Posted in Big Questions

This is My Buddha

I’d like to tell you the story of my Buddha. This Sunday, I’m giving a sermon on Bodhi Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment. So I’ve been sitting with my Buddha a bit this week, thinking about my journey as a Buddhist and meditator (among, of course, other things).

First of all, he was a gift from my friend Cole, who happens to be Pagan, not Buddhist. I thought initially I would repaint him, but I haven’t done that. Yet? I may still. But I like him as he is, too.

The important thing to note here is the rock he is holding. I found this rock on the shores of Lake Erie when I went to see my parents after my brother committed suicide in 2017.

After Anthony died and I rushed to get a plane ticket and get home for whatever funeral arrangements had to be made, as the plane circled to land and I saw the lake, tears suddenly flowed. I don’t like crying in public places. Disembarking a plane wasn’t a comfortable place to cry. But the lake holds a lot of memories, and my brother at the heart of a lot of them. Dad had a boat out near the islands (Kelley’s, Put-in-Bay, etc.) and on the weekends he had us, when the weather was good, we would go out to the boat and spend the entire weekend on it, fishing, swimming, visiting islands, sometimes just tooling around. So many memories.

I live now in land-locked Tennessee, and there are lakes, but nothing like Erie. When I landed and my dad picked me up, the first thing I said was, I want to go to the lake. So mom, dad, my aunt, and I went the next day.

When we got there, I wandered away from the others and sat by myself on the rocks with the wind whipping through my hair, crying. Erie doesn’t have an enchanting salt air smell like the ocean does. It smells like fish. But it’s a smell I love. Eventually, I returned to mom and dad, and pulled out my phone and put on “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, which was sort of our on the boat anthem. Dad cried. I cried. It’s good to cry together sometimes, even if it is public.

Finally, I strolled along the sandy part of the beach and picked up a couple of rocks. This one was the smallest, the smoothest. It was perfect, really. And then, in my carry-on bag on the way home, it cracked in half.

I kept it anyway. In fact, somehow it seemed more significant, cracked, than the other stones that stayed perfect in my bag.

I didn’t find comfort in the story that my brother is in heaven, and my Jehovah’s Witness parents couldn’t even say with certainty that he would be resurrected to live with them in their New System/Paradise. Instead, I found my comfort in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book No Death, No Fear. This is among the many passages in it that comforted me and still comfort me:

“When I make a pot of oolong tea, I put tea leaves into the pot and pour boiling water on them. Five minutes later there is tea to drink. When I drink it, oolong tea is going into me. If I put in more hot water, making a second pot of tea, he tea from those leaves continues to go into me. After I have poured out all the tea, what will be left in the pot is just spent tea leaves. The leaves that remain are only a very small part of the tea. The tea that goes into me is a much bigger part of the tea. It is the richest part.

“We are the same; our essence has gone into our children, our friends, and the entire universe. WE have to find ourselves in those directions and not in the spent tea leaves. I invite you to see yourself reborn in forms that say you are not yourself. […]

“You do not have to wait until the flame has gone out to be reborn. I am reborn many times every day. Every moment is a moment of rebirth. My practice is to be reborn in such a way that my new forms of manifestation will bring light, freedom, and happiness into the world.”

One day I was rearranging the altar where I meditate each morning, and I set my Buddha at the center. I realized that he was holding his hands as if he was holding something. I looked down on the shelf and there was my broken rock, the broken pieces of me. I gently placed them into the Buddha’s hands and trusted that if I sit there and practice looking deeply, I will see that the broken rock is both the same as it has always been and that it will never be the same again.

Posted in Sermons

Sermon: A Practice of Gratitude

My pretty Thanksgiving Cactus in the sunshine

My gift for you today is a little book of Gratitude. If you carry your book of gratitude with you, maybe when a delight or something to be grateful for strikes you, you’ll be moved to write in it then and there.

The science is really clear: having a regular practice of gratitude is really good for our mental health. It increases a sense of well-being and happiness, and decreases symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Studies have been conducted on well people and on patients seeking counseling. A Berkeley study showed that the effects weren’t just the immediate good feeling that comes from thinking nice thoughts. Using fMRI technology, the brain scans showed more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when people were feeling gratitude, and these changes lasted up to three months after the practice was begun.

In another study, scientists asked one group of people to write down the things that they were grateful for on a weekly basis, while the other group recorded hassles or neutral life events. The folks who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were generally more optimistic about the upcoming week—compared to their negatively focused counterparts.

This seems to be borne out among my friends. I asked on Facebook whether my friends had a regular gratitude practice. Those who responded that they did reported that it makes them feel closer to God, more empathetic, not as quick to anger, a better life, closer relationships, better outlook, and “reduced grump-butt levels.” My friends exist on a wide religious spectrum, and I know that these answers came from Christians, pagans, and those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion.

In my own experience, I’ve found that knowing I’m going to be looking for something to write in my gratitude journal has the effect of making me more present to notice things to be grateful for or finding delight in. What about you? Do you have a regular practice of gratitude?

Surveys show we WANT to be more grateful. One reported that 78% of Americans had felt strongly thankful in the past week. That number is so high that it seems likely that there’s some social desirabaility bias going on – we want it to be true that we feel deep gratitude on a regular basis. Diana Butler Bass, author of the book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, comments on this statistic and compares it to another study in the same year, 2015, and has this to say:

That sounds great, but those numbers also point to a problem: that of a gratitude gap. They reveal a disparity between our private feelings and our public attitudes. Social scientists have extolled gratitude as a personal path to peace, health, and contentment. Giving thanks, however, is more than a private practice; those same researchers insist that gratitude is socially beneficial and strengthens communities. Gratitude is about ‘me’ and it is about ‘we.’ Where is the gap? A week after the Pew survey on the gratitude question, Public Religion Research Institute posted a very different study regarding American attitudes as we moved into a Presidential election year. That study discovered that Americans were more anxious, less optimistic, and more distrustful than ever. Subsequent political events made evident a surge of rage, revealing a toxic level of anger, fear, division, and intolerance in the American electorate.

The survey puzzled me. Did the same people who felt grateful also express these negative emotions? Had they divided their lives into personal thanks and public rage?

She says further on, “our understanding of thanks is polluted by our toxic dissatisfactions.” When I read this, I immediately thought of Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday not only based on toxic cultural fables that literally whitewash our history, and it’s becoming a holiday of gluttony with a thin veneer of gratitude that seems to be thinning even more. Even further, in recent years, Christmas has encroached on our supposed thankfulness more and more to the point that Black Friday now starts at 6 pm on Thanksgiving Day, and peoples “toxic dissatisfactions” have them running out of houses full of turkey so that they can do battle for the best prices on the commercial madness that our American highest holy day has become. I wonder at how many tables this week thanks will be expressed for families, while failing to express thanks to family members.

Christmas itself often brings anxiety about the equivalency of our gifts.

