Sermon: Yo, Bear! Facing Fear (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
I have a quirky, old VCR tape that’s still a favorite, something I plug into the player – yes, we still have one – about once a year. The film’s called “Defending Your Life.” Anyone else know it?
It appeared back in 1991, written, directed and starred in by a young Albert Brooks, together with Meryl Streep and Rip Torn. It’s one of those existential comedies – full of clever lines while at the same time brooding on the quandaries of existence. OK, yes, just the thing for a minister.

 

I have a quirky, old VCR tape that’s still a favorite, something I plug into the player – yes, we still have one – about once a year. The film’s called “Defending Your Life.” Anyone else know it?

It appeared back in 1991, written, directed and starred in by a young Albert Brooks, together with Meryl Streep and Rip Torn. It’s one of those existential comedies – full of clever lines while at the same time brooding on the quandaries of existence. OK, yes, just the thing for a minister.

Brooks plays a kind of schlemiel – marginally successful, but divorced from an unhappy marriage and unsure what he wants in life – who, after buying a status symbol of a car – a BMW – runs into a bus. He comes to consciousness of sorts being wheeled with dozens of mostly older others into what appears to be a convention hotel in a place that is announced as “Judgment City.”

The group is told that they have just died and have come to have their lives weighed to determine whether they are ready to “move on.” We’re never told exactly what that is, but it’s clearly a good thing – kind of like moving up an escalator of existence.

The alternative is not a trip to hell – good universalists that they are – but, from the film’s standpoint, perhaps as bad: being sent back to Earth for another try. This doesn’t go on forever, though. Brooks’ character, Daniel, learns that after getting sent back a certain number of times, we may just get thrown away. After all, the universe needs some quality control.

Over several days, Daniel undergoes a trial – complete with judges, prosecutor and defense counsel – where his life is examined. What they attend to is what progress he made in at freeing himself of his fears. Fear, he learns, is the central hazard of our earthly existence, something we must rid ourselves of to “move on.” Of course, there are also fun touches like being able to eat anything he wants and never gain weight, and visiting the “Past Lives” pavilion – hosted by Shirley MacLaine – where Daniel sees himself as an African man being chased by a lion.

It’s clear early on that the odds of Daniel “moving on” are slim, while the chances of Streep’s character, Julia, are a seeming sure thing. Yet, somehow they connect and, even in Judgment City, they fall in love. Is this coupling doomed, or could it be saving for them both? I won’t tip my hand, except to say that the film IS a comedy.

It is just a plot device, but still it’s an interesting notion. If our lives truly were judged, wouldn’t it be on how we responded to our fears? When I think of all that I’ve done or not done that got me into trouble or that I most regret, I have to admit that fear was at the heart of it – something that either kept me from action or propelled me into a foolish response.

Look at the world around us. Isn’t fear what lies at the heart of our greatest ills? War, prejudice, neglect, abuse? Fear locks us up and shuts us down. We become reactive – the old response of fight, flight, or freeze – and niceties like reasoned consideration and compassionate response are thrown out the window.

It’s not that we can avoid fear entirely – there are times when there’s good cause to be wary, and faced with immediate threats we need to act. The problem comes when fear becomes a miasma that colors our living. As Daniel puts it in “Defending Your Life,” it’s like a knot in our stomachs that never goes away.

Today I want to suggest one path that might help release us from our fears, and it ties in with our worship and small group theme this month: Imagination. When we engage our imaginations, we relax our dread fear of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and new possibilities emerge.

We remember, after all, that among religious traditions fear is a great spiritual teacher. For example, in the stories of both Jesus and the Buddha encounter with fear is a pivotal moment in the evolution of their ministries.

In the Bible, the moment comes after Jesus is baptized by John, and – we’re told – is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days. There Satan tempts him in several ways to abandon his calling. Each is an encounter where Jesus’ imaginative response turns his tempter aside.

First, after many days of fasting, Satan appears and says. “Why be hungry? If you were the son of God, you could turn this stone into a loaf of bread.” Jesus deflects the question of his theological status and merely replies, “One does not live by bread alone.”

Then, Satan takes him to the top of a temple and demands, “If you are the son of God, you could throw yourself off and not be hurt, for the angels would catch you.” Again, Jesus deflects and says he will not put God to the test.

Finally, Satan takes him to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “I will make all of this yours if you’ll worship me.” But Jesus won’t be moved: “No. I will serve only God.” Thereafter he begins his teaching in Galilee.

At the time of his enlightenment, Gautama also undergoes a series of tests – three trials – at the hands of Mara, the demon king. His first test is not food but sex. Mara sends his beautiful daughters to seduce Gautama, but he will not be moved from his meditation.

Then, Mara sends an army of horrid demons to attack him with swords, arrows, spears and clubs. But Gautama sees them not as weapons but as flowers, and they fall harmlessly to the ground.

Finally, Mara sends whirlwinds and earthquakes that howl around Gautama and shake the ground beneath him. From the middle of all that Mara calls out: “Prove that you are worthy of enlightenment.” Gautama replies by putting out his hand and touching the earth in front of him. The earth is my witness. And with that he sinks into a meditation of some 40 days from which he emerges as the Buddha, the enlightened one

The parallels in these stories are fascinating in many ways, but for our purposes today I’d like to direct us to a larger message underlying both of them. Before either of these teachers could begin his ministry, he had to confront a few things. They are embodied in fearful demons or accusers, but it’s plain that they reside in themselves, indeed in each of us.

The first is the temptation of sensual pleasure, which in its essence represents the fear of never having enough. It is a craving for sensation that can be addictive. The more we feed it, the more we need, and we are never satisfied.

The second is the fear for our wellbeing. We perceive threats to ourselves that are in fact empty. We give energy to our critics or to those who seek to take from us through passive aggression. Resistance here is simply refusal to engage.

Third, is the fear embodied in the bully’s threat, a puffed up challenge to our ego, the drive to be a player, to impose our will on the world. Remember that high-flying figure from the 1980s – Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe, who the novelist Tom Wolfe lampooned?

Such an inflated image of our own importance is a fanciful delusion that disconnects us from the real world, from who we really are. As in the Buddha’s gesture, we need to be grounded, to embrace with humility our own deepest knowing, something it takes time to find, something we achieve more through listening than speaking, more through compassion than achievement, something to which we might give many names – perhaps one of them, God.

These are the kinds of responses that open to us when we use our imaginations to disconnect from the electric charge that fear sends out. We see that what keeps us from living into who we are is often the fierce clutching of our own hands.

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer takes note of the fact that many spiritual traditions hold out the hope that we can escape the paralysis of fear and come to encounter others and even challenging situations in ways that don’t threaten us but instead serve to enrich our work and our lives.

This hope, he says, is embodied in the phrase “be not afraid.” This phrase is not suggesting that we should not have our fears. Fears are inevitable and even necessary. But, as Palmer puts it, “we do not need to be our fears.”

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer tells the story of a shop teacher in a group he once worked with. The man was an impressive figure – six-feet-six and 240 pounds with an athletic build and deep voice.

For some years, though, he and the school principal had been caught up in an escalating argument. The principal wanted the teacher to attend a training to modernize the shop, but the teacher insisted that all that stuff was just a fad.

One day, Palmer says, the teacher arrived at the group to say that the cycle had been broken. The principle had made his demands, but this time the shop teacher responded differently. “I still don’t want to go to that institute,” he said, “but now I know why. I’m afraid – afraid I won’t understand it, afraid my field has passed me by, afraid I am a has-been as a teacher.”

There was a silence, and then the principal spoke: “I’m afraid, too. Let’s go to the institute together.” They did, Palmer writes, and the experience reclaimed and deepened their friendship and revitalized the shop teacher.

We inhabit a universe where the smallness of our “I” often makes us feel dwarfed against the vastness of the “not I,” where we can feel like isolated atoms bouncing against unyielding walls or though unending emptiness.

It’s a sobering picture, and maybe with the winter settling in and troubling reports of war and prejudice topping the news it can feel all too real. But it is an illusion. The truth behind our fears is one of deep and abiding connection. We can see it when we look for it, but we’re not always inclined to look. As Parker Palmer puts it, the way we move beyond the fear that destroys our connectedness is to reclaim the connectedness that takes away fear. That may sound circular, he says, but that’s the way the spiritual life is. The initiative lies with us.

(Here I tell extemporaneously the story of Nik Wallenda who on November 4 walked on a steel cable connecting Chicago skyscrapers 600 feet above the Chicago River. The lessons I learned from Nik about dealing with fear here is that he practiced precise conditions of the walk for some months before attempting it, that the cables was carefully prepared the day of his walk and that he prepared for failure, so that if he were to be dislodged from the cable he would grasp the cable and wait to be rescued. He practiced holding onto the cable for 30 to 40 minutes at a time.)

So, it’s true. Our fears do not need to lock us in. Indeed, the most formidable locks that hold us in place are of our own devising. Pema Chodron is another wise person who has written about on this. “Although we have the potential to experience the freedom of the butterfly,” she writes, “we mysteriously prefer the small and fearful cocoon of ego.”

Ah, ego again: that fearful, fortified place where we hide, a place that we persuade ourselves is safe, yet that shelters us from what we most want and need – connection. This isn’t just some intellectual construct. It’s something we feel in our guts. Our hearts pine for it, even when we fool ourselves with the pretense of indifference.

But this ache, Pema Chodron insists, is not something that should trouble us. It is, in fact, a blessing, for it directs us where we need to go: outside of ourselves, into communion with others, into a place where we come to know the great unity of all things that we inhabit now and ever will.

From time to time you may be inclined to acquaint yourself with the vast plenitude of being in which we find ourselves. You may, say, head out for a nice walk in the woods, where the glory of these mountains is on display before you. As lovely as it is, though, there are those of our fellow beings out there who may not welcome your company, in whose poor eyesight larger creatures like us appear as threats. Given that, when frightened, they, too, may be threats to us, it is wise to keep your distance.

But rather than walk with dread, fearing each turn in the path, why not bring your imagination to bear, so to speak. Why not enter into an imaginative conversation with this fellow being: nothing fancy, since its understanding is limited.

Perhaps we can imagine ourselves reaching across that seemingly unbridgeable distance between species, beginning with simple awareness, a meeting of respect:

Yo, bear!

Jane Bramham: How Do You Imagine UUCA?

JaneBramham-cropped

Imagine bringing your imagination to a board meeting. That’s what the UUCA Board asked members to do at each of three meetings this fall, and now we are engaged in the process of thinking and talking about what we heard, discerning how those heartfelt conversations will guide our congregation forward.

The UUCA Board’s work, like most other boards, includes monitoring: Does the work of members, committees, staff, volunteers, overseen by the Lead Minister achieve the Congregation’s vision? Are the fiduciary, planning, communication and right relations parameters set in the Governance Document being adhered to?

Imagination—whether we call it visioning, strategic planning, generative work—is also the business of the Board. It is work which takes time, requires active listening, is helped along by having a little fun, feels sometimes like trying to hold water—a thing which is good, which we know we need—without a vessel. We want to keep this good thing that we have together, to make it richer and more easily accessed by members of all ages and tenures, and to continue listening so that what you imagine UUCA to be is part of our picture.

We also need to query our imaginations to identify barriers and impediments which may be cultural, emotional, or physical. Use our imagination to hear how we can be true to our mission and where we can “work in community for justice, love and peace.”

I invite each of you to fantasize about what our congregation could be to you and to our community, keeping in mind that the origin of fantasy is not something false, but something made visible. Intrigued about the Board or interested in serving? Talk to a Board or Leadership Development Committee member!


AN INVITATION TO ALL
What: UUCA Board Meeting
When:  6:30pm on the first Tuesday of each month
Where: 23 Edwin Boardroom
Bring: Your Imagination!
If unable to attend: Please talk to each other and to a Board member about your vision of UUCA.

Rev. Mark Ward: Imagination

Mark Speaking-WE DO

With December we move into a month of imagining. That’s true nearly always, but this month “Imagination” is also our worship and small group theme. How might your imagining open new ways of engaging your spiritual life? December is a central moment in several religious traditions. I think particularly of the Christian and Pagan calendars, both of which involve deep imagining. For Christians it is a time of expectation leading to the birth of light and renewal in the world in the coming of Jesus. And for Pagans it is settling into a time of darkness and expectation at the Winter Solstice, imagining how one might prepare for the year ahead.

Winter is a good time to give ourselves over to the imagination, to make future plans and also to imagine how our lives might be different if we acted more intentionally on our values. Are there rote routines that you have saddled yourself with or ways that fear has kept you from your heart’s desire? How might you imagine a life, a way of being in the world that is more in keeping with the deep integrity at your core?

This is good work for us to do on our own, but it only gets us so far. Real spiritual growth, I find, happens in the presence of others who invite us into speech that helps us better frame our thoughts and feelings. Our Theme Groups are created specifically to do that. They are led by trained facilitators to create safe space for all of us to explore this important and sometimes tender territory. If this sounds interesting and you’re not already a part of a group, check with Jim Steffe, Joy McConnell or Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper about finding a group to join. We’re working hard to find room in groups for anyone who would like to be a part of one. As usual, we have resources available for you to reflect on our theme. Visit the Worship Theme tab on our website’s homepage; click on the theme, in this case “IMAGINATION,” and you’ll find links to spiritual exercises, questions to explore, and many resources touching on this theme.

Finally, speaking of imagination I wanted to tell you about an adventure that my wife, Debbie, and I will be taking in January that comes from our own imagining. From January 6 through 27 we will be on a trip to India. It is described as a “spiritual tour” of India, taking us to a number of important cities and landmarks in the north and northeastern part of that country. I look forward to sharing with you some of what we learn on that trip. Meanwhile, I invite you to consider where your imaginings might take you.

Sermon: Rethinking Wild (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
What is “the wild?” Years ago it was scary space that we humans felt needed to be tamed. Then, it became a source of romantic inspiration. Today, as climate change threatens even the most remote ecosystems, we are being forced to rethink again how we ought to regard the Earth’s “wild places.”

 

Nigel Pitman, a field biologist who worked for a time in Amazonian Peru, tells the story of once receiving an unusual visitor to his research station. The man was Thomas Struth, a German fine art photographer.

Pittman had been through this drill before with dozens of visitors, from teachers and schoolchildren to philanthropists and filmmakers. Per usual, he showed Struth a map of the area and offered to take him on a tour of some of the most photogenic sites near the camp. Struth thanked him for the offer and said he would like to visit those locations, but wouldn’t bring his camera.

Differences in language made it hard for Pitman to understand Struth’s explanation, but he understood him to say that rather than striking settings in the rain forest he was looking for “complexity.” Hmm. OK, fine.

Pitman said he gave the photographer and his assistants a map and left them to their own devices. It was only later, when Struth volunteered to give a slide show of his work, that Pitman got a sense of what Struth’s work was about. The first images, gritty scenes of German cities, made the audience of scientists bored and restless. But they sat up when Struth moved on to a series on forests around the world that he was calling “Paradise.” But soon they began to slump again in their seat. While some of the scenes were striking in their beauty, others appeared to be mere tangles of vegetation.

They weren’t the kinds of scenes where observers could easily fix a gaze or that one could tell stories about. There was just too much. The lights came on, and the scientists applauded half-heartedly, happy to get back to their work.

Three months later Pitman received a note from Struth in his email inbox, and attached were six images that he had taken at the research station. Struth mentioned that when exhibited these images were enormous – the largest as big as two king-size beds pushed together.

Sometime later Pittman organized a slide show of some of the most interesting photos taken at the station, and he slipped Struth’s images in at the end. The scientists murmured with approval at the scene of a jaguar pacing a riverbank or of a woman giving birth in a canoe.

But when it came to Struth’s images they started muttering again. The most common remark on the photos he heard later was, “Are you kidding me? I could have taken those pictures.” Which was true. And yet, he reflected, of the thousands of people who had passed through the station only one did.

To botanists, after all, the scenes were uninteresting, since the forest they showed had clearly been disturbed by human activity and other disruptions: “trashed,” they might call it, something they’d hike through to get to a more pristine, undisturbed place.

In the months ahead, though, Pitman says he kept returning to the photos. Yes, to some they may look like a tangle of vines, but to him, they were the placed he lived. They were home.

Perhaps you’ve guessed by now that the images that have been cycling behind me are, in fact, from Thomas Struth’s exhibit, “Paradise.” They come from around the world: not just South America, but also China, Japan, Australia, Germany and California. In an interview, Struth said, “one can spend a lot of time in front of these pictures and remain helpless in terms of knowing how to deal with them.  They present a kind of empty space: emptied to elicit a moment of stillness and internal dialogue.”

“Nowadays,” he says, “the human being is reduced to a consumer and therefore to an instrument of a global economic mechanism. I, on the other hand, am interested in peculiarity, the individual ways of people and what goes on inside them when their historical bearings are disoriented.”

Growing disorientation is a pretty good word to describe how we think about wildness these days. This fall marks the 50th anniversary of passage of the Wilderness Act, legislation signed by Lyndon Johnson that set aside 9.1 million acres of federal land that was to be “left wild” to allow plant and animals communities to thrive essentially undisturbed. The amount of land set aside for wilderness has since grown to 110 million acres, and as development encroaches on other fragile landscapes advocates are pushing to expand the designation to at least a dozen more locations.

Amid all the anniversary celebrations, though, there is a worrying undercurrent. Agencies that are monitoring lands intended to be preserved pristine for generations are discovering an uncomfortable truth: land that we leave alone doesn’t remain static. It changes.

Debbie and I discovered this last summer on a vacation trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The scenery is still stunning, but invasive beetles are attacking the native pines, long-time meadows are drying out, threatening elk populations, and the numbers of tiny mouse-like creatures called picas that are prey for any number of animals are falling, and no one knows why.

Pick your favorite national park or wilderness area and you’ll find a similar story. Invasive species and the overall warming of the climate are a couple of the more obvious causes for these changes; in some cases the causes aren’t clear. The National Park Service and Forest Service are scrambling to respond, in some cases going so far as to spray pesticides to kill invasive pests, or considering relocating iconic trees from threatened landscapes.

There is, of course, great irony to all this. Once we start pampering wild places, are they still wild places? The answer is not as simple as that question makes it sound. Scientists in the Northwest, for example, are concerned that drying of climate is threatening giant Sequoia trees. We could just let them go, but isn’t it worth having these trees around, even if it means we have to see that they are watered?

Scientists manage populations of elk, bears and other animals with an eye to maintaining viable ecosystems. Is it worth sustaining those ecosystems? And if we do, does that mean we’ve taken on the role as the Earth’s gardeners? If so, how do we decide what to protect and what to let go?

There are no obvious answers, but one way to address all this is may be to reflect a little more on this notion of wild.

It was disorientation that Henry David Thoreau hoped to address in his essay, “Walking,” which you heard John read from earlier. Really, what he offers is a prescription. Are the obligations of society weighing too heavily? Get on your hiking shoes, and head out the door.

“The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,” he says. “I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” And, to use his language, whither shall we walk? “I believe,” he says, “that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”

And for Thoreau the source of that magnetism was what he called “wildness.” For most of Thoreau’s contemporaries, wildness was not an especially attractive notion. Wildness suggested danger, savagery, something that civilized society existed to protect people from. Thoreau, for his part, argued that civilized society offered its own form of savagery, resulting in people who, he observed, “lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

with the song still in them…

In his essay, he locates the wild in “the West,” what at the time was unsettled land where travelers told of primitive forests and vast mountain ranges.

In a sense, we still do that. Out West is where we find those majestic parks and untamed wilderness. It is true in a sense and yet also a fantasy. In fact, there is very little in this country, no matter how far “out in the middle of nowhere” you go, that humans – including people who occupied the land long before Europeans arrived – did not have some role in altering. To describe a landscape as “pristine” is really to speak of how long it has been since it was last altered.

Thoreau only made one trip “out West” in his lifetime, and yet he found ample sources of “wildness” in the forests around Concord, land that was hardly pristine, having been clear cut only decades before. No, wildness was not a character of landscapes far distant from human cities. It was more like an essence, something that one could almost drink in, he says, like “hemlock-spruce, or arbor-vitae in our tea.”

“How near to good is what is wild,” he says. Why? Because, “life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.” Wildness is that song in all things, that vital essence that makes each thing what it is. Little wonder that, in Thoreau’s words, we plough and sail for it, or seek to import it at any price. We seek to tame our landscapes, to make them less dangerous, more accommodating. But for Thoreau, “hope and future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

At Thanksgiving a few years ago with our daughters out of town, Debbie and I decided to drive down to Savannah, Georgia for the long weekend. We saw all the standard tourist sites and enjoyed them, but I think that for both of us the most memorable part of our trip was a tour with a young biologist of local salt marshes.

Wearing high boots and coated with bug spray, we trudged through brackish water and watched fiddler crabs skitter about and egrets soar, then stand like statues. It was wonderful! It was wildness on parade, everywhere you looked, even if it was a couple hundred yards from the main highway.

Of course, I don’t need to tell you what that kind of experience is like. We are blessed to live here with such amazing wildness near at hand. And whatever our location this proximity invites us into the kind of relationship that John spoke of. We are invited to locate ourselves within it, to enter it, bringing our curiosity, compassion and wit. In a sense, the wildness of the world calls to the wildness within us and bids us to respond.

This is the place where we experience the power of our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle: respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It is our way of saying that we are not just observers of the world around us: we belong, intimately in every possible way. We are part of it, and it of us.

It has been our way, we know, to imagine that somehow we humans rise above the great welter of things, that our plots and plans shape the larger scheme of things. We live still with the old biblical myth of dominion ringing in our ears and suppose that we far-seeing beings we can look ahead to some greater destiny.

It’s a habit we find hard to break, and yet the deeper we dive in our understanding of the natural world the clearer it becomes that we must. It is this insight that I think gives us a way to contribute to resolving the disorientation that haunts the debate around making space for the wild. Wild is not just an attribute of distant forests or rocky crags; it is a character of all things, of their deepest essence. As we struggle over preserving our wildest places, the issue is not how to save particular iconic creatures or plants. It is instead that we are called to uphold life where we can, and to do so with humility and with respect to the extraordinary complexity with which life abounds.

 

 

This, I believe, is the “complexity” that Thomas Struth told Niles Pitman he was seeking to photograph in the Amazon rainforest. It is a dimension of life that we can’t get at a quick glance, and yet that draws us in all the same. The more we attend to it, the more we see. I wonder if that’s happened to you as you’ve watched these photos cycle past. Is there something here that you find yourself drawn to, where somehow the tangle of leaves and vines in one or the quality of light filtered through branches in another speaks to you?

Perhaps the time will come for us when, like Niles Pitman, we will be able to look at any scene like this in its wildness and luxuriant complexity and see not some random arrangement of vegetation, but home.