Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Season of Malcontents

Are you as moral as you think you are?  Let me offer a test to help you answer this question. This test only has one question, but it's a very important one.  By

giving an honest answer, you will discover where you stand morally.  The test features an unlikely, completely fictional situation in which you will have to make a decision. Only you will know the results, so remember that your answer needs to be honest.

You are in Florida, Miami to be specific. There is chaos all around you caused by a hurricane with severe flooding. This is a flood of biblical proportions. You are a photojournalist working for a major newspaper, and you're caught in the middle of this epic disaster. The situation is nearly hopeless. You're trying to shoot career-making photos. There are houses and people swirling around you, some disappearing under the water.

Suddenly you see a man in the water. He is fighting for his life, trying not to be taken down with the debris. You move closer. Somehow the man looks familiar. You suddenly realize who it is. It's Donald Trump! At the same time you notice that the raging waters are about to take him under forever.

You can save the life of Donald Trump or you can shoot a dramatic Pulitzer Prize winning photo, documenting the death of one of the world's most powerful Republican men hell bent on the destruction of America.

Here's the question, and please give an honest answer. "Would you select high contrast color film, or would you go with the classic simplicity of black and white?"  

I’ll tell you another story. Hillary Clinton was addressing a group of American Indians in New York telling them all she did as senator and all she plans to do for them as President. At the end of the meeting the chief gave her a plaque with an honorary name, Walking Eagle. After she left someone asked the chief if there is any meaning to that name. He said "A walking Eagle is a bird that is so full of crap, it cannot fly."

Over the summer Claudia, our intern minister, and I discussed how we might prepare you for this season we are about to enter. I call it a “season of malcontents.” Now in Florida, if you are new here, you might not successfully be able to distinguish one season from the other. After living here awhile you’ll notice small changes like Floridians wearing parkas when it is 67 degrees or when the one place you’ll find snow is at the mall on a single December night.
There are changes in the light and the landscape if you pay attention. The season I’m talking about is the season of malcontents and it too brings changes. Politics by way of mudslinging, racism, bigotry, and absolute ridiculousness will be even greater over the next few months and we are at risk. We are at risk of becoming malcontents. That is, you will become increasingly dissatisfied, your anger will peak, your compassion will wane, and you will become increasingly oppositional.  

Our season of malcontents will reduce our spirits to a gruel so thin we will all surely starve. But, have no fear. I stand here today offering a remedy to neutralize the season. It’s a simple antidote and Unitarian Universalists call it our first principle. If you are unfamiliar or need a reminder, our first principle is the understanding that every person -- soon to be every being -- has inherent worth and dignity. It arises out of the Universalist influence on our movement, and reflects the Universalist belief in human goodness, historically, that all people are worthy of God’s love and all will ultimately be “saved” and reconciled with God. Our Universalist forebears (as well as the Unitarians) rejected the “debased” view of human nature espoused by Calvinists, believing that a good and just God created humans who were inherently good, as well. While acknowledging the human capacity for evil, Universalists challenged the faithful to find something of value in every human being and to believe that redemption was possible even for those who had wandered from living an “ideal” life.

Living as a Unitarian Universalist is hard work.  Living our seven principles, which are printed on the back of your order of service, is hard work. We don’t arrive here and handed what to believe, are told how to act, or given a list of bad behaviors and people. We arrive and are encouraged to go deeper in our personal beliefs and we are challenged to live, act, and respond according to our principles which are a guide to justice, equity, and compassion. It will be increasingly difficult to honor our first principle during this season of malcontents. We will resort to living out our shadow selves, the part of ourselves that we wish no one knew about. The angry self. The divisive self. The insensitive self. The uncharitable self. The unhinged self.
Our first principle says nothing about every person having worth and dignity as long as they agree with us. There is no fine print at the end of the principles. Within the foundation of Unitarian Universalism we are told we do not have to think alike to love alike. That is, we will love you because just by being born into humanity you have worth.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear this. Maybe I want to be my shadow self this season. Maybe I want to be a malcontent. Maybe I can’t turn all of the confusion, fear, and downright stupidity of this season into something that will honor my Unitarian Universalist beliefs and tradition.

One of our Unitarian Universalist theologians, James Luther Adams, once said, “If you want to know someone’s theology you need only watch what they do.” As Unitarian Universalists our faith calls us to higher ground, something greater, than being a malcontent. Let’s be honest, we can’t remove all malcontent from our lives. There is such a thing as being human. If we live this season of malcontents, as our shadow selves, we reject our tradition and show those who are watching what our faith isn’t about. We betray our commitment to healing the world. This first principle gets a lot of heat because it is the principle that is the most misunderstood. We respect the inherent worth and dignity of each person but not the behavior of each person.

Everyone has worth -- it may not be evident on the surface. There are extreme cases such as Hitler, for example, that stand outside of that belief. Many Unitarian Universalists feel that one presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is moving his way outside of the circle.  

I ask you, as a Unitarian Universalist, does Trump have worth? Does he have worth simply by being born into humanity? A complicated question if you think about it. You see, Unitarian Universalists believe that the person does have worth, but it is behavior that is deplorable. Unitarian Universalists don’t deny that people are capable of reprehensible behavior, even evil. And, certainly Hitler and others have demonstrated the limits of depraved thought and behavior we may be humanly capable of. Our discernment on this issue, as Unitarian Universalists, is around the person, not the behavior. We can affirm people’s inherent worth while condemning the choices, behavior, and actions of the individual.

Growing up my children would say, “I hate him.”  I taught them to say they hated the behavior and not the person. That's the difficult part. Most of us reject the ideals, the values, the rhetoric, the theology of that individual.

I don’t want to see him dead. I don’t want his wife, who didn’t choose to be thrust into the limelight, to be crucified, and I don’t want the only messages we receive and embrace to be hateful. If we live like that we are not Unitarian Universalists. We become part of the problem instead of the healing. Hate in your heart this season will exhaust your intellect and empty your spirit.

We don’t believe that all behavior is appropriate, dignified, or worthwhile. We do believe that every soul is worthy, capable of redemption, and possessing inherent dignity.  We believe that every person has worth, even when their behavior is unacceptable. We believe that it matters that you and I and others were born. Our challenge is honoring people’s dignity and worth while also demanding that they honor the worth and dignity of others. Our work is creating right relationships with one another where we are explicit about what behavior is appropriate and encouraged, and clear about what actions will result in censure from each other because it is disruptive, inappropriate, or disrespectful. My inherent worth and dignity is not more or less important than yours.

All the world’s religions agree as to what it means to be a good person. It means having integrity, to be honest, and above all to be compassionate towards other people. None of us are always good at all three all of the time and politicians are no different, but the candidate I want to focus on is Donald Trump who isn’t good at any of them, apparently ever. If you are like me, you are grateful to the Rio Olympics for breaking up the constant stories about Trump’s latest outrageous statement on your Facebook newsfeed. I can’t wait for this election to be over. I have no illusions that it will end hearing about or from him, but I do hope the world can return to having a life again. Cute videos of kittens will be a welcomed relief. But I do have concerns about what kind of life it will be.

I equate this election with 9/11. The world did not react well to those planes flying into the World Trade Center. From Osama Bin Laden’s sick perspective it was a complete success, not because of the horror of that day, but because of our reaction to it. Bush’s choice to respond by declaring a War on Terror instead of treating the act as the crime against humanity it was has led to two never-ending wars, more terrorism, ISIS, the death of countless innocents, a refugee crisis in Europe, a world willing to give up freedom for a false sense of security, distrust between ethnic groups, hatred of those who don’t worship the same as we do, and the rise of Donald Trump and the politics of hate.

Philosophers talk about a “moral atmosphere.” It is like the air we breathe, only it is the values and attitudes we breathe in that shape our behaviors and relationships. It is no less important to life than oxygen. It is strongly shaped by those we accept as leaders. A recent high profile example is the ousting of Roger Ailes at Fox News for sexual harassment. Apparently he was not only guilty of personal sexual misconduct, he created an atmosphere that made that behavior acceptable and prevalent for over twenty years within the organization. It works in a positive way as well. When the leader demonstrates integrity, honesty and compassion, the behaviors of those in the organization begin to reflect those values.

Donald Trump is polluting the moral atmosphere, not just in the U.S. It is a global climate change. The Boston Globe pointed out this week that there is a hardening of attitudes in America as reflected in our normalizing child poverty. Is this any different than Trump normalizing all Mexicans as criminals and rapists or all Muslims as terrorists? There was a time in our history when we would have been universally outraged that one third of our children live in poverty. In fact, in the moral atmosphere created by former leaders, it never happened. Donald Trump’s hateful, bullying, name-calling, violent rhetoric is not unique to him, but he has taken it to new levels to leverage our worst prejudices, fears and hatreds for political gain. It is language that shreds, not tears, the social fabric. A tear can be mended, shredding can’t be. The damage he is doing will not be undone by his much hoped for defeat.

Most of us likely grew up in a moral atmosphere that warned us to be careful of our speech: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? Would you like it said of you? We probably didn’t know that our parents were paraphrasing people like the Hindu saint Sai Baba, who taught that we should ask ourselves four things before we speak: “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve upon the silence? If the Donald remained silent for the rest of the campaign, his poll numbers would probably improve, but it is not going to happen as long as he has a Twitter account. So he is 0 for 4.

Meanness has become pervasive in our western culture. Being mean has become a form of entertainment to be laughed at. You only have to read the comments section on the internet following a story or opinion piece. Donald Trump is making that meanness legitimate. One teacher recently said, “We’ve seen Donald Trump act like a 12-year old and now 12-year olds are acting like Donald Trump telling their Muslim and Hispanic classmates that Trump will deport them.

But the most disturbing thing about Donald Trump is that he has become my spiritual guru. He is forcing me to examine my own values. Do I really believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Do I permit myself to footnote the exceptions?

John Donne is known best for being the renaissance poet who warned, “do not ask for whom the bell tolls,” but his day job was being a preacher. He once explained, “I preach to myself and allow others to listen.” I have often told people that of course I don’t practice what I preach, that’s why I’m preaching it. It is my way of holding myself to the standards and values I say I believe in. So today’s sermon is in that mode, and I invite you to listen to my confession if it seems relevant to you.

Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, once said, “When no one is acting like a human being, you must act like a human being.” In the increasingly polluted moral atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being, I feel less and less sure about how to do that. Donald Trump as my spiritual teacher pushes all my buttons to figure out how to act as Hillel demands. I may have no control over what Donald Trump does and says — I’m not sure even he does —but I can control what I do. Doing so cannot be put off. It is about our survival, no less so than is global climate change.

Educator and author Parker Palmer calls us to cultivate an understanding of the value of otherness. We grow the most in our lives, not by preaching to the choir but stepping outside of our tribes and realizing that “us and them” does not mean “us versus them.” Palmer says that this requires us to cultivate a supple heart. A supple heart is one that can bend, receive and give without brittleness. When we refuse to listen, when we demand that others change their way of thinking to our own, then that is a brittle heart.

We’re experiencing a political season unlike anything we’ve experienced in recent memory, and more seems to be at stake than ever before. I leave you with this: What can we, as people of faith, learn from this moment? What practices can guide us? What new insights can help us build the world we dream of, as we live in right relationship with our fellow human beings, and the planet itself?

May it be so.

Season of Malcontents, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Aug 28, 2016.

Letter Read from Pulpit August 28, 2016

To the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches,

          On Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 at approximately 9:30am, I started my first semester at the Lake Worth Campus of Palm Beach State College. I felt that it was extremely important and the least of any effort that I could give, to inform this Congregation of that fact. Without the warm kindness and ambitious generosity of this establishment, I would not have been able to write the introduction of this letter in full truth.

          I wanted this opportunity so desperately and worked so hard to make sure that I would start and finish college successfully bearing the fruits of imparted knowledge, and I almost gave it all up. My financial aid was cleared, my schedule was made, and I was ready for college when I discovered that 3 pieces of paper would keep me from accessing my financial aid funds. Expeditiously, I began a quest to provide the missing papers one of which was needed from me and one of which was needed from my mother. I received the paperwork I had needed but my mother received a notice from the IRS a week before the start date of my classes stating that they would not be able to process her request at this time.

          In full faith and confidence I remained positive, carrying some doubt in the back of my mind, and I decided to go speak with a financial aid representative on campus. I believed in my heart that they could not deny me the assistance I needed for achieving and attaining a better if I showed myself in person, and that I was a real live human being. I’m right about a lot of things but in this matter, I was wrong. The woman sitting behind the counter told me assertively that there was nothing she could do without those papers and that my financial aid would not be covering my classes without them.

          I like to carry myself very confidently and casually and I tried very hard to keep up this demeanor in front of all the eyes watching me in that office, but I felt as if I had painted the Mona Lisa and she had just ripped the canvas apart right before my eyes. I thought to myself that it was a sign and that I wasn’t meant to be there and I had begun to give up when GOD intervened. I started to drag myself away when the woman behind the desk told me to wait. She told me that she had experienced situations like my mother’s before and that the document would most likely be sent to her soon. She then told me that the financial aid was already in the system and approved and that the papers were the only thing stopping me from being able to use it. Then the woman told me the best news I had heard all month. She said to me, not to worry and that I didn’t need the financial aid to start my classes as scheduled because they were already paid for by a $1,500 scholarship that was awarded to me from this Congregation.

          My classes for the semester totaled $1,045 and the textbooks I needed totaled $382.93. I could not continue to pursue my education without first stepping outside of myself to acknowledge the group of amazing and generous individuals that kept me on the right path towards building the best life I can for me and those I stand to impact. I thank the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches and the members thereof for the greatness that you have delivered unto my life. If there is anything I can do further to show how appreciative I am, please let me know.

Sincerely,  Derquan James

P.S. I know this is very long-winded but I needed to stress the importance of the gift you gave me and how important it must be for the others who have received it as well and how important it will be for those in need who may receive the same gift of generosity In the future!

Letter from Derquan James read from the 1stUUPB pulpit by the Rev CJ McGregor, Aug 28, 2016.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Message from the Board of Trustees

Although the Board of Trustees does not meet in July and August, planning has been continuing. The Board of Trustees will be convening a second Board Retreat on September 10th where we will be developing draft goals for the congregation, the board, and our minister. This will be followed by the regular board meeting on September 13th.

To engage members of the congregation in conversation about our future, we have planned open forums following the Teaching Thursday format with dinner at 6pm and presentation and discussion beginning at 7pm. Please hold the following dates on your calendar:
  • Open Forum: The Future of our Congregation – sharing goals and engaging the congregation in conversation – Thursday, September 22, 2016, Ministers Hall

  • Open Forum: Closing the Financial Gap – updating the congregation on our financial situation and seeking input on how we close the financial gap – Thursday, October 27, 2016, Ministers Hall 
  • Open Forum: The Future of our Congregation, Session 2 – Engaging more of the congregation in conversation – Thursday, December 8, 2016, Ministers Hall
We want to include our snowbirds but cannot afford to wait too long to begin the conversations. Hopefully, the session in December will allow almost all members to participate.

Let me leave you with this quotation:
Be content to progress in slow steps until you have legs to run and wings with which to fly.” - Padre Pio

With love and gratitude,

Paul G. Ward
President, Board of Trustees
August 23, 2016

Monday, August 15, 2016

Turning Toward or Turning Away

Why today?
When I was invited to be one of the summer service leaders this year, I was given a number of available dates. I chose today because August 14th is a very special day for me.

In August, 1958, my baby brother Christopher was born. He was born in the hospital after many hours of labor and was pronounced fit and well. At home, he slept a lot, as most babies do, and seemed mostly content, crying only occasionally. Although he seemed a little quiet for a baby, everything appeared normal. Later, a visit by the doctor revealed a collapsed left lung, probably never fully inflated, but an obvious cause for concern. He was taken to the hospital and placed in an oxygen tent. After nine days in the oxygen tent he stopped breathing. He lived for just five short months. We never celebrated his birthday.

Twenty-two years later, in August 1980, my son was born and we named him Christopher in memory of my brother. Today is my son’s 36th birthday. But that’s not the end of this story.
Last year I was going through papers after my Dad’s passing and came across my baby brother’s birth certificate. It turned out that my baby brother was also born on August 14th. So, today, August 14th, is a very special day for me, celebrating two family birthdays. I appreciate the opportunity to be your service leader today.

Meg Wheatley as an inspiration
Now, let’s turn to the theme of this service, “turning toward or turning away.” Margaret Wheatley and her book, Turning to one Another, provided the inspiration for today’s service. I first met Meg Wheatley in Manhattan in 2005. I was approaching the dissertation stage of my doctoral program and it was her inspiration that enabled me to frame my research. I still have the notes from her presentation that day. One thing she said was: The current leadership is having a devastating effect on the world. It seems nothing much has changed in the past eleven years. 
She went on to say, The leadership the world needs today is life-affirming leadership…. An extraordinary pool of life affirming leaders exist, and they need more of our support. We need to ask, What kind of leader am I prepared to be?” She said, “We need to move from ‘noticing’ into action.

And for those of you that have been following my work on conscious leadership, you will see that Meg Wheatley is still an inspiration for me. I define conscious leadership in a framework of noticing what is going on, setting intention, and acting responsibly. 
So today, I am going to talk about turning toward and turning away. Before we talk about turning toward, let’s talk about turning away. Not only turning away but running away.

Running Away
Some years ago, I wrote an essay. This is how it began: I am running away. I have always been running away. Yet I believe that running enthusiastically towards something is so much better than running fearfully away and, although still unconsciously running away from dark places, I now more consciously practice running towards the light. What is your experience of running away? How often do you consciously practice running towards your goals. To what extent are you living your life on purpose? 
While attending a spiritual retreat, I experienced one of those rare moments of real awakening. Despite being intensely goal-driven at times, my awareness of a long-practiced habit of running away from situations was heightened dramatically during one of the meditative exercises. I suddenly realized the number of significant situations I had run away from: I ran away from home; I ran away from the church that was an anchor during my formative years; I ran away from a failing marriage; I ran away from numerous jobs that had become unexciting. It was not always easy to leave and, in leaving somewhere, I was always heading towards another place but, all too often, without a purpose other than getting away from a bad situation.

Running towards our goals is so much better than constantly running away. Turning away is slower than running away but it can be just as damaging.

What have you been turning away from lately? Have you been turning away from members of your family? Turning away from those in need? Turning away from your own needs? Think about what you have been turning away from.

Like some of you, no doubt, I am a Pink Floyd fan and I would like to share the words of a song written by Dave Gilmour and Anthony Moore. On the Turning Away is a song from Pink Floyd's 1987 album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
I won’t make you listen to my singing but you can find Pink Floyd singing this on YouTube. Let me share the lyrics of the song:

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won't understand

"Don't accept that what's happening
Is just a case of others' suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in
The turning away"

It's a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting it's shroud
Over all we have known

Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we're all alone
In the dream of the proud

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord

Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside

Just a world that we all must share
It's not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there will be
No more turning away?
Written by Dave Gilmour, Anthony Moore Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Peermusic Publishing

Turning inward, turning outward
Before talking about turning toward, I want to explore Meg Wheatley’s assertion that the only two options are turning toward or turning away. What about turning inward or turning outward? Turning in to ourselves? Or turning outward, away from ourselves. 
Maybe, before turning toward others, we need to turn inward toward ourselves.

Donna Thomson, wrote: Turning inward does not mean abandoning the world, turning your back on loved ones, work, relationship, the joys and sorrows of the world. Turning inward means spiraling towards the center, the still point within you from which all activity in the outer world truly arises. Turning inward is the awareness of that still point deep inside one's own breath, mind and heart. Turning inward means allowing the attention to spiral down to that point.
The season of summer is spiraling down to the still point of the equinox. The season of autumn spirals further yet into the solstice, and then the return begins. Autumn is a wonderful time for walking meditation, to walk a labyrinth, a circle, to simply walk, feeling the change, feeling the earth beneath your feet, step by step, feeling the stillness of your step upon the earth. Just for a few moments, a heightened awareness of your walking brings you home to yourself, here, now.

To walk in the world with your attention centered within yourself, this is turning inward. Take a breath and feel in your own being, perhaps in the heart, in the belly, perhaps simply somehow in the very center of yourself, a point, a seed. Be with that seed for a moment. Everything now begins its retreat back to the seed. In the spring the seed will blossom again. With your inhalation feel yourself retreat to the still point within you, with the exhalation know that you are always blossoming, always bearing fruit.

The cycle of the years, the cycle of day and night, the cycle of the breath, the inhalation and exhalation-the rhythm of your being is the rhythm of the seasons. There is no other rhythm.

As you walk upon the earth, as you look around, you realize the earth prepares itself for the change, for the falling of the light.

In a world full of aggression, disturbance and distress, the moments where you can feel in yourself the earth's rhythm pulsing in you like a heartbeat, those moments are great gifts, however rare they may be. Honor them, treasure them, the precious moments of your precious life upon this earth.
May all beings be happy, peaceful and free of suffering.

(Ref. Donna Thomson:

As I pondered this reading, I concluded that Meg Wheatley was right. Turning inward is simply another way of turning toward, turning first inward toward ourselves and then outward toward others. Turning toward or turning away, there are the only two choices.

So, let’s focus on turning to one another; turning toward not turning away.

This aligns well with the first of our seven UU Principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person or, as we voted to support at our annual meeting, The inherent worth and dignity of every being. What or who are we turning toward today?

A Google search on the phrase “turning toward” revealed some interesting links. Book titles, songs, and simple phrases abound in the Google world. Here are a few of the phrases that resonated with me:
  • Turning toward our partners
  • Turning toward our children
  • Turning toward the sun
  • Jack Cornfield’s Turning Toward our Essence
  • Turning toward home
  • Turning toward mystery
  • The Sufi Book Turning Toward the Heart
  • The song Turning Toward the Morning
  • Turning toward tomorrow
  • Turning toward joy
  • Turning toward love
  • Turning toward peace
  • Turning toward freedom
  • Turning toward justice
  • And Meg Wheatley’s, Turning to One Another

Turning to one another
So, in a moment, I am going to invite you to turn to one another. I will give you questions, questions to answer for yourself and share with whoever you turn towards. When you are answering the questions, speak from the heart. When you are listening, listen deeply without interrupting of commenting. Simply be a witness. We will have about a minute each to share the answers to our questions.
This is an opportunity to practice the first of our seven principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
As you think about turning toward something today, something or someone, the questions are:

What do you wish were different? What you can do to make things different?

So turn to someone close by, in pairs or threes, and briefly share your answers to the questions: What do you wish were different? What you can do to make things different?

[Pause for interaction]

As you continue through the day, reflect on your answers and think about what you can do to make a difference.
Let me conclude with Piglet’s song from the The Te of Piglet, written by Benjamin Hoff. Winnie the Pooh get’s most of the attention so let’s give Piglet some credit today.

Piglet's Song

Let's find a Way today,
that can take us to tomorrow.
We'll follow that Way,
A Way like flowing water.
Let's leave behind,
the things that do not matter.
And we'll turn our lives,
to a more important chapter.
Let's take the time and try to find,
what real life has to offer.
And maybe then we'll find again,
what we had long forgotten.
Like a friend, true 'til the end,
it will help us onward.
The sun is high, the road is wide,
and it starts where we are standing.
No one knows how far it goes,
for the road is never-ending.
It goes away,
beyond what we have thought of.
It flows away,
Away like flowing water.
May it be so.

Turning Toward or Turning Away, a sermon by Paul G. Ward, delivered at 1stUUPB, August 14, 2016.

Monday, August 1, 2016

This is Our Nature

We spend a great deal of our time in air-conditioned houses, cars, stores -- places and things set apart from the hot and humid nature of Florida. But every drop of water we drink, morsel of food eaten and breath taken is a sacrament of this land. Separation is an illusion.

Find a comfortable position, relax with your soles touching the ground. Take deep breaths that fill up your lungs and release your worries as you exhale. We will go deep into the wilderness of land and spirits, seeking to connect to a sacred landscape we already live in.

Close your eyes, breathe. Remember the blessings of community and those who’ve come before. Your breath is their breath, shared across space and time. Breathe deeply, let it soothe you and restore you.

With your eyes closed, you begin to drift away from this world, this life, and your daily struggles. In this enveloping gloom, your breath -- coming in and out, slowly, fully -- awakens your heart beat. Its rhythm is a drumbeat in your bloodstream, it pulses at your throat -- breathing --

and at your ears. It courses from head to toe, bringing with it relaxation and blessings. Let yourself flow with it, carried on, warm and safe.

As time passes, you feel yourself carried to a muddy bank, the shallow, warm waters gently lapping around your body. Resting against the earth, green and curious roots emerge from your joints. The soft earth accepts these roots and nourishes them from the land’s richness. It seeps into your body and draws you into its vegetable consciousness. As your roots grow further into the land, you flourish and grow amid the cypress and sawgrass.

As breath and spirit pass through you, rooted in the land, sunlight descends from the ever-shining sun. This golden light warms you and completes your transformation, this magical union with the marshland and the elements of life around you. Time passes in cycles of gentle breath and flowing water, shining moons and sparkling stars, thunderstorms and dry months. Life surrounds you, a myriad of beings going about their lives in delicate balance with nature and with you.

Relax further, deeper into this natural wilderness. Around you a dance of life unfolds in a web woven of need and love, stretching back for millions of years. Let your point of view expand to take it all in: the wading birds floating on the clear waters, frogs perched on branches and roots sticking out of the soggy earth, schools of fish darting below the water’s surface, turtles and manatees making their lives here; alligators making furrows and waterholes in the dry season, giving fish and birds shelter as the water levels drop low; great blue herons and snail kites, woodpeckers and the common egret dance aloft.

Return your focus to breathing, the roots anchoring to the land coming back to you. Breathe deeply, gently, and remember you can always return to this wilderness in body or mind. It is all around you, even in the concrete maze that humans built hugging the east and west coasts. Nature remains at the heart of Florida, waiting to know you and be known in turn.

Take your time to return, but when you’re ready, say, “Blessed be!”

This Is Our Nature, a meditation by Dayan Martinez, presented at 1stUUPB, July 31, 2016.

Lammas 2016

As pagans, we celebrate nature's power to feed and sustain us. Therefore, we, as neopagans, recognize eight roughly evenly-spaced seasonal holidays. We call this system the wheel of the year. At this time, we celebrate the beginning of the harvest season in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Known as Lunasa in Ireland, Lunastal in Scotland and Lammas in England, this ancient pagan holiday has evolved into a secular harvest home festival. Britain's climate is most favorable at this time of year for outdoor festivals and fairs.

Historically, in northwest Europe, this was a time for races, athletic games, matchmaking, weddings and gatherings on hill and mountain tops. It was a time when the first fruits of the grain harvest were offered up in an expression of gratitude. For us here in Florida, today, it's a good time to give thanks for air conditioning. I just offered up $600 up of my first fruits in a/c repairs.  

Traditionally, Lammas is dedicated to honoring the first fruits of the wheat harvest. It is a time to give thanks for bread which, until recent times, was the staple of our diet, the stuff of our survival. It was a time to honor our relationship with grains, once-wild grasses that our ancestors first domesticated many thousands of years ago.

Our relationship with barley and wheat has underwritten all the great civilizations we hold in high regard: the fertile crescent, Egypt, Greece and Rome. To these peoples, the cycle of planting and harvest was encoded into their religion through the myths of such deities as Tammuz, Osiris and Demeter. The Irish name, Lunasa, means "Festival of Lugh" and alludes to a Gaelic hero or deity. Lugh's foster mother was said to have cleared large tracts of Ireland, so that agriculture would be possible. When she died from exhaustion, Lugh established the anniversary of her death as one of the great seasonal festivals of the island.  

The English name, Lammas, is Anglo-Saxon for "Loaf-mass." Well into Christian times, people would bring a loaf of bread baked from the first fruits to church to be blessed. Some would then take their blessed loaves, break them into four parts, and leave them at the four corners of their storehouses with the expectation that it would protect the precious food supplies they were gathering for the winter.   

Few of us these days live an agrarian lifestyle but most of the foods we enjoy are still grown on farms. Not only is this a time to be grateful for abundance in our lives, it is also an opportunity to reflect upon our deeds. "As a man sows, so shall he reap." Take a moment to think about how you have used your time over the past four months. Have you been charitable and kind? Have you taken time to stand up for justice, for sustainability, for peace? Have your words been encouraging or hurtful? Have your thoughts been hopeful or toxic?   Life is like a fertile field and in this field we plant our thoughts, our words and our deeds. These seeds take root and become our destiny. They also take root in the lives of others. We are all connected. The good seeds you plant can help to soothe and to heal. Bad seeds create pain.   Earlier in the year we reflected on the power of planting the seeds of our intentions. Now we watch those seeds begin to bear fruit. How does your garden look? Do you face the coming harvest with joy and anticipation?   Part of what we learn through experiencing the wheel of the year is the interdependence of all things. 

Here in South Florida, this is our monsoon season.  The snowbirds are up north. There’s less traffic but business is usually slow.  But our monsoons are an essential element of life for all of us. The summer rains help fill our wetlands and lakes, in the natural system, these areas would retain the fresh water, allowing it to seep into our aquifer, thus staving off salt water intrusion and replenishing our wells.  The waters are meant to slowly flow south and nourish a quilt of unique communities such as the Everglades. Statistically, we are approaching the hottest, wettest part of the year here in Palm Beach County.  It’s hot, humid and oppressive.  The sun either broils you alive or else you’re being deluged by buckets of rain.  It’s a good time to get out of Dodge.

But, as a Floridian, I’ve learned to feel the promise of life in the humidity.  The summer air is thick with the promise of cooling rains that replenish and soothe. Our thunderstorms are spectacular orchestrations of nature’s glory.  And it’s kind of nice to get summer bargains at swank restaurants when the snowbirds are out of town. We exist as a part of a finely tuned natural system. This system provides food and water to our seniors, to our children, to our manatee and to our geckos.  The bald cypress and your kitchen sink ultimately depend on the same water supply.

We’re in this together, not just as human beings but as living beings:  mangrove, ibis, gator and golfer.   For myself, in addition to recognizing the importance of farming and agriculture in our lives and in our economies, I also recognize the importance of our typical seasonal rains, the importance of our wetlands and natural creeks, of our aquifer and estuaries.  Like the wild things, we are children of the waters.  We would die of thirst without them.  

The original sermon I had prepared for today was quite short. However, I woke up this morning with an epiphany. I have to confess, Lammas is my least favorite of the neopagan holidays and when I was asked to prepare a sermon for it I wasn’t thrilled. I mean, we already have Thanksgiving, isn’t that enough? And the neopagan wheel of the year features three havest celebrations. I mean, give me a break already. If we were living a pre-industrial agrarian lifestyle up north that might make sense. The ripening of each separate crop would be a cause for great celebration but this is 21st century America. Who has time for that? Come on, we have to catch up on American Horror Story and play Pokemon Go!

Lammas is a fundamentally Celtic holiday. Most of its traditions in today’s pagan community derive from Ireland. That fact is, unlike most Wiccans and Druids, Irish mythology gives me agida. Greek mythology is a transparent anthropomorphization of nature’s grandeur. Norse mythology is part clever folk tale and part space opera on a cosmic scale. But, I’m sorry, Irish myths with their obsessions over royal successions is like Game of Thrones with magic cows. I mean, have any of you read the Book of Invasions? I’ll let you in on a little secret, even most pagan elders haven’t read it. Unpronounceable Gaelic names and complicated lineages that make all the “begats” in the Old Testament look thrilling. It makes Lord of the Rings look like Doctor Seuss.   And it’s all about Ireland. Ireland, Ireland, Ireland.

I want to talk about America. Where are the stories that celebrate the sacredness of our land? What about our relationship with the spirits that haunt our forests and wetlands? I feel like telling some pagans, why don’t you just move there? I understand the country has a fairly liberal immigration policy.   But I have read the Book of Invasions. I do have a passing knowledge of Ireland’s grotesquely complicated mythology.

The wee folk saw fit to dust my eyes while I slept and I awoke this morning with an important message for you all.   I mentioned that Lammas, called Lughnasadh by the Celtic peoples who inhabited the British isles before the Romans and before the Anglo-saxons, was founded by the hero Lugh in commemoration of his foster mother.

Tailtiu is assumed by scholars to be a mother goddess and a personification of the fruitful fields. But scholars can never quite grasp the magic of our relationship with nature’s gods as lived by our ancestors.  

The Irish myths as we have them today were written down in the middle ages so they tend to sound like feudal fairy tales. Tailtiu was a queen in Ireland during a time when a new race of people invaded the land. She was the foster mother of the hero Lugh, who was a member of this new race. Of course there were great battles between these two peoples and they were usually bitter enemies but sometimes there was deep love between members of these rival communities.

Tailtiu, a heroine in her own right and possibly a goddess of the harvest, was said to have cleared the plains of Ireland so that they could be farmed. When she was finished, however, she died from exhaustion. Her foster son then founded a festival, the first Lammas, in her honor.

I think it’s interesting that this folk tale goes to great pains to celebrate the deep love of a hero for his foster mother. If Lugh is just a son god (as the scholars suggest) and if Tailtiu is just an earth goddess then wouldn’t it be more poetic to present them as mother and son? They’re not even of the same race? Why is Lugh mourning the death of a woman who belongs to clan that are bitter enemies of his own?
Let’s re-tell this story as if it occurred here in America…    Paul Bunyan is a great folk hero in American folklore. There are many conflicting tales told about him. Among the swamp witches and cowboy poets he is especially honored. While the mainstream regard George Washington as the father of our country, the outcast, however, regard Paul Bunyan as the true father of our people.

They say that when he was a small boy, there was a battle between the red man and the white. Young Bunyan was separated from his family. The daughter of a powerful Indian chief found him and raised him as her own.   They call her Pocahontas but they are quick to point out that she was not the same Pocahontas who is said to have saved William Smith. This Pocahontas was not only an Indian princess. She was also a powerful shaman and she taught all she knew to the small Bunyan. From her, he learned to speak the language of the animals. He learned how to hear the ancestor’s voices on the winds and how to see the future in dance of sunlight upon still water in summer. 

As the boy grew, Pocahontas knew that there would be trouble for him because of the conflict between her people and that of her foster child. She peered into the future and she saw that many new people would come to Turtle Island. In a few generations the land would be crowded with many people from many other lands.

In those days, all of Turtle Island was thick forest. The red man and the white settlers farmed narrow strips of land along the rivers and shores. Pocahontas knew that, in time, there would not be enough farm land to feed all the people who were coming. 

She prayed to Creator and He told her to take up her axe and her medicine bundle and to go into the forest. There, in the wilderness, she showed her vision to the spirits of the forest and begged them for help. They agreed to help but she would have to pay a price. With the permission of the forests, Pocahontas set to cutting down trees. Day and night, year after year she labored until countless acres were cleared and ready to be sown with grass and maize. Westward she went, further and further, until she reached the continental divide. There, exhausted from her labor, she made the ultimate sacrifice and died. Her lifeblood and her spirit flowed into the soil of the land. That is how the Great Plains were cleared.

Paul Bunyan mourned his foster mother’s death. She had been his teacher, his friend and his guide. He, too, prayed for peace between the red man and the white. In her memory, he founded the first American Lammas to commemorate her sacrifice.

Of course I’m making all of this up but the point is to show how Lammas is more than just a festival of bread. Unless you are native American, I hope you can see how this Irish holiday can inspire us to celebrate our relationship with our foster mother, Turtle Island, this sacred land we call America. I hope you can see how it can help inspire us to build understanding and respect between the indigenous peoples and those who came here more recently. As Irish or German or Italian as we may be, the ghosts of the Taino and Tequesta and Calusa dwell here with us.

How many of you have seen ‘Gone with the Wind?’   There’s a scene where Scarlet O’Hara’s father is trying to explain to her their near mystical relationship with their land. He says:

“Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara, that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts.”   “And don’t you be forgettin’ missy that you’re half Irish too and to anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them why the land they live on is like their mother. Oh there there, you’re just a child. It will come to you, this love of the land. There’s no getting away from it if you’re Irish.” 

Today, and in the weeks ahead, let’s reflect on our relationship with our land. Let’s also reflect on our relationship with our foster family, those with whom we share this land but who may be of different race or creed. Are we going to continue a tradition of exploitation? How are we crafting new ways of relating to our land and to our fellow Americans? Are we willing to end cycles of destruction and abuse? We are all children of Tailtiu, of that Indian princess whose spirit haunts the soil beneath us. Honor her. 

Lammas, a sermon by Mathew Sydney, at 1stUUPB, July 31, 2016