May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Sermons from Last Year: #4 A Responsive Imaginarium


Jan 3, 2010: A Responsive Imaginarium
Delivered to First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco

This one will make much much much more sense if you watch the video. (It's a 115MB file. Be sure to right-click and choose Save As..., and you may need to find and install an appropriate video player, such as Quicktime.)

Without it, the words tell much less of a story, and perhaps a different story.

I’m awesome. You’re awesome too--remember that. Just don’t let it go to your head. It’s OK to let it go to your face though. I’m not just saying that to fill you up with sunshine either. There’s a reason, which will become clear over the course of this reflection.

A couple summers ago, I did a chaplaincy internship up at Napa State Hospital, a mental health facility in which the majority of the population was also incarcerated. They were there either because they had been judged not guilty by reason of insanity, or were unfit to stand trial. Being a chaplain at a mental hospital, I spent a lot of time reflecting on thought processes, including my own. The hospital had a policy where employees could go to one of the kitchens in the non-incarcerated area of the hospital to get a “free lunch” (my supervisor assured me there was no such thing, which was something else I learned). A few times each week, I took advantage of this opportunity, partially because it was free, partially because I had to get up so early and never packed a lunch, but also to find out the typical faire on the menu at a California state mental hospital (prognosis: not so good- sometimes a meal would be a round scoop of peanut butter and a round scoop of jelly between two pieces of white bread, and a bag of potato chips). After about three weeks of walking to and from the kitchen each noon hour, I came to realize a pattern. I had found the shortest, fastest route between the chapel and the kitchen, and was beginning to get into an optimized groove, or rut, depending on your perspective. And the part that shocked me the most.. . I had yet to see what lay on the far side of the chapel, not fifty feet beyond, or explore the outer path around the facility. Many of the individuals (a.k.a. patients, or prisoners) walked that path as part of their daily exercise, but to me, it only existed in theory.

My concern was not because of this lack of physical exploration. It was because it made me think of ruts and exploration in mental and spiritual terms. There are some habits and some thoughts that we practice every day, and some that we go through much more frequently. Thoughts like recalling the labels and categorizations that we have for people, based on our interpretations of experiences with them, and based on things we’ve heard about them. We also rehearse these categories and labels for ideas, for things, for places, and for activities. I’m thinking here of the classic Dr. Seuss story, Green Eggs and Ham. The main character, an avuncular figure named Sam, refuses again and again to eat green eggs and ham, until finally giving in to the other character’s badgering, and finds out that he actually does like it after all. I’m pretty sure by “Green Eggs and Ham,” Dr. Seuss was tacitly referring here, of course, to national health care, or perhaps world peace.

We tend to think about people, ideas, and activities in the contexts we’ve experienced them. Once, upon meeting some future friends for only the second time, this woman said, “I’ve met you before. Didn’t you used to have a moustache?” The first time she’d met me, I had just left from a spy-themed party, where I’d been dressed up like Magnum P.I., moustache and all. I’d had the moustache for only about 8 hours before shaving it off, but that was her perception of me. I was that guy with the moustache. Ever since then, Stephanie and I try to have a moustache-themed party once a year. We’ve presently got our hands really quite full, so having a party this year might be a little difficult to swing.

There is a common thread here. We tend to want to know the gist of the story quickly, and think that’s the entirety. Our fourth principle, “The free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” calls us to investigate further. Life is so much more complicated than we perceive at first glance, and further, it’s complexifiable. Complexification is not the same thing as complication. To complexify something is to dig around for more connections, and find further meaning. It’s a process driven by curiosity, and a desire to experience things more fully. But if we focus too soon on putting something into a category, or on finding a solution to our problem as quickly as possible, we’re prone to get “there” too quickly, thinking we’re “there” but really we haven’t even looked and found the far side of the chapel yet. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line... segment. Or in the case of this map from the 20th Street BART to Oakland Whole Foods, many segments. But it’s a segment, closed on both ends, with the minimal energy applied to get from point A to point B, and because it demands “the” best route, it doesn’t allow us to take in all the options. As a result, this singular focus can cause our arena of thought to become vanishingly small, if we’re not mindful. Particularly astonishing are the dialogs provided by mass media, with their polemics and pundits on the “left and the right” whose conversations serve to keep that arena of thought small, allowing between forced limited options, and keeping the scope of possibility narrow. I can’t help but think that somebody behind the corporate media benefits from this, and the best way to defend ourselves is to open our arena of thought as broadly as possible.

Back when I drove taxi for a year, when a passenger would get in my cab, first, I’d ask them where they were going, and then ask if they wanted the route that was fastest, cheapest on the meter, or the most scenic. Going out of your way might cost a little more money or time, but often, it brings with it a richer view of the world. Here is my usual route to church when I walk up from the Civic Center BART station. When I go a different way, my senses are a bit stronger—less habituated. When I took Larkin instead of Hyde, I found the sign from the cover of last week’s order of service. Or by heading directly west first, I found some of the beautiful art in the city hall lower level, sponsored by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. However, I often am in a hurry, so I do take the most direct route, but at least now I know about those other routes and have a wider frame of reference, and I am much more confident that my route is likely the easiest climb.

It’s not always best to just jump right in. They say a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step? Actually, I would say that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a good pair of shoes and an informative map. For a journey of 1,000,000 miles, you might do better to get yourself a car or a plane. For a journey of 1 billion miles, you’re going to bring a civilization together to create a community-supported endeavor such as NASA. And for this journey, whatever the length, remember that it is about the journey as well as the destination, so don’t take the straight line-segment without first considering aesthetics. Journey poetically. Don’t be afraid to sashay, or to chat with a stranger. The straight line segment suggests keeping to yourself, and doing what you need to do as efficiently as possible so you can get on to something else. But with that attitude, isn’t life just a series of things to efficiently complete? Take a big breath, and sloooooooooow dowwwwwwwn, and you may find other ways to get to point B, or better destinations. Do it poetically, with music, for no good reason, other than you can.

For example, “Do I sound like a musical robot?” I didn’t have to say that. It didn’t add anything of substance to this sermon. And now doing a focused analysis of it actually detracts. So I’ll repeat without analysis, “Do I sound like a musical robot?”

A /torus is /most commonly known as a

Donut… /---/--or/ bagel.

A torus is a geometer’s thing.

It’s a ring encircling a ring.

They come in many sizes and shapes …and they have wings.

The ring torus, most common, is king.

The spindle torus has a football-shaped thing.

And the horn-torus has deep meaning.

A single point in the center,

Where everything comes together,

At a special place called the origin.

Where at every instance we always begin.

At this nexus we’re creating our spirit

Our here and our now touching everything near it.

The pictures are denser than poetry knows

So I’ll try and explain it less densely in prose.


There really is something about this special kind of torus, the horn torus, and I think it has theological implications. Imagine any of the repeating processes in your life as a circle, traveling around the surface of this torus. If this process is straightforward, say tying your shoe, or picking up dry-cleaning, you may be able to do it without giving any conscious thought about how to go about it. Yet actually, as you follow that process along, you get to this singularity at the origin, where there is an infinitude of possibility. You could go around the circle exactly the same way as last time, or you might smoothly change course and do something different. At that very center, there is opportunity for change, and if we open and listen closely, we can discern a variety of options and different directions.

Some of those options are pretty bad: You could choose to take a scissors to your shoelaces, or grab your dry-cleaning and run out of the store without paying. But some options might be improvements: perhaps you could learn a better way of tying a bow, or spruce up those old shoes with some bright new shoelaces, or take an extra minute to share a little with the person who does your dry-cleaning, and exchange a little energy with them.

Some of the circles we follow around again and again are actually addictions or vices. They can stall us and our advancement and achievement in life. By “vices,” I’m referring not only to the serious moral flaws and undesirable habits known in classical times. I’m referring to vice here as choices we make that prevent us from being virtuous simply in terms of opportunity cost. We only have so much time in life, and those cycles devoted to actions that keep us from doing virtuous acts are, in effect, stealing time away from doing the work of justice. This might mean wasting our time on activities that really provide no lasting benefit, or even just reserving ample time for self-interests. When we consider that some people in the world are not gifted with as much free time, vice might even include an inordinate amount of time devoted to prayer, meditation, or a day at the fair. By no means am I admonishing against prayer, meditation, and time off. It’s just important to listen for the calls of the world, and to find a moderate balance.

Sometimes these circles we follow, these vices, are in our mind as well as in the external world. Things you tell yourself about yourself and others. Nobody is harder on us than we are on ourselves. During the course of the day, we can tell ourselves the same thing a hundred times. Perhaps it’s an echo of some long-past event when somebody called us a name in school, or it’s an internalized label that we’ve taken on and now repeat to ourselves tacitly. Somebody handed us that label and we were unable to dispel it (or didn’t even know that was an option), and now it’s become self-talk. But you can take control there. After all, it’s your head! Remember at the beginning when I said we were awesome? That’s the self-talk I want to echo.

Getting back to the torus, there’s something else; the cycles, the opportunities for change aren’t actually discrete. We are always at the center of the torus, and it spins around us as we move forward—if we do. We can change direction at any time, at any moment. And to get from our current spiritual, physical, and mental location, our choice of direction is important. Imagine with me the condition of your life today, or of life in general. Then imagine where you’d like it to be. You might not know all (or any) of the steps that it takes to get there, but you likely know the direction. Because the context of the world we’re in throws blockades and hurdles in our path, our route to get there is likely going to need to be creative and circuitous. And the center of life is not some brilliant day in your past, however appreciable it may have been, and it’s not point B, some future for which you hope to arrive. And it’s not 2010 years ago either. Center yourself, center your life, in right now. The origin, the nexus, moves with you. When you turn, it turns, when you move forward, it moves forward. As time advances, it’s still right there with you.

If we attempt to follow the straight line segments with our torus, we’re not honoring the complexity in life. If we sit stagnant, or follow the same circular paths, that’s not going to get us going in the direction we’d like. And more often than not, the route that we take will wind all over the place, but the process will generally follow a vector that matches the direction we intend, especially if we take time to reflect, and then respond by changing our direction. To be still, to hear what the world is saying and make a change, here at the nexus, at the center of your spirit, is the one thing we can always do. May we all be so blessed in the year to come. Amen.

pax hominibus,agape to all,joel


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