Gifts of the Entire Universe

What is Blessing? part 2

Blessing affirms situatedness within a relationship of worth. To bless is to affirm the place of ourselves and something or someone else within the order of things.

In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud teaches saying 100 blessings a day over any little thing: a piece of fruit, a cup of tea, a sandwich. "Blessed are you, Yahweh, our God, Source of Life, who creates the fruit of the tree,” or “by whose word all comes into being,” or “who brings forth bread from the earth.” In this context, to bless the item is to say that God is blessed – and to acknowledge the source from which the item comes.

So the sense in which we say some object is a blessing, meaning that it’s a good thing, nice to have, is derivative from a practice of asserting that God is blessed. The object or event is a gift we have received for which acknowledgement of an ultimate source is appropriate, and in that acknowledgement, “blessedness” belongs to that source itself. Saying an object is blessed or a blessing is shorthand for saying it comes from a blessed – that is, divine or ultimate – source.

The Talmud goes on to teach that
“whoever has enjoyment of something from this world without saying a blessing, it is as if she or he had improper enjoyment of the thing – as if she or he has robbed the Holy One and the community."
Robbed. Receiving without blessing – without acknowledging source – is like stealing – robbing from the Holy One and the community. That's what the Talmud says.

There is so much that is granted, and we take it. If we take it, and it is granted, how do we not “take it for granted”? It’s a simple matter to pause and acknowledge the source – of the food you’re going to eat, of the house that shelters you, of the friendships that soothe and enrich, of the great green earth, clear air, and quenching water.

"Everybody is everybody else," as Roy Zimmerman sings, with his characteristic whimsy (below). And everything is everything else. Acknowledging the source means recognizing that the thing comes from, is produced by, all of reality. It means seeing the thing in the light of its place – its belonging – in the web of interconnection. In the Talmud, the broader whole is recognized in saying Yahweh is blessed. But whether you say “Yahweh” or “Universe,” you are affirming your and the blessing's placement – situatedness -- within a relationship – a relationship of worth, of meaning, of community, of nurturance and care. If you were to follow the Talmud’s recommendation of deliberately, consciously doing that 100 times a day, what would that do to you?

Blessing is about place -- your place within the interdependent web. Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes:
“…saying a blessing is an opportunity for a particular kind of awareness. If I were really to think about all that it has taken to bring a plate of vegetables to my table – all the natural elements of sun and earth and rain, and all the human elements of planting and harvesting and transporting and selling, as well as the Godly power that underlies the whole process – I would feel a profound connection every time I sat down to eat. I would have a better realization of the myriad ways that my life is intertwined with people all over this planet.”
Those are words that might also have been written from other faith perspectives. I’m especially reminded of Buddhist writings – Thich Nhat Hanh, in particular, who emphasizes mindfulness of interconnection. The mealtime blessing in Thich Nhat Hanh centers and retreats begins by noting:
“This food is the gift of the entire universe: the earth, the sky, and much hard work.”
The pancakes of which we will soon be partaking are gifts of the entire universe – the earth, the sky, a lot of hard work. Taking a moment to say so calls attention – awareness – to the vast complex to which we are linked through receiving its gifts.

The practice of blessing gifts such as food wears different guises in different faith traditions, but the universal need that such blessing addresses is acknowledgment, gratitude, interconnection, relationship. Blessing affirms and reinforces our sense of place within an interconnected network – a web of mutual care, a web that looks, if only we can attentively see it, like beloved community itself. Through blessing we help ourselves and one another see that web, realize the beloved community – to become aware of the beloved community is also at the same time to make it real.

In traditional Catholicism only a priest could issue an official blessing. Our democratic sentiments rebel against the idea. Still, I can see how in some ways it helped lend solemnity to the occasion. It signified that this blessing stuff was serious business. In the space of that solemnity, those present might more easily find their way to the awareness of interconnection and place.

Moreover, this human need to know our place, to feel ourselves enmeshed and held in relationships of support that ultimately include all of reality is not just a need that we have as individuals. We also have that need as faith communities – congregations of ten or of ten thousand -- to know and feel our faith community’s place within the broader network of all that is – a network that includes or emanates from – or constitutes – God. A medieval Catholic priest pronouncing a blessing upon the newly constructed village church may not have conceived of what he was doing in such terms of affirming and realizing situatedness within the interconnected web of all existence – but I think that, functionally, that was exactly what he was doing whether he knew it or not. He was helping situate his community within the vaster whole.

Turning from the Judeo-Christian tradition, a Buddhist practice is metta, generally translated as lovingkindness meditation. It looks a lot like what we would recognize as blessing. Typically, the way metta is done is that we sit in meditation and say some words of lovingkindness, first to ourselves, then others. Here’s an example:
“May I be safe from harm.
May I have a calm, clear mind, and a peaceful, loving heart.
May I be physically strong, healthy, and vital.
May I experience joy and love, wonder and wisdom in this life just as it is.”
And then we repeat those words replacing “I” with the names of loved ones, with the name of groups we identify with, with enemies or "difficult people" in our life, and finally, “all beings.”

Buddhist literature says:
Metta cultivates our ability to connect with and care in a rare unconditional way, for ourselves and others. Our hearts' capacity for patience, acceptance, compassion and forgiveness becomes boundless. With an inner and outer environment of safety our hearts and minds can open fearlessly. The result of this practice is an ever deepening stillness, from which the truth of life can be recognized clearly. It is a bodhisattva practice for blessing the world.”
Blessing the world.

Interconnection is the overriding reality, the “truth of life” to which, through mindfulness, “our hearts and minds can open fearlessly.” We are here to be with each other. Your presence is a blessing to this community. It’s a help and a boon to us, and it reminds us of our place in the family of things – our place in community and as community.

We come together to bring our blessings – the blessings of ourselves, that make this community what it is, and the blessings of our resources, that sustain this community. We receive blessings from community, and the biggest blessing we receive is that here we are a blessing to others. Blessed be. Blessed be indeed.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "What Is Blessing?"
See also
Part 1: Blessing and Belongingness


Blessing and Belongingness

What Is Blessing? part 1

What is a blessing – what does it mean for something to be a blessing? What is blessing – what are we doing when we bless something?

Blessing is our theme of the month for May. So, looking ahead to next month, I offer these reflections of help stimulate the sharing and the going deeper that you will be doing in your Journey Groups next month.

We bless God. We ask God to bless us. We bless each other. We bless food. We bless objects – boats, cars, houses, buildings. We count our blessings, and we count on our blessings.

We often bless each others' hearts, but rarely bless one another's spleen or pancreas. In the south, where I’m from, adding "bless your heart" will, excuse any insult: "Why he's just as dumb as a post, bless his heart."

Blessing is about place. It's about being situated, being located, being in the context that fits. Thus, it is about belonging.

Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” concludes with these lines:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Blessing is all about knowing and affirming our place in the family of things. By announcing our place, those wild geese are giving us their harsh and exciting blessing.

This community, this congregation, is your place – at least for now on your journey through life. And this community’s place is with you.

Divergent faith traditions suggest a common idea in blessing of interconnectedness, of partaking in the significance of a larger whole through relationships of meaning and care.

Let me tell you how I came to explore the function of blessing – in this case, the act of one person blessing another.

In 2002, I was a chaplain at a large county general hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. During the last three months of my year as a chaplain, I was assigned to the surgical intensive care unit. The nine-bed, surgical intensive care unit is for patients who have just come through serious major surgery – or they are in often-dire circumstances about to go into major surgery. For these reasons, about a half of the patients there at any given time were under heavy sedation or otherwise unconscious. Some of these could squeeze my hand if I asked them to – many made no response at all.

My job as chaplain was to make visits -- and to listen. That was my job. So I visited these sedated or otherwise unconscious patients – which presented a bit of a quandary. I was there to listen – but they weren’t talking. So: I blessed them. It started slowly at first – this is not something that came naturally to my UU-humanist-raised rational skeptical mind. One hand on their shoulder, just a couple sentences, log it as a two-minute visit, then on to the next room. Gradually, I found more words. Gradually, I grew more comfortable with more silence around and between the words – letting the silent presence be part of what conveys the blessing.

At some point I wrote down some of the typical things I would say, and this week I went back and looked at that document. I see that I used language from various places: the closing words they used every Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, metta exercises from the Buddhist tradition, Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata.” Certain phrases I’d repeated several times – for emphasis.

So let me offer to you this blessing, similar to the ones I gave those patients fourteen years ago. This blessing, though, is not so much from me to you, but rather among us – a small web for realizing our place in larger webs. If you and your neighbor are both comfortable doing so – and it’s OK to say no -- let me invite you now to place a hand on the shoulder of the person sitting next to you. If you and both your neighbors are amenable, you might put your other hand on the shoulder of the person on your other side. You might try closing your eyes.

As I speak, think of these words being your words flowing out from you through your hands into the people next to you. Be aware of the flow from them back into you.
Hello. My name is Meredith.
I’m here to say, hi, to be with you now.
We are here to be with each other.
We know our bodies are working very hard, even in our fullest health, to keep us going.
Our spirits our working hard, too.
Life itself is a time of great labor.
In this time of labor, may you know that you are good.
Know that you are loved.
Know that your life is a blessing unto the world.
The breath that you breathe – can you feel it?
It is holy breath. Holy spirit.
Holy spirit breathes through you.
Sacred spirit breathes you.
For you are a child of God.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.
You are good.
You are loved.
Your life is a blessing unto the world.
And the kindom of God is within you. Within you.
The calm, abiding presence of the holy spirit is with you.
With you always.
May you have a calm, clear mind and a peaceful loving heart.
May you stay physically strong, healthy, vital, and vigorous.
May you be safe.
May you experience joy and love, wonder and wisdom in this life, just as it is.
You are good. You are loved.
Your life is a blessing unto the world.
Peace be with you.
And God bless you.
I don’t know which, if any, patients heard me. I don’t know what happened inside the patients if they did hear me.

Maybe the words and a sense of a presence zipped around some unconscious brain circuitry in there and stimulated something that looked like what hope would look like under a brain scan. I don’t know. In any event, I think the act of blessing them stimulated something that looked like hope in me.

Maybe at some unconscious level, some of the patients stepped toward realization of their place, of their belongingness, within the vast web of relationship. I know that through those experiences I stepped toward such realization. I had a very strong sense of being in place – right there, and through “right there” to everywhere else also. And if we are as interconnected as it felt at that moment, then anyone’s realization of that connection is everyone’s.

Blessing affirms situatedness within a relationship of worth. To bless is to affirm the place of ourselves and something or someone else within the order of things.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "What Is Blessing?"
See also
Part 2: Gifts of the Entire Universe



"When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” (Wendell Berry)
Dear Earth that brought us forth, whose beauty and wonder is all we know of heaven:

Thank you, Earth, for wood drakes and herons, and for the waters and wetlands that support them – and us.

Thank you for daffodils and bloodroot pushing up through ground that was frozen hard but never dead.

Thank you for all of your beauty, which is a grace, which is a gift we do not deserve and could never earn.

Thank you for trees. Patients in hospital rooms with windows through which trees can be seen recover more quickly. Patients in rooms without such a window, but with a picture of trees on the wall take a little longer to recover. Patients with neither a window looking out at real trees nor a picture of trees take the longest to recover. This data informs the mind of what the heart always knew: our health is in the presence of trees. We were made to be among them, their solid upright trunks, their fractal ordered chaos of branching -- standing, in winter, naked, patient, and enduring; donning, in spring, rich clothing of green; sentinels of peace, exemplars of simplicity, silently whispering, "wherefore your headlong dash? It is enough just to be.”

Thank you, Earth for all of your interacting systems, geological, biological, climatological, ecological. May we, your children, be able pupils and learn what you teach.

The grasses stilled with light teach stillness.
Old stones suffer with memory, teaching suffering.
Blossoms humble with beginning teach humility.
Parents of all manner of species secure their young, teaching caring.
Ants crawling on the ground teach limitation.
Eagles soaring in the sky teach freedom.
Leaves dying in the fall teach resignation.
Seeds rising in the spring teach regeneration.
Melting snow forgets its life, teaching us to forget ourselves.
Dry fields weep in the rain, teaching us to remember kindness. [adapted from Ute prayer]

May we, your children, prove able and grateful pupils of all your teaching.



"It is our quiet time. We do not speak, because the voices are within us. It is our quiet time. We do not walk, because the earth is all within us. It is our quiet time. We do not dance, because the music has lifted us to a place where the spirit is.It is our quiet time. We rest with all of nature.” (Nancy Wood, SLT #481)
Dear silence at the center of all,

You are there, the quiet behind the cacophony, the silence beyond the sound, the calm unspeaking awareness deep within all the words of self-protection from ourselves and from others. We would perceive your presence amidst the noise of our lives. From the silence at our center, there is peace. From the quiet abiding without as within, we are one.

From the place of love, we see suffering and rather than pushing it out of mind, we take in the pain, for only in presence to the hurting can we become a fully alive people of compassion.

Breathing in, we breathe in the world’s cries, its brokenness, its hurt.
Breathing out, we breathe out love.

Breathing in, we take in suffering.
Breathing out, we send healing kindness.

Flint, Michigan brought attention to lead in drinking water, yet this is nothing new. Children in minority neighborhoods have been exposed to lead from water and other sources, like peeling lead paint, for a long time. Black children have the highest risk of lead poisoning in the United States.

Breathing in, we grasp the damage and the injustice.
Breathing out, we orient ourselves toward compassion.

Immigrants seeking asylum face lengthy detentions in conditions that further traumatize people who have already been traumatized by the violence and persecution they fled in their home countries. Immigrants seeking asylum also have no right to a public defender, which makes a big difference. Mothers with children without a lawyer are granted asylum in 2 percent of cases, with a lawyer, in 32 percent of cases.

Breathing in, we feel their pain.
Breathing out, we breathe out love, resolving not to forget them.

Around the world, people are drawn to or pressed into violence and terrorism. Millions live in abject poverty, even as they look at the wealth which seems so far out of their reach.

Breathing in, their suffering is our suffering.
Breathing out, we are moved to respond in care and compassion.

Dear silence beyond knowing, guide our hearts and our hands, that we may be agents of reconciliation, of health and healing, of justice and peace in our world.



Music, Spirituality, and Seeing the World Rightly

Desiring Music, part 3

Music and spirituality. Both of them connect us with others. Both can be developed; they can be learned. We can expand and strengthen our capacities, through study and practice.

In the old joke, the answer to the question, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" is "practice, practice, practice." Practice is also how we develop those capacities we call spiritual: capacities for tapping into the right brain, living in the present moment, more fully present to the uniqueness of each situation and creatively responding to it outside of your personality type, with a joyful and peaceful energy, with an easy and natural compassion.

Musical practice, like playing the piano, and spiritual practice, like meditating, change the brain. Those who put in hours every day for many years get the most substantial changes. Music and spirituality are distinct capacities – some musical experience is quite different from the kind of experience we might call spiritual, and some spiritual experience doesn’t involve music. Yet there are ways they overlap, as experiences and as practice.

Listening to music and making music enriches life so much that Friedrich Nietzsche said:
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
That desire for music, for seeing and hearing the world rightly -- for experiencing the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies that we know deep down are the truth of life -- is older than humanity.

But the pursuit of our desires sometimes ends up taking us, in some ways, away from the very thing we pursue. With the rise of the recording industry, we have become the first culture in human history to so abandon music-making to professionals. As Philip Ball writes:
“The case for musical education should not rest on its ‘improving’ qualities, however, even if these are real. The fact is that music no less than literacy gives access to endless wonders. To cultivate those avenues is to facilitate life-enhancing experience. But what usually happens instead? Children stop singing and dancing, they get embarrassed about their piano lessons (if they’re lucky enough to be offered them) and frustrated that they don’t sound like the stars on MTV. As adults, they deny that they possess having any musicality (despite the extraordinary skills needed to listen to and appreciate just about any music), they jokingly attribute to themselves the rare clinical condition of tone-deafness. They probably do not know that there are cultures in the world where to say ‘I’m not musical’ would be meaningless, akin to saying, ‘I’m not alive.’”
You probably are more musical than you know.

Yes, there are a few people who really aren’t musical. There is such a thing as “congenital amusia” commonly known as tone deafness, and it affects about 4 percent of the population. People who suffer from congenital amusia lack pitch discrmination, are unable to recognize or hum familiar tunes, do not show sensitivity to dissonant chords in a melodic context, and cannot pick out a wrong note in a given familiar melody. Music consists largely of relatively small pitch changes, which amusics cannot detect, and this makes it extremely difficult for them to enjoy and appreciate music.

There may also be – I am speculating, and haven’t seen any research on this – a congenital condition analogous to amusia – a sort of tone-deafness about spiritual experience. As true amusia renders a person unable in a fundamental way to get what music is all about, there may be a small percentage of people whose brains are wired so that they cannot get what spiritual experience is all about. It may seem to them senseless in the way that music seems like noise to someone with amusia.

At their heights, music and spirituality are senseless from the point of view of reason’s schemes in pursuit of purposes. It's true that there are things we can say about what musical practice and spiritual practice are good for: they both happen to be helpful for lowering stress, or enhancing this or that other mental function. But this misses the essential point. In important ways, neither music nor spirituality is a means to an end. They are the ends.

For that matter, reason’s cherished words and propositions are also, at the end of the day, senseless. Wittgenstein labored to lay out propositions that point us the way beyond all propositions:
“Whoever understands me will recognize that all my propositions are senseless. One must surmount these propositions; then one sees the world rightly.”
So what I want to say is: You can be morally upright without music or spirituality. You can be a good person. You can have a rich and full emotional life. You can have a brilliant intellectual career. There is, however, in this life, more than thoughts, more than emotions, more than social skills and good morals. There is something else. And it sings.

For those of us blessed to desire music and spirituality, they are paths to, and revelations of, what we know as greater truths than words or reason or ethics can be.

Music: the capacity to take it in, to listen appreciatively to music and be fulfilled -- and the capacity to manifest melody, harmony, and rhythm for ourselves, for others, and often with others.

Spirituality: the capacity to take it in, to attend appreciatively to experience and be fulfilled -- and the capacity to manifest inner peace, love, and wisdom for ourselves, for others, and with others.

If you have those capacities, as almost all of us do, they are worth practicing at, worth cultivating. For then one sees the world rightly, as it truly is.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Desiring Music"
See also
Part 1: Music: More Real than Reality
Part 2: Music and Religion


Music and Religion

Desiring Music, part 2

The desire for music is a desire for truth, a desire to see the world rightly at last, as much as it is a desire for beauty. Of course, as John Keats told us, they are the same thing:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The desire for spirituality is also, like music, a desire to somehow see the world truly and rightly – as words alone cannot tell it. I use words like one-ness, connection, transcendence, dropping away of the sense of a separate self, acceptance, presence, mystery, and wonder. Other preachers include words like God and heaven. And we can argue about the words because they are words. The directly experienced, if we see it, exposes the paltry inadequacy of all those words.

The prominent role of music in religion is not an accident. Religion probably emerged in human evolution because of competition between tribes. To survive required success in defense and battle. Success in battle required high social cohesion. Tribal cohesion was facilitated by sharing of rituals, participating together in ritualized behavior -- and the sharing of stories about the origin of your people – and the sharing of music.

One of the most obvious features of music the world over is that it tends to be a group activity. Groups make music together more readily, more easily and naturally, and more often than a group can paint a painting or write a poem. The only other art form that is so given to creating in groups is dance – and dance is so intertwined with music that some cultures make no distinction. They have the same word for both music and dance. And even when there is just a solitary performer, music commonly happens in contexts and places that foster a sense of cohesion among the audience and with the performer. Music psychologist Juan Roederer says music is
“a means of establishing behavioral coherency in masses of people. In the distant past this would indeed have had an important survival value, as an increasingly complex human environment demanded coherent, collective actions on the parts of groups of human society.”
Rhythmic sounds are a great way to get people to clap or drum along, synchronizing and coordinating their activity. Many of you have had vivid experience of music promoting a lasting sense of togetherness. Notes Phillip Ball:
“Adolescent subcultures establish their identity through allegiance and shared listening to specific modes of music.”
The signature event of the 1960s was a music festival called Woodstock, a couple hours up the road from here. It brought together 400 thousand people with a resolve to live in . . . harmony.

If religion originates in the tribal need for social cohesion, and music is also a very powerful force in connecting people together, then it’s no wonder that music and religion are as intertwined as they are, from the church music so prominent in the history of European music, to drumming and dancing at religious festivals in cultures all over the world. According to Johann Sebastian Bach:
“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of god and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.”
Our hymn #36 (in Singing the Living Tradition) begins:
“When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried
The language of Bach’s religious tradition, echoed in our hymn – glorifying God in music – is an attempt to point to a certain kind of experience. Bach’s language doesn’t work for all of us, but the experience that language is trying to point toward is something for all of us. The words are an attempt to point toward an experience of dropping your separate, isolated and isolating concerns, your defenses – submerging in a wider reality, connecting outside yourself -- simply loving this life and this world in its infinity and ultimate unknowability – for then such adoration will leave no room for the pride that separates us.

And we do so desire to transcend that separation – to open ourselves to a way of presence in which every sight and sound is there for the purpose of joining with us in celebration: "It is as though the whole creation cried alleluia!"

The brain’s capacity for musical experience and its capacity for spiritual experience both involve feelings and awarenesses outside the realm of words and reason, outside of any conscious purpose other than itself. Though they ultimately touch the wordless, we quickly begin constructing words all around them – words to describe related parts that can be described. Both musical and spiritual experience connect us with others, and then feed upon that connection to grow more intense.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Desiring Music"
See also
Part 1: Music: More Real than Reality
Part 3: Music, Spirituality, and Seeing the World Rightly


Music: More Real than Reality

Desiring Music, part 1

We’re talking about desire. What do you want? What should we want to want?

However you describe the ultimate want – a full and rich life, a meaningful life of contribution to others, connection and love, joy, peace – what are the things to want along the way that will be helpful in getting to that best possible life, however you would describe it? And how do we manage the desires that pop up along the way that might be counterproductive for the best life? These are the big questions -- bigger than I can address today. I leave you to wrestle with them in your Journey Groups. Perhaps, though, some light may be shed by exploring certain specific desires.

One such desire is social position – status. As noted in an earlier series (SEE HERE), it’s probably best for us to desire it some, but not too much, and achieving that balance requires being aware – as we often are not – of how powerful that desire is.

Today I want to explore a very different kind of desire: the human – perhaps animal -- desire for music. I might have chosen to address the more general desire for beauty, but I want to look at a particular kind of beauty: the kind that expresses in sound, and with rhythm and melody.

Why are we attracted to this thing, music? How is it that it seems to be good for us – unlike addictive substances, to which we might also be attracted?

Music, like spirituality, with which music is connected, helps us see the world differently. In fact, it helps us see the world more truly and rightly. What does it mean to see the world rightly and how does music help us do that?

To see the world rightly, we must see through the distortions that language imposes, and music, crucially, is beyond words. Therein lies its power. In instrumental music, we enter the wordless place, and in singing, the power of the wordless is added to the words. From the wordless place, one can see the world rightly.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is 80 dense pages written as a series of bullet points. The last sentence of the Tractatus, the last bullet point, is:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
After 80 pages limning the limits of language, he meets the limit, and at that point, there is nothing for it but silence. In fact, his next-to-last bullet point is:
“Whoever understands me will recognize that all my propositions are senseless. One must surmount these propositions; then one sees the world rightly.”
Seeing the world rightly, evidently, can’t be said – we must remain silent. Another philosopher, Frank Ramsey, famously rejoined to Wittgenstein:
“What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.”
Whistle it? Oh, maybe we can! Or if human lips and tongue are insufficient instruments, perhaps we can flute it, violin it, or piano it. Some would say Jimi Hendrix definitely electric guitared it. The deepest awareness – the awareness to which we are drawn beyond the concerns of our separate personalities, beyond the concepts realized in our words – cannot be said. Can it be played?

When our Music Director, Adam Kent, stepped into this pulpit last November to talk about music, one of the things he talked about was opera. He said:
“In the strange, alternative world of opera, characters walk around singing all the time. Sometimes to one another, and sometimes all by themselves. How real is that? These characters who walk around singing—do they realize they’re singing all the time? Do they get that they have a 100-piece orchestra in a pit accompanying them? Do the other characters hear them singing? Or are all these just theatrical conceits we’re supposed to understand symbolically?”
I love those questions! The questions invite us to reflect on what the answers could be. What, exactly, is going on with opera?

“How real is that?” Why, more real than so-called reality.

“These characters who walk around singing—do they realize they’re singing all the time?” Maybe they don’t realize it, but that's what they're doing. If they could really hear themselves and each other, they’d hear that. And we are – singing all the time. What we learn from the art is to see, to hear, what’s really there, though we typically miss it. We’re all singing all the time – like birds, who, perhaps, also don’t know that what they’re doing is singing. If we could but really hear ourselves and each other, we’d hear that.

“Do they get that they have a 100-piece orchestra in a pit accompanying them?” Maybe they don’t get that, but they do, and we do. In fact, we have a million-piece orchestra accompanying us. From the pit – the pit of disappointment or loneliness or loss -- comes the strains that always accompany us. In that partly-hidden, partly-visible pit, the world is harmonizing with itself, inviting you to add the melody of your aria.

“Do the other characters hear them singing?” Do we hear each other’s songs? Maybe sometimes we don’t, but when we attune – “at-tune” – truly to one another, we hear nothing but song.

“Or are all these just theatrical conceits we’re supposed to understand symbolically?” No, it’s not symbolic. It would be symbolic if it was one thing representing something else. But it doesn’t represent – doesn’t re-present. It directly presents the reality that we might otherwise miss.

The experience in the theatre shows us something we can then better notice in our world outside the theatre. We’re all singing – every time we open our mouths. And when we’re standing around with our mouths shut, the world is an orchestra playing all around us.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Desiring Music"
See also
Part 2: Music and Religion
Part 3: Music, Spirituality, and Seeing the World Rightly


Ten Percent

The Paradox of Generosity, part 3

The world gives you things you don’t pay for: air, blue skies, spring days, daffodils, sunsets – none of that is on a score chart, none of it is priced. You just get it for free. You get the company of other species around – songbirds, chipmunks, deer, geese, and bunnies – companion animal dogs and cats. None of them are keeping score. And when you give money or your time and energy away – which is to say, you transfer value without getting or expecting anything in return – you step off the scorekeeping ledger.

Of course, when it comes to your job, to paying for your needs, you’re going to be vigilant about being paid fairly and being charged a fair price. There are places in life where the scorekeeping needs to be exact so we can make sure it’s fair. But generosity practice says, “my relationship to my world isn’t going to be entirely that way. I’m going to also give to the world freely, as the world in so many ways gives to me freely. The world and I shall be as lovers, giving gifts to each other, the gift OF each other, not counting the costs.”

For our hearts know and our spirits long to realize that, indeed, "they who give have all things; they who withhold have nothing."

How much to give? General guideline: 10 percent or more of Adjusted Gross Income. That’s what the studies of generosity focus on. People who give away 10 percent or more have markedly greater well-being.

There are also deep cultural roots for 10 percent. Ancient Levitical law of Israel, for instance, says, “every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord.” We might read “holy to the Lord” as “appropriate to be given up back to that sacred wide reality that created us and sustains us.” In Numbers, the “grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress” are included in the tenth-part to be given. The Ancient Israelites were directed to give their tithes to support the Levite priests, and also “the alien, the fatherless, the widow.”

In Islam, the zakat is more complicated – one-fortieth of all accumulated wealth, not just that year’s income, plus one-tenth of your production. In Sikhism, the Daswandh is the one tenth part of one's income that should be donated in the name of the God.

As your minister, charged with offering what guidance I can for your spiritual growth and development, I do recommend a practice of giving away 10 percent of adjusted gross income. It’s a profound and transforming practice. The heart and spirit don’t really grasp complicated math, but they can feel the significance of one-tenth – one finger of your hands. It’s enough so that you feel it, and feeling it is what opens the heart to joy, as the evidence shows.

I’m not saying give 10 percent to our congregation, though if that is what your heart calls you to do then bless you. The general Unitarian Universalist guideline is 2 or 3 percent of adjusted gross income to your congregation. As a deep and wonderful spiritual practice of generosity, it will do your soul good to give 10 percent or more: 2-3 percent to your congregation and the other 7-8 percent or more to charities you choose. I would suggest the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for some of that – they are doing wonderful work in the world.

Unfortunately, data shows that only about 2.7 percent of Americans give away 10 percent of their income. That’s too bad. That’s 97 percent of us who give up that chance to be happier and healthier. Our national unhappiness and ungenerosity is no doubt part of what we’re seeing play out in the disturbing aspects of the presidential campaign. LoraKim and I have given away 10 percent of our income each year for the last decade, and this year we’re going to go more. It’s part of the joy of our lives – as it is for Martin Cizec, another of Smith and Davidson’s case studies. Martin
“is a Polish immigrant and his wife a daughter of Filipino immigrants. They live in a ‘typical’ suburban upper middle class area and have good jobs, a nice home and are financially secure. Martin gets that material goods are not the recipe for a good life. He has a sense of a larger purpose in life and is a little conflicted when it comes to materialism on one hand and contentment on the other. Martin donates money, blood, shows care for family, friends, is compassionate and is going to will his estate to charity. For him, purpose and happiness of life lie in helping others. So apart from giving away more than 20 percent of their income, he also volunteers, does random acts of charity, goes above and beyond in relational giving of his time and efforts. All in all, Martin’s source of happiness lies in large part in his generous lifestyle.”
Overall, conclude Smith and Davidson after exhaustive study and review of data, the more generous,
“tend to be more in control of their time and though very busy, they have less stress . . . They face life with contentment and a sense of gratitude in what they do have. They help others flourish. Not holding on to what they have, they face problems with fortitude, knowing that true happiness lies not in mere possessions, but in meaningful relationships, and in appreciating the beauty and abundance of the world.”
So may we all give it away – give our time, our talent, our treasure. For in giving away our life, we will receive it.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "The Paradox of Generosity"
See also
Part 1: Give It Away
Part 2: Generosity and the Need for Inexact Scorekeeping


Generosity and the Need for Inexact Scorekeeping

The Paradox of Generosity, part 2

Jesus said:
"Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)
Losing your life – giving it away – is the only way to fully have a life. It may sound paradoxical, but we find it running through the world’s spiritual traditions. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us:
“Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.” (Proverbs 11:24)
A Hindu proverb says,
"They who give have all things, they who withhold have nothing."
This ancient wisdom is reflected in our very language: the word "miserable” comes from the word “miser” – because we know that hoarding, protecting, and not giving makes us miserable.

Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson found a strong correlation between generosity and well-being. For well-being, they looked at five measures: self-reported happiness, bodily health, purpose in living, avoidance of depression, and interest in personal growth.

People who give away at least 10 percent of their income are significantly more likely to say they are very happy and those who give less are more likely to be somewhat or very unhappy.

People who are generous with their volunteer time – who reported that they had volunteered in the previous year – are also more often very happy than those who didn’t.

Those who give 10 percent or more are in better health than those who do not. They also have greater purpose in life, less likelihood of depression, and enjoy greater personal growth.

Likewise, those who volunteer the most hours are in the best of health compared to those who volunteer less or not at all. Generosity with volunteer time also correlated with greater purpose in live, less likelihood of depression, and greater personal growth.

Correlation doesn’t tell us whether generosity causes well-being, or whether well-being causes generosity, or whether some third thing causes both. Researchers find that, yes, to some extent, already having positive attitude, being healthy and having more energy, does help one to be more generous. Nevertheless, the causality runs more in the opposite direction. Practicing generosity often fosters and reinforces positive emotions, reduces negative emotions, and this leads to greater happiness and health.
“Generosity often triggers chemical systems in the brain and body that increase pleasure and experiences of reward, reduce stress, and suppress pain,...Generosity increases personal agency and self-efficacy...— the exercise of one’s natural human powers and capacities to make things happen in the world, to affect or prevent changes one wishes to see happen....Generosity often creates positive meaningful social roles and personal self-identities....Generosity tends to reduce maladaptive self-absorption....Practicing generosity requires and reinforces the perception of living in a world of abundance and blessing....[It] expands the number and density of social-network relational ties....Generosity tends to promote increased learning about the world...[and] increase givers’ physical activity.” (Smith and Davidson)
When we get consumed by the issues we deal with at work or at home, and all our energies can revolve around our own stuff, we can grow suspicious and cynical. Intentional practice of generosity can break us out of that cocoon of self-absorption. Focus on life’s unfairness can lead to anger and depression, but helping others puts our own problems in perspective. Living in the perception of scarcity makes us ungenerous, but practicing generosity helps re-orient us toward abundance, toward the realization, “I may not have a lot, but I’ve got plenty.” As Smith and Davidson conclude:
“In multiple, complex, and interacting ways, bodies, brains, spirits, minds, and social relationships are stimulated, connected and energized by generous practices in ways that are good for people.” (95)
Empirical findings support the ancient wisdom that
“generosity tends to nurture love in the giver, and love stands at the heart of human flourishing.” (97)
So, yes, give it away. Giving we receive; grasping we lose.

The Importance of Inexact Scorekeeping

Think of it this way. The most important and valuable relationships in our lives – our spouses, if we have them, parents, children, closest friends – those relationships depend on what I call inexact scorekeeping. The very inexactness is the crucial thing. Yes, there’s a level of scorekeeping. If your spouse is putting a lot more into the maintenance of household and relationship than you are, it gets noticed. Our most important relationships depend on a feeling of reciprocity. That’s how both parties reassure each other that they care about the relationship and about each other. That’s how each party knows she or he isn’t just being taken advantage of. But it is crucial to the nature of those deep and nourishing relationships that the scorekeeping must be inexact. It’s gotta be rough and impressionistic.

If you are married, you and your spouse might occasionally make joking reference to “husband points” – or “wife points.” Normally, this sort of banter is a way for a couple to reference the important role of reciprocity while keeping a sense of humor about it. But if you were to literally keep a complete running tally of each partner’s point totals – following a chart that specified the point value of washing dishes, taking out garbage, vacuuming rug, going shopping, and everything else -- that would not be good for the relationship. Fairness does matter in a relationship, but too much emphasis of precise fairness chokes out love. Some level of reciprocity is necessary, but equally necessary is that the scorekeeping be imprecise, inexact. In that inexactness is the space for meaningful love.

There are some areas of life where we do want precise scorekeeping – and that’s what money is for. Money is our way of keeping score. The market sets prices for goods, services, wages, and salary, or you negotiate them, and it functions like having a points chart. You do things for your boss, or your customers or clients, and you get points, which entitles you to get goods and services from others. The scorekeeping is pretty exact, and a big part of life that needs that. Indeed, a large part of social justice involves making sure people have fair opportunities to earn points, are paid fairly, and are charged fairly within a market system equally accessible to all. It is both true and important that our national scorekeeping system is broken in a lot of ways that need attention and fixing.

Beyond that, though, our hearts and spirits – our well-being – need relationships where the scorekeeping is kept vague and impressionistically approximate, where there is considerable play in what counts as equitable enough. We need to be in relationships free of the market's ruthless demand of exactness, relationships that are about more than trade, more than buying and selling ourselves to each other. Inexactness creates the room for the partners in the relationship to give without thinking of what they're earning by giving – to give just for the joy of giving to the other.

And that’s so important for a full and good human life. It is the blessing and grace we were made for.

The practice of generosity transforms your relationship to your world because it renders the scorekeeping inexact. It brings to your relationship with the world a space of liberation from marketplace precision -- a space of blessing and grace otherwise crowded out by exactness of scorekeeping.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Paradox of Generosity"
See also
Part 1: Give It Away
Part 3: Ten Percent


Give It Away

The Paradox of Generosity, part 1

Give it away. Just...give it away. What is life for except the giving of it away? You only get a few years, so spend them joyfully, which is to say lovingly. The meaning that life has is in giving our time, our energy, our resources to others.

Social scientists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson (The Paradox of Generosity) empirically studied how generosity worked. They surveyed two thousand Americans, then did four-hour interviews with forty households. Their in-depth interviews turned up some case studies. You don’t know these families, but will probably recognize the preoccupations that govern their lives.

Here’s one:
“A middle class family, the Arnolds, fall into the daily grind just to be able to keep up with their bills and afford little luxuries along the way. They like many others are not able to define the limit of “enough money” thereby trading what could be a richer life to serving their own interests. Privacy and an attitude that does not way to be involved in other’s business is a ‘mantra’ that they live by in their upper middle class, white neighborhood in a cul-de-sac surrounded by people with similar ideas and beliefs. They call it the Switzerland Effect, staying neutral in everything. While they might give a few dollars here and there they however, live mainly to accumulate wealth and then protect that wealth. There is a vicious cycle of not having enough and therefore clamoring for more and yet happiness that is goal is found to be illusive. They want to stay in a close knit community but don’t want to give time to build relationships; they have anxieties and worries that cause sleep deprivation; they wasn’t to live and let live, yet when life hands them a curve ball they have no one to fall back on, exposing the fault line in this kind of logic. For this family, happiness will remain elusive.”
Or consider the Ramirez family.
“At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, the Ramirez family’s definition of a good life is to be happy. Sylvia and Danny share the 1970s ranch style home with her mom and uncle. They are frustrated with the neighborhood, the government, the health care system and Sylvia blames the ‘illegal immigrants’ for most of the economic problems. Hard upbringing and a modest income has made Sylvia just look out for her own interests and those of her immediate family. She would give if she had more money because it would give her a tax break. She does sporadic acts of donating canned foods and used clothes but that is the extent of her generosity. Danny on the other hand has seeds of empathy for friends and the environment, but feels strongly that human beings and society is in a downward spiral. People just don’t care, however, he is one of those who is too caught up in his own life to really care about anything or anyone else. Apathy and anxiety mark this couple who are far from their goal of happiness.”
The issue isn’t how much you have, it’s how much you expect – how much you think you deserve. The poor can be very generous, but if they’re bound up in resentment because they think they shouldn’t be poor, then they’ll be ungenerous. Moreover, we know that wealth itself can make people less generous. A year ago, I mentioned from this pulpit various studies that showed the wealthy, on average, will act more entitled. In one experiment, wealthier people were more likely to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children.
One study:
“showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people.”
If you’re wealthy and think you should be wealthy, you’ll tend to act more entitled and less compassionate. If you’re struggling economically, and think you shouldn’t have to be, you’re also likely to be ungenerous.

Whether we think we deserve what we have or think we deserve more than we have, the focus on “I deserve” is toxic to our spirits. Gratitude – often and repeated – is the antidote. When we practice gratitude, expressing thanks for our specific blessings out loud to other people, written in our journal, and whispered in prayer, we are training ourselves out of entitlement. Focus on gratitude supplants focus on deservingness.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Paradox of Generosity"
See also
Part 2: Generosity and the Need for Inexact Scorekeeping
Part 3: Ten Percent


The Proper Beginning

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Liberation, part 3

Does liberation come from yourself? From your situation? What are the chains that constrain you from a more full, joyful, peaceful, loving life? Did the chains come from you – habits of thought, attitude, or behavior? Or were the chains imposed? Do you have a role to play in other people’s liberation?

In this month's issue of On the Journey, there’s a wonderful quotation from Lilla Watson that brings these different questions together into one. She says,
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Lilla shows us how to get unstuck from the interminable politics of blame. Lilla Watson is an Indigenous Australian woman, a visual artist, activist and academic. This quote for which she is most known has served as a motto for many activist groups in Australia and elsewhere. She said it in an address to the UN Conference in Nairobi in 1985, but she said it is the product of a collective process and she’d prefer that the quote be attributed to “Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, Australia, 1970s.”

Your liberation is bound up with mine. Mine is bound up with yours. How can that be so?

For one thing, freedom is contagious. Imagine a child running across a meadow, arms in the air. Don’t you feel more free just witnessing, imaginatively, her freedom? Or think of support groups, where people struggling for liberation from substance dependency or debilitating grief can find that liberation through supporting others’ liberation.

Zen practitioners will notice, and sometimes say, that when you sit – that is, quietly and still – you sit for the whole world; you sit as the whole world. That path of liberation from identifying with our own thoughts represents the liberation of the world.

The Buddhist origin myth tells us that Siddhartha Gautama, after six years of arduous spiritual discipline and searching, on the evening before he became the Buddha, simply sat himself down beneath a pippala tree, resolving not to get up until he had seen his true nature.

All night he sat, unmoving. As dawn was beginning, he lifted his eyes and looked upon the morning star, Venus. In that moment, he experienced enlightenment, awakening, the falling away of body and mind, the one-ness and the inter-being of all things, liberation from the illusion of a separate self that our brains work so hard to maintain.

He saw his true nature, and what he saw was that it was everything and no thing. When that kind of experience comes to a person, the words that they find to express what has happened are as various as poems. According to legend, what the Buddha at that moment said was: “Behold, all beings are enlightened just as they are.”

Seeing others in the light of their liberation IS your liberation.

“Realize” has a double meaning – to become aware of, and to make real. These seem like very different meanings, but in fact, they are the same. Realizing liberation is realizing liberation – that is, becoming aware of your own and others inherent liberation is the same thing as making real the liberation of yourself and other. Then joy flows unhindered into compassion, and compassion into joy.

When liberation is realized, the question, “Whose fault is it?” elicits puzzled expressions – or laughter.

That’s what “your liberation is bound up with mine” looks like.

There is suffering. Yes. Your suffering is mine, and mine is yours. And there is the easing of suffering, which we do together.

I know that this does not answer all the political questions. There are important questions about what parts of our bound-together liberation are best realized through government, what parts through nonprofit organizations, what parts through the marketplace, and what parts through unplanned, uncalculated spontaneous expressions of love. Enlightenment does not impart the answers to those questions any more than it imparts the proof of a calculus theorem. But what it does do is shift us into a politics of interconnection, bringing us out of zero-sum politics.

In the politics of interconnection, there is no winning, no winners, no losing, and no losers. There’s just us, with our liberations bound together. White working class, black and brown working class, lower class, middle class, upper class, Mexicans, Chinese, Wall Street bankers, and main street shopkeepers, the overworked and the underemployed and unemployed – they’re all us, our liberations bound together.

In zero-sum politics, our gain necessarily comes only at the expense of someone else’s loss. In interconnected politics, our gain necessarily comes only with everyone’s gain.

If we start with the recognition that Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court actually was Meredith Garmon’s – and also actually was your nomination to the supreme court – and that so was Antonin Scalia’s nomination back in 1986, and all the others – and that Walter McMillian’s wrongful prosecution and sentencing to death row was your wrongful prosecution, and mine – and that Darren Wilson pulling the trigger to shoot Michael Brown is you pulling that trigger – and that Michael Brown’s body lying dead in the middle of Canfield Drive, Ferguson, Missouri is your body -- then, though we leave a lot of political questions still to answer, we have, at least, properly begun. If we start by calling one another by our true name – which is, “each other” – then, though we leave many strategic matters still to determine, we have, at last, truly started.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Liberation"
See also
Part 1: Politics and Blame
Part 2: Fault Line


Fault Line

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Liberation, part 2

One approach (mentioned in part 1) is to blame the poor and the un- and under-employed for their misfortune. The problem is a "crisis of values." The other approach puts the emphasis on social forces and conditions. This side argues that, “Tens of millions of people don’t suffer a collapse in values for no reason” (Krugman). A social safety net, increased minimum wage, programs of job creation and job training – these things are ways that all of us together can pull up the bootstraps of those at the bottom. That way of being lifted is at least physically possible. On this side, the issue actually is a crisis of opportunity, rather than a crisis of values.

This is our political situation – this is our main political fault line. It is a fault line in the sense of a crack in the firmament of “we, the people.” It is also a fault line in the sense of a dividing line over whose fault it is.

Something’s wrong, so whose fault is it? Is it the immigrant’s fault? Is it the Chinese? Is it our government? Is it ourselves? Candidates and op-ed journalists and political essayists marshal arguments about where the blame goes. Or, rather, some of the candidates do. Others marshal no arguments. They just blame, providing no supportive evidence or reasoning.

Sensible people appreciate Emersonian self-reliance, grit and determination, focus and hard-work. Sensible people also appreciate that some kinds of help can be disempowering, can be co-dependent, can create or encourage dependency. As the great community organizer, Saul Alinsky, said, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Never!”

At the same time, sensible people also know that collective action can create more opportunity for people who have little.

Beyond that, we get stuck. We disagree about how much blame to place where. How much is society’s responsibility to create opportunity and how much is the individual’s responsibility to find and seize what opportunities are already there? At that point, our differing political opinions take us in different directions. Is there a way to get past that?

Before I answer that question, let me illustrate the issue in a slightly different way. It’s an old issue, and it’s one with which both the historically privileged and the historically less privileged wrestle.

I was on the faculty of Fisk University before I went into ministry. It’s a historically black university, and they used to have a tradition of the annual W.E.B DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington debate. DuBois, born 1868, was an advocate of various governmental reforms to address and ameliorate the condition of blacks in this country. He co-founded the NAACP in 1909 as an organization to advocate for such reforms. (Another of the co-founders, incidentally, was the white Unitarian minister, John Haynes Holmes). Washington, born 1856, put the emphasis on African Americans working hard, going to school, getting the training they would need to get ahead.

At Fisk, every year for many years, long after DuBois and Washington had died, a public debate would be presented with one upperclassman representing the W.E.B. DuBois position and another representing the Booker T. Washington position.

By the time I arrived they were no longer holding this debate as a public event for the student body to attend, but there was a class that I taught most semesters that included readings from both DuBois and Washington. Those classroom discussions, in their own way, continued the tradition.

Students generally quickly saw that the two approaches were not mutually exclusive. They recognized that government action and self-help were both good ideas. At that point, I would say, “Right. So to which one would you give more emphasis? Right now, what is more needed: more energy into federal, state, and local action to address inequality – or more energy into guiding and encouraging young African Americans how to improve themselves?”

Opinions were divided. Sometimes one of the more thoughtful students would observe that there was a chicken and egg problem here. Neither strategy can get very far without a boost from the other. On the one hand, we’d be more powerful advocates if we develop our own skills and respect. On the other hand, more of us would get the self-improvement training we need if there were certain policy changes. I had some wise students.

What they were sensing is that the debate comes down to where the fault is, who is to blame, and that debate is very hard to resolve – and we’re left stuck.

It is in the context of that issue that we reflect today on liberation. Does liberation come from yourself? Or does it come from your situation? What are the chains that constrain you from a more full, joyful, peaceful, loving life? Did the chains come from you – habits of thought, attitude, or behavior? Or were the chains imposed?

Do you have a role to play in other people’s liberation?

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Liberation"
See also
Part 1: Politics and Blame
Part 3: The Proper Beginning