Community AND Faith

Even in the secular, market sphere, greed, unconstrained, backfires. Gordon Gekko, in the sequel to “Wall St.” has come to recognize the problems of extreme greed:
“It’s greed that makes my bartender buy three houses he can’t afford with no money down. And it’s greed that makes your parents refinance their $200,000 house for $250,000. Then they take that extra $50,000 and they go down to the mall. They buy a plasma TV, cell phones, computers, an SUV, and, hey, why not a second home, while we’re at it, because, gee whiz, we all know the prices of houses in America always go up, right? And it’s greed that makes the government of this country cut the interest rates to one percent after 9-11 so we can all go shopping again. They’ve got all these fancy names for trillions of dollars of credit: CMOs, CDOs, SIVs, ABSs. I honestly think there’s only 75 people in the world who know what they are. I’ll tell you what they are: WMDs: Weapons of Mass Destruction.” ("Money Never Sleeps" [2010])
Beyond the economic arguments, there’s the intimate spiritual understanding that some things come to us only by not wanting them. Joy comes to us when we en-joy what we were not anticipating, did not expect, or earn, or deserve.

Imagine standing in your backyard and looking up and seeing a swallow-tailed kite fly over. There’s a joy and a grace in that – maybe small, maybe it makes your day. The fact that you didn’t make it happen is a crucial component of that experience. Had you paid someone to capture a swallow-tailed kite and release it from a tree behind you at just that moment, then seeing that kite would be a very different experience. It would be one more experience of control and reward – rather than of simple open-ness and grace.

So I ask: do you show up at your congregation in order to learn how to grow in faith, to open to life’s gifts, to live in grace? Grace is unpredictable and uncontrolled – and it is also invisible if we aren’t open to it, if we’re so caught up in what we can control that we don’t notice anything we haven’t intentionally manipulated. Grace just takes paying attention. You can’t earn grace, but you can work on your attentional skills. Your congregation can help with that, if you’re ready to be helped.

I’ve been around congregations most of my life – in an ordained capacity for nearly nine years years now (since 2004). I have to admit I don’t know whether most congregants are simply there for the community – which is wonderful, and is a blessing – or there to engage in becoming more open to, more appreciative of, more grateful for, more aware of, life’s abundant, free, unearned and unearnable gifts.

Are you at your congregation to be transformed into a being of ever greater love and joy, open to the greatest gifts, those you’d never have thought to desire?

Or are you there to meet the needs you already had, to get something you knew in advance that you wanted?

I know there’s a paradox here. I seem to be inviting you to want something (grace) without wanting it (because wanting makes you try to control its occurrence). I can only say that I feel a spaciousness in the acceptance and openness to what comes – and that contrasts with the constricted narrowness in which I do spend much of my life working out how to control things so I’ll get what I had previously determined to want.

If you were to decide that you did want faith deepening, you can’t buy it, can’t control it, can’t make it happen – which is to say, it is not one more object of greed. But you can, with unpredictable and irregular results, nurture faith. There are things you can do to nurture it on purpose, if you wanted to. You could do those things privately, by yourself. Maybe you do. It’s more fun, and more likely to happen, if we do them together.

Moreover, we do need to be aware that the spiritual path is a tricky one. The very practices to open us to uncontrolled grace can so easily turn into technologies of attempted control. At that point, “spiritual practice” is just one more ego delusion. That can happen.

See how spiritual practice itself so easily gets co-opted by ego?
The path toward liberation can turn into yet another snare. 

Having each other along the path, a community of accountability, helps us stay on the path without the path becoming delusive. Left to ourselves to practice, our egos will tend to wind the spiritual path into one more on-ramp to the ego highway -- all the more insidious because disguised as "spirituality." Gordon Gekko's original paean to greed was certainly an ego trip, but at least it did not suffer from the particular delusion of imagining itself to be "spiritual."

So, you see, while I’m not so interested in community without faith, I’m also not so interested in faith without community. Community without faith is giving up on the possibility of any life other than delusion. Faith without community is a naïve failure to address just how wiley our delusions are. We need the help of others in identifying them. (This is the crucial point that the SBNRs -- "Spiritual But Not Religious" folks -- often overlook.)

If you were to decide that you did want faith deepening, then look for at your congregation – or, if necessary, ask your congregation to develop -- programs and structures through which that deepening can be practiced with others.

With both -- with community of faith and faith of community -- we have a chance to transcend greed and move into grace.

We have a shot at freedom.

* * *
This is part 13 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 4 on Greed)
Next: Part 14: "Pastors and Prophets"
Previous: Part 12: "Counterweight to the Market"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Counterweight to the Market

Faith does stand over and against the secular.

The goal of the secular world is to meet material needs. A fair secular structure will ensure that everyone has a chance to have their most basic needs met. That's important. Still, it’s about people wanting things – basic things, food, clothing, clean air, housing – and not so basic things, cars, TVs, books, "nice" clothes, corner offices. In distributing the things that people want (whether basic or not so) in a way that is fair, we have, over the centuries, come a long way. And we still have a very long way to go. Still, the whole system is about wanting stuff, and about coordinating the activities that we engage in to get the stuff we want. That’s why Gordon Gekko says greed is good. If we don’t have people wanting stuff, then we don’t have them doing the things to get it, which allows the system to try to set things up so that the things people will do to get stuff will also help provide some stuff to the rest of us.

A system is just, as John Rawls famously argued in his 1971 A Theory of Justice if the things that the rich do to get richer also help the poorest get richer. The poorest don’t have to get as much richer as the rich get, but if they are benefited even a little bit from the activity that gives the billionaire another billion – then the system is just. It is unjust if the poor are made poorer -- or not benefitted at all -- by those activities which enrich the rich.

We might want to go a little further than Rawls. We might want to argue that even if the income at the bottom is going up, if the income at the bottom goes up only $1 for every million dollars that income goes up at the top, then the widening income disparity is itself harmful and unjust even though the poor are getting the one extra dollar.

However we might answer that important issue, the point to note is that the secular realm is based on wanting stuff – greed. The activities driven by wanting stuff may be regulated in a way that is more or less just or more or less unjust, but without the wanting stuff, we wouldn’t have a system at all. That’s what the secular is all about.

Faith stands as a counterweight to the secular, the market. Faith is the openness to whatever comes – not the desire-driven activity to make certain things come. Faith knows that the best things in life are free, that you can’t take it with you, that money is the root of evil, that we do not live by bread alone.

Of course, we also can’t live without bread. We can’t live without stuff – the stuff that the market provides, that we get by working for money so that we can buy.

But a lot of 21st century denizens of the modern world, it seems, do live without faith.

Do you?

Is your congregation a faith community, or just a community?

Recognizing that greed – wanting stuff and exerting as much control as you can to get it -- dictates a large part of your life (as it does of mine), do you gather at your Church, Fellowship, Temple, etc., to deepen into a way of life that ultimately trusts in things outside your control?

Or do you gather to get more of what you want: social connections, entertainment, interesting things to think about?

Is your congregation a place that’s about control, about strategies for getting what you want?

Or is it a place that’s about learning how to accept that in the most important ways there is no control?

Is it about what you can make and earn for yourself, about what you deserve, about what you have every right to expect?

Or is it about grace, about the gifts that are freely given, but which you will miss if you focus on how to meet your own needs – whether for material stuff, or entertainment or intellectual stimulation or a congenial setting for a get-together?

Is it about getting what you want, or about learning how to love what you have?

It could be about both. Both is OK. Just as long as the second part is in there too. Sometimes it's not.

* * *
This is part 12 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 of 4 on Greed)
Next: Part 13: "Community AND Faith"
Previous: Part 11: "Gekko, Boesky, and the Mahabharata"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Gekko, Boesky, and the Mahabharata

Greed, more than any others (gluttony, sloth, envy, lust, vanity, wrath) of the seven sins, has numerous and powerful champions. Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street,” was initially titled “Greed.” The ruthless corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, proclaims that greed is good. Specifically, in a speech to the stockholders of Teldar Paper, Gekko says:
“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind -- and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

The speech by the fictional Gekko was inspired by a similar speech given by the actual Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur who was charged by the SEC with insider trading and who paid a $100 million penalty to settle those charges. Speaking at the University of California's commencement ceremony in 1986, Boesky said:
"Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."
The gospel of Greed has many followers. Indeed, even though the fictional story of Gordon Gekko was,
"Intended as a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of unchecked ambition and greed, Stone's 1987 original instead had the effect of turning [Michael] Douglas' hugely charismatic (and Oscar-winning) villain into a household name and boardroom icon -- an inspiration to the very power players and Wall Street wannabes for whom he set such a terrible example.” (Justin Chang, Variety, 2010)
The film's stars and director have commented that over the years “people still approach them and say that they became stockbrokers because” they admired the characters in that film. People widely and freely participate in gluttony, sloth, lust, envy, anger, vanity, but you don’t hear them publically declare how proud of the fact they are. Greed stands alone as the vice most enthusiastically promoted as a virtue.

Yet greed is also universally seen as a problem by the world’s faith traditions. Take Hinduism. In the Mahabharata, we read:
“Yudhisthira said: I desire, O bull of Bharata’s race, to hear in deatail the source from which sin proceeds and the foundation on which it rests. Bhisma said: Hear, O King, what the foundation is of sin. Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and good ness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world.... It is from covetousness that loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice, as also vindictiveness, loss of prosperity, loss of virtue, anxiety, and infamy spring.... Pitilessness for all creatures, malevolence towards all, mistrust in respect of all, insincerity towards all, appropriation of other people’s wealth... all these proceed from covetousness.”
Take Buddhism. This is a tradition that puts at the center the observation that desire is the cause of suffering. The Visuddhimagga says:
“Greed is the real dirt, not dust... The wise have shaken off this dirt and live.”
Take Daoism. The Dao de Jing says:
“There is no greater calamity than indulging in greed.”
In Sikh scripture we read:
“Where there is greed, what love can there be?”
It goes by many names: covetousness, acquisitiveness, avidity, cupidity, avarice, miserliness, simony. Many find greed the root of all the other sins.

* * *
This is part 11 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 2 on Greed)
Next: Part 12: "Counterweight to the Market"
Previous: Part 10: "Faith and Fellowship, Greed and Grace"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Faith and Fellowship, Greed and Grace

Do our congregations constitute a faith, or a chain of social clubs?

I don’t mean to disparage social clubs. In fact, I think we’d have to say that our congregations are social clubs. That’s clear, and it’s a good thing. We need friends, fellowship, sociability along the path. But what path? Are we, in addition to our clubbishness, also a faith?

Faith, let us remember, is not a matter of – or, at least, need not be a matter of – adhering to beliefs without objective evidence. Faith is openness to the unknown – “the act of opening our hearts to the unknown.” Faith is a certain willingness to let go of the need for control and certainty.
Faith is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our deepest experience, and trust our world. Faith is about opening to life’s gifts. There is indeed a “leap” in throwing ourselves into the unknown of each moment, going forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed.

Our conceptions of how things are “supposed” to go can close us to realities that present themselves. Faith is the liberating capacity to step out of our illusion, and, without pretending already to know, be open to surprise and mystery. Faith means engaged and open-minded and open-hearted participation in all that life brings, even the hard parts. Faith's opposite is not doubt, but despair; not doubt, but anger; not doubt, but greed; not doubt, but anything that retreats from joyful presence.

Thus faith is intricately tied to grace, for grace is the qualities of life that are available to us beyond our control: that we do not earn and do not deserve and have no rational ground to expect.

To deepen our faith, we do need friends along the path, we need social bonds. We need to have our social club. And all social clubs enforce values. They don’t all enforce a path of faith deepening. Does ours?

The answer to that question has a lot to do with our approach to greed, for greed is the opposite of opening to life’s gifts.

Today we take up the third in our series on the seven deadly sins: gluttony, sloth, greed, anger, vanity, envy, and lust.

The list of seven deadly sins emerged in the middle of the first millennium. They are not in the Bible, nor are they the most serious offenses. A little envy, or a touch of pride is not as serious as lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. Rather, what makes these seven sins deadly is that they are the origins, the root causes, of the more serious sins. Envy, vanity, anger, sloth, lust, gluttony, or greed can lead you to lie, steal, or kill. The church leaders who created the list of seven deadly sins 1500 years ago were developing a kind of theological psychology. If a person could purge themselves of these seven, none of those other sins would tempt. Indeed, precisely because these seven so often occur in mild form, and are universal, or nearly so, the seven deadly sins constitute an agenda for spiritual work for everyone. The project of coming to terms with these root bedevilments of the human condition is necessary for our healing and wholeness.

Coming to terms with them, however, does not mean expunging them. While these seven impulses can induce us to do real harm, they also name qualities that we need. I suppose that’s what makes them so deadly. There is virtue mixed in with the vice. For instance, in discussing gluttony, we noted that zest for life and for the food and drink that sustains it is good to have. When it comes to sloth: peace from incessant work and worry is a blessing. Peace is a virtue.

Notes theologian Phyllis Tickle:
“These [seven] taunting companions of ours can prod us into well-being as well as destruction. Indeed, without them we will die just as because of them we are condemned to die.”
When it comes to greed, though, I don’t need to make the point that it has some value. Greed, more than any of the other seven sins, has numerous and powerful champions.

* * *
This is part 10 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 1 on Greed)
Next: Part 11: "Gekko, Boesky, and the Mahabharata"
Previous: Part 9: "Beware the Ubersloth"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Zombies vs. Jesus

No, this is NOT what I'm saying. (Funny though.)
The Easter story tells about one kind of reanimation of the dead. Let me mention a very different sort of story about the reanimation of the dead. I am not comparing the Easter story of Jesus’ resurrection to this very different story. I am contrasting. The contrasting story, which, like the Easter story, comes in many different versions, originated in Africa and was further developed in the voodoo culture in Haiti in the 19th century and probably going back further. I'm talking about zombies. In the mainstream Haitian tradition, before Hollywood began making its modifications of the story, zombies are “undead” – animated, yet entirely under the control of the bokor, a sorcerer.

We can understand this zombie narrative as an expression of the fears of an enslaved and oppressed people. Zombies represent a loss of cognition, of independent thought, of free will. As slavery and oppression led people to feel the loss of their minds, their freedom, their humanity, they told stories of zombies that represented what they felt like. It was a way for the enslaved and oppressed to depict what they feared they were becoming, and also a way to remind them that they weren’t quite zombies yet. Though their conditions deprived them, they could hold on to self-respect and dignity and refuse to be like zombies in the story.

When zombie stories spread and began to be told and modified by the middle and upper classes, zombies represented a different sort of horror. These stories featured zombies terrorizing the oppressors -- which is to say, normal middle-class Westerners like you and me. Given Earth's current technological development, and its population of more than seven billion humans, middle- and upper-class people in the developed world maintain a lifestyle that is possible only through considerable oppression and essentially enslavement of large parts of the world who labor to feed our voracious, insatiable appetite for stuff. We push this uncomfortable fact out of our minds as much as we can, yet we who are the oppressor fear what we have oppressed and enslaved. We fear that those to whom we have denied autonomy and free will may yet come after us. We have forced others for our material gain into a state of unthinkingness, yet we recognize that that very unthinkingness puts them out of relationship with us, gives them a certain power to threaten us unconstrained by the mores our class takes for granted, the mores we call "rationality." We who are the oppressor express our fear through zombie stories.

Our own consuming appetite, we project upon the zombies. In our fearful imaginings, they come to consume us -- just as providing for our material comforts and conveniences has consumed so many of them. They want to eat our brains, for independent thought is exactly what we have sought to strip them of. Can it be coincidence that the contemporary boom in tales of zombie apocalypse coincides with alarming income inequalities that have been worsening since 1980? (See Lake Chalice's seven-part series, "Our Spirits Long to be Made Whole" -- for the beginning, click here.) We know our world is out of balance. We’re afraid of what that imbalance will lead to, and our zombie movies and tales express that fear.

The story of reanimation of the dead from 2000 years ago is very different. Jesus was no zombie. (You heard it here first!) His resurrection represented the opposite: a liberation of mind and spirit. He comes into his full power as a spirit-being who can appear and disappear in our material world at will. Freed of the need to calculate – to solve problems, to advance and defend ideas any more – the resurrected Jesus is freer than ever to just be and to love. There are no more sermons on the mount or the plain, no more parables and teachings to try to persuade, no more exasperation about "ye of little faith." The resurrected Jesus mostly simply appears to people. He shows his wounds to Thomas; he has a meal with the disciples; he tells Peter to “tend my sheep.” Mostly it’s just appearing: just being there, and shining a light of love. That’s not the activity of reason and rationality. It represents instead the liberation from the insatiable need to figure out this, and then figure out that, develop a strategy for accomplishing some purpose – all the things that reason is good for. He simply sees, and is seen, and his being itself blesses.

Jesus' death represents a loss of reason in a very different way from zombies' loss of reason. Jesus transcends the half-way house of reason into complete liberation. His death/resurrection represents the death of the rational ego, which marshals concepts, advances claims, and works so hard to preserve its self-identity. Zombies, by contrast, are pulled out of the half-way house of reason into complete enslavement. Their death/reanimation represents the loss of the autonomy that comes with reasoning ability.

Living in the rational mind is a half-way house, for reason does liberate us from many of the chains of the mind. The zombie stories told by oppressed and by oppressor illustrate the ways that without autonomy, without being able to think for ourselves, to reason for ourselves about what to do, and the freedom to act on our rational decision-making, we are undead, alive yet not alive, the living dead. And forces of oppression that deprive others of that freedom risk triggering unreasoning, brain-eating reprisal.

Yet life in the rational mind is only a half-way house, which, though it be not as constraining as prison, isn’t fully free either. Rationality cannot get us the rest of the way to freedom. We use rational concepts to cut through certain chains, but then we become attached to those concepts, and end up bound and limited by them. Only love gets us the rest of the way to liberation: unreasoning, uncalculating love.

Without reason, we are undead.

Without love – the love that knows no reason and has no purpose – we are also undead, alive yet not alive, the living dead.

That is my Easter message. May we indeed be risen.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-way House of Reason"
Previous: Part 2: "The Dead Live"
Beginning: Part 1: "Waking Up on Easter Morning"

For a more orthodox approach to "Zombies vs. Jesus" see here.


The Dead Live

If we’re going to connect with those whose religious opinions we do not share – as opposed to settling into splendid isolation among ourselves, speaking only within our echo chamber (where our own opinions are sure to be re-echoed back to us) – then we will need to be Biblically literate, familiar with the Christian stories and able to use them to illustrate what we want to say.

(Yes, I know that Biblical literacy in the US at large is pretty low. As a column in Christianity Today, put it: “Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition.” Apparently only half of US adults can name even one of the four gospels. Fewer than half can correctly identify the first book of the Bible as Genesis. Maybe the reason that some folks are pushing to have the 10 commandments posted in public places is that they don’t know what the Ten Commandments are, nor are they able to locate them in a Bible, so if we don’t post them in public places, how can these folks find out what they are? Maybe they’re not trying to push their morality on the rest of us, they’re just curious! Nevertheless, even in a culture that might like to think of itself as Christian but doesn’t know its own scripture very well, the stories of Jesus can function as an entré, a way of establishing the impression of a common ground, the beginnings of respect and connection.)

So, let Unitarian Universalists not be shy about knowing and referencing gospel stories. Like Easter. There are four Easter stories – a different one in each of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – just in case, like most Americans, you don’t know the names of the gospels). Jesus, a charismatic teacher and healer was executed by crucifixion on a Friday. By the time his body was brought down from the cross it was late in the afternoon – with Sabbath beginning at sundown. Since there’s no burying allowed on Sabbath, his body was placed in a temporary tomb, a cave, until it could be buried on Sunday. Mary Magdalene, either alone or with other women, went to the tomb carrying spices to prepare the body for burial. At that point the four stories become quite different. (Lake Chalice explored those differences last year: see here.)

If we are interested in historically what actually happened, we don’t have much to go on. In one of the gospels, there’s a tantalizing clue. Matthew says that some of Jerusalem's rulers caught wind of the news that Jesus' body had gone missing, and these leaders then concocted a story that some of Jesus’ followers came in the middle of the night and took the body away. The leaders, says Matthew, bribed the guards to affirm, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep” (28:13). So maybe some disciples really did come by night and steal away the body. Maybe Matthew was trying to discredit the guards’ inconvenient testimony by saying the guards had been bribed to lie.

But historical accuracy is not the point. It doesn’t matter. The point is that each of the four different stories – whether they are history or fiction -- have something to tell us about loss and death. The dead are with us. Those who are gone continue to live in memory, where they are not merely stored but also grow and change, for every time the brain recalls a memory, the memory is changed through association with the situation in which it is recalled. Those who are gone from us are not merely entombed in memory, they are actually growing and changing there – living, we can say.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-way House of Reason"
Next: Part 3: "Zombies vs. Jesus"
Beginning: Part 1: "Waking Up on Easter Morning"


Waking Up on Easter Morning

He is risen! She is risen! They are risen! We are risen! OK, everybody up? Excellent. Now what?

The little joke that I sometimes tell when I’m talking to someone who regularly attends a Catholic or Protestant church is that as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I get to talk about Jesus twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. If, however, you are keeping count (and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of you are), then you know that I quote from and make reference to the prophet from Galilee here and there throughout the year – whenever a parable or some passage from one of the gospels seems appropriate.

Collaboration: UUA President Peter Morales with Eugene F. Rivers,
Pastor of the Azusa Christian Community,
at a press conference announcing opposition to three strikes bill
I know that this makes some folks uncomfortable. They are concerned that any strategy that neither ignores Christianity nor frontally assaults it will give aid and comfort to bad religion. After all, in the name of this Jesus, there was a Spanish Inquisition; in the name of this Jesus, witches were burned; in the name of Christianity, people were demonstrating at the Supreme Court during Easter week this year, hoping to maintain as much restriction on same-sex marriage as possible.

It’s true that religion, even if we can’t outright say it causes, sure seems connected to a lot of harm. People plant bombs – on themselves, in cars, in buildings – and fly jet airliners into buildings – and are led to do so in a way that is enmeshed with their religious understanding and is facilitated by their religious institutions. People want to take away women’s reproductive freedom, and punitively stigmatize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and their thinking makes heavy and frequent reference to their religion, and their activism on these points is facilitated by their religious institutions. Our children are liable to be told by their classmates that they are going to hell. A few people make it their life's mission to devise elaborate refutations of evolution, and more than a few people work to change the public school science curricula to present their religious views as science. For many of us, most of the religious institutions we have experienced have seemed authoritarian: not allowing questioning, not allowing critical thinking, demanding uncritical acceptance of authority. The word “faith” often seems to mean “believe what the authority figure tells you to believe and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray.” Studies sometimes find that countries that measure higher on religiosity also measure higher on violence, drug and alcohol addictions, teen pregnancies, imprisonment rates, and high school drop-out rates.

So I understand the urge to resist any story, any reference to any character in any story that is claimed and cited by “those people” – the ones with the magical thinking, the superstition, and the backwards political opinions. I understand the impulse to say, “Let’s just get rid of religion. Let’s let rationality and reason be our guide. Let us never speak of God or Jesus because then 'those people' might think we are on their side, might draw some aid and comfort from what they could construe as our support, might think that we agree with them, which, of course, we don’t, because religion, after all, is divisive.” So, repulsed by that divisiveness, we ourselves become divisive.

I understand that. I’ve done it myself. But I can no longer believe that it makes sense to try to overcome division by being divisive, by putting on my armor like Don Quixote and tilting at the windmill of religion. The attempt to conquer and vanquish the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, or the parts of our society that we don’t like, is an enterprise doomed to failure.

Living in the rational mind is a half-way house. I call it a half-way house because reason does liberate us from many of the chains of the mind -- but not all of them. Rationality cannot get us the rest of the way to liberation. Only love gets us the rest of the way: unreasoning, uncalculating love.

That is my Easter message.

I know there is harm that is perpetrated in the name of religion, but I believe that love and acceptance is a better strategy than invective -- and better, even, than benign neglect. Love has subversive power, and I prefer subversion to open battle. I prefer, and recommend, for the sake of our own emotional and spiritual well-being, looking for ways to make connection rather than ways to denounce and vilify. Moreover, on many issues there are many Christians with whom Unitarian Universalists, whether themselves Christian or not, can make common cause. There is good work to be done together to advance values that we share. If, however, we refuse to speak the other person's language, then we're hampered in that collaborative possibility.

When it comes to my inner demons, the better strategy is to embrace, befriend, and then re-direct that energy. Likewise, when it comes to outer demons -- who are not demons at all, but people whose cognitive rational functioning is typically as high as mine is -- the better strategy is embracing and befriending. Granted, "those religious people" sometimes choose not to be wholly governed by the rational part of the mind. So do I. I choose to allow myself to enjoy music, to delight in beauty, to enjoy good food, to write a poem instead of more prose, to fall in love. These are not rational things to choose. In making these choices, I choose to participate in the nonrational. The result is a life that is more, not less, than rational.

If those of us who do not identify as Christians can connect better with those who do, then we we’re part of the conversation. We can introduce various alternative directions that those stories point. But we have no chance of subverting the dangerous ways of interpreting the gospels if we refuse to talk about the gospels at all. Such refusal is dumb -- and an irrational prejudice. Too often, we have been neither loving nor rational.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason"
Next: Part 2: "The Dead Live"


How Brave the Fire: A Retold Tale

Though I may speak with bravest fire,
And have the gift to all inspire,
And have not love, my words are vain,
as sounding brass, and hopeless gain.

Though I may give all I possess,
And striving so my love profess,
But not be given by love within,
The profit soon turns strangely thin.

Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control.
Our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed;
By this we worship, and are freed.

(1st two verses from 1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

So this uptight dude from Tarsus named Saul, had a hobby of persecuting people. For his day job, he was a manufacturer of camping equipment. He had a website: Saul Things Camping ("The prices are fair, ya see.") Yet Saul himself was an unhappy camper.

He made tents. He made everybody tense. He made himself tense. Until the day Saul scored some primo weed: "Damascus Gold." Opened up a whole new world for him. Made him three days blind, and when he could see again, he could see.

He said, "Whoah, dig it. I am all new. I need a new name." Changed his name to Paul, and he was one hep cat.

Let me tell you about the trip he laid down on those brothers and sisters in Corinth. He went there and he asked them a strange question: "How brave does your fire need to be?"

These Corinthians, they were ministers. They had MDivs from Asia Minor Theological Seminary, and they all got a 1 from the MFC (Ministerial Fellowship of Corinth). They could whip up some decent inspiration, no problem. They could burn some pretty brave fire on a good day.

Paul said, "Groovy. Burn baby burn. Keep on burning, sisters. Flame on, brothers. But: how brave does your fire need to be?"

One Corinthian said, "Brave enough to burn up all the fear in the world."

Paul said, "All of it? Really? No, we need to be able to fear. You may not be a fear addict -- a junkie with the jones on for another hit of adrenalin speed; the short hairs on your neck standing at attention; pupils dilating to take in everything. Maybe you're not craving that it do so, but your body can fear, and that is a grace. You wouldn't want it not to be able to do that. Fear is a grace. So I ask again, how brave does your fire need to be?"

No one made a second guess, so Paul said: "The brave fire doesn't sear out the body's wise danger signals. It burns the cobwebs of fear, hanging around, clinging and sticky, long after the body-fear's gracious gift-work is done."

Then, since he wanted to include some Florida metaphor in the scripture he was laying down, he said, "The brave fire doesn't burn the oak; it burns the Spanish Moss of fear covering over and weighing down, harbouring little bugs to make your soul itch and crawl. That's a brave fire that can burn all that leftover, hanger-on fear, looping, looping, home for the persistent itchy epiphenomena of fear. The brave fire burns what just isn't needed anymore, burns the conscience that doth make cowards of us all, burns us into our courage. Do you speak with that brave fire? Have you ever? Maybe once? Well burn on, baby. That's great."

"Let me just ask you this," continued Paul. "Right now, this evening, right here, each other, where's the love, man?"

Those Corinthians couldn't answer. Paul rested in their silence until he was sure he could see where the love was. Then he said, "Look. No, really: look. What have you got? Look and see. Take inventory. What have you got? You've got possessions. OK. A house, a car, a closet full of clothes, bookshelves sagging with the weight of those volumes you got back in school. Throw it all out if you want to. I mean, that biographical analysis of the theology of John Calvin? When are you going to need that again? That sounding brass that you got at that little gift shop at that spiritual retreat center because you thought it would be a cool thing for a minister to have, what are you still carrying that around for? Chuck it all. Or, heck, don't. Keep it. I don't care. Keeping it is useless. Giving it away proves nothing. So, whatever.

"What else? What else you got? One hell of a work ethic. OK. What else? Fatigue. Well, yeah, that goes with the work ethic. What did I tell you about those John Calvin books? What else? Hope. That's cool. Anger. Yeah, you got that. Faith. Courage. Good boundaries -- well, most of the time. Professional expertise and a great bag of tools. That's all good stuff. What else?"

"Love," said one of those Corinthians.

"Bingo," said Paul. "You got love. You got love like an ocean in your soul."

And just as the Corinthians were breathing a collective sigh of relief, Paul said, "Now get it out."


"Get it out. Take love out of that box you carry it around in, that casket you call your heart, open up that box and take out the love you have."

"You said it was an ocean," objected one Corinthian.

"Yeah, you're mixing metaphors," added another.

"I'm not mixing them, I'm switching them. You gotta be quick. You gotta be nimble. C'mon, keep up with me. Now take it out."

"You mean, like, metaphorically?"

"Whatever. Just, let me see it."

The Corinthians sat there, just looking. Kind of like you are now.

Paul said, "What's the matter, take it out. Come on. How hard could that be? Simply open up the box of your heart, and let your love out. Just do it."

Finally, one of the Corinthians said, "Paul, I'd like to, really, I would. And I know I have the love. I feel it glowing in there right now, and I have felt what it was like when the box opened, but I can't just open the box on command."

Paul said, "So you're a failure then." And the Corinthian was suddenly very interested in her shoes.

"How about the rest of you?" But they were all interested in their shoes too.

"You can't do it, can you? You can't say, 'I'm going to open that box,' and reach in and open it. You can't make that box open up so that your love can be unmistakably seen. Can you?"

The Corinthians slowly shook their heads.

"So you're all failures."

There was a long and awkward silence.

One of the Corinthians finally said, "So what do we do now?"

"So what do we do now?" repeated Paul. "We need your brave fire to burn with love, because there is such a thing as burning without it. Yet you can't make the love come out. Not by yourself. It comes out when it is born out on the winds of spirit that are not held within you but which come into being among us and between us, the spirit that comes to be yours but first was ours. You made the love, but you don't open the box to let it out, to let it be seen and recognised and take effective form. You don't open the box to let out your love. We do. And we do even when we don't know what we're doing and don’t mean to be doing it. The spirit which is beyond our control but which our connection somehow mysteriously creates, takes control of our hearts, brings our love into the broad day. The spirit that is us brings wholeness to our fragmented, separate individual hearts and spirits. Then inward love directs all our doing. And when your love is set free, so are you."

"So...we're not failures then?"

"Oh, yes, you sure are. Forever do you -- and I -- fail. And, through each other, forever are you and I being redeemed."

A Corinthian said, "Paul, that's great. I'm just not quite clear on how that answers the question."

Paul said, "What was the question?"

"The question was, So what do we do now?"

"So what do we do now?" Paul repeated again. "What we do now is pray. Together."

"Pray for us, Paul," shouted a Corinthian in the back.

But Paul said, "Oh, no. You know the words."


Beware the Ubersloth

In the final chapter of her book, Sloth, Wendy Wasserstein offers an ironic insight. She describes the "ubersloth" -- a person who “achieve(s) slothdom in a subtle and camouflaging way.”
“Have you ever been lying on your couch, watching four well-groomed women of diverse ethnicities on television chatting about how they manage to get everything done? They call themselves ‘jugglers,’ and they’re all able to have husbands, children, careers, social causes, plus they exercise three hours a day, eat only vegetables, and employ personal stylists to tell them what to wear every morning. Or, have you ever seen a man on television talking about how he made $100 million before he was thirty, then walked from New York to China, directed three Oscar-winning movies, got married four times, each with better and better sex with a different gendered partner? In their outside façade, they are they anti-sloths – the doers and shakers. But just like in politics, where the extreme right and the extreme left meet, so in sloth the extremes merge into one another. Now I know you’re lying down eating a Milky Way with garbage surrounding you and thinking that now I’ve lost my mind. [These people] can’t possibly be construed as one of us....When you achieve true slothdom, you have no desire for the world to change. True sloths are not revolutionaries. There is no possible dialectic. It doesn’t matter if the world evolves, because your purpose is not to get things done....Are these hyperscheduled, overactive individuals really creating anything new? Are they guilty of passion in any way? Do they have a new vision for their government? For their community? Or for themselves? Their purpose is to keep themselves so busy, so entrenched in their active lives, that their spirit reaches a permanent state of lethargiosis. In other words, their hyperactivity is no different than your or my slothfulness. Whether you’re a traditional sloth or a New Age ubersloth, we are all looking at the possibility of real thought, and rejecting it....For myself, stylistically, I prefer to remain on my couch. But the creative, spiritual, and political void of these new ubersloths makes me proud.”
In this way, we see again that sloth is about disconnection. We can disconnect from life and from ourselves by lethargic withdrawal. We can also disconnect from life and from ourselves through frenetic activity.

So consider the lilies, how they grow. They bring their presence, growing out of connection to the earth. They are still. The quiet stillness of the flower is not to be confused with the inert lethargy of the sloth. Wasserstein also distinguishes between the stillness of the meditater and the stillness of the sloth, though she is satirically arguing for the superiority of the sloth:
“Meditation takes work and is an enforced form of tranquility. Lethargiosis is not a state of tranquility, it is a state of pointlessness.”
The need, then is to lighten up on our preoccupations with work and worry and achievement. The sloth’s strategy for doing that is to disconnect. What Jesus and thousands of spiritual teachers of every generation and every faith tradition have taught is the opposite: connect. Work and worry, too, are merely another form of disconnecting.

Consider the lilies, the wildflowers, the flowers of the field, all the colors and shapes that flowers come in. If we listen to our deepest selves, if we come awake, we are always aware of and utilizing paths to connection. Connected to self, we then notice ways to connect to others and to life itself.

* * *
This is part 9 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 4 on Sloth)
Next: Part 10: "Faith and Fellowship, Greed and Grace"
Previous: Part 8: "Student Assistants to Life"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"


Student Assistants to Life

There's a lot to like about sloth. In his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell says:
“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. [A] traveler in Naples saw twelve beggars lying in the sun, and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveler was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”
Long work days keep us from activities that are more fun and creative, and the economic productivity of work enriches the government, which uses what wealth it has to build up its military and fight wars. Thus, says Russell:
“The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s book on Sloth is a parody of self-help books. Her book within the book is called Sloth and How to Get It: A Guide to Living a Happy and Guilt-Free Slothful Life. In it, the authorial persona “claims to have tried every self-improvement plan known to addled Americans, from the Atkins diet to getting in touch with her inner child, until discovering the solution, Sloth.” The book lays out “a program for achieving absolute indolence, the secret of a stress-free life.”
"You have the right to be lazy. You can choose not to respond. You can choose not to move."
The book describes a process to "break the cycle of excess energy and stored dreams," the vital first step in becoming a sloth.
“Sloth will release you from all the terrible shoulds dominating your life.”
It tells how to become a sloth in your diet, exercise, work, and even love-life: it warns against true love, for that leads to passion, and passion is the biggest enemy of sloth.

The rapier of satire shows us the real issue at one point when it is describing the false prophets who would lead us astray from the salvation of sloth. One of these false prophets declares, “I don’t need to rest. I get high on life.” The book responds:
“This is bologna if I ever heard it. Who could possibly get high on life? In life, there is disease, random acts of violence, natural disasters, undisclosed fascist governments, not to mention world poverty and hunger. If you look life in the face, you couldn’t possibly get high on it. Even love fades. Once you adopt sloth, you are dealing with a responsible reaction to the truth about living.”
There in a flash we can suddenly see why Evagrius regarded acedia as the most troublesome sin. In the traditional language, sin is disconnection from God. We might say it is disconnection from life. Confronted with disease, violence, oppression, injustice how do we not disconnect?

The spiritual calling is to stay present to life, even the hard parts. We are called to be a student assistant to life. I like this metaphor of the student assistant. We are all perpetual student assistants to life: ultimately not in charge, yet here to learn, and to help – to learn by helping and to learn in order to help.

* * *
This is part 8 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 on Sloth)
Next: Part 9: "Beware the Ubersloth"
Previous: Part 7: "Flowers and Birds are the Smart Ones"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"