“It’s Political: Fathers Day Reflections” 6/17/2018

PRAYER:

Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,

We heard this week

that federal regulations

prevent immigration shelter workers

from comforting small children.

And we heard a Bible verse that says

the governing authorities

“have been instituted by God.”

Let us now hear the teaching of the passage

that verse begins:

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor;

therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

For those workers who feel bound by regulations

not to love,

let us back up a paragraph:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

And let us hear the exhortation that begins

this whole section of scripture:

“Do not be conformed to this world

but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,

that you may prove what is the will of God,

what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

 

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,

May we live by the vision of beloved community

expressed in this section of the book of Romans:

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,

let us use them:

if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;

if service, in our serving;

if teaching, in our teaching;

if encouragement, in our encouraging;

if giving, in our liberality;

if helping, in our devotion;

if acts of mercy, in our cheerfulness.”

And may we hold in our hearts the passage

of that same Biblical book

used 450 years ago to support Europe’s first

declaration of religious tolerance:

“Faith comes by hearing,

and that hearing by the holy word.”

 

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power,

so may it be. Amen.

 


READING:    “The Demiurge’s Laugh”  by Robert Frost

It was far in the sameness of the wood;

I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,

Though I knew what I hunted was no true god.

It was just as the light was beginning to fail

That I suddenly heard – all I needed to hear:

It has lasted me many and many a year

The sound was behind me instead of before,

A sleepy sound, but mocking half,

As of one who utterly couldn’t care.

The Demon arose from his wallow to laugh,

Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went;

And well I knew what the Demon meant.

I shall not forget how his laugh rang out.

I felt as a fool to have been so caught,

And checked my steps to make pretense

It was something among the leaves I sought

(Though doubtful whether he stayed to see).

Thereafter I sat me against a tree.

SERMON

“It was far in the sameness of the wood” –

“sameness” suggests conformity, blending in,

hiding oneself;

and he’s “far in” conformity, blending, hiding –

he “was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,

though [he] knew what [he] hunted

was no true god.”

Our first thought of a “Demon” is of an evil spirit that possesses a person, like in a horror movie, or of a devil carrying out the due torments of hell in some medieval painting. An older, less sinister meaning – often spelled with an “a” before the “e” – is that a daemon is a divine being whose nature is between gods and humans. The ancient Arian heresy was to imagine that Jesus was such a creature. Another meaning of daemon is of an attendant spirit or inner inspiration. “[He] knew what [he] hunted was no true god.”

What is taking shape in the first lines of Frost’s poem is an allegory of adult male experience as prescribed by the conventions of our culture. By those lights, a man’s identity is bound up with work, and a career is a hunt for something that, if you caught it, you might not know what to do with it, but your job is to track it, and – having gotten the job – you run after it joyfully, knowing in your heart that what you’re chasing isn’t something you’d go after for yourself – it’s not of intrinsic value to you, not really fulfilling, not your heart’s desire – it’s “no true god.” But your effort will be appreciated, you hope, by your employer.

The chaser is alone in the wood – except for this Demon – so what will in fact be appreciated is his report of what happened. At the end of the day – “just as the light was beginning to fail” – the Demon is heard, not seen, behind, not before. The laugh that rings out – unforgettably – sounds sleepy, half-mocking, uncaring – like a corporate employer, perhaps – and then it is seen, rising from the mud where it has been wallowing, brushing dirt from its eye. It says no words, but “well [our hunter] knew what the Demon meant.” Its laugh was “all [he] needed to hear.” Many a company man will recognize this experience, and its aftermath:

“I felt as a fool to have been so caught,

And [made] pretense …

(Though doubtful whether he stayed to see).

Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”

Picture a husband and father of children, with all the expectations of those relationships, sat against a tree feeling foolish and trying not to look it. Or picture him bluffing and bullying his way through life. How many ways do men try to cope with patriarchy and systemic oppressions we are trained and expected to uphold?

I have often joked that the diagonally-striped tie symbolizes the patriarchal oppression of men. You’ll almost never see me wearing one of those. But back of my mind when I say that is the sort of dilemma of unfulfilling conformity that Frost describes in “The Demiurge’s Laugh.”

I think it’s important to realize how deep oppression runs in our culture, and that men do not escape it. But oppression takes shape with a certain subtlety when it acts on the people it privileges. We are learning about that in the arena of race and white supremacy culture. We also – for the sake of fathers and their children – need to learn about it again in the arena of gender and patriarchy.

Sociologist Michael Messner noticed twenty years ago that by the late 1970s, “men’s liberation had disappeared. The conservative and moderate wings of men’s liberation became an anti-feminist men’s rights movement, facilitated by the language of sex roles,” he said, while “[t]he progressive wing of men’s liberation abandoned sex role language and formed a pro-feminist movement premised on a language of gender relations and power.”

I remember that men’s liberation movement from my teenage years, and how the Demon mocked it with a laugh. How men were ridiculed for embracing it.

I remember in my 30s – in the mid-1990s – being part of men’s groups in UU churches. About then an organization was founded called UUMeN, whose purpose was “to build a mature, liberal religious masculinity: male-positive, pro-feminist/womanist, gay-affirming, culturally and racially inclusive and diverse.” It provided resources for men’s groups, small group ministry for men, and resources about how to meet boys’ developmental needs in religious education programs. Its newsletter featured reflections by people of all genders about sons and fathers. It was dissolved in 2011.

Back in the day, I met with different kinds of men’s groups. The early ones were full of men earnestly seeking escape from what felt like a straitjacket of gender role expectations. We did things like the “Who Are You?” exercise, where two men sit facing each other, maintaining eye contact, and one asks the other, “Who are you?” And the other answers, and after a pause the first asks again, “Who are you?” And the other has to answer again. And they repeat this through several more iterations. And then they trade roles. In this and other ways we powered through confessions of our selves and our hearts. We talked about the Hero’s Journey, read books like King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, and other things aimed at male self-discovery. Later groups I was part of were more relaxed, and involved beer.

Serious cultural dialogue about what we used to call “masculine maturity” has long since melted away. Something like the illusion of a “post-racial” society that set in ten years ago when Barack Obama became President, has set in around patriarchy – just like an illusion of freedom set in after the Civil War, or the illusion of a Great Society set in after World War II. Such illusions come with their own woods of sameness and a Demon to chase through it, that in our solitude mocks us and makes us feel foolish. Or angry. It’s a good idea to step back from such illusions, once we recognize that we have them, because they distort our view of what is good.

Also: Feeling foolish makes it hard to get energized. The energy of anger is hard to channel constructively. We need to get out of this wood.

