Spanish poet Antonio Machado writes,
Last night as I was sleeping
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
out of my old failures.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
That’s the poem from Antonio Machado, and right now I want you to sleep the sleep of this poem and dream its dream. A spring, breaking out in your heart: water of a new life. Golden bees furiously busy: all your old failures and sadnesses transformed, becoming sweet honey, sweet nourishment. Inside your heart: a sun, warming you up and lighting you up, filling you with the fire of courage to face a difficult world.
You are dreaming this dream, of living water and golden bees and fiery sun….
How does it feel?
I hope it feels wonderful. And the Good News I want to talk about today is that this is not just the stuff of sleep and dreams. When we Unitarian Universalists say that all people have inherent worth and dignity—when we affirm and promote our First Principle—what we’re doing is echoing the marvelous errors and impossibilities of the poem. We are saying they are real, even in moments when our conscious ego is overwhelmed by fatigue, or sadness, or worry.
It is a matter of religious faith. We have faith that springs of pure water are flowing deep within us, right now. We have faith that golden bees are working furiously on our deepest sadnesses, right now. We have faith that a fiery sun is in us, right now.
This is our First Principle Good News, which parallels the news of the reading from a moment ago (see this reading below, after the sermon), in which we saw mind/body health professional Rachel Naomi Remen working with a young man named Jim. There are several things of note in the story we’ll want to touch on, but here I simply want to acknowledge the basic topic of imagery meditation as a means of boosting the immune system in its work of attacking and destroying cancer cells. I found myself profoundly moved by the thought that, if, in our bodies, there is a natural impulse towards healing and wholeness, then for sure the same impulse is alive in our spirits. Jim in the reading visualizes millions of catfish moving through his body—vigilant, untiring, dedicated, patiently examining every cell—and we envision the Good News of our spiritual immune system at work in us: our inherent worth and dignity of living water, golden bees, fiery sun.
Even if we might not be in the fight for our physical lives, like Jim, we are ALL fighting for the sake of our souls, against ignorance, apathy, prejudice, greed, warmongering, and other unhealthy, addictive patterns in ourselves and the larger world which grow like cancer: cancers of the spirit, killing justice and killing kindness, multiplying egregiously.
Someone once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” And we can know this: that the Unitarian Universalism which for 75 years has served this community and serves us now won’t let us down. We are
building on foundations we did not lay
warming ourselves by fires we did not light
sitting in the shade of trees we did not plant
drinking from wells we did not dig.Rev. Peter Raible
Thank God for the Ancestors who have paved the way, whose love we are now in receivership of. It strengthens us so we can be strong for the world. It enables us to say to each other words that the Father of Universalism in America, John Murray, said more than 200 years ago: “Go out into the highways and byways of America. Give the people something of your vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage.”
Say that back to me: “Give them not hell, but hope and courage”
As you know, we are beginning our annual pledge campaign for the program year starting this July 1, which we’re calling “Building Across Generations: The Next 75 Years.” We are inviting everyone to make a pledge, which is a stated intention for how much your financial contribution will be. Our goal as a church is to rally more people to the purpose of changing lives and creating justice-hearted people, and we are asking everyone: how do you see yourself being a part of that? How can you help make that happen? How can your gifts of time and energy and money help us to do even more to fulfill John Murray’s historic charge of “Give them not hell, but hope and courage”?
Everything tuned to this. Everything tuned to helping people release the aliveness that is all too often trapped within them, releasing it so that it becomes a force for good in our relationships and in our communities.
This is what justice-heartedness is!
Fact is, if our inherent worth and dignity of living water, golden bees, and fiery sun is a reality, so is the experience of feeling disconnected from all that. Or rather, feeling connected in moments of sleep (as we saw in the poem), but when we wake up? The dream and its sweetness slip like sand through fingers, and we’re left with not much. This is exactly why John Murray would say, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.” For hellishness he knew, as well as every one of his listeners. We know it all too well today. Watching the proliferation of anti-transgender legislation across the country which is seeded by ignorance and prejudice is hellish. Watching what’s happening with our democracy is hellish. Watching what is happening to the planet is hellish. Watching Russia invade Ukraine is absolutely hellish.
Hellishness we know. But there’s so much more than that, also. There is hope and courage also. There is living water, golden bees, fiery sun.
But then comes the question: how to help people feel more connected to this?
Once again, the reading from earlier is instructive. One of the main lessons is the importance of other people. We need others to help us tap into the sweetness within. Which is paradoxical, since we are born with living water and golden bees and fiery sun already inside us. They don’t have to be put there. Yet to access them, or to reopen a way to them, we need others. Emily White speaks to this in her amazing book entitled Lonely: A Memoir. She says, “When our social networks thin out or crumble, we have fewer points of reference available to us in thinking about who we are and who we’d like to be. […] Social networks flesh us out. When they’re lacking, it can start to feel as though there’s less to us…. Loneliness makes it hard to engage in self-definition.”
In other words, you really can’t be a Unitarian Universalist all by yourself. It doesn’t work. Community is key. Thank you for your generosity which sustains this community and which will help this community rebound from the social distancing of the past several years.
We need community. We need it to feel connected to our Good News. But not just ANY kind of community. It’s got to be a community in which people feel respected and safe—a community centered in covenant, which we unapologetically insist on, because we know that when we allow abusive personalities to run the place, we can’t do the hard spiritual work we are called to do. We just can’t. Community then becomes the problem, not the solution.
Community also becomes a problem when it undermines our capacity to trust ourselves. And we see this so clearly in Jim’s story. On the first day of the imagery-training program, he and others were asked to find an image of the immune system, and what came to him spontaneously was perfect for him: the image of the catfish. Catfish, which act just like him in his job as an air traffic controller: discerning, never sleeping, vigilant, impeccable, thorough, steadfast. Yet the same imagery-training program that enabled him to discover this wonderful image turned right around and told him he’d gotten the wrong image! The program folks told him that you’re not supposed to get a catfish, you’re supposed to get a shark! Here, they said, let’s “work with you”–pressure you, indoctrinate you–until you see that the shark is best, the shark is inevitable, the shark is the one way, one truth, one light!
No wonder Jim got bored with his imagery meditation, even though what was at stake was his very life! His boredom was a form of healthy resistance to something that violated his integrity. It’s like that for so many people today as well. They respond to the only kind of religion they know with boredom. What’s the statistic these days? Something like 30% of Americans are unaffiliated with any sort of religion. Because they can’t find a religious way that honors their inner wisdom and gives it authority, they are forced to go it alone and try to be spiritual all by themselves.
And we just heard how that doesn’t work.
Loneliness causes pain. Loneliness makes the world seem more dangerous than it really is.
We exist to heal that pain, that loneliness. We exist to be the sort of religion that asks the most urgent and compelling questions there are—what is my purpose in life? how can I be more loving? what is the meaning of suffering? how can I feel more hopeful? and on and on—to ask all these questions, and then to listen to the answers people give, answers borne out of life histories and earned experience, and these answers come in beautiful shining rainbow colors, and our job is to listen and to honor them and to invite things to go deeper.
For we today are the trustees of an almost 460 year-old religious tradition that guides us in just this way. Thank the blessed Ancestors. Their gift to us today is a gift that so many people hunger for, even though they may not even know how to translate their hunger into understanding. They don’t know that they don’t know that a religion like ours even exists. We must reach out and help these people find us.
To heal the suffering.
Let us remember: we are purpose-driven in our religion: to connect with the Spirit of Life, to release this vitality into all that we do and are. And we have to follow this purpose faithfully, wherever it leads. Jim in the reading was led to his catfish-image; who knows where you will be led, or where I’ll be led, or how things will change in the course of our journeys. Say Rev. Makar is describing our inherent worth and dignity in terms of inner living waters and golden bees and the fiery sun, and those images just don’t speak to you. Great! The Divine Spark within you is at work in this very resistance you are feeling. A different image is waiting for you—one that will inspire you truly—and your job is to keep on searching.
Jim had his catfish image—and who knows what yours might be.
It’s a process. And our faith tradition says, Go for it! Allow yourself to be led to the spiritual immune system images that do energize you. Trust the process. Trust it like a pregnant mother trusts her food cravings. Pickles and ice cream. Pickles and ice cream and peanuts. Pickles and ice cream and peanuts and sardines. Pickles and ice cream and peanuts and sardines, all topped with chocolate sauce. Awesomely unique combinations. Maybe you are a Jewish-Buddhist-Christian-Unitarian Universalist with a side of Wicca. COOL! It is John Murray’s hope and courage being born! Yes, the process may be messy, but we can trust it. And we need communities that support us in it wholeheartedly and strengthen our self-trust.
That’s why we exist, and need to keep on existing for the next 75 years. That’s why we’re calling this year’s pledges “Jubilee Pledges.” When you make your Jubilee Pledge, think, imagine: What role can you play as an Ancestor to folks 75 years from now?
Let me also say, finally, that we need communities which provide concrete coaching for our spiritual lives. Jim in the reading comes to his image of the catfish because the imagery-training program he attended created intentional space and time for this and teaches him how. Gave him steps to practice. Step one, step two, step three. Then there was Dr. Remen’s mentoring, which undid the damage that the training program unintentionally did. Similarly, we need communities that fulfill these teaching and mentoring functions.
But as for the main emphasis that spiritual coaching and mentoring needs to take? We just might be surprised to find out what’s most needed. Consider a famous experiment conducted by two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson. Darley and Batson were inspired by the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a traveler who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead by the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Both a Priest and a Levite–both pious, worthy men—come upon the man but do not stop and just pass on by. The only person to help was a Samaritan—a member of a despised minority. Darley and Batson’s specific question had to do with why the Priest and Levite did not stop—why WE don’t stop when we see a neighbor in need. Is it because people are generally selfish? Or they don’t know enough information about ethical and spiritual matters? Or concrete opportunities for help are hard to come by? To figure it out, Darley and Batson decided to recreate the “Good Samaritan” scenario—and with delicious irony, guess who they chose as subjects? Seminarians, ministers-in-training! The biggest idealists of them all!
The short version is this. Darley and Batson met with a group of seminarians, invited them to prepare a short extemporaneous talk on the Good Samaritan parable, and told them they would have to walk over to a nearby building to present it. Some of them, however, were told that they were late and better hurry; others were given the message that they had plenty of time. Both groups, on their way to the nearby building, would encounter a man in an alley, slumped down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. An actor. But appearing just like the traveler in the biblical parable.
Here’s what happened. 90% of the seminarians in a rush just stepped over the guy in the alley and hurried to their speech—only 10% stopped. As for those not in a rush: 63% stopped.
The learning: what made the difference had nothing to do with lack of opportunity to help. It had little to do with intellectual knowledge–awareness of ethical or spiritual theories. It wasn’t about lacking a deep desire to help. Instead, it had everything to do with being distracted by a felt sense of needing to hurry. It was about feeling rushed and falling prey to that feeling, letting it take over and dictate everything.
People, as we envision ourselves being the Ancestors for folks 75 years from now—as we live into the meaning of our annual pledge drive slogan of “Building Across Generations: The Next 75 Years”—let’s find more and more ways of supporting the growth of justice-heartedness in every one of us. We can hold over our heads big shiny goals of changing the world, but if our energies are sapped by feelings of having no time, or worries about our personal relationships, or anxieties about our parenting, or sadness because we feel lonely, or lack of confidence because we don’t know how to lead, then people won’t be able to use this building like it wants to be used. Same thing goes for the amazing big programs we dream about. We can build them, but that doesn’t mean people will show up. People will pass on by, just like the seminarians did with the man in the alley.
I’m delighted with having had the opportunity to offer a full-day spirituality retreat this past November, which created a non-rushed spaciousness for the 30 or so folks who gave themselves this gift: to come, to feel connected in community, and to feel connected to the Love that is fundamentally who we all are. Right now we are offering a Spirit in Practice class that Meghan Ross leads with guest co-facilitators, and it’s so good. We are making these moments of spiritual teaching and coaching happen! From our classes for children and youth, to our offerings for adults of all ages. We are living into the vision of being a coaching community, which is a community whose primary purpose is to build the sort of people who, when faced with the world’s suffering, will stop and help. Church consultant Dan Hotchkiss put it like this: the goal is not so much to be a hospital to heal a broken world, as to be a medical school that transforms people into healers.
I love it. That’s it!
Right now, right now, a spring is breaking out in your heart, water of a new life. Right now, golden bees are furiously busy transforming all your old failures and sadnesses. Right now, there is a sun in you warming you up and lighting you up, filling you up with the fire of courage to face a difficult world. That is our Unitarian Universalist First Principle Good News. That is what the Ancestors have sacrificed for, to make happen for us today.
And now it’s our turn, to walk the talk.
Your Jubilee Pledge this year is about walking the talk.
It’s one of many practical ways
of helping ourselves and everyone who comes our way
to connect with the Divine Within,
to release it all,
to channel it all
so that the spring of water
and the golden bees
and the fiery sun leave the space of our dreams and enter fully—FULLY—
into waking life
and become a force
that will amaze.
Let it be so.
May it be so.
Today’s reading is from a book entitled Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a pioneer in the field of mind/body health.
While an impulse towards wholeness is natural and exists in everyone, each of us heals in our own way.
Some time ago a young man was referred to me by an imagery-training program for people with cancer. Jim was an air traffic controller at a major airport. He was a solid, steady, reserved kind of guy. He told me with embarrassment that he was the only one in the imagery class who couldn’t stick to the program. He didn’t know why. He wanted to fight the cancer and get well. He loved his work, his family, looked forward to raising his little boy. Not much in the way of self-destructiveness here…. So I asked him to tell me about his imagery.
By way of an answer he unfolded a drawing of a shark. The shark’s mouth was huge and open and filled with sharp, pointed teeth. For fifteen minutes three times a day, he was to imagine thousands of tiny sharks hunting through his body, savagely attacking and destroying any cancer cells they found. It was a fairly traditional pattern of immune system imagery, used by countless people. I asked him what seemed to prevent him from doing the meditation. With a sigh, he said he had found it boring.
The training had gone badly from the start. On the first day, the class had been asked to find an image for the immune system. In subsequent discussion, he had discovered that he had not gotten the ‘right’ sort of image. The whole class and the psychologist/leader had “worked with him” until he came up with this shark. I looked at the drawing on his lap. The contrast between it and this reserved man was striking.
Curious, I asked what his first image had been. Looking away, he mumbled, “Not vicious enough.” It had been a catfish. I was intrigued. I knew nothing about catfish, had never even seen one, and no one had ever talked about them in this healing role before. With growing enthusiasm he described what catfish do in an aquarium, how they are tireless in their job as bottom feeders who sift the sand through their gills, evaluating constantly what is waste and what is not waste, eating what no longer supports the life of the aquarium. They never sleep. They are able to make many rapid and accurate decisions. As an air traffic controller, he admired their ability to do this.
I asked him to describe catfish for me in a few words. He came up with such words as “discerning, vigilant, impeccable, thorough, steadfast.” And “trustworthy.” “Not bad,” I thought.
“Is there something else?,” I asked him. Nodding, he told me that catfish grew big where he had been raised, and at certain times of the year they would “walk” across the roads. When he was a child this had struck him as sort of a miracle and he never tired of watching them. He had kept several as pets. “Jim,” I asked him, “what is a pet?” He looked surprised. “Why, a pet is something that loves you, no matter what.”
So I asked him to go with his own imagery. Closing his eyes, he spoke of millions of catfish that never slept, moving through his body, vigilant, untiring, dedicated, and discriminating, patiently examining every cell, passing by the ones that were healthy, eating the ones that were cancerous, motivated by a pet’s unconditional love and devotion. He opened his eyes. “This may sound silly but I feel sort of grateful to them for their care,” he said.
From this point on, he did this catfish meditation daily for a year. Years later, after a full recovery, he continued to practice a few times a week. He says it reminds him that, on the deepest level, his body is on his side.