Roots of Resilience: We’ve been here before

Roots of ResilienceThere’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the past few months: we are living in an unprecedented time.  

And in a lot ways – it’s true.  No one in our congregation was alive in 1918 for the Spanish Flu…so none of us have experienced a pandemic like this. Something requiring massive and prolonged isolation. Let alone a pandemic in a time where truth is so hard to pin down, and there isn’t a sense of trust in public leaders, or in each other…and yet with this equally unprecedented capacity to remain connected through technology – all across the globe – so we can really see just how unprecedented this is – for all of us. 

And, at the same time, over the past few weeks, I have started to remember a history that is not the story of my own life, but of our collective lives. And it is a remembering. In my bones, and in my breath, I’ve started to remember that this is not all entirely new. We have been here before. 

We have lived and struggled through what Margaret Wheatley has described as “enormous upheaval, dislocation, famines, and fears. We’ve had to counteract aggression, protect our loved ones, and face the end of life as we’ve known it.”  We have lived and survived so many times where life itself felt at risk. 

Which means that in our collective memory there resides – maybe not that tangible clarity so many of us crave – but still the wisdom and the strength, that is the resilience we need to meet this moment, to survive and to thrive. 

Like many of you, I grew up Catholic. So the idea of connecting with spiritual ancestors and their help is not new. Growing up we called them “saints.”  

But still, as an adult – while the lives and lessons of the women and queer folx, and the courageous actions of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors – while all of these have been inspiring, and bolstering – for a long time, these stories have felt distinctly past tense.  Disconnected in any real way from me and us, in the present, here and now.

But then the last few years…well, you know the past few years. So much change, and grief – nationally, globally, and, for many of us, personally. 

Pema Chodron talks about the Tibetan word “ye tang che.”  Ye, as in: “totally, completely.” And the rest: “Exhausted.”  She says:  “Ye tang che describes an experience of hopelessness. And this is important – as it’s the beginning of the beginning.  Without giving up hope, we never relax enough with where we are or who we are…” in order to make the space to become something else. 

 In the past few years I’ve become pretty familiar with ye tang cheIn the past few weeks, I’ve been there – a lot.  And what I’ve learned about this place, is how freeing it can be, how things that previously were blocked by my rational, skeptical brain, arrive as gifts.

And one of those gifts is a new relationship with our ancestors. In the past few years I’ve discovered that the people of the past need not remain past tense, but can be present here – connected in the now.  It’s like – when all that is tangible and seen fails to make sense, then you start to turn to what is unseen.  When things fall apart, we can more readily lean in to mystery, its power and its possibility.

So I was fully in a place of ye tang che the fall of 2018 when I went on retreat to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  (Some of you have heard me tell this story, but let’s hear it again – it’s so good for right now.)

I had brought with me my grandmother’s rosary and the golden cross that had sat on her bedside before she died, and when the time came, I placed them on our shared altar. As we settled into a meditation meant for connecting with our ancestors, I imagined meeting her there.

She’d been a nurse for returning soldiers from World War 2, which is where she met my grandfather. She gave birth to seven children, was the mother to seven children – and her husband struggled with mental illness. And still she was a powerful leader in her church and her community – she started her town’s food bank. 

I figured she knew some things about survival, perseverance and resilience.  So as I settled in for the meditation, I listened for her response: Grandma, how do I keep going?

But then as I settled into the silence, instead of my grandma, another voice and presence came to me – the Rev. Anna Jane Norris – circuit-riding minister of the 1880s who preached up and down the wilderness of northern Colorado trying to start a liberal church.

It hit me as her name came to me, how much resistance she must have faced, how much derision, how familiar she must’ve been with ye tang cheand yet somehow she kept going until a church took hold in 1898, what became Unity Church – Unitarian of Fort Collins, which changed its name to the Foothills Unitarian Church in 1968.

And so instead of asking my grandma, I asked Anna Jane: How do I keep going?  

And here’s what she said to me – I wrote it down right after so I wouldn’t forget – she said:

 Everything you are thinking about,

All the things you’re stuck on –  all these questions that are swirling –

none of this is God.

God is bigger than you know. Bigger than what you can dream, or imagine.

I could’ve never imagined you – she said.

I could’ve never imagined this church that you serve today.

It was impossible. And still, somehow I was sure of it,

even when there was nothing.

There are dreams at work beyond your own.

So, keep going. Just keep going.

You don’t have to do everything.

Someone will come next.

What you leave unfinished will be their calling.

Just keep going.

I’ve returned to this encouragement, and her words, and the felt sense of her presence – so many times since then – I’ve felt her resilience like it’s my own. 

Over the coming weeks, as we continue to make our way through this unprecedented time my invitation is for us to all lean in to the precedence that we hold within us, as we allow these histories to come alive in us.  Because together we can remember a resilience rooted not in our individual lives but in our collective life, in life itself. We can remember we are not alone in this moment – we are a part of a powerful history unseen by our eyes, but still available in our bones and our blood.  In our DNA. 

In these days, we can allow every weary moment, every moment where we feel totally exhausted to be a place where we can open ourselves even more to the power of this mystery – God that is so much bigger than our worries, or even our dreams.  The life that is far beyond what we can see. 

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Back to Life – Easter 2020

back to life for worshipText:

Homily 
Last night as I kissed my daughter’s forehead, she felt hot.  In normal times I’d just think: “Teenager. Day in the sun, no big deal.”

But this is not a normal time.  So I thought immediately of the virus.  And my daughter’s fragile life.  All of our fragile lives. My heart.

It’s become a common enough for me to wonder about disease as we get ready for bed that I’ve already developed a response in my head: All we can do is wait for the morning.  See what happens next.

And she was up this morning, ready for the day as ever. So we go on.

Yesterday, I read two articles that took this sort of thinking to another level.  

The first was about ventilators.  And what recovery looks like post-ventilator. I mean, when recovery happens, which isn’t often enough. It encouraged people to consider – do you really want to be put on a ventilator, if it comes to that?

The second article was about what happens to kids when their parents get seriously sick.  This one encourages parents to make a plan for their kids, just in case. 

My first response to both of these –so you know how my brain works – was about what the church should be doing to host conversations about these.  What education and what emotional and spiritual support the community would need. 

And then second, I brought it up to my partner.  To talk about US. Our answers.   

It took all the way to today before I broke down sobbing.  

In normal times, Unitarian Universalists are often accused of skipping ahead to Easter – WE LIKE LIFE! RENEWAL! HOPE! We skip over the days leading up to Easter – all that grief, and loss, and death that is actually what makes Easter such good news. 

But like I said, this is not a normal time.

This year, we meet Easter seeped in death.  News and numbers, and this question of when we will reach peak death.  We’re so filled with news of death – I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks wondering what Easter even means in this time.  

This time where it feels like we’re all stuck in Good Friday. Holy Saturday.  

The days when Jesus has died and there is no sense that there’s anything other than that truth, that reality of death. For those who loved him and followed him –  Jesus was a singular sign of hope for the hopeless, a liberator of the oppressed, a great healer.  

For him to have died – it was more than just devastating.  It was unthinkable.  

Everything they knew about what survival meant, what life should mean was taken away.  The whole world was turned upside down. 

One of my colleagues actually decided to postpone her church’s Easter service for this reason.  “Easter comes when we’re back in the same room, when the stories of death are fading.” She said. “This moment now, is not a time for Easter.” 

I love my colleague.  I respect her. And I get why she has decided this.  But also, she’s wrong.

Because this time – this dis-eased time, this time of death and fear – this is what the story and promise of Easter is made for.  In real time, in the moments after Jesus’ death, there was no coherent story.  They had no idea why the tomb was empty.  There was confusion, uncertainty, fear, grief – for a long time. Decades.

But over those years, the community began to find a way to understand, a way to go on.  And, ultimately, they offered their understanding as a gift for people across centuries and cultures who would also find themselves in times where everything they’ve ever known is turned upside down. Where grief and loss and death feels like the end of the story.  This gift, their understanding, is the story of Easter that we know today.  A story told in the way it is not because they did not know the pain of death and uncertainty –but because they absolutely KNEW!! And also, because they came to know, as we all come to know, that loss does not have the last word.  That life finds a way to persist, that we will find a way to persist.

And so when they go back and tell the story – they don’t tell it in the way it happened to them.  They don’t let years go between death, and new life.  They get that stone rolled away and the empty tomb declared right as the community is coming to terms with the loss.  Because they, and we know – we can’t hold life off – life has to always be now.  Because joy is not a luxury.  Joy is essential.  Like Thoreau talked about figuring out the essential facts of life.  Joy is essential for life.  

This doesn’t, of course, mean that everything is joyful, or that we must make what is horrible into something good. It’s just more believing that joy, and life are here too.  

Easter Sunday, right up against Holy Saturday. The rising, and the falling, and the rising again. 

Which brings me to the other important truth in this story.  Which is that –the rising, was not simply a returning to life as it was before. 

Easter is a story of transformation.

We will not be the same after all of this.  We are already not the same. 

We already have mantras to respond to worries about our beloveds falling ill in the night. 

And already we know the sound of our neighbors howling at the moon. 

And, we already know how much touch matters – remember how Thomas needed to touch Jesus to believe he was truly resurrected?  We understand this now, in new ways. We know how much touch matters, how much hugs mean – so that when we hug again – and we will! – it will be such a sign of life. New life.  

We are already not the same, and there will be more changes to come. 

And so we need to make space in these days for these changes. 

The change in you, in us.  

These changes, as Aisha Ahmad has said, will be “honest, raw, ugly, hopeful, frustrated, beautiful, and divine. And they will be slower than [we] are used to.  Be slow. Let this distract you. Let it change how you think and how you see the world.”

“Because [loving] the world is our work.” Like Mary Oliver says, Our work “is loving the world.”

Courageously loving the world, even in the midst of disease and anxiety.  Courageously loving life as it is dying, and courageously loving this world, and ourselves into the world that longs to be born – anew.  

As Kendyl Gibbons writes: “This is all that faith means, has ever meant; the human willingness to rebuild the shattered world, and knowing what we know now, do better this time.” 

So this Easter, let us keep the faith to continue with our work – loving this world back to life.  

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Blessed Unrest

blessed unrest (1)Reading: Fault Lines by Robert Walsh 

As we have been feeling the fault lines in all of our living rooms this week, I’ve been thinking about the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  Especially the story of Exodus – which begins with an incredible event of liberation:  after 400 years of slavery, the Hebrew people are free.  

Except that the first step of freedom isn’t exactly what they had in mind. 

After Egypt, Moses (their leader) brings them – and all their kids, and their animals, into the wilderness – the desert. 

And they are like: what sort of freedom is this?! Will there be enough food, or water? At least in Egypt, we knew where our next meal was coming from!  

Moses is like: good point. 

So he and God set up some special hours for senior shopping – I mean, God drops magic bread from the sky and they are ok for a minute.

But then, Moses says, I gotta go up this mountain so I can convene with the God who made this freedom possible. So, brb. 

Which is when they really start to freak out. 

First of all, they didn’t get this whole “invisible God” idea.  Every god they’d ever known came in the form of something they could touch, feel, see.  

14006122888_560cafbf62_bAnd so they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make them something more solid – even if it isn’t the whole truth, it is at least something they can know.  

So he says ok, and the people were relieved.

But when Moses comes down the mountain, he is furious…but Aaron was all: Come on Moses! You know how people are! They just cannot deal with this much uncertainty – they need something more solid.  Too much is out of their control, too much has changed. 

This scene plays over and over in the Hebrew bible as the people end up wandering the desert for 40 years.  

Which is not a number they know going in.  

They are just wandering, and waiting, and trying to not irritate each other too much, and to keep the faith that the next right thing would emerge.

We are not the Hebrew people.  We have not suddenly left behind all the things we’ve ever known. 

But still, a lot of our lives have been disrupted. 

Our usual habits.  Our ways of making sense of things.  People we turn to for comfort, and clarity.  Their bodies, if not their faces – are now so far away. 

It is an unprecedented moment.  Even the elders among us have not seen a moment like this in their lifetimes. 

So much is uncertain, so much is out of our control.

And like Aaron said – this is not something humans are built for.  Human brains do not take well to uncertainty, to fault lines suddenly shifting.

Our brains like certainty, clarity, closure.  I just think about how often in the past few days I’ve found myself obsessively refreshing NPR and NYtimes,  scrolling social media, listening to podcasts, reaching out to friends older, younger, just looking for a sense of clarity – like what’s going to happen, or really – what IS happening? And how long will this go on? Will we be in this desert for 40 years?

Uncertainty makes it hard to plan, and worse, it makes us doubt our plans from the past. What good were all those plans? Uncertainty makes us doubt ourselves, and the world.  And uncertainty brings up a lot of grief – for all that we had planned that is not as we hoped, all that is disrupted.  Grief for lost time, and fear at the worst case scenarios. 

Which is what is often at the heart of our struggles with uncertainty – because our brains want resolution – so we just go ahead and resolve the uncertainty by trading it for certainty – our certainty that the worst is true.  We’re sure of it. 

But the truth is – in this time – we don’t know, and there’s really no way to know.  And this is the gift. 

When we can stay here fully in the unknowing –  when we look not to more solidity – not look for God that we can touch –  but instead live in the mystery, in the wandering, in the holy that is intangible – when we trust more the “tensile strands of love that bend and stretch to hold us in the web of life”  – then here we can know the real blessing in the midst of this unrest.  

The hard-won blessing that comes from really surrendering ourselves into all that is out of our control.  

So that we can do what we can, and let the rest go. 

The blessing of humility, and interdependence. 

Day by day, and hour by hour, this is how we will make this journey through the wilderness together. 

We will do what we can, and let the rest go. 

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State of Emergence-y

When I came back from sabbatical last fall, I carried with me this one poem as a guiding light, and grounding. It’s by Pablo Neruda, called Keeping Quiet. It’s a poem about the wisdom of stillness – the healing we could find in a collective stillness….

Now we will count to twelve
And we will all keep still.
 For once on the face of the earth,
Let’s not speak in any language
Let’s stop for one second
And not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
Without rush, without engines;
We would all be together
In a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
Would not harm whales
And the man gathering salt
Would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
 
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about.
I want no truck with death.
 If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive. 
 Now I’ll count to twelve
And you keep quiet and I will go. 

This idea of the healing possible in a collective stillness was what I had on my mind and in my heart as I returned in August –it was what my time away meant, and what I hoped to bring into my ministry as I returned.  And yet….the good work of the church and the call of life had other plans.

There has been so much good, amazing ministry we’ve accomplished these last few months – all of your generosity in the campaign, the connections made through the visits – and there have been moments of silence together, many breaths of collective stillness – but that sense of collective stillness and deep listening that I imagined – not so much.

And yet here we are. The noise of cars and planes slowing down, stopping, all across the world.  The rush to the next class or meeting set aside. The sitting down around tables to play board games or do puzzles suddenly the major task of the day.  I sent my friend who lives in Seattle a text message for his birthday yesterday and asked if he wanted to have a drink – I figured, he and I could get together as easily now as either of us could with anyone else.

I said, it’s like, far is the new close.   We’re getting “together” later today.  

Now we will count to twelve
And we will all keep still.

far is the new closeI don’t mean to say in any way that this global pandemic is somehow actually good.  That’s not our theology.   Just more: there are gifts here, too.

Rebecca Solnit writes about what happens after disasters and emergencies.  She tells these terrible stories.  And also, she tells these beautiful stories.  Because what she discovers is that each time someone tells about these catastrophes, there is often a moment when their face is just overcome with joy, and gratitude.

Because in all of them, there’s an experience where people are so overwhelmingly kind, compassionate, generous, creative – in ways that they just aren’t all the time.

But in these moments of emergency, it all comes to the surface. Who we can be comes to the surface in these times.  And who we are – it’s all on display – in the most uncertain of times, in crisis, in danger.

Or at least, who we are, who we can be comes to the surface when we actively engage the anxiety and fear that arise in these same moments.  Anxiety and fear call into action our amygdala – the lizard brain – which makes empathy and compassion – the selves we can be and actually are – really hard to access.

Fear and anxiety are a natural reaction to what we’re experiencing right now. It would be strange not to be afraid. There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot unknown, a lot of emergency – and a lot emerging.  So we need to tend to that fear and anxiety, not just try to act like it isn’t there, like we can push it away.

And also, we need to keep turning to the gifts of this time, the beauty, and to the breath. So that we don’t let fear have the last word. We need to ground ourselves in this moment, here and now.  In what really matters, as Neruda says:

Life is what it is about.                                                                                                          

So that we can emerge in this emergency into the life we are meant for, a life of connection and community – a life held close, even when we are for now, far apart.

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All or Nothing

It was 1866, and the work for women’s suffrage was at a crossroads. 

The civil war had ended the year before. Loss and grief were everywhere.  Over 10,000 battles had been fought, over 600,000 died.  What it means for two sides of righteousness to each become so hardened that life becomes irreparably fractured, impossible, deadly –this was not for them, theoretical. 

24560036959_7d21b7a481_bFor most of the 19th century, the work to end slavery and to secure women the vote had been deeply intertwined.  Frederick Douglass was of the key speakers and leaders at the famous suffrage convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, and white and black women – Susan B. Anthony, Olympia Brown, Francis Watkins Brown, Lucy Stone, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe – these were all Unitarians and Universalists, alongside the formidable Elizabeth Cady Stanton – they had been leaders in the push to end slavery for many years leading up to the civil war.

All this work was intertwined until about 1866, when the movements were faced with a choice.  Because in 1866, slavery had been abolished, and congress went on to pass the 14th amendment, requiring all states to ensure that all people, regardless of race, color or creed, were equal citizens.  

But this “citizenship” did not mean they could vote.  

Voting, as of 1866, was restricted to those citizens who were white and male.

And so the question was – would the movements continue to work together for women’s suffrage, since slavery had ended? Or, would they first work to ensure Black men had the vote?

I phrase it like this – one, or the other – because that was part of the question– should they think of it sequentially – and if so, in what order?

Or should they stand together and say it was all, or nothing.   

Nothing, as in, no one wins – no one besides the white men who still got to vote. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this moment in history over the past few months, especially as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment– the move that finally brought women the right to vote.  Or, at least, it brought white women the vote.  I’ll come back to this later. 

I’ve also been thinking about this moment because a lot of today’s ethical decisions – personal, and collective decisions about what constitutes a moral life – find us in a similar ethical quandary, as in:  strategy, solidarity, purity, polarization, and the practical realities of what can, and cannot get done. 

For example, we might believe that healthcare is a human right – especially relevant in these days where we’re talking about a global health crisis – right? So you might think: single payer is the most ethical path.  

But, if fighting for single payer means we ultimately end up only with the status quo – because it can’t pass, maybe instead the ethical path would be to compromise – work for some movement, even if it isn’t ideal.  Some has to be better than none, right?

On the other hand, if we don’t ever draw that bright line of justice that says – sacrificing any lives to a slow progress is unacceptable – can we really claim we are acting morally, ethically? As Martin Luther King said – “justice delayed is justice denied.”  

Like a lot of people I know, my partner and I decided to practice a “dry” January this year.  As in, a break from alcohol.  For many reasons, not the least of which were health, and money.  Sobriety deserves its own sermon, but relevant to this question about all and/or nothing, what I want to talk about is the different ways that Carri and I each approached the task of not-drinking. 

For me, I decided at the start of the month, that there was a rule – “no alcohol all of January.” 

And then I agreed within myself to follow that rule.  Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whether following the rule in reality was leading to a definitive good – and to be honest, in some moments I wasn’t sure – it didn’t matter.  The rule was the rule, and following the rule in and of itself was the good. 

Generally, this way of approaching life is what philosophers would call deontological.  Deont – duty; ological – the study of.  It is the study of our duty when it comes an ethical life.  

The deontological approach is different than what Sean focused on last week – “virtue ethics.” Virtue ethics is about the sort of person you are meant to be.  Deontology doesn’t care what kind of person you are – it only cares what you do.

Have you seen the bumper stickers that say “the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”? 

Whenever I see those it always makes me wonder if the person has actually read the bible.  Like, you’re settled on the fact that anyone who utters the name of the Lord should be stoned to death? Leviticus 24 says it …does that settle it?

But my point is, this sense that there is a book of rules that we need not question, but rather simply follow – this is deontology.

This is what a lot of people expect from religion – rules to follow – it’s what throws people about Unitarian Universalism at first, actually – because we don’t have a book that settles anythingInstead, our origins are more like a reaction against the rules and the idea that an ethical life would or could be tied to a prescriptive, unmoving set of standards. 

I mean, I’m guessing there aren’t too many of us who are big on concepts like “obedience,” or submitting our will to a designated authority.

On the other hand…demographically, Unitarian Universalists tend to have a lot of formal education, with many folks employed in science, engineering, math, IT, government….these are things that tend to require people who are good at rules, even like rules, especially if we get to write them ourselves.  

It’s maybe why UUs – rule resisters as we are, can get really into things things like by-laws, policies, and Roberts Rules of Order – making sure that we are in full compliance – regardless of what impact the rule actually has – the rule itself can become the good. 

To go back to my own example – and my dry January – I have to say, the rule was a relief.  In a world where we are faced with so many decisions with so many complex and confusing potential outcomes – rules can be a gift.  

To have have made one decision, and then to be faithful to this commitment, regardless of all the swirling ups and downs of each day – it can be a gift.

It’s this sort of gift we mean to be giving ourselves in a marriage commitment – to decide at the outset, regardless of what comes, I’m in.  I will be a partner to this person out of duty, even obedience, not necessarily in a patriarchal sense, but more in a sense of submitting to the promise you made.  

The example of marriage reminds us that to be duty-oriented in creating an ethical life, it isn’t just about having rules in a really detailed sense.  Instead, we can set our loyalty to something much more broad, and to a sense of what goodness and morality means in a much grander sense.  

To decide that there are principles or maxims, as Immanuel Kant framed it, that you’ve committed to, regardless of their specific impact in a particular context – to remain dutiful to their promise.  

This too is deontology – and it can be a gift. 

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This is where I imagine Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were after the Civil War.  They had this principle about women and the vote, this duty.  They were irrevocably committed, regardless of the impact it would have – they were all in. 

I said earlier, the women’s movement had to decide between taking issues one at a time, or standing together and ensuring suffrage regardless of race or sex was either all secured, or none of it. 

It turns out – this was not exactly how Stanton and Anthony saw their decision.  Instead, Stanton and Anthony and those who followed their leadership decided that their “all or nothing” was in their commitment to women’s suffrage, period.

In the years immediately after the civil war, they and other women had the sense that they had fulfilled their work for black people – slavery was over – and now it was time to focus on women’s suffrage. 

So much so, they worked to directly oppose what became the 15th amendment granting Black men the vote – because it didn’t include women.  As Brent Staples wrote recently in the New York Times, in the years after the civil war, “Stanton embarked on a Klan-like tirade against the amendment.  She warned that white women would be degraded if Negro men preceded them into the franchise.” 

The rhetoric in attempting to assert the absolute right of (white) women to vote became often ugly, petty, racist, fear-mongering. They happily accepted funding and primary support from a virulent racist banker who published their journal and relished not that their work would lift up white women, but more that it would lift up white people, period.

As you might guess, however, not everyone saw this as the right approach – including not all white women.  To explain the alternative, I need to go back to our dry January. Like I said, Carri had a different approach.  For her, the idea of removing her active choice did not feel like a gift, it felt like a prison. It increased her anxiety and made her much less likely to actually accomplish what we’d set out to do.  Instead, Carri approached each opportunity for drinking, or not drinking, as a choice to decide based on the actual result her choice would have. Would this choice result in more good?    

She called this “intentional drinking.”  In nearly all cases, she chose to not to drink.  It’s just that her way of approaching that decision was a lot more focused on the outcome of the commitment, rather than the commitment itself. 

Carri’s ethical frame is either called a consequentialist, or a teleological frame – it’s focused on the ends – the result – as a way of deciding the good.  If the choice you make results in greater freedom, justice, pleasure, happiness for more people – then your choice was a good one.

Voting is often considered through a consequentialist framework.  Espeically this cycle, voters have expressed a desire to be strategic, to think practically about the ends we can realistically accomplish, regardless of whether a given candidate aligns in a deeper sense with what you believe is right, or good. It only matters what will actually happen – the actual end. 

This is voting as harm reduction, which is another form of consequentialist ethics.  To accept that something is going to remain mostly not good, but that we can reduce the negative impact.  Reduce the harm. And reducing the harm is good. Whereas deontology doesn’t recognize degrees of “wrongness,” consequentialism thinks it’s obvious – some wrongs are worse than others, and being less worse may not be good, but it is still better than nothing.    

Lucy_stone

Lucy Stone

This was the calculation made by the other leaders – who opposed Stanton and Anthony – people like Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Livermore – as well as a coalition of women and men of all races.  They were appalled by the hard liners, and their willingness to disregard the needs of people of color so quickly. 

This sub-group celebrated the progress represented in the 15th amendment, which secured black men the vote in 1870. They believed it was a critical first step to ensure not just women’s social equality with men, but the literal survival of Black people post-Civil War.

After the 15th was passed, this group continued its inclusive, harm-reduction oriented work, focusing on a state-by state, gradualist strategy for change.  

Within a few years though – the celebrity and strength of Stanton and Anthony eclipsed this group’s efforts, so it was their approach that won the day – racism and white supremacy became synonymous with white feminism, strengthening the systemic sublimation of women of color for the next century.     

As Staples writes, “Historians are rightly warning groups involved in suffrage commemorations not to overstate the significance of the 19th amendment.  It covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely.  

But it meant very little to black women in the South where most lived at the time, and where election officials were well practiced in the art of obstructing black access to the ballot box. As African American women streamed in to register, Southern officials merely stepped up the level of fraud and intimidation.  

By this time, the former suffragists of the North were celebrating the amendment and were uninterested in fighting discrimination against women who were suffering racial, as opposed to gender, discrimination.”

In our world today, we are faced almost daily with this question of how and when to compromise – whether to fight for what our hearts are most oriented to – or to concede that most everything must be a matter of harm reduction. 

This story of post-civil war activism reminds us that if we are going to engage a deontological frame – it matters to whom, and to what we have pledged our obedience – and maybe even more, it matters whose good we are purposefully or inadvertently willing to sacrifice through this loyalty. 

As Jonathan Haidt says, morality “blinds and binds us.”  As in, binds us to those who see things as we do; and blinds us to the other ways of looking at the same exact situation.   

By which I mean, I admire those hard-line women’s suffrage leaders. I respect them, and I am not totally convinced I wouldn’t have been one of them.  Without their sense of duty, their courage and commitment, their sacrifice – I don’t know if we’d be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment.  Which means, I also must acknowledge, I don’t if we’d be here without their racism. 

And yet – on the other the other hand, if those same leaders had been willing to go the route of the consequentialists who celebrated the 15th amendment and worked to be more gradual, more practical – if they’d remained in relationship with the Black community, and refused the racist rhetoric and then used their social power as white women to form a coalition – maybe instead of the 100th anniversary of women voting, we’d be celebrating the 150th.  Imagine what world Martin Luther King Jr. might’ve showed up into if those women’s “all or nothing” stance actually meant all

In these days of often overwhelming ethical complexity, this is the promise of our faith – that we are bound up in loyalty to all, meaning all.  The whole world.  All of us are free – or none.  Which does not mean we don’t need to compromise, or choose the least-bad option – sometimes this duty requires exactly that. 

But what it also means is that in this faith, we dedicate our lives to the proposition that when we are faithful in our commitment to the whole – together we can draw that bright line of justice that leads not to a partial or temporary freedom for some, but a liberation that gets us all free, for all time.

It is the promise of our faith, and it is our call to an ethical life. 

May it be so, and amen.

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Hush

hushBluebird by Charles Bukowski
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too tough for him
I say, stay in there
I’m not going to let anybody see you
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke
And the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks
Never know that he’s in there
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too tough for him
I say
Stay down, do you want to mess me up?
You want to screw up the works?
You want to blow my book sales in Europe?
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too clever, I only let him out at night sometimes
When everybody’s asleep
I say, I know that you’re there
So don’t be sad
Then I put him back
But he’s singing a little in there, I haven’t quite let him die
And we sleep together like that with our
Secret pact
And it’s nice enough to make a man
Weep
But I don’t weep
Do you?

Sermon: Hush

A couple months ago, my daughter was having an especially hard moment of being in 8th grade.  Feeling awkward. Insecure.    

I decided to show her a picture of me in 8th grade (which I will not be posting here), and I told her that if she knew what I was like when I was her age, she’d never feel awkward or insecure again. 

So I showed her, and immediately, she was like, wow.  You’re right mom.

Especially after I broke my leg skiing in November of 8th grade, and I had a full straight leg cast for four months – “Awkward” doesn’t cut it.

That heavy, clumsy cast experience (plus whatever was going on with my bangs) would’ve been enough to call 8th grade a big year for me.  But it didn’t end there. 

That same year, one of our family members came to live with us while she was pregnant. A lot of my memories that year are related to her pregnancy – rubbing her growing belly, watching her skin move like there was an alien inside her, laughing at her unusual cravings. 

And, looking at profiles from prospective couples, people who would be the baby’s parents, someday. 

See, her mom had decided to make an adoption plan for her child. So alongside all the other parts of that year, I also remember all the dreaming we did to create a future for this emerging human that I already loved.  A future where she would not know me.

I was at physical therapy (my cast finally removed) when the call came: the baby was coming. She came home a few days later – big brown eyes, healthy, beautiful. And for three months, she was ours. 

Until the day came, when we had to say goodbye.  I was old enough to understand, and of course I didn’t understand at all.  

I remember the feel of her head on my lips, the inhale and exhale of her skin. 

And then, I remember she was gone, and my stomach hurt. 

Or rather, I don’t remember my stomach hurting, at least not with my thinking brain. 

I feel my actual stomach hurting while I tell you this story.  It’s not nausea, it’s tension, like a fist in my gut.  

My breathing becomes shallow, and short. It’s not as intense as it was 30 years ago, after we said goodbye.  But I can still feel it. 

My mom, if you’ve met her, you know she’s a talker.  She believes in talking as a cure for most anything. So she made sure, we talked about this experience– before, during, after.  She sent us to a therapist where we talked some more.

So while this is a really formative story for me – and it’s not like I forgot about it, I didn’t actively think of it as unresolved – until 14 years ago.  Which is when we picked up my daughter from the hospital when she was 2 days old.  Because within a few days of Gracie living with us, my stomach started to hurt in exactly the same way it did when I was in 8th grade. 

My kids were both adopted through foster care, so there was about a year with Gracie where we didn’t know for sure if she would stay with us – with Josef it was more like 5 months – still, plenty long.  

During this time, we loved them already, claimed them; and we didn’t know for sure that they would stay. 

My stomach is beginning to clench a little, even now.

