Title quotation

O come, you longing thirsty souls, drink freely from the spring.
--hymn paraphrasing Isaiah 55:1

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Moving to a new URL!

Dear readers,

I now have a new URL--drinkfromthestream.org--and will no longer be updating this site. Please come visit me there--thank you!


Rev. Laura

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Living with the Texts: The Heart Sutra

Here's the latest in my lectio divina series. Merry Christmas and happy Bodhi Day to all!


Rev. Laura


Living with the Texts: The Heart Sutra

The Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig, Minister
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton
December 12, 2010

Today we come back to our series of close readings of sacred texts.
And you may well be wondering,
why talk about a Buddhist scripture so close to Christmas?

Let me tell you two reasons
why I love that we are looking at a Buddhist text today.
The first is theological; it’s about how different religious ideas
connect together.
At the heart of Christianity
is a story about the divine embodied in human form,
the Word made flesh, in the life of one man,
a human being named Jesus.
Over the years most Christians have believed Jesus was unique,
filled with the divine in a way that you and I could never be.
But our Unitarian Universalist tradition
draws on another strand of Christianity that says,
of course Jesus was special, but what he was, others can become also.
Jesus showed us what is possible.
He pointed the way for us to follow him,
just as in the Buddhist traditions
the Buddha is a model for us, not a god—
a human being who pointed the way
to enlightenment, joy, and peace.

I love the photo on your order of service today,
the little baby boy touching the face of the golden Buddha statue.
In my imagination this could be the little baby Jesus
honoring the Buddha and whispering,
Yes, I know, I know...

Plus, something happened this week
that confirmed in a most delightful and surprising way
that a Buddhist text was absolutely the right choice
for today. I showed you the Buddhist mala beads
that someone gave me recently.
What I didn’t mention was, not only was this gift a complete surprise,
the person who gave it to me didn’t know what it was.
They thought it was a lovely piece of jewelry, which it surely is also,
and it was just by chance that I happened to know
this was a Buddhist rosary.
We counted the beads right there—five, ten, twenty—
and sure enough, 108 beads!
It was a marvelous surprise that felt like a blessing from the universe
on our service today.

So, with that possibly celestial benediction,
let’s move on to our text for the day: the Heart Sutra.
The text in its entirety is printed as an insert in your order of service,
and I invite you to follow along with me.
First off, you might be wondering, what’s a sutra?
In the Buddhist context, a sutra is a text supposedly records
some of the words and teachings of the historical Buddha.
The Buddha is thought to have said it during his life.
From a scholarly perspective, we can’t really be sure the Buddha
actually said these words. It’s kind of like the tradition that says
Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Probably the actual author or authors lived at some later time.
Some scholars think this particular sutra was actually written in China
in the fifth century. We don’t really know.
Personally, it doesn’t matter too much to me who wrote it.
In our Unitarian Universalist tradition we worry less
about whether we can document the historical accuracy of a text,
and more about questions like, is it true?
and, does it help me live a better life?
You can be the judge of that
after you’ve had some time to sit with this text.

So we begin reading:
The Heart Sutra.
This is actually the short title.
The longer title in Sanskrit is,
the Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra:
Maha, great or large;
Prajna, wisdom or understanding;
Paramita, perfection or transcendence;
Hridaya, heart or essence.
So in English we could translate the title as,
“The Heart of Perfect Understanding.”

This is one of the most important scriptures
in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
Buddhists from countries like China, Japan, Tibet, and Vietnam
recite this text and use it in meditation
because they believe it expresses a profound truth
about the nature of reality.
There are a few technical terms that I’ll need to explain as we go,
but if we can just get past those few barriers,
there is just a wealth of insight here for us.
So let’s continue with the text:

The Bodhisattva Avalokita,
while moving in the deep course of Perfect Understanding,
shed light on the Five Skandhas and found them equally empty.
After this penetration, he overcame ill-being.

We have lots of words here that may be unfamiliar,
but don’t worry, we’ll get it. Let me do some background explaining.
First the word Bodhisattva. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition,
a bodhisattva is a person who has become enlightened,
someone who has come to see reality as it truly is.
The Buddha taught that a person who becomes enlightened
gets to step off the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth
and merge into the pure bliss-consciousness of nirvana—
kind of like “going to Heaven,” except you don’t go to be with God,
you sort of dissolve into the whole.
When you become fully enlightened you can choose
to cross over into this state of limitless bliss and being.
But the bodhisattva is someone who is so filled with compassion,
they voluntarily choose to stay behind and help other beings
reach enlightenment. Like our Universalist ancestors who said
they wanted no part of a Heaven that didn’t welcome everyone,
the bodhisattvas vow not to cross over into nirvana
until every being gets there too.

And Avalokita, short for Avalokiteshvara,
is the most famous bodhisattva there is.
Avalokita is known by many different names. In some countries
he is male; in others, she is female and goes by the name of
Guan Yin in China, Kannon in Japan, Tara in Tibet—
the goddess of infinite compassion,
very like the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism.

So this text is a story, which tradition tells us the Buddha told,
a story about Avalokita, this bodhisattva filled with compassion
for the sufferings of the world.
Avalokita is meditating, “moving in the deep course
of Perfect Understanding” or prajnaparamita.
He’s in a state of very deep concentration and insight
that I can’t describe to you in words because it’s indescribable,
completely beyond words,
but it’s like a leaping into truth,
a profound seeing,
total clarity and total compassion.

The text says, in this state he examined the Five Skandhas.
This is our next vocabulary word.
In Buddhist philosophy, a human being, a person like you or me,
is made up of five skandhas or “heaps”:
our physical body,
our emotions,
our sensory perceptions—what we see or taste or touch or hear—
our thoughts and memories,
and the basic awareness,
the consciousness that comes with being alive.
Body, emotions, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness:
these are the Five Skandhas; this is what a person is.

The sutra says, Avalokita looked into these five parts of a person
and found that they were empty.
This word “empty” is the most important word in this whole text.
Our English word empty is a translation for the Sanskrit word shunyata.
And it’s actually not that great a translation,
so it tends to mislead us.
The Korean Buddhist scholar Mu Soeng suggests
a better translation for this word shunyata
would be “momentariness” or “transitoriness.”
(Mu Soeng, The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010), p. 42.)
Intellectually, the idea is something like this:
yes, things do exist in the world; we ourselves exist for a time—
but there is nothing permanent about any of it;
everything is made up of flowing, changing energy;
things come into existence, they grow, they remain for a time;
eventually they decay and disintegrate and re-form as something else.

The sutra says people have this nature too—
none of us exists as a permanent essence, unchanging over time.
What I call “myself” is constantly changing,
millions of cells in this body being born and dying every day.
All of us exist for a while, we change, we cease to be.
This is what life is.
Mu Soeng, the Korean teacher, tells us: look at quantum physics.
We once thought the universe was made up of particles of matter,
things that were solid and permanent.
Now we are discovering that the basic building blocks of the universe aren’t really blocks at all—
they’re energy, manifesting in different ways,
sometimes as waves, sometimes particles,
ceaselessly flowing, constantly changing.
On the subatomic level, “there are no objects, only processes.”
(Soeng, p. 39.)
So how can anything be said to exist
except for the briefest of moments?

This is what Avalokita grasped.
He saw through all the things of this world,
which appear to be so solid—even his own body—
and tasted the truth of shunyata—the momentariness of all things.
And some say he saw beyond even this truth
to a glowing vibrancy that cannot be described, only felt:
emptiness is not nothingness, but Being itself,
absolute Being, beyond all manifestation.

In this radiant awareness,
he overcame ill-being—
all the suffering caused by our false perceptions.

So he teaches his student Shariputra:

“Listen, Shariputra,
form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

Our form—our body—is empty of permanence or independence.
Our body is here for a moment and passes away.
It’s a form that comes into being, exists, and dissolves,
like an image in a kaleidoscope,
there for a moment,
another pattern already rising up to take its place.

“Listen, Shariputra, [he says,]
all dharmas are marked with emptiness.

Here the word dharma means a thing—a person, a tree,
a mountain.
(Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2009), p. 17.)

They are neither produced nor destroyed,

The Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about
how foolish it is to think of ourselves
as having a beginning and an end, being born and dying.
(Thich Nhat Hanh, pp. 17–19.)
Everything that exists in this moment—
you, me, everything in the entire universe—
exists because a million other things have existed
and contributed to our being here right now.
How could we be without our parents, our grandparents,
their parents?
How could we be without sun and rain, earth and sea and sky?
How could we be without everything else?
We are not separate; we are part of this dancing energy
that creates and uncreates endlessly.
What we call our birth is merely the moment
this body emerged into the world.
What we call our death is merely the moment
this body ceases to hold life.

They are neither produced nor destroyed,
neither defiled nor immaculate,

This is counter-intuitive, maybe,
but it’s like what the poet Rumi means when he says,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
(Rumi, trans. Coleman Banks.)

...neither increasing nor decreasing.

Everything is flow and change; nothing is solid.

Avalokita continues to speak:

Therefore, in emptiness there is neither form, nor feelings, nor perceptions,
nor mental formations, nor consciousness.
No eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind.
No form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind.
No realms of elements (from eyes to mind-consciousness),
no interdependent origins and no extinction of them
(from ignorance to death and decay).
No ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path.
No understanding and no attainment.

This is counter-intuitive.
When I first heard this text I was enchanted and confused also
by this idea of “no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue...”
What does that mean?

Two aspects are important here.
One is that, when the text was first written, it was arguing against
a different school of Buddhist philosophy
which was very into making lists of categories
like eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind...
and going into huge amounts of detail
about the qualities of each category.
This text was trying to sweep that all away and say,
Look! Everything is temporary,
nothing exists on its own, independent from everything else—
all this thinking in categories
does not help us touch the truth of shunyata,
emptiness, momentariness,
the endless flow of energy in and out of forms.

So, in one sense, this text is talking to another text;
it’s responding to a conversation that’s already underway,
which is why it’s hard for us to jump in now.

But in another sense, I experience the text—

No eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind....
No understanding and no attainment—

as a call to break through everything we think we know—
it’s pushing us to let go of our intellects,
our wish to understand everything rationally,
pushing us farther and farther into a numinous mental space
of holding and not holding,
understanding and not understanding,
seeking and not seeking,
dwelling in pure being,
suspended, active, alert, waiting, present.
Nobody can teach us this.
Nobody can explain it to us.
But the text is pushing us to seek, to open,
to flower into that place of awareness which the Buddha called

“Because there is no attainment,
the Bodhisattvas, grounded in Perfect Understanding,
find no obstacles for their minds.
Having no obstacles, they overcome fear,
liberating themselves forever from illusion, realizing perfect Nirvana.
All Buddhas in the past, present, and future,
thanks to this Perfect Understanding,
arrive at full, right, and universal Enlightenment.

“Therefore, one should know that Perfect Understanding is the highest mantra, the unequalled mantra,
the destroyer of ill-being, the incorruptible truth.
A mantra of Praj├▒aparamita should therefore be proclaimed:
Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.”
(Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, hurrah!)

Buddhists all over the world recite this mantra.
Some of you know Ted Cetto, the leader of the Stockton Zen Sangha
and a music professor at the University of the Pacific.
Ted has set it to music, to a very old Christian chant tune:

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

The image here is crossing over a river—
this is an image that appears constantly in Mahayana Buddhism,
using the teachings as a raft
to carry you over the river,
the waves of desire and false perceptions that rise up within us,
to carry you over that river
to the shore of enlightenment beyond.
The mantra is like a promise:
everyone crossing completely over to enlightenment,
praise and hallelujah and hurrah!

And as we come to the end of our time together this morning,
I want to lift up the deep delight I feel
in this image of crossing over,
and how deeply connected it is to the Christian tradition
that we celebrate this season,
the home-place of so many of our ancestors in faith.
Because have we not also, for many generations,
sung of crossing over that river?
Deep river, we sing, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, I want to cross over into that promised land of peace.

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

Let us end with a hymn from this beautiful tradition
of African-American song
a stunning affirmation from a Christian perspective
of that place of peace and joy and serenity
to which the Buddha pointed,
which the great teachers promise us we will all reach, by and by.
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Gifts of the Spirit

Happy holidays, everyone!


Rev. Laura


Gifts of the Spirit

The Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig, Minister
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton
December 5, 2010

Once upon a time, in a faraway country,
there was a people who lived as herders, ranchers of cattle.
Their whole world revolved around caring for the cattle,
raising the young calves,
milking the milk-cows,
pasturing the herds in the lush green grass.
The cattle gave them food, wealth, status, everything.
They told stories of their god coming down
from his home above the mountains
to promise them the right to farm the cattle for always and forever.
This was their way of life, their destiny,
their past and their future...
until the drought came.
The rain that had fallen so freely began to disappear,
not for a year or two but for an entire generation.
The grass dried up.
And the cattle began to die.

Alas, this is not a make-believe story.
This is the story of a real people with whom we share this earth,
the Maasai people of eastern Africa.
For many generations the Maasai have built their whole world—
their identity, their livelihood, their entire culture—
around the cattle they raise.
Twenty years ago this was still a good life.
But then the rains began to dry up.
Climate change and deforestation throughout east Africa
have teamed up in the worst way to produce a drought
that has gone on for years.
For the Maasai people, that means the grasslands
where they have lived and worked for centuries
is becoming a desert.
In some areas, the cattle are dying for lack of water.
And the people are left with no food, no money,
no jobs, no way to survive.

One of the Maasai communities is in Tanzania.
For them, too, the center of their entire world
was falling apart like that.
The symbol of their entire society, dying before their very eyes.
The work they had done their entire life, no longer possible.
Everyone they knew, their families, all their friends,
caught in the same bind.
They tried to figure out what on earth they were going to do.
Like all human beings, they were extremely resourceful,
but like all of us, their knowledge had limits.
All of us have faced times when we just don’t know what to do.
And sometimes a new idea from someone outside the situation
is just what’s needed—
a fresh perspective, a helping hand.
And so it was
that one day, someone offered to that community in crisis
a gift that would change everything.


This is the season when I know many of us are pondering,
what makes a good gift?
What do we have to give that will delight the people we care about,
maybe even transform their lives?
And what are we yearning to receive?

In today’s reading, Clarke Wells tells us about
the gifts he’s treasured most:
those gifts that gave him confidence in himself
when he was feeling unsure,
helped him feel understood,
comforted him when he was hurting,
gave him a spark of joy to hold on to.
(Clarke Dewey Wells, “The Nicest Gifts I Ever Got.”)
When we offer someone a gift,
isn’t this really what we’re trying to give them—
acceptance, joy, appreciation?
We hope and trust that the stuff, the material things we pick out
are going to carry a message for us that says,
I love you, I care about you,
I see who you are and what you need.
I want you to be safe and well and happy.
I give you this thing as a token of my care.

One of the loveliest gifts I ever got
was a gift of this kind of understanding.
I was one of those kids who was kind of an overachiever.
I tried really hard to do a lot of things really well,
especially things that adults and teachers liked,
like writing cursive
and spelling words right
and doing long division.
But I also liked to do stuff just for fun.
My friends and I liked to run around in the woods
and ride our bikes really fast down the hill in our neighborhood.
And one thing I really, really liked was playing Barbies.
We built Barbie houses out of books and Kleenex boxes
and made up all sorts of cool adventures for the Barbies to have.
One Christmas, I think I was nine,
I had my heart set on a special Barbie doll for Christmas.
She was called French Barbie,
and she was dressed up like a French can-can dancer
with a hot-pink dress and red hair. And she was beautiful!
I hinted to my mom and dad that I would really, really like it
if they got me French Barbie for Christmas.

