Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Gifts of Not Knowing (October 15, 2017)



When I was in Jr. High school and my friends were preparing for their confirmation or their Bat Mitzvah, it seemed, from the outside, like they had some very specific answers to their questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything. At my Unitarian Universalist church the minister taught a “coming of age” class and explained that in our faith tradition, we had to discern for ourselves what was true. All the adults in my UU community agreed that this was often much harder, that it was a much more challenging journey without clear answers, but that it would be worth it in the long run. So today I want to consider two questions about that assumption. Why is it hard not to know? And why is it worth it?

As a kid I often noticed that adults would make things up when they didn’t know instead of just admitting “I don’t know.” There’s a story that apparently I tell a lot because my son sees it coming a mile away- yes Nick, this is the one about the chemistry teacher. One day in high school chemistry class, our teacher was lecturing our badly behaved class about how things were transformed when they burned. “but why does it make light?” I asked. He gave an answer that didn’t really address my question, so I asked a follow up. Eventually he tersely explained that my questions would not be on the test, and I should cease and desist.

It was only decades later when I was watching a documentary that the narrator explained that there is a lot science still doesn’t know about fire that I finally understood- the chemistry teacher couldn’t answer my question because science hadn’t figured it out yet. So why wouldn’t the teacher just say that? To admit you don’t know you are admitting that you are human, that your knowledge is incomplete, that you have more to learn. Probably admitting any weakness in front of a hostile classroom of high school students who would rather be anywhere else did not feel like an option.

In my role as your minister, this happens to me all the time. You guys ask some great question about how John Murray’s theology was different from Hosea Ballou’s theology and I feel like I’m about to fail a pop quiz. I’m supposed to be the expert. How could you trust me if I don’t know everything? Usually I do swallow my pride, remember that ministers are not all knowing, and ask if someone else knows the answer, and failing that I’ll look it up and get back to you.

But some questions, like “what is the nature of fire”, just lead to more questions. In a recent Ted Radio hour Tabetha Boyajian, a professor of astronomy at Louisiana State University, was talking about some unusual transit patterns noticed in NASA's Kepler Mission data that scientists still can’t fully explain. Guy Roz suggested: “So science is more often than not about raising more questions than finding answers. And it seems like in this case, you still don't know what's going on…. That is great. There are more questions now than you can answer, which is better - which is great. Boyajian replied “Well, that's - yeah. That's science. [i]“ The first gift of not knowing is the curiosity, the open mindedness that leads to new discoveries, to whole new fields of knowledge opening up.

But the discomfort of not knowing is a whole other thing in maters of the heart. Recently I said to someone “I know exactly how you feel” and then mirrored back to them what I thought I heard them saying. I was humbled when they replied, “that’s not at all how I feel.” We don’t really know what any other person is experiencing, and when we can admit that to ourselves and to them, and be open to their experience with curiosity and compassion, we improve the odds that true connection can happen. When I am with someone I care about and they say “I am in deep in a financial hole I feel like I’ll never get out- what am I going to do?” I don’t know. “Why is my cancer back?” I don’t know. “What can we do about the mass extinction of species?” I don’t know. “What is the birth of my child going to be like?” I don’t know. Admitting we don’t know requires humility, and humility is just what we need to be available for life’s great mysteries and for one another.

I would much prefer to have a ready answer- 3 easy steps for healing from heartbreak, facing cancer, surviving economic inequality, and too often, that’s exactly how we do respond. We feel so powerless when we don’t know how to help, so we offer quick answers so we can exit that difficult place of unknowing. When I was pregnant with my son, everyone had advice for me, but as quickly became apparent, each birth is totally unique. The more advice I got, the more alone I felt with my actual lived experience that didn’t match what everyone was sharing about their own experience. Instead of advice, what might really have helped was some non-judgmental compassion. No matter what challenge we are facing, almost none of the friendly advice touches the fear, the sadness, the anger, the powerlessness we feel. But if we can take the risk of being a compassionate, non-judgmental presence with ourselves, and with one another and with the unfolding mystery, our hearts open and we feel less alone.

When you show up for someone in their uncertainty, don’t be surprised if you are touched as well. When we can be present to unanswered questions with an open heart, we open ourselves up to that scary, powerless feeling of unknowing, we allow that unknowing to touch us as it is touching our friend who is dwelling inside it. This is the gift of unknowing in our relationships to other people -- it has the power to transform both of us.

If you accept the notion that there is always a lot we don’t know about other people and their experience, even about someone as close to us as a partner or child, this unknowing is even more useful when considering the divine. I hear so many folks say they know definitively what God is like and what God wants. We try to organize God into tidy boxes, with systematic theology and hallmark cards, but as some theologians say, the divine cannot be tamed. God is wild. One of the hallmarks of UU theology is that we believe that revelation is ongoing. That is to say- the world is changing and evolving, we are changing and evolving, and the divine is changing too.

When I started my training as a spiritual director, I wanted to experience traditional forms of prayer. Having been raised UU in a mostly humanist church, instruction in prayer was not part of my religious education.. As I would sit down to pray, I felt awkward and I was sure I was making mistakes, not knowing the basic things everyone else knew. So eventually I began to pray “Spirt of Life, or whoever you are, whatever your name is, I don’t know how to pray, sorry if I’m doing it wrong, please show me how to pray.” I groped around like this for a while before coming across this little prayer by the contemplative Thomas Keating on my centering prayer app. It was such a relief to me that I use it now almost every day

“Here I am God, desperately in need of your holy spirit, please give me your holy spirit according to your promise. I don’t know how to pray rightly, so I just sit here and allow you to pray in me.” Keating is a great master, a great teacher who after a lifetime of practice offers a prayer not so different from the one I made in ignorance as a beginner. The ignorance and inexperience that seemed like an obstacle to me, turned out to have been a gift that opened me up to a deeper relationship with the divine.

As Gerald May says “It is precisely at those times of not knowing that we are most alive… If you really think about it, I believe you will see that your life is greater, more full and awake, even, perhaps more joyous at such times than at any time of certainty.” [The Awakened Heart p. 122] The more I read of the contemplatives and the mystics I see this theme emerging - that in fact not knowing is the only way we can begin to know the divine. The divine, by definition is different from humans. If we let our human knowing drive our inquiry, we could be looking in a limiting way, in a limited range. Not knowing if you believe in God is actually a powerful place to be on your spiritual journey. A mystic is one who is seeking direct experience of the divine. The root of the word mystic is the same as for mystery- And what is the first source of our Unitarian Universalist tradition “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Some UUs are still reeling from a time in their life when they said to a Sunday school teacher, or parent, or priest “I don’t know if that’s true.” And the authority figure replied “well you just have to believe it.” To many of us it seemed like making yourself believe something was the only way to get closer to truth, closer to the divine. Atheists often get stuck in their own box- we logically imagine what we would do if we were God, notice that God has not ended hunger and war, and thereby prove to ourselves definitively that God does not exist. But when we start with not knowing, our minds and hearts open, and the world becomes a bigger place. Just as admitting to your students that you don’t know creates space for everyone to be curious together; admitting that we don’t know about the divine is one of the best paths toward truth. Today we are atheists, agnostics and theists together. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that when we open our minds and hearts we will find something that we want to call God. I’m only saying that the more we open our hearts and minds, emptying ourselves of preconceived ideas and expectations, the better chance we have of being present to reality --the reality of us, together in this room in this moment with all that is here.

So if we don’t know anything, doesn’t that lead us to a kind of relativism where all ideas are equal, and we can believe anything we want? No, as a science journalist told my class full of theology students, we do actually know what mechanical principles allow us to build a bridge. And we can count on that bridge to obey those rules well enough to trust our bodies and cars and trains to it. When it comes to building bridges, not all ideas are equal, though our engineering gets better when we are open to new observations and ideas tested against reality. When we open to the world with curiosity we will meet… something. That something may be the sunrise that predictably comes later and later into the winter, the wounded heart of a friend, or the ineffable mystery of the spirit of life.

Back I was first thinking of going into ministry, one of my acquaintances mentioned that she had considered ministry, but didn’t have enough faith. I was surprised to hear her say that because in my faith tradition questioning was a strength. In the church I grew up in, “agnostic” was one of the choices you could check off on the survey. One of the gifts of being UU is that you don’t have to know. But until recently, I kind of thought of not knowing as something on the way to something else. We don’t know about the outcome of a scientific experiment until it is complete, but there is an expectation that someday we will know -- that we could know anything given enough time. Lately, I’ve been coming to a realization that not knowing is not just an in between place that must resolve into knowing, but that not knowing has its own gifts. Where knowing can give us the delightful satisfaction of wrapping our tidy box up with a ribbon, knowing allows us to be humble and curious. It allows us to keep our minds and hearts open; it allows us to stay present in the reality of the moment, even when that reality is confusing and uncertain. That space of unknowing is exactly where the soul grows and blooms. The spiritual journey, like science “is more often than not about raising more questions than finding answers. And that’s great.”




[i] http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=554105915

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Blessings for All Beings (September 24, 2017)



A Tree's Best Friend
(Note- this story is heavily drawn from my new favorite book The hidden life of Trees by )
 
I want to tell you a story about good friends- the kind of friend who would feed you if you were sick, and protect you if you were under attack.
The kind of friend who, if she had baked some cookies, would give you one.
Even though this sounds like a magical “once upon a time” story, it’s actually an amazing “you won’t believe what scientists are learning” story.
If a tree had a best friend of another species, what do you think it might be?
I’m going to vote for… mycorrhizal  fungus!
Not just any old fungus,
So far scientists have identified 75,000 kinds of fungus in the world, and they think there may be millions more!
some are enemies of trees- they would eat a tree as soon as look at it.
But the oak tree has a best friend called the Oak Milkcap
Oak Milk Cap - Lactarius quietus Photo credit Wild About Britain
To pair up with an oak tree, the Milkcap grows its fungal threads right into the soft root hairs at the end of the oak tree roots.
(Any fungus that symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant is called mycorrhizal )
A tree that has a fungus partner can gather up to twice the nitrogen and phosphorus as trees without- and trees need those chemicals to live!
and fungi get something out of the friendship too- Fungi can’t grow their own food, they get sugar and other carbohydrates from the trees-
sometimes up to 1/3 of the total food a tree produces for itself.
SO the fungi also help absorb heavy metals, which are bad for tree roots, and they help ward off intruders, like bacteria or one of those enemy fungi.
They really get to be dependent on one another. 


But it doesn’t have just one best friend, because the milkcap will roam through the forest floor finding other fungi, and other tree roots.
These fungal partners help make what is sometimes called “the world wood web”
One tree can have as many as 100 different fungi connected to its roots.
And the fungi many connect different species of trees.
And like our human internet, trees share information through their web.
They warn each other of an insect attack, so that trees can protect themselves by making chemicals that are toxic or repellent to the attackers.
They pass on genetic information so that the next generation can grow up more resilient against threats their elders faced.

That’s why when foresters cut down paper birch trees
their douglas fir neighbors suffered too.
The mycorrhizal fungi physically connect these two totally different species so they can share resources and help one another.
A tree that has a lot of sun can turn that sun into carbon, and then share the carbon through the roots with another tree who needs it through the web.
This web helps share nutrients and even water from a place in the forest where they are abundant to a place where they may be scarce.

Today, after you all are talking about magical beasts, we are going to stay and offer our blessings to all the beings,
like Mycorrhizal fungi, that we admire and love.
So I’m going to add this photo of the Oak Milkcap to our altar here and say
“I ask for your blessing for the Oak Milkcap, and all the fungi that partner with trees”
and then you will say “May the Spirit of Life bless _________”

A Blessing for All Beings
In the catholic tradition, it is common to celebrate a “blessing of the animals” near the Feast of St. Francis. For centuries people have brought their dogs or cats or goats and sheep to be blessed by a priest.

Today we want to draw that circle even wider. As Unitarian Universalists we know that we are part of an interdependent web of life that includes every being, from the smallest soil microbes, to the tallest oldest trees. From the scary shark to the snugly kitten. We know that even beings who don’t seem to have any connection to our human lives are part of a profoundly complex system of inter-relatedness, and are kin to us in ways we may never understand.
And so today we honor and bless all beings.

What does the word “blessing” mean to Unitarian Universalists?
First of all, it’s not something only a minister can do- we are all directly connected to the spirit of life which flows through us all. SO I am not going to do the blessing today, we will all do it together.

We who gather here are theists, and atheists and agnostics, so perhaps a blessing, for us, means simply to hold in consciousness and compassion. To imagine the light of life and love holding each of these beings, encouraging each to unfold in whatever ways life calls to them in the community of beings.

Some of you have brought with you a being for our blessing, or an object that reminds you of that being. Some of these beings are present in our lives right now, and we will ask for a blessing on their life, others have died or become extinct and so we bless their memory. 
I have some extra objects here for folks that would like to ask for a blessing and don’t already have something.
So as you feel moved please come forward and add an object  to our altar and say:
“I ask for your blessing for ___________”
and then we will all respond “May the Spirit of Life bless _________”

Friday, September 8, 2017

Waking Up White (August 27, 2017)


After the events in Charlotte, North Carolina, we all have some pretty fresh images in our mind of what White supremacy looks like. So if you were listening to NPR the morning after general assembly, you might have been surprised to hear a story denouncing White supremacy within the Unitarian Universalist Association. [i] And you might be surprised to hear me say that report made me proud --proud that our denomination is finally waking up to our white privilege, and to the ways that our policies and practices privilege white folks in our movement. Proud that in April and May 2017, more than 700 congregations participated in the grassroots White Supremacy Teach-In at their congregations.[ii]

Many white folks have asked- why use a phase like “white supremacy” which conjures up images of neo-Nazis marching in the streets shouting hateful slogans? My Facebook feed is full of photos of UUs marching in counter-protests, but we realize that those racist demonstrations are just the tip of the white supremacy iceberg. We are starting to wake up to the fact that we are part of systems of institutionalized racism that give white people an advantage in education, employment, housing, the list goes on and on. So by using the words “white supremacist” we are naming the fact that we participate in and benefit from a culture that privileges white people, at the expense of people of color.

It’s very easy for white people to live their whole lives without ever seeing this system. Debby Irving author of “Waking Up White” thought of herself as a pretty socially conscious white person but like so many of us slowly began to realize how much she didn’t know. “Not thinking I had a race, the idea of asking me to study my ‘racial identity’ felt ludicrous… I was nice and kind to people of all different races and cultures…I felt skeptical that examining myself could further my understanding of others.” [p. 30]

Debbie thought she knew the story of the American GI bill which provided benefits to returning servicemen after WWII, including grants for education, low cost mortgages, and unemployment. We barely have time to scratch the surface of that today, so I’m going to focus on education. Most of you probably know that when veterans returned from WWII, the GI bill allowed them to go to college for free. I asked my dad if anyone in our family benefited from the GI bill and he replied: “You bet, we all did. Paw and Alt went to school after War II, and I got it for between the Korean and Viet Nam wars. Mine was less substantial, but it really helped.”

Now here’s the part of the history that I didn’t know, and Debbie didn’t know.
“Though Black GIs were technically eligible for the bill’s benefits, in reality our higher education, finance and housing systems made it difficult if not impossible for African American GIs to access them. On the education front, most colleges and universities used a quota system, limiting the number of black students accepted each year. There were not enough “black seats” available to allow in the one million returning black GIs. In addition , many black families, already caught in a cycle of poverty from earlier discriminatory laws and policies, needed their men to produce income, not go off to school. In the end a mere 4 percent of black GIs were able to access the bills offer of free education. Meanwhile, the bill allowed my father go to law school without paying a dime.” [p. 13]

How much difference does going to college make? “… according to …an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree.”[iii]

That’s a pretty clear example of how institutional racism changed the economic futures of black GIs and their families. But that was over 70 years ago, surely that doesn’t have anything to do with us today, right? Actually it’s a clear example of how both privileges and obstacles get passed on from generation to generation. A 2014 College Board poll shows “Those raised by parents with college degrees were vastly more likely than those raised by parents without degrees to say that their family encouraged them to attend college.”[iv] People tend to do what their parents do- it’s what seems normal. As Nick, Eric and I were driving east to visit colleges this summer, I talked to my mom on the phone and told her about our adventures. She reminded me that neither of her parents went to college, and said she probably never would have gone to college if she hadn’t had that one teacher who encouraged her to apply. Because my parents went to college, it seemed normal for me to apply to college. My parents drove me all over the region looking at colleges and helping me with my audition tapes (because I was hoping to be an opera singer back then.) So it seemed natural that when my son got to be a teenager, Eric and I would hop in the car and drive him all over looking at colleges. Not only do we think of college as normal, because it’s what we did and what our parents did, but we know first-hand about the application process, and about SAT prep, and the financial aid process. That’s just one example of how privilege gets handed down from generation to generation, and how a bill passed in 1944 and the racist quota polices from over 70 years ago can still be effecting us all in 2017.

Questions for reflection: 
Did anyone in your family benefit from the GI bill?
In what ways is your life like your parents? In what ways is it different?


Unfortunately there is another layer under the surface that keeps this system of privilege running. It’s called implicit bias. These are the biases we all have; every person of every race has them and they are totally unconscious. [v] The researchers who first explored this concept, Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, had noticed back in the 1970s and 80s the answers people gave on surveys about racial bias looked as if Americans had made great strides, but at the same time the lived experience of people of color didn’t really improve. Why? It turned out that our conscious attitudes and our unconscious attitudes can be different, and these differences have real impacts on everything from how your doctor treats you, to loan officers who process your loans, to the judges that sentence you, to the teachers who teach you. (There’s a wonderful “Invisibelia” episode on this phenomenon[vi] .)

My mom’s story shows what an important difference a single teacher can make in the future of a child. Did it make any difference that both my mom and her teacher were white? The National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study showed that “teachers thought that African American students were 47 percent, and Hispanic students were 42 percent, less likely to graduate college than white students, the report said” and that “tenth-grade students in the NCES study whose teachers had high expectations were three times more likely to graduate college than students whose teachers had poorer expectations.” Let me put that in plain English- if your teacher, who may be the most progressive white person you’ve ever met, has an implicit bias that black students are less likely to go to college than white students, her lower expectations of her black students may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is compounded by one of those racist policy moves from the 1950s: in 1954 the Brown V. Board of Education decision courts required schools to integrate. While I learned about that civil rights victory in school, my history books never mentioned that following the verdict, white schoolboards fired a whole generation of black teachers, because white parents couldn’t imagine their white students having a black teacher. [vii] The black teachers who had historically challenged and supported and had high expectations of their black students were expelled from classrooms, and therefore that generation of black children and all the generations of black students since have not had the privilege most of us in this room have enjoyed of --having a teacher of our own race.

Question for reflection: 
Have you ever had a teacher that was the same race as you? 
Have you ever had a teacher who was a different race than you?

Thankfully, research also shows that implicit bias is something we can change. We can change our habits by slowing down and using the rational part of our brain, We can change our response in the present moment and we can change our habits.

Many white people assume that since black people are concerned about racism they should fix it. But Irving challenges that assumption- Only I can change my implicit biases. White people are in positions of power- not just the in the senate and congress, but in the doctor’s office, on the judge’s bench, or in the classroom. Irving writes “how can racism possible be dismantled until white people, lots and lots of white people, understand it as an unfair system, get in touch with the subtle stories and stereotypes that play in their heads, and see themselves not as good or bad but as players in the system? Until white people embrace the problem, the elephant in the room …will endure.” [p. 153]

Racism is like an elephant in the room that white people have been taught is not polite to discuss or even notice. Did anyone ever give you a dirty look for talking about race, or tell you it was not a polite topic of conversation? Some of us grew up believing that even noticing race- even seeing race was a minor sin. Good people didn’t see skin color. I remember at our house there was a lively discussion when the first ever African American coach lead a team to super bowl victory about whether it was polite to mention his race, or if that just reinforced our biases. In one of Debbie’s college classes she was asked to fill out a survey asking “how often do you talk about race with your family and friends” she chose “a couple of times a year.” she was amazed when a young black woman in her class responded “I couldn’t believe it when I found out white people don’t talk about race very day. I thought everybody talked about race very day. Not talk about it? How can you not talk about it?” [p. 101] All of us who thought we were being polite by not talking about race, who thought we were helping to end racism by ignoring race, turned out to be ignoring an elephant in the middle of our living room. And in not talking about it, we have sort of created this cloak of invisibility for the elephant. How maddening it must be for people of color when they say “hey, can we do something about this elephant in the middle of my life?” and white people reply “what elephant?” Last spring when concerns about racial bias in UUA hiring practices emerged, interim co-president Sofia Betancourt said “We found a religious community in a state of shock. The charges of racism in hiring shocked our community. Many white UU’s asked how this could be? But most UU POC were not surprised, only surprised that it had been called out. And that difference in reaction was itself a shock and challenge to our community that we want to call Beloved.”

Not talking about racism, not seeing racism is one of the privileges of being white. So it’s time for all of us who have been silent about race to join the conversation. And here are 4 guidelines for doing so:

First- humility. We have to admit that there is a lot we don’t know about how racism works in America, so when a person of color tells us how racism effects them, instead of the obtuse way white people often respond “are you sure that racism? Maybe you misunderstood?” Let us listen with open hearts and minds recognizing that there is a lifetime of things we don’t know about what it is to be black in America.

Second- Do our own work. As Irving says “Today’s work to dismantle racism begins in the personal realm. Until I began to examine how racism had shaped me I had little to contribute to the movement of righting racial wrongs.” [p. 192].

Third- Intent is not impact. Just because I don’t intend to hurt someone, doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for the impact of my words and actions.

Third- When it comes time to take action, remember that “the white ally role is a supporting one, not a leading one.” For centuries white people have swooped in and tried to “fix” whole cultures and nations of people with often oppressive results. This is why the 3 co-presidents “set ambitious goals for leadership by persons of color on the UUA staff. From less than 20% POCI overall, 30% is the new goal. And from less than 15% at the Executive and First Management level, we established a goal of 40%.” We can’t make real change to racist structures in our own UUA unless we have people of color “at the decision-making level.”[viii]

Irving so carefully demonstrates in her book that “racism is a problem created by white people and blamed on people of color.” [245] This is not a pleasant reality to wake up to. But we are a justice loving people who believe deeply in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, so we must wake up, and once awake must not become complacent. As Irving writes “when it comes to racism everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.”


Endnotes:
[i] http://www.npr.org/2017/06/24/534248664/unitarian-universalists-denounce-white-supremacy-make-leadership-changes
[ii] http://www.uua.org/pressroom/stories/find-your-onramp-uu-conversation-white-supremacy
[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/upshot/is-college-worth-it-clearly-new-data-say.html
[iv] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/04/are-college-degrees-inherited/360532/
[v] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303401393_Reflexive_Intergroup_Bias_in_Third-Party_Punishment
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/opinion/sunday/the-roots-of-implicit-bias.html
http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/
[vi] June 15, 2017 “The Culture Inside” http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia
[vii] http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/13-miss-buchanans-period-of-adjustment
[viii] http://www.uua.org/ga/off-site/2017/business/iiihttp://www.uua.org/ga/off-site/2017/business/iii