Gratitude and Its Expression 3

Gratitude is an element of prayer, and, like prayer, changes the world because it changes us, allowing us to be more positive forces in changing our world.

Psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, Robert Emmons conducted a study in which he asked people to make journal entries once a week. He randomly assigned subjects to one of three groups.

The first group he asked to list in their journal five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the last week.

The second group he asked to describe five hassles or annoyances that week.

The third group, the neutral group, was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, and they were not told to accentuate the positive or negative aspects of those circumstances.

In the first group, typical samples of things for which people were grateful were:
  • The generosity of friends;
  • The right to vote;
  • The God-given gift of determination;
  • That I have learned all that I have learned;
  • Sunset through the clouds;
  • The chance to be alive;
  • My in-laws live only ten minutes away.
In the second group, typical samples of things which people found to be hassles or annoyances included:
  • Hard to find parking;
  • Messy kitchen no one will clean;
  • Finances depleting quickly;
  • No money for gas;
  • Our house smells like manure;
  • Burned my macaroni and cheese;
  • Did favor for friend who didn’t appreciate it;
  • My in-laws live only ten minutes away.
In addition to this journal listing, he also asked subject to give an answer each week to two questions: one about how they felt about their life as a whole during the week, on a -3 to +3 scale, with -3 being “terrible,” and +3 being “delighted.” Second, he asked participants to rate their expectations for the upcoming week on a scale from -3 (“pessimistic, expect the worst”) to +3 (“optimistic, expect the best”).

At the beginning of the ten-week study period, the three groups were about the same in terms of how they felt about their life as a whole and what they expected for the upcoming week: about the same range of responses and about the same average response. By the end of the ten weeks, however, the gratitude group was scoring much higher on both how they felt about their life as a whole and on what they expected out of the upcoming week than either the hassles group or the neutral group.

It was remarkable, reports Emmons, how much difference it made to take just a couple minutes once a week to list five things for which one is grateful.

In a follow-up study, Emmons asked subjects to journal every day (rather than once a week) about what they were grateful for that day, or what annoyed them that day, or, neutrally, five events that affected them. He found that the differences were even more pronounced -- that the gratitude practice made even more of a difference to people’s perception of the quality of their life, when they were practiced daily.

Religion begins in gratitude, it has been said. It is the first and most basic spiritual practice; the first and most basic spiritual virtue. What separates a purely secular view – of life, of the universe – from a religious view is the infusion of sentiments of thankfulness. The difference between a secular and a religious orientation is not about what entities or supernatural powers do or do not exist – it’s about the attitude we have toward what exists, whatever it is.

The difference between “my inlaws are only 10 minutes away” and “my inlaws are only 10 minutes away” is not a disagreement over the facts, but in whether we are able to cultivate a joy in those facts.
(Not that you have to be joyful about every fact, but do you cultivate joy in general?)

Gratitude takes practice. The gratitude muscle, to become strong, requires regular exercising.

And the people around you can tell. Emmons writes:
“Remarkably, not only did the reports of participants in the gratitude condition indicate increased positive feelings and life satisfaction, but so did the reports of their significant others. Spouses of participants in the gratitude condition reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of participants in the control condition.”
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Gratitude and Its Expression 2

Thank You, Universe

I read about a recent Skeptic conference, where someone was going around asking the participants what they were grateful for. Most participants were thankful for things like friends, family, science, medicine, having a job. One participant, however, rejected the question itself. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

I get the point about anthropomorphizing the universe. Yeah, I kinda do that when I say, "thank you, sky, for being so blue and clear today," or "thank you, October, for being so lovely," or "thank you, universe." There's a hint of anthroporphizing in there. It's a fiction; I know that. But fiction is good for you. Reading novels shows us important truths about our world and ourselves. Good fiction changes us, broadens our understanding, makes us wiser, and it does this even though we know it’s fiction.

So I pretend the universe is just anthropomorphic enough to address as “you.” I do that because I’m a human, and we humans are a highly social species, which means I inherit a brain that’s very socially oriented. A little anthropomorphizing helps brains like ours feel a relation and a connection. (And since gratitude is nonpropositional -- "Thank you, universe," is not a claim -- anthropomorphizing at this low level does not entail endorsing false claims.)

While some at the Skeptic conference reject gratitude because it implies a person-like recipient, some theists embrace gratitude for the same reason: it implies a person-like recipient. Yet let us remember that there’s a long, long continuum stretching between the barest hint of anthropomorphizing which our brains inevitably do and which we can recognize as useful metaphor (at one end) -- and devoted commitment to a superpowerful male-gendered judgmental and bearded father-figure in the sky (at the other end).

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, described an encounter he once had.
“During a conference on religion and peace, a Protestant minister came up to me toward the end of one of our meals together and said, ‘Are you a grateful person?’ I was surprised. I was eating slowly, and I thought to myself, Yes, I am a grateful person. The minister continued, ‘If you are really grateful, how can you not believe in God? God has created everything we enjoy, including the food we eat. Since you do not believe in God, you are not grateful for anything.’ I thought to myself, I feel extremely grateful for everything. Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful. Why would he say that I am not?”
It seems pretty clear that, yes, we can be grateful for beautiful days, for springtime flowers, the summertime feel of bare feet on grass, autumn colors, winter logs in the fireplace, sunsets, beaches, apple trees, and wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings – even though none of those things intentionally chose to give us the gift that they are.

Sometimes intention and choice are relevant to our gratitude – as when I’m thankful to congregation members for the things they do that make our congregation the wonderful community it is. Sometimes intention and choice are not part of the picture – as when I’m thankful for the birds outside my window.

Sometimes gratitude functions to make another person feel affirmed and appreciated. More fundamentally, though, it’s about deciding to be glad about things. It’s about practicing the art of finding delight in things that you didn't make happen -- things beyond your control and maybe beyond anyone’s control.

It is such a great thing that there is so much beauty and abundance and I’m not responsible for it. It just happens. I can plant a seed and water it, but I can’t make it grow. What I can do is decide to pay attention to how delightful that is.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Gratitude and Its Expression"
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Gratitude and Its Expression 1

The topic of this series was prompted by a question from a congregant, who asked me to explore gratitude and
“how to handle or act on gratitude we have for people we don't know, such as our doctors' teachers or our teachers' teachers. Is there something we should do? Perhaps all we can do is pay it forward? Or simply accept this as a result of or proof of the interconnected web?”
What a wonderful topic and great questions.

Marriage has taught me that there are two sentences of two words each – four words in all – that are tremendously valuable tools for sustaining relationships. In fact, whether it’s one’s spouse or partner -- or a friend, a co-worker, a boss, an employee – or a store clerk – any relationship that I would like to go well or would like to sustain, these four words in two sentences are powerful help for relationships.

The words are “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” Let people know that you see the good, the helpful, in what they do. That needs to be said – and I know you know that – I know that – but I don’t say thank you enough. I’m reminding myself as much, or maybe more, as I’m reminding you.

Also let people know you accept responsibility. Apologize, as they say, early and often.

Give the credit and take the blame – you know, unless your lawyer advises otherwise. If you’re in a mess involving lawyers, that’s a different game. For the day-to-day business of getting along with people, “take the blame and give the credit” is a good rule of thumb. You, I thank. Me, a culpa. There are times when a more objective assessment of deservingness of praise or blame is called for, but those times are a lot rarer than we tend to think.

“Thank you,” and “I’m sorry” tell the other person you appreciate them, and you regret whatever part you had in straining the relationship. Those words say, "I care about this relationship."

Later on, I'll address the topic of forgiveness and apologizing. For now, let's look at gratitude.

Expressing thanks to specific people in our lives happens to be helpful for maintaining the relationship, and it helps them feel affirmed and appreciated. But expressing gratitude also has a function independent of facilitating specific relationships. If you’re feeling grateful for a beautiful day, you don’t have to be grateful to a person. You can just be appreciating the blue sky, the bright sun, and the fresh air.

In some circles this is controversial. There is a line of thought according to which gratitude must be directed toward some person or person-like entity – some being with intentions – and when you say thank you, you are thanking them for making the choice they did, when they could have chosen otherwise. On this traditional line of thought, it makes no sense to thank water for flowing because the water couldn’t have chosen otherwise. But what you can do is thank God for making water and rivers and the principles of physics. Gratitude for what people do is expressed to the people, and pretty much everything else is, on this line of thought, gratitude for the person-like entity who made things be that way. “I thank you god for most this amazing day,” as e.e. cummings said.

Suppose you say, “Thank you, universe," or, "Thank you, reality.” Does the “you” in “thank you” indicate that something vaguely person-like is receiving the gratitude? Is the universe, or reality, being anthropormorphized? Perhaps so, a little bit. But in a harmless -- indeed, helpful -- way.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Gratitude and Its Expression"
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This Week's Prayer

Creation, power of healing, world community of life:

How can we pray when words are so inadequate? Words cannot capture the magnitude of the cosmos, or the feeling of breath, or of love, or the depth of our gratitude. Nor can words express the confusion, anger, fear, and pain among us.

How can we pray when words are so inadequate? Do not our feelings belong rather to whistles of amazement, sighs of wonder, gasps of astonishment, howls of frustration, and whispers of anguish?

Yet, beginning in wordless noises of emotion, let us nevertheless grope toward articulation – knowing the words will be inadequate, but needing to say them.

Thank you for the prophets, the millions of anonymous kind hearts, the dedicated, courageous and visionary – the ones who came before us and did the slow work of building social systems of cooperation, community, trust – the makers of the space and structure for flourishing that we so gratefully inherit.

Our hearts are thankful – and our hearts are anguished.

We remember:
the peoples of West Africa, threatened by the Ebola virus
the people of Canada in the wake of unexplained violence in the capital
the victims of violence of every kind
the disenfranchised and disappointed
those in pain and in the throes of deep grief
those without food and those who have far too much
those who are alone and forgotten
those who are in prison: the tragedy that so many don’t need to be there, and the different tragedy that some do
those for whom war is an ever-present reality

Why are we not delivered from these scourges, healed of this pain? Where is the intelligence and the heart that would have prevented this? That would be guiding us now to end violence, war, hunger, slavery, homelessness?

We are the power, the love, the justice, and the peace. The power is with us and in us and is us.

May we be united respectfully amidst our differences, transcend our tribalism, and make good our capacity to heal ourselves and this dear world.


Expanding the Circle 4

The First Principle Project

We also know that the meat production industry produces 18% of all greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. If climate change is a concern (and it surely is), the one single most effective step would be to end meat production. A vegetarian driving a hummer is doing less harm to the planet than a meat-eater driving a Prius.

Tommy (ABC News photo)
Expanding the circle of care and concern – taking the next step in moral progress, the next step in growing our capacity for compassion, is expanding the circle to include all sentient beings – all beings that feel.

It’s been a good week for expanding the circle of inclusion: cities recognizing indigenous peoples day, states granting same-sex marriage rights. In the news this week was also this item: A state appellate court in Albany this week heard arguments on whether Tommy, held in captivity in Gloversville, NY, was entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. Tommy is a 26-year-old chimpanzee. The court was considering whether he could be considered a legal person who could – with the same assistance of a lawyer that we would all have to depend on – sue for his freedom.

Tommy’s lawyer argued: “He’s detained against his will.” No chimpanzee would want to live
“in the conditions in which he’s living. He can understand the past, he can anticipate the future, and he suffers as much in solitary confinement as a human being.”
The lawyer expressed hope that Tommy, if deemed a person, might soon be able to retire, as many New Yorkers do, to Florida. There’s an island preserve there with hundreds of other chimps.

We don’t know how the court will rule, but the very idea of chimpanzees with legal rights represents a sea change. Our attitudes about animals are shifting – the circle of inclusion is expanding, and inclusion strengthens rather than weakens the protections for all of us.

I believe in expanding the circle of inclusion. I want to say all beings matter. Humans matter more – but all beings matter.

A number of Unitarian Universalists have begun to suggest that we can do better than affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We can, in fact, affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being. It’s called the “First Principle Project” – a project to revise our first principle to replace “every person” with “every being.”

As it happens, this congregation, Communty Unitarian Church at White Plains, had a ministerial intern some years ago -- some of you might recall him, Nate Walker -- who, way back in 2005, preached from this pulpit about the inherent worth and dignity of every being. I'm happy to tell you that consideration of that idea is, in fact, slowly growing among more and more UUs -- as well it should -- thanks in part to the leadership of my now-colleague, Rev. Nate Walker. My colleague and spouse, Rev. LoraKim Joyner has been at the forefront of the First Principle project.

At our next General Assembly, if 15 congregations ask for it, there will be a motion on the agenda to establish a two-year study commission to investigate pros and cons of changing our first principle from every person to every being. A year or two after that, the study commission makes its recommendation. If it’s a recommendation for change, it will then have to be passed by a two-thirds vote of the delegates at two consecutive annual General Assemblies.

Right now we say that every person has inherent worth and dignity. This is aspirational, and it doesn’t mean we can’t punish criminals, nor that we have to love strangers as much as our family, nor that we should support enforcing absolute equality of income for everyone. But it does function to open our spirits to a kinder regard – at whatever level each of us deems appropriate.

To say that every being has inherent worth and dignity wouldn’t require us to care as much about Tommy as we do about the humans in our prisons and warehouse nursing homes, nor would it say all beings warranted the same level of concern and respect, nor would it require us to become vegans. It would function to open our spirits to a kinder regard – at whatever level each of us deems appropriate.

Our principles are not like laws. All our principles do is point the direction in which they encourage us to explore how far we individually are ready to go.

Expand the circle of concern and respect. There are human groups who need that circle more securely expanded: prisoners, elderly, African Americans, Hispanics, indigenous peoples, women, LGBT folk, persons with disabilities.

Expand the circle of concern and respect. And there are nonhuman animals to include within the compass of our hearts. Caring about your neighbor never curtails your love for your own family. Caring about the other, the outcast, doesn’t hinder your belongingness in or support of your own community.

Expanding the circle in a new way actually helps strengthen other circles that we have incompletely expanded because all beings really does mean all of us. Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens. Love is a model for more love.

The sacred hoop of our people is one of many hoops that make one circle. Let us stretch it wide – wide as daylight and starlight.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
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Beginning: Part 1


Expanding the Circle 3

The Moral Frontier

So what’s next? Where else shall we consider expanding the circle? What moral progress might we be on the verge of making?

Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832)
Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah has advanced three criteria for identifying a practice that is on the verge of being widely condemned as immoral – practices that we now engage in that our great-grandchildren will look back at us with something like the moral disdain with which we look back at, say, witch prosecutors or slaveholders.

First criteria, the arguments against the practice have been around for a while. People have heard them, and the arguments are simmering in the back of our collective consciousness. For instance, the case against slavery didn't suddenly pop up in an instantaneous transformative insight -- a blinding moment of moral clarity. The moral argument against slavery had been around for centuries. It just took a while for it to really sink in. Arguments for women’s suffrage were around a long time even before the 1848 Seneca Falls convention more-or-less officially kicked off the US suffrage movement – and it took 72 years after that before women’s suffrage was won.

Second criteria for a practice beginning to become ripe for moral condemnation: Even those who defend it don’t offer a moral defense. They don’t say, “this is right.” Rather, they argue from tradition, or human nature, or necessity. Defenders of slavery said, “We have to have slaves to get the cotton crop in.” Or “this is how we’ve always done it.” Or “it’s human nature for some people to give the orders and others to obey them.”

The third criterion is that we see a lot of pushing the issue out of our minds. At some level we do know it’s wrong, but we just put it out of mind. We don’t want to think about it. But we can ignore something only so long before the inevitable return of the repressed. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. It was the abolitionists’ job to make clear and vivid the slave conditions so that it couldn’t be ignored.

Appiah then applies these criteria and discerns four areas most likely to be on the verge of change – change that will leave our descendants judging us immoral for allowing certain practices to continue as long as they did.

Our prison system. There is no good reason for having over 2 million people behind bars, nor for subjecting them to the horrors and abuse typical of our prisons.

Our warehoused elderly. Another 2 million of our citizens, the elderly, are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight, out of mind, cut off from families, often treated abysmally.

Arguments against these atrocities have been around a long time, no one defends them on moral grounds, and their persistence is enabled only because we push it out of mind. How did we as a people let that happen?

These are two areas where we’ve seen the circle of concern and respect contract. We didn’t used to be so awful about imprisoning so much of our population or warehousing so many elderly, and for those who did go to prison or a nursing home, we didn’t use to treat them so badly. We’ve written them off – out of the circle of concern and respect. The expanding circle will need to take them back in again.

A third issue is environmental destruction. Expand the circle to take in our planet itself.

The fourth issue that Appiah mentions is the cruelty of meat production. It meets the criteria for an issue where our moral perspective is getting ready to shift.

First: have the arguments been around a long time and had a chance to sink in? Yes. It has been 230 years since British philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote:
“The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ Nor, ‘Can they talk?’ But, ‘Can they suffer?’…The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”
Second: do even the defenders not offer a moral defense? In fact, they do not. People who eat factory-farmed bacon, or hamburgers, or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Those who do it, do it from habit. We choose foods for comfort, I believe, and habits are comforting. We put out of our minds the stomach-turning stories about what the animals went through to give their flesh to our comfort habits at the lowest possible price.

And that’s the third criterion: is the issue generally just pushed out of mind? Yes, it is.
“Ten billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. And, unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most animals are factory farmed -- crammed into cages where they can barely move and fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics. These animals spend their entire lives in crates or stalls so small that they can’t even turn around. Farmed animals are not protected from cruelty under the law -- in fact, the majority of state anticruelty laws specifically exempt farm animals from basic humane protection.” (Appiah)
It’s not the killing of them that I think will earn our great-grandchildren’s greatest condemnation. We all have to die. It’s the unconscionable suffering we make them endure while they live.
“At least 10 million [cattle] at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture.”
We will be at an embarrassing loss, for there is no good explanation for why we do that to our fellow creatures. So miserable do we make their lives that killing them is the kindest thing we do.

We rationalize that their suffering doesn’t count. And why doesn’t it? Yes, it’s real pain, yes, they are beings capable of rich emotional lives. Their brain’s mechanisms of wanting – wanting to be free, and free of pain – work pretty much the way your brain or mine would want those things.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
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Expanding the Circle 2

Inclusion Strenthens, Rather than Weakens
“For I was seeing in the sacred manner the shape of all things of the spirit, and the shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.” (Black Elk. Singing the Living Tradition, #614)
Many hoops that make one circle. Our moral progress as a people can be measured by how far we have expanded the circle of our concern and respect. All the many hoops of our care -- hoops of family, tribe, locality, state, nation, and favorite sports team – make one big circle. Is our circle as wide as daylight and starlight?

We have expanded the circle in many ways since the voyages 522 years ago that we are remembering this Columbus Day weekend. Columbus’ expedition expanded the circle of the European mind to include awareness of a new world. Neither Columbus nor any of the powers of Europe were prepared then to expand their circle of concern and respect to the people they encountered in this new world. That has been the work of later generations: ending slavery, extending suffrage to women.

This past week (2014 Oct 6 – 12) was a good week for expanding the circle of concern and respect. The Seattle City Counsel and the Portland, Oregon school board each voted to recognize Indigenous people’s Day on the same day as Columbus Day. Minneapolis made the same move last April, and the state of South Dakota, since 1990, has recognized the second Monday of October as Native American Day. On the day for remembering Columbus, let us also – or maybe, instead – remember the worth and dignity of those whose worth and dignity Columbus could not see.

Let our circle grow larger than it has been. It was a remarkable week for expanding the circle of our concern and respect to same-sex couples asking for the respect of recognizing their marriages. The 4th, 7th, and 10th circuit courts of appeal had earlier ruled in favor of expanding the circle of constitutional protection to same-sex marriage, but had stayed their decisions, pending appeal. When, last Monday, the Supreme Court declined to review those decisions, that was the end of the appeals process, meaning those circuit court decisions became law.

The next day, Tuesday, the 9th circuit court also expanded the circle. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for a unanimous court, said:
“The lessons of our constitutional history are clear: Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens, our most important institutions. When same-sex couples are married, just as when opposite-sex couples are married, they serve as models of loving commitment to all.”
Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens. Love is a model for more love.

Of course, the history of inclusion, of expanding the circle, has not been smooth. We ended slavery – except that we didn’t. World-wide estimates of the number of slaves today range from 12 million to 29 million. Some migrant farmworkers in the U.S., for all practical purposes, work as slaves: they’re watched, it’s hard to escape, they’re forced to work.

Women got the vote, but we balked at an ERA, and gender inequality, sexual assault and harassment, and domestic abuse continue to oppress women.

Résumés with white sounding names have a 50 percent greater chance of being called in for an interview than identical resumes with an African-American sounding name. Black renters are told about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown a fifth fewer homes than their white counterparts. Blacks and whites use illegal drugs at similar rates, but blacks are arrested for it at three times the rate of whites. Black offenders of any crime receive, on average, 10% longer sentences than white offenders of the same crime. So the circle of inclusion – of justice and equality – has not been fully expanded to our siblings of color.

