Posted in Sermons

Hey Wiretap! Do You Have a Recipe for Pancakes?

The following is a speech I gave in Communications class at Motlow State Community College on April 2, 2019.

Good morning. I’m Pepper Traymore. Oh wait, that’s my porn star name. I was on Facebook last week and there was a thing on there that said, if you take the name of your first pet and the road you lived on when you were a child, that’s your porn star name. What’s yours? We don’t have time to share all of them, but maybe take a second and tell the person next to you if you find it amusing.

Those things on Facebook are always a lot of fun. Take this quiz and find out what breed of dog you are, cut and paste this list of personal questions and tell your friends about where you had your first kiss, and what year you graduated from high school, and more.

Unfortunately, I’ve just baited you into sharing two pieces of personal information about yourself with the person next to you, who might be a relative stranger. Those pieces of information might be things you used as a password to your Facebook account, or your online bank account.

Maybe you’ve seen the above meme. It highlights the fact that in 50 years, we’ve gone from deeply suspicious of government spying to basically sharing our private information with the world voluntarily. I’m going to give you a brief history of technology and personal information, talk about what They with a capital T might be doing with your data, and give you a few ways to safeguard your data and your privacy while living in the world and on social media.

Wiretapping is almost as old as the telephone. Americans were outraged when they first learned of law enforcement’s use of wiretaps in the 20s, so laws were made limiting the use of electronic surveillance by police.

With World War II came relaxations of prohibitions of government spying on citizens. President Roosevelt authorized the use of wiretaps to monitor “subversives.” In wartime this meant potential Nazi and Japanese spies, but in the 50s, it broadened to include progressive activists fighting racial segregation. “Subversives” went from meaning foreign nationals to American citizens who disagreed with the government. Do you see how dangerous that is?

Fast forward 50 years to 9/11. In the wake of those attacks, Americans feared terrorism, so they were willing to accept new legislation like the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, which was later found to be monitoring American citizens. And then, of course, the advent of social media, in which we willingly share vast amounts of private information. Technology has developed so fast that new gadgets come out faster than we can even begin to think about what effects they may have on our lives and our privacy.

In 2013 Edward Snowden revealed ways in which the NSA was monitoring American citizens that alarmed some people. Other people took the attitude, “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide.” But all of us have things we would prefer other people not know about us, things we might tell our best friend or our doctor or no one at all. And as Orwell’s novel 1984 pointed out, a society that monitors its citizens breeds subservience, and quashes creativity and dissent. Throughout all of our history, we have associated these tactics with Communist and Fascist nations and dictators, not with democracy.

When I started researching this topic, the amount of information out there and the number of ways that your data can be tracked boggled my mind. One TED talk described us as walking around in a cloud of information. Everything we do leaves a little digital trail, not just online but in the real world, too. But I want to narrow my focus to two ways “they” might be tracking you.

The first is the things you like or favorite on Facebook. That innocent click tells data miners so much about you. Information can even be mined by how long you pause while you’re scrolling, you don’t even have to click the like button. So what can they tell? Algorithms have developed so much that information can be had about your religion, your political ideals, your sexual preference, your sexual behavior, how much you trust your friends, whether you are using drugs.

One example in Forbes magazine told a story about a high school girl who received a flyer from Target offering pregnancy and baby products, alerting her parents before she had told them she was pregnant. How did Target know? She had looked at ads for vitamins, and bigger purses.

In addition, if you allow Facebook and Google to monitor your location, you are providing information about where you go, what stores you frequent. This is used for targeting ads to your particular demographic. Have you ever had the experience of just talking about something you were thinking about buying, and then suddenly seeing ads on Facebook for that very thing? It’s something we sort of joke about, but when you think about it, all of that information that is being gathered can be used for nefarious purposes, even manipulating the things you think about. Hacking the human brain is becoming a reality, and no hardware need be installed when we spend hours a day interacting with the software.

The other way companies are mining your data is through the use of smart devices. Kashmir Hill is a journalist who lived for 2 months with 18 smart devices, all linked with an Amazon Echo. She had a computer scientist monitor the information the devices were sending back to the companies who made them. You can get smart refrigerators, smart TVs, even smart sex toys. In those two months, there was not one hour of radio silence. The Echo was relaying information to Amazon every 3 hours, and all of the other devices were sending data to their manufacturers, who then sell that data to other companies. The computer scientist knew what TV shows they were watching and for how long, how often they went to the refrigerator, and yes, the smart sex toy was sending information about its use back to the company, as well. Do you feel watched yet? As I said, these are only two ways you are constantly generating data that is available for use and for sale by the corporations who run every website you interact with, and create the items you use, and you do not generally know it is happening, nor can you control it if you did.

But, there are some ways you can protect yourself.

  • First, use smart passwords. Don’t use pet names or information about you that is obtainable through the quizzes on Facebook or other easy data mining. Never reuse passwords, which is more dangerous than using easy passwords. Of course, never give out your password.
  • Review your privacy settings on social media, and review it REGULARLY. Facebook updates its algorithms and terms of service often, and you might find that somehow your phone number and email are public information. Be wary of friend requests from people you have already friended; it could be a new account, or it could be someone trying to get information about you or hack you account.
  • Be careful about what you share on Facebook. Be aware that when you apply to a college, or apply for a job, or anything else that is important to you, one of the first things those people are going to do is check your facebook account. If your wall is public and full of images of you drunk at parties, you’re not likely to get the job.
  • Don’t be too trusting when asked for private information. Be your own “human firewall” and educate yourself on the ways data is being gathered and used. Be careful about checking in. Just checking in or posting vacation pictures to a public Facebook account can alert someone that you’re not home and give them an opportunity to rob your house while you’re gone.
  • Finally, it’s important to keep abreast of the latest information about cyber security. Experts say it’s not a matter of if you’ll be a victim of a cybercrime, but when. It may be worth it to look at identity protection, but do your research.

Big Brother may be watching, and there is a lot we don’t have control over when it comes to how our information is shared and sold, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful where we do have control. Be safe out there.

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Posted in Sermons

Blessed Are the Tree Huggers

This is a sermon I gave at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on March 24, 2019.

<Read The Giving Tree>

Do you think this is a healthy relationship? If this was a human relationship between two adults, what would you think of the boy? What would you think of the tree?

I loved this story when my son was young so much that it was one of two children’s books I kept after he got older, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t think about it much. It’s good to be giving, right? It’s good that the tree was happy, right? The telling words are after he took her trunk to go far away: “The tree was happy… but not really.”

The boy might have loved the tree in his own way, but would you call him a tree-hugger? Really, he was exploiting her in every way imaginable. Would you call him an environmentalist?

Now, when I look at this story, I see it a lot different than I used to. I see it as a metaphor for humans’ relationship with the earth. The earth is our Mother, and she gives us everything we need to live. But, not content to accept her as as place to climb branches and play and eat apples, we plunder all of her resources with no regard for her well-being, or for what she will have left to give us when we have taken it all away.

The earth is so perfect for human habitation that altering things in the slightest way would make her uninhabitable by our species. There are so many ways that this is true, but since we’re talking about trees today, here are ten ways trees make your life better, or even make your life possible:

1. Trees produce oxygen. Two mature trees produce enough oxygen in a year for a family of four.

2. Trees filter the soil they are planted in, cleaning it of pollutants and toxins.

3. Trees and forest ecosystems support biodiversity, creating habitats for creatures, some of which we depend on directly.

4. Trees reduce the greenhouse effect. During photosynthesis, trees take in carbon and store it in their wood, so the more trees there are, the slower global warming affects our planet.

5. Trees produce fruit and nuts.

6. Trees prevent soil erosion. Their networks of roots keep the soil intact. Without this, we lose the vital top layer of soil where other plants grow best. When land is stripped of trees, often very little else will grow, producing deserts or barren wastelands.

7. Trees provide shade and reduce evaporation. If your house is in the shade of a tree, you’re probably using less energy to cool it, another way they help with global warming.

8. Trees filter the air. They trap particulates like smoke, ash, and dust that can damage the lungs of mammals. These things then wash to the ground at the next rainfall, and can then potentially enrich the soil.

9. Trees add beauty to our life. Here in the first breath of spring, I probably don’t have to tell you this. You’re probably as excited as I am to see the flick of spring green on the end of branches, the flowers on deciduous magnolias, redbuds, and dogwoods. It’s like an old friend returning. And of course, they are beautiful not only in spring, they are beautiful year-round, in so many different ways.

10. Trees improve mental health. Studies have shown that spending time in nature and in the company of trees improves cognition and memory, and reduces stress.

So, and you knew this question was coming, I want to ask you: when was the last time you hugged a tree? If you’re feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious, have you considered forest therapy? They don’t charge by the hour.

There is a tree on the farm where my horses live, a huge, ancient pear tree. The horses stand in her shade and as often as I can, I take advantage of one of her gnarled roots to use as a meditation cushion, closing my eyes to just listen and be. Often when I do this, the horses come to me and lower their heads and half-close their eyes to meditate with me. Do I hug her? Yes. I thank her for the embrace of her gnarled roots and for taking care of my horses with shade in the summer and pears in early autumn.

Today I’d like to introduce you to the original tree-huggers. They belong to a Hindu sect in the arid northern Rajasthan region of India, called the Bishnoi. The sect was founded in 1485 by a man who came to be called Guru Jambheshwar or Jambhoji, and even back then, it was caste-neutral.

Jambheshwar witnessed the clear-cutting of trees during times of drought to feed animals. You see, the region is mostly desert, subject to cruel dust storms. The local Khejri trees are a marvel, with deep roots that access water that humans and animals can’t get to, which is stored in the wood and leaves of the tree. So when drought is severe, sometimes the only way to get water is from the trees. But in Jambheshwar’s time, people were clear-cutting the trees to feed animals, and the drought went on so long that the animals died anyway, and then the trees were gone.

Jambhoji preached ecological responsibility. He gave his followers 29 principles, from which their name comes; the Bishnoi, which means 29. Eight of these principles preserve biodiversity, such as prohibitions on killing animals, sterilizing bulls, or cutting green trees. Ten of them deal with health and hygiene, and four have to do with daily worship. The Bishnoi’s proscription on cutting allowed shrubs to grow in the desert, protecting it from wind erosion, and they also developed, hundreds of years ago, water harvesting systems to preserve life. Jambhoji also called for tolerance during discussions, and 120 Shabads or sayings are recorded in which he preached love for all living beings.

In this region of Rajasthan there is a town called Khejarli for the groves of Khejri trees nearby. These trees became particularly sacred to the Bishnoi, because of their remarkable endurance and ability to help sustain life in the desert.

But in 1730 the king of Jodhpur sent men to cut the Khejri trees for construction of his new palace. The Bishnoi protested, but their protests fell on deaf ears and the king’s men continued with their plans to cut. One young Bishnoi mother, Amrita Devi, threw herself upon the trees, wrapping her arms around the Khejiri and hugging them, telling the king’s men that they would have to go through her before they could harm the trees. She said “To lose one’s head to save a tree is a good bargain.”

She lost her life, as did all three of her daughters. The king’s men killed them, and felled some of the trees. Aghast, Bishnoi from all over came to protest. In the end, 363 of them, from 83 different villages, lost their lives as they wrapped themselves around their sacred trees to try to save them, perhaps the world’s first ecological martyrs.

The king heard of this and ordered his men to cease logging. He was so impressed with the bravery of the Bishnoi that he declared Khejarli off limits for logging and hunting, and to this day it is illegal to cut one of these trees. Khejarli is beautiful and verdant in a region that is mostly desert, and it is preserved today as a heritage site. In 1988 it was named by India’s government as the first National Environmental Memorial.

In addition, the actions of Amrita and the Bishnoi prompted what is known as the Chipko movement, from a word that means “to hug”, a nonviolent movement to protect other trees in other places. This is a successful nonviolent protest in India almost two hundred years before Gandhi’s protests.

For all of us, it is not a stretch to say that trees are life, but for poor people in rural areas and less developed countries, it is much more true. When the environment suffers, they are always the first to feel the crisis. <slide> I’d like to introduce you to another tree hugger who has lived in our own time, although as she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, perhaps you have heard of her.

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya and educated in the US. She became the first East African woman to hold a Ph.D. When she returned home from America, she was distressed to compare the affluence here with the terrible poverty in her homeland. Women around her native Nairobi would often have to walk miles and miles to get firewood because the forests had been clear-cut to make way for building. This was having effects on soil erosion, water supply, and so much more. Wangari worked with the National Council for Women, and in 1977, she had an idea to enlist poor women to plant trees, to provide fuel, prevent soil erosion and desertification. She gave the women a small stipend to do the planting. She said in an interview, “I started simply to meet the needs of women.” But in so doing, she was meeting the needs of the environment as well.

The response shocked her. She discovered that Kenya’s corrupt government and a few powerful people controlled these resources, and they did not like a woman defying traditional gender roles, speaking up, and empowering the destitute. She was arrested, imprisoned, and bullied. But when the government changed, she was given a place in its environmental department, and continued to make a difference up until she died in 2007.

Her?? Green Belt Movement has to date planted 51 million trees, gave people a voice in standing up to their government, employed people who desperately needed help, and trained 30,000 women in forestry, food processing, bee keeping, and other skills. The movement has since expanded to teach women in many other African nations how to steward the land.

Over their lifetimes, those 51 million trees will capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions from burning 25 billion pounds of coal. This is why trees are critical to slowing climate change. In areas where trees are sparse, climate change wreaks havoc. And, as both these examples have shown, planting and caring for trees can have a positive influence on the lives of people, especially on the lives of people who desperately need help.

In addition, I want to point out here at the end of Women’s History Month, that both of these stories highlight the courage, ingenuity, and tireless work of women environmentalists, and of course they are only two examples among many. In an echo of the Bishnoi protest, in 1997 Julia Butterfly Hill lived for some 700 days in an old-growth redwood tree to save it from being cut by a lumber company, raising awareness for the importance of old-growth forests, and she continues to stand on the front lines of environmentalism.

Russ and I went for a drive yesterday, through forests just beginning to flicker with green, punctuated with purple-garbed redbud branches. Where I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, for the most part, forests existed where they were protected. We are so fortunate to live in this green land full of trees everywhere, not just in parks. So I ask you to consider planting a tree or two this spring, and even if you can’t, consider hugging one and offering it your thanks for the hard work it’s doing on your behalf.

In the midst of an administration that is anti-environment, it’s easy to lose hope or give up. Don’t do that. I offer you quotes from two of the women we talked about today. Julia Butterfly hill said, “You, yes you, make the difference.” And Wangari Maathai said, “We cannot tire or give up hope. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.”

Posted in Sermons

Manifestation and Letting Go

The following is a sermon I gave yesterday for Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville‘s Burning Bowl ceremony. This is a ceremony in which each person writes on a piece of paper something that they would like to let go of, that is no longer serving them. Then we light a candle in a big ceramic bowl and ceremonially burn the papers. I really wanted to use flash paper this year, or flying wish paper, but I didn’t get the Amazon order in time. Maybe next year.

Burning Bowl Ceremony

The only constant is change, said Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Question: how do we bring more of what we want into our lives, and let go of the things we don’t want in our lives? In other words, how do we direct the change?

In Pagan and New Age and other spiritual circles, this concept is discussed using the term “manifesting.” This language entered the mainstream about 15years ago with the popularity of The Secret and Abraham-Hicks’ message about the Law of Attraction. The concept is this: If you ask for something, and you focus on it without fear about it not happening, without framing it in a negative — “I don’t want to get sick” — then it will happen. Because of your focus, you are attracting what you wish to you. By doing this you can heal your sickness, you can be rich, you can have whatever you want.

Needless to say, this concept is wildly popular. It got celebrity endorsement, and its proponents made millions explaining to people, sometimes claiming to channel otherworldly entities, how to ask for things so that you get them. The problem is that when the wishes fail to come true, people who prayed for God to make something happen or expected the Universe to provide wonder whether the fault might be in them. So, Is it true? Can we wish our futures into existence?

Like most things, it has a grain of truth in it. What you focus on, you will draw to you, but maybe it’s not because of some universal magic. Or, maybe it is. But most often, you don’t get what you want because you wished for it. That’s much more likely to work for someone who was rich, white and privileged in the first place. But when we give something our attention, it does make us more likely to look for connections, relationships, and opportunities that will draw those things to us. It makes us more likely to put our efforts into making it happen. And if there’s some universal law at work, so much the better, but the need for the work doesn’t go away. You still have to show up every day to make the thing happen.

But sometimes we get blocked. We get in our own way with negative self-talk, or fear of taking the next step or of failing, or lack of faith in ourselves, or lack of support from those close to us, or any other number of reasons. So the first question I want to ask you is this: what do you want to manifest? What do you want to be the focus of your year, what do you want to draw to you or accomplish in 2019? Put another way, I’m reading a book called First Things First and it asks the question: What is the one activity that you know if you did superbly well and consistently, would have significant positive results in your life? And the obvious follow up question is: why aren’t you doing it? Put more poetically, by Mary Oliver, what are you doing with your one wild and precious life?

So ask yourself, what is holding you back? What pain are you holding in your heart that it would better serve you to let go? As you ponder this, bear in mind that not all pain should be let go, just yet. Sometimes we need to hold it, and love it until it is ready to depart on its own.

The Buddha liked lists. One of the lists he gave us was Five Hindrances. He identified them as five mental states that hinder us in meditation and in our daily lives. For some of these things, we don’t have direct translations in English, so I thought I’d give each of them some attention.

The first hindrance is sometimes translated as greed, sometimes sensual desire. I like to think of it as Grasping or Clinging. We humans don’t like change, and yet all things change. Sometimes we cling to things out of habit or fear of sacrificing comfort, but those very things might be what is holding us back. They may even be relationships sometimes. Or they may be attachment to things. Maybe we can’t clear space in our mental lives because we have too much literal clutter in our houses, but we cling to those physical possessions for one reason or another.

The Second Hindrace is Aversion, and it is the flip side of the first. We cling to good experiences, pleasant sensations, and the other side of that coin is, we often push away what we have judged as bad or negative, or things that are unpleasant. In doing this we often lose a valuable lesson. One I like to share is, when I began meditating, every time I took a breath one of the vertebrae in my neck would click. Every inhale. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. It drove me insane. I could not focus on my breath or being present because of that damned click. So I went online, because I figured, I can’t be the first person to have dealt with this, how do I get rid of it? And somewhere in the middle of all of my online searching, I suddenly realized… sitting with this thing is no different than sitting with leg pain, or sitting with grief. You allow the experience, thank it for what it has to teach you, and let it be. The crazy thing was, it seems likely that I was causing the click because of some tension somewhere, because when I took this advice, it quite often stopped happening. And that’s true of aversion in a lot of cases… when we push something away, when we are saying to ourselves I HATE THIS, I CAN’T STAND IT, we are giving it attention and still holding it, just in a different way.

The third hindrance is Sloth and Torpor. These are translated pretty accurately, and I think you get the idea. Another Steven Covey phrase is “mind over mattress.” Often we have so much resistance to something, say for example, exercising, or getting started on a cleaning project. And then we get started and realize that getting started was 90% of the battle.

The fourth hindrance is Restlessness, Anxiety, and Worry. I don’t have to explain to you what these are, and if you’ve ever had an anxiety attack or worried about something you know what I mean when I call it a hindrance. For a Buddhist the answer to these things is the same as the answer to all of the others: sit with it. Let it be. In our modern day we often identify too much with things. We say I AM depressed, or I AM anxious. I want to ask you to watch your language and stop BEING things that are hindering you. Say instead, I am feeling anxious, and then, if you can make space for it, sit and ask why you might be depressed or anxious. This is not to say that you should not get help for these things if you need it. If this is a chronic problem for you, professional help might be needed.

The fifth hindrance is Doubt. Hindering doubt is not the same as questioning doubt. Questioning doubt leads us to greater understanding. Hindering doubt is occasionally failing to trust those who have our backs, but most often hindering doubt is self-doubt. Fear of failure, failing to trust ourselves, wondering if we’re strong enough to deal with something. So I want to tell you, not only are you strong enough, but you are Enough in every way.

Returning to our theme of how to manifest something that we want in our lives, and letting go of something else to make room for it, I want to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about Impermanence.

Impermanence Makes Everytghing Possible

We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter were not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woma. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.

Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.

When we think about manifesting things in our lives, it’s important to spend some time thinking less about I want this NOT that, and more about How can this become that? Our lives are not a series of switches to be flipped, I no longer want this, I want more of that, but instead, we are all living on a continuum of inter-being and inter-becoming. Going back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching:

Conditions

Looking deeply into a box of matches, you can see the flame. The flame has not manifested, but as a meditator you can see the flame. All the conditions are sufficient for the flame to manifest. There is wood, sulfur, a rough surface and my hands. So when I strike the match ad the flame appears I would not call that the birth of a flame. I would call it manifestation of a flame.

The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient you manifest yourself. When conditions are no longer sufficient, you stop manifesting in order to manifest in other forms, with other conditions.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear

I encourage you to sit in silence and meditate on these things, especially the concept that what you want to manifest is not a thing that doesn’t yet exist, but something that the conditions have not until now been right for. What would it take to make the conditions right? Perhaps, light a candle to gaze at, as you think on these things for at least a few minutes, or however long it is comfortable for you to meditate.

Following the meditation, if you want to do the ritual portion of this exercise, take two pieces of paper, perhaps different colors . On one, write whatever you think you need to let go of, in order to make room for more of what you want in your life. On the other, write whatever you want to call to you. Light a candle and have nearby a large ceramic bowl or perhaps a large clay flower pot. I find this ceremony most powerful to do near dusk. You can fold the paper in some way that seems significant to you. Carefully light the paper with the candle, and drop the paper into the bowl. You might spend a moment watching the edges curl, blacken, and become something else: ash, embers, a chemical reaction, carbon dioxide, and then dissipate to become part of something else. After our congregation’s Burning Bowl ceremony, I took the ashes and put them in my compost pile, so that they literally could become part of something else, so if that feels right to you, you can do that too. Some people empty the ashes into a running stream of water to be carried away symbolically, again.

What you do with the other sheet of paper is up to you. You can put it somewhere you’ll see it in your house, or on your altar at home if you have one, or you can bury it in the earth or fold it into a paper boat (please use environmentally friendly, degradable paper) and release it into that stream of water with the ashes of the other paper. Or, do some other symbolic act of releasing your desire into the universe.

My friends, may your goodbyes be gentle.