Thursday, May 15, 2014

In the Moment

I start today with a story I heard over beers from an old friend from college. My friend was in medical school. We had met each other for drinks on a Friday night and he told me about his current rotation working in the emergency room of a hospital in upper Manhattan. He was doing his psychiatry rotation. He met a man the night before who was distraught. He had financial difficulties and was having problems at home. In short he was anxious and maybe a little depressed. My friend had explored the man's issues and determined that there was no immediate threat, and that the man was safe. He helped calm him and gave him some names and numbers of outpatient therapists and reassured him that he was OK.

The next week my friend and I met again, yes same bar and more beers. This time my friend was excited to tell me what had happened. The same man he had seen a week before had come in and this time he was very agitated and couldn’t sit still. He was looking all around, and acting and talking quite paranoid, He told a story of how for a week, everywhere he went, whenever he left his house he saw a little person following him. He said this person mimicked every move he made and wouldn’t let him do anything without copying the movement. My friend was concerned. He thought the man was having a psychotic break and he needed to help him. He reassured the man and they worked together to get him admitted. When everything was done and they were headed up to the psychiatric ward, they got on the elevator together. My friend told the patient the floor number and the patient went to press the button. My friend looked down the hall as the elevator doors were about to close. There down the hall was a little person making the motion of pressing the elevator button. He stopped the elevator door. The little person turned out to be a schizophrenic who had been at the hospital the week before. He was off his medications and had inexplicably latched on to my friends patient and followed him for a week.

I learn from this story many lessons but today I’d like to focus on two aspects. The importance of being present and in the moment, or mindfulness. My friend was aware enough in a busy hospital to notice the small person. He didn’t reject that reality but instead acted. The other point is that the patient told himself a story of going insane and presented it that way. The story was untrue and he was actually ignoring reality.

I’d like to share two stories of how being present and in the moment has helped me through a difficult moment and another story of how being mindful helped a Unitarian Universalist congregation to which we belonged through a traumatic event.

You may know I have been an outpatient therapist. Much of my professional life I have used DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy as my primary methodology. DBT is a skill-based therapy that teaches functional ways to lead a healthy life. Much of what DBT interestingly draws on is Buddhist teaching. One fundamental lesson of DBT is mindfulness. In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Tim Temerson shares a sense of mindfulness and writes “mindfulness means living in and being deeply aware of the present moment. Mindfulness is a doorway to the here and now -- to a way of seeing and listening and living that enables us to let go of the worry, the anxiety, and the judgments of the past and the future. “
One lesson about mindfulness in DBT that I’ve taught a thousand times is called the Dandelion story. In the Dandelion story, there was a man who had bought a home and he wanted to get rid of the Dandelions on his lawn. He went out to the store and got an herbicide (I know very un-Unitarian Universalist of him). He put it all over his lawn and the Dandelions went away. However in not that long of a period he noticed they were coming back. He also noticed his neighbors had Dandelions. He called his neighbors and they all put herbicide on their lawns, The Dandelions went away, but then not too long after, yes, they came back. Then the homeowner's association hired professional landscapers and they did their work. The Dandelions went away, but you can probably guess they came back.

Finally out of pure frustration he wrote to President Obama complaining, saying with all the resources at his disposal did the President have a way to solve the dandelion problem. He of course didn't expect a response and did it out of pure frustration. So he was shocked when a month later he received a letter from the president. The president said I have the solution to your problem. It’s simple. You just need to learn to love Dandelions.  Interestingly that concept also cuts across many religious traditions, In Buddhism it is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is feeling the emotions of the moment and then letting them go. When in life we hold on to struggle and pain, we allow that pain to become suffering. Suffering is like a cloud that hovers over us. In the individual that becomes anxiety and depression. In the group it becomes alienation and strife. In the Christian tradition the concept is best expressed in the serenity prayer. God give me the grace to accept what I can not change, the strength to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The first story is of a Saturday morning and how being mindful allowed me to get through a difficult morning. It’s a story of when my children were young. I need to ask you a favor when I tell this story. I ask that you not see it as a dark story full of struggle because for me it isn’t.  I ask that you not feel sympathy or concern because I neither need it, nor is it the point of why I share it. To understand this story you need to understand a little bit about our children. Both of our boys are adopted and both have disabilities. Our son Tony was born with autism and has mild mental retardation. He is high functioning and doing quite well, and again no sympathy needed. Our son Robert suffers from schizophrenia and has had many struggles, but, again, is doing well and has not needed to be in the hospital for years. Again no sympathy needed. We are actually very proud of both of them. 

