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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Secret Lives of Flowers (June 4, 2017)


Roots
So this year as we celebrate our annual flower communion, we are going to take some time to get to know these plants a little better

One of the hardest things for humans to remember about plants is their roots. Because we don’t have any underground parts, we forget that for some plants as much as half of their body is underground.

This is the season when a lot of people are planting a seedling in your garden. Did anyone here plant any seedlings this year? It’s a good time to see what roots look like [Here I removed the seedling from its pot to show the roots. You can do the same thing at home.] you can see that this plant needs more room to grow.

Have you ever dug up a plant in your garden, to move it to someplace better? I always try to get all the roots, but the big roots we see are not all of the roots- there are also really fine root-hairs. I bet however hard you try, some of the root hairs are going to get broken or bruised when you dig up and re plant a plant. When you see a plant wilt after you re-plant it, that’s most likely because too many roots and root hairs were damaged.

Why does that matter? What do roots do for a plant?
  • bring up water from underground 
  • collect nutrients and minerals
  • anchor the plant
  • some roots store food and water in their roots- like carrots and beets
  • contractile roots- pull plants like lilies and dandelions deeper into the earth
Did you ever wonder how plants know to grow their stems and leaves up and their roots down? Apparently they sense gravity- and the roots are the part that sense gravity. If you cut off just .5mm of the root tip, it can’t tell which way the roots should grow, until the “root cap” grows back. So that’s another important thing roots do- they sense gravity.

They also do some things that roots do to help their eco-system:
  • roots loosen and aerate soil,
  • as they grow and die they build humus,
  • They hold on to the soil, preventing erosion- why should we care about that? Because it takes 1,000 years to make an inch of topsoil- the kind of soil that plants can grow in.[i]
So roots are very important, not only to the plant but to us too!

Stems and Leaves
So plants take in water and nutrients through their roots which travel up the stems to the leaves through vascular system- that’s the same word we use for the human body for our blood vessels.

One of the other ways plants are most different from humans is that they can eat sunlight. This is called? (photosynthesis) Both leaves and stems help with photosynthesis, but for most plants it mostly happens in the leaves.

The plant takes in carbon dioxide, through tiny pores in plant leaves called stomata. Just like humans breathe through their lungs, plants breathe through their stomata- carbon dioxide in, and oxygen out. Sunlight is absorbed by a green pigment in plant cell called chloroplasts – that’s where photosynthesis happens.

Since sunlight is so important to plants, a plant needs to know where sunlight is and move towards it. Darwin did a simple experiment to try to figure out what part of the plant sensed light. He took 5 seedlings
  • the first he did nothing to, so he could see what a plant would normally do
  • the second he cut off the tip
  • the second, he put a light-proof hat on the tip
  • the fourth, he put a kind of neck warmer on the middle
  • the last he put a transparent hat on the tip
The ones who had no tip, or whose tip was blocked from the light did not grow to face the light, and all the others did. So a plant “Sees” light with its tip and the middle part of the stem bends towards it- “photo tropism”[ii]

Plants also need to know when to grow and when to make flowers and seeds. They don’t have clocks or calendars, so how do they do it? Let’s say you had wanted to bring chrysanthemums, a flower that blooms in the fall, to flower communion today. Botanists figured out that plants are measuring not the length of the day, but the length of the night. So if you had a bunch of chrysanthemums in your greenhouse, and every night you interrupted the dark with a flash of light, the plants would think it was summer, and not yet time to bloom. Then if you stopped 2 weeks before flower communion, the plants would sense the long nights and think it was the fall, and start blooming.

Here’s something else that’s cool- plants know the difference between blue and red. The kind of light they grow toward is blue light, but the kind of light they need to tell the season is red light.

What part of the plant is sensing these flashes? Well those mean old scientists took all the leaves off a plant, and the plant did not respond to the red light. But when they shined the red light on any 1 leaf, the whole plant responded. So the leaves are the part of the plant that “sees” red light.

