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Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Life, Politics, God, Food, Faith and Science, the Gaia Hypothesis and Attaining Personal Mastery in One Easy Lesson

Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Worship Services

Everything You Always Wanted To Know
About Life, Politics, God, Food, Faith and Science, the Gaia Hypothesis
and Attaining Personal Mastery in One Easy Lesson

You’re probably familiar with religious light bulb jokes.  Like, how many Episcoplians does it take to change a light bulb?  Three to pour the drinks and one to call the electrician.  How many Quakers?  Ten to sit in a circle until someone feels the inner light.  Roman Catholics use candles only.  The Amish wonder, what is electricity?  And how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change the light bulb?  We don’t claim to have an answer, but do believe in asking life’s persistent light bulb questions.

Ours is an inquiring faith, we like to say.  As human beings, our answers may divide us, but the imponderables bring us together.  Not just whether to use fluorescent or incandescent, but questions like why is there something instead of nothing?  What happens when we die?  Why do bad things happen, and where do we find hope and serenity in a world where the headlines are so often full of folly?  As Sam Keen remarked, the questions lead to the quest, the search, the spiritual journey (wayfaring being another of the central metaphors for religious liberals). Good questions are what make for an interesting trip.

When I visited the Men’s Group last month, they had a range of existential and philosophical quandaries they wanted answered.  They were grappling with questions like, how to make a difference in the world.  How to nurture your soul.  One asked, “are we contributing to the current polarization in our society,” in other words, can we learn to be agents of healing rather than division in our culture?  A father asked, “Are we teaching our children in a way that encourages mastery (as opposed to dilettantism)?” Some wanted me to explore moral issues like ethical eating while others were curious about the frontiers of faith and science and environmental theology, like the “Gaia hypothesis,” James Lovelock’s proposal that our planet is an organism, alive and maybe even sentient like you and me.

Quite a spectrum.  But my assumption is that all these conundrums are somehow connected, as every question eventually leads back to the unknown that’s the source of all our wondering.

So let me begin by sharing another question, one I’ve been asking myself lately.  It’s a question that I’m most likely to ask first thing in the morning, sitting for a moment on the side of the bed before I stand up to get dressed and start the coffee.  The question I ask myself is, “how do I want to be today?”  Not “what do I want to do,” because before I get swept into the stream of the daily agenda with emails and interruptions and tasks on the “to do list,” I want to take an intentional pause to consider how I wish to conduct myself: to remember to be a little less anxious, for example, a little kinder, a little more appreciative of the other people and world around me.

Ideally, I’d like to smile more, judge less.  Maybe even follow the adage from Goethe I have taped to my medicine chest.  “Every day (he said) one should at least listen to a little song, read a good poem, look at a fine painting, and, if possible, say a few reasonable words.”  Many days, I don’t do any of things. Never mind savoring life or saving the world, I’m lucky to get to the gym.  But taking that brief moment in the morning seems like a healthy habit and gives me a chance of living a little more consciously for at least the next twenty-four hours.

So that’s one way I nurture my soul.  Others pray, or meditate, or do tai chi. All are means of tending the inner garden and also, I think, of making a difference in the world. Because transformation starts at home. Peacemaking begins with the kind of personal presence and attention I bring to everyday interactions. Remembering to say “please” and “thank you.”  Practicing amazement and forgiveness. Assuming good intentions, rather than assuming that other people are deliberately trying to annoy me.

Now I’m probably never going to be a fully realized human being, but when I think of individuals who have had the greatest impact on history, my list wouldn’t start with generals or statesmen, or even inventors. Karl Marx and other revolutionaries would take a backseat to the figures whom I would describe as wisdom teachers and sages: Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, the Buddha. But it wasn’t just what they taught that made them influential.  They weren’t necessarily smarter than other people, or saying things that had never been said before. Rather, it was the magnetism of their personalities which attracted people.  They seemed to have attained an unusual degree of clarity and integrity, combining inner calm with an inner fire, practicing what they preached, as in the well known story about Gandhi.

A mother came to him one day asked him to speak with her son, who was eating too much sugar.  Gandhi told the woman to come back in a couple of weeks.  When she returned with the boy, he explained that he hadn’t been able to talk to the child earlier because he’d been fond of sweets himself and needed to cut down his own sugar intake before instructing others.  The episode of course illustrates the Mahatma’s credo, “Be the change you want to see.”

Yet I’d be interested to learn the rest of the story.  Did Gandhi then give the child a lecture about healthy eating habits?  Did the boy take the great man’s words to heart and start consuming more vegetables? Or swear off chocolate forever? Or did the little brat keep on eating candy to defy his mother and frustrate the scrawny old man?  I rather imagine the naughty boy collected a whole mouthful of cavities before he changing his diet.  For sometimes experience is the only teacher.

Having delivered something like a thousand sermons over the course of my career, I’m not sure the world is much changed by talking or that people are greatly improved by moral exhortations.  Preaching isn’t necessarily the pathway to progress.  Rather, lecturing rather naturally leads to pontificating, which leads to polarizing, presuming that the speaker possesses a degree of knowledge and virtue and goodness the listener sadly lacks.  Pontificating can be often fun, it makes us feel intelligent and righteousness, but it seldom changes minds.

So I could make the announcement ex cathedra, for instance, that the way to eat ethically is to simply follow Mohandas Gandhi’s advice.  When he left India to study law in England, the great apostle of non-violence vowed on moral principles not to eat meat for the rest of his life, and in the course of his reflections came to the conclusion that drinking milk was equally dubious from an ethical standpoint.

Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, “I get it that slaughterhouses and factory farms are not nice places, but what exactly is wrong with milk?”  Well, to give milk, cows have to have calves, but the calves are taken away soon after they’re born.  So that mothering instinct that’s so powerful is thwarted. And the babies are sold for beef or veal if they’re male, or turned into dairy cattle themselves if female, so the cows have to be kept pregnant year round, fed a special high energy diet often dosed with Bovine Growth Hormone to get them to produce ten times as much milk as if they were lactating normally.  Often the udder is so enlarged and distended that animals on modern dairy farms can’t walk and may go lame. A normal 25 year lifespan for a cow in a healthy environment is foreshortened to 3-4 years at which point the animal’s body breaks down and it’s turned into hamburger.

