I want to start out this morning by sharing a real-life X-File with you. Do you get that image, “X-File”? Comes from a hit television show of the same name, which aired in the 1990s and up till 2002.
In the show, X-Files are unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena, collected by the FBI but no one really takes them seriously except for this one agent, nicknamed “Spooky,” who’s passionately curious about them and happily willing to risk his reputation to get to the truth. I’m talking Fox Mulder. First time we meet him, he’s in his office, in the very bowels of the FBI building, the basement, can’t get any lower than that in the bureaucratic food chain. A clear message from his FBI bosses about what they think about the whole business.
“X-Files,” in short, is an image loaded with powerful themes: mystery, passionate curiosity, risk, denial and disdain. X-File means all that together. Something that goes bump in the night of our normal, tidy sense of life.
So now, a real X-File. And since this is real life, it comes not from an FBI file but from a book by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph. D., entitled Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. It’s her personal X-File, which changed her life.
She writes, “In 1991 I was teaching in the psychology department of the University of California at Berkeley and at the University Medical Center in San Francisco. I was doing research on female development and seeing patients in my psychoanalysis practice. I was a member of numerous professional associations, doing committee work, attending international meetings, functioning on editorial boards, and lecturing all over the country. I was a training and supervising analyst in the American Psychoanalytic Association. I was busy and fulfilled, and life was running along the way it does.
“My eleven-year-old daughter, Meg, who’d fallen in love with the harp at age six, had begun performing. She wasn’t playing a classical pedal harp but a smaller, extremely valuable instrument built and carved by a master harp maker. After a Christmas concert, her harp was stolen from the theater where she was playing. For two months we went through every conceivable channel trying to locate it: the police, instrument dealers across the country, the American Harp Society newsletters–even a CBS TV news story. Nothing worked.
“Finally, a wise and devoted friend told me, “If you really want that harp back, you should be willing to try anything. Try calling a dowser.” The only thing I knew about dowsers were that they were that strange breed who locate underground water with forked sticks. But according to my friend, the “really good” dowsers can locate not just water but lost objects as well.
“Finding lost objects with forked sticks? Well, nothing was happening on the police front, and my daughter, spoiled by several years of playing an extraordinary instrument, had found the series of commercial harps we’d rented simply unplayable. So, half-embarrassed but desperate, I decided to take my friend’s dare. I asked her if she could locate a really good dowser–the best, I said. She promptly called the American Society of Dowsers and came back with the phone number of the society’s current president: Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“I called him that day. Harold picked up the phone–friendly, cheerful, heavy Arkansas accent. I told him I’d heard he could dowse for lost objects and that I’d had a valuable harp stolen in Oakland, California. Could he help locate it?
“’Give me a second,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you if it’s still in Oakland.’ He paused, then: ‘Well, it’s still there. Send me a street map of Oakland and I’ll locate that harp for you.’ Skeptical–but what, after all, did I have to lose? I promptly overnighted him a map. Two days later, he called back. ‘Well, I got that harp located,’ he said. ‘It’s in the second house on the right on D- Street, just off L- Avenue.’
“I’d never heard of either street. But I did like the sound of the man’s voice–whoever he was. And I don’t like backing down on a dare. Why not drive to the house he’d identified? At least I’d get the address. I looked on an Oakland map and found the neighborhood. It was miles from anywhere I’d ever been. I got in my car, drove into Oakland, located the house, wrote down the number, called the police, and told them I’d gotten a tip that the harp might be at that house. Not good enough for a search warrant, they said. They were going to close the case–there was no way this unique, portable, and highly marketable item hadn’t already been sold; it was gone forever.
“But I found I couldn’t quite let it go. Was it the dare? Was it my admiration for the friend who’d instigated the whole thing? Was it my devastated daughter? Or was it just that I had genuinely liked the sound of that voice on the other end of the line?
“I decided to post flyers in a two-block area around the house, offering a reward for the harp’s return. It was a crazy idea, but why not? I put up flyers in those two blocks, and only those two blocks. I was embarrassed enough about what I was doing to tell just a couple of close friends about it.
“Three days later, my phone rang. A man’s voice told me he’d seen a flyer outside his house describing a stolen harp. He said it was exactly the harp his next-door neighbor had recently obtained and showed him. He wouldn’t give me his name or number, but offered to get the harp returned to me. And two weeks later, after a series of circuitous telephone calls, he told me to meet a teenage boy at 10:00 p.m., in the rear parking lot of an all-night Safeway. I arrived to find a young man loitering in the lot. He looked at me, and said, ‘The harp?’ I nodded. Within minutes, the harp was in the back of my station wagon and I drove off.
“Twenty-five minutes later, as I turned into my driveway, I had the thought, This changes everything.”
That’s Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph. D’s personal X-File. And did you note the moments in her story where her inner FBI bosses made their displeasure known at the spookiness of the whole affair? “Finding lost objects with forked sticks?”—just imagine how she must have said this to herself. The kind of inner voice that speaks it. Then consider her feeling of embarrassment about the whole thing. Or how the idea of posting the flyers strikes her as crazy. All are evidence of inner FBI bosses in conflict with her inner Fox Mulder, and it is only her desperation and her concern for her daughter and her admiration for her friend and her dogged unwillingness to back down from a dare that kept her engaged in her adventure with dowsing.
Brings to mind a quote from the great psychologist Carl Jung. “Reason,” he says, “sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us, and would have us accept only the known … just as if we were sure how far life actually extends.” “[N]owadays most people identify themselves almost exclusively with their consciousness, and imagine that they are only what they know about themselves. Yet anyone with even a smattering of psychology can see how limited this knowledge is. Rationalism and doctrinarism are the disease of our time; they pretend to have all the answers.” That’s what Carl Jung says. And Elizabeth Mayer knows it. It’s the inner FBI bosses within her, telling her that she needed to reject dowsing a priori, without even trying it, because dowsing is by definition impossible. It’s supernatural. Can’t work. Ever. Kick it to the basement. Out of sight, out of mind.
Interestingly, when word of her experience got out to her medical and psychoanalytic colleagues, the dam broke and all of a sudden they began to inundate her with accounts of their own paranormal experiences. “The stories,” she says, “were all about knowing things in bizarrely inexplicable ways, like: ‘My patient walked in and I knew her mother had died—no clues—I just knew it instantly.’ Or: ‘I woke up in the middle of the night like I had heard a shot, and the next day I found out it was exactly when my patient took a gun and tried to kill herself.’ Or: ‘I suddenly felt that my partner’s son was in trouble. I called my partner, and it worried him enough that he tracked down his son. His son had been in a bad car accident and my partner got there just in time to make a decision about a surgery that probably saved his life.’” Elizabeth Mayer goes on to say, “I was particularly fascinated by how eagerly my colleague shared even the most weirdly personal stories with me. Their eagerness puzzled me, until I realized how badly people wanted to reintegrate corners of experience they’d walled off from their public lives for fear of being disbelieved.”
Does that ring a bell for you? Do you have a personal X-File? Have you ever experienced your internal Fox Mulder in a wrestling match with your internal FBI bosses? Fox Mulder, wanting to solve X-Files, but only at great risk….
But everything has a background. Everything has a story, and so do our internal FBI bosses. Where are they coming from? What exactly makes paranormal experience so off limits, so impossible, for them?
Parapsychologist Hoyt Edge sees it as a consequence, ultimately, of 16th and 17th century European thinkers trying to escape the oppression of the Church, and doing this by basically dividing reality into matter, on the one hand, and mind on the other.
The Church would still be authoritative, but only over the realm of the mind, which is the realm of values and purposes and free choices. “On the other hand,” says Hoyt Edge, “there was matter, which was non-thinking and had nothing to do with values (an atom is neither good nor bad). The material world was simply a machine that was determined, and the only stake that the Church should have in it was the assertion that it was the creation of God.” Over time, this conceptual revolution, triggered by philosophers like Rene Descartes, would lead to the rationalism and doctrinarism that we heard Carl Jung, a moment ago, describe as diseases of our time—a sense of what’s really real which remains solid and unshaken for most people even after almost 100 years of weird, mind-blowing revelations coming from the field of quantum physics. Matter completely inert, completely dead, just surface and no spiritual depth. Hoyt Edge describes it like this: “(1) Reality ultimately consists of basic units—in the material world these are indivisible material bits; (2) Atoms exist in a void; the purpose of the void is to separate the atoms, which are self-sufficient and inherently not connected to or dependent on other atoms; and (3) action occurs through contact, one atom bumping against another.” That’s the inner FBI boss conviction. So when it encounters something like dowsing—which involves getting information about something without anything bumping against anything at all (information secured at a distance)—it rejects it instantly. Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, using his dowsing rod to find something out about what’s going on in Oakland, California. Impossible.
But it’s not impossible. It happened. Things like this happen. Elizabeth Mayer got the harp back, put it in the back of her stationwagon, came back home, turned into her driveway, and that was the moment when she realized that life had just addressed her with a huge question, and she would need to work hard to come up with some answers. She’d have to unleash her inner Fox Mulder. That’s what she’d have to do.
I love this moment. Brings me back to why I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I’m a Unitarian Universalist because I believe that the world and God are just too big to be defined by any one metaphor and by any one way. “The reason ours is a creedless faith,” says the Rev. Bill Schultz, “is because we have a theory about Creation and our theory—unlike that of most religious traditions—is that Creation is too grand, too glorious, too complex, and too mysterious to be captured in any narrow creed or reflected in any single metaphor.” Life is constantly addressing us with huge questions, challenging us to open up our minds and open up our hearts. And that’s what our faith calls us to. Even when we’re talking about weird stuff like the paranormal.
Got to get our inner Fox Mulder out of the basement. Get him working for us. His passion. His willingness to risk looking like a fool because he values truth more than appearances.
You know, in the X-Files TV show, a main theme is conspiracy. People wanting to silence Fox Mulder because if he does find out the truth, it’s going to be horrible. All that extraterrestrial stuff, that UFO stuff—just the government engaged in awful biological experimentation, stuff like that, and covering it up. But what I would leave you with today is the thought that paranormal experience, and parapsychology in general, would take us to a completely different, completely positive place. To a heightened, even supercharged sense of our Seventh Unitarian Universalist Principle of the interconnected web of all existence. How this interconnectedness is such that a dowser in Arkansas can use his dowsing rod to discover something true about what’s going on in California. Such that a therapist can wake up in the middle of the night, thinking he heard a shot, and later he learns that at that exact time his patient had tried to shoot herself. Mysteriously, we are connected together, people and things and planet, in a far deeper and more fundamental way than physical collision. Mind is not cut off from everything else, locked up in our skulls. The boundaries of our skin are not the boundaries of ourselves. No such thing as an absolute dualism of mind and body. Relationship is more real than separation. Human minds are not inexplicable intrusions in a nature otherwise full of dead matter but rather fruitions of awareness that belongs to everything, to some degree. The sacred is everyday and everywhere. This is a transformed sense of the world, a re-enchanted universe, and Fox Mulder would take us there. Here’s what he’s saying to all of us today: Here it is: “The truth is out there.”
Reading before the sermon:
Today’s reading comes from the Rev. Dick Fewkes, one of the original members of the Unitarian Universalist PSI Symposium. “PSI” is a letter of the Greek alphabet, and it refers to the paranormal, psychic, trans-sensory, intuitive areas of consciousness. Accordingly, the UU PSI Symposium, since its founding in 1970, has encouraged the study and practice of PSI as a pathway to personal development and spiritual growth.
A couple of months ago one of the major television networks did a program on “Secrets of the Psychics” in which they exposed the trickery and deception used by phony psychics and mediums to hoodwink the public and to make money off of it. The magician James Randi has done similar exposes. I enjoyed the program and appreciated learning how the phony psychics and mediums fool their unwitting subjects. Being an amateur magician myself I appreciated learning some more tricks of the trade.
However, I was bothered by the unspoken assumptions of the program—that since some so-called psychics and mediums are liars and cheats therefore all are, and moreover, all psychic and mystical experience, yours and others, should be suspect from the start. Those are assumptions I am not willing to make. For the fact of the matter is people in all times and places do have psychic and mystical experiences and they simply cannot be reduced to purely wishful thinking and unrealistic self-delusions, or worse, the attempt to manipulate and take advantage of others. Such experiences have to be understood on their own terms.
The great Harvard psychologist, William James, a pioneer in the study of religious and mystical experience, once said that it only takes one white crow to prove that not all crows are black. In other words some psychic and mystical experiences are genuine regardless of how many others may be false or delusional. Moreover, declared James, the deeper levels of human consciousness made manifest in mystical and telepathic states, ”forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality”, and that ”no account of the universe in its totality can he final which leaves these other forms of consciousness…disregarded.”
I have always felt that so-called “paranormal” phenomena and experiences are perfectly natural and are clues and signals about how we are connected to one another and to the source of life and the universe. The problem is we have too narrow a view of what we think is possible or normal in the kind of universe we live in.
I was looking through some personal files the other day, and I happened to find some old progress reports from elementary school. Particularly interesting are the comments from grade two.
“Anthony is reading quite well in his group—his vocabulary is very good and he is able to attack new words quite well. However, his printing is messy and improvement in this area should be encouraged.” Not the first time I’ve heard something like that….
Here’s another comment: “Anthony’s attention tends to wander quite often and as a result he often falls behind in his arithmetic assignments. He is not doing as well as he could since he does not have a good grasp of the basic facts.” Not the first time I’ve heard something like that….
But now the final comment, and the one most pertinent to our topic this morning: “Anthony does not do very well in group work and always ends up arguing with his partners.” The comment sends me way back, over the long years, to my second grade mind, and I can almost touch its shocked realization that other people weren’t going to do what I said, when I said it, just because I said it, no matter how eminently clear and reasonable things felt to me. In moments like that, other people seemed perversely independent and idiosyncratic and complex, like cats, doing their own thing, though somehow I knew that, if all the right conditions were met, the cats could be herded, the cats could all get on the same page and accomplish something larger than any of them could ever accomplish alone.
I knew it. Thus my sense of shock—and the life-long pursuit, ever after, of learning the art of leadership. Learning what it is not, and what it is.
And clearly, to begin with, it’s not about dominating others. It’s not about acting like a second-grader when, like me, you happen to be forty-three.
I risk stating the obvious, only because there exists a stubborn impression that leadership in its essence is exactly about dominating others. As my colleague Erik Walker Wikstrom writes in his excellent little book, Serving With Grace: Lay Leadership as Spiritual Practice, “How do I understand the word ‘leader?’ This is a sticking point for many people in congregations today. […] [L]eaders are people who tell everybody else what to do and how to do it. Leaders exercise ‘power over’ and are relics of a patriarchal system that is no longer appropriate in the twenty-first century (if, indeed, it ever was).” That’s what Erik Walker Wikstrom says. The word “leader” can generate distrust when it comes up in liberal religious community, because of what instantly springs to mind.
What springs to mind for you, when you hear that word, “leader”? Lots of baggage we can put on that word, making it hard to see what it’s really all about.
If the image of dominator doesn’t come to mind, what about that of the saint? Me, a leader? Aren’t leaders the kind of people who go straight to the work naturally and make few to no mistakes? Aren’t leaders the kind of people who have easy eloquence and speak without anxiety in front of groups, who feel fearless when real people feel fear, who effortlessly cast vision and instantly inspire loyalty? Me, a leader?
Underneath the question lurks … perfectionism, and to the degree we demand perfection from ourselves, we demand it from others who dare to show up, step up, show the way. Paul Loeb, in his fantastic book Soul of a Citizen, tells the story of a small Minnesota college where a half-dozen students were sleeping in make-shift cardboard shelters. They wanted to dramatize the plight of America’s homeless. One participant recalled, “People who passed by treated us like a slumber party. They told us we were cute. But when we kept on going for a couple of days, people started to get annoyed. Some called us crazy or fanatical. One girl said that we were being hypocritical—homeless people don’t have blankets. I said yes they do; they just don’t have homes. To me it looked like she would have been satisfied only of we got soaked in the freezing rain and got hypothermia, or we launched a hunger strike, or something else!” That’s what the Minnesota college student said. In other words, if in your social activism you aren’t martyring yourself, presumably like the heroes and saints of old, then what kind of leader are you? What’s wrong with you!
How we define leadership is key. There are consequences. If to be a leader there must be perfection, then naturally if you take a leadership position, and you end up doing ten impossible things, but an eleventh impossible thing goes undone, or God forbid something goes wrong, you get to be the punching bag.
False images have consequences. Consider yet a third, that can turn us off even as we might unquestioningly accept it as accurate: leader as potential burn-out case. The people we always go to for help when no one else steps up, and they help again and again and again and again until they break. That’s leadership. The burn-out track.
A special case of this is the “good citizen”—the warm body willing to do what needs to be done, whether or not it happens to be a good fit for his or her skills, interests, and type. “Someone has to do it,” they say, so they do it; and with this—with the best of intentions and a most generous act of commitment—we often see the beginning of a long road of frustration for everyone concerned, and resentment that builds and builds, and burnout is around the corner.
Institutionally, this version of leadership as a burn-out track takes the form of a myth of limitlessness. It begins with a true premise: that the needs of this world are endless. The needs of newcomers and regulars; the needs of various age and lifestage identities like infants, children, youth, young adults, young parents, parents of children and teens, empty-nesters, divorcees, career transitioners, widows, the elderly, and the dying; and then the needs of various theological or social identities like theists, atheists, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, gays, straights, whites, blacks, and on and on. All these needs, and so many others–and don’t tell me that the needs of one aren’t as important as those of another. Don’t tell me that the needs of the elderly aren’t as important as those of teens. Don’t tell me that the needs of theists aren’t as important as those of atheists. Don’t tell me that the needs of gays and lesbians aren’t as important as those of straight people. Don’t tell me that! How could you tell me that? The needs are all equally deep and equally important. So how do we decide between them? How can we serve one without serving all?
This is the question—and the myth of limitlessness has an answer. Do it all. Make ourselves available to every call for action, even as resources are limited. Go in all directions at once. Resist all efforts to focus, or prioritize, because all such efforts feel unkind. Just can’t say NO. Just can’t say LATER. There must be a response to every need, and it’s got to happen now. Every need, entitled to an instant response.
And in the end, here is where we are if as a congregation we have bought into this false dream of limitlessness. Here it is. Our congregational reality will ironically be one of scarcity. You would think otherwise, but no. It’s because we may accomplish spectacular things, but that won’t matter, because we can always point to a need that has not yet been met, and so there is always an excuse to chastise ourselves, always an excuse to feel guilty. Scarcity and disappointment will characterize our congregational reality, and so will this: internal strife. Different congregational groups all demanding resources on their own terms and timetable, without loyalty to the best interests of the congregation as a whole. Different congregational groups in isolated silos, like different compartments of the brain not talking to each other, oblivious to our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle of the interdependent web, which applies as much to institutions as to anything else.
Domination is just not going to herd any cats. And neither is sainthood, neither is the burn-out track. The art of leadership lies upon a completely different path.
And here we turn to a more positive vision of the art. Not domination, first of all, but servanthood. Leadership at its finest is a matter of serving the genius that lies within the heart of a group, listening for it, collaborating with the group to give it voice.
My favorite way of doing this is always to ask a group, what does success look like? (Who here has ever heard me ask this?) Asking the group to envision the end of a program or event, and people walking away fulfilled. What does that fulfillment look like? How have people been changed? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What would need to happen for them to go to a friend and say, “Listen, I went to this event at UUCA, and it was amazing. You have to come with me next time!” What would take a person to this level of enthusiasm?
What does success look like? I love this approach because it has never resulted in the kind of arguments that apparently happened to me all the time in the second grade. Quite the opposite. By beginning with the end in mind, by directing everyone’s focus on that, what’s avoided is getting prematurely stuck on a favored tactic. Know what I’m talking about? It’s coming to the table stuck on an idea about what needs to be done, without first making sure that everyone around that same table has a shared sense of where we’re wanting to go. Without this shared sense of things, arguments over favored tactics get messy, fast. Cats staking out territory, spitting and clawing each other. That’s what can happen.
Ask the leadership question, though, and you end up in a completely different place. We put our favored tactics aside for the moment, we stop problem-solving for a moment, so that we can all share in the creation of a vision of success that gets us excited and pumped up. What does success look like? What does fulfillment look like? Ask the question, and then get out of the way. Write down what you hear. Faithfully record it. Then reflect with the group whose genius you are serving, whose energies you are trying to rally and move forward: If this is what success looks like, then what tactics will help us get there? Vision first, tactics next.
Note the process in all of this. The leader steps up to establish a clear framework for discovery, and then he or she steps back. Just gets out of the way.
Erik Walker Wikstrom, in his book I mentioned a moment ago, Serving With Grace, offers up an image of leadership that echoes all this. “The analogy,” he says, “is sometimes made to geese which, during their transcontinental flights, assume a ‘V’ formation. The goose out front is quite clearly the leader, not only helping to show the way but taking on the task of breaking through the headwinds to make it easier for all who follow. Yet the updraft of all the beating wings of the ‘followers’ makes the leader’s flight easier. And it’s also true that, at regular intervals, the leader drops back into a follower’s position and another leader comes to the front. Shared leadership,” Erik Walker Wikstrom concludes, “is not an oxymoron….”
And neither is imperfect leadership. This is my second positive point. The art of herding cats does not require sainthood but, rather, a persistent habit of calmly showing up, trying things to see how they work, learning from what happens, evolving. This nothing less than commitment to excellence. As the covenant that guides the work of our staff says, “We acknowledge that perfectionism is an obstacle to growth. As part of our commitment to excellence, we will view our mistakes as opportunities for personal and professional development and sometimes even openings for creativity and new perspectives.”
“If you don’t make mistakes,” it is said, “you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake” (F. Wikzek). ”Never say, ‘oops,’” says another wise voice. “Always say, ‘Ah, interesting’” (author unknown). But this is exactly what perfectionism blocks. Perfectionism freezes us up, as individuals and institutions. We’re saying oops constantly. We’re staying away from the really hard problems that are inevitably going to expose our weaknesses and growing edges. It makes us, in a word, unlucky. That’s right. I say this, thinking about a social-science article I encountered several months ago, about how to be lucky. It says, “Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected. In one experiment, people were asked to watch a moving dot in the centre of a computer screen. Without warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed at the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants noticed these large dots. The experiment was then repeated with a second group of people, who were offered a large financial reward for accurately watching the centre dot, creating more anxiety. They became focused on the centre dot and more than a third of them missed the large dots when they appeared on the screen. The harder they looked, the less they saw. And so it is with luck—unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.”
That’s what’s going to herd cats. Leadership as servanthood, and leadership as openness to where you happen to be right now, with a commitment to growth. Finally, this: leadership as living within our means. Practicing the sacred art of saying NO in order to clear the way to practicing the sacred art of saying YES. For both are sacred, and both are needed.
It means that in our service to the world, we spend only the energy and talents we already have, never saying YES to a volunteer positions that aren’t a clear fit. Don’t sign up reluctantly, since no one else is stepping up. Don’t just be a “good citizen”—be a discerning one instead; find where your interests and passions meet the congregation’s need. “The pitcher cries for water to carry,” says Poet Marge Piercy—but not just any old water will do.
Living within our means also suggests that, as an institution, we never allow the creation or maintenance of programs and activities to get beyond existing resources of people and money. Government has to do this, and so do we. We just don’t get the cart before the horse. First things first. And yes, it’s going to mean that some needs go unmet. Not because they are unimportant. Far from it. But if a great idea—old or new—lacks people to champion it (and I mean not just brainstorming it but bringing it all the way to full fruition), then we have to press “pause.” And, pressing pause should be no shame at all. It’s got to be OK. So is letting go of congregational projects and programs that, to continue, require arm-twisting and life-support. It’s got be OK to honor them and then let them go. Got to take a deep breath and trust the process. Got to trust in the creative uncertainty that’s a part of it—the creative time of waiting for the next viable idea that will light this place up to find us. Resist the temptation to do something that only a God could do, which is to refuse to let any balls drop, and to do it all NOW, to juggle everything all at once. Only God is that good a juggler.
In liberal religious circles, a word like “leadership” comes with a tremendous amount of baggage. It’s no wonder that, when the word comes up, or the invitation goes out to take on a leadership role, we can scatter like cats. My hope is that we can unload the baggage and see leadership as if for the first time. Re-imagine it. Leadership as servanthood. Leadership as openness to learning and luck. Leadership as the sacred art of saying NO so we can practice the sacred art of saying YES.
I’ll leave you with one of my very favorite images of the art of leadership: the waitress in the sacred kitchen. The waitress as each of us individually. The waitress as us collectively, this congregation. The image comes from the Rev. Meg Barnhouse. She writes, “I love for a waitress to call me “Hon.” It’s comforting. She doesn’t know me and I don’t know her, but we fit into well worn, ancient categories: I am the Hungry One and she is the One Who Brings Nourishment From the Unseen Source. When I was younger, I worked as a waitress in Philadephia and New Jersey. I learned useful things while serving food to strangers. I know how to rush around with my hands full, thinking about six things at the same time, which has stood me in good stead as the working mother of two small sons. I know that people are not at their best when they’re hungry. That knowledge helps me to understand world events. If the citizens of the world were well fed, we’d have fewer wars and less mayhem. The most helpful thing I grasped while waitressing was that some tables are my responsibility and some are not. A waitress gets overwhelmed if she has too many tables, and no one gets good service. In my life, I have certain things to take care of: my children, my relationships, my work, myself, and one or two causes. That’s it. Other things are not my table. I would go nuts if I tried to take care of everyone, if I tried to make everybody do the right thing. If I went through my life without ever learning to say, ‘Sorry, that’s not my table, Hon,’ I would burn out and be no good to anybody. I need to have a surly waitress inside myself that I can call on when it seems that everyone in the world is waving an empty coffee cup in my direction. My Inner Waitress looks over at them, keeping her six plates balanced and her feet moving, and says, ‘Sorry, Hon, not my table.’”
And so may it be. Let the cats be herded. AMEN.
Many of the Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists who came after Thoreau struggled with his model and message. To them it was by no means clear what Walden meant for our spiritual movement, in contrast to the Americans all around them who got it and declared it a classic of the human spirit. To paraphrase Jesus, the prophet was not honored in his own country.
But we’ve come a long way, baby.
We’ve come a long way.
We hear Thoreau say, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” and this civil disobedience insight immediately brings us back to one of the main reasons for our existence: to create people who are leaders in this world, people who care about justice, people with knowledge and passion and skills to bring an effective prophetic witness to the times in which we live.
We hear Thoreau say, “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly”—we hear this, and we remember that our Unitarian Universalism cannot be a one-sided focus on social issues. To do all that needs to be done—to leave undone all that which is truly non-essential—we must heal our hearts and relationships; we must increase our emotional and spiritual IQs; we must awaken and continually reawaken to the endless potentials of the human spirit.
We hear Thoreau say, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” and we are called to one of the central spiritual disciplines of Unitarian Universalism, which is good stewardship of our life resources of time and talent and money. We realize that just as the first chapter in Walden is entitled “Economy,” so must that be the first chapter in our lives.
We hear Thoreau say, “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps”—Thoreau says this, and suddenly our Unitarian Universalist First and Seventh Principles begin to dance together. “We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” “We affirm the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” Nature’s good is our good; our good is in the preservation of the world.
Perhaps there was a time when the prophet was not honored in his own country, but that time is long gone. His own country honors him now and needs his voice to remain relevant to the 21st century. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root,” said Thoreau; and as for which one describes him, now we know.
So the question before us is, After spending a year with grandfather Henry, what’s next? Where to go from here?
Mary Oliver wrote this poem, entitled “Going to Walden,” after declining an invitation from friends to visit the pond:
It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by night fall, having seen
The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.
That’s what’s next: finding Walden where we are—a slow and difficult trick of living. You don’t have to travel to Massachusetts. Find Walden here. And the key to this, I believe, is coming to terms with a seemingly strange fact. This: that there are no less than four different Thoreaus in his great work. One is the fierce and unyielding social critic who acts in conformity to what he sees as higher principles and so sharply rejects slavery, refuses to pay the taxman, goes to jail. But then the second Thoreau’s attention is more on his soul and personal relationships than on society. He’s the one who practices a careful diet, who listens to rain and writes. The one who hosts annual melon parties with his neighbors and plays Tom Bowling on his flute. The one who spends hours in reverie doing absolutely nothing, or walks, or goes skating with Mr. Emerson and Mr. Hawthorne and skates circles around them. As for the third Thoreau: careful with numbers. Keeps a meticulous ledger. Carefully lists for his readers every item he used to build his house at the side of Walden, and how much it all cost, and how much was left over. Passionate about voluntary simplicity, and practicing the concept of enough. Finally, the fourth Thoreau: lover of nature, nature mystic. This one says, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Four Thoreaus—but what united all four and made them one person with integrity was Thoreau’s unifying insight that justice-seeking, personal and spiritual growth, concern for the economy, and concern for nature were all interrelated. His nature mysticism made his social critique strong, and his social critique strengthened his focus on the economy, and all were strengthened by his personal wellness practices. In other words, for him and for us, the interdependent web of all existence is not something fundamentally out there but in here, in our hearts. Needs to be in here: the sensibility that what we do in one part of our lives matters for every other part. All for one and one for all.
If sustainable living is anything, it’s that. Ensuring that each of the four Thoreaus has a home in us, and that they are talking to each other, strengthening each other. Paths WITHOUT heart narrow down on only one Thoreau to the detriment of the others. Paths WITH heart are wide enough for all four; and if we walk down paths like this, paths with heart, that’s how we’ll find Walden where we are. That’s how this congregation will become Walden. That’s how this nation will become Walden.
Next year is going to be an amazing year, a leadership year for this congregation. In 2011 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and naturally this will put us in mind to wonder about the next 50 years and the role we here at UUCA will play in it. So, very appropriately, as a congregation we are going to ask this vision question: where do we want to go? How do we want to change lives? My hope is that, as we do this, we will envision our future through the sustainable living lens, and resolve to make room for all four Thoreaus in everything we do.
But that’s next year. For here and now: consider taking a year-long happiness pledge. Last year, 186 of us made one, and may there be even more this year!
Lots of ways to approach this, and one way is simply to reflect on whether you are missing one or more of the four Henrys in your life. Are you? Is Henry the social justice advocate alive and well, for example, but it’s been ages since you had a regular self-care practice involving, say, a hobby that was just fun and didn’t pretend at all to change the world? Or is it the reverse? Your focus has been mostly on personal development and wellbeing, but you haven’t been paying much attention to the small or great social issues of our times (like the egregious immigration law just recently passed in Arizona). Perhaps it’s time to find a way to get involved.
If there’s a Henry that’s missing in your life, what’s one commitment to some weekly or regular practice that might spark the missing Henry back to life?
Two things to say at this point:
1. What if you don’t want to make a year-long happiness pledge? No problem—this is only a friendly invitation. These pledges are meant only to encourage and support people in their personal lives and relationships. For some people, pledges like this give them focus and commitment, and they work.
2. What if you want to make a year-long happiness pledge, but you aren’t ready? You need more time to think about it, or you’d like to talk to someone first? Again, no problem. Take the time you need. Go to our homepage at http://www.uuca.org and see a video that gives you examples of happiness pledges from last year. You can also make your happiness pledge there as well.
As for my own year-long happiness pledge. Still thinking about it. But I will say that some members of the staff are going to do a collective pledge—to do yoga together at least once a week. We’re missing this Henry in our work together, so it’s going to help—help steady our bodies and minds for the work we are called to do together….
And now it’s your turn. Take out the white insert in your order of service, and as the music begins, please begin filling out your pledge form. In a couple of minutes, the ushers will come around to pick them up. (NOT money for the offering, though—that will come later on.)
Please also note that on the pink insert in your order of service, there’s a space you can use to write down a copy of your pledge, to take home with you, just to keep it before you.
So now—let the pledging begin! Let’s find Walden where we are!
March 7, 2010
I’m writing to share my thanks for your gift of Walden. I’m reading it along with the congregation I serve, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, and with every chapter, every time, something wonderful brings me home to my Unitarian Universalist spiritual roots. Penetrating critique and insight. Continued relevance, even more than 150 years after you published the thing. Passages that make me howl with laughter. Passages of such beauty that I can’t help but weep.
Now we are on to Chapter 11, which you entitle “Higher Laws.” At one point, close to the end, you write about a man named John Farmer, but he really represents everywoman and everyman. “John Farmer,” you say, “sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed, he sat down to recreate his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work…. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere … and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him — Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?”
That’s what we read in Walden. A beautiful vision of essentials, conveyed, if not through notes of a flute, then through words of a book like your book, or through something else. A vision elevating us, opening us up to a voice of wisdom, which you and your Transcendentalist colleagues liked to call “genius.”
And so you say, “No man ever followed his genius till it misled him.” For genius, as you define the term, can’t possibly mislead. On this, Transcendentalism as a spiritual movement and a reform movement took its stand and takes it now. Genius is a capacity to glimpse, in one total vision, the right ordering of the whole of society which, in turn, leads to the maximum benefit of each individual. Genius, in other words, is not just mere idiosyncrasy, or eccentricity, which is how some people today might understand the term. Genius is, rather, a glimpse into order that is universal. Genius is like a compass which points towards how things ought to be—the ways and the rules—that will bring the world to fulfillment.
It’s something that Antoine de Saint Exupery illustrates in his book, The Little Prince, when he has the book’s hero speak with a great king:
“Sire [said the Little Prince]–over what do you rule?”
“Over everything,” said the king, with magnificent simplicity.
The king made a gesture, which took in his planet, the other planets, and all the stars.
“Over all that?” asked the little prince.
“Over all that,” the king answered.
For his rule was not only absolute: it was also universal.
“And the stars obey you?”
“Certainly they do,” the king said. “They obey instantly. I do not permit insubordination.”
“I should like to see a sunset . . . Do me that kindness . . . Order the sun to set . . .”
“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”
“You,” said the little prince firmly.
“Exactly. One must require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”
That’s the passage from The Little Prince, and Henry, you were acting out of that magnificently simple King-place within you when, one afternoon, near the end of your first summer at Walden, you went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, and the village taxman informed you that you had not yet paid your taxes, and you said good. You spoke out of that deep genius vision place within, which saw American society at the time full of rules essentially requiring an entire category of citizens to go throw themselves into the sea of slavery. The system was not reasonable. So you said no. You did not “recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.” Your civil disobedience took its stand on your King-like genius, which enabled you to envision the kind of society that WOULD be worthy of your obedience, because it IS reasonable.
Would you pay the taxman today, Henry? Rules and laws requiring entire classes of people to throw themselves into the sea are still in place. People who can’t get quality, affordable healthcare. People who love each other but aren’t allowed the dignity of marriage. Always, always, the poor. And on and on. Just not reasonable. Just not right. Would you pay the taxman today?
For you, it is all a question of “life in conformity to higher principles.” And that’s the larger issue that you raise in our reading for today. You raise it with urgency. Your Transcendentalism (which us our Transcendentalism) is no easy spirituality. It’s not just about big moments of conscientious objection, as when you refused to pay your taxes. “Our whole life is startlingly moral,” you say. “There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.” Everything we do—even acts which are the most private and seemingly mundane—either amplify the music of genius within us, or muffle it, block it. There’s no neutrality, no Switzerland of the spirit. Everything that John Farmer does counts.
And this is why—so it seems to me—you spend so much time in Chapter 11 talking about food. Diet. “Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open,” you say, and how and what we eat can help to keep the channel open, or to close it. A very different motivation than the usual, than what is normally behind the vast array of diet possibilities currently out there, such as Atkins or South Beach, the Zone or the F-Plan, the Scarsdale Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Astronaut’s Diet, the Sleeping Beauty Diet, the Three-Week Trance Diet, or the More of Jesus, Less of Me diet. I’m serious. I could go on and on.
One food-related issue you bring up has to do with obesity. Drawing on an observation from science, you say, “It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists, that ‘some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them’; and they lay it down as ‘a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly … and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly’ content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid.” You say all this, and then here is your concluding insight: “The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.” Henry, just tell me what you really think about the problem of obesity….
But did you really have a lot of “vast abdomens” in your day? We sure do now. Two-thirds of Americans, more than 190 million of us, are overweight or obese, making this, in the estimate of the Obesity Society, “the most fatal, chronic, relapsing disorder of the 21st century. Obesity is a leading cause of United States mortality, morbidity, disability, healthcare utilization and healthcare costs. It is likely that the increase in obesity will strain our healthcare system with millions of additional cases of diabetes, heart disease and disability.”
It’s a mess. As Yale University scholar Kelly Brownell puts it, “If you go to McDonald’s today, you can buy a quarter-pounder with cheese meal—that means the large drink and the large french fries—for less than it costs to buy a salad and a bottle of water.” And then he says, “There’s something wrong with that picture.” Over $30 billion dollars spent each year on food advertising, and too much of it is making our children gross feeders, too much of it makes eye-catching claims about products being healthy when they are anything but. Laws allowing this tantamount to demanding that entire classes of people throw themselves into the sea…. I know personal responsibility is, of course, a key factor in making things better, but to really win the battle against obesity, completely, we’ve got to change the laws and make them reasonable. Come together in our schools and in our neighborhoods. Fashion the changes from a genius-oriented, King-oriented perspective. If increasing taxes on cigarettes led to a drastic drop in smoking, then what might just a penny per ounce tax on sugared beverages do?
A tax law, which even you, Henry, would approve of and would, in fact, contend has deep spiritual implications. “Every man,” you say, “is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own…. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.” Once again, the urgency theme. No act is too small to impact eternity.
It’s prophetic, Henry: your comment about “gross feeders” and “vast abdomens.” And so are your comments about eating meat. You say, “there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh…. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience.” Again you say, “The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.” Because of my year-long happiness pledge to abstain from meat, I’m starting to understand this better and better.
All I know is that, 150 years later, your words still sing. The John Farmer in me gets it. But John Farmer today is bringing different experiences than your readers from yesteryear. John Farmer today often brings a lack of awareness of this uncleanness to which you refer. Or, he’s bringing a hyperawareness of it, a hypersensitivity.
Fact is, many people today have no idea what it’s like to be one’s own butcher and scullion and cook and consumer. We just grow up and through a consumption pattern that has been set up for us by culture and by family. We take it for granted. It’s just who we are. We go to the one-stop grocery store, look into the freezer, grab what’s lying there (shrink-wrapped or in a box), and there is no thought regarding where it comes from and what the journey there might have looked like. Shopping for price tag and taste only.
And then there’s the people who bring something completely opposite: hyperawareness and hypersensitivity. They’ve researched the ins and outs of the “industrial agriculture system”—defined in part by mechanical methods of planting and harvesting; animal agriculture on a mass scale; human manipulation of natural processes through a variety of means like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; or growth hormones for livestock; or genetic engineering. This is industrial agriculture, and it has led, undeniably, to a radical transformation in food production, resulting in levels of plenty around the world that have simply been unknown in all previous generations of human existence. Starvation has always been a major threat for the human race—except now. Thanks to industrial agriculture.
And yet when these people look more deeply into it—this source of human plenty, this ultimate reason for why we can one-stop shop—what they discover is also a vast ugliness. An uncleanness that you, Henry, could never have even dreamed. All the unintended consequences of the system, including pollution, economic injustice, and a decrease in biodiversity. All the hidden costs, all the environmental side-effects. Those shrink wrapped chicken breasts we buy at the grocery store, for example: how the living beings they came from were “confined in windowless sheds filthy with their own excrement; [how] their beaks were seared off to prevent them from pecking their neighbors due to the stress of overcrowding; [how] breeding and hormones had sped up their growth so that the weight of their bodies deformed their legs and arrested their hearts; [how] they were fed a constant stream of antibiotics to stave off disease (meanwhile creating antibiotic-resistant strains of disease with the potential to plague the rest of creation); and [how] their feed might legally include ground-up cattle parts, as well as the corn from those vast fields treated with enormous quantities of pesticides and herbicides” (from Amy Hassinger’s “Eating Ethically” in the Spring 2007 edition of the UU World). This is just one instance of the vast ugliness that comes at a person when they dare to look deeper into the industrial agriculture system.
As for what all this hyperawareness and hypersensitivity can lead to: one form it takes is to hear about what happens to chickens and other animals and to hear about all the flaws and downsides of industrial agriculture and simply to shut off. To deny. The shock of it all so overwhelming that we turn a blind eye. This, or the other extreme: to hate with pure hate the agricultural system that has blessed humanity; to demand that the system change instantly and immediately, even if the changes are not sustainable in the least; to see humanity as one big blight upon the earth and for oneself to feel ashamed for even existing—to feel cursed by an original sin—to believe that one has no right to take a place in an interdependent web and a circle of life that, in truth, love us and make room for us and only want us to leave a lighter footprint…..
What I’m saying, Henry, is that both forms of hyperawareness and hypersensitivity are obstacles to living in the truth. We cannot any longer turn a blind eye to the ugliness of industrial agriculture; and yet reactive hate towards the system and towards ourselves is no answer either. Perhaps you are in agreement with me, for you say, “Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way — as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn — and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”
I appreciate this. It is wrong for the laws of our land to require animals to throw themselves into the sea. The genius vision in you sees that, and I see it. But I and we also know that it is a journey. It is a destiny we must drive towards, to become a better human race.
And it will not be without its complexities. One comes up in the very opening of the chapter, where you say this: “As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.” All I can say is, Whoa! Way to make a point! Your point being, I think, that there is within each of us the animal, representing energies which become creatively useable by us only when tamed and transformed. Healing the division within ourselves is necessary to healing divisions without.
And then there is this complexity, which, truth be told, I’m really relieved to know about. You yourself were not a strict vegetarian. You ate meat rarely, it is true; but there were times when practicality or convention left you with few or no options. Said your friend Moncure Conway, “Thoreau never attempted to make any general principle on the subject [of vegetarianism], and later in life ate meat in order not to cause inconvenience to the family.”
You see, I’m writing this letter to you fully aware that I’ve not been perfect in my pledge to eat a meatless diet this year. Oh, I’ve given up my “I [heart] bacon” T-shirt, and I’m no longer the rabid meat-eater that I was. But once and a while, there have been times when practicality made things difficult, or the time of year. Like Thanksgiving with friends. Or the Superbowl. Henry, I know: “There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.” Yet in the eye of your genius, as in mine, we know that perfectionism is an obstacle to growth. We are tempered by reality. We are tempered by humility. Wee must not allow our big genius visions get in the way of our living with each other. Even Transcendentalists must remember that we need not think alike to love alike.
And so may our Transcendentalism never become a grim affair of finger-pointing and guilt-mongering, even as it urges us forward. Let us sing our spirituality. Let it be the same kind of music to us as it was to John Farmer. Lovely notes from the flute, waking us up from our slumber, gently raising us above the street, above the village, above the state in which we live, so we can see it all from a mountain-top perspective. A voice in the music, saying to us: “Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?”
Henry, I love you—thank you for being a spiritual grandparent to us all—
Listen to this poem by Pem Kremer, called “Epiphany”:
Lynn Schmidt says
she once saw you as prairie grass,
Nebraska prairie grass;
she climbed out of her car on a hot highway,
leaned her butt on the nose of her car,
looked out over one great flowing field,
stretching beyond her sight until the horizon came
vastness, she says,
responsive to the slightest shift of wind,
full of infinite change,
She says when she can’t pray
She calls up Prairie Grass.
That’s the poem, about a woman named Lynn Schmidt who describes her experience of the Sacred. A vastness of prairie grass, responsive to the slightest shift of wind, full of infinite change. This is the image she conjures up in her mind, when a need for prayer rises up in her but she can’t easily give voice to it. Not an image of some powerful, transcendent male monarch battling and triumphing against enemies; not an image of a majestic, distant, forbidding grandfather who exists outside and beyond the earth that He has manufactured. Not any of these, but rather: a memory of prairie grass, evoking wonder and awe in her heart. A memory, but also a seed for nothing less than a new mythology, a new way of imagining the Sacred.
Today our topic is the Goddess: what this symbol means and can mean for women and men today.
Definitely this: consciousness-raising. Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow (with whom I personally studied in seminary) tells a story about a gathering of mainly Christian women in 1972, in Loveland, Ohio, to explore theology together. “In one of the small working groups that was a daily part of the conference, the women realized that traditional names for God no longer adequately reflected their experience. They began to call out words that meant God to them, putting their designations on a large newsprint board. One of the fascinating aspects of the resulting list,” says Plaskow, “was its large number of ‘ing’ words—changing, creating, enabling, nurturing, pushing, calling into question, suffering, touching, breaking through. The God of their experience was not an immutable being ‘out there,’ but a process of which they were part.”
“Brushing out my daughter’s dark silken hair,” writes poet Sharon Olds,
before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a small
pale flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her purse full of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.
That’s the poem. Mother and daughter—the changes of life—the story of replacement. And it is a sacred story, told with the “ing” words of the women from Loveland Ohio in 1972: changing, creating, enabling, nurturing, pushing, calling into question, suffering, touching, breaking through. This is what the Goddess is. The Goddess moves within the cycles of life and death and rebirth, in the natural world as well as in our relationships, in community. The Goddess is a symbol of that, a way of giving honor to that.
But does the Goddess actually exist? Is the Goddess a being in Her own right, or simply a poetic symbol of the inherent worth and dignity of nature and people, as well as of the flow of interdependencies in which we live and move and have our being?
Here’s how Starhawk answers this question. Starhawk is a feminist writer and activist, a major figure in today’s neopagan movement, as well as an influential voice in the 1995 decision by our Unitarian Universalist Association to formally include earth-centered traditions as one of the six sources of our faith. She says, “It all depends on how I feel. When I feel weak, [the Goddess] is someone who can help and protect me. When I feel strong, she is my symbol of my own power. At other times I feel her as the natural energy in my body and the world.” That’s what Starhawk says, and right here we have another opportunity for consciousness-raising, relating to our understanding of what good theology looks like. Must good theology insist on single answers, or can it be large and contain multitudes? “Is there,” asks Carol Christ, another leading voice in the Goddess spirituality movement, “a way of doing theology that would not lead immediately into dogmatic controversy, would not require theologians to say definitively that one understanding is true and the others are false? Could people’s relation to a common symbol be made primary and varying interpretations be acknowledged?” And then she says: “The diversity of explications of the meaning of the Goddess symbol suggest that symbols have a richer significance than any explications of their meaning can express….”
For me, one particular use of the Goddess symbol is especially profound, and like Starhawk, I go back and forth with it, sometimes seeing it as factually true, other times regarding it as sheer beautiful poetry, but all times moved and inspired to wonder. It’s this: the image of the earth as the body of the Goddess—the one source out of which everything emerged, guaranteeing the interrelatedness and kinship of all things. All beings as children of the same womb, cherished by Her.
“How the days went,” writes poet Audre Lorde (and imagine her voice as the Goddess, speaking to the world that is her body):
How the days went
while you were blooming within me
I remember each upon each—
the swelling changed planes of my body
and how you first fluttered, then jumped
and I thought it was my heart
How the days wound down
and the turning of winter
I recall, with you growing heavy
against the wind. I thought
now her hands
are formed, and her hair
has started to curl
now her teeth are done
now she sneezes.
Then the seed opened
I bore you one morning just before spring
My head rang like a fiery piston
my legs were towers between which
A new world was passing.
I can only distinguish
one thread within running hours
You, flowing through selves
Just listen to that. How different our world would be if this had been the prevailing image of the Sacred in the West—not patriarchal male God, who manufactures the creation as something outside of him, as a watchmaker would skillfully make a watch, but the Goddess, for whom creation is birthed out of her very substance and essence, in pain and in joy? Then, a vision of earth that is common today would simply be unthinkable: that the earth is but a temporary, discardable stage upon which the drama of individual salvation is played out—valuable only insofar it functions as a stage, a holding place, a location. OK to pollute, OK to poison, OK to use as humans see fit. How could this even be thinkable, if the earth were seen instead as the body of the Goddess, in fact or simply in poetic imagination?
Poetry is powerful, whatever the facts may turn out to be. Symbols are powerful. Carol Christ emphasizes this when she says that “Even people who no longer ‘believe in God’ or participate in the institutional structure of patriarchal religion still may not be free of the power of the symbolism of God the [domineering, jealous] Father. A symbol’s effect does not depend on rational assent, for a symbol also functions on levels of the psyche other than the rational. […] [The] mind abhors a vacuum. Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected; they must be replaced. Where there is no replacement, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis, bafflement, or defeat.”
I remember a college philosophy class from years ago, when I triggered a mini-crisis in my students. We had been talking about traditional Western God images and how they have a stubbornly masculine, angry-jealous-God-of-the-Old-Testament dimension. My class of course denied this. Not just men in the room but women too, saying, “Everyone knows that God is beyond gender.” Then I talked about a classic argument for why the Catholic Church rejects women as candidates for the priesthood: Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God was male, maleness is thus tied up with God, therefore only men can be priests. I talked about this—how it was only the tip of the iceberg of instances where women have experienced oppression because they are not made in the masculine image of God. Women locked in stereotypes of passivity, completely contrary to the strength seen in the Goddesses of old: Athena, Artemis, Isis, Brigid. Women absorbing the prejudice that there is something fundamentally wrong and shameful about female bodily functions, like menstruation. Childbirth treated like a disease requiring hospitalization. The fanatic pursuit of youthfulness—postmenopausal women knocked off the pedestal they were placed on when younger—their distinctive beauty not celebrated as it should be. All these instances of misogynism, and more.
Then I gave them the challenge. Thanksgiving was coming up, so I said, When you go home to see your family, ask to say the Thanksgiving blessing over the meal, and just see what happens when you pray like this: “Mother God, who gave birth to our universe and to the abundance that is before us, we thank you….. “ I could just see the wheels turning in their minds, eyes widening when they imagined the consequences. Symbols go deep. Rationally, of course God can’t be male. But the poetry of this persists. Poetry is powerful, deeper than reason, comes first—it is, in fact, the material which reason, second of all, sifts and sorts and makes sense of…. But the poetry, the imagination comes first.
It’s exactly as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Consciousness needs to be raised. Reminds me of an incident that happened a couple weeks back. One morning, just as I was starting my car and about to leave my home in Decatur to come here, I resolved to take a slightly different path than was my usual habit. I wanted to avoid the noxious traffic on South Candler Street right beside Agnes Scott College, and to do that, early on in my trip I needed to turn right on Kirk Road rather then left. Just this—so simple. Turn right on Kirk, then left on Avery, Avery would take me all the way down to East College, which in turn would take me to Commerce, and on and on. Less traffic this way.
Great. I shifted the car into drive, started off, and my thoughts immediately turned away from my plan to take a different path to work and raced way ahead to the work itself: meetings and conversations and issues and things to do. Details details details. I was already on South Candler Street, slowing down to a stop behind a long line of cars, before I realized what the heck had happened. I had switched to auto-pilot, and auto-pilot doesn’t follow new orders that disagree with deep programming. How could I have lost focus so easily?
For me, the image of the Goddess is powerful because solidifies my intent and my decision to take a different route through my world than usual. It reminds me to expand my sense of the sacred beyond the patriarchal male images that are an inescapable part of our cultural programming, because I don’t want to get stuck in that kind of traffic. Gives a man a heart attack. Alienates a man from love. I mean this sincerely. It happens when men attempt to model their lives after the patriarchal God, which they do. I want to take a different route, turn right when my programming says turn left, and for this, I need to stay focused, I need to stop the chatter of the status quo from taking center stage, I need a God-image that helps me imagine the sacred to be BIGGER than that. BIG, because what I am worshipping I am becoming, and I want to be BIG in my heart. That’s what I want, and I suspect you want it too, men and women alike.
I’ll close as I began—with a poem about prayer. This one comes from Joy Harjo, entitled “Eagle Poem”:
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circles in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon, within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
Yesterday I had the privilege of spending some time with the religious educators of this community in their annual, beginning-of-the-year teacher training event. In the part I led, we reflected on the value and meaning of their service to our children, youth, and families, as well as to themselves—to their own personal and spiritual growth. Between us, we shared some thought-provoking quotes about teaching, like this one: “A teacher is a compass that activates the magnets of curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom in the students.” Or this quote: “To teach is to learn twice.” Then there was this one: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” This particular quote comes from automaker Henry Ford, and the group appreciated it, even though one person did say that Henry Ford has some answering to do for his part in global warming….
A last quote points the way towards my theme this morning: “The future of the world is in my classroom today, a future with the potential for good or bad. Several future presidents are learning from me today; so are the great writers of the next decades, and so are all the so-called ordinary people who will make the decisions in a democracy. I must never forget these same young people could be the thieves and murderers of the future. Only a teacher? Thank God I have a calling to the greatest profession of all! I must be vigilant every day, lest I lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow.” That’s the quote. The future of the world is in my classroom today. Around us: fragile opportunities to improve tomorrow. This is one aspect of the interdependent web vision that takes a place of honor as our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle. Future generations rely on what present generations do. Future generations need us, and we need them. This is interdependence.
And now, here we are today, in our annual ingathering service. We are seated in the round, and I’ve always liked how this underscores the importance of relationships and community to our Unitarian Univeralist sense of the Sacred. “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be,” said Martin Luther King Jr., and this sense of mutual reliance most definitely animates the Gathering of the Waters ritual from a moment ago. To this place we bring our separate waters, infused by personal meaning and memory and hope, and we pour them all into a common vessel and a common life, to do things together that we cannot do alone. We may differ in belief, but we come together in common purpose to connect with life’s abundance. We may draw from a wide variety of religious and philosophical sources, but only so that we can invite as many people as possible into experiences of richness, experiences of justice-seeking and healing, expansion and inspiration, forgiveness and grace. Our diversity serves an essential unity. The inner-directed search, the free spirit, requires the encouragement and disciplines of a supportive community, lest that search and spirit become unfocused and too fuzzy to make any practical difference.
The interdependence vision. It links us to future generations, and it links us to each other. It’s about people, near and far and yet to be born. But it’s also about the planet. The various parts of our earth reflected in each other, as in a webwork of mirrors. Mirrored in a singular and lovely Georgia peach, you can see sunshine, you can see rain, you can see the red soil out of which the peach tree grew, you can see the human hand that picked it. A whole cosmos comes together to make one Georgia peach possible, or one banana, or one string bean. It is the same for everything. I have seen it. I saw this mystic unity one day long ago when, as a child, living in Northern Alberta, I stood at the top of a hill, feeling the sun on my skin, feeling the warmth in my body; watching the grasses wave in the wind, listening to their hush-hush-hush sounds, their susurrations; and then, far below, the Peace River, winding through the heart of town, silver waters flowing in from far away places and then flowing on, on to different lands, on to mystery. “The rivers flow not past but though us,” says the naturalist John Muir, “thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. […] Wonderful, how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us.” John Muir puts words to my wordless experience, the wonder of it, fundamental reality. I have felt it, and perhaps you have felt it as well. The web of life. “Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell….” Butterfly effects. Connections upon which everything depends.
So let us declare it. That’s my simple, central message this morning. Declare interdependence, because we can lose awareness of it even if it embodies the reality of our lives. This brings to mind a story about the great spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. One day he was traveling by car in the Himalayas. He was sitting in the front seat, beside the driver, while a student of his was in the back, together with another friend. The car climbed past waterfalls, across steep gorges, and over hills covered with flowers, but the two people in the back were oblivious to all that, focused as they were on discussing lofty topics like self-knowledge and awareness. Suddenly, there was a sharp jolt, but they paid it no attention, and kept on talking away. A few moments later, Krishnamurti interrupted them. “What are you two discussing so intently back there?” “Awareness,” they answered. But, said Krishnamurti, “Didn’t you notice what happened just now?” The two had no idea, so Krishnamurti said, “We just knocked down a goat. And you were discussing awareness!” It means that interdependence may be a reality and yet, as with the goat, we can still ignore it, we can still act as if we were merely skin-encapsulated egos and nothing and no one else has a stake in our decisions and actions. Contrary to the hope represented in our Gathering of the Waters Ritual, nothing stops us from choosing to flow apart rather than together, so that in reality we remain as a thousand separate bits of water, rather than the forceful river we could become. Who cares if our neighbor is in need? Who cares that one third of the world’s population now lacks enough safe water to drink? Who cares that ecosystems are losing their capacity to regenerate, or that the population of nonhuman species has declined 35% between 1970 and 2000? Who cares about our young people, or the people who don’t even exist yet, the generations of the future? Most everybody today resonates with the “web of life” image, but when we don’t declare interdependence, when we don’t live accordingly, the web of life becomes an engine of instant karma, and it conveys destruction to everything the web connects together. It can convey hellish impacts as faithfully as it can transmit heaven. Interdependence is a fact of life, and our challenge is learning how to live well and meaningfully within this fact. The fact is an opportunity, but now we must mindfully grasp it. I mean, how many times are we going to run over the goat before we notice what’s happening?
We must declare interdependence. And I believe that the way there is practical, through sustainable living. By this I mean lifestyle choices which honor the integrity of the planet and honor the dignity of people near and far and yet to be born—doing all this, even as such choices enrich our lives immeasurably, sustain what is truly precious, and ensure that it won’t be wasted, won’t be exhausted, will be there for future generations as much as it is for us. What I am saying, in other words, is that sustainable living has two sides to it, and both complement each other. Honoring the planet and honoring other people go hand-in-hand with families and individuals living lives of richness and abundance. I like how David Wann puts this, in his recent book entitled Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle. He says, “It’s time for a new way of valuing the world and our place in it. The good news is that curing the pandemic of overconsumption at both the personal and cultural scale is not about giving up the good life but getting it back. […] By redefining our individual and cultural priorities, we can create a more satisfying sustainable American dream.” That’s what David Wann says. Sustainable living is about getting the good life back, getting clear about what’s truly important in life, crafting a better American dream.
And this is the adventure I want to share with you this year: crafting a better American dream, a better human dream. While I know that the phrase “sustainable living” may immediately bring to mind very nuts-and-bolts kinds of things (like recycling, or taking shorter showers, or buying locally) these are all merely ways of putting into action a larger understanding and feeling about the world, a certain set of priorities and values. Sustainable living is unsustainable unless our perception of reality shifts, and we can see sunlight and rain in a Georgia peach. Sustainable living is unsustainable until we get clear about what is of true value and worth, and then use this clarity like a compass, allowing it to direct how we give our time and energy and money, giving until the giving feels good. Recycling, or taking shorter showers, or buying locally are only small parts of a far larger picture that touches everything in our lives.
We have an adventure before us this year. Part of it includes a once-a-month, year-long sermon series focusing on the spiritual question of authentic happiness. Part of it involves religious education classes for all ages, focusing on environmentalism and sustainability. A key part of it will be this year’s annual stewardship campaign, “Creating spiritual community … working for sustainability,” in which we’ll have the opportunity to reflect on this congregation and all the ways it sustains our hearts and spirits, our friendships, our good works, our hopes for the future. This, in turn, will feed yet another key part of this year’s adventure: the work of our Care of Earth Team, which includes Lyn Conley, Manette Messenger, Louis Merlin, Sally Joerger, Bill Goolsby, Dana Boyle, Richard Cohen, Helen Borland, and Jules Paulk. Their mission is to listen to the hopes and dreams of this place around declaring interdependence and living more sustainably—to build on the work that’s already been done here on this, to write the next chapter. The Care of Earth Team will listen and then to develop a three-year plan that will empower this congregation to model sustainable living, as well as to support members and friends in their personal lives as they—as we—strive to make better choices. The ideas will come from us; they’ll develop and refine the plan; we’ll make it happen together; they’ll keep us on track and periodically let us know how we’re doing. Above all, it’ll need all of us pitching in. Eco-anxiety can paralyze us, and so can “green noise,” or all the conflicting advice we hear about what’s truly good for the environment, and what’s not. But if we pull together and not apart, we can beat that. We can find a way through.
Adventure awaits. The future needs us. The earth needs us. Atlanta needs us, and so does Africa. We need each other. Who cares if our neighbor is in need? Who cares that one third of the world’s population now lacks enough safe water to drink? Who cares that ecosystems are losing their capacity to regenerate, or that the population of nonhuman species has declined 35% between 1970 and 2000? Who cares about our young people, or the people who don’t even exist yet, the generations of the future? We care. We care. And this is what we are going to do: this is it: do all the good we can do. Become the river, all of our bits of water coming together, culminating, flowing forcefully, carrying us to the place of our dreams.
Rev. Anthony David
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta