Shades of Non-Violence
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Joan Baez is an Absolute Pacifist, her pacifism is a personal, principled conviction. (Our reading was from Joan Baez’s book Daybreak http://www.ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/st_what_if.html )
And this is what most people assume the word pacifism means. An Absolute Pacifist will not use violence, will not advocate the use of violence in any situation – even self-defense. When you imagine a pacifist, you may call to mind a stereotype of some sort, or you might call to mind a friend, someone here in the congregation, you may even consider yourself to be so identified. You, like Joan Baez, may say “I am a pacifist.” “I’ll take Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.”
Interesting fact: Gandhi was not a pacifist in this sense. Gandhi was not an Absolute Pacifist. He advocated for the use of self-defense. After India won its independence, he encouraged people to fight in the Boer War. Gandhi was a Conditional Pacifist – a pacifist for strategic reasons. He used non-violence because it worked. People have said he ‘weaponized’ nonviolence. Gandhi used nonviolence as a tool to fight his country’s oppressors. He did not insist that all his followers adopt pacifism as a way of life, as a principled ideal for all situations. He advocated, instead, that his followers use nonviolence because it was more effective than violence given their political situation. He was a Pragmatic Pacifist, suggesting there are some situations where nonviolence is a better choice and there are other situations where violence is preferred.
People like the interviewer in the dramatic reading with Joan Baez, will insist that there is only one way to be a pacifist, and, further, that this one way is wrong-headed. But there are shades of nonviolence. I’ve used several different adjectives for Gandhi’s sort of pacifism: Conditional, Pragmatic. Let me unpack a little of the way I am using these terms. Conditional Pacifism is really a large umbrella term for any kind of pacifism that is not Absolute Pacifism.
Absolute Pacifists say no violence is ever justified, that violence is always wrong. Conditional Pacifists say it depends. Under the term Conditional, there are several sub-categories, nuanced arguments about how or why it depends. A Pragmatic Pacifist will argue for nonviolence because the use of violence will make the situation worse. It’s not that all violence is always wrong, it’s that violence in this situation will not be effective. I’ve never been an Absolute Pacifist. In recent years, I think I am becoming a Pragmatic Pacifist.
As a youth, however, I was more of a Technological Pacifist, or as it was known then – a Nuclear Pacifist. This subcategory of Conditional Pacifism argues that modern warfare has grown too indiscriminate and too overwhelming. Our technology has outpaced our morality.
A recent report from UNICEF (https://www.unicef.org/graca/patterns.htm) highlighted the change in wartime casualties over the past century. One statistic from that report shows that civilian casualties climbed from around 5% in 1900, to 15% during WWI, 65% during WWII, and 90% in 1990. Civilians are now the bulk of those killed or injured in war. Partly, we have changed how we do wars, we no longer line up on different sides of a field wearing different-colored uniforms. Also, while our weapons have become more technologically precise, but they have also become vastly more destructive.
As a youth I was deeply opposed to a potential nuclear war, not because I thought all wars were wrong, but that there would be no coming back from a nuclear war. It would be too destructive to humanity as a whole, to the earth as a whole.
It is interesting to me that when I was teenager in the 80’s, the classic image of a pacifist was a 1960’s hippie. Yet today, I look back and see how clearly I was a 1980’s, no-nukes pacifist. I attended the rallies, I watched and discussed the movies, wrote letters to President Reagan, carried signs, and identified strongly with that song from Sting: I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too.
There are a few other versions of Conditional Pacifism, but I think they begin to blend in with the others: Fallibility Pacifism says violence can be used if it is justifiable, for example if a war abides by the Just War Theory of St. Augustine. However, the Just War Theory is a fairly high bar and it has been a while since any war has met the criteria. Therefore, Fallibility Pacifists argue modern wars fail to be justified and should not be fought.
And there are Selective Pacifists and Collective Pacifists … there is a pretty good “Stuff You Should Know” podcast on the topic which I found interesting, you might too. I’ll include the link when I post this sermon. (https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/how-pacifism-works.htm)
So, what kind of pacifist are you? I used to be a Nuclear Pacifist myself and over the past decade or so I’ve shifted into a Pragmatic Pacifist. How about you? Have you ever considered yourself a pacifist? What are your opinions and convictions about peace and the use of civil resistance? Where do you find yourself in the taxonomy of nonviolence?
I invite you to ponder that as we move into our next hymn.
Video (the first 5 minutes of this TED talk)
I got a new book which I started reading over my sabbatical. It is about “how nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century.” It is called This Is an Uprising (2016) by Mark and Paul Engler. http://thisisanuprising.org/ It is a thick book, but surprisingly engaging. The introduction, for example, has this paragraph,
Decade after decade, unarmed mobilizations have created defining moments. In the United States, these include the sit-down strikes in Michigan auto plants in the 1930’s, the antiwar and campus free-speech movements on the 1960’s, the welfare and women’s rights protests of the 1970’s, the nuclear freeze campaigns and AIDS activism of the 1980’s, direct action to protect old-growth forests and oppose corporate globalization in the 1990’s, and demonstrations against the Iraq War in the early years of the new century. Internationally, strategic nonviolent conflict has been critical in helping to overthrown undemocratic rulers in a litany of countries, from Chili and Poland, to the Philippines and Serbia, to Benin and Tunisia. (This Is an Uprising, p xv-xvi)
I originally thought the book would be a historical review of non-violent movements from the past century. That would have been enough to keep my interest. But it also has some fascinating “how to start an uprising” elements. It breaks down some of the behind the scenes and pre-work people had done leading up to the Gandhian Salt March, the Selma to Montgomery campaign, Arab Spring leading to Tahrir Square, and how Saul Alinsky’s methods differ from those of Frances Fox Piven.
The book acknowledges the distinction between Absolute Pacifism and Conditional Pacifism and seems to keep returning to the idea that in Pragmatic Pacifism: we can plan for the spark that ignites, we can foster the conditions that lead to a nonviolent uprising.
How many of you in the room have heard of Gene Sharp? Sharp is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute, where they “advance the worldwide study and strategic use of nonviolent action in conflict.” https://www.aeinstein.org/about/mission-statement/
If you’ve never heard of Gene Sharp, it is not too surprising. He is a researcher of nonviolence rather than an activist. His impact has been monumental, though largely unheralded. He comes up quite a bit in this book I’ve been reading, especially at the beginning of the book as a starting point. Sharp is known as the “Machiavelli of nonviolence,” and has been called the “dictator slayer.” His thin book from Dictatorship to Democracy was written in 1993 to help dissidents in Burma. But the book has turned up all over the world since then. It was read by Serbian students against Slobodan Milosevic and circulated in Arabic throughout Egypt in 2011. You can download your own copy from the Albert Einstein Institute website for free.
Sharp studied nonviolent actions from a pragmatic view. He has a report, for example, written during the 60’s about Gandhi, not as a spiritual Mahatma, but as a political strategist. Sharp’s research showed him again and again that nonviolent resistance movements were not random and spontaneous – they are predictable and can even be created. While the Catholic Workers movement favored symbolic, attention-getting actions and often quoted the axiom: “Jesus never told us to be successful, only to be faithful”; Sharp would counter with what he called “political jiu-jitsu” and suggested, ‘why not be faithful and effective?’
He collected a list of nonviolent actions people could use against repressive regimes. It is a famous list now. Some people mistakenly think Sharp wrote the list but he insists he merely collected it from examples he studied and witnessed. The list is sometimes known as the “198 Tactics.” https://www.aeinstein.org/nonviolentaction/198-methods-of-nonviolent-action/ And it is simply that: a list of 198 ways to resist. The classics that spring to mind are things like Sit-ins, Boycotts, Marches, Speeches, Petitions, Hunger Strikes, and Walk-outs. Sharp set these all into over a dozen broad categories such as Formal Statements, Symbolic Public Acts, Economic Boycotts, Physical Interventions, Noncooperation, and several more.
What can you do? Here’s another school shooting. Here’s a fear-inducing ‘bathroom bill.’ Here’s a parade of White Supremacists. What can we do? Here’s a story about children being taken from their families at the border. Here’s a headline about a politician grabbing power. Here’s an outrage. Here’s an atrocity. What are we going to do? Well, here is a list of 198 actions we could take.
Ask each other about the Poor People’s Campaign. Talk about PRIDE events. Share news with each other about that rally happening at a politician’s office. Follow the indictments coming out of the federal special prosecutor’s office. Watch for the next #BlackLivesMatter event. Take part. Show up. Or if you stay home, help in the planning or read up more – study what is possible when we support each other in making the world a better place. Consider how powerful and effective a tool we have together in nonviolent civil resistance.
Nonviolent resistance has a long and increasingly frequent and surprisingly successful history in human society – in our society. What kind of world do we want to create? This is not a rhetorical question. This is our country. This is our world. All the world’s people are our people. Another uprising is happening. The resistance is here.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Good Things Take Time
A homily for Flower Communion Sunday
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 27, 2018
When our youngest was still a wee child we had a game called Don’t Break the Ice. The mechanics of the game are like Jenga – players take turns removing a block of ice from the structure with little plastic hammers. You lose if the whole field of ice collapses while you are trying to chip out your single ice block. It is important to this anecdote that you know the set up for this game is rather involved. I had to flip the little playing table upside down, wedge the plastic ice blocks into place, turn the playing table right side up again and then attach the figure skating person onto the ice blocks. It is important to this anecdote that you know it took longer to set up the game than it took to play it – especially with an exuberant toddler holding a little plastic hammer. And, you should know – one could rarely play the game only once, it was more like a dozen times … minimum.
I don’t know what lessons my young child learned from this simple game. Maybe something about being careful when ice skating, but I doubt it. For myself, I received a reminder of the old aphorism: it is easier to tear down than to build up. Many of us learned this lesson or re-experienced it with sand castles built at low tide, card houses set up around curious cats, or simply observing the construction work at the interchange of 81 and 17 these past few years – the demolition crew took out a bridge in one afternoon; the construction crew can never be so speedy.
Good things take time. Consider the flowers or even the mere blade of grass. It is, as Whitman reminds us, “no less than the journeywork of stars.” All that effort and energy poured from the universe through a blade of grass and here I mutter about the hour it takes me to cut all that grass around my house. How long did it take that grass to get there? Good things take time.
Before I go any further, I offer two caveats. The universe is alive and thriving only because it has both life and death. “A time to build up and a time to tear down” they say in Qohelet. The growth of flowers and the cutting or picking or plucking of these flowers is not to be divided into a good part and a bad part. Life and death are of a whole, as are growth and decay, building up and tearing down.
Pat Montley, a UU Pagan and the author of the litany we read earlier this morning, says this:
The wheel of the year turns. Seasons change. Darkness gives way to light, which wanes into darkness. Birth and death and birth and death and birth. Each has its season, and each season is a necessary part of the whole. It is the way of nature. Let us embrace it with faith.
When I say “Good things take time,” singing praise to community and flowers and life – I do not mean to say that spring and new life are the only things to be considered ‘good.’ That is my first caveat. Yes, life and death are of a whole and are good and they belong to each other. And yet, today I would sing to you of life and tell you “good things take time.”
My second caveat is to bow for a moment to the good things that do not take much time. It does not take long, for example, to say the words “I love you.” Indeed, if you take too long in saying these words it gets a little weird. “I-iiiiiiiiii … Lllllloooooo-oooooooooo – ” it just gets a little weird. There are good things in life that do not take much time. A smile, an epiphany, that second cup of coffee in the morning, … I understand skydiving is, on average, about one minute of freefall and five minutes after the parachute has opened. Really – not that long when you think about it. So, yes. There are good things that do not take much time. I’m not saying only good things take time or that all good things take time. Just – consider the good things that take time. Today I would have us think about relationships and community, gardens and the journeywork of stars.
Good things take time. In the story (City Green by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan) the neighbors pull together and create a garden out of an empty lot that was on the edge of being a dump. And the line, “Good things take time,” is not referring to the seeds and the time it takes for them to bloom into “strawberries, carrots, tulips, daisies and more!” Instead it is referring to a character in the story who holds back, who does not join in the neighborhood gardening at first. Some people take time to bloom. Some people ease their way into life.
We are creating a garden here each Sunday. We have gardens throughout this building and we send seeds and good soil home with people every day. That’s what this Family Ministry is all about … this is what our mission as a congregation is all about: gardening.
There is a playful little story I heard long ago. 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.”
Nature is extravagant and exuberant and does nothing by halves. With very little help, our gardens and our spirits will bloom and blossom in a riot of color and scent. Beauty abounds. And … it is possible and, I argue, good to take a hand in shaping what grows in our gardens.
Our congregation has proclaimed our mission to be about offering “a spiritual home” in three particular ways. (We offer a spiritual home where we explore, celebrate and cherish our interconnectedness, encourage growth and transcendence, and act with justice and compassion.) The first two are through celebrating our interconnectedness and encouraging growth. It is possible to interpret these points as ‘allowing life to bloom where it will.’ We are called by our mission to notice, to celebrate, to encourage. The final point of the three ways we offer a spiritual home is in acting “with justice and compassion.” And this I hear as a call to take a hand in shaping what grows in our gardens.
Our community is a garden worthy of the time we spend tending it. The bounty of our garden grows both beautiful and nourishing by our care. And good things take time. Plant some seeds, there will be time for us to water and weed – to share in the free and responsible search together.
And to muddle this metaphor even more: we are the gardeners and we are the garden. We share with the Spirit of Life, with God, with the “upward thrust of life” in creating this garden of ours – this garden of us. Consider the flowers, these stunning sparks of the universe; they are nothing less than the journeywork of stars. It took time to for these flowers to get to this table. It has taken you some time to get this day. Good things take time.
So, come, take up your gardening tools, join in the work, enjoy the beauty, nourish what is around you with justice and with compassion. What a beautiful bouquet of people we are!
In a world without end,
May it be so.