I think we all need to stand ready to help the fathers among us to discern what masculine maturity looks like in them. We need to be ready to be welcoming and supportive good listeners when a father wants to think out loud about what fatherhood holds in the way of challenges and purposes and rewards. We need to be as ready for fathers as for any of us who wants to be their best selves. For we all have a role in the lives of children.

Being male in a patriarchal culture is a challenging, subtle thing. Being a father in such a culture is its own kind of challenging and subtle. It’s past time for us as a society to take that seriously again. Because fatherhood – parenthood – is not just personal: it’s political.

May we collectively find our way back to dismantling patriarchy and making better men. May we remember that all oppressions intersect and are part of a larger, undesirable pattern. May we be not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. So may it be. Amen.

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“Night of Power” 6/10/2018

RESPONSIVE READING:  “Beloved Presence” by Hafiz

Cloak yourself in a thousand ways;

still I shall know you, my Beloved.

 

Veil yourself with every enchantment

and yet I shall feel you, Presence most dear,

close and intimate.

 

I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses

and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.

 

I shall surely see you in tumbling clouds,

in brightly embroidered meadows.

 

Oh, Beloved Presence,

more beautiful than all the stars together,

 

I trace your face in ivy that climbs,

in clusters of grapes,

in morning flaming the mountains,

in the clear arch of sky.

 

You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.

 

You are the breathing of the world.

SERMON: “Night of Power” 

His oldest surviving biography tells that Muhammad used to retreat for a month every year in a mountain called Hira’ in Mecca. When he finished his seclusion he would return to circumambulate the Ka‘ba seven times before heading home.

In the year 610, he retreated in Hira’ in the month of Ramadan and was visited by the angel Gabriel – called Jibril in Arabic – who read to him the first verses of the Qur’an.

Jibril, carrying a book, appeared to Muhammad in his sleep. He commanded him to “recite.” Muhammad refused twice before finally asking what it was he was supposed to recite. Jibril replied with following verses of the Qur’an, now known as Surah 96, verses 1-5:

“Recite in the name of your Lord who created. (96.1)

He created man from a clot. (96.2)

Recite and your Lord is the most honorable (96.3)

who teaches by the pen. (96.4)

He taught man what he did not know. (96.5)”

Muhammad then recited those verses in his sleep. When he woke up, he felt as if the words had been engraved on his heart. On his way down from the mountain, he heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Muhammad! You are the messenger of Allah, and I am Jibril.”

As this story shows, the Qur’an is not what Muhammad wrote, it’s what Muhammad repeated. The name of the book – Qur’an – means “the direct speech of God.” And it is said that the spoken Qur’an is more sacred than the written Qur’an. It is the physical sounds in the air, in Arabic, that are holy. That’s why when you buy a copy of the Qur’an in English, it’s likely to be titled “The Meaning of the Qur’an” or some such thing: if you read the English words out loud, they don’t make the same sounds in the air.

This story of Jibril’s visit is commemorated during Ramadan on the Night of Power. That night does not have a set date during the fast, but is traditionally observed on one of the odd-numbered last ten days of Ramadan: the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th. Most often, it is the 27th day. But just as the beginning of Ramadan is determined by observing the phase of the moon, so the Night of Power is determined by certain signs. It is said that the sun rises early that morning without rays, that rain may fall during it, that the night the sky will be lightly foggy, that the sky will be slightly lighted without reflections and without rays, and that Jibril and other angels descend to earth that night for many purposes. It is described poetically as “a night of Mercy, a night of Blessing, a night of Peace and a night of Guidance … a night of Unification between the finite world of ours and the Infinite Universe of the Unseen.”

This tradition emphasizes the sense of a particular, immediate experience – the word before it is written, like the dream before waking or the angel before the man, or the Unseen before the Seen, is a symbol for experience before it is named.

This symbolic understanding of language, where it is not merely a vehicle conveying and translating information but also contains untranslatable meaning in its very form and substance, appears in most religious systems. In Luke’s gospel, for example, is this well-known passage: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Commenting on it, the 19th-century Unitarian Rev. Theodore Parker said:

“Christ says his word shall never pass away. Yet at first sight, nothing seems more fleeting than a word. It is an evanescent impulse of the most fickle element. It leaves no track where it goes through the air. Yet to this, and this only, did Jesus intrust the truth wherewith he came laden to the earth … He took no pains to perpetuate his thoughts: they were poured forth where occasion found him an audience – by the side of a lake, or a well; in a cottage, or the temple; in a fisherman’s boat, or the synagogue … He only bids his friends give freely the truth they had freely received. … With a noble confidence, the result of his abiding faith, he scattered them broadcast on the world, leaving the seed to its own vitality. … He felt his words were for eternity. So he trusted them to the uncertain air; and … that faithful element has held them good, distinct as when first warm from his lips. Now they are translated into every human speech, and murmured in all earth’s thousand tongues … These words have become the breath of the good, the hope of the wise, the joy of the pious … They are the prayers of our churches, … the enchantment of our hearts. … They reveal to us the presence of God, which else we might not have seen so clearly, in the first wind-flower of spring, in the falling of a sparrow, in the distress of a nation, in the sorrow or the rapture of the world. … Such is the life of these words.”

Parker’s description of our relation to words is intimate, sensual, akin to the expressions of Hafiz we read earlier, and to the famous verse from the Qur’an, Surah 50, verse 16, where God says: “And indeed We have created man, and We know whatever thoughts his inner self develops, and We are closer to him than his jugular vein.”

Historian Philip Gura, in his book The Wisdom of Words, traces the influence of such religious insight into the nature of language on the American culture of Theodore Parker’s day.

Around 1820 or so, he says, in a commercial and political culture saturated in false or double speech, it was becoming difficult for many to accept the conventional view of words as simply the arbitrary and unambiguous names of things. By the 1850s, few were persuaded by the old arguments of John Locke or the Common Sense philosophers that language was a neutral vehicle of information. Influenced by the new Higher Criticism of scripture – in which the text’s grammar, etymology, and historical context were closely scrutinized – as well as by Transcendentalist “New Thought,” exegeses like Parker’s were one manifestation of this emerging unease about language. Soon it would show up in American fiction. Gura writes:

“After the rise of Higher Criticism, ‘meaning’ never again could be the same. It had to be provided in a new form, that of heuristic symbol [that is, a symbol that facilitates a person’s learning something for themselves]. … Natural facts flowering into various difficult truths had replaced the Old and New Testaments as guideposts to moral direction in the world. … [F]or novelists like Hawthorne and Melville as well as for essayists like Emerson and Thoreau, the wisdom of words, while different from what it once was thought to be, still could not be denied.”

Untethered from conventional thought, people sought truth and meaning in their experience. Jesus entrusted his words to the air. Jibril made Muhammad recite in a dream. All of these examples point to the experience of finding truth or meaning by an inner knowing more than an outer source, of having it “engraved on [one’s] heart,” as Muhammad’s biographer put it.

Muslim practices during Ramadan – the daytime fast, the evening communal “iftar” meals, and, toward the end of the month, the prayerful seeking after the presence of God – all reinforce experiential knowing: of oneself, of others, of the holy. They pose – wordlessly – Emerson’s famous question: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” One we know from our experience, not merely from what we have read or been taught.

Discovering meaning and truth from our own experience involves us in interpreting both our experience and the terms in which we name and describe it. We both feel and interpret our immediate sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and at the same time look beyond them to our context and how we and others name and understand it in shared and differing ways; and we also look beyond that to larger contexts we are in and how we understand those. The immediate sensations of fasting during Ramadan occur in a communal context, as does the nightly relief of the iftar. The fast highlights the need of each, and the responsibility of all, to look after one another. At its best, the community lives into its teachings of love and peace through a symbolic practice that facilitates each person’s learning for themselves what love and peace feel and look like, both in receiving and in giving. In such communal mutual nurturing we discover the things we call holy or sacred, things of worth and value that guide our lives and our growth and becoming.

Our methods of interpreting texts and things, the world and each other, have a fancy name in the academic world: hermeneutics. The word derives from the name Hermes, the messenger god, god of paths and trade, and escort of the dead to the underworld.

Our methods of learning by suggestive symbols and language also has a fancy name which Philip Gura used: heuristics.

What would we have if we developed our own interpretations of texts and things, the world and each other, that took the form of suggestive symbols that open us to new truths and meanings, and thus support our lifelong learning, growing, and becoming?

We would have our very own heuristic hermeneutics.

And if we did that together? We would have a whole other level of beloved community. And wouldn’t that be grand?

Cloak yourself in a thousand ways;

still I shall know you, my Beloved.

Veil yourself with every enchantment

and yet I shall feel you, Presence most dear,

close and intimate.

 

So may it be. Amen.

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“Remembering Well” 5/27/2018

PASTORAL PRAYER:

Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,

We are inspired by the vision of restorative justice,

in which those who are harmed, and wrongdoers,

and their affected communities

search for solutions that promote

repair, reconciliation and

the rebuilding of relationships.

We see hope in partnerships

aiming to reestablish mutual responsibility

for constructive responses to wrongdoing

within our communities.

We see justice in a balanced approach

to the needs of the victim, wrongdoer and community

through processes that preserve

the safety and dignity of all.

And we see how far we have to go to realize that vision

when justice officials in our city

understand “restorative justice” to mean

mere leniency,

and issue reduced sentences

instead of repair,

reconciliation,

and rebuilding.

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,

May we continue to hold the vision that inspires us.

May we continue to hope for and work toward

constructive responses to wrongdoing.

And may we see justice practiced by the systems

that claim to perform it.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power,

so may it be. Amen.


READING: from Ministry and Imagination by Urban T. Holmes

A story is like a ritual; it preserves the memory of past events in a way that those events still have power for us. [It] lives first in the lives of people. … There is a certain restraint proper to a story, much like the ambiguity of the symbol, which makes room for the indescribable. Also, like symbols, stories can be personal … Stories are … inevitably social. … The personal story is the individual appropriation of … metaphors … available … in the culture. … These root metaphors are the heart of the society’s story[;] … in situations of conflict the root metaphors are evident in those ‘social dramas’ which … form pivotal events … The story is always there, but is acted out and becomes peculiarly evident when conflict breaks through … routinized, imposed patterns of behavior… [S]uch root metaphors are generated in the antistructural experience of … liminality. … The structures, which obscure the tale by which our lives are lived, are stripped away, and we see where we have been and where we would go in a kind of pristine clarity.


SERMON: “Remembering Well” 

Seven years ago, the New York Times published a piece by Yale historian David Blight telling of a story he discovered in Harvard’s archives; he wrote:

“By the spring of 1865, … Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. … Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events … took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’
The symbolic power of [Charleston] was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. …

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song ‘John Brown’s Body.’ Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang ‘We’ll Rally Around the Flag,’ the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. …

Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished. …

The old racetrack is gone, but an oval roadway survives on the site in Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton, former Confederate general and the governor of South Carolina after the end of Reconstruction. The old gravesite of the Martyrs of the Race Course is gone too; they were reinterred in the 1880s at a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C.

But the event is no longer forgotten. [In 2010] a coalition of Charlestonians, including the mayor, Joseph P. Riley, dedicate a marker to this first Memorial Day by a reflecting pool in Hampton Park.

By their labor, their words, their songs and their solemn parade on their former owners’ racecourse, black Charlestonians created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

In that liminal time, when the structures of the masters’ society had been stripped away by war, former slaves saw where we had been and where we needed to go in a kind of pristine clarity. They chose May Day, an established agrarian holiday, for their ceremonies, probably with mixed feelings of hope and a desire for something normal amid the ruins of their city, possibly with the thought of encouraging an annual celebration of the new freedom. For a decade it was possible, though increasingly difficult, to establish the new tradition. And then power shifted, federal troops were withdrawn, and – except in the archive of a free press – the story they had told on that May Day was silenced. The old story of white supremacy culture reasserted itself in new forms, and on different dates – Confederate Memorial Days were set on the dates of significant surrenders or on Jefferson Davis’s birthday. Separate Northern and Southern “Decoration Day” traditions competed in a national “social drama” which resolved itself in displays of brotherhood between elderly white Northern and Southern veterans. Significantly, Memorial Day was not proclaimed a national holiday until 1971, when it was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May – for the sake of a long weekend.

In our increasingly mobile and transient society, I wonder what portion of Americans still has picnics in the park?

I feel like we are again in liminal times, and new ceremonies await. We have elected a symbol for president three times now, each time narrowly. The “social drama” of the last ten years is summed up, I think, in two images: Barack Obama leading crowds in chanting, “Yes, we can,” and John Boehner shouting solo from a House lectern, “Hell, no, you can’t!” The current president’s determination to erase his predecessor’s accomplishments resembles the erasure of the Charleston race course. His encouragement of the baser angels of our nature recalls the rhetoric of the resistance to Reconstruction. “The story is always there, but is acted out and becomes peculiarly evident when conflict breaks through the routinized, imposed patterns of behavior.”

A desperate rhetoric of hope preceded the conflict out of which Memorial Day was born. After seven states had seceded, the Constitution of the Confederacy had been adopted, and Jefferson Davis had been elected its President, Lincoln said in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Our bonds of affection are fashioned in part by the kind of faith Lincoln was articulating, and in part by the social stories that shape our lives and inform the personal stories we live by. Stories live first in our lives, and in our lives we tend them, with or without conscious attention. Lincoln desperately spoke of being our best selves at a time when social conflict was driving most people to declare allegiance and abandon discernment. Allegiances, like identities, were defined by social stories that preserved the memory of past events in a way that gave comfort and meaning, that still had power for most people, that helped define who they were and how they imagined their best selves.

The stories of white supremacy culture cast all their relationships – from spousal and family circles outward – in a master-servant mold and separated them from their better angels. Those same stories in new form – built on the same root metaphors of power – operate on us today. They still have power to hold us back from being our best selves, from nurturing bonds of affection that bridge our differences and aid our discernment of justice.

The outcome of the trial this past week of the four young men who assaulted and robbed UUA employees James Curran and Tim Byrne – the trial of DeJuan Paul, Rashaad Piper, Joshua Simmons and Nicholas Pogozelski – conformed, not unexpectedly, to the social story of punitive justice, not the story of restorative justice we have worked and witnessed for over the past twelve months. Punitive justice belongs to the family of power stories that shape all the oppressions and systemic injustices we face – and embrace, and suffer from – as a society. It is important that we continue to work and witness for restorative justice in New Orleans. It’s a long game, to change these social stories.

The next steps we have talked about include developing with neighbors and allies a program of public education about restorative justice. We have networked into a community of neighbors interested in restorative justice, including the Center for Restorative Approaches and the Together New Orleans coalition among others. If you would like to be involved in this ongoing work, talk to me or to Jolanda Walter, Leslie Runnels, Caitlin Shroyer-Ladeira, or Jodie Manale, all of whom have helped lead our efforts so far.

We also have discussed ongoing support for DeJuan, Rashaad, Joshua and Nicholas, during the period of their reduced sentences – 7 years for DeJuan, 5 for Rashaad and Nicholas, 3 years for Joshua. That’s a good length of time for a defined project of support for them and learning for us about how the punitive justice system affects young black men, what concrete things we can do minimize the harm it does them, analyze the institutional structures that keep it in place in our city, and explore possibilities for introducing restorative approaches in the prison setting. What the judge and district attorney and prosecutor could not imagine, we may be able to create within the system they understand. Then, perhaps, they will one day find restorative justice outside the prison setting imaginable – if only to save money – and we will begin to shift our social story about what justice is, out of the current authority-based, punitive framework and into a community-based, restorative one. I do hope we will pursue these opportunities to learn and to make a difference in justice for all our neighbors.

May we lean into these liminal times, and be part of creating the new stories and new ceremonies that all our neighbors await. Amen.

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“It’s Personal: Mothers Day Reflections” 5/13/2018

One of my family’s stories is the time my mom chased my sister with a sparkler. This happened, I believe, before I was born. Kathy is nine years older than me, and in the story she has to have been younger than nine. In those days, people used to celebrate the Fourth of July with hand-held sparklers, which – if you haven’t seen one (and I know I haven’t in many a year) – a sparkler was a stick that you held one end of and lit the other, and it gave off what were deemed “harmless sparks.” Kathy was terrified of them. Mom thought she needed to overcome her fear. And the story was born. It sounded different when Kathy told it than when Mom did – I think that’s the nature of family stories. But I heard it told – with laughter shared all around – many a Fourth of July season, and sometimes out of season. I’ve come to believe that stories like this are practices of forgiveness that challenge the notion that we must forgive and forget. There are cases, abundantly, where to forgive and not forget is to learn together, and there’s hardly a more powerful learning experience than that of learning together.

Writer, photographer, and mom Aaron Greenberg wrote a piece a while back for The Huffington Post called “Parenting With Humility.” In it, she said:

“Let’s always remember that we are human … We make mistakes. We fail. This will happen … more than once. We sometimes act or speak out of frustration or fear. We laugh too loud, hug you in public, forget to sign permission slips, irritate our spouse and children and throw an imperfect birthday party. We make a fool of ourselves. We lose our patience. We sing off-key, dance with no rhythm and, from time to time, we find success in all of life’s elaborate obstacles. … Though leading by example seems like an impossible task, let’s teach our children (so that they may teach their children!) … that in our journeys around the sun, we all make mistakes. … [Your] mistakes will make you whole, filling the gaps in the lessons you … have been trying to teach. Your children will witness them firsthand and learn by example [that] the world … you have tried so hard to ease them into, ever so gently, is not always patient and kind, nor does it hold your hand as you walk through the hardest of days and most challenging of situations. It certainly does not always celebrate your victories with or for you. No matter how great.

“The ways of raising our families are endless. What works for one family does not work for another … Parenting is hard. Crazy hard. It is also messy, impatient, expensive, exhausting and have I mentioned scary? It is also the most fulfilling and amazing journey … a love unconditional and understanding, lending character, grace, tolerance and forgiveness when we least expect or deserve it.”

It can be the case that a parent’s lessons are taught  awkwardly, in the manner of chasing with a sparkler. It can also be the case that the child misunderstands the lesson. My mom once told me she thought I was easier to raise than Kathy was, because I was always so reasonable. She could teach me by telling me things. One of the things she felt it was important to tell me was that feelings are to be overcome. As a boy I heard that message as “feelings are to be pushed aside or down or away.” I heard it that way because as a boy I had a hard time naming or even knowing what I was feeling – it just wasn’t one of my gifts. When I was very young, I used to throw tantrums. I would get that frustrated about having my feelings. (And I was the reasonable one, remember?) The temper was something I inherited from Mom. Oh, did she have a temper! And looking back, I think that’s why she emphasized that “feelings are to be overcome.” As I remember, Mom was fairly able to name her feelings. Her challenge – particularly with anger – was to overcome, to stay in control and channel that energy into useful activity. She did that pretty well. I didn’t see it as a struggle for her, when I was a boy. Except that when she was angry, she would yell and it would take a while for her to calm down. I was very scared of her anger. It sort of erupted, it surprised me. It seemed out of control to me, but she was controlling it – she was only yelling. Again, I didn’t perceive her struggle, so I didn’t perceive her control. I only came to see that later – after I, as a youth and young adult, had learned the skills she practiced. I came to understand those situations that had frightened me as a boy – when I was older, and ready.

Children do learn what they’re ready to learn, and sometimes have to unlearn what they learned as children, as happened with Kathy and me. We turned out all right – though not entirely as expected, I think. And that’s how I take the story about the children of Mother Star we heard earlier. The Sun, the Wind, and the Moon each had their own natures and sensitivities at the time of the party. And Mother Star had hers, too. The story presents those natures and sensitivities the way the book of Genesis does the characters of Jacob’s children. The Genesis passage [Genesis 49:1-27] claims that Jacob is blessing his children, but as in Mother Star’s story it comes across sounding like a curse.

I think we have to take these “blessings” in the way of my family’s sparkler story. It’s not so much a blessing or a curse as it is a naming of things we have learned about each other together. And when it comes from mom or dad, it can sound like a curse, but it’s really not. The text in both cases allows a reading of recognition rather than curse – that the personalities of Jacob’s children or the behavior of Mother Star’s children on the occasion of this party offered lessons about relationship and self-awareness. It’s possible to read these texts as instances when a parent didn’t quite get out of their own way when they tried to bless or teach their children. The story of the sparkler was told again and again, in good humor, and we all understood that my sister was no coward. And that chasing her around with a sparkler was not actually one of mom’s finer moments.

“Let’s always remember that we are human … We make mistakes. … This will happen far more than once. We sometimes act or speak out of frustration or fear. … We make [fools] of ourselves. We lose our patience … and, from time to time, we find success in all of life’s elaborate obstacles.”

So may it be. Amen.

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“Spiritually At Home” 5/6/2018

PASTORAL PRAYER
Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,

We remember this morning our neighbor Jose Torres, living in sanctuary at First Grace United Methodist Church since November 12th, six months come Saturday.

We remember his wife Deiny, and his two daughters, Julissa and Kimberly.

We remember his words last November:

“I have decided to take sanctuary because I have two babies who need me. They’re destroying me totally as the father of a family. I feel terrible — they’re removing me from my daughters’ lives. That is why I am fighting against these injustices.”

And we remember the many families across the country similarly affected by a callous enforcement of immigration laws, and our many neighbors locally showing up to accompany folks who have to appear at ICE, trying to influence a more humane mode of enforcement.

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,

May we remember that laws are supposed to serve the common good.

May we remember that how laws are enforced determines whether they serve that purpose.

And may we remember our duty and power as citizens to influence and hold accountable those who enforce our laws.

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


READING: “Ropes” by Mary Oliver

In the old days dogs in our town roamed freely. But the old ways changed.

One morning a puppy arrived in our yard with a length of rope hanging from his collar. He played with our dogs; eventually he vanished. But the next morning he showed up again, with a different rope attached. This happened for a number of days—he appeared, he was playful and friendly, and always accompanied by a chewed-through rope.

Just at that time we were moving to another house, which we finished doing all in one evening. A day or so later, on a hunch, I drove back to the old house and found him lying in the grass by our door. I put him in the car and showed him where our new house was. “Do your best,” I said.

He stayed around for a while, then was gone. But there he was the next morning at the new house. Rope dangling. Later that day his owner appeared—with his papers from the Bideawee home, and a leash. “His name is Sammy,” she said. “And he’s yours.”

As Sammy grew older he began to roam around the town and, as a result, began to be caught by the dog officer. Eventually, of course, we were summoned to court, which, we learned quickly, was not a place in which to argue. We were told to build a fence. Which we did.

But it turned out that Sammy could not only chew through ropes, he could also climb fences. So his roaming continued.

But except for the dog officer, Sammy never got into trouble; he made friends. He wouldn’t fight with other dogs, he just seemed to stay awhile in someone’s yard and, if possible, to say hello to the owners. People began to call us to come and get him before the dog officer saw him. Some took him into their houses to hide him from the law. Once a woman on the other end of town called; when I got there she said, “Can you wait just a few minutes? I’m making him some scrambled eggs.”

I could tell many more stories about Sammy—they’re endless. But I’ll just tell you the unexpected, joyful conclusion. The dog officer resigned! And the next officer was a different sort; he too remembered and missed the old days. So when he found Sammy he would simply call him into his truck and drive him home. In this way, he lived a long and happy life, with many friends.

This is Sammy’s story. But I also think there are one or two poems in it somewhere. Maybe it’s about what life was like in this dear town years ago, and how a lot of us miss it.

Or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.

SERMON: “Spirituality At Home” 

That was Sammy’s story. Maybe it’s about missing what life was like in that dear town years ago. Maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.

Or maybe it’s about the free spirit’s longing to feel at home in the world.

After all, that’s what Sammy did: he went visiting, made the whole town his home.

As it happens, when I was a boy my family had a dog named Sam – short for Samantha. My sister and I named her after the main character in our favorite television show, “Bewitched.” We must have intuited her supernatural powers.

We lived in a new suburban development when we got her. There were fields and woods nearby where neighborhood kids used to run and play. Next door to our house was an ungraded vacant lot, and sitting on it beside our property line was a big cylinder  of concrete storm drain, broken at one end so that a row or two of rebar was exposed. This became Sam’s dog house.

This was in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, where winters were hard enough that she couldn’t live out there year round. In the cold months Mom put newspapers down in the garage, and a blanket for her to sleep on.

Both my sister and I had mild allergies, and as a consequence Sam’s access to the house was limited to the garage and the family room. The family room was the width of the two-car garage and probably twelve feet deep, with a big sliding glass patio door leading to the back yard. We spent a lot of time there together, and Sam spent it with us. When it was time for bed, we turned off the TV and let Sam out into the garage.

During the day, while we were at school, Sam would be tied up to her cylindrical dog house. She was part Dalmatian and part Lab, so this didn’t suit her. She wanted to run and explore.

Sam was heroic. She didn’t just chew through ropes, she broke chains. Literally. My mother tried to solve the rope problem by chaining her to the concrete cylinder. She failed. Sam continued to galavant off to the woods at will.

One day Sam met a skunk in the woods, and soon found out all about it. Mom labored hard giving her a tomato juice bath.

Sam’s story had no unexpected, joyful conclusion. I’m not sure how long we had her, maybe three years. Then one day she went back to the Humane Society. The reason my sister and I were given was that we were not taking care of the dog, it was all falling to Mom. I was at most in 4th grade; my sister was graduating high school.

Looking back, I wish Mom had found a friendly neighbor to gift her to. In that suburban environment, where no one had a memory of how things used to be except the displaced deer and skunks, there was not even a dog officer to be found.

There is something profound for the spirit in feeling at home – in one’s house, in one’s community, in the world. Some of us will break chains to get it.

I have learned another way this goes, with a different pet. When I first had Jenny, I tried going outdoors with her. She was terrified. I carried her out onto the front porch of my house, thinking that being held a while might comfort her until she got acclimated. A car went by, and at the sound of it she dug her claws into my chest and clung on. The most comforting thing for her was to stay inside. The house was her world, she didn’t want any more than that.

Later we moved to an apartment near the hospital where I worked as a chaplain. It was a second-floor garden apartment with a balcony in back overlooking a lake and walking paths. I had a garden out there, in pots, and set out a chaise lounge. That smaller, more defined outdoor space was something she could handle better. No cars rumbling by; instead, ducks and other cats and birds to watch. That was her speed. She could be at home in that.

There is something profound for the spirit in feeling at home – in the wide world, or a small slice of it, or on a balcony where you can watch and smell it. Some of us will venture gingerly to get it.

One summer not long ago, I was visiting Constance and one of her three indoor cats got outside and bolted like Sam or Sammy. We had heard that if you put the litterbox outside, your cat will smell it and it will guide them home. So we did that. At about 3am, something woke me up. On a hunch, I went downstairs. And I let the cat in.

“If it is your nature to be happy, you will swim away along the soft trails for hours, your imagination alighting everywhere. And if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than lead – if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging – there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted.”

So wrote Mary Oliver. Also this:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination … over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

And Amanda Udis-Kessler, author of our opening hymn, wrote – in the manner, though not the theology, of St. Francis – of Mother Earth, Father Air, Brother Fire, Sister Water, and Lover Spirit – Mother Earth providing for us, Father Air leading us to love and give, Brother Fire stoking our will to grow, Sister Water refreshing our courage, Lover Spirit amplifying the quiet voice of conscience – an imaginative naming of that “family of things” to which we belong. “All connected, we are whole,” she wrote.

It is a two-way conversation. There is the universe calling to us, and there is our response, what we make of the world to understand it, and to feel at home in it.

What we make of the world is a story we tell ourselves. It serves a purpose, perhaps several. That story is naturally bound up with our sense of ourselves: of what we are made of, and what is possible for us. If we are like Sammy, or even like Jenny on the balcony, we offer that story back as our response to the world, and it is no longer just a story. It becomes also one side of a conversation, venturing out where it can encounter responses to itself, and be changed and grow, develop, responding further to the conversation that spawned it. What we make of the world continues to change, to gain depth and dimension, if we are pursuing this imaginative conversation with the universe, growing in understanding, connection, and belonging.

I have been talking, as Mary Oliver and Amanda Udis-Kessler did, about a conversation we have with “the family of things,” what we sometimes name “the interdependent web of all existence.”

There is another such conversation, that we human beings have among ourselves. This other conversation is about how we will be with each other, how we will behave and organize ourselves, and who we are collectively. I said this is another conversation, but often it is several other conversations, each demarked by the horizons of the “we” who are imagined as having it.

These conversations feel a lot like the one between us and “the family of things.” Our human family calls to us, and we respond, to understand and feel at home in the various human communities we encounter. We are changed in these encounters: shaped, formed, and molded in youth, growing, developing, responding further for the rest of our lives. We encounter wisdom and folly, helpful traditions and harmful ones, helpful and harmful innovations, care and meanness, inspirations and disappointments, dangers and salvations. We encounter discords, contradictions, confusions, ignorance, divisions, and disagreements.

Longing to belong in human community – a human community that belongs in turn to the family of things – we imagine lands of love, freedom, justice, and singing. We strive for these, by turns failing and succeeding for a time. Each success finds us together in joy, perhaps with a few chewed-off ropes attached. Each failure is a lesson in chewing, or persistence, or the decorum of the courtroom, or the character of the dog officer.

And over and over, life picks us up and shows us where our true home is, saying “Do your best.”

May we all do our best, and may we be rewarded with love and justice and joy and the feeling of being at home in the world. Amen.

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“The Ministry of Friendship” 4/15/2018

Last Sunday I was the pulpit guest up in Longview, Texas. For about three years before I moved to New Orleans, I preached at the Unitarian Fellowship there once a month. My hosts most times were Jay and Jessica Noble, a retired couple who were founding members of that congregation. I got to know them over that time, and came to think of them as friends. A few years back they traded off hosting duties to another couple, and about two years ago they sold their house and moved into a senior living facility in Tyler, near their son and his family. I learned just a couple of weeks ago that Jessica had died; her memorial service was on the 7th, the day before I preached.

When I arrived Saturday evening at the home of my new regular hosts, Marolen and Tom, we talked, of course, about Jessica. In the course of our conversation, Marolen remarked, “I’ve known her a long time; I wish I had gotten to know her better.”

That touched my heart, because the Longview Fellowship is a small congregation – they report in the UUA directory that they have 24 members – and my impression has been that they do know each other pretty well. But maybe it’s more common than I like to think that folks enjoy being together without really getting to know each other well.

They packed the house for Jessica’s memorial service. Longview has about 150 theatre-style seats in their sanctuary, and they were ready to bring out chairs to supplement that. Jessica had friends from her 40-year career as a grade-school science teacher, and from many organizations about town she was involved in. Marolen said that she knew a lot of the people who came, whom she knew from one activity or context, and they had known Jessica in another. The connections of this small church to the Longview community became visible in that gathering, and so did connections they didn’t know they had to each other.

It’s not uncommon for a memorial service to offer that kind of experience. And it’s a poignant context for it, because it easily generates those feelings of, “Oh, I didn’t know” and “I wish I had known” and “I wish I had known them better.”

Grief counselor Alan Wolfert talks about grieving someone as a transition from a relationship of presence to a relationship of memory. That matches my experience, and it makes me think about the difference between the two. I think it’s so important to share memories when you’re grieving because it inaugurates that new kind of relationship, and helps you get started participating in it. And I think it’s so important to make those memories by participating deeply in the relationship of presence that’s happening now, between all of us living.

I learned yesterday, while listening to “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on the radio, that it takes spending some significant time together to develop even a casual friendship. According to a study at the University of Kansas, it takes about 50 hours – more than a week of full-time work – to develop a casual friendship; it takes about twice that – more than two weeks’ full-time effort – to develop a substantial friendship; and it takes a full-time month – more than 200 hours – to make a best friend.

 

For more about the study:

https://news.ku.edu/2018/03/06/study-reveals-number-hours-it-takes-make-friend

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/how-long-does-it-take-to-be-friends-with-somebody-a8296261.html

 

I thought about that, and I thought about my own friendships, and the ways I stay in touch with friends from many parts of my life, and it seems to me that relationships of presence form a spectrum. For example, my college friend Greg – who made this chalice pin I’m wearing – we’re going on 40 years of friendship. That started with a good 200+ hours spent together hanging around the dorm and having meals and doing activities together while we were students. We kept up by writing letters, back when that was a thing. We found time to visit over the years, too. And then came Facebook, and I get to follow his artistic and acting and table-waiting careers in pictures and haikus and other stuff he posts. And because we know a lot about each other, and know how to listen to each other, we’ve been able to stay close at a distance of thousands of miles. I cherish him. And we’ve put a lot of work into that over the years.

Likewise, with my friend Constance, whom many of you have met. She lives in Houston – not thousands of miles, but hours of driving, anyway. She’s my closest friend, also the result of plenty more than 200 hours spent together over the 8 years I lived there. I get to visit her more frequently than I do Greg, and we also keep up on Facebook, and we use the video-calling feature on Facebook Messenger instead of the phone. My iPad’s microphone wasn’t working for a while, and that was just painful, not to have the option of calling her “on the visiphone,” as I like to call it.

By contrast, I am gradually making friends in the choir I sing in here in town, the Voices of New Orleans choir. I spend 2 hours a week with them most of the year, which means I have spent somewhere between 100 and 200 hours there so far. But I feel like it’s only about 50 – that is, I feel like these are casual friendships. And I’m pretty sure I feel that way because of the way we spend our time. We don’t spend nearly as much time socializing and getting to know each other as we do engaged in the tasks of rehearsals and performances. Whereas the time I spend with Greg or Constance is all about paying attention to them and staying connected, in the choir our attention is on the music much more than on each other.

That can happen in a church as well. It’s important to recognize the value of the time we spend getting acquainted, socializing, and learning about each other – and learning how to listen and to speak to each other, how to share who we are, how to find our comfort zones with each other and expand them if we can, keeping our covenant to be kind and respectful and strive to be our best selves together. It’s at least a little different between any two people, and we can expect to form different kinds and sizes of comfort zones with different folks in the church. That’s normal, and every good faith effort we make helps build the messy but real beloved community that a church is meant to be.

The friendships we form make the church what it is. Friendship is the foundational ministry of a church, and it’s one we all participate in, whether we think of it as a ministry or not, whether we think of it as part of the work of the church or not. Friendships are a reason most of us sought out a church to begin with, and friendships keep us coming back. We come because we enjoy being together. And tending our friendships doesn’t feel like work, even though the University of Kansas says it is. The work in it is not that hard, though. It’s all about paying attention to each other, and being curious, and showing appreciation and kindness and affection in ways that let us know that we are each beloved, now – right now – as we are. These things are not that hard, because they are things we want to do and to experience together.

And for times when some of us have needs that the church as a beloved community can help with, we are organized to do our best. The First Church Caring Circle is a covenanted Team that meets monthly to pay attention to members we learn are in need of help we are able to give. We can cook meals, or provide rides, or offer a good listening ear – the kinds of things friends do for friends. We go to trainings – several of us this month are finishing up a training on ministry to the sick that Rev. Jane Mauldin helps to lead. Will the members of the Caring Circle Team please come forward if you can and just stand here on the rug together a moment and let people see you?  [introduce team] 

One thing we’re learning about together on the Caring Circle Team is how setting boundaries is a form of kindness. We’re kind to ourselves when we know our limits – what we are able to provide, and what we are not. And we’re kind to folks in need when we’re able to be clear about that and know how to connect them to other sources of help.

Every good relationship has boundaries that keep it healthy and happy. Usually we seek these and find them without thinking about it too much. We instinctively hold a space of kindness and support for each other, and define that space according to our own limits and capacities to hold it comfortably and sustainably. And sometimes it ebbs and flows a bit – depending on what is happening in our lives, our limits and capacities to hold supportive space for others varies: sometimes we have more, sometimes less.

There’s another way that boundaries can be a kindness. You might have noticed that I don’t sing in the church choir, even though I love to sing. That’s a kindness to the choir. I like to sing in the Voices of New Orleans choir because it challenges me – we sing harder stuff. I know how I get when I sing in a group without that aspect of challenge: I get irritable. And I love our choir, and I don’t want to subject them to that. Or me, either. And it wouldn’t be very supportive of Michael and Jane for me to be a prickly presence in rehearsals. I know how I get about music. So I opt for the kinder boundary.

I say that to give you permission, if you need it, to find your place in the church’s ministry of friendship that feels right for you – that feels kind, comfortable, sustainable, and good to you. Each of us has a different capacity, different limits, and different gifts to offer: to do with time, or skill and training, or specific history with each other, or personal history or hurts that affect what we can do. You know best what you bring to this ministry, and what you might be willing to lean into and learn. All I’m asking is that you think of your friendships here as a ministry of the church, because they are. The friendships we form make the church what it is. Friendships form the foundation of a church. They are a ministry we all participate in. They are why we came, and why we stayed. They are the gifts of ourselves to each other that help us all be our best, and keep growing and deepening spiritually.

May we embrace friendship’s opportunities to grow and to give. And may we widen the circles of our care. So may it be. Amen.

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“Balance” 3/18/2018

READING: from The Balance Within by Esther Sternberg
Nestled at the top of a brown, stony hill above the modern Cretan village of Lentas, at the intermingling of cool, sage mountain air and warm, salt sea breezes, are the ruins of an ancient temple to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. It is a few meters above what was once the source of a natural spring. Ancient priests used these waters and prayer, music, sleep, and dreams to cure the sick. And the village people, who still live as one with the rhythms of the sea and sun, know, as their ancestors knew, that emotions and health are one. … When did we modern scientists and physicians lose the knowledge that was so much a part of these ancient teachings of medicine? And why has the road back to acceptance of this wholeness taken so many centuries to travel?

… The central principle of medical teaching that for 1,000 years linked emotions and disease was the balance of the four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. These visible secretions were physicians’ only window into the workings of the body. Imbalances in them were equated not only with disease, but also with emotions. Vestiges of the concepts are buried in the words we still use to describe emotional types: sanguine, melancholy, phlegmatic, choleric.

… Emotions are always with us, but constantly shifting. They change the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves. Diseases come and go but on a different time scale. And if they change the way we see the world, they do it through emotions. Could something as vague and fleeting as an emotion actually affect something as tangible as a disease? … We all suspect [so], yet we can’t say why and certainly not how.

 

SERMON: “Balance” 

In awkward times – times of sickness or confusion or hardship – having spiritual practices that help you tap into sources of healing and clarity and peace, also help you keep your whole life in good balance.

During the time when I was a full-time hospital chaplain, I was exposed to a lot of talk and literature about emotions and healing. One idea about the efficacy of prayer for healing had to do with its physiological effects, reducing a fast heart rate, for example, by reducing anxiety. I witnessed that, with a family in the surgical ICU gathered around the bed of their loved one, praying the rosary together. She was not able to pray aloud with them, but the heart and breath monitors recorded her return to normal rates as they prayed.

Another example is what’s known as “the breath prayer” or “prayer of the heart” – sometimes called “the Jesus prayer” because you say “Jesus, mercy,” slowly breathing in on “Jesus” and slowly breathing out on “mercy.” The intentional breath is meant to focus your attention on the prayer, which in its original full form was: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We have a version of this practice in our teal hymnal, with a different prayer: “When I breathe in I breathe in peace, when I breathe out, I breathe out love.” I can’t help pointing out that this text reverses the basic meaning of the Jesus prayer, where the theological meaning is to breathe in God’s love and feel the peace that brings on the out breath. But either prayer can be valid. And the intentional breath does double duty – focusing your attention away from anxieties that can affect your body’s functioning, and affecting the body directly through the slow, regulated breathing. This practice has been known since the 6th century, the time of Saint Benedict – what we used to call “the Dark Ages.” Some light there, though, as Esther Sternberg points out.

She uses three symbols in talking about balance: the spring; the humors; and the movement of shifting. Balance itself is a metaphor – the thing we’re talking about when we speak of trying to achieve balance in our lives, or a spiritual sense of balance, is not literally a state or act of physically balancing something, like a bicycle or a stack of Jenga blocks. (Do you know the game, Jenga, where you have a stack of blocks and you take turns removing blocks from the middle of the stack? The loser is the one who causes the stack to fall.) But something – maybe several things – about those physical acts of balancing somehow “feels like” what we mean by spiritual or life balance. So, to get at what “balance” means in those realms, I want to walk through these three symbols that Esther Sternberg uses and see what they might suggest about what we mean by spiritual or life “balance.”

THE FIRST SYMBOL IS A SPRING.
Sternberg describes a temple of Aesclepius, the god of healing, located by a spring. A spring is a source of life – water – flowing in from a natural source – not the first thing we normally think of as an example of “balance.” Balance ought to display an appearance of stillness, not movement. Or so we often think. But Sternberg says that Asclepius’s priests combined spring water with prayer, music, sleep, and dreams to cure the sick. All of these are things that move, or have duration in time. The spring flows, dreams flow, sleep flows through a natural cycle, music flows, and if you pray you know that prayer flows, too. We, like the ancients, think of health as a balance; Asclepius’s spring shows us that the balance of health relies on, and may be composed of, such curative flows.

I lifted a quote from one of the readings in our hymnal for the top of today’s order of service. My colleague Jane Rzepka wrote that: “The flow of life moves ever onward through one faithful spring, and another, and now another.” She has in mind the seasons, the renewal of life in springtime; but she uses the verb “flow” in a way that points to Aesclepius’ sort of spring, the idea of life’s or the spirit’s renewal through healing. The flow of the seasons describes another meaning of balance: the proportion of life flowing in, balanced against what we expend. It suggests that balance depends upon a flow, a source of new life.

THE SECOND SYMBOL IS THE ANCIENT GREEK IDEA OF BODILY HUMORS – four fluids that ancient doctors could observe and draw conclusions about. They imagined that the relative physical proportions of these fluids in the body corresponded to states of physical health or illness, and to emotional states. We still have words in English whose roots are in this ancient theory. The word “sanguine” refers to blood, and means optimism, especially in a difficult situation. The word “choleric” refers to choler or yellow bile, and means irritable. (The word “bilious” – derived from billis, the Latin word for “bile” – means angry or spiteful; both “choleric” and “bilious” can mean “bad-tempered,” an English term reflecting the ancients’ view that anger was always dangerous and bad. Anger, spitefulness, and irritability were “bad tempers” – by definition “out of balance.”) The word “melancholy” – depression – refers to melancholer or black bile; melan is Greek for “black,” hence the name “melanin” for black skin pigment. And the word “phlegmatic,” of course, refers to phlegm and means unemotional, calm and cool – Midwestern, perhaps.

To translate into a more local vernacular, we might speak of the four elements of a cocktail: spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. We judge a cocktail by the balance of these four flavor elements in the mix. (“Temperament,” by the way, derives from temperare, the Latin word for “mixing.”) I imagine spirit is the irritable part, bitters the depressed part, sugar the optimism, and water the calm cool part. If so, then the cocktail puts a new spin on “irritability” – maybe it’s more like agitation, or energy. And bitters give depth and body to the flavor of a cocktail, not unlike past grief or lessons learned the hard way. Perhaps the difference between irritability and energy, or between depression and depth, is less about what has happened to us and more about what we have done with it.

WHICH BRINGS US TO SHIFTING. Balance is essential when things are shifting. We can imagine two different sorts of physical balance: there’s balance like when you ride a bicycle – that’s a dynamic balancing act, an ongoing series of adjustments to keep the bike upright – and there’s balance like a stack of Jenga blocks has: purely determined by outside forces. The blocks have no inherent ability to hold themselves in balance, which is why they inevitably fall: they were never in with a chance. Happily, we are.

If we are not Jenga blocks, how do we describe in metaphor that state of balance that doesn’t feel like riding a bicycle? It might be helpful to add a symbol: let’s think about how birds balance. They balance in flight, which I imagine is like riding a bicycle. And they balance standing on one leg (or at least some birds do). While one of these is balance-in-motion and the other is balance-in-stillness, both are dynamic states of balance. Unlike the Jenga blocks, the bird makes an effort to hold its balance, and has the power to do so.

This puts me in mind of another image used by the Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman in his fine short book, titled Methods of Private Religious Living. Wieman’s lifelong project was to find what he thought were new and better words for old religious concepts. (I told you he was a Unitarian.) Anybody else would have titled this book Prayer. But in it he writes about why it’s a good idea – more than a good idea; I think, essential – to have a spiritual practice, or a set of them.

He says you can choose to live what he calls “a brush pile life” or a life “like a great tree.” The parts of the brush pile have no organic relation to each other. The only support they give one another is inert, like a pile of tumbled Jenga blocks. But in a tree, all the parts are connected and give life to each other. And a great tree – one that has grown large – has gotten the way it is through that flow of sap and absorption of light that feeds it, and allows it to feed itself.

This image, I think, pulls together the notion of balance-like-a-bird-standing, the still sort of balance we think of as spiritual. The bird is not ever going to be still like a tree, but for periods of time it appears to be. It’s not rooted like the tree, but it does have the organic wholeness that the tree has. And it is able to move from the balance of its standing to the balance of flight and back again. If spiritual balance is described alternately by the flight and stillness of a bird, then I would say life balance is described by the right measure of graceful flight and one-leg-standing in the mix of all the other more awkward movements of which life is composed.

And in the most awkward times – of sickness or confusion or hardship – having spiritual practices that help you tap into sources of healing and clarity and peace, also help you keep your whole life in good balance. So may it be for each of us. Amen.

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