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I first heard of Steve Lopez during my early days in California. Steve is one of the LA Times most prolific and profound columnists and I followed him religiously. We were living in LA when Steve met Nathaniel Ayers, a brilliant Julliard trained violinist whose career had been cut short by schizophrenia. When Steve met Nathaniel he was homeless and playing his violin beautifully on just two strings to earn tip money in downtown LA. Nathaniel had suffered a complete schizophrenic breakdown and later was living on skid row. Lopez was, forgive the pun, instrumental in getting Ayers off the street but not without a great deal of struggle.
I should note that paranoid schizophrenia is a maddening disease in every way. Moments of lucid brilliance often punctuated by dark voices and thoughts so dangerous that a sufferer can throw it all away. So it was with Ayers. Several attempts by Steve Lopez to get him help often went wrong at the last and most promising moment. But when he was lucid and the voices were those of his better angels Nathaniel Ayers could make magic happen.
Enter Robert Gupta, a physician turned first string violinist with the LA Phil. Steve Lopez had taken Ayers to a concert at Walt Disney where he heard a performance of Beethoven’s First and Fourth symphonies. Lopez took Ayers back stage to meet Robert Gupta. They talked about Yo Yo Ma, Hillary Clinton and the Dodgers not making it to the World Series. Steve Lopez asked if Nathaniel Ayers could take a violin lesson with Gupta.
At the start of the first lesson Gupta was more than a little nervous. In large part because Nathaniel Ayers refuses treatment because when he was treated decades ago, they used electro shock therapy, Thorazine and handcuffs and that scar has remained. So un medicated, he was prone to violent outbursts. He was in an agitated state as they sat down. Lost in the darker side of his mind, talking about demons and smoke and how someone was trying to poison him. Gupta admitted to be afraid, not so much for himself but for the lost chance he saw slipping before him. Somehow Gupta knew that if he started talking about scales and arpeggios and other forms of didactic violin pedagogy he would lose him. So Gupta started playing. He started playing the first movement of Beethoven Violin Concerto. And as he played he witnessed as the music washed over Nathaniel Ayers, as if he was in the grip of some invisible pharmaceutical, some spirit beyond the rational. His rage gave way to curiosity and grace. And Ayers picked up his violin and started playing. After they finished Nathaniel Ayers spoke with the same kind of passion and understanding as any of Gupta’s colleagues had in the Philharmonic. Music was his blessing and his sanity. (http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_gupta.html )
What made this story of salvation possible was the balancing act, Lopez and Gupta used with Nathaniel Ayers. Each learned early on that just the right amount of praise and challenge was necessary in order to keep Nathaniel playing and not breaking down. Indeed, the balance of medications when treating any illness but especially mental illness is absolutely critical to getting well. Our bodies and our minds act as balanced vessels for the purpose and love we want out of them and, as any holistic practitioner will tell you, you can’t get well unless you find your body’s balance.
What is true for our bodies is true for our lives. Because my beloveds I am well aware that many of us live lives of quiet, screaming desperation, in large part because we have been unable to balance what we value most with what we are doing with our lives; some of us working at a job we hate, to buy things we don’t need, for people we don’t like. Can you hear me? And if that is not you, you know someone who is like that. Or maybe your life is out of balance because you have a wound still not healed, a love unrequited, a burden unshared. This balancing act we call life is really not so balanced is it? As one of our small group facilitators put it “it’s kind of line riding a balance ball, we are continually adjusting our feet, our lives, our loved ones in order to stay on”. Children are over programmed, we are overworked and most of us would say underpaid. Can you hear me? Nathaniel Ayer is just a more poignant symbol for any of our lives.
Including mine. Just before I came to you three years ago, I was pretty out of balance. I was even heavier than I am now, and suffering from migraines. In fact, I was taking up to 2000mg of aspirin a day. When I developed a ringing in my ears, I went to see a doctor. She looked me over and said, “you are addicted”. “To what?” I answered in shock (ignoring all the usual suspects, food, alcohol, work). She said “to aspirin”. “To aspirin? That’s a thing? You can get addicted to aspirin?” “Yep” she said, “so we are going to start with you getting off that so we can rebalance your brain and body”. “No problem” I thought to myself. Yeah, it was a problem. By day two I was in bed with the shakes, I ran a fever for a week, I had nightmares. And slowly, very slowly I began to find my balance again. So by the time I was out here to interview with your search committee I was post aspirin but not post headaches. The migraines came on with a fury. I had one on candidating Sunday. My body was not done balancing yet. It would take three more years of anti-depressants (which work for me) water, supplements, exercise and a return to mediation under a spiritual director for me to find my balance. I still have a long way to go, but I know what starts in our bodies is only a symptom of larger balancing act we are all trying to keep up. And living with the insanity of this political culture isn’t helping is it? Thank God, we have each other and a ministry dedicated to both healing and action. We are one of the most socially justice orientated congregations in Unitarian Universalism and that balance serves as an inspiration for UUs all over the country. We are truly better and more balanced because we are together as UUs.
Our balancing acts are finely tuned. One missed payment, one missed appointment, one missed opportunity to make amends and it seems our world can fall out. This is why we are here today, to balance, to integrate our values with our actions, to make for ourselves a better life. I had a dream on Thursday night that we lost this building in a fire, and we, all 600 of us had made a circle around the ruins of our beloved church and we held hands and sang. I woke up crying. I can’t say why I had that dream but the holding hands was powerful enough. I realized that we are more than a building, more than a place, we are a people, Unitarian Universalists, whose values we inherit and cherish, we are truly Better Together as UUS. In order for us to keep our balance as Unitarian Universalists, as people, we have to set our boundaries and live our values. Because my beloveds, the only way we keep meaning in our lives, the only way we step into balance as a religious people, as spiritual people, is to do all we can to align our values with our lives. We can’t put off this good work until after we retire. You never retire from doing the right and good work.
Where do we start? We start, as the Stoics taught us 2500 years ago, to see ourselves as fundamentally broken. As Seneca wrote: ‘Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.’ We are worthy to be alive but we are, as people, all broken, (and this is the real meaning of sin btw). We are broken in wanting what we can’t have, to being who we are not, to achieving what we fall short of. All of us… even the most successful here in this incredibly privileged town… all of us are broken. The Stoics called this “eudonic adaption” and what that means is that no matter what we have or what we have achieved, evolution (ok, the Stoics didn’t know about evolution), evolution pushes us to want more, more money, more success, more food, more, more more… the grass is always greener is not just a saying, it is our essential condition. So to find our balance, we start by recognizing this reality; we always want more. (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Are of Stoic Joy by William Irivine)
Then? Then we start to act as if we live differently. We say hello to strangers with a smile. We give thanks for what we have, at every meal. We hold our children a little closer. We tell our partners we love them, even when on some days we don’t even like them. And we use our time as if this week was your last week to be alive. You take real vacations, real days off and you devote 10% of you time, about half a day a week to doing good in the world. Coming here. Serving. Helping others. Half a day. We go with the youth on a Midnight Run. We hop on the bus to Hartford to protest gun violence. We open up our hearts and our lives to strangers. To strangers. I tried to smile at everyone I meet. You know what? Most smile back. When I am on a back country road, I wave at cars approaching mine.
Our lives and our moral decisions, the really hard ones, will become more balanced with time when we strive to balance our values with our actions, with how we actually live in the world. Some of you know that Francis and I have decided to sell our big beautiful home at 1 Tulip Tree Lane. We loved being there. We poured money and sweat and love into that home. We hosted many events. But our lives were out of balance. Not just the money to keep the house, but the house was more than we are. People asked us if we are leaving you. No, we are not. We just needed to correct the imbalance in our lives. We are renting a nice little place up in Georgetown. We have cried every night for months and we will be stronger for it, better for it. Balanced for it.
Most importantly, we believe that our money needs to be in line with our values. This is the most effective way to rebalance your life. What is true for our time, is true for our money. Money is only power. A means, not an end. There is a lot to be afraid of in our culture; not enough money to face the end of the world, or the end of our productive years, or even the end of the month. But money is the best means for re-aligning your life, finding your balance in this balancing act we call life. 10%. 10% of our money goes to doing good in the world. Some to the church, some to the many causes we support and some, a lot actually to helping those in need who we meet. People ask me, “Should we tithe 10% to the church?” That is such a loaded question. It depends on how much you make and how much you need to keep and how much you value this place. But my answer is simple: Make 10% a lifetime goal. Start with 3 or 4% and work up. There are people who give 10%. There are many who strive for 5%. Most of us are around 2-3% for an average of $2000 a year. What is great about being here is that some of those with more wealth can help to carry the burden for those who don’t have that wealth. But for most of us striving upwards is the real answer to keeping your balance, for us a congregation to keep our balance. This year, I asked you to consider a 10% increase in your pledge because I know we have lost some of our biggest donors who having supported our church for so long have passed on from this earth. Now it is our turn. My turn. Your turn. We balance our values with our money. Look at what you spend on your life, entertainment, eating out, clothes, food. Where does this your most cherished spiritual home fit into that equation? I want you to think about that. Pray on it. Consider what we could do together. Regardless of what you give, my goal is that everyone gives something. We balance each other out, in all ways, we are blessed by the life we share.
Why can’t we live in the here and the now? Why can’t we hear the callings of our better angels? Why are our lives so out of balance? As the author Charles Eisenstein, wrote “our Ascent to a faster and richer world is a fallacy… Like the man walking to the horizon only when not arriving decides he should run.” (From The Ascent of Humanity)
Isn’t this enough?
What would our world look like if we simply accepted the blessings rendered unto us; to sustain us, to balance us as we grow into the world? But to accept the blessings of the sustainable, we need to consider what really matters most to us; is it the new car or is it being here. In order to achieve sustainability on our planet and in out lives, we will need to eat less, yes, but we will also have to love more, work for peace, stand for justice, teach our children. Sustainability is so much more than the plight of the planet; it is a spiritual endeavor, a way to look at ourselves as living on and on. In times like these, we might think the world is coming to an end, but that is not the reality. Paul Hawken in his book Blessed Unrest writes: “There is a rabbinical teaching that says that if the world is ending and the Messiah is coming you first plant a tree to see if the story is true….Inspiration is not garned from a recitation of what is flawed…but in humanity’s willingness to restore….recover….re-imagine….(I have said this before) wrong is an addictive story, right is where the movement is…” (From Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken)
My point here is not that we should be overwhelmed by the enormity but buoyed by the fact that there are millions of people in a million organizations like our congregation and a thousand UU Congregations around the world who are quietly and effectively working to sustain life. You probably all belong to three or four of them each. We can’t always see their work but they are there. And that is a sign that we are more blessed in this work than we might first imagine. I know that there are many in the non-profit world who would eschew my description of sustainability as Holy work, preferring more secular language, but the underlying ethos for this is clearly religious. We are doing this work for reasons far beyond our own needs… indeed as the Native generations taught, we are here to cultivate our planet for Seven Generations. Ours is Blessed Balanced Work.
We are in the midst of a Great Transformation, a seven generation shift away from treating our planet and even our church as disposable. I believe some of you here were in the first generation, I am the second, my children the third. It won’t be until my great, great grandchildren come to age in about 90 years that we may stabilize our ailing planet and understand what sustaining action really means. The point here is that as this “movement” moves forward, it will become more diverse at one end and paradoxically more united behind the banner of faith statements we take to be so holy; equality, fairness, balance, love.
Ayers is still not on medication. He and his sister, Jennifer Ayers Moore have helped to found the Nathaniel Ayers Foundation for the Artistically Gifted Mentally Ill to help children and adults realize the blessings of their lives in spite of the struggles they face. The foundation works in partnership with Annenberg Foundation and the California Endowment for the Arts to bring the blessing of music and art to those who might never get the chance. We all have a chance. As Nathaniel Ayers is quoted as saying, “there is never too little, there is never too much. There is just enough”. Blessed be. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Ayers