“Living a Visionary Life”
Grow a Soul Sermon #2 “Dreamcatcher”
sermon by Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
September 22, 2013
This year’s theme is “living a visionary life”. So if I’m inviting you to be visionary, it might be a good idea if we discuss what the word means. It’s more than just a dictionary definition – being visionary is a way of life.
Being visionary is a little bit counter-cultural these days. How often do you hear a politician say they are making a decision based on how it will affect us 100 years in the future? Probably not often. For businesspeople, being “visionary” usually means being able to predict the markets a year or two in advance. As for our religious leaders: not only do we fail to think 100 years in the future, all too often we fail to even glance at our neighbor’s faith, if it different from our own.
If our leaders are failing to be visionary, small wonder it’s so hard for everyone else. We are increasingly focussed on today or, at best, the immediate tomorrow. We live a here and now life. This is quite dangerous. We know climate change presents huge risks 50 years down the road, but we are ill equipped to think that far ahead.
So to understand being visionary as a way of life we’re going to draw upon the wisdom of the ancients. This includes the ancients here in our continent, the Native American peoples. In doing so, we have to be a little bit careful – especially those of us not from Native American ancestry, as many of you are. Wisdom is not something you can pick up and take from another culture, like picking up a useful item and putting it in your backpack. You can’t just read a book on native american rituals, for instance, and expect to have native american wisdom from it. One of my people – a distant cousin of mine – is a guy by the name of Harvey Arden, a self-described “white fella”, who has had a calling, for the last thirty years, to interview elders of first peoples throughout North America and Australia. Harvey, a retired National Geographic writer, has written several books on this. But all of his work comes out of partnership with the people he interviews, he is a tireless activist for Native American rights and a new way of being in the world, and his interviewees allow him to be part of his work because they know he isn’t just trying to pick up a few tricks for his bag. He has a great story from visiting the Aboriginal people, in Australia. One elder said to him, “Oh, you want to learn about dreamtime, huh?” (dreamtime is a concept, related to connecting to the spirit, in aboriginal culture). The elder went on to explain how dreamtime is a precious thing, passed down from generation to generation. Dreamtime, the elder explained, like an heirloom gold watch, that doesn’t belong to one person but has a story behind it, a story you think about every time you wear it. And now you want to take it and wear it? No way. “Go get your own dreamtime,” He said.
Get your own dreamtime. We’re not going to magically discover how to enter into Aboriginal dreamtime, or any dreamtime that isn’t authentically us. To be visionary, we need our own dreamtime.
For this service I’m going to use the example of a dreamcatcher. You may have seen one before. (look it up online it you’re unfamiliar) This is a dreamcatcher, originally from the Ojibwe people of the great plains. I’m not revealing any ancient secrets when I tell you this. The dreamcatcher has become a very commercialized symbol, a nice thing to sell to tourists. he one I have actually came in the mail as part of a package from a charity I’d never heard of. I looked at the package for this thing and it said “Made in China”. So there you go. “The ancient wisdom of the Native Americans”, as processed by a factory in China. Funny world we live in.
But the basic idea behind a dreamcatcher is something that is deeply significant to the Ojibwe, and I think all of us, in our ways, from our own heritage, can draw some important meaning from it. In the Ojibwe, where the tradition of dreamcatchers come from, this is used to keep bad dreams out, and good dreams can come through this hole. Some other peoples, like the Lakota, have a slightly different take. They hold that the hole is to let bad dreams out, after you’ve dreamed then. And so the webbing is to keep the good dreams in, keep the good dreams with you.
I’m using this as a symbol here today, because when I talk about having a vision for your life I think the first thing many people think is that they’re not smart enough to come up with a vision. Vision is a scary word. “Visionary” is even scarier. “Who am I to be visionary?” you might be thinking.
Well, good news: you don’t need to come up with a vision. Vision is already out there. You just need to scoop it up, and then hold on to it. It’s like the dreams coming through the dreamcatcher. You just need to let the good dreams come through, filter out the stuff that isn’t serving your vision, and then hold on to the vision that motivates your life. You’re not creating vision from scratch. Your vision is already out in the world.
Now, I’m not saying that God is necessarily going to speak through the clouds and tell you exactly what you are to do with your life. You may remember, that’s what happened to Jonah (last week’s sermon). Sometimes, that does happen to people – they get a very clear individual calling, they just know their life is going to be about, say, helping animals in some way.
But if that doesn’t happen to you, I still believe this: the universe has something to tell you, if you listen.
If you don’t believe me on this, here’s a challenge: go out in the woods for a three day hike, don’t pack a cell phone or a laptop. I bet you, by the end of three days, the universe will have told you something. It might just tell you that your life is way too busy now and you need to stop and appreciate nature more. It may simply tell you that the universe is a beautiful place. Vision doesn’t need to be a doctoral statement, folks. By the end of three days, the universe will have told you something. (It may even tell you that you don’t like hiking – but it’ll tell you that in a more intense way then you knew before!)
So part of vision is widening the hole where the good dreams can come in. It’s finding the space for vision to enter. Making dreamtime, you might say. You can make dreamtime in any number of ways. I mentioned walking through the woods. You can sit and meditate for ten minutes. You can get vision from being with people you love. We saw in the storyi , where’d that man’s vision come from? From raising foster children. Incredibly hard work, heartbreaking at times. But through that heartbreak he was able to appreciate the beauty of the universe. It came alive for him.
So many ways to make vision. You can make art, feel the spirit come through you through writing or drawing or making music. I always love Keith Richards’ quote, the Rolling Stones guitarist: I don’t make this stuff up, man, I’m just a lightning rod. The spirit flows all around me, and I just grab it, and put it in my guitar. Just make the hole wide enough, and the universe will provide. And this is the place where vision comes from.
Now this is harder than it sounds. It takes discipline. This is what spiritual discipline is all about. For one thing, you’re busy. I know that, working hard to make ends meet, hardly a spare second, maybe you take care of family members, volunteer, etc. etc. I know many of you are very, very busy on a weekly, daily basis.
But the challenging of building dreamtime into your life is more than just finding the time. In fact, finding the time, believe it or not, is not the hardest part. The hardest part is that building dreamtime takes emotional and spiritual energy. After a hard day, you’re tired, you’re busy, the first thing you want to do is turn on the TV. Open the computer up and play a video game. I’ve been there.
We do this, usually, because it’s easy. And because we’re tired. And I’m not saying don’t ever watch TV or play video games, but I am saying: it takes discipline to avoid “amusing ourselves to death.” That’s a phrase by the communications theorist Neil Postman and I find it chilling: “amusing ourselves to death.” Because the truth is, TV and computers are great, I love them, but they’re not really where life is at. If you listed the 100 greatest moments of your life, how many would involve a TV show? Five? One or two? I’d be surprised if you said, “fifty.” To really live a good life, we need to muster enough spiritual and mental energy to do something besides just amuse ourself. We have to use this webbing – right? Say, well I’m going to do something a bit harder today – I’m going to make space for something more meaningful than just enjoyment. I’m going to listen to the spirit today. So this webbing is to keep out the stuff that, you know, isn’t really do us much good.
It’s hard. Ever wonder why it’s harder to sit and meditate for ten minutes than to watch TV? Meditation is just doing nothing, isn’t it? Physically it’s quite easy. Even mentally – you don’t have to think up anything in particular, you just need to sit there. But it’s hard.
I think it’s hard because we’re scared. Afraid of the dreamtime. Afraid that the universe may, in fact, have something to tell us. Because if we have a vision, that means we’re called to something, doesn’t it? You may know that Marianne Williamson quote: “our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we’re powerful beyond measure.” If we listen deeply to the universe, it may call us to something. It may mean we have to change. It may challenge us to our core. And who has the time or energy for that? So it takes a lot less energy to amuse ourselves to death. That’s a lot easier.
So I want to encourage you, even though it can be hard, to widen that space for visioning a little bit more. The place where visions come from is a deeply emotional place. It’s a place of deep joy, of wonder and awe – and even a place of pain. Our pain can be a source of vision.
You know, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has so many radical notions in it – blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek inheriting the earth, and so on – that one little verse I always skipped over was “blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted.” I never gave it a second thought – I always read it and thought “that’s nice.” You know, mourners getting comforted; it’s a nice sentiment, what we all want. But actually the verse is deeply radical, if you think about it. “For they shall be comforted”…well the most comfortable thing would be to not mourn in the first place, wouldn’t it? And here’s Jesus saying that those who go through the deep pain of mourning are actually lucky, because – get this – they get comfort. Seems a little backward. Surely it’s lucky not to mourn in the first place. But Jesus says otherwise. And I think he’s right. True life isn’t the avoidance of grief; nor is true comfort. When we connect with our pain, we are, in some weird way, more blessed than those that get to somehow avoid all pain in the first place.
My favorite book this summer was about visioning: a book called Active Hope: by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. It’s a hopeful book about climate change. And of course to be hopeful about climate change – if you have your eyes open – is not easy. It’s scary. But they start by addressing that – by acknowledging that many of us who are not climate deniers become “climate avoiders”. We say things like, “well, it’s all just too depressing. I can’t even talk about that.” As if being depressing is a reason for avoiding reality.
And one of the things the authors of this book say is that it’s ok to acknowledge the pain in your life. While it’s understandable why you’d want to leave it out, shutting out our emotions is not really visionary. In fact, it’s the opposite of visionary: our emotions can help connect us with our past and our future, and to block them out is to have an incomplete access to the whole picture. Instead, Macy and Johnstone recommend “pain for the world as a call to adventure.” Noticing the pain of the world is the beginning of the journey. It’s what makes it all meaningful.
How does your openness to your own emotional life become vision? It’s a complicated process, one I don’t understand fully. I’ll give you an example to show how complicated. Your vision from your life could stem, in part, from your grandmother’s being taunted while walking down the sidewalk when she was six years old. She could have resolved, out of that pain, never to treat another human being like that. You may not even know that story of your grandmother’s – but you do know her fierce compassion, the way she looks you in the eye and sees who you are, and loves you. And in your own awareness that could inspire you to a life of caring.
That’s just one example, but really what’s important is that if you truly take the time to listen, the process will likely take care of itself. The kind of things the universe has to tell us are not abstract facts. They contain the seeds of motivation within them. And our listen is not a neutral “objective” taking in. Our listening will naturally stir us to action.
So that’s good news, right? All you have to do is listen, deeply listen, and the process of visioning will take hold of, too. I have more good news: this process of visioning is where real life, full life, is really happening.
Macy and Johnstone, in their work on crafting a vision in our time of ecological destruction, caution about a word that we often use when talking about living in a new, more ecologically visionary way. And that’s the word “sacrifice”.
Now, sacrifice can be an important thing. As a parent, I understand that sacrifice is a part of our call. Hanging out with my friends every Friday night isn’t going to happen any more. But we tend to equate sacrifice with drudgery, and that’s dead wrong. I mean there are boring parents to being a parent, sure there are, and a great many difficult parts, but on the whole it’s as far from drudgery as you can get. It’s an amazing, awe-inspiring experience. It’s transformational to my very core. It has made me who I am, and I love it.
Similarly, living with any kind of vision can be hard. Certainly, being environmentally responsible isn’t easy. But it’s far from drudgery – it’s actually an amazing adventure. Rather than “giving something up” to live with integrity, we’re actually stepping into a deeper, fuller life. Blessed are those who simplify, for they have the fullest life imaginable. Blessed are those who strive, because theirs is the true comfort. Blessed are those who give up stuff, because their life is the life of abundance. Blessed are those who connect with their pain, for they shall know true comfort.
We’re being invited to a deeper, fuller life. All we need to do is listen. All we need to do is let our dreams in, and the universe will handle the rest. Give it a try.
Blessed be, Amen.
i(a reading from A House for Hope, by Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, Chapter 2. Parker was relating talking to a man about paradise while riding through a bucolic scene. The man had related how he was a foster parent, the deep pain and great joy of it. They both agreed that paradise was right outside the window. “You know that because you care for children,” Parker told him. He agreed – he saw beauty in the here and now because he knew his own heartbreak as well as the depth of love in the world. Recommended book, get it from: