2017-04-29

On Joy

joy (n) 1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son's success. 2. a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated: Her prose style is a pure joy. 3. the expression or display of glad feeling; festive gaiety. 4. a state of happiness or felicity. (Dictionary.com, based on Random House Dictionary)

joy (n) c. 1200, "feeling of pleasure and delight;" c. 1300, "source of pleasure or happiness," from Old French joie "pleasure, delight, erotic pleasure, bliss, joyfulness" (11c.), from Latin gaudia "expressions of pleasure; sensual delight," plural of gaudium "joy, inward joy, gladness, delight; source of pleasure or delight," from gaudere "rejoice," from PIE root *gau- "to rejoice." (Online Etymology Dictionary)

joy synonyms: bliss, delight, elation, glee, humor, wonder, ecstasy, exultation, gaiety, gladness, jubilance, rapture
The definition, etymology, and synonyms seem to me to miss something crucial about joy. They do, of course, capture common usage. Moreover, happiness is an important spiritual quality and practice. Understanding our capacity for ebullience and rejoicing, how happiness happens (which isn’t the way most of us tend to presume), and cultivating the habits of delight at “ordinary” things we encounter – these are crucial aspects of spiritual growth, and I hope this month’s exploration of joy will help with these. Becoming happier people is an integral part of becoming more joyous people.

And.

There’s also something about joy that goes beyond happiness, delight, ebullience. Faith, hope, peace, love, joy – on this standard list of spiritual qualities or blessings, joy is a natural part of the “package.” Happiness, however, has a different feel to it. We can have happy moments, but joy often connotes a more abiding quality. Happiness is the opposite of sadness, but joy, I want to say, can be present amid sadness.

We listen to the blues, or other sad songs, or go to sad movies or read sad novels, because it feels good to feel. It’s part of being alive, and, as Rachel Naomi Remen says on our quotations page, “Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than to happiness.” When grief turns away from bitterness into an affirmation of, and gratitude for, the beauty and value of that which has been lost, then grief connects us with the fundamental goodness of life and this world. In that connection, there is joy – but I wouldn’t call it happiness. Sharing tears, like sharing laughter, is an entrance-way into human community and the human family – a leaning in to the fullness of reality rather than a bitter retreat from parts of it. We discover in that reality an underlying joy.

The temporary exultation of things going well is one thing, and the abiding sense that you belong, no matter how things are going is something quite different: the former is better designated “happiness,” the latter, “joy.” When we face reality without filtering out the parts we don’t like, without turning away from the hard parts even for a moment, our own belongingness in that reality grows more secure. That’s why, I think, joy, not happiness, is on the list with peace, hope, faith, and love.

Still, if you want to cultivate joy, then cultivate happiness. Indeed, peace, hope, faith, and love are all pretty difficult if you’re unhappy. The more we find of happiness in our everyday life, the stronger is the foundation of joy supporting us even when grief comes.

2017-04-27

Our Body

Earth Day, part 2

We all die. I reflect often on my own impending death. It brings a certain peace, and a deep cherishing of the moments that I do have. And all species eventually become extinct. But we are here now, we humans, we primates, we mammals. Blue jays, chipmunks, sea turtles, and tuna – garden spiders, lobsters, snails, and beetles – maple trees and oaks, grasses and shrubs – fungi, bacteria, mosses, and molds. We are here now, sharing the blessing and the honor it is to be alive – to be a member of a species that is here, for now. The gentle Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has written:
“The bells of mindfulness are sounding. All over the Earth, we are experiencing floods, droughts, and massive wildfires. Sea ice is melting in the Arctic and hurricanes and heat waves are killing thousands. The forests are fast disappearing, the deserts are growing, species are becoming extinct every day, and yet we continue to consume, ignoring the ringing bells. All of us know that our beautiful green planet is in danger. Our way of walking on the Earth has a great influence on animals and plants. Yet we act as if our daily lives have nothing to do with the condition of the world. We are like sleepwalkers, not knowing what we are doing or where we are heading. Whether we can wake up or not depends on whether we can walk mindfully on our Mother Earth. The future of all life, including our own, depends on our mindful steps. We have to hear the bells of mindfulness that are sounding all across our planet. We have to start learning how to live in a way that a future will be possible for our children and grandchildren.”
Intellectual understanding of what is happening is crucial. No less crucial is the spiritual understanding that this planetary body is your body. This Earth is hurting, and that pain is our very own pain, crying out for healing. That’s not just a few polar bears starving and stranded on an ice chunk – that’s us stranded on that ice. The cry of the forest withering into barren desert is our cry. The lament of acidifying oceans is our lament, not simply because the fate of sea life affects humans, but because the ocean is our body as much as your kidney and blood are your body.

Salvation lies, I believe, in our connection with this world of ours. The salve for our woundedness, our fragmentation, lies in nature. Connecting to the sacredness of the earth is what saves us – and it’s also what will save the Earth, if it will be saved.

Ecospirituality is the understanding that “our experience of the divine comes through the natural world.” As Thomas Berry put it:
“The universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communion.”
And as a recent campaign from the Sierra Club said:
“This is not about getting back to nature. It is about understanding we've never left.”
We may ignore what is happening to our home, break our connection to the holy whole, break faith with the ground of our being. We might do so out of hubris. We might do so out of despair. Either would be a form of faithlessness.

We are given this amazing gift: life, for a few short moments – life amid this beautiful self-organizing universe. We are given this brief chance to be in the dance of creation with millions of other species of animals and plants. And we are given a mind and heart and spirit that empowers us to choose, if we will, to engage in the healing of our world.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "Earth Day"
See also
Part 1: The Climate It is A-Changin'

2017-04-26

The Climate It is A-Changin'

One of my sayings is: Reality is never depressing.

Reality can certainly be challenging. What’s depressing is trying to turn away from reality – trying not to know, not to think about it. That can be exhausting – depressing. Face reality squarely, and it cannot be depressing. We might grieve; we might mourn – that’s part of a healthy human response to loss – but that’s different from being depressed.

So let us face squarely what there is to be faced: climate change. The sun warms the earth and much of that warmth is reflected back out into space. But CO2 in the atmosphere holds the heat in so that less of it escapes. More CO2 in the atmosphere means more heat is trapped.

High levels of atmospheric CO2 are a problem.

Number One, disruption of weather patterns. While the overall heat of the planet increases, some places might get colder. There is more extreme weather: more droughts and more floods, more heat waves, more hurricanes and superstorms.

Number Two, rising sea levels. For two reasons: (A) melting of land-based ice, which then runs into the ocean, and (B), things expand when they get warmer. Warmer oceans are bigger oceans.

Number Three, ocean acidification. CO2 in the air mixes with the world’s oceans, forming carbonic acid and making the world’s oceans more acidic.

For these three reasons, atmospheric CO2 levels above 350ppm are not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted. Remember that key number: 350. Since the beginning of human civilization, we’ve had 275 ppm.
Then, with the industrial revolution it began to rise. In 1960, it was still under 320 ppm. About 1987, 30 years ago, we surpassed the crucial 350 ppm line. And it’s still going up about 2 more ppm every year. Scientific American reported that on Tue Apr 18 the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million – pretty much right on the predicted schedule.

We’re on track to create a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century. 50 million years! Hominids have only been around for about 6 million years.

I checked the data right here in White Plains, this year. I made a spreadsheet, and I looked up, for every day of 2017 so far, what was the normal high and normal low in White Plains for that date, and what were the actual temperatures for each day in 2017. You probably remember we had an unusually mild winter. Averaging the numbers myself, I found that January and February temperatures averaged about 7 and a half degrees above the White Plains normal this year. March was right at normal for a White Plains March. April is up again. Overall, for the first 112 days of 2017, the average daily high and daily low are both about 5 degrees above normal.

That’s kind of interesting. By itself, this doesn’t tell us anything. Weather always fluctuates – some cold winters, some mild winters. We have to look at a lot more data than just 112 days of White Plains highs and lows. People with much, much bigger spreadsheets have done that.

Over the whole Earth, 2016 was the hottest year on record, and it’s the third consecutive record-breaking year. No less an authority than Bill Nye the Science Guy has personally guaranteed that the 2010 – 2020 decade will be the hottest decade ever, since our records began.

The planet has already warmed 1° C over mid-20th-century average temperatures. Heat extremes that previously occurred once every 1,000 days are already happening four to five times every thousand days.

Extreme rain events are already occurring 25% more times per year than they did prior to the industrial revolution.

Sea levels have already risen about a foot, with the best estimates of the Global Mean sea level rise by the end of the century ranging from another one to eight feet.

Oceans are already about 30% more acidic than they were 30 years ago, threatening marine life, killing coral reefs, and reducing fish populations that penguins and seals and some human communities depend on for survival.

As governments are destabilized by these events, and competition for resources intensifies, the “us versus them” mindset expands, as it already has begun doing, hatred and violence grows, resource wars break out, eventually drawing in the nuclear powers, who will refrain from using their nuclear arsenals – for a little while.

As Lester Brown put it,
“We’ve been saying we need to save the planet. The planet’s going to be around for some time to come. What’s at stake now is civilization itself.”
The situation can be frightening. I understand the fear reaction, but we need not let fear govern us. We can instead be governed by compassion for all the life affected by climate change. (As Cindy Davidson illustrates HERE)

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Earth Day"

2017-04-21

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. Which will happen, I don't know. 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.

2017-04-20

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.

2017-04-18

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

2017-04-17

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

2017-04-16

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.

2017-04-11

Going Home (script)

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

ACT I

[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]

ACT II

[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.

ACT III


[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.

2017-04-05

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

2017-04-04

Abundance Is the True Law of Life

Stewardship, part 2

Abundance is the true law of life. The Jewish scriptures say it over and over. God is good, God provides, God is faithful. God loves us extravagantly and wants to provide for us, richly and abundantly.

The Buddhist tradition teaches loosening the grip of desire. Not eliminating desire, but just minding less whether a given desire happens to be satisfied. When desires take over our lives, all we’re focused on is how to meet them, and how they aren’t met yet. It’s the scarcity mentality: I don’t have enough, I have to get more and better and more and better. Loosening the grip of desire lets the recognition come forward of what abundant bounty is already provided to us. Wanting things to be different obscures from us awareness of the ample riches that are present to us right here, inalienable from us, we have but to notice them.

We have these abundant resources – and they become manifest when we share them.
“In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them -- and receive them from others when we are in need. Abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole, and in return, is sustained by the whole. Community doesn't just create abundance -- community IS abundance.” (Parker Palmer)
Trust its supply and pass it around – that’s how what seems scarce is revealed as abundant. What we pass around, what we share to create the abundance that is our congregation, is our time, our talent, and our treasure. By “treasure,” I mean – and I hesitate to say this – money. I hesitate because studies say that just saying the word causes an unconscious reaction, a resistance, a closing.

It’s funny. When some monopoly money is present in a room – not talked about or alluded to, but just there, not even looking like real money – just the presence of monopoly money makes people less kind. This has been measured with the pencil-pickup test: as the subject is leaving the room, they bump into an assistant carrying in some supplies, and box of pencils spills. Everyone will bend down to help pick up the mess. But if monopoly money was in the room, the subject picks up 15 percent fewer pencils than if there’s no hint of money around. If you seat people near a screen saver showing currency floating like fish in a tank, or you have them descramble sentences, some of which include the words, “bill,” “check” or “cash” they become just a little more anti-social, just a little less oriented toward sensitivity to others. They give less time to a colleague in need of assistance and less money to a hypothetical charity. When asked to pull up a chair so a stranger might join a meeting, they place the chair at a greater average distance from themselves. When asked how they’d prefer to spend their leisure time, they are more likely to chose a personal cooking lesson over a catered group dinner. Given a choice between working collaboratively or alone, they are more likely to opt to go solo.

This is not always a bad thing. I do not see this as a manifestation of humanity’s sinful nature. Rather, it’s just that we have a part of us that focuses on efficiency and productivity and self-sufficiency. We also have a part of us that cares about other people, that finds joy in company, that wants to be compassionate, that delights in our interdependence, that feels enriched by helping others and being helped, that is happier working collaboratively, that loves and wants to love and be loved.

In other words, we have a scarcity-oriented part and an abundance-oriented part. And just mentioning money – budgets and expenses – tends to activate the scarcity-minded part of a human psyche. It tends to. It does not have to. So I mention these findings about psychology of money in the hope that by bringing these unconscious effects into the light of consciousness, we can choose not to be governed by self-protective scarcity-mindedness.

What our hearts truly yearn for is community and connection and caring: the abundance that is community. In our togetherness, caring about and for each other, we enjoy more, not less, efficiency and productivity than we do in pursuing the self-sufficiency strategy.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Stewardship"
See also
Part 1: The True Loaves and Fishes Miracle
Part 3: Never a Greater Need

2017-04-02

The True Loaves and Fishes Miracle

Stewardship, part 1

There's a miracle story about loaves and fishes. You might have heard it:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand. (Mark 6: 3--44, NRSV)
Now, I wasn’t there. The story might be entirely made up, but let’s just suppose that something happened that prompted the telling of that story -- that it's based, however, loosely on something that actual happened. Let’s suppose that whatever happened, it wasn’t “an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature” (a phrase of the British theologian Daphne Hampson). The actual event perhaps did interrupt the mind’s chatter about its needs and fears. Whatever really happened was probably something that interrupted obliviousness and allowed people to notice wonder and beauty – the abundance that life presents in each moment. What was it? What happened?

I would name this miracle Neighborliness. Neighborliness happened. Neighbors gather, community happens, and abundance flourishes. My favorite Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, notes,
“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.”
That’s the kingdom – the kin-dom – of god Jesus was talking about: public life reorganized toward neighborliness.

I imagine a crowd of people in the grip of scarcity thinking gathering to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam. From that sense of boundless provision welled up an urge to share of this manifest plenty of which they were suddenly so acutely aware. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share. It was a miracle all right. I’d call it the miracle of neighborliness, the miracle of community. Parker Palmer explains:
“The disciples, asked to feed the crowd, are sure that food is scarce. Jesus performs a ‘miracle’ to reveal how abundant food is even when there is none in sight. In this story, as throughout his active life, Jesus wanted to help people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance.”
I saw that miracle of neighborliness and community yesterday. I walked through our kitchen a little before 10, and again a couple hours later, and again a couple hours after that. Each time I saw eight or ten members of this congregation busy at the food preparation tasks for today’s brunch we’ll soon be enjoying. And over the speaker were the sounds of our choir and musicians rehearsing for the sock hop – that we’ll soon be enjoying.

People gave up a big chunk of their Saturday to come together, to make food and make music, to offer their gifts. And it wasn’t because they didn’t have anything else to do. It’s because they didn’t have anything better to do – and that’s because there isn’t anything better for human beings to do than share of themselves – their time, talent, treasure, and the sacred mystery of their personhood -- in the making of community.

It is such abundance we make: working, learning, sharing, and just being together. I felt it yesterday. I feel it every Sunday morning I’m here. And I look forward to being in its midst on into the afternoon today.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Stewardship"
See also
Part 2: Abundance Is the True Law of Life
Part 3: Never a Greater Need

2017-03-29

More of Us Than of Them

The Third Reconstruction, part 3



Groups that seem as disparate as the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the ACLU, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the coalition to stop gun violence, voting rights organizations, the Human Rights Campaign for LGBTQ, and Amnesty International are all working for healing what is at root the same wound: the impulse toward dominance.

No one has done more to bring these different orientations together into a single movement than William Barber. He explains how it got started:
“In December of 2006, we called a meeting of potential partners for this new coalition. Representatives of sixteen organizations showed up. We started with a blank sheet of butcher paper and asked each group to write the issue they were most concerned about. Then, on another sheet, we asked them to list the forces standing in the way of what their organization wanted. We learned something important at that first retreat: though our issues varied, we all recognized the same forces opposing us. What’s more, we saw something that we hadn’t had a space to talk about before: There were more of us than there were of them.” (The Third Reconstruction 50)
Yes, there are some differences. If you cherish diversity, then you have to be OK with disagreement. That’s how the forces of domination prevail – by turning anti-domination factions against each other. Yes, it’s true that Barber’s base in the Black Church is strong on civil rights, voting rights, education, and housing – and often less enthusiastic about LGBTQ equality.