Finally Christmas arrived,
and there was a present waiting for me under the tree.
I really wanted it to be French Barbie,
but the box seemed kind of big.
And when I opened it up on Christmas morning, I found…a globe.
It was a very nice globe.
And I really did like learning about other places around the world
and imagining what it would be like to live somewhere else.
But it wasn’t French Barbie.
I felt sad when I saw that beautiful globe.
And I felt guilty that I felt sad, because I knew Mom and Dad
had wanted to give me something I would really like!
It was complicated.

I thought about what I should do,
and the next day I asked my mom and dad if I could talk to them.
And I said to them, “Mom, Dad, I really like my globe.
But it kind of makes me feel like
you just want me to be perfect and nice
and good in school all the time.
But I don’t want to be only that!
I really wanted French Barbie too!”

And I still remember what they said to me then.
They listened to me, really listened,
and they thought, and then they said,
“You know what? We made a mistake!
We are so proud of you and how much you like school
that we forgot that sometimes you just want to be a kid and have fun,
and we forgot to listen to what you wanted.
And we love you.”

That was a long time ago.
But I still remember how good it felt to be understood.
It was wonderful to feel that they could accept me
as I really was, not just as they wanted me to be.
The next day my mom took me to the store
and she bought me that French Barbie doll,
and I tell you what, I cherished that doll for years.
She was a wonderful crystallization of this lovely fantasy I had
about the kind of person I was and who I could be.
I didn’t have to be just the brainy, nerdy kid—
I could be a fabulous, glamorous artiste,
dancer, wearer of hot pink dresses as well!
And it meant so much to me that my parents
were able to honor that little wild and crazy,
non-goody-two-shoes streak in me.

The poet Mary Oliver urges us to let ourselves love what we love
and stop judging ourselves for it—
just let ourselves love what we love.
So many of us spend so much time
judging our most secret yearnings and wishes and longings.
“Oh, I could never do that,” we say,
“I could never be that.”
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could free ourselves
from all those judgments
and just let ourselves shine out in our full beauty?
But so often we’re afraid of what others are going to think of us.
We hide our beauty and uniqueness and yearning
for the sake of fitting in.
So sometimes what we need
is for someone else to see that spark of wildness and truth inside us,
to honor it and respond to it with acceptance and affirmation.
This is the kind of gift I wish for every one of you,
as often as you should ever need it.

Of course, sometimes the gifts we receive
are not exactly what we want in our heart of hearts.
But they may be what we need.
As a child I was blessed to get that Barbie doll
that I truly, truly wanted.
Since then I’ve had to learn, like all of you,
that life does not always give us our heart’s desire—
at least, not in a silver package with our name on it
to make it obvious.
And what is required of us then
is to keep up our courage, remember who we are,
accept with gratitude the blessings that come our way,
and trust that our life unfolding will still be joyful
perhaps even beyond our imaginings.

I don’t know about you, but I felt so tender
for the boy in today’s story, Silver Packages.
[Cynthia Rylant, Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story (New York: Orchard Books, 1987).]
He longed so much for a doctor kit,
the gift that he felt would have validated
his dream of becoming a doctor.
Years went by and he never did receive that doctor kit.
But he got what he needed to stay alive and safe
so that one day he was able to fulfill his dream.

You remember I told you a little about the people of the Maasai
in Tanzania. They too knew exactly what they wanted—
they wanted to keep being cattle ranchers—
but this possibility is very rapidly shutting down
as the climate changes and the land dries out.
What happened to them was this:
the Heifer Project approached them—you probably know
this organization that donates farm animals
to communities in need around the world—
and said, look, have you ever thought about herding camels?

Think about it: the grass plains aren’t coming back.
The land is turning to desert,
and this people is struggling to find some way
to hold on to their culture as herders and ranchers.
Could they imagine—
could it be possible to conceive of a new identity
as herders of camels?
In a lot of ways it makes sense.
Camels can go for days without eating.
They’re happy to eat the leaves of the acacia trees that grow there.
They can survive quite nicely drinking water
just once every two weeks.
You can milk camels just as you do cows,
so the people could keep on drinking milk,
which has always been a huge part of their diet,
and selling the leftovers to make money
to buy what they can’t make or grow for themselves.

So immediately this made sense from an economic perspective.
It was much harder for people to accept from a cultural standpoint.
The camels looked funny.
They were tall and cranky and kind of intimidating.
They were not cows and they weren’t going to be cows.
But the people decided to give them a chance.
And what they found was, the camels were actually pretty OK.
Better than OK, in fact.
Traditionally the men’s job is to take the animals to graze
and protect them from predators.
Their job is actually easier now,
because the camels can eat more kinds of food.
And a lot of the women have become big fans.
Traditionally their job is to gather firewood,
haul water back to their homes,
both for their families and for the animals,
milk the cows (and, now, camels),
take care of the house—
including building new houses when the old ones wear out—
take care of the kids, do all the cooking...
is this starting to sound familiar?

Anyway, the women are really appreciating the camels because,
guess what, they can carry stuff!
They can help the ladies lug the water and firewood
back to their homes.
Interestingly enough, now that the camels are available
to do the heavy lifting,
the men have decided they don’t mind going to get the water
and the firewood. What a deal!
So in the end, it seems the camels are fitting right in.
(Donna Stokes, “Maasai Adapt to Survive,” World Ark holiday 2010, pp. 10–19.)
Camels are not a perfect solution for the Maasai people.
It’s not what they had,
it’s maybe not what they would have chosen for themselves.
Nobody knows exactly how the camels
are going to change the ecology of the place.
(For a Unitarian Universalist critique of the Heifer Project, see Gray Kowalski, “What’s Wrong with the Heifer Project?” online at http://www25.uua.org/ufeta/heiferproject.htm.)
But no solution was going to be perfect, because life is that way,
and in a moment when change was inevitable
and an entire culture was perched on the brink of collapse,
this one gift—the animals themselves
and the whole new way of thinking that came with them—
is helping this people hold on to who they are
and live with pride and dignity on this earth.
A welcome gift indeed.

So may we all become givers and receivers of gifts
that inspire us with new and creative possibilities,
delight us with beauty and playfulness,
strengthen us when life is difficult,
and sustain us in the deepest center of our heart.

May it be so, this holiday season and forevermore.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Living with the Texts: “The Year of the Lord’s Favor”

Here's today's sermon, reading Isaiah 61:1-4 in light of the tough economic times we're going through here in Stockton, CA. Have a good Thanksgiving, all, even and especially now!


Rev. Laura


Living with the Texts:
“The Year of the Lord’s Favor”

The Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig, Minister
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton
November 21, 2010

Thousands of years ago, half a world away,
the people of Israel returned from exile
to rebuild the city of Jerusalem,
a city that had been devastated by war and decades of neglect.
The Babylonian conquerors had destroyed the Temple,
razed the city,
forced its inhabitants into exile.
Now, some fifty years later,
the Persians had conquered the Babylonians in their turn,
and the Persian emperor Cyrus allowed the Israelites
to come home and rebuild their city at last.

This is the background for the text at the heart of today’s service,
the third in our monthly series of engaging with sacred texts
both from the Bible and from other world scriptures.
This text is one that I know will be familiar to anyone
who’s been around this congregation for a while—
the passage from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible
that has inspired our beloved hymn “We’ll Build a Land.”

For those who don’t know this one,
we’re going to sing it together at the end of the service,
so you’ll get to know it.
Singing this hymn with you, I hear how much it means to you,
and I’ve often thought of this hymn
as the theme song of our congregation.
It captures so beautifully the spirit of this church.
And so, today, I want to invite you to come with me
on a walk through the text that inspired it,
in the spirit of lectio divina or sacred reading.
There’s no trick to this, no secret,
you just take your time with the text
and ask yourself what it has to say to you today.

And today I’m hearing this text in a new way.
The prophet Isaiah says to the Israelites:

The Lord...has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted… (Isaiah 61:1)

or as the beautiful translation from the Jewish Publication Society
has it: “to bind up the wounded of heart.”
Often in the past I’ve heard this text as being about other people—
people who are in need, vulnerable, oppressed,
people somewhere else.
But today I look around our community, our city,
and I see a people that has been wounded of heart,
drooping in spirit,
struggling under the burden of debt, unemployment, insecurity,
and fear of the future.

We haven’t been literally forced into exile like the Israelites.
But we sure do know people
who are having to move away to find work,
some in this very congregation.
Some of us have had good friends move away;
some of us may be considering moving ourselves.
In a very real sense our congregation is going through
the experience of becoming a diaspora.
We are coming to understand ourselves at least in part
as a community encompassing those who are able to stay home
and those who have been forced to leave.
This is not easy on the spirit.

Our city has not been razed to the ground as Jerusalem was.
But we sure do know what it’s like to see friends, family members,
maybe we ourselves, physically displaced from our homes.
Just a few short years ago, it looked like the real estate market
was going up and up.
We were in the Promised Land
of ever-escalating property values and equity—
at least, those of us who had managed to buy homes
while they were still affordable.
Then came the crash, and we got foreclosed.
Tens of thousands of us have lost our homes in Stockton alone.
Many more of us are stuck owing far more on our mortgages
than our homes are worth today.
One study I came across estimates that two-thirds
of mortgage-holders in Stockton are underwater on their mortgages.
This is a community that has learned what it feels like to be displaced.

So I think we can relate to the folks who first heard
these words of Isaiah, this struggling people,
who in this moment are beginning come back from exile
and rebuild their community,
and now they’re hearing this promise of

good news to the oppressed,...
liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.... (Isaiah 61:1)

Now, Isaiah says something very specific here
that is very relevant to our situation. He says he has been called

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.... (Isaiah 61:1)

This phrase, “the year of the Lord’s favor,”
has a very particular meaning. This is basically a code word
for something called the Jubilee Year
which was a tradition in Israelite society
going back many, many years.
The Jubilee Year happens once every fifty years,
and it’s a way of trying to sort out inequality
and make sure everyone has at least some kind of baseline
of economic support.
The Israelites were mostly farmers, and like farmers today,
sometimes the Israelite farmers got into debt
and had to sell off their land to survive,
and some of them even had to sell themselves
into a kind of voluntary slavery.
This was the reality for forty-nine years out of fifty,
seven times seven years.

But in the fiftieth year, Israelite law said
everybody who had lost their land would get it back.
All debts would be erased.
Everybody got their homes back,
everyone got to start over with a clean slate,
no debt, no hard feelings.
This is the Jubilee Year, “the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It’s like everyone agreed, for forty-nine years out of fifty,
we accept economic inequality.
We accept that some people are going to lose their land, their homes,
everything they have.
But once every fifty years we as a society
are going to do right by the people who are hurting the most.
We are going to give them back a place to live,
a way to make a living,
because that is the kind of society we want to live in.
And can I just say,
how incredible would it be to have a tradition like that
in this society?
Are we not ready for a Jubilee Year here in Stockton?
Are we not ready for a community-wide, a nationwide effort
to ensure everybody has a home
and everybody who wants to work has a way to make a living?
We are ready for a Jubilee Year like this, ready and past ready!

Speaking for myself, there are times
when I really want someone to make this happen for us.
I get tired sometimes
and I don’t want to have to do the work of justice-making.
I so sympathize with those brothers in our story
who longed to find a shortcut to what they wanted,
that buried treasure that promised them riches without effort.
I don’t want us to have to work so hard to fix things.
I wish we lived in a society
that took better care of those of us who are in trouble.
I want it to be that way now, without having to work for it.
And yet we are called to work with what is.
There really isn’t any other way.
We are the ones who can make justice real,
we and everyone else who cares about this community.

And I want to tell you something that has helped
to give me strength in these rough days we’re going through.
I told you about this phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor,”
another way of talking about the Jubilee Year.
This phrase of course is one translation of the original Hebrew;
it’s from the New Revised Standard Version,
which most of the time is what I use,
but the King James Version gives us a different translation
that I think is just marvelous:
“the acceptable year of the Lord.”

You know how sometimes someone says something
that strikes you in just the right way
and completely changes your outlook on a situation?
This is what happened to me.
I heard this phrase, “the acceptable year of the Lord,”
and I thought, wow, here we are in the most miserable time economically
that we have experienced for decades,
so much is hard,
so much is uncertain,
and yet, here we are, and this is the time we are given,
this is the life we are given,
and yet even in this very difficult moment,
even though the pain and the struggles are real,
there is another reality which permeates all that
and is deeper than the struggling,
there is a way we can experience this reality
as deeply, profoundly acceptable in spite of everything.
This is an acceptable year. This is what we’ve been given
and we have to find ways of working with it
that will bring joy into the world.

This is a tricky thing to explain. I don’t want you to misunderstand.
Maybe it will make sense if I say it this way.
I know that I need to feel that my life is meaningful and beautiful.
I think we all need that.
At times when our life is going well,
the economy’s humming along,
we have work that is congenial to our spirit,
we are happy in our relationships,
it’s easy to feel that sense that our life is meaningful and beautiful.
When things are not so easy,
in these times of economic disruption and devastation,
that need to experience our life as meaningful doesn’t go away,
and we have to work to take care of it.
We have to attend to it,
we have to go looking for beauty,
we have to look deeply at the stories we’re telling ourselves,
challenge ourselves to look below the surface of the news headlines
that blare out alarming economic statistics so continuously.
We have to remind ourselves that we are still part of a community
where people care about each other and want to help.

This is so important.
Those of us who live in Stockton know
there’s a very destructive culture here
of low morale, looking down on ourselves,
disparaging our city,
making fun of anyone who dares to suggest
this is a good place,
a place where people can thrive and be happy.
And in this sense I have to say, personally,
this is the hardest place I have ever lived.
I have found it hard to hang on to joy here
in the midst of so much negativity,
which runs way deeper than our current troubles.

Yet in some ways, this is also the easiest place I have ever lived.
I come from a cold climate, where winters are long and cold.
Here, the softness of the land is so beautiful to me.
Now, with the rains coming, it’s all so lush,
everything grows so richly, it’s such a soft place.
Living here, it’s so easy to see
that the world around us is just stunningly beautiful,
if we can just stop and pay attention.
Every sunset that washes across the sky,
every tomato plant that blossoms and bears fruit
and smells so good on our hands,
every crane and hawk and hummingbird
that deigns to share this earth with us
reminds us that we are a part of something amazing.
We are alive—
here we are, miraculously, on this little planet
in this unthinkably enormous universe
full of strangeness and wonder, and it this not a blessed miracle?

My hope for you all
is that you will be able to accept what is right now,
you will be able to say, yes, right here and right now,
my life is acceptable, I am glad to be living it.
And to do this we need to help ourselves, and help each other,
get back in touch with the beauty and the glory of this world
of which we are a part.
I truly believe this is what is going to help us
restore our communities.
This is what gives us strength and hope and courage.

Many years ago, Isaiah called out to the Israelites
and reminded them that they had it within themselves
to be

oaks of righteousness,
[to] build up the ancient ruins,
[to] raise up the former devastations;
[to] repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61:3–4)

And is this not what we are called to do here in this place?
To repair the devastated cities,
to restore our communities to health?
This is not going to happen overnight.
It takes time.
We can’t do it alone.
But I believe this place,
this beautiful, tough, gentle, hurting city
can begin to thrive again.

Marge Piercy tells us, don’t lose heart.
Change happens slowly.
You cannot always tell by looking what is happening.
But keep weaving the fabric of community,
keep building, keep digging,
keep reaching out, keep bringing in.

This is how we are going to live for a long time [she tells us]: not always,
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
(Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles,” Singing the Living Tradition #568.)

So, with our work and our care and our commitment,
with our hanging in and our faith,
we build that land we love;
we make it real.

May it be so.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Did They Just Say That?!

Here's a sermon I gave on Sunday on compassionate communication. Enjoy!


Rev. Laura


Did They Just Say That?!

The Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig, Minister
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton
November 14, 2010

Regardless of how you feel
about how the elections turned out this year,
I bet I’m not the only one
who was relieved to get the campaigns over with.
These days it seems every election season kicks up the vitriol. Candidates hurl accusations back and forth—
their opponent is a liar, too conservative or too liberal.
They argue over who’s racist and who’s not;
who’s trustworthy and who’s not.
All the while it seems the possibility of real communication
and cooperation recedes further and further.
We know where everybody stands,
but we have no idea how they’re all going to work together
and make things better for our country and our world.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the winter holidays are coming,
and if your family is anything like mine,
this is the time of year when the extended family gets together,
and that means the odds of getting into arguments—
about politics, religion, ethics, personal choices, whatever—
go up about a millionfold
with people you love
who may see the world very differently from you.

So, in the spirit of recovery from a bruising election season
and preventative maintenance for those family gatherings
with all their conversational minefields,
I’d like to share with you a tool that has been really helpful to me.
Marshall Rosenberg, the author of the first reading today,
has developed a set of communication skills
that he calls Nonviolent Communication,
that are designed to help people communicate more compassionately,
respect difference and diversity,
and defuse conflicts,
even in situations where violence has been endemic for years.
Rosenberg has worked with people all over the world
in places devastated by war—
Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East,
Serbians and Croatians after the war in the Balkans,
Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda,
gang members and prison inmates here in the U.S.

Rosenberg starts with the conviction
that all human beings have the same basic needs.
We all need food and clothing and shelter,
we need care when we’re sick,
we need to feel safe,
we all need to make a contribution to our world,
we need to feel connected and appreciated.
This is how it is for everybody.
And there is nothing wrong with trying to get our needs met.
But we’re living in a culture
that teaches us to try to get our needs met by judging one another,
labeling, criticizing, condemning.
And the tragic reality is that when we feel judged,
when we feel labeled and criticized and condemned,
it is so easy for us to react by lashing out right back,
with our words or even with physical violence.
So we fall into a vicious cycle of violence and hurt,
continual anger and wounding, and where is it going to stop?

Now, just in case you are lucky enough
not to have experienced what I’m talking about,
Marita and I would like to act out a little dialogue for you
so that you can see what I mean.
This is a scene between a mother and a daughter who’s in college,
visiting home for the weekend.
Remember, it’s not really us—we’re just pretending!

Mom: Hi, sweetie, it’s good to see you!

Daughter: Hi, Mom, how are you?

Mom: Oh, you know. Getting by. (Squinting) Did you just get another tattoo? What were you thinking?

Daughter: Oh, come on, Mom, it’s no big deal. Everybody’s getting tattoos these days.

Mom: Oh, is that so? You don’t see any tattoos on this neck, do you? (Pointing to herself.)

Daughter: Mom, don’t start. You know what I mean.

Mom: Oh, do I? So I don’t count, is that what you’re saying? My opinion doesn’t matter, is that it?

Daughter: Well, actually, Mom, no, in this case it doesn’t! It’s my body and I get to decide what I want to do with it, not you!

Mom: My own daughter tells me this? No respect. That’s the problem with you kids today. No respect.

Daughter (sarcastically, rolling her eyes): Yeah, I KNOW! I’m such a mess!

Mom: Don’t you sass me!

Daughter: Fine. I’m out of here! (She storms off.)

Not so fun, eh?
But not so uncommon, either, right?
I shudder to think about how unskillful I’ve been
with my own family at times.
I don’t think any of us really want to be this way
with the people we love, or with anyone, really.
So, having painted this grim picture,
let me introduce you to the four basic skills
of Nonviolent Communication.

The first skill sounds easy, but I find it can be quite difficult:
separate observation and evaluation.
If someone else does something that bothers you,
can you clearly state what you observe them to be doing
without evaluating or judging what you see?
An example of mixing observation and evaluation
might be if I say to my housemate, “You are such a slob!”
If someone says that to you, how do you feel? Defensive? Angry?
How likely are you to do what they want? Probably not so much.
But if I can stick with observation and say something like,
“I notice you left the dirty dishes in the sink for two days,”
it creates room for the other person to hear it
and maybe respond in a more constructive way
that we will probably like a lot better.
That’s separating observing from evaluating.

The second skill has to do with feelings—
how skillful we are at identifying and expressing our own feelings,
and how well we take responsibility for them.
Say your partner came home later than you were expecting
and you felt upset.
It’s very common for us to express ourselves by saying something like, “Your coming home late made me really upset.”
But do you notice how that makes the other person
completely responsible for your feelings?
And that’s just factually incorrect.
If your partner comes home later than you expected,
it’s conceivable you might have all sorts of different feelings about it.
If you’ve had a long day and you’re craving some alone time,
maybe you’ll feel grateful for that extra time by yourself.
On the other hand,
if you’ve been looking forward to sharing some time together
with your partner, you might feel frustrated and disappointed.

The thing is, either way,
your partner is not responsible for your feelings.
His or her behavior may have triggered feelings in you,
but it did not make you feel this way.
And if you can separate out your feelings from what triggers them,
you will have a much better chance of being heard and understood.
Think of how it might feel to hear something like this instead:
“When you came home late,
I felt frustrated because I was really looking forward to seeing you
and spending the evening together.”
There’s no judgment of the other person—
just an honest statement of how you are feeling—
and that is a lot easier to hear.

The third skill is hard, but potentially really liberating.
When someone is angry or upset over something you’ve done,
can you listen to the needs behind their words?
Can you take a step back from feeling defensive
and really try to empathetically connect with what they’re feeling?
This is hard, but it’s really important.
I want to go back to the dirty-dishes example for a minute.
Imagine you’re the housemate who’s left the dishes in the sink,
and your roommate comes home and says to you,
“You’re such a slob!”
What if you could really try
to stay present to your roommate’s needs?
What if you could say something like,
“It sounds like you really wanted me to clean the dishes up.
Is that right?”
And the other person, especially if they haven’t been trained
in Nonviolent Communication skills,
might say something sarcastic back, like, “Yeah, you think?!?”

But if you can keep your cool
and keep reflecting back empathetically,
it can really start to calm things down
and allow both of you to be heard.
You might say something like,
“It sounds like it’s very stressful for you to come home
and find those dishes still in the sink.”
Listening to the needs behind the words.

We can even do this for ourselves when we’re upset.
The next time we notice ourselves making judgments
and labeling other people,
whether it’s a family member or a friend,
or a coworker,
or a politician we don’t agree with, or whoever it might be,
we can ask ourselves,
“When I make that judgment of [that] person,
what am I needing and not getting?”
[Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion (PuddleDancer Press, 1999), p. 147.]
What am I needing and not getting?
Because that is a much truer place
than any judgment I can make of someone else,
and if I can stay in that place,
the chances of actually getting that need fulfilled are so much greater.

And, indeed, the last skill is about how to move forward
and ask the other person to help you get your needs met—
asking, not demanding.
Marshall Rosenberg calls this skill
“Requesting that which would enrich life.”
This is about asking for what we want in a way
that invites other people to respond compassionately to our needs.
Probably the most important thing to remember
is to ask for what we want, not what we don’t want.

One woman who was learning Nonviolent Communication
asked her husband to stop spending so much time at work.
A few days later, he announced that he had signed up
to play in a golf tournament with his buddies—
not exactly what she had in mind.
But she hadn’t said what she really wanted,
which was for him to spend an evening or two each week
at home with the family.
[Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, p. 72.]
She got what she asked for, not what she wanted!

The good news is, we usually get to try again!
And the other good news is, it really is in our nature
to want to help one another.
We want to feel connected to each other.
We want to reach out in compassion.
It’s like the words of the hymn we sang:
“Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?
Never, never can it be”—
as long as we can help each other communicate
what we’re really feeling and how we can help one another.

I’d like to invite Marita back up to the pulpit
for a “Take 2” on our mother-daughter dialogue,
this time with the daughter
practicing the skills I’ve just been talking about:

Mom: Hi, sweetie, it’s good to see you!

Daughter: Hi, Mom, how are you?

Mom: Oh, you know. Getting by. (Squinting) Did you just get another tattoo? What were you thinking?

Daughter: Mom, it sounds like you’re upset that I got the tattoo. Can you try to help me understand why it bothers you?

Mom: You think anybody’s going to give you a decent job looking like that? That’s your problem, you don’t think!

Daughter: So, Mom, it sounds like you’re worried that I won’t be able to find a good job because of the way I look. Did I get it right?

Mom: Yeah, of course I worry about you. This recession is so hard on you young people.

Daughter: Mom, can I tell you something? When you criticize my tattoos like that, it makes me feel really vulnerable. I really do care about your opinion. I want you to be proud of me.

Mom: Oh, sweetie. I am proud of you. I’ve always been proud of you. I just worry about you. Maybe I’m trying too hard to take care of you now that you’re all grown up. I know you do just fine on your own. I love you so much—I just want the best for you.

Daughter: Mom, it feels really good to hear you say that. I love you too.

Wouldn’t it be good to live in a world
where all of us could talk like this with one another?
And it’s never too late to learn.
Marshall Rosenberg tells a story about his own mother.
Once she was participating in a workshop with other women,
who were talking about how hard and frightening it can be
to express their own needs.
All of a sudden she got up and left the room.
Finally she came back, looking very pale.
He asked her, “Mom, are you OK?”
She said, “Yes, I’m OK, but I’ve just realized something
that is very hard for me to take in. I’ve just realized
that for 36 years I’ve been angry at your father
for not meeting my needs,
but I’ve never once clearly told him what I need.”
[Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, p. 59.]

All this takes practice. It takes time—
though I hope it won’t take 36 years for you!
There’s another guy who learned Nonviolent Communication skills
and really wanted to work on them with his family.
He wrote little cheat sheet of reminders
that he carried around on an index card,
and every time there was an argument in his family,
he’d pull out the card and slow down and take his time
figuring out how he was going to respond.
And it really worked!
After about a month, he got confident enough to put the card away.
One night, he and his 4-year-old son got into an argument
about watching TV, and it wasn’t going so well.
“Daddy!” his son said, “Get the card! Get the card!”

So that’s why I’ve made up a little cheat sheet
for you to carry around—
this lovely insert in your order of service that reminds us to...

• Observe without rushing to evaluate.
• Say what you are feeling inside.
• Look for the human needs behind the words.
• Request (not demand) what would help the other person meet your needs.

If all this doesn’t work for you, then let it go. That’s fine.
If it does, if it gives you a sense of hope and possibility,
I rejoice in that!
In the spirit of healthy, compassionate, life-giving communication,
I wish you all abundant joy and peace.

Blessed be.