2019-06-10

The Better Your Boundary, the Less You Need a Border

Crossing the Line, part 2 of 2

Having good boundaries solves the 84th problem. Do you know what the 84th problem is? (I’ve told the parable before -- HERE -- and it's worth re-telling).

The Buddha comes to town, and a farmer comes to see him and starts complaining about his problems. His wife this; and his children that; and the ox is sick; and the soil is poor; and there hasn’t been enough rain and, if there were, the roof would leak; and the people to whom he sells his rice are cheating him.

The Buddha stops him and says: You have 83 problems. Farmer says: That sounds about right. How do I fix them?

Buddha says: You’ll always have 83 problems. Maybe you solve one, or it goes away on its own, but another pops up to take its place. Always 83 problems. Farmer says: Well, what good are you?

Buddha says: I can help with the 84th problem. Farmer says: What’s the 84th problem?

Buddha says: You think you should have no problems.

For the person with good boundaries, problems don’t bother them. Problems arise. One responds to them as well as one can. This is life. Whether you call them problems or challenges, there’s always the next one to meet.

Having good boundaries doesn’t keep out your 83 problems, but it does keep out the 84th problem. Your problems then don’t define you; you aren’t consumed with the thought that you shouldn’t be having this problem.

The 84th problem is the extra. Your problems (or challenges) are enough by themselves; you don't need to add anything extra. But we often do add extra problem to our problems. Whenever we're annoyed by the problem, when we think it's wrong that the problem exists, when we let the problem trigger our reactivity and upset our equanimity, we are adding extra problem to our problem. Good boundaries keep out that extra bit.

Life IS problems, or we’d have nothing to do with ourselves, no reason for being. We need problems, challenges, but we don’t need the problem OF the problem. We don’t need the extra, the 84th problem.

Everything has its place. This is a very ancient spiritual insight and teaching. All things belong. On the one hand, being mindful that all things belong eases anxiety, irritation, annoyance, anger. On the other hand, it’s also true that if all things belong, then so does your anxiety and anger. This, too, is recognized in ancient spiritual teachings, though the very modern perspective of evolutionary psychology helps us understand it.

Anxiety belongs because our ancestors needed anxiety. Anxiety about that lion prompted them to run away, anxiety about a brewing storm prompted them to seek shelter. Homo sapiens emerged with a particularly advanced capacity to worry about the future, to imagine dangers that weren’t immediately visible. This was probably driven by the processes that made us not only social animals – as wolves, orcas, emperor penguins, chimpanzees and others are – but ultra-social: able to adaptively cooperate at an extraordinary level because of an astonishing capacity to imagine ourselves into another person’s situation, grasp what they’re trying to do, so we can help them do it.

We were motivated to be helpful because we were able to imagine the future – farther into the future and in more detail than other species. I would help you because I imagined a future in which you would help me – and that capacity allowed systems of reciprocal altruism to begin to form.

As our symbolic language emerged, we were able to communicate to create shared imaginary futures, and then cooperate to bring them about.

Which is all very wonderful. But there’s a rub.

Our ability to imagine the future, and to be goaded to appropriate action by a little anxiety about that future, can easily go to far. Evolution gave us these goads, but it didn’t give us very good mechanisms for turning them off when they’re no longer helpful. Our brains were built to worry, and it’s very easy for them to fall into a pattern of worrying even when it does us no good, and only produces chronic stress and anxiety.

Making matters worse, the futures we imagine aren’t just worries about the weather, or predators, or food sources. Our imagined futures are heavily peopled. "Can Bob be counted on?" "Was Sue lying, and she’ll stab me in the back?" Our brains evolved to negotiate the fantastically complex balancing act of wanting and needing to cooperate, but also guard against being taken advantage of – balancing the costs and risks of cooperation against possible benefits.

This balancing act is carried out through – or manifests as – our sense of fairness. We are as ultra-social as ants or bees, but for us, our sense of fairness is the crucial regulator of our sociability. My brain is built to monitor possible future scenarios of people being unfair to me, and whether they’ll think that I’m unfair to them, and whether they’ll think I’ll think they’re unfair to me – it’s exhausting. Or, rather, it seems like it would be exhausting, but in fact our brains seem to rarely tire of thinking about fairness. Our ability to think about fairness in such complicated ways is also our beauty as a species.

So we are built to worry what other people think, and to want to be in agreement with them. Yet, the more clear we are about who we are, the less need we’ll have to be self-protective, i.e., defensive. So here’s my thought about boundaries and borders: the better your boundary is, the less need you have for a border. That is: those who are self-differentiated don’t have to be self-protective.

When difference and conflict aren’t a threat to your sense of self, then ego defense mechanisms don’t get triggered, and the walls that block empathy don’t go up. When boundaries are solid, borders don’t have to be. When we’re comfortable with ourselves, we can let people in -- we can take down the walls that shut them out. When we don’t require conformity of ourselves, or of others, we can be free to connect with and work with very different people, appreciating and not being threatened by their difference – while also appreciating and not being scared by our own differentness.

This is true on the personal level, and it is true on the national level. As a nation, the US has lost its boundary. We have no clear sense of who we are as a people. We are, as it were, “out of bounds.” The old story that defined our nation was deeply problematic in many ways. It was a story shot through with patriarchal and supremacist assumptions, and the critique that helped dismantle the old story was well warranted. But a new and better story has not emerged. In the interim, we don’t know who we are, don't know what "America" is.

In compensation for our lack of boundary definition, the national psyche instead turns to border protection and a very literal wall -- blocking empathy, blocking compassion, blocking our own growth, blocking the very connections that our spirits crave.

As our national norms break down, lines are crossed. Lines of civility are crossed. These lines helped "political leaders hold two opposing ideas in their heads simultaneously:"
"...the first is that your political opponents are wrong about many things and should be defeated in elections. The second is that you still need them. You need them to check your excesses, compensate for your blind spots and correct your mistakes." (David Brooks, New York Times, 2019 May 9)
But it's gotten easier and easier to cross the lines that held our leaders in a system that helped them know how to work together amidst disagreements, and find and build on common ground while respecting the beneficial role of political opposition. Crossing those lines makes it harder and harder to cross the lines that exclude and shut out -- the lines of enmity and othering.

The task before us is daunting. But as Rabbi Tarfon says, be not daunted. You are not obligated to complete the task. Nor are you free to abandon it.

The task is to strengthen our boundary – clarify our principles, know our story and stick to it, develop equanimity in our integrity, bring our nonanxious presence. Only thus will we be able then to cross borders, replace walls with bridges, join hands, and end the loneliness.

* * *
See Part 1: Good Boundaries

2019-06-09

Good Boundaries

Crossing the Line, part 1 of 2

Some lines, it’s good to cross. Other lines are better respected.

Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
You’ve probably heard the verse by Edwin Markham, titled “Outwitted.”
He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!
In those four lines we see both the good and the bad of the lines we draw – the boundaries and borders we put up. Some lines shut people out. Other lines hold people together. And sometimes it’s the same line: holding US together and keeping out THEM.

Our monthly theme for June is Borders and Boundaries. These two words are synonyms – or they used to be. They both mean the outer edge, the bound or the limit of something. In recent years, though, the words have come to be used in different ways.

A “border” is more often now used to mean the kind of line that shuts people out. Divinity students at the Unitarian Universalist seminary, Meadville Lombard in Chicago, must design a focused project to carry out during their internship, and it is an explicit requirement of the project that the student show how they cross borders in their ministry – borders of race or culture, gender or generation. Crossing borders is a crucial component of building a more just and harmonious world – a more beloved community. Those lines that shut people out: we have to find ways to erase them.

Boundaries, on the other hand, in the recent usage trend, are a good thing. Having good boundaries is a part of being psychologically and emotionally healthy, and a key to effective leadership.

Boundaries, we are told, need to be maintained. Borders, however, need to be erased, or at least crossed with facility.

