Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cheers!


This is the text of the reflections I offered at the congregation I serve on Sunday, July 15, 2018.


In the late 80s, early 90s, Sam, Diane, and, of course, Norm, were household names.   They were part of the TV “family” that gathered in a fictional Boston bar, and whose various ups and downs and absurdities formed the content of each episode.  The heart of the show, though, was the idea of a place, “where everybody knows your name.”  It wasn’t an instant hit, though.  Out of the 77 shows in its timeslot on the night of Cheers’ premier in September of 1982, it ranked 74th.  Thirty years later, however, roughly twenty years after the show ended, TV Guide put it at #11 on their list of the “60 Greatest Shows of All Time.”  For many, during the decade it was on, Cheers was the epitome of “Must See Thursday.”

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

[Feeling a little nostalgic?  Of course, the fact that I think of this as bringing a contemporary reference into these reflections shows just how old I really am.]

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”   I come back to this quote from the English novelist Jane Howard over and over again.  “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

Since its inception in 1972, the General Social Survey has gathered data on contemporary American society in order to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors, and attributes.  Hundreds of trends have been tracked in those years. Actually, since the GSS adopted questions from earlier surveys, trends can be followed for nearly 7 decades.

1985 was the first year that the GSS collected data on the number of confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters. In the 2004 GSS the authors replicated those questions to assess social change in core network structures. Discussion networks, as they’re called, were significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1985. The number of people who said that there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled.  In her article, “The Loneliness of American Society,” Janice Shaw Crouse interpreted the data like this: 

“a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

This has become almost a mantra:  we are the most connected society in the history of humanity, and also the loneliest.

Dr. Emma M. Seppälä is Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at Yale University She wrote an article for Psychology Today titled, Connect To Thrive:  Social Connection Improves Health, Well-Being & Longevity.”  In it she wrote:

Social connection improves physical health and psychological well-being. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity.  Social connection strengthens our immune system […], helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life.   [She notes research by Steve Cole, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the UCLA School of Medicine, which shows that there are actually genes impacted by social connection, and that these also code for immune function and inflammation.]

It’s easy to scape goat technology – the rise of social media, in particular – to explain the seeming conundrum of our being connected yet alone.  “All that time spent on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat,” many people say, “and maybe particularly all the MMORPGs, those Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, that “all the kids” seem so obsessed with, look like they’re providing community, yet it’s a very shallow kind of community.”  (I said, “all the kids” are obsessed with these games, yet there are quite a few adults who are massively pumped and have already bought their Season Five Battle Pass in hopes of finding out just what the heck is up with those cracks in the sky in Fortnite.  Or so I’ve heard.  But I digress.)  It’s common to hear people opine that social media offers only pseudo-connectivity, a mere simulacrum of the real thing.

Not so fast, other experts say.  A study carried out at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, reported in Science Daily, observed, “Training older people in the use of social media improves cognitive capacity, increases a sense of self-competence and could have a beneficial overall impact on mental health and well-being.”  And a 2010 study led by Abilene Christian University found that, “students who returned to school after freshman year had significantly more Facebook friends and wall posts than those who didn't return.”  Reporting on it for Wired, Brian Chen wrote, “Rather than being an escape from reality, social media may mirror real life: More actively connected students on Facebook were most likely also connectors in the real world.  He quotes the lead on the research saying, "The study was able to show that these students who are more active on Facebook are also out there getting involved, making new friends and taking part of activities that the university provides for them."

So what is this all about, this apparent fact that we, as a society, are increasingly disconnected even in our overly-connected world?  I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that at least part of the reason is that relationships – real, deep, meaningful relationships – are a lot of work.  And I think they’re hard in at least three ways.

First, relationships take time.  Real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationships don’t appear suddenly, out of nowhere, fully formed from the head of Zeus (as it were); they don’t get heated up in a microwave, they need to simmer, to slow cook.  Part of it is longevity – our deepest relationships are often with people who’ve known for a long, long time.  They’re with people with whom we don’t have to recount the details of our lives again and again, because these friends have been there through the good times and the bad.  This means they also take time invested.  Being there through the good times and the bad times requires us to actually be there through the good times and the bad times, and that takes time.

Oh, I know that a lot of folks have friends with whom we’re in touch only sporadically yet with whom, when we are in touch, it seems that we pick up right where we left off as if no time had passed at all.  Of course, usually such relationships were already deep, yet often these aren’t people who’d meet the criteria the GSS uses in their studies.  I once heard the kind friendship the GSS is talking about as people I know I could call in the middle of the night and who would drop everything and get in their cars or on a plane to go from wherever they are to wherever I am in order to be with me.  That significantly lowers the number of people on my list.

A second reason real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationships are hard is because they require commitment.  They require us to hang in there even when the relationship gets strained.  We have to be there for each other “through thick and thin” not only in relation to the world around us, but the world between us as well.  The “good times and the bad times” doesn’t just refer to the promise that you will be there for me when I experience good times and bad times, and that I’ll do the same for you.  It means that we’re there for and with each other when we, together, when our relationship is going through good times or bad ones. To take something I often say to my kids, it means continuing to love each other even when we don’t particularly like each other very much.

And that’s hard, isn’t it?  That’s really hard.  When you think that I’ve offended you; when I think that you’re being unfair and nasty to me.  When I’ve hurt you, and you’ve hurt me.  I’m not talking about obviously unhealthy, abusive relationships.  Let’s be clear about that.  I’m not talking about “sticking it out” through any kind of abuse “for the sake of the relationship.”  There’s a power imbalance there, and can be real danger, and that’s not what I’m talking about.  (I would argue, that’s not really – can’t really be – the kind of deep and genuine relationship we’re talking about here in the first place.)  I’m talking about otherwise healthy, equal, mutual relationships which have stood the test of time yet which are, right now, strained to the point perhaps even of breaking.  I’m talking about taking a deep breath and leaning into that discomfort, knowing that the relationship is, ultimately, worth it.

Because that experience of someone knowing our name, really knowing who we are, and always being glad we came, no matter what’s going on with me or between us – that’s a deep human longing.  More than that, it’s a deep human need.

And it’s one of the reasons for faith communities.  It’s one of the reasons that people come together in places like this – we’re looking for a place in which we feel known, seen for who we are, appreciated, and loved.  We’re looking for a place, and a people, in which, and by which, we feel that we belong.  And think about it – if a real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationship is really hard work between two people, then it’s got to be a whole lot harder among hundreds.  The complexity, the challenges, the opportunities for disappointments and pain, the work of it, is all exponentially increased.

Those of you who have been waiting for me to name the third reason I think relationships in which we’re really known are such hard work, here it is.  Truth be told, they’re scary.  For many of us it is so, so, very, very scary.  Because being known, deeply and fully, requires us to open ourselves up deeply and fully.  It requires me to really trust showing you who I really am, allowing you to see who I really am down beneath what I show to the world; it requires my showing you the truths of who I am that I don’t want anyone to see. 

A few years ago, when we did the Beloved Conversations program here, quite a number of us took part in the weekend workshop with which it begins.  The last exercise of the first evening had a profound impact on a lot of us, I’d dare say on most of us.  I won’t go through the whole thing this morning, but suffice it to say that it brought us in deep enough to look at, and name, our deepest, most fundamental fear.  We did this on our own, but then we were asked, if we were willing, to share them with one another.  And here, in this sanctuary, with the protective shroud of nighttime’s darkness around us, person after person dared to speak aloud their deepest fear.  These were folks many of us would identify as leaders in the congregation, people we’d identify as those we admire, and some we might say we aspire to be more like.  And nearly every one of these strong, wise, successful people said nearly exactly the same thing:  “I’m afraid that if people really knew me, they wouldn’t like me.”  I’m afraid that if people really knew me, really knew “my name,” really knew me deeply, genuinely, and in a truly heart-to-heart way, they wouldn’t like me.  I wouldn’t be accepted. I wouldn’t be loved.

And that’s the Catch-22, isn’t it?  In our desire to belong, to be deeply known, we hide sometimes great swaths of ourselves for fear of being rejected, being told that we don’t belong.  The third thing that makes these real relationship we seek so very, very hard is that we want to be known, and yet we don’t want to risk actually being known.  We don’t think we can risk it.

So here’s the thing – to the extent that we do risk it, to the extent that we do allow both the good times and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad times to have equal freedom between and among us, to that extent and only to that extent will our relationships be the kind of real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationships we want and which, ultimately, we need (not just for the sake of our immune and inflammation related genes, but for our souls).

This can be such a community, my friends.  This has been such a community for many of us over the years, and hard as it can be to believe at times, I truly believe that this is such a community right now.  Challenges, difficulties, disagreements – even hard and harsh ones – are not necessarily a sign that things are going wrong.  It’s what we do with them that determines what they mean for us.  If we lean into them; if we commit ourselves to sticking with it and each other; if we do lean into the discomfort (while clearly rejecting any abusiveness we might see); if we remember that the relationships that are this community are, ultimately, more important than the transitory happiness and satisfaction of any one of us; if, in other words, we do the hard, hard work real relationships require, we can, we will, prove to one another and to ourselves that even when we do show each other who we really are, we will be accepted and loved for who we are.  This then will be for us – each of us and all of us; you, me, and those who’ve not yet even found this community – this will then truly be a place where everybody knows our name, and really, truly are glad we came.  It is my hope that each of us can find even a taste of that here, and that each of us will do what we can to ensure that this is such a place for others.


Pax tecum,

RevWik





Monday, July 09, 2018

The Seriousness of Play


This is the text of my reflections (and the readings) from the service this past Sunday, July 8, 2018, at the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville.  This was a multigenerational service which was not just about play, but was, itself, a time of play.



Opening Words:

The German wildlife photographer Norbert Rosing has a particular affinity for polar bears.  His work has been featured in National Geographic, and in 2006 he published, The World of the Polar Bear, which follows a family of bears over the course of a year in words and pictures.  You may have heard the story I’m about to tell.  (I’m quoting here, with slight adaptations, from one of the one of the websites that recounts this well-documented story.)

“The location was a kennel outside Churchill, Manitoba owned by dog breeder Brian Ladoon, who kept some 40 Canadian Eskimo sled dogs there when Rosing visited in 1992. A large polar bear showed up one day and took an unexpected interest in one of Ladoon's tethered dogs. [The bear was estimated to weigh about 1,200 lbs.] The other dogs went crazy as the bear approached, Rosing says, but this one, named Hudson, "calmly stood his ground and began wagging his tail." To Rosing and Ladoon's surprise, the two "put aside their ancestral animus," gently touching noses and apparently trying to make friends.  [Rosing notes that “polar bears and dogs are natural enemies and "99 percent of the bears behave quite aggressively toward dogs."]
Just then another large polar bear arrived and advanced toward one of Ladoon's other dogs, Barren. The latter rolled on his back, then the pair commenced playing "like two roughhousing kids," Rosing writes, tumbling around in the snow as he snapped pictures of the surreal encounter from the safety of his vehicle. The bear returned for more play sessions every afternoon for 10 days in a row.”  [From ThoughtCo., “Polar Bear and Huskies at Play – Analysis.”]


Reflections:  The Seriousness of Play

During the summer season the fundamental human question – the “Big Question,” if you will –  we’re exploring together is, “how to live a good life.”  This week’s answer is, “playfully.”  Before going any further, though, I want to be clear that in doing so I’ll be conflating a number of different things.  Play, of course, but also foolishness, clowning around, humor, laughter, and probably a few other things too.  But let’s start with play – a subject studied by Charles Darwin, Jean Piaget, Sigmund Floyd, Carl Jung and a host of other pretty serious people.  So … what, exactly, is play?

Patrick Bateson is emeritus professor of ethology at the University of Cambridge.  (“Ethology” is the study of animal behavior, focusing on behavior in natural conditions.)  Professor Bateson has written, “’play’ as used by biologists and psychologists is a broad term denoting almost any activity that is not ‘serious’ or ‘work.’”

Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College says, “[play] is self-chosen and self-directed … [with] rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of players.”

There is no greater example of this than a game called “Calvinball,” which comes from the classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes (created by Bill Waterson).  In Calvinball, “players make up the rules as they go along.  Rules cannot be used twice (except for the rule that rules cannot be used twice), and any plays made in one game may not be made again in any future games.”  Calvin himself noted, “No sport is less organized than Calvinball,” and that, “sooner or later, all [his] games turn into Calvinball.”  [from the page on Calvinball on The Calvin and Hobbes Wiki]  Sometimes it seems as though life is an on-going game of Calvinball, doesn’t it?  With ever changing rules?

People at the National Institute of Play – and yes, there is such a thing – have identified seven “types” of play:
  • ·         Attunement Play
  • ·         Body & Movement Play
  • ·         Object Play
  • ·         Social Play
  • ·         Imaginative and Pretend Play
  • ·         Storytelling/Narrative Play
  • ·         Creative Play

Each of these seem to have two purposes.  First, they are just fun in-and-of-themselves.  Just about all animals seem to play, and while scientists have identified utilitarian reasons for this play, they’ve also had to admit that play behaviors are also simply enjoyable, are done just for the pleasure they bring.  Secondly, though, are those utilitarian reasons, and through play – as infants, children, and adults – we learn all sorts of things.  In attunement play, for instance, an infant and its parents smile and giggle at each other, coo and talk baby talk, tickle and laugh, and learn how to make connections with others.  When a young cub – whether a lion or a human baby – jumps up and down they’re experiencing the pleasure of their bodies, and learning about gravity and the realities of the physical world.  Object play – banging on pots and pans or playing with dolls (or action figures!) helps with learning how to manipulate that world, and builds eye/hand coordination and all that goes with that.  Social play helps one learn to read, and send, social cues.  (Here’s an interesting thing … in dogs, wolves, and other canids, for instance, there are certain cues that what’s coming is play.  We’ve all seen a dog throw its front legs out, drop its head low, while keeping its back up straight, with its tail wagging.  That’s a clear sign that it wants to play, and any animal that doesn’t follow that up with play, that’s “cheating” or “lying,” faces ostracism from the rest of the pack.  If you say you’re going to play, you’d better play.) 

In fact, play is so important that some social scientists have found a correlation between the amount and quality of play in children and youth and the ability later in life to creatively solve problems and engage successfully with others and the world.  “Recreational deprivation,” as it’s called, has been linked to violent, antisocial adults.  As a rule, mass murderers, for example, seem to have had extremely poor play experiences as kids.

Now … this has been a lot of words about play, and in a moment we’re going to actually do a little playing together (so get prepared), yet there is one more think I want to say about play:  play provides perspective.  Play, playfulness, can be an antidote to the seriousness that can so easily threaten to overtake us.  Why do you think that late night comedians like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and others are so popular today?  Because they take what’s oh so incredibly seriously – seriously disturbing, seriously infuriating, seriously scary – and they playfully skewer it.  They do what fools have done since time immemorial – taking the powerful down a notch, and in so doing, redistribute that power away from the tyrants and back to those of us who laugh and join in the game.  This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take serious things seriously.  If that’s all we do, though, we risk becoming angry, bitter, and broken.
In her autobiography, Living My Life, well-known anarchist activist revolutionary Emma Goldman wrote,

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.

There’s a well-known quotation that’s generally attributed to Goldman, which she may well have never said, yet which sums up this sentiment both beautifully and memorably, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

In these days when, perhaps, a little revolution is in order, let us not forget the importance of dancing, laughing, playing.  It may be what gets us through.


Invitation to Play

Warming Up:  We repeat the following words in a call and response style, going faster and faster until we can go no faster.

Flea.  Flea fly.  Flea fly flu.  Vista!  Cumalata cumalta cumalata vista.  Oh, no no, no no de vista.  Eenee meeny decimeny ou wa ou wa o meeny; exameeny salamini ou wa o wah o meeny.  Beep diddle oh den doten bo bo skediten doten.  Yeah.  [spelling is phonetic!]

Literary Mad Libs:  The congregation is asked to call out suggestions of various types of words -- noun, plural noun, adjective, past tense verb, etc. -- which are then placed, in order, into the reading in their appropriate places.  The result (with the words in parenthesis) was then read back to the congregation.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the (rabbit/horse), 
not a creature was stirring, not even a/an (cucumber). 
The (oceans) were tucked, all snug in their (walnuts), 
while visions of (horrendous) plums danced in their heads. 
Then up on the (Wonder Woman) there arose such a clatter. 
I sprang from my (skateboard) to see what was the matter. 
It was St. Nicholas with his little (ridiculous) belly, 
That shook when he laughed like a bowl full of (funiculars). 
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work 
And filled all the (ministers), then turned with a jerk. 
And laying his (screwdriver) aside of his nose 
And giving a nod, up the (pimple) he rose. 
I heard him exclaim as he (flew) out of sight, 
“(slimy) Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Telling a Story One Sentence at a Time:  The congregation is invited to create a story, with the first person saying only one line, and then passing the microphone to the next person, who will add the next line.


Offering:  The collection was taken with top hats rather than the usual plates, and people blew bubbles during this time.


Closing Words:

“Play exists for its own sake. Play is for the moment; it is not hurried, even when the pace is fast and timing seems important. When we play, we also celebrate holy uselessness. Like the calf frolicking in the meadow, we need no pretense or excuses. Work is productive; play, in its disinterestedness and self-forgetting, can be fruitful.”  — Margaret Guenther in Toward Holy Ground

“We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”  George Bernard Shaw


Pax tecum,


RevWik







Monday, July 02, 2018

A Place of Peace

This is the text of the reflections I offered at the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, July 1, 2018.  I wanted the second half to be less consciously conceptual and more a free flowing of spirit, so this is a reconstruction of what those who were here heard.


Opening Words:
The abbot of a provincial monastery was in something of a tizzy, because the abbot of his school’s main temple was coming for a visit, and he wanted everything to be just perfect.  He had set his students to polishing every bit of wood, and brass, and gold, and to seek out every single dust bunny.  He, himself, attended to the grounds.

An old monk, a recognized Zen master who had retired to this monastery watched as the young abbot spent several hours raking leaves from all of the walking trails.  The abbot wanted the woods to exude quiet, and peace, and … well … perfection.  He imagined walking these clear, unobstructed paths with his honored guest, just as he strove to lead the monks under his care over the clear, unobstructed paths of the dharma.

As I said, the old monk stood watching the abbot at his labors the whole time.  When he was finished, the abbot came to the monk, and with pride in his accomplishment the young man asked the old man what he thought.  “Well … ,” the old monk said, “I have to say, you’ve certainly worked very, very hard at this, and it’s almost right. 

The abbot replied, somewhat anxiously, “Please, tell me what I have to do to make it perfect.”  “I’d rather show you,” the old master said.  He took the rake, and spent the next hour putting the leaves back on the path.  “There,” he said when he was done. “Now it’s perfect.”

He gave the rake to the startled abbot, and walked away without another word.


Sermon:
One hour a day.  One day a week.  One week a year. 

One hour a day.  One day a week.  One week a year. 

I want you to hold on to that formula.  We’ll come back to it later.  (I’ll come back to that story about the monks and the leaves in a bit, too.)

Most Sundays I note that the heart of our sanctuary service is not the sermon, or the music, (or the offering!), it’s what we call the time of “Going Deeper.”  Our lives can be so full, and so hectic, I say (as if it would be news to any of us).  Every religious tradition I know anything about exhorts us to seek, to find, or to create spaces and places in our lives where we are not overcome by the cacophony of life; where our hearts and our minds can find respite; where our souls can be silent and calm. 
In the book of 1 Kings in the Hebrews Scriptures the story is told of the prophet Elijah who asks to see G_d.  After all manner of images pass him by – a strong wind that can destroy a mountain, an earthquake, an all-consuming fire – after all of these things pass him by, Elijah finally recognizes his G_d in what is usually translated as, “a still, small voice.”  (It is alternately rendered, “a gentle whisper,” or, my favorite, “the voice of quiet stillness.”)

We have, hopefully, each of us had our own experiences of such sacred silence, times where the world grew quiet … and so did we.  Spiritual practices such as meditation and contemplative prayer can be understood to be, at the very least, about learning to create and cultivate such peace in a world, in our lives, which are most often anything but.

We need such times.  We need such places.  We need such experiences.  Because just as we have been learning how vitally important sleep is to our bodily and mental health, so too is such peace vitally important to our spiritual health. 

The Unitarian Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (who, a colleague once described as, “wash[ing] out of the ministry early”) had more than a little to say about sacred space.  In his essay Nature, St. Ralph described an experience he had in nature, that has been often quoted (although here I’m going to read a little more than is usually used):

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.  In the woods, too, a [person casts off [their] years, as the snake [its] slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child.  In the woods, is perpetual youth.  Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how [they] should tire of them in a thousand ears.  In the woods, we return to reason and faith.  There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.  Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball.  I am nothing.  I see all.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

The Austrian poet René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke, better and more simply known as Rainer Maria Rilke had similar thoughts about the ocean:

"When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused."

How many of us have had such experiences?  How many of us – in the woods, by the ocean, at the bank of a river, on a trail, in our gardens – how many of us have found this kind of sacred space and felt its healing balm (at least some of the times)?  I have always loved the power of an incoming storm, when the temperature drops and the winds pick up, and the sky changes color and, almost, texture.  (I’ve read that the Persian poet Khalil Gibran did too – going up to the roof of his apartment in New York City whenever a really powerful storm was coming.)  Like Emerson, I experience “a perfect exhilaration […] am glad to the brink of fear,” and find my worries and woes dropping away.

All of this is why our time of “Going Deeper” is the hub, the heart of what we do here week after week.  This time we set aside is, for some of us, the only time when we can slow down long enough to have even a taste of this kind of stillness.  And for some of us – no doubt for many of us – this place is as important as this time.  We come here, to this sanctuary, as, if you will, to an in-town forest or ocean.  We come here to seek a stillness, to find a stillness, so that that stillness can carry us through the rest of our week.

The Unitarian Universalist pastor and preacher Rev. Phillip Hewett described this seeking in words that are often used as Opening Words in UU congregations (it’s #440 in the back of our hymnals):

“From the fragmented world of our everyday lives we gather together in search of wholeness.  By many cares and preoccupations, by diverse and selfish aims are we separated from one another and divided within ourselves.”

Another story.  (And I haven’t forgotten that earlier story about the monks and the leaves, nor the formula with which I began – one hour a day; one day a week; one week a year.  I hope you haven’t yet either, and if you did I’ve just reminded you.)

I’ve mentioned before that when I was in my 20s I had the wonderful opportunity to spend two months in Japan working with the Kanjiyama Mime troupe.  This was in the midst of the twenty or so year period in which I followed the Zen Buddhist path, so although my work in Japan was centered mostly in and around Tokyo, I simply had to make a side trip to Kyoto, which was the Imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years.  It’s also been called “the city of temples,” because of its 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines.

I visited several Buddhist temples while I was there, particularly those with the justly famed gardens of stone and raked sand.  And I have to say, when I walked onto the temple grounds – and this was true of all of the temples I visited – I was overwhelmed with a sense of peace.  It was nearly palpable, and I felt myself infused with it.  Just being there quieted my mind and stilled my soul.  It was powerful, and an experience I hope I never forget (no matter how much else I may come to forget).
And this pervasive and palpable peace was perhaps nowhere more present than in the zendo.  These beautiful, spare spaces seemed filled with the energy generated by the monks who meditated there day after day, week after week, years upon years, over centuries and centuries.  It seemed to me that these halls had been infused by the peace of its monks, just as it held the fragrance of all of the incense that had been burned there.

At one of the temples the monk who was walking me around brought me outside the back of its zendo.  The meditation hall had been built at the base of a cliff, and there was a place where a small waterfall had carved a channel in the rock.  Ice cold water from a mountain stream above still fell, as it had for centuries.  At the base of this channel there was a somewhat circular, somewhat flat rock … about the size of a meditation cushion, actually.  And the monk told me that the most advanced students would sometimes leave the zendo during the time of meditation, that they would get off their cushions and come out here.  They would leave the peace and stillness of the zendo and come out here to continue their zazen practice— here, on that rock, under that icy shower.  He invited me to touch it, and even the brief period it poured over my hand was quite literally bone chilling.  And there were monks who choose to practice here under this freezing flow, rather than in the warmth and peace of the meditation hall.

Since I posted the Black Lives Matter sign on the wall behind this pulpit, I have heard from some of you who’ve said that it disrupted, and for some even destroyed, the feeling of peace you had in this hall, and which you sought still.  For some it’s the “garish” colors, discordant with soft blue of the wall.  Some felt it to be an intrusion of the outer world into this inner space, an imposition of the political – and the divisively political at that – into this place of peace.  “I used to look up at the altar throughout the service” someone said to me, “and it would allow me to let everything go.”  This person continued, “Now I can’t.  Whenever I look toward the altar I see that sign, and I can no longer get away from anything … even for just this one hour.”

I would note that this isn’t everyone’s experience.  I have also heard from some of you who find the presence of this sign a powerfully positive thing.  Many – not all, but many – people of color, and perhaps especially those who are new to the congregation, who are checking it out, have said that seeing that sign not only outside of our building, but inside it as well, has made them feel truly welcomed and safe in a predominantly white faith community … for the first time.  “You see me,” they’ve said.  “And you care enough about me to say that explicitly, here, in this sacred space, even though it must cause some of you discomfort to do so.”  As Unitarian Universalists – particularly as Unitarian Universalists committed to the vision of true Beloved Community, that is truly multigenerational and multicultural and committed to the dismantling of racism and the systems and structures of oppression of all kinds – as Unitarian Universalists we know that having our needs met is not the ultimate measure of our success.  Rather, it’s to be a people who know that what matters most is our collective needs, the needs of our whole community, and that means sometimes setting aside my own needs for the sake of someone else’s.  This is one of my reasons for keeping the sign where it is – while some of us are discomforted by its presence, others (and not just people of color, but some of us who identify as white, as well) are more comfortable because it’s there.

I’ve also said, over the years, that if those of us who identify (or are identified as) white are really committed to the overthrow of the deeply and fundamentally racist culture that is U.S. culture, if we’re really committed to this work, then we are going to have to change.  We are going to have to be uncomfortable, because it is uncomfortable work to let of what we’ve known, and learn to see the world through new eyes.  Yesterday, at the Families Belong Together rally downtown, we were reminded by one of the speakers that as outraged as we are by the separation of immigrant families today, it’s been happening in our country to brown and black families since the founding of the nation – African families, native families, the families of anyone deemed to be “Other” have had their families split up as a deterrent .. a deterrent to even thinking about fighting back against their oppression and their oppressors.  This makes a lot of white folk really uncomfortable, as we want to believe that this kind of behavior is an aberration, and it’s tremendously disconcerting and disorienting to discover that it’s actually been a part of the fabric of our culture from the beginning.  

I’ve preached this need for those of us who identify as white to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” to lean into the pain that brings with it, and to realize that our assertion, our assumption, that we can and should be comfortable is a piece of privilege not shared equally.  Black and brown people – like women, those who identify as part of LGBTQI communities, Muslims, and everyone who’s been historically, and still are, marginalized – have had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable because that’s a part of their daily experience.  I’ve preached this, and this message has been greeted with applause and praise for my “courage” and willingness to “say what has to be said.”  The presence of this sign is one way to remind us of these truths.

My two Buddhist stories are another way of understanding what the presence of this sign, in this place, is all about.  It is easy to find peace in peaceful places.  It is easy to be still when there is stillness all around.  It is easy, with apologies to Kipling, for us to “keep our heads when all about us are keeping theirs.”  But try meditating under a shower of ice cold mountain water.  Try finding a clear path when it’s obscured by leaves.  Try looking at the altar and letting everything go when out of the corner of your eye you see a reminder of the pain and the struggle in our world.

I can imagine that some of you are experiencing these reflections as being more than a little … defensive.  And I can imagine that some of you are experiencing them as being dismissive … of your concerns, of your real disheartening discomfort, of your own felt needs.

I hope that I’m not being defensive; I’m hoping that I’ve been offering an explanation of why, in this regard, I am doing what I’m doing.  Agree or disagree, I hope I’m helping you to better understand. 
I am aware, though, that I have often come across as dismissive.  I acknowledge that some of you here – and no doubt many who are not – have felt dismissed, especially this year and especially since the end of February when that anonymous racist note and attack was directed at our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, and her family.  And while I do recognize and acknowledge that for some here that has been the impact of some of what I’ve said and done, that was never my intent.

In her sermon on Sunday morning at General Assembly last week, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray reminded us that she had been called not just to be a leader in our movement, but also a pastor.  That really struck me.  It struck me deeply.  And it struck me deeply because I realize that – especially since February – I have not been as much of a pastor as I now realize I should have been.  Prophetic, maybe, but not all that pastoral.

I know that I have come across to some of us as if I were saying that there were one, and only one, way of being involved in the struggle for racial justice.  I recognize that I have not always said what I mean to say in ways that have been all too easy to misunderstand.  And I am aware that this has led some people to feeling blamed, or shamed, or, as I’ve said, dismissed.

The Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou said, “If we agree in love, no disagreement can do us any harm.  Yet if we don’t, no agreement can do us any good.”  I’m paraphrasing, but you see what we meant.  We don’t have to agree with each other, we don’t have to see things the same way, we don’t have to be the same amount of “woke” (as if you could measure that), we don’t have to be in the same place of understanding, or in the same place of action … if we agree in love, none of that need matter.  The Beloved Community has room for all of us.  We are all works-in-progress and, again, if we can remember to “agree in love,” we can move forward together.

This is a community of good-hearted people, and we cannot afford to risk complacency – the time is too dire and the stakes are too high.  This is a community of beautiful and loving people, and we cannot let a comfortable appearance of peace supplant our commitment to justice.  The work we have set ourselves to is hard.  Relationships are hard.  For that matter, life itself is hard.  Yet as I say to my younger son, “We can do hard things.”

And the discovery of, or the creation of, the cultivation of places and spaces of peace is something we all have to do – individually and as a community – if we want to do the hard things our faith calls us to.  Our time of “Going Deeper’ is intended to be such a time each week, as I know listening to the musical gifts of Scott and James is for many of us.  But that’s not enough.

And that’s where we come back to the formula with which I began:  one hour a day; one day a week; one week a year.”  The Unitarian Universalist preacher Carl Scovel offered this as a pattern we can use to structure our spiritual lives, to ensure that we’re feeding that sacred silence.  Take one hour a day, each day, for quiet and contemplation.  Pray, meditate, walk your dogs and enjoy the walk, sip a cup of tea … for one hour a day give yourself some space to quiet down enough to listen for that “voice of quiet stillness.”   And then give yourself one day a week.  Think of the Jewish tradition of Shabbat, the seventh day of the week on which you are to abstain from anything that might be called “work.”  I’ve heard the practice of such sabbath time as being, “don’t do anything because you feel you have to do it.”  This one-day-a-week is not the time to do the laundry and the 101 errands that have piled up.  It’s a space for space.  And so is that one week per year.  Scovel suggested that we should strive to shape our lives so that we can have one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year during which we can set ourselves to the no-thing-ness of stillness.

When we are intentional about creating such space – even if we can’t quite meet Scovel’s recommendations – we will find ourselves in a much better place to find that love in which, and through which, we can agree, letting no disagreement tear us apart.



Closing Words:
I have another story.  In Divinity School I was especially interested in cross-cultural monastic practices, so this is another story of a monk. 

This time it’s a Christian monk who was in her room, engaged in contemplative prayer.  It was a warm day, so her window was open.  Outside, the birds were singing, the crickets were chirping, the frogs were croaking, dogs in the distance were barking, and the wind was rustling in the leaves of the trees.  The cacophonous chorus of life was going on outside of her room, and the monk found that she simply could not concentrate on her prayers.

So she rose and went to her window.  Such was her spiritual power that she did not just close the window, she leaned out and shouted, “Silence!”  And all the world grew silent.  There was no sound at all – no birds, no crickets, no frogs, no dogs, no wind.  The silence was complete and total.

The monk returned to her prayers and, at first, she was able to go deep into her contemplations.  Yet she began to notice that again she was distracted, and this time it was worse than it had been.  The silence was nearly deafening.

So once again she rose and went to the window.  And once again she leaned out.  This time, though, she spoke more softly and said, “Sing!”  All at once, the song of life resumed, and she welcomed the world back into her prayers.



Pax tecum,

RevWik