Unitarian Universalism

Left-Wing Credentials

I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. I’m also aware that often times the things that peeve us do so because they remind us of something we don’t like about ourselves.

One of my pet peeves is that every time there is a story about a conservative who has had a change of heart because of personal experience — whether it’s someone who initially opposed Obamacare until they got sick, or someone who was trans/homophobic until they learned their child is trans/gay — every time there is a story like that, a lefty inevitably snarks about how the person should have known better in the first place.

My question is: Do you really think that you are an *inherently* better person? That if you had grown up in a conservative environment, been taught by your parents and teachers/clergy and everyone around you that there is only one way to be, gender/orientation-wise, and that big govt was not to be trusted… are you certain that despite all that you would have inherently known in your heart a better path? Because I’m not at all certain what I would be like if I’d grown up under different circumstances and had different experiences. True, there were times when I was taught hate and either immediately rejected it or eventually did, but I always had counter examples from which to draw. I’m not saying that there are no people in existence who would always reject exclusion and self-interest. But I question whether the majority of us on the left would have the same values had we been enculturated differently.

From my perspective, this idea that some folks are inherently “good” while others are inferior sounds a lot like the Calvinist theology I was taught in middle school and which so many lefties vociferously reject. From a Buddhist perspective, which is echoed in the UU 7th principle and backed by science, people are the result of a complex combination of a great number of things, including genetics, enculturation, and individual experiences. Even if you were born with a greater tendency towards empathy and altruism, that is the result of genetics - a gift from your parents and ancestors before them - not something that you “earned” yourself. And if you were taught to value diversity, that too was a gift from your community around you. Or if you learned from personal experience — whether because you’re a person of color, LGBTQ, religious minority, or have a disability — that it hurts to be discriminated against so you vowed not to do it to others, that was due to your personal experience. It is no different for the conservative mom who learned to respect trans people only after the personal experience of having a trans son. She just gained that personal experience later in life. And isn’t it wonderful that she was able to change? Because we know that countless other parents would instead disown their children.

Obviously, I don’t know anyone else’s heart except my own (and even then we often deceive ourselves). Maybe the folks who disparage people who didn’t “see the light” earlier truly are inherently superior and would have held the “correct” positions no matter what circumstances they grew up in. Maybe the snarky comments only bother me because I’m not as certain about my own goodness. Otoh, maybe people make snarky comments because the people who’ve had a change of heart later in life remind them of what they easily could have been like under different circumstances.

The Physics of Congregational Singing, Or Why I Go To Church

When I was a kid, especially in middle school, I used to love to sing. To myself. All the time. It was in junior high that my depression first manifested, tied with fears of inadequacy and failure – but the act of singing lifted my spirits, momentarily melting away whatever cares I had. Even when I graduated to high school, I still loved to sing. Until one day my mother said to me, “You have such an awful voice. I don't know why your voice is so hard to listen to; your father and I both have good voices.”

It didn't happen immediately, but over time I sang less and less, becoming more and more self-conscious about it, and eventually stopped. The things I struggle with – perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish – these are things that I know many of us struggle with to varying extents. And sometimes, unfortunately, these fears cause us to give up things that we actually enjoy doing.

For years, I avoided singing at all except for the obligatory “Happy Birthday”, and even then I'd mumble along hoping others would pick up my slack. Better to not sing than to ruin the sound with my awful voice.

I stopped singing until the Fall of 2003. That's when I first stepped in to All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC and was so moved that I immediately committed to becoming a UU.

At first the hymns were painful. It'd been so long since I'd sung, and as y'all probably know, like everything else singing is a skill that requires practice. The less you do it, the worse you are at it. I could hear my weak voice wavering. I could feel as I ran out of breath before the end of a note. But something about doing this painful, potentially embarrassing thing in the context of a UU church made me want to persevere.

See, I had bought in – heart and soul – into the vision of the Beloved Community that All Souls preaches, the vision that Unitarian Universalism preaches, that UUSF preaches – come, with all your imperfections, your weaknesses, and still be embraced into community. The only thing that we ask in return is that you commit to creating this community with us.

So I sang, without fear of judgment, and without judging others. And lo and behold, together the congregation actually sounded pretty good. The All Souls Choir even recorded a CD that included the entire congregation on a couple of tracts.

There's a scientific explanation for why untrained people singing as a group sound better than untrained individuals. In physics, when two sound waves vibrate in the air at the same time they get "added" together. The parts of the two waves that are in sync with one another get amplified and the parts of the two waves that are out of sync get canceled out. (As an aside, that latter part is how noise canceling headphones work.) If instead of only two sound waves, we have multiple waves, the same thing happens to an even greater extent. When a person sings, especially an untrained person, there are usually fluctuations in the pitch. But with a whole group of people singing together, all our fluctuations happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas the good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. The over all effect is that weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I think that is a good metaphor for a congregation in general, not just while singing hymns.

