Thursday, April 22, 2010

Restorative Promises

The trees rustle in the wind to remind us of our promises, this promise we make simply by being born: we belong to each other, bearing responsibility for one another.We, the inhabitants of this great green desert, have some serious spiritual work to address this hole in ourselves that creates a hole in the web of life. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov observed: “All the troubles of humanity proceed from itself. For the light of the Holy continually pours over us, but humanity, through out all too physical life, makes of itself a shadow so that the light of the Holy cannot reach us.” Since our troubles of our world – with which we are wholly connected and on which we are deeply dependent and with which we are greatly blessed – since our troubles with the holes in our interdependent web are our work, we have new work to do so that the light of the Holy can reach us and we can shine. We are fugitives of our own making, fugitives from violent and addicted families, fugitives from loneliness, fugitives from not-enoughness, fugitives from abusive religion, fugitives of all kinds and nations, perched here in this narrow slip of great green desert. As fugitives, we have work to do. Our work as a religious community is to create a city of refuge.

The Book of Numbers relates the story of how the Israelites came to set up the points on their visible web of promises. The cities of refuge are established as six points in the sacred web among human beings, making visible the sacredness of human life. The Books of Numbers says in 35:33 “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” The land is sacred, and we are of it. Those of us polluting the land with our practices that lead to the destruction of others are the ones who have to act in repentance. This is our sacred responsibility: to become a city of refuge, where those who have erred are in close community of promises, love, and accountability with one another, until I die. There it is in Number 35:28: “for the one who has polluted the earth must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest, that one may return home.” So here we are, creating a city of refuge, which means we bring here our demons and come here to name our demons, to know utterly that we are loveable and loved, and to work on our accountability, so that we can stop the cycles of violence and addiction that create holes in these webs. By nature of the addictions and fears and holes in our hearts that we have, we will struggle to maintain our promises, and yet this interdependence is our refuge, our strength, our place of redemption, freeing ourselves, and our children, and all our people. We are fugitives, seeking and creating the city of refuge, and this is our spiritual work. Rabbi Nachman also observed: “Through joy the spirit becomes settled, but through sadness it goes into exile.”

Our exile to the city of refuge is a sign and symbol of our sadness, the hole in our hearts that points to the hole in our interdependent web of being. Our fugitive flight to a community that can hold us in love and accountability and encourage us in spiritual growth – one that calls us to change – is the first step in the road to recovery. James Prochaska and the researchers at the University of Rhode Island have described six stages of the change process that people reliably grow through. The first one is precontemplation, in which we do this funny dance with our denial that there’s a problem. It isn’t us – it’s everyone else. We are in control. I don’t have a problem, you’re the one with the problem. At this stage, everyone else’s faults loom large. Meanwhile, we’re paragons of abstinence, recycling, minimal use, environmental and personal care. Or so we say. Every time that hole in our hearts yawns open and that demon jumps up and down and sucks our thumb and scares the noodles out of us, we slam the door and shout at someone else, take a quick shot of the substance of our choice, and rage about everyone else being out of control. The fabulous demon that accompanies this stage is demoralization, the sense that change isn’t possible. “The Earth is too far gone. What difference can one person make? I’ve tried and tried, but no avail. Why bother anymore?” That demon corrodes our promises, making the hole yawn into a chasm and then an abyss, and we’re staring down into it.

The second stage is the contemplation stage. We yearn for things to be different, but we’re not ready to act. It’s hard to take personal responsibility; it’s frightening. The effects of that corrosive demon of demoralization still whisper around our hearts. But at the same time we’re learning. We’re learning that Margaret Mead was right, not only can a small determined group of people make a difference, indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. We seek others who are seeking. We know the steps for change. But it’s hard. And a lot of people – a lot of us if the statistics are true – are stuck at this stage, contemplating, yearning, painfully aware and also not yet ready to act. Maybe we’re not enough. Maybe it’s all too much. So we surround ourselves with books and factoids and internet searches and lots and lots of observation about how we might end our addictive cycle, how we might close this hole in our heart, how we might repair the interdependent web of our existence, one small act, one step, one movement forward at a time.

As we move into the third step of change, preparation, we get a plan. But maybe it isn’t a good enough plan, we think. We want the perfect plan. So we stop to create another plan. Today, I’ll recycle. Tomorrow, I’ll reduce our water consumption. The day after, I’ll drive to six big box Home Repair stores to buy all the fluorescent lightbulbs I can and since I’m there I need….a little more of this, and little more of that….No, that’s not a good enough plan. Maybe I’m not ready for change. Maybe I need to go back and do some more research. Maybe I can’t make a difference. Maybe…Maybe I can have some help in this if I let other people know of my intention to change. Turns out that last commitment is the hook that helps people out of this stage of change, into the next, the action phase. So maybe you don’t have the perfect plan yet about how to repair your part of the web, or how to answer every twinge and yearning and wave of longing and fear that will overcome you. First, you reach out and you say to your neighbor, “Neighbor, I’m going to do something about this hole in my heart.” (Try this with me. Turn to your neighbor: “Neighbor, I’m going to do something about this hole in my heart.” First, you reach out and you say to your friend, “Friend, I’m going to repair this world.” (Try this with me.) Turn to your neighbor: “Friend, I’m going to repair this world.” Look, here are two people who are here in your city of refuge, who also are fugitives, who know you are loveable and loving and who will also hold you accountable in love. That is an amazing gift. This is the beginning of our work. We are the trees, saying, “Spider, you have to change.” And we are Spider, saying, “I don’t know if I can, but I’ll try.”

The action stage of the change process is when we make the changes in our behaviors and in our environment. You know, it is really hard to give up impulse shopping if you spend all your free time around ways to shop and you have access to a credit card. To support changing your behavior, you need to change the conditions of your environment. What happens if you call one of these people you’ve just told about your commitment to end the cycle of violence, addiction, and fear, to fill that hole in your heart, and you say, “Patty, I need to avoid the mall. I’m going to the park.” And Patty will say, “GREAT! Can I come along?!” If you say, “Jim, I really really really want that drink. But I’m afraid.” And Jim says, “Check out the meeting schedule on line and get to one. And let’s make plans to connect at the library and check out the new additions to the jazz collection.” We are creating a city of refuge, of love and accountability, and that means being there in support of one another, and calling each other back to our promises of health. It means calling our demons by name and putting them back to work for us. It means mentoring one another, and sharing the strength one of us has for some thing with another person who needs that strength. We cannot attend to the repair of our environment until we take action – little actions – each and every day that add up – to end our addictions. Our addictions to the cycles of violence and fear and shame and not-enoughness, our habit of being in exile and guilt, our inability to restore ourselves is what is threatening every person on this planet and the health of the planet itself. This isn’t just a personal spiritual issue: it is the spiritual issue for all of Life.

Once we’ve been engaged in action for some time, we develop healthier behaviors, we learn to love our freedom from these painful chains, from this horrible feeling of insufficiency, from this need to stop hurting and drown our feelings. Once we’ve reached that place where health is habitual, then we’re entering the maintenance phase of change, when we learn how to not relapse into our old behaviors in crisis. For some of us, this will be our lifetime work. For any of us, if we don’t have a commitment to health, then we will relapse and our demons will rule our nights and days again. That’s when we call each other back to action, back to freedom, back to love and joy and hope and accountability and empowerment.  As a city of refuge, when we reach that place where we’ve engaged in action for health enough, we will begin creating programs for maintenance of our new freedom and health. We will have sobriety meetings and we will have a focus on outreach to others mentoring them in joining us in joy, in joining us in this city of refuge for freedom and love and compassion and all the gifts of life that are due to us simply by being born. We will also engage in making the habits of health easier for others: have massive insulating parties in neighborhoods of low-income housing, and planting and growing local foods to end hunger, and restoring our Florida wetlands, and in calls throughout the community for candlelight family dinners and acoustic neighborhood parties. And every time one of us will feel ourselves slipping, we will have this city structure of refuge, of calling, of connecting us back to the beauty of life, healing the hole in our hearts and in this interdependent web of existence.

There is a sixth stage of change – called termination – and it is one few of us will reach in our lifetimes. The fugitives can leave the city of refuge when the high priest dies. They have learned what they can learn and what they needed to, because the teacher is dead. Their generation, too, is probably returning to the land, from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. So we are restored to what we once defiled, but restored with our blood and sweat and tears, restored with our hearts whole and pure and renewed. Restored, like our earth. What the Book of Numbers tells us in its wisdom is that the fugitives go forth in renewal, when they have no more to learn and the teacher dies. It is where we all wish to be at the end of our lives.

Our work, to reach that stage of termination of the addictions and violence and holes in the interdependent web takes place here, in our city of refuge. We must wrestle with what we have been given, what we have endured, what we have brought upon ourselves, and what has been dumped onto us. Fair or unfair. Just or unjust. Out of exile in sadness, we are the people calling each other and this world to more hope, more love, and more joy. We can be instrumental in creating it for our grandchildren in the repair of this earth, where they will no longer need to learn how to end the cycles of violence and addiction, because they will be born into family systems that are whole, healed by our work and our children’s work, because they will be born into a restored earth. They will have their own issues, but they won’t be our issues. If we do our work. If we listen to the trees. If we accept responsibility for the hole in our heart and commit to change. Together, we are going to turn the world around.

“Mercy, mercy, me,” Marvin Gaye sings, “mercy, mercy, me. Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no, no.” Together we are going to turn the world around. Our grandchildren and our greatgrandchildren will be free, and they will not know what the rest of those lyrics mean. Together we are going to turn the world around. Let the change begin here and now, with you, with me, with us. Freedom is coming, oh yes, freedom is coming, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Together we are going to turn the world around. The holes in our hearts will heal. The earth will be made whole. And all of us, all of us will journey home. Let the change begin.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Promises That Matter

This is the beginning of the sermon I preached on Yom HaShoah, April 11, 2010.

Life has all kinds of tests in it. Tests are not restricted to school or the cricket pitch. There are tests for religions, too. The test for every religion, and every spiritual person, occurs when there is cruelty, corruption, misery, hatred, and indifference destroying, diminishing, and threatening life. In theology, we call that testing ground threatening life, evil. In the midst of this test, will we retreat, avoid, and ignore the threat to life, or will we act with discipline, courage, and willing sacrifice? In theology, we call that response, good. If we are truly to live focused on the positive, on blessing, on goodness, then we need to be preparing and prepared for turning back and quelling evil.

Our religious ancestors, the Puritans, suffered plenty of evil. We know there are also plenty of times when these deeply religious, deeply spiritual people failed morally, and inflicted evil on others. While we might struggle to imagine good religious people doing horrible things, the Puritans did not deny that good religious people could do horrible things. In fact, they knew very well that loving people cracked every day and surrendered their neighbors to torture and death, misery and suffering. That’s why there was an exodus from England to the Netherlands and from the Netherlands to what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When I say there was an exodus, I mean that’s what the Puritans thought they were doing: reliving the story we celebrated over the past two weeks, the Pesach story of going through the narrow way to freedom. Because the Puritans knew well that loving people could do horrible things, they sought to counteract that reality through some other practices, particularly in naming the promises and relationships that called us to courage, discipline, and sacrifice to preserve and nurture the good. In 1648, our religious ancestors wrote one of our foundational religious documents, the basis of why we practice our fifth promise – democratic practice – and the basis of many of our other promises. That document was called the Cambridge Platform. It remains a document that helps us measure whether we’re learning and growing spiritually within our Unitarian Universalist religion.

The Cambridge Platform, if we frame it in contemporary language, is a document reflecting our inescapable mutuality: if one of us is chained, none of us are free until none of us are chained; if there is corruption, then we are either complicit in allowing it or working to change it; if there is hate speech and hateful actions, then we are part and parcel of that hatred until we have created a world free from that hatred. That’s true for our selves and for our families, for our congregations and between congregations, in our communities and between larger communities. We are responsible for and with one another, responsible to support the varieties of human culture, responsible to support biodiversity, responsible to nurture the diversity of life, in all of its brilliant and amazing forms.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Little Luck, A Little Hope

The Easter Story is from that library of books called the Bible, which is itself made of two main branches of the library, the Jewish Scriptures or the TNKH, and the Christian Scriptures or the New Testament. When I read any of the books from this library, I try very hard to imagine myself in the time of the story and the storyteller (because often those are very far apart). Here, I’m going to share with you one of my Easter story imaginings.

Let me tell you a story about a time that was very hard. I know the Romans are still in power, and times are hard now. People are hungry now; people have to work very hard for little if any pay; people go to jail for bad reasons; people become very sick and even die; people are afraid. But this was a hard time like this time and not like this time. I’m old. I’m almost forty. I’ve seen a lot of things. I was very, very small when these events happened.

Everyone who could, worked, even me. I sat by the gates of the Great City and I sold charms. “Lu------------ck! Who needs some lu--------------ck?! Ho-------------pe who needs some h------------pe?” (Distribute little charms as people raise their hands.) The days of festivals were always good days, because everyone wanted a little bit of luck, a little bit of hope, even if I was working the worst gate, the gate that only the poorest people entered. The richest people, they all entered the Great City through the grand gate, and that day, with King Herod arriving with all his retinue trailing behind him in their glittering splendor, there would be a lot of people at that gate. But I drew the short straw and my brother Eli got that gate. Nobody not nobody who could afford a little luck or a little hope would be using the little gate that day. So you can imagine the way my heart leaped up and thanked the basket of luck and hope tokens I carried for bringing me some, when a cloud of dust rose in the road to the little gate.

It was a huge crowd of people coming to the Great City! All together! They were shouting and waving palm fronds and singing! As they came closer I could hear some of their words. They were shouting, “Hail! Hosanna!” just like the people did for King Herod. I pinched myself and laughed, for what king would use the little gate? So I joined my voice, “Hail! Hosanna! Lu-----------ck! Anyone want a little lu-----------ck? Ho--------------pe! Anyone need a little hope?! Hail! Hosanna!” which is how, I suppose, I didn’t realize that I was right in the middle of the crowd and smack before the entrance to the little gate, which is how, I suppose, I found myself next to a man, smiling and laughing, and sitting on a white donkey too small for him.

He saw me. He saw me. I was far too small for anyone to notice me! I didn’t matter! But he saw me and reached out his hand to me, and all I could think to do was press a charm into his hand and wish him luck and good hope. He laughed so hard I thought he’d topple off the donkey. He laughed and tears came down his face with that laughter. “I need some luck right now. Do you know where we can stay once we’re in the city?”

I looked around at the great crowd. “You mean…all these people?” (Gulp!) He laughed again.

“No, just about twenty of us.” I smiled with relief. Yes, I knew where he could stay, although they were not princely digs. But the place was clean, and there was room for the festival. But maybe he would rather have a nicer place, a palace maybe?

But no, that was fine and I showed him to my fourth uncle’s place. He seemed to have been waiting for this laughing man on the white donkey, surrounded by cheering crowds waving palm fronds. My uncle took him and his followers into his house.

There were incidents. Things happened. Things that drew the wrong sort, soldiers and guards and people who chase folks like me away, as if offering people a little luck and little hope were such a bad thing. There was my cousin, for instance. Well, we weren’t supposed to acknowledge she was my cousin, because she’d been taken up by one of the soldiers and she worked now, in a way no one should have to work. But once word reached her about this laughing man on the donkey, she came and broke a jar of perfume over him – he didn’t smell that bad before! – and washed his feet with her hair. That raised quite a ruckus!

In the end, the soldiers and guards took away this laughing man. And he was tried. Hah. Justice. What passed for justice then was always a source of biter joking. Of course he was found guilty. Every week someone new, anyone who could draw a crowd of thirty or more, was crucified as a rebel leader.

That day he was crucified I drew the short straw again. I had to go to the hill of bones and sell charms there. There you have to size people up. Are they people whose loved ones will soon be crying and struggling, or are they spectators, taking bets on how long it will take for someone to die, or how many different gods he’ll call upon? The bettors, they’re the only ones who want to buy some luck or some hope at the hill of bones.

But as I work my way over the hill, I bump into the knot of women who accompanied this man who entered the Great City with laughter and palms. And one of them shoos me off. But the oldest of them, the one with the saddest eyes, she draws me closer, right next to her, holding onto me during the whole horrible mess. I don’t care what a person’s done. The state doing what no person should do to another is wrong.

So I didn’t sell much luck that day. I was there when it was over, and when they took him down and kept watch for people angry at their bets being cut short – it usually took two or three days for someone to die, not a few hours, as the women moved the body. I didn’t go sell anything the next day, because I’d been seen with these women. That was dangerous. And on the morning of the day after that, I went with them in the darkness so they could prepare the teacher’s body. I’d learned in that long difficult day in between about what the laughing man had been. He was a teacher, a healer, yes, a bit of rebel, but really more a protester, an advocate for the wrongfully accused. But when we got there, the tomb was empty.

I don’t know what happened. Some say he rose from the dead and saw him, touched him, ate fish with him. Some say he was stolen away. Some say he was always a spirit or never existed. But me? I’m a simple person, a small person, a person who sells a little luck and a little hope. I just know over the long years of my life that when I’ve most needed some luck and some hope, when I’ve most been afraid or filled with despair, I think about that man who entered laughing the little gate of the Great City, a man who saw a girl of no count, and who embraced everyone, without exception. Then I breathe easier and the day seems brighter and I know I’ll go on.

Need a little luck? A little hope? Yes, this is for you.