To Know and To Believe

(Sermon given at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington on April 3, 2016.)

DSCN0296Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to [have] knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. (Carl Sagan)

Knowing and belief. Science and religion. As Unitarian Universalists, we hold religion and science far from one another. We say that religion doesn’t belong in science, and, if we’re true to our dedication that everyone has the right to their own search for meaning, we don’t impose our science onto someone else’s religious beliefs. For example, we hold, arms outstretched, our understanding of how humans evolved from earlier primates in one hand, while our beliefs about whether a god cares about our existence in the other.

Just as we hold those domains to be separate, insisting that the realm of science be clear of the realm of religion, we often confuse our ways of knowing in science with our ways of believing religiously. We cup those ways together, mixing them and using them indiscriminately, undoing that separation out of carelessness and simple human nature.

Today, I’ll explore understanding in two realms — science and religion. I’ll tease out belief, which loves to pose as knowledge but isn’t. It may be a way of understanding, but it should never be confused with knowing and knowledge. I’ll explore knowing of a particular kind – the scientific kind of knowing. I’ll also sit with uncertainty and its relationship to science and to religion, as it drives both.

Let’s start with what science is. Science is, according to Dr. Bruce Railsback of the Geology Dept of the University of Georgia,…the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.”

Let’s start in the middle of that definition. Science involves the observation of natural phenomena. It’s using the senses to attend to the details of the universe. The twinkling stars above. The scurrying ants below. The breeze on our face. The evidence of the passage of time and the aging of our bodies. Science involves observation of both the untouched, natural world and of the manipulated world (experimentation), but the starting place is unadulterated observation.

So science is watching the chickadee eat, noticing their preference for one thistle feeder over the other. It’s about observing many chickadees over many days. It’s about noticing that the sun appears in the same direction every morning, but depending on your latitude, not at the same time each morning. It’s about watching person after person succumb to smallpox, as Edward Jenner did in the late 1700s, hearing from others and noticing himself over many years, that milkmaids, who often developed the mild disease of cowpox, rarely suffered the deadly smallpox.

There is a level of knowing that occurs with observation. I know that the chickadees in my yard prefer the feeder in the front yard because the thistle seed vanishes far faster from that feeder with its perches than it does from the mesh feeder in the backyard. I know the sun appears in the same direction every day, at least for my lifetime, because I’ve seen it do so for the well-over forty years of my life. And Jenner knew that, in the population he observed, milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox.

So observation leads to some level of knowing — a conditional knowing, a descriptive kind of knowing limited by what has been seen. Alone, an observation tells us very little, or at least often less than we think it does:

Three people were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” said the first with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” said the second, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” said the third, a scientist, glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

Science, however, doesn’t end with the observation of one side of one sheep or the position of the sun from one spot on the Earth, but observation is at the heart of all science. It is, as Dr. Railsback notes, the basis of understanding, but it is not alone science. Faced with data from observations, we start to ask questions. Why do these chickadees prefer one feeder over the other? Why do we see the sun in the same place each morning? Does the mild disease of cowpox, common to milkmaids, somehow really protect them against the deadly smallpox?

It’s these questions that lead to more thought, more observations, and, perhaps, an eventual hypothesis. A hypothesis is often defined as an educated guess, but that sells short the work that goes into creating a hypothesis. Rather a hypothesis is based on multiple observations paired with previous scientific knowledge. It’s a proposed answer to a question about what’s been observed. We have to be careful when we hypothesize, for it’s tempting to become attached to these so-called educated guesses. When we hypothesize, we aren’t stating knowledge. We’re stating possible connections that need to be tested and very well may not hold up to testing. That’s tricky, because as humans, we want our guesses to be right, as it just feels good to be right.

The chickadees like the feeder in the front yard because it has perches, allowing them a more secure stance when eating. Something about having cowpox makes smallpox a milder disease, so giving someone cowpox might be a way to prevent smallpox deaths.

Hypotheses are small steps. They are testable steps. They lead to experimentation which, per Railsback, “…tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions”. Experimentation yields more observations and more data. And it yields more questions. A hypothesis that proves false is just as valuable to science as the one that is proven true. The feeders’ positions are switched, and the chickadees continue to dine from the front yard feeder, the one with metal mesh and no perches. The hypothesis is unsupported — location of the feeder seems to matter more than the form of the feeder. Jenner innoculates a 9-year-old boy with cowpox from a milkmaid’s pustule, resulting in a mild illness with no rash, and, a few months later, he innoculates the boy with smallpox. The child remains healthy. The hypothesis is supported– infection from cowpox did seem to protect the child from smallpox.. Either way, hypothesis supported or not, the next step is another hypothesis and more experimentation.

Now, not everything is easily testable by experimentation. Some systems are beyond our ability to control conditions, leaving us with finding ever-more sophisticated ways to observe. Our understandings about the universe and its laws and age unfold because we learn to observe differently while developing new ways to observe. We smash particles together and watch the fallout, for example. Our knowledge about how life began and diversified on Earth is also observational, relying on fossil-hunters and increasingly sophisticated methods of determining the age of those fossils.

When does that cycle of observing and often experimenting stop? It doesn’t. After many experiments and accumulation of data from many sources, we start talking about knowing in a scientific way.  We are the best scientists when we keep in mind that we still don’t know much, and that our current knowledge is limited by the accuracy of its mode of discovery, the tools and technology of our time, the integrity of this scientific process, and the creativity and insight of those observing and asking questions.  The scientific method of observing, questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting is not flawed, but we are. We are prone to bias. We prefer not to be wrong. We see correlation and assume it is causation. We see patterns when none exist and miss patterns where they are present. We reach, seeing what’s not there, because we are so desperate to know. We make mistakes.

So, then, if we make mistakes, what is knowing in science? Knowing starts with observation and is furthered by repeated experimentation. It’s driven by data collected by those looking for fact and truth. (Hope and conjecture have no role in science. Anecdotes aren’t science either, for as the adage goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.) Knowing in science can mean understanding a theory, one of the big, broad theories such as those about evolution or gravity or germs. It can also mean understanding, as well as current research allows, the mechanisms behind the disorders and diseases that cause us to suffer and, at some point, to die.

Aside from the big theories and the basic mechanisms of action in biology, chemistry, the Earth science, and physics, knowing in science is tenuous and subject to change. We are perhaps most aware of this in medicine. Here’s an example from routine women’s  health care:

Recommendations for calcium supplementation, self-breast exams, and pap smears have changed drastically in the twenty-two years I’ve been practicing medicine. When I started working as  PA in family practice, we urged women to take 1200 mg of calcium daily to prevent osteoporosis, examine their own breasts monthly to check for suspicious masses, and get a pap smear annually to check for cervical cancer, starting at age eighteen. Observational studies followed by experimentation drove those recommendations, so most health care providers followed them. That is how medicine works. Large studies, preferably verified by other large studies produce reams of data that lead, after much discussion and dissention, to recommendations for practice.

