The Reading Before the Sermon
Our reading today is from Kitchen Table Wisdom, a book by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who is a pioneer in the field of mind/body health.
While an impulse towards wholeness is natural and exists in everyone, each of us heals in our own way.
Some time ago a young man was referred to me by an imagery-training program for people with cancer. Despite a diagnosis of malignant melanoma, he had been so poorly motivated that only a month after completing the intensive training, he could not remember to do his daily imagery meditation. The referral had been clear: perhaps I could turn around his self-destructive tendencies and encourage him to fight for his life.
Jim was an air traffic controller at a major airport. He was a solid, steady, reserved kind of guy. He told me with embarrassment that that he was the only one in the imagery class who couldn’t stick to the program. He didn’t know why. He wanted to get well. He loved his work, his family, looked forward to raising his little boy. Not much in the way of self-destructiveness here…. So I asked him to tell me about his imagery.
By way of an answer he unfolded a drawing of a shark. The shark’s mouth was huge and open and filled with sharp, pointed teeth. For fifteen minutes three times a day, he was to imagine thousands of tiny sharks hunting through his body, savagely attacking and destroying any cancer cells they found. It was a fairly traditional pattern of immune system imagery, used by countless people. I asked him what seemed to prevent him from doing the meditation. With a sigh, he said he had found it boring.
The training had gone badly from the start. On the first day, the class had been asked to find an image for the immune system. In subsequent discussion, he had discovered that he had not gotten the ‘right’ sort of image. The whole class and the psychologist/leader had worked with him until he came up with this shark. I looked at the drawing on his lap. The contrast between it and this reserved man was striking.
Curious, I asked what his first image had been. Looking away, he mumbled, “Not vicious enough.” It had been a catfish. I was intrigued. I knew nothing about catfish, had never even seen one, and no one had ever talked about them in this healing role before. With growing enthusiasm he described what catfish do in an aquarium, how they are tireless in their job as bottom feeders who sift the sand through their gills, evaluating constantly what is waste and what is not waste, eating what no longer supports the life of the aquarium. They never sleep. They are able to make many rapid and accurate decisions. As an air traffic controller, he admired their ability to do this.
I asked him to describe catfish for me in a few words. He came up with such words as “discerning, vigilant, impeccable, thorough, steadfast.” And “trustworthy.” “Not bad,” I thought.
“Is there something else?,” I asked him. Nodding, he told me that catfish grew big where he had been raised, and at certain times of the year they would “walk” across the roads. When he was a child this had struck him as sort of a miracle and he never tired of watching them. He had kept several as pets. “Jim,” I asked him, “what is a pet?” He looked surprised. “Why, a pet is something that loves you, no matter what.”
So I asked him to summarize his own imagery. Closing his eyes, he spoke of millions of catfish that never slept, moving through his body, vigilant, untiring, dedicated, and discriminating, patiently examining every cell, passing by the ones that were healthy, eating the ones that were cancerous, motivated by a pet’s unconditional love and devotion. He opened his eyes. “This may sound silly but I feel sort of grateful to them for their care,” he said.
The imagery touched him deeply and it was not hard for him to remember it. Nor was it boring. He did his meditation daily for a year. Years later, after a full recovery, he continued to practice a few times a week. He says it reminds him that, on the deepest level, his body is on his side.
The Sermon: Good News
Spanish poet Antonio Machado writes,
Last night as I was sleeping
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
out of my old failures.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
That’s the poem from Antonio Machado, and right now I want you to sleep the sleep of this poem and dream its dream. A spring, breaking out in your heart, water of a new life. Golden bees furiously busy, and all your old failures and sadnesses transformed, becoming sweet honey, sweet nourishment. Inside your heart, a sun, warming you up and lighting you up, filling you with the fire of courage to face a difficult world. You are dreaming this dream, of living water and golden bees and fiery sun….
How does that feel?
Feels good…. And the Good News I want to talk about today is that this is not just the stuff of dreams. When we Unitarian Universalists say that all people have inherent worth and dignity—when we affirm and promote this—what we’re doing is echoing the marvelous errors and impossibilities of the poem. Saying they are real, even if they happen to be perfect strangers to what we know best, even if they confound or offend common sense. They are real. Spring of pure water flowing deep within us, right now. Golden bees working furiously on our deepest sadness, right now. Fiery sun in us, right now.