Last week, Sean talked about the power of naming our emotions, and taking hold of the story that has attached to them. The power of language to process and heal and grow through our feelings.  Which remains – true.    

And, what we also know, is: language has limits.  Language can only take us so far when it comes to describing our emotions, and even more, language can only go so far in processing or healing our emotions. 

Before the language, and the naming, there is the experience. Before the thinking brain attaches the story to the feeling, there is the body where the experience happens.    

Feelings happen first, in the body.  Before the words, or the meaning-making.   

This is why Sean asked us during the music last week to name the experience we were having in our bodies – first, before we give that experience a name. 

And it’s why my spiritual director asks me all the time, when I’m telling her about an emotional reaction I’m having: Where are you feeling that feeling in your body?

To which I often reply: I have no idea.   Or, I say, I feel it in my head.  I thought it in my brain…so, here….?

Actually, the first few times I first heard this question, I was like: what does that even mean? I thought it was a joke. 

Where do I feel a feeling in my body? Do people actually feel things in their body?

I mean, in the past couple months, I’ve been running again after a few years not running, and I feel that in my body. 

But – connecting emotional “ideas” from my brain – into a felt body experience – what does that even mean?     

My very patient teachers have helped me to break the question down a bit – first by offering some options – for how you might answer….    

For example, as you focus in on an emotional experience, in your body, you may notice an expansiveness. An ease.

Or, you might find numbness.  Floppiness. Weariness. 

Or, you might notice constriction.  Tightness. Pain. Energy. Warmth.

If a feeling is pretty alive, you might notice your heart beating faster, your breathing intensifying – or the opposite, like, you start to slow down, check out. 

All of these experiences are the work of the vagus nerve – the place where we first experience all emotions: Love.  Fear. Grief. Hope. Belonging. 

All of the things that make us human start with the vagus nerve. 

Which is maybe why somatic therapist and activist Resmaa Menakem calls it the Soul Nerve. 

The Soul Nerve connects to literally everything in us – from the throat to the lungs to the kidneys – everything – except the thinking, rational brain.  The Soul Nerve does not do “thinking.”  Instead, it does things like alerting the body to danger – especially by initiating the flight, fight or freeze response, regulating our breathing, our heart, our blood pressure.  Its other job is to do the opposite: to say to our bodies, you’re ok. You’re safe. 

Instead of consulting the thinking brain to decide: danger, or safety – the soul nerve mostly consults – our guts.  Literally, the soul nerve is all about “gut feelings.”

Which means my stomach ache was my soul nerve being all:

DANGER, DANGER!

 A lot of the time when my spiritual director asks me: where do you feel that in your body?

I have to say, honestly: I don’t.  I connect in with my body – and there’s just, nothing.

 This whole struggle can seem funny- I’ve spent many hours laughing with my sisters about it, they struggle with it too….but it also brings up a lot of shame, and judgment.    

I think: I should be more connected, more integrated – I’m a minister, a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I should’ve gotten over these anti-body messages that are clearly at the root of this disconnection, messages from my childhood, from Catholicism, from the culture. I am fully grown, queer, feminist – a mom of two middle schoolers.  What is wrong with me?   

These were the very loud messages in my head at the workshop I attended last year about this time, with Resmaa Menakem, as he was telling us to locate our feelings in our bodies. 

The silence in the room was thick and expectant, and I waited.   But – nothing.  Except my head, and the voices saying I should be better. 

But then he said:  If you’re struggling right now, I want to tell you, that you’re not defective, you’re just protective. Your body, probably across generations, has learned to protect itself; your mind has learned to protect your sense of self – by disassociating yourself from yourself.  These feelings you are trying to feel were at one time – truly dangerous. And the body will do anything to ensure its own safety. Including putting a hard barrier between your mind, and your body –  it’s not defective, it’s protective. 

Hearing this, draws me out of judgment, and lures me instead into compassion even for myself – a feeling I can almost feel in my body. 

When we remember, as in Charles Bukowski’s poem – all the ways we say to the bluebird in our heart: “I’m too tough for you, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you” – 

We’re not defective, just protective.  

Especially for men, in our culture – when we say: “stay down, do you want to mess me up?….You want to blow up my book sales in Europe?”

Not defective.  Protective. 

Remembering this opens up compassion, starting with ourselves. 

Resmaa tellsthe story of his grandmother’s hands.   He used to rub them for her, when they hurt.  Her hands were rough, and hard, too big for her small body.

One day he asked how they got like that. She explained: she started picking cotton when she was four, “the cotton plant has pointed burrs in it. When you reach your hand in, the burrs rip it up.”

When she first started, her hands were torn, and bloody; but then her hands got thicker and harder and bigger – until she could reach in without any bleeding. It had been a long time since she’d picked cotton, but her hands didn’t ever change back.  

I try to remember this story when someone is being particularly cold, short, calloused – I try to imagine that maybe sometime in the past, this same behavior was helpful, maybe it even saved their life. It moves me out of judgment, into compassion.

Especially when I pair it with another insight –this one from psychologist Noel Larson – he says, “If something is hysterical, it’s usually historical.” 

He means: if someone is having a reaction that has far more (or far less) energy than what the situation seems to call for, it’s likely because it’s bringing up un-processed – or what Resmaa calls “unmetabolized” feelings from the past….if it’s hysterical, it’s usually historical….the soul nerve in its unthinking ways, often seeks to repeat whatever has been left unresolved, it tries to find healing – for things from our past, and from even farther back than that. 

Over the past few decades, neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda has been studying the physical effects of our biggest feelings, by studying veterans, and holocaust survivors, and survivors of 9/11. In each of these, she found very similar physical manifestations of their stress, and trauma – memory loss, muscle weakness, chronic anxiety and depression – all of which she found, they pass on to their children, and grandchildren.

As she says, “the trauma itself is inherited.” 

Inherited first through the embodied behaviors of those whose bodies carry the original trauma. The ways their bodies express all that depression, anger, anxiety – the impact this has on their children – the new trauma the children experience. 

And also, trauma is inherited literally in the body – through biology. Yehuda’s work discovered that grandchildren of holocaust survivors –show the same genetic markers as if they experienced the holocaust itself. This same pattern is seen across generations in African American communities, Jews, Native Americans, and although it hasn’t been studied as extensively, surely it is present in today’s immigrant community. 

Still, Yehuda is quick to point out that the impact she’s describing is not confined to large scale traumatic events – whenever any of us experiences an overwhelming change that floods our system, our bodies, our soul nerve – it can take up residence in our systems in the same ways. 

Overwhelming feelings like this, she says, often “reset and recalibrate multiple biologic systems in an enduring way.”  

Feelings happen in our bodies, and when they are overwhelming and under-processed, they are passed on person, to person, across generations – biologically inscribed, inherited – like a contagion –which we should not take to mean that these same feelings are our destiny

Actually, it’s just the opposite. 

The body does not just contain painful, traumatic feelings afterall; the body also holds resilience.  Intelligence. Joy. Hope.  The capacity for growth, and change.  In our bodies lives a visceral longing for freedom.  

With practice, we can engage the soul nerve in its wisdom – rather than only its wounds. 

Especially through the use of ancient practices in a community setting – practices that somatic teachers call “settling.”  Things like singing, or humming.  Swaying, or rocking our bodies. Stuff we do in church – I mean, “ancient practices in a community setting” !!  

Settling the soul nerve so that we are not perpetually in in flight, fight, freeze – or flood – is not in and of itself healing.  But is a pre-requisite to healing. 

This is important, let me say it again.  

Settling ourselves – becoming calm, feeling safe, peaceful; remaining connected, and present – this is actually not healing. We often seem to think it is – that if we can get to serenity, peace – that we are healing.  But really, it’s the pre-requisite to healing. 

Practicing settling when we are not in distress or discomfort, allows us to more easily feel settled when distress and discomfort arises.  We learn to tolerate discomfort, without shutting down. We teach our soul nerve to trust that even when we are uncomfortable, we are OK.  

Which in turn allows us to go towards what might otherwise see, TOO MUCH, TOO PAINFUL…we build a capacity to feel the feelings as they actually are, in our bodies – and by feeling the feelings we metabolize them, heal them.

To do this, we might use ritual, art, movement… likely many of the things we named in community time – these practices that engage our bodies. Remembering that it’s not just trauma that gets transmitted, but healing, too.   

One more story.

My father’s father – his name was Gus, was 7 when his father took a train ride across the country, promising to bring him back a special toy.  But while he was gone, he got an infection, and he died – so he never returned.  A few months later, my grandpa’s mother also became ill – she died.  My grandpa had 8 siblings, and when their parents died, within a few short months of each other, all 9 were sent out to foster families, across three states – they didn’t meet again until they were adults. 

When we brought Gracie home, and I loved her immediately, and my stomach clenched with anticipatory grief – I didn’t think about my Grandpa, or the loss he must have held in his body his whole life.  Any more than I thought of myself in 8th grade. 

And yet right there, as my stomach tightened, I was given a chance to heal not just for myself but for two generations back. To stay present there, to feel the anxiety and the grief. 

And even now each time I choose to lean in to the experience of loving my children -which is, even now they are middle schoolers, often an embodied experience….to feel all all the feelings, to not shut down, or close off from the risk, the grief, the fear – it feels like small way to metabolize at least some of these experiences of grief and overwhelming loss that live in my body -like the bluebird longing for freedom – feelings from my own past, and from the past I have inherited. 

We all carry in our bodies feelings like this, our own, our inheritance – stories that words cannot help or touch.  In the silence, and in the space between us, our bodies have everything we need to heal, we have everything we need to release everything in us that longs to be free. 

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Inefficiently Yours

Reading: Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front 

human ness

Sermon: Inefficiently Yours 

Every day this week, I had at least one package on my front porch when I got home. 

Every day.  At least one.  Not all of them were from Amazon, but most. 

My partner and I decided to get a bunch of small things to get more organized – new shelves, towel rack, that sort of thing. 

We didn’t have a lot of money, so getting good deals mattered. We love free shipping.

Plus, with two middle schoolers, a clumsy dog, and both of us working in demanding jobs –  we don’t have a lot of extra time, either.

A few clicks, a careful read of the small print and the dimensions, a few more clicks – done. Packages on their way. 

It was perfect, and felt like freedom, even for a few fleeting moments. 

All of this clicking was especially ironic this week because – in addition to my low-grade always-awareness of the negative impact of Amazon has on local economies, small businesses, the environment – over the past couple of weeks, in preparation for today’s service, I have been paying closer attention to the conditions for Amazon employees.

Specifically the conditions for the people who responded to my clicks by finding my item.  Packing it up with other boxes in a bigger box.  Placing the blow up supposedly recyclable plastic things in the empty places to keep things in place, and then shipping it directly to me in two days or less.

 “Soul sucking” more than one employee called it.  “Soul Sucking.” 

Usually when I hear someone say “soul sucking” I assume they’re being hyperbolic. But in this case, I’ve started to think it might be accurate.  That Amazon is literally sucking our souls. 

To start, the work is physically demanding – 12 hour shifts where you end up walking 15-20 miles with lots of squatting, and reaching, and lifting.   You can get used to this, and it’s not entirely new or unique for blue collar work. 

What’s new and uniquely soul-sucking at Amazon comes down to what they call their “efficiency standards.”  They ways they have centered success entirely around efficiency.  Equiated efficiency with BEST. 

Each employee is given a scan gun for every component of their job, which allows everything they do to be monitored, and timed, and also to alert a manager if there’s too many minutes where they are “off-task.” 

Generally, you are allowed 18 minutes off task per shift. 

This year, Amazon will likely employ 300,000 people, most of those working in the warehouses.  

Many of us are familiar with our economy’s crisis of income inequality – As a recent NPR report confirmed:“the gap between the richest and the poorest US households is the largest it’s been in the past 50 years” –  

But Mennonite theologian Mark Baker says that even more pressing, and much less tended to; even more pressing especially for us as people of faith is our economy’s crisis of human dignity.

~~~~~

When I first started thinking about the Amazon warehouse, my first question was: why don’t they just use machines? If they really want a hyper-efficient work enviornment – why don’t they just use robots? 

After all, humans are inherently inefficient.  For example, humans have bodies.  And bodies require bothersome things like using the bathroom, eating, sleeping – all incredibly inefficient. And, humans are wired for conversation, connection, emotions, relationship – all, inefficient.

One Amazon employee theorized that their assignments were especially designed to ensure they crossed paths with as few other humans as possible.  

Loneliness and isolation are some of the biggest complaints from workers today.  Not just at Amazon. The younger you are, studies show, the lonelier you are – nearly 8 in 10 Gen Zers (age 18-23) and 7 in 10 millennials report being lonely; only half of boomers.  (The study I read says nothing about Gen Xers, those of us in the middle of our working lives….which is, typical.)  

Humans are not wired for loneliness – it turns out to have the equivalent health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

And even more obviously, humans are not readily oriented towards highly inflexible, repetitive tasks over long periods of time, which is the epitome of efficiency.   

But machines have none of these issues.  Machines are not hard wired for connection, or relationship.  Machines don’t get lonely. And they are good at inflexible repetitive tasks. That’s the point of machines. 

So, why doesn’t Amazon just use machines?

As AI technology and robotics engineering continues to develop, I’m guessing, they will someday. Which will be another sort of crisis for all those 300,000 workers, when it happens.

But for now, what I learned was – humans have a few particular advantages over machines that make them preferable to Amazon and other efficiency-driven work environments. 

Two things: fine motor control, and subjectivity.  Machines aren’t yet as good as humans at the fine motor skills, and at least for the foreseeable future, humans are better at inference, nuance, subtlety and gut-feelings than machines. As anyone who has ever tried to ask Siri or Alexa anything but the most straightforward question would attest. 

All this means that work environments – and increasingly our whole culture – expect us to perform like our machines in all areas except the couple where we are better. Our work, and increasingly our entire culture expect us to conflate efficiency with ultimacy.  

Which means we have created an economy, and increasingly a culture that requires us to suppress our humanity. Suppress your humanity, or lose our job. Suppress your humanity, or struggle to do life today.    

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made….When they want you to buy something they will call you. 

Check, check, check, check, check.  

~~~~~

Now, as anyone who has ever worked fast food will tell you, there’s always been a push to get the most done with the least amount of time, money, or energy.  Anyone who has ever worked anywhere in corporate America would probably say the same thing.

What’s new is just how efficient we believe we can be – technology has changed our expectations exponentially. 

Which is not just because of Amazon – it’s also Netflix, and Hulu, and all the apps on my smart TV that I LOVE.  It’s Grubhub and Instacart and King Soopers Pick Up (which also SAVES me regularly). It’s messaging apps and facetime and its spotify, Youtube, Stitch Fix, and maybe most of all it’s Google. 

All of these technologies – these amazing, salvific, liberating technologies – have taught us that whatever it is we need, we can get it now. 

Without much effort – just click!

 My son recently found this sweatshirt that he was so excited about, he had the money to pay for it, but then it said it would be delivered in three weeks.  He was like: nope.  

Three weeks. There was literally no reason for him to need it sooner.

I tried to explain to him about the Sears catalogue and about the little forms we had to fill out, number by number, and then we had to mail them in, and wait, and wait….but he’d already moved on.

If something’s going to take more than a couple steps, today – and if each of those steps aren’t guaranteed to lead us to a successful end, my son is not alone we often decide, it’s just not worth it. (Which I’ve come to believe is the business model for health insurance companies.  How many people find the process to submit for reimbursement so confusing and time consuming, you just give up?! It can’t just be me…)

Our technologies have taught us that life can be, should be instant. Seamless. Effortless. Continuously available and responsive to our every impulse. 

These expectations for life in turn become what we expect from each other – instant. Seamless. Effortless. Continuously available and responsive….and we come to expect this from ourselves too – that we will be continuously available and responsive…

It’s why Mark Baker encourages us to think not only about how we might influence Amazon, but even more, how Amazon is influencing US.

“Efficiency is our existential purpose;” This is a quote from Malcom Harris; he’s talking specifically about millennials and the ways the generation born between 1981 and 1996 has been “optimized” for efficiency their whole lives.  “Efficiency is our existential purpose; and we are crafted to be lean, mean production machines.” He says, it’s especially true for millennials and Gen Zersbut it applies to so much of our culture today. Efficient has become a synonym for “best.” 

And of course, sometimes efficiency is best.  In the middle of an emergency, we hope first responders love efficiency.  That they are OBSESSED with it.

Efficiency is also a necessary antidote to bureaucracy.  When we set up the Emergency Immigration Fund a couple years ago, we made sure that our system for getting the money to someone in crisis – was as efficient as possible.  One call, one day, check in hand.    

And in case my confession at the top didn’t make it clear –  as writer and activist Courtney Martin says“efficiency is a survival mechanism” for many of us.

She writes:

“I simply couldn’t care for my children and make a living and nurture friendships and contribute to a community in the way that I want to unless I was extremely judicious with my time and energy.”

When I read that I’m like: yes.  I bet she orders from King Soopers pick up too. 

Growing up, my sisters and I were expected to help bring in the groceries when my mom got home.  Sometimes we’d try to carry lots of bags all at once; they were paper bags, so we’d have to rush to the house before the bags broke. 

My dad would chastise us, saying, don’t take the lazy man’s load. And we’d sigh and put a few down, and make more trips. 

But later, we started to resist his advice with a quick retort:

“It’s not a lazy man’s load, dad; it’s an efficient woman’s load.”

Efficiency can be a way to survive, it can feel like freedom, even if fleeting.

And besides, inefficiency is often a luxury, made possible by having enough resources to create margin in your life, time to dawdle, or even loiter as in that great essay from Ross Gay we read back in December. 

If you can pay someone to clean your house, prepare your meals, tend to your lawn – you can be quite inefficient in all other things and still manage to accomplish the basics requirements of being a grown up today.    

Inefficiency is a luxury, and at the same time, poverty is a recipe for inefficiency. Without reliable transportation, employment, housing – and all the stuff that comes in a house – a washer and dryer, a shower, a place to put all of your things for easy access – inefficiency is destiny. 

It’s one of the traps of poverty, that everything that is obvious, easy and seamless to middle class folks becomes maddeningly time-consuming and demoralizing when those basics aren’t reliable. 

Which makes acquiring those basics a colossal feat. 

It helps to explain why, when you talk to low wage workers today, you mostly hear resignation about those soul-sucking conditions; and gratitude, for a steady job.     

~~~~~

Anyone remember the book The Jungle from high school English? Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose on the meat-packing industry was a part of a journalistic reform movement known as the Muckrakers. 

For about a decade at the turn of the century, the Muckrakers investigative reporting led to one systemic change after another – from safety conditions for coal miners to child labor laws to election fairness and anti-corruption measures – and yes, reforms for the meat-packing industry.

I was thinking about The Jungle this week, and the muckrakers, because sometimes we forget that there is nothing inevitable or mandatory about the world we live in. 

Our economy, our society, our culture – this crisis of human dignity we find ourselves in – there is nothing inevitable or mandatory about any of this. 

Despite a pervasive popular pull towards efficiency as our “existential” purpose today, our faith reminds us that we hold both the agency, and the responsibility to create a world that amplifies and celebrates our humanness – our true existential purpose which our faith names as our utterly inefficient interdependent humanness – we hold both the agency and the responsibility that celebrates our humanness, rather than suppresses it.

For example, I’ve been thinking that the most counter-cultural value we could promote today might be patience.  Patience that is not to be confused with complacency, but rather, patience connected to an unwavering commitment to the long-haul faith we explored a couple Sundays ago.

To create a world that amplifies and celebrates our humanness would require that we practice and prize a faithful patience, that we become experts in patience, model it, and teach it, declare it our good news for a world overly focused on instant success and frictionless ease.

Over the past few weeks, in this series about the future, I keep imagining all the people from the past who worked for a future they did not live to see.  People like James Reeb that we heard about last week.  Or even Roy Jones whose sermon we heard a couple weeks ago. 

All those whose dreams we inherit.  Our grandparents, great-grandparents.  Our ancestors – familial, spiritual. 

This year marks the 100 anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, so I’ve been especially tuned in to the stories of the suffragettes, women who worked to get the vote.  I imagine they must’ve taken so much ridicule, including from their own husbands. They probably had so many reasons to stop turning up at the White House, for march, stop writing letters, stop speaking up. 

They weren’t perfect, especially in terms of race and racism. 

And still, their willingness to plant trees they would not live to harvest means that no one here today, has ever lived in a time when women could not vote. 

The idea is as unimaginable to us as it is to my son to wait 3 weeks for a sweatshirt.

I wonder, what future will we invest in today so that 100 years from now, all those who gather together will take for granted its reality?  And I wonder, how we will cultivate the patience required for such commitment? 

Afterall, the future does not have to be faster, more automatic, more stimulating in the ways it’s been imagined in movies.  The future could be slow.  Manual. Even, boring.  The future could also be connective, personal, playful, real.

Every day, we get to decide, in the smallest moments, private moments – the future we will make. 

 So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it

Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Wendell Berry’s manifesto is brilliant, instructive for our crisis of human dignity – most of all the last line of the poem – two words that often feel like a shock when it is read; fitting for a poem that urges us to remain unpredictable and wild – he says:

Practice resurrection.

In these days, let us remember that it is never too late to begin again; to create life anew; to forge an entirely new way.  It is never too late to forge a future where all of humanity flourishes, freely, and together. 

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Tomorrow Land

tomorrowReading: The House Called Tomorrow by Alberto Rios 

Just over three years ago, we convened an impromptu evening service – the night after the national election.   

People poured in to social hall for the potluck meal we invited before the service – they came urgently, and also cautiously, seeking comfort and community.

More and more people came.  All ages.  Some who were already here started pulling out extra tables, first from the closets in the social hall, then running across to the other building to set up more – until we ran out of tables and then people rotated, after they finished eating, giving up their seats, willingnly.   So many people came we spilled out into the patio. It was cold, but no one complained.  

And the food – there was so much food.  Homemade mac and cheese and the biggest box of pizza I’ve ever seen; all the salads and fried chicken and mashed potatoes.  Comfort foods.

Every table filled with people – most I knew, but many I didn’t.

I remember from the service – Sean’s prayer – he’d just been at Foothills a couple months, and his prayer had a swear word in it, and for a moment I was like oh no – but everyone laughed through their tears, because it was the most honest thing anyone had said yet. 

I also remember the candles, one by one, lit – just like we do on Christmas Eve – like we did four times this Christmas Eve – and we sang together –in that silent night we sang – 

There is More Love, somewhere
There is More Love, somewhere
I’m gonna keep on – till I find it.
There is More Love, somewhere

As we were planning the service, I confess feeling unsure what to do, I mean, unsure how to make it clear that we still did not mean to say liberal religion is the same as liberal politics.  I wanted to say then, as I’ve wanted to say so many times since then: this is different. 

Unitarian Universalist minister Victoria Safford says it this way

“This is not about Republicans and Democrats; it’s about ways of being human in the 21st century, and certain ways are loud now and ascendant, ways of being which are in fact choices, and they are beneath us as a people: ways such as greed and the celebration of greed, lying and the celebration of lying, sexual predation and its celebration, military bravado, disdain for the poor, for working people and the land, white nationalism (whether spoken in code or explicitly), and more – all amplified and sanctified, and increasingly normalized, and thus infused with power.”

This is different.

The pain in those days, the pain that led so many to come for an impromptu prayer service at the Unitarian Church on a cold night in November – was about all of this that was suddenly our reality – our present tense – we came seeking to tend to this feeling that as Adrienne Rich wrote, “my heart is moved by all I cannot save – so much has been destroyed.”

We came grieving the present, and we came grieving the past – the past, as in – the prior year, which, if you remember the election process, had been brutal – but also the past as in, history

In that moment, the weight of history was everywhere.  What we as a country have been capable of in the past, capable of doing to one another, doing to anyone considered “other” – the ways we had failed to truly reckon with and reconcile let alone redeem our history – and what that says about what we might do again in the future

We came grieving the present, and the past, but most of all, the thing that brought many of us to gather was about the future.  The future we had imagined we were headed for, that we were carving out by our efforts, small though they may be – but still worthy, possible – the future we imagined – for our children, and grandchildren, the legacy our lives would leave – I quoted the great 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker that next Sunday:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.  I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

In the late Fall of 2016, we gathered because many of us were suddenly unsure if we agreed with him.  

Which was then, and is still, new territory for progressive religion.

For all the ways we have evolved over the centuries, one anchor has been our unwavering optimism about the future. Not superficial, or naïve optimism –  though that is always a danger and sometimes a reality – but an unwavering loyalty to seeing the world as it is – in both its beauty, and its brokenness, and saying – we can do better, and we will.

As one of our hymns says:  we revere the past, but we trust the dawning future more.

We are so oriented to the future – as a religion, that we are technically what some would call an apocalyptic religion.  

I know, it’s probably not what you’d think of when you think of Unitarian Universalism – but as theologian Rebecca Parker says,

“our version of the apocalyptic dream doesn’t imagine that old worlds are destroyed and new ones created simply by the act of a transcendent god.  We put ourselves into the drama. We assign ourselves the task of dismantling evil empires, and we go to work hammering together the New Jerusalem.  In place of the thousand years of wrong will come the thousand years of right.”

For a lot of our history, actually, it wasn’t just that we were up for this task, but we believed could get it done with relative speed.  Like, in the course of our next five-year plan. Or at least, we could make good progress.

A lot of the twentieth century was about coming to terms with the fact that this was – let’s say, naïve.  Starting with holocaust.  And then, the unfinished work of the Civil Rights era. And then the unresolved conflicts around Vietnam, and the devastating toll that war took, the growing economic gaps and political polarization of the 1980s and 90s –  none of these broke our faith in doing our part to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice – but we did start to realize, it might take a bit longer than we first thought. 

That Sunday after the election in 2016, I talked about the LONG arc of history.  Affirming that the future seek exists far beyond a single lifetime.   And so we cannot rely on the hope of results to keep us going – but instead remember that, as Vaclav Havel says, 

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” 

Since then, I have seen so many people – in this community, so many of you – working to take this in, and live it out – continuing to show up even when your hearts have been broken, serving in and beyond our community, listening to each other, and learning – pushing yourselves to grow, even when it has been really uncomfortable.  

Together, we keep finding our way back to gratitude, and joy – even when it has felt impossible.  We have learned what it means to be hope for each other. 

It has been beautiful to witness – to see in real life what courageous love looks like. 

And still, in these same years, especially as time has gone on, I have also witnessed our inevitable weariness, and a feeling sometimes articulated, sometimes not – that maybe we can just fix this in the next national election – which is, suddenly, within sight.

We know, we really do – that change will take a long time.  But also, it’s so hard to accept that we are working for a future we will not live to see.   

It reminds me of when we had Ingrid here in sanctuary with us, in the fall of 2017, many of wrestled with the hopelessness of her case – how long it would likely go on. Despite the recent pardon for her felony conviction granted by Governor Polis, even today, her path is narrow

Basically, she has committed to remaining in sanctuary until there is real comprehensive immigration reform. Likely, that is her only path out of sanctuary. 

It is a noble, courageous commitment.  

But here’s what I wonder – if she was here with us, still – would we be able to keep showing up for her on that path? Knowing that the journey would be long – like, years long, with many, many setbacks, and not many victories? How would we respond to a journey like that? 

Of course, there are different ways to think about sanctuary as a strategy for immigration reform – but I still think the question is good for us to think about – what it means for us to consider this work our faith calls us to dedicate our lives to – that is the future our faith orients us to – that it is the work of our whole lives? 

Or, maybe just to start – what it would mean to think about it as work for the next decade? From now, until 2030.  

I mean, whatever your work is – your place in the call of courageous love – how might it shift things when you actively consider that this is work you’ll be in for the next ten years? 

How would it shift your pace? 

The resources you’d need? 

The spiritual practices? 

The people you would show up for, and with? And how would you show up for them, and when?

When immigration activist and minister Alexia Salvatierra was here a few months ago, she spoke about the need to learn to grieve while you are in the work – if this really is the work of your whole lives- then we must acknowledge that our hearts are moved by what we cannot save – Name the pain of knowing how much has been destroyed –

If we are committed to a future beyond our own lifetimes, we need to learn to grieve with each other regularly, practice speaking aloud our grief, be present for others in their grief, make a space for grief as a regular companion – and learn its ways, its rhythms not as an aberration of life, something to minimize or escape, but instead we must know it as central to human existence, central to what it means to live, to love.

For many of us, this is not just challenging, we literally wouldn’t know where to begin.

So many of us are taught to avoid feeling – anything! In public – especially, let alone grief, or pain – we learn to shut it off and get over it – we learn to protect ourselves.  It’s what I’d call maladaptive coping – and it’s passed down generationally – we learn it in our families. 

Luckily there are those among us for whom this is not the case.  People we can learn from, and with. People who William James, in his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” called “twice born,” by which he meant, those who have confronted tragedy and loss, fully – and come out the other side. Come out not the same, but changed. Transformed.  People who bear the scars of suffering, and survival –often these are people of color, people who have known poverty – especially generationally, queer folx, the disabled community, immigrants….to learn from, to honor them – to learn from and honor not just those who are alive today, but those who came before –

