Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tea & the Fear Monster

Fear is contagious. That it is so makes good evolutionary sense: if someone in the community was on watch and became afraid, everyone may have something to fear. In this way, fear is like altruism: part of the emotional operating system that can keep the community together and make it stronger and more resilient. Fearfulness is so much part of our evolutionary past, along with the process of communicating socially connective emotions, limbic resonance, that we speak of the reptilian brain, limbic brain. Without limbic resonance, we would struggle to be as effective as a flock of birds, where one is watching for predators and all are attuned to that one bird sounding an alarm. So most of us have fear monsters that will show up at the worst of times…or whatever we are perceiving and experiencing as the worst of times, without necessarily being aware of that set of feelings.

The fear monster storms around screaming “Raoawrrrr! Get back into the way things are supposed to be! Roarrrr! Make it stop! Roarrrr! It must be that pink katydid! Roarrr! Get rid of the pink katydid!” Actual screaming doesn’t have to happen. Sometimes the fear monster is very effective at using supposedly rational tools to convey the same message; you know you’re dealing with this kind of situation when there is complete rigidity about the solution. Thing is, that isn’t usually the moment to find out why there’s so much rigidity and can tip the fearfulness into rage. A lot of what’s happening in American public life today reflects a great many fear monsters rushing around, whether they’re in rigid answers for what the problem and solutions are, or whether there’s panic or rage. Because we people are connected – social scientists name us obligatorily gregarious -- when we hear several of us acting as fear monsters, our fearfulness tends to increase, and we’re more likely to be fear monsters, too.

Unfortunately, great fearfulness nearly eliminates our capacities for reason. We’ve had millions of years to evolve a great social warning system, but a similar length of time hasn’t passed where that warning system causes more harm than help. That’s where religions and spiritual practices come into play: teaching us stories and things to do to take us down from great fearfulness and send us more to the altruistic stream of limbic resonance. That capacity also explains why religion can become a vehicle for conveying mass fearfulness, too. But when the religion is operating in its better mode of being, we have tools and teaching to connect us more healthfully and helpfully. We don’t want to eliminate the capacity for limbic resonance – it brings us such great responses as massive caring after a natural disaster. And we don’t want to eliminate the capacity for fear entirely; those who have no capacity for fear run into another realm of trouble. We just want to invite the fear monster in for tea and reconnection.

As a religious leader, I cultivate teaching stories and practices to help myself with my own fearfulness and to help others. But there’s one practice that I particularly favor: singing. Why? Because singing also relies on resonance, heart resonance, emotional resonance, limbic resonance. There’s a reason why protestors like chanting and singing: it draws together the people and shares, depending on the songs, courage, peacefulness, rage, fear, or love. We literally sing ourselves into a particular state of being. “We Shall Overcome” calls us into courage. “Won’t Turn Me Round” calls us into courage. “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” calls us into peace. “Vine and Fig Tree” calls us into peace. “Nada Te Turbe” calls us back to love. Today is a good day to practice a favorite song of making courage, peace, and love. When you feel fearful, sing your song and invite those with to you join in. You don’t have to be a great singer. You just need to begin to open your heart and offer a place of refuge for the fear monster, a place where we lay down our burdens and find, once again, the great blessings of life, already here, still here, welcoming us home.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Deeper Baptism

This week's Sunday lection had some important things in it for Unitarian Universalists and others who practice religious life in community. Here's the lection reading:


Life in community commonly leads me to wake up in the morning wishing for a deeper baptism - a good deep shower under a powerful natural falls or wading into the ocean tides. Community life often has a seediness, a dustiness, a weariness, even if there isn’t active filth-flinging going on. Like the primates we are, in community there’s still that compulsion to throw dirt at each other. We meet, we politic, we say the words that are expected, we make the ritual observations, we retreat to snarky gossip about bumbled prayers and exciting shades of hair dye and drunken escapades while enjoying our own diverting beverage and leaving toenail clippings on the coffee table. Really, we’re still monkeys. But all of God’s creation is good, and just in case we forget that, we have this handy psalm to sing (148) that reminds us while the hailstones bruise our skin, we still praise God, maker of it all! Hail and hosanna, bring many rains!

Growing up, I sometimes tried to understand the difference between the way I heard some of my elders speaking of the Holy (Ghost): the Holy Spit and the Holy Spir-it.  Holy Spit didn’t sound all that interesting to me, except in an I-get-to-be-the-spitting-prophet kind of way. Holy Spir-it had the odor of alcohol, which seemed so much more exciting, not yet grasping the way too much spirits could lead to that spit. But holy spit seems more like what I regularly encounter in religious community. God’s creation is good – don’t get me wrong – but it would be nice if we managed a little less holy hocking on one another. If only this shower were water from the Jordan, the Zam-Zam, or the eternal spring! Baptized by the holy spit, may I be able to reach the deeper baptism (covenant) affirming God’s good creation en route!

The water baptism is a promise, a sign of our commitment. But I’m often like Peter and I see an awful lot of Peter around in our communities. We like to say, fervently and with whole hearts of goodness, for we, too, are God’s good creation, that yes, yes, we love our neighbors the way Jesus loves us -- or at least the way we'd like to be loved! And the minute the Centurion passes some of that holy spit over our face, we’re ready to say, “Jesus who? Don’t mind me, I’m just passing along, sir. Sorry. So sorry. Just let me get the flock out of here.” "Golden rule? Um, isn't it do unto me as I would like and let me do unto you as I would like?" Our vows of community, our vows of belonging to the City of God, are not quite so easily kept. Many with whom we keep religious community will not have taken the same vows, yet mutual covenant or mutual breath, the ideals are so much easier to say than to live. 

The Shakers, that fine millenialist universalist congregation, sing a communion song rooted in our lection for today, specifically Revelation 21:1-6 and Acts 11:1-18. They sing:
             I feel the need for a deeper baptism into the work of the Lord:
the Holy Ghost done fell from heaven, His sharp and quick’ning Word!
I long to eat at my Father’s table, the bread that perisheth not,
and drink of the waters pure and holy, that flow from the city of God.
It is a song to recall us to the commandment Jesus names in John 13:14: as Jesus has loved us, we are to love one another. Oh, how very difficult that is! Jesus knew that. John knows that. Peter is uncomfortably and intimately acquainted with that fact of human community. And the Shakers knew it very well, through trials from outside the community and the challenges of living in a very close community, rather like the trials of holy spit we keep reinventing in our communities, religious and otherwise. So the Shakers prayed this song to recall them to the life of the New Jerusalem, a life we’re ostensibly trying to prepare every day, whether we think of those promises as the seven promises of covenant or as baptismal vows or simply by being born and belonging this amazing life.

Just in case we forget Peter’s failure of his vows, the lection reminds us. Here is this apostle we call Rock who crumbles at the first difficulty in loving each other as Jesus loves us. (Jesus loves me, this I know, the Bible tells me so – right here in John 13:14 – who knew the deep theological import of that song?) The Acts of the Apostles and the epistles tell us a lot about the holy spit through which the early church waded and with which they liberally baptized each other (not my ideal of religious community, but we're talking about realities here). Peter turns out to be in the middle of this argument about culture, about which hymns are acceptable to sing and which ones are not, like Turn Back, Turn Back and Kum By Yah. Peter has this spectacular vision to reinforce the point of Psalm 148: God’s creation is good and we shall call nothing God made unclean. That’s why that committee chair who made such a mess of things is affectionately referred to as Satan’s spawn, in a fit of Manichean good and evil ire. Indeed Psalm 148:8 reminds us that Aunt E’s pulpit cloths were set in place for ever and ever in a decree that will never pass away. We’ve never done it that way before, or we tried it already and it didn’t work, are not new excuses for stone-headedness, which is why John is writing lovingly to the church, Revelation 21:2-5, God is making everything new, wiping every tear, letting the old order pass away. You can almost hear Jesus whispering, “be not afraid,” can’t you? Let your heart soak in the fact that you belong, simply because you are born.

When the going is tough in community, we’re meeting our deeper baptism through holy spit and flaming flung dirt. Some of us make this promise, though, of loving one another as Jesus loves us. Some of us purport to be kind. Some of us tout a variation of the Golden Rule. And we fall away from the ideals every day, distracted by the spit showers. However you feel about Jesus, our work here is loving others for the good creation we are, even with our propensities for failing our promises, just as we are – and still asking us to try a little more to be better. Amen.

Questions & Practice:
When have you questioned being in community?

When have your vows been tested?

When have you broken your calling to love others as Jesus loves you?

How were you renewed in deeper baptism?

How have you recommitted to that calling of love?

How is Revelation 21:1-6 a social justice text? How is it pastoral? How do you weave the two together?

Write a prayer of affirmation that will recall yourself to your vows and your deeper baptism.

Prayer: Lord, even when I am showered in refuse and hatred, denial and hard-heartedness, I reach out my hand for yours to feel again your love for me. I remember all the kindnesses you have shown me, the sweet water when I have thirsted, the good bread when I have hungered. I give thanks for all the holy hands who succored me in my times of need, who showed me your loving care. Today, you who created me in goodness, may I be the love you made me, and give my all to making room for your holy city with every breath, every thought, and every deed. Amen.