Anyone looking for the holy land might best begin with the earth that sustains us …
Rev Forrest Church, UU Minister
The holy holds you in stillness, calms all the mental chatter, the anxieties and fears that press. It focuses the power, mystery and beauty of the universe. It connects you brilliantly to the interdependent web of all existence. If for only a moment you have no questions or answers. The infinite unification of the cosmos dissolves separation. You are at home. Approaching this state becomes easier when the hills and woods slip from winter duff to the green of new life, when the turkeys call and the creek sings after a long silence. Yesterday evening Chuck and I sat up by the old smoke house and watched the last of the sun sink beneath the swelling buds of the oaks. In the presence of this tranquility enervation seeps out as I hear the myriad birds and the new calves calling to their mothers, smell the fecundity of the warming earth and bite into asparagus fresh from the garden.
Recently Bill Moyers interviewed Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., ecologist, author, cancer survivor and authority on environmental links to human health. Married to an artist and the parent of two children she dedicates her life to finding the holy balance between those things she loves and that which threatens its health. She doesn’t hang out in a doomsday world. As a scientist she understands that the reality of global warming is worse than predicted, yet she chooses love to guide her as she gives herself to the joys of being a mother and an environmental activist willing to go to jail for acts of civil disobedience.
Steingraber knows the tension of how love can spill over into frustration, when she asks a New York congressman to release public health reports on fracking in the Finger Lakes area of New York where she lives. He just turns and walks away from her. She has sent him dozens of requests for the public health impact statement on fracking and storing the gas. She has gotten no response. He refuses to engage in an honest conversation on the subject at a public hearing. She begins to yell at him, “Why, why, why won’t you release this study?” He won’t answer.
Weeks later she links arms with a number of protestors to prevent the progress of the Kansas City based company hired to assist in the fracking work. Instead of paying the $385 fine she resists any complicity by going to jail for 15 days. Her second day in jail is Earth Day. She celebrates it by writing a letter to the world. Check it out.
I love this woman, her passion and the courage to do what her conscience requires so that she can balance her moral duty to her family, public and ecological wellbeing of the earth. It’s not enough for me to just sit on the high ground of the Flint Hills and revel in its wonders. Atrazine one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S. is banned in the European Union. Approximately 75 percent of our stream water and about 40 percent of all groundwater samples from agricultural areas tested in an extensive U.S. Geological Survey study contained atrazine. The U.S. EPA’s inadequate monitoring systems and weak regulations compound the problem, allowing levels of atrazine in watersheds and drinking water to rise to extremely high concentrations. It is being sprayed a couple miles from me as I write this.
Asking questions and getting true answers about the use of herbicides and pesticides that are linked to cancer, miscarriages, and increased health risks to the newly born as well as the old must be a democratic right, a holy right. But it means nothing if we don’t participate in the democratic process of protecting what we find holy. What can we do as religious liberals to help create the holy balance between reverence and action? How can we collectively be more responsible stewards of the Northern Flint Hills, the Kaw Valleys and its bodies of water that we rely on for our existence?
In honor of all that is truly holy,
Let’s try an experiment. Make a list of what brings you joy/ fun. Without too much thinking jot down what opens you to joy and leads to fun. 1) The birds at the feeder, morning, noon and dusk. 2) Chuck whistling. 3) Poppy running full speed over the hills. 4) Norah (my 5-month-old grand niece) laughing. 4) Hearing the UUFM choir sing. 5) The first crocus. 6) The return of the eastern phoebe. 7) Seeing bald eagles close to home. 8) A warm hen’s egg in a cold hand. 9) Dusk, sunset. 10) A rollicking talk with a friend. 9) A newborn calf wobbling after its mother. 11) The unimpeded Milky Way. 12) A story of someone overcoming adversity. 13) Old Maxi Cat in a game of chase with young Freja. 14) When a hidden connection reveals its truth. 15) Fireflies undulating over the meadow. 16) 10 foot bluestem. 17) When UUism saves someone’s life … 18) Looking at Chuck’s drawings … 19) A night fire with a coyote and owl chorus … 20) When communication is clear and loving …
Title the next list grief/sad and proceed. 1) My neighbor shooting coyotes. 2) When my mother feels forgotten. 3) When people I care about fail to seek common ground when they share similar visions. 4) Allowing the petty to obstruct big dreams. 5) Moments of impatience when Chuck can’t recall something we have agreed upon recently. 6) A cruel remark. 7) The cutting down of a grand old tree. 8) When I get travel anxiety. 9) A society that fails to care for its children, the elderly, racial inequality in prisons … 10) When an LGBT teen kills themselves. 11) Whenever anyone kills themselves because of isolation, fear, treatable depression … 12) When anyone loses a loved one, friend, partner, spouse, mother, father, cousin, pet … 13) Poorly funded schools. 14) Gun violence. 15) Pollution. 16) Loss of songbirds and the wild. 17) When people do not understand anxiety disorders and brain damage; lack of empathy. 18) Perfectionism that kills the spirit. 19) Collapsing the richness of diversity into a thinness of possibility. 20) Poverty mentality, the sense that we do not have the resources, the will to do more than we are doing …
Wow! What a difference between how I feel after completing the first and second lists. I should have started with the second one, because now there is a pain in my back, a heaviness in my heart, I don’t feel like moving … When I finished the first I felt the possibilities of spring in my bones, a lightness, an eagerness, ready for what comes …
What we focus on makes a difference in our individual and shared lives. If we focus on what we can’t do, what has gone wrong, the losses, forward energy sinks into inertia. When we focus on what brings a smile, cheer, warmth, goodness, then the feeling that we can do more rises. This is not to imply that the practical, a hard look at reality is worthless, but it does suggest that if one does not turn toward what brings joy and a sense of fun it is very difficult to move forward.
Optimism does not come naturally to most people, but it is a skill that one can develop. It enables one to refine the way they use their energy and resources that create more possibilities for success. Becoming proficient at being positive, expert at enjoying, fine at having fun, expands the capacity to be fully in the world. It is much easier to face the problems and challenges of life with a supple and reliable capacity for joy. Progressive faith fails if everything is reduced to limitations. Confidence in what is possible generates hope and increases the chances for good things to happen. Experiences of sadness, loss and failure provide opportunities for wisdom to root but to make them a dwelling place is to ensure despair. It is what we make out of our suffering that counts. Liberal religion asks us to find meaning in whatever happens and to position ourselves towards the bright side of hope.
When I was 3 we moved from Lindsborg, Kansas, to the NW edge of Chicago. Working farms were within a mile of our house. Mrs. Berry lived across the dirt road and lived on what remained of her small farm. She had chickens, ducks and geese. As the roads were paved, more houses sprung up and the farm of my friend’s family, Brock, was sold to a developer that built Parkway Bank and high-rise apartments. Finally Mrs. Berry sold the last bit of land and next to her farm house and ramshackle sheds a brick house rose from the ground with a manicured lawn. The new kids believed that Mrs. Berry was a witch. She wore old-fashioned housedresses and her long gray hair tilted on her head in a disheveled bun. She seldom came out of her house that needed a paint job. Her curtains were closed and blinds drawn. Her yard, a thick tangle of bushes and trees, was dark and foreboding.
At first the name-calling seemed harmless. It became more menacing when Irene, a fiery red head, accused Mrs. Berry of killing her cat. She rabble roused and got a number of kids to terrorize Mrs. Berry by sneaking up to her front and back door, knocking and running. Stones were thrown at her windows. Kids stole her mail.
This felt wrong to me. I decided to go on a fact-finding mission. I knocked on Mrs. Berry’s old screen door with my heart pounding and my mouth dry from fear. Finally Mrs. Berry pulled the curtain aside to look at me and then opened her door. She wanted to know why I was there. I asked if she had killed Irene’s cat. She said, “No, I would never do such a thing.” I explained the situation to her and she replied, “You kids should know better. You shouldn’t be bothering an old woman.”
My fear subsided and my curiosity took control. “So if you don’t use that barrel full of dark water to drown cats, what do you use it for?” Mrs. Berry chuckled and said, “It is the best water to use for washing your hair. It makes it soft.” I asked her how old she was, but she didn’t think that was any of my business. Then I asked when her birthday was. She said in a couple of weeks.
When all the neighbor kids gathered to plan their next attack on Mrs. Berry, I declared that Mrs. Berry did not kill Irene’s cat. This made Irene furious, but somehow I prevailed and the harassment stopped.
For her birthday I dug up one of mother’s sedums. We called this plant the “Mother of Millions.” I put it in a pot and knocked on Mrs. Berry’s back door. She asked me what I wanted. I told her that I had brought her a birthday present. She opened the door and invited me in. I gave her the “Mother of Millions.” She had tears in her eyes and to avoid embarrassment poured us both a glass of lemonade. The joy of giving to Mrs. Berry registers with more potency than any gift ever given to me. May we all share our gifts in ways that create greater connection and joy.
Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.