While recent progress on marriage equality has been stunning, LGBT folk continue to face difficulties. Transgender and gender non-conforming people face rampant discrimination in every area of life: education, employment, family life, public accommodations, housing, health, police and jails, and ID documents. Forty-seven states have anti-hate crime laws -- only 24 states include sexual orientation in their legislation. More than half of the states do not ban discrimination by employers or public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Seventy-five percent of US students have no state laws to protect them from harassment and discrimination in school based on their sexual orientation. In public high schools, 97 percent of students report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from their peers. Gay men and lesbians get worse health care. The circle of inclusion has not been fully expanded to our LGBT siblings.

But here’s the thing. We don’t have to fully secure those hoops before pushing on to expand the circle in completely new ways. If we had waited until equality of rights and opportunities for former slaves and their descendants had been fully secured before turning our attention to women’s voting rights, we would still be waiting. Indeed wherever there is injustice or cruelty, it makes injustice and cruelty anywhere else a little easier. Anytime we expand the circle anywhere, it makes more glaring our failure to do have secured inclusion in other areas – and brings increased attention to correct the deficiency. Love models more love.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
Next: Part 3
Previous: Part 1


This Week's Prayer

Majesty of Earth, glory of life, and wonder of the cosmos:

Beauty and truth abound.

Each of us is as a hurricane – swirling winds of beliefs, desires, and intentions – without a distinct border, without a clear line separating self from other, just barely coherent enough to be given a name – a product of nature, blowing about over a broad swath – in the center, calm.

Beauty and truth abound, and we are their products and producers. Let us notice.

Let our hearts and our eyes open.

Thank you for this Northern Hemisphere October, serene, crisp, and beautiful in the year’s decline.

Thank you for the ways we know that we are loved, for through them we realize the greater gift: our capacity to love.

Let us connect in lovingkindness with all the world, its joy and its suffering.

We hold in our hearts the joy of love and commitment publicly honored and socially and legally recognized, which, on Friday, extended to same-sex couples in Alaska and Arizona, the 30th and 31st states to do so.

We hold in our hearts also this world’s pain and struggle:
- all who have been affected by the Ebola virus: the children who are now orphans, the parents who have lost their children, the medical professionals who care for the sick and those who are working on a vaccine.
- those who died in the avalanches in the Himalayas of central Nepal.
- the people in the town of Kobane in Syria as the airstrikes intensify.

We hold in our hearts the living hope
- that peace prevail;
- that talks between the student protesters and the Hong Kong government will bring forth a fair and just outcome;
- that we learn to walk gently, bringing healing and new life to the places where we have brought harm.


Expanding the Circle 1

The "Appeal to Nature" Fallacy and Eating Animals
from "The Logical Fallacy Tarot"

Appeal to nature is a fallacy, for even if there were consensus on how to draw the line between “natural” and “unnatural,” (and there isn’t) that would tell us nothing about acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

We used to hear that same-sex romantic relationships were unnatural. Since the Supreme Court, on Mon Oct 6, declined to review lower-court decisions in favor of same-sex marriage, we very quickly saw 10 new states begin to issue same-sex marriage licenses. It's clearer than ever that the idea that same-sex romantic relationships are "unnatural" will not stand.

We still hear appeals to nature when it comes to eating meat. We have the equipment for eating meat. We have incisors for biting into meat and a digestive tract that can process and use nutrients from the flesh of other animals. It’s natural.

Yes, we did evolve to eat meat. But we didn't evolve for there to be seven billion of us. More precisely, evolution equipped us fairly well for survival in the world of a million years ago, and less well for living sustainably in a world headed toward nine billion humans by 2055 consuming resources at the rate we do. If we're all going to be sustainably fed, we'll have to forgo the resource waste, greenhouse-gas emissions, and pollution of meat production.

So let us look more carefully at what nature really teaches. Appropriating a structure that served one purpose and putting it to a very different purpose is a common maneuver in evolution's playbook. Mammalian forelimbs get turned into bat wings – or dolphin fins. Antennae get turned into mandibles. A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles got appropriated and made into an auditory bone in mammals. An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor that got appropriated and made into a stinger. Certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with air, allowing the fish to stay at a given depth.The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. A device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land! Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. Happens all the time.

“Nature” gave us a lot of “equipment.” It’s up to us how, and whether, to use it.

Our reproductive organs evolved to serve the purpose of reproduction, yet we use them, with less and less guilt and shame these days, for intimacy and connection in ways that do not lead to reproduction. We can intentionally choose to do what nature itself also does: appropriate what is given and put it to completely different purposes. Our reproductive system can reproduce -- but it's just fine if it doesn't. Our digestive system can handle meat -- but it's just fine if it doesn't.

With the “appeal to nature” fallacy out of the way, we are free to use our moral capacity to reflect on the level of suffering, and the level of environmental damage, our dietary choices may inflict.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
Next: Part 2
This post is a condensed version of the longer post HERE.


Making Friends with Death 4

Be Where You Are
What you are, is not that story your mind continuously fabricates -- the story with you as the hero. What you are is . . . well, everything.

Impending death can make that awareness vivid, in the way it made the strawberry so sweet for the man trapped by tigers. A young Canadian, age 22, was a soldier in World War II. He was captured by the Nazis in Denmark, charged with smuggling arms, and sentenced to death. On the evening before his execution he wrote his final letter. He wrote to his mother:
“I know you are a courageous woman and you will bear this [news of my pending execution], but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it. You must understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere – in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile.”
That young man saw that the real him was everything: trees, people, smiles -- and also weeds, mud, mosquitoes, and tears -- the whole catastrophe. Death means that one brain stops fabricating a story about itself. The true you, isn’t that story. It’s "mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun, and the moon, and the stars" -- and everything.

Our seventh principle says there is an interdependent web of existence of which you are a part. Let us say rather that there is an interdependent web of existence of which you are the whole thing. It’s all you.

I don’t know if you’re with me on that. Before I started practicing, that kind of talk would have seemed nonsensical to me. But I simply want to tell you today about my own experience. So let me tell you about one more episode -- another ah-ha moment.

About three years before that day in Midland, I had gone to my first week-long meditation retreat. It was in Tucson, Arizona. After the retreat was over, I caught a ride with someone back home to El Paso. Now, up until that point, I had been a person that really wanted a long life. I was intensely curious about how history would unfold – what new technologies would come along, would we figure out a way to end war, would we distribute the food we’ve got and end hunger, would gender equality really happen, and what would that be like? I wanted to live long enough to see as much of that as I could. I wanted to be there when the future came. Riding in the passenger seat of that pick-up truck, through the Sonoran desert, across into the Chihuahuan desert, I was gazing up at some mountains in the distance when it hit me. Nothing very ecstatic this time, just a gentle yet clear dawning: “Oh, yeah. I will be. I will be there when the future comes, when any future comes, because if anyone’s there, then that’s me.”

On that day, I let go for good of any particular desire for a long life. Let me just be here now, is all I ask. And as Yom Kippur has signaled the beginning of the Jewish New Year, that is my new year’s wish for you: may you just be where you are.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Making Friends with Death"
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1
Photo by the author


Making Friends with Death 3

We all know that all things are temporary, right? But we often don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements and acquisitions as if we thought they and we were permanent. We go after that job, or that promotion, or that partner, or that house, and we know, if we stop to think about it, that these things are temporary. Thing is, we don’t much stop to think about it. So we live as if we thought that getting them would be some kind of permanent fix for whatever we think is wrong with our life. Then, when it isn’t, we suffer.
“We know in our heads that we will die, but we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually.” (Larry Rosenberg)
I don’t know how Erdrich or Spark or Montaigne or Heidegger came to the realization that keeping death constantly in mind is so liberating. For me, it came in a flash, but I think that flash was made possible by five years of daily meditation. There’s something about taking half an hour a day to sit still and quiet and notice each thought that comes up. See the thought, recognize it as a thought, let it fade. Just be in the expansive silence. Before long, another thought comes up. Notice it, recognize it as a thought, observe the thinking until it, too, fades. And so on. Over and over and over.

One thing you start to see almost right away is: that thought isn’t me. That thought is just something that’s happening to me right now. You go through this – thought after thought, sit after sit, day after week after month for a few years – and you get to where your thoughts have less hold on you.

The story you have about yourself – the narrative the mind creates in which the hero – you – nobly sallies forth like Don Quixote to do good things, encounters obstacles, and heroically tries to surmount them, begins to be less mesmerizing, begins to feel less like the ironclad truth about yourself. It’s just a story, it’s just thoughts – it’s not the real you, it’s just a stream of thoughts that happened to you and that the mind then assembled, somewhat creatively, into a more-or-less coherent story that has about as much connection to the truth as the story Don Quixote tells himself has.

In this way, simple ordinary meditation practice is inevitably a death practice. Our attention is brought to how thoughts fade, our whole story of who we are is just a string of such thoughts, so that fades. If the story is transparent, then the story’s hero – the self – is also transparent: seen through, insubstantial, not really real.

Of course, the self is always reconstituting, becoming opaque again, which is why it takes looking at it steadily over and over for years. See through it, and the next moment it’s opaque again. See through it again, and it reconstitutes. Keep at it, and gradually, over some years, the awareness of the self’s insubstantiality will become an ingrained part of your understanding.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Making Friends with Death"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1
Photo by the author


Making Friends with Death 2

There’s a story out of Asia, a parable:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
I had heard that story, but I didn’t really get it until that moment in Midland, Texas, on my 47th birthday, when it was suddenly so clear.

Of course! He understands. It took the tigers to make him realize it, but it’s not the immediate proximity of death that makes the berry sweet, it’s understanding the fact of death, proximate or not, that does that. I wasn’t facing any tigers, no threats to my life, was in good health, but for some reason in that moment I was understanding what that guy understood, and it made everything ineluctably, ineffably sweet.

This runaway train is headed for the cliff, and there’s no way to stop it. It made me love the scenery on the ride.

The ecstatic quality of that moment passed. But I have carried with me ever since an abiding gratitude for my mortality. We are not given tomorrow, and that makes having today such a joy, such a delightful, beautiful joy.

The more we hold awareness of our own death always in mind, the more life feels sweet and vibrant and real. The more life feels . . . alive.

This was not just some psychotic break that Meredith had. Something happened in my neurons, no doubt, and what happened changed my life. If it was a break, it was a break from my past patterns where death was something I didn’t want to think about, something I distracted myself away from paying attention to.

It’s not that I had been afraid of death. I wasn’t afraid of it – how could I be afraid of it when I rarely thought about it all? Now I have the awareness of death as my constant companion.

What I realized on that day, others have also realized, as I have since discovered. Native American novelist Louise Erdrich writes:
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.”
And the Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark wrote:
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.”
Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote
“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.”
German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote:
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.”
Does that make sense to you? For me, I have to tell you, if I’d read that when I was 42, it would have been a bit murky. Ever since 47, it has made perfect sense. Of course to practice death is to practice freedom.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Making Friends with Death"
Next: Part 3
Previous: Part 1


Making Friends with Death 1

Talking about death might mean what we call end-of-life issues. I might talk about what to expect in that final phase, what to do, how to be with others who are going through that, what dying well means, and the prospect for growth at the end of life. There are some very helpful things to understand about that, but it's not what I’m going to talk about today. Some other time on that one. Making friends with death in that end-of-life phase is wonderful. I’m talking about making friends with death right now. I’m talking about living well.

So let me tell about what happened to me. It’s my perspective. I offer it to you – make of it what you will.

It was eight and a half years ago, and it was, in fact, my 47th birthday. Now before I go any further, let me assure you that no drugs were involved. No alcohol, no prescription medication, no over the counter medications, nothing. Maybe a cup of coffee, but no more than I usually drank.

Forty-seven is not a particularly auspicious birthday. It’s not a decennial, it’s not a round number of any kind. It’s, like, just this random birthday. Still, ever since I reached adulthood, when these markers of another year of life gone by come around, I have taken some time to reflect, to take stock, to review the time passed, and what might be left. This particular day I was far from home and in Midland, Texas. My thoughts were not particularly dark or depressed. I was sitting in the minister’s office of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland on a Thursday mid-morning running over the inventory of 47 years gone by:

I spent a lot of years going to school, getting degrees. Had a couple kids. Had some years as a philosophy professor. Divorced, remarried. I’d started practicing Zen almost 5 years before. Was coming to the end of my second year as a Unitarian Universalist minister. What did any of that, or all of it, mean? Soon my life would all be over. What did that mean?

Right about then, I don’t know why, something inside me clicked. Something let go, and I had the sensation of a weight falling off me. “I’m going to die,” in that moment felt like such good news. What a relief that I won’t live forever! I’m not responsible for eternity. I don’t have to get it figured out. No matter how hard I might try, I can’t succeed at immortality.

Life is just a little ffft. I might live another day, I might live another 47 years and reach age 94. It doesn’t matter -- it really doesn’t. It’s still a little ffft.

My parents used to say, “No time soon, we hope,” whenever the topic of the inevitability of death came up. Now, I’ll grant you that if your spouse has been putting off going to the doctor, and you mention this, and he shrugs and says we’re all going to die, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “Honey, let’s not let that be any time soon.” Sure. Why not take reasonable precautions? Take reasonable precautions and at the same time, there’s an entirely other awareness that can be present, even in the midst of taking reasonable precautions. That’s the awareness that hit me on my 47th birthday. It was suddenly so clear to me that “no time soon, we hope,” was utterly beside the point.

Whether life lasts a minute more or 50 years more, it’s still a little ffft. So relax.

There’s nothing I can do about this – thank god, or else I’d have to deal with the temptation to do it. There’s no way out. As I looked around the room, the objects around me had a sharpness they hadn’t had before, a kind of poignant yet majestic quality. All of them were as temporary as I was, and they seemed so beautifully self-sufficient being just what they were just at that moment.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Making Friends with Death"
Next: Part 2


This Week's Prayer

Ground on which we stand, air we breathe, and web of all life that makes each life possible:

Eagles bend wings in adoration, whales sing songs of praise, horses gallop in gratitude for all that is, and the lunar eclipse early Wednesday touched us with the wonder and majesty of the cosmos.

We stand in the midst of beauty, grandeur, and abundance, seeking to be people of compassion, feeling the wounds of the world:
  • Devastation, famine and war in South Sudan.
  • War in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Kashmiri border between Pakistan and India.
  • Hatred, of which a symptom appeared at Atlanta’s Emory University when, on the day after Yom Kippur, swastikas were painted on the exterior of a Jewish fraternity house.
  • Legislators proclaiming they will do anything to protect us from largely imaginary threats while doing nothing to address the real ones.
We seek to be people of gratitude and hope, attuned to signs of emergent justice, equality, and healing.
  • Malala Yousafzai, once shot in the head by a Taliban militant for her work promoting girls education in Afghanistan, this week, at age 17, the youngest person ever to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
  • The advance of equality and respect this week as 10 more states began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, bringing the total now to 29 states, likely to become 35 in the next week or so.
  • All those courageous selfless people seeking to bring light, truth, hope and care where there is so little or none.
Ground on which we stand, air we breathe, and web of all life that makes each life possible, make of us more attentive lovers of thy stunning grace and more caring healers of thy pain and woe.


Our Distinctive Voice

The previous post raised the question, "If we say we’re coming out of religious liberal experience and principles, and our listeners aren’t religious liberals, have we rendered our argument irrelevant to them?"

Photo by Peter Bowden
Here’s why articulating our grounding in our liberal religious values and principles increases the relevance and effectiveness of our voice.

Political discourse isn’t about coming up with some knock-down argument that produces instant conversion in your listeners. It’s much more about creating some sense of connection that opens an invitation to consider. People can connect across huge differences – and we actually make it easier for that to happen if we’re clear up front about what the differences are. It’s always helpful to give other people a better sense of where you’re coming from – to situate ourselves in our own experience and context of commitments.

Have you ever had the experience of listening to someone talking, and they’re worked up about something, but you can’t get a handle on where they’re coming from, or why that issue matters to them? It’s hard to connect with what they’re saying. By providing listeners with a sense of what our grounding is we become – subtly, and perhaps strangely, yet palpably – more comprehensible. And that’s true even if our listeners have very different religious convictions. They might not agree, but expressing our religious grounding can help them understand -- and that's step one.

Any time someone is saying something that doesn’t agree with what we already believe, we are naturally going to have some wondering about their motive. “Why would they say such a wrongheaded thing?” we have to wonder. There are, for instance, apparently, people who, not wanting to believe in climate change, say that those climate scientists are just saying what they say because that’s how they get funding. “They’re making stuff up because that’s how they keep their jobs.” We are inclined to suspect the motives of people who say things we disagree with – that’s a very common way human brains deal with that dissonance. So if we go ahead and say that we’re coming out of a grounding in the experiences and teachings and principles and values of a specifiable religious community, that can help clear up unspoken doubts about our motives.

Also: If we give only secular reasons, we aren’t adding a distinctive voice to the public discourse. There are always plenty of folks making all the secular arguments. Those congressional staffers listening to William Sinkford didn’t need to hear one more recounting of the usual arguments. They needed to hear the distinctive voice that comes from anchoring the position in our community’s experience and intentional commitments. That’s what they got, and it worked so much better.

Finally, “given the public dominance of conservative religious voices today, if religious liberals don’t speak up, no one else will know that there is another religious perspective” (Rasor).

I mentioned the new Unitarian Universalist study/action issue on income inequality that our delegates selected and General Assembly 2014. Two years previously, at General Assembly 2012, our delegates selected reproductive freedom as the study/action issue. So we’re now in the final two years of that one. I was there in Phoenix in 2012 for the floor debate, and it was clear that the argument that carried the day for selecting reproductive freedom over any of the other pressing and important issues proposed was that this issue especially requires a liberal religious voice. The public discourse on that subject draws so heavily from religious groundings – and almost all of it is from the right, opposed to reproductive freedom. We need to be out there showing it isn’t just the irreligious who advocate for reproductive freedom. We have deep religiously grounded reasons for standing up for access to birth control and education and abortion rights.

We have a voice. We need to use it – not to make other people be just like us but so that we can be just like us. So that we can become who we are. So that we can join the fray in which both sides -- all sides -- learn and grow.

We have a voice. And our world so desperately needs to hear it.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Reclaiming Prophetic Witness"
See also:
Part 1: Living Our Faith
Part 2: Principles and Religious Principles
Part 3: Connect Your Politics to Your Faith


Connect Your Politics to Your Faith

We have certain commitments as Unitarian Universalists. We are committed to the values expressed in our seven principles and six sources and in, for instance, the words of our hymns and the readings in back of our hymnal. We don't always claim them as religious principles when we speak on public issues.

Rev. William Sinkford, UUA President, 2001 - 09.
Photo by H. F. Garcia from uua.org
Sometimes we have drafted resolutions at General Assembly that in no way indicate that the principles at issue are principles that we have made a part of our religious identity.

Other times, we do a better job.

Here’s an example of doing it well, cited by Paul Rasor, Reclaiming Prophetic Witness:
“The 2006 statement by Rev. William Sinkford, then president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, to a group of congressional staffers offers an excellent example of effective liberal public prophetic witness grounded in clearly expressed religious convictions. Sinkford was speaking in opposition to a proposed Federal Marriage Amendment that would have prohitibted same-sex marriage. He began by grounding his position in Unitarian Universalist theological principles and collective liberal religious experience:
‘Within Unitarian Universalism, we know from our own experience the many blessings that gay and lesbian people bring to our congregations and communities. We know from our lived experience in religious community that differences of faith, of race, and of sexual orientation need not divide us, that diversity within the human family can be a blessing and not a curse. Unitarian Universalists affirm that it is the presence of love and commitment that we value. For Unitarian Universalists, it is homophobia that is the sin, not homosexuality. Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love.’
Sinkford then linked this deep religious conviction to public policy arguments about discrimination and personal freedom, noting the historical parallels between the proposed marriage amendment and earlier laws prohibiting interracial marriage.”
In the case of income inequality, or any policies that favored the rich or neglected the poor, we might offer our own grounding, different from Coffin’s but also not secular like Rawls. We might say:
“As a religious liberal, I believe that justice requires us to be concerned primarily for those who have least.”
Consider some other examples.

Instead of:
“Voter ID laws are an attempt to squelch the voting of certain populations, and that’s a violation of democratic process.”
We could say:
“As a Unitarian Universalist, ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large’ is one of our seven principles, and Voter ID laws that attempt to squelch the voting of certain populations violate democratic process.”
We could say:
“The way we’ve been treating immigrants ignores their inherent worth and dignity.”
Or we could, instead, say:
“As a Unitarian Universalist, the inherent worth and dignity of every person is a central principle – so I call for treatment of immigrants that recognizes their inherent worth and dignity.”
We could say – as some of us at the People's Climate March on Sep 21 probably were saying:
“Our carbon emissions have reached the point that climate change threatens the interdependent web of life.”
Or we could, instead, say:
“Respect for the interdependent web of existence is a tenant of my Unitarian Universalist faith. It would be unfaithful of me to disrespect the interdependent web of existence by not doing all I can to encourage reduction of carbon emissions.”
These examples all reference our seven principles, but those aren’t the only principles we have. Our six sources also indicate possible points of grounding, as do James Luther Adams’ five smooth stones of liberalism, and the "Four Noble truths of Unitarian Universalism":
"It’s a blessing you were born. It matters what you do. Your experience of the divine is true. And you don’t have to go it alone." (adapted from lyrics by Laila Ibrahim for a "Chalice Camp" song)
What difference does it make if we do this -- if we take the extra step of connecting what we’re saying to the religious community we’re in? It might seem counterintuitive. If we say we’re coming out of religious liberal experience and principles, and our listeners aren’t religious liberals, have we rendered our argument irrelevant to them? No, actually. I'll explain why not in the next post, part 4.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Reclaiming Prophetic Witness"
See also
Part 1: Living Our Faith
Part 2: Principles and Religious Principles
Part 4: Our Distinctive Voice


Principles and Religious Principles

I'd like to see religious liberals return to the the public sphere, where we were in the 1950s and 60s, making strong cases for our positions, and grounding them in our religious principles. So for starters we need to ask: what makes a politically relevant principle a religious principle?

Unitarian Church of Barnstable, MA. Wikimedia Commons
Consider for example the case of our growing income inequality. At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last June, the delegates selected income inequality as our study/action issue for the next four years. We select one new study/action issue every two years for a four-year process, so we’re always in the first two years of one issue and in the second two years of another issue. The new issue which calls for our attention as Unitarian Universalists is income inequality.

The inequality has gotten alarmingly extreme. In the early 1950s, 80% of the gains from economic growth went to the bottom 90%. 20% of the gains from growth went to the top 10%. So the richest were still gaining ground, and they were gaining ground faster than the rest, but still the bottom 90% were gaining, and they were gaining a pretty reasonable chunk. For the next 30 years the percentage of economic growth -- of increase in mean income -- going to the top 10 percent gradually rose. Then, starting it 1980, it began dramatically rising. By the early 2000s, the top 10%, instead of getting 20% of the new wealth, were getting 98% of it. Only 2% of economic growth was going to the bottom 90%. Then, in the 3-year-period from 2009 to 2012, the top 10% got more than all of the economic growth. About 116% of the growth went to top 10%. More than all of it! The bottom 90% got negative 16% of economic growth. The top 10% got all of the growth, and then, on top of that, extracted 16% more, taking it from the bottom 90%. There was an overall rising tide, but 90% of the boats were actually, on average, sinking.

Someone wanting to speak out against that inequality might give a religious grounding, or a purely secular grounding. For an example of a religious grounding, here’s William Sloane Coffin, with a specifically Christian argument:
"If 'God is love,' then in responding to God we respond also to one another: the other members of our family, of our church, and of our circle of friends. But is that enough? Jesus said, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my siblings, ye have done it unto to me." (Matthew 25:40). To be converted by Christ is to be converted to the poor: to lives bleak and merciless, to people for whom there seems to be neither past nor future, only a meaningless present. There is no way that Christianity can be spiritually redemptive without being socially responsible.”
That’s an argument with theological grounding. It’s based in the teachings of Jesus, and it calls for us to exert particular concern for the least of these.

Concern for the least advantaged might also be argued for on purely secular conceptions of justice, such as the one that philosopher John Rawls developed in his majestic 600-page 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, in which Rawls derives and defends the thesis that inequalities of wealth are just and fair only insofar as the inequalities are the result of processes that benefit the least advantaged. He makes a detailed moral argument for this thesis – and it is not a religiously or theologically grounded argument.

Our principles – our seven Unitarian Universalist principles -- could be secular principles. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another; search for truth and meaning; rights of conscience, democracy; world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of existence -- each of those could be a secular principle. So what makes them religious principles? We do. We make those principles religious. We’re religious, and they’re our principles – so, quite simply, that makes them religious principles.

The same principles could be secular for someone else. If a private citizen who wasn’t a part of any Unitarian Universalist community and didn’t identify as Unitarian Universalist, just happened to adopt those particular principles as personal values, then, for that person, these would be secular principles. For us, though, they are religious principles because we’re a religious community for whom these principles are central. Any secular principle can become a religious principle if it is embraced by and made central to the identity of some religious community.

(This, in turn, raises the question: What makes our congregation itself a religious group? We are religious because we do the three things that religion is about. First, we form a community, with shared rituals that affirm our community connection. Second, we are concerned with living better, being better people, the ethics and the values that guide our life. We are concerned with being and becoming good, with developing the virtues. Third, we recognize and celebrate religious experience, those moments of transcendence, of awe and wonder. What makes us religious is that we come together trying to integrate those three in such a way that each one will reinforce the other two. Nonreligious community doesn’t do that.)

So: we're a religion, and our principles are therefore religious principles. What remains, then, is to claim them as religious principles when making our case in the public sphere.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Reclaiming Prophetic Witness"
See also:
Part 1: Living Our Faith
Part 3: Connect Your Politics to Your Faith
Part 4: Our Distinctive Voice


Living Our Faith

Guy calls the doctor, says the wife’s contractions are five minutes apart.
Doctor says, "Is this her first child?"
Guy says, "No, it’s her husband."
Sometimes the meaning of a question can take a surprising turn. But let us remember who we are. We don't have to interpret every question as being about ourselves -- but we do need to be grounded in self-awareness.

So who are we? For one thing, we are inheritors of a wonderful, vital prophetic tradition. The prophets of old bequeath to us a tradition of critique of entrenched power – of calling out for fairness and attending to the least advantaged. This is our blessed inheritance.

In recent centuries, the abolition movement to end slavery, and the suffrage movement for women’s votes were supported and coached by liberal religious thought. For Unitarians and Universalists in the 19th century, living their faith meant engaging with structures of power on behalf of justice, equity and compassion.

And that’s what it meant for Unitarian Universalists in the the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. Religious liberals were among the leading voices of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Some of my earliest memories as a Unitarian Universalist youth were participating in marches and rallies protesting the Vietnam war. That’s just what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist.

There is a definite place for the religious voice in public discourse. As the Supreme Court recognized in Walz v. Tax Commission, back in 1970:
“Adherents of particular faiths and individual churches frequently take strong positions on public issues including vigorous advocacy of legal or constitutional positions. Of course, churches as much as secular bodies and private citizens have that right.”
What the congregation can’t do – what I won’t do, in a public and official ministerial capacity – is advocate for or against any specific candidate for elective office, or any political party. But churches, temples, synagogues, mosques – congregations of any faith – may certainly engage on issues of public policy.

This is what we were doing on Sun Sep 21 when 24 members of this congregation joined 1,500 identified Unitarian Universalists joining about 350,000 marchers to call for climate action. I arrived at the location for faith contingents to gather – there were Muslims and Quakers and Jews and Pagans and Hindus and Buddhists and Zoroastrians, and many others. I stood there for about three and half hours then walked the route of the march for about another three hours. It was great. The whole thing, in fact, felt like a wonderful worship service with hundreds of thousands of people collectively affirming shared value commitments.

Since our heyday in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, religious liberalism has rather retreated from the public square. I would like to see religious liberals reclaim prophetic witness – speak publicly on public issues and, when we do so, speak from our religious understanding.

Paul Rasor would like to see that, too. He’s the author of Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square. That book has been selected by the Unitarian Universalist Association as the Common Read for the 2014-15 year. It’s the one book that all Unitarian Universalists are being encouraged to read this year. I have now read it, and I want you to read it too. Order it from the UUA Bookstore. You can get through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but it’s cheaper through the UUA bookstore: it’s $15. (CLICK HERE). It’s short: about 100 pages not counting the notes. Granted, if you’re not used to scholarly humanities writing, some of those pages will be slow going, but it’s well-reasoned. And we need that. We need to think these questions through in that careful way. Community Unitarian Church will be engaging this fall in a process to formulate a social justice agenda for ourselves, and a plan for pursuing that agenda. This year’s UUA Common Read fits perfectly into our process.

What Rasor (in his book) and I (in this blog series) argue for is that religious liberals be in the public sphere, that we make strong cases for our position, and that we ground them in our religious principles.

Next: The first question: What makes a politically relevant principle a religious principle?

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Reclaiming Prophetic Witness"
See also:
Part 2: Principles and Religious Principles
Part 3: Connect Your Politics to Your Faith
Part 4: Our Distinctive Voice


Plunder-Guarding and Forever-Living

Dragons, we learn in the first chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically forever, unless they are killed).”
When I first read that, I was in 7th grade. I didn’t see any logical connection between these two attributes -- plunder-guarding and forever-living -- of dragons. Do you?

I now think Tolkien was representing a wonderful insight, whether he was conscious of it or not. Dragons don’t just happen to guard plunder and live forever. They surely guard plunder because they live forever.

An increasingly sharp awareness of my own mortality began to grow on me some years ago, and with it came a sense of relief and liberation. Whew! I don’t have to figure out how to live forever – only right now. If, like a dragon, I would live forever unless killed, I think I’d have to devote all my energies to making sure I wasn’t killed. I’d be “guarding my plunder” with all my might. The gift of mortality – of knowing down in our bones that all things are temporary, including the motley hodge-podge of attributes I call my “self” – is that now we can relax.

Of course, we all know about death, right? But there are different ways to know this. We can know death by keeping it constantly in mind. Or we can know death by acknowledging the fact of it only when necessary and pushing it out of mind as much as possible. We can live in forgetfulness of what we know -- or we can face the fact of death with steadiness.

When we let our transience fall out of mind, then we slip into living in ways based upon the pretense of the possibility of permanence – the permanence of our things, our status, our self. Our lives become governed by the assumption – which we do not articulate to ourselves because its falsity would be self-evident – that these things will be permanent if they are only given sufficient protection. We become like a Tolkein dragon, guarding our plunder.


This Week's Prayer

Bolivia's Cerro Rico (stock photo of Los Tiempos [Bolivia])
Dear world we so little control,

First let us hold, let us connect, let us open our hearts.
Let us hold:
The wonder and majesty of the cosmos: some hundred billion stars in our galaxy, some 100 billion galaxies in the universe.
The beauty of autumn coloring our region of this planet.
The small and powerful, simple and ordinary, acts of kindness going on all around us.
The human -- indeed, the animal -- capacity, flourishing everywhere, for love.

First let us hold, let us connect, let us open our hearts.
And hold also the world’s pain.
Those in West Africa with Ebola, their families and anxious neighbors.
The people of California with no respite from the drought. Some homes have been without running water for five months.
The people of Bolivia, where the legal age for children to work has been lowered to 12; especially the miners of silver in Cerro Rico, known as the mountain that eats men.
The people of Japan as the death toll following the unexpected eruption of Mount Ontake rises.

First let us hold, let us connect, let us open our hearts.
And hold also the world’s hopes.
The West African aid workers and medical personnel fighting Ebola.
The people of Hong Kong in their quest for freedom of choice in leadership.
The people of the middle east as the Turkish parliament vote on the way forward in the conflict with the Islamic state.
The protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, hoping for justice and equity from those assigned to protect them.

First, dear world we so little control, let us hold, let us connect, let us open our hearts to all that is, all of it.
For in that connection, we are made ready to act in compassion, as agents of justice and peace.
May it be so.


Then We Will Know How to Live

“Threescore years and ten” is the Biblically allotted lifespan. Thus British poet, A. E. Housman, at the young age of 20, looked forward to an estimated 50 more years.
Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
If we would celebrate the fullness of all of life, we will view with relief and gratitude that the separate identity that ego so ardently clings to does not have countless ages. What is ours to do is only this brief span: our three score years and ten, more or less. Mortality reminded Housman that we have only this moment. He chose, therefore, to walk about the woodlands, to be present to the beauty that is right now.

Remembering death, keeping it always in mind, makes us more present to life.
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.” (Louise Erdrich)
It is the very brevity of life that makes it full.
“What a puzzle it is that such brevity . . . makes the world so full, so good.” (Mary Oliver)
Therefore, the constant practice of the remembrance of death fills our days with life.
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.” (Dame Murial Spark)
We all know that all things are temporary, but we don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements and acquisitions as if we thought they and we were permanent. What would it be like live the truth of impermanence rather than merely know it?

Because all things are temporary, and constantly changing, then death is constantly occurring. The you that you were last year, or yesterday, or 5 minutes ago, has ceased to be: that person has died. The original Star Trek TV show in the 1960s introduced us to an imaginary technology called a "transporter beam." Supposedly, it takes your molecules apart and reassembles the molecules down on the planet surface. In essence, the transporter beam kills you and then re-creates you somewhere else. I mention this hypothetical Star Trek technology to call attention to a not-at-all-hypothetical fact of our lives. Through the technology of merely being alive, we are continually being killed and replaced by replicas of ourselves. At every moment, you are killed and replaced with a replica that has most of your memories, most of your skills and habits, looks mostly like you, etc. The replica is not exactly the same because all these aspects of you are, after all, constantly changing. To be alive is to change, and change means the death of what was.

Others have noticed this intricate linkage between life and death. They have experienced the liberation that comes with thoroughgoing awareness of death and impermanence. Grasping the fullness of death brings us to the fullness of life.
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.” (Martin Heidegger)

“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.” (Montaigne)
In that freedom that comes from constant awareness of death, we finally dissolve those boundaries we construct between self and “other.” Dwelling there we realize the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things. By looking squarely at death and embracing it, we learn how to live.
“We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually.” (Larry Rosenberg)

“The best preparation is working with our state of mind now rather than thinking about exotic things we might do later when we are looking death in the eyes. It is better to learn to relate to death now, when we still have the strength and ability. In that way, when we face difficult circumstances, or at the time of death, we can rely on what we already know.” (Judith Lief)
I think it helps us "relate to death now," to keep in mind that life is constituted by death. Maybe the transporter beam called Time will reconstitute your pattern in the next moment, and maybe it won't. Either way, the being you experience as yourself this second is gone the next second. Why wrap so much anxiety around whether or not a very-nearly-identical replica will supersede you? Why have any anxiety whatsoever about that?