2010-12-28

Then We Will Know How to Live

As the year passes away, it's a good time to remember that our lives are no less transient.

Consider the well-known passage from Psalm 90:
The days of our life are threescore and ten years,
Or perhaps four-score, if we are strong;
Even then their span is only toil and trouble,
They are soon gone, and we fly away.
Threescore and ten: this is the Biblically allotted lifespan (Methusaleh and other pre-Abraham characters notwithstanding). Thus British poet, A. E. Housman (1859-1936), at the young age of 20, looked forward to an estimated 50 more years.
Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
If we would celebrate the fullness of all of life, we will view with relief and gratitude that the separate identity that ego so ardently clings to does not have countless ages. What is ours to do is only this brief span: our three score years and ten, more or less. Our mortality reminded Housman that we have only this moment. He chose, therefore, to walk about the woodlands, to be present to the beauty that is right now.

Louise Erdrich (b. 1954) said:
Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.
Remembering death, keeping it always in mind, makes us more present to life.

“What a puzzle it is,” as Mary Oliver (b. 1935) said, “that such brevity . . . makes the world so full, so good.”

Scottish novelist, Dame Muriel Spark (1918-2006), wrote:
If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might was well live on the whites of eggs.
We know that "this too shall pass." This transience of all things is so clear, so undeniable, so obvious. If you publicly declare, “All things are temporary,” no one will argue with you. It’s a platitude, not profound, something we all know.

What would it be like to hear those words -- "all things are temporary" -- and hear them as revelatory? While we all know that all things are temporary, we don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements: if it’s not a house or a car, it's a job, or a promotion, or a contract, or a publication or a grant. Or we go after a prospective partner and hope to get married, and then we go after the vicarious achievement of having our kids achieve.

If "a belief" is, as American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) said, "a habit of action," then the habits of our actions suggest that, whatever we may say, we believe in permanence. We go after things with a desperate graspiness that says louder than words that whatever it is we're pursuing is real, valuable, permanent, and not just one more thing that arises, hangs out for a little while, then passes away. What would it be like live the truth of impermanence rather than merely know it?

Because all things are temporary, and constantly changing, then death is constantly occurring. The you that you were last year, or yesterday, or 5 minutes ago, has ceased to be: that person has died.

The original Star Trek TV show in the 1960s introduced us to an imaginary technology called a "transporter beam." "Beam me up, Scottie," became a familiar part of our culture. How does the transporter work? Supposedly, it takes your molecules apart and reassembles the molecules down on the planet surface: water molecule here, protein molecule there, and so on. This is done with literally fantastic rapidity. So, OK, now, think about this. If we had a device that could do that, then there’s no reason it wouldn’t also be able to take the pattern of you and assemble all the molecules for you twice. It could make two of you, or three, or four, or a thousand.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the episode "Second Chances" originally aired in 1993 May, that's just what happens. In the episode, we learn that eight years previously then-Lieutenant Riker, while serving on the starship Potemkin had "beamed" down to a planet. While beaming back up, some fluke space phenomenon, undetected at the time, had split the transporter beam. The split beam creates two Rikers: one appears on the Potemkin and proceeds with the career that leads to promotion to Commander and transfer to the Enterprise; the other rematerializes on the planet below where he manages to survive the next years outside of Federation contact. Eight years later, the Enterprise visits that planet and discovers the Riker that was left behind. Geordi Laforge investigates the Potemkin logs and pieces together the explanation. He concludes that both Rikers are equally real, for "both were materialized from a complete pattern."

So, if that’s what the transporter is doing -- following a pattern to make a “you” -- then isn’t the transporter beam, when it works in the normal way, killing you? It kills you in one place, and then makes a replica of you somewhere else.

Suppose I were to make an exact and perfect replica of you. Suppose I then I said, "Look, here’s a replica that will live on, so is it OK to kill you now?" Would you agree that it was OK? Of course, with a transporter beam, the replica is made a few seconds after you’ve been killed. But if the fact that I have made a replica of you doesn’t make it OK to kill you, then how could the fact that I’m going to make a replica of you make it OK to kill you?

Those are interesting philosophical questions, which I will not here explore. I mention this hypothetical Star Trek technology to call attention to a not-at-all-hypothetical fact of our lives: through the technology of merely being alive, we are continually being killed and replaced by replicas of ourselves. At every moment, you are killed and replaced with a replica that has most of your memories, most of your skills and habits, looks mostly like you, etc. The replica is not exactly the same because all these aspects of you are, after all, constantly changing. To be alive is to change, and change means the death of what was.

I often hear that death is a normal and natural part of life. Part? No. Death is the whole of life, the constant fact of every moment.

Every instant is another death. It is also true that there will come an instant not followed by a replacement replica. One day, the succession of replicas stops.

What shall we do about that?

Others have seen this intricate linkage -- a linkage that amounts to identity -- between life and death. They have experienced the liberation that comes with thoroughgoing awareness of death and impermanence. Grasping the fullness of death brings us to the fullness of life. German Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) found:
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.
Centuries earlier, French essayist Montaigne (1533-1592) urged:
Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.
In that freedom that comes from constant awareness of death, we finally dissolve those boundaries we construct between self and “other.” Dwelling there we realize the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things. By looking squarely at death and embracing it, we learn how to live. As American Buddhist Larry Rosenberg (b. 1932) put it:
We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually. [Living in the Light of Death, 2000, p. 82.]
Finally, in Judith Lief's words:
The best preparation is working with our state of mind now rather than thinking about exotic things we might do later when we are looking death in the eyes. It is better to learn to relate to death now, when we still have the strength and ability. In that way, when we face difficult circumstances, or at the time of death, we can rely on what we already know. [Making Friends with Death, 2001, p. 26.]
I think it helps us "relate to death now," to keep in mind that life is constituted by death. Maybe the transporter beam called Time will reconstitute your pattern in the next moment, and maybe it won't. Either way, the being you experience as yourself this second is gone the next second. Why wrap so much anxiety around whether or not a very-nearly-identical replica will supersede you? Why have any anxiety whatsoever about that?

When all that anxiety is cleared away, seen through, recognized as stemming from delusion and dropped, then, indeed, we will know how to live.

2010-12-25

Christmas Message

"Scrooge." "Grinch." The very words are wrinkly, shriveled, hard-edged – like the fictional characters they name. Grinch. Scrooge. The words and the characters are lonely, disconnected from community and nature, wrapped up in their forlorn pursuits of security and undisturbed quiet. They stand, or imagine they do, alone – alienated from the very Earth on which they stand.


I’m also thinking about what happens to Scrooge and Grinch. They who were asleep to the free treasures around them have an awakening experience. They wake up to a spirit of generosity.

Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, astonished that he hasn’t missed it. He is “fluttered and glowing. . . . laughing and crying in the same breath.” Alone in his room he cries out:
“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody. A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo there! Whoop! Hallo!”
He opens his window, puts his head out, calls to a boy below in the street, tells him to run to the poulterer's and have the biggest turkey at the shop delivered to Bob Cratchit’s. Scrooge has awakened to generosity. He is laughing, and shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ in the street. He’s giving large contributions to charity. People think he's gone mad -- and a kind of divine madness it is. As Dickens tells it:
“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.  He had never dreamed that any walk -- that anything -- could give him so much happiness.”
Scrooge has awakened indeed, and he is swept up in a crazy, joyous energy.


The Grinch, for his part, experiences, we can infer, dramatic physical bodily sensations with his awakening. His chest is so full it feels it would burst. It feels to him as though his heart itself is growing three sizes. With his awakening, he wants to give:
“And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light. And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast! And he – he himself, the Grinch – carved the roast beast.”
So I think about Scrooge and Grinch. And I remember that for most of the history of Christmas, there weren’t gifts. Gift-giving was not a part of Christmas. When some of the early Puritans in New England began exchanging a small token of regard, the church authorities scowled and discouraged it.

The spirit of generosity may sleep for a millennium or two, but it must awaken eventually.

Maybe there’s something about this winter season of long and cold nights that pulls at us with a tug that can be resisted for a long time but not forever – calls to us to respond with generosity of heart.

Or maybe there is something about the teachings of that young prophet from Nazareth that eventually, after many generations, compels us to give. “The kingdom of God is within you,” he said. (Or did he say “among you”? New Testament Greek has only one word where English has two: “within” and “among.” So we are left with the delightful ambiguity of whether our full and whole greatness and joy is centered within each of us individually or whether it blooms forth from community – among us -- when we gather together. Both, beloveds! Surely both!)

Or maybe it’s the story we keep re-telling about that prophet’s birth, about love being made flesh and dwelling among us. Maybe that’s what finally directs us into practices of giving.

For Scrooge and the Grinch, a dramatic awakening happens and it manifests in giving. The rest of us learn as best we can from their experience and from such examples, in life or in story, as we encounter.

The 1988 movie, Scrooged, puts the Scrooge story in a modern setting. Bill Murray plays Frank Cross (another wonderfully hard-edged-sounding name, less wrinkly but sharper), the mean, lonely, self-absorbed president of a TV network. In the course of the film, Cross is brought to an awakening, and, here again we see the manic ebullience that bursts forth when a heart that’s been long encrusted first breaks open. Cross walks onto the set where a live production of "A Christmas Carol" is being broadcast, and gives a wild, impassioned speech to the cast, crew, and everyone watching on TV.
“Christmas Eve: it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a miracle, it’s really a sort of a miracle because it happens every Christmas Eve. And if you waste that miracle, you’re gonna burn for it – I know what I’m talking about. You have to do something, you have to take a chance, you do have to get involved. There are people that are having, having trouble making their miracle happen. There are people that don’t have enough to eat -- people that are cold. You can go out and say hello to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say, ‘here,’ You can make ‘em a sandwich and say, ‘Oh, by the way, HERE!’ I get it now. And if you give, then you, then it can happen, then the miracle can happen to you. It’s not just the poor and the hungry – it’s everybody who’s gotta have this miracle. And it can happen tonight for all you. If you believe in this spirit thing, you, then the miracle’ll happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these bastards who says ‘Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud.’ It’s not! It can happen every day, you’ve just gotta want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it. You’ll want it every day of your life, and it can happen to you. I believe in it now. I believe it’s going to happen to me now. I’m ready for it. Ah. It’s great. It’s a good feeling. It’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time.”
The monologue above begins 5:53 into this clip:



Have you ever felt an imperative of giving of such clarity and ecstasy? You might have. Christmas can happen every day – a life of generosity and giving can be a part of all our days and years. But that kind of crazy energy must necessarily level out. That manic peak can’t be maintained. It’s not that the joy or the generosity has to go away or fade, just that it takes on a quality of abiding peace. For Scrooge, Dickens says, for the rest of his life “it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any many alive possessed the knowledge.” He always ever-after had the spirit of giving, but, if the fictional character is to be true to life, Scrooge must have settled into a calm lovingkindness in contrast to his  fluttery and giddy first day (or first week or first several monthes) after the ghosts visited. The Bill Murray character in Scrooged must eventually chill out a bit.

It’s like first love. When we first fall in romantic love the blood is fired with hormones and endorphins and adrenaline, and we can’t think of anything but the beloved, can’t sleep, can’t concentrate. That passion feels great. It doesn’t last, and that’s a good thing because even greater is the sustained and sustaining ongoing and slow ever-deepening love that exists between a couple, long married, simply enjoying together the morning newspaper and cups of coffee.

Are you at one of those ecstatic peaks? Have you been there and have moved through it? Have you settled down into a constant and abiding, peaceful and calm Christmas spirit that just rolls like a river: coursing unspectacularly through your life, and through you to those around you?

Or are you waiting, not sure whether to believe in what might happen?

Wherever you might be, you don’t have to sit around waiting for ghosts to show up in the night. Just give.

Maybe you don’t fully comprehend what that’s about – you don’t have to. If waking up doesn’t come to you as a sudden startling grace, then let it come gradually. Just give.

If you’re not convinced of the miraculous power of generosity, that’s OK. Fake it. Fake it ‘till you make it. Just give, and the miracle happens.

Howard Thurman has written:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
Scrooge had an ecstatic transformation. For him, it followed from visions of ghosts in the night. For others, it might accompany singing angels, or a clear star illuminating the interconnection and holiness of all things. As wonderful and transformative as such experiences can be, what really matters is coming down from that mountain peak to engage in the year-round daily "work of Christmas." It takes sustained equanimity and abiding compassion for the long haul to do that work, day after day with enduring love: finding those lost, healing those broken, feeding those hungry. An episode of hysterical joy at the aching beauty of each moment sometimes -- not always -- permanently changes a person. Scrooge, Dickens tells us, was among those for whom such an episode did effect a permanent change. He settled, it seems, into an abiding joy in a life of doing "the work of Christmas." Not all who have had such episodes get there -- and some people get there without any sudden profound awakening. Some people awaken very gradually and find one day that, although they cannot say when it happened exactly, peace, wisdom, and compassion shifted from "occasional visitor" to "frequent visitor" to "resident" qualities of experience, action, being. Such qualities increasingly visit and finally move in with hosts who simply do "the work of Christmas" day in and day out, as best they can, over the course of many years. The slow awakenings don't make for as riveting a story as the sudden transformations of Scrooge and Grinch, but the beauty and grace of the reshaped lives is as complete.

2010-12-22

Repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell"

Moving and important words from our Vice-President and President today.

You can read the remarks here:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/22/remarks-president-and-vice-president-signing-dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal-a

Or watch the video:


http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/12/22/president-signs-repeal-dont-ask-dont-tell-out-many-we-are-one

I'm very happy about this development -- even though it is tinged with just a hint of ambivalence. The ambivalence most comes to the fore, in my mind, when the President said:
"As one special operations warfighter said . . . .'We have a gay guy in the unit.  He’s big, he’s mean, he kills lots of bad guys.'  (Laughter.) 'No one cared that he was gay.'  (Laughter.) And I think that sums up perfectly the situation. (Applause.)"
Yes, this is a good day.  Yes, it is an important step toward justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation.

An even better day will be the day that we stop dividing humans into "good guys" and "bad guys."An even better day will be the day we stop imagining that killing lots of anybody is a commendable thing.

The real "dawn of eternal peace" to which Biden (quoting Eishenhower) refers will come when we don't have militaries at all: when neither gay men nor lesbians nor straight men nor straight women serve -- openly or otherwise -- in the armed forces.

"Force can protect in emergency," said Eisenhower, re-echoed by Biden. Yes, it can. But real peace, just as Eisenhower went on to say, requires justice, and, as Eisenhower did not go on to say, real justice requires all of us to develop the skillful means ("upaya," as the Buddhists say) for tending with care and concern to all human needs so that those "emergencies" that require violent self-protection never arise.

Some part of human aggression -- I don't know how large or small a part -- does seem connected with ultimately unhealthy notions about masculinity and sex roles and sexuality. Insofar as we now allow straight women, gay men, and lesbians to fight next to the straight men, maybe those old unhealthy notions about masculinity, etc., are eroding. And with that erosion, maybe we are becoming a people less eager to fight wars. That would be nice.

Is allowing gays to serve openly in state-sanctioned violence a step toward fairness? Yes. Is it a step toward eventually ending such violence? I don't know, but I would like to hope so.

I would dearly love to hope so.

2010-11-11

Armistice Day

It's November 11, it's 1918, it's Armistice Day, and I,

I would have no arms.

I would have no legs.

I would live in Europe, Asia, America, south and north, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and all the wide deep blacken blue oceans.

I would have no Western front.

I would name myself Peace Among the Nations.

Finally undisappointable,

Hanging over the beleaguered of nations like a happy gracious fog, I would

Penetrate everywhere.

I would weigh you down with uplifting serenity.

I would double you four times, Woodrow Wilson World War.

All ate of you, consumed by love, would have a thousand arms each reaching and embracing every dying soldier every wailing mother every broken-legged horse, enfolding them in doesn't-change-a-thing compassion.

I would have no arms.

2010-10-20

A Religion for Our Time

Sunday Service, 2010 October 17

SPOKEN PREPARATION

Let us prepare to worship: to ascribe worth; to shape with our presence, to embody in this community what has value. For we gather again, as we do -- again and again, week after week --to re-do, to re-set ourselves: for our hearts forget, and our minds succumb to distraction.
And so we gather this hour, to rediscover, renew, reaffirm, rekindle, and reclaim. “To rediscover the wondrous gift of free religious community; To renew our faith in the holiness, goodness, and beauty of life; To reaffirm the way of the open mind and full heart; To rekindle the flame of memory and hope; and To reclaim the vision of an earth made fair, and all her people one.” (David C. Pohl, SLT #436). For if we do not, no one will do it for us. If we do not, the vision will fade.

PULPIT EDITORIAL

The pulpit editorial lifts up one aspect of our congregational life each week. This week, I lift up an aspect of our shared congregational and Gainesville life. No, I don’t mean all the head shaking and muttering about three losses in a row. It is pride week here in Gainesville this week: the annual time when GLBT – that’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender – folk and their allies join together to celebrate diversity – to celebrate all the forms that healthy love can take, and to celebrate the different ways that gender identity manifests in different people. The symbol is the rainbow, and that is appropriate, for the difference of color are natural, and they are beautiful, by themselves, as well as taken all together.

 This congregation is a Welcoming Congregation. In 1994, we underwent a process of training and reflection to deepen our understanding of GLBT people and issues, to learn better how to understand and therefore to welcome them. That process led to our certification by the national Unitarian Universalist Association as a Welcoming Congregation. This Gainesville Congregation was the first Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Florida to receive that designation.

Ours is a denomination that proclaims that civil marriage is a civil right, and religious marriage a religious choice. I will marry you – in a religious wedding – if you and your partner are ready for it -- even if the state of Florida will not recognize any legal status of the marriage.

Full acceptance is the requirement of the time. A religion for our time must be one that stands on the side of love, that stands for fairness and equality. This is our tradition as Unitarian Universalists – it is our calling to be in the world a voice for acceptance and justice.
Therefore, many members of this congregation will be marching in the Pride parade next Saturday, October 23.

These are times of anger and confusion for many of us, as the news in recent weeks of bullying of GLBT youth – harassment so sever that it leads some of them to take their own life.
Let us remember and hold in our hearts the names:

-Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online. 

-Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., hanged himself after being harassed at school. 

-Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from the Houston suburbs, shot himself after coming out. 

-And 13-year-old Seth Walsh from Tehachapi, Calif., died a week after he hanged himself in his parents' back yard following a barrage of taunting and bullying.

Our support for GLBT people matters – by standing up for them, and standing on the side of love, we may save lives. The tide of hate and contempt must turn – and we must assume that it we who must turn it. Look for other UUs at the Ayers Medical Plaza, 720 West University.
The parade starts at 1:00pm and we’ll walk together 8 blocks down to the Bo Diddley plaza.
Please come and walk with us and stand together with us on the side of love, and be lights unto the nations.

STORY FOR ALL AGES

This story is called “Daddy’s Roommate,” by Michael Willhoite. (If you have kids, buy a copy – you’ll want to have it with its full-page illustrations).

My Mommy and Daddy got a divorce last year. Now there’s somebody new at Daddy’s house. Daddy and his roommate Frank live together. Work together on the house and the yard. Eat together.  Sleep together.  Shave together. Sometimes even fight together. But they always make up. Frank likes me too. We play ball. Just like Daddy, he tells me jokes and riddles; Helps me catch bugs for show-and-tell; Reads to me; Makes great peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches; And chases nightmares away. When weekends come, we do all sorts of things together. We go to ball games; visit the zoo; go to the beach; Work in the yard; go shopping; and in the evenings we sing at the piano. Mommy says Daddy and Frank are gay. At first I didn’t know what that meant. So she explained it. Being gay is just one more kind of love. And love is the best kind of happiness. Daddy and his roommate are very happy together. And I’m happy too!

OFFERTORY

The phrase, “A religion for our time” is the slogan of President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales. I introduce our offertory this morning with this reading from Rev. Morales:

“A religion for our time must be about wholeness, integrity, and engagement.  It must promote the spiritual practices that give us depth and insight: meditation, prayer, small groups, and music. 
It must touch our hearts as well as our heads. Our new religion must promote deep reflection, but it must never, never, become an escape from life or descend into navel gazing narcissism. 
A religion for our time must be prophetic. It must speak truth to power. It must raise a powerful voice against violence, injustice, racism, economic exploitation, and the destruction of life on our planet. A religion for our time is not afraid of power. It uses power. A religion for our time must strive to transform the world. Beyond this, our new religion must have a vision of a multiracial and multicultural future. It must invite people to come together in love to help create new world—a world of peace, justice, equity, compassion and stewardship of the environment. It must draw upon ancient and undying human longing for harmony, for beloved community, for bringing the kingdom of God to earth. You are called to be a place of healing and support. We are all called to be voices for compassion, voices calling our culture back to a sense of the common good. We must be moral beacons in a dark time—a time in which out of control individual acquisitiveness has wreaked havoc on our economy and on our environment.

“What are we called to be? I believe we are called to transform lives. We are called to be a force for compassion, understanding, sustainability and peace. We are called to feed the spiritually hungry and open our home to the religiously homeless. We are called to heal and empower people so that they can in turn help transform our world. We are called to teach our children compassion, understanding and respect. We live in dark times, times filled with hatred, injustice, prejudice, ignorance. Sadly, obsolete religions created for another time contribute to the darkness. We can be the religion for our time. We can lead. We can help transcend the religious tribalism that is killing people every day. You and I are called to shine the light of compassion, the light of openness, the light of acceptance, the light of justice, the light of truth. We can do this. We must do it. If we let the love in our hearts and our ideals of freedom and justice guide us, we can revitalize our faith, we can touch lives, we can change the world.”

That revitalization begins with you – your heart, your passion, your love and understanding  – and your financial support. Please: give generously.

READING

The reading that Ruth and I will share is a poem by Maria Carter. In strong words, the poet gives voice to the energy of anger, that that energy may turn toward building justice – justice for all, regardless of who they love.

“Protest Song” by Maria Carter.

Meredith:
This is a protest song.
For my brothers who mourned Matthew Shepard song
a watch your boy’s back in this our free country song 
he could be beaten and left to die in agony,
his blood on the hands of animals in Laramie
because the fear of love runs deep.
Love, stand up and protest
song for my brothers who fight like Brandon Teena, 
questioned about the contents of his boxer shorts at knifepoint, 
murdered by the sons of the fathers of the patriarchy 
in a surreptitious act of negligent police brutality
because the fear of the other runs deeper.
But not than this Love, 
stand up and hear this, 
love song,

Ruth:
Song for my sisters in Richmond, California
Last year in a parking lot, the community was informed of a
rainbow sticker on a car with a driver’s seat
With a female body dragged out onto the concrete
By a gang of young men who knew she was a lesbian
the fear of a love that turns to face that fear again
and stands up, love
I said, hear this, 
love song

Meredith:
song for my sisters who remember Gwen Araujo, 
a daughter and a lover and a woman, no matter who 
thought what about her anatomy at that tragedy 
of a trial, both of them, where four men again nearly went free
how clearly society can speak 
if you don’t fit in a box, you’ll end up in one. 

Ruth:
When I came out to my mother at 19
She said, thinking of you being with a woman
Makes me sick.
It turns my stomach
Like seeing something cut open on TV.
I said, Mom, my life is not televised
And what’s cut open here is my chest, see the way these truths nest 
together, sex, love, family, career, 
God, sex, love, politics, justice
sex, love, lungs, blood, tissue, muscle, heart

Meredith:
When have I chosen 

Ruth:
the arrangement of my bones and
the alignment of my organs?

Meredith:
When did I capitulate 

Ruth:
to an agreement in which you would dictate
The shape and propriety of my expression? 
I Protest.

Meredith:
I protest every injustice that is inflicted
Every heart that is restricted
Should make the apathy to which we are addicted
A little more conflicted, right?
I’ve been biding my time
And waiting on this rhyme to 
come out, come out

Ruth:
Like I did that day when I confessed to my mother, 

Meredith:
No, this is not going away

Ruth:
So look at me and tell me that I make you sick
When the love I’m asking for is the same you want for your clique 

Meredith:
And I don’t want to hear any practical advice
About how to talk to The Man, about how to shuck and jive
If I deserve equal protection and my rights are being shanghaied
Then why do I have to ask nicely, why do I have to apologize
For making someone else uncomfortable?

Ruth:
The discomfort we have felt looms
Every moment we consider that hospital room
Where we are not allowed to sleep by our partners’ sides
Where drug-riddled mothers give birth to unwanted children
While the adoption rights of two loving parents are denied
And I can spend the rest of my life with you

Meredith:
But no court in my state will recognize the truth

Ruth:
Of our union, without that little piece of paper.
So don’t tell me we can’t march on our capitol without a permit.
I’ve permitted this commitment to practicality to submit
My constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness 
to an infantile fear of authority
For far too long. 
So I will be there on Sunday, with my partner and my sign

Meredith:
Because Love is the thing that my God had in mind
When she designed this time for the reckoning of these crimes

Ruth:
And the change we ache to find at the end of this 40-year climb
Don’t tell me you won’t see my marriage in your lifetime
See that little piece of paper 
rock the foundations of the dispossessed. 
You’ll see it

Meredith:
You’ll see it

Ruth:
Stand up with me

Meredith:
With me

Ruth:
And protest.

SERMON

Religion is getting a bad name. The historic conflict between Muslims and Jews continues unabated. Sunnis and Shiites show no signs of liking each other; Catholics and Protestants face off in Northern Ireland. Fundamentalist forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam foster intolerance and ultimately violence. The ongoing genocide in Darfur has a religious dimension. Religious violence is part of our daily lives. The Buddhists have the best record of peace of the four largest world religions, yet in Sri Lanka even the Buddhists have wreaked inexcusable and racist violence upon the Hindu Tamils. 

Religious violence should not be surprising if we look at where religion came from. In early human life, competition between groups was intense. A raid from the group on the other side of the hill would threaten your food supply, destroy your shelter, and make off with the women. Competition fuels cooperation: that is, competition BETWEEN groups put a premium on cooperation WITHIN groups. If your group had good cooperation together, you could defend yourselves, and mount successful raids on your neighbors. 

That level of cooperation required strong emotional bonding. And that’s what religion is originally all about. Sharing together in rituals, enhances bonding and interconnection. Having shared stories about the origin of people – understood as your tribe – enhances bonding and interconnection. Sharing stories about the origin of your moral code bolstered its legitimacy and a shared behavioral code further helped bonding and connection. Rituals, origin myths, moral code, interconnection – that’s religion. 

We have religion because we needed it – a tribe that couldn’t generate deep tribal cohesion would not survive the violent competition of other tribes. So it’s no surprise that our human world continues to be beset by religious violence. From its beginnings, religion was all about group bonding of a good sized tribe, so that tribe could defend better and attack better. Yes, the world religions all teach peace, and the historical – or, rather, prehistorical, evolutionary -- roots of that are in the need to make peace with the others within our tribe so that we could better defend against or attack another tribe. 

Evolution, however, is a continual story of something evolving for one purpose and then being put to another purpose. Example #1: Back before there were land animals, there was an early form of what we call a lung-fish. It had a sac that held air. It was to give the fish buoyancy in the water -- it had nothing to do with respiration. Since the sac was there, it could be appropriated for respiration purposes, and it gradually evolved into a lung, allowing the first land animals. Building upon its inheritance, it transcended it and became a new thing on this earth. 

Example #2: The early ancestors of the bat could not fly. They had a little webbing between the fingers in order to catch flies better. The webbing’s original purpose had nothing to do with what then happened: that webbing allowed the animal to take flight. Building upon its inheritance, it transcended it and became a new thing on this earth. 

And here we are: homo religioso – hardwired to be religious. We inherit this brain that evolution has built to respond to rituals and stories, shared moral understanding – this brain that uses those rituals, stories, and morality to form fierce loyalty to our tribe. We can try to cut that out of ourselves. We can try to suppress and excise the religious impulse, attempt to destroy a part of who we are. It’s not rational, we might say. Music isn’t either. You could suppress and deny and try to eliminate the part of you gets any pleasure from music. You might even succeed, if you worked at it long enough. But you would have diminished life, not enhanced it. 

The brain circuitry that orients us to bond with one another through religion, that orients us to live in peace within our group: that circuitry is available for being universalized beyond our group. The sense of interconnection that evolved to unite our tribe is available to unite our planet. Building upon our inheritance, we can transcend it and become a new thing on this earth. 

Our spiritual perception can plumb more deeply, can see more than just what selective pressures once needed our ancestors to see. We can train awareness to know, more thoroughly, fully, richly, than cognition alone can know, that all humans are us, all sentient beings are us; all bugs and plants, all amoebas, paramecia, bacteria, and fungi are us; all rocks and dirt, rivers and oceans; air and fire; sun, moon, and stars are us. 

Such a religion – a religion of tolerance, of acceptance, of welcome – a religion of empathy and understanding even for people with religions that remain narrowly tribal – this is the religion for our time. This is Unitarian Universalism. It is the faith that we have been practicing and living, increasingly so over the last century. 

I see that professor Harvey Cox’s new book, The Future of Faith, predicts that Fundamentalism will die off. He says religious movements in the future will abandon creeds, seek justice, support democracy, cultivate small groups, and become less regional, less parochial, less dogmatic, and less patriarchal. That would be nice. I’m not holding my breath, but where professor Cox and I do agree is that this is, indeed, the kind of religion we most need today. Whether we as a species are really headed that way within the lifespan of a baby born today . . . that’s up to us. We are the religion for our time: it’s up to us to bring it to the world. 

The religion for our time must no longer be belief-centric, putting beliefs – creeds, dogma, doctrine – at the center. The religion for our time understands that what religion is about is three things:

(1) Religion is about how you live, the ethics and values that guide your life. 
(2) It’s about coming together with others and sharing in rituals that bond us together. 
(3) It’s about the experiences of awe, and wonder, and beauty; about those moments when the ego defenses fall away and the fundamental oneness of all things is suddenly so clear. 

And a congregation, a denomination, a faith tradition is for bringing those three things together in such a way that each one reinforces the other two. 

The religion for our time is us: open to the great spiritual gifts of other traditions, yet having a clear tradition of our own from William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Hosea Ballou, and courageous and thoughtful women and men who have kept alive through the centuries this conversation that constitutes us. 

Our lives are enriched by spiritual experience in they same way that they are enriched by poetry, and by music. A religion for our time cannot conflict with science, but incorporates scientific findings into our story of wider and fuller meaning – and does not treat metaphor and poetry as if it were history and science.

Ethics and values have always been a function of religion. The sexual energy from which life comes can be misused to hurt others and ourselves. That energy that can add depth and connection to relationships of intimacy can also disrupt relationships, break up households, harm children. A religion for our time will not flinch from the ancient role of religion in distinguishing appropriate from inappropriate sexual conduct. Ecstatic and connecting physical experience is an aspect of the spiritual. Some of us are in committed relationships right now, and some of us are not. What all of us wish for those who are in such relationships is that they are a ground for growth of joy, for we understand that a sexual relationship that is sustainable and nonexploitive and mutually respectful helps support and is supported by nonsexual relationships of community that are also a ground for the growth of joy. Relationships at all those levels also deepen our connection with nature, with our world, with the awakening of wonder and oneness that I call spiritual. Inappropriate use of sexuality tears apart families and rends community, and distances us from spiritual experience and spiritual growth. So, yes, religion has a role to play in helping to guide us toward sexual expression that enhances rather than harms our spiritual health. A religion for our time recognizes that. 

Yet we see today a religious landscape that widely and profoundly gets it wrong on sexual mores. The kind of intimate relationships that provide for personal and emotional stability so that spiritual maturity can begin to flourish have everything to do with commitment, sustainability, nonexploitation, mutual respect and mutual consent and nothing to do with whether or not your partner is the same sex as you, or whether your gender identity is the same as your biological sex. A religion for our time recognizes that if, for instance, you were born biologically male, it is not necessary either that you be male nor that your partner not be. A religion for our time respects humanity’s diverse traditions – diverse spiritual expressions – and likewise respects diverse sexual expressions. 

All people matter. People of all racial backgrounds matter. Poor people matter as much as rich people. Uneducated people matter as much as scholars. Children matter. The aged matter. Lesbians matter as much as straight women. Gay men matter as much as straight men. Bisexual people matter as much as people with a unidirectional sexual orientation. Transgender people matter as much as people whose gender identity has always more or less matched their apparent biological sex at birth. A religion for our time does not merely tolerate human diversity, it celebrates it. A religion for our time stands on the side of love.

Rebecca Parker, the president of our Unitarian Universalist seminary, the Starr King School for the Ministry, is one of the most humane and wise people I have ever read and heard speak. She tells the story of her cousin Megan. A few years back, Megan was going through a period of despair after an unexpected and painful break-up. Then one day, Megan invited her cousin Rebecca to lunch, bursting with good news. 

“I have been born again!” she announced. Rebecca, President of a Unitarian seminary, felt her heart sink. Who had gotten to Cousin Megan, she wondered. 

“No, no, it’s OK,” said Megan. And she told about how she was listening to her car radio and heard a radio preacher with a message unusual for radio preachers. He said everyone is a child of God, and everyone can be like Christ. Megan was so excited she talked back to the radio: “That’s what I believe. I believe everyone can be a savior and we can save the world by loving it and each other.” 

Megan felt such a love and warmth and joy come over her in that moment. And she was still feeling it the next morning. She got up and began a meditation practice, built a home altar, and began the earnest work of strengthening and deepening this peace and love she felt. In her practice Megan did become peaceful and centered and focused – but then, she says, as soon as I’d begin my daily routine that would all fall apart. As soon as there were real people to deal with, they were annoying – and Megan couldn’t hold onto, couldn’t live what she knew: that those people are also, everyone of them, children of God, saviors. 

“I realized,” said Megan, “that I just couldn’t do this alone. I needed to find some other people who were trying to put love into practice. Then it hit me. Church! That’s what church is for!” Megan, unchurched, began to look for a faith community. 

She went to a liberal congregation: the sermon was intellectually stimulating and addressed racial justice – certainly an important topic. But the atmosphere was cold, the congregation all white, the music staid. 

Megan tried a progressive, multiracial, historically black Baptist church. The music rocked, the people were warm, the place was energetic and alive. But the sermon rehashed the appalling theology that had kept Megan out of church for so many years: that Jesus died to save us from our sins. 

So Megan went to a New Age church, multiracial congregation, and small covenant groups supporting each other and carrying out service projects. They did right, but the theology was pabulum. “We memorized affirmation about the power of mind over matter,” reported Megan. “You can’t just think poverty, and war, and the environmental crisis away. That’s nonsense.” 

Megan needed a congregation of intellectual depth, social ethics, and also of warm connection with other people; racial and cultural diversity; lively, rocking music; small groups and committed service. And what Megan needed is what more and more people are coming to consciously recognize they want and need – and it’s what many times more people need but don’t consciously know it . . . yet. That’s what the religion for our time must provide. 

There’s a challenge there for us: as we go down the list of what Megan needed, how are we doing? Had Megan visited the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, we would have fallen short, most obviously in the diversity area, and maybe in some other ways too. 

We are mostly there – we have a lot to celebrate, and taking joy in each other and this wonderful community we have together is an essential grounding for us if we are to take the next step. And take the next step we must – if we are to truly be the religion that our world needs now. 

Megan, by the way, did find what she was looking for, and that was the good news she was bursting to share with her cousin Rebecca. She found it in a progressive Jewish synagogue that emphasized the value of silence, meditation, and spiritual practice -- that had beautiful chanting, and Torah study that was intellectually rich with layers of meaning – and the people were warm and welcoming. 

We don’t have a monopoly on being the religion of out time. We are on the right track, but we still have some work to do. We always have, and we always will: as the times keep changing, so also must the religion of our time. 

So may it be, and Amen.

BENEDICTION
(Words of Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association): 

We are called to feed the spiritually hungry and open our home to the religiously homeless. 
We are called to heal and empower people so that they can in turn help transform our world. 
We are called to teach our children compassion, understanding and respect. 
We are called to shine the light of compassion, the light of openness, the light of acceptance, the light of justice, the light of truth. 
Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!  

2010-09-13

Unitarian Universalist Minute: Islamic Connection

Unitarian Universalism springs from sources – many tributaries flow into the river of the faith we share. The longest and largest source for us is Protestant Christianity, with more recent contributions from Humanism. The Muslim influence on our development has never been huge, but it has played a role.

For example, on our Universalist side, there’s George de Benneville, born 1703. While sailing to America, De Benneville was moved and impressed by the kindness and caring he encountered in some Muslim Moorish sailors on the ship. The experience helped open de Benneville to open-minded exploration of religion. His long and colorful spiritual journey led him to Universalism – the view that all souls were saved – which de Benneville was the first person in colonial America to openly teach.

On our Unitarian side, Islam, or Mohammadism as it was typically called, played a role in our early arguments about the trinity. The early Unitarians, in developing our tradition of freedom, reason, and tolerance, got their name from their critique of trinitarianism. They were Unitarians, saying God was one, rather than Trinitarians, saying God was three. In that debate, the Unitarians sometimes pointed to Islam, which is also unitarian, as evidence that, however faiths may differ, the oneness of God was a natural and reasonable conclusion. In the later 1800s and into the 1900s, Islam remained a frequent topic of Unitarian discussion. While these discussions were often critical, gradually a growing number of Unitarians found much to admire in Islam, and Muhammad’s image among Unitarians was progressively rehabilitated.

(Adapted from:
http://transientandpermanent.wordpress.com/2010/09/11/muslim-influence-on-the-roots-of-unitarian-universalism/, where more info is available. Thanks to James Ford for this link.)

2010-09-12

The Storm Averted

Here in Florida, we know hurricanes. When the high winds and heavy rains come, we do what people do when disaster strikes and lives and ways of life are put at risk. We pull together. In Florida, when the hurricanes come, it brings out the cooperative spirit. We help each other get through the power outage, the clean-up, and the repairs. And we give particular attention to the ones hit hardest.

In like manner, we saw a hurricane of religious division headed our way, due to hit this week-end. Rev. Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center had announced that September 11 was “Burn a Koran Day,” and that he intended to publicly burn copies of the Quran on that day, in a gesture of contempt for Islam and Muslims.

When this storm of religious strife appeared headed our way, Gainesville’s faith community and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship responded. In the last week Jews, and Christians, and Moslems, and Hindus and Unitarian Universalists have joined and been blessed by one another.

On Wednesday September 8, at in Interfaith Prayer service at Trinity Episcopal Church, leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths shared in prayers together for peace and for harmony among peoples of diverse faith.

On Friday evening, September 10, hundreds gathered at Trinity United Methodist Church for “Gathering for Peace, Understanding, and Hope” -- an evening of coming together and engaging various peace activities and in conversations across religious lines.

On Saturday afternoon, September 11, there was a rally and march in the neighborhood of Dove World Outreach. I was among the speakers. At the same time,"A Day of Peace and Unity" on the downtown plaza organized by the Gainesville Muslim Initiative included speakers and conversations for interfaith peace, and a candlelight vigil.

Members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship were in attendance at all these events, engaging with our neighbors of varying faiths and doing the work of building mutual understanding.

Our Sunday service on September 12 carried out a commitment made a month before among a dozen or so congregations to include certain specified passages from the Quran at our respective Sabbath services on the weekend of September 10-12. (The passages: Surah 3:64, 2:177, 2:136, and 49:13).

In the face of the threatening hurricane of symbolic intolerance, the interfaith community came together. And we gave particular attention to the ones hit hardest. The Gainesville, and indeed, World Islamic community was targeted, and so, in solidarity with our Muslim siblings, and in solidarity, too, with all the congregations who are also stood with our Muslim neighbors and friends, our choir sang songs of peace, including a beautiful Iraqi peace song, and I spoke of our denomination’s historic connections with Islam, and of our ongoing commitment as Unitarian Universalists to the work of building true peace.

An inclement climate for tolerance called for special action. At the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, standing on the side of love is our everyday commitment, come foul weather or fair.

2010-09-11

Sep 11

Rev. Terry Jones now says he won't be burning a Quran: "Not today, not ever."
And the sign on his property announcing "International Burn a Koran Day" has come down.

Sighs of relief.

The New York Times has a nice article about Gainesville and how we're responding to having Rev. Jones in our midst.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/11/us/11gainesville.html?_r=2&hp

Last night I was at a neighboring church, Gainesville's Trinity United Methodist Church, for the "Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope" held there. Read about it:
http://www.gainesville.com/article/20100911/ARTICLES/9111004/1118?Title=People-of-all-faiths-join-for-a-display-of-unity
It was marvelously well-attended. Rev. Jones seems to have drawn quite a lot of people into more energetically seeking interfaith harmony.
One indicator: When the leadership of Trinity United Methodist asked its membership for volunteers to help with the set up and logistics and provisions for their planned Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope, they actually got more volunteers than they could use. "That's never happened," said one staff member.
I was there with our Zen group. We set up mats and cushions at one edge of  the hub-bub, and did some public meditation for peace. I set out a sign to let all the passers-by know they were invited to join us on one of the empty cushions "for a few minutes, or longer as you like." Another sign said, "Peace doesn't end with inner peace. It just begins there."
There were speakers -- for about 6 or 7 minutes each -- on the half-hour -- which served as a nice timer for our sits.

This evening I'll be at the "Day for Peace and Unity" event at our downtown  plaza.

2010-09-10

Quran Burning Update, Friday morning

As of this writing, Rev. Terry Jones has “suspended, not canceled” his plans to burn copies of the Quran on Saturday evening, September 11.
The attention given to Jones turned what would have been one small front-yard bonfire in our neighborhood into a symbol for the whole world of anti-Islam religious intolerance. Jones’s plans came to represent in many eyes the anti-Islamic bigotry, Islamophobia, and general resistance to diversity of the entire Western World.
Because the gesture of burning the Quran is such a powerful symbol, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville along with many other people and groups in our area recognized that our response to that gesture was also powerful -- and vitally important. We understood, as Americans, as Floridians, and as people of faith, that our capacity to answer burning hatred with the cool waters of understanding would be judged by our response to this act of intolerance in our midst. It has been truly heartening to see the interfaith community in the Gainesville area come together to affirm mutual respect, to pray together, to answer division with unity, and to respond to belligerence with commitments to peace.
Whether Rev. Jones actually burns copies of the Quran on Saturday or not, we remain committed to standing together; standing in for all people everywhere who seek a world of mutual understanding, peace, and justice; standing against intolerance; standing on the side of love.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to stand in witness of the faith tradition we inherit, to embody now our heritage of freedom, reason and acceptance. And we invite friends of tolerance from all faith traditions or none to stand with us.
Friday evening, September 10. I encourage attendance and participation at the Gathering for Peace, Understanding, and Hope at Trinity United Methodist Church. From 6 PM until 9 PM there will be a number of “stations” to visit, and speakers, for about 5 minutes each, every half-hour. This is an important opportunity to meet with others across faiths and build the peace and understanding that comes with relationship.
Saturday, September 11. Meet at 5:30 PM at UUFG (4225 NW 34th St). We will organize there, and, in light of any newest developments, make decisions about carpooling to places to demonstrate for peace, be in solidarity, and stand on the side of understanding and love. Wear your "Co-exist" or Unitarian Universalist t-shirt; bring signs. There may be a Peace March in the neighborhood of Rev. Jones’ church. In any case, we will (also) be participating in the Candlelight Vigil for Peace and Unity hosted by the Gainesville Muslim Initiative. This event comprises a number of actions including feeding the homeless (5:00–6:00 PM), a blood drive, book drive, and food drive (5:00–7:00 PM). Various community and faith leaders, including me, begin speaking at 7:05, and the candlelight vigil is from 8:00 to 8:15.

Sunday morning 11:00 AM Worship Service, September 12. Our annual Ingathering Water Communion will take on the added significance of differing faiths as well as individuals flowing together into community. We'll have readings from the Quran and explore together the path to a world of peace.

Unitarian faith calls for standing for unity in love amidst diversity of thought. Universalist faith calls for standing for inclusion of all within the circle of equal concern and respect.

2010-07-04

The Fourth and the Thirteenth

It's the Fourth of July: "Independence Day" for this land of my birth, raising, and residence -- this country that created me, and about which I am equal parts misty romantic and bitter cynic.
All...are created equal,
and all of us are
endowed...with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And:
to secure these rights, governments are instituted..., deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
And:
whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
These principles from the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress, 1776 July 4, inspire me. They are the very principles on which I am myself standing when I criticize my country. Ours is a nation born of, grounded in, and shaped by dissent.

I'm also inspired by the words that this land of mine has on its Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Certainly no person is refuse. I understand Lady Liberty, as written by Emma Lazarus, to be saying: "Even if you have been treated as refuse, I welcome you. Even if your ethnos or class has been regarded as refuse by the prevailing prejudices of the powerful for centuries, I will take you in. Even if you have come to think of yourself as nothing but wretched refuse, I show my light for you, shine the way to the door of freedom for you, and thereby announce to the world, and to you, that you are nothing of the kind."

This land of mine has such truly great ideals. It has many good people and a system that has nurtured in some of my fellow citizens remarkable virtue and ingenuity. It is US culture that has cultivated that more modest measure of virtue and ingenuity to which I myself may lay claim. Yet my country is also built, from our very beginnings and running continuously throughout our history, on co-optation, corruption, and cynical manipulation of the very ideals that shape me, inspire me, and to which I continue to adhere. We are made possible, as the country we are, by profligate supply of resources -- the which we obtained through murder, theft, and chicanery on a grand scale.

The shame and pride go together. I came of age during the Vietnam War, when there was good cause for being ashamed of my country. At the same time, I was proud of my friends and mentors (most of whom I knew through my Unitarian Universalist church) who marched and demonstrated to end that war. I'm ashamed of our greed -- of the rapacity that brought us to the point where we, one-twentieth of the world's population, consume one-fourth of its resources, and of our unwillingness to retreat from this ravenous consumption (in fact, to say "ravenous" is rather unfair to our feathered friends, the ravens). Yet the call within my own conscience for a simpler way of life, to walk with a lighter footprint on the earth, is but the echo of quintessentially USan thought: Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Duane Elgin, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy -- writers whose turn of mind could not have come from Europe, or Asia, or South America, or even Canada (for all the wonderful contributions Canadians have provided to US culture). I'm so proud of them -- so proud to inherit their tradition, which is so deeply a US tradition. I'm ashamed at our ongoing belligerence, and our willingness to commit our troops to slay tens of thousands of people in order to secure access to cheap oil.

I'm proud of our independent judiciary, as secured by Marbury v. Madison (1803), our finest innovation of government, and grievously ashamed that this judiciary's highest court could have produced the Bush v. Gore (2000) decision.

I'm so proud of our Statue of Liberty, with its open-armed invitation of welcome, and I'm so ashamed that so many of my fellow country-men and -women, with willful and passionate ignorance, so approve of revoking that very invitation.

In fact, the proudest I can recall ever feeling about being USan was 15 years ago, in a movie theatre, watching "Apollo 13" (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris). Although the film does pass the Bechdel test, it's definitely about male heroism of the mostly geeky sort.

As the extent of the spacecraft's damage becomes clear in Houston, NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) declares:
We've never lost an American in space, we're sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.
A way to fix a broken craft 200,000 miles away must be found. Kranz again:
I don't care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do.
Cut to several technicians dumping boxes containing the same equipment and tools that the astronauts have with them onto a table.
We've got to find a way to make this...
says one of the technicians, holding up a square CSM LiOH canister,
...fit into the hole for this...
he adds, holding up a round LEM canister.
...using nothing but that.
He gestures to the motley jumble of supplies on the table.

Yes, it was hubris that put us out into space. Hubris, and greedy, grasping, imperial acquisitiveness, and the backing of the amazing wealth we had available to us by virtue of the aforementioned murder, theft, chicanery. Yes. All that. And more. We have a capacity for awe and wonder that is the equal of our hubris. Our inquisitiveness is not less than our acquisitiveness. We have a spunky can-do spirit as powerful as the wealth we have stolen.

We sent this amazingly expensive box up into outer space -- and when it broke, we fixed it well enough to get the astronauts safely home. We fixed it with duct tape, cardboard, a plastic bag, and a US-style of cleverness born out of self-confidence (which, yes, also manifests as arrogance) and loyal devotion (which, yes, also manifests as nationalism).

It made me cry. Still does.

The Fourth of July.

The Thirteenth Apollo mission.

I don't know if it will ultimately prove necessary for the survival of the earth that the culture that is distinctively US pass away. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. If so -- and in the unlikely event that I'm still around -- I will miss it, and grieve the loss of this glory -- along with, I hope, celebrating its replacement by a saner, wiser, less independent and more interdependent, sustainable culture.

2010-06-11

Stage Coach II

Let’s look at the word itself, “Stagecoach.” It’s a coach – that is, a conveyance for carrying us along – and, in particular, a conveyance for carrying us along between stages on a longer journey. The stagecoach got its name from making regular trips between stages, or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers as well as places for changing to fresh horses. The sense of “coach” that has grown more common these days – a person who “coaches” an athlete or a sports team -- derives from the first sense of a conveyance for carrying us along. This sense of coach first appeared around 1830 as Oxford University slang for a tutor who “carries” a student through an exam.

So now I ask: What carries you along through the stages of life? How are you coached – instructed, guided, carried – so that you will reach the next stage safely? Who or what or where is your coach from stage to stage? And whom are you coaching?

Our image of top competitive sports coaches, figures like Vince Lombardi, is that they do a lot of afflicting -- though they sometimes must comfort. What kind of coach are you? What kind do you need? And what is the next stage to be coached to?

James Fowler has laid out what the stages of faith development are.

Stage 1: typically age 3 to 7. During this time of the first awareness of death and sex and encounter with the strong cultural and family insulations of those powerful areas, the child’s intuitive-projective faith is filled with both unrestrained fantasy and imitation. It’s a very fluid time, for the child frequently encounters novelties that have to be accommodated. In the child’s imagination, bits of stories are combine. It was a child at this stage who delightfully said that Easter is when Jesus rose out of his tomb, but if he sees his shadow, then we have six more weeks of winter. She draws unpredictable extrapolations from the stories she hears. Long-lasting images and feelings emerge. Later on in life, we’ll want to get in touch with those images from childhood and draw new meaning from their symbolic power for us. Late in the stage, the emergence of concrete operational thinking, and the child’s growing concern to know how things are provides the impetus for transition to the next stage.

Stage 2 (typically pre-adolescence): mythic-literal faith interprets beliefs literally and symbols one-dimensionally. Morality is black-and-white, and fairness is based on reciprocity. The child better grasps the coherence of stories, takes those stories literally, and stories become the structure that gives unity and meaning to experience. The child is taking on the stories that symbolize belonging to her community. The deities are anthropomorphic, and their primary job is moral regulation: to punish the wicked and reward the good.

I remember being in fourth grade and thinking that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounded fair. Did you have a phase like that? If Fowler is right, we all did.

Stage 3 (typically adolescence): As the child becomes aware of different stories, tensions among the stories create uncertainty. Things might not be as black-and-white as they had seemed. Cognitively, the child’s more abstract reasoning ability begins to emerge, and this leads to stepping back from the flow of stories to reflect on their meaning. Previous literalism breaks down. It’s often a time of disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings occurs. In adolescence, our sphere of concern is not so centered on the family -- if you have adolescents at home, then you know what an understatement that is.

Our adolescents are negotiating family, school, possibly work, peers, multigenerational community, and media representations. Their faith reflects their attempt to build a coherent framework for the many complex spheres they now must coordinate. At this stage, autonomous judgment has not yet emerged, so there is a strong desire for conformity to expectations of others. Peer pressure is a big deal.

The person at this stage has an ideology, but is unaware of having it – for her, it isn’t an ideology, it’s just the way things are. She’s aware that others have different viewpoints, but they are a different kind of person. It’s like the bear who said, “Bears are bears and leopards are leopards, and yellow-naped Amazon parrots are yellow-naped Amazon parrots, and aren’t we glad that we’re lucky enough to be bears and not one of those other species?” Not until a later stage can a person grasp the idea that our own views, just as much as others, are the result of accidents of background and experience.

Some people never progress beyond Stage 3. Clashes among valued authorities may spur a move to the next stage. If a respected leader changes policies or practices that previously been presented as eternal and invariant, that may precipitate a crisis of faith that leads on to the next stage.

Stage 4: The individuative-reflective stage involves taking up the burden of responsibility for one’s own commitments and facing such tensions as: individuality vs. group membership, strong-but-subjective feelings vs. objective evidence and critical reflection, self-fulfillment vs. service to others; relative vs. absolute. This is a stage of young adulthood, though a lot of folks don’t enter this stage until their 30s or 40s, and some spend their whole lives at stage 3. The person’s identity is no longer defined exclusively by roles and meanings to others. We see ourselves as more than merely the sum of the ways that others see us. The person experiences her world view as being a world view, rather than as objective truth itself. So she has a capacity for critical reflection on her outlook and on her very identity. Along with that comes overconfidence in rational thought and an overestimate in the extent to which such thought has apprehended reality.

She’s like the bear who said, “I’ve always been a bear. All the other bears and all the other animals see me as a bear. But maybe it would be better to be a vulture: scavenging what is already dead instead of having to kill. That would be more ecologically conscious.” You can see there that ability to abstract outside ourselves, to look at higher principles that might call us to be different from what we’ve always been. And you can also see that over-reliance on the cognitive, the rational: after all, a bear can’t think herself into being a vulture.

Relatively few people ever go past this stage 4. Some people though find themselves with a growing disillusionment with their compromises. They begin to recognize that life is more complex than the logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend. They begin to experience a deeper self underneath the veneer of the rational. They sense images and energies within them that make rational meanings seem sterile and flat. If that happens, they may be spurred on to stage 5.

Stage 5: What Fowler calls the conjunctive stage. Where the rational mind at stage 4 had suppressed ambiguity, the person now relishes ambiguity. There is recognition and delight in the multiple meanings of metaphor and symbol. Here is where a person might go back to those powerful images from childhood fantasy and, instead of dismissing them as old memories of a pre-rational age, reclaim them and rework them as a source of wisdom that is uniquely one’s own, yet at the same time also a doorway to the universal. The voices of one’s deeper self warrant attention, though they speak in ambiguous metaphor rather than clear rational distinctions.

Stage 5ers recognize that control is an illusion woven by rational mind’s hubris. They seek not control over things, but harmony with things as they are, unfolding according to their own nature. A Stage 5er is able to have her concepts, her opinions, her values without them having her . . . so much. She recognizes that concepts, opinions, and values are radically contingent accidents of background and experience. They are not the universal truth, yet at the same time, they are hers, and so they are the path for her toward the universal. People at this stage seek to “discern their calling,” which takes into account objective indications of talent and interest but goes beyond them to listen for nonrational resonances and intuitions about whom one most truly and deeply is.

People at this stage are alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions. As the Buddha is quoted as saying in the Lankavatara Sutra: “Things are not as they seem. Nor are they otherwise.” At earlier stages, a line like this is either merely perplexing or merely funny. At stage 5, it is still funny. It’s also profoundly wise.

It is unusual to reach this stage before mid-life, if we ever reach it at all. Ironic imagination manifests in making commitments to group meanings while simultaneously aware of the limitations of those meanings. Here the bear says, “I’m not in control of the fact that I’m a bear. I can’t think my way into being a vulture instead -- that wouldn’t be being true to who I am. I can trust in the universe that there is a place in the order of things for my bear-ness. Bear-ness also belongs. Bear-ness doesn’t belong any more or any better than leopardness or vultureness or bunny-rabbit-ness, and I didn’t choose to be a bear – it feels more like bear-ness chose me, even though I also know that there is no me apart from being a bear – but being a bear is simply what is mine to do. Let the salmon be salmon and the crows be crows. It’s not my job to figure out which one I should be. It’s my job to realize what I am – both in the sense of “to become aware of what I am” and also in the sense of “to make real what I am.”

Stage 5ers can embrace their shadow-side, instead of suppressing it. The shadow, too, is a part of who one is, and if one is a thing with substance, then one necessarily casts a shadow. A Stage 5er is aware of his own ridiculousness, his own tragedy, as integral to his gift and his beauty. At this stage, people develop a sense of universal justice not limited to tribe, class, or nation.

Stage 6, according to Fowler, is very rare. Here, the felt sense of an ultimate environment inclusive of all being produces a person with a special grace that makes her seem more lucid, more simple, yet somehow more fully human than ever. Stage 6ers are incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. Often seen as subversive, they may be killed by those to whom they offer transformative possibility. They love life deeply, let hold it loosely. Far from disparaging persons at earlier stages or from other faith traditions, they are ready for fellowship with all.

Where are you? At what stage of faith development?

And how can we be stage coaches – coaching each other to the next stage, held together in this conveyance through desert territory, surrounded by dangers, carrying each other from where we are, wherever we are, to the next stage?

I recognize that our faith lives are more complicated than any simple linear progression through stages. For one thing, we may show ourselves to be at different stages depending on the subject under discussion. For example, I know some folks who, when it comes to Santa Claus, are perfectly able to be metaphorical and say, “Yes, Viriginia, there is a Santa Claus.” They affirm belief in Santa Claus as the spirit of generosity, and can quote the famous Baltimore Sun editorial of 1897, “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.” But when it comes to stories of Jesus’ miracles, some of these same folks suddenly become metaphor impaired. They can relate only at the earlier, literal stage. Sometimes we rise to different levels depending on the subject.

For another thing, though we may respond at Stage 4 or 5 when we’re relaxed and affirmed and secure, under stress we may regress to Stage 3 or even 2. Stress makes it hard to be magnanimous with others or with ourselves, so we retreat to arguments of reason, or to conventional standards.

Despite those caveats, James Fowler’s description of stages helps give us a general indication of what spiritual maturity looks like and a rough map for getting there.

We arrive at the moments of our lives afflicted, seeking comfort. We may be less aware of it, but we also arrive comfortable, seeking affliction, seeking a challenge to transform ourselves, to outgrow what we have been. For it is from affliction – the dim yet needling awareness of more things in heaven and earth than have been dreamt of in one’s philosophy so far – that our ultimate comfort comes.

Which stage are you in -- most days, most of the time? What do you do, on a regular daily basis to help yourself grow toward the next stage? How can others help you, how can they be a better coach for carrying you forward? How can you help others, coach them?

As John Wayne might say, “Good questions there, Pilgrim.”

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This is part 2 of 2 of "Stagecoach"
Beginning: Part 1: "Stagecoach I"

2010-06-03

Stagecoach

How are you feeling today? I ask because my job is to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. So I need to know: which are you? Are you comfortable? Or afflicted?

Could I get all you afflicted folks out there to raise your hand? OK, great. And now all you comfortable folks, raise your hand.

Ah, it doesn’t work that way does it? Like me, you are afflicted with doubts and burdens. You seek comfort. And at the same time also, like me, you are also comfortable, knowing at some level that you need nudging to wake up, to transform, to embrace the challenge to become more than you have been yet exactly who you always have been.

Which brings me to John Ford’s classic 1939 movie, Stagecoach, which redefined the Western as we know it, and that launched the career of John Wayne. To summarize: A
“stagecoach is traveling from the frontier town of Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Geronimo, the Apache chief, has just jumped the reservation and starts an uprising. . . . Among the passengers are a prostitute being thrown out of town by a group of women with their noses so stuck up in the air you could fly flags off of them. She is joined by a drunken doctor, a gentlemen card shark, a meek whiskey salesman, a crooked banker, a pregnant woman on her way to meet her husband, and a young cowboy who just broke out of jail and out to revenge his family's murder. The coach driver and his shotgun complete the group. . . . The basic structure of the plot is also familiar to fans of disaster films. Passengers are introduced, board a common conveyance and face a tremendous danger. The exciting adventure of who lives, who dies -- will the stage make it to its destination? -- and what happens next” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031971/)
forms the basic plot.

If it all seems a bit hackneyed, this is because so many films afterward copied that basic formula. Here we have the original.

And life is like that. We are in this together: in a small conveyance in a desert landscape. The ride is bumpy, and we face great danger. The cast is ensemble – there is no star of the show, not even you. We are, all of us, supporting actors who must support each other if we are to make it through.

Previous Westerns had been shoot-em-up melodrama with good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats.

But life is not like that. We are not divided into the black hats and the white hats. As the characters in Stagecoach, we come together flawed: we are women and men with a past – dark shames from which we are in quest of redemption. We come together afflicted by who we are, what we have done, our mistakes, our addictions, our failures of nerve and of character. We come together afflicted. I may not know what it is that’s afflicting you, but I know you are afflicted. I carry that awareness always, and my prayer is that I will be able to show you that I do in such a way that you can see it.

And we, on this stagecoach of life together, recognizing our human affliction, comfort each other. Yes, we sometimes snipe at each other – because, after all, we’re not all that comfortable (it is hot and dusty and bumpy) and we have a lot of anxiety. There’s Apaches out there, and we’ve done them wrong. Out of our own affliction and complacency, we have committed injustices; we are complicit in grave wrong, and the wronged are sore about it, and they’re coming to get us.

Yet we lend to each other the gifts and skills we have, and in that shared ride, commit ourselves to something grander than ourselves. Perhaps, thereby, redemption is found, and perhaps not. Fundamental ambiguities remain.

The religious journey, the pilgrimage, takes us away from home in the hope that we will thereby be led to a truer home. The journey is dangerous -- it places us at risk of losing what we have been. And on the journey, we will be both afflicted and comforted.

Blessings to you on your journey. And, as John Wayne himself said, "Take 'er easy there, Pilgrim."

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This is part 1 of 2 of "Stagecoach"
Next: Part 2: "Stagecoach II"