Diremption Redemption, Part 4

In our last post, The Liberal Pulpit asked:
"In what ways are you exiled from the inheritance of joy and belonging that is our birthright?
To what are you in bondage? What is the price to pay for liberation, for return into our own, for realizing ourselves?"
We must bear in mind that this idea of price-paying is subject to misapplication and misuse. It reminds me that the word “trite” originally referred to an old coin that has exchanged hands so often it has been worn smooth.

When European elites in the Middle Ages purchased indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven, that was paying a price with coin worn too smooth.

When wealthy corporations today go to court, lose, pay a hefty fine, treat it as a cost of doing business and continue their operations as usual, that’s paying a price with coin worn too smooth.

Redemption (the kind of redemption we’re interested in here -- the redemption not of coupons or of a mortgage or even of honor but of life) is not trite. Redemption entails paying a price not with coin worn smooth, but with the currency of personal transformation. You pay by offering to the world a new self, shiny as a new penny, your features not smoothed over but in sharp relief, clearer than ever.

Maybe you feel stuck in a dead-end job. Or in an abusive relationship. Maybe you are entrapped by the detritus of your own material success – bound by your “stuff” and consumed by desires to protect it, maintain it, simply keep up with it all, or, God forbid, get more of it. We may thus be in exile from the life of simplicity and freedom.

The core of redemption is freedom. It has another core, too. Redemption is a “dual-core processor.” The other core is love.

You see, your liberation from whatever holds you back is of a piece with the liberation of the world.

I think that’s the insight expressed in the legend that Siddhartha Gautama, after sitting all night beneath that bodhi tree, as the day dawned, looked up and saw the morning star and was in that moment awakened, enlightened, and what he said in that moment, the first words of the Buddha that he now was, were:
“Behold, all beings are enlightened just as they are.”
In his enlightenment, he perceived the enlightenment of others. Just so, your liberation is the world’s liberation. Thus the diremption we experience is redeemed; the sharp division into two is made whole.

With the fresh and shiny coin of your new self you purchase – or make a down payment on – a transformed world. Redemption is about how freedom and love go together and make us all new.

The coin paid for our redemption, paid in love, cannot be trite or cheapened – and that is what truly can free us.

I don’t know how deep Elwin Wilson’s redemption goes, but I believe that the depth of his redemption corresponds to the depth of connection in love that he was able to make with the man he once beat. We don’t know if the man who spoke with Gandhi was redeemed, but I believe his redemption corresponds to connecting in love with a child and a faith tradition he has despised.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr preached:
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”
So love your enemies – including that most intimate enemy, yourself, the self that you don’t like, that you keep trying to chain up in the basement. Your liberation requires the liberation of all your selves – and our liberation entails the liberation of all of us.

It kinda IS like the internet. One person can’t be an internet. The freedom we get from free access to information comes from connecting with each other. The total freedom of spiritual liberation comes from connecting with everything in love.

The links are all around you. Click . . . everywhere.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Diremption Redemption."
Previous: Part 3.
Beginning: Part 1.


Diremption Redemption, Part 3

Life is a continual process of little (and occasionally larger) failures interspersed with little (and occasionally larger) successes, and we can call it “redemption” every time any success follows any failure, but there is a deeper and wider sense of the word.
We speak of redeeming our honor, or reputation – by doing something particularly exemplary or by clearing ourselves of a charge against us.
We speak of redeeming a coupon – by exchanging it for a product. You redeem your mortgage by paying it off, redeem your obligations by carrying them out, and redeem your possessions by recovering them.

“Redemption” comes from the Latin, rudimere, "to buy back." We can see that root concept at work in the various current uses of the word.

In particular, the original usage primarily meant buying back one’s freedom. Slaves who could manage to raise enough money could buy themselves and become free. Redemption is about emancipation, regaining our native freedom. The picture above is from the 1994 movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s about how Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, is redeemed – gets back his freedom.

In Jewish theological history, “redemption” centrally refers to God redeeming the Israelites from various exiles: God buys them back and restores them to freedom in their own land, the land promised to them. From this idea of deliverance from exile grew the Christian concept of deliverance from sin. Redemption buys back our freedom and releases us from the shackles of sin.

Elwin Wilson, who once battered John Lewis, is redeemed insofar as, apology, forgiveness, reconciliation, and his new efforts to help end racial hatred, deliver him from his bondage to prejudice – free him. The man Gandhi advised may, if he follows through on adopting Muslim boy and raising him as Muslim, thereby become free, liberated from bondage to his violence and hatred.

I can speak to you as a man who did find a child – about this high – of a different religion, different culture, different language. Yency Contreras was 17-years-old when LoraKim and I met him while offering worship services at his detention facility in El Paso. He had come from Honduras, enduring a harrowing three weeks of rides on the tops of train cars: very hazardous because fatigue, wind, and jostling sometimes led to falling off, and when it did the person might be pulled under the train wheels, losing limbs or life. That was ten years ago. Yency is now 27, as of 2011 a US citizen, and as of just three months ago, a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He got a criminal justice degree and is looking for a job as a police officer.

Our relationship through the years has been many things. LoraKim and I were not called upon, as the man with Gandhi, to actively raise him in a different faith – he had already been mostly raised in a different faith. Our task was rather easier. I have, though, had to grow accepting of the Pentecostal faith he has maintained on his own. Learning to love him -- even though I thought the teachings of his church were vicious nonsense -- was transformative. It freed me from certain of my prejudices, and has been, to that extent, redemptive.

In what ways are you exiled from the inheritance of joy and belonging that is our birthright? To what are you in bondage? What is the price to pay for liberation, for return into our own, for realizing ourselves?

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Diremption Redemption."
Next: Conclusion.
Previous: Part 2.
Beginning: Part 1.


Diremption Redemption, Part 2

I find that I have reached an age indisputably well into middle-age – I’m 55 (as of Sun Mar 16) – and it is with some relief that I notice that redemption is not, for me, the personally pressing issue that it used to be. In my salad days when my judgment was green and my interpersonal skills were worse, I was sure I was ruining my life a couple times a year. On a good year. And doing damage to others in the process. Relationships and trusts were broken. People were hurt. I was one of them. People I cared about were others of them.

I will spare you the details and just say that in 1982, I was 23 and finding myself seriously yearning for redemption. That was the year that the Ben Kingsley film, “Gandhi,” came out. There’s a scene in that film in which Gandhi teaches the meaning of redemption in a way so powerful I have never forgotten it.

The film covers the violent rioting in which Muslim and Hindu mobs are forming -- attacking and killing each other all over India. At one point Gandhi makes plans to meet with Jinnah, a Muslim leader, to try to bring peace. One of Gandhi’s followers, a Hindu, cries out to Gandhi out of deep distrust of the Muslims, “don’t do it."

Gandhi says:
“What do you want me not to do? Not to meet with Mr. Jinnah? I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian, and a Jew, and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout, you send fear into the hearts of your brothers. That is not the India I want! Stop it! For God's sake stop it!”
But it doesn’t stop. Gandhi goes on a hunger strike – refusing to eat until the violence stops.

At last, the fighting does stop. In the film, we see Gandhi weak and in bed from fasting. Leaders of the fighting factions come in, throw down their swords and promise they will fight no more. One man then pushes through and flings bread on Gandhi.

“Eat!” he says. “I'm going to Hell! But not with your death on my soul.”

Gandhi says, “Only God decides who goes to hell.”

“I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.”

Gandhi closes his eye in grief at this confession and asks, “Why?”

The man says, “They killed my son. My boy. The Muslims killed my son!” The man holds out a hand to indicate the height of a six- or seven-year-old boy.

Gandhi says, “I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed – a little boy about this high -- and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.”

The man is astounded. He’s just been asked to do the hardest thing he could be asked to do. He’s been shown a path to restore right relations with his world, with himself. Doing so will require turning upside-down the hate and division and the loyalties that have come to define his life.

As all of this sinks in, the man’s stunned expression seems to turn from disbelief to wonder. That’s a subtle thing, the shift from incredulity to wonder. It’s the shift of glimpsing a way out, when you thought there was no way out of the hell of your life. The man turns to go. Stops. Turns back to Gandhi. Gets on his knees and bows to the ground.

The man has, we hope, committed to a very long process: a dozen years, at least, of raising a child – and adjusting to raising that child in a faith that, for now, he hates. For this man, his path to redemption will be long, and gradually unfolding.

It’s a rather different thing from the casual way that we speak of, say, an athlete redeeming herself by having a good performance following a disappointing one.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Diremption Redemption"
Next: Part 3.
Beginnning: Part 1.


Diremption Redemption, Part 1

The Twenty-fifth anniversary of the internet happened in March. Although it started in 1989, I didn't hear about it for another four years. Do you remember those pre-internet days and the arguments -- or wonderings -- that used to go on for months before somebody could locate an authority and settle the matter? Remember when we looked things up in physical encyclopedias – and if it was some detail not covered in the encyclopedia, it just went unsettled until we could stumble upon a source. It’s hard to remember or imagine the days when we’d just be stuck there. Today we instantly look it up.

When Pete Rose retired from baseball, he had the record for most number of seasons played in the National League. Who was the previous record-holder? Just look it up on the internet. You get a list of search results and simply “click here” to get whatever information you want. (It was Rabbit Maranville of the old Boston Braves).

It was back in those pre-internet days, way back when I was in fourth grade, that I learned in school one day that the Earth is not a sphere. It is slightly flattened at the poles into a shape called an oblate spheroid. Somehow, this very topic came up during our family’s next visit with my grandparents. My parents and grandparents were saying it’s oblong, or ovalish, or ellipsoidal.

“No,” I said. “It’s an oblate spheroid.” I was so obnoxious. I was scolded and told not to contradict my betters. A month later, back home, I got a letter from my grandmother. (I don’t know what’s stranger now: the idea that elders are “betters,” – or that people wrote pen-and-paper letters!) In the letter, my grandmother remonstrated me on the importance of respecting grown-ups before eventually acknowledging that, yes, she had ascertained that the Earth is indeed an oblate spheroid.

I was redeemed! Wait. Is that what redemption is? Well, no. I was vindicated, maybe – and that’s not really the same thing as redeemed.

Here’s a story that much better illustrates redemption – from NPR a few years ago:
“In 1961, [Elwin] Wilson was angry and waiting when a civil rights activist named John Lewis — then 21 years old — got off a bus in [Rock Hill, SC]. . . The former Klan member, who is [now 77 and] in poor health, says he started beating Lewis as he opened the door to a ‘whites only’ waiting room.

‘I remember him laying there, and it was blood on the ground and somebody done called the police,’ Wilson says. Years later, Wilson realized the protester he had attacked was John Lewis, who had become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. [In 2009], Wilson finally apologized in person.

Here's how Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, described the meeting: ‘I said to him, “I forgive you.” I don't have any ill feelings, any bitterness, any malice. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back. He cried a little, and I cried.’ The Congressman says it was a powerful meeting that shows racial attitudes can change . . . .

‘Well, it was a moment of grace, a moment of forgiveness and a moment of reconciliation, and that's what the movement, that's what the struggle was all about,’ Lewis says . . . .

‘If I can just get one person not to hate, it's worth it,’ Wilson says.” (Full NPR story HERE.)
That’s a path of redemption – more than apology, but also a commitment to address the systemic issue of hatred.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Diremption Redemption"
Next: Part 2.


The Myth of Scarcity, Part 5

“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.” (Brueggemann)
So, to return to our question, what happened with Jesus and those thousands in that deserted place?

Neighborliness happened.

Neighbors gather, community happens, and abundance flourishes. That’s the kingdom – the kin-dom -- of god Jesus was talking about: public life reorganized toward neighborliness. A crowd of people in the grip of scarcity thinking had gathered to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam. From that sense of boundless provision welled up an urge to share of this manifest plenty of which they were suddenly so acutely aware. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share. From the divinity within them, the divinity that is always there, lying too-often unnoticed, came forth this food.

So, yes, it came from God – from Goddess, from Buddha nature. It came from God, which we call by many names, one of them being neighborliness.

As Parker Palmer exegetes:
“The disciples, asked to feed the crowd, are sure that food is scarce; Jesus performs a ‘miracle’ to reveal how abundant food is even when there is none in sight. In this story, as throughout his active life, Jesus wanted to help people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance.”
Parker Palmer relates this story about the miracle of abundance in community, the kin-dom of God that is realized in neighborliness. Palmer was a passenger on a plane that pulled away from the gate, taxied to a remote corner of the field and stopped.

The pilot came on the intercom and said, “I have some bad news and some worse news. The bad news is there’s a storm front in the west, Denver is socked in and shut down. So we’ll be staying here for a few hours. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that we have no food and it’s lunch time.”

Everybody groaned. Some passengers started to complain. Some became angry.

But then, Palmer said, one of the flight attendants did something amazing. She stood up and took the intercom mike and said, “We’re really sorry folks. We didn’t plan it this way and we really can’t do much about it. And I know for some of you this is a big deal. Some of you are really hungry and were looking forward to a nice lunch. Some of you may have a medical condition and really need lunch. Some of you may not care one way or the other, and some of you were planning to skip lunch anyway. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. I have a couple of breadbaskets up here and we’re going to pass them around and I’m asking everybody to put something in the basket. Some of you brought a little snack along—something to tide you over—just in case something like this happened, some peanut butter crackers, candy bars. And some of you have a few LifeSavers or chewing gum or Rolaids. And if you don’t have anything edible, you have a picture of your children or spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a bookmark or a business card. Everybody put something in and then we’ll reverse the process. We’ll pass the baskets around again and everybody can take out what he/she needs.”

“Well,” Palmer said, “what happened next was amazing. The griping stopped. People started to root around in pockets and handbags, some got up and opened their suitcases stored in the overhead luggage racks and got out boxes of candy, a salami, a bottle of wine. People were laughing and talking. She had transformed a group of people who were focused on need and deprivation into a community of sharing and celebration. She had transformed scarcity into a kind of abundance.”

After the flight, which eventually did proceed, Parker Palmer stopped on his way off the plane and said to her: “Do you know there’s a story in the Bible about what you did back there? It’s about Jesus feeding a lot of people with very little food.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know that story. That’s why I did what I did.”

Unitarian Universalists know that story too. We Unitarian Universalists have fashioned a wiser understanding of the miraculous. The uninterrupted causal nexus of history and nature is replete with the miracle of community – the miracle of abundance.

