Tener Salsa en la Vida
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I don’t mean to knock ketchup lovers, but salsa is so much better in my opinion. I still use ketchup on a burger, and – to put it patronizingly – many of my closest friends still prefer ketchup over other condiment options such as salsa. But the trend is quantifiable: salsa sales outstrip ketchup sales and have for twenty years or so. Of course this is a statistic and virtually all statistics are able to be manipulated to say nearly anything you want. By volume, ketchup actually wins the contest. For the sake of my argument, fair to say salsa has a place in our American refrigerator today alongside ketchup in a way unheard of a few generations back.
And, of course, I am going to take this factoid of salsa vs. ketchup in a metaphorical direction. I could have used the comparison of a rollercoaster vs. a carousel but given that Binghamton is the “carousel capital” it would be ill-advised to slight the carousel from this pulpit. So I turn to salsa.
“Tener salsa en la vida” is a phrase that means to fully enjoy life. It doesn’t literally translate; it’s a figure of speech. Salsa more literally means sauce – not spice. But figuratively, salsa means ‘the spice of life.’ To have spice in life – that is the goal; or one of the goals at least. Whatever else the goal of life is – salvation, happiness, meaningfulness, true love, karmic redemption, spiritual education – whatever else the goal of life is, I believe joy should be mixed in as important.
I don’t mean life ought to be one great thrill ride. I am not advocating pure pleasure or decadence. Joy is something much deeper than just ‘pleasure.’ About two years back I preached a sermon on the concept of Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture phenomenon. I tried to imagine what I might say if I had only one last chance to say it. Here is what I said in my opening paragraph:
I once quipped at a minister’s meeting, “If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it?” In response, one of my colleagues suggested that this was surely my motto for ministry and for life. I’ve considered that. I’d meant it only as a joke, a flip response to whatever was under discussion at that moment; but in a way, Yes, that is my motto. If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it? Well, there could be many very good and important reasons to do something that is not fun. I’m not suggesting we stop doing things that are not fun, there are important things to do which we do because they must get done. But then, couldn’t we add a little fun into it? (“Last Lecture” sermon from 3/1/09)
And today I am saying let us add spice to life, for it is the spice, the dash of joy that brings out the flavor – that brings out the fun. People say it is the little things that mean the most. It is the spice, the salsa, which makes the difference. In the movie Princess Bride Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max character says: “Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world – except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe”
Certainly the grand and extravagant parts of life stand out: the holidays, the weddings and awards, the peak experiences. But we can’t live at this level. The week is not made of Sundays only, Christmas comes but once a year, and the average orgasm lasts less than 15 seconds. So what do you do with the rest of your day? The real art of a good life is learning to find joy in the simple everyday parts of life. Tener salsa en la vida! “Our lives are made in these small hours,” Rob Thomas sings, “These little wonders, these twists and turns of fate.”
The culture around us, the dominant western culture of consumerism and materialism, tells us that this perspective is wrong. But this is how we and most religious communities serve as a counter-cultural balance – a culturally transforming balance – to the messages of the dominant culture. It’s not a Kodak moment or a Hallmark moment. It’s life. What makes our lives magical is not the stuff we’ve bought; it’s the way we infuse each ordinary moment with love and spirit and joy.
Let me shift this conversation by changing the context from personal to communal. This congregation is becoming more of a salsa congregation. We have flavor, we appreciate the spices that season our lives. I’m not saying we are seeing a change in our demographics with more Latinos and Latinas signing the membership book. Instead, I am pointing to the parallel of values. Salsa is a great metaphor for diversity and the mingling of differences. Tener salsa en la vida is a phrase from the Latino culture. As Juana Bordas said in the reading this morning, “Salsa is more than a dance of a racy condiment. Salsa is a way of life. Tener salsa en la vida is to fully enjoy life.” (Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, p10)
The book I used for that reading is called Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a multicultural age. It’s a leadership book. But more than that, it is a book about community. And as I read though it the theme of different approaches to leadership found through different cultural values struck me again and again with the parallels of the kind of values we talk about here. The book is about the non-dominant culture values, the values of Latino, Black and American Indian communities. These are counter to the dominant Anglo-American values that prevail in our society today. But we as a religious community share many of these same counter-cultural values
The book lifts up collective identity over individualism, generosity over accumulation, leadership with rather than leadership over, working for the common good rather than individual gain, and universal kinship instead of parochial partitioning of who is in and who is out. There are eight principles covered and you can check out the book if you want to explore the details. I want to give just a few examples. Generosity: “Mi casa es su casa,” Activism and caring for the common good: “Que viva la Causa!” and Gratitude: “Gracias a la vida.” I’ll start with generosity.
In some cultures, generosity is the true mark of wealth. The question is not about how much you can accumulate, it is about how much can you give away? Consider that old concept of the potlatch: the staple topic of Cultural Anthropology 101 classes. The potlatch is a process of reciprocity and redistribution. A leader in the community would host a gathering to which the people of the village or tribe were all invited. Everyone would bring an offering, a valuable item. People would try to bring a significant gift to give away. At the end of the event, people would each leave with a gift selected from the offerings.
Another common tradition in Native cultures such as the Pueblo is that on a birthday instead of receiving gifts, a person would give gifts to everyone else. One custom is for the birthday person to stand on the roof to throw blankets and shawls and things like that out to the guests. It is a demonstration of gratitude. But more than that: generosity is the cultural marker of someone who is well off. In the dominant culture the markers of someone well off financially would be big houses and fancy cars. In Native cultures, the wealthy person is the one who is generous. A Comanche woman, for example, might have a giveaway to honor her graduation. The custom is to “emphasize achievement as a collective feat rather than just a personal one.” (Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, p 60)
What’s mine is mine because of all the support from you. Thus, what’s mine is not fully mine alone. Mi casa es su casa is a fair rendering of the concept of generosity. And, if you think about it, that’s a value we promote. Lynn Garman (our Director of Religious education) mentioned to me that three of the RE classes would have ‘generosity’ as their session topic today. But it’s not planned out to line up like that. We certainly are not organized enough for the Sunday school topics to line up with any sermon themes! Clearly, generosity is a value we promote.
Our stewardship and pledging is a function of generosity when we’re at our best. The dominant culture values an even give and receive exchange – but here there is no way to quantify the value of this congregation or a person’s participation. The exchange between a member and the congregation can’t follow the consumer model of the dominant culture, it doesn’t work. Accumulation and acquisition is not what we are doing. We run by the value of generosity. Mi casa es su casa. My house is your house. None of what we have here belongs to one person, none of the success or shine is owned by a single individual. It is all poured out for everyone. Mi casa es su casa.
The second value I find from this book that lines up with our values is typified in the phrase “Que viva la Causa!” Long live the cause! ‘The cause’ is social change, the movement to build a better world for all the people. ‘The cause’ is equality and opportunity and justice. It is a leader’s role in Latino culture to inspire people to work together to take on a seemingly impossible task: to build a better world. Well that’s what we’re doing here too. This congregation is filled with activists and that activists spirit is thread though our shared history and through our basic identity as a congregation.
When we were working on writing our new Mission Statement we had those great words of interconnectedness, transcendence, and compassion. But again and again we kept bumping up against something missing. When the final version came out with the word Justice added in it felt right. “We act with justice and compassion,” the last phrase of our congregational Mission says. That is a part of our work as a congregation: to build a better world. Que viva la Causa!
The third principle I want to lift up is that of gratitude. Gracias a la vida – thanks to life! Gracias a la vida is a famous song by Chilean artist Violeta Parra. It says we are thankful for our ability to see and hear and to walk. We are thankful for puddles and beaches, cities and stars, for the people in our lives and for both smiles and weeping because they allow us to distinguish happiness and sorrow. The song ends by saying it is your song and everyone’s song – thanks to life. A dozen years ago I met a Brazilian exchange student working up at camp Unirondack for a summer when I was there as Camp Chaplin. He found the song in my “Rise up Singing” song book and insisted I learn how to play it so he could sing it. He said everyone knew the song where he came from. Everyone could sing it.
And here in this congregation and in Unitarian Universalism in general, there is a prevalence of gratitude. I often hear us expressing our thanks for the music, for the community, for fun social events, for meaningful worship and classes. The exercise I had us go through this morning with writing a note about how this congregation has made a difference in your life or in the life of someone that you know … that is an exercise in gratitude. Most Sundays, if you listen for it, you will hear in the Joys and Sorrows time a considerable amount of gratitude.
You can hear about the family hit by the flood on top of the economic troubles, but who are supported with hands-on help with the clean up. You can hear about the parent whose teenager is nurtured through a difficult time by the love and support of friends in youth group. You can hear about the parents who, when their infant died, were welcomed into this building – even though they were not members of connected here – for a meaningful and compassionate memorial service. You can hear about the atheists and humanists who come for community to explore meaning without superstition.
You can hear about the widow whose loss led to loneliness but also to finding this community and new friendships. You can hear about the recovering addict living day-by-day through the grace of God’s Love and through the compassionate support and appreciation of this congregation. You can hear about the gay youth who finds support, acceptance, and encouragement. If you listen, you will hear an abundance of stories filled with thanksgiving.
Our community is counter-cultural. We offer a balance to the dominant culture and a call to transform that dominant culture. We have many parallels with the minority cultures, the cultures of people of color. The book I found lists eight different principles and I’ve only weighed this sermon down with three of them. Tener salsa en la vida. These principles and these stories are not grand extravagant things. They are quite simple really. They are not ordinary but they are everyday. There is spice and lively flavor for us here. Let there be joy and compassion in our justice making and in our search for greater connection and deeper meaning. Let there be spice in life.
In a world without end
May it be so.