Given Inches, I Take Yards

bird“I know my soul will unfurl its wings”[1]—words from Unitarian Universalist minister, Mary Grigolia. As I sing these words I conjure an image of me rising up, me soaring, me flying, me pursuing my passions, my calling, my dreams; and an image of us rising up, us soaring, us flying, us pursuing our passions, our calling, our dreams. This image affirms for me that we are indeed, as the Sikh chant says, “bountiful, blissful, beautiful.”[2] A similar image and a similar affirmation come to mind as I encounter Naomi Replansky’s poem, “Housing Shortage.” “Excuse me for living,” she writes, “But, since I am living, / Given inches, I take yards, / Taking yards, dream of miles, / And a landscape, unbounded / And vast in abandon.”[3]

Our November ministry theme is abundance. I read Replansky’s poem as a description of the movement from spiritual scarcity to spiritual abundance. She begins in a place of limitation and constraint: “I tried to live small. / I took a narrow bed. / I held my elbows to my sides. / I tried to step carefully / And to think softly / And to breathe shallowly / In my portion of air /And to disturb no one.” Yet something in her cannot be held back. She says, “see how I spread out and I cannot help it.” She resolves to live big, to take yards, to dream of miles and a landscape unbounded.

Spiritual abundance means different things to different people, and I don’t want to offer a definition that might limit what it means to you. But for me, this morning, a sign of spiritual abundance is a strong and joyful sense of self. I witness it in the way a person smiles, the way they glow, the way they light up, the way they immerse themselves in a conversation or a project. Spiritual abundance fires in the heart a desire and willingness to live not behind masks, not within armor, not inside closets, but outwardly as your strong and joyful self. Spiritual abundance brings clarity about your vision for your life and a desire and willingness to pursue that vision. It brings clarity about how you want to live and then striving as best you can to live that way. It brings clarity about your values and principles, about your passions and gifts. It is Henry David Thoreau proclaiming, “I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.”[4] It is Rev. Grigolia singing “I know my soul will unfurl its wings.” It is Naomi Replanski saying “Excuse me for living.”

Spiritual abundance springs from our experience of connection to realities greater than ourselves: connection to family and friends; connection to communities—like this congregation, your neighborhood, your kids’ school, the senior center, the yoga studio, the choir, the singing circle, the Kirtan, the sangha, the book group; connections to the earth, a garden, the land, the planet; connections to Nature, the seasons, the sun, the moon, the stars; connections to spirit; connections to God, the gods, the Goddess; connections that pull you out of yourself, provide a greater perspective on what matters, and give you flashes of  insight and intuition into the mysteries of life; connections that reflect back to you the purpose of your life, making you feel strong and joyful, making you feel bountiful, blissful, beautiful. That’s what I mean by spiritual abundance this morning.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is somehow my normal state or that it is most peoples’ normal state. It doesn’t just happen. It takes work to get there. Experiencing the kinds of connections I’m referring to takes practice, intention, discipline. It takes worshipping, reading, prayer in all its forms, meditation in all its forms. It takes bending, bowing stretching, moving, rising, reaching. It takes dancing, singing, chanting, journaling, drawing, painting, sculpting, composing; not to mention organizing, advocating, demonstrating, marching, witnessing, serving, healing, feeding, housing and getting your hands dirty in the nurturing dark, brown earth.

Most days I’m ready for this work. I’m disciplined. I set the intention. But I have been struggling to get there in recent months. I have not been my best self. I have not been rising up, soaring, flying. If you have been experiencing a similar difficulty in recent months or over the last year, I am not surprised. I’m hearing it from lots of people in many different contexts. And it has everything to do with the campaign for United States president.

votingI haven’t spoken much about the current campaign from the pulpit, in part because so much has been said about it in so many forums; in part because I—and we as a congregation—do need to be careful not to endorse, either directly or indirectly, a candidate for any office; and in part because Unitarian Universalists vote whether the minister discusses the campaign or not. There is such a thing as the “pre-election” sermon where the minister urges the congregation to vote—the “Souls to the Polls” sermon. I’ve never given that sermon. A 2008 study revealed that 90% of Unitarian Universalists are registered to vote, which was well above the 76% of the general population who are registered.[5] I suspect more than 90% of you are registered and planning to vote on Tuesday. Our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” It has always been my impression that the people in this congregation take that principle very seriously when it comes to voting in civic elections. For that reason, I’ve never felt a strong call to preach a pre-election, get-out-and-vote sermon.

But I’ve also never felt such a strong sense of personal and national spiritual scarcity because of a campaign. I’ve experienced ugly and disheartening campaigns before. I’ve felt cynicism rise in me in response to things I’ve observed in previous campaigns. I have witnessed campaigns where the actions of one side seemed unfair and even abusive to the other side—the infamous “swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004 is an example. But this is the first time I’ve ever felt that a presidential campaign was actually abusive to the electorate. So many things that have been said and done in this presidential campaign, from the primaries to today, have been painful to different groups of people. Survivors of sexual assault have been triggered. Women in general have been triggered. Blacks and Hispanics have been triggered. Muslims have been triggered. Immigrants have been triggered. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have been triggered. People with disabilities have been triggered. Christian Evangelicals have been triggered. Catholics have been triggered. Police have been triggered. Gold Star families have been triggered. White, working class men have been triggered. People without college degrees have been triggered. Traditional conservatives have been triggered. Bernie Sanders supporters have been triggered. Nasty woman. Basket of deplorables. Ouch. This campaign is causing pain.

Anxious voters will go to the polls on Tuesday with fear, rage and disbelief in their hearts. We’ve witnessed verbal and physical violence at campaign rallies, and there is still the possibility of violence at polling places.  We’ve heard appeals to intimidate voters. We’ve heard constant claims that the election is rigged. Just recently we’ve watched the FBI Director insert himself into the campaign in a way that, though technically legal, certainly violated the spirit of the law. Through criminal computer and email hacks we’ve glimpsed a variety of dubious, ‘behind-the-scenes’ interactions between people who aren’t supposed to be interacting—again, nothing blatantly illegal, but certainly violations of the spirit of the law.

On Wednesday morning a radio commentator on National Public Radio said, “it’s less than a week away from election day and there’s still time for several more stomach-churning events.” On one level she was being funny, but I take her words literally, because this election is making people sick. I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m not speaking about the damage being done to our democratic traditions, which is sickening enough.  I’m speaking about the fact that people all across the political spectrum are literally sickened by what they are witnessing. I’ve certainly encountered it here at UUS:E. Many of my colleagues report the same thing. I spoke to a colleague the other day who said so many people had come to her for pastoral care in relation to the election that she felt the need to go into therapy just to get through it. I don’t feel I’m overstating this: The 2016 presidential campaign is abusing the electorate.

I have felt angry, frustrated, dumbfounded, frightened. I have been moving through my days with a sense of foreboding, with anxiety, with a pressing desire to just get away from it. I also find myself constantly seduced into a place of self-righteousness because in my Facebook and other social media feeds the other side—they, them, those people—are caricatured constantly as racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, immigrant-phobic and isolationist. They are presented as stupid, mean-spirited, potentially violent, dangerous. The temptation is to laugh, to get angry, to write them off, yet that just creates more anger, hate, and polarization. When I pause to assess my spiritual well-being, I am not doing very well. Outwardly I may be angry and cynical. But spiritually I am small, constrained, limited. Adapting Replansky’s words, I am holding my elbows to my sides. I am trying to step carefully. I am thinking softly. I am breathing shallowly. I am not bountiful, not blissful, not beautiful. My wings are not unfurled. My landscape is not vast in abandon. That is how the campaign has impacted me. I suspect many of you will report something similar.

“How do we come back from this?” is a question many are asking? How do we heal our communities, our nation, ourselves? I have some preliminary answers.

First, go to the polls and vote. However, my challenge to you is to vote from a place of abundance, not scarcity. If you’re imagining going to the polls with anything like anger, fear or confusion in your heart; if you’re one who is ‘holding your nose’ as you vote, how might you approach the ballot box differently? How might you say, adapting Replansky again, “Excuse me for voting!” And instead of voting the paltry inches we’ve been given, how might you vote yards? I say, vote despite the campaign. Vote because you affirm democracy, even as you recognize its flaws. Vote not because you’re choosing the lesser of two evils. Vote because your vote is a manifestation of your voice, and your voice matters.

Second, before you vote, given the abusiveness of this campaign, do something—some practice, some ritual, some artwork, some dance, some prayer—do something that connects you to a reality larger than yourself. Especially if you’re among those who’ve been hurting, who’ve felt sickened, who’ve been unnerved by the revelation of deep divisions in our society, shout it out: Excuse me for living!” And do something to connect yourself to a reality larger than yourself. You’ve been given inches, so take yards. And don’t be content with just yards. “Dream of miles,” says the poet, “And a landscape, unbounded.” And maybe, just maybe that strong sense of self will begin to emerge. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel joy as you vote.

But don’t let it end at the ballot box. If this campaign has any value, it is because it has finally exposed all the hatred, anger, fear, racism, sexism—all the brutal ugliness—that still resides in our nation. We need ongoing wisdom and grace to respond well to this phenomenon, to heal it, to transform it. We need spiritual abundance. With spiritual scarcity we stay in enclaves of like-minded people. We fail to seek out and understand opinions and principles different from our own. With spiritual scarcity we are easily seduced into believing in the righteousness of our own views, and the depravity of the views of others. But with spiritual abundance, with wings unfurled, with a landscape unbounded, there is room to engage, room to listen, room to heal. However, in creating such room, I’m not suggesting that we give sanctuary to racism, sexism, or homophobia. I’m not suggesting that people who refuse to recognize the reality of oppression should not be challenged on their refusal. And I am not suggesting that we tolerate glib affirmations of sexual assault or religious bans or the construction of border walls. But I am suggesting that many, many people who respond positively to such things—or seem to—are themselves hurting, frightened, confused, anxious, dispirited. They feel beaten up, forgotten, overlooked, blamed, and taken for granted. Regardless of who wins the election, these feelings aren’t going away.

I know it’s hard at times to feel sympathetic. It’s hard for me. But it is also clear to me that something has to give. Something has to change. Somehow the masses of people who occupy the different sides of our polarized electorate have to learn to hear each other, have to learn to engage constructively, have to work together. If we could for once take the election year rhetoric out of it, take the insults out of it, perhaps we could get back to being the people, to finding common ground, to governing together, to compromising. I know: it sounds like pie in the sky. It sounds impractical, unrealistic, impossible. But that is only because we the people suffer in a state of spiritual scarcity. Cornel West has called it a “spiritual blackout.”[6]

So excuse me for living! Before we speak of impossibilities, let’s pursue spiritual abundance. Start today. Whatever connects you to a reality larger than yourself, go do it. Repeat it on Monday. Vote on Tuesday. Repeat again on Wednesday. Repeat until the inches become yards become miles become a landscape unbounded. Repeat until your wings unfurl. And from that connected, centered, expansive place—that place of abundance—when you feel ready, reach out to someone who disagrees with you, invite conversation, listen, learn. They may not be interested, but if they are, then discern solutions, solve problems. In so doing, you begin to fulfill the promise of this nation. You begin to fulfill the promise of democracy. You begin to fulfill the promise of this faith. You’ve been given inches. Take yards. Start today.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Grigolia, Mary, “I know This Rose Will Open,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #396.

[2] Kaur, Madeleine Bachan, “Bountiful, Blissful, Beautiful,” Soul Songs, 2006. See: http://www.huemanbeing.com/soul-songs. See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqFZTmXyddI&app=desktop. See also: http://www.sikhnet.com/gurbani/artist/bachan-kaur.

[3] Replansky, Naomi, “Housing Shortage,” in Marilyn Sewell, ed., Cries of the Spirit: In Celebration of Women’s Spirituality (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) pp. 34-35.

[4] Thoreau, Henry David, “To Live Deliberately,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #660.

[5] “Unitarian Universalist Demographic Data from the American Religious Identity Survey and the Faith Communities Today Survey,” 2008, p. 19. See: http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/congservices/2012_uudemo_survey.pdf.

[6] West, Cornel, “Spiritual Blackout in America: Election 2016” Boston Globe, November 3, 2016. See: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/11/03/spiritual-blackout-america-election/v7lWSybxux1OPoBg56dgsL/story.html.

Special Screening: “Requiem for the American Dream” with Noam Chomsky

chomskyThursday, September 29th at 3:00 and 7:00 at UUS:E
If social media is any indication, there are many of us looking to voice our opinions regarding the current state of politics. On September 29th, at 3:00pm and again at 7:00pm, you are invited to a viewing of Noam Chomsky’s documentary, “Requiem for the American Dream” followed by a discussion of how it relates to today’s political environment, led by Bill and Carolyn Emerson.  The video will spark discussion about some of the problems we are facing and how we all can get involved to start correcting them. All of us have biases, none of us have definitive answers. Perhaps through listening to one another and collaborating we can come up with some innovative ideas.  Attempting political change as individuals is nearly impossible. No one can do it alone. Only together can we make a difference. All are welcome.
Need childcare? Other questions? Please contact the UUS:E office at (860) 646-5151.