One more illustration of this point is the illustration that comes from a congregation's members. It’s the miracle that Unitarian Universalists enact every time we agree to serve on a committee, every time we help out cleaning up the grounds, every time we teach an RE class, every time we fill out a pledge form.

Everybody puts in, and everybody takes out.

It’s a wonderful, awesome miracle of the creation of community and thereby the creation of abundance.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "The Myth of Scarcity"
Previous: Part 4.
Beginning: Part 1.


The Myth of Scarcity, Part 4

What would it look like to live the truth of abundance instead of the myth of scarcity? Here’s a parable from an unknown author that shows what it might look like:
An American businessman was at the pier of a small, coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”

The American then asked, “Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?”

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take.”

“15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

Triumphantly, the American replied, “Then you would retire! You’d move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your grand-kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
The United States certainly does not have a monopoly on scarcity thinking. According to “Bread for the World,” 925 million people in the world are hungry: more than the combined populations of the US, Canada, and all of Europe. Over 27,000 people each day die of hunger or malnourishment-related disease -- most of them children under five. Yet we have enough food. “In 2008, globally, we grew . . . 4,000 calories per day per person—roughly twice what people need to eat.” In fact, 78% of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses: that’s the finding of a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Parker Palmer (quoted in Part 1), said,
“We create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law, and by competing with others for resources as if we were stranded on the Sahara at the last oasis.”
That’s what’s happening in the starving parts of the world. Starvation – spiritual starvation and physical starvation – results from the fearful acceptance of scarcity as law. For
“the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.”
As Parker Palmer also told us,
“Abundance is a communal act . . . Community not only creates abundance – community is abundance.”
* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "The Myth of Scarcity"
Next: Part 5
Previous: Part 3.
Beginning: Part 1.


The Myth of Scarcity, Part 3

Abundance is the true law of life. Abundance abounds. All the world’s religions teach this.

In the Jewish tradition, the scriptures say it over and over. God is good, God provides, God is faithful. In Genesis, God lovingly brings the entire world into being, and provides human beings with everything they need. "Be fruitful and multiply," God says, and the fruitfulness overflows.

The Book of Psalms sings again and again about all the gifts God gives us. Psalm 104, just to pick one example, says:
"You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. . . .
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. . . .
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things."
Predominant is the picture of God, the generous provider, the faithful parent -- always giving, supplying our needs. The Jewish tradition is emphatic in saying God loves us extravagantly and wants to provide for us, richly and abundantly. That’s the Jewish way of saying that life is inherently abundant.

The Buddhist tradition teaches letting go of desires. Why? Because we have all we need, abundantly. Wanting things to be different obscures from us awareness of the ample riches that are present to us right here, inalienable from us, we have but to notice them.

Taoism’s emphasis is on the Tao, which is usually translated as “the way.” The Japanese word for Tao is “michi”, which means “abounding.” It is abundant everywhere.

Despite the teachings of the dominant religion in our culture, and despite the teachings of every other major world religious tradition, we have a hard time accepting it. We spend much of our lives in the grip of a delusion: the delusion of scarcity.

“The Myth of Scarcity,” is the title of an essay by Walter Brueggemann, Christian theologian and Hebrew Scripture scholar.

Brueggemann writes:
“The majority of the world's resources pour into the United States. And as we Americans grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us. We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity . . . . Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ -- and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us.” (Walter Brueggemann, "The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity," Christian Century 1999 Mar 24. CLICK HERE).
Brueggeman says the US has cornered more than three-quarters of the world's resources, but we want more, always more. And the more we have, the less satisfied and the less secure we feel. That's how powerful the myth of scarcity can be: it can take the wealthiest people on earth and make them greedy and mean, unable and unwilling to share.
“The ideology devoted to encouraging consumption wants to shrivel our imaginations so that we cannot conceive of living in any way that would be less profitable for the dominant corporate structures.”
The ideology of consumption requires us to buy the myth of scarcity – for if we buy that, then we’ll be driven to buy lots of other stuff.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "The Myth of Scarcity"
Next: Part 4.
Previous: Part 2.
Beginning: Part 1.


The Myth of Scarcity, Part 2

We Unitarian Universalists have fashioned a wiser understanding of the miraculous. The issue of miracles was a defining point in our history. Prior to the Civil War, in the 1840s, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker created a stir by saying Jesus did not perform the miracles that most Westerners at that time interpreted the gospels as saying Jesus did perform. Theodore Parker’s preaching career spoke to many topics, most of which were lost on his critics who only heard one thing: Rev. Parker denies the miracles.

This is the tradition we inherit.

The tradition we inherit also includes an older wisdom, which Unitarians and Universalists have been rediscovering and reclaiming -- that “the true law of life,” as a different Parker – Parker Palmer -- said, is the miracle “that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.” Expand the circle, and it will be full.

Each of the four gospels of the Christian Testament includes a version of the "loaves and fishes" story: five loaves, two fish, and five thousand people were fed. What happened?

