This morning I want to time warp back to high school. For me, that’s almost 25 years ago. I was going to Catholic school. Friends of mine were just starting to get boyfriends and girlfriends, heterosexual only, thank you. Sex was scary and sinful and forbidden. But it was also exciting, and the dream of many hormone-flooded nights.
Through most of my school years, I felt like an outsider at best, and a freak when I was being picked on. I didn’t like doing the things most boys seemed to like: sports, roughhousing, posturing. I’d been called “gay” long before I knew anyone who actually was gay. Very few people were out in those days, at least in Dayton, Ohio. It wasn’t until I went to college that I heard of anyone my age who was gay. On a campus of 6,000 students, there were two willing to go public. There were whispers about the sexual revolution, but it didn’t seem to be happening anymore, at least not in the open. It was the Reagan era, “just say no.” Don’t let it all hang out. Keep it in the closet.
Yes, I felt alone and confused and outside the bounds of society just because I like to read and play Dungeons & Dragons, because I questioned the garbage being fed to me by authority figures. How much more depressed and isolated would I have felt if I were gay, if society’s message to me was that I was disgusting, perverted, and dangerous?
The messages coming in were stressful and overwhelming: find someone to love and spend the rest of your life with; you’re not cool unless you’re having sex; sex can kill you, especially the wrong kind of sex; wait till marriage; you’re still a virgin?; don’t even think of telling anyone about that dream you had involving your best friend.
Some people say that everyone feels like a misfit as a teenager. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the guys who picked on me were being picked on by other people up the line. I do know that I felt like everyone expected me to live up to a certain standard of normality that I just couldn’t manage. And that falling short socially felt to me like torture.
I did find some friends. I felt like we were targets together rather than standing alone, but we were still outcasts. Then one sleepover Saturday night, we agreed to meet some older friends at the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it turned out to be a light in the darkness. Those bright places often turn out to be in the most unexpected places.
SONG: “Over at the Frankenstein Place”
For once, my black thrift store trenchcoat was not a signifier of standing out, but of fitting in. I’d learned to embrace the darkness in life, and here were my people. But they weren’t moping about being outcast from society. They were celebrating. They were laughing. We first-timers were brought up front as “virgins,” and auctioned off to whoever could bid the most disgusting phrase. After a few rounds of gross-out one-upmanship, we were no longer virgins (in one sense, anyhow). Then we could settle in for the movie, and the show.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie based on a stage musical, a sort of camp sendup of the monster movies and sci-fi of the early 1950s.
Brad and Janet are high school sweethearts who are getting married. They are as normal as it gets, and they seem to have it all: popularity, good grades, true love, innocence, and of course virginity. A flat tire leads them to an isolated castle on a stormy night. They just want to use the phone, but they are quickly dragged into a party of strangely dressed, sexually ambiguous “rich weirdos,” as Brad calls them.
As the action takes place on screen, a cast of costumed fans act out the same scenes at the front of the theater. Meanwhile, cast members and fans in the audience yell out comments and gags at the screen, and bring props to use. For instance, in a wedding scene, the audience throws rice, and when a character on screen says, “I always cry at weddings,” the audience calls out “Do you laugh at funerals?”
It’s a little bit of a bewildering experience for a first timer, and one of the reasons people go back time after time is to pick out what is actually going on, picking out callback lines to shout out the next time, or even come up with something new to yell that will crack everybody up.
For those of you who’ve never been, you can get a sense of how it works from this clip from Fame.
Clip from Fame
Only five years after Rocky Horror was released, Fame was already playing off its cult status. Whether you’re an aspiring actor who worries about performing, a shy teenager who’s self conscious about everything, or someone questioning your sexuality or gender identity, Rocky is a safe place to open up and try on a role that might feel too dangerous in “real life.”
Because in 1980, or 1990, and even today in a lot of places, Rocky Horror feels dangerous. The master of the castle is the iconic character Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist who is actually an alien.
He calls himself a transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania, but that terminology was more designed to roll off the tongue and shock audiences rather that to accurately describe Frank. Just like Fame uses the word “schizophrenia” to mean “playing multiple roles,” Rocky Horror uses “transsexual” to mean something closer to a combination of “genderqueer” and “pansexual.”