That being said it was, I believe, a weekend morning, most likely a Saturday, but I’m not sure. CJ was out of town it may have been for work. I was home with the kids and it had snowed the night before. I had gotten up and was going to make breakfast. I asked Tony to go out and shovel the driveway. My phone rang. It was the hospital, Robert had been there for a few days and was in crisis and the nursing staff wanted to give him an injection to calm him down. As I was talking to the nurse I looked out the window and Tony, who was in his early teens was shoveling snow from the front lawn into the driveway. He never was the best with directions. I looked over and our 90 pound puppy Henry had decided it was time to eat the mail. He had half of a check a friend had just sent us for our wedding sticking out of his month. Now this could be an overwhelming moment. I am very proud of what I did. I started laughing. You see Robert was where he needed to be right then and safe, and Henry and Tony were just being themselves. Nothing to worry about. I had the ability to be present enough to see the comical absurdity in my life and to appreciate it.

The last story I will tell is of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Worcester, MA. It was the first Unitarian Universalist church that CJ and I belonged to, and is a large congregation with a fairly conservative tradition for Unitarian Universalists. When we were there, the Christian prayer, the Our Father was still read during every service. CJ and I were attending a dinner for all the teachers who had volunteered at the church that year. If I remember correctly they had many religious education classrooms and there were over a dozen of us present. At the party, which was at a member’s home who lived close to the church, someone looked up and noticed the roof of the church was on fire. We all went and watched the fire department put out a major fire that would affect significant portions of a very large historic building and -- for all of us -- our religious home.

The next day volunteers worked tirelessly to set up a makeshift sanctuary in a back space of the building used for plays that had a stage and an open gym area. The following day, Sunday morning, the gym area was packed with hundreds of people. There was not enough seats for everyone and many were standing. I clearly remember the words of Barbara Merritt, the minister. She opened the service with the same words that were used every Sunday and had been used for hundreds of years in that congregation. When she spoke you could have heard a pin drop. She called out in her clear voice “This is a day the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it.” The church was rebuilt and Barbara has since retired. She’s an amazing minister and I highly recommend her collection of meditations, Amethyst Beach.  The power of that moment was everyone was fully present and in that moment the words told a story not of hardship but of joy, resilience, and of connection to a community.
Let us as individuals and a Congregation be present enough to recognize the comical and joyful in our lives, and not get caught up in the struggle. Being mindful of the moment without judgment allows us to feel. We must honor and learn from our past, but by being mindful we recognize that our past is not our present and the future has yet to come. By dwelling in the past or the future we miss the joy, the struggle, and the connections that are around us. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and paying attention to what is around us. It is recognizing the each others triumphs and struggles. It is noticing, the beauty and the ugly in the world and accepting that it all will pass.

I also said beyond being mindful, it is important how we tell our stories. The stories we tell and how we tell them shape our lives. Our own minister, Rev CJ McGregor, in his sermon Reinterpretation says “Reinterpreting recalls, accepts, reorganizes, and understands the past, instead of abandoning it. To move towards freedom, towards freshness, towards something new and adventurous in our present we need to reinterpret or reconstruct our past.”

Again this is shaped by my professional life, as another form of therapy I’ve been drawn to is narrative therapy. Very simply put. The stories we tell ourselves and others make a difference. On the surface this may seem in conflict with being mindful but I believe they are complementary. We need to look at the past mindfully and be open to all the details and not just the negative.

Since, I came here last August and I heard a narrative of a Congregation that was struggling and that was doomed because the Congregation was too old. I saw and see something different. I looked about and noticed that, for lack of a better way of putting it, new old people were coming every Sunday. I was mindful of the activity going on in the Congregation. This is not a Sunday-only place. I see passion, energy, and talent as well as people struggling with the challenges of aging. I also see strength and commitment.

It is remarkable to see flowers show up on Sundays with no one asking (thank you Margaret Robeson). I see a kitchen that get mysteriously cleaned without a committee to argue about it (thank you June Kleeman). I see someone greeting every Sunday and name tags appearing out of thin air (thank you Janet Fryman). To me these are stories of commitment and caring. We need to be present and we need to tell our story differently. We are an active and involved Congregation with talent and history. We are a Congregation in which things happen because people are committed to the community not because it is their committee assignment.

Let us not hold on to the story of a Congregation that is suffering, and in this moment tell a story not of hardship but of joy, resilience, and of connection to a community. May we realize the wide universe is the ocean we travel and this earth is our blue boat home. Let us heed the words of Mary Oliver “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

In the Moment, a sermon by Richard Keelan delivered at 1stUUPB on May 11, 2012.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Planting Seeds

All across the country this month Unitarian and Universalists have celebrated Justice Sunday. This is a Sunday where congregations honor and increase our participation in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. In a few minutes we will hear more about the service committee from John and Betty Richards.

The theme for this Sunday is Planting Seeds. Justice begins by planting seeds. Growing your own food — and having the resources and opportunity to do so — is a powerful act. A time to reflect on food security and sustainability. Our goal is to bring transition and transformation to our Congregation and our community -- to inspire a broad movement involving people from every corner who want healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.

Much of the food we eat contributes to our ill health. Many of our standard industrial agricultural practices cause unnecessary pain and suffering to farm animals that give their lives that we might have meat, eggs, milk and cheese -- and to laborers who work in dangerous conditions. Many of our practices rob the soil of its health, pollute the land, the water and the air, and rely overly much on non-renewable petroleum products for their production and transportation. Our food system, as it exists today, allows millions to go without food in a world where others have far more than they need, largely, although not entirely, because good, wholesome, nutritious food is either not available or affordable to all. This is not a guilt trip or another sermon about ethical eating. Justice begins by planting seeds and if there is one thing I know about this Congregation is its commitment to service and justice.

There are many sermons that one could preach related to these problems and to their solutions. They can’t all be preached today. Rather this morning, I’d like to begin by looking at these problems theologically. And then I’d like to focus on the issues related to affordability and availability of real food to those who need it.

Recently a colleague pointed me in the direction of a book that was new to me, a book called Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba, who is a professor of theology, economy and rural life at Duke Divinity School. Wirzba talks about food as something that is meant to join us together, intimately and intricately with other people, but also with the entire natural world. The very act of eating is, he says, all of life and with the mystery that is the source of that life. In order for us to live, we must eat. And in order for us to eat, we must take life. Life must give way to death in order for other life to be sustained. And that is an intimate process, which reminds us that we are in fact connected intricately with all life and with all that sustains life … the soil, the air, the water, the sun.

Aware of our interdependence, we acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings.
As Unitarian Universalists, we understand this idea of an interconnected web of all existence quite well. Being part of something bigger and recognizing that we belong to it and that we are connected intimately and intricately to others. According to Wirzba, the problem with our current food systems, in theological terms, is that “we live in exile,” which he defines as “the refusal to welcome and accept responsibility for the membership of creation of which we are a part.” This is such an interesting idea to me that we are in living in exile when it comes to our food. We are cut off. We are alienated, isolated, separated. We don’t see the connections between our food and our health, our food choices and the health of workers or the environment, our choices and the fact of hunger.
When I think of these things together … exile, food, hunger … I think also of the other ways we are alienated from our food, our consumption, I think of how people -- so many people -- are hungry these days for connection, for purpose, for wholeness, for health, for sustainability and for good food itself. For Wirzba the act of communion is one path out of that exile. For communion is a ritual of remembering, of restoring that which has been dis-membered, of recalling our connections not only to one another, but to our food and those who gave their labor and their lives that we might eat and live. When thought of in those terms, communion can be a very relevant and powerful act that brings us back into community in the fullest sense of the word. As Unitarian Universalist the word communion might make us squirm. But community, interdependence, and justice are the words we live by and bring us to restoration and wholeness.

A very real justice issue in this country is food insecurity which means people not having access to food and go hungry. Food insecurity is directly related to climate change. As our climate changes so does the type, amount and quality of food available to all of us. It’s one big and scrambled chain of events. Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. are food insecure -- about 1 in 6 Americans. 18 million children are food insecure, more than 2 in 5 children. Florida food banks have been distributing food at disaster levels over the last 3 years with increases of 80% in some areas of the state. Just listen to Florida’s food insecurity statistics:

  • Total food insecurity rate (availability of food and one's access to it): 20 percent
  • Total number of food insecure people: nearly 4 million
  • Total child food insecurity rate: 32 percent
  • Total number of children who are food insecure: over 1.5 million
  • Some Florida counties claim 25-40 percent of their people are food insecure.

Don’t worry about not remembering these statistics. Just know that food insecurity in our country, in our state, in our county is a very real and disturbing justice issues. Parents in families that never before experienced food insecurity are increasingly finding it difficult to feed their children adequately.

One young couple who lives in our county, Tony and Karen, lived for 12 years in a comfortable home with their two children. Both Tony and Karen lost their jobs over a four-month period. Facing foreclosure, they sold their house for what they owed on it. Now, living in a cramped apartment, Karen’s unemployment benefits have run out, and the  family is struggling to put food on the table. Although Karen wants to feed her children fresh fruits and vegetables, she cannot afford them. Her younger daughter has had ear infections all year and was just diagnosed with anemia -- conditions associated with a chronically inadequate diet. This is happening right outside our door. Their situation is unfortunately common.

We need only listen to our Unitarian ancestor Theodore Parker, who also happens to be my UU hero. He writes "The miser, starving his brother's body, starves also his own soul, and at death shall creep out of his great estate of injustice, poor and naked and miserable.” In other words, the ones who have not, are already blessed. Those of us who are outraged that some go without, are blessed. And those who actually do something about it, who sacrifice something in order that the have nots might also have, they are truly blessed.

I’m thinking of the ways we, as individuals, are called, perhaps, to change our own habits of eating, our habits of consumption, in general, perhaps -- so that others might eat, too. We could, for instance, eat more plant-based, more local, more sustainably grown foods in order to use fewer of the world’s resources to feed ourselves. But I’m thinking also of the ways we are called as a community to fix the brokenness of the system in which we live. We are doing many of those things already! We have a modest garden that we can freely harvest from, we are able to compost here on the Congregation’s property, a few members offer weekly meals at St. George’s. We’ve planted fruit trees that when they bear fruit we will be able to take fruit freely, but we will also invite migrant workers and their families to take freely to ease their food insecurity. We collect food to offer to families who have little, and we pack meals that feed children that rely on school meals to eat, but are hungry when school is not in session. I’d like you to be even more brave and offer a few families who share our concern for insecurity and receive food stamps a plot here where they could garden. They are able to use their food stamps to buy vegetable plants. Among them they will create a co-op between themselves and have access to 4 or 5 times more fresh and organic food. All because you were brave enough to offer a plot of unused land.

One of my colleagues this week was tweeting words of wisdom that he’s picked up from a church conference on mission and outreach that he’s been attending, and one of the many wonderful quotes that he tweeted has stuck with me. It said, “If you really get serious about loving your neighbor, you can make a measurable difference in your neighborhood.” Let us get serious. Let us be brave and create justice for ourselves and our neighbors. Let us plant seeds that will grow to feed our bodies and seeds that will feed our minds, hearts, and souls. Let us build a new way to be in the world and in our community.

I spent a few days with my colleagues from all over Florida this week. You may know by now that I love listening to stories. A colleague told a story about how homicide was increasing in their area. Most of those murdered were people of color and they died alone and without any ritual or any public recognition that this brother or sister has left us and in such a violent way. That was until a Unitarian Universalist congregation assembled an 8-member choir. They would arrive on the scene the day after the homicide had taken the place and sang. They offered their voices to mark the time, the place, and the loss of another. Soon other choirs joined, then community organizations, then people heard what was happening and left their homes, their apartments, their jobs to join in the blessing. Recognition of lives lost and a community coming together to honor that life and seek justice inspired a town to crave justice and work for it. And so they did. The high homicide rate had significantly decreased. 

We’ve already begun the work of planting seeds and have dedicated ourselves to the work of alleviating food insecurity, not only through our programs I’ve already mentioned. Remember the story of the miser who “used his gold to improve the lives of local people,” who “held feasts for his neighbors … which were so enjoyable that they became the talk of the land?” Let us use our gold, our gifts, our green building to feed more souls.
“Love is the spirit of this Congregation and service is its law. This is our great covenant….”  Let us make these words come alive and not simply become weekly recitation.

And so may we continue to support our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and continue to find new ways to share that spirit of Love with those outside of our walls.
May we find new ways and plant seeds to feed more souls.
And may we continue to be an ever-increasing blessing unto the world.
May it be so.

Planting Seeds, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor delivered at 1stUUPB on April 27, 2014.