I was remembering this week this poem from Unitarian Universalist minister Theresa Hardy:

I got out of bed this morning because of all those who had to get out of bed before me: 
Martin and Coretta, the day after his home was bombed. (What did they tell the children?).
John Lewis, after nearly escaping death on the Edmund Pettus bridge.
My ancestors, who were dragged to the U.S. in chains,
laid flat like chattel on ships… and survived.
They survived and got out of bed each morning.
I am sick and tired and grieving and ready to quit this country.
But I got out of bed, shamed by the thought of letting these ancestors down.
And for now that’s how I am getting through this day.

To keep showing up for this future that is beyond what we will see, we must turn again and again to these guides, and so many others whose lives never saw the results of their efforts but on whose steadfast commitment rests many of the freedoms we know today. 

In the last few days, I confess however, that I have been less worried about cultivating patience and commitment towards a far-off apocalypse. Because instead, I’ve started to think – maybe it’s already here.

How can you not think of Apocalypse when you see the images of Australia burning? Or read about the animals, and habitat destroyed? Or the helplessness of knowing that those in power continue to deny the science, knowing what inaction will mean. Thinking already of the summers ahead.  How can you think about any of this and think anything other than: this is the world ending.

Which is another way to think about the future – to imagine that the destruction we might fear, the overturning of the world, which is to say – our potential for rebirth is not in some future time, it’s now. 

That this moment we are in is not about the darkness of the womb rather than the tomb – which is a message Valerie Kaur offered a couple of years ago as a message of hope – that this darkness we are in is not about death, but about life – but if we are actually living in the middle of the apocalypse,  it’s both the womb, and the tomb.  

That’s what Apocalypse is, afterall– the ending which signals the beginning; deconstruction that can bring rebirth. It’s another reason Rebecca Parker says to turn to those guides who have bear the scars of suffering, and survival – because they are living evidence that resurrection is possible. 

Civil rights leader and my teacher Dr. Vincent Harding used to say we are midwives for a world trying to be born – and, he’d also say, we are hospice chaplains for a world that is dying. 

We cannot neglect either of these roles, and the tenderness they invite, the embodied human community they necessitate – the chaos they imply, the pain, the risk, the circling around.

It’s an image that makes sense to me in the middle of catastrophe.  Just think of what it is like to find yourself in the middle of a true disaster – there is so much kindness, generosity – tables are set up and we sit out on the patio in the cold without complaint, and we eat mac and cheese and light candles even though we don’t know where we’re going or what will happen next. 

“The bad do not win—not finally….”

Alberto Rios was inspired to write his poem “The House Called Tomorrow” by the journey of his father, an immigrant from southern Mexico, and his mother, an immigrant from Northern England – they met, fell in love, and their family grew up together – in the border town of Nogales Arizona –  

The bad do not win – not finally        
No matter how loud they are.
We simply would not be here
If that were so.
You are made, fundamentally, from the good.
With this knowledge, you never march alone.
You are the good who has come forward
Through it all, even if so many days
Feel otherwise. 
From those centuries we human beings bring with us
The simple solutions and songs,
The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies
All in service to a simple idea:
That we can make a house called tomorrow.
What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,
Is ourselves.  And that’s all we need
To start.  That’s everything we require to keep going.”

That night in November, when we sang about there being more love somewhere – we knew it then.  The somewhere we were longing for – it was already here. And in so many moments since then we know it again. 

Everything we need for the world ending, and for its beginning again – its and our resurrection – is right here. 

In you, in me, in the choice to keep showing up with tenderness, imagining something more. 

Here is the future we’re longing for, this is the land called tomorrow, the tomorrow that is already today.

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What Were You Expecting? Hanukkah 2019

exImagine you are living in a time with the long reign of a narcissistic dictator, a rise that meant multiple generations living with tyranny, oppression, fear.  Imagine for many years your people have been terrorized and even killed by those in power.

Imagine that for many years you have not been able to gather or practice the religion and customs of your birth – all those things that mean the most to you have been outlawed.

And then imagine, hope against hope, that a small band of rebels, without enough resources or enough people – without any real reason to think they could be successful – manage to overthrow those in power, and liberate everyone into a new and possible freedom.

This is the story of Hanukkah. 

The story of the Jewish people after the rebellion of the “small band” known as the Maccabees.

Finally, they who had lived on the edge of despair for so long would be able to return to their temple, which was for them a place of security and memory and hope.

They were celebrating, purifying, remembering and re-claiming – the Assyrian army had been defeated, they were free. 

In the historical record, this is the “miracle” of Hanukkah. 

Just this.  And it is enough. 

A small community of people who refuse to cooperate with their own oppression, refuse to accept the world as it was, even after generations of it being that way – and a small group continuing to act until liberation finally becomes reality. This is an amazing miracle. 

The rabbinical record, however, keeps going – past this part of the story.

The rabbinical record reminds us that for many years before the uprising – when the Jews were hiding in caves, and fending off arrest – they had missed their great festival of Sukkot, which must be celebrated in the temple, and so now that they had returned, they could begin the ritual as their promises with God required.

As they began, however, they realized that the Assyrians had destroyed all but one night’s worth of oil for the lamp.

They needed 8 days’ worth – anything less would not allow a true re-dedication or commitment to begin again as a religious community and as a people.

After all they had been through, it mattered that they do it right, and completely – it mattered that they not let the light go out.

And as the story goes – rather than the lamp staying lit for one day, the oil lasted for the whole 8 days.

These 8 days are why Hanukkah is celebrated for 8 nights, with each night lighting a new candle on the menorah.

In the rabbinical telling, this was the miracle – that the oil that lasted far beyond what it should have – that’s how you end up with latkes and other oil-heavy foods as a part of the Hanukkah celebration! 

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Both of these moments – the uprising of the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted – are miraculous, amazing, and inspiring –  and yet they aren’t what has always struck me as the most miraculous truth at the heart of this story.

For me, the miracle is in something less showy, more routine. 

The miracle, for me, is the choice that the Jewish people made to light the lamp in the first place.  

The choice that made the 8 nights of light possible. 

They made the choice to light the lamp, even though it was hopeless.

They made the choice even though they probably didn’t think it would make a difference.

Something in them persuaded them to expect that something else could be at work. 

Something beyond their own effort, their own vision.

In making that choice they chose to believe, as Arandhati Roy writes, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” 

This choice was the miracle. Expecting the miracle was the miracle. 

Because by their expectations, they made the miracle possible. 

This is the power of expectations.

Since researcher Robert Rosenthal began studying expectations and their impact in the 1950s, it’s been repeatedly shown that what we expect shapes not only our own experiences, but also others’ experiences, and then all of these accumulate so that all of these small, yet often meaningful ways, our expectations can impact – as in change –  Reality.  

For example.  “One study described golfers who were told they had a ‘lucky’ ball. They made more putts than when using an ‘ordinary’ ball.” 

Another: “Highly-trained weight lifters out-do their personal bests when they believe they’ve taken a performance booster.”

And repeatedly, “studies have shown that a teacher’s expectations can raise or lower a student’s IQ score.” 

Not just their grades.  Their IQ.

This was one of the earliest discoveries from Rosenthal – how a teacher’s unconscious bias – specifically racial bias – impacts how well a child learns – because, for example,

when a teacher expects more from a child, they will wait longer for the child to answer, and take a longer time explaining a subject they may seem not to understand. 

These are barely-noticeable, usually sub-conscious shifts resulting from our expectations – with a huge collective impact.

This is what we might call the placebo effect – this long-disparaged idea where we can be fooled by “fake” medicines that trick us into believing we are being healed –  but here it’s being played out socially, collectively. 

Except- what we are learning is that far from “fake,” the placebo effect is actually a manifestation of a very real, very complex scientific truth – it’s just that rather than the medicine, or more generally – the change- coming from a pill, it comes from within us – from our brains. 

This is the basic premise of science writer Erik Vance’s fascinating 2016 book, Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal

Our brains, Vance describes, are wired for the future – they are constantly assessing what’s going to happen next.  Almost entirely subconsciously. 

This is connected to the “time warp” Sean spoke about last week – because the way that our brains predict the future is by drawing on what they know from the past. 

All the time, our brains are taking experiences from the past – and by the past, that might mean two seconds ago or two years ago – and using it to predict the future, and therefore guide our choices in the present. 

And then – as I feel like I’ve been saying in every sermon lately: our brains don’t like to be wrong.  

Our brains don’t want those expectations they are making to be wrong. 

So sometimes, amazingly, instead of shifting our expectations, our brains shift reality. 

Let me offer an example:

Returning to golf.   If we know from the past, about an experience that felt like we were playing with a “lucky ball” because we played better than we ever played before – when we play with a ball we are told is lucky – our brains expect the outcome to be the same. 

And so our body and mind automatically make small, unconscious choices that can ultimately all add up to playing a better game. 

We are more focused.  Less anxious. More confident, clear.

All because our brains want the expected future to line up with the actual future. 

What’s wild is that it doesn’t always matter if you know that it may not actually be a lucky ball.  Acting as if it is – like, the “theatre” around having a lucky ball – this is the thing that hooks your sub-conscious to engage the things that will produce the original expectation. 

One of my favorite stories from Vance’s reporting is the story of an experimental Parkinson’s treatment – not a pill, surgery.  Participants in the study come in for brain surgery – but then some get the surgery, and some don’t.  And the doctors make the same marks on your skull so you can’t tell. 

Well, one patient – after he had his “surgery”, it changed his life.  “He went from having trouble walking and talking to — heli-skiing. He did a half-marathon. He climbed the backside of Half Dome.”

And everyone was thrilled – they thought they cured Parkinson’s. But then two years later, when it was time to un-blind the study, his doctors were shocked. Because he was one who didn’t actually get the surgery.

Again, it’s important to say this – it wasn’t that it was all fake.  The experience itself activated real physiological differences in the brain, in the body – that literally created this patient’s expected future. 

Of course, expectations do not entirely determine reality – as Chris Berdik describes in his book Mind Over Mind –  there are limits to what the placebo effect can do. 

When my son broke his arm last month, we couldn’t simply “expect” him to be healed, and make it so.  Expectations can’t fix poverty, racism, or the climate crisis.  I wish.  

Vance describes it like this: placebos can’t stop the disease, but they can often limit, even erase, the impact of the disease. 

Expectations shift things in small, often imperceptible ways.  As our expectations shift, small, imperceptible things shift in us, in our bodies, in our actions; and from these shifts, small, imperceptible things shift in others, and in the world around us.  And all of these small effects can end up making a big difference. 

There’s another story from the Talmud – a story of the Jewish people hundreds of years earlier, when they were slaves in Egypt – until a man named Moses led them to their freedom.

This story, is the moment when he’s try to do just that.  They’ve left Egypt, Moses is leading them to the Promised Land – until he finds himself at the edge of the Red Sea.

His people were all around him, hungry for liberation.  All Moses and his people had to do was go forward. Freedom was waiting.

Except for the sea. This big, deep, wide sea.

Moses looked to God, unsure what to do. But nothing happened.  The ocean remained wild, unfriendly, hopeless. 

Until, from the back of the crowd, a man named Nachshon pushed his way forward, and started walking into the sea.   

