Continuous Gift-Giving: Faith Like a Chalice 4

Living in the present doesn't mean you don't ever plan ahead. Planning ahead and forming strategy, however, can be engaged as present-moment doing. Let goals and outcomes and plans for achieving be manifestations of compassion. It’s possible to plan for results without expecting them. Our hearts turn over to grace our labor, our sweat -- all that our hearts are and have. Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it.

The Satyana Institute has worked with social change leaders since 1996. They have developed Principles of Spiritual Activism -- thirteen "key learnings and guidelines" for effective spirituality that makes effective social justice work possible. Their guidelines talk about
“Transformation of motivation from anger/fear/despair to compassion/love/purpose.”
They stress:
“Non-attachment to outcome. This is difficult to put into practice, yet to the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our successes and failures -- a sure path to burnout. Hold a clear intention, and let go of the outcome -- recognizing that a larger wisdom is always operating. As Gandhi said, ‘the victory is in the doing,’ not the results. Also, remain flexible in the face of changing circumstances.”
Making plans and setting goals is an essential exercise, but don’t get attached to them. General Dwight Eisenhower – not a man on very many lists of the world’s great mystics – said:
“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. . . Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
How does one cultivate this fearless flexibility, this nonattached engagement, this nonanxious presence?

Imagine that all your actions are offerings -- gifts to the world. In the true spirit of giving, the gift doesn’t come with strings. If you expect some return for your gift, you don’t have the true spirit of giving. When you think about getting a gift for a loved one, you think about what would really be useful or beneficial for them. But if it turns out the gift itself happens to be useless for them, that’s OK. You gave it, with all your heart. That’s the important thing. Most of us understand that's the beauty, the grace, the genius of gift-giving practice. So suppose you adopted the same approach to everything? Imagine that everything you did was simply offering a gift to the world. The world might or might not find your gift helpful, might or might not be changed much by what you give. The point is to give it. Then you are liberated from results.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna tell Arjuna:
“Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform — do that, O son of KuntÄ«, as an offering to Me. In this way you will be freed from bondage to work and its auspicious and inauspicious results.”
All of this might sound really good. (I hope it does.) But as long as it’s just words, it’s primarily cognitive. Re-training your emotions, our nonlinguistic orientation toward fearlessness and radical openness, receptivity, acceptance – love – takes more than what I can tell you, takes more than what we can tell ourselves. Agreeing with statements – repeating them to yourself – might be a good start. Statements, though, are expressions of belief – and I believe faith isn’t about what you believe. Whatever you might undertake to re-train those slow-learning deep patterns of orientation toward the world, that’s called spiritual practice.

Out of the silence that words cannot touch comes love – an embracing love of all that is – a love that we try feebly to point to with the word “faith.” In spiritual practice, we visit that silence and slowly begin to make a home for ourselves there. Grounded in that home, words are . . . off center. We hear them, we speak them, but they are always a little off to the side – as our eyes rest on the center: on a quiet, shining flame.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Previous: Part 3: Openness to Whatever
Beginning: Part 1: The Center
Illustration from UU Andover. (c) 1996 Solar


This Week's Prayer

Earth and air and all the waters of our home,

Guide us in the ways of being in loving relation with you.

We have put carbon dioxide in your air, now over 397 parts per million. It will not be easy to get it back down to below 350 parts per million, the highest level safe and sustainable. We’re scared of the results if we don’t make the right changes, and we don’t trust that we know for sure which sacrifices would really be helpful.

We yearn for a loving and skillful relationship of mutual nurturance with our planet home.

As you bring the splendor of autumn to your northern lands, we humans are bringing the sounds of war all over your surface: bombs and tears, sirens and fear, guns and terror, violence and injustice of every kind. Guide us in the ways of peacemaking.

We yearn for a loving and skillful relationship of mutual nurturance with all our neighbors on our planet home.

May our ears and eyes and hearts be opened to see through the fog, and may we be agents of opening for others that we may all hear one another and move toward peace. May we find in ourselves the wisdom, the compassion to make it so, for we are distraught that so many are subject to such cruelty – and that climate change may lead to still more instability and violence.

Guide us to involvement in development of ways to police ourselves without racism or unnecessary violence.

Guide us, too, to a compassionate and skillful response to the lands hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak.

Earth and air and all the waters of our home, guide us in the ways of being in loving relation with all creation.


Openness to Whatever: Faith Like a Chalice 3

Photo by the author
The kind of faith that isn't faith IN, that does not depend on outcomes, that embraces whatever comes, is unshakeable. It has that quality of being impervious to the evidence because it’s a feeling, an awareness, an openness and receptivity that things are acceptable no matter what happens, no matter what the evidence shows.

If you think of faith as being about belief, then imperviousness to evidence is a bit of a problem. I don’t think any belief is impervious to evidence. Every belief is subject to revision. That’s a fundamental tenet of liberal religion. When Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described "the five smooth stones of liberalism," the first stone, he said, is:
"Revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism."
No belief can be complete and exempt from criticism. Every belief is open to critique and modification.

So unshakeable faith can’t be about believing something. Instead, it’s about an attitude of openness to whatever life may throw at you. “Bring it. Bring it all,” is a faith-full affirmation, but it is not a truth claim, not a statement, true or false, not a belief, supported or undermined by evidence. It’s an attitude. It’s an orientation of radical hospitality toward whatever may come. It’s living fearlessly.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t take action to address problems. Acceptance does not mean complacency. It means you do the work that needs doing. And let go of attachment to results.

On 2014 Sep 21, I was wearing my yellow shirt and marching in the People’s Climate March. Maybe that march will turn out to be a tipping point event in a massive, global shift. Such shifts have happened in the history of humankind. Maybe it had have no effect whatsoever. Either way, I went.

Strategize carefully about how to do good. Work diligently to carry out the strategy – then let go. Put your best work out into the world, and then let the world make of it what it will.

Faith is about acting here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. It’s about what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. Keats was talking about determinate knowable meaning of a text, like a poem. The same point applies to not insisting on a determinate knowable meaning of your own actions.

Faith is about doing what you are called to do – what your most authentic, integrated Self most needs to do – not to make the world over in your image, but only to be who you are. Faith is about being courageous, joining the resistance with your heart and your breath and your love and your being, and being comfortable not knowing what will come of it. It’s about listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go.

Any other kind of faith or hope is really another name for fear. What commonly go by the names “faith” and “hope” – faith in a particular outcome or hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. It is fear of the world as it is, or the world as you are afraid it may become.

A hero of mine is A.J. Muste, a lifelong activist. Muste protested the Vietnam War outside the White House, day after day, usually alone, sometimes in the rain. One day Muste was approached a reporter. “Do you really think you’re going to change those people?” asked the reporter indicating toward the White House.

“I don’t do it to change them,” replied Muste. “I do it so they won’t change me.”

It’s not that Muste, or I, don’t want to be changed. It’s just that we want to resist the forces that would keep us from our calling, that would occlude the compassion from flowing out from us to what end we cannot see and do not control.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Next: Part 4: Continuous Gift-Giving
Previous: Part 2: Defining "Faith".
Beginning: Part 1: The Center


Defining "Faith": Faith Like a Chalice 2

1. Salzberg.

Sharon Salzberg wrote a book on faith from a nontheist perspective. While she was working on it, a neighbor asked her: “How can you possibly be writing a book on faith without focusing on God?” . . . “Isn’t that the whole point?” Actually, no. It isn't. Salzberg writes:
“Her concern spoke to the common understanding we have of faith . . . But the tendency to equate faith with doctrine, and then argue about terminology and concepts, distracts us from what faith is actually about. In my understanding, whether faith is connected to a deity or not, its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely. I want to invite a new use of the word faith, one that is not associated with a dogmatic religious interpretation or divisiveness. I want to encourage delight in the word, to help reclaim faith as fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and liberating. This is a faith that emphasizes a foundation of love and respect for ourselves. It is a faith that uncovers our connection to others, rather than designating anyone as separate and apart. Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or God, though it doesn’t deny one…it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
Salzberg also says faith is "the act of opening our hearts to the unknown."

2. Wieman

Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman noticed the human temptation to devote our lives to ego-gratifications such as “social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.” Whatever it might be that can transform us and save us from our ego-gratifications, faith is committing ourselves to that – committing ourselves “with the fullness of our being” to anything, any process or practice, that will direct our attention and energies to something ultimately worthier.

3. Fowler

For professor James Fowler, faith is “a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” Everybody knows, construes, and interprets in some way, so everybody has some kind of faith, on that definition.

4. Existentialism

For existentialist writers, “bad faith” meant refusal to confront facts or choices. It’s a kind of self-deception about who we are and our freedom and power in the world. If that’s “bad faith,” then good faith is being authentic, present to just what is, undeluded. It’s a commitment to reality at all costs – whatever that reality may be. Good faith is being faithful to yourself and to your situation.

5. Faith and Trust

Faith is about a fundamental kind of trust – more basic than ordinary trust. With trust there is some particular outcome that you trust from some particular person or thing. I trust the bridge I walk across will hold. I trust a friend not to let me down. I trust the bank not to defraud me of my money. There’s some outcome that I trust to occur from the entrusted.

It feels good to be able to trust, to rely on someone on something that you have every reason to believe is trustworthy. It’s like, ahhhhh. That thing that I wanted – a solid bridge that won’t collapse, reliable company when I’m lonely, financial security – is going to be taken care of.

It feels really good to be able to trust in things and people for what I’ll need. I can relax, and that’s so nice. Trust is a really great thing. It’s often fragile – but it’s great when you can get it and maintain it.

Faith, though, goes beyond that kind of trust. Faith isn’t about the outcome. It isn’t about what I want or need. It isn’t about guarantees. Faith feels good that way that having trust feels good -- only: you have that great trust feeling without relying on any particular outcome. I know we often say things like “faith in X” or “faith in Y,” but that’s really trust we’re talking about. Ultimate faith isn’t in anything in particular. It’s acceptance of what is, whatever it is. The result of that acceptance is a generalized positive feeling -- like the positive feeling of trusting, only free-floating, not dependent on any agent or any outcome.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Next: Part 3: Openness to Whatever
Previous: Part 1: The Center


The Center: Faith Like a Chalice 1

We gather in concentric arcs, and the center point of all the arcs is our chalice, the symbol of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. Our physical arrangement reflects our spiritual orientation. Our faith is at the center of what we’re about.

In our tradition, the pulpit is respected as a source of inspiration and insight, but it is not the center. After all, the guy in the pulpit sometimes fails to be very inspirational or insightful. (It could happen!) But our faith is a vessel always ready to carry us – a flame always ready to shine. Sometimes, in all our lives, the vessel is empty, the light gone out. We gather here, in the rounded embrace of one another, to find a way to fill it again, to find the spark that will light it again.

"Faith" has a lot of different meanings. Its synonyms range from conviction, belief, assurance, certitude to loyalty, fealty, allegiance, to credit, credence, reliance and trust, to fidelity, to trust, to acceptance. The word is used in so many different ways, that there’s a lot of space for us to say what it means to us.

One thing it doesn’t mean to me – though maybe faith does mean this to some people – is “clinging to a belief regardless of the evidence – regardless, even, of any possible future evidence.” I’d say faith isn’t really about belief at all.

When I’m asked what do Unitarian Universalists believe, my most common reply is that what we believe is that religion isn’t about what you believe. Religion is about three things:
  1. Religion is about how: how you live, the ethics and values that guide your life. 
  2. Religion is about who and what: who you choose to come together with in community and what you do in that community – the rituals the affirm your connectedness, each to each. 
  3. And religion is about experience: a certain kind of experience called religious experience – the apprehension of transcendence and mystery, beauty and deep awe, that leads to deep peace and equanimity. 
What congregational life aims to do is bring those three very different things together in a way where each one reinforces the other two. Your ethics and values reinforce and are reinforced by your community connection and experiences of transcendence or oneness. Your community connection reinforces and is reinforced by your ethics and values and religious experiences. That’s basically what goes on in religious congregational life. Believing is a big part of the picture in some religions. In ours, not so much.

So, naturally, our faith isn’t about believing either. For Unitarian Universalists, and I quote from one of our denomination’s recent adult curricula:
“Faith is about embracing life's possibilities, growing in our sense of being ‘at home in the universe.’ Faith is practiced in relationships with others. While faith has aspects that are internal and personal, it is best supported in a community with shared symbols, stories, traditions, and values. Unitarian Universalist faith development emphasizes each person's religious journey—each person's lifelong process of bringing head, heart and hands to seeking and knowing ultimate meaning.” ("Spirit in Practice," a "Tapestry of Faith" curriculum for adults)
The use of the word “God” – which might mean “universe,” which might mean “love,” which might mean a person-like entity that knows and wants – might or might not figure in a Unitarian Universalist’s articulation of faith.

I know that this is confusing for some people. But the fact that they are confused doesn’t mean we’re getting it wrong. It just means we might have to explain a little bit sometimes – which is nothing new for us.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Next: Part 2: Defining "Faith"


This Week's Prayer

From: Perry Montrose

In the sacred connection of this community we hold the difficulties and the hope in the world around us.

We hold care in our hearts for all the children across our country suffering from the recent outbreak of Enterovirus and people young and old in Africa who cope with the devastation of the Ebola virus. We wish for their healing and these illnesses to dissipate with aid the restores well-

We think of those affected by fire in California and send thoughts that long to cool the rage of the blazes caused by human carelessness.

We are pained when domestic violence rears its ugliness and the innocent are not protected.

Yet, we remain hopeful that the veil that has been pulled away will shine a new light of understanding that will bring support for those in danger and peace in homes.

We recognize the fear and suffering across the Middle East, while we celebrate the relief felt from hostages freed, knowing that others live in captivity and torturous conditions, whether physical or mental. We pray for freedom from fear and violence. We send the plea for lasting peace.

We honor our fellow Unitarian Universalists and others who march today to hold up the effects of climate change and prod us all to address this vital issue. They walk with our support and hope for a better environment for future generations.

We also praise the Social Good Summit at the UN meetings as caring people work to make the world a better place for all its inhabitants. We hold in our hearts a knowing that intentions such as these make a difference in themselves and contain the seeds for transformation. May those seeds blossom into reality and may a balm of understanding, care, and aid cover the suffering in the world as we send our love to those in need.


Conventional Morality: On the Road 4

Neal Cassady
Photograph by Ted Streshinksy/Corbis
From Jack Kerouac, On the Road:
“Where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent himself, but standing in front of everybody, ragged and broken and idiotic, right under the lightbulbs, his boney mad face covered with sweat and throbbing veins, saying, ‘yes, yes, yes,’ as though tremendous revelations were pouring into him all the time now, and I am convinced they were, and the others suspected as much and were frightened. He was BEAT – the root, the soul of Beatific. . . .

There was a strange sense of maternal satisfaction in the air, for the girls were really looking at Dean the way a mother looks at the dearest and most errant child, and he with his sad thumb and all his revelations knew it well, and that was why he was able, in tick-tocking silence, to walk out of the apartment without a word, to wait for us downstairs as soon as we’d made up our minds about time. This was what we sensed about the ghost on the sidewalk.

I looked out the window. He was alone in the doorway, digging the street. Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness – everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.

‘Come on, Galatea, Marie, let’s go hit the jazz joints and forget it. Dean will be dead someday. Then what can you say to him?’

‘The sooner he’s dead the better,’ said Galatea, and she spoke officially for almost everyone in the room.

‘Very well, then,’ I said, ‘but now he’s alive, and I’ll bet you want to know what he does next, and that’s because he’s got the secret that we’re all busting to find.’”
Does Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) have the secret? Doesn’t he? Does he?

Ah, what is this life? And what are we supposed to do with it?

Neal/Dean is a heroic figure in that he attempts to live a life beyond the time-bound compromises most of us make with life. But he’s also a sad and tragic figure in that this very same uncompromising stance ultimately leaves him abandoned. At the end of On the Road, Sal drives off with friends leaving Dean alone in the cold.

Conventional morality says: Choose between living for yourself and caring about others. Or try somehow to hew a balance between these opposites. Conventional morality is surely wrong. Living for yourself and caring about others are not opposites.

The greatest gift that you can give this world is the gift of presenting to it who you truly are – your most real and authentic self, following no script, creatively present to each moment, ready to surprise and be surprised. And that very thing is also your own deepest desire. Dean Moriarty gives that gift – but is he able himself to receive the gift of who he is?

Impulses pour out of him, but is he even aware of them at any point before he is in the middle of what they compel him to do? He doesn’t so much have impulses as the impulses have him. Is that freedom?

You can flee from your fear into conventional morality. Or you can flee into excess. Either way, it’s running away from life.

I believe that your true self emerges from neither repressing nor indulging. Don’t push away the impulses, the mad, wild desires. But be selective about which ones to indulge. Pay attention to your impulses: they have something to teach you.

To follow no formula, but a creative and loving and spontaneous wisdom – this is the vague destination of my own life’s road trip, the "Further" to which I imagine my bus is headed, the damned good question I don’t understand.

We must be still and listening to what is going on in us. Yet this is what Dean Moriarty could never sit still long enough to do. Kerouac writes: “With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it.”

Yeah, man.

Slow down.

Slow down and maybe then see what this life is and where this road we’re on is taking us.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "On the Road"
Previous: Part 3: Contradictions
Beginning: Part 1: Damned Good Questions


Contradictions: On the Road 3

In real life, this Neal Cassady, with his crazy intensity of life, unstoppable energy, overwhelming charm, and savvy hustle, did only a little writing: published some poems and an autobiographical novel. Mostly, however, Neal Cassady was an artist whose medium was being.

Cassady was a muse, an inspiration, for Kerouac, and also for Allen Ginsberg, who writes about Cassady in “Howl” and calls him the "secret hero of these poems." Cassady would go on to meet Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, and became one of the Merry Pranksters, a group that formed around Kesey. Kesey wrote about Cassady in the book Demon Box, calling him “Superman.” In 1964, Cassady was the main bus driver of a bus – the destination across its front simply saying, “Further” -- immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Hunter S. Thompson wrote about him.

Who was this guy, irresistible to writers as he was also to a great many women – and more than a few men – with whom he slept? What kind of model of life is this?

In one scene from On the Road, Dean Moriarty (the name the novel gives to Neal Cassady), with his body seemingly falling apart, is thrown out by his wife, and his primary recurrent girlfriend, formerly also his wife, leaves him. Dean and Sal go looking for sleeping accommodations at another friend’s place, Ed Dunkel. Ed himself has disappeared for a while on the road, and Ed’s wife, Galatea, lets them in and several of the women cohorts of the male Beat characters are there and take the opportunity to express their collective condemnation:
  “‘For years now you haven’t had any sense of responsibility for anyone. You’ve done so many awful things I don’t know what to say to you.’ And in fact that was the point, and they all sat around looking at Dean with lowered and hating eyes, and he stood on the carpet in the middle of them and giggled – he just giggled. He made a little dance. . . .
  I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot.
  ‘You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is . . . how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside. Not only that but you’re silly about it. It never occurs to you that life is serious and there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time.’
  That’s what Dean was, the HOLY GOOF.
  ‘You stand here and make silly faces, and I don’t think there’s a care in your heart.’ [said Galatea]
  This was not true; I knew better and I could have told them all. I didn’t see any sense in trying it. I longed to go and put my arm around Dean and say, Now look here, all of you, remember just one thing: this guy has his troubles too, and another thing, he never complains and he’s given all of you a damned good time just being himself, and if that isn’t enough for you then send him to the firing squad, that’s apparently what you’re itching to do anyway. . . .
  ‘Now you’re going East with Sal,’ Galatea said, ‘and what do you think you’re going to accomplish by that? Camille has to stay home and mind the baby now you’re gone – how can she keep her job? – and she never wants to see you again and I don’t blame her. If you see Ed along the road you tell him to come back to me or I’ll kill him.’”
Suddenly we see that this familiar, familiar voice of morality and reason, source of so much rage, is as filled with contradictions as Dean’s free-wheeling is. If you were any good you’d go back, but don’t you go back because she won’t have you. And the people we want are the ones we want to kill. There are contradictions all the way around.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "On the Road"
Next: Part 4: Conventional Morality
Previous: Part 2: Dean/Neal
Beginning: Part 1: Damned Good Questions


Dean/Neal: On the Road 2

Neal Cassady
In Kerouac's iconic novel, On the Road, the first-person narrator is Sal Paradise, (Jack Kerouac himself), is haunted by the idea of Dean Moriaty. This Dean Moriarty represents wildness, liberation, freedom, vitality.

Moriarty – in real life Neal Cassady – actually was born on the road, “when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City, Utah in 1926.” Mother died when he was 10; raised by his alcoholic tinsmith father in Denver; much of his youth lived on the streets of skid row with his father, or in reform school for various thefts. Stealing cars was an early talent and habit. At 19, out of jail, he and first wife “Marylou” – the real life Luanne Henderson – moved to New York, where he and Kerouac met.

Moriarty/Cassady’s powerful enthusiasm, unconstrained by law or convention, his insatiable sexuality, and wildness attracts Kerouac, though Kerouac himself doesn’t go there. He thinks that maybe he would like to, but Kerouac ultimately has other loyalties, to family and stability.

Life on the road is unpredictable, wild, moment-to-moment. There are times when the money runs out, even for food, and hunger becomes very real. There are also times of reading poetry aloud, and all-night long intense and earnest discussions. And other nights in smoky jazz clubs saying things like “man that cat can blow.” And sex and drugs, various partners and substances. There are moments of ecstasy, and also sadness. At one point Kerouac writes:
“As the river poured down from mid-America by starlight I knew, I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One.”
And later:
"And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven.... I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place.”
These moments come along with a lot of sadness.
“We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad.”
But in the next sentence he says,
“for life is holy and every moment is precious.”
Dean represents for Sal a kind of sacred insanity, a spiritual visionary.

About two-thirds through the book, after Sal and Dean have been apart for a year, Sal hits the road again, looking for Dean. When he finds him, Dean is falling apart – but still shining a kind of light. Here’s Dean Moriarty speaking of himself in third person:
“I’m classification three-A, jazz-hounded Moriarty has a sore butt, his wife gives him daily injections of penicillin for his thumb, which produces hives, for he’s allergic. He must take sixty thousand units of Fleming’s juice within a month. He must take one tablet every four hours for this month to combat allergy produced from his juice. He must take codeine aspirin to relieve the pain in his thumb. He must have surgery on his leg for an inflamed cyst. He must rise next Monday at six a.m. to get his teeth cleaned. He must see a foot doctor twice a week for treatment. He must take cough syrup each night. He must blow and snort constantly to clear his nose, which has collapsed just under the bridge where an operation some years ago weakened it. He lost his thumb on his throwing arm. Greatest seventy-yard passer in the history of New Mexico State Reformatory. And yet – and yet, I’ve never felt better and finer and happier with the world and to see little lovely children playing in the sun and I am so glad to see you, my fine gone wonderful Sal, and I know, I know everything will be all right.”
Dean/Neal lived with intensity, spontaneity, incredible energy -- a kind of presence and authenticity -- and it was literally more than a body can take. He was falling apart. What do we learn from his example?

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This is part 2 of 4 of "On the Road"
Next: Part 3: Contradictions
Previous: Part 1: Damned Good Questions


This Week's Prayer

In remembrance of Thursday’s anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, this week’s prayer is "Rest in Peace," by Thich Nhat Hahn:

I am a World Trade Center tower, standing tall in the clear blue sky, feeling a violent blow in my side, and I am a towering inferno of pain and suffering imploding upon myself and collapsing to the ground.

May I rest in peace.

I am a terrified passenger on a hijacked airplane not knowing where we are going or that I am riding on fuel tanks that will be instruments of death, and I am a worker arriving at my office not knowing that in just a moment my future will be obliterated.