Good news, which parallels the news of the reading from earlier, in which we saw mind/body health professional Rachel Naomi Remen working with a young man named Jim. There are several things of note in the story we’ll want to touch on, but here I simply want to acknowledge the basic topic of imagery meditation as a means of boosting the immune system in its work of attacking and destroying cancer cells. I found myself profoundly moved by the thought that, if, in our bodies, there is a natural impulse towards healing and wholeness, then you better believe the same impulse is alive in our spirits. JIm in the reading visualizes millions of catfish moving through his body, vigilant, untiring, dedicated, patiently examining every cell … and we are envisioning the Good News of our spiritual immune system at work in us, our inherent worth and dignity of living water, golden bees, fiery sun. Even if we might not be in the fight for our physical lives, like Jim, we are ALL fighting for the sake of our souls, against ignorance, prejudice, greed, warmongering, and other unhealthy, addictive patterns in ourselves and the larger world: growing like cancer, cancers of the spirit, killing justice and killing kindness, multiplying endlessly. Someone once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It’s true. And our Good News as Unitarian Universalists makes us ready. Strengthens us so we can be strong for the world. Enables us to say to each other words that the Father of Universalism in America, John Murray, said more than 200 years ago: “Go out into the highways and byways of America. Give the people something of your vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage.”
Say that back to me: “Give them not hell, but hope and courage”
As many of you know, here at UUCA we’re in the middle of developing our five-year growth plan. How about a plan where everything’s tuned to “Give them not hell, but hope and courage”? Everything tuned to this. Everything tuned to helping people release the aliveness that is all too often trapped within them, releasing it so that it becomes a force for good in our relationships and in our communities…. Fact is, if our inherent worth and dignity of living water, golden bees, and fiery sun is a reality, so is the experience of feeling disconnected from all that. Or rather, feeling connected in moments of sleep (as we saw in the poem), but when we wake up? The dream and its sweetness slip like sand through fingers, and we’re left with not much. The reason exactly why John Murray said, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.” For hellishness we know. We’re well acquainted with it. Watching our politicians in Washington this summer fumble through the whole debt-ceiling issue was hellishness with a capitol H. We know hellishness. But there’s so much more than that, so much more to give than that.
Living water, golden bees, fiery sun: how to help people feel more connected to this?
Once again, the reading from earlier is instructive. One of the main lessons is the importance of other people. The need for others to help us tap into the sweetness within. Which is paradoxical, since we are born with living water and golden bees and fiery sun already inside us. They don’t have to be put there. Yet to access them, or to reopen a way to them, we need others. Emily White speaks to this in her amazing book entitled Lonely: A Memoir. She says, “When our social networks thin out or crumble, we have fewer points of reference available to us in thinking about who we are and who we’d like to be. […] Social networks flesh us out. When they’re lacking, it can start to feel as though there’s less to us…. Loneliness makes it hard to engage in self-definition.” Do-it-yourselfism, in other words, just doesn’t cut it. Lone-rangerism gets you nowhere.
We need community. We need it to feel connected to our Good News. But not just ANY kind of community. It’s got to be a community in which people feel respected and safe—a community centered in covenant, which we unapologetically insist on, because we know that when we allow abusive personalities to run the place, we can’t do the hard spiritual work we are called to do. We just can’t. Community then becomes the problem, not the solution.
Community also becomes a problem when it undermines our capacity to trust ourselves. And we see this so clearly in Jim’s story. On the first day of the imagery-training program, he and others were asked to find an image of the immune system, and what came to him spontaneously was perfect. The catfish image. Catfish which act just like him in his job as an air traffic controller: discerning, never sleeping, vigilant, impeccable, thorough, steadfast. Yet the same imagery-training program that enabled him to discover this wonderful image turned right around and told him he’d gotten the wrong image! You’re not supposed to get a catfish! You’re supposed to get a shark. Here, let’s work with you until you see that the shark is best, the shark is inevitable, the shark is the only way, shark 3:16!
No wonder Jim got bored with his imagery meditation, even though what was at stake was his very life! And no wonder so many people today are bored with religion. Religion, asking the most urgent and compelling questions there are—what is my purpose in life? how can I be more loving? what is the meaning of suffering? how can I feel more hopeful? and on and on—all these questions, and we give our answers, borne out of our life histories and earned experience, and they come in beautiful shining rainbow colors, but then religion turns right around and then says, WRONG! Only one answer: the shark! I’ve experienced this as a fundamentalist Christian, when the only answer possible was a certain narrow perspective of Jesus and Bible and God. And I’ve experienced it in the past as a Unitarian Universalist, when the unstated but strongly implied message I heard was that you can’t believe in stuff that some may call supernatural, you can’t pray to God, you can’t be a Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. In other words: get with the shark. It just doesn’t happen somewhere else. It can happen here too. Which is shameful, because in whatever congregation this happens, we see our Unitarian Universalist Good News suppressed and denied … by Unitarian Universalists.
People, we have to remember. We are purpose-driven in our religion: to connect with the Spirit of Life, to release this vitality into all that we do and are. And we have to follow this purpose faithfully, wherever it leads. Jim in the reading was led to his catfish-image; who knows where you will be led, or where I’ll be led, or how things will change in the course of our journeys. Say Rev. David is describing our inherent worth and dignity in terms of living waters and golden bees and the fiery sun, and let’s say your response is less than enthusiastic. Just doesn’t grab you. Meh. Great! The Divine Spark within is at work, telling you that you haven’t found your catfish image yet. Go with it! Allow yourself to be led to the spiritual immune system images that do energize you. Trust the process. Trust it like a pregnant mother trusts her weird cravings. Pickles and ice cream. Pickles and ice cream and peanuts. Pickles and ice cream and peanuts and sardines. Pickles and ice cream and peanuts and sardines, all topped with chocolate sauce. Awesomely weird combinations. You are a Jewish-Buddhist-Christian-Unitarian Universalist with a side of Wicca. WEIRD! But a baby is in process of being born! New hope! New revelation! The process may be messy, but we can trust it. And we need communities that support us in it wholeheartedly and strengthen our self-trust. That’s what we need.
Finally, we need communities that provide concrete coaching for our spiritual lives. Jim in the reading comes to his image of the catfish because the imagery-training program he attends creates intentional space and time for this and teaches him how. Gives him steps to practice. Step one, step two, step three. Then there was Dr. Remen’s mentoring, which undid the damage that the training program unintentionally did. Similarly, we need communities that fulfill these teaching and mentoring functions. Coaching communities. Not just talking communities. Now THAT’S frame-bending.
A famous experiment comes to mind, conducted by two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson. Darley and Batson were inspired by the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a traveler who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead by the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Both a Priest and a Levite–both pious, worthy men—come upon the man but do not stop, just pass on by. The only person to help was a Samaritan—a member of a despised minority. Darley and Batson’s specific question had to do with why the Priest and Levite did not stop—why WE don’t stop when we see a neighbor in need. Is it because people are generally selfish? Or they don’t know enough information about ethical and spiritual matters? Or concrete opportunities for help are hard to come by? To figure it out, Darley and Batson decided to recreate the “Good Samaritan” scenario—and with delicious irony, guess who they chose as subjects? Seminarians, ministers-in-training! The biggest idealists of them all!
The short version is this. Darley and Batson met with a group of seminarians, invited them to prepare a short extemporaneous talk on the Good Samaritan parable, and told them they would have to walk over to a nearby building to present it. Some of them, however, were told that they were late and better hurry; others were given the message that they had plenty of time. Both groups, on their way to the nearby building, would encounter a man in an alley, slumped down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. An actor. But appearing just like the traveler in the biblical parable.
Here’s what happened. 90% of the seminarians in a rush just stepped over the guy in the alley and hurried to their speech—only 10% stopped. As for those not in a rush: 63% stopped.
The learning: what made the difference had nothing to do with lack of opportunity to help. It had little to do with ethical or spiritual convictions. It had everything to do with simply feeling rushed and falling prey to that feeling, letting it take over and dictate everything.
People, as we envision ourselves five years from now, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that a big shiny building, whether totally new or this existing building expanded, is gonna do all the hope and courage work we’re called to do. Let’s not be fooled into thinking that amazing big social justice programs or other kinds of programs are gonna do all the hope and courage work we’re called to do. We can have a big shiny building but if our energies are sapped by feelings of having no time, or worries about our personal relationships, or anxieties about our parenting, or sadness because we feel lonely, or lack of confidence because we don’t know how to lead, then the people won’t be able to fill the building and use it like it wants to be used. Same things goes for the amazing big programs we dream about. We can build them, but that doesn’t mean people will show up. People will pass on by, just like the seminarians did with the man in the alley.
So when I’m talking about being a coaching community, I’m talking about a community whose primary purpose is to build people. Build spiritual skills. Emotional skills. Relationship skills. Parenting skills. Leadership skills. Address these concrete issues so that less energy is tied up by worry and anxiety and lack of skill and more is available for service. As our community continues to discern its way forward, let’s think along these lines. We want to be of service to the larger world, but we have to start with who we are and where we are. Creating people who will stop and help requires coaching that touches on so many levels, and that’s what we need to get a handle on. Church consultant Dan Hotchkiss puts it like this: the goal is not so much to be a hospital to heal a broken world, as to be a medical school that transforms people into healers. I love it. That’s it!
Right now, right now, a spring breaks out in your heart, water of a new life. Right now, golden bees are furiously busy transforming all your old failures and sadnesses. Right now, inside your heart, there is a sun warming you up and lighting you up, filling you up with the fire of courage to face a difficult world. That is our Unitarian Universalist Good News. Now we have to walk the talk. Now we have to find practical ways of helping ourselves and everyone who comes our way to connect with it all, to release it all, to channel it all so that the spring of water and the golden bees and the fiery sun leave the space of our dreams and enter fully—FULLY—into waking life and become a force that will amaze.