“In A Mellow Tone” 8/1/2021

In a mellow tone / Feeling fancy free

I am not alone / I’ve got company

Everything’s OK / The live long day

With this mellow song / I can’t go wrong

In a mellow tone / That’s the way to live

If you mope and groan / Something’s gotta give

Just go your way / Laugh and play

There’s joy unknown / In a mellow tone

I’ve always liked that song, it’s one of Duke Ellington’s most appealing numbers. Early on I had an intuition that there is wisdom in it, that it was more than just a feel-good song, but it wasn’t until a few years back, when I sat down and read the lyrics closely, that I understood what that wisdom was. And that’s what I want to share with you this morning.

The song has a couple of words in it with more than one meaning, and in each case the more common meaning overshadows the wisdom meaning that gives heft to these lyrics. 

We have to start by looking at the word “mellow.” Its common meaning is just “pleasant,” “smooth” or “soft,” or anyway “not harsh.” This song we’re talking about is a mellow song, within that meaning. But there’s a particular meaning used when we speak of people: we might say of someone that they “mellowed with age.” It means that, with age and experience, they have matured, smoothed their rough edges, learned to keep calmer under stress, get along better with others, that sort of thing. That’s the meaning I think Ellington had in mind.

The other term in this song that can go by us is “fancy-free.” Commonly, we think of (or are influenced by) the idiom, “footloose and fancy-free” when we hear “fancy-free” by itself. Both “footloose” and “fancy-free” came into use in the 1600s, but separately. “Footloose” originally meant, simply, “free to move one’s feet.” In the 19th century it took on a metaphorical meaning, of “being able to make one’s own choices without considering any responsibilities.” “Fancy-free” originally meant “lacking any romantic attachments,” and by the 1800s its sense had broadened to mean “lacking any kind of attachments.” By the 1880s in the United States, these two words had been joined together into one idiom, meaning “free from emotional involvement or commitment to anyone, free to do as one pleases.”

Hiding behind that idiom, though, is another meaning of “fancy.” It’s worth noting that Ellington says nothing in this song that suggests being footloose. On the contrary, he wrote: “I am not alone, I have company.” In company with others, the door is open to commitment. And, unless you’re a little committed, a little bit attached and involved, you don’t have many experiences of things not being OK, of days being long, of having things to mope and groan about, of having times when something’s got to give. Everything the song alludes to pushes against that “footloose” idiom.

An older meaning of “fancy,” used to speak of a work of art – a drawing, painting, or sculpture, usually – referred to something that was “created from the imagination rather than from life.” I think this is what Ellington, the artist, had in mind: “In a mellow tone / Feeling fancy free” – it’s a feeling: feeling free of imagined things that you made up in your own head, instead of drawing from life. In that first line, he’s defining what “a mellow tone” is, what it’s made of, and he goes on to describe what you see when you draw from life: “I am not alone / I’ve got company

And the rest of the song is about how your perception of life is colored in the light of wisdom and maturity gained with age or experience:

Everything’s OK / The live long day

With this mellow song / I can’t go wrong

In a mellow tone / That’s the way to live

If you mope and groan / Something’s gotta give

Just go your way / Laugh and play

There’s joy unknown / In a mellow tone

Amen.

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“Showing Up: Reflections on Four Years of Restorative Justice Ministry” 7/18/2021

Reflections by Rev. Paul Beedle, Janaé McCoy (Transitioning Age Youth Coordinator at CASA New Orleans), and Jodie Manale

Rev. Paul:

It seems like a lifetime ago that the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly was held in New Orleans, so much has happened since then. Yet it was only four years ago that we began a journey of learning, organizing, public witness and direct service, to move our criminal justice system toward restorative justice, rather than merely continue on its established methods of punitive vengeance

At that General Assembly, defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of the book Just Mercy, gave the Ware Lecture, the keynote speech of the annual Assembly. That same night, James Curran and Tim Byrne, members of the UUA’s Information Technology staff, were robbed and beaten on Bienville Street. James suffered a broken nose. Tim suffered brain injury and was hospitalized here. 

The next morning, at the beginning of the GA Sunday Worship, UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick- Gray, told us what had happened. “Throughout the General Assembly,” she said, “we reflected on the narratives and wider systems of oppression that perpetuate both systemic and personal violence. This week, those reflections became personal and proximate.” She recalled Bryan Stevenson’s remarks the night before that “simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” Susan invited us to hold the attackers “with the universal love” we also hold for our injured friends.

Members of all three New Orleans congregations answered her call. Over the next eleven months, some 30 of us – 5 ministers and 25 laypeople – showed up at court for each stage of the trial process for the four young black men who attacked James and Tim: 21-year-old DeJuan Paul, 18-year-olds Nicholas Pogozelski and Joshua Simmons, and 20-year-old Rashaad Piper. At bond hearings, competency hearings, and other court appearances, we made ourselves respectfully visible and communicated nondisruptively to the prosecuting and defending attorneys who we were and why we were there, giving them copies of Susan Frederick-Gray’s pastoral message about the attack. 

At the same time, we stayed in touch with those in Boston who were helping James and Tim, standing by to help them pursue a restorative approach if they decided they wanted to pursue that. Though they did not want to come back to New Orleans to testify, they did decide that they wanted us to advocate on their behalf for a restorative justice approach for themselves their attackers. And they sent letters to the court to put that on record.

We also got acquainted with Troi Bechet, founder of the Center for Restorative Approaches here in New Orleans, and together we met with then-District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro – a group of about a dozen of us, with Troi and also DeJuan’s mother – to advocate for a restorative instead of punitive approach to the case. But punitive approaches are so ingrained in our justice system that what Cannizzaro heard us asking for was more lenient sentences for them. Indeed, even the UU World, reporting on our work in August of 2018, misrepresented us as seeking lenient sentences. That’s not what restorative justice is about. 

Restorative justice aims not to lock up offenders for a shorter period of time, but to rehabilitate them through reconciliation with their victims and the community at large.  It emphasizes accountability, making amends, and transforming lives by repairing the harm caused by crime, where possible through face to face meetings called “healing circles.” Instead of separating, isolating, and then dumping offenders out of prison, restorative justice allows those most impacted by conflict or wrongdoing to come to understand what happened from each others’ perspectives, and to develop solutions together for justice and well-being, with offenders committing to not ever again inflict such harm on another. They have an opportunity to admit guilt, say why they did what they did, and have a chance to express remorse.  And the victims have a chance to tell them what harm was done to them and the effect it had on them and their families.  If the offendors do all of this and agree to what the victims want, a restitution agreement is drawn up and presented to the court; instead of imposing prison sentences beyond what has already been served, the court orders that the agreement be carried out.

So our first learning was about just how far we have to go to reach that restorative ideal: a long, long way.

All of this public witness and organizing activity happened in the first of three stages on our journey of learning. In the second and third stages, we shifted, from organizing and public witness activity, to service.

Let me digress just a moment to say a little more about approaches to social justice work. The UUA’s Social Justice Empowerment Program Handbook* describes five different approaches to social justice work: Service, where we work to meet the needs of persons in distress; Education, where we work to educate people about the importance of a social issue; Witness, where we endeavor to make public by word or deed our convictions regarding a particular issue; Advocacy, where we work through the legislative process to impact public policy; and Organizing, where we participate in the process by which decisions are made in places of power. The UUA Handbook suggests that a balanced congregational social justice ministry offers “a variety of ways to be involved,” and suggests these five approaches as a gauge for creating and measuring a successful balance. It also suggests that all of these approaches “should include an orientation [toward] healing divisions, dismantling institutional oppression, and acting with accountability.” 

So that’s my frame of reference for saying we shifted from public witness and organizing – making our convictions about restorative justice known publicly by word and deed, and participating in the decision processes in places of power – to service, trying to meet the needs of these four young men when they were sent to prison.

We quickly lost contact with three of the four. Though in the beginning we donated to each of their commissary accounts (prisoners have to buy personal hygiene products and other necessities while in prison, and their families, or others outside the prison, provide the funds by donating to their account), and we ordered them all reading material (prisons allow prisoners packages sent by mail-order businesses), Rashaad Piper was the only one of the four we were able to maintain consistent contact with and to visit in prison. Reflecting on this work early last year, we observed that this was the loneliest work we had done.

If the second stage was the loneliest, the third stage of our journey of learning was the most chaotic: assisting Rashaad with the difficult process of re-entry to society after being in prison – a process further complicated by the pandemic. As we did in the first stage, we sought out community partners to help us with this work, and I think the MVP of our team giving direct help to Rashaad has been Janaé McCoy, Transitioning Age Youth Coordinator at CASA New Orleans (CASA stands for “Court Appointed Special Advocates,” a nonprofit agency that primarily assists children in foster care, including helping those who age out of that system with their transition to adult life). And at this point I’ll turn it over to Janaé to talk about her work and how it is spiritually meaningful to her, and what has come to the fore for her while working with Rashaad. And after Janaé has spoken, Jodie Manale, who has taken the lead role in organizing our Restorative Justice ministry, will offer some reflections.

Janaé McCoy:

[Janaé expressed gratitude for our steadfast support of her work with Rashaad, which has been over and above her average case load of about 21 cases at any given time. She said the spiritual rewards of her work lie in the opportunities to make a difference in young people’s lives.]

Jodie Manale:

What I Have Learned Over This Long, 4-year Journey

First, Janae’ McCoy, you are my friend and Shero!  You and I have commiserated over the phone so many times after being the targets of Rashaad’s rageathons.  Janae’ has gone way above and beyond the call of duty to help Rashaad.  Thank you so much!

I am very grateful to everyone on “Rashaad’s Support Team” for hanging in through this chaotic last several months with Rashaad, which is not over but likely on pause.  It has been hard, messy, and non-linear, but we continue to show up and hope for healing.

We did some amazingly effective community organizing in the early days, and I want to lift up Jolanda Walter, Leslie Runnels, former member Laurence Roberts, Rev. Deanna Vandiver when she was at CELSJR, Rev. Darcy Roake at CCUU, Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen at UUA, and UUA President Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray for their early leadership.  Rev. Paul and Caitlin Shroyer- Ladeira have gone the distance with me, for which I am very grateful. 

My biggest takeaway from this last 4 years is that restorative justice is hard, messy, and non-linear, but we keep “showing up” and hope for healing.

It was impossible to implement in a criminal justice system like the one in Orleans Parish under the former DA that rejected it as a viable alternative to incarceration.  But I will always remember the DA admitting that, “We all have failed these young men!” 

·       Troi Bechet, Jen Pagan and trained volunteers with the Center for Restorative Approaches have been facilitating restorative circles to resolve conflict in the schools for years now.  Their work is slowing down the school to prison pipeline and producing long lasting, positive results.  Troi and Jen have been incredibly generous to educate us and work with us pro-bono to facilitate the restorative process in this case.  I have learned a lot from them, and their work gives us hope.

At this point, I’d like to acknowledge that the concept and process of restorative justice came from the native American practice of “healing circles.”

It takes more than 2 to tango!  For it to be a real healing circle, it needs the participation of the victim and the offender as well as community members who have been impacted and/or who have the resources to help the offender live up to his/her/their responsibility to make amends. I have great respect and admiration for Tim and James for coming to support all of us advocating for the use of restorative justice in their case, and Tim becoming willing to participate in a healing circle by video. Tim stays in touch with me and has continued to send financial support to Rashaad and DeJuan, which I think is amazing! Tim wanted to come down and meet with the 4 young men last year, but the pandemic squashed that.  And 2 of the guys had been released and we didn’t know how to find them.

DeJuan Paul would have highly likely agreed to participate in restorative justice if it had become an option as his public defender was the only one who told his client about it because he had the most serious charges against him and was facing the longest prison sentence. Rashaad learned about it from us little by little over time while at Elayn Hunt Correctional Institute and agreed to participate in a restorative process while at Hunt and again recently. 

Rashaad and “Rashaad’s Support Team” including Rev. Paul, Caitlin Shroyer-Ladeira, and me; Quin Bates – Rashaad’s former CASA advocate; and Joy Bruce and Janaé McCoy with CASA New Orleans participated in our first restorative circle a few weeks ago, facilitated by Jen Pagan. Tim was not involved, and Rashaad is not on good terms with any family members, so it was just us.  It was great to all be together in person for the first time. We had been Zooming, texting and talking by phone. We did some heartfelt sharing, Rashaad identified some needs and goals, and we set some boundaries in both directions. But Tim and James’s voices were missing, and in a few short weeks it all fell apart, again. 

I have come to feel affection for Rashaad, after writing to him, visiting him, and talking to him by phone for so long.  I believed he had promise for learning a trade and becoming a stable adult. He seemed to have some spiritual moorings but I’m not so sure now.  I am sadly at the point where I think we need to detach with love because he doesn’t want to be helped and/or he is not willing or able to help himself.  His “support team” has worked tirelessly this past year, and I think we are all feeling discouraged. 

Some current reasons for hope are:

·       The wide-open DA’s race last Fall resulted in the emergence of a group of partners in the city who focused on much-needed improvements to our criminal justice system including the use of RJ.  Partners included retired Chief Judge Calvin Johnson, the Center for Restorative Approaches, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church’s Center for Faith + Action, the Carrollton Avenue Network, and a local branch of the Vera Institute for Justice who are committed to holding the new DA’s feet to the fire to expand diversion programs for the convicted including use of the RJ process.  I think Rev. Paul went to some of the meetings, but we just haven’t had the bandwidth to go beyond direct service to Rashaad this past year.  And RJ is being successfully implemented in New York City and some other jurisdictions around the country.  These things give us hope.

Rev. Paul:

Thank you, Jodie and Janaé. 

In closing, I would lift up how important partnerships have been in this ministry. You have heard us mention many individuals and organizations without whom we would not have learned as much as we have or achieved as much. With the help of partners, we made a significant impression on people working in our local criminal justice system just by showing up and reaching out. And we made a difference by showing up consistently to provide material and moral support to Rashaad, and connecting him to people and resources that could help him get back on his feet. 

Relationships are everything in social justice ministry. Among the learnings from our 15-year experience with the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a ministry founded jointly and supported by the three New Orleans UU congregations, was that the glowing coal that kept its light shining was our consistency and accountability in showing up for each other and for its more than 30 community partner organizations. The Center’s staff, and many of us, got to know those partners and their stories and their work, and we learned how to show up when our presence would help them achieve their goals. Sometimes showing up involved helping with tasks, but more often it was just about showing up – making white support and common interest visible – as we did in court during the first stage of our work on behalf of restorative justice. 

And that showing up rested in relationships of trust and commitment. It was because we were directly affected, and because we were already a community of trust and accountability, that Unitarian Universalists were able to organize and show up as effectively as we did in 2017. And it was because we reached out and cultivated new relationships of trust and accountability that we have been able to take this ministry as far as we have. 

Now, as we pause to reflect, we would do well to join with our neighbors who are working on restorative justice within a wider framework of criminal justice reform. There are two organizations in particular that are working in different ways in this area that I think would be good partners for us as we discern our next steps. The St. Charles Center for Faith and Action** has developed a network of partners in criminal justice reform, and has had an excellent issue education ministry about it during the pandemic. And Together New Orleans*** has done excellent issue education events as well as effective organizing for a more engaged democracy. Both of these organizations form communities of trust and accountability with whom we would benefit from having closer, more committed ties.

So I encourage you to check those organizations out, if you haven’t already, and consider making friends with some of the folks who are involved with them. As we pause to reflect, let us continue to reach out and to learn. Amen.

* UUA Social Justice Empowerment Handbook

** St. Charles Center for Faith + Action

*** Together New Orleans

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“Spiritual Growth as Love of Country” 7/4/2021

A week ago last Thursday, President Biden announced a bipartisan agreement about a new infrastructure bill – and since then the media has been talking about how Republicans perceived a veto threat in his remarks that day, and the White House had to “walk that back” and explain that the President never meant to link the bipartisan agreement to any other bill, and on it went. And that was too bad, because President Biden said something about that bipartisan agreement that it would do us all some good to reflect on. He said:

“Neither side got everything they wanted in this deal, and that’s what it means to compromise.  And it reflects something important: It reflects consensus.  The heart of democracy requires consensus.”

“The heart of democracy requires consensus.” I think he meant by that, that the heart of democracy is finding out what you agree about. Once you have that common ground, you can build on it. And once you’re building together, you’ll stay in conversation and learn more about and from each other, and through that experience, you’ll find new things you agree about, and extend your common ground. And that process of learning and growing together, and the relationships we create in it, is what holds us together and makes democracy work

To focus on compromise, and to characterize it as an unacceptable sacrifice of principles, as so-called “movement conservatives” do, is a form of making the perfect the enemy of the good. And when we pose as champions of perfection, we make ourselves enemies of the good, too. Liberals tend to do this in the name of “truth” even in cases where, if we’re honest, we don’t really know the truth, or the whole truth, whether that’s in terms of facts or impacts or perspectives or something else. This pattern, of making the perfect the enemy of the good, has been on public display for decades, and we know how it polarizes and divides us, even within a “tribe” or “side.” And so, for example, do the Russians. So for the sake of achieving any good at all, we have to accept compromise as a part of getting there.

Nobody ever said that compromise is good in itself. It’s not. But when you’re trying to find consensus and make democracy work, it means something to do it. It’s a gesture of faith and trust in each other. And faith and trust make democracy work.

So if we love our country, and we love our democracy, then we have to love our capacity to find common ground and build on it. We have to love our capacity for faith and trust in our neighbors, and our capacity to work together. We have to love our capacity to learn about and appreciate each other, and to learn from each other and grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. In a democracy, love of neighbor is love of country. And extending our capacity to love our neighbors, is one of the goals of spiritual growth and spiritual practice.

Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman – one of my favorite dead Unitarians – wrote of spiritual growth as a process of developing a growing capacity for appreciative understanding of others. For him, the sacred thing in human relationships was the exchange of knowledge about each other, the deepening of mutual understanding and appreciation, and the opportunity for personal growth and development that human relationships potentially hold and offer. When we pursue such appreciative understanding of each other, it opens a space inside us for something new to happen – learning, growing, deepening, developing new capacities for love and understanding – and Wieman called that “something new” that can happen in human relationships, a “creative interchange.” In a career spent trying to find new ways to talk about religion, religious experience, and spiritual practices, Wieman increasingly associated the idea of God or divinity with the experience of creativity, and located God’s presence in human relationships. Where two or three are gathered, there also – potentially – is God.

This idea of spiritual growth as an experience one has while in relationship with at least one other, fits nicely with accepted theories of human development and learning in the fields of psychology and education, and also with proper religious understandings of mysticism. One of my favorite writings by Wieman is his chapter on mysticism in his early book, Methods of Private Religious Living, published in 1929. Facing the problem that “mysticism” means different things to different people, he decided to identify all the different meanings of “mysticism” he could think of, and then classify them according to how useful he thought they were. He set aside cases where “mysticism” was the name of some kind of philosophy, and focused on cases where “mysticism” named an experience or a practice. Of these, he could think of eleven kinds of mysticism, which he classified in three categories. “The first six consist of experiences which [he thought] are worthless. … The [next three] experiences,” he thought, “are of some value when rightly conducted.” The last two he classified as “of outstanding importance.” 

The “worthless” kinds of mysticism he mentions are: confused thinking, occultism, altered states of consciousness, hallucinations, inner conviction without the support of reason, and loss of volitional control (his term for an ecstatic or trance experience). His reason for deeming these “worthless” is that he thinks in themselves they tend to disintegrate, rather than integrate, the mind and personality, and are “hence opposed to the working of God.” He did acknowledge, however, that “there is a form of disintegration or disorganization of mind which is a necessary precursor and transitional stage to the achievement of a more complete and inclusive organization [of mind and personality].” Any of these six “worthless” kinds of mysticism might serve this transitional purpose, but Wieman thought they rarely do. So, in themselves, he classified them as “worthless.”

His next three “better types of mysticism” – of some value when rightly conducted – include: contemplation of an ideal or a belief, a sudden inflooding of a sense of peace or power, and awareness of a mystery. These can be of value if they serve to maintain an achieved more inclusive integration of mind and personality, as a sign of new capacity brought about through that integration, or as a stimulus to further growth. The test of their value is empirical, by their fruits.

The last two types of mysticism Wieman thought of – he called them the “best types” – are: “the experience of discerning how things which were made for one another fit together,” and that of “striving to escape from a disintegrated situation.” He said the first of these is an experience of a problem solved, and the second an experience of a problem to be solved. 

Of the problem solved, he gives an example: “Tom and Dick are out for a walk. They are old friends. They do not talk. They understand one another and so there is nothing to talk about. But they are deeply and richly conscious of the fact that they are together. Their togetherness is the thing that is happening to them in the immediate present and of which they are appreciatively conscious. It fills them with a deep feeling of contentment. Such experience of friendship not only integrates each personality in itself, but involves discernment of an organic unity which includes both the individuals as well as the autumn leaves, the haze that hangs over the trees, the trees themselves, the sky, and unfathomed depths of experience.” Wieman thought that the integrating movement of the universe was present in such a moment – that is, the love of God is in it.

Of the problem to be solved, Wieman wrote: “this problem-solving kind of mysticism … consists in exposing oneself to … a problematical situation with a mind freed of all bias and preconception” – he knew that this was more an act of suspension than an actual elimination of bias from the mind – “and waiting in this state, or returning periodically to it, until there dawns upon the mind that integration which will solve the problem. Of course it may never dawn. There is no method of problem solving which can be guaranteed always to yield the needed solution.”

“The kind of problem for which this method is adapted is one requiring some advance beyond the frontiers of human living, at least so far as concerns the experience of that individual. Hence it is peculiarly fitted for those most complex and serious problems which arise in our dealings with other people, since intimate association with unique individuals and complex social situations generally demand of us radical readjustments, and introduce us to rich realms of unexplored experience. But the greatest use of this method lies in seeking better adjustment of individual habits and social institutions to that progressively integrating process of widest scope with which one can deal.” That is to say, in old-fashioned language, seeking to align ourselves and our institutions to that level of spiritual growth and practice that God wants for us. 

I love that chapter for how it lays out the challenges and goals of spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is the theme of this months small groups hosted by the Membership Team. We will be asking you to share how belonging to this church had deepened your spiritual life, and what spiritual delight or spiritual puzzle you’d like to explore and reflect upon  more deeply with other church members.

And so for our breakout groups this morning, we’ll try to prime the pump for those small groups, and remember those moments when we experienced spiritual growth sparked by a creative interchange with someone we got to know better. 

As always, we know that some among us might want to give small group sharing a pass. If that’s where you’re at this morning, then we invite you either to say so in your small group and ask if you can just witness the conversation, or if that’s not something you feel ready to do, then please feel free to leave the small group, which will return you here.

We’ll use Zoom’s “breakout rooms” feature and have the software randomly place us all into small groups. The reflection question I offer for your small group sharing is on your screen, and is being posted now to the chat, if you would like to copy it there to paste into your small group’s chat so that you’ll have it handy there. The question is:

Tell about a time when getting to know another church member sparked some kind of spiritual growth in you.

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“Play’s the Thing” 6/20/2021

https://youtu.be/fHRQENE4f5c    (1:56)

The original “Mary Poppins” movie is a cherished memory from my childhood. Back in the sixties, my family bought the LP record and we sang all the songs. My sister learned to play some of them on the piano. That movie introduced me at a tender age to Dick Van Dyke, and I am his lifelong fan. He turned 95 last December, and I know I’m going to hurt out of all proportion when he passes. I cried when Charles Schultz died, his “Peanuts” cartoon strip was such a big part of my family life as a kid. Knowing that, it’s a big thrill to me to see him after all these years, in his 90s, up on stage dancing, however carefully. For me, that’s a powerful symbol of the spiritual importance of play.

And since it’s Fathers’ Day, I’m thinking about fathers who play, and what important modeling that is. My father, the accountant, liked to do crossword puzzles. That was play for him. Sunday family time after church and lunch was usually about reading the all-color funny pages in the newspaper – including “Peanuts,” for us the gem of that weekly collection – and then helping Dad do the crosswords (there were two crossword puzzles in our Sunday paper, the locally-made one a warm-up for the New York Times one). I have fond memories of sitting and solving those puzzles together. Not of tossing a ball in the back yard, of this. This was our play. It connected us, it fed our imaginations, it held a space to learn and explore, and it was just fun. It was the play my father modeled for us.

In “Mary Poppins,” Dick Van Dyke’s character, Bert the jack-of-all-trades, and the children’s father, Mr. Banks the banker, make a contrast in modeling. Bert will play at the drop of a hat – the hat often dropped for donations. Even as he invited play, he offered an opportunity to be generous. Mr. Banks is the bank’s – the bank owns him – and he doesn’t play, and he’s disagreeable and miserable. He’s as much a mystery to his children as they are to him. He doesn’t play, so he doesn’t connect, imagine, explore, or have fun with them. He doesn’t model that. He models work. He models seriousness, purpose, the “precision, discipline, and rules” without which all would be chaos, in his opinion.

In that regard, Mary Poppins is a lot like him. She, too, models work. Unlike him, she does play, but she’s tricky about it. She tries to combine work and play, so much so that when she indulges in play – as when she takes the children and Bert on a jolly holiday into the chalk pictures on the sidewalk – she keeps trying to discipline the play. A lot of people these days try to multitask that way. So much so, that I think it’s worth taking time to look at that. It’s so prevalent today, multitasking, and Mary Poppins provides a practically perfect example of all that can go wrong when we try to combine work and play:

https://youtu.be/ftxnr28LDXc     (4:19)

Yes, something’s just a bit off about all that. First of all, sugar. Enough said. And: “It is a game, isn’t it, Mary Poppins?” One you play on yourself. Sure, a song moves the job along. Sugar helps the medicine go down. And the way that works is not magic, it’s distraction. And, excuse me: honeybees?! Symbols of industry? “They take a little nip from each flower that they sip, and hence they find their task is not a grind”? Advice like this invites addiction counseling. As the “game” goes on, distraction overtakes the work. Soon Mary Poppins is badgering – “Don’t be all day about it!” – and the game ends in anger. This example of multitasking work and play bears remembering, and rewards reflection, I think.

When we think of spiritual practices, we usually think of things like meditation or prayer, pilgrimages, fasting, different kinds of disciplines. Sometimes we think of making art – visual, musical, written – as a spiritual practice, and there we’re closer to play, but there’s still an awful lot of work in making art. Take another step away from the work of it, to just enjoy it, and we arrive at a kind of play – the encounter, and appreciation, of art – that might tempt us into the work of reflection and study. If you have a lot of reflection and study of art behind you, it’s easier to resist that temptation and stay in a place of wonder and memory and joy. An accomplished musician can be more in the music than the technique: because the technique has become muscle memory, the music can be the focus. Play does take a certain discipline, to resist working at the same time. 

