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Facing the Facts (Or Not) – 9/25/2016

In 1633, the Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei, was summoned to Rome by the Inquisition to defend himself against the charge of heresy. He stood accused of holding Copernican views – the then quite radical idea that the earth revolves around the sun – and of trying to convince others of this same position through his writings. In Europe in the 1630s, this was a very serious crime – the church still taught then that the sun revolved around the earth, and the contradiction of that doctrine could be answered with imprisonment, or even death.

Of this crime, he was convicted, and found “vehemently suspect of heresy.” Galileo was ultimately sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life, prohibited from publishing any further writings, and required to recite the seven penitential psalms at least once each week for the three years following his conviction. Even before he could begin this punishment, before he would be released from prison, Galileo first had to officially recant, declaring the view of the cosmos he had articulated and championed in the past to be both odious and wrong. This he did; in order to preserve himself against any further punishment, including the real threat of torture, Galileo declared before the court that the sun revolves around the earth, while the earth remains perfectly still. And so the story goes that once he had been released and his jailers were out of ear-shot, he made a small addition to what he’d said of the earth in court: “And yet, it moves.”

Each year, at our annual church auction, I offer up a sermon as one of the items for bid, with the winner to choose the topic I will reflect on or the question I will attempt to answer. This morning’s message is this year’s auction sermon, and its topic was chosen by Bruce Egan. A man of science and a person concerned with the plight of our planet and our society, Bruce asked that I speak to the observed fact of climate change and its steadfast deniers, but more broadly to explore where in us this impulse to stubbornly ignore compelling arguments comes from.

We’ll begin with climate change itself, the smaller of the two topics, being only a question of the survival of innumerable species of plants and animals and of human civilization as we currently know it. Globally, average temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, sea levels are climbing and deserts are expanding. Each of these things is a fact – observable, verifiable, and monitored closely by a vast array of scientific professionals and amateurs devoting their time and effort to better understanding the predicament of the world we share. If – as is almost mathematically certain at this late date on the calendar – 2016 proves to be the hottest year ever recorded by human beings, it will be the third straight year in a row that that has happened. There have never been three such record-breaking years in a row in the history of that record, but 15 of the top 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since the year 2000.[i] Our planet, on the whole, is getting hotter; there is no way around that truth short of dismissing virtually all of the data collected in an entire field of science, and to do so would be tantamount to dismissing the scientific method itself.

That this heating of our earth is traceable to human behavior is very nearly as certain. The consensus among climate scientists is that the massive amount of greenhouse gases we’ve added to earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, is climate change’s primary culprit. Again, that increase is measureable and well-documented; another fact, rather than a judgement or opinion. This means that we have, as a species, made the world hotter, that this process will continue and worsen for at least as long as we continue to burn coal and gasoline and other carbon-based sources of energy, and that the consequences for life on earth are vast.

Yet, not everyone accepts this, rejecting either the facts themselves or the rather straight-forward conclusions drawn from them. I feel I should point out that this denialism happens to be an almost-uniquely American phenomena; climate assessments rendered by the scientific community are largely accepted – if not always acted upon – in most other countries, particularly industrialized ones, and those most likely to be adversely effected by rising temperatures and sea levels. But the supreme self-confidence, bordering on self-worship, required in order to pick and choose amongst observable facts according to our own biases or preferences is not something that we as a nation have the monopoly on.

This past week, there was something of a kerfuffle as it was announced in the press that NASA issued a unilateral revision of the astrology’s zodiac, adding a 13th sign and modifying the dates associated with each symbol so that 86% of all people now have a different sign. Never mind that more than half of this is the salacious invention of media outlets more interested in drawing clicks than in covering the world of science accurately. NASA neither claimed nor wished for the right to redraw astrological charts. A NASA employee simple mentioned, on a blog intended to help children get interested in science, that the ancient Babylonians – who first laid out the zodiac – cut some corners in doing so. Because astrology is premised on where certain stars appear in the night sky at certain times of year, it’s possible to check these assumptions against the observations of modern astronomy – and the two simply don’t line up. Casually mentioning this – once again – verifiable fact, raised enough ire to almost completely distract from what ought to have been the week’s far more surprising astronomical news that Pluto has been found to be emitting X-rays.[ii]

I want to make a confession here. Those of you that know me will likely not be surprised when I say that I do not put much stock in astrology, or in any special connection between the motion of the stars in the heavens and events here on earth. But it is not a tradition that I’m completely ignorant of, and having known the astrological sign I associated with my birthday for the whole of my life, I am well-accustomed to it. The common personality descriptions associated with my sign – Scorpio – I happen to feel describe me fairly well. I consider its assignment to me arbitrary, but that doesn’t stop me from resonating with it. And certainly, if someone were to try to tell me that though I had always understood myself to be a Scorpio, I was, rightly, a Libra, I would not be open to their argument, no matter how solid their logical take-down of historical astrology. So though it has its origins in sloppy reporting, I can sympathize slightly with the folks who got caught up in all this hoopla.

From the significant (if passing) success of flat-earthers, moon-landing conspiracists, and the purveyors of the pernicious lie that there is any credible evidence to link the development of Autism with routine vaccinations – there would seem to be something in us ever-ready to ignore the facts before us. Bruce, you asked me to reflect on what the cause here might be, and I have identified three main factors in the rejecting of copious but somehow unsatisfying data. The first and perhaps most predictable of these is the motive for profit. As the great muckraker Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”[iii] This goes a long way towards explaining climate denial, at least among its chief proponents: major petrochemical companies have vested interests and deep pockets, and have bank-rolled media stories, junk science, and political campaigns all pointed towards countering or obfuscating the broad consensus among climate scientists.

Of course, it’s not only misinformation that materially benefits us that we sometimes cling to. Often it’s information that would be significant and useful to us that we struggle to ignore. For instance, the ratio of worker to CEO pay in the United States has become less and less favorable to workers over the last 40 years, and this is far from secret – it’s been analyzed, publicized, and discussed at length. The ratio currently sits at something approximating 300:1 – on average, it would take the annual salaries of 300 workers to amount to the yearly pay of a single CEO. Yet, when Americans are asked to estimate this ratio, their average answer comes out to 30:1, underestimating by a factor of 10.[iv]

There are at least two other major reasons beside personal gain for why we ignore facts: fear of the truths those facts point to, and the satisfaction of being in-the-know, of being somehow more clever, knowledgeable, or wise than those whose status is supposed to derive from their intelligence, learning, or wisdom. In addition, in our current society, I also see four more specific factors compounding this problem. The first is a mood of anti-intellectualism which alienates experts from non-experts and holds up a lack of expertise as qualification in and of itself. The second is a public discourse obsessed with false-equivalency: everything, it seems, must have a counterbalance; there must be an alternate side presented on every point, no matter how ridiculous or irresponsible that alternate side might be. Third, there is a sort of pre-sorting that goes on when we choose our sources of information, insuring that we will usually only have to confront those facts which complement our worldview, rather than challenging it. And finally, there’s the simple problem of complexity. If any society ever was elegant enough for one person to grasp all its crucial dimensions in full, ours certainly is not. No one can hope to be an expert, or even a well-informed lay person on every possible subject and issue. And again, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem if, as a society, we were not so mistrustful of experts.

Distrust pervades our society, in fact, and nothing is so likely to make one person less likely to trust another than the discovery that they differ in their most important conclusions – so that the stage of comparing facts seriously and critically with one another is only rarely reached. Yet it is the comparing and the testing of those things believed to be true that is completely essential to the project of science.

Oliver Cromwell once wrote to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, saying, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The American jurist Billings Learned Hand opined centuries later, “I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every courthouse, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States.” Less the extremely distinctive and colorful metaphor, this describes one of the pillars of the scientific method: a willingness to entertain the idea that one could be wrong in order to test and retest hypotheses and remain open to new evidence. “I can live,” said the famous 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman, “with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”[v]

The key, though, is not to mistake this principled humility for weakness in the face of delusional certainty. This problem is not unique to the matter of scientific inquiry – it also speaks to our own faith as Unitarian Universalists, which requires of us a similar discipline of humility in spiritual matters, and which counsels us explicitly to heed the results of science. This can, at time, leave us feeling as though we are defenseless, lacking the armor of theological hubris that any of the competing modes of orthodoxy offer to their adherents. But to seek the truth in the active presence of doubt requires strength. It asks of us a profound commitment, and as we live that commitment out it, in turn, makes us stronger – by the insights it offers, and the follies it frees us from making.

It is fitting, perhaps, that we began this meditation on fact and falsehood with a story that is most likely apocryphal: there is no contemporary record of Galileo’s ever having said, “And yet, it moves.” Still, the phrase does seem to have been associated with him even before his death; people, whether they’d heard the words from him or not, had by then already come to associate him with the plight of facts before the power of political authorities. In the short term, power has many ways to win out; but on a long enough timeline, the facts, however inconvenient or unpopular, are all but inescapable. Now that may seem a frightening reality – the truth is rarely all good news, and the implications of climate science are that we must, beginning as close to yesterday as possible, reorder our society dramatically to stem and resist its effects or else face an inevitable and far more dramatic reordering brought about by its unmitigated consequences. But the other side of that fact is the truth that we have, as a species, built something so vast and so complicated that it has fundamentally changed the nature of the world we live on. Having done so once, it seems undeniable that we have the capacity to do so again – it is only a question of whether we will face the reality before us, and put our strength and courage to work.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2016/jul/11/we-just-broke-the-record-for-hottest-year-9-straight-times

[ii] http://www.sciencealert.com/astronomers-discover-that-pluto-is-emitting-x-rays-2

[iii] From his book, “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked”

[iv]http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2014/09/americans_have_no_idea_how_bad_inequality_is_new_harvard_business_school.html

[v] From “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman”

Called Again, and Again, and Again – 9/18/2016

“Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” History records these as the words of the first telephone call. A one-way message sent from device’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was working in a different room of the same building. And the story goes that this sentence was not carefully formed or pre-planned with an eye towards its historical import. Instead, it was a spontaneous and somewhat desperate utterance, prompted when Bell had spilled some acid in his laboratory. Which means that the first call made on the original telephone – the archaic ancestor of that sleek device you most likely have right now in your pocket or your purse – was a cry for help. And that’s what brings us together, this Sunday and every Sunday – but, wait. I should explain a little bit more first.

My message to you this morning is the first in a ten-part series which will be spread across this church-year, from now until June, examining each of ten different sections of our congregation’s liturgy: the elements that together make up our Sunday-morning worship. Today, we begin with the Call to Worship. Why do we do it, each week? What purpose is served by my coming down off of the chancel and opening our order of events with some strange story or odd anecdote?

The answer, at its base, is a rather simple one. Some years ago during my annual Question and Answer sermon, I was asked about this and I explained things with a rather violent metaphor; after the service one of you came up to me and wisely offered something more palatable to replace it with. So here is the improved version: The service begins by tilling the soil, and eventually progresses to the point of planting seeds in the earth. You may think of the Call to Worship, then, as the moment when the plow begins to dig away at the dirt in earnest.

Each of the great prophets has some first transcendent moment, signifying the beginning of their intimate relationship with the Divine, and the start of their particular work trying to reorder the world according to what is right and just. Moses, you probably remember, has his encounter with the burning bush, wreathed in flame but never consumed by it. The voice from the bush gives Moses his mission – to liberate his people from slavery – but its first instruction is much more immediate. Moses is told by the bush to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. Even the beginning has a beginning, the preparation that comes before he even takes on the mantle of prophecy.

It’s a little less iconic these days, but the teacher Jesus has a moment like this as well. In the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is told that Jesus went to the Jordan river, to be anointed with water by John the Baptist, a prophet who lived in the wilderness and called on the people of the cities and villages to repent from their unjust ways. At the moment of his baptism, the three stories describe a dove descending from the sky, and a voice from on high announcing its pleasure with Jesus. The Christian Bible doesn’t really present any direct account of Jesus’ internal life, nor does it offer stories in which he argues with God – something of a major theme for other leading biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. This is what allows for the common orthodox interpretation of Jesus – incapable of being surprised or uncertain, because he is a being who exists beyond time. But I find the more human interpretation of the teacher far more compelling, in which he would be shocked by the sudden appearance of the dove and the voice, right along with John and the other spectators, just as awe-struck and disoriented as Moses had been by the burning bush.

In the story of Muhammad’s call as a prophet, he was alone, just like Moses. He had gone up into a cave in the mountainside above his city in order to pray and reflect. And then, the story goes that the angel Jabreel – Gabriel – appeared to him and showed him a few lines of text written in the sky out of flame. “Read” Jabreel commanded. Muhammad wanted to comply, but he literally could not; like most people in his place and time, he was illiterate. The angel shook him and commanded him again and again, Jabreel could not make Muhammad read what he could not read. So eventually, instead, the angel spoke words and Muhammad recited dutifully the first lines of the message entrusted to him: “Bismilllah al-Rahman, al-Rahim…”

Muhammad’s story includes an element that those of Moses and Jesus and most of the other big names leave out: the immediate aftermath of a prophet’s call. Muhammad comes down from the mountain shaken and disturbed by what he has experienced. It was profound, but also frightening, and when he sees his wife, Khadija, he tells her all that has happened and confesses his fear to her. He cannot imagine why a relatively unimportant man, such as him, should be chosen by God for a prophet and so he worries that his senses are false, or that some evil force is trying to deceive him. Khadija, however, listens to her husband’s story and believes him, and she offers reassurance, reminding him that he is a good and respected neighbor who deals justly in business and upholds his responsibilities to family. He seems a very wise choice for a prophet to her. It is for this reason that Khadija is credited as the first Muslim; she fully believed in and embraced the revelation that came to Muhammad, even before he did.

While these three episodes are ancient stories about singular individuals, their calls to prophecy share with our Call to Worship a sense of disruption. The ordinary, the familiar, and mundane are upended by something luminous. This is what the Call to Worship exists for: to call us out of our everyday, unexamined lives and into a different form of engagement with the world. Rather than awe and mystery intruding into the familiar – a common way of looking at calling stories – I would say that we, like every spiritual seeker who came before us in human history, simply have to be woken up to the wonder and majesty which already suffuse the world, but which we spend most of lives distracted from. The dove is always descending, the sky is always filled with words of flame, the bush is always burning – its just that we are only occasionally capable of noticing.

In his poem, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry writes about the numbing and dangerous nature of the prevailing order of things, and our duty to step outside it, to rail against it, and to try to see it change for the better.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

 

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

 

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

 

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion – put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

 

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

Yet, despite Wendell Berry’s matter-of-fact counsel, stepping out the conventional is rarely easy. The discipline of a spiritual practice can – somewhat ironically – help to overcome the gravity of the way things are. But it is still difficult, if not impossible, to break free of sheer practicality by will alone. For most of us, most of the time, we need some stimulus to jolt us out of the rut of the familiar.

Kurt Vonnegut, in the made of language of his invented religion of Bokononism, used the term ‘vin-dit’ as a name for an experience which is sudden, jarring, and odd in just the right way to push the person who has it into a sense of disorienting awe. When the protagonist in his novel, Cat’s Cradle has such a vin-dit, he describes it this way: “The room seemed to tip, and its walls and ceiling and floor were transformed momentarily into the mouths of many tunnels—tunnels leading in all directions through time. I had a Bokononist vision of the unity in every second of all time and all wandering mankind, all wandering womankind, all wandering children.” In that particular vin-dit involved a bizarre coincidence with a stone angel from a hundred years ago that was ordered but never paid for. Obviously, that level of individualized-service is not possible, gathered to guarantee, gathered together, here, on a Sunday morning. But that is the kind of experience we’re striving for.

The poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes about listening and waiting for that calling to come,

I have heard it all my life,

A voice calling a name I recognized as my own.

Sometimes it comes as a soft-bellied whisper.

Sometimes it holds an edge of urgency.

But always it says: Wake up my love. You are walking asleep.

There’s no safety in that!

Remember what you are and let this knowing

take you home to the Beloved with every breath.

Hold tenderly who you are and let a deeper knowing

colour the shape of your humanness.

There is no where to go. What you are looking for is right here.

Open the fist clenched in wanting and see what you already hold in your hand.

There is no waiting for something to happen,

no point in the future to get to.

All you have ever longed for is here in this moment, right now.

You are wearing yourself out with all this searching.

Come home and rest.

How much longer can you live like this?

Your hungry spirit is gaunt, your heart stumbles. All this trying.

Give it up!

Let yourself be one of the God-mad,

faithful only to the Beauty you are.

Let the Lover pull you to your feet and hold you close,

dancing even when fear urges you to sit this one out.

Remember- there is one word you are here to say with your whole being.

When it finds you, give your life to it. Don’t be tight-lipped and stingy.

Spend yourself completely on the saying.

Be one word in this great love poem we are writing together.

 

Which brings me back around to Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson. As I said at the beginning, the first phone call was a cry for help, that’s the same thing that brings us together, this Sunday and every Sunday. Not because that’s what the Call to Worship is, but because that’s what the Call to Worship awakens us to: the need for help, inside ourselves, and the people around us, and the very earth itself. We wake up on a Sunday morning, and we come to this place, so that we can wake up for a second time. And we answer the Call, each Sunday, by greeting each other, because now we are a little more ready to live together in spiritual community. Now we are ready to help each other, and ourselves.

The River In Drought, Or the Ocean in Flood? – 9/11/2016

One of the contradictions of life in a desert, is the crucial need for salt. Sweating in the heat causes the body to lose that essential mineral, and so humans and other animals have to make up for that loss somehow, even as they face the more obvious struggle of finding water. There’s a scene that addresses this in a movie from the 1970s about life in the Namib Desert in southern Africa. Although the film was marketed as a documentary, it’s clear the film-makers weren’t deeply concerned with accuracy and authenticity – so don’t take this story as fact, but here’s the scene:

One of the Saan people, the folks who are indigenous to this section of Africa, one of the driest places in the world, has a hunk of rock salt, but what he needs most is water. A monkey watches him taste the salt and recognizes what it is, so the man devises a plan. He digs a small hole into a termite mound, just large enough to wedge the salt inside. Once he goes far enough away, the monkey comes over to retrieve the salt. The hole is big enough for its hand to get into the mound, but one it has its fist around the salt crystal, it can’t get it back out again. This gives the man time to catch the monkey, help it escape from the trap, and treat it to all the salt it could want. The man is happy to share, you see, because now the monkey is very thirsty, and once the man releases it, it leads him right to a hidden trickle of water which it has been drinking from. First the monkey had no salt, and then too much. First the man had no water, and now he has the monkey’s.

Each September, we renew the cycle of our life together as a congregation with the Water Communion. Water is so essential to life on earth, it seems natural enough that this should be the symbol of our coming together into community. But this summer – which looks to have been the hottest ever recorded by humans – has been marked by tragic extremes of water. Drought, which has mostly just been a hardship for our gardens and farm lands here, has been deadly in California, as dry brush and rainless weeks let forest fires rage. While in Louisiana, an excess of water has proven just as destructive and deadly, with whole neighborhoods submerged, houses destroyed, lives forever changed. And this past week, the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota drew national attention as they confronted the prospect of an oil pipeline – now, thankfully, put on hold – which would intrude on their sacred lands, and, in particular, endanger their water supply.

We live in a world shaped by the extremes of too much, and not enough. Our country suffers from an excess of consumption – of food, of oil, of just about everything – yet, it also suffers from insufficient food, insufficient shelter, insufficient safety and dignity, for too many of us. The drive for more and more leaves us with less and less; of material things, some of us, but just as often of the immaterial qualities of purpose and meaning.

This weekend marked the official beginning of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims are commanded to undertake once in their lives, provided that they have the means and the physical capability to make the journey. That pilgrimage entails a number of rituals and ceremonies, several of which are drawn from the story of a woman who is called Hajar in the Qur’an and Hagar in the Hebrew Bible – one of many figures who appear in both books, and in both traditions.

This is the way the story goes: Hajar was left, alone, in the desert, trying to keep herself and her infant son, Ishmael, alive. They had no water left. She ran back and forth between two hills, searching the dry earth for water – very soon, the pilgrims in Mecca will re-enact this story by making seven circuits between the hills of Safa and Marwah; just shy of a two mile walk, all told. That trip once took place outside, but the need to ensure the safety of so many pilgrims has led to substantial innovation: today the procession between the two hills is made through a beautifully-appointed building, with wide hallways, air conditioning, and a special express lane set aside for the elderly and the physically disabled.

Hajar scoured the desert around her, but she found no water, and eventually she had to set her son down – perhaps because she had lost the strength in her limbs to carry him any longer. Once he was set down, Ishmael kicked at the ground beneath him, and where his heel struck the earth, water sprang forth. So much water, in fact, that Hajar had to spring into action to rescue her child from the flood. She called out to it, “Zome! Zome!” – stop, stop – and from this phrase comes the name of the well of Zamzam, another site visited by pilgrims making the hajj.

The close of this story is that while Hajar and Ishmael were alone in the desert for a terribly long time, just after the spring appeared, so too did a group of travelers. And Hajar, who had been so thirsty that she thought she would die, immediately called out to them, inviting them to come, and share the fresh water. She was not concerned about how much there was, or how many of them there were.

The hajj is a time of celebration in Islam. Beginning tonight, and stretching through most of tonight, it will have its apex in Eid al-Adha, which is Islam’s single biggest holiday. And this time of joy intersects this year with the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the day of suffering and violence that has so vastly effected our national psyche and the course of world history over the past decade and a half. For fifteen years, the predominant American response to an episode of profound unsafety has been an all-consuming demand for safety as an absolute, a guarantee. Fleeing from not-enough safety, racing towards too much, at all costs.

In her story, Hajar also goes from not enough to too much of something that she desperately needs. But her solution is not to keep scrabbling for more – she doesn’t keep digging for more wells after the first, nor does she hoard up what the ground puts forth. Instead, she shares what she has, as freely as she can. The earth is now too hot, and our civilization, too cold, for us to allow ourselves to be constrained and defined by too little and too much, racing back and forth between those two poles like the pilgrims between Safa and Marwah. What we need now is the determination that what there is is to be shared; without first counting the amount, or the number to be divided between. We must offer what we have to each other, and be determined to better understand one another, to overcome the fear of what we do not have, and the emptiness we already have too much of.

The Ground We Hallow By Our Meeting

This summer, during an outing with my family in Lynch Park, I came across an odd tableau. The rose garden on a summer afternoon usually has a fair number of people in it, wandering among the flowers, or children (sometimes my children) playing on the brickwork and under the stone awning. But on this day, the space was crowded with visitors, and all of them were…sitting. Some were chatting in small clusters, but most had their heads bent down, peering into their hand-held devices.

They were, as you may already have guessed, playing Pokemon Go, the hand-held game which had just been released a week-or-so before. The game (which, at its heart, is about collecting cute, cartoon monsters) depends on a form of augmented reality. Through the modern magic of your phone’s GPS, the game keeps track of where you are in the real world, and its special map has designated certain places therein as important to the game. You need to physically visit them in order to acquire useful items, train your digital pets, or find new ones. And it turns out the Lynch Park’s rose garden is one of these key locations – a wise choice for a place that players will want to visit in order to rise in level and advance within the game.

An unadvertised consequence of this game design – and the dramatic surge in popularity it had upon release – has been to put lots of different people who didn’t necessarily know each other before into the same spaces at the same time. It even provides some built-in conversation-starters: “I just caught Pikachu!” “How many Pokemon do you have in your Pokedex?” A game which – no judgements – was created by a corporation to be entertaining, and thus profitable has, as a byproduct, begun fostering interactions. And in every such interaction lies the potential, however small, for something holy to occur.

My mentor and childhood minister, the Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert wrote,

                We meet on holy ground,

Brought into being as life encounters life,

As personal histories merge into the communal story,

As we take on the pride and pain of our companions,

As separate selves become community.

Now, I can’t claim anything quite so profound as this was happening in the rose garden that day. I wouldn’t know – I hadn’t joined the game yet, worried about its drain on both my time and my phone’s battery life. But when I found out a few days ago that our congregational home at 225 Cabot Street is also one of the game’s special locations (we’re a PokeStop, for those hip to the lingo), that sealed my fate. I installed the game last night; I can’t resist an opportunity for transcendent encounters with the other people sharing this earth with me.

And I hope that you cannot resist such opportunities either, because this month, as we return from the summer sojourn to Sundays of worship at the yellow church on Cabot Street, I can promise you: life will encounter life. We will take on the pride and pain of our companions. Our separate selves will become community again and again, and we will put the strength we build together, towards acts of love and justice. I hope I’ll see you there.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

sunset

First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

Office Hours: Mon 8:00 - 11:00 am & Tue-Fri 8:00 am - 12:00 pm

office@firstparishbeverly.org

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