Reflections based on Kimmerer’s Honorable Harvest in her book Braiding Sweetgrass
Taylor, Lerner, and Cooke
Video of our Reflections: https://youtu.be/oBmBL2seWL4
Our stories this morning are all adapted from the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer from 2013. The subtitle is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. At the intersection of those to aspects of her life, she reveals the wisdom of sustainability as something both modern and ancient.
As the season turns once more to the time of harvest and our country’s holiday of thanksgiving. I invite us into the wisdom and wondering that Kimmerer’s book offers. She writes about our needing to see ourselves as a part of our ecosystem. That we should not merely take, but instead both give and take. As heterotrophs, we do not photosynthesize our own energy. Our role is to consume, to exchange a life for a life.
“How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers- the living world could not bear our weight- but even in a market economy, can we behave ‘as if’ the living world were a gift?” [p. 31]
Do you have a story of how you’ve grown or foraged or hunted your own food? Are you a part of your ecosystem and the give and take that is needed as you consume? As you sit down for a Thanksgiving meal, can you note where the various foods came from and how they came to your table?
“For much of my life, I have had access to fresh grown foods. For instance every year my family has a garden that always at least has something growing in it or my first job was working on a vegetable farm. For this I am thankful as it has given me a very open perspective to the benefits of eating food produced in this manner and as a kid it gave me the opportunity to enjoy vegetables that many others my age never got the opportunity to experience or learn to enjoy.
Another place I ended up being involved with food was my grandfather’s old garden. It was a project of his to grow some food for himself, an endeavor which lasted a handful years. Over time he began to downsize it as the work began to outweigh the benefit to himself. Year after year it began to shrink until there was only one bed left that happened to be full of asparagus. For him the time had come to let this final part of the garden go. As he requested, I mowed over the area as I had with the previous garden beds leaving his yard garden-less or so we thought. The thing some of you might not know about asparagus is that once it is left untouched for its first two years it begins to be self-sufficient making it become super resilient. This meaning to this day year after year that asparagus pokes its way out of the ground showing exactly where the bed was and during its most active time of the season, even while mowing over it weekly there are enough stems to make a dinner side out of each week.
The resilience of asparagus is definitely something to admire and just one of many examples that if nature is not pushed past its breaking point it will continue to provide.”
Dylan reminded me as we were preparing for this service of that favorite Dr. Suess quote from the Lorax. “Unless! Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The path to a better world is for people to care. The path to caring is being connected, being interconnected and familiar with the world.
I grew up the youngest of eight children to parents in NW Pennsylvania who grew up during the depression and experienced food rationing in World War II. We had a stove with 8 burners, two ovens, a griddle and a broiler. It’s not surprising that, having to feed all of us, they were experienced in gardening, foraging, fishing, hunting, bee keeping, and raising chickens and other fowl.
Some of my favorite memories are walking along the trails in the woods near our home picking raspberries, blackberries and blueberries with my Dad. Along the way we’d sometimes find mushrooms to bring home for dinner. He knew which ones were safe and which were not.
My mother loved to grow vegetables that seemed unusual to me. I’m still not sure what salsify is, but it sounded exotic. She grew brussel sprouts long before I ever saw one at the grocery. I wasn’t much for weeding, but I loved the harvest, and learned to freeze and can produce for the winters. We were always taught not to waste food, or anything for that matter – we’d hear, “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
I remember holidays that were packed with people cooking and baking and sharing stories, and I’ve tried to pass down the wisdom and love to our children. They are all excellent cooks, and one is a professional chef. Our holidays continue the loving traditions of our ancestors.
Many of you know about John Murray, an early Universalist in this country, who landed in Good Luck NJ near the home of Thomas Potter. The Murray Grove Retreat and Conference Center is still on this property, and is a favorite place for many UUs to retreat and relax. One fall, I noticed that the wild concord grapes that grow around the pool had a bumper crop of grapes. My foraging genes kicked in, and a few grocery bags later, I was on my way home to make jelly. No Hell Jell, we called it, and I donated most back to Murray Grove as a fundraiser.
I’ve been following along with the lives of some youth leaders from my time with the UUA Metro NY District, now adults. Of course, many of them are in the helping professions, and I’m delighted that more than the average number of them turned to occupations in sustainable agriculture – like
Katie who was farm manager at John Hart Farms, a family-run working farm that offers resources and information to growers at any agricultural scale—from families looking to raise a few chickens, to industrial-sized operations.
Kassandra in Colorado at FrontLine Farming, a food and farmers advocacy group focusing on food growing, education, sovereignty, and justice.
And Tobin in Mass, working with Book and Plow Farm, associated with Amherst College. They provide high quality vegetables and nourishing education that feed the local community in sustainable ways.
Watching these youth and my own children grow into caring and nurturing adults really gives me hope for the future.
For my part, I can only witness to the blessing and abundance of the earth. I am not an attentive gardener. I have many examples I could share of herbs and vegetables under my care that did not make it. The farmers’ fields from my youth were a fertile land for my imagination, but I never actually paid attention to the food that was growing there as well. I am a child of the supermarkets and restaurants. Kimmerer’s question drives right to heart of my own living. Perhaps it is different for you. I welcome you to call your own story to mind.
“How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers- the living world could not bear our weight- but even in a market economy, can we behave ‘as if’ the living world were a gift?” [p. 31]
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Broken Wing (2)
Sermon Video: https://youtu.be/hOiwsiEHB0E
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfections, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” “Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work and you don’t get full value for your efforts,” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
Each of us has our own unique flaws. We’re all cracked pots.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is a crack in everything God has made.” All of existence is flawed, broken. For Christians this manifest in humans as Original Sin – a tricky concept even semantically as there is a significant distinction between little ‘s’ sins and capital ‘S’ Original Sin. Little ‘s’ sins are about behavior while capital ‘S’ Sin is about existence – a state of being broken, flawed, of having a crack. But it is easy to mix the two ideas together and see our brokenness as somehow our fault: something to feel guilty for. But that is not a fair rendering of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. We are not bad, we are broken. There is a crack in everything God has made.
I remember a favorite children’s story by Shel Silverstein called The Missing Piece. I used the story once as a jumping off point for a major theology presentation in seminary. The story tells of a pacman-like circle with a slice missing. The opening lines reads: “It was missing a piece. And it was not happy. So it set off in search of its missing piece.” The story then tells about the adventures it has along the search, the complications encountered when it finds what it thinks it is after, and the resulting decision to remain broken. You see, when it finally found its missing piece after searching and making up songs about its searching and discovering the wrong pieces over and over … when it finally found its missing piece it was geometrically a whole circle and thus there was no opening through which it could sing. So it decided that it was better to sing of the longing to be whole than it was to actually be whole. It decided to remain broken so that it could sing.
(“Blackbird” by the Beatles)
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
And so I would speak today upon the benefits of being broken, as if there were any other way to be – for there is a crack in everything God has made and it is through that crack that the light shines. It is the blackbird singing in the dead of night with broken wings that learn to fly and sunken eyes that learn to see. It is the amazing grace of having been lost then found, blind but now you see … into the light of the dark black night.
The children’s story I offered as I began my theology presentation that day in seminary was not a presentation on some general aspect of theology such as ‘Human Nature’ or ‘Faith and Suffering’. It was a presentation of my personal theological journey. I was missing a piece and I was not happy. So I had set off in search of my missing piece … into the light of the dark black night.
And my experience was very much like the paradox of Paul McCartney’s poetry: to find the light within myself, I sat with the dark black night of my brokenness. Notice what McCartney has done with that bit of poetry. Often a “dark black night” is perceived as negative, as bad. But in the song, McCartney say we fly into the light of that dark black night. There is something profoundly healing to be found there. It is where grace resides. For me, I looked into my heartache and depression until I found the mix of love and fear at the root. Then, I turned toward my suffering rather than away from it.
Back in the early 70’s, Henri Nouwen wrote a powerful book called The Wounded Healer. The book quickly became a standard for pastoral theology. The premise of the title is that “in our own brokenness we can become a source of life for others.” The bulk of the book, however, is centered upon a critique of culture. Nouwen said that we live in a dislocated world, a fragmented society, a rootless generation, and that we are a hopeless and lonely and isolated mix of people. Nouwen said we are driven apart by forces in the culture. Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all that you are and inviting others in.
Suffering is solitary work. Each of us experiences suffering – there is a unifying community of sufferers to be sure; we all suffer and thus are kin in this. Yet each person’s heartache and pain is unique to that person and is experienced inwardly. Howard Thurman, reflecting on this, writes: “Suffering tends to isolate the individual, to create a wall… It makes his spirit miserable in the literal sense of that word. Initially, it stops all outward flow of life and makes a virtue of the necessity for turning inward.” (Disciplines of the Spirit p75) But later he adds: “Openings are made in a life by suffering that are not made in any other way.” (Ibid p 76)
Initially it isolates you and creates a wall; then it offers an opening. Maya Angelou writes: “No one knows what it costs the bulb, the onion bulb or the tulip bulb, to split – to crack itself open – to allow the thin tendril of life to emerge.” (Maya Angelou in Restoring Hope) Certainly there is pain and suffering involved, but the brokenness is an opening into a greater depth of joy and meaning. As Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked… The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
This is not to say that suffering is always an opportunity to grow into joy or new life. Only that is can, that it is an opportunity. I am not preaching about the saving power of suffering as if suffering is a great good for our spiritual growth. Indeed I think our capacity for joy is a greater agent for spiritual growth than suffering ever has been.
And besides, I am speaking of brokenness more than suffering. Our brokenness – my brokenness – is a source of power and beauty, it can be an opening for grace, it is the crack through which so much compassion and understanding can flow. It can cause me suffering when I work to hide my flaws or be ashamed of them, when I allow myself to be limited by my failures. Or, I can grow. Rainer Marie Rilke has said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” At times I will playfully say that my hope is to make new and more glorious mistakes rather than to repeat the same old tired mistakes I’m used to.
Like the circle who was missing a piece, the end goal is not to reach perfection. It is to learn how best to make use of the brokenness. You are full of flaws and failings, suffering and sorrow: yet you also have so much to offer. And your gifts are available not just in spite of your brokenness – but oftentimes because of it.
I had a professor when I was in undergrad studying theater who would talk to us not about acting or set design or directing, but about life as an artist. His philosophy was ‘if you know who you are as an artist, everything else will fall in place.’ This professor was a bit of an odd duck, but you grow used to that when you work in theater. There was one lesson in particular that I found and still find of great value. He was talking one day about the role of suffering in the life of an artist and he said it is important to name and own the pain you’ve experienced. This way, for example, when you are getting into character, you could relate to your character’s hurts and suffering by saying “I know that fire, I’ve been through that fire or one very similar.”
That image of talking about suffering in our lives as fires we have lived through stuck with me when I switched my major from theater to psychology, and when I then went through seminary as I trained to become a minister. This idea that we all have been though fires that have burned and informed us has taught us much about empathy and of how we interact with other people. And it is an analogy that seems to fit better and better the more I think of it and live with it. For it leads us compassion. The broken places in my life and in my heart can reveal grace and offer wisdom through the understanding that comes with compassion.
According to Henri Nouwen we live in a dislocated and isolating world. Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a holding forth with all that you are and inviting others in. It is not in fixing another person’s brokenness; rather it is in welcoming another person, flaws and all, to be present with you. A poem from May Sarton illustrates this well when she advises us to move among the tender with an open hand. (From “An Observation” by May Sarton)
True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With a rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother’s hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.
Nouwin contends that even in our own brokenness we can become a source of healing for others. Thurman witnesses that openings are found through our brokenness that are not found any other way. And if we can learn to move among the thorns without a glove, Sarton observes, you can stay sensitive to another’s brokenness. There is a crack in everything God has made. We are all cracked pots.
Do not despair for that within you which feels lost, sunken, or broken. What feels like a weight holding you back may be the other side of the coin of your great gift to offer the world. You can still learn to fly though your wings be broken.
Black bird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
all your life (Amazing Grace)
you were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.
At least, thus it has been with my experience of life. May it be so for you as well.
In a world without end
May it be so.
The Arc of our UU Universe
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Anti-racism has become a central aspect of our faith tradition. It may seem a little odd to consider it that way, but have I not spoken for some time about how the center of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not found in beliefs and creeds, but in values. We are values-centric faith. And one of the values rising to the fore in our communal conversations is anti-racism and multiculturalism. We value justice, inclusion, and mutual respect. Thus, anti-racism has become a central feature of our values as Unitarian Universalists.
But that was not always the case. It is interesting really to think about the version of Unitarian Universalism we are living today and how we are sometimes tempted to think it has always been like this, that our commitment to religious freedom and tolerance has always led us to behave as we do today. But ask some of our long-term members and we’ll remind ourselves that ours is an evolving faith tradition. We grow, we change. This heavy emphasis on anti-racism is somewhat new.
In our reading, (from the introduction of Mistakes and Miracles,) the authors describe an event happening at General Assembly back in 2017. Rev. Peter Morales was our UUA president from 2009 to 2017, and 3 months prior to the end of his 8-year term, he resigned in a controversy of UUA hiring practices and charges of institutional racism. Those events and our association’s response contributed to the rise of the phrase “White Supremacy” among us. We in Binghamton participated in the national “White Supremacy Teach-in” back in the spring of 2017. I expect some of you can recall that time. It was a little messy. But then, Unitarian Universalism has struggled with racism for a long time.
I mentioned the issue with Thomas Jefferson’s legacy during the Time for All Ages. We Unitarians have loved him for his stance on the separation of church and state, for his commitment to the use of reason in religion, for his lofty words in the Declaration of Independence. For a long time, we simply didn’t talk about the contradiction and hypocrisy of his role in the slaughter of native people, of his owning of slaves, of keeping an enslaved mistress, and of not even doing that bare minimum of decency of freeing his slaves upon his death – several of whom were his children – all after proclaiming “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
In 1993 there was a significant event for Unitarian Universalists that cracked open a major conversation around old TJ. 1993 was the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. Our UUA General Assembly was schedule to happen in Charlotte, NC, which at the time was located in the district named after Thomas Jefferson. The minister serving the Thomas Jefferson UU Church in Charlottesville, VA offered to do a workshop on “The most famous Unitarian in history.” People wanted to celebrate Jefferson’s legacy among us.
The GA planning committee suggested a celebratory ball in his honor, inviting people to wear period-costumes. They thought it would a bit of fun to have people attend dressed in costumes from the early American time period. It simply was not on many people’s radar that this idea might cause pain to black and indigenous people. Notably, Hope Johnson read a statement during the plenary which included the question, “Must African Americans such events in rags and chains?”
People countered saying that the event was intended to honor a luminary from our Unitarian history. People countered saying the good Jefferson embodied is still worth praising and to do so does not automatically make one a racist. The planning team responsible for hosting the Jefferson Ball tried to respond but the response dissolved into blame. One member of that planning team, Rev. Keith Kron, said this a few years later:
“We think of racism as being an overt thing,” Kron reflected. “As someone who had lived in the South and had seem as a 5th grader, my elementary school become integrated, I knew what racism was. And I was right. Or half-right. There are a lot of people who consciously want people of color to be second-class citizens. What I and the rest of the Planning Committee didn’t know at the time was that much of racism is not conscious – just part of the system, and you have to be awake to see it.”
I was in seminary a few years after these events and will offer the perspective that my entire time as a minister has been during the version of Unitarian Universalism debating multiculturalism, working to unlearn racism, and waking up to the ways white supremacy shapes our history and our values as a faith tradition. That’s the version of our faith I know professionally.
I remember a time early in my ministry when I had attended a conference on anti-racism and during an informal time, I was chatting with an elder UU lay-leader who was set against our attempts at diversity because he doesn’t want to dumb down Unitarian Universalism to win over black people. I was shocked by the ignorance and illogic of this argument, but learned as the years went by that this was a common argument against integration among us. It was a pattern.
I am reminded of the advice one of the co-presidents offered from our reading. In reflecting on how to move forward, Rev. Bill Sinkford commended us to “focus not on the persons but the patterns.” In this context, I am drawn to notice the patterns of our history rather than a single person – contemporary or historical – save as they reveal something about our patterns.
Are you, for example, familiar with the story of Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown? He was born in Jamaica, trained by Meadville theological school from 1910-12 to be a Unitarian minister, and launched the Harlem Unitarian Church in 1920. But he had little to no support in his ministry. The American Unitarian Association dropped him from fellowship in 1929 only to have it reinstated in 1935 with the support of the ALCU.
Unitarians at that time were not interested in supporting the spread of Unitarianism among black people. To be sure, there were white Unitarians who went against the tide, but the leadership of the association labeled African Americans as ‘lower class ‘shiftless rascals.’ (from Darkening the Doorways, ed Mark Morrison-Reed; p51) This claim that our faith is somehow inaccessible to ‘lesser’ people is an arrogant failing that continues to appear among us through the years. This, despite Rev. Brown being described as a radical leader offering thought-provoking sermons.
My contemporary colleagues have commented about this, how their sermons as people of color are critiqued as being too emotional – ‘too Jesus-y’ is a coded way of saying much the same.
Back in 1860, an incredibly rare example of an encounter before the 1900’s, the Rev. William Jackson applied to join the ranks of the Unitarian clergy in Bedford MA. After being in conversation with a Unitarian clergy friend, Jackson felt moved to become a Unitarian. He was denied. One historian from the ‘70’s produced a widely reproduced quote about the response:
The Unitarians took a collection … and Mr. Jackson was sent on his way. No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reached the ‘colored.’ (from Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians 1831-60, Douglas Stange; p 227)
And the Universalist have their own track record. There is an amazing and tragic story about what came to be called the Universalist Negro missions in Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia. Under the leadership of two dynamic African American Universalist, the church and the school connected to the mission bloomed and blossomed. The first leader died young and the next eventually left Universalism, being over extended and under-supported by the denomination.
The mission fell into the hands of the Rev. Joseph Fletcher Jordan, who became the pastor of St. Paul Universalist church in Suffolk VA and principle of the Suffolk Normal Training School for 25 years in the early 1900’s. Along with his wife, Mary Jordan, and later his daughter, Annie Willis, the Jordans brought the message of God’s love to countless people of color in Virginia. Support from the Universalist’s General Convention would ebb and flow through the years depending on who was in charge and who was paying attention. Not having another African American Universalist ready to step in, the mission faded away when Annie Willis died.
Similarly up here in New England, Jeffery Campbell attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY to become a Universalist minister. After graduation he officiated at his sister’s wedding and then moved to London, unable to secure a pulpit in this country as either a Universalist or a Unitarian in the 1930’s or ‘40s. The wedding he officiated for his sister was an interracial wedding to another seminary student, Francis Davis. Rev Davis, while being white, had no luck securing a Universalist pulpit either, due to his interracial marriage.
I suggest one pernicious pattern in this history among both our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors is a willful apathy and distain aimed to ignore the issue away. And so, I for one applaud the courageously called who have refused to fade away. I am grateful the issue and values of Anti-racism have worked their way into the center of our faith’s conversation and attention. I am please to acknowledge the change and the centering of those who had so long been pushed to the margins.
Years back now, Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker said:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” -Theodore Parker, 1853
So with all this evidence from our own history of hypocrisy and racism, what do are we to do? What do I do about this moral arc and the messy legacy of it all? Where do I as your minister look for evidence of this bending arc? I will share one final story.
I have mentioned the annual General Assembly of the UUA several times this morning. It is perhaps fitting to close my sermon with one more story for a General Assembly. This time from 2019, the Sunday Morning worship service. The preacher, the Reverend Marta Valentin, had finished – her sermon had been titled “It Is Time Now” and she had told us that we were in a ‘turning’ as a faith, a turning toward greater wholeness and justice and beloved-ness. She had told us that the hard path we are on of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural faith tradition, we are at a turning of the path. Things are changing.
At the end of the service, the choir began singing the postlude song by Karisha Longaker of the musical duo, MaMuse. The song says, “We shall be known by the company we keep, by the ones who circle round and tend these fires”
And the worship leaders all moved off to one side as other people began joining them on the large stage while the choir sang. First a few folks in scooters or using canes, then more people came up starting a second row behind those who had arrived a moment earlier.
“We shall be known” the choir voices rang out, “by the ones who sow and reap the seeds of change alive from deep within the earth.”
And if it wasn’t clear before, no one would miss it now as more and more people arrived on stage. Here were the black, indigenous, and people of color who have been leaders in our faith tradition at this particular time in our history.
“It is time now,” the choir sang, “it is time now that we thrive.”
Here before us on the stage was a snapshot, a moment in time, revealing the active leadership in our faith who were not white. When I entered ministry in the late 90’s there were a handful of people of color in leadership in our faith. Here now were several dozen people filling the stage. Clergy and prominent lay leaders, elders and youth. And remember this was only those who were present at General Assembly that Sunday morning.
“It is time now, and what a time to be alive,” the choir sang.
And we know it is not about counting up the diverse people and patting ourselves on the back for good numbers. It is about transformation and growth and becoming a little more like the Beloved Community each day. And what I witnessed on the stage that Sunday morning was about something new growing among us, something about leadership and change and love.
“In this Great Turning,” the choir sang, “we must learn to lead in love.”
And the choir sang, “In this Great Turning, we must learn to lead in love.”
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Look at All the Lonely People
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Sermon Video: https://youtu.be/DljyLHBTGdA
Before the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down in our country, there were people warning us about loneliness. Be careful, I remember hearing, we can’t let the social distancing lead us to social isolating. We must be mindful that steps to prevent the spread of viruses can also lead to consequences in terms of our mental health – in particular: loneliness. Some clever person along the way coined the phrase Lockdown Loneliness.
A study about loneliness and the impact of the pandemic came out about 6 months into it all, in the fall of 2020. The Journal of Medical Internet Research published a study focused on (unsurprisingly) the digital solutions available to us. The study touted the recommendation many of us were already working on – to manage our loneliness, they concluded, we need to maintain our social networks of family and friends through digital means. https://www.jmir.org/2020/11/e22287?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=JMIR_TrendMD_1
We certainly tried. But online social connections are imperfect and lacking in a certain something. More than century back, French sociologist Émile Durkheim used the phrase “collective effervescence” to describe an emotional excitement people experience together in communal settings.
We would recognize this feeling from sporting events, concerts, theater performances, and religious ceremonies. There is something particular about the emotional aspect of a group experience. “Collective effervescence,” he called it. It is something that didn’t translate well over zoom. Our efforts to maintain our social networks through digital means have ben worthy but they couldn’t cover for everything we were missing
The current US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has tackled the topic of loneliness as a public health concern. Not limiting his concerns to only the big concerns like the opioid epidemic and gun violence, Dr. Murthy has also singled out the dangers of loneliness among Americans. He said:
“Loneliness is different than isolation and solitude. Loneliness is a subjective feeling where the connections we need are greater than the connections we have. In the gap, we experience loneliness. It’s distinct from the objective state of isolation, which is determined by the number of people around you.”
He is far from the first to clarify the difference between loneliness and being alone. But I do find his clarity about the distinction helpful. Solitude can be refreshing and quite enjoyable. But loneliness can be truly awful. In the gap between the connections we need and the connections we have, we experience loneliness.
Loneliness is not a new problem. In the late 1800’s Ella Wheeler Wilcox penned her poem ‘solitude’ with the opening stanza
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own
- Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Solitude’
Loneliness has been known and felt through the ages. It is not just about the pandemic. There was, for example, a recent Cigna study of 20 thousand Americans on the topic of loneliness. I say ‘recent,’ but that is a relative term; the study was published two years before the current pandemic. The study found 46% of the participants reported they “sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”
And it has long been noticed that loneliness leads to other problems. In an article from more than a decade back decade, we can read about how chronic loneliness can significantly contribute to other health problems. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.331.6014.138
Loneliness compromises your immune system and messes with both your cardiovascular and nervous systems. Studies have long found that “socially isolated people have shorter lifespans and increased risk of a host of health problems, including infections, heart disease, and depression.” I find it is significant that what leads to such problems is not something objectively measurable such as the number of social contacts a person has. Instead, it is about the subjective feeling of loneliness.
And that is all from what we knew before the pandemic. Loneliness took on a noteworthy development with the call for lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing. And interestingly the impact of lockdown loneliness lingers even when restrictions are lifted. People have, when asked, reported that they are not ‘bouncing back’ like they used to, that negative moods last longer, that our resilience has been hampered despite the easing of restrictions. https://mental.jmir.org/2021/8/e29419?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=JMIR_TrendMD_0&__hstc=102212634.b6745b88e1d468273b08dfd17534f610.1635520374593.1635520374593.1635520374593.1&__hssc=102212634.1.1635520374594&__hsfp=2238041096
Have you felt lonely through this pandemic? Even now, after restrictions have eased? Have you experienced that gap between the connections we need and the connections you’ve had? Have you felt that bleak sadness of isolation and disconnection? Has it been bad for you?
Have you noticed that admitting to being lonely is like admitting a failure of some sort, like you are a loser, like you can’t handle it? Maybe that is less true in the current situation. Maybe that is a sign of just how many people are feeling isolated and lonely that the stigma of it has lost its sting.
As you’ve surely heard me say before, we are social creatures, we need each other to be fully ourselves. Isolation is a deeply painful experience. Anthropologically speaking, being isolated would have been a ‘chronic stress state.’ Loneliness is probably and experiential link back to that time when our species always lived and traveled in packs. Being alone would have led to a heightened ‘threat’ response, we would have been on high alert all the time; needing to rely on only our lone capacity to deal with predators or problems. Perhaps the experience of loneliness is a hold over from that time in our evolution when it as a survival issue.
It is important for our sense of wellbeing to have connections with other people, to have ties with groups. The past several sermons I’ve delivered have touched on this in one form or another. I imagine you’ve noticed. When we’ve been through this long, hard, isolating pandemic time, it might be hard to recall how to make connections again, to remember the ways we used to reliably reach out when we needed to find friends. We might be out of practice. Let us be reminded.
You know, you just know, that I am going to suggest the solution for loneliness is about getting more connected, reaching out and being vulnerable and taking risks to meet people and all that. And, I will suggest that, but I also know that that part is obvious and if that’s all we needed we all would have done that part already.
If we were making a list of ‘loneliness solutions,’ joining a group or organizations would be on anyone’s list. Get out and join a bowling league or a church or a hiking club. Yes. Or even better, volunteer somewhere; serve meals, or tutor underprivileged kids, or build ramps to create access for people. All of that. Yes.
And with the pandemic, those suggestions are harder to pursue. Many organizations are not able to offer opportunities like this to connect and serve. We’re getting closer, but it still is not quite safe. And, perhaps this is an invitation to get creative with how we connect and help others.
And seeing as we are here, I’ll make this pitch to everyone – not just those here who are feeling lonely. Reach out to someone because you might be lonely or because they might be lonely or simply because it is a kind thing to do. Make it a practice for the month of November – make a connection with someone every day. Send a card, make a phone call, deliver a plate of cookies. Make up a reason to reach out to someone. Try to do it every day for a week or several weeks. I’ll even offer this: if you send me a card, I’ll send one back. We can be creative with our connections.
And, remember, loneliness is not simply a problem of isolation. It is not just about needing to have more proximity with people. While many of us would benefit by that, it is not the whole point. Many of us have discovered that we don’t need constant company to ease our loneliness. A few brief, quality experiences can be profoundly sufficient.
Dr. Jeremy Nobel, a physician and public health researcher says; “Loneliness is a subjective experience—part of what makes it so hard to identify. If you’re on Mars and you have the most powerful telescope, that can look through walls, you can find all the isolated people on planet Earth. But you couldn’t find the lonely people.” Being alone is not the same as being lonely. An anonymous wit put it like this: “Being alone is good but being lonely is the worst”
All of that brings me to the big suggestion I would put on my list for dealing with loneliness. Make of it a practice in being alone. I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive. I tremble a bit at the way it sounds. “Dr. I have been feeling lonely, what should I do?” “Well, have you trying being alone?” (sigh) But hear me out.
Some of what is going on in our lives is within our control to change. Some of it is not. If you find you are limited and cannot reach out the way you used to before the pandemic, you may as well spend the time leaning into your loneliness. There may be something else going on with it which you can uncover by spending time with it.
For this, I suggest your goal is still to connect, but with yourself instead of with other people. Perhaps you will find yourself grappling with some bitterness or resentment or even guilt that you’ve been carrying. It can be uncomfortable spending time alone if you have unresolved stuff to deal with. Maybe this will be a path of self-forgiveness or to make overdue amends in some way.
It is often the case that time alone is time spent looking at things about yourself one would normally be able to avoid through distraction and an outward focus. But you’re stuck with yourself alone and end up gnawing on or being gnawed by old hurts and mistakes. Take care of yourself. Stay hydrated, get some sunshine, find a variety of activities, but do not neglect whatever it is that has been caught up for you with your loneliness. It is not necessarily the case, but it is true often enough. Chronic loneliness is often entangled with something else, a bitterness, a regret, a broken relationship or commitment. Not always, as I said, but often enough to warrant investigating.
Being alone can be a practice, a deepening time of self-awareness and self-discovery; a time of re-connecting with yourself. And, through that deeper self-connection, we are better situated for reaching out to connect with others. The key is not about how few or how many social interactions a person has. It is about the quality and meaningfulness of those interactions. Our loneliness is not about being alone. It is about being seen and known by others.
In response to that hundred old poem saying that when we weep, we weep alone; I offer an even old sentiment, dating back roughly two thousand years. Paul’s counsel to the church in Rome: Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. (Rom 12:15) Part of our work as a faith community is to share with one other in the celebrations and the burdens.
Yes, there is a part of your loneliness that you and only you can address, for loneliness is a singular experience in your heart. But there is also a community around you, surrounding and upholding us all. We are here to build a more just world, to explore religious ideas together, to celebrate the earth, to challenge hate and spread love. And … and we are here to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. That too is our work.
May we be a blessing to others. May others be a blessing to us. May the blessings we have to offer spill out into the alleys and byways of life, and may we return laughing and rejoicing together.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Start with the Science
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Sermon video: https://youtu.be/0jCN8x6HGR4
This past spring, while the pandemic was surging and our building renovation was about half done, I was invited into conversations with some theologians and philosophers in California through the Claremont Center for Process Studies. It was pretty cool to get that invitation. I felt a bit like the country doctor invited to sit in at a medical symposium in the big city.
It was enjoyable for me to reengage with Process theology again, to learn a bit more about it all. One piece I found most interesting is the Faith and Process goal of expanding the conversation beyond their usual Christian circles. Process Theology began within Christianity. I have appreciated that goal because I have the same goal. And I was included in their circle as a Unitarian Universalist because of that goal.
I recall an informal conversation at one point when several of the regular attendees were talking about how they were confused by the Unitarian Universalist Atheists in our mix. They had heard we UUs were excited about the version of Process Theology that did not have a God component. And they wondered together how that could be. How could you remove God from Whitehead’s basic theology?
Well, I was excited by this question. I think, in that informal chatting moment, I said something in response, but not anything all that helpful. I remember saying something about how I have seen a non-theistic version of Process Theology that makes a lot of sense. And that several people in my congregation have talked about it. And I may have said at the time that I felt the secret is to start with the science and go from there.
Of course, before I go into detail about that, I need to give a little context. Process Theology is a modern theological offshoot of liberal protestant theology. It says that everything is in process, changing and becoming. The world, the universe, is wholly and fully natural and creative. The implication here is that God, also, is in process, is changing and becoming. In Process Theology, God is not outside of the universe. God is not immutable or supernatural. This is a God who is not judgmental or controlling; instead, God is creative and loving and part of the unfolding natural universe.
You’ll notice, perhaps, the description I’ve given is very God-centric. Fair enough. Here are some key characteristics of Process Theology that are not about God: Everything in interconnected. Everything is part of the natural universe. Human beings have full free will, there is no determinism. And the biggie: events are the primary building blocks of the universe, not substances. That last one about events is where the real fun and notable distinction settles in.
The father of Process Theology is Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). He trained in mathematics, logic, and science, but he had a spiritual bent. He developed his metaphysics about 100 years ago.
His theology was rooted in the modern breakthroughs of physics and science which had undergone seismic shifts leading up to his lifetime. In the 1600’s the church served as the custodian of science. The Holy Roman Church provided a complete worldview for science that remained safely within the framework of biblical teachings. But with Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, the church began to lose it’s hold on the scope of scientific exploration. From that time through to Darwin’s theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, scientific inquiry continued to break free from the church’s control.
So in the early 1900’s, when Newtonian Physics began to crumble under Einstein’s explorations, Alfred North Whitehead took a remarkable step. Instead of letting his science be confined within his religion, he let his religion be confined within his science.
Science was revealing some very interesting possibilities about the basic foundation of reality as we know it. And this circles back to that key idea in Process Theology about events being the primary reality rather than substances. This is an idea rooted in physics.
We tend to think of things as things, as substances. Traditional philosophy and physics talk about how the universe is made of substances. We are organisms made of organ systems which are made of tissues which are made of cells which are made of molecules which are made of atoms which are made of sub-atomic particles. As Physicist Richard Feynman once said “All things are made of atoms.”
But ‘things’ are not all there is to the universe. Yes, all things are made of atoms, but there is also energy, for example. In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes:
“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.”
Energy is not a substance, not a thing. It is what exists between the things or in them perhaps, I don’t really know. But the relationship dynamic is essential. It is what makes that ‘mound of fine atomic dust’ into you. The relational interaction of the parts is what matters, (pardon the pun.)
The basic building blocks of life are not the things, but the relationships among the things. I am essentially, in physical terms, an organism of about 50 trillion cells. Each cell is differentiated into the various tissues and organs that make up the ten major systems of my body. But ultimately the important part is not any of those individual cells. The important part is the collection of relationships those cells have which comprise me.
There is a second big piece I need to add here to make sure we get where we are going this morning. A huge piece of Process Theology is our free will. Tying this back to the conversation about God, this comes out as God not being ‘all powerful’ and in control of the universe. We are really free to make choices about our lives. This comes out in the physics as well. The deeper scientists get into experiments trying to predict the orbit of an electron in an atom, for example, the more they are confounded because subatomic particles so often behave in very weird, almost chaotic ways. Expanding that up to the human level, and we’re talking about free will, choice, and agency.
So we have these two big ideas found in modern physics and in Process Theology. One idea reveals interrelatedness, that the interaction of events is the essential element of life. The other idea that life is not predetermined, the between chaos and agency, we have free will to make choices in our lives.
Now let me tell you about ‘the lure.’ Because without the lure, everything is random and purely chaotic and yet somehow there is life.
In process Theology, God’s power is not a matter of control or dominance. God can’t make anything happen. But God is a loving power, a transformative power. God is persuasive, not coercive. God lures us toward the good, toward love, toward justice.
When we talk about how the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice … in Process Theology it would be bending because God is luring us to behave in more just ways. But in every case, it is up to us to be just.
You can think of the timeline of your life like a tree in winter. The trunk is a single line showing what has already happened, it is written. The rest of what will happen in your life has many branches of possibilities. In some theologies, God has already determined your whole life and this tree metaphor is more like a simple telephone pole to demonstrate that God has already written everything. It’s predetermined.
Process Theology strongly disagrees with that idea. Process Theology says instead that God is luring you to follow one branch in particular, but it is up to you to do that or not. When we talk about ‘living your best life’ it suggests there is a version we can choose that is better than other versions. We have options. And, we are drawn toward certain options. It is God luring us toward being and just and loving.
That is Process Theology. There is, of course, a great deal more to it, but for our purposes this morning, this is Process Theology. Events and experiences are the root element of reality. We are free to choose our path. And there is a lure toward being our best selves.
And for most people, the source of that lure is God. So how do you have Process Theology without God. Certainly, you can still have an honoring and recognition of events and experiences, of free will, even of the centrality of change in life. But how do you not include God?
I can imagine three ways to do it. I can imagine three different ways to hold a Process Theology perspective without a god element. Without there being a divine ‘will’ serving as the lure toward the good.
First, we can keep a purely atheistic and naturalistic perspective. This keeps every explanation about life solidly in the realm of science. We have found that Biology, Psychology and Sociology can provide a lot of insight into what we call “good.”
Most people want to be good people. That’s just how we, as social creatures, are. There are other forces in us that are destructive or divisive. We can see that and we can understand the value of goodness without it being entangled with some concept of God. For some people that’s enough.
Next, we can take a sematic pass on the question. We won’t use the word “god” but might refer to something like Life with a capital “L,” or the Holy with a capital “H.” This is a substitution that puts some distance from the word “god” because whatever it is we mean; it is not what most people think of when we use the word “god,” with a personality and maybe a thunder bolt. Certainly not.
And this is not merely pretending we’re not talking about God, either. This about trying to avoid the assumptions too often tangled up with the language. It is an attempt to include certain characteristics and not others in this conversation about the holy. And for some people that’s enough.
And then there is a third option. We can just talk about a mystery, an unknown. It is to acknowledge that what we know now does not yet satisfy us, but doesn’t mean we need to jump to using the word God to cover whatever we don’t understand.
There seems to be a lure. In my experience I am drawn to behave with compassion and I want to be just and good and kind – even when I am not good at it, I want to be. Why? Not sure. And for some people that’s enough.
Now, I say all that as someone who does believe in God. I am not trying to suggest you should or should not believe in any of this. I am instead suggesting you work out your own understanding as best you can in keeping with your experiences and your faith.
We are interconnected and dynamic and always expanding. We grow and learn by asking more questions and testing what we think we know. So, explore. Consider how you are drawn to behave, how you might feel a tug to be in the world in a certain way. Consider the lure to being good.
Process Theology asks us to keep seeking, to let science define the natural world while we stay true to that knowledge. And it asks us to allow the love that is God to lure us into a better way of being in the world.
And some people, it is enough to simply follow the lure; to live justly, to offer compassionate mercy, and to follow your path with humility in the face of all that is holy.
In a world without end,
May it be so