The Whole, the Parts, and All that’s In Between
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cortland, NY
There is an entry in the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson about a time he’d spent at the beach as a child. He had wandered the shoreline collecting the shining sea shells and filling his pockets with glistening stones. Later, back at home, he pulled out his found treasures to discover the objects had become disappointing and ugly. Something was lost for him in the transfer from the seashore to home.
Gary Kowalski, in our reading (from https://www.uuworld.org/articles/we-are-all-part-god), talks about the difference between a painting and a photograph. He writes, “[O]ften the snapshots I take are disappointing, lifeless, and flat compared to the picture that’s vivid in my memory. The emotion is missing.” There is something extra in the experience that does not translate to the camera. I know there are some amazing photographs that do convey emotion; but let us allow Rev. Kowalski his point that the average photograph tends to have less emotion than the average painting. Of course, a photograph can help us recall the experience, the memory and emotion. But Kowalski suggests,
[A] decent painting can be more effective at conveying the mood and flavor and spirit of a subject than any photograph, for although the camera is an accurate recorder of light and shadow, as a mechanical device it lacks any sense of empathy.
In many ways, the best part of an old sea shell or a simple photograph is the memories and experiences they call to our minds. In themselves, they are one piece taken away from a whole experience. A significant part of their beauty and value is in the connection they have back to the experiences of meaning for us. The poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” [SLT #649]. The things matter to us because of their connections to experiences of meaning.
I’m talking about religious experiences in our lives. Experiences, any experiences, are a core element of a school of philosophy and theology known as “Process.” Process Philosophy arises from the work of Alfred North Whitehead. This philosophy says, essentially, that reality is made up of events rather than of matter. The metaphysics follows the emerging science of physics on this.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser said “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” And physicists are indicating something similar. The Universe simply is not made up of little inert particles, it is more than just the sum of the parts. Einstein’s work changed our understanding of this. I like the way Gary Kowalski put it – this is from later in that same article the reading came from. He writes,
[P]hysicists today are saying that reality at the most fundamental levels is composed of shimmering waves of probability, fluctuating eruptions in the void, an intertwined continuum of matter and energy that exerts invisible fields of force stretching from here to the farthest star.
Or, as easily say “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The stories are about the relationships between the pieces. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. And … the parts are not really the point – it is the connections, the threads of relationship, that wind in between the parts that really make the whole what it is.
So, it’s not the light and shadow in the photograph, but the emotion in that moment; not the shells and stones, but the experience of finding them at the shore. The whole is a sum of the parts as well as the unquantifiable element of experience and relationship in between the parts.
Today I am interested in the very simple idea that if Process Philosophy is true, and I believe it is, then what impact does that have on how I experience the life am living and how I interact with the universe around me? Some of you may be familiar with sermons I have done in the past on Process Theology; and if not, I will put the online links to a few past sermons in the body of this sermon if you want to read what I’ve said Process Theology as it relates to God and science and so on.
Power and Process Theology (2012) Basics of process theology for Unitarian Universalists
God, Not of the Gaps (2013) A science-affirming version of God
A New Way of Knowing God (2015) “God” in the interchange between us
Today, however, I am focusing on a more basic piece which hooked me back when I first heard about this way of thinking. My introduction to Process Philosophy was not through the theology of Charles Hartshorne. We heard about Hartshorne in the reading this morning. Hartshorne was a pivotal theologian for Process Theology. For me, however, I learned about a non-theistic version of process philosophy through the work of Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman.
Wieman talked about something he called “Creative Interchange,” it was perhaps the closest phrase he had for what most people would call ‘God,’ but Wieman did not talk about God. I read an interview he gave near the end of his life and the interviewer asked him pointedly if Creative Interchange is another term for God and Wieman basically said – sure, if you really need to use that word, then sure. Personally, I do not find it easy to think of Creative Interchange as synonymous with God. But let me explain and then you can make your own conclusions.
Wiemen defined the Creative Interchange as a four-step process, because after all, he is a philosopher and theologian – so of course there are four steps. It is one event with four stages. In his own words, Creative Interchange occurs in this way: beginning with “Emerging awareness of qualitative meaning derived from other persons through communication; integrating these new meanings with others previously acquired; expanding the richness of quality in the appreciable world by enlarging its meaning; [and] deepening the community among those who participate in this total creative event of intercommunication.” (The Source of Human Good, p58) In typical Theologian style, that one run-on sentence packs in this man’s whole concept of the Holy.
Think of it as a powerful conversation. The shorter, simpler version is about a deep meeting of minds with a transformative result. A Creative Interchange event is more than a regular encounter with someone, but from the outside, that’s pretty much what it looks like.
There are, as I mentioned, four stages. It begins when I listen to the view of another person, when I take in someone else’s perspective of meaning. Just that – listening to someone different, taking it in.
Part two is when I integrate something of that new perspective. This is not about swapping out what I used to believe or hold meaningful for someone else’s view. It is also not about agreeing to disagree. I need to integrate my previous perspective with the new perspective I have received.
The third step is simply the resulting expansion and enrichment that occurs. Obviously, if I take in another person’s understanding of meaning, and integrate it with what I already know of meaning, I will experience an expansion of my world. This doesn’t need to be huge or really dramatic, but it is transformative all the same.
The fourth step is the commensurate expansion and widening of the community of mutual understanding. I find this last step to be an interesting addition. But it makes sense, we all exist in communities and these communities exist because of us. The Creative Interchange happens in a context. Therefore, my community grows because I grow.
This concept of Creative Interchange was my initial introduction to Process Philosophy. We experience these ‘powerful conversations’ as a form of spiritual growth and transformation. It is, according to Wieman, the holiest activity that can ever happen. And it can happen a lot, in large and small ways, again and again. It is good and even holy to stretch yourself through this kind of Creative Interchange with other people. Have you ever had a powerful, transformative conversation like this with someone? I bet we all have. It is how we become spiritually mature people.
Now, one point I will offer is that Wieman’s Creative Interchange is entirely a mental activity you have with someone. Yes, he adds that piece at the end acknowledging the context of the community – but that is still limited. For Wieman, spiritual growth is accomplished as an intellectual exercise between people.
If you remember where I started, I was talking about Gary Kowalski’s experiences of painting and emotion, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s experiences of the shells and stones. In the reading, Kowalski shared a profound experience from Charles Hartshorne’s autobiography, in which he has an Interchange with the land around him … but this is not at Wieman’s level of Creative Interchange because it is not between two people. And yet Hartshorne’s experience involved some sort of exchange, some impact and transformation upon Hartshorne.
So, there is something else at play as well. What if Creative Interchange is not limited to an intellectual activity between two people. The powerful conversations we can have with someone that change our hearts, that integrate our understanding, that transform our being – these conversations are part of process philosophy. They are events, and events are the building blocks of reality. Goodness! These events of full-blown Creative Interchange with another person certainly shape our reality. AND there is also a kind of interchange that can happen between us and the universe in its various manifestations: the seashells, paint, and landscapes. Can the universe itself be my partner in such an exchange?
The experience described in the read from Hartshorne’s autobiography seems to suggest this is the case. Author Daniel Day Williams says, “The Spirit is not a static ideal but a creative power which participates in the life it informs.” (The Spirit and the Forms of Love, p4) How much participation does this creative power have in your life? I know there is a range of theology in the room and so, a range of answers to that question. In any given Unitarian Universalist congregation, we will have atheists, agnostics, mystics, Christians, pagans, Buddhists and all manner of others all gathered together in our congregations. Does this question fit for you? How much participation does this creative power have in your life?
What about the story of Theodore Parker and the turtle (told as the Time For All Ages message). Theodore feels a voice within him telling him not to hurt the turtle. He mother suggests two possibilities. She tells young Theodore it could be his conscience and it could be the voice of God within. What would Process Philosophy suggest? Can the creative power of the universe interchange with us? Would it feel like a voice within? Have you ever had an experience like Theodore Parker’s?
Part of the work is to discern if a voice is your own ego or a guidance from the Spirit. Evangelical Christians hear the voice of God on a regular basis. And Psychologists talk about ‘hearing voices’ as a symptom of mental illness. Our communities will shape how we name what we experience. But our brains are constantly receiving input in various forms and we can train our brains to get better at seeing, hearing, experiencing the universe – to be better at noticing certain experiences. What experiences of connection would you like to develop, get better at, have more of?
You and I and everyone around us are part of the whole, part of the interdependent web of existence. All the connections and relationships between us and between all the parts of the universe can be strengthened and developed if we choose to develop them. What kinds of Creative Interchange do you want more of in your living?
Increase your prayer life and listen. Take people out for coffee or for lunch and listen to them. Spend time in nature while reading philosophy and poetry. Listen, engage and grow! Let the world in.
In a world without end,
May it be so
Getting Unstuck: Part I “Take Your Pause”
I love the story “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place.” Pooh bear gets stuck in the tunnel leading out of his friend Rabbit’s house. Christopher Robin comes to help and declares that Pooh is thoroughly stuck. He’ll have to stay there, perhaps for about a week.
“But I can’t stay here for a week!” Pooh cries.
“You can stay here all right, silly old bear. It’s getting you out which is so difficult.”
(from Winnie-the Pooh by A. A. Milne; p 30)
And as silly as this little of Winnie-the Pooh story is, it revels the essential reality found in countless mystic revelations and self-help manuals. When you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging. When you are losing your temper, count to ten. When you discover you are lost, stop and look around. Whatcha gonna do when you don’t know what to do? Stand still (from Stand Still, performed by Shirley Caesar.) “You can stay here all right, silly old bear. It’s getting you out which is so difficult.” It’s all right there in Winnie-the-pooh.
Each year, at the beginning of the year, the Board of Trustees creates a covenant together. This year, the phrase I have as the title “Take your pause” turned up in our Board covenant. Pat Kissick teaches stress reduction and she introduced us to this phrase. “Take your pause,” meaning: You’re are not expected to jump onto each exchange, there’s no rush. We, as a Board, decided there is a value in reminding each other that a thoughtful, reflective response is more helpful than a snappy one.
There have been, as you may imagine, some moments during this year’s board meetings when we the board has felt stuck, or if not stuck, at least in a tight place. Have you ever felt yourself to be in a tight place? Have you ever felt stuck?
The worship theme for May is Creativity. Often, we think of creativity as a function of artists. So, maybe feeling stuck is like writer’s block or creativity block. But if you listen our first story from Edgar Allan Poe (Descent into the Maelstrom) it doesn’t really translate as a story about writer’s block. It’s more like a story about anxiety – crippling anxiety – or fear that sucks us in and stops us from being able to live our full lives.
There are some people who live with extreme cases of this, but everyone – as some point or another, to some degree or another – has some familiarity with the feeling of being stuck in this sense conveyed by the Poe story on the whirlpool. Maybe it was meeting your future in-laws, worrying about a school project, or stressing over an ambitious, new portfolio at work. It’s overwhelming. It’s like being trapped in a whirlpool and your boat is going around and around. You’re stuck.
Whatcha gonna do when you don’t know what to do? Stand Still. Of course, there is more to it than that, right? It’s not that ‘standing still’ is wrong, there’s just something about how you stand still, something about the intention. Do you remember what the man did in the story about the whirlpool? He lashed himself to an empty barrel and jumped off his boat. He had noticed that the lighter objects fell more slowly, while the heavier objects dropped more quickly.
Maybe this is a better way of talking about it. Maybe when trouble strikes the goal is not to do nothing, not to – in effect – simply remain stuck like silly old Pooh-bear. Perhaps it is more accurate to say our goal is to lash ourselves to the lighter things in our lives, metaphorically speaking. To let go of the heavy anchors in favor of the lighter objects that will keep us afloat.
What would that look like in your life? What are the lighter things to which you could lash yourself? I think of the things that bring me joy: the people I love, the activities that make me smile, actions I can take that make other people happy. In the Winnie-the-Pooh story, Christopher Robin read Pooh a ‘Sustaining book’. What helps you stay afloat? Take your pause. You’re stuck anyway, you might as well breath while you’re there.
And remember: This is part I of my homily this morning. Part I of getting unstuck is the calm before the creativity. It is: lashing yourself to the lighter things that you may stay afloat when the world around you is spiraling.
It is, in a sense, embracing the empty page, the blank space, the uncarved block. When the storm hits, it is reasonable to pause. When any manner of difficulty arises, it is reasonable to take your pause, to welcome a moment of emptiness, to allow your first response to be a light one.
Getting Unstuck: Part II “Unstuck and Uncovered”
I want to mess with you for a moment. I hope you will help me with this. I need everyone in the room now to get up and move to another seat in the sanctuary. Look around first, find the most opposite seat from where you are now. If you’re by the window, find a seat by the wall. If you’re in the front, move to the back and vice versa. If you have mobility issues, take it easy on yourself. But if possible, humor me, move to as opposite a seat as possible in the room. I’ll give you a count of 15 to move around in. …
Author Scott Russell Sanders offers this perspective in his book of essays entitled Earth Works (2012),
Since Copernicus, we have known better than to see the earth as the center of the universe. Since Einstein, we have learned that there is no center; or alternatively, that any point is as good as any other for observing the world. I take this to be roughly what medieval theologians meant when they defined God as a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere. If you stay put, your place may become a holy center, not because it gives you special access to the divine, but because in your stillness you hear what might be heard anywhere… All there is to see can be seen from anywhere in the universe, if you know how to look. (p123)
I share this quote with you to admit that you did not need to move around the room to get a different perspective. But it helps. Take a moment and notice the room, the feel of how things are in your new seat, to appreciate the shift. It is a way of seeing.
In the Broom Master story, which we heard as our second story this morning, Chundra felt stuck. He could not memorize the Buddhist lessons, he could not learn them. Chundra tried to be like the other monks but he could not read or write or memorize. He felt stuck.
Sometimes the solution is in stepping back from your expectations, in taking a pause, allowing yourself to be stuck when you discover you are stuck. Lash yourself to something lighter and look around. A new perspective shows new possibilities and new connections.
Chundra let go of the heavy anchor, the idea that he had to be a monk the way all the others were monks, with reading and writing and memorizing. The Buddha advised him to “sweep the inner dust and dirt from [his] mind”. He told Chundra he was clinging to old ways of thinking… like a sailor clinging to a sinking boat. Sweep that dust and dirt away.
Getting stuck in our anxiety or our circumstance can sometimes show up in our lives in the way we think there is only one solution to a problem. When we lash out lives to the lighter things around us and within us, we allow ourselves to change perspective, to see new possibilities. “All there is to see can be seen from anywhere in the universe, if you know how to look,” Sanders tells us. Sometimes a shift in our seating helps us remember what we already know deep down.
The pause, the calm before the creativity, allows space for insight and new perspective, for connections. Of course, the pause is just Part I of getting unstuck – a key part – but only one part. Remember, it was the inventor Thomas Edison who said “Genius [is] one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He also said, “Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” It is not just the pause, it’s about what you do while you wait and then how you respond. Sweep the dust away. Uncover the way forward that has been within you all along.
When you are stuck, stand still and see where your next move can be – even in an unexpected, unanticipated possibility … then sweep the dust away and get moving again.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Dum Spiro, Spero
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 10, 2017
A few years ago, I watched a friend’s life fall apart. After several fits and starts, my friend had landed a good job, settled down to a happy marriage, and moved to a new town. Then within a year all of those things imploded. Last winter I learned that another friend, one with a history of alcoholism, was dealing with a new addiction: prescription pain-killers. Another person I know is swept under by medical debt, barely managing the ramifications of the medical problems let alone knowing where to even start with the financial woe. Countless others in my circle of friends and family struggle with anxiety, chronic pain, and depression; and there are times when the pain and the depression hit a spike and become severe. It is painful to watch. It is painful to experience, I know.
Where do you turn when you begin to lose hope? Where do you see other turning when you witness them uncovering resources of hope to help them carry on in the face of difficulties?
The political turmoil we are experiencing, in our country and in the world, is unsettling. The mass shootings and the #metoo phenomenon weigh on my heart. I know several people who have expressed a growing despair or hopelessness for the trajectory we are on in terms of climate change, income inequality, colonialism and war, and racism and other injustices. If it is not personal trouble that tempts you to despair, perhaps it is the social or political climate that leads you to misery.
The phrase “Dum Spiro, Spero” is something I saw on one of my friend’s Facebook. It was in the midst of a time when everything was falling apart and another friend posted the phrase. My friend said it was a helpful reminder. “Dum Spiro, Spero.” It is Latin., meaning “While I breathe, I hope.” (And I have discovered the first word is D-U-M, not D-O-M – although both spellings seem to be all over the internet, strangely.) While I breathe, I hope. Where there is life, there is hope.
Last week I spoke about the power of hope. I reminded us that in the face of troubles both personal and global, there are resources available to us to counter all the bad things. Yes, the world is drenched with turmoil and strife. But that is not the whole story because the world is also ablaze with love and kindness, beauty and grace.
Last week, while taking about the power hope has, I reminded us that the love and kindness do not cancel out the terrible things and the suffering. Instead they ride alongside the terrible. All that is good and holy and beautiful deepens the well and strengthens the walls.
Therefore, hope’s power is not that the suffering and injustice can necessarily be cancelled out, but contained; not halted, but held. We can’t undo past pain or injustice, but we can respond so the future can be different. Hope’s power is that we can persevere and live. Dum Spiro, Spero.
That is hope’s power. So where do you turn when you begin to lose hope? How do you find hope when hope is hard to find? This is a deeply religious question and all the world’s religions have a response. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Psalm 121 is a beloved answer, the assurance of God’s love and protection. Where do you turn for help, for hope, when things seem hopeless? The Psalmist responds:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber… The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
Hope is found in the Lord our God, as the Jewish people proclaim in the psalms and the Christian people echo in Jesus. Religions the world over declare that hope is available to those who have faith. Hope is found in mindfully following the 8-fold path. Hope is found in the correct performance of certain rituals according to Vedic Hinduism, or in trusting karma. As shown in the story from this morning (A Tent for the Emperor) Muslims read in the Qur’an: The outcome of all things is ultimately up to God. Where do you turn for help, where to do look for hope when things seem hopeless? Knowing the answer to this will help clarify what you believe and the root of your faith.
I have an answer to this question. I actually have three answers. They are my answers, I do not presume to say they are Unitarian Universalist answers or that they should be your answers. Instead I offer them as witness, hopefully as example for you each to do your own work in discovering the answer to our question – Where do you turn for help, where do you look for hope?
I have, as I said, three answers. My first answer is: community.
I shared some of this answer last week when I talked about covenant and beloved community. Growing up, I was bullied a lot. I felt like an outcast and a loser throughout my grade school years. I only developed a circle of school friends in the later part of high school. My church experience was what saved me, where I learned to make friends, where I experienced acceptance and encouragement in a social setting.
One of the biggest lessons which gave me hope then and continues to give me hope now is the lesson of agency – the lesson that I have some control over what happens in my life, some capacity to make a difference. And more importantly, that by joining with others, we can make a difference. I find hope in the awareness that I am, we are, participants in the unfolding story.
Making the world a better place is not solitary work, it is not done in isolation. Community is a key ingredient. Communities like this one save lives. We change the world. We make life sweet and rich and beautiful.
We teach our children to think positively, to look on the bright side, to find the silver lining. And at our best we teach them the reality that bad things do happen, yet in the face of trial and trouble, injustice and heartbreak, life is still worth living.
I discovered there weren’t just bright sides to difficulties, there was a brightness within me, as there is within you – a brightness that can transform the world. Communities like this one, like this congregation with our covenant and our loving, stumbling attempts to be good people – here is where I always find hope.
What communities have fed you and given you hope? It might not be a religious community. What circles of family or friends, groups or organizations show you your power, call forth that capacity to make a difference? Where do you find hope?
Community is my first answer to that question. My second answer is the perspective afforded me by time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m not sure I’ve articulated this second answer quite the way I mean it to be but for now I say: my second answer is time.
One place I find hope is simply in the knowledge that things are always changing, nothing is static and nothing has only one meaning. Therefore, despair is usually a premature stance. Looking back on my own personal history I see what I have survived, I see the seeds of how I have overcome and grown into who I am today.
A cousin posted an inspiring comment on his wall this week. He marked the anniversary of his motorcycle accident in which he lost one of his legs. The post was recognizing the gifts of his life today against that moment from a few years back. He made a point to be clear: he wasn’t thankful for the accident, he was thankful for where it led him over the years to where he is now.
In the long view, no matter how bad things get in your life, everything changes and therefore there is always a way forward. And that is a source of hope.
That resonant line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shows this to us as well. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Looking across the history of our country and indeed the history of civilizations as a whole, there is cause for hope. We can, as Unitarian minister Theodore Parker put it, “see a continual and progressive triumph of the right.” Parker’s comments predate King by more than a century, but King said it more succinctly. Parker’s quote was:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. …But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Thus, time is a source of hope for me. The long view helps me keep perspective on my troubles and the troubles I see in our nation and our world. This does not, I think, give us license to sit back and simply await the arrival of justice – we must act, we must do our part to bend the arc.
The power of hope leads us to work for a better world. And it is a source of hope. Hope is a source of hope … which is a little circular. Or maybe that is just my slightly confused way of articulating this second answer of mine that time is source of hope for me. Is it so for you? In what way does history or perspective give you hope when you are tempted to despair? Where do you find hope?
Community, time, and nature: my third answer is nature. Nature is an ever-reliable source of hope for me. It is a source of self-revelation, a source of spiritual renewal, and a source of centering for me as well. All of that, plus –
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I do what Wendell Berry does. Well, not exactly what Wendell berry does. If I did exactly as Mr. Berry does then I would –
… go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
What Douglas Taylor does is go wander among the hillside trees or down by the banks of the Chenango or the Susquehanna. I travel I up to the wilderness of the Adirondacks when possible or, more often, whatever patch of wilderness is at hand. I do not find blue herons, but I do find groundhogs and the common duck; I do get the still water and the day-blind stars. We all get those, do we not?
The peace and calm of nature carries me through my trouble and drains my despair of its power. It restores my hope. Likewise, the sea storms and the wind that break the trees behind my house is grand and humbling, and that natural power affects me as well. In a way, nature does for me something like what I was describing about time – it gives me a perspective. It doesn’t take my problems away, it simply frames them in a different way. I find hope for my life and for our world when I spend time in nature because in so doing I tap into the rhythm of life itself.
What are the sources of your hope? Where do you turn for help, where to do look for hope when things seem hopeless? Knowing the answer to this will help clarify what you believe and the root of your faith.
Remembering that hope is not about escape – it is not found in turning away from the realities of injustice and heartache. It is in facing these things with clarity knowing that we have the resources to make a difference. Hope’s power is not in undoing past pain or injustice, it is in seeing the possibility of a different response so the future can be different. Hope’s power is that we can persevere and live.
Where there is hope, there is life. While I breathe, I hope. Dum Spiro, Spero.
In a world without end,
May it be so.