But that’s not to say that play is work. We often think of discipline as something we have to work at. That’s true at first, but in time it becomes like riding a bicycle. In the same way that disciplined meditation holds us in a contemplative state, disciplined workless play holds us in a state of joy. That’s an experience worth having.

Sometimes the discipline around play is internal, such as I’ve been describing. Sometimes it’s external, as in the rules of a game. And maybe the game even has referees. If the game is to succeed as play, the rules and referees should serve to keep you in a state of enjoying the game – as opposed, say, to a grim determination to win it. In sports, the joy is in athletic performance, just as in music it’s in musical performance. In Scrabble or chess, it’s in the performance of the mind. The rules hold a space for the possibility of a top performance. And we enjoy it more when possibilities are the only stakes.

In New Orleans, we say we don’t eat to live, we live to eat. The performance of chefs is a joy we make space for in our lives. The discipline of it is making that space.

Play is not a task. Play is its own thing.

Play explores. Play imagines. Play connects. And when you’re playing, the thing is joy, and play’s the thing. You just do it, and let the joy soar:

https://youtu.be/56GRSGxe5nI   (3:48)

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“Contributing” 6/6/2021

Thirty-five years ago this summer, I moved from St. Louis to the Long Island town of Huntington Station, to take an administrative job for a chamber music ensemble called the Sea Cliff Chamber Players. The office was in the basement of the home of the group’s Executive Director and Music Director, a married couple. It was literally a mom-and-pop business. We produced a classical chamber music concert series presented at two venues, occasional small orchestra concerts, and the Long Island Mozart Festival held annually at Planting Fields Arboretum, a beautiful park with several performance spaces that we filled with music on Memorial Day weekends. It was the job I wanted at the time, devoting my business-school training to the support of the arts.

College friends who lived there helped me get settled and introduced me to their church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington. Then at 300 members, the Fellowship began in the late 1940s, the early years of the American Unitarian Association’s program to recognize small congregations aspiring to become recognized by the AUA but with fewer than 50 members, the minimum threshold required. Hence the name. As the congregation grew, it also grew to cherish the opportunities for spiritual growth to be found in producing worship services, leading classes for children and adults, caring for members in need, and working for justice in their community. So they kept that name, Fellowship, even after they called their first full-time settled minister after fifteen years as a lay-led fellowship, an event that might have marked their “graduation” to becoming a church. But they knew better. They knew that their work together and their shared commitment, which had kept their fellowship vital and growing, would do the same for their church. They kept the name Fellowship to remind themselves of the places they had found spiritual growth and nurture: in creative collaborations, in care for one another, in learning together, and in service to love and justice.

For 60 years now, “shared ministry” has been a defining principle of that congregation. When the UUA studied concepts of shared ministry in the 1990s, the Huntington Fellowship was one of the cases they discussed in the 1996 publication, The Shared Ministry Sourcebook. (I was President of the Fellowship’s Board in those years, and had something to do with that.) And while we believed in leadership school and encouraged members to go, we also leveraged that experience by producing in-house leadership training events. The people Amon us who we knew were stars at running a meeting, or at active listening, or any number of other skills, we recruited to lead workshops during a one of our periodic workshop days. And we looked at these workshops as vehicles of both organizational development and personal growth, where the skills you learned would help you become your best self, and more confident and fulfilled and happy. We looked at the Fellowship community as a place to learn and grow, and a safe place to learn and grow from our mistakes and failures, because we would support each other through those uncomfortable kinds of learning. We were committed to that.

Among the lessons we learned collectively this way, was that our members’ contributions to making the Fellowship a beloved community, and keeping it vital in the ways I’ve been talking about, fell into two clarifying categories. Some contributions of time and talent and physical or mental energy happened in formally organized contexts, such as ongoing teams and committees, or regularly scheduled organized events like our building and grounds workday. Other such contributions were made informally: an experienced leader shared some knowledge; one of our better listeners had coffee with someone who needed to think out loud about something; or one of those listeners reflected back to a group of us what they were hearing us say; someone attuned to process concerns shared their observations about how we were going about something. In such informal ways, our aspiration to be a beloved community, helping and encouraging each other in the spirit of mutual love, was most powerfully nurtured.

Now, each of us has an inclination more toward one or the other of these modes – some like the clarity of the formal, some like the connectedness of the informal. One mode or the other is more in our personal comfort zone. Distinguishing between formal and informal ministries helps us see that and understand ourselves better. We come to know what kinds of contributions of volunteer effort we enjoy more. But we need both. Each has a role in sustaining our collective health as a church and well-being of each of us. And for that reason, I’ve come to think of this distinction, less in terms of formal and informal, and more in terms of what practices strengthen each mode. 

The formally organized ministries of a church are best nurtured through things like leadership school and in-house trainings, and small group processes such as the Membership Team is now doing. These activities help us frame our organized ministries as ministries; they are spaces where we think about how to organize ourselves in ways that remind us of the values we are trying to live out and the good we are trying to do. The informal ministries that happen among us, because they flow from the spontaneity of our temperaments and gifts and personal spiritual development, are best nurtured through our individual spiritual practices that help us to be our best and healthiest and most whole selves. It is because we have first tended to ourselves that we have these spontaneous, informal gifts to offer each other. 

Often the formal, organized ministries have the feel of climbing a mountain, whereas the informal ministries have something of the feel of a mountaintop experience. We had such a moment this past week, in the Worship Team’s monthly meeting. We were busy thinking through the steps and best practices for returning to in-person worship services, while continuing to offer online access to our in-person worship. You can imagine how this felt like climbing a mountain. 

At the end of the meeting, we have a regular practice of reflecting on the process of our meeting. At the start of each meeting, someone is assigned the role of process observer. That person’s job is to notice, as we go about our business, how we’re doing it: how is the flow of the meeting, how well are we listening to each other, how well are we focusing, how are we treating each other, things like that. 

So when we came to the end of our meeting this week, our process observer reflected back to us that we seemed rather anxious, and it felt like maybe it would do us good to relax a bit. And that gave us a chance to acknowledge the anxiety in our process that we hadn’t named, to affirm that it’s not surprising that some of us were feeling that way, and to also affirm that we can do this, we have each others’ backs, we have all the skills and knowledge among us to climb this mountain, and we can enjoy the climb more if we breathe and let go of some of that anxiety. 

It was like, stopping on the halfway-up ledge we’re on to enjoy the view and the company. To do that, has a little of the mountaintop experience in it. And we needed that. It was a moment of informal ministry – a gentle, helpful reminder to be the beloved community – that we needed, and the space was made for that to happen by our formal practice of observing our process. The formal practice made the space, but it was the native spiritual gifts of our process observer that made that moment. The two work together. 

So, this month’s topic for the Membership Team’s small groups is Contributing – because we would like to have more moments like that one, and to create good habits of noticing each other’s volunteer contributions to the church, and become better at knowing about and recognizing and appreciating each other’s contributions and talents, and at noticing in a timely way who is wanting to step up and who is needing to step back (in order to respond supportively) – for all those reasons we want to talk in small groups about how we give of ourselves, and recall with love and appreciation those mountaintop or halfway-up-the-mountain experiences that made a difference for us, and try to name the spiritual gift that it was and the kind of spiritual grounding from which the gift was given. 

And so for our breakout groups this morning, we’ll try to prime the pump for those small groups, and have a taste of that love and appreciation for moments made meaningful by someone else’s spiritual contribution. 

As always, we know that some among us might want to give small group sharing a pass. If that’s where you’re at this morning, then we invite you either to say so in your small group and ask if you can just witness the conversation, or if that’s not something you feel ready to do, then please feel free to leave the small group, which will return you here.

We’ll use Zoom’s “breakout rooms” feature and have the software randomly place us all into small groups. The reflection question I offer for your small group sharing is on your screen, and is being posted now to the chat, if you would like to copy it there to paste into your small group’s chat so that you’ll have it handy there. The question is:

Tell about about a time when something another church member did or said really meant a lot to you.

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“Belonging” 5/9/2021

This morning I am inviting all of you – members, friends, youth, and children – to participate in a series of small group gatherings we will be having this month, in June, and in July. Each month will have a distinct theme – the theme for May is “Belonging” – and each of the three themes is a lens for looking at one question: what does membership in our church mean to you, or why is it meaningful to belong?

In June we’ll approach that question through the theme of “Contributing,” where we want to talk about why and how it’s meaningful to give of our time and talents. We talk every year about giving money, and I think we all understand that aspect of contributing; what we haven’t set aside time to discuss and reflect upon is our giving of time and talent and what that means to us as persons who belong or want to belong to this faith community.

And in July we’ll talk about membership and spiritual growth.

I make this invitation on behalf of the Membership Team, and I want to tell you a little bit about how we came to want to do this project.

We feel that the Membership Team’s job, besides helping newcomers know how to join and what they’re getting themselves into if they do, is to reach out to our members to learn how your relationship to the church feels to you, how your wants and needs in church life may have changed, and how the church might better serve you. 

Because membership is not a mere status, but a journey, one that continues and deepens after formally joining the church. Before that moment of signing the membership book, you first somehow became aware of this church, then came in contact with us, and then began to associate with us before you formally affiliated. And after that, you engaged more deeply with this church community, became involved in more of its activities, and perhaps even took on a leadership position in one of our ministries. Along the way, the meaning of membership changed for you, deepened, broadened, became richer and more complex. And the Membership Team wants to know how it is with you, and to walk with you on that journey.

And a couple of years ago we began helping to set up our new church database, Breeze, and we found ourselves in a different world from where that journey happens. It’s a world of categories and classifications and flags and data and access concerns and privacy concerns and text messaging and emailing, and Lord knows it’s a world away from knowing anything about your journey.

At one point, we looked at the church bylaws for guidance regarding those categories and classifications, and again we found ourselves in a different world, detached in a different way from church life and the journey of faith. 

We were face to face with a fact of church life. Church historian Conrad Wright, who specialized in Unitarian church institutions, wrote that “our local religious communities function in two spheres, operating out of two different value systems, which may be in tension with one another. One of these is the sphere of the church, made up of a covenanted body of worshippers. The other is the sphere of the corporation established by law, with power to hold property for religious, educational, and philanthropic purposes.” Once upon a time, these two “spheres” were organized separately, but over time that changed, and they became blurred together. 

I remember reading the founding documents of the first church I served as settled minister, in Riverside, California, founded in 1881. First, the men in the congregation established the business organization that would own the property, called “The First Universalist Church or Parish of Riverside.” A few years later, Rev. George Henry Deere and the women of the church organized “All Souls Universalist Church” to organize and run the church’s ministries. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the First Universalist Church consolidated with a nearby Unitarian church, and became the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside, and no longer distinguished between the business and ministry organizations. That’s how most if not all of our churches are organized now.

A generation ago, the UUA Commission on Appraisal studied membership practices in our churches and reported* that “[t]he definition of membership in most of our congregations has focused on the secular/ corporate meaning of congregation—voting rights, financial support, eligibility to serve as a trustee or represent the congregation at General Assembly—and de-emphasized the religious/communal dimension, the focus of which is the constituency of the ‘covenanted body of worshippers.’” That is what the Membership Team found in our Bylaws. 

In its report twenty years ago the Commission asked: “Should not this emphasis be somehow reversed?”

We think it should. And we see that our church has been moving in that direction already. When we talk with prospective members, we talk about four expectations of membership: come on Sunday as often as you can, volunteer as you are able, make a financial contribution within your means, and – last but not least – work on your spiritual growth, because that’s what church is for. When we recognize new members in a worship service, we read our Covenant of Right Relationship together, and those new members will have seen that covenant and talked about it with us before then. One organization, addressing both sets of values, with a growing emphasis on the missionally more important ones. Time for the bylaws to catch up.

We would like the article in the bylaws that describes the Membership Team to remind us that, besides helping newcomers know how to join and what they’re getting themselves into if they do, our job is to reach out to our members to learn how your relationship to the church feels to you, how your wants and needs in church life may have changed, and how the church might better serve you. 

Even better, we’d like to reach out and do that job.

We know that there is a range of reasons why folks belong or want to belong to the church – to be part of a larger story, to find a place where all of who you are is welcome, to find refuge from a hostile world, to be in the company of other religious explorers, to experience worship that speaks to you, friendship and pastoral support that accepts you, opportunities for religious exploration and learning, and opportunities to work together for justice in our city. What are yours, now, today, at this stage of your journey?

As the Commission on Appraisal wrote: “Throughout our lives we humans are learning, growing, changing creatures. Using both reason and intuition, we spend our lives seeking to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and others and the world around us. The possibility of growth and change, of transformation, is the real basis for participation in a religious community. We have all experienced losses and disappointments, pain and grief. We have been broken by life and need healing. The closest that contemporary Unitarian Universalists may come to a concept of salvation is to offer opportunities for growth and transformation, for becoming more whole.” So, how does, and how might, our church help you to learn, grow, change, heal?

They said: “a religion is more than ideas. It is also a set of behaviors, practices, ways of being in community.” 

So, we want to know: Why and how is belonging to this church important to you? And how might we best accompany one another on our spiritual journeys?

Please join us in a small group – once in May, once in June, and once in July – and tell us about your journey.

Amen.

https://www.uua.org/files/documents/coa/belonging.pdf

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“Changing How We Live” 4/25/2021

When I lived in Texas, I bought a house. Or, I should say, I took out a mortgage loan and used the money to buy a lot, on which a developer had plans to build a house. When the house was built, the developer put sod down in the front yard and planted two trees there, and then built a fence around the back and side yards, dumped a lot of sand back there, and left me to do the rest. That was the deal.

It was during the time I was working on that project that my best friend Constance told me, “Paul, you’ll just have to accept that you’re not a gardener.” 

I had ordered grass seed, and set up a sprinkler, and had gotten the good advice from a parishioner that it didn’t really matter if weeds grew, because you could just mow them down with the grass, and only worry about the volunteers that grew tall a lot faster than the grass. But you see, I had a vision. This was Texas. Texas is famous for its wildflowers. I wanted to look out the window from the kitchen and sitting room and master bedroom in the spring time and look at a field of wildflowers. 

So along with the grass seed, I also had ordered bluebonnets and Indian paint brush and Texas “buttercups” (which are a kind of primrose) and brown-eyed susans and a couple other kinds, and spread them around the back yard with the grass seed. And all those kinds of wildflowers did come up and bloom – even the bluebonnets, which have a hard time in Houston – but the effect I was after eluded me, partly because of things the wind and birds planted for me, but mainly because of my design. You know when those wildflowers came up and bloomed that there was no way I was going to run a lawn mower over them. It turned into a mess. It got away from me. It was more than I wanted to deal with. And it made me feel foolish when I looked out the window.

It did get me outdoors, though. I remember being out there on the day after Christmas, working on the back yard, and there were workmen building the house behind mine, and a rather sharp-edged cold front passed through the neighborhood. They all let out a cry of “woooooh!” and a second later I felt it pass across my body, and I laughed because now I knew what all that was about. The temperature must have dropped ten degrees and you could feel on your skin where the warmer and colder air met as the front passed over you. I never experienced anything like that before or since, and wouldn’t have then but for that back yard project.

But Constance is right: I’m not a gardener. I like growing flowers and spices and small fruit trees in pots on an apartment balcony where I can go and sit among them on a chaise lounge during the day while I read. I like harvesting a meager crop of fresh basil and Thai chilis and an orange or two to have a little treat with my store-bought food. And I like the convenience of buying a new small orange tree at the supermarket the spring after the old one dies. You just erase and start over. You’re not required to care for the land when you know you’re not a gardener.

That’s city life. And I like that. Because some things are just too big for me to try to do alone.

It used to be thought that caring for the land is what started cities. The old theory was that the first cities arose as a by-product of farming. Farming turned nomadic societies into settled ones with more reliable supplies of food. Population grew, labor was divided up and became specialized, society became more complex, and cities arose to house this accumulation of people and accommodate their great variety of interdependent activities. Culture and new modes of religion followed.

A closer look at Egypt cast doubt on that theory. In the earliest period we know about, the Nile Valley was not surrounded by desert, as it is now, but by grassland. The first Egyptians were semi-nomadic herders of cattle who began planting wild grain in the Nile Valley hoping that when they passed back through the valley later in the year, nature would have raised it for them. They were on a regular circuit, from home and back. But during the 32nd century BCE they got a rude shock. The climate changed. The grassland disappeared. They had no place to go. In response, in less than a century, they reorganized themselves in the pattern now familiar to us as “Egypt, the gift of the Nile,” pharaohs, floodplain and all. 

What most sets Egypt apart from other ancient civilizations is how rapidly it came into form. In a few generations the entire cultural template was set. Egypt’s first cities arose not around their farms, but around their tombs – the home base for their semi-nomadic circuit – and the division of labor was generated by the project of building the tombs, instead of around irrigation projects as in the Tigris-Euphrates region. The cities were there. Agriculture came after, because the climate changed. The Nile was those semi-nomads’ salvation. They were not its gift.

The find that really destroyed the plow theory of civilization, though, was a place in southeastern Turkey called Göbekli Tepe – that means “potbelly hill” in Turkish. When they surveyed the hill and its surroundings using ground-penetrating radar, they discovered that the entire hill was a human artifact. Under it, some 20 structures were buried. Four of these have been excavated. Each is a circular enclosure with a pair of pillars set up in the center. The pillars have relief carvings of animals on them, as well as human features carved in such a way that suggests the pillars were meant to represent something in human form, perhaps humans, perhaps gods. The animals are in higher relief than the human features. One theory is that the reliefs were meant to be viewed by torchlight, so that the animals would appear to move in the flickering light. That might imply nighttime religious rituals. It’s hard to tell. What’s not hard to figure out is that the people who built them were hunter-gatherers, not farmers.

The structures date from about 10,000 BCE. That’s some 5000 years before the earliest evidence of agriculture. Lots of animal bones were found around them, all from game animals – gazelles, boar, red deer, wild sheep – and it was clear they were from food people brought to the site, because there were no complete skeletons. What is remarkable is that it would have taken hundreds of people to build these structures. By one estimate, 70 people could have built one of them in 6-12 months. In hunter-gatherer societies, food sharing happens among a small trusted group of family and friends. So several normally separate groups (maybe 8 or 10 groups of a dozen or twenty people) must have collaborated (each supplying, say, 8 or 10 workers) to build these structures, and many times over. The hill was a ritual site for a thousand years. 

It is thought that the hunter-gatherers of “potbelly hill” were also semi-nomadic people – that they were small groups of folks who, like those early Egyptians, had a place they regularly returned to. But “potbelly hill” was nobody’s home base. It was a gathering place for these separate small groups. Nearby was a limestone quarry where they cut and carved the stone pillars on the ground using granite tools. They then levered them upright, and also used levers to push them along the ground to “potbelly hill” where they built these structures, as places to be a gathered community together. It sounds an awful lot like families getting together to build a church.

And not one of them was a gardener.

But maybe they had a vision of a garden, and were sharing experiences and insights around making a garden happen. Maybe some of those groups had tried gardening and it turned into a mess. It got away from them. It was turning into more than they wanted to deal with. And they felt foolish. So, they wanted to learn. And up at “potbelly hill” they got together, and built friendships, and learned to work together by doing big projects together. And they kept the vision of the garden alive, because they stopped trying to do it alone.

Over time, as they buried one structure and built another over it, the structures got smaller. And in one nearby village, which had a central storage building for keeping harvested grain, there was also a much smaller version of a “potbelly hill” structure. The village had kept the faith of the larger community.

Henry Nelson Wieman, the Unitarian theologian, wrote: “The past is recovered in each generation by creative interchange between the young and the old, between teacher and pupil, between the teaching society and the individual. The major part of what is thus recovered, renewed, and perpetuated is not knowledge about past events; the major part and the most precious part is the creation issuing from [unknown] past events” that now constitute “the depth and power and sustaining [strength] … by which we live.”

The events 10,000 years ago at “potbelly hill” we can only guess at. But we know the creation of community, and food for body and soul, that issued from them. And that is still the depth and power and sustaining strength by which we live: the creative interchange between young and old, teacher and pupil, society and its members.

Wieman wrote that “the hope of the world lies in … conditions favorable for … creative interchange in all social relations.” By “creative interchange” he meant both our learning from each other, and the ways we are changed by that learning – the ways it becomes part of us. 

What started cities, I feel sure, was not agriculture, but creative interchange between people who knew that there are some things that are just too big to try to do alone. 

So may every generation continue to recover, renew, and perpetuate that most precious part of human nature: the depth and power and sustaining strength of community, love, and learning by which we live. So may it be. Amen.

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“Starlings in Flight” 4/11/2021


A murmuration of starlings:

PRAYER

Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,

Back and forth, up and down, round and round they fly: a silent poem afar, but up closea cacophony of calls and thunder of wings.

How are they chaos and choreography all at once? And what’s it like?

It looks like nothing else. It sounds like nothing else. The feel of it must also be unique.
O! for the wings of a starling! I would fly in beauty and find roost.

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,

May we notice such wonders as these.
May we learn the lesson of the starling.
May we imagine and put it to use.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power, so may it be. Amen.

SERMON

“My dream,” writes adrienne maree brown, “is a movement with such deep trust that we move as a murmuration, the way groups of starlings billow, dive, spin, dance collectively through the air—to avoid predators, and, it also seems, to pass time in the most beautiful way possible.”

Starling murmurations – those avian ballets-en-masse – were studied about five years ago in a citizen science project in Britain, where volunteers observed, measured, and reported their sightings. There had been studies of how they do it – the patterns of movement and biomechanics of it – but not many focused on why, so these citizen-observers were asked to look for and record the presence of predators and to describe the local environment as well as the movement of the flock. Some 3000 observations were reported over a two-year period.

It was known that murmuration is a behavior associated with roosting – that is, with tending families and securing the future – and indeed a seasonal pattern was found: the largest murmurations happened from October through February, and the longest-lasting ones happened at the beginning and end of that season, when there was more daylight (temperature seems to have had less influence than daylight on the duration of murmurations). On average, the birds wheeled and danced about 26 minutes; with more daylight, longer than that. 

Habitat did not seem to make any difference. Only about a third of sightings noted the presence of a predator, usually some kind of hawk. In these, more birds danced for a longer time, especially if the predator was in flight near, or interacting with, the murmuration. The distinctive difference that predators made was that the dance would end in a mass descent of starlings to their roosts, rather than just by the birds dispersing.*

So, in two-thirds of these cases, it seems, there might be something to adrienne maree brown’s speculation that the starlings dance “to pass time in the most beautiful way possible.”

She notes that starlings are not the only animals that move in this graceful collective way. But we use different words for it. She writes: “When fish move in this way, they are shoaling. When bees and other insects move in this way, they are swarming. … [I]n a murmuration/shoal/[or]swarm: each creature is tuned in to its neighbors, the creatures right around it in the formation. This might be the birds on either side, or the six fish in each direction. There is a right relationship, a right distance between them—too close and they crash, too far away and they can’t feel the micro-adaptations of the other bodies. Each creature is shifting direction, speed, and proximity based on the information of the other creatures’ bodies. There is a deep trust in this: to lift because the birds around you are lifting, to live based on your collective real-time adaptations. In this way thousands of birds or fish or bees can move together, each empowered with basic rules and a vision to live.”

Now, I imagine most of us have seen this sort of thing. I’ve seen birds fly like that downtown. Also, I imagine we’ve all encountered that urban legend about lemmings: that they sometimes up and throw themselves off a cliff en masse. They don’t. And the idea that they do arose in the one place – Norway – where environmental conditions are such that, if the weather goes a certain way, the lemmings overbreed and after a couple of seasons can become overpopulated. Now, lemmings live mostly underground. You can be out in the countryside and think there’s not another living thing for miles, and all the time you’re never more than about 6’ from a lemming under your feet. So when they get thick underground, they come up, and suddenly we see them. And they’re aggressive, and seem a bit mad, you would too in constantly crowded conditions. And what we see them do then is migrate to a less crowded place. And when they do that, they swarm. And they’re good swimmers as well as good burrowers, so they jump in and cross lakes and streams and rivers to find a new place to live. And when they find it, they disappear – they go underground again. But no human saw it. So people in Norway started to imagine that all those mad lemmings just jumped into the sea and drowned together. They did no such thing. What they did was “move together, each empowered with basic rules and a vision to live.”

And this brings me to a story I heard this week about women journalists covering the Vietnam war. WNYC’s “On the Media” program interviewed Elizabeth Becker, a journalist who has written a book called You Don’t Belong Here, about three women journalists who changed both the opportunities and environment for women war reporters, and also the way journalists tell stories about war. 

One of these was Frankie Fitzgerald, whose father was a top CIA officer and whose mother was of the New York and Washington social elite, so she had a certain experience and understanding of elites. She graduated from Radcliffe with a degree in Middle Eastern history, and applied to Newsweek for a reporting or writing job. She was told that women were only qualified to be researchers. Dissatisfied with freelance writing, she bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam, packed her portable typewriter and started reporting. 

Because she understood the way the Washington elite thought about things, she couldn’t be snowed by official statements or political spin about the war. She knew that she was there, in Vietnam, and they were not. She noticed and was one of the first to report on the Buddhist antiwar protest movement. She covered neglected scenes of the war: civilian hospitals, slums, refugees from villages come to the city. She learned about Vietnam’s history, and how much of the way people responded to the war had roots in the resistance to French colonial rule. She could see – and thought it remarkable that American officials couldn’t see – that America was pursuing a losing strategy. And she wrote about all that she saw. 

And she wrote to herself in a journal: “You must not forget – you simply must not forget – that this war is a tragedy, that the greatest sin is to speak of politics in the abstract. You must stick to the concrete, because in that way you will be able to see from more points of view than the abstract.”**

A point Elizabeth Becker made again and again in that interview was that Frankie Fitzgerald and the other two women she wrote about were not trained journalists, but they had certain skills, and some native wisdom about how to use them (like, sticking to the concrete so you can really see), and they knew what they wanted, and were willing to learn what they didn’t know as they went along. But they knew what they were about.

The lemmings knew what they were about, no matter what the Norwegians said about them. And likewise, the Vietnamese, no matter what their government or ours said. And the starlings. One responds to threats and pain in concrete ways, and with life- and joy-giving beauty as best one can, and where possible with trust. And the more trust that is possible, the better.

Writing of movements for justice, survival, and beyond, adrienne maree brown invites us to: “Imagine our movements cultivating this type of trust and depth with each other, having strategic flocking in our playbooks. Adaptation reduces exhaustion. No one bears the burden alone of figuring out the next move and muscling towards it. There is an efficiency at play—is something not working? Stop. Change. If something is working, keep doing it—learning and innovating as you go. As an individual, developing your capacity for adaptation can mean assessing your default reactions to change, and whether those reactions create space for opportunity, possibility, and continuing to move towards your vision. I am not of the belief that everything happens for a reason … But I believe that regardless of what happens, there is an opportunity to move with intention—towards growth, relationship, regeneration.” ***

I think the key to this, the thing we each might reflect on and cultivate in ourselves, is that quality of being tuned in to our neighbors, those close at hand, with a sense of belonging to a wider community, discerning a right relationship and a right distance and closeness between us, so that we are ready and able to help or to change or to move together as concrete needs and conditions suggest. I don’t imagine any of us does this as naturally as a starling, and it’s probably not as easy for them as it looks, but I think with a sense of commitment, and drawing on our best skills and wisdom, we might make it a practice to be receptive and willing to do our best. And maybe that’s all any starling does as they dance together in the sky.

May love and justice be for us a beautiful dance. Amen. 

*   https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0179277

** https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/you-dont-belong-here

*** adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017)

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“Hosanna!” 3/28/2021

In the church I grew up in, Palm Sunday was a big deal just as it is for many of our neighbors here and now. On Palm Sunday, we had extra-special music in worship, and there were at least palm-branch decorations if not a procession of people carrying palm leaves. In that atmosphere of celebration, I learned the word “Hosanna!” as something you shouted, a way to express the joy of celebration.

This word comes from the Christian scriptures. In the Christian gospel story, after several years of teaching in the countryside, Jesus comes to the big city of Jerusalem. He asks his students to borrow a donkey for him, and he rides it into the city with great fanfare and celebration, like a parade. And like a parade, there are people watching, and waiting to watch him go by, and they spread palm branches and palm leaves on the road to cushion it and make it more pleasant to walk on. And they shout this word, “Hosanna!” and sing a line from one of the hymns in their hymnal, Psalm 118. That’s how I understood the story when I was a boy.

Imagine my surprise when, after learning to examine the Christian scriptures the way scholars do, I came to learn that “Hosanna!” is really a cry for help! The people are celebrating because they believe that Jesus is someone who has come to help them, to deliver them from suffering. The root of “Hosanna!” is a verb that means to save, to help, to deliver from suffering. Well, that’s something, isn’t it?

Here’s something else: what really stands out in this scene is that the people are not just spreading leaves and branches on the road. Indeed, that’s not their first choice. First, they’re laying their clothes in the road – their “outer garments,” their coats and jackets, things worn over other clothes. It might be that the branches and leaves were spread by people who didn’t have such outer garments, didn’t own a coat. 

That story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem is the first of a series of stories in the Christian scriptures that tell the events of the last week of his life, which is what Christians reflect on once a year during the week they call “Holy Week.” Calling it Holy Week makes it sound like it might be a very nice time, or at least a very prayerful time, but for Jesus and his friends it wasn’t such a nice time. And those crowds singing and shouting “Hosanna!” were a sign that this was going to be a rough week. They had been suffering a long time, and now they expected their suffering to end because this great teacher, Jesus, had come to town. But they didn’t get an end to their suffering that week, and in their disappointment they blamed Jesus for getting their hopes up. 

Why did it happen that way? Different storytellers tell it differently. You might be aware that the Christian scriptures tell the gospel story four times, each time by a different storyteller. These four storytellers are known as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, each named for one of Jesus’s students. Mark blames the priests: he says the priests stirred the people up to scapegoat Jesus. Matthew describes the powerful people in Jerusalem as corrupt: they had been hoarding wealth and privilege, and then – because helping others and doing what was right didn’t get them more wealth and power – they told those-less-powerful-than-they to fend for themselves. John follows Matthew’s lead; at the end he even leaves the people out entirely, and it is the chief priests themselves, not other people whom they have stirred up, who call for Jesus’s death. Luke tells a more complex story, where different people with different interests each acted in their own self-interest or in the interests of their group, and Jesus suffered because nobody thought it was in their interest to help him. 

What the different stories have in common is a depiction of Jerusalem as a place where nothing works the way it is supposed to, where people are more concerned about their own power and authority than with what’s right and good in life, and where everyone is fighting with everyone else. The cries of “Hosanna!” – save us! – mark Jesus’s triumphal procession into trouble. That’s what Jerusalem is in this story: concentrated, intensified trouble and strife.

So much so, that Jesus does not stay there overnight. The action goes back and forth between Jerusalem by day, and the nearby village of Bethany by night. Jesus teaches in the Temple each day: on the first day he makes a ruckus casting out the moneychangers, and then he gets into arguments with other religious leaders on all the following days. At night he goes back to Bethany to pray and rest up. Jerusalem is a place of stones, where soon not one stone will stand upon another – that is, all that was built is falling apart. Bethany is a place of gardens and homes and friendship, all things that restore the soul.

There’s a curious thing told about the trip back and forth. It seems that on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem, there’s a fig tree that bears no fruit. You look at it, you recognize that it’s a fig tree, and you think, “maybe I’ll find some fruit there to keep me going,” and then you get up close and find that it offers nothing. I imagine the storytellers who tell about this fig tree mean it as a kind of symbolic parallel to Jerusalem. That would explain what Jesus does when he sees it: he curses the fig tree one morning, and the next morning when they go by it’s completely withered down to its roots. That’s Mark’s version. In Matthew’s telling, the fig tree withers immediately. And that’s a curious difference between them, because Mark is the one whose storytelling style is “first this happened, and then immediately, that happened!” But here, Mark lets some time go by, and it’s Matthew who has one thing immediately follow another. I imagine that Matthew, who thinks the leaders in Jerusalem are utterly corrupt, got some cathartic satisfaction from withering that fig tree immediately. And I think that Mark, by taking some extra time with it, is making a point about immediate experience. The first time going by the fig tree, we might expect some fruit. But the second time, we’ve  seen that tree, and we know not to expect any. The tree doesn’t wither by magic, the way Matthew makes it seem. But yesterday’s experience makes us imagine the tree differently today. And that leaves open a possibility that things might change again. Mark says the tree withers down to its roots – but maybe a new shoot will grow up from them again one day. 

But in the meantime, we’re going back to Jerusalem, and we need our strength, and that tree today isn’t offering any help. So we walk on by. We focus on getting the help we need to do the good we aim to do, that we know we can do. And we leave the tree be for now. Mark says: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” For Mark, this is about the call of the moment we are in.

One thing that the pandemic has taught us is, to prioritize what’s most needed, and to appreciate what’s most important. That lesson is in the Holy Week story, too. It is during this week in those arguments in the Temple that Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, and his answer is well known because it’s a terrific Christian elevator speech: “love God and love your neighbor.” And back in Bethany a woman broke a jar of ointment to wash and anoint his feet, and Jesus’s students start talking about all the good that might have been done with the money that jar could have been sold for, like a bunch of economists opining about opportunity cost, and Jesus says to them, “hey, we’re here now, she’s doing a good thing that she’s able to do now, leave her alone.” Do the best you can with what you’ve got, that’s Mark’s message.

There’s a certain frame of mind and spirit that goes with that message. When they go by that fig tree on the second day, in Mark’s telling, and his students notice that it is withered, Mark has Jesus teach them about having faith, and believing in possibilities, and above all to forgive others when you go to pray, so that you’ll be able to be forgiven. Because forgiving others and being forgiven are both things you do in your own heart, and they’re akin. Forgiveness is letting go of being stuck on something that hurt you, and being open to the possibility of beginning again in love. So the fig tree, for Mark, is not “corrupt Jerusalem,” but the one who has hurt you, or anyway not helped when you needed it, and your job is to leave open the door to beginning again and new possibilities.

In today’s atmosphere of anticipation and celebration, as more and more of us are vaccinated, we are tempted to shout for joy and miss the deeper meaning of this moment. Our shouts of “Hosanna!” do express joy, yes, a particular kind of joy: the joy of hopefulness. Hope is always for something better, to which something that was not good – some suffering – will give way. The joy of hope is a cry for deliverance. And we have tasted, and have seen, amid all the stress and restrictions, some things in our lives that were better.

And so here we are, on the triumphal road to new troubles in a post-pandemic-restrictions world. We’re not there yet, and it’ll be a while yet, but it’s time to start thinking about what we’ve learned, what are the things we’ve found most important, the values we want to live into in a new way, and to begin to imagine how we would like to live into our new birth of freedom. May we make the most of this moment we are in. Amen.

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“Discerning Faith: The Heart of Love” 2/14/2021

CHALICE LIGHTING from “We Covenant” by Janice Marie Johnson

We covenant 

to be invitational

to be accepting

to speak grace-filled truth

to forgive each other

over and over again.

And, yes, 

to love.

Our covenant stands firm.

It is our embodiment of faith in each other.

It is our blessing of each other.

It is our commitment to each other.


SERMON

In her memoir, A Vanished World, Anne Gertrude Sneller wrote about the churches in the small New England town where she grew up toward the end of the 19th century:

“On a Sunday morning the bells of the three churches in the village called all to come to meeting, for the church was still spoken of as the meetinghouse. The bells did not interfere with one another; whichever bell started ringing first would pause after two or three minutes and let the others take up the summons. All three bells had individual tones easily identified. The loungers on the hotel steps, who never went to church, not only recognized the notes of each, but were able to interpret what they said. According to their insight, the Methodist bell shouted ‘Repent! Repent!’ The Presbyterian bell urged ‘Church time!’ Church time!’ Only the Universalist bell held out a cheerful promise. ‘No hell! No hell!’ it said. The loungers felt safe in staying where they were.”

Our Universalist forebears began, in the late 18th and early 19th century, by rejecting of the idea that a loving God would condemn anyone to eternal punishment. This rejection frightened their Methodist and Presbyterian and other neighbors, who reacted much as many of our neighbors do to the movement for restorative justice. Why would people behave well if they face no punishment for bad behavior? 

Universalists did not rest in their rejection of eternal punishment, however, not just because they felt a need to answer that question, but – more importantly  – because you can’t build on a rejection. If there’s no need for a threat of eternal punishment to make people behave well, why was that? They went on from rejecting hell to constructing an account of human motivations to be moral. They said that God is love, and we are made in the imperfect image of love, and can become more perfect in love with experience and education, so that our motivation and standard of accountability for good behavior is love. If you think people need to be threatened to behave well, you’re selling humanity short. To their Christian antagonists, they replied with Jesus’s two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor. As they explored those teachings down the years, they were led to a conviction that the heart of love is faith in another’s humanity.

In a short essay titled “Theology of Inclusion,” my colleague the Rev. Janice Marie Johnson offers the old Universalist message in a contemporary frame: “Whether we know someone or not, we are called to love greatly. … a force greater than ourselves tells us that we need to act. We know, instinctively, how to be of help to others, but we are good at resisting our instincts, especially when they tell us to do something that takes us out of our comfort zone. We are often called to do the difficult, if not the seemingly impossible, and it is vital to our spiritual growth that we not ignore these challenges. If you’re human, you hear the call. But hearing and responding are two different things.” For her, this message resonates with a theology of inclusion that she gives the name masakhane, a word from the Zulu language, which can be loosely translated as “let us build together.”

The reading for our chalice lighting this morning was Rev. Janice’s reflection on our Unitarian heritage of covenant-making. Because we are called to love greatly, to do the difficult, and to build together, we covenant to invite, accept, and forgive each other, and to offer each other truth, commitment, and other blessings. By inviting, accepting, and forgiving, we recognize the imperfection of our human condition; by committing to each other, being truthful, and blessing each other with our own experience, life lessons, and stories, we recognize our potential to grow in love. We accept each other, and we encourage each other toward spiritual growth. We are enough, and yet we strive, as ever, to be our best. There is, implicit in our covenant, a balance we strive for: never to be complacent in our “enoughness,” and never to lose sight of – or lose faith in – the good in each of us. Day by day, we start with who we are and what is, and make the best of ourselves and our world.

I’ve been reading a book called The Mushroom at the End of the World, by the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. It’s a fascinating critique of science and social science, as practiced and popularly known. She particularly focuses on the science of ecology and the social science of economics – and, for good reason I think, she insists on calling economics by its older name, “the political economy” – and though her focus is on those two disciplines, the implications of her arguments are suggestive for many others. I do recommend this book, it’s very thought-provoking.

Tsing writes about ecology as a “first nature,” the political economy as a “second nature,” and of a “third nature” she calls precarity; that is, what we are as human beings belongs to a wider interdependent web of what is, and what we make of the world is a learned approach (a second nature we acquire to survive); and where what we make of the world disturbs the well-being of what is, there survivors of disturbance develop new approaches, outside the well-worn paths of political economy, to make the best of disturbed landscapes and lives. And this “third-nature” activity is precarious, improvised, built-while-in-flight, made in the encounter of survivors with each other and with what is – or as Tsing puts it, with what is left.

So, taking ecology as the core science of what is, and political economy as the core science of what we make of it, Tsing examines this third-nature activity of survivors encountering what is left, and identifies how this activity creates new relationships, and how it interacts with conventional activity in the political economy, and how it sheds light on unacknowledged mechanisms that are essential to the accumulation of capital. 

She begins by describing activity in one of the sources of supply for international trade in matsutake mushrooms: a loose community foraging on public land in Oregon. The timber industry had disturbed the ecosystem of the forest, clearing broadleaf trees, allowing pines that would otherwise be shaded out to thrive. But pines don’t thrive without the matsutake fungus. They thrive as a team. So, at the end of the timber industry’s world was this mushroom. That’s where the title of the book comes from. Demand for matsutake in Japan led import/export companies to organize a supply chain in Oregon. Salvaging this landscape for the political economy, foragers came to pick and sell mushrooms, creating value for exporters to capitalize. 

The foraging and salvage and translation of nature’s products into commodities in this story are activities integral to capitalism, but mostly unacknowledged by the science of political economy. In the accepted theory, there are three factors of production: land, labor, and capital. The mushrooms would be treated simply as a feature of land, no nonhuman labor in their making acknowledged. And the pickers’ labor would be treated as external to the labor employed by exporters. The exporters buy the mushrooms, commodities already produced by foraging; only after that purchase do they make profit, and accumulate capital, from them. And they do that, not the pickers. There’s no capital accumulation from mushrooms in the pine forest, only in the export trade. Further, the pickers in Oregon see themselves as “free” of conventional capitalism – they are not employees, they do not own the land where they forage, they live as they please. And many of them are salvaging lives disturbed by war. They are mostly various Southeast Asian refugees – Hmong, Mien, Khmer, Lao – with white veterans of the Vietnam War and Latino migrant workers also in the mix. The vast majority have had their lives disturbed and subsequently shaped by war. Survival skills they learned in the disturbance of war have been adapted to making a living in this disturbed landscape. 

I’ll leave you to discover where she goes from there, and I hope you will. What I want to do now is apply Anna Tsing’s critical framework to build on what I have said so far about our faith: that love is its ground, and the heart of love is faith in another’s humanity; that because love calls us to do the difficult and to build together, we covenant to invite, accept, forgive and encourage the best of each other and bring out the good in our common humanity. 

Day by day, we start with who we are and what is, and make the best of ourselves and our world. We do that as components in a web of interdependencies in which we live our lives – the first nature. We do it within learned frameworks of understanding about ourselves and the world around us – the second nature. And we do it through the contingent encounters that make up our days – the third nature. 

The covenant of our Association of congregations mentions this third nature: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Our days are filled with contingent encounters; some so easily fit into our second-nature activities and understandings that we take little notice of them, and others so stand out that we not only notice, but have a sense of mystery and wonder about them. They make us question what we think we know. They invite us to observe more closely, judge more circumspectly, claim knowledge more humbly. Like our Universalist forebears, we take a conventional understanding – in their case, the assumption that hell exists because human nature requires the threat of endless punishment – and question whether it is the best account of us and our world. We find ourselves called to do difficult, if not seemingly impossible, rethinking, the pursuit of which is vital to our spiritual growth. 

When we consider our common humanity, we notice that all cultures affirm such third-nature experiences, and also that wisdom known as the golden rule: “whoever has the gold makes the rules” – no, wait, that’s a second-nature understanding, the first-nature golden rule is a rule of love, that we should treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated. And we understand that third-nature surprises might inform our understanding of how our neighbors actually do wish to be treated. 

When we consider our second-nature religious activity, of forming faith communities and making covenants, we notice the space we make for third-nature insights. A neglected but essential statement in the covenant of our Association says: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” It is a fundamental religious truth that our collective religious understandings, like our individual ones, evolve and grow and change in a dynamic and creative interchange between what we are and what we learn and what we experience. Just as our personal experience and story-in-progress about it forms our understanding of who we are individually, our collective discernments and commitments tell us and our neighbors who we are. 

And so when we welcome a newcomer, our welcome is felt in how ready we are to welcome, along with the stranger, that stranger’s story. And the welcome is offered in the knowledge that each other’s stories may surprise us, and we welcome also the surprise. Because the surprise, however pleasant or not in the moment it comes, carries the possibility to inspire us to a deeper understanding and an expanded vision.

And so we welcome the stranger as a friend, bringing to that act our best selves: not perfect, but loving enough that they know it, aware enough that they that they feel it, caring and attentive enough to be worthy of their stories.

Along with the poet Edwin Markham, may we be able truthfully to say, again and again:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!”

So may it be. Amen.

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