Frank wears a corset and garter belt, high heels, makeup, leather jacket, feather boas. He seduces men and women, indulging every sexual whim without thought to consequences. He’s played as both hero and villain, completely free and completely queer, no apologies.
In terms of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, Frank is “all of the above” in everything. What he isn’t is normal, not even a shred. And Tim Curry gives such a performance that you can’t watch Frank and not want to be at least a little like him. I remember how confusing it seemed to me, a sexuality not defined by just this or just that. What was he? And what did it mean to be attracted to him, whether you were Brad, Janet, or just a confused teenager?
As the movie continues, Brad & Janet are exposed, quite literally, to a wilder sort of sexuality, and go from frightened naivete to willing participation. There’s a buildup of bedroom farce and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that leads to the big “Floor Show,” a musical number that spells out Frank’s philosophy: Don’t dream it; be it.
Don’t Dream it. Be it. This is what Frank sings out desperately towards the end of Rocky Horror. Don’t Dream it. Be it. I invite you to relax in your seat and take a moment to breathe……. deep…… down.
Think back. Who is the YOU you wanted to be but were afraid to? Maybe you were a teen or a young adult… or maybe it wasn’t so long ago… Imagine yourself in that place or time, in that version of you. What most holds you back? your own fears? your parents? your peers? your faith community? societal expectations? What does it feel like to not be the YOU you know yourself to be?
Don’t Dream it. Be it. Do you remember the first time you went to Rocky Horror? Or maybe it was some other outlier event or experience…. a place where you could BE whomever you wanted to be and love whomever you wanted to love?
Don’t Dream it. Be it. What is it like, as a misfit teenager… or adult…., to go to a place where you can dress any way you like, wear makeup and fishnets as a boy, or a tux as a girl, or anything else outside the boundaries, and be celebrated for it? A place where everyone is expected to participate, but not graded. A place where sexuality is open and fluid and unapologetic and experimental. A place where normals and misfits are equally mocked and equally embraced…
Don’t Dream it. Be it. Who or what are the sparks of light that lead you out of the darkness? that lead you back to yourself when you are lost? enable you to be the YOU you most want to be? is it a friend? a lover? a group? a calling that you pursue? a camp? a family member? a faith community?
Don’t Dream it. Be it. What other places can we come together regularly as an accepting community, participate, laugh, sing along, feel better about ourselves and learn to treat others with more compassion and more respect?
Don’t Dream it. Be it. We can’t just dream it and expect the world to change, we have to be it. Live our principles. One moment at a time. Day by day. So as we breathe into this space and this moment may we meditate on these words and what they might mean for each of us and for our UU community…
Don’t Dream it. Be it. Don’t Dream it. Be it. Don’t Dream it. Be it……
We UUs do a lot of dreaming….envisioning a world of peace, justice, and equality. I’ve heard some say they feel the 7 principles are too big, too idealistic, too dreamy. But what if we don’t just dream it. But we Be it. What would that look like? What does it LOOK like to BE a true place of RADICAL WELCOME? A place where whoever you are, whomever you love, you are welcome? Do we walk that walk everyday? What of other dreams we have? personal dreams, dreams for this UU block of Asheville…. how often do we talk about our dreams and forget the small ways we can BE them? As we come to our time of Offering– let us hold these thoughts as we hold one another with care and intention. Let us think and act on what we can each give to this faith community, this spark of light in the darkness as those who wish come and silently light candles from our chalice fire.
Now I don’t want to spoil the whole movie for you. It plays once a month at Cinebarre, and they put on a great show if you ever want to check it out. But just as any transformative experience ends with the struggle of coming back to everyday life, Rocky Horror ends with the whole castle lifting off back to the planet of Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, leaving Brad & Janet behind. They are bewildered as to what comes next, how they can rebuild their lives, how they can integrate this experience into themselves.
Likewise, the audience goes back to their own lives. To me, back in those high school days, it was as radical as if the priest had given the benediction at the end of church:
If you have lustful thoughts, maybe that’s not such a sin
And if you feel a little bit gay, maybe that’s not so abnormal
And maybe you can show off a little bit, even if you’re not that confident
Maybe you can accept yourself, even if you don’t fit into what they tell you is “normal”
Maybe you can be it instead of just dreaming it.
One of the many reasons I love being a UU is that that sort of benediction would be nothing to comment on here, except you might have to explain the word “sin” to the kids who’ve never heard it before. One of my fellow OWL teachers told me her YRUU group took the 9th graders to Rocky Horror. Only UUs would do that as an officially sanctioned church event. Although Frank is not a good role model and the story is a traumatic one for the characters, it’s mostly played for laughs, and the audience participation makes it all about the fun for anyone who goes.
Elizabeth and I went to see the movie a couple of months ago to help prepare for this service, and I was afraid it would seem like a quaint relic from a bygone age. And it does, in some ways. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that because this room in this town is safe, that we’ve made enough progress. I saw a lot of high school students streaming out of the Biltmore Mall theater who could’ve been me all those years ago. For so many, the closet still seems like the safest place. For many, gender as a binary concept seems as inevitable as gravity. For so many, the loneliness can be soul crushing.
My dream is that our congregation can be as attractive to young people with questions and fears as a 40-year-old midnight movie. My dream is that our services and activities are fun and uplifting and joyful and a little bit crazy. My dream is that we’re radically inclusive and welcoming and a little bit dangerous.
Don’t Dream It; Be It
The Time Warp
*Note that Asheville’s Rocky Horror is hosted by the “Unexpected Pleasures” cast at 10:30 PM on the second Saturday of every month at Cinebarre, Biltmore Square Mall.
How many of you remember Loony Tunes? When I was a child, Saturday morning cartoons were not complete without my weekly dose of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and Wyle E. Coyote being outsmarted by his arch-nemesis, the Roadrunner. I loved the silliness and slapstick humor then, and I as I grew up, I realized how subtle and subversive some of the shorts really were. Loony Tunes introduced me to new musical styles as Bugs and Elmer presented The Barber of Seville and a condensed version of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” operas…”kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit”. I also got to witness transgenderism without prejudice since the male characters often donned dresses as a disguise which allowed for the shifting of gender roles, as well.
All of these were my favorite at one time or another. Yet I often am reminded of another batch of shorts that began with a mole-like tunnel raised up and moving as Bugs burrowed his way along, finally popping up with the expectation of being in a certain place. To his surprise and frustration, he often found that he wasn’t where he thought he’d be. “Hey, wait a minute. This doesn’t look like Los Angle – eez or Pismo Beach or Coney Island.” He’d pull out a map and check it and then declare, “I knew it;(say it with me) I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”
Now I admit that when I stumbled on this idea for a sermon, my goal was (and is) to talk about those times in our lives when we get derailed from our original plans. I wanted to talk about learning to stop second guessing ourselves and be with what is in the present moment. I thought I’d be able to offer something of value in sharing how I have come to cope with the need to check my internal GPS and recalculate my journey. And I will do those things. But first, I really want to tell you that I have spent several joy-filled hours in YouTube research viewing old Loony Tunes clips.
I have giggled at the antics of these characters, and I have recalled the tension I used to feel as a child when I knew something was going to go “wrong” for Bugs or Daffy. It has helped me to know that I still enjoy the silliness along with the social commentary. I may not have ended up where I thought I was going to go (Me? A minister? Really?)…and I still have lots of road left ahead of me…but Bugs Bunny was a great mentor in not only accepting where he ended up, but also in diving right in and embracing the adventure at hand rather than wallowing in the “should have/could have” swamp of regret.
That famous Robert Frost poem that James read illustrates this idea of choosing a path without looking back in regret. The traveller is faced with two paths. Each of them holds beauty, the promise of adventure and mystery. Frost describes the beauty of the fall day with the phrase “yellow wood”…can’t you just imagine yourself there? The paths were similar in wear, one fading into undergrowth, the other a bit grassy, and both were covered “in leaves no step had trodden black”. The traveller chooses one path knowing that even though he may at times wish for the ability to go back and choose the other one, that probably won’t happen.
Why? Why can’t we go back and choose again? Because life happens while we’re walking along. Each decision leads to another choice. Each path leads us onward and the terrain changes moment by moment. In Frost’s words, “way leads on to way”. In order to go back there are many choices that would need to be revised, and that’s not usually possible.
What do you do when you find yourself in a place you didn’t expect? Well, Bugs’ system was to check his map. He looked at it to discern where he’d gone astray from his original plan. Again, that left turn at Albuquerque was usually his biggest divergence. So when you or I are in a place of wondering “where am I and how did I get here?”, the first step might be to figure out where you meant to be based on your map.
And here we come to the next point. Who made the map? Is this my map? Did I agree to this route or even the destination that was supposed to be waiting for me? Maybe; maybe not.
Sometimes we come to a point in our lives and realize that the reason we are confused or displeased with the outcome is because we’ve been following someone else’s map. As a parent, I know how tempting it is to dream up lives for my children that would allow them to find happiness as I define it. Many of our parents did the same thing and many of them also felt it was best if they gave us that map to their happiness. Some of us followed that particular route and it may have led to some happiness and maybe a great deal of it, but for others of us, that map that was given didn’t meet our needs and when we got to the supposed destination we found that rather than the fun and excitement of Coney Island we ended up at the South Pole, frozen, barren and isolated.
Bugs Bunny’s next step after consulting his map was to notice what was around him. He’d take in his surroundings so he could be in the now. He’d sometimes try to find someone to ask for directions. Do you remember the one where he was trying to find the Coachella Valley Carrot Festival and ended up in a bullring in Spain? That’s a pretty big detour. So he asked for help. Unfortunately, the toreador was too busy running away from el toro to give any answer. In order to find his way, Bugs had to be present with his surroundings and then figure things out from there.
Often in mentally retracing our steps to find where we veered from the path we expected, we notice new and interesting things in our immediate environment that may not have been present in the intended destination. What’s new in your world? What can be learned from the detour you took? Is it necessary or helpful to go back and try to correct the “mistake” and attempt to bring that into the now, or is it no longer relevant based on your current paradigm.
We are different at each point in life. What may have seemed like a good idea at 25 may not work at 35 or 52 or 78. Each day we are given the opportunity to recalculate our internal GPS based on new coordinates and new insights. We can learn to let go of others’ expectations. We cannot live for our parents, our friends, our partners, or our children. Happiness and contentment are inside jobs.
There are many stories of people who have been living with a diagnosis of a disease such as cancer or HIV, who say that the illness has been “the best thing that happened to me”. How on earth can that be? How could something that seems so devastating turn into something described as “the best”? Perhaps you can remember an event in your life that at the time seemed horrible, but as you lived with it and moved through the subsequent days and months, you found that there were blessings present, hidden gems, that you would not have found without the initial shock. In times like these, the internal GPS is recalculating a new roadmap based on a new reality, just like when you are driving your car and encounter a roadblock or a sign reading “bridge out”. We can help this recalculation by sitting with what is, activating the internal observer, and refusing to mindlessly follow some preconceived notion of what we should do or should feel.
Yet there are always those “what if’s” that come up from time to time. Some of those are recurring questions: What if I made the wrong career decision? What if I had gone to the private college rather than the big state university? What if I hadn’t broken off that relationship? What would my life be like now? And really the underlying thought about those kind of questions is: Would I be happier in that life scenario than I am right here and now?
Most of the questions I just asked can keep us firmly focused on the past, ensconced in regret, and living only half a life when we wake up every morning. What is the reward for this? Because there has to be a reward or you wouldn’t do it, right? Perhaps the reward is escaping from a currently difficult and stressful situation. Perhaps the reward is keeping a fantasy alive of who you once were. Bruce Springsteen wrote a whole song about that one: Glory Days.
Sure, life as we know it is sometimes chock full of difficulty, pain, frustrations, and imperfections. But change doesn’t happen in trying to relive the past. Changing your now can only happen by moving forward into the future that you create based on the choices you make today. Bugs Bunny never did go back and take that left turn at Albuquerque. What he did is what we can do, too. Take stock of your situation, look for guides and allies – even those who may seem like enemies can act as guides along the way– and, always be willing to embrace where you are and be open to whatever the adventure offers. This is the key to recalculating the internal GPS and setting our sights on the road ahead.
Our story begins some 500 years ago at a time of terrible feuds among people who have come to be known as the Iroquois in the region we now call upper New York state. The feuds had their origin in a long-standing practice call “mourning wars” that had entered a particularly bitter and bloody phase.
The practice was grounded in a belief about how the world worked. The people felt that there was a spiritual power that animated all things and that any time someone died the collective power of his or her family or clan was diminished. So, afterward the family or tribe would hold a ceremony in which social role and duties would be transferred to someone else.
Of course, sometimes there was no one else to take that role, and there was much grieving. In time, however, if the grief did not abate, women of the household could demand that a war party be assembled to raid a neighboring tribe and seek captives to make up for the loss. In some cases, those captives would be integrated or even enslaved by the clan, but in others, if the grief were particularly severe, they could be ritually killed and cannibalized. During this particular period, this exchange of mourning wars was incessant with clans raiding each other, tit for tat, while the killing just went on and on.
Among these folks, was one man, Hiawatha – not Longfellow’s noble savage but a very different figure – who had lost several daughters to this carnage and was driven mad by anger and depression.
In despair, he wandered off into the forest where he is said to have encountered what is described as a spiritual being who called himself Deganawidah, or the Peacemaker. The Peacemaker gave Hiawatha strings of shell beads and spoke words of Condolence that dried his eyes, that opened his ears, that unstopped his throat and so on until his grief was removed and his reason was restored. Those acts were woven into a ritual that became the center of a new teaching that, the Peacemaker assured Hiawatha, would make wars of mourning unnecessary.
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker then traveled to surrounding tribes and in time persuaded them to join what was then called the Great League of Peace and Power. It was to be an alliance that would marshal the spiritual energy of every family group.
The five and later six Indian nations joined in this league became known as the Haudenosaunee, or people of the long house. The title refers to the large dwellings where the people lived, housing as many as 20 families, as well as the ethic they lived by, one that envisioned all members gathered around a common fire, respecting each other, involved in each other.
To secure and maintain the peace they declared, the League created a Grand Council made up of 50 leaders, or sachems, whose sole purpose was to prevent what was called “the disuniting of minds.” As one observer put it, their notion of peace “did not imply a negotiated agreement backed by sanctions of international law and mutual interest, It was a matter of ‘good thoughts’ between nations, a feeling as much as a reality.”
The council’s purpose, then, was not to adopt laws – in fact, it had little power over individual tribes – but to cultivate and deepen relationship. The League ended the mourning wars, but honored the spirit behind them by granting the leading women of each tribe the right to select each sachem.
It was among the sachems or chiefs in these councils that the notion that one should act with an eye to the welfare of the seventh generation ahead was articulated. In a forum focused on relationship, not only with each other but also with the land on which they depended, full of ceremonies of thanksgiving and honor for each other, such a declaration was a natural outcome.
Today, it is curious now to see what a popular meme that phrase has become in our culture. Run “Seventh Generation” through Google and your first hit is a company that has trademarked it for their line of home cleaning products, followed soon after by another selling disposable diapers.
And why not? You could argue that the popularity of the phrase among marketers is a testament to how powerful the idea behind it is, even if we seem to miss the irony of finding that label on a package of paper towels. But before I get too high and mighty, let me make a confession – I have bought those paper towels; I have bought those diapers. Because, even if, OK, there are hardly more conspicuous examples of products that contradict the ethic of environmental sustainability, that contribute to this nation’s ballooning waste stream and the depredation of its forests and water courses.
Even though I know that: I mean, well, there are times when paper towels come in handy – not often, of course, I usually use cloth – and, well, are cloth diapers really so much better than disposable? And, gosh, looking at the labels of these products they seem more “environmentally-friendly” – boy, talk about a loaded term – than others. I mean, don’t they say they’re made from more recycled or recyclable materials?
And . . . and . . . and . . . Well, you get the picture. This is where we live, isn’t it? There’s hardly a soul today who doesn’t at least give a nod to the environment in how she or he goes about their lives and hardly a soul who feels that he or she is doing enough.
And yet, however we feel, the fact remains that the world is changing before our eyes. We see it in birds or perennials appearing earlier in spring, in pests once killed by winter freezes sticking around, in colossal storms spawning killer tornados and hurricanes. Our climate is clearly in play, but we have no way of knowing how it will play out.
Just a month ago, scientists reported that the average level of carbon dioxide in the air has reached 400 parts per million, the highest it’s been for 3 million years, a time before humans had evolved as a species. What does it mean? Well, because carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space, it likely will lead to overall warming of the Earth.
But of course our climate is complex, the result of the interplay of many forces that we are only beginning to understand. So, the effects vary from place to place, and sometimes in unexpected ways: in one place a killing drought, in another, monsoon-like storms; in some places spring-like winters, in others increased snowfall. But the overall trend has been warmer. Overall global temperatures are higher than at any time in the past 4,000 years; last year, 2012, was the hottest on record in the U.S. And the effects are obvious: mountain glaciers and polar icecaps are shrinking; sea levels are rising. And around the world these rising temperatures are either stressing or killing forests and coral reefs, and changing the habitats for creatures ranging from insects to antelope, extinguishing some and threatening others.
The fossil record says that the last time the concentration of carbon dioxide was 400 parts per million, average temperatures were 4 to 7 degrees warmer and sea levels were much higher. We can’t be sure of how things will go now, though, since it takes time for the effects of warming to ripple through the Earth’s systems.
And, of course, we have every reason to believe that carbon dioxide levels will continue to rise. That’s because we have a pretty good idea as to why they’re rising. We’ve endured the debates as to the causes over the last half century, and at this point it’s all over but the shouting. We humans are the drivers on this bus. Some two centuries of industrial development have disrupted this planet so profoundly that we have put our own survival and that of many of our fellow creatures in peril.
It’s astonishing to think that we comparatively tiny beings, so easily tossed by storm and tide, could make such an impact on this vast globe. Yet, it turns out that the conditions that sustain beings like us are fairly narrow, and it doesn’t take all that much to knock them off kilter. We need only look at the record of history to find civilizations that have disappeared due to fairly minor shifts in weather. What can we look forward to in a world warmer than humankind has ever known?
It’s a scary prospect, so it’s little wonder that so many of us choose simply to avert our eyes, or satisfy ourselves as doing our part by buying “green” and recycling our trash. Part of what makes this so hard is that the problem is woven into the details of our lives as we now live them. Every time we drive our cars, or ride in a plane, every light or appliance we switch on, plug in, or boot up adds carbon dioxide to the air.
It makes me understand a dimension of Hiawatha’s grief of half a millennium ago. Here we sit in the 21st century with that which sustains life on this planet under assault from the very patterns and practices of our living, and not just any practices, but those that we have come to equate with “the good life,” the life we aspire to.
What a disconnect! What an impossible irony! But it’s not lost, I believe, on our psyches. It may offer one explanation for the dystopic images scattered across our films and video games of a ravaged world with Hiawatha-like figures wandering the landscape in frustration and despair.
But the story of the Iroquois offers us more the just an image of despair. It also offers a frame for hope. The figure who appears to Hiawatha, linked closely in the story to one of the creator figures in that people’s mythology, finds a way to release him from his grief: in the story, to dry his weeping eyes, to open his ears, to unstop his throat so that his sorrow may be relieved and his reason restored.
Climate changed has been framed as a technical problem in need of technical fixes, and yet, to be honest, like the grieving Hiawatha, I’m not sure we are yet in the place where we are ready to sort this out in a rational way. About a decade ago, an engineering professor, Robert Socolow, detailed more than a dozen strategies, stabilizing wedges he called them, that he argued could slow and even halt the warming of the atmosphere.
They were things like dramatically expanding the use of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, adding more nuclear power plants, even capturing and storing carbon. The problem was that every wedge required a monumental effort. In the case of photovoltaics, for example, to make any significant difference we would need arrays covering a surface of five million acres – about the size of Connecticut.
The question is not what we can do to solve this problem; it’s what we are prepared to do. In an interview at the time, Scolow said the task before us is on the scale of abolishing slavery. “It’s the kind of issue,” he said, “where something looked extremely difficult, and not worth it, and then people changed their minds.”
Years ago as a science writer I got to cover the spring “booming” or mating rituals of prairie chickens in central Wisconsin. These endangered creatures surely would have been erased from that landscape long before I arrived but for the work of the naturalist Aldo Leopold. Leopold was most famous for arguing for the awakening of what he called “a land ethic”: a way of looking at the world that, in his words, “enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or, collectively, the land.”
These words echo those of the Peacemaker in the Iroquois story who invites Hiawatha to understand his identity more broadly and to see the larger spiritual unity of all things. When we in this religious tradition agree among ourselves to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, we make a similar connection.
Taking our lead from what the Iroquois discovered in their Grand Councils, while scientists strategize possible solutions to our approaching peril, the rest of us must be about the work of building of relationship. Remember that the Iroquois commitment to the “seventh generation” was rooted in their love for the people and the land of their present day.
And so it will be for us if we are to find a solution to the train wreck that climate change presents us. As Wendell Berry put it, love is not an abstract proposition. It is tied, in his words, to “particular things, places, people and creatures.”
I can profess my love for the world and all things in it, but that alone has little purchase. When I can name what I love and tell how that love has changed my behavior, changed my thinking, changed my life I am getting a little closer to the true thing. Again, from Wendell Berry, “love proposes no abstract vision but the work of settled households and communities,” communities that act, that take stands, that take risks, and still stay in relationship
So, what is our work as a settled community affirming respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part? It is a question I want to invite you to join me in answering. How might we as a people of memory and hope learn to widen our hearts to embrace a world now under assault by the very patterns and practices of our lives?
You have my commitment in the coming year to finding ways for us to engage in that conversation. We have long passed the time when we could delegate this issue to others. It is ours to confront, and it will require educating ourselves and thinking, and adjusting our lives to an emerging reality.
But, as Lew Patrie suggested earlier, it will also require deeper work fitting of a religious community. It will require learning to transcend the fear, despair and forgetfulness that paralyze us, that set us against each other, so that we might awaken to the wonder of our lives and each other, to the gift of a planet that seven times seven generations ahead might yet sustain our own kind and the vast web of life.
Resources for this sermon include:
The Ordeal of the Longhouse by Daniel K. Richter
Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, eds. Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson
Love God, Heal Earth, ed. Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham
Because I didn’t grow up going to church, I didn’t really learn about “saying grace” until later in my life. Once we started going to the UU congregation, we had a few different things we would do to take a moment of gratitude before eating. Sometimes we used the short poem my sister had learned in nursery school: For song of birds, for hum of bees, for all things fair, we hear and see, we thank you! Sometimes we had a moment of silence. After a while, we got a chime that we rang at the beginning of dinner, waiting to start eating until the ringing died away entirely. As an adult, I confess, I am often in a hurry or eating alone, and I don’t take the time unless it is a major holiday!
But I have one friend with whom I always say grace. It started when I first met her. Her son was seven, and they were practicing things like praying, and waiting for a few moments before you eat. So when I ate with them, which was not infrequently, I joined in. And it became our habit, no matter where we were. Expressing something religious in public was not something that came easily to me (I’ve gotten over that!), but the first time I went out to eat with my friend and her son, it was just the most natural thing. After the server set our plates down, we held hands, bowed our heads and took a moment to be grateful – for the food, for the people and the plants and the animals that made it possible, and for the gift of the time together.
How often would you imagine that you say the phrase “thank you” in a day? I would guess fairly frequently. Perhaps when someone holds the door for you. When you are handed your coffee or your receipt. When someone pays you a compliment or passes the butter upon request. Hopefully it’s a reflex. If it’s not, there’s a great place to start with a practice of gratitude. The practice of being conscious of saying thank you to those around you is a first step to being aware of your gratitude on a deeper level.
“There was once a billionaire who was asked, “What’s the secret to wealth?” He said, “Gratitude. If you don’t have gratitude then no matter how much you have you’re poor, because you are always looking at what you don’t have. If you have gratitude then you are never not wealthy.”” 
I saw this first hand when I was in Mexico a few months ago – I believe that the profound sense of hope expressed by the deported migrants we met grew directly out of their focus on gratitude, even when they had only a few possessions to their name, and had lost touch with their families. Finding hope is how we human beings survive.
Like any spiritual practice, cultivating gratitude requires both intention and preparation. Our lives move quickly, and it is easy to get swept away by the larger culture, into the world of constantly assessing and judging and wanting more. In our day to day lives, gratitude helps us to stay in the present moment, appreciating what we have. And practicing when we are not in crisis helps us to prepare for the times that are more difficult.  website no longer active
To be sure, when you are going through a struggle, cultivating gratitude can be one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes we don’t see the gifts in an experience until we can look back on them. And I do not suggest that you ought to be thankful that you have a bad illness or are being bullied at school. Sometimes we can get to that place of being grateful in the moment that we are suffering, but no judgment if we can’t!
What I am suggesting is that in the midst of experiences that are heartbreaking and painful and difficult, taking a moment to make an “I’m thankful for…” list can help us to reframe, refocus and re-energize. The important thing is to keep your perspective. We don’t have to be thankful for bad things – though sometimes in hindsight we become thankful for the experience they brought us – but cultivating an attitude of gratitude can change our perspective and help us to approach our lives in a different way, no matter what is happening.
When things are really bad, my gratitude lists are pretty convoluted. Like the only thing I can come up with for my list is that it was raining outside and my shoes did not get wet. Or you could be grateful that one of the ER nurses made a fresh pot of coffee so you didn’t have to drink the burnt sludge coffee that had been there since mid-afternoon. But I find that just spending a few moments to make a gratitude list is a wonderful way to refocus. It doesn’t negate the difficulty, but it can shift your perspective.
The most important thing about gratitude, perhaps, is that it is a choice. A choice of emphasis, a choice of outlook… “Whatever one can muster at these points as a prayer of gratitude—okay, I’m still breathing, or I have friends who care about me—tips the experience from being immersed unmindfully in one’s suffering to moving into the present moment with a more holistic perspective. We see that there is suffering, but there is also this gratitude, and we can hold them together.” 
“It’s like the Zen story of the hermit monk living in the mountains. While he’s out gathering wood and roots a robber comes and strips his cabin, “everything” is gone. As night deepens he sits at the window and looks out at the evening moon, thinking to himself, “If only I could have given the robber this perfect, white moon.” He’s still wealthy.” 
There is a growing body of research that suggests that people who make gratitude a daily practice have a higher quality of life, even in the midst of great stress and suffering. “When you practice gratitude, you become more optimistic. That, in turn, makes you healthier and happier, boosting your personal and professional life. Gratitude… makes you feel even more connected, resulting in clearer thinking and more decisive action.” 
And saying thank you to the people around you helps to shift the larger consciousness, too. How does it feel to be looked in the eye and thanked? How does it feel to find a small hand-addressed card in among the stack of bills? “Thank you” is so simple, but can be profoundly impactful in our rough and tumble world. It’s an acknowledgement of another person’s action or sacrifice, and a simple way to connect.  http://www.beliefnet.com/Wellness/Gratitude/The-Transformative-Power-Of-Gratitude.aspx?p=2  website no longer active  http://www.wellnesstoday.com/lifestyle/consistent-gratitude-practice-makes-you-happier-and-healthier
And so, today, we offer our love and gratitude to three of our staff who are leaving their positions with us: Asher, Melissa and Linda. I understand that none of them will be going too far, but their roles in this community will be changing, and so it is important that we acknowledge their service and their hard work among us…
I have made each one of you a special box. And all of you will find paper hearts in your pews/bulletins. We invite you to write a few words or a message to each of these folks expressing your gratitude to them. What did they bring to their work that you will miss when they are gone? What do you wish for their future? During the musical reflection, you will have an opportunity to write your messages, and you can leave them in the baskets on your way out – or if you have someone sitting near you who might be ready to get up for a moment, you could have that person bring the hearts to the basket up here. Please be sure to write the person’s name on the heart so we can sort them and distribute them properly!
Musical Reflection “The Lullaby” (I’m Thankful)
Asher, for your positive attitude, compassionate spirit and musical spunk, we are grateful!
Melissa, for your patience and perseverance, your gentle care for our children, and your sweet smile, we are grateful!
Linda, for your exuberant welcome, your tireless service and your gift of seeing others’ talents, we are grateful!