As Gandhi said, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and the treatment of livestock in modern agribusiness is a strictly commercial calculation.  Whatever can be done to an animal to make money will be done. Yet I was a vegetarian for 25 years before I stopped eating dairy just because I was rather lazy and didn’t want to think about it.  And even Gandhi would drink a little goat’s milk now and then and would continue to feel guilty each time he did so.  You wonder, why didn’t he just stop, if he was persuaded it was wrong?  We human beings, it turns out, are very funny animals.

Yet this is an insight that for me, at least, is comforting and may even open a doorway to greater empathy.  Namely, that we are animals, not necessarily superior to other species, not placed here by God to have dominion over the rest, but co-evolved as one recent experiment within nature’s great laboratory of life.  Even the holiest, even the saints, the world-class boddhisatvas like Jesus and Gandhi were basically big apes, very clever bipedal apes who’ve come down from the trees, but whose large frontal lobes probably didn’t evolve for the express purpose of pondering moral dilemmas or suppressing an appetite for sugar.  So we’re allowed some inconsistency.  We need to give each other some wiggle room when we fall short of our high ideals.

Accept it.  People are apes, not angels, but we are still Great Apes, in every sense.  Like our relatives the chimps and gorillas and orangutans, we can be aggressive and territorial, but we also have these marvelous capacities for compassion and altruism.  Maybe you remember the news report about the gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago.  This was from a few years ago.  A little boy had managed to climb up over the restraining wall and tumble down inside the animal’s enclosure, where he was knocked unconscious.  One of the big male gorillas was making threatening gestures at that point. But one of the female silverbacks, whose Swahili name was Binti Jua or “Daughter of Sunlight,” and who was carrying her own infant clinging to her fur, walked over to where the child lay, picked him up, and carried him to the exit where she waited for a zoo attendant to arrive to get the child medical attention.  Just think: We all share 97% of our DNA with Binti Jua, which means that kindness comes naturally to us.

Or take the true story from the primatologist Adrian Kortland.  This was back in the sixties, before Jane Goodall.  Kortland was studying chimpanzees when one evening, he saw a chimp step out of the undergrowth of the forest and come into a clearing, carrying a papaya, which was the chimpanzee’s bedtime snack.  It was sunset, and Kortland records that the animal put down its papaya on the ground and stood stock still for fifteen minutes, not moving a muscle, gazing west, just looking at the fading reds and violets on the horizon.  Then, when the sun had finally dipped down out of sight, the chimp finally turned around and walked back into the forest, forgetting to pick up his bedtime treat

We’ll never know what was going on in that animal’s mind.  But who can doubt that he had a mind similar in many ways to our own, filled with flickering memories, responding to the light and beauty and color of the world?  Who can doubt there was a spiritual dimension to that encounter, an appetite that went beyond the stomach’s hunger for the papaya, a yearning to satisfy some psychic hunger?

Sentience, consciousness, awareness, spirit: these realities are not confined to the human race, I believe.  For the world is filled with creatures like ourselves who share in the capacity for joy and suffering. And the earth itself is composed of living tissue, from the oceans that are so similar in chemistry to our own blood to the thin envelope of air encircling out planet which we inhale with every breath, drawing in the same molecules that passed through the lungs of Confucius and Socrates.  We are not separateyou and I, Binti Jua, Amish and Catholics and Episcopalians—but all together, all expressions of the same light, the same equations, the same ultimate mystery, the star-charts that are written on the insides of stones.

And this is the lesson we must learn ourselves before we pass it on to our children, the only needful lesson: to honor all beings, to see the dignity in every one, not to be dilettantes in love.

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Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory

Posted by on May 13, 2012 in Worship Services

Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory

When Julia Ward Howe penned her Mother’s Day proclamation for peace in 1870, the Franco-Prussian war had just ended.  Rapid fire machine guns had turned battlefields into mechanized slaughterhouses.  She described in her Reminiscences how the question came into her mind: “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to present the waste of human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?”  In her proclamation, she called for an international congress of women to be convened, in her words “to promote the alliance of different nationalities” and the amicable settlement of differences.  The Mother’s Day Peace Festival she proposed became the forerunner of the holiday we celebrate today.

Julia would have been disappointed to learn that the festival she inaugurated lost its original purpose.  It may have been fortunate that she never lived to see the First World War, for until the very end of her life, in 1910, she maintained a hope that a “new era of human understanding” might dawn upon the earth.  Yet she would have rejoiced that we still set aside at least one day each year to honor motherhood and recognize women’s contributions to the world.  It’s appropriate that we honor Julia Ward Howe herself, for she was a pioneer of the modern feminist movement, who in her struggles to break free from the restraints that burdened Victorian women helped liberate half the human race which had been confined to the roles of wife and mother.

The groundwork for Howe’s later accomplishments as a writer, reformer and organizer was laid down early.  She was the daughter of Samuel Ward, a man who never had the advantages of a college education but who became one of the richest private bankers in New York.  He was determined to give his children the education he never had.  Julia remembered speaking French before she could read or write.  Literature, music and the Bible were also part of her curriculum in the nursery, and as she grew tutors would introduce her to German and Italian, and to training in piano and voice, where she excelled.  When she was growing up, she sometimes prevailed upon her sister to physically tie her to her desk; she steeled herself to a regimen of rigid self-discipline and hard work.

Yet the purpose of educational establishments like Miss Catherine Roberts’ School for Young Ladies, where Julia learned to memorize long passages of ponderous moral philosophy, was not truly to light the fires of the mind or to prepare their pupils for independent thinking.  The goal was above all to prepare them for their destined domestic roles.  When Julia published her first serious work, a translation of a now forgotten poem, her Uncle John expressed the mixture of pride and misgiving in her family with the comment, “This is my little girl who knows about books and writes an article and has it printed, but I wish she knew more about housekeeping!”

Religion was an important part of Julia’s upbringing.  Her mother was of stern Scotch Presbyterian background, and it was her strict piety rather than Mr. Ward’s more easy-going Low Church Episcopalianism which colored Julia’s imagination.  The woman who later wrote the stanzas to the “Battle Hymn” never entirely abandoned her faith in the righteous Old Testament God of her younger years.  The Bible remained a touchstone, and good and evil remained locked in earnest contest on earth’s battlefields and in the human heart.

In a chance encounter, a youthful Julia Ward Howe one day found herself seated with Ralph Waldo Emerson aboard a train to Boston.  “I do not wish to meet the wicked man!” she told her traveling companion.  Attempting to impress Emerson with the correctness of her own religious views, Julia spoke at length on the power of Satan in the world and the depth of sin in the human soul.  Listening patiently, Emerson finally responded, “Surely the angel must be stronger than the demon.”  Julia found a “gentle, ethereal quality” in the great man which “belied her reputed wickedness.”  The two became good friends and Julia eventually joined the Unitarian church.

What remained of her childhood religion was a passionate determination to be of service to humanity.  Like her father, a founder of New York University, and like her “Grandmama” Isabella Graham who founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children, one of the earliest charitable associations in the United States, Julia always believed that religion should uplift and minister to those in need.
It may have been those charitable instincts that first attracted Julia to the figure of Samuel Gridley Howe.  Howe made a name for himself when he went to Greece to join the revolutionaries who were rising up to throw off Turkish rule, fighting and using his medical training in the field and winning the title of Chevalier of the Greek Legion of Honor for his valor.  Henceforth, the “Chevalier” would be nicknamed Chev.  When he returned to the United States, Chev found a new outlet for his vigor and idealism.  He became director of the New England Asylum for the Blind.  The Perkins Institute, as it was later called, was the perfect place for a man like Howe, who throughout his life liked to be at the forefront of activities for social betterment.

With jet black hair, piercing blue eyes and a commanding, soldierly bearing, the hero of the Greek Revolution proved fatefully attractive to Julia, and the two were engaged in the spring of 1843.  It was a stormy courtship.  While his politics were progressive, Chev’s views of marriage were conservative in the extreme.  From the outset, he made it clear to Julia that he would expect her to set aside her literary ambitions and become a full time mother and wife.  Although he admired such independent women as Dorothea Dix, with whom he worked side by side for prison reform and more humane treatment of the mentally ill, Chev was adamant that married women had no place in public life.

He was also ambivalent about Julia’s wealth, which would make her financially independent of her husband.  He demanded first that Julia relinquish her fortune in order to marry him, and when her family refused to allow it, Chev demanded that control of her inheritance be turned over to him.  The family again refused and at last a compromise was negotiated.  The poet Longfellow, a friend of the young couple, sensed trouble ahead, describing Julia as “a fine, young, buxom damsel of force and beauty, who is full of talent, indeed carrying almost too many guns for any man who does not to be firing salutes all the time.”

After some hesitation about becoming the submissive spouse of Samuel Howe, Julia finally set aside her doubts and wrote to her brother that “His true devotion has won me from the world and from myself.  I am the captive of his bow and spear.”  But as one, final gesture of independence, the bride did choose to retain her maiden name.  She was never “Mrs. Samuel Gridley” but always Mrs. Julia Ward Howe.

The marriage was not a happy one.  At the request of Horace Mann, Chev launched himself into work with the Boston School Committee, with a round of constant meetings that left him little time for his new wife.  Julia, whose family was in New York, found herself in a strange new city and homesick for familiar faces.  She was soon pregnant, and perhaps because her own mother had died of childbirth fever after delivering her eighth infant, or perhaps simply because she was a woman soon to give birth, Julia was anxious and upset, a condition her husband found hard to fathom.  In typical male fashion, Chev idealized and romanticized the mother-child relationship.  Comparing his
wife to one of Raphael’s madonnas, he enthused at the birth of their first child: “To see her watching with eager, anxious eyes every movement of her offspring, to witness her entire self-forgetfulness and the total absorption of her nature in this new object of love, is to have a fresh revelation of the strength and beauty of woman’s character, and new proof of their superiority even in what most ennobles humanity  love for others.”

Meanwhile, in those first years of marriage, Julia would confide to a notebook, “I live in a place in which I have few social relations, and all too recent to be intimate.  I have no family around me, my children are babies and my husband has scarcely half an hour in twenty-four to give me.  So, as I think much in my way, and nobody takes the least interest in what I think, I am forced to make myself an imaginary public, and to tell it the secrets of my poor ridiculous little brain.”  In her private poetry, Julia poured out her misery, blaming herself for her inability to be content with her womanly lot:

Hope died as I was led
Unto my marriage bed;
Nay, do not weep, ’twas I
Not thou, that slew my happiest destiny.

When once I know my sphere
Life shall no more be drear
I will be all thou wilt
To cross thy least desire shall be guilt …

One person who encouraged Julia to rise above wifely resignation was Rev. Theodore Parker, the radical Unitarian minister whose views on sexual equality shocked many of his contemporaries.  “To make one half the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made,” said Parker, and he urged Julia to use her gift for language by publishing her work.  Later, he also encouraged her to begin public speaking and to preach in church.  Julia was a dedicated worshiper at the Old Melodeon Theater, where Parker held forth each Sunday, until Chev, who was not particularly interested in attending church himself, insisted that their children needed a more respectable church home.  Reluctantly, Julia obeyed her husband and transferred her membership to James Freeman Clarke’s Church of the Disciples, another Unitarian Parish, but not before a seed of rebellion had been planted.