Today, those recommendations have changed. Calcium supplementation is no longer routinely recommended for osteoporosis prevention, as it has a dubious role in preventing fractures while having a clear role in increasing kidney stones. While some women do find their own breast cancers, monthly self-breast exams did not save lives. Annual pap smears started very young led to over diagnosis of benign conditions and a corresponding unnecessary increase of the not-always-benign treatment for those conditions.

Was the science that drove those recommendations wrong? Yes and no. Yes, calcium plays a starring role in bone metabolism. Yes, women who notice a breast lump should see a doctor promptly. Yes, pap smears reduce the rate of death from cervical cancer. But because science is an ongoing process, and because doctors and scientists continue to question and continue to experiment, the book didn’t close on those issues in women’s healthcare. It stayed open, because that’s what science does. It remains open.

And that’s where uncertainty enters the room. No matter how much we know about the natural world, what we don’t know dwarfs that knowledge. The universe is vastly big, and our smallest bits of ourselves are so very, very small. We know so much. And so little. Science embraces uncertainty because without that uncertainty, without that examination of what is known, we would have no need to keep questioning and wondering.

Uncertainty in science is good. It is necessary. It is what brought science to be and drives science on. Without uncertainty, we remain frozen, without impetus to look again, without reason to wonder. We need uncertainty to move forward scientifically. But uncertainty can also drive us away from science, especially when science doesn’t yet have answers to our questions. The earliest people were uncertain when the moon eclipsed the sun, when stars changed position in the sky, when rains and winds brought death and destruction. They were uncertain why people died and how new life came to be. In that uncertainty, they built beliefs and rituals and stories. Before science had a codified process, uncertainty brought us religion, a way of understanding what we did not know and couldn’t explain.

I think we’d agree that the Jewish primary texts, the Torah and rest of the Old Testament, and the Christian primary texts, the Gospels and remainder of the New Testament, don’t explain the true origins of the world or explore the root causes of plagues, floods, or other natural disasters and wonders. Similarly, we don’t take as true the stories of the Hindu gods, with Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as actual forces in the natural world. We read these texts as history and literature, and while we may take those metaphors of creator, preserver, and destroyer to be meaningful representations of the process of our own birth, life, and death, we don’t confuse these with the actual forces of our natural world. We know those stories are stories, explanations from a time before the knowing of science.

But what about the god or gods or goddesses behind those pieces of historical literature? What are we saying when we say we believe in a god or goddess or an assortment of them? Belief is a trust, a confidence in something or some idea that is untestable and perhaps not even observable without generous interpretation. Some may believe in a deity who knows their name, who breathed life into them. Some may believe that an unseen deity protects them from harms, known and unknown. Some may believe that deity brings them trials and tribulations as tests of faith and devotion, or simply as ways to make them better people. And some believe that their loving, omniscient deity, giver of life, then calls them away from that life to something better — something unknown, unseen by anyone on Earth, somewhere where pain and suffering vanish and life never ends.

Whatever the narrative of the human life within that belief structure about the divine, it is a narrative designed bring comfort, order, purpose, meaning, and security. We all want those in our uncertain, unpredictable, sometimes chaotic and always finite lives. Belief in a divine force, something beyond ourselves and beyond the ever-evolving scientific knowledge of the world, can bring a sense of certainty to the uncertainty of our lives. Belief in a set of religious precepts ordained by an omnipotent God or beliefs in a single uniting force, connecting us all and giving us some power beyond our mortal limits, can help us manage the uncertainty of being human. Belief in forces outside our natural world can be amazingly soothing and helpful.

That’s where belief belongs. Belief is the language of religion. In that realm, it’s valid and sound, allowing one to hold close and valuable something untestable and ephemeral. While belief may lead a person to make seemingly scientific connections (the cancer vanished, so God exists), it should never — ever — be confused with the knowledge, however mutable, that science provides.

But, as I mention, we are uncertain, and we, as humans, are not so good at accepting that uncertainty. That’s what drives good science inquiry and, eventually, knowledge. It’s also what drives us to belief, the way understanding in religion when we should be in the realm of science.

Belief is a way of understanding the world, but it’s not appropriate to science or applications of science, like medicine. Uncertainty in the scientific  realm — and especially the medical realm — can drive us to claiming knowledge in ways other than scientific ways. When medicine doesn’t provide clear relief from symptoms, we may turn to those anecdotes from a friend or the friend of a friend or some guru on TV. In our uncertainty and often our fear, we may become prone to follow fads and  accept pseudoscience, sure that doing something — anything — is better than doing nothing. We cling to answers that go directly against the scientific process proven to be effective for over 400 years — simple answers, such as a specific diet or oil that cures everything. We read lists of symptoms from vertigo to fatigue, impotence to rashes, all linked to a single substance either used in excess or in deficit. Gluten and lyme disease and even vaccines get named villains for all that ails — while vitamin D and coconut oil become the new fountains of youth. (And, yes, gluten can be deadly to some and troublesome for others, and lyme disease is a real entity requiring medical intervention, but neither cause all medical woes, nor does Vitamin D or a fad diet fix all that ails us. And vaccines save lives. The World Health Organization attributes the measles vaccine alone to saving 17.1 million lives just since the year 2000 while not contributing at all to autism rates, according to numerous studies.) In the face of no clear answer or no easy answer, it’s easy to cling to what is not knowledge — It’s easy to cling to belief.

But we shouldn’t.  Belief isn’t the language of science. It’s not how we know what is under our feet, over our heads, or in our own bodies. And if we’re serious about holding science and religion as far apart as we can, if we’re committed to understanding that knowing in science can never be preempted by the beliefs associated with religion, we cannot mingle these ways of understanding the world.  

We hold science and religion apart because they are different domains in our post-enlightenment age. Science is built on observation, questioning, and experimentation. It requires constant uncertainty and scrutiny, testing and retesting, looking forward and backwards at the same time. It is a continuous process of uncovering knowledge that leads to more questions. It is about objective truths and the building of knowledge as understanding.

Religion also fills the void of uncertainty, but it fills it with belief. Untestable and often unobservable, beliefs may change across a lifespan due to experiences or new ideas or just need. Beliefs carry no burden of proof and offer comfort that, for some, lasts a lifetime unchanged. Belief is about that which touches our metaphorical hearts. Belief is personal, subjective, and entirely non-scientific. It can be what brings us comfort when nothing material, science or otherwise, can, but it should never be confused with the knowing that comes from science.

 

So here they sit, science on the one hand and religion on the other, arms stretched wide. 

And here’s our ways of understanding, knowledge paired with science, belief sitting with religion.

May uncertainty be with you as you hold those realms apart.

 

Why Church?

IMG_1277Why church?

I’ve asked myself that for much of the last year. Personally and professionally, change abounds. I’ve expanded my work from home and married the man I love. It’s been a good but busy time, with plenty for my hands and heart to do. For the past six months, I’ve found myself often at home with family, attention focused tightly at a time where that seems the most appropriate action.

Church has changed, too. The UU community I’ve called home for the past seven years has also gone through wrenching changes, with a loss of our minister last summer and a moderate loss of congregation in the process. Initially, part of church leadership, I sat through meetings and contributed to email discussions, watching conflict and division grow and wondering just what was right. Gradually, I pulled back, first leaving my committee chair position and then attending services only sporadically. During winter and spring, I dropped my son for his OWL classes (Our Whole Lives — a human sexuality series offered in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches) and spent services in the church gathering area, where I could tune in and out as desired. This summer, I’ve attended rarely, excusing my absences to travel and family consolidation time.

I’ve started to more deeply consider the question underneath my avoidance. Why church? Why should I get up each Sunday morning, the one day no one needs to otherwise dress and leave the house, and go to church? Why not stay home with my coffee, New York Times, NPR, and pajama-clad loved ones? Why drive twenty minutes to sit for sixty, sip coffee for fifteen, and drive another twenty home? Why do I go?

Seven years back, I had reasons, the first being a hole I couldn’t fill at home.  A life-long member of some Christian denomination or another, I was, seven years back, rather new to saying aloud that I didn’t see any evidence of a god. A reluctant agnostic, mostly closeted because I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the safety of a personal god, I was feeling loss. Holidays deepened the sense of loss, with Lent and Advent leaving me unmoored. Finding a congregation that was fine with my increasingly faithless status and offered a touch of ceremony to the big liturgical holidays relieved a bit of the chasm that came with jumping theistic ship. At least I was somewhere doing something vaguely familiar.

I came to that UU congregation with several searching friends. In my socially slow-moving, introverted style, I gradually found new friends and acquaintances.  I’d spent the previous decade and a half moving from parish to parish, never feeling settled. At one, I’d come to know a few families well enough to make coffee hour more than a dash for a donut for each kid, but I never found friends. I certainly didn’t experience the supportive relationships my parents had known and continue to know in their places of worship. At this church, I’ve had true friends, the sort where coffee hour can’t contain the conversations. The sort  that spread to the other six days of the week.

And the sort of friends that can sop up some of the sorrow of a slowly imploding marriage and soften a bit of the disaster of divorce. New friends and old held me when I cried. Sunday mornings because a refuge, a time and place I could let down and feel, for just a bit, cocooned from a reality I couldn’t believe was mine. I don’t believe in fate or a god that directs our lives, but I do believe in the power of two or more people gathered in love and in the balm of friendship. I imagine I’d have found a way through those terrible years without that place and those people, but I’m not sure I’d have made it through with much of my sense of self and dignity intact.

Of course there were the kids. Boys, young boys then, not the type to share their grief and confusion over bagels and fair trade coffee but old enough to feel a sense of community. I considered Sunday morning church and religious education to be a social as well as learning opportunity for my introverted boys. Over the years, I came to deeply appreciate the UU approach to children’s religious education. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and my children blossomed in that environment. Questioning was welcomed, the quiet, thoughtful sort as well as the more outspoken and even challenging type. My boys have done well there, learning lessons about respect, dignity, worth, and love, lessons that came through the members who taught them regardless of what the curriculum of the day was. As they’ve matured, they’ve taken on responsibilities that serve the congregation, learning that belonging to community means participating in the work of the community.

That’s good stuff. But, still, I’m asking the question.

Why church now?

I’ve settled comfortably and confidently into my agnostic, humanist view of the world. Holidays no longer echo emptily. We’ve largely left Easter behind, and Christmas has become a time for family. I don’t wake up the first Sunday of Advent longing for “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and I often find Fat Tuesday takes me by surprise and leaves with no pierogi or other indulgence, let alone a vice to give up. I don’t go to church to fill that hole. It’s filled itself with time.

My life’s settled down (for now) and with that calm, my need for sanctuary seems less urgent. I’ve found more peace within myself, although that’s still a peace that takes work, as I’m prone to angst and anxiety. Over the years, I’ve found more of that peace at home, in no small part because I’m sharing that home with a supportive and loving partner. I have friends, some from church, some from other communities, friends I mostly keep up with outside of the confines of Sunday mornings. And my boys? As the church has aged and the number of families with children has dropped, even with jobs they enjoy and adults who care for them, church isn’t offering them the companionship it once did.

Why church?

I’ve let that question flit in and out of my mind for a year. I’ve pondered it more seriously for the last several months. And for nearly a week, I’ve written and rewritten this piece, hoping to sort through that question a bit more. A sermon a week back, given by a long-time member who’s seen the place through many ministers and countless changes, provided me with a longer view. After a lifetime of mostly Catholic church experience, I’m new to the leadership and political engagement that many other churches require. I’d never watched a congregation grumble and feud. I’d never seen a member cry because of changes in ministry. I’d never sat at the meeting table, seeing how painful and divisive disagreement can be. Frankly, I’ve wanted to flee, missing my ignorance about the hard work it takes to build a church. I’ve wanted to return to the outside, where lack of engagement in process allowed me to keep my rose-colored glasses on or simply leave when things didn’t feel good anymore.

But this longer view makes me think yet again about my question: Why church?

  • Church, because it is a place where others who value religious freedom gather.
  • Church, because values of inclusion, equality, and justice always need a voice.
  • Church, because supportive community is built over time, not just used when in need.
  • Church, because working through pain, anger, and disappointment in community deepens understanding.
  • Church, because children thrive in an environment of thinking, caring adults who see them as competent and valuable.
  • Church, because stumbling and falling aren’t ends if we help each other off, address our hurts, and work together to heal.
  • Church, because it reminds us that community is larger than any one person, idea, or belief.

So I’m finding my way back to church. I can’t say my energy or enthusiasm is high, but seeing the place from a longer view nudges me to have more patience with the time we’re in. So I’ll show up on most Sunday mornings. I’ll ease into participation beyond that, parking my cloak of disappointment and reluctance on the hangers in the hall. I’ll have the hard conversations, listening to others and mulling over ideas. I’ll also look to the past, learning about what it takes to make a community last over a century and a half and perhaps helping to build that community’s future.

Informed by Faith

I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013. 

Reading:  Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)

Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse

Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.

My memory begins with church.  Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway.  My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams.  Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me.  In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.

Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade.   From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity.  It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.

I was born in the last months of the sixties  to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,.  The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal  and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin.  Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.

More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan.  We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.

During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel,  liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel.  As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults.  Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings.   Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand,  in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals.  I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of  God.  Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination.  With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.

Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.

Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I  stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle.  The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst.  But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with.  Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I  left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism.  This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity.  Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.  Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet,  become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.

A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community.  It asked for no commitment to God or creed;  it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.

Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does.  As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight.  Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of  life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity.  I found a home.

Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained.  I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.

Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..

Reverence.  Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.

The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two,  this urban child  lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.

It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound  when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear,  but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.

It is reverence I feel when I sit here on Sunday morning in a room of people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather for something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not to believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same. Reverence remains.

Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.

Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god.  I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.

As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.

and

God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.

Seeking anchors for myself and my boys,  I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.

Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went.  Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.

Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what is both before and beyond all that.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list  of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social.   It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.

Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.

When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us.  Jesus man or myth, remains.

Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual.  Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back.  I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.

But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry.  I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I  step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road.  When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.

Rational and Reverent

 I’ve written about the Nones (And Then There Were Nones), or religiously unaffiliated. With almost 20% of Americans fitting this description (and the majority of them socially liberal), is it any wonder that the Unitarian Universalists would consider how to attract these folks? Add that we’re a shrinking community (Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs), and it’s easy to see why all those unaffiliated people might seem like ready converts to Unitarian Universalism.

IMG_0144Can the rational and the reverent co-exist? A recent sermon about the Nones set me thinking about the relationship between the rational and the reverent, mindsets that at first glance seem to be in opposition. The sermon, Watering Down the Wine, by Rev. Alex Riegel,  focused on this population of the religiously unaffiliated and played with the idea that we could attract some of these people to our fold if we changed our language and mindset. True, we have a relevant and rational message of compassion and inclusivity that likely does appeal to many of those Nones (as well as liberals happily ensconced in their own faith traditions). But there are barriers. According to the Pew study, 88% aren’t looking for a church. Why they aren’t isn’t covered in the study, but I’d imagine it’s a mixture of feeling wounded from previous church experience, feeling no need to collect on a Sunday morning in a traditional setting, and a preference for Sunday morning in jammies with the paper and a cup of coffee.

We have coffee, and jammies would likely be fine with most congregations, but for the most part, we’re still all church, and rather traditional church at that.  And wounded? Some, but not all. Many have simply decided that they don’t believe what they were brought up to believe. They’ve embraced the rational, what can be thought and touched and turned around in the mind. Others, like me, arrive seeking, questioning the beliefs of youth or just wondering what is out there. Or wondering what isn’t. Either way, we’re theoretically in it together for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (4th principle, for those keeping track).

So here we are, built around the idea that the search is the real work of life. That said, I’m not sure how many UUs are actively seeking spiritual answers. We’re a rational bunch, sometimes ruthlessly, stubbornly rational.  Rational thinkers, wounded or not, make up the majority of those in the pews of a UU church, with spirituality and spiritual language largely abandoned or faced with skepticism. In his sermon, Alex suggested relaxing that tight rationality and considering adding some reverence. And he suggested re-thinking opposition to God, or at least to the traditional God. Replace some of the rational with the reverent, seemed to be the call.

I’m deeply rational. I’m also an agnostic who readily admits that I just don’t know the answers and am okay with not knowing. There is so much unknown in the universe, after all, and truths about it we take for granted today were the stuff of fantasy just a generation (or even a decade) back. I just don’t know, and that’s okay with me. I’ve long given up the “easy God” of James Kavanaugh, scholar, poet, and once-Catholic priest. I’m not bitter about the time spent with that comfort but not drawn back to it either. That’s the rational end of me at work. It’s the same part that doesn’t refer to being blessed and will commit to holding someone in my thoughts but not to praying for them. That rationality runs deep and strong, and it’s not wont to be pushed aside.

I don’t think that my rationality gets in the way of my reverence. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of me in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence, and the catch in my throat that comes is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless and trusts us to figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my dear friend’s eyes and am reminded that love is not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear but is fully available again and again.

It is reverence I feel when I sit on Sunday morning in a room of other people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same.

The rational may be the easy part for many of us, but the reverence is what keeps the rational from running losing our heart, reduced to reason only. The rational and the reverent balance each other, the latter reminding us that despite all we know, we don’t yet understand it all yet.  Our rational mind wonders and weighs, while our reverent mind celebrates the mystery, respecting what has been wondered and weighed and what remains unknown. It is the act of being reverent of the child, the community, the beloved, the stars, and humanity while understanding the rational underpinnings of it all that makes us more fully human than with either sentiment alone.

Rational and reverent. The Unitarian Universalist church appreciates both. This may not be obvious in our services and social time, with the rational language for more comfortable for most of us. So perhaps Alex is right. Perhaps we need to find the language of reverence to temper the rational. While that may be spiritual language, I don’t think it has to be. Perhaps more regular talk about awe and amazement, respect and appreciation, will bring us closer to expressing what we are more likely to note in the quiet of our hearts. Rational and relevant. Truth and meaning. This is the stuff of Unitarian Universalism.

Namaste.

Gratitude

A special thanks to Ministerial Intern/Intern of Ministry Michael Brown for an inspiring sermon on gratitude on November 18, 2012, available at uusermons.com. I’m grateful to you, Mike.

Throughout the month of November, kind people on Facebook with more focus than I are noting for what they are grateful. Starting the first of each November, a few of my friends take time each day to consider all the wonders in their lives and make note of them online. It’s a fine practice, but I’ll not join in since I’m nearly three weeks late and would likely start repeating myself after three days, given my short memory. Instead, I’ll take some time here to consider a framework for gratitude and the Unitarian Universalist while giving thanks along the way.

While Unitarian Universalists lack agreement on the deity question, I’d bet most of us could agree that gratitude, freely given from the heart, is a valuable practice. And while we also don’t all agree on the seven principles, I think these can serve as a template for our gratitude. Here’s an attempt at framing my gratitude in terms of those principles

Principle 1: We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This principle strikes me as the core UU principle, with the others springing from it. Christians are instructed to love one another as they have been loved by God. Unitarian Universalists are encouraged to continually and consistently respect the worth of everyone, not just the folks we agree with or like. In the light of gratitude, this mean appreciating the presence of the people in our lives, and not just the ones who touch it in a loving, compassionate way. Those are the easy folks for whom to be grateful. I’m also thankful for the driver who cut in front me in line at on Telegraph Rd., the tired and crabby postal worker who accepted my package, and the nasty-spirited commenters who belittle most of what I believe in. Why? Because these are the people who make me put this principle into action. They are the ones that make me breathe deeply and pause, perhaps then to remain silent or to slather with kindness. I’m thankful for these opportunities to practice my beliefs.

Principle 2: We affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Principle two is the practice of principle one. It’s how we demonstrate that we believe that people have worth and dignity. I’m grateful for the compassion others have shown me, for sticking with me when I’m less than charming or helping out when I’m just worn out and need some care. These acts of kindness remind me that I have worth and dignity often when I feel the least worthy or dignified. On a larger level, I’m thankful that as a nation, we’re finally moving toward offering equity to those who love another of their same gender. Finally, albeit slowly, the worth and dignity of this part of our population is being realized, and equity and justice are being achieved.

Principle 3: We affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  I am deeply grateful for the freedom I have within my Unitarian Universalist congregation to explore what spirituality means to me. I feel a sense of privilege to be surrounded by deep thinkers who take none of the wonder of the universe or live in it for granted. Between people and programs, there are plenty of opportunities to consider spiritual matters and plenty of conversation to share. Thank you, UUCF.

Principle 4: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. This one is easy for me to take for granted. Raised in liberal religion by spiritual seekers who were not afraid to look beyond the faith of their youth, I was taught by example the importance and value of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I’m grateful for family (Jewish and Christian) who afford me the same acceptance. I know I’m lucky in that. I’ve never had to defend my beliefs to family nor have I been told my path is wrong or invalid. For all of that freedom and support, I’m thankful.

Principle 5: We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and society at large. I’m grateful to have a voice in my church and in my nation. After years in Catholic churches where I felt like I had no say, being part of a congregation that supports democracy in religion restores my sense of ownership of my spiritual home. On the national level, I’m grateful to live in a country where, messy and polarized as it all may be, there is choice. I can vote for whom I want, and I’m thankful for that right.

Principle 6: We affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. I’m grateful that there are efforts made in this direction, by individuals, groups, and, at times, our government. I’m often discouraged by how deeply inequity, violence, injustice, and bondage continue to plague our world community, with discouragement turning to despair at points. I’m discouraged by my own lack of action, although I don’t even know where to begin. I’m thankful others have more courage and conviction on these issues, giving their time and talents to working for world peace.

Principle 7: We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I’m grateful for my sons, my family of origin, my family of choice, my friends, and my community, all who are integral strands of the web of my life. I’m thankful for the spot of garden I nurture (often poorly) in my yard and the bit of sustenance I receive from it. I’m grateful for those who farm the earth gently, remembering that we must take care of this fragile planet. I’m thankful for those who work to make sustainable energy sources more accessible and practical and grateful, helping to assure my sons and my sons’ sons and daughters will have futures full of light and heat.  I’m grateful for our tiny spot in the universe, the one that is Goldilocks-comfortable, and either the chance or choice that made this place possible.

Gratitude, structured over the days or within religious principles, is a valuable practice. It’s worth taking some time to take note, aloud or on paper or pixel, what brings us closer to truth, love, and meaning. It’s worth the effort and exposure to thank those who bring us those elements that make our lives even just a bit better. As I composed those last 1000 words, only a small fraction of what makes me grateful made it to the page. But it’s a start. And the time to be thankful extends beyond this Thursday or the end of November. For that — and so much more — I am grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pride and Humility (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 7)

Part 7 of a series of posts reflecting on the Vice and Virtue series of sermons at UUCF.

Tried this, and it really doesn't work. (www.savagechickens.com)

Lust and innocence.  Gluttony and temperance.  Greed and charity. Sloth and diligence.  Wrath and patience.  Envy and kindness.  Six vices with their six virtues down.  One set to go. Whew.  I’ve reverted to some rather slothful ways, given the last of the Vice and Virtue sermons, Pride and Humility, was given mid-May.  Perhaps I’m just wearing out on systematically exploring more of my shortcomings.  I do so much of that without a prompt, although reflecting on this series has guided that self-exploration.

“Pride is the mask of one’s own faults.”  This Jewish proverb began Rev. Alex Riegel’s sermon on pride and humility.  Using a mix of audience participation and teachings sprinkled with musings, Alex explored pride, individuality, and the separation from the divine that comes along with those.  He discusses healthy pride, which is pride in things one does well.  (I think it’s a fairly slippery slope from healthy pride to malignant pride, but I can appreciate his distinction.)

Pride is the mask of one’s own faults.  I like that.  So often,that in which I pridefully delight are the traits of mine that are most tenuous or underdeveloped.  I’ll hear a friend relate a frustration with a child and leap in with advice.  How is this pride?  It’s a way to look confident and sure of this messy business we call parenting that’s fraught with complications.  But how easy it is to lean back and say what someone else should do.  How reassuring to me, in all my parental insecurity, it is to confidently reassure another.

That action smacks of egotism, I know.  And as the words slip out of my mouth, I cringe.  After all, I’ve hardly mastered parenting.  My kids hardly behave ideally in every situation. We have as many hiccups as most in our day-to-day lives, often it feels like more.  I’d love to say my behavior as a parent was beyond reproach, but I have my ugly moments far too often.  I can yell, rant, and altogether behave in ways that would make Dr. Sears, Martha Sears, Elizabeth Pantley and a host of other connected parenting folks gasp in collective alarm.  I wasn’t raised by ranters and yellers.  Far from it.  I was actually, if my parents are to be believed, easy to parent.  I was eager to please, risk-averse, and altogether quite different from my boys.  Yeah, I was mouthy (and I still am), but that’s sometimes an asset.  Really.

Anyway, I don’t want to end up yelling.  I’m hardly PROUD of my irrational rants. Over 90% of the time, I can manage to pull out my good parenting skills (thanks to Sears, Pantley, good friends, and decent instincts) and parent knowing with healthy pride that I’m doing okay.  I’m respecting their personhood while maintaining authority.  Most of the other 10% of the time consists of a few “do it because I told you to” choruses alternating with verses about loss of computer privileges and the woes of poor planning/lying/food in one’s bedroom in a house that has ants.

Awareness it the key.  Awareness that in those areas where we feel most unsure are the same areas where we may find pride enter in.  Not false pride — just pride in what we have managed, sometimes with a struggle and always with massive imperfection.  Not healthy pride, which generally just causes us to smile in the mirror occasionally.  Pride as vice.  The kind of pride that messes with our relationships with others.  After all, most of our friendships, if healthy, are built on compassion, common interests, and respect all with a fair amount of reciprocity.  Pulling out the, “This works for me and will undoubtedly work for you no matter how different you and your children are from me and my children” card puts a monkey wrench in that mix.

No one's taking his jammies or meow.

With pride, you think you’re it.  The cat’s pajamas and meow all rolled into one fantastic package.  That’s a quite a trip down that slippery slope from healthy pride, where you recognize a strength but know you don’t have the market cornered on that strength.  In healthy pride, humility keeps that pride from being a vice.  It also keeps one from being a pain in the butt.  And when talking with a friend, humility is what makes one lead a piece of advice or anecdote with something similar to, “Well this worked for me, at least this time it did.”

Humility keeps one grounded.  Knowing you don’t know it all, that you don’t have all the answers, even about those fields that are your domain.  Twenty years ago — heck, even 10 years ago, I spoke and thought in more absolutes.  I confused my opinion or experience with ultimate truth.  As the decades have passed, I’m increasingly aware of how much I don’t know.  I’m also increasingly able to admit that there is much I don’t know.  Much of the humility I’ve developed is thanks to my kids.  First, they know a bunch of stuff I don’t.  One can read the sky with uncanny accuracy.  The other can ID swords and ancient weaponry with disturbing precision.  I can’t do either, but they’ve taught me a ton.  Second, they ask a bunch about things I don’t know.  In fact, “I don’t know,” may be my most often voiced phrase.  (No danger of pride in humility, here.  I really don’t like not knowing or being wrong, and my mouth tends to get me into pickles regularly.)

And that bit about pride causing separation from the divine?  I’m still foggy on what exactly I see as the divine, but whether it is the whole-bigger-than the parts community,the energy of the workings of the universe, or something else entirely, making this part tricky for me.  Pride certainly separate us from each other.  Pride is inwardly focused, leaving no room to look beyond the self.  Feeling sufficient in the self (something we’re encouraged to do in this society) lessens the sense of self as a part of a greater whole.  Call that whole Life, call it God, call it community — pride leads us to look in rather than out.  That view won’t lead to connection and interdependency.  With a healthy dose of humility, we see how we need each other, see how bigger community is than the sum of its parts.

So back to the key of awareness.  Simply being aware of times where pride separates us from others is a step toward better relations with others.  Being aware that we’ve not evolved to be self-sufficient islands leads us to better relations to our better selves.  Being aware of all our vices can lead to greater virtue and better relationships, human and divine, especially as we cultivate the virtues.   Innocence, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, and kindness.  All with a good dose of humility.

Namaste.

 

Envy and Kindness (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 6)

Part 6 of a series of posts reflecting on the Vice and Virtue series of sermons at UUCF.

I keep hoping I’ll find a vice that doesn’t resonate.  It’s not that I mind examining myself and finding spots for improvements.  It’s quite the opposite.  I’m an accomplished self critic, and these sermons have served as find fodder for my fault-finding mind.

Sermon #6 of the Vice and Virtue series, Envy and Kindness, were no exception.  Before I enumerate my envious ways, I’ll clarify terms.  Jealousy and envy seem to be synonyms, on first look.  The focus of jealousy is fear of loss.  The jealous lover’s energy goes toward concern that the beloved will be lost to another.  It’s not the having of the other that preoccupies the lover, but the thoughts of losing what one has to another

The focus of envy is not on loss but instead on wanting what the other has.  Material possessions and money are likely objects of envy, and one could envy another’s possession of a computer, car, or shoes.  Envy, at least for this discussion, goes a bit further.  Not only does the envious person desire the item the other has, envious one feels he or she compares poorly to the other person because he or she doesn’t own the item.  It’s a matter of having a hole in the self:  a hole that seems like it can only be filled by the stuff someone else possesses.

I’m generally not envious of other folk’s stuff.   Not that a new laptop, larger TV, or more fuel-efficient car wouldn’t be nice, but I don’t have my identity tied up with any of that.  Nope, I save my envy for life situations.  Why go for the obvious material things when you can envy whole lifestyles?

I envy intact, healthy families.  The kind with two parents under the same roof, working through the inevitable surprises that come with life, especially in a life with children.  Adults dedicated to personal growth and strengthening the family, with all its often-messy and unpredictable relationships it contains.  Not perfect families — they don’t exist.  Just adults that persist in adjusting again and again, weathering and even thriving in the storms all families face.  My heart hurts and my eyes fill just thinking about that.

According to the definition of envy, I have a hole that I think could be filled with this sort of family.  I can buy that.  I don’t spend much time thinking about the what ifs anymore.  My boys and I are a tight family of our own, and I’m accustomed to 24/5.5 parenting punctuated by two nights and one day off each week.  (One of the best parts of divorced parenting is the solitude of an empty house.  Shh.  Don’t tell.)  But I don’t think it’s ideal.  I still feel a gap.  Not every day.  Not as often as I used to feel one.  But it’s still there.  And I’m envious of those families I see with dedication to family, warts and all, and work to strengthen that primary unit. I’m envious of the tandem parenting these families can do.

I envy the ease at which many parent their children.  I know, all kids present challenges.  But I just want to plan a vacation or outing without wondering how many times my younger will melt down, overwhelmed by too many people, too much heat, or too much of something else.  I’d like to go to an art fair, a state park, or even run a series of errands without watching him constantly for overload, knowing if he crashes, we’ve stayed out too long. I’m envious of those who plan a trip for a week or a day without wondering how their nine-year-old will manage, whether it’s too much, whether it’s better just to do without.   Now,  I’d not trade my younger son nor his Asperger’s in for any sum.  He’s a bundle of strengths and weaknesses, like each of us, and I’m madly in love with the bundle.  But it’s an explosive package that requires contingency planning that sometimes wears me out.

Perhaps this envy illustrates a lack of acceptance of my son’s quirks.  I think the hole here is in expectations on my part.  I’d generally expect a nine-year old to weather the ups and downs that come with a series of errands, an unexpected place we have to go, or a vacation to a new place. Heck, others figure a kid his age (who looks “normal”, whatever that means) can roll with changes without much more than a brief whine.  But my son can’t, at least not yet.

The antidote to envy is kindness.  Primarily, I see this as patience with and kindness for ourselves.  When I feel my envy surge, it takes a good deal of patience with myself to bring me back to equilibrium.  Often, letting the feeling come and, generally within a few minutes, pass, is far more effective than fighting the envy.  I’d like to say I then reflect on what a loving, full family my boys and I are unto ourselves, but I’m not that centered.  However, I generally don’t proceed by berating myself for failing to maintain that ideal or anything truly ineffective than that.  I think part of the kindness to myself includes offering myself the chance to let the envy come and go rather than holding it tightly while pondering all my shortcomings and losses.

And the envy of families not struggling with a very challenging child?  Again, it generally passes with patience.  Kindness toward him, kindness from deep within me, helps, too.  He doesn’t mean to be so difficult to parent.  He’s not trying to be prickly and angry so much of the time.   He’s truly uncomfortable and anxious when these episodes occur, likely more so than I’ve ever personally experienced.  Much of this world is entirely unpredictable for him, and a good part is hard to interpret.  When I can extend kindness to him (even when he’s screaming at me), some of the envy and anger drop away.  I’m far from perfect at this, but I keep trying.

Six vices down, one to go.  I could envy those that live a vice-free life (or at least don’t need 1000 words to discuss each vice in his or her life), or I could extend kindness to myself.  I’ll take the latter, sure I’ll find more to contemplate number seven:  pride.

Responding to Osama bin Laden’s Death/Wrath and Patience (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 5)

Having retired early Sunday evening, I met the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on Monday morning.  A day late, I scanned the online edition of the New York Times, skimming for details, before clicking through to the video of Obama’s Sunday night announcement.

I’m sure he said what he was supposed to say.  I’m sure ending by invoking God’s protection of our human-created country is the politically correct way for the president of our country to respond.  Whatever one calls what is beyond the individual (God, Allah, Jehovah, Goddess, Ground of Being, or humanity), I don’t think that being blesses any one transient, human-created, humanity-dividing nation.  Especially when that nation is rejoicing the death of other humans.  Even when the target committed atrocious acts.

All that came to mind at that moment was Sunday’s sermon:  Wrath and Patience.  Wrath isn’t anger.  Anger is a feeling, a passing feeling, as is sadness, happiness, disappointment, worry, and a host of others.  If we pay attention to it or egg it on, it stays and grows.  Anger is a normal human response.  We all experience it, some of us more than others.  Anger, on its own, hurts no one.  It’s all in what we do with it.  Breathe through it, acknowledging the feeling and addressing appropriate internal and external triggers, and it goes away on its own.  Really.

Nurture it, feed it with thoughts and energy, call it righteous  and let it rule you, and anger can turn to wrath.  Wrath is the vice, not anger.  According Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, wrath is :

1
: strong vengeful anger or indignation
2
: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime : divine chastisement
Wrath is rage, often turned outward.  Wrath takes the feeling of anger and gives it the power to destroy ourselves and others, psychologically or physically.
I’ve experience wrath more times than I can remember.  Generally, the pattern is thus:  I sense a threat to my security from someone close to me, feel anger rising out of fear (of loss of control of a situation, of being misunderstood, or whatever.  I’m mad.).  I have a choice.  Either count to 10 or 100, breathing, letting the strong feeling pass into the ether with all other feelings or let it build.  Let’s say I take the latter.  I’m excessively verbal by nature, but when angry, my words can become more prolific and more biting.  The more I go on, well, the more I go on.  And on.  Ask my ex.  Ask my family.  They know all too well.
Somewhere along the line, anger morphs into wrath.  I’m indignant and everyone is going to get an earful.  My victims would say that my tirade is retribution enough to count as wrath, and they’d likely be right.  Caught up in my own selfish righteousness, I ride my own hot air.  It’s not pleasant.
The aftermath, for me, is remorse.  In particularly challenging situations (the ones that threaten my sense of self and security the most)are the ones where that wrath may cool and return at the least provocation, followed again by remorse.  It’s rather embarrassing to admit that pattern, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one to whom this occurs.  (An “amen” here would be quite comforting.)
Back to the killing of Osama bin Laden (and plenty of others along the way to him).  I’ll not debate the right or wrong of killing a killer here.  I’m a pacifist by nature and upbringing, but that’s not the point.  It’s not his death that shook me.  It was the response of the people, Americans, to that death.  The cheers and celebrations on the news in the restaurant we patronized last night.  The language used by reporter and our president himself:  “Indeed, al Qaeda slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”
That’s wrath.  Welcoming the death of another, regardless of his or her crimes, is an expression of wrath.  Wrath is a vice.  It doesn’t bring us closer to unconditional love.  It doesn’t bind us together, not out of love, anyway.
I knew no one who died on September 11, 2001.  I mourned with the nation while I held my infant in my arms, wondering what kind of world would there be for my son and his older brother.  As I rocked and nursed my small one, I watched the news as we bombed Afghanistan and sought out bin Laden.  I felt sorrow, fear, and uncertainty.  I felt confusion and despair.  And I felt angry.  Some of that anger was directed at the organizations that shape young people into killers and veil it in the name of any deity.  Some was reserved for my own country and the destruction we wrought upon an already poor and suffering nation in the name of justice and retribution.   But wrath?  No.
Wrath’s corresponding virtue is patience.  Patience with ourselves, that the anger we feel welling within us and threatening to boil over is transient, if we ride the wave and let it pass.  Patience with nonviolent responses on violent actions, reminding ourselves that nonviolence has a powerful history of making change.  Patience with the wrath of others, knowing how quickly we all can travel from feeling of anger to the irreversible and damaging actions of wrath.
So that’s where I am.  I’ve allowed my initial anger with the enthusiasm so many Americans expressed upon the announcement of bin Laden’s death.   So, too, has passed my anger with Obama’s response.   All that remains is patience for peace.

Sloth and Diligence (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 4)

Part 4 in a series of posts reflecting on the vice and virtue sermons at UUCF.

Sloth is easy:  easy to write about, easy to identify in my life, easy to see in the world.   Heck, it’s easy to be slothful.  I do it every day.   Sloth as vice is not, as the sermon states, about being generally lazy.  I’m sometimes good at that, too.  Sloth as vice is, instead “falling asleep; being lazy about one’s spiritual agenda.”   Ouch.  Slothfulness, per the sermon, moves one in a direction away from the self and is a resistance to getting on with spiritual work.  Yow.

I spend a good amount of time thinking and writing about my spiritual life and matters of the cave of the heart.  I enjoy reading about spirituality, although little of that reading is of sacred writings.  I seek and appreciate time to discuss my musings in blog posts and with a few friends.  I consider myself a spiritual seeker.

I don’t spend much time in formal spiritual practice.  I don’t take time to shut down my brain and just be.  My meditation times are brief, and sloth is part of the equation.  I could set an alarm and start the day with yoga, chant, and meditation rather than waiting for my younger to wake me when he greets the day, sometime between 7 and 7:30 each morning.  I could seek refuge in my room midday, taking just fifteen minutes just be.  I could take a few minutes before bed for stillness in the dark, letting the day wash away before I drop into sleep and prepare to start all over again the next day.

Is that sloth?  Perhaps.  But as I’ve noodled on this for the last several weeks, I’m not so sure it’s the serious lack of attention to my spiritual self that I initially thought it was.  My spiritual practice extends (or should extend) to every encounter I have with self, other, and world.  My spiritual practice includes the way I respond to a crabby child, the time I take to listen to the birds outside my window, and the kindness I afford myself after I’ve done the previous two with less-than-ideal attention and compassion.  Lack of attention to my relationships is sloth as well, and, if sloth can be graded on a scale, I’d put sloth in right relations as a more serious voice than sloth in personal spiritual practice.

However, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that if you’re not in a healthy spiritual place that you’re unlikely to be able to be in right relations with others.  I can maintain my recycling and earth-friendly gardening practices even when I’m totally out of balance spiritually.  When I’ve neglected my spiritual practice for too long, I’m still a polite driver, pleasant customer, and diplomatic meeting participant.  It’s the closer relationships that suffer the most.  It’s the matters closest to the heart that are out of sorts.  My children and my beloved take the biggest hits.  And I’m not as peaceful inside, either.  Not that I’m a screaming lunatic when I haven’t meditated in a while, but I’m more likely to slip into a snarky or angry response just when love and compassion are for what the situation truly calls.

There is a connection, although how one reaches that place of balance is up to one’s choosing.  A good kirtan session carries me quite awhile, and chant on my own works nicely as well.  Maintaining a meditation practice still eludes me, but I know I’ve reaped the benefits of the practice those times I’ve put the time onto the cushion.  For others, prayer is the answer, while some silent the mind by running or biking. Writing is part of my spiritual practice, although it’s too “in my head” to be truly transcendent.  It’s a big player, however.  When I’m writing regularly, I’m more at peace and better able to maintain healthy, loving relationships with others.  It may not silent my mind, but it focuses my mind to a single point — the words on the page.  For me, that’s restorative and centering.

The antidote to and corresponding virtue of sloth is diligence:  sticking to the path of mindfulness.  Mindfulness, or focusing attention one thing at a time, is the essence of spiritual practice.  Whether the mind is on the breath or the step,  the dishes or the crying child, the mind has only one focus.  That’s hard to achieve, especially in a world of chirping cell phones, tinkling email boxes, flashing TV sets, and even black and white e-book readers.    By diligently monitoring our minds and our hearts, watching the rabbit trails that lead us away from the person in front of us or the task at hand, we takes steps away from sloth and toward a compassionate, attentive life.

Greed and Charity (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 3)

Part 3 of a series of posts reflecting on the Vice and Virtue series of sermons at UUCF.

Nobody expresses unconditional love better than the Sufi poets. (Image by Mara from Flicker)

Nobody expresses unconditional love better than the Sufi poets. (Image by Mara from Flicker)

The third in a series of sermons on Vice and Virtue explored greed. While, as Rev. Alex Riegel pointed out, the root of lust and gluttony is pleasure-seeking, the root of greed is different. Over the last third of his sermon, Alex builds an argument I’d summarize as follows. Greed, the need to accumulate things, money, and even approval, stems from fear that one’s needs will not be met another way. It is “a compensation for a sense of scarcity in (one’s)self.” Secondly, charity, or unconditional love, the balancing virtue to greed, is the state of not needing, not having conditions on love. This virtue occurs when others are not a means to our ends and when our attachment to getting from another isn’t present.

As I’ve explored the part greed place in my life, I’ve felt a bit embarrassed, which is likely why it’s taken me a few weeks to get this post completed. As way of partial explanation but not at all as excuse, I’m a worrier. I’m a free-range worrier, shifting my focus of concern as life proceeds. As a student, I worried about getting good grades to the point of avoiding classes that I wasn’t certain in which I’d earn an A. As an adult, my worries shifted to money, and I worried about having enough in the bank to survive some disaster I couldn’t even imagine, such as disability making my then-husband and I unable to work; then about disease or special needs of a child that would require deep pockets; and more recently about taking care of myself and my children after divorce. Now I worry about retirement and my later years, although at 41 those are ages. I will stand by fiscal planning as prudent and responsible, but it is small step from careful to greed, and I am not certain I know where that line lies.

Charity may be that line, however fuzzy, between responsibly planning for the family and hoarding. Giving to others in time, goods, or money, without expecting anything in return:  that’s charity.  It’s a short bridge from charity to another way to look at this virtue — unconditional love.  Soon into Alex’s discussion of greed, he moves his focus to unconditional love, love without conditions.  Love of a child that doesn’t rely on needing the child to behave in a certain way or of a spouse that doesn’t rely on specific feedback from that spouse are two examples.

I interrupt these musings to supply some context.  I missed the live delivery of this sermon and was grateful to have a pair of 20 minute car trips during which to listen to this sermon in relative peace.  Both boys read the drive away, but then we came close to their Dad’s house.  It was dusk, and my younger needed to pick up his piano books at his Dad’s so he could practice at home.  Only he didn’t see why he should get out of the car to get them (his shoes were off, for reasons I don’t understand).  He thought either his brother or I should get out.  For his books.  That he left.

I blew up.

I blew up right in the middle of blissfully listening about the virtue of unconditional love. I was there, listening and nodding away.  Then I was gone, yelling at my younger guy who (it turned out) was afraid to walk outside in the dark alone, even just the 15 feet from the well-lit car to the well-lit door.  All I wanted was to listen about love and lack of need from others, and he had to ruin it with his big stink, darn it.  How dare reality intrude upon my mind like that.

It’s not like I recovered right away.  As he finally made his way up the walkway (his dad came to the door of the house, likely drawn by the noise of my yelling, so my younger felt safe to scurry up and get his books), my older said something that irked me the wrong way.  Honestly, he could have told me he loved me at that moment, and I’d have likely bitten off his head.   I recall what I took as a criticism of my parenting and snapped away at him, too.  Nice job, Mom.  Way to unconditionally love.

Okay, so I have some work to do here.  I know most of my rants at the kids have to do with me not feeling they’ve met my expectations, and a few are overflow from leftover emotion that has nothing to do with them.  I don’t have a goal to be all sugar to my kids all the time.  I’m their mom, not their best friends.  Sometimes the best way to love them is to tell them what isn’t helping them live in community with me and each other.  After all, unconditional love isn’t meant to be exhausting, and it’s not about folks walking all over you.  But I’d like to keep a better watch on the way I remind them of their responsibilities, leaning toward more charitable language and less, well, of the other stuff.  Even when it means missing part of a great sermon.