Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Get Off My Grass

I want to tell you a story of adaptability. That is our theme this month. The story is my story -- the story of my arrival in south Florida in 2013.  Now you should know that I had never thought of living in Florida -- not once.  Sure, perhaps a visit here and there, but never considered living here.

In the spring of 2013 three congregations were put before me by the UUA’s Office of Transitions to consider, and I bet you can guess which congregation I thought was the best match. I drove from New York, stopping in Baltimore and Savannah arriving here on July 13, 2013. I remember the day well. It was the day I needed to pull over to the side of the road because it was raining so hard I couldn’t see inches in front of me. Then, to my amazement, three minutes later the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky and it was hot.

I mean hot. Mucho caliente. While in my air conditioned vehicle I was fine. Once I stepped out I lost my breath to the heat and humidity and I began to sweat just walking a few feet. My thick and lethargic northern blood did not serve me well, but I adapted. I remember scheduling a weekly gardening group here and no one came. I was later told that I was nuts to ask people to be outside between the hours of ten and two.

I didn’t know, but I adapted. In the north I wore a robe on Sunday mornings, most ministers do. I did wear a robe here in July and August and found myself dehydrated and feeling faint after one hour.  I learned I was wearing a portable sweat lodge. There is no need to put on a heavy robe in the Florida summer. I hung the robe up and adapted. I arrived wearing black clothing. Nearly everything I owned was black. Did you know that the color black draws the sun and the heat to you? I have diversified my wardrobe and have adapted. I mean look at me now. I look like the Easter Bunny in Miami for god’s sake.

I’m telling you this story of my adaptability as a way to demonstrate that when we arrive in a new place, a different place, a place that requires us to change to survive, we need to adapt. You see it is no longer about the survival of the fittest. It is about the survival of the versatile.

Human adaptability focuses on the flexibility with which humans, both as individuals and as populations, cope with challenges and changes. The Rev. Mark Wilberer asks us, "Just how adaptable are we -- or is human adaptability only a myth? And why do I gripe about that kid hot-rodding down the street and -- my god! -- didn’t that just sound like my dad talking?" We may here ourselves say, “kids today” or “Get off my grass and stay off!” That sounds like my grandfather.  My grandfather had built his home, his sanctuary, and when his sanctuary was breached and he became uncomfortable with the changing times he would become even more guarded and monitored his grass closely. In his day people used the sidewalks and respected your grass. His response to change was to scare kids away who dared step on his grass.

The Rev.  Scott Alexander, our guest speaker last week, tells us to “adapt (adapt in the heart, mostly), in order to get our lives moving again in light of the new information we have been given about what is now possible for us.” Possessing an adaptable heart means  possessing a heart that is willing and able to align itself to conform and move with new information about what is possible, a heart that is open to finding fresh new channels of living in the face of change, howsoever challenging, is the key to emotional survival and successful living.

What are the needs that we are meeting with this behavior? Just as Darwin’s orchid developed a range of mechanisms to survive and to thrive, so we do the best we can, with the tools of mind and emotion and imagination to survive and to thrive physically, Above all, we need to feel we exist, and that we are safe — we need to feel both present and secure. I am convinced that these very basic emotional needs lie at the heart of all kinds of behaviors.

I’ve had many conversations with our older members. I love the stories that are told. One thing all of these conversations have in common is how much the world has changed. I always get feedback that I use email too much instead of face to face conversations. Think about it -- we can have a circle of friends on Facebook where we know all that is happening in our lives without ever meeting face to face. I don’t own any vinyl records, eight tracks, cassettes or CD’s. I store everything on my iPhone. Times have certainly changed and I wonder how you manage the discomfort that comes with such changes. When all that you know, when your sanctuary, not unlike my grandfather’s, is breached. Have you experienced anything like that?

Impermanence is challenging emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually. We desperately try to stop and prevent change.  However, riding the wave of change, embracing change, permitting change and impermanence in our lives allows us to grow.

Perhaps you have had the reoccurring realization that life changes and we find ourselves waking up to a new world each day.  We never really grow accustomed to this new life every day but we think we do. It is work, spiritual practice, to increase our comfort and to adapt -- to stop yelling at the kids on our grass. The big spiritual question to ask ourselves is, “How have I changed?”  Paying attention to the practice of stepping aside and taking stock of our adaptability is checking in on the evolution of our spiritual selves.

Oxford professor AC Benson writes, “As I made my pilgrimage through the world a certain sense of mystery seems to gather and grow. And this is the vision I have for my life on the good days when I’m able to stand back and get some perspective.” What does that mean for us? We want to have something constant in our lives and the only thing that is constant is change. Perhaps rather than posting “Get off my grass” signs demonstrating our inability to adapt we might think about making it through life striving to be adaptable.  Ask yourself, “What do I want to do to be relevant in this life; to be adaptable?”

The world keeps changing. It doesn’t help to become attached to a single way of being in the world. I’m reminded of the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment. The Dalai Llama writes, “Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.”  The human mind loves to process thoughts and is sticky like glue. That means it attaches to feelings and thoughts, not unlike a prisoner who is holding on to the prison bars. This is the nature of the mind. Non-attachment is about observing, being aware of your feelings and thoughts without grasping at them. Imagine flowing through life with non-attachment. I do not know anyone who is able to take change completely in stride. There are so many complex feelings and behaviors associated with change. It is unsettling; it pulls us out of our haven of security and presents us with something different. It takes away our illusion that we can predict the future, it takes away our illusion of control. It means we lose that which we have known. Whether we hated the status quo or loved it, whether we were comfortable with it or not, change is often deeply frightening and always anxiety producing. Maybe we're not up to it; maybe we can't handle it. Change brings us loss just as often, if not more so, as it brings us gain. We reflect all of these feelings in the ways we react to change. So how in the world are we supposed to cope with it?

I think coping with change is a practice. It isn't something we do once and master, rather it is something we are called to do over and over, with mixed results. The greater the change the harder the practice. Yet the better we cope, the more free we are. How helpful is it to deny or fight a reality that is already here? Or to overly clutter our lives with attempts to control everything and everyone? We can get so caught up in resistance that we leave the present moment, the current now-ness of our lives. And since this moment is all that we have, really, what is our life if we cannot accept it? Change is hard, yes. It brings loss, it brings sorrow, yes. It also brings opportunities for growth, for learning, for happiness. Change per se is neither good nor bad; it's what we make of it. Why not attempt to make meaning of it, to find a greater purpose through it? Why not meet it with the bravery that I know is inside us?

So, will you start dressing like a Miami Easter Bunny or will you sit by the window peeking through the curtain waiting for your grass to be walked on so you can shake a stick at those kids today? Will you choose to be relevant and adapt, understanding that your commitment to embracing change will help you grow. Change is a part of our lives. The question is, What are we going to do with it? How are we going to live with it? In being with our changes, may we be wise, may we be courageous, may we be open. If we must know its bitterness, may we also know its sweetness. "For all that is our life, we bring our thanks and praise." May it be so.

Get off My Grass, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on May 15, 2016.

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