The Masks We Live In

The Masks We Live In

Rev Douglas Taylor

3-17-19

A few months ago, back in the fall, Bill Thorpe spoke from this pulpit about the power masks have to conceal and also to reveal aspects of ourselves. Sometimes we try on ways of being even though it is not (or not yet) our real selves. Over the years I have often talked about wanting to create space here for us to become our better selves, our more authentic selves. Masks hide our faces. And, as Bill Thorpe shared back in the fall, this is not good or bad, it just is a way for us to be in the world, a way to step into certain experiences.

Today, however, I do want to talk about the negative aspects of the masks we wear. And in particular, the masks men wear and how that impacts all people. Those masks men wear sometimes are hyper-masculine and harmful.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has grown in prominence lately. My awareness of the term has paralleled by awareness of the #metoo movement as if the two pieces of social commentary are entangled. Masculinity itself is good, but there is a toxic version that perpetuates harm. That’s what I want to talk about today, the mask of toxic masculinity.

A few years ago, I had someone here in the congregation stop me after a program or event and ask if I might consider offering a class for men on how to be a feminist.

Most of the time, feminism is considered to be obviously a women’s issue and of interest to women. Most progressive women have a positive opinion of feminism – of course depending on various definitions of what feminism is. Generally, I think in terms of an early, classic definition that feminism is about supporting equal rights and equal access to opportunities for women.

I remember being a teenager and thinking to myself, ‘yeah, I’m a feminist. I think women and men are equal.’ I was flummoxed by the notion that the definition of a feminists was someone who thought women were superior to men. To me, that just sounded like someone was trying to flip the old concept saying someone has to be better. That’s nobody’s definition of feminism unless you’re trying to argue against feminism.

I was raised by the women in my family. I am the youngest of four. My parents separated when I was four and divorced two years later. My older brother was distant and then absent as well when I was growing up. Part of my story is the story of alcoholism, but over the years I have come to understand how my upbringing has impacted my understanding of gender roles. I was raised by my mother and my two sisters.

Have you ever bumped into a tough woman who credits having been the youngest raised by a family of boys? I lived the reverse of that cliché. Early on I noticed how our society has grown to value masculine girls and women but not feminine boys and men.

What really cracked things open for me and allowed me to take a significant step toward wholeness was a class in Family Systems I took while in seminary. One task for this course was to build a genogram, which is like an annotated family tree. You draw a chart showing the relationships up and down the generations, and then you add commentary and extra symbols to show more information. Who had close relationships, who was distant? Where are the family secrets, what are the patterns?

One particular insight I found is relevant to this conversation about men and feminism. I discovered that I had distanced myself from the men in my family. One layer of detail I put on my genogram was that the women in my family tree tended to be teachers while the men in my family tree tended to be alcoholics … as if those two categories were mutually exclusive! Until I saw it on my paper, I had not seen the way I had put people from my family into these categories in my mind. And, ministry, in my mind, was in keeping with the trend of teachers, thus the women in my family.

I began to notice that it wasn’t just teaching, but other qualities I emulated. I didn’t identify with many of the traits and characteristics I saw in the other men in my family. I had, as you might reasonably expect, done all I could to not identify as an alcoholic, as violent, as unpredictable, unreliable, dangerous, angry, and aggressive. I had also done all I could to not identify as strong, charismatic, charming, powerful, protective, or loud.

Now, I’ve been through some therapy and I’ve processed a lot of this over the years. I’ve had some very profound conversations with my father. Through insight, grace, and forgiveness, I’ve done a lot of work. My point for today is that I actively practiced my way into traits that I’d labeled in my head as masculine. Traits, I will add, that society encouraged me to label as masculine. They didn’t happen naturally. I choose them.

I’ve worked at having a strong balance of both masculine and feminine aspects in my identity. And I will step back a moment here and clarify that I am not talking about my gender identity vis a vis the experience of being transgender. I identify as a cis-man. What I’m talking about is the set of traits and characteristics our society attributes to men or women such as protective vs nurturing, breadwinner vs homemaker, ‘does the dishes’ vs ‘changing the oil in the car’. That sort of stuff. Dare I say, the ‘stereotypical’ men’s sphere and women’s sphere of interest and control. Old school patriarchy stuff. 

This is that mask of toxic masculinity I mentioned earlier = or least it leads to it. It is the mask that says men don’t cry and they don’t like the color pink. It is the mask that says men have license to use violence to protect and when nothing at the moment needs to be protected, they can use that violence for fun. It is the mask that says a man’s strength is his best quality and men are praised for how we dominate and lead. It is what led Margret Atwood to say, “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

That is not the only way to be a man. And I am not the only one to suggest that this version of manliness is harmful to both women and men. Most of the people in my life see and resist toxic masculinity. Most of the people in my circle of connections are supporters of progressive values. Most people I know are even a few steps beyond so basic a concept, seeing and resisting various oppressions as they intersect.

The Equal Pay Act, for example, was passed as federal law in 1963. Of course, there have continued to be problems as recently as in the past ten years in the fight for equal pay. I just saw news that the actor Benedict Cumberbatch will only accept future movie proposals in which his female co-leads are being paid the same rate he is being paid.

I don’t watch television a lot but when I catch a show, I’m reminded how our society continues to sell us our gender roles with each getting special colors, scents, activities, concerns, and responsibilities.

People talk about a ‘pink tax’ as a way to show how women’s hygiene products tend to be priced up compared to similar men’s hygiene products. An obvious if ironic example is the Gillette razor for men vs the Venus razor for women (Gillette and Venus are the same company.) A quick check on line shows the pink razors are almost twice the price.

Gillette made their ad because they felt it would be profitable for them to do so, not because they wanted to stake out some higher moral ground or to sway public opinion. It really was, of course, all about sales. How many of you had seen or at least heard about the Gillette ad I played earlier in the service? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0

It aired during the Superbowl a few months back. The response from many men was rather negative. How dare this razor company suggest that bullying is somehow a problem that men are particularly positioned to do something about. One of my favorite responses to the Gillette ad saying men can do better is #notallmen.

I want to be whole. I want balance. I want to choose what I like and what my interests are based on what I like and what interests me rather than my gender or genitalia.

There is a passage in one of Paul’s letters (Galatians; 3:28) where he says in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile. In the full wholeness of the spirit, there is neither man nor woman. The life we live tends to be divided but there is a wholeness we are striving for. It is unfortunate that religion has a tendency to become a tool of social control and status quo. Religion has a way of perpetuating gender norms or the culture.

This is why there are books about finding the names of the women unnamed in the Jewish scripture. This is why there are seminars and discussions about the roll of women in Islam. This is why ordaining women has been an issue among Christians. Religion can become a tool to of social control. And ‘gender expectations’ is one of those powerful ways in which we are controlled.

But the spirit is not served by subservience or domination. The spirit is not served by one group being made inferior and another group claiming to be superior. No. The spirit is served by each person living as their most authentic self. The spirit is served by each of us having a choice of our masks until we arrive together in the day when no masks are needed.

So, go experience your life. Try the masks that seem to fit, that excite and enliven. Be wary of the masks that promise power through dominance and fear. Be wary of the toxic ones.

If you are looking for more healthy masks of masculinity, try being a man like Steve Erwin the Crocodile Hunter, or Bob Ross the painter, or Levar Burton who hosted the Reading Rainbow children’s program. There are a multitude of role models for men who lift up the positive aspects of masculinity for us to emulate. I will smile at myself here for a moment and notice that the celebrity examples I have chosen to lift up are all teachers.

There are many, many role models you can look to for yourself, find the ones you respect. Try on a few masks. Choose your masks with care. And know that the Spirit calls us toward wholeness.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Can Empathy Be Learned?

Can Empathy Be Learned?

Rev. Douglas Taylor

2/10/19

The short answer is ‘Yes.’

I’ve been thinking a lot about how important empathy is in our current social and political climate – how needed it is. I read the news and listen to the commentary; I seek out perspectives that differ from my own – often seeking oppositional perspectives so I can understand what is going on in the “us vs. them” split happening too often around us. I wonder at how we can dehumanize each other, how easy it is to turn people we disagree with into the ‘other,’ and then to turn the ‘other’ into something so foreign we can be cruel without it bothering out consciences.

And then I start thinking about empathy and how much we need it. I caution myself from slipping into the thinking that is something someone else needs – we all need it.

Empathy, as it says on the cover of the order of service today, is “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.” That definition comes from the “Greater Good Science Center” out of the University of Berkley, CA. They study and research resilience, compassion, and other important values for society.

So much could be accomplished if we could convince people to ‘walk a mile’ in someone else’s shoes. Walk a mile, lean into the experiences of other people. In his article, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” social philosopher and author Roman Krznaric shares an anecdote about George Orwell, that famous author and social critic who gave us Animal Farm and 1984,

After several years as a colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. So he dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and vagabonds. The result, recorded in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”—Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and gathered some superb literary material. It was the greatest travel experience of his life. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_habits_of_highly_empathic_people1

The experience was clearly very formative for Orwell. Often people think about empathy as a lesson learned during early childhood. I uncovered some perspectives that implied the primary way to gain the skill of empathy is through strong positive emotional attachments during the first two years of life. At least that is one version, granted an out-of-date version, of how empathy is formed.

The truth, as revealed in Orwell’s experience, is that we are always capable of learning empathy. Empathy is not a genetic trait we either have or do not have, it is a capacity we can exercise and strengthen by choice.   

Okay, I will slow down and admit there is an aspect of empathy that has a genetic component. Neuroscience was very excited to uncover what we call Mirror Neurons a couple decades back. Essentially, Mirror Neurons fire in our brains the same way if we do something or if we watch someone else do the same thing. These neurons don’t distinguish between our actions and our observation of someone else’s actions.

For example, if I go with you to get your blood drawn at the doctor’s, my Mirror Neurons will respond as if I have been stuck by the needle. I don’t mean that watching someone else stuck by a needle will hurt as if I were stuck by a needle, but there are other things that happen besides the hurting. There is our actual pain and the response we have to our pain, the agony, the desire to get away from the pain, the seeking of relief or comfort … our Mirror Neurons fire around those areas.

I’m not entirely clear on all of it; and I suspect the field of neuroscience is also relatively unclear about some of it still too. That’s part of the fun of science, it is always figuring out a little more. But it is an intriguing discovery, this genetic disposition toward sharing the experiences of others.

Of course, Mirror Neurons are not the whole picture. Being a good person is not reducible to genetics. Empathy is not locked in our neurology. There is a considerable element of learning that is possible for us as well.

As religious and spiritual people, we talk about the importance of ‘considering the needs of other people.’ Often when we say that we mean it in as part of a conversation about justice. Today, we also mean it in a conversation about compassion and pastoral concerns. Apostle Paul advised that we be joyful with those who are joyful and sad with those who are sad (Romans 12:15). He was encouraging us into empathy, to share the feelings of other people. He was encouraging us to notice what our Mirror Neurons are telling us, to have empathy.

In the articles from that Greater Good Science Center I mentioned earlier, they made a point to distinguishing two forms of empathy. I mention this because it leads us into an interesting conversation. The two types of empathy are Affective empathy which is about our feelings and emotions, and Cognitive empathy which is sometimes referred to as ‘perspective taking.’ Look at that definition on the front of the order of service again and notice the words “to understand their feelings and perspective.”  Perspective taking is what George Orwell did in the anecdote from earlier. We are able to identify and understand another person’s perspective. The ‘walking in another person’s shoes’ idea is about Cognitive empathy. The conversation about Mirror Neurons is about Affective empathy.

Interestingly, there has been a lot of research recently about empathy and autism. I know many people who are on the autism spectrum. So, this research caught my attention. Some people have characterized autism as an ‘empathy disorder,’ implying that people with autism are not and can not be empathic. More recently however, people are questioning the assumption. Some current research shows it is not empathy that is impaired, but social communication and knowing how to ‘read’ other people’s emotions.

Researchers Rebecca Brewer and Jennifer Murphy did an empathy study exploring the difference between people with Autism and people with Alexithymia. Alexithymia is a condition in which an individual has difficulty understanding and identifying their own emotions. This contrasts with the common feature in Autism of having difficulty understanding and identifying the emotions of other people. In Brewer and Murphy’s research they looked at four groups: people who had Autism but not Alexithymia, people who had both Autism and Alexithymia, People who had Alexithymia but not Autism, and people who had neither Autism or Alexithymia.  

They discovered the greatest hurdle to empathy was Alexithymia, not Autism. In other words – if you have difficulty understanding and identifying your own emotions, you will tend to be less empathic. If you have difficulty with other people’s emotions, that is not a road block to empathy.

I found this to a fascinating insight. The way to be more empathic toward others is to explore and understand yourself more deeply. Like the passage from Leviticus that Jesus quoted, “Loving your neighbor as yourself” It is the ‘as yourself’ part that is so elegant. It is the ‘as yourself’ part that enables empathy. You are the lens through which you connect to others. So, go deeper into who you are, into your own values and experiences. Then, listen to the differences to be found in friends and strangers, and wonder at how similar it all is to your own experiences. Remember that old truism: often the most personal is the also the most universal.

The trick is to be open to the fears of other people. To do that you need to be open to your own fears. It is about being vulnerable.

I’ll give you an example. When you go to the hospice unit to visit a friend, you could say: ‘oh this must be horrible for you. I feel bad for you.” That is recognizing the situation but not a sharing of it. What does it look like to share it? When you visit your friend on the hospice unit, you feel your own mortality and fear. Your Mirror Neurons respond to the suffering. And rather than distance yourself or hold it off, you step closer.

If you walk by a homeless person and think, ‘I am not different;’ you risk recognizing the loneliness and the struggle to keep despair at bay. You can get stuck in your own stuff. You do need to mindful of that. But when you can recognize the suffering through your own suffering, you can move through your own emotions and experiences to the place where you can give your attention to your friend or a stranger – that’s empathy.

Empathy can be learned. It can be strengthened and encouraged. We can do empathic exercises.  Behaviors you can practice that will strengthen your empathic skills include things like active listening, sharing in other people’s joy, being curious about strangers, looking for commonalities with others, reading fiction or watching plays.

It is all about getting out of yourself, but that’s not quite it – a better way to say it is to by going deeper into your own experiences, you can connect beyond yourself to others. And often we notice the differences, we see that someone is a different race, age, social class, physical ability or whatever. And it is worth noticing those differences, that’s part of being curious about others. But what will strengthen empathy is to then seek commonalities. So that list I mentioned about active listening and sharing other people’s joys and reading fiction – it is about strengthen your empathy by seeking commonalities across the differences.

Saint Maya’s poem from the opening words remind us of all this.

            We love and lose in China, we weep on England’s moors,

            We laugh and moan in Guinea, and thrive on Spanish shores.

            We seek success in Finland, are born and die in Main.

            In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same.

            I note the obvious differences between each sort and type;

            But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Empathy, as Brene Brown shared in the video, is all about connection. It is noticing that we are more alike than unalike. It is about seeing ourselves in the hurts and hopes of others. Empathy is recognizing ourselves as kin, and behaving as beloved community.

Once upon a time, a thief snuck into the room of a sleeping Buddhist monk. As the burglar rummaged about, the monk awoke. The startled thief ran into the snowy streets with the monk racing after him, “Please stop!” the monk called, and the man finally did, realizing that his pursuer was no threat. “You’ll need this,” the monk gasped, handing the thief his own coat.

“What do you mean?” the man asked.

“I saw that you dashed from my room into the cold without so much as a winter wrap, and I realized that I had both a woolen blanket and a coat.”

“I don’t understand,” the man said.

“It is simple. You have nothing at all to keep you warm,” the monk answered.

“But you are a fool to give away your coat, leaving you with only a blanket,” the man replied, reaching for the garment.

“If I had two gloves on one hand and none on the other,” the monk asked, “would I be a fool to put one of them on my bare hand?”

(from https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/44876.shtml)

In a world without end, may it be so.

How to Be a Better Ally

How to Be a Better Ally

Rev. Douglas Taylor

1-20-19

So, here’s something I learned a little while back and have had the privilege to relearn several times over the years: Just because I am under the impression that I am a good and helpful person does not necessarily translate to me being a good and helpful person.

I was sitting in a circle of UU colleagues during a check-in. It was our monthly gathering in which we share trials and turmoil of our lives in ministry. And because we’re all preachers, we use a clock to discipline ourselves against the urge to talk in 20-minute chunks. I was minding the clock for a colleague and as the allotted span of time (I think it was 10 minutes) neared completion, this colleague was sharing some heavier things. I could tell my colleague needed more time, needed the gift of our attention as they processed their stuff with us. So, I let the time run out and didn’t say anything, just let them continue talking.

After about 4 or 5 additional minutes my colleague paused and said, “I feel like this has been a really long 10 minutes.” “Yeah,” I responded, “You seemed to need extra time.” To which another colleague chimed in, “If I were in their place, I’d have wanted to know I was using extra time.” The group moved on while I made a mental note that I’d done it again.

It was not a big deal, nothing egregious. Simply another example of a time I was under the mistaken impression that I was being a good and helpful person. What had actually happened is this: I had decided what would be helpful to someone else and acted without consulting them. My intention was good. But I think a better way would have been to let my colleague remain in control of their sharing and their time rather than me choosing for them.

It’s a little like the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – except nuanced to actually listen to what they want and doing unto them what they would have you do unto them … It’s like the Gold-Plus Rule. I’m not going to hug everyone just because I want people to hug me. I’ll offer hugs to those people who want them. It’s the Gold-Plus Rule. It is about allowing the other person to control what is happening for themselves, to have a say in matters that concern them.

Giving people extra time for a difficult check-in is an awesome and kind thing to do. The point is to check with the person to see if that’s what they want. It’s like consent. Does it shade your perspective to know that the colleague in this anecdote is female and I am male? A man presuming to know better than a woman is a classic example of casual sexism.

Now, real talk: this example I am offering is so minor, so insignificant of an example it is hardly worth mentioning. I mention it for two reasons. First, by offering an example without much bite to it, I am hoping to get your attention without getting your pushback and reactivity. Right? “This is such a small thing. It is not hard to hear about it.” The second reason I offer it is that this example is part of a common enough pattern, and we can use it as a launching point to go deeper together.

So, let’s dig in. I want to be an ally. Good allies are important in the work of building a better world. We can’t build the beloved community without strong allies. And, it is one of those difficult things because a lot of good people end up doing nothing with their privilege. As Dr. King said in the Letter for the Birmingham Jail:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
-MLK, Letter from the Birmingham Jail


Pick a side, don’t be neutral. Being neutral always benefits the oppressor, never the oppressed. Step up and engage with the injustice you see. It is a goal of mine to become a trustworthy ally for people with marginalized identities. I know that the title of ‘ally’ is not something I can claim, it needs to be bestowed. It is bestowed based on relationship and a pattern of behavior. My intentions and principles are not enough. I need to step up. That’s how any of us will do this.

So how does one go about becoming an ally, or becoming a better ally? I feel like the starting point is sometimes glibly stated as “Show up and shut up.” Of course, that statement is a provocative way of saying it and as such does not really say it. (“Show up and shut up” is almost like Aaron Burr’s line in Hamilton, “Talk less, smile more;” which for Burr is really about playing the field and not making a commitment so you have room to respond depending which way the wind blows. That’s not what being an ally is about. That is so very much not what being an ally is all about.) “Show up and shut up” may be more politely phrased – get into relationship with the people on the margins and listen to their struggles, their solutions, their leadership.

A few years back, at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, I participated in some gatherings locally. At one point, I was able to step forward and offer the use of our building for BLM community gatherings. I was proud to be able to host the gatherings. One thing I worked hard to not do was take over. I actively tried to not speak up as often, I didn’t insert myself in the leadership circle. I remained a supporter on the side.

Now, I don’t know with certainty that what I did was the best way, or the only good way, to be an ally in that situation. I didn’t talk with the main organizers and tell them explicitly that I was taking this particular supportive stance as ‘the stance of an ally.’ They were left to interpret my intentions based on my actions. It would have been better if I could have been clear. It would have been a step closer to being in relationship enough to have that conversation with the leaders.

One of the other big pieces of advice I’ve found for becoming a better ally is self-education. Look stuff up on Google. Most of the time, someone has already asked and answered the questions you might have – and Google doesn’t get offended by too-personal questions. You want to know what’s wrong with touching a black person’s hair? Google it. You wonder what happens with a transgender person’s body when they are going through hormone treatment? Google it. You curious if this phrase or that word is offensive, or why it is offensive? Google it. Look stuff up. You don’t have to wait until someone of a marginalized identity is standing near you to ask your question. In fact, please don’t.

There is a video that I found by searching the internet in exactly this way entitled “How to Be a Good Ally – Identity, Privilege, Resistance.” It is a Youtube video by Ahsante the Artist

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7ElX4GFQpI Ahsante shares five things a person such as myself can do to be a better ally.

The first of the five tips she gives in this video is to listen and educate yourself. Which is what I’ve been saying here for the past 10 minutes, right? I need to listen, but I am listening with a specific goal: to learn more, to educate myself about what’s going on and about the experiences of people different from me – experiences of people with marginalized identities in our society. For real, though, this is a great tip for life in general. Listen to children, listen to your neighbor, listen to the cashier, listen to anyone out there … with the goal of learning more about the experiences of people who are different.

And then, here is a justice twist: give a little extra credence to people who are marginalized in our society. At first, I was just saying: listen. Now, I am saying: listen with a little preference for people who are different from me. I’m not saying people who share my identity are always wrong and people different from me are always right. Instead I’m suggesting I can start with an assumption that the experiences of marginalized people are credible. I’m not suggesting that’s the only step, but that’s a starting place.

There are liars and con artists among all types of people. But when people say things like: ‘amplify the voices of people of color’ and ‘believe women’ and ‘walk a mile in another person’s moccasins;’ the suggestion is to counter the near-universal bias people have to give greater credence to the experiences of people from the dominant culture.

All that leads to the second tip: Uplift marginalized voices. If I go online and search for some information about how to be a better ally … and I find a cool video or website by a person of color or by a handful of queer youth, I can quote that in a sermon, for example.

For the past few years I have been trying to include a worship element from a person of color. (Our benediction was written by Joseph Cherry, in today’s example. Rev. Cherry is of Latino descent and a UU colleague I met at Meadville Lombard during my first sabbatical.) It doesn’t pan out perfectly, but many Sundays I am able to make that work.

For all of my time as a minister creating worship each week, I have been paying attention to the gender of the authors I use for opening words, benedictions, and such. So, my new resolve is an expansion of a mindset I have been practicing already. This is a form of lifting up marginalized voices.

I’m not going to spend all my time on these five tips by Ahsante the Artist, you can watch the video yourself. I’ll put the link in the text of the sermon or you can do you own internet search for “How to Be a Good Ally.” It’s worth watching it for yourself.

A piece I think needs a little extra attention that I really want to share with you is about covenant and forgiveness. It’s about what I do when I say something stupid or a little racist, when I make a mistake and say or do something homophobic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or so on.  Because I will. I have. It happens.

There is a thing that happens publicly for people who make mistakes like this. The “Call out” culture calls people out when they’ve said or done something publicly that is out of line. This may be effective against the bigots and trolls, but it has mixed results when used on people trying to be allies.

I remember a story of a white colleague from the 60’s who was invited by a black colleague to participate in a civil rights meeting. The white colleague said something like, “But what if I say something stupid?” To which the black colleague responded. “Don’t worry, you will.”

What I take from that little anecdote is a call to get more comfortable with making mistakes, with being wrong, with showing up even though I feel uncomfortable. My being right or comfortable is not the point. So, I push myself, it is a spiritual practice for me, to factor in the reality that I will make mistakes on this path I have chosen.

What I gain by having this mindset is the capacity to stay in relationship. If someone calls you out for something you’ve said or done. Slow down. Listen. What if it is an opportunity to build the relationship? I know too often the conversation is a punishment, or feels like one. That’s not a way forward. The conversation should be a repair, an opening for growth, a time to step closer to each other.

Remember, I’m talking about people of goodwill who want to engage in being a better ally. There are other situations involving bigots and white supremacists. That’s not what I’m talking about. There is a way forward with them, but that’s a different conversation than I am aiming at today. I’m talking about the situations you and I will fall into. If you experience someone calling you out, work from the premise that they are actually calling you back in – they are willing to mention the problem to you because they have decided their relationship with you is worth it.

There is a lot of implicit stuff that I’ve picked up from my family, from my religion, my school, my music, my friends and loved ones. Some of it is good. Some of it is neutral. Some of it is not so good. There are things all of us need to unlearn, relearn, or simply discover for the first time.

Being an ally is about being willing to continue to learn and grow, to be in relationship through the messy parts of life. To show up and play a supporting role. To use the privilege you have for the good of others. Dr King, in the last Sunday sermon he preached said:

I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.

It is my work to be an ally. I submit that it is your work as well. It is our work as Unitarian Universalists to use the strengths and gifts we have for the work of justice; to be a people of goodwill willing to put our bodies and souls in motion.

In a world without end, May it be so

The Sower’s Parable

The Sower’s Parable

Rev. Douglas Taylor

12-30-18

In the famous parable Jesus shared with his disciples, a Sower went out and scattered seeds on the ground. The parable goes on to describe various outcomes for those seeds, most of which end in the seeds not growing into plants. They are choked by weeds, unable to take root due to rocks, or eaten by birds. But the few seeds that do take root and survive grow to produce a hundredfold return.

In the Gospels, the sower is Jesus, the seeds are the truth and wisdom he shares with people, and the various outcomes are parallel to the various ways Jesus’ truth and wisdom is received by people. We, the people, are the soil, the receptacles in which wisdom and truth grow. Or at least that is one interpretation.

My title today, of course, tugs on that old parable but is mostly a reference to an Octavia Butler book Parable of the Sower from 1993. Fiction is a remarkable vehicle for our common conversation about humanity and truth and what it means to be human.  Joseph Campbell made the point that myths, or in this case, powerful stories with deeply mythic themes, tell us something of what it means to be human.  Fiction and myth can serve to help us understand problems and explore solutions. They can tell us truths through their fiction about who we are and what matters in life.

Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a near-future dystopian novel. It is part coming-of-age narrative, part adventure story, and part social critique. Part of why I like it is that the protagonist, like the author, is a black woman – a rare demographic is science fiction.

Another reason I’m draw to speak about this today is this: there are several Unitarian Universalist minister’s study groups around the country. They are annual opportunities for UU clergy to get together around a topic of importance. I was surprised recently to learn that one group had selected the works of Octavia Butler as their focus topic. This Sci-fi/fantasy author was being read by UU clergy in an intentional learning circle.

Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Emergent Strategy wrote about Octavia Butler’s books saying, “Woven throughout her work are two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.” (p17)

And all of that caught my attention and led me to this morning. But what really hooked me and excited me enough about Octavia Butler’s work and this book in particular that I decided to use it as the root for a sermon is something altogether different. In the midst of the chaos and devastation, the main character, Lauren Olamina creates a new religion.

Briefly, because I don’t want to dwell on the book itself so much as a few ideas that arise from the story, …

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is set in California and covers a period of three years, from 2024 to 2027. It is a grim near-future novel that exaggerates trends in American life that were apparent in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, such as fear of crime, the rise of gated communities, illiteracy, designer drugs and drug addiction, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Climate changes brought about by global warming are also central to the novel. (from A Study Guide for Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”, Creative media, 2005)

It is written as diary entries by Lauren Olamina as she navigates life in her enclave and later out in the wilds of California. Like many dystopian novels, religion plays a significant role. In most dystopian novels, religion becomes a corrupted tool of oppression. In Butler’s novel, the protagonist creates a new religion. Part of the story is seeing Lauren Olamina become the founder of a new religion.

But let me tell you a little about this religion, because it is different. Lauren looks around for the most powerful force she can detect in the world; something infinite, inexorable, and irresistible. The answer she comes to is Change. Change is the most powerful force in the universe, it is infinite and irresistible. Therefore, she concludes, God is Change. 

Lauren writes a series of verses about her ideas. She collects them into a book called Earthseed. The very first entry, the first verse is the one we had as one of our readings:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.

In her diary, Lauren struggles to understand God. She writes,

A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of.

Some say God is a spirit, a force, an ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you’ll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected?  (p15)

She concludes that passage in her diary asking “What if all that is wrong? What if God is something else altogether?” A little later, she reveals her big idea that God is Change. She explains that God is not a person. God does not love or hate anyone, doesn’t watch over people or protect people. God just is. God is change.  

An astute hearer of my sermons will of course recognize that I am excited by this idea because it is a version of Process Theology, which I find very exciting and very helpful in describing the God I know and love. My understanding of Process Theology does have some elements missing from what is described in Octavia Butler’s book, but before I go further with that, let me linger for a moment on the topic of Change.

Everything changes. In the book, Lauren is experiencing the slow unraveling of society, the descent of civilization. The change feels dramatic as other characters in the book cling to the past, hoping to survive the chaotic changes around them. Lauren tries, instead, to pragmatically plan for to the next terrible thing while holding a vision of a new community that can be. She becomes a sower, casting her seeds as the world falls apart.

About a year ago I preached a sermon about “The Excitement of Change” https://douglastaylor.org/2017/04/09/excitement-of-change/ in which I highlighted the twin virtues of Letting Go and Holding On. When facing change, it is important to face the reality change brings and be willing to let go of what is no longer – even if it be precious. Change is loss. That is a fact. When change comes, what happens is we lose something. Learning to let go of what is gone – as a religious or spiritual tenet – allows us to respond healthfully to the change even if we do not see it as a good change. Every new day or New Year is also the ending of an old day, an old year.

In the face of that reality, it is also important to hold on to the essential pieces as you experience changes. Your values and your vision of where we are headed together can adjust in response to change, but ultimately there is something in your values and vision that remains sure throughout it all. Hold on to that to stay centered amidst the chaos of change.

“Knowing what you hold on to will help you weather the changes, help you stay grounded and headed in your chosen direction through the changes – even the changes you do not choose and cannot control. Let go, that you may be open. Hold on, that you may stay true.” (from “Excitement of Change”)

This pairing of holding on and letting go is part of the concept Butler put into her character’s version of God. In Butler’s book Parable of the Sower, the first tenet of Earthseed is that God is Change. She means that as something literally true – not as a metaphor or a poetic little something. God is change.

But here is where it gets interesting, and how it connects back to the twin concepts of holding on and letting go. In her fourth verse of Earthseed, Lauren tells the reader “We shape God.”

We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change.

‘Shaping God’ is a compelling idea. I could spend considerable time talking about other themes in the book such as Freedom, Community Building, Resilience, and Emergence … but for this morning I will limit myself to the themes of Change and this idea of Shaping God.

For Lauren, God shapes us and is shaped by us. As with most understandings of Process Theology, God is not the static, traditional, immutable creator of all things. Instead, God is a dynamic force at play in the existing universe. We all participate with God in co-creating our lives.

In my understanding of Process Theology and God, I can respond to the lure of God’s love and align myself with the good. The Taoist concept of flow is a close encapsulation of this more western concept. Pagans practice magic, which is also very similar. Some forms of Christian prayer, again, come close.

Remember, I’m talking about a fictional religion here – like “The Force” from Star Wars. But like, The Force, Earthseed with it’s practice of ‘Shaping God,’ carries echoes of practices and beliefs from older, traditional traditions and beliefs. That’s why these fictional religions resonate.

For Lauren, “Shaping God” is like what I might recognize as flow or magic or pray, but it is slightly different but in the same category because we are talking about how people have an agency, a way to participate in the holy power. Because change is the one constant, we can either accept change and work with it for our betterment and the betterment of others, or we can resist it in the vain hope that things will return to how they had been before.

If we choose to work with the changes that happen, we get to have a say in what happens next. We can shape the change. Or as Lauren says in the book, we Shape God.

I am intrigued by this concept because I think I do this. I bet you do to. Think about gardening. I’m sure I’ve told this chestnut before: The town vicar is walking past a man working in his garden and stops to admire the beauty. “Ah, Mr. O’Malley, you and God are doing some fine work together in this garden.” To which Mr. O’Malley replies, “Thank you, truly, vicar. But between you and me, you should have seen the place when God had it alone.”

With very little help or guidance from us, our gardens and our lives will bloom and blossom in a riot of color and scent. Beauty abounds. And … it is good to take a hand in shaping what grows in our gardens.

This is what ministry is like for me. I am not creating the energy of this community. I am not making all these amazing things happen around here. We are. Or perhaps we could say it is what naturally happens in a community.

I remember when I first arrived at this congregation over 15 years ago. I showed up in the summer when not much was going on. I looked around and made a list of the things I thought should happen, things I thought could change or improve. Then, just before the start of the church year in September, I lost that list. About a year later I stumbled onto that list again and was surprised to notice that about 80% of what I’d had there had happened; and most of it not because I made it happen but simply from the work of all of us.

The shaping or gardening I offer as my ministry is in this sense – shaping change instead of just tripping along reacting to it. ‘Shaping God’ as the protagonist from the book says. Participating in the nurture of the good energy.

This is the lesson I draw from this Parable of the Sower today. We are the sowers, we nourish the seeds and the soil and participate in the growth. We are not casual observes, separate from the spirit. Take up the role, share in the task of creating the world we long to live in.

I’ll close with one more passage from Lauren Olamina’s Earthseed collection.

God is Change.
God is Infinite,
Irresistible,
Inexorable,
Indifferent.
God is Trickster,
Teacher,
Chaos,
Clay—
God is Change.
Beware:
God exists to shape
And to be shaped.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Mysterium Cosmographicum

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Mysterium Cosmographicum

Rev. Douglas Taylor

12-16-18

Johannes Kepler was one of those cutting-edge new scientists in his day back at the end of the 1500’s. It was a heady time. Copernicus had tipped the scale away from the geocentric theory of the cosmos to the heliocentric theory. Kepler is more famous for his discovery that the planets travel elliptical rather than circular orbits around the sun. But the manner in which he figured that out is part of why I bring him up this morning.

Kepler threw his support behind Copernicus and the heliocentric theory primarily for theological reasons. They were mathematical reasons as well, but in Kepler’s mind, that’s practically the same thing.

The heart of his book Mysterium Cosmographicum was that he could figure out the distances between each of the six planets (they only knew about the closets six at that time) using the five Platonic solids. Essentially, Kepler was saying the universe is a creative math problem. 

First, I have to tell you a little about what a Platonic solid is. A Platonic solid is a three-dimensional, regular polyhedron. Each face of a Platonic solid is congruent and regular, meaning each face is identical in shape and size and all the angles are equal. There are exactly five shapes that meet these criteria: Tetrahedron, Cube, Octahedron, Dodecahedron, Icosahedron.

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons or other similar role-playing game, you may recognize these five shapes as five of the six basic dice. 4, 6, 8, 12, and 20- sided polyhedrons. (Pull out D&D dice, roll them.) Let it be known I did not waste my youth playing a little fantasy game, I was exploring the Platonic solids.

So, here’s what Kepler did. For each polyhedron, he imagined an inner and an outer sphere. It is like those nesting dolls. The inner sphere is created at the tangent of each face of the polyhedron while the outer sphere is created at the vertices. Then, you stack them. Start with a sphere, inside that sphere is a cube, inside the cube is another sphere, followed by a tetrahedron or pyramid, then another sphere and so on with five polyhedrons and six spheres. Kepler used that model to show the distance between each planet, where the spheres represent the six planets.

Fascinatingly, Kepler was very close. The distances he came up with using his model of Platonic solids gave numbers that are remarkably close to the numbers we are able to determine today. Close but not close enough. This is perhaps my favorite part of this whole story, and really my whole point for today. Kepler was wrong. He was fabulously wrong. Elegantly and ingeniously wrong.

But let’s not be too hard on him. It’s like he was playing the Mystery Box game I showed the kids a few weeks back. (pull out box, shake it) “What is the nature of the universe? (shake, shake) I think it sounds like it has Platonic solids.” 

This magnificent inaccuracy is, however, the basis for his research leading to his three laws of orbital dynamics – which are accurate still today, the first of which is about elliptical orbits. And that stuff is good. Kepler never gave up his flawed theory of the nested Platonic solids, but his work served as a foundational step for science in a heliocentric universe. And in his time, his measurements were close enough to be intriguing and to keep other astronomers looking.

So that’s the math. I mentioned at the beginning that Kepler acceptance of a heliocentric universe was also theological. His central premise was that the God was at the center of it all, that the universe itself was an image of God.

Imago Dei is the theological concept that human beings were created in the image of God. Traditions and individuals through the ages have argued what that image is, exactly. Most are quick it is not a statement that we humans are physically in the literal likeness of God. Instead theologians talk about certain qualities and capacities we have that are the mark of divinity within. Some say it is our freedom, or our ability to love, our capacity to do good. Augustine said it was a reflection of the trinity: memory, intellect, and will. There are many versions what it means.

Johannes Kepler thought the universe itself was an image of God. He asserted that it was not only humans made in the image of God, but the entire universe. He suggested the sun, at the center, was the image of God the father. The celestial sphere at the outer edge represented Christ the son. And all the empty space between was akin to the Holy Spirit. Kepler included a chapter in his 1596 book Mysterium Cosmographicum analyzing a large number of biblical texts that refer to the movements of the stars and the earth as proof of both his mathematical and theological points.

What we know about the Universe today is considerably more than Kepler and his colleagues had figured out in the late 15- and early 16-hundreds. For example, what they thought was the whole universe, we know to be a portion of just our solar system. We know today that neither the earth or the sun is at the center of the universe. Indeed, we really have no sense of where the quote-unquote ‘center of the universe’ might be because the Universe is expanding and is far more complex than we can grasps. We know that it still obeys the laws of physics and math, but not always in a manner that appears orderly or sensible or neat.

I wonder what Kepler would make of our knowledge about the universe today. Would he still see the universe as an image of God? Kepler’s Universe, and Kepler’s God were very fixed and stable, ordered and understandable. That is not how most modern astrophysicists would describe the universe. I mean, some parts are ordered and stable. Our planet Earth keeps spinning to give us this thing we call sunrise each morning. We can map the stars and each night they are predictably where we look to find them. Some things are ordered and stable. But as we look closer at the particulars, things get weird.

As we update our understanding of the universe for Kepler, can that updated universe still serve as an image of God for him and others? Can this vast, dynamic and expanding, sometimes predictable and sometimes weird universe reflect the image of a vast, dynamic and expanding, sometimes predictable and sometimes weird God?

And, here’s a fun implication for this line of thinking: does that also describe the image of God within us? Think about it. We say in our 7 UU Principles that we are interconnected, we are part of the interdependent web of existence. That means, we are participants with the universe, as if we have the image of the universe within. We are part of the sometimes predictable and sometimes weird universe. If the universe is dynamic and expanding; we are dynamic and expanding. Right? But have you ever considered those qualities in our universe and in yourself to be the image of God?

The two qualities in our universe I find most intrigue for this line of thinking are emergence and the unknown.

There is so much we do not know or understand about the universe. We are lightyears ahead of Kepler in our understanding, yet what we do not understand is vast. Dark Matter and Dark Energy are terms astrophysicists use to describe over 80% of the universe. I was watching a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining Dark Matter. He said he gets this question a lot. “What is Dark Matter?” and in this video his answer is quick and brief: “We really don’t know.” It is the biggest mystery since they detected it in the 1930’s. And it’s not exactly ‘matter.’ That’s a misnomer. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it was really a problem of there being too much gravity in the universe that we can’t attribute to the mass we can see. So, there must be something else out there.

You know what that sounds like to me? (Take out Mystery Box, shake it) “What’s inside the box? (shake, shake) Dark Matter?” The problem modern astrophysicists are wrestling with sounds similar to what Kepler was dealing with. We have this great model to explain everything and it almost works. It’s close. We haven’t discovered that it’s wrong, or perhaps we can say we haven’t figured out which part of it is wrong yet. But we know something in the model is off. And the term we’ve come up with to talk about that is Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying this, there actually are some compelling theories and observances out there about Dark Matter. I think we just have to do what Kepler did. We make theories and observations, we work within the assumptions we have for as long as we can, so we can figure out a little more about how it all works.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay Self-Reliance, wrote: “Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.” And in the end, we may be gloriously wrong about what we thought it was all about, but at the same time we’ve advanced the human venture and our collective scientific understanding a little further all the same. And at the end of the day, even in our fumbling hubris – something true and lasting and good has emerged.

And that’s the second quality of our universe I see linked to this idea Kepler has turned me on to. Emergence. Despite our fumbling hubris – something true and lasting and good has emerged. We live in an emergent universe. For a long time, we tried to reduce everything down to its smallest parts thinking that would give us the best clue to what everything was and what mattered. It turns out reductionist thinking can’t really tell you about the really interesting stuff.

For a simple example, think about yourself. A reductionist perspective would say you are made up of organ systems, which are made up of organs, which are made up of tissue, which are made up of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up atoms, which are made up of subatomic parts like quarks and electrons. And yet none of that really explains that you are alive. At some point along the complexification of atoms and cells and organs, you are alive and you are yourself. Emergence is where the exciting stuff happens. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts because we live in an emergent universe.

You are a reflection of the universe. You contain mystery and you are a dynamic example of emergence. And from whichever theological framework you use – the image of God, the highest qualities of humanity within you, or your localized manifestation of the gods and goddesses – however that fits you, can you also see the way your theology aligns with the reality of our world?

You and God, and the whole blessed universe are all like those mystery boxes – shake it a little bit, what’s inside? Mysteries and emergence; dynamic and sometimes weird.

Kepler was wrong. But that’s the best part. I’m probably wrong too. We’ve learned so much over the past few hundred years. We will learn a lot over then next few hundred years. So, shake the box. Hunt down a few connections. Consider how the image of God within you may be as dynamic and mysterious as the expanding universe in which we live.

And believe me when I say –

In a world without end, may it be so.