The Retreat from Freedom and Democracy

Twenty years ago Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) laid out a story of the rise of European wealth and power as geographically determined. Temperate climates, suitable soil, and availability of domesticable animals created the initial conditions that freed a little time for technological development and the rise of population centers where close proximity of humans to each other and their domesticated animals led to diseases and eventual immunities not found among other humans. The technological development (steel, guns) and the immunity (germs) were the key means by which Europeans came to dominate the globe.

I don't know whether Diamond got all the details of the story right -- probably he ignored or underemphasized some important factors while overemphasizing others. But if we are unwilling to say that white people are superior, then something like Diamond's geographical determinism becomes attractive, and perhaps inevitable, as the gist of accounting for the hegemony of Western civilization. The Europeans aren't smarter or more virtuous by nature, they are just the beneficiaries of geographic good luck. This explanation also dodges the possibility that Europeans might be inferior: more violent, vicious, and dominating by nature than other peoples. Humans and chimps have a deep history of conquering each other when they can, so any people that stumbled upon the means for vast conquest was liable to use it.

Western civilization has, until quite recently, tended to be proud of itself. Before stories like Diamond's there were stories like Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization. The Durants
"basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies." (David Brooks)
While the Durants never said, "white people are genetically superior," or "are God's favorite," they also provided no other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. White readers were left to assume that there must be something special about white people.

Western civilization is problematic. The wealth of Europe and America was built on the oppression of, theft from, or genocide of other peoples. The West's standard of living continues to depend to a distressing degree on exploitation of people in less developed countries. Moreover, those of us "enjoying the benefits" of Western standards of living are often more stressed, isolated, alienated, and unhappy than people in nonwestern societies.

At the same time, I really like some of those "great Western ideas." Liberal democracy (elected leaders subject to periodic re-election, an independent judiciary, and protected freedoms of expression) and the modern scientific method, both of which began taking shape among Europeans in the mid-seventeenth-century, are particular favorites of mine. I also happen to think that a number of really good ideas emerged in the Americas, Africa, and East Asia, and various "traditional societies" all over the world. (Diamond's newest book, The World Until Yesterday, discusses a number of those ideas from which Western society could benefit.)

Can we be glad of liberal democracy and science while acknowledging that these appeared where they did because of luck, much of it geographic and perhaps some of it also merely random, rather than because of the beneficent smile of divine providence upon people with paler skin? Can we hope to address Western civilization's problems and reduce oppression and exploitation by advancing, rather than retreating from, norms of truth and justice?

Instead, we are seeing retreat from democratic norms and scientific standards of assessing truth. We are seeing, writes David Brooks in this morning's column, echoing what many are noticing:
"the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did. Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The events last week in Turkey were just another part of the trend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantles democratic institutions and replaces them with majoritarian dictatorship. Turkey seems to have lost its desire to join the European idea, which no longer has magnetism and allure. Turkey seems to have lost its aspiration to join the community of democracies because that’s no longer the inevitable future. More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous."
It seems as though the displacement of a Durant-type story by a Diamond-type story has made democracy and freedom less compelling. If liberal democracy appeared by geographic luck rather than by the superiority of the people who created its foundation, then free and democratic ideals are less inspiring.

I grew up inspired by a Durantish story of my place in history. I came eventually to understand that the silences in that story -- silences about why the West's ideas and innovations occurred where and how they did -- created spaces within which racist assumptions could flourish. My transition to a Diamondish story leaves me no less inspired by and committed to the ideals of free speech and press, an independent judiciary, fair and frequent elections, and respect for the results of science. There are a lot of us who continue devotion to those ideals -- but fewer than there used to be. For a number of folks, race -- or some form of in-group identity -- trumps freedom, democracy, and processes of determining what to believe that attempt to recognize and temper our own confirmation biases. If they can't have racist reasons for devotion to democracy, they won't be devoted to it at all.

History appears to be at a pivot point. The human world will either continue the current retreat from freedom and democracy -- or it will turn around. Turning around will require finding a way to be inspired by those ideals that is also informed by nonwestern ideals, that rejects the domination that has been so much a part of Western history, and that can accept that all our ideals are contingent accidents of history. Which one will happen, I don't know.


Our Commission of Compassion

There's Something About Mary, part 3

Between the first and fourth centuries, there existed a Magdalene Christianity, characterized by emphasis on ending the oppression of the world’s powerless. Unfortunately, over the long centuries, Jesus’ more inclusive message, as conveyed through Mary Magdalene, was silenced. The Orthodox Church “replaced, appropriated, and left behind” the prominence of the Magdalene.

Despite official suppression and neglect, something of her significance is hinted at by the folk legends about Mary. According to tradition, Saint Mary Magdalene, who had patrician rank, gained an audience in Rome with the emperor after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. She denounced Pilate for his handling of Jesus' trial and then began to talk with Caesar about Jesus' resurrection. She picked up a hen's egg from the dinner table to illustrate her point about resurrection. Caesar was unmoved and replied that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life as there was for the egg to turn red. Immediately, the egg miraculously turned red in her hand. It is because of this tradition that Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Easter.

The hints about maybe being Jesus’ wife are enticing and get a lot of attention, but whether she was or not, she was a significant leader in spreading the teaching of the new faith. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots are in liberal Christianity, a Christianity which has always affirmed Jesus’ resurrection not as a metaphysical or supernatural event but as an ethical renewal of the world. This renewal will not be easy, for the costing price of love is high.

Mary Magdalene is a symbol that represents those of whatever gender who stayed behind, weeping. Powerfully we see how we must confront death, how our lives are about losing forever the thing we love. Death and loss come. Hope comes: the morning light, the garden, the angels.

Life is there, it calls our name, and we reach out to embrace all that we can – even though we sometimes recoil from the isolation and separation that seems to be part of this momentous task of being human. In the depth of our grief we must not only let go of our expectations of living in a perennially joyous garden, but we must go our way alone with the commission to speak all of what we have seen and felt. It is a commission of compassion: to apprehend that the suffering of others is your suffering -- like Mary beholding the suffering of Jesus, and taking it as her own.
Or like the two girls in C.S. Lewis’s remake of the Christian story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who stay behind to witness the death of Aslan, the great Lion. The girls wept the night through stroking Aslan’s shorn mane. Those who stay, who are there, who bear witness and break silence, somehow give us the courage to do the same.

When we cannot stop violence and death, we can be with it – and speak to power the truth we have witnessed. What the women who were there saw and told, what the message of Mary Magdalene and Magdalene Christianity tell us is that we can only remake our lives and make them whole by including the last and the first in an egalitarian society. To build this society – to try to make it for ourselves and model it for others -- we come together in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Alice Blair Wesley sums it up this way:
“I understand the Easter myth as a way of saying you can't kill the Holy Spirit of love by killing a body. It will rise up all the stronger in other people's bodies because they have seen and felt and known ultimately-costing love in action. And I see other elements of the story -- the failure of the Sanhedrin, the cowardice and barbarity of the Roman governor, as political, pointing to a new polity for Jesus' followers based on experience of the spirit of love. This was truly revolutionary! (Still is!)”
We can’t say exactly what happened to Jesus 2000 years ago. We weren’t there. We’re here. Yet here is there. Like Mary, we have been left behind to tend to our tears and tend to earth’s garden. We smooth-skinned primates haven’t yet botched it entirely.

Our coming together in tender moments is defying death by holding it in our hearts, holding the suffering and the joy, loving the light of every passing day. During daily life and even during times of danger we stay present to love.
“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” (William Sloan)
We could give in to the fear of losing what we love most because the earth is covered in ruins, in secrets, and in ashes. It’s also covered in roses, in songbirds, and in the laughter of dear friends.

Lo, the Earth awakes again from the winter’s bond and pain. Alleluia. Alleluia.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "There's Something About Mary"
See also
Part 1: Witnesses to a World-Transforming Event
Part 2: Her Gospel

* * *
Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Rev. LoraKim Joyner, portions of
whose earlier sermon, "Were You There?" were adapted for this sermon.


Her Gospel

There's Something About Mary, part 2

The Easter narratives place us on Calvary Hill, where the rational world of control is submerged in fear, pain, and a maelstrom of emotion. As a reader or listener of those narratives, we join those women who feel the doom of day darkening as if it were night, losing everything we had hoped for, losing someone who loved us, and who made the world a better place. Their experience is ours. Everyone experiences death and loss. How do you come to terms with that?

The religious life is grappling with unspeakable tragedy and heart wrenching loss and sorrow right here in the midst of this world of infinite beauty and wonder. Lives end, and life doesn’t – and that is so strange!

The tragic and the beautiful are inextricably mixed together into one thing: not even woven together in a fabric which still has distinguishable threads, but mixed together like yellow and blue dye to make green.

Every child of God has claim to the fullness of life, to love, to justice. The resurrection stories ask us to move out of our daily roles, to be struck down with pain. But then they ask us to pick up the pieces of our lives, of all lives, by sticking around to clean up the mess, and not to be silent to what we witness in life, to what we know brings life to all beings.

That much we get from the canonical gospels. We now have reason to believe Mary Magdalene’s role was probably even greater than the four canonical gospels reveal. Later writers and Christian leaders couldn’t entirely write the Magdalene out of the script, but they did suppress her role.

In 591, Pope Gregory I invented the idea that Mary had been a prostitute. Gregory pointed to Luke, chapter 7, where there is an unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus feet. Gregory was wrong. For one thing, most scholars agree that woman was not Mary Magdalene. For another thing, “sinful woman” would cover such sins as talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. "Sinful" doesn't mean prostitute -- even if that unnamed woman were Mary. Gregory was just making it up. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Vatican officially acknowledged Mary was not the “sinful woman” of Luke.

The official Christian Bible – the 27 books of what is called the New Testament – wasn’t established until the late 300s. The decision was made to exclude certain other texts, including a Gospel of Thomas, and a Gospel of Mary Magdalene. These texts were well known to the earlier Christians, but after exclusion from the official canon, they disappeared. They were essentially unknown for over a thousand years, until archeological discoveries in the last hundred years.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Magdalene and another woman, Salome, are among the six (not 12) true disciples of Jesus. Another Gnostic text calls her “the woman who understood all things.”

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is brief, just 19 very small pages, and half of those are missing. In what we do have, we see the apostles fearful:
“How are we to go among the unbelievers and announce the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? They did not spare his life, so why should they spare ours?” (Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 5:1, trans. Jean-Yves Leloup and Joseph Rowe)
Without Mary’s calm leadership in those first weeks after the crucifixion, there might not be a Christianity today.
“Then Mary arose, embraced them all, and began to speak to her brothers: ‘Do not remain in sorrow and doubt, for his Grace will guide you and comfort you. Instead, let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us for this. He is calling upon us to become fully human.’” (5:2-3)
Then Peter asks her,
“Tell us whatever you remember of any words he told you which we have not yet heard.” (5:6)
Mary relates a vision she had of their teacher, and what was said in that vision. Andrew doesn’t
“believe that the Teacher would speak like this.” (9:2)
Peter is indignant:
“How is it possible that the Teacher talked in this manner with a woman about secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant?” (9:4)
But Levi defends Mary.
“Yet if the Teacher held her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Teacher knew her very well, for he loved her more than us. Therefore let us atone and become fully human.” (9:8-9)
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene ends:
“When Levi had said these words, they all went forth to spread the gospel.” (9:10)
Maybe, without Mary, they wouldn’t have.

* * *
There's Something About Mary, part 2 of 3
See also
Part 1: Witnesses to a World-Transforming Event
Part 3: Our Commission of Compassion


Witnesses to a World-Transforming Event

There's Something About Mary, part 1

There’s Something About Mary – which was the title of a 1998 Ben Stiller movie that has nothing that all to do with what I’m talking about. There was another movie, and book, The Da Vinci Code, which does relate because it plays on the fascination with Mary Magdalene and the possibility that she may have had a child with Jesus. We have no evidence of a child – though, of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: there might have been one. We do have texts that refer to Magdalene as the woman Jesus loved best among women – whatever that might mean.

Whatever happened at the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, Mary Magdelene is at the center of it. She was there at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary, as Jesus’s life ebbed away. She was there at the discovery of the empty tomb. Jesus appears to her, and it is she who then tells the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” With those words, the Christian religion begins.

The Four Canonical Gospels differ on what happened Easter morning: Mary Magdalene went by herself to the tomb, or she went with another Mary, or there were three women, or at least four. She, or they, were taking spices to prepare the body for burial. She came in the pre-dawn darkness, or they came when the day was dawning, or the sun had already risen. They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back, or found the stone already rolled back. In Matthew, the two women saw an angel and some guards. Mark says the three women entered the tomb and saw one “young man dressed in a white robe." Luke says the group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.” In John, Mary Magdalene went alone and saw no one; she then left, found two of the male disciples, told them the body was missing, rushed back to the tomb with the men. They saw nothing but linen wrappings. The men left Mary alone crying, and only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."

In all four gospels, women were the first to find the tomb empty and were the only witnesses who had seen Jesus placed there and could vouch that the empty tomb really was the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid a day-and-a-half before. In two of the Gospels, women were the first to see the risen Lord.

In Jewish Palestine of the time, women’s testimony was widely regarded as unreliable and untrustworthy. Women were not eligible to be witnesses in court. They “were thought by men to be gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive in religious practices.” In that world – and, to an unfortunate extent, persisting still today -- men’s dominant power enabled the delusion that men alone occupied the rational domain while women belonged to the more suspect emotional end of the spectrum of human response. Given those attitudes about women, why would the gospels give such a prominent role to women? Why would anyone make up a story based on such low-credibility witnesses?

According to the story, women were the first, and in some cases only, witnesses to key aspects of the death and resurrection narrative. But that's in flagrant violation of the norms of credible story-telling. So it's probably true that women really were were the ones who discovered the empty tomb, and told the others about it. If that part were made up, it would have been made up with men being the main actors and witnesses. By the time the Gospels shifted from an oral to a written form, some one to two generations after Jesus’ death, that story had been so widely retold that it had a staying power that the prejudices of later writers could not overcome.

The Christian tradition, at its inception, took the patriarchal religious priority given to men in God’s dealings with the world and turned those assumptions on their head. By giving women priority, the story confronts and challenges cultural assumptions. “In these stories women are given priority by God as recipients of revelation and thereby the role of mediators of that revelation to men” (Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women, 2002, 275). By reversing the normally expected priority of one gender over another the gospel cancels out gender privilege in the new order heralded and constituted by the resurrection – a kin-dom of God in which, as Jesus had said, “the last shall be made first and the first last.”

Because we see women central to the creation and dissemination of the message, we understand that everyone is included in the hope of the message. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles that they have been commissioned by Jesus to spread the word of hope. She was the apostle to the apostles. The women become
“witnesses of the crucified and risen one...through the deeply disturbing encounter with the numinous that transforms their faithfulness into something more than their accepted role: the vocation to be witnesses of a world-transforming event.” (Bauckham 293)
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "There Something About Mary"
See also
Part 2: Her Gospel
Part 3: Our Commission of Compassion


Divine Sources of Heart Hardening

The Jewish holy week of Passover began this year at sundown, Mon Apr 14. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tue Apr 22. The first two days and the last two days are full-fledged holidays: the middle four days are semi-festive. The first two days commemorate the 10th plague, when Yahweh killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover.

At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover.

Before any of the plagues, Yahweh said to Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.”

After the sixth plague (boils), we’re told “Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh.”

After the seventh plague (thunder and hail), Yahweh tells Moses, “I have hardened his heart.”

Three more times, after the eighth plague (locusts), after the ninth plague (darkness), and after the warning about the tenth plague, each time the same language occurs: “Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

Isn’t that interesting? Why would Yahweh do that? There are a couple places that say Pharaoh hardened his heart, and a few other times it says Pharaoh’s heart hardened, without saying who hardened it. But the predominate message is Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart. What do you make of that?

Even when our hearts harden, this, too, is the playing out of the divine. I know the temptation is to add the word, “plan,” and say, “It’s part of the divine plan.” Especially in the context of the Passover narrative, it might seem it's all part of a big plan. That’s not how I see it.

The divine does not scheme and plan, but it does unfold, develop. It unfolds like natural evolution. Evolution did not begin with a plan in mind for what species were to be created. It began with infinite possibilities, most of which never happened, and most of those which did are now extinct. It’s an utterly unpredictable process – yet it does, overall, tend toward greater diversity and greater complexity: more and more complex creatures living in a more and more complex balance – or, we might say, harmony.

I see the divine as playing out in this same way: unplanned, and with many dead-ends, yet with each move, hinting at possibilities for a greater harmony.

“Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” When has your heart hardened? Did you make a conscious and rational calculation to harden it, or did you notice, after the fact, that it had hardened without your intentional will -- as if on its own? I don't think I have ever consciously and deliberately decided, "I'm going to harden my heart now." But I have I sometimes noticed that my heart grew hard. Habit -- in particular, the self-protective habits accumulated over the years -- overrode the inner voice of compassion. There is a place for choice, and that place is in choosing to begin the discipline of cultivating new habits and skills. This takes a while. In the heat of a given moment, I won't hear the voice of compassion unless I've put in the time developing the habit and skill of hearkening to what compassion says.

Other factors include fatigue and stress. When I'm well-rested and relaxed, I'm more likely to be open-hearted and compassionate. I'm more able to be flexible and see things in a new way. When I'm tired and stressed, I have a narrow focus on what I want, and how I want to get it. Rested and calm, I'm open to a wider variety of goals or purposes, and a wider variety of strategies for realizing them. Perhaps Yahweh hardened Pharaoh's heart by making him tired and stressed.

Fatigue, stress, and the undevelopment of skills of compassion are all the playing out of the divine -- they happen when conditions are such as to bring them about. When I notice hardening in others’ hearts, if I understand it as simply the product of holy conditions, it helps soften my heart.

Our current Pharaoh, it could be said, has a hard heart. But we don’t have to let that harden our hearts toward him or his supporters. With his, or any, hard heart, we can choose the route of compassion. It might be hard to make that choice, but it gets easier with practice. With practice our thoughts more quickly and and easily go to the recognition of others' suffering, and that their suffering echoes our own.

Yes, sometimes we need to extricate ourselves from a situation. Yet even when it’s clearly time for “Exit, Us,” we can do so without blame, and with compassion.

Passover and Easter both commemorate a waking up to new possibilities -- liberation and transformation.


Going Home (script)

Script used in the CUUC Animal Blessing service.
Substantially adapted from Margaret Wild, Going Home.


[Beatrice standing, slippers in hand. Boris and Maru on their beds. Toby enters with Mom]

NARRATOR: Toby had to go to the hospital.

TOBY: [To Mom] Mom, how long will I have to stay here?

MOM: A few days, honey. Maybe a few more. We don’t know for sure. They’re going to help you get better.

TOBY: And then I can come home?

MOM: And then you can come home.

NARRATOR: Toby was on a ward with other children. Toby arrived just as another kid, Beatrice was leaving to go home.

BEATRICE: I’m going home!

TOBY: I wish I was.

BEATRICE: You just got here.

TOBY: Already I miss my home.

BEATRICE: Hey. Did you bring slippers?

TOBY: No. I didn’t know I’d need my slippers.

BEATRICE: That’s all right. Here, take these. I think you’re going to need them.

[Beatrice exits]

MARU: [Without taking her eyes off her phone]: Hi. I’m Maru.

BORIS: [playing with a deck of cards on his bed]: I’m Boris.

TOBY: [Hugging Mom] I’ll miss you, Mom!

MOM: You’ll be OK, Toby. I’ll come visit you every day.

TOBY: Can you bring Schrodinger?

MOM: No, mijo. No cats allowed at the hospital.

TOBY: Can you bring Darwin?

MOM: No dogs allowed either. Bye now, Toby. I’ll see you tomorrow.

[Mom exits]

TOBY: I wish I were home.

NARRATOR: That night, Toby woke up. He thought he’d just go peek down the hall and see what was going on in the middle of the night at the hospital. He put on a slipper, and heard an elephant shriek.
[Elephant trumpeting sound] Toby looked around, but the loud noise didn’t seem to have disturbed anyone. The elephant shrieked again.

ELEPHANT: [from offstage] Come, come home with me.

NARRATOR: Toby put on the other slipper, and the hospital room melted away.

[Enter Elephant]

He was standing beside an elephant on a wide grassland. In the distance, he could see lions playing rough-and-tumble games. He saw wildebeests migrating across the plains.

TOBY: Where are we?

ELEPHANT: This is Africa. My home. Thank you for coming home with me.

TOBY: [thoughtfully] Do you like it here?

ELEPHANT: Everybody likes their home.

TOBY: What do you do here?

ELEPHANT: I walk a lot. I love to cover many miles every day. I love the grass and the water holes. I love my baby elephants.

TOBY: Sounds wonderful!

ELEPHANT: I worry about tusk hunters though. They kill elephants so they can cut off our tusks and sell them.

TOBY: Oh, no. I’m so sorry!

ELEPHANT: [nodding thoughtfully] Every being wants to live in peace in their home.

NARRATOR: Toby stayed with the Elephant and learned more about her home.
After a while, he took off one slipper, and was back in the hospital room.

[Exit Elephant. Enter Mom and Cathy]

The next day, Toby’s Mom and little sister visited.

MOM: What have you been up to?

TOBY: Quite a lot. I went to Africa.

MOM: Lucky you.

CATHY: It’s not fair! I only went to kindergarten.

MOM: Yes, Cathy, and after kindergarten where did you go?

CATHY: Home.

TOBY: I’d like to go home.

[Exit all]


[Toby, Maru, and Boris in beds]

NARRATOR: Late at night the second night, Toby woke again. He put on a slipper and heard a howler monkey roaring.

MONKEY: [from offstage] Come, come home with me.

NARRATOR: When Toby got the second slipper on, he was there.

[Enter Monkey]

He and the howler monkey swung through the jungle treetops. He saw sloths sleeping upside down. He saw an emerald tree boa hiding in the leaves. He saw toucans gobbling berries.

TOBY: Where are we?

MONKEY: This is the Amazon jungle of South America. My home. Thank you for coming home with me.

TOBY: [thoughtfully] Do you like it here?

MONKEY: Everybody likes their home.

TOBY: What do you do here?

MONKEY: I howl a lot. I love the seeds and fruits of the jungle trees. I love jumping from tree to tree. I like playing with the other monkeys. I love my tail: I can hang from it anywhere and even pick things up with it.

TOBY: That’s really great!

MONKEY: I worry about deforestation though. The beautiful forest that is my home is being cut down.

TOBY: Oh, no. I’m so sorry!

MONKEY: [nodding thoughtfully] Every being wants to live in peace in their home.

NARRATOR: Toby stayed a while and talked and climbed and swung with the Howler Monkey. When it was time to go, Toby took off one slipper, and was back in the hospital room.

[Exit Monkey. Enter Mom and Cathy]

The next day, Toby’s Mom and little sister visited.

MOM: Where did you go this time?

TOBY: Quite far. I went to the Amazon jungle.

MOM: Lucky, lucky you.

CATHY: It’s not fair. I only went to the corner shop.

MOM: But then you came home.

[Mom and Cathy exit]

NARRATOR: Late at night the third night, Toby woke again. He put on a slipper and heard a snow leopard calling,

SNOW LEOPARD: [from offstage] Come, come home with me.

NARRATOR: When Toby got the second slipper on, he was there.

[Enter Snow Leopard]

He ran beside the snow leopard. Together they hurtled through snow and ice high in the mountains. He saw a yellow-billed blue magpie. He saw a flock of Demoiselle cranes flying overhead.

TOBY: Where are we?

SNOW LEOPARD: This is the Himalayan Mountains of Central Asia. My home. Thank you for coming home with me.

TOBY: [thoughtfully] Do you like it here?

SNOW LEOPARD: Everybody likes their home.

TOBY: What do you do here?

SNOW LEOPARD: I hunt and have a family. I love the wind. The wind in my ears helps me get of mites. The wind brings me the smell of food. I love the feel of the wind in my whiskers.

TOBY: What a great life!

SNOW LEOPARD: Sometimes there are droughts. The changing climate is hard on me. When there’s a drought, the animals I hunt have to go down the mountains looking for water, and I have to go down, too. I don’t like the lowland so much. My home is in the mountains.

TOBY: Oh, no. I’m so sorry!

SNOW LEOPARD: [nodding thoughtfully] Every being wants to live in peace in their home.

NARRATOR: Toby stayed a while and talked and ran with the Snow Leopard. When it was time to go, Toby took off one slipper, and was back in the hospital room.

[Exit Snow Leopard. Enter Mom]

The next day, Toby’s Mom and little sister visited.

MOM: Been traveling again?

TOBY: Yes. I went to the Himalayas.

MOM: How about going home? The doctor says you can come home today.

TOBY: Yay!

BORIS: Come back and visit me.

MARU: I wish I were going home.

TOBY: [Giving Maru the slippers] Here Maru. I want you to have these slippers.


[Maru and Boris in beds]

NARRATOR: Late that night, Maru woke in the darkness and decided to go look around. She put on a slipper and heard a tiger calling,

TIGER: [from offstage] Come, come home with me.

NARRATOR: When Maru got the second slipper on, she was there.

[Enter Tiger]

She ran with the tiger through the humid jungle. She saw a tapir rooting for grubs. She saw a king cobra rearing up its head, and she ran on by.

MARU: Where are we?

TIGER: This is the Tropical Jungle of India. My home. Thank you for coming home with me.

MARU: [thoughtfully] Do you like it here?

TIGER: Everybody likes their home.

MARU: What do you do here?

TIGER: I hunt. I raise my young. I love to hide. When I hide in the undergrowth I feel I am one with the forest. I dissolve into it. I love that.

MARU: I wish I were a tiger!

TIGER: My kind are endangered. People are always after us. What’s wrong with eating an occasional calf? We are being hunted out of our forest.

MARU: Oh, no. I’m so sorry!

TIGER: [nodding thoughtfully] Every being wants to live in peace in their home.

NARRATOR: Maru stayed a while and played with the Tiger. When it was time to go she took off one slipper, and was back in the hospital room.

[Exit Tiger]

The next day, Maru was released.

MARU: [joyfully] I’m going home! Boris, I’m going to leave you these slippers. I think you’ll like them.

[Exit Maru]

NARRATOR: Late that night, Boris woke in the darkness and decided to go look around. He put on a slipper and heard a King Penguin calling,

PENGUIN: [from offstage] Come, come home with me.

NARRATOR: When Boris got the second slipper on, he was there.

[Enter Penguin]

The air he breathed was very cold, but Boris was covered with a layer of warmth. He walked along beside the penguin. He saw albatross gliding overhead. He saw elephant seals lounging along the shore.

BORIS: Where are we?

PENGUIN: This is Antarctica. Thank you for coming home with me.

BORIS: [thoughtfully] Do you like it here?

PENGUIN: Everybody likes their home.

BORIS: What do you do here?

PENGUIN: I swim and fish and sit on my egg until it hatches and then feed my young. I love to swim. The taste of fish and squid is so good.

BORIS: It seems very good.

PENGUIN: The warming of the sea surface by even half a degree changes the fish populations, and I can’t get enough food for my chick. Overfishing and oil fouling are also making it hard for me.

BORIS: Oh, no. I’m so sorry!

PENGUIN: [nodding thoughtfully] Every being wants to live in peace in their home.

NARRATOR: Boris stayed a while and played with the Penguin. When it was time to go, he took off one slipper and was back in the hospital room.

[Exit Penguin]

With the other slipper still on, though, he could still hear sounds from far-away lands.

[Animals speak from offstage]

PENGUIN: Home is where the coldwater fish are.

TIGER: Home is where the thick jungle hides me.

SNOW LEOPARD: Home is where the wind is.

MONKEY: Home is where the trees to climb are.

ELEPHANT: Home is where the vast grasslands are.

BORIS: My home is me.

NARRATOR: Boris was in the hospital for three more days. Using the magic slippers at night he visited giraffes in Africa, wolves in Canada, and even an orca in the ocean. When the doctor finally told Boris he was better and could go home, Boris, like Maru and Toby, had learned a lot about other animals' homes. In a funny way, he understood his own home better: his place in the family of all beings.


Never a Greater Need

Stewardship, part 3

“Steward” comes from an Old English word for house guardian or housekeeper. After the Norman conquest, it merged with a word meaning “overseer of workers.” We are the stewards of our congregation: the keepers of our shared house, our place – and the overseers of our own work.

Nautically speaking, the steward was the officer on a ship in charge of provisions and meals. Our sanctuary ceiling has always suggested to me the hull of a boat, and we are, indeed, all in the same boat. On this boat, we are in charge together of keeping ourselves spiritually fed.

In early England and Scotland, a steward was a high officer of the state, and hence became the name of “one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer.” Who is our employer? Our employer is our mission: nurture spirituality, foster compassion, engage in service. We have joined together in the employ of that mission for spirituality, compassion, and service. On behalf of that mission which employs us, we manage the affairs of this “estate.” Our affairs fall into four categories: worship and celebration, religious education, caring for each other, and being a force for a kinder and more just world. We manage these with caring and careful budgets to which we generously contribute.

We do this – we accept the role of stewards – because it is a high honor to serve together our mission; because it is such joy to be and have and make community; because the steward’s job is to protect and sustain the institution so it can be passed on to those who come after.

The need for Community Unitarian Universalist, for this congregation of ours, has always been great – and when I say “always” I’m talking about throughout our congregation’s history: ever since 1909. The need for our congregation has always been great and never greater than in these times. I am, and maybe you are, too, more deeply concerned about the trends in our country than I have ever been. The politics of cruelty, hate, fear, and intolerance is ascendant, and whether this is a dark phase in our nation’s history, a phase that will pass, or presages much worse to come, I do not know.

Threats to our air and water and climate threaten the survival of many species. Environmental degradation can lead to political instability and war. If that war extends to nations with nuclear arms, the species threatened with extinction could include homo sapiens.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamaphobia, xenophobia rive the public sphere. We have been called to live into these times, to rise to these challenges, though they are not the ones we expected or asked for. The strength and health of our Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains is essential and critical for answering that call we must answer.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for a place devoted to nurturing one another in our spiritual journey, for fostering compassion and understanding, and for engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for our little counter-cultural space, our light in the wilderness, our beacon in the storm – strengthening ourselves to help strengthen others build resistance to trends of the time and build hope for a new and different day.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for this place of restoration for our weary spirits, this place of abundance amidst the reigning fearful ideology of scarcity, this place of love and honor for our family and all families.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for this place for practicing being our best selves, negotiating our own misunderstandings so as to sharpen the skills our bruised and hurting world needs us to have.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for this place of learning more about things like economic inequalities, climate change, and the insidious, pervasive functioning of white supremacy.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for this place transcending the generational separation of schools and senior living centers and bringing together the young and the well-seasoned to enrich and teach and learn from each other.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for this place of questioning, re-examining our assumptions, investigating our own biases, freely and responsibly searching for truth and meaning.

The need has always been great and never greater than now for our place and all places that nurture spirits and help heal our world. There are many such places, though not enough – and this one is yours. The world is counting on you to be faithful and effective stewards – to keep this place, our congregation, strong and vibrant.

Jesus' disciples were on the verge of turning away from engagement and connection -- from the possibilities of community. Jesus answered them, "You give them something to eat." And lo, there was abundance.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Stewardship"
See also
Part 1: The True Loaves and Fishes Miracle
Part 2: Abundance Is the True Law of Life