Staying Put (text & audio)

I have to say it’s been interesting hearing people’s reactions to this week’s sermon title. “Staying put, huh?” I wouldn’t say the response has been entirely positive. Viewed from one perspective, “staying put” sounds a bit like “being stuck,” a kind of hide-bound view of the world that is stubborn and inflexible. We live in a culture that celebrates change and novelty. So, who would want to “stay put?”

That’s certainly true of us here in Asheville. We are a place on the move. Most of us here are transplants. We pulled up our roots from wherever we were and decided to give Asheville a try. We saw it as a nice place to retire to, or maybe just wanted to be near the natural beauty of this place, the agreeable climate, or the funky vibe.

It’s not for nothing that several years ago a writer surveying what he called the “geography of bliss” identified Asheville as a place where you could find it. Now, I do think it’s a little over the top to describe Asheville as “one of the happiest places” on earth, but people keep coming, and here we are, and, yeah, it’s true, it is pretty good.

This is also true of us as a religious community. Few of us grew up as Unitarian Universalists. At some point in our lives we fell away from whatever tradition we were raised in, if any, and set out looking for something different, something that more clearly matched our view of how the world worked and what matters, and here we are.

Of course, it’s also true that the hunger for change can turn into a kind of mania – skipping from place to place, from relationship to relationship, from religion to religion without really taking time to get to know, or to invest oneself in any of them. This kind of living leaves us scattered, shallow and unfocused, ultimately out of touch with others and even with ourselves as we scurry about frantically.

And the consequences of this way of living can be even deeper. If we’re always on our way to the next thing, we never truly value the things we have. We find ourselves unmoored morally and spiritually, searching for meaning without knowing how to find it.

So, yes, change is important, letting go what no longer serves us, what is destructive, dysfunctional, worn out and oppressive, but in doing so we need to have an eye for that which is life-giving, enriching, generative and hopeful, a way of being that can sustain us and support us for the long run, a place in our lives where we can stay put with integrity and joy.

This topic has been knocking around in my head for a few years, after reading a book by my colleague Michael Schuler on, in his words, “making the good life last.” He begins by disputing the assumption in popular culture that equates “the good life” with material abundance and personal stimulation.  Instead of finding personal satisfaction, he says, we become more like what the Buddhists call “hungry ghosts.” We long for happiness and contentment, but we seek them in ways that only dull our cravings and never satisfy us. We compulsively seek out pleasure and prestige, but our discontent remains.

Life that is truly satisfying, Michael argues, is life that is sustainable. That is, it contributes to our own and our community’s wellbeing; it promotes a healthy earth home and fosters enduring relationships; it contributes to the common good and restores our minds and bodies.

But in order to make life sustainable, he says, we must be prepared to shift our priorities, to leave off doing some things and adopt or emphasize others. He boils down the work ahead of us to what he calls four keys of sustainable living: pay attention, exercise patience, practice prudence, and stay put.

Attention, patience, prudence . . . OK. But stay put? Let’s spend some time with this. We can begin with some thoughts from the novelist Wallace Stegner, who observed that in American culture we tend to be divided into what he called “boomers and stickers,” boomers being the folks who pull up stakes and head out to the boomtowns, and stickers being the ones who stick around for a while.

Historically, the boomers who itch for greener pastures tend to be the ones who are celebrated. But, Stegner observed, “neither the country nor the society we build out of it can be healthy if we don’t stop raiding and running. We must learn to be quiet part of the time and acquire the sense not of ownership, but of belonging.”

And belonging, of course, comes from more than just plopping down and calling some place home. It involves taking notice of where we are situated and sending out tendrils to make connections with others.

Michael Schuler points out that in earlier times there was a process of what he calls “entanglement” that came with moving to a new neighborhood. You’d be invited to someone’s porch to learn the local history or chat at leisure over the raking of leaves. Thread by thread you’d come to know each other, with relationships sealed by holiday gifts of brownies or spiced nuts, agreements to take in each other’s mail, or watch each other’s children, so that when sadness or hard times came, help arrived unbidden.

Scott Russell Sanders points out that the word “common” at the heart of community, communion, and communicate grows from two roots, “the first meaning ‘together’ or ‘next to’ and the second having to do with barter or exchange.” So, he says, “embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving.”

He noted that even Ralph Waldo Emerson, our famous Unitarian forebear, while preaching self-reliance, “lived in a village, gave and received help, and delivered his essays as lectures for fellow citizens, whom he hoped to sway.”

Man of the mind though he may have been, Sanders says, you would have found leather buckets hanging by Emerson’s door in Concord, for he belonged to the village fire brigade.

For many of us, there were good reasons for uprooting ourselves from the soil where we were planted, and, as Sharon suggested, it is healthy for all of us to be wary of settling in, to retain a little restlessness so that we never are content to accept the unacceptable. But Emerson’s leather buckets also remind us that at some point we are called us to send out tendrils that can entwine with others, that bring us into a web of community and find there the treasure that our heart seeks.

Feeling entangled with a place also can build deeper connections. When asked what the most important thing was that every person could do to help resolve the environmental crisis, poet Gary Snyder is said to have replied: “stay put.” When we develop a commitment to a particular piece of ground, we can better understand, not just intellectually but almost viscerally, as it were, how we are linked to the land.

Last summer when I was looking for a way of deepening my own understanding of my connections to the Earth, I came upon an adult education class developed by the Northwest Earth Institute called “A Sense of Place.” Currently, Christine Magnarella Ray and I are currently leading about 20 people from this congregation in an eight-month class based on that curriculum. We blend classes discussing readings from the curriculum and discoveries that our class members have made about different natural systems with field trips to places as various as the Cherokee Indian Reservation and Craggy Gardens to center ourselves in this part of the world.

This sense of place is part of what staying put can give us, a deepening appreciation of how we are linked not just to this land but to all life. Among the readings I have turned to for this class is a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell, a biologist at the University of the South. Haskell spent a year visiting almost daily a patch of old-growth forest that is about a meter square in eastern Tennessee and documenting everything he found there.

For his entry at around this date, toward the end of his year, after he has already documented insects, birds, spring flowers, trees, mushrooms and much more, Haskell turns to the most unseen realm of all: the microbial community under the leaf litter.

It is the earthy smells more than the visual clues that tip him off to what is happening in this microscopic scene, he says. With billions of microbes, many still unknown to science, interacting in that tiny spot of forest soil it is only an impressionistic glance, the least precise of his examinations all year. And still, laid out before him is this vast panorama – bacteria and fungi breaking down nutrients of all sorts and interpenetrating the tiny rootlets of plants.

It shows him, Haskell says, that Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” needs to be updated. We apex predators attend to the competition at the top of the food chain, but lower down we come to learn about the sharing and collaboration that hundreds of millions of years of evolution woven into the chain of life.

And that correction translates all the way up the chain to us as well. We are not fronting the world on a lonely crag; we are in community from the moment of our births until the days of our deaths – community that grows and deepens as we extend ourselves to it, as we interpenetrate the world and each other’s lives in ways greater than we can know.

And that carries us back here. One of the great gifts that we give each other in this community is staying put, staying in the game, being “long-haul” people, in Rudy Nemser’s words. It is, as our worship theme this month suggests, “choosing to choose.” That is to say, giving care and intention to the commitments we make, grounding them in something solid, and sticking with them

We enter this place affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but only over time do we learn all the wonders that each of us has to offer the other. The gift of community is something that improves with age, as we watch each other’s children grow, share each other’s triumphs, mourn each other’s losses.

For the past 10 years here I have been in a privileged place to watch all that and to see some of the virtue of staying put, the strength that we find when we stay with each other and treasure the depth of relationship and commitment that comes with that practice.

I told you earlier this year that I would make a practice of sharing with you some of the stories of how this congregation has made a difference in people’s lives, and today I’d like to share with you some of the people who have been among our long-haul players. Today I want to tell you about the Unicorns.

You have to go back about 40 years to find the origin story and even then it’s surrounded in some myth. I’m depending on the memories of a few of the originators, hoping I get it right.

It was said to have been a snowy December evening in 1972 when the minister at the time, Tracy Pullman, invited some younger parents to a gathering. The congregation was quite a bit smaller at the time, and Tracy hoped that these folks might form some sort of organization to get young parents like themselves involved.

They liked the idea and began organizing parties. The question came up early as to whether the group should have a title, and they agreed it should. Different iterations were tossed around until someone suggested that they were a kind of corny group of Unitarian Universalists, and so they were dubbed: the Unicorns.

It had, and still has, no official status. It was just a way to get people socializing, and from the start that was what attracted people to the group. They were young parents who got together for parties and picnics as well as “advances,” not retreats, at area YMCA camps and then an annual beach trip that I’m told continues to this day.

As the congregation grew, though, the Unicorns also took on other projects, raising money through bake sales and other ventures. When the time came in the late 1970s to construct the addition that doubled the size of Sandburg Hall and added a suite of offices and religious education classrooms downstairs, it was funding from the Unicorns that paid for schematic drawings of the project. Their initiative also helped bring in a professional fundraiser to raise money in the congregation for its construction.

Over the years the group has grown and shrunk as some members were added and others left. They have been present at the weddings of each other’s children and memorial services of each other’s loved ones and even one of their own.

They include three former congregation presidents, several former trustees, a religious education director, many RE teachers, a long-time treasurer, canvas chairs, search committee members, auction committee chair, social justice chair, a former UUA Board member, one member who arrived as a minister and another who was ordained into ministry by this congregation and later came back to serve it.

Among those still with us are Larry and Lisa Holt, Patsy Keever and Jim Aycock, Pat and Ron Godbolt, Doug and Jean Kean, Bob and Ann Lewis, Patty and Randy Vanderbeek, Clark and Anna Olsen, Chuck Campbell and Sarah York.

Individually their involvement has waxed and waned, but they have stayed put. They have watched ministers and other staff come and go and seen membership numbers rise and fall. They are long-haul people who have been here when we needed them and are with us still.

Walt Whitman, who knew the language of the heart as well as any, captures it best: Will you seek afar off? Surely you come back at last, in things best known to you, finding the best, or as good as the best – happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place – not for another hour, but this hour.

Photo credit: djwtwo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA