The Word Made Flesh

"The word made flesh."

It's a nice phrase. Poetic. Evocative of Plato's Republic, which he described as a "city of words." But it's a phrase that has, through the centuries, acquired so much theological baggage that its primary signification in the West today is as a talisman of tribal identity. It's hard to sweep that baggage away and come to the phrase fresh.

"The word made flesh."

For some of us those can be some scary words. Perhaps you have felt rather colonized by an empire whose banners flew phrases including “the word made flesh” – and your allegiance is with the rebel alliance.

"The word made flesh."

I have been accused of being Christian, and, depending on the court I was tried in, I suppose it’s possible I might be convicted -- though, my guess would be, not likely. I don’t choose that label for myself. I self-identify as represented by four of the nine symbols on the wall of the UU Fellowship of Gainesville: I’m humanist, naturalist, Buddhist, and Unitarian Universalist. Maybe in some sense, I am all nine. Maybe in some sense, we all are. Still, I don’t call myself Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Daoist.

The flaming chalice in the center is the symbol of UU.
Clockwise from top: Islam, Hinduism, Daoism, Christianity,
Humanism, Naturalism, Judaism, and Buddhism
I got together this week with a friend of mine who is a Christian, or at least a Methodist who, I think he would say, tries to be a Christian. He said, “I drove by your Fellowship.”

“Yeah?” I said, realizing that he saw the sign out front announcing the sermon topic: "The word made flesh."

“So educate me,” he said. “How do you preach on 'the word made flesh'?” Maybe that’s your question, too.

"The word made flesh."

Does that text make you nervous? Have you staked out your identity and your honor in opposition to what you believe that text stands for? Lake Chalice just wants to ask you to consider that maybe what that text stands for in some people’s minds doesn’t have to be what it means for you.

The text in question is from the Gospel according to John, chapter 1, verse 1 through 14. In "Rededicating the Temple" last week, Lake Chalice described how the Empires of Alexander the Great and its successor, the Seleucid empire, brought Hellenic culture to the Hebrew people: Greek art, architecture, sports, philosophy, drama, and geometry. The Gospel of John was originally written in Greek because at the end of the first century of the Common Era, when that Gospel was written, Greek had been, for some time, the language in which literate Palestinians wrote.

Further, Greek philosophy deeply influenced John’s Gospel. John used the Greek word “logos,” which in the context of this Gospel is usually translated as “the word.” John was saying: the logos was made flesh and dwelt among us. This "logos" is the root of our word logic, and the "logy" in biology, geology, etc. What did logos mean for John?

Stay tuned . . .

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The is part 1 of 5 of "The Word Made Flesh"
Next: Part 2: "Logosland"


Light Keeps Shining

What we are invited to remember on Hanukkah is this story of conflict. When we hear a story of conflict, our hearts, or our guts, want to know for whom to cheer. Who were the good guys here?

But in the civil war between Jews more than 2160 years ago, there weren’t good guys and bad guys. There were just people trying to make their way as best they could, and sometimes not doing it very skillfully.

On the one hand, Lake Chalice identifies with a rebel faction fighting against an empire that had slaughtered so many of its people. We have seen “Star Wars” and cheered for the rebels: country bumpkins who hold to an older and mystical religion. Yay for them.

On the other hand, Lake Chalice also identifies with open-ness to new ideas, to learning, to urban and urbane adaptability. If we were to sum up the Lake Chalice philosophy of religion in six words, they might be:
“It’s a metaphor. Go with it.”
Lake Chalice identifies with people who like to read Plato, and who are inspired by Greek ideas of democracy as opposed to patriarchal and priestly rule. (Not that the Seleucid Empire was at all democratic, but they brought Greek thought that planted seeds of democratic hope – and the Jewish rebels had, if anything, even less interest in democracy.)

On the one hand, we identify with oppressed people sticking up for their way of life, refusing to be assimilated.

On the other hand, we also identify with sophisticates frustrated at the traditionalism of the less educated.

The Hanukkah story shows us a conflict in which both sides represent important values. Also: both sides negated some other important values. Perhaps you have experienced conflicts that are like that.

“Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew verb, “to dedicate.” It’s about rededicating the temple, cleansing the temple from what has profaned it. In the original Hanukkah story, forces of the Seleucid empire had compelled Jews to violate their own laws -- eat pork and bow to a statue -- within temple premises. So the temple required ritual cleansing.

What, then, could Hanukkah, rededicating the temple, mean for liberal religion today? What profanes our temple and calls for recommitment?

Our temples are simultaneously for conserving tradition and transforming tradition: they keep alive our history so that we can build upon it something new. Our temples are temples of both memory and of hope; temples for radical reconstruction to become just what we always truly have been. Our temples mean to be temples of growth, of change, of open-ness to new ideas and new learning – while also being temples rooted in the wisdom of the ages. We who find refuge in a temple of liberal faith sing a living tradition.

Ours are temples where Athens and Jerusalem meet, where the progressives progress toward what is truly worthy, and the conservatives conserve what is truly worthy. If that sounds like a recipe for conflict in the temple, it is. Is it then conflict which profanes our temple and from which at Hanukkah we might turn to rituals of cleansing? No. What profanes our temple are not the conflicts. What profanes our temple is letting the conflicts overshadow love. What profanes our temple is judgmentalism, for the God of our temple is radical hospitality.

Re-dedicating our temple is not an eight-day process. It is a continual process that we engage in every week. Every Sunday is our re-dedication. Re-dedicating the temple, re-committing to open-ness to one another, to staying in the conversation, to striving for understanding, to presence to our own and each others’ confusion and grief, to readiness to learn and be changed – this is our ongoing work. It’s not done in eight days, for, after all, the point is for the light to shine continuously.

It’s just that sometimes it seems like we just don’t have enough oil to last us until that new oil will get here. But the light somehow keeps shining. Even when we’re sure there’s not enough oil for it, the light keeps shining. Even in the midst of all our profanings, the cleansing light of re-dedication keeps shining.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Rededicating the Temple"
Previous: Part 3: "Free the Hanukkah Eight"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Empire Strikes Back...with Plato and Euclid"


Free the Hanukkah Eight

As the books of Maccabees tell it, the Seleucids had been ruling over the Jews in Jerusalem for about 30 years when, in 168 BCE, the Emperor Antiochus IV was rumored dead. Jason, who had been the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, until outmaneuvered by Menelaus, believed the rumor to be true. Jason took advantage of the perceived interregnum to mount a little army of about 1,000 – tiny, but not bad for a priest. Menelaus fled. Emperor Antiochus, rumors of whose death were highly exaggerated, was just coming off a bit of a humiliation in Egypt. Finding that his appointed high priest, Menelaus, had been run out, Antiochus took out his frustrations on Jerusalem. He attacked the town, restored Menelaus as high priest of the temple, massacred a few thousand Jews, outlawed Jewish rites and traditions, and ordered that Zeus be worshipped as the Supreme God. Antiochus then went on his way, leaving behind a governor in Jerusalem, Philip, to enforce Hellenic religion.

Had the people of Jerusalem been (post)modern Unitarian Universalists, they might have adapted to the new worship requirements. "No big deal," they might have said. "Zeus is simply a metaphor for Yahweh. Just go with it."

The people of the second century before the Common Era were not prepared to think that way. The word “Zeus”, and performing the particular rituals of Greek worship, like bowing to a statue of Zeus, meant “us” if you were Antiochus, and meant “them” if you were Jewish. Tribal identity was at stake. There’s no metaphoring around when tribal identity is at stake, when “us” is fighting for its continued existence as a distinct identity against "them.”

The more Hellenized Jews, however, didn’t see it that way. They actually were saying, essentially, “This is no big deal. Just go with it.”

First Maccabees relates how Greek soldiers forcibly gathered the Jewish villages and told them to bow down to a Greek idol, then eat some pork – both practices that are forbidden to Jews. A Greek officer ordered Mattathias, a High Priest, to do these things. Mattathias refused. When another villager stepped forward and offered to cooperate on Mattathias' behalf, Mattathias drew his sword and killed the villager, then turned on the Greek officer and killed him too. That he struck out first against a fellow Jew indicates the simmering civil conflict between the Jewish factions.

Mattathias’ five sons and the other villagers then attacked the remaining soldiers, killing all of them. Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains, where other Jews wishing to fight against the Greeks joined them. Led most prominently by Mattathias son, Judas Maccabee, the rebels retook their land from the Greek Seleucids. The Maccabean revolt succeeded.

Once the Maccabees had regained control, they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and for sacrificing animals the Jews regarded as unclean. Judas Maccabee restores and rededicates the Temple. That’s the Hanukkah story from First Maccabees, redacted in the late second century, relating the events of 350 years before. See 1 Maccabees 4: 36-59. (Click here).

If you followed the link and read the passage, you might have noticed that there’s nothing about a one-day supply of oil lasting for eight days. You would simply have read the decree that
“every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days”
But why eight days? That bit isn’t explained until a portion of the Talmud written about 600 years after the Maccabean Revolt. That’s where we get the story of the Maccabees discovering that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, and thus had not been profaned. That container had only enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days.

Why is eight significant? You might assume that that’s how many days it took to get the temple all cleaned up and re-consecrated. Actually, eight days is simply how long it takes to have new oil pressed and made ready so that the Temple menorah can burn continuously -- a sacred symbol and sign of Jewish freedom.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Rededication the Temple"
Next: Part 4: "Light Keeps Shining"
Previous: Part 2: "Jew v. Jew; Bible v. Bible"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Empire Strikes Back...with Plato and Euclid"


A Christmas Story: Wanting Life to Live

Do you think your fate is in the stars? Some people say the star you were born under, or the constellation the sun was in at the time of your birth, determines what kind of life you'll have. I don’t know. I mostly think stars are random. I think fate is random, too. So they have that much in common. But I do know how powerful stars can be sometimes.

A buddy and I were camping once in the Chihuahuan desert of southern New Mexico. Night came. He was in the tent, and I was lying on my back outside just staring up at the stars – so many, so deeply layered, brighter ones, dimmer ones, giving such an impression of infinity.

Finally, I yawned and stood up to go into the tent. I was pausing, looking around for just a minute more. There was one star I was staring at, about 45 degrees up, halfway between zenith and horizon. I took a step toward it. I don’t know why. And then another step. I had the thought: "Actually, I don't think I do want to retire for the night. I feel like going for a walk."

“Hey, Rob,” I said back to the tent. “I’m gonna go for a walk.” Silence. I guess he was already asleep.

Shin-daggers by day
I picked up my canteen belt, put it on, and turned back to that star and started walking. Why not? That was as good a direction as any for taking a walk in the trackless desert. I had my flashlight because it was a moonless night, and the desert has so much sharpness: prickly pear, cholla, ocotillo, and those low-growing pointy plants aptly named “shin-daggers.” I stepped around, over, and between all of these and otherwise walked toward that star.

I’d been walking about 20 minutes when I saw something moving over on my left. I swung the flashlight over, and saw a jackrabbit. Caught in the flashlight beam, she froze.

“Hullo, jackrabbit,” I said.

“Hello,” said the jackrabbit. “How are you?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m confused. I don’t remember partaking of any desert peyote, so I don’t know how it is that a rabbit is talking to me.”

“Never mind that,” said the rabbit. “Just tell me: Where are you going?”

“Nowhere,” I said.

“Nowhere?” said the rabbit.

“Well, I was just following that star.” I said, pointing.

“That’s what I thought,” said the rabbit. “I’ve been watching you.”

“How could you tell I was following a star?”

“You were keeping such a straight line,” she said. “You must have had a guide.”

It was just then that I remembered the Christmas story, so I said: “Huh. I’m following a star, but I am neither shepherd, nor wise man.”

“You are both,” said the jackrabbit.

“So am I going to find a stable up ahead where a woman has just given birth?”

“Probably not that,” said the jackrabbit.

“What, then?”

“It must be something,” said the rabbit. “Otherwise, why would you be following a star?”

“It must be something,” I agreed. “Otherwise, why would I meet a talking rabbit along the way?”

“Why, indeed?” said the rabbit.

“Well, come along then,” I said. And together we walked on, following a star, and the beam of my flashlight.

Another 20 minutes further on we came across the body of a coyote. I could see she had been shot – probably some miles away – and had made it this far before she died. I shuddered.

We heard a small yip, coming from the direction the star. Venturing farther we found a small coyote pup, weak and barely able to move.

"I guess that was his mother we just passed," I said.

"It was," said the rabbit.

I poured some water into the cap of my canteen, picked up the pup and held the water to his nose. He lapped it up.

“He needs food,” I said. “I’ll take him back to my campsite and find him something.”

The jackrabbit nodded.

We made our way back, careful to keep the star at our backs or we would have been completely lost. About halfway back, the jackrabbit said, “He’s a carnivore. He eats meat.”

“I don’t have any meat,” I said. “I have refried beans. As hungry as he is, I think he’ll eat beans.”

“That’s not what I meant,” said the jackrabbit.

“Oh!” I said, realizing. I stopped in my tracks and turned and stared at my new friend.

It didn’t seem right to shine the flashlight right at her, so I shined it on the ground in front of her, and looked at her shadowy form in the indirect light. I could make out her nose, closest to the light, and there was something peaceful in the regularity of its wiggle as she breathed in and breathed out.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Be not afraid. I’m not.”

I shook my head. I trembled. I felt tears coming to my eyes. I knelt down on the spot, and I said, “What does this mean?”

The rabbit was quiet a moment, then said, “You’re holding a coyote pup in your arms. Tell me what that's about.”

Was I being accused of a terrible wrong to all of rabbit-kind? “I-I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I wasn’t thinking. I just . . .”

I felt so lost and confused at that moment, but the rabbit said, “Forget that. Just look inside and say why you’re doing this.”

I didn’t know what to say. I looked down at the pup, who felt so dear -- and back at the rabbit, who also felt so dear. Finally, I said, “I just want life to live.”

The tears I had felt coming, came. I cried and did not know why. I cried for myself and for hungry coyote pups, for shot coyote moms, for ranchers who shoot them, for rabbits that coyotes hunt, and for all this wide world of coming and going. The rabbit said nothing; just sat beside me as if waiting. I wiped my eyes on my free sleeve and looked again into the sky and the dense field of stars. In that moment my confusion lifted. Everything became clear, beautiful, and sharp.

The desert has so much sharpness.

“Yes,” said the rabbit simply. “Wise one and shepherd, I will leave you now. Take the pup back and feed him. When he gets his strength back, release him back to the desert. He’s one of the lucky ones. He’ll survive. When he gets bigger, he will chase me three times. The first two times I will get away.”

“And the third time?” I said.

“The third time,” she said, “I will know the glory of failure. Now get up. Go. Our parts are not over.” With that, she turned and disappeared into the night.

The next morning, Rob was surprised to wake up and see me sleeping curled up with a coyote pup in my sleeping bag...

I did as the rabbit said, and when the pup got stronger, released him to the desert. I often remember that night, and that star I followed. I mostly think stars are random. Mostly.


Jew v. Jew; Bible v. Bible

After the Greeks came marching into Judea (first Alexander the Great; later the Seleucid Empire), the Jewish urban intellectuals of Jerusalem found Greek thought very attractive and were, more and more, assimilating into the high secular Hellenic culture, abandoning Jewish tradition.

Meanwhile, the traditionalists in the countryside – the country hicks from the small villages around Jerusalem – were having none of it. They didn’t buy that city-slicker sophistication. They had work to do, farms to run, no time for reading Plato or attending Greek drama, and no use for that new Greek gymnasium that had gone up. They had their own literary tradtions and didn’t want them cast aside or overshadowed. When the Hellenizers began to get their people appointed into positions as high priests over the Temple, the traditionalists fought back.

Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV, wanting to end the civil war, took the side of the Hellenizers. In doing so, he abandoned the usual Seleucid practice of not interfering with the local religions. The standard approach of the Seleucid empire, over its vast range encompassing a great diversity of local customs and rites, like many empires, was: we’re going to take our tribute of taxes, we’re going to conscript some of your young men for the Imperial army, but you can keep your religion and your culture.

In Judea, however, Antiochus faced a situation in which his subjugated people were fighting against each other. To bring peace to the region, he entered the conflict, put the Imperial might behind the Hellenizers – the natural choice for a Hellenic overlord – and sought to quash the Hebrew traditionalists. To do this, he banned the traditional practices of Judaism, persecuted any Jew who maintained the observances, and required the people to follow Greek religious practices, including worshiping Zeus, which meant bowing to a statue.

The Hanukkah story comes to us through the Books of First Maccabees and Second Maccabees. These books say Antiochus was simply wicked. They don’t mention that persecuting the local religions was a total departure from the Seleucid practice in all other places, and they downplay the civil conflict between Jews.

You may be asking: are the books of First and Second Maccabees in the Bible? If you’re Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, the answer is yes. If you’re Jewish or Protestant, the answer is no.

First and Second Maccabees are included in the Catholic Bible (in the Catholic "Old Testament"), and likewise in the Eastern Orthodox "Old Testament." Since the Maccabees books were not written until the first or second century of the Common Era, that means some parts of the "Old Testament" are newer than the "New Testament" (though they describe events that occurred before the Common Era.) While most of the books that Christians call the “Old Testament” come from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), the books of Maccabees do not. For that reason, Martin Luther removed the books of Maccabees and a handful of other material, and created a Protestant "Old Testament" that includes only the books that are in the Tanakh.

This may seem curious to nonJews: First and Second Maccabees are not part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, there is no reference to, or basis for, Hanukkah in the Hebrew Scripture at all. It’s not in the Torah or any other part of the Tanakh. The whole story that Hanukkah is based on comes entirely from this extra-scriptural “people’s history,” the books of Maccabees.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Rededicating the Temple"
Next: Part 3: "Free the Hanukkah Eight"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Empire Strikes Back...with Plato and Euclid"


The Empire Strikes Back...with Plato and Euclid.

Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights, began at sundown on December 8 this year and ended at sundown last Sunday, December 16. In the Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, but it does fall in December, usually, so it has become a sort of Jewish Christmas, even though it would not otherwise be a terribly significant celebration.

Yet the story has power to touch us. It’s a story that comes out of the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s before the Common Era. The First and Second Book of Maccabees painted the Maccabean Revolt as a nationalist uprising of the Jews against the political and cultural oppression of Emperor Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire. To some extent, it was. But historians now understand that the root of the conflict was a civil war between orthodox, traditionalist Jews and secularizing, assimilating, Greek-influenced Jews. Antiochus got involved in an attempt to quell the civil disturbance. He took the side of the Hellenizer Jews – and unfortunately escalated the conflict.

We can see ourselves in both the traditionalists fighting against assimilation and in the more educated and secular Jews advocating openness to new ideas. They both represented good. Moreover, the basic conflict between people seeking to retain a way of life and the values of learning and adapting continues to play out today.

To understand the Hanukkah story, we will need some background. Alexander the Great's Greek-Macedonian forces conquered Israel in 333 BCE. Ten years later, in 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died. On his death bed, Alexander carved up his empire and bequeathed various parts of it to his generals.

Within another twenty years, the general that got Judea had lost it to Egypt. Another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was more successful. Seleucus expanded on the holdings Alexander left to him, and established his own empire. The Seleucid Empire lasted 250 years, and, at its height, encompassed an area that included:
  • about half of what is now Turkey,
  • all of Syria,
  • all of Lebanon,
  • most of Israel,
  • a sliver of Jordan,
  • most of Iraq,
  • all of Azerbajian,
  • all of Iran,
  • about half of Turkmenistan,
  • half of Uzbekistan,
  • small chunks of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan,
  • almost the entirety of Afghanistan, and
  • about half of Pakistan.
Big empire!

The ruling class of the Seleucid Empire were basically Greek-Macedonian, like Alexander. In 198 BCE, the Seleucids took control of Judea, ending a century of Egyptian control, and returning the region to Hellenic (i.e., Greek-based culture) rule.

The conquest by Alexander, followed up by the Hellenic re-conquest by the Seleucid Empire, introduced challenges and enticements to the Hebrew people: Greek sports, Greek art and architecture, Greek philosophy. The Hebrew people had been beat up on for centuries by Assyrians, by Babylonians, by Egyptians, but these Greeks were something else. They had not only a powerful army, but had more sophisticated thought. The Greeks could subjugate you by force, and then examine your concepts with Plato and Aristotle, win your heart with the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes, and top it off by dazzling you with some Euclidean geometry. When I read the Apology of Socrates in high school, it won my heart – I went on to be a philosophy major in college. So I guess you could say I can relate. I'm a "Hellenizer" myself.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Rededicating the Temple"
Next: Part 2: "Jew v. Jew; Bible v. Bible"


Not Answering

Difficult as it is to hear and understand the words of the other,
Keep open the channels of human discourse
Spirit affirms, the breath of life praises,
The teachings live:
Our way together is the way of life.
Herbert Bronstein, “Chant for the Universe”
“We’re in a different age now, but we have the same genes those tribal ancestors had. Natural selection has selected in us the genes to: (a) protect ‘us’, and (b) identify ‘us’ as the ones who share rituals and sacred stories with us.” (Previous Lake Chalice)
Our genes give us proclivities. We also have tremendous elasticity in what we do with those proclivities. We have circuitry for loyalty to “our tribe.” The trick is to train that circuitry to regard all of creation as our tribe. This training doesn't come naturally to brains built like ours – but neither does learning theoretical physics. It takes a lot of good teachers and intentional efforts at reshaping our thinking.

Cooperation has huge pay-offs -- and we can certainly see those pay-offs for both sides in the Middle East, if they could learn to cooperate. But cooperation is also risky. The risk is that the first one to make a cooperative move will get taken advantage of. So we evolved to be wary -- because wariness enhanced our survival. It takes a lot of education to re-train brains -- and if they aren't re-trained on both sides, then the fear of being taken advantage of is not irrational.

Why can’t we get along? Why is there fighting in the Mid-East when all three religions in the region teach peace?

To respond to this question rather than merely answer it requires a commitment to the ongoing neural retraining. Let the questions be ones that we keep and live into – that we keep asking, and ask doggedly. Can’t we get along? Can’t we live in peace?

Instead of answering, keep asking.

Yes, our religions are very different – at least until the members of each grow spiritually enough for them to begin to come together. At the same time, our inherent worth and dignity is the same.

“Difficult as it is to hear and understand the words of the other,” can’t we listen to one another?

Can’t we “keep open the channels of human discourse”?

“Our way together is the way of life.” Can’t we walk that way together?

“Spirit affirms, the breath of life praises, the teachings live.” Can’t we learn that all of life is our tribe?

The insistence on the question, not on an answer, is how we move to a more developed faith – to a stage at which all the religions flow together. Can’t we love one another and live in peace?

The root of violence and injustice is any thought, word, or deed that treats a being like an object or diminishes a being’s sense of value or security. Can’t we end violence and oppression at its root? Can’t we?

Keep pressing the question, dear readers. Accept no answer, but repeat the question:
Can’t we love one another and live in peace?
Accept no answer until the day comes when the answer is:
“We can, and we do.”
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This is part 5 of 5 of "Religions: Same and Different"
Previous: Part 4: "Answering"
Beginning: Part 1: "Where Do You Live?"



Westerners who have traveled to the mid-East sometimes see things there that leave them perplexed, shaking their heads. Others react that way from hearing the news out of the mid-East. “Why can’t they get along?” we wonder. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all believe in peace, all believe in treating others with kindness. What’s the problem?

Though the ethical codes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims overlap a great deal there are differences: the Jews have the extensive Levitical laws, Christian ethics draws on the Sermon on the Mount. Islamic ethics comes from the Quran and early Islamic jurists. There are differences in the kind of institutions they build: synagogues, churchs, and mosques have different expectations and assumptions and different governing structures. The doctrines are different: Jews and Moslems have no trinity doctrine, for example. They use different stories to explain and inspire. They observe different rituals and methods of practice.

Even so, we may well wonder: Why do these differences make such a difference? Why are they driving suicide car bombs at each other over whether or not one faces Mecca to pray, or wears a prayer shawl or yarmulke, or recites the Apostle’s creed?

It’s a question that calls for both an answer and a response.

The Lake Chalice answer goes like this. Humans evolved as tribal animals, and tribes were in competition with each other. Competition between tribes drove us toward formation of larger and better-united groups. In order for a large group to be cohesive enough to defend itself – or successfully attack neighbors – we needed moral rules to keep us in line. Selective pressure turned our ancestors into beings with a facility for moral rules. In addition, participating in group rituals together and reciting and listening to a group’s sacred stories psychologically reinforces commitment to the group and lets the group know you’re committed to them. The origin of religion is in those rituals and telling of sacred stories – and its function was to strengthen group cohesion. In other words, we have religion because we needed it for war. So there’s nothing surprising about the fact that an adaptation for succeeding in war plays a role in prompting us to go to war. Sharing rituals and stories together develops loyalty – a shared sense of “us.” Anyone who doesn’t share those rituals is “them” – a threat to “us.” It is religion, more fundamentally than anything else that generates the “us” and the “them” that is the basis of violent conflict.

Presented with this line of thought, one Lake Chalice reader wrote:
“I understand that religions were set up to create solidarity against attacks, but we are in a much different age now. Why are we still treating religion as a divider not a uniter? Why do I care that Ahmed is a Muslim and I am a Jew? Down deep, we are all the same. We all want to survive and to have our friends and families survive -- maybe even to have them all live a good life. Why can't the Palestinians and the Israelis live in peace? Is it the political leaders? The religious leaders? Where is the worldwide movement to say, ‘Can't we all just live together in peace?’”
Allow us to clarify. It’s not that “religions were set up” in any intentional way. Rather, the forces of natural selection weeded out those tribes whose members didn't have good solidarity. We’re in a different age now, but we have the same genes those tribal ancestors had. Natural selection has selected in us the genes to: (a) protect "us", and (b) identify "us" as the ones who share rituals and sacred stories with us. You would be inclined to care that Ahmed is a Muslim if you are a Jew because "Muslim" and "Jew" are the names of groups, and those groups are in competition -- just as groups/tribes/cities/nations have been throughout human history and prehistory.

There, Gentle Reader, you have the Lake Chalice answer to the question of inter-religious strife. This answer is, of course, unacceptable. Even Lake Chalice will say so (and just did). It's unacceptable because as long as the violence continues, no answer can be acceptable.

We need not an answer, but a response.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Religions: Same and Different"
Next: Part 5: "Not Answering"
Previous: Part 3: "1893 World's Parliament of Religions"
Beginning: Part 1: "Where Do You Live?"


1893 World's Parliament of Religions

Religions are different. But are they "ultimately the same"? Are the differences superficial, or do they go "all the way down"? Lake Chalice began exploring that question last week. Today we take a moment to marvel at the fact that we can even ask that question. For most of human history, most people assumed that their religion was the right one and all others were wrong. That was a very clear -- and "all the way down" -- difference.

A significant event in the shift in our awareness of religions came in 1893. The World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago that year set in motion a profound reshaping of interreligious understanding. It was the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, and it gave birth to formal interreligious dialog worldwide.

While there were absences – there were no Native American religious figures, no Sikhs, and a number of other indigenous and earth-centered religious traditions were absent – the conference was stunning in its time for its inclusivity.

Mary Baker Eddy was there, representing the new Christian Science.

It was the first time that Americans heard about or from the Bahai Faith.

Anagarika Dharmapala was there preaching and representing Theravada Buddhism.

The Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi was there.

Japanese Zen master Shaku Soen gave Americans their first exposure to Zen.

The eloquence of Swami Vivekananda on the eternal values of India brought about for the first time among westerners, a feeling that eastern religions were not merely exotic oddities but might actually have something important to teach the west.

Lake Chalice cannot resist mentioning the significant role played by Unitarians and Universalists at the 1893 World's Parliament of Relgion. The Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd-Jones was one of the 16 on the planning committee that toiled for two years to make the event happen. At the Parliament, Unitarian and Universalist speakers brought, and embodied, new ideas about gender equality in religion. 1893 came during a chapter of Unitarian history known as "The Iowa Sisterhood" – a period in which many Unitarian women ministers thrived in pulpits dotting the Midwest frontier – pulpits which male ministers had refused or abandoned. A number of these Unitarian women ministers spoke at the World Parliament of Religions, including Rev. Marion Murdoch, and Rev. Ida Hultin. Unitarian lay activists and scholars Julia Ward Howe and Eliza Sunderland also gave prominent and acclaimed addresses at the Parliament. Universalist minister Augusta Jane Chapin chaired the Parliament’s Woman’s Committee, addressed the opening and closing sessions and was the only woman to preside over a session.

Swami Vivekananda's address declared:
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now."
Participants at the parliament were so moved, so deeply influenced by who they met and saw and heard there, that the modern movement for tolerance and interfaith respect in America – a movement that Unitarians would so take to heart that it is central to who we are today – are direct results of that 1893 conference. We are what we are now because of the Parliament of World Religions 120 years ago.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Religions: Same and Different"
Next: Part 4: "Answering"
Previous: Part 2: "Stages of Faith"
Beginning: Part 1: "Where Do You Live?"


Stages of Faith

Religions differ widely in where and how people gather; the practices and rituals adherents share when they gather; the practices and rituals in which adherents engage individually on their own; the teachings, stories, beliefs, cosmologies, and ethical codes. Despite these wide differences, it often seems important to stress a basic similarity among the world's religions. There are a couple reasons for this.

One reason is the distressing fact that people of different religions are so often at war with each other. Catholics and Protestants have fought. Jews and Moslems. Moslems and Hindus. Hindus and Buddhists. Wherever any two religious groups are next to each other, they’re liable to start fighting. We wish we would all live in peace, and we hope that by making the point that all religions are the same we can encourage them to stop shooting each other.

The world's major religions do all affirm the golden rule, and it might seem that going to war isn’t treating the other as you would wish to be treated. However, pacificism is a tenet of only a few small groups – such as, among forms of Christianity, the Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren. The great bulk of all the religions understand the Golden Rule as having a "self-defense" loophole. Unfortunately, once we allow for wars of self-defense, even the most blatant aggression may be rationalized as a pre-emptive attack necessary for self-defense. So there we are. The universal point of similarity among religions will not prevent violent conflict between them.

There’s a second basis for saying that all religions are the same. The case for sameness across religions grows, paradoxically, out of awareness of differences within each religion. A Christian may mature spiritually as a Christian, a Muslim may mature spiritually as a Muslim, and a Unitarian Universalist may mature spiritually as a Unitarian Universalist. Growth in spiritual maturity moves a person further away from the less mature members in their own tradition and closer to the spiritually mature members of other traditions.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith tell us that Hindus and Hopis and Jains and Jews all move through stages of faith development.
  • Preschool-age children mix fantasy and reality.
  • Around 6 or 7, kids move into a more logical very literal understanding of their religion’s stories.
  • Stage 3 typically begins as a teenager. They form a more comprehensive belief system synthesizing a broad range of ideas. But they don’t see their belief system as a belief system, but rather as the truth.
  • Stage four, often begun in young adulthood, involves critical examination of their own beliefs. Many people never go beyond stages 3 or 4.
  • Stage 5, if it is reached at all, rarely comes before middle-age. It’s a growing comfort with paradox and the limits of logic and language. Here one sees religious claims as metaphorical, and the words of any religious tradition – one’s own or any other – more as a form of poetry than the kind of truth-claim made by scientists. Stage 5 folks may enjoy spiritual writing from a variety of traditions: Sufi writers such as Rumi, Christian such as like Thomas Merton, Jewish Kabbalah literature or Zen koans – texts that offer not answers but cultivation of appreciation of the mystery of life.
  • Few people ever reach Fowler’s 6th stage, at which attachments and fears have lost their power, and the person lives from pure joyful compassion for others.
Those are the stages of development for a Jew, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Naturalist, or Unitarian Universalist. Because of those different stages within any religion – stages that are the same across religions – we can say that religions are all the same. They are different paths up the same mountain in the sense that a person within any tradition may move up through the stages. We might say religions are not basically (at the base) the same. Rather, religions come together at the higher stages, not at the base.

Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero has a recent book: God is Not One. Prothero aims to disabuse readers of the notion that religions are the same. His book details the many ways "the eight rival religions that rule the world" are widely different. However, there is no mention of James Fowler in Prothero's book. Prothero ignores how, regardless of what the faith may be, the stages of faith development are similar.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "Religions: Same and Different"
Next: Part 3: "1893 World's Parliament of Religions"
Previous: Part 1: "Where Do You Live?"


A Mindful Congregation

Congressman Tim Ryan wrote about “A Mindful Nation.” How about a mindful congregation? What would happen in a congregation committed to cultivating mindfulness?

A mindful congregation would, first, foremost, and always, be accepting, welcoming, and radically hospitable. If certain of the members aren’t ready to do the work, that’s OK. It’s OK for anyone to be exactly where they are in their spirit journey, even if you or I might think they are “stuck.” We have no way of knowing what seeds may be germinating below the surface of another person. By offering the water of unconditional acceptance, we do all that can be done to support the eventual sprouting of those seeds. In a mindful congregation, everyone who just needs a comforting presence for an hour, or a month, or 10 years, could find it, and no one would be castigated for not working hard enough.

At the same time, most of the members of a mindful congregation would be prepared to explicitly embrace the intentional work of emotional and spiritual growth and deepening. Most of the members most of the time would be able to carry through on a resolve to set aside time each day to journal, to study the texts that feel to them to be wise and instructive, to sit in quiet, still mindfulness 20 minutes – and would be able to cultivate the habit of returning throughout their day to attention to immediate experience.

The first source of the living tradition Unitarian Universalists share is:
“direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures that moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
A mindful congregation would be attuned to “transcending mystery and wonder,” yet, even more, would see “direct experience” as fundamental and would work at paying attention to direct experience.

Most of the members of a mindful congregation would be present on Sunday morning, because that’s part of the work, and most of them would also attend a smaller spiritual practice group once or twice a month because that’s also part of this joy-making work.

A mindful congregation would have an expectational mission: a statement that very briefly indicates the work each member is expected to engage insofar as they are able. There’s a Seattle congregation that has this mission:
"We covenant to awaken spirit, nurture hope, and inspire action."
There’s a New York congregation that has this mission:
“Healing spiritual disconnection by helping each other listen to our deepest selves, open to life’s gifts, and serve needs greater than our own.”
These missions limn the work the members come together to do. By themselves, these statements are unimpressive. Brief and general as they are, however, they are specific enough to guide congregational leaders in developing programs to flesh out the mission’s meaning. For the Seattle congregation, these would be programs focused on learning how to awaken spirit, how to nurture hope, how to inspire and be inspired to action. For the New York example, the programs explicitly explore ways to listen to one’s deepest self, to recognize and receive life’s gifts, and to serve greater needs. A mindful congregation would have an expectational mission, programs designed to specify how to embody that mission, and the members would show up in significant numbers at those programs.

The creation of mindful congregations is my, and our, work.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Mindful Nation"
Previous: Part 3: "There's Our Work"
Beginning: Part 1: "A Midwestern Congressman Named Ryan"


There's Our Work

Reactivity in our schools produces increased stress from the negative judgmentalism of peers, which, at the extreme, includes bullying -- and a corresponding inability of bully victims to get unstuck from the role of victim.

Reactivity in our military and police leads to a mentality that, in the extreme, is expressed as “shoot ‘em all and let God sort it out.” Traumatic stress levels can lead to PTSD for the rest of their lives. Some frustration and anger is inherent in the work they do. Absence of skills to manage those feelings is not.

Reactivity shows up in disease rates, and pain, and pain medication, and self-medication with alcohol or drugs, licit or illicit.

Reactivity shows up in gang loyalty to one’s insiders and gang violence toward those seen as rivals.

Reactivity shows up in, “I just don’t understand those people.”

Well, there you go. There’s our work: to understand them. Which includes also understanding ourselves.

There is a way to learn how to manage our reactivity. We don’t suppress it. We don’t judge ourselves, or others, wrong for having a reaction. We don’t indulge the reaction either. We notice it, and are able to make a conscious decision about what to do with that reactive energy.

There is no easy way to health, no magic bullet. It’s not easy to get out and exercise everyday. That’s a hard discipline. But the heart attack you could have prevented hurts a lot more.

It is almost useless to say to someone else – or to ourselves – "Don’t be so reactive." If we haven’t been training ourselves in nonjudgmental awareness, in identifying our feelings, in empathizing with ourselves and with others, then when the reactivity comes – and it does come from time to time for everyone – we have no resources for managing it.

Mindfulness is a crucial resource, if we commit to learn to use it. If a politician can learn it, then we can, too, can't we? Nonviolent communication is another potent resource. By "nonviolent communication," I mean both speaking and listening in ways that at no level treat any being like an object and that at every level affirm every being’s sense of value and security. Acquiring these skills takes work.

Even if we were all really well-trained and practiced at both mindfulness and nonviolent communication, we'd still have problems. Problems, there will always be.
“We will still misplace our keys. We will still forget people’s names. We will still say and do things that may hurt others, including those we love. We will say the exact wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. But in each of these instances, with mindfulness we may do it just a bit less. We may see the humor in our mistakes and be able to laugh at ourselves more. We may be just a little less critical of others, and of ourselves. Or we may deal with our mistakes more quickly and with a more sincere and kind heart. We may more easily forgive the people who have hurt us. We may sit down and have civil political conversations with those who strongly disagree with us.” (Ryan, A Mindful Nation)

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Mindful Nation"
Next: Part 4: "A Mindful Congregation"
Previous: Part 2: "Mindfulness and Reactivity"
Beginning: Part 1: "A Midwestern Congressman Named Ryan"


Mindfulness and Reactivity

Congressman Tim Ryan read the copy of Jon Kabbat-Zinn's book that Kabat-Zinn's publishers mailed him: Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness. A couple years later, Ryan went on a 5-day mindfulness meditation retreat led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Five days of mostly silence, with instructional talks and guidance sprinkled in. Five days of practicing bringing attention to immediate experience -- the mind wandering off, and being brought back. Since then, Congressman Ryan has had a daily mindfulness practice.
“It quiets the mind. It helps you harness more of your energy. It increases your focus and allows you to relax and pay better attention to what you’re doing and to those around you. My football coaches would have loved it. It’s the kind of performance enhancer any athlete would be eager to have. . . . I wrote A Mindful Nation to promote the values of slowing down, taking care of ourselves, being kind, and helping each other.” (Tim Ryan)
With that as prelude, let us look at congregational life. The work of a congregation, at its best, changes its members, transforms them, so that all through their lives, not just on Sunday morning, every waking hour of every day, members display a growing and deepening spiritual maturity. In addition to the transformations of each individual member, this work leads to beloved community.

Beloved community doesn’t just happen because a group of people say they would like it. It takes work. We are, each of us, I believe, called to the ongoing, never-ending work it takes to grow in wisdom, in emotional intelligence, in the three R’s of resilience, reflection, and relationship.

It turns out that "Mindfulness" is a handy way to sum up what is at the core of this work – in our nation and in our congregations.

Congressman Tim Ryan of
Ohio's 13th District
Tim Ryan’s book surveys the scientific studies about how mindfulness practice strengthens our capacity for attention, for nonjudgmental sympathetic understanding. He goes on to devote chapters to mindfulness in our schools: how it can increase our children’s attention and kindness. Mindfulness in our hospitals and doctors offices: how it can improve our health and our healthcare system. Mindfulness in our military, police, and firefighters: how it can improve performance and build resiliency for the military and first responders – and how, later on, mindfulness is the path for coming to terms with PTSD. Mindfulness in the workplace: how it can help us rediscover our values and reshape our economy.

Ryan highlights some examples:
  • Alan Marlatt uses mindfulness to address our national substance abuse problems. Marlatt is the founder of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention.
  • Thousands of mental health counselors and therapists are teaching clients mindfulness to help with depression, with social anxiety, with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health issues.
  • Midwife Nancy Bardacke, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting Program has found that expectant parents who learn mindfulness “develop skills for working with the stresses of pregnancy and everyday life.” (163).
  • Others have adapted MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) specifically for teens to equip teens during that very stressful time of life with “the skills they need to keep themselves balanced in a world that can be difficult and complicated for young people.” It trains the brain for resilience and cheerfulness.
  • Oakland’s “Mind Body Awareness Project” is bringing mindfulness training to gang members. Mindfulness enables 12- and 13-year-old boys “see for the first time that it’s OK to be who they are and that they don’t have to belong to a gang to attain self-fulfillment.” (164).
Mindfulness has the power to liberate us from the manacles of our own reactivity. It is reactivity that produces the polarization that we see in our nation and sometimes, in microcosm, in our congregations. Something occurs; we don’t like it; the limbic system is triggered, and we just react. Stress levels go up; the capacity to empathize goes down.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Mindful Nation"
Next: Part 3: "There's Our Work"
Previous: Part 1: "A Midwestern Congressman Named Ryan"


A Midwestern Congressman Named Ryan

It’s been one month, now, since the election. To judge from where most of the attention was focused, you might have thought that the election was only in Ohio. It was, it turned out, a national election, and down here in Florida, in fact, we breathed a sigh of relief that this time it didn’t come down to us.

We elected a a president, vice-president, and a slew of senators, governors, and representatives. We elected politicians, and we generally don’t have a very high opinion of politicians. Politicians are generally not well liked.

There’s one congressman, though, that captured my attention: a Midwestern congressman named Ryan. I don’t mean Congressman Paul Ryan from Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district. I mean Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio’s 13th congressional district. First elected in 2002 at age 29, he was re-elected a month ago to his 6th term.

Last March, Tim Ryan came out with a book: A Mindful Nation. Wow. "A Mindful Nation." Not what I would expect from a sitting congressman. Full title: A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. It seems that sitting still and being quiet for a while each day – and trying to be mindful throughout the day – is not only a spiritual discipline but a patriotic duty.

Mindfulness is now a key concept in psychology, referring to a psychological quality that involves:
  • “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally;”
  • “a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.”
Mindfulness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. So it has two aspects:
  • bringing attention to immediate experience – particularly, noting mental events as they happen.
  • being open, curious, and accepting of whatever it is that you’re noticing.
From a calm awareness of bodily functions, of sensations, of emotions, of thoughts as these things arise, wisdom emerges.

That's easy to say. It takes a lot of practice to develop the habit of doing it.
Congressman Tim Ryan, bringing
mindfulness into schools

Tim Ryan’s journey to mindfulness began with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn is himself an interesting guy. Born Jon Kabat in 1944, he hyphenated his last name to Kabat-Zinn when he married Myla Zinn, the daughter of Howard Zinn (1922-2010), the great historian/social activist. Jon, as his father-in-law was, is a man committed to transformation.

A professor of medicine and a long-time student of the Korean Zen master, Seung Sahn, in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn integrated medicine and Zen and created MBSR – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – and began teaching it at his Stress Reduction Clinic. Today, over 200 medical centers and clinics in the US and elsewhere use the MBSR model.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is the author of, Full Catastrophe Living:How to Cope with Stress, Pain and Illness using Mindfulness Meditation; and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Then, in 2005, Jon Kabat-Zinn came out with another book: Coming to Our Senses:Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. There was a 100-page section on mindfulness and politics, so Kabat-Zinn’s publisher mailed a copy to each of the 535 members of Congress. Casting bread upon the waters. You never know. Maybe one of them will read more than a page.

And one of them did. . . .

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Mindful Nation."
Next: Part 2: "Mindfulness and Reactivity"


The Abundance of Neighborliness

What happened with Jesus and those five loaves and two fish and the thousands of people to be fed? Neighborliness happened. The "kin-dom" of god – a.k.a. public life reorganized toward neighborliness – happened.

A crowd of people had gathered to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam. From that sense of boundless provision welled up an urge to share of this manifest plenty. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share. From the divinity within them, the divinity that is always there, lying too-often unnoticed, came forth this food. It came from God, which we call by many names, one of them being neighborliness.
“The disciples, asked to feed the crowd, are sure that food is scarce; Jesus performs a ‘miracle’ to reveal how abundant food is even when there is none in sight. In this story, as throughout his active life, Jesus wanted to help people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance.” (Parker Palmer, The Active Life, 123)
Parker Palmer was once a passenger on a plane that pulled away from the gate, taxied to a corner of the tarmac, and stopped.

The pilot came on the intercom: “I have some bad news and some worse news. The bad news is there’s a storm front in the west. Denver is socked in and shut down. So we’ll be staying here for a few hours. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that we have no food, and it’s lunch time.”

Everybody groaned. Some passengers started to complain. Some became angry. But then, Palmer said, one of the flight attendants did something amazing. She stood up and took the intercom mike and said, “We’re really sorry folks. We didn’t plan it this way and we really can’t do much about it. And I know for some of you this is a big deal. Some of you are really hungry and were looking forward to a nice lunch. Some of you may have a medical condition and really need lunch. Some of you may not care one way or the other, and some of you were planning to skip lunch anyway. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. I have a couple of breadbaskets up here and we’re going to pass them around and I’m asking everybody to put something in the basket. Some of you brought a little snack along—something to tide you over—just in case something like this happened, some peanut butter crackers, candy bars. And some of you have a few LifeSavers or chewing gum or Rolaids. And if you don’t have anything edible, you have a picture of your children or spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a bookmark or a business card. Everybody put something in, and then we’ll reverse the process. We’ll pass the baskets around again and everybody can take out what he/she needs.”

Palmer writes:
“What happened next was amazing. The griping stopped. People started to root around in pockets and handbags, some got up and opened their suitcases stored in the overhead luggage racks and got out boxes of candy, a salami, a bottle of wine. People were laughing and talking. She had transformed a group of people who were focused on need and deprivation into a community of sharing and celebration. She had transformed scarcity into a kind of abundance.”
After the flight, which eventually did proceed, Parker Palmer stopped on his way off the plane and said to her: “Do you know there’s a story in the Bible about what you did back there? It’s about Jesus feeding a lot of people with very little food.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know that story. That’s why I did what I did.”

Unitarian Universalists know that story too. We Unitarian Universalists have fashioned a wiser understanding of the miraculous. The uninterrupted causal nexus of history and nature is replete with the miracle of community – the miracle of abundance.
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This is part 5 of 5 of "Myths of Scarcity"
Previous: Part 4: "Fabricating Scarcity"
Beginning: Part 1: "Miracles"


Fabricating Scarcity

What would it look like to live the truth of abundance instead of the myth of scarcity? Here’s a parable from an unknown author that shows what it might look like:
An American businessman was at the pier of a small, coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”

The American then asked, “Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?”

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take.”

“15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich.
You would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

Triumphantly, the American replied, “Then you would retire! You’d move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your grand-kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
The United States certainly does not have a monopoly on scarcity thinking. According to “Bread for the World,” 925 million people in the world are hungry: more than the combined populations of the US, Canada, and all of Europe. Over 27,000 people each day die of hunger or malnourishment-related disease -- most of them children under five. Yet we have enough food.
“In 2008, globally, we grew . . . 4,000 calories per day per person—roughly twice what people need to eat.” (foodfirst.org/en/node/2761, posted 2010 Jan 21)
In fact, 78% of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses: that’s the finding of a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As Parker Palmer said,
“We create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law, and by competing with others for resources as if we were stranded on the Sahara at the last oasis.”
That’s what’s happening in the starving parts of the world.

Starvation – spiritual starvation and physical starvation – results from the fearful acceptance of scarcity as law. For
“the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.”
As the Parker Palmer also told us,
“Abundance is a communal act...Community not only creates abundance – community is abundance.”
Walter Brueggemann explains:
“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.”
If we learn that what we have is enough, it helps others have enough.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Myths of Scarcity"
Next: Part 5: "The Abundance of Neighborliness"
Previous: Part 3: "What 'Spiritual' Means"
Beginning: Part 1: "Miracles"


Saturdao 31

Dao De Jing, verse 19b

16 translations.

1. James Legge:
Those three methods (of government)
Thought olden ways in elegance did fail
And made these names their want of worth to veil;
But simple views, and courses plain and true
Would selfish ends and many lusts eschew.
2. Archie Bahm:
If the foregoing three principles are unclear, then at least the following are understandable:
Simply be yourself.
Act naturally.
Refrain from self-assertiveness.
Avoid covetousness.
3. Frank MacHovec: “On Real Education”
These three things involve the external world; they are therefore of no real value.
The people need what is more dependable. Reveal, then, your natural, inner self. Realize your original nature; control selfishness; subdue desires.
4. D.C. Lau:
These three, being false adornments, are not enough
And the people must have something to which they can attach themselves:
Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block,
Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible.
5. Gia-Fu Feng:
These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one’s true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.
6. Stan Rosenthal: “Returning to Naturalness”
But ethics and kindness, and even wisdom, are insufficient in themselves.
Better by far to see the simplicity of raw silk's beauty and the uncarved block; to be one with onself, and with one's brother.
It is better by far to be one with the Dao, developing selflessness, tempering desire, removing the wish, but being compassionate.
7. Jacob Trapp: “Return to Simplicity”
If, without these three,
life should seem too commonplace,
let there be certain adornments:
simplicity to contemplate,
an uncarved block to hold,
selflessness and fewness of desires.
8. Stephen Mitchell:
If these three aren't enough,
just stay at the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.
9. Victor Mair:
These three statements
are inadequate as a civilizing doctrine;
Let something be added to them:
Evince the plainness of undyed silk,
Embrace the simplicity of the unhewn log;
Lessen selfishness,
Diminish desires;
Abolish learning
and you will be without worries.
10. Michael LaFargue:
Taking these three lines as your text –
this is not sufficient.
Give them something to fasten on to:
Pay attention to the Raw, embrace the Uncarved
discount your personal interests, make your desires few.
11. Peter Merel: “Simplify”
Yet such remedies treat only symptoms
And so they are inadequate.
People need personal remedies:
Reveal your naked self and embrace your original nature;
Bind your self-interest and control your ambition;
Forget your habits and simplify your affairs.
12. Ursula LeGuin: “Raw silk and uncut wood”
But even these three rules
Needn’t be followed; what works reliably
Is to know the raw silk,
Hold the uncut wood.
Need little,
want less.
Forget the rules.
Be untroubled.
13. Wang Keping:
Yet, these are inadequate as a doctrine,
We therefore urge the following:
Manifest plainness and embrace simplicity;
Reduce selfishness and have few desires;
And get rid of learning and have no worries.
14. Ames and Hall:
But these three sayings as they stand are still lacking
And need to be supplemented by the following:
Display a genuineness like raw silk and embrace a simplicity like unworked wood,
Lessen your concern for yourself and reduce your desires.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura:
By looking within,
Evince the inner self,
Embrace the unadorned truth;
Diminish the outer self,
Demolish the phantasmic desire.
Abandon the external search for knowledge,
Abolish the internal worry for illusory matters.
16. Addiss and Lombardo:
These three statements are not enough.
One more step is necessary:
Look at plain silk; hold uncarved wood.
The self dwindles; desires fade.
* * *
Those maxims your elementary school teacher so oft repeated.
Do you remember them? Did they do you any good?
Those times when you were simple.
Maybe that felt better.
* * *
Previous: Saturdao 30.
Beginning: Saturdao 1.


What "Spiritual" Means

Some Unitarian Universalists hit a little mental snag on the word “spiritual.” I grew up with that snag. "Spiritual? What does that mean?"

Let me try this. Spiritual means being aware of abundance. Spiritual means knowing – with an abiding clarity -- that what you have, what you are, where you are, is enough.

It’s one thing to know this in your head. “Right, right, I’m enough. Gotcha. Heard it before. I know that.”

It’s one thing to have that cognitive knowledge. It’s another thing to live that truth with every breath and every step. That’s hard to do. It does not come naturally to us who are acculturated to modern society, and it involves more than cognition. "Spirituality" is quite a handy word for this capacity for not-merely-cognitive perception of abundance.

The abundance is there. We have but to expand the circle of our consciousness to take it in. All the world’s religions teach this.

In the Jewish tradition, the scriptures say it over and over: God is good, God provides, God is faithful. In Genesis, God lovingly brings the entire world into being, and provides human beings with everything they need. "Be fruitful and multiply," God says, and the fruitfulness overflows. The Book of Psalms sings again and again about all the gifts God gives us. Psalm 104 says, all the creatures of the earth
"look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things." 
Predominant is the picture of God, the generous provider, the faithful parent -- always giving, supplying our needs. The Jewish tradition is emphatic in saying God loves us extravagantly and wants to provide for us, richly and abundantly. That’s the Jewish way of saying that life is inherently abundant.

The Buddhist tradition teaches letting go of desires. Why? Because we have all we need, abundantly. Wanting things to be different obscures from us awareness of the ample riches that are present to us right here, inalienable from us, we have but to notice them.

Taoism’s emphasis is on the Tao, which is usually translated as “the way.” The Japanese word for Tao is “michi”, which means “abounding.” It is abundant everywhere.

Despite the teachings of the dominant religion in our culture, and despite the teachings of every other major world religious tradition, we have a hard time accepting it.

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)
We spend much of our lives in the grip of a delusion: the delusion of scarcity. Christian theologian and Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Breuggemann has written elogquently on "the myth of scarcity."
“The majority of the world's resources pour into the United States. And as we Americans grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us. We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity....Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ -- and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us.” (“The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” Christian Century, 1999 March 24)
Brueggemann notes that the US has cornered more than three-quarters of the world's resources, but we want more, always more. And the more we have, the less satisfied and the less secure we feel. That's how powerful the myth of scarcity can be: it can take the wealthiest people on earth and make them greedy and mean, unable and unwilling to share.
“The ideology devoted to encouraging consumption wants to shrivel our imaginations so that we cannot conceive of living in any way that would be less profitable for the dominant corporate structures.”
The ideology of consumption requires us to buy the myth scarcity – for if we buy that, then we’ll want to buy lots of other stuff.

If "spirituality" means "awareness of abundance," then it also includes a political capacity to resist corporate structures demanding consumption.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Myths of Scarcity."
Next: Part 4: "Fabricating Scarcity"
Previous: Part 2: "Interruptions"
Beginning: Part 1: "Miracles"



The previous Lake Chalice mentioned the “miracle story” of the loaves and fishes – the only miracle story or parable that appears in all four gospels. Here’s the version from the oldest of the four, the Gospel of Mark:
‘The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”
But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then [Jesus] ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand…’ (Mark 6:30-42)
Five loaves and two fish. Five thousand were fed. What happened? The story may, of course, have been fabricated from whole cloth, but that hardly matters. What is it a story of? What does it teach us? What is its poetic, rather than "literal-factual," meaning?

The great Unitarian Rev. Theodore Parker notwithstanding, I want to say there was a miracle there – even if there wasn’t . . . what? It gets difficult to say what it wasn’t. Some folks like to say it wasn’t “supernatural,” but that word has so many conflicting meanings, connotations, and associations that I think it is useless. Theologian Daphne Hampson has a phrase that may be helpful here:
“an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature.” (Hampson, After Christianity, 1996, 12)
Daphne Hampson (b. 1944)
OK. That’s what there wasn’t. Whatever it was that happened that gets represented to us as five thousand being fed from five loaves and two fish, it wasn't “an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature.” It was a miracle. It was a miracle of and within – not a miracle that interrupted -- the causal nexus of history and nature.

The miracle did interrupt something, though. It interrupted the mind’s chatter about its needs and fears. It interrupted obliviousness and allowed people to notice wonder, beauty, and the abundance that life presents in each moment. It’s a story that still has the power to interrupt the ego’s defense mechanisms and call us to neighborliness – call us to expand our circle.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Myths of Scarcity."
Next: Part 3: "What 'Spiritual' Means"
Previous: Part 1: "Miracles"