A regular guy who’d never heard a voice from a burning bush. In that moment, he decided what he could do – was keep walking.    

Moses stared at him. Others started to point and yell. What are you doing? You’ll drown!

But Nachshon just kept walking. He waded through the rising tide, the water hit his calves.

He kept walking. Water hit his waist.

He kept walking. The water came up to his chest, and then his shoulders. He kept walking, the water all around him. Until finally, it was at his nostrils, about to fill his lungs.

And it was at that moment, the Red Sea parted, and the Israelites could continue their journey to freedom, moving safely through the walls of water, safely through the sea.

His expectation of the miracle made the miracle possible. 

In the story of Hanukkah, when the Jewish people decided to expect something other than what all reason might’ve told them was possible, this is a story they would have remembered.

This is the memory – the collective memory that their brains would’ve used to shape a story about the future.

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt – Hebrew scriptures say again and again –

so that when the question of whether or not they should step out to resist the oppressive regime; or whether they should light the lamp even though there was not enough oil – though the present reality said it was hopeless, their brains were sure something else was possible: freedom, and liberation.  

They expected a miracle – and made the miracle possible. 

Over the past few years, there have been many moments where I’ve seen people wonder if there’s anything they can do would make a real difference.  So many places today make the Hanukkah story feel not all that distant. In our world – and in our personal lives.

Which is why the Hanukkah story should feel like such good news for us in our lives today.  Because what Hanukkah reminds us – is that we can unlock the power of expectations – We can draw on our past in all the ways we have changed and healed and walked into the sea and it parted.  We can draw on a collective courage – which is one of our core values at Foothills.  

For as many times as I have seen people struggle to know how and when to act, just as often I have been bolstered by someone stepping out like Nachshon.  Making the way by just walking forward. 

This is a collective courage, a collective memory, that can fuel a collective expectation, and a collective liberation.

We don’t know what the future will bring – in our own lives, or in the world.

We don’t know if our actions will be enough.

But the only ways they could be, is 

if we act as if they are

If we take the step forward to light that first candle 

If we act in expectation of the miracle –  making the miracle possible. 

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Lose Your To Do List

Reading: Ross Gay’s Loitering

Sermon: Lose Your To-Do List

Growing up, I learned a special way to mark time at this time of year. Even better than the “Christmas Countdown app.” I learned to mark time with an Advent Calendar.  

In my family, we had a relatively elaborate Advent Calendar. Homemade by one of our family friends using felt. 

It was big, and green, with all the days of December marked out on the bottom, and a blank space at the top – where each day, we would add a piece of the nativity story, so that by the end of the month, the whole scene was there. 

Each day was actually a pocket, that held the different nativity characters and scenery – plus a paper with a story snippet corresponding to the felt you’d be putting up.  

And also, of course, a treat. 

Sometimes chocolate or candy canes.  Sometimes Barbie clothes. You never knew. 

It was all part of the magic.  I mean, the treats, but also, the repetition, the re-creation of the story, every year.  We knew it so well but we also loved acting like we didn’t. 

Where will Mary and Joseph stay? Where will she have the baby?

And why is there a dog in the nativity? Were there dogs in ancient Jerusalem?

Every year, these same questions.  

There’s something about repetition like this at the same time each year that helps you with the marking of time. 

Sometimes Unitarian Universalists can be overly committed to novelty; but there’s a lot of wisdom in tradition – Sean’s going to explore this more in a few weeks.

How turning to something familiar at the same time, in the same way – clues your brain, your body, your heart in to the passing of time – and in the telling of these ancient stories, locates you in a greater story, too.

It’s what Ross Gay is getting at when he talks about “taking one’s time.”  As in, claiming ourselves in time, to know this day as the day we have, this moment, this hour, this life – as ours.  And to know ourselves as a part of the great arc of all time, past, present, future. 

Advent calendars, and wreaths, and the whole idea of advent – are all ways to mark time –both in the countdown sense, and also to mark ourselves – where we are and when we are – which in turn, connects us more fully to who we are – in time, and in life.  In the greater story of life.

Fitting for the Christmas story of a baby arriving at an inconvenient time and inconvenient place – marking time in advent is much like the marking of time while pregnant.  Pregnancy too has countdown apps these days – but even without an app, pregnancy means being constantly aware of time: the months, and then the weeks, and the days remaining –  the baby growing, yes, but also the things you have left to do in that time so you can be ready – even though the whole time you suspect there’s nothing you can do that would make you ready.

You might think, given this core story of advent, that the text in Christian churches today – which is the first Sunday in Advent – would be the story of Mary’s pregnancy.  But because sexism, it’s another story – also about marking time.  

It’s a text known as the “little apocalypse,” because Jesus tells everyone that SOMETHING IS COMING SO WATCH OUT – KEEP AWAKE he says. 

Except he doesn’t really say what that something is.  He says there will be angels, with trumpets, on clouds.  Or, he says, there won’t be.  Instead, maybe it will come without warning, like a “thief in the night.”  So live all the time READY – BE READY all the time – even though there’s probably no way to really be ready. It kind of reminds me of…. 

“You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout…”

It’s not just Christian households that mark time differently this season, with a sense that we need to get ready for SOMETHING THAT’S COMING…

The world around us, the stories within us – deep stories, I mean childhood stories – create in us a sense of urgency, and even vigilance, to hurry, to get all the things done, get ready – SOMETHINGS COMING. 

So we shop, and decorate, bake and celebrate, sing and gather with family, rush to holiday concerts and school plays, wrap presents, lose the scissors, shovel the walkway, travel cross-country, buy new scissors, trim the tree, pull together end-of-the-year reports, find the scissors you first lost, hurry to office holiday parties, watch the grandkids, light the menorah, ski (not enough!), drink hot totties and eggnog lattes (too much!), fill up on pecan pie and mashed potatoes, and don’t forget, pass back and forth the holiday cold.

Especially in a year where Thanksgiving is compressed so closely with Christmas…..Instead of marking time with the steady, intentional presence I learned as a kid through my advent calendar

The magical marking of time that links when you are with who you are – many of us instead mark this time of year with a mad dash of activity and consumption and production until we don’t know what day it is, or even our own names…

…. I mean, I’d have to guess at least a few of you received the notice about our worship series “Slow Down” in your email in box this week – and were like: you’re kidding. 

 It’s why, when my partner heard that the title of my sermon for this week was “Lose Your To Do List,” she responded quickly with: “that gives me anxiety.” 

And I’d bet she’s not alone.  

How many of you would call yourself a “list” person? 

I love lists, actually.  Lists are a way that we keep track of all those things that need to get done – but that haven’t gotten done yet – it’s a way to manage the anxiety of all that remains unfinished….Because without a list – you might forget to do the thing by the time it needs to be done; or just as bad, you might obsess about the fact that it’s not done yet, so you keep turning it over and over in your brain with increasing anxiety and adrenaline…

Sound familiar?

This anxious response to our unfinished business is what’s called the Zeigarnik Effect. 

Remember I said a couple weeks ago how the brain likes things to be resolved – similarly, it likes things to be finished. Once we start something, our brains want to keep bringing it up into our short term memory over and over – until it gets done.  Now you officially understand the entire Netflix Marketing Strategy.  (Next Episode…)

This Effect was discovered through a study on food servers in restaurants.  You know how amazingly your server can remember all the details of your order…? But what’s interesting is that after you’ve paid, they forget all about you.  Every table blurs into another. 

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik picked up on this, and through a series of studies figured out that before the tables were “done,” the servers turned the orders over and over in their short term memories – adrenaline, anxiety – but then as soon as it was done – huge relief – they could forget all about it. And they did. 

This is explains what I was describing can happen in the mad-dash of the holidays – you get to mid- January and you’re like – what happened?! What did we even do on Christmas this year? Who am I?! 

It’s not just the holidays though that we have to figure out how to live with “unfinished business.” All those things – you know need to be done, but aren’t…yet. So much of life is about learning this lesson – or at least, it’s the lesson my kids have been trying to teach me every day for the last 14 years….which IS the whole of their lives.  

My children love to come breaking in to whatever thing I’m trying so hard to finish – dinner, a sermon, a conversation – whatever I’m trying to GET DONE, and provide me, instead, with an alternative

They are, as one author put it, a constant invitation to be “willingly distracted by the present.” And occasionally…rarely – by some combination of grace and luck and lots of prior investment in my own spiritual health I sometimes manage to relish their lessons – and somehow sometimes I manage to remember that unfinished business is actually a sign that we’re doing life right….

Afterall, as Reinhold Neibuhr said, “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime.”

And so “taking our time” can also mean letting ourselves take up to do lists that will take longer than our own lives – letting ourselves feel a part of the larger arc that will keep moving, and dreaming, and doing, and being – long after we are gone. 

To live with “unfinished” things means knowing that even at our last breath, we will be growing and changing and striving – that is, still learning, still healing, still becoming – that we will be still living, for our whole lives –  which is the hope, right? Unfinished business is a sign of a life well lived….which is beautiful, except for our brains! 

Because our brains still love all things to be resolved.  So they are at work – all the time to get us to clean up those “loose ends” –  whether we’re talking about unfinished holiday shopping or unread emails or an unresolved relationship – all this unfinished business can occupy a huge amount of mental energy, and creates an inflated sense of urgency – whether we realize it or not – it gives us a sense that we’ll never have enough time. 

Which means, we can never really relax, let alone “loiter.”

Because we need to hurry and get done – whatever it is we’ve left undone.  Especially things we’ve actually started – even if that’s in a hypothetical way, as in, we’ve thought about them a LOT, written them down, maybe transferred them from one list to another…and another…and another….with the guilt growing with every transfer, and the dread of having not done it, needing to do it, wanting to get it done…..

Which is why – it’s true, we may be better off losing our to do list. 

Don’t panic. 

Because think about what happens when you lose your to do list.   First, if you’re like me, you might freak out a little. But then, you take a deep breath, and a get a clean piece of paper, and you start from the top

And you ask yourself – what is it that I need to do?

If you want to torture yourself, you try to remember what was on that old list, sure you’re forgetting something. 

Or, instead, and this is my invitation to you, not just in December, but across the whole of our lives….you can open the question up, in a fuller way – so that you access the deeper thought process, the slow thinking part of your brain, your heart, your body – the part of yourself that knows itself “in time,” and that knows in a deeper way what it means to “take your own time.” 

The invitation of this season, and the challenge is to linger here, in this slow space.  To remember that dream that is just yours. A dream that lives in your inhale, and your exhale, that will go on long past your last breath – a project that you will spend the rest of your life not-finishing. 

This is the thing to record on your new list. Record it first, and then again, and again. 

Start here, and then return here.  

Because in this life – that is inevitably filled with unfinished business – it matters what we leave undone.  

This is what the Zigarnik effect teaches us most of all – whatever is left on our to-do list is what is left on our heart.  And so we need to be so careful about the work we pick up, the work we begin, the work we call ours – because it will be what our brain turns towards over, and over, and over.

Which if it’s the right thing – can actually be for the good – after all, any big, complicated achievement, any work worth doing – relies heavily on the obsessive nature of the Zigarnik effect. 

It is the opportunity of this season – to mark time in this slower, more intentional way. To know when we are in a way that connects us to who we are. So that we can know – long after the light returns, and the walks are clear and dry, that we are not perpetually out-of-time but that we are held in time, connected, and whole, and enough.

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