2021-04-07

Trust, part 2


It’s not up to you to try to make yourself a more trusting person. That might not be a good idea. Williams Syndrome is a rare neurodevelopmental genetic condition that features mild learning or developmental challenges and also a markedly outgoing personality. People with Williams Syndrome have a high level of sociability, very good communication skills, and are very trusting of strangers. And that’s not always a good thing. If you get an email from a Prince of Nigeria asking for your help transferring some funds – or an email purporting to be from me asking for personal help – don’t trust it. Making ourselves more trusting in a world that is often untrustworthy is not the issue.

What we can do is be on the lookout for opportunities to relate to others in ways that grow trust, and to do that, we have to know how that happens – how does trust develop between two people and among members of a group. I turn here again to Brene Brown, who wonderfully combines a scientist’s respect and quest for data with a heart-centered gift for understanding it. She says Trust is built in very small moments.

When people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom's chemotherapy was going.”
Or, “I trust my neighbor because if something's going on with my kid, it doesn't matter what she's doing, she'll come over and help me figure it out.”
One of the top things Brown found as a small thing that engenders trust: attending funerals. Someone shows up at your sister’s funeral, it really adds to your sense of trust in them.
Another big factor: asking for help when you need it. Trust emerges between and among people through the accumulation of little things done for each other.

Looking over the data, Brene Brown discerned seven factors that develop trust. Don’t try to make yourself trust, but do be on the look-out for these factors – be attentive to the emergence of where a higher level of trust might be warranted. She’s arranged the seven into an acronym that spells: BRAVING – B-R-A-V-I-N-G. When we trust, we are braving connection with someone.

B, boundaries. Healthy boundaries define who we are in relation to others. They also help us to know what the extents and limits are with others. Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships. Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.” Be explicitly pro-active about what you’re not comfortable with, and what your needs and commitments are. If you’re not clear about who you are, I can’t trust you. I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

R, reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you're going to do -- over and over and over again. In our working lives, reliability means that we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don't take on so much that we come up short and don't deliver on our commitments. In our personal life, it means the same thing. The key part to keeping commitments is not committing more than we can keep.

A, accountability. I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologize, and make amends. Next is keeping confidences – but since she needs a word that starts with V, she calls it the vault.

V, the vault. What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. It goes in the vault and it’s sealed from public view. And it’s not just whether you hold my confidences. If you gossip with me about someone else -- share with me a story that isn’t yours to tell – then my trust in you is diminished. The Vault means you respect my story, and a key way that I come to believe you will respect my story is that I see you respecting other people’s stories.

I, integrity. I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity -- and encourage me to do the same. Integrity has three pieces: choosing courage over comfort; choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.

N, nonjudgment. I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me. Under some conditions, helping people can actually lower trust. That can happen if we feel that the help is coming from someone who’s judging us for not being able to work it out ourselves, judging us for needing their help. If you’re the helper, you can offer reassurances: “Oh, this happens to me all the time.” “There’s no way you could’ve known how to do that.” “Wow, it’s great that you got this far on your own. I’m impressed.” But there’s still that little edge of suspicion that your assessment of the person’s competence might have slid just a hair. The only way to really remove that hint of judgment from helping someone is for you to take turns asking them for their help. Only then are the vestiges wiped away of the thought that competence is a ground where we’re competing with each other to see who has more of it – which is not a ground of trust. When I think less of myself for needing help, whether I’m conscious of it or not, when I offer help to someone, I think less of them too. You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. Real trust doesn't exist unless help is reciprocal, and thereby free of judgment.

G, generosity. Here we’re talking about interpretive charity. Trust requires that we evince a generosity of spirit in how we understand and interpret each other. Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors, and then check in with me. "Assume best intentions" is a wonderful slogan. I’ve noticed, though, that its usefulness is limited if our imaginative capacity is limited. If the only two interpretations you can possibly imagine are “they’re evil” and “they’re stupid” – you may have a hard time deciding which one is the more generous explanation. When you’re hurt and betrayed, your imaginative capacity shrinks. At those times all you can do is just say you don’t know why they did that. You just don’t know. As you heal a bit, get a little distance from the wound, your creative empathetic imagination can start to do a better job of imagining a generous interpretation.

This BRAVING acronym works with self-trust, too. If braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. We can't ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we're worthy of receiving. An African proverb says, Beware the naked man offering you his shirt. And you will know you're worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.

These are Brene Brown’s tools for interpersonal trust. To do our part in rebuilding social trust, we take those tools and join organizations, using those tools of trustbuilding in the development of clubs, associations – and congregations.

That you are a member of a congregation – in these times when increasing numbers of people aren’t – already puts you at the forefront of builders and nurturers of social trust. As David Brooks writes: “Whether we emerge from this transition stronger depends on our ability, from the bottom up and the top down, to build organizations targeted at our many problems. If history is any guide, this will be the work not of months, but of one or two decades.”

May it be so. Amen.

Trust, part 1


“Do you trust me?” says Aladdin, as he holds out his hand to Jasmine.

What would you do? It happens twice in the 1992 Disney cartoon movie. The first time, he’s a street urchin, and she’s in disguise as a commoner. The second time, he’s in disguise as a prince and she’s in her element as a princess in the palace. Neither time does she have any reason to trust him. But she says yes – and takes his hand. Both times.

It’s a risk. She might get let down, hurt – maybe killed if she falls off that magic carpet when it takes a swerve. She takes the risk. Why? We don’t know. I don’t think she knows.

Trust. Sissela Bok says:
“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Jasmine’s world has been trustworthy enough that she feels she can trust a stranger – take that leap. And because she can – well, “a whole new world” opens up for her -- and for Aladdin.

I want to note that Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue she has. If we said that, then we’d have to say that if she’d said “no,” she’d be lacking some virtue. But no. If she’d said, “no, I don’t trust you, I am not taking your hand” there’d be no basis for finding any fault. Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue of Jasmine, but it is a virtue of the conditions in which she grew up that those conditions have taught her that trusting strangers is a risk she can sometimes take. The conditions of her upbringing taught her that she can trust herself. As the saying goes:
“A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.”
Because of that combination of trust in herself and just-high-enough willingness to trust strangers, she answers yes. Takes his hand, takes the leap.

Trust is a virtue of social systems, not of individuals – as opposed to trustworthiness, which IS a virtue of individuals. It’s your responsibility to be trustworthy, but it’s not your responsibility to trust. Trust may come to you as a grace, but don’t force it. If you don’t trust some situation, then trust your mistrust and back away.

Trust is a collective rather than an individual virtue. Trust is built – if it is built -- collectively. “In a restaurant I trust you to serve untainted fish and you trust me not to skip out on the bill. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community” (Brooks) – that most people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Not everybody. Maybe not anybody all the time. But most people, most of the time.

Some level of shared norms – general agreement on what counts as “what one ought to do” – is necessary. “If two lanes of traffic are merging into one, the drivers in each lane are supposed to take turns. If [one] butts in line, [others] honk indignantly. [They] want to enforce the small fairness rules that make our society function smoothly" (Brooks).

Francis Fukayama’s 1995 book, Trust, coined the phrase "spontaneous sociability." He said that where social trust is high, spontaneous sociability increases. We can spend less time and energy checking in other out, looking for signs of untrustworthiness – less time and energy guarding and protecting ourselves from being swindled – and can much more efficiently move into cooperating and helping each other out. Spontaneous sociability means that people are “able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good.”

Increased trustworthiness, the individual virtue, helps. When more people have the virtue of being worthy of trust, that facilitates trusting. But that’s not enough. Social trust has been falling precipitously in this country, and it’s not clear that the institutions that are less trusted are any less trustworthy than ever.

Scammers prey on the elderly. Why is that? We tend to suppose, well, they don’t think as clearly and can’t follow how they’re being scammed. That’s often a factor. Another factor, though, is that they come from a generation that was much more trusting – a generation that, because of the amazing things they accomplished together through that trust, is called the greatest generation.

“In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time.” Then came Vietnam, and Watergate, which certainly undermined trust in government. And Reaganomics. Not just economic policies that said government isn’t here for you unless you’re rich, but a stream of rhetoric that said government is the problem. He had that line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." That one line may have done more harm than his policies. He turned people who trusted that their government actually could do a lot of very helpful things – which is to say, people who trusted their neighbors to be able to work together collectively through elected officials for the common good (which is what trust in government is) – into the butt of a joke.

“By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing.” From 77 percent to 20 percent in 30 years. Even so, when phrased as a question of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens, most people still affirmed that. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens. “Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump.” Today only a third of Americans say they trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens.

The distrust turned explosive. “Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate.”

It’s not that way everywhere. In Denmark and the Netherlands, trust has been growing. In Denmark, “about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy.” In the Netherlands, “two-thirds say so.” In the US, on the other hand, in 2014, only 30 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” That’s the lowest number since the survey started asking the question in 1972.

It becomes a vicious downward spiral: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t form or sustain networks that we can trust, and then trust falls further. When people believe they can’t trust others, that others aren’t trustworthy, they become less trustworthy themselves.

So our younger people, growing up under conditions of mistrust, have more mistrust. Forty percent of baby boomers say most people can be trusted. Only 31 percent of Generation X – born before 1980 – say most people can be trusted. For Millennials, born since 1981 – the proportion who say most people can be trusted drops to 19 percent.

We need to acknowledge that sometimes, in some ways, American social trust has been intermixed with delusion. “Only 35 percent of young people, versus 67 percent of old people, believe that Americans respect the rights of people who are not like them. Fewer than a third of Millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 64 percent of members of the Silent Generation.” Believing the US to be the greatest country in the world has always required highly selective measures of greatness – and on many measures we’ve been falling further and further behind. And the disconnect between how highly Americans thought of themselves for respecting the rights of people not like them, and how much they actually did respect those rights is only recently beginning to narrow.

So good for the younger generations for increasingly disavowing those delusions of grandeur. I get how the delusions fostered social trust. But delusions inevitably collapse. Sustainable, nondelusive social trust is possible, and maybe we’ll get there. In the meantime, it’s helpful to name the condition we’re currently in – name the water that, like a fish, we might not notice because we’re immersed in it. What we’re in the middle of right now doesn’t have to stay that way. Our country has been a place of trust – and might be again.

Ordinary Easter, part 2


Mark is the earliest Gospel – written around 70 CE, say most scholars. It’s also the shortest gospel: at under 15,000 words, it’s less than two-thirds the length of the average of the other three gospels. There’s no miraculous birth in Mark – in fact, no birth story at all – and no doctrine of divine pre-existence. No Christmas story, and a truncated Easter story. It begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist – and it ends, like this:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (NRSV)
The end. "They were afraid." That’s it. That’s the end of the whole Gospel of Mark. At least, let us say, the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at that point: Women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Most scholars today believe this to be the original ending of Mark’s gospel. Statements from the early Church Fathers Eusebius and Jerome support that this is the original ending. Evidently, this didn’t feel like a satisfactory conclusion, so later manuscripts add a little more. But the original ended right there: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Silence and fear. That’s what we’re left with. That’s our Easter story. Silence and fear. Where’s the gospel – the good news – in that?

One scholar, Richard Burridge, argues that Mark’s picture of discipleship involves not knowing whether things will come right in the end. The way Mark’s Gospel ends certainly leaves open the question of whether it all comes right in the end. Burridge compares the ending of Mark to its beginning:
“Mark's narrative as we have it now ends as abruptly as it began. There was no introduction or background to Jesus' arrival, and none for his departure. No one knew where he came from; no one knows where he has gone; and not many understood him when he was here.”
Mark leaves us with silence and fear. Yet the very fact that he’s telling the story tells us that it didn’t end there. Someone broke that silence – the fact of the story lets us know – or there wouldn’t be the story.

I have spoken before of the women who courageously broke silence. First to lament, and in lamenting reclaim dignity and worthiness in the face of loss. And further to remember, to say a name, against all the shaming, fear, and humiliation that would bury it in silence. They broke silence to say his name, as we are today enjoined to say the names of George Floyd, Walter Scott, Breanna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and all the others. There is a power to breaking silence, to saying their names.

Further, they broke silence to tell stories that represented that the hope found in this man lived on – stories to transcend fear and affirm community, stories to overcome violence by sustaining hope – stories to transform humiliation into the strength of connection and in so doing resurrect life from death.

Mark leaves us with silence and fear, yet he also leaves us knowing that the silence will be broken, that the fear will be overcome – for the fact that he’s telling the story tells us that the story, and the hope, does live on. And what is that hope? The three women encounter a “young man dressed in a white robe” who tells them Jesus has been raised. And that Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Galilee: the place on the margins of Israel where Jesus was born, began his ministry, and where the first 9 chapters of Mark’s gospel take place. In other words, to find your hope, go back to the beginning. And go back out to the margins. If Jerusalem, the capital, the urban center of Ancient Near East society, represents the center of what society deems important, then our renewal lies in going to the margins.

Mark’s gospel ends so abruptly. You are left to write the end of the story. Even ancient sources couldn’t resist writing an ending, but never mind their ending, patched in from snippets of Matthew and Luke. What’s your ending? From the fear that has silenced you, what is your path back to the beginning, back out to the margins of what society centers?

What will we do with our fear? Go to Galilee, says Mark. Return to where you came from, on the margins. There you will see Jesus – see your own Christ-Nature, your Buddha-nature, the Moses of your heart. There you will meet the others with whom you may join in the ongoing work of resurrection – of bringing forth new life.

I believe that you know what I’m talking about, and know it from experience. I’m not saying, do this thing that’s nothing like anything you’ve ever done before. I think you have had moments in your life where you did this: broke from what was silencing you, answered your fear, returned to Galilee and touched what we Unitarians call your inherent worth and dignity. You’ve taken action with others to rebuild your life – to build the life we share together -- after a loss or setback. You are not, I think, a complete stranger to the work of resurrection. You got this.

The invitation that is always open, and that Easter is an occasion for remembering, is to ask in what ways, now, and again, are you called back to where you came from to see – now, and again – your true self – and in what ways – now, and again – to take up the work of resurrection?

There may be personal resurrections for you. There is also the social and political rebuilding to be done – the collective liberation that is at the heart of the Passover story, and was the original hope of the Jesus movement.

The testimony of the George Floyd trial this week has made many of us acutely conscious of the fact that we’ve created a police force so insulated from accountability that officers can commit murder at will. It has reminded us of the many ways our society oppresses people of color – and thereby oppresses all of us. Whatever our race, we are all precluded from the Beloved Community for which our hearts yearn.

Building beloved community will require going to the margins – going out to the places where people are marginalized – and going back to our origins – the values of fair treatment, of radical hospitality, of loving all our neighbors as ourselves – the values we embody when we see our own Christ-nature, the love from which we came -- before our silence and our fear made us complicit with white supremacist assumptions and complacent in the emergence of today’s police departments.

Mark’s Gospel leaves you with silence and fear, leaving you to write the end of the story. What’s the continuation to the Gospel of Mark that you will write today? What’s the continuation that you will write . . . today?

2021-04-06

Ordinary Easter, part 1


I’ll share with you a Zen koan, and talk about ordinariness as salvific: the reliable quotidian rhythms. Then we’ll look at the larger scale hopes for social and political liberation – in the foreground of the Passover story and in the background of the Easter story. We’ll note how the four gospel accounts of Easter are different. In part 2, we’ll take a deep dive into the Gospel of Mark, and see if can emerge with a context for both the ordinary, everyday resurrection and a social liberation that we have not yet seen. I will end with a question, rather than an affirmation, so I won’t be saying Amen at the end this time. Here we go.

A friend of mine is a United Church of Christ minister. We met at the Zen center where we both practice. Every couple weeks we meet on zoom to study a koan together, and from there we often talk shop about how things are at our respective congregations. We are working our way through a collection of koans called the Mumonkan – or Gateless Gate – and when we zoomed last Thursday, the one we were on was number 19:
Zhaozhou earnestly asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The ordinary mind is the Way.”
Zhaozhou said, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?”
Nanquan said, “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.”
Zhaozhou said, “If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is a blank consciousness. When you have really reached the true Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on a level of right and wrong?”
At these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly enlightened.
Ordinary mind is the way. There’s no special state to be achieved. The way does call for being mindful – and this mindfulness is simply paying attention to your ordinary life with its ordinary events. There’s no particular turning toward it that is called for. Anything special would be turning away from it.

You don’t have to learn some special knowledge – knowing is delusion. But don’t glorify ignorance either – not knowing is blank consciousness. The way is nothing special.

As my friend and I were talking about ordinariness, we got to talking what we were going to say to our congregations for Easter. I shared with him that I found this koan to be helpful. This is my eighth Easter service with Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains. All the splashy interpretations that I might have to offer have been shared in Easters past. It’s getting kinda ordinary – and ordinary is the way: the ordinary and reliable rebirth of spring – the ordinary and reliable lightening of our hearts as the days grow longer, the air warms, and the lovely blossoms push up from the earth.

He shared with me that he wished he could convince his congregation that the resurrection was nothing special. I’ve been reflecting about that. He’s a Christian, and I’m a nonChristian Unitarian – and we’re both also Buddhists. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you may be thinking there’s something special about the resurrection of Jesus – something extraordinary. You might think it’s extraordinary and true -- and is a truth that gives life much of its meaning. Or you might think it’s extraordinary and false – too extraordinary to be credible. But what if neither of those? What if it’s not extraordinary? What if it’s nothing special?

Before you die, your life has what meaning it has in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. After you die, your life continues – meaning what it means, in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. And apart from that, there's the reliable rhythm of the returning beauty of spring: so glorious – so gloriously ordinary.

The annual rhythm of the seasons is recapitulated in the ups and downs of life – the cycle of defeats and triumphs, of wounding and healing. We resurrect out of silence and into our voice – and find we still have episodes of being silenced. We resurrect out of fear and into assured confidence – and find we still have episodes of being scared. Nothing special.

I am not being the Schmeaster Bunny here. You know the Schmeaster Bunny – the dismissive little rabbit that’s through with carrying eggs all over the place – done with those pretty, brightly colored symbols of fertility – fed up with chocolate representations of itself. “Easter, schmeaster,” says the Schmeaster Bunny. Don’t be a Schmeaster Bunny.

The cycles of rebirth are wonderful, beautiful, delightful – and ordinary. These ordinary and reliable rhythms of life and death and rebirth are indeed glorious and rich – and nothing to be dismissive of. Along with these ordinary rhythms, we also have this background of large-scale liberation. There’s Passover -- the eight days of which conclude at sundown this evening – and the Passover story telling us of the Hebrew people fleeing from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were then conquered by the Assyrians – though they pretty much thrived as a semi-independent Assyrian vassal. When the Assyrian empire collapsed, the area was conquered by the Babylonians, then Persians, then the Greeks under Alexander the Great, then the Romans. The Romans had been the occupying force for a little over a hundred years by the time of Jesus. And once again (or, more-or-less, still) the Jewish people were longing for liberation from their occupying oppressors.

The original hope of the Jesus movement was a political hope – that he would be the leader, the king, of an independent Israel – like David and Solomon of old. They called him the "Christ," a Latin term, calqued from the Hebrew “Messiah,” which meant anointed one. The reference is to ceremonially anointing with oil at the inauguration of a monarch.

The common thread that links Passover and Easter is the story of a people longing for freedom from oppressive rulers: the Egyptians in one case, and the Romans in the other. The hopes of the people are pinned, in the one story, on Moses, and on the other story, on Jesus. One story has a happy ending – they escape Egyptian oppression. The other story has, well, a different sort of happy ending. The people don’t get the political freedom that they wanted. The hero is executed. Instead the story offers what may be called a spiritual bypass. The message is that a spiritual freedom is offered us – though the oppression of the body continues.

I want to remember with you, that the Four Canonical Gospels differ on what happened Easter morning. Mary Magdalene went by herself to the tomb, or she went with another Mary, or there were three women, or at least four.

She, or they, were taking spices to prepare the body for burial. She came in the pre-dawn darkness, or they came when the day was dawning, or the sun had already risen. They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back, or found the stone already rolled back.

In Matthew, the two women saw an angel and some guards. Mark says the three women entered the tomb and saw one “young man dressed in a white robe." Luke says the group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.” In John, Mary Magdalene went alone and saw no one; she then left, found two of the male disciples, told them the body was missing, rushed back to the tomb with the men. They saw nothing but linen wrappings. The men left Mary alone crying, and only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."

Each of the four different stories offers us an allegory with resources for meaning making. For this year, let’s look particularly at the account in Mark. We'll begin that look in part 2.

Hypocrites! part 2


Hypocrisy has a prominent place in Western moral discourse in no small part because Jesus invoked it so often. In Luke 6, Jesus says,
“how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
In Matthew 6, Jesus says, when you give alms, when you pray, and when you fast, don’t do it as the hypocrites do. Don’t sound a trumpet before you so you may be praised by others. Give alms in secret, not letting your left hand know you’re your right hand is doing, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Don’t pray in the synagogues and street corners so you may be seen by others.Pray in your room with the door shut, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you fast, don’t look dismal to show others that you’re fasting; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

In Luke 12, Jesus says to his disciples,
“Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”
Later in Luke 12, Jesus tells a crowd that they are hypocritical because they can interpret signs of rain, or of a coming heat wave, but do “not know how to interpret the present time.”

In Luke 13, Jesus eases a woman’s crippling ailment. The leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus cured on the Sabbath. Jesus retorts:
“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
But it’s in Matthew 23 that Jesus really lays into the Scribes and Pharisees, using the sternest words of condemnation Jesus speaks in the gospels. Seven times in that passage he imprecates: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He says they lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. They make their converts “twice as much a child of hell as” themselves. They dither over whether swearing by the sanctuary, or by the gold of the sanctuary is the more binding oath. They are careful to tithe their mint, dill, and cummin, but neglect justice and mercy and faith. They strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. They clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside are full of greed and self-indulgence. They are like whitewashed tombs: beautiful on the outside, but inside full of the bones of the dead. They and their ilk have killed or flogged true prophets, sages, and scribes. These Pharisees, Jesus says, will bear the guilt of it all. They are show offs -- actors on a stage who drop the pretense when no one is watching.

If “playing a part” is hypocrisy, the solution isn’t to never be on stage. We’re going to need to sometimes put ourselves out there – sign up, join, take a seat at the table -- be on display, but not just displaying. Not just displaying, but practicing with others. Practicing how to listen better, practicing having hard conversations, practicing how to look for joy, share pain, be curious, abandon defensiveness, and find togetherness.

Practice vulnerability, and getting uncomfortable, and being present with people as ourselves, not who we think they want us to be. When we find our belonging, we find our wholeness, our integrity, and there is no thought of fitting in because we apprehend that there’s no way to not fit in.

Whoever you are, you were brought forth by the universe to be the unique gift that you are. And your limitations are indispensable. You need your limitations the way a painter needs an edge of the canvas.

The poor Pharisees get a rather harsh rap. They are accused of being show offs, lonely actors on a stage performing whatever role is required in order to win approval from the current audience. But they were under conditions of occupation. They were an oppressed people. The consequences of failure to meet with the approval of the Romans – failure to fit in with what the regime required -- could be dire. No wonder they acted a part. Even under much more tolerant circumstances, its easy for a person’s need for approval from others to grow desperate.

Jesus tells his followers: Your heavenly Father, who sees in secret will repay you for giving alms. Your heavenly Father who sees in secret will repay you for praying. Your heavenly Father who sees what is hidden will repay you for your fasting. We might put it this way: the universe, in ways both subtle and clear, welcomes you into your wholeness. The world needs you as you are, integrated.

In Jesus’ time, the primary spiritual practices were alms giving, praying, and fasting. The function of spiritual practice is to deepen our awareness that we are, indeed, never alone – to more thoroughly grasp the connection of love that binds us to one another and our world. But the practice won’t work if we are merely performing, if we are showing off. So Jesus suggests do it in secret. Just remove the temptation of any motive other than to pause and be conscious of the love that surrounds us, flowing into us and filling us up. Pause to reconnect with your inalienable belonging, inherent wholeness, and unbreakable integrity.

In the creative enterprise, the art, that is living, showing up for others, is of the essence. The musician needs recitals, the painter needs exhibits, the writer needs readers. We need to step onto our respective stages – bringing our authenticity, honed in solitary practice. If the actions taken when on stage flow from authenticity, then they are not under- (hypo) performed. It's "showing," rather than "showing off."

Going back to the root meaning of “-crisy” – before it meant "to play a part," and before it meant "to answer a fellow actor," it simply meant “to answer.” We are here to answer: to answer our call -- to respond to what we are called to be by offering up the wholeness of our being, rather than hypo-answering, under-answering with mere pretense.

Knowing your authenticity, knowing your true belonging, knowing your wholeness and your integrity -- helped along by insights from others but not dependent upon their approval -- is always a work in progress. It is a knowing glimpsed but never quite grasped. Thus our reach exceeds our grasp. Thus are we liberated from pretense.

May it be so. Amen.

2021-04-03

UU Minute #36

England: Wycliffe to Henry VIII



Our story now makes its way to England, which has its own very distinctive church history. Antitrinitarian thought had popped up in the British Isles at least as early as 1327, when Adam Duff O’Toole was executed outside Dublin for denying the Trinity.

Later that century, John Wycliffe had headed a reform movement of sorts, questioning the privileged status of the clergy, the luxury and pomp of local parishes and their ceremonies, the veneration of saints, the sacraments, requiem masses, transubstantiation, monasticism, and the legitimacy of the Papacy.

Wycliffe, together with supporting associates, produced the first translation of the Bible into the English vernacular of the time – what we call Middle English. The project was completed the year Wycliffe died, 1384. The printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so the Wycliffe Bible didn’t have the impact it otherwise might have.

Still the Reformation didn’t come to England in the form that it swept over the mainland. England did a sort of Reformation Lite, by creating the Church of England – which, to this day, as the Anglican or the Episcopalian church, has a liturgy and worship style that’s halfway between Catholic and Protestant.

While Luther’s Reformation was based on 95 theses of critique against the abuses and corruptions of the Catholic Church, England’s Henry VIII simply wanted to be rid of a wife who, through no fault of her own, had not born him a surviving son – and who also wasn’t as young as Anne Boleyn. Since the Pope wouldn’t grant Henry an annulment, Henry prevailed upon the English church to renounce papal authority. The year was 1534.


2021-03-30

UU Minute #35

The Dissipation of Socinianism



The Minor Reformed Church, that is, the early unitarian church, began in Poland because Poland in the 16th century was tolerant enough to allow it. But in the 17th century, Poland proved not tolerant enough to allow it to continue. In the half-century after Fausto Sozzini’s death in 1604, oppression increased and worsened until, in 1660, the Socinians were forcibly expelled.

Some went to Transylvania where Polish-speaking unitarian churches were then established -- these eventually assimilated. Some exiles went to Konigsburg, Prussia, where, for another century, Socinian congregations survived. The Socinians who made it to Holland established the congregations that endured the longest.

Fausto and Elizabeth Morsztyn had had one child: a daughter, Agnese. Agnese grew up and married Stanislaw Wiszowaty, and they had a son, Andreas Wiszowaty, born 1608. Andreas, Fausto’s grandson, was a theologian in his own right and minister in the Socinian churches of Holland, as were both of Andreas’ two sons. After the generation of Fausto’s great-grandchildren, for all practical purposes, Sociniansm as an organized religious movement died.

The ideas, however – the thought printed in Fausto’s books which had been leaking into England since 1590, continued to filter in over the next two centuries and fuel a Unitarian movement there. Through those writings, Fausto Sozzini was, as David Parke writes, “More than any other person, the architect of modern Unitarianism.”

We are his heirs. Not because we share his doctrines. Most of us do not. We are his heirs because we Unitarian Universalists today continue the conversation to which Fausto Sozzini so substantially contributed. We have expanded upon his commitments to tolerance of diverse viewpoints, and we retain his emphasis on religion as what we live, one example and model of which is the life of Jesus. May we be worthy of this rich inheritance.


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