2017-05-05

There Is No God, and She Is Always With You

Something called “Spiritual Atheism” is a growing phenomenon. An internet search will turn up lots of material, and recent books by Chris Stedman (Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious) and Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion) also support religion and spirituality without endorsing a traditionally theist, personal God. De Botton argues that atheists, instead of deriding religion should steal from it because
“the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.”
A decade ago, a spate of books appeared that were grouped together as “The New Atheism.” The new atheists included Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, 2006), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great, 2007). These books derided belief in God and also despised faith, spirituality, religion, and religious institutions. What we’re now seeing is a New New Atheism that doesn’t want to deride anything. While still disbelieving in God, this New New Atheism values faith, spirituality, and religion.

The idea that there is no God is actually a staple of Christian Theology going back centuries. The 9th-century Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena, for example, wrote:
“We do not know what God is. God himself doesn’t know what he is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not, because he transcends being.”
Got that? This is a Christian theologian saying that God does not exist. Eriugena also says God isn't nonexistent in the way that, say, unicorns or good mass-market American beer are nonexistent. Rather God transcends the categories of existence and nonexistence, being and nonbeing.

To get a handle on Eriugena’s point, consider the commandment in Exodus and Leviticus prohibiting idolatry. The prohibition may have begun as a practice of tribal identity: “We’re the people who don’t do statues.” It may have started that way, but the ban on idols ended up pointing the Hebrew people toward something important. As a statue is fixed and static and unchanging, a person might also have certain ideas, beliefs, concepts that become fixed and static. The commandment against idols came to be understood as not just about statues but about any concept or thought-pattern that has become fixed and rigid. By abjuring graven images, the Hebrew people were subtly reoriented toward a conception of God as dynamic, unfolding, and always beyond whatever you can imagine, always other than anything you think.

The divine creative movement of the universe is dynamic, changing. Human understanding is ever unfolding. Idolatry means clinging to a fixed, static conception; closing ourselves to new learning. This, I think, is what John Scotus Eriugena was on about. Any time someone says God exists, she has some idea of what this God is that exists. This is problematic because any concept at all, if you’re stuck on it, is an idol. As soon as you have an idea of God – any idea – smash that idol and return to a stance of total openness to whatever the world might present to you without forcing it into one or another of your preconceived conceptual categories.

If you were to sincerely practice living this way, you would find yourself saying a lot of things that contradict other things you’ve said. Congratulations. That means you’re not making idols of your past statements.

“God” might mean community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; or the cosmos. These, too, are concepts that could become idols. By saying “God” we are also saying more than all of these definitions. Or rather, maybe, less.

We’re saying X – while at the same time whispering “but remember, also not X.” By saying “God,” we are invoking a tradition which, for all its abuses and its nonsense, also includes the reminder that all our ideas are inadequate, a tradition which calls us to smash our idols, a tradition that says there is more there than our words can say – so much more that even our truest words are also false to the fullness of the mystery within which we live and breathe and have our being.

There is no God – that is, there is no possible concept that can encapsulate all of the wonder and the paradox that is this dear life – the wonder and the paradox that is directly staring us in the face every moment, saying, “hey you, knock over the idols of what you think you know and wake up.”

Whatever you think you know, this moment has something new and fresh to teach you. Are you listening? Are you looking? Always. For there is no God, and she is always with you -- whispering: “Pay attention.”

2017-04-26

Listen to Us!


Prof. Stephen Sipersteine, a climate change educator at the University of Oregon, reads and writes poetry as part of his difficult work. His poem:       

Notes for a Lecture on Climate Change

Striding across campus
to an afternoon lecture, thinking
that I can change the world —

no, not the world, but maybe
adjust the lens so students will see
a little more clearly

the inner workings
of capitalism, colonialism,
power and climate –

then pausing beneath
cedars hundreds of years old
I begin to worry:

If only I were more prepared, more
patient, more compassionate, more
like someone I once believed

I would grow into.
When I arrive at class
I am afraid –

being stranded with nothing
in front of students who expect
answers to a wicked problem.

“But it can’t be solved!”
I want to scream.
“Let me tell you how

we have already lost
so many days not seeing
the weather change.”
                                                           
Yet their faces do not say
Give us answers, or
Tell us the way.

