Sweet Sorrow

A farewell sermon to the wonderful Unitarian Universalists of Gainesville, Florida
Delivered 2013 June 30

"In Blackwater Woods"
Mary Oliver
Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders of the ponds, and every pond,
no matter what its name is, is nameless now.
Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss
whose other side is salvation,
whose meaning none of us will ever know.
To live in this world you must be able
to do three things: to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Love and letting go are opposite sides of the same coin.

Shakespeare’s best known, best loved scene is Act 2, scene 2 of "Romeo and Juliet" – the balcony scene. The lovers discover each other, reveal themselves, make known their love.
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet the sun
Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon...”
And so on. The two exchange vows of love; promise to meet “on the morrow.” As they prepare to separate, Juliet says, “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The sorrow is that they are separating. The sweet is that they have found love with each other.

From the very beginning of their relationship, the play shows us, they are separating even as they come together. Loving what is mortal, holding it against their bones knowing their lives depend upon it, and letting it go. Their time runs out because they have so filled it.

Time always runs out. That’s what time does. The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives. Right where we are.

There were sermons that I thought I would preach to you that somehow kept getting pushed back. Now time runs out.

One of them would have been called: “Kick the Bucket List.” (CLICK HERE)

Love opens the door of awe and wonder – and that, too, is always right here. Another sermon that I meant to give one day would have been on the Biblical book of Job. (CLICK HERE)

Let the love we share be always with us – and so it is, truly. And that leads to the third sermon idea I have had in the back of my mind for years: Prayer. (CLICK HERE)

So there you have three sermon abstracts. But they are one sermon, after all, about how good this life is, how wonderful right here. Look, and see. Time runs out, and that sorrow is also the sweetness -- for it has been the greatest privilege of my life to have served as your minister for seven years.

I believe that this Fellowship is now poised to become more vibrant, engaged and committed – and larger – than it has ever been. It falls now to my colleagues – an interim minister, Rev. Benjamin Maucere – and then your next settled minister -- to minister this Fellowship through that next stage. I believe that is best. Even so, I grieve the loss of this ministry that has sustained and nourished me these seven years.

You welcomed LoraKim and me into your lives, supported us in times of need, celebrated with us, became a part of our lives. We have been blessed to belong among you. I have loved you and love you still, holding you against my bones knowing my life depends on it, and have felt your love – when you meant to be showing it, and when you didn’t.

Parting is such sweet sorrow. You taught me most of what I now know about how to be a minister. I am proud and joyful for what we have accomplished together. I think I have sometimes been a slow learner, yet with you I learned so much. The Unitarian Universalists of White Plains, New York are getting a very different minister from the one who first stood at this pulpit a septade ago – and that is also both a sweetness and a sorrow. Thank you, thank you. How wonderful indeed it is and has been, right here.

Help: you have been.

Thanks: you have my fullest measure of.

Wow: you are so awesome and powerful.

The sweetness of this moment and also its sorrow is the love we make of fleeting lives.
“Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,…
To live in this world you must be able
to do three things: to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
And so it is.


Becoming Radically Inclusive

“We’re not doing that now.”
What a beautiful, skillful, parental line that is. The child wants to run jump in the mud puddle, or stop at the ice cream store, or climb on you to play the tickle game, and it’s just not the time for it.
“We’re not doing that now.”
It’s not saying the child’s desires are wrong. No judgment about right or wrong is indicated. The word “should” is not used. There’s no shaming, blaming, scolding, or impatience. Implicitly, the activity the child wants can be engaged in at some other time. Just not now.
“We’re not doing that now.”
Some other time.

A few years ago, it was the evening of the third day of a week-long Zen retreat. I had spent the day outwardly following the prescribed discipline which included 15 25-minute sits interspersed with shorter periods of walking meditation, or a meal, and, in the afternoon, a nap break. Inwardly, however, I was allowing myself to be carried away on a vivid and lurid fantasy. At the end of the day, I had a brief one-on-one interview with one of the teachers. I confessed that I had spent the day in mental fantasy. I was sure that he wasn’t going to counsel repression. The practice is about awareness and acceptance of all of ourselves, whatever we find when we look inside, whatever comes up. So if fantasy is what comes up, just be aware of that and follow it, right?

Not quite.

Notice its beginning. Bring awareness to the emergence of fantasy. Often, in the glare of attention, it will simply fade. If it doesn’t, the teacher said, you tell yourself:
“We’re not doing that now.”

The inner child needs not merely to be gotten in touch with. Our inner child needs our inner parent. Every impulse comes from a legitimate and worthy place, and even if we might want to do some work on what we do with that impulse, repression and denial are not the best way to go. When I talked about the seven deadly sins – gluttony, sloth, envy, anger, greed, lust, and pride – I wanted to say that each one of those is a virtue as well as a vice, each one blesses us even if sometimes it also curses us. Each one comes from a legitimate and worthy place, and our task is to manage with greater skill and greater intentionality, to be neither owned by the impulse, overindulging it, nor repressing and denying that impulse. The history of attempts to expunge what we don’t like about ourselves is not a happy history.

The more rewarding spiritual work is befriending even the parts of ourselves we don’t like. Move from self-blame to self-acceptance. Yet self-acceptance doesn’t mean indulgence of that self’s every whim. The path of spiritual work is a path of self-acceptance, yet also increased intentionality. Who you are and who you want to be are brought into a dialog so that they can come closer together – each modifying the other. Who you want to be is changed by a deeper awareness of who you are.

You’re not on this planet to live up to some universal ideal. You’re here to manifest the unique package of gifts and shadows that is you. At the same time, the question, "Is this what we want to be doing now?" is a good one. Your impulse is legitimate. It’s not wrong. But is this the time and place to indulge it? Or, are we not doing that now?

Thus the spiritual path is one of gradually bringing self-acceptance and intentionality together. Radical inclusivity begins at home. It begins by including all of the different parts of the self, affirming the legitimacy of everything that’s there – including our own inhospitable parts. What makes us tend to exclude others from our fullest welcome into our lives, we have to ask, where does that come from? What’s the need that exclusion – the withholding of attention, understanding, and empathy – serves?

There’s a reason that radical inclusivity is difficult. Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist whose 2000 book, Bowling Alone, charted the decline in voluntary groups and the growing isolation of Americans, has done some newer research on the American response to diversity. What he has found is that
“other things being equal, more diversity in a community is associated with less trust both between and within ethnic groups.”
Putnam describes people of all races, sex, socioeconomic statuses, and ages as ‘hunkering down,’ avoiding engagement with their local community—both among different ethnic groups and within their own ethnic group. The higher the diversity – the more people are near people unlike themselves, the more ‘hunkering down.’ The increasing isolation that Putnam had described in Bowling Alone isn’t simply the product of a media that makes us fearful – too scared to go out -- or of technology that makes it easier to be entertained by ourselves, alone in our homes in front of the screen of a TV, computer, smart phone, iPad, or video game console. A substantial factor in our growing isolation is that growing diversity in our cities and neighborhoods makes us less comfortable interacting with our neighbors.

The more we “hunker down,” the lower our confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media; the lower our confidence in our ability to influence local government. Consequently, even though interest and knowledge about politics is actually going up, and participation in protest marches and social reform groups is up, voter registration is down. We’ve got higher political advocacy, but lower expectations that it will bring about a desirable result. We have less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action. We don’t feel we can count on our neighbors to, for instance, voluntarily conserve water in these times of growing shortage. Americans are responding to increased diversity by becoming less likely to work on a community project, less likely to give to charity, or to volunteer. We have fewer close friends and confidants, spend more time watching television, become more likely to agree that "television is my most important form of entertainment," and have less happiness and perceive ourselves to have lower quality of life. In the face of diversity, Putnam ruefully concluded, “most of us retreat.”

Hunkering down makes us less likely to join in congregational life, so merely by attending a faith institution you are exerting some resistance to the recent unhappy trends toward isolation and social distrust. At the same time, congregational life itself manifests a form of hunkering down, or bunkering in.

I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist all my life, and have had leadership in our congregations for almost 30 years. It was back in 1984 that the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas elected me to be that congregation’s president. Through the decades, I have been with many, many groups of Unitarian Universalists – including many here – in which the question was asked what drew us to Unitarian Universalism. We’ll go around the room and invite everyone in the group to take a turn responding. In group after group, there are two basic answers that predominate. They might seem to contradict. The number one answer is some variation of:
“At last, hallelujah, I found a place where people think like me.”
A number us love this place because, we report, we can be ourselves here.We can be understood by people who share our assumptions, our values – and our prejudices.

The number two answer is the opposite:
“I love how different people are here. I love the diversity I find – everybody’s got different ideas. It’s very stimulating.”
The fact is we do have a fair degree of theological diversity: we have Christians, Buddhists, humanists, pagans.Some of us are vehemently agnostic – finding it particularly important to emphasize not knowing – and just about all of us are at least nominally agnostic just in the sense that we’re polite enough not to claim that we’re certain we’re right – even if secretly we do feel certain. Some of us put the emphasis on what they do believe, and some put the emphasis on what they don’t. We are a diverse lot, theologically.

We are not such a diverse lot ethnically, or in terms of socio-economic class. We are not such a diverse lot politically. And even theologically, people with conservative forms of their religion are probably not going to be comfortable here.

We do, in many ways, think a lot a like, and the diversity we appreciate is diversity of intellectual ideas within a context of a largely shared culture that values intellectual ideas. This makes us not terribly inclusive.

We say everyone is welcome here. And we do mean it. At the same time, what’s most often going on is that people that are likely to make us uncomfortable themselves feel uncomfortable here and don’t come, or don’t come back.

We don’t have to say anyone is unwelcome because we can pretty much count on it that the people who stay will be basically like us. And I need to say to you: that’s not wrong. There’s a legitimate place for how good it feels to be among your people, to be with the people who think like you, people among whom you can relax and be yourself, and don’t have to be afraid you’ll say the wrong thing.

Radical inclusivity begins at home and begins with self-acceptance. So let us accept that we do have that in us that likes our club as a club.

At the same time, there’s a time for that inner parental voice that notices the impulse to hunker down, bunker in, talk only to the people that look like us and agree with our prejudices, and say:
"We’re not doing that now."
We are called to connect with people who are very other. We want to. Mostly, we want them to be more like us, so that we can connect with them easily. That ain’t gonna happen. It’s up to us to stretch. Here are some examples of cases that have challenged the inclusivity of Unitarian Universalist congregations:
  • A young woman, with an infant in her arms. When the baby starts to whimper during the service, she begins breastfeeding;
  • A Native American with long dark hair comes in;
  • A man from a Pentacostal background waves his hands in the air during the singing of “Spirit of Life”;
  • A beautifully bedecked woman in a flowered print dress, with matching high heels and purse. She is 6-foot-four, and clearly transgender;
  • A person who speaks out of turn and can’t follow the hymns. He seems to be mentally ill
  • A well-dressed opposite-sex couple: the man has an American flag in the lapel of his suit, and they have their Bibles with them;
  • A homeless man who hasn’t bathed in a week;
  • A couple whose smiles reveal that neither of them have enjoyed the benefits of a lifetime of reasonable dental care;
  • A woman with a guide dog;
  • A man who mentions during the social hour that he has just been released from prison – where he was serving time on a conviction for child pornography;
  • Someone else during the social hour who mentions the color of your aura;
  • A service man back from Iraq, in uniform, visiting with his aunt and uncle;
  • A 21-year-old who just graduated from a West coast college and has moved here to find his first job. He knows no one in town, and he is African American
  • A woman whose skin tone is consistent with being middle-eastern and who is wearing head covering we recognize as the Muslim Hijab.
  • A group of Latino youth who speak among themselves in Spanish.
  • A forty-year old man who comes in holding hands with a woman – and his other hand is holding hands with another woman.
One or two cases like that each week, and most of us are OK. They might come a few times, but they probably don’t stick around. What if they did? What if they stayed and weren’t going anywhere and half the people here, week after week, for a couple years fit one or more of those descriptions? This place wouldn’t be your comfortable social club of like-minded friends anymore. What then? Would you then become the one who, not comfortable, stopped coming?

You’ll notice that one description I did not include on that list is:
  • A man walking toward the front door carrying automatic weapons.
Inclusivity, no matter how radical, never means we forget that sometimes safety is the first priority. I do want to celebrate the progress we have made toward inclusivity. Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have been wrestling with issues of inclusion and exclusion for as long as their have been Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists. Not every chapter in that history is a glorious story of righteous leadership at the forefront of social movements for greater inclusion, but we do have some progress worth celebrating. You’ll notice that another description I did not include among that OK-as-long-as-there-aren’t-too-many-of-“them” list is:
  • A same-sex couple.
That’s because we’re pretty accepting of same-sex couples. One of our more prominent ministers now, Rev. Gail Geisenhainer, tells the story of the first time she visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation – back in the mid-1980s. She did not expect that, as an out lesbian, she would be accepted.
“I was thirty-eight years old, living in Maine, driving a snowplow for a living and feeling very sorry for myself when a friend invited me to his church. He said it was different. I rudely refused. I cursed his church. 'All blank-ing churches are the same,' I informed him. 'They say they’re open—but they don’t want queer folk. To heck with church!'
My friend persisted. He knew his church was different. He told me his church cared about people, embraced diverse families, and worked to make a better world. He assured me I could come and not have to hide any aspects of myself. So I went. And I dressed sooooo . . . carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air.I dug out my heaviest, oldest work boots, the ones with the chainsaw cut that exposed the steel toe.I got my torn blue jeans and my leather jacket.There would not be a shred of ambiguity this Sunday morning.They would embrace me in my full Amazon glory, or they could fry ice.I carefully arranged my outfit so it would highlight the rock-hard chip I carried on my shoulder. I bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal I had harbored from every other religious experience in my life, and I lumbered into that tiny meeting house on the coast of Maine. I expected the gray-haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear.That would have been familiar.Instead, they stepped forward, offered me a bulletin, and a newsletter, and invited me to stay for coffee. It was so . . . odd! They never even flinched! They called me 'dear.' 'Stay for coffee, dear.' I stayed for coffee. I stayed for Unitarian Universalism. Over time, the good folks of that church loved up the scattered parts of me and guided me from shattered to whole; from outcast to beloved among many. And those folks listened to me.” (UUWORLD ARTICLE HERE)
Sometimes I’m so proud of us.

At the same time, our own wholeness and healing calls us toward a greater skill in welcoming the stranger, greater adeptness at making a greater variety of persons and personalities feel included and welcome. Our connectedness requires attention to their connectedness among us. The challenge will not go away. The Census Bureau reported in 2013 June that for the first time ever, America’s racial and ethnic minorities now make up half of the under-five age group.

Singing a verse of "Spirit of Life" in Spanish is just the babiest of next steps toward a future of healing and connection and inclusion. Our Social Justice team aimed for some more significant steps this year. They announced last August their theme for the year: "Beyond the Welcoming Congregation: Toward Radical Inclusivity." “Welcoming Congregation” refers to a specific program of investigating and learning about LGBT issues. Through classes and group discussion and following a UUA curriculum about how to be better welcoming to the LGBT community, this congregation received the official designation “welcoming congregation” almost 20 years, in 1994. We were the first congregation in Florida to earn that designation. We are now called to go beyond the official Welcoming Congregation status to groups beyond the LGBT community, as well continuing our progress in understanding and compassion for LGBT. Each topic this last year has included a component of learning, of advocating, and of connecting. In addition to LGBT, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity, we also this year addressed:
  • Poverty, Racism and Cultural Identity;
  • Multi-Species and Environment; and 
  • Disabilitites.
Perhaps – I hope so – as a congregation we became a little more knowledgeable and understanding of all kinds of differences, and from this have a more inclusive outlook in the congregation and in our daily lives.

Robert Putnam’s work on the effect of diversity reaches an optimistic conclusion. In the short term, he says, there is this hunker down reaction. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies overcome fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.

We have learned how to be with different people without making them like us, without giving up what we are -- not without occasional discomforts, but with the confidence that together there’s no discomfort we can’t get through. Then we can say:
"Connecting only with the people who look, act, and think like us? We’re not doing that now.”


When Gratitude Replaces Pride

For me, the strand of the American inheritance for which I am most grateful is our tradition of criticism and dissent. Through the institutions of free speech, free press, and an independent judiciary -- flawed, sold-out, and co-opted as they sometimes are -- this country has fostered development of a deep and rich discourse of self-critique. I am profoundly grateful for that development. "Grateful," I say. I might, instead, have said the tradition of dissent makes me proud of being American. "Grateful," however feels more to the point, more germane, and more accurate than "proud." True patriots love their country enough to tell it the truth, and I am grateful that our country has had many such true patriots.

Four posts ago, Lake Chalice quoted Frederick Buechner saying:
“Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your self in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don't accrue any interest that way but become less and less interesting every day.”
Our great need, then, is not to tell ourselves how great it is to be who we are and to have what we have. That sort of thinking just lulls us to hold onto it in “perpetual safe-deposit.” The great need is to figure out what to do with ourselves and the resources (including resources of privilege) at our disposal. How do we to share of ourselves and our power most effectively? That’s the need for any one of you, having whatever privilege you might have. How do you share it? How do you use the power of your inheritance to connect with others in compassion?

That’s the need, too, for our nation: to be neither proud nor ashamed of who we are and what we have, and to use the powers we have to connect with other nations with respect, with compassion, with an interest in their own good, not just what good they are to us.

Pride is disconnecting. It succumbs to the illusion that there is a separate self of which to be proud. Our challenge is to live, not in that illusion, but out of truth -- namely, the truth that we are all interconnected and one.

Yes, it’s true that claiming pride is sometimes a necessary antidote to a history of shame and shaming. I don't expect that in my lifetime the day will come when that strategy is no longer necessary. Not in my lifetime. But I see the little ones in our Religious Education classes -- kindergartners and elementary-schoolers -- and I imagine saying to them:
"Not in my lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, in yours, little one, the day will come when no one’s pride functions to deprive and shame others. On that day when no group is systematically shamed, countering the shame with pride will be unnecessary. The day will come when gratitude takes the place of pride. The day will come when being grateful for being, and for the conditions that made us what we are, always feels to the point, and comes from a place near to the heart. The day will come when being proud of ourselves will seem, at worst, hubris and, at best, an oddly quaint way of expressing what is really gratitude. The day will come. Not in my lifetime, little one. But maybe in yours."
May it be so.

* * *
This is part 30 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 5 of 5 on Pride)
Previous: Part 29: "Proud To Be an American?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Proud To Be an American?

I know that I stand in, and speak from, a place of enormous privilege. I have:
  • white privilege,
  • male privilege,
  • straight privilege,
  • able-bodied privilege,
  • citizenship-in-the-country-whose-military-has-the-greatest-destructive-capacity-in-the-world privilege,
  • more-than-three-generations-removed-from-the-immigrant-experience privilege,
  • Protestant (by cultural heritage if not by current faith) privilege,
  • middle-class privilege,
  • economic privilege, and
  • educational privilege, both in terms of the privilege of having had easy access to all levels of education and the privileges of being educated.
It’s a level of privilege that is remarkable, that is undeserved, and is unfair. I would gladly surrender it for a more just world, if I could, but that doesn't seem to be an option. For the short-term, at least, I'm stuck with this load of privilege. So my question is: how do I put this tremendous privilege to best use? Living from a sense of noblesse oblige probably isn’t it. So what, then? How do I use my privilege to advance the dismantling of my privileges?

From my position of privilege, it’s easy for me to say I don’t have any more need for pride. Indeed, it is one of my privileges that my life situation allows me the luxury of preferring humility and gratitude. I don’t mean that I’m successful at achieving these virtues. I just mean that humility and gratitude for others looks a lot more appealing to me than does pride and credit-taking. The fact that I don’t have to fight daily for recognition and respect has a lot to do with that. I know that if I’m not heard for what I wanted to say, almost always it is because I wasn’t very skillful in saying it, not because of pre-existing doubts about my worthiness to be listened to. There are others who don’t have that privilege, who exhort themselves and their peers to pride as a necessary bulwark against social forces and conditions that denigrate who they are.

Some of the exhortations to pride are a matter of people doing what they need to do to claim their due. Other such exhortations, however, are apologetics for arrogance. On the one hand, pride in being LGBT, African American, or Latino/Latina is important and valuable. On the other hand, pride in being American is a bit different. It’s understandable if you’ve just been sworn in as a naturalized citizen. If, however, all four of your grandparents, both your parents, and you were born and raised on US soil, I don’t see the point.

Our national arrogance has been more problematic than whatever felt need is being addressed by proclaiming pride in being an American. Yes, we do need to know who we are, understand how our country and culture shape us, and understand the power and privileges that are at our disposal so we can deploy them with lovingkindness and compassion. Paying attention to all the things that being American means – the attitudes and the assumptions that we imbibe – is crucial to self-understanding. And, yes, the U.S. has done some good in the world. As a nation, we've also done some damaging things – both abroad and to many of our own people. Comedian Chris Rock captured the ambivalence when he said:
“If you’re black, America’s like the uncle that paid your way through college but molested you.”
Being either proud or ashamed of our country serves no point. The question is just, how to take the benefits Uncle Sam conferred and use them to stop the molestation. What are you going to do with the privileges of being American? Are you putting your inheritance to good use?

Too often, we haven’t been. Our national policies have arrogantly pursued what we thought was our own self-interest without regard to what damage we were doing to other peoples. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out:
“Great nations are too strong to be destroyed by their foes. But they can easily be overcome by their own pride.”
I turn again to Martin Luther King who warned against the vice of narrow national self-interest and the sin of unquestioning national pride:
“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach and others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. . . . A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
Amen, Martin. Amen.
* * *
This is part 29 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 5 on Pride)
Next: Part 30: "When Gratitude Replaces Pride"
Previous: Part 28: "Pride, the Hindrance"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Pride, the Hindrance

Pride certainly manifests in a lot of forms. There's lost pride, wounded pride, injured pride, restored pride, simple pride, foolish pride, false pride, overweening pride, justifiable pride, lasting pride, fatherly pride, a mother’s pride, school pride, team pride, national pride. There’s pride in, pride of, pride for, and pride over. Pride and joy, pride and glory, pride and sorrow. You can nurse your pride, swallow your pride, or show your pride.

Pride was originally two of the deadly sins. The "seven deadly sins" originated as eight deadly sins when Evagrius Ponticus (b. 345) compiled his list of the deadliest sins. For Evagrius, pride was so bad that it was two deadly sins all by itself: one called pride and the other vainglory. Two centuries later Pope Gregory the First slightly revised Evagrius, combining vainglory and pride under the Latin term superbia, equivalent to the Greek hubris. Gregory’s list comes down to us as the seven deadly sins. Even though "pride" was now only one sin, it was, for Gregory, the source of all sin.

“Pride,” said Gregory is the root of all evil.” The other vices “spring from this poisonous root.”

Pope Gregory identified four species of pride:
(1) Boasting of having some excellence that you don’t have;
(2) Having certain excellences and believing that you got them entirely on your own;
(3) Having a certain excellence and believing that no one else has it;
(4) Having an excellence, understanding that it came to you from above, but still believing that it came to you from your own merit.

“Pride is the beginning of all sin” says the Bible. Well, kind of. Some Bibles say it. It’s in a book called Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, is not in the Jewish Tanakh, or in the Protestant or Catholic Bible proper. Protestants call it apocryphal and Catholics call it deuterocanonical, the second canon. For the Eastern Orthodox, however, Ecclesiasticus is simply Biblical. And it was for Augustine (b. 354). Citing Ecclesiasticus, “Pride is the beginning of all sin,” Augustine went on to argue:
St. Augustine (above) and Pope
Gregory I (top)
“Every sin is a contempt of God, and every contempt of God is pride. For what is so proud as to despise God? All sin, then, is also pride....Pride encourages humans to displace God, to act on the willful denial of human limitation, to covet unjust privileges, and to glory in itself far too much.”
What Augustine thought of as displacing God, we might call choosing the delusion of separateness over the reality of interconnection and interdependence.

Over a millennium and a half later, C. S. Lewis wrote:
“As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.”
And from the book of Proverbs (canonical in all the Christian traditions) we read:
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” (Prov 16: 18-19)
Sounds like there's something -- these writers called it "pride" -- to which we are highly vulnerable and from which the path of spiritual deepening guides us away. There's something -- call it "pride" -- that blocks our true flourishing; something the overcoming of which correlates with possibilities for the flowering of joyful connection and peace.
* * *
This is part 28 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 of 5 on Pride)
Next: Part 29: "Proud To Be an American?"
Previous: Part 27: "Pride, the Wrong, and Pride, the Redress"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Pride, the Wrong, and Pride, the Redress

There is a designated "pride month": June. Yet “pride” is also one of the traditional seven deadly sins. There's no indication that envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, or anger are going to get their own commemorative month any time soon. That’s probably because they don’t need one. Groups that have been made to feel ashamed have a need to reclaim pride.

Oppression, exclusion, disempowerment inevitably links to shame. What could justify the oppression or exclusion of a group other than some of version of a claim that the group isn’t worthy of respect and inclusion? Pride insists upon worthiness and thereby reveals as unjustified any oppression or exclusion. What could maintain discrimination better than teaching the out-group to be ashamed of who they are? Pride counteracts the forces of shame and empowers to reclaim a rightful place.

If we are sympathetic to LGBT pride, but not to the "straight pride" advanced primarily by social conservative groups, and if we are sympathetic to the black pride movement, but not to the white pride movement, it is because we discern that the forces of shame have historically and wrongfully come down hard on LGBTness or African Americanness, and not on straightness or whiteness. It is because the thing we would like to end is LGBT shame and black shame and female shame, and the corollary thing we would like to end is straight arrogance, white arrogance, and male arrogance.

Our groupings don’t exist without historical context. It’s not like it’s recess and we only just now – and randomly – chose up teams for some game. There’s a historical context that defines the reality of our identities. Against the backdrop of history we can see how arrogance emerged, developed, and manifested in some groups, and how that is connected to the corresponding shaming of other groups. Too much pride in some quarters means too little pride in others.

As the African American writer Michael Eric Dyson has observed: "White pride is the vice that makes black pride necessary."

Or, as Martin Luther King put it several decades earlier: “Yes, we must stand up and say, ‘I’m black and I’m beautiful,’ and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”

Pride: arrogance, vanity, hubris, haughtiness, conceit, snobbery, self-importance. In a more ideal world we would have no use for the swellings of pride. It’s true that in this actual world, far from ideal as it is, Lake Chalice supports and encourages LGBT pride, black pride, immigrant pride, Latino pride and any pride needed to bring better balance to our unbalanced world. The reason those prides are needed is to counteract harmful effects of pride. In a more ideal world, we'd have cured all shame with pride, and then cured all pride with humility.

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This is part 27 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 2 of 5 on Pride)
Next: Part 28: "Pride, the Hindrance"
Previous: Part 26: "Pride?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"



Today Lake Chalice begins considering pride.

On the one hand, pride can be a necessary antidote to a history of shaming. Hence, if you hear about "Pride Month" or a "Pride Parade," you'd probably guess that the event celebrates things LGBTQI. There has indeed been a long history of shaming LGBTQI folk, and it's good for us to understand that every one of us has much ground for being proud of who we are as anyone else.

On the other hand, pride is one of the traditional seven deadly sins. Pride can be a problem for ourselves and for others.

In a delightful book called The Clown in the Belfry, Frederick Buechner (b. 1926), American essayist, novelist, and theologian wrote:
“Pride is self-love....Another way of saying Love your neighbor as yourself is to say Love yourself as your neighbor. That doesn't mean your pulse is supposed to quicken every time you look in the mirror any more than it's supposed to quicken every time your neighbor passes the window. It means simply that the ability to work for your own good despite all the less than admirable things you know about yourself is closely related to the ability to work for your neighbor's good despite all the less than admirable things you know about him. It also means that just as in this sense love of self and love of neighbor go hand in hand, so do dislike of self and dislike of neighbor. For example (a) the more I dislike my neighbor, the more I'm apt to dislike myself for disliking him and him for making me dislike myself and so on, and (b) I am continually tempted to take out on my neighbor the dislike I feel for myself, just the way if I crack my head on a low door I'm very apt to kick the first cat, child, or chair unlucky enough to catch my bloodshot eye. Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your self in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don't accrue any interest that way but become less and less interesting every day.”

In short, it takes a certain amount of self-love to take the risk of connecting and to stay out of "safe-deposit." It required a little pride for the LGBTQI movement in 1969 to begin resisting the forces of shame. Children today won't know about the events of that June, 44 years ago.

Early on a Saturday morning in 1969 June, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning persons rioted following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. The Stonewall riots were a watershed in the LGBT rights movement, and the impetus for LGBT pride marches that now occur around the world, celebrating June as Pride month, in commemoration of Stonewall.

The first Gay pride marches occurred in 1970 June, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. There was a parade that year in New York, and on the same weekend marches in Los Angeles and Chicago, and a “Gay-in” in San Francisco.

The next year, 1971, the second anniversary of Stonewall, saw Gay Pride marches in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm.

By 1972 the participating cities included Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Washington D.C., Miami, and Philadelphia.

In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton declared June "Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.”

President Obama, in 2009, '10, '11, and '12, has declared June Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride month. In Gainesville, Florida, the annual pride parade is in October. Maybe it’s just too hot to march in June – or there aren’t enough students around. For most of the rest of the world, Pride Month is June.

Our little ones will not know this history. When today's toddlers are adults, they may not remember that there was a day when your gender and the gender of the person you wanted to marry had to be opposite before you could get married. We will have to tell them about that. With any luck, they’ll have a hard time getting it. They won’t see what the big deal is about Stonewall, because they will be able to take equality for granted.

With any luck.

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This is part 26 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 1 of 5 on Pride)
Next: Part 27: "Pride, the Wrong, and Pride, the Redress"
Previous: Part 25: "The Engine and the Steering Wheel"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


The Engine and the Steering Wheel

Seven principles for loving and lusting in a healthy and fair way have been developed by a Sisters of Mercy Nun, Margaret Farley. (Portions below in quotes are from Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, 2008.)

1. Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms: “physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.” Lust tugs us toward situations in which either we or our partner are likely to be uniquely tender and vulnerable. Our values tell us to pay acute attention to the risks of harm.

2. Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are also aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person.

3. Mutuality

The old ideas of “the male as active and the female as passive, the woman as receptacle and the man as fulfiller” are violations of the mutuality principle. True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both bringing roughly equivalent levels of heart and self to the encounter, it isn’t mutual.

4. Equality

The partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners. The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.”

5. Commitment

A one-night stand “cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.” Nevertheless, a brief encounter may be morally justifiable as long as it includes two commitments: to each of the preceeding principles, and to openness to the possibility that the encounter may lead to long-term relationship.

6. Fruitfulness

The relationship should bear fruit in some way. Traditionally, the fruit of love is procreation. Making babies is one way to be fruitful and keep the relationship from closing in on itself. There are other ways. The point is that love brings new life to those who love, and that new life should bless the world, not just the lovers. Thus is love fruitful and for the good of all.

7. Social Justice

Here the invitation is to understand your own intimate relationship within the context of social justice, which requires that all people’s romantic and intimate relationships be honored and respected. “Whether persons are single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from...[faith] communit[ies] as well as the wider society. These are claims to freedom from unjust harm, equal protection under the law, an equitable share in the goods and services available to others, and freedom of choice in their sexual lives -- within the limits of” these principles.

When lust arises, pay attention to it -- neither indulging nor repressing. In the process, also pay attention to these seven principles of justice in sexuality.


So, you see, Plato, it’s not that there’s a good horse and a bad horse – as if our job were to suppress and quell the bad horse as much as we can so that the good horse can take us down the noble road. Rather, there’s an engine and a steering wheel. The steering wheel doesn't make the engine go, and doesn't turn it on or off. We ain’t going anywhere without the engine. Gotta love the engine, take care of it, maintain it. When it makes strange noises, figure out what’s wrong and get it fixed. We need that engine.

We also have a steering wheel. We don’t have a lot of control, and the glory of life is this amazing ride, most of which we don’t choose. But we do have some control. We can steer, kinda. Lust is a blessing. With thoughtfulness we can make good choices about what to do with that blessing.

* * *
This is part 25 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 4 on Lust)
Next: Part 26: "Pride?"
Previous: Part 24: "More Than Two Possibilities"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


More Than Two Possibilities

We are emerging out from under the long shadows cast by Plato and Augustine. More and more of us now understand that our bodies are not corrupted prisons for our pure and ethereal souls, but, rather, our bodies are themselves vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. Our bodies are integral parts of our identity. We aren’t who we are without embodiment. The first awakening of romantic love is sparked by the lust that is our evolutionary heritage, and that we do not choose. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love.

Yet love and lust can certainly be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence the course our lust and thus our love takes. If we find that an attraction, an urge, has arisen within us, we have choices about what to do with that. We can indulge it. We can repress it, suppress it, deny it.

Those are not the only two possibilities.

We can, as it were, walk with it. Begin by just being with it. Bring presence and awareness to the urge. Without denying it or pushing it away, investigate it. What is it, exactly? What are the options for honoring it and addressing it? So often we think there is only one thing the urge is asking for, and we either go for it, or we’re horrified by that and try to suppress the urge. With patient presence, alternatives emerge.

You might choose not to identify with the urge. This isn’t the same thing as repression. It’s like: “I see you there lust, and I know you are not me. You are a simply a visitor who has come to see me today. I will treat you honorably, listen to what you have to say, but, no, I’m not turning over the keys to the house to you. Not today.”

You might choose to defer the urge, seeing a greater possibility of fulfillment at a later time and place. We can bring the urge into dialog with our values: that is, not allowing the urge to overwhelm our values, but also not attempting to use our values to deny the legitimacy of the urge. Just: bringing urge and values into dialog.

To have that dialog, it helps to be clear on what the values are. Margaret Farley, a Sisters of Mercy Nun whom Lake Chalice has referenced before (see here), articulated seven relevant value principles, of which there are, it just so happens, seven:

1. Do No Unjust Harm
2. Free Consent
3. Mutuality
4. Equality
5. Commitment
6. Fruitfulness
7. Social Justice

The urge of lust comes from a healthy and good place. When lust knocks at your door, be a welcoming and attentive host. But you don't have to do everything it proposes. Bring it into dialog with these seven values. In our next post, Lake Chalice will unpack a bit these seven lively values.

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This is part 24 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 of 4 on Lust)
Next: Part 25: "The Engine and the Steering Wheel"
Previous: Part 23: "Lust: Virtue and Vice"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Lust: Virtue and Vice

Each one of the seven deadly sins – greed, anger, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, and lust – contains a virtue as well as a possible vice. In lust, the virtue is that it impels us to risk setting aside our usual defenses and entering into connection – entering into the most radical mutuality.

Radical mutuality comes from this: lust is not one desire, but two. It consists of the desire to please and to be pleased. Those two desires become one, yet conceptually we can begin by imagining them separate. Lovers A and B, in their consummation, find that A takes pleasure in B’s pleasure, and B takes pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure, and A takes further pleasure in B taking pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure. And so on. In this feedback loop, the two desires – to please and to be pleased – merge into one desire for pleasures belonging to neither lover separately.

While there is much about this that is voluntary, and mutual consent is crucial to the enterprise, there is also a significant role for the involuntary – for the delight we take in evoking from each other involuntary bodily responses. In the merger -- the envelopment and penetration -- there is a depth of surrender, a surrendering of rational will and separate identity, and thus a liberation from the tyranny of our separateness with its calculated self-protection.

The experience reveals, manifests, a spiritual possibility, to which we might be so present that it penetrates and envelopes us. We might learn to encounter each moment of our living with something like that ecstasy of merger – a continuous unfolding lovemaking with reality. The poet Kabir calls it making love with the divine.
“If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
do you think ghosts will do it after?
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
And if you make love with the divine now,
in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire.
Then plunge into the Truth.”
There is this spiritual possibility, growing from lust, for radical mutuality. Certainly there is a blessing there. Yet there are also problems and risks. We can make love with the divine or screw with the devil.

Evolution made us get hungry when we haven’t eaten for a while. Evolution did not, as it were, “have in mind” the development of fettuccine alfredo, sweet potato and walnut burritos, or Americanized panAsian cuisine. We humans did that. Evolution gave us two basic facts: we like to eat, and, while our tastes are variable and trainable, in general we are especially attracted to foods that have the nutrients in which our ancient ancestors were otherwise likely to be deficient. We take those two facts, and we’re making the best of them. Only, sometimes we’re also making the worst of them: fast food, junk food, excessive intake of the sugars, fats, and salt that once were precious and hard to come by.

Evolution also made us with a desire to mate. Evolution did not, as it were “have in mind” the development of the positions and techniques depicted in the Kama Sutra or The Joy of Sex. We humans did that. Evolution gave us two basic facts: we like sex and, while our tastes are variable and trainable, in general we are especially attracted to young and healthy partners who are more likely to produce healthy children and protect and provide for said children. We take those two facts, and we’re making the best of them. Only, sometimes we’re also making the worst of them. Evolution gave us lust, which we can use as the energy that brings love into its most magnificent flower. But we can also misuse.

* * *
This is part 23 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 2 of 4 on Lust)
Next: Part 24: "More Than Two Possibilities"
Previous: Part 22: "An Open Letter to Plato about Sex"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


An Open Letter to Plato about Sex

Dear Plato,

What are we going to do with you, young man? I'm disappointed with the way you've been intellectually behaving. Don’t you know that your younger brother, Augustine, is just going to want to do what he sees his big brother doing, only he doesn’t even have your tempered judgment? It’s going to be trouble for all of us because of what you started. What were you thinking?

Well, OK, you told us what you were thinking, but let’s think again, for god’s sake.

Lust is not a bad thing. We would none of us be here without it. So what’s this nonsense about the charioteer with two horses? I refer, of course, to that passage in the "Phaedrus" in which you wrote about the good horse and the bad horse. You said:
“The one in the better position has an upright appearance, and is clean-limbed, high-necked, hook-nosed, white in color, and dark-eyed; his determination to succeed is tempered by self-control and respect for others, which is to say that he is an ally of true glory; and he needs no whip, but is guided only by spoken commands. The other is crooked, over-large, a haphazard jumble of limbs; he has a thick, short neck, and a flat face; he is black in color, with grey, bloodshot eyes, and ally of excess and affectation, hairy around the ears, hard of hearing, and scarcely to be controlled with a combination of whip and goad.”
What are you saying, Plato? Everything’s about control, control, control with you. Be a good charioteer, rein in those impulses of that bad horse.

I grant you that controlling ourselves is not an awful idea. In fact, most of the time it’s a pretty good idea. But, Plato, that’s not all there is to the good life. And I don’t think you were thinking about what affect that would have on Augustine. I’m not saying you’re responsible for all the misuses of your ideas by other people, but you tell me this: was Augustine misusing your ideas, or just logically extending them?

It was you, after all, who described all the pleasures of the body as “snares and the source of all ills.”

It's true that you are not the only bad influence on our little Augie. There was that Matthew. Just as you put words in Socrates’ mouth, Matthew put words in Jesus’ mouth. Matthew has Jesus say:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
That’s certainly taking the idea of control to a whole ‘nother level. Somehow it’s not enough to control what we do with our desires; we have to prevent desires from arising in the first place. God only knows how. The Jesus Seminar folks figure Jesus probably never said that, but Matthew said Jesus said it, and Augustine believed Jesus said it.

For Augustine, let me tell you just in case you haven't been paying attention, sexual relations are a bad, bad thing. However, we need kids, so sex must be endured. Ideally, there should be no pleasure involved. It should be like shaking hands. Through sufficient exercise of the rational will, we can control our feelings and impulses so that sexual activity occurs without any enjoyment, but solely for fulfilling the duty of procreating. Though even this is second best. Actually, fourth best.

The ideal would be a life of virginity of heart, mind, and body: without a hint of desire ever arising. Second best would be a life of unmarried virginity of body. Third, matrimony without sex. That’s fine if you can do it, but it’s risky to have a spouse around. Fourth would be matrimony with pleasureless procreative activity. Fifth, procreative activity accompanied by pleasure. This is pretty regrettable -- clearly a degraded state of affairs. But even that would be better than the sixth level, acting for the sake of pure sexual pleasure without intending to produce kids.

Now, Plato, don’t give me that, “It’s not my fault he’s seriously repressed” line. He took your ideas about rational will suppressing the impulses of desire and used that to lay out doctrines that repressed all of Christendom for the next 1600 years. And counting.

When Augustine took up the question of whether Christ was ever sad, he said, yes, Christ was sad at least once, “but sad by taking up sadness of his own free will, in the same way as he, of his own free will, took up human flesh.” But, you see, Plato, and I think you understand this much, sadness is not to be switched on and off by a free will decision. If anyone tells me they switch sadness on and off at will, I’m going to figure they’re not actually feeling the real thing. Same thing with sexual desire. Anyone who says they turn it on or off by rational choice isn’t really feeling the real thing.

Not all of life is about what we choose. Some of it is about what chooses us. Sometimes, in fact, we require loss of control. The good life is about being open to the surprises that come to us, including the surprising emotions, and involuntary sensations. The good life includes the possibility of intimate partners, and when and if we do enter into such a partnership, too much control kills it. We want to feel swept away, and we want them to feel swept away. We want to turn our bodies over to the nourishment of a grander thing – a thing grander than our individual rational choice, a thing we don’t choose or control, but simply serve, a thing called love.

Lust is the unchosen desire best satisfied through losing ourselves in the service of love.

Just think about it, OK?

Your concerned friend,

* * *
This is part 22 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 1 of 4 on Lust)
Next: Part 23: "Lust: Virtue and Vice"
Previous: Part 21: "Faith Envy"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Faith Envy

In Joseph Epstein’s book, Envy, he observes that his greatest envy is for people who have managed to free themselves of envy. Early in the book Epstein mentions what he calls “faith envy”:
“This is the envy one feels for those who have the true and deep and intelligent religious faith that sees them through the darkest of crises, death among them.”
Then, toward the end of the book, he recounts:
“I envied people who can travel abroad with a single piece of luggage. I envied people who have exceedingly good posture. I still envy such people. And, above all, I envied – and continue to envy – those few people, favorites of the gods, who genuinely understand that life is a fragile bargain, rescindable at any time . . . and live their lives day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute accordingly.”
A strong faith does see us through dark crises, including death. If that faith is a liberal religious faith, then it is not the serene and obstinate insistence on certain incredible beliefs. Rather, liberal religion sees faith as an openness to whatever unknown the next moment may bring. Faith, in this light, is the very same thing as that genuine understanding of how fragile a bargain, rescindable at any instant, is life.

If we can envy envylessness, then we can direct our envy toward its own cure. Envy can be the "sin" that motivates us to a practice of learning to let go of envy. In the oldest branch of Buddhism -- Theravada Buddhism -- that practice is called mudita.

Mudita is one of the four Brahma Vihara -- i.e., four noble virtues or four sublime attitudes. The other three are upekkha, metta, and karuna. These words are Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist scriptures. They translate roughly as follows:

Upekkha is equanimity. Metta is lovingkindness. Karuna is compassion toward those suffering misfortune. And mudita is sympathetic joy – joy at another’s good fortune.

Mudita is the direct antidote of envy. When I truly understand that we are not separate, then I know that another’s good fortune is my good fortune, for we are one. And, conversely, when we practice this noble virtue, mudita, taking joy in the success and good fortune of others, we begin to better understand that we are not separate.

Easier said than done. Through practice, though, it is possible to strengthen our mudita. When I suffer a pang of envy – and envy is suffering – I remind myself that from the universe’s point of view, the other person’s success is just as good as my own. Indeed, the other person’s success IS my own.

When the Miss America winner is announced, and Miss Indiana, or whoever it is, steps forward to be crowned, you see the other contestants smiling and applauding the winner, the one who beat them out. You may be thinking, "They are faking those smiles. Inside, all those runners-up and also-rans are consumed with envy." I don’t know. Maybe some of them are wretched with envy. Maybe others actually are sharing in the joy.

And if a given contestant is faking, that’s not so bad. "Fake it til you make it," as the 12-steppers wisely say. Pretend to have an attitude for long enough and eventually you really will have it. In mudita practice, it doesn’t matter whether you are pretending to feel sympathetic joy, or are actually feeling it. Either way, you are cultivating that feeling, strengthening the neurons that will allow you to go toward joy at the very moment when envy pulls toward misery.

When we're in the midst of a situation that triggers envy, it's difficult to remember mudita. So it's good to practice when you aren't in the midst of such a situation. Sharon Salzberg offers this beautiful meditation for cultivating and nurturing mudita.
"We begin with someone whom we care about; someone it is easy to rejoice for. It may be somewhat difficult even then, but we tend to more easily feel joy for someone on the basis of our love and friendship. Choose a friend and focus on a particular gain or source of joy in this person's life. Do not look for absolute, perfect happiness in their life, because you may not find it. Whatever good fortune or happiness of theirs comes to your mind, take delight in it with the phrase, 'May your happiness and good fortune not leave you' or 'May your happiness not diminish' or 'May your good fortune continue.' This will help diminish the conditioned tendencies of conceit, demeaning others, and judgment. Following this, we move through the sequence of beings: benefactor, neutral person, enemy [difficult person], all beings . . . all beings in the ten directions." (Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, p. 134)
Even if you don't think of yourself as an envious person, we could all use mudita strengthening. If you'll take 5 minutes, three times a week, to sit quiet and still and take your mind through this exercise, it will change your life. I guarantee it.

* * *
This is part 21 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 4 on Envy)
Next: Part 22: "An Open Letter to Plato about Sex"
Previous: Part 20: "Upsides of Envy"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Upsides of Envy

Envy -- arguably the least fun of the seven deadly sins -- has a positive side. The pinch of envy might spur us to a wholesome pursuit of justice, or it might drive us work harder to achieve the qualities we admire in others.

Envy springs from the same place from which comes concern for justice and equality. The impulse that makes us care about fairness and equality is a little voice that has been hardwired into us to say, “I don’t want anyone to have it better than me.” As William Hazlitt remarked:
“Envy, among other ingredients, has a love of justice in it.”
The envious tend -- for good and for ill -- to be injustice collectors. Envy is what we get mired in when the childish demand that everything be perfectly equal isn’t qualified and moderated by understanding.

Envy also has roots in another, secondary source: admiration.
“Aristotle writes of emulation as good envy, or envy ending in admiration, and thus in the attempt to imitate the qualities one began by envying” (Joseph Epstein)
Noticing a certain inequality – someone has a talent or a virtue in greater degree than you – you might want that for yourself, and so strive to emulate it. Admiration informs and motivates your own character development. Or, noticing an inequality that comes from some unfairness, we might engage for the sake of greater fairness. Both of those are positive, healthy, good.

Envy is the turning bad of these positive forces in human life. Kierkegaard wrote that
“admiration is happy self surrender; envy is unhappy self-satisfaction.”
Some people “feel envy only glancingly if at all,” others “use envy toward emulation and hence self-improvement,” and still others “let it build a great bubbling caldron of poisoning bile in them.”

We are built with different sensitivities. After all, some chimps pulled that rope to collapse the table and others didn’t. Still most of us compare ourselves with others -- and we want the comparison to favor us.
“Studies such as Robert H. Frank’s Luxury Fever have shown that people would agree to make less total money so long as they make more than their neighbors: that is, they would rather earn, say $85,000 a year where no one else is making more than $75,000 instead of $100,000 where everyone else is making $125,000.”
Indeed, H. L. Mencken said that contentment in America is making $10 a month more than your brother-in-law.

Academics and artists seem to be uncommonly afflicted with envy. The writer Gore Vidal admitted,
“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
The advertising industry is built on the aim of inducing as much envy as possible. Envy seems to cut across all economic systems. As the saying goes:
Under capitalism, man envies man. Under socialism, vice-versa.
* * *
This is part 20 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 on Envy)
Next: Part 21: "Faith Envy"
Previous: Part 19: "Envy and the Desire for Equality"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Envy and the Desire for Equality

Envy is not to be confused with jealousy. One is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have. Nor is envy to be confused with generalized resentment. Real envy is personal. You envy a particular person. You don’t envy a class – say, the rich. You may resent the rich, but envy is reserved for a specific person who has gotten richer than you and, you are quite sure, does not deserve it.
“Real envy is reserved not for the great or the greatly gifted, but for those whose situation seems only slightly better than our own.” (Epstein)
We envy people who we see as roughly comparable. I don’t envy LeBron James because I have long since given up any hope of that kind of athletic genius. But another middle-aged minister whose basketball skills clearly exceed my own might trigger a brief, ‘hey, why not me?’ thought. So women tend to envy other women and men tend to envy other men – because we see them as being in a comparable position, and we’d like to do as well as they do.

Envy is also the only one of the seven deadlies to be proscribed in the ten commandments. Yahweh declares himself to be jealous, and forbids us to be envious:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Not a word in the ten commandments, or, indeed, anywhere in the Tanakh – which Christians call the Old Testament – prohibiting the other six. Leviticus, in particular, is filled with page after page of rules, but nothing there forbids gluttony, anger, sloth, pride, or greed. There are a lot of ways your lust cannot be expressed, but there’s no law against lust itself. Coveting, however, that’s not allowed.

Why not? The commandments already say, “You shall not steal.” So as long as coveting your neighbor’s house or ox doesn’t lead to stealing it, what’s wrong with coveting it? The commandments already say, “You shall not commit adultery.” So as long as coveting your neighbor’s spouse doesn’t lead to that, what’s the problem?

The problem, I guess, is that other side of envy: the side that says, well never mind me getting it, I’ll just make sure my neighbor doesn’t have it either. If your neighbor’s ox mysteriously dies, you haven’t exactly stolen it. Iago doesn’t end up with Desdemona – he just makes sure Othello doesn’t have her either. Iago’s envy and Othello’s jealousy together drive the plot.

Nasty business, this envy.

This, “If-I-can’t-have-it-you-can’t-either” impulse runs deep. In an experiment with chimpanzees, there’s a chimp in a cage, there’s a table of their favorite foods outside the cage. The cage is on wheels and the chimp can reach out, grab the edge of the table and pull it over and get the food. There’s also a rope attached to a couple of the table legs. Pulling on the rope causes the table to collapse and the food to roll away, irretrievably out of reach. Now put two chimps in side by side cages. They can both reach the table, and they each have their own rope that can collapse the table. As long as they pull the table closer to where they both can reach it and share the food, all was well. But if one chimp pulled the table over toward himself out of the reach of the other chimp, then the aggrieved chimp would often pull the rope, collapse the table and thus ensure that neither of them got the food.

Often. Not always. Some chimps have the “if I can’t have it you can’t either” impulse stronger than others. It’s the same with their cousins, the humans. And it’s a good thing. We need people who care about equality just for equality’s sake – even when that sometimes means taking away something from someone else with no tangible benefit to anyone.

That’s a strange thing to say. But even though there may not seem to be any benefit in one particular instance, over the longer haul there may be. The chimp who pulls the rope to deny food to another chimp gets no benefit THIS TIME. But next time, the greedy chimp will be more likely to share. Maybe in some circumstances we know that there will be and can be no next time, but our emotions are wired the way they are from millions of generations dealing with situations in which there were next times.

An important detail that I didn’t mention is that when a deprived chimp does pull the rope to say, “fine, then neither of us is getting any food,” that chimp doesn’t just quietly pull the rope, as if the collapsing table might have been some unfortunate accident. Oh, no.
“When the table rolled away from them, the annoyed chimps exploded in rage, turning into screeching black furballs.” (Ariely)
They are very loud about communicating a message for next time: treat me fairly. The roots of envy lie in an impulse to insist upon equality because even though there may be no benefit to you this time, you increase your odds of better treatment next time. Without that impulse, we’d never have developed as much fairness as we have.

Life isn’t fair, but it’s a good thing for human beings in their dealings with each other to try to be.

* * *
This is part 19 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 2 on Envy)
Next: Part 20: "Upsides of Envy"
Previous: Part 18: "Wanting the Cow Dead"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Wanting the Cow Dead

A genie pops out of a bottle and sees three people. Since it’s unclear which one of them actually opened the bottle, the genie gives one wish to each of them. The first one says that friend of hers has a cottage in the Cotswalds, and she would like a similar cottage, but with two extra bedrooms, an additional bath, and a brook running in front. The second one says his best friend has a twenty-five-year-old blonde mistress, and he would like such a mistress himself, but a redhead instead of a blonde and with longer legs and bit more culture and chic. The third one is silent. Then he says, “I have a neighbor who has a cow that gives a vast quantity of the richest milk, which yields the heaviest cream and the purest butter. I want that cow . . . dead.”

Envy may be the most hidden of the seven deadly sins. We tend to hide it from others, and from ourselves. When my mind turned to the subject of envy, I was thinking, well, this one I don’t have much. Maybe you have that reaction too – and maybe you really don’t have much of it. Or maybe you and I have hidden our envy from ourselves because, one, it’s pretty easy to hide, and, two, it’s no fun to have.

Envy really is no fun. Envy is the least fun of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony and lust are fun. Sloth is enjoyable. Vanity feels good. Greed can be satisfying, and even anger we speak of as an indulgence. But envy? That’s just no fun at all. It’s not easy being green (with envy) – in the sense that life in that sickly-hued state is difficult and unpleasant.

Envy works basically like this:
“You see something, want it, feel it only sensible and right that it belong to you and not the person who has it. One the injustice of the other person having it is established – this doesn’t usually take too long – his unworthiness must be emphasized, at least in your own mind. Your own greater worthiness goes quite without saying. His loathsomeness doesn’t; it may be said over and over, to yourself. Whatever the object of inordinate desire – an item of art or luxury, the friendship or love of another person, the prestige that goes with a position or place or prize in life – the world begins to seem out of joint, so long as he has it and you do not.” (Epstein, Envy)
It’s that double-reality that’s insufferable: he has it AND you do not. If you both have it, that’s fine, and if neither of you have it, that’s OK. Envy says there are two solutions: one, you get what they’ve got, ideally in a slightly better version, or two, they lose what they had. Envy doesn’t care which. Of course, there’s a third solution: learn how to not be envious, but Envy won’t tell you that.
“Envy asks one leading question: What about me? Why does he or she have beauty, talent wealth, power, the world’s love, and other gifts, or at any rate a larger share of than I? Why not me?” (Epstein)
The first recorded case of envy is in Genesis, chapter 4:
“Now Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering, he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. . . . Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.”
So it's a sin with a distinguished history. Indeed, unless you count eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil among sins to which we are currently liable, envy is the oldest still-practiced sin in the Bible. Followed shortly by murder.

* * *
This is part 18 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 1 on Envy)
Next: Part 19: "Envy and the Desire for Equality"
Previous: Part 17: "The Real Work"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"


I Pray Thee: Pray

We need a Unitarian Universalist theology of prayer, because, for many of us, what we learned in childhood about what prayer is doesn’t make sense to us anymore, so we don’t pray.

Prayer is not about asking for stuff with any expectation that it will magically appear. Prayer does not require believing in a personlike entity or committing to the notion that reality-as-a-whole knows or desires.

It does help to address the prayer to something other than yourself, though it’s fine if you understand this as merely a device to help you hear yourself better – like beginning your journal entries with “Dear Diary,” as if you were writing to a pen-pal. It’s a good device – helps you really do it, slow down, complete your sentences, present yourself without the shortcuts habitual to our rushing thoughts.

So that's part one: imagine reporting to someone whose judgment you need not cajole, who will never hold against you whatever you say, and whose sympathy is assured. Maybe you’re sure there’s no one there, or maybe you suspect it. That’s fine. Pretend. Role-play. It's good to excercise the imagination. Knowing when to go ahead and play make-believe and burst the bonds of the literal and prosaic -- and when to return to those bonds -- is the better part of wisdom.

You can address the prayer to "God," "Goddess," "Jesus," "Mary," "Avalokitesvara," "Vishnu," "Thor," "Ghosts of my ancestors," "Saint Francis," "Reality," or -- the two I most frequently invoke -- "Ground of being," or "Source of healing and wholeness called by many names." You can address your prayer to an imaginary person you name "Hilda," or "Cuthbert." In some ways it does matter whom you name as your addressee in prayer, so try out various possibilities to see what resonantes best with you. As far as whether or not you actually are praying, it doesn't matter how you name your (imagined) listener. Put "Dear" in front -- or don't -- as the spirit moves you.

Kneeling is good, though by no means necessary. Kneeling tells your body, "we're doing something a little different from the rest of life now." It helps the body take seriously what you're doing -- and the body, after all, runs our lives a lot more than the thin layer of upper cortex that likes to believe it's in charge. It also seems to help to look either down or up.

Prayer is about caring enough about life – yours – to check in with it, see how it’s doing. The purpose of imagining you are reporting to something outside yourself is to discover what you say.

Then begin. So what do you say? What goes in part two, the "body" of the prayer?

Anne Lamott’s latest is a little book about prayer, and the title is three words that say it all:

Help. Thanks. Wow.

That’s it. Help. Thanks. Wow. To take up a practice of prayer means that you’ll regularly say those three things. You’ll say them to yourself, and in private, because prayer is not for display.

Sometimes you say, “I sure do need some help. I don’t know what to do.”

Sometimes you might be specific about the sort of help you’d really like, and that’s where the idea of prayer as asking for things comes from. But the point isn’t to ask so you can get it. The point is to ask so you can hear your own heart’s yearning – and thereby reveal to yourself also an option of maybe letting it go. Maybe.

Sometimes you say, “Thank you. Thank you for a day of sobriety, for my granddaughter, for the blossoming azaleas.”

And sometimes you say: “Wow. I’m stunned. I might or might not also be grateful, but mostly right now, I’m stunned. I gasp. The song of a bird, an image of war, the massive scale of poverty, the infinity of the cosmos. Wow.”

Wow is what you say when you look at the ocean for the first time. I will always remember a story I heard the first year I was serving the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida. It seems that a member of the congregation had a relative who had reached the age of 80 and had spent her life in the same north Alabama town in which she was born. She had never seen the ocean. So the family got together and planned the trip so she could see ocean. The elderly relative was brought out to the beach, and she gazed upon the ocean for her first time: this vast expanse stretching to the horizon in 180 different degrees of directions. She said, “I thought it would be bigger.”

That story is so memorable because it’s so funny, and because I can’t wrap my mind around how the ocean could not be a “wow.”

Help. Thanks. Wow. Saying it helps us know we mean it, that’s all. It helps us become self-aware, which we rarely are. A regular practice of prayer changes us, but it changes us so slowly that it’s easy to think nothing is happening, it’s not doing anything, it’s pointless. As the years wash up like waves, the habit of daily prayer gradually yields up its fruit of self-awareness.

You know who you are – really know. You know where you fall down and need help. You know what you love and are so grateful for: those are your resources are for getting back up. And you know you’re alive in a world of wonder.

It’s one thing to have a moment of irritation, sadness, anger, disappointment, fear. Such feelings, too, are threads in the fabric of the wonder of life. It’s another thing to nurse such a feeling like a grudge, to run a cognitive loop to tell myself over and over not just that I’m having the feeling, but how justified I am to have it. Every time I want to cling to my own crankiness, wield it with righteous conviction, I am forgetting who I am. Saying help and thanks and wow gradually gets me where I’m quicker to remember again.

Then, at the end, part three: say, “Amen.” Or say, “and so it is,” or, “truly,” since these terms are translations of "amen." Also popular: "Blessed be." All these endings underscore that prayer is not about wishful thinking, but about being in touch with things exactly as they are in your heart. It's about blessing what is -- even if "what is" is your own desperate need for help.

Help. And so it is.

Thanks. Truly.

Wow. And so it is, truly.