What the Body Thinks About the Spirit (Sept. 19, 2021)

By Rev. Josh Pawelek

When faced with a problem we don’t have the expertise or knowledge to solve, we might say “we’re in over our heads.” Rev. Josh really doesn’t know what he’s talking about: he’s in over his head. That’s actually an apt way to describe me right now, as I am speaking this morning about a dimension of human experience I am only beginning to understand. To some degree I am in over my head. And to make this more confusing, my goal, at least in part, is to not be in my head, but fully in my body. You might say I am in over my head in an attempt to get in under my head.

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul’s new book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, is an interrogation of the phrase “use your head.” She says “we place a lot of faith in that [magnificent] lump [of tissue inside our skulls]; whatever the problem, we believe, the brain can solve it.” She argues that such faith is misplaced. She asks: “What if the directive to ‘use your head’ … is misguided? A burgeoning body of research suggests that we’ve got it exactly backwards. As it is, we use our brains entirely too much—to the detriment of our ability to think intelligently. What we need to do is think outside the brain.”[1] To think well we need to immerse ourselves more fully in our bodies, in our relationships, in nature.

I’ll say a few words about Murphy Paul’s research, but what I really want to do is make a claim about spiritual experience. Mindful that there is a very wide range of experiences that qualify as spiritual, and mindful that what qualifies as a spiritual is ultimately up to the person who has the experience, it is nevertheless true that we Unitarian Universalists and many people of faith across religious identities, often describe spiritual experiences as moments of oneness—

with the universe, the earth, the divine; moments in which the boundaries between the self and its surroundings dissolve; moments in which, as one Taoist master put it, the spirit blends with the vastness. This is certainly a common way to describe spiritual experience. But what if, additionally, spiritual experiences can also move in the exact opposite direction, into the body? Not only toward oneness with the universe, but toward distinct sensation—in the palms, the bottoms of feet, the tips of fingers, the belly, the heart, the lungs. Not only a dissolution of boundaries, but also a clear recognition of a distinct self, felt in a distinct place, position, and time—an awake self, a fully alive self.

My suggestion is that distinct, body-based experiences can be as spiritual, as mystical, as transformative as experiences in which the self disappears into the vastness.

Murphy Paul surveys recent research that reveals the brain’s cognitive functions—thinking, problem-solving, strategizing, analyzing—actually decline when we pursue them in isolation, when we strive to use only our head. Imagine you’re a teacher and you want a student to solve a complex math problem, or read a paragraph and answer comprehension questions. Traditionally we might say to the student, sit at your desk. Sit still. Don’t fidget. No talking to your neighbor. Focus. Use your head. While some students perform just fine under those conditions, many more do not. More students perform better on the math or reading comprehension problems—and retain more of what they’ve learned over time—if they don’t have to sit still, if they’re able to move around or fidget, if they use gesture to physically symbolize the problem they’re working on (don’t we all learn to count on our fingers?). More students perform better and retain more if they can walk in a natural setting before they take a test, or if they can work in a room with ample space and natural materials—wood floors and moldings, plants, even animals—and references to nature—natural colors, soft, rounded edges (what the naturalist E.O. Wilson called biophilic design). More students perform better and retain more if they can work with their neighbor or in groups to solve problems.  This is true not only in educational settings but in the work-place too. Consistently, research shows cognitive function improves when we are able to move our bodies, have access to nature, and can work in groups. In other words, cognition improves when we extend the mind and think outside the brain.

Murphy Paul quotes the contemporary French philosopher Frédéric Gros: “Don’t think of a book as issuing from the author’s head, [Gros] advises. ‘Think of the scribe’s body: his hands, his feet, his shoulders and legs. Think of the book as an expression of physiology. In all too many books the reader can sense the seated body, doubled up, stooped, shriveled in on itself.’ Far more conducive to the act of creation, Gros continues, is ‘the walking body’—which, he says, is “unfolded and tensed like a bow: opened to wide spaces like a flower to the sun.’” Gros quotes the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who warned readers not to “believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement.” [2]

There are implications here for understanding spiritual experience.

To begin, there are findings in Murphy Paul’s research that point to a spiritual experience of oneness. In her chapter on thinking with movement, Murphy Paul refers to Japanese writer and long-distance runner, Harkuri Murakami’s 2008 book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. When asked what he thinks about when he’s running, he says not much, but that’s kind of the point. “I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it another way: I run in order to acquire a void.” As I read this, I am thinking about those spiritual experiences in which the self recedes, the boundaries blur. Spirit blends with the vastness. Murakami calls it acquiring the void. Murphy Paul, the scientist, calls it “transient hypofrontality.”

Here’s a quote: “Hypo means … diminished…. [F]rontality refers to the frontal region of the brain—the part that plans, analyzes and critiques, and usually maintains firm control over our thoughts and behavior. When all our resources are devoted to managing the demands of intense physical activity [like long-distance running], the influence of the prefrontal cortex is temporarily reduced. In this loose hypofrontal mode, ideas and impressions mingle more freely; unusual and unexpected thoughts arise.”[3] In short, this brain state generates creative thought.

To be clear, Murphy Paul isn’t calling hypofrontality, or Murakami’s void, spiritual. She’s simply naming how intense physical activity reduces cognitive activity, yet results in enhanced creative thinking. I’m adding to this. My assumption is that creativity is intrinsically spiritual, and I note that Murphy Paul is also describing what many would call a spiritual state, variously identified as an experience of oneness, connection, merger with a larger reality, acquiring the void, emptiness. People who have such experiences also report having creative insights, or coming away from the experience with a new a sense of purpose or meaning in their lives.

This reminded me of a sermon I once preached about the 2001 book Why God Won’t Go Away by three experts in neuropsychology. They used what was then state-of-the-art technology to conduct brain scans during intense spiritual activity. They focused on a highly specialized lobe they called the OAA or Orientation Association Area. Its job “is to orient the individual in physical space—[to keep] track of which end is up, [to] judge angles and distances, and [allow] us to negotiate … [the] physical landscape around us…. [It] … draw[s] a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, … sort[s] out you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.”[4] They found that during intense spiritual activity, the OAA would essentially go dormant. In such moments, they wrote, “the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses.” The resulting state is a perception of oneness, a dissolution of boundaries, a sense of connection with all there is.

Reading that book and preaching on it twenty years ago shaped my understanding of the goal of spiritual practice, maybe more than I realized at the time. Through spiritual practice—meditation, yoga, physical exercise, stretching, drumming, community singing, prayer—I am trying to achieve that state of oneness;  trying to create the conditions in which my self merges into a larger reality, a state in which my bodily no longer distinguishes between me and not-me.

And while I continue to believe that kind of experience is important, in recent years it’s been feeling insufficient and way too one-dimensional for me. All those spiritual practices I just mentioned start with the body, yet the state I’m trying to achieve is somehow beyond the body. What about just staying in the body?

For Murphy Paul, bodily movement and motion—walking, gesturing, feeling, even fidgeting—enhance our ability to think. For example, she cites a study that shows how people who incorporate physical gestures into their learning—i.e., foreign language learners who pair vocabulary words with hand movements—perform better when tested and retain more knowledge over time. She writes about proprioception, sometimes referred to as the sixth sense. Proprioception allows us to know where our body parts are positioned in space. When I read this,  something clicked. Proprioception is the opposite of what the authors were describing in Why God Won’t Go Away. I began to wonder: instead of using spiritual practice to blend with the vastness, how might coming more fully into physical space, more fully into our bodies, feeling the full range of sensations our bodies can feel—how might all of this constitute its own kind of spiritual experience? What about those moments in which we are utterly in the body? Or, in other words, in under our heads?

Nancy Thompson recommended a blog post from the Buddhist teacher, Kate Johnson. She says “Mindfulness isn’t a thought. It’s a full-bodied sensory experience. The language of the body is sensation, and feeling is the way we listen. Showing up for the pulsing and tingling, the numbness, the heat, the heaviness, the expansiveness, and all the rest of it is a way of embodying loyalty at the most granular level.” She says our bodies contain multitudes. In paying close attention to them, in feeling what they feel, we learn from them that “freedom happens at the cellular level, at the level of muscle and bone.”[5] I’m not even sure yet what that means. After all, I am in over my head. But I trust that as I—as we—start to get in under our heads, understanding will come.

Murphy Paul quotes the neuroanatomist, A.D. Craig who offers a similar starting place:

“Because our hearts beat, because our lungs expand, because our muscles stretch and our organs rumble—and because these sensations, unique to us, have carried on without interruption since the day of our birth—we know what it is to be one continuous self, to be ourselves and no other….” [This is] “the feeling of being alive.”[6]

Maybe that’s it. When we feel fully and immediately with our bodies, we feel truly alive. I want that feeling in my life. Especially after all these pandemic months. I want a more multi-dimensional spirituality; not just self disappearing into the universe (though that experience matters), but also a fully felt existence, oriented, here and now, the pulsing and tingling, the numbness, the heat, the heaviness, the expansiveness, heart beating, lungs expanding, muscles stretching, organs rumbling, smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing, touching, knowing where we are in space.

May we each feel deeply what our bodies feel. May we learn to get in under our heads and, in time, come to know what the body thinks about the spirit.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Paul, Annie Murphy The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) p. 1.

[2] Paul, The Extended Mind, p. viii.

[3] Paul, The Extended Mind, pp. 52-3.

[4] Newberg, Andrew, D’Aquili, Eugene and Rause, Vince Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief  (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001) pp. 4-5.

[5] Johnson, Kate, “Loyalty to Sensation” at Tricycle: The Daily Buddhist Review, August 25, 2021. See: https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/mindfulness-of-the-body/

[6] Paul, The Extended Mind, p. 43.

Faith in Labor, Virtual Worship, Sept. 5, 2021

Talkin’ to Trees or Lessons from The Overstory (and the Understory)

My father spoke to trees, specifically the oaks in his backyard.

And he was fairly certain they spoke to him.

As most of you know, Dad died of a heart attack this past May. For those of you who don’t know, he spent his career as a research scientist at Yale University, primarily studying skin cancer and the ways that cancer metastsizes. He often generated scientific ideas through his daily meditation practice, sitting in a chair in the backyard, facing his beloved oaks. We always knew the oaks were important as the setting for his practice—their presence deepened his experience, freed his mind for a-has and eurekas. Some of you from the Unitarian Society of New Haven might remember he gave a sermon on trees in late 2019. In that sermon he said, “I have had the distinct feeling that the trees were communicating with each other and maybe even with me.” More recently he reported that the oaks were giving ideas directly to him.

I have no idea if those beautiful, old oaks spoke to him. But I love the idea that they might have. So I’d like to make the case that they did speak to him, and, furthermore, that trees speak to all those who are open, attentive, attuned, curious, and genuinely willing to listen.

My father is not alone. In a 2019 essay entitled “Animism, Tree-Consciousness, and the Religion of Life,” University of Florida professor of religion and environmental ethics, Bron Taylor, describes an experience he had while running in the Arroyo Seco, a canyon carved by the Los Angeles River. “One misty morning, while descending into the canyon,” he writes, “I gained a subtle perception that the trees, shimmering in a light breeze, were trying to communicate with me—not with spoken words, but as thoughts that came into my mind. They told me how hard they were working to purify the air we were polluting. I perceived their ethical judgement as well: We should change our ways and learn our planetary manners.” [1]

In mainstream US culture this experience of trees speaking is outside the norm. Professor Taylor confesses he had a vivid imagination. But for most of human history, people across the planet believed spirits resided in natural things and were quite capable of communication. Scholars of religion often call this belief Animism. According to professor Taylor, “Animism … refers to perceptions that natural entities … have one or more of the following: a soul or vital life-force or spirit, personhood… and consciousness, often including special spiritual intelligence or powers…. Sometimes Animism involves communication and/or communion with such intelligences … or beliefs that these intelligences … are divine and should be worshipped and beseeched for healing or other favors. Animism generally [results in] felt kinship with [these intelligences].”[2]

Although scholars often describe Animism as an ancient, discredited belief, it has never disappeared from the world. We witness versions of it in indigenous cultures on every continent who hold the land as sacred and experience nature as kin. We also encounter versions of it in modern, technological societies. We encounter it in the way people express a profound sense of relationship to the natural world and its creatures when discussing environmental crises like climate change. We find versions of it in the American, English-language nature writing of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold and those who follow in their tradition. We find it in the nature-centered work of poets like Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry; in Tolkein’s Ents of Fangorn Forest; in Rowling’s Whomping Willow guarding the Forbidden Forest. We find it in Afro-futurist writers, oriented toward the African continent (Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, Marlon James) who center the orishas or similar earth-based spiritual entities. We encounter it in Neo-Paganism, Wicca, Druidism, even in Religious Humanism.[3]

It lives in our congregation. As Eileen Driscoll sang, the trunk of the tree … the branches … the leaves are calling me. They speak to me…. The trees, they are talking to me.[4]  When I began my ministry at UUS:E, one of the first memorial services I officiated was for Nancy Johnson, at which we read her poem, “Trees.” She writes: Pressing against their sturdy trunks / I feel the sap surging through my veins, / And sense the sweet buds bursting forth. / In this embrace I gather peace, strength, hope / And a promise of renewed life.[5] My point is that myriad versions of this ancient spiritual belief exist today. We encounter them all the time.

Of course, beliefs don’t prove trees literally speak. When a respected research scientist acknowledges that his ideas come from trees, most of us, myself included, are likely to react, on our better days, with some measure of loving, tolerant incredulity; and, on our worse days, with concern for that scientist’s grip on reality. He doesn’t mean it literally, does he? Has he told his doctor?

We can get stuck here, feeling compelled to make a choice. Either the trees are speaking or they aren’t. Yes or no? Which is it? Make up your mind? But it’s also true: a well-lived spiritual life doesn’t require such choosing, advises us to avoid strict binaries, invites us away from black/white thinking into life’s grey spaces, shows us life as a continuum where the edges of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ blur and blend together, where connections, like tree roots, run deep, and where multiple possibilities reside.

I might have become stuck, but a friend who knew about Dad’s tree-talking lent me a copy of Richard Powers’ 2019 novel The Overstory. Dad had read this book. I’m sure some of you have read it. For those who haven’t, Powers tells the stories of how nine main human characters relate to trees. In doing so he creates what I call a tree communication continuum, which I find helpful as I reflect on Dad’s experience.

Underlying the continuum is the incontrovertible evidence that trees communicate with other trees, often through fungi that link their roots into vast underground networks. In The Overstory, the character Patricia Westerford, a dendrologist (one who studies the characteristics of trees), discovers and is the first to publish scientific evidence of trees communicating among themselves. She’s a fictional composite of the real-life scientists who’ve made these ground-breaking discoveries, such as the German scientist Peter Wohlleben who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (which Dad quoted extensively in his 2019 tree sermon); and the Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, who recently published Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.[6] Westerford’s groundbreaking book in The Overstory is called The Secret Forest. Again, she and her book are fictional, but the science is real. She writes:

“Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal (fungi) … link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information.”[7] She writes about the way trees send chemical signals to each other when they’re under attack by insects; how they coordinate nut production, how larger trees “store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded.”[8] She writes about trees as communities.

She also offers a compelling view of trees as adaptable, responsive, creative, constantly seeking different ways of branching, spreading, flowering, acquiring water, sun, nutrients. She says they guess, they experiment, they see what works and they change accordingly.[9] In response to conditions they divide, multiply, transform, conjoin and endure.[10] This is all one end of the tree communication continuum. She isn’t literally talking to trees, isn’t hearing their voices. She’s studying, researching, experimenting. Though she seems very spiritual, she’s clear that one doesn’t need a mystical experience to learn what trees have to teach. The information is there for those who pay close attention. Science is thus one way for information to flow from trees to humans.

On the other end of the tree communication continuum is the character Olivia Vandergriff, a college senior who suffers a near-death experience and, upon coming back to life, hears trees speaking to her, follows them to northern California and, at their direction, becomes an anti-logging movement leader.

She definitely hears tree voices. She also feels, perceives, intuits, tastes, smells, hugs and, eventually, inhabits trees. I read her as undergoing a sustained mystical experience, and assume that is how Powers wants us to read her. He never implies she is living with mental illness, though he is aware people who hear voices are often diagnosed this way. Maybe it’s a mystical experience, maybe mental illness. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what matters is that as a college student she is shallow and lost; but as one to whom trees speak she gains clarity, purpose, vision, a sense of profound urgency for the planet, and is willing to take action.

How do I interpret my father’s claim that the oaks spoke to him in light of Olivia Vandergriff? Given that he heard the voices in response to his spiritual practice, I observe him as similar to the fictional Olivia, undergoing a regular, meditation-induced mystical experience. It was not distracting. It didn’t reduce his ability to function. Rather, it increased his clarity, purpose, vision and sense of urgency. Furthermore, I see a person perceiving, in a healthy way, that the world is alive, and that he was guided, held, and nurtured by trees.

Finally, between the scientist and the mystic on the tree communication continuum is what I like to call the sensualist. Throughout The Overstory, a number of characters become so attuned to the physical lives of trees that they begin, not to hear voices, but to receive messages through their senses. Earlier Susan Barlow read The Overstory’s opening passage, in which the character Mimi Ma sits on the ground and leans against a pine tree. “Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, words before words.” The scene continues later in the book:

“Messages hum from out of the bark…. Chemical semaphores home in over the air. Currents rise from the soil-gripping roots, relayed over great distances through fungal synapses linked up in a network the size of the planet.

The signals say….  The air is a mix we must keep making.

They say: There’s as much belowground as above.

They tell her: Do not hope or despair or be caught surprised. Never capitulate, but divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, and endure as you have all the long day of life.[11]

Divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, endure—a compelling message from the physical bodies of trees about how life responds to being alive.

We humans share a significant amount of DNA with trees, as we do with all living things. Doesn’t it seem possible, that if we slow down, sit still, pay attention, attune ourselves to the patterns, the currents, the hums, the smells, the hardness of bark—to all the connections that are already there, just beneath the surface—that we might actually experience the trees communicating, signaling, bathing us in sensual meaning, speaking words before words, telling us what they want us to know? Doesn’t it seem possible they speak this way constantly, and it is our task to listen?

That possibility was the heart of my father’s faith.

What words before words do the trees speak to you?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Taylor, Bron, “Animism, Tree-Consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory,” posted in the Minding Nature Journal (Winter, 2019, Volune 12, Number 1). See: https://www.humansandnature.org/animism-tree-consciousness-and-the-religion-of-life-reflections-on-richard-powers-the-overstory.

[2] Taylor, Bron, “Animism, Tree-Consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory,” posted in the Minding Nature Journal (Winter, 2019, Volune 12, Number 1). See: https://www.humansandnature.org/animism-tree-consciousness-and-the-religion-of-life-reflections-on-richard-powers-the-overstory.

[3] Furthermore, a popular life coach and self-help author named Holly Worton says the idea for her latest book, If Trees Could Talk, was given to her by a yew tree she encountered on a forest retreat. See “Interview with Holly Worton” at NFReads.com at https://www.nfreads.com/interview-with-author-holly-worton/. Also see Worton’s blog post, “Tree Communication: How to Talk to Trees,” on HollyWorton.com, July 18,2020. She writes: She writes, “When I talk to a tree … I’m talking to its spirit…the thing that makes it alive…. It’s the soul of the tree.” See: https://www.hollyworton.com/how-to-talk-to-trees-communicating-with-tree-spirits/.

[4] Driscoll, Elieen, “Tree Song,” unpublished. Composed for UUS:E worship service, August 29, 2021.

[5] Johnson, Nancy, “Trees,” unpublished. Composed for UUS:E worship service, April 18, 1993. (Special thanks to Sandi Hartdagen and Donna Johnson who found the poem!)

[6] For an excellent overview of Suzanne Samard’s work, see her May 4, 2021 National Public Radio interview, “Trees Talk To Each Other. ‘Mother Tree’ Ecologist Hears Lessons For People, Too” at https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/04/993430007/trees-talk-to-each-other-mother-tree-ecologist-hears-lessons-for-people-too.

[7] Powers, Richard, The Overstory (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2018) pp. 218 – 221.

[8] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, pp. 218-221.

[9] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, p 491.

[10] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, p. 500.

[11] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, pp. 499-500

Baseball Ready

 

I want to say a few words about baseball, the USA’s national pastime (though there are football and basketball fans who will vociferously debate that claim).

Baseball: played on brown dirt diamonds in grass green parks in every municipality in the country, not to mention scores of other countries. (Gaze down from any airplane window when taking off or landing on a clear day anywhere in the United States—you will see that familiar ballpark shape, usually more than one.)

Baseball: the game in which the majority of players, though always poised to make a play, nevertheless pass most of the time, like the fans, waiting. As writer Levi Stahl put it in a 2007 essay: “Baseball is a game of punctuated stillness, of dramatic seconds surrounded by casual hours. The quiet intervals of nothingness between pitches make up most of the time spent watching a game.”[1]

The first thing the best little league coaches teach their eight- and nine-year-old fielders is the concept of “baseball ready.” Knees bent, glove forward and open, eyes on the batter. Every pitch: be alert, attentive, mindful, present. Otherwise, it’s as Bob and Carol sang, famous words from songwriter Willy Welch: “Off in the distance, the game’s dragging on. / There’s strikes on the batter, some runners are on. / I don’t know the inning, and I’ve forgotten the score. / The whole team is yelling and I don’t know what for. / Suddenly everyone’s looking at me! / My mind has been wandering. What can it be?”[2]

I was chatting with my neighbor about baseball. He said his own little league career lasted exactly half an inning. Top of the first, the coach put him out in right field. The ball never came to him. Overcome with boredom, when his team finally came in from the field to bat, he quit. “Brutal,” he said. “Never again.” That’s a kid who knew his limits. Baseball is not for everyone.

Baseball is for me. When my younger son, Max, made Glastonbury’s fifteen and under American Legion travel team, and I learned they would be playing 25 games around Connecticut from early June to early August, and other parents were telling me, “your life is not your own for the next two months,” “you are now married to baseball,” “don’t make any vacation plans,” I was genuinely happy. I was happy for Max, certainly, and proud he’d made the team. But I was happy for me too. I enjoyed playing baseball as a kid. I enjoy watching baseball now.

I enjoy the physical game: the coordination required to hit a ball with a bat, or lay down a bunt, or catch a grounder in a glove and throw it, accurately, to first base ahead of the runner, or correctly judge the trajectory of pop fly deep to the outfield. I also enjoy what UUS:E member Dorothy Reiss, a life-long softball player pointed out. She spends the winter months practicing pitching by tossing food into her cat’s dish. She says, “you see, it’s spatial judgement, not just body strength.”

I enjoy the mental game: the way a player knows what they’re going to do with the ball if it comes to them in the field; the way a batter knows when to swing and when not to swing; the way a pitcher knows when to throw a fastball vs. an off-speed pitch.

I enjoy the spiritual game: the way the batter’s confidence at the plate can make all the difference; the way a fielder might bobble or drop the ball, but doesn’t give up, stays with it, still makes the play; the way players learn to keep themselves “baseball ready” to respond to any of thousand possibilities with every pitch; and the way Max’s team, who are 1-13, nevertheless keep showing up, keep doing their best, keep having fun, keep running out onto the field, inning after inning, with the improbable faith they are a better team than their record indicates.

Body, mind, spirit. After a few innings, I stop trying to tease them apart. The truth is, they blend beautifully together. I’m mindful that sages, mystics and yogis through the millennia have offered some version of this truth: the body-mind-spirit separation is an illusion. In reality, they are one. Of course, baseball isn’t unique in demonstrating this truth. Every sport invites this body-mind-spirit alignment. But perhaps because baseball is such a slow game, “dramatic seconds surrounded by casual hours,” the keen observer can more easily witness the aligning, can more easily discern body, mind and spirit working together, merging, blending. A seamless whole.

*****

I can’t convey to you the depth of my enjoyment without talking about my dad. (UUS:E members and friends know that he died two months ago of a heart attack.) His father instilled a love of baseball in him. Briefly, Dad grew up two blocks from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, then the home of the Baltimore Orioles. In the winter of 1954, the Orioles announced a contest for local kids to serve as honorary batboys during the upcoming season. To attain this honor, submit a poem to the Baltimore Sun that explains why you want to be a batboy. My grandfather wrote a poem and signed Dad’s name to it. The Baltimore Birds are my favorite team / To see them play ball is my fondest dream / To be with the players and manager Paul / Is not only a dream, / But the greatest thrill of all! He won the competition, and served as batboy for home games for part of the 1954 season. He loved it. He had stories about meeting players like Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle when the Red Sox and Yankees came to town.

As an indication of just how much of an Orioles fanatic my grandfather was, know that his dying wish was to have his cremated ashes dropped from a helicopter over Memorial Stadium.

Dad loved introducing me and my brothers to the Orioles when we were kids. When visiting my grandparents in Baltimore, we would take lazy afternoon walks to the stadium to get tickets – upper deck, section 34 on the right field side, where Wild Bill Hagy used to lead raucous chants. Then we’d drive to a crab shack and buy crabs, steamed in Old Bay seasoning, eat them on my grandparents’ front porch in the humid, mid-Atlantic summer air, and chat with other fans as they walked by on their way to the game. Then we’d go to the game ourselves, gloves in hand, in case a foul ball should fly our way. Pure bliss.

Dad passed on the gift of playing baseball to us in the form of a mandate. We had to play little league once we got to third grade. We had no choice in the matter, which didn’t matter, because we loved it. After our first year in the minors, Dad became our head coach. Our team was Kitty’s Drive-in, then the AM/PM Mini-Mart. Our uniforms were orange with black lettering, a blatant Baltimore reference, a risky move up here in Yankees/Red Sox territory. I have so many memories—the way Dad worked on fundamentals with our teams—hitting, catching, throwing, fielding; the way he stressed the mental game—staying focused, present, baseball ready; the way he would walk out to the mound to calm down a pitcher who was getting frustrated, which frustrated the opposing teams’ coaches by making a slow game even slower; the way he taught us to work on our batting by playing stickball with the neighbor kids; the way, before every game, he would take us up to the local elementary school where we had painted a black strike zone on the brick wall, and throw tennis balls to us, very fast, at close range, to hone our timing. But perhaps most importantly, he never berated us or any other kid for making a mistake. He consistently encouraged us. An error or a strike out didn’t matter. It was part of the game. “You’ll get ‘em next time.”

There are countless ways parents raise their children, pass on values, skills, life lessons. Baseball was Dad’s way, one of them at least, one of his gifts. It was a way for him to be close to us, support us, teach us. I’m sure that’s the reason I experience so much joy in watching Max play today.

*****

One day our star pitcher, Kenny, was in trouble. He was throwing wild pitches, walking batters, getting angry at himself. Dad took his characteristic slow walk out to the mound to help Kenny settle. The opposing coach, tired of Dad’s patient, game-delaying style, said something like, “Oh great, here we go again.” In front of everyone, Dad gave him the finger, which resulted in a three-game suspension. Dad, who coached us so well on not making mental errors, had just made a huge one. It was embarrassing. And worse, my brothers and I privately knew it probably wouldn’t have happened had he not had a few glasses of wine before (and possibly during) the game. This remains one of my most vivid childhood memories.

Levi Stahl says “baseball … consists largely of failure; even the best hitters have to accept that nearly six times out of ten, they’ll trudge back to the bench in defeat.”[3] There’s nothing extraordinary about the Mighty Casey striking out and the Mudville nine going down in fictional baseball infamy. As much as that classic poem serves as a cautionary tale about hubris, it also describes what happens in the game more often than not. The question in baseball is not whether you will fail, because you will. The question is how you will live with your failures, how you will come back from each one to play again, how you will hold your head high despite your unavoidable and very human proclivity to mess things up from time to time.

I can’t remember if my father expressed remorse for what he’d done. I can’t remember if he ever apologized. I don’t think he sat us down and said, “I shouldn’t have done it.” But I do know that his players and the other coaches forgave him, just like he was always forgiving us. When his suspension was over, we welcomed him back with open arms, the same way he welcomed us back to the dugout, without judgement, after every error, every mental mistake, every strike out. “You’ll get ‘em next time.”

The poet, Jill McDonough published a poem in 2012 called “We’re Human Beings.” It’s about then Boston Red Sox shortstop, Julio Lugo, whom fans booed one game when he came to bat after having made an error in the field the previous inning. “Lugo / wants you to know,” she writes, “he’s only / human: We’re human beings. / That’s why we’re here. If not, / I would have wings. / I’d be beside God right now. / I’d be an angel. / But I’m not an angel. / I’m a human being that lives right here.”[4] Julio Lugo wasn’t asking the fans to forgive him. If anything, he was forgiving the fans for booing him, for expecting perfection from a slow game riddled with imperfection.

When body, mind and spirit blend seamlessly, we are at our best. We play the game flawlessly. But as the mystics will tell you, reaching that state, let alone maintaining it, is very rare. More often than not, we’re out of alignment, and we’re not quite ready for what’s coming at us. Yes, baseball nudges us patiently toward alignment, toward moments of glory, but it also teaches us to live gracefully and graciously with our mistakes, even when they cost us the game. If we don’t learn that lesson, we’ll never make it back onto the field. That was a big part of the gift I received from my dad, and the gift I continue to receive from baseball.

Put me in coach. I’m ready.

May we all strive to be baseball ready.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Stahl, Levi, “Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi,” fall, 2007, the Poetry Foundation. See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/68945/baseball-and-verse-from-tinker-to-evers-to-big-papi.

[2] Welch, Willy, “Right Field.” See: http://holyjoe.org/poetry/welch.htm.

[3] Stahl, Levi, “Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi,” fall, 2007, the Poetry Foundation. See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/68945/baseball-and-verse-from-tinker-to-evers-to-big-papi.

[4] McDonough, Jill, “We’re human beings”, Where You Live (Salt Publishing, 2012). See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57870/were-human-beings.

Arriving on These Shores of Hope: Thoughts on the New Normal

[Note: This homily was addressed to the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester and the Universalist Church or West Hartford]

In a new collection of Unitarian Universalist pandemic meditations entitled Shelter in This Place, my colleague, the Rev. Daniel Kanter, writes: “Arriving on these shores of hope, embrace the here and now, the blessings and the presence of holy matters. Here, now, we are together and we are stronger for it. Whether you are forlorn or uplifted, let us together enter worship as if it [were] a new matter, a new day, a new chance at life.”[1]

Members and friends of the Universalist Church of West Hartford: You may remember when you visited us in virtual Manchester this past January, I spoke about the need to interrogate the concept of “normal.” The old normal failed too many people. We need a new normal once the pandemic recedes. It has always been my intent, here in late June, to name the emerging new normal we have helped or are helping to create; to name, in Rev. Kanter’s words, this new matter, this new day, this new chance at life.” What prominent landmarks ascend from these shores of hope on which we are now arriving?

I’ll speak first about the new normal regarding our relationship to the wider community; and then share thoughts on the new normal in congregational life.

We know the pandemic exposed and exacerbated the already stark racial and class inequities in our larger society. I first started talking about a new normal in April of 2020 in response to the stories of colleagues of color – Black and Hispanic clergy serving predominantly Black and Hispanic congregations – about how the pandemic was impacting their people. Illness and death from Covid 19, job loss and financial hardship were clearly much more prevalent in their congregations than in ours. Furthermore, names like Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and Ahmaud Arbery had already been making headlines that spring when a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd on May 25th, unleashing a racial justice uprising across the nation. Given all we were witnessing, how could we remain content with the old normal?

And so we engaged in a number of social justice organizing initiatives aimed at creating a new normal. From one angle the outcomes are impressive. In June, 2020, members of both our congregations joined Moral Monday CT’s eleven-day “Solemn Fast for Justice” at the State Capitol, demanding that the legislature reconvene to substantively address police accountability. The legislature did reconvene, and a number of us provided testimony in support of the bill, which eventually became law—still one of the farthest-reaching efforts in the country to address police violence.

Both our congregations are members of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA). All year long, with a variety of institutional partners, GHIAA has engaged in legislative advocacy on a number of issues. We won on Clean Slate, which expunges most criminal records after a certain period of time so that formerly incarcerated people can get a true second chance at building a meaningful, productive life. We won on the abolition of welfare liens, which had required welfare recipients to repay state assistance, a requirement that often kept them in poverty for life. We won on the statewide declaration of racism as a public health crisis which, among other things, directs the state to reduce racial inequities in education, health care, criminal justice, and economic matters.

With our partners in the Domestic Worker Justice campaign, the Manchester and Danbury UU Congregation helped secure funding to prevent wage theft for this highly vulnerable worker population.

These are victories. Even though most of us here weren’t directly involved in the organizing, you supported those of us who were. We can all feel proud that our congregations contributed people, passion, expertise and money along the way. We can take a moment for celebration.

But do these victories amount to a new normal? They all address racism and class inequity at a structural level, so they certainly represent more than symbolic change. But the change is incremental. It doesn’t touch the deeper roots of oppression in our society. If they do amount to a new normal, the degree to which it differs from the old normal is minimal at best. I suppose most social change, at any given time, is minimal at best; and I’ll take that over change in the opposite direction.

Yet there’s a harder truth: we were involved in campaigns that could have touched those deeper roots of oppression had they been successful. The Campaign for Affordable Health Care sought a state sponsored health care public option, an avenue for undocumented immigrants to access HUSKY, and an overall expansion of eligibility for Medicaid. These efforts would have transformed health insurance in Connecticut, would have signaled a new day: health insurance for people’s health, not for corporate profits. These efforts largely failed. Similarly, the Recovery for All Campaign sought a transformation of the tax code to definitively address Connecticut’s starkest-in-the-nation racialized income inequality. That effort largely failed. Despite everything we’ve learned from a year of pandemic and racial justice uprising, the old normal is proving highly resilient.

Reflecting on it now, I’m certainly proud. There’s been a lot of effective Unitarian Universalist social justice organizing in the political realm over the last year. I’m also mindful that when progressive people of faith engage in that kind of organizing, we can easily forget the faith that inspired us to act in the first place. That’s an all-too-common feature of the old normal for Unitarian Universalists. But I think we’ve learned over this year to not forget. We’ve learned to loudly and proudly proclaim our faith in the public square. We don’t engage in these campaigns because we are mostly Democrats, progressives, left-leaning culture warriors, or part of a liberal social club. We engage because we are Unitarian Universalists. We engage because our principles require respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and when social and economic structures erode human worth and dignity, action becomes necessary. We engage because our principles prioritize justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and when social and economic structures result in injustice, inequity and the absence of collective compassion, action becomes necessary.

We engage because our Unitarian forebears bequeathed to us the theological conviction that our character—as fraught, limited and human as it may be—matters; that our character—

who we are and how we live—matters; that our character, in the end, is the only thing we possess that can lead us to any semblance of salvation in this life or, if you wish, the next. We engage because our Universalist forbears bequeathed to us the simple and stunningly beautiful theology of an all-loving, inclusive God, and we want our lives to bear witness to that love and inclusivity. All are welcomed. All are saved. All are loved. May our actions in service to that theology be our new normal.

*****

Now some thoughts on the new normal in congregational life. Earlier we heard the story Cat Knit by Jacob Grant, about a cat whose best friend was a ball of yarn. One day the cat’s owner sews the yarn into a cat sweater. “Cat did not like this new yarn one bit. He was itchy and stuffy and no fun at all.” Eventually Cat adjusts. The lesson of the story? “Warming up to something new takes time.”

So many congregations across the country are warming up to something new right now. It rarely feels good at first. We’re warming up to the idea of a soft reopening. That is, we’re not moving back to full in-person worship and programming right away. We’re taking our time, making sure, from a public health standpoint, that we are being responsible, safe, inclusive, ethical, and grounded in the best scientific data available. We are recognizing that our reopening decisions are not just about us, but about how we potentially impact the health of the wider community. That’s never been a priority concern for us. Now, it’s part of our new normal. It won’t feel comfortable in these early months of reopening, but it is a new matter, a new day, a new chance at life, a hopeful shore.

We’re warming up to this idea of hybrid or multi-platform congregational life, so that as many of our programs as possible can be experienced simultaneously in person or online. At the heart of this new normal is an assertion of the value of inclusivity. People can join us from other parts of the country, from sick beds and hospital rooms, during cold and flu season if they’re feeling vulnerable or ill and wish to stay home. People we never imagined would explore our congregations now have a new way to engage through technology. This is a new inclusivity normal for us. It won’t feel comfortable in these early months of reopening, but it is a new matter, a new day, a new chance at life, a hopeful shore.

I’m wondering also about our new spiritual normal. We don’t yet collectively know how these past fifteen pandemic months have shaped and transformed our spiritual lives, but surely they have. Humanity has been and continues to journey through a public health trauma. Each of us has navigated, to varying degrees, fear, anxiety, despair, illness, loneliness, loss; and for many of us there have been equally profound moments of joy, elation, courage, steadfastness, learning, growth, connection, relationship. I’ve been asking members and friends of our congregation these past few weeks: do you have any words to name the impact all of this has had on your spiritual life?

The responses are wide-ranging. People speak of a deepened sense of gratitude for life’s blessings great and small; a deepened appreciation for simple pleasures, for the mundane, for steady routines, for reliable, everyday experiences; a deepened understanding of the value of human connection, human relationship, face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh, body-to-body human interaction, human presence, human love, human being; a deepened sense of embeddedness in the natural world, a more focused attention to critters and creatures, a sense of earthly oneness more felt than named; and a deepened sense of divinity breathing, flowing, reaching, stretching, dancing, quieting, resting, bringing comfort, solace, peace, and joy, carrying us and all life on and on and on.

Of course, after all we’ve been through and all that is still coming, how could there not be a spiritual deepening. But will this depth become our new spiritual normal? Or, as the infection rates drop, the risks fade from our consciousness, the uncertainty wanes, the ambulance sirens sound more infrequently, the arguments over masks and what is true recede into the background, will this deepened spiritual sensibility recede too, the tide going out from these shores of hope?

I hope not. However these fifteen pandemic months have so far shaped your spirituality, however they have introduced you to realities larger than yourself, I hope it will become your new spiritual normal, a new matter, a new day, anew chance at life. I hope you will keep it all alive, in motion, on fire, pulsing, blowing like a soft summer breeze. I hope you will continue to practice, be present, pay attention, engage, relate, connect, embody. I hope you will remain open, humble, resilient, courageous, caring, loving. I hope the tide will keep carrying you in to these shores of hope.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Kanter, Daniel C., “The Shores of Hope,” in Riley, Meg, ed., Shelter in This Place: Meditations on 2020 (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2021) p. 103.

This is What Reopening Looks Like! — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 23, 2021

Lighting the Flame of Spiritual Leadership — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 16, 2021

Flower Communion — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 9, 2021

A New UU Story? UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 2, 2021

What is Prayer? UUS:E Virtual Worship, April 25, 2021