he’d had a family of his own.  He seems to have been a good man who was truly horrified by the massacre carried out by his own people.  Still, I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne, but I do know one thing.  I do know is that he was well practiced in the art of gratitude.  I know this not because of any commentary that survives about the man but because of the comment he made in his own journal the day after the raid.  With all of the uncertainty, the tension, the anxiety that must have surrounded him at that time, Samuel Hearne wrote these words:  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."
That’s someone who knew how to find the Gratitude Channel.  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Crying for Community

I've recently heard that in the congregation I serve (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia) an age-old battle is still being waged -- what to do with our babies.

Yes, I understand that some people seek out our sanctuary each week because it is, well, a sanctuary.  Those with too hectic lives long for some quite, some solace, and the sounds of even just an especially squirmy baby can be experienced as one more intrusion.  I understand that the pitch of a baby's cry can be actually painful for some people with certain kinds of hearing aids.  I know that a wailing child can throw off my rhythm as I preach and, I assume, as people listen.

Still, as someone who was the father of both a colicky baby and an especially active one, I know that parents need sanctuary too.  There are not too many places where you can go with your child and know that she or he will be allowed to be what they are -- a sometimes noisy, often squirmy, always miraculous child.  (So many places in mainstream US culture seem to expect children to behave as if they were miniature adults.  They're not.)  Shouldn't our faith community be one such haven?

And so the stage is set -- those who want some peace and quiet, who want to be able to concentrate (or relax), and those who want to be fully present as well but who want that presence to include the "messiness" that is their children.

First let me say that while I think having a "comfort room" is a wonderful thing, the experience of worship in there is pretty different than in the sanctuary.  (I've sometimes thought of suggesting that those who are really disturbed by the presence of a baby in the sanctuary should be the ones asked to go to the comfort room!)  It is a necessary option to have available but it is, if you'll excuse the pun, a far cry from real inclusion.

Second, let me also say that if a congregation wants to think of itself as a "church family" than it absolutely MUST find ways to include all of its members.  The individual who wants a respite from an otherwise overloaded week, and the mother who wants this precious hour with her precious child, should both be able to feel that they are welcomed.

So how do we do it?

I once had the privilege of taking a walking meditation workshop in Washington, DC with the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk.  After hearing his dharma talk in the morning, we got on buses and headed to the Vietnam War Memorial for our practice.  Before we began, though, Thay had a few more words for us.  Unfortunately, his voice was not in any way magnified, and we were apparently directly under the flight path of planes taking off from and landing at Dulles.  It seemed as though he could only get a sentence or two out before having to wait again while the roar of a plane passed by.  I was eager to lap up every syllable from the mouth of this living Bhodisattva, so you can imagine that this was a really frustrating situation.

And yet, Thay was not in the least perturbed.  He would speak while he could, and when the planes went by he would enter into meditation from which he would re-emerge as soon as he could to pick up speaking right where he'd left off.  And after a while, his calm became my calm.  There was no interruption; there was only speaking, airplane noise, and then more speaking.  The "disturbance" became embraced as a part of the expeience -- nothing more or less disturbing than anything else that was going on.

Why do we come to church?  Is it to hear a stimulating lecture?  (I sure hope not!  That's an awful lot of pressure on a preacher!!)  Is it to inhabit an oasis of silence for an hour each week?  (Then why not go alone into the beautiful mountains and forests that surround C'ville?)

Archbishop Desmond Tuttu once said that the church should be "an audiovisual aid for the sake of the world," showing how community should be.  We Unitarian Universalists often talk of "the Beloved Community," and "Building The World We Dream Of." 

Our noisy babies (and the parents who are with them) are oftentimes literally crying for community.  (And, for what it's worth, I often think of a baby's various noises as "the gurgle of God.")  Certainly respect and consideration are called for -- that's part of being in community with one another.  And sometimes it makes sense for a parent with an especially challenging child to take advantage of the comfort room (just as it might behoove someone hit with a coughing spell to "take it outside").  Still, at other times, it will be right for the rest of us to adapt, to open the embrace of our welcome a little bit wider.

I look forward to your responses.

In gassho,


Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Practice of Gratitude

“For what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful.”
This month we begin our exploration of the theme of gratitude.   Of giving thanks.  And I’d like to begin with that well-known family grace — "For what we are about to receive may we be truly thankful." You may have grown up saying this simple prayer before dinner, or maybe you remember watching the Walton and Ingles families saying it on TV — "For what we are about to receive may we be truly thankful." A prayer of thanksgiving before the evening meal.
I read a marvelous exploration of this prayer, though, by a man who realized that this prayer from his childhood, this prayer he knew so well, was not, after all, the prayer of thanksgiving as he had always thought it was. His father had led the family in saying that table grace every single night of his childhood – a practice he continued with his own family.  It had become part of the rhythm of his life.  Yet one day it struck him that this grace he’d been saying every night was not a prayer of thanksgiving but was, instead, a prayer of petition — not "for what we are about to receive we are truly thankful," but, "for what we are about to receive may we be truly thankful." This prayer was not about giving thanks but about asking for the gift of gratitude.
The truth is, it can be hard to say, "thank you."
Well, that's not really true. It's easy to say "thank you," but it can be tremendously hard to really mean it. To say, with all your heart and soul, "thank you" is a very humbling thing. It means admitting that there was a hole in my life which you have just filled, that there was something I needed which you had and which I now have only because of your generosity.
American popular culture praises self-sufficiency, honors those who stand on their own, asking for and needing nothing from anyone but themselves. Did John Wayne or Clint Eastwood ever ask for help when they were cleaning up a town? Did Sigourney Weaver ask for help when she was battling aliens? They all got help, of course, lots of it, but they never asked for it and they never really did say "thank you" afterwards. These heroes, these American Icons are, in fact, always the ones being thanked, the ones to whom everyone else goes for help. John Donne aside, these figures are islands, standing alone and aloof, needing no one. Strength of Character, in popular American imagery, means never having to say "thank you."
I've often wondered why it's so hard for people to write "thank you" notes. (Perhaps it's "better to give than to receive" in part because when you receive you've got write all those notes!) Sometimes I think it's because we're expected to say "thanks" for socks and underwear — never an easy thing.  Still, I think a bigger part of the reticence is simply because it can be so hard to say "thank you." You've got to humble yourself, you have to acknowledge both your lack and the other person's fullness, you need to publicly state that you cannot stand alone.  To say “thank you” is another way of saying “I need you.”  Rarely an easy thing, either.
In the thirteenth century the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart famously said, “If you can manage to utter only one prayer in your life, and it is, ‘Thank You,” it will suffice.”  “If you can manage to utter only one prayer in your life, and it is, ‘Thank You,” it will suffice.” 

“Thank you” may be difficult to say (and really mean), but apparently it’s pretty powerful when we do.  So let’s dig into this a little bit.

Some of you may know that we Worship Weavers have a wiki with which we wonder with one another about the themes that we’re exploring.  Any of us – all of us – are able to access it and add our thoughts, whether we’ll be actively involved in a particular service or not.  It’s an experiment as of now, yet as it develops I can imagine opening it to the larger congregation so that our pre-sermon conversation can be even more rich and full.

Thomas Collier put in his two cents for this service and suggested that we look at the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  (Now I know that for some people Heidegger is, if you’ll excuse me, verboten, because of his membership in the Nazi party and his statements in support of Hitler.  I believe that this demonstrates that not everything he thought is worth our attention, but don’t believe that it negates all of his insights into dasein – being.

Heidegger argued that we live in what we might call an “average-everydayness.”  Most of us are living most of our lives immersed in the day-to-day, moment-by-moment, stuff of our existences.  The philosophers Lennon and McCartney put it like this.

“Woke up, fell out of bed.  Dragged a comb across my head.  Found my way downstairs and drank a cup.  And looking up, I noticed I was late.” 

(That’s from their seminal work, “A Day in the Life.”)

Heidegger said that we live the vast majority of our lives in such “average-everydayness.”  And, to be even more clear about it, this “average-everydayness” has something of a negative cast to it.  We don’t tend to notice, to be aware of, the things that go right in our world, the things that go according to plan; we take these things for granted.  The water’s hot in the shower; the microwave heats my breakfast; the car starts and gets me here on time.  None of this usually rises to the level of my conscious attention.

Yet the moment it’s only cold water coming out of the shower, or my breakfast explodes in the microwave, or the car won’t start . . . then I begin to notice things.  Then I’m aware of them.  When things work the way they’re supposed to I glide by on autopilot; when things break down I have a laser-like focus.

Here’s another example:  this summer a lot of us were complaining about how hot and humid it was.  Couldn’t stand another minute of it.  When was it ever going to end?  But how long did the “not-hot-and-humid” days last before we started complaining about how it’s too cold
The “not-hot-and-humid” days.  There are a whole lot more of them than the hot and humid ones.  The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has a teaching he calls “the non-toothache.”  When we have a toothache all we can think about is how wonderful life will be when this our tooth stops hurting.  Oh, it will be heaven, nirvana.  And yet, when our tooth actually does stop hurting, we quickly go back to living our “average-everydayness;” we lose touch with the miracle of the “non-toothache.”
How many of us woke up this morning singing praises to the sun because that pain we’d had a couple of weeks ago—the one we’d forgotten about until I just brought it up, thank you very much—that it was gone?  Or because that thing we’d been so worried about last month had resolved itself?  I’d wager that most of us have either completely forgotten about these things or had simply gotten absorbed in this week’s traumas.
But it’s worth noting that they’re gone.  It’s over—whatever it was, it’s over.  Or even if it’s not over—if whatever was troubling you is with you still—it will be over someday.  Everything ends sometimes, because life just doesn’t stay in one place that long.  And the question is, will we notice its absence when it’s gone?  Are we aware of the non-toothache?
Last night a friend of mine posted this on FaceBook:

Kid broke my printer tray, trapped herself under the bar stool in the kitchen, rubbed chocolate cake into the couch, threw crayons at the restaurant, mixed my rock shrimp tempura sauce with ranch dressing (with the aid of a french fry), kicked the dog, watched one episode of Scooby Doo and now will not stop yelling that she "hears a ghost!!!!" and put 45 puzzle pieces in my bed. I do believe I am a happy as I have ever been.
This is someone who, in that moment at least, was fully in touch with the “non-toothache.”  The story of what this woman went through to adopt her beautiful little “bee” is one I won’t infuriate you with.  (And believe me, it would bring you to a fury.)  And yet, throughout that entire ordeal she kept thinking about how glorious it would be when she was finally united with this little girl, her daughter.  And so, even after a day like the one she described in her post, she remembers, and “glorious” it most certainly is.
When I was growing up I read a lot by the author and Episcopal priest Martin Bell.  In one of my favorite passages he wrote, "Being thankful means saying yes to life in spite of all the obvious suffering and brokeness and guilt that's involved. It means enduring unbearable hardships for no other reason than to show up again tomorrow and be part of this whole wild cosmic adventure."
Living a Life of Gratitude, keeping always a "thank you" on our lips and in our hearts, is the key to living a life of Joy, and both are tied in with being Awake and Aware. Living life so that you see the lilies of the field, how they grow; so that you see the colors changing on the trees and notice how the sun plays on the mountains; feeling the warmth in a loved one's touch, hearing the love (or hurt, or joy) in their voice. To be thankful for the miracles of life we must be awake enough to see them; to be thankful for gifts given we must be aware they have been received. To be awake, to be aware, to be alive.
To be sure, this is a practice.  It takes, at first, a conscious effort to stay in touch with the miracle of the mundane – we’re so much more accustomed to being aware of the problems and looking for the burning bushes.  Yet every day of non-toothache, or not-hot-and-humid, is a blessing.  A gift.  The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh says that the true miracle is not walking on water or walking on air, it’s simply walking around on this earth.
I want to leave you this morning with an anonymous quotation a friend gave me a long time ago that has inspired me ever since:
"You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter. It is your birthday, and there are many presents to open. The world is to open."
And for that, may we be truly thankful.