In 2012, Barber’s coalition encountered an attempt to cripple his coalition by dividing it against itself. That year a group called the National Organization for Marriage got a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage on the North Carolina ballot. The National Organization for Marriage’s internal documents – eventually ordered released –
“revealed that their goal had little to do with morality. They had pitched this so-called ‘Amendment One’ as a way to split North Carolina’s growing black vote, pointing out that many African Americans were religious conservatives and would not support [same-sex] marriage. The way to split a moral movement, they said, is it get them arguing about morality.” (90)
What Barber recognized was the need to keep the focus on domination – the curtailment of freedom, the legalized discrimination, the codified hate. People who couldn’t see how it could be right for two women or two men to be married to each other could nevertheless see that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom protected the right of every religious institution to discern together what God’s definition of marriage is. They could see that “Our First Amendment right entailed freedom from any government attempt to tell us what God says about marriage.” They could see that,
“In the end, it didn’t matter whether my faith tradition told me marriage was to be between one man and one woman; all of our faiths made clear that the codification of hate is never righteous. Legalized discrimination is never just. And a moral fusion movement cannot be divided by the fear-based tactics of so-called conservatives.”
Amendment One did pass in North Carolina, and stood for two years until struck down by the courts. But the campaign for Amendment One did not divide the fusion movement. Barber explains:
“We learned quickly, that once we were able to reframe the issue, people quickly grasped how the treatment of LGBTQ citizens was an issue of civil rights and human rights....Amendment One passed before we could get to all of North Carolina’s rural communities. But in the places where we were able to reframe the issue, the results were clear: voters in majority-black precincts in North Carolina’s five major cities rejected the amendment....It failed by a ratio of two to one on the African American side of Scotland Neck, a rural community in Halifax County, where our movement has established a strong base by organizing against environmental racism.” (92)
Another issue that you might think could divide the fusion coalition is women’s reproductive freedom. I was moved to read how Barber handled that:
“Now here were, standing together. I noted the pink shirts of Planned Parenthood members and recalled my early conversations with their president, Janet Colm. I’d told her that with our broad coalition we could not endorse abortion, so she asked, 'Can you support women’s rights and access to health care?' Absolutely, I told her, but I also needed something from her. Could she give us white women to speak up for a black woman’s right to vote? She said she’d do it herself. We went on a national talk show together. When the host asked Janet about Planned Parenthood, she said, ‘I’m actually here today to talk about voting rights.’ When she turned to me as a representative of the NAACP and asked about voting, I said, ‘I’m actually here today to talk about women’s rights and access to health care.'” This fusion coalition had brought us together, confusing old dividing lines and making more than one interviewer stutter as they tried to figure out new categories to name what was happening.” (108).
Diversity is our strength. The diversity has sometimes been turned against us to divide us. But we don’t have to let it. No, Barber’s defense of LGBTQ rights and of abortion rights is not as full-throated as mine would be, but I’m not going to let that stand in the way of supporting as much as I can the Moral Mondays campaign – and also supporting Planned Parenthood and LGBTQ inclusion as much as I can in ways that go further than Moral Mondays alone does.

We need not think alike to love alike. Our differences won’t divide us if we stay focused on opposing the domination strategy that engenders all of these injustices.

So here’s my ask. I ask you to get this book: William Barber, The Third Reconstruction. I ask you to read it. And then let’s talk about it. I ask you to come on Thu Apr 20 – Fellowship Hall – 7:30. Let’s talk about what we learned, and what we can do about it together.

Let’s do this because there is no peace for our spirits when our country’s policies increase domination and inequality and cruelty. Let’s do this because a faith institution concerned with healing spirits must address the social causes that wound our spirits. Let’s do this because when we see the one wound that underlies all the different justice issues, and we join together against domination, then there are more of us than there are of them.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"
See also
Part 1: Truth, Hope, and America
Part 2: I Thought I'd be Saying...

2017-03-28

I Thought I'd Be Saying...

The Third Reconstruction, part 2


“We must tell America if you think we are just going have one march, or one campaign, you must be out of your mind, because we are going to resist the one moment mentality. We are building a movement, we are building a movement of moral dissent, and we win either way. We win if we win everything we’re fighting for, and we also win if we don’t win it but we sow the seeds for victory in the days to come. But whatever the case, we’re going to walk together children and we’re not going to get weary because it’s time for a Third Reconstruction. It’s time for a Third Renewal. It’s time for a revival of love and hope and truth and justice all over this country.”
William Barber spoke those words last June at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. Barber is a Christian (Disciples of Christ) minister, and an organizer based in North Carolina. We had invited him to address our General Assembly – and now we have selected his book, The Third Reconstruction, as the Common Read for all Unitarian Universalists for this year – because he’s at the fore of a promising and hopeful fusion approach for justice.

Last June, as I arrived at Columbus for General Assembly, it was clear to me, as it was to many of the UUs coming together, that there was something distressing going on in this country. Like many of us, I thought then that the November election would produce a result different from the one it did produce. Even so, the candidate I thought would lose represented something that had been going on for some time, that was much broader, more widespread, than I had imagined as recently as 2015. Already, last June, I was running over in my mind, some of the things I thought I would be saying to you in the weeks and months after the election.

I thought I would be telling you that just because the white supremacists lost this election, doesn’t mean that fear and hatred have been defeated.

I thought I would be telling you that the campaign showed us that, for many of our neighbors, things have not been going as we had assumed.

I thought I would be telling you that in the eight years since the 2008 election, while most of us have felt frustrated that the march of justice and equality has been so bogged down, it turns out that many, many of our neighbors have somehow become alarmed and angry at the tiniest of steps that have been made – and that a lot more of our neighbors than we thought have imagined much bigger change than what we saw.

I thought I would be telling you that these reactive forces were not going away. The reaction against an African American president, reaction against the simple and obvious notion that black lives do matter, reaction against the proposition that the business as usual in this country – i.e., the treating of black or poor lives as if they mattered less than white and wealthy lives – ought to stop – reaction against marriage equality for LGBTQ folk, continuing reaction against women’s reproductive freedom, was bigger than we had imagined.

I thought I would be telling you that even though these forces lost an election, we have to find ways to address the despair from which their fear and hatred grow, for they, too, are children of God, are beings of inherent worth and dignity.

I thought that in the months after the new president was inaugurated, you might need reminding that the work of desegregating and equalizing our schools, extending hospitality to the stranger among us, responding as a people of faith and moral conscience to the refugee crisis, reforming our police forces, providing affordable housing, securing access to reproductive services, dismantling our incarceration nation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting forest and wetland and other habitat, expanding access to quality health care for all, addressing the growing income inequality, creating jobs programs – all that work still needed to be pressed.

And then the election happened. And much of what I thought I would be telling you became too obvious to need mentioning. You don't need any reminding. We face a situation where despair is the bigger problem than complacency.

I thought I would be telling you what I heard William Barber say to us at General Assembly: “We are building a movement, we are building a movement of moral dissent,” -- that “it’s time for a Third Reconstruction. It’s time for a Third Renewal. It’s time for a revival of love and hope and truth and justice all over this country.” And that part holds, because it’s not about who wins this or that election. It’s about awakening and organizing the moral conscience of a nation no matter who happens to be in office. If we win, we win. If we lose, we still win insofar as we plant the seeds of victory in days to come.

What I will say, again, is that spiritual healing is the business of faith institutions. It’s our business. People show up at our door as they show up at the doors of thousands of congregations of many denominations across this country. They arrive heart sick for beloved community, torn inside by the stresses of negotiating a world that demonstratively holds that white lives matter more than black lives, lives of the wealthy matter more than the lives of the poor. We come to places of worship seeking inner peace, for there is no peace for our spirits when millions of our neighbors are mistreated, and have been for generations. There is no peace for our spirits when our country’s policies increase poverty and increase misery and increase cruelty. A faith institution concerned with healing spirits that does not turn its energies to address the social causes that wound our spirits is incompetent. It commits spiritual malpractice.

What I will say, again, is that all the various issues mentioned intersect. They are all products of what we can recognize as a single protective strategy gone wrong. Call it domination. The dominant class seeks to protect its domination with more domination: women must serve men, the poor must serve the rich, people of color must serve whites, the Earth and all her species must serve humans. Ultimately there is a single wound: the disconnection and pain of dominance and inequality. So whether we are marching for peace, for racial justice, or for lower carbon emissions, we are marching for the same healing vision of a fair and caring world.

This insight sometimes goes by the name intersectionality. William Barber doesn’t use that word. His word is fusion. Fusion politics, a fusion coalition, and a fusion movement – that’s what he talks about. Whether the key word is “fusion” or “intersectional” the point is the same: a wide range of justice issues are united by opposition to the ideology of dominance.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"
See also
Part 1: Truth, Hope, and America
Part 3: More of Us Than of Them

2017-03-27

Truth, Hope, and America

The Third Reconstruction, part 1

The Spirit of Truth image has stood before her White Plains congregation for over 80 years, on the front of the pulpit I have occupied for less than four of those years. I admire the equanimity and equipoise with which she assesses all that comes within her purview -- including, this week, a Time magazine cover asking, "Is Truth Dead?" -- using the same red letters on a black background as Time's 1966 cover asking, "Is God dead?"

In 1966, Unitarian Universalists were mostly intrigued by the Time cover. Few of us were bothered by the suggestion that God may be dead. (Many of us were familiar with Nietzsche's "God is dead" claim.) This time, however, knowing, as we do, what prompts the magazine's question, it does bother us. There are such things as facts, and they deserve our respect. While we can never predict with detailed precision all the effects of a given policy, attention to the general direction of the evidence is vital for building "a land that binds up the broken." We need the truth, or our most careful and rigorous attention to the evidence, of who and what is broken, where, and how badly.

In our fallibility and finitude, with brains built for confirmation bias rather than for truth, we can never be sure when the Spirit of Truth is smiling upon our words. What we can do is pursue unflagging fidelity to the evidence, with a vigilant attention to where our own biases may be leading us down paths of misinterpretation. No, we can never be sure that Lady Truth is smiling upon our words, but with a humble commitment to the evidence, we can at least have confidence that Truth isn't tearing her hair out -- nor has she succumbed to her abusers. As long as there are those who elevate the question, "What does the evidence say?" over the question, "What does my ego want to believe?" then Truth is not dead.
What though the tempest round me roars
I know the truth, it liveth.
We need the truth, or at least careful attention to real evidence, to speak to power, for power will not concede on its own. We need the truth, especially when the evidence is surprising, does not confirm what we thought. We need the truth, not because it sets us free all by itself, but because it gives us hope that the oppressor’s story is not the only possibility. We need the truth because energized by that hope we can then take action and make ourselves and all the children of the Earth free. Dear Spirit of Truth, may we be thy faithful servants.

If truth is dead, then so is hope, for all that would then be left would be the narrative of power's self-justification. Looking for sources of hope -- disruptions of the Oppressor's Tale -- I read William Barber, The Third Reconstruction. Barber sees the current time as one of possibility and hope for significant new progress toward justice against those forces that oppress the poor and the darker skinned -- a third period of reconstruction in US history, following the first Reconstruction in the post-Civil-War years and a second reconstruction in the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. Barber's book is the 2016-17 Common Read selected by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
"Drawing on the prophetic traditions of Jewish and Christian scripture, while making room for other sources of truth, the book challenges us to ground our justice work in moral dissent, even when there is no reasonable expectation of political success, and to do the hard work of coalition-building in a society that is fractured and polarized." (Gail Forsyth-Vail, Discussion Guide 2016-17 UUA Common Read)


For an introduction to the reality we face, and the sense of hope for transformation, Langston Hughes' 1935 poem remains resonant.

“Let America Be America Again”
Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Out of the recognition of our national failures, Hughes lifts up the possibilities of redemption. The poem "hopes" us. The mix of realism and hope was the brew William Barber was raised on. A few pages into The Third Reconstruction, he relates:
"When we were growing up, Grandmamma and her nieces always cooked for the whole family....When I was at her house, I often sat with them in the kitchen. They would hum songs from church as she rolled out biscuits and stirred pots on her old gas stove. They also had a ritual whenever the food was done. Grandmamma would take a bottle of the anointing oil that she rubbed on people’s heads when she prayed for them and slip it in the front of her apron. She and the other ladies would take some money, a rag, and some of the food they’d cooked and they would say, 'We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.' As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking – that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon....She knew in her bones that faith and works, belief and practice, were inseparable. And she knew in her careful choice of words that love in action was not simply about helping people. It was a practice of hope that both enabled others to keep going and helped her to keep her eyes on the prize and hold on.” (3-4)
About 120 pages later, at the end of his short book, Barber affirms the hope that has run throughout his story.
“If we refuse to be divided by fear and continue pushing forward together, I have no doubt that these nascent movements will swell into a Third Reconstruction to push America toward our truest hope of a “more perfect union” where peace is established through justice, not fear. This is no blind faith. We have seen it in North Carolina. We have seen it throughout America’s history. And we are witnessing it now in state-based, state-government-focused moral fusion coalitions that are gathering to stand against immoral deconstruction. Ours is the living hope of America’s black-led freedom struggle, summed up so well in Langston Hughes’s memorable claim that although America has never been America to him, even still he could swear, ‘America will be!’ Despite the dark money, the old fears, and vicious attacks of extremists, we know America will be because our deepest moral values are rooted in something greater than people’s ability to conspire. All the money in the world can’t change that bedrock truth. This is the confidence that has sustained every moral movement in the history of the world.” (122)
Truth is not dead. And as long as she lives, America may yet be born.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"
See also
Part 2: I Thought I'd Be Saying...
Part 3: More of Us Than of Them