Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Along with many UUs, for years I struggled over how and even whether to use the word “faith” to describe my religious orientation. And then I had my own awakening concerning just what I think that word points to.
Faith. For most of my life it wasn’t anything that I thought much about. Yes, from an early age I was a pretty regular church attender. I’ve told you about growing up in the Unitarian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, a booming, young church in the 1950s and 60s. I felt safe and welcome there, and even more, young as I was, I felt like I mattered. But, faith wasn’t really a word that was used to describe what bound us together. We might have used words like “share values” or “a sense of community.”
In fact, I think that if you had asked them, many of the people attending that congregation would have told you that “faith” was something that they had come to that church to get away from.
“Faith,” in their eyes, was something that they associated with the churches of their childhoods where catechisms and Bible stories laid out a belief structure that pretty much was beyond question. Good doubters that they were, though, they did ask questions and probed seeming contradictions and at some point by some person were admonished that they simply need to “have faith.” That reply, they would have told you, prompted a cascade of thoughts and feelings, but the net effect was that in time they drifted away from that community, and often from religion entirely.
Still, something tugged at them. Perhaps it came with the birth of children, or a restlessness sitting with the Sunday paper, or the query of a friend, or a particular book, or movie. Somehow the “big” questions of life started pestering them or perhaps that dark night of the soul arrived, and they thought, “Well, maybe there’s something else out there.” And so they made the rounds and ended up eventually at a Unitarian congregation: nice people, interesting services, and no talk about “having faith.”
Perhaps this story is something like your own. If so, you may be feeling a little nervous now: “Oh, no, what are we doing talking about faith?” So, let’s begin by clearing the decks here. In my understanding of faith, I am informed by one of the great liberal theologians of the 20th century: Paul Tillich. In a book published in the 1950s he lamented how use of the word “faith” had been misconstrued.
“Almost all the struggles between faith and knowledge,” he said, “are rooted in the wrong understanding of faith as a type of knowledge which has a low degree of evidence but is supported by religious authority.” We are left with the idea that faith is something that we get from someone else and that we adopt by a kind of act of will. If you don’t have it, you haven’t tried hard enough.
This sets up the traditional conflict of faith and reason. In fact, Tillich said, there is no contradiction between reason and faith, as it rightly understood. Faith, he said, is not about what we know, but how we feel about what we know: not about how our mind engages with the world, but how our heart does.
It is highly personal, something that arises in each individual in response to her or his own experience. It is that felt sense that connects us to the world around us in the deepest way. In Tillich’s words, it is the state of being ultimately concerned.
“Ultimately concerned.” That’s a pretty abstract idea, but it points to an intimate experience. Essentially, faith is what underlies our sense of wellbeing. It is what we hold to because we cannot possibly not hold to it. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning and lets us settle into sleep at night. It is what centers us when our lives have been knocked off kilter.
All of us have our moments of feeling alienated or disconnected. It is the kind of existential despair that makes our lives seem absent of meaning. It does no good at those times to say, “Buddy, you’ve just got to have faith.” What we need instead is a way of connecting with that original sense of wholeness that we were born with. Ultimacy, to my way of thinking, is that intimation, that felt sense that we are bound up in it all – the vast, mysterious beauty of all things – that we are now and ever will be home.
I remember an incident many years ago when I was a senior in high school. I had applied to five liberal arts colleges, all of them competitive, but within my grasp, I was assured. Then the day came when five thin envelopes arrived in the mail, and I learned that I had been rejected by all five.
Neither of my parents was home. All I could think of to do was to launch out to a tree nursery across the street and walk and walk, brooding. For some time in recalling that episode, I told myself that with that walk in the woods I was just getting some air to take my mind off that crushing news. Yes, it did help in that way, and of course I did find a way to college and all the rest. But I realize now that something else was going on out there on those paths of the nursery. I was, in fact, getting in touch with the ground of my faith.
I found something that day that I have come back to time and time again. Amid my despair something in the world called me back to wholeness. It is said that in the fraction of a second before we process our perceptions into discrete elements – sights, sounds, and so on – we are first flooded with an ineffable sense of being alive in the world.
It isn’t something we articulate; it’s pre-verbal. And yet it gives us a grounding, a place to begin. Amid raging emotions and conflicting thoughts, it is a place of peace, a floor from which to build the foundations of a living faith.
I find it at the center of our first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are, each of us, enough, and we have the capacity to discover how to realize our best selves and live into the promise that we are.
Sharon Salzberg in her book Faith comes to a similar conclusion. Faith, she says, “is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
The passage you heard from Annie Dillard comes after she describes watching a full solar eclipse. She writes that she was surprised by how disturbing she found the experience, as if the sun itself were being obliterated. And yet, beneath her fear what she calls the substrate, the matrix that buoys the rest, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.
Some decades ago, James Fowler made a study of what he called “the stages of faith,” that is how faith is born within us and how it grows over the course of our lives. He noted that people commonly identify faith with a code of beliefs, say the credo of the Latin mass or the creeds of Protestant reformers. But, he says, that’s an error. Belief may be a way that faith expresses itself, but a person does not have faith in a proposition or concept.
Instead, he said, “faith involves an alignment of the heart.” Curiously, this notion stretches across cultures. In Hindu, the term is Sraddha, which translates as “to set one’s heart on.” The religious life, they say, begins with finding in one’s life something to which one gives one’s heart.
Credo from Latin has a similar root, a compound from the word for heart and the world for place or put. So, its most accurate translation is not, “I believe,” an intellectual affirmation, but “I set my heart on,” or “I give my heart to.”
The writer Diana Butler Bass argues that people often misunderstand some of the most famous words attributed to Jesus: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
With those words he was not speaking of a philosophical idea or a set of doctrines. The truth, she said, “was that the disposition of the heart was the ground of truth. Spiritual freedom results from a rightly directed heart. The self as it moves away from fear, hatred, isolation, and greed toward love.”
Buddhism offers a similar view. As Sharon Salzberg puts it, “faith is the capacity of the heart that allows us to draw close to the present and find there the underlying thread connection the moment’s experience to the fabric of all life.”
Giving one’s heart, of course, can be a risky proposition. Our hearts are tender and easily broken. And so we have good reason to be wary. At the same time, of course, being made of muscle, they also get stronger the more they are used.
And so here is the conundrum of faith. It is possible to drift through life taking the safe route, trusting in few things, exposing little of ourselves. It offers no assurance of safe passage, but at least we reduce the risk of injury. And yet, what a pallid existence, what a dull life.
The life of faith, though, offers a different path: risky, to be sure, because we can’t know if what we put our trust in will merit that gift. Likely, we’ll overextend ourselves at some point and need to regroup, perhaps nurse our wounds. But we learn, and our heart grows stronger, wiser. And moments will come when our risk pays off with the most glorious awakening, the most amazing meeting of kindred souls, and we are filled as we never thought possible.
Yesterday in our Connection Points class we invited people who are thinking about joining this congregation to reflect in small groups on our worship theme this month: what does it mean to be a person of faith. Some said there was something a little scary in that task. Shaming scripts from their past emerged in their minds, and they weren’t really sure how to reply.
Others helped open the conversation, though, sharing their own experiences and their own sense of deep convictions that kept them centered and grounded. It was a microcosm of one of the key things this congregation exists to do: to listen each other into spiritual growth, to give each other courage to open and explore.
We all know the experience of having been smacked down emotionally, having our hearts wounded and feeling that we need protect ourselves. We shelter ourselves, but, sadly, in sheltering ourselves we turn from our hearts, become stoic, impassive. It’s a place we can live for a surprisingly long time, but not happily.
A way I have seen this present itself in our churches is that we process the work of religion as the wrangling of words. Words are good, but without bringing our hearts into the equation they can be empty. Sometimes you can see the heart pushing to make itself known in the heat of the conversation. How would it be if we let the words be for a moment, and paid attention to the heat? What is that? Can you name it? Can you own it?
May Sarton’s poem that I read for our meditation has been a favorite of mine for some time precisely because it speaks to me of that moment in our lives when the heart makes itself known. It is the moment when we fully know ourselves, when all, as she says, “fuses, falls into place: from wish to action, from word to silence.
“My work, my love, my time, my face gathered into on intense gesture of growing like a plant.”
What does that look like for you, and how might we invite you to explore it? For, there is the vitality of your life. There is where, as Sarton says, all we can give grows in us to become song, made so and rooted so by love.
Let us here affirm, as Sharon Salzberg puts it, that “We all have [the] absolute right to reach out, without holding back, toward what we care about more than anything. Whether we describe the recipient as God, or a profound sense of indestructible love, or the dream of a kinder world, it is in the act of offering our hearts in faith” that something changes within us, something that gives us the courage to act from the center of our lives and fully live our truth.
It is the journey of faith, a journey whose destination is an ever deepening awareness of how entangled we and all things are and how dear we are to each other.
Three weeks in India brought encounters with people whose lived faiths I’ve never experienced before. How does a Unitarian Universalist respond?
Readings “Varanasi,” by Mary Oliver
“I Said to the Wanting-Creature Inside Me,” by Kabir (click here to read the poem)
The poet’s eye focuses on the telling detail, elements of a scene that illustrate the larger truth that she finds in the moment. But to get the full picture, here’s what you need to add to Mary Oliver’s description of the scene of the shore of the holy Ganges at the ancient city of Varanasi, India:
First, you need to get down to the river, and that is no mean accomplishment. In this city of 3.5 million the clogged streets and winding alleys are dense with life. Bicycle rickshaws, squat, three-wheel tuk-tuks, motorcycles, subcompact cars, oxcarts, and delivery trucks nudge and beep at pedestrians, cows, and dogs packed together in a kind of lazy river of their own wending down to the water.
Women in bright saris walk purposively with eyes straight ahead, young men in western clothes gossip with the owners of vegetable stalls, older men in dusty kurtas sit along curbs, commenting on the scene. Women sit along the street median with complaining children holding out their hands for alms and teenage boys dog westerners, pleading that they buy their plastic keepsakes. Watch your feet, or your next step may find you in the middle of a cow pie or someone’s half-finished lunch.
Along the riverfront, the ghats, a series of concrete stairways, extend for several miles along the riverfront, often cracked, or broken and uplifted at crazy angles. Sitting under wicker umbrellas, Hindu priests chant an ongoing stream of blessings, tossing herbs into small fires in front of them, as people of mixed ages drop coins in their baskets. Boys sell small, banana-leaf cups, each filled with a votive candle and marigold blossoms, many of which are already burning along the riverfront.
At the water, dozens of people are in various states of undress. Young men stripped down to shorts jump in noisily and splash each other, while women edge into the water up to their waists in their saris. Some hold hands, shyly encouraging each other, while others stand quietly with eyes closed or softly unfocused before they dunk themselves again and again into the cool, grey water.
The scene is empty of organized ceremony. There appears to be no right way to approach the water. And no great fuss is made of this moment of communion. When finished, the bathers simply make their way gingerly back up the steps to a towel or some covering, carrying a small jug of river water, or smiling and chatting with friends or family.
It is, as Mary Oliver suggests, an affecting moment, and yet at the same time about a half-mile upstream a very different scene is taking place. Scattered across the steps are dozens of funeral pyres, each attended by silent mourners dressed in white looking on as tall fires crackled and blazed.
We had visited the spot the evening before, watching silently as every 10 minutes or so a priest would guide mourners carrying their dead wrapped in sheets on a bamboo bier to the river, where they dunked them before hoisting them to huge wooden pyres and lit the flame. When the fire was done, the chief mourner, head shaved and in bare feet, would tote the largest remaining bone on the end of a heavy stick and hurl it into the water.
What does it mean to be a person of faith? It’s a question that we’ll wrestle with this month, and it’s something that I found myself bumping up against time and again these last few weeks in a trip along the great river Ganges in India. It is a place where faith is interwoven into so much in ways that are often paradoxical and confusing. Three weeks of travel is hardly enough time to grab more than a passing impression, but I wanted to share with you a bit of the journey that Debbie and I experienced and some of the threads that surprisingly lead me back to our work here.
Hindus say the Ganges is no ordinary river: it is the embodiment of the goddess Ganga, Ganga-ji, dear Ganga, who once descended to Earth to purify the souls of humankind. On the shores of Varanasi, humans have worshipped Ganga the purifier for nearly 3,000 years, archaeological records go back many thousands more. So, is it any wonder that Hindus regard it as the holiest place on Earth, where special blessings are conferred on those who greet the day here, and where death along its banks is thought to bring moksha, freedom from the cycle of birth and death, union with the infinite being of God?
The faith that people bring to Ganga’s banks has its roots in sources that precede historical records, to the earliest days of the Hindu pantheon. This is, as Mary Oliver says, Shiva’s city, evidenced by the three horizontal stripes of pigment that you find on the foreheads of his followers, or the marigold leis placed at the altars of his shrines. But others are here, too: worshippers of Vishnu with the single, vertical red stripe on their foreheads, elephant-headed Ganeshas stuck on the dashboards of delivery truckers, or “Jai Maa Kali,” hail mother Kali, across the tops of the windshields of tuk-tuks.
In short, everywhere you look, from the roadside shrines to the bulls, those sacred reminders of Krishna, avatars of Shiva’s great mount Nandi, who lope lazily into traffic, you are reminded in one way or another of a spiritual dimension to our lives that our busy striving distracts us from seeing.
And that, Hindus will tell you, is what our Western senses miss when we remark on the chaos and sensory overload of India’s busy streets. It is the seemingly contradictory way of looking at the world holding that the possibility of our own awakening, our own happiness is in our hands, and yet warns against celebrating the ego.
It is not personal salvation that is our goal, they say, but union with all things – not raising up, but erasing the ego. And so each shrine, each image becomes a reminder of the work before each person to shed distractions and better our lives. And every being, every major event in our lives is a teacher for us all. What this means is that the Hindu pantheon, now thousands strong, is not just a historical legacy; it is alive and growing even today.
Our guide on this trip told us the story of one that emerged in his home town. It seems that years ago a young man had lusted over a particular motorcycle. He worked for years to get the money to buy it and finally did. But he had not been driving it for more than a week or two when he crashed into a tree and died. It was terribly sad, but afterward nobody in the family or anyone else in town had the heart to remove the crumpled machine under the tree. In time, people began bringing candles and chains of flowers, first to remember the boy and then as a way of sending blessings or hold loved ones from harm.
What will become of this shrine remains to be seen, but it illustrates a pattern that has been repeated time and again, how Hinduism over time has absorbed and reshaped many of the influences that have touched it.
This is true of religious movements that moved through and even the sub-continent’s conquerors. Buddhism, for example, was born in India in the 6th century BCE, though today less than 10% of Indians call themselves Buddhist. But honoring the fact Gautama Siddhartha likely walked Varanasi’s streets in his wandering, Hindus claim him as the 9th avatar of the god Vishnu. Today most of the foundational sites of Buddhism have been restored. And perhaps none is more notable than Bodh Gaya, where a massive successor of the bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment grows near of the massive Mahabodhi temple. Visitors of all races stream through the grounds while pilgrims in saffron or scarlet robes singly or in groups do prostrations, chant pali scriptures, spin prayer wheels or simply meditate. Nearly every space is occupied by a worshipper of some kind.
We had perhaps our most amusing experience of Hindu repurposing at the famous Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. The hall is a massive marble structure with architecture mirroring the Taj Mahal, even using the same marble. It’s known as the “Raj Taj.”
Outside stands an enormous sculpture of a seated Queen Victoria, soberly surveying the scene. We happened to arrive the weekend of Indian Independence Day and discovered that on that weekend the park’s grand walkways and lawns become a kind of teenage meet market. It was, we were told, a place where Indian taboos on the public display of affection were relaxed and girls in their best saris and boys in their cleanest shirts walked hand in hand, taking photos of each other in alluring poses. Prim Queen Victoria as the latest goddess of love? Well, who knows?
These temples serve as place to keep stories alive that resonate with the people. Temples of a sort include the home in Delhi where Mohandes Gandhi was assassinated. The room where he lived remains preserved with his simple possessions, and footprints imbedded in concrete mark the path to where he was shot. The location of the shooting itself is roofed and adorned with flowers.
But not infrequently we experienced the most incongruous juxtapositions of faith. In Kolkata, for example, we arrived the day of a special celebration of Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and the arts. Several blocks in town were dedicated to shops that made unfired clay sculptures of Saraswati ranging in size from a foot or so to seven feet.
Each was brightly painted with a sweet face, dyed hemp for hair and elaborate paper clothing. On the festival day, we watched neighborhood groups who ordered the sculptures carry them down to the Hooghly River, the name the Ganges takes near the Bay of Bengal. Then, circling seven times and chanting together they immersed the glorious sculpture in the river, where it melted into the fast flowing stream.
And then on a visit downstream we saw a temple dedicated to Ramakrishna, the Hindu leader whose lectures about the unity of all religion at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions introduced the West to Hinduism. Headquarters of the Vedanta movement, it is a monument to the elevated notion of the spiritual unity of all faiths, and still there at its center, was a ghat on the riverbank where worshippers bathed as Saraswati’s remains drifted by.
What this landscape dotted with temples served to remind me was that the spiritual dimension of life, that which guides us to see ineffable beauty wherever we look and challenges us find inherent value in all beings, in all things, remains close at hand.
One of the centers of Hindu theology is what is called sanatana dharma: the notion that there is an eternal path that connects all things, that holds all things in harmony. It affirms no creed, but instead stands for a code of conduct that we might simply call right living. It is centered in spiritual freedom, arguing that any pathway or religious teaching that has spiritual freedom at its center is part of it. Indeed, for some Hindus it is the essence of Hinduism, an ever-evolving way without beginning, without foundational prophets or teachers that is inherent in all things and inclusive of all things.
It’s here that I began to find some connections to our own very different community and to the notion of faith. Faith in our way of thinking is not so far removed from the sanatana dharma. We affirm that our lives are grounded in a center of meaning that is larger than us yet within us. We affirm that our faith is realized in how we engage the word, in an ethic of action, and we insist on spiritual freedom, providing room for us each to find our own path to an awakened state of spiritual maturity, trying in our own ways to make sense of the elephant of our heart’s calling.
Of course, from the Hindu perspective, the world today is far from an awakened state. Indeed, they say we are living in the age of Kali, the goddess of destruction. In the Kali Age, the last of four great ages, strife, corruption, darkness and disintegration prevail in the world.
Traveling across India, it’s not hard find confirmation of that assessment. Amid astonishing beauty and stunning human cultural achievement, there is also terrible pollution and deep deprivation. The crowded cities find a way to function but so much is crumbling or broken or mired in filth as to make one discouraged about their prospects.
The holy city of Varanasi is a good example. Home of one of the premier universities in the country and a center of the silk weaving trade, its sacred riverfront is much the worse for wear. And the human ashes that drift in upstream from where worshippers bathe are hardly the worst assault the Ganges receives. More troubling are the pipes that regularly direct untreated human sewage into the river. And yet, like the woman in Mary Oliver’s poem, they are still determined to find the holy in it.
Our guide told us that Hindus have some thoughts about enduring and even growing spiritually in the age of Kali. In this time, he said, people learn to live closer to the earth, to cultivate a sense of inner light in themselves and among others amid the darkness.
Using Kabir’s imagery, what are doing looking for another river to cross? Do we really believe there is some other place that will make the soul less thirsty? No. Let us give up such imaginary meanderings, accept ourselves and stand firm in that which we are.
And even in this place, wherever our wandering hearts take us, we may yet find the bliss of certainty and a life lived in accordance with that certainty.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
What is enough? It’s one of the more subtle and challenging spiritual questions. As we start the new year, we’ll reflect on some of the ways that we might sort through all the tugs on our life and find peace.
It may just be a time-of-life kind of thing, but I’ve been feeling an impulse to shed in recent years. Things I’ve been carrying around for years I take a second look at and think to myself, “Do I really need to keep that?” And more often than not, when I’m really being honest with myself, the answer is, “No.” And so, out it goes.
The turning of the New Year is a great time to do this. Clothes, gadgets, even books: toss, toss, toss. It becomes a spiritual exercise of sorts. I make peace with bits and pieces of my past that I no longer need to hold onto so tightly: fascinations, avocations that seemed so interesting for a time that I realize no longer hold my interest. And that’s OK.
By paring down my possessions I remove distractions and make it easier to focus on what matters in my life. What was it that Henry David Thoreau said was the key to a more peaceful, centered way of living? Simplify, simplify, simplify!
In one way or another, the question that we are asking in the midst of such sorting is, What is enough? It’s a question with deep roots. For it touches existential aspects of our identity. For example, I own a good number of books. And while some mean a great deal to me, many I hold onto because they have utility. In my line of work I am dipping into many sources, and it’s helpful to have them ready to hand. Indeed, part of the professional expenses that you provide me goes toward adding to that collection.
Some of these are valued resources that I’ll keep, but others I’m ready to pass on once I’ve read and made use of them. It’s a discipline for me to think carefully about what I want from each book and why. Am I holding onto that book because I foresee using it, or because somehow I feel it’s the sort of book that “someone like me” should own? Is it some kind of badge of my identity?
It’s easy to get tangled into this kind of knot, and we can do it with all kinds of things, not just books. How often do we look to physical objects as proxies of our identities? Clothes, cars, homes, technologies? There’s a dance we do with the things we own, and for the sake of our own peace of mind we want to be sure that we, not they, are calling the tune.
Because, otherwise there is something unhealthy driving our lives. Rather than true needs, these things feed our appetites – appetites for approval, for status, for pleasure. When pleasure’s in the driver’s seat, singing its siren song, it skews how we relate to the rest of the world, and it makes it hard for us to talk about “enough.”
You recall those experiments from the 1950s when scientists implanted electrodes in the brains of rats that enabled them to stimulate their pleasure centers. The rats would ignore food and keeping pressing the lever to the point of exhaustion. After a holiday season when you may have found yourself pressing that pleasure lever a few more times than was good for you, I thought it might be helpful for us to reflect on some useful ways of thinking about enough.
Now, I’m betting that at this point as you reflect on whatever your own holiday excesses may have been you’ve already been through the drill that anyone raised in this culture learns at an early age: You have spent some time beating yourself up.
“Oh, no! I did it again.” “I was bad; I need to be good.”
The great American guilt trip. We’ve all been there, and we all know a bit about how ineffective it tends to be. So, in the hope of finding a better strategy to grapple with all this, let me invite you to consider a different way of reflecting on this notion of “enough.”
I begin with a big word that you may not have heard before: sophrosyne. How about that? It’s spelled “s-o-p-h,” as in sophomore, “r-o-s-y-n-e.” SoPHROsyne. It is one of the Greek virtues and is a word without a precise translation into English. Essentially, it implies what is called a “healthy-minded” approach to life: balance, moderation.
It is centered on the idea that we can find joy in discovering what is good for ourselves. Pleasure, of course, is part of it, but only part. We can get pleasure, for example, from eating a delicious meal, but part of our enjoyment of that meal comes with ending it when our bodies tell us we are full. The pleasure we get from eating is diminished when we eat to excess. The indigestion, increased weight and all the rest bring our bodies distress.
It’s not a matter of self-denial. We don’t deny ourselves when we end the meal. Rather, we reach a balanced, harmonious place where we feel that we have consumed “enough.” To find that place, though, takes some attention. So, instead of roaring through the meal as fast as we can, when we take our time we recognize the feeling of satisfaction without excess.
From this perspective, there’s nothing especially satisfying about overindulging. There comes a point, for example, as we tuck into that second pint of ice cream that we are no longer feeding our physical need. We are, instead, feeding unhealthy hungers – say, an desiure to draw attention to ourselves, to impress others, to seek their acceptance, or to pacify our own unhappiness or disappointment.
An important dimension of sophrosyne is that it is not a practice of enforced discipline against our wishes. It begins with the assumption that harmonious living is a natural state, what is best for our minds and bodies, how we are naturally inclined.
But it’s not always easy to learn and it can take time. And so the ancient Greeks argued that people adopt an attitude of humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness in going about their lives. We are better able to appreciate others since we are living from a joyful appreciation of who we are. And in time we come to know ourselves as well as those around us more fully.
Our joy, in the end, is bound up with the joy of others and the joy of the community as a whole. Somehow, though, we seem to have the notion marbled into our culture that another person’s joy comes at our expense. We organize our lives to protect our own prerogatives and hold others at bay so we can get while the getting is good.
Wendell Berry’s “Vision” that you heard James read earlier emerged from his experience of many years as a farmer in Kentucky. Berry has long been an advocate for what he calls the “localist” point of view. It comes from the perspective of a farmer who measures the state of the world by the state of the earth. And what troubles Berry is how so much of our current economy has lost touch with the Earth. The kind of factory-level farming that predominates in America, he says, degrades the soil, poisons waterways, endangers wildlife, and promotes patterns of development that are unsustainable. Yet, it is outside the purview of most people, for whom food appears at the table from sources they know nothing about.
This disconnect, he argues, endangers the health of our communities and serves to drive us apart from one another. The corrective he recommends is that we all learn to live, as he puts it, “closer to the ground.” This means not only that we get in closer touch with how and where our food is grown and produced, but that we also get into closer touch with each other.
It is, of course, a challenge in our busy lives, but it is also true that our busyness is part of the problem. We take on work or activities in excess of what we can reasonably achieve and maintain our health and balance.
We organize our lives for efficiency, what the writer Gerald May calls, “the ‘how’ of life,” how we get things done and survive from day to day. But we fail to make room for what May calls the “why” of life. And that, he says, is love, or as he puts it “why we are functioning at all, what we want to be efficient for.”
If it’s true, as Thoreau says, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” it is likely because they have lost track of their “why.” We need to get back to the ground, to be grounded in who we are and the joy of knowing that.
So, when we turn to Wendell Berry’s poem we can see that it is – in essence – a hymn to sophrosyne, to the joy of finding balance and in it a recipe for enough.
The image that he paints of our lives enriching the Earth, rather than depleting it is not, as he says, “a paradisal dream.” It is instead a vision of us living in balance and harmony that is natural to the Earth – to the fields, the rivers, the forests, the mountains. It is a way for us to find closer harmony among ourselves as creatures of this planet in tune with the music that rises from it, which brings with it abundant health and wisdom. So, that we might come to see ourselves in this sleepy backwater of the universe as guests at the district fireman’s ball, dancing to the beat of the local oompah band.
Some years ago there was a poem bouncing around the Internet that made Berry’s point in a different way. It was called, “A Lost Generation,” written by Jonathan Reed. In a YouTube version, a young woman’s voice read:
I am part of a lost generation And I refuse to believe I can change the world. I realize this may be a chock bu “Happiness comes from within” Is a lie, and “Money will make me happy” So in 30 years I will tell my children They are not the most important thing in my life. My employer will know that I have my priorities straight because Work is more important than family I tell you this Once upon a time Families stayed together But this will not be true in my era This is a quick fix society Experts tell me 30 years from now I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce I do not concede that I will live in the country of my own making In the future Environmental destruction will be the norm. No longer can it be said that My peers and I care about this earth. It will be evident that My generation is apathetic and lethargic It is foolish to presume that There is hope And all of this will come true unless we choose to reverse it.
There is hope It is foolish to presume that My generation is apathetic and lethargic It will be evident that My pooers and I care about this earth. No longer can it be said that Environmental destruction will be the norm. In the future I will live in the country of my own making I do not concede that 30 years from now I will be celebration the 10th anniversary of my divorce Experts tell me This is a quick fix society But this will not be true in my era Families stayed together once upon a time I tell you this Work is more important than family I have my priorities straight because My employer will know that They are not the most important thing in my life So, in 30 years I will tell my children “Money will make my happy:” Is a lie, and “Happiness comes from within” I realize this may be a shock but I can change the world And I refuse to believe I am part of a lost generation.
And neither are any of us.
Friends I wish you well in your New Year’s shedding. Along with the clutter, why not toss out a few other outmoded things that may be lying around, like disillusionment, cynicism, pointless guilt, or despair.
Instead, find joy coming to know the good, coming to know your community, coming to know yourself.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Testimony from the trenches: “It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. And 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they started signing…”
Photo credit: Diego Sideburns / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
(Testimony from the trenches, 1914 – 1
Private Albert Moran of the Second Queens Regiment
“It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. And 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they started signing.”
Rifleman Graham Williams of the First London Rifle Brigade:
“We could see makeshift Christmas trees adorned with lighted candles that burnt steadily in the still, frosty air. First, the Germans would sing one of their carols, and we’d sing one of our, until we all started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the Latin, so we could sing together. It was the most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”)
SERMON – 1
Christmas 1914 arrived only about six months after the start of the first World War. Having repelled the first attacks by German forces in several major battles over the summer, as the fall started the allies – Britain, France and Belgium – formed a western front to push the Germans back. To stop the allied advance and protect their gains, the Germans began building trenches, which protected their soldiers from machine gun and artillery fire. The trenches succeeded in holding off the allies, so the British and French began building trenches of their own, sometimes only dozens of yards from the German trenches. The trench system expanded as each side attempted to flank the other, stretching eventually from the North Sea to Switzerland.
The two sides jockeyed back and forth, but by November 1914 they had settled into a stalemate of sorts, faced off against each other in their trenches across a “no man’s land” of a hundred yards or less. The trench system had the advantage of slowing the loss of life, which had been catastrophic in the early days of war – hundreds of thousands dead – with more precise artillery and automatic weapons multiplying the rate of mortality.
But conditions inside the trenches were abysmal. Soldiers were continually mired in sticky mud and due to heavy autumn rains there was standing water, sometimes up to several feet, in the most of trenches. Even worse, amid the foul conditions – latrines were a luxury few had access to – the trenches attracted rats and lice and diseases of all sorts.
Soldiers on both sides had enlisted in the war as an adventure that their leaders confidently predicted would be over in a month or so. As winter set in, soldiers began coming to terms with the notion that this war would drag on for some time. Under lowering skies in early December, a British commander was reported to have been concerned that a “live-and-let-live theory of life” was spreading among the troops on both sides. Neither side was firing at the other during meal times, he said, and on occasion there was friendly banter across the lines. The initiative usually came from the Germans, a number of whom had worked at British seaside resorts before the war and so knew English.
To counteract this creeping fraternizing, British commanders mounted several attacks to prompt an aggressive response from the Germans, but it had little effect, and in one case it worsened things, when, due to poor aim, some artillery barrages struck British positions.
The approach of Christmas had soldiers on both sides feeling blue. Governments responded with gifts to keep them happy. German businesses sent packages with sausages, chocolates, cigars and cigarettes, not to speak of hundreds of evergreens so that the soldiers could have their tannenbaums. Some two million British soldiers received brass “tins” embossed with the image of Princess Mary that contained cigarettes or a few sweets and a note from the Princess, and British businesses also provided chocolates and plum puddings.
Christmas Eve settled in cold and quiet along the trenches. A dusting of snow covered the ugliness of the battered landscape, and guns along the front were quiet.
No one knows where it started, though the best guess is somewhere near Ypres, Belgium. British soldiers saw one, then another, then rows of sparkling evergreen trees appearing at the edge of some of the forward German trenches. British high command had issued a warning to be wary, that the Germans might take advantage of a lull at Christmas to attack. So, the allied soldiers watched warily, but before long the lilt of Christmas carols began floating out of the German trenches.
One hundred years later, all we have is brief snatches from the letters of soldiers at the time like Private Albert Moran and Rifleman Graham Williams, but somehow all along the western front something like peace spontaneously broke out. Some British, French or Belgian soldiers replied in song of their own, or waved white flags to exchange cigarettes, or simply rose from their trenches calling out, “we no shoot; you no shoot.”
Hands were shaken, food was exchanged and the stillness of the night and the silence of the artillery on this singular night was how the angels sang.
HYMN 253: Adeste Fideles, first verse
(Testimony from the trenches – 2
Captain Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian Regiment
“I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the Britain shouted, ‘No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same, and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously.
Lieutenant Kurt Zemisch of the 134th Saxons Infantry:
“Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”)
SERMON – 2
After all the singing of Christmas Eve, the light of Christmas Day brought another prospect. The bleak expanse of no-man’s land was dotted with corpses of men from both sides who had died in one foray or another. Some had lain there for weeks, since venturing out to retrieve their dead comrades put soldiers at risk of joining them. With hostilities suspended – no one really believed that they were ended – soldiers at different locations approached the other side and suggested they take the opportunity to bury the dead. And so they set to it, collaborating in digging the graves of each other’s dead with crosses made from British biscuit boxes marking the graves. At some locations, chaplains from the two sides led prayers, alternating between English and German.
With the ceremonies done, soldiers from the two sides began talking. They shared stories of home and family as well as newspapers and cigarettes. At some locations German soldiers rolled over barrels of beer and the English responded by handing over plum puddings. At other places the French responded with cigars. Elsewhere, liquor and chocolates were passed around
Amid the conversations soldiers from the two sides began trading souvenirs – buttons, belt buckles, badges and such. And then here and there, from one side or another, a soccer ball or some approximation of it – a sand bag or a food tin – was rolled out and the soldiers organized informal football matches, often across the pock-marked expanse of no-man’s land.
Those who were slowest to join in the festivities tended to be the officers, who had their eyes out for treachery from the other side amid the good feelings. But in time many did come forward to shake the hands of their counterparts and marvel at the sight of their troops toasting each other and trading chocolates.
Of course, not everyone was taking part in the soccer games and singing. Both sides took advantage of the truce to move supplies forward, fortify their trenches and improve their dug-outs. And some soldiers on both sides who had recently lost friends to the fighting hung back resentfully and never took part.
Altogether, some kind of Christmas truce was observed along around two-thirds of the trenches. But as remarkable as the sight was of combatants dropping their rifles and laughing together like old friends, what may have been most distinctive about it was that in a war driven by geopolitical strategy and the ambitions of kings and princes, it was one event that was the initiative of the ordinary soldier. In a conflict that for the first time introduced killing on an industrial scale, a moment arrived when the soldier’s humanity took hold.
Christmas gave them that opening – a holiday dear to the hearts of both sides, full of warmth and cheer that touched a faith they held in common, a faith honoring love and forbearance and light amid the darkness.
Song – “Good King Wenceslas,” first verse
(Testimony from the trenches – 3
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps:
I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposition troops. To finish the war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse.
Captain Charles Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers:
At 8:30 I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas on it. A German put up a sheet with “Thank You” on it and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again.)
SERMON – 3
How quickly the war got back underway varied from place to place along the front, but it was months before the attacks resumed their former level of ferocity. And in many places it took the substitution of fresh troops who hadn’t taken part in the truce for both armies to get back at it with a will.
It took a week for news of the truce to find its way into the media, and official reports from the front and later histories downplayed the significance of the Christmas truce. It was an aberration that the command staff was determined the troops would put behind them, else, as General Smith-Dorrien put it, it might sap their “fighting spirit.”
But not all observers saw it that way. A 1915 New Year’s editorial in Britain’s Daily Mirror reflecting on the Christmas truce observed that wartime hostility was to be found “mainly at home.”
“The soldier’s heart rarely has any hatred in it,” the editorial argued. “He goes out to fight because that is his job. What came before – the causes of war and why and wherefore – bother him little. He fights for his country and against his country’s enemies. Individually, he knows, they’re not bad sorts. He has other things to think about. He has to work and win.”
We could say that many circumstances conspired to make the Christmas truce of World War One a singular event. After all, it took place at a pivotal moment in history between combatants that, despite efforts by each side to paint the other as monsters or barbarians, held much in common culturally, ethnically, religiously that came together in the celebration of Christmas.
Also, the truce came early in a war that would change the nature of warfare, before soldiers became inured to the notion of total war, before the introduction of such atrocities as chemical warfare. As the poet Phillip Larkin remarked in 1964 at the 50th anniversary of the war’s beginning in 1914, the soldiers of World War One brought with them a kind of innocence that we were not to see again in the 20th century.
All that is true. And yet we are left to wonder whether the Christmas truce was not so much as an aberration as a high-water mark, one of those shining moments when our common humanity shone clear and our fears subsided, at least for a bit. It wasn’t the first or the last time that people saw past the causes that divided them to a greater unity that gathers us all, but that we still recall such events with surprise, as novelties amid so much carnage in human history, is a good reason to raise it up as a gesture we are each capable of making.
There is hardly a more important message for us to attend to today. We live in a time when so much divides us – race, class, religion, national origin – and those divisions make it hard to see the truth of our common humanity unites us and is the source of our greatest hope.
We may not be soldiers under fire in trenches, but we struggle all the same, fearful for our safety, for our economic well-being, for our children’s, our grandchildren’s future. We hunker down with those we know, fearful and wary of the motives of others.
Might this Christmas be a moment to break out of that pattern, to take the risk of extending ourselves beyond our familiar boundaries, into a no-man’s land where we are present to others without pretense or guile? At the turning of the year when we take account of what we have made our lives and what is to come, when our hearts are made lighter by the story of an improbable birth of light and love the invitation is plain.
What is left merely is for us to step out of our trenches onto the uncertain ground before us, into a meeting where the promise of possibility opens before us. As we look ahead to the New Year, let us as individuals, as a community commit to making this so.
Song – Silent Night – German, then English
Stille Nacht! Heilge Nacht! Silent Night! Holy Night!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht All is calm, all is bright
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar. Round yon godly tender pair.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar, Holy infant with curly hair,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Sleep in heavenly peace,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Sleep in heavenly peace.
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: