Free Your Mind and the Rest will Follow by Rev. Taryn Strauss

As part of my weekly spiritual reflection, I consult various oracles, and one of those is the Revised Common Lectionary.  This is a scheduled portion of scripture used by many Christian preachers to ground their sermon, resulting in a potentially synchronized message across distance.

I love the Revised Common Lectionary, because it means a mother in Kentucky and her daughter in North Carolina can both discuss the sermon of that week.

The more you come to know me, you’ll hear my longing for something like a Lectionary for UUs, so we might be theologically synchronous, at least in a small way.

I could not help but notice this week’s scripture passage focuses on leadership transition, from one prophet to the next, and all the tension and anxiety potentially contained in that transition.   I mean, sometimes the Bible really does speak directly to you in your time of need.

In this week’s portion, we have two partner-leaders, who are called to be prophets in a new way, performing healings and operating outside the traditional system of prophets, kind of like the Blues Brothers of prophets, “On a mission from God.”

Until God decides to remove the elder, Elijah, by elevating him up to -Cleveland- I mean heaven, leaving Elisha on the ground, nervously asking if Elijah will bequeath is spirit to him, but double it, a difficult request.  It seems Elisha is wrestling with his own legitimacy, though by the end of the passage he performs a powerful miracle in his own right and goes on to a smooth leadership transition.

Imagining this moment with you, where I would take on a new mantle along with you, I wanted us to consider our habits.

The patterns we have established as a faith community, and how in some ways, while we have found ourselves deeply resilient and dynamic, in other ways we have dug our heels into an old story or narrative of how things are done around here.

I want to invite you to consider, how on this fiftieth anniversary of the stonewall riots, we can be inspired by the queer community to release the habits that no longer serve us, to die as the poet suggests, and build a new world inside our bodies, in order to repair the outside world. To reflect on our habits, and transform ourselves, blooming how we must, wild and free.

The powers that be would have us become habitually accustomed to certain realities.

We must not allow forced incarceration of migrant children alone in detention camps to become a habit.

We must not allow criminal prosecution of women for exercising autonomy over our bodies to become a habit.

We must not allow white supremacy, the subjugation of women and the murder of transgender women on our streets to become a habit.

Some of our habits are toxic to us personally, to our ability to thrive, develop and grow.  The good news is, any habit can be reshaped, with time and effort.  Of course, not all habits are bad.  Some habits are life-giving, life-affirming, and enriching to ourselves and our world.

NY Times journalist Charles Duhigg, in his seminal 2012 book, The Power of Habit, deconstructs and analyzes a habit.

His framework is:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

MIT researchers discovered a neurological loop at the heart of every habit.  A cue, a routine, a reward.

For all of us, when our lives are upended or in crisis, habits can be a way of grounding ourselves and taking care of ourselves.  Duhigg does not necessarily acknowledge this, but I have observed this in individuals and communities, and in myself.

Now I may not know the fog of war, but I do know the fog of early motherhood of twins.  Birthing twins four years ago in the heatwave of a Manhattan summer was the most cataclysmic event of my life.  There was no way to prepare for the shifting tectonic plates of my daily existence.  Suddenly, I was on their schedule.

Eating, sleeping, and surviving only for their survival.  My life was not my own.  Trapped in a top-story apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone, I finally managed to escape one hot day, after the mid-morning nursing session.

Feeling strung out on sleep deprivation and shell-shocked overwhelm, I wandered up the street a couple blocks, and found myself at the 7th street donut pub.  I’ve never tasted better donuts than I did that day, for only 75 cents each.

The next day, right after the morning nursing session, I announced I was going on a walk.  Guess where I ended up that day?  The third day was no different.  The fourth day I became giddy, looking forward to my moment of bodily freedom, my chance to connect with the real world and remind it I still existed.

A couple weeks in I realized this was a full-blown donut habit, and I couldn’t reasonably sustain it.  I started to feel sluggish and my energy lagged a few hours after donut time, and I desperately needed all my energy to feed and care for twin babies.

I identified the cue:


then the routine:

walk up the street a few blocks, the very same way,

and the reward: donut!

So, I experimented with rewards.  What was my true desire?  Was it a donut?  I had donuts delivered- but it wasn’t the same feeling.  I took a walk outside, up to the park and back, but that wasn’t quite it either.  I found a new destination, a juice shop.

Every day, mid-morning, I took a walk alone, and I got a smoothie or a juice from the nearby juice shop, so I still felt like I was allowing myself a treat, only for me, not to be shared, and it was enough.

Perhaps it’s time for you to notice a habit of yours, something that you have used to get through a challenging time, and pull it apart?

This can help us in our personal lives, but I am interested, How do habits and beliefs transform at the macro level?

Duhigg offers a two part answer:

  1. Recognizing small wins
  2. Peer pressure

“It was in the late 1960s when gay rights organizations started forcefully campaigning against homophobia, but their initial efforts yielded only a string of failures.  They pushed to repeal laws used to prosecute gays and were roundly defeated in state legislatures. Teachers tried to create curriculums to counsel gay teens, and were fired for suggesting homosexuality should be embraced.

It seemed like the ultimate goals of ending discrimination, police harassment, and convincing the American Psychiatric Association to stop defining homosexuality as a mental disease-were out of reach.

Then in the early 1970s, the American Library Association’s Taks Force on Gay Liberation (of course it was the librarians!) decided to focus on one modest goal: convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from section HQ 71-471 (Abnormal Sexual Relations, including Sexual Crimes”) to another, less pejorative category.

The Library of Congress agreed to make the shift, reclassifying books into a newly created category, HQ 76.5 (Homosexuality, Lesbianism-Gay Liberation Movement). It was a minor tweak of an old institutional habit regarding how books were shelved, but the effect was electrifying.  News of the new policy spread across the nation.

According to Duhigg,

“Gay rights organizations, citing the victory, started fund-raising drives.  Within a few years, openly gay politicians were running for office in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon, many of them citing the Library of Congress’s decision as inspiration. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, after years of internal debate, rewrote the definition of homosexuality so it was no longer a mental illness-paving the way for the passage of state laws that made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.”

This is Duhigg’s example of a “Small Win.”

These days, looking around, feels like we are constantly assaulted by “Big Losses.”

In times such as these, it can be difficult to notice the Small Wins.  But people change their minds, and most importantly their behavior, because of small wins.

We must look for the small wins, notice them, and share them.  Allow the small wins to seep into the collective consciousness, and transform our thinking.

This is a time for noticing and sharing and telling the stories of Small Wins, because they can change everything.

The second way society changes its habits, is through peer pressure- the social habits that encourage people to conform to group expectations.  This is difficult to describe because it varies from person to person, but the habits of peer pressure spread through strong and weak social ties.

They draw their authority through communal expectations.  So you can see how society can become peer pressured into accepting widespread, inhumane internment of migrant children trying to flee to safety.  But to counteract this communal expectation, we can create a new societal habit in this area.  And it’s beginning to take shape.

Duhigg’s example of how strong and weak ties can propel a movement takes place in 1964, when students from across the country-many of them whites from Harvard, Yale, Michigan and other Northern Universities-applied for something called the “Mississippi Summer Project.”

It was a ten-week program devoted to registering black voters in the South, and it came to be known as Freedom Summer.

Many who applied were aware it would be dangerous, and it was, when a week after it began, white vigilantes killed three volunteers outside Longdale, Mississippi.

The threat of harm kept many students from participating, even after they applied.  More than a thousand applicants were accepted into Freedom Summer, but when it came time to leave, more than three hundred of those stayed home.

In the 1980s a sociologist at the University of Arizona studied why some people participated in Freedom Summer, while others withdrew.  The applications were arduous and complex, requiring multiple references.  He applied various hypotheses as to why some stayed home while others followed through, guessing at personal motivations.  But that hypothesis was disproved.

Then he studied applicants’ opportunity costs, figuring those who stayed home and husbands or girlfriends, but again, his hypothesis was wrong.

He had one hypothesis left.

Each applicant was asked to list their membership in student and political organizations and at least ten people they wanted kept informed of their summer activities, and by comparing memberships in clubs, he was able to determine which applicants had friends who also applied for Freedom Summer.  That was the answer.

The students were motivated, against the odds of violence and danger, by their social community, and the thought of losing the respect of people whose opinions mattered to them.  Those who dropped out, also did so with the support of their friends who were in the same clubs and sports and schools.

This knowledge is important for us in our summer of 2019.  It’s time for another Freedom Summer.

I will tell you I am beyond disturbed at the massive, state-sanctioned child abuse going on in detention centers.  I am looking for the most impactful way to help change the national conversation, or hold our elected official’s feet to the fire of this unconscionable injustice.  This may require a trip to the border, or another kind of action.  We are going to need each other.

This is why community, the strong and the weak ties that bind us, is so powerful in the face of horrific abuses of power.  We know now we can change our habits, we can change our lives for the better.

We can change our collective habits too.

Our habits do not have power over us, we have the power to change.  The key ingredient is this:

Proactive planning.

Make a plan for how you will change a habit that no longer serves you.  Visualize yourself changing the habit.  This is how Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps wins races.  This is how I approach a daily spiritual practice.

As we at UUCA take up this new mantle of ministry together, this new phase of leadership for our congregation and for Atlanta, like Elisha in the story from Hebrews, let our power and our spirit be amplified.  We do not have to do things the way they have always been done.  Not in our relationship habits, not in our individual lives, and not in our collective sense of how to do church.

We can be a bold new thing for Atlanta.

now I have a choice

repair a world or build

a new one inside my body

a white door opens

into a place queerly brimming

gold light so velvet-gold

it is like the world

hasn’t happened

bloom how you must, wild

until we are free.