The story may, of course, have been fabricated from whole cloth, but that hardly matters. What is it a story of? Fictional or not, what does it illustrate? The great Unitarian Rev. Theodore Parker notwithstanding, I want to say there was a miracle there – even if there wasn’t . . . what? It gets difficult to say what it wasn’t.

There’s a nice phrase that theologian Daphne Hampson uses: “an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature.” OK. That’s what there wasn’t. Whatever it was that happened that gets represented to us as five thousand being fed from five loaves and two fish, it wasn’t “an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature.” It was a miracle. Maybe it did not interrupt the causal nexus of history and nature. But it certainly did interrupt the mind’s chatter about its needs and fears. It interrupted obliviousness and allowed people to notice wonder and beauty – the abundance that life presents in each moment. It’s a story that still has the power to interrupt the ego’s defense mechanisms and call us to neighborliness – call us to expand our circle.

Some Unitarian Universalists hit a little mental snag on the word “spiritual.” I grew up with that snag. "Spiritual? What does that mean?" Well, let me try this. It means – simply and entirely -- awareness of the reality of abundance. It means knowing – with an abiding clarity -- that what you have, what you are, where you are, is enough.

It’s one thing to know this in your head. “Right, right, I’m enough. Gotcha. Heard it before. I know that.” It’s one thing to have that cognitive knowledge. It’s another thing to live that truth with every breath and every step.

That’s hard to do. It does not come naturally to us who are acculturated to modern society, and it involves more than cognition. Spirituality is quite a handy word for this capacity for not-merely-cognitive perception of abundance.

The abundance is there. We have but to expand the circle of our consciousness to take it in.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "The Myth of Scarcity"
Next: Part 3.
Previous: Part 1.


The Myth of Scarcity, Part 1

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer, writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak, of nature’s lessons of abundance.

There's a miracle story about loaves and fishes. It's the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. It, too, is a lesson about abundance.

Today, The Liberal Pulpit puts the ancient (Mark 6: 30-42) and contemporary into dialog with each other. We interweave Parker Palmer (indented) and the Gospel of Mark (italics). Note the convergence: what Palmer tells ("trust its supply and pass it around"), Jesus shows.
Nature normally takes us through a reliable cycle of scarcity and abundance in which times of deprivation foreshadow an eventual return to the bountiful fields. This fact of nature is in sharp contrast to human nature, which seems to regard perpetual scarcity as the law of life. Daily I am astonished at how readily I believe that something I need is in short supply. If I hoard possessions, it is because I believe that there are not enough to go around. If I struggle with others over power, it is because I believe that power is limited. If I become jealous in relationships, it is because I believe that when you get too much love, I will be short-changed. The irony, often tragic, is that by embracing the scarcity assumption, we create the very scarcities we fear.
   The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
   When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”
   But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”

If I hoard material goods, others will have too little and I will never have enough. If I fight my way up the ladder of power, others will be defeated, and I will never feel secure. If I get jealous of someone I love, I am likely to drive that person away. We create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law and by competing with others for resources as if we were stranded in the Sahara at the last oasis.
   They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”
   And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.”
   When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.

In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them -- and receive them from others when we are in need. Here is a summertime truth: abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole, and in return, is sustained by the whole.
   And all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand.
Community doesn’t just create abundance -- community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.
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This is Part 1 of 5 of "The Myth of Scarcity"
Next: Part 2.



“Redemption” is a popular word in sports discourse, in the context of which “redemption” seems to mean any success following after any failure. Since life is a continual process of little (and occasionally larger) failures interspersed with little (and occasionally larger) successes, “redemption,” in this sense is a very regular and recurring thing.

"Redemption" is also frequently invoked in popular culture. Six films, starting in 1930, 12 albums from as many bands, and even more single songs, have been titled, “Redemption.”

We speak of redeeming our honor, or reputation – by doing something particularly exemplary or by clearing ourselves of a charge against us. We speak of redeeming a coupon – by exchanging it for a product. You redeem your mortgage by paying it off, redeem your obligations by carrying them out, and redeem your possessions by recovering them.

“Redemption” comes from the Latin, rudimere, "to buy back." We can see that root concept at work in the various current uses of the word. In particular, the original usage primarily meant buying back one’s freedom. Slaves who could manage to raise enough money could buy themselves and become free.

Redemption is about emancipation, regaining our native freedom.

In Jewish theological history, “redemption” centrally refers to God redeeming the Israelites from various exiles: God buys them back and restores them to freedom in their own land, the land promised to them. From this idea of deliverance from exile grew the Christian concept of deliverance from sin.

The questions for us, then, are:
  • In what ways do we find ourselves exiled from the inheritance of joy and belonging that is our birthright? 
  • To what do we find ourselves in bondage? 
  • What is the price to pay for liberation, for return into our own, for realizing ourselves? 
Every reader will have a different way to answer that question. Maybe we feel stuck in a dead-end job. Or in an abusive relationship. Maybe we are entrapped by the detritus of our own material success – bound by our “stuff” and consumed by desires to protect it, maintain it, simply keep up with it all, or, God forbid, get more of it. We may thus be in exile from the life of simplicity and freedom.

One of the key distinctions in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is between “demand” and “request.” The NVC way is to make requests, not demands. The difference has nothing to do with how politely it is expressed. A demand need not carry implicit or explicit threat. The difference between demand and request has to do with how you’ll feel if the answer is “no.” If you can calmly accept not getting what you were requesting, then it was a true request. If you are, at any level, upset by a “no” answer, then you had some “demand energy” in your asking.

Wherever your demand energy is, that’s what you’re having a hard time letting go of.

Whatever you’re having a hard time letting go of, that’s what you’re in bondage to.

The path of redemption, of liberation, is the discipline of freeing yourself from the chains of your own demands.


A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 5

We began this series with Psalm 137, so let us return there and read those words anew.
By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept
     when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth,
     saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
     how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!"
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back
     what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
The Psalm expresses the Israelite anguish during the Babylonian captivity, and ends with a bitter vision of violent recrimination.

Giving vent to pain does not heal the wound; it only expresses the pain. So the story-tellers among that oppressed people brought forth from the imaginations of their better selves another sort of story, a salve for smoldering hatred -- a story that called the people not to pay back violence and death, but to pay forward compassion -- a story not of pain that makes more pain, but a story of hospitality that engenders healing and wholeness. Compassion to strangers is the way that we encounter the holy. That's the story the Israelites in their captivity put into the foundation of the narrative that defines the Jewish people, hence the Christians, hence the Moslems – and us.

Yes, Jews, Christians, and Moslems, are still fighting – though modern warfare kills a smaller percent of us than early human warfare did. Religion’s ancient use for war runs deep and is not easily replaced by its new use for peace across tribal lines. Religion hasn’t finished outgrowing and transcending its original tribal function.

But it’s getting there.

The Israelite story-tellers, in the midst of their captivity, homelessness, and pain, found a way to remember others’ pain, too. Somehow they found a way to make stories to move their hearts from pain toward compassion, to care for the stranger. What they illustrated in their story of Abraham's hospitality to visiting strangers, they codified in principle, for Deuteronomy was also substantially created in Babylonian captivity:
“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut 10:19)
The stories that emerged in the Babylonian captivity have not ended the violence that oppresses our planet. Those stories do show us what is possible. The violence can be ended.

Our spiritual hardware is built into us. It's what we have and what we are. It was made as a sword -- a device to bind us together for cohesive war fighting. It's up to us to beat that sword into a plowshare, cultivate fields of care, and sew the nourishing knowledge that we are one. It is up to us to find the ways to connect, to cultivate compassion for enemies, to train ourselves in nonviolence, to recognize that violence is any thought, word, or deed that treats a being like an object or diminishes a being’s sense of value or security. Thus we stand in the Abrahamic tradition of hope and possibility, stand with the radical vision of some captive Israelite story-tellers.

What they dreamed be ours to do.

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This is part 5 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Previous: Part 4.
Beginning: Part 1.


A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 4

We have religion because we had war. The religious impulse was built into early hominids as a method for loyalty to “us” and enmity to “them.” Yet slowly that impulse transcended itself. The circuitry of loyalty to tribe began evolving toward loyalty to life.

Anthropological evidence shows compassion’s slow progress. Among early humans,
“About 75 percent [of pre-state societies] went to war at least once every 2 years ...whereas the modern nation state goes to war about once a generation.”
Enslavement was not practiced, and prisoners were not taken:
“Captured warriors were killed on the spot. Anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that a typical tribal society lost about 0.5 of its population in combat each year, far more than the toll suffered by most modern states.” (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct, 49)
Another study estimates that 13-15 percent of all deaths among foragers were due to warfare. Compare that to the percentage of deaths due to warfare in the United States and Europe during the twentieth century, the epoch of two world wars: less than 1 percent of male deaths. (Samuel Bowles cited by Wade 72)

We have, for millennia now, very slowly been becoming a less violent, more magnanimous and compassionate species.

Somehow the mechanism for tribal warfare became available for peace. Tribal bonding opened a hole in itself through which it found its own greatest fulfillment, irony of ironies, in compassion to the stranger. The Israelites of the Babylonian captivity illustrated this in their stories about Abraham. The ancient Greeks also illustrated it.

In Homer’s epic, The Iliad, the Trojan, Hector, killed the Greek, Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend. Achilles, mad with rage, found a way to isolate Hector in battle. Achilles killed Hector, mutilated the body, and refused to give it to the family for burial, which meant Hector’s soul would never know rest.

But then one night, Hector's father, old King Priam of Troy, came into enemy territory into the Greek camp in disguise, and he made his way to Achilles' tent. He took off his disguise. Everyone was shocked.

The old, old man came forward and pulled at Achilles feet to plead for the body of his son. He embraced Achilles' knees, and he wept.

Achilles – “man-slaughtering Achilles,” Homer calls him -- Achilles who has killed not only Hector, but many other of Priam’s sons – looked at the old man and thought of his own father. Achilles, too, began to weep.
“Then the weeping stops, and Achilles goes for Hector's body. He carries it and lays it very gently and tenderly in the arms of the old man. The two men look at each other and each recognizes the other as divine. It's when we can go beyond the hatred, the enmity that knocks us into so much grief and pain and violence, it's then that we become god like. That is the end of the religious quest.” (Karen Armstrong)
Tomorrow they will be trying to kill each other again. For a moment, the recognition of shared pain creates compassion – literally “with-feeling.”
  • com = "with"
  • passion = "feeling"
In feeling with each other, they have a moment of that experience of connection, the kind of connection we were made for, the kind in which we become god-like because everything that the word God was ever supposed to mean – all the depth of sincerest devotion and the awe of infinite mystery and love – is right there: compassion outside our own tribe.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 5.
Previous: Part 3.
Beginning: Part 1.


A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 3

The literature of the Babylonian Captivity (6th-century BCE), reveals a growing compassion consciousness. It was a long time coming.

Religion began as an in-group v. out-group mechanism -- an adaptive strategy for group warfare. While religion facilitated cooperative endeavor within our own tribe, it engendered hostility rather than compassion for outsiders.

It seems to be the nature of social animals to form groups – that fight against other groups. A group that is able to work together enhances the spread of its genes by working together to conquer neighbors. Yes, conquering other tribes -- and preventing other tribes from conquering yours -- is the greatest original advantage of social cooperation. Ants, for example, are a social species. They're also territorial and fight pitched battles at their borders with neighboring groups.

When our ancestors were hunter-gathers, as hominids have been for the vast majority of their history, war was small-scale and frequent. Bands of males attacked other bands of males – as chimpanzees do today.
“Chimpanzees in fact occupy territories that are patrolled and defended by bands of males. Through raids and ambushes, they try to pick off the males of a neighboring group one by one until they are able to annex the group’s territory and females.” (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct 48)
In this context of tribal warfare, tribes fared best when their members were highly committed, loyal, and willing to sacrifice themselves for the group.

Commitment and sacrifice are good for the group, but bad for individuals. A situation in which every one else was courageous and took risks to protect the group, while I could stay back, avoid the risks of fighting while reaping the benefits of keeping rival groups at bay, would be ideal for my genes. But if everyone followed that strategy, the group would be undefended and short-lived. So human groups put a lot of energy into keeping freeloading low and group commitment high. We monitor, condemn, and punish those who don’t do their part. Our survival depended on it.

Small groups used gossip to keep people in line, but once a group got past about 150 people, there were too many for gossip to keep up with. We needed another strategy. And that’s where religion comes in. Rituals and shared music, dancing and drumming, helped our ancestors rev up certain neuropeptides and hormones and neural pathways of group connectedness. We felt much more connected to the group. Public ritual and ceremony also allowed monitoring who wasn’t participating -- and therefore who wasn’t so reliably connected to the group.

Moreover, our sociable brains, highly attuned to other people – who to approve and disapprove of, and who is approving and disapproving of us – are primed to see the same thing in the natural world: that the sky and earth, too, are monitoring us with approval and disapproval. We told stories that reinforced the sense of person-like monitors, judges – and sometimes guides – in earth, sky, sun, moon, rivers, mountains, animals.

Religion – shared rituals, ceremonies, music, dance, and sacred stories – binds us together. Religion exists in every human culture because it is so good as a functional adaptation to bind our group together so we can compete successfully – violently – against other groups.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Religion started getting out of control. Not that it was ever exactly in anybody’s control. I mean: this device for commitment, connection, monitoring, and the useful illusion of being monitored, started spreading beyond its purpose. Slowly, the connection we had to our tribe also connected us to people outside our tribe, even to our enemies.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 4.
Previous: Part 2.
Beginning: Part 1.


A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 2

In Part 1, The Liberal Pulpit mentioned the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th-century BCE and the literature that came out of it, including:
  • Psalm 137, with its mournful, poignant sadness and bitter, violent hatred;
  • the narrative arc of Abraham, with a powerful signal episode of hospitality -- an episode that pointed the captive Israelites away from vicious retribution and toward compassion.
Now, if you are thinking about Abraham, you might also be remembering another Abraham story. You might be thinking that old Abraham doesn’t seem very compassionate a few chapters later as he prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac.
"When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son." (Genesis 22: 9-10)
Not exactly a model of compassion, is it? If a man today said that God told him to kill his son, and he was preparing to do it, we’d call protective services, posthaste.

How does the binding of Isaac fit with the narrative project of 6th-century BCE captive Israelite story-tellers? How can this, too, be a part of the emerging place of compassion in the consciousness of the Hebrew people?

Glad you asked.

Genesis 22 tells listeners, "there is a meaning and a joy in a connection that isn’t just about you and your interests and your family."

The call of the divine is the call to hospitality outside the usual circle of loyalty, compassion to the stranger, a connection that stretches us. That’s where we encounter the holy. That point is made in Genesis 18, where Abraham met God by being hospitable to three strangers. Then the point is driven home in Genesis 22. The binding of Isaac story is saying: if you think that just taking care of your own is where it’s at, you’ve missed it. Other means really other.

Abraham’s willingness to cut off his own line, his greatest interest, represents in parable the dethroning of himself from the center of the world – a giving himself over to something bigger than himself – a connectedness beyond his own (his family's, his tribe's) interests.

Modern listeners can't help but think about Isaac's interests. But remember that for the peoples of the Ancient Near East, children had no interests of their own -- they were solely a part of their father's interests. Thus, the crucial part of the story is Abraham's willingness to give up himself. Isaac represents Abraham's last chance at the sort of immortality that progeny provide, for Ishmael had been sent away in the previous chapter (Genesis 21). Abraham stands ready to die without any "living on" in a son. He is ready to die utterly. Abraham is ready to die because, for him, life is not for serving Self. Life is for serving Other, represented here by God, the Holy Wholly Other.

Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac, represents Abraham's de-centering of the ego-self. It is not a retreat from Abraham's compassion in Genesis 18, but is, instead, a surrender into service to the Other, and thus a vital aspect of the emerging compassion consciousness.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 3.
Previous: Part 1


A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 1

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept
     when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth,
     saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
     how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!"
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back
     what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

-- Psalm 137 (NRSV)
The first two-thirds of this Psalm have a plaintive beauty. These lines have many times been set to music. The musical versions, however, usually leave out that vicious ending. To understand the Psalm's mix of sadness, loss, devotion, and bitter hatred, let's look to its context.

The Psalm was composed -- as was much of the Hebrew Bible -- in the 6th century BCE, during the period of exile known as the Babylonian Captivity. In 605 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, and the Israelites were enslaved and taken far away to Babylon. Then, in 538 BCE, Babylon in turn fell to Persia, and Israelites began to return home to Judah. In between, the 70-year period of Babylonian exile was for the Israelites a time of deep reflection on the meaning of who they were and why God had abandoned them.

During the exile, the stories about King David were compiled, incorporating earlier fragments. The figure of David reflects an exiled people's deep yearning for a story of past glory. In the process of constructing that story, a detailed ancestry for David was concocted, going back to Moses, and going further back to Abraham, some eight or nine centuries before David.

The creation and telling of these stories gave hope to the Hebrew people in a time of despair, suffering, and defeat. The stories of Abraham, Moses, and David, fictional or not, told Israelites of a past time of freedom and power, and gave them hope for a better time to come -- for the stories told them God had promised to make the descendants of Abraham a great nation.

Those stories assembled and composed during the Babylonian Captivity told the Israelites that the path of the fulfillment of God's promise was a winding one that had taken them into captivity before, in Egypt. They had emerged from past captivity into a time of freedom and prosperity, and so could again. Without that story, composed in oppression and exile, the Israelites would be known as one more Ancient Near East tribe – along with the Jebusites, Ammonites, Aramites, Midianites, Moabites, Edomites, Huttites,...Etceterites. But with that story, the Israelites coalesced around it into the religion recognizable as Judaism.

Some of the writings of the Babylonian Captivity do express deep bitterness, anger, and violent hatred of the Babylonian captors. Perhaps the bitterness of their oppression makes the bitterness of their hearts understandable. In any case, what we see at the end of Psalm 137 is a glimpse of the violent hostility that some of the Hebrews had toward their captors.

But now comes the amazing part.

In the midst of that bitterness, some of the Hebrew story-tellers had the wisdom and the courage to perceive another way: a way of hospitality rather than bitter and violent anger. The stories they wove together told the Hebrew people not only of a past time of glory, but also called them to hospitality rather than to bitterness. These story-tellers among the enslaved Israelites of the Babylonian Captivity gave us the story of Abraham’s hospitality to strangers, his heart of compassion in the midst of risk.

Genesis, chapter 18:
“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.’”
Now, Abraham doesn’t recognize who these visitors are. Abraham's use of “my lord,” is a general term of respect. His running out to meet them and bowing down are the same generous hospitality he might show any human visitor. Abraham continues:
"‘Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refesh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’”
It was a patriarchal culture, so when Abraham decides to have guests, Sarah has to get to work – though Abraham is busy, too:
“And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the heard, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”
In ancient times, a stranger often represented a threat. Yet Abraham rushes out to show kindness. He sets out his best offering. What he finds out, is that he is serving God.

Abraham's act of practical compassion leads to a holy encounter. As I read that story, it’s not that reaching out to needs greater than our own causes a magical being to reward us for it. Reaching out and connecting is the holy encounter. We touch the divine when we contact in compassion the other, the stranger. Whoever it is, that’s God.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 2