Raise The Roof! A Benefit Celebration 12/14

 

December 14, 2015 celebration of  the season with an evening of song, poetry and jubilee raisetheroofwith Broadway’s finest and help raised $18,000 in to repair the roof and facade of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.

Featured Cast Members of Cinderella!  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels!  Aida!  Rent!  Wicked!  Fiddler on the Roof!  and MANY MORE!

 

 

Overcoming the “Gap” Between Compassion and Activism

While many will not agree with me, I defiantly believe that people are mostly good. Most people feel compassion (at least in some circumstances) and are distressed at the suffering of others (at least in some circumstances). Most people would like to see injustice erased from the world. But often, there is a gap between the compassion people feel, and the actions they take to heal the world.

People can shy away from activism for a number of reasons. We don’t want the label of “activist.” We don’t relate or don’t want to relate to people we associate with activism. We don’t have the time for it. Mostly, I think that people are overwhelmed before they can even convert compassion to action: the obstacles seem too great, and there is a nagging fear that if I dip my toe in, I will be completely consumed by the work to be done.

However, I truly believe that the world will not heal until those who are capable of compassion act on it. Here are a few reasons to overcome the “gap”:

There is no one “image” of activism. The word “activist” can conjure images of protestors in Guy Fawkes masks, violent clashes with police, or 60s hippies sticking flowers into the barrels of guns. But just because you do not relate to these particular images of activism is not a reason to write activism off altogether. Similarly, these styles of activism–which work for some but not all–do not need to dominate or define our understanding of what activism is. Activism as I view it is answering the urging of your conscience in a non-violent, loving way. It is an ongoing practice of honoring the great gift of compassion within you. It is a way of living. The way in which you answer this urging will be unique to you and may take many forms.

  • M, a writer, distressed by recent limitations on voting rights, writes letters to her representatives and sends in op eds to local publications eloquently and persuasively expressing her thoughts on the matter
  • L, an extroverted person who loves talking to people, is distressed by the scourge of money in politics and makes an effort to talk about it with the people she meets, even those who do not share her general beliefs
  • W, an artist, strongly believes in raising the minimum wage to $15. He paints a mural that powerfully depicts this struggle, and donates his graphic design skills to a candidate who has vowed to take up the cause

The common thread here is that after witnessing an injustice and feeling the call of compassion, these “activists” did something to answer it. Alternately stated, they did not feel the call and proceed to do nothing.

None of us can see the whole picture. There is a common tendency among highly compassionate and intelligent people to cave to the demands of cynicism, i.e., decide that it’s all useless anyway so why bother? These folks have done their research, assessed the situation, and deduced that every single action they might take won’t make a difference. Fie! Away with this pernicious assumption! Yes, things may seem that way, but until a human gains full omniscience of all that is and all that will happen, there is no justification for suppressing compassionate action on these grounds. People capable of compassion must act as though a just outcome is possible, because it certainly will not be possible if we act otherwise. And yes, I happen to believe that even our small acts of compassion alter the balance between good and evil in a powerful, if unquantifiable, way.

Activism is a life-affirming, community-building, world-view changing exercise. I do not equivocate when I say that compassion is an incredible gift, no less than the key to the meaning and beauty in life. To be alive and yet not use this gift–is that really living? When we live with compassion (meaning feeling and acting on it), we are truly participating in life: we open the door to a goodness that we didn’t even know existed. A deep aspect of this goodness is community. Bearing witness to suffering and injustice is an incredible burden to bear, and one that no one should bear alone. When we engage in activism, we connect with others who are also bearing witness, and who have also chosen to defy cynicism for the sake of compassion. In essence, we take a small miracle that has occurred within us and join it to the similar small miracles that have occurred within others. Such an experience has the power to change what we thought we knew about the world, to our most fundamental assumptions. Maybe it is good after all.

Taken cumulatively, the continual practice of compassion by people of compassion would be absolutely staggering, but even taken individually, actions do matter and they do count. The gift of compassion is also the ability to heal. So, take heart, activists! The good world awaits you.

 

 

How Much Time Do You Spend in the Human World? Finding “Thin Places” Amid the Hustle & Bustle.

I recently spent an entire weekend indoors. I was outside for a total of maybe two hours, but the rest of the time I was in the house cleaning, unpacking, and dealing with all manner of computer-related tasks: budgeting, financial aid, scheduling, and the important business of following what smart people have to say on twitter. By Sunday evening I was in an irrationally foul mood (I nearly had a tantrum when I lost a game of Magic: The Gathering to my partner, for one thing). I took to my journal to reflect upon my various discontents. No fresh air, no exercise, no creativity, and entirely too much internet.

In short, for two days I had resided solely in the human world.

Wait, but isn’t the human world just…the world?

I used to think that, and it took me a long time to wise up the fact that my assessment of reality at any given point in time is not the whole of reality. Aspects of my understanding may be true, but it is not the whole truth, and is often flawed. Society’s assessment of reality – from which most of us take our cues – is likewise partial and flawed. The judgements we collectively and individually bring to our experiences are just that: judgements. We have no choice but to participate in the world of human thought – this is where we grow together – but that world is not all that exists. There is a world beyond the last human thought and the last human judgement that is available to us too (the palm at the end of the mind?), and which is essential to our happiness as spiritual beings.

This other, hidden world is beyond the knowable. It is a world of mystery, of wisdom, of divine creativity that is acknowledged by most faith traditions and is readily available to us in nature, in music, in prayer and many other forms as well. It requires us to assume the awe and openness of children, and to leave our judgements at the door.

For the past several hundred years, this “other” world has not been very popular. Western thought has adopted a mechanical, anthropocentric outlook in which human thought is the ultimate indicator of reality (I think therefore I am), and even forays into spirituality quickly devolve into dry how-to’s. We go outside not as childlike witnesses to the beauty of nature, but because the doctor says we need to get our vitamin D. We exercise not to experience the joys of a body in motion, but because a study came out indicating that metabolism slows after twenty minutes of sitting.

Many of our most brilliant scientists are starting to move away from this model and towards a more holistic, cosmic framework, but the human-centered mold is hard to break, and too often spiritual practices are seen as just another means to material ends. In Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, which I am reading for a seminary class and which therefore frames spiritual practice in Christian terms, the author writes:

“It is hard to overstate how saturated we are with the mentality of popular science. Meditation, for example, if allowed at all, is not thought of as an encounter between a person and God, but as a psychological manipulation. Usually people will tolerate a brief dabbling in the ‘inward journey,’ but then it is time to get on with real business in the real world. We need to move beyond the prejudice of our age and affirm with our best scientists that more than the material world exists.”

Perhaps I am late to the party, but I just recently heard of “thin places,” which is a Celtic-Christian term for places where the veil between the visible and invisible worlds is lifted. Traditionally the term alludes to physical places, but I also like to think of it as a state of being, a state in which our preconceived judgements are lesser (thinner) than usual, and we are thus freed to interact with the divine. This interaction may take place in a wood, it may come in watching a spider weaving a web; it may be in singing or writing a poem, when the outer edges of the mind suddenly seem to mingle with divine inspiration; it may come looking fully into the face of another human being and seeing something of magic there.

I don’t want to tell you what particular form your encounter may take, but I do want to tell you that existing there, in that thin place, is nourishment for the spirit. More than that, it will make you wiser and fitter for the time that you necessarily must spend in the human world.

While I have avoided describing the other/invisible/thin world in overtly religious or Christian terms (chiefly because that would double the length of this essay), I absolutely see encountering it as a Christian (though not uniquely Christian) experience. The precepts I have been mentioning – of approaching the divine as children, of setting aside judgement, of praising and abiding in God who made and is in creation – comprise much of the work entrusted to Christians by Christ.

Whether you identify as Christian or not, or as secular or not, doesn’t really matter, because your status as a human being grants you access to not only the human world, but the other world too. Consider the following excerpt by Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town:

EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

Saints and poets stand apart from other human beings not because they have ditched the human world entirely, but because they have taken the mystery of the other world into the center of their being, and have oriented themselves around it. They live in a thin place. The “real” world does not suffer their loss, but benefits from the otherworldly wisdom that now lives through them.

We are all potential saints and poets. The divine has extended that offer – it’s up to us to take it. It’s not the sort of transition that happens at once, or which takes firm root at our first awareness. I have been awake to the existence of “thin places,” even if I didn’t identify them as such, for years, and yet I still sink most of my time and energy into the human world alone. I am at the point where I can start to regularly check in and ask myself if I am exercising my duel-citizenship as often as I should. It takes practice, but that practice is self-reinforcing: the more time I spend away from the human world, the calmer and abler I am when I come back. Compassion comes more easily. The call to justice is clearer. I can only envision a future wherein the beauty of the divine, other realm defines my experience of the human world, and wherein the same is true of everyone else as well. What a kingdom that would be!

An Exercise in Befriending (Tuscan) Yellow Jackets

Even as an avowed nature lover, the city gal in me is often unduly squeamish when coming face-to-face with fauna. Case in point, on a (very) recent trip to Italy with my sister Caroline and boyfriend Ryan, I was startled by the unexpected visitation of several yellow jackets at an otherwise perfect dinner at Salvadonica Vineyard, which was walking distance from our airbnb.

The perfect setting for a perfect meal (and the yellow jackets concur).

The perfect setting for a perfect meal, with or without yellow jackets.

The waitress assured me that they were “not aggressive,” and yet I attracted curious stares from our fellow diners as I yelped and fled the table where three of the yellow, stinger-donning insects had suddenly descended. Ryan likewise advised that I remain calm, and that my flailing gestures would only serve to enrage them, but I had a hard time letting go the visceral assumption that I would get stung, so long as they were around. Certainly they would, like dogs, smell my fear and go in for the attack.

Giorgio the cat.

Giorgio the cat.

I wanted to go inside, but Caroline and Ryan were reasonably unwilling to sacrifice the gorgeous views and caressing warmth of the outdoors, so I consigned myself to the situation. With a little wine and a little time, I started to realize that the yellow jackets really were not interested in me. Similar to Giorgio the cat, who planted himself at my feet to successfully beg for cheese rinds, they were allured by the food. They were persistent, yes, but could be shooed away and were certainly not intent on waging war.

Once I’d had my fill of cheese, I sat back to see what the yellow jackets would do without interference. I had really started to grow fond of them, in a way. Predictably, they went straight for the honey, two or three at a time.IMG_8524 Ryan had the brilliant idea of trapping them with a wine glass, to keep them out of our way. When they had had enough and were trying to get out, he moved the wine glass and they zoomed away, perhaps traumatized by having been trapped. At one point, a yellow jacket that got too greedy fell into the honey, unable to drag itself out. I took pity on it and fished it out with a knife, then laid it on the grass where it could clean off its wings.

They yellow jackets were fond of the wine as well.

The yellow jackets were fond of the wine as well.

Over the course of an evening—and a bottle of excellent wine—I evolved from an attitude of frantic fear to one of benevolent affection. I guess I can say that those laid-back, handsome little bugs taught me a lesson or two: try to understand, rather than fear, the “Other”; drink when uneasy, etc. But mostly I just feel grateful for the untamed essence of nature, which contains the ability to challenge us, teach us, and invite us into the web so eloquently described by Chief Seattle:

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.

Aside from conferring life lessons, yellow jackets are a helpful presence in the garden, where they eat pests (although too large a colony near the home can be dangerous as they will aggressively defend their nests). Other fear-triggering insects, such as bees, are crucial pollinators. By engaging with nature and its creatures, rather than fearing and distancing ourselves from it, we stand to improve our collective lot!

In that spirit, here are some resources for encouraging pollinators:


Info on native pollinators

Attracting Native Pollinators (I have this book, it’s great!)

Project Native’s Seed Catalog 

Ciao!

 

An Overview of Religious Divestment

This weekend I had the privilege to be on a panel called “Shifting Money, Shifting Power: Fossil Fuel Divestment and Alternative Energy Reinvestment as a Strategy for Confronting Climate Change,” presented at the 2015 Left Forum at John Jay College. I spoke about religious divestment, and mentioned the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew! See the video below.

  • Status of the Religious Divestment Movement: 0:00 – 4:38
  • Why People of Faith Feel Called to Divest: 4:38 – 6:53
  • Resistance to Divestment (As Exemplified by the United Methodist Church) & Rebuttals: 6:52 – 11:33
  • Reasons for Resistance & Support in the Jewish Community: 11:33 – 14:04
  • A Message to People of Faith: 14:04 – 16:52

The panel also included NYU Professor Lisa DiCaprio, who shared financial reasons for divestment, and Olivia Rich, an NYU student who is active with NYU Divest. Below, please find a list of resources related to the panel!