May I rest in peace.

I am a pigeon in the plaza between the two towers eating crumbs from someone's breakfast when fire rains down on me from the skies, and I am a bed of flowers admired daily by thousands of tourists now buried under five stories of rubble.

May I rest in peace.

I am a firefighter sent into dark corridors of smoke and debris on a mission of mercy only to have it collapse around me, and I am a rescue worker risking my life to save lives who is very aware that I may not make it out alive.

May I rest in peace.

I am a family member who has just learned that someone I love has died, and I am a pastor who must comfort someone who has suffered a heartbreaking loss.

May I know peace.

I am a loyal American who feels violated and vows to stand behind any military action it takes to wipe terrorists off the face of the earth, and

I am a loyal American who feels violated and worries that people who look and sound like me are all going to be blamed for this tragedy.

May I know peace.

I am a boy in New Jersey waiting for a father who will never come home, and I am a boy in a faraway country rejoicing in the streets of my village because someone has hurt the hated Americans.

May I know peace.

I am a general talking into the microphone/s about how we must stop the terrorist cowards who have perpetrated this heinous crime, and I am an intelligence officer trying to discern how such a thing could have happened on American soil, and I am a city official trying to find ways to alleviate the suffering of my people.

May I know peace.

I am a terrorist whose hatred for America knows no limit and I am willing to die to prove it, and I am a terrorist sympathizer standing with all the enemies of American capitalism and imperialism, and I am a master strategist for a terrorist group who planned this abomination. My heart is not yet capable of openness, tolerance, and loving.

May I know peace.

I am a citizen of the world glued to my television set, fighting back my rage and despair at these horrible events, and I am a person of faith struggling to forgive the unforgivable, praying for the consolation of those who have lost loved ones, calling upon the merciful beneficence of God/Yahweh/Allah/Spirit.

May I know peace.

I am a child of God who believes that we are all children of God and we are all part of each other.

May we all know peace.


Damned Good Questions: On the Road 1

Photo: Wikicommons
What is this life? What are we supposed to do with it? Where is this road we’re on taking us? These questions drive Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, which thinly fictionalizes his travels across late-1940s America.

There's something about this Beatnik literary figure, Kerouac, that people want to feel close to, somehow, in some way. A few years ago reading On the Road on a train, the conductor came by and noticed the book I was reading.

"Kerouac," he said. "I dated his niece once."

"Oh, yeah?" I said. "What was her name?"

He thought a moment. "Colette."

"Wow. Was she a Kerouac?"

"No, no. It was her mother that was Jack's sister."

When I got home I did some checking. Jack Kerouac only had one sister, Caroline. And Caroline had one child, a son. No daughter. Maybe the conductor had meant a grandniece of a cousin of Kerouac or something. Or maybe he made it up entirely.

In any case, the book creates a persona we yearn to connect to somehow.

Kerouac struggled with what he wanted this book to be for several years. Then, in April 1951, in a three-week burst, staying awake with Benzedrine, he wrote almost without pause. He didn’t even want to pause to change sheets of paper in his typewriter. So he cut tracing paper sheets to size and taped them together into one long hundred and twenty-foot scroll. And the thing flowed out of him, single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks.

That was the first draft. Then there were six years of looking for a publisher and working with editors, and revising. Where does Kerouac’s road want to take us?

His quest is religious. For him as for the beat generation generally, the journey is a spiritual one. The real road is the inward one, the road to find ourselves, to find authenticity. What are we, really? And can we really be our true selves?

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac gives himself the name Sal Paradise, and he chronicles his road trips back and forth across the United States – to find Dean Moriarty, to go away from him, to go back to him. Three different around-the-country trips are chronicled: one in 1947, one in 1949, and one in 1950. In between the first and the second one, Kerouac wrote in his journal:
“In America today there’s a claw hanging over our brains, which must be pushed aside else it will clutch and strangle our real selves.”
Our real selves. Our real selves?

On his first trip westward Sal and someone he’s just met are hitchhiking together.
“A tall, lanky fellow in a gallon hat stopped his car on the wrong side of the road and came over to us; he looked like a sheriff.
We prepared our stories secretly. He took his time coming over.

‘You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?’

We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question.”
We have some dim inkling of where we want to get to – but it’s so vague to us that we can’t say whether we’re going somewhere or just going. We don’t know the answer, and we don’t even understand the question, but we understand just enough to know that somehow, it’s a very good question.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "On The Road"
Next: Part 2: Dean/Neal


Nothing Harder or Better: Boxes Too Small 4

In the Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, The Taqwacores, residents of a Muslim punk house hatch a scheme to host a national gathering of Islamic punk bands. They'll bring punk bands from all over the country together for one big punk Islam festival/concert/party. Jehangir is the primary energy for organizing the project.

There is a controversy in the house about whether to invite a band called Bilal’s Boulder, a punk band that adheres to a particularly conservative and strict brand of Islam. Jehangir is a advocate of open-ness and acceptance – and Bilal’s Boulder represents strict rules and intolerance of any fudging on those rules.

And there we hit that familiar paradox of tolerance: if you tolerate everything, including tolerating intolerance, then you facilitate intolerance. And if you don’t tolerate intolerance, you have become the intolerance. It's a real dilemma, and we all wrestle with it in one form or another. Where do we draw the line between what to tolerate and what we can't?

Jehangir argues for tolerating the intolerance, for inviting Bilal’s Boulder. For him, the openness and inclusivity that he wants to move toward would be contradicted by not also being open to closedness.

Bilal’s Boulder arrives wearing turbans and traditional Arabic attire. They size up the house and announce they won’t sleep on the floor in the house, as all the other bands are – because a woman will be staying somewhere under the same roof. They’ll have none of that. They’ll sleep in their van – even though it’s winter and they’re in Buffalo, and it’s freezing.

The next day, during the concert Jehangir himself is persuaded to perform. Highlighting that tension of individual vs community, Jehangir sings a punk cover version of Frank Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way.” As he finishes, Rabeya, the burqa-wearing “riot girl” performs an act that seems deliberately planned to disturb, shock, offend, and enrage the strict tough guys of Bilal’s Boulder who, having finished their set, are standing in the crowd. They react violently, and in the melee, Jehangir receives mortal blows.

The advocate for openness is killed by the closedness that he had insisted on being open to. Community is hard, though we so need it.

Since writing The Taqwacores, Michael Muhammad Knight has been drawn toward an offshoot of the Nation of Islam called the Five Percenters, who reject the traditional Muslim belief that God is separate from humanity. Says Michael Muhammad Knight:
“The Five Percenters have a devastating critique of organized religion that, to me, mixes with punk rock because in a so-called punk view of religion, you are your authority, and you’re not entrusting your soul to other human beings. The basic idea of the Five Percenters is that all this divine power that you fear as being something outside of yourself – that’s gonna come down and crush you -- all that power is actually within you. You are your Allah. So rather than entrust your religion to the imams or the priests or whoever, you become the master of your own cipher.”
Michael Knight has also said:
“I can’t fit my deen in a little box because to me, everything comes from Allah. Birds sing Allah’s name. To say Allah is in this book and not that one, or he likes this and not that – do you know who you’re talking about? Allah is too big and open for my deen to be small and closed.”
You are your Allah. Thou art God. Your very mind is Buddha. Sooner or later, every tradition makes its own version of that point. But that, too, can become a box too small: an excuse for egocentrism and spiritual irresponsibility.

We are Unitarian Universalists, people of different beliefs, making community of freedom, recognizing you are your Allah, yet also standing in awe of the reality as given to us, in gratitude of the grace we receive from the universe without earning it: worshiping together as one faith of diverse beliefs and disciplines.

Nothing could be harder than building a way of life in that tension between structure and freedom, commonalities and diversities, authority figures outside you and ego inside you. Nothing could be harder. And nothing could be better.

Let’s do it.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Previous: Part 3: Trade-Offs of Community
Beginning: Part 1: Nailing Things Together


Trade-Offs of Community: Boxes Too Small 3

Yusef (left) and Jehangir. From the film adaptation
of The Taqwacores
Half-way through Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, The Taqwacores, the first-person narrator, Yusef, is struggling with his identity – and the tension between the box of rules and external authority and the box of spiritual laziness.
“Jehangir’s romanticism just equaled a spiritual, cultural and ideological laziness: in all things the path of least resistance. Allah wills, right? As a mumin [believer] I was ruined. How long had it been since I had attended a real jumaa? In a masjid, with men and women separate and khutbahs from qualified imams? Had I journeyed into apostasy? What did that even mean? We lived in a non-Muslim state where I had no fear of shari’a’s penalty, but there’s more than one way to chop off a head. What would it do to my parents to find out how this house really functioned?”
The way these questions are playing out for the growing numbers of American-born Muslims is merely one of the more recent versions of the basic American story of struggling for identity.

Both the fictional characters in the The Taqwacores, and the real-life American-born young-adult Muslims who resonate with the novel, are choosing to go in for a practice with a lot of rules. Even the hard-partiers get up before sunrise to make fajr. A number of them take on more rules, and adopt the straightedge identity: abstinence, no alcohol or drugs, no pork; five prayer times a day -- strict discipline.

The rules give life structure, and the structure gives life meaning. Most of all, rules give us belonging and community. You know you’re in the community of those who follow those rules. It doesn’t matter if the rules are arbitrary. It gives us an identity, makes a more-or-less coherent meaning out of the things we do.

The need for identity – for “this is who I am, so this is what I do” – is a universal human need. It’s nice to have identity: Muslim, Christian, UU, Punk, Democrat, Republican, teacher, lawyer, doctor. It’s nice to have the words to say who you are -- and whose you are. Yes, it can be limiting, but not having an identity can be even more limiting.

On the one hand, a community based on shared rule-following requires putting some energy into policing those rules: making sure everyone follows them: pretty much, most of the time. I understand the impulse to orthodox judgmentalism with its rules and strict procedures. If we don’t all follow our rules, then who are we? We don’t get to have the connection of a shared life pattern if you don’t follow the pattern.

On the other hand, I also understand that part of the human heart that rebels against orthodoxy’s constraint. A part of me -- and of most of us -- cries: come on, lighten up, open up, accept and embrace diversity of belief and of practice.

Community is hard. It’s hard for Unitarian Universalists, and it’s hard for Punk Muslims.

Community based on strict rules can be very attractive: it’s so clear and direct. But there’s a price to be paid for those rules.

The Unitarian Universalist approach to community is to have very little in the way of rules, to eschew the very idea of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, to celebrate diversity. There’s also a price to be paid for minimalism on rules. It isn’t so clear what binds us together. For a lot of people, religious liberalism doesn’t feel very satisfying.

Community is hard, anyway you cut it.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Next: Part 4: Nothing Harder or Better
Previous: Part 2: Authority and Taqwacores
Beginning: Part 1: Nailing Things Together


This Week's Prayer

Dear Ground of Peace, Justice, and Love: may we walk in the strength of your hope.

We are assaulted throughout the 24-hour news cycle by words and images that describe such sadness.

Nation and would-be nation bargain over beheaded journalists in the Middle East.
Nation and nation rattle sabers over prisoners in North Korea.
Basic institutions like schools and hospitals in Gaza explode.
Territorial integrity in Ukraine suffers attacks.
Somalia reels.
The thin skin of racial reconciliation rips in Ferguson, Missouri.
Our families rupture.
And our hearts despair.

Dear Ground of Peace, Justice, and Love: may we walk in the strength of your hope.

Everywhere there are also those standing against despair:

The courageous volunteers and committed health care workers as they expedite the development of an Ebola vaccine.
Over-burdened and under-appreciated peace workers negotiating a cease fire in Ukraine.
Relief workers straining to meet the challenges of refugees in Syria and flood-submerged villages in South Kashmir, and the many others whom they represent

Everywhere there are the signs that we are slowly, slowly learning to stand and live on the ground of peace, justice, and love.

We see a steady expansion of micro-credit
The APOPO organization trains rats that detect landmines and TB in Angola
The SOIL organization in Haiti and similar system-aware groups pursue related objectives like fertility and sanitation,
Advances in science encourage our sense of connection with time and other creatures

Dear Ground of Peace, Justice, and Love: may we walk in the strength of your hope – for your servants are everywhere: good people doing good work.
May we be among them.
May we commit anew to be vehicles carrying peace to the world.
May we commit anew to be workers building justice for everyone.
May we commit anew to be lights shining love everywhere.


Faith: The Size and Strength Tests

Is your faith big enough?

Is it strong enough?

The size test: Most of us have faith – we trust – in certain people. When I say “big” enough, I mean: if those people, for some reason or no reason, weren’t there for you, is there something bigger – wider, more encompassing – in which you could trust that would sustain you through difficult times?

Cognitively, we know that the universe is one big system of interconnected parts. All the parts are changing. If I say I have faith in the system as a whole – reality in its widest sense, encompassing all things seen and unseen – I don’t mean that I expect things to turn out well (“in the long run,” whatever that may mean). My own concepts of “well,” “better,” and “good” are products of my time, culture, and finite brain. Even if I could see the future a thousand or a million years hence, I don't imagine my limited concepts would be adequate to assess it. Still, it feels right to affirm the process, even if I don’t know where it’s headed. Reality is unfolding in a way that somehow feels good, even when its products don’t correspond to my conception of “good.” In this sense, I have faith in the universe.

This faith I described meets the size test. It’s big enough to withstand whatever disappointments, betrayals, and losses may come my way. I'd assess my faith as big enough -- and that's not something that's been true throughout my life. But is my faith strong enough? I don't know.

The size test is mostly cognitive: what do we tell ourselves about our own largest context of faith? Cognition is important and helpful – but limited.

The strength test. When the chips are down, we’ll need something more than cognition. We’ll also need a resilient limbic system. The limbic system generates our emotions and operates in ways often beyond conscious control. We’ll need the limbic system trained in the habits of faith: peace and an abiding capacity to sincerely love what is, whatever it is. The cognition learns quickly, but the emotions learn much more slowly. Moreover, the emotions aren’t very good at taking orders from the cognition: we will have limited success at trying to tell ourselves what to feel. Re-wiring the emotions may require therapy, and, in some cases (though probably not as many as we are often led to believe), may even need the assistance of prescription medications. One thing that helps all of us – whether we also go in for therapy or not – is spiritual practice. The daily exercising of faith strengthens the neurons that can’t be reached by rational thought.

Photo by the author