They say, We are scared.
We are sad. See us
for who we are, here,

here on this day, in this
room, in this place.
Listen to us –

We will wait.
Can you imagine hearing yourself say these words or identify with these students?  

I’ve been scared. I’ve been sad. I still am. Perhaps like me, you grieve the loss of how you’ve understood your place in the world in your lifetime. Or, perhaps you grieve the failings of the environmental movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to adequately address climate change, and how we have continued to fail, as a society, to take timely action.
                       
Joanna Macy, the Buddhist eco-philosopher, reminds us that we must honor our grief and not dismiss it. Only by experiencing our grief fully can we then begin, again, with gratitude for the gift of life itself to work towards viable solutions. Honoring our responsibility to alleviate the especially heavy burden climate change places on our kids, our young people and future generations requires we listen well.
Listen to the “climate kids” -- the 21 youth, ages 9 to 20 -- who filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against our federal government to secure the legal right to a stable climate. The US District Court judge has ordered that the case proceed to trial, denying the U.S. government and fossil fuel industry’s motions to dismiss the case. Similar cases have been filed in all 50 states and around the globe.
Listen to these “kids” – see them for who they are and what they face. Let us grant them generational justice and a livable climate.
Listen to young adult direct-action climate activists. I find Elizabeth Mount’s story particularly inspiring. Elizabeth, whose preferred pronouns are they, them and their, was one of the thirteen Greenpeace activists who hung from the St John’s bridge in Portland, Oregon in July 2015. These “danglers” effectively created a human drawbridge that blocked and delayed the passage of the icebreaker Fennica, which carried a critical piece of safety hardware to the Arctic where it was needed by Shell Oil in order to drill.

Elizabeth hung on ropes from the bridge for 40 hours and afterwards reflected:
The reality is that the climate has already begun to change noticeably and that we are going to be dealing with the storms, the refugees, and agricultural issues that come with those changes over the next few decades no matter what. That can be immensely frightening, or it can be a chance to really ponder what matters to us and what is most important.
Do I need all the personal items that make my footprint so big on this planet, or could I use networks of personal connection and mutual support that would mean material goods needn’t be as relevant in my life? What does it mean to substitute trust in human communities for personally having everything that I need to be comfortable independently? What would interdependence really look like?
No single day or single action is going to win this movement and nobody is going to be perfect. I know that I be can’t be inspiring all the time, but if each of us can be an inspiration sometimes, it might be enough to change everything. Because, as it turns out, in that time on the bridge, we did help change everything.
Shell pulled out of the Arctic Circle entirely by September.

Listen to our young adults, see them for who they are and what they face. Let us support them and work collaboratively in their fight for generational justice.
Listen well and then use your voice to amplify others’ voices, break climate silence, and echo environmental Bill McKibben’s voice us not to stand alone, but to join the climate movement.
Research tells us “only one in five Americans hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month” – one in five! – “and seven in ten Americans rarely or never discuss global warming with family and friends.” Having more conversations about climate change and its solutions with everyone we know is critical! Keeping those conversations focused on the immorality of inaction is a successful tactic to bring about change – the change we need in the future our kids, college students and young adults face.
As people of faith, our challenge is to listen well and use our voices to become keepers of a new hopeful story our young people envision, climate change educators, and climate justice activists.

After his last class, Prof. Siperstine wrote this poem:

On the Final Day
When the room emptied of your voices
I sat in the back row to read again
what you’d left behind -- visions, futures
scrawled across the blackboard:
                                               
Less consumption, less disease.
Trains of light connecting everywhere
to everywhere else. Justice and good food
for all creatures, a tiny house for each

to make its home. Lives of peace.
No war, no cages, no razor wire, no prisons
no corporate money, no student debt.
Instead more forgiveness, more love
                                               
more conversation, more compassion
more things powered by the sun.
Better education, interplanetary government,
spaces for wildness, for wonderment.

I wanted to leave your words
to instruct passerbys that what they think
can’t be, you choose to see, and offered free
unknowing the value of your gift.

Yet for some easy routine,
and thought that if not me
someone else surely would
I erased the board and walked out

into the long shadows of the late afternoon.
But your words stayed with me
in the gathering darkness, stayed then
and still do, and all this is just to say
thank you.


Adapted from Earth Day 2017 worship service, CUUC

2017-02-16

No Place here for Hate

In 2005, I was living in Lexington, Massachusetts, a rather affluent progressive suburb of Boston with an award-winning public school system, high level of parent involvement, and a diverse school population. In May that year, the town caught the attention of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps who was known to be physically, emotionally and spiritually abusive. The Westboro group’s forty or so members continue to espouse hatred and intolerance toward gays and others and
picket about six locations per day.

The Westboro group was targeting Lexington after a town resident had filed a law suit against the schools because a book called “Who’s in a Family?” was being used in his son’s kindergarten class. The book includes depictions of families headed by same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples.

The Westboro group had selected five churches where they intended to picket. They hoped to provoke reactions from onlookers and bystanders in the hopes that their rights to free speech will be infringed upon. If that happens, the lawyers in the family file and often win legal suits against the individuals or, most often, the town or city. This is how they supplement their own donations to fund their travels and hate-filled appearances across all fifty states.

Lexington rallied in anticipation. The interfaith clergy, community organizers and the town’s police department worked together to educate and train concerned citizens.
Many were from churches and temples that worked intentionally to welcome, accept, and appreciate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer folks. I was among them.

We were trained in how to respond – or more specifically, how to not become reactive.
We role-played staying calm while having hate rhetoric spewed in our faces nonstop for five, six, seven minutes. That was challenging. Even more disturbing, though, was having to play the offenders, embodying and voicing their hateful views. We worked together to find common language to use in our counter-protest to help us stay centered and to support and encourage one another. That was an invaluable piece of the work.

The day arrived, the signals were sent, and we mobilized at the entrance drive of the Catholic Church. We were about 50 or 60, I believe, linked arm in arm, creating a semi- circle in front of the church to shield those who were coming to or leaving the church services from the verbal and visual assaults of the dozen or so protestors on the sidewalks.

Their rhetoric was even more vile than we what we had expected. We had been prepared to see and hear their young children and teens spewing hate, as well, but I was unprepared for my own visceral reactions to the abusiveness inflicted upon and perpetrated by the children. After some minutes of the hate display, we all turned our backs on the protestors, shutting off eye contact and the “in-your-face” heckling taunts.

The volume of the rhetoric went up. Would we remain calm? We would. Our resolve to meet hate with love, and defend all our sisters, brothers, and kin remained strong.
At last, the Westboro group departed for their next picket site -- and our group departed in smaller groups to reconstitute our human shields at each of the remaining smaller churches. There was plenty of news coverage and, fortunately, no incidents.

The Westboro group returned the next day to protest at the elementary school whose walls harbored copies of the book, “Who’s In a Family?”, and at a middle school in the neighboring town where a rainbow flag labeled “gay pride” had been hung in the hallway. And they were met at those locations by other counter-protestors meeting hate with love.

The arrival of a hate group in our town mobilized Lexington to declare itself a “No Place for Hate” community. Loudly and clearly, NO PLACE FOR HATE was the message throughout the town, in the schools, in civic discourse and the local paper, in the businesses and restaurants and our houses of worship.

That was 12 years ago. Sadly, today we face an alarming rise in intolerance, exclusionary language and policies that far outstrips the reach of the Westboro group. The number of hate crimes has escalated so much in the current political climate that “No Place for Hate” initiatives are again underway across the country. Meanwhile, we now have fresh stories nearly every day of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting undocumented immigrants in communities around the nation.

Has there ever been a more important time to roll out our “Standing of the Side of Love” tee shirts and banners? Yet again, the time is now to link arms with others of all, or no, faith and join together to create and recreate, as often as necessary, human shields to protect the most vulnerable among us. May we strive to Answer the Call of Love and show our neighbors, communities and government that we believe Love trumps Hate.

2017-01-05

Risking Hospitality

There are good reasons that hospitality is difficult. It takes time... And we’re so busy... Doing, um, work... So we can buy things... Things we’re just as happy without... And so we can earn respect... The respect of the kind of people whose respect is earned that way.

Hospitality takes time, and hospitality is risky. You might get taken advantage of. Or you might be unwittingly facilitating someone’s self-destruction: there’s a time for offering someone a beer, and a time for resisting that impulse, and we don’t always know which is which. We risk getting it wrong.

Imagine that at the center of your life were the question, “What does this guest need?” Putting that question at the center doesn’t mean we will always know the right answer to that question. But to live in the space of that question – always having our radar up for where the need is, and going toward the need we discern – is a life of healing. The payback is the growing, softening heart.

The risks are worth it. Deep down, we humans don’t crave safety. What we ache for is acceptance, and acknowledgment of our worth. Therefore, embrace others as worthy guests, even if they don’t meet our needs. Even if they scare us. To embrace the worth in the other, even when their actions don’t meet our needs, is a radical notion. It might change your world into one in which you don't have to be smart or witty, deep or cultured, beautiful, young, healthy, enlightened, or handy. All you have to do is open the window of your heart and let the outer light in -- and let the inner light out. In that light, you can see and be seen; love and be loved.

It is revolutionary, risky, and world-rattling. Radical hospitality isn't safe or cozy. Commitment to radical hospitality is challenging. I want to be real with you about not only the good intention, but the skills, the emotional and social intelligence, that it takes to simultaneously maintain boundaries while tearing down walls.

Sometimes we’re up for making the initial opening, but aren’t equipped for the follow-through. I was struck by one example of a family whose heart was, or seemed to be, in the right place, but who just didn’t have the skills and resources to pull it off well.

Tanya and Tracey Thornbury of Montevido, Minnesota, were among the many Americans who, in August 2005, felt it was their duty to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Over the Internet the Thornburys made an offer to open their home to hurricane refugees. They were put in touch with Nicole Singleton, an impoverished 33-year-old single mother of six children, ranging from age 3 to 16, and Nicole’s mother, Dot. The Thornburys, with three children of their own, welcomed Nicole and her children into their home. Tanya Thornbury bought Nicole a bathrobe, pajamas, sandals, helped her find a fob, offered to help make financial decisions about the federal aid. The Thornburys accepted the doubling of their electricity costs and tripling of the natural gas bill. They were good and generous people.

Then problems arose. Nicole’s mother, Dot, refused to live by the rules of the house, allowed her grandchildren to watch violent, inappropriate movies in the presence of the Thornbury kids. The guests wanted to download rap and hip-hop music on the internet, and Tanya said no. Nicole had a boyfriend just released from prison that she was surreptitiously corresponding with – and she revealed to him her new address, which made the Thornburys nervous. Tensions and quarrels began. Six weeks after it began, the merger was over when the Singleton family moved to a donated house in Minneapolis.

From the Thornburys’ perspective, they felt keenly the sting of ingratitude. Tracey Thornbury vowed, “I won’t help anyone again for the rest of my life.” (from Robert Emmons, Thanks!)

Sometimes gifts bring joy. At other times they come with pride, and, the gifts can evoke envy, jealousy, and thus greed, and even hatred. Receiving a gift can place one in a position of inferiority – in which case resentment is be more likely than gratitude. Hospitality requires our humility. It also requires skills and tools.

Among the tools that might have been helpful for the Thornburys and Singletons is a covenant. With a neutral third-party facilitator to help them develop their covenant, they might have been able to clarify what to expect of each other and of themselves. Clarifying expectations at the beginning can be a huge component of creating the space within which hospitality can work.

Congregational life affords a way to sharpen our hospitality skills and habits. Before we're ready to welcome strangers into our individual homes, we can warm up the hospitality muscles by welcoming them more graciously into our collective home, our congregation.

Congregational hospitality may be a little easier in some ways, but it raises challenges of its own. Newcomers might be different from us. If we were to make them feel at home, they might, you know, actually, feel at home. And stay.

We would have to change to be hospitable – to meet their comfort needs. I might need to stretch the way I preach and pastor. They might connect better with different music in worship. They might have different ideas about child-rearing, or what should happen at a committee meeting. Hospitality is inconvenient. It will change us – and transformation is always inconvenient to the interests of the person that we were.

It’s also what we’re here for.

Hospitality is job one. This being human is, as Rumi said, a guest house.

2016-12-30

We Are the Resistance

Rev. Meredith Garmon

We Unitarian Universalists are typically proud of our resistance. Our congregations often have an air of social rebellion. We like to think of ourselves as standing against the status quo and the powers that be. When we relate our denomination’s history, we highlight our activists, slavery abolitionists, women’s suffragists, marchers at Selma, anti-Vietnam war protesters. We cite with pride our congregations’ early open-ness to same-sex marriage and our welcoming of LGBT ministers into our pulpits. What a bunch of righteous, resistant, radicals we are!

The truth, of course, is that UU history, as most history, is a mixed bag. For most of that history, Unitarians have been the denomination of choice for the economic elite. We are known for making the least demands on our members. We don’t tell you what to think, don’t tell you what to do. For 200 years now, anyone wanting a church that would leave them alone has found the Unitarians the place to be. Nor did the Universalists, when Universalism was a distinct denomination, have much inclination to rouse rabble. Our abolitionists, women’s suffragists, etc., were a small minority of our membership, and their activities tended to not have the support of the congregations.

In the early 20th-century, Rev. John Haynes Holmes courageously stood against World War I, but he was roundly denounced by pretty much all the rest of the Unitarian establishment. Neither the Unitarians nor the Universalists were very oriented toward resisting war and injustice.

The change began with the Humanist movement that began burgeoning within Unitarianism and, to a lesser extent, within Universalism, in the 1920s and 30s. Humanism dropped God out of the picture altogether, and, to do that, it emphasized the scientific method. Religious concepts were redefined in human terms.

By the middle of the 20th century, in most Unitarian and Universalist congregations, the crosses had been taken down, the communion silver stashed in a remote basement closet -- and we were seeing ourselves as resistors, not just a lower-demand version of the prevailing Christianity.

All around us, the 1950s were a time when business interests combined with mainstream Protestantism to emphasize pro-business values and fight the Cold War. Prayer breakfasts swept the country, bringing together business leaders and church leaders to praise God and denounce communism. The 1950s so thoroughly conflated patriotism and religion that the words “under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 – because the enemy of both the business establishment and the religious establishment was Godless communism.

1959, the year that we Unitarian Universalists of White Plains moved into our current building, was the year church attendance in the US hit its peak. Just about everybody was in church on Sunday morning, and what was preached there was a theology of God, country, and General Motors -- albeit rather less so in Unitarian and Universalist congregations.

In this context, Unitarians and Universalists started becoming counter-cultural. When a plan was advanced to let kids out of public schools on Wednesday afternoon so they could attend religious instruction in their churches, it was a coalition of Unitarians and Jews that resisted.

The advertisements that Unitarians began running in the papers in the 50s and 60s had a distinctly resistant feel to them: For example:
"What's your idea of true religion? Unitarianism is a way of life, life of vigorous thought, constructive activity, of generous service -- not a religion of inherited creeds, revered saints, or holy books. Unitarianism is not an easy religion. It demands that people think out their beliefs for themselves, and then live those beliefs. The stress is placed more upon living this life nobly and effectively than on the preparation for an after-existence. If you have given up 'old time' religion, Unitarianism has the answer for you.”
Another advertisement proclaimed:
“Freedom is our Method
Reason is our Guide
Fellowship is our Spirit
Character is our Test
Service is our Goal.”
What kind of people, in the midst of the prevailing buttoned-down “God and country” anti-communism, would be attracted by ads like that? Clearly Unitarians weren’t the establishment any more. We weren’t even the slightly-more-skeptical wing of the respectable elite. We had evolved into centers of resistance to the prevailing conventional opinion.

Yes, the Unitarians and the Universalists go back 200 years in this country – and 400 years in Europe – but we were formed into what we are today during this phase of massive cultural conformity. The Humanism that we moved into in the 30s put us in a position of cultural resistance in the 50s. Our Humanism shifted us from insiders to outsiders. And that paved the way for the further cultural resistance that showed up in large-scale UU involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which set us up to be ready to resist a range of injustices.

We still have the vestiges of our history of being the elite and the comfortable. Overcoming our lingering tendency toward complacency is one of our challenges. A second challenge arises from a broader and more recent social trend: people that want to resist mainstream or conservative religion feel a lot more free to just stay home. For example, in the 1960s and up until his untimely death in 1971, the brilliant activist, Whitney Young, Executive Director of the Urban League, worshiped on Sunday morning at Community Unitarian Church at White Plains. More and more activists and movement leaders today, however, belong to no faith community.

We must rise to these challenges. Our country needs the distinctive voice of Unitarian Universalism -- joyfully both spiritual and religious, while also proudly standing in resistance to social injustice and environmental destruction. It is our job to be the resistors. That’s what Unitarian Universalists do. We haven't always. We do now.

* * *
(For more detail on this angle on Unitarian and Universalist history, see Rev. Tom Schade's blogpost, "Humanism in Context.")

2016-12-20

Winter Solstice: Birthing the Light

Rev. Peggy Clarke

This is the time of the planet’s turning, the beginning of the return of the light. But it’s not going to happen quickly. It’ll be 6 months before we experience light in full form. We are only half way there. But, we are at the moment of turning.

I have hope for the turning. I am of the belief that we are in a Great Turning, an epic moment in human history. We can see the last vestiges of a culture dying, an industrial growth society that’s reached the end of its effectiveness. Twelve thousand years ago, there was an agrarian revolution in which people domesticated animals and plants. They learned that hunting and gathering could be shifted if they planted their own food and raised animals near their homes. This shift lead to a massive alteration of human culture, allowing us to let go of nomadism and settle into homes and communities, thereby increasing life span and human culture.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century created a similarly definitive transformation. Things formally made by hand in the home were now made by machine in a factory. Human lives were never the same again. There’s a dramatic increase in population, tremendous growth of towns and cities, in education, transportation and massive immigration and exchange of cultures.

And we are, again, at a moment of turning. Earth can no longer sustain our appetite for consumption. The industrial growth economy that requires demonstrable growth in every calendar quarter, demands an incessant and unceasing stripping of natural resources from Earth. The transition we’re seeing is from an unsustainable economy to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world.

In the early stages of major transitions, the initial activity might seem to exist only at the fringes. Yet when their time comes, ideas and behaviors become contagious: the more people bear witness to their inspiring perspectives, the more these perspectives catch on. At a certain point, the balance tips and we reach critical mass. Viewpoints and practices that were once on the margins become the new mainstream. [Joanna Macy. Any of her books will describe this, and her web site is filled with these ideas. See: www.joannamacy.net.]
“In the story of the Great Turning, what’s catching on is commitment to act for the sake of life on Earth as well as the vision, courage, and solidarity to do so. Social and technical innovations converge, mobilizing people’s energy, attention, creativity, and determination…” [Joanna Macy, http://www.activehope.info/great-turning.html. 2016 Dec 16]
Major transitions usually start on the margins until they make their way into mainstream culture. We begin to see people organizing to move society toward a shared vision. Language that was used only by a select few is heard in everyday conversation. Average people begin to push for a new vision as norms shift and expectations for ideas that seemed far-fetched are becoming realized. Paul Hawken writes:
“I soon realized that my initial estimate of 100,000 organizations was off by at least a factor of ten, and I now believe there are over one – and maybe even two — million organizations working towards ecological sustainability and social justice.” [Blessed Unrest]
The culture we’ve grown used to is ending. We can no longer consume resources the way we’ve become accustomed. We can’t pretend that garbage disappears after a truck picks it up or that driving tens of thousands of miles a year has no discernible effect on our planetary systems. And as this reality moves from the fringes into mainstream awareness, many people, millions of people, are grasping at whatever they can reach to keep it alive. Slogans like Make America Great Again, reach backwards to a fictional past as a last gasp of a dying culture.

This is the path we follow. When the Industrial Revolution was taking hold in this nation, elections were rampant with anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric. In 1856, 75% of the House of Representatives was made up of what were called Nativists, people who today we’d call White Nationalists. In 1860, the Civil War broke out. Culture was transformed. There was massive change in the Industrial Revolution. Culture was altered permanently. People were terrified. They tried to hold on to a world they knew they were losing. And then, there was a Great Turning.

Earth is turning again. We are in the last days of darkness, the days when Loki is aiming his poison at the light, hoping to burn out the sun. Frigga can see what’s coming, and in her grief, she will birth the light once again.

I suspect, in this moment of Turning, we all have the potential to be Frigga and Loki and Baldur and Hodor. Identifying with Baldur is easy. He’s the bright light who falls victim to someone else’s misdeeds. Loki wants trouble. He doesn’t like the way things are going and wants them to stop. He wants the world to stop turning, for things to stop changing, so he lies and manipulates to get what he wants. Hodor isn’t paying enough attention to know what’s happening. He thinks Loki is teaching him something about spears and doesn’t realize the mistletoe is poison or that hitting his brother will have fatal consequences. He goes along with the plan, mindlessly. And then, there’s Frigga. She can see it all. She knows her son, the Sun, will be killed. She grieves his passing as any mother would. And then she uses all her power to transform that loss into a new birth. She creates life where there was death.

This is our call; this is our task. We are here to birth the light. We are here to bring the sun back, to birth the new world.

2016-12-19

The Fear Problem

Rev. Meredith Garmon

Gut often leads us in irrational directions. For example, people who are told a certain device will save 150 lives are not terribly impressed. Oddly, they are more impressed if they learn the device will save 98% of 150 lives. Why that’s almost all of them! For Gut, it feels like a nearly full cup. You could even say it saves 85% of 150 lives, and still get a more favorable reaction than if you say it saves 150 lives. See what Head is up against?

Suppose I tell you that motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death of children. Is that good news? Oh, my god, that’s awful, says Gut. But wait a minute. That means every other cause of death is less. Terrorists, internet stalkers, crystal meth, school shootings, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food, pesticides – sharks – all the other fears of our time: much, much less. Measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, polio, cholera, small pox – these things used to kill huge numbers of children, and now they've been reduced so much that motor vehicle accidents are left as the number one cause of death. That’s great news.

Try spending an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, noticing how many gravestones have death-dates only a few years different from the birthdates. The defining feeling of our age ought to be gratitude, not fear. Yet it seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear. (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 293)

In the mid-1990s there were stories about silicone breast implants leading to connective-tissue disease. Out of about 100 million women, 1 percent had breast implants, and about 1 percent get connective-tissue disease, so by coincidence alone, that’s 10,000 women with both. The FDA said there was no evidence of a correlation between implants and disease. Activist groups were outraged. “We are the evidence,” became their slogan.

But if we put the many-more-thousands-of-women who had connective-tissue disease without breast implants together with the many-more-thousands-of-women who had breast implants without disease, they might have claimed that they were the evidence that implants prevented disease -- and there would have been a lot more of them. When the epidemiological surveys came in, they repeatedly confirmed that, while some women with breast implants were very ill, they were not more likely to be ill than women without the implants. But Gut pays attention to stories. It’s not so good with numbers and probabilities.

Advertisers know that fear sells products, from home security systems to pharmaceuticals. Newspapers know that stories about things to be scared of sell newspapers. Politicians know that fear scenarios get them elected. And as the media, and the advertisers and manufacturers and politicians compete with each other to get our attention, the fear appeals grow more and more urgent-sounding.

The cumulative effect is that we begin to feel like the world is coming to an end. Apocalypse is in the air – as evidenced by the growth and popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and novels.

So what are we to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we let it go?

First, and foremost, notice. Notice when you’re scared. Gut is an important part of who you are. Gut is your friend. Embrace your intuitive side. But don't do what it says until you've checked it out with Head. Don’t let Gut masquerade as a rational or realistic assessment of risk.

When fear arises, say to yourself, “Ah, there’s fear." Notice where it shows up in your body: eyes opening wider, heart beating faster. Don’t tell the fear to go away. Don’t repress or suppress. Instead, attend to fear. Pay attention to it, listen to it.

Letting go of something isn't a matter of deciding to banish it. Whether it is anger, or resentment, or a grudge, or attachment to a relationship that just isn’t working anymore -- or fear -- you didn’t consciously decide for the feeling to arise, so you don’t get to decide it’s going away. What you can decide to do is see through your illusion of control. Let fear go, not in the sense of dismissing it, but actually in the sense of allowing fear to proceed. Let it go – that is, allow it to go on. You don’t have to do what it says, but give it a hearing.

If you saw the wonderful Pixar movie Inside Out, then you’ve seen how fear is like a little person inside. Just like a real person, if Fear feels listened to, then Fear will start calming down. It may take a while. Give it all the time it needs. It’s when we don’t acknowledge our fears that they just keep on in the background pulling our levers.

Moreover, the more we know the way that fear works, and the more we understand how the quirks of evolution made our brains this way, then the more we can recognize our built-in tendencies toward certain kinds of error and the better able we are step back from a Gut reaction when we see it arising.

Finally, Head and Gut are not the only players. What about Heart? What about Spirit? When fear arises, and you give it a fair hearing, you can then say, “OK, let me now hear from love, from that capacity within me to love my neighbor, love all beings. What does universal love have to say?” That’s the question to come back to, the question I leave you with: What does love have to say?