The Soul of a Nation
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 12, 2017
In his 1975 address before a joint session of congress, president Gerald Ford declared “The state of the union is not good.” It is the only recorded instance when the president has said that. The following year he said it was improving but still not good. Throughout the history of the ‘State of the Union’ address, there have been times when a president has signaled difficulty, trouble, and strife in the union; but Ford is the one who named it so succinctly. The more recent history shows a propensity for a positive spin. Many presidents have declared the state of the union to be good, getting better, sound, strong, or stronger. The past five in particular have used the word Strong almost exclusively.
Friends, I find the state of the union is not good. When Ford made his claim over 40 years back, he cited economic reasons; high unemployment, growing inflation, and an expanding federal deficit and national debt. The economy, however, is not the only measure of our national health. The unhealth I decry is more along the lines of our unity, our sense of identity, something almost spiritual – something about the soul of our nation.
There has been a lot on my mind this past year about the direction in which our country has been going. Certainly, some of that is about the economics and access to resources, the income inequality gap has been widening since Reaganomics. That’s not new.
And like the growing economic disparity, this spiritual corruption undermining our union has also been growing more pronounced over the decades while the past five presidents continue to declare the state of our union strong. In many ways it is not anything new that is worrying me, it is more the current scope and prevalence that has me concerned.
We have powerful men being revealed as sexual predators, unmasking the ugly prevalence of harassment and complicity that has been festering. The #metoo phenomenon that hit facebook a few weeks back unveiled how prevalent the problem is. And the president, while still the Republican candidate, admitted to sexual assault. And, sexual assault against women is not new, only more noticed, perhaps.
We have white nationalists marching in Charlottesville while police continue to murder people of color with impunity. And the president says there were “some very fine people” among the KKK and neo-Nazi’s and makes jokes about excessive police violence. Again, racism is not new, only more documented and talked about with some fresh perspective now.
We have another surge of mass shootings in our country; and congress continues to do nothing in response beyond “thoughts and prayers” which is beginning to sound like profanity to my ears. The love-affair with violence and guns is not new, but by frequency we begin to grow numb.
These and other issues are not new. My concern is the growth we notice in the pattern. Something deeply wrong is being allowed to grow and flourish.
Meanwhile the president continues to be combative with the press as well as with people he sees to be his political opponents both foreign and domestic. He is making no efforts toward reconciliation or unity or helping the nation come together. Quite the opposite, he is politically divisive and unbalanced, and seems to revel in that. And further, the nature of his divisiveness is destructive for our country.
Of course, it is not all the president. The office of the president does hold a special sway in terms of the soul of the nation, but I’ve been preaching on divisive politics since my ministry began in the previous century. The current president simply epitomizes the worst aspects of our national discourse only too well. But these problems have been undermining us for some time.
And to be clear: as Marianne Williamson said in our reading: we’ve always had the good and the bad among us throughout this experiment of self-governance. “Both slaveowner and abolitionist, conscienceless industrialist and labor reformer, corporate polluter and world class environmentalist.” But the American ideal, “the expression of humanity at its most free and creative and just,” that is the whole point. And that is what I see to be at risk for us. America can survive our con-men and corrupt politicians so long as do lose the ideals of humanity at our center.
Our democracy is threatened. This growing pattern in our politics of divisiveness and mean-spiritedness threatens our union. Those ideals of justice and freedom are obscured and maligned. And too often it is accompanied by apathy by the majority of citizens. I wonder what is needed for the nation to wake up and realize the severity of our situations. Maybe a pair of dramatic mass shootings or neo-Nazis marching down main street? What would it take? We are being torn apart, our hate and fear is destroying us.
Last year’s presidential election was contentious and acrimonious. The sense of ‘us vs. them’ was rampant. A pair of short vignettes: Our congregation serves as a polling place. Last year someone stopped at our bake sale table and made a point to saying “I’m not going to buy anything because I don’t like the sign you have hanging out front.” The person was referring to the Black Lives Matter sign. This year, similarly, someone stopped at the back sale table and while buying a few things said, “I am glad to support this. I respect your congregation and what you do. I don’t like the sign you have out front but I am still glad you are here.”
I share these two stories to say I am glad we’ve eased off a bit, for we reached a fevered level. Still, it is a trajectory we’ve been on for a while. We’ve been warning each other against our incivility and divisiveness during several election cycles. Back after the election in 2000 we were saying we had become the divided states of America.
When I am troubled by what I see in our country, I find continual comfort and wisdom in the words of A. Powell Davies. The Reverend A. Powell Davies, was a Unitarian Preacher from the 1950’s who regularly spoke and wrote about the idea of democracy. Davies occupied our pulpit in Washington DC during the McCarthy era Red Scare. He would claim that democracy was a governmental system secondarily and a spiritual system first. He railed against corruption and fear-mongering, greed and unbridled self-interest.
[Democracy] sees the individual in relation to all his obligations and asks him to rise, of his own accord, to the level of them. Democracy is not a system of checks and balances, except in a secondary way. Democracy is brotherhood in political and social embodiment. In short, democracy is spiritual. It is not a way of government unless it is first a way of life; it is not the form of a society unless it is also the faith of that society. (from The Urge to Persecute, p205)
He further defined this saying that the United States was not founded merely on freedom – the liberty to do what you like – but also on unity.
This is the way in which this conversation is not merely a rant about politics. There is a theological statement about human nature at the heart of our democracy. As Needleman said in our earlier reading, our form of national government is based on a philosophical assumption: that “We are capable of guiding our own lives toward and authentic and purposive end.” I know that to be more than a philosophical assumption, that is the theological ground of Unitarian Universalism as well. We have a stake in this argument. And I’ll repeat Davies’ statement “In short, democracy is spiritual.”
What are we to do? A. Powell Davies called the unity written in the constitution our ‘spiritual inheritance.’ For all our technological connectedness and global trade of goods and products, we have managed as a nation to isolate ourselves from quite a lot. That is the obvious impact of the hate and fear-mongering, it separates us, isolates us. It destroys the unity we need for our democracy to thrive.
Rev. William Barber drew national attention as the vocal leader of Moral Mondays down in North Carolina, and was the speaker who visited Binghamton last month talking about the new Poor People’s March. William Barber has said, “Some issues are not left versus right or liberal versus conservative – they are right versus wrong… We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy. Not now. Not ever.”
Dare I even suggest that in combating the disease of our own isolation, we will be picking up the same tools needed to rebuild our unity in the face of the multitudinous forms of hate and fear in our world. The sexual violence, the global terrorism, the mass shootings, the white nationalists, the police brutality, and the systemic racism that is in the news today – these are the various faces of hate and fear.
To defeat this malignant hate and fear in our democracy we must break out of our individual and national isolationism and build real alliances again with our neighbors. We must rebuild our unity based on freedom and justice. We must stop aiding and abetting violence against the vulnerable in our communities and instead call the powerful to account for their actions. We need to stop being the world’s bully and become again the beacon of light. We must accept that the health and welfare of the least among us is tied with the health and welfare of our nation. We must accept that the common good for our nation is intricately entangled in with the common good of the world. We must take up our spiritual inheritance, the unity Davies spoke of; we must take up our inheritance and engage with one another and with the world.
I want to close with a passage from Trebbe Johnson, a piece from her forthcoming book, Aphrodite at the Landfill due out in the fall of next year.
We take certain actions on behalf of the living planet, or justice, or freedom, because they are essential to our very being. Our lives depend on us taking them, whether, in the end, they make any noticeable difference to anyone else at all.
And then she shares this story.
A.J. Muste was a Dutch-born pacifist and anti-war activist, who, during the Vietnam war, walked every night to the front gate of the White House, where he lit a candle. One rainy night a reporter asked him, “Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?” Muste allegedly replied, “Oh, I don’t do it to change the country, I do it so the country won’t change me.”
You may have a small thing to offer in support of rebuilding our unity, it is most important that you share it. I am a relentless optimist who struggles to also be a realist. I know how easy it is for me to grow angry and cynical and weary and finally disengaged from the cruel and troubling reality around me. Perhaps this is so for you as well. My confidence in our capacity to restore our unity arises from my connection with all of you and with all those who reach out in spite of the brokenness of our days.
I see us reaching out across our differences. I see us working to figure out how we can make a difference and offer some healing. I see the work we do together, and I feel the connection built on that work. I see hope for the state of our union, hope based on the continued efforts to rebuild our unity; and thus my faith in humanity is restored again in my eyes. We need a beacon of light. I shall not despair for I see that we and countless others, in ways large and small, are becoming that light.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Building an Audacious and Dangerous Faith
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 29, 2017
I invite you to take a quick glance at the back of the order of service. You’ll see two of our grounding statements for our congregation – our mission and our vision. We wrote the mission together about 6 years ago, the vision came a few years back. It’s a great pair of documents. On the one hand we say we offer a spiritual home, and then we declare we will become a beacon to in the larger community. We will support each other, creating a home built on acceptance; and we will challenge each other and the world around us to become better. They combine as elegant guiding documents.
Recently our congregation has been talking about building renovations. It is important to make such decisions through the lens of mission and vision. As we wind our way into a capital campaign, it is important to have clarity about our values before talking about the particulars of the projects. We need to know and name together what grand thing are we aiming to accomplish before we begin collecting any money.
Allow me a small digression into church business before I carry us into building an audacious and dangerous faith as promised by my sermon title. Well, not so much ‘church business’ as revealing to you the sort of work leaders of the congregation are doing that may not be otherwise evident.
For example, you may be asking yourself, “Capital campaign? What capital campaign? Did Douglas just say we are winding our way into a capital campaign?” Yes. I did. Here’s where we are with that: The board and a handful of other key leaders have been talking about this since June. With the summer renovation of our sanctuary, we have accomplished a major piece of work. We paid for it through a loan and we will be having a capital campaign to raise the money to pay that loan off. And, there is more work to do.
We have renovations to do throughout the rest of the building. But before we do any more work, we need to have that capital campaign. And before we have a capital campaign, we need to agree as a congregation as to what the projects will be, what work we want to have done. And before we make a list of what the projects are, we need to talk about why we would do this or that project in particular. Answering “why” will lead us to the answers for “what” which in turn will lead us to know “how much” we are aiming for in a capital campaign.
One big question the Board and other leaders are working through now and should have a resolution on in the next few weeks is a question of a timeline. Will we have all of this figured out in time to do a capital campaign this coming spring 2018 or will we need to push it out a year to the spring of 2019. Stay tuned. We are working that out now and will know soon.
Part of the equation is factoring in all the other things going on in the life of the congregation right now. The Faith Development Transition Team is discerning changes for Faith Development and our Faith Development staff position. The Town Hall meetings after services today address that. Our Caring Team and Social Action HUUB are each doing some revitalizing. Worship committee has presented the Board a plan to return one service every Sunday, discussion and conversation across the congregation are needed for that. And I am going away on sabbatical from January through April 2018. These four sabbatical months are being carefully planned with worship and pastoral care coverage. More information about the sabbatical will be forthcoming soon. But you see, there are several things occupying the attention of our leadership, several additional factors in play as they discern the timeline for a capital campaign. Our Board and other leaders are trying to shepherd each of these conversations and topics through with care and attention and as much efficiency as possible.
My purpose in revealing all this church business is twofold. One: to encourage regular members to ask questions, to get involved in whatever way makes sense, and to watch for upcoming decisions and votes to be made regarding these various topics. Two: to offer appreciation to the various leaders and board members who are guiding us through these conversations.
And all that is the prologue to the heart of the sermon. Dream with me for a moment. If you had one big wish for this congregation what would it be? We’ve asked this sort of question before. What is the magic of this congregation? What draws you? What is essential to UUCB? And with all that good stuff in mind, consider: what will we be doing better in 5 years?
As we think about changes to our physical space, renovation and additions, consider it through the lens of our mission and our vision. Consider what we might do for our building as a way to better live our faith.
Certainly, we will want to take care of the deferred maintenance: lingering mold issues in the basement, new floors for the hallway, the skylights and the bathrooms need attention. And while taking care of deferred maintenance will enhance our space with beauty and improved functionality, it is the minimum level. We’re not really changing anything, not risking anything. Deferred maintenance, while significant, is not audacious or dangerous, why it’s barely controversial.
Dream with me for a moment. Some of the dreams I have heard are for safe, gender neutral bathrooms, a larger kitchen that can pass stricter health codes, a larger social hall, a dedicated chapel in the RE wing, adjustable walls like accordion walls or folding walls for some RE rooms, a substantial entry foyer where we can better greet people as they come in, enhanced outdoor green space and use of that space. People like the sanctuary, we’ve given the sanctuary attention – maintenance for the roof and a little extra for the floors and chairs and paint on the walls. What about other rooms in this building? The sanctuary is fresh, the rest of the building is a little stale. What could we do to some of the other spaces to enhance our mission?
Let me walk through two ideas to highlight the ‘why’ of a few projects. First: the kitchen. The renovation committee has been talking about expanding the kitchen. Depending on potential changes to how we heat the building, the large furnace room between the Kitchen and Fireside room may become obsolete. The committee is looking at ways we could expand our kitchen using that extra space. They have Alex Lehman’s exciting 3D renderings to share, ideas and possibilities that capture the attention.
As we’ve been dreaming about changes to the square footage, many people have become excited about what we could do with the space. We stumbled a little in answering why we would do it. Why would we expand the kitchen? Is a bigger kitchen something that would meet our needs, or our mission?
A few months back, widow of a recently deceased congregant called me. She scheduled a brief visit. She simply wanted to give me a check for several thousand dollars in her husband’s memory. She told me, “He wanted it to go to feeding the hungry.” In consultation with his widow, the Board distributed half of the gift into places that serve directly to feed the hungry: our Community Nutrition fund and the Minister’s Discretionary fund. The other half we set aside for the capital renovations of the kitchen.
And here we shift from question of what we could do to renovate the kitchen, to why we would do so: to better feed the hungry. Our kitchen does not meet health codes to be able to prepare or serve food to the community. We could change our kitchen to meet those codes. We can step up to serving meals, possibly being a community dinner site for hungry people in Broome county because that is how we can live our mission which calls us to “Act with justice and compassion.”
This is an example of what is meant by having a vision leading our building plans. We aren’t going to expand our kitchen because it seems nice and we have the room to do it. We would expand our kitchen because it would help us put our faith into action, we could better feed the hungry.
This is how ‘thinking beyond our walls’ leads us to improve what is here within our walls, to even improve our walls! It is audacious and bold! Maybe it is even a little dangerous because we are taking a risk, a risk to commit to making changes that could change us as well as heal some of the hurting in the world. Breaking from the status quo can be dangerous, and good.
Here is the second idea. Earlier this week I did a child blessing for a family. They had no connection to us as a congregation, they just wanted a place where they could have a religious ceremony to bless their child.
They thought about doing it here in our sanctuary, but with less than 30 people attending, this space would feel empty to them. Now, I’ve done things in here with less than 30 people before. It can be done and it is quite nice for different contexts, different activities. The sanctuary had a worshipful and reverent feel they wanted, but they felt it was too large and grand for their event.
We did the service in the Fireside Room. The Fireside room is more like a living room, not so much like a chapel. Don’t get me wrong, they appreciated the space. They felt it was just right for them, but I … I wonder what it would be like to have a dedicated chapel space – a space that has some of that reverence similar to this space. A small place that feels like this sanctuary, but cozier.
We would use it for our children’s chapel, we could use it for meditation groups or prayer vigils, we would use it for small weddings and blessings and funerals, we could use it simply for an individual to have a quiet place to pray.
Where would we put this chapel? How big would it be, how many should it be able to seat? Will it fit in the existing footprint of the building or are we talking about an expansion? Frankly, it is too earlier for those questions. First let us ask “Do we want a dedicated chapel, and why?” Then we can talk about those other questions. We had a children’s chapel for a little while, room 3. We painted the walls differently and put in particular furniture: benches, piano and such. But it still felt like a converted classroom. In all the years we had that space set aside as our chapel, no one asked to rent it for a child blessing or a wedding. We didn’t use it for adult meditation. It didn’t feel like a chapel. It matters. Would our children learn better how to be in our large sanctuary if there were a quiet chapel in which they practiced and grew into the experience? Maybe?
That family from the community just wanted my help in blessing their child. I could have blessed their child in my office, over the phone; I could have simply told them their child was already blessed, they didn’t need the ceremony. But ceremonies are important, we enact the blessing; the ceremony matters. So, we did the ceremony. And we did it in the Fireplace room. The setting mattered. Our building matters. How we use the building matters more, but the building does matter.
As the Board and leaders work their way through the conversations about when and how to do a capital campaign, keep an ear out for the proposals, weigh in on the ideas. But mostly, listen for why the various projects would help us better live our mission, our essential work as a congregation.
In the end, we don’t have to do any of these building projects. Our physical space is not who we are, it is not the point. The point is our community, our values, our service to the broader community. Our building is merely the shell in which we do the deep and beautiful work of our mission. And yet, and yet … yes, it is merely the shell, but it is also a reflection of our community, of our values and service and mission. Our building is a sign of our beauty and our love. Does that show now?
I encourage you to look with discerning eyes today and for the next few weeks. Is our building a reflection of our love? I anticipate the answer is mixed. Some parts of our building a perfect through your eyes, some parts are good enough, and some are troublesome. Notice.
And then dream a little. Imagine how we could use the space to better enhance our mission, to help us live our faith more boldly, more audaciously.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Sound of Spirit
Douglas and Brin Taylor
October 22, 2017
“I’ve found that music is one of our greatest wisdoms and one of our greatest tools for going through life’s challenges. It’s like laughter, it’s like orgasm, it’s like tears. Our consciousness shakes, it vibrates into the new world and new concepts. Music has been used throughout history to facilitate that. Every religion and spiritual practice understands that music has the capacity to bring us to our best … The simple truth is that we are vibratory beings, and when the vibration stops, so do we. In the words of T.S. Eliot, ‘You are the music while the music lasts.’” – – Michael Rossato-Bennett
I, Douglas Taylor, being of sound mind and body, do strive to be also sound of spirit. I long to be made whole and well in my spirit. It is interesting, yes? One of our English words for wholeness and wellness is “sound.” It is fitting. Let me offer a sound argument. Music is one of those human activities that promotes soundness of spirit. When we sing together, when we listen to music, when we play an instrument – our brains not only do that amazing thing of taking in all the different sensory signals and organizing them in a comprehensible fashion, our brains also are impacted by that music. Music integrates us. It helps us create meaning in our lives. Music helps us become sound of spirit.
I recall, quite vividly, a time when I was sitting by a large outdoor fountain, waiting for a friend. I listened to the water splashing down the many rocks and basins as it made its way to the lowest part of the fountain. As I sat and listened, I because acutely aware of all the simultaneously occurring sounds. I heard the splash of water on rock. I heard splash of water on water, and its varying pitches. And I heard variety in larger splashes versus smaller droplets. As I listened, I began to hear a symphony in the fountain. Rhythm, melody, and phrases sprung out of the water pipes and danced in my mind. I lost myself in the sounds.
When my friend found me, I explained what I had heard, and pointed out all the different sounds. He was fascinated, and began creating a drum beat on the side of the fountain while we listened to the water cascade down the rocks. I began humming and dancing along to his beat. Soon, a few strangers joined in the dancing. Music brings people together. It is a universal language. This experience moved me immensely, and I still remember it, years later.
I studied Music Therapy at SUNY Fredonia. I became interested in this field during community college when looking over the various music degrees and paths they offered. I had been taking harp and piano lessons most of my life, and I knew I wanted a career in music. I asked the department head about the Music Therapy program. He said it infused psychology and music together. It was a way of using music as a therapeutic tool. I was sold completely on the idea. I figured, “well, I like helping people, and I like music. I should do both.”
I did the program at the community college, and then transferred to SUNY Fredonia to finish my undergraduate degree. I loved the program at Fredonia. I was placed in clinical Music Therapy setting immediately, and I began to see what music therapy was all about.
Music Therapy (as described on the website for the American Music Therapy Association – http://www.musictherapy.org) is the “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional.”
It goes on from there, but basically, it explains that music is used as a tool to accomplish non-musical goals including physical, verbal, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social goals of the individuals. Music Therapists work alongside other professionals to achieve similar goals to physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, etc.
Music Therapy is different from similar practices such as sound healing and bedside musicians. Music Therapists provides services, and are licensed professionals; they are held up to higher standards along with other therapists (such as dance therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, art therapy, occupational therapy). Similar practices (such as sound healing and bedside musicians) can be therapeutic, but should not be confused with or mislabeled as Music Therapy.
My interest in music is less professional than Brin’s. I appreciate the value of a professional hand when we are talking about music as a healing modality, one that can have an impact on the body, on physical healing, recovery, and recuperation.
My interest, though, is in the way music can offer healing for our spirits not just our bodies, for our connection to the holy. Music can be a bridge between people, and between a person and the holy. It is a form of communication that transcends regular speaking. Many religions include music to aid in the communication of the religious message. Special hymns, sung responses, introits, and cantatas: music gets through to us in a way the spoken word cannot. If you speak something, and then sing the exact same thing – our brains receive that information in two different ways. Music serves as a bridge of connection between people, and between a person and the holy.
The late, great rock musician Tom Petty once said, “Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.”
During my internship at the Center for Discovery, I worked with an individual with severe autism. He was a tall, lanky boy, and was completely non-verbal. He would sit across from me, I sat at the keyboard, and we would sing with each other. I improvised simple melodies and chords on the keyboard, and did my best to match his vocalizations. Once he recognized that I was matching him with pitch, he began to match my pitches and rhythms as well. I would sing vowel sounds in his “key” and he would sing them back to me. I felt so connected to him during our sessions. I felt like we could communicate. Music has this strong power to connect people. As Douglas stated, music serves as a bridge of connection between people. I definitely felt that connection with this boy. By listening to his vocalizations, and observing his affect, I could tell whether he was feeling frustrated or happy, calm or excited. I reflected that in the music we created together. We even had back-and-forth “conversations” where we matched each other’s tone and inflection, or vastly contrast it. It was quite an empowering exercise, and it had a huge impact on me as well.
What are highlighting here is how music is a special form of communication. It travels along different pathways to reach deeper levels in us. As young parents, my wife and I decided to sing to our children as part of their regular bedtime routine. We wanted them to experience our presence, our love for them, not just with the words we say, but in deeper ways as well. We choose to use music. Every night. Sweet Baby James, The Water is Wide, Amazing Grace, Summertime, and more than a dozen other songs. Brin and I offer you one of those songs now.
Interlude: Everything Possible by Fred Small
Music has the power to trigger strong emotional responses in people. Like that song we just sang for you, it pulls at strong memories I have from my childhood, and having my parents sing me to sleep each night. We have also found that music has a physiological effect on our bodies in addition to emotional responses. When hooked up to bio-feedback machines, individuals listening to music show changes in: heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rates, skin responses, and muscular/motor responses. Each of these changes are unique to the individual, and different kinds of music will elicit different responses. Music affects our bodies, as well as our emotions.
“In the Ruins” By Lynn Ungar
A man sits on the rubble—
not just in the rubble, but on the pile
of what remains. No people
in the bombed-out houses.
No dogs. No birds. Just ragged hunks
of concrete and loss. And on his perch
he is playing an instrument constructed
of what is left—an olive oil can, a broom handle,
a bowed stick and strings. It sounds
exactly as it is supposed to sound.
The instrument cries, but the man sings.
Because sometimes loss is deeper than tears.
Because sometimes grief is resistance.
Because, somewhere down the very long road,
music is stronger than bombs.
We talk about music’s power to heal. In this passage read by Dorothy, the musician has not healed the bombed-out building, has not repaired the city, or transformed the destruction wrought by the bomb. But as Brin said just now, “Music affects our bodies, as well as our emotions.” The musician in the ruins touches the hearts of all who hear the music, all who hear the story of the music – and in that way, there can be a change, possibly a change leading to the repair of the broken places around us. The music changes us and we then go forth and change the world; but first, the music connects us back to life.
Music Therapists have used music to help establish more regulated breathing patterns in many kinds of people: babies in the NICU, individuals in hospice, and individuals with anxiety or issues with hyperventilation. I watched several videos of Music Therapists with babies in the NICU. They play music at the rate of breathing they see in the infant, then they slowly increase or decrease the speed the music is at (according to the needs). The infant’s breathing will often entrain to the music, meaning their breathing will change match what the therapist is playing. Over time, the infant will be able to breath at a faster/slower/steadier rate without the help of the therapist. They use similar entrainment techniques to steady the breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure of all kinds of people. I’ve used this technique on myself before, and on friends and loved ones. It creates a calming and powerful connection with a person.
I wish I had paid more attention to the power of music when I was doing my chaplaincy during seminary. I have had many experiences more recently of visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes, but there is still very little music playing in these settings. Where is there music in your life? Have you found that certain music evokes certain emotions or moods? Do you seek out particular music at the beginning or the end of the day, when you are driving or cooking or relaxing? How do you use music to pace your heartrate or regulate your breathing?
I spoke with someone last week about her experiences recovering from severe burns. This person had been in a coma following the incident, the recovery was slow and painful. She shared with me about a few techniques she used for coping. We talked about her spiritual practices, the support of her friends and her wife, the powerful connection to the divine she uncovered, and about music. We spent extra time talking about the music. The music helped her through the pain. She listened to music when they were changing her dressings on the burn unit. One of her favorite types of music is ‘cover songs’. This is music, like what we played for the offertory, that is familiar from the radio, but different because it is a cover – it is played by another group in a different way. I think cover songs were an interesting choice for this woman working through her pain because the words and the melody are the same; the tempo and style are changed. Thus, the songs are familiar enough to be comforting but different enough to be interesting.
Pitch. Rhythm and meter. Melodies and phrases. Timbre. Words and lyrics. These are all elements that make up music. Each one individually affects our emotions and our bodies in different ways. You can listen to all the pieces together and not even be aware of the different parts; but at one point or another, you may become aware of a particular element of the music because it stands out to you in a particular way. Each of these elements can have an emotional effect on a person, and, through this emotional connection, you can find meaning.
In Diane Austin’s book The Theory and Practice of Vocal Psychotherapy: Songs of the Self, she talks about the voice and what makes it so powerful.
Austin says, “Why is the singing such a powerful therapeutic experience? When we sing, our voice and our bodies are the instruments. We are intimately connected to the source of the sound and the vibration. We make the music, we are immersed in the music and we are the music. We breathe deeply to sustain the tones we create, and our heart rate slows down and our nervous system is calmed. Our voices resonate inward to help us connect to our bodies and express our emotions and they resonate outward to help us connect to others.”
My personal draw to music is from the perspective of a lay-person in the field. I love to sing. I love to sing in church, on stage, in the coffee shop, at the dance party, in the car, or in the shower. Here is something I’ve discovered: Usually when I sing, I am singing the melody; I am performing or leading the hymn. But when I join a choir and sing with other people, something different happens to me. When I sing like I normally do, alone or as the song leader: I feel emotionally lifted, energized. When I sing in a choir: I am listening to the other voices, I am blending my line around the melody. I feel more whole. I don’t know if this is how it feels for anyone else, I’m just telling you what I have found. Music does something to me. It shapes my experiences.
I love playing large stringed instruments. You just saw me play ukulele – which is quite small compared to what I also play! In addition to ukulele, I play harp, guitar, and piano. One of the reasons I like playing large stringed instruments is that I can feel the vibrations as I am playing; I feel it from my head to my toes, and it feels like I am a part of the instrument, and it is a part of me. When you are exposed to sound vibrations, it can resonate through your whole body.
I remember a time I participated in a gong therapy workshop. We sat with our eyes shut, surrounded by gongs of varying pitches and sizes. I remember the feeling of the sound washing over me; it felt like I was on a beach in the summertime. I could feel the vibrations become one with me.
The instrument you will feel the most vibrational connection to, however, is your own voice. Your vocal cords vibrate every time you talk, and more so when you sing. I am always fascinated that I can feel where the pitch is in my throat. Higher pitches are physically higher up in your vocal cords (and lower pitches are physically lower), and you can feel that as you move pitches up and down your vocal cords.
My voice is my most powerful instrument. It has given me confidence and creativity. The voice is so personal. Often, when I sing, it helps me relax, express myself, or just release emotion. I feel a connection with myself when I sing, and I feel a connection to the world around me and the people in it. Music has the power to connect people, build bridges, heal. I don’t know what I would do without music.
Who among us does not need a healing balm in our lives from time to time, for some – all the time. Music is among the amazing elements in the universe, flowing over us and through us. Music is a tool of blessing and connection. It is a form of communication and communion. It is a doorway to the holy. We can be healed by the music and we can become the music.
Listen. You who have ears to hear, listen. Sing, you who have voices to share, join with me in the chorus, keep the rhythm, keep the time and all join in to let life shine.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Say It Like You Mean It
Rev Douglas Taylor
September 24, 2017
“Now is the time for turning” Jack Riemer says in our responsive reading from the hymnal (#634, Jack Riemer.) He offers images from nature to begin the point. “For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.” The reading is a Yom Kippur invitation into forgiveness, but it begins by showing how the natural world turns simply because that is part of what it means to be the natural world. The reading goes on, “But for us turning does not come easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn… It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are hard to do. But unless we do turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.”
A predominant theme in the Yom Kippur season is that of turning. Turning from insensitivity and indifference, turning from pettiness and aggression. Turning and returning to that which is holy, that which is good. Turning back to our best selves. “Now is the time for turning.”
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It comes as the tenth day of the Days of Awe, the first day of which is Rosh Hashanah, the new year. The ten days of the new year are called the Days of Awe because people feel fear as well as reverence during this special time of judgment and forgiveness. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, of self-reflection, and of seeking and offering forgiveness. It will take place this year on Friday the 29th, so you have a few more days yet to set yourself right.
Seeking forgiveness is not easy. It is remarkable to have an annual opportunity to engage with the experience. Over the years I have taken the opportunity to preach about forgiveness and to do my own work on that theme as well. In recent years, I have approached this season from the perspective of restoring relationships, of letting go of a grudge, of offer forgiveness. Today, I focus on the other side of the equation, on seeking forgiveness.
In our reading this morning (http://www.cuppacocoa.com/a-better-way-to-say-sorry/ ) the author makes the point that children are often taught a very simplified and unhelpful formula for how to apologize and seek forgiveness. “Say you are sorry. Say it like you mean it.” Part of the author’s point is that this old model is not seeking a true apology, it is merely going through the motions. Saying “I am sorry” and saying it like I mean it even if I don’t mean it.
In my family we tell about the time our youngest was around 3 and came up with his own form of resistance. He didn’t roll his eyes or say ‘sorry’ with dripping insincerity, as the author in our reading talked about. Instead he quietly added the word “hauk” after saying “Sorry.” It took us a while to figure out what was going on. It wasn’t just “sorry,” either. Any of the words associated with good manners would have this extra word tagged on. “Please, hauk” he would say at the dinner table. “Thank you, hauk” he would mumble when someone passed him what he asked for. “Sorry, hauk” he was say sullenly when we demanded his apology. We eventually figured out that this was his unique and creative form of ‘I don’t really mean it.’ It was his way of negating whatever he had just said.
At that time in his life, our youngest was a professional-level contrarian. He and I got into a lot of fights back then. He and I have both grown a lot since then; and he has given me permission to tell this story. But back then – “Sorry, hauk” was his way of saying “you can make me say it, but you can’t make me mean it.” Eventually we banned the word “hauk.” We banned a made-up word. His response: he would say “sorry” and then go out of the room and mutter ‘hauk’ under his breath.
Say you are sorry. Say it like you mean it. In our reading this morning, the author stumbled upon an elegant rendering of ‘the proper way’ to give apology. She took it to her 4th grade class and put this method to work. She made a poster, “How to Say Sorry” and then listed these four sentence starters underneath:
I’m sorry for…
This is wrong because…
In the future, I will…
Will you forgive me?
Notice the first point, in religious terms this might be called confession; the first point is not simply “I’m sorry.” It is “I’m sorry for …” There were times when my children were younger when they would apologize, “I’m sorry,” yet they couldn’t name what they were sorry for. They just knew they had done something wrong and had to apologize to move on. I could have used this formula back then.
The point here is to be specific. “I’m sorry for… something in particular” On the poster in that fourth-grade classroom, the first sentence is “I’m sorry for …” It is valuable to teach children, all people really, to say “I am sorry,” but you won’t get over it by glossing over it. Name the offense. It isn’t a time to generalize or be vague. Name it. “I’m sorry for calling you that mean name. I’m sorry for ignoring you. I’m sorry for putting mud on your things.” Whatever offences fourth graders commonly do. Consider what it might sound like for adults. Step one “I’m sorry for …”
Step two, “This is wrong because …” The second point on the teacher’s list is unusual in most lists I have about forgiveness. Confession, Repentance, and Atonement are the three common elements. Name what is wrong, describe what will be different, restore the relationship: Confession, Repentance, and Atonement. So, this new formula adds an extra step. It is a step about building empathy. It is about coming to understand why it was wrong or hurtful. It is about walking a mile in another person’s shoes. “This is wrong because…”
It is about seeing it from the other person’s perspective. This empathy may well be the heart of the whole 4-step process. Can I demonstrate to you that I understand what I have done that has hurt you? Too often the answer people give is “I am apologizing because I got caught.” No. It is wrong because I hurt your feelings. It is wrong because my actions had an impact on you.
Sometimes, when I have been hurt, hearing that the offender understands what went wrong is more powerful than the apology. It is the beginning to the repair to the relationship.
Saying “I’m sorry” is like saying, “I see that something needs to be fixed in our relationship.” Saying “I understand” is like saying “I see what went wrong, I see how it has affected you and us.” Instead of telling people “Say it like you mean it,” instead of inviting people to pretend they mean it, this step invites people to reflect on what it means. Step two, “It is wrong because…”
Step three, “In the future, I will …” Here is our repentance step. It is framed in the positive. “I’m sorry I took your pencil. It is wrong because it is your pencil. In the future, I will not take your pencil.” No. “In the future I will bring my own pencil or I will ask for and wait for permission to use your pencil.” This step is about what I will do instead. This is the turning from the negative to the positive, turning from the offense to the plan forward, turning from the past to the future.
Step one, “I’m sorry for…”
Step two, “It is wrong because…”
Step three “In the future, I will…”
And step four, “Will you forgive me?”
This is more complicated than the earlier formula I offered to my kids when they were young. In the old version, there is just step one: say, “I’m sorry.” There is no step two. Or, step two is for the other person to say their part in the script “I forgive you.” Well, throw that script out. It is not enough. It is too easy to mumble through meaninglessly. This new formula is a little more complicated, but so is life.
Think about what we are attempting to teach! Forgiveness is not about manners. If it were just manners, “Sorry” without really understanding would be fine. But we’re not talking about good manners. We are talking about forgiveness.
In the reading, the author describes how she assumed the poster and the lesson about “How to Say Sorry” would be a one-time thing which might have an impact for some of the kids outside of class. She was wrong. She writes about a shift that happened a few weeks later. She was leading her class through the “weekly Friday afternoon class meeting.” (ibid)
This teacher obviously had a good thing in place already, each week that had a time to process what had happened over the week. She brought up the apology lesson and invited the kids to think about anything they needed to take care of from the past week She figured they would think about it and take care of it privately, outside of class time.
But then someone raised their hand and began apologizing right then.
Before I could stop her, she began blubbering through her apology, reciting each line like she’d planned this for days. Maybe she had. I could see the relief on her face when her friend accepted her apology. The girls smiled shyly and I knew we were on to something good. Before I knew it, students were raising their hands left and right, eager to make amends with people they had offended. Some of the “offended” people hadn’t even realized that they had ever been wronged, but happily forgave anyway.
Then a boy raised his hand. A boy most of the kids did not like for all the usual reasons– he was bossy and rude and generally unpleasant to be around. He apologized to the whole class for being really, really annoying and stated his plans to change. I was among the many individuals exchanging puzzled but impressed glances, and indeed it was one big step in this child’s personal growth. It was especially heartwarming to see how his classmates interacted with him afterward. They really wanted to give him a second chance, and they sincerely tried to help him be his best. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him to admit to the class that he was annoying, but it was a powerful first step in changing his relationships with everyone. While not perfect, his behavior improved greatly after this event and I am glad I gave him the tools and space to “reset” this way. (ibid)
This formula is like training wheels. I’m not suggesting that as adults we need to learn and use this formula. (Unless you really need it, in which case: have at it.) I’m suggesting instead we notice the key ingredients. Specificity is important. Empathy is a remarkable addition. A positive, reframing focus is needed. And then simply ask for forgiveness.
What the other person does with that request is up to them. Forgiveness is usually worth it. But I don’t recommend fake forgiveness any more than I recommend a fake apology.
I begin with the theory that I can’t make someone else feel sorry anymore than I can make them feel forgiving. I can do my portion of it. I am in control of my actions. I can choose to turn, I can choose to invite the other person into the process with me. They, then, also choose. This formula is for when you really are sorry. This formula may help us learn what an apology really is.
What if you are not sorry? Then don’t apologize! Or, only apologize for that part you are actually sorry for, rather than for the whole argument. Remember the point is to start by being specific. Some people over-apologize to avoid conflict. This formula, like training wheels, may be helpful not only to correct both under-apologizing and over-apologizing – which ever you discover in yourself.
Perhaps you are thinking this would be helpful for someone else in your life. You would like someone else to apologize to you using this formula. Well, I’m not sure. You know the old joke about the congregant shaking the minister’s hand saying, “Fine sermon pastor, my neighbor could really use it.”
But there may be a way for this formula to be reversed so you can name an offense you have received, being specific; and then sharing why it was wrong, inviting the other person into empathy. I don’t know if it would work. It might.
Really, I am inviting you, not your neighbor, into this self-reflection. I am inviting you and me to consider our behaviors, and how we can each be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. I am inviting us all into this annual opportunity of restoration once more. Now is the time for turning. “For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.” How can we look within and take the steps we find needful to turn, ‘til we turn ‘round right?
Turn us around, O God, and bring us back toward you.
Revive our lives, as at the beginning
And turn us toward each other, God
For in isolation there is no life.
-Jack Riemer #634
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Welcome Your Stranger
September 17, 2017
Let us talk for a moment about the interplay of shadow and light (chiaroscuro). This little light of mine will shine, oh it will shine bright and glorious. But I have a little shadow and darkness as well. All of us have both light and shadow. It is the way of nature and all life. It is the light we want, the light we show; but darkness and shadow are present as well.
Here I am not talking about shadow is not a bad thing. Let us not think of shadow or dark as evil or negative. It’s just shadow. We want light more, but dark has its own glory as well. The dark is where the seed grows, darkness allows rest. Let us not think of dark and shadow as synonymous with evil.
Consider the times you have seen sunlight, actually seen a ray of sunshine. Perhaps it was a photograph or an experience while out in nature. Can you recall? When the light shines out through a cloud bank or breaks through the trees and you actually see the ray of sunlight? Have you seen that? It is as if the sun beam has a shape, a width and length.
The sunbeam in such an experience is clear because it is partly blocked by the trees and their shadows, or by clouds. Unfiltered light shines everywhere, but we notice it, we see it, when it is flickering, when it is filtered through shadow, when it is a little obstructed.
So, let us consider the interplay of light and shadow. Or, if it is easier, consider the stranger, the alien, the foreigner in our midst.
Most people seek out a homogeneous community, a place of like-minded people. Our religious community – indeed most religious communities are familiar. It is part of the ancient instinctual bias within us. We can be comfortable in conformity. We are at home in the homogenous. We are safest in sameness. This is not a bad thing, it is just a common thing. As a species, we have some hard-wiring about how we can stay safe and who we can trust.
As we’ve grown beyond our tribal civilization structures, but our hardwiring does not necessarily grow with us. We remain a little tribal to this day.
And don’t get me wrong, it is true that strangers can be dangerous. Just as darkness can hide dangerous things. This does not make the darkness bad. It makes it a risk. There is risk in stepping out of our comfort zone. It can be dangerous. Ah, but interestingly, the risk of danger is not the only risk! Sometimes the risk is growth. Meeting the stranger with an open hand, welcoming the shadow and darkness around us, this invites risk. There is the risk of harm but there is also the risk of growth.
Consider a model I found in a Richard Rohr blog a few months back. Rohr is a process theologian I find to be very accessible. Rohr was writing about “The Three Boxes.” We begin with order, move through disorder and if we keep at it we can find our way into reorder. He wrote, “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to.” https://cac.org/the-three-boxes-2016-12-06/
Essentially, he was advocating for the value of disorder. He could have as easily written about imperfection or suffering or chaos. He picked a more neutral concept: disorder. You could equally think of it as the progression from thesis and antithesis into synthesis. Or perhaps: light, darkness, and the interplay of light and shadow which allows us to see sunbeams.
This is not meant as a moral judgment about light vs darkness, order vs disorder, or the like-minded community vs diverse community. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of comfort and discomfort, and the values of each. “This is always painful at some level,” Rohr writes in his blog, describing the move from the first box ‘order’ to the second box ‘disorder’; “But part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger” In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (NIV; John 12:24)
This analysis is a reminder of the harmony we are aiming for, the third thing that can come: new life embracing paradox! The shadow allows the light to be seen more clearly. Perfection and imperfection reside together. Life and death, joy and sorrow, comfort and discomfort, arriving in the ‘third box’ of Richard Rohr’s model – the one he labeled ‘reorder’ – doesn’t mean we are back to pure light or perfection. It means we are nearing wholeness. There is both light and shadow, order and disorder residing side-by-side together in a dynamic wholeness.
As I consider this concept, this way of dealing with Rohr’s second box, of embracing disorder, I see both societal and personal applications. With a sermon title about welcoming strangers, perhaps the societal implication is easy to guess.
It is good and healthy for a society to welcome immigrants and refugees. Certainly, it can cause disruption and difficulty. To welcome the stranger is to invite change and disorder, especially if you allow the stranger to have an impact.
Religions the world over hold an important place for hospitality. In ancient times, hospitality was the cornerstone of civilization. Countless stories begin with a stranger or potential enemy arriving at the gate, and they are let in. There were wide-spread hospitality rules across different cultures, rules about how to be a good host and how to be a good guest, and about what is expected by both parties.
Abraham, in the Bible, wanders around before settling in Canaan; always hosted and treated well. And he, in turn, plays host in some of the tales. There are numerous times the theme of hospitality appears throughout the stories in Genesis. In Norse mythology, Odin would disguise himself as a stranger and wander the land to see how he would be treated. Other cultures and mythologies carry the theme as well.
Again and again, the appropriate response to meeting a stranger is to show hospitality. At least, that used to be the norm. It is not so today, not in our American culture today. There is a fierce push against diversity, against the influx of other cultures.
There is an anger in some parts of our country now against refugees and immigrants. I think the root of this is a fear that they will change American culture, (as if immigration is not as American as apple pie.)
But if we take Richard Rohr and others who echo his sentiment seriously, the only way forward is through the disorder. “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to.” (Ibid)
Any time we encounter the ‘other’ we are challenged, and we are given an opportunity to be ‘led out of normalcy into sacred, open space.’
Consider, the current conversations we keep stirring up here about institutional racism and white supremacy and how well they fall into this formula too. Order and disorder, comfort and discomfort, and the misguided notion the disorder and discomfort are the problem. Meanwhile St. Louis is in the news this week for much the same reason as its suburb Ferguson 2 years ago: race riots sparked by systemic racism in the police force. And disorder has claimed the streets.
Our question should not be ‘how do we stop the disorder.’ We should ask, ‘how do we move through the disorder to the time of reorder.’ Part of the answer is to listen closely to what the disorder is offering. The rest of the answer is revealed by the listening.
Consider the interplay of light and shadow. Consider the way sunlight shines through the leaves or cloudbank. Consider the disorder in the world around us. Or consider the disorder within you. I see a personal application to Richard Rohr’s concept of three boxes. We all have shadowed places within our hearts. I have shadowed places within my heart.
Sometimes the troubles we see in the world are those we project from our own inner shadows. Sometimes people project an enemy onto a stranger or community of strangers out in the world that is more accurately a reflection of the stranger within.
How do you welcome the stranger within? Perhaps there is inner work we each must do before we offer hospitality to those around us. Is there some part of myself I deny? Some shadow – again, I do not mean something negative or bad, only hidden. How much disorder do you allow in your own living before you push it away or push it back into the older, comfortable order from before? How many ways do we travel between the first and second box, between order and disorder? Have you experienced reorder in your life, the interplay of shadow and light?
This can be tricky work, this welcoming of the stranger. How hard it is to welcome the stranger within! Remember the admonition: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” (Heb 13:2). The stranger is not only the foreigner, immigrant, or refugee arriving on our shores. The stranger is also not only our shadow within. The stranger may also be the holy.
Recall that sentence from Richard Rohr I keep says: “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to.” He names it ‘sacred’ space. There is much we Unitarian Universalists say about the holy being found in our natural experience, in our everyday living. We talk about the natural world as sacred. But we emphasize that because in many ways an experience of the holy is not an experience of the normal. The holy is strange. Few things are stranger.
This is not to say all strange things are holy, only that an encounter with the stranger can open us up to the holy. Ancient traditions call us into hospitality, to welcome the new person or new experience. It is more than good manners – it is the path forward for civilization
Consider the interplay of light and shadow, the dynamic constancy, the perfect imperfection. Be not locked in to what has always been. It is not safety we find is sameness but stagnation and death. Release your fears, trust that the risk is worth it more often than it seems. Welcome your stranger, welcome and grow.
In a world without end,
May it be so.