Basket weaving and growing the power of hope in community share some things in common. Both require preparation, structure, change, and repair. This sermon was written for the UUs of Fallston, April 13, 2014.
Some years ago, at an all-ages UU retreat, I was introduced to the spiritual practice of basket weaving. I thought it would be an easy break in between the workshop on Paul’s letters and our hike in the woods. People from age eight to eighty sat around the table with various kinds of ribbon, natural and artificial reeds, and coils of rush fibers spun into long strands. Such simple materials! The most complicated piece of equipment was a pair of scissors. What could go wrong?
The leader was an artist who worked in all kinds of folk media, like pottery and quilting in addition to weaving. She started with the twining technique of basket making. There are other ways to make baskets, such as the coil technique and the plaiting (braiding) method, but twining was a good place to start. To make a basket using the twining technique, we would take flexible strands, arrange some of them into a framework of spokes, and use other strands as weavers to bring the whole thing together. Finally, we would look at our creations and practice forgiveness and repair. In my first few attempts, I needed to practice a lot of forgiveness and repair.
Being an adult did not bring me any advantages in learning how to weave baskets. If you know any young people who have a rainbow loom, it will come as no surprise that children and youth are capable of beautiful and complex fiber arts. I hope the math teachers of the world are taking notice of how many eight- to fourteen-year-old people are spending hours of their free time thinking about patterns and showing great attention to detail.
I took four green rush fibers and four brown rush fibers to make my spokes. I laid them out on the table in a circle. They looked like a nice, round compass. I found a strand of rush fibers printed with a nice pattern and chose it for my weaver. I threaded the weaver in and out, over and under. Despite my experience with braiding long hair, I seemed to run out of fingers for keeping track of my project. The basket started to take on an oval kind of shape, like the old weeble-wobble toys from my childhood. I had envisioned this sacred, meditative process, but it was more like building a tower of wiggly blocks. Once again, the “practice” part of spiritual practice turns out to be key.
Even in my struggle, I couldn’t help but think of a song from earth-centered spirituality, written by Shekhinah Mountainwater. It goes:
We are the flow, we are the ebb
We are the weavers (and) we are the web
We are the weavers, we are the web
We are the spiders (and) we are the thread
We are the spiders, we are the thread
We are the flow and we are the ebb.
Here I was, connecting with people of different ages, weaving invisible relationships along with a visible object. Neither the container I made with my hands nor the container of community would be perfect, yet there is beauty in the flexibility, shape, twists, and mercy of weaving.
Looking back on that experience, I think twining baskets has a lot in common with extending the power of hope in community. We begin with softening, with preparing for a mission by cultivating flexibility. We work together to create a framework, a system of spokes, perhaps organized around a home base. We connect with the framework and each other, turning backward and forward. This would be impossible without changes in direction and position, sometimes leading and sometimes following. At the end of the day, we appreciate what has been created, we make repairs by reinforcing connections, and we find grace in the absence of perfection. Preparing, structuring, turning, and repairing are four steps in weaving baskets and relationships.
Preparing is the first step. In many cases, the fibers for a basket have to be softened to get them ready for weaving. That might mean soaking or even boiling the vines, branches, reeds, or rushes in water so that they can bend without breaking. Creation takes flexibility. Transformation begins even before the first connection is made. All of the fibers are prepared together, joined in a common process even if they don’t yet touch.
Spiritual journeys can also begin with this kind of softening. Seekers in all kinds of traditions— from Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges River, to Shinto practitioners at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine standing under a waterfall for the purifying Misogi ceremony, to Pagans who soak in chamomile water before a full moon ritual— many kinds of religious and spiritual people move through water as they prepare to receive new insights.
In this morning’s Time for All Ages story, we heard about John the Baptist, and of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. John did not come up with this idea all on his own. Judaism already had a ceremonial bathing ritual, and still does. John and Jesus both were calling their people to a renewal of the spirit, a more personal involvement with faith and a more evenly distributed network of religious authority. Here were the seekers, all gathered together on the banks of the river. Here were the leaders, emerging from among the people, practicing their faith out in the open without waiting for official channels. Immersing himself in water was an old tradition that connected Jesus with his heritage and with other people.
His experience of was new as well as traditional. Immersion loosened his grip on old ways of understanding and awakened his sense of relationship with the Divine. The one story in Luke about Jesus as an adolescent shows a guy going off on his own, acting like he was smarter than everyone else. After baptism and his subsequent 40-day retreat in the wilderness, Jesus is a connecter. He heals, he teaches, he gathers people and helps them to build a movement that outlasts him. All of that starts with softening, like reeds being prepared together in water for weaving. Preparation helps the seeker to find the flexibility needed to fulfill a mission, because changing the world requires us to be open to new ideas.
Here at UUF, we immerse ourselves symbolically. We drop stones in the water to represent the joys and sorrows we bring here each week. The significant events we name (or don’t name) are part of who we are. The water we gather every September, the water that receives our joys and sorrows, that’s us as well. The same stones represent sorrows one week and joys the next, symbolic of the transforming power of water. We change. We are changing. We create the container for change. We are the flow. We are the ebb. May the rituals of our community join us together, soften our hearts, and equip us with the flexibility we need for weaving hope.
One of the paradoxes of faith, art, and community is that we need to be able to bend, but we also need to be able to incorporate firmness. Structure, boundaries, and planning are part of the process just as much as inspiration, flexibility, and listening for the spontaneity of the spirit. In the twining method of basket weaving, some of the structure is provided by spokes, the fibers radiating out from the center of the base. The way you arrange spokes to begin with influences the shape, symmetry, and rhythm of your weaving. The structure or the spokes aren’t the end of the basket, they aren’t the goal, they are just the beginning. The purpose of structure is to make other things possible, not to create a perpetual structure maintenance machine. I am reminded of a passage from the Tao teh Ching:
Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub;
It is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges.
We make a vessel from a lump of clay;
It is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful.
We make doors and windows for a room;
But it is the empty spaces that make the room livable.
Thus, while the tangible has advantages,
It is the intangible that makes it useful.
(Tao teh Ching by Lao Tzu, verse 11, translated by John C. H. Wu)
We need structure and boundaries, yet openness is at the core of life and spirit. Baskets begin at the center of the foundation, and that’s also where we begin when we’re ready to start a new mission of hope. We think about what’s most important and what we need to accomplish our goals.
L. W. and I went to a meeting last weekend of congregations from the greater Baltimore area. Ours is just one of the new metro-area groups of congregations called clusters. Organizational meetings are not everyone’s idea of a great way to spend a Saturday in April, but we need the nuts and bolts work in order to create space for the movement of the spirit. In small group discussions and large group sharing, we were able to process our hopes and fears about working in a cluster, and we were able to outline the geographic boundaries, scope, and priorities. Participants brought up ideas like sharing an accounting service, doing leadership training together, inviting all of our middle schoolers to a board game night, or planning a local spiritual retreat. We were all commissioned to return to our congregations as spokes people, bringing more folks into the relationship. We can weave together the longings, the enthusiasm, and the talents of seven different congregations to accomplish more as a whole than we could alone.
The small group that L. W. and I were in took an inventory of the gifts our congregations could offer. We agreed that music is something we can bring, and that was true for two of the other congregations at our table. We came up with the idea of hosting a UU music festival here at UUF on our outdoor stage, maybe in the late summer or early fall. The house bands of three different congregations could play, including our own UU2, and perhaps some musicians from other congregations as well. It’s a very exciting idea, and I hope we go for it. Not only would the event itself be fun, the partnerships we would cultivate with other UU congregations would help us pull together support and wisdom from nearby, exchanging energy and ideas and resources with people who actually know us. We have an opportunity to create an opening if we’re willing to lay down the spokes.
In a spiritual community, the tension between structure and openness is constant. We need planning meetings and organizational methods, but it’s easy to mistake the maintenance tasks for the mission. There is a star burning in our core, one that anchors everything in its orbit. We are here to minister to wandering, hungry souls, including our own and those among us. We are here to comfort and challenge each other and our larger community as we make room for every spirit to thrive. A building, a leadership structure, a formal relationship with nearby congregations can be handy tools. The place of unknowing, the sacred circle we create with those relationships, is the part at the center that gives life.
Turning and Connecting (Weavers)
After we’ve prepared ourselves with immersion and flexibility, after we’ve laid down the structure that will support the mission, we’re ready for the twining. The fibers that run over and under and around the spokes are called weavers. Weavers turn, trading places, emerging and disappearing into the matrix of the basket. If strengthening the power of hope is a process of weaving, we need to be able to turn, to step forward or back, to embody the dance of transformation. Sometimes what looks like a new direction is a return to the pattern.
All of that is to say: I believe this church is at a turning point. We have an opportunity to try some things that are new to us, yet fit our pattern of outreach. I’ve been thinking lately about some of the turns our congregation has danced through, and the ways Harford County has shifted in the last several years. Our church’s commitment to relieving poverty and to building relationships with our neighbors has not changed. Our leadership has rotated, members are discovering new talents and passions, and we may have some new perspectives on the best way to pursue our mission.
Meanwhile, the economic profile of our community has more urban and suburban elements in addition to the historic rural elements. With the Base Realignment and Closure process that brought people to our area beginning in 2011, we also have more neighbors who are connected with the military. There might be ways we can reach out to our neighbors in keeping with how we have grown within these walls and how our community has changed.
I participated recently in an on-line conference organized by the VA Office of Rural Health and the VA’s National Chaplain Center. The training was aimed at helping clergy care for veterans and their families, especially recently returned veterans. People in general, and rural veterans in particular, are likely to speak to their clergy person as their first contact if they are having adjustment difficulties or struggling with a mental health issue. I’d like for us to be ready to help if needed.
One of the workshops was on “Building Community Partnerships” with Chaplain Steve Sullivan of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. Congregations and clusters of congregations are doing some great things to strengthen the web of compassion. Faith groups are serving breakfast to National Guard members on their drill weekends. Churches are hosting support groups and family communication workshops in places the VA clinics can’t reach.
I got to thinking, “Where can I find a group of people who are committed to serving their neighbors, who know something about the military and veterans, who have some training in physical or mental health, and who accept people with open arms, regardless of their religious background or what shape they are in? Hmmm.”
Something UUF might have to offer is a meeting place for clergy and mental health clinicians. When religious and mental health leaders have a chance to sit down and talk, some of the gaps that veterans fall through in their spiritual and emotional care start to close. Looking around, I suspect we know a few mental health providers. Through our congregation’s involvement with the Sharing Table and the church musicians who show up to Open Mic Night, we might know a few clergy. We have connections and a passion for hospitality, and I think we can use those gifts to benefit our neighbors.
Supporting military and veteran families could be a natural outgrowth of our mission to relieve poverty. Poverty is not unknown among these warriors and their families. We may already be assisting them through our involvement with the Sharing Table and Harford Food Pantry.
If we wanted to do more, we could sign on with the Maryland National Guard Partners in Care program, in which faith-based organizations identify what kinds of services and support they are able and willing to offer for free to any National Guard family, regardless of religious affiliation. Families might find pastoral counseling, emergency babysitting, or even auto repair through Partners in Care. Our friends at the UU Fellowship in Churchville have been in the program since 2008, helping families with food and supplies during transition times. Rev. Lisa said they have not been called to serve very often, but the program has raised awareness.
We might be at a turning point as we figure out the best way to pursue our mission as a congregation. You might be at a personal turning point in your spiritual journey. Sometimes a turn brings us back into the larger pattern. Let’s keep our weavers moving.
You have probably seen the bumper sticker, “Maybe the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about.” There is a way in which that’s true. We might try new things in small ways first, putting a left arm in or taking a left arm out. There are occasions in life for the intellect and occasions to lead with emotions. You put your head in. Notice when you put your head out, you open up your chest and your heart goes in and up. The dance can be about leading and following, sometimes taking a step forward and sometimes taking a step back. In the end, it’s about our whole selves, committing fully when we’re in, and knowing clearly when we’re out. Changing, turning, and connecting are at least part of what it’s all about. When this dance is over, we may find ourselves back where we started, breathless and joyful from the transformation that brought us full circle.
Forgiveness and Repair
The final step in weaving hope, before we come around to start over again, is forgiveness and repair. Most of us are beginners when it comes to hand-made baskets, to managing a congregation’s institutional relationships, and to strengthening communities. The work of our hands will not be immediately entwined with perfection. That’s OK. Baskets do not have to be flawless in order to be useful, and quirky communities can be containers for hope.
In my very first basket, I ran out of pretty weaver strands way before I reached the ends of my spokes. Now what? My friend leading the workshop showed me how to bend the spokes back into the basket, re-integrating the ends into the rest of the work. If there were any gaps or tears, add a little extra matching material. Tie extra strands together inside the basket, where it won’t show. Repairs are accomplished with extra connections.
Human relationships are the same way. Repairs are accomplished with extra connections. Clearing up misunderstanding takes energy. Reconciliation is hard work, and usually inspires some anxiety at least. We can start by forgiving ourselves and each other for not being perfect. Examine the broken places. Where is there a gap in the weaving? Where is the web of compassion so loose that the container doesn’t hold? Where can we make a turn and bring things back into the pattern? How do we create space in the center where the spirit can thrive? When it comes to forgiveness and repair in community, we’re especially looking at ways to improve the container for hope.
As we turn toward the next chapter in our weaving, we might look around and see if there are places that need repair. There may be water under the bridge among ourselves, or with another congregation, or out in the community; water we need to draw from and flow along with in grace. As Unitarian Universalists, we have both faith and reason to guide us on the path of healing. Let’s make the extra connections of forgiveness and repair so that we can go on offering the ministry of hospitality to all of the wandering souls within us and around us.
My inaugural basket might be described as kittywompus. The opening at the top is much smaller than I had intended. (Much like my weeble-basket, I’m coming quickly to a close here.) My friend said it looked like a basket used to catch fish, something designed to hold things securely. And it has. Over the years, this basket has held sacred stones, fragile keepsakes, and bouncy superballs. Very few things escape this basket by accident. My accidental mismatch of weavers to spokes resulted in kind of a neat two-tone effect near the mouth of the basket. Its flaws turned out to be features. The thing I like best about this basket is that it reminds me of a day when I sat in spiritual practice, side by side with children and adults, weaving community. Each strand is part of something larger. Our congregation is part of something larger. We are each part of something larger than ourselves. Connection is part of faith. May we go forth and seek connection. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.