2024-06-09

Why We Welcome

I’m going to talk about nature and what's natural. We’ll see how our understanding of nature became a concept of natural law, and what that means. Then I’ll point to some very different lessons we might take from nature. I’m not going to get to it for a little while, but I want to let you know that it’s coming. It’s our mission to grow ethically and spiritually, and I think to grow ethically we need to develop our repertoire of concepts for reflecting on ethical questions. Among those concepts are natural law theories of ethics – which, in accordance with our mission, we’ll look at in a little bit.

First, let us note, on this Pride month, that we Unitarian Universalists have been at the forefront of progress of LGBTQ justice. We can be proud of that. We should remember, however, that, while we’ve been ahead of the curve on attitudes about LGBTQ folk, we have sometimes not been very far ahead of the curve.

As early as the 1950s, some Unitarian ministers were officiating at services of union for same-sex couples. Good for us. But: many of our ministers then were refusing to do such services, and those that did sometimes didn’t tell their congregations and didn’t hold those services in their churches. It was the 1950s.

Since 1970, our Unitarian Universalist Association has been on record as supporting the rights and worth of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. Still, the lived experience of these folk in UU congregations was often painful. In the 1980s, our national Unitarian Universalist Association conducted a multiyear, nationwide study of UU’s attitudes about sexual orientation. The findings “exposed many negative attitudes, deep prejudices, and profound ignorance” that resulted in LGBTQ people being excluded from full participation in UU congregations.

In 1987, then-President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, William Schulz, addressed the General Assembly that June. Rev. Schulz said:
“We Unitarian Universalists have been the religious leaders in [the area of gay and lesbian rights]: in our establishment of a denominational office; in our support of ministers who perform services of union. But at the moment, our values and principles are being sorely tested: not just by prejudice from outside our doors, but by homophobia from within. Let me put it as directly as I can: far too many of our congregations are choosing not to call or even consider gay or lesbian ministers solely on the basis of their affectional orientation. When we hear questions like these posed about gay or lesbian candidates – ‘But will she talk about anything other than homosexuality? But will we become a “gay church”? But will he be able to counsel heterosexuals? But will the community accept her?’ – when we hear questions like these, we know we are in the grip of a profound terror.”
My guess is that back in 1987 those questions bounced around in this congregation if the possibility of a gay or lesbian minister were discussed. Some of you have been around here long enough to remember. And you’ve seen your own attitudes grow and change, along with the shift of your fellow congregants around you. Rev. Schulz’s 1987 address to the General Assembly went on to say:
“The fear of same-sex love runs deep in Western culture. But I beg us to understand that if such fear is permitted to control us, we will be in violation of everything which Unitarian Universalism stands for in the world. It is not enough to say passively and contentedly, ‘Why, of course, gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregation if they choose to come.’ What is required is the recognition that gay and lesbian people are already members of every single congregation on this continent. The issue is whether they feel supported enough to make their presence known. What we require is the courage and wisdom to acknowledge our own fears, both gay and straight, and to take active steps to make the welcome known to the gay and lesbian community.”
Back in 1987, we may have been ahead of the curve, MAYBE – but were definitely still ON that learning curve, and with a ways to go.

In response to the attitudes revealed by our study, in 1990, our UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association), launched The Welcoming Congregation program along with the Welcoming Congregation Handbook with lesson plans for 10 workshops. Congregations were urged to seek certification as a Welcoming Congregation, and to get that certification required completing a two-year education and discussion program designed to change those attitudes, correct those prejudices, and replace ignorance with knowledge and understanding. The first UU congregation to receive certification received it by the end of 1991.

One thing you may have noticed about Rev. Schulz’s 1987 address was that it was all about the L and the G, and nothing about the BTQ. The 1999 edition of the Welcoming Congregation Handbook was substantially expanded to be more inclusive of transgender identity and bisexual identity, as well as race and ethnicity. Four new workshops were added: “Racism and Homophobia/Heterosexism,” “The Radical Right,” “Bisexuality and Biphobia,” and “Transgender Identity: What it Means.”

In 2003, in the case of Goodridge vs. Department of Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples could not be excluded from marriage rights in Massachusetts. Hilary Goodridge led a total of 14 plaintiffs in that case -- 7 same-sex couples – and half of those 14, including Hilary Goodridge and her partner Julie Goodridge, were UUs.

In 2006, 16 years after our Welcoming Congregation launched, the milestone 500th congregation to attain the Welcoming Congregation status was reached. There were then, as today, just over 1,000 UU congregations nationwide – and we passed the half-way mark for our congregations being Welcoming Congregations later in 2006. Today, most of our congregations have the status LGBTQ Welcoming. In 2008, the Connecticut Supreme Court required that state to recognize same-sex marriage. After Massachusetts and Connecticut, few people expected Iowa to be the third state to recognize same-sex marriage, but we were – in 2009 – though we also had backlash about that.

Through it all, we UUs have been out in front – even if often only a little in front – in understanding and welcoming LGBTQ folk. Many of us are LGBTQ folk, and what straight folk learn from LGBTQ folk, and what LGBTQ folk learn from other LGBTQ folk – what all of us learn -- is what perfect looks like. To explain what I mean by that, we have to look further back in history.

An idea that goes back in Western civilization for centuries and still occasionally manifesjts is the idea that LGBTQ activity is unnatural. What have been called “sodomy laws” were still on the books in 14 states until 2003 when the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision invalidated them. Those laws often made reference to unnatural acts. I know that few of us would subscribe to the idea that LGBTQ activity is “unnatural” – but let’s explore where this terrible idea came from so that we can better combat it where we see it cropping up.

The “natural law” is supposedly universally valid and therefore “natural” and discoverable by reason alone. The idea is that moral and legal order derives from the nature of the cosmos, or the nature of human beings. Natural law consists of a set of principles that can be seen to be true by our ‘natural light’ or reason. There are religious versions, in which the natural law expresses God’s will for creation, and non-religious versions in which human nature establishes conditions for human flourishing, and the morally right thing to do is to follow what our nature establishes.

When I was young and much taken with the idea of civil disobedience to unjust laws, this idea that were principles higher than the positive laws passed by congress and approved by the courts was very appealing. It's still appealing. This idea that there are principles of justice higher than statutes, principles which courts try to discern and apply, is an important, valuable, even necessary idea. Courts, of course, sometimes get it wrong, and may be criticized when they do, or when we think they do. The court might be getting it right and its critics the ones that are wrong, but we can’t have that discussion unless we presuppose the existence of such higher principles of justice. Presupposing them, we may then proceed to debate about what they are. What we’re really doing in such debates, I think, is trying to organize and articulate our moral intuitions in a way that might provide some guidance for us going forward. Natural law theory says criticism of unjust laws involves appealing to principles that are “discoverable by reason.” I don't think so. Such principles are certainly discussable by reason. Human beings can make arguments to each other about them – and we do. But I'd say the principles are more invented than discovered. But whether we are inventing principles or discovering them, I think it's important that we be able to give reasons for thinking a statute or a court decision is wrong -- and that we may sometimes find those reasons so compelling as to justify civil disobedience.

The dream of reason is to produce arguments so compelling that all people – at least, all people whose reasoning is working properly -- will arrive at the same conclusions – and that is a pipedream, a delusion. What natural law theory fails to account for is that reason, diligently applied by motivated reasoners, can always craft a counter-argument to any argument. The dream of arriving – through a process we self-congratulatorily call ‘reason’ -- at a universally agreed set of principles we can then inerrantly use in all our moral deliberations ain’t gonna happen. And when we expect that it could happen – when we expect reason to eventually yield universal agreement on principles that will settle all moral questions what actually does happen isn’t good.

In particular, let’s look at how natural law theory came to call certain sexual or affectional orientations unnatural. Aristotle gave us a version of natural law which said that what is natural, and therefore good, for any being, is for that being to realize its telos: its end, its purpose, its goal, the reason for its existence and the ultimate aim toward which it strives. Everything has a telos, and the good for that thing is to become what its telos is for it to be. The telos of an acorn is an oak tree. The telos of a knife is to cut.

And, for Aristotle, the telos of a human being is, in a word, flourishing. Actually, his Greek word is eudaimonia, variously translated as flourishing, or well-being, or happiness. I’ll go with flourishing. Our nature has an aim, and what makes something good, then, is that it facilitates realizing the aim our nature. What is good for a dog is what is perfective, or completing, of its doggy nature – what brings it to its fulfillment. What is good for a human is what is perfective, or completing, or fulfilling of human nature: that’s our flourishing.

That doesn’t sound so terrible. Flourishing is surely a good thing. But you may have noticed that what’s being assumed is that all humans have the same nature, and that perfecting or completing or fulfilling what we are as humans will be the same in all humans. Aristotle, we love you, man, but that’s messed up.

Then, in Aquinas’s hands in particular, the idea that everything had a purpose applied to each of our parts. Hence, it was an abuse of reproductive organs to use them for anything other than their “natural” purpose: which was to reproduce. Sexual acts not ordered toward procreation violated natural law; they were unnatural. Aquinas became the official philosopher of Catholicism, and so, to this day, Catholic teaching is that neither same-sex sexual activity, nor even artificial birth control, is permissible because that’s using the reproductive organs for something other than their purpose: to reproduce.

Most of us, I think, recoil from Aquinas’ conclusion, but it’s worth taking some time to clarify why. For one thing, we might say, we shouldn’t look to nature for answers to our moral questions. For another thing, supposing we do look to nature. We now know a lot about nature today that Aristotle and Aquinas did not know. We know, for instance, that species evolve.

If Aristotle had been aware of species evolution, and if he had applied his notion of telos not just to individuals but to species, he probably would have said that the telos of a species is to perfect itself through gradual incremental improvements in its functioning down through the generations. But already we run into a quandry. Take for instance, a species that lived about 6 million years ago and was the last common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Was its telos as a species to evolve into humans, or into chimps, or into bonobos? Which one of those is a fulfilling, a perfecting, of the last common ancestor, while the other two are mere aberrations? That’s not an answerable question – though I kinda like the case for bonobos myself.

Again, we really shouldn't be trying to take moral lessons from nature. Philosophers call that the naturalistic fallacy. But if we were going to look to nature for some pointers, then what nature would show us is that there are an unimaginably large number of branching possibilities – none of them better than others, and none of them having a telos other than to keep on branching out new possibilities, creative new forms.

If we were going to apply nature’s model to human society, then we would celebrate our branching out new possibilities, creative, sometimes, say, flamboyant, new forms for loving, creative new experiments with roles and identities. That’s nature’s way. Nature’s model is diversity, experimentation, and unpredictable change – and for manifesting that in the social realm, we are especially grateful for our LGBTQ folk – and especially proud.

If we were going to look to nature for some pointers, then there’s an even more radical lesson there. Gradual incremental improvements in functioning down through the generations is only part of how evolution works. Sometimes the change isn’t about things working better – like eyesight getting sharper or intestines getting better at digesting a new food source. Sometimes the change is a complete repurposing. In the process of evolution, parts that evolved to serve one purpose get appropriated for an entirely different purpose.

I really want us to understand this feature of how nature works – what “natural” really is – not because nature dictates morality, but because nature's way of species evolution does offer us a metaphor for thinking about how social moral evolution happens. So let me give several examples:

Mammalian forelimbs gradually evolved in one direction into bat wings. Evolving down a different branch, they turned into dolphin fins. But the original purpose of forelimbs was for walking on. Even grasping things with them was an innovation. Certainly, when they first emerged they had nothing to do with either flying or swimming.

Certain insect antennae turned into mandibles, with a function completely different from antennae.

A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles emerged for reasons that had nothing to do with hearing, but, in mammals, that small bone was appropriated and made into a part of the auditory system.

An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor (egg-laying tube). It was there to lay eggs, not to sting with -- yet it was appropriated and made into a stinger.

Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. This device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land -- which was entirely different from the purpose for which it originally evolved.

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. It happens all the time. Nothing could be more – shall we say it – natural.

It's easy to miss just how radical a point this is. Through millennia of Western civilization we have been making moral arguments "from nature": that certain actions were "unnatural," and therefore wrong, because they violated something’s purpose. It turns out nature herself repurposes organs. Building upon its inheritance, the lungfish transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth. Bats and dolphins, mandibular and stinging insects, mammalian auditory systems -- and, one way or another, ultimately every complex feature of every species -- built upon its inheritance to transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

If we are to draw lessons from nature, the lesson to draw is this: creative new purposes are just as natural, and just as important, as incremental improvements in fulfilling a prior purpose.

I said that what straight folk learn from LGBTQ folk, and what LGBTQ folk learn from other LGBTQ folk – what all of us learn is what perfect looks like. Perfect, we can now see, is not about getting better at some preconceived ideal. Perfect is the ever-branching creative repurposing of whatever we find ourselves with. Perfect is the discovery, or invention, of new ideals rather than attainment of a preconceived ideal. Perfect is becoming who we are, being ourselves, just as we are, just as we love, and just as we are becoming, whatever transitioning we may be in the midst of. How can we not take pride in that? How can we not be welcoming of that?

May it be so.
AMEN

2024-06-02

Active Hope

We'll look today at some criticisms of the very idea of hope. Then we'll see what conception of hope might we might want to retain in the face of these legitimate criticisms.

Philosophers have tried their hand at clarifying what’s going on when we invoke this concept “hope.” We use the word in a lot of different ways. "Hope springs eternal," "A glimmer of hope," "Hope against hope," "Live in hope," "Keep your hopes up," "Raise – or dash -- someone's hopes." Philosophers aiming to elucidate “hope” generally take as their starting point the “standard account” of hope. They then proceed to either defend, amend, or urge a replacement to the standard account.

According to the standard account of hope: to hope that something means two things: It means to believe that the thing is possible, and it means to wish or desire the thing. If you believe it’s possible, and you wish or desire it, then you are hoping for it.

That’s fine as a starting point because it does capture the way the word is very frequently used. "I hope my lottery ticket wins." "I hope you recover quickly from your illness and feel better soon." "I hope the car will start after that very hard freeze it was out in last night." We use the word “hope” to express wishfulness – for something that could happen, however unlikely. (We have to add that it’s something that could happen. "Wish" might sometimes be for something impossible. Hence, we enjoy stories about magical geniis that can grant the impossible – but we wouldn’t say that we hoped for something that we acknowledged couldn’t happen.)

But there must be more to hope than wishfulness within the realm of the possible. If wishfulness were all there was to it, I don’t think hope would belong with the spiritual qualities like peace, faith, love, and joy. You’ve seen those banners – especially around Christmas season – that say: Faith, Hope, Joy, Love, Peace. For our closing hymn today, we will sing that there is more love somewhere, and then: more hope, more peace, and more joy. It wouldn’t really work to plug in “wishfulness” for “hope” in those contexts. In our opening hymn we sang, “I’ll bring you hope when hope is hard to find.” If we’d sung “I’d bring you wishfulness when wishfulness is hard to find,” that would have a rather different feel to it. Or suppose that in 1st Corinthians, Paul had written: “And now faith, wishfulness, and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” You’d be like: what’s wishfulness doing in there? No, the "standard account" fails to capture the spiritual significance of hope. There must be something more to hope than wishfulness, combined with belief in possibility. The standard account will do for a starting point, but it won’t do to leave it there.

Hope, on the standard account, might be escapism from reality, directing the mind to an imagined future when attention to the actual present might be more salutary. "Hoping" might be a euphemism for "in denial." Hope on the standard account is about wanting things to be different; spiritual wisdom is about loving what is.

The task of spirituality is, as psychiatrist M. Scott Peck put it, “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” Wishfulness, a retreat from present reality into some imagined future, is an obstacle to spirituality. One study has found that the chronically ill may be happier if they give up hope.
People who suffer with a chronic disability or illness may be happier if they give up hope that things will ever improve, suggests a small but intriguing study . . . Why? Because people don’t adapt well to situations they think are short lived, they hold out for something better, which can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. “Hope has a dark side,” says Peter Ubel, MD, one of the study’s authors. “It can make people put off getting on with their lives; in essence, it can get in the way of happiness.” For the study, researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Mellon University, followed 45 patients with new colostomies, meaning each patient had his/her colon removed and had to use an external pouch to contain bowel contents. At the time of the procedure, some were told their colostomy was reversible—that they would undergo a second surgery to reconnect their bowels in several months. Other patients were told their colostomy was permanent and that they would never regain normal bowel function. . . . Over the next 6 months, the participants filled out a series of surveys designed to measure their psychological well-being. In the end, those who didn’t hold out any hope for getting their colostomies reversed were happier than those who clung to the hope that they would some day be back to “normal.” About the upbeat group, Ubel says, “We think they were happier because they got on with their lives. They realized the cards they were dealt, and recognized that they had no other choice but to play those cards.” (Time, 2009 Nov 3 -- CLICK HERE.)
Debbie Hampton's blog asks: "What if it is the hoping that keeps us from finding peace and happiness?" She writes: “Immediately after, my sons went to live in a different state with their father, and, without a significant other, I was left alone. Life was very bleak and painful, at first. Over the years that followed, I learned to reframe my thoughts and to see my situation differently." By neither "dwelling on the negative thoughts," nor "hoping for something different," she continues, "I was able to drastically relieve the suffering and pain."
"Right smack dab in the middle of the muck and mire of life, even at its very worst, it is possible to find happiness and peace because these qualities are in your mind. They exist in your thoughts ABOUT what happens, not in the actual happenings. Happiness is not in hope. It is in your thoughts and actions." (Debbie Hampton, "The Dark Side of Hope" -- CLICK HERE.)
Psychotherapist Karen Krett has written a book, The Dark Side of Hope: A Psychological Investigation and Cultural Commentary. Hoping, Krett points out, can preclude genuinely useful steps toward getting much of what the person wants. (Krett's article-length reflection on the topic: CLICK HERE.)

Danielle LaPorte blogs, "give up hope." She suggests that we drop the word "hope" from our vocabulary. Instead of saying, for example, "I hope I'll get the job," she asks us to consider one of these alternatives:
“I really want to get the job.” (“Point taken,” says the Universe.)
“I’m praying to get that job.” (Prayer is an action too.)
“I have done all that I can do to get the job.” (Yes! Stand tall.)
“I will either get the job, or I won’t.” (Precisely. Now you can get on with your day.)
“I expect to end up with a job that I love.” (Excellent! Open-ended and affirmative!)
(Source: CLICK HERE)
The American writer Henry Miller (1891-1980):
“Hope is a bad thing. It means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is dead, if not all of you. It means that you entertain illusions. It's a sort of spiritual clap, I should say.”
Joanna Macy explains:
“Hope was a word that for years I didn’t use. I would say things like: Hope is a killer. Or: Hope distracts you from what you need to face. And look at the Buddha’s teachings; you don’t find hope in any of it. It takes you away from the present moment.”
Clearly, if “hope” is to be rescued – if we aren’t to give up hope on hope – something other than the standard account is called for. Hope – as a concept in Western cultures – is rooted in Christian theology. Let’s look back at that Christian idea and see if we can re-frame in a way that will work for us.

St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th-century spoke of hope and faith as related yet distinct in the way that the good and the true are related yet distinct. Per Aquinas, faith pertains to the true as hope pertains to the good. Specifically, faith relates to God as a source of truth, while hope relates to God as a source of goodness.

(Sidenote with regard to faith and truth: I’d say we’re not dealing here with the standards of truth with which scientists, historians, and criminal trial juries are concerned. We’re dealing with poetry – with the feeling of truth we get from a powerful poem that moves us see things in a new way. As I’ve said, theology is best understood as a kind of poetry. So faith is a way of relating to the ultimate through which we apprehend poetic, metaphorical truths.)

Hope, then, is a way of relating to the ultimate through which we apprehend a fundamental goodness of reality. Hope is one of the three theological virtues, the other two being faith and charity (love). Along with these three theological virtues, Catholic ethics also emphasized four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. As Aquinas explained it, what made hope, faith, and love theological, as opposed to cardinal, virtues was:
"First, because their object is God, inasmuch as they direct us aright to God; second, because they are infused in us by God alone; third, because these virtues are not made known to us, save by Divine revelation, contained in Holy Writ."
In this context, hope is the virtue that allows us to relate to God as a source of goodness who will provide for our needs and ultimately provide for eternal life, enabling us therefore to persevere through difficulties. From this theological conception of hope, the idea devolved in popular usage to mere wishfulness.

So: is there something in the original Christian theology about hope that we could tease loose from its Christian background and make use of? I believe that there is. Take this idea of the fundamental goodness of reality. What this comes down to, I would say, is that this life and this world can be meaningful.

To despair is to succumb to meaninglessness. Hope is the feeling, the attitude, that what we do, and this world in which we do it, means something. If you had a chance to read my column in this month’s issue of “Connecting,” then you saw how I invoke Vaclev Havel, who said:
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well – or even, I would add, the wish that that things will turn out in any particular way. Rather, hope is about meaning – about things making sense. Hopelessness, then, at its root, is a pervasive feeling that things – life, the world – don’t make sense.

Imagine trying to play a game with rules that are too complex to grasp and that change (or seem to) in unpredictable ways at random intervals. I wouldn’t see the sense in that game, and I’d pretty quickly give up. If, for some reason, I were obliged to stay at the table, I think I’d find myself just going through the motions, not really engaged. Now imagine that life generally felt like that: it just doesn’t make sense. That’s hopelessness.

When things – life, the world – make sense, then we know how to engage with them. We know how to play. We know how to form meaningful purposes and how to pursue them. We can persevere through difficulties. Whether our purpose is “realistic” or “ambitious” with miniscule odds of success, either way, our purposes give our life meaning. We can deal with steep odds if those odds make sense.

Failure, then, doesn’t deprive our efforts of meaning, for we understand the larger context in which our efforts had value: perhaps preparing the way for later success, or for others’ success, or just being a worthwhile experience. Indeed, hope is not about likelihood of “success,” but about having a sense that we know what we are doing, that we are engaged in something meaningful – i.e., something that makes sense.

Havel goes on to add:
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”
Hope: the ability to work for something because it is good – just because it is good, not because we have any expectations of future results.

With reality-grounded hope, we act here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have – without needing to know. Certainly, we never entirely let go of our attachments. We learn to hold them more lightly. When we do that -- when we loosen-up, a bit, the vice-like grip we habitually have on our attachments -- we are more open to the inexorable yet unpredictable flow of change: things passing from us and new things arising. We more readily adapt to whatever circumstances bring. And we’re more ready to respond in compassion -- because we aren’t clinging so hard to any reason not to.

When you love what is, you’re more ready to care for it -- while at the same time more flexible about what the outcome of your caring might look like. If working for change means having a very specific, detailed picture of what you want, then that’s not loving what is – it’s rejecting what is in favor of this other thing that you want in place of reality. Working for change doesn’t have to be that kind of attachment to a certain outcome. Working for change might instead be an open engagement that isn’t sure exactly what the outcome will be but works creatively with the situation to uncover possibly-surprising ways that needs can be better met.

Let’s call it closed hope when it’s an attachment to a specific outcome, when there’s demand energy, when center-stage is occupied by upset, blame, and judgment. Closed hope is a desire for change without accepting what is.

Call it open hope when it’s open-ended, reality-affirming, creatively transformative engagement for change that better meets needs without pre-commitments to any particular strategy for how that should happen. Open hope is engagement for change while at the same time letting go of attachment to results and fully embracing, loving, things just as they are. If you can imagine such engagement -- work and commitment yet without desires, motivated ultimately not by attachment to a specific outcome, but by the intention to express your true self in the world, trusting that manifesting your authentic caring self will be transformative in unpredictable ways beyond your control -- then you have imagined open hope.

Joanna Macy, whom I earlier cited as saying “Hope was a word that for years I didn’t use” – has come around to what she calls Active Hope – as opposed to the passive hope of mere wishfulness. It’s true, as the saying goes, that hope is not a plan. But despair is not a plan either. If we’re going to move forward, toward crafting a provisional plan and implementing it, then hope – the attitude that our purposes lend meaning to our lives – will be helpful.

Hope, Macy now says, is not something that you have; it’s something you do. Hope is a response to a calling you feel – a caring for our world. In Active Hope, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, the authors write:
Active Hope is not wishful thinking. "Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or some savior. Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world. The web of life is calling us forth at this time. We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part. With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store, strengths to discover, and comrades with whom to link arms. Active Hope is readiness to engage. Active Hope is readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others,... A readiness to discover the size and strengths of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love for life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead. None of these can be discovered in an armchair, or without risk.”
Macy and Johnstone describe a helpful continuous spiral, depicted here:
We may enter the spiral at any point, but if it’s not otherwise clear, then step in at the point of gratitude. Consciously articulate for what you are thankful. Writing it down helps cement gratitude as your anchor.

From there, is honoring our pain for the world. Face forthrightly and fully the harm. Reality, as I have said, is never depressing. Depression is a side-effect of attempts to turn away from reality.

With these two steps we are clearly closing the door on wishful escapism, but are grounding ourselves in the reality of both blessing and pain, of both the beauty and the tragedy. We may then see with new eyes, discerning afresh the task that this moment sets before us.

We may then go forth to engage that task. From the experience we find new bases for gratitude, and so continue on the spiral, each time around on a new plane. As Macy and Johnstone write:
“When we see what we love, it reminds us of what we act for. When we recognize the danger, it gives us a strong reason to wake up, show up, and play our part. What helps us face the mess we’re in… is the knowledge that each of us has something of great value to offer, a priceless role to play. In rising to the challenge of playing our best role, we discover something precious that both enriches our lives and adds to the healing of our world.”
May it be so. Amen.

2024-05-26

Dharma Blossoms

The Rev. Lynn Ungar writes these words for Flower Communion:
What a gathering — the purple
tongues of iris licking out
at spikes of lupine, the orange
crepe skirts of poppies lifting
over buttercup and daisy.
Who can be grim
in the face of such abundance?
There is nothing to compare,
no need for beauty to compete.
The voluptuous rhododendron
and the plain grass
are equally filled with themselves,
equally declare the miracles
of color and form.
This is what community looks like —
this vibrant jostle, stem by stem
declaring the marvelous joining.
This is the face of communion,
the incarnation once more
gracefully resurrected from winter.
Hold these things together
in your sight—purple, crimson,
magenta, blue. You will
be feasting on this long after
the flowers are gone.
This year our Flower Communion, as it often does in this congregation, coincides with the Memorial Day Weekend. We are also, as we usually don’t do, observing Vesak – so, along with our flowers, I will talk today about the flowering of the dharma – dharma blossoms.

The Buddhist festival Vesak was last Thursday (Thu May 23, 2024) – on the day of the full moon. Buddhist festivals go back for centuries, but they have been local and highly variable from place to place. The first conference of the newly-formed World Fellowship of Buddhists was held in 1950, in Sri Lanka. With representatives from 27 countries, the conference decided that Buddha’s birthday would be celebrated on the full-moon day in May. We don’t know the actual birthday of Siddhartha Gotama, the person who would become known variously as Shakyamuni, Tathagata, Bhagavan, and Buddha. For that matter, we don’t know the actual birthday of Jesus either. The early Christian church celebrated Jesus' birthday in April for a while, then in June, before settling on a date that would allow for co-opting pagan yule celebrations.

The very word “Buddhism” was coined by Western scholars in the nineteenth century. The word "Buddha" is an ancient word, meaning "awake one" -- or perhaps, in contemporary parlance, "woke" -- but neither "Buddhism" nor "Buddhist" have an equivalent in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, or Tibetan – the languages in which were written the literature that Westerners called “Buddhist.” That literature propounds dharma: the teachings, the way, the truth, the law, reality.

Once Westerners had made clear to these followers of the dharma that what they were was something called Buddhists, they digested that for a while and then started adapting and adopting some of the institutional denominational forms of the Westerners, including forming this World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950.

I’m a Zen student and practitioner, and a founder and leader of Zen centers for over 20 years. In El Paso, I started and for four years led the Border Zen Center. In Gainesville, Florida, I started and for seven years led the Dancing Crane Zen Center. In White Plains, New York, I started and for ten years led the Boundless Way Zen Center of Westchester. When I moved here to Iowa not quite a year ago I did not establish a Zen center, so for the first time since 2002, I’m not leading a zen group. I expect I will again, eventually, lead a group, but for now, I’m enjoying having a couple years of sabbatical from that – practicing and studying on my own at home and sitting in as a visitor when I can with the Des Moines Zen Center, and occasionally dropping in on our own Awakening Hearts Sangha which meets via Zoom only on Monday evenings.

Zen is the Japanese word which comes from the Chinese word Chan, which comes from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means meditation. Zen Buddhism is Buddhism in which the primary practice is to sit down and shut up. Don’t concentrate on anything in particular, and don’t try to stifle thinking – just notice what thoughts do come up, and let go of them. Instead of riding on a train of thought from station to station, as the mind tends to like to do, when you notice, “oh, I’m thinking about . . . whatever” . . . release the thought.

It’s never long before another one comes along. Where did it come from? Beyond the general fact that it came from your 100 billion neurons trying to take care of you, there’s no telling where it came from. Just notice that that thought has arisen, and release it rather than jumping on for the ride. Why would you do this?

In my years of leading Zen groups, I’ve greeted many newcomers, and guided them in getting started on the path. People show up at a Zen Center because they think something is wrong with them, their life is broken in some way, and they have somewhere heard something that leads them to suppose that this practice might fix them. What they begin to see, if they’ll sit down and shut up for 20 or 30 minutes once or twice a day, most days, is that they aren’t broke, never have been, and don’t need fixing. We have a hard time believing that, so, those of us who keep at it do so in order to keep re-learning, re-remembering that we are, in fact, whole and perfect exactly as we are.

Strangely, this does end up easing our suffering.

If you take a story about a creator of the universe who is also a law-giver and whomp it up into a religion – that is, add priests with distinctive robes esoteric knowledge that took years of study, which means designating scripture for them to study, and also add special buildings called temples where formalized rituals are enacted, well, you get something rather like Judaism. If you then add to that an eschatology – a story about end times and a second coming – and whomp it up into a religion with priests, scripture, temples, and rituals, you get something like Christianity. But if you take a therapy – a set of practices and treatments for helping people suffer less – and whomp it up into a religion -- adding priests, temples, and so forth – then that’s basically how Buddhism formed.

It’s possible to peel back the religious womping, for those who want it peeled back. Mindfulness based stress reduction, for instance, is the dharma – it’s the teachings and practices of what Westerners dubbed “Buddhism” – but without priests or temples, and with selected scripture re-written in modern language without attribution to its ancient sources -- and without calling itself “Buddhism” because that word, though invented scarcely 200 years ago, is understood to denote a religion.

Indeed, mindfulness and meditation and the insights of the dharma afford spiritual deepening available to anyone of any religion. Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and atheists and quite a number of Unitarians have all found their religious experience and awareness expanded through sitting down and shutting up, cultivating mindfulness, and reading and talking about dharma teachings. You don’t have to change your religion in order to take up Zen practice and gain the insights of 1500 years of Zen masters. Some Zen practitioners adopt Zen as their religion, others don’t. Those who do find in Zen a complete religion of practice, teachings, experience, and community. Zen – and, indeed, the Buddhist tradition generally -- is available to people of any, or no, religion, as a practice of wisdom, compassion, living in the present moment, and realizing your true self.

So what teachings can I pick out to lift up for you today? The Awakening Heart Sangha has shared with us two helpful teachings from the Mahayana Sutra, "The Eight Realizations of Great Beings" (Taisho Number 779). (It's a short sutra -- 597 words in Thich Nhat Hanh's English translation. Read it HERE.) The members of Awakening Heart Sangha highlighted two of the eight realizations: that excessive desires cause suffering, and that the mind’s tendency to never feel fulfilled, to insatiably, constantly strive for more can make problems for us. To build on that excellent beginning, or to provide some further grounding for it, let’s look at the customary starting point of Buddha dharma, and that is what is called the four noble truths, as laid out in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma Sutra"). Tradition has it that this was the Buddha’s first talk after he had his great awakening.

The first of the four noble truths, as laid out in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is: Life involves dukkha. Dukkha is generally translated as suffering, or stress, or dissatisfaction. The original reference is to a wheel where the hub, to spot where the axel goes into the wheel, is off center. Imagine you’re riding in a cart where the axel isn’t centered on the wheel. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. So life involves dukkha means life is a bumpy ride.

What Buddha actually says in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is this, as Stephen Batchelor translates:
“This is dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, encountering what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what one wants is dukkha.”
But are those things actually suffering? Or can we learn to bear them with equanimity? To answer that question, we turn to another sutra – the Sallatha Sutta -- the two arrows sutra. It says:
“Monks, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings – a bodily one and a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a person with an arrow, and then they would strike that person immediately afterwards with a second arrow, so that the person would feel a feeling caused by two arrows. So too, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling he feels two feelings – a bodily one and a mental one....

Monks, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a person with an arrow, but they would not strike that person immediately afterwards with a second arrow, so that the person would feel a feeling caused by one arrow only. So too, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling he feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one.”
The key teaching here is that our suffering arises not just from what happens to us – that’s the first arrow – but from our reactions and interpretations of those events. An untrained mind amplifies and proliferates the suffering – which amounts to getting struck by a second arrow. It’s our nonacceptance – “I don’t want this! I don’t want this! I don’t want this! This shouldn’t be happening!” -- that makes the suffering much worse, like being hit with a second arrow after the first.

The first arrow cannot be avoided. Life is going to pierce us from time to time. The practice however teaches us how to dodge that second arrow of our reactivity. Notice that dukkha is the first arrow. Recall what the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta said: “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, encountering what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what one wants is dukkha.” There is no avoiding any of that. We can learn to receive these arrows with equanimity rather than with reactivity and thereby avoid the second arrow.

Dukkha is the first arrow; it’s unavoidable. Reactivity is the second arrow; it’s avoidable.

There’s a passage from the Upajjhathana Sutta that is regularly recited at many Buddhist and Zen centers under the title: “The Five Remembrances”:
“I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closes companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.”
Those are the five remembrances. And the first three are: old age, sickness, and death are unavoidable. You’ll remember that those are things explicitly identified as dukkha. “Aging is dukkha; sickness is dukkha; death is dukkha.” Those are things that there is no escaping.

First noble truth: life involves dukkha. Second noble truth: the arising of craving. Quoting Stephen Batchelor’s translation, this is the second noble truth:
“This is the arising: it is craving, which is repetitive, wallows in attachment and greed, obsessively indulges in this and that – craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.”
This is often interpreted as saying craving causes the dukkha, but I don’t think that’s right. Craving is our reaction to the fact of dukkha. Birth, aging, sickness and death aren’t caused by craving. But birth, aging, sickness, and death cause us to react against them, to crave that dukkha go away. The text is not saying that craving causes dukkha; it's saying the dukkha causes craving.

The first noble truth tells us about the first arrow: that’s dukkha. The second noble truth tells us about the second arrow that follows after the first: our reactive craving. Remember: the first arrow is unavoidable; the second arrow is avoidable. Which takes us to the third noble truth: the ceasing.
“This is the ceasing: the traceless fading away and ceasing of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, trans. Stephen Batchelor)
We all have times when we’re calm, relaxed, all our needs are met, and we aren’t reactive. The training, the practice, is learning to be that way more of the time – to dwell more continuously in the ceasing.

So the fourth noble truth, then, is the eightfold path for training ourselves in equanimity, acceptance, the ceasing of reactivity, the avoiding of that second arrow. Stephen Batchelor’s translation reads:
“And this is the path: the path with eight branches – complete vision, complete thought, complete speech, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, complete concentration.”
What I’ve been saying is illustrated by a parable from the Buddhist tradition.

The Buddha is traveling around giving talks. One day after his talk, a farmer comes to visit him. The farmer says, “I attended your public talk. It was beautiful; I was moved. Please help me with my problems.”
And the farmer started listing his problems: some of his cows got diseases; the grain market wasn’t consistent; fertilizer prices kept going up; his spouse was sometimes contrary; his children wouldn’t do what he told them; the neighbor’s dog was harassing his chickens.
Finally, the Buddha interrupted him and said, “You have 83 problems.”
This gave the farmer pause, and he said, “I hadn’t counted them, but that sounds about right.”
The Buddha said, “I can’t help you with any of them.”
The farmer was incredulous and angry. "You’re this great, renowned spiritual teacher, and you can’t help me with any of my problems? What good are you?”
Buddha said, “You will always have 83 problems. Sometimes you can solve one of them, or it goes away by itself, but another one pops up to replace it. Always 83. However, perhaps I can help with the 84th problem.”
The farmer said, “What’s the 84th problem?”
The Buddha said, “You think you should have no problems.”

Life IS problems. Call them “challenges” if you like, but problems they are: one after another, and always about 83. Another name for these problems is: life. We’ll always have them – approximately 83 of them, according to the Buddha. But if we crack the 84th problem, then we accept that our problems belong -- they come from being the sort of animal we were made to be. If we meet the problems with open hearts, and love them -- if we are curious about the problems instead of resentful of their presence, interested in where they came from and where they are inviting us to go -- then the problems are not the obstacles we took them to be. They are not the obstacle -- they are the path.

2024-05-19

Courageous Facing

We face the fact that we are, we exist. Here we are: animals, vertebrates, mammals, apes that we are.

I spoke two weeks ago about Paul Tillich’s 1952 book, The Courage to Be. The courage to be is the courage to face existence, to affirm our own being in spite of those elements of our existence which conflict with our essential self-affirmation. To face being, however, also means facing nonbeing.

There is what feels like the little non-being: which is that we change. Birch spoke last week about the courage to change – to face change. We may choose change: decide to go to school, or go back to school, or switch careers, move to another city, move in with your love interest – or move out from who had been your love interest – join the army or join a commune. Big decisions. Then there are changes we don’t choose: a tornado blows down your house, you win the lottery, the stock market crashes, your love interest leaves you, you’re offered a big promotion out of the blue, or your neighbors decide to elect fascists.

Whether it’s the change you choose or don’t choose, you face the fact of change and of adapting yourself to the new reality. Change is a confrontation with nonbeing: what was, is no longer; what wasn’t, now is. Becoming is the interplay of being and nonbeing. Life changes – even big changes – feel like the little non-being compared to the end of life – the big non-being, or so it seems.

Unitarian minister Rev. Forrest Church spoke often of these twin truths to courageously face: that we are alive now and we will die. He wrote: “Death is central to my definition of religion: religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” When Dan Cryer wrote a book of the Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church, he titled it: “Being alive and having to die.” Our religion, indicates Rev. Church, consists of our response to these two truths, the meaning we make of life on the one hand and of death on the other. It is how we courageously face being and non-being.

To explore this, we begin with the story we heard this morning, “I am Courage” (by Susan Verde). Faith read the lines:
“When my mind tells me ‘I can’t,’ I look inside myself and find the strength that lives deep down, and I tell my mind, ‘Yes, I can.’”
Sure, positive self-talk can sometimes bolster confidence and resilience, helping you take action, persist in the face of obstacles, and seek solutions. You’ve probably also learned along the way that it’s a good thing to know your limitations, that prudence sometimes dictates that you cut your losses; abandon an enterprise rather than continue to pour time and energy into something that’s not worth it. But how do we know when to persevere and when to cut bait?

The problem is, the voice of prudence may get misappropriated by a self-defeatist skeptical voice, and when you self-talk, “yes, I can,” your inner skeptic has some ammo for saying, “You sure about that? Maybe you can’t.”

I do not have – I don’t think anybody could have – an across the board, all-purpose answer to the question of when to push on and when to switch to something more likely to be rewarding. Nor should there be any sweeping general answer. Different people will have different proclivities for persevering versus trying something new – and it’s a good thing that we have that diversity. The same person will, in different types of activities, or at different times in their life with the same activity, persist more or persist less – and that variability is a good thing, too.

But I do have a twist to propose for the self-talk, something to help a little bit to guard against the possibility that a defeatist voice may be prematurely masquerading as the voice of prudence. It’s a point I share with you that I heard at a dharma talk during the six months I was in residence at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon during 2019-2020. A day at Great Vow Zen Monastery, for the monastics and the residents there, often involved a total of a few hours of meditation in half-hour increments, and the rest of the day we carried out work assignments – in the garden or in the kitchen, or cleaning or fixing something. But for a 7-10-day stretch out of every month, we had sesshin. During sesshin, the meditation (or sitting in meditation posture, sometimes changing sutras or listenting to a dharma talk) bumps up to 10 hours a day. After about the second day, it can feel grueling. Knees hurt, back hurts – mind wanders – and what it’s apt to wander to is, “I can’t do this.”

One of the monks there, Soten Lynch, gave the dharma talk one day during a sesshin, and he addressed the “I can’t” voice. I happened to end up with the text of his talk, so I can quote Soten. He said:
“When the present moment is so appalling that you need to quit, that you need to die, that the thought of continuing is absolutely terrifying – when it’s crystal clear that continuing is not an option, when you have lost all ability to remain present, when hearing a teacher say ‘Be alert. Be alert. Return,’ is really [effing] agitating --the way out of ‘I can’t’ is not ‘I can.’ ‘I can’ is a useless, patronizing self-pat-on-the-back. The way out of ‘I can’t’ is ‘I am.’ The way out of ‘I can’t’ is awareness of the fact that I am doing exactly what it is that I am telling myself I cannot do. What you think you can't do, you are doing. You think you cannot handle this life? You are living. And if you stay put and if you continue and let the sangha hold you -- be it this sangha or the universe itself -- a willingness to experience what you're already experiencing can arise.”
That’s what Soten said. So when your mind says you can’t, well, you can try telling your mind that you can – and sometimes, maybe, that’ll be enough. Your inner skeptic, however, may have it’s doubts. “Can you?” it’ll say. “Where’s the evidence for that?”

But if, instead, you tell your mind, “I’ve gotten this far,” there’s solid evidence that indeed you have. The answer to, “I can’t” isn’t “yes, I can.” It’s “I am” -- “I am” in the sense Soten explicitly indicated of “I am doing the very thing that an inner voice is saying I can’t,” and also “I am” in wider sense “I exist.”

It’s that courage to be that answers the “I can’t” voice. When the mind says, “I can’t,” first, notice that you are. The universe has brought you forth – by accident, by fate, by cosmic design, doesn’t matter. (I lean toward “highly unlikely fluke,” myself, but however it happened, it happened. Here you are.) Courageously facing the fact of existence – which we do by simply, wholly, bringing awareness to our being – is enough. At least for today, our being persists – so, at least for today, we may persist in the projects to which we have set our being.

Our projects of becoming, though, are always projects of nonbeing as well as being. They are the projects of change and thus of the death of the person you used to be. How we face change (chosen and not) is integral to how we face our ultimate bodily death.

Here’s a story. Something happened to me in 2006 on my 47th birthday. When these markers of another year of life gone by come around, like many people, I reflect, take stock, review the time passed, and what might be left. That particular year, I was a half-time minister in El Paso, Texas and also half-time 300 miles away at our congregation in Midland, Texas. My thoughts that day were not particularly dark or depressed. I was sitting in the minister’s office of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland on a Thursday mid-morning running over the inventory of 47 years gone by: I spent a lot of years going to school, getting degrees. Had a couple kids. Had some years as a philosophy professor. Divorced, remarried. I’d started practicing Zen almost 5 years before at age 42. Was coming to the end of my second year as a Unitarian Universalist minister. What did any of that, or all of it, mean?

Soon my life would all be over. What did that mean?

Right about then, I don’t know why, something inside me clicked. Something let go, and I had the sensation of a weight falling off me. “I’m going to die,” in that moment felt like such good news. Not that this was actually news -- but that it was a good thing felt like news. What a relief that I won’t live forever! I’m not responsible for eternity. I don’t have to get it figured out. No matter how hard I might try, I can’t succeed at immortality. Life is just a little ffft. I might live another day, I might live another 47 years and reach age 94. That doesn’t matter -- it really doesn’t. Either way, it’s still a little ffft.

As I was growing up, whenever the inevitability of death came up, my parents used to say, “No time soon, we hope.” Now, I’ll grant you that if your spouse has been putting off going to the doctor, and you mention this, and he shrugs and says we’re all going to die anyway, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “Honey, let’s not let that be any time soon.” Sure. Why not take reasonable precautions? Take reasonable precautions and at the same time, there’s an entirely other awareness that can be present, even in the midst of taking reasonable precautions. That’s the awareness that hit me on my 47th birthday.

It was suddenly so clear to me that “no time soon, we hope,” was beside the point. Whether life lasts a minute more or 50 years more, it’s still a little ffft. So relax. There’s nothing I can do about this – thank god, or else I’d have to deal with the temptation to do it. There’s no way out.

As I looked around that minister’s office, the objects around me had a sharpness they hadn’t had before, a kind of poignant yet majestic quality. All of them were as temporary as I was, and they seemed so beautifully self-sufficient being just what they were just at that moment. Understanding the fact of death – not just cognitively knowing it, but living with that continual awareness, makes life ineluctably, ineffably sweet. This runaway train is headed for the cliff, and there’s no way to stop it. It made me love the scenery on the ride.

The ecstatic quality of that moment passed. But I have carried with me for the last 18 years now an abiding gratitude for my mortality. We are not given tomorrow, and that makes having today such a joy, such a delightful, beautiful joy. The more we hold awareness of our own death always in mind, the more life feels sweet and vibrant and real. The more life feels . . . alive.

Something happened in my neurons, no doubt, and what happened changed my life. It was a break from my past patterns where death was something I didn’t want to think about, something I distracted myself away from paying attention to. It’s not that I had been afraid of death. I wasn’t afraid of it – how could I be afraid of it when I rarely thought about it all? Now I have the awareness of death as my constant companion.

What I realized on that day, others have also realized, as I have since discovered. Native American novelist Louise Erdrich writes:
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.”
And the Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark wrote:
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.”
Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote
“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.”
German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote:
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.”
Does that make sense to you? If I’d read that when I was 42, it would have been a bit murky. Ever since 47, it has made perfect sense. Of COURSE to practice death is to practice freedom.

We all know that all things are temporary, right? But we often don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements and acquisitions as if we thought they and we were permanent. We go after that job, or that promotion, or that partner, or that house, and we know, if we stop to think about it, that these things are temporary. Thing is, we don’t much stop to think about it. So we live as if we thought that getting them would be some kind of permanent fix.

As Larry Rosenberg says:
“We know in our heads that we will die, but we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually.”
Then we will know how to live. And when we have grasped that, certain other truths come into view.

For one: My thoughts are not me. I don’t choose them: my thoughts are just something that happens to me, like the weather. The story I have about myself – the narrative the mind creates of a hero – me – nobly sallying forth like Don Quixote to do good things, encounter obstacles, and heroically surmount them, is just a fabricated story – not particularly true or even particularly interesting. The mind creates an illusory self to be the hero of its story, but all of it is in constant flux – no part of it is permanent, and the line between self and non-self is very blurry.

What you are, is not that story your mind continuously fabricates -- the story with you as the hero. What you are is . . . well, everything. The courage to be, then, is ultimately a property of the universe as a whole.

A young Canadian, age 22, was a soldier in World War II. He was captured by the Nazis in Denmark, charged with smuggling arms, and sentenced to death. On the evening before his execution he wrote his final letter. He wrote to his mother:
“I know you are a courageous woman and you will bear this [news of my pending execution], but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it. You must understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere – in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile.”
That young man saw that the real him was everything: trees, people, smiles -- and also weeds, mud, mosquitoes, and tears -- the whole catastrophe.

Death means that one brain stops fabricating a story about itself. The true you, isn’t that story and isn’t limited to that one brain. The true you is "mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun, and the moon, and the stars" (Dogen) -- and everything.

Another truth that comes into view concerns the future. I am, like many of us, curious about the future. What new technologies will come along? Will we end war, end hunger, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the Blessings of Liberty? Or will we descend into authoritarianism for a thousand years? What new artistic creations will come? I have wanted to live a long life just to see as much of that as I could. I wanted to be there when the future came.

But now I understand that I will be. I will be there when any future comes, because if anyone’s there, then that’s me.

And it’s also you. And the courage to face eternity condenses into the courage to face just this moment, to bring all our awareness right here, on what is, exactly as it is. Amen.

2024-05-05

Courage

Courage.

Some of you might remember that newscaster Dan Rather, back in 1986, took to signing off the CBS Evening News by looking into the camera and saying, “Courage.”
“Dan Rather reporting from New York. Courage. Good night.”
He only used that sign off for one week – five days – and it stirred some controversy and puzzlement. “Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs?” (Jake Rossen) – telling us to hang in there through such tough times as he had just been reporting on?

As we take up courage as our theme to explore for the month for May, we confront related questions. What, really, is the point of extolling this supposed virtue called “courage”? In the military context, the carrot and stick combination of praise for courageous action and condemnation of cowardly action does, I guess, make for an effective rhetoric for motivating soldiers in battle. But any active duty military personnel who might be among us not withstanding, do we civilians find the twin concepts of courage and cowardice playing much of a role in our day-to-day lives? Do you use those words when you are giving yourself a talking to? Do they show up on job evaluations that you get, or give?

To talk about courage we have to talk about fear – and if we’re going to find a truly meaningful use for the notion of courage it will grow out of how we understand fear. Courage, as every writer on the subject reminds us at the outset, is not an absence of fear. Courage is what we call it when, in a fearful situation, the fear is managed in a particularly skillful or admirable way.

Animals – humans and otherwise – are built to have fear. The main function of fear and anxiety is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses. Fear is very valuable. We couldn’t survive without fear. We animals need mechanisms that grab our attention and steer us away from danger.

Even those species with highly sophisticated reasoning processes still need systems of fear reaction because they’re quicker and sometimes time is of the essence. You’ve got head – reason – going on in the cerebral cortex and frontal lobe, and you’ve got gut – feelings and intuitions (which are also primarily processes in the brain, but we use "gut" as a metaphor for those brain systems that might feel as though they're based in our guts -- just as we use "heart" as a metaphor for those brain processes that generate and regulate our feelings of loving connection.) If you want reasoning, Head is gonna have to stop and think: maybe jot down some notes, talk it over with others. That’s how we reason. But if you need a snap judgment, Gut is there for you.

Gut doesn’t worry with having to explain itself – often you can’t explain your hunches, your intuitions. Your Gut, operating below the radar of consciousness, checks for the most readily available examples it can find in the brain’s storage. If an alley looks a certain way, you’ll feel uneasy about walking down it because Gut has grabbed a quickly accessible memory of something you saw in a movie in which someone walked down an alley like this and got attacked. Gut can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and some one else’s stories. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand.

Head is gonna want to look at the statistics – the odds of this or that outcome. Statistics completely fail to hold Gut’s attention. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand. One or two lurid stories suffice for Gut.

On the other hand, animals, humans and otherwise, also have drives that sometimes override fear and self-preservation – which might be called the biological basis of courage, or might simply be called courage itself. Theologian Paul Tillich, in his 1952 book, The Courage to Be, put it this way:
“the balance between fear and courage is well developed in the animal realm. Animals are warned by fear, but under special conditions they disregard their fear and risk pain and annihilation for the sake of those who are a part of their own self-affirmation, e.g., their descendants or their flock.”
I’ll be coming back to Tillich later.

I originally selected a picture of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from the film, The Wizard of Oz, to be on the cover of today’s Order of Service about Courage. Tracy told me we really couldn’t use that because those images are copyrighted. She directed me to a site of public domain photos. I picked a macaw, and texted LoraKim, who is down in Guyana this week organizing parrot conservation, to tell her we were going to have a macaw on our Order of Service. She texted back:
“They are very brave. They risk their lives for their chicks, though not always.”
I texted back,
“Not to mention how brave it is to show up in public wearing those colors.”
Anyway. That bit about “not always,” is important. Evolution built us to have competing drives. We have drives for self-preservation, and these manifest as fear. We also have competing drives to set aside self-preservation and fear for the sake of our children, or our tribe. That’s evolution’s strategy: give us these competing drives, and let us work out the balance: sometimes risking our life for the sake of the chicks -- and sometimes not.

Which drive will prevail in a given circumstance is partly determined by prior experience with similar circumstances. If a similar threat has been successfully chased off in the past, we’re more likely to try to face it down. And it’s partly determined by genetic variations. Some people, and some macaws, are born with a little less or a little more inclination toward personal safety – or little less or a little more proclivity to sacrifice for the sake of offspring or tribe. It’s good to have this variability because the world is constantly changing and sometimes a little bit stronger self-preservation is the best way to get your genes passed on, and sometimes a little bit stronger protectiveness of children, or of tribe, is the best way.

Then somewhere along the growth of the evolution tree, the human twig off of the primate branch developed symbolic language, and we started using words to influence that balance between self-preservation – which we became apt to condemn as cowardly – and willingness to endure personal danger -- which we might praise as courageous, though sometimes we condemn it as rash or foolhardy. The Wizard of Oz’s cowardly lion wants the wizard to give him courage because he wants to face challenges that come his way, and also wants to command respect and admiration. He represents, of course, a certain type of human – and humans, through our symbolic language, are such a hyper-social species that we really want respect and admiration. But we also just want to be safe – hence the lion’s conundrum.

But just as our words can egg us on to be courageous, the reality we collectively weave with language can also magnify our fears. On the one hand, for instance, we have language describing the sources of the living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share. One of those sources is: “Words and deeds of prophetic people challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”

When we talk about the prophets, when we speak of our prophetic mission, or our prophetic voice to the world, we are drawing upon a tradition that goes back to the ancient Hebrew prophets -- figures like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea. We’re thinking about how these figures spoke as the social critics of their time. Standing outside the structures of power, they called the ruling regime to task for failing to live up to its principles, for breaking the covenant. Sometimes they predicted what the consequences would be for having strayed from the right path. Thus the popular understanding of prophecy as predicting the future is not entirely without basis. But the core of what made them prophets was speaking truth to power, the call for social justice -- not predicting the future. When we Unitarian Universalists today call upon this tradition of prophets, we mean to honor the voices for social justice, those who call us all to courage: the courage to stand up to oppression and harm, the courage to witness to and embody the transforming power of love.

The prophets of old, ventured into predictions of the future, and, yes, they used fear. They warned the people of Israel that their corrupt religion and disregard for the poor would result in destruction of the nation. They called for Israel to repent or face a fearful judgment of wrath. So, usually, it’s not a simple matter of fear versus courage. The prophets used fear of one thing in their effort to evoke courage in facing a different fear: the insecurity that the powerful feared if they allowed there to be justice. Today we speak out against harm to our environment, to our eco-systems, to our climate, to our planet, invoking modern-day predictions of doom and destruction. We do so in the hope of spurring the courage to leave behind the comforts of our high consumption lifestyles.

Once we had symbolic language, we could conjure up imagined scenarios for each other, and the potential disasters grab our attention a lot more than potential benefits. So the balance or tension that evolution built into animals got thrown off in the animal with symbolic language. We talk ourselves into quite the dither of fear. We are awash in scared people earnestly talking others into being scared.

After the 9-11 attacks in 2001, fear of airplanes went up, as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. It took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, and in the meantime, people were putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. As automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities. Gerd Gegerenzer analyzed the numbers, and was able to deduce that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed 1,595 people. That is, the number of Americans killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars was just shy of 1600. Those were people who would not have died if the ratio of plane travel to car travel had stayed the same as it was the years preceding 9-11. The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many.

Things that spook us include, in no particular order:
tornadoes
internet stalkers
crystal meth
avian flu
genetically modified organisms
contaminated food
contaminated water
contaminated air
climate change
carcinogens
clowns
breast implants
the obesity epidemic
pesticides
the next viral pandemic that will be much worse than the last one,
Ebola
West Nile virus
mad cow disease
flesh-eating diseases
alien invasion (the international kind)
alien invasion (the interplanetary kind)
spiders
road rage
pedophiles lurking in parks and internet chat rooms
spontaneous combustion
Satanic cults
heroin
herpes
hitchhikers
computer hackers
identity thieves
genetically enhanced bioweapons
self-replicating nanotechnology that turns everything into “gray goo”
AI robots that decide humans are unnecessary
weird experiments in physics that could create a black hole destroying the planet
and sharks.

There seems to be an awful lot to be scared of. It is the slogan of our times: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens, as Daniel Gardner points out in The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t – and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations.”
We overestimate the risk from things that make the evening news, and underestimate the risk from things that don’t. Murder, terrorism, airplanes flying into buildings, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but they’re boring. Maybe it’s time for the word courage to take a bigger place when giving yourself a talking to. As Noam Shpancer says, “Fear is an important consultant, but a lousy boss.”

As you set out to cultivate courage, the first step, I suggest, is to notice that, like the lion in The Wizard of Oz, you’ve always had it. The lion was quite brave in the scenes of taking on the wicked witch – and in the book, though it isn’t in the movie, there’s a scene where Dorothy and the companions encounter creatures that are half-tiger, half-bear, called Kalidahs. The lion initially cowers in fear, but then summons his courage, leaps forward, lets out a mighty roar, and the Kalidahs scatter in fear. Later, the wizard recognizes that people called heros haven’t got any more courage than the lion has, "but they do have one thing you haven’t got: a medal." So the wizard gives the lion a medal to symbolize his courage, and serve as a reminder that though fear may sometimes well up in him, he is courageous.

Following that model, it might be helpful to designate some object or trinket to serve for you like a medal for your conspicuous bravery -- a token reminder and symbol that you are courageous.

As a further way to hold in mind and heart that you are already courageous, call to mind the substantial courage you exhibit in daring to exist. You got a lot of nerve! Showing up, on this planet, morning after morning – there you are. The audacity! This is the courage Paul Tillich elucidated in The Courage to Be. Tillich says:
“The courage to be is the ethical act in which [we] affirm [our] own being in spite of those elements of [our] existence which conflict with [our] essential self-affirmation.”
We saw that term, "self-affirmation," earlier, when I cited Tillich observing that animals, human and otherwise,
“are warned by fear, but under special conditions they disregard their fear and risk pain and annihilation for the sake of those who are a part of their own self-affirmation, e.g., their descendants or their flock.”
To be as the beings we are, to affirm ourselves, is itself the ground of our care of offspring and flock or tribe. To be – to affirm that we are – like Ilsa in Frozen singing “here I stand, and here I stay. Let the storm rage on” -- is an act of courage.

The courage to be, for Tillich, has two aspects. There is the courage to be as a part – the courage to bring your being to participate in a larger being with others. Then there is the courage to be as oneself – a unique individual and an end unto yourself, not a means toward any group goal.

We face anxiety: anxiety about dying and the unpredictability of fate and fortune; moral anxiety about guilt and condemnation, and spiritual anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. These anxieties conflict with our self-affirmation, so to affirm who we are in the face of these anxieties, to affirm our being in spite of existential anxiety, that’s the courage to be. We enact this courage in those two ways: by participating in a larger whole that helps sustain our own existence and others, and by individuating as worthy in ourselves – balancing between extremes of too much collectivism and too much individualism.

I was intrigued to see that, while courageous and brave are nearly perfect synonyms, they come from wildly different etymological origins, which, over centuries, converged. “Courage” comes from heart, as the seat of emotions, as in the French word for heart, coeur, the Spanish corazon; Italian cuore. From “heart,” referring to one’s spirit, temperament, or frame of mind, it came to mean valor, or the quality that allows for meeting dangers and troubles without being controlled by fear. So when Dan Rather said, “courage,” he could have said “take heart,” and conveyed about the same idea.

Brave, however, started from the Latin pravus, meaning “crooked, depraved,” became the medieval Latin bravus, meaning “cutthroat, villain” which then evolved to mean “wild, savage.” From there, wild and savage were more and more closely associated with meeting dangers and troubles without being hindered by fear until it meant about the same thing as courageous.

These roots nicely parallel Tillich’s two aspects of courage: the courage to be as a part of collective projects and the courage to be as oneself. "Courage," from heart, as the symbol of love, connects us to others so that we can face dangers for the sake of our joint enterprises. "Bravery," in its origins, points to the strength to affirm your wild, untamed, nonconformist uniqueness.

On the one hand, fear can make me so self-protective I do not hear the call to love, to connect with others, to help them in shared difficulties. On the other hand, fear can make me seek the safety of conformity, going along to get along, not hearing the call to bring forth what I alone can.

Against all fears or anxieties about impending death, the unpredictability of fortune and misfortune, about our feelings of guilt, of having been or possibly being condemned by others, or by oneself, and the spiritual anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness – against all those fears – the courage to be is the inner voice affirming that you are and what you are. On the ground of that courage we find the courage to face forthrightly all the other fears conjured by Gut or Head.

Meredith Garmon reporting from Des Moines. Courage. Amen.

2024-04-28

Passover Lessons

Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 21–34:
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them: “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you: ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ You shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians. And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said: “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”

The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said: “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.
The Jewish holy week of Passover began at sundown on Mon Apr 22. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tue Apr 30. 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 of the 10 plagues on Egypt. In that final plague, the mystery-beyond-naming killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover.

At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. They took their dough before it was leavened. They did not wait for the bread to rise. 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.

This is not history. Scholars put the setting at about 1300 BCE, but historically, it never happened. But that is not the point – because it’s not about ancient Israelites. It’s about you -- and us -- and about freedom – yours and ours -- right here and now. It is a narrative metaphor for us, as it has been to peoples through millennia.

"Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom." Celebrate and reflect on the blessing of freedom. In parts of the world, full-scale slavery is still going on. If you're here today – or listening online -- then chances are that you are not enslaved in that full-scale way and never have been. Even so, I would guess that there has been a metaphorical land of Egypt in your past in which you were bound and from which you now are free.

"Bring out the festal bread, and sing songs of freedom." Yet freedom is the half-won blessing. Modern pharaohs live unchallenged. Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle-made. Resentments, small or large, bind us. A further Exodus awaits us still. And further truth, bright as a burning bush, cries to become known. We (we who are not under an unrelenting grind of oppression, nor consumed wholly with mere survival) stand somewhere in the middle between full-scale slavery and full-scale liberation. We have broken out of some fetters – but other fetters, or perhaps reconstituted versions of the old ones, have clamped onto us.

The next step in the work of freedom lies before us. So bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.

Did you hear about the guy who was addicted to brake fluid? He said he could stop any time he wanted....

We all have our addictions. Whether it’s full-blown alcoholism or drug addiction or something we think of as milder, the key feature of addiction is that disconnect between what we want ourselves to do and what we’re able to actually do.

Passover is a time for celebrating the blessings of our freedom and also reflecting on what greater liberation would be. Pharaoh has many forms of bondage – addictions to video games or shopping or work. We can be addicted to anger or to blaming judgment.

What Pharaoh holds you in bondage in Egypt? Freedom is ever the half-won blessing. Its unfinished work lies before us. As they say in the recovery community: you can be consumed by your addiction -- or you can be recovering. Recovering – but never recovered.

It is rare indeed for a human to attain complete freedom. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while. It’s no easy thing to commit to a path of freedom, of liberation.

Here are four questions:
  1. Can you make a decisive break with a big part of your past?
  2. Can you endure the sacrifices this will mean?
  3. What about the effects this will have on others?
  4. Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation?
The Passover story is a narrative for wrestling with each of these questions. As I said, it’s about you.

First, can you make the decisive break? This is the "not waiting for the bread to rise" part. Even under the worst of conditions, there is some leavening in the loaf. What, give that up? Our addictions and our judgmentalism offer us creature comforts that are like a nice, hot yeasty loaf. What harm could it do to let one more batch of dough rise? Is it really necessary for the sake of freedom that we make do with the blandest unsalted crackers?

Sometimes, yes. It is. At some point we have to say: no more delays, no more putting it off. That’s going to mean something that was in the pipeline has to be abandoned. The bread won’t have a chance to rise. Is that a reason to stay in bondage?

It’s those little rationalizations that keep us stuck, isn’t it? Can you make the decisive break?

Second question: can you endure the sacrifices? Unleavened bread is nothing compared to hardships and trials on the path to freedom. It’s scary out there. The status quo has fierce armies to enforce its way. Days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites see Pharaoh’s army advancing on them. They cry out to Moses – Exodus, chapter 14:
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Powerful resources are arrayed against you to enforce the old way. And you don’t have the resources you need to support the new way. A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the people moan again to Moses – Exodus, chapter 16:
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The path to freedom is risky and uncertain. Can you endure the sacrifices?

Third question: what about the effects this will have on others? Are you just being selfish thinking about your own freedom? In the Passover story, the Israelite quest for freedom involves an enormous slaughter of Egyptians.

The rituals -- the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, the consecration of the firstborn -- probably predate the story and the story probably took shape around pre-existing rituals. The rituals account for the story more than the story accounts for the rituals. It is impossible to know, writes the scholar Carol Meyers,
“how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs.”
Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story. Meyers continues:
“The intentional destruction of innocent life in God’s slaying of the firstborn has long troubled readers of this narrative. What kind of deity was it, whose deed could benefit one group at such expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act.”
The Israelites path to freedom came at the cost of this tragic slaughter of Egyptian firstborns. Is it worth it? What is the cost to others of your freedom? Should the Israelites feel responsible for this tragedy to the Egyptians?

It’s true that liberation leads to compassion. The chains that hold you back, more than anything, limit your ability to be present and caring to others. But might it not be better to try to work with the chains you’ve got, dragging them with you though they hamper and slow you?

Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You hear that a plague is coming, and to protect yourself, you put lamb’s blood on your doorway. Should you also be protecting your neighbors?

Pharaoh got the same warning you did. In fact, he got 9 previous warnings in the form of the first nine plagues: Water was turned to blood, there was a plague of frogs, then one of lice, then flies, then livestock pestilence, a plague of boils, of hail, of locusts, and of darkness. He got the warnings, but he hardened his heart. Actually, Exodus says repeatedly that God hardened Pharoah’s heart – so is it Pharoah’s fault?

Let’s say you did tell your Egyptian neighbors to put lamb’s blood on their doorway, and they just wouldn’t do it. Now they’ve lost their child, and their grief is overwhelming. “There was not a house without someone dead.” Exodus says. What kind of God would do that? What kind of world would do that?

Our world contains such enormous grief, it is more than you or I can fix. Your path to freedom occurs in the context of others' pain and loss, but your freedom is not the cause of their loss.

Perhaps the Israelites’ hearts went out to their neighbors. Maybe they asked, how can we help? They were told to just leave – which happened to be what they’d always wanted. If there is a path to liberation for you – going back to school, quitting your job, changing the way you eat, changing your daily routine to include journaling, study, and meditation – and you hesitate because of the effect this might have on the people around you – you might just ask them. They might tell you, as the Egyptians told the Hebrews, just go. Do it.

What about the effects your liberation would have on others? A story about an activist I’ll call Gloria illustrates one way this question can play out. I met Gloria a number of years ago, back in the aughts. Gloria worked for good, for policy changes that would increase fairness and reduce suffering. Gloria had anger that took her straight to blaming and condemnation. "Those people in that other party are evil, corrupt, willfully blind," she said. "Some of that party’s supporters are simply dupes – who are duped by the evil and corrupt others." Her anger and judgmentalism were her bondage. It was hard for her to give that up, to be free of those chains, because she saw them as integral to helping the people she wanted to help. So there’s that question: how would your liberation affect those you care about? Sometimes we stay in the chains because we think we need them to be of service.

Gloria was venting with me one day, and I remembered: it is often the case that anger outward is a projection of anger inward, that negative self-judgments manifest as negative other-judgments. As the saying goes: When I point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at me. Gloria said, "Those people have no respect for other people." So I asked, "Have there been times when you didn’t respect others as much as you wish you had?"

Yes, there had indeed been times. Personal stories of regret and shame began pouring out. We’d made the shift from other-blame to self-blame – a step, maybe, but not a final destination. The path ahead, to self-forgiveness and self-compassion and thence to compassionate understanding of others, including one’s political opponents, would not be easy. That liberating path would make Gloria a more effective activist – and certainly one who enjoys life more.

She assumed she needed her chains of anger and judgment to serve the causes she cares about. The truth is that freeing ourselves allows us to more lovingly and more effectively care about others.

Fourth question: Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation? Here, too, is a lesson of the Passover story: Not one Hebrew ever walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free. Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. You, individually, have to decide it can’t wait any longer, can’t wait for whatever batch of dough you’re in the middle of to rise. You, individually, must choose the uncomfortable path.

Once you do, though, you don’t have to face it alone. There is other necessary work only we can do -- together. That’s what a liberal faith community is for: "liberal," as in "liberty," as in "freedom." Liberal faith community offers support – maybe some guidance, maybe some insight, maybe some affirmation and encouragement – as we wander in wilderness trying together to make our way to the freedom that is our birthright.

You aren't responsible for everything -- sometimes you have to let go and let others manage on their own -- but we are responsible for care and connection to one another.

Walking a labyrinth might be way you can bodily enact and reflect upon your path to and of freedom. Some years ago I was asked to lead a labyrinth walk for about 50 people in rehab to recover from substance abuse. These were people wrestling with demons that I can only imagine. Somehow, summoning courage that they wouldn’t have known they had, they made a break with their past lives, a sudden and dramatic exit from the comforts of slavery to their addiction. They now faced the slow part – the rest of their lives, really – the wilderness to traverse, a new life of freedom to build. We gathered by the outdoor labyrinth.

A labyrinth is not a maze; it has only one path. Its lesson is let go of your need to control, trust the path, keep going. One foot in front of the other. You must go into your center – wind your way in. You must find what is there. And: you cannot stay there. You must return out to the world, bringing the true self you have found. As the Gospel of Thomas says:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
This was a group that knew a lot about what will destroy them.

Freedom is our half-won blessing. The first half is straightforward and negative (in a good way): no slavery, no masters or overlords, no chains. The second half is paradoxical. We arrive at liberation by accepting the constraints of discipline, by surrendering. By letting go and giving up, we gain. The first half involves being able to do what you want. But then you can become enslaved to your own impulsive wants. So the second half involves liberating the true self from the bondage of the desiring self.

The labyrinth is an exercise in freeing the true self by accepting the dictates of a prescribed path. When you walk a labyrinth, you wind around and around and end up at the center. Then take the path in reverse to go back out. Both journeys, the in and the out, are circuitous and terribly inefficient. The labyrinth’s lesson is that path and destination are intertwined, they define each other. The destination isn’t the destination unless it is reached by the needful path. Like Hebrews in the wilderness, you go around and around – often winding further from your destination rather than closer.

I instructed the group to notice the rhythm of their breathing, and synchronize their steps with their breaths. It helps the mind quiet, so the path can take over. Then I stood by the entrance with my watch, and sent them in one at a time, at five-second intervals. The first ones in reached the center, hung out there a while, and started back while others were still heading in. This, too, is a lesson: we encounter people who are heading in an opposite direction from us, who we could bump heads with, who might seem to be heading in a wrong direction, but there is only one path. We go in and we go out, and if you are in a going-out phase and pass by someone in a going-in phase, rest assured your positions will soon be reversed. Practice the gentle grace of letting others by. And notice that, doing this, you may have to take one step off your path. Others can knock you off your path, but never very far, and you can step back on.

Afterwards we retreated to an indoors space to debrief about the experience. I heard from them how they valued the experience, how they took to its lessons – though some acknowledged they had been skeptical and dubious. Some spoke of how, yes, their need to control had to be tamed, and how good that felt. They spoke of how the path was not always clear – the layer of leaves has gotten thick – but they let themselves trust the person in front of them, and how good it felt to trust and follow – to not be alone on this path. We all have our addictions. And we’re sometimes judgmental of others, of ourselves.

Before us is a path of freedom from those constraints. It may take some discerning to see it. Once you do: Take it. Go. You are not alone. There are others on the path waiting for you join them. Go. Don’t wait for the bread to rise.