What I’d like to do today is first talk about good boundaries: what that means and why it’s helpful to have them. Then we’ll take a look at borders – the lines we draw that shut people out.

Having good boundaries is also called being self-defined, differentiated, or having a well-developed self. Good boundaries are what let you be guided by what you think of yourself rather than other people’s opinions. Without those boundaries, your identity merges with the people around you. You’re more susceptible to “groupthink.”

On the one hand, you’re more controlled by other people’s judgments. On the other hand, you’re also more controlling – more devoted to actively or passively trying to control others.

The self-differentiated person, on the other hand, is more able to say, “I’m going to do me, you do you. I’m not interested in judging you, or in your judgments of me, but I am interested in nonjudgmentally watching how we each are and looking for ways we might harmonize or complement each other. There’s not a right answer or a blueprint for how we should work together or play together or be together. Rather, as I do me and you do you, I’m open to being surprised, to discovering unexpected creative ways that our different gifts can synchronize, or contribute in different ways to a common goal."

Many psychologists note that a person’s degree of self-differentiation, while it probably has some genetic component, is largely influenced by family relationships during childhood and adolescence. Once established, the level of self boundaries tends often to be set for life. It can be changed, but it’s hard. It takes a structured and long-term effort to change it.

People with poor boundaries may be chameleons or bullies, or vacillate back and forth. Chameleons depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others. Bullies likewise depend on acceptance and approval of others, but pursue their need by dogmatically proclaiming what others should be like and pressuring them to conform. Disagreement is a threat to chameleons and bullies alike.

A third type of poorly differentiated person would be the extreme rebel who routinely opposes the positions of others. Reactionary opposition is just as much a way of being controlled by others as reactionary agreement is.

Of course, we are all, as our seventh principle says, interconnected. We depend on each other. But a person with good boundaries can stay calm and clear-headed in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection. They can assess criticism in the context of their own long-term principles and considered values rather only reacting from the emotions they’re feeling in the moment.

Boundaries keep you contained – rather than a puddle of emotions and needs for acceptance. Boundaries thus afford integrity: the ability to live from a consistent set of thoughtful principles rather than being pulled this way and that by the shifting currents of opinion and judgment of others.

In a couple, when the partners are self-defined, they can each talk about what they’re thinking and listen carefully – rather than taking on anxiety about the partner’s issue and reacting out of their anxiety. Each can appreciate the other’s decision-making strengths while also able to think things through for themselves. Neither assumes the other generally knows best, but looks at each situation fresh.

They can talk about their fears or concerns without expecting the other to fix or solve them, but simply because sharing our fears helps us think more clearly about them. When they bring their anxieties to each other, the interaction doesn’t escalate the anxiety. Their boundaries help keep the anxiety contained and thus manageable. Each is a resource for the other: emotionally available without either fixing or blaming.

The difference between a request and a demand is in whether you’re upset if it isn’t met. Sometimes its clear that a demand is being made: "Do what I’m saying or I’m going to be angry or upset!" That’s a demand. Other times, what is presented as a request is not revealed to really have been a demand until after the answer is “no.”

But the extent to which you are upset if the answer is “no,” is the extent to which there was some demand in your request. You might hide the upset – the anger or disappointment – and pretend you’re not upset, but if you are, then you were demanding.

When we have good boundaries, when our perceived worth doesn’t depend on things going our way, we can make true requests, and if the request isn’t or can’t be met, we roll with that without getting upset or anxious.

Good boundaries aren’t a barrier against caring, but are a protection of our integrity. They don’t make us detached or aloof, but allow us to be present to a situation without taking anything personally, without taking on the anxiety.

The notion of being a nonanxious presence in the midst of anxiety once seemed self-contradictory to me. My strategy for being present was to show that I was just as worried or scared or angry about the situation as anybody else. My strategy for being nonanxious was to check out, become detached, emotionally distant.

But the reality is that taking on someone else’s anxiety isn’t really being present to it. Nor is detaching and not being present to it being nonanxious – detachment is one way of being anxious. The only way to be truly present is to be nonanxious, and the only way to be truly nonanxious is to be present. And that requires being self-differentiated, having good boundaries that allow you to know that your worth, your dignity, the worth-while-ness of your life is not threatened by whatever mess you might happen to find yourself in the middle of.

* * *
See Part 2: The Better Your Boundary, the Less You Need a Border

2019-04-26

Hope Amid Despair

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

I am not entirely clear on what that means – even though it’s my own sentence. Still I felt when I first wrote it and feel still that it is somehow pointing to something that matters. And it gets clearer as I hold that sentence before me and lean into it, and live into it.

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

I think that is the call that we – we who constitute Community Unitarian Universalist – answer and aspire to answer. It’s what we do in our being here, in our participation in congregational life: we answer the call to neighborliness and live into the promise we have made to mystery.

Today’s topic, “Hope Amid Despair” – is the culmination of a scattered three-part series that began last December with “Reality Amid Ideology.” I started that sermon with this sentence to which I now return: the call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery. We Unitarians Universalists are a part of a covenantal tradition – a tradition of covenant with something that is more powerful than you or I, something mysterious that calls us to our better selves, something that we all sometimes stray from, but that ever-beckons us back to a truer path -- something that defines us as a people.

We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – every being, I’d say. We covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. The interdependence of existence, and inherent worth and dignity, are powerful. There is a quality of mystery and awe there. How could this be, this total interdependence, this inalienability from concern and respect? That’s why I say we’ve made a promise to mystery: because our covenant commits us to principles ultimately inexplicable.

We sometimes fall away from our covenantal promise – and we do so in the same way the Ancient Israelites did. We fail to care for the vulnerable.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the same thing. Jesus was explicit on that point, and before him, Jeremiah said it. They are the same thing. Love of God and care for the vulnerable are synonyms. Care, kindness, and compassion are, for us, rooted, after all, in a promise to uphold everyone’s worth and dignity because, mysteriously, it’s inherent – and a promise to respect the web of existence because, mysteriously, we’re an interdependent part of it.

This promise we made to mystery calls us to neighborliness. The call to neighborliness prompts us to make a promise to mystery. I don’t know which came first because it seems to me they emerge together, or, rather, they are the same thing.

A month ago, in part 2, “Grief Amid Denial,” I mentioned four things that we are losing that are good to be losing. US military hegemony is waning – which is a good thing because military dominance inevitably turns the possessor into the global bully.

Second, US economic dominance is waning – which is a good thing because economic dominance was never sustainable, or fair to the rest of the world.

Third, the ethnically northern-European have lost the capacity to maintain “our kind of America” – which is a good thing because that kind of America depended on subjugation, exclusion, and exploitation of other ethnicities.

Fourth, the old-line Protestant churches are waning – which is a good thing because religious institutions that saw no need to distinguish between Bible-thumping and flag-waving were never conducive to real spiritual flourishing.

These four, in various ways, constituted the support structure for the American way of life. Without them, the fabric of American life is coming unraveled – which it needed to do, but that doesn’t make it easy.

We’re in a tough spot. We don’t know how to weave a new fabric. We are, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”

Those most benefited by the old order are most likely to be in denial about these changes, most likely to believe that there’s not really any problem that can’t be straightforwardly corrected. There’s clinging to the notion that these things that are waning can be shored up and America can be made
"great again."

Change is always going to be spelled L-O-S-S for some, and to get past being in denial requires the practices and rituals of grieving – preparing us to move on. So as reality is antidote for ideology, grief is the antidote for denial. Yet grief can slide into despair, so today, part 3, we look at hope amid despair. Our reliance, abroad, on military and economic might and, at home, on privileging persons of northern-European descent and faith institutions of old-line Protestantism in turn rested on fossil fuels and Enlightenment rationality.

Fossil fuels are not sustainable – both because they will run out eventually and because burning them overheats the planet. Enlightenment rationality gives us the wonders of science, but emphasizes control and “a vigorous individualism that has trivialized the common good.” Sensing that these have about reached their limit stirs up anxiety, and the anxiety manifests in exacerbation of what was worst. Greed has been a problematic current of America from its beginning. Anxiety heightens it.

We commit ourselves ever more ruthlessly to self-serving wealth, and those who have it are most able to amass more, so “wealth and control flows upward to the few on the basis of the cheap labor of the many.” Spiraling income inequality results.

Privatism is a related problematic current in American history. Anxiety exacerbates it. The notion that there are common goods that we can collectively realize, and that the form of our collective action is called government grows increasingly quaint. When we privatize everything from schools to prisons to health care should be privatized then the wealthy get health care and education but no one gets the benefits we would all receive when more of our neighbors are educated and healthy.

Which means that prisons are run for profit rather than based on a serious attempt to balance the needs of public safety and the public good of rehabilitating convicts into productive workers, and are thus subject to reform as we learn more about how to effect the optimal balance.

Privatism renders neighborhood “an unfortunate inconvenience rather than an indispensable arrangement for viable human life” (Brueggemann 116). The proliferation of “survival shows” on television and film reflects and dramatically performs this “privatism in which everything is raw competition.” The fantasies that become popular at any given time are metaphors for how reality feels, and the US today has come to feel, to many of us, like “The Hunger Games.”

Violence has long been problem in American culture. Anxiety prompts more of it. The dominance of the gun lobby has represented our readiness for violence in protection of privatized greed. Privatism leads finally to “every one for their self” in a competition in which it behooves us to be armed. In our anxiety about loss of the old way of life, we react in ways that make us less connected, more isolated, less secure, and thus more anxious.

How do we break out of this vicious circle? We are not ready yet for a blueprint, a program, an agenda. We cannot properly assess proposals until we have done the work of imagination.

We suffer, as I mentioned in the first installment, from a failure of imagination, and exercising and strengthening our imaginations is the first task. Before we turn to the policy-makers we need first to turn to the poets and prophets – or else the policies will have no coherence.

We must “dream of possibilities for peace and justice with lesser measures of U.S. hegemony” – in place of the military force of empire.

We must “dream of a lowered standard of living among us, but with a genuine neighborliness in which all share” – in place of the economy of empire.

We must “dream of a new cultural pluralism in which the marker is not nation, race, ethnic origin, but the capacity for neighborliness” – in place of privileging European descent.

We must “dream of a religious [pluralism] in which particular faith is deeply held in the presence of other deeply held faiths” – in place of our historic centering of old-line Protestantism.

We are not ready for details, for we have not yet coalesced around a dream. Recall that Martin Luther King’s dream was articulated in several of his addresses leading up its most famous expression in Washington DC in August 1963. Only after that dream exercised the imaginations of a significant number of people could we then follow with policy: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the fair housing act of 1968.

Hope amid despair was exemplified by Alaxchiia Ahu – also known as Plenty Coups – who lived from 1848 to 1932 in the Montana area. He was the principal chief of the Mountain Crows of the Crow nation. He saw that his people could not win against white encroachment and settlement.
Under his leadership the Crow acquiesced. Unlike the neighboring Cheyenne and Sioux, they did not opt for the noble destruction of going down fighting.

Alaxchiaa Ahu (Plenty Coups), 1908
It was a time of despair. The buffalo went away – slaughtered by whites intent on undermining the livelihood of the indigenous people. “The hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. There was little singing anywhere,” he reported.
“The Crow experienced this as death of established social roles, of standards of excellence, and of personal identities. It is for good reason that the nation lost its sense of life, meaning, and energy….The Crow entered a time when everything familiar and reliable ceased and they were required [as Plenty Coups said,] ‘to live a life that I do not understand.’”
Plenty Coups had experienced a vision when he was young, and this vision – received, processed, and interpreted by the tribal elders – was the cornerstone of his leadership of his people. Under that vision and leadership, the Crow people came to understand:
“All our traditional way of life is coming to an end. We must do what we can to open our imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities. In the face of the discontinuity that is upon us, we must preserve some integrity across that discontinuity."
There is reason to hope for a dignified passage across this abyss because there is still, even in the midst of all loss and grief, a basic goodness to the universe.

And: we shall get the good back, though at the moment we have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean.

Plenty Coups was “committed to the bare idea that something good will emerge.” The old way of life was passing and would pass away entirely, yet somehow “traditional tribal values, customs, and memories” would find a future flourishing in the new context, whatever it would turn out to be.
There are possibilities of hope that transcends our limited capacity to understand them.

Thus the Crow resigned themselves neither to despair nor to the suicide of resistance, but embraced, instead, the only hope available. It was a hope that required adapting – learning what could be learned of the new reality in preparation for an unforeseeable future.

Plenty Coups famously urged his people:
"Education is your greatest weapon. With education you are the white man's equal, without education you are his victim and so shall remain all of your lives."
Through many trips to Washington DC to represent his people, Plenty Coups kept the Crow on their original land while many other tribes were relocated to reservations distant from their homeland.

For us today, says theologian Walter Brueggemann,
“the prophetic task is not blueprint or program or even advocacy. It is the elusiveness of possibility out beyond evidence, an act of imagination that authorizes the listening assembly to imagine even out beyond the ken of the speaker.” (127)
The name for imagining beyond evidence is: faith.
“Walking by sight is likely a return to the old ways that have failed. Walking by faith is to seek a world other than the one from we are being swiftly ejected.” (128)
The crucial step in this walk is turning from the narrative of empire to the narrative of neighborhood. From the standpoint of empire, with its market economy, neighborliness appears as miraculous.

What, people caring about each other when they aren’t paid too? That’s spooky supernatural stuff!

The Bible offers us some stories dealing with empire, for its texts were largely composed under imperial oppression: the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire. And so the subversive stories of neighborliness in the Bible do appear as miracles. For instance, the story of the loaves and fishes. As I read that story, there was a miracle there. Nothing supernatural about it, though. It was the miracle of neighborliness.
“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.” (Brueggemann)
Neighbors gather, community and abundance happen.

That’s the kingdom – the kin-dom -- of god Jesus was talking about: public life reorganized toward neighborliness. A crowd of people in the grip of scarcity thinking had gathered to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam.
From that sense of boundless provision welled up a gladness to share of this plenty of which they were suddenly so acutely aware. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share.

What happened in the loaves and fishes story? Neighborliness happened. Just as neighborliness happened in the story of Elisha and the widow’s oil. She has one jar of oil, from which she is able to fill many vessels with oil – enough so that the sale of that oil will pay her debts and provide enough for her and her children to live on. Where did all that oil come from?

I imagine it came from Elisha himself organizing the neighbors to help out a widow in need.
“Unlike the economy of empire where all flows to the top, the economy of this narrative features miracles of abundance that are unexpectedly and inscrutably given among the lowly.”
Thus neighbors come forth with life-sustaining gifts for a resourceless widow who was about to be devoured by predatory economic arrangement.

Of course, we need the market economy, but we need that sphere to be A sphere of human interaction, not THE sole or dominant sphere.

Of course, we need Enlightenment rationality and the scientific method. But science is about control: prediction and thereby control. The kind of explanations that are scientific are explanations we can use to predict – and hence to control. And that’s been very helpful for developing ways to care for each other – medicine, food production and distribution. But again, that needs to be A sphere, and not so dominant a one.

Our spirits yearn to not merely control our world, but to befriend it. A world that we control – or that we are trying to, or imagining we could, control – is a world in which we ourselves never quite belong – never love or are loved, but can only covet.

The call to neighborliness – the promise we have made to mystery – that is our hope. Your presence here to be with each other, to make the unmarketable abundance of community, is the embodiment of that hope. With the wider culture around us sliding toward despair and desperation, all we need to see hope right now is to look our congregation's building on a Sunday morning.

2019-04-25

Whose Jesus?

Rev. Naomi King
I served our congregation in Gainesville, Florida for seven years before leaving there to put myself at your disposal. One of my neighbor colleague ministers in Florida at that time was the Rev. Naomi King. At state clergy gatherings where I had a chance to talk with and get to know Naomi and attend some worship services that she led for us, I discovered she is at least as creative as her father. Rev. King’s father’s name, you see, is Stephen. For those who like their theology traditional and settled, the daughter is also scarier than the father. She gave a presentation once and just the title would make the blood run cold if you’re the sort of person who believes the faith of our fathers is not to be meddled with. It was titled, “The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port.”

With that as my introduction, Happy Easter, everyone! It’s the most significant day on the Christian calendar. Early Christians met to celebrate on Sunday, rather than the Jewish sabbath of Saturday, because their savior was resurrected on Sunday. We gather here on Sunday, every Sunday, in continuation of that tradition. And today is THE Sunday – the Sunday that is that reason all the other Sundays are celebrated.

Some of us are Christians, and many of us who don’t call ourselves that now were raised in a Christian tradition. And all of us are shaped by the influences of Christianity throughout culture. The understanding we have of Jesus is important, whether we are Christian, Jewish, atheist, or however we might identify our faith. So on this Sunday of Sundays, let us ask again: Who shall we say Jesus is? Who, and whose, is Jesus?

I didn’t see Naomi’s presentation – I only know her title: "Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port." Provoked by that title, another minister, Rev. Thom Belote, and I have reflected on the idea. I’ll be utilizing some of what I learned from Rev. Belote (HERE), along with my own thoughts.

If the resurrection is about renewal, and if renewal is about getting a different perspective on things, what different perspectives on Jesus might we consider? Consider this – you may have known about this, but you might not. In the deaf Christian community there is fierce debate about whether Jesus knew sign language. Until I learned this, it was not a question that had ever occurred to me. But, then, I’m not deaf – yet. For a deaf Christian, I can see how this would be important. From their point of view, they need to know if this man – this man that their faith tells them is God – was able to communicate with people like them. For a deaf person, it’s the question of whether God is accessible to them. And that matters.

Forensic anthropologists' reconstruction of a
typical 1st-century adult male Palestinian Jew.
Likewise it matters, as feminists have been pointed out, that God is presented as male. And it matters that Europeans have been depicting a Nordic looking Jesus for hundreds of years. Whose Jesus is it?

As for Jesus’ sexuality, official doctrine is that he didn’t have any. Authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis in “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code” have imagined a sexually active heterosexual Jesus. Others imagine that he might have been gay. There’s not much evidence either way on that question, but there is that curious case of the naked young man in the Gospel of Mark. In Chapter 14, as the Roman soldiers are arresting Jesus, we read:
“All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”
So there was a scantily-clad young man hanging out around Jesus and his followers. Speculation about what he was doing there can only be an exercise of our imagination – fan fiction, perhaps -- not history. (Still, imagination is essential in theology. If we aren't pushing the edge, we're not only humorless, but a faith is losing freshness. For "cyborg pirate ninja Jesus" see HERE.)

Still, Carter Heyward, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speaks of the queerness of Jesus. She says:
"The term 'queer' as I am using it, let me be clear, is not simply a code-word for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other ways of being at odds with dominant gender culture. 'Queer' is not simply a reversal of a negative epithet so often hurled against LGBT folks in homophobic culture. 'Queer' is not simply a synonym for being 'odd,' 'unusual,' or 'out-there.' Queerness is public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. [Episcopal Divinity School] is, by the grace of God, a Queer seminary."
Such “solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice” is found in the way the Jesus of scripture breaks gender rules and gender roles. He befriends prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts, challenges traditional family values, and ignores his family of origin in favor of those who became his "siblings" by loving God and neighbor. He makes a new family of allies – an experience all too common among LGBTQ folk who have been rejected from their families of origin.

Jesus’ ministry embodies radical acceptance. African-American Christians connect Jesus’ own scourging and crucifixion with their people who have been the victims of whipping and lynching. And LGBTQ Christians view the Passion as a hate crime. Was not Matthew Shepard crucified?

Queer Christian art has adapted traditional iconography such as the Stations of the Cross and the Passion narrative to address LGBTQ suffering. In so doing, these artists enlarge the way we all see God. A Jesus that is accessible across a greater range of diversity is a prompt to us all to recognize the image of God in ourselves and in others.

Jesus’ ministry and teachings were subversive of the order that privileged some. (Were I here to add “at the expense of others,” then I would be merely redundant, for privilege by its nature is inherently unequal. When a good or a benefit is equally and universally provided or protected, we call it a right.)

Jesus’ continual theme throughout his teaching is this concept usually translated as “Kingdom of God.” I will often use “Kin-dom of God,” as better capturing the realm of concern and respect for all that I think Jesus had in mind. The original Greek – which isn’t really original, since Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, but, as the language in which the gospels were written, is as original as is available to us – is basileia tou theou.

Theologians seeking to avoid the connotations of English translations, speak of the basileia – the siblinghood of radical acceptance that is Jesus’ predominant theme. Theologian Robert Goss, for instance, writes of:
"the basileia, the reign of God which signified the political transformation of his society into a radically egalitarian, new age, where sexual, religious, and political distinctions would be irrelevant. Jesus acted out his basileia message by standing with the oppressed and outcasts of society and by forming a society of equals." (Elizabeth Stuart describing the work of Robert Goss, as quoted by Terence Weldon, HERE)
For Goss, the resurrection represents God’s endorsement and confirmation of Jesus’ basileia message. The resurrection tells us that not only Jesus, but God, is on the side of the oppressed. This is what Goss means when he says that at Easter, Jesus became the “queer Christ.” Goss is making no comment on Jesus’ sexuality. Rather, he’s starting with the standard claim that the resurrection turned Jesus into Christ because the resurrection signaled the special status of Jesus as the messenger of, the bringer of, the embodiment of, salvation. And then he’s adding that, in particular, the resurrection turned Jesus into queer Christ because the salvation that Jesus represented lay in what Jesus taught: namely, a basileia of respect and acceptance for queer people, and for all people. The resurrection reveals God’s orientation toward the excluded.

Thus Goss calls the resurrection God’s “coming out” as queer – queer in Carter Heyward’s sense of queerness as “public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation.” Jesus’ call for radical equality continues to resonate wherever there is inequality of concern or respect.

So where does the pirate bit come in? Hold on to your chair, mateys. On this point, Rev. Thom Belote, engaged in a very different project, made a discovery. Rev. Belote was trying to get inside the mind of Thomas Jefferson, because Jefferson had some rather Unitarian ideas about Jesus and authored the first laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the U.S. Belote read hundreds of pages of laws that Jefferson wrote for the State of Virginia. One discovery he made was that the punishment for piracy in the State of Virginia was significantly harsher than the punishment for the equivalent of highway robbery. This was baffling. Why would this be?

He explains:
“The basic answer is that highway robbery exists within a closed system; pirates live outside of the system and threaten the entire system. Highway robbery is a form of illegal commerce, but it reinforces the validity of commerce. Piracy is an attack on not only the material goods that are plundered, but it is also an attack on the idea of property. If a mechanic quotes you an exorbitant price to fix your car, you would accuse the mechanic of highway robbery, not of piracy.”
Yes, pirates are thieves and criminals. Specifically, they are thieves and criminals who function outside of the dominant social and economic system.

Kester Brewin, a British Christian blogger offers this analysis:
“What pirates do, as a rule, is emerge from the underbelly of a ‘stuck’ orthodoxy and, by way of actions that are initially perceived as heretical, reinvigorate that practice. And this is what Jesus did. He saw a religion blocked – a temple which had access restricted by merchants and priests. And he set about plundering the booty in the temple, and setting it free for all to enjoy. This was the heresy of Jesus Christ.”
Jesus upends and plunders the social system when he says that in order to follow him you must first sell everything you have and give the money away to the poor, when he overturns the tables and drives the moneychangers out of the temple (which leads directly to his execution), and when he overturns the law by pronouncing that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) In parable after parable, Jesus’ teachings ransack accepted economic principles.

As Christians identify themselves with a symbol of death – the cross – so, too, pirates identify themselves with a symbol of death, the skull and cross-bones. In both cases, the symbol proclaims fearlessness of death. Pirates and Christians both claim a radical power beyond the powers and principalities that pretend to rule the world. By renouncing life, the pirate and the Christian claim life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the early Christian church. His words might also describe a band of pirates:
“Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, alike are our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth. We are unknown and yet are well known. Dying we still live on;
disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.”
Pirates have a certain attraction that no other criminals have. Children on Halloween don’t dress up as arsonists, aggravated assaulters, or tax evaders – but every year a number of them will dress up as pirates.

I think we romanticize pirates because they represent subversion of the usual order of privilege and inequality. While other thieves and crooks pretend to be normal law-abiding folk, the pirates are out there openly under a flag of their own, the jolly roger. They capture our imaginations with a vision of a life liberated for the sort of inequalities that pervade mass society, and that weigh down the spirits of everyone, whether you’re on the top or the bottom of that inequality.

It’s not that pirate ships were utopian models of egalitarian sharing – but they did represent small face-to-face community, where everyone knew everyone else, and where they were out from under the sort of inequalities and frustrations perpetuated by invisible and faceless bureaucrats.

In recent times, the Somalian pirates were certainly problematic. The international community united to take steps to effectively end that problem – and we absolutely had to do that. But at the same time, let us remember the bigger picture.

Let us remember the 1801 to 1805 war against the Barbary States undertaken by the Jefferson administration to suppress the Barbary Pirates who were interfering with the crucial trade interests of the young nation. It was the first but not the last time the United States would go to war against a part of the Islamic world to protect our financial interests. Let us remember the conditions to which the Somalian pirates were responding. Western powers came to Africa, enslaved the people, established colonies, stole the natural resources, divided Africa into oddly shaped nations without any understanding of or regard for local history, and overthrew politicians that Africans elected when the Western powers didn’t like them. Who should be lecturing whom on respect for property? Or even on respect for life?

Jesus was a subject of an empire militarily and economically oppressing the conquered people of Israel. Jesus’ actions and teaching reverse the economic and political worldview of Rome. When Jesus upsets the moneychangers' tables outside the temple, he's upsetting not just tables, but a religio-economic worldview that protects privilege. So, yeah, it’s not so big a stretch to compare him to a pirate.

On this fine Easter morning, the stone of the tomb is rolled back, and the tomb is empty – because the queer pirate Jesus is wheeling into port somewhere else. I don’t know if Naomi talked about the significance of wheeling into port, and Thom Belote’s reflections don’t go into that. Wheeling into port, to my mind, suggests two things. It has a feeling of bringing it home – coming from “out there” and into our hearts with the message of basileia – of beloved community of radical acceptance.

More darkly, though, I reflect that pirates don’t come into established ports unless they have been captured and are being brought in to be locked up and executed – as, indeed, Jesus was. Yet even from the gallows – or the cross – they inspire imaginations to dream of what liberation might look like.

Other theologians and writers have developed the idea a disabled Jesus, an immigrant Jesus, a woman Jesus, a transgender Jesus. When all of us imagine a Jesus that is accessible to each of us – not narrowly cast as a Nordic-featured straight (or asexual) white able-bodied citizen of the empire – then possibilities of liberation open up to us all. When we all see the image of God in each of us, we see it better in ourselves as well.

Yes, these are imaginative exercises, but the gospels were imaginative exercises from the beginning. Theology IS imagination. Our imaginations empower us, and our imaginations make empathy and compassion possible. The basileia is an imaginative exercise – and one of tremendous power. The basileia is for all of us – everyone needs to see it embodied in someone that looks like them. We all also need to see it embodied in someone different from ourselves.

When Rev. Thom Belote explored Naomi King’s ideas of queer pirate Jesus, he concluded by musing that perhaps his next sermon might be: “The Transgender Cowboy Buddha Skips to the Market.”

Happy Easter and may we all be risen.

2019-04-10

Charge to the Minister

On Sun Apr 7, I was at Fourth Universalist Society (160 Central Park West, Manhattan) for the ordination of Leonisa Ardizzone, with whom I had a mentoring relationship during 2016-17, while she was a student at Union Theological Seminary. She is a long-time Buddhist practitioner and led a Buddhist Meditation group at Fourth Universalist for a number of years. I was asked to give the "Charge to the Minister," and here's what I said.

[Holding up copy of Order of Service] It says here I’m supposed to charge the minister. Wait. Is there a minister here? Where? Who is a minister?

Some 15 years ago, the Zen master Ruben Habito and I were sitting face-to-face, cross-legged on the floor, about 3 feet apart – just the two of us in a smallish room. It was a formal zen interview called dokusan, and Ruben was my zen teacher. At the end of this particular interview, I asked him a question I'd been meaning to ask: "Are you enlightened?"

“Who? Who’s enlightened? Where?” he said, looking around the room that only had the two of us in it. Then he rang a little bell, and I bowed and departed.

In that spirit I now ask: Who? Who’s a minister? You? You?

To continue in the vein of Buddhist references: according to legend, Siddhartha Gautama sat down beneath a pippala tree beside a river determined to see his true nature. All through the night he sat. As day was dawning, he glanced up and saw the morning star, which triggered an experience of awakening. That was the moment Siddhartha became the Buddha, and the words that came to him to say (aloud, apparently – to no one and yet to everyone) were these:
“Behold, all beings are enlightened exactly as they are.”
His enlightenment was the clear realization that all beings are enlightened. Similarly, then, I say: your ministry is realized in grasping that everyone is a minister. There’s nothing special about it.

When my spouse LoraKim Joyner was preparing to be ordained in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2002, she selected a musical piece she asked the choir to sing in the service: “Circle of Life” from the musical The Lion King. One of the choir members quipped: “From The Lion King? Are you sure you don’t want, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’?”

But, of course, it’s just the opposite. One actively pursues a vocation as minister – which is to say, pursues clarity of insight that all beings are ministers – because one just can’t wait to NOT be king.

The ego insistently weaves its story of how you are the center of the universe – the sovereign of all you survey. Maintaining that story is wearisome and dreary work, but it’s no easy thing to stop. On the one hand is a yearning to live in a bigger world than the constricted realm of self-interests. On the other hand, there’s no idea how to get there.

Some of us here made a stab in the dark and enrolled in divinity school. Others of us here have taken other paths, made other stabs in the dark at abdicating the tedious throne and de-centering the ego. Leonisa and the rest of us here today in black robes thought maybe divinity school, Clinical Pastoral Education, a ministerial internship, and all the other preparations and trainings for professional ministry would show us how to get past our ego defense mechanisms and live in the truth that all beings are enlightened ministers. Others of us here followed other paths, or, perhaps, are just beginning to grow tired of the kingly illusions of our own significance, or maybe aren’t tired of it.

Still, all of us are ministers, whether we know it or not. Some of us have been trying hard to know it and never forget it.

Today, it so happens that Leonisa is the one whose name is on the order of service, the one upon whom our hands were laid in the "Laying on of Hands." But in ordaining her, we ordained and re-ordained ourselves. The hopes and anxieties of all life poured through our hands and into her – and into each other – into every one of us. They are pouring into us always, and, when we aren’t preoccupied with our self-interests, then we know that they are.

I am here to charge the minister. We have identified who "the minister" is: everyone, all of us -- represented for purposes of this ceremony in the person of Leonisa. Now to the charge.

Let’s see. [Fetching jumper cables] Red to positive, right?

On the positive: Do remember that you are never alone -- that enlightened ministers surround you always, including all sentient beings.

Do remember that you won’t always remember this. Repeating the words – these or any other -- grows empty. In the quiet silence the observing mind discovers the knowledge afresh – and it must be constantly made fresh. Be the good dog, and sit. Every day.

When you sit, the whole world sits with you. And when you don’t sit – well, there are still some of us sitting with you anyway – with you, for you, as you. See your teacher regularly.

For all of you on a path to recognize yourself for the enlightened minister that you are, I charge you to be diligent at your spiritual practice, whatever yours may be.

Thus do I charge Leonisa. Thus do I charge you all.

On the negative – for the charge will not transmit unless the negative terminal is also connected: You have demons. You know the ones – the insecurities and addictions that you went to divinity school to run away from – those. They are with you still, as you’ve probably noticed. No need to run away. They are part of you. Seek not to exile any part of yourself, for that is not the path of wholeness.

Demons are there to tell you important truths. But remember, demons are poets following Emily Dickinson’s dictum to "tell the truth but tell it slant." Take care of your demons and listen to them, but what they say is not to be believed literally. They speak in metaphor. If one of them tells you, for instance, that you’re worthless, don’t believe it literally. But do listen. It’s a metaphor for something that might need attending to. You will need help interpreting your more cryptic demons. See your teacher regularly.

Thus do I charge Leonisa. Thus do I charge us all.

So! Terminals connected? I think we’re ready. Start her up!

2019-03-03

Humility

Humility. I approach this topic with a feeling that a sermon on humility can’t be given. Words about humility can’t be worth saying, for as soon as I think I know something about the topic, I thereby prove that I don’t have it. As the saying goes, the minute you think you’ve got humility, you’ve lost it.

I might believe that humility is a virtue, and I might actively seek to cultivate it. But if I believe for a minute my efforts are doing some good, in that minute, whatever good they’ve done is wiped away. Even if you don’t say anything and modestly keep it all to yourself, the ego is working away inside to figure out some way to hijack whatever you do and turn it into a self-glorifying story.

There’s a cartoon of a young zen monk sitting cross-legged and talking to his cat. He’s saying: “You know, these Zen practices are definitely a short path to ego loss. Almost right away my illusion of self began to fade. Soon I will be the most advanced novice in the monastery.”


It’s true. The ego might be an illusion, but it’s a darn persistent one. You might see through that illusion and recognize that the spinning bundle of energies called “you” is no more distinct than a small whirlpool in a river is distinct from the water of the river – but in the next moment you’re congratulating yourself for this insight. The ego finds a way to turn even egolessness into reinforcement of itself.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Thus Martin Luther wrote, “true humility, therefore never knows that it is humble…for if it knew this, it would turn proud from contemplation of so fine a virtue.” And St. Teresa of Avila said humility is hidden from the one who possesses it.

There’s the story of a group of clergy that would gather in one of their sanctuaries to engage together in a practice of humility. They would gather round the altar and wail toward the rafters, “I am nobody, I am nothing.” They were overheard on a few of these occasions by the janitor sweeping in the hall. One day he decided to try it himself. He slipped into the empty sanctuary, stood by the altar, gazed toward the ceiling, and cried out, “I am nobody, I am nothing.” Two of the clergy happened to be walking by and looked in. “Oh,” said the one to the other, “look who thinks he’s a nobody.”

Thus we are apt to co-opt ourselves, make our own humility into aggrandizement. Arguably many of the virtues are this way. Humility may offer the clearest case, but it might also be that the one who says she is courageous, isn’t. The one who proclaims his patience, will turn out to not be very patient. Beware of someone who makes a point of insisting how honest they are. It’s when we think we are wise that we are most like to be foolish. So maybe it isn’t just humility that is hidden from the one who possesses it. Perhaps courage, patience, honesty, wisdom, and many other virtues are aspirations we are better off never supposing we have attained.

Maybe. Still. Though there is something suspect about dwelling too much on any positive quality, just saying “I have a high level of humility” has a flavor of self-contradiction that saying “I have a high level of compassion” does not.

So what I think most of us do is come at it from the other side: by examining ourselves for signs of vanity or arrogance. These – if we aren’t too narcissistic or sociopathic -- we trim back – either as a matter of expedience, sincere contrition, or just growing weary of being full of ourselves – and as to whether, through this process, we approach humility, we don’t ask ourselves that.

David Hume (1711-1776)
Moreover, one might suspect that humility is not really a virtue at all. How is abasing ourselves – refusing a healthy self-esteem – a good thing? Baruch Spinoza in the 17th-century warned against “thinking too meanly of oneself.” David Hume in the 18th century had strong doubts about the whole set of qualities that he called “monkish virtues” – “celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, [and] solitude.” He said they tended to “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart; obscure the fancy, and sour the temper.” He went on to say they
“serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment.”
Thus Frank Lloyd Wright quipped:
“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”
Indeed, humility has an unfortunate history of being urged upon those abused or treated unjustly. The downtrodden and oppressed have for too long been told to humbly submit to what is wrong. In the hands of those at the top of the social hierarchy, recommendations of humility are a tool for shoring up hierarchy lest it crumble from the weight of its injustices. That’s an abstract way to say it, but to African Americans, historically, the consequences of being perceived as uppity have been anything but abstract. The blows and degradations dealt to women told to humbly submit to abusive relationships are anything but abstract. So contemporary philosopher Stephen Hare argued that humility is “at best a saving grace for the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.”

Properly understood, however, humility, like many other virtues, is a middle way between extremes. Vanity and arrogance are at one extreme, and denial of one's own worth and dignity would be at the other.

In Medieval times, the interest in avoiding vanity and arrogance, and in magnifying the glory of God by putting ourselves down, led to extremes of self-abasement. Thomas Aquinas said that humility involved “self-abasement to the lowest place.” It was a time when self-flagellation counted as a spiritual practice, as did meditations upon how wretched, vile, and corrupt one was. No wonder that Spinoza and Hume, as the Western world turned from its Medieval period to modernity, helped articulate the emerging new sensibility by criticizing the Medieval conception of humility.

Whether one’s energies go into thinking about how great one is or into thinking about how lowly and worthless one is, the energies are nevertheless fixated on the self. Self-abasement and self-aggrandizement have in common a preoccupation with self.

Humility, properly conceived, however, is a decentering of the self – not a putting down, but a shifting of focus away from. Thus, as C.S. Lewis noted, "humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."

The word “humility” comes to us from the Latin “humilis” meaning "lowly, humble," literally "on the ground.” It’s related to “humus,” originally meaning "earth." While the Medievals emphasized the lowliness of the Earth, and thought of it as vile and corrupt, we might, instead, draw a different moral from this etymology. Humility is being well-grounded. It is rooted in that ground from which all life comes -- rather than being an uprooted bubble of self-preoccupation.

The Latin "humus" has evolved from a general reference to earth to a more specific meaning. Humus today means the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms and essential to the fertility of the earth. How lovely! Humility, then, is being fertile, supporting life growing from you and through you.

When, recognizing that a self-centered life is barren and sterile, we give ourselves over to nourishing growth and life around us, then we are people of humility.

When we take in the resources available to us, the influences and teachings that fall upon us like leaves; and when we practice at the skills and arts of compassion, thus decomposing those resources and learnings into organic matter -- sustenance for others -- then we are people of humility.

When we become thus the ground of flourishing for the whole interrelated ecosystem around us, then we are people of humility.

This humility is not helped by denying that we have worth and value. What we have learned since the Medievals is that the Earth may be low, but it is not vile, wretched, or corrupt. Nor does the earth bother with denying its value. It doesn’t bother with affirming its value either. It just takes in everything, and offers back everything.

Shifting the metaphor from earth to water: like water, all things flow. Flowing water is a necessity of life. The body’s need is not so much to have water as for water to be continually flowing through it. (Letting it out is as necessary as taking it in!) We are as drops of water, here to participate in the flow of existence, wholeheartedly, with all our being.

I don’t believe we are here to make our indelible mark. That’s just ego talking. Saxon White Kessinger uses water to make this point:
Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.
We aren't here to make our mark or be remembered, but simply to add our portion to the flow of the world.

It took the whole universe to make you. It took the big bang, and the Hubble constant, which I don’t really understand, and the speed of light being what it is. It took gravity -- which is so weird! Why should gravitational attraction exist -- proportional to the mass of the objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them? But it does, and gravitational attraction pulled hydrogen atoms together into stars, which forged the heavier elements included in the formation of our planet. And that's just the beginning of what it took to make you.

It took carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen coming together into certain proteins with a shape that, like a mold, made copies of itself from surrounding material, which grew into cells, which variegated into all the life forms we have.

It took sunlight and soil, the water cycle of rain, and the chance encounter of your parents’ first meeting, and their parents’, and the million chance encounters of two million of your ancestors. It took a lot of sex to make you!

And, sadly, not all of it was what we would call consensual – and the accumulated generations of wounding from that reality is also a part of what made you.

It took millennia of plagues, famines, war, conquest, enslavement and genocide to make the modern world that made you.

It also took occasional acts of kindness and love.
It took spiritual insights and scientific insights.
It took explorers and poets,
judges and codifiers of laws,
artists and musicians,
and countless generations of lives devoted to the tending of home and children.
It took 4,000 years of schools and teachers.

It took all of that to make you. It took the whole universe, and what it made is unique and precious. Your particular combination of skills and talents; knowledge, memories, and insights; quirks and preferences; habits and hopes – the sound of your voice -- that way you move your hand -- the things that make you laugh -- the things that make you cry -- your face. They have never existed before all together in one person, and never will again.

And here you are to bring all of who you are to this world we share. Not in order to leave your mark. The world is marked up enough.

Not in order to be remembered. Even the most famous names in history are to us abstractions, just names and a few deeds or words. The fullness of your personhood is held in the consciousness of those who know you now. None of them hold all of it; they each hold a part. So when you are gone, the collective memory of you diminishes with the subsequent passing of each person who knew you – until nothing is left but the dry abstractions in records. Whether those records are few or voluminous; widely noted, pored over, and celebrated, or scarcely glanced at -- either way the dynamic fullness of your personhood cannot be revived to be known again. Even if your name is remembered, your name is not you. All of us, including you, will be, in every important sense, forgotten.

Moreover, what desiccated details of our lives future generations may judge worth retelling is not our concern. That is a part of their project of crafting the story of who they are and how they came to be, and we must leave that project to them.

Yet here you are now in your wonderful and precious uniqueness – here to be forgotten but here now. You're here to add your love to the onward flow of all things; to transfer forward the nutrients that made you, filtering out some of the toxins you’ve also absorbed. You’re here to add your creative new ideas, your reiteration of favorite old ideas, your soaring dreams, and your careworn anxieties to the ongoing regenerating and evolving of life.

If words about humility help us keep this in mind, then perhaps they are worth saying.

2019-02-27

The Uses of Anger -- and the Manipulations

Do you get angry? How do you know when you’re angry? Do you decide to be angry? If you do, isn’t that a little calculating? And if you don’t decide to be angry, who does? If it isn’t you who decides to be angry, the who is it, really, who is angry?

Do you think about questions like these? Do you decide to think about them?

Back to anger. How do you feel about your own anger? Is it embarrassing? Do you wish you had less of it – that, however it arises or wherever it comes from, it would visit you less often?

Anger comes to visit us uninvited. Unless we’re stage-acting, it’s uninvited. Yes, we can decide to suppress it or not. And we can decide what to do with it if we don’t suppress it. Overall, we can decide to adopt practices to cultivate character traits that over time will make a visit from anger less, or more, likely. But we don’t decide in the moment whether anger will come knocking.

There’s a wiring built into us for getting angry, and there’s a correlating wiring built into us for when someone around us is angry – it grabs our attention. Whether they are angry AT you or angry FOR you (on your behalf), or expressing anger at a third party, it’s hard to focus on anything else when someone around you is angry. There are good reasons for both of those wirings: getting angry and paying attention to others’ anger. They have positive jobs to do. But they can be manipulated.

The spiritual task, as ever, is to grow closer to the better angels of our nature -- to appreciate the grace of anger when it is a grace -- and to have the wisdom to see through manipulations and be liberated from them. For that spiritual task, I hope this morning to offer some understandings that will help.

* * *
Greenfield, MA, 1917
Back in 1977 – 42 years ago -- psychology professor James Averill mailed a questionnaire to every resident of Greenfield, Massachusetts, population 18,000. It was a questionnaire about anger. It asked, for instance: “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week.” And: “Describe the most angry of these experiences.”

The 14-page questionnaire asked about phases of anger, was there shouting, were punches thrown, was there a desire for vengeance, and afterward did you feel “triumphant, confident, and dominant,” or “ashamed, embarrassed, and guilty”? It asked about being the target of someone else’s anger, how did that feel, did it catch you by surprise, how did you react or respond?

In the late 70s, the prevailing feeling among psychologists, as it had been for at least a generation, was that anger was a base and instinctual vestige of our savage past that no longer served any useful purpose. Mature people and mature societies didn’t need anger. If anger did make an appearance, it was an embarrassment – a problem to be solved. Averill, however, suspected that anger was both more common and more useful than his colleagues generally assumed. So he set out to ask ordinary Americans – in an ordinary town, like Greenfield, Massachusetts – people who get upset at co-workers, who yell during rush hour.

Averill expected most people would throw the survey in the trash. He expected that most people would say they only infrequently lost their temper. He expected they would say they felt embarrassed afterwards. He expected they would say that their anger only made things worse. He was wrong on all four.

He was flooded with responses – the highest response rate for a mailed questionnaire he’d ever seen. People were delighted at the chance to tell someone what made them mad. Some of them attached thank you notes.

One woman described her fury when her husband bought a new car and drove it to his mistress’s house so she could admire the purchase. She wasn’t so mad about the mistress – she’d had suspicions for years – and frankly, she felt that any other woman willing to take her husband could have him. But how dare he show the car to her first?

Others were more mundane: arguments over taking out the trash, snappish tones at dinner. Overall, Averill found: “Most people report becoming mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a week.” Angry episodes were usually short and restrained conversations. They rarely became blowout fights.

People didn’t feel embarrassed about anger but were pleased to talk about the indignities that provoked them. Moreover, anger did not make things worse. When an angry teenager shouted about his curfew, his parents agreed to modifications—as long as the teen promised to improve his grades.

Anger is a way of impressing upon others that there’s something here that needs to be worked out – and it orients them to then actually work it out rather than ignoring the issue or letting it slide. Anger gets our attention – as the producers of reality TV know. In our family and our community relationships, that can be a good thing. Averill found that,
“In the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in all parties becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints. People reported that they tended to be much happier after yelling at an offending party. They felt relieved, more optimistic about the future, more energized.... More than two-thirds of the recipients of anger ‘said they came to realize their own faults,’ Averill wrote. Their ‘relationship with the angry person was reportedly strengthened more often than it was weakened, and the targets more often gained rather than lost respect for the angry person.’”
And the enraged wife with the unfaithful husband who bought a new car? Even in that case, her anger “led to a productive conversation: he could keep the mistress as long as she was out of sight and as long as the wife always took priority.”

Subsequent studies have found that
“we’re more likely to perceive people who express anger as competent, powerful, and the kinds of leaders who will overcome challenges.... We’re often more creative when we’re angry.”
That’s good news about anger at the level of our relationships. It gets our attention so that issues can be addressed that need to be addressed to repair and sustain relationships.

There’s also good news about anger at the social level. When anger morphs into moral outrage, it drives movements for social change. Peter Starobin asks,
“Where would America be without its anger? Perhaps still under Colonial rule, if those rowdy upstarts had never tossed British tea into Boston Harbor. Perhaps still mired in a slave-based economy, if not for the prodding of yes, vitriolic abolitionists.” (Atlantic, 2004 Jan/Feb)
Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez channeled moral outrage about injustice and oppression into positive change. More recently, there’s the anger and outrage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement.

W. Va. Teachers, 2018
In fact, we are in the midst of a upsurge of socially directed anger that writers began noticing at least 15 years ago and which shows no sign of cresting. It’s been less than a year and half since women, mostly, blew a Harvey-sized hole in the news cycle. (As of Sun Feb 24:) It was a year and 10 days ago that the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School led to the righteous anger of Parkland, Florida teenagers that got the nation’s attention on gun violence when it seemed that nothing, no matter the scale of the tragedy, ever would. It was a year and two days ago that the teacher strike in West Virginia began – which has been followed by strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado – in Los Angeles, and in Virginia – and there may be more to come. These strikes are driven by moral outrage from years of neglect of teachers and the schools they serve.

Anger is powerful, and not just for men. Last fall, Rebecca Traister’s book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, was much discussed for its case that women are ready to express the anger they have long suppressed, and this can propel a “potentially revolutionary movement.” And a brand new book by Brittany Cooper – released four days ago – is titled Eloquent Rage.
“I’m not really into self-help books, so I don’t have one of those catchy three-step plans for changing the world. What I have is anger. Rage, actually. And that’s the place where more women should begin – with the things that make us angry.” (Brittany Cooper, Eloquent Rage)
For this sentiment, the Dixie Chicks provide the anthem: “Not Ready to Make Nice”
“I'm not ready to make nice,
I'm not ready to back down,
I'm still mad as hell,...
Can't bring myself to do what it is
You think I should.”


So there’s two things that anger does – two positive functions of anger: signal a need for, and bring attention to, relationship repair; and, when it morphs into moral outrage, drive movements for social change.

The anger response – and our response to anger from others – is part of our wiring today because these responses were helpfully adaptive for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in small bands where everyone could know everyone else. Anger gets our attention – makes us notice. That’s what it needs to do, so we can address the issue. But television shows manipulate that wiring not so we can repair a relationship, but just to increase their ratings.

It started over 30 years ago on Geraldo Rivera’s daytime talk show. When he invited white supremacists and black and Jewish activists, a brawl broke out, Geraldo’s nose was broken – and the ratings were great. Daytime shout-fests began making their way onto cable news in 1996 – the year that both Fox News and MSNBC got started. On one station Bill O’Reilly and later Sean Hannity, and on another station, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow, found ratings success by playing on their viewers’ discontent. Hearing one’s own indignations given voice by a bombastic host proved even more irresistible than watching people shout at each other. These commentators aren’t organizing marches, demonstrations, campaigns, boycotts, sit-ins, or strikes. They just want you to keep tuning in. It’s all about viewership.

Then came social media. Social media sometimes does organize movements: Black Lives Matter and MeToo started as hashtags.The 2017 Women’s March originated and was organized on Facebook. At the same time, our wiring makes anger feel good when it gets a response, and on social media the reward of likes, shares, and retweets encourages us to a continual flow of angry posts. The wiring we have for repairing important relationships is hijacked into rewarding us for “likes” from strangers – and is manipulated for TV ratings.

Our anger impulse can also be manipulated in other ways. After James Averill’s questionnaire in 1977, a raft of publications and studies began to appear investigating anger. And businesses were reading them to figure out how to profit. Most striking is the case of a debt-collection agency that trained its callers in strategic use of anger.
“Even when the debtors on the other end of the line sounded friendly, the collectors were trained to pretend they were angry at them.... Callers needed to hear a ‘hostile tone,’ something that said, ‘I want the payment today!’”
This might prompt conciliatory assurances, or it might prompt the debtor to start screaming back, in which case the caller would then
“become soothing and accommodating.... The idea was, once you get them angry and aroused, you [then] deliver catharsis, a sense of relief. That’s going to make them more likely to pay up.”
The caller would affect a sympathetic tone:
“Look, I know you’ve got a problem. I hope nothing I did set you off, because neither of us is going to benefit if we don’t resolve this thing. It was incredibly effective.... People would be so charged up from getting mad and then so relieved you weren’t blaming them anymore, and so they’d agree to nearly anything.”
That’s exactly how anger needs to work in addressing and repairing relationships – and it is here manipulated where there is no relationship.
Nor are bill collectors alone. Businesses schools have courses in how to display and intentionally provoke anger in negotiations and in dealing with a certain kind of customer.

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The Unitarian Universalist conception of the religious and spiritual quest, as I’ve noted before, places connection at the center. Anger is a part of how we connect. People who are angry want to be heard. They’ll usually say they want something done, but first – and what often turns out to be sufficient – is they want to be heard. Anger is pretty effective at getting attention so they can be heard. If you show them a sympathetic hearing, reflecting back what they’re saying, the anger dissipates.

Sometimes they begin thinking about whether they were being unreasonable. Saying “be reasonable,” rarely helps – but demonstratively understanding what they are angry about will often shift them into a concern to appear reasonable. They see they don’t need to push their point. They can now open up to consider other points. That’s the dynamic that the bill collectors were manipulating and exploiting.

It can also be used in positive ways. A few years ago, some Israeli social scientists conducted an experiment disguised as an advertising campaign. They created a campaign of online ads, brochures, and billboards targeted at the Giv’at Shmuel suburb of Tel Aviv. This was a heavily religious, hardline right-wing, anti-Palestinian area. These were angry people. It seemed unlikely that anything could persuade them to shift in the direction of favoring a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

Instead of trying to make the case that the Giv’at Shmuel residents were wrong, the ad campaign told them they were right. The ads intimated that a perpetual war with Israel’s neighbors was a good thing. They extolled the virtues of fighting for fighting’s sake. They showed iconic photos of Israeli war heroes with text that said,
“Without [war] we wouldn’t have had heroes. For the heroes, we probably need the conflict.”
The online ad had audio from Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
“Another ad featured footage of a soldier with a machine gun petting a kitten and an infantryman helping an old man cross the street.”
‘What a Wonderful World’ played in the background. Its tagline read,
“Without [war] we would never be moral. For morality, we probably need the conflict.”
The ads exaggerated actual attitudes only in that the ads made explicit what was implicit in the attitudes. The study determined that over six weeks nearly all the suburb’s 25,000 residents saw the ads. They found that,
“The percentage of right-leaning residents who said that Arabs were solely responsible for Israel’s past wars decreased by 23 percent. The number of conservatives who said Israel should be more aggressive toward Palestinians fell by 17 percent.
Incredibly, even though the advertisements never mentioned settlements, 78 percent more people said that Israel should consider freezing construction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Residents in nearby towns who hadn’t seen the ads were surveyed as a control; they showed no such evolution in their views over the same period.)”
An L.A. Times piece explained how this worked:
"The idea is to exaggerate a person's core belief in such a way that it leads the believer to see his or her stance as irrational. For example, imagine if a friend with a two-pack-a-day habit said to you, 'All those studies that say smoking causes cancer don't prove anything.' Using the paradoxical thinking technique, you might respond, 'Totally! Lung cancer obviously has nothing to do with smoking.' That statement would probably sound extreme and illogical, even to your friend, and it might cause her to wonder if her own statement sounded kind of extreme too. In turn, she might reevaluate how she thinks about smoking and its relationship to lung cancer — at least a little." (Deborah Netburn, "How to Counter People with Extreme Views: Try Agreeing with Them," LA Times, 2016 Oct 14)
When your position is heard, you don’t have to keep pushing for it. When the implications of your position are brought out – not in a way that seems intended to challenge you, but in apparent sympathy with those implications – it holds up a mirror that lets you see yourself.

Just as with the bill collectors, it’s a kind of conciliation to the anger, which then makes the angry person more agreeable. What both cases illustrate is that when people are assured that they have been sympathetically heard, they step into a different space. They give themselves the freedom to think again about their own position.

We want to build connections. It’s hard to remember that we can’t change other people’s minds – they can only change their own minds. The most we can do is give them some space in which they might re-think – and we do that by hearing them – slowing down, taking time to demonstrate in detail the understanding we have for them and what they’re saying.

And be aware that opinion writers, news channels, salesfolk, and businesses in various ways have a monetary interest in your anger. You get to decide whether to give it to them.

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