Retold Christmas: The Innkeeper's Tale

A priest, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar...

Into my bar, in fact. This is no joke. Let me back up. My name’s Louie Knight. I run a respectable establishment down on Staten Island. Got a bar downstairs, and six rooms upstairs that we rent out – by the night, by the week, or by the month. It’s an Inn. I’m an Innkeeper – and this is my story.

A year ago last October we got hit by superstorm Sandy. Knocked the power out, knocked the phones out. My cell phone battery was soon dead, and it took a few days to find a way to recharge it.

The bar was closed, but I was in there with several candles burning. In the dim light I was seeing if the glassware could be secured a little better. I hadn't locked the door, though, and in the midst of the storm – high winds and driving rain – a couple stumbled into my bar. They were drenched – soaking wet – still clutching their useless inside-out umbrellas. They both looked, maybe, Hispanic. Or maybe Middle-Eastern. The woman was around 25 or 30 -- and was very pregnant. About to pop. The man looked a little older, and had a beard.

I said, “Can I help you?”

The woman said, “I sure hope so.” I could tell from the sound of her voice, this was not good.

I said, “Lady, maybe you need the hospital. There's a hospital just three blocks north from here . . ."

“I just came from there," she said, on the verge of tears. "The power's out, the back-up generators are out. The hospital wouldn’t take us. They can't. Yours was the first door that was open.”

“What do you need?”

“We just need a dry place. For one day," said the man. "We can’t get home in this storm.”

“You can’t stay here," I told him. "I’m all full up." The two of them stood there, looking at me. The guy decided to go for the sociable approach. He stepped forward, stuck out his hand. “I’m Joseph," he said. "This is my wife, Mary”

“Mary and Joseph. Of course you are,” I said. "I don’t care if you’re Simon and Garfunkel – I don’t have a room. I got the Barbescues in room 1, Charlie Fillmore in room 2, Montefiore in room 3, Billy DiAngelo in room 4, the Robertses in room 5, and Sandra Duquesne in room 6. I’m full."

Slowly they turned. They got to the door – Joseph had his hand on the knob -- when my wife, Miriam, popped out. I guess she’d been listening the whole time. Miriam said, “We’ve got a garage.”

"Oh, geesh Miriam," I was thinking. But the truth is, this couple was breaking my heart, and I’m glad she said it. I made a big sigh, and I said, "Yeah, we’ve got a garage. Nothing to sleep on."

Joseph said, “We don’t need anything. A little floor – until the storm lets up.”

So I got a candle and led them downstairs to the garage. It was no stable – no cow, no horse – but it did have a Mustang: a 1964 vintage Mustang, in fact. I’d just finished fixing it all up – good as new. Beautiful new paint job: royal blue, with white racing stripes. My pride and joy.

It was a project I’d been working on for two years, and just a few days before I had put an ad in a car magazine that it was for sale. It wouldn’t be easy to part with – but it was time to let somebody else enjoy this wonderful car – and for me to see some profit on my labors.

Anyways, I showed Mary and Joseph to a corner. I gathered an old coat and an old quilt I had, so they’d have a little bit of padding between them and the floor – and I went back to my bar. Billy DiAngelo from room 4 came down, and I told him the whole story. He went down to the garage to meet this Mary and Joseph, and before I knew it, he came running back up.

“Mary’s water broke” he blurted, and out the door he ran, right into the storm -- no raincoat, nothin' -- just straight out the door.

Now Miriam and I were freaking out. We didn’t know what to do. Boil some water. Get some towels – the clean ones.

But in just 10 or 15 minutes, back came Billy, and he brought a couple with him. Billy was soaking wet, and the couple were wearing full-length yellow ponchos. “They’re doctors," he said. "We met last week. They just moved in around the corner. So I went to get them."

The woman shook my hand and introduced herself. “I’m Doctor Deborah Shepard,” she said, out of breath. “I’m an obstetrician. This is my husband, Michael – he’s a pediatrician.” Each of them was carrying a black satchel just like doctors in the old movies.

"OK, let me get this straight," I said. "You’re the Shepards, and you’re here on accounta DiAngelo told youse to come?”

The doctors Shepard nodded. So I led them downstairs, and they went straight to Mary. "Anything you can do to get us more light?" said Dr. Michael. So Miriam and I went rounding up all the flashlights and candles we could find.

And that’s when the priest, the rabbi, and the Buddhist monk walked into my bar. They looked remarkably dry, given the storm.

“Call me Barry,” said the priest.

“I’m Sam,” said the rabbi.

“Frank,” nodded the Buddhist monk.

They each had a copy of the car magazine in their hands. “We’re all members of a Mustang fan club, and we’ve been looking for a '64 mustang for a long time” said the priest, Barry.

"We'd brave any storm for a chance at a good one. Supposedly, you've got one that's quite the car of wonder," said the rabbi, Sam. Then he opened the car magazine and read from my ad:
“Car of wonder, car of Knight, car of royal blue and white.”
So what could I do but show them the car? I took them down to the garage.

I said, "There you go. You’ve come following yonder car."

The Buddhist monk, Frank, said, “I can’t help noticing that there’s a woman who appears to be giving birth right next to your car of wonder.”

“Correction,” said Dr. Deborah, “has given birth,” and she lifted up a tiny baby, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. It seemed to glow and light up the whole garage -- but maybe that was just the electricity flickering briefly for a moment just then.

“Is there something to wrap him in?" called Dr. Michael.

Miriam ran and got a T-shirt. She started babbling about how the t-shirt belonged to her nephew, who's a model, and, in fact, he had once done a shoot wearing that exact t-shirt. I took the shirt from Miriam and handed it to Dr. Michael.

"Let me," said Mary, sitting up and taking the shirt.

"You can set him down right here," I said, opening the car door and indicating the bucket seat. It was the only thing that was upholstered or reasonably soft and clean.

So Mary, she wrapped the babe in modeling clothes and laid him in a Mustang.

The babe's feet were sticking out. Sam took off his fur-lined mittens and gently slid one over each foot. They went up to the knee. Frank lit a stick of incense in one of the candles. Barry looked from Mary to Joseph, and said, "Congratulations. A new hope is born."

"A new love," added Sam.

"A new faith," said Frank.

Barry reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold coin. "This was given to me by a parishioner about a year ago. Let me give it now to you, in token of this blessing that is to you, and also to all of us." He handed the coin to Joseph, who took it, his lower lip trembling.

Miriam leaned over and whispered to me, "Gold."

"And Frank's incense," I said.

"And fur," she added, pointing to the mittens on the babe's legs.

There we were -- ten of us -- Mary, Joseph, the two doctors Shepard, Billy DiAngelo, Barry, Sam, Frank, and Miriam and me -- gathered around a shining babe sleeping in a shiny muscle car. Nobody said a word. A tremendous peace descended over us.

Outside the storm howled on. But there inside that garage we were safe -- and saved. We came together to help each other when there was need. That connection of care: that's our salvation. We were there for each other -- and we brought a new life into this world. It was amazing -- a wonder to behold.

Right in the middle of the worst storm I've ever seen came the best experience I've ever had.


Newsletter Column 2014 Jan

Thank You, Earth

At Community Unitarian Church, next month's theme will be “Creation.” In January, the invitation will be to explore the spiritual basis for environmental care and activism.

The spiritual basis of anything begins with gratitude, that most fundamental of all spiritual virtues and the ground from which all the others grow.

So let me express my gratitude for Creation:

Thank you, Earth. Thank you for air. The sunshine: morning rising beauty of hope; evening setting grace of gratitude. My brain processes the light that comes from the sky as blue – I’m not clear on why or how a bunch of neurons does that. I have a slightly better grasp on why snow is white, and no clue at all why chlorophyll is green. I don’t know why blood is red, either -- that vivid aliveness motion inside me, and us -- nor why flower blossoms are so variously, brightly colored. I just know the blue sky, winter’s white snow, and spring and summer’s green grass and trees are home.

Thank you, Earth, for ants, worms, beetles, spiders, jellyfish, squid. Thank you for fish: shiny, darting. Thank you for reptiles: tortoises, bright little lizards, and the alligators I left behind in Florida. Thank you for birds, and the unignorability of the fact of flying. Because they are, and I am they, I, too, fly. Thank you for other mammals, the things with hair and milk-making bodies: foxes and alpacas and orcas and rabbits.

I imagine living on a space station: the view, so deep; the black, and vast starfields, filling me with infinity every day. But it takes ground to be grounded. I was made to be among your colors and life and limited horizons, Earth. Even when it is dangerous, too hot, too cold, too rainy, too dry, I was made for you, Earth. All the 7.7 millions of animal species, all the three hundreds of thousand plant species, all the fungi, protozoa, and chromista, they were made for you, too, and by you, out of dirt and water and sunlight.

Did you make snakes able to be thankful? Have blue jays gratitude? Lobsters? Maybe they are always grateful – and what they aren’t able to be is not thankful. This is a wonder to me, who am sometimes ungrateful and who other times, like today, am sky-blue thank you and leaf-green thank you and blood-red thank you and snow-white thank you and mud-brown thank you.

Grateful feels good, Dear Earth, and you offer so much for which. Sometimes I forget. Then I remember again.



"Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:" (Exodus 20:3-5, KJV)
What’s the big deal about graven images? you may wonder.

Historically, it seems to have been a tribal thing: the neighboring tribes made statues that represented their deities, so the Hebrew people, to be distinctive, insisted on having no deity statuary. Nor, for that matter, any angel statuary, nor thing-in-the-earth statuary, nor thing-in-the-water-under-the-earth statuary. No figurines of elephants or parrots or fish: none of that. For the ancient Hebrew people, this was part of how one affirmed one’s loyalty to the tribe. “We’re the people who don’t do that – so don’t do that,” they said.

It may have started that way, but the sanction against idolatry ended up pointing the Hebrew people toward something important. As a statue is fixed and static and unchanging, a person might also have certain ideas, beliefs, concepts that become fixed and static. The commandment against idols isn’t just about statues and figurines. It’s about any concept or thought-pattern that has become fixed and rigid. By abjuring graven images, the Hebrew people were subtly reoriented toward a conception of God as dynamic, unfolding, and always beyond whatever you can imagine, always other than anything you think.

The divine creative movement of the universe is dynamic, changing. Human understanding is ever unfolding. Idolatry means clinging to a fixed, static conception; closing ourselves to new learning.

Thus we see that it actually is quite apt for this mention of idolatry to be included in our humanist source. The guidance of reason and the results of science continually overturn our idols, challenge what we think we know.

Moreover, this is really the point that I think John Scotus Eriugena was on about. Any time someone says God exists, she has some idea of what this God is that exists. This is problematic because any concept at all, if you’re stuck on it, is an idol. As soon as you have an idea of God – any idea – smash that idol and return to a stance of total openness to whatever the world might present to you without forcing it into one or another of your preconceived conceptual categories.

If you were to sincerely practice living this way, you would find yourself saying a lot of things that contradict other things you’ve said. Congratulations. That means you’re not making idols of your past statements. It means you have opened up to contain multitudes. As Walt Whitman said:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.”
In an earlier post, I suggested some things that God might mean:
  • Community-forming power;
  • love;
  • the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity;
  • the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
  • origin;
  • any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment;
  • the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
  • the cosmos.
Those, too, are concepts that could become idols. By saying “God” we are also saying more than all of these definitions.

Or rather, maybe, less.

We’re saying THAT – while at the same time whispering “but remember, also not THAT.” By saying “God,” we are invoking a tradition which, for all its abuses and its nonsense, also includes the reminder that all our ideas are inadequate, a tradition which calls us to smash our idols, a tradition that says there is more there than our words can say – so much more that even our truest words are also false to the fullness of the mystery within which we live and breathe and have our being.

There is no God – that is, there is no possible concept that can encapsulate all of the wonder and the paradox that is this dear life – the wonder and the paradox that is directly staring us in the face every moment, saying, “hey you, knock over the idols of what you think you know and wake up.”

Whatever you think you know, this moment has something new and fresh to teach you. Are you listening? Are you looking? Always. For there is no God, and she is always with you -- whispering: “Pay attention.”

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "There Is No God and She Is Always with You"
See also:
Part 1: Religious Humanism
Part 2: The New New Atheism


The New New Atheism

In recent years we have seen a real renaissance in religious humanism – only, without that label. The label, “humanist” seems to have fallen out of favor, but the idea of religion and spirituality without God is booming. Try typing “Spiritual Atheism” into your favorite search engine. You'll find there's a LOT out there -- and this Spiritual Atheism is a growing phenomenon.

A book came out last year by Chris Stedman called, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Another book, also out last year, by Alain de Botton is called, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. De Botton argues that atheists, instead of deriding religion should steal from it because
“the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.”
A few years ago we saw a spate of books grouped together as “The New Atheism”:

Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004).
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006).
Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell (2006).
Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (2007).

These books derided belief in God and also despised faith, spirituality, religion, and religious institutions. What we’re now seeing is a New New Atheism that doesn’t want to deride anything. While still disbelieving in God, this New New Atheism values faith, spirituality, and religion.

“Faith,” as Karen Armstrong points out, in the New Testament, is the Greek word psistis, which means trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment. When Jesus calls for greater faith, he’s not calling for people to cling harder to a set of propositional beliefs. He’s calling for engagement and commitment.

“Spirituality,” as growing numbers of spiritual atheists are saying, isn’t about spirit-stuff as opposed to material stuff. It’s about claiming the depths of awe and wonder, serenity and compassion, abundance and acceptance, indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal.

This idea of connecting with the religious impulse rather than denying it is just what the Humanist Manifesto called for 80 years ago.

The idea that there is no God is actually a staple of Christian Theology going back centuries. The 9th-century Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena, for example, wrote:
“We do not know what God is. God himself doesn’t know what he is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not, because he transcends being.”
Got that? This is a Christian theologian saying that God does not exist. Eriugena also says God isn't nonexistent in the way that, say, unicorns or Manti Te'o's girlfriend are nonexistent. Rather God transcends the categories of existence and nonexistence, being and nonbeing.

To understand this, let’s go back to that fifth source of the living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share:
“Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
This language of our six sources emerged from a couple General Assemblies in the mid-1980s.

It might seem a little strange that they would have put this reference to idolatry into our acknowledgement that humanism is a significant source of the living tradition we share. When you think of the repudiation of idolatry, your first thought probably wouldn't be humanism. Your first thought would more likely be the first of the Ten Commandment (or the first two Commandments, depending on which tradition is doing the counting):
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:" (Exodus 20:3-5, KJV)
What’s the big deal about graven images? you may wonder.

Next: Idolatry and the transcendence of being and nonbeing.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "There Is No God and She Is Always with You"
See also:
Part 1: Religious Humanism
Part 3: Idolatry


Religious Humanism

The living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share draws on many sources. We officially list six. Our fifth source is:
“Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
The Liberal Pulpilt's previous series, "Respond to Whose Love?" reflected on the fourth source:
“Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
Now The Liberal Pulpit explores the issue of God from a humanist angle. Some background about that:

We are celebrating this year the 80th anniversary of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. (I know many of us have been making the circuit of celebratory '33 Manifesto anniversary parties!)

The Manifesto was very much a product of developing Unitarian thought. Unitarian ministers such as Rev. John Dietrich and Rev. Curtis Reese began thinking about a religion without God in early years of the 20th century. Dietrich and Reese met each other 1918. Dietrich was then serving the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and Reese was serving a Unitarian congregation in Iowa. They and others collaborated in further developing Unitarian Humanism.

The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 had 33 original signatories, 15 of whom were Unitarian ministers, including Dietrich, Reese, and one Rev. R. Lester Mondale (a relative of former vice-president Mondale), who, late in his career, served Community Unitarian Church at White Plains for a stint in 1962 and a second stint in 1965. One Universalist minister was a signatory, as were 17 other prominent public intellectuals who had been brought on board with the project.

The entire manifesto is just 11-hundred words – a couple pages. Please CLICK HERE and give it a read, or re-read. Here are some excerpts which will give you some of the flavor of the document (including the male-dominated language of the time). This is about one-third of the entirety:
"The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world.... In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism.... Today man's larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion.... We therefore affirm the following:
Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process....
Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values….
Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.... We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, [or] deism,...
Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained....
In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being....
We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.... Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.”
I am stirred and moved by the boldness of these Humanists 80 years ago – by their vision and their hope.

The implicit critique of traditional religion – which, for them, pretty much meant Christianity – is valid. The West's religious tradition has often not harmonized well with the understandings emerging through the work of scientists. The West's religious tradition has sometimes obstructed rather than aided progress in addressing modern social problems. It has often separated people rather than bringing them together. So the Humanists said, “Let’s do religion. Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life, and we need that. But let’s have religion without God."

Today we still live in a world where people plant bombs – on themselves, in cars, in buildings – and fly jet airliners into buildings – and are led to do so in a way that is enmeshed with their understanding about something they call God.

Today we still live in a world where, only somewhat less violently, people want to take away women’s reproductive freedom, and punitively stigmatize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and their thinking makes heavy and frequent reference to something they call God.

Today we still live in a world where our children are liable to be told by their classmates that they are going to hell.

Today we still live in a world where a few people make it their life's mission to devise elaborate refutations of evolution, and where more than a few people work to change the public school science curricula to present as science their views about something they call God.

Today we still live in a world where our own experience of many religious institutions is that their devotion to something they call God goes hand in hand with authoritarianism: they don’t allow questioning; they don’t allow critical thinking; they demand uncritical acceptance of authority. They say that the authority is a book, but the perceptive quickly see the authority really is a community of human leaders who have settled on one interpretation of that book, when the book itself equally well – or better -- supports very different readings.

Today we still live in a world where we see that “faith” so often means “believe what the authority figure tells you to believe and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray.”

Today we still live in a world where countries that measure higher on religiosity, venerating something they call God, also measure higher on violence, drug and alcohol addictions, teen pregnancies, imprisonment rates, and high school drop-out rates.

No wonder it would seem important to Humanists three generations ago as well as today to call for a religion that doesn’t have this thing called God in it.

* * *
This is Part 1 of 3 of "There Is No God and She Is Always with You"
See also:
Part 2: The New New Atheism
Part 3: Idolatry


Respond to God's Love

Respond to Whose Love? part 4
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.
Tribal – or class – loyalty might make us balk at some language, but we noticed (in parts 1-3) that when loyalty isn’t at play, as when reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s relatively easy to practice the gentle arts of flexibility and charity. I’ve come to understand that whether or not I want to insist that “God” necessarily must imply an entity with awareness and intentions is mostly about my tribal loyalty, just as my grammar pet peeves are.

Can we Unitarian Universalists engage in a process we identify as discerning what God is calling us to do? Can we have conversations about the question, "How do we serve God?" Yes, we can. In talking about serving God, we would be talking about serving life, and good, and the flourishing of all beings, while also reminding ourselves of the finitude and corrigibility of our own conceptions of life, good, and flourishing – which is just what I think Jews, Christians, Moslems, and Hindus are talking about when they speak of serving God.

When we say, as we do in the fourth source of the living tradition we share, that we are called "to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as our selves," we are saying that the moments when we have felt the greatest belonging and connection inspire us to want to help our neighbors also feel connected and know they belong – which is what I think it truly means to respond to God’s love, whether or not God is conceived of as a person-like entity, and regardless of how metaphorical that conception is.

If I have a chance to connect with you, whoever you are, then connecting with you is usually more important than separating myself from you. If you and I have each felt mystery, wonder, and beauty come together with peace, compassion, and the softening of ego defenses -- if we have opened our hearts to love -- then we have a shared commonality that transcends both your dogmatic opinions about God and my dogmatic opinions about how wrong your dogmatic opinions are. That shared commonality in the moment matters more than my urge to insist on asserting my tribal identity.

It turns out that I can still oppose mandatory school prayer, support mandatory inclusion of evolution, favor reproductive rights, legal recognition of same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and public programs to take care of all our people -- and talk about God. I can talk about the impetus of the universe as God’s call for us to improve our understanding, respect our differences, serve life and freedom, and share God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Willing to employ "God talk" judiciously, I can be more effective than I ever could by a fastidious refusal to invoke the one word that, more clearly than any other, conveys a sense of spacious mystery tugging us toward the better angels of our nature.

Moreover, I find my wholeness and healing growing the more I perform the imaginative exercise of pretending that the world might be whispering to me, calling, inviting me to love if I but listen.

Listen: it is God’s love calling me to respond by loving myself and my neighbor as my self. It is God’s love lifting me up -- as levity lifts a child's balloon. May it be so for all of us.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 1: The Force of Levity
Part 2: The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal
Part 3: Separation or Connection?


Separation or Connection?

Respond to Whose Love? part 3

Where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words.

For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither. We simply adjust to different ways of using words.

Longfellow's famous poem begins, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee.” A footnote, or a teacher, informs us that 'Gitche Gumee' is a name for Lake Superior. Most of us can go with that, without the annoyed feeling, "If he meant Lake Superior he should have said 'Lake Superior.'"

Or consider Lewis Carroll's poem, “Jabberwocky.”
"‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
all mimsy were the borogoves,
and ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that.

Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God.

To see how this works, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability beginning to stiffen dogmatically when it comes to grammar. Attitudes about grammar illustrate how attitudes about "God" work. I, for example, occasionally find myself wrestling with my own grammar dogmatism. I am sensitive to the differences between “lie” and “lay” and between "disinterested" and "uninterested," and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too.

I have my pet list of words not to be used as verbs. "Loan" is not a verb, I say. Nor are "impact," "mandate," or "critique." These words are nouns! The perfectly good verbs are lend, affect, require, and criticize. Even more hideous: "transition. “Transition" is not a verb!
We Grammar Nazis like to make protestations about preserving the language, facilitating clarity of thought, and guarding against language so decaying that it becomes an impediment to understanding. Speaking as one who has Grammar Nazi tendencies, I have to confess, those protestations are hollow. What it's really about is loyalty: tribal -- and class -- loyalty. It would seem a betrayal of our grandmothers or parents or beloved English teachers if we were to allow ourselves to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate saying “got” when they should say “have,” or "infer" when they mean "imply."

Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes.

Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me – the degree that I desire to preserve privilege and separation between the other and me.

So there’s the question: Do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

We face linguistic choices – whether to say “ain’t,” or to call a rising balloon “levity,” or use the word “God.” As you make those choices, do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

For me, I decided that I don’t want to be a Grammar Nazi. Connection is more important than separation. If it will help me connect with others, then I will (gulp) transition to the next phase. Any noun you might could verb (whew!) go ahead. And if I don’t know what you mean, I’ll ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, any clearer.

Neither am I going to be a Nazi about the word “God.” If that word allows for connecting with other people around the shared meanings of community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; the cosmos -- then I’ve decided that connecting with others is more important than separating from them based on the fact that I conceive of God’s knowing or desiring more metaphorically than they do.

Connecting is more important than separating.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 1: The Force of Levity
Part 2: The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal
Part 4: Respond to God's Love


The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal

Respond to Whose Love? part 2

Unitarian Universalists have different experiences of the world -- different from people in other faith traditions and different from each other. People have different stories to make sense of our world. Some stories about reality feature a creative force that is person-like in that it knows and it wants. Other stories tell of a creative force that kind of has knowledge and desires – in a rather metaphorical sense. Still other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying utterly without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose, even metaphorically speaking. We have different senses of what’s out there. Of course we do. We’ve had different experiences, so how could we not? I want a world in which that is not a problem, don’t you?

Unitarian Theologian James Luther Adams (1901-1994)
saw divinity manifested in community-forming power.
Besides different opinions of what does or does not exist out there (the ontological questions), we have different viewpoints for how words may reasonably be used (the semantic questions). I was poking around on the internet for definitions of "God" and I discovered that Reverend James Ford (who preached at my service of installation at CUC on November 10) had quoted me in one of his blog posts. He wrote:
Meredith Garmon . . . once observed, “The word ‘God’ points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics.”
I’d forgotten I said that, but OK, I’ll take it. And if I may build upon that a little, I would define "God" as:
  • community-forming power;
  • love;
  • the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity;
  • the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
  • origin;
  • any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment;
  • widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
  • the cosmos.
My semantic argument would be that these are the most important meanings -- the essence, if you will -- to which people, regardless of their religious persuasion, have pretty-much-always been referring when they said ‘God.’ Many who speak that word would also include "person-like creator" -- but many would not. So I regard "person-like creator" as nonessential.

Such would be my semantic claim. There are others, however, who disagree with me about that. They counter-claim that the word ‘God’ unavoidably implies a person-like creator.

I believe that theology is a kind of poetry, not a kind of science or natural history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. I want a world in which that, too, is not a problem -- a world in which different experiences of what’s real (different ontological positions) are honored, and in which different semantic positions and different styles of poetry and metaphor are also honored. Why is that so hard?

Here is why it is so hard: tribalism. There is an awful lot of religion that is neither about a sense of what’s out there, nor is about a sense of the proper use of words. It’s just about: "Whose team are you on?" We see a lot of religion in which the texts and practices are merely talismanic -- talismans of tribal belonging.

Consider, for example, a recent report from Christianity Today:
“Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition."
Or, as Gallup and Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding,
“Americans revere the Bible but by and large they don’t read it.”
Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels. Fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. Comedians like Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert have made sport of Americans' inability to name the Ten Commandments -- even among members of Congress who have pushed to have them posted publicly. Yet Bible sales continue at a brisk clip. For many, apparently, the Bible is a sort of talisman: an object to possess as a symbol of tribal loyalty, not a text to study and understand.

In a similar way, tribal loyalties get in the way of honoring and respecting different experiences about what is real, and different poetic inclinations for choosing words. We have a hard time simply accepting our differences when those differences symbolize what team one is on – and when team membership requires being opposed to certain other teams.

I'm not saying tribalism is always bad. It isn't. After all, another word for “tribe” is “community,” and community is, indeed, an important part of religion. We are social beings: we need community, and loyalty to our group is, by and large, a virtue.

The problem arises when one's tribal connection neither affirms and supports any ethic or value other than tribe loyalty, nor facilitates or helps integrate one's transcendent experiences of interconnection and peace. If the primary function of my community is to nurse a shared sense of who the enemy is, then my community isn’t healthy. People who want to post the ten commandments but don't know more than a couple of those commandments, are using the issue as a test to identify who their enemies are.

In the next post, we'll look at some cases where we are typically flexible about language, and some cases where some of us grow inflexible. We'll see that linguistic inflexibility correlates with tribal loyalty. We must then ask whether defending tribal identity is more important than connecting with other people where they are.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 1: The Force of Levity
Part 3: Separation or Connection?
Part 4: Respond to God's Love


The Force of Levity

Respond to Whose Love? part 1

The living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share draws on many sources. We officially list six. Our fourth source is:
“Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
"God" is a difficult topic among Unitarian Universalists. Some of us resist any use of the word or concept. For others of us, God is a central part of our understanding and our life.

This disagreement between self-identified "theists" and self-identified "atheists" sometimes seems to be ontological: that is, the parties advance competing claims about the nature of reality and what reality does and does not include.

Sometimes the disagreement seems to be semantic: that is, the parties advance competing claims about what words do and don't mean.

Mostly, though, it seems to me that this issue is neither ontological nor semantic, but tribal. The parties affirm the existence or nonexistence of God in order to signal their identity and group loyalty.

So what I shall do in the next several posts is look at the ways we use language to signal tribal identity. When tribal identity is at stake we become rigid, inflexible, dogmatic about "speaking correctly" -- and this is just as true for those who call themselves "atheists" as for those who call themselves "theists." When our tribalism is not at stake, almost all of us, whether we call ourselves "atheist" or "theist," are flexible, creative, open, and charitable in the ways we use and respond to nonstandard language. The question then arises: What's more important, defending our tribal identity or connecting with other people where they are?

For instance, here's a story from my childhood. A couple Thanksgivings ago, Mom recounted to me a story from my childhood. I had no recollection of ever having heard this story before – nor do I have any recollection of the incident itself, which occurred when I was about five years old. We were back at home after my first visit to some fair or carnival where I had seen helium balloons. I had evidently been turning over the experience in my five-year-old brain, and I asked: “Mom, why do they go up?”

Mom, rational scientist that she was and is, answered, “Why wouldn’t they go up?”

“Things go down,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”

“Because of gravity,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloon goes up because of levity.”

And this satisfied me.

When Mom told me this story a couple years ago, I did NOT think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? She might have tried explaining that gravitational attraction is proportional to mass, and that stuff that’s more dense has more mass for a given volume, and helium is less dense than air, so gravity pulls the air harder than it pulls the helium in the balloon, so gravity pulls the air down and under the balloon, pushing that less-dense object upward. Mom wasn’t ready to explain all that – or, rather, she knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she gave me this word, “levity” as a sort of placeholder. With wisdom and quick wit, she used language to connect with me where I was, rather than to leave me behind.

I delight in this new family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it is, in fact, so true. I love knowing again what apparently I was first taught at age five but forgot:there is a force called levity that makes things rise.

The world is full of wonder. At times when I might think gravity makes everything go down, I recall that some things go up.

Language is full of wonder, too. The words we select to express our experience give the experience meaning -- and sometimes delight.

The wonder of world and word comes to mind when I reflect on our text for today: the fourth source of the living tradition we share, "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves." Respond to whose love? It’s a topic that calls for both gravity and levity, isn’t it?

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 2: The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal
Part 3: Separation or Connection?
Part 4: Respond to God's Love


Newsletter Column 2013 Dec


The theme for December is “God.” Among Unitarian Universalists, this topic can be incendiary (appropriately enough, perhaps, given the story of how Yahweh appeared to Moses). Here’s a beginning of my thoughts on this big topic.

It’s poetry. When we talk theology, we’re not talking science. We aren’t giving testimony in a court of law. We aren’t talking history. Rather, we’re speaking poetically. When we say “blanket of snow” we probably don’t really think the snow is a blanket -- blankets are warm, and snow is cold. Poets might tell us, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (Eliot), or that they saw “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” (Ginsberg). When we read a poem, most of us adopt a congenial and charitable willingness to open ourselves to the possibilities of meaning and insight. We don’t fret about whether Eliot really should have been a pair of claws, or whether Ginsberg’s hipsters really burned for connection. Why wouldn’t we approach lines like, “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth,” and, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” with the same openness? Because:

It’s tribal. A lot of people are invested in a tribal identity centered in their religious language. The fans of Whitman’s or Tennyson’s poetry have not formed a powerful coalition justifying objectionable public policy with dubious interpretations of certain lines from their favorite poet. If they did, we might lose our ability to engage those lines with our former open, curious, and generous disposition. Frankly, the language of “God” is a central part of the rationale of people intent to limit women’s reproductive freedom, deny equality to LGBT folk, challenge the teaching of evolution in our schools, and generally make the world over in their own image: mean and intolerant. Many of us have had negative experiences with one or another such tribe, and that experience, understandably, makes it difficult to regard their language as helpful, or even harmless, poetry. Moreover, we Unitarian Universalists have our own tribal identity to support, and sometimes it can seem attractive to distinguish ourselves as the people who won’t use the words “those people” use. I get that.

Still, my hopes lie with the possibilities of employing overlap of meanings in order to build bridges of connection and common cause with people of good will who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. I think we can use the word “God” to reference shared, poetic, and helpful meanings: community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; the cosmos – and even, possibilities for relating to the flow of coincidences as if it represented the workings of agency.

Yours faithfully,


Five Universal Practices

If you're new to the concept of spiritual practice, I recommend beginning with an activity that is as utterly without a goal or purpose as possible. Remember: it’s about who you are, not about attaining something. Only then, as the poem said, will you "attain the good you will not attain" ("The Envoy of Mr Cogito" HERE). Purpose invites judgment about accomplishment or not. So think about something you do just to be doing it, something you do without thinking about achieving anything, without thinking about whether you're doing it the way you supposedly should be doing it. There's your primary spiritual practice.

Any number of things can be spiritual practices if they are approached with a deliberate intention to get out of our judging mind for a while, and just accept, affirm, and appreciate: yoga, martial arts, social action, charitable giving, cooking, eating, not eating (fasting), quilting, knitting, painting, sculpting, dancing, gardening, long-distance running, hiking in the woods, walking along the beach, playing a musical instrument, singing, listening attentively to music. Any of these might be your primary spiritual practice – your initial doorway in to cultivating nonjudgmental acceptance and having a place of peace.

Whatever your primary spiritual practice is, I want to suggest five supplemental practices that will provide a foundation for it. We might, every one of us, have a different primary practice, and what works for one person might not for another. But these secondary supporting practices are universal. They’re for everyone. They will strengthen and extend your spiritual practice and increase "spiritual fitness."
  • Journal
  • Read
  • Be Silent
  • Go to Group
  • Be Mindful
1. Journaling. 15 minutes a day.

There are many different approaches to journaling. Here's a simple starter plan. Six days a week, “just keep the pen moving.” Write whatever comes to mind for 15 minutes. Then, on the seventh day, list in your journal five things that week that you are grateful for. Noticing is the key to spiritual acceptance, and writing down whatever comes to your mind is helpful for noticing what is alive in you.

2. Studying. 15 minutes a day.

Select worthy texts of “wisdom literature.” The scriptures of any of the world’s religions are wonderful: the Dao De Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hebrew Bible's book of Psalms. Also worthy would be books like Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, or reflections like Thomas Merton's, or poems of Rumi, Hafiz, or Kabir, or writings by St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Any of these will do nicely. Choose works that resonate with you, that will coach you in the ways of wise and loving peace, and commit to study them a few minutes every day. Such study gives us concepts to knock out our concepts. Study of a spiritual text enlists your cognitive capacity to assist your spiritual. We live through our days full of ideas and concepts -- and most of them are connected to some form of judgment, some form of not wanting things to be as they are. Wisdom literature helps give us some concepts that can nudge some of those other concepts a little bit into the background more often.

3. Silence. 15 minutes a day.

I know this is adding up -- and, gosh, aren't we all too busy anyway? Who has time for stuff that has no purpose? If your quest for peace is urgent, you do. If it isn't, you don't.

Find a posture that will allow you to remain still. Bring attention to your breath. When (not if) your thoughts wander, simply notice where they wandered to and return to your breath. This simple practice begins to cultivate awareness of your own thoughts – and helps you get to know the true person you are that is so much more than just your thoughts.

4. Group practice. Monthly is good. Bi-weekly or weekly can be even better.

A group that shares in your primary spiritual practice, whatever it may be, is a great boon for deepening in that practice. If walking on the beach is where you have had the best luck experiencing serenity, get together a beach-walking group -- in addition to having some time to walk alone. If it's cooking, get in a cooking club -- only, be sure it's a cooking club that intentionally approaches cooking in a spiritual way. Just as study helped enlist your cognitive to assist your spiritual, the group experience enlists your social brain on behalf of the spiritual. And that helps invite the spiritual to infuse more of your life. It's so important to know that you're not going it alone!

5. Minduflness. Continuously.

You won't be able to be continuously mindful. Still, try. Resolve to be continuously mindful, and remind yourself of your resolve every time you notice it has waned. Develop the habit of bringing yourself back to the present moment whenever you find that you’re somewhere else. The mind loves to spend its time going back and forth between two places: the past and future. If you let it, your mind will spend all day alternating between dwelling in the past and projecting into the future. Your life, however, is RIGHT NOW. If you're somewhere else -- the past or the future -- you'll miss it. And most of us, most of the time, are somewhere else. As John Lennon sang:
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
In the children's story, "Stone Soup," a traveler comes to town. He claims to have a magical stone that, when cooked in water, will produce nutritious soup. "But it will be even better if we add a little potato," he says. The traveler proceeds to coax the villagers to add cabbage, onions, carrots, etc.
In the end, the stone didn't really add anything. Or did it? The stone was the starter without which the other ingredients would not have been brought to the pot. That's pretty potent magic.

Like that traveler, I suggested adding five "secondary, supporting" ingredients -- nice additional enhancements. Yet if you'll keep the pot cooking, over time, these "secondary" practices will make the soup. Your primary practice -- the first ingredient -- may turn out to be the stone. Its magic was that it got you started on a path of courage – courageously letting go of the addiction to accomplishing things.

From the standpoint of the world’s usual way of valuing things, it’s "a city of ashes." Yet it is also "the kingdom without limit." Go into that dark realm from which you may yet bring forth the light that matters behind all the glitter that doesn’t. Go because only in this way can you be a "defender of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes."
"Be faithful. Go."
* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Spiritual Practice"
Previous: Part 3: "A Bit More Accident Prone"
Beginning: Part 1: "Courage and Uselessness"


A Bit More Accident Prone

Waking Up
Many different phrases have been used to express the spiritual capacity – the capacity to:
  • see beyond walls,
  • commune with divine mystery,
  • experience an internal caress,
  • hear our deeper consciousness,
  • experience epiphanies,
  • become awake,
  • usher ourselves into right relationship with life,
  • open our heart to life's blessed mysteries,
  • foster a greater love of self and greater caring for neighbor and earth.
Certain exercises can, over time, enhance spiritual fitness, strengthen the spiritual virtues.

In some ways, spiritual fitness lines up with physical, intellectual, and emotional-social fitness. In other ways, though, spirituality doesn’t fit the model of those other aspects of life. With physical fitness, you need a clear straightforward assessment of where you are, and where you want to be, and what the difference is. With mental skills, you can set as a goal to reach a certain chess rating, or to be able to do the Sunday crossword in under an hour, or to improve your score on one of those computer sites that will run you through a battery of skill-testing games. It’s harder to score emotional-social fitness, but the basic idea but there’s still a basic idea of seeing where you are, seeing where you’d like to be, and recognizing the difference. Spirituality is more a matter of seeing where you are, seeing where you’d like to be, and recognizing the sameness.

So the notion of spiritual fitness has a certain paradoxical quality to it. You’re already perfect – so what’s there to improve? Just this: remembering; acting and living out of a firmer grounding in your inherent perfection; having your judgments while at the same time seeing through the pretense that judgment is very important.

There is a place for judgment, evaluation, good-bad, better-worse -- and there always will be. Judging Mind has important work to do. The problem is that it works overtime. Spirituality is about seeing the appropriate, limited role for judgment -- while also holding in our awareness the wider context within which judgment has its little corner.

The spirit's message isn't that you are special or important. You're not. You're merely perfect – like everyone else.

Embrace Your Demons
The spiritual path, however, unfolds slowly, and in its own way, on its own schedule. If we try to push spirit, spirit will push back, and we'll get nowhere. This is another way that spiritual fitness doesn’t fit the model of physical fitness. You can make your biceps strong by forcing them to do the exercises. The spiritual "muscle" doesn't work that way. You can't make it strong. Love it and accept it in its weakness. Then -- only then -- might it decide to grow strong on its own. Development of the spiritual virtues can't be forced. If it happens, it's an accident. Spiritual practices do, however, make us a bit more accident prone.

Even if you do grow stronger in the spiritual virtues, you might not know it. One day maybe you'll notice that it's been a while since you yelled at the other cars in traffic -- or someone will say you're "a peaceful presence" -- or you'll realize you used to worry a lot more about finances. None of these, of course, mean you've "arrived." But they are among the possible signs of a spirit that's been given the affirming space it needs.

I began spiritual practice because I was beset by my various demons. I had been fighting them for years, and was not winning. Apparent victories were temporary, fleeting. The fighting just gave the demons a good work-out and made them stronger. Spiritual practices are ways to stop fighting. If I embrace my demons instead of fighting them, then they aren’t such a problem for me, or for the others in my life.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 "Spiritual Practice"
Next: Part 4: "Five Universal Pratices"
Previous: Part 2: "Spiritual Quotient"
Beginning: Part 1: "Courage and Uselessness"


Spiritual Quotient

I am grateful and humbled to have been called – and now installed – as minister. I do, as Zbigniew Herbert's poem says, “look at my clown’s face in the mirror and repeat, I was called, weren’t there better ones than I?” In three and a half months so far of serving Community Unitarian Church, most of you have already had occasion to notice that I am not perfect. But have you noticed that I am? By which I mean to ask: Have you noticed that you are?

For I do believe that more important than all the ways that we supposedly aren’t perfect is the fact that we are. Perfect, yes. Able to simultaneously exhibit contradictory qualities, no. We can’t, for example, at the same time, have both youthful exuberance and the wisdom of many years, though both of those have their advantages. Nor can you be a person who freely speaks her mind while also being carefully diplomatic, avoiding giving offense. Some positive traits contradict other positive traits, so you can’t have them all. Still, perfect you are.

And your perfection is a dynamic, unfolding thing. How would you like it to unfold? I believe people don't come to church to stay the same. We come to be transformed. We come to be intentional about the way our perfection unfolds and develops. We come for community, we come to have friends along the path, and we come hoping that path will help us grow.

Equanimity, peace, acceptance, kindness, patience, humility, a pervasive attitude of gratitude, not being judgmental: call these the spiritual virtues. The spiritual virtues don’t just happen, and they don’t happen just by wanting them to happen, or by hearing words from people who have them, though that does help -- it’s good to have coaches. It takes doing the exercises, the ones that retrain our habitual neural pathways so that everything we do and are looks and feels more like love and less like one or another form of addiction.

PQ. Physical fitness is a long-established idea and ideal – and, we know, it’s good to exercise.

IQ. We have more recently begun to develop a notion of cognitive fitness. IQ tests have been around for only about a century, and we are not as clear as we are with measures of physical fitness just what, if anything, they measure. While some doubts and ambiguities remain, the idea of cognitive fitness is much better developed and supported than it used to be. Certain games and puzzles can help, somewhat, maintain memory, mental flexibility, problem solving, mental speed, and attention. For cognitive fitness, too, it’s good to exercise.

EQ. Then there's emotional fitness -- also called “emotional intelligence”: the ability to detect and identify emotions in self and others, harness emotions to facilitate the task at hand, and understand the language of emotion, including ability to recognize slight differences between similar emotions. Some of us are really good at that -- others, not so much.

Closely related to “emotional intelligence” or fitness is "social intelligence" -- because really resonating with someone, clicking with them, is a matter of knowing your feelings, recognizing theirs, and being able to synchronize with the emotion. Because our skills at managing our feelings and managing our relationships (i.e., managing other people's feelings) are so interrelated, let's treat emotional and social skills together as one thing: emotional-social fitness. With attention to exercising those skills, it’s possible to get better at that, too.

SQ. Finally, there’s what we could call spiritual fitness: “inner wisdom guided by compassion, equanimity, and inner and outer peace.” The spiritually fit have the same ego-defense mechanisms we all have, but the grip of those mechanisms holds them a little more loosely. The spiritually fit are in touch with the suffering of the world, yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection. The sorrow and the joy, for them, are not so much two different and opposed moods, but merge into one continuous awareness.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Spiritual Practice"
Next: Part 3: "A Bit More Accident Prone"
Previous: Part 1: "Courage and Uselessness"


Courage and Uselessness

The Polish Poet, Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), served in the Polish resistance movement under Nazi occupation. He faced an utterly hopeless situation. How does one go on when there’s no chance of achieving anything, no way the tiny resistance movement could put a dent in the massive Nazi dominance?

You don’t do it in order to achieve anything, Herbert says. Put out of your mind the idea that you might be doing any good. Resist just because you are called to be a resistor rather than a collaborator. Do it just to be who you are -- until they catch you and kill you, as they surely will.

It’s about being a worthy person, not about getting anything done. It's about the life that leads to death, but also about the death that opens a possibility for genuine and fearless life.

“The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,”
by Zbigniew Herbert

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards—they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called—weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant: when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go
as long as blood turns the dark star in your breast

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go
That spirit of both courage and uselessness we call upon wholeheartedly to enter into spiritual practice.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Spiritual Practice"
Next: Part 2: "Spiritual Quotient"


Five Habits of the Heart

We’ve seen for generations now that plugging a democratic constitution into a third-world country with a history of dictatorship is meaningless. Where the people lack the habits of the heart to sustain democratic institutions, a constitution is just empty words on paper. Parker Palmer lists five habits of the heart at the heart of revitalizing democracy and restoring the possibility of meaningful public life.

One: “We must understand that we are all in this together.... We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent on and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the ‘alien other.’”

Two: “We must develop an appreciation of the value of ‘otherness.’... Hospitality rightly understood…invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to our way of life.”

Three: “We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Our lives are filled with contradictions – from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions.... The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.”

Four: “We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.... Many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference.... Yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change.”

Five: “We must strengthen our capacity to create community. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks.... The steady companionship of … kindred spirits can kindle the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.” (Healing the Heart of Democracy 46).

Thank you, Parker Palmer, for those reminders.

These are, of course, the habits of heart that we gather in our congregations to cultivate, week in and week out, 52.18 weeks a year.

We’re all in this together: interdependence is our vital principle, and we teach it to and learn it from each other in everything we do.

Appreciating otherness will always be the challenge that stretches us. We’re proud of who we are, and rightfully. Yet from that ground we examine – sometimes better than others – the ways we might not always be hospitable and inviting to people who aren’t already just like us. We know that’s our work.

Hold in tension the contradictions – such as beauty and joy of life and this precious world and also the grief of loss and pain – this is the business of faith community.

To empower each voice among us is the project of our democratic polity, and to be for each other the steady companionship that feeds our fires – this, too, is what we’re about.

And not just us Unitarian Universalists. Our friends the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Baptists – the Catholics and the Jews -- the Muslims and Hindus – they, too, are quietly nurturing the habits of heart to help our public keep alive the hope of a beloved community in which we all share, in addition to comforts of our separate tribes. We can do better at modeling the respectful hospitality of listening outside these walls, be more active healers of the brokenheartedness we feel at the loss of meaningful public connection. Dialog with those whose political views are opposed to ours is difficult, but it is the path both of opening ourselves to diverse gifts and of serving needs greater than our own.

Take for example an issue such as abortion – an issue that is now in the public discourse only in the form that has been called the politics of rage – though “rage is simply one of the masks that heartbreak wears.” (Palmer 5-6) Started in the early 1990s, the Public Conversations Project facilitates day-long encounters
“for people who differ on difficult issues like abortion where participants are forbidden from proclaiming their positions on the issue until the last hour of the day. Instead, they are coached in the art of personal storytelling and then invited to share the experiences that gave rise to their beliefs while others simply listen. Hearing each other’s stories, which are often stories of heartbreak, can create an unexpected bond between so-called pro-life and pro-choice people. When two people discover that parallel experiences led them to contrary conclusions, they are more likely to hold their differences respectfully, knowing that they have experienced similar forms of grief. The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.” (5)
If you find it difficult to talk to people with different political opinions, then don’t talk: listen. And not passively, but actively, paraphrasing what you hear to make sure you understand, and asking gentle questions about their personal story.

The first time Unitarian Universalism changed my life with a clearly demarcated turning point, I was in 8th grade. Since then, this faith has changed my life at a few other key junctures – until demarcating turning points came to be replaced with daily companionship along a winding path. This faith calls us always to a greater possibility for human community, a wider hospitality and openness of heart to be healers of our world’s heartbreaking divisiveness.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
See also
Part 1: Neither Skinner Nor Benedict
Part 2: Balancing Interests vs. Creating Selves
Part 3: Big Problems


Big Problems

Alone, isolated, we are alienated, powerless.
“A just society is one in which human beings are ‘empowered,’ they are able to use and develop their essentially human capacities. It is a society organized to transcend alienation.” (C.B. MacPherson)
Joining together with others to fashion a community life makes us real.

And we will do it. One way or another, we will do it. If we don’t learn and maintain the democratic arts of hospitality to the stranger, of cherishing the voice that will tell us something we could not have imagined for ourselves, if we don’t have communities that feel safe and also encourage us to be bold enough to relish the challenging voice that stretches us, then we will instead build insular communities dedicated to protection, craving the safety we cannot quite achieve. One way or another we will join together with others to make our lives real. If we don’t do it in democratic community, we’ll do it in totalitarian community.
“Our interdependence as members of the human species requires us to belong – if not to free associations, then to totalistic collectivities.” (Benjamin Barber)
“The genius of totalitarian leadership lies in its profound awareness that human personality cannot tolerate moral isolation. It lies, further, it its knowledge that absolute and relentless power will be acceptable only when it comes to seem the only available form of community and membership.” (Robert Nisbet)
Yes, democracy is the most effective means of organizing consensus among diverse people. Yes, democracy preserves stability, and balances competing interests. But that is to see democracy just as a tool, an instrument. It misses the more fundamental significance of democracy as an end in itself, an ethical ideal. Democracy’s real significance is its larger ethical meaning as a way of life, “a form of moral and spiritual association,” with democratic government as but one of its manifestations.

Of late, things haven’t been looking so good for the public sphere as a form of moral and spiritual association. It’s been 30 years since Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that “this time the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time.” In those 30 years, it seems things have gotten worse: more polarized, more divisive, less cooperative, less empowering. It’s become harder to see democratic public engagement in the building of our shared world as the meaning of life and the ground upon which life’s meaning is co-created because the public sphere now seems attenuated and shrill, fraught and futile.
“Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck....We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power – and to the claims of empire with it ravenous demands and stuporous distractions. A sense of political impotence pervades the country – a mass resignation defined by [the historian Lawrence Goodwyn as ‘believing in the dogma of “democracy” on a superficial public level but not believing it privately.' Hope no longer seems the operative dynamic of America, and without hope we lose the talent and drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny.” (Bill Moyers)
Every age has had its problems. Ours include seemingly unending wars abroad, the rising percentage of all wealth held by the top 10 percent, and the top 1 percent, high levels of unemployment, the power of big money and large corporations, the degeneration of our schools, endemic racism in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, the collapse our infrastructure and, indeed, the collapse of our environment. Meanwhile the general public seems unable to figure out how to stop sliding further and further into powerlessness as privatization sweeps over more and more of what we used to regard as the commons: nursing homes and hospitals, prisons, schools, and other institutions we used to see as appropriately managed by governments and non-profit agencies because they provide public goods and meet public needs. Private military contractors are taking on more functions that used to belong to the public’s army, and private security firms are eclipsing public police forces.

We have big problems, and everywhere is the creeping disempowerment of our ability to collectively address them.
“We suffer from a fragmentation of community that leaves us isolated from one another. We suffer, ironically, from our indifference to those among us who suffer. And we suffer as well from a hopeless sense that our personal and collective destinies are no longer in our hands.” (Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy 19)
Saving democracy and saving ourselves requires a renewal of the democratic “habits of the heart” to use the phrase of the early 19th-century insightful observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. We’ve seen for generations now that plugging a democratic constitution into a third-world country with a history of dictatorship is meaningless. Where the people lack the habits of the heart to sustain democratic institutions, a constitution is just empty words on paper.

Next: The five most essential "habits of the heart" for democracy.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
See also
Part 1: Neither Skinner Nor Benedict
Part 2: Balancing Interests vs Creating Selves
Part 4: Five Habits of the Heart