Flowers, fruits and seeds
Most plants have some things in common. (I say most, because every time I think something is always true, I learn about the exceptions) First they are babies, little sprouts with just 2 leaves, then 4 leaves. They add leaves and roots and grow in size and when the nights are the right length, they start to flower. That’s why if you go to a farmer’s market around here in May, the farmers don’t have any fruits yet- just greens like spinach. Then, when things are just right, the plants begin to bud and flower. Not all plants have flowers, only “angiosperms” – about 95% of plants are angiosperms.

A flower is the part of the plant or organ plants use to have make baby plants. Many flowers are showy and beautiful; bright colors, strong scents and sweet nectar, because they are trying to attract pollinators like birds, bees and other insects. They need the pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another to make sure every ovary has what it needs to turn into a seed. Once the flower has done it job, it withers and the real work begins- making a fruit. Any mature ovary containing a seed is called a fruit. Can you give me some examples? It turns out that technically a nut is a kind of fruit too!

When you go to the grocery story, it’s like a weird science fiction world where time doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables come from all over the world by truck and boat and train so that you can eat summer fruit in January, and September fruits in June. But if we watch carefully the world around us, we see that there is a progression of the flowers that is very similar but always a bit different every year. The pollinators, like the bees, count on this progression or they would sometimes have nothing to eat. In my yard, the first plants that flower each year are the snow drops. Then the crocuses.

Does anyone remember what they saw next this year? What is in your yard now?

What do you think you will see when the summer is hot? And in the fall?
They need the pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another to make sure every ovary has what it needs to turn into a seed. Once the flower has done it job, it withers and the real work begins- making a fruit. Any mature ovary containing a seed is called a fruit. Can you give me some examples? It turns out that technically a nut is a kind of fruit too!

Today we celebrate not only of the profusion of beauty nature offers up each year at this time, but of the beauty of community. We bring our flowers, each special in its own unique way- some cultivated, some wild, some modest some flamboyant. Each of them is a special gift and all together the make something even more wonderful. Like in this community of persons; each of us is a special, unique gift, and all together we make something even more wonderful.

Flower meditation
Take a moment now to appreciate that flower in your hand. Some of you have more than just a flower, you have leaves or maybe a whole plant.

Is this a plant you’ve seen many times before, or is it new to you?

What does it smell like?

If you like, gently touch the different parts, are they smooth, or rough?

Do the parts feel different from one another?

How many colors does it have?

If you were going to paint it what colors would you choose?

How many petals does the flower have?

Can you figure out where the stamen are- the part that produces the pollen?

Can you see any pollen there?

Are any parts of the plant withered?

Are there any buds that have yet to open? Let’s just take another moment to mindfully enjoy and to gaze on them with gratitude.

Blessed be


End notes

[i] http://www.childrenoftheearth.org/soil-facts-for-kids/soil-facts-for-kids-11.htm
[ii] What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13166639-what-a-plant-knows?from_search=true

Emotions as Big as the World (May 21, 2017)


Many Sundays someone comes up to the front of our sanctuary during Joys and Concerns, takes a rock and tells us about some joy or concern for the world. The birds are returning in the spring. The effects of global climate change, the oppression of people far away in a place we have never been. As one of your worship leaders I often feel torn about this. On the one hand, it’s my duty to make sure that worship takes about an hour, on the other hand, as your worship leaders it’s our job to encourage us to have a global consciousness. It’s important that we notice when the birds return in the spring. It’s important that we notice the strange weather we have been having. It’s a good thing when the plight of someone half way around the world touches our hearts. It reminds us that we are part of an interconnected web of life.

Every day we hear about truly horrific things around the world, and to be honest with you often when I hear about such things I don’t feel anything at all. Or sometimes they make my stomach clench up and I suddenly think of a chore I have to do in a different room. That’s why I was so surprised when a picture of a logging road through an old growth forest disturbed me as deeply as if it were an open wound on a human body. It made me sad and angry. I felt hopeless, and lonely and I felt like I was the only person in the world be upset by a logging road.

Our culture teaches us that this is not normal. First of all, we are not culturally comfortable with the difficult emotions. Perhaps you have experienced a loss or heartbreak and people around you tried to cheer you up with platitudes which imply that they would really like you to hurry up and finish grieving as quickly as possible? Psychologists agree that grief is an important process for healing loss. If we refuse to feel our feelings they don’t disappear, they creep into our bodies and into our relationships. The real need of our emotions and spirits to process our experience slams up against our cultural fear of having strong emotions. Even if we are determined to feel our feelings it’s hard to change cultural habits that are reinforced on a daily basis. For the past year this has been one of my most important growing edges; my whole life I have prided myself on being cheerful and positive. But eventually I realized that I was shutting myself off from parts of my own experience so that I could stay cheerful.

We have an additional cultural taboo to overcome as we grieve the “destruction of the world” – the taboo that only human losses should be grieved. Since I’ve been the minister here a number of us have lost companions who are dogs or cats, and so often when we tell each other this news we are apologetic- knowing that in our culture it’s not really proper to grieve too deeply the loss of any friend who is not human. All the more so, there’s a general rolling of eyes if you express deep emotion about the felling of a tree, or the loss of the coral reefs in the ocean. This comes from our cultures insistence that we are different, that we humans are separate from everything which is not human, anything that is outside our own tribe. And the reverse is also true; by severing our emotions from the living world we are able to do the things that separate us form the web of life. If it were sad to cut a logging road through an old growth forest, it would be harder to do.

Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher and activist, was one of the first Western thinkers I was aware of to suggest that, in fact, we are all feeling this great grief for the world all the time. We all feel sad about the loss of forests and woodlands. We all feel sad about the extinction of species. We all hurt when people around the world die from curable diseases because they didn’t have access to treatment. Macy suggests that because it is culturally taboo to feel these things, we learn to numb ourselves. We all have to be able to drive past a quarry and see not an open wound in the earth, but a useful and productive industry. Our numbness helps sustain the status quo.

Macy, and now a growing number of psychologists are suggesting that before we will be able to turn and face these crises we are going to have to feel some of those difficult feelings. As individuals and as a culture we need to let our numbness soften, and let our hearts open to the rips and tears in the web of life before we can do want needs to be done to mend them.

Recently I learned a form of meditation that I have started practicing whenever the opportunity arises to change those old patterns. When I notice an emotion I take a moment to just feel it- not to judge it or analyze it or think about it but to just feel the sensations of that emotion. Then I make a conscious choice to welcome it- even if it’s despair. Even if it’s anger. I just say inside myself “welcome.” I greet it with compassion and curiosity. And after I have gone back and forth between those first two steps for as long as I need, I let the feeling go.

A few years ago I was sitting at a wonderful environmental conference called Bioneers, the founder of a group called Forrest Ethics about the cutting down of the last old growth forests on the continent- the Boreal forests in Canada. Her slides of the beautiful living eco system, and the ravages of logging opened my heart like a key in a lock. She explained that it’s hard to find out exactly what happens to the wood that is harvested when a forest is cut, but they had managed to follow some of those old trees through the paper pulp mill to the catalogues they eventually became. That’s right, catalogues. We were cutting down the last of our old growth forest to make junk mail. Notice how you feel when I say that. Do you feel numb? That’s okay. DO you feel angry? DO you feel sad? DO you feel despair? All those feelings are okay. Just notice. Where do you feel that in your body? Just breathe and notice. Well I felt so mad and sad that day that I went home and wrote up a cover letter explaining where the paper for those catalogues came from and that I did not want to receive any further catalogues. Then I ripped the back cover off all my catalogues and mailed them back to the companies. Later that year my RE program did a teach in on where paper comes form and wrote letters to Weyerhaeuser, a company that was logging the rainforest to make paper. Without that anger, without that hurt, I never would have had the energy to do the little things I could do.

So I would like to suggest that we can apply this same welcome meditation to our environmental despair just as we would to our grief about a lost job or ended relationship. If we are watching the news and notice strong feelings, we can drop down and just feel those feelings. And then welcome them. Here’s an important point- we are not welcoming clear-cutting old growth forests, we are not welcoming the death of the coral reef, we are just welcoming our feelings about those things. After we get clear and centered in ourselves and in those feelings, it may come to us that there is something we want to do to change the circumstance that unleashed those feelings. Usually this is where I focus my sermons- on analyzing the problems and encouraging us to do something to help them change. I promise there will be many more of those sermons to come. But today I want to just focus on this very important and often overlooked part of the work, which is to allow ourselves to feel the interconnected web, in all its joy and sadness.

As Per Espen Stoknes writes “My point here is that there must also be room and space where the genuine despair may be expressed and heard. Maybe my anger needs to cry without being impatiently and prematurely pushed and bullied into positive thinking, quick fixes and social movements. Yes, we must make haste. And yes, we must make haste slowly… with the kind of deep questioning that allows the heart and the soul time to follow.” [p. 179]

This is how I’d like to use the rest of our service today. I’d like us to have another time of Joys and Concerns, this time for any part of the web of life we feel connected to. And I’d encourage us to start our sharing by saying “I feel” – to help ground ourselves in our feeling. For example, “I feel angry and sad and hopeless when I see the way the living soil is treated in my neighborhood.” and I would encourage everyone else to just see how you feel as I say that. Even if you feel numb, that’s good to notice. Just be present with that.

I want to say a special word about anger. There’s a lot of anger in our political discourse right now- and that seems about right to me. But sometimes what we do when our feelings are too painful to feel is that we focus them “at” someone. I would challenge you to sit with that feeling of anger- focusing on your own experience instead of on blame. For example. I feel angry and afraid when I hear the EPA is being cut back. So I’m suggesting that we just feel whatever feelings arise in our own bodies.

And of course there is always room for our feelings of joy and connection; it is the joy we feel as the trees fill with leaves, that gives us the desire to stay connected with the web of life.

[At this point in the service we spent some time in contemplation, and then shared with one another our joys and concerns about the whole interconnected web of life. I encourage you, dear reader, to take some time to do the same. After reflection I encouraging you to share your joys and concerns with a friend, in prayer, in your journal, or on social media.]

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Change the Story (April 30, 2017)


It’s time to change the story. Whether we are watching the nightly news, reading our twitter feed, or enjoying a popular novel, the stories we have been telling ourselves recently and for many years have not lead us where we want to go.

Why does it matter what story we tell? Stories shape our expectations—If you thought you were in a horror movie you would know never to go into a dark place alone. But if you are in children’s fantasy novel, that dark wardrobe might be the start of an amazing adventure. If we expect something to happen, and we see a path that leads in that direction, it seems natural and right to follow it.

Stories shape our attitudes. We could look at, for example the Rich Housewives of Atlanta and say “I will never be wealthy and famous like them, my life is unimportant. I lost the great lottery when I was born because I’ll never experience that.” Or I could look at the exact same life and notice that I have a roof over my head, and food to eat, and a community of people who care for one another. I could remember that even Americans at the bottom end of income inequality live better than 68% of the world’s population[i], and we could be filled with gratitude for our amazing good fortune, and spend our lives trying to share the amazing gifts we have received. I can't seem to find that one on cable though... The stories we tell give meaning to our experience.

One of the most important stories of our time is the story we are telling about Global Climate Disruption. Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian Economist and Psychologist, has taken on the question- if Climate Change is such a big deal, why aren’t we doing more about it? He came to a number of very interesting conclusions, using research from a wide range of disciplines. One of the findings that spoke loudly to me is that when we tell ourselves over and over that the apocalypse is coming, it renders us feeling too powerless to act. He writes “climate messages have been unpalatable because they – in their apocalypse form – evoke fear, guilt and helplessness…. Any story that tells me that my identity and lifestyle are wrong and destructive will be subconsciously resisted.” [p. 149] “When Climate change is framed as an encroaching disaster that can only be addressed by loss, cost and sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid the topic. We’re predictably averse to losses. With a lack of practical solutions, helpless grows and the fear message backfires. We’ve heard that “the end is nigh” so many times, it no longer really registers” [p. 82] We tell the story so often that “it’s all going to hell” hoping it will spur us to action. But instead of driving us to work harder, we are paralyzed by despair.

David Korten, author, activist and former professor of the Harvard Business School, identifies 3 basic stories that he believes underlie 21st century American life.[ii] He talks about the “distant patriarch” story- in which a distant God is running the show and is “Creation’s sole source of agency and meaning.” This is the story folks are living inside of when they say “we don’t need to worry about Global warming- God will take care of us.”

Then there’s the “Grand Machine” story, which Korten says comes from the lineage of science; the world is just one big machine, driven by its own mechanisms and random chance, without purpose or meaning. We humans are driven by evolutionary self-interest to pursue profit and financial security for ourselves and our genetic line. “Economists urged us to turn to money as our ultimate measure of value and look to markets as our moral compass.” If you live inside this story, it’s hard to imagine any future for ourselves other than the inevitable depletion of the earth’s resources for our personal profit.

Then there is the “Mystical Unity” story; all that we experience is only an illusion, all that is real is our one-ness with the divine. If you live inside this story, you have no obligation to work to turn back climate change, because our world is only an illusion. A life of meditation and prayer is the only sensible choice.

I do agree with Korten that these 3 stories are very powerful in our times, but I look at Korten’s 3 stories, something doesn’t quite fit our story as Unitarian Universalists. I think the UUs have always found gaps those stories. We’ve long challenged the Distant Patriarch story, arguing since our earliest days that humans have fee will and what we do matters. As a religion born out of the enlightenment, we often fall under the sway of the great machine story, but we tell a different version. If the machine has no intrinsic meaning, we have long understood it is up to us to provide that meaning, to create together a meaning that leads not to a competition of wealth acquisition, but to the greatest good for all. We challenge the Mystic Unity story as well- while we believe deeply in the underlying oneness of all things, still we have always rolled up our sleeves to be part of co-creating a world of opportunity and justice. Because of that very oneness we hear the suffering of others and want to help. Our hymnal is full of songs inspiring us to “roll up our sleeves.”

And I do agree that and one thing all 3 of these stories have in common is that they don’t show us a way humans can participate in steering our world in a positive direction through this unprecedented crisis. “The old stories do not fit anymore, and the new stories are not yet fully formed.” Says teacher and author Llyn Roberts.

I believe part of the reason we are gathered here each Sunday (in addition to the promise of potluck and some great entertainment to follow) is because we are hungry for a different story to be part of , and we find that here. I believe this is one of our most important jobs as a faith tradition, and as this very particular beloved community. Here are some important aspect of our UU story:

1. Reality is important. We honor not only the data from the scientific community, but the data we observe in the world around us every day. We notice the creeks flooding more often than they used to, and strange periods of drought in the summer. We bring in our scientist friends to help us understand what we are seeing. Any story we tell has to harmonize with the facts, and when we get new data that doesn’t fit with our story, it is the story that must be changed.

2. UUs believe that we are all part of something larger than ourselves. Our story is a big story, from the flaring forth of the big bang, through the evolution of life on our planet, and we have a responsibility to the future generations not only of humans but of all life here, knowing that the story continues long after we are gone.

3. For a long time the UU story has told about the importance of each and every person. The struggle we are part of is not for the victory of one, or even of a few, but a world where every person has basic human rights and an freedom to grow, change and express themselves. Now, as we stand on the verge of changing our first principle from “every person” to “ever being” we honor how our story is changing, must change, to include not just humans but the great web of life of which we are a part. In the story we are weaving today, we see that from the great wolf, to the bacteria in your gut, to the trees of the rain forests, living beings play crucial roles in the health of our world that we had failed to imagine.

4. In our UU story, we believe that what we do matters. What you do and I do, and what we do together matters. Whether or not we believe in god, we tell a story where we are not passive observers of this unfolding story, but each of us can make a difference in what our world is becoming. Our story is a web to be woven one strand at a time- and each strand will shape the cloth in a unique and important way.

5. In this story, there is not one big boss battle to fight, not one evil king to destroy, We are not trying to win the contest of who has the most. Our story does not culminate in a great battle for victory, but an ongoing search for meaning. In our story, there is something more important than money or success, or even safety. Ours is an ongoing quest for less tangible trophies, like love and justice, beauty and truth.

6. When folks all around us are telling the story of how we are all going to hell, UUs have always agreed with what psychologists are proving today- that fear and despair are not the best motivators to change our lives toward the good. As the founder of American Universalism, John Murray, once said “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.” Our story is not about the fiery pits of hell, but about the heaven we are building together here on earth.

7. In our ever unfolding story, I think there is always a place for listening. The hubris of humans has led to much destruction and far-reaching unintended consequences. Let ours be a story where we listen, not only to one another, but to people who are different than us, and to beings who are different from us. Remember the old stories where the youngest son goes out into the world to seek his fortune, and though he is neither as strong nor handsome as his older brothers, he listens to the wisdom of the ants an the birds and so has all the wisdom he needs for a happy ending? There is much wisdom we will need to face this crossroads in our story, and fortunately we have only begun to learn from one another and from our living earth. Let us listen, with our eyes and hearts and spirits and rational minds too.

8. Korten calls his new story “the living Universe story” he says “I am an intelligent, self-directing participant in a conscious, interconnected self-organizing cosmos on a journey of self-discovery toward ever-greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility” or as we like to say it “the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part.” This world we share is not an inert machine, but life seeking life. Life growing and changing and learning, and dying and healing. We are deeply embedded in that web- when a hurricane sweeps the eastern seaboard and wipes out homes and businesses, when the harvest comes and the first delicious strawberries of spring delight our senses and feed our bodies. When we clear-cut a forest, and the weeds and brambles rush in like scar tissue protecting the wounded earth. We are part of the fabric of life, infused with the spirit of life that flowed long before humans evolved.

Once upon a time, there was a tribe of seekers who loved each other, and loved the world. By listening to the rivers and the rains and the maple trees in their valley, they knew that a great change was coming. “What can we do?” they wondered. They remembered that this was not the first time a great turning had changed the face of the world, they remembered that the universe had had many forms before this one. This was not the first time the living beings of earth had to transformed themselves or face extinction. They wanted to help turn the path of change in a direction of abundant life, so they told the stories of all they knew that had come before, and of the new problems that had never been faced before. They talked, and they cried, and they sometimes raised their voices in anger.

“Shhh” one of them said- “listen…” after a time a voice said “I hear the land where we bury our trash calling out to me, it is calling me to recycle” and so she put a recycling bin and a compost bin in the kitchen. “I hear the worry of people who can’t find work to feed their families” said one man, “so I want to figure out how to create jobs here in the Valley.” “You know”, said the first woman, “if only we had curbside composting, it would make it so much easier for all our friends and neighbors to compost, and that would help keep the soil healthy and create new jobs too.” Others who were listening felt full of the spirit of life and formed a task force to create green jobs in a brand new curbside recycling venture.

Again there was quiet for a time. A boy said “this spring I didn’t see many bees hovering over the flowers in my garden, does anyone know how we can help? An adult said “let’s go learn about pollinators, and see what we can do.”

And then there was more listening. “I’ve been listening to the air and the storms, and I feel called to do something to slow climate disruption. Would anyone like to carpool with me?” “I’m worried about that too, said another, everything I do from heating my apartment to driving my car to cooking my dinner uses fossil fuels. Let’s start a community solar program so that everyone has access to renewable energy.”

One woman heard the despair of people in jail for minor offences, and heard that not everyone was being treated equally, and others felt moved by her story and carpooled over to the city hall and created a citizen watch group to create fairness in the justice system.

“Well I don’t hear anything yet” said one woman “so I will water the garden. Maybe the garden has something to tell me, so I will listen while I work. And I will make sure we keep always a place for listening in our community.”

And this little community-that-could kept listening, and doing, and listening again. Listening to the voices of suffering, listening to the return of birds in the spring. listening the rush of storm water rushing over the banks of the river. Whenever they weren’t sure what their part of the story was, they listened. And though sometimes they felt alone in their work, they never were. The soil did its part, turning the compost into nutrients into life, and the sun shone down on the solar panels and the tomato plants. Some of their neighbors saw what they did and it made them think about their own stories. And all over the world there were other groups of folks, listening and responding. The story they were part of was so big, we could never tell it all here, but for seven generations each spring the earth awoke, and the people listened, and the spirit of life called them to a vision of hope for the whole living world.





[i] https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/06/01/astonishing-numbers-americas-poor-still-live-better-than-most-of-the-rest-of-humanity/#dc3a1bc54ef0
[ii] http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/a-new-story-for-a-new-economy