To Be Whole We Must Experience the Broken

Sun in branches DSC01449If I believe that all people, and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole, I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between all people and all beings. However, when I open to the whole, I experience more profoundly its brokenness, the ways we hurt each other and our earth, the ways we are not in harmony. It is tempting to retreat, to draw a circle around myself to try to achieve some sort of individual harmony and balance—but that would cut me off, into the brokenness of separation.

I realize in this tension that there can be no individual salvation. If we want to heal ourselves, we must be healers of our world. If we want to heal our world, we must be connected to all the broken people. We must embrace the broken to heal the broken. Relationship is at the heart of everything. So, to be whole is to experience the broken. To be whole is to be broken.

It might be too much to bear. How do we find joy in the midst of it? Always, I remember the sun. The sun shining on each being, the sun the source of all life on earth. When I feel the sun warming my face, I realize that I am connected to the sun. Each moment of connection can be a source of joy. Each moment of connection rings true to our deepest purpose. To be connected to Mystery, to each other, to the earth, awakens joy.

And the truth is, even our brokenness, our limitations, can become doorways into connection. We are all incomplete without each other. We each have just one small piece of the puzzle. Alone, all we see are jagged edges and random colors… and maybe all together we see just a jumbled pile of jagged pieces—but sometimes we catch a glimpse of the puzzle box cover—what we might become all together. That glimpse can fill us with joy. And sometimes, we find another piece that fits together with our own jagged edge. We have to find our joy in each moment of connection.

Our jagged edges teach us that we need each other. When I reach the limits of my knowledge or ability, it is a gift to reach out to another person, whose knowledge and ability might balance my own. All returning soldiers from the battlefield need the tenderness of others to find self-forgiveness. One day, when I was weary and sad about my recurring impulse to tell my partner what to do, my partner said, “I know you can be controlling sometime, but I love you just the way you are.”

We must embrace the jagged edges, embrace the broken pieces. Forgive and be forgiven. Ask for help. This is the path to wholeness. The sun shines down on all of us, each day, whether cloudy or clear, making no distinction between the good and the bad. May we return to the great circle of life, may we hold each other and all beings tenderly, for we are one.

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The Sun Shines on All

Reconciliation and forgiveness require us to seek out those whom we have hurt, or who have hurt us, to make things whole again. We must mend the threads of connection between ourselves and other people, between ourselves and the earth, between ourselves and the Mystery of life.

This is not easy work. It is not just big societal evils that we face. We also face the everyday betrayals and regrets. Self-forgiveness may be the hardest of all. We face the perennial faults that are unique to us, yet common to so many. We mean to be kind, but find ourselves cranky and rude instead. We mean to be supportive to a friend or family member, but feel judgmental instead. We mean to be honest, but tell little lies to avoid upsetting someone. We mean to be generous, but feel greedy about our pleasures.

Can I forgive myself the belief that I am right when I argue with my neighbor? Can you forgive yourself the angry words shouted at your child as you are trying to get out of the house to make it to school or work on time? Can we forgive ourselves the end of a relationship with a partner or spouse? Can I forgive myself for needing help when I don’t know how to face a situation on my own?

Sun and Snow DSC06016What helps me to forgive is to remember the sun. The sun shines down on all of us, each day, making no distinction between the good and the bad, making no distinction between when I am in tune with all my values, or when I fail. Its light is constant, never changing because of virtue or vice, but merely following the rhythm of the seasons and lighting up the blue sky or the gray clouds. Its light keeps shining, giving life to all creatures. When I remember that I am accepted as part of the circle of life, it seems easier to open my heart to forgive myself.

And if I am a part of the circle of life, so is everyone else. If I believe that all people, and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole, I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between all people and all beings. This is the heart of spiritual practice—to open our hearts to the larger whole of which we are a part.

How can we heal when we fail our ideals?

Gnarled Apple Tree DSC01742During the time when I was struggling with our failure to truly live our ideals, I read the novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks. The story is centered on the absent father figure, Mr. March, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and draws on the actual life story of her father, Bronson Alcott. Mr. March has gone off to be a chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War. He is passionately opposed to slavery. The whole family has been involved in the underground railroad, and Mr. March had lost most of his fortune supporting the work of abolitionists. So it seems unconscionable not also to support the military effort to free the slaves. He is following his highest ideals.

But Mr. March’s actual experience as a chaplain in the war proves profoundly disillusioning. The Union soldiers, his heroes, are often cruel to each other and to the former slaves who seek refuge. Many battles are ill-planned and disastrous, with horrific loss of life and injury and disease. Finding himself in a deadly situation, he lacks the courage to give up his own life to save the life of one of the slaves he has been teaching to read. When he tries to follow the abductors and help to save the other captured slaves, the mission ultimately fails, despite his efforts. Eventually, he succumbs to fever and is sent to a Union hospital, a broken and despairing man.

How do any of us heal from the despair that evil or failure can bring to our hearts? Sometimes we try to isolate ourselves from what is broken—to separate the good from the bad. For our ecological values, this might mean we decide to build our own zero-carbon home off the grid, grow all our own food, and stop participating in the larger society. In some religious traditions, it takes the form of identifying sinners and banishing them from the community of the holy. For others, it may be more subtle: we may be tempted to connect only with people with whom we agree, who share our values and ideals, and stop relating to those who seem to us, “unenlightened.” We imagine ourselves on the right side of a very great conflict.

But it is not so simple as that. Mr. March found that the people on the “right” side of the civil war were also broken, that he himself failed to live up to his own high ideals. How can we heal from the wounds of self-betrayal?

Near the end of the Civil War, after securing the freedom of the slaves, Abraham Lincoln reached out to the whole nation, north and south, to try to bring people back together into one community. His second inaugural address closed with these words for healing:

With malice toward none; with charity for all;
with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in;
to bind up the nation’s wounds;
to care for him who shall have borne the battle,
and for his widow and his orphan…
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace
among ourselves and with all nations.

Our brokenness tears us apart, but our healing must bring all of us together. Mr. March slowly finds his healing through the love of the people who care for him, just as he is. Marmee comes to him at the military hospital, and eventually he returns to his family, chastened, fragile, not whole yet, but able to be united to those familiar little women, his daughters.

Did the nation take to heart Lincoln’s words? A short time later, he was assassinated. Perhaps we are still living with the brokenness in our nation that erupted in the civil war. The divides between black and white, between south and north, between liberal and conservative, between rich and poor, still undermine our capacity to live up to our country’s ideals. I don’t have an answer to fix it.

But I believe that all people and all beings are connected, that the earth is a whole. That belief shapes how I can imagine a way forward. The way forward is always rooted in forgiveness. Forgiveness for the failures we see all around us, the ways that others betray the ideals we hold dear, and hurt and wound each other. And forgiveness for our selves, when we too are unable to live up to our values and ideals, which happens almost every day. Only when we can forgive, can we return to the dreams we hold, can we find wholeness, and receive a new start.

Forgiving the Broken

Apple Tree Fall DSC01738Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.
                                                                                           Louise Erdrich

One day, caught in the gap between my ideals for living in harmony with the earth and what I am actually able to do, I went outside to share my sorrow with the trees and the green earth. I want human society to be better than it is—I want there to be a path forward that is not so lonely and hard, so expensive and out of reach. I was in a painful, broken place. I sat down on a blanket on the ground, and looked to the four sacred elements of the earth for help; the earth, the air, the fire, the water. They were kinder than I expected.

The Earth said, “Forgive the people of your society. Don’t hate your own kind. They didn’t know the oil would run out. They were creating what seemed to be good with all this abundance. It’s not evil to use oil. It is evil to fight wars and oppress workers and sully the waters in your attempts to keep it and secure it.”

The Air reminded me that the songs of birds can dispel sadness, and awaken joy and beauty.

The Fire surrounded me with the warmth of love, and said these energy issues can only be resolved through your connection to the sun. All of our energy comes from the sun.

The Water said, “Weep when you are sad. Don’t always try to fix it.” And so I eventually came to a place of peace.

One of my ecological dreams is a “net-zero carbon” home that generates more energy than it needs. I’ve heard about these homes and the architects that are designing them. That would be ideal. But in order to be alive in this world, I need to forgive the messiness of what is, as it is now. I need to accept that human beings as a species do not live in harmony with the earth right now. We are broken off.

I am able to accept our brokenness when I feel the Sun shining down on us despite it all. When I feel the water claiming us as her own, the flowers blooming, the food growing, the birds singing. The beauty of this earth teaches me that there is something very good even in the midst of our brokenness. The next day, the newspaper had a story about green homes in New England. If I can expand my perspective, I can be joyful that some people are creating zero-carbon homes, that something is awakening among human beings that will lead to greater wholeness with the earth. I feel hopeful when I learn that the United Kingdom has a goal of all new constructed homes being zero-carbon homes by 2016.Apple DSC01750

Louise Erdrich quote from The Painted Drum, p. 274.

Trying to Find an Ecological Water Heater

When we awaken to a vision of living in harmony with the earth and other beings, we enter an in-between place, a place of increasing awareness of the brokenness of our world today. Our social and economic system was built upon exploitation of the earth for resources, and the options we have as individuals are limited because of that.

During one spring, Margy and I noticed that our hot water wouldn’t get hot anymore. We put up with lukewarm showers while we were trying to sort out what to do. We are always trying to make our home more easy on the environment, so we took time to research a lot of options.

Our hot water came from a coil in our boiler, and we were told that it would be quite expensive to clean out the coil, using lots of nasty chemicals. Did we need a new boiler? At that time, a very state-of-the art efficient new boiler would cost $11,000 to install. A boiler that used wood pellets instead of oil—even better—would cost $22,000, including an automatic pellet feeder. Well, we didn’t have enough money for either of those options, and our current boiler had some years left in it. Solar hot water is also expensive, and we don’t have a south facing roof, and we have a lot of trees. One company recommended heat exchange water heaters—they were about $3000 to install.

Water Heater DSC01555I also researched more traditional hot water heaters—we don’t have natural gas where we live, so that wasn’t an option. I lined up all the brands and all their energy efficiency. But I found that the ones that were the most energy efficient cost a whole more, for the tiniest fraction of greater efficiency. I did a whole lot of work on it, but eventually, we chose a standard electric hot water heater installed for about $1000. The good news is that we can shut off our boiler during the summer months, since it won’t be needed to heat water. And we have hot showers again. The bad news is that our electric bill will go up about $50 a month. So all in all, we might be using more energy than before.

I share this story because I felt so sad after our experience, so disappointed and angry that there weren’t good ecological solutions. Despite our values and idealism about how we want to live on the earth, despite how much time we put into research, it wasn’t possible to find workable and affordable choices. The options we have as families depend on what our society chooses do with its resources.

What Unitarian Universalists Believe

UU Chalice InterfaithI have found spiritual companions in Unitarian Universalism. Its  congregations now include people of many different spiritual beliefs: Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, pagans. We include people who believe in a personal kind of God, and those who believe in a divine force of connectedness between everything that exists. We include people who love the Goddess, and people who do not imagine any God at all. Sometimes people say that in Unitarian Universalism you can believe whatever you want—but that is not really true. Though we have many more diverse beliefs today as Unitarian Universalists, you could say we are still arguing with Calvin.

We don’t believe in a God of anger. We don’t believe that people are born evil. We don’t believe that our bodies are shameful. We don’t believe that someone had to die to appease an angry God. We don’t believe that God loves some people and sends other people to hell. We want to get rid of that guilt and shame producing kind of religion, that heavy burden people still carry around because Calvinism is so ingrained in our culture.

We do believe that Love is at the center of the Universe, and those of us who believe in a God, believe in a God of Love. We do believe that each person is important and lovable and that we are all part of one family. We do believe that we are called to live a life of service and compassion, and that human beings, however imperfect we may be, can make a choice to follow our values.

We believe in a democracy of spirit—that each person has a share of wisdom and truth and love. We believe in the importance of community—that we learn and grow most by sharing with each other. We believe that love is contagious, that we cannot find fulfillment and purpose without knowing that we are loved, and loving others. We believe that love can transform lives.

To believe in Love as the foundation of the universe is an act of faith. There is no proof, we don’t know in some objective way that love will win out over the forces of hate and greed. We have to make an experiment of it—perhaps that is why the Quakers could sing “Love is Lord of Heaven and Earth” with such conviction. They practiced nonviolent love in their doings with other people, and learned something of its strength. And perhaps we too have experienced something of its power in our times—those moments when gentleness transformed a heated situation, those historic movements when love crumbled oppression and brought justice into society.

To believe in Love, to make this act of faith, is to strengthen Love’s power in our world, to make it more likely that our relationships will be mutual and kind, that our society will bend toward fairness and compassion. May it be so.

God is Love

FriendsTo me, the statement that “God is Love” can evoke a person who stands close by through thick and thin, the friend who doesn’t run away when you have to go to the hospital, or when you make a big mistake. The one who doesn’t mind that you have faults, that you get cranky sometimes, or feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world. The friend who doesn’t mind when you get into a controlling mood, but just shakes you a little, and says, “relax.”

For many people, the image of a God who loves us unconditionally like a father or a friend is very powerful. We imagine God as a person because we are persons, and it can help us to relate to that God; we model it on our closest human connections. That is one way of understanding the idea that God is love. But for other people, that image of a person doesn’t work. To say that God is love means that God does not have to be imagined as a person who loves us. God can be understood as the very flow and energy of love itself: that energy that moves between people and connects us and empowers us.

Ultimately, it matters less how or if we imagine God, and it matters more how we are living our lives—if we are living in love, then God is inside our very living. And there doesn’t have to be just one image or one story—we might ask instead what does it mean that Love is at the center of the universe?

Of course, love is another one of those overused words that become hard to really understand. Love is based on the essential connections between people, and the sacredness within people. When we love someone we see the beauty in them, the gift of their being, and we know that it matters to us that they are alive. When we are loved by someone, we feel the beauty in ourselves, the gift of our own being, reflected in our connection to another. We feel seen. We feel alive in relationship to others.

Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed says that “the great insight of Universalism is that you cannot coerce people into loving one another.” He says,

No one has ever or will ever draw true love out of another with punishment. God’s love is given to all and is a more positive force for good than fear ever will be. Behind this is a simple truth: in being loved we learn to love. Those who are loved will in turn love others. Those who feel God’s infinite love within themselves will in turn feel so good about themselves, so connected to life and so full of compassion that they will not be able to help but to spread that love for they will overflow with it.

There is a traditional Quaker hymn that says “Love is Lord in heaven and earth.” Love wins. Universalism was called the gospel of success. When the Universalists opened the doors to heaven, that led the way to opening the doors here on earth. Over time they opened up their churches to expanding ideas of religion—they began to see that there must be wisdom and truth and holiness in all religions, and they reached out to learn from others. They were open to the wisdom of science and the blessing of nature. Where ever love was, that was holiness and truth.