Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A New Year for Trees (February 11, 2018)



Putting Down Roots

When I first moved to Ithaca, I wanted to learn how to ground myself in a new place, how to put down roots and become part of a community.
So I found a yoga studio, registered to vote, got my library card, started to explore.
When fall came I remembered the beautiful colors from my childhood in PA
In winter I watched the strange shapes of the bare trees against the grey winter sky
In spring I was amazed at the profusion of flowers
and summer as the sky disappeared again replaced by a canopy of green.

As I walked the dog over our same path each day, past the same trees I noticed:
how the trees struggled that year of the drought.
After a hard winter, I noticed all the bare branches that never leafed out in the spring.
When roadwork season finally came to my block, I noticed how the heavy machines scooped up all the good black soil teaming with life, and replaced it with brown fill that nothing can grow in.
I watched with sadness as 4 trees on my block were cut down and replaced with spindly new trees that I watch to see if they are settling in okay.
I noticed how last summer when there was so much rain how the moss glowed a special kind of luminous green.
I watch the squirrels and the birds come and go.

Now, 10 years later, I feel very rooted, maybe too rooted because when I was all signed up for the Minister seminar last month, I was really dreading it.
When would I do yoga?
What if they didn’t have the right kind of oatmeal at breakfast?
What if I got homesick in a strange place with all those strangers?
When I complained to my friends that I had to go to a golf resort in Florida, they told me to suck it up.

As soon as I arrived at the airport, I noticed:
the trees- tall spindly things with mostly brown needles and leaves in their crown. I wondered if this was a particularly dry season, or if this was what they normally looked like in the winter.
I noticed the strange grey moss drooping everywhere,
I wondered if it helped the trees like the moss in my neighborhood,
or if it hurt the trees.
I arrived at the hotel very early, so as soon as I unpacked I set off on a walk.
At first I walked quickly, trying to walk of all those hours traveling.
I noticed that the trees were highly manicured,
and saw the fresh wounds where large limbs had been cut off.
I heard the whir of heavy gardening machinery.

I began to slow down
I noticed a tree that bent way over, arching over the path.
Finally I came to a stop in front of an older tree,
I guessed at least a hundred years old if it was like the tress I know.
The bark was thickly textured, many of the branches had died and broken off.
It had leaned way over to one side, and a row of younger branches were growing straight up, getting ready for that inevitable day, maybe decades hence, when the tree would finally give in to gravity.
It was draped in moss, and the strange fern vine had snuggled into its nooks in a joyful green.
I just stood for a moment and breathed deeply. I began to find my roots in this strange new place.


A New Year for Trees
On Wednesday the Jewish Tradition marks the “new year for trees” or Tu bishvat. So I thought it would be fun to imagine together a year in the life of a tree. Of course what’s happening in the life of a tree is right at this moment is different all around the world, so I thought we’d stick close to home. Here in the twin tiers, trees have slowed way down for their winter rest. Did you know trees need rest? If trees don’t get some time off, they get weak and die [p. 142].

As we wait eagerly for spring, the trees are waiting too, waiting and, amazing as it seems, counting! They need a certain number of days of cold, and a certain number of warm days before they will wake up. Have you ever noticed in the early spring how some trees are in full blossom and putting on leaves while other trees are still fast asleep? That’s because each tree has its own magic number.

Some trees are counting not days but hours- For example, beech trees don’t start growing until it is light for at least 13 hours a day. That means they have to be able to “see” light, and then remember how long it was light that day- wow. Because they have to sense this before their leaves come out, the hard scales covering the buds are transparent, allowing in just enough light so that the leaves can tell when it is time to start growing. [p. 149]

Just before the leaves open up in the spring, the water pressure in the trees is at its highest. “At this time of year, water shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.” They are so pumped full of water their trunks sometimes increase in diameter. – That’s why this is the time of year our friends who make maple syrup tap sugar maples.

I love watching the trees in my neighborhood as their first little buds swell, wondering which will leaf first, and who likes to sleep in. I love that special shade of green that leaves have in spring.

I love watching the progression of spring flowers. It’s not an accident that trees don’t all bloom at once; they take turns to make sure there is always food for the pollinators, and each tree has their moment for pollination. Once the flowers are pollinated, seeds begin to form- cherries, peaches, apples, almonds, walnuts, or the whirligigs that flutter off the maple-- all summer long they grow, ready to take their turn.

By early summer all the leaves have unfurled, gearing up for the big growing season. All summer long the leaves photosynthesize, using the sun’s light to turn water and carbon dioxide into food. To do this trees must breathe in Carbon Dioxide and breathe out air. How does a tree breath? Its leaves or needles act like lungs. They have narrow slits on their undersides that look a bit like tiny mouths. [p. 224] In a square mile of forest, trees breathe out about 298 tons of oxygen into the air. That’s the daily requirement for about 10,000 people. “So on summer days, every walk in the forest is like taking a shower in oxygen.”

As early as July, trees start slowing down their activity, because trees need moisture to eat, and before winter they need to reduce the moisture in their wood, because otherwise they might freeze and burst “like a frozen water pipe”.

Trees slow down their growth and start fattening up for the winter, just like bears or squirrels. They fill up the tissues under their bark and in their roots with food. Whenever they are full, they start “shutting up shop” for the year. For little trees, like wild cherries, this happens earlier, because they have less storage space. For bigger trees, they go on storing up food until the first frosts.

Another way trees get ready for winter is by dropping their leaves. Most trees take some time with this- they need to bring energy reserves back from their leaves into their trunk and roots. The chlorophyll, the substance that gives leaves their green color and allows plants to photosynthesize, is a precious resource, so they break it down into its component parts to store for a quick start in the spring. When the chlorophyll is pumped out of the leaves “the yellow and brown colors that were there all along” come out.

Some trees, like Ash and Elders, are so confident they will be able to find what they need in the spring, their leaves are still green when they drop them in the fall. Frugal trees like Oak trees suck every last bit out of the leaves until they are totally brown. Once all the reserves have been reabsorbed, the tree grows a layer of cells that “closes off the connection between the leaves and the branches.” And any breeze sends the leaves to the forest floor. All winter long, the fungi and bacteria are breaking down the leaves into the raw materials the trees will need in the spring.

Of course you know some trees stay green in the winter, those are called “conifers.” Instead of dropping their needles, they fill them with a kind of antifreeze, and coat the outside of the needles with wax. The breathing holes in their leaves are buried extra deep, so they don’t lose water in the winter when the ground may be too frozen to drink. Conifers shed only their oldest needles, and depending on the species, may keep their needles for as long as 10 years.

Then winter comes. The same storms that shut down our schools and make our roads dangerous make life dangerous for trees too. Have you ever been out on a sailboat on a windy day? The best thing to do if you are caught out in a wind storm is to take the sail down. When deciduous trees drop their leaves it’s like letting down their sails to reduce wind resistance, so the winds won’t pull them over. This is also a good way to prepare for snow; without its leaves, the tree doesn’t have to carry a heavy burden of snow. (p. 141) The conifers, who keep their needles are much more vulnerable to the pressures of ice and snow, and branches can crack, weakening the trees. Ice is even more dangerous. It’s so beautiful when the trees are coated with sparkly ice, but it’s dangerously heavy. The best protection trees have against storms is each other. When the wind goes through a forest, the “community stands together to help each individual tree”.

In a particularly cold and icy winter like this one I wonder about my trees, hoping they will be healthy and whole when spring comes. Like the trees, I am once again waiting and resting and counting until spring.

The Life of a Tree
“The main reason we misunderstand trees… is that they are so incredibly slow. Their childhood and youth last ten times as long as ours. Their complete life-span is at least 5 times as long as ours. Active moments such as unfurling leaves or growing new shoots take weeks or even months. And so it seems to us that trees are static begins, only slightly more active than rocks.” [p. 230] So says Peter Wohlleben in his wonderful book “The Hidden Life of Trees” which is the source of most of today’s service. [All page numbers refer to this book]

If you grew up in the suburbs, like I did, you have probably seen a shopping mall or housing development appear where trees used to be. A few little baby trees are planted, and you watch and you wait, and 10 years later, they are still not big enough to make enough shade for you to stand in. And you think “wow, trees grow slow!” Actually, those suburban trees are on the fast track. When a tree grows from a seed in the forest, a tree 8 inches tall might be 80 years old! In a forest, trees sprout in the shade of their parents, where there is not enough light for fast growth. [p. 32] But if they get in trouble, there they are at their mother’s feet connected through their roots, where the mother tree can pass on sugar and other nutrients if needed [p. 24]

Under natural conditions, trees 80-120 years old are “no thicker than a pencil and no taller than a person. Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the trees flexible and resistant to breaking in storms” [p. 33] preparing them for a long life.

When trees are old enough they begin making their own seeds, Maple trees start making seeds when they are 30 for beech trees that might not happen until they are 150 years old! [p. 29]

The young trees wait patiently until the mother tree reaches the end of her life or becomes ill. Maybe in her weakened state she topples in a storm, leaving a new gap in the canopy, and all the seedlings start photosynthesizing as fast as they can, growing sturdier leaves and needles that can enjoy that bright light [p. 34]. This lasts just 1-3 years, as all those youngsters who have waited patiently now race straight as an arrow toward the sky. Whichever of these teenage trees are the tallest and straightest will become the middle story of the forest.[p. 38]

All the generations in the forest are connected. “Tree roots extend a long way, more than twice the spread of the crown, so neighboring trees roots intersect and grow into one another’s” and in between these roots there is a whole network of fungi that “operate like fiber optic internet cables.” These connections help trees exchange news about insects, drought and other dangers. [p. 10] Some trees will even share food with other members of their species [p. 15] “Whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help” [p. 16] so they grow quite close together, looking pretty cramped to human eyes.

Until recently, humans had no idea that trees share and cooperate. Foresters would cut down trees in a group to space them out more evenly, imagining that this would help the trees who remain. But now the neighbors who were literally supporting them are gone, and the neighboring trees often fall over in the next storm or insect attack. Because trees are slow beings, it takes them 3-10 years to strengthen their own support systems in the absence of the neighbor they had been depending on. [p. 46]

Like humans, trees learn from the hardships they experience- yes learn and remember. For example, a tree that has never experienced drought will pump all the water it can out of the ground. But a tree that survives a drought learns how to ration the ground water, slowing down its growth to a more restrained rate, and then for the rest of its life remembers and repeats that thrifty behavior. [p. 45]

As trees get older their skin starts to wrinkle because as a tree grows in diameter, that outer protection must expand. Young trees have smooth bark, but as they age it wrinkles and deepens, starting from the bottom up. The outer layers crack way down into the youngest layer of bark that fits the girth of the tree. [p. 63] Moss loves to live in those wrinkles where they can suck up the moisture from recent rains. [p. 65]

As a tree grows older, after 100-300 years depending on the species, there is less new growth every year. It’s harder and harder to push water up the trunk, so instead of growing tall, they just get wider. If a tree can’t feed its topmost twigs, those die off, and the next storms sweeps the dead twigs out of the crown. Each year the process repeats until only the thicker lower branches remain. Eventually those die too. “Then one day, it’s all over. The trunk snaps and the trees’ life is at an end… In the years to come the young trees in waiting will quickly push their way up past the crumbling remains.”

But even after death the tree plays an important role it the ecosystem for hundreds of years; [p. 67] the dead trunk is as indispensable to the cycle of life in the forest as the live tree. For centuries, the tree pulled nutrients from the ground and stored them in its wood and bark. As soon as the snapped trunk hits the ground, thousands of species of fungi and insects join in the decomposition process and reclaim those nutrients. [p. 133] A fifth of all animal and plant species (about 60000 species we know about) depend on dead wood!

In our suburban and city lives, we rarely see a tree that has grown to a ripe old age. Most trees grown for lumber are cut down by foresters in as few as 100 years. We love stories about heroes like Johnny Appleseed or Wangari Mathai who plant trees for the future, but I believe it is just as important to avoid cutting down trees in the first place, especially trees growing wild with others of their own species. It’s not as glamorous as planting a new tree, but to allow a tree to live to be 500 years old, we need 16 generations of humans to just leave the tree and its supportive neighbors alone so it can pass to the next generation.

As you go out into the world this week, I encourage you to notice the trees all around you. Pick a tree you see each day out your window, or on your commute. See if you can notice it growing and changing. This will take patience, because trees are so very slow. But the New Year for trees marks an exciting time as buds begin to swell, and eventually leaves and flowers burst forth. Notice, and wonder and maybe offer a blessing as we begin this new year together.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Doing and Worth (January 14, 2018)


I love to get things done. I love that feeling of satisfaction I get when I complete a task- anything from folding a load of laundry to sending my column off to the editor of the Daily Review. Every year before the annual meeting I make this big long list of things we did together during the past year, and I feel proud of how much we do together.

Early in my ministry the size of that list felt important to me; I could prove my worth to my congregation with the many things I had done. The San Francisco Bay Area is a very busy place, and I felt swept up in a tide of busyness. Sometimes I swam on it purposefully, sometimes I barely kept up and sometimes it swept me under. Everyone felt this tide, and I think we all believed that this was the natural state of things. “I know you’re very busy reverend, but could I set up a meeting with you?” It made me feel relevant, part of the forward motion of progress.

It’s taken me 20 years of ministry to realize that non-doing together is just as important to a spiritual community as doing. Just because one meeting ends at 2:00 doesn’t mean you ought to schedule a second meeting at 2. If our goal as a congregation were to hold the maximum number of meetings, that would be very efficient. But it turns out some important things happen after a meeting ends. Questions get asked, the meeting gets digested, we stretch and move our long-sitting bodies, people catch up about one another’s lives. If I’m really being intentional about non-doing, I’ll go spend some time meditating, or just staring blankly into space. Like a weaver finishing a garment, ends need to get tied in, tools put away, the finished work celebrated and enjoyed before resetting the loom for a new piece. So it is with our less tangible work- our bodies, minds and spirits need that spaciousness. There are benefits to creating a little emptiness before filling up again with the next task, the next meeting. I always knew in theory that how we did things mattered at least as much as how many things we did, especially in religious community. What I’m finally learning, after 20 years, is how much non-doing it takes to give the “doing” the right quality of attention.

Our spiritual Direction group is a great example of this. We start with an optional half hour of silence, and people come into the circle and sit as they are ready. Each person gets a change to speak, and between each person we leave a period of silence. Some of us love the silence, some of find the silence difficult, but all of us seem to agree that the quality of the sharing and the quality of the listening is really special. Like a margin around a page of words, the empty white space helps us notice and focus on what is special, what is important.

Last summer, after I attended the last meeting, preached the last sermon and turned on the vacation reply on my e-mail, I didn’t know quite what to do with myself. Instead of trying to fill up my schedule with the long list of household chores that had been neglected in the rush to the end of the church year, I took the weekend really off. I decided that aside from the daily chores, I was only going to do things I really wanted to do so I sat and listened for that inner voice- what do I want to do? “I don’t want to do anything” came the petulant reply. So I sat on the front porch and read and started at a tree. I tried again later “what do I really want to do?” “nothing- Just want to go to bed” At the time I was worried- had I lost my joy in life? Was I sinking into a great depression? But I went and took a nap. By day 3 I was sitting in mediation when it hit me- I really did need to do nothing. I really did just need to catch up on my sleep. How lovely it was to have time to read a page of my book, and then let it rest on my lap as I watched the squirrels scamper through my tree. By day 4 what I really wanted was to mop my long neglected kitchen floor.

Clearly a balance is needed between doing and non-doing. We have to somehow feed and shelter ourselves every day, diapers changed, bridges built. But our American culture is out of balance. “Productivity” and “growth (numeric growth that is) are seen always positive things. But look at our landfills- we live in a society that is producing more than we can digest. It might be better for quarterly profit reports to produce more, but I think our bodies, our hearts, our eco-system could really benefit from a little more non-doing.

A few years back, a delegation of workers from the garment industry in Haiti came to speak in Ithaca, and the workers explained that even though there was a new minimum wage, few workers got it. For example our speaker was in charge of 2 seams on t-shirts. His quota was 300 dozen per day, which broke down to 900 seams per hour . So you could make minimum wage ONLY if you met that standard. Otherwise you had to stay late and finish up your minimum when you were off the clock. Folks who had never personally worked at piecing garments, had determined “production targets”[i]. When the labor activists questioned the garment industry executives they would say only “that number is an industry standard of production.” The human body, the human being actually producing those t-shirts is not relevant. If you can’t keep up you can’t feed your family.

As Gillian Giles said in today’s reading, our productivity and our worth are tied tightly together in our culture. Time spent not being productive is called “wasted time.” Giles talks poignantly about the pain of living inside a body that can’t “do” at the same breakneck pace. Whether you are worker making t-shirts, a student doing arithmetic problems, or a doctor whose insurance company has decided they need to see a new patient every 7 minutes[ii] we are rewarded and punished based on “how many” and “how quickly.” Even the folks at the top of their field, meeting and exceeding quotas experience the toll of this way of valuing life. And for folks whose bodies and minds can’t, our society seems to say they have no worth.


The first of our UU principles is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, (some would say every being). This is one of the most radical assertions of UU, and when we really sink down into it, is one of the most challenging for us to understand and reconcile with the world we see around us. It’s one thing to accept the statement intellectually, but sometimes every person wonders- even me?

In this room on any given Sunday we have a great variety of human capacities. We have folks who are able to enjoy a long vigorous hike, and folks for whom walking from their car into the sanctuary is a challenge. Not with us today are folks who were not able to get out of their beds, folks who need sign language interpretation, and we usually don’t have folks who can’t drive, because this area is designed for people with ready access to a car.

In this room with us today are folks who are right in the heart of their working years- who work for a paycheck most days. We are also people who are having trouble finding work, folks who have retired but stay busy, folks who are frustrated that they can’t do what they used to do, what they want to do, and we have youngsters who have not yet grown into the capacities that will someday be theirs.

And though we all generally covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all those kinds of people in all their capacities, sometimes there is a place inside us where we don’t believe it. A place inside where we feel like we have to earn our worth by striving and doing. But the word “inherent” means that it is woven right into us. It is part of our essential nature, part of who we are. [iii] Saying that each and every one of us has inherent worth is a theological statement- it’s not a science statement we can prove from data (as far as I know) It is an idea that comes from our Universalist heritage- that as Hosea Ballou wrote:
Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82)
Or for folks who are not so sure about this “god” business, there is something special about life itself. Every bit of it. The more we learn about the web of life, the more we see the subtle ways life supports and nurtures itself. An older tree in a grove gifts its very life substance to the younger trees around it, even as it is dying. When foresters tidy up the seemly unnecessary tree, a tree nearby, used to its support, fall over in the next storm. Every time we animals inhale and exhale we help maintain the careful balance of gasses in the air necessary for life. We don’t always know our impact or our use, but our first principle encourages us to have faith that our worth is something we are born with, it can’t be separated from us.

Try to call to mind a time when doing nothing was exactly the right thing to do….
  • Do you remember just doing nothing with your friends when you were a kid? Wasn’t that awesome? Aren’t you glad you did that?
  • Consider the joy a smiling baby gives, doing nothing at all but radiating life.
  • Even at work doing nothing is sometimes best; often when we are in meetings together I feel I must come up with the information, an answer for the question at hand. And if I can just wait, just refrain from speaking for a moment or two, someone else has a much better idea than the one I had on the tip of my tongue.
  • And when you are angry is a great time for non-doing, it can be very compassionate to the folks around you.
  • How often have I been glad I put down whatever I was doing and gave my full attention to my son, or a sound of a bird chirping, or the way the light filtered through a tree.
Doing is important, but for a healthy self and a healthy world it must be balanced by non-doing. Your life is valuable both when you are checking things off your do list, and when you are watching the snow fall. Your life has worth whether or not you are contributing to the Gross National Product. As the river of busyness sweeps you along, I challenge you to remember that doing is not the only worthy way to use our time, that sometimes just being is the perfect thing to do. More importantly- I challenge you to remember that from the moment a life is born until and even after it is gone, it is precious. As we grow into and out of our diverse capacities, know that we are all worthy.


End notes:
[i] Sweat Free Worker Tour of Ithaca 2013. For more about quotas read:
https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/03/11/work-faster-or-get-out/labor-rights-abuses-cambodias-garment-industry

[ii] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/20/doctor-visits-time-crunch-health-care/7822161/
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/22/opinion/the-doctor-will-see-you-for-exactly-seven-minutes.html
https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2014/05/10-minutes-doctor.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/what-ive-learned-from-my-tally-of-757-doctor-suicides/2018/01/12/b0ea9126-eb50-11e7-9f92-10a2203f6c8d_story.html?utm_term=.db8e9edcb974

[iii] “involved in the constitution or essential character of something : belonging by nature or habit : intrinsic”https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inherent

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What Mary Knew (December 3, 2017)


Readings
This particular Sunday, the minister asked us to join hands and to slowly start chanting “Om.” The resonance of the chant and the joy of belonging once again to a spiritual community made me feel, just for a second or two, as if my body had disappeared and I was lifted from the earth. In that momentary state of utter nothingness, I had a very clear and complete realization. I totally understood one thing: that we are all one. In that instant I knew that the whole universe is a seamless tapestry of people, animals, vegetables, rocks, and more—all sustained and nurtured by the Great Mystery. In the midst of this knowing, a voice said clearly, “For a moment like this, it was worth having been born.” The power of that essential awareness ended my feelings of isolation. I knew I was one with the universe and with all that is and that I must use my gifts to contribute to the welfare of all.
—Rev. Lilia Cuervo, Cambridge, MA

It happened unexpectedly, unsought . . . on an ordinary “ho-hum” day. On that crisp Spring morning I sat, alone, pondering the immense power and timelessness of the sea. After a while, the roar of the crashing waves, the kiss of the salty breeze on my face, the coolness of the sand beneath me, and all else in my conscious awareness just floated away. An overwhelming peacefulness embraced my whole being. In that moment, an intense experience of Self merging profoundly with what I have come to name The Spirit of Life was the entirety of all I sensed.
Our Transcendentalist forefathers and foremothers, process theologians, and others affirm such experiences as genuine. I have never doubted the authenticity of this deeply intimate spiritual experience. I carry with me the truth that we are interwoven in one intricate fabric of existence. We are all good. We are One.
— Rev. Christine Riley,

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary[a] said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
-- Luke 1:39-55 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Sermon

Mary is a controversial figure in the Unitarian tradition For some rationalists, the idea of the virgin birth is an example of everything that is wrong with religion. Many sermons have been preached and essays written about whether you can have a religious faith without miracles. I grew up in a UU church, and this was literally the only thing we ever discussed about Mary.

As I became interested in feminist theology, Mary took on new importance because here are so few important women in the Christian Tradition, and she came to embody the divine feminine in many cultures. We can’t afford to silence any of the rare female voices in our Judeo-Christian Tradition. Fortunately, as we consider the Mary we meet in the Gospel of Luke, we do so in our UU tradition, which views scripture not as a literal accounting historical events, but as poetry, as story, so I invite you to enter into the text today with me with that spirit. Almost by definition religious experience defies description. So we resort to poetry to gesture evoke a numinous experience. The story of Mary, as told in the Gospel of Luke, is one such story.

When we imagine the journey toward the divine, there are many conflicting ideas about what we might find if we came close enough. Many conflicting ideas about where the spiritual path ultimately leads. We may think of the hermit on his mountain top, away from worldly things, who meditates for 40 days with only his acolytes to come wet his lips with water every so often. We think of our own peak moments, like those experiences described in this morning’s readings, and we imagine that folks who are close to the divine must feel that blissful content feeling all the time.

Consider the religious imagery we see in the great religious artists, the glow of the saints, surrounded by angels, draped in beauty. At this time of year are surrounded by such images.
Luke 2 “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven”
Because most of us have never seen or heard an angel such as the artists portray them in beautiful paintings, we think religious experiences are things that happen to other people. We probably don’t think of comparing a moment of wholeness and peace staring at the ocean, or the profound bliss and connection to the cycle of life we might experience staring into the eyes of a newborn. but as Rev. Christine Riley Says: “Our Transcendentalist forefathers and foremothers, process theologians, and others affirm such experiences as genuine.” a “deeply intimate spiritual experience”

Anyone in the catholic tradition would affirm that Mary comes as close to God as just about any person could be. An angel visits Mary and says to her “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her relative Elizabeth greets her cousin with the words, “Blessed are you among women” And when I listened to the words of this story while on a recent retreat, after a weekend of silence, worship, meditation, contemplation, prayer, I was struck by how Mary responds in what must be surely a peak religious experience of her life. It begins as one might imagine:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
In our UU community, we have many names for the divine (and Lord is not often a favorite, because it’s so patriarchal) but whatever name we would choose to speak in gratitude at one of those peak moments, I think our first thought might be the same- thank you for this beautiful gift of a moment, thank you Spirit of life, thank you random chance in the universe, I feel so blessed to have this moment. Gratitude is a common response to mystical experience

But then, as I listened to this poem, I heard something I’d never paid attention to before:
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

In her song of praise, a full ¼ is praising God as one who brings down the powerful and lifts the lowly, who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. We could easily understand if Mary got a little full of herself- she is called “blessed among women” after all. An angel appeared to her and spoke to her- and now, at least in metaphor, she is full of the spirit of God, she is gestating the divine. One interpretation of this passage is a reminder of the importance of humility in the Contemplative tradition. Just as UU minister Christine Riley “sat, alone, pondering the immense power and timelessness of the sea.” When we open ourselves to the vastness of all that is, we decentralize our own small self- the self-image that seems so important to us in our daily dramas loosens a bit and we are able to see a bigger picture. When put down our own self importance, we are more open to “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 weeks after Mary’s mystical experience, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. I imagine that if you had been visited by angels, it would be easy to become overwhelmed with your own self-importance, to see yourself as better, wiser, more important than other people after an experience of this kind, but humility reminds us of our place in the whole of things. Mary’s song illustrates that she is not only able to stay grounded but she remembers those who are hungry, and she remembers the imbalance of power. When we are called to bring forth the spirit of life into the world, justice is part of what we are called to bring forth. As Lillia Cuervo wrote: “The power of that essential awareness ended my feelings of isolation. I knew I was one with the universe and with all that is and that I must use my gifts to contribute to the welfare of all. “[i]

Sometimes the spiritual journey, the inward journey are criticized as being self-centered naval gazing, and indeed it can be. It’s easy to use it as an escape from the world. We walk in the woods to let go of the bad news both local and global. We sit on the meditation cushion as a sanctuary form the difficult part s of life. There’s a danger to this- it’s called “spiritual bypass”- this is a term I just learned recently the "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks".[1] It was first used by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. This term usually refers to personal, psychological issues, but I think we can see examples of using spirituality to bypass dealing with unresolved issues, tasks and wounds in the larger world.

But ours is one of many traditions, many teachers who believe that the spiritual path, if it is true, leads us inward, leads us to the spirit, only to lead us outward again to the healing of the world. In this song, Mary has identified 2 things, as praiseworthy manifestations of divine power. One is an equalizing asymmetrical systems: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” [You expect to see this kind of line in the books of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures- it is a major theme for them. So maybe the writer of Luke’s gospel is linking her back to the prophets, to say that Mary, and the child she is carrying, stand in that prophetic tradition. ] By attributing to the divine the quality of raising the lowly and bringing down the powerful, Mary is saying a pretty revolutionary thing. Christianity is used by so many of the ruling class to bolster their claim to power, to validate and enforce the status quo, that’s why it was so moving to me -- to hear the widely venerated Mary praise the revolutionary aspect of divine power made me stop and look again.

Some of you will remember that one of our current UU Study Action Issues is about escalating inequality. It says in part: “Our Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition places its faith in people to create a more loving community for all, guided by ‘justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.’ Challenging extreme inequality has now become a moral imperative…”[ii] In our UU tradition we believe that if something is sacred, as Mary here is implying that rebalancing power is sacred, then our role as humans is to be co-creators with the spirit of life, to magnify the spirit of life. In this case, we are encouraged participate in raising up the “lowly” which each of us may feel called to do in many ways. You could say that in a culture based on white supremacy that working to dismantle white privilege is a way of bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Working for racial justice is a way of co-creating with the spirit of life. Or take this tax bill just passed by the senate- Every analyst agrees that this will mostly reduce taxes for the top 1%[iii] The only argument is about whether cutting taxes for the rich will lead to ballooning growth, or a ballooning deficit. So while most of our cultural images suggest that the best way to honor the nativity is to shop and decorate our homes, one way to interpret this passage of the bible is to celebrate the season is by calling your congress person to let them know how you feel about the tax bill, or by going out into the social hall after service and writing a postcard to your US Senators and telling them what it means to you to co-create a just world. [iv] And when your friends ask you want you’re doing for the holidays, you can say you are raising up the lowly and bringing down the powerful.

The other thing Mary lifts up is the needs of the hungry: “53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In her poem of praise, she acknowledges our hunger. Many bible commentators flip immediately to spiritual hunger. Certainly all humans have experienced a yearning, a hunger in their hearts … for wholeness, for connection. As Augustine wrote “restless is the heart until it rests in thee.” This is a reasonable point for religion to make. Consider the tv commercials we see this time of year, the one suggesting that this electronic gadget, this toy, and definitely a luxury car can finally fill that emptiness, sooth that restlessness. The spiritual point of view, however, sees that no material status, no material gain will satisfy that deep soul hunger. A good message for all of us in the “holiday shopping season.”

At the same time, to talk about feeding spiritual hunger without acknowledging the true fact that there are millions of people hungry in the world right now shows a kind of willful blindness. That’s why this is such a natural time of year to give to foodbanks and charities that support folks who are struggling. I’m so grateful to Judy for setting up our congregational service tomorrow with Food For Thought - at Lynch Bustin Elementary to pack up “ nutritional meals to students in need of food over weekends and school vacations throughout the school year”. For those of us who don’t experience hunger on a regular basis, it’s easy to loose site of the fact that according to the United nations “Globally, one in nine people in the world today (795 million) are undernourished” [v]

This advent season is traditionally one where Christians are invited into a time of inward contemplation, In the Catholic tradition Advent is a time of emptiness, a time of waiting. For observant Catholics, this means waiting to welcome spiritual light of the Christ Child into the world. But whether or not we identify as Christian, whether we are theists, atheists or agnostics, this time of darkness invites us to turn inward, to let go of the constraints of our individual dramas and striving, opening ourselves to 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; opening ourselves to the larger oneness of all that is, with gratitude, with humility. Not so that we can escape our troubles, but so that when we are drawn back out into the world we find our part in the divine work of lifting up the lowly; and filling the hungry with good things.

Endnotes
[i] http://www.uuabookstore.org/Assets/PDFs/3117.pdf
http://www.uuabookstore.org/UU-Mystical-Experiences-P18005.aspx
[ii] https://www.uua.org/economic/escalatinginequality/csai
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfHjzp0PxMI
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/26/senate-gop-tax-bill-hurts-the-poor-more-than-originally-thought-cbo-finds/?utm_term=.a08faf2de249
[iv] http://bit.ly/2jels7S UUs for Social Justice “Say no to fake tax reform”
[v] http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/