In 1853, Julia took a collection of her poems to the Boston publishers Ticknor, Reed and Fields, who agreed to release them under the title Passion Flowers.  The poems appeared anonymously, for Chev knew nothing of Julia’s scheme and her hope was to keep her authorship a secret.  The book was an unmitigated success, however, and soon all of Boston knew not only that “anonymous” was a woman, but the wife of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe.  Chev was irate, though slightly mollified by the profitable sales.  He was especially angered, however, by one particular verse entitled “Mind Versus Mill-Stream.”  The poem portrayed a miller trying to tame a rushing brook.  Twice he builds a dam, but each time the swift current is too powerful and destroyed his efforts.  The poem ends with a moral:

If you would marry happily
On the shady side of life,
Choose out some quietly-disposed
And placid tempered wife,

To share the length of sober days,
And dimly slumberous nights,
But well beware those fitful souls
Fate wings for wilder flights,

For men will woo the tempest
And wed it to their cost,
Then swear they took it for summer dew
And ah! Their peace is lost!

It was a taunt to Chev’s masculine pride to suggest that he could not control his spouse, and the next few months were the worst in Julia’s life as her marriage threatened to come apart in separation.  “Chev is as cold and indifferent to me as a man can well be,” she wrote her sister Annie.  “I sometimes suspect him of having relations with another woman.”  That suspicion would be borne out when Chev at last confessed his infidelity at the end of his life.  Yet Chev and Julia’s relationship, however flawed, was never without its tender and warm moments.  When he died, Julia would be grieved to think that ‘in place of my dear husband I have now my foolish papers.  Yet I have often left him for them.”

The great crusade of that generation was abolition.  Chev was one of Boston’s “Secret Six,” a group of conspirators who provided money and support to John Brown, leader of the ill-fated uprising at Harper’s Ferry.  Julia was also active in the anti-slavery movement, and it was not long before advocates of freedom for the black man asked why women should not also enjoy equal rights.  “When it was declared that all men are born free and equal,” Julia reasoned, “it was certainly implied that all women were so born.  For the right postulated in this assertion is the universal right of the human being.”  In 1869, Julia was elected president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association, and for the remainder of her life continued to lecture and agitate on behalf of women’s rights.  She was not a radical.  Unlike Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leader of the rival National Woman Suffrage Association, Julia envisioned no fundamental reordering of the relation between the sexes.  Nor did she share Stanton’s advocacy of abortion rights and birth control.  For Julia and other “moderates” like Lucy Stone and Mary Livermore, the right to vote was primary, and they felt it would hold back suffrage to entangle it with other issues.  The enfranchisement of women, so they hoped, would be enough to usher in a whole new age of human advancement, in which peace and cooperation would finally begin to assert their reign.

Fortunately, Julia was in high demand as a speaker.  Her husband, who after many years did manage to gain proprietorship over her inheritance, promptly lost the whole fortune, and after his death Julia was forced to worry about earning money as never before.  She’d been paid just $4 for the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn,” but the song had made her a household name, and her voice and stage presence guaranteed her popularity on the rostrum, where she spoke not only on women’s rights, but on manners, morals, literature and religion.

“What is the ideal aim of life?” Julia asked in one of her speeches.  She responded, “To learn, to teach, to serve, to enjoy!”  Her own life epitomized those ideals.  Her dream of world peace seems now as far away as ever, but many in her time felt that abolition was a lost cause, and similarly that votes for women would never come to pass.  Julia refused to live within the limits of what others declared to possible or impossible.  And by believing in a
more just and hopeful world than the one in which she found herself, she helped bring such a world into being.

In her old age, Julia Ward Howe became something of a national institution.  She became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Some compared her to Victoria, for she elicited from the American people a spontaneous goodwill like that Britons felt toward their queen.  Yet the course of early morning trains and cross country travel did take their toll on the aging matriarch.  Her last years were spent quietly at home, writing, reading philosophy, surrounded by her family and the friends of a long lifetime.  In 1907, she wrote,

Yes, I’ve had a lot of birthdays and I’m growing very old,
That’s why they make so much of me, if once the truth were told.
And I love the shade in summer, and in winter love the sun,
And I’m just learning how to live, my wisdom’s just begun.

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The Seven Habits of Highly Spiritual People

Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Worship Services


Squint. Don’t put your horizon in the middle of the composition.  Let your brush strokes come from a movement of your whole torso, not just from the fingertips.  And remember to step back from your work every fifteen minutes, maybe even turn it upside down or look at it in a mirror  All helpful tricks if you want to create a decent work of art.        

Where do you learn stuff like this?  My first teacher was Sally Linder, a local artist whose work I admired. Back then I was a horrible painter and Sally helped me tremendously.  But it also occurred to me that many of the lessons she taught had broader applications, and that many of the steps toward becoming a better artist were also steps toward becoming a more spiritual person and better human being.

For instance, the first thing that Sally told me was that I needed a place to practice my art.  I had been painting on and off for several years, but never on a regular basis, and had all my brushes and easels stored downstairs in the basement.  I’d have to lug them up where there was better light any time I wanted to paint.  Sally told me I really needed a studio, a room or even just part of a room devoted to my work, if I wanted to get serious.  I knew I would never be able to manage a space like Sally’s, an elegant loft filled with art books and anatomical models and northern light.  But I did buy a little chest of drawers from the nearly new shop and installed it in a place where it would be ready-to-go. In my apartment here in Hudson the mudroom which is heated with lots of windows is dedicated for the same purpose.  It makes a statement that painting is a priority for me, not stored away like the Christmas ornaments to be pulled out on special occasions, but important enough to claim its own space.  It stands to reason.  If you eat, you need a kitchen.  If you sleep, you need a bedroom. And if you want to be an artist, you need an art room.       

If you want to be a spiritual person, it seems to me, you also need to give that a priority in your life.  Annie Dillard says that many of us go through the world making "itsy bitsy statues," and by that I think she means that we are dilettantes, which my dictionary defines as those "who cultivate an art or branch of knowledge as a pastime, especially sporadically or superficially."   Whatever path you’re on, artistic or otherwise, it takes diligence to make progress.  You have to cultivate certain habits, find a teacher, make a commitment to a particular community, learn from a tradition, and embrace a degree of discipline.  Many people say "I can’t draw. I don’t have any talent," but most of them just don’t put in the effort or hours to develop their own innate ability.    

Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was for many years the curator of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and an expert on Hinduism, once said that "an artist is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist." What he meant, I think, is that everyone has some special flair. Maybe your flair is for cooking, or conversation, or contra-dancing, but whatever it is, you need to cultivate it.  Art is whatever we pursue not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, purely for the pleasure of self-expression.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I object to making money from my art.  When I’m lucky, I earn enough selling paintings to pay for my canvas and frames, so I am very much an amateur artist, but I hope that I’m an amateur in the best sense, one who follows a pursuit for love rather than money, but not with the connotation of being completely frivolous or unskilled.

Most of you will never be religious professionals, but I hope that you will not be spiritual dilettantes, either. Rather, strive to develop your gifts, without supposing that loving your work makes it any the less a matter of  stick-to-it-iveness and application. For instance, I think being serious about your spiritual life means having a definite place of worship and a commitment to it.  Like an artist needs a studio, you need a sanctuary, someplace to foster feelings of reverence and the attitude of reflection. You need a weekly habit, preferably a daily one, that keeps you sane and in touch with yourself, whether it’s yoga or journaling or singing in a choir.  Community is helpful, whether a twelve step group or Chalice Circle, because you learn from other people.  And finally, just as there are masters of painting, there are also grandmasters of the spirit: the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus.  Learn from them, and if you like even try to copy what they did, but only to develop your own talents, for they themselves were not copyists but innovators and originals.  

Being a spiritual person, like being an artist, is not something that can be reduced to mechanical rules.  But there are tricks of the trade.  For instance, the oldest spiritual exercise in the world is probably watching your own breath.  One of the oldest artistic exercises is drawing your own hand. Start with what’s immediate. Both art and religion are ultimately about paying attention, raising the level of awareness, and the raw materials for that are not far away.  You don’t have to go to exotic locations or distant ashrams to find the sacred.  Cezanne, you know, painted the same little hill that he could see from his window sixty times, over and over, but every image different, each one a revelation. It wasn’t a majestic peak, yet he made it magical.  But that kind of seeing requires practice.  So here are the seven rules for being a highly effective human being.  Work every day.  Make room in your life to practice your faith.  Don’t go it alone.  Associate with and learn from others.  But be true to your own inward vision.  Final rules?  Keep it simple and stay loose.  That’s seven!

So now you know everything you need to unleash your creative power and set your genius at play.  Go to work.  Get started.  Buy a sketch pad and draw your left foot.  But if good habits and general rules were all that were needed, we would all be Michelangelos.  Fortunately or unfortunately, God is still in the details.

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Celebrate Yourself!

Posted by on Apr 29, 2012 in Worship Services

Celebrate Yourself!

The First Parish of Sudbury is a congregation that is totally unique — just like all the others.  Naturally, no two churches are ever quite the same, any more than two snowflakes can be one hundred percent identical. But when it comes to frostiness, whiteness, and star-shaped symmetry, there are some strong resemblances that exist among snowflakes.  And indeed, there are also recurring patterns that churches exhibit, regardless of their differing histories, locations or denominational affiliation.

Many of these similarities have to do with size.  While much has been written about mega-churches that attract thousands on Sunday mornings with rock bands and charismatic preachers, the typical congregation in the United States is much more like this one, with something under a hundred people sitting down to worship together.  Numerically speaking, more devotees go to those big crystal cathedrals.  But most actual sanctuaries don’t look like football stadiums or cineplexes.  Instead, they resemble this one, holding a few dozen families and individuals who don’t come because of the half-time show or TV ministry, but because in these smaller gatherings they’re fairly sure of finding a friendly face, having a genuine human interaction, and capturing the feeling of both knowing and being known.

Churches on this smaller, more human scale are often called “pastoral sized” congregations, and are usually defined as having between 50 and 150 children and adults present on Sunday morning.  The upper limit is important, so much so that author and social scientist Malcolm Gladwell calls 150 a “magic number,” for there’s much evidence that Homo sapiens evolved to live in tribes of this particular size.  One British anthropologist, for instance, did a worldwide survey of hunting-gathering societies for which we have solid information, from the Walbiri of Australia to the Ona of Tierra del Fuego.  These cultures are again like snowflakes; no two are alike.  They have different languages and burial customs and mythologies. But like snowfalkes, again, all of these societies tended to be very small.  The average of number of inhabitants in these primitive villages was 148, seldom more (which perhaps coincidentally also happens to be the average size of a modern Unitarian Universalist congregation!)

The reason for this upper limit is that 150 seems to be the largest group that most of us can relate to interpersonally without beginning to forget names and faces.  Among primates, we have the biggest neocortex, which gives us a larger social capacity than our animal kin.  Baboons, for instance, live in troops of fifty or so.  Chimpanzees, with a larger brain, may have 80 members in their extended families.  People have the largest social networks, but even we have limits to what our cerebrums can handle.

Beyond 150, organizations become more anonymous and complex.  You need policies, procedures, and protocols to help the group function and stay on task.  Congregations at this larger, more complicated level are often called “program sized churches.”  Often they have multiple paid staff and layers of reporting and decision-making.  But the pastoral size congregation is simpler and less formal.  It finds its counterpart in the business world in a firm like Gore-Tex, a big outfit that makes rain gear, dental floss and a variety of specialty fabrics, but that deliberately operates with a small company philosophy.  Whenever a Gore-Tex plant anywhere in the world reaches the “magic number” of 150 employees, the plan is that the company always starts a brand new branch.  When they build a new plant, they put 150 spaces in the parking lot, and when those spaces are full, they know it’s time to expand again.  It’s a billion dollar corporation but, by dividing and redividing, they act more like a small, entrepreneurial start-up.  In keeping with its “small is beautiful” ethos, there are no organizational charts at Gore-Tex, no bosses, no secretaries and no job titles.  Everyone who works there is an “associate” and because everyone in a given plant knows everyone else, peer pressure and peer support are sufficient to keep productivity and innovation high.  This is how small churches operate.  Word-of-mouth and the power of personality and reputation are usually more important than by-laws in understanding how things get done.

Now I’ve served pastoral sized churches.  My first congregation on the west coast had just about 150 members, some years a few more and sometimes less.  About half that number might show up on any given Sunday, so the scale was a lot like what you find here at First Parish, and it was similar in this way too: it was among the warmest, kindest, most nurturing collection of people you’d ever want to meet.  Ministers love these places because they’re so relational.  “Pastoral sized” congregations are so-called because the clergy are usually central to the emotional system.  As the ordained leader, you can enjoy a degree of intimacy and acquaintance with your entire flock (which is, after all, the reason many of us are drawn to this profession, not to manage budgets, but to bond with other people).   A group like this is like a single cell or organism.  It has a degree of homeostasis, its own internal equilibrium.  So although we tried and tried to make that little church grow and turn it into something bigger, for some reason, the organization had its own ideas.  It just seemed to find its zone at around 150.  So from one perspective, you could say we were stuck.  From another, you might say we were stable.  In retrospect, instead of spending so much time trying to change our little church, maybe we should have spent more time appreciating what we had and savoring who we were.

First Parish of Sudbury might learn from this experience, I think.  For one of the things that makes this congregation different from other UU churches in the area is your relatively small size.  Like yours, those other churches in Stow and Wayland, Sherborn and Concord and Framingham are all old and historic. They too meet in aging, white clapboard buildings (and are mostly filled with aging white people).  Like yours, they are Welcoming Congregations embracing people of all sexual orientations.  And like First Parish of Sudbury, they practice principles of tolerance and religious freedom.  But unlike this community, those are all large and medium-sized churches, with bigger budgets and slicker websites, food pantries, labyrinths and medical clinics.  This has sometimes resulted in “steeple envy,” with folks here feeling “less than” those larger churches, an inferiority complex exacerbated by Boston, which is constantly beating the drum for quantitative increase. But you have something qualitatively different and special and valuable to offer, a degree of connection and camaraderie and mutual care that really does flourish best in tribe-like settings.  Humans have evolved, we’re designed, our nervous systems are naturally wired to function optimally in village-style communities just like First Parish of Sudbury.

That’s one reason I’m not too worried by church growth experts who warn that the future belongs to the mega-churches, that small congregations are destined for the dustbin.  You don’t change a million years of biology overnight. Despite talk of a global economy and the advent of social media,  the human animal remains a clannish creature, local in his sympathies, loyal to her immediate in-group.  And this is the real danger facing small congregations like this one, in my opinion.  For the same traits that make smaller churches such friendly and supportive places also tend to make them parochial and

One example might be the ritual of “joys and concerns” which has become common in UU circles, especially among smaller congregations.  Lay people, by the way, tend to love the open mic, the spontaneous, unrehearsed nature of the sharing from the pews, while ministers in contrast almost uniformly dislike this folksy dialogue.  The reason being that remembering Betty’s hip surgery and learning that Charlie’s sister is visiting from Poughkeepsie can reinforce group cohesion, at least for those already inside the charmed circle.  But for visitors and newcomers, the extended sharing of personal information on Sunday morning can feel off-putting and unwelcoming, like attending someone else’s family reunion.  I actually don’t think this is true here in Sudbury, where your “Milestones” are usually short and fairly discreet.  But it’s an illustration of how the same customs that feel inclusive to some may be experienced as exclusive by others.

So congregations like First Parish need to be especially mindful of reaching out to strangers, precisely because there are no strangers here.  You have to realize, that it’s hard to be a guest in a church like this.  If no one notices or talks to you at First Parish in Concord, with 800 members, that’s one thing.  As a church shopper, you don’t expect to get much attention in such a crowd.  If no one notices or talks to you at the coffee hour in Sudbury, on the other hand, that can be tough.  Thus you have to work harder here to make sure this is a religious community that actually practices hospitality, that serves the larger world and is not just a social club that caters to its own members, for as people of faith you have a mission: to extend love and acceptance to all the displaced, rootless, often lonely and hurting people out there who could find a life-giving home in liberal religion if only they knew Unitarianism existed and were given half an invitation to join.

Why would people want to join this particular congregation?  Well, there are points where First Parish shines.  Two weeks ago, your choir did a Faure “Requiem” that was a match for any choral music in greater Boston, an amazing performance for a church this size.  And last month, you produced a Sunday morning theatrical that had clowns, lion tamers, stilt walkers and acrobats cartwheeling down the center aisle in a carnival that filled this sanctuary with a cast of forty actors and actresses of all ages.  The First Parish of Sudbury does not excel at everything.  No organization does.  But you do have a phenomenal aptitude for the arts in this congregation, with Morris Dancers, quilting groups, Coffee Houses, magic shows, costume balls, May Day festivals and holiday revels that celebrate the sheer exuberance of living.  The First Parish of Sudbury is where creative people congregate. And rather than hiding that light under a bushel, you need to make it a limelight.

Of course, it’s the nature of a spotlight that it can’t illuminate everything.  By concentrating on the main attraction, other parts of the stage fade into the background.  In choosing to specialize, you necessarily set priorities and may have to decide that some activities here are peripheral.  So related to the question of “what makes this congregation unique and different” is the question of “what programs and events are marginal to our identity here?  What’s just sapping time and energy that could be put to better use?”  I can’t answer that question for you.  But I will observe that after all the hard work and long hours of producing “Under the Big Top,” Alorie Parkhill made the comment that “when I’m doing this, I don’t feel seventy years old anymore.”  And that might be a good measure to apply to all of your endeavours here at First Parish.  Does what you’re doing make you feel old and weary, tired and dreary?  Or are you engaging in work that, despite the difficulties and challenges, feels purposeful and enlivening, that rejuvenates your spirits and invigorates your souls?

The Untarian ee cummings whose poem “i am a little church” provided our opening words  also offered the advice to “damn everything but the circus.”

damn everything that is grim, dull,
motionless, unrisking, inward turning,
damn everything that won’t get into the
circle, that won’t enjoy, that won’t throw
its heart into the tension, surprise, fear
and delight of the circus, the round
world, the full existence…

To sum up, celebrate yourself.  Because First Parish isn’t like other churches.  But also celebrate yourself. Have fun.  Let loose. Click your heels.  Sing hallelujah.  Let your being radiate the flamboyance of who you are.  If you just one among a million snowflakes, get in touch with your inner flake!

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In Defense of Planet Earth

Posted by on Apr 22, 2012 in Worship Services

In Defense of Planet Earth

Some people have the power to change things … to make others pay attention, to challenge the status quo, to ask the hard questions, to inspire action by example, maybe even to leverage the course of events.  When I heard Tim DeChristopher speak last summer, I sensed he was that kind of person.

Tim is one of us, a Unitarian active in our church in Salt Lake City.  The talk I heard was a fundraiser for his legal defense, for by that time he had had already been convicted of the crime that made him an environmental celebrity.  While protesting a Bureau of Land Management auction leasing the oil and gas rights to sensitive acreage near Arches National Park back in the waning days of 2008, the then twenty-seven-year-old DeChristopher had strolled inside the federal building in Salt Lake City for a drink of water when a woman asked if he was there to participate in the bidding.  When he answered “yes,” he was handed a bidder’s paddle.

Now these auctions were intended for cronies in the oil business.  That fall, just three months earlier, the New York Times ran a story about Department of Interior regulators taking bribes of sex and drugs from the very companies they were supposed to monitoring.  Ken Salazar, who was named new head of Interior when the White House changed hands, told ABC News that “At the end of the day, the Bush administration attempted to get as much public land leased for oil and gas development as they possibly could.”  Some of the land was being sold off, essentially in perpetuity, for as little as $2 an acre.  Which was why DeChristopher was there, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: to demonstrate, not to participate.

So for half an hour, he just watched the proceedings.  Then the University of Utah undergraduate decided to raise his paddle.  The other bidders went higher, and Tim began to sense his power.  Several times, he forced other speculators to pay increased prices for the parcels, and then suddenly Tim started winning.  By the end of the day, bidder Number 70 (as he became known) was the proud owner of 22,500 acres of prime wilderness valued at $1.8 million.

As I said, when I heard him speak last summer, DeChristopher had already been convicted of making false statements and violating other federal laws, facing a potentially stiff sentence.  So when he entered the auditorium, I was glad to see that he looked like a bulldozer, shaved head, neck like a pile driver, biceps bulging from a black T-Shirt inscribed with the slogan “Peaceful Uprising.”  This was a guy who could survive the slammer, I thought.  Not your typical tree-hugger.

And then when he started speaking, I was even more impressed.  Full paragraphs and grammatical constructions.  Ninety minutes (without notes) of passionate, informed analysis of the ecological crisis that’s threatening our planet and the political quagmire that keeps us from doing anything about it.

DeChristopher said the turning point, for him, had come when he attended a lecture by Stanford biology professor Terry Root, who shared a Nobel Prize for co-authoring a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that concluded global warming had become an inevitability and that many of its worst effectsfrom acidifying oceans to mass extinctionswere basically unavoidable. Even the best case scenarios were not pretty to contemplate. After the lecture, Tim asked Dr. Root if there wasn’t anything that could be done to prevent this catastrophe and she said sorry, no.

But instead of being demoralized by that answer, DeChristopher was energized. “We must let ourselves be shattered by the hopelessness of the crisis,” he would go on to say.  “When we abandon the hope that that things will work out, the hope that we will be able to live the easy and comfortable life which we are promised, the hope that someone else will solve this problem, then we are free to act.”  For him, abandoning hope meant realizing that incrementalism was not working.  Changing lightbulbs and recycling were not going to forestall the crisis.  Working around the edges of partisan politics, hoping the Democrats might be less bad than the Republicans, was not going to stop the earth from continuing to heat for the next hundred years.  More drastic and forceful actions were needed, and if that meant breaking the law, so be it.  As he told the court, “The power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people,” their liberty, for instance, their property, maybe even their lives. “The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel.”  The opposite of hope, Tim said, is not despair but empowerment.

Now I suggested a few minutes ago that some people have the power to change things. And Tim DeChristopher wants us to believe that we all share that power.  His message is as much about grassroots, citizen democracy as about environmental activism, and his speech is peppered with references to the founding fathers, jury nullification, freedom riders and, of course, civil disobedience.  That’s a tactic that makes sense to Tim, after growing up in Appalachia.  When he was a kid, his mother was active in the Sierra Club. As he explains, “my mother was one of many who pursued every legal avenue for making the coal industry follow the law.  She commented at hearings, wrote petitions and filed lawsuits.”  But Massey Energy had bought and paid for the judges of West Virginia.  They’d broken the law thousands of times, killed their own miners, poisoned the people living downstream and barely paid a penalty because they’d dished out millions to every politician in the state.

“As a native of West Virginia,” DeChristopher told the court, “I have seen from a young age that the exploitation of fossil fuels has always gone hand in hand with the exploitation of local people.  In West Virginia, we’ve been extracting coal longer than anyone else.  And after 150 years of making other people rich, West Virginia is almost dead last among the states in per capita income, education rates and life expectancy.  And it’s not an anomaly.  The areas with the richest fossil fuel resources, whether coal in West Virginia and Kentucky, or oil in Louisiana and Mississippi, are the areas with the lowest standards of living.  In part, this is a necessity of the industry.  The only way to convince someone to blow up their backyard or poison their water is to make sure they are so desperate that they have no other option.  But it is also the nature of the economic model.  Since fossil fuels are a limited resource, whoever controls access to that resource in the beginning gets to set all the terms.  They set the terms for their workers, for the local communities, and apparently even for the regulatory agencies.”

But you can’t own or monopolize the sun or wind or tides in quite the same way you own an oilfield, Tim explains.  You can’t hoard sunlight.  And so the rewards from harnessing energy from renewables are more likely to go to the people who actually do the work.  It’s a less centralized system, which leads to a more democratic outcome.  When someone in the audience asked Mr. DeChristopher during the question-and-answer if he thought capitalism was the problem, Tim explained that he’d gotten his degree in economics.  And he didn’t think the United States was operating with a capitalist economy, at least not with the kinds of competitive markets Adam Smith envisioned.  “Competitive markets,” not “free markets” was the term that Smith actually used, and to be  “competitive,” Tim pointed out, those markets need to insure
that the price of goods truly reflect the costs involved (those costs can’t simply “externalized” or sent up a dirty smokestack, leaving the next generation to pick up the bill).  According to Smith, no company should be so big or powerful that it can control prices.  America right now could use a little old-fashioned capitalism, DeChristopher proposed.  How’s that for radicalism?

Instead of capitalism, he called our current economy a form of corporate nationalism, where monied interests had become so thoroughly enmeshed with government there was no separating the two. That’s why it’s so hard for ordinary people to feel they’re making a difference, because while politicians call themselves public servants, they’re not really serving the public.  They’re serving their paymasters, the big donors and lobbyists.

Consequently, he says, “one of the dominant characteristics of the climate movement is a sense of disempowerment.  We’re fighting against these entrenched interests, against the richest and most powerful corporations in the world, often in collusion with our federal or state government.” It’s a David and Goliath match-up.

But little people do have power, DeChristopher insists; they just don’t realize it.  “From a disempowered perspective,” he says, “we look at opinion polls and we think, ‘Oh, only so much of the population agrees with us and only 10 or 15 percent really understand the urgency of the issue.”  Folks feel helpless because they’re in a minority. “We’re missing out on the fact that even if 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population really get the issue of climate change, that’s 30 or 40 million people.  That’s more than enough to bring the fossil fuel industry to its knees.  If even a tenth of those people were willing to engage in significant nonviolent civil disobedience, that’s an incredible force.”

DeChristopher asks us to consider, for example, what would happen if 100 people a day decided to stop the machines from doing mountaintop removal in his native West Virginia.  Disillusioned as he is with the current administration, which has taken a tough line on his prosecution, Tim thinks that if push came to shove—peaceful unarmed protestors versus Massey Coal—not even Obama would send in federal troops to defend the permanent scarring and denuding of Appalachia.

In an interview with Brooke Jarvis, Tim referenced “Vaclav Havel, a leader of the revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, who spoke about how the first and most important thing they did in overcoming the tyrannical regime was to just start acting as if they lived in a free and democratic society.  They basically started pretending that they had that kind of democratic power, and that started to make it true.”

Or look at Egypt.  All along it was the people in Tahir Square who had the power, not Mubarak.  “In Egypt, once they made the decision that they were going to be a powerful force, there was no stopping them.”  Because fundamental change begins in the mind. Not in the streets. Not on the barricades, but in the consciousness and the decision to act.  When enough people decide to take responsibility for their own future, reform happens.

Crazy talk like that is what landed Mr. DeChristopher in a federal prison, spending much of the last month in an 8′ x 10’ isolation cell.  Shortly after I heard him speak, last July he was sentenced to two years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.  At the trial, his defense team wasn’t allowed to tell the jury that dozens of other bidders at BLM auctions have walked away without paying for their parcels over the years and have never been prosecuted for this offense.  (But those bidders, of course, were industry insiders.)  The jury wasn’t allowed to hear that by time of trial Tim had actually raised $80,000 to begin paying for the land he purchased, to buy it outright, but that the offer was rejected on the grounds that the fraud had already occurred.  The jury wasn’t allowed to hear his necessity defense, that he was trying to stop an illegal auction because the BLM wasn’t following its own statutory requirements to assess the impact of the sale on air quality in nearby national monuments.  Tim was not allowed to make any political appeals to the jury.  But his politics were very much taken into account by the judge when it came time for sentencing.  Calling his actual crime “not that bad,” Her Honor Dee V. Benson made it clear that DeChristopher’s “continuing trail of statements” was the real offense for which he was being punished.  In other words, Tim was getting an extra stiff sentence for exercising his First Amendment rights.  Which to my mind makes him a political prisoner pure and simple.

“I have no desire to go to prison,” DeChristopher said at his sentencing, “and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false.  I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge the government.  I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience.”  Quite a few people seemed to be listening and take those words to heart, for just a few months later over 1200 individuals including Bill McKibben were arrested in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to stop the XL pipeline, the largest direction action in the history of the environmental movement.  They at least slowed the project, which would tap oil from Canada’s massive tar sands and which James Fallon, NASA’s top climate scientist, called “game over” for the planet.  Obama as usual waffled, initially putting the pipeline on hold, then announcing he wants to “fast track” construction of the southern leg through Texas and Oklahoma.  This month, the 99% Spring is hoping to train at least 100,000 Americans in civil disobedience to stop the juggernaut of global warming, and on May 5, International Climate Action Day will bring out citizens on every continent to create pressure for change.

“At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like,” DeChristopher told the court. “In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like.  With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”

Tim’s actions inspire me, sharing as I do this this spiritual heritage of dissent.  From Henry Thoreau to Susan B. Anthony to James Reeb, Unitarian Universalists claim a long history of breaking the law in obedience to a higher authority.  But how far outside your own comfort zone are you willing to go?  How much are you personally willing to risk?  What do our religious principles require of us in defending planet Earth?  Tim’s final words to the judge before being led to prison are a challenge to us all: “The choice you are making is what side are you on.”

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