… Dalai Lama
What will call the promise of living meaningful lives into this new year? What will bring us into wider dimensions of spiritual authenticity? The willingness to expand beyond the strictures and structures of the way we always do things bears new possibilities and life. Living in awe before mystery, beauty, death and birth helps us to love more deeply. Our dissatisfactions become more pliable and can turn into satisfaction with less fuss, less fear, less fighting. Being in a state of readiness, a willingness to appreciate the process as it evolves, instead of being fixated on outcome, energizes. We still need goals, but ones fluid enough to let patterns evolve with unexpected grace.
A friend of mine, who is half Native-American and half Norwegian, believes technique is important, but essence is more important. She knows that some Native-American ceremonies performed with technical accuracy sometimes lack heart. The ceremony is done right, but the reason for its existence is lost. You can find this absence in painting, music, poetry, and in people’s homes. The crafting may be exquisite, but lacks life.
A painting or poem can magnetize by subverting the rules. The deft use of black can move the eye forward instead of into shadow. A sudden shift in meter or syntax can break a poem into an unanticipated brightness. The right dose of experimentation animates. If we always do everything in the same order, using the same ingredients, we end up with the same old meal. Hitler walked his dog the same time everyday and believed that one needed an ice-cold heart to accomplish big goals. He surrounded himself with heartless people dedicated to monoculture.
Balancing improvisation with technique invites play. Without the quality of play–and I don’t know what will happen, but exploration is fun attitude–life becomes rigid. When we risk being silly, everything can loosen. Cheer enters. The heart opens. When we insist on a prescribed formality, the cudgel of drudgery swings with its killing power. But without structure or expertise our creative efforts may result in chaos.
Compare the Dali Lama and Hitler. Compassion widens the heart’s capacity to experience pain and joy or the brutal endgame of an icy heart. One opens to the complexity of life giving options, the other contracts into a life negating rules. Addiction to perfection can kill the spirit. Yet we expect the laser surgeon to practice precision, and the concert pianist to play the right note. The best surgeons use dexterity and quickly adapt to the unexpected. A great performer finds something new in what they know in minute detail; always bringing in new life.
Rumi wrote, Your depression is connected to your insolence and refusal to praise. Let us be thankful for the new year and respect innovation,
Cut loose, without devotion, a man becomes a comic.
His antics are passed
around the family table and mimicked so well, years
later the family still laughs.
Without devotion, any life becomes a stranger’s story …
Marie Howe, in her poem Without Devotion, explores the emptiness that results from having nothing to believe in; lacking the meaning that connects a person to something valuable enough that it prompts them to give of themselves. Such lives are often desperate and angry.
“Unitarian Universalists are neither chosen people nor a people whose choices are made for them by theological authorities— ancient or otherwise. We are a people who choose.” Forrest Church believed that it is our human obligation to make choices that expand and concentrate meaning in our daily lives. When we fail to heed the innate need for meaning, indifference holds sway and its cold winds buffet.
In the dark month of December it is important to bring light into our lives. Whether you celebrate the birth of love, its renewal, the winter solstice or find deep pleasure in building, tending and musing before a fire, it is a time to seek illumination. This month filled with festivities calls us to contemplate what brings us true worth and joy, what nurtures supple strength in the individual, families and our community.
What gifts are you willing to receive?
Many self-reliant people find it difficult to accept gestures of empathy or a compliment. They are deferred. UUs, independent minded people, tend to practice a modern version of stoicism, which tamps down the spirit. Public displays of heightened emotion, unless it comes from a child, are often found embarrassing. We prefer reason and people who measure and hide their feelings so that they do not stand out. This cautious approach to life tends to diffuse the bright light of joy. William Blake believed “joy and woe are woven fine.” You can’t have the heights without depth. The splendor of the stars relies on the darkness they are in.
This is the season to practice developing and honing your skills of being joyful. Opening the heart and focusing the mind on what is most important makes more room for joy, and joy needs lots of room. Stretching into risky territory can bring a new suppleness and appreciation, qualities I often find in toddlers who are not afraid of hugging and kissing. My 2 1/2 year old great nephew, Sam, loves to put his cheek against yours, to feel the comfort of flesh touching flesh. He has no fear of expressing his need to be held and loved. He loves to kiss his 4 month old sister Norah as well as his great uncle. I am lucky to be blessed with such a true presence; its gift.
May we all rediscover the innocence that allows us to love freely. May the season bless us with its gifts of devotion. May there be less estrangement. May you know and share love,
Grateful for the pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and our vision. This sentence found at the beginning of our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition begins the last paragraph of the covenant Unitarian Universalists agree to promote. I love the linkage between deepening one’s understanding and the ability to articulate and hold up a vision. Gratitude for pluralism makes this possible, but experience sometimes shows, embracing plurality can be unwieldy. Sometimes it makes an organization less nimble, especially when there are voices calling for change and those who like things the way they are. In Washington, DC, this is called gridlock. In religious circles this may be thought of as a time of extended discernment.
My experience with Tibetan Buddhism makes me truly grateful for the pluralism of our progressive faith. Tibetan Buddhism provides me with a great deal of wisdom, but I could not abide their more conservative organizational hierarchy and a less than enthusiastic acceptance of LGBT people and their rights. I believe that each person is important and ideally should have their say in helping to decide the direction our Fellowship moves.
Clearly our Fellowship has a moral obligation to extend its progressive ideals to people who need them, but have little or no access to make that connection kinetic. To do this effectively we each need to help articulate a vision, which holds up our principles and ideals so that more people can be touched by their power. Our effort is critical to help to make the common good more pervasive for Kansans.
Our Unitarian Universalist presence in the Northern Flint Hills has saved lives, helped people isolated by their heretical questions about religion make supportive connections and find the encouragement they need to freely search for truth and meaning in their lives. Now is the time for us to focus on the inherent worth and dignity of our community by lifting up a vision that provides a clear message of how integral diversity is to us, and how it enriches our individual and collective lives. Unifying the many strands of our dreams gives our dreams a real chance of being realized.
US history demonstrates what a crucial role Unitarians and Universalists played in shaping our country. Our achievements include strong efforts to end slavery, ensuring a woman’s right to vote and to serve our liberal faith as ordained ministers, bringing dignity to people with mental health problems, the need to provide a good education to every child, the creation of public parks, Red Cross, the inclusion of people of every ethnic heritage and LGBTQ people … The list goes on, but we must articulate what is most important to our community so that we can share and live it with exuberance.
A woman’s vote makes a real difference! Vote!
Reverend Michael Nelson reflects, “Earnestness, this seriousness about everything in our lives … this goal oriented, we’re going to-do-it-attitude, is the world’s greatest killjoy. There’s no sense of appreciation because we are so solemn about everything … A joyful mind is very open and relaxed. So lighten up.” These are a few words from our group exploring how to deal with uncertainty. Pema Chodron also suggests that curiosity encourages cheering up. Trying something different also livens things up. After last Sunday’s service, Matt Campbell’s fresh baked bread and Cybil Perkin’s fresh veggies provided a cornucopia of pleasure–a sight that brought me and others a great deal of happiness. And the taste, well that was exquisite! Move out of your comfort zone, keep the heart and mind open to new discoveries!
Vacation and study leave give me the freedom to hurry less. I can read a book of poetry a couple of times, allowing the rhythm of the words to fully enter so that the images and their meaning have stunning power. “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time” by Marie Howe, continues to grip me. As the pull of pastoral work revs up, I return to the following poem for guidance …
We stop at the dry cleaner and grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say hurry, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry–
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me. Laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hand.
What is a healthy pace that leaves ample room for savoring what’s precious? In northern Vermont, Chuck and I lingered for hours over breakfast discussing what we were reading and writing, taking in the mountain meadow, bright with flowers, enveloped in the soft summer air. The lack of pressure felt lusciously liberating. Mid-afternoon we would hike up to Rattlesnake Cliffs or a portion of the Appalachian Trail, and on our way back stop at Brookfield pond for a swim. This slowing down gets into the bones. You feel more at home in yourself and have a deeper appreciation for beauty and all it offers.
When fewer obligations press, you notice when anxiety pushes against your psyche. In Vermont, the highest speed limit is 65 and most of the paved roads have a speed limit of 40 or 50. This slow pace tried my patience. I mean, even teenagers, drove slow. Along the major highways, signs flashed that said, “Drive slow, stay alive.” Last year Vermont had only 50 deaths attributed to automobile accidents. I can’t say I got use to these slow speeds, but I do find, since returning to Kansas, that sometimes I drive slower than the limit. When I do it feels luxurious.
May you be blessed with the luxury of time to fully enjoy what you love and what loves you.
The bones of this redwood reveal themselves slowly. When this giantess fell, she was well over 1,000 years old, probably around 1,400. Who knows how long she has lain on her side, how many fires reduced limbs to ash, how many square feet of its humus cushions the ground, has become ground??? Good questions to muse over as the election season heats up. How grateful I am to be called into a place of true humility.
Love calls us into the core of our creativity—into its depth and illumination. Like the stars in the vast distance, love brings its light into the interior of our lives. It challenges our imagination to sense the cosmic dimension in a speck of its reflected luminosity and share it with all the beauty and brio we can bring forth.