Author Archive for Bernard Norcott-Mahany

11
Sep
17

Pets Remembered and Present Pets

So, as someone who occasionally has to make posts about any given day being “National Such and Such Day,” I noticed that yesterday was National Pet Memorial Day.  Like a lot of “National Fill in the Blank Days,” this day was created not long ago by a group that had a vested interest in selling memorials to one’s pets — crematory urns and the like.  And the self-serving nature of the appointment of September 10 as National Pet Memorial Day put me off penning anything yesterday in honor of pets I’ve known and pets I know.  But I would still like to honor those pets I’ve known and who have passed on, and honor those pets I still have the honor of knowing on a daily basis. So I’ll take a few moments today to reflect on these pets.

Cats I have known who have since passed on: Tiger, Muu (the Unitarian Universalist Cat), Tanya, Toby, Sam.

Dogs I have known who have since passed on: Isis, Daisy, Marcel, Gramps, Otis, Pippin, Alice, Irma.

Some of these pets I have many fond memories of, while others, like Gramps, whom I knew for a very short time (he was an old pug we fostered while his new parents got a place ready for him — he stayed with us for only about a week), I have fewer.  Once a pet’s body gives out, something of the pet lives on in our memories.  So I remember Alice, the first dog I could really call “my” dog, as a pug puppy, when the first snow fell that year.  She charged out from our side porch into the yard, into shoulder high (for her) snow.  She was amazed at the snow and had a ball jumping into it.  And I remember Pippin, who had a strange fascination for birds.  She would go out and watch birds for long stretches of time as they flew about the yard.  And I remember Gramps, who spent a solid half-hour sitting on the couch, while I sat on the floor, my bald head within easy reach, licking my head until I could not take it any longer.  Those memories are still pretty vivid, but lots of the memories I have of pets are less so — just a flashing image and little more, and, as time continues its onward march, those images will likely fade a bit.  There will never, though, be a complete effacing of these guys from my memory.  Those memories, though they do provide some comfort and solace on the loss of pets, just as memories of our loved bipedal friends and family help console us on their loss, are one-sided.  Having memories is great, but being in the moment with our pets (and our friends) while they live is much more important.  For those are moments to be shared.  Not only do we take joy in the moment, but we witness their joy in those moments.  They are moments shared, while memories will always be somewhat private and individual things.

I become especially aware of this when I have pets who won’t be around much longer.  It does no good to dwell on pet (or human) mortality.  Death will come when it will, but that focus tends to darken the present moment.  Ideally, I’d like to be like that guy in the Zen story who falls off a cliff and is precariously hanging on to a branch sticking out.  Soon he’ll lose his grip and fall to his death, but he uses the moment he has to admire some beautiful flower on that branch.  Death is imminent, but he doesn’t let that imminence cloud the beauty before him.  That is my ideal, and I often fall short of that ideal, worrying about the future more than is helpful, and missing something in the here and now because of that fear.

Our current crop of furry friends include the pugs, Phoebe, Winchester, and Duke, and the cats, General Zod and June Carter Cat.  In a busy day, I don’t have much time for the pets, but what little time I do have, I try to make sure I notice the pets, and pet them, and share that time with them.  When I am at my best, I am fully there for my furry friends, and I find myself filled with joy and gratitude.  I’m not always as attentive as I might be, and those are missed moments.

The dogs, especially, take such great joy in the moments they have playing and eating, and they constantly remind me to take greater joy in each moment I have, to be present, and not miss something great.  It seems that each meal for the dogs is “the greatest meal” ever and they meet each meal time with an enthusiasm I rarely have for my own repasts (though I enjoy dinners shared).  And when they play, they are so caught up in that play that I am reminded to take delight in more moments in this fleeting life.

Currently, one of our pets, Phoebe, has cancer, and so the clock is ticking ever faster for her.  Of the three pugs, she is the one who retains the most of her puppy qualities even now.  I try to pay special attention to Phoebe and her moments of joy, as we cannot be sure how much longer she’ll be with us, though we are sure there will be less time than we’d want.  When Phoebe passes, we’ll still have great memories of this great dog, but as Phoebe reminds us daily — live in the now, celebrate the greatness of now, and don’t lose it in worry.  All the guys do this, but Phoebe is a master of glorying in the moment, and I honor and celebrate her as a great teacher, teaching by example.

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28
Mar
17

Economics 101

I spent the day today at a workshop for librarians and library staff on financial literacy, and ways we can help our patrons better understand their finances.  The day was full of information, and I’ll spend a lot of time processing it.

I do agreed that having a better understanding of money and getting better control of it is helpful.  Anything that helps one navigate the world better is good.

But as I sat there, I couldn’t help thinking that the premises of American policy, especially now, is based on false values and false assumptions.  I’m not sure I can quite put it together in my mind at this point, but I’m going to make an attempt.

When we began the workshop, we were asked, in our various groups to free associate on the word “money.”  I was the first out of the gate in my group with the suggestion, “is the root of all evil.”  In the Latin proverb, it is actually radix malorum est cupiditas (“Greed is the root of evils”).  Money itself may be neutral, but the desire for goods, something consumerism is based on — a consumer economy is based on the populace consuming goods, and always moving on to new goods as the old fail or lose their lustre.  This desire for goods, for things, to somehow take away the malaise we feel, or the sadness, or the hurt or pain, is ultimately false.  It is not that needed goods (a good bed to sleep in, or a good chair in which to sit, or a good book to instruct us or delight us) don’t provide joy, and don’t bring something of value to life.  But the sense that, if only I had the latest iPhone, or iPod, or big-screen HD TV, my life would be better.  That is false.  Goods as such cannot make us better, or even feel better long term.  That must come from within ourselves, and from the community of friends about us.  And the extent that desire for the best new thing causes us to feel envy or jealousy and disrupts our peace of mind and stirs up trouble between friends — well, you can see how that could be seen as the “root of evil.”  And when that desire becomes something insatiable, as we often see in the wealthiest among us — well, then it gets to be something of a disease, one fatal to a strong community.  Because then, the wealthiest feel that they are entitled to all their stuff, even if the cost of their having a surplus is that their neighbor does not have enough.  And those who are not the wealthiest, but who have drunk that toxic kool-aid, spend their lives trying only to accumulate wealth, no matter the cost to themselves and those around them.

I can’t help thinking that rampant capitalism as we experience it in the 21st c. and as we saw it in the final decades of the 20th c., can only lead to such a destructive pursuit of wealth at the expense of one’s fellows.  Growing up in Massachusetts, I was very aware of the fact that the official seal of the state does not refer to it as a state, but as a Commonwealth.  That word, even if not quite true, had its origins in the birth of the state.  The pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England had lots of flaws (religious intolerance being one of them), but there was a sense in those 17th c. settlers of shared risk and shared profit.  They were all in it together.  I don’t see that sense in many of those elected to represent us in Jefferson City, or in Washington, DC.  Especially amongst the Ayn Randian crowd, there is no sense of sharing.  The Randian superman should be unfettered in his search for wealth and power, and those who lack his super drive and ego, they should be satisfied if they can benefit somehow incidentally.  For the Randian superman, what happens to others is of no concern, for his belief is a selfish one, and he figures he owes nothing to his fellow man, but only to his own empire.

That view seems alien to my Catholic sensibilities.  I grew up Catholic during the 1960s, in a union household.  And there was a strong sense among the Irish, and Italian and Polish Catholics (most of the Catholics in Boston were one of the three) that Catholicism was all about a shared sacrifice and effort for others, and that, in the workplace, unions offered the same solidarity for workers.  Because the union and the parish was not made up of interchangeable cogs in some corporate machine (the capitalist view of people as “human” resources); it was made up of friends like Frank, or Dave, or Joe, or Mary, or Betty.  These people did not lose their humanity and become statistic to serve as part of the bottom line on some corporate spreadsheet.  They mattered as people, and as such deserved to be well treated and deserving of respect and care.

Even outside the Catholic Church, you can see that spirit in films like Capra’s Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  That was a common view in the 1930s as formerly middle class and working class families were working together to get out of poverty.   Those who did not share that view, but took an Ayn Randian view (like Mr. D.B. Norton, the newspaper mogul in Meet John Doe, or Sen. Joseph Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) were cast as the villains they truly are.  And yet, the party in control of all three branches of government at the present time seems all to ready to be just like the crooked Sen. Paine, interested only in making money for himself and his friends, and not caring about the “little guy.”  It’s like they saw the same movie I did, but wanted the bad guys to win, and currently those bad guys think (and appear to be) they are winning.  They may use populist words, but they don’t care about the “little guy,” not one bit.

And I can’t help thinking that some of the problem is with capitalism itself — when humans are seen as things, to be used by the powerful to help the powerful acquire more things, something is wrong.  Until we can see our fellow as friend and deserving, and not stand by those who would use them and us for some personal gain, until we can reject the false doctrines that lead us to devalue people and overvalue things, until we can see the brother in the other, none of which capitalism espouses or promotes, I’m not sure we can turn things around.

27
Nov
16

Being Hear: a Beat, a Bishop and a Buddhist…

Today I delivered a sermon at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, KS.  The text of my sermon is below, but as sermons often make reference to readings, I have included the readings too:

The first reading came from episode 3.5 of Route 66, a TV show from the early 60s:

First some context for this reading – Route 66 was a TV show in the early 60s, in which an Ivy League grad, Todd Stiles, traveled around the US in his blue Corvette Stingray with a streetwise guy with a beat sensibility, Buz Murdock.  When Buz takes time to help a rather non-descript guy lacking confidence, Todd doesn’t get Buz’ persistence, and he asks him why.  This is Buz’ answer:

“I don’t know.  I don’t really dig it myself.

Every one of us is born into solitary confinement.  We spend the rest of our lives sending out an SOS we hope to heaven someone else will hear.

This little guy – well, he’s coming in, clear as a bell.”

from “Voice at the End of the Line” Route 66: Episode 3.5

The second reading came from a book by Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

“A Cup of Tea”

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The third (reading) was a song, “For Real,” by Bob Franke.  Though I cannot replicate the wonderful performance of Jim Crist and Larry Beekman at the church, here is a link to Franke himself singing the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xqTWDSGe9U

And now the sermon itself:

“Being Hear: a Beat, a Bishop, and a Buddhist”

We are, every one of us is, born into solitary confinement.  There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life.  Both of those statements ring true to me; they resonate deeply, and have resonated for over half a century.  I was about 8 when the dreadful apprehension of existential loneliness hit me, as I waited on friends to come out and play. It came in a flash – the realization that I could never fully know another’s experience, nor they know mine. It is something many of us may be feeling here today – a sense of disconnection, of isolation. When it hit, the realization came as a big shock and dazed me for a moment.  I felt profoundly alone, trapped in my own body, no welcome feeling to someone with a touch of claustrophobia.  I didn’t share that moment or revelation with my folks, my brother, my teachers, not even the parish priest.  At 8, I lacked the language to communicate such a feeling.  And I didn’t share it with my friends, that day or any other – what would other 8 year olds think of it?  I was pretty sure they wouldn’t get it.  So I kept quiet.  Lest you think I spent the rest of that year, month or even day, in some sort of zombie-like trance – I didn’t.  My mind turned to play that day, soon after my friends joined me, and that summer, well, maybe, just maybe, the Red Sox were going to have a winning season.

Yet, as a Unitarian Universalist, I also have a sense of connexion, of the Interdependent Web of all Existence, or which I am, and we are, a part. This serves as a powerful counterbalance to the sense of loneliness that never fully goes away.  It is my brain and my eyes which see me as apart from the world, but my Universalist heart tells me I am a part of the world, if only I can hear its call to communion. And that call I often hear, here in this place, in this community, and I hear it now.

The urgent cry from another, the SOS Buz Murdock spoke of — that I think I can hear as well as anyone.  Then, I go into meerkat mode; my spider-sense starts tingling.  I’m not alone in being able to hear a compelling call of distress and in responding.  I imagine the same is true of everyone here.  That’s great, but somehow that’s not enough. I feel a need to cultivate a better sense of hearing, to get better at listening to others.

One of my listening heroes was a children’s librarian in the Onondaga County Public Library system in Syracuse, NY, Cynthia Bishop.  She was and is a great storyteller.  We came to be great friends through story.  She once told me a story about something that happened to her at work; I wasn’t listening well.  Oh, I heard the words, I got the story’s plot, but I missed signals she was sending, and I found something humorous as I visually processed the story, and I laughed.  That was a misstep, a misstep that almost cost me an important friendship.  She was graceful, however, and agreed to work with me on rebuilding our friendship.  In the discussions that followed she said something which hit me like the words Buz Murdock spoke, and answered my own truth flash at 8.  She said that, as she saw it, we “listen one another into existence.”

Physically, of course, this is not so.  But we are not just our biology; we are also the we we create in the stories we tell.  Our narrative we –our dreams, our fears, our beliefs – is something more than just our genetic inheritance.  It is something we create or share in creating.  And when our narrative selves and our stories are not heard, we see that part of us die a little.  The link to community is frayed, maybe broken for a while, and we feel that existential solitary confinement Buz spoke of.  Our prison walls close in, and we feel trapped even to the point of despair.

As Unitarians, even more so as Universalists, we know that respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of which we are a part is a principle we avow, and to which we pledge ourselves.  This sense of connection suggests an alternate way – a way out of our prisons, a way to join others beyond our walls.  One way of tearing down the walls that separate us, of reaching past our prison cells and helping others to do the same, of becoming aware of the interdependent web, and even of enhancing it, is to listen, to listen each other into existence and into freedom.

But listening can be hard.  A lot of our education, and we, as a denomination, pride ourselves on being an educated people, is geared to categorizing, labeling, and filing information.  Our learning is designed to hone our senses and our brains so we naturally filter out all sorts of things.  As we get older these habits get stronger, so we see no truth, hear no voice beyond the system our training has created.  We become like the professor in the Zen story.  As a renowned scholar proud of his knowledge, he had come to Japan to learn about Zen, but as Nan-in demonstrates – with a mind full of junk and preconceptions and Western truths, there’s no room to learn Zen – first he had to empty his cup, to let go of his preconceptions, and to listen with open mind and loving heart.

I was formed as an educated person by 10 years of Jesuit education.  There were lots of things I learned from the Jesuits, but their training made me a debater, a rhetorician.  Debaters don’t always listen to opposing views – they listen for weaknesses in argument; they aim to win.  In the contest of an actual debate, this is good strategy, but winning an argument on points is no way to build relationships; it’s no way to proclaim love, to build a loving world; it’s no way to listen one another into existence.

Pride, too, and certainty can get in the way.  As I grew up, the nuns and the priests repeatedly reminded me that the Roman Catholic Church was the “true religion.”  Well, it certainly strokes one’s ego, to hear that one is part of “the true religion,” “the true faith.”  But such pride and such certainty lead to closing our ears to the truths of other faiths, other religions.  In extreme cases, it can lead us to view those of different traditions, of a different ethnicity, of different backgrounds as “the other;” and we only reinforce the walls of our fortress (or prison), cut ourselves off from others, and relegate everyone to solitary confinement. In 2016 I think we’ve seen just where such thinking leads, to an us v. them mindset. There is a reason that pride stands atop the list of seven deadly sins.  It cuts us off from connection; it cuts us off from love. Such pride and such certainty is not the sole property of the Catholic Church.

Fear, too, plays its part.  When I was a kid, if I didn’t want to hear something, I sometimes would stick my fingers in my ears and start babbling loudly. If I only made enough noise, I wouldn’t have to hear an uncomfortable truth.  As a rhetorically trained adult, I’ve done and sometimes still do the same thing, but now I use words as barriers or weapons, keeping other views out, to avoid something I fear may change me, or my world.  The walls get thicker, and higher, and I feel no safer, just a lot more cut off.

We are now in the midst of the holidays.   This is a time when we can feel all the lonelier, even in a crowd of friends and family.  It’s a time when we offer up thanks, and opinions, and, sometimes, things are said that wound, or we remember all those wounds we’ve suffered from others.  Fearing we haven’t been understood, that others don’t get our narrative selves, we may shout all the louder.  They are likely to do the same.  In such a situation, even if we feel we’ve won, with superior logic, and well-marshalled points, we’ll feel wrong.  Winning the argument is no good if it cuts us off from community, or results in shutting our neighbors down, or boxing them in.  To build our beloved community, a community we see that we need, here and abroad in the world, we must listen to the “voice at the end of the line,” and weave our web together.

It will be a challenge, but we face challenges.  Though something of loneliness remains –there is “a hole in the middle of the prettiest life” – let us not obsess about that “hole,” or the distance that separates us, but rather let us focus on the greater whole of which each one of us is a part, and work together at weaving a stronger web of connection.

 

 

 

 

13
Nov
16

Not what I expected…

At times when I’m feeling down, and alone (sort of), and near despair, I go home, in my mind, to Boston to rest up, get centered, and get moving.

Of course, my feeling downhearted this time had a lot to do with the election results.  With the exception of my Missouri rep (ran unopposed), Missouri Senate (token opposition in KC), and US Rep, none of the candidates I felt were the better choice won.  In addition, constitutional amendments that will shrink the state’s revenue and make it tougher for people to vote passed.  Yes, Tuesday night was a bad night.  Wednesday was a difficult day.

And I’ve listened to people share their pain, and I’ve tried to get my mind around my own pain and fear.  And then, two of my Boston (well, Brookline, actually) heroes came to mind, and I took comfort in what they said, some 56 and 52 years ago.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy gave a speech in which he accepted the Liberal Party’s nomination for President.  In  New York State, there are four regular parties, the Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Republican Party and the Conservative Party.  Often the Liberal Party nominates the same candidate as the Democratic Pary, and often the Conservative Party nominates the same candidate as the Republican Party.  But not always.  In accepting the Liberal Party’s nod, Kennedy chose to define what being liberal meant to him.  It did not mean fiscal irresponsibility (the common charge leveled at liberals).  It did mean compassion for his fellow human beings.  Here is a brief excerpt from that speech:

“I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”  To read the whole speech, go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/jfk-nyliberal/

It is, in essence, a statement of hope and love.  It is rational and reasonable.  It is a statement that speaks to my heart and makes me want to shout “Amen” or “So mote it be.”

In 1964, speaking at the St. Patrick’s Day celebration of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Lackawanna County in Scranton, PA, Robert Kennedy argued for the Irish present, and the Irish throughout America to use their own painful history as excluded people (“No Irish Need Apply”) to guide them into accepting, helping and loving others.  This was a brilliant idea, wonderfully presented.  Growing up Irish Catholic in Boston, MA, I saw plenty of prejudice among the Irish I knew.  Though they may have felt prejudice from the WASPs that ruled Boston at the turn of the 20th c., they were now a large part of the ruling class in Boston and Massachusetts as well.  And, having made it, many saw no reason to extend a hand and offer hope to others, but rather saw them as interlopers.  I remember Barney Frank once saying of Boston that it was no accident that the Statue of Liberty was not in Boston Harbor.  Frank was clearly dismayed at that.  Kennedy, though, called to memory that distant past (not too distant) of exclusion, not as a way to justify prejudice (I have a feeling the Irish of Scranton were much like the Irish I knew in Boston) but as a way to excite compassion and justice.  He notes

“I would hope that none here would ignore the current:-struggle- of some of. our fellow citizens right here in the United States for their measure of freedom. In considering this it may be helpful for us to recall some of the conditions that existed in Ireland from 1691 until well into the nineteenth century against which our forefathers fought.” And he adds:

“It is toward concern for these issues — and vigorous participation on the side of freedom — that our Irish heritage must impel us. If we are true to this heritage, we cannot stand aside.”  To read the whole speech go to  https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/ag/legacy/2011/01/20/03-17-1964.pdf

And those quotations, coupled with a vision of my sacred Charles River, have helped me through the past few days.  In the days and years ahead, I think all of us will be called to be witnesses and champions of justice, not some perverted form that favors the few at the expense of the many, but for all.  We will need to find our voice and a way of speaking like that of Robert Kennedy at that dinner, encouraging one another, and especially those who did not vote as we did, do not think as we do, see other instead of brother, to come together for justice and freedom and equality, and let America be America again (as Langston Hughes put it). If you don’t know Hughes’ poem, here’s a link: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again

My initial feeling, in my post election shock, was one of judgment — “how could people be so stupid to fall for this con man?”  “Well, one day they’ll see just how wrong they were, and I’ll be able to say ‘I told you so.'”  Those are hollow sentiments, though.  I do think the country is heading into dangerous waters, but knowing that is not enough.  Doing what I can — speaking the truth as I know it, being a witness to those who have been abandoned or brutalized by an unjust system, and keeping my judgmental tongue quiet for a moment to find a way to get a message of compassion and hope through in a way it can be heard — even that may not be enough.  Judgment and fear have got us into this pickle, and will work no better for us at building freedom and justice.

When there is danger in a village, the village bell is rung, and all the villagers come together to meet the danger and save the village.  I hear that bell a-ringing now.  We cannot afford to let our village, our country, our world down.  Or, as JFK, in his inaugural address reminded America — “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what  you can do for your country.”

05
Oct
16

“Covenant…”

At Shawnee Mission UU Church, Lenexa, Kans., where I have been a member now for some five years, we are following a thematic approach to worship.  Each month, there is a theme to which the worship should be tied.

September’s theme was “covenant.”  As I haven’t posted in a while, and haven’t posted other than sermons in quite some time, I thought I’d take my own crack at this.  What does covenant and being in covenant mean to me?  It seems most connected to the Seventh Principle that promotes “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  At a very basic level, we are all in covenant with one another, in that we are part of a closed system.  Our actions, and inactions, have effects beyond ourselves.  As such, whether we like it or not, our connection puts us in relation with the rest of existence.  There is no way to escape this connection.  Some might look at this closed system as something like a “cage match,” where two fighters are put in a cage and fight until one or, sometimes both, I imagine, are unconscious.  One could acknowledge the interconnected web and still despise it, and still look at it as “every man (or woman) to him (or her)self.”  In this Social Darwinian view of the interdependent web, it would be our job to fight for our side and for our opponents to fight for theirs, with the fittest surviving and thereby bettering the world.

But such belligerent behavior seems to violate the idea of “respect” that is in the seventh principle.  One does not, I suppose, have to respect another to be in covenant with one another, at least in the sense of having some agreed upon set of rules.  Treaties between countries that cannot stand one another would constitute covenants established to halt, if only briefly, the fighting between them.  Our own Constitution is a covenant between the United States, some of which cannot stand other states or regions.

But is a covenant nothing more than a contract?  I think it is a contract, and I think that the more explicit we make the contract (always allowing for improvement), the more satisfactory that contact will be.  We all have stories and tapes running in our head of the world and how it should be, and none of those stories or tapes is likely a completely true representation of the world beyond our heads.  As long as those stories and tapes and assumptions are unstated, no discussion can happen.  By making them explicit, by trying to come to some understanding of what makes us tick, and enabling interaction between people, we can, I think, reduce the amount of suspicion and misunderstanding.

That is easier said than done.  Our stories, our tapes, our prejudices are familiar to us.  Right or wrong, they are part of us, and we hate to see them challenged.  In agreeing to enter a relationship with others, and into some sort of covenantal relation, we are opening up all that to possible revision, and that’s scary.  So the first step is acknowledging that a relationship already exists (due to the closed nature of the system in which we are located), and then, taking a leap of faith to say “I do” to community.  That, too, is not easy.  For some, solitude is very much a refuge, and community, even when we don’t expect monsters, is scary.  But this is a necessary first step to building community and building and maintaining a covenantal relationship.

Is covenant necessary?  I think that we are bound together as part of the interdependent web, and take that as a given.  Failure to establish covenant and to then try to live within the covenantal bonds established will have an effect — in looking out only for ourselves, we’ll tear and tug at this web. The web cannot break, but I imagine we can make quite a mess of it, making building covenant and growing community all the harder.

Unlike story, which is often set in the past, and often the distant past (“once upon a time” or “long, long ago”), covenant is very much story/definition in the present with a view to the future.  When we make a promise one to another, we do so partly out of self-interest, but also in a recognition that the other must be recognized and valued.  And, in daily keeping our promises (assuming these promises are well-intentioned and loving), we not only build community, but ourselves as important parts of that community.

07
Aug
16

“Dance Fever in Waltz Time”

Here is a sermon I delivered at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, Kan. on 7 August 2016.

“Dance Fever in Waltz Time”

In a favorite film of mine, L.A. Story, the hero, in a voice-over, muses that, for him, there are only three sacred places – the first two are the postcard sort of mystic places, but the third, a bistro on Sunset Boulevard, gets the designation for personal reasons.  As a person who “lives for revelation,” I have dozens of sacred places.  One such is the Common in Greenwich, Conn. for that is where I received an outward (31 May 1993 at approximately 6:10p ET and an inward (same date about 15 min. earlier) acknowledgement as dancer.  I had been with the Bassett Street Hounds, a men’s Morris team in Syracuse, NY, for just under a year when we went to the Mixed Morris Ale held that year in New York City and environs on Memorial Day Weekend.  At every stop, each Morris team would perform a short set of dances, and then, to top off the event, all who would were invited to join in a common dance.  The call went out:  for all who will, Bleddington “Young Collins.” This was the last dance of the weekend; I couldn’t miss it.  I grabbed my stick, a dogwood branch, with the “bark still on it,” and charged to join a group missing a # 5.  One of my fellow Hounds, a man called Rich, called after me – “Wait.  They’re doing Bleddington,” letting me know that this dance was in a tradition the Hounds didn’t do – the Hounds did Oddington.  But I couldn’t wait.  I rushed right in to join the dance.  I danced it, all right, with lots of mistakes.  When the dance was over, a pair of women asked me to explain what they had just seen, and I explained Morris dancing with some excitement.  When I got back to Rich, he said to me in wonder – “You really are a Morris dancer.”  At that moment, I felt almost as if I had been knighted, as if Rich, one of the founders of the group and the most expert of the dancers, had had me kneel, and had dubbed me with my own dogwood stick.  More important was that, in rushing in to dance Bleddington “Young Collins” I had already defined myself as “dancer.”

The previous summer, when I first came to Friday night practice, things were quite different.  I’m not sure what propelled me to that practice.  I was no dancer, but a klutz.  And yet, there was something that got me past all my excuses and into that practice.  I have no words to describe just how awful I was that night, but the name “Elaine Benes,” for all who know Seinfeld, comes to mind to hint at my godawfulness.

I’m not sure what brought me back the next week, and every week thereafter for that first year.  My rational mind was saying – you really suck at this – give it up.  The only thing I can think of that might have kept me going was the example of toddlers learning to walk.  I love watching toddlers learning to walk.  They are fearless.  They charge right in, and their brain is racing as they’re trying to coordinate all those motions that make for successful bipedal locomotion. You can see it in their faces – the concentration, the exhilaration when they make those first few steps, their hesitation when they’ve hit that moment of “what next?” and no immediate response is forthcoming, and they totter and fall.  And then they get up and do it again.

Toddlers know the importance of — we sometimes forget we know — that maxim from Swing Time – “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”  Somehow, that became my joyous mantra that year, and I was rewarded for my resilience.

But personal determination and resilience alone would not have got me to that memorable Memorial Day in Greenwich.  The patience of my teammates (the patience of saints) continued to pick me up, help me along, with a lot of carrying.  They could have taken me aside, and “let me down easy,” and shown me the door.  They did do not that, and to that brave band of men, I remain grateful.

In this church without dogma, learning to be UU can take some doing. It requires effort on the part of newcomers, and the patient and loving attendance on the part of old-timers towards them. And so I would say to those visitors today – be bold, explore your spirituality, here with us and with others, too, “till by turning, turning, you come round right.”  Oldtimers, let us not forget we were once newcomers, and be generous, and loving, and patient with newcomers and with each other in our dance.

From that Morris moment to a contra move.  There is a The New Yorker cartoon (from about 1982) by Jack Ziegler that I love. At a cocktail party, a man, wearing a “them” button, speaks to a man wearing an “us” button.  He says, “I’m surprised, Marty, I thought you were one of us.”  I love this cartoon because it confounds me – the guy with the “us” button is the “them” to his friend; the speaker with the “them” button represents the “us” here.  As a person who loves to play with language, I love that this cartoon plays with labels, while gently reminding us of how we carve up our world community into groups.

And language does that – language is an arbitrary system based on binary pairs like “us” and “them” – the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is all about the two of them learning about “difference” – the fall from Eden is a fall into language, a system rooted in difference and analysis.

Dance, on the other hand, though it can be broken down and analyzed – it’s what choreographers do – speaks to something beyond language, something rooted in the body, something prevocalic. In the dance, we are in the present moment.  If we allow ourselves to be swept up in the dance, we enter the zone, we touch eternity, we lose track of time, or have another perspective of time, caught up in the beat.  In dance, we lose that sense of separateness.  We become one with our partners, one with the music, one with all on the floor.  We are part of a dance; we are also the dance incarnate, the dance made flesh.

There is a particular move in Contra Dance called “Gypsy into Swing.”  In this move, you and your partner face each other, lock eyes, move towards and around each other coming slowly closer to one another until you meet and then spin around in a swing as a couple.  When I do this well, I can feel the other person, though we stand separate, as if she held some gravitational hold on me, and I on her. My aim is to enjoy that interlocked separateness for as long as I can. If I do it right, I can feel the tension constant, yet tightening, as we move into the swing.  And then, when we get to the swing –eyes still locked, my partner and I in close embrace go spinning, often quite fast. It’s important in a swing to maintain eye contact with your partner – it anchors you as you spin.  In the swing, I’m aware of moving, but also of a stillness at the same time; around me, I can see vaguely the other dancers in the line moving likewise, but they lose distinctness, and appear as colorful blurs and swatches of color. I’m also aware of the music, but at no conscious level, and can often sense just the right moment to break back into a line.

For the swing to work, each of the partners has to do his or her part.  To get momentum each partner has to give weight, leaning back against the partner’s arms, keeping a certain amount of tension.

And here I see a lesson for a non-credal church, one which speaks to oneness (in diversity) and to the universal.  We are each separate and all together as a community.  With that in mind, when we do fellowship here, we can discover a creative tension between our different traditions and our common heritage.  It is love that keeps us in community.  “We do not need to think alike, to love alike” as we like to say, and which we attribute to Francis David (probably wrongly).

And now to the movement and magic of the Spiral Dance.  I first danced the Spiral Dance in the dining hall at Rowe Conference Center in Western Mass at the CUUPS convocation on Columbus Day weekend in 1993 – the date: October 8, the time, uncertain, as I neglected to bring my watch with me.

The Spiral Dance is a dance aimed at suggesting the interconnectedness of nature, humans included, and at mimicking swirling galaxies. It is danced to celebrate and to recognize community and to build energy and power.

In the dance, which is best done outdoors, or in a great hall, a circle of people form a large circle and join hands.  The circle begins to circle in a clockwise direction. After some chanting and the beginning of music, the leader drops the hand of the person to his/her right and starts to move in a clockwise direction around the inside of the circle.  As the leader moves, the circle itself begins to move, and to coil up like a watch spring until the leader reaches the center.  At that point, she turns back on her path, and is now moving in a counterclockwise direction facing each of the other dancers as she moves back out, while the rest of the circle is heading to the center before each of them turns back as well.  Once out, another opening into the center becomes apparent and the leader goes once again into the center.  It is a dance I hope we do some day here – maybe in the fields out back.

It is a dance that has to be experienced – descriptions don’t do it justice.  And I can only speak to my own situation and perception.  The dance starts very slow, but as the leader gets closer to the center, the tension on the arms of each dancer gets greater and greater.  You can feel the pull of the dancer ahead, and the pull of the dancer behind.  That tension builds until you’ve hit the center and then it explodes outward, just as you are turning and looking at all the others in the line.  As the line moves, everyone in the line gets to be face to face with every other person in the dance.  At Rowe, there were easily 100 of us in attendance, but that dance joined us together as community, and revved us up for that weekend with Selena Fox.

But what made the experience in the hall on that night even more special was that, as we danced, we could all see in one corner of that dining hall a gigantic spider web in one corner of the ceiling – at least 5 foot in diameter.  It had been there all along, but we dined early that first day, so the tables and benches could be moved to allow dancing space, and without backlighting, the web was near invisible. As we danced and passed that corner, that great majestic web, lit from behind, came into view, and we each had a silent “aha” moment.  For me, whenever I hear the phrase “interdependent web,” I am transported back to Rowe in 1993, dancing in my mind, and seeing that great web above.

The spiral dance was, for Starhawk, a metaphor for nature, for the stellar galaxies spinning in the sky, and for the celebratory pagan practice that celebrates all that jazz.  For me, I can think of no better metaphor for community than a dance in which all are equal partners, where one can feel directly or remotely the power and energy residing in each person, oneself included, and where one gets to see every other member of the dance face-to-face.

I will not say that dance “saved” me, nor will I claim that dance in actuality or as metaphor can “save” anyone.  As a Unitarian for almost a quarter century, I know that I rely too much on my mind and on language and on reason.  Dance reminds me that I am soul incarnate, that the mind/body split is all in my head, and that I ignore my body to my peril.

 

03
Apr
16

April Fool’s again (seriously)

It was four years ago, on  April 1, which was a Sunday, I signed the Book at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church and became a member of that august body.  I’m especially remembering that day this year because I am part of the Search Committee for a new called and settled minister.  That process of calling a minister continues, and so, there will be no details here of any of our deliberations.  Searching for a new minister and recommending one to the congregation is a grave responsibility, and it has been a great honor to be a part of the process.  And it has been a great pleasure (and still remains — we’ve got work still) to be associated with the others on the committee (Alex Knapp, Don Skinner, Jim Crist, Penny Burdge, Spring Lenox and Tiffany Johnson).  Their willingness to share time and ideas and dreams has been humbling and inspiring.  It has been great to look through the packets of so many talented ministers, to read about their ideas and dreams and to get a glimpse of the witness they bring to Unitarian Universalism and the world.  It has been greater still to get to speak at length with some of those ministers and to listen to them as they flesh out their vision.  But it has been greatest still to get to know the members of the committee.  Not only has it been fascinating to learn more about each, but deeply moving to see them as they walk in the world and in the work of this church.  As we move closer to the time when we extend an invitation to one of those ministers, it is our bond as a group that matters most to me personally.  The committee is supposed to be representative of the congregation — the congregation in microcosm — and so, I’ve also come to feel closer to the congregation, even as we’ve been largely absent during this search process.  Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, was my first time back in a service, an Easter service (and Easter has a special part in my Unitarian story), and being back, during the hullabaloo of Sunday, was wonderful.  I expect today to be equally wonderful.

When I signed the book on April Fool’s Day, I did so intentionally (it was not a normal New Member Sunday).  The opportunity to sign the book on that day could not be passed up.  That might lead some to think that I don’t take my Unitarian affiliation seriously.  But I take foolishness and silliness very seriously.  I think that humor allows us to see parts of the truth which might otherwise go unstated or unseen.  When I am dead serious, the light of my reason may flash the more brilliantly, but the beam is often of a narrow focus.  When I am in a lighter mode, my vision is blurred somewhat, but has a wider scope.  And wider scope is what, for me, Unitarian Universalism is all about.  If we can laugh at ourselves, we embrace humility.  If we can share a laugh with others, we include them in community — we embrace hospitality and one another.  And if humor can get past the censors of our mind and help us see a better way, or see some flaw that needs addressing, well, that is all in the service of a greater truth.

So, four years ago, I signed the book at SMUUCh on April Fool’s day, in a spirit of play and joy.  I hope that no one concludes therefrom that I think don’t take our movement, or, more importantly, our people, seriously.  That would be, what we’d call in my Catholic upbringing, a most grievous error.

Happy April Fool’s Day — two days late.  But, it’s Sunday, and a sunny Sunday, so the wait seemed right.