Some of my unchurched, “free-range” friends sometimes ask me about my involvement with a congregation. “Why do you bother going to church?” It's a legitimate question. After all, I can hold the same UU values by myself, and be able to sleep in on Sundays, and not have all those committee meetings....

I go to church because it's in church that we actually get to practice living those values, knowing that we'll make mistakes. If there is any place in which it is safe to make mistakes, then church is it. (Or at least it should be.)

In community, all our fluctuations – our momentary lapses and bad days - happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas our good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. Weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I go to church because we have the potential to be better together than apart.

There Is Always A Reckoning

The theme for this second week of Commit2Respond's Climate Justice Month is reckoning.  Reckoning, as in being held accountable.  Each time as I've read the word I think of another, karma.  Not karma as it is popularly known in the West – a system of punishment and reward meted out for good and bad behavior respectively – but karma as I learned it from the Dharmic perspective – the consequences of one's actions.  Karma is as natural and as inescapable as Newtonian laws (at the macro level).  For every action, there is a reaction.  For every action, there is karma, which is the consequences of action.

 

Karma is the ultimate accountability.  Sooner or later, the consequences of our actions must be faced.  There is no supernatural exemption, no way out of a mess except through.

 

This is in stark contrast to the traditional Christian view of sin and salvation, in which we are born guilty (of original sin) even before we've done anything, and yet we can escape the consequences of our guilt (even extreme guilt) via the sacrifice of another.  This second week of Climate Justice Month also coincides with Holy Week in the (Western) Christian tradition.  Today, Good Friday, we remember that Jesus was brutally tortured to death. Whether one believes that the ultimate cause was the Roman empire squashing an insurrection or a wrathful God demanding appeasement, Jesus too faced consequences for past actions.

 

The traditional (Protestant) Christian view is that because Jesus died for you, you do not have to face what would otherwise be the consequences of your sins.  Even though many people have since rejected the theology, I think that a version of it continues to permeate the Western world.  That is, people widely hold the belief that it's possible to avoid the consequences of actions, even if they no longer believe in God(s).  Somehow, no matter how dire the situation seems to be, there can be some seemingly miraculous way out, such that we don't have to make a sacrifice ourselves.  Our movies feed us this message over and over again.  A supporting character takes the bullet for the main protagonist so that the latter can drive off into the sunset. Advertisements perpetuate the same message.  A diet pill where “the pounds just melt off” rather than us having to exercise.  Is it any wonder that we hope, somehow science will find ways to magically sequester carbon, or generate unlimited energy, or take us to another planet?  We hope that something will save us so that we won't have to do it ourselves, won't have to change our ways.  Indeed, the task of addressing climate change seems too big, too daunting to accomplish ourselves.  And thus even in the undeniable face of the urgent need to act, we continue as we've been doing, simultaneously feeling hopeless and clinging to hope for miraculous salvation.

 

In the Buddhist view, however, there can be no miraculous salvation because there is karma, the consequences of our actions.  There may be seeming temporary reprieves, but such measures only delay the inevitable. For example, finding a new place to dump garbage doesn't clean up the previous place; it only means there is now one more polluted place that we'll eventually have to clean.  The use of extreme forms of fossil fuels - mountaintop removal coal, deep sea oil, fracked gas, tar sands oil - may seem like a reprieve from having to find alternative, renewable forms energy, but all these practices wreak even greater ecological havoc that we will have to address. Putting coal-burning plants in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color may seem like a way for those of us who are not living in those areas to avoid the consequences, but eventually they catch up with all of us, as they are doing now, AND we'll also have to make amends for systemic racism and classism.

 

We have cut down and burned forests that would clean our air. We have sent tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  We have filled the seas with oil spills, and the rivers with mountaintop debris. Our glaciers are melting. Our seas are rising.  And weather patterns that we've relied on for millennia and built our civilizations around have drastically changed. Our collective karma has caught up with us ad we are in the reckoning. There is no way out of our situation except through it.

 

The good news, however, is that karma goes both ways. If we dug the hole we're currently in, we can also climb back out and fill it in.  Our salvation, our liberation, is in our own hands, by our actions. And just as it was possible for us to do something as big as change the climate of our Earth, it's just as possible to do something as big as to repair it.  "Drop by drop is the water pot filled.But it will require different action on our part.

Water Interconnection

Author: 
Kat Liu

When we turn on a faucet, clean water comes to us almost miraculously, and just as conveniently dirty water gets taken away.  But not without effects that we usually don't see.  This meditation is intended to help us see them.

For the purposes of this meditation, fill a large bowl with water. Use a cup to pour water over hands as you recite the words in italics. Conversely, if you're doing this solo, you can just turn on the faucet, let the water flow over your hands, then turn it off.

