The Ground of Being


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, November 6, 2022

We are in the midst of one of liberal democracy’s great civic rituals: the country’s biennial elections. Their stakes seem to be much higher than usual. In the past weeks, I have talked with more than few of you who have reported losing sleep about their possible outcomes. Pundits, politicians, scholars, and a great number of other people are fretting that, as Liza Featherstone recently wrote, “We are facing a political disaster with implications even worse than 2016.”

The journalist and statistician Nate Silver has sometimes described “politics as sports with consequences.” And while the Astros had an exciting victory–let’s hear it for the World Series champs!–there is a good chance that the teams which many Unitarian Universalists tend support are not going to do so well.

This morning, I want to offer you a set of spiritual practices that might help you find a little hope if your team loses and the times ahead prove difficult. They are: connect yourself to the ground of being; use your imagination; and commit to a community.

The ground of being, I wonder if you find this phrase familiar. Historically, many people within our theological tradition have found it to be more comfortable than a word like God. Our use of it is one reason why Unitarian Universalist communities are pluralistic. In congregations like this one we welcome theological diversity: some of you atheists or humanists, others are theists or neo-pagans or…

The Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka is familiar to some of you. She visited this congregation a number of years ago to speak with you about reconnecting with the ground of being. In her sermons for religious communities such as this one she likes to tell a story about the artist and composer John Cage.

You might recognize his name. He pushed the musical boundaries of the twentieth century with pieces like 4’33”. It can be performed by one musician or many. During its course, performers are instructed not to play a single note on any of their instruments. Some people think of the composition as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. That was not what Cage hoped he would get out of it. Instead, he wanted to listeners to attune themselves to the ambient sounds around and reconsider the exact nature of music. Was it only found in the pluck of a string or plunk of a key? Or was it the heart’s beat, the passing train, the bird’s call? Maybe music is all around us. We just have to learn how to listen differently.

A few years before he composed the piece Cage went into an anechoic chamber. That is a small, six-sided, specially constructed room designed to be, in his words, “as soundproof and reverberation-free as … technologically possible.” Inside it he anticipated hearing absolute silence. But he did not. Instead, he heard two sounds. The first was a high pitched whine, the sound of his nervous system. The second was a low throb, the sound of blood circulating throughout his body.

Hearing these sounds he realized that there is no such thing as pure silence. The sound of life itself–the sound of living bodies–is there for those of us who can hear it. The experience caused him to realize that he was connected to and part of the universe at all times. He was a sound making being in a world filled with sounds. He wrote that his time in the chamber prompted him to recognize the “world of nature, where gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained.”

The words might be a little challenging to parse. What Cage was trying to describe was something Thandeka names “cosmic consciousness.” This is a feeling of awareness of “life itself,” when we become aware that we are part and parcel of all that is. In the moments we experience it we connect with “life without end, joy without remorse, and an unbounded love” that comes from “the All of life.”

This experience of connection is available to all of us at all times. Sometimes it can be found when we sit in the quiet. Other times in it is found in the noise we make together. Can we get a collective moment of noise? Clap, stomp, make some sound…

We are sound making beings awash in a universe of sound. Thandeka has described the experience of connection that is found in such moments as “absolute dependence.” We are dependent upon life itself for our lives. This feeling of absolute dependence, this connection to the ground of being, is something that Unitarian Universalists recognize is universal in all human. Our path to theological pluralism comes from the recognition, in Thandeka’s words, that “all religious talk” “refer to this feeling of absolute dependence.” Christians might use the word God, Buddhists may choose Sunyata, pagans Gaia, and humanists the Universe. The words used are not important. What is important is that we all know that we are share this common connection–or better, we are this common connection.

No matter which team you are routing for on Tuesday, no matter which team wins, and no matter what happens, we can always connect to the ground of being. There are many ways you might do so. You could sit in the stillness and try to hear the sounds that you bring into the world. Or you could go and touch a tree, take off your shoes and socks, and ground yourself on the ground itself.

Whatever you do, I suspect that it will make you feel better. It will remind you that we are all connected. We are each a member of the great family of all souls, siblings of the same long dead star, star stuff.

Our theme in worship this month is, incidentally, soil. We are continuing along with our annual theme of roots and branches by considering precisely what it is that roots sink themselves into. So, today, on this Sunday before the election, we are talking, in part, about reconnecting to the ground of being as a way to get through hard times.

Reconnecting to the ground of being is the first spiritual practice I recommend. The second is opening yourself to the radical imagination. The radical imagination brings what William Morris called the news from nowhere. This is our visions of a better world. We each have them. They might be very simple: a place to live, clean water, clean air, good food, a little bit more beauty, and some work to call honest. Or they might be far more detailed: community gardens for all; trains instead of automobiles; and art everywhere.

Let me pause here and invite you to imagine for a moment or two. Close your eyes and get comfortable. If the better world, the “Great Turning,” we sang of earlier, came into being right now what would it look like? If after this service you were to leave this sanctuary and find that it had come what would you discover as you went up the street? Would there even be a street? What you see throughout the city of Houston? Would the homes look the same? The buildings? If you are working, what would your work life be like? Would you have the same kind of job? Would you be doing it in the same way you do now?

Open your eyes again. After the service, I encourage you to share something of your vision with the other members of our community, the people you live with or near, with… well, really any one who you think might listen. Sharing such visions is one way we start to bring them into being.

Whatever the outcome of the election, it will be important to remind ourselves that we still have the ability to bring the news from nowhere and that we can always put ourselves in touch with the radical imagination. The imagination is the thing that allows us to build bridges, craft temples, create farms, and shape wood into tables. The poet Philip Levine admits that the imagination can sometimes bring unpleasant things but, nonetheless, urges us:

let’s bless the imagination. It gives
us the myths we live by. Let’s bless
the visionary power of the human–
the only animal that’s got it–

One of the unfortunate consequences of living in a liberal democracy is that it tends to limit people’s political imaginations. We focus on elections. Elections have consequences. I have not said this yet but… if you have not voted already please vote on Tuesday. If you need help getting to the polls let anyone on the staff know. We will put you in touch with a volunteer who can drive you.

But elections… elections are only a form of politics. They are not all politics. The political is how we human beings choose to arrange our social affairs. We are engaged in politics anytime people come together to do something. And when we face injustice or when we want to do something to bring the news from nowhere we do not need to wait for elections. We do not have to limit ourselves to outcomes either.

As some of you might remember, I was for many years involved in labor organizing. It is one of the common misconnections in both US unions and amongst employers that unions require contracts if they are to improve the lives of workers. The myth is that to start a union you have to win an election at your workplace. Only after that can you negotiate with your employer. This myth sets up a dynamic where employers try at all costs to prevent unions from holding successful elections. If you have been following the news about Starbucks or Chipotle you probably have some sense of the depths that they will sink: intimidation, illegal firings, and unlawful store closures are all part of the playbook.

One of the things I would do with the people I was organizing with was to try and get them to think about unions, and thus politics, differently. You do not need to have a contract to be a union, I would tell them. A union is simply two or more workers cooperating together to improve their working conditions. This is true in both the law and actual fact.

I imagine that most of you do not know much about the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. It is the piece of legislation that established the legal framework for forming unions. In Section 7, the act clearly provides the full protections of US labor law to any group of two of more people who engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or mutual aid or protection.” I bet you did not come to church anticipating a bit of labor law.

The point of this particular piece of legislation, I would tell people I was helping to build a union, is that you are the union. If you get together with your co-workers and cooperate to create a better workplace you become the union. You do not have to wait for a successful election or the completion of contract negotiations. You can act now.

For years, I collected stories people doing just that. They were instances of people imagining a better life for themselves, a better work place, and then acting. A lot of the actions that people took were very simple. One person who worked at a pizza restaurant told me about how he and some of his fellow workers dealt with the poor safety standards in their workplace. Oven gloves were constantly an issue. Management refused to replace them until they were literally falling apart. So, most of the gloves were literally filled with holes. People burned themselves all the time.

The worker I talked with and his friends came up with a game to fix this. They called it “binning gloves.” At the end of every shift, they checked the gloves. If they were “sub-par” they would toss them into the bin behind the store. Their manager would try to stop them and insist that they continue to use unsafe gloves. But it is hard to monitor who is putting what in the trash and taking it out to the curb all the time. And at the end of a couple of shifts, the gloves were all so bad that they all had to go. Pretty soon there came a time when there were no gloves left. The managers did not know who had binned them all. And so, in order to keep the restaurant open they had to rush out and buy a bunch of new oven gloves. The tactic worked. After that, there always were adequate gloves. People started getting burned a lot less.

That is just one example of being the union. I have dozens of others that I might share with you sometime. However, what I hope you get from the story is this: the workers did not wait for an election or a union contract to address their problems. They found creative solutions that they could implement on their own.

I invite you to think back to your vision from earlier, your news from nowhere. I would like you to ask yourself a question. Is there some small action I can take, or I can take with a couple of people I know, to help bring it into being? You do not necessarily need to make a grand gesture. It might something as simple as binning gloves. There are many actions that we can take which will build a better world. And so many of them fall outside the realm of electoral politics. How might you think creatively about building our collective power?

Collective power… this brings me to my third spiritual practice. Do not go it alone. Join a group of others. I happen to think that, if you are not already a member, one of the best ways you can do this is to join a Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one. As an institution, we can come together and accomplish so much more than we can as individuals. Last Sunday, some twenty of us left here after the second service to go knock doors in Precinct 20. Together we knocked on hundreds of doors and talked with dozens of people about early voting. This was far more than any of us could do on our own. I am almost certain that it made a difference in getting some people to turn out to vote. Even if it did not, it was excellent practice for how we can cooperate together to build a better world.

Let me linger here for just a moment longer. I want to share with you a statement that one of the members of this congregation made to me a couple of years ago during an annual stewardship campaign. This person had been a member for a long time. In our conversation, I asked them why they had been part of First Unitarian Universalist for so long. They replied with a statement that went something like this, “When I was in my twenties I thought I could help save the world. When I was in my thirties and forties I thought I could help make a difference in the United States. In my fifties I imagined that I could have an impact on the state of Texas and the city of Houston. When I reached my sixties I realized that I was not necessarily going to be able to do any of those things. But, what I could do, is help sustain this institution,” meaning our congregation, “and that it could play a role in all of those things.” Then the member rattled off a short list of the accomplishments of First Unitarian Universalist and the Unitarian Universalist Association in the last several decades.

Being part of an institution like this one, cultivating the radical imagination and then acting from, and connecting with the ground of being. These are all spiritual practices that we can engage in no matter the outcomes of Tuesday’s election. They can sustain us for the course. Our institutions, this congregation, can help us remember that we are not alone and that we can organize together. Our imaginations help empower us to bring the news from nowhere. There are always small things we can do to make it a reality. And the ground of being…

The ground of being, the ground that is under our feet and beneath us at all times, can remind us–and help us experience–that great truth. We are never really alone. We are each a member of the great family of all souls, caught up in the love of all life, each contributing our sounds, our being, to the being, to the sounds of all.

May we always remember this and in our remembrances may we find the sustenance that we need in all the days of our lives, be they hard or easy.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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