For me, and maybe for you too, a practice of gratitude might feel a little messy if you don’t believe, as the Bible says in James, that “every good gift and every perfect present comes from above.” If your practice of gratitude incorporates expressing your thanks to God, I think that’s a beautiful thing. But I also think we need not forget those through whom those gifts come. Let me ask you this: if you believe in a benevolent deity, what would make them happier – if you spent every night on your knees pouring out verbal thanks to them in prayer, or if you shared your gifts, your blessings and your thanks with others? If all good things come from god, then your sharing – whether that’s your love, joy, gratitude, or material things – means you get to be part of the divine distribution process, and how cool is that?

And if you don’t believe that all good things come from god, then finding the source of your good things becomes maybe even more important. It makes me think of this meme I’ve seen before:

Gates was going to be my service coordinator today but couldn’t. She shared with me this video that I wanted to share with you:

AJ Jacobs on Gratitude

What jumped out to me in that video is that this exercise in gratitude drew Mr. Jacobs’ attention to what is our 7th principle of UUism: respect for the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part. I think the heart of gratitude lies in this principle, and maybe also in the principle of democratic process.

Our society has roots in feudalism. Under that system, and systems before it, you do something for your lord – give him part of your livelihood – and he does something for you, namely, lets you live in his territory. This equation, where a benefactor bestows something upon a beneficiary, and the beneficiary is expected to be both grateful and often also to cough up something of value in return, is a societal more, and we’ve had a couple of centuries to shake it, but we’re not doing a great job of it. Your parents probably taught you that when someone gives you a birthday or graduation gift, you’re expected to say thanks. Even before that, when a stranger gives a child a piece of candy, we say to the child, “What do you say?” I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, it’s valuable to teach children to express gratitude. But, as this author says, “obligatory gratitude rarely has a heart.” It’s part of maturity to grow and express gratitude not only when it’s expected. When you express gratitude the way Mr. Jacobs did, to people who are underappreciated for making the world work successfully, then your thank you becomes a gift.

It’s important to separate the emotion of gratitude from the intentional focus on the present moment. It’s also important to have perspective, because from a mature vantage point, we can see that things that felt really awful in the moment were really, ultimately, something we learned from and grew. When you can be grateful for that painful event in your life, and see it from a new vantage, that’s a mark of maturity.

I think it’s also important to be careful, in our practice of gratitude, that it doesn’t become a kind of prosperity gospel. This is essentially what prosperity gospel teaches: God wants you to be materially wealthy and personally happy. Therefore, your wealth and your privilege can be considered evidence that you are blessed by God. This isn’t exclusive to Christian teachings. In the video The Secret the idea was popularized that the Universe wants your highest good and therefore, if you just ask in the right way, all good things will come to you. This is really just a non-Christian prosperity gospel.

Do you see the danger in this kind of thinking? It leaves everything else out of the picture. You have “stuff” because God likes you and he hands it to you. If that “stuff” comes at the cost of child labor or environmental damage or other people being disadvantaged, or any number of other societal ills, well, if it was the will of the universe, who are we to argue, right? And then, if we’re not being financially blessed, what did we do wrong, why have we lost the favor of God or the Universe?

If gratitude is only about the good feeling we give ourselves about counting our blessings, then it will help us cope with a dysfunctional system. But if we still carry around a structure of gratitude as a debt or obligation that requires payback, and if we find in our gratitude practice that the blessings we are counting are primarily first-world material things, then “it serves to reinforce hierarchical structures of injustice and spiritualizes gifts and blessings while offering only heavenly rewards to those lower down the system.” In other words, those who are well off see their blessings as evidence that God cares about them, while people who don’t have these privileges will, if they’re good, get some nice things when they get to heaven.

From Rev. Bass’s book:

We might be grateful persons, with thankful hearts, and be fanatical about gratitude journals and intentions, but as soon as we walk out our front door or turn on the news, we are confronted with a world of payback, quid pro quo, corruption, and ungrateful neighbors. […] If gratitude is built on a myth of scarcity and imperial hierarchies, it has been corrupted. If gratitude is privatized and collaborates with injustice, it is not really gratitude… Gratitude begins with a profound awareness of abundance and builds communities of well-being and generosity. Gratitude opens toward grace.

True gratitude, not transactional gratitude but transformative gratitude, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. The sort of gratitude that changes our individual lives will also revolutionize our lives in community and as citizens. Gratitude as an ethic moves us from the kind of private thankfulness that comforts us to public practices that push us out of our comfort zones.

“The ‘me’ of gratitude must extend to the ‘we’ of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community based on habits and practices of grace and gifts, of cultivating a wide field of vision and deepening our awareness of humility and blessing, of setting tables and sharing food for all. Gratitude is not merely resilience. Gratitude is resistance too. It is time for all of us to join in the resistance.”

You know, when Donald Trump won the presidency, as I told you a couple of weeks ago, my reaction was activism. But as my friend Angela said to me, we engaged in a sprint, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the endurance to keep going, calling my representatives every day and showing up for every rally, or, like her, running for office. I burned out. I felt kind of guilty because I had bought shirts and pins that said “Nevertheless, she persisted,” and “Resist,” yet I was not persisting. Maybe you’ve had this experience too, the constant barrage of more and more ridiculous news from the White House has just ground me down over the last three years. I started to wonder, what can I do that matters? My phone calls to Diane Black do not matter, not at all.

But over time, I started to realize that my best service to the community and the world was within these walls. I could find people who were similarly discouraged and be with them and make them feel maybe for the first time in a week that they weren’t alone. I could use the church’s voice in the community, put on my golden swarm shirt and show up for a rally to say “I will not forget the victims of this shooting,” or “I do not support children being locked up at the border.” The work of this faith community is small, but with networking with other liberal orgs in the community and with your support, it can grow. We don’t have to resist alone, because we’re together, and together, we’re making things happen. In the last few weeks our church has received a grant to help increase early childhood literacy in the area, and we can do that in a way that promotes inclusion and acceptance, because that’s our vision. Some of our friends have a vision even bigger than that. There’s a lot more our little church can do, and it starts with us. When I think of the things I’m most grateful for, this church is at the top of the list, right after my family. You’re at the top of the list. So I would encourage you to consider that in your thought process on gratitude, and if you haven’t made a pledge to help support the work of this growing church in our community, to contribute to having this little haven here in Conservative Cookeville, there’s still time to do that.

My blessing for you this week:

May you give thanks
May you express thanks to those who have blessed you
May you look at your blessings a little differently than you have in the past
May you see through the lens of interconnectedness.
May we have courage to resist when resistance is needed
May we as a community build within these walls an ethic of gratitude
May we model the kind of thankful world we want to see outside these walls

Posted in Big Questions

I’m sorry… Thank You

Hawaiian Volcano. Photo by Marc Szeglat, volcanoes.de

My meditation this morning left me with tears streaming down my face. It was a practice called Ho’oponopono, a practice of indigenous Hawaiian healers and shamans, and something I want to work with more. Here is the practice, a sort of mantra:

I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

In the version I practiced, as part of Davidji’s 30 Days to Rebirth course on Insight Timer, the meditator imagines themselves as a child. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you. Then as a young adult, an adult, recently. Then imagining another person. I’m sorry, Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

When I arrived at the last portion of the practice (which I think I will expand to make it more metta-style when I do it myself, maybe more on that later), my mind went immediately to my brother Anthony, who committed suicide in 2016. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

I cannot ask his forgiveness any longer, and even if he was alive, I don’t think it’s a conversation he would have wanted to have. But it’s a conversation I can have with him now. I’m sorry that when you needed me, when everyone you loved was cutting you off, that I said okay to that practice and hurt you. They told me it was the loving thing to do. How can cutting someone out of your life ever be the loving thing to do? I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

And back to myself, for doing the cutting off: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

There’s so much to process here.

And as I journaled about this, I have shifted my practice of gratitude to a practice of delight. What, in this heavy but necessary moment, could I call a delight? I wrote this:

Delight: How about this? Crying. It is a thing I have always hated. I hate the not-in-control-of-myself feeling, especially in front of other people. But my grief — for Anthony — taught me that catharsis is important and needed, that repressed tears will weigh down your soul to the point of sickness, even to the point of death. I promised myself then, grieving, that whatever comes, I will let it come, and then let it go.

Did I ever see my adult brother cry? I remember when he was really little, and he would cry. My grandfather told him ‘Toughen up, be a man,’ and mom got mad. He’s not a man, she said, he’s a little boy, and there’s nothing wrong with tears. Which message did he internalize? Which one did I?

My Aunt Betty was famous in my family for her ability to cry gracefully. It was, mom and I said, because she didn’t bother trying not to cry, she just let the tears flow, and we (mom and I) would say she was beautiful, crying, and wish we could be beautiful crying too, and not resist it.

This morning in meditation I was beautiful crying. I did not resist it. In meditation — alone — I can let the tears flow, feel them drip from my chin, and feel deep gratitude for the way they wash through me like a summer storm and leave me feeling cleansed and purified. A little more whole.

Posted in Big Questions, Sermons

My Spiritual Journey

This is a sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on November 10, 2019.

Meditative Moment: Before we talk about my spiritual journey, I want to use our meditative moment to think about yours. So settle in, ground with your feet on the floor, and if it feels right let your eyes drift closed or soften your gaze. Picture a pool of water, the pool of your consciousness, and we’re going to think about a few questions. Imagine the questions as pebbles dropped into the pool, and see what comes up for you.

Imagine yourself as a child, thinking what God was like. Was God your friend? Did people encourage you to ask questions about God? Imagine yourself growing, and think about whether it was safe to believe what you believed as you grew.

Now, imagine yourself as a young adult. Think about the moment you started to separate “spiritual” from “religion”. Think about the times you realized how big the world was, how big the universe was, and started wondering about your place in it and what you were meant to do.

And now, think about your recent journey. What twists has the spiritual path put in front of you that surprised you? What crises of the heart led you to ask new questions? And where did those questions lead you?

(We did this in a short meditation, but I may turn it into a longer, recorded one… I do recommend you try it, and maybe write down what came up for you afterward)

I would not be surprised if every person in this room would give a little chuckle and say “oh, my spiritual journey’s been a twisty one.” We have a couple of people in here who were raised as UUs, I think, but even they would probably say the path has not been simple.

And mine isn’t either. Susie asked me to give a “get to know your minister” sermon. It’s been a little odd writing this, and thinking about how in the world I would cram nearly 50 years of journey into 20 minutes. Obviously, I’m going to need to hit the highlights and move on, but if you have any questions, most of my life is an open book to you. If there’s something that speaks to you about this journey, and it can help you somehow on yours, please feel free to ask me more about it. And before I start, I want to say that I am not condemning the religion of my youth… it’s just not the path for me.

So, I think that for almost as long as I can remember, I have been spiritually curious. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. My parents came from very different religious backgrounds, he Catholic, she Jehovah’s Witness, and neither of them were practicing any religion when I was born, although I was baptized Catholic as an infant. But my grandfather taught me about Catholicism and took me to church occasionally, and to his Our Lady of Consolation shrine in Carey, Ohio, where he went to do the stations of the cross every year, even when he was really ill. On my mom’s side, her sister, my Aunt Nancy, was the faithful one; my mom and my grandparents “fell away” as they say, meaning they stopped going to meetings. And I was full of questions for anyone who didn’t mind talking about religion.

I was also a studious child. At the shrine I’d get books about the saints, and my cousins rolled their eyes at me because in summers when I visited them in West Virginia, they would be outside playing and I would be inside reading the bound volumes. These are encyclopedic volumes containing past copies of the Watchtower and Awake magazines that they distribute door to door. My aunt had them going all the way back to the 40s, and to me it was a treasure trove of information. I was eight.

Aunt Nancy arranged for me to study the Bible with a family friend in Ohio, Alice, who was a pioneer. That’s what JWs call people who spend 90 hours or more in the ministry every month. By the time I was 12, I was begging mom to take me to the Kingdom Hall. Eventually, she did, and she and I and my brother went.

My parents had been split up since I was 8, but when I was 14 or so Dad got interested in “the Truth” – what JWs call their religion — and started studying the Bible as well. After ten years apart, they remarried, and they’re still married, and still Witnesses, 30 years later. I was baptized when I was 17, and the year after that, while I was still in my senior year of high school, I started serving as a pioneer, spending 90 hours a month preaching door to door. I was not, however, allowed to speak directly to the congregation, as a woman. For a time, I went to Kentucky to preach where the need was greater, which means that the Witnesses don’t get to the houses as often. My brother, on the other hand, was also baptized, but when he was 18, he left, and he was disfellowshipped. When you’re disfellowshipped, your family and Witness friends are not supposed to talk to you.

But I was in love with a fellow Witness, Len, and when we spoke to the elders about our wedding they specifically asked if we’d had sex. And since we had, there was a committee formed, and they sat with us for three hours asking very pointed questions about when and where and how often, and there were two possible results – disfellowshipping, or public reproof, depending on whether the elders determined we were repentant. Our fate was the latter, which meant we could not speak in the congregation but were allowed to continue to attend and our family could still speak to us. It was a bad way to start a marriage, in guilt and shame, and I think it had no chance. We divorced when my son was 2, and I was 25. Single parenting is a spiritual journey I could talk about for a whole hour, so I’ll leave that for another time, but Brandon and I are really close because of all of the time we spent together.

In some ways I was a really good Witness. I KNEW my Bible. I brought my study Bible in case you’re interested in looking at it and all my scribbled notes and highlights. I loved a deep dive into spiritual questions and I studied with complete zeal. But in other ways, I was a terrible Witness. I never converted anyone, despite being a pioneer, and I’d find myself chastising myself for nodding along fascinated as someone told me their religious views, when the point of my being at their door was to tell them about my religion, and convert them.

A few years after my divorce, some things happened that resulted in a legal battle with my ex, and it was a trial so difficult that I got very depressed (for the second time in my life), and stopped attending meetings. My parents got alarmed, and they paid for me to visit a psychologist. And as I sat there explaining to him about how JWs believe that all the people except JWs will be killed at Armageddon and then they will live forever in paradise on earth, I thought… this is messed up. Someone who believes this is not who I want to be anymore. Someone who judges how spiritual people are based on the smallest things like what TV shows they watch, is not who I want to be anymore. So, the psychology kind of backfired for its intended purpose.

I stopped going to meetings, but I still believed in the things I’d been taught for so long as “the Truth.” And that means, I believed that God was going to kill ME at Armageddon, for probably about two years after I left. And that is a very heavy burden to carry.

But I wanted to be a writer, and I had a friend who recommended a book called The Artist’s Way, which is for blocked creative people. The book recommended journaling as a practice, so I started doing Morning Pages, 3 pages of freehand, stream-of-consciousness writing first thing after getting up every morning. And, there were exercises in there talking about the creative process. Many artists, it said, say that when they are creating, they’re pulling forth the divine, and that’s what enables the creative process. The book asked, how do you feel about that process? Does the god you worship support you in your creativity, or do you serve an adversarial god? As I worked though these questions, I realized that if I was going to choose not to be a witness, then I had to choose more than what not to be. If I didn’t want to be the person that believing in Jehovah made me, then I needed to think about what sort of Divine would I need to believe in, to be the sort of person I wanted to be? The terrifying answer was, I didn’t know. I wasn’t allowed to believe that any other gods existed.

But I started to play with these ideas of the divine in my journal, and I started to let myself look at other kinds of spirituality. There was a scripture that I often used when I was speaking to people door-to-door, that you could recognize religion by the kind of people it produced.

Be on the watch for the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s covering, but inside they are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them. Never do people gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they?  Likewise, every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit. A good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce fine fruit. Every tree not producing fine fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Really, then, by their fruits you will recognize those men. (Matthew 7:15-20, New World Translation

I’d read that scripture and substitute the word “Organization” (you could also use “church”) for “tree”, and “people” for “fruit. So, Every good church produces fine people, but every rotten church produces worthless people. The teachings of the church are reflected in the lives of its members.

And once I was outside this organization, I started to see without a filter, and it seemed to me that those teachings produced people who were judgmental and narrow-minded.

And I started to read, everything, like a kid in the candy store of the whole of human thought. Nothing was forbidden to me anymore. I wrote a poem about trying on ideas like a little kid trying on clothes in the goddess’s closet. I explored eastern religions, yoga, philosophy, New Age ideas, shamanism. I wrote this in my journal at the time:

“I am evolving. I feel myself in a constant state of flux. I’m like a child in a toy store, moving from one aisle to the next, unsure what to play with, sampling something and leaving it. There are so many ideas in the world! I want to wrap my mind around them, taste, assimilate or reject. I used to think I had eternity for all of this. Now, I seize the day, more or less. I am a gin player, picking a card (idea), seeing what it does with what is in my hand, discarding or keeping, waiting for the complete gin rummy. It’ll never come — I don’t want it to. I want to keep sampling philosophies, ideas, lifestyles, cultures.”

At first I was really scared of paganism because I had been taught that paganism is Satanism, and to entertain those ideas is to invite the devil into your mind. But nature is a huge part of my spirituality, and it had been even as a Witness. So I started to walk in the forest and get quiet in my mind, and to observe the cycles of the year, and I meditated with different traditions. I stayed afraid of pagan labels for 10 years, so I would never have called myself a witch until I met Dharma, who had the shop across the street there, where I worked, and for the first time I experienced Pagan community, and, as we Pagans say, I came out of the broom closet. My pagan practice is different than a lot of other pagans, if you can find two who practice alike. I don’t do a lot of spellwork, but I observe the wheel of the year and the movement of the moon, and I do a little tarot and a little candle magic, but mostly, I really enjoy ritual and marking significant events in my life with ritual. Concurrently, I took ideas from other religions that appealed to me, especially Buddhism. I call myself a Buddho-pagan Unitarian Universalist. My husband calls it “salad bar religion,” where you take what you like from the smorgasbord of the world’s spirituality.

When I was a Witness I loved singing the songs. They’re not called hymns, JWs call them “kingdom songs.” Sometimes, when I hit a particular note, my kingdom songbook would vibrate in my hand. I played the viola in high school, and with that too I experienced this resonance, when I’d find that sweet spot and the wooden body of my instrument would sing along, and I could feel it all the way through it and sometimes, all the way through me. And when I started exploring ideas, sometimes it seemed that way. I’d hit upon an idea and it would just sort of hum through me — resonance. YES, that fits right, that feels right. Have you ever experienced that?

In every human life I think some of the most spiritual moments are the moments of absolute crisis. That’s when we experience our paradigm shifts. It happened for me when I was experiencing that court battle and the injustice, and it made me question everything. From the time I left JWs, the only spiritual community I had was when I was working at Solstice Winds for a couple of years. But then, in September 2016, my only brother committed suicide, and two months later Donald Trump was elected president. My response to the trauma of those two events was threefold:

1) I got involved in activism. I attended the women’s march. At the time, there was a controversy with our school board in White County about some people claiming that our schools were indoctrinating the children in Islam, and I got involved with fighting the ultra conservative forces that were pushing that narrative in our community. I helped found the Indivisible chapter that is still active here in Cookeville. I went to nonviolent protest training, and that was enlightening and life-changing.

2) I went to therapy. . Side story about therapy, while I was there, I said, “My biggest regret is that I did not go to college.” My therapist said, “It sounds like you need to go to college.” Yeah, I said, but it’s so expensive, and I don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up, and I’m 45… Just take a few classes, she said. The next week, TN announced their Reconnect program to pay for adults to get an associates’ degree, and I said, well, I’m out of excuses.

3) One day while I was journaling, which I continued pretty consistently since I started in 2001, I heard a voice in my head that said: You need community. Go to UU.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal the next day:

“I’m going to church today at the Unitarian Universalist congregation. I just thought, yesterday, that it was something I needed. Tolerance is my preaching now, nature is my cathedral, animals are my clergy, and art is my prayer. Why, exactly, do I suddenly feel the need for religion? I can’t really say. There is a need to be of service, and they may help with that. I have gifts to give anyone recovering from religion, and that is where those people go. If I can promote love, tolerance, and hope in this confused and divided country, I will do it.”

And here I wrote the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalist, and their sources of wisdom and inspiration. And I wrote, “It does rather sound like it’s where I belong, doesn’t it? Acceptance is a keynote for me. We welcome you no matter who you are, and not (as with JWs) with the intention of changing you, “fixing” you. You are not broken, you are whole. You are a child of the Divine.”

The day I walked in the door, Ivan invited me to stay for the Social Justice meeting, and there, in that moment, was resonance. This feels right. This was my community. Where I had been part of a judgmental, narrow-minded religious community, I came here and found an accepting, broad-minded community that didn’t mind which religion I had cherry picked my truth from. Mark’s sermon on the third Sunday I came used a story from a pagan tradition. I looked at that in my journal and was shocked that that was only my third service, because at that point I already felt like a member of this community.

I’ve always been someone who loves a study of spiritual concepts. I love that UUism draws its spirituality from honestly, anything. You can find it in the direct experience of nature. You can find inspiration in a poem that isn’t meant to be spiritual at all. It’s easy to find inspiration in someone like Rumi, who is a spiritual poet, but you can find inspiration in Beat poetry. You can find inspiration in pop culture, or philosophy, or a snippet of scientific fact, or an ancient story, or even … in the Bible. I had loved making a study of the Bible so much, but now, the whole of human thought and the entirety of nature and science and the universe were open to me and part of the sources of wisdom.

I think I was a UU long before I walked in these doors. My grandmother was raised Lutheran and changed her religion to Catholic for love of my grandfather, and she would always say to me, “Honey dear, it doesn’t matter what religion or how you get to god. All paths lead to god.” I, because I was a JW and I knew everything, would nod and smile and internally disagree, and I would LOVE to tell her now how right she was. She used to say, “I believe in living your religion.” I wish that I could tell her how much her spirituality inspires me now. And I would love to go back and tell that young witness that I was, beating herself up about not monopolizing a religious conversation with “the Truth,” that she was actually doing exactly what was right for her soul.

So, once I found my community, starting last year I started kicking around the idea of being a minister myself. Some things seem impossible when you first dream them. First of all, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be minister of some unknown congregation, THIS is my community, but it already had a minister. Secondly, I did some research, and in order to be fellowshipped as a minister you need a bachelor’s, and a Master of Divinity, and I’m attending school part time, about ¾ of the way to my associates. There’s a lot of space between me and a fellowship. When Mark told us he was leaving the congregation, he said, there may be another way. I’m still a little shocked, to be honest, that that idea that tickled at the back of my mind last year has turned into reality so rapidly. And in some ways I feel like I’m not ready, but I’m buoyed by your belief in me and in love with the idea of growing as a minister as this little church grows as a congregation. When it comes to resonances, this just might be my biggest one yet. I thank you all for being my community, and for being my yes.

Benediction (Jalal ad’din Rumi):

The Journey

Come, seek,

for seeking is the foundation of fortune:
every success depends upon focusing the heart.
Unconcerned with the business of the world,
keep saying with all your soul, “Ku, ku,” like the dove…

Even though you’re not equipped,
keep searching…

Whoever you see engaged in search,
become her friend and cast your head in front of her,
for choosing to be a neighbor of seekers,
you become one yourself…

Day and night you are a traveler in a ship.
You are under the protection of a life-giving spirit…

Step aboard the ship and set sail,
like the soul going towards the soul’s Beloved.
Without hands or feet, travel toward Timelessness
just as spirits flee from non-existence.

…By God, don’t linger
in any spiritual benefit you have gained,
but yearn for more like one suffering from illness
whose thirst for water is never quenched…

Leave the seat of honor behind:
the Journey is your seat of honor.

Posted in Sermons

Samhain as Liminal Space

Photo by Simon Matzinger

It seems like, at least some years here in Tennessee, we go along, and it’s summer way past the end of summer. I don’t know about you, but at that first cold snap I run into my closet and pull out flannels and cozy sweaters, and put the kettle on for a cup of hot chocolate. And then summer comes back for another two months. Then, overnight, it goes from 90s during the hottest part of the day to 30s and 40s at night. Tennessee is not a land of happy mediums when it comes to weather.

Pagans observe what we call the Wheel of the Year. In some parts of the year, the wheel turns slowly, but this year it seemed like we turned that eighth-turn from Mabon to Samhain all in one go. But with it getting darker earlier, and the leaves swirling around you, and the chill in the air, and the storm clouds, you can definitely feel it turning, can’t you?

In pagan tradition we consider Samhain the end of the year, which, because the cycle is a wheel, means it is also the beginning of the year. The Wheel has eight pagan sabbath or holidays — Yule and Litha at the solstices, Mabon and Ostara at the equinoxes. Pagans also observe four cross-quarter holidays at the midpoint between each solstice and equinox. Samhain is one of those cross-quarter holidays in Celtic tradition, between Mabon and Yule.

Because these traditions come from agricultural societies, the observance of each of the festivals is closely tied to what is happening in the natural world at that time of year. They’d celebrate the planting at Beltane, the first harvest at Lughnasa. Samhain is the last of the harvest, when everything is dying on the vine, and people made some careful decisions about which parts of their herds to cull so that they could survive through the difficult winter.

Samhain and Halloween have always been associated with death. As people considered the plants and animals nearing the ends of the cycles of their lives, they naturally thought about the cycle of their own lives. It was believed that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the world of the dead was thinner, and therefore ghosts could cross over, or you could speak with your ancestors. Many traditions practice dumb suppers in which they set places of food and feasted with their dead.

When Christiansen converted Celtic peoples, they moved All Saints or All Hallows’ Day from May to the first of November so that it could coincide with the celebrations the pagan people were already doing, so Christian tradition honors November 1 with consideration of those who have gone before us, too.

This year, I want to expand a little bit on the meaning of Samhain or Halloween in a way that it could apply to our lives, not as a holiday or Pagan observance or even necessarily a time to honor our dead.

Samhain is often described as a liminal time, or liminal space. Liminal is defined in the dictionary as “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process,” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” The term comes from the Latin word limens, or threshold. In anthropology, the term is defined like this: “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.” This is according to Victor Turner, who studied rites of passage among African societies. So liminal space is a little limbo, a pause between what has passed away and what is yet to be.

How does this time of year fit that definition? This idea of thinning threshold between the world of the living and dying, that is liminal it’s. In practical and agricultural terms, we are at a transition between the plenty of summer and a difficult winter, a time when we honor what is gone and think about an unknown future and how we might plan for it. People at this time of year will often put on costumes and blur their identity or experiment with the idea of being someone else. That, too, is liminality. These portrayals sometimes represent the deepest-seated fears of our species.

Sometimes in meditation we’re asked to pay attention to the space between our breaths. It’s a little bit of a challenge, because we don’t often acknowledge a space between our breaths at all. But if you’ll follow your breath for a moment, you’ll notice that at the peak of each in breath and before each out-breath, there’s the tiniest gap. Sometimes, this gap is bigger. Imagine someone surprises you, and you gasp. Humor me for a second, pretend that Bigfoot just walked in the door and give me a good gasp.

You notice how big the pause is after that sharp breath? You’ve sucked in enough air to fill your lungs for fight or flight, but you haven’t quite figured out what to do with that lungful of air. It’s liminal. And, naturally, since this is a UU church, what we’d do next is welcome Bigfoot and offer him refreshments.

Sometimes, liminal spaces happen in our lives like that. Sometimes the unthinkable happens. We lose a job we were depending on, a long-term relationship ends, we lose someone very dear to us in death, we receive a serious diagnosis, we find out we’re going to be parents. The shock of these things is like that GASP — What now? We have no idea. We know things are never going to be the same, but we have no idea what comes next. Your very sense of identity feels uncertain. If I’m not a husband anymore, who am I? If I’m not a pharmacist, what’s the next step? If I’m not childless, how do I keep this very big, very important role of Parent from eclipsing all of the other roles that are still important to me?

In these liminal spaces, the moment between then and now, between teh past and the not yet, we are NOT comfortable. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says, “It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run… anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”

But sometimes these moments in our lives are the defining ones. Sometimes we see with the perspective of years that we could not have become who we are now without these crises, and the liminal moments that followed, the times when we did not know what was next and we had no choice but to wait and see what the Universe was going to bring us.

Each week we recite together our mission statement, and one very important facet of it is Spiritual Growth. It’s also the third principle of Unitarian Universalist, “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We’re not talking about religious doctrine when we say that, we’re not talking about learning some fact that will make us better Unitarian Universalists, and it’s not some kind of mystical revelation. And it’s a simple truth that if we aspire to spiritual growth — then by definition we have to outgrow our comfort zones. You might realize that your beliefs about yourself or about how the world works are not true, or not in line with the person you want to be. It’s a little shocking sometimes. *GASP*! Well, if this isn’t who I want to be, who do I want to be? What’s the next step? Liminal space.

And if we don’t develop the capacity to, in Richard Rohr’s words, live with that ambiguity, hold that discomfort, and just sit for a time and see what develops, then we missed an opportunity. We can run back to the last phase of spiritual comfort. We have probably all done that, like toddlers exploring and suddenly realizing that we’re far from mom and running back, not quite ready for the next phase. That’s okay. But growth demands uncertainty sometimes. It demands anxiety. It demands letting go of what’s behind.

“More often than not,” says Irish poet John O’Donohue, “the reason you cannot return to where you were is that you have changed; you are no longer the one who crossed over.” He says threshold is a better word than transition for the changes we endure. Threshold is related to the word thresh, which was the separation of grain from husk. It includes notions of entrance, crossing, border, beginning. To cross a threshold is to leave behind the husk and arrive at the grain (ah, another reference to our time of year).

In this essay in To Bless the Space Between Us [Liminal!], O’Donohue goes on to say that our culture has little to offer us for crossings; we have “ritual poverty.” “Many people are left stranded in a chasm of emptiness and doubt; without rituals to recognize, celebrate, or negotiate the vital thresholds of people’s lives, the key crossings pass by, undistinguished from the mundane, everyday rituals of life.”

So here, in this safe space among friends, we can practice sitting with ambiguity. We can practice letting go. We do this at our Burning Bowl ritual at the beginning of the calendar year. Samhain is another good time to do it.

So I invite you to the space between breaths with me. Take a moment, ground yourself with your feet on the ground, turn your palms up in a receptive gesture, and notice for a few moments the tiny pause at the top of the inhale and at the end of the exhale. At Samhain and Halloween, we hold sacred these in-betweens, these thresholds. We honor what has gone before and allow it to pass on.We honor those who have preceded us in crossing death’s threshold, and hold their memories gently and tenderly.

Posted in Sermons

Indigenous People’s Day

O Great Spirit,
Whose voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me! I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes
ever hold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
Help me remain calm and strong in the
face of all that comes towards me.
Help me find compassion without
empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy: myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset,m
y spirit may come to you without shame.

I’m going to start this sermon with lies. As you’re probably aware, tomorrow is our national observance of Columbus Day. It’s been moved to a Monday holiday, but officially, it recognizes the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, on October 12 in the year… well, you probably know.

Like most Americans, you’ve probably had a whole lot of education about Christopher Columbus. It feels to me like we started there in every history class I ever took, from first grade to college, though, to be fair, college gave us a chapter about the people who were here first, beforehand. I’m sure you learned the rhyme, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You probably forgot nearly every other date you learned in history class. Can you think of another one, off the top of your head, other than 1776? So here’s a sample of lies your teacher told you, as mentioned in the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, which has an entire chapter on Columbus.

  1. Columbus discovered America. Even if we discount the peoples that were here, there were Vikings and explorers from Siberia who came here much earlier.
  2. The ships endured bad weather. Nope. Columbus’ own journals say the seas were calm. We just like the adventure tale.
  3. Everyone thought the earth was flat and Columbus proved otherwise. Nope. It was common knowledge at the time that the earth was round, modern day flat-earthers notwithstanding
  4. Columbus just wanted to explore and find a trade route to the West Indies. Actually, he was pretty into conquest and exploitation, too
  5. Columbus made friends with the native population and gave them their name ‘Indians.’ Well, that last part is true. We’ll cover his treatment of the natives in a bit.
  6. Columbus was Italian. This isn’t certain either. He may have been Spanish. He may even have been a Jew.
  7. A quote from a 1992 high school textbook: “Although Columbus made three more voyages to America, he never really knew he had discovered a New World. He died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring American History would have been very different, for in a sense Columbus made it all possible.” He wrote in his own journals, “I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent.”

What was it that Columbus made possible? Columbus’s first order of business upon meeting the Arawak Indians was to discover if they had any gold. The Arawak told them there was a tribe nearby that had gold, so he sailed to the other side of the island, saw some villages, and wrote about them: “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.”

On his first voyage, he kidnapped 10-25 Indians and took them back to spain. Indeed, on return trips, since the gold he envisioned in massive quantities did not pan out (pun intended), he had to return some kind of dividend to Spain, and what that turned out to be was human trafficking. In 1495 they rounded up 1500 Arawaks and took them back to spain as slaves. The Arawaks, as you might not be surprised to hear, resisted, which gave Columbus an excuse to slaughter and conquer them, besides the ready-made excuse of their not being Christian. Spaniards took whatever they wanted, including the women, their food, hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food. Most of these gruesome facts are available in the accounts of the Spaniards themselves, including Columbus.

The other thing that Columbus apparently made possible was wiping out of dozens of native civilizations by disease.

Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, dispels the myth of the pre-Columbian Native as backward, unenlightened, a primitive holdover. In light of evidence gleaned by archaeologists over the past several decades, thriving, enormous civilizations existed here in the Western Hemisphere that rivaled the most sophisticated in the Old World.

Mann begins with an introduction entitled, “Holmberg’s Mistake.” Allan R. Holmberg was an anthropologist who lived among the Siriono people in a part of Bolivia known as the Beni, between 1940 and 1942. His account of their lives, Nomads of the Longbow, was published in 1950, and accounts for a lot of our modern perception of natives. He called the people “among the most culturally backward peoples of the world,” and saw them as the “quintessence of man in the raw state of nature.” Holmberg described them as having no clothes, no domestic animals, no culture to speak of, no religion, and he attributed this to their being primitive and backward. He, and many others, viewed native peoples as having essentially nothing worth having until Columbus brought it to them in 1492.

Though the Siriono were culturally impoverished, it was not because of their failure to develop a culture over the millennia, but because they were decimated by smallpox in the 1920s, cutting their population from at least 3000, to 150 in the 1940s. It caused a genetic bottleneck. At the same time, they were battling white cattle ranchers taking over the region and forcing them into servitude. The Siriono were not backward, but reeling from disease and injustice. “It was as if,” Mann concludes, “[Holmberg] had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.”

The image of the noble savage is one that has persisted in the imaginations of Europeans and their colonial descendants for centuries. Native peoples were brought back to Europe to display in a manner reminiscent of, and often as part of, a sideshow. Not understanding them, they were seen as holdovers from mankind’s ancient past. This idea, that Native Americans lived in a state outside time, having no effect on the land they inhabited, creating no lasting monuments, just waiting for conquest, dominated scholarly works and thereby high school and college textbooks for many decades. What purpose does this narrative serve? Mann quotes a British historian in 1965, Hugh Trevor-Roper, saying “Native people’s chief function in history is to show the present an image of the past from which by history it has escaped.”

Throughout the rest of the book Mann dips into culture after culture, showing the stunning complexity of Native American life before Columbus, and in many cases, astonishing numbers to boot. The narrative in most texts is that Pizarro overwhelmed the Inca with horses, steel, guns, and superior technology. There is truth in this, but the actual picture is more complex.

You see, smallpox arrived before Pizarro, killing their leader and his heir, which left a second son, Atahualpa, the de facto leader. But that was in dispute, and the Inca were in the midst of a civil war. It’s estimated that half their population died. This disaster unraveled social norms and caused all kinds of upheaval.

In the midst of this, Atahualpa, who had scouted Pizarro’s forces and determined that his 168 men were not a threat to his own 80,000, received Pizarro as a diplomat. The Inca were unarmed, expecting diplomacy. The Spaniards slaughtered them.

Without this diabolical attack, on a battlefield, Pizarro’s victory might have been very different. Yes, the Spaniards had guns, but on their mountainous home turf the Inca sling and bola were very effective. Yes, they had horses, but look at this picture of an Inca road. They were steep, with steps, much more suited for humans on foot and sure-footed llamas than steel-shod horses. Imagine trying to come up this road while someone was throwing projectiles at you from the bottom. I’m sure the person at the foot of this road can attest to what that might be like, and you might ask her because, it’s Janie.

Smallpox was probably the biggest factor in the easy conquest of native populations. The disease spreads quickly because people are contagious for 12 days before they begin to show symptoms, and they often fled the disease, carrying it from village to village, so it decimated Native populations like wildfire. There is a lot of disagreement on estimates of how many Natives were here before Europeans arrived, but some researchers estimate as many as 90 million or more, as compared with 10 million in Spain and Portugal at the time. Pizarro arrived after smallpox and still wrote of how astounded he was at the scope and population of Inca civilization. If these estimates are true, disease killed 80 to 100 million Native Americans by the seventeenth century — 1 out of 5 people then alive on earth. Mann draws an equivalency — if New York were similarly affected by disease today, the remaining population would not fill Yankee Stadium. In the sixteenth century DeSoto arrived in what is now Arkansas (with dozens of pigs, who may have been responsible for some of the epidemics) and described it as “thickly set with great towns.” But when the Frenchman LaSalle visited the same area in 1682 he found it deserted, with no villages for 200 miles.

The same was true further north. We’ve also been told the Thanksgiving story since early childhood, but the reason Tisquantum, whom we know from elementary school as Squanto, was fluent in English was because he’d been captured by British sailors seven years before, abducted, and returned to find his people, the Patuxet, completely wiped out by smallpox and there were English squatters in his village who called themselves pilgrims.

Mann makes an interesting argument regarding the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs, as well. It certainly happened, he says, and likely on a large scale. But, he says, it was in the Spanish interest to exaggerate this aspect of Aztec life, in a sort of rationale for conquest. In addition, the contemporary European society likewise had a taste for slaughter as public spectacle, heretics being burned alive, criminals drawn and quartered, bodies impaled and displayed on city walls. Perhaps, Mann suggests, the two societies were more alike than either realized. He goes on to describe the rich culture of the Aztecs in poetry and philosophy. European and Asian cultures had the advantage of trading and intermingling for hundreds of years, building on one another’s ideas, offering one another cultural exchanges. Can you imagine what might have been possible if they had approached these massive, culturally diverse societies the way they approached Asia, and exchanged ideas? Instead they were cut down by European diseases and European greed for gold, and land.

I do not have time to touch on each of the many cultures Mann discusses in 1491. He covers the Olmec and their remarkable immortal stone heads, the Clovis civilization’s stoneworking, the amazing development of maize as a staple crop, the Maya and their astonishing calendars, the massive figures of the Nazca, the challenges and development of agriculture along the Amazon, the mysteries of the mound-builders of Cahokia.

The takeaway is this: Europeans did not step into a cultural void, or a pristine wilderness inhabited by a scattering of savages. There were complex, evolved cultures across both American continents, living and interacting with the land, sometimes stewarding it wisely, sometimes causing wholesale destruction, creating great, populous civilizations, and often fractured and at war with one another (another thing that left them vulnerable to invaders). It is time to stop erasing these cultures and making them nothing more than a prologue to what we tell ourselves is “American” history, which is really a history of Europeans in the Americas.

Why does this matter? Maybe History was your least favorite subject in school, and maybe I’m boring you to tears with all of this. I hope not. It matters because we continue to celebrate racial violence and oppression. Some of you will be off work tomorrow to celebrate the life of a man responsible, directly and indirectly, for untold suffering, human trafficking, murder, and the wiping out of great civilizations whose stories and cultures are now lost to us forever. But we don’t talk about that loss. We say, “without his daring, American History would have been very different.” That’s true, but I think not in the way the textbook meant it.

It matters because, as people who seek social justice, we can’t just be nonracist. We have to be anti-racist. Seven states have rejected the celebration of Columbus day, replacing it with IPD or Native American Day. Our own UUA has joined with other organizations such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker organization, and others, in rejecting Columbus Day and the Doctrine of Discovery, which could be a sermon on its own. This doctrine from the 15th century was rooted in church decree, and basically said, if the people who live in a place are not Christian, conquest, colonization, and exploitation are sanctioned. It’s based on a scripture that says “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread I have given you, as I said to Moses.” In 1823, the Supreme Court ruled that discovery rights of Europeans as expressed in this doctrine applied to the United States European descendants, and the result of that decision still affects government policy to this day.

So how will we celebrate the second Monday in October? I’d like to suggest that we, as a congregation, follow UUA’s lead and adopt a resolution to reject Columbus Day in favor of IPD. UUA has suggestions for honoring IPD:

  1. Craft a Sunday service around Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
  2. Build and strengthen connections to nearby Native communities. I have to do more research, but as you probably know, the local Cherokee were murdered and relocated from here on Jackson’s watch, so I don’t know how much of a Native community still exists. This bears researching.
  3. Study the Doctrine of Discovery and work to eliminate its effects. I propose that we do this in future SJMs and possibly future sermons. I’d like your feedback on this.
    Take action to rename Columbus day in your state.
  4. Provide RE programming about IPD.
  5. Hold a movie screening with a discussion afterward about Native peoples.
  6. Host a common read book discussion. They suggest Beacon Press’ An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. If you would like, we can do this after White Fragility.
  7. Engage with immigration as a moral issue. Indigenous people of Central America are a big part of today’s desperate wave of immigration to the US. We have already supported a community in Central America, the Copal A community in Guatemala, who are working to educate native cultures in their area, keep their language alive, and educate people here about what they are doing. If you would like to continue to donate to Copal A, I can give you contact information to keep up with what they are doing.
  8. Take action for the rights and needs of Native peoples. There are a lot of ways to do this. Here are UUA’s suggestions on the subject.

Before I close, I would like to suggest that we consider taking another look at our Statement of Conscience, which doesn’t include anything about Native American rights. It has statements about racial justice, but I think it’s worth having a conversation about what things should be named specifically and which are fine as generalizations. (Some in the congregation agreed that it might be worth taking a look at, and we definitely need to replace the glass).

My blessing for you today is a Cherokee prayer:

May the warm winds of heaven blow softly upon your house
May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there.
May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows,
And may the Rainbow always touch your shoulder.

I’d like to add:

May we work to educate ourselves and others about the history of native peoples,
And may we do our part to change the narrative of oppression.

Posted in A Day In The Life, Creatures, mindfulness

Delight

Last week I gave a sermon entitled, How Can I Be Joyful When Everything is Awful? In it, I highlighted a book of essays by Ross Gay entitled The Book of Delights. He made a simple, even obvious practice of noticing things to be delighted in, and writing a mini essay every day about something that delighted him. I’ll post the sermon here, or somewhere, later. But I’ve been dipping into this practice myself, in place of my Gratitude practice (3 things I’m grateful for each day). Gratitude implies reciprocal obligation, but Delight requires nothing but presence, and for that reason I love it. So I thought I would also make a practice of sharing some of my delight here, so that you can find yours too.

Here’s today’s.

Most people don’t like spiders. They fascinate me. I think jumping spiders are adorable (and I once adopted one), and orb weavers are queens. Last month I noticed a web in my bushes that looked like an upside-down, 2-layer parachute. I posted it on Facebook and a naturalist friend of mine told me it was the web of a Bowl-and-Doily Spider. They catch prey in the “bowl” and lie in wait in the “doily” underneath. Damn, that’s cool! Anything that builds things is cool, even if I do a crazy dance after smacking into them while hiking.

This morning, I went for my simple half-mile walk around the block with Bandit, after skipping several days. It’s been hard to get up (allergies? grief?). There were spiderwebs everywhere in the wild places along the road, gem-studded with sparkling dew snagging rainbows from the slanting rains of the early morning sun. I am struck by how often my delights are contained in this 12-minute morning walk, and how much I struggle to do it, despite that.

Posted in Art and Life

Morning Glory

I didn’t want to walk this morning. But I’m trying to make a habit of it. Bandit and I are grieving our old dog Rascal, and it’s been really good for both of us to get up early and get out of the house and roam.

So I walked. I didn’t notice the morning mist (one of my favorite things) until we were coming up the hill and saw the slanting rays of the just-up sun in dappled rays through the trees, shining on the road.

A few days ago, we caught a lavender-orange sunrise. The world is different in predawn. If you routinely miss it, I recommend exploring it.

This month, I’ve added painting to the morning routine I started last month, which consists of waking at 5:30 (ok 6:00 a lot of the time), reading something meaningful, meditating, walking with Bandit, writing affirmations, journaling. I did daily painting in the past and it was deeply meaningful to me, and I felt like I needed more regular art in my life. My plan for this month was to do 4 series of bookmarks in a rainbow, one each: Tennessee Wildflowers, Insects, Birds, Scenery. Maybe sea life. Maybe… I had other ideas. So that’s what I did yesterday.

But I’ve been thinking about my nature journal too, and missing it, and I thought painting shouldn’t be a this-month thing, it should be part of the mix all the time. So I nature journaled.

I am astounded that I can walk the same route over and over again, half residential, half a wild little winding road through the trees, and find a different delight every morning. I use my Seek app to identify plants. I putter and let Bandit sniff around. It’s not about exercise, it’s about being present. Tiny joys are worth rolling out of bed at 5:30 (I’m trying to get to 5:30) and meeting gratitude on the wild winding road. I think, if I lived in the middle of a city, that there would be little joys to find on a different kind of wild winding road.

If there weren’t, maybe I could plant some.

Try getting up early. Getting up at an hour YOU choose rather than the hour dictated by wherever you have to be is empowering. You start to find everyday delights. Your caffeinated beverage of choice even tastes better if you have some time to sit and savor it rather than choking it down as you rush out the door. If you need inspiration, check out Hal Elrond’s Miracle Morning.

I wish you exquisite moments and gentle gratitude.

Posted in mindfulness

Still and Small

My intuition speaks in strange ways sometimes. This morning, first, in the song “What a Feeling” which is a song I’ve never been particularly fond of. “First when there’s nothing but a slow-growing dream that your fear seems to hide deep inside your mind.” And then, I chased a lead: where does the phrase “still, small voice” come from? What? The Bible? I haven’t found inspiration in the Bible since before I was another person. It doesn’t matter where the words come from, though, does it?

“The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the lord was not in the fire, and after the fire, a still, small voice.” — 1 Kings 19:11-12

It made me think of trauma. Whether you think God is testing you or just shit happens, you’ve been through the wind and the earthquake and the fire, haven’t you? Maybe you resisted the wind and thought, Damn it, why does this shit always happen to me? And you couldn’t see the purpose or if there even was one. And then more stuff happened, and more stuff, and by the end you’re standing in what seems like a wreckage wondering whyyyyyy, and then you realize that it all needed to go anyway, and there’s nothing left…

…. but the still, small voice. When you’re rubbed raw from all the fire and fury, and you stop resisting and just witness, get quiet, breathe, listen. I don’t know if it’s God’s voice or something from inside me, but I’ve heard it. Have you?

Posted in Poems

Handful of Haiku

My World Literature professor gave us an assignment to write a haiku based on a photograph. I’ll be honest, I’ve always sort of hated haiku, because it always felt like an elementary school poetry to me. But age has brought me full circle to appreciate the brevity of words, and I loved this assignment so much, and I have so many photos I adore, that I couldn’t just do one. So here are a few drawn from my extensive photo library (all photos taken by me).

Beautiful dog glowing
In the late-afternoon sunshine
Is how I will remember you

My dog Rascal is 19 1/2 years old, and can’t walk anymore. We only have a short time left with him, but this is how I will always remember him, enjoying the sunshine and surveying his yard.

Tiny jeweled bird
Hovers to look me in the eye
Gift of her attention

I am fascinated with hummingbirds. They are so bold, zooming loudly across the yard, and hovering in front of me, as if demanding to know what my intentions are, then flickering away to sit in a branch and wait to see if I’m going to refill the feeder.

Rumble of hoofbeats
Noble creatures come at my call
Bringing their hearts to mine.

There is nothing in the world that sends chills down my spine like the sound of hoof beats echoing across the valley as my horses charge toward me for their dinner. Sometimes, I think they run just for my enjoyment.

Still waters ruffled
Rhythmic dip of my paddle
Peaces flows into me.

This is from City Lake in Coookeville, where I love to paddle because the waters are so calm and it’s filled with wildlife. It does not matter how stressed I am, when I get on the water all the knots fall out of my muscles and I reconnect with nature and myself.

All the world unfolds
Contemplation, vastness,
Utter smallness.

This is a photo I took at Stone Door overlook in Grundy County, of my son. In particular I love waterfalls and overlooks, and I am so thankful that Tennessee is full of both of them. Our state and national parks are places I can go to find myself again when I have chased my tail enough times to get lost.