 

Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

 

The water that has run over your hands came from a faucet.  Picture it flowing from a faucet into the bowl (or over your hands).

Follow the flow backwards, up, through the pipes in your home.

Follow the sound of running water through pipes out of your home, underground, to the water lines outside.

Follow the flow, back, along the waterlines as they run for miles under ground.

Maybe the water was treated before it came to you, adding fluoride and chlorine.  Maybe not.  Where did the water come from?

Perhaps it came from a local reservoir, a lake, collecting rain as it fell on a watershed.  Picture the rain, individual droplets hitting the ground, rolling along the surface, meeting each other and coalescing into rivulets, running downward together, and collecting into a common place. 

Perhaps it came from an aquifer, underground water flowing through and filtered by porous rock.  Picture the raindrops this time not rolling on the surface but rather sinking into the soil. Sinking deep, further down, past the dirt, past the sand, geting purer as it sinks, leaving particulates behind, seeping into the rock, where is stays held like a giant sponge.

Perhaps it came from a river, flowing from a mountain to the sea.  Follow the river up, against the current, up, into one of its tributaries, the stream of water getting smaller, clearer.  Follow the flow backwards, up into the mountain, to the drip, drip, drip, of melting ice and snow.

Perhaps your water came from a mixture of these sources, blending together on its way to your home.

What happens to the places where life-giving water has been diverted?  More water for you means less water somewhere else, especially in times of drought, which is increasing with climate change.

Consider the affects less water could have on the plants and animals along the river, or along the lake. 

Picture people living near the river who depend on the plants and animals.  What effect does it have on them?

What other activities use and impact your water supply?  Farming, manufacturing, and fossil fuel extraction all require water.  Often those activities take water away from people, or pollute water so that it isn't safe to use.

Bring your mind back to where you are now, in your home, with faucets that bring clean water and drains that take away dirty water.

Now follow the water that has gone down the drain. 

That water flows out of your house through a different set of pipes.

Waste water from your house is joined by that from all the houses around you, creating a foetid underground river.

All that sewage flows to a treatment plant.  Do you know where yours is?  Usually, these plants are in poorer neighborhoods.  Communities of color. 

Imagine the people living near the treatment facility.  What is it like for them?  Around many of the older facilities, the smell of sewage hangs in the air.  Flies gather. 

After treatment, the water is released into a river or ocean.  Is it clean?  How does it affect the temperture?  What effect does that have on the wildlife there?

The water in the oceans evaporates with the sun and wind. Humidity forming over oceans. Lifted into the air as clouds and traversing over land.  To fall as rain or snow.  And the water cycle starts over again.

But it takes energy to divert water away from where it naturally falls, and energy to treat waste water. The more water we use, the more energy we use and potentially contribute to climate change. 

Which changes the rainfall paterns upon which we've gorwn to depend.  Such that rain falls in different places - drought and flood.

Bring your mind back to where you are now.

Know that all that you have seen and more is connected to the water that pours out of the faucet when you turn the knob.

A Person Will Worship Something

Author: 
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.

Meditation on Food

Air Appreciation

Author: 
Kat Liu

These "appreciation meditations" can be as quiet and introspective or as energetic and interactive as you desire.  The aim is cultivating gratitude.  Gratitude is the starting point for generosity and action.  This exersize is best performed outdoors.

 

When I breathe in,
I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out,
I breathe out love.

- Sarah Dan Jones

 

Take a deep breath, slowly counting to three.  Feel your diaphram expanding.

Hold it.

Exhale slowly counting to three.  Feel your chest settling back.

Take a deep breath, slowly.  Feel the oxygen rushing in to feed your cells.

Exhale slowly counting to three.  Feel the carbon dioxide leaving with the air in your lungs.

Breath purifies.

Take a deep breath, slowly. Feel refreshed, new energy.

Exhale slowly counting to three.  Feel your body relaxing, any tensions leaving with the air in your lungs.

 

 

Clean air is a precious gift.  Clean air is life.  Give thanks for clean air if you have it (and even if you don't) and think about how to make sure everyone can breathe free.

Food Appreciation

Author: 
Kat Liu

These "appreciation meditations" can be as quiet and introspective or as energetic and interactive as you desire.  The aim is cultivating gratitude.  Gratitude is the starting point for generosity and action.

 

The seed and root beneath the Earth,
the willful, growing shoot…
the hopeful bud then flowering blossom
turned to glowing fruit.
We thank those who grew this food
from little bursting seeds,
We thank our Mother Earth,
whose gifts fulfill our needs.

- Adapted from Anonymous

 

Next, take a moment to appreciate the food. Where has it come from? What country? Was it grown or was it manufactured? Try to imagine the different ingredients in their natural growing environment and even the types of people who would have been looking after the crops or animals.

take a moment to appreciate the fact that you actually have food on your plate.

with your hands, notice the texture as you pick it up, the temperature, and perhaps the color(s). If you're eating from a plate with a knife and fork, notice instead the texture and temperature of the cutlery as you move it toward the food, but still take the time to notice the colors on the plate.

As you move the food toward your mouth, shift the focus away from the hands and more toward the eyes, nose and mouth. How does the food smell? What does it look like up close? And, as you put it in your mouth, what is the taste, the texture, the temperature?

take the time to chew the food fully. Not only is this a healthier way of eating, but it will allow you the time to taste and appreciate all the different flavors.

bite into the food and chew, trying to omit any automatic movements. When chewing, know you are chewing.Swallow after the food has been thoroughly chewed, probably twenty or thirty times (don't bother counting; it's not a quiz). See if the flavor changes -- some food really only comes alive after ten or more chews; some disappears. Finally, when you do swallow, see how far down your esophagus you can still feel the food.

Imagine the water trickling into your stomach, and from there moving to every other part of your body.  Into your limbs.  Seeping into every cell.

Drink another mouthful, mindfully.

Think back to a time when you were really hot and thirsty.  Remember how good it felt when you finally drank liquid.
(If doing this with a family or group, encourage participants to briefly share their memories.)

 

consider for a moment all of the people involved in bringing this food to you. Farmers, truck drivers, factory workers, storekeepers -- there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people whose labor created the simple occasion of this food arriving in this moment. Take a moment to consider them; imagine what they look like, how hard they are working to support themselves and their families, the economic system that creates the conditions for their labor.

 

4. And, on the level of the soul, consider all the conditions necessary to have created this food. The four elements of fire (sun), water, Earth, and air; the genetic information in the plants (or animals), which I see as part of the Divine wisdom (chochmah). Consider, in Thich Nhat Hanh's words, all of the aspects of the universe which "inter-are" with this food. You are holding a small storehouse of the sun's energy, and water from a cloud.

.

Energy Appreciation

Author: 
Kat Liu

These "appreciation meditations" can be as quiet and introspective or as energetic and interactive as you desire.  The aim is cultivating gratitude.  Gratitude is the starting point for generosity and action.  (This exersize is best performed after dark.)

 

May the light we now kindle
Inspire us to use our powers
To heal and not to harm
To help and not to hinder
To bless and not to curse
To serve you, Spirit of Life

- Adapted from Singing the Living Tradition, #453

 

Turn on a light.

Think about what a difference it makes in the room, how much easier it is to see.

Open the refrigerator door.  See the little light turn on, allowing you to easily view its contents.  Feel the cool air.  (Close it.)

Open the freezer door.  Hear the hum of the compressor.  Feel the even cooler air.  (Close it.)

Think about what life would be like if you had no refrigeration.

Turn on the stove.  Hold your hand a safe distance from the burner.  Feel the heat.  (Turn it off.)

Think about what life would be like if you had no way to cook your food.
(If doing this with kids, ask them to name their favorite foods that they wouldn't be able to eat any more without energy to cook food.)

Turn on your favorite form of viewing entertainment (tv, internet videos, etc).

Access the internet.

What are other things in your home that require electricity to operate?

Almost every convenience that we have in life requres energy.  Give thanks for the energy you have and think about how to make sure everyone has enough.

 

Water Appreciation

Author: 
Kat Liu

These "appreciation meditations" can be as quiet and introspective or as energetic and interactive as you desire.  The aim is cultivating gratitude.  Gratitude is the starting point for generosity and action.

 

Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains us all.

- Thich Nhat Hahn

 

Pour yourself a glass of water.
(If doing this with a family or group, use a pitcher to pour each person a glass of water.)

Look at the glass of water.  Hold it up to the light.  See its clarity.

Sip a mouthful but do not swallow.  Feel the coolness roll over your tongue, the roof of your mouth, through your teeth.

Swallow.  Feel it moisten your throat as it goes down. 

Imagine the water trickling into your stomach, and from there moving to every other part of your body.  Into your limbs.  Seeping into every cell.  Bathing each cell with life.

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Think back to a time when you were really hot and thirsty.  Remember how good it felt when you finally got to drink.
(If doing this with a family or group, encourage participants to briefly share their memories.)

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Where did your water come from?  Did it come out of the tap?  Did you buy it in the store?  Did you get it out of a well?  Imagine what it would be like if you could not easily get water. 

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

As our climate changes, it becomes harder to get clean, drinkable water.  Some places have drought, which means there isn't enough water.  Other places have floods, which makes clean water dirty.

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Despite the increasing scarcity of clean water, some companies still gather up water in order to make money from it - they may bottle the water to sell, or use it to grow water-intensive crops to sell, or use it to force oil out of the ground to sell - and do not let the people who live nearby have clean water to drink.

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Water is a precious gift.  Water is life.  Give thanks for the water you have and think about how to make sure everyone has enough.

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