Strangers in the Land of Egypt

My heart had a visitor this week.

Knock, knock.


"Hi, I’m Anger."

"Oh, yes. I recognize you by the tightening I’m feeling. You’re here about that letter. Come on in.”

The letter was one that Yency got. Yency, for those of you who don’t know, is the Honduran young man LoraKim and I adopted when he was 17. (Yency's story: See here.) He is now 24, and last September we celebrated his swearing in as a US citizen. He proceeded to get a US passport, which he used over the Christmas break to go visit his family back in Honduras. Before he left, I went with him downtown to register to vote. We took his official certificate of US citizenship, his social security card, his passport with us. But the only thing he was asked for was his drivers licence, which they photocopied and attached to half-page form he filled out, and that was that. He didn’t need any of the other documentation after all.

I said, “I guess your drivers license number was part of what you provided in the citizenship process, so their computers will be able to match your drivers license with your citizenship status.” And I didn’t think more about it. The letter from the voter registrar came while Yency was in Honduras. I figured it was his voter registration card. I put it on his desk to be there for him when he returned and forgot about it. He shared with me this week that it wasn’t his voter registration card. It was a letter saying his drivers license didn’t go through. Wasn't verified. Would he please provide further documentation.

I know that every time you impose one extra step in the process, then a certain percentage of people won’t do that step. Imposing additional steps and requirements and inconveniences on target populations succeeds in reducing the voting representation of those populations. That’s when I felt Anger knocking.

"Come on in, Anger. What can I do for you?"

Anger said, “I appreciate the attention you’re giving me. You used to push me away, and I’d have to go around and slip in the back door. But since you’re being so attentive -- and that’s really all I ever wanted -- let me ask if I can help you.”

“I’m feeling the energy I’m getting from you,” I said.

“I offer you that energy at your disposal as my gift,” said Anger, graciously.

So I started looking up what’s going in Florida. Certain of the powers that be in this state are prepared to use any means they can get away with to disenfranchise any population that’s less likely to vote for them. For example, Florida is one of 13 states in which convicted Felons permanently and forever lose the right to vote. Most states allow felons to return to voting after they have completed their incarceration and all supervised release – and some never suspend voting rights: people can vote from prison.

For a second example, just a few years back, in 2008, Florida had a big purge of voter registration rolls that removed 12,000 voters mostly due to typos and other obvious clerical errors. And I’m in favor of cleaning up the typos, but, lookit, something other than an OCD impulse for clerical accuracy is going on here. Seventy percent of the flagged voters in Florida’s purge were African American or Latino.

For a third example, it turns out that voter registration drives accounted for 15% of all Latino registrations and twenty percent of all African American registrations, but only 6 percent of white registrations, so the state of Florida passed a law last spring to substantially restrict voter registration drives. I thought it was curious when we couldn’t get Yency registered at the local library, or, indeed, anywhere, I discovered, other than the one office downtown, which is not in a major governmental office building but tucked away in its own little storefront where it’s just a little harder to find. But find it we did.

A study released last month by the think-tank Demos found a huge gap between registration rates of native-born citizens and naturalized citizens. Complexity of registration is part of the problem. The study noted:
“There are also discriminatory policies that inhibit their ability to register to vote. These include ethnic minorities being blocked by election administrators in the voter registration process; laws requiring voters to prove their citizenship prior to registering to vote; and inaccurate database citizenship checks.”
For the Demos study: click here.
"How you feeling now, Anger?" I asked.

"Going strong," said Anger.

I guess we’ll be going down with Yency to visit the registrar on Monday, tomorrow. Yency, however, was not much bothered. He been through much, much worse bureaucratic run-around than one more visit to an office to clear up some paperwork. He’s used to, and patient about, bureaucratic hurdles, and it reminds me that my own impatience when I hit much smaller snags is a luxury of my own white privilege.

I learned a lot about that the four years LoraKim and I lived in El Paso: 700 thousand people, the Census Bureau reported. For three-fourths of them a language other than English is spoken at home. From the roof of our house, we could look out over Juarez, Mexico, a city of 1.4 million. During 2003, I was staying up in Albuquerque five days a week on a ministerial internship, and back home in El Paso for two days.

Every week, I’d be on an early morning bus for the five-hour bus ride from El Paso to Albuquerque.
And every week the bus pulled into a Border Patrol checkpoint, and an agent would board the bus and go through checking papers. Sometimes some of the passengers were taken away. I never had to show any papers – never even had to show an ID. Week after week, month after month, I got this reminder about my privilege. And each week it made me a little sadder.

It was in the 7th month of internship, when this had been going on every week for more than half a year, when, after one such episode, I got my journal out of my bag, and this is what I wrote:
80 miles north of El Paso
on I-25 headed for Albuquerque
my bus pulls into a Border Patrol checkpoint.
Weekly, I participate in this ritual.
The green clad agent steps aboard.
"If you are a US citizen, state the city and state of your birth
If you are not, show your documentation."
As far as I can see, the green agent and I
are the only Anglos on this full bus.
Border Patrol makes her way down the aisle,
frowning at papers of widely varying size, shape, color,
sometimes also asking for separate ID, sometimes not.

My head bows under the world's weight upon this spot.
This posture cues me to a whispered prayer.
"May there be an end to invidious distinctions
including those based on whether our mothers,
when we first peaked out from them into the world,
were north or south
of a line
a few politicians and generals drew
more than 150 years ago.
May I find ways to help bring
justice from my unjust privilege.
And blessed be all of us on this bus, including the Border Patrol agent,
as we all struggle in our diverse ways
to realize the fullness of our humanity."

She gets finally to me on the backmost seat.
This week no one has been hauled off.
I look up from clasped hands in lap
For a flicker our eyes meet.
My voice says, "Richmond, Virginia."
This only is asked of me, no papers, no ID.
Pale skin and the right sort of accent clinch it,
if I will but utter the name of an approved holy city
as the weekly sacrament of transition
from El Paso husband to Albuquerque minister intern.

I only have to say out loud my condemnation.
Richmond is a city much farther away than Mexico,
and memory recalls only a few passings-through,
none recent.
Of Richmond, I vaguely know a view of a skyline from the interstate, nothing more.
Not that it matters.
What I'm saying with those two words is:
I am on your side, Agent Green Jump Suit.
I deny Yahweh's call for a preferential option for the poor.
I deny Buddha's call to live compassion rather than fear.
I deny my faith profession:
        the unitarian commitment to the unity of us all
        the universalist commitment to universal community
From my lips, this two-word Peter's denial: "Richmond, Virginia."

Peter, having spoken, saw in a dizzy flash, as I do:
We who long to be merely good,
Are revealed as rotten with complicity with the empire.
And what could show more clearly than that
That the world’s brokenness and mine are one?
That’s what I wrote. Looking back, I see that as an important lesson in "The Education of Meredith." The weekly bus ride experience on the way to my internship was one of the important lessons of that internship. It showed me my unfair privilege over and over until I began to see it. Since then, things have grown worse out west – and all over. Arizona passed that bill SB 1070 to target Hispanic immigrants.

UUA President Peter Morales in
yellow, and Rev. Susan
Frederick-Gray, center, in white
In July 2010, a number of Unitarian Universalists went to Phoenix to protest and engage in civil disobedience. I’m sorry I wasn’t with them. My colleague, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix was among those who went to jail. As she related in a subsequent sermon:
“Anyone who was in that jail with me on those days can not deny the racism that underpins this rhetoric of fear around illegal immigration. I was surprised how openly the Sheriff and his deputies tried to draw lines between the protesters along race. I am told the Sheriff went into one of the cells with some of the protesters and asked the white protesters what they were doing and why they cared about these Hispanics. Didn’t they see that they had more in common with him? Audrey Williams, an African American woman who needed a wheelchair while in jail, was put in solitary confinement for almost 20 hours. When she made repeated requests to be put with the other protesters, her friends, they told her “those white people don’t care anything about you.” They tried to bait us and divide us with race and they spoke of their own work along racial lines. No matter what our politicians say, unequal treatment along lines of race was in effect during our time in the jail.”
There is a fear and a hatred in the land. As people of faith we are called to stand against it, to stand on the side of love, to know and to renounce our unjust privilege in the name of the much greater rewards of connection and solidarity and siblinghood. We have a long and deep theological grounding for this stand. It’s a grounding that goes back to roots of Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, from which Unitarian Universalism sprung.

Exodus 22:21:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
It's a point the Hebrew Scriptures repeated for emphasis. Exodus 23:9:
“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
And repeated again. Leviticus 19:33:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Many rabbis consider these texts among the most central in Judaism. The theological grounding for the importance of this commandment is that the Jews are given to understand that the land isn’t theirs. The land is God’s – as God tells them in Leviticus 25:23:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”
This was their way of making the point that there is no true ownership of land – the land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – belong to the earth, belong to all life, not to me and you.

LoraKim and I have deed and title to our house and a plot of land. The law says we own it – but I know this is a legal fiction. The squirrels, woodpeckers, owls, armadillos, gopher tortoises and the occasional fox who pass through the yard know it, too. The spiritual truth is that all of the Earth belongs to all of life.

If the spiritual is whatever lifts us out of “I, me, mine,” lifts us out of protective fear into a spacious perception of abundance -- lifts us out of any “we, us, ours” that doesn’t include all sentient beings, then recognizing that all of the Earth belongs to all of life is a spiritual act. I believe that’s what the Hebrew people were really saying, in their own way. The moral and emotional truth of “the land is mine, saith the Lord, with me you are but aliens and tenants,” is that the Earth is not truly ours.

The American poet Emma Lazarus was Jewish and would have known well that teaching, do not oppress the stranger for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt. In 1883 she wrote a sonnet called "The New Colossus" which was later inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of the 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."

We do have in our hearts a yearning to be a hospitable and welcoming people – it’s at the foundation of our most cherished emblem, the Statue of Liberty. Yet our national heart is closing against itself.

As the good Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray said:
“We must see that it is unconscionable to fail to create legal avenues for people to come to this country to work, yet provide abundant jobs and opportunity that draw them here. It is unconscionable to allow companies to take vans to Mexico to recruit workers, and now claim that those workers came her illegally and attempt to criminalize them. It is unconscionable to criminalize and put in jail young people who were brought here as children, who had no criminal intent—to criminalize them for the decisions of their parents. It is unjust to have a situation where people have been working here for decades, owning homes, building lives, raising families and all of a sudden try to deport them from their lives. It is unjust and sinful to have law enforcement going into predominantly Latino neighborhoods in the middle of the night knocking on doors, pulling people over for minor traffic violations like illegal lane changes and asking them for papers. Yet this is what is happening, to neighborhoods, to citizens, to families, to children. And it is a fundamental violation of their human dignity and their civil rights.”
I would add that the devices we use to limit voting are unconscionable.

Let us be hospitable. Let us be welcoming of the stranger, for the Earth belongs to all life, and we, too, are but tenants. You’ve known what it was like to be in a situation that didn’t feel welcoming – you have been, in a manner of speaking, strangers in a metaphorical land of Egypt. You know the heart of the stranger.

Our neighborhoods are visited from people from afar. May you welcome them. And until our country becomes the place that lives up to its own principles, may you also welcome into your heart another visitor: righteous anger.

* * * * * * *

Monday 2012 January 23

I went down with Yency to the voter registrar. They were very nice. Again, we had with us all of Yency's citizenship documentation. "No, we don't need to see that," the man sad. He just took Yency's driver's license (the same Florida license he has had since 2006, since long before becoming a citizen, and which was in no way replaced, updated, or changed when he became a citizen) and typed the license number into his computers.

"It'll take three or four minutes, for the computers in Tallahassee to get back to me."

When the Spanish style of doing surnames encounters the Anglo style of identification paperwork, there is no uniform way of handling the translation.

Suppose your mother was Pamela Jones Wilson and your father was Jacob Smith Johnson, and your name is Brian Smith Jones. You have a two-part surname, with one part ("Smith") taken from one parent, and the other part ("Jones") taken from the other parent. That's the Spanish system. When this system encounters the Anglo way of paperwork and record-keeping -- where we like to list people alphabetically by last name -- we need to know whether to list you as "Jones, Brian Smith" or as "Smith Jones, Brian." Do you get filed under "J" or under "S"? For many Hispanics coming to this country, this is not a question they have thought about, and they are not equipped to understand how important it is to the Anglo mind whether you are to be filed under "J" or under "S." So they tend to shrug and do it one way sometimes and the other way other times.

Yency's full official name when he arrived from Honduras in 2004 was: "Yencis Elijardi Canaca Contreras." He got the "Canaca" from one parent and the "Contreras" from the other. Back in Honduras, his surname is regarded as "Canaca Contreras." He's been dropping the "Canaca" ever since he got to the US. Still, the "Canaca" was on his driver's license, and he didn't write it on the voter registration form he filled out.

"That's probably why the Tallahassee computers kicked it back," said the man.

In three or four minutes, Yency was confirmed, and a voter registration card was printed out for him on the spot. Not that he needed the card. We walked across the street to an early voting location, and Yency was able to cast a vote -- but they didn't need to see his voter registration card. They just asked for his drivers license. They typed his license info into the computers they had there -- which were connected to the database that the man across the street had just updated -- and he was confirmed to vote.

Yency Contreras, immediately after
casting his first ballot, Jan 23
Yency had wanted to register as an independent. We explained to him that, in Florida, that would mean you wouldn't get to vote in either the Democratic primary (when there is one) or in the Republican primary. We also reassured him that registering in one party doesn't prevent voting for the other party in a general election. So he registered as a Democrat, and did not cast a vote in the Republican primary. There was only one election on his ballot: a seat on the Gainesville City Commission for an at-large commissioner.

Wednesday 2012 Feb 1

The election results are in. The candidate for which Yency voted lost. Welcome to democracy, Yency Contreras!

* * * * *
A revised version of this sermon was delivered in Orlando on 2012 March 11. For the audio of that, click here. The audio includes Yency telling the Children's Story.


A Wednesday Morning in 2003

In 2003, LoraKim and I and a nanday conure parrot named Exodor lived in El Paso. LoraKim was the minister to the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, and I was in training to become a minister. I was doing my ministerial internship at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque -- a four-hour drive north from El Paso. Not that I drove. I took the bus. It was such a well-traveled route by folks without cars, that an independent bus company had formed that charged $35 for a round-trip bus ticket from El Paso to Albuquerque and back -- less than seven cents a mile.

My "weekend" was Monday and Tuesday. After the Sunday church services in Albuquerque, followed by early-afternoon meetings or visits or adult classes, I'd get on the 5:00pm bus back home to El Paso. LoraKim would pick me up at 10:00pm at the El Paso bus station -- if the bus didn't break down, which it did a couple times. On those occasions, I'd borrow a cell phone -- since I didn't have one myself in those days -- and call to let LoraKim know we'd be getting in later.

The El Paso bus station was a rather run-down sort of place in a rather run-down part of town. I'd arrive hungry, often not having eaten since breakfast, and we'd go to a rather run-down restaurant and get some cheap enchiladas. Life was good.

I'd have a couple days with LoraKim and Exodor. Monday was LoraKim's day off, and we'd go hiking about in the Franklin Mountains or some other spot nearby. Tuesday, she'd be at work most of the day and I'd work on stuff at home. Tuesday evenings, I met with a Zen group at the UU Community of El Paso. Then early Wednesday morning, I'd be back on the bus to Albuquerque.

Life was good, and at the same time life was, well, life. El Paso, apparently, is in a kind of "buffer zone." It's right on the border, and immigrants who make it into El Paso have crossed only some of the hurdles to getting to any more interior part of the US. All the roads out of El Paso have "check points" where all traffic pulls in. A Border Patrol agent asks for identification, or waves the vehicle on, depending on the length of the line and the skin tone of the vehicle's occupants.

Every Wednesday morning I was on that bus as it pulled into the check point north of El Paso. After one such experience, I pulled out my journal and wrote this:
- - - - - - - -

Wednesday, 9:23am

80 miles north of El Paso
on I-25 headed for Albuquerque
my bus pulls into a Border Patrol checkpoint.
Weekly, I participate in this ritual.
The green clad agent steps aboard.
"If you are a US citizen, state the city and state of your birth
If you are not, show your documentation."
As far as I can see, the green agent and I
are the only Anglos on this bus.
Border Patrol makes her way down the aisle,
frowning at papers of widely varying size, shape, color,
sometimes also asking for separate ID, sometimes not.

My head bows under the world's weight upon this spot.
This posture cues me to a whispered prayer.
"May there be an end to invidious distinctions
including those based on whether our mothers,
when we first peaked out from them into the world,
were north or south
of a line
a few politicians and generals drew
more than 150 years ago.
May I find ways to help bring
justice from my unjust privilege.
And blessed be all of us on this bus, including the Border Patrol agent,
as we all struggle in our diverse ways
to realize the fullness of our humanity."

She gets finally to me on the backmost seat.
This week no one has been hauled off.
I look up from clasped hands in lap
For a flicker our eyes meet.
My voice says, "Richmond, Virginia."
This only is asked of me, no papers, no ID.
Pale skin and the right sort of accent clinch it,
if I will but utter the name of an approved holy city
as the weekly sacrament of transition
from El Paso husband to Albuquerque minister intern.

I only have to say out loud my condemnation.
Richmond is a city much farther away than Mexico,
and memory recalls only a few passings-through,
none recent.
Of Richmond, I vaguely know a view of a skyline from the interstate, nothing more.
Not that it matters.
What I'm saying with those two words is:
I am on your side, Agent Green Jump Suit.
I deny Yahweh's call for a preferential option for the poor.
I deny Buddha's call to live compassion rather than fear.
I deny my faith profession:
        the unitarian commitment to the unity of us all
        the universalist commitment to universal community
From my lips, this two-word Peter's denial: "Richmond, Virginia."

Peter, having spoken, saw in a dizzy flash, as I do:
We who long to be merely good,
Are revealed as rotten with complicity with the empire.
And what could show more clearly than that
That the world’s brokenness and mine are one?


Nonviolent Social Change

On the third Monday of January, we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s legacy is most clearly and publicly embodied in The King Center in Atlanta: The Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. It’s not the center for civil rights; it’s not the center for advancement of minorities; it’s not the center for anti-racism and multiculturalism; it’s not the center for civil disobedience; or even the center for justice – though King stood for all of those. It’s the center for nonviolent social change.
(King Center web site: click here.)

In honoring the work and the heart of this human being today, I want to look at this idea of Nonviolent Social Change. Building from King’s life and work, what have we learned since his time? King had a dream of peace and justice. Are there resources available to us that weren't available to him for realizing that dream?

In the years just before and just after Martin Luther King's death in 1968, the Unitarian Universalist efforts to address racial justice tore us apart. We were, and are, proud of our presence and support in Selma in 1965. Five hundred Unitarian Universalists participated with Dr. King in that march from Selma to Montgomery, including over 140 Unitarian Universalist clergy -- 20 percent of all UU ministers in final fellowship at that time. We seemed -- to ourselves -- so clearly to be on the "right" side. The line between us (the good guys) and them (the racists) seemed well-established.

Then, in 1967, 135 UUs came to New York for an "Emergency Conference on Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion." Almost as soon as the meeting was called to order, 30 of the 37 African American delegates withdrew to form a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC). They developed a list of what they called "non-negotiable demands" to be submitted to the conference and, ultimately, the UU Association's Board of Trustees. The core demand was that the board establish a Black Affairs Council (BAC), to be appointed by the BUUC and funded for four years at $250,000 a year -- which would have then been 12 percent of the UUA's entire budget. The next General Assembly approved these demands. Then the General Assembly after that, finding that funds had grown tighter, wanted to spread the million dollars over five years at $200,000 a year instead of four years at $250,000 a year. The BUUC seemed heavy-handed to some, and another group, "Black and White Action" (BAWA), formed -- also sincerely wanting to advance the cause of civil rights.

Very hard feelings erupted on the floor of the General Assembly 1969 in Boston. Almost all of the 200-300 black delegates there got up and walked out. The BUUC folks denounced the BAWA folks. Our denomination, over 42 years later, is still struggling to come to terms with the events of that General Assembly and the issues raised. Yes, it seems the leadership of the UUA had some paternalistic civil rights attitudes. And, yes, the BUUC leaders might have chosen to be content with recognition and funding and not vindictively insisted on "not one penny for BAWA." And, too, the BAWA supporters might not have reacted against the BUUC as if their lives depended on it.

As I read the accounts about that awful fighting, it almost makes me cry.
(read Warren Ross's article here
and read Mark Morrison-Reed's illuminating reflection here)

We so wanted to fight for justice. And we so didn't know how. We didn't have the skills, the resources, to hear each other with compassion.

Do we now? It is with our specific Unitarian Universalist history in mind that I ask this question: are there resources for nonviolent social change -- for hearing each other in compassion -- that weren't available in King's time? On the day when King would have been celebrating his 83rd birthday, and almost 44 years since his death, how stand the prospects for nonviolent social change?

As we gather here for worship today, hoping to open our hearts to an experience of something that some of us call sacred, I know we bring with us our awareness of this unique moment in history. This time when Time magazine’s person of the year was “The Protestor” – when the Arab spring toppled regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and appears possibly on the verge of bringing regime change in several other countries – this time when, in recent months, we have seen the Occupy Wall Street movement spread across the country and to other countries – what now have we learned, are we learning, about nonviolent social change?
(for Time's article, click here)

The collective composite person Time calls “The Protestor” has sometimes been quite violent this last year – yet the influence of the nonviolent ideal can also be seen at work, both in the Middle East and in our Occupy movement.

This is also a time when, this week, we learned about a video of US marines urinating on the bodies of dead enemy fighters. A much less publicized story I also came across this week is that another video has emerged that shows a soldier beating a sheep apparently to death with a baseball bat to the whoops and laughter of other soldiers looking on. That article also mentioned that last year a video appeared that shows a US marine throwing a puppy off a cliff.

Oh, my. I would have liked us – us as a species – to have that not included in our accounting of ourselves on Dr. King’s 83rd birthday.

The shortest poem in Mary Oliver’s considerable body of work is just 20 words, 21 syllables:
That God had a plan, I do not doubt
But what if the plan was that we would do better?
OK, the plan is that we do better – and videos like these show some of us not doing better. I don’t bring this up just to bemoan the fact. I mention these videos because they, and the reaction to them, tell us something about the nature of violence and nonviolence.

The news coverage about the desecration of bodies also covers the attention it’s getting. We see that the Afghans, all the US military and political leaders, and, indeed, the world community all condemn this act. We are all horrified and appalled. Why? Why do we think it’s OK to shoot people – but certain things done to their bodies when they themselves are beyond caring are off limits? How could being urinated on be worse than being shot dead?

We react the way we do, I believe, because at a visceral level we recognize an important truth. The essence of violence is in the heart.

The essence of violence is in the heart.

Bombing people, shooting people, gassing, stabbing, clubbing, hitting, and torturing people are not the core of what violence is. Those things are merely the manifestations of a heart that is disconnected. We are shocked – rightfully shocked – by desecration because it reveals to us an essence of violence – a dehumanizing hatred behind the shooting and killing – an essence that we had preferred to pretend wasn’t there.

But, of course, it is there. Young men in their teens and twenties are not the most serenely wise demographic to begin with, and when you throw them into nerve-racking battle for months at a time, when you ask them to fight and kill and be in harm’s way, they are going to find hating and dehumanizing expedient for the task. So desecrating enemy bodies is as old as war. Its shock value is part of the conscious or unconscious strategy to demoralize the enemy side and harden our own side to be able to keep up the killing.

What this latest episode reminds us is that nonviolence is not merely refraining from shooting, stabbing, clubbing, kicking or hitting others – as important a step as that is. Nonviolence is a heart committed to softening instead of hardening. Nonviolence is a heart that loves, that respects, that reveres life, that connects and wants to connect. And we are violent to each other – whether we ever raise a hand or raise our voice to each other – whenever we fail to respond to each other out of reverence for the wonder of the life that is before us.

The heroes of nonviolence pictured on the right -- Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aung San Su Kyi – weren’t just effective political organizers who happened to tell their followers, "Oh, and, by the way, no hitting." They were at the forefront of social change that we call nonviolent because they understood that the essence of violence is in the heart.

Before Gandhi, massive opposition to a prevailing government was called revolution if it succeeded and rebellion if it didn’t, and it involved weapons and fighting and lots of violence. Such a scale of opposition had never been nonviolent.

Martin Luther King picked up Gandhi’s ideas and brought them to the civil rights struggle in our country. Again and again he urged his followers and all those working for justice to set aside the impulse to riot, to burn, to strike back. Keep the righteous energy of anger without letting that anger make its home in hatred. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us:
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi continues the tradition of nonviolent social change. Her work for democratization of Burma led to her being under house arrest for 15 of the last 22 years. The Nobel Committee, in awarding her the peace prize, cited her nonviolent struggle against the oppressive military junta as
“one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.”
Each of these three was or is deeply grounded in a religious tradition.

Gandhi was practicing what his Hindu faith teaches of ahimsa: the principle that all living things are connected and form a unity requiring respect and kindness.

King was practicing what his Christian faith teaches of love – often referenced as the Latin caritas, or the Greek agape: a spiritual love. Agape, as one theologian puts it, is “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” King took to heart Jesus’ words, “love your enemy,” and his faith tradition taught him to answer hatred with love.

Aung San Suu Kyi is practicing what her Buddhist faith teaches of karuna (compassion), and anatta (no self). There is no self separate from others; each of us is all of us; we cannot truly want to hurt them.

So who is that guy in the fourth picture? That’s a man whose work is not confronting political regimes, doesn’t give rousing speeches at political rallies, or organize marches, boycotts, sit-ins, or hunger strikes. Yet his work treats of the essence of violence and nonviolence, and it paves the way for profound social change. He is psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of nonviolent communication and the founder of the center for nonviolent communication.

Rosenberg has outlined a simple – deceptively simple, for it is very challenging -- four-step process for both speaking and listening. To learn and implement nonviolent communication takes both a lot of desire to address the violence in our hearts and in our relationships, and also a lot of skill.
  • Observation
  • Feeling
  • Need
  • Request.
It doesn’t seem that complicated or hard. Our lives subject us to stresses and conflicts – and while I hope that for you they are a much milder form than what our soldiers are subjected to – we respond with an analogous form of heart-hardening that is no easy matter to train out of us.
  • Observation: to notice without mixing in evaluation of what we’re seeing;
  • Feeling: to identify a true emotion without mixing in blame or criticism;
  • Need: to separate the universal human desires, the things everyone wants, from particular strategies for getting them;
  • Request: to be able to ask and not demand.
These are subtle skills. It’s no wonder that our Gandhis, our Martin Luther Kings, our Aung San Suu Kyis have been so rare in human history. The extensive spiritual training and depth they each had allowed their hearts to soften and become wise enough to lead their heads. The world, is full of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists, and others whose hearts are not where Gandhi’s, King’s, and Suu Kyi’s were or are. The teachings of a faith tradition alone don’t magically make it happen. It also takes deep commitment to the vision the teachings point to. Otherwise folks hear the teachings, nod, and proceed to largely ignore them.

Or – I see this a lot, have you noticed it? – some wonderful, inspiring teaching is presented, and afterward I hear people saying, “That was great. I sure wish my in-laws would learn that," – or, "wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians knew that," – or, "I’d like my boss to have heard that.”

I am so prone to that myself. When I am studying or hearing the important teachings about peace, justice, loving-kindness, I have to remind myself over and over – yes, I may want to try to offer this teaching to others, for that is a role my calling includes, but first and primarily, it is for me. It would be nice if I would learn this. I pray for courage to remember that that’s always first.

The four-step process – observation, feeling, need, request – is one more teaching to nod at and forget – one more thing for us to wish other people would learn – unless our hearts truly yearn for the vision this teaching points to. The vision is creating a quality of connection among people that supports getting needs met through natural giving. The vision is a focus on two questions: what is alive in me and alive in you – and how can we contribute to making our lives wonderful.

There are resources available to us that weren’t available in Martin Luther King’s time for realizing his dream of peace and justice – and the resources of the teachings and methods and commitments of Marshall Rosenberg and his team at the Center for Nonviolent Communication are, to my mind, the most significant, and the most promising hope for nonviolent social change. There is much to learn here – a lot to take in and practice and internalize – that I can’t go into today.
(See the web site for the Center for Nonviolent Communication here
and order the first and primary text of Nonviolent Communication here
For info on Florida's only certified trainer in Nonviolent 
Communication, Rev. LoraKim Joyner, see here.)

I’ll share one story to convey a small taste of it. This is Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict:
“I was working with a team of minority citizens who wanted to change hiring practices in the health services department of the city of San Francisco. These citizens felt that the hiring practices were oppressive because they discriminated against certain people. They wanted me to show them how Nonviolent Communication could be helpful to them in getting their needs better met. For three days I showed them the process and how it could be used – and then they were to go out that afternoon and come back the next morning, and we would see how it went.

The next morning they came back very discouraged, and one of them said, ‘We knew it wouldn’t work. There’s no way to change the system.’

I said, ‘OK. I can see you’re really discouraged.’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘So, tell me what happened so we can learn from this.’

The team of six of them had gone into an administrator’s office, and they told me how they had used Nonviolent Communication very well. They hadn’t gone in and diagnosed the system as oppressive. Rather, first they had made a real clear observation of what was going on. They identified the law that they felt was discriminatory because it didn’t allow for the hiring of certain people. Second, they expressed their feelings, how painful it was for them because they needed work and equality. They believed they could do this work, and it was painful for them to be excluded. They made a clear request of the administrator, saying exactly how they would like to see the hiring practices changed to better allow for them to be hired.

They told me how they said it, and I was very pleased. They incorporated beautifully the training we had gone through. They had stated clearly what their needs were, what their requests were, and they didn’t use insulting language.

I said, ‘I like how you expressed that. What was his response?’

And they said, “Oh, he was very nice, you know. He even thanked us for coming in. He said it’s very important in a democracy that the citizens express themselves, and we encourage that in this organization, but at the moment your request is quite unrealistic, and I’m sorry that it won’t be possible right now, but thank you for coming in.’

And I said, ‘Then what did you do?’

‘Well, we left.’

I said, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What about the other half that I showed you? How to hear behind the bureaucratic-ese to what was in his heart, what he was feeling, what his needs were? Where was that human being in relationship to what you wanted?’

One of them said, ‘We know what was going on in him. He wanted us to get out of there.’

‘Well, even if that’s true, was going on in him? What was he feeling? What were his needs? He’s a human being. What was that human being feeling and needing?’

They forgot to see his humanness because he is within a structure. And within the structure he was speaking structure language, not human language. As Walter Wink points out, organizations, structures, and governments have their own spirituality. And within those environments people communicate in a way that supports that spirituality. Nonviolent Communication shows us a way, no matter what the structure, to cut through it and see the human being within it.

I could see that I hadn’t trained them well enough on how to do that, so we practiced. We practiced how to hear the needs behind all that bureaucratic language, how to see the human being and make a connection that strengthens our ability to work toward social change with that person. After our training at that level, they made another appointment with this man. And they came back the next morning delighted.

When they saw what was behind his messages, they saw that he was scared. He actually shared their needs – he didn’t like to see how this law was discriminatory – but he had another need: to protect himself. And he knew that his boss would be very upset with this suggestion, because his boss was vehemently opposed to what they were after. He had a need to protect himself, and didn’t want to go to the boss and help them make the change.

Once this team of citizens saw what his needs were, they worked together, but in a way that got everybody’s needs met. What happened is that he mentored them. He led them through what they would need to go through to get what they wanted, and they met his need by protecting him, by not letting anybody know that he was mentoring them. Eventually, they all got the change in the structure that they wanted.

Effective social change requires connections with others in which we avoid seeing people within these structures as enemies – and we try to hear the needs of the human beings within. Then we persist in keeping the flow of communication going so that everybody’s needs get met.”
Last night at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship we had a gathering and dinner to welcome prospective members. I was fielding questions. One of the questions was, "Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the way the world is going?"

I don’t know which to be. There is so much in the bud that seems so promising. And then, every week the news brings some further reason also to despair of our species. I am in awe of what we have learned, and almost simultaneously have the sinking feeling that we haven’t learned anything.

So I make no predictions. Instead, I am hopeful. The plan, as Mary Oliver intimated, is that we do better.
God’s plan, the plan for which the divine spark in our hearts is trying to shine us the way, is for connection, for equally caring for everyone’s needs, for self-understanding and compassion beyond judgments of right-doing and wrong-doing.

I don’t know if this nonviolent social change will happen, but I know that it could. And I know that if it does – if we shall overcome -- it will happen one heart at a time.

Let it begin with me. Let it begin with us. Let it begin right now.



Who Are We?

"Who am I?" "Who are we?" We hunger for an account of ourselves, a story about what sort of being we are. We seek such an accounting to help us discern what is ours to do, and to help us come to terms with our life and our world. To be at peace, we perceive, entails being at peace with who we are. Who, then, are we?

Arriving at self definition involves the interplay of sameness and difference. What category am I in, and what are the features that the members of this category share? And, within my category, what makes me distinct? Each of us belongs to many categories: we are female or male; we have a nationality, or a mix of nationalities; we have ethnicity, or a mix of ethnicities; we are members of a political party, or call ourselves "independent," we have a religious identity, which might be "none." We are human, ape, primate, mammal, vertebrate, animal, alive. Though there are times when we rightfully resist categorization -- when the confines of a group identity are constraining and the advantage of what the category label reveals is outweighed by the disadvantages of what it obscures of our individual uniqueness -- we also depend on what we see in "others like us" to learn about ourselves.

For much of human history, "others like us" meant the other members of our tribe. What we might or might not have in common with members of other tribes seemed largely beside the point. In the last two or three millennia, more of us began to see our identity as humans as increasingly important. "What does it mean to be human?" grew into a compelling question for many philosophers, poets, and other writers and thinkers.

In the 1970s and 80s, I was a philosophy student: undergraduate, then graduate. I remember that the question, "What does it mean to be human?" made me feel in the presence of something vital and important. The question seemed to matter because whatever it was that was unique to our species would therefore be a precious and sacred thing, something to cultivate. If reason is what makes us human, then we ought to try hard to be rational in all things. If use of ethical principles is the defining feature, then those principles take on grand significance. Or if humor and laughter make us human, then it behooves us to laugh. Presumably, whatever is uniquely human is something of which we humans should want to have more, or should, at least, vigilantly guard our store – lest some horrible result occur, called “forfeiting one’s humanity,” or “becoming inhuman.”

Moreover, the notion of "our shared human condition" appeared to promise a grounding for values that we could share and build upon to create a more just and peaceful world. The more we could discern and discover about the content of our shared human condition, the better our prospects for peace and justice.

What many of us have begun to see in the last 40 years is that what it means to be human is more deeply tied up with what it means to be animal than we had imagined. More of us have noticed that understanding who we are has more to do with grasping our commonality with other species than with distinguishing ourselves from them. The prospects for peace and justice call for attention to our shared human condition -- and also for attention to our shared animal condition. The task of self-understanding before us since Socrates urged, “know thyself,” is to bring awareness and presence to all of what and who we are. We are now better situated to see that this means not merely attending to our human nature, but to our animal nature.

There are some things we humans are really good at: like communicating learning and preserving it so we can build on it. We’re not the only ones that do that, but we are really good at it. Other things, humans are not so good at. Other species have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs live in a world of smells that we can but dimly imagine, and bats and dolphins live in a world of echolocation that we imagine, if at all, even more dimly. There are various differences between any two species.

Quite a large part of what I am, however, lies in the connections and similarities I have with all mammals, with all warm-blooded animals, with all vertebrates. I’m not going to truly know myself by picking out one or a few unusual skills. I know myself by grasping the inheritance I share with the gorilla, gazelle, goose, and gopher tortoise. My world is taken in through eyes and ears that work pretty much like theirs do. Many of them live in, and are guided by, a world of smells that I am mostly oblivious to – but not entirely. The fast-track connection between the olfactory and memory is something my brain also has. I hunger as they do, I am susceptible to the same the fight-or-flight adrenaline surges.

I do have a thin neocortex layer on top of the older paleomammalian system (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system of emotions) and even older reptilian system (brainstem and cerebellum), yet I remain largely driven by those brain systems that all mammals have – and even those that all vertebrates have. The cognitive processes of the neocortex govern me much less than the neocortex likes to believe. Indeed, perhaps the neocortex’s greatest glory, ironically, is that it has, over the many millennia since its emergence, developed the means to investigate itself and reveal its own relative insignificance.

For centuries in the West, the prevailing attitude has been, roughly, that nonhuman animals are basically machines, their behavior merely conditioned responses, while humans are more than that: free, capable of exercising intention and forming responses that transcend conditioning. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637), for instance, influentially declared that nonhuman animals were complex organic machines without the immaterial mind or soul that only humans have. Since the 20th century, however, research has been steadily closing the gap between our conception of humans and our conception of other animals. Studies have noticed, or elicited, elaborate, intentional, and apparently creative behavior in various species. Other studies come at the gap from the other direction: revealing that humans are not nearly as intentional as we often think we are. On this latter point, findings by Benjamin Libet and Michael Gazzaniga are especially instructive.

The Libet Experiments. In 1983, Benjamin Libet and others at the University of California, San Francisco, published the striking results of their experiments. In the study, participants were asked to voluntarily flex their wrist at a time of their choosing. Libet found that the neural signals for motion preceded the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds. “Put simply, the brain prepared a movement before a subject consciously decided to move!” Conscious intentions to move aren’t what cause our movements. This begs the question: why do our brains bother to create for us this illusion of conscious intentional control? Janet Kwasniak suggests that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action.” She suggests that “this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened. The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened,” the effects on my wiring are different. Thus, what we call “volition” is a perception of our own behavior rather than a generator of it. The illusion of intention (or, more precisely, the illusion that intentions precede and determine action), might be an illusion that human brains generate more strongly and consistently than any other species -- that remains to be seen -- but it is, in any case, a by-product of the systems that all animal brains have for learning from experience. We can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhumans are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or we are too.

The Gazzaniga Experiments. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga flashed two different images at the same time into the subject’s visual field. One image was in the part of the field that could only be seen by the left visual cortex, and the other only by the right visual cortex. The right brain saw a picture of snow covering a house and car. The left brain, at the same instant, saw a picture of a chicken claw. Gazzaniga then asked the subjects what they saw. The left brain has the language centers, so the left brain can articulate what it saw. “I saw a chicken claw,” reported the subjects. So instead of asking for words, Gazzaniga then presented an array of pictures and asked subjects to point to what they saw. Subjects’ right hands (controlled by their left brains) pointed to the picture of the chicken claw that the left brain saw. At the same time, subjects’ left hands (controlled by their right brains) pointed to the picture of the snow-covered scene that the right brain saw.

Gazzaniga then asked each hand to point to a picture of something that goes with the picture seen. The left brain saw a chicken claw, so subjects' right hands pointed to a picture of a chicken. Chicken claw goes with chicken. The right brain saw a snow-covered house and car, so subjects' left hands pointed to a shovel. Finally, Gazzaniga asked his subjects, "why is your left hand pointing to a shovel?" Now we’re in the language realm where only the left brain can express itself. If left-brain knew the truth, it could say, "I have no idea why my left hand is pointing to a shovel. It must be something you showed my right brain." Instead, the left brain instantly made up a plausible story. The patient said, without any hesitation, "Oh, that’s easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know.

In discerning who we are, this is a crucial understanding: our story about ourselves as intentional, purposeful, and rational is made up after the fact. My neocortex and forebrain and language centers are really, really good at making up stories to rationalize whatever it is they notice I’m doing. But that’s not where the doing came from. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion I live in.

We cannot dispel, once and for all, the illusions of control, and the rationalizing stories of ourselves that our brains concoct. We can, however, better understand the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work. This understanding helps us begin to befriend our animality, our selves.

I am made, as many species are, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of me find their greatest comfort and ease. Human social systems eventually yielded our technological systems, and between the two, I often find myself sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element. David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.”

I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. They are only a small part of who I am, and they are a part that raises challenges. The language centers can generate powerful narratives that hold me enthralled and leave me oblivious to nonlinguistic awareness of the world around me.

Descartes posited a dualism of immaterial mind and material body. For Descartes, the complex organic machine of the body determined most of human behavior and all of nonhuman behavior. The immaterial mind/soul unique to humans guided only a small part of what humans do, Descartes acknowledged, yet that immaterial mind was the crucial separator of humans from all other animals. A “naturalized,” updated version of Descartes' thesis might replace Descartes’ concept of a special immaterial mind with a concept of special material brain parts. The point that these brain parts are only a small part of what we are would then seem to parallel Descartes’ acknowledgment that the complex organic machine he called “body” determines most of human behavior.

To understand who we are, I believe we must go beyond Descartes, even in a naturalized version. Certainly, the human brain is distinct from any other species. After all, every species' brain is distinct. The distinctions are matters of degree, not of kind – and the distinctions of degree to which the human brain can lay claim are slight. Other mammals have versions of the forebrain that imagines the future, the neocortex that cognizes, and Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, the human versions of which comprehend language. The human versions are as animal as the nonhuman versions, and as animal as our bones and guts are. Our animality, then, is not merely most of what we are; it is all of what we are.

Closer contact with, and awareness of, the animal in me engenders a greater respect for my fellow beings who share the burdens and the glories of the human condition -- and those beings who share the burdens and glories of the mammalian condition, or of the warm-blooded condition, or of the vertebrate condition. Heightened self-awareness leads to greater respect for my fellow vertebrates, and greater respect for my fellow vertebrates heightens self-awareness.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that seeks to honor wildness as sacred. An earlier time described the material world as fallen, sinful, or, at best, crass. Then the scientific view has encouraged seeing the world as mechanical and inert. The emerging ecospirituality connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world. Connecting to our own animality – attending to, honoring, and loving what in us is wild and unpredictable – is of a piece with connecting to our world as well as understanding who we are.

Both ancient and medieval theology and modern science have told us that our senses are not to be trusted – that the true reality of gods, God, Platonic forms, or of quarks, quasars, and black holes was not to be grasped by the senses. Yet it is corporal sensations that offer us the enchantment of birdsong or the wonder of the moon. The ever-shifting reality in which our animality resides resists any finished theory, refuses the would-be tyranny of our concepts, and loosens the constraint of experience into expected categories. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more open to the nuances of the unexpected in experience.

We humans have for so long defined ourselves only as members of the category human. I have spoken of the value and necessity of recognizing and connecting more deeply to other categories: primate, mammal, warm-blooded, vertebrate. In this essay, I have stopped at vertebrate in order to focus on expanding our self-awareness and identification that far. It’s a start. Yet this delimitation, too, is finally false. Ultimately, what I am is also the crustaceans, the arachnids, the insects. In the end, each of us is also the oak trees, the algae, and the bacteria. In the end as in the beginning, we are the mountains and rivers, stones and dirt, air and clouds, moon and stars.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It remains to us to grasp that we are not part of this interdependent web. Each one of us is the whole thing.


Oliver-Berry Reading

READER 1: "The Peace of Wild Things," by Wendell Berry.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

READER 2: "Wild Geese," by Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

[READER 1: left justified plain text. READER 2: right justified italics. BOTH: Centered ALL-CAPS]

The Peace of 
Mary Oliver.
Wendell Berry.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about

for the world grows in me
will tell you mine.
awake in the night at the least sound 
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I
Meanwhile the world
and lie down
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water 
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of
Meanwhile the
things, who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water and
high in the clean blue air,
I feel above me the day-blind stars
are heading home again.
waiting with their light. For a time I rest
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
in the grace of 
offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese,
harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

and am free.


Saturdao 9

Dao De Jing, verse 5b

16 translations

1. James Legge (1891):
May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a bellows?
'Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power;
'Tis moved again, and sends forth air the more.
Much speech to swift exhaustion lead we see;
Your inner being guard, and keep it free.
2. Archie Bahm (1958):
No matter how deeply natures are torn by opposition, Nature itself remains unchanged.
In conflicts between opposites, the more one attacks his seeming opponent (upon which he really depends for his completion), the more he defeats himself (and thereby demonstrates that only Nature, and not any opposite abstracted from existence is self-sufficient.)
So, likewise, no matter how much debaters argue, their argument proves nothing.
Things are what they are, regardless of how much we disagree about them.

3. Frank MacHovec (1962):
The universe is like a bellows: empty, yet quite full. As it proceeds, it produces. Much talk, much exhaustion. Keep your thoughts within!
4. D. C. Lau (1963):
Is not the space between heaven and earth like a bellows?
It is empty without being exhausted:
The more it works the more comes out.
Much speech leads inevitably to silence.
Better to hold fast to the void.
5. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972):
The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.
6. Stan Rosenthal (1984):
The sage retains tranquility, and is not by speech or thought disturbed,
and even less by action which is contrived.
His actions are spontaneous, as are his deeds towards his fellow men.
By this means he is empty of desire, and his energy is not drained from him.
7. Jacob Trapp (1987):
The universe, like empty bellows,
Is ever giving forth;
The more it yields the greater the supply.
Who knows the meaning of all this?
To argue, to be overly concerned,
Is to exhaust one’s wits to no purpose.
Things are what they are regardless.
Better to let things be, to be still at the core of one’s being.
Stephen Mitchell
8. Stephen Mitchell (1988):
The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.
Hold on to the center.
9. Victor Mair (1990):
The space between heaven and earth,
how like a bellows it is!
Empty but never exhausted,
The more it pumps, the more comes out.
Hearing too much leads to utter exhaustion;
Better to remain in the center.
10. Michael LaFargue (1992):
The space between heaven and earth
isn't it like a bellows?
Empty, but not shrivelled up,
set it in motion and always more comes out.
Much talking, quickly exhausted.
It can't compare to watching over what is inside.
11. Peter Merel (1995):
Nature is like a bellows,
Empty, yet never ceasing its supply.
The more it moves, the more it yields;
So the sage draws upon experience
And cannot be exhausted.
12. Ursula LeGuin (1997):
Heaven and earth
act as a bellows:
Empty yet structured,
it moves, inexhaustibly giving.
13. Ron Hogan (2002):
Lao Tzu said Tao is like a bellows:
It's empty,
but it could help set the world on fire.
If you keep using Tao, it works better.
If you keep talking about it,
it won't make any sense.
Be cool.
14. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (2003):
The space between the heavens and the earth –
Isn’t it just like a bellows!
Even though empty it is not vacuous.
Pump it and more and more comes out.
It is better to safeguard what you have within
Than to learn a great deal that so often goes nowhere.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004):
Manifesting the Tao Eteranl,
The kosmic space is like a bellows.
Empty, yet inexhaustible.
The more one activates it, the more it generates.
Being full, too many words lead one nowhere;
Impartially, keep to the silent core of emptiness.
16. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (2007):
Yet Heaven and Earth
And all the space between
Are like a bellows:
Empty but inexhaustible,
Always producing more.
Longwinded speech is exhausting
Better to stay centered.
Move! Get going. Empty yourself out. That is: (1) give everything you have, hold nothing back, bestow all that you have upon the world; and (2) become an emptied person, empty of desire and judgment.

I'm reminded of Yeshua/Jesus saying, in the Gospel of Thomas, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." (The canonical Jesus sounds a similar theme as when he urges us not to put our light under a basket, and in the parables of the talents [Luke 19:12-27 and Matt 25.14-20], which urge putting our "talents" to use rather than keeping them safe and hidden.)

We are afraid this will exhaust us. Way-making teaches that in the giving-forth motion, our power grows. But talking about it -- like this! -- that's what's really exhausting. Especially, excited or prolonged talking agitates the mind and makes us "full" rather than calm and empty.

* * *
See: Saturdao Index.

Parts of Speech, Parts of God

When it comes to God-talk, there are a lot of different conceptions. It’s a common reply, when someone says they don’t believe in God, to answer: “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in, because I probably don’t believe in that one either.” However many conceptions of God you don’t believe in, there are further conceptions available – and maybe some of them, you do believe in.

Imagine a survey that presented respondents with a list of various sentences about God and asked them to mark each one “true” or “false” (in their opinion). If we make the survey long enough and finely worded enough, we can well imagine that no two people would have matching answers all the way down. Even people the same age, raised in the same church, sitting next to each other in the pew every Sunday for their whole lives will have some different conceptions of God. In fact, the same person’s conception of God varies over time, depending on her recent experiences, what book he’s just read, what movie she’s just seen, or what sermon he’s just heard.

Flimer Dirthus Schleckentay

There are so many ways that people have and do think about God. Of course, we all have slightly different associations with any word. Yet, by and large, we more or less manage to communicate with most of our terms. “God,” however, is so variable – a term used to assert so many divergent and incompatible things – that to simply assert God’s existence or nonexistence doesn’t say anything. Such assertions serve only to affirm the speaker’s group identification: “I’m in the group that says God exists,” or, “I’m in the group that says God doesn’t exist.”

Both “God exists,” and “God doesn’t exist,” are like the foreign-language motto of a club in which every member recites the motto, but the last member who knew what the phrase meant died a century ago. Every time they get together, they say, “Flimer Dirthus Schleckentay,” and the words have no meaning at all except for re-affirming to each other their shared group identity and loyalty.

Some people put a little silver plastic fish symbol on their car. What does that mean? It means: “I’m in the tribe that puts little fish symbols on their cars.” Some people put a little fish with legs, and the word “Darwin” or “evolve” inside the fish. What does that mean? It means: “I’m in the tribe that takes umbrage at the tribal assertions of that fish tribe.” Myself, I have a silver plastic big fat fish with the word “Buddha” in it. Rather than put it on my car, I decided to put it on my filing cabinet at home. I do have a silver plastic chalice symbol on my car. What does that mean? Most people who see that have no more idea of what it means than “flimer dirthus schleckentay,” but we know what the chalice symbol means, don’t we? It means: “We’re in the tribe that would like all this tribal stuff to just be done with, but in the meantime, we do have our tribe, too.”

"Ladybug" by Joan Mitchell.
Possible product of theological debate?
When I interact with varying conceptions, I find that appropriation works better than opposition. I try to find a way to keep the baby when throwing out the bathwater – even if my idea of what’s baby and what’s bathwater may itself be a matter of difference. Speaking of babies, for example: Instead of saying Jesus isn’t our redeemer, instead of rejecting the concept of a redeemer born in flesh among us, we say every child born is one more redeemer. Our strategy is to slip in, take the stone arrowheads off their weapons, and replace them with rubber suction-cups. Or, maybe, replace the tips with paint brushes, and dip them into different colors, so that when they are fired, instead of harming each other, we create beautiful bright-colored abstract art on one another. Wouldn’t that be more fun?

So when it comes to differing conceptions of God, if we’re going to be a tribe, instead of being a tribe that puts its energy into refuting and defeating “false” conceptions, let’s be the tribe that delights in proliferating conceptions of God. After all, if God is the creator, then our divinity is in our creativity, so let us be playful and joyful in finding new, creative, poetic insightful ways to invoke “God.”

Billy Jonas
Billy Jonas’ song, “God Is In” (the lyrics of which we used as a reading earlier in the service) is one example of such delightful playfulness. (For both the lyrics and audio of this song: click here.)

There are infinite variations on the noun, “God,” but let us not restrict ourselves to the realm of nouns. God can be thought of as any part of speech. Do you remember your grammar – the “parts of speech”? There are eight of them, right? Let’s see . . . Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen . . . No, not those eight. The eight parts of speech are: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, interjections.

God the Noun

God the noun is the most common, of course, but, here, too, there’s still new territory to explore. A noun is a person, place, or thing. Person, or person-like, is the usual idea. Suppose God were a place, and the other name of that place is “here.” Suppose God were a thing, and the other name of that thing is “this.” What does that do – regarding every “here” and every “this” as God?

God the Pronoun

Goddess In
Then there’s God the pronoun. What pronoun refers to God? “He” and “him” are the traditional ones in the Western monotheism. For polytheism, the pronoun is “they.” Using “she” and “her” remind us of the feminine aspect of the divine, and that’s important. There are still times when referring to God as “she” can be a radical subversion of conceptions of God that reinforce patriarchy.

Let’s go further. Rather than merely looking at what pronoun to use to refer to God, what if “God” were itself the pronoun? Pronouns refer to a noun antecedent. If God were a pronoun, what would the antecedent be? God as a pronoun would have everything as its antecedent, wouldn’t it? We would say, “The universe unfolds in God’s own way” not to imply a separate intentionality – but as an alternative way of saying “The universe unfolds in its own way.”

Instead of saying, “Billy forgot his pencil,” we would replace the possessive pronoun “his” and say, “Billy forgot God’s pencil.”

“Maybe he’ll remember it tomorrow,” becomes “Maybe God’ll remember God tomorrow.”

Here are some sentences from this morning’s newspaper (Sunday December 18), replacing the pronouns with “God”:
“Flash floods devastated a region of the southern Philippines unaccustomed to serious storms, killing at least 450 people while God slept, rousting hundreds of others to God’s rooftops.”
“Egypt’s military rulers escalated a bloody crackdown on street protesters on Saturday, beating God and setting God’s tents ablaze.”
We would also get:
“The Denver quarterback, now dubbed the Mile High Messiah after leading God’s Broncos to seven wins in eight games . . .”
God the pronoun provides some interesting perspectives, doesn’t it?

God the Verb

Buckminster Fuller
Then there’s God the verb. There’s been considerable work on this one. Buckminster Fuller in 1940 wrote:
“God to me, it seems,
is a verb
is the articulation
not the art, objective or subjective;
is loving,
not the abstraction "love" commanded or entreated;
is knowledge dynamic,
not legislative code,
Yes, God is a verb,
the most active,
connoting the vast harmonic
reordering of the universe
from unleashed chaos of energy.”
In the last century a many scholars have written of ways of thinking about God as a verb. Process theologians and Naturalist theologians have produced such an extensive body of work that they’ve shifted the English language meaning of the word “God.”

Jean-Claude Koven
A tenet of process theology is that “reality is not made up of material substances that endure through time, but serially-ordered events.” Author Jean-Claude Koven writing a few years ago (2005) expounded:
“God is . . . the ongoing unfoldment of creation itself. . . . Once I viewed God as a verb instead of a noun, my perception of life shifted. Everything around me, manifest or no, became God. There was only God. When someone spoke to me, it was with God's voice; when I listened, it was with God's heart. As you begin to view God not as the creator but as the constantly changing dance of creation itself, you'll discover God in everything you see – including yourself.”
Nice. Thinking of God as an active verb emphasizes the time during which the actions take place. It puts God in time, rather than removed from time. It invites us to perceive the holy in change, rather than imagining it in changelessness. My colleague Unitarian Universalist minister Stephen Phinney writes,
Rev. Stephen Phinney
“I believe that the holy is in the process of giving and taking of the love we have.  In other words, the holy or God is the process of interchanging love.”
Calling God a verb is a way of alluding to its active doing. A reality of events rather than substances suggests a more dynamic quality, but you may have noticed that “event,” “process,” and “creativity,” and “unfoldment” are still nouns. Suppose we take “God is a verb” strictly. How would that go? If God is the verb, what’s the subject of the sentence? The universe, perhaps. So we would say:
“The universe Gods.”
“There’s the vast cosmos, quietly, grandly Godding along through the ages.”
“Reality Gods.”
Anything and everything is the subject. I God, you God, he she it Gods, we God, you God, they God. All God’s children God.

And what sort of activity is it to “to God”? Following the lead of the process and the creativity theologians, to God is to unfold, like an infinite flower opening its petals; to develop through a process of interaction with all the rest of the Godding universe. To God is to become transparent to the creativity of the universe shining through you. To God is to fandango across the ballroom of oneness, to trip the light fantastic, not with, but as, the mountains and rivers and great wide earth, the sun, and the moon, and the stars. To God is to “laugh at the word two” (Hafiz). It is to swim in the sea of mystery, and quaff from the cup of abundance. To God is to lose all sense of yourself as a separate being in a creative project, or the creative encounter, in total freedom, with each moment.

Call that Godding to help you remember that everything we do and are is a part of the whole, a part of the dance, the mystery of creativity, the unpredictable unfolding of new things under the sun.

We have been exploring God as an intransitive verb. Suppose God were a transitive verb -- the abiding transit between subject and direct object, doer and done-unto. If reality Gods, then what does it God? The universe Gods you, and me. Reality Gods the Republicans and the Democrats alike. It Gods Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad as well as Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Henry Nelson Wieman
There is, in other words, an activity of relationship between all things, an active connection of each thing with all things. Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman says that the “universe becomes spiritual” as
“more events become signs, as these signs take on richer content of qualitative meanings, as these meanings form a network of interconnective events comprehending all that is happening in the world.” (Wieman 23)
It would seem, to carry Wieman to his logical conclusion, that the universe will have attained full spirituality when everything signifies everything else. This is also where God-as-transitive-verb takes us. Everything Gods everything else. The butterfly in China Gods the rain in Omaha. You God the stars, and the stars God you.

God the Conjunction

Conjunctions, you’ll remember, hook up words and phrases and clauses. That makes sense: God connects things.

The two main conjunctions are “and” and “or.” Sometimes God is an “and”; sometimes God is an “or”; which is to say, God is the inclusive embrace, and God is the fact of choice.

God the Preposition

Prepositions describe a relationship: on, under, with, for. It might be helpful to think of relationship itself as Godly.

God the Adjective (My Favorite!)

Might not the word “God” be used, not to make a controversial empirical claim about what is, but to draw our attention, as a good poet does, to certain qualities of existence – qualities which are not subjects about which to dispute, but are a felt reality momentarily overlooked? This present moment – if we truly show up for it – is so sweet and so delicious that we need words like “holy” and “divine” and “God” to help us notice it.

Let God be the name for the quality that existence has when we are so fully present to it that we perceive divinity there. An experience has God quality, religious quality, when it re-orients us to a greater sense of wholeness and peace. It might be brought about by devotion to a cause, by a passage of poetry, by meditation. The religious quality is felt as a sense of abundance and gratitude toward things beyond our personality, that structure of ego-defense strategies with which we identify through most of our day.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and outspoken critic of Hitler, imprisoned and eventually executed by Nazis, wrote about a religionless Christianity. In a letter from prison, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“The New Testament must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a precondition of faith” (329).
Religion, he said,
“is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at different times.”
I think Bonhoeffer had in mind that religion denotes some set of doctrines and practices, but no one such set is necessary for giving experience God quality. Rather, a wide variety of sets of doctrines and practices can be helpful in cultivating the God quality of experience. Very different doctrines and practices – say pagan ones, or Buddhist ones – can facilitate our awareness of that which goes by many names: the oneness of reality, the divine, the ground of being, the transcendent, the awesome quality of the universe, the interbeing of everything, the interconnected web of existence -- God. Christians discarding this religion garment, said Bonhoeffer, will cease to regard themselves “as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world” (280-81).

While no particular religion is necessary for bringing that quality to experience, all of them have proven sufficient, at least some of the time for some people in opening them up to experiencing the God quality in events and things.

If God is a noun, then we have to face the question of whether God is the sort of noun that the Catholics describe, or the sort that the primitive Baptists describe, or the sort that the Eastern orthodox describe, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Hindu. But if God is an adjective, then it’s easy to say that quality can be found anywhere, in any faith tradition, in any activity or practice, any work and any recreation (except bungee jumping, as Billy Jonas says).

I believe in the adjectives. I believe in green and growing, dark and peaceful, loving and kind, amazing and wonderful. I believe in the beautiful and tragic quality of life. I believe in awesome, in grateful, in hopeful, in joyful. I believe in full.

I believe in earthy. I believe in wise, and compassionate. I believe in a God world: a world not of our own making that supports us and sustains us, which grounds us for the meaningful pursuit of ideals. I believe in the God life, which can be experienced by people of any religion, even those that say there is no noun, God – a life of awareness, a life of attention to the interplay of forces, a life of deep sympathy with all of them even when it does come time to take a stand against some of them.

I believe in holy, for each breath is holy. I believe in sacred, for each step is sacred: we have but to be mindful and know it.

God the noun is an ultimate cause of things. God the adjective is a quality we can perceive of the flow of all the causal forces, none of them ultimate, interacting continuously.

John Steinbeck wrote that
"Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the [human] mind...it is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, or the forearms. The skin tastes like air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn."
We have experienced moments with those qualities.

God the Adverb

God the adverb expands on the idea of God the adjective. While adjectives modify nouns, adverbs modify verbs or adjectives or other adverbs. So things, events, experiences can have the God quality – and so can activities, and qualities themselves.

God the Interjection

Oh, God!

This is the most popular of all uses of God, isn’t it?

Interjections don’t assert, don’t make a claim, nor are they any part of the content of an assertion or claim. They just express. They are the speech of the speechless. Interjections are what we use when we are filled with something, and it wants to come out, but we don’t know what to say. They are a moan, or a yelp, or cry, beyond what we can articulate.

God is wow. God is ouch. God is yippee! God is arrgh! God is hmm. God is "yum!" and God is "ew, yuck." And certainly God is "Oh, God!"

“Oh, God!” may be the most honest -- and ultimately the most accurate -- God